Entries in conferences (79)


Creating in the classroom

The day before the Atlantic Geoscience Colloquium, I hosted a one-day workshop on geoscience computing to 26 maritime geoscientists. This was my third time running this course. Each time it has needed tailoring and new exercises to suit the crowd; a room full of signal-processing seismologists has a different set of familiarities than one packed with hydrologists, petrologists, and cartographers. 

Easier to consume than create

At the start of the day, I asked people to write down the top five things they spend time doing with computers. I wanted a record of the tools people use, but also to take collective stock of our creative, as opposed to consumptive, work patterns. Here's the result (right).

My assertion was that even technical people spend most of their time in relatively passive acts of consumption — browsing, emailing, and so on. Creative acts like writing, drawing, or using software were in the minority, and only a small sliver of time is spent programming. Instead of filing into a darkened room and listening to PowerPoint slides, or copying lectures notes from a chalkboard, this course was going to be different. Participation mandatory.

My goal is not to turn every geoscientist into a software developer, but to better our capacity to communicate with computers. Giving people resources and training to master this medium that warrants a new kind of creative expression. Through coaching, tutorials, and exercises, we can support and encourage each other in more powerful ways of thinking. Moreover, we can accelerate learning, and demystify computer programming by deliberately designing exercises that are familiar and relevant to geoscientists. 

Scientific computing

In the first few hours students learned about syntax, built-in functions, how and why to define and call functions, as well as how to tap into external code libraries and documentation. Scientific computing is not necessarily about algorithm theory, passing unit tests, or designing better user experiences. Scientists are above all interested in data, and data processes, helped along by rich graphical displays for story telling.

Elevation model (left), and slope magnitude (right), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Click to enlarge.

In the final exercise of the afternoon, students produced a topography map of Nova Scotia (above left) from a georeferenced tiff. Sure, it's the kind of thing that can be done with a GIS, and that is precisely the point. We also computed some statistical properties to answer questions like, "what is the average elevation of the province?", or "what is the steepest part of the province?". Students learned about doing calculus on surfaces as well as plotting their results. 

Programming is a learnable skill through deliberate practice. What's more, if there is one thing you can teach yourself on the internet, it is computer programming. Perhaps what is scarce though, is finding the time to commit to a training regimen. It's rare that any busy student or working professional can set aside a chunk of 8 hours to engage in some deliberate coaching and practice. A huge bonus is to do it alongside a cohort of like-minded individuals willing and motivated to endure the same graft. This is why we're so excited to offer this experience — the time, help, and support to get on with it.

How can I take the course?

We've scheduled two more episodes for the spring, conveniently aligned with the 2014 AAPG convention in Houston, and the 2014 CSPG / CSEG convention in Calgary. It would be great to see you there!

Eventbrite - Agile Geocomputing  Eventbrite - Agile Geocomputing

Or maybe a customized in-house course would suit your needs better? We'd love to help. Get in touch.


A long weekend of Atlantic geology

The Atlantic Geoscience Society Colloquium was hosted by Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, this past weekend. It was the 50th Anniversay meeting, and attracted a crowd of about 175 geoscientists. A few members were able to reflect and tell stories first-hand of the first meeting in 1964.

It depends which way you slice it

Nova Scotia is one of the best places for John Waldron to study deformed sedimentary rocks of continental margins and orogenic belts. Being the anniversary, John traced the timeline of tectonic hypotheses over the last 50 years. From his kinematic measurements of Nova Scotia rocks, John showed the complexity of transtensional tectonics. It is easy to be fooled: you will see contraction features in one direction, and extension structures in another direction. It all depends which way you slice it. John is a leader in visualizing geometric complexity; just look at this animation of piecing together a coal mine in Stellarton. Oh, and he has a cut and fold exercise so that you can make your own Grand Canyon! 

The application of the Law of the Sea

In September 2012 the Bedford Institute of Oceanography acquired some multibeam bathymetric data and applied geomorphology equations to extend Canada's boundaries in the Atlantic Ocean. Calvin Campbell described the cruise as like puttering from Halifax to Victoria and back at 20 km per hour, sending a chirp out once a minute, each time waiting for it to go out 20 kilometres and come back.

The United Nation's Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was established to define the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. A country is automatically entitled to any natural resources found within a 200 nautical mile limit of its coastlines, but can claim a little bit more if they can prove they have sedimentary basins beyond that. 

Practicing the tools of the trade

Taylor Campbell, applied a post-stack seismic inversion workflow to the Penobscot 3D survey and wells. Compared to other software talks I have seen in industry, Taylor's was a quality piece of integrated technical work. This is even more commendable considering she is an undergraduate student at Dalhousie. My only criticism, which I shared with her after the talk was over, was that the work lacked a probing question. It would have served as an anchor for the work, and I think is one of the critical distinctions between scientific pursuits and engineering.

Image courtesy of Justin Drummond, 2014, personal communication, from his expanded abstract presented at GSA 2013.

Practicing rational inquiry

Justin Drummond's work, on the other hand, started with a nugget of curiosity: How did the biogeochemical cycling of phosphorite change during the Neoproterozoic? Justin's anchoring question came first, only then could he think about the methods, technologies and tools he needed to employ, applying sedimentology, sequence stratigraphy, and petrology to investigate phosphorite accumulation in the Sete Lagoas Formation. He won the award for Best Graduate Student presentation at the conference.

It is hard to know if he won because his work was so good, or if it was because of his impressive vocabulary. He put me in mind of what Rex Murphy would sound like if he were a geologist.

The UNCLOS illustration is licensed CC-BY-SA, by Wikipedia users historicair and MJSmit.


Atlantic geology hits Wikipedia

WikiProject Geology is one of the gathering places for geoscientists in Wikipedia.Regular readers of this blog know that we're committed to open scientific communication, and that we're champions of wikis as one of the venues for that communication, and that we want to see more funky stuff happen at conferences. In this spirit, we hosted a Wikipedia editing session at the Atlantic Geoscience Society Colloquium in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, this past weekend. 

As typically happens with these funky sessions, it wasn't bursting at the seams: The Island of Misfit Toys is not overcrowded. There were only 7 of us: three Agilistas, another consultant, a professor, a government geologist, and a student. But it's not the numbers that matter (I hope), it's the spirit of the thing. We were a keen bunch and we got quite a bit done. Here are the articles we started or built upon:

The birth of the Atlantic Geoscience Society page gave the group an interesting insight into Wikipedia's quality control machine. Within 10 minutes of publishing it, the article was tagged for speedy deletion by an administrator. This sort of thing is always a bit off-putting to noobs, because Wikipedia editors can be a bit, er, brash, or at least impersonal. This is not that surprising when you consider that new pages are created at a rate of about one a minute some days. Just now I resurrected a stripped-down version of the article, and it has already been reviewed. Moral: don't let anyone tell you that Wikipedia is a free-for-all.

All of these pages are still (and always will be) works in progress. But we added 5 new pages and a substantial amount of material with our 28 or so hours of labour. Considering most of those who came had never edited a wiki before, I'm happy to call this a resounding success. 

Much of my notes from the event could be adapted to any geoscience wiki editing session — use them as a springboard to get some champions of open-access science together at your next gathering. If you'd like our help, get in touch.


January linkfest

Time for the quarterly linkfest! Got stories for next time? Contact us.

BP's new supercomputer, reportedly capable of about 2.2 petaflops, is about as fast as Total's Pangea machine in Paris, which booted up almost a year ago. These machines are pretty amazing — Pangea has over 110,000 cores, and 442 terabytes of memory — but BP claims to have bested that with 1 petabyte of RAM. Remarkable. 

Leo Uieda's open-source modeling tool Fatiando a Terra got an upgrade recently and hit version 0.2. Here's Leo himself demonstrating a forward seismic model:

I'm a geoscientst, get me out of here is a fun-sounding new educational program from the European Geosciences Union, which has recently been the very model of a progressive technical society (along with the AGU is another great example). It's based on the British outreach program, I'm a scientist, get me out of here, and if you're an EGU member (or want to be), I think you should go for it! The deadline: 17 March, St Patrick's Day.

Darren Wilkinson writes a great blog about some of the geekier aspects of geoscience. You should add it to your reader (I'm using The Old Reader to keep up with blogs since Google Reader was marched out of the building). He wrote recently about this cool tool — an iPad controller for desktop apps. I have yet to try it, but it seems a good fit for tools like ArcGIS, Adobe Illustrator.

Speaking of big software, check out Joe Kington's Python library for GeoProbe volumes — I wish I'd had this a few years ago. Brilliant.

And speaking of cool tools, check out this great new book by technology commentator and philosopher Kevin Kelly. Self-published and crowd-sourced... and drawn from his blog, which you can obviously read online if you don't like paper. 

If you're in Atlantic Canada, and coming to the Colloquium next weekend, you might like to know about the wikithon on Sunday 9 February. We'll be looking for articles relevant to geoscientists in Atlantic Canada to improve. Tim Sherry offers some inspiration. I would tell you about Evan's geocomputing course too... but it's sold out.

Heard about any cool geostuff lately? Let us know in the comments. 


Do something that scares you

Last week, I asked if we — our community of practice — is comfortable with the murky zone between corporate marketing and our technical societies. Lots of discussion ensued. On reflection, I was a little unclear about exactly whom I was picking on — corporate marketers (mostly) or technical societies. Today, I thought I'd dig deeper into the corporate marketing side a little, and think about what the future might look like. We can look at societies some other time. 

What marketing used to be

Marketing used to mean nothing less prosaic than buying and selling stuff. Since the post-war consumer revolution, it has gradually expanded in scope and today covers advertising, promotion, publicity, branding, and customer management.

Unfortunately, much of what comes out of marketing departments is spin. How else could it be? The marketers only have control over their own domain, they don't design or build or even use the products. They're 'only doing their job' — positioning their products in the market, obsessing about the competition, negotiating ad space, and tweaking their brand image. Beyond the simple transmission of information — a necessary service to the world — all this effort is aimed at making their products and services look better than they actually are. 

Recognizing brokenness

Some totally real readers of this blog. Let's start with some easy things: if your marketing people can't answer questions about your products and services, they don't care enough — replace them. If they write copy that contains the words 'innovative', 'breakthrough', or 'unleash' — replace them. If you ask them for 'something new' and get back stock photos with pictures of your software pasted over them — replace them.

The problem with all this — buying more ad space, building bigger booths, getting better seats at hockey games, and so on — is... well, there are lots:

  • We've seen it all before, it's boring. Is that your message?
  • Thanks to the Matthew effect, the biggest wallet will win. Is that you?
  • It's all about you, the brand, not them, your users and customers.
  • I don't trust you. You are biased. I trust my friends and colleagues. 

Walk the walk

Like losing weight, getting fit, or writing a novel, I'm afraid there's no easy way: you have to do the hard work. Stop looking for new ways to tell everyone you're the most awesome company with the most powerful software. Just be the most awesome company. Show don't tell. Build great software and services and, more importantly, do great things with them. Competitors can copy what you do, especially if they are Petrel (they will beat you every time), but not how you do it. Instead of trying to play tennis against Roger Federer, you might do better changing the game to The Settlers of Catan, or super-solar space spag (no, that game has not been invented yet). 

Here are some ideas for your next expo. These things should scare you. If not, find something that does.

  • Bring developers to talk to people and connect them with your users.
  • Show people your development process, your bug list, and your roadmap. 
  • Hold a clinic and help your users help each other do more awesome things.
  • Brainstorm new product ideas right there on the show floor. Have a developer prototype the best one each day.
  • Broadcast your ideas in front of your competitors. They will weep with fear because they know they lack your courage and audacity. They can copy algorithms, but they can't copy awesomeness
  • Watch people using your products. Let them teach you how they want to work.
  • Hold a contest to find The Power User. Can your best user beat your best consultant?
  • An iPad draw? Seriously? You just want my email address to spam me. I have an iPad.
  • Hide your sales and marketing people for a day and see what happens.

Above all, stop copying your competitors. They suck at marketing too. 

Advice for the rest of us

I know not everyone feels as strongly as I do, and some people seem happy with the status quo. But to everyone else, I have a challenge: Demand to be delighted.

Next time you are confronted with some sales and marketing cruft, dare to ask hard questions. Have high expectations. Refuse the stuffed toy — "What has this got to do with my work?". Laugh at the lame pen, don't stuff it in your pocket. Call out the sexist nonsense. And when you find a booth that's working hard to please the people that really matter, reward them with your attention.

If you're a marketer, what would you do if there was no risk of failure? If you're a victim of marketing, what would could should a service company do to delight you? 

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