Friday, December 19, 2014


I occasionally see badly-written reports that will be read and picked apart by other stakeholders, and  bidders who blatantly ignore proposal requirements. I have also attended meetings with technical experts who had no idea what they were supposed to discuss.

These are usually not signs of incompetence. They indicate arrogance - someone or an organization that thinks that they are above such inconsequential things as evidence or support for their position.

I have never been able to just waltz into a room and expect that everyone will think that I'm brilliant (or even that I know what I'm talking about). I've never been the "golden child" or the person who everyone can see is "going places". I was an academic nonentity in high school and in college. After I'd established myself in the field, I still had to fight to prove myself when I was job hunting. And I'm still (like, this year) getting strange "wow, you can give a presentation" compliments years after I thought that particular question was settled.

All those ridiculous experiences have given me a decent-sized chip on my shoulder. But they also mean that I take my shit seriously. And when I offer a technical opinion, you'd better believe I can back it up.

I have been gratified to see that certain persons/organizations that have been particularly careless because of overwhelming arrogance have gotten burned recently. Of course, some of the offenders that I've worked with/around more closely seem to be doing perfectly fine. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

scientific $$$ competition

In both the academic world and the consulting business, many of us chase after big pots of money - the sort of money that would fund an entire research program or keep an office employed for years. Sometimes we compete for individual projects, or we compete for the chance to be put on a list for future work. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the sorts of organizations that have these pots of money are also big, and usually have complicated and occasionally opaque selection processes. If the proposal/bid requirements are especially onerous, part of the selection process may be to see how good the competitors are at following future onerous contract requirements.

With this in mind, I have two pieces of advice:

1. When putting together a bid or an application, follow the directions. If it says to include registered copies of corporate/individual certifications, scrounge them up. If the CVs/resumes/project examples are to be 1 page each and in Times New Roman Font, then format them. If it says you have 12 minutes for an in-person presentation, then don't prepare an hour long presentation.

2. If you do decide that the requirements are ridiculous, don't send an e-mail blast to the grant/contract people and the bidding group, saying that the entire process is bogus and that you're dropping out of contention because you have better things to do with your time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

competitor advice

I gave a driller a ride to another site that his company was working at so he could borrow a particular tool. When we arrived, I introduced myself to the geologist, who worked for a firm that directly competes with mine, and we started chatting as the drillers rummaged around their rig. He seemed to be a complete newbie and unsure of himself, a position that I remember well and empathize with.

He needed to install a monitoring well at the top of rock or at a target depth, whichever was first, and he was trying to figure out if he'd hit bedrock yet. So where had I hit bedrock?

Well, I was on top of a bare bedrock knob, so we'd simply stuck the drill rig where it was supposed to go and started bedrock drilling. He was in a valley several miles away, and I didn't have the foggiest idea of the  bedrock depth at his location.

He was pretty disappointed at this. But then he had another idea. What did my bedrock look like?

"Well, bedrock can be pretty variable in this area [it's composed of a bunch of different units smushed together]. But we encountered X rock, composed of mostly mineral A and some mineral B, and in a few places, this really distinct mineral C..." then I realized his eyes had glazed over.

He picked up a nondescript chunk of rock that did not look like what I had encountered. "So, did it look like this? Could this be bedrock? We drilled in about 3 inches."

In case you were wondering, we were working in boulder central. Three inches of rock drilling tells you nothing about where the parent rock actually is. At this point, I realized I was perilously close to suggesting that he take some action (drill deeper) that would have an impact on his firm's investigation, so I hemmed and hawed and suggested he follow whatever his home office/specification/work plan suggested. Luckily, my driller came back with what he needed and we skeddadled.

My instinct is to be as helpful as possible, but I also don't want to annoy either my organization or a competitor by inserting myself in someone else's work. What would you have done?

Friday, December 5, 2014

page padding

I remember high school essay assignments, where I had some outrageous page requirement, like 5 pages, and tried to pick the largest margins and font size I could get away with.

We don't have minimum report lengths in the environmental biz. But some people are still addicted to padding.

I will occasionally receive a PDF with several thousand pages, and everything except the first 15 pages are lab reports and copies of waste manifests, and maybe one appendix that I actually need buried between them.  I've also received documents that have bundled every single reference, intact, within the file itself. Even if said documents are free, stupid easy to find, and gigantic. Like say, this. (or google "ATSDR arsenic" and it's the first hit). In those documents, PDF bookmarks were usually conspicuously absent. And many of those pages are (poorly) scanned photocopies, so the file size is gigantic for the actual information provided.

Storage space is cheap, and we're in the modern era, so opening a 300 MB file of filler doesn't usually crash my computer. And I can strip out the crap that I know I won't need myself. But really, at a time when labs use electronic data deliverables (EDDs), and we can convert practically everything to a PDF directly, and we can easily link to other documents without making a 10,000 page monster file, why do so many reports come out looking like a giant stack of poorly sorted papers?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

worst science grades

Geologists/scientists, did you have any terrible grades in a science class? This post discusses lousy grades from an academic's (ecology) perspective.

In college, I caught fire in chemistry, stunk up my math classes, did ok in my geology classes, and was generally a better student in my non-major classes. That post I referred to also discussed my lousy high school science classes, which temporarily convinced me that I couldn't hack "real science", so I won't rehash high school here. In the end, I got school honors as an undergrad, but not department honors. I didn't have that singular lousy grade, though.

When I was a senior in college and trying to figure out what to do next, I thought that only brilliant people who got all As were "allowed" into graduate school. None of my professors seemed to think I was good enough. Nobody said, "hey, have you considered grad school?" It didn't occur to me until much later that the only students from my department who went to grad school right from college were clearly preferred by the professors, who were aggressively "outdoorsy", dominated the class discussions, and generally sucked all the oxygen out of the room from those of us who were more reserved or unsure of ourselves.

Here's the thing. One bad grade won't keep you from being a stellar academic. One bad undergrad experience won't keep you from getting where you want to go, whether that's a "hard" science or academia, or somewhere else. I used to work with a science expert who had flunked out of college entirely. It may take some hard work initially. Maybe you need to build an industry reputation. Maybe you take a couple years to take (or re-take) some classes. But there are no iron gates preventing you from getting the experience/grades/confidence to get to the next step, whether it's academia or industry.

Friday, November 28, 2014

field inspiration

My last post was sort of a long rant, so I thought I'd balance things out a bit with a more positive subject. If you do fieldwork and love being outside, (potentially) out in nature, do you have someone who gave you that love of nature? Maybe it was someone you grew up with, or a camp counselor, or maybe it was a teacher.

My field/outdoors inspiration (as opposed to my life inspiration or science inspiration) was my grandfather, John. Born before 1910 to an alcoholic mother and an absent father (his parents divorced, but not before having a bunch of kids they couldn't take care of), he essentially raised his younger siblings. As a teenager, he took a job as a ship's cook for a sailing ship, and eventually he settled down in the city that was the primary port of call, married my grandmother in the depths of the Depression, and had a bunch of children.

When John's multitude of children were young, money and time were both tight, but he still found time to be heavily involved in the boy scouts. He taught generations of inner-city boys orienteering/survival skills and a general love of nature, and he received the silver beaver, which I believe is the highest boy scout-specific adult leadership award (i.e. for actually leading boy scouts, not for national issues/public service). He built rifles and went hunting every chance he could, although in his case, "hunting" involved tracking some kind of game, getting close enough for a nice clean shot, and then sitting down for a meditative smoke. Once the deer/moose/whatever had wandered off, he'd repeat the process.

My mother was the youngest and the child of his retirement, and he made her a child-sized backpack and spent as long as he could teaching her everything he knew about hiking and the woods. He always found a way to be outside and to go for long walks. Even past his mid-eighties, when he was frequently afflicted with gout (my love of good food is genetic), he was still active: he did the grocery shopping and would go for long walks from his apartment. He also filed down the ribbon eye on that silver beaver and gave it to me when I was young, since he didn't need the award and it had caught my eye. I still have it.

We were too far apart in age for John to take me out into the woods himself - by the time I was old enough to practice everything he knew, he wasn't mobile enough to get onto the trail and poke around. But he did instill in me an appreciation for silence, for sitting and waiting and letting the wildlife get comfortable, and an appreciation for all the little things you can learn if you just look.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the great outoors

While I was writing this post, I was wrestling with issues of privilege and class. I've always been wary of condescension when working around folks living in rural poverty, or folks who chose a lifestyle that mimics that rural poverty, such as survivalists. The original post that I had linked to had some of that condescension, and possibly one reason it prompted so much discussion.

I grew up in a suburban, relatively wealthy town. At the same time, most of my extended family lived in a rough part of the city. We don't like to talk about class in the US, but it exists. I lived in a world where you fought for the best education and had to get into a "good school" (not public) so you get an advanced degree, preferably to be a doctor or a lawyer. They lived in a world where protecting your own was more important, and education was ok if it got you something concrete, like a good local job. Growing up, my cousins considered me a strange creature with no discernible skills and too many big words, but I was family and I was theirs. That acceptance was a big warm blanket when I was floundering at connecting with my own peers.

I went to an expensive small liberal arts school (SLAC) that drew the bulk of its students from the big cities/suburbs of the northeastern US. Not everyone was wealthy or had family resources. I knew kids who worked in the potato fields at home when they were not at school. I also knew kids whose parents didn't believe in education or didn't care to fill out the financial aid forms, and those kids worked off what they could and borrowed what they couldn't. The local strip clubs had a talent bonanza because of this. But the culture of the school was one of privilege, and the poor kids either kept quiet or left.

So I got into geology in college, and academically, it was the perfect fit. I could go outside and poke around in the dirt, and I could answer all sorts of interesting questions. Socially/emotionally, it was a bust. I wonder if part of the reason was because all the "cool kids" were all about backpacking and spending summers hiking (e.g. not toiling away in retail or some other crappy job you kept from high school) and having your own gear (all of it) and eating all organic this and that from whole paycheck whole foods. I was aware about the costs of the blithe earthy crunchy lifestyle, and extremely aware that other students didn't have the means to participate. See also this post about field course costs. This discomfort probably manifested as not having sufficient "team spirit".

In general, geologists (and other scientists/engineers in the environmental field) love to be outside. We pick up our love for the great outdoors from all sorts of places - from our family, from poking around a local woody patch, from organized activity like the Scouts. But how many geologists actually grew up out there, not using nature as a personal playground, but as the way you got your food or the wood to supplement/keep the house warm? I have a feeling the percentage is relatively low. If so, is that a problem? Well, if young geologists have been living in a social bubble, it can cause some real issues with perceived safety, community/resident communication, and effectiveness once they're out in the field.