Tuesday, December 23, 2014

geology uncyclopedia

I'm going to be taking some time off for the holidays. But before I go, something trivial to enjoy in my absence:

Someone pointed me to the uncyclopedia entry for "geologist" a while back. It's pretty amusing, although many of the jokes are getting old at this point. Geologists love beer? Whoda thunkit?

I will admit, however, that some stereotypes have a kernel of truth. I touched on the Great Geologist-Engineer Controversy ages ago, and it still pops up pretty high in search terms that end up here. Anything that strike you as exceptionally accurate, or completely off the mark?

Friday, December 19, 2014


I occasionally see badly-written reports that will be read and picked apart by other stakeholders, and  bidders who blatantly ignore proposal requirements. I have also attended meetings with technical experts who had no idea what they were supposed to discuss.

These are usually not signs of incompetence. They indicate arrogance - someone or an organization that thinks that they are above such inconsequential things as evidence or support for their position.

I have never been able to just waltz into a room and expect that everyone will think that I'm brilliant (or even that I know what I'm talking about). I've never been the "golden child" or the person who everyone can see is "going places". I was an academic nonentity in high school and in college. After I'd established myself in the field, I still had to fight to prove myself when I was job hunting. And I'm still (like, this year) getting strange "wow, you can give a presentation" compliments years after I thought that particular question was settled.

All those ridiculous experiences have given me a decent-sized chip on my shoulder. But they also mean that I take my shit seriously. And when I offer a technical opinion, you'd better believe I can back it up.

I have been gratified to see that certain persons/organizations that have been particularly careless because of overwhelming arrogance have gotten burned recently. Of course, some of the offenders that I've worked with/around more closely seem to be doing perfectly fine. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

scientific $$$ competition

In both the academic world and the consulting business, many of us chase after big pots of money - the sort of money that would fund an entire research program or keep an office employed for years. Sometimes we compete for individual projects, or we compete for the chance to be put on a list for future work. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the sorts of organizations that have these pots of money are also big, and usually have complicated and occasionally opaque selection processes. If the proposal/bid requirements are especially onerous, part of the selection process may be to see how good the competitors are at following future onerous contract requirements.

With this in mind, I have two pieces of advice:

1. When putting together a bid or an application, follow the directions. If it says to include registered copies of corporate/individual certifications, scrounge them up. If the CVs/resumes/project examples are to be 1 page each and in Times New Roman Font, then format them. If it says you have 12 minutes for an in-person presentation, then don't prepare an hour long presentation.

2. If you do decide that the requirements are ridiculous, don't send an e-mail blast to the grant/contract people and the bidding group, saying that the entire process is bogus and that you're dropping out of contention because you have better things to do with your time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

competitor advice

I gave a driller a ride to another site that his company was working at so he could borrow a particular tool. When we arrived, I introduced myself to the geologist, who worked for a firm that directly competes with mine, and we started chatting as the drillers rummaged around their rig. He seemed to be a complete newbie and unsure of himself, a position that I remember well and empathize with.

He needed to install a monitoring well at the top of rock or at a target depth, whichever was first, and he was trying to figure out if he'd hit bedrock yet. So where had I hit bedrock?

Well, I was on top of a bare bedrock knob, so we'd simply stuck the drill rig where it was supposed to go and started bedrock drilling. He was in a valley several miles away, and I didn't have the foggiest idea of the  bedrock depth at his location.

He was pretty disappointed at this. But then he had another idea. What did my bedrock look like?

"Well, bedrock can be pretty variable in this area [it's composed of a bunch of different units smushed together]. But we encountered X rock, composed of mostly mineral A and some mineral B, and in a few places, this really distinct mineral C..." then I realized his eyes had glazed over.

He picked up a nondescript chunk of rock that did not look like what I had encountered. "So, did it look like this? Could this be bedrock? We drilled in about 3 inches."

In case you were wondering, we were working in boulder central. Three inches of rock drilling tells you nothing about where the parent rock actually is. At this point, I realized I was perilously close to suggesting that he take some action (drill deeper) that would have an impact on his firm's investigation, so I hemmed and hawed and suggested he follow whatever his home office/specification/work plan suggested. Luckily, my driller came back with what he needed and we skeddadled.

My instinct is to be as helpful as possible, but I also don't want to annoy either my organization or a competitor by inserting myself in someone else's work. What would you have done?

Friday, December 5, 2014

page padding

I remember high school essay assignments, where I had some outrageous page requirement, like 5 pages, and tried to pick the largest margins and font size I could get away with.

We don't have minimum report lengths in the environmental biz. But some people are still addicted to padding.

I will occasionally receive a PDF with several thousand pages, and everything except the first 15 pages are lab reports and copies of waste manifests, and maybe one appendix that I actually need buried between them.  I've also received documents that have bundled every single reference, intact, within the file itself. Even if said documents are free, stupid easy to find, and gigantic. Like say, this. (or google "ATSDR arsenic" and it's the first hit). In those documents, PDF bookmarks were usually conspicuously absent. And many of those pages are (poorly) scanned photocopies, so the file size is gigantic for the actual information provided.

Storage space is cheap, and we're in the modern era, so opening a 300 MB file of filler doesn't usually crash my computer. And I can strip out the crap that I know I won't need myself. But really, at a time when labs use electronic data deliverables (EDDs), and we can convert practically everything to a PDF directly, and we can easily link to other documents without making a 10,000 page monster file, why do so many reports come out looking like a giant stack of poorly sorted papers?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

worst science grades

Geologists/scientists, did you have any terrible grades in a science class? This post discusses lousy grades from an academic's (ecology) perspective.

In college, I caught fire in chemistry, stunk up my math classes, did ok in my geology classes, and was generally a better student in my non-major classes. That post I referred to also discussed my lousy high school science classes, which temporarily convinced me that I couldn't hack "real science", so I won't rehash high school here. In the end, I got school honors as an undergrad, but not department honors. I didn't have that singular lousy grade, though.

When I was a senior in college and trying to figure out what to do next, I thought that only brilliant people who got all As were "allowed" into graduate school. None of my professors seemed to think I was good enough. Nobody said, "hey, have you considered grad school?" It didn't occur to me until much later that the only students from my department who went to grad school right from college were clearly preferred by the professors, who were aggressively "outdoorsy", dominated the class discussions, and generally sucked all the oxygen out of the room from those of us who were more reserved or unsure of ourselves.

Here's the thing. One bad grade won't keep you from being a stellar academic. One bad undergrad experience won't keep you from getting where you want to go, whether that's a "hard" science or academia, or somewhere else. I used to work with a science expert who had flunked out of college entirely. It may take some hard work initially. Maybe you need to build an industry reputation. Maybe you take a couple years to take (or re-take) some classes. But there are no iron gates preventing you from getting the experience/grades/confidence to get to the next step, whether it's academia or industry.

Friday, November 28, 2014

field inspiration

My last post was sort of a long rant, so I thought I'd balance things out a bit with a more positive subject. If you do fieldwork and love being outside, (potentially) out in nature, do you have someone who gave you that love of nature? Maybe it was someone you grew up with, or a camp counselor, or maybe it was a teacher.

My field/outdoors inspiration (as opposed to my life inspiration or science inspiration) was my grandfather, John. Born before 1910 to an alcoholic mother and an absent father (his parents divorced, but not before having a bunch of kids they couldn't take care of), he essentially raised his younger siblings. As a teenager, he took a job as a ship's cook for a sailing ship, and eventually he settled down in the city that was the primary port of call, married my grandmother in the depths of the Depression, and had a bunch of children.

When John's multitude of children were young, money and time were both tight, but he still found time to be heavily involved in the boy scouts. He taught generations of inner-city boys orienteering/survival skills and a general love of nature, and he received the silver beaver, which I believe is the highest boy scout-specific adult leadership award (i.e. for actually leading boy scouts, not for national issues/public service). He built rifles and went hunting every chance he could, although in his case, "hunting" involved tracking some kind of game, getting close enough for a nice clean shot, and then sitting down for a meditative smoke. Once the deer/moose/whatever had wandered off, he'd repeat the process.

My mother was the youngest and the child of his retirement, and he made her a child-sized backpack and spent as long as he could teaching her everything he knew about hiking and the woods. He always found a way to be outside and to go for long walks. Even past his mid-eighties, when he was frequently afflicted with gout (my love of good food is genetic), he was still active: he did the grocery shopping and would go for long walks from his apartment. He also filed down the ribbon eye on that silver beaver and gave it to me when I was young, since he didn't need the award and it had caught my eye. I still have it.

We were too far apart in age for John to take me out into the woods himself - by the time I was old enough to practice everything he knew, he wasn't mobile enough to get onto the trail and poke around. But he did instill in me an appreciation for silence, for sitting and waiting and letting the wildlife get comfortable, and an appreciation for all the little things you can learn if you just look.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the great outoors

While I was writing this post, I was wrestling with issues of privilege and class. I've always been wary of condescension when working around folks living in rural poverty, or folks who chose a lifestyle that mimics that rural poverty, such as survivalists. The original post that I had linked to had some of that condescension, and possibly one reason it prompted so much discussion.

I grew up in a suburban, relatively wealthy town. At the same time, most of my extended family lived in a rough part of the city. We don't like to talk about class in the US, but it exists. I lived in a world where you fought for the best education and had to get into a "good school" (not public) so you get an advanced degree, preferably to be a doctor or a lawyer. They lived in a world where protecting your own was more important, and education was ok if it got you something concrete, like a good local job. Growing up, my cousins considered me a strange creature with no discernible skills and too many big words, but I was family and I was theirs. That acceptance was a big warm blanket when I was floundering at connecting with my own peers.

I went to an expensive small liberal arts school (SLAC) that drew the bulk of its students from the big cities/suburbs of the northeastern US. Not everyone was wealthy or had family resources. I knew kids who worked in the potato fields at home when they were not at school. I also knew kids whose parents didn't believe in education or didn't care to fill out the financial aid forms, and those kids worked off what they could and borrowed what they couldn't. The local strip clubs had a talent bonanza because of this. But the culture of the school was one of privilege, and the poor kids either kept quiet or left.

So I got into geology in college, and academically, it was the perfect fit. I could go outside and poke around in the dirt, and I could answer all sorts of interesting questions. Socially/emotionally, it was a bust. I wonder if part of the reason was because all the "cool kids" were all about backpacking and spending summers hiking (e.g. not toiling away in retail or some other crappy job you kept from high school) and having your own gear (all of it) and eating all organic this and that from whole paycheck whole foods. I was aware about the costs of the blithe earthy crunchy lifestyle, and extremely aware that other students didn't have the means to participate. See also this post about field course costs. This discomfort probably manifested as not having sufficient "team spirit".

In general, geologists (and other scientists/engineers in the environmental field) love to be outside. We pick up our love for the great outdoors from all sorts of places - from our family, from poking around a local woody patch, from organized activity like the Scouts. But how many geologists actually grew up out there, not using nature as a personal playground, but as the way you got your food or the wood to supplement/keep the house warm? I have a feeling the percentage is relatively low. If so, is that a problem? Well, if young geologists have been living in a social bubble, it can cause some real issues with perceived safety, community/resident communication, and effectiveness once they're out in the field.

Friday, November 21, 2014

getting samples shipped

I think I'm at the final piece of my sample shipment/management saga. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and part 4 is here. Let's recap. When shipping samples, you need to make sure that the custody seals are all in place, that the COC is filled out and signed properly, that the samples will stay cold, but not so cold that they'll freeze, that the sample containers won't break, that the samples are sealed in their cooler, that the cooler is sealed and labelled properly...and every step is part of a strict procedure that will cause big headaches for the project if there's a breakdown.

That's all well and good. The problem is that when shipping samples, you are invariably on a deadline. You can keep some samples on ice for a while, and ship when you get around to it (for example, metals analysis for soils). But some samples, like those for microbial analysis, need to go out ASAP, such as the same day. Samples for other common analyses, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), really need to go out in a day or two to meet holding time requirements. So you've got to get those samples out the door. Here's my list of favorite to least favorite shipping times/options:

1. The lab is less than 30 minutes away. You are allowed to contact the lab directly (don't ask). You call up in a dither because you're inundated with samples and you're going to be late. The lab is normally open until 6 or 7 PM, but some kind soul will come back or wait for you to drag your samples over.

2. You are within reasonable driving distance of a commercial/ reasonably sized airport. The final FedEx acceptance time at a regional airport is usually 10 PM. For a major airport, it may be midnight.

3. You are somewhat close to a commercial/industrial hub, and you can find a FedEx within reasonable driving distance with an acceptance time of 7 or 8 PM.

4. You have a lab courier, and you can convince the courier to swing by you last. The courier is used to dealing with field staff who aren't quite ready for the pickup, and is usually fine with waiting another couple of minutes. Also, if you have a courier, your shipment requirements aren't nearly as onerous.

5. The local FedEx isn't a major distribution center, so it stops accepting samples at 5 or 6.

6. There is no local FedEx distribution center. You can arrange for a pickup time. You're on a major field project, and the FedEx person has become used to/is mildly amused by your frantic last-minute cooler wrapping antics. They will stop by later, at the end of the run, or can be bribed with trailer coffee to wait for a few minutes.

7. You can only get an afternoon pickup time and the FedEx driver will only stop for 30 seconds and won't come back later. Or you're not on a FedEx route at all, and the only place you can drop off your samples is a local copy shop an hour away, and their posted last pickup time is mid-afternoon.

I have many a hair-raising story about racing to meet shipment deadlines. Some involve field crew illegally crouched in the back of some large-ish vehicle, frantically wrapping coolers while the driver breaks speed records. Others involve planting someone in the doorway so the distribution center can't close, while someone else wraps coolers in the parking lot.

There are some people who really enjoy sample management/shipment - getting all the bottles organized, making sure everything is labelled/wrapped/sorted just so, and then keeping their head when everything goes nuts right before the shipping deadline. I am not that person.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Geologists, do you trespass? Do you chase your outcrop over hill and dale? Sneak over a fence to collect a nice rock specimen?

I do not. I'm pretty careful about lining up my permissions and access agreements. Even when a resident tells me straight out to just let myself in and not bother them with notifications, I still send a reminder before I go, and once I'm done with my sampling, leave a business card with a note thanking them. Part of this is personality - I wouldn't want some service person to just go waltzing onto my property.

But part of my care is because I've been burned before. For example, I put in a monitoring well (a bedrock well, with a nice steel casing keyed and cemented into bedrock) and find out only afterward that the property line isn't exactly where we thought it was. Or the time that, due to an unfortunate game of telephone, "I'll give permission once I visit and you show me the intended well location" became "I give you permission" and the property owner was mighty surprised to find a drill rig already in operation for their visit.

When I was an undergrad, it seemed like a lot of our field trips were awfully casual about property access. We had mapping to do, and we had no compunction about crossing property lines. Granted, going outcrop hunting doesn't have quite the same impact as poking holes in the ground with heavy equipment. But even if I'm just measuring strike and dip and I'm not actually taking anything except for information, I still get that permission. That measurement will go on a map in a report, and once it's there, it's a permanent record of where I've been. Saves awkward questions later. And also, it's simple to chat about the significance of that big wall of rock in the backyard with the homeowner and it may save you the indignity of getting physically chased out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

rural adventures

The title to this post from earlier this week caught my eye immediately. "My job wants me to deal with shotguns, guard dogs, mud holes, and dark woods"... it's another day in the life of Short Geologist! In the case of the Ask a Manager post, it's someone who's sent out to canvass for something or other, and their management is shrugging off their safety concerns.

The comments (as usual) go off in a million directions, but I wanted to address a side discussion about rural poverty, and stereotypes about where you can encounter it and how dangerous those areas actually are.

I'm an overeducated East Coast Big City person, and especially when I was younger, I'm sure it was pretty obvious that I was out of my element when I did fieldwork out in rural, poor areas. And I sometimes got a hostile reception. Sometimes we were chasing down contamination from a neighboring industrial area that had employed a bunch of locals before getting shut down. Or I was acting (in some small way) as the agent for the government, and a resident had a certain... strongly held objection to his tax situation.

Lots of other East Coast Big City types think of "Deliverance" type poverty (shanties, barefoot kids and scrawny dogs underfoot, no running water) as only happening in the deep south and far, far from populated areas. Not true. As some commenters pointed out, you can travel less than 2 hours from any major city in the northeast and find those areas. I've done residential sampling in some of those areas, some of which were 10 minutes and one road off the nearest interstate exit and less than a half hour from a major population center. "Country mansion" (old trailer with several plywood/tarpaper extensions)? Check. Half naked kids running around during school hours? Check. Collection of rotting trucks out front with no plates? Check. Survivalist-style gun racks/canned food collections? Check.

Here's the thing. I've been harassed just as much standing on the sidewalk in a fancy suburban development as I have in some of those rural, poor areas. Poorly-behaved, territorial dogs are everywhere. And I've been in a lot of basements. Let me tell you, it is a rare house indeed that has a basement that isn't scary and infested with creepy crawlies. If you need to poke around houses out in the country, you should have a buddy... same as anywhere else.

Friday, November 7, 2014

social media/networking

Geologists/environmental folks, do you use social networking sites to keep in touch with colleagues? And how do you use them?

I do use linkedin, as I alluded to in this post when I was trying to find old classmates. I keep facebook strictly personal, although I may have an odd ex-coworker/close friend there. I've also been invited into ResearchGate, but I'm not an academic and I have a hard enough time keeping track of anyone on the two social media sites I do have accounts with.

I think this varies more by personality than by industry, but in my case I keep my contact list relatively small. No relatives or spouses of coworkers (sigh) in entirely unrelated industries. I also don't accept requests from people I don't know who are just keeping a giant pile of contacts for their own purposes. The worst offenders for these seem to be recruiters and salespeople who are trying to get buyers for generic industry stuff (labs, material suppliers).

I accept requests from all coworkers and former colleagues (academic or industry) without question. Same thing with clients, although in one case I ended up putting someone on hold for a while while I beefed up my profile so it reflected something of my experience with that type of project. In the past, I've been hesitant to accept requests from subcontractors, but I've since relented. As it turns out, most of the subs I interact with on a daily basis aren't networking on linkedin (with me, anyway), which makes sense - they already know my full contact info, and if I leave, they can find where I went in about six seconds anyway. My corner of the environmental consulting world is very small.

As I was writing this, I checked to see how many contacts I actually had - about 100 on linkedin. Once I was actually there, I started poking around. Of the former work colleagues, a few people have struck out on their own and formed their own companies. Probably half are working for different firms than when we worked together, but I think that percentage is relatively high because the people on linkedin are more likely to be mobile than those who are not. Several are actively job-hunting. One has grown an epic beard and become a farmer. So, a mixed bunch.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


When I'm overseeing contractors, I am generally easygoing. I don't get worked up if the geology doesn't cooperate, or if a contractor's piece of equipment malfunctions and needs some sort of fix. Stuff happens. Drillers who I've worked with on long projects and/or projects that have been prone to various technical obstacles know that I'm basically relaxed about these sorts of budget/schedule busters.

That doesn't mean I'm easygoing with my equipment or what I need to do. My coworkers know when I'm having technical difficulties, because a constant stream of muttering/mild curses comes from my office/around the corner of a recalcitrant piece of equipment.

I recently was doing some sampling while I had contractors doing prep work that didn't require any oversight on my part. Specfically, I was using a bailer to collect water samples from an extremely deep well with a water level greater than 200 feet below grade (don't ask). And every time I pulled up the bailer, no matter how careful I was, I inevitably tangled the string into a massive Gordian knot that I could either pick apart or cut and knot back together. I had no idea about this, but apparently the acoustics of the place were such that the contractors could hear every choice word. According to the crew, the contrast between easygoing overseer and cranky worker was so funny, they hung out for a while just to appreciate how much fun I was not having.

Oh well, some days I'm the only entertainment we get.

Friday, October 31, 2014

being famous

When I had my very first annual review, my manager asked where I wanted to go with my career. I had no idea: at the time, I was just focused on learning everything I could about the basics of fieldwork, analysis of results, and writing reports. I'd never thought of myself as particularly ambitious, but as my career gained steam, I did develop Ideas about where I'd like to end up.

I'd like to be an Expert, the sort of person who you'd call if you wanted to figure out a particularly thorny problem or if you needed someone to testify about geological stuff. The sort of person who would be a respected adversary if you ended up sitting across the table from her in big meetings involving potential litigation. So I taught courses and tried to work on big sites with complicated geology and enough contamination that it was worth someone's while to collect lots of geologic data and analyze it. And maybe, when I'm old and ready to retire, I'll be famous enough that people will seek me out to advise on interesting problems.

So that was what I was trying to do. In reality, attending conferences doesn't bring in any money. And the number of complicated sites that need lots of technical work is dwindling, and if the issues are really exciting, they bring in the famous Experts, the people I'm aspiring to be.

I was so focused on Science that I missed something else entirely. While geologic analysis is great when you can get it, what I was mostly doing was spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day with an army of rotating subcontractors. Standing out in the rain while trying to take notes. Logging sample after sample after sample in 2-foot increments. Giving team briefings and then trying to get everyone to stick with what I said we were supposed to do.

I already know people. I have an easy rapport with the management of a bunch of firms I've used before, because we've worked through complicated logistics together. Drillers and geophysicists and hazardous waste specialists have been in the field with me while I regrouped and fixed mistakes and tried to keep impossible projects on track. And honestly, I'm not sure how many knowledgeable but extremely young-looking, female geologists there are in my area. So I'm easy to remember. This was brought home to me recently when a new crew came to a site I was working at, and everybody piled out of the truck and someone said, "hey, it's Short Geologist!" and they were happy to see me and I had No Idea who they were.

I may not be the person everyone has on speed-dial to fix major environmental problems. But I do know how to get good data and figure out what's going on out there, and I'd like to think I'm starting to turn into an Expert, in my own way.

Friday, October 24, 2014

chain of custody

This is part 4 of my epic discussion on shipping environmental samples (see here and here and here for previous installments).

Environmental samples are much like samples gathered as part of a criminal investigation: you need to prove that they were collected properly (that is, that they are representative of actual conditions) and that they have not been tampered with.

The chain of custody involves two parts: keeping samples secure, and documenting the handover of samples.

Sample security

   Most work plans will specify that samples will be kept under the control of the sampler (or someone) until shipment. Practically speaking, this means that coolers should be kept at a staging area, or the trailer, or in your vehicle. They should not be shoved under the trailer or tucked behind a storage shed overnight because they'll stay cool and not-underfoot that way.

   The magic token we use to document sample security is a custody seal - a sticker that you sign and date, and then cover either side of the cooler with (or every individual sample, depending on the jurisdiction). Then you usually cover the custody seal and cooler with a few wraps of tape. The idea is that if someone cuts into the cooler/opens the sample jar, they will damage the seal.

   The custody seal may be provided by the lab or the sampling firm.  In a pinch, I've scribbled my signature and date on a piece of paper and taped that to the cooler. Alternately, you may have a restricted/special supply so that you can document exactly which seal is associated with which cooler/sample.The more specific/detailed the custody seal procedure is, the longer the whole process takes and the more likely you are to screw up, prompting howls of outrage from the lab, the lead chemist, the regulatory agency, etc.

Documenting sample handover
   We all use a form called a chain of custody (COC), which is either provided by the lab, or the sampling organization, or the sampling organization's client. That form lists the sample ID, bottleware (how many containers? What type?), preservative, date/time collected, and analyses to be performed. It may list laboratory quality control (QC) samples for the lab. It should also include a note if the samples are screaming hot/pure product or may otherwise require special handling. The form also includes a place for the sampler to sign and for the person handling the samples/packing the cooler to sign and date with the time. When the sample is handed over to the lab/courier or the lab opens the cooler, that person signs. Any time the samples change hands, the COC is signed or a new one is produced. Eventually, a copy of the completed COC is provided with the lab data to show how the samples were handled.

   Ideally, you have one COC per shipment. But sometimes you have multiple coolers and need separate COCs. Good luck squashing in that one bottle at the end!

   The COC is checked by the lab and by the sampling firm and/or client lead chemist to make sure everything was done correctly. If not, the data may be qualified or rejected, and may require re-sampling. Regulators and consultants for the opposition (if in a legal dispute) scrutinize this stuff.

This chain of custody process can be frustrating to a scientist, because it has zero impact on the analytical results. But ultimately, the samples are part of a legal process that is just as important to the overall project.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

driving and...

I used to talk on the phone while driving... quite often, actually, although not for very long for any given conversation. I've stopped entirely, for two reasons: in the last couple of years, more and more jurisdictions have made cell phone use illegal while driving; and when I broke down and got a smartphone and started receiving work e-mails, I had to have an "unlock" password that makes the phone a giant pain to dial with.

I've done a few regrettable things while driving to/from fieldwork. For example, eating a slice of cheescake. With a fork. In rush-hour traffic.

My worst example of distracted driving was when I was running late for a new field project. I was in a complete tizzy because I was following directions from a mapquest printout, and I was pretty sure I had made a wrong turn. Once I figured out I was indeed going to be more than 10 minutes late (remember, I hate being late), I tried to call the client contact. Oops, that was in a pile of papers tucked in the very deep center console of the cargo van. So there I was, trying to reach way below the dashboard for a bunch of buried papers, then shuffle through them, then dial the number and have a semi-intelligent conversation, all while bombing down the highway.

This is why I have a portable GPS to take with me for fieldwork. It's also why I leave with plenty of time and if I am running late, I find a safe place to stop well short of the actual arrival time.

Friday, October 17, 2014

siblings? cousins?

If you're on a long-term field project that requires staying overnight, and it's just two or three of you out there, you tend to get a little close. You work 10, 11, 12 hour days together, then you go back to the same hotel (or hotel room, if you're unlucky). You may be sharing a ride. Even if you split for dinner, you can't really escape them.

Regardless of whether you like or dislike the other field staff, you start developing your own vocabulary, in-jokes, nicknames, stories you've heard a million times already, pet peeves which can be exploited mercilessly...

When outsiders are convinced that you are siblings, or otherwise somehow related, it may be time to take a break.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

600 posts

Once again, I've gone through and compiled the last 100 posts for a word cloud. Someday I'll figure how to save everything at once, instead of copying and pasting from blogger to make an almost 60-page file.

"Environmental," "field," and "work" are always big. I think that "drilling" and "safety" are a little more prominent than in past post compilations.

For comparison, here's the previous word clouds: 500, 400, 300, 200, and 100.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

billable lunch?

When I first started doing fieldwork, I had to eat lunch. I was ravenous.

Now that my metabolism has slowed down, I either have something small/snacky (a granola bar or handful of nuts) or go without lunch altogether. It depends on whether or not I cobbled together a good breakfast and how busy I am - if I'm running around like a crazy person, I may forget about eating altogether.

If I don't eat lunch, and I'm going, going, going all day, then clearly the entire day is billable to the client.  But what if I'm overseeing people who stop and take an actual lunch break?

I generally consider the entire day to be billable. If the field crew is taking lunch, if I'm not eating something (or I spend 2 minutes eating a granola bar), I'm catching up on paperwork, mucking out the trailer, answering phone calls and e-mails I've ignored, etc. It is a slow day indeed if I have nothing to do for a half hour or so.

If the budget is super tight, I may donate that half hour or so. If there's a chance that I'm not going to have at least 8 hours of work that day, I'll probably consider the lunch time to be billable. On a very rare occasion I'll actually Go Out and sit down for lunch with coworkers/contractors, and that time is definitely not billable.

Consultants, what's your lunch/billing policy?

Friday, October 3, 2014

it is noted that

Another writing pet peeve to add to the pile:

I work with a few people who have the "it is observed/noted" writing tic, and it drives me nuts. You don't need to tell the reader that you're observing/noting it because you already have it in there. And that construction is so passive as to be a parody of itself. Really, who observed it and thought it was important enough to put it in? You, the writer did! Gah.

Luckily, it's an easy fix.

"It is noted that the site is inundated with floodwater when it rains, and every time this happens the treatment system shuts down for six hours."


"The site is inundated with floodwater when it rains, and every time this happens the treatment system shuts down for the six hours."

And while I have my red pencil out (and I can't resist this sort of thing):

"The site floods with every rainstorm because the seven-acre parcel drains directly into the treatment system pen. Whenever this happens, the treatment system shuts down for six hours to allow the innards PLC module to dry."

See? So much better.

Monday, September 29, 2014

conference time-keeping

Athene Donald recently addressed a big pet peeve of mine: conference talks that run way past their allotted time, thus screwing up the schedule for everyone else who has the misfortune to be after them.

When I've presented at conferences, I've usually had dire warnings to keep to the time limit, or else. And I respect those limits. How do I do that?

I practice with the material until I have a good sense of the "beats" of the presentation and I'm reasonably sure that I can end within a few minutes of the target. I also have a couple of ideas about where to expand in case I race through/forget something (nerves on stage) and it looks like I'll have some extra time at the end.

I give the presentation to interested parties internally as a trial run. In grad school and at work, I could always find someone with a stopwatch and a willingness to rip into the slides, the format/order of what I'm saying, and any bad speaking/presenting habits (Have a death grip on the podium? Hem and haw? Accelerate madly as the talk goes on?). But the best way to simulate a conference talk is to collect a reasonably large group of marginally interested people (students/staff who are just there for the promise of food/extra credit/a break from working) and present to them.

When I'm actually up there, I don't rely on a room clock (although it's nice to have one). I have a watch that I can strategically stick somewhere on the podium. And I work out a warning schedule with the moderator, if they haven't already established one. By the time I'm actually ready to present, the watch/moderator are really there for peace of mind and to be able to add a little more info to fill in a minute or so as needed.

So after I've done all my prep work, I find it incredibly annoying to sit through someone else's presentation that has clearly never been practiced and/or could never fit into the allotted time. For example, they spool up a power point with 100 slides for a 20-minute presentation, and the first slide is a wall of text. That's just disrespectful to the audience.

At the same time, it's really hard to provide context and say something interesting in a very short timeframe. I think that conference organizers are shooting themselves in the foot if they have to enforce a time limit of 15 minutes or less per presentation, unless there's some mechanism for speakers or their supplementary material to be immediately available to discuss/expand on/clarify things.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

freezing samples

A comment on this post reminded me of an occasional problem with managing environmental samples: getting them too cold.

I have two "war stories" about freezing samples:

1. I was working on an island, and a blizzard blew in as we were wrapping up groundwater sampling for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - small vials, no headspace allowed. We ended up fleeing and leaving the coolers where they were. We came back two days later, fought our way through epic snow drifts, and found that all our VOC samples had frozen. We spent all day running around like crazy people to re-sample, and by the time we had schlepped our new batch of samples back to the dock (back through those piles of snow again!), we were so overheated that we rode in the front of the launch (about 15 degrees F on the water) the whole ride back to the mainland.

2. We had a huge batch of samples that were going to go out the next day. It was winter, but we were working out of a storage box/office combo, so we had some residual heat for the whole trailer. Our VOC samples were tucked in tight in the office, but in this case the giant 4-liter glass bottles that I so dislike broke because they were out in the storage part and too far from the heater. They were essentially ok, except for the necks. Luckily (since these samples represented probably a combined 100 hours of effort) the bottles were already wrapped in giant ziplock bags for shipping and we just pumped the water out of the broken bottles and into fresh ones.

The best weather for samples is early spring/late fall in my neck of the woods: 60 degrees F during the day for comfortable fieldwork, 35 degrees F at night to keep the samples cold, but not too cold.

Monday, September 22, 2014

volcanoes and space photos

The Big Picture has two recent sets of photos of geological interest: volcanic activity and images of the earth and space from NASA. You should check out both sets - the volcano pictures, especially, are terrific.

Here's a sampling:

A June 27 lava flow from Kilauea volcano in Pahoa, Hawaii (provided by USGS):

A September 10 solar flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:

Friday, September 19, 2014

hotel rewards

I do have a preferred hotel "brand" - it's the one that I have a credit card for, and it has a pretty good money spent: reward ratio. I think it's best to pick one brand and stick with it, to the extent possible - otherwise, you dilute out all your rewards and never build up enough to collect anything.

With that said, I still have a fistful of hotel rewards cards from other brands. Sometimes "my" hotel brand doesn't have a cheap enough option local to my fieldwork, or I've been outvoted by fellow travelers who are partisans of a different brand, or another hotel is clearly superior. I try not to collect random hotel rewards programs, but occasionally I'll sign up to get free internet/room snacks/other random goodies at check-in time. I'm pretty sure the only major hotel brand I don't have rewards with (to some degree) is Wyndham (Ramada, Days Inn, etc). I also have rewards with some smaller groups, like Kimpton, although I'll probably never use them enough to get anything out of them.

I've recently been spending a significant amount of time (69 nights this year, sez my most recent statement!) at a non-preferred brand hotel. When I got my last statement summary, I decided to see if I could use up those rewards for an upcoming holiday.

This particular hotel was not terribly cheap - north of $100 per night even with a negotiated discount for the crew practically living at the hotel. So far this year, I spent at least $7000. And how many hotel nights at that brand could I get for all that money spent? Half of one night.

Yeah, I'll stick with my usual hotel brand, thanks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

overtime vs. base pay

Ages ago, I discussed the (usually low-end/cheaper/commodity) environmental firms that keep their entry-level folks in the field non-stop and save money by not paying overtime. But what about organizations that prefer to retain employees and are willing to pay them to do so?

I've always worked for environmental firms that paid overtime for fieldwork/billable work, although policies varied regarding non-billable work. But I know of other firms that do not pay overtime. Instead, they have a much better base pay.

I like being paid overtime. It means that when I work an outrageously long day (or week), I have something tangible to show for it. It also means that I don't have as much pressure to work long hours if the firm isn't as busy. However, I do have enough of a financial cushion that I'm ok with somewhat erratic pay, and my overtime is a bonus and not a personal financial requirement.

If you could choose a higher salary to make up for a lack of overtime, how much higher would it need to be? Would it be equal to your base pay + overtime, averaged over an entire year? Or would you want to be paid a certain amount extra, to make up for the uncertainty in your schedule?

Friday, September 12, 2014

a culture of safety

Someone on ask a manager recently asked for advice on creating a "culture of safety" (sorry, can't find the link now).

In the environmental biz, safety is A Big Deal, not because we're all intrinsically concerned about it (I mean, of course we are!), but because of the nature of the work and the clients. Most major clients (government, heavy industry, large corporations) in the modern era have found that if they have a problem (property/environmental damage, injuries, deaths), they can't just handwave it away by putting the blame on contractors and subcontractors. One way to mitigate some of those political issues is to have tough rules for contractors, so that if there's a problem they can say "we did everything we could". That's where we come in. Also, as consultants, we're paid to be experts. If the fieldwork is a mess of health and safety issues, it looks terrible to clients and potential clients, and will impact the ability to get and retain work.

In environmental consulting, we have something new every day. We have different field sites with varied environmental issues, a slate of different contractors, changing weather, and other random stuff that pops up (new neighbor who thinks the field crew is trespassing, you get a big rainstorm and your  staging area becomes uninhabitable, your contractor develops union problems, etc). So we can't keep safe by just relying on a static checklist.

A few things that can help create a culture of proactive safety:

1. Have a safety guru (or group) outside the lines of project/program management authority. My earlier discussion of safety/management conflicts of interest applies. This person carries out the safety program and is the point person for clients, contractors, and employees if there's a safety issue. The safety person conducts audits, encourages/regularly reminds folks of safe practices, and does post-incident evaluations. The safety person also coordinates the various trainings and medical exams the field personnel need (40-hour HAZWOPER, 8-hour refresher courses, OSHA construction safety courses, first aid training, and others as needed).

2. Field audits, preferably ones focused on practical solutions and not paperwork checks. Is the working area reasonably clear of tripping hazards? Do the contractors have all the safety gear (personal protective equipment [PPE], recently-inspected fire extinguishers) they need? Is there a safer way to do the work?

3. Reporting: we all know that incidents are bad. OSHA-reportable incidents are worse. But the best way to minimize the big problems are to catch the small problems that can lead to them. So there should be a mechanism to report small incidents and near-misses so that they can be analyzed and better practices developed. This can be tricky, because nobody likes to admit that something bad may have happened but didn't.

4. Lessons learned: if there is a safety issue, let the field staff know. Drillers used a novel technique that didn't work so well? Discuss it and the reasons why it failed. Someone hit a utility line? Maybe it's time for a refresher on utility mark-outs and indications of potential utility corridors in the field. 

5. Carrots/sticks: it's easy for a safety program to slide into a series of punishments: you missed something you should have, and then equipment broke or someone got hurt. You should have seen that coming and addressed it proactively. However, if there's an incident, the organization (hopefully) had a bunch of people working at the same time who were just going about their business in a safe manner. It was quiet because the result was something that didn't happen. It's a good idea to seek out and reward those folks who did something extra-safe, whether it was fixing a potentially dangerous situation or keeping their head and applying first aid/following the emergency plan when something went haywire. I'm personally not a big fan of applying "xx hours with no incidents" to everything and making that a big deal, because that's how small stuff and near-misses can be encouraged to be buried.

6. How much logistical/financial/timeline stress do you put on the field staff? Is everything a crisis? Do projects need to be completed no matter what? It's easy to talk safety, but if the field staff is running around like crazy, trying to squeeze in a million different things, it's easy to be distracted and for safety to be relegated to a lower priority. And shortcuts start to look more appealing.

It's not necessarily easy to create a culture of safety, especially when it's much easier to just do whatever's fastest/easiest/cheapest. But it's critically important in the environmental biz, where we juggle so many different things and we have the potential for terrible things to happen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

drill rig breakdowns

If it's raining and the driller has to disappear into the drill rig's innards to chase an electrical gremlin, you know it's going to be a long day.

Friday, September 5, 2014

blogger stats

I was all proud of myself a few months ago because I had cracked six figures in pageviews. My pageview count had been going steadily upward over the last two years or so, and I was getting a consistent base count.

Then I logged onto statcounter and found that my pageview numbers for the last month were one fifth of those for blogger. When I looked into my stats for blogger, my counts were wildly inflated by hits from two unrelated blogs (which shall remain nameless) which have ramped up to be the majority of my web traffic. I looked at those two blogs, and all of the posts have a long list of enraged comments bashing them for messing with other bloggers' stats.

The problem for me is that all these non-pageviews overwhelm my actual readership and I can't see where my traffic is coming from: am I getting new readers from some new blog-aggregator, or did I spark a debate elsewhere?

Since I don't have ads here, my interest in blog metrics is purely academic. But given the apparent manipulation of blog metrics (and the fact that the starting point for this blog continues to stretch backward in time and is now 2006, according to my stats page), I guess I'm going to be relying on statcounter more to keep track of things.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

breakfast junk

One of the signs I'm getting older is that I need to keep a better eye on my diet. Fast food does unpleasant things to my digestion. And I really can't deal with sugary breakfasts anymore. If I have a doughnut or one of those individually-wrapped convenience store pastries, I'll be ok for an hour or so, and then I'll crash and be out of it for the rest of the day.

My ideal breakfast for fieldwork has complex carbs and some sort of protein to keep me going through unpleasant weather and long hours. Ideally, I get a big bowl of oatmeal with nuts (and maybe some brown sugar), some sort of protein (whatever egg thing is available or a dairy product like cottage cheese), and a piece of fruit.

I can work with less ideal conditions when I'm traveling, such as continental breakfasts: some sort of whole-grain cereal without a lot of added sugar, maybe some granola with nuts, and whatever fruit they have buried in the back (old bananas?). But I was recently stumped by a hotel that had nothing but sugary stuff: froot loops and frosted flakes for cereal. "Maple & brown sugar" instant oatmeal (I used to eat that stuff, but either the formulation changed or my taste buds did, because it's way too sweet for me now). Frosted danishes. And even though the hotel supposedly had a hot breakfast, the only thing they had ready by the time I had to go was their signature frosted cinnamon buns. I did eventually find some non-sugary breakfast items: hard-boiled eggs in the dairy case. Whole-wheat toast hidden behind the danishes.

I think that part of the problem was that this hotel catered more to tourists. And when you're on vacation, it can be fun to eat junk food for breakfast ("look, honey - fresh warm sticky buns!"). But when I'm traveling for work and staying at a hotel, this is part of my life. I can't eat that crap on a daily basis without some serious consequences.

I know what you're thinking: geez, just buy some healthy breakfast stuff and keep it in your room already! But my options are somewhat limited if I don't have a fridge/microwave and I don't want to turn into a granola bar. Also, I'm a cheapskate.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

sample packaging 2

I recently discussed the various requirements/procedures/biases involved in shipping samples to a commercial lab. So what if you don't use a commercial carrier, but instead either bring the samples over yourself or arrange for a lab courier pickup?

Some of the packaging requirements are easier. You're not packaging stuff to travel across the country, kept to a certain temperature for several hours (or more), and with the expectation that the packages may be juggled/kicked/dropped. However, you still have to ensure the following:

Preventing Breakage

Maybe you don't need elaborate stuffing/packaging procedures. But bottles that clink are bottles that break. Individual bubble bags are still required, and some organizations still require bubble wrap at the bottom and around the sides of coolers.

Keeping Samples Cold

The lab still has the same temperature requirements whether the samples come in the mail or otherwise. You can still use ice cubes in bags, (maybe) gel packs, or freeze water in bottles. However, you don't have to worry as much about stuff melting and leaking. In fact, I've worked with several people who just upend ice cubes into the cooler, creating a "beer cooler" effect.

Here's why I don't do the "beer cooler" thing: Sure, it keeps the samples nice and cold. And sure, it's easier not to bother with filling and sealing bags of ice. But as those cubes melt, your samples will be sitting directly in a water bath, and if that water gets near the samples you may damage the labels or make it impossible to determine if the samples leaked. Also, I think it's obnoxious to force the lab techs to rummage around in a cooler full of ice-cold water/partially melted ice cubes.

Preventing Leakage

You or the courier may not care if a bubble bag breaks or if you've got a bunch of ice water slopping around the cooler. But you still need to prevent sample leakage. If you're going to be casual about ice cube containment, you'd better make damn sure you have ziplocks for your sample bags. Otherwise, the same options apply: bubble bag only, ziplock on inside of bubble bag, ziplock on outside of bubble bag.

Sealing the Cooler

I once thought that I didn't have to seal the cooler if I was just going to hand it to a lab representative. I was wrong.

Maybe in certain circumstances, it's ok, but it's safest to throw at least one wrap of tape (usually with the chain of custody (COC) seals in place as required) around the cooler just so it's secure physically and legally.

Addressing the Cooler

Finally, something that we can drop entirely! Whew.

Other Obligations

We discussed this in the comments to the other post, but if you're shipping something in organic solvents, you need to be aware of federal sample volume/packaging requirements. Those requirements don't go away if you are acting as the carrier (or if the lab is). Incidentally, if you're working out of a vehicle and you're carrying your stuff around on public roads, you need to be aware of those volume requirements at all times, and not just when you're actually preparing to bring your samples to the lab.

Takeaway: even though using/acting as a courier is easier than shipping via a third party, it doesn't prevent you from running into a tangle of standard operating procedures.

Monday, August 25, 2014

grad school worth it?

Back when I was in grad school, I discussed the value of a masters' degree as an investment. Now I'm more than 5 years out from grad school. Was it worth taking 2 years out of my life? Did I recoup the salary I'd missed while I was living on a poverty-level TA/RA?

As I'd suggested in that old post, the value of a Masters degree isn't that easy to quantify.

I didn't get a big salary bump after I graduated. But I was able to find work in my field a couple months after I finished my thesis, right when the bottom had dropped out of the job market. I didn't use what I'd learned in grad school right away, either. I ended up working on some high-impact, high-visibility, ridiculously stressful projects that I hated, but which looked impressive on a résumé. I also got a PG.

I leveraged the PG + the experience + the degree into a job that pays better and that I enjoy, where I do get to be a technical expert and use the stuff I learned in grad school. I don't think I'd be here without the degree. At some point, the client expects the technical expert to have proof of education and certifications, and I have those now.

And on a personal note, I had an awesome experience in grad school. I was surrounded by smart, super-motivated, interesting people of all ages from all over the world. I developed a close-knit group of friends and we had a blast together. I had grown so much since college, and I was able to really take advantage of all the opportunities available at a major research university.

So would I recommend grad school for other environmental consultants?

It depends on so many factors: is there a need (in your firm or elsewhere) for the subject you'd want to study in more depth? Can you wrangle financial support to go? Can you get into a program that is well respected in your chosen field and/or in the region you plan to work in? If you're going to work through school, how long will it take, and are you sure you'll be able to complete it? Grad school isn't usually an automatic ticket to the next step in environmental consulting, so even though it worked for me, it may not work for everyone.