Thursday, December 10, 2009

call of the wild

This is the fourth episode of “I wish I had a buddy”.

I spent a good portion of the fieldwork for my thesis alone. I was working long days, and I didn’t have the resources to pay for someone to come with me all the time. I did wrangle friends to help when I needed an extra hand, but I couldn’t really ask for the entire time commitment that I needed to be there.

So there I was, in the middle of an extremely snowy winter. I had to drop off a bunch of equipment, and I was trying to get as much done as I could with the limited daylight. I did have the good sense to at least get out before dark. I had snow to contend with (more than 2 feet - more than enough when you have short legs), so I had snowshoes and was pulling a sled with all my stuff.

Once again, I wasn’t exactly in trackless wilderness. I was following a dirt road (albeit snowed over), and my field site was a little under a mile from where I’d parked. If a truck went by on the closest real road, I could still hear it.

The sled was heavy, so I was concentrating more on pulling the sled and keeping the snowshoes straight rather than my surroundings. But I flushed out an extremely large doggy-type creature that ran absolutely silently across my path. I knew its size wasn’t the result of my imagination, because it left extremely large doggy-type footprints in the snow.

I was comforted by the fact that it did run away. Sort of.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

weather buddy

Ok, I had a long, difficult day today. So once again I'm cheating a little by referring to another post for a time I wished I had a buddy. But this one is a really old one.

The big storm system today reminded me of the many times that I wished I had someone with me while driving in lousy weather. For example, this time.

It's always preferable to have someone with you when the weather is bad and the road are atrocious. You get another pair of eyes to help watch out for obstacles, another pair of hands to wipe off the windshield, and most importantly, someone else to talk sense into you and make you pull over until it stops blizzarding.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

field creep 2

This is the second episode of “I wish I had a buddy”. Once again, I’m revisiting an old post (I will have entirely new episodes, I promise).

Several months ago, I mentioned being leered at while wearing hip waders. This is usually just annoying.

One time, however, I was working in a stretch of wetland out on the edge of an old industrial area. I wasn’t really that far from anywhere, but I was surrounded by reeds and thickets, so I had minimal visibility. I was by the side of an old gravel access road, several hundred yards from the nearest business (a sketchy old machine shop). I was fussing over an instrument when I was interrupted by some scary dude who was apparently taking his lunchtime constitutional.

“Why look at you with your thigh-high boots! Don’t you look sexy…”the dude leers at me.

He was probably harmless, but it completely freaked me out. I was standing at the tailgate, so I thumped the gear into the back of the truck, slammed the tailgate shut, told the dude to get lost, and roared off in a spray of gravel. I was hoping I seemed more angry than chicken (I hate looking vulnerable in this sort of situation) but I probably just made his day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

buddy system

One of the major safety rules of being outdoors is “always have a buddy”. If you’re by yourself and something happens, you can get into a lot of trouble. And you can’t always depend on a cell phone to bail you out.

I have not always had a buddy when I was out doing fieldwork. As a result, I have enough experiences that I can fill an entire week of blogging “times I really wish I had a buddy”.

So, this week is the week of “oh, shit, I’m by myself out here”. Today I nominate this post from last week.

I didn’t go into a lot of detail in the post because, well, I was in the field and it had been a long day. But after I heard shots less than a mile away, I did stop and think, “what am I doing out here?”.

I was actually on a private gravel road (cold comfort, considering that I found shotgun shells on the road), so I moved the truck so that it was right next to me. I figured that I may be mistaken for a deer, but that a nice shiny vehicle wouldn’t be. Right?

Of course, the way to avoid some of this angst would have been to put on a traffic vest or something else bright/very reflective. But I had just recently cleaned out my backpack and chucked the vest. Silly me…why would I need a traffic vest out in the middle of nowhere?...

Incidentally, if you’re walking around the woods in turkey-hunting season, never, never tuck a red bandanna into the pocket of your pants. Especially if you’re wearing jeans and have a dark top. From a hundred yards or so through the brush, you will be a dead ringer for a turkey.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

long distance

One problem about being an older student is that you tend to accumulate attachments. Those attachments can be problematic when you’re going away to grad school. I’ve already mentioned one attachment in passing: all that stuff I had to put into storage. But I had another attachment… my sweetie.

We had the common academic 2-body problem. My sweetie had other attachments and wasn’t able to follow me to grad school. So we spent grad school 500+ miles apart. How did that work out?

I’ll start by describing how our first day apart went.

We stuffed everything we could (including my sweetie) in my car. Everything else went into storage. And we trundled off to grad school. After moving me in and meeting the roommates, I dropped off my sweetie at the airport. I had sort of a hard time saying goodbye, but I managed ok.

Then I got into my car and had this massive “WTF did I just do” moment. I spent about 15 minutes bawling my eyes out in the airport parking garage. Eventually I pulled myself together, drove out to the highway, and proceeded to cry the entire drive home.

Things did get better after that.

We had schedule issues, so we only talked about twice per week on the phone. Schedule and financial considerations meant we only saw each other in person about every 3 months. But we kept up a daily e-mail correspondence. By the end of grad school, I had compressed, printed out (2 sides/page) and compiled everything into a 2-inch binder. Now we have a permanent record of our time apart.

So, we did survive as a couple. But I’m not going to sugar coat it – it was not easy. I know other academic couples who have lived further apart, seen each other less often, and spent a longer time apart. But 2+ years was pretty much at my limit – I got decidedly clingy and each separation got worse. I’m definitely glad we’re now living less than 50 miles apart.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

monthly meme

Ok, I got this one from drugmonkey. Post the link and first sentence from the first post of each month this year. Here's mine:

January: ‘Tis the season for resolutions.

February: If you do environmental work, at some point you may find yourself in an overgrown, nearly forgotten contaminated site.

March: I never know what to write when a job application or job website suggests listing hobbies.

April: April: So, when you give a presentation, do you have an introductory outline slide?

May: In college, I was under the impression that consulting paid lots of money.

June: I seem to have suffered more than my usual share of migraines recently (this is post-migraine-induced nap).

July: My sweetie is out at the weekly "cheesy 80s movie nite" at the local bar.

August: So, I haven't spent the last couple weeks in an internet-deprived wasteland.

September: ...and I don't want to talk about it.

October: I got a good bunch of comments on my last post.

November: Thanks to continual internet problems (gotta love travelling) I am hopelessly behind on my blog writing as well as my blog reading.

December: On the way to the field yesterday, I noticed a few cars on the side of the highway.

Not bad, although some of these aren't terribly descriptive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

open season

On the way to the field yesterday, I noticed a few cars on the side of the highway. Then a few more. What the...?

Oh, it's hunting season. Too bad I didn't bring anything orange to wear...

I was in a posted area, so I shoudn't have had any hunters around, right? Except that I kept tripping over shells and the afternoon was punctuated by various shots in the distance. The far distance, luckily.

Sometimes you run into safety issues that the health and safety plan never anticipated.

Monday, November 30, 2009


I thought I was chugging along, doing ok, getting at least one post in per week. And then I realized that I posted exactly five times during the month of November. I thought I was way more neglectful earlier this year, when I had the project from hell (as alluded to here), but apparently I'm not doing terribly well in the regular-posting department. And it's not just that I was sick for a week or so.

It's so much easier to keep writing daily when you're a grad student. Also, much easier to keep writing daily when you have 2+ roomates and you can't just plop down in front of the TV. Much easier when your commute is short enough to walk. And much easier when you don't have a sweetie distracting you.

I haven't forgotten you, dear reader. I'm just working on my time management skills.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving fun

I love this holiday. It's the one non-religious (although you can certainly add as much religion as you'd like) holiday that everybody can really bond over.

This year, I spent Thanksgiving with my sweetie's family for the first time. It was a good time, with seven people and almost twice as many dishes. I saw my sweetie's grandmother for the first time in a very long while and spent most of the post-dinner slump fending off complaints that I was not providing offspring for her. They went mostly like this:

"You can do whatever you want with your relationship, dear. Don't let anybody tell you what to do...but I'm an old lady and I want great-grandchildren before I die!"

I hope my (US) readers also had an enjoyable thanksgiving. Did you also get/take off today in order to have a nice long weekend of recovery? I sure did....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

more hotel amenities

A while ago, I mentioned the various hotel amenities that I appreciate the most.

When I was sick earlier (incidentally, I'm much better now) I was staying at a place that had a bed with a hard, lumpy mattress and a pillow that was way too thick. I was achy all over and had exquisitely sensitive skin.

I ended up spending most of the night staring at the ceiling, fantasizing that I was staying at the hotel chain that supposedly uses all high-end mattresses (Sheraton), or at least the chain that has a big variety of pillows (Holiday Inn, I think) ...maybe I'm becoming over-familiar with the various hotel chains.

Maybe next time I travel, I'll pack my own pillow, at least.

Friday, November 20, 2009

misery is...

...when you've got a massive respiratory bug that has you hacking/blowing out nasties continuously, plus you have two unrelated uncomfortable conditions, and you're in the field in the rain.

Luckily, I didn't have to expend much physical effort during this project. So I could scrunch under an overhang and feel sorry for myself.

The problem with fieldwork is that sometimes it takes a lot of money/coordination to get everything set up, and you may have a small window of opportunity to get everything done. It also may be impossible to get someone to cover for you. So most of the time, I just suck it up if I'm sick.

I've only stopped fieldwork because of illness once. In that case, one of the subcontractors was also fighting the same bug, so when I gave up mid-morning, the response was "yay!" and they tore out of there as if they were afraid I would change my mind.

So how much misery does it take you before you give up and go home?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

super duper elite

It must be close to the end of the calendar year...I finally got my super duper elite travel reward status.

I travelled a fair bit in grad school, but my field site wasn't anywhere near the sort of places that had travel rewards. I spent a lot of time in a local no-tell motel. So by the time I finished, I had depleted all my rewards and lost my special status. I only started building up my points again this year.

I don't think my super-duper elite status really does anything for me. The reward program has like 7 levels, and once you get past the basic "travel once and get a card" level, the benefit appears to be just increasingly snazzy cards.

That's ok. I get enough rewards to never have to pay for a hotel room on my own, and occasionally enough to buy the odd household appliance. What else could a girl ask for?

Monday, November 9, 2009

grading fun

Thanks to continual internet problems (gotta love travelling) I am hopelessly behind on my blog writing as well as my blog reading. But I did notice a post that reminded my of one of my grad school pet peeves: horribly messy and/or incomplete work.

I taught the laboratory portion of an upper-level required course. My students were generally at least 20 years old, were majoring in the subject, and needed to pass the course to graduate.

How did these students get this far into their college career without learning such basics as filling in all the blanks on labs or even tests? I thought they were too old for the "I can't give partial credit if you leave it blank" lecture, but I was wrong.

When the students didn't bother to answer questions, it mystified me but did make things a lot easier to grade. More aggravating were the smudgy hand-written answers on separate paper which not only were not in order, but were not labelled with a question number. I hated going on treasure hunts. They were a sure-fire way to ensure that the partial credit got a lot less generous.

Friday, October 30, 2009

male-female ratio

Sorry about the long silence - I've had lousy internet service during my travels. Back to your usual programming...

I've worked in areas where the male:female geologist ratio is approaching 50:50, and where the majority of environmental science/engineering students coming out of college are female. But I've also worked in areas where female geologists are still a rarity, and drillers/subcontractors can refuse to work with women and not commit career suicide. Those areas aren't nearly as far south (in the US) as one might think.

So I'm wondering: what percentage of working geologists in your area are female? Are you seeing the number of women increase over time?

I don't stay up at night worrying about exact male:female ratios, but I've worked in places where female geologists are essentially unheard of, and they've been lonely and discouraging. I don't have the personality to be a pioneer, I guess.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

clothing change

I'm usually a little behind when the seasons change, but this week has been cold enough to convince me to switch into winter gear. The lightweight hiking pants have been put away, and I've dragged out the shapeless sweaters, the 2-layer wool long underwear, the silk long underwear, the wool hats, and the carhartts.

Taking out the carhartts reminded me of a particular winter day a couple years ago, when I was working in the middle of nowhere with a subcontractor. We were wearing the same carhartts (obviously different sizes, but same color), and when I pointed this out, he was actually sort of horrified. He never wore those pants again.

Dude! Carhartts only come in about five colors! And carhartts are worn by about 90% of field people! Seriously, if you find a photograph of a geologist, they'll most likely be wearing the distinctively orangey-brown standard carhartts. If you're offended that you end up wearing the same ones as someone else, you need to buy some fancier field pants.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

office decor

We all tend to personalize our office. Pictures of families, hobbies, and random stuff end up taking over the odd corners of our desks. Geologists tend to collect rocks.

I'm not a big fan of rocks in general. I'm a dirt and contamination person. Sure, if I'm coring rock or I pick up something cool in the field, I'll take it along. But many times, the interesting rocks don't make it all the way to my office.

So I don't have a rock collection. What I do have is a drilling detritus graveyard.

It started when we (the driller) destroyed a roller bit (example from wikipedia below) in some particularly difficult terrain.
The driller chucked the bit in my direction and said "why don't you take it?"

So I did. I ended up as sort of a broken bit magpie. When something shears off or wears down to uselessness and can't be repaired, I'll take it back to the office as a sort of trophy of a difficult (and expensive!) day. The more mangled, the better.

The problem is that my collection makes for some heavy (and occasionally greasy) paperweights. Next time I move, maybe I'll donate my collection to the next enthusiastic newbie who chirps, "hey, what does this do?"

Monday, October 12, 2009

drilling expectations

I can rant about this sort of thing for days...

As my long-term readers know, I was pretty shy when I started working in consulting. It was hard for me to speak up when I wanted something done differently. So what often happened was that I would let something go for way too long, and then I'd surprise the driller in the middle of whatever and say, "we need to change/add this." This leads to a lot of aggravation.

Now, when a drilling company first arrives at a site, I make an effort to have a truly comprehensive site briefing. This is after I've called the office to make sure we're on the same page. Why are we doing this, what are we looking for, and what are the specific things that I need? Then, when we're ready to start doing whatever, I'll remind the driller again.

Most of the time, all this is overkill. But I'd rather go through everything and make sure that we have everything we need and that there are no surprises. If I've written or reviewed the drilling specification, then I know it should cover everything I need. But the probability that the guy actually doing the work has actually read the thing is fairly low.

It sounds simple. But I can't tell you how many time we've arrived at a site and the driller says "I had no idea we needed mud mats/a steam cleaner/to cut through thickets/to get water four miles away" and it turns out to be a colossal pain in the ass and we all start out cranky.

drilling respect 2

I got a good bunch of comments on my last post.

Just to clarify, 99% of the drillers I've worked with have been fine to work with.

I'm perhaps pickier than many geologists when I'm watching a rig, but I'm generally following a long list of procedures that were designed to prevent safety issues, collect a good sample, and/or construct a well that will "behave" as well as possible over the long term. And I haven't met a driller who did every single thing I wanted the first time.

That's fine. And I will bend on certain things, and I'm amenable to suggestions. I'm not going to make the mistake of telling the driller exactly what to do, because that gets into the whole "well, then you do it" argument.

But I have had bad experiences, with drillers who won't take any direction, who are unable to keep a lid on their racist/sexist/horrifically off-color commentary (trust me, this is more than your standard salty language), and who generally make life miserable. And whom I've been completely unable to compel to behave.

In this sort of situation, appeals to a higher authority (i.e. the drilling company management) tend to work only if you're presenting an ultimatum, i.e. get me a new driller or I'm shutting this job down. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but I've never escalated things that far.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

how to chill?

FSP has a post today about dealing with disrespectful students. Do you respond coldly? Do you get all worked up? Appeal to a higher authority? Or do you ignore the offenders?

I had a similar problem with disrespectful drillers. When a driller says something offensive, how should I react? None of my usual reactions (calling them out on it, pointedly ignoring it) worked. My problem was, if I ignored it, they would continue. If I got angry, they knew they'd gotten a rise out of me, and they'd keep saying it. And calling in someone else wasn't going to help the underlying lack of respect.

I had more problems with mouthy drillers when I had more experience rather than less. When I first started overseeing drillers, I think it was clear that I was overwhelmed, so they tiptoed around me. With more experience, I had more control over what the drillers were actually doing, and that's when I had more problems with drillers teasing me or saying things to piss me off.

My sweetie says that my problem is that I'm "too adorable". I'd like a solution that doesn't entail waiting another 10 years in the hopes of aging into a little more gravitas.

Monday, September 28, 2009

stress dream

I need to be in the field the next day. It supposedly requires only a few items, but there’s a possibility we’re doing more, which will require more rental equipment. Fine, I think. I’ll just rent what I know I need now.

The car rental place and the equipment rental place are in the same town, so it’s technically possible to get everything together. I start calling around, getting my hotel reservation and the equipment and vehicle reserved, and trying to get directions. But my phone isn’t working well, and I have to run out to get stuff all across town. One of my friends from grad school is supposed to be helping, but she took off in a snit for some reason.

It’s getting close to closing time for all the businesses I need stuff from. And I can’t stay late in my office, which is in one of the facilities I used to do environmental work at. I manage to get out with my stuff, and I find that my rental car is some sort of convertible supercar with about 4 cubic inches of storage space. Also, the driver’s seat is on the right side. And the brakes work by hitting a button on the key fob.

The site is on an island, naturally, and during part of my frantic preparations earlier I got a ferry schedule. So I head out to catch the last ferry. I get there and the parking lot is 2/3 handicapped parking, so I have to park a ridiculous distance away. Also, I apparently didn’t pack any of my field gear, as the trunk (such as it is) is empty. I run up to the office and the guy tells me that the boat leaves in 10 minutes, but it’s oversold. I’ll have to come back in the morning.

…then I wake up. I hate starting the day like this.

Friday, September 25, 2009

hotel tipping?

It's becoming more encouraged/expected in the hospitality biz to leave a tip for housekeeping. I've seen guides that suggest $1 - $2 per day.

I generally do not tip the maid. Does this make me a bad tipper? Bad person? Cheapskate?

Here's the thing: I require zero maintenance when I'm staying at a hotel for work. More and more hotels are providing an option to not change the sheets/towels daily, and I am all for that. The only mess I make is my clothing, which ends up strewn over every available non-bed surface and which the maid (rightfully) doesn't touch. I'd actually be happier if they didn't re-make the bed, because then I wouldn't have to yank the sheets out of the sides of the mattress nightly.

If I do something that requires more effort than making the bed - spill something, clog up the toilet (hey, ladies have, um productive events too!), use up all the tissues/toilet paper - then I do leave something.

When I asked colleagues about this years ago, the response was surprise that they were actually supposed to tip housekeeping. Nobody tipped. But maybe things have changed.

If you do or have done lots of travelling for work, do you leave tips for housekeeping? If so, daily, or just at the end of the stay?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Chris Rowan recently discussed using geoengineering to mitigate climate change on a global scale. This sort of geoengineering gives me the willies; it’s likely to be subject to the law of unintended consequences on a global scale.

Why? Just look at our track record on other environmental fixeds. Use more biofuels, and watch forests get eaten up in an effort to cash in and plant more biofuel crops. Switch to nuclear energy, and then you have a spent rod disposal problem. Encourage more electric (read: battery-powered) cars, and you have a heavy metal mining/disposal problem.

Some of the geoengineering options suggested (blow particles into the atmosphere to create a global umbrella!) to fix global warming just sound like bad ideas. Some (re-injecting carbon into the ground, bio-engineering algae to take up excess atmospheric carbon) sound fairly reasonable. But far more safe and cost-effective would be to try and limit the damage we’re inflicting.

I know how politically thorny it is, but if you think the arguments between developing and post-industrial countries are bad now, wait until the US or Europe decides to “cool things down” and goes a little too far and we have massive crop die-off and famine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

meeting strategies

A couple days ago, FSP posted about meeting pet peeves. Some of the comments indicated that industry meetings are somehow more productive than academic meetings. Au contraire!

As a consultant I distinctly remember meetings that were monopolized by crazy people, meetings that didn't end until the participants had fallen into a post-donut coma, and meetings dominated by "note taking" that was actually playing tetris on various devices.

So here's my advice for a productive meeting, industry, academica, or otherwise:

1. Have a single meeting coordinator/dictator to keep things moving.

2. Write out a clearly defined agenda and stick to it. It doesn't have to be extensive, but you're trying to avoid the bored "let's talk about anything except the subject of this meeting" chatter.

3. If you have a participant who just can't shut up, institute a friendly but firm time limit.

4. Save the donuts for after the meeting.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I'm back!

...and I don't want to talk about it.

At some point in the future, I'm sure I'll polish/anonymize various facets of the last couple months and post them. They will be almost entirely negative.

I've been totally internet free for a while, so I'll be playing catch-up on the various blogs. But now (unlike the last time I said this) I should be able to keep up with daily posting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

over encumbered

I’m working my way through my usual bloglist after being away from all internet activity for a while. Sciencewoman has a post here that reminded me of one of my travel/fieldwork pet peeves.

I am fairly young and able-bodied. I’m not generally travelling with a horde of small children. But at times I’m forced to lug extremely heavy and awkward stuff around in crowded places.

If you’re unencumbered and you see someone who has obviously had a long day, is limping, has several bandages on the hand she is using to grip her stuff, and is fighting with a door/trying to cross a street/trying to haul her stuff up a flight of stairs, the very least thing you can do is avoid getting in her way. I don’t usually ask for help from strangers, but I’d like to avoid getting run over by cars in crosswalks, having doors slammed in my face, and getting cut off by people going up stairs when I’m obviously struggling.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

farmer tan

I use sunscreen all the time when I'm out in the field. I usually use 45+, and on a good day I actually reapply the stuff every couple of hours. I tell people that I'm so diligent because I'm concerned about my skin's health, but the real reason is that I detest farmer tans.

Since I wear t-shirts nonstop in the summer if I'm doing fieldwork, when I have the opportunity to not wear one, I do. So you'll usually find me in something sleeveless or with a scoop neck. I look ridiculous with a farmer tan and a frilly little camisole.

So I was outside a couple days ago, wearing a t-shirt, and I did in fact apply a lot of sunscreen. However, I apparently missed the sides of my neck and a 1-inch strip right under the edge of my sleeves (both arms). I now have the ultimate farmer tan, and I'm going to an outdoor semiformal event (think sundress) in a couple of days. Grr.

Monday, August 17, 2009

blog break explanation

So, I haven't spent the last couple weeks in an internet-deprived wasteland. What happened to me? Bear with me, I'm going at this one sideways...

Once when I was in high school, I came across my dad's performance review. Here's what it said in a nutshell:

"We really, really like Mr. Geologist because he cares way too much about this company and his duties. We do realize that we've put Mr. Geologist into an utterly thankless position with an absurd amount of responsibility. Our one negative criticism is that he's obviously going to work/worry himself to death over his job, and we don't actually want him to keel over because of it. Maybe he should relax a little and delegate more."

My dad waited until the offsprings' college bills were taken care of, then dramatically quit. He is now at the same age that my grandfather (same personality) died of a massive heart attack. We are all holding our breath.

I've mentioned before that we don't get along well. Certain facets of his personality drive me nuts, and I'm aware that some of the things that aggravate me the most are traits that I share. Like impatience, with myself and with other people. Like being unable to stop worrying, stop stressing out about things that are essentially out of my control.

The last month of work has been really hard. Even though I can't control what's going wrong, I can't help feeling responsible. I've been working long hours, coming home, reading garbage popcorn books to try and take my mind off work, and going to bed. Weekends, I sleep for hours and hours because I've built up a huge sleep deficit during the week. I haven't taken care of anything other than pressing bills, haven't gotten back to friends when they call.

Things are not looking up yet at work, but I've decided that I need to fight through this and not succumb to the temptation to become a hermit. Part of this is getting back into the habit of writing a post every day. We'll see how it goes...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

lyme frustration

I posted about this in passing, but was reminded about it by this NYTimes post.

Why the hell doesn't Lyme disease get any respect? Are there actually doctors out there who don't think it exists? Why is the medical establishment so resistant to diagnosing it? In my experience, you'll get better treatment from a vet.

I know, I know, the test for it is dodgy and the symptoms aren't very exotic and it can look like a million other diseases. But it's very simple. Do you work outside on the east coast? Are you regularly in contact with grass/shrubbery/second growth areas? Then you're at risk.

My doctor had a laughably bad understanding of the disease (I panicked once when I found an embedded tick) so I thought I'd post this simple list:

1. You may or may not have a bulls-eye rash.
2. Ticks don't transmit the disease until they've been feeding for a while, so if you find one embedded and remove it later (i.e. in the shower once you get home), you're ok.
3. Ticks like warm, dark, um... furry places. Also, ticks can be really, really small. So they may not be spotted so easily.
4. Lyme disease gets harder to treat the longer you wait. Unfortunately, because the test is prone to false positives/negatives and it often seems to be the last thing a doctor will think of when you present with joint pain/neurological symptoms, you can go for years before diagnosis.

Also, lyme disease is only one of a whole bunch of diseases transmitted by ticks. The CDC sez babesiosis, crimean-congo hemorrhagic fever, southern tick-associated rash illness, tick-borne relapsing fever, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and rocky mountain spotted fever can also be spread by the buggers.

This is why I always wear pants and light-colored in the field...and take a very thorough shower afterward.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

mapping preference

I've got a question for all you geologists out there (or whoever's left after my little blog break)...

if you have to create contours of some sort (bedrock elevations, water table, contaminant plumes), do you use software, or do you hand draw them?

I always contoured by hand, using a combination of triangulation and that elusive "professional judgement". Wherever I worked, we were too cheap to have any real contouring software, so I really didn't have much of a choice. I didn't even use simple software like surfer until I was in grad school.

At the same time, I've seen a number of astonishingly bad contours drawn by software. Here's a hint: in the real world, you tend not to have little divots and hills around all of your data points.

In the ideal world, I'd have some sort of software that would do a really basic set of contours, but that I could tweak by hand, using some sort of tablet and pen device. And the software (and peripherals would be not only cheap, but somewhat rugged.

Oh, well - a girl can dream, anyway.

Monday, July 20, 2009

blog vacation

I've been running myself ragged recently and I've got a bunch of stuff to do this week, so I'm going to be taking a wee blog break. I'll be back next week.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

trivial answers

So here’s the trivia answers – I waited until today for late entries.

It was hard to decide because nobody said “highway x in state y” for all three. But Marciepooh had the most specific answers and did have something for all 3. Send me an e-mail and we’ll work out a way for you to get the tchochke.

What was I thinking of?

I did a lot of driving around the east coast, as you would guess from my profile. So that’s where I was thinking of.

1. I-84 in the southwest corner of Connecticut (gotta catch those New Yawkers)

2. I-81 in northern Pennsylvania (ditto)

3. I-95 south of Boston, in Massachusetts (incidentally, as a rule, try to avoid I-95. As the spine of the northeast corridor megapolis, it has horrific traffic jams pretty much along its entire northern portion.)

Of course, the east coast doesn't have a monopoly on bad road engineering, as you've shown in the comments. And we haven't even started on secondary roads, which can be mind-boggling...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

job gap

FSP posted recently about employment gaps in an academic CV. It's true that academics have special problems with employment gaps because they have a ticking tenure clock. But I don't really understand why employment gaps should be viewed so negatively. Sure, if you've got an applicant who's clearly a dilettante - two years at this job, 6 month gap, 8 months at this other job, etc - then you may want to question their commitment.

But the odd gap doesn't necessarily mean that a worker is going to be a slacker or a short-timer.

One of my friends had such a gap. He was applying to a non-academic job, and this particular gap wasn't long enough for him to lose any technical skills (less than a year). One potential employer (female) asked him about it, but he knew his rights. So he hemmed and hawed. But she wouldn't stop asking about it. So he got fed up and told her the truth...

"I spent 8 months taking care of my mother when she had cancer!"

On the plus side, he made the interviewer feel like a royal ass. But really, did it matter what he was doing while he wasn't working? What if he decided to be a ski bum for a winter before settling down? How would that affect his 30-year career?

I don't have dependents. My longest employment gap since I was 14 was about 2 months (not counting grad school). My parents are relatively young and healthy. But I can't guarantee that I won't need to stop working at some point. Sometimes life happens.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

chased out

There are times when environmental consultants aren't exactly welcomed with open arms when they're in the field.

In any number of situations, you can find yourself working either right next to a hostile person's property, or in the steet in front of them. Or maybe you have to be on someone's property because of a court order. I know folks who have collected samples with a sheriff standing guard. Drillers have told me that they've been shot at before.

I haven't been personally attacked, maybe because I looked young and the locals assumed (wrongly) that the other person with me was in charge. But I've witnessed coworkers getting screamed at or having folks get in their face.

Sometimes environmental issues get contentious. Having a well in the street in front of your house may lower your home's resale value, even if the source of contamination is a mile or more away. An environmental site may be the focus of consolidation, causing contamination to be concentrated (although capped or otherwise stabilized). And libertarian types may be offended if the government appears to be imposing on property owners (or paying "my tax dollars" toward cleanup).

Just remember: the person who actually comes around to do the sampling is 90% of the time a consultant working for the property owner, the law firm, the government, or whatever. And we're pretty careful to make sure that we have all our legal issues worked out so that we're not trespassing.

The environmental folks coming to the site didn't cause the mess. And the person doing the sampling is almost never in any position to make a decision about the property - they're just doing a job. Abusing the person collecting the sample does nothing to hold back or otherwise change the course of a project. If you actually drive them off, chances are they'll be back and accompanied by law enforcement. If you disagree about the project, contact your local newspaper, government, or the property owner and register an official complaint.

Monday, July 13, 2009

trivia 2

I didn't quite have a stampede of answers on the last post. So how about this: trivia contest goes until Friday and then the person with the most answers wins the tchochke (it's pretty good - actually, my sweetie may have a hard time parting with it). Tiebreaker is whoever answers the most questions first.

In the meantime, it's hot out and I had a long-ass day and I need a shower. I'll be more insightful tomorrow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

driving trivia

Folks who work in the field tend to do a lot of driving. And when you do a lot of driving, you run into some especially aggravating or hair-raising sections of road. With that in mind, here are a few trivia questions for my US readers: can you name the interstate highway and state?

1. Miles of perfect, freshly-paved 4 lane highway, no construction, no exits...with a permanent 40 mph speed limit... Doesn't sound bad, until you drive it and realize that nobody's changing their usual 80 mph driving and if some poor sucker tries to drive the speed limit, they'll get rear-ended within a minute.

2. On-ramps with stop signs...Not even a bugatti will do 0-70 in less than 2 seconds.

3. Driving in the breakdown lane is legal during rush hour...There are so many things wrong with this, I don't know where to start. How you know what happens when there's an actual breakdown?

First reader who gets all 3 gets an environmental and/or geological conference tchochke!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

air conditioning

Now that it’s getting quite hot, I’m happy to report that I finally got my AC fixed. You know who’s even happier about the AC?

My spider plant.

The spider plant (Herbie, in case you’re wondering its name) has totally perked up in the last 24 hours. It was looking a little sickly and yellow, but now it’s bright green and I could swear it’s started growing more already.

Now I have an excuse to keep the temperature at a non-environmentally friendly level. Just think of the poor houseplants!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Readers who come here via some geo-aggregator like this may come here and wonder, how is she part of the geoblogosphere, exactly? Especially if it's one of those weeks where I spend more time ranting about my internet connection than anything else.

I do post about general geology topics, whether it's politics or just the most recent geology carnival. But those posts were getting lost in my "miscellany" tag, grouped in with endless discussions of my migraines and whatever else doesn't fit anywhere else. So I made up a new geology tag and back-tagged everything.

Most of what I discuss is applicable to other fields of geology and to fieldwork in general. So I'm reserving my new "geology" tag for whatever geology topics don't fit anywhere else. And now that I have a separate tag, it'll prompt me to write more posts about general geology stuff if/when I run through my post backlog.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Accretionary wedge – inspiration

So July’s Accretionary Wedge is about how you came to be a geologist…

It’s funny, I took earth science in 8th grade and it didn’t exactly light a spark. I remember saying, “well, that was interesting, but it’s certainly nothing that I’d want to do for a career.”

In high school, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to be an archaeologist. I didn’t care about finding super-cool artifacts, but I wanted to be the person down in the trenches, peeling away layers, excavating shards of whatever and putting things back together.

I was always involved in some fundraiser or another, so my parents ended up getting a lot of magazine subscriptions. One of those was to Archaeology, but oddly enough, I usually didn’t read much of each issue, even though I was generally a voracious reader.

So, archaeology it was. When applying to college, I used “must have an archaeology department” and “small liberal arts school” as my two main criteria. That cut the number of potential schools way down.

By the time I actually entered college, I’d realized that archaeology isn’t exactly awash with jobs and I didn’t think I was good enough to compete in a tough job market. So I turned my attention to geology. I took a terrific intro to geology course that was designed essentially to suck in people who hadn’t considered geology as a major. And I was hooked.

I never did take a pure archaeology course…but I never would have guessed in high school that much of my work would be so similar to traditional archaeology.

Monday, July 6, 2009

job stress

I’ve recently admitted to some job stress. When I've been working long hours in the field and everything keeps getting screwed up, I start to get tempted by every other job I encounter. "Receptionist at a doctor's office? In the AC? I could totally go for that! Grocery bagger? No responsibility sounds pretty good…”

The problem is now I’m starting to think, “It’s pretty sweet being a grad student. I get to do science, but I set my own hours, my research is my own, and I have an infinitely smaller amount of paperwork. Wouldn’t it be cool to be a PhD student and not have to worry about this responsibility stuff for another couple years?”

…no, it would not. As much as I bitch and moan, I do like having enough money that I can afford meat with my dinner. And actually building up savings instead of losing money. And not having to live with 3 strangers who walk off with all the forks I brought to the house. And…

Thursday, July 2, 2009

200 posts

200 posts! Time for a word cloud of the last 100 posts...

As before, this shows I use a lot of qualifiers and casual language. My thesis word cloud, which I can't show because it's a little too accurate and has certain "terms of art" that would pretty much blow my pseudonymity, has almost no qualifiers.

The other thing I noticed about this word cloud is that while the big words are the same as the 100-post cloud, you can see that I had certain topics that I harped on, like spiders, that don't make it here. Spider spider spider! Instead, "hotel" appears relatively large because I had several posts on various aspects of hotels.

Well, that was fun, but it took way too long to compile all my posts into one document. I won't be willing to that for, oh, another 100 posts...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

party pooper

My sweetie is out at the weekly "cheesy 80s movie nite" at the local bar. I used to enjoy doing this, but fieldwork has me completely beat. So instead I stayed in, "cooked" some dinner (1 rotisserie chicken, some reconstituted mashed potatoes, and some frozen veggies), and will be going to bed at about the time they start the movie.

If I'm traveling for work, I don't really get to unwind at all. But the end of a long day, it's hard to be sociable even when I get home and could actually meet up with some friends.

It could be that I'm just getting old...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ipod = brunton?

So, I'm pretty late to this discussion about whether we can replace our low-tech gear with high-tech toys.

In environmental consulting, most fieldwork is low-tech. That's not necessarily true for all field people or all geologists; I'm just going on my experience here. With that caveat out of the way...

I could carry around a tablet PC for notes, or I could use an ipod app instead of a physical compass. I don't, and most consultants I know don't either, for a couple of reasons:

1. Equipment fragility. If it's below freezing or above 90, or if the humidity's high, a lot of electronic gizmos have problems. I just dropped my rugged cell phone a few minutes before starting to write this post, and the battery popped out (still works!). The screen has a few dings from being dropped on hard surfaces, and it's only a matter of time before I drop it in water. Finally, if you're in a particularly nasty place, you may need your electronic equipment to be intrinsically safe.

2. Legal documentation. Most regulators and lawyers like to see one field original, in ink. Yeah, you can gin up an electronic signature for your files, but most authorities are most comfortable with a stack of paperwork that can be stamped and filed and tucked away.

3. Incompatibility. PDFs are the gold standard right now for transmitting reports, so this is going away. But you still have relic filing/storage issues. Floppies? (even real floppies) drives? Various drawing programs that have been rendered obsolete? A lot of scientific data retain value for decades. It's nice to put stuff on a network (and how good is your backup, anyway?), but nicer still to retain originals for posterity.

Monday, June 29, 2009


I got recently involved in a whole long discussion about using words like “sweetie” or “hon” in a business setting. A fair number of people thought that folks who didn’t like/complained about being called “sweetie” were obnoxious complainers, elitist, or just plain unpleasant.

I don’t mind being called by some form of endearment in a casual setting. At a restaurant? Fine. It's even sort of charming if it’s a diner sort of place and the waitress is old enough to be my mother.

It’s another thing altogether when I’m wrapping up a long phone call about a bunch of technical details with a subcontractor. I’m the client. You know my name. Cooing “bye, bye, sweetie” right at the end is completely unprofessional.

A lot of people will think I’m being overly sensitive. But I’m guessing those same people haven’t had to fight to be taken seriously with every new business interaction.

Friday, June 26, 2009

tick contamination

You know what sucks? Waking up after a nice, restful night to find a tick climbing up the wall right over my head. It makes me wonder what else was crawling around in my hair last night.

I've left ticks in hotel rooms all over the place. Usually, though, I catch them and/or get rid of them in the shower if they don't get left behind in my clothing. If they're on my clothing, I'll find them crawling around the floor.

I did some work in a resort area, and since I was working in the off-season, I was able to stay in a fancy hotel. I was somewhat chagrined when I took my stuff off, took a shower, and came back to find several ticks crawling through the carpet. Over the month of fieldwork, I'm afraid that I utterly contaminated the hotel - not intentionally, but the damn things get everywhere. Especially the little tiny ones that are the Lyme's disease carriers.

I'll have to keep an eye out for flu-like symptoms and joint pain...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

long-ass day

I had one of those days today...long day, lots of stress, and then I got stuck in traffic and sat for an hour. I'm sitting on the couch with a big glass of wine and the remains of dinner (takeout - I wasn't feeling up to cooking), watching Discover. Also, I have poison ivy again, and the itch is driving me crazy. The heat isn't helping that bit.

It's really too bad that I have a bunch of non-work related stuff to do. Maybe I'll go to bed early and worry about that tomorrow.

I noticed that blogosphere traffic has slowed must be vacation time for everyone. I know I'm having a hard time being motivated right now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

field fun

I complain about fieldwork a lot, but there are some viscerally satisfying things I get to do. Three of my favorites:

1. Thwacking my way through a big thicket of dried-out reeds. Nothing makes you feel like an intrepid explorer like fighting your way through brush that's way over your head and that offers just enough resistance to make it feel like an accomplishment.

2. Compositing sediment samples. Sticking your (gloved) hands into a big bowl of goo and mushing it around, ostensibly to pick out the twigs and rocks, brings out the toddler in everyone.

3. Prying silt or fine sand off augers. This is similar to #2, but with stiffer material that peels off like modelling clay.

When I engage in these activities, a little part of me still says, "whee! I'm getting paid for this!"

Monday, June 22, 2009

relative stress

I was the only consultant on a drilling site, and I was doing my usual running around – fielding phone calls from various contractors and my boss (“no, it would not be a good idea to have all the regulators watch the drilling in the one location that’s a mud bog”) while trying to sample soil and keep an eye on the driller. Then the facility rep came by with all sorts of logistical questions about the next phase of work.

The driller had been watching as I got progressively more frazzled. He said, “You shouldn’t get so stressed out about that stuff. It’ll happen or not.”

I said, “Easy enough for you to say – you just have to run the rig.”

He said, “Run the rig? If something breaks, it’s up to me to fix it. And everything comes to a screeching halt until then.”

Hmmm…he may have been on to something…

Friday, June 19, 2009

more porta follies

Earlier, I discussed gender parity in porta potties. Regardless of how you break out the facilities, you need to remember one cardinal rule: the sign on the door says “1 facility per 10 people per 40 hours”.

The porta-potty cleaner wants to stick to a weekly schedule, and frankly, may show up a couple days late. If you’re working 50 or 60 or more hours on site, you have to adjust your numbers so that you don’t run over. Also, people tend to avoid using the porta-potty except to pee, but if you’re working 10-12 hours (or more) and you’re stuck eating fast food, that porta-potty is going to get used a lot more.

Porta-potties are miserable any time of year - frigid in the winter, bug infested any other time. And regardless of how fastidious the crew is, the porta-potty is going to get disgusting. Luckily, porta potties are dirt cheap to rent, especially compared to your other field supply/rental costs. So please, please, be generous with the porta-potties. It’s a simple cost that improves morale exponentially.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

al desco?

So FSP posted recently here and here about eating "al desco". She seemed to confuse the issue of eating at your desk with the idea of working through lunch.

Honestly, when I'm in the office, I almost always eat lunch at my desk. But it doesn't have anything to do with work - that's when I surf the internet. Hell, ever since I first got internet at home, I've eaten breakfast every morning in front of a computer. Yes, I do need to shake crumbs out of my keyboards on a regular basis.

I find it almost impossible to eat while doing real work in the office. Even if I'm on the phone, I'm shuffling papers, scanning documents, or taking notes. In the field, it's a little easier to grab a bite while you wait for readings to stabilize or for the driller to fix whatever just broke.

Monday, June 15, 2009

landfill drilling

I enjoy drilling in landfills because it allows me to be an amateur archaeologist. Date this layer by the newspaper fragments that come up in the split spoon! Name that engine part/common household appliance!

The problem, though, is the methane that builds up. If you’re doing environmental work, you may be working on old landfills that don’t have vents to release methane. And even modern landfills don’t necessarily have perfect venting systems.

The instrument you tend to use on a landfill to detect methane and other unpleasant organic compounds is a flame ionization detector (FID). Here’s the thing to remember: the FID needs a certain oxygen level to work. Otherwise, the flame goes out.

If you’re working on a landfill and you get busy collecting samples and whatnot, you may not have your eyes on the FID at all times to see if the gas concentrations are going up. If the FID flame goes out, do not stand around trying to re-start it, muttering about stupid finicky instruments, while your driller blithely continues. Chances are, if the flame goes out at a landfill, you’ve got too much methane. You need to back off. Otherwise, you end up with the following phone call:

Geologist: “I can’t get this damn FID to work. Do you have a replacement?”

Team Leader: “do you mean that the flame keeps going out? Because if it is, you need to-“

Geologist: “SHIT! We’ve started a brush fire!”

…did I mention that methane burns with an invisible flame? Not good.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I was at a training session recently, and the discussion turned to bathroom facilities.

Various people with some knowledge of OSHA regulations insisted that you had to have two bathroom facilities for men and women. I said, “sounds good – that means I can insist the project manager pony up for two porta-potties!”

But what they meant was that you had to have separate facilities for men and women. I guess you’re supposed to write “men” on one and “women” on the other and enforce a rigorous separation.

The fact is, men and women share a bathroom all the time. They’re called unisex bathrooms. It’s not like you’re actually in the bathroom at the same time as the guys, since they’ve got only one toilet and a locking door.

Also, porta potties are different from regular bathrooms in that they have a limited lifespan. If you have one woman using one porta potty and thirty men using another (a gender ratio I have come across on certain large field projects), the mens’ porta potties will fill up exponentially faster. And no matter how much you write “men” or “ladies” on the door, once you have, um, filled porta potties, people are going to start using the one that isn’t disgusting.

I haven’t seen any field sites where the porta potties are kept separated by gender. Is this actually done?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

internet issues

I had more internet issues this week. But I should clarify:

Sometimes I am indeed unable to access the internet at all. Usually this is when I'm in the field or otherwise travelling. But most times I don't have internet, it's because my home internet has gone on the fritz. Like this week. I rarely lose office internet (much less often than at grad school, which is sort of sad).

I would never add new posts, let alone view blogspot at all, from a work computer. Why not? Most companies have strict personal-use policies, at least on paper. Generally speaking, I feel ok doing some non-controversial web surfing (a mainstream media news site), but I'm not going to do anything "controversial" on a company computer. Also, unless you're working in an academic setting, you have no expectation of privacy. The last thing I want to do is leave little cookie crumbs all over the web, including those leading to this blog.

Monday, June 8, 2009

following directions

So the June scientiae carnival is up (see here and here) and I was all bummed that my entry wasn't posted. After some investigation, I realized I sent an e-mail announcing my post to the wrong address (scientiae at blabity blah instead of scientiaecarnival at blabity blah). I didn't catch it because the e-mail did go through.

This is what happens when you work 70 hours and then you try and follow directions.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

owing the reader

Every once in a while, a commenter on a science blog will charge that the blogger is not “serious” enough; not rigorous enough in their analysis.

I don’t have any pretensions of being some sort geological/scientific expert blogger. In this venue, I’ve prioritized having something written every workday. If I were to write long, cogent, exquisitely well-supported posts, they wouldn’t be coming in daily, that’s for sure. I work up to 70 hours/week (not including commuting time) and sometimes I get migraines, and I do have a life outside of work and blogging.

I was blog-hopping the other day, and I came across this post. Neil Gaiman (he has a terrific, time-wasting blog, incidentally) was responding to a reader’s question about George R. R. Martin, who is clearly struggling with the direction of his big series. Gaiman says, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Bloggers (and novelists) do not have a financial contract with the reader. Most bloggers are not getting any money whatsoever for what they put out there. I’m not expecting a book deal… you’ll just have to take me the way I am.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

the backpack

So, how many "gear" posts can I write? Apparently, a lot.

This post discusses field backpack requirements. I agree with most of them (padded back, separate water holder, clips and loops for holding awkward stuff like hammers, wallet/key compartment), but I should be honest here.

I do not have a fancy backpack. I have a backpack that I got around 10 years ago to replace the pack I got in high school. It does have a couple of separate compartments, but it doesn't have all of the modern amenities. Also, the straps have been closed in car doors a few too many times and the weight-distributing belt clips are broken.

The main compartment of my backpack collects most of the miscellaneous stuff, so the bottom is sort of... dangerous at this point. It's a mess of crumbs from lunches that leaked, semi-pulverized asprin from a big bottle that opened at some point, loose change, feminine products that are too grungy to be used except in case of dire emergency, a dead stopwatch, a mostly dead calculator, and who knows what else.

As with a lot of field gear, a new backpack would be nice, but it's also the sort of thing that I don't really think about until I'm out in the field and I have to deal with it. I don't think, "oh, I'll go backpack shopping this weekend!" and so it never gets done. I would put backpack replacement higher on my to-do list if it stopped working for me, i.e. a strap or a zipper broke. But I got it from LLBean and the damn thing's invincible.

I do, however, have a certain present-giving holiday coming up... anybody have particular brands/models of backpacks they'd recommend?

Monday, June 1, 2009

more migraines

I seem to have suffered more than my usual share of migraines recently (this is post-migraine-induced nap). I'm still working on the I mentioned in an old post, the big trigger for me is bright light/eyestrain. It's usually compounded by dehydration or poor eating habits; for example, eating donuts for breakfast.

A friend of mine in grad school got similar migraines, and she thought that pressure changes had a lot to do with it. I realized that I did indeed tend to get migraines when a warm front moves through.

I'm relatively lucky because I can treat my migraines with simple OTC stuff, as long as I take it as soon as I start to feel draggy/headachy. But my mother, who I've inherited my migraines from, insists that they get steadily worse over time. Not something I'm looking forward to.

Friday, May 29, 2009

growing toward grace

This month’s scientiae is about moving forward. My own career is progressing but under embargo right now (in case you didn’t notice), so I’d like to discuss another long-term work in progress.

I was born small, and I ended up small when I eventually finished growing. I had the pleasure of being developmentally delayed, physically, so while growing up I was dwarfed by my peers. I was also sensitive. I liked people, I found them fascinating…at a distance. Everybody was so big, so loud. I was happy to hang out on the fringes, watching other kids. I was equally happy entertaining myself.

In junior high, if anybody took notice of me, I was…punished. Not physically (it didn’t take much to cow me), but I was quickly cut down. High school was better – I was left alone. In college, I never found a clique I could break into. I perfected the art of being…if not invisible, then unnoticed.

But when I started working, I quickly found out that I wasn’t invisible. I was given more responsibility relatively quickly, and I was supposed to order around subcontractors, lead meetings, and otherwise assert myself. I realized that I did have a lot to contribute, but that my ingrained wallflower habits were interfering with that.

So I set a goal for myself: to overcome all those years of being shy. A more concrete goal is to be able to navigate a big social gathering effortlessly. Whether I’m wandering around the posters at a conference, waiting for the big client meeting to start, or just attending a wedding where I don’t know many people, I’d like to be able to start and continue a conversation with anybody. I’m trying to find grace.

It’s not easy to overcome 20 years of negative reinforcement and become a confident, social person. But I’m working on it. How’s my progress so far?

I’m a lot better in formal interactions, such as when giving lectures or doing safety meetings with subcontractors. I’m still working on internalizing the habits and social skills that I should have picked up when I was younger: Using the right amount of eye contact. Interrupting when appropriate. Answering questions (“how was your weekend?”) with more than a one-word answer, and asking my own questions.

It’s funny – when I was a teenager, I was convinced that I had completely matured. It’s nice to know I’m still capable of changing what I thought was a fundamental part of me, still growing.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I didn't post yesterday because of yet another migraine. Anywhoo...

Scheduling reminds me of a college "gut" course. It's not difficult, but you still have to show up and do the work occasionally. If you don't, you will fail.

Back before I was a geologist, I worked in a customer-service type job. The adults generally had fixed schedules, and the high school students had pretty much flexible schedules between the hours of 3 pm and 9 pm. We had to have a minimum number of people available to help the public, say, 3. At least one adult had to be on-site to supervise the high school students who did most of the work. Somehow this schedule coordination was beyond the abilities of my boss, who had an advanced degree in this field. She was eventually fired for being utterly ineffectual.

Working out the schedule for an environmental consulting office is likewise fairly simple. You may have a couple more experienced field folks and a few people who are more specialized. So what do you do? You schedule those people first and then you fit in the other people around them. You figure out who's doing what when you first get an inkling when the fieldwork will happen, not the day before, when everybody's already committed.

How hard is this? I've scheduled long-term projects with multiple subcontractors, where each phase depended on the results of previous work, and we had to pull personnel from all over the country. All you need is to sit down and actually think about how to plan stuff, and then keep up with changes as they happen. It's not rocket science.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

a fellow traveller

Most of the time when I did consulting fieldwork, I stayed within driving distance of the home office. I did occasionally fly to field sites, which became more annoying with all the post-911/post-shoe bomber travel restrictions.

When I had the time, I shipped my field gear to the site or the hotel using one of the several dozen coolers that we always had on hand for samples. But if I didn’t have the time, I packed my clipboard, my steel-toe boots, my hard hat, and sundry other awkward/heavy/metal-bearing stuff in with my checked luggage and then changed everything (this was quite an involved process in the winter) in the airport bathroom when I got my luggage back. And not all airports are set up for this sort of thing – I usually ended up stripping in the bathroom proper because I didn’t have room in the stall to fit my luggage and enough elbow room that I wouldn’t fall into the toilet when I tried to peel a sock off.

I had just finished changing into “civilian” clothing in a small airport when another woman came in and started changing out of field gear. Apparently I’m not the only one who has to do this…

Friday, May 22, 2009

how romantic!

So, there's an article up on the NY times magazine about manual labor and how it's underappreciated as a career choice. Now I can't find it - it was in the Sunday preview. But it should be up again tomorrow.

I agree that we shouldn't automatically disparage any and all careers that don't involve a college education. There are many different types of intelligence, and someone who's good at spatial relationships is not inferior to someone who's good at writing. And in my own family, those of us who went into the trades have a significantly more comfortable and secure living than the college graduates. Heck, I just mentioned recently that I'm paid far less than the drillers who work for me, and I'm probably on par with their helpers.

But let's not get carried away here. In the article (if you can find it), the author contrasts his experience working as a drone for a soulless corporation with his current job fixing motorcycles. This is silly. Not all management or office work is pointless and dull, and very, very few people who are mechanics (let alone other folks who work with their hands) get to putter around with exotic machinery, having confabs with friendly shops whose owners will help with the complicated stuff.

There is a historical reason why manual labor has been seen as less desirable, and it's one that he actually spends some time discussing. Manual labor is dangerous. It's messy. If you look up my drilling tag, most of the posts are safety related. Any time you're outside, working around machinery, there is a chance you'll get squashed or smashed or burned or frozen. If you take a poll of drillers with more than say, 10 years of experience, probably 1/3 to 1/2 have at least part of a finger missing.

I love being outside. I chose to be a geologist, to do environmental work. But if you think that working outside, getting my hands dirty, is some sort of soul-enhancing, romantic experience, well...maybe you should re-read my posts again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

more truck fun

I've mentioned before that I've gotten all sorts of obnoxious commentary when I drive a super-duty truck. A lot of it is along the lines of, "ooh, that must be hard to drive!"

Um, no. What's annoying to drive is a box-style truck, where you don't have a rearview mirror (why bother? It would only show the back of the cab) and the box extends some distance to either side and above you. You have to remember that things like branches and bridges and parking garage ceilings are somewhat harder to avoid. Also, the box lets you pile stuff higher than you would otherwise, so you have to make sure stuff's well secured...there's nothing like taking the first turn and cringing as your bottleware goes flying. Or stopping short and listening as everything slides forward 15 feet to smack against the cab.

And then there's those truck weigh-stops, which a CDL-knowledgeable person has recently informed me that you're supposed to stop at. I've never done so, partially because I have no idea how the scales operate or what I'm supposed to do, exactly. This same person assured me that the DOT doesn't really care about trucks small enough to rent without a CDL, but it's one more annoyance I'd rather not deal with, thanks. I'll take an overstuffed cargo van any day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

girlz stuff

Zuska posted recently about dell's inane marketing toward females (ooh, if you're a girl, you need a pink laptop with special dieting tips!). They've toned the site's sexism way down after a slew of commentary - as of this writing, they're highlighting super-light netbooks and acessories. But this reminded me of my experience with "legos for girls".

I was a huge lego fan when I was a kid. I always asked for lego stuff for presents, and over a few years I accumulated a large number of structures which ended up totally taking over my room. Each set would come with a couple of lego people, and I felt compelled to make room in my lego town for a place for every single lego person to sleep (I hadn't thought of the night shift), so I ended up with several hotels/sleeping shanties that contained nothing but beds. I often played by myself, making up long lineages and interpersonal conflicts between everyone in town. I was a little stumped by the repeat lego men, so there were a lot of twins and triplets.

The only thing I lacked was lego ladies. My lego town was a sausagefest. I'd be lucky to get one lego lady per set, and when I got the little "person only" sets, there'd be 10 men and one woman. So you can imagine my joy when I heard about special legos for girls. Finally, gender lego parity! But no, all it meant was that you could buy all pink building blocks. And you still didn't have an equal number of lego ladies.

I know there's all sorts of obnoxious gendered toys. But my lego experience was the first time I consciously thought about how these things were pushed on kids. I stopped playing with legos around then because I started writing down the characters in my head rather than building houses for them, but I may have gotten a couple more sets if I hadn't been so insulted by the marketing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

coffee? bedtime?

I mentioned in the last post that I'm not a coffee drinker. This post reminds me that I appear to be in the non coffee-drinking minority. I remember being told that I'd get hooked once I got to college, but I never felt the need. Partially, it's because caffeine doesn't really work as a stimulant for me (although it does appear to help my migraines).

The real reason I haven't really tried coffee or other stimulants is that I simply don't stay up late to finish work (I have stayed late to finish work, but that has only rarely cut into actual sleeping time). I am not a slacker by any means; in fact I usually take my responsibilities too seriously. Regardless, I have never pulled an all-nighter. Most of the people I knew in college who drank gallons of coffee and pulled all-nighters regularly didn't have any more work than me (in fact, as a geology major I had considerably more work than most) and they probably got about the same amount of sleep. They just became nocturnal. I never understood what was so heroic about that.

I'm a morning person. When it's past my bedtime, I'm simply not functional and it's better for me just to go to bed. I can wake up obscenely early in a pinch, but I need to get at least a couple hours of solid sleep before I'm functional again. My personal internal clock, which I was able to follow in grad school, prodded me to go to bed at 10:30 or 11, wake up to pee between the hours of 3 and 5, sleep somewhat lightly from then on, and wake up for good between 7 and 7:30.

I'm fortunate that my personal sleep cycle fits well with standard American business hours. Too many of my friends are caffeine and/or sleeping aid addicts. I think they'd save a lot of aggravation (and money) if they could just work out a schedule that would fit with their internal clock and would stop stressing out about "insomnia" when the sleep they do get adds up to at least 8 hours.

Friday, May 15, 2009

hotel amenities 2

My previous post addressed hotel amenities that should be standard for mid-range hotels catering to professionals. In order to help cut costs, here are some things that are not needed:

1. hair dryer (if you use one, don’t you usually bring your own?)
2. 2 or more lights within 5 feet of each other
3. automatic replacement of all bedsheets/towels daily (use those little “please change” tents instead)
4. shower caps and other totally random toiletries
5. Coffee maker

Number 5 may be heresy to some, but all the coffee drinkers I know would much rather make a quick stop on the way to the jobsite and buy their poison rather than brewing the sanka or whatever it is they have in the hotel room.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

hotel amenities

Earlier this year I mentioned in passing some of the hotel amenities I especially look for: internet and breakfast.

I’d like to revisit that topic: what are the reasonable hotel amenities that should be included in a standard hotel stay? I’m not including super-budget hotels (say, less than $50/night, although obviously this varies by location), long-term stay hotels, or luxury hotels, but rather places where a professional traveler would generally stay. I'm leaving out the obvious, like running water.

Here’s my list, in no particular order:

1. a reasonable selection of pillows (at least one flat pillow and one puffy pillow)
2. free or cheap internet (and not just at a single computer in the lobby)
3. shampoo AND conditioner
4. a continental breakfast with at least one item that has either protein or more complex carbs, (i.e. something more than just a selection of packaged donuts/pastry) so I’m not hungry again an hour later
5. the possibility of a fridge and microwave – one microwave down by the lobby is ok
6. at least one trash receptacle with a plastic liner in it
7. hangars for wet stuff or clothing that needs to be kept unwrinkled
8. a working alarm clock
9. a deadbolt

So there you have it, hotels: if you have all of the stuff in this list, you’re well on your way to making travelling professionals happy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

offices for fieldwork

In environmental consulting, office locations are occasionally selected because the building/office space looks like a nice place to bring clients (important, I will grant) and not in order to facilitate fieldwork.

So what would facilitate fieldwork?

The first thing would be a location fairly accessible to store stuff. Someplace preferably on the first floor, and with doors that can be held open so that you’re not constantly crashing into them with large, heavy, and/or angular objects. Also, carpeting is bad for storage. Batteries can leak acid, samples can break, and some test kits and sample preservatives have special storage requirements (i.e. a flammables and/or corrosives cabinet).

The other storage issue is vehicles. If you had a big van or worse, a box truck, you needed enough parking space to store it. And the parking lot had to be secure enough to leave your own vehicle for weeks at a time without worrying about it getting damaged or hauled away by suspicious office park management types.

The other consideration is how to get rid of stuff. In consulting, we always ordered a bunch of consumable items. Gloves, sample bottleware, packing material…and if we had a subcontractor who produced a lot of stuff and nowhere on-site to dispose of it, then the amount of trash could get pretty impressive. So we needed to have access to a dumpster…something that not every fancy office building has.

There’s a simple solution. When you need to move to a bigger space (or more likely in this economy, you need to move somewhere smaller to save on rent), ask your employees what they need in a future office.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

more abbreviation angst

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about one of my writing pet peeves: randomly redefining abbreviations. Another abbreviation annoyance is using them when you don't need to.

For example, I read a paper that abbreviated lead (Pb). I can’t fathom why the authors felt compelled to shorten a 4-letter word. Maybe it looked more scientific? It doesn't help that the chemical abbreviation doesn't match the English name. Yeah, I know that Pb is the chemical abbreviation for lead, but it still causes a little mental stop when you’re reading. And the paper was only about lead, and no other element, so it’s not like the authors were discussing a huge list of elements and wanted to keep the terms consistent.

We have enough abbreviations in scientific writing that are necessary. Let's not go cluttering up technical writing with extraneous ones.

Monday, May 11, 2009

how many outfits?

One irritation of being a female geologist is the sheer amount of clothing you have to buy, at no small expense.

I've bitched here and here about the cost/difficulty of finding field clothing for small females. It's not insignificant, considering you really do need enough clothing for 2 weeks of fieldwork in any weather conditions.

Then, you may spend long stretches in the office, so you need full office attire (not easy to find for a short, slightly-built female, as I complained about here).

After a couple years, I'd finally found all the clothing I needed: raingear that fit and kept me dry, cold weather gear, breathable bras for when it's a million degrees out, acceptable button-down shirts, etc. Then I went to grad school.

I am not a particularly vain person. However, my field clothing is strictly that - for field use only. It is utterly logo-free, indestructable, militantly sexless, and chosen without any regard for how it looks (other than being clean and non form-fitting), because just finding stuff that fits is nigh-impossible. When I'm not at work, I like to wear stuff that's comfortable, not utterly out of style, and that I actually enjoy wearing.

By the time I'd gotten to grad school, my non-work wardrobe had seriously atrophied. I was wearing one beloved pair of pants, a backup pair of jeans I didn't like very much, and a couple favorite shirts on the weekends, and that was about all I had. But in grad school, I wore non-work clothing every day. So I got a third wardrobe.

The problem with all this stuff is that I didn't have room for it in grad school, and I had to drag it all over creation until I finally settled in this new, non-grad school area and by the time I was ready to contemplate wearing field and office clothing again, my ass had grown and I needed all new stuff anyhow. Grrr.

Friday, May 8, 2009

losing my accent

I spent my formative years surrounded by people who had a distinctive way of speaking. My own accent was never particularly strong, but I knew folks who were incomprehensible to outsiders. I have a certain fondness for this way of speaking, even though it has certain negative associations.

So then I went away to grad school in a place where the locals had an equally distinctive accent (but distinct in a completely different way). I spent my first couple months inwardly giggling at everybody around me, but before I knew it, I had picked up this additional accent. At the same time, in some sort of subconscious rebellion against the new accent, my original accent got a lot stronger.

Now I have what has been called charitably a "lilt". I have ceased making fun of celebrities with odd or fake sounding accents (e.g. Madonna), because I sound sort of silly myself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

gorilla grip

Another nice thing about being a female geologist is that I don't feel any need to prove myself with the firmness of my handshake. That whole "I must demonstrate my masculinity by having the strongest grip" thing is foreign to me. Also, as a small female, I think sometimes the people I meet are pleasantly surprised that I don't have a totally limp handshake.

If you are big into the whole "overpowering handshake" thing, please, please do not attempt it when shaking hands with a driller. You know, the person who spends his days picking up extremely heavy cylindrical objects? It will end...poorly.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

generator issues

I had a coworker who was frustrated by a newbie who needed a lot of help in the field. "She can't even turn on a generator!"

I have to admit that I became an equipment rental company's "dart target of the week" once myself, and it was a generator that pushed them over the top.

I'd already called several times that week about other non-functional equipment that didn't respond well to phone coaching, so I'd already exhausted the rental company's patience.

This was when the new generation of smaller, enclosed generators became available (i.e. not the giant rattle-y metal ones). The generator kept shutting off, and nothing we did could keep it running. Notice the "we". I had several people with me in the field, and one person had some background in keeping engines running. I kept calling the rental folks, they would suggest different things, it would re-start fine, and then it would die 5-10 minutes later. The same thing happened with the replacement generator they sent out. You can see why they were starting to get irritated...

Experienced field folks may be able to guess what was wrong...there's an itty-bitty switch on the gas cap itself that needs to be in a particular position. If it's not open, air can't get in and the generator dies.

The problem is that basic field equipment like generators don't necessarily come with instruction manuals. Sure, I can operate one now (assuming I can yank the cord properly), but I certainly remember how it feels to be mystified by something that's supposedly basic.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

dinner quandry

So you've worked a super long day in the field and you have several more equally long days ahead of you.

You get to your hotel room, shuck off your sweaty/icy/wet stuff, jump into a cold/hot shower, pull on some skivvies, and throw your leftovers into the microwave. As the smell of reheated whatever fills the hotel room, you realize that you have no fork. And this particular dinner is in no way finger food.

Do you a) scrounge around for something to wear, drag yourself over to the front desk, and get a fork, b) turn the complimentary coffee stirrers that you do have into chopsticks, or c) say, "I may not have a fork, but I do have a sink" and use your fingers anyway?

Let's just say I didn't get a fork...

Monday, May 4, 2009

thesis formatting

Comment #11 in this post fit so perfectly with my grad school experience, I had to run off and write a post right after I read it.

"The biggest hurdle of graduate education is getting the dissertation margins and section headings and whatnot tweaked to satisfy Graduate Division, or the Librarian, or whoever the Authority is at your school."

This was the one thing that made me almost miss my super-important deadline to finish my graduation requirements (or else I was going to be on the hook for another term of tuition/fees with no funding). I hadn't attended any of the thesis formatting workshops my university held a couple times a term, but at some point in the less stressful part of the thesis writing (i.e. before I knew how soon my deadline would be) I did download the formatting guidelines and organized everything so it all worked.

Incidentally, one of my key skills in grad school was learning how to build a table of contents and how to format stuff so figures and titles and sub-subsections and all those sorts of things build automatically. With a 100+ page document, that's a lifesaver.

Anyway, when I actually handed the damn thesis in the day before the deadline, I still ended up with a long list of annoying formatting issues that had to be fixed. We did some back and forth via e-mail (I wasn't on campus to negotiate this, and the file was super big so just sending it was a trial) and it was officially accepted the day after the deadline. I did some fast talking, though, and snuck in without going over into the next term.

I realize that not getting readers together to approve your thesis is a more fundamental roadblock. But it's so frustrating when you think you're finally done, only to spend another frantic couple days formatting the thing just so.

Friday, May 1, 2009

consulting = $$$?

In college, I was under the impression that consulting paid lots of money. Well, not the sort of consulting I ended up doing. And as a consultant, sometimes your job sucks.

We were working on an incredibly frustrating job. The weather was lousy, we’d been working together way too long, and the field manager was one wrong interaction from snapping. We were training a new geologist, and he was a little overwhelmed. Then he found out how much we were paid compared to everyone else on-site.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Newbie: “Did you know the driller’s helper is paid more than we are?”
Short Geologist: “Yep.”
Newbie: “Man, I would take that job in a second. You just do whatever the driller tells you. Grab that wrench, pick up that pipe… there’s no extra BS.”
Short Geologist: “That's a low bar. Right now I'd take working at McDonald's.”
Field Manager: “C’mon, guys. There have to be worse jobs than this. Like, um…”
(in the glum silence that follows, the porta-potty chemical changer drives up and hooks up his hose. An overwhelming chemical/sewage smell wafts over the site)
Field Manager: “That’s a worse job than this one.”
Short geologist: “Maybe he’ll clean out the 2 huntsman spiders in the porta-potty while he’s at it.”
Newbie: “That’s funny. I counted 3 big spiders.”
Field Manager: “Um, Short? Hold still…”
Short Geologist: “AAAHHH!” (runs off screaming)

Ok, I'm kidding about the huntsman spider part. Avid readers will recognize that the short geologist would not get within 20 feet of a full-grown huntsman. The short geologist gets the willies sharing a porta-potty with garden-variety spiders. Unfortunately, that happens every time she gets in one.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

how'd you get here?

Drugmonkey’s post a couple days ago asks his readers how they came to start reading science blogs. How did I come to the science blogosphere?

I never went looking for science or academic blogs. I was reading a blog associated with a major media outlet, and the poster had a link to the angry professor. From there, I followed links to FSP and from there to the geoblogosphere.

I stayed a lurker for about 6 months, then I started commenting regularly. Less than a year after I first started checking out blog posts, I'd gotten worked up enough about certain topics that I was composing posts of my own in my head. And before I knew it, I became Short Geologist...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

dirt disposal problems

I'm always interested in the public reaction to environmental issues. So I was curious to see what folks would say about this NY times post about the interaction of contaminants and health problems.

A consistent theme in the comments was concern over the fate of the contaminants in the article. If the soil was so contaminated, why did they just haul it away? Wouldn't that just cause another mess somewhere else?

The idea is to take contaminants that are uncontrolled out of the environment. Contaminated soil has to go somewhere, so often it goes to another facility. Modern landfills that are licensed to take hazardous waste have all sorts of systems to stabilize contaminated soils and keep the contamination from migrating elsewhere, so it doesn't cause excessive risks to health and the environment.

Ideally, we'd like to neutralize contamination either in place or at some sort of treatment facility. But stubborn, relatively stable contaminants like dioxin are really hard to treat. And treatment systems to treat, say, solvents in groundwater may take generations to completely clean up contamination in place.

If we had simple, cheap alternatives to clean up contamination, we'd be using them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

scientiae snapshot

So the May scientiae carnival is being hosted by Katherine Hexton at Endless Possibilities. The theme for this month is "snapshots". So I'm including two snapshots, one of myself and one of this blog.

Snapshot #1: Who am I right now?

I've worked in environmental consulting long enough that I'm comfortable with whatever's thrown at me, but I'm not old enough to be considered middle-aged. My eyes have crinkles from squinting in the sun and my gray hairs are starting to become fairly obvious. Regardless, the opinion of the general public is that I appear to be 17.

I'm trying to preserve my pseudonimity (is that a word?) but things have been really stressful recently. I'm seriously reconsidering what I'm doing right now, but I'm going to be here a while (thanks, lousy economy!). I think my recent illnesses are a sign that I'm working too much, stressing out too much, and getting run down.

Snapshot #2: Where is this blog right now?

This is post 163.

I tend to write as I think - each post reminds me something of something else. For example, I've been on a "public" tag run recently. I do try to mix up my post topics, though.

When I first started this blog, I wrote down a list of about 100 posts that I wanted to write. I still haven't covered all those topics; in fact, I've got a couple of complete posts in my head that I just haven't written down. I've tried to post regularly this whole time, and when I don't post, it's because of physical limitations (internet or schedule problems) rather than a lack of topics to cover. So I should be here for a while yet, and if I do make a significant career change, I'll keep you posted.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I've had some sort of odd head cold/sickness (no, not swine flu, I promise) for the last week and a half. I've had only minor cold symptoms, but I've been totally wiped out. I've been sleeping 14 hours a day. I've had a bunch of stuff to do, so I've done nothing but work and sleep.

I am feeling (mostly) better, so I should be back to my normal programming this week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

first abbreviation

In consulting and in grad school, I edited a number of technical documents. One of the first things I looked for was abbreviation usage. I did this 1) because it’s a simple fix, and 2), because it’s frickin’ obvious, people!

When you’re writing about contamination, you often have a number of terms that you’d rather abbreviate, such as Super Complicated Organic Compounds (SCOCs). The first time you use an abbreviation like SCOC, you define it so that the reader knows what it is. Then, you don’t need to define it again. You do not randomly write Super Complicated Organic Compound (SCOC) when you start a new paragraph, or whenever you feel like you haven’t spelled it out in a while. You define it once.

If you’ve got a technical report of any length, such as a thesis, it is nice to have a separate list of acronyms/abbreviations right at the front for the reader’s reference. In the rush to finish my thesis, I didn’t get around to this. It’s one of the many small things that I would have fixed if I’d had another week to submit it.

A paper that has its abbreviations and full-length terms all mixed up just looks like a mess. When you’re trying to convince folks that your ideas are correct, you don’t want your readers to think, “if they can’t even get something stupid like abbreviations right, how much can I trust the rest of the work?”