Tuesday, January 22, 2013

e-mail communication

I was in a technical conference a while back and attended a session on effective/professional e-mail communication. It wasn't something I'd really thought of before, and the session included some good tips, some more obvious than others. A partial list (what I can remember) in no particular order:

1. Add the addressee(s) last so you don't accidentally send the e-mail before you're ready.

2. Before doing (1), re-read the entire e-mail and make sure it makes sense/doesn't have any glaring typos. And attach the attachments! (I'm forever sending follow-up e-mails with attachments).

3. You have a subject line for a reason. Use it. The recipient should be able to tell by the subject line what the project is and what...well, what the subject is. This leads to the next point.

4. Sometimes we end up with long e-mail chains. That's fine, but if you end up changing the subject over the course of the e-mail conversation or you're following up on one particular bit, it's ok to start a new e-mail with an appropriate subject so that months later, you can find the relevant message at a glance.

5. You don't need to have the last word in e-mails. If someone writes "thanks for the response!", you don't need to respond with "you're welcome!".  Especially if you're replying to everyone. This isn't a phone call. Stop filling up everyone's in-boxes!

6. E-mail is a quick communication. Most people will spend about 10 seconds scanning each e-mail. So if you're going to mention several different things, use bullets or numbering, or clearly break up each separate item into a (short!) paragraph.

7. To go along with #6, some e-mails are FYI and some are "this requires your action". Make it clear at the beginning what action is needed, if any.

8. I have a project-based system for organizing my e-mails. You can organize the buggers however you wish. But if you're like me and you coordinate with a few people on several different projects at a time, it will make your life infinitely easier a few months later to have them organized by something other than what you get by reshuffling e-mails by sender name and guessing at an approximate date.

9. This apparently is a big no-no, but I do use my "deleted" folder as a storage device. It's the same thing I use for the recycling box under my desk - stuff I don't think I'll need again but that I'm not willing to permanently remove. Every once in a while, when my e-mail gets too full or the pile in the box looks like it's about to crawl out and run away, I go through and get rid of the old stuff that I couldn't possibly need anymore.

10. Don't put anything especially snarky or obnoxious regarding a client (or anyone else you work with, for that matter) in an e-mail, and get rid of sarcastic e-mails that others send you. You write something rude as a commentary on an otherwise factual e-mail, the recipient snickers but then follows up on the technical comment, the obnoxious comment gets buried in the back and forth, the e-mail chain gets sent along to a 3rd party by accident, and then you're in for a world full of hurt.

Anything else you can think of?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

engaged, not angry

One of the topics that usually get broached in our annual 8-hour HAZWOPER refresher course is vehicle safety. Yes, we work with nasty stuff sometimes, but usually the drive to and from the site is more hazardous than whatever chemicals we may encounter.

Years ago, one of the topics was road rage. Of course, road rage is bad. It's dangerous to everyone around you, raises your own blood pressure dangerously high, and worse, it often doesn't get you where you're going any faster.

The trainer had a list of bad behaviors that indicated you had a road rage problem. Top of the list? Talking to other cars.

That is ridiculous. I talk to other cars all. the. time. Doesn't mean I'm angry or that I'm going to cut them off and cause a horrible chain accident. What I am is engaged with driving. I pay attention. I've lived on tiny urban streets with hipsters and little kids darting in front of me, I've had multiple high-speed rotaries (roundabouts) on my daily commute, and I've driven for hours on dirt roads to get to field sites. I've scolded bike messengers, giant SUV drivers, and a flock of turkeys with about the same amount of heat. I have a particular endearment that I use to address errant drivers/anyone else associated with the road I'm on - "come on, sweetpea!"

I belt out whatever song I'm enjoying while driving. I drive a distinctive car that has an appropriate female name for its country of origin (long family tradition). And I keep up a running commentary on everything that's going on around me, passengers or not. But I'm not angry when I'm driving, other than a brief flash of annoyance at particularly obnoxious behavior. And I pride myself on driving safely and (reasonably) close to the speed limit.

Save your worries about road rage for someone who actually drives agressively.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Ah, Imgur. The internet's best source for an onslaught of funny/gross/awesome images. My sweetie is addicted, so I get to see a curated selection on a regular basis. I thought you'd appreciate this bunch on science:

Friday, January 11, 2013

logbook review

I've discussed what to put into a logbook before, but since that post almost a year ago, I've had to go back through old logbooks for a project where the perpetrators...field personnel were unavailable. So this post is from the point of view of someone who didn't do the fieldwork.

We forget, in the field, that a logbook is a legal record and may be reviewed or cited in planning for later work, scientific evaluation, or for legal discovery. As I've mentioned before, the field logbook is critical to getting the big picture for a particular investigation. Sure, there are boring logs and sample logs and test pit logs and calibration logs. But the other stuff that doesn't fit on those papers goes into the logbook. For example, this monitoring well is within the territory of a pack of feral dogs/young hooligans who will steal anything not nailed down/took 3 days to find and is marked by a breadcrumb trail of flagging tape that starts at location X.

I realize that I am weird about documentation and that hardly anybody cares about it to the degree that I do. But there is information that really does need to be there. Here's my list:


Ideal: Could be mistaken for typing. No parenthetical comments squashed in the margins or hovering elsewhere with arrows going back to an observation (a major failing of mine) because everything necessary was written at the time.
Minimum: Your average reader is stumped less often than once per page.


Ideal: Date and day of the week written at the top of each page.
Minimum: Date at the beginning of each entry. Even though each entry is 20 pages long, I'll find it eventually. If the fieldwork is consecutive days, I can also deduce what day it was by when the entries start each morning, assuming that there's a date in there somewhere.

Page Numbering

Ideal: Each page is numbered in the same location.
Minimum: It's fixable if it's not there. That's what interns are for. *may require a note in the beginning that the pages were numbered by this person later*


Ideal: Each entry starts with a list of personnel on-site and their affiliations, with full names and initials if you're going to go by those later. Or the writer is clearly identified and the entry refers to a sign-in sheet that actually exists and sign-in/out was enforced.
Minimum: The end of at least one entry with distinguishable handwriting has a signature that can be guessed at or at least one entry has initials to get me started. And please tell me that you wrote the last name of the driller somewhere.


Ideal: AM and PM weather conditions, significant weather changes, start/end of precipitation
Minimum: "Job shut down for 3 hours when the samples blew away", "drill rig has St. Elmo's fire" etc.

Health & Safety (H&S)

Ideal: list of H&S gear for each major task/crew or a reference to a document that has this. "XX needed a bandaid."
Minimum: "XX needed an ambulance." (or went to the hospital another way)


Ideal: Where you are (location ID) and where you're going, sample IDs or a reference to a logsheet that has them, any deviations from the plan, summary of any project-related phone calls or discussions with visitors, notes on progress and any issues as they arise. Names of everyone you consulted with and time of each interaction. Interesting observations that are not strictly job related, stated without judgement (e.g. we now have an interested but not currently angry audience of 4 dogs, one man with a shotgun, and 9 children).
Minimum: When you move to a new location, make a note of it. If you don't mention it at the beginning, I can deduce it from the previous entry (happens all the time). Deviations from the work plan and a note that you conferred with someone about it (because you did, right? You didn't just arbitrarily change everything without at least checking in...right?). Major equipment breakdowns and schedule delays. Visits by trespassers, the police, or the press.

Eventually we will all be using tablets and the pile of logsheets will be a distant memory. A tablet that has spaces for all the stuff listed above may prompt the field person to at least write down the major items and eliminate some of the error. But the reason for the logbook is to show the big picture and to add the observations that don't fit anywhere else. An electronic record will need to have a large and expandable "observations" section to get the meat of the logbook - what the heck happened out there?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

e-mail policy

I've alluded to this before, but I'm not the most regular e-mail checker. I'll forget about my accidental remediation account for months on end and then find some sort of time-sensitive communication or invite that I've missed out on. I will try to be better at checking, though, because in the last year or so I've received a bunch of interesting e-mails.

I have a similar e-mail response policy to my comment moderation policy. I respond relatively quickly to personal e-mails. That is, I do respond almost immediately upon receipt, but only when I remember to log in and check it.

I also get a fair number of e-mails from folks pushing something or other who want to write a guest post or have me link to/validate whatever they're selling - often something not at all related to geology or the environment. I'm not terribly interested in becoming free advertising for a commercial website, so I tend to blow them off.

So if you're desperate to reach me because you want to send me on an all expenses paid trip to a blogging/science conference in St. Tropez, send me a comment saying "check your e-mail!" If you're trying to get attention for your commercial entity, I may not go along with it, but if you send something that's not clearly a form letter and has some thought behind it, I will respond. Eventually.

Monday, January 7, 2013

table for one

Ages ago, I wrote about traveling and eating with a male coworker. I would estimate that about 1/3 of my fieldwork included one other person, 1/3 included a crowd, and 1/3 of the fieldwork was just me. Actually, if my grad school fieldwork were included (months in the middle of nowhere), it would be closer to 1/2 by myself.

If I've ever been worried about eating out alone, it was for a short period indeed. I have no problem going out anywhere with a book or a laptop or a bunch of paperwork, especially if I'm going to be staying somewhere for an extended period.

I do have a preferred order if I'm in an unfamiliar area by myself - hotel restaurant/bar, then a local pub, then an uncrowded restaurant (so I don't feel like I'm holding anyone up). Even in the most rural, out of the way locations, I've never had to resort to fast food for dinner - there's always a diner somewhere. I tend to venture further abroad after I get more familiar with my surroundings and have eaten at the more close locations.

I've never had issues with sketchy strangers at hotel bars *knocks on coffee table*. Of course, I do go to dinner armored with something to read and my east coast big city "only interested in my own dinner, thanks!" attitude, so the other folks at the bar tend to leave me alone.

I do enjoy being on my own for dinner - I set my own schedule, eat wherever I want, and I can be lame and order something to go from the hotel restaurant for three days in a row if I'm not feeling adventurous. For a some more difficult/stressful projects, eating out at good restaurants on the company dime is the one thing I do look forward to.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


I've posted resolutions each January, with varying degrees of success.

In 2009, I resolved to exercise more regularly, keep up with the daily blogging, go somewhere exotic, keep up with correspondence, and stop wasting so much time on the internet. I pretty much failed on all counts.

In 2010, I trimmed the number of resolutions to three: publish an article, find a new job, and floss daily. I did publish the article, but that was about it.

Chastened, I resolved to stop making resolutions in 2011. Incidentally, I was neither happier, nor healthier, and my posting frequency nosedived.

But by the end of 2011, my sweetie and I had come to a decision point. We didn't want to spend our lives killing ourselves for our jobs and trying to fit the rest of our lives around the margins. We'd rather be happy than financially comfortable. So we started planning to to leave our steady career progression, dump our standard of living, and move to where we wanted to live. Our epic vacation in 2011 (the Alps, by the way) had convinced us to put our plans for additional adventures first, rather than trying to fit them around our work lives.

Now that we're fundamentally happy where we are, a lot of the other resolutions I kept breaking have fallen into place. Because I'm not utterly exhausted when I get home from work, I have the energy to work out regularly, I'm cooking rather than eating out, and I have more time available for blogging.

So once again, I'm not really posting any new resolutions. I'm going to continue to focus on the big picture, and hopefully those little habits will continue to improve.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

blogroll cleanup

Since it's the start of the new year, I figured I'd do some cleaning up. I have a couple of defunct blogs on my list - those which the authors have announced that they're done. I also have a couple that haven't officially thrown in the towel, but haven't posted in a year or so. Those will stay, for now.

So the blogs that have officially signed off are the following:

What the Hell is Wrong With You?


Lovely listing

And I can't delete without adding something: Research at a Snail's Pace.

Happy 2013!