Stop the presses! MAN BITES DOG!
Not exciting enough for you? Try this:
GEOLOGISTS DON'T NEED COMPUTERS!
Now we're talking serious news. After all, personal
computers have been taking up space on desks for over 20 years now,
and conventional wisdom holds that the magic box is indispensable
in every facet of business.
But is it?
Not according to Peter Varney, a Denver geologist
who is a computer era expert as well as a computer era critic.
Don't get the wrong idea: Varney loves computers
-- but he wonders if geologists are using the tool to the best of
In other words, if computers aren't being used effectively,
or to maximum potential, what good are they?
And just exactly how have computers impacted independents'
real scientific work in the last 20 years?
"If you define independents as small companies or
individual geologists -- those people that concentrate on the basics
of petroleum geology, emphasizing exploration and selling deals
-- then I don't think computers have fundamentally changed the way
these people do their work," he said.
Varney, a Denver-based consultant who teaches courses
on geological computing, said there is a wide range of comfort levels
with computers in today's geological world.
"Mature" geoscientists who have been in the industry
a long time and are still not comfortable with the technology may
wonder why computers are needed.
Younger professionals who have grown up with computers
and are completely at ease with the technology may wonder why a
question about their use even exists.
But Varney says both groups can get into trouble
when it comes to applying computer technology to their business.
"Just because someone is comfortable with a computer
doesn't necessarily mean they know how to use every program," he
said. "I like to tell my classes that there is a great deal of difference
between knowing how to run a program and knowing how to use a program."
Computer does not equal Quality
In recent years a shift in perceptions has occurred,
Varney believes, and many independents feel that if they can present
a job that's been done using computers it lends credibility to their
"I find that interesting, because not very many years
ago many independents thought anything that came out of a computer
was suspect and didn't represent individual work," he said. "The
pressure to use technology is so great today that in many cases
it overcomes objectivity."
But what Varney sees are warning flags.
"At all levels I see a great deal of confusion on
how to effectively use something as simple as a contour mapping
program," he said. "Independents don't have a lot of time to spend
mastering things like the algorithms used to compute contours, so
they may not be well-served investing a whole lot of money in what
we consider 'industry standard' products.
"The average user simply does not have the knowledge
to understand what's going on within the program, so their output
can be flawed," he added.
People who buy a program that automates a lot of
routine operations are essentially buying a programmers' solution
to their problems, Varney continued -- "and that may not be appropriate
for the problems they are facing."
There certainly are independents who are experts
at understanding the mathematics and statistics of programs and
can use tools like mapping programs effectively, he said -- but
they are the exception, not the rule.
"I exclude from my definition of independents those
consultants who specialize in a specific field," he said.
"In fact, in most cases it is in the best interest
of independents to team up with consulting specialists such as geophysicists
or petrophysicists, who not only know how to use the programs designed
for their field of expertise, but may also own the programs."
Some Positive Uses
On the positive side, Varney believes independents
have a high level of confidence and knowledge with routine computer
programs like word processing, spread sheets, accounting programs
and CAD-like map plotting programs that can automate, simplify and
speed up everyday business tasks.
And people taking his classes have become increasingly
interested in presentation programs.
"Once people get comfortable with PowerPoint they
often branch out into computer graphics, digital photography and
scanning," he noted. "Since all of these help present and sell ideas,
they are very popular and extremely useful for independents.
"I've seen some great work done using these computer
tools," he added. "This is one area where independents are making
very good use of the computer to help make deals.
"So when I say that we still have a long way to go
with respect to integrating computers into the work of independents,
I am referring to very specialized, high performance computing aimed
at the actual science of geology."
On the other hand, an important question independents
should ask themselves is, "Is it necessary to use computers on a
"Sometimes it makes sense to use computers," he said,
"and sometimes it's really not necessary."
What's Wrong With Specialists?
For hard science applications, computers are most
valuable in the hands of those who can use them most effectively
-- those skilled specialists in any given field.
"Independents need to recognize this fact and use
these people on a consulting basis," Varney suggested. "That frees
independents to keep their imagination and quest for prospects and
deals focused where they need
"Those computer experts in specialized fields such
as geophysics or petrophysics who understand the science behind
the computer technology will be in high demand throughout the petroleum
Varney said computing tools require a sophisticated
knowledge of their own -- and if independents use computers to do
the actual geology, they are layering geology on top of what they
have to know to run the computer.
"If I stretched the net as far as I could I would
capture about a dozen people I know who could actually have an in-depth
discussion on how to contour a map with a computer," Varney said.
"But I know a lot of people who routinely use available programs
to do their mapping without any idea at all about how the computer
is doing it."
That lack of knowledge, he fears, will lead to inaccuracies.
"That's the problem with buying automated programs,"
he said. "Users may not be able to find what they are looking for
in their data because they don't know how to use the program.
"People I would consider advanced users are using
the computer to do a once-through of their data and identify any
breaks in the data," he continued. "Then they plot out a base map
and contour by hand. They might then go an extra step and digitize
their finished map so they have an editable electronic file, but
the actual science is done by hand.
"This is an appropriate use of the technology."
Questioning the Status Quo
Looking into the future 10 to 15 years, Varney sees
independents still prospecting and selling deals and some advances
in computer applications.
"I expect there will be a higher sophistication with
respect to data management," he said. "People will be using programs
like Microsoft Access routinely, whereas today they are still trying
to figure out what a relational database manager is.
"Also, I expect tools like PowerPoint will become
more sophisticated, and the industry will embrace those advances
in presentation tools."
Varney also said it's easy today to assume everyone
is doing everything via computer, but that can be a dangerous mindset.
"Often it can take two to three times longer to adapt
the computer to a project rather than just do the project without
the benefit of a computer," he said. "While we've come a long way
in terms of writing reports, creating spreadsheets and making presentations
with computers, we haven't made that much progress in our understanding
of what's behind these marvelous machines.
"I think we should continue to question whether or
not computer use is appropriate for the task at hand."