Monday, September 29, 2014

conference time-keeping

Athene Donald recently addressed a big pet peeve of mine: conference talks that run way past their allotted time, thus screwing up the schedule for everyone else who has the misfortune to be after them.

When I've presented at conferences, I've usually had dire warnings to keep to the time limit, or else. And I respect those limits. How do I do that?

I practice with the material until I have a good sense of the "beats" of the presentation and I'm reasonably sure that I can end within a few minutes of the target. I also have a couple of ideas about where to expand in case I race through/forget something (nerves on stage) and it looks like I'll have some extra time at the end.

I give the presentation to interested parties internally as a trial run. In grad school and at work, I could always find someone with a stopwatch and a willingness to rip into the slides, the format/order of what I'm saying, and any bad speaking/presenting habits (Have a death grip on the podium? Hem and haw? Accelerate madly as the talk goes on?). But the best way to simulate a conference talk is to collect a reasonably large group of marginally interested people (students/staff who are just there for the promise of food/extra credit/a break from working) and present to them.

When I'm actually up there, I don't rely on a room clock (although it's nice to have one). I have a watch that I can strategically stick somewhere on the podium. And I work out a warning schedule with the moderator, if they haven't already established one. By the time I'm actually ready to present, the watch/moderator are really there for peace of mind and to be able to add a little more info to fill in a minute or so as needed.

So after I've done all my prep work, I find it incredibly annoying to sit through someone else's presentation that has clearly never been practiced and/or could never fit into the allotted time. For example, they spool up a power point with 100 slides for a 20-minute presentation, and the first slide is a wall of text. That's just disrespectful to the audience.

At the same time, it's really hard to provide context and say something interesting in a very short timeframe. I think that conference organizers are shooting themselves in the foot if they have to enforce a time limit of 15 minutes or less per presentation, unless there's some mechanism for speakers or their supplementary material to be immediately available to discuss/expand on/clarify things.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

freezing samples

A comment on this post reminded me of an occasional problem with managing environmental samples: getting them too cold.

I have two "war stories" about freezing samples:

1. I was working on an island, and a blizzard blew in as we were wrapping up groundwater sampling for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - small vials, no headspace allowed. We ended up fleeing and leaving the coolers where they were. We came back two days later, fought our way through epic snow drifts, and found that all our VOC samples had frozen. We spent all day running around like crazy people to re-sample, and by the time we had schlepped our new batch of samples back to the dock (back through those piles of snow again!), we were so overheated that we rode in the front of the launch (about 15 degrees F on the water) the whole ride back to the mainland.

2. We had a huge batch of samples that were going to go out the next day. It was winter, but we were working out of a storage box/office combo, so we had some residual heat for the whole trailer. Our VOC samples were tucked in tight in the office, but in this case the giant 4-liter glass bottles that I so dislike broke because they were out in the storage part and too far from the heater. They were essentially ok, except for the necks. Luckily (since these samples represented probably a combined 100 hours of effort) the bottles were already wrapped in giant ziplock bags for shipping and we just pumped the water out of the broken bottles and into fresh ones.

The best weather for samples is early spring/late fall in my neck of the woods: 60 degrees F during the day for comfortable fieldwork, 35 degrees F at night to keep the samples cold, but not too cold.

Monday, September 22, 2014

volcanoes and space photos

The Big Picture has two recent sets of photos of geological interest: volcanic activity and images of the earth and space from NASA. You should check out both sets - the volcano pictures, especially, are terrific.

Here's a sampling:

A June 27 lava flow from Kilauea volcano in Pahoa, Hawaii (provided by USGS):


A September 10 solar flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:

Friday, September 19, 2014

hotel rewards

I do have a preferred hotel "brand" - it's the one that I have a credit card for, and it has a pretty good money spent: reward ratio. I think it's best to pick one brand and stick with it, to the extent possible - otherwise, you dilute out all your rewards and never build up enough to collect anything.

With that said, I still have a fistful of hotel rewards cards from other brands. Sometimes "my" hotel brand doesn't have a cheap enough option local to my fieldwork, or I've been outvoted by fellow travelers who are partisans of a different brand, or another hotel is clearly superior. I try not to collect random hotel rewards programs, but occasionally I'll sign up to get free internet/room snacks/other random goodies at check-in time. I'm pretty sure the only major hotel brand I don't have rewards with (to some degree) is Wyndham (Ramada, Days Inn, etc). I also have rewards with some smaller groups, like Kimpton, although I'll probably never use them enough to get anything out of them.

I've recently been spending a significant amount of time (69 nights this year, sez my most recent statement!) at a non-preferred brand hotel. When I got my last statement summary, I decided to see if I could use up those rewards for an upcoming holiday.

This particular hotel was not terribly cheap - north of $100 per night even with a negotiated discount for the crew practically living at the hotel. So far this year, I spent at least $7000. And how many hotel nights at that brand could I get for all that money spent? Half of one night.

Yeah, I'll stick with my usual hotel brand, thanks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

overtime vs. base pay

Ages ago, I discussed the (usually low-end/cheaper/commodity) environmental firms that keep their entry-level folks in the field non-stop and save money by not paying overtime. But what about organizations that prefer to retain employees and are willing to pay them to do so?

I've always worked for environmental firms that paid overtime for fieldwork/billable work, although policies varied regarding non-billable work. But I know of other firms that do not pay overtime. Instead, they have a much better base pay.

I like being paid overtime. It means that when I work an outrageously long day (or week), I have something tangible to show for it. It also means that I don't have as much pressure to work long hours if the firm isn't as busy. However, I do have enough of a financial cushion that I'm ok with somewhat erratic pay, and my overtime is a bonus and not a personal financial requirement.

If you could choose a higher salary to make up for a lack of overtime, how much higher would it need to be? Would it be equal to your base pay + overtime, averaged over an entire year? Or would you want to be paid a certain amount extra, to make up for the uncertainty in your schedule?

Friday, September 12, 2014

a culture of safety

Someone on ask a manager recently asked for advice on creating a "culture of safety" (sorry, can't find the link now).

In the environmental biz, safety is A Big Deal, not because we're all intrinsically concerned about it (I mean, of course we are!), but because of the nature of the work and the clients. Most major clients (government, heavy industry, large corporations) in the modern era have found that if they have a problem (property/environmental damage, injuries, deaths), they can't just handwave it away by putting the blame on contractors and subcontractors. One way to mitigate some of those political issues is to have tough rules for contractors, so that if there's a problem they can say "we did everything we could". That's where we come in. Also, as consultants, we're paid to be experts. If the fieldwork is a mess of health and safety issues, it looks terrible to clients and potential clients, and will impact the ability to get and retain work.

In environmental consulting, we have something new every day. We have different field sites with varied environmental issues, a slate of different contractors, changing weather, and other random stuff that pops up (new neighbor who thinks the field crew is trespassing, you get a big rainstorm and your  staging area becomes uninhabitable, your contractor develops union problems, etc). So we can't keep safe by just relying on a static checklist.

A few things that can help create a culture of proactive safety:

1. Have a safety guru (or group) outside the lines of project/program management authority. My earlier discussion of safety/management conflicts of interest applies. This person carries out the safety program and is the point person for clients, contractors, and employees if there's a safety issue. The safety person conducts audits, encourages/regularly reminds folks of safe practices, and does post-incident evaluations. The safety person also coordinates the various trainings and medical exams the field personnel need (40-hour HAZWOPER, 8-hour refresher courses, OSHA construction safety courses, first aid training, and others as needed).

2. Field audits, preferably ones focused on practical solutions and not paperwork checks. Is the working area reasonably clear of tripping hazards? Do the contractors have all the safety gear (personal protective equipment [PPE], recently-inspected fire extinguishers) they need? Is there a safer way to do the work?

3. Reporting: we all know that incidents are bad. OSHA-reportable incidents are worse. But the best way to minimize the big problems are to catch the small problems that can lead to them. So there should be a mechanism to report small incidents and near-misses so that they can be analyzed and better practices developed. This can be tricky, because nobody likes to admit that something bad may have happened but didn't.

4. Lessons learned: if there is a safety issue, let the field staff know. Drillers used a novel technique that didn't work so well? Discuss it and the reasons why it failed. Someone hit a utility line? Maybe it's time for a refresher on utility mark-outs and indications of potential utility corridors in the field. 

5. Carrots/sticks: it's easy for a safety program to slide into a series of punishments: you missed something you should have, and then equipment broke or someone got hurt. You should have seen that coming and addressed it proactively. However, if there's an incident, the organization (hopefully) had a bunch of people working at the same time who were just going about their business in a safe manner. It was quiet because the result was something that didn't happen. It's a good idea to seek out and reward those folks who did something extra-safe, whether it was fixing a potentially dangerous situation or keeping their head and applying first aid/following the emergency plan when something went haywire. I'm personally not a big fan of applying "xx hours with no incidents" to everything and making that a big deal, because that's how small stuff and near-misses can be encouraged to be buried.

6. How much logistical/financial/timeline stress do you put on the field staff? Is everything a crisis? Do projects need to be completed no matter what? It's easy to talk safety, but if the field staff is running around like crazy, trying to squeeze in a million different things, it's easy to be distracted and for safety to be relegated to a lower priority. And shortcuts start to look more appealing.

It's not necessarily easy to create a culture of safety, especially when it's much easier to just do whatever's fastest/easiest/cheapest. But it's critically important in the environmental biz, where we juggle so many different things and we have the potential for terrible things to happen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

drill rig breakdowns

If it's raining and the driller has to disappear into the drill rig's innards to chase an electrical gremlin, you know it's going to be a long day.