Friday, July 21, 2017

field selfie

I still do not have a good professional photograph of me looking like a Serious Geologist In the Field. But I had some downtime in a scenic area, waiting for yet another part to be delivered, I wasn't actively burnt and/or rashy from poison ivy, and I thought, "hell, I'm just sitting here. I'll take my own damn photograph!".

Man, hot day + sunscreen + logging soil samples and brushing at stray bugs means I am really not going to get a professional looking photograph in the field. Ladies in the movies can look dewy and/or artfully grease-stained. I just look gross.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

big picture writing issues

I have so many pet peeves when it comes to writing, often triggered by reviewing reports that annoy me in some way. That’s why I have a whole separate “writing" label.

I've recently been in multiple conversations where someone (not me!) turned the discussion to “training young professionals to write the reports we need”. Usually the complaints boil down to a few major issues.

Mechanics: the easiest to blog about, and the easiest to fix. I can note abbreviation issues, misused words like they’re/there/their, table and figures don’t match the text references, etc. and send the report back for revision. I can pull together checklists to handle the vast majority of these.

Writing style/voice: this one is relatively easy to explain to someone who’s already a good writer, whether they are familiar with the mechanics of environmental report writing or not. Minimize the passive voice and “there are” constructions. Mix up your sentence structure so that you don’t say the exact same thing six times in a row, just with different nouns. Break up 300-word sentences and two page paragraphs so that your reader is not faced with a wall of text. Don’t use a 10-dollar word if a 10-cent word fits just as well.

I’m not trying to force a “house style” on young professionals (although with other good technical writers, we definitely have differences of opinion and covertly/not covertly “fix” things our way), but am aiming for a basic level of writing that is not going to make the organization look bad. One problem I run into when trying to train someone on writing style is that they don’t hear/see the difference between brain-numbing text and ok text, and so they can’t replicate it on their own. They may be able to explain/say something but somehow what they say doesn’t actually make it to the page. Or they may read something and not actually hear how it sounds. Reading the text out loud can help with this.

I don’t know of any training that will help someone “get” how to write clearly, within a reasonable time frame, and without requiring massive revisions. Usually we limit the struggling writer to very simple reports that are essentially the same and can be copied/pasted almost entirely, in the hopes that they will gradually pick things up and be able to move to more complicated reports. I can suggest that the struggling writer read more to pick up an ear for language, but it’s really hard with someone who has already reached their early 20s (or later) and just doesn’t have an ear for these things. I have limited time to push/cajole/produce major revisions so that a document can go out the door, and honestly, it becomes career limiting to the writer because I’ll either give up and do it myself or find someone else who can pick up these things without so much handholding.

Big picture: what to include in the report? The easiest report to write is the one that requires only minor changes from a template, but even that requires some intellectual curiosity and an ability to spot potential issues. If we’ve been sampling the same set of wells for 10 years and there’s a persistent issue (high turbidity, anomalous chemistry, doesn’t recharge quickly), is there something we can do to redevelop the well? Does the existing monitoring well network actually capturing what’s happening? Are there “stray” detections that suggest that something is changing or getting worse? And if there are field observations/notes that there are access issues (such as a well at the edge of a parking lot continually getting buried with sand), are they getting into the report?

Small issues that can point to big-picture problems can be tough to evaluate for a reviewer because if the writer and/or the field crew (a whole other issue) don’t flag them, the reviewer may not know enough about the project to catch them and ask those questions.

Many writers want to slap together a report and move on with their day without worrying about quality or critical evaluation, which is ok for a while. But if the site ends up contested in some way, or a big client wants to rebid a bunch of work, those reports are sitting out there, just waiting to be critically evaluated. A poor body of work, in environmental consulting, is a time bomb. On the flip side, a critical mass of well-written, coherent, and scientifically reasonable work is a great foundation for future work.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

dear housekeeping

I seldom use room service when I travel. So when I actually put away the "do not disturb", it's because I actually need something. Either I've totally used up all of the little towels (it's amazing how filthy I get with a combination of dirt and sunscreen) in the shower, or I'm running out of something critical like toilet paper.

So after a long day in the field, I was somewhat irritated to find that housekeeping had indeed gone through as requested, but the only apparent impact to the room was that they had short-sheeted all the blankets. This was more annoying because of what happens when I come back from the field:

1. Close door behind me.
2. Draw deadbolt/latch.
3. Immediately strip off all clothing and drop it in the vicinity of a closet.
4. Jump in shower.

Checking whether or not I got the toilet paper I needed is way down on the priority list, and then it's a bit late to go running down to the lobby.

Friday, July 7, 2017

hatchback elegy

As I mentioned before, my hatchback was a great model for a field/life car – it was quick, relatively cheap, fit a bunch of stuff, could fit into most any parking space/make excellent u-turns, and had terrific mileage. But after close to 15 years and 200,000 miles of trouble-free use, it had started to become Unreliable. Various systems started to go, state inspections had started to become hairy, and the rust from years of fieldwork and driving around East Coast Big City had started to become unsightly and, um, structural.

When I had first started out in environmental consulting, I was a traditional young staff scientist. I spent all my time on the road, working 60-plus hours and coming home to do laundry and decompress. I had no food expenses during the week, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to go shopping when I got home. After a few years, my original car (a family legacy that I was told later wasn’t expected to last 6 months) died of rust everywhere/major system collapse and I was able to buy that hatchback: the first big “adult” purchase that was new and all mine. I named it immediately: Jane.*

Jane took me to field sites all over the region, made the long haul back and forth when my sweetie and I were separated during grad school, went off-roading to get to hiking trails and interesting vistas, and survived the daily commuting grind in two separate metropolitan areas not known for, um, easy going drivers. Thanks to my precision driving and a healthy dose of luck, Jane survived with no more damage than the occasional door ding and a mangled license plate from when someone rolled backward into me in traffic (it was that sort of commute).

So, it was a bittersweet moment when I turned Jane in. But then, I got the keys to a faster, more gas-efficient, and way more technologically advanced hatchback! Future adventures await with Jane II.**

*not the car’s real name, which was both distinctive and in the same language as the manufacturer.
**Also not the car's real name.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Small SUV, please

I occasionally go to remote sites that have bad access roads, and for those I need something with all-wheel drive and clearance to get all the way to where I need to go (otherwise, it's a loong hike). The rental company's default appears to be a giant-ass SUV and/or extended-cab pickup truck (and sometimes those inexplicably don't have the all-wheel drive that I specifically requested, but I digress).

Here's the problem: a huge SUV is not only heavy (as I complained about a long time ago), but it's decidedly less maneuverable than a smaller vehicle. If you have a bunch of remote locations to check, that's a huge number of 78-point turns as you attempt to turn around in tiny clearings and wide spots in logging roads.

The other thing about a huge SUV, often with out of state plates, is that it's a big old flashing light saying "I'm associated with big government/big business and I'm not from around here" and that can be downright dangerous in many areas. At the very least, it makes things awkward when you're residential sampling or trying to find something you need in the only store within 30 miles.

I once ended up with a Kia Sportage while I was on a drilling job in the mountains. The drillers thought it was the most ridiculous thing they'd ever seen, and then it turned out that they couldn't get their pickup truck up to the drilling site after a rainstorm and I became the primary crew transport because my silly little Korean box could.*

I have zero ego bound up with my choice of vehicles (unlike certain coworkers), so I'm always happy to take the runt of the lot.

*Point to the pickup truck, it was carrying a full water tank and had bald tires. Point to the Kia, I wasn't nearly as willing to hit the hill at maximum speed to try and get over a particular steep/slippery spot.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

computation allocation

I occasionally need to manipulate a bunch of data, either to input into another program or to pick out trends/issues, that are for whatever reason not easily reducible or have issues that are not immediately obvious. And sometimes this data manipulation takes the form of tedious and relatively simple excel crunching to simplify things.

I have a couple of options here:

1. I can offload the manipulation to an intern/low level scientist, give them extensive directions, set them loose with the first iteration, and then look at what they have and have them refocus/redo a bunch of stuff. They will spend an exceptionally long time doing this, but they have a very low billing rate.

2. I can give the data to my data manipulation colleague, who will do some sort of macro/program building magic. I will get the data back relatively quickly, but it's a bit of a black box and I will need to go through her results and figure out what might have been missed/what didn't sort correctly. My colleague has a very high billing rate, and depending on how much massaging is required, it may take a while to get set up.

3. I go ahead and do all the crunching myself, even though it's tedious and surely there must be a better way for me to get what I need, because I need the data evaluated now, not when the cheap staff member or the expensive specialist are available.

If I have a forgiving schedule and the data set isn't ridiculously large (can be conveyed in one spreadsheet file of less, than, say, 4 MB), I go with #1. If the data set starts to get out of control, I either go with #2 entirely (less often) or use #2 to cut out the data that I'm sure I don't need and focus on what I think I may need. But at crunch time, when it looks like it would just take me a day or so, it's all me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

seasonal blahs

This is the second year that I've fallen off the blogging wagon in starting mid-February to late March, and I think you can look back to previous years and see at least a fall-off at the same time. The problem has gotten more pronounced since I've moved to mostly office work.

Back when I was out in the field all the time, I had access to light in the winter. Sure, it was weak winter light, and there were short days, but I was absorbing something even if I wore a million layers and had no skin exposed. After all these years, it's clear I have a bit of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and everything sort of... grinds to a halt after a couple months of darkness. I keep writing for a couple months after November/December out of stubbornness, but then it's so hard to get motivated to keep up.

I don't have any real solutions, except to try and come back up for air sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, I'll keep plugging away.