Wednesday, December 26, 2012

when to give up

I haven't done a weather post in a while...

The winter storm that snarled up a big portion of the US over the holiday reminded me of something. I've discussed giving up fieldwork because of illness before, but not giving up because of the weather.

We stop work if there's a thunderstorm for safety reasons. But thunderstorms generally pass through quickly, so usually it's only a break of less than an hour. Occasionally, I've broken off early because it's getting close to the end of the day anyway. But I don't remember actually stopping in the middle of the day and sending people home.

Other adverse weather slows work down and requires additional warm up/cool down breaks. But I've never actually stopped work for temperature variations.

If I have a big field crew, we tend not to stop for snow. I may stop the work early if the roads look like they'll be especially bad and it's the end of a day/travel shift. Of course, the problem with snow is that you can't up and leave if it's snowing. You'll lose supplies in the snow and never find them again, anything wet (say, from drilling more than 10 feet below ground surface) may freeze and get damaged, and equipment that's hidden and possibly frozen to the ground is a massive safety hazard. Everything needs to be secured properly, so I can't just make an announcement that we'll leave and try to come back and finish up later. Of course, this means that I've been caught in hellacious storms (like this one) driving 2-wheel drive pickups and vans.

Short answer, we work in all weather. It takes too much coordination and schedules are too tight for anything short of "get off the road" emergency declarations. It's just that sometimes, we need to be a little more deliberate in what we're doing...and we need to have the supplies to keep warm/cool/dry and safe.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

travel buddy

Today, someone asked AAM about the etiquette of hanging out after work if you're traveling with other coworkers.

For me, the default has always been that we go out for dinner together, at least for the first night. After the first night, someone may be tired from fieldwork or have leftovers. If the field crew is larger (say, more than 4 people),  people are more likely to go out and do their own thing, but at the same time, you're more likely to have a Big To Do for dinner at least one night, rather than a quiet meal that ends quickly.

The folks I have worked with have always been reasonable about accommodating dinner. Nobody's taken the only vehicle and left me stranded, and I haven't been bullied into eating somewhere or with someone that I'm uncomfortable with. It helps that I'm a pretty adventurous eater.

At the same time, the expectation has always been that we go out to/meet for dinner, and only that. We're all professional adults, so it's not like the first time we're getting let off the leash (really, making travel into a big party gets old fast), and we have other things we'd like to do in the evening, and so we nearly always separate after dinner.

Of course, there are exceptions. If we have a free day or an especially early day for some reason, I'm definitely up for an adventure. I've visited museums and national monuments, gone to the beach, and played epic games of pool with coworkers. But generally with fieldwork, we all end up exhausted and grumpy at the end of the day.

One of the questions on the AAM post was on coworkers who "run amok" when traveling. Same answer. I have a lovely, civil dinner, and then I go back to the hotel and call my sweetie and zone out to the "storage wars" marathon that's guaranteed to be on. Boring, but then I don't have to try and do physical labor while hungover and my coworkers' antics aren't my responsibility!

Monday, December 17, 2012

end of the year meme

I figured I'd do my annual end-of-the-year meme a little early before the world ends (I tried to think of something clever to contribute to this month's accretionary wedge, but I'm stuck). I've done this each full year I've been blogging (2011, 2010, and 2009) and really, it can happen any time after I've done my first post for December.

This year was a pretty good year for output. I still lost an entire month, but I still had more posts than the last two years. Hopefully next year will continue the trend.

Same rules as before: link to and list the first sentence of the first post of every month. It may be cheating to skip the first sentence if all you're doing is apologizing for not posting, but that's what I'm doing.


I'm back from vacation and ready to look back over last year.


I have an oddball phobia about damaging my teeth, or specifically knocking them out.


I am a terrifically fast writer. 


I was staying at a big conference hotel recently, and it had the usual problems: outrageously expensive internet, no food or entertainment options within walking distance, and preposterous prices - my club sandwich for dinner was $17!


After I raved about my GPS' traffic sensing here, I have to admit that I've had a serious problem recently - the traffic sensing on my GPS has been useless for most of the last month.


When I first started out in environmental consulting, I wasn't entirely sure what the managers did, exactly.


FSP broke her blog hiatus today to discuss mentoring by blogging.


So. Explosive coworkers, a theme I have extensive experience with, especially if you extend "coworkers" to include drillers and other contractors.


No posts. Bad Short Geologist!


...a while back, I was rooting through some old literature and came across this response to a paper published in Ground Water (Correlations of permeability and grain size, R. G. Shepherd, Volume 27, No. 5, October 1989)


I was poking around the geoblogosphere, and I came across this post on field trip etiquette. 


Copy and paste are two of my favorite word processing functions.

Consider yourself tagged!

Friday, December 14, 2012


I was recently told that I am "hard to shop for." Au contraire! I'm a cinch to shop for. Anything food-related works, whether it's cookies or chocolate or kahlua-soaked brownies or gourmet cheese or jams. Good books are always appreciated, but I guess that depends on taste and trying to find something I haven't read yet. So here are some other ideas:

Scientific office toys, like those from think geek:

Nifty rock samples, like these meteorite chunks from here:

Geeky t-shirts, like those from yellow ibis:

And last but not least, I can always use something practical. Say, the basic textbooks that didn't follow me out of college - something I'm not likely to buy for myself.

Or, you know, some local edibles...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

citation policy

I've had proper citation drilled into me since high school. The citation format may change, and sometimes, the details you need to cite may change (whole document? Each individual table?). I always check my own references, and I've often had my references argued over.

So I was highly amused when I ran across this in scientific paper:

"Information sources are not volunteered, but can be selectively furnished on meritorious grounds."

This would not fly in consulting, in grad school, in college...

In case you were wondering if I was researching bomb thermodynamics or Microsoft intellectual property, I was not. As far as I could tell, the author was discussing entirely publicly available government documents.

I really wanted to contact the author, but I'm not sure my reasons would be entirely meritorious.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

drive-by management

One of my first field projects involved a big drilling program that was spread all over town. I was watching one of several drill rigs, so even though I was a newbie and could have used some (a lot?) more supervision, the field manager was always off doing a million other things.

So I was not on top of all the things I should have been on top of, and the driller knew it. So I wasn't getting the highest-quality samples. And every time the field manager did one of his sporadic pass-throughs, I would dread it because he would always catch something else that I was doing wrong. He'd stop by, scold me, and then his phone would ring and he'd zoom off somewhere else.

Years later, I was in charge of a big, complicated project with a lot of oversight by parties that weren't necessarily happy that we were there. So it was my job to make sure everything went completely by the books. I did a lot of driving around, checking to make sure everything was going ok. I'd stop to chat with the person assigned to oversee us, make sure they were ok with everything, and then sidle over to my field personnel and discreetly mention stuff that needed to be addressed, stat. And then a crisis would happen somewhere else or my boss (the project manager) would call looking for some critical information that was on file in the trailer, and I'd head off.

It was only when a coworker complained to me about my drive-by criticism that I realized I had turned into my old field manager. So I tried to be more encouraging abut the stuff that was going well, and to stay long enough that I could actually help out rather than just being critical. Of course, if I didn't have to continually nag about health and safety/housekeeping/basic rig oversight stuff to field folks who did know better, then that would have been the best option, but someone had to be the heavy...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

popsicle time

It's starting to feel like winter around here - it's been below freezing at night for a while now, and the other night, I drove home from work in snow flurries. The snow started sticking, so the ground is starting to freeze.

And when it gets really cold out and I'm collecting soil samples, I need to worry about popsicles.

If it's super cold and I'm overseeing extremely fast drilling, such as direct push technology (DPT), which produces a large number of samples in plastic acetate liners, my samples may freeze if they stack up too fast.

Frozen water can be difficult to break into sample-able pieces. Dense soil can be difficult to mix up properly. But frozen soil with chunks of gravel, wood, and other extremely hard bits is nearly impossible to sample. Sure, you could stick it on the dashboard of your truck to warm up, but often you're trying to sample volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which need to be preserved or sealed in an airtight container right away. Warm up the soil, and all your VOCs will just... leave.

One memorable winter, we were trying to collect a large number of shallow samples. The drillers were in a hurry to get the samples and get the hell out of there, so the samples started to pile up. The samples were frozen solid, and we had to sample for everything under the sun - VOCs plus large volumes of everything else. The soil cores were so hard and consolidated, we had no hope of beating them against hard objects to dislodge anything. So what we ended up doing was breaking tiny chips off the ends with whatever we could (mostly screwdrivers and icepicks) and sending off those for VOC analysis, hacking the cores into whatever would fit into mixing bowls, and piling the bowls in the corner for later.

Hacking at slippery, literally rock-hard chunks of contaminated soil with frozen hands is perhaps not the safest way to spend an afternoon.

 ...I have millions of photos of acetate liners with soil samples, but they're sort of privileged. It was harder than I thought to find a photo online. This is from a drilling company:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

mix it up!

Copy and paste are two of my favorite word processing functions. Everybody likes copy/paste. Especially if you're writing a long report and you have to mention the same trends/discussion items over and over again.

However. You need to go back and vary the word choice. If you use very simple sentence construction, you'll sound dumb saying, "the highest level of gack is here. The highest level of super-gack is here. The highest level of "Gah! Radioactive gack!" is here.

If you decide to get fancy and say, "the results of the analyses of the environmental media indicate that the maximum detected concentration of gack is situated in this location", then for the love of God, vary your sentences. Or your reviewer may get irrationally angry about your word choice and treat your report... poorly.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

who read this?

I haven't posted about academic matters in a while, primarily because some of the academic blogs I regularly follow have been quiet and I haven't seen anything to react to. But Prof-Like Substance's post today on too many thesis commitments reminded me of one of the issues I had with my own thesis.

My main advisor was always jetting off to some sunny conference/short course or another and was relatively hands-off, as I've mentioned before. My technical advisor was busy himself (to his eternal aggravation, often with commitments that my main advisor had foisted off on him) and read about 20 pages into my thesis and then stopped, as shown by the incredible volume of comments that ended abruptly, with nary a comment for the rest. The third member of the thesis committee received a relatively late copy and maybe skimmed part of it.

I do wish I had more input into the technical portion of my thesis while I was actually writing. Not to check calculations so much, but to look at the data and suggest interesting things to look at and analyze and discuss. Maybe everyone on my thesis committee was a slacker, but reading over my thesis and preparing for my defense couldn't have taken more than a couple of hours. Is having 5 or 10 grad students to shepherd through the thesis/defense really such an onerous duty?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

another work dream

I have a big project due ASAP and I need to present a conceptual site model for a site with complex geology. Instead of writing a report and drafting figures in CADD or GIS, I have to bake a geologically accurate cake. A really, really big chocolate cake (like, 8 inches high by 2 feet by 3 feet) with lots of fractures in 3 dimensions, which are represented by frosting, of course.

I wake up totally stressed out. And hungry.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

rock ID

Lockwood will ID rocks/minerals for you on twitter! I mention this as a public service because mineral IDs aren't really my thing. I know, I know. With my lack of interest in mineralogy and my inability to discuss the structural history of a site on demand, I am in danger of losing my "geological expert" badge.

I'm pretty good with the basics (quartz! various micas!) and some of the more distinctive minerals I may come across, such as pyrite. Given a hand sample with reasonably visible mineral grains, I can come up with a good answer. I will admit that I was recently confused by a rock with what looked exactly like dogtooth calcite (an example from here).

It was actually quartz.

That's why I'm not very good at mineral/rock IDs from afar. I need a screwdriver to poke at it and a hand lens to peer at it from different angles. And most important, I need to know the context - what are the conditions it grew under? What are the other minerals it's associated with? I need a big chunk of rock, and maybe a few different chunks to see variations.

My suggestion for identifying minerals and rocks would be to get a field guide with good photos first, and then ask follow-up questions of internet experts. Sometimes doing your own scratching and turning in the light is all you need.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

my geology

I was stumped by a casual geologic question a while back, and I'm sure it set me back in the estimation of the other geologist (a regulator) who was asking it. In fairness to me, it wasn't my geology.

I started out doing the basic geology stuff (I was going to say "scutwork", but that's not fair or even very accurate) everyone in environmental consulting will recognize - watching drill rigs, collecting samples of all different environmental media, from rock cores to groundwater to goop sediment, doing basic contour maps and cross-sections, and writing up observations to be distilled into reports.

I found my calling when I started to write reports - how did the contamination get where it is, and where is it going? And where is it, exactly, since I'm triangulating between a couple wells at different depths that were put in as an afterthought because we thought the contamination was somewhere else when we started. In order to answer those questions, I had to know a lot about groundwater flow paths (that can be a dissertation in irregularly fractured bedrock), affinity of the contaminant to the solid material, and the geochemistry that may encourage the local bugs to degrade it into something more (or less!) innocuous.

I went to grad school to learn more about that stuff, and after I graduated, I continued to design projects to get those answers to the degree needed by the budget, the regulatory requirements, and the other resources available. Some of the knowledge I've gained has been more chemistry or biology or engineering, but a lot of it has been pure geology: geomorphology, hydrogeology, mineralogy.

One thing I don't know well is the overall structural geologic history of the areas I've worked in. Sure, I have a general sense that this material got all smushed up when a chunk of another continent smeared into the North American plate, and this major fracture bisects that unit but not the one next to it and they both were raised up and eroded and now what you see on the ground is a mess. And I know the names of the local formations, primarily because they're in reports I've read or written.

So if you're out in the field for an inspection/don't want to be in the office because it's a nice day and you think we'll be bringing up some cool rocks, and you ask me what the age of the rocks at my site are, I don't have a clue. Suggesting, "are those part of the XYZ group?" will help in that I can hem and haw about XYZ group, which I may have remembered from another report a long time ago. Doesn't mean I'm a bad geologist, just that I'm focused on something else.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

healthy fieldwork?

There was a long discussion on ask a manager today about wellness initiatives through work. Part of the conversation revolved around the definition of "healthy".

I've had periods where I've been in the field essentially non-stop for months at a time, and periods where I've been essentially sedentary for equally long periods. I've alluded to this before, but I readily size up/down up to two pants/dress sizes based on what I'm doing - something that's really obvious on my small frame.

So the knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that I'm healthier if I'm working in the field. Lots of exercise. Hours and hours of exercise! Weight-bearing, even.

But what if I look a little closer?

When I'm in the field, I eat out for almost every meal (other than the ubiquitous granola bars for lunch). The ergonomics are terrible: there is no back-friendly way to lift a cooler and if I'm not standing on pavement (oh, my aching feet!) all day, I'm crouched over something or other and I can hardly stand up straight at the end of the day. I have a sensitive nailbed on one big toe, and if I get any moisture in my boots (precipitation, sweat, fall in a puddle), it will get nastily infected. I'll end up covered in random bruises and scratches and most likely, poison ivy. Besides all these minor irritations, I'm statistically more likely to be involved in an industrial accident, and much more likely to be in a vehicle accident.

So, yes, my BMI is much improved when I'm in the field. I'm not convinced that means it's healthier or cheaper for my insurance company or the institution I work for.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


When I take pictures of geological stuff, whether it's an interesting outcrop or vibrantly-colored gack in a soil sample, I always keep Grover's "near!" (pressed against the camera) ... "Far!" (running off into the distance) in mind. If you take pictures of an entire core or outcrop, you miss out on the details you need to show. If you zoom in close enough to see the detail you need, then you lose the context. So take both.

This seems simple, but I can't tell you how many times I've missed either the details or the larger context when reviewing photographs. For example, the time we were doing lots of drilling in especially sensitive areas (homeowners' front lawns) and the field crews were under orders to take before and after pictures of the areas to show that we had left everything as it was when we arrived. So what did I end up with? 85 photos of a 2' by 2' square of anonymous lawn. I've also had issues with photographs that were supposed to show very specific stratigraphy differences, except all I had were off-kilter photos of an entire 10-foot core.

Sometimes it's overkill, I agree. Perhaps I didn't need to take a series of 13 photographs for each core box a while back (4 photos per core length, 3 core lengths per box, 1 overall photo). But taking detailed notes and a bunch of photos is way better than driving up to where your cores are stored and digging through 37 80-pound core boxes to revisit an interesting fracture.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


About half of my fieldwork has involved rinky-dink little sites. The sort of thing where you work out of your pickup truck/van/box truck during the day, pack your samples in the hotel parking lot at night, and have a porta-potty arranged if you're lucky.

So when I'm working at a site that's a little more permanent - access to running water and real bathrooms, electricity - I really do appreciate the amenities. Also, it's nice to be able to leave your steel-toe boots in a warm, dry alcove for your return.

Monday, November 5, 2012

wait for me

I've mentioned before that my dad and I don't get along well. One of the traits that aggravates me the most is that he has the attention span of a gnat and the patience of a three-year old. Of course, one reason I find him so aggravating is because I have very little patience. Especially with him.

Anyway, one of the consequences of growing up with a terminally impatient parent is that being the cause of a slowdown gives me hives. I hate passing other cars when I have other, faster cars coming up behind me. I always have my money out and ready to go when I'm buying something.

So I had a hard time when I first started working with drillers. Because even when I got to the site super early and had everything ready to go, there were certain things I just couldn't control. For example, if I'm collecting continuous soil samples every 2 feet for a standard list of... everything (volatiles - to be collected immediately. everything else, a large assortment of jars depending on what the lab needs) and logging samples properly as discussed earlier, there's no way I can keep up with the driller for the first ten feet or so.

That's ok. Because when you're working together, there will be times when the drill crew will be waiting on the geologist and vice versa. The driller knows this. They may grumble, but it will all even out in the end. Worst case scenario, I shoo the drill crew away for a water/coffee/pee break so that I can get what I need in peace.

After years of starting new field projects, I'm more relaxed about making the drillers wait. I will admit, though, that I do make an effort to relax and not fret about holding up a whole two or five or ten minutes in a day.

Friday, November 2, 2012

observe, then interpret

I was poking around the geoblogosphere, and I came across this post on field trip etiquette. One of Jessica's pieces of advice is to make sure your observations and interpretations are separate.

When I was an undergrad, I didn't have the years of experience to really see an outcrop and know what was going on. I would copy down whatever the professor said and then sort of took it on faith that there was a correct interpretation. But when I started doing fieldwork as part of my job, there was no correct interpretation waiting. There were no grades. All I had were my observations.

I started out by taking meticulous field notes because I didn't know which observations were important. I still take the most thorough field notes of any geologist I know, because I've learned from long experience that what observations are important may only be determined months later when I'm writing the report. And honestly, reviewers and regulators may have different interpretations of the data. But we can't have a good argument over interpretations if we don't have the basic observations first. What is the texture like? The color? Does it smell funny? Is there a sort of oily sheen on the soil samples? Are there any super-fine layers that could signal a change in geochemistry?

When I was a grad student, I taught a lab for a foundation undergrad geology course. I had the hardest time getting the students to focus on what they could see, rather than what they thought I wanted to hear. I knew what the formation was right away, but that was because my eyes had been trained by years of doing my own observations. What I wanted to see from students was a list of observations. Once they had those, they could crack open the book and try and figure out what they were looking at.

Without data, without notes, without a trail of evidence, your interpretation is just technical-sounding BS.

Monday, October 29, 2012

hangin' with Sandy

Like everyone else in the northeastern (southeast, central) US, we're hunkered down with the weather channel while the wind screams outside. We lost power for a couple of hours, but it came back just in time for us to cook dinner. Yes, sometimes it is convenient to live near a critical piece of infrastructure - the local utilities are a little less... leisurely.

I'm not a big weather bug, but I thought I'd share a couple of oddball websites:

This wind map of the US only goes up to 30 MPH, but check out the swirling around NYC.

Who knows if Mount Washington actually has the world's worst weather, but it's the place with the worst weather that's well instrumented. Right now, sustained wind is 88 mph, with gusts to 127.

Also, there's lots of cool pictures that are flying around the interwebs. How to tell if they're real? One hint - if the clouds look all nifty, they're probably not of a hurricane, which is gray and wet and, well, windy. This website will help.

Stay dry!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

medical monitoring

A couple weeks ago, ask a manager had a question about an invasive pre-employment medical questionnaire. They were about to start a job in environmental consulting. A bunch of people responded that yes, a thorough medical exam is required for this work, but I wanted to expand a little.

If you are in a position where you may be handling hazardous waste, or you may be investigating an unknown site with unknown contaminants, you fall under HAZWOPER (hazardous waste operations and emergency response). HAZWOPER  requires medical monitoring. I'm going to quote from the standard itself here:

Medical examinations required by paragraph (f)(3) of this section shall include a medical and work history (or updated history if one is in the employee's file) with special emphasis on symptoms related to the handling of hazardous substances and health hazards, and to fitness for duty including the ability to wear any required PPE under conditions (i.e., temperature extremes) that may be expected at the work site.

Since your employer doesn't know exactly what you may end up handling, you can be expected to be tested for everything under the sun, and for your ability to wear the highest level of physical protection (earplugs/respirator/fully encapsulating suit).

So, you'll be asked to fill out a complete questionnaire which will ask for your complete family history (and which the doctor will spend two seconds looking at). At the exam, you'll likely get a chest x-ray. You may have an EKG (I've had just one). You'll definitely get a hearing test and a lung capacity test. You'll have to pee into a cup for a urine sample (usually this is in a DOT drug-testing bathroom with no hand-washing facilities so you can't monkey with the urine sample - don't even get me started on how gross this is for a lady) and you'll get what feels like several quarts of blood removed. And then, if you ever leave that first job and start a new one, you'll get to do the full exit physical for the one and the full entrance physical for the other.  

After they do all their tests, they send your employer a form saying that you were or were not medically cleared to do the stuff they want you to do. Your employer does not get to see the whole enchilada. And if you think that's invasive, just wait until you go for your CDL...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

planning tip

When you're planning an investigation into the hydrogeologic properties of the bedrock, a common method is to seal off intervals of interest with packers, which are big inflatable rubber donuts that seal against the walls of the borehole, and then do your testing.

(packer illustration from here)

One thing you need to do is find out where the steel casing for the upper portion of the boring ends and where the bedrock begins. Otherwise, you may do a detailed investigation of... a steel casing.

I was relieved to find that the steel casing did not in fact transmit water. The actual bedrock? Still a mystery.

Monday, October 8, 2012

diploma displays

A while back, I was reading through the comments on an Ask a Manager post (can't figure out which one now) and there was a long side conversation about displaying diplomas in your office. Opinions varied, but most of the commentators thought that displaying them was pretentious/obnoxious.

I have my diplomas and my professional certifications displayed in my office. My parents' graduation present was to get the fancy frame for both degrees, and they don't fit anywhere at home, so I brought them to the office.

When I first read that commentary on AAM, I thought, "oh, it's different for us scientific folks. We display everything!" Then I got curious and did a survey of the scientists and engineers I work with. Hardly anyone displays their diplomas, and only about half display their professional certifications.

Hmm. Does this make me pretentious?

Friday, October 5, 2012

snow day

The topic for the accretionary wedge for this month is fun field trip/camp moments.

There is something about a fresh coat of snow... a lot of snow, that brings out the kid in me. I don't know if I can distinguish between "most fun moments" in the field.

 Maybe it was the time that I hiked out to my field site in the snow all alone (and was scared on the way by an extremely large, non-domesticated... canine) and came across a huge, pristine open field with at least 3 feet of snow and made a chain of snow angels all the way across it.

Or it was when we took the sleds intended for hauling gear, snuck into a local park after dark, and spent hours illegally sledding on a massive hill. 

Yeah, working in the snow gets miserable fast. But when it's fresh and deep, it can be awesome.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

table/figure locations

Ok, I have a formatting question for you scientific types:

A disagreement has arisen about the proper location of tables and figures in scientific documents.

I can't stand reports that have the tables and figures buried within the text itself. It would be ok if the tables/figures were small enough that they didn't interfere with the text. But what happens is that you end up with one page of text and then you get a full-size figure (or a couple figures). And then you have another page or two, and then you get some more stuff breaking up the flow of the text. If you're trying to review a complicated analysis, it's incredibly distracting, and the figures/tables you need to refer to aren't terribly close to whatever you're reading. It's even worse if you're trying to find a particular table and need to flip through the entire document (or more likely, scroll through a several-hundred page PDF) to find it.

It is so much easier to have all the tables and figures in their own section. Easy to flip to, easy to find, and it doesn't impede the flow of the text.

I lost my argument, so my complicated document will have in-text tables and figures. What's your preference?

Monday, October 1, 2012

unit conversion 2

So, what happened to me? first, I was incredibly busy, then it was my sweetie's birthday and we ended up with an overabundance of awesome books to read, and then I fell out of the habit of posting.

Anyway, a while back, I was rooting through some old literature and came across this response to a paper published in Ground Water (Correlations of permeability and grain size, R. G. Shepherd, Volume 27, No. 5, October 1989):
I'll admit that I have never used the meinzer unit in any of my calculations. I've also avoided some of our other oddball units (acre-feet?). So there is hope that some of the more obscure units used in American hydrogeology will die out. Maybe in another 50 years we'll have converted to the metric system and not have to worry about all the contortions required to figure out how many gallons of water I need to pump out of a 5-inch borehole.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

internet troubles

I've been having internet problems over the past couple of weeks. For some reason, if I stay within the same general website, I won't have any trouble navigating. But once I start jumping from website to website (say, poking around the geoblogosphere for something to pontificate on), then after 10 or 15 links, all "outside" websites cease to work. And then so does the one I'm working on. I'm pretty sure it's an internet issue, not a problem on our end, since my sweetie and I have three computers between us and we bought a new router last week in a vain effort to fix the problem.

I either need to find a good coffeeshop/web cafe or find a neighbor with a reliable signal to pirate.

So, until I find either (or find the time to spend an hour on hold with the local ISP rep), blogging may be sporadic.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

on paper

I've done pretty well for myself in environmental consulting - I ended up advancing quickly, to the annoyance of coworkers who were older but not as, um, dedicated as I was. And then I went off to a high-powered STEM graduate school and I got a professional certification essentially on my own, and then I started looking around for somewhere to take my talents.

I got a funny comment more than once during the job-hunting process: "well, you look good on paper..." (dubiously).

Yes. I look good on paper. I graduated with honors from college ages ago. I have an advanced degree from an impressive grad school. I did a really cool thesis with minimal help. I took more courses than I strictly needed to graduate because I thought they were interesting (and it didn't cost me any more to do it). I've worked with lots of managers and technical folks, and most of them (not everybody, but those exceptions are a story for another day) would be happy to serve as references for me. I moved into positions of responsibility at a relatively young age because I had proved that I could be trusted to do the right thing and to ask if I wasn't sure what the right thing was.

When you're looking to hire someone, you've got to go with the evidence at hand. I know I look young, but I truly didn't inflate my experience. That's what references (and transcripts, and professional certifications that you can confirm online) are for. Hell, I'm perfectly comfortable answering technical questions fired at me in an effort to unsettle me/see if I actually know something about the stuff that I claim to.

If I look good on paper, but not in person (Did I have some weird tic/nervous habit that I don't know about? Did I not project the correct amount of gravitas?), there's not much I can do about that. For interviews, I wore a conservative suit, I checked everything in the mirror and had my sweetie do a thorough once-over to make sure I didn't have something stuck to the back of my pants or something, and I made sure I had enough pens, paper, and backup documentation to get through anything that may be thrown at me. If I didn't work out in person, that's the interviewer's problem.

Doesn't mean I'm not going to agonize over the "looks good on paper" comment later, though.

Monday, August 27, 2012

short and sweet

I was reading through old "ask a manager" posts and came across this one regarding short cover letters. If you read down through the posts, AAM and the comment corps have a rousing discussion of business vs. academic writing and the need to write clearly and concisely.

Nobody wants to read a three-page cover letter. And nobody wants to read technical reports that put you to sleep two pages in.

I am a relentless cutter of superfluous words. I hate the unnecessary passive voice, sentences that you get lost in and have to start over to figure out what the suject is, and redundant phrases. I love thwacking through the clutter to edit a mess into something that is readable.

Not everyone shares my mania for clear, concise technical writing. But it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that in science, what matters are the ideas. This isn't high school, where you're trying to pad your 11th-hour essay to fit the word count. Nobody cares how big your words are - and if they're too big, perhaps it's time to abbreviate. Remember, you're writing to communicate, not punish the reader!

Monday, August 20, 2012


 I got totally distracted by the Olympics recently because I finally got to watch some sports on TV that I used to participate in myself and that I only get to see every four years. And then I got out of the habit of writing posts. I got as far as copying down a link about explosive coworkers a couple of weeks ago from Ask a Manager.

But now I'm back! So. Explosive coworkers, a theme I have extensive experience with, especially if you extend "coworkers" to include drillers and other contractors.

AAM suggests that when dealing with someone explosive, you tell the person (calmly) that the exploder is being unreasonable and then come back later when they've calmed down.

I have never found that telling someone in a full-on rage that they're being unreasonable to be helpful. In fact, it's pretty obnoxious. Most explodey people know they're being unprofessional. But their professionalism isn't exactly high on the list they're focusing on at the moment.

If someone is clearly getting steamed up, I suggest a break/taking some time to vent. If possible, I'll busy myself with paperwork so that they can mutter about how everything sucks and storm around for a bit. But once someone is at the screaming/throwing things stage, there's nothing to do but to wait it out and then address the lack of professionalism afterward.

I have always been the person who smooths down ruffled feathers and soothes people who are freaking out. I do get pissed off by people who get all worked up and essentially force me to be the peacemaker, to the point of raging (internally) myself. On a very rare occasion, my "pollyanna" disposition has irritated someone even more, finally causing an epic blowout. This has actually worked out the problem (sometimes screaming back causes the aggressor to back off) but it's not exactly productive or a permanent solution.

Of course, if someone is actually threatening/directing animus directly at me, and not having a general freakout, I'm not quite as dispassionate. If someone screams at me, I'll tear up and we can throw professionalism out the window. Sigh.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

science and technology

I am a luddite. I do all my cross-sections and plane-view maps by hand (someone else digitizes my curves), I have a dumbphone, and I use boring old MS office (word, excel, and powerpoint) for everything. I even did a mini-series of posts about old-school tech (like light tables and semi-log paper) that isn't obsolete yet, dammit! So this month's accretionary wedge on geoscience and technology, hosted at Earth-Like Planet, had me stumped.

But you know what technology has revolutionized my work, both science and management? The advent of super cheap, super fast copier/printers with a scanner. Sure, cell phones and GPS devices and laptops with wireless thumb drives are handy for fieldwork. But they really just made life more convenient.

The ability to spend 50 bucks on a printer/scanner/copier and send stuff instantly has been a game-changer. Need the lab to handle your super-fast turnaround samples in a specific way? Scan and e-mail the chain of custody before the lab manager leaves for the night. Trying to figure out where to install a new monitoring well because now it's spring and your site is under 7 inches of water? Draw a quick field sketch and get the new location approved by a regulator while the drill crew is idling. Working remotely with another geologist and having a big argument over whether the bedrock is forming a ridge or a hill underground? Draw a cross-section and fire it over to bolster your theory. You borrowed fragile construction drawings from the 1950s? Scan the whole pile in 10 minutes and you have a permanent electronic repository. You've just convinced a neighbor to sign an access agreement, but now you need to prove to the lawyers that you're ok to be there? Scan and send.

I can go on forever. But the point is that geology is an extremely visual science. We need to draw maps and cross sections to figure out relationships that we can't see directly, or to synthesize information from a multitude of sources. And in environmental consulting, you have clients, regulators, subcontractors, and coworkers who you need to share that information with in order to make decisions.

Once I got access to a big, fast in-office scanner and an el cheapo field scanner/printer to go with my laptop, my life got so much easier and my actual technical output improved. And isn't that the goal of new technology?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

xkcd - geology

Another geologist sent me this, and I figured I'd share it with the wider geoblogosphere:

Incidentally, XKCD is a terrific way to lose a couple of hours...

Monday, July 16, 2012

happy hour

I am not much of a drinker. I think my average alcohol consumption is about a drink per month.

However, there is nothing better than sitting down with a glass of (mediocre, in this case) red wine and lazily web browsing after a long day in the field. I've gotten all of my post-fieldwork e-mails taken care of, there are no obvious issues to stress out about on the horizon, I've showered, and for the first time since the weekend, I'm starting to feel human.

It's not on my list of necessary hotel amenities, but hotel happy hour is pretty sweet when I get it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

trunk inventory

I'm between field jobs right now, and what that means is that everything that didn't make it back to the office is still in the car. So what useful items do I have right now?

1. A pair of quilted coveralls from the winter.
2. 2 bag filters for removing solids from water before sending through granular activated carbon.
4. Several bottles of sunscreen of varying ages and sun-blocking levels.
5. 3 bottles of drinking water.
6. Two knives.
7. One smushed roll of towels.
8. A half box of nitrile gloves, size medium.
9. A bright red sunhat.
10. Enough different tubing connectors to appear to be useful, but not enough to connect to any of the tubing that I may actually need.
11. Approximately 15 feet of bubble wrapping.
12. One roll of strapping tape.
13. One very large flashlight.
14. One pair of steel-toe boots, size 7.
15. A severely dented aluminum clipboard.

Having all this junk essential equipment readily at hand works well when you're called into the field at the last minute. It's not so great if you're going to meet a client and she chirps, "perfect! Let's take your car!"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

not just a notebook

I know I wrote about logbooks recently and a while back, but I'm going to that well again because the heat cooks off all my creativity.

I'm a big fan of adding stuff to logbooks, and not just local flowers. I'm fairly scatterbrained, and one of the best ways to keep organized is to keep everything in the logbook, and that way, I can just grab a single book (and a book that is bright yellow or orange for easy finding) when I get a phone call or need to run and take care of something.

I always spend a half hour or so before going into the field to get my logbook set up:

1. Write project, start date, logbook number, project number, and task on the front cover - and something identifiable on the spine.

2. Tape a business card to the inside front cover. Cover business card entirely with tape so that it's more or less waterproof.

3. Write all of the potential contact information I could ever need on the first page: contractors, project management, field personnel, porta-potty maintenance number...

4. Tape in a map that's been shrunk to fit so that I have some chance of finding the sample/drilling locations

and finally

5. Stuff a couple of critical pieces of paper, like copies of property access agreements, somewhere in the back third. They'll get dirty, wet, and will fly away when the pages of the logbook flap open in a moderate breeze. But I know they'll always be within a couple feet of me whenever I'm accosted by someone in authority.

This is how I pass as a reliable, competent field manager rather than the frazzled mess I actually am.

Monday, July 2, 2012

mentoring, moving up

FSP broke her blog hiatus today to discuss mentoring by blogging. I would like to think that I am a mentor to young/inexperienced geologists through my blog, although I have neither the audience nor the blogging stamina of FSP (how on earth did she find time to think up and then write so many posts for so long?).

One of the milestones of being a professional, for me, is that I have started to become a mentor to other geologists. And one of the most concrete ways I can do that is by being a reference.

Whenever I applied to jobs or to school, I always felt like it was a big imposition to ask someone to be a reference for me. But I've been around long enough that younger geologists are asking me to be a reference. And it's not an imposition. At all. I am happy for my mentees that they are moving up in their career. Even the most convoluted reference questionnaire reminds me of the hoops I jumped through to get where I am today (I'm looking at you, grad school applications!) and brings back memories of starting out my career.

Of course, I may be overly cheerful about giving references because when I've had to fill out the written ones, I've been thoughtfully provided with a pre-addressed and stamped envelope and more than a week to fill them out. I've also genuinely respected the folks who have asked me for references. So maybe the moral of the story is to pick your references wisely and make their lives a little easier by doing as much of the work for them as you can.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

pressing flowers

This month's accretionary wedge is about field notes. Jennifer at Fuzzy Science mentioned that she kept two field logbooks: one for the science observations, and one for the more personal observations.

I've never been one to keep a travel journal, and my field notes tend to be relatively dry - they're owned by my employer and subject to be rifled through during discovery for potential litigation, so I don't have a lot of local color in my field notes. You can get a pretty good sense for when I'm having a bad day, though, because you'll find a lot of pointed "spoke to person X, who told me this, and then person Y told me something completely different, and then because of conflicting directives, this other thing got missed".

Back when I was in my field study course in college, I was pretty careful to follow the requirements for logbooks - numbering pages, having thorough observations and maps, and recording things like temperature and time. I didn't have a lot of side observations. One thing I did was collect flowers and press them in the pages of my logbook.

This was back in the day of non-digital photography (remember then?) and I'd been conserving my film so that I wouldn't miss anything spectacular while I was out in the field. Then my camera died right at the end of the first roll of exotic field photographs, and I lost the entire roll and the use of my camera for the rest of the trip. When I returned home and got to a camera shop, my camera was diagnosed with a terminal case of "sand in everything", so my only mementos of that time are those pressed flowers I kept.

In lieu of photos of me doing fieldwork (since I didn't have any), here's a photo of what killed my camera (from NPS photo):

It was a lovely way to go, I'll admit!

Monday, June 25, 2012

protective gear

Isis the Scientist has a post up from a couple days ago about an annoying "science for girls" video. The comments went off in another direction, to lab-appropriate clothing and making sure that you're protected from being doused with nasty chemicals or set on fire.

It drives me bonkers when I see folks wandering around outside with lab coats. In grad school, we wore lab coats when in the lab, and we had to take them off before we left. All labs (and my office, a former lab) had hooks for this purpose. It's simple: lab coats (and other personal protective equipment, or PPE to use environmental consulting jargon) protect you from nasties, but you need to take care that said nasties don't get spread around to a clean environment. I pass a well-known teaching hospital on my daily commute, and I always see doctors and others wandering about outside in their lab coats. Bad practice!

In environmental consulting, the closest analogue would be nitrile gloves. If you have the potential to be in contact with contaminated material, wear gloves. However, what often happens is that you're running around, doing a million things, and maybe the box of gloves got left somewhere inconvenient, and before you know it, you're driving around, drinking water, having a cigarette, all while wearing the gloves. This defeats the purpose.

Nitrile gloves cost like 3 cents a pair. Just like the strapping tape for a cooler or paper towels, the cost of gloves is infinitesimal compared to the overall job cost. Don't penny-pinch the small stuff (I complained about this practice ages ago). Change your gloves whenever you move on to another task, and always when you're going off-site, so you don't freak out the neighbors.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

101 American geo sites to see

I'm a sucker for a geology meme - this is from Mountain Beltway by way of Silver Fox. Bold is places I've visited. Unfortunately, I suck at this. Fourteen! I guess I need to go on a geo-expedition to the southeast and great plains.

1. Wetumpka Crater, Alabama
2. Exit Glacier, Alaska
3. Antelope Canyon, Arizona
4. Meteor Crater, Arizona
5. Monument Valley, Arizona
6. Prairie Creek Pipe, Arkansas
7. Wallace Creek, California
8. Racetrack Playa, California
9. Devils Postpile, California
10. Rancho La Brea, California
11. El Capitan, California
12. Boulder Flatirons, Colorado
13. Interstate 70 Roadcut, Colorado
14. Florissant Fossil Beds, Colorado
15. Dinosaur Trackway, Connecticut
16. Wilmington Blue Rocks, Delaware
17. Devil’s Millhopper, Florida
18. Stone Mountain, Georgia
19. Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii
20. Borah Peak, Idaho
21. Menan Buttes, Idaho
22. Great Rift, Idaho
23. Valmeyer Anticline, Illinois
24. Hanging Rock Klint, Indiana
25. Fort Dodge Gypsum, Iowa
26. Monument Rocks, Kansas
27. Ohio Black Shale, Kentucky
28. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
29. Four Corners Roadcut, Kentucky
30. Avery Island, Louisiana
31. Schoodic Point, Maine
32. Calvert Cliffs, Maryland
33. Purgatory Chasm, Massachusetts
34. Nonesuch Potholes, Michigan
35. Quincy Mine, Michigan
36. Grand River Ledges, Michigan
37. Sioux Quartzite, Minnesota
38. Thomson Dikes, Minnesota
39. Soudan Mine, Minnesota
40. Petrified Forest, Mississippi
41. Elephant Rocks, Missouri
42. Grassy Mountain Nonconformity, Missouri
43. Chief Mountain, Montana
44. Madison Slide, Montana
45. Butte Pluton, Montana
46. Quad Creek Quartzite, Montana
47. Ashfall Fossil Beds, Nebraska
48. Scotts Bluff, Nebraska
49. Crow Creek Marlstone, Nebraska
50. Sand Mountain, Nevada
51. Great Unconformity, Nevada
52. Flume Gorge, New Hampshire
53. Palisades Sill, New Jersey
54. White Sands, New Mexico
55. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
56. Shiprock Peak, New Mexico
57. State Line Outcrop, New Mexico
58. American Falls, New York
59. Taconic Unconformity, New York
60. Gilboa Forest, New York
61. Pilot Mountain, North Carolina
62. South Killdeer Mountain, North Dakota
63. Hueston Woods, Ohio
64. Big Rock, Ohio
65. Kelleys Island, Ohio
66. Interstate 35 Roadcut, Oklahoma
67. Mount Mazama, Oregon
68. Lava River Cave, Oregon
69. Drake’s Folly, Pennsylvania
70. Hickory Run, Pennsylvania
71. Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania
72. Beavertail Point, Rhode Island
73. Crowburg Basin, South Carolina
74. Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
75. Mammoth Site, South Dakota
76. Pinnacles Overlook, South Dakota
77. Reelfoot Scarp, Tennessee
78. Enchanted Rock, Texas
79. Capitan Reef, Texas
80. Paluxy River Tracks, Texas
81. Upheaval Dome, Utah
82. Checkerboard Mesa, Utah
83. San Juan Goosenecks, Utah
84. Salina Canyon Unconformity, Utah
85. Bingham Stock, Utah
86. Whipstock Hill, Vermont
87. Great Falls, Virginia
88. Natural Bridge, Virginia
89. Millbrig Ashfall, Virginia
90. Catoctin Greenstone, Virginia
91. Mount St. Helens, Washington
92. Dry Falls, Washington
93. Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
94. Roche-A-Cri Mound, Wisconsin
95. Van Hise Rock, Wisconsin
96. Amnicon Falls, Wisconsin
97. Green River, Wyoming
98. Devils Tower, Wyoming
99. Fossil Butte, Wyoming
100. Steamboat Geyser, Wyoming
101. Specimen Ridge, Wyoming

Monday, June 18, 2012

climate control

Although I work in the environmental biz, I'm not a die-hard environmentalist. I don't save toilet flushes, or compost, or bicycle to all my errands.

At the same time, certain energy-wasting habits are a mystery to me. Like climate control.

I had a really hard time with some of my roommates in grad school because they would do things like set the heat at full blast while keeping the windows open for "airing." I could attribute this to my roommates being young and never having to pay for their own energy bills.

What I can't understand is getting to my hotel at night and finding that on a lovely summer day (70s, light breeze), everything in the hotel is set to 65 degrees. Here's a hint for all: in the winter, you should expect the indoor temperature to be set at a lower temperature than in the summer. First, it's unnecessary and energy wasting to have the room so cold in the summer, and second, it totally throws off my own internal temperature regulating system and I completely wilt when I go outside.

At the same time, I do understand that if a hotel provides only a single blanket, and that blanket is a gigantic comforter that's more than 6" thick, you need to keep the AC cranked up so that you don't wake up in a puddle of sweat in the middle of the night. Why the hotel is compelled to put a 35-degree comforter in every room in the summer is another mystery...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Team Briefing!

I recently heard back from a high mucky-muck that I had really impressed the guys at a field team briefing for... doing a great job at a field team briefing.

I'm not sure how much of a compliment that is. I mean, I assigned tasks to various people, I talked about gear and why we needed it, I explained the particular oddities of the site and client, I passed around paperwork to be filled out, and everybody filed out to Go Do Fieldwork.

I feel like this is the same thing I ran into when teaching a course a while back. Am I really that awesome? I'm a mid-career professional who's been leading team meetings for ages/teaching lots of courses. I have tons of experience doing this stuff, none of which is difficult.  Why is being competent surprising? I should be competent by now!

I know that the people around me know that I'm older than, say, 20. But maybe because I look young, people forget my actual age, no matter how often I add in references to my advanced age and years of experience. Or perhaps I'm socially awkward enough that people are surprised that I can string multiple sentences together in front of a crowd.

Or maybe I just give a damn good team briefing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

the view from above

When I first started out in environmental consulting, I wasn't entirely sure what the managers did, exactly. They ran things, but they didn't seem to know much about the fieldwork. And what sort of manager wasn't an expert in what they were managing?

It didn't take me long to realize that a good manager didn't need to be a technical expert.

At the same time, when I started running my own projects, I realized just how little the skill sets of fieldwork and management intersect. Sure, I have lots of experience with running a project in the field. And dealing with recalcitrant drillers and keeping a field project running gives you lots of critical life skills that will help with managing an entire project. But making sure that your project has sufficient margin that it's paying its fair share to keep the lights on? Fixed price versus cost plus proposals? Return on investment? I had no idea I needed a crash course in accounting.

What I need is my own personal financial person who will occupy office space right next to me so I can ask questions all the time if needed, and who will keep all the financial stuff in the background for me so that all I need to do is keep track of the budget. That way I can keep the geology and environmental stuff (which is what I always wanted to do anyway) running properly.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

truck? SUV? van?

Geologists and other field types are opinionated about their vehicles. Often if we're taking a bunch of stuff into the field, we need something with more storage space than my hatchback. So there are a few options.

If you need a huge amount of stuff (or just some extremely large stuff that you don't want to get wet), then you're stuck with a box truck. But most of the time with environmental investigations, it's a pickup truck or a SUV or a van.

I'm not a big fan of the pickup truck. If you are transporting a bunch of coolers or equipment, then you need to worry about keeping everything dry and make sure that nothing goes flying when you get above 30 mph. Also, unless you have 700 pounds of gear in the bed, the handling and traction are atrocious. Many of my male coworkers, however, had strange masculinity issues and were only comfortable with the largest, beefiest pickup trucks (and they had very specific ideas about Ford vs. Chevy... there are no other truck manufacturers).

If I can fit everything inside, my preference is an SUV - something with ground clearance, that's not too heavy or so big it won't fit down your average logging road. But if I'm carrying more than, say, 5 coolers or a few pieces of equipment that can only be loaded in such a way that they have the potential to fly through the back window, then an SUV won't work. Then I'll take a cargo van.

All the cargo vans I've driven have had anemic engines (as in, you can't even pass a loaded tractor trailer in the "truck passing" lanes on hilly back roads), no CD or MP3 player options, terrible sightlines, and terrifying handling. But they can hold practically as much as a box truck if you really jam stuff in, they have almost the same ground clearance as your average SUV or pickup truck, you can fit long, pointy things (like pry bars and hand augers) on the floor without fear of getting skewered in an accident, and you can get practically the entire field crew camped out in the back if the weather goes south. And cargo vans are surprisingly adept at off-roading - you can take them practically anywhere, and they're so light (if you dump out all your field gear), you can easily push them out of any trouble spot you got them into. And nobody really cares if you scratch a cargo van.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

not acclimated

We had a non-winter and a super mild spring - minimal rain, lovely temperatures. I was really not prepared for it to be over 90 degrees and humid today. It didn't help that I was lifting and moving around a bunch of heavy stuff that had been baking in the sun all morning.

So today was annoying and hot. Worse, I ended up with some lovely heat rash to plague me now that I'm inside and re-hydrated.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

new basement spider

A couple of months ago, I complained about basement spiders, which are black, spindly, and lurk in the corners where I need to stick my hands.

A few days after I wrote that post, I complained to a coworker about the basement spiders I'd encountered. He told me that that the last time he was in the house we regularly visit that is most infested by basement spiders, he'd come across a fist sized, fuzzy bastard that did not scuttle away when blown on/poked with a stick/otherwise encouraged to leave. He told it, "I won't bother you if you don't bother me," and continued his work with on wary eye on the spider.

I am not looking forward to my next rummage through that basement.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

life goes on

It's been about a year since my post about the death of my dad's best friend, GF. I adored GF ever since I was a toddler, and I was a wreck after his loss. But I was hardly the only person in GF's life.

So how is everyone doing?

GF's widow is still sorting through the ramifications of suddenly becoming an owner of a thriving company  - something that had always been GF's baby. GF's family and friend have rallied around her, and we get together whenever we can to hold epic crossword-solving marathons or play strategy games or argue about baseball. But it's hard. She jokes that she's become like Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone", juggling cardboard cutouts of movie stars and setting up different TVs to keep potential burglars away since she's alone in the house. And she still sleeps in the mattress/sickbed that they set up for GF downstairs.

At the same time, she's emerging from the identity she had for more than three decades as "GF's wife". She had always been a raucous, opinionated foil for GF; the person to prompt one of his epic stories and suggest new adventures just to see if he'd take the bait and try them. Now she's starting to go on her own adventures, like driving five hours to an opposing team's baseball game to heckle guys three times her size.

The others who were so close to GF - his kids, his brothers, my dad - they're all coming to term with his absence; honoring him their own way, whether that's excavating and passing around old photos of GF being ridiculous, dropping by the house to just hang out, or fundraising for cancer research. I help out where I can, but I also try to live my life like he did - to find joy and adventure wherever I go, and see the best in the people around me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

field oversight II

I wrote a post ages ago about some of the politics of doing field oversight on another environmental firm - how, even in a situation where your clients may be at odds, you generally work fine together.

Performing field oversight is generally a job left to lower-level field people. It's not terribly taxing, and the field representative who's doing the technical work generally knows what to do. In fact, it's often used as training.

After I wrote that post, I found myself in a new situation - I was the person to be overseen, and the person there to keep tabs on me had never seen this stuff before. I'm never one to let a teachable moment go, so I was happy to explain how everything worked, mechanically, and if there were any issues with the work (we were drilling, so...yes, there were issues), I pulled the person to the side to explain what had happened and suggest alternate methods the driller could use to avoid that problem. For example, why was it taking so gosh-darn long to drill this particular borehole? Well, probably the drill bit was worn out back when we were going through an especially nasty section earlier, but the driller wanted to fully use up the bit (and didn't want to yank up all the rods attached to said bit if he didn't have to).

It was a little strange to be training someone who was supposed to be keeping tabs on me. After all, this newbie could shut us down and kick me off the site if I wasn't fully cooperative. What helped was honesty. I told the oversight person, "Look, I'm not perfect. We are trying to do this job as safely and technically correct as possible, but if you see anything that you're not comfortable with, please let me know right away and we will address it, whether that means fixing something right now and continuing work, or calling our respective bosses to figure out a better way to do things."

Because the oversight person was comfortable coming to me with questions, I was able to explain stuff that was new/different to the newbie, we had an extra pair of eyes keeping an eye on stuff that may leak or break or get tripped over, and I didn't have high-level folks from the oversight contractor on my ass about every field decision.

Monday, May 14, 2012

follow up - part 1

I've had a hard couple of weeks and I fell off the blog-posting wagon. So I'm going to try another theme week as a prompt for new posts. This week's theme is "follow up". I've been posting for about 4 years now, so I figured it's time for some updates on old posts.

Today, I'm revisiting "filing follies," which I wrote early last year. I complained that my documents that needed filing sat in the admin person's internal mailbox for months on end.

It turned out that this woman, who's been with the organization for about a million years, does not use her mailbox. She didn't know where (what?) it was. Apparently those files were eventually rescued by someone else, who physically brought them to the admin's attention.

Here I was thinking that I was doing the admin person a favor by putting stuff in her mailbox with a sticky note on the cover to explain what I needed. To me, anything dropped off in an internal mailbox is FYI material - here's something you should have/may need to work on, but it's not a big hurry. If it needs babysitting or is especially complicated, I bring it to the person myself. But it gets annoying to be constantly interrupted by someone dropping off unimportant stuff (hello, employee newsletter!)

So now I drop everything off in person, making a big detour and interrupting the admin person (who generally has more important things to do, like getting reports out the door). Whatever works, I guess.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

traffic sensing?

After I raved about my GPS' traffic sensing here, I have to admit that I've had a serious problem recently - the traffic sensing on my GPS has been useless for most of the last month.

I've been driving in multiple regions and for extended periods, and have been unable to get any traffic signals, except for the odd time when there's no traffic on the road at all. Weekends, rush hour, off-peak, major metropolitan areas, rural areas, everywhere. What the hell use is traffic sensing only when there's no traffic?! And why am I paying $9 per month for a non-functional service?

I did a search for "GPS traffic sensing problems" and found that my GPS (TomTom) is actually one of the better options on the market. I guess I just need to be a little more patient.

Monday, April 30, 2012

400 posts

Great. Blogspot decides to change everything just when I need to root through a huge number of posts to create a word cloud. And then my computer doesn't play well with any more.

In spite of a multitude of obstacles, the word cloud for the last 100 posts is attached. For the last blog milestones, see here for 300, here for 200, and here for 100.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

taking a pillow

I sleep on my stomach, so I need to sleep on a hard, flat pillow. I almost always have a problem with hotel pillows. Either they're way too high and I get a crick in my neck, or they're too squashy and I end up feeling as if I'm suffocating. What I end up doing is either sleeping on the very corner of the pillow that squashes down the most, or rummaging for a spare blanket to fold up to the correct height. Or, going without entirely.

I always meant to bring a pillow from home (hell, I mentioned this in a post ages ago), but I never thought of it until it was too late, i.e. I was getting ready for bed at the hotel.

I recently had some fieldwork that was far enough away to stay at a hotel, but close enough so I didn't have to fly. I threw my pillow in the truck at the last minute.

It was perfect. I'd been getting over a persistent cold, so I really did need my sleep. And for once, I crashed right away and slept like a log. I did make sure that I tucked the pillow away in the morning - the last thing I needed was for it to disappear when the bedding got changed.

What I really should do is buy a "field" pillow and then add it to my duffel o'field gear so I can grab and go. Has anybody else done this, or am I just weird for being picky about pillows?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

blogroll update

I haven't done anything to update my blogroll in a while, so I figured it was time. I have a couple additions and one subtraction.

First, the subtraction. "Other people's emergencies: random thoughts of an urban paramedic" was a blog that I read religiously long before Accidental Remediation was a gleam in my eye. Unfortunately, it has been dead for years now, and unlike the other defunct blogs I'm keeping, it's not all that relevant to geologists or environmental types. A quick eulogy for the blog: this was a terrific insight into a job I had no experience in, but the writing and the stories pulled me in. I can only hope to do the same for non-geologists with this one.

I'm adding a few blogs to the geology blogroll: "watching for rocks" is focused on national parks and photos of interesting places. "Outside the interzone" is a great geology/miscellany blog from a regular commenter (and the comments are always appreciated, Lockwood!). And finally, I am a huge cat lover who is unable to have them because they kill my sweetie. So I am adding "geokittehs" to get my fix.

To round out my blogroll additions: for general science/academia, I am a huge fan of Dr. Free Ride and her discussion of ethics. And finally, I spent an entire weekend recently working through the back posts of "ask a manager", so I figured that was enough of an endorsement to add to my miscellaneous blogs.

Monday, April 16, 2012

1000 looks

I was out getting something from my car the other day and had the following conversation with a guy out on a smoke break:

Smoker: "You must have a thousand looks!"
Short Geologist: "Pardon me?"
Smoker: "Every time I see you, you're wearing something different. Yesterday you were wearing a traffic vest!"
Short Geologist: "Yeah, I do a lot of different things."

I hadn't really thought of it that way, but I do vary widely in what I'm wearing on a daily basis. I regularly wear everything from "construction gear" (carhartts, traffic vest, bandana, steel toe boots) to a suit (meeting with bigwigs), to jeans and a t-shirt (casual Friday) to "preppy teacher" outfits (khakis and institutional-logo polo shirts for the instructing gig). And the construction-type gear will vary widely based on weather - brightly-colored gore-tex for the possibility of rain, bulky coveralls and hideous hats if it's freezing, hiking pants if it's warm.

I've complained about the sheer number of outfits required for this line of work before. But one thing that I need to keep in mind is that the different variety of outfits reflects a varied and interesting work environment - not a bad thing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

mining vs. environmental wages

As a newly-minted geologist, I gravitated to environmental work for two reasons:

1. I like soft rock geology and soils.
2. I wanted to be able to work as a geologist in the vicinity of a big city on the east coast. Resource geology jobs were nonexistent (this was long before the Marcellus shale became big business, and even now, the resource jobs are not near the big cities where my sweetie needs to work).

I had always been under the impression that resource geologists get beacoup money compared to environmental geologists. It makes sense - resource (e.g. mining) geologist have to live where the work is, often in harsh conditions. But how much of a difference is there?

I was reading up on salary differences for various mining professions and locations here. I figure that I would correspond to a project geologist at $74,000, or about 20% more than I make (a very general estimate, assumes a straight salary, blah blah). Consultant rates are higher, but then a consultant covers more of their own benefits, insurance, gear, etc. Resource geologist readers - does this sound about right for the US?

My response is "eh". Slight increase in pay, big decrease in locations I could work and probably a decrease in working flexibility. And if my sweetie can't find work in the vicinity, then that would be a big old decrease in household salary.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

most important teacher?

I caught notice of this month's accretionary wedge (hosted at Metageologist) just in time.

So the question is, who was my most important teacher?

I went to a SLAC that had a 5-professor geology department. I wouldn't be able to suss out which professor was the most important - although I got a terrific base of geological knowledge, none of the courses were terribly earth-shattering, in terms of changing the direction of my career.

You know who made a huge difference in my geology career (and eventually, my life)? My college chemistry teacher. I'm paranoid about my pseudonymity, so I won't reveal her name here. Why chemistry?

I had always been a good student, until high school chemistry. Chemistry consisted of nothing but memorization and equations that didn't seem to relate to anything. After high school chemistry, I had pretty much ruled out "hard" science. Maybe I would understand something with fewer equations. (this train of thought is sort of funny considering that now I do lots of hydrogeology... helloo equations!)

I took chemistry in college because I needed two supporting sciences. But in this case, the professor was the opposite of my teacher from high school. She showed how all the pieces of chemistry actually fit together, and how the more you learned, the more everything made sense.

The chemistry I learned in that first course provided me with the base that helped me understand the underpinnings of geology - the stability of minerals, the conditions under which rocks were formed, and (most relevant to my career) the interactions between contaminants and subsurface materials.

I came out of that chemistry course with a terrific base of knowledge, and I had regained my academic equilibrium: I could ace a fast-paced, equation-heavy course. From then on, I continued to stretch myself to do well in difficult science and math classes. My chemistry professor changed my entire college career and was probably the catalyst for me to go on to (and be successful in) grad school.

Monday, April 9, 2012


As I discussed a long time ago, I developed some basic social skills relatively late (post-college) because I was painfully shy, spent most of my time ignored by those around me, and I had a crippling lack of self confidence. I knew I was supposed to "network" at technical meetings, but I had no idea how to do so.

I was going through old posts and this one on networking reminded me of a recent realization I had - I have a network! When I am at a technical or business meeting, I know people or have some familiarity with their office/company expertise, and we discuss the things that annoy us or that we need, and we end up solving each others' problems and exchanging business cards.

So how did I change from a clueless grad student to a networking maven? Well, I've been in the business long enough that I've met a lot of people. I know folks from grad school, from the conferences I've been to, and from the various consulting firms I've worked with in various capacities.

Here's my one piece of advice for effective networking for newbies: an effective network is based on mutual self interest. Don't worry so much about meeting with industry/academic bigwigs - they're not going to remember you or care unless you have something to offer them. Instead, talk to your peers. Try to find something in common with the other early-career attendees. If you're at a conference, look through the posters and listen to as many talks as you can. Do you have experience with a particular technique? Are you familiar with a particular department or regulatory agency? If you end up having a productive/ interesting conversation (even if it's just venting about fieldwork or academic woes), then hand over your contact info when you leave.

Maybe you'll see that person you met (or someone from their department or company) at another conference. Eventually, you'll have a surprising number of connections that can pay off personally and professionally. For example, I just met a manager who was looking for some geologists who had experience with a specific type of drilling method. I happened to know a couple of geologists who had exactly that experience and could use the work. Did chatting with that manager help me directly? No, but I got to help out some folks I respect, and perhaps when I need something in the future, that manager will know someone...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

the travel bug

I am forever trying to separate out posts so that I don't have 900 "field rant" posts.

As geologist, I'm forever in transit between field sites and different offices. This has made me something of an expert in field travel. So I'll go through and add a new "travel" tag to separate out the posts a little.

If there are any other tags that come to mind for this blog, let me know! I will admit that now that I have a couple hundred posts, adding new tags is something of a commitment...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

conference hotels

I was staying at a big conference hotel recently, and it had the usual problems: outrageously expensive internet, no food or entertainment options within walking distance, and preposterous prices - my club sandwich for dinner was $17! Yes, many of the guests here are on expense accounts, but not everyone has the free funds... or an accounting department that will cut you a check without a drawn-out fight.

So I was ready to post an angry screed about my digs, but then I found out that they had a system where they'd give you vouchers for pretty decent swag if you opt out of housekeeping. Sweet!

I don't need housekeeping every day when I'm in a hotel. I'm not particularly messy, and I like to spread out my stuff so I can find my clothing easily in the morning (I'm afraid of leaving stuff in drawers - that's a good way to forget something). Also, I always pull out the sheets so that I can be properly wrapped up when I sleep, and housekeeping always tucks the sheets in as tight as humanly possible every day. And it's eco-friendly to skip the housekeeping!

I just need to find another place for dinner...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

job hunting

When I was job-hunting, I had an incredibly hard time getting j0b-seeking advice. I didn't want to advertise my job search to the people I knew in the industry (my coworkers), so I looked online and quickly got lost in a bunch of contradictory advice.

It was just as bad when I talked to other people. For example, when I was putting together my resume, I was most familiar with a proposal resume. Not the same thing as a job-seeking resume: proposal = squash as much language in as possible to show how much experience in X I have, job-seeking = make everything short and sweet. So I had my sweetie review what I did and then handed it off to a friend who was trying to build up a resume-fixing business. Neither work in science, let alone environmental science/geology, and they were totally flummoxed by my resume. Squash everything into 1 page? Use bullets only? Include relevant coursework?

I ended up finding this job-hunting blog and spent most of a weekend going through old posts. It has an active readership and if you read through the comments, you can get a feel for generally accepted practices and how much they deviate. Although it's not science-specific, it was the best resource I found. Another option that's more science-oriented is this, but it's more academically oriented, and the few industry jobs that are discussed are all in bio/pharmacology. Anybody else have job searching resources that would be good for industry geologists?

Monday, March 26, 2012

um, spring?

It was gloriously warm for a couple weeks. Everybody got all excited and started posting things like this.

So I went off to work in a short-sleeved shirt. Bad idea - the wind picked up and then I found that the high today was expected to be 50 and that there's a freeze warning for tonight. So maybe I was a little too optimistic to bury my knit hat and my coveralls in the back of the closet for the season.

Friday, March 23, 2012

graduate office space

FSP posted recently about offices for grad students. In your academic institutions, how many grad students generally fit in one room?

In my department, we had every configuration imaginable, from one student tucked into a closet space to a big "party room" of about 25 students. I was in a converted lab with all functioning spigots and sinks, (it was "converted by throwing desks and a few random bookcases in there) and we squashed five students in an area that stretched from the hallway to the outer wall and was about 5 feet wide.

Other than the annoying ladies next door, my office was an ideal space for me: we had one window all the way at the end that could actually be opened (and climbed out of in case of emergency) for climate control, we had water for coffee/tea, and it had the perfect number of people: you generally had at least one person around to talk to, but it wasn't a zoo. I came in early in the morning and worked at least one day on the weekend, so I had a mix of time when I was alone and time when I knew there would be a crowd.

Our nasty old lab was a bit of a joke - my buddies in other departments were horrified by my digs. Yes, it was oddly noisy. Yes, we had a designated water tap for drinking because we had let it run for ages before the water ran clear. Yes, there was a problem with the former fume hood that caused bits of stuff to blow the wrong way (out into our office) on occasion. But I had room for all my books, a desk big enough to spread out maps, a lock for my laptop, and friends to bounce ideas off; and as a grad student, that was all I needed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

the basement spider

I've had to update my field characterization of spiders. In previous installments of Short Geologist's Guide to Spiders, I've mentioned spiders associated with the water bodies I've worked around and terrestrial spiders.

I've been doing a bunch of residential surveys and other indoor work, and I have gotten way too familiar with basement spiders. Basement spiders build huge, droopy webs that catch dryer lint and dust (at least that way, I can see them), but the spiders themselves are spindly and have the approximate dimensions of daddy long legs, with a pair of extra long "feeler" legs that they stick out so they can try to catch me and totally freak me out. Luckily, if I blow on them, they scuttle back into the crevices of the basement. That's fine, unless I have to reach into said crevices...

I would rather face a basement with an entire colony of nesting snakes than one with a basement spider infestation.