Jun 3, 2016

Ghost Gear Recon in BayGeo

Oh look! The BayGeo Journal just published my piece about the Fishackathon and my project Ghost Gear Recon! Read it here.
Thanks to Nancy Ferris at BayGeo for editing.

May 11, 2016


Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past
From the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts
And recycling it for more than it's worth
-The Sunscreen Song
I've gotten lots of advice over the course of my short career. Much of it has come from people whose experience is vastly different from my own and is completely incompatible with the modern workforce. I'm sure this document will be similarly outdated shortly if it isn't already. The labor market today is almost completely uninterested in long term hires of GIS professionals and training, professional development and promotion are now the responsibility of the employee. This is a new reality that was never truly explained to me and most of the advice that I've received lately as I look for the next opportunity has been pitched with the expectation that what I really want is a permanent full time job. I'm not entirely sure my field is going to even be recognizable in 15 years so the concept of working at a single employer for more than a decade and retiring on a pension is something of an anachronistic dream that I don't have the optimism to entertain. Permanent full time jobs can be nice but consistency and stability are only good if your permanent full time job is not a permanent full time soul-draining regimen. Like other jaded millennials, I've adopted the attitudes of the workforce and my allegiances are now not to any company but to myself and my interests.

The following is less a blueprint for success than a list of lessons that I've learned in the past several years in the Bay Area as a young (white, educated, straight cis-male) GIS professional, to the extent that what I'm doing now can be considered success. Individual results of course will vary. Should you join the dark side at #gigeconomy you can do very well for yourself, get interesting experience, make more money and develop a portfolio for the low low price of job security, stress and constant mobility. Of course, that doesn't make everyone happy. It's a different path with different advantages. But I think this path has worked for me and suits my low attention span, hunger for challenge and novelty. And eagerness to not live on the street.
  • Get good at pretending that you can code.
  • Open a github account. Don't feel obliged to post anything there but just know how the site works.
  • Show up to a few BayGeo meetings. Get a membership. It's $35 a year and you'll make it back if you go to a GISEC workshop at a discounted rate. Take said courses. Go to MapTime.
  • Professional development and training are now your responsibility. Don't plan on anyone else doing it for you.
  • When networking, hang out with hotshots your own age that you can emulate and old timers that actually have the connections and power to employ you. If you get trapped in a conversation that isn't productive for whatever reason, politely excuse yourself to visit the refreshments.
  • Go to hackathons and learn the language and mannerisms of techies. Learn their language. Read XKCD. Better yet, read www.explainxkcd.com until you get it. Use phrases like "data scraping" and "work flow," "UX design" as often as possible.
  • Update your resume on Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, Career Builder and a bunch of other job posting websites. Be mostly honest. Include coursework. Keep track of your accounts and keep them updated.
  • Get an annoying torrent of job postings on a daily/hourly basis for months on end from recruiters. Respond to staffing agency offers that look interesting or offer you enough money for you to care.
  • Take interviews for jobs you don't even want. You'll get practice. Being busy and in demand will ensure others perceive you as valuable.
  • Find a plausible excuse to leave work and go in for an in-person interview. Appear more confident than you are. 
  • Crush it
  • If you get an offer but you're not super stoked about it, ask for money just to see if they'll give it to you. Be bold. Be a borderline asshole. Look out for your own interests knowing full well that you are the only one looking out for them.
  • If you just aren't feeling it, tell them EXACTLY what is wrong. Is it the commute? Is it the health plan? Is it the corporate culture? If they like you, they'll do something about these concerns. They may be able to solve your problem and make your offer something to be excited about instead of something to which you reluctantly acquiesce.
  • Reject offers you don't like by telling recruiters that you expect to get paid more. Is the job boring? You're not rejecting them because the job is boring, you're rejecting the offer because they're going to have to pay you more money to take such a boring job. Don't waste time convincing them you're worth it.
  • Say it with me: "It's not about the paycheck, it's the fringe benefits." If you work 40hrs/week and drink coffee, an office espresso machine onsite is worth 1$/hr on your base pay.
  • Be gracious to every recruiter you talk to, even the ones that low-ball you with entry level crap. They may come back with a better offer on a different job. Just tell them what you expect and what you're looking for, which means you should know what your next job should be like even if you use generic terms like "GIS project manager" or "something that requires more leadership." Use the recruiter's name when talking to them and remember that they are working for a client but as long as they are on the phone reaching out to you, they work for YOU. You have power and leverage in this situation so be confident in your command of it.
  • Research staffing agencies before you accept a position. Eye foreign firms with extra scrutiny but be wary that domestic firms can be just as tough even though they do it behind a more polished smile.
  • Do you want to accept the offer? Wait until you get paperwork signed before you bounce from your current gig. If it didn't happen in writing, it didn't happen.
  • Give your boss two weeks. Be gracious. Thank them for being an essential stepping stone in your career whether it was or not. Your boss may be contacted by your next employer's background check. You may be crawling back to them if your new thing doesn't pan out. Your boss may be your boss again.
  • Shop for health insurance on the open exchange and get good at reading long-ass documentation for the same. You're on your own now for the next 6-9 months unless you take the shitty insurance from the staffing agency. Keep in mind that you only have 30 days from when you take your new job to sign up for a new plan.
  • Do good work at your new employment. Get your supervisor to write you a recommendation. Stay in touch on LinkedIn. 
  • Repeat until you find your dream job or the nearest approximation thereof. Once there, get comfortable while you can but retain an exit strategy, save up an emergency fund and don't plan on it lasting.
  • Cultivate a network. You are not just your skills, you are your personality and your relationships.
  • Cultivate hobbies. You are not your job.
  • You have intrinsic value. You will be rejected. You will meet people who are much better at things than you. That's fine. Learn one skill, marketable or not, that you are very good at that can make you proud of being yourself no matter what. If you need to, you can indulge in weeping quietly to yourself while doing it. This is the #gigeconomy.

May 9, 2016


There used to have been a direct correlation between the urges I've had to write and the frequency with which I've encountered people who say profoundly stupid things. Call it maturity, call it complacency, call it resignation, but it's become difficult for me in the past several years to become truly upset at the kinds of things worth recording here. I hate to barrage the innocent internet reader with only the subject of my angst but there you have it: emotion is a powerful motivator for writing and I've been doing a better job at repressing it or distracting it in the past few years.
I'm not sure if this is an asset or not. On the one hand, I've always been an easy rise. As a kid and as a student in college it was not uncommon for others to take sport in provoking me into one of my many merry, animated rants during which time I'd lose respectability and any train of thought required to back out of the situation with pride intact. I've saved innumerable professional relationships by growing out of this.
On the other hand, I haven't written a single piece worthy of releasing to a good friend let alone the public in several years now. For someone who once prided himself on his command of the English language, I've allowed myself to atrophy somewhat.

I've made it a point of growth in the past several years to be more forgiving and to be less flappable.

I'll not take down the previous posts though they date back to my halcyon college days so long as the reader will judge me by my current asinine ramblings rather the asinine ramblings of my more naive youth. That responsibility rests firmly in your hands now. With that, I hope I can once again coax you back to my thoughts and spend some time pondering conservation issues with me. Or don't. This isn't really about you anyway.

Jan 31, 2013

Do the Right Thing

Before I proceed I must remind the reader that this is a blog first and foremost about environmental and natural resource management issues and I am not interested in discussing gun control politics. I'll leave that discussion to those more informed on the issue than I am. Regardless of the policy implications, this statement delivered by former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords (found in full here) gave me pause as a familiar phrase often heard in environmental contexts. 

 "We must do something."

It is a powerful statement because the only thing worse than tragedy is the agonizing feeling of helplessness when there's nothing we can do to make it better. Its only antidote is taking control of our fate and taking action. We do it because we hurt, we do it because we're angry and we do it because doing nothing is cowardly and that is not our nature. There is catharsis in action, but if an issue is important enough to address at all, why do we settle for doing some thing when we should be doing the right thing? Why act if not to solve the problem?

Let's face it, taking action is easy. The harder and better thing to do is to pause and do the research required to ensure that our effort is well spent earning a solution and not simply short term peace of mind.

One of my favorite examples of a hastily written policy with deadly consequences is the law that created dolphin-safe tuna. On the surface, it is such an easy thing to support but as I think you'll find, most policies spear headed by grade school letter writing campaigns have avoidable repercussions though hopefully none with such a colossal failure for conservation. I would argue that hastily crafted climate legislation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy would be just as foolish as passing Amber Alert immediately after a shocking murder or latching on to a plan to distribute rain barrels before seeing if they would have the intended effect.

I'm reminded of the weekend that my Dad taught me how to drive stick shift. He took me out in his Honda Civic hatchback and coached me along the back roads of the Finger Lakes, steering me around the glacial hills of Cayuga county where I could tear his transmission apart in relative privacy. At the end of one very productive afternoon, Dad had me return along Rte 20 where I could finally try out fifth gear and accelerate out of a lighted intersection. I pulled up to the stop line and nervously waited at the red light while a very large and very intimidating pick up truck sidled in behind us. I sized up the bumper in the rear view mirror and listened to the engine rumbling while I rested my hand on the shifter and tried to look calm. When the light turned green I hit the gas too aggressively and stalled. I could sense the frustration and the judgment of the driver behind me and I leapt to start the ignition again only to apply the gas even faster this time. The engine went silent instantly. By the fourth failure the driver behind me gunned the engine and shot past me to escape in the last seconds of the green light.

Having embarrassed myself in front of a stranger, I was now waiting through another red light so that I could try not to embarrass myself in front of my Dad. When the light turned green again, he stopped me. I desperately eyed the green light again and wondered how many seconds it would stay as it was but instead, I was told to take a deep breath. Relax. Leave the engine off for a moment. Don't rush, because rushing will only give you the result you don't want faster. Sometimes the quickest way to get a job done is to go slower and do it right the first time.

Again I want to emphasize that I have nothing but respect for the former Representative and I won't publicly support or criticize her proposed gun plan. I would simply like to express my caution for reactionary legislation. My thoughts are with the Representative, her family and those affected by the Sandyhook tragedy that has accelerated this important public debate. I hope we do the right thing.

Jan 2, 2013

Office or Exhibition?

As tasty as Christmas leftovers are, I also love cleaning up a year's worth of old, unfinished writing. I found this brief piece that I threw together in September but never refined (until now!) so I'm publish retroactively for your reading pleasure. Better late than never, right?
Office of Exhibition?

I’m fairly certain that I could identify a LEED building ranking (silver, gold, platinum) by the smell alone. There’s something about the smell of low VOC plywood, the clean, industrial aesthetic and the faint rumble of highly efficient HVAC systems that is instantly recognizable to me now that I have had the pleasure of touring so many of them. The Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design certification program, officiated by the Green Building Council in Washington DC, has seen several suppliers leap at the opportunity to become dedicated to the exacting standards it sets and as a result, there are many stylistic and structural recurrences in many LEED certified buildings I have had the fortune to visit. LEED demands that architects take into account the source and quality of their materials, the impacts that the building inevitably has on the community, its local water supply and its human environment but there is nothing that says that all LEED buildings must have exposed steel beams and the same smart looking office chairs. That happens on its own. A Spanish company seems to have cornered the market with a ubiquitous deep red stained plywood paneling and carpeting installed in removable squares are simply everywhere the glass and metallic GBC leaf emblem goes.
Welch-Allyn, a manufacturer of medical testing devices and one of the largest employers in my hometown of Skaneateles NY, is rightly pleased about its recent LEED Silver expansion. As a high tech manufacturing center as well as a showpiece facility for wooing corporate customers, the expansion is a unique blend of factory and exhibit hall.

A walkway suspended across a large open space shows off both a row of conference rooms to one side and the factory floor on the other with a spacious and relaxing water feature in the middle. Every tour passes through a high tech space showing off a timeline of the company from its humble roots in Rochester NY at the turn of the century to the medical behemoth it is today, climaxing with mockup hospital rooms to demonstrate their modern products.

Although it is often defended vigorously that LEED is usually no more expensive than its more common industrial alternative, getting LEED certified seems to reflect more on the economic sensibilities of the client rather than their environmental ethic. LEED buildings are designed to show off. Part of the pay off of good design alongside low electric and water demand is good publicity. Showing off a nice green facility and the publicity that it generates is as much a part of the calculus as the price of recycled glass composite countertops and I think it’s wonderful that companies can be rewarded this way by the doing the right thing. In fact, education programs, tours and public engagement all accrue points in LEED certification. The result is that many LEED buildings are a bit more exhibitionist than their more discrete cousins. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing and I certainly don’t think it’s tragic that many LEED buildings seem to converge on certain stylistic points because, like pop music, architecture has changing fads as well. I simply think that the emphasis on display and visitor friendliness seems to imply that these buildings are still curiosities and that despite great progress in the field of green construction, the industry is still in its youth. I can’t wait to see what the next stage will look like.
The main assembly floor becomes a display visible from the overhead catwalk and a nearby food court.

Even offices are on display. Is this a factory or an elaborate display case? What will green architecture look like when it is no longer a novelty to be showed off?

Dec 8, 2012

The Dirty Business of Washing Coal

Coal gets a lot of attention when they pull it out of the ground and when they burn it, but very rarely does the industry get scrutinized by the environmental movement for what happens in between. Until, that is, something really tragic happens like what happened near Lumberport West Virginia in the North Central region of the state. On November 30, a section of embankment at the Robinson Run mine slurry pond collapsed under the weight of two pickup trucks and a bulldozer. The pile of mining refuse collapsed into the water and as of this writing, the bulldozer and its driver are still missing. What is slurry and why did someone die monitoring it?
This photo taken by WVDEP shows the collapsed slurry embankment where a mining employee  disappeared.
Whether the coal comes from underground or from a surface mine, it all has to be processed before it can get shipped and burned in a power plant boiler or in a steel mill blast furnace. No one burns raw coal plucked straight from the seam because raw coal is covered in rock dust, sulfur compounds, metals and silicates that get released when the coal is burned. State and federal laws that govern what can go up the smoke stack (and subsequently into human lungs) encourage power plant operators to buy more expensive coal that is from coal seams where the coal is naturally low in such impurities or the coal can be washed and processed. In the case of Schiller Station operated by Public Services New Hampshire in Newington, air quality regulations such as those in the Clean Air Act are strict enough that the power plant is willing to import low sulfur coal all the way from Venezuela rather than spend time and money washing local coal until it meets their exacting preferences.
Motivated by RGGI, Schiller Station in New Hampshire now burns wood chips and even cocoa husks in addition to coal.
More modern boilers that operate at high efficiencies also require fuel that is low in ash. Ash is made up of whatever impurities in the fuel that doesn't burn up like silicates and trace metals. In the case of steel manufacturing, low impurity coal is essential to producing high quality metal and typically only the finest coal is selected to be "metallurgical grade." It too is carefully scrubbed to ensure nothing gets into the finished product that doesn't belong there.

The process of turning carboniferous rocks into a clean(er), denser, more uniform and efficient fuel is complicated and fraught with its own set of environmental concerns but it is in itself a process that environmentalists should be very excited about. Increasing the cost effectiveness of coal processing that reduces air pollution is something we should all be able to get behind. In October, I was afforded the rare opportunity to tour the inside of a coal prep plant, the factory that turns raw coal pieces into a fine, combustible powder suitable for combustion in a power plant. This so called "Thermal Coal" came from the low sulfur Pocahontas seam in eastern West Virginia in Greenbrier County but I will decline to name the specific mine, company and prep plant depicted in the following images for proprietary reasons.

The coal comes out of the ground here at one of the entrances to the mine. The ceiling is about five and a half feet at the middle, but don't worry about watching your head. This particular opening isn't used by miners but when it is in operation it uses a conveyor system used exclusively for removing coal. 
The raw coal is dumped out of the mine and onto the fuel lot where it waits to be processed.  
This covered conveyor belt brings raw coal from the fuel lot into the prep plant. The plant itself is about six stories tall but it is packed with equipment. I found that I could take very few pictures inside not only because it was dimly lit but because I couldn't walk far enough away from the big machines to take any decent shots. The loud operation made it almost impossible to hear the mining engineer guiding us through and I wondered how anyone could stand to be in this damp, dusty and deafening work environment. As it turns out, the whole operation is monitored from a single office chair in a nicely air conditioned office.

First, the coal is carried by a covered conveyor belt from the fuel lot to the prep plant where anything that isn't coal is removed from the raw product. An electromagnet sweeps over the incoming rock and picks up bits of mining debris, springs and chipped cutting blades that have fallen off of machines. The rest of the steps can get more complicated. Depending on the client, a coal company might spend more or less effort cleaning the coal and getting it to the right sized particle. Older power plants don't mind a few coal chunks while the newer boilers like ultra fine, talcum-powder-like textures and the prep plant operators might do some mixing and matching with equipment to make the product just right. Check out this site to see some very cool equipment schematic diagrams of where everything goes.

In order to separate the coal particles from any non-coal particles like rock bits, the powder gets dumped into a water tank. One of the interesting properties of coal is that it is hydrophobic and tends to resist wetting, while many coal impurities like metals readily dissolve in water and are considered hydrophillic and this property can be used to separate the two. The problem is that coal and rock are both denser than water, so it all sinks. By increasing the density of the water through the addition of magnetite, a naturally magnetic mineral, the water becomes dense enough to cause the coal to float and the rock to sink. For good measure, the mixture is sent through a centrifuge machine where the liquid is shot through a cyclonic vortex that hurls the densest material to the outside and letting the lighter coal collect in the middle. Think of it like those tornado tubes you used to make by taping two liter bottles together. To help the heavy impurities separate out, detergents and flocculents are added and after all of the solids are removed, the detergents are recycled with a clarifier tank like you might see at a water treatment plant. Sometimes this water is injected into abandoned mines to be stored forever, or as it did in 2004 and several other cases, until it eventually leaks into the water supply.

Recycling the magnetite for the next batch, on the other hand is as easy as switching on an electromagnet.

To recover the finest of coal dust, coal residues are pumped into vats with tiny bubbles blown into them, causing the coal to rise to the top on a thin, frothy foam where it is skimmed off and collected as a ridiculously fine, low sulfur powder that is very valuable. And wet.

The coal dust is now scrubbed and pure, but of  it is soaking wet and far heavier than it needs to be. It has the consistency of a coarse, melted slushie and to reduce shipping costs, as much of that moisture as possible has to be removed. To squeeze out the moisture, the coal, which now has the texture of a melted slushie, is forced between two rollers that squeeze the water out. When the coal emerges dewatered, it is a continuous inch-thick sheet that is crumbly like a pancake of wet sand. This end product is unceremoniously dumped onto another fuel lot by a different conveyor belt and watching heavy coal mud slop to the ground is somewhat mesmerizing. 

So the coal gets cleaned of impurities and debris, but where does all of that waste go? While the coal gets dumped into rail cars through a tipple, the wet leftovers, called slurry, just get dumped. The resulting slurry ponds are toxic pools of detergents, metals and whatever else that has been separated out and stored behind dams. The number of active prep plants in the US is 267, of which 75 are in West Virginia. That number has a tendency to change quickly as business ebbs and flows and the plants temporarily shut down and reactivate frequently, but the number of coal slurry impoundments is a broader and more permanent problem that affects 21 states. These 596 impoundments (114 of which are scattered across West Virginia) are persistent risks. Monitoring the site is done frequently by the company and by state and federal inspectors because any movement of the slurry could mean disaster. Unfortunately, criminal penalties and fines don't seem to have many teeth in states where the coal industry is vociferously defended and standards remain low in some respects and far too high in others (on this, more soon).

The most notable was the Buffalo Creek spill that released 130 million gallons of slurry onto 16 towns downstream in 1972, killing dozens. The company got away with paying a $1 million settlement while the state footed a $13 million bill to clean up. The families of the victims received a pittance measured in thousands. For the working class West Virginians in the Southern Coal Fields region, this was just another hard edge to a tough life they had long since gotten used to.

The accident that took a man's life last week won't be the last. Critics point out that solid slurry was unstable and built on a wet, shifting base layer that should never have been allowed to happen, but industry push back to regulation has been gargantuan. Small slurry spills are a regular occurrence throughout Appalachia and Southern Ohio where clean up costs paid by the state vastly exceed the costs to the industry paid in fines. Many of the contaminants like chromium, lead, mercury, arsenic and copper will persist in the area long into the future.

So long as "clean coal" is focused only on reducing the burned emissions, we will always overlook the high cost of washing it before it ever reaches the power plant. We can do better and we should, if not for the sake of the incredible landscape of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, then the tough people who don't deserve to be buried alive for living in the land they love.

Dec 2, 2012

Charleston's Fly-In Strip Mine Tour

I don't bore my readers with every day trip I go on, but yesterday I visited a place with an interesting applicability to the purpose of this blog. Coonskin State Park in West Virginia is a lovely urban park mere minutes from downtown Charleston. There's a conference center and head quarters, athletic fields, some season decorations and a number of hiking trails that summit the hills that isolate this park from the nearby urban center. From this vantage point, the visitor can see exactly how close they are to Yeager Airport, named for famed test pilot Chuck Yeager who was born in Myra, West Virginia. It happens to be a very strange airport, indeed and an very unusual place to go for a hike.

West Virginia is a lumpy place. It is the US state with the highest mean elevation East of the Mississippi river and it is well covered by steep slopes, countless hills and mountains and very, very few flat surfaces that aren't in a river flood plain. The city of Charleston, the capitol and largest urban area in West Virginia, needed an airport, but since the flat area near the Kanawha River that flows through downtown was already taken up by neighborhoods, builders looked to the nearby mountains. There, surface mining for coal had already leveled the top off of a mountain that created a tabletop surface on which to install two runways at 910 feet above sea level.

For more incredible images like this, check out the Yeager Airport Facebook page and look at their albums.

Because Charleston isn't a very big city, most of the commercial airliners are pretty small, so the airport's small size wasn't a big problem. The airport's artificial plateau is so small, however, there's not enough room for the lights that usually extend beyond the runway to guide pilots in. Instead, a long girder with vertical support columns were added to give pilots a longer target for night landings on either side of the main strip. For a little added protection, the ends of the runway are made from an Engineered Material Arresting System which helps keep planes from rolling off the edge of the mountain in a manner similar to a runaway truck ramp.

Because Yeager Airport also is home to Charleston's Air National Guard Base, nine C-130 Hercules transports and the Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing and an Air Mobility COmmand unit of the West Virginia Air National Guard, some much, much larger aircraft use this harrowing landing strip, including the Boeing 747 called Air Force One (whenever the president is actually in it). It is not uncommon to see a blue airliner with a presidential seal practice touch-and-gos on this challenging runway which is about 350 miles from Andrew's Air Force Base in Washington DC. As you might imagine, your ability to watch the planes from the park is somewhat limited during these exercises. C-5s are a different matter, though.

The vantage point from Coonskin State Park looks like this:

My reaction to watching takeoffs and landings looked like this:

The point here of course, is that flat ground to build infrastructure is very scarce in West Virginia, particularly the farther south one goes. Much of the debate around Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mining that originates from out of state tends to forget that many West Virginians are thankful for any activity that results in sites appropriate for development. Of course coal comes with a high cost, but there are some pretty big benefits for West Virginia residents. If you intend to tour the coal country protesting MTR or surface mining with a minimum of irony, best not fly in to Yeager Airport.