Category Archives: Engineering

A Busy, but Good, Day

This week has been a blur of activity, at home and at work. I won’t say too much about at home, except that the Great Time Crunch is coming to a head, and for a while I’ll have less time than normal, even less than I’ve had the last five months.

Concerning work, I’ve had lots to do. We had two training activities on Tuesday, both involving a guest speaker, which I was responsible for coordinating. One took place off site, an advanced class to a combined group of those I was responsible for and more that another person was responsible for. Then I went back to the main office and the speaker gave a basic class on the same topic, risk management, to a whole other group. Then I rushed back to the other meeting to make a half hour presentation on a topic.

On Wednesday I went back to the offsite meeting (continuing with the smaller group) to hear a particular topic. I’m glad I did, as it was the presentation of a problem  we are having related to one particular group. I listened, helped (I think) by my comments to clarify the problem  as it was being presented and to drill into the proposed solution with three options. No decision was made, but I was glad I went, listened, and contributed, because…

…today I was able to help someone come up with what looks like a good solution to the problem. I was able to contribute in a meaningful way. Will this proposal be the right solution to the problem? Don’t know, but it looks good. But whether it works or not, being part of the problem-solving team felt good. It felt good in part because no one asked me to be on the team. I simply decided I most likely had ideas to share if I knew what the problem was. I went out of my way to try to be part of the solution. And that felt good.

In the brown bag class I taught last week, “How to Recession-Proof Your Career”, I said you do that by increasing your value to the company year over year, even month over month. I think I did that today, this week. Yes, it was exhausting, especially when combined with the busyness at home. But it was satisfying, very satisfying.

The Time Crunch Deepens

Monday morning at work I began tackling my to-do list. It was a written to-do list for a change, since, when I got to work that day I realized just how much I had to do, and knew I wouldn’t get it done if I didn’t have a plan.

The list was long, and I felt a great weight of pressure. This week we were to have training events on four days, Tuesday through Friday. The one on Tuesday was more of a software demonstration, but it was of software I have an interest in, and if the company is to buy it it will be on my recommendation. So it was something I scheduled, planned, and attended. Then, Monday in our Leadership meeting, as we discussed the one day Leadership Development training scheduled for next Tuesday, it became obvious that we would have to have a more focused meeting on the subject. So I scheduled and planned that, adding it to Tuesday.

Then, it seemed, the salesmen came out of the woodwork on Monday, contacting me, saying they would be in the area this week and wanting to meet with me. Late in the day I received an e-mail from one of our department heads, saying a construction specification I wrote last December needed two additions to it due to changes in the project and oh it’s under construction so it’s needed quickly.

In the midst of this, I was thinking of all I have to do at home. Some weeks ago I made a good start on my income taxes, but then let it go by the wayside. So those were due. I had fallen almost two weeks behind on keeping our family finances and budget up to date. That’s not bad compared to past years, but this year I’ve been trying hard to keep them up to date on a weekly basis. Almost a week’s worth of mail had piled up. I have received the book cover art and font work from two people, for Daddy-Daughter Day, and so need to go about putting a book cover together from them—if I even can. This is different from past covers. And, of course, there’s the normal stock trading work I have to do each evening if we are ever going to start making money consistently from it. And, decluttering our house is weighing heavily on my mind right now. I go home from an office that’s a mess to a house that’s mess. The office mess is my own, and I certainly have a share in the house mess.

So at work on Monday I wrote a to-do list for home. It wasn’t real long, but it had each of those items from the previous paragraph, plus a couple more, with days of the week next to them. Stock trading work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Decluttering work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Income taxes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Family finances on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; no, just on Monday for that, as I’m not that far behind. Notably absent is any writing work, including on the poetry book.

And, at home, just as at work, I’ve been working the to-do list. I got finances up to date on Monday, along with some decluttering and stock work. I dusted off the taxes spreadsheet on Tuesday, and made a huge dent in completing them, to the point where I can probably finish the Federal on Wednesday. I did some stock work every day, enough to keep on top of our accounts and current trades and place a couple of new ones.

Today will be another busy day at work, as I try to complete preparation for my presentation tomorrow, do final organization for the vendor lunch and learn today, do some organization on Friday’s lunch and learn, and maybe, perhaps, a little decluttering in my office. One of these days I hope to have enough time to remember what it was like to be a writer.

A Chance to Write—or at Least Edit


As I’ve said in other posts, writing time isn’t just hard to come by: It’s non-existent right now.

Except, that is, for at work. I’m working on two or three essays based on past of future presentations I’ve made. More on those later. This week I’ve had the pleasure of working on a construction specification. The project is a tire shop in Oklahoma. The client is a major tire dealer that we developed the standard specs for. Actually, I’m the one who developed the standard specs for them, a year or so ago, maybe a little longer. They had seen our specs, saw what we did (I do) with internal notes to guide the spec writer, and wanted us to do it for them.

The project manager had already downloaded the specs needed from the client’s website and put them in a project folder on the network. I opened them one by one and saw the notes to specifier in bold red staring at me. On a real project situation I was able to read those notes and do what they suggested. Overall I found them to be pretty good. My attention was directed to where in the spec section it was most needed.

On the project I found four construction items for which we did not prepare a standard spec for this client, so I’m having to create them—not quite from scratch, though. Two of them are similar to sections we already have, so I’m able to pull them up, modify them as needed, and save them as new sections. I’ll do that for the project. Then, hopefully before the end of the year, I’ll expand them, first into a guide spec for our company; second as a standard spec for that client.

I have one new product added to an existing section, one of the new sections done, and a second new spec section started. Next will be the section from scratch. Actually, even that won’t be from scratch as they’re using a proprietary product on the project so I can take the manufacturer’s spec and modify them.

It’s not exactly creative writing, but it is writing. And I need to get back to is.

Writing in October

As I’ve said elsewhere, the Time Crunch has prevented me from working on my different writing projects. Alas, that’s how life is sometimes. That’s how it is now, and for the foreseeable future. I have no expectations of doing much writing for the rest of 2014.

But, yesterday, during my noon hour, I had a few moments to think about things, and decided to see exactly what I had written this month. Pulling things together, checking a few websites, I came up with a long list. It is summarized as follows.

  • 6 posts at this blog
  • 5 posts at my other blog
  • My first devotional, turned in on the 20th
  • 3 comments at the Books & Such blog
  • 2 brief comments at the Passive Voice blog
  • 1 comment at the Absolute Write forums
  • 17 personal e-mails, some of them one-liners
  • 39 work e-mails, some of them one-liners

All of these aren’t publishable writing pieces, but they are writing. It doesn’t include many posts on Facebook, both writing related and personal. Nor does it include a couple of things at work that are started only in outline form. These are “curriculum” type items, cobbling together various classes I’ve taught over the last eight years into eight to ten class courses. So far I haven’t done any original writing on them, but most likely will before the end of the month.

That also doesn’t include three new classes that I’m preparing to teach: one in November, one in December, and one probably next March. Each of these will require quite a bit of prep for a one hour class. At least one of them (the one in March) will have a significant essay as part of it.

So, I have been writing this month; just not publishable things, with one exception. I guess I need to take what writing I can find time to do.

A Different Kind of Writing

Last week at work I found myself in a position I’d waited for for a long time: All major tasks caught up, all training planned and in motion for the next few weeks, and the ability to look for things I’d left hanging or set aside but could not pick up again.

The last of my major tasks was a project audit. I finished that early last week, and shot off e-mails to the Dept. Head, requesting a meeting to discuss the results. I knew his key man on the project was out last week, so the meeting about the audit results would be delayed. With that done (on Tuesday, I think), and with me not having to teach a class all week, I sat back and said, “What to do next?” Almost immediately I answered, “Work on the spec for stormwater underground detention.”

One of my jobs at CEI is “keeper of the standards”. It’s up to me, working with our corporate CADD trainer, to make sure whatever standards we have for engineering work are up to date and being followed. The project audits are to see how well the standards were followed on a project. Construction specifications are part of that. I maintain our database of guide specification sections. Construction specs has been a passion of mine through the years. I enjoy that part of a project more than any other.

I guess I enjoy them because it’s word-smithing. You try, in a few pages, to tell the contractor in words what you can’t easily show in pictures. When lines on a drawing fail you, you use words. But the language is different. You are terse. You don’t worry about complete sentences. You use lists when you can. You leave out many definite and indefinite articles. You talk directly to the contractor, so can leave off a lot of unnecessary words. I love it. So different from creative writing, but I love it. When I teach classes on spec writing, I always say “You aren’t writing literature.”

An example of best practice in specifications language can be seen in the following three ways to say a thing.

  • The Contractor shall construct a underground detention basin.
  • An underground detention basin shall be construction.
  • Construct an underground detention basin.

Eight words, seven word, and five words in those three examples. The third one is considered best practice, and the way I do it.

In this particular spec section, I had set it aside almost a year ago because I couldn’t pull it all together. We have a choice between many available systems: plastic, metal, concrete, manufactured, built-in-place, half concrete half earthen, arch structures, pipe structures, etc. Each one has advantages. Our office tends to use one specific type more than others, though others can be considered. I started out writing a spec section that would include all types of systems, but found it impossible to do so in less than 10 to 14 pages. A spec section that size is too long. So I decided to break it into two of three sections, and concentrate first on the plastic structures. Once I did that, it started to come together quickly.

But, when I laid it aside, it still wasn’t quite done. I had taken out all the extraneous language on concrete and metal systems, but hadn’t really described the different plastic systems available. It was Wednesday last week, I think, that time became available. I picked up the spec section and began properly describing the different plastic systems available. I had to name a couple of categories of systems. I had to research ASTM standards (mostly done before). I had to fit everything into the pigeonholes established by the construction specifications standard-setting organization.

One big thing I had to do was write a section on the actual construction. This was difficult because the differing systems available require different construction sequences. We generally don’t like to give the contractor a lot of restrictions on the “how” part of construction, or the sequence. But we do have to say a few things. I managed to put something together, and I had a completed spec. That was mid-day on Friday.

The next thing I did was e-mail it to each of the manufacturers mentioned, to make sure I have it right for their system. I did so on Friday, with one straggler going out yesterday. Slowly, responses are coming in. Today I’ll start taking a look at those, and tweaking the spec based on the comments.

Spec writing is as far away from creative writing as you can get. Except for making every word count. And using active voice as much as possible. And making sure you are communicating to your intended audience in a way that will be understood. I hope the next few months provide me with much more time to work on specs. It will make me a better writer.

Three Main Writing Paths

That’s  what I’m following right now: three main writing paths.

First is the technical paper I wrote about in my last post here. Last Thursday-Friday I made good progress on it, though I didn’t finish it. I hope to get it in today. I worked on the paper over this past weekend, adding a good amount of text to what I already had. Yesterday I found the couple of missing data points, added them to the mix, and recalculated my results. I’m pleased with the way it turned out. Hopefully IECA will give me grace, and not kick me off the conference schedule.

The second path is my next non-fiction book, Documenting America – Civil War Edition. Last weekend I completed three chapters. Two of these I had started late last week, but they were in an unfinished state as I approached the weekend. I was able to finish those two, start a third, and finish it. I now have nine chapters complete (subject to editing, of course).  That’s between 1/3 and 1/4 of the book. My next step in it is research into the Battle of Battle of Shiloh, which takes me up to April 1862. The three chapters after that already have research started, though not far along. I hope to complete three chapters a week for this, which will see it done in seven to eight weeks, and thus published before the year is out.

However, I may slow down on that briefly, as I pick up Headshots again. I have received feedback on the full book from two beta readers, and on part of the book from another. This is plenty to allow me to look closely at those comments and see what edits are needed. One I already know, expressed by all three, is that the reader gets hit with too many characters in the first 14 pages or so. Somehow I need to either add other scenes without characters, which delay character introduction, or in some other way reduce/delay names. It will be a challenge.

One beta reader said a couple of things were incongruous. Too many murders, and them being unsolved makes the police/FBI look incompetent; and not enough media attention to a couple of items. Adding scenes of media attention won’t be too difficult. I’m not sure what to do about the murders. I don’t mean to make the police look incompetent. It’s just that the Mafia is good at hiding their tracks. Still, I can have some shooters picked up and be kept in lock-up. That I can do.

So, this week will be a mix of 1) completing my paper, 2) trying to continue with progress on DA-CWE, and 3) making major progress on Headshots edits, which I hope will be final edits. Then, since one beta reader said there were numerous typos, despite my two rounds of editing that included proofreading, I obviously have to do another.

Fun times ahead.

Different Writing: A Professional Paper

I continue with my creative writing endeavors. Last night I made good progress on Documenting America: Civil War Edition. I typed some writing from manuscript, and added to it on the computer to complete a chapter. Then I continued research into the next chapter to be written. Today I completed reading the source document, and read some background material. Tomorrow I’ll excerpt the material and write the chapter. Good stuff, good progress.

But my main writing work yesterday and today was working on my technical paper for the EC15 conference. The paper was due today to the International Erosion Control Association. I still haven’t finished and submitted it. The presentation will be in Portland, OR next February. Long lead time, I know.

The idea for this paper came to me over a year ago, and gelled into an outline at the EC14 conference in Nashville last February. The concept was: gather data from the bid forms from a number of projects about how erosion control work is bid out. Analyze the data, as well as qualitative information from the projects, to see if one method of contracting seems to be better. My hopes, and soft expectation, was that unit price contracting, as opposed to lump sum contracting, would be better for erosion and sediment control work. Hence the name of my paper: “Unit Price Contracting for Erosion and Sediment Control Work: Does it Improve Our Practice?”

I gathered the data (i.e. the bid forms) from ten projects several months ago, and talked with our employee who handled the field work on several of those projects. I’m a big fan of unit price contracting because it is a risk-sharing approach to construction contracting. Explaining what I mean with that would be way too long for a blog post. I teach a 90 minute class on that topic. I felt that going with this risk-sharing approach for erosion and sediment control work would result in better prices, better implementation  of devices and practices, better maintenance of these devices, and less pollution to the environment. It was the ultimate win-win situation to me.

But that’s my intuitive analysis, based on my own biases and qualitative analysis. What would the data say? As I said above, I gathered the data some time ago, and had aggregated it into one spreadsheet. I created my outline about a month ago, and wrote a tentative introductory sentence. There the paper stood until yesterday just afternoon.

At that time I started with the real writing. I had much more introduction to write, then get into an explanation of what I mean by “improved practice.” I also had a little more outline to think over, and dusting off and re-looking at the data. I did all this, and by the end of the day I had a little over 900 words. I anticipate the paper will run somewhere around 3,000 words, so this seemed like reasonable progress. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to finish the paper today, but I might get close.

The morning was full of meetings, site visits, and a little personal stuff. I got back to the paper around 1:30 p.m., ready to write the part about the hard data I collected and draw some conclusions out of it. I started writing, but when I got to the part where I should show what the data said, I realized I had never gone the next step and done a few calculations to see what the data actually said. Did it support my hope and anticipation that unit price contracting would result in less expensive erosion control measures that were equally effective as were those of a project that’s where the erosion control work is bid as a lump sum?

So I stopped writing and went back to the data. I quickly saw that I had too much data. I wasn’t going to be able to present all the data I had intended; it would overwhelm the paper. Including it in an appendix was a possibility, but for the moment I had to concentrate on what was in the paper.

I dug into it, and after an hour figured out what I had to do. I ran the calculations needed, from the data already in the spreadsheet, then ranked the projects according to which had the least expensive erosion control, then penciled in the type of bidding used (unit price, lump sum, mixed). To my great pleasure the five lowest cost projects (on a unit basis) for erosion control work were the five that were bid as unit prices! The most expensive three were the ones that trended most to lump sum, using fewer unit prices. My hope and expectation had been realized. On two projects I didn’t have enough data to do the full calculations and rank by unit cost.

I e-mailed the IECA education coordinator, telling her I wouldn’t have the paper in until Tuesday and hoped that would still be alright. I believe it will be. I printed the paper and have it here. I’ll work on it some, or maybe a lot, this weekend. Hopefully by Monday it will be written. All I’ll have to do is see if I can find the rest of the data for those two projects, and interview the field man to get his further opinion on the non-qualitative criteria.

I wish I had it done by the deadline, but I feel good about it. The end is in sight, and it will be a good paper.

I’d Like Another Gig

This time last year I was writing two columns per month at the e-zine It was good work, $100 for a 500 word column, topics that flowed naturally from my work, minimal research. I received good feedback from the editors, and they rarely changed anything I turned in, not even a word.

But in May they cut it back to one column per month, and after June they stopped it all together. Not enough ad revenue to support it, or maybe not enough visitors to the pages; not sure which. $200 went to nothing real fast. That may not seem like a lot of money, but it really helped with the budget.

I sure would like to find something similar. On Wednesday I began the process of looking. I found an on-line blog-like magazine that was perfect for replacing Buildipedia. I started filling out the on-line application. Then I realized the last post was sometime last summer. It appears it’s no longer an active site.

I estimate there are about 50 other sites I need to check out. I’m not optimistic about finding something. But maybe, maybe.

Miscellaneous Friday

This has been a killer week, emotionally and physically, but more so emotionally. Where shall I start?

The knowledge that my John Wesley small group study won’t be needed by my church for the foreseeable future was a gut-wrenching blow. I probably over-reacted, since I can still write it and see what else I can do with it. Still, it was an emotional setback.

Yesterday I was hoping to get my Bentonville flood study back out to FEMA, Revision 5. But the remapping after the remodeling after the remapping after the remodeling after the corrupt informal submission to FEMA was rejected after the formal Revision 4 submittal came back from FEMA with yet more comments showed that some additional remodeling was needed. Both I and the CADD tech lost time yesterday due to meetings and computer problems, so I didn’t get the latest map till 4:00 PM, which showed ten cross-sections still needing work to get the map and the model to match. I worked on that till 6:30 PM, thinking I had them all done except for one, which I was convinced was a map problem. This morning the CADD tech convince me it was a model problem. I had that corrected and she had the map corrected and the annotated flood map produced by 11:00 AM. The entire report is now ready to go; I only have to stuff the maps and CD in pockets bound in the report. So it goes out by FedEx this afternoon, making the Monday deadline. Just barely.

Not getting the re-mapping until 4 PM yesterday, with it showing still much work to do, about caused me to lose it. I did throw a notebook across my office, and pounded the desk a few times, so I guess I did lose it in a sense. But I pushed on through. Another deadline met. Now back onto the third floodplain project, thence to the fourth and fifth. Someday I hope to get back to my training tasks.

Actually, this afternoon I think I will. I like to use Friday afternoons for miscellaneous stuff, such as: getting caught up on daily timesheets; getting caught up on daily activity logs; cleaning the week’s accumulation of stuff off my desk; seeing what correspondence needs to be done. In some ways Friday afternoon is the most productive time of the week. This afternoon, I think I’ll write a new construction specification section. There’s a certain product for permanent erosion control that we use some, but for which we don’t have a decent construction spec. Yesterday I saw a competing product advertised in Erosion Control magazine. I think I can produce a pretty good spec section in that time. That would be writing. I like that.

Tonight I may just read. I should write, I know. I should decide what to do next. Documenting America needs some editing, and it would be nice to have that ready to go about the same time as the permanent cover comes in. That could be any day now. In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People needs to be finished. Lots of work there, and I’ve been thinking about it lately. Also of late I’ve had a desire to get back into my Harmony of the Gospels and finish the passage notes and the appendixes, as well as correct a few typos. That’s a non-commercial project, and so hard to justify from a career standpoint, but it’s enjoyable, so I may go in that direction for a while.

Also among miscellaneous tasks is the article I have under contract for Buildipedia. I’d like to get that mostly written this weekend, well ahead of the next Thursday deadline. And, abstracts for next year’s Environmental Connections conference in Vegas are due next Friday. I have three that need work.

So my writing and work lives are really both in miscellaneous states right now. At least it’s raining today. Glorious rain, that shuts down construction sites and prevents noon walks, that fills ditches and detention ponds and creates floodplains. How it always lifts my spirits. Now if it will just rain tomorrow and allow me to do something other than clean the gutter helmets.

A Calm Place in the Whirlwind

Life is busy. At my engineering day job, it seems like no task gets closed, yet many more get open. I can’t quite get my current floodplain project to work. The lateral structure I entered, as a way to simulate an overflow pipe, needs to be revised, and I haven’t yet figured out how to revise it to make it correct. Or rather, I believe I know what needs to be done and how to do it, but time to do it hasn’t materialized. I figured it out at the end of the day yesterday, but today so far has been fully consumed in…

…teaching a class at my company, and preparing for it. I haven’t done a class in at least three months, due to busy-ness, and several people have been saying they needed professional development hours. So I decided to teach a class titled “Five Important Construction Items Often Overlooked During Design”. Creating the PowerPoint presentation to go with it took all morning—or all least all of the morning that I didn’t let myself get distracted with a couple of personal things. Even half my lunch hour went to that. I didn’t actually prepare what remarks I was going to say. I just talked an hour from the PowerPoint, using my many years of construction engineering experience. From the comments of attendees, I did pretty good. Add this to my list of classes for listing on a resume or on a website, if I ever get one built.

Back at my desk after teaching, I talked with my wife. It seems I am to go to the next town over after work and purchase a used jungle gym to give to our grandson Ephraim on is third birthday in two weeks. That’s if the one called ahead of her doesn’t take it. We are second in line. Hopefully we’ll get it. Sounds like a good bargain. But, it does take away time I could have used on something else.

My writing efforts right now are fully consumed with the John Wesley small group study. One chapter done, another half done, the outline finished—except today I realized I had left out a major part of his writings, the many hymns he wrote, and the many of his brother’s he published. How can I leave those out? I can’t, so I will have to insert another chapter (I think I’m up to 22 now), figuring out the best place for it to go. The pressure to have the study ready around September 1 is off, as I believe the church is going to do another all-church series. I might not need it finished until December or January. That would be nice. I might be able to work on volume 2 of Documenting America. I’m still inching toward e-self-publishing volume 1, maybe in less than a week. It looks as if I’ll have to do that without any beta reader comments, as no one has gotten back with me. I think I ran four or five of the chapters through my previous writing groups, though they were shorter at the time.

So where, you ask, is this calm place in the midst of life’s whirlwind? It was last night, from 6:00 to 7:30 PM at the Bentonville Public Library, as we held the second meeting of the BNC Writers group. The previous meeting was to organize; last night was for critique. The same four of us met. Four others who want to attend couldn’t because of illness or other unspecified reasons. About the time some would be traveling here the sky opened up with another round of rain, which probably contributed some to keeping people home.

But the four of us who met had a great time. Last meeting I had given them copies of my short story, “Mom’s Letter”, not for critique, but just as a sample of my writing. But they came back with some critique, and I will consider it. It’s already for sale on Kindle, but I can easily make changes and re-upload it if necessary. As group leader, I chose the order of presentation. The three ladies went first. Brenda shared a short story based on a dream she had. Joyce shared the first chapter of a novel she has just begun. Bessie shared a non-fiction story from her years on the mission field in Papua New Guinea. I know that was her first formal writing, and first time sharing writing in a critique group. I think it was also Joyce’s first time. She had been involved in the writing process before, helping writers through critique and editing, but I think she is just beginning her writing efforts.

We had a great time with the critiques. Our procedure is for each person to have copies enough to pass around, then for the author to read their work while the others follow along and make notes. We then discuss the work, making suggestions, asking questions. In the end we give the author the copy we have marked on. The author can respond to comments, sometimes indicating what their intent was, but always accepting critique with graciousness and thick skin.

Alas, we ran out of time, and I wasn’t able to present the Introduction and first chapter of Documenting America. Maybe next time. I did receive the crit on “Mom’s Letter”, so it’s not as if I was left out. We will meet again in two weeks, probably at the church this time, which will allow us a full two hours, not limited to the library’s allowed schedule for conference room use.

I left the group and went home, to evening storms (outside and inside), a checkbook that wouldn’t balance, a pile of mail to go through, and no time to write, very little to read. But that was okay. A momentary respite out of the whirlwind was sufficient for the day.