21 February 2017


I've met my tutees! That is, all except one who was down with a cold. I asked them to introduce themselves, and I asked them what they had so far learned from the tutorials, and what they hoped to learn from now. Most of them said they struggled with presentations, and needed practice with that. OK, we can work with that! I thought I'd start things off by having them present a summary of their essays (that they had written before, for James) in order to 1) practice presenting and 2) give them a bit of feedback on the narrative structure of their summaries. In science, as everywhere else, presentation matters. If you just rattle off some dry facts nobody will pay attention. We have all drifted off during presentations on interesting topics but by people who couldn't tell a story. And we've all skimmed through conference abstracts, trying to decide which presentation to go see. If you don't write an inviting abstract you lose people! So one can't start early enough practicing on making whatever message you have to convey as enticing as you can!

As they were so keen on practicing presenting, I thought we should do both a practice session and the real deal. But that takes more time, so I would have to have another slot timetabled. And if you have six students presenting, you want more than fifty minutes. I suggested I book a two hour slot and they thought that was a good idea! Students who want more contact hours and more work! I am amazed. This is good!

When the discussion on the presentations was done it was time for me to set them their first task for a grade. They have to write an abstract, so I gave them the articles-with-abstracts-edited-out I had prepared before. And by then time was sort of up; they had to go to Anglesey for a practical, and they would be brought by a bus (honestly, the university charters buses for that) that would leave shortly. It was a short meeting, but it was good to meet them. I hope I can make a useful addition to their education!

19 February 2017

Another important election

It was February the 14th, and I had been getting a bit apprehensive. I was really hoping I'd get mail! And it came.

There was the EU referendum. Then there was the American election. There was mayhem all around and my voice didn't count. The next elections that have the eyes of the world on them are the French elections with Marine le Pen hoping to get the top job, and the Dutch elections in which Geert Wilders hopes the same. I don't have a say in France, but finally, my voice counts in the Dutch elections! I had registered to vote by post. You can then choose between getting your ballot paper by snailmail or email. You have to send it back by snailmail either way. I asked for the ballot paper by email; I had registered while on my old job, and I wasn't sure if I would perhaps have moved by the time the elections came.

I seemed to remember that voters abroad would start receiving their ballot papers by February the 7th. I kept going to my mailbox; anything yet? Would something have gone wrong? Nothing on the 7th. Or 8th. Or 9th. I got apprehensive. Then the 14th approached and it got nerve-racking. But then it arrived! Romantically in the evening.

Normally, in a Dutch national election, you get a ballot paper the size of a newspaper (in 10 pt Times New Roman, or something) because, with proportional representation, there are hundreds of people you could vote for. This time I got something else; an A4 sheet for the actual voting; it requires pointing out separately what party you want to vote for, and which person on the list of that party you prefer. I was referred to a governmental website for a specification who actually made up each party's ballot list. That information was contained in a 26 page PDF. Dutch voting for you!

I will make sure my vote heads for the Hague in good time. I have a voice, and I want to use it! I really really hope this time I won't wake up to bad news the day after the elections this time...

17 February 2017

Another weekend of work

Teaching something for the first time is a lot of work! One 50 minute lecture to fourth year students takes a lot of time to prepare. I have seven lectures in a fourth year module I hadn't taught before; originally, I would have four of them in my second week (mind you; my first week was only three days long). That wasn't feasible! And then having a field trip booked over the Tuesday didn't help. I had to work hard to get my lectures ready in time. The first weekend went up in preparation. Climbing was sacrificed to it too. Digging was invoked to keep me sane; if you're only working you go doolally pretty soon. And then the next weekend was spent working as well. At least I can do some at home; reading up is done swimmingly on the couch, with a mug of coffee on the table. But quite a lot of it has to be done in the office! So I am going pale and wild-eyed, but I have already done three lectures and so far I've managed...

Some marine diatoms; one of the topics I had to read up on is the production of dimethyl sulphide by marine algae, such as these. Pic by Kostas Tsobanoglou

15 February 2017

Tutees for the first time

These days, pastoral care is important in universities. Back in my days (I like being an old fart) we didn't have personal tutors, but now all students do, and they see them regularly. Tutors are not only for pastoral care; they are also for general skills, such as scientific writing, and oral presentation skills. I think that's nice; you don't go to university just to acquire specialist knowledge. And for the tutors it's nice too; this way you at least get to know some of your students. I find it a bit of a pity that if you lecture to a whole room many times, you do share a lot of time, but in the end you still don't know their names. Of your tutees, you do!

I will probably spend most of my time on the general skills: the tutor overlord has ruled that in the second term, the students have to write an abstract and an essay, and do an oral presentation. I only have to have five meetings with them (I have scheduled six) and that means I'll have my hands full explaining what I want from them, and giving them feedback on what they've done. The first meeting I have to tell them to write an abstract; my first job was to decide what to make them write an abstract about. Sometimes it's that sort of decisions that give you headaches: shoudl I let them choose themselves? Should I set a topic? But about half of them are marine biologists; I am not very familiar with that field. What to do? In the end I let me be inspired by the essays they had written the previous semester (I could access these through the university website). They'll all get an article with the abstract edited off. We'll see how that goes!

In addition to all that, I might have to sometimes see them one on one if there are issues. And there are likely to be issues arising. It's a completely different thing from 'normal' teaching! I do look forward to getting started. Watch this space for when it kicks off!

13 February 2017

Busy in the dig

Miles would be back, and this time, he'd bring backup. We had been making amazing progress, but he clearly thought it wasn't enough; he decided to ask his employees if they were interested in coming along and helping dig. So after a one week digging break I expected to go and meet him and one other chap. None of the other ThursdayNighters had indicated interest in a trip so it sounded like I'd have all the fun.

When the day came, an email with a proposed trip came around anyway (we're very late organising stuff these days). We'd all be in the digs! And "all" turned out to be also Don (who had been ill) and Paul (who is an expert procrastinator). Paul had forgotten his socks, so I gave him one of the pairs I normally wear in my wellies. They justabout fit...

We went up, in, and down. I was ahead (surprise) and went into Dig 2 where I soon heard voices. Then I saw faces: three of them! Not only I had come with more people than expected. I greeted Miles and got introduced to Pete and Matt, the other chaps. They had been in there since the afternoon, and had extended electricity to the working end of the dig. They had also started placing explosives in the entrance to the crawl.

I was keener on making the far end more pleasant, so within minutes of showing up I was drilling holes in one of the two rocks left over from the previous time. Pete had got the other one out with a mallet! Good job. While I was at it, Don and Paul arrived. They had an admiring look around, and then went to the other dig. I'd see them later! Soon afterwards we could blast both rounds. And then clean up! While the dust settled we had a hot beverage but soon we were back at work.

Miles wanted to do more blasting at the entrance, but I was keen to make progress rather than beautifying the place, so I suggested I'd go in and start drilling the wall of chamber Y, the next one on. I did want to bring some menacingly perched boulders along the way down. I didn't like the look of them!

I figured the boulders would have to be done first, and I did not want them to come down while I was behind them. I started wiggling a bit with the crowbar, and the first rock came down. Success. Now the next. That one was scary; I wanted a longer pole. I went back to see what I could find.

We had had a piece of inch-thick rebar, and Miles had used it to secure the ceiling in the previous chamber, but afterwards he had reinforced the whole structure with scaffolding, and that meant the rebar was now superfluous. When I got back with it, Matt was looking at more rocks, and wanted to bring more down. Be my guest!

He did with panache. What was left pendant seemed stable. I felt comfortable underneath! So I could get on with my scary boulder. It was about 1.2 x 0.5 x 0.3m. Big! But when it came down, it didn't bring much with it. A relief! But it was a big bugger and now it was in the way. I started drilling it! The passage onwards could wait; this had to be done first. Before I got drilling, Pete left. He had a long drive home...

When I placed charges I noticed the resin gun, with which I had had trouble earlier, had a blocked nozzle so I needed a new one. Matt went to get one. I offered to do it myself (it hadn't taken me long to realise I was also faster in tight spaces than him and Pete) but he insisted. That provided a pause!

I heard sounds that suggested Miles was climbing a scary void in the previous chamber; I decided to keep an eye on him, but he didn't need it; he got up and down without issues. Then I got my nozzle. By that time, however, Miles suggested he should scoot. I didn't want to block another nozzle, so I tended to the resin gun first, but then I said goodbye to the men.

When they left I had another fight with the uncooperative resin gun. I couldn't get it to work! I filled one hole, and plugged the other one with drill dust. It would have to do! Then I wired it all up. The resin of the one hole had to set, but it was close to 10PM, so I should go and see Don and Paul. When I got to the first collapse I found them there. They were fine with me going back, setting off the charges, and then going out with them! So I did. I did not go back to check the effect of the blast; it was late.

I went back to the men, and climbed out. At the top of the pitch I had a sandwich or two; other than the cup of tea with the Go Below folks I had not consumed anything that evening. I was hungry! But I had time, as both Paul and Don are slow on the ascent.

We walked back in the freezing cold. I had spent a lot of time in the water between Z1 and Y, so I had cold feet, especially with my single pair of socks. Buy the time I had changed into my normal clothes my feet hurt considerably. It would take half of the journey back, in a car with the heating on full blast, so get comfortable in the feet again! I hope that level gets drained soon...

Miles would be back the next week; so will I! It's still going very well in there...

12 February 2017

Students describing glacial sediment

When I was between jobs, I was asked by my colleague Martin if I could perhaps help out on his day in the field in February. By then my new job would have started! And I said that was fine with me as long as I was not otherwise engaged. So he phoned up the timetabling people, asked them if I would be available, heard I would, and booked me in. However, with me not being employed yet, the timetablers didn't know half of my commitments, so I later found out I had this day in the field planned on the fifth day of my new job, and planned straight over three lectures. Oh dear!

So what was the trip? The field site was a cliff caused by coastal erosion, which showed a very interesting local story. It showed glacial sediments originating from Snowdonia, and then ice from the northeast ploughing ruthlessly over the top. In between were lovely proglacial sediments. And the students are only in their first year and they don't need to recognise the details, but they are asked to make a sediment description of nine windows of sediment we had demarcated. Then at the end, Lynda would tie it all together. We would do this twice; some colleagues were doing levelling at a nearby site. After lunch we would swap students.

I thought I probably should be involved in this; it's not quite up my scientitfic street, but it's geology, and that is what it all started with, even though I turned a bit climatological later on. So I moved the double-booked lectures back, and resigned myself to being rather busy. I would lose a whole day to the field! And I need many days for lecture preparation. But that's life. Then the issue of getting the trip sorted started (another pile of confusion resulting from James' departure) appeared too. On Monday the day before the actual trip, I had a recce in the field with trip organiser Lynda. We went looking for the nine windows. Some were not there anymore; the cliff still actively erodes. We found good locations for replacement windows. We were done fast, and that's good, as it was raining. I hoped it wouldn't do that on the day itself!

 The situation on the beach on the recce day

When the day came Lynda loaded up the kit we needed for our bit of the trip, and drove off. I placed big A4 sized labels at the sites. Soon the students appeared! Lynda took them to window A and explained to them what was expected of them. They were supposed to know; they had practiced this in the field, but some recap was needed. Then they divided into groups and set off.

The way we found the beach on the actual day: a lot better!

Scenic shot

At full size one can see the labels at the various windows

Lynda briefs the first batch of students

Off they go, describing sediments!

 And the debrief

Quite unlike the day before, it was a glorious day. Sunshine! The students were in good spirits. They also set to work with panache. They barely had any questions, and they just tended to see what we hoped they'd see. It went well!

Lynda and I wandered around, just keeping an eye on things. A light job! By noon we got them all together for the debrief. They were a bit reluctant to speak up about what they'd seen (students will be students) but we got it out of them. They got the point about the two ice masses and the water-borne sediments in between! Very good. And time for lunch.

I went to a tea shop with Lynda and quickly had a toasted sandwich. Then we went back! The second batch of students had less sunshine and more cold then the previous group; they were also a bit less fresh after alreayd having doen a half day. They still did well, though! Altogether it was actually quite pleasant to spend a day at the beach. I even had time to sit on a rock and contemplate my upcoming lectures! Altgether a succes...

10 February 2017

Clunky boots

When I ditched my orthopaedic soles I lost a shoesize or two. I had to go and buy a new batch of shoes! I had a pair of approach shoes I had done the inital trials in, and these do well for day-to-day use, but I also need footwear for other purposes. For underground use I have a pair of boots I had initially used with my modest insoles, and which I now wear without insoles but with two pairs of socks. For hiking I bought a second-hand pair of light boots for a few tens of quid. But I also want to have more solid boots for harder work, such as with crampons.

My light hiking boots

I kept an eye on boots on a Facebook group dedicated to buying and selling second hand outdoor stuff. Some boots came up, but these heavy boots are costly, and I don't want to spend a lot of money on boots that don't fit. Then a pair came up in nearby Llandudno. I arranged with the seller to come and try them on.

When the day came I struggled a bit to get there; it was very windy and some people did not adapt their behaviour to that, which lead to closed roads. But I got there! I met the lady who was selling them due to them being too small. I tried them on, scampered with panache through her front garden, and decided they did fit me. I bought them!

They are a bit clunky; the light boots above are only 500g per boot, and these are 800g. But with clunkiness comes weight. And they still are lighter than the wellies I wear underground; these are over a kilo each...

I don't have time to scamper through the mountains with crampons these days, but well, as soon as I do I now can! But by then there may not be any ice left in the mountain. However; these boots should last me many years...