Wednesday, December 25, 2013

hey southern (US) geologists

The state of Louisiana is starting the process of getting a professional geologist license program together. Go here for the full details. They are having a very short grandfathering period for applications before the official registration process. They're still working out the details of what that process would be, but they were looking at Texas as a model (5 years' experience, BA/BS, a test). They're also approaching other states (mainly Texas) for potential reciprocity.

The deadline is January 1 - a week from now.

And merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

year in review

This year, I'm just having one "year end" post - no more resolutions. This was my best year of blogging: I have a job that I love, doing interesting science, and unlike in grad school, my sweetie is with me. So on to the annual end-of-year meme!

Same rules as always: link to and list the first sentence of the first post of every month. If the first sentence is an apology or an aside (bad habit, I know), then I skip that sentence and go on to the next.

January

Since it's the start of the new year, I figured I'd do some cleaning up.

February

Anne Jefferson sent out a call for posts that explain something complex using only the 1000 most commonly-used words in the English language. 

March

I graduated from college and started looking for a job during a local ebb in the job market.

April

 Ask a manager has a recent post requesting tips for young professionals attending their first conferences, and the post has a long list of good suggestions.

May

Janet Stemwedel has a new post up regarding the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in (replacing) university classes. 

June

I had a lively (heated?) discussion with a bunch of other geologists a while back about getting what you need from a drilling program.

July

I've been holding onto a couple of blogs that appear to be defunct, or which have officially ended.

August

When I was writing my last post about my blogiversary, I had two ways I wanted to look at this blog.

September

It's been more than a decade since I graduated from college, and I was wondering what everybody ended up doing.

October

The US government shutdown has impacted the environmental biz in a bunch of ways, some obvious and some not.

November

I have a ring that doesn't come off.

December

Logging samples involves a whole series of field tests and observations.

In case you're curious, all of my previous year-end memes are linked to last year's post. I was out last week because of holiday obligations/shenanigans, but I plan on posting somewhat regularly from here on out. Happy holidays, and have a safe new year!

Friday, December 13, 2013

the blog persona

We are in an era where sometimes it seems like everyone and his brother has a blog.

I'm close to three people who independently have a passion for the same subject - one which I have no particular interest or expertise in. They each have a blog on that subject, but they approach it from completely different angles, with varied writing styles, website layouts, and experiences they draw from. I get a kick out of seeing how each person's personality gets channeled into their writing.

A regular reader will definitely discern something of my personality (and foibles!) from this blog. I think it's fairly obvious that I'm, well, me, not some borg-like collective of environmental folks. However. Short Geologist is only one facet of my personality. Hell, I started writing because I was trying to excise the stories that I was carrying around, so that I wouldn't become an inappropriate geology-spouting bore.

After more than 5 years, Short Geologist has sort of taken on a mind of her own - somewhat of a perfectionist, more than a little high-strung, and highly opinionated. But that's ok - getting that out of my system allows me to be fair-minded and to take the broader view in the office and in the field.

Monday, December 9, 2013

environmental interns

There was a kerfuffle in the commentariat on this Ask a Manager post regarding unpaid interns.

In environmental consulting (in my experience), interns do Real Work for Real Pay (i.e. not minimum wage). We can always use a hand for the big summer projects. When I was an intern, I never really had any downtime, and I've always managed to keep interns busy now that I'm occasionally in charge of them. A partial list of stuff that interns do in the environmental biz:

1. Transcribe logbooks so that I don't have to go hunting through 17 of the buggers to track down one observation.
2. Research everything there is to know about an oddball contaminant/particular manufacturing process/location. For the latter, you'll likely need a field trip to the local library or historical society. Write a memo summarizing the results. Include a reference section with notes on how, exactly you found the info.
3. Report quality control. Does this text refer to the correct table? If we cite specific numbers, are they consistent with the actual data? Is the first (and only the first) abbreviation spelled out? As much as I like to do this stuff, my time would be better spent on more advanced work.
4. Sample management assistant: label jars, help pack samples, schlep coolers.
5. Keep the equipment/supplies inventoried and in order so that the field crew can drop their stuff and move to the next thing and the storage area doesn't become a fire hazard.That way I don't order new sample jars when we've already got 37 boxes in the back. Similarly, try to make sense of all the paperwork for a particular project so it can be filed (electronically or otherwise) correctly.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned fieldwork. If you're at a contaminated site and may come in contact with nasty stuff (sampling or doing anything intrusive), you need HAZWOPER certification, which is a significant investment for a short-term job. If an intern gets the needed OSHA training, then the universe of stuff an intern would be expected to do increases significantly (and makes my life way easier):

1. Act as field buddy for remote jobs that technically only need one person to complete.
2. If a site is small or has lots of well clusters (so supervision is easy), collect groundwater samples.
3. Assist with "all hands on deck" situations, such as a water level round for a large site that has to be conducted in a couple of hours.
4. Hand augering for soil samples. The more muscle to crank that damn auger around roots and gravel, the better.
5. Anything else that involves carrying lots of stuff, getting dirty (sediment sampling!), or long treks, which doesn't involve major potential hazards and can be carried out under supervision.

An internship is a 2-way street. Sure, I get help with some of the thankless and tedious work I do, but the intern gets a good idea what it's really like to be in the environmental biz. I also find some time to show off/explain the more complicated stuff, like how a drill rig works and why we're collecting these samples in the first place. And hey, if the intern likes the work and we're impressed with what we see, there may be a job held for when the intern graduates.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

facility advice

I've worked in a number of large/secure facilities where I had some sort of daily procedure to get work done. This was generally either to reach something that was usually inaccessible, or to get a needed resource, like large quantities of water for drilling.

These places often have a protocol to get what you need that takes some finagling to set up. You have to go through various channels to convince the bureaucracy that you're an acceptable contractor and that you have the right to get whatever. Once you have your paperwork set up, then you have some sort of daily/as needed check-in procedure.

Here's the important thing: after a while, the guards or the maintenance staff will get comfortable/tired of you and will let the required check-ins slide, or suggest that you don't need to do that. Unless you are specifically told not to bother anymore by someone with authority, don't stop checking in/signing in/calling as you were told to do. Because if someone changes shifts or there's an internal audit or the general security level goes up, either you will be holding the bag or security/maintenance will. You can play "dumb contractor" and say that lower-level security/maintenance peon said it was ok, but if you throw those folks under the bus, you will find that your daily/as needed check-ins will become painfully thorough. Also, being a jerk has long-term consequences for you as well as the project.

It is far better to have security/maintenance roll their eyes at you for being a stickler than to breeze along in your interactions with the facility until someone in charge finds out and you come to a screeching halt.

Monday, December 2, 2013

field consistency

Logging samples involves a whole series of field tests and observations. Some of them are straightforward and reproducible as long as you use the correct procedure. Visual observations, however, tend to vary by the individual. Are you a "grouper" or a "splitter" when you see different layers? When was the last time you calibrated your internal sense of what a particular grain size looks like?

The environmental biz tends to have a revolving cast of characters, and often, the training to standardize field observations misses a significant portion of the group because they're out in the field on some sort of time-critical (and billable!) project. And although the soil texture and other geological observations are important when you're trying to figure out where contamination is going, they're generally not considered to be as critical as the chemical data. So unless a high-level geologist pushes for training and standardization across the organization on a regular basis, the field staff tend to develop their own methods of transcribing what they're seeing.

If I'm reviewing field soil logs, consistency is key. It's far easier to figure out what the stratigraphy is like if the project had a single geologist, or just a few. Or, if someone actually has a discussion about what they're seeing and the group agrees that they're going to call this greenish-gray color "olive" and that this friable, gray-white stuff is indeed fly ash.

What usually happens is that the site has a long history, with several different contractors poking holes in different areas depending on what was found in the last phase, the budget, and changes in regulations. So when I need to write a report and pull in all these different logs to develop a complete picture of a site, I have to decide if this "till" is the same material as this "sandy silt" and whether we have a rainbow of different units or someone was colorblind. Not everybody writes their observations, either.

All this matters because I'm trying to extrapolate between logs. Do we have continuous units that are consistent barriers to contamination migration? If a particular unit always has a certain chemical signature, can we find it again if we go back to the site without spending a fortune in analytical costs? Now, if I could only convince the rest of the field staff to think "big picture" when they're out there in adverse conditions...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

old maintenance guy

I was writing a post partially referring to the all-important maintenance person, and I went to link to an old post and found I had never written it. How could this be? So here's the post that was so critical, I was convinced I had written it before:

Environmental investigations rely heavily on the history of a site. What was produced here, and where might have the raw materials/off-spec product/finished stuff have gone? If the site is relatively young, you can look at past environmental filings with the local and state agencies, but your site's history (and contamination) may pre-date most environmental regulations. Another great resource is Sanborn fire insurance maps, which lay out all the processes and plant details and can go back to the early 1900s.

But if you really want to know the skinny on what happened at a now-defunct site, you need to track down someone who worked there, who knew what really went on there. Your most valuable resource is the old maintenance guy, who was there forever and is still alive to tell you about it. Old Maintenance Guy is usually happy to tell all sorts of war stories. Best case scenario, you can take Old Maintenance Guy for a walk around the ruins of the site, and seeing what's left will jog his memory, and he'll be able to provide all sorts of details that you perhaps hadn't considered before: When did this process begin? Was it messy? Did they dump chemicals down the drain, or give away off-spec solids as "clean fill"? When did the plant actually close down, and was it an orderly process, or did the owners shutter it and leave in the night? What were the neighboring plants like?

An active facility will often have an Old Maintenance Guy, and he can be a great resource for other reasons as well. In the planning stages of an investigation? Old Maintenance Guy may remember where the old oil tanks and other potential sources may have been. Need to know where the utilities are? Old Maintenance Guy remembers when they were put in, or knows who may have access to the as-built drawings.  Trying to get somewhere that's been locked for so long, nobody knows how to get in? Old Maintenance Guy has the key and knows how to convince the lock to open.

The best thing about an Old Maintenance Guy is that it warms his cockles to be an expert. He gets an audience of scientists and drillers who need his hidden knowledge, which likely nobody else has cared about for years. Often, the best thing we can do in return is for me to explain the one thing he doesn't know about the facility (the geology underneath it) and for the drillers to explain how their complicated, overly persnickety machine works. Win win.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

office spider

I haven't had a spider post for a long time...

I had spent the morning bushwhacking through thornbushes and other difficult shrubbery. I came back midday and started to work on some of the office stuff that had accumulated in my absence. Everyone else was busy writing reports, so it was unusually quiet.

I absently reached up to scratch an itch on my head, and a huge (ok, 1-inch) spider fell out of my hair and landed on my chest. I think you could hear my scream across the street. I quickly followed up with "spider!" and everyone snickered and went back to work. I hadn't been working there for very long, so I felt more than a little silly. But I think that I went on to prove that I wasn't afraid of much else, and the "office spider" incident faded after other, um, adventures.

Monday, November 18, 2013

presentation feedback

I'm a big fan of feedback - I have a thick skin regarding edits for readability or technical content, as discussed here.

But what about feedback on presentations? I recently had a presentation run-through with some folks who were particularly invested in the outcome of one of my talks, and the criticisms I received on my speaking skills/presentation felt more... personal, somehow.

How do you carry yourself? How do you project your voice? Can someone see your diagram labels from the back of the room? Can you get through a presentation with only a few phrases as cues, without reading from notes? Can you keep still?

I did feel a little overwhelmed with the rapid-fire commentary (fix this! try this other thing! too many words on this slide! don't fumble the laser pointer!), but I was glad to have the feedback. Besides, I knew that any questions or comments from the official audience would be a cinch after all that.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

number clarity

Some day, all of our field information will be entered on tablets and there will be no confusion about handwriting interpretation.

Some geologists have developed an all-caps sort of handwriting where everything is concise and exact. I was taught this in drafting in 7th grade. I couldn't really do it then, either.

But I'd like to think that my handwriting is generally legible and that when I write in all caps, it doesn't look like I'm in the third grade. I haven't had too many people chase me down after the fact to interpret my field notes. Of course, there are times when it's raining or cold and the succession of pens I keep as warm/dry backups in the depths of my clothing have all failed and I'm in a hurry. And then it takes a special frame of mind for me to recreate what the hell I was trying to say.

The real problem is numbers. Words you can often figure out from context, or failing that, figure that a particular phrase was not particularly earth-shattering. Numbers may have some context ("that pH couldn't possibly be 17!"), but often it's critical to get the correct number without guessing at a reasonable approximation.

I am very careful that my numbers are distinct so that I can never confuse them. For me, a 1 is a single line, a 2  has a little bubble in the lower left part, a 3 doesn't have any bubbles, a 4 always has hard edges, a 5 has a pronounced sharp top and curved bottom, a 6 always has a curve to it to distinguish it from a "b", a 7 has a little cross through the center, an 8 is... just an 8, a 9 has a closed and rounded top (to distinguish from a 4), and a 0 is just a 0.

Hmm. That may not make any sense to a reader. Here's what my numbers look like:
Of course, the problem is that I know what my numbers are supposed to look like. Then someone else comes along to interpret my handwriting while I'm out, and then they think my 7 is a 9, my 2 is a 3...

Monday, November 11, 2013

tablet time?

Avid readers will remember that I am not exactly an early adopter of technology. But I am willing to incorporate new tech into my work as long as it's (a) not prohibitively expensive, and (b) is better than the old tech. "Better" may mean fewer transcription errors, faster process, more accurate, or (very rarely), prettier output.

Right now, fieldwork still involves a pile of forms (papers) which are filled out, transcribed as needed, and archived in bankers' boxes.

A tablet is ideal for replacing field log sheets such as groundwater sample logs, where you need to input data on a regular interval. If I have a laptop, I usually use excel-base forms that I can print as a PDF. I haven't found a good app for creating, transferring, and exporting that sort of data yet. Other programs I use, such as those used to generate, export, and manipulate boring logs, don't really have good functionality for tablets yet - they're still essentially the same as for a computer, and they're incredibly awkward to use. Awkward to use is not great if you're trying to keep up with a fast-paced field program.

Has anyone started using a tablet to replace their field forms? If not, do you have a prediction for when this will happen? I know that they've been tried as experiments at various times in the last 3 years or so at the places I've worked, but at least for now, my paperwork is still primarily paper.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

to sell scientific stuff

I needed to know some basic technical information to plan for future fieldwork. So I looked up the vendors online. Every other page I looked at had little buttons so you could connect via social media. You could friend them, or find them on linkedin, or follow them on twitter! What I couldn't do was actually get the specifications, material safety data sheets (MSDSs), or other stuff I needed to actually make a decision. And pricing? You need to already have an account with them to even get an idea what something costs if it's anything resembling an investment.

Why would I friend a vendor for miscellaneous scientific or technical stuff? This isn't like a subcontractor who you may actually develop a relationship with - if anything, the only person the vendor cares about is their contact in the procurement department. I'm just trying to get the stuff I need to move on with my life.

Of course, I haven't "liked" or "friended" any commercial entities in my private life, either, so maybe I'm just an unsocial crank...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

field jewelery

I have a ring that doesn't come off. Not in the shower, not while I'm out collecting samples, and not even when I play in the ocean. I got the ring after I started working in the environmental biz, so I made a conscious decision that it was going to get banged and likely scratched up, and I was ok with that. I don't take any other jewelery when I travel, though - I've gone through too many cell phone chargers and laptop batteries to trust that I wouldn't lose something.

I know that there are horrible stories out there about injuries caused by rings getting caught. So I kept an eye on the drillers and other contractors I worked with. If they were married, did they wear their rings, and if so, did they pick or avoid any particular materials?

Most of the drillers I know have tended to avoid materials that are not easily cut, such as titanium, so they can get them snipped in an emergency. They've generally just had plain gold rings and not worried overmuch about hands getting caught. There are other options, of course - using truly soft material, such as wood; getting a tattoo in lieu of a physical ring, or just not wearing the ring at all in the field.

Likewise, I think that most of the female geologists and other scientists who do fieldwork tend to keep their rings on, or in a pinch, wear them on a chain if they have brackets that may break or make it difficult to wear gloves. Of course, wearing things that dangle on a chain around your neck can cause another kind of trouble...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

alone in the hotel

I have an overactive imagination and I can scare myself easily. So if I'm in the right mood, I can definitely freak myself out when I'm by myself late at night in a hotel room. I don't fret about actual potential intruders, perhaps because a stranger once barricaded himself in my hotel room (long story) and I know I can handle myself well in that sort of situation.

When I get into a certain mood in the hotel room, there are particular features I'm especially aware of. So for Halloween, I figured I'd list them, as well as the reasons I keep an eye on them:

1. Drains: It (I made the mistake of sort-of watching this because it was in the background at a Halloween party)
2. Mirrors: there's a million iterations of "freaky thing in the mirror", but I grew up with Bloody Mary - say her name in the dark in front of a mirror three times, and she's come out and... do something terrible. This completely freaked me out when I was a kid at sleepovers. I wouldn't participate, but I also figured if Bloody Mary was going to come out, she wasn't just going to stop at the bathroom door.
3. Closets: I heard a third- or fourth- hand account of a family that moved to a new house and the young daughter didn't like her bedroom because she didn't like "the lady who lived in the closet".
4. Under the bed: there could be anything under there. It's just dust bunnies and errant tissues, but you don't check under the bed when you first get into the room because who does that? And looking under the bed would be ridiculous... when it's not 2AM and you've just woken up from a nightmare.
5. Windows: again, a million iterations of "freaky thing looking in/coming through the window" but mine is Spring-Heeled Jack. Or Buffy (the movie) where vampires come and scratch at your third-story window.

So what this means is that when I wake up freaked out and need to pee (of course), after I do my business, I do a final check behind the shower curtain and wait for the last second to turn off the bathroom light. Then I race across the room, leap into the bed to avoid ankle-grabbers, lie on my back, and my eyes go window-closet-bathroom until I eventually fall asleep.

Monday, October 28, 2013

fun stuff to drill through (2)

Karst is my least-favorite material to drill through, because you never know what you may find. You can drill through hundreds of feet of essentially solid rock, then move over 20 feet and drill into a cavern. I was at one site where a drill rig set up about 100 feet from a major highway, began drilling, got down about 2 feet, and then the drill rods dropped the full length of the rods (20 feet). They scrambled off that location and ended up dumping a truck's worth of gravel in the hole to stabilize it and fill the boring.

Another problem is the necessity of drilling beyond a big void without letting that giant pool of (possibly) contaminated water flow downward to mess up (possibly) clean material below. In that scenario, we usually telescope casing. That is, start drilling with a larger diameter bit, say 10- or 12-inch. Drill down to the big void and set casing through it and seated into the rock below. Make sure you are well seated (at least a couple feet) so that you can pump cement down there. You'll likely need a special plug so that you can pump cement down the inside of the casing and force it out to the outside. Once everything is sealed, re-start drilling and repeat the process with the drill bit that's a size smaller. Repeat process for each big void and hope you don't need to telescope too often to get where you need to go. If you guess wrong and don't start with a large enough borehole in the first place, you'll need to drill another, wider hole and start the process all over again.

Water control is another big problem. The fastest and cheapest way to drill through relatively hard material like limestone is to use air-rotary drilling, where you blast compressed air down the borehole while a drill bit chews away at the rock. Air, rock chips, and water get sprayed back out the top of the borehole, where it is contained by a big contraption that allows everything to fall out and not cause a complete mess. The material collects in a mud tub, which is regularly shoveled (solids) and pumped (water) to drums or holding tanks. However, if you hit a big water-filled void of contaminated water, you can get 200 gpm or more that you need to be able to contain and pump, and somewhere to pump it to. So  air-rotary drilling may not be the best application. An alternative is cable-tool drilling, where a heavy bit free-falls and then the little broken-up rock pieces are bailed out of the borehole. Cable-tool drilling is painfully slow, and hardly anyone does it anymore in the areas I work in, so the pool of (antique) drill rigs available and drillers familiar with them is small.

I always err on the side of caution when I'm in an area known to have big voids. But if everything goes well and we don't hit much of anything, then I get an earful about why we spent so much time and money on giant boreholes or slow drilling methods. And why, exactly, we have a bunch of 20,000-gallon tanks for a couple of piddling boreholes. This is the part where having a manager or client with a basic understanding of geology really helps.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

fun stuff to drill through (1)

I got a comment on my last post about drilling in karst vs. in other places. Most of the environmental drilling done on the east coast is within the top 20 feet of the surface, because that's where the water is. And within that upper zone, you are more likely to encounter soil (overburden) than bedrock.

Bedrock adds all sorts of complications to drilling, but even staying above the bedrock can be troublesome. For example, the heaving sand I alluded to in my last post.

If you're drilling in a valley or another area with a significant thickness of overburden, it's not uncommon to drill through layers of saturated soil which may act as barriers to vertical flow. If you go through those layers, you may encounter material which is slightly pressurized (confined), and when you punch a hole through, you open a space that has significantly less pressure. That water (and the soil) wants to go up. That's fine if you're drilling through material that has a decent amount of silt or clay, or perhaps has lots of gravel. But if you're drilling through nice, relatively clean sand (of pretty much any size), that sand will flow with the water. Especially because the drill rods have been vibrating as they've been chewing their way down. And you end up with flowing/running/heaving sand. That is, when you pause to take a sample or to add another rod, sand flows/runs/heaves upward into the drill stem and binds everything up. Or, you stop for the day and come back the next morning to find that your drill rods been pushed way up out of the hole and you've got 80 feet of steel waving around in the breeze.

There are ways to minimize this. One way is to make sure you always keep the inside of the drill stem full of water, so there's some pressure acting to keep that sand back. You can also add "drilling mud" - a clay or polymer - to your drilling water to hold things back, although often in environmental applications you're not allowed to add anything fancy that may interfere with later samples or well installation. Or you can close your eyes and try and get through those layers as fast as possible, and then seal your casing/drill stem into something that won't flow, like a clay bed or bedrock.

In certain environments, such as coastal areas, heaving sand just comes with the territory. I've had big sites with scores of boreholes drilled, and one particular 15-20 foot zone is just blank with "heaving sand" for every single boring log because every time you stop to get a sample, you just get loose, undifferentiated slop from who-knows-where. Nothing's wrong with the driller or the rig geologist - it's just the way the stratigraphy is.

Monday, October 14, 2013

dry wells

I've made quite a few dumb mistakes over the years, but one type of mistake is particularly hard to minimize/live down: installing a dry monitoring well.

When you start an environmental investigation, you don't have all the information you need to site a monitoring well. That's why you're installing it in the first place. So the initial approach is to find the regional water levels (USGS, currently offline, is a good resource for this) and guesstimate the target zone. If you're in a relatively wet climate, which I usually am, the water level in nearby ponds and streams can give a good approximation of the minimum depth you need to get to.

Most of the time, we want to install wells that intercept the water table (for contaminants that may be lighter than water) or that sit on top of a confining unit (for contaminants that may be denser than water). The standard length for monitoring well screens is 10 feet. You need to get enough water in the well to sample, so ideally, our shallow well(s) would cross the water table 7-8 feet in, so you'd have 2 feet of play in case the water level rises.

Determining the exact depth of the water table while drilling isn't easy. The capillary zone above the water table is saturated, so you need to ensure that you've drilled deep enough that a well installed will actually yield water. The safest thing to do would be to keep drilling until you have free water in the borehole, and send the drillers out on a coffee break and wait until the water level stabilizes and then install the well accordingly. But in slow-producing formations, you run the risk of installing the well too deep. You usually don't have the luxury of waiting for hours or overnight to confirm the depth in a boring, so you guess and move on.

A decent shortcut is to check water levels in nearby wells (if you have them) and plan accordingly. The two wells that I installed that were utterly useless (entirely above the water table) used that reasoning. In one case, I was sighting off a well that was a couple hundred feet away, and although the water table was essentially flat in the area, I didn't realize that I was on a very gentle incline. In another case, I had another monitoring well about 30 feet away, but didn't appreciate that the water table had taken a nosedive because of wonky hydraulics around a nearby dam.

Of course, all this assumes that the well didn't get accidentally pulled up as you were removing the tooling or that you didn't run into heaving sand and have the borehole fill in 10 feet as the driller added the well material...

ETA: this is about overburden drilling, obviously. Bedrock is a whole 'nother ballgame...

Friday, October 11, 2013

pre-bid meetings

If I've got a site that has some funky access issues, or some complicated logistics (need to get a bunch of contractors to work together on a tight schedule?), I always call for a pre-bid site meeting for the major contractors, and then require a detailed explanation of how, exactly, they plan on doing the work as part of the bid response. That way, there are no surprises on either end. And no surprises = no additional costs/contract wiggle room.

I occasionally got some push-back from other managers who didn't appreciate all this time spent on the front end. That's pretty easy to combat - one site visit can eliminate a huge waste of time and effort if you find out that the original plan is untenable. Better to find that out before you have a drill rig and a big crew idling in a vacant lot.

However, I also ran into some issues with managers who didn't believe in pre-bid meetings on principle. They were convinced that all the subcontractors would exchange cards after leaving the meeting and conspire to submit uniformly high bids. Here's the problem with that: in my area, the identity of the other contractors expecting to bid on a particular project isn't much of a surprise. It's a small industry. When I try to get work, I have a pretty good sense of who my competitors are and our relative strengths and weaknesses. Same thing with contractors. Maybe someone's a little thin on work one month, and so they'll have an unexpectedly low bid to keep the equipment running. Maybe another contractor thinks that he's got an in because I've sent a bunch of work his way, and he jacks up the prices. So having everyone meet at the site doesn't change any of the underlying dynamics between contractors.

I probably only decide that I need a pre-bid meeting for 10% of the projects I start up. But I'll fight to keep the meeting for that 10%.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

shutdown blues

The US government shutdown has impacted the environmental biz in a bunch of ways, some obvious and some not. Those of us who work closely with the EPA may have been issued a stop work order directly. But other federal agencies and facilities, such as the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DOE), have major environmental obligations that may be put on hold.

In the last few days, I've run into a few more snags during the course of my work. Want to download GIS layers or other basic hydrogeological info from USGS? Sorry, can't do. Looking for some details on environmental technologies or trying to find some training now that your schedule has opened up? Clu-in.org is closed.

We have a "start-up" pool in my office. I have a mid-October date. But I'd much rather be wrong and be back to full capacity.

Monday, September 30, 2013

on pricing

Ages ago, I complained about trying to get pricing for work that didn't exist yet. As I've gained experience and worked on more complicated/technically demanding projects, I've needed more pricing/technical support up front. Keeping identifying details secret has become a non-issue for me ("undisclosed location. Sensitive client. Somewhere in X state. Next!"), but parts of the process are still awkward.

When I really need to get in the weeds with a proposal for a technically demanding (potentially very expensive) process, I end up leaning pretty hard on vendors. Nothing is off the shelf. If we have this concentration in this geologic setting, and we have this list of logistical constraints, what little parts and pieces are needed to deal with these problems? So I draft something for the vendor(s) and they go off and spend some time building a proposal, and I question some things and clarify other things.

So then we've spent a lot of time pulling together a robust option that I can put in my cost/technical proposal. I get some number of these, and then they go to the client, who may decide on one item, some combination, or throw their hands up at the cost and wait for the ever-elusive funding.

Meanwhile, the vendor has spent all this time and effort on a proposal that has disappeared into the ether. That's the way the business goes. Calling me and sending plaintive e-mails monthly does nothing to change this process one way or the other. Yes, I was serious when I said I needed costs to evaluate potential options that may not ever happen. No, the client hasn't selected an option, because what needs to be done is several times the client's annual budget and the client is trying to scrounge up funding from long-term budget tweaks and competitive grants.

Rest assured, I appreciate the effort and if I ever do get the go ahead to spend money on a particular option, I will call up that helpful vendor and we will make it happen. Until then, we all need to sit tight.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

not a crusader

I recently had an opportunity to critically evaluate another contractor's document. This contractor happened to be working for the entity legally responsible for a big mess. Critical evaluation is one of my favorite things, so I really dug into the document, catching everything from typos to major omissions and unsupported conclusions.

The site in question has a... boisterous group of environmental activists. When they got a look at our evaluation, they were ecstatic that they had someone "fighting the good fight" on the behalf of the environment.

Well, not really. I've worked on contracts for the "good guys" (regulators) and "the bad guys" (industry), in both cases working to figure out what's going on in the environment. I have a moral and legal (I could lose my license!) obligation to be thorough in my investigations, and to not misrepresent what I discover. But my reputation depends on my skills as a scientist, and not in twisting the facts to represent one agenda or another. I've never felt pressure to misrepresent the facts as I saw them, although maybe I've just been lucky so far.

As I explained a long time ago, I don't consider myself to be an environmental activist.  I will admit it is still fun to poke righteous holes in other consultants' reports, though.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ig Nobels

I'm coming off a tough couple of weeks, so I'm just going to point you to something scientific - the recent Ig Nobel awards. My favorite this year is archaeology - you have to be pretty heroic to swallow a small critter whole, and then go rooting through the results to see what bones are left.

I'll have energy for more usual programming later, I promise!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

where are they now?

It's been more than a decade since I graduated from college, and I was wondering what everybody ended up doing. I didn't exactly keep in touch with other geology alumni, since I had a sort of difficult relationship with the department by the time I graduated.

Because I went to a small liberal arts college (SLAC) and my geology department made it something of a crusade to recruit students who didn't intitially consider geology (or any science) as a major, not everyone became A Geologist when they left. When I graduated, I knew that other students were considering going directly to grad school, into the environmental biz, to teaching, or other careers.

So I decided to do some facebook/linkedin stalking. Even if I wasn't best buddies with everyone, if I could remember a few names, maybe I could connect to other former students and figure out how they ended up.

It wasn't terribly successful. I only found one other person on facebook, and by doing an alumni search, I found an extremely small number of people on linkedin - less than 10 from my own class, and just a few other folks in the classes immediately before and after mine. I was surprised at the relatively low number of people on linkedin. Does everyone in my class have their searching/privacy settings cranked up, or are there just fewer people using the website than I expected?

Going by numbers alone, it looks like most people are in the resource side - primarily oil/gas. But perhaps these numbers are skewed because resource work is more contract-based, and therefore a higher percentage of resource-extraction geologists are on networking sites because they need to hustle more for work. Maybe the environmental geologists are less likely to use networking sites.

I first signed into Linkedin when I finished grad school and started job-hunting, but I haven't used it solely for that purpose. It turned out to be ideal to keep track of folks through layoffs and other job changes, and to keep in touch with the other people in my department in grad school. Although I'm not planning on going anywhere for a good long time, I think that having my name out there can only be positive as I work to become more visible in the local geological community.

Are there other, geology-specific networking sites I should check out? Maybe my fellow alumni are hanging out somewhere else in cyberspace...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

geoscience career stats

This is old news, but I only saw it recently...

The American Geosciences Institute has a series of newsletters regarding the state of the industry here. I was particularly interested in number 068, which compares the 2011-2012 geoscience student cohort to previous years. The number of bachelors degrees awarded (a little more than 3,000) seems awfully low nation-wide - I guess we are a small industry.

Number 063 and 064 from last year compares median and starting salaries for a number of different geoscience-related occupations. I wasn't surprised to see relatively low starting wages for environmentally-based occupations (oh, how I know about those), but the overall median range for non-technicians is pretty similar.

Anything in these newsletters strike you as surprising?

Monday, August 19, 2013

another book meme

I'm a sucker for a book meme, and even though I did one almost identical a while back, I'm following Lockwood's lead.

So this is flavorwire's list of 50 science fiction/fantasy books that everyone should read. Lockwood's rules: bold the ones you've read, * the ones you found particularly outstanding, / the novels or series you've only read a fraction of, that is, not finished. ? if you're not sure. Add notes as desired. Make a suggestion or two for ones they missed.
  1. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
  2. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (this is a classic that I just never got around to)
  3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien (can I admit that I was sort of bored by all the songs and traipsing around?)
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  5. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  6. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin/ (I read up to book 5 and then got irritated that at the ever-increasing universe of characters to the detriment of who I really cared about. In this case, I think the TV series is better)
  7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  8. The Gormenghast series, Mervyn Peake
  9. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein
  10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
  11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  12. Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny (I just read this a couple months ago and found it super annoying - he basically picks up the characters and moves them randomly for nine books)
  13. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  14. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut* (this book blew my mind in high school. An all-time favorite)
  15. The City & The City, China MiƩville (I like everything by Mieville, but I think Perdito Street Station is much, much better)
  16. The Once and Future King, T.H. White (this is a classic, but I first read it when I was quite young and the animal deaths were traumatic)
  17. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley (eh, I read them but never got why everybody liked them so much)
  18. Zone One, Colson Whitehead
  19. The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
  20. The Time Quartet, Madeleine L’Engle (I must have been in the single digits when I read A Wrinkle in Time. I don't think it's aged terribly well, but I do still like the later ones)
  21. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis/ (tried to get into these, probably read about 4 of them before giving up)
  22. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  23. The Female Man, Joanna Russ
  24. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
  25. Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson
  26. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
  27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams/ (tried reading this multiple times, but it's just not my bag)
  28. The Dune Chronicles, Frank Herbert (this was a groundbreaking series. Unfortunately, I read it decades after the world of SF/fantasy had moved on, and it just seemed dated and silly)
  29. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  30. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  31. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  32. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  33. American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  34. The Foundation series, Isaac Asimov
  35. Discworld, Terry Pratchett (I've read all five million books. They hit their stride after the first couple)
  36. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  37. Among Others, Jo Walton
  38. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  39. The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
  40. The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard
  41. Witch World, Andre Norton
  42. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
  43. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
  44. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  45. Little, Big, John Crowley
  46. The Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey (I read up to the point where the spaceship appeared and the books ran off the rails, so somewhere in the late nineties. I read all her older stuff, including a ridiculous [but entertaining] softcore porn story)
  47. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu
  48. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
  49. The Castle trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones
  50. The Giver, Lois Lowry (this came out after I was past the target age - I always meant to pick it up, but never did)      
So I got about half - not too bad. I do think a few fantasy classics are missing. I'd replace 47 through 49 with either The Stand or the dark tower series by Stephen King, something from Lovecraft, and (for a newer author), something from Brent Weeks.

So consider yourself tagged...

Monday, August 12, 2013

boxes and circles

I wonder if this happens to other people...

So, we're discussing something complicated, or I'm trying to provide a semi-to-scale diagram. I start blocking it out on a pad of calculation/graph paper, but then I run out of room. Or I decide it needs to be a little neater than the last version.

No problem, I can just make a bunch of boxes and lines in powerpoint or excel. That's a cinch to manipulate, right? Then I end up making refinements, and someone suggests a few more details, and suddenly I've spent 3 hours essentially drawing a picture with boxes, lines, and other fragments. Like this:

(for non environmental geologists, the above picture is two monitoring wells screened in different aquifers)

... Or perhaps I'm trying to show information on a map for a casual discussion. So I print out a copy, start circling features of interest, and decide that the resulting mess would be impossible to scan and send out of the office.

That's ok, I have Adobe Acrobat. I'll just add little circles to my PDF, and add little labels, and then I'll need some sort of legend... before I know it, I've spent another 3 hours making circles when I should have just gotten my friendly CADD or GIS expert to put the locations on the map accurately in the first place.

Yes, I did build a very complicated series of figures out of itty-bitty excel rows and columns for my thesis. Perhaps I should get some actual graphical software...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

500 posts!

This has been quite the week for blog milestones!

So this word cloud represents the last 100 posts. I was debating switching to a longer interval, but that would mean that each word file used to create posts would be even longer than the 53 pages it took for this one. I think eventually wordle.net would start to have problems with its word-frequency magic... and it would be even more painful for me to compile all of the posts.


So "field" is a lot more prominent this time. I still have a lot of casual language and "fluff" (just, stuff, really, much), but we do see a trend of discussion topics: environmental, geology, site, consulting, manager, coworkers, technical, office, samples, water, experience, drill...

Edited to add the previous posts - 400, 300, 200, and 100.

Monday, August 5, 2013

finding field staff

Just like sales and other businesses which involve travel, environmental consulting firms will have a good chunk of their staff out on fieldwork. And that fieldwork is generally erratic. At most of the places I've worked, there were a few really big projects, but most of the time, the field staff had 1- to 6-week stints all over the place.

At each place I've worked, the scheduling and sign-out procedures were two separate items - one involved the planning, and the other involved, well, if you were in or out.

One time, I got in a wee spot of trouble because I left to do some minor, verbally agreed-upon fieldwork for a manager who was out on vacation. I didn't have management access to adjust the master planning schedule, but I did sign out. Some upper-level management folks went looking for me, and they checked the planning schedule and asked around to all the other managers they could find, and I was AWOL. After about an hour, they found my personal cell phone number by asking around (this was when I was still keeping my cell phone a semi-secret) and asked where I was. My answer? "Why didn't you check the sign-out book?"

Ok, well, that was a long time ago. Now, we have a fairly common scheduling software that you can use to see everyone's schedule. And we have smartphones and e-mail auto responses in case we are somehow out of range.

However, all that technology doesn't help if you don't update the schedule...or check someone else's. Just ask the guy who was trying to find me by calling my office phone repeatedly while I was out of cell phone range on a multi-week field project.

Friday, August 2, 2013

growth and progress

When I was writing my last post about my blogiversary, I had two ways I wanted to look at this blog. So last time, I wrote about how my situation has changed over 5 years, and how that affected how much I wrote. But I also thought about how the content has shifted over the years.

When I first started, I thought the blog was going to be sort of a "geology confidential" where I would complain about the parts of the industry that bugged me, tell stories about the people I worked with, and admit to all the mistakes I've made. But that didn't really happen. At first I was paranoid about my pseudonymity. Then I had enough to say that I didn't really depend on stories about crazy coworkers. And finally, I found the reasons for the bad behavior or annoying management a lot more interesting than just venting.

I also started to develop more of a long view - my posts became less about whatever had bothered me that particular day (like this or this post) and tended to have a little more thought behind them. I've also dropped the obsession with saying something even if it's just complaining that I'm too hot/tired/whatever. So any individual blog post may not be directly relevant to whatever was bothering me as I got home from work and sat at the computer, but perhaps over time, they've become a little more...thoughtful.

As I've developed as a geologist and a professional, not everything I posted in the past is relevant to where I am today. In no particular order, I've finished grad school, had stuff published, got professional certifications, taught classes, moved to totally different areas of the country, managed projects, and have worked on projects that have gone spectacularly to hell. All these things have given me new perspectives that I perhaps didn't have when I started.

Who knows what will happen in the years to come...all I know for now is that I'm certainly not out of topics to write about!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Happy Blogiversary!

Five years and one day ago, I published my first post here. So it's worth looking back at the last five years. How has this blog changed?

In the beginning, I had a ton of long posts. For the previous couple months, I'd been in the field, working on my thesis research. I was composing long posts in my head, often in response to other blogs I'd been reading or to issues I was having. So I had a huge backlog, and since I was separated from my sweetie, I had all sorts of time to compose.

After the first year, I had worked through my pent-up demand and was back to working overtime in the field. I gave up on the whole "one post each weekday" thing.

After the second year, I was discouraged about where I was and what I was doing, and my posting frequency went from every couple days to a few times a month, if I was lucky. I resolved to continue blogging here, but I didn't really get out of my doldrums for a while longer.

In the last year or so, I've been able to post more regularly. And I'm happy to report that I'm back to doing the more scientific stuff I love. So even though I had a tough time for a while, I'm optimistic for the next five years.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

travel serendipity

I was on my own for dinner in the middle of nowhere. The only option that wasn't fast food (or one fine-dining restaurant that was a little too fancy for the post fieldwork clothing I brought) was a dive - a basement tavern.

I was clearly the only person who didn't know everyone else in the room, and I felt like I'd need more tattoos (preferably on my neck) to really fit in. But, the food was good, and I had managed to get there during "$1 pint nite" and they had 2 local beers on tap that I had not tried before. And then a local blues band showed up and proved to have a surprisingly good slide guitar player.

I never write off the places where I do my fieldwork. Even if the primary landscape feature is a junkyard, there's often a hidden gem nearby...even if it's just dinner.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

the signs say...

This month's accretionary wedge is on geological/geographical signs.

I don't have any geological signs at hand, but one thing that we often encounter in the field are interesting "hazard" signs, such as this one:

Seriously, don't go for a swim. And, um, tsunami.

I don't usually end up going swimming (intentionally) during the course of fieldwork, but falling rocks and/or geologists are always a possibility. So here's an example from the Grand Canyon, complete with "ass over teakettle" graphic.

Friday, July 19, 2013

writing samples

I was catching up my bloglist reading this week, and I came across a discussion of writing samples in the comments for this post. In the environmental consulting biz, professional writing samples can be difficult to provide for a few reasons:

1. Your work (reports, analyses, etc) is owned/controlled by your client and may be confidential. Working drafts are especially sensitive because they are subject to being tweaked for all sorts of reasons and should never go out to third parties unless they've been fully vetted.

2. Reports aren't produced in a vacuum, and completed reports will have been reviewed and edited by others.

So what did I do when asked to provide writing samples? In my case, the requests were non-specific. I was intensely aware of the issues above, so I actually provided a couple of different things.

1. I had worked on several reports that became public documents. So I provided links to those documents (when I could find them online) and described what I had done, exactly. Maybe I provided all the analyses, or written the technical sections based on what others had done, or perhaps I had actually written the whole thing. The appearance (or lack thereof) of my name on the document had little to do with how much I'd done.

2. I'd written a peer-reviewed journal article. It had been passed back and forth between the authors, as we argued over text and massaged it into the strict page length/formatting requirements, in addition to addressing review comments. But in this case, I was first author and could be assumed to have done at least the bulk of the work.

3. My thesis was pretty much all mine, although it was reviewed by both my advisors. In my case, it was also easy to find online in all its glory.

I probably sent way too much stuff for writing samples. But I figured that more was better than less, and I was generally applying for positions that specified writing and analytical skills. If someone really wanted to ferret out how my writing actually was, they could compare the different reports or have me come in for an in-person writing test.

Now I'm curious to find out if they actually looked at any of those samples, or if they just matched the documents to what I put in my resume (yep, she did write her thesis on that topic) and called it a day...

Friday, July 12, 2013

field course requirements

My previous posts (here and here) discussed geology field studies course costs and alternatives, respectively. But all this discussion of field courses started me thinking: are field study courses still required, and should they be?

When I was poking around the internet, I looked at my undergrad and graduate field study requirements. My old undergraduate program doesn't appear to have a field study course requirement (which was definitely in place when I was there), although the website is not totally clear. The undergrad program at my grad school has multiple geology tracks, each of which requires at least one field method course.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I'm a strong believer in having students move beyond the textbooks and developing their own interpretations, whether it's by examining rock samples in a laboratory or trying to determine why the local landscape looks the way it does. Most geology courses have this to some degree. So is a specific field method course still needed?

I think it is. A good geology field study course will not only involve using standard equipment to do basic geologic fieldwork, but will also show how to present the data in a standard format. How do you fill out a logbook? What information do you need to show, and how much detail do you need to go into for each entry? How do you collect, import, and use coordinates from your GPS, and what are some of the common pitfalls in using and evaluating spatial data?

There are very few branches of geology which are not based on field data. And if you're going to evaluate that data, you need to understand some of the circumstances under which it was collected or at least be able to critically evaluate how reliable it actually is.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

geo field course options

In my previous post, I mentioned that I couldn't afford the fancier field study course offered by my college.

I did take care of my field study course requirement with a traditional course that involved a lot of primitive camping and bouncing across the landscape in woefully not-offroad-ready 15-passenger vans. In our case, we were using reserved college vans we'd driven out west. We spent most of the trip in arid, remote areas (likely because it's much easier for students to map geology where the land isn't buried under vegetation and "no trespassing" signs).

I did some poking around the internet, and there are a bunch of geology field study courses available for students who aren't able to attend their school's own courses. For example, course listings are available here, here, and here. The 4 to 6 week summer course appears to be standard, and although courses are available in more exotic areas (islands of Greece! Antarctica! New Zealand!), the cheaper ones will be the ones you can at least road-trip to.

Prerequisites and course rigor (both physical and intellectual) will vary widely. For my field course, the students were pretty much universally out of shape compared to the professors, who appeared to spend their free time running up and down mountains. So we did a lot of huffing and puffing after them. The expected timeframe for doing the courses will also vary by school. I did my field study course the summer after my freshman year - it had no hard prerequisites other than an intro geology course. Other field courses may have a long list of prerequisites or a focus on a particular area, such as geophysical or environmental sampling techniques.

So the final question is, do you need a field study course at all? That's for the next installment...

Monday, July 8, 2013

field course costs

One of my undergraduate course requirements was a field study course. The department had a traditional 6-week course in the summer every other year, but it also had a 3-week course in Europe that was quite a bit more expensive.

I did the 6-week course, which had a reasonable "course fee" (I recall it being around $300) and allowed us to stay (camp) in our dorm rooms for the first week. After that, the lodging ranged from dirt-cheap hotels to campgrounds with some degree of amenities to camping in the middle of nowhere. My school didn't charge tuition by the credit, so it didn't cost me anything more than that (plus food/laundry costs, which I'd need to pay for anyway).

I was initially curious about the European short course, which was paired with a normal-term half-credit course to make up a full credit. But the course was offered by the time I'd gotten cynical about the department, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go. The kicker, though, was that there was no way for me to afford it. There was some vague hand-waving about "additional financial aid", which I didn't think I would qualify for, and which sounded it was only for dire financial necessity. They also wanted commitments early in the process (like, a week after the initial informational meeting).

I was not an unusually (or even usually) disadvantaged student. I graduated with minimal debt that I paid off almost immediately. I hadn't really had my educational plans stymied by money before. But it made me think - if I skipped a field study course because of not just financial constraints, but because the people in charge blithely assumed that cost wasn't a factor, how many other people self-selected out of other field courses because of cost?

As I was writing this post, I got all fired up about field study course issues. So this week will be The Week of Field Studies. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 5, 2013

formatting tweaks

When I was going through my bloglist revisions in my previous post, I also fiddled with the layout.

I didn't want to have any significant changes, but after seeing a bunch of other blogs with my same basic blue/green layout, I tried to adjust the colors - only to find that it was nigh-impossible to adjust the background without completely changing everything else. Also, when I had finished, I realized that somehow the default font had changed to something...wider. And of all the options available, changing the default font didn't appear to be an option.

As I've mentioned last year, my goal has been to use a color scheme that's reasonably legible and not too high-contrast to minimize migraines. If some of my color changes (primarily font, since I couldn't find a way to adjust the background) result in something being hard to read, let me know and I'll adjust.

I like blogger for the most part - it's free and I do appreciate some of the google-based analytics. I still use statcounter occasionally (very occasionally), but that doesn't keep track of everything from when I first started posting. But I'm open to other hosting options that may have more flexibility but are still free to extremely cheap.

Monday, July 1, 2013

bloglist revisions

I've been holding onto a couple of blogs that appear to be defunct, or which have officially ended. So I'm taking the following off my bloglist:

A Gentleman's C - the first blog I followed regularly.

Isis the Scientist - this one is officially done, not "sorta done but I'll still keep posting".

And then I went poking through the geoblogosphere for more blogs:

It's good to appreciate the other parts of the natural world while I'm otherwise engaged - Diamictite has lots of lovely photos of flora and fauna.

Sciency Thoughts keeps track of all sorts of random science news ranging from landslides to meteor showers to new species discoveries.

JFleck at inkstain keeps track of water issues in the southwest. I've always wanted to work on water supply problems, but never lived in a place where I could get paid for studying them.

Finally, I'm adding Athene Donald's blog to replace the academic blogs I'm taking off.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

travel payment

Ask a manager has a recent post here about travel reimbursements. There's a lot of discussion in the comments about how the policies really differ significantly.

When I first started out and had zero money, my fieldwork happened to be local. So I wasn't really on the hook for travel expenses. By the time I started a lot of non-local travel, I had enough cash available to float the expense until the reimbursement check came in, so the issue of how to pay for my expenses was more about convenience.

 I've had access to several different travel-payment arrangements:

1. Arrange for a travel advance. This was offered as a first option for folks who were entry-level or had just started the job. It was also the standard arrangement for reimbursement at my grad school, but I found it easier to pay whatever and get reimbursed later when I had the bill in hand. If someone is super new, the travel advance may go to the person in charge of the fieldwork to take care of the arrangements so that the company is reasonably sure the newbie isn't going to abscond with a big check.

2. Have admin/travel book everything. The charges go on some admin credit card or PO, it's one of the admin's primary tasks (so it's routine for them and there aren't any surprises) and all the of paperwork/approvals are taken care of by the financing folks.

3. Use your own credit card, which you've selected because of its favorable travel points (hotel or airline, usually - most folks I know stick with 1 main card to maximize status with one program). Get reimbursed when you submit your charges. As long as you're finding flights/hotels that are within the limits set out, nobody cares where you stay, so you pick the option that you get points on. Never pay for your own flights/hotels on your vacations again, but you are essentially giving your firm a series of advantageous short-term loans. You may have wild fluctuations in cash flow as reimbursements are paid, so this option requires enough credit/extra money to account for this.

4. Get a corporate card. Variations include:
    a. All charges go to the company, don't worry about them. Expect a nastygram from A/P if you charge something unreasonably personal to it.
    b. The company pays the credit card directly, but it's up to you to submit your bills/invoices/charge slips, and if you take too long, expect a nastygram from A/P.
    c. The company pays the credit card directly, but only after you submit for reimbursement, and if you don't, your own credit gets dinged if the charge is late. How timely is your company's payment, anyway?
    d. Here's a credit card. It has the corporate name on it, but otherwise, it's all yours. See 3 above, but with no travel point perks.

Right now, I have an ideal situation, which is that I have my choice of 2 or 3. If I did mostly fieldwork (not the case right now) and made a big stink, I probably could get 4a. If booking may be a pain or I may rack up a truly spectacular set of charges (back-to-back flights across the country with no notice, for instance), I'll go with 2. Otherwise, I'll keep up my super duper elite status on my travel-related credit card with 3.

I've submitted travel expenses for several different organizations, including for a sponsor of my masters' research which was a major resource company. I haven't had issues getting reimbursement, but I'm pretty careful to limit my reimbursed/company paid expenses to stuff that I actually need to travel/get fieldwork done.

The only time I ran into trouble was when I was required to use option 4c and I had to submit all my expenses in one report (i.e. after I got back and the hotel got around to billing the credit card) and I had to make advance reservations. Then, I was in danger of my credit card not being paid in time through no fault of my own, so I blew off the option 4c requirement and used my own damn credit card for the advance reservations.

I do think that environmental consulting firms are generally reasonable - most of the management has at least a dim memory of traveling for fieldwork, so things are usually arranged so that field staff aren't in danger of not having enough money or credit to do the work. But yes, it is pretty standard for employees in environmental consulting to pay for travel and get reimbursed later.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

rude presentation questions

FSP has a recent post about being attacked when/after giving a presentation. The post has a poll which shows that the majority of respondents have indeed experienced a public rude comment/question during or after a talk. A rude question would be one that attacks the speaker and his/her research personally or is clearly intended as a "gotcha" question.

I think geologists are pretty laid-back in general. In my experience, folks tend to ask more pointed/technical questions of a speaker who seems to know what they're talking about. Undergrads and the clearly nervous tend to get a pass. However, the questions can get more pointed if someone is representing a company (say, a remediation firm) and the presentation sounds more like a sales pitch. For example, they have some new wonder-formulation that will work in all types of geology and has no field implementation issues at all.

I did have one person who had published several papers in my corner of the environmental field and seemed to take my research personally, and he was pretty aggressive when I was giving talks. He didn't like my scope of research and timeframe, and he would point this out every chance he got. I responded that financial and time constraints (there's only so much a master's student can do with a fieldwork-based project!) prevented me from designing a gold-plated research study, but that initial results were promising. And yes, I was aware of his work. And I was not actually doing what he did, I was looking at his subject from a different angle, using distinctly different methods.

After the second go-round, I was rather practiced at this.

I don't think I've actually been at a presentation where someone was attacked personally or told that their science was a waste of money. I'd like to think that if that were to happen, the audience would give a collective shrug and ignore the question to discuss the actual science.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

geology is everywhere!

This month's accretionary wedge is about seeing geology in different places.

I have mentioned before that I am not a hard-rock geologist. I don't get excited about rocks and minerals, although I'll certainly take note of a particularly impressive specimen.

However, I have been known to randomly stop by the side of the road when I see something interesting - like weathering!


As a geologist, I notice not only the interesting shapes, but I also consider the processes that worked together to make that feature.

Sure, the erosion of this material makes for nifty roadside shapes, but what does this mean for land stability? Maybe you'd reconsider buying this house a short distance away...


Thursday, June 13, 2013

the Brunton

I'm not sure how much this diminishes my credibility as a geologist, but I do not own a Brunton compass.


(photo from here)

What distinguishes a Brunton (sorry, pocket transit) is that you can measure dip angles and compass headings with remarkable precision, it's small (if not light), and it's bulletproof. The ones we used in college and grad school had been manhandled by generations of students and worked fine.

Last time I needed to determine fracture orientation in the field, I had to scrounge around for a pocket transit that I could borrow from someone else, since my organization didn't have one. When I started asking around, I found that about 20% of geologists had their own pocket transit. My sample may be biased low, because these were the people who knew I was looking to borrow one. Other owners may have kept quiet because they weren't willing to share an admittedly expensive gizmo.

The pocket transit I used worked out fine, but since I was using a personal, very expensive item, I was petrified of dropping it or scratching the mirror - a real possibility, considering the rocks I was scrambling about on. I've been keeping an eye on eBay - they turn up regularly at prices ranging from less than $100 for dusty old finds to $700 or so for unused ones.

If I were a structural geologist, I'd definitely have a pocket transit. But I rarely need to go out and assess outcrops. Readers, if you do structural-type stuff a lot, do you still use a trusty 50+ year old product, or do you have something newer/fancier/better?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

where to go next?

My sweetie and I are starting to plan our next big adventure. We've got a couple different ideas, but we haven't decided on anything yet. So here's my question for globe-traveling readers - do you have any suggestions?

Here's our criteria:

1. Our timeframe is next spring (early April to early June).

2. We don't want to go anywhere super hot or overwhelmingly crowded.

3. Target location is outside the US, but no more than a 10-hour flight from the east coast.

4. Nifty scenery (human or natural).

5. I'd like to be able to cross something off my list of "things every geologist should see", but nothing too exciting. No erupting volcanoes, please!

6. Our last grand adventure was in the northern Alps, so we're looking for somewhere new.

I may keep a bunch of suggestions in mind for future adventures as well, so feel free to suggest different places!

Friday, June 7, 2013

job postings

The commenters on this post (sorry, extremely old) were batting round the idea of an ideal response rate for job applications. How many jobs should you expect to apply to? How many of those would you expect a call back from?

I didn't get any of my jobs from a posted position on a big aggregator like monster.com. I got my first environmental job, an internship, through one of my geology professors. When I was looking for full-time, permanent jobs, I did apply to posted jobs and even went on a couple of interviews. But I ended up getting a job through a recruiter because my company didn't want to go through the bother of sorting through a mountain of entry-level job applications.

Once I had a few years' experience, my job hunting was entirely via networking. Sure, I looked online, but I never found the right combination of job requirements. So either recruiters called me (with mixed results) or I asked trusted former colleagues if they knew of anything. I would send over my info, and if they liked what they saw and were reasonably optimistic about their organization's future, they would create a position.

That's not really ideal.Not everyone has an awesome network, and it's better to have a bigger pool of applicants than whoever happens to be in the know or trips over your website. I'm not sure how common it is though - maybe my corner of the environmental biz is really, really small.

Monday, June 3, 2013

respecting the driller

I had a lively (heated?) discussion with a bunch of other geologists a while back about getting what you need from a drilling program. Do you go over expectations and oddball job-related details at the beginning (my preference)? Assume that you're all on the same page and then correct as you go? How many suggestions do you make before you run the risk of telling drillers how to do their own job? How picky are you about the driller's methods?

One of the geologists got upset by the tone of the discussion. She thought the rest of the (mostly older) geologists presumed an adversarial relationship and were treating these hypothetical drillers as if they were an obstacle to actually doing the work. Why couldn't we work together to get the job done?

I've done fieldwork in a bunch of different places, and have worked with probably 50 drillers from companies ranging from national operations to one-man shops, and it is a rare driller indeed who is not hierarchically-minded. That is, they're most comfortable with someone who takes the lead immediately but knows when to defer to the driller's expertise.

My natural inclination is to be agreeable, to not make waves and to work cooperatively - to explain my thought process and what I'm looking to achieve, rather than giving orders. This rarely goes well, especially if I'm working on a short-term job and we don't know each other. Usually, the driller just want to hear the marching orders and get the job done.

My response to the younger geologist was this: you and the driller are not friends. You're there to get what you need, and often what you need gets in the way of the driller's preferences. There are ways to be respectful/kind/helpful, such as going out on iced/hot drink runs or staying out with the drillers if it's miserable out. But you can't rely on the driller's good nature or your relationship to do what you need. You need to watch them. And if it's a question of safety or if they're doing something to compromise the data, it's your job to correct them.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

new camera

It is time to declare my camera dead.

I have always been hard on cameras. They're dropped on pavement, they live in field bags populated with hard/heavy objects, they spend long days outside in the sun/rain, they get grit in their innards...

I got this camera in early 2008, right as I was starting my thesis fieldwork. Considering what it's been through, it's sort of miraculous it's lasted this long. And technically it's still useable even though all the silver paint has worn off the corners, most surfaces are scratched, the flash only works with fresh batteries, and it no longer communicates with my computer so I have to take out the memory card and put it in another device to download pictures.

My dad is a photographer and has Ideas about what sort of replacement camera I should get. Ideally, I'd ask for a new camera for Christmas, but I'm not sure I can wait that long.

I have a few major camera requirements: must be durable, must be easy to turn the flash on/off, and must have good optics/a decent optical zoom range (for a point and shoot model). At this point in technology, the number of megapixels available is sort of beside the point.

I know that at least a couple of my readers are fairly serious photographers. What's your current gear, and what do you like/dislike about it? Do you even still have a dedicated camera, or do you just use your cellphone?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Oh, spam

I need to apologize to my commentators. I only realized that I had a spam comment tab recently, and I found a bunch of great comments buried there - some from 2011!

About half of the comments flagged as "spam" were legitimate, which is only slightly higher than the proportion of spammy comments that aren't flagged. I didn't see any trend, except that comments mentioning salary were flagged at a higher rate.

So now I know to keep track of spam. I appreciate all the new features that have been added to blogger - I guess I should poke around the available features more often.

Friday, May 10, 2013

first experiment

I came across this post recently and it reminded me of one of the "games" that I played as a little kid.

I think I was probably 8 or 9 - old enough that I didn't need to be watched constantly, young enough that I wasn't allowed to wander too far afield. I roped my younger neighbor into a long-running study whereby we waved enthusiastically at every single person who drove by and dutifully recorded whether they waved back, did a weird non-wave acknowledgement of our existence, or ignored us. For maximum coverage, I would station my neighbor by her house (she wasn't allow to go as far as I could) and then position myself at a crossroad at the end of our street to capture anyone who didn't pass her. I couldn't do this for long, because she would get bored and wander off. She also didn't care about confounding variables (what was the difference between strangers vs. people you knew?). Quite frustrating.

I'm pretty sure I made up this little study entirely of my own volition. Science at my elementary school was more along the lines of "fill in this worksheet" and if we were especially lucky, "build this thing according to very specific instructions."

I don't remember how the actual tallies ended up. As I recall, they filled several pages - pretty impressive considering how few motorists actually rolled through in any given time. I'm sure my parents came across an old notebook filled with hatch marks in columns entitled "Yes" "No" and "Other" years later and chucked it without a second thought, so my epic First Experiment has been lost to history.

Monday, May 6, 2013

yep, it fits

This is one of my occasional random posts that doesn't have anything to do with the geology or the environment or writing...

I've been thinking about getting a Large Object for a while now. About a month ago, I noticed a shabby little storefront with a prominently placed Large Object near my place. I'd been keeping an eye on it ever since.

I was running errands yesterday and feeling particularly productive, so I stopped by. The price on the Large Object was on the high side, so I dickered with the owner and ended up with an agreement for a slightly lower price. Cash only. Since I hadn't originally planned on this little shopping expedition, I didn't have enough cash on hand. I also had a bunch of bags from my shopping earlier that day, so I told the owner I'd clean the car and come back for the Large Object.

My visit had attracted a small crowd of bored retirees/nearby shabby shop owners.

One of the guys asked, "Isn't your car that (color) hatchback?"
Yes, it was.
"Oh, there's no way that Large Object will fit."

So there was nothing for it but to open up the hatch and show them that the seats did fold down, and if I moved all my stuff out, I would indeed have room. I left them to mutter about bungee cords and rope to hold Large Object in with the hatch up.

I came back an hour later, having more or less cleaned my car (threw out the accumulated junk like the horseshoes, stuffed the important field stuff and the grocery bags in the footwells of the back seats, pushed the shovel, ice scraper, and umbrella to the front of the cargo area), put the back seats down, stuffed the cargo cover in the front seat and gotten the cash. I'd also done a quick internet search to confirm that my price for the Large Object was indeed reasonable.

The crowd (still there - this was apparently the most exciting thing they'd seen in a while) was dubious. But the Large Object fit in my car with no problem at all.

After he received the cash and was relieved of the Large Object, the owner was in an expansive mood. He was also quite impressed with my car. He wanted to know how many miles the car had, how reliable it was, etc. How old was it, anyway?

The car's about 10 (give or take) years old.

So how long have I had it?

Um, I got it new, so 10 (+/-) years.

He sort of boggled at that, and I realized that (as usual) he'd thought I was at least 15 years younger than I actually am, and was trying to figure out how the hell I'd bought a new car at such a ridiculously young age.  I wasn't as annoyed as I would usually be, because I had a new acquisition... and my hatchback had proved itself yet again!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

MOOCs and geology

Janet Stemwedel has a new post up regarding the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in (replacing) university classes. Would MOOCs work for teaching geology?

I doubt it.

Geology is an applied science of observation, of going outside and looking at stuff (rocks, soil), and trying to piece together what happened. Often, you need to use most of your senses (ok, don't try tasting stuff in the environmental biz). Taped lectures will have examples of what to look for, but you really need to be given a bunch of samples or to go out and ponder road cuts and learn how to figure things out on your own. Is that a natural fracture, or did someone manhandle the sample? Which direction is "up"? How did those rocks get smushed together like that? How can I get a reliable indicator of fracture orientation in this mess? Being a good geologist is only partly about learning facts, and is more about developing an eye for important observations.

And being a successful environmental consultant is about more than just knowing your facts. It's about being able to use different lines of evidence to determine what's going on out there, and to evaluate other folk's theories. It's about writing reports that don't actively piss off the target audience. I've harped on this before, but the critical evaluation and writing skills I got from my small liberal arts college (SLAC) were what allowed me to progress quickly from where I started as a field tech. And my expensive, labor-intensive SLAC must have done something right according to my management, because my office hired a succession of new grads from that same program for years after I paved the way.

If I had no ability to access good teachers and relevant samples, then a MOOC would help to get some of the basic science down. So would a good textbook. But I'd have a serious deficiency in my understanding of geology if I didn't have someone to call attention to my bad habits and show me where my interpretations were going astray.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Five years ago

In this recent Ask a Manager post, the commenters had a side discussion about predicting career paths. Five years ago, did you plan/expect to be where you are now?

Five years ago, I was an active lurker on the geoblogosphere, and was getting exercised enough to consider writing my own posts. The five-year anniversary of this blog is coming up in a couple of months!

But I digress. Five years ago, I was in the weeds of my fieldwork for my master's thesis. I was more worried about my immediate future (finishing!), but I had a couple vague ideas of what to do after graduation. I would move to my sweetie's city as a permanent base. I would do something environmentally-related using the stuff I was learning in grad school, but I was not planning on going back to environmental consulting.

So did my predictions pan out? Sort of... sideways.

I did end up using the stuff I learned in grad school, but not right away. I spent a couple of years spinning my wheels, career-wise, doing lots of different things that were not what I went to school for. And my sweetie and I had a revelation and moved somewhere completely different.

So I'm in a different region, in a different corner of the environmental consulting biz, but I am doing really interesting stuff that uses what I learned in grad school.

Where will I be in 5 years? I am a little bit superstitious about voicing future plans. But I hope that I will still have my current gig (I really like where I ended up!) and that I'll grow into an expert in my little corner of geology and contamination. Specifically, I hope to be awesome enough that when folks inside and outside my organization run into a particularly knotty remediation problem, they say, "I know, let's call Short Geologist! She's perfect for dealing with this!"