Friday, July 21, 2017

field selfie

I still do not have a good professional photograph of me looking like a Serious Geologist In the Field. But I had some downtime in a scenic area, waiting for yet another part to be delivered, I wasn't actively burnt and/or rashy from poison ivy, and I thought, "hell, I'm just sitting here. I'll take my own damn photograph!".

Man, hot day + sunscreen + logging soil samples and brushing at stray bugs means I am really not going to get a professional looking photograph in the field. Ladies in the movies can look dewy and/or artfully grease-stained. I just look gross.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

big picture writing issues

I have so many pet peeves when it comes to writing, often triggered by reviewing reports that annoy me in some way. That’s why I have a whole separate “writing" label.

I've recently been in multiple conversations where someone (not me!) turned the discussion to “training young professionals to write the reports we need”. Usually the complaints boil down to a few major issues.

Mechanics: the easiest to blog about, and the easiest to fix. I can note abbreviation issues, misused words like they’re/there/their, table and figures don’t match the text references, etc. and send the report back for revision. I can pull together checklists to handle the vast majority of these.

Writing style/voice: this one is relatively easy to explain to someone who’s already a good writer, whether they are familiar with the mechanics of environmental report writing or not. Minimize the passive voice and “there are” constructions. Mix up your sentence structure so that you don’t say the exact same thing six times in a row, just with different nouns. Break up 300-word sentences and two page paragraphs so that your reader is not faced with a wall of text. Don’t use a 10-dollar word if a 10-cent word fits just as well.

I’m not trying to force a “house style” on young professionals (although with other good technical writers, we definitely have differences of opinion and covertly/not covertly “fix” things our way), but am aiming for a basic level of writing that is not going to make the organization look bad. One problem I run into when trying to train someone on writing style is that they don’t hear/see the difference between brain-numbing text and ok text, and so they can’t replicate it on their own. They may be able to explain/say something but somehow what they say doesn’t actually make it to the page. Or they may read something and not actually hear how it sounds. Reading the text out loud can help with this.

I don’t know of any training that will help someone “get” how to write clearly, within a reasonable time frame, and without requiring massive revisions. Usually we limit the struggling writer to very simple reports that are essentially the same and can be copied/pasted almost entirely, in the hopes that they will gradually pick things up and be able to move to more complicated reports. I can suggest that the struggling writer read more to pick up an ear for language, but it’s really hard with someone who has already reached their early 20s (or later) and just doesn’t have an ear for these things. I have limited time to push/cajole/produce major revisions so that a document can go out the door, and honestly, it becomes career limiting to the writer because I’ll either give up and do it myself or find someone else who can pick up these things without so much handholding.

Big picture: what to include in the report? The easiest report to write is the one that requires only minor changes from a template, but even that requires some intellectual curiosity and an ability to spot potential issues. If we’ve been sampling the same set of wells for 10 years and there’s a persistent issue (high turbidity, anomalous chemistry, doesn’t recharge quickly), is there something we can do to redevelop the well? Does the existing monitoring well network actually capturing what’s happening? Are there “stray” detections that suggest that something is changing or getting worse? And if there are field observations/notes that there are access issues (such as a well at the edge of a parking lot continually getting buried with sand), are they getting into the report?

Small issues that can point to big-picture problems can be tough to evaluate for a reviewer because if the writer and/or the field crew (a whole other issue) don’t flag them, the reviewer may not know enough about the project to catch them and ask those questions.

Many writers want to slap together a report and move on with their day without worrying about quality or critical evaluation, which is ok for a while. But if the site ends up contested in some way, or a big client wants to rebid a bunch of work, those reports are sitting out there, just waiting to be critically evaluated. A poor body of work, in environmental consulting, is a time bomb. On the flip side, a critical mass of well-written, coherent, and scientifically reasonable work is a great foundation for future work.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

dear housekeeping

I seldom use room service when I travel. So when I actually put away the "do not disturb", it's because I actually need something. Either I've totally used up all of the little towels (it's amazing how filthy I get with a combination of dirt and sunscreen) in the shower, or I'm running out of something critical like toilet paper.

So after a long day in the field, I was somewhat irritated to find that housekeeping had indeed gone through as requested, but the only apparent impact to the room was that they had short-sheeted all the blankets. This was more annoying because of what happens when I come back from the field:

1. Close door behind me.
2. Draw deadbolt/latch.
3. Immediately strip off all clothing and drop it in the vicinity of a closet.
4. Jump in shower.

Checking whether or not I got the toilet paper I needed is way down on the priority list, and then it's a bit late to go running down to the lobby.

Friday, July 7, 2017

hatchback elegy

As I mentioned before, my hatchback was a great model for a field/life car – it was quick, relatively cheap, fit a bunch of stuff, could fit into most any parking space/make excellent u-turns, and had terrific mileage. But after close to 15 years and 200,000 miles of trouble-free use, it had started to become Unreliable. Various systems started to go, state inspections had started to become hairy, and the rust from years of fieldwork and driving around East Coast Big City had started to become unsightly and, um, structural.

When I had first started out in environmental consulting, I was a traditional young staff scientist. I spent all my time on the road, working 60-plus hours and coming home to do laundry and decompress. I had no food expenses during the week, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to go shopping when I got home. After a few years, my original car (a family legacy that I was told later wasn’t expected to last 6 months) died of rust everywhere/major system collapse and I was able to buy that hatchback: the first big “adult” purchase that was new and all mine. I named it immediately: Jane.*

Jane took me to field sites all over the region, made the long haul back and forth when my sweetie and I were separated during grad school, went off-roading to get to hiking trails and interesting vistas, and survived the daily commuting grind in two separate metropolitan areas not known for, um, easy going drivers. Thanks to my precision driving and a healthy dose of luck, Jane survived with no more damage than the occasional door ding and a mangled license plate from when someone rolled backward into me in traffic (it was that sort of commute).

So, it was a bittersweet moment when I turned Jane in. But then, I got the keys to a faster, more gas-efficient, and way more technologically advanced hatchback! Future adventures await with Jane II.**

*not the car’s real name, which was both distinctive and in the same language as the manufacturer.
**Also not the car's real name.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Small SUV, please

I occasionally go to remote sites that have bad access roads, and for those I need something with all-wheel drive and clearance to get all the way to where I need to go (otherwise, it's a loong hike). The rental company's default appears to be a giant-ass SUV and/or extended-cab pickup truck (and sometimes those inexplicably don't have the all-wheel drive that I specifically requested, but I digress).

Here's the problem: a huge SUV is not only heavy (as I complained about a long time ago), but it's decidedly less maneuverable than a smaller vehicle. If you have a bunch of remote locations to check, that's a huge number of 78-point turns as you attempt to turn around in tiny clearings and wide spots in logging roads.

The other thing about a huge SUV, often with out of state plates, is that it's a big old flashing light saying "I'm associated with big government/big business and I'm not from around here" and that can be downright dangerous in many areas. At the very least, it makes things awkward when you're residential sampling or trying to find something you need in the only store within 30 miles.

I once ended up with a Kia Sportage while I was on a drilling job in the mountains. The drillers thought it was the most ridiculous thing they'd ever seen, and then it turned out that they couldn't get their pickup truck up to the drilling site after a rainstorm and I became the primary crew transport because my silly little Korean box could.*

I have zero ego bound up with my choice of vehicles (unlike certain coworkers), so I'm always happy to take the runt of the lot.

*Point to the pickup truck, it was carrying a full water tank and had bald tires. Point to the Kia, I wasn't nearly as willing to hit the hill at maximum speed to try and get over a particular steep/slippery spot.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

computation allocation

I occasionally need to manipulate a bunch of data, either to input into another program or to pick out trends/issues, that are for whatever reason not easily reducible or have issues that are not immediately obvious. And sometimes this data manipulation takes the form of tedious and relatively simple excel crunching to simplify things.

I have a couple of options here:

1. I can offload the manipulation to an intern/low level scientist, give them extensive directions, set them loose with the first iteration, and then look at what they have and have them refocus/redo a bunch of stuff. They will spend an exceptionally long time doing this, but they have a very low billing rate.

2. I can give the data to my data manipulation colleague, who will do some sort of macro/program building magic. I will get the data back relatively quickly, but it's a bit of a black box and I will need to go through her results and figure out what might have been missed/what didn't sort correctly. My colleague has a very high billing rate, and depending on how much massaging is required, it may take a while to get set up.

3. I go ahead and do all the crunching myself, even though it's tedious and surely there must be a better way for me to get what I need, because I need the data evaluated now, not when the cheap staff member or the expensive specialist are available.

If I have a forgiving schedule and the data set isn't ridiculously large (can be conveyed in one spreadsheet file of less, than, say, 4 MB), I go with #1. If the data set starts to get out of control, I either go with #2 entirely (less often) or use #2 to cut out the data that I'm sure I don't need and focus on what I think I may need. But at crunch time, when it looks like it would just take me a day or so, it's all me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

seasonal blahs

This is the second year that I've fallen off the blogging wagon in starting mid-February to late March, and I think you can look back to previous years and see at least a fall-off at the same time. The problem has gotten more pronounced since I've moved to mostly office work.

Back when I was out in the field all the time, I had access to light in the winter. Sure, it was weak winter light, and there were short days, but I was absorbing something even if I wore a million layers and had no skin exposed. After all these years, it's clear I have a bit of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and everything sort of... grinds to a halt after a couple months of darkness. I keep writing for a couple months after November/December out of stubbornness, but then it's so hard to get motivated to keep up.

I don't have any real solutions, except to try and come back up for air sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, I'll keep plugging away.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

bad organization comments

This recent post on technically bad comments reminded me about organizationally bad comments.

On numerous occasions, and with different reviewers, I have received a comment along the lines of "but what was the result?" or "but what does it mean?" in clearly inappropriate places. Let me explain:

Almost all scientific papers are broken into several sections. First you have a background section to give enough context for what you'll be discussing. Then you have a methods section to explain what you actually did. Then you have the results, then the conclusion.

Environmental reports are the same way. They generally go as follows:

1. Introduction: says what sort of report this is (remedial investigation, phase II site investigation, whatever) and who it's for. If it's for a site with a bunch of different focus areas (operable units, areas of concern, etc), we may briefly describe the overall site and how that particular focus area fits in. We may also outline the report sections (although I personally think this is a waste of space).

2. Site description: we describe the site itself, starting with a basic description of what it looks like, how it relates to the area, etc. We also describe the history of the site, which may be anything from "the current structure was built in 1988 and we have no records before then" to a dissertation on all the investigations and cleanup actions performed. Sometimes the discussion of geology and hydrology of the site gets added here, sometimes it gets its own section later.

3. Methods/investigation: Usually a report is based on a particular investigation. We sampled here, we talked to these people, we collected these other data using these subcontractors.

4. Results: What we found. We may have separate sections for discussion of geology/hydrology based on the investigation, and for the chemical results.

5. Conceptual Site Model (CSM): We may have a separate section tying all the chemistry and geology into a CSM that explains where the contamination started, how it came to be where it is, and where it's going. Or for smaller reports, we just fold that discussion into a conclusion section.

All these sections came to be for a reason. They are building up the pieces of evidence leading to the report conclusion. If you start throwing conclusions in the methods section or geology in the chemistry section willy nilly, the report will quickly turn into a mess where nothing can be found and nothing is properly explained, and random points will be repeated over and over. Also, we include a table of contents so that if you read something in the "methods" section that leads you to wonder what the result is, you can quickly find that section!

Okay, now I think I've vented enough to write a properly diplomatic comment response!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trapped in the hotel

This is not at all related to environmental geology, but it's a good story and I do have a "travel" label. A while back, I mentioned getting trapped inside a hotel room with an intruder:

My senior year in high school, I went on a class trip to Europe. One of our hotel stays was in the middle of nowhere, Greece. It was not exactly updated for the modern era, and it had a particularly interesting room key system: There were two keys. Each key locked or unlocked both sides of the door. So you could easily be locked inside. I'm not sure what passed for fire safety in that area back then, but the rooms also connected to a single outside balcony that you could leap from if you couldn't get out the normal way. The hotel also had a policy that you had to leave your keys with the front desk if you left the hotel.

There was some sort of local bar/discotheque, so everybody immediately vacated the hotel to go dancing, and all the chaperones followed. My friend Jane and I were not big drinkers/partiers, so we came back around 9 or 10.

Let's go back to the key situation for a minute. Everybody had relinquished their keys upon leaving, including the other two girls who were sharing a room with me and Jane. The keys were hanging up behind the desk. You could see at a glance who was in the hotel, and you could just take the spare key if there was just one, and unlock the door of an occupied room.

Imagine my surprise when the door to our room opened and some dude let himself in. We didn't really know any Greek, and he at least pretended not to know any English. We tried to explain/pantomime that he should leave, and eventually he did, but not before pocketing our key, which was on the table right next to the door. And then he locked the door from the outside.

So we were locked in our phone-less room in an empty hotel, long before the era of cell phones or internet or anything. I immediately ran out to the balcony and started trying the other doors, but they were all locked. It would have been pointless to get into another room anyway, since they were all locked as well.

15 minutes later, the dude comes back bearing a little tray with three glasses of what he says is ouzo, snack cakes, and the keys. As we uselessly flutter around him, trying to tell him that he needs to get out, now (remember, he claims to not understand English), he sets down the tray and locks the door, trapping us inside with him. When he sits down and I go to unlock the door, he gets up and shoos me away with a torrent of Greek.

So. We are teenagers in a foreign country, locked in a hotel room in an empty hotel with a guy who is making outward gestures at being friendly and gregarious. Strange dude sits on the bed, right next to Jane, and over the course of his conversation, his hand comes to rest on her thigh. Both of us together maybe weigh as much as he does. Jane is frozen in fear, and I'm mobile but have the size and outward appearance of a 12-year-old. Is the guy volatile? Does he have a weapon? He's cheerfully ignoring my "you really need to go" pantomime. What would be the tipping point for me to yank Jane out of there and jump off a balcony?

Eventually, someone else came back - I heard female voices in the hallway. I was "casually" leaning against the door in order to secretly unlock it, and I immediately turned the key and yelled for help, and the four of us bodily yanked the guy out of the room and locked the door behind him, this time retaining both keys.

When we got home, we made an Official Complaint to the tour organizer that they had booked a school group into a hotel tailored for sexual predators. We got a $200 voucher for our next tour (ah ha ha!) and that was the end of it.

I've internalized two things from that experience: 1. in a pinch, I know that I will not freeze up and will at least do what I can to resolve a bad situation, and 2. I hate the loss of control involved in group tours. I'll make my own travel arrangements.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

not atwitter

People have been announcing the death of the blog and the great migration to twitter for a while now. A good example is here at Dynamic Ecology.

I have zero interest in twitter. I'm not really a 140-character person. Blogging is more my pace because I like to let my posts gestate for a while, and then write up exactly how much I feel works for a particular subject.

I also don't care to follow my scientist friends on a real-time basis. When I'm at work, I work. When I'm at home, sometimes I sit back with a glass of wine and relax on the couch with a book. Perhaps I'm inherently antisocial, but I'm not interested in the back and forth of discussion on twitter - or other platforms. It's not a surprise that I'm not a terribly active facebook user either.

 For me, blogging is a way for me to build up a repository of opinions experiences that I can share for anyone who's interested in the environmental biz or geology or working outside for a living. I'd like to be somewhat relevant, but I'd prefer to have more freedom with what I write than to be timely.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

administrative record fail

Many federal cleanup sites (and a large number of state cleanup sites) have publicly available administrative records. Depending on the agency involved, this may include just the legal records and the major reports used to document completion of the cleanup, or may include just about every piece of correspondence written along the way.

I've reviewed my fair share of administrative records. Most of the time, I can get what I need online and don't need to trek to a records facility or local library.

I was reviewing one administrative record online, however, and apparently some additional documents got shuffled in accidentally. The EPA technical lead's performance review (for his annual review for his job) was attached to the end of a very long, very dry technical report.

I'm happy to report that Mr. EPA technical lead was considered to be generally competent, and his peer reviewers had only positive things to say. That's nice, since his review is permanently enshrined online.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

fun stuff to drill through (4)

This post a while back on water handling reminded me of another geologic feature that's a pain to drill through: faults. (see my last post on this topic and some links to older posts here).

Now, I haven't overseen drilling into any spectacular or famous faults, per se. But I have very rarely drilled into faults of at least local significance - local enough to be mapped and named, anyway.

Drilling into faults or fault zones at any depth of significance (say, more than 50 feet or so) leads to two major issues: water production and borehole instability.

Larger scale faults tend to be more than just a single fracture in the bedrock. They may include a fault zone, where the rock for a certain distance is much more fractured and may possibly have a different structure than the parent rock. This may hold a lot of water. And if you're flying along, doing some sort of fast, aggressive drilling such as air-rotary, and creating a borehole with a reasonably wide diameter, you may end up tapping into a lot more water than expected. And depending on the air pressure the driller's using, the drilling rate, and the structure of the rock, the water flow may not just stop once the driller turns off the air pressure. Nothing like watching your frac tanks fill up with contaminated water while you wait for the water to stop pouring out of the borehole!

So, water production is a thing that you can deal with. You get the frac tanks on-line, make sure that you have pumps capable of moving a lot of water, and maybe stop drilling for a bit every once in a while to see how much water you're getting back. Borehole instability is another problem.

Once we install a borehole, we usually like to do a bunch of testing, which involves lowering instruments down there to collect samples and geophysical measurements, installing packers to seal off certain zones for testing, and maybe putting in a permanent system with multiple sample ports. If you have a fracture zone that's at a reasonably steep angle, and bedrock that is not super hard (like a siltstone or sandstone) you may find that the walls of the borehole pinch back in almost immediately. This makes it hard to fish the drill rods out of the borehole, let alone any $10,000 geophysical tooling you'd like to use. You can always try and bang in some steel casing past the obstruction, but at that point you may have shrunk the effective size of the borehole so you can't get the other stuff you need down there, and then you've shut off the rest of the bedrock from evaluation. And multiple boreholes get expensive fast. Another option is to be a lot more cautious up front, and do all your sampling/testing in 10-foot intervals as you drill (with casing above the interval in question), but that does slow the drilling process down and requires much more coordination between multiple contractors, all of whom are being paid for their standby time.

Intercepting a fault/fault zone actually can tell us quite a bit about the regional geology and the structure of the bedrock. We just have to be able to get a borehole in there long enough to do the evaluation.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bloom County and the EPA, part 3

Here's the last bit regarding the EPA. The previous installments are here and here.



I just finished the new Bloom County book yesterday - highly recommend!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

bloom county and the EPA, part 2

This is the 2nd day of my week of old Bloom County comic strips from the early 1980s. See my last post for the first installment.


Reading these old strips, its amazing how little has changed. Final installment later this week...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bloom County and the EPA

I happen to be a huge fan of Berkeley Breathed's... whatever cartoon series he's working on.

I was going through an Bloom County book (publication year: 1984) that I've had forever, and I found a series that I thought you'd appreciate. This is a scanned copy of my old book, and the picture is lousy (sorry). Rather than add everything at once, I figured that I would make this the week of Bloom County's EPA circa 1982-ish.





Friday, January 13, 2017

fantasy comment response

"This comment is so totally wrong on so many levels that it would be best to take your comments back, think about them, and send another try."

Unfortunately, I don't have the cojones to actually send this back to the reviewing authority.

Instead, we engage in a very polite back-and-forth whereby we keep batting down side issues and non sequiturs, and by the time the comment back and forth is done, the problem with the original document has been lost and nobody is satisfied.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

year in review

I'm back from the holidays! Also, back from my usual bout of holiday illness. Ugh.

I saw a few weeks ago that Silver Fox had posted her 12 months of Looking for Detachment. The rules for the meme (originally from Drugmonkey) are simple: post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.

2016 was a bit of a bust for posts here, but heck, here goes. Once again, if my first sentence is an apology for not posting, it gets skipped.

January:  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.

February:  You can get a sense for how my February has been going from the dream I had this morning.

(long, long break)

September: I am not in a position to be observing or participating in routine environmental work on a regular basis.

October: 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.


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

December:  Now that it's the beginning of December, it's about the time to start worrying about ice cubes.

Ok, on to a more consistently-posting 2016!