Conversation not discussion

It's a while since we had a 'conferences are broken' rant on the Agile blog!

Five or six of the sessions at this year's conference were... different. I already mentioned the Value In Geophysics session, which was a cross between a regular series of talks and a panel discussion. I went to another, The modern geoscientist, which was structured the same way. A third one, Fundamentals of Professional Career Branding, was a mini workshop with Jackie Rafter of Higher Landing. There were at least a couple of other such sessions.

It's awesome to see the societies experimenting with something outside the usual plethora of talks and posters. I hope they were well received, because we need more of this in our discipline, now more than ever. If you went to one and enjoyed it, please let the organizers know.

But... the sessions — especially the panel discussion sessions — lacked something. One thing really:

The sessions we saw were nowhere near participatory enough. Not even close.

The 'expert-panel-enlightens-audience' pattern is slowing us down, perpetuating broken models of leadership and hierarchy. There isn't an expert in Calgary or the universe that knows how or when this downturn is going to end, or what we need to do to improve our chances of continuing to contribute to society and make a living in our profession. So please, stop throwing people up on a stage, making them give 5 minute presentations, and occasionally asking for questions from the audience. That is nothing like a discussion. Tune in to a political debate show to see what those look like: rapid-fire, punchy, controversial. In short: interesting. And, from an organizer's point of view, really hard, which is why we should stop.

Real conversation

What I think is really needed right now, more than half-baked expert discussion, is conversation. Conversations happen between small groups of people, all sitting on the same plane, around a table, with napkins to draw on and time to draw on them. They connect people and spread awesome ideas like viruses. What's more, great conversations have outcomes.

I don't want to claim that Agile has all this figured out, but we have demonstrated various ways of connecting scientists in meaningful ways and with lasting outcomes. We've also written extensively on the subject (e.g. here and here and here and here). Other verticals have conducted many more experiments, and documented the results. Humans know how to do this.

So there's no excuse — it's not too dramatic to call the current 'situation' a crisis in our profession in Canada — so we need to get beyond tinkering at the edges and half-hearted attempts at change. Our societies need to pay attention to what's needed, and get on with making it happen.

Still more ranting...

We talked about this topic at some length on the Undersampled Radio podcast yesterday. Here's the uncut video version:

Unweaving the rainbow

Last week at the Canada GeoConvention in Calgary I gave a slightly silly talk on colourmaps with Matteo Niccoli. It was the longest, funnest, and least fruitful piece of research I think I've ever embarked upon. And that's saying something.

Freeing data from figures

It all started at the Unsession we ran at the GeoConvention in 2013. We asked a roomful of geoscientists, 'What are the biggest unsolved problems in petroleum geoscience?'. The list we generated was topped by Free the data, and that one topic alone has inspired several projects, including this one. 

Our goal: recover digital data from any pseudocoloured scientific image, without prior knowledge of the colourmap.

I subsequently proferred this challenge at the 2015 Geophysics Hackathon in New Orleans, and a team from Colorado School of Mines took it on. Their first step was to plot a pseudocoloured image in (red, green blue) space, which reveals the colourmap and brings you tantalizingly close to retrieving the data. Or so it seems...

Here's our talk:

GeoConvention highlights

We were in Calgary last week at the Canada GeoConvention 2017. The quality of the talks seemed more variable than usual but, as usual, there were some gems in there too. Here are our highlights from the technical talks...

Filling in gaps

Mauricio Sacchi (University of Alberta) outlined a new reconstruction method for vector field data. In other words, filling in gaps in multi-compononent seismic records. I've got a soft spot for Mauricio's relaxed speaking style and the simplicity with which he presents linear algebra, but there are two other reasons that make this talk worthy of a shout out:

  1. He didn't just show equations in his talk, he used pseudocode to show the algorithm.
  2. He linked to his lab's seismic processing toolkit, SeismicJulia, on GitHub.

I am sure he'd be the first to admit that it is early days for for this library and it is very much under construction. But what isn't? All the more reason to showcase it openly. We all need a lot more of that.

Update on 2017-06-7 13:45 by Evan Bianco: Mauricio, has posted the slides from his talk

Learning about errors

Anton Birukov (University of Calgary & graduate intern at Nexen) gave a great talk in the induced seismicity session. It was a lovely mashing-together of three of our favourite topics: seismology, machine-learning, and uncertainty. Anton is researching how to improve microseismic and earthquake event detection by framing it as a machine-learning classification problem. He's using Monte Carlo methods to compute myriad synthetic seismic events by making small velocity variations, and then using those synthetic events to teach a model how to be more accurate about locating earthquakes.

Figure 2 from  Anton Biryukov's abstract . An illustration of the signal classification concept. The signals originating from the locations on the grid (a) are then transformed into a feature space and labeled by the class containing the event origin. From Biryukov (2017). Event origin depth uncertainty - estimation and mitigation using waveform similarity. Canada GeoConvention, May 2017.

Figure 2 from Anton Biryukov's abstract. An illustration of the signal classification concept. The signals originating from the locations on the grid (a) are then transformed into a feature space and labeled by the class containing the event origin. From Biryukov (2017). Event origin depth uncertainty - estimation and mitigation using waveform similarity. Canada GeoConvention, May 2017.

The bright lights of geothermal energy
Matt Hall

Two interesting sessions clashed on Wednesday afternoon. I started off in the Value of Geophysics panel discussion, but left after James Lamb's report from the mysterious Chief Geophysicists' Forum. I had long wondered what went on in that secretive organization; it turns out they mostly worry about how to make important people like your CEO think geophysics is awesome. But the large room was a little dark, and — in keeping with the conference in general — so was the mood.

Feeling a little down, I went along to the Diversification of the Energy Industry session instead. The contrast was abrupt and profound. The bright room was totally packed with a conspicuously young audience numbering well over 100. The mood was hopeful, exuberant even. People were laughing, but not wistfully or ironically. I think I saw a rainbow over the stage.

If you missed this uplifting session but are interested in contributing to Canada's geothermal energy scene, which will certainly need geoscientists and reservoir engineers if it's going to get anywhere, there are plenty of ways to find out more or get involved. Start at and follow your nose.

We'll be writing more about the geothermal scene — and some of the other themes in this post — so stay tuned. 


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Running away from easy

Matt and I are in Calgary at the 2017 GeoConvention. Instead of writing about highlights from Day 1, I wanted to pick on one awesome thing I saw. Throughout the convention, there is a air of sadness, of nostalgia, of struggle. But I detect a divide among us. There are people who are waiting for things to return to how they were, when life was easy. Others are exploring how to be a part of the change, instead of a victim of it. Things are no longer easy, but easy is boring. 

Want to start an oil and gas company? What resources are you going to need? Computers, pricey software applications, data. Purchase all of this stuff as a one-time capital expense, build a team, get an office lease, buy desks and a Keurig. Then if all goes well, 18 months later you'll have a slide deck outlining a play that you could pitch to investors. 

Imagine getting started without laying down a huge amount of capital for all those things. What if you could rent a desk at a co-working space, access the suite of software tools that you're used to, and use their Keurig. The computer infrastructure and software is managed and maintained by an IT service company so you don't have to worry about it. 

Yesterday at the Calgary Geoconvention I heard all about ReSourceYYC, a co-working space catering to oil and gas professionals, introduced ResourceNET, a subscription-based cloud workstation environment for freelancers, consultants, startups, and the newly and not-so-newly underemployed community of subsurface professionals.

In making this offering, ReSourceYYC has partnered up with a number of software companies: Entero, Seisware, Surfer, ValNav, geoLOGIC, and Divestco, to name a few. The limitations and restrictions around this environment, if any, weren't totally clear. I wondered: Could I append or swap my own tools with this stack? Can I access this environment from anywhere?

It could be awesome. I think it could serve just as many freelancers and consultants as "oil and gas startups". It seems a bit too early to say, but I reckon there are literally thousands of geoscientists and engineers in Calgary that'd be all over this.

I think it's interesting and important and I hope they get it right.