31 January 2013

Forams confirmed

Show ten foram experts a foram and chances are, they will come up with five different names for it. We had seen it when we did “theElphidium game”. And that tells you taxonomy is partly a personal choice; as long as you know why you call something a certain species, and you are consistent, you do the best you can. And part of taxonomy is also learning what other people might call something. If you find Haynesina germanica where someone else only finds Nonion depressulus, it is worthwhile to realise that might not be an ecological change, but just a different moniker. 

Does that mean you can just do what you want with foraminifera taxonomy? No, of course not. I had stared at my Norfolk forams for months, tried to identify them, looked up what other people had made of them, learned to recognise the Cretaceous forms that had ended up in my much younger sediments, and had come up with quite a good guess of what species I had in there. But it’s hard to be sure; I have many Elphidiums in there, for example, and there just are so many of them. The online World Register of Marine Species mentions 161 species. And that’s far from exhaustive; I already saw some that were not among those 161. And quite some of these species will be synonyms, but still. No way you have specimens, or descriptions in books, or good pictures, of all those species. At some point you have to just pick one and stick with it. But it helps if someone, who has seen many more of these 161 species (and much more species of non-Elphidiums!) has a look at them. 

So when I had my draft classification I went to one of our proper foraminifera specialists; not a specialist-by-proxy such as me, who just uses them for various applications, but one who studies them for their own sake. I gave him a slide with the forams I had encountered in my samples, and what I thought they were. He promised to have a look at them. 

Then some slightly nervous days passed. What if I had it all wrong? What then? But then he gave me my slide back. And basically, everything was OK. I could finalise my counts and start drawing the graphs. Which I did! With renewed faith in my taxonomy skills. The details in taxonomy remain a personal thing, but these are now built on a stronger framework!

Some of the species I find in my samples

30 January 2013

Enigmatic jewellery

Self-made jewellery rules! And I'm not even the only one who produces it. For the first time in a way too long time I managed to have lunch with Neil. I think it's been over a year; I'm not very good at remembering when things happen, but with the aid of my blog I seem to be able to conclude it's really been that long. And one of the topics that can never be avoided is tin. Readers of the blog will be aware of his affection for this metal. And he had been making things like cuff links and broaches of it. With the logo of his law firm on it. And he gave one to me! Very nice. I'll wear it with pride. Maybe it will magically make the time period to our next encounter somewhat shorter than the previous one...

28 January 2013

Goodbye Beatrix

There were quite some references to the Dutch queen on Facebook. Would the Dutch know something I didn't know? And then, explicit messages about her abdicating were posted. I decided it was time to check a Dutch online newspaper. And I found out that a speech by the queen would be broadcast at 7PM local time. A speech in which she was expected to announce her abdication. It was 18.40 Dutch time when I saw that.

By 7PM I had Dutch radio streaming live. Of course! I was four years old when our current queen, Beatrix, accepted the throne. I don't remember that at all. For all I care, she has always been our queen! It's strange when things that have been constant for decades suddenly change. And when I refer to historical facts instead of my own perception, I have to conclude we have not had a king in living history. Beatrix's great-grandmother took the throne in 1890. And today, in my humble office, I heard her confirm that on Queen's day 2013, we'll get the first king since then. It did stir something. Would we then also start to celebrate King's Day? We'll find out on April 30th! I hope Beatrix enjoys a well-earned retirement...

Source: Emiel Ketelaar, FrozenImage

Dutch pride

There are some things the Dutch just are good at. Dredging, keeping the sea out, locking their bicycles. Earlier this week I walked into the bicycle parking in the evening, and noticed there were little notes dangling from most of them. From all except mine, to be more precise. One can imagine my curiosity. And when I had done a little dance to make the motion sensor switch the light on, and read one of these notes, I must admit a pang of pride. It warned the owner of the bicycle that it was not adequately locked, and was vulnerable to theft. All but mine! And yes, of course, maybe mine had had one and it had fallen off, but I don't think so. I think I may have been the only Dutchie of all the people who had parked there...

PS All this happened again - that confirms my bike just doesn't get these notes!

26 January 2013


The title of this posting should have been different. We were supposed to go to a mine nobody had been in for decades. It had been capped. The landowner, though, had decided to take the cap off, and ask us to have a look what was inside. Of course we jumped at the opportunity! Uncharted territory is quite special. Even though you shouldn't have your hopes up too high: you might hit a collapse after mere feet and not be able to get any further. But we took the chance.

I was already approaching the regional road when suddenly it dawned on me I had forgotten my caving suit. Shit! And this would only be the beginning. I turned back, very displeased with myself, got the suit, and then drove west once again, a bit faster I otherwise might have done. That didn't stop people from overtaking me; very close to the meeting point, a black car passed me, with a lady in it who waved frantically at me. It turned out to be Lionel's girlfriend; she had made her debut in the caving club when I was in the Netherlands, and today she intended to bike around while we explored this new mine. I was glad to meet her!

When we reached the services that functioned as our meeting point, some of us decided to wait inside, and have a coffee; some of us are quite infamous for often being late. When the late-comers arrived, those waiting for them outside failed to inform them we were already there, so they waited outside for us while we waited inside for them. Brilliant! When that was resolved we went to the actual mine, or rather; we tried; we lost the only person who knew where it was, and he doesn't have a mobile phone. By some magic we found it anyway, and by more magic we managed to not get stuck on the muddy track with our two-wheel drives. We had a look at the hole; it looked promising, though wet! The big heavy tractor that had been used to lift off the cap was still there, so we could easily rig from it. I decided to change.

Then I gathered my stuff and wanted to lock the car. the keys, where were the keys? I'm always afraid to lock the keys inside the car, so this time I had stuck them underneath my knee pads, so that couldn't happen. But they weren't there anymore. They must have fallen out. But there were no keys to be seen on the few square metres of ground I'd walked on!

I looked and looked. Felt through the mud of the track, several times. Searched my tackle bag. Several times. And my other bags. And all my pockets. Everything! In the meantime others had rigged the hole, and gone down. I decided they were really gone; we had better just go underground, and phone the AA once we were out. But when I got to the hole, Mark was already coming out; it didn't go! There was a passage from the shaft, but it only lead some ten metres. A bit disappointing. But what can one do...

Mark emerges from the new shaft

Upon hearing of my key ordeal, someone suggested I should strip. These keys must be somewhere! And that was reasonable advice. So I started with taking my harness off. And what did I immediately see? My keys! They were draped elegantly over the sling I have hanging from the back of the harness, to hang my bag from when moving along a rope. (You don't want to have a bag on your back; it will pull you backwards. A bag hanging underneath you will keep your body vertical.) I believe that when I knelt to tie my shoe laces, the sling had ended up near my knee, and hooked behind the keys. And they had stayed there, all that time I was looking. I felt stupid, but I was glad I had them again! This also meant I could join the alternative trip; there was a mine nearby I had never visited. This was Luna.

We drove to the other venue, and kitted up again. Including Lionel's girlfriend; she hadn't been up for an unknown trip with serious SRT, but Luna was known and not so demanding. Though when we tried to get to the entrance things got rather challenging after all! Nasty climbs down, involving blind jumping; not my favourite. And then we saw Mark appear from somewhere else; he knew the hard-to-find but easy-to-negotiate way. Dear. It really was that kind of day. But from then on all would go well; we got to the entrance, reached a small internal shaft, rigged it, went down, had a scurry around, marvelled at the very irregular maze of tunnels, had a drink, and then went back. We had a great time!

Luna is on a beautiful part of the Cornish coast

 The entrance is in some strange hole in the ground

We left the shaft via the side exit
Lionel and Corinne (spelling?)

Young Dave climbs out of the little shaft

When we got out the sky was already turning pink

When we were out I was pleased to see Lionel's girlfriend had enjoyed herself. Good! We'll see her next week! It's always nice if you see people be infected withe the caving bug. And without further issues with keys or suits or misunderstandings we went to the pub for a nice after mine pint. And then went home. Maybe not what we had hoped; it would have been nice to explore a new mine, but this was a good day too! In spite of all its silly mishaps!

25 January 2013

For both lab and car

Driving is boring! And microscope work can be too! And boring activities are best alleviated with music or other entertaining sounds. These were in short supply; my car radio had stopped working years ago, and a few months ago the DAB radio in the lab decided to only work by high exception. We still have an old analogue radio that's just willing to play some Radio Devon (with some white noise for free) if you ask nicely. Not ideal! And in both venues, wearing earplugs has distinct disadvantages. So I decided to kill two birds with one stone and by a DAB radio of my own. And not just any; one with an iPod docking station. It works on both mains and batteries, so it can come with me into the car, into the lab, and wherever else I want to listen to music. Or BBC4. Or my iPod, if no radio station has anything to my liking, or the signal is bad. And it works well! I already once worked later in the lab than intended, because i couldn't rip myself away from the radio. And in the car it turns out to fit snugly onto the dashboard, and to not start to slide or fall off, even when I do a U-turn! I'm quite happy with it. Bring on the long drives, and the endless forams!

24 January 2013

New running routine

It didn't go right the first time around, but I think I now have myself sorted out! Running-wise, that is. I already blogged about my New Year's resolution to get running again, and how that ended in tonsillitis. Not a great start. But I waited until my throat had retrieved its normal proportions and tried again. And now I have developed a stable-looking habit of going for a run before work every second day. It isn't the easiest routine; I'm not a morning person. Especially on the physical front. And it being January, it also is rather cold and dark at the hour I now run. That doesn't help either. Neil already remarked that such difficulties only make it better; I disagree, but I am glad I seem to make it work. It's none too early either; next month I'll be dragging very heavy backpacks over the Norwegian hills! I'll be needing all the fitness I have for doing that!

This is what my new style runs look like: with lots of (hi viz) clothes on, in the dark!

Devonport Park is better for running through when the sun sets, but well, it could be worse than this!

23 January 2013

Tourist in Southampton

When I knew I would be going to Southampton I did what most people probably do: I quickly googled it. And I noticed two things: city walls and a charming-looking pub. It would turn out to be pretty much what I needed to know.

Due to circumstances, I would spend my first night there alone. I booked a reasonably late train; I would arrive at 7PM, which would allow me to walk to my hotel, check in, run out again, and go for dinner. It worked out well! I could see the city walls from the hotel, and city walls tend to contain city centres. So my plan was to just get inside these and see what the night would bring.

I walked through an impressive city gate and found myself in “High Street”; that tends to be a good sign. It wasn’t as much as I hoped; the street looked deserted and dead, framed by boarded up shops. I just walked on. Further south a few restaurants appeared. None looked irresistible; I walked on. And found the ancient pub I had glimpsed online! But they didn’t do food on Sunday. I decided to go to a nearby Japanese restaurant. An excellent choice, it would turn out!

High street. "High" does not refer to expectations raised by this view.

Exterior of "the Red Lion"

 Complimentary starter at the restaurant

After dinner I went back to “the Red Lion”; the ancient pub. There was one other customer. And a grey parrot. I ordered a beer, sat down, and read the newspaper, somewhat distracted by the parrot who whistled at me, and made a suite of additional flirtatious sounds, while clambering upside-down through its cage. Quite a frivolous fellow! And the pub was a bit quiet (even the only other guest vanished at some point) but that gave me unobstructed views of the interior’s beauty. 

 Interior of "the Red Lion"

The next day I got up early, to take some pictures of the architectural highlights of town; unfortunately, it was a very grey day, but what can one do. While swooning over yet another segment of city walls I heard a whistle, which this time did not originate in a bird; it was Antony and Roland, also on their way to the National Oceanographic Centre, where our project meeting was held. The centre is somewhere in the depths of some harbourial compound; you have to get past uniformed chaps at a barrier, and then walk past active quays and all sorts of port activity to get to the building. The view from our meeting room involved massive ships, and all sorts of concomitant scurrying around. A bit distractive, to be honest! Especially when a lorry and a fire engine spent half an afternoon driving to and fro in front of the biggest ship in sight. No idea what that was all about…

 You walk past sights like this to get to the institute

After the meeting we went onto town; we enjoyed a pre-dinner pint in a pub, a lovely Italian dinner, and then also an after-dinner pint. In the Red Lion, of course! I was disappointed to notice that this time, when I walked in with glamorous types such as Tasha and Antony at my side, the parrot wasn’t interested at all. It didn’t make a sound all evening, and meekly stayed upright on its perch. In spite of my sadness over the evanescence of flirtation I enjoyed myself. I left the town and its photogenicity (is that a word?) to itself for a while on the way back to the hotel, and on the way back to NOC, as social demands also have their place. But I got back to my touristic recordings when I walked to the station after the meeting had ended. It had suddenly become a bright and sunny day, and even more bits of town wall distracted me to such an extent I only had two minutes to spare when I reached the railway station. 

Part of the city wall

 One of the city gates

Witnesses from a different period

 A tiny Titanic memorial; do bother to read the blue sign on the left!

The medieval merchant's house

The city wall near our hotel

The Tudor house

The strange juxtaposition of various styles: on the left, the medieval city walls; in the middle, some concrete wasteland, and on the right, the modern anonymity of our hotel

Southampton’s High Street may be a picture of what a pedestrianized city centre is not supposed to look like, and the damage sustained in WWII has left more traces than found only there. But altogether the town still grew on me. The extensive town walls (eh, evidently), the few ancient buildings surviving, the much tidier part of city centre outside the walls where we went for dinner, the scattering of post-medieval glamorous buildings, and the bustling harbour all gave it its own charm. I think I could feel at home there, if I ever had to!

22 January 2013

Project Meeting

Would the title of this post draw in many readers? Probably not! It was quite enjoyable, though. We are about midway in the project we are currently working on, and we all gathered in Southampton to discuss progress. And when I say "we all" I mean people from eight institutes. It's a big project! And such meetings always boost my enthusiasm. While you're doing the actual work, it's easy to get a bit blinkered. I stare down a microscope a lot; sometimes I forget I am part of a much bigger project involving dripstone formations, ice caps, modelling of all sorts, and more of that. It's good to see we all are going in the right direction! For  a more detailed description of the meeting, look here. I'm back now, and making good progress! Bring on the forams!

View from the meeting room

19 January 2013

Write it right

“When I first skimmed through that, I thought it actually wasn’t that bad, but when I then read it properly I realised it was shit after all!” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that quote of my second PhD supervisor. I had given him a draft chapter of my thesis, and this was his reply. Of course he came with more detailed, and more constructive, feedback later. I remember the slow and frustrating writing process: the endless bouncing to and fro of draft versions. I’m not one to whom scientific writing came naturally. I got there, in the end, as evidenced by my finished and approved thesis (and a bunch of publications), but it took a while. 

And now, many years later, I’m on the other side of the table. I am the fourth supervisor (only two of us do the bulk of the writing supervision) of the inimitable Rob, and he’s reached the writing up stage. And I’m afraid to say it doesn’t come naturally to him either. So there is a lot of bouncing to and fro of drafts… and I can see that for Rob it is also a frustrating process. But I’m sure he’ll pull through as well! And then the circle is nicely round…

17 January 2013

Beach jewellery

Prancing around a beachduring working hours? Why not! And while you’re at it anyway, you might as well collect some potential jewellery. I can’t resist looking at pretty pebbles when I’m on a beach, and I had recently figured out that nice things found on a beach can quite well function as jewellery. 

When I had decided to make earrings of my belemnite, I had bought some earring hooks in a craft shop in town. I had seen they sell or sorts of findings (one of these quite niche words I’m glad to have come across); why stop at making jewellery of things you can either drill a hole through or wrap a wire around? You can also just glue anything to a silver plated thingamabobby and dangle it in such a hook! So while Roland was surveying the beach (which is a one person’s job) I rummaged around in the pebbles, looking for those that were small, decorative, and preferably came in pairs. I found plenty! So the next Saturday I went back to the craft shop, bought all sorts of metally bits and a pot of glue, and off I was! Later that day I had four pairs of pebbles standing in a little bowl of salt (I figured that would prop them up), with the glue, that would attach them to the findings, drying. And the next day I had four pairs of new earrings! And I have more pebbles. And now I’ve gotten the hang of this, who knows what I might declare jewellery next…

The glued pebbled drying in the salt

And the finished products!

And some more, made later! I figured the tiny stone tools I had found near Stithians Reservoir were potential jewelery too...

Last Plymouth blood

When I got home I suddenly realised I would never see these people again. I had been donating blood in a nearby church, and I always enjoy that: all the people working at the blood bank have always been nice to me. The guy who calls me his stalker, for showing up at practically all of the donating venues, even knows my name, and always comes over to joke around a bit. And in the UK, they won’t let you donate more often than once every four months. It’s January now; by the time I am allowed again it’ll be May! I’ll be moving to York then! I regretted not having said goodbye. I might send a card… and I’ll keep on donating blood up north!