I have leveled my fair share of criticism at peer reviewers. I have leveled my fair share of criticism at technical editors. I have fooled many a peer reviewer whose ego was bigger than their intellect. I have never slipped a bad sentence past a technical editor. Although some have said my prose is uneditable–too blunt, they say.
It has not alway been thus. In the old days, there were golden people; folk who could control my engineering and folk who could control my writings. Today, I have to control myself lest I overwhelm them with verbiage.
Not that I am always confident. Next month I will go to a site where I must produce a report that will criticize professional engineers who have aligned themselves with an ignoble cause and produced inferior reasoning and illogical conclusions in a mad rush to support a clerical prejudice.
In preparation for that mining project and that attack, let me recount my recollections of some of the people I have admired and learnt from. This should remind me to be humble in this fun undertaking.
The first report I wrote in Tucson in the early 1980s was no better or worse than many I had compiled in South Africa. Mostly they went unread in South Africa. My first Tucson report was assigned by Rick Call (one of the founders of Call & Nicholas, still around–swee comment below) to his editorial assistant, a bright graduate of English. She tore my writing to pieces. First I spelled things wrong—all British spelling, a no-no in Arizona. Next I used quaint phrases culled from Victorian writers—I needed more direct frontal-face prose, she said. Then she disputed every flow of logic; she said there far too many unsupported assumptions, inferences, judgment calls, and plain advice.
I fled to Rick Call for help. He wagged his beard, looked sagacious, and said: “She is good, work with her, and that report will sail through the client and the regulators.” Through three frustrating days, I did work with her, and the resulting report, nothing like my first draft, was superb, and succeeded.
Next I met that dreaded individual, the specialist peer reviewer. Andy Robertson recognized I need local expertise. He persuaded John Gadsby and Syd Hillis to be the project peer reviewers.
John Gadsby was a famous Vancouver consultant, who had been part of Piteau, Gadsby, and McCloud. When I first met him he was running Thurber’s Vancouver office–and producing Geotechnical News, stil a fine publication. In early 2010s, he is now seventy-three and retired to manage a pub on Hornby Island. John was then and still is a bright, chatty person, who focuses on what he likes to call the “human part of engineering.” He loves a well-written sentence and blanched at some of my long, convoluted attempts.
But it was Syd Hillis who helped me most and proved the worth of the role of project specialist. Syd is now retired and spends Vancouver winters in Tucson or on a beach in Australia. I first met him when he came down to Grand Coulee to inspect the site. He is short, ginger, and intense. He is the son of a Glasgow plumber. I am convinced that he inherited the intense practical bent that the plumber needs to get the pipes to flow.
I met him in Spokane and drove him up over the Grand Coulee dam to the territory of the Colville Confederated Tribes. We walked the site. He did what only an old-fashioned soils engineer does: pick up the soil and put it on his tongue to gauge its gradation. He inspected the hills and the flat valley and wanted to go to see where the ice dam had been that had given rise to the soft clays that filled the valley.
I had been warned that he was brilliant: he had been the chief geotechnical engineer on Revelstoke Dam in British Columbia and the chief geotechnical engineer on Tarbela Dam in India. At that time, Revelstoke was the highest soils dam in the world; Tarbela was the biggest. I was in awe.
He gave no indication of any concurrence or disagreement with the ideas I was, perhaps too eagerly, propounding. He just asked questions and more questions. I did not have satisfactory answers to many of them, that was clear, but he did not delay in questioning when I faltered.
We returned to the motel. I asked what he thought. He banged the bottle of Scotch on the table and said: “Only when this bottle is finished will we worry about what you are doing up there.” I was relieved and sank into the comfort of a bottle of Scotch. Syd subsequently converted to Saki, which he claimed was less likely to give you a hang-over, being purer than Scotch. These days, like so many of us in British Columbia who are horrified by the high price of government-controlled liquor stores, he makes and drinks his own wine.
I, and hence the early SRK in North America, owe so much to Syd. He taught me to be an engineer in the best sense of the word: get the simple facts, do the calculations, and then and only then formulate a design, and watch every detail during construction. He helped me formulate the design of the Mt Tollman embankment, sadly never built, but a great design nevertheless.
It was on the Cannon Mine tailings impoundment near Wenatchee, Washington that we worked together most closely. I made not a single decision on that dam until I had discussed it with Syd. He and I walked every inch of the site, inspected every exposure of the friable sandstones of the site, examined the foundations once the colluvium was stripped, poured over the pumping records of every borehole in the grout curtain, checked every gradation curve, and agonized over how to quantify the sufficiency of compaction of the rockfill of the outer embankment.
We did not need a large team of people when you had some-one like Syd with you. For he is a specialist generalist. He is of the golden age, and I know not his equal.