The Computer History Museum

Mountain View, California, looking northeast over US 101 and San Francisco Bay. The Computer History Museum sits between the Googleplex and NASA Ames. Hangar 1, the giant airship hangar, is visible on the right of the image. Imagery and map data © Google, Landsat/Copernicus.

A few days ago I was lucky enough to have a client meeting in Santa Clara, California. I had not been to Silicon Valley before, and it was more than a little exciting to drive down US Route 101 past the offices of Google, Oracle and Amazon and basically every other tech company, marvelling at Intel’s factory and the hangars at NASA Ames, and seeing signs to places like Stanford, Mountain View, and Menlo Park.

I had a spare day before I flew home, and decided to visit Stanford’s legendary geophysics department, where there was a lecture that day. With an hour or so to kill, I thought I’d take in the Computer History Museum on the way… I never made it to Stanford.

The museum

The Computer History Museum was founded in 1996, building on an ambition of über-geek Gordon Bell. It sits in the heart of Mountain View, surrounded by the Googleplex, NASA Ames, and Microsoft. It’s a modern, airy building with the museum and a small café downstairs, and meeting facilities on the upper floor. It turns out to be an easy place to burn four hours.

I saw a lot of computers that day. You can see them too because much of the collection is in the online catalog. A few things that stood out for me were:

No seismic

I had been hoping to read more about the early days of Texas Instruments, because it was spun out of a seismic company, Geophysical Service or GSI, and at least some of their early integrated circuit research was driven by the needs of seismic imaging. But I was surprised not to find a single mention of seismic processing in the place. We should help them fix this!

Look ahead to EAGE 2016

I'm in Vienna for the 78th EAGE Conference and Exhibition, at Wien Messe, starting on Sunday. And, of course, for the Subsurface Hackathon, which I've already mentioned a few times. 

The hackathon, is, as usual, over the weekend. It starts tomorrow, in this amazing coworking space. That's @JesperDramsch there, getting ready for the hackathon!

I know this doesn't suit everyone, but weekdays don't suit everyone either. I've also always wanted to get people out of 'work mode', into the idea that they can create whatever they want. Maybe we'll try one during the week some time; do let me know what you think about it in the comments. Feedback helps.

Don't worry, you will hear more about the hackathon. Stay tuned.

Open source software in applied geosciences

The first conference event I'll be at is the workshop on open source software. This follows up on similar get-togethers in Copenhagen in 2012 and in Vienna in 2006. I hope the fact that the inter-workshop interval is getting shorter is a sign that open source geoscience software is gaining traction!

The workshop is being organized by Filippo Broggini (of ETH Zürich), Sergey Fomel (University of Texas), Thomas Günther (LIAG Hannover), and Russell Hewett (Total). They have put together a great-looking program. In the morning, Kristofer Tingdahl (CEO of dGB Earth Sciences) will talk about business models for open source. Then Sergey Fomel will update us on Madagascar seismic processing toolbox. Finally, in a series of talks, Jeff Shragge (Univ. Western Australia), Bob Clapp (Stanford), and Bill Symes (Rice) will talk about using Madagascar and other geophysical imaging and inversion tools at a large scale and in parallel.

After lunch, there's a veritable parade of updates and new stuff, with all of these projects checking in:

  • OpenSeaSeis, which raised a lot of eyebrows in 2012 for its general awesomeness. Now a project at Colorado School of Mines.
  • SES3D, a package from ETHZ for seismic waveform modeling and inversion.
  • BasinVis, a MATLAB program for modeling basin fill and subsidence (woo! Open source geology!!)
  • OpenFOAM, a new open source toolbox for fluid mechanics.
  • PyGIMLi, a geophysical modeling and inversion package.
  • PySIT, the Python seismic imaging toolbox that Russell Hewett started while at MIT.
  • Seismic.jl and jInv (that's j-inv), two Julia packages you need to know about.

Aaaand at the very end of the day, is a talk from your truly on 'stuff we can do to get more open source goodness in geoscience'. I'll post some version of the talk here when I can.

Talks and stuff

I don't have any plans for Tuesday and Wednesday, other than taking in some talks and posters. I'm missing Thursday. Picking talks is hard, especially when there are 15 (yup) parallel sessions,... and that's just the oral presentations. (Hey! Conference organizer people! That's crazy!) These conference apps that get ever-so-slightly-better each year won't be really useful until they include a recommendation engine of some sort. I'd like two kinds of recommendation: "stuff that's aligned with my interests but you will disagree with everyone in there", and "stuff that doesn't seem to be aligned with my interests, but maybe it really is".

Oh and also "stuff that isn't too far away from the room I'm in right now because I only have 80 seconds to get there".

Anyway, I haven't chosen my sessions yet, let alone started to trawl through the talk titles. You can probably guess the session titles — Carbonate Petrophysics, Multiple Attenuation, Optimizing Full Waveform Marine Acquisition for Quantitative Exploration II (just kidding).

There are some special sessions I may seek out. There's one for professional women in geoscience and engineering, and two for young professionals, one of which is a panel discussion. Then there are two 'dedicated sessions': Integrated Data for Geological and Reservoir Models, and Towards Exascale Geophysical Applications, which sounds intriguing... but their programmes look like the usual strings of talks, so I'm not sure why they're singled out. There's also something called EAGE Forum, but I can't tell what that is.

Arbitrary base 10 milestone!

I don't pay as much attention to blog stats as I used to, but there is one number that I've been keeping an eye on lately: the number of posts. This humble little post is the 500th on this blog! Kind of amazing, though I'm not sure what it says about me and Evan, in terms of making sound decisions about how we spend our evenings. I mean, if each post is 600 words,... that's two good-sized novels!

I'm not saying they're good novels...

The images of the Impact HUB Vienna that don't have Jesper in them are CC-BY-SA by the HUB.

At home with Leonardo

Well, OK, Leonardo da Vinci wasn't actually there, having been dead 495 years, but on Tuesday morning I visited the house at which he spent the last three years of his life. I say house, it's more of a mansion — the Château du Clos Lucé is a large 15th century manoir near the centre of the small market town of Amboise in the Loire valley of northern France. The town was once the royal seat of France, and the medieval grandeur still shows. 

Leonardo was invited to France by King Francis I in 1516. Da Vinci had already served the French governor of Milan, and was feeling squeezed from Rome by upstarts Rafael and Michelangelo. It's nice to imagine that Frank appreciated Leo's intellect and creativity — he sort of collected artists and writers — but let's face it, it was probably the Italian's remarkable capacity for dreaming up war machines, a skill he had honed in the service of mercenary and cardinal Cesare Borgia. Leonardo especially seemed to like guns; here are models of a machine gun and a tank, alongside more peaceful concoctions:

Inspired by José Carcione's assertion that Leonardo was a geophysicst, and plenty of references to fossils (even Palaeodictyon) in his notebooks, I scoured the place for signs of Leonardo dablling in geology or geophysics, but to no avail. The partly-restored Renaissance floor tiles did have some inspiring textures and lots of crinoid fossils... I wonder if he noticed them as he shuffled around?

If you are ever in the area, I strongly recommend a visit. Even my kids (10, 6, and 4) enjoyed it, and it's close to some other worthy spots., specifically Chenonceau (for anyone) and Cheverny (for Tintin fans like me). The house, the numerous models, and the garden (below — complete with tasteful reproductions from Leonardo's works) were all terrific.

Check out José Carcione's two chapters about Leonardo and
his work in 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics.
Download the chapter for free! [PDF, 3.8MB]

First appearance datum at Green Point

Armed with the Geologic Field Guide of Newfoundland, last week I ventured to one of the most intensely scrutinized outcrops in the world. Green Point in Gros Morne National Park provides continuous exposure to more than 30 million years of sediment accumulation in the Iapetus ocean. The rocks formed in deep water near the base of the ancient continental slope. It was awesome and humbling.

In January 2000, the International Union of Geological Sciences designated Green Point as a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP). That's an official international reference point for the geologic time scale. I learned after the fact that there are only a handful of these in North America.

Researchers and students at Memorial University and elsewhere studied more than 10,000 fossils from Green Point, using tiny conodonts and delicate graptolites to locate the boundary between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, 488 Ma in the past. They have narrowed it down to a single layer, Bed 23, that contains the first appearance of the conodant species, Iapetognathus fluctivagus.

To the best of my estimatation, I have indicated the location of Bed 23 with the white dashed line in the figure to the right, and with the pointing figure of my *ahem* geologic scale marker in the photograph below.

Snapshots from the Outcrop

Being the massive natural exhibition that it is, there are likely volumes of things to observe and measure at Green Point. I had no agenda whatsoever, but here are four observations that caught my interest:

  1. Cavities from core plugs at regularly spaced intervals. Each piece taken and studied as part of an international scientific experiment, aimed at accurately identifying major turning points in earth's history. 
  2. Small scale fault with some antithetic joints reminiscent of some artifacts I have seen on seismic.
  3. and 4. A faulted limestone conglomerate bed. Shown from two different points of view. I am increasingly curious about the nature of the aperture of deformation zones. Such formidable forces, such a narrow region of strain.

I left with a feeling that I am sure is felt by most geologists leaving a site of extreme interest. Did I make enough observations? Did I collect enough data? I wish I had a GigaPan, or maybe portable LiDAR station. I feel reconnected to the vastness of scales over which earth processes occur, and the heterogeneity caused by well-understood systems playing out over inconceivable expanses of time. 

I'd like to flip the outcrop 120° counterclockwise, and build another stupid seismic model. What could mathematicians, programmers, and geoscientists do at this outcrop? A digital playground for integration awaits.

10 days on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

I have just returned from a 10-day holiday in Iceland, an anomalous above-sea-level bump in the North Atlantic's mid-ocean ridge. It sits over a mantle hotspot at the junction of the ridge and the WNW–ESE volcanic province stretching from the Greenland to the Faroes.

Meteorologically, culinarily, fincancially, Iceland does not score especially highly. But geologically—the only way that really matters—it's the most amazing place I've ever been. And we only visited a few spots (right). Here are some highlights...

Reykjanes. My favourite geological locality was the first place we went, and the most desolate. Barely half-an-hour's drive from the airport, you can go and see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rise out of the North Atlantic, and start its romp across the country. Reykjanes looks much like you'd expect newborn crust to look: a brutal but pristine landscape of lava, interrupted by clusters of small volcanic cones, elongate fissures, and small grabens. 

Þingvellir. The archetypal rift valley is Þingvellir (Thingvellir), which almost defies description. On top of the textbook geology is a layer of almost magical history — mythical in character, but completely real. For example, you can stand next to the drekkingarhylur (drowning pool), where deviants were executed by drowning, and diligently documented, from about 930 CE onwards. Explorationists know that early rifting is often associated with lacustrine deposits, rapid subsidence, and source rocks. And Iceland's largest lake sits happily in a new (relatively) rift valley, subsiding dutifully since records began. 

Helluhraun (pahoehoe lava) and one of the bounding faults at Þingvellir

Ice. The other thing Iceland has plenty of, apart from lava, is ice. I've seen plenty of glaciers before, and climbed around on a few, but I've never seen them calving icebergs. And I've never seen the products of subglacial eruptions: massive plains of sand dumped by jökulhlaups, and distinctively elongate or flat-topped volcanos.

Icebergs in front of Breiðamerkurjökull

We vowed to return when our youngest, who is only 3 now, is old enough to remember some of it. We mostly stayed in guesthouses, but we decided a camper van is the way to go — there's so much to see. I also realized I need a lot more photographic equipment! And skill.

First class in India

I wrote this post yesterday morning, sitting in the Indira Ghandi International Airport in Delhi, India.

Where am I?

I'm in India. Some quick facts:

I met some of these recent graduates last week, in an experimental corporate training course. Cairn India has been running a presentation skills course for several years, provided by a local trainer called Yadhav Mehra. Yadhav is a demure, soft-spoken man, right up until he stands up in front of his students. Then he becomes a versatile actor and spontaneous stand-up, swerving with the confidence of a Delhi cab driver between poignant personal stories and hilarious what-not-to-do impressions. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of courses before, but Yadhav really made me see ‘training’ as a profession in itself, with skills and standards of its own. I am grateful for that.

How did I end up here?

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Last fall, Susan Eaton—whom I’d met in the pub after teaching for the first time—wrote a nice piece about my then-new writing course. One of my long-lost PhD supervisors, Stuart Burley, read this article in his office at Cairn India in Delhi, and it triggered a thought. He had Yadhav, a pro trainer, helping his super-bright geoscience and engineering grads with their presentation skills, but they also needed coaching in writing. 

Their education provides them with...

the traditional written communication vernacular employed in the physical sciences, in which exposition is lengthily embellished with extraneous verbiage, and the passivum, or passive voice in its not uncommon appellation, is unfailingly and rigorously exercised.

You get my point. Stuart’s thought was: let’s do combine the two courses!

What happened?

The great thing about Stuart is that, along with breadth of experience and penetrating geological insight, he’s practical—he gets stuff done. (Like almost everything else in my dim-witted student days, I didn’t appreciate how valuable this was at the time.) So the three of us planned a 3-day course that combined my day's worth of writing coaching with Yadhav's two-day presentation course. Yadhav brought some didactic rigour, and I brought some technical depth. Like all collectable first edition, it had some rough edges, but it went beautifully. Students wrote an extended abstract for a conference paper on Tuesday, then presented their paper on Thursday—they made a great effort, and all did brilliantly.

I hope we run the course again—I'd love to see it reach its full potential. 

In the meantime, if you're interested in exploring ways to get more people in your organization writing a little better, or a little more often, do get in touch! You can find out more here.