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A story from the mid-1970s.  A story of the early days of Steffen Robertson and Kirsten, now SRK.

Soon after joining the company in the first offices in Johannesburg, Oskar Steffen was faced with a problem.  His clients complained that the Steffen Robertson and Kirsten reports were too long and nobody read them.  This was bad news, for we slaved over the reports.  Each was handwritten in pencil or ink and then typed by a bevy of typists.  You had only one or two chances to edit and improve them.  So each was a gem, in our minds, of devoted labor.  The idea that nobody read them was devastating.

Oskar called in a technical editor for advice.  Their advice was simple:  no report should be longer than twenty pages.  The basis of this advice was that nobody could read and assimilate more than twenty pages in a single sitting.  If we wanted our reports to be read, we needed to trim them to the issues and say it all in twenty pages.

Of course there was no limit on the number of appendices.  Although no appendix should be longer than twenty pages.  The details were to go into the appendices.  The highlights were to be brought forward into the main report.

Oskar insisted and we obeyed.  It was hard work.  It required discipline and planning.  It required suppression of writing egos and elimination of the idea that length/wordiness equalled quality.  Many of us struggled with the practice.  But Oskar persisted and insisted.  And once the clients started complimenting us on the reports, we strove even harder.

I have no idea if this rule still holds in SRK.  Although I have recently downloaded a few SRK reports from the web and they were all less than twenty pages.  Gems of information and conciseness.

I got to Tucson and started writing reports.  They were torn to pieces, for I was used to the South African way of saying what is; I was not used to the American need to persuade the skeptical.  John Gadsby taught me the trick of brevity with focussed persuasion.  Syd Hillis taught me the trick of getting the essential information into a few words.  Syd always insisted that my reports should not record the chicken-scratching of my mind as I grappled with the ideas and issues.

I still try to follow Oskar’s edict.  I still try to follow the lessons of Gadsby and Hillis.  Although I have over the years been accused of writing too little.  Of producing reports that are too short for the gravity of the issues I write of.  Defence of my brevity by reference to the masters gets short shrift.

Let me know what you think.  Do you like short reports with informative appendices?  Do you care if the letter report is forty-one pages with no table of contents and no executive summary, as long as you can follow the glory of the development of the author’s ideas and crawl to conclusions?

Or do you demand of your consultants a twenty-page report that you can read in one sitting—with as many twenty-page, one-sitting appendices as the project demands?

PS.  Andy Robertson adds these observations:

I certainly believe that the meat of any study should be presented in a report of readable length (less than 20 pages).  You have the option of writing a short report with a lot in appendices or a long report with a suitable length Executive Summary.  For reports that have to address many aspects a combination of all three is often the best way to go.  An executive summary, of less than 10 pages, that is backed with a Report that addresses the various aspects in sufficient detail to fully understand each aspect – often several sections that may each be less than 20 pages and the appendices that contain supporting materials.

I do recall the early days in SRK when we, and those under us, had to be persuaded the condense the meat of a study into readable length.  It is however horses for courses – sometimes a short report with appendices, sometimes an executive summary and a longer report and sometimes all three.  One needs to choose the most suitable for the project requirements and audience to whom it is addressed.


I spent some time last week, this past weekend, and today polishing the webcast coming up next week on Geosynthetics in Mining.  We started out as a small group, Tarik, Terry, and me.  But as we talked and planned, we realized we needed other to augment us.  So I am proud to tell that we now have Abigail, Bertrand, Marat, and Ryan join us.  Here is more detail:

Jack Caldwell is a consulting engineer for RGC with over 35 years of experience in mining, geotechnical and site remediation projects.

Tarik Hadj-Hamou, waste management and geotechnics expert with SLR,  has over forty years’ experience in civil and geotechnical engineering and risk analysis.

Terry Mandziak, Principal Geotechnical Engineer at SRK, has more than 21 years of diversified professional experience in project coordination and project design, and is a leading expert on heap leach pads and their design, construction, operation, and closure.

Abigail Beck is Director of Liner Integrity Services for TRI Environmental, Inc.  She will talk on that incredibly important part of geosynthetics installation, namely quality assurance and construction quality control.  I have listened to her on this subject before—she is the expert and we will all learn from her.

Bertrand Breul is a civil engineer and Managing Director at Axter Coletanche.  He is a young fellow promoting his product.  But he is knowledgeable and passionate.  I reckon it is worth hearing from him on the bituminous geomembranes he sells—and designs with as part of his sales responsibilities.

Marat Goldenberg is a civil/environmental engineer at CETCO.   He too is young, eager, and informed.  Again I invited him to join us on the basis that he knows CETCOs products better than anybody and is the best person to learn from I can imagine.

Ryan McKeever is Technical Sales Consultant – Mining for Nuna Innovations Inc.  A young Irishman with sparkling eyes, and in my opinion, an incredible geosynthetic that is currently very expensive.  So I have invited him to tell us more about a product that I am sure will in time become a staple in the mining industry.

There is still plenty of time to register an join us for three hours for three days next week.   Click this link.

The course is intended for all who manage, operate, design, or approve (as regulators) geowaste facilities. It is also for those who are interested in advances in the use of Geosynthetics in such structures as part of the process of enhancing mine water management and the functionality and economy of such facilities.

This weekend opera from the sublime to the ridiculous, or from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Depends on your opera tastes.  We started on Saturday morning with the MET broadcast of the Merry Widow, an operetta with lots of spoken dialogue and catchy tunes, and an easy love story with a happy ending.  We finished with Richard Strauss’ Salome.  A short, brutal opera of lust, violence, and death.  Solome is killed by Herod’s soldiers after  emoting on the severed head of John the Baptist.

At one point in the opera, Solome compares the lips of Jokanaan to the vermilion the kings take from the mines of Moab.  Try as I might I cannot find a Google reference to the mines themselves.  Plenty of leads to Wilde’s original play on which the opera is based.  He puts these words in Salome’s mouth as she talks of the lips of Jokanaan:

It is like the vermilion that the Moabites find in the mines of Moab, the vermillion that the kings take from them. It is like the bow of the King of Persians, that is painted with vermilion, and is tipped with coral. There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth…suffer me to kiss thy mouth.

The opera is less wordy–Salome sings only thy lips are like the vermilion the kings take from the mines of Moab.  Kiss me.  Jokanaan refuses her offer in both the opera and the play and gets his head cut off in spite.

There is this from Jeremiah 48-31

30“I know his fury,” declares the LORD, “But it is futile; His idle boasts have accomplished nothing. 31“Therefore I will wail for Moab, Even for all Moab will I cry out; I will moan for the men of Kir-heres. 32“More than the weeping for Jazer I will weep for you, O vine of Sibmah! Your tendrils stretched across the sea, They reached to the sea of Jazer; Upon your summer fruits and your grape harvest The destroyer has fallen.…

All rather confusing if you did deeper, which I am not keen to do, but did, and found nothing about the mines of the Moabites.  Plenty about the destruction of their fields, but nothing about their mines.

At this link, is Jeremiah 22-13 to 15, which read

13“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness And his upper rooms without justice, Who uses his neighbor’s services without pay And does not give him his wages,14Who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house With spacious upper rooms, And cut out its windows, Paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’ 15“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink And do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.…

Further down the link page is this extensive commentary on the verse.

That saith, I will build me a wide house,…. Or, “a house of measures”, or, “dimensions” (i); a very large house, whose length and breadth measure much consisting of many spacious rooms, upper as well as lower; as follows: 

and large chambers; or, “widened ones”; very spacious and roomy; or “aired”, or “airy (k) ones”; through which the wind blows, or into which much air comes; so that they were good summer chambers, for which they might be built: 

and cutteth him out windows; to let in light and air, as well as for ornament. Some render it, “and teareth my windows” (l); as if he had taken some of the windows of the temple, and placed them in his palace, and so was guilty of sacrilege; but this is not very likely: 

and it is ceiled with cedar; wainscotted with it; or the roof of it was covered with cedar, as Jarchi; or its beams and rafters were made of cedar, as Kimchi; it might be lined throughout with cedar: 

and painted with vermilion. The Vulgate Latin version renders it, “sinopis”; so called from Sinope, a city in Pontus, where it is found; of which Pliny says (m) there are three sorts, one red, another reddish, and a third between them both: this is the same with “minium” or vermilion. Strabo (n) says, in Cappadocia the best Sinopic minium or vermilion is produced, and which vies with that of Spain; and he says it is called sinopic, because the merchants used to bring it to that place (Sinope) before the commerce of the Ephesians reached the men of this country, Cappadocia; other versions (o), besides the Vulgate Latin, so render it here. Schindler (p) renders the Hebrew word by this; and also by “cinnabar”, which is a red mineral stone, and chiefly found in quicksilver mines; and may be thought to be quicksilver petrified, and fixed by means of sulphur, and a subterraneous heat; for artificial cinnabar is made of a mixture of mercury and sulphur sublimed, and reduced into a kind of fine red glebe; and this is called by the painters vermilion; and is made more beautiful by grinding it with gum water, and a little saffron; which two drugs prevent its growing black: and there are two kinds of vermilion; the one natural, which is found in some silver mines, in form of a ruddy sand, of a bright beautiful red colour; the other is made of artificial cinnabar, ground up with white wine, and afterwards with the whites of eggs. There are two sorts of it that we have; the one of a deep red; the other pale; but are the same; the difference of colour only proceeding from the cinnabar’s being more or less ground; when fine ground, the vermilion is pale, and is preferred to the coarser and redder. It is of considerable use among painters in oil and miniature (q); and here it may be rendered, “anointed with minium” or “vermilion” (r); but it is questionable whether this vermilion was known so early. Kimchi here says, it is the same which the Arabians call “zingapher”, or cinnabar. The Hebrew word is “shashar”, which Junius and Tremellius translate “indico” (s); and observe from Pliny (t), that there is a people in India called Sasuri, from whence it is brought; but this is of a different colour from minium or vermilion; the one is blue, the other red; but, be it which it will, the painting was for ornament; and either colours look beautiful.

Maybe better just to enjoy the operas.

If you are interested in the use of geosynthetics in mining, or seek to use geosynthetics in mining, or need as a consultant to provide your client with advice on geosynthetics in mining, or you are a manufacturer or supplier of geosynthetics to mines, then you should join us March 10 to 12th on the upcoming EduMine webcast.

Here it the link to the course.  Click on it, get the details, and register.

I am proud to be joined by experts.  Terry Mandziak of SRK is beyond doubt the world’s leading expert on heap leach pads and their design, construction, operation, and closure.  And of course the use of geosynthetics in heap leach pads.  Terry is quiet, unassuming, unassertive—but his intellect is towering, his experience vast, and his engineering instinct superb.  I am lucky to have worked with him and I am certain you will find his webcast presentations instructive, insightful, and informative. He is one of a kind and the leader of the pack.

Tarik Hadj-Hamou is an old friend.  I owe him more than I can ever repay.  He taught me so much.  He is one of the old school of geosynthetics users having studied under Ed Kavazanjian and J.P. Giroud.  And he worked for and with them for many years and continues to do so.  He is congenial, of superb intellect, and a nice person,  His wife is the best cook I know.

I have also invited a few young fellows to make twenty-minute presentations on their geosynthetics.  They are the salesmen who promote and seek to sell their product.  I know them, I like them, I respect them, and I invite them to present because I am convinced the future is theirs.  You and they can and must solve issues in mining that I cannot even conceive.  Just drink one more more drink in my remembrance when you solve the new problems using geosynthetics.

So come join us.  It is cheap when you consider the cost of conference courses or conference attendance.  We already have registrants from around the world.  Join us and them and you need not travel or stay in lousy hotels in dangerous cities.  Do it all from home or the comfort of your office.  And please speak up: ask question; offer opinions; describe your case histories; and help us advance the cause of geosynthetics in mining.

Finally note that if you attend the webcast you will also get a free copy of the proceedings of the 2014 Conference held here in Vancouver on Geosythetic Solutions in Mining.


Today was a perfect summer day in Vancouver; although it is still officially winter.  I slept late in the sun streaming through the bedroom windows.  I rode my bicycle to and from work in the warmth of the sun, although it was a trifle cold coming home as, short of breath, I walked the hills that become steeper every year.

I did no work of note:  answer emails, chat with colleagues, edit an upcoming EduMine course presentation.  Nothing of intellectual challenge or worth.  Just what you would do on a lazy, sunny day.

I am lucky; for what does it matter if I work or do not work?   Nobody cares for my opinion, except when I tell the truth—when they get bent out of shape.  The bank manager has more of my money invested than I can touch—all I need to do is get him to support me in idleness.  I have decided to stop smoking–except my pipe–for that will save me money and make me better able to ride my bike this summer, which I intend to do until I am lean & mean like those old farts at Granville Island who are far older, skinnier, and fitter than me.

Yet my heart today could not shake off a conversation I had with a young engineer let go last week as his company is contracting as commodity prices fall.  He has three children, has just bought a new house, and is now without a job.

He has been my client.  I have done work for him.  He is a good engineer: he asks the right questions; he demands the appropriate answers; he uses my advice prudently; he advances the cause of his employer.  It was a pleasure and an honor to work for him.  I learnt and he learnt and we advance the state-of-the-art.  Yet he is laid off.  My heart bleeds for him, for I have been in this situation.

In 1983 the mining industry collapsed.  As manager SRK Vancouver, I laid off twenty, including myself and Andy Robertson.  It is a long story how we survived; but we did.

In the mid 1990s, I was told to leave a site because I challenged the incumbent privileges.  The project eventually did what I told them was the thing to do.  But only after firing me and two others.

I lost my drive some ten years ago when my then-wife of 34 years eloped with a very rich man (five cars, a private plane, monthly trips to Vegas, and lodges in Africa).  I lost my drive and care to help clients.  So I “retired” and spent years riding my bike, watching opera, and writing EduMine courses.

The point is that I have “lost” my job at least three times.  It happens in life and in mining, no less than in other walks of life.  I have survived: brushed off the dust, stood up, and moved on.  Yet still my heart bleeds for the young man with three children, a new house, and no job.  He is a good engineer and will, I trust, survive.  But what anguish and struggle until then.

Me and the young engineer I write of are but a very few examples of many more who are affected by the ups and downs of mining.  Our stories are never told as individuals.  We are but statistics for journalists.  Yet our pain and struggle is real and wrenching.  So pause if you can to help one of those laid of in the mass waves of layoffs in the current mining downturn.




Every Sunday we would go from the mine, East Geduld, where my father was a mine captain,  to my grandmother and step-grandfather for lunch.  My step-grandfather was a winder on the mines–a job that probably no longer exists.  Joe was his name and we called him Grandpa Joe.  He has tall and ginger.  He came from Ireland, courted my grandmother who ran Ma Brett’s Boarding House as a way to survive after the death of my grandfather–leaving her three children to bring up. Continue Reading »

Last week I needed to brush up on stability analysis of waste rock dumps or embankments as they are sometimes called.  I went to the obvious sources: EduMine.  I opened the course Design  and Operation of Large Waste Dumps by Tim Eaton and Scott Broughton. In the section on Analysis they present a masterful description of the various failure modes and how to analyse them. They add this on probability of failure: Continue Reading »


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