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.