31 May 2020

First food from the garden

It started in the first weekend of lockdown. I sowed my first vegetables! And from then on I have been steadily tending to my vegetable seedlings. Watering them, spacing them out, moving them outside, sowing more, moving them back in again in the case of the butternut squash, goading the peas into holding on to the provided sticks and not each other, giving up on them (leek), and whatnot. And most is growing nicely. But the end goal was: food! By late May I had still not eaten anything. And then I saw a pea pod on one of my plants. Yay! Peas! I ate that one raw. Was lovely! An after the first one, many followed. They started flat and I should wait until they are a bit more cylindrical. But it looks like I may soon have my first meal out of my own garden!

And the rest? The spinach is slowly growing and one day may be big enough for a meal too. But a small meal. The carrots keep their edible parts (if any) hidden underground. The cabbage is growing well. I have chard seedlings. Some potato plants appeared rather unexpectedly; I had planted some in the first spring but the weeds must have out-competed them. The aubergine plants are still very small. The butternut squash is still recovering from cat mayhem. And the courgette plants are starting to flower; this could be the early start of quite a lot of food!

And there is bonus: last year I planted two walnut trees and there's something budding! I might get my first nuts too this year... 

The first pea pod to appear!
The first pea pod to appear!

More soon followed


30 May 2020

Long bike ride again

About a month ago I went on a fairly long bike ride. And then that was outlawed! And it seems now that only weeks later that was reversed again. I tend to keep an eye on the lockdown rules but I had missed that one. Maybe because I get a lot of information from radio 4 and the newspaper, and these are a bit England-centric. But I'm glad I found out late rather than not at all. And I had only gone out on one bike ride in the meantime; one run resulted in a bit of a complaining left calf, and I decided to give it a bit of a rest. So the next day, I did a short bike ride, through Mynydd Llandegai and Rachub. It was a busy day so I wouldn't have biked far anyway, even if I would have known it would have been allowed! And I think it did the calf good. I was OK running again two days after the funny feeling occurred.

View on the Carneddau from Mynydd Llandegai

Cute little lane

During the week I'm not likely to bike very far, but when the weekend came and it was allowed again to bike a fair distance, it was time to enjoy that! Even though I could run again, it was time to venture a bit further from home. So I decided to bike to Capel Curig. I had driven that so many times but never biked it. I don't think I'd be keen in normal times; it's a locally important traffic artery and people often drive quite fast on it. But nowadays the roads are empty!

I set off on my old bike. Flasks and sandwiches in the bag. And a puncture kit. And I first took the old road to Ogwen Cottage. And from there on there is no choice: you need the A5. But it's delightful! Barely any traffic. And from Llyn Ogwen it's basically all downhill. What did strike me, though, was the police activity. There were two or three cars parked up at the foot of Tryfan. And a police car was there too! I think telling people to sod off. Why would you park there other than go climb Tryfan, which is not allowed?

When I stopped to take a layer off I saw the police had created a roadblock right behind me. They were clearly checking! But it's a bank holiday, and the English are already free to travel. So I can imagine why! And I saw another police car and a police motorbike on the road as well. I didn't know we had so many of them. And when I got to Capel Curig and got off the road to park my bike, I found out I had a police car right behind me who seemed to have been intent on stopping me. He didn't need to now! He got out of the car and asked me where I had come from and was going to. They really are keeping an eye on where people are going! But my Bethesda-Capel Curig-Bethesda plan was met with approval.

With that sorted I parked my bike, walked into a field, and had my lunch. That was nice! And then I biked back. It's not steep so it was a leisurely ride. And just for the heck of it I went the entire way along the A5. That way I could judge how steep it was! I might sometimes want to bike the A5 to get to the start of a walk, when that sort of stuff is allowed again, and then it's nice to know how steep that route is. And it's ok! So I could see myself walk Ogwen Valley before too long! That will be nice... 

From just outside Capel Curig

Tryfan comes into view

The path to Tryfan. On the way back, I saw no cars there! The police action had helped.

29 May 2020

Classic book again; a Welsh one this time

For some people, lockdown is an excellent time to finally get through their 'to read' list. Not for me though! I read even less the normal. The culprit is my new working schedule; I used to do my work at home, and only rarely fire up my laptop in the evening. So after dinner I often had a bit of time to read! But now I tend to start a bit early, work until 4 or 5 PM, then go for a run and a shower, and then often straight into the kitchen. And then after dinner some more work waits. By the time I stop that not much of the evening is left! I suppose I am lacking in discipline when it comes to keeping work and leisure balanced and separated. I might have to work on that. But either way; it took a long time but I finally finished another book. And it is a classic! I had already read 'Un nos ola leuad'; often seen as the best Welsh language book ever. And it's about Bethesda too. But if you dig a bit deeper into Welsh literature you quickly find another book: Traed Mewn Cyffion ('feet in shackles') by Kate Roberts. She was seen as 'the queen of literature' and this is often quoted as her best book. My Welsh tutor Jenny said it was boring so I thought I'd give it a go. I like books in which not much happens! And it didn't disappoint, even though you could argue a lot happens. 

The book starts in 1880 with a young woman who has moved to somewhere not too far from here (the author grew up in Rhosgadfan, so that may be where this is set) from the Llyn peninsula. She's just married a local quarryman. And then you follow her over the decades. They have six children, and the quarry work is fraught with issues. It's dangerous, badly paid, subject to the whims of the foremen and in the course of the book, activity is dwindling. It's not easy to keep the family running. Most of the book is from the perspective of the woman it all starts with, but from when the kids are a bit older, they sometimes take over as narrator.

You don't get a very clear idea of the marriage of the main character. The husband seems a bit taken for granted. The children get more attention, and they are a mixed bag! There is the eldest daughter who goes to sewing school and from there into domestic service. She is not one to get much attention. 

There is the oldest son who, after school, starts work in the quarry too. That's him out of the way; he leaves early and comes home late, and is then so knackered his siblings barely get to interact with him. He later moves south to work in the coal fields there. 

The second daughter gets a lot more attention. She is a bit rebellious. She hangs out with posh boys from town. This doesn't make her popular with her parents! And that leads to her then spending a lot of time with her grandmother instead. And when that grandmother then dies, it's not her son who inherits the modest amount of money, but her. And she promptly marries one of the posh boys and is off. Her relatives can drop dead! 

Karma is at work in tortuous ways, though; she has a child, and when it still is small, the posh boy does a runner. And there she is, with no income. She sells off her last possessions and starts sewing for a living. The kid moves in with the family his mother has abandoned. 

There's also the second oldest son. You see quite some of the book through his eyes. He does well in school and gets a scholarship for further education. He becomes a school teacher. It pays the bills but not much more than that. 

The youngest son does well in school too. He also gets a scholarship! It's not clear if the family can afford to do anything other than send him off to work so he can supply the family income. But school it is. Until the war breaks out and he volunteers for the army. Of course he gets shot. More misery for the family.

The book ends with the second youngest son being all pensive and gloomy. And the cat being oblivious to it all. A generation of struggle in the North Wales countryside. And is anything looking up?

Don't read classic Welsh literature if you're looking for a hoot! I don't think these slate hills have grown that sort of literature. But it was interesting to read. The language wasn't easy; it was written in the thirties. But aside from the language, it felt very current. Not quite literally; things have changed. Girls rarely go to sewing school (do they still exist?). Few people work in slate quarries. Maybe what I mean is that even though the setting was mainly the Victorian age, and the language is dated, the characters could have been written yesterday. I enjoyed it! I think I will re-read this. But maybe now something more recent to not make the Welsh harder than necessary!

28 May 2020

Having a psychologist on call

When you are a university lecturer your main job, I suppose, is teaching specialist skills. And the second one is teaching general academic skills. Or the other way around? Well, not relevant for this post. And then, increasingly, it's the somehow supporting students with mental health issues so they have the mental reserves to even get to these general academic skills. It's a stressful world and the students are feeling it! Fortunately, the university supports us; we have a mental health team, and they provide mental health training. But sometimes you can do with more than they can offer. And I am fortunate. I have a sister who's a clinical psychologist!

Some time ago I was trying to coach a student with known issues towards submitting a piece of work before the deadline. And it was a bit of a bumpy ride! And pandemics can make a situation that was already difficult even more complicated. And one morning I woke up to a rather worrying email from said student, that had been sent in the middle of the night, with the deadline being the noon after. Oh dear! I was glad I had my sister. I immediately asked her for advice! And I got a crash course in the mental health issue in question.

I had actually read an entire book about this kind of issue, but there is quite the difference between having read a book and knowing what to do. And how did that book happen? Well, my sister sometimes wants to order books from companies that don’t deliver to Finland. Then she has them delivered to me, and they then find their way to her. And this one caught my attention, and I read it before I passed it on.

Did all that effort help respond to that email in an optimal way? I don't know! The student did submit on time, but I'll probably never know if my assisted response had anything to do with that. Quite possibly not! But I was still good to have that help at hand. I think I said it before; we're hired on the basis of our academic skills, but sometimes what's needed is completely different things! I am so lucky to have back-up.

I did get feedback from the student, and it was heart-warming! It seems I made a difference. With help. Thank you my sister, and hurray to the student. You didn’t let anything stop you from writing that (substantial) piece of work! I take my hat off for that!

27 May 2020

Exam period

We had the first online exam period ever! And how did it go? Well, my personal experiences are modest! I am currently module organiser on three second semester modules, and one of them is the dissertation module so that doesn't have an exam. And I teach the majority of one other module, so I have loads of exam questions, but that is a first year MCQ exam. You don't need to mark these! Computers can do that. So that was sorted. So only two exams to mark! And they were in modules with small class sizes.

How did we do it? We basically released the exams at a set time and gave the students 24 hours to complete them. They had been told to sit them like 'normal' exams, but then on a computer. So no Googling or phoning a friend or any of that. But could we check that? Well, no!

So how did it go? Well, mixed bag! It started out with a bit of confusion on who would prepare the MSc level exam: the module leader or the exams officer, but we sorted it without any students seeming to be bothered. Good! And as this was new I wanted to make sure the students were actually there doing the exams. The one exam went swimmingly. The other one had two students who hadn't accessed the exam after a few hours. One had logged issues online. The other one was a Chinese student and I suspected they were in China and therefore in a completely different time zone from the campus. And after a while they let me know all was well. I think my guess was right!

All marking is done now. And the results? Well! Of course there was a bit of a range in the grades. There always is! It's not a good exam if there isn't. But were there issues? Well, there were some suspiciously similar answers but the plagiarism officer didn't think it was serious enough to merit measures.

So what do I think? Well it did work! Yes we can't be sure the students weren't on the phone with each other. But given that face-to-face teaching was suspended mid March and the exams started in late April, we had to think of something fairly fast. And a pandemic is likely to bring sub-ideal circumstances. And then you get sub-ideal exams. I think we did OK considering circumstances! And in June we will have meetings in which we will discuss all this. I wonder how different this year will be with respect to the previous few years. I hope not too much!

26 May 2020

Save the neighbour by buying drinks

When lockdown happened, Neuadd Ogwen closed. It had to! And we're already two months in. No sign yet of when it can re-open. But it's a multipurpose building; it does film and theatre and yoga and gigs and market and whatnot, but it also has a bar. And the stock was sitting there, gathering dust. And I suppose they now decided it could be any time before they could re-open, and there was little point in waiting until their stock would reach its 'best before' date. And it's foodstuffs, so you can sell them! So they did a usual friday-from-four-to-six thing. Not on the parking lot this time, but from their own premises. I ordered six regional beers. At then end of the day they advertised what was still available, and then I ordered some alcohol-free beers too. These hadn't shifted so well! But they're quite up my street. I'm now such a lightweight I rarely manage an entire pint (of alcohol-containing beer) in a day. And it's the alcohol; not the volume of fluid. With hot water I can drink almost anyone under the table! So now I'll have a good stock of beer I can just glugg away, and Neuadd Ogwen has money, rather than perishables. And then everybody wins!

Most of my regional beers

25 May 2020

Into deep time

I was keen when I found out that I would have an MSc student. And we had a project ready! With sampling foraminifera from the local sea floor and all that. But when the pandemic hit, we had to reconsider, and we decided to go move the project topic 55 million years back. As you do! I had never worked on that time period, with the weirdest climate event ever if you ask me, myself. I lecture about it as it is a weird climate event. But as I have to supervise this chap I had to make sure I was all informed on the details too. So I read up on it. He is studying the differences in how the event is expressed in the assemblages of benthic foraminifera in two locations; one on what is now east coast USA, and another one in Italy, which then was in the shallow part of an ocean. Not everyone realises it but the Mediterranean is, in a way, an almost-vanished ocean. Africa and Europe have just moved so close to each other now there's not much left! But it was a proper scale big deal in its day. And 55 Ma ago it still was to be taken seriously.

So we have two locations at noticeably different latitude, longitude, configuration of continents and oceans, water depth, and whatnot; so how different was it? It's mightily interesting if you ask me! So I have been having a blast reading up on it. Forams! My specialism often vanishes in the more general teaching things like essay writing and the pedagogy of assessment and teaching of other things such as glaciology and evolution. But here I have a chance again to ponder forams. Such modest creatures; unicellular, and not even animals (they're protists), but still, the messengers from a time that long ago. Easy to remember why I fell for them in the first place!

A fossil bird (Primobucco) from around that time. Pic from Smithsonian Institution.