Friday, December 16, 2016

journal access woes

I research various topics on a regular basis. My first preference is a recent (within, say, the last five years) guidance document or white paper from a federal government agency or research lab. Next would be technical guidance from the state the project is in, or a state in the same region.

The problem is, though, that if it's a research project that I'm working on (as opposed to an intern or entry level scientist), I'm usually in much deeper and am working with more technical details: which equation would be better for this application? Are there any specific chemical/physical/biological reactions that I need to figure out? That's when I need to start trawling through the journal articles. And most of the time, the sorts of details I'm looking for are in the meat of the article and aren't listed in the abstract.

There has to be a happy medium between open access (free!) and paying $35 for an article that I don't even know will be useful until I've paid for it. I can get a few articles here and there that have been posted by the authors or are actually open access. Some of my colleagues have memberships that come with journal access and they can send me stuff. But I can't justify the cost of spending a couple of hundred bucks to trace a possible dead end.

In grad school, our print shop had an arrangements with the publishers that they would copy journal articles, charge us a reasonable price (I think it was a buck or so a page), and send on the royalties as appropriate. I don't get why the publishers can't charge a more reasonable price (say, $5) for a reasonably short article. I'd be able to actually pay for quite a bit more if I could do so in smaller increments.

Friday, December 9, 2016

the hawaiian shirt crew

I haven't told a random school story in a long time...

I mentioned before that I didn't really fit into my undergrad geology department. Part of the problem was possibly my own class-based awareness/resentment. The whole thing came to a head right at the end of my senior year.

The geology department had a field study course requirement. The department would alternate between a "cheap" (a couple hundred dollars extra) field course and a "fun" (sky was the limit) field course annually. They were pretty damn breezy about how one was to pay for the "fun" field course, and so I did the cheap one. Fine.

So one year the fun field course was in Hawaii. All the "cool kids" who made up the core of the "real geology students" went and they had a great time, all sorts of bonding, etc. They all came back with Hawaiian shirts, and the shirts became a sort of symbol of the department.

I went to a small liberal arts school (SLAC) which was inundated with long-running, somewhat quirky traditions. One of those traditions was that the president of the school held a series of dinner parties with the seniors, organized by department or group of departments. It was considered a breach of etiquette not to attend, but I had no interest in mingling with people who'd made it clear I didn't fit in, so I skipped it. As it turned out, the other students who were also on the outs with the department mostly skipped it as well.

Word had gone around to "the cool kids" that all the geology department folks (including the professors) were to wear Hawaiian shirts to the dinner party. Nobody told me; I heard about all this later from students in other departments. So most of the department, including all the professors, came to the dinner party wearing Hawaiian shirts. And the few who didn't, because they weren't told about the arrangement, got teased mercilessly by all the other students for not matching the rest of the department. Fun party.

Those damn Hawaiian shirts precipitated my complete break with the rest of the geology department. But that's ok; I persevered without any institutional or educational support. And I'm still out here, poking at rocks, doing cool science even if I never did become one of the cool kids.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

cold weather skin

I am prone to dry skin. My face is extremely sensitive, which means I come in looking sandblasted when it's cold or windy. So I moisturize and use barrier creams and super hydrating lip balm and douse myself with sunscreen in the hopes that I don't slough off most of my face after a long day in the field.

Now that I'm older, I have a new problem. My eyelids.

My eyelids have gotten that crepe-y texture reminiscent of someone with eyes... much older than mine. And they recently started cracking in the cold.

What do I do about my eyelids once they've cracked? I must have tried every super moisturizer on the market, and they uniformly say "not for broken skin" in addition to "not for the eye area". I've been slathering them with non-medicated (non-mentholated) lip balm before going out, under the theory that if they're ok for lips, they're ok for eyes.

Do you run into this problem, and if so, what works for you?

Friday, December 2, 2016

frac tank ice cubes

Now that it's the beginning of December, it's about the time to start worrying about ice cubes. Really big ice cubes. Like, 21,000 gallons.

I complained here and here and here about frac tanks, which we use when we need to containerize large volumes of water. That large volume of water will turn into a big problem in the winter when it starts to freeze. We do try to expedite things and button up the fieldwork for the winter, but if we're not in time to get rid of the water, it will turn into a giant ice cube and then we're stuck renting the tank until spring.

I have occasionally witnessed various attempts to un-freeze frac tanks. If you catch them before they're totally frozen (say, a couple of inches thick), you can break up the ice into giant chunks with a pickaxe or other deadly object, and toss the chunks into drums to be thawed. But once they're mostly frozen, you're looking at a huge thermal mass that you need to warm up. I have witnessed giant propane heaters aimed at the walls, elaborate warm-water recirculation plans, and other hairbrained schemes. But really, the rental fee on a frac tank for 3-4 months is not as much as it would take a crew of professionals and various bits of equipment to spend days on end trying to melt a ice cube of that size.

I will admit that I have not worked in an arctic or subarctic environment, where the threat of freezing frac tanks is present for much of the year. I assume, however, that the plan would still be the same: deal with the tanks as quickly as possible, and get them emptied and off-site before they freeze.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

frac tank berms

This will be the week of frac tanks.

I complained about frac tanks in this post, but I wanted to mention something specific to those 21,000-gallon tanks that I find ridiculous and technically dumb: the berms you can rent.

So, if you have a very particular client or sensitive site, they may want the frac tank to have a berm around it. These can be rented along with the frac tank. Example below from here:
This doesn't have a frac tank inside it, but it's the same thing that I've rented in the past.

A few notes:

1. The berm is made of reasonably thick stuff, but it's not all that strong. If renting one, you are just as likely to get a beat-up old thing with pinholes everywhere. You can make the delivery person spend ages patching it with chemicals (probably not good for your chemical evaluation/inventory) or heat-sealing with open flame (also a problem for many sites) or make a stink and get them to deliver another. Even if you get a pristine berm, the action of backing a 21,000-gallon tank over it (whether it's on pavement or gravel), lowering the tank, and inevitably scraping the bottom along the ground will put new holes in it.

2. Say the delivery person did not make a hash of the berm/tank placement. Note the relative amount of water in the tank vs. the amount in the berm (less than a foot). This is not appropriate for anything except very incidental spills during filling. The kind you could eliminate by just draping some poly sheeting around as needed. Also, if you've parked the thing on any sort of slope, you'll lose a big chunk of the already-limited storage capacity.

3. What the berm is very good at is collecting rainwater, especially in a reasonably moist climate like most of the east coast. So you'll leave it alone for a while (for example, while you're waiting for your wastewater characterization) and then a regulatory person or adversarial inspector drops by and it's a crisis because "the tank is leaking!". You could eliminate the rainwater issue by stepping on the edge and letting the excess water out, but to say that's bad optics is an understatement. So you end up pumping that rainwater into the tank, causing premature filling and unnecessary dilution.

One way to minimize rainwater collection is to pull out the L-shaped supports (you can see them as metallic glints in the picture above) and flatten the thing until you're actually going to start slopping water around. But those supports aren't actually all that easy to pull out, especially close to the sides of the berm. Far better to just tuck in some poly sheeting and maybe some spill pads as needed and then gather them up as you finish.

As far as I can tell, frac tank berms are an excellent example of "optical remediation" - they're functionally useless, but they make decision makers feel like they're being extra clean and careful. Far better to use actual good housekeeping to keep a site clean, but that doesn't look as good on the check box, I guess.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

shared hotel rooms

The second question in the AAM post I linked to in my last post is about shared hotel rooms. The original poster complains about coworker who are frequent travelers and who are refusing to share a hotel room. The OP thinks that the coworkers are being ridiculous/whiny, and Alison (and the commentariat) think that the OP's expectations are ridiculous.

I have only had to share hotel rooms in two situations: once, when a group of ladies were doing fieldwork just inside the "standard" radius to allow hotel stays, and we suggested that we'd prefer to share a room rather than commute every day; and in grad school, when my female research buddy and I would split a room for conferences. In both situations, the travel was of an extremely short duration (just a couple of days).

Long-term fieldwork is a whole other beast. If I'm going to be traveling on a regular basis, or for more than a couple of days, it's no longer some sort of emergency situation but a significant part of my life. And in the long term, I need to be able to recharge at night and develop my own system for making the room my own. I agree with the commentariat that I would far prefer a cheaper hotel room with minimal amenities over a shared fancy hotel room.

With that said, I know that some of my contractors (such as drillers) do share rooms. They tend to avoid the room as much as possible, and I often hear endless complaints about snoring and room temperature wars and bedtime disputes and bathroom habits in the morning. That's when the guys are friendly. If they're not, mornings can be... tense between crew members.

As a consultant, my travel is generally directly chargeable to the client. My travel costs are part of the package. I don't need to stay in fancy hotels (usually the government per diem for an area is a good rule of thumb for reimbursement), but I do expect to be comfortable enough to stay at there for weeks on end without it being a hardship, often working back at the hotel room long after the field day is complete. As I've mentioned before, I travel enough that it is a significant part of my life. If my traveling causes long-term misery, I'm going to be job-hunting to find a more reasonable employer.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


The fourth question in this post a couple days ago was more of a complaint, about being forced to punch in and out, including for lunch. The poster thought that this was "blue collar" and demeaning. Setting aside the "demeaning" bit, which came in for a torrent of criticism, it is strange to me that being accountable for ones' time is considered non-professional. Maybe I have spent too much time around consultants and lawyers, but I have always been required to track my time. That's how the clients get billed. Even for a lump-sum contract, we still have internal controls and time tracking, so that the organization has some idea of the level of effort expended for the work.

I do not use a time clock, however. Given that sometimes I end up flitting from one project to another, a time clock would be counterproductive. I picture something like:

Client calls with some crisis or another. *PUNCH!* I get off the phone, make a few notes, and then someone calls from the field on another project. *PUNCH!* My computer stalls out and refuses to reboot. *PUNCH!* While waiting for the IT department to do its thing, I get cornered in the hallway for a side discussion. *PUNCH!*

This is why I have a little notebook to jot down the time and a word or two about what I'm doing. It takes no time and is accurate enough for toting up all the hours at the end of the day. Really, it's neither difficult nor demeaning.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

voting and fieldwork

Having election day on a Tuesday is damn inconvenient for fieldwork. This is especially true for environmental consulting, which often involves close coordination with multiple organizations/contractors and work planned on short notice.

I do know a few people who had reasonably long (multi-day) fieldwork commitments this week, and they were able to put off that work a day and travel in the morning after voting yesterday.

For the most part, I have either had office work or was able to postpone fieldwork on election day. The one exception was my first presidential election after graduating from college. I wasn't terribly assertive with my own management back then, and when I was the sole representative for my firm on a drilling job, I didn't push back and try to reschedule the work around the election.

I ended up spending most of election night at the hotel bar after dinner, watching the returns come in with a handful of strangers who were also stranded there. We were all coming from different states and we all had our own particular local interests, so it felt like a group of expatriates.

Now that early voting is more of a thing, hopefully I won't miss any more elections. Or at least I'll be better about getting my absentee ballot just in case.

Was anyone else out in the field or otherwise traveling yesterday?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Frac tank logistics

I had a good couple questions on my last post, and once my response in the comments reached two paragraphs, I thought it would be better to split it out into a separate post.

So, how do I clean frac tanks, and why do I worry about cleaning them, instead of the person I rented them from? And if I clean frac tanks, do I have a death spiral of cleaning ever smaller containers? (...paraphrasing)

So, the frac tank company rents out tanks to everybody. You see them by the side of the highway and on big construction sites for clean water storage. I arrange for them to store water contaminated with all sorts of stuff, although usually not with hair-raising concentrations (those get segregated separately as hazardous waste, and usually end up in smaller containers, like drums). I've also used them to store exotic mixtures of water + stuff to treat contamination, like oxidants and nutrients for bioaugmentation (feed bugs that break down contamination). The frac tank company is not expert in oily water or treatment chemicals or random contamination. So they require that the tanks be returned clean. I admit that I have not previously worried about how clean they were upon arrival to the site, because honestly, by the time you get to 21,000 gallons, that's a heck of a lot of dilution.

I always arrange for a transportation and disposal contractor to get my investigation-derived waste (IDW) off-site and to do the tank cleaning. And I usually have them deal with the tank/roll-off rental (for a modest mark-up, of course), because then it's their responsibility to clean the containers sufficiently that they'll get be accepted back.

When we're developing wells (removing fines!) or drilling, we'll always end up with sediment in the water. And we can arrange for bag filters and secondary settlement tanks and all that, but we'll inevitably end up with at least some gunk on the bottom of the containers. So the IDW contractor, who has all the appropriate certifications and equipment to go traipsing around inside contaminated tanks, takes a power washer to it and gets all the gunk out. Usually someone is standing by to suction the water+gunk into a drum. And since the water that was in the tank has been characterized and accepted for disposal (which is why the tank is empty now), the wash water is the same stuff, only diluted, and it goes off to wherever the rest of the water went. The drums get recycled (washed out, worst of the dents banged out, cooked, maybe get a new coat of paint) and then off they go to the next drilling job.

When I first started out, it was a bit of a surprise how much time was spent on things like cleaning tanks compared to science. But that's the environmental consulting business - science is fine, but a big part of the job is logistics.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

liquid waste storage

This is the natural follow-up to my previous post on solid waste storage.

We tend to keep our liquid investigation-derived waste (IDW) in either 55-gallon drums, poly tanks, or gigantic frac tanks.

Drums for liquids are the same as drums for solids, as discussed earlier. They're easy to drive around and pump off if needed, but troublesome if you're dealing with more than a couple hundred gallons.

I usually prefer poly (plastic) tanks, which range up in size from 150 gallons or so (about the maximum that you can put in a full-size pickup) up to a couple thousand gallons. The poly tanks tend to be much easier to open/close (which you may do often if you're just filling them a couple of buckets at a time) but still hold enough water to be useful for larger jobs. Also, if you have mildly corrosive water or treatment chemicals, these hold up better than the steel drums. About my preferred size (225 gallon) example here from ebay:

If I have a very large water sampling job, or an intermediate-sized drilling job, I may go with a much larger poly tank (this from rain for rent):
I've used these quite a bit - they vary in size (this one is almost 5,000 gallons, so on the larger end). The taller ones get a bit precarious to climb up. They have a top cap you can easily spin to open/close, and they have discharge connections at the bottom so that they don't need to be entered to be cleaned - you just need to aim a power washer or steam cleaner at the sides and empty from the bottom. Staff who are doing heavy-duty water handling can also directly connect to the bottom rather than dragging a hose to the top.

But sometimes, you find yourself handling lots of water. After a certain point, you'll need a frac tank. The biggest standard tank is 21,000 gallons, and if you're going to be doing a lot of deep drilling or potentially exciting drilling (karst? faults?) and need to containerize the water for disposal, you may get a couple of these (from Adler):
Oh boy. Frac tanks. I have strong opinions about these. If you need them, you need them. But what a pain. They need, like, acres of space to be dropped off. You need to perform confined-space entry to clean them. And I'm always paranoid that some local troublemaker is going to go ahead and open the front porthole (halfway up the face on the right in the photo) when the thing is mostly full and we'll have A Big Problem. Although I will admit that if I need a nice "quasi-aerial" photograph of a busy environmental investigation, the top of a 21,000-gallon tank is the perfect place to stand.

I'm sure that my counterparts in the oil and gas biz think that my frac tanks are hilariously small (they think the same of the drill rigs I use), compared to the manmade lagoons that they might make for a fracking project. But this is as big as it gets for me, thank goodness. I have a hard enough time keeping them properly sealed and secured.

Friday, October 28, 2016

solid waste storage

So how do we actually handle and store the investigation-derived waste (IDW) that I mentioned in my previous post? I got a little carried away when I started writing, so for this one, I'll just focus on soil.

For big excavations, soil gets stockpiled (hopefully on plastic sheeting, and then covered) prior to disposal. But as a geologist, I don't usually have to personally manage stockpiles. My stock in trade is usually drums and roll-off containers.

55-gallon drums are the easiest to handle - I can hoist around empty drums myself, and my contractor (usually the drilling crew or a separate disposal/waste handling crew) should have equipment to safely move filled drums. This does not mean hanging a mostly full drum off the mast and letting it swing freely as the drill rig moves to the next location, by the way. However, once you get beyond a couple hundred gallons of soil or water,  managing drum storage can get complicated fast. Also, the aesthetics of a drum farm are terrible. This is the classic:

Ah, so many fond memories of cranking the bolts open and closed again and again to add more stuff, sample, figure out what was in there after the label rubbed off... And then, after they've been banged around a while and start to rust, the ring and lid get harder and harder to open and close, and you end up beating on them with a hammer to get them to cooperate.

So we often use open roll-off containers. These are good for big jobs, especially if we're drilling large boreholes and are expecting large volumes of soil and/or water. However, the roll-offs need lots of space to maneuver for drop off and pickup, and each lid is its own special snowflake (protip: never let the transporter leave without having him demonstrate how to operate the lid, and if it looks sketchy, refuse delivery. You don't want to fill the thing halfway and realize you can't open the other side), and if these suckers get too wet or too full, you've got to figure out how to either solidify them so they don't slop out the back when lifted, or scoop enough stuff back out of them again. Example in mid-drop off below (from wikipedia). Note the lifting angle.

How does one solidify an overly sloppy roll-off? Well, you can wait for the solids to settle and try draining the free liquid. If you have some extra well screen, you can poke that in there before you get any real accumulation and fill around it. Stick a pump in the screen and remove as much water as you can. It probably won't be much. You can borrow extra materials the drillers left - bentonite clay, sand, and road-building gravel - to try and give the slop enough structure that the roll-off can be lifted. Or, find a local farm supply place and buy a couple bags of wood shavings.

The main thing, though, is to keep your solids dry and secure, regardless of whether you're keeping them in a 5-gallon bucket or a 40-yard roll-off.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Investigation-derived waste

I haven't had any field rants recently, so I spent a couple minutes brainstorming, and I realized: I haven't complained about investigation-derived waste (IDW), one of my biggest management headaches! How did that happen?

So. When we do an environmental investigation, we are poking around for sample material - anything from scratching the surface with a trowel to drilling boreholes hundreds of feet deep to install monitoring wells. Inevitably, we will end up with stuff that came out of the ground which may be contaminated. Depending on the jurisdiction and the level of contamination (and how much we know about the site already), we may be able to discharge water to the ground surface or dump the soil back in the hole we got it from. We may not. So it gets put into drums or stockpiles or tanks for characterization and disposal.

The real problem is with the smaller sites, which have much less room for this stuff and aren't on any contractors' priority list because of the small volume involved. For smaller jobs, you wait until the end of the field project, so that you aren't generating more stuff after characterization. So you try to arrange the characterization (sampling for disposal), get it all approved with the client and the regulatory regime and the disposal place, and try and get someone with signing authority who will be available at the same time as the transport/disposal people. By the time all these pieces are in place,  the IDW has been sitting quietly in a corner with nobody around to keep an eye on it, because all the active work has finished. And inevitably, neither the signing person nor the transport/disposal contractor have been to the IDW storage area before, and there will be some sort of access or technical problem (the drums froze overnight! The ground thawed and the drums disappeared into a frost heave! A fleet of trucks is parked in front of the drums! Something got mislabeled and your drum count is wrong!) that causes everything to grind to a halt.

I have had more headaches with trying to get IDW properly staged for disposal, approved, and carted off site than with any other phase of an investigation.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

accidental remediation on the web

I occasionally trawl through the web to see what (if anything) is being said about this blog. It's always interesting to see what pops up in searches. There are a bunch of blog aggregators (like this one or this one) that include accidental remediation, but those aren't unexpected.

A few highlights:

A UK-based operation has determined that this blog is worth £302.34 (down from a peak of almost £400 a while ago - a consequence of my recent hiatus, I guess) and is about airborne hazards and driving.

I got props on my writing from someone who liked the word "thwack!"

I picked up a banned books meme from En Tequila Es Verdad and somehow ended up in a compilation of blog posts about Ray Bradbury's Farenheight 451.

I was mistaken for a man.

I was recognized as a female STEM blogger.

I got onto a blog aggregator for "toe boots". Maybe I need to stop talking about my feet.

Fellow bloggers, have you gone down the rabbit hole and found your blog cited in some unexpected places?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

field branding

If you are are in the environmental biz, how important is it for you to wear "branded" field clothing?

This has varied considerably in my experience. I've worked at places where all of your PPE (personal protective equipment) had to have the correct logo, but nothing else mattered; places where essentially all of your clothing and PPE had to have the logo; and places where not only did management not shell out for branded stuff, but if you somehow acquired and wore something with the organization's logo, you were looked down on as sort of a management shill.

Most of my skilled labor contractors (excavation/construction, drillers, waste disposal) wear all company-branded stuff all the time: hard hat, safety vest, shirts (from button-downs to summer t-shirts to sweatshirts) and jackets. Most of the consultants I know will have the logo on at least safety vests, because they're generally cheap, interchangeable, and easy to put a logo on. Many of the specialty firms I've worked with don't seem to have any branded stuff.

Using company-branded stuff is convenient if it means that you don't have to buy/maintain stuff that you wouldn't otherwise wear. But the problem is when you're not a standard size, or you need stuff with better performance than whatever is being handed out. For example, I'll happily wear the corporate t-shirts. But when you're a lady with short arms and you need some more technical gear for cold/rain/strenuous activity, getting corporate stuff that actually fits is a bit of a crapshoot. When I have worked for institutions that required logos for all field gear, I did what I could. But once the weather became beastly, all bets were off. I wasn't going to get hypothermia over a logo.

Friday, October 14, 2016

some pruning and an addition

It's been more than a year since my last blogroll update.

First, the deletions:

Geokittehs apparently went private at some point when I wasn't looking.

Research at a snails pace refocused a bit and moved here, but the last post was more than a year ago.

Adventures in ethics and science last posted more than two years ago and now doesn't play well with my computer browser.

And one addition:

I was sad to see lovely listing go a few years back, but McMansion Hell has taken up the cause of pointing out horrible houses (and with architectural justification!).

Feel free to suggest new reasonably frequently updated, non-commercial blogs - preferably ones somewhat related to geology, fieldwork, or the environmental biz!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

dear sirs

It is the year 2016. You cannot assume in your business correspondence that any and all respondents are male.

If you have a vending or contracting relationship with a business, and your business contact is a female person, and you would like to continue to have a business relationship in which she arranges to pay you on a regular basis, it would behoove you not to address that person as "Dear Sirs" on your submittals.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Another inconvenient death.

I recently mentioned that I had a bunch of stories in my back pocket that were aging so that they wouldn't be quite as fresh in the memories of others. This is one of them.

A long time ago, I wrote about inconvenient deaths and fieldwork.

Sometimes life happens and you wriggle out of what you were doing to take care of it. Sometimes life happens and it's not that easy.

When my favorite person died, I was in the field. I couldn't just drop everything and go, because we were in the middle of nowhere and there was one truck. I may have tried to make other arrangements, but we only had one day left (I got the phone call at night after I got back from the hotel), so we were checking out anyway.

So there I was, trapped with a bunch of balky equipment and a long day in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of coworkers, and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there and go home. But the best way to get out was to finish the job. I asked my coworkers to ignore me as much as possible, took the sampling locations that were as far as possible away from other people/bystanders, and spent the entire day snuffling over the equipment. I was a wreck. Part of my distress was that I'd realized that I'd been somewhat cavalier about going back for visits, because I didn't think that GF could go downhill that quickly after being sick and then mostly better for so long. 

We'd had a short week, so I had office work planned for the day after we got back. That following morning, I showed up in all black, announced that I was leaving for a wake that afternoon in x state, and hit the road without giving anybody at work a chance to do anything about it. I pretty much cried the entire way there. But I did make the afternoon wake.

The whole episode - the death, the fieldwork, the run back for the wake - crystallized for me the realization that I did have limits, that I wasn't going to sacrifice my most important relationships for a job, even during a lousy local recession. After the funeral, I took a hard look at what I was doing, my finances, and where I wanted to be in life. And I made some pretty drastic changes (not at once, but over a couple of years) to get back to a work/life balance I could live with. It's been working out so far.

Monday, October 3, 2016

tablet redux

I was looking back through my paltry list of blog posts this year, and the post on smartphones reminded me of this post regarding tablet usage in the field.

It's amazing what a difference a few years makes.

Environmental consulting always seems to run on tiny margins. I've worked for multiple organizations, and I've never had access to the newest and shiniest things. We only get technology if we can make a strong business case for it, and often it seems to be that a business case is "geez, it seems like everyone else has it, and now the clients expect it." I wasn't surprised to see that the exploration folks were using tablets before us.

But by now, all of the field people I know either have their own tablets assigned, or have access to a generous pool of them. Tablets are cheap, durable, and small enough that they can replace most paper forms and ancillary equipment, and it's becoming much easier to input data (photographs, field notes, calculations) or to have our instruments log data and send to our tablets automatically. Once collected, that data can be sent  back to the field team leader so that the investigation is managed in real time - far easier and less time-consuming than poring over a pile of papers after the field staff have finished for the day. If a piece of equipment is misbehaving or we're getting strange results, it's easy to send data or photos/videos immediately, so that the project technical/management folks can adjust the project as needed.

I don't see the fundamental activities of fieldwork changing with technology, though. Regardless of how much we automate, there are certain tasks inherent to fieldwork: sending out people to troubleshoot, collect samples, shoo away destructive wildlife/curious passerby, and observe details that would be otherwise missed. And there are tasks inherent to keeping staff safe, accounted for, and working toward the correct goal. Regardless of how we collect data, we'll still need to meet and coordinate in a shared space regularly to make sure that the project is on track, that project roles are understood, and that everyone is ok.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

paper authorship

Dynamic Ecology has a recent post up regarding awesome ways to decide paper authorship (bribe? coin flip? brownie bake-off?).

My academic paper had a pretty standard order, based on contribution: primary/thesis student (me), supporting/project student, supervising professor, technical advisor professor. I did most of the work and wrote the first draft based on discussions with our advisor (supervising professor), the other student added in her section and revised/tweaked my text as needed, and then I sent it over to the supervising professor and technical advisor professor for review, and we went around a bit to clean it up and force it into the correct format.

There was no disagreement (or even discussion, really) regarding the order of authorship on our paper. The project student and I were working on similar aspects of the same general research area under the same grant, so our work had been coordinated reasonably well from the beginning. My advisor and the technical professor were both old long-established academics, and this particular paper wasn't going to set the academic world on fire - we were masters students developing some side aspects of a long-running research program.

If I do write another paper, though, it will be as part of a team of near-equal contributors and a veritable army of support staff. I'm not a particularly fancy cook, but I like the idea of using a quasi-random method to determine authorship. Fantasy football, maybe?

Monday, September 26, 2016

yet another try

So this time I took a six-month break, more or less.

Here's the thing. I am not in a position to be observing or participating in routine environmental work on a regular basis. This is great for me personally and professionally - I oversee and am responsible for defending some pretty cool science instead. But I am in a very small industry, in a particular geographic area. I'm planning on keeping this blog focused on the experiences that a larger number of geologists/field people can relate to, and retaining my own pseudonymity.

I am not generating blog-worthy observations at the rate I was when I started out. I have quite a few experiences that are still "aging" - I'd love to talk about them because they're good stories, but they're a little too specific to me.

I will never get back to the frequency that I posted back in 2008 and early 2009, when I had years of stories that were waiting to be told. But I will try to keep it to 1-2 posts per week. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 29, 2016

another stress dream

I've been a bad blogger the last couple weeks. You can get a sense for how my February has been going from the dream I had this morning:

I stop by one of my big environmental sites (an extremely sensitive and public setting) and find that a strange drill rig is set up right on the front lawn. So I start asking people what's going on, and I find out that one of my subcontractors, which is a very high maintenance "we're the technical experts so we don't need to pay attention to any field direction" firm, has gone ahead and started a big drilling program without clearing it with me. They just called up the client and organized everything behind my back.

So I get mad. I start making phone calls, and I find out that the rogue subcontractor hasn't applied for any permits or utility clearance or anything, they just showed up with a drill rig and started poking holes. And they call the client to bolster their claim that everything is actually all my fault, and we get into a giant argument, and suddenly they have a field crew of, like, 60 people all making phone calls and arguing with me and the neighbors come over and start asking questions like, "who cut down all the trees in my yard? and "hey, who drove into my front door?" and I'm trying to yell over the din and nobody's paying me any attention.

Not really a great way to start the morning.

Friday, February 12, 2016

sharing a porta-potty

So my last post was about how having my period in the field wasn't a big deal. It's true that it's not anything that really slows me down. However...

...this is your last chance to avoid a gross discussion...

it is super awkward to be the only lady in the field team and to be sharing the porta-potty with a crowd of guys, the same way it's awkward that you know someone's system isn't agreeing with breakfast because they booked it to the porta-potty and spent quite a while there. Nobody hangs out in an aging porta-potty just to finish the article they're reading. Much as some people are inclined to bury the results of an unpleasant visit to the porta-potty with a pile of toilet paper, those results are usually obvious to the next person. And if you have a field crew of any size, those results get, ah, closer and closer to the toilet seat as the fieldwork goes on. You can't help but look - you need to make sure there isn't some sort of horrible critter nesting in or about to fly out of the seat.

And then everybody knows exactly when it's a heavy flow day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

fieldwork and your period

A recent post at Dynamic ecology referenced a long twitter discussion of menstruating in the field. What amused/horrified me was all the suggestions that we (the ladies) should just get an IUD or take a whole bunch of hormones or something to banish our periods altogether. What a strange overreaction.

I've been getting my period since I was 13, and it's really not a big deal. On days where I need them, I keep my feminine supplies and a couple of plastic baggies tucked in a pocket, and then I wrap the used item in a bunch of toilet paper, stuff it in a baggie, and dispose of it discretely in the trash. Sure, it's awkward to spend inordinate amount of time in the porta potty or communing with nature, but honestly, I've worked with a lot of guys who seem to have, uh, intestinal distress on a regular basis and everybody gets that sometimes you need to take a time out.

Menstrual cramps have been more of a problem for me than disposal or awkwardness about having to disappear much more often than usual. Luckily, I found out late in college that my cramps are directly related to poor diet, and I avoid them almost entirely most of the time. I will admit that I'm lucky that both my cramps and migraines respond readily to non-prescription medications (naproxen for cramps, excedrin with caffeine for migraines) as long as I take it as soon as symptoms hit, not once I'm doubled over with pain/nauseous.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

pizza politics

As I discussed a while back, I don't really eat lunch in the field. I'm fine with other people eating lunch, but I tend to work right through the work day.

With that said, I may still get irrationally annoyed if someone:

1. Orders a pizza without telling anyone or asking if anybody else wants to order

2. For pickup right before we head out on a four-hour drive

3. Eats the large, greasy pizza with lip-smacking gusto

4. Does not offer to share, and

4. Leaves the remaining half of the pizza in the cab of the truck for the rest of the drive

Seriously, if you're going to order something big and aromatic and then trap me in the truck with it, the least you can do is an offer to share a slice.

Monday, January 25, 2016

smartphones in the field

I've admitted that I am a luddite (really, just a cynic about the brightest, flashiest new thing) here and here and...

It will come as no surprise that I was an extremely late smartphone adopter. I was essentially forced to get a smartphone because I was running field projects and it became untenable to not receive and respond to e-mails immediately. Running back to the trailer a couple times a day to refresh the laptop's e-mail wasn't working anymore.

Everyone around me swore that my smartphone would be life-changing. And I do use several functions in the field: the stopwatch. The calculator (although my dumbphone also had a perfectly adequate calculator). The alarm clock, with its ability to set different times for different days. The ability to text reasonably quickly. E-mail and internet. In a pinch, navigation and camera, although I have dedicated gadgets that work much better.

I haven't really added any applications, although I probably should invest in a few that would be especially handy: a flashlight (I've got a pretty good one on my keychain already), a magnetic detector/stud finder (although I don't think it's very sensitive), and a more accurate location finder/compass. I've focused most of my efforts into getting a bulletproof, water resistant phone with a good battery, so that it will survive tough conditions even if it's not very high-powered.

I do have to watch (in myself and in others) that smartphone doesn't become all-consuming. Just because you can browse the internet while you're supposed to be overseeing a subcontractor doesn't mean you should. And just because you get e-mails fired off from a bunch of night owls doesn't mean that you should feel compelled to respond at all hours, either. I really try to be on when I'm supposed to be and off when I can be, but the smartphone makes it easier to blur those lines.

Friday, January 22, 2016

would you buy this house?

I've worked on some seriously contaminated sites, and I have close and personal experience with the fact that you can find contamination anywhere. Rural? Suburban? Expensive neighborhood? Doesn't matter. Especially in the northeast US, which has been industrialized for hundreds of years, you can't rely on looks to determine if the subsurface is clean. There are too many old industrial areas that have gone to seed decades before redevelopment, too many hobbyists with extensive solvent collections, and too many old farmers who accepted drums of sketchiness before RCRA (the resource conservation and recovery act) forced people to track hazardous waste from the cradle to the grave.

So, would you buy a house in/on/over a contaminated site?

As an environmental professional, my answer would be "it depends". First of all, I'd want a deep discount, because even if I'm ok with living there, it doesn't mean I wouldn't have a tough time selling later. But setting costs aside, for me it would depend on the type of contamination and the relative risk.

I wouldn't buy a house with a contaminated drinking water supply. I'm not a big fan of private well water in general because it's another system to maintain/worry about. I wouldn't want to buy a house with contaminated well water because if I need to have a treatment system, then I'd need to either maintain it or accept that someone else (a regulatory agency or whoever "owns" the contamination) will be trooping into my basement on a regular basis for the foreseeable future to sample/maintain it.

Likewise, I wouldn't buy a house with a VOC (volatile organic compound) problem in the shallow subsurface. I'd be resigned to regular monitoring of the soil gas beneath the house and the indoor air, and I may have to deal with the noise and bother of a soil vapor extraction system to remove contaminated air from under the basement floor.

I would be ok with a house above a plume of contaminated groundwater as long as I'm not drinking it and it's deep enough/non-volatile enough that it would not pose a concern of contamination getting into the soil gas and/or the basement. I would be perfectly fine with non-volatile contamination in the soil, such as metals or asbestos. Worst case scenario, I'd build out a seriously extensive front and back patio, arrange to truck in a foot or so of fresh dirt around the rest of the yard to cover any surface contamination, plant vegetables in raised beds, and keep any digging to a minimum.

In reality, most of the contamination you'll find in and around private homes is from the house itself. House built before 1978? You probably have a lead problem at the drip line of the outside wall and several feet out from the house as well as on the inside. Same lead problem for houses built near busy roads. Have a reasonably high-end house built before about 1980? You may have asbestos insulation around pipes and in the ceiling. Do you keep a collection of stains, paints, and paint thinner from various projects in the basement? Do you smoke? The VOCs from that stuff will overwhelm the contaminants from a nearby groundwater plume.

My tolerance for contaminated property would probably be considered to be reasonably high. But I realize that's easy for me to say - I'm not the person trying to unload a house that's lost a huge chunk of value because of real or perceived contamination.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


I've been getting the odd invitation to join ResearchGate ever since my journal article* was published.

My paper is not going to set the world on fire, but more than 5 years after publication, I'm still getting a few pageviews a month and the odd citation. As I mentioned here, the paper hasn't had much of an impact on my post-graduate career, other than the fact that it looks nice on a résumé.

I have no intention of going back to grad school. I also don't have any future papers planned - I do present at the odd conference, but I'm not in a place where I'm advancing the science to the extent that I could get a paper out of it. And my existing paper is already open-access. So would joining an academic network really do much for me or for the general public?

I'm already a piss-poor correspondent and facebook/linkedin updater. I'm not all that interested in committing to yet another social media outlet when I barely use the two that everyone else seems to be on. But maybe I'm just an unsocial crank. Readers, do you use ResearchGate at all, and do you find it useful compared to other networking sites like linkedin?

* as with most academic papers, it wasn't mine alone - I was first/corresponding author, but it was a group effort.

Friday, January 15, 2016

drying boots

When you do fieldwork regularly, chances are you will end up with wet boots. It seems like everybody has their own method for dealing with wet boots, but here are a few:

1. Hairdryer: most hotels have them, right?

2. Crank up the heat in your vehicle and hope for the best.

3. Find a reason to stand in or otherwise maneuver your feet into the exhaust stream of the largest piece of heavy equipment you can find.

4. In your hotel room, dangle, balance, or otherwise position the boots so that they are in front of the fan for the room's HVAC system.

5. Stuff absorbent materials (paper towels, dry socks, hotel washcloths) into the toes.

6. Cart around an unwieldy and expensive boot dryer (example below is from Cabela's - I couldn't resist the camo).

7. Just wear waterproof boots! Oh, right. Sweat.

8. I'm not afraid of a little moisture! Bring on the trench foot!

I tend to use a combination of 4 and 5 because I'm afraid that using a more aggressive heating option will damage the leather. They work pretty well for me, as long as I have a full overnight to dry them. Option 8 is a no-go for me because I ended up with a nasty infection (as discussed here) when I spent a week living in wet boots. I would prefer to keep my toenails, thanks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

room service?

I don't do room service when I travel any more. It took me years to get to this point, but now I just stick on the "privacy please" door thingie and leave it on for my entire stay. I only have room service now if I've got potentially smelly leftover containers filling up the trash, or if I run out of something critical like toilet paper. A few reasons:

1. As I mentioned in this post, I have a system for organizing all my stuff when I arrive at the room. It mostly consists of dumping all the toiletries in the bathroom shelf, plugging in my laptop(s) and ancillary cables, using every free hanger to hang shirts and other "nice" clothing (assuming that I'm traveling for something other than fieldwork and actually have something that I care about keeping unwrinkled) and piling outerwear so that it's easily accessible. It's not much to look at, but I don't like my system to be disturbed.

2. If I'm doing fieldwork or spending all day at a conference, certain items of clothing will get... ripe. Like socks and undershirts. Rather than tuck all the stinky stuff into plastic bags and letting them marinate for a week or more, I throw those items into the closet. I would prefer that the hotel staff not run into my pile of really dirty laundry unexpectedly.

3. I hate short-sheeted beds, and I need to have the edges of the blankets free to tuck between my legs*. So when I first get to bed, I spend some time yanking out all the sheets to my satisfaction. Likewise, I toss all the extra pillows off the bed and keep only the pillow that is sufficiently flat (or use my own). I don't need to re-do that every night.

4. Who washes their sheets and towels daily? Not me. I'm totally fine with hanging up my used towels and letting them dry. I don't need them replaced if I'm staying for a week or less.

5. Tipping in hotels can be a bit of a minefield. If I never use room service, I never need to tip anybody, right?

Most of my coworkers are similar to me and don't use maid service. Are we outliers, or is this common?

*My first bad case of poison ivy was between my knees when I was 8 or 9. My legs rubbed together while I slept on my side, and after a few days, the rash had spread to my inner thighs and was completely unbearable. Ever since then, I've slept with either pajama pants or the edge of the sheet tucked between my legs because I can't stand having my bare thighs touch while sleeping.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2015 recap

This is the time of year that I usually do my monthly recap of the year/monthly meme, where I post the first sentence of the first post of each month. Last year's version, with links to the previous iterations, is here.

This year was not a good year for posting. So rather than select among my sad number of posts in 2015 (26!) I figured I'd do a general overview of the year.

Some people in real life and the blogosphere have expressed concern because my posting frequency has dropped off. But actually, I didn't post as much because I had a bunch of other (mostly positive) things going on and other distractions. For me, 2015 was a pretty good year. In comparison, 2010 was a pretty bad year (I summed it up in this post as "thank God that's over") and 2011 had notable highs and lows personally and professionally.

I would sum up 2015 as "busy" for me. I did a ton of traveling, often on short notice. I stayed overnight (in hotels) in 10 states, stayed more than 50 nights in one hotel, and worked overtime (more than 40 hours) more than half of the weeks this year. I think my maximum number of hours worked in one week was about 75. I also spent a big chunk of the year doing "stretch" work - new tasks that were technically challenging. 

I still have that stack of post-it notes with ideas for blog posts - a few of them are complicated and I need to rethink them, and a few are a bit "fresh" and need to wait some more time so that I can anonymize them a bit more. But let's see if I can post here a little more consistently in 2016.