Catch up time

July 7, 2009

After a month of neglect, I’ve posted some of my more recent columns, as seen below. Zinchuk

 Intended for publication the week of June 21, 2009.

 By Brian Zinchuk

The other day I read a news story about email usage. Apparently, there’s a subset of email users who are daytime warriors – they send and receive almost all their mail during the day. This may be useful some day for spam filtering, because if you do most of your email during the day, odds are stuff in the evening is more likely to be spam.

Funny, I get email all day. Or so I thought.

Then I started analyze it.

During the day I might get up to 70 or 80 emails. I’m on several media mailing lists, so I get all the government and RCMP press releases, for instance. Then there’s work related correspondence.

My total intake is not much compared to some people I know, who get hundreds of emails a day. But it’s substantial.

Come 5 p.m., it all stops. I had never noticed it before, but everything just ends.

It’s even more pronounced on the weekends, when I might get two or three emails from Friday evening until Monday morning, when the floodgates open again. Otherwise it’s as dead as a doorknob.

In reality, my inbox gets a lot more email than that, but SaskTel’s spam filter works remarkably well, and what few spam emails do get through are often caught by my email client software.

This was a strange revelation for me, because email is a primary form of communication these days. It either means I have no friends, or they are now using different methods.

I’ve consistently used just one email address, despite having several. I do have one instant messaging software account – MSN, but that is soooo 2004, and no one uses it anymore.

I have steered away from Skype so far, but it may be unavoidable.

Now I’ve got Facebook and Twitter accounts, and for the first time, I have received an email, through Twitter. It’s a new form of messaging, with @somethingorother I have yet to figure out.  

Each of these accounts forward to my email.

Combined with text messaging on the Blackberry, it’s account overload. I can even get Facebook or MSN messages sent directly to the Blackberry. But why would I?

A lot of people these days use Facebook as a de facto email. I don’t know why. Maybe they feel spam has not penetrated it, yet. One of my friends who used to send daily normal emails now uses Facebook for most of his correspondence. What’s he going to do next year, when the next new thing comes along?

It drives me crazy.

While it’s the oldest, it’s also the most versatile form of messaging. There’s no 140 character limit, like Twitter. You can send it to anyone, not just other Facebookers.  

Some people thing change for change’s sakes is a good thing. But these limitations do not seem all that inviting to me. Yet to keep in touch with some people, you’re almost expected to have all these accounts. A new one pops up every year or so.

Yet email, warts and all, is still there. It may be collapsing under the weight of spam – 90.4 per cent of all messages now according to cnet.com, but it still works.

My friends may have migrated to other forms of messaging, but I still like my email. The question is, if I am no longer getting email outside of business hours, do I still have friends?

Hmmmm…. don’t answer that.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News (http://www.pipelinenews.ca). He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@sasktel.net.

Intended for publication the week of June 7, 2009.

 

Attending two major oil conferences in Saskatchewan this spring, you’re sure to hear from the politicians.

Their message has been consistent: a big “Thank you” to the Saskatchewan oil patch.

Thank you for growing the economy, providing jobs, paying for social services and infrastructure.

Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd brought that message to the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Regina in late April, noting that he had specific instructions from the premier to show gratitude to the oilpatch.

The big guy himself delivered the same message to the Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Show in Weyburn on June 3, during the oilman of the year awards luncheon.

He made the point that he’s the first premier to attend the show since 1999, and before that, it was 1991, when Grant Devine was still premiere.

Now, premiers are busy people who rarely have complete control of their schedules. If the prime minister calls a first minister meeting, you have to attend. When the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities has their annual convention, you better be there. The same goes for the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association. But missing a decade worth of shows? That’s the entire duration of the Calvert Administration. It’s also only once for Roy Romanow.

Wall was present at the Lloydminster Heavy Oil Show last fall, and said he plans on attending these shows as much as possible.

People notice these things, which is precisely why Wall brought it up. It’s sure the industry took notice the heavy presence of both the top-end politicians and ministry officials at these events.

It’s odd, because former Premier Lorne Calvert brought in royalty regimes that have done Saskatchewan very well, in comparison to what the Alberta government has done in recent years. (i.e., loaded both barrels and shot off both feet.) Indeed, Wall credited the previous administration for that, if not actually naming Calvert by name. The province plans on leaving things alone in large part, saying, ““We will not be increasing royalties.”

Wall spoke of investing in infrastructure from where the money had come from.

“You’re generating a lot of royalties. You deserve good roads to do that work,” Wall said

That statement got applause. Anyone who has driven around Alida, for instance, realizes that heavy truck traffic associated with the oilpatch comes with a price in infrastructure. It’s even more noticeable in the heavy oil country around Lloydminster. While there have been efforts in recent years to assist rural municipalities in dealing with the issue, you’d have to look long and hard to find an RM that is satisfied with the level of assistance.

With the collapse in energy prices over the past year, there’s not going to be a lot of extra money to throw into these things. However, with the recovery of oil prices since the winter, there’s hope. It wasn’t long ago current prices were considered astronomical. If they stay at this level or improve, perhaps the province will be able to put more into infrastructure.

“We have to invest more in infrastructure.” Wall added.

There’s an old saying in politics – dance with the one who brought you. In this case, Wall strode onto the dance floor, and made clear he’s here to dance. It’s probably a good thing the premier is not a wallflower with the oil and gas industry. They have this habit of paying the bills.

 Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News (http://www.pipelinenews.ca). He can be reached at http://www.zinchuk.ca.

Intended for publication the week of June 14, 2009.

By Brian Zinchuk

The other day I hitched up the contraption meant to carry small children behind a bicycle, and, with some coaxing, got my daughter to ride her bike to the park.

There Spencer and Katrina had great fun playing with the other kids, as a few parents watched. While watching our kids get soaked in the spray park, I struck up a conversation with one of the dads.

I can’t remember what he does exactly, but it was some sort of well-site work, probably directional drilling. Inevitably, we started talking about the activity level in the patch, and I commented on the fact that things should be picking up shortly. Oil was, after all, around $72 a barrel on that day.

His response was that he would like to see it stay the same for a while. At the pace he was going over the last couple years, it was tough.

Don’t get to see the kids much? I asked.

More like didn’t want to see the kids, he said. He was too tired to spend time with them.

I expect to hear more of that in the coming months. The last year has been brutal in many ways – the frenetic pace of 2008 coupled with the total collapse of prices by early 2009 has been hard on the system and families. Thankfully, the valley was short-lived, and much of it occurred during the slow season of spring breakup, anyhow.

The Saudis said a while back that they would be happy with oil in the $75 range, right around where it is now. If the Saudis are happy, shouldn’t we all be happy?

It wasn’t that long ago I was asking the provincial minister of finance what he would do with all the money flowing in with $60 oil.

In February, I noted that governments would likely be saying, “The cupboard is bare” at some time in contract negotiations this year, followed by, “You can do a lot more with $75 oil than you can with $35 oil.”

Well, we’re at that level now. There’s pretty good indication it will climb a bit higher towards the end of the year, which is going to help this province out a fair bit.

On the drilling side, it’s nowhere near 2008’s, or even 2007’s pace, but Saskatchewan is faring better than our neighbours.

When you look at the rig counts, Saskatchewan is doing pretty well compared to Alberta and BC. As of June 12, Saskatchewan had 36 of 124 drilling rigs working, or 29 per cent. That’s not great, but look at Alberta. At the same time, they had 65 of 589 drilling rigs working – with a whopping 524 rigs down. Only 11 per cent of Alberta rigs were listed as active, likely due to poor gas prices. BC faired a little better, with 21 of 122 rigs working, or 17 per cent. Manitoba saw five of seven rigs active – pretty good for that province.

In all, Saskatchewan is pulling through. For a lot of companies, the last six months may have been tough sledding, but if they made it this far, they should probably be okay. The provincial budget won’t likely see billions in oil bounty, but it won’t be starved, either.

And the guy with his kids at the park? He’ll probably have enough time to enjoy them, and still make a buck.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News (www.pipelinenews.ca). He can be reached at http://www.zinchuk.ca

Intended for publication the week of July 5, 2009.

By Brian Zinchuk

Most people would agree it’s a good idea to have some money saved up for a rainy day. It’s increasingly become the habit of nations to do the same, except with oil.

China is building up its strategic petroleum reserves (SPR). Currently, the country keeps enough in reserve to keep it going for 30 days if it were cut off from imports. The plan is to build that reserve to 90 days, and they are on a massive tank-building endeavour to do it.

Other nations have been doing the same. India is working on its own. Ditto for the Philippines. European Union countries are required to have one. Denmark has recently created one. Poland is expanding its reserve to the 90 day mark. The UK is also a new entrant.

Japan, not surprisingly, is fastidious in having its own reserve, with 169 days of reserves between government and private storage.

The US has the largest strategic reserve in the world, with the capacity to backfill a 60 day loss of imports. They store all theirs as unrefined crude, in four mammoth underground facilities. Each uses salt domes deep underground, in a similar manner to how SaskEnergy stores natural gas in underground salt caverns.

Even oil exporters, like Iran and Russia, have been looking at the idea. Iran has one, and Russia is considering it. Don’t forget, Russia produces a similar amount of oil each day as Saudi Arabia.

And what about Canada?

Well, what about Canada? Do we have a cookie jar stuffed with black gold, just in case the world goes to hell in a hand basket?

….. No.

We have the second largest reserves in the world, when you include all the oilsands. But that’s not all that easy to get at. Nope, 47 nations have a strategic reserve, but we are not one of them.

Google “Canadian strategic petroleum reserve,” and the first response you get is a discussion paper asking if we need one.

In February, 2008, Gord Laxer wrote on the op-ed page of The Globe and Mail, “If Canada reversed the Montreal-to-Sarnia pipeline, which brings foreign oil through Southern Ontario, Western Canadian oil would flow to Quebec and reduce imports by almost a third. Taking the portion of Newfoundland oil that is currently exported and redirecting it to Eastern Canada would further reduce imports. In combination, the two measures would cut imports to about half of current levels. Canada would need about 38 million barrels in its reserves.”

He might know a thing or two about this, since the Globe notes, “Gordon Laxer is author of Freezing in the Dark: Why Canada Needs Strategic Petroleum Reserves, a report released by the Parkland Institute and Polaris Institute.”

 You see, we are building storage tanks – lots of them. But they don’t belong to the government, nor does the oil they will contain. Enbridge is undertaking a substantial build program at its Hardisty, Alta. Terminal, where Pipeline News recently paid a visit. But those tanks are meant to send oil down Enbridge’s numerous lines that point in a southeasterly direction, cut across Saskatchewan and cross the US border near Gretna, Man. The pipelines that go east from here are primarily gas lines.

To a layman, it doesn’t make much sense for Canada to export western Canadian oil and import middle-eastern oil to supply eastern Canada. Go too far down that path, however, and you start getting Trudeau-esque National Energy Program ideas. We all know how that went.

Even if we did decide the oil in that tank farm should be prioritized for Canadian use due to some form of emergency, NAFTA gets in the way of us restricting our exports to the US.

Perhaps we should have some sort of strategic reserves in eastern Canada. We don’t need to start monkeying around with long established trading patterns to do it. Build some big tanks along the east coast and fill them up. It might even give a bit of a boost to Western Canadian producers, and surely would make Newfoundland and Labrador happy.

As much as we like or don’t like easterners, making sure they don’t freeze in the dark should be a priority.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@sasktel.net.

Intended for publication the week of May 31, 2009.

 By Brian Zinchuk

 With the new Terminator movie coming out, one’s mind wanders to just how close machines are getting to deciding they really don’t need us on this planet, after all.

The TV series Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles explored how little facets all came together to create Skynet – the artificial intelligence that decides to wipe out mankind. A supercomputer here, some networking there, and eventually, you get Skynet.

In the end of May, they may have gotten a little closer.

Enter Wolfram Alpha (www.wolframalpha.com).

It’s not a search engine. It’s a computational engine. You ask it things, and it comes up with answers – not search results, but answers.

Not only that, but it comes up with things you likely hadn’t thought of.

The weekly podcast This Week in Technology (twit.tv) interviews the creator of Wolfram Alpha, Stephen Wolfram in its May 17 podcast. Alpha incorporates Mathematica, a Wolfram technology used for computation. A lot of that interview can be summed up from the “About” page on Alpha’s website.

The website is not in the least bit modest in its goals, stating,”Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

“Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.

“Wolfram|Alpha is an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come. With a world-class team and participation from top outside experts in countless fields, our goal is to create something that will stand as a major milestone of 21st century intellectual achievement.”

If that’s not the foundations of Skynet, I don’t know what is. To hear Stephen Wolfram talk about it is to send shivers up your spine. It’s like John Connor explaining the end of the world in the 1984 Terminator movie. He talks of how answers in the coming days be become better as the program improves. In other words, it is learning.

I remember long ago when I was first introduced to Google. It was a friend, a very smart friend, an engineering physics honours student, who showed how Google was so far beyond what was then the leading edge search engines – Lycos, AltaVista, Hotbot.

Since then, Google has become all-encompassing, all knowing. Not sure about something? Google it. It’s even a verb now. This column was Googled with Google.

I strongly anticipate Wolfram Alpha will eventually be scooped up by Google. They all are, eventually. It’s like one of those monsters in an old horror movie – all consuming, unstoppable. Wolfram Alpha will become Google Wolfram Alpha Beta (because even Gmail is still in ‘Beta,’).

The scary thing is, what happens when you combine Google’s knowledge of, well, pretty much everything, with Wolfram Alpha’s capacity to apply an ever-growing number of algorithms? The reality of a truly powerful, real life artificial intelligence doesn’t seem that far off.

The Terminator movies tell us that Skynet began learning at an exponential rate. In the original movie, Kyle Reese, the good guy, describes Skynet as, “Defense network computers. New… powerful… hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”

Spooky. Anyone want to go to a movie?

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News (www.pipelinenews.ca). He can be reached at http://www.zinchuk.ca.

Intended for publication the week of May 17, 2009.

 

By Brian Zinchuk

 

Walking through Edmonton International Airport, I discovered the Chapters store has a good idea what would sell in an airport catering to oil country.

On a stand on the end of the store, three books leapt out at me, but the first one to get read just happened to ring a bell.

It’s called Don’t Tell Mom I Work on the Rigs: She thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse.

I had heard that phrase before, very likely when I was doing interviews of overseas oilpatch workers. I imagined pretty much everyone who has spent a day on a flight to some distant wellsite has thumbed through its pages during a flight. More than one has probably said, “Yup, been there, done that.”

Paul Carter is the author. It’s not entirely clear what he does, or maybe I missed it. He appears to be either a rig manager or company consultant, having worked his way up the ranks like pretty much everyone else. In later years, he works on a freelance basis on what must be a pretty healthy day rate. A lot of his time is spent with the same crew.

A Brit with an English father and German mother, his first job is cleaning the Mercedes of an oil executive his mom worked for.

“I left school early – I wanted money, I wanted rigs. I wanted to fly in a helicopter, and say Gawd-damn a lot. I wanted to wear one of those gold company cigar rings. But most of all, I wanted an adventure.”

He got it, alright.

He starts off as a roughneck drilling core samples in Western Australia. Carter gets the itch and ends up spending his life in airliners, always off to the next job.

The map at the beginning shows rigs all over the globe, with a high concentration on the western Pacific Rim. Home base is Australia,

He has a few relationships, but nothing pans out. Only towards the end does he realize he’s missed out on a family life. There is no real theme, other than he found the adventure he was looking for. Sure, being held hostage in Nigeria was exciting, and there were several scary moments in helicopters. But probably the best part was the tale of the practical jokes. If you’ve ever been the victim or taken part in a practical joke, there’s few here that you should either be wary of, or add to your list. In particular, be wary of food coloring, forks and steel-toed boots, as well as Frenchmen bad-mouthing the British queen.

It’s a compelling tome, right up until the end. The problem is, there is no end. It’s as if the editor let him get away without writing a final chapter. The anecdotes keep coming, and then suddenly, it stops. You’re at the epilogue. Where’s the end?

But maybe that’s the point. The book is just a mile marker in the rig worker’s life. The story is far from over. Amazon.ca now says he lives in Perth, Australia, with his wife. He’s also put out a new book in 2007, called, This is Not a Drill: Just Another Glorious Day in the Oilfield.

Hopefully this time he’s written a final chapter.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News (www.pipelinenews.ca). He can be reached at www.zinchuk.ca.

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