Tuesday, November 26, 2013

old maintenance guy

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

office spider

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

presentation feedback

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2013

number clarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

tablet time?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

to sell scientific stuff

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

field jewelery

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

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

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

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