20 January 2021

Voice recognition in Welsh

When I am doing work, I used three languages. Most of it, of course, happens in English, but I try to do everything I can do like that in Welsh, and I have a few Dutch-speaking colleagues, so if I send them an email, I might very well do that in Dutch. But then my RSI hit. And I had to dictate everything. And all the software I used for that only spoke English out of these three languages. So I suddenly became a monoglot. On my phone, which I use for personal purposes, I just solved that by using recorded messages. The phone doesn't care which language I do that in!

When I write work emails, it's perfectly fine to do that in English if I could have done it in Dutch. But I had a bit of a problem with not using Welsh. I have put so much effort into learning it! And if I have an opportunity of communicating with a student in their native language, I don't want to let it slip! We don't have many Welsh-speaking students, but of the ones we have, quite a few feel quite strongly about their mother tongue. So I am proud to be able to let them though some of their education in Welsh! But now I suddenly couldn't anymore.

Just before I went off on sick leave, my Welsh tutor advised me to contact someone in the Welsh language centre (Canolfan Bedwyr), to see if there were any possibilities for dictating in Welsh. But well, then I went off sick. But I am back!

On Friday I contacted the centre. And within the time, I got a Teams call. I already was in one so I couldn't answer! But later that day I had a chat with their technologies contact. And he told me that indeed the University has software like that! And he showed me where to find it and how to get it installed. All in Welsh, of course. He wasn't native speaker either, and I think he was glad to find another keen learner. And he asked me to give feedback!

When we ended the call it was time to cook some food. And I didn't get around to trying out the software the rest of the day. On Saturday I downloaded the files. It wasn't easy! The firewall of my computer really really didn't like it. I had to overrule a lot of warnings that this software could hurt my computer. But in the end I got it done! But I also wanted to prune my trees and get firewood and talk with a friend and have lunch and go for a run and all that kind of thing, so I didn't try it out. But on Sunday I did!

I'm writing this after only having tried it a little bit, but I already have some impression. It is fairly self-explanatory. It has one big huge disadvantage with respect to Dragon; it doesn't work in real time. You have to say everything you have to say, stop the recording, and only then will it show you what it has made of what you have said. As I don't think it has a correction function, I can imagine it isn't crucial to see what is happening while you speak. It is not as if you can stop where the software went wrong and correct as you go along. But that does mean you can't keep track of you have said. And as the software isn't very sensitive, you have to articulate like the clappers, so you had best know what you will say in advance. That pretty much means writing it down beforehand. That makes it a lot less hands-free than Dragon! But still a lot better than nothing. So I will be using this. I can write emails to Welsh speakers in Welsh, and even provide feedback in Welsh to students. I appreciate nobody has the kind of budget to develop voice recognition software in Welsh as there is available for its English equivalent, so I'll try to just make the most of what this is! And I am sure it is only going to get better!


My first attempt with the new software! Not bad.


19 January 2021

Distant running Buddy

 When I am running, I feel like I am running in a perfectly normal way. You know, with your feet straight and your legs straight and all that. But I don't! I supinate like the clappers. I always wear my shoes out by just taking the sole off on the outside of my shoes. Especially on the right! My right foot supinates more than the left. I have no idea why. And it is not a problem for running, but it is a bit of a problem for the environment. By the time the whole protective outer sole has gone on the outside of my right shoe, the rest of the shoes are generally still perfectly fine. And that is a waste! Trainers are notoriously difficult to recycle. Or maybe I should just say impossible. I'm sure they either get incinerated or end up as landfill, and neither is a good idea.

I always buy my running shoes second hand; there are plenty of people who think something along the lines of "new year, new me", buy sporting equipment, and then find out they can't really be bothered to actually use it, and then sell it off again on eBay. And then I buy it! That's how I got my road bike as well.

When I select shoes to bid on, the one thing I always check is the state of the outside of the soles. If that's okay I'll buy them! And the last time I had a look I found a fairly cheap pair of shoes, that had quite a lot of wear, but just not where I produce it. The person who had been wearing these shoes seems to do all their propelling with their big toe! The soles were completely worn out in that location. But I never wear out that part of the sole. So it's okay! And I bought them.

I've been running on them a lot! And it's perfectly fine. I like this idea of one person wearing out one part of the sole, and then someone else coming in and wearing out the rest. And by the time two people have had their way I suppose it may be time to indeed bin them. Next time I'll try to find a pair like that again!

As good as new, as far as I am concerned!


18 January 2021

New Welsh course started

 New Year, new Welsh class! The previous semester I had done a course about local history. I had done it before, and hoped that there just would be a lot of new material. And there was quite some, but also was quite some overlap. Additionally, this course was done through Skype, by a tutor wasn't overly confident with the software. So it was mainly him talking, and all of us participants in one big virtual room, and we were sometimes invited to give input, but I think we all felt a bit bad about saying too much. Only one person can talk at the same time!

This new course was about Wales, Welsh and the Welsh. This sounds a bit broad, but we'll see what he manages to cover. The first class was about dialects. The tutor (which I had not met before; that is unusual, as I have been stalking the Welsh learning community for years now) told us some things, made us do some exercises, asked us to listen to some sound fragments, and regularly sent us off into breakout groups. I really liked these breakout groups, as then you can finally discuss some things among yourselves. We were always in the same groups, and mine was three people big; that way you can get some words in. I enjoyed it!

I can't remember what the next session will be about, but we have a Team for this course and I have faith the tutor will upload documents beforehand. I like how this class makes the most of online learning! I think I made a good choice.

17 January 2021

Three household Gruble game

 I had had loads of fun with my sister playing a game of Gruble (I think it's called Scattergories in English) for New Year's Eve. And we thought we should do it again! And she had the brilliant idea to ask if my local friends Jaco and Marjan would want to join. And they did! So one drizzly Sunday evening we played again.

I suppose this is a very lockdown thing to do! If you can only see people on a screen, then it doesn't matter how far away everyone is. Why not have people in different time zones there! As long as you can find a time that suits all.

We first had a trial round as the Menai Bridge contingent hadn't played before. And we had to restrict ourselves to 2 languages. But that was okay! We had lots of fun. My sister won. And afterwards we chatted a bit more, but not too much, as it soon was bedtime for her.

I think we will do this more often! I suppose this lockdown is not going to end anytime soon. And why not have a game evening? And I like Scattergories!

16 January 2021

Leftover marking

 In the New Year I went back to work! And rightly so; a new term of teaching was about to start. And that needs to be prepared! And that is a lot of work. And of course, we had to absorb the teaching of the colleagues who had left us. So there was lots of do! So, I got straight to work on that, didn't I? Well, no.

In autumn I had had a virtual fieldwork assignment. I had gone off sick not too long before its deadline. But it was my assignment! I had inherited it from James, so it wasn't really my idea, but I had always ran it and marked it pretty much on my own. I would have colleagues with me in the field, but otherwise it was just me. And nobody else in the school seemed confident the mark it. So even though the deadline had been mid-November, not a single report had been marked! And the students weren't clamouring for it, but well, they would have had reason for that. So I wanted to get that out of the way. But it is quite a job to mark it. And it is even worse now; everything is slower if you work your computer by voice. But well, it needed to be done! So I just sat down and started ploughing through the reports.

I really hope I can finish this soon, because immediately afterwards, the exams are coming in. And we have student essays to mark; for two modules. And as I said, I also have to prepare my teaching for when that starts immediately after the exams! I suppose I should stop blogging and get back to it…

15 January 2021

More snow than you can shake a stick at

 The mountains had been beautiful for weeks, but the weather has been very good. Additionally, I was working full-time again. So I didn't get to enjoy them that much! But the first Saturday of term had a very good weather forecast, and I intended to make use of that. I look for it to having my lunch sitting on the rock, surrounded by snow in all directions, with the sun cheerfully shining over all of that! So I chose a direction to go in (long smooth valley; nothing risky as this is not the time for that sort of things) and packed my bag with food and drink and warm clothes and suchlike, and also my crampons and snowshoes and ice axe, to be prepared for everything. And I set off. The weather was gorgeous. And the start of the walk was treacherous. All the slushy snow from the day before had turned into solid ice! And my little dead-end street doesn't get attention from the council, nor does it get enough traffic to remove the ice and snow accidentally. I almost wanted my crampons! But I shuffled my way out of the village successfully.

I took the long road to the start of the path; there is a lovely public footpath, but it runs close to houses, and the inhabitants don't like it to be used in times of this pandemic. And the path itself starts in woodland. This looked magical with the snow and the sun. And when I got out of the woods, the shrubland was magical as well. But clouds are starting to appear! And they were increasing in size and number. Oh dear. Snow is never the same when it's very cloudy. For a start, you can barely see it! But the sun still sometimes managed to break through the clouds, so I pushed on.

The wintry village under a cloudless sky

The fairytale-like woods

Nant ffrancon looking absolutely amazing!


I started out just on my boots; that was fine. It was clear that some people had even gone here in much more relaxed footwear. Among the footprints in the snow I saw one set that clearly displayed the word "crocs" in the middle of every footprint. Rather them than me!

When the path became obscure, and the terrain difficult with grass in clumps I put on my snowshoes. Even with those, the terrain was difficult to negotiate! But I got a bit higher up on the hill and things improved.

Selfie with glacier glasses

Some Carneddau horses

Difficult terrain near the stream

A rare beam of sunlight on the plateau


I was following some footsteps, and suddenly two of its makers came into view. They had decided to go back because the snow was too deep. And while later I found the last person who had contributed to them; she was sitting on a rock enjoying a snack. It turned out she was Bangor University physical oceanography alumnus, and had worked in wave energy. That was cool!

When I moved on I soon found the place where she had turned back. It was an impressive hole in the snow! But I pushed on. And soon I hid the steepest slopes I had considered negotiating. It took me up rather fast, but that meant ending up with my head in the clouds, seeing nothing. I didn't think that was a good idea. So I took off my snowshoes, traversed to the edge, cast a look into the valley below, had a drink, and then traversed back and onwards. My idea was to get to the eastern side of the valley, and walk back that way, so my walk would be a loop. Soon I had to put the snowshoes back on. The snow was incredibly deep and soft! Even with snowshoes I sank down into it over a foot all the time. It was hard going! But after a while I reached easier terrain. And the sun started to reappear a bit. And there were skiers on the slope; it was fun to watch them.

Where the physical oceanographer had decided to turn back; notice the difference between snowshoes and no snowshoes…

Looking back down towards the sea

The sun returns a little bit! (When it was gone, photography wasn't very successful)

A bit of a comedy shot; you can just see me walk down, suspecting nothing, and then vanishing into the stream… 

The going was fairly easy until I got lower down on the slope again. There are terrain was again a pathless swamp with hidden streams, soft deep snow, boulder fields, and clumpy grass. That was a challenge! I was glad I saw a small creature (a weasel?) to make that part of the walk a bit more rewarding. And that some point I even vanished into the snow. I had fallen through the snow bridge over a small stream! It's not that easy to climb out again if the snow is almost half a metre thick and you are wearing snowshoes. But I did it. And I went on!

I was glad when I hit the path again. I had done enough difficult slogging through deep snow! I took off the snowshoes and walked out of the hills. The sky was already orange.

I had assumed that the roads in the village would have thawed by that hour, but no! It was interesting to walk back to Gerlan. Once I was there, though, the roads were okay. Except, of course, the very last bit: my own street! But I got home and could nestle on the sofa with a hot drink. These three hot flasks I had had with me had, of course, not been sufficient! And I was resigned to the weather warming up the next day. At least my street would be less treacherous! And I had had a good day in the snow. It's amazing you can do that sort of thing from your front door!

14 January 2021

Snow gets in the way

 We had had snow on the mountains for a fair while! And on the second last day of the year, it even snowed in the village. But that was just sleet and that vanished soon. But on Friday the eighth, it snowed again in the village, but this was more persistent. When I went out for my run, I stepped into the slush in the street, and I had to focus on not falling on my face rather than getting some exercise. It got better when I reached the path in the woodland. But that had really really slippery bits too! And when it rose significantly above the valley floor, things got really bad. It would have been okay for walking in walking boots, but for running it really was not a good idea. So for the first time since moving to this house I aborted my run and just went home! Not even storm Francis had managed that. I know that this snowfall would mean there would be a lot more proper snow in the hills, which would surely be something to be enjoyed on the Saturday, but for now it hindered me in my exercise. But that's okay! I can lose one day…

Not very good running conditions. And noticed the uncharacteristic amount of clothes…


13 January 2021

Two screens again

In October, I got me a new computer. I had used the old one with two screens. It is great that if, for instance, you are marking, you can have the student's submission on one screen, and an excel sheet with grades in on the other. Or, perhaps, have the student's submission open on one screen, and a downloaded version of the same document on another, so you can easily check the citations against the reference list. And then the excel sheet sharing the screen with one of these. Things like that! But the new computer didn't come with VGA ports, and it only had one HDMI port. And that was okay for connecting one screen, but I never managed to connect the other. I did buy VGA to DVI adapter, but I didn't manage to make that configuration work. And before I had managed to get help from our helpdesk, I signed off sick.

I managed with one screen while I was trying to get to grips with Dragon. But as soon as term started again, and the helpdesk was back in the office, I contacted them. One of the men did a remote login, and dug deep into my settings. But he couldn't manage it either! In the end he gave up and told me to come in with my old monitor and just trade it in for a different one. And that's what I did! They did make sure it had a DVI cable. And it turned out to be the same monitor as the other one, so now I have a beautiful symmetric setup.

When I plugged in the new monitor immediately came to life! That's how I like it. So now I can work again with my usual screen setup. It makes a big difference!

Success!


12 January 2021

Making decisions about field days and practicals

 The new year has started, and we need to make decisions about our teaching. And the crucial decisions, of course, are about face-to-face teaching. When we binned all our days in the field in spring, we assumed we would be back to normal in autumn. And by autumn, we thought we would be back to normal in spring. But this pandemic keeps calling the shots! What with this new strain, which is so infectious it is threatening London, I don't like the idea of herding people into a big bus and taking them to an interesting field location. And I don't think the people in question like that idea either! And I know vaccination has started, but they started with the elderly and those working in the NHS and social care, and these categories don't include students and staff in ocean sciences. So were at the back of the queue! And so we should be, but it does mean we can't assume vaccinations will make fieldwork safe until, well, I think at least the summer. So we have been deciding to bring several more excursions and practicals online. Is that ideal? No of course not. But is it safe? Heck yes! You can stuff as many people into an online classroom as you want. The virus won't get in! But I really hope that by the next academic year, we can take students into the mud, and up close and personal to rocks again. That's the real thing!

11 January 2021

Water meter

The neighbour mentioned to me one day that he had had a water meter fitted. He said that was just done for everyone who wanted one. If you have a water meter, then you only pay for the water you use, rather than for some estimated amount. I use a lot less, I think, than the average person. I don't shower very long or very often, I don't wash my car, I don't water the garden with drinking water, I don't flush the loo more often than necessary. So altogether I think I will save myself a lot of money if I have one installed. And once I have one, then maybe seeing how much I use will even inspire me to use even less.

It was a doddle to request one of those water meters. And very soon afterwards I was phoned by the organisation to make an appointment for the thing to be fitted. And they came to see where it should be installed. But then nothing happened for several months. But in early January, suddenly a Welsh water van appeared, and a lot of noise followed. 

A short while later there was a knock on the door. They were already done! The water meter was installed and ready. Some other people, probably surfacers, would show up within a few days to fill up the hole. And they did! And then all was sorted. I wonder what my first metered bill will be like…



10 January 2021

Thoughts on the legacy of 2020

I think everyone agrees that 2020 was a remarkable year. And it is possible that its influence will be felt for a long time. On the other hand, it is possible that as soon as everyone has been vaccinated, we all go back to what things were like before. I suppose we will have to wait and see!

I personally think some things will change. One thing that I think is here to stay is working at home. Some people don't like it at all, but some people really take to it. And a lot of employers have previously been very resistant to the idea. Mine included! But if you have just demanded from your employees that they work at home for about a year, you can't maintain your resistance. I think that from now on, people who want to work at home at least some of the time will just be able to do that. Me included! And I also think that quite some companies will take the opportunity to reduce the amount of real estate today own. If fewer people work in an office, you don't need that much expensive office space! I wonder if the University will do something like that too.

I wonder if people will also change the way they greet each other. I could imagine that people are reluctant to hug and kiss, and stay that way for so long the new habits will have formed before the pandemic is over. We'll have to see!

University education is also likely to never be the same again. Our management had been encouraging us for years to modernise our teaching, but we are always chronically overworked and we never got around to it. But now we suddenly had to! I don't think this will really be the end of the classical lecture ("the sage on the stage") but it sure will be a rare kind of event. And I personally really like uploading my recorded lectures, and then seeing the students for some discussion session of sorts. And I not the only one!

I also think that the flight to the countryside might not be reversed. If working at home becomes more normal, people can live further away from the office, because they don't have to go there that often. The newspapers were full of articles about people fleeing the big cities and trying to buy property in nearby villages. And a friend of mine, who lives in a tiny village some 20 miles up the road from here, said that all the houses that had been for sale in that village had got snapped up in no time at the beginning of the pandemic. Yes it is possible that some people who move to the countryside end up missing the cultural life in the city, and then want to go back, but I think it is more plausible they'll stay!

To be honest, this pandemic has made my choice of house even better. When I first saw it on Rightmove, I disregarded it as I thought it was too big. I later decided that people didn't come up with the slogan "location, location, location" for nothing, and that I was never going to find a house that was that cool in such a perfect location. And then I ended up working at home for a year! That extra bedroom, which became my office, sure came in handy. And when I thought I was going to lose my job, I figured I didn't really have a reason to live this close to the cycle path any more, but then I didn't end up losing my job, and I expect to be commuting again before this year is over. So then the house is perfect again! But I think I am digressing. But if I ever want to sell this house, I think I will manage, as I have tried and tested it, and it is a perfect pandemic house.

At the moment, it so happens everyone is more preoccupied with what 2021 is already throwing at us; this might be an even weirder year than 2020! But then I suppose they might go down in history as a really weird two-year period. I might have to write another post like this in 12 months' time…

09 January 2021

Back to work

On January 4, it finally happened! I properly went back to work. My phased return started after the training ended, put the training only ended half a day before the Christmas holiday. So I think a bit of rounding off is in order here! And of course I had been doing some work, mainly in order to get good at using Dragon, but that felt different. Even though I marked an entire assignment, I was mainly doing it in order to be so proficient with the voice recognition software that I could hit the ground running when the new term would really start.

So how did it go? It immediately felt normal again. I expect that was bound to happen! And I indeed hit the ground running. I negotiated all the software by voice. And it wasn't without its challenges; I think I crashed Excel at least six times the first day alone, as it doesn't seem to like being operated by voice, but I think I now know what to avoid. And these first days of the year tend to be low in scheduled activities, so the difference between my holiday marking and the real deal was small.

I did reluctantly go back to my normal runs, which are not too long so as to not take too much time out of the working day.

I now have a bucket load of lectures to prepare, virtual field trips to sort, practicals to take online, marking to do, and projects to propose. And soon the student enquiries will come in! It will be full on. But what else is new! As long as I can do it all by voice I am sure I will get out of this term a lot better then I did with the previous one…


08 January 2021

Miscellaneous walks and runs

 I am still out everyday, generally for a run, but sometimes for a walk. I am not going to blog about every single occasion, but it having been the Christmas holiday I have been able to do some unusual routes! When I am back at work I will have to make do with adventures of limited duration. But the amount of time available combined with the beautifully wintry conditions here created some good photo opportunities. So I just thought I'd plonk some pictures here. So that others can enjoy them too!

picture from a walk a long time ago with Kate

After that walk I decided to drink some tea with a view on a slate quarry

The spoil heaps of said quarry

A lovely view uphill into Nant Ffrancon

A dramatic sky I ran underneath; this was the middle of the day! And I was on my road shoes but I didn't fall on my face...

Happy in the hail

The snowy Carneddau in the distance

On the last day before going back to work on January 4 I went into the snow! Headed for y Drosgl. These little dots are skiers!

Frosty rocks

 the snowy Valley I had been in on the last day of the year

The day coming to an end, and with that, the Christmas holidays


07 January 2021

Dragon: a review

I have been dictating to my computer since October. I started in Word, and then soon after switched to the Microsoft voice recognition software. But when I still ended up with awful RSI, the University offered me Dragon. I only got trained up in that literally a few hours before the end of term, so it hasn’t quite been put to the test yet, but I am using the Christmas holidays to get used to it. As soon as I have to go officially back to work, I will need all the skills I can have! My arms are getting better with regards to heavy work, but it still only takes a handful of mouse clicks or other mouse manipulations to make my arms hurt. I really need to be able to use Dragon to not use my arms at all!

So what is my verdict so far? Well, I don’t really see why anyone would still want to type text if they have access to Dragon. You can even get away with not typing if you only have Word dictate, or Windows speech recognition. It works quite well, and quite often, the correct function is quite good. For instance, earlier in this paragraph I said “access”; it is quite thinkable that the computer will think I am actually saying “excess”. Windows speech recognition is quite good at taking that possibility into consideration. If it’s misunderstood something you said, and you say “correct that”, you tend to get a long list of possible options. The problem is, though, that you probably also get lots of impossible options. I mean, I am not famous for articulating, but sometimes windows speech recognition really goes to town with making a dog’s breakfast of what I said. And you can spell things, but that can be a bit cumbersome. If you just list the letters, it tends to confuse between P and B, and M and N and such. I seem to be physically unable to articulate so well the computer understands I am pronouncing a P. So then the only option is the NATO alphabet. And that can be a bit cumbersome!

The thing that really infuriated me, though, was that sometimes the computer just doesn’t get it when you are making a choice. It gives your options as a numbered list, and you just give the number, and say okay. But it happened quite often that I wanted, say, option two, only for the computer to ask “what was that?”, and taking about ten turns to understand my increasingly impatient “two!” But in the end, you always get there.

And in Dragon? Well, my experience is that it is better in understanding you the first time around. If you make it correct things, it tends to give you a very limited list of alternative options. The good thing, though, is that it understands spelling a lot better. I can just list the letters, and nine out of ten times, that works flawlessly. NATO alphabet not often needed!

So that was dictating text to Word. What about everything else? Well, one thing I really like about Dragon is that you can open a dictation box in different programs. In a dictation box, you can manipulate text to your heart’s desire, and only transfer it to the programme you’re in when you’re satisfied. So you can spell out difficult URLs in the address bar of a web browser, or you can write and edit an email in Outlook, or any of that. Windows can’t do that, so I was always composing text in Word, and copying it over into whatever it needed to go into. Dragon is a lot more user-friendly that way!

And what about moving around in a web browser or in file Explorer or any of that? Well, whatever programme I am using, I still find that cumbersome. When I was just using Dragon, I found it harder than when using Windows speech recognition. With the latter program, you can just ask “show numbers” and you see everything you could click on. If you then just name the number you want and say “okay” then you get there. It doesn’t always work; sometimes the programme recognises several options lying on top of each other, and then it can be hard to find the one you need, as it can be at the bottom. And if there are too many options, it can be hard to make yourself understood. The programme is likely to understand you when you say “13” but that likelihood is smaller when you say “876”. So it’s not perfect, but it is very useful! And Dragon doesn’t do it. I found it devilishly difficult to move around a browser with Dragon alone. I tend to use the web version of email, so that was a browser too, and it was deeply frustrating. Whatever I seemed to say, the computer interpreted it as me wanting to archive arbitrary mails. It was infuriating! I found out that that doesn’t happen if you use the desktop app, so that’s what I do now, but for some reason that displays my emails in some awkward way and I haven’t managed to rectify that. But at least, I can say things such as “previous message” without all my emails vanishing into the archive.

For a while I just had both voice recognition programs open, switching regularly between them; using Windows voice recognition for clicking things, and Dragon for the rest. But then I got SpeechStart! And that replaces that function. And it does it better than windows! It recognises the times in Adobe reader, for instance. Windows doesn’t, as far as I can tell. So now I can manage with only Dragon and SpeechStart. But I still can’t use web email without detrimental effects.

If you don’t manage to select what you want using SpeechStart, though, you can still find a way in Dragon; you can either ask for a mouse grid, which divides your screen in various rectangles that become smaller with every iteration, and then just ask it to click on the rectangle of your choice. Or you can manipulate the mouse around. You can tell it to move in one of eight directions. And both these options are really slow, but they allow you to click anything you might want to click.

I also still find negotiating file Explorer difficult with whichever software I use. I hope practice makes perfect! As you can’t really do your job without rummaging around in your files. And if you have to make your mouse move around to get the right directories, things take forever. And if things are not working well, the temptation is there to just grab your mouse and get things over with. And I should not give in to that temptation! A mouse is for emergencies only.­ I need to find a new balance in which I can work normal hours without hurting my arms!

 

06 January 2021

Looking back on a strange year

 The year 2020 is over! And what a year it was. It didn't start very well for me, due to 2019 ending with the bullying episode with the Thursday nighters. So my first mission was to deal with that! And that wasn't easy, as much as I would have liked to let it just slide off me like water from a duck. It just kept bugging me. But in the end, I managed to let go. I noticed it was dominating my runs, when my brain isn't occupied with anything else, and it can return to things that bother me. But I don't want my lovely runs to be blighted by unpleasant thoughts! So the only thing I could do was somehow shrug it off. In the end I managed. I have noticed that with other things; when I run, things that bother me have free rein. Paradoxically, I can't run from them when I'm running! So then I have to face them, and make a concerted effort to just lift them out of my head and leave it behind. I am still practising! But it's a very useful skill. I suppose I need to get even better at that in 2021.

Then, of course, the big event of 2020 hit. In short succession, it went from something happening on the other side of the world, to something that stopped people from travelling internationally, to something that made us have to practice social distancing, to something that sent us home from the office. And I thought it was going to be for a few weeks! I just couldn't imagine this would go on for months on end. Little did I know.

Working at home was something I needed to get used to; normally I see colleagues every single day. Now I saw nobody. I didn't like it in the beginning! And there are aspects of it I never liked. I like the casual contact you can have when you are on campus. Just popping in to see if someone else also has Internet problems. Or just discussing grades with teaching administration in person. Any of that sort of things! But after the initial period of adjustment, I quite took to it. I like my house! And I like being able to have lunch in my own garden. And the initial tight restrictions, where you were not allowed to use your car for leisure purposes, made me explore my surroundings like I never had before.

Working at home, of course, had a problem; we were not allowed to bring our computers home, so I did several months on my laptop. And that wasn't ideal! And I developed RSI. And the work stress was considerable; we suddenly had to make all our teaching for the new academic year covid-compatible. That is a heck of a lot of work!

In summer I managed to scoot to the Netherlands in the short window in which there were no travel restrictions. I am so glad I went!

Then summer was over, and the strangest academic year ever started. I was nervous! We had never done anything like this before. But then we had the first sessions, and it looked like we were pulling it off. I was chuffed! And I felt like we were all banding together to deliver the best we could to the students. Even though my arms hurt, I felt positive.

Then the bombshell hit. Me and my closest colleagues were singled out for job losses! We were basically told we were not needed. There went my feeling of all together pulling off an amazing feat. It was pretty harsh. And this was as well around the same time that I was phoning my GP, pretty much in tears, because I felt I needed help with my arms. These two things together were not good.

Then the strange period followed in which I was sick at home, coming to terms with not being able to do any job I would qualify for, facing losing the job I had, and all of that while brexit was looming. That was trying! But then I heard I wasn't losing my job, and that I would get voice recognition software plus concomitant training, and things looked up.

And then it pretty much was Christmas holiday. A strange Christmas! But, in spite of 2020, an enjoyable one.

So how will I look back on this year? I am sure it will forever be one that stands out. And it was trying! But I learned so much. I learnt to better deal with things that really bother me. I thought I already knew how to enjoy my own company, but I have taken that to the next level. I have learnt so much about my direct surroundings. I have learned how to provide online learning. I have learnt to come to terms with my permanent job not being permanent at all. And I have made plans regarding what to do if I leave academia. I think I am mentally prepared! And I have learned that I now have such power over my mental health that life can throw quite a lot of things at me and I will still come out on top. I know life was only threatening my health, my financial situation, and my status as a foreigner in a country that prides itself on its hostility, and that life can throw much worse at people. But still. I mean, only my arms were hurt; the rest of my body was working fine. Except for one cousin with long Covid, the pandemic has left those near me pretty much alone. But I still take strength from having weathered this.

So what now for 2021? I intend to become so good at voice control I pretty much don't have to use a mouse at all for the entire year. And I hope I will get vaccinated. And I hope everybody else does too! And I hope I will be back working full-time in no time. But that I will have the wisdom to not work myself an injury for an employer who might just as well turn around and decide they don't need me. And I hope I will get to see, and hug, the people again I wish I could have seen and hugged last year! Stay tuned…


PS I also learned Dragon can't decide whether it's "learned" or "learnt"!

05 January 2021

Saying goodbye to 2020

When my sister and I didn't get around to playing post-dinner game on Boxing Day, we decided to do it some other time over the Christmas holidays. And then I thought of New Year's Eve! And she was available. That was cool! New Year's Eve sorted. But I also wanted to do something during the day. And we had had a lot of snow on the hills. The weather hadn't been particularly good for going into it, but at some point you just need the make the most of it, whatever the weather. So I had decided that the 31st was going to be the day I would venture out. So I packed my bag full of hot flasks and set off. To be on the safe side, I had both my crampons and my snowshoes with me. I had to go alone due to covid restrictions, and one has to be careful. And it would be cool to use the snowshoes; they have been semi-retired for years. I did make sure to have extra straps with me! Materials can get brittle over the years.

I had chosen a rather smooth valley, where the clear path soon vanishes, and you're then left to pick your way through a rather swampy valley with lumpy grass. That is exactly the sort of terrain that is easier to negotiate if you can just stomp over the top of all of that, buoyed by snow.

I decided to do the first bit on bicycle; the advantage of that is that as soon as you are back in the village you can just zip home on your bike. Even within the village we have nice public footpaths, but still, it's not the best part of the route. But when I got to some 200 m above sea level, the road got so icy I had to park up. Oh well! That was about where I wanted to park anyway. I somehow managed to negotiate the last few hundred metres of asphalt and then I was out of town.

The first thing I came across, was lots of families with small children having fun sledging. That was so cool to see! But I moved on. And later I bumped into a family I knew. They had the exact same plan! We chatted a bit, and then we each went our way. I could hear their sledging squeals for quite a while!

Soon I put my snowshoes on. The snow was soft and slushy here; would snowshoes help? The answer was no. Slush doesn't provide enough buoyancy. So I took them off again. I had noticed one strap indeed needed replacing.

Where the clear path ends I put them back on. Here they came into their own! I could just walk straight ahead without minding too much where I put my feet. In the meantime, visibility wasn't good. I knew that was going to happen, of course, but it was a bit of a pity. I decided to not make it a long walk. When it started snowing I decided to head uphill and then walk back that way. And visibility was so bad at some point I stepped into a gully I hadn't seen, even though it clearly was right in front of me. That's what you get in a white-out!

I kept climbing until I reached the leat, and then walked back. When I passed a nice rock I sat down for lunch. While I was eating, the world seem to re-emerge from the whiteness! That was nice. I walked back in much better weather. But when I got home, things got bad again and we had some more sleet.


view close to the village

a rare beam of sunshine

a rare view!

the view is starting to vanish

this is when it came back

After dinner I video-called my sister. I had got the game ready! We would play Gruble. It's probably called something else in this country, but I have the Norwegian version. And my sister has the Finnish one! The idea is it gives you a category and a letter, and you have to think of as many words as possible in that category starting with that letter. And then you get to argue about which words are actually valid. It's loads of fun! And we play with liberal rules; any language goes. I trust her on the Finnish and she trusts me on the Welsh. That does mean, though, that certain letters give one of us an advantage; for instance, Finnish doesn't really do G or B, while Welsh doesn't do K or V. Hopefully, it all averages out!

I noticed I was using English and Dutch in about equal measure; I only used Welsh for body parts, insults and weather features. And a TV programme. My weather features, by the way, featured four terms for heavy rain, and one for thick fog! One wonders where I have lived my entire life. And I barely used Norwegian. But then again, I normally don't.

Sometimes the most fun we have is when we reject terms. My sister didn't accept "weak coffee" as office accoutrements!

I also learned that the Finns have a word for an unspecified place! That is so useful. I think I'll steal that, even though it will only be my sister who will understand what I am talking about when I am using it. But that's okay!

We stopped when it was about 10:30 where she was. It had been a good evening! And when I would wake up the next morning, 2020 would be over…

04 January 2021

2020 breaking a long tradition

 At some point in 1993, my sister went abroad for a year. We had always been close, so I wanted to keep communicating, and I started writing her. And when she came back I didn't stop. We didn't stop for decades! I have several ring binders full of letters. But then I went off sick with RSI, and didn't want to use my hands. Writing letters is difficult without hands! And we sometimes use more modern applications, but that requires typing. Unless you don't type, but record your voice! I still haven't figured out how to dictate in any other language than English to my phone, so if I am contacting people in any other language, I have to use voice messages. And I had been dictating a bit in English to her, but that felt weird, as that's not the language we normally communicate in. But the voice messages turned out to be a rather good idea!

I haven't sent her a letter since I signed off sick. But I have sent her more voice messages than you can shake a stick at! And these messages are more ephemeral. I won't put these in a ring binder. But there is something quite personal about hearing someone's voice. So even though I am certain I'll restart the writing at some point, because it lends itself to lengthy ponderings, I quite like this new habit. We can't travel these days, so we can't physically be together, but what we clearly can do is make more use of modern communications! As far as I am concerned, these voice messages will stay.

03 January 2021

Christmas

My house had been decorated and I had Christmas plans. I was going to have dinner with my Dutch friends, in person, and have another dinner with my sister in Helsinki on a screen. And then the authorities were so worried about the infection rate that they tightened the rules even further. The screen dinner would not be affected of course, but would the dinner in person still happen? But the answer was: yes! It would have to take place on Christmas Day, is that would be the only day I would be allowed to visit them, but that was fine. So my Christmas was intact!

But there is more to Christmas Day than food. I wanted to get on landscape magic in! So on Christmas Day I put lunch into my bag and set off fairly early. I was allowed to bike some distance and walk from there, so that is what I did! I wanted to check out another one of the small hanging valleys in Nant Ffrancon, so I biked to it and parked up. On turning into that road I thought I needed to rescue a crow, as it was flapping around and banging into some street furniture; I thought it had become ensnared and couldn't get away. But when I approached, it just flew up. Then I understood; the street furniture was a mirror, and it had just been attacking its own reflection! Silly bird. But I was glad of it, especially as I realised I didn't have anything sharp on me.

Anyway; I got to my intended parking spot, and set off. I was in the little valley in no time! I suppose the road climbs a bit so the distance between it and the valleys gets smaller when you move further upstream. I sat myself on a rock to decide what to do. I could see two plausible options; there were two saddles you could climb to and then end up on the ridge. One seems to lead only to a place from which it would be difficult to move on, but the other one didn't, and it looked easy to then descend into the next valley upstream. So I went for it! There was no path or anything like it, so the going was a bit slow, but I got there. The ground was frozen and there was a dusting of snow.

the valley seen from below

the actual valley; notice the passes left and right

some decorative icicles I saw along the way


Anyway; I got to my intended parking spot, and set off. I was in the little valley in no time! I suppose the road climbs a bit so the distance between it and the valleys gets smaller when you move further upstream. I sat myself on a rock to decide what to do. I could see two plausible options; there were two saddles you could climb to and then end up on the ridge. One seems to lead only to a place from which it would be difficult to move on, but the other one didn't, and it looked easy to then descend into the next valley upstream. So I went for it! There was no path or anything like it, so the going was a bit slow, but I got there. The ground was frozen and there was a dusting of snow.

It was lovely to stand on the ridge! The views were amazing. And indeed, the descent on the other side was easy. I just zigzagged down the grassy slope. The valley I ended up in was beautiful, but I could tell it was also quite swampy. Now the ground was mainly frozen so it was okay! But this may be a bad valley for autumn.

Regularly sitting down for a coffee I made my way down. I came across a herd of about 20 goats. I enjoyed that! They are a good-looking bunch. And I started receiving WhatsApp messages from my Dutch sister, who was also on a Christmas walk. That was nice! And then I was back on the road. I wasn't far from my bike and I enjoyed the walk back. It was noon when the reached the bike, so it had been a modest walk, but I had enjoyed it! And now it was time to hit the kitchen to get ready for the rest of Christmas.


Christmas selfie on the ridge

towering over the main valley below

view from the ridge into the next valley

inside the next valley with Llyn Cywion

on the way down, with Llyn Ogwen in the distance

herd of goats

double waterfall


When I was done in the kitchen I video-called my Dutch sister. I figured they were having pre-dinner drinks by then and I was right! They put the phone in the circle and I felt like I was there with them. That was lovely! And then it was time to have a shower, dress smartly, and head to Anglesey for my dinner.

When I arrived at Jaco and Marjan's house and walked in I noticed how unusual that had become. And normally I get to greet them with hugs (the UK way) and/or kisses (the Dutch way), and that wasn't happening, but it was still lovely. We had a good chat and lovely food. And then we just sat in the living room and listened to some music.

The next day we would be visited by storm Bella, so I didn't want to go for a walk. I went for a long trail run in the late morning, before the wind got too strong. Then I phoned my mum for some Christmas talk. And then I vanished into the kitchen for my three course meal with my sister! And I will benefit from this for a while, as both starter and mains were big enough for four. And I just managed to do the dishes before it was time to start the video call.

The storm had passed Finland by, so my sister had actually been on a walk. A long one! So she was tired. And not yet entirely ready. But that was okay! We just chatted a bit while she finished things off, and I opened a bottle of heather beer. And then we had our parsnip soup! And we took it easy. No need to rush. The second course was onion quiche with salad! That was nice too. And then we really had to wait a while until we had space for dessert. But we had enough to discuss in the meantime. I went to the living room (I can eat dessert without dinner table) where I lit both several candles and the woodfire. With the wind howling in the chimney it was extra snug!

It was cool to have the same dinner. And our initial plan had been to do a game after dinner, but that was a bit ambitious! With the two hour time difference, the three course meal, and my sister's after-walk fatigue, that just wasn't feasible. But that is okay; we decided to just have a separate video call for that. It was lovely to have made an occasion of it!

dining table is ready!

living room ready too!

Then we called it a day. Christmas was over! And I think that by standards of 2020, it had been a very good one!

02 January 2021

Amundsen's diaries

When I was in the Netherlands in summer, my sister lent me a book. She had been in Norway since the last time I saw her, and there she had bought an English translation of Amundsen's diaries. She thought I might be interested in that! And I was. I think these early polar expeditions were fascinating. And it was good too that these people survived. Reading, for instance, about the Franklin expedition is a bit bleaker. And in general I prefer to read books in the original language, but I know that my Norwegian and my Welsh don't go together well. If I try to speak Norwegian now, lots of Welsh pops up in it, and I'm sure that if I now read in Norwegian, the opposite effect will happen. So maybe English was a better choice!


Most of the book deals with Amundsen and his crew first travelling down to Antarctica, and then setting up a base camp. They leave Norway on June 7, but it takes them a while to get anywhere; Amundsen had had a new engine installed on the ship, and he intends to run it on something they call "solaroil", but he hasn't really tested the engine so by June 22 he decides it should run on petroleum  and he turns back to Norway. He is somewhere near Fair Isle by then. He is back in Bergen on July 10, and sets off with new fuel on August 9. It is a complete miracle he managed to get anywhere before anyone! And I personally would have insisted on trying out my new engine before I would take it to Antarctica. But I suppose people like me don't end up in the history books.

On January 13, they reach Antarctica and disembark. Then they go and build themselves a house. It is summer there then, but for not much longer, so they will set off during the next spring. That gives them a lot of time to faff! From that base camp they venture south and establish several luggage depots, with food and fuel and such. That allows them to travel a bit more lightly. 

I admired how self-sufficient these men were; they sew their own tents while they are on their way on the Fram. And when they are on Antarctica, they decided their sledges are too heavy and just make them lighter. They also make snow goggles. I don't think I would want to have to do that sort of things if I would have to take them to the South Pole! And rather have professionals make my equipment. But as I said; it's not me in the history books.

One thing that puzzles me about their time before they set off is the dogs. Firstly, quite a lot of the female dogs are pregnant when they set off (or maybe get pregnant on board), so a lot of puppies are being born. They have some hundred dogs! But when puppies are born, they throw the bitches overboard and keep the dogs. Why is that? Are they just being clangingly sexist? Do they only want dogs that cannot get pregnant during the actual trip to the South Pole? It is never explained; Amundsen just mentions it again and again without seeming to think an explanation is in order. And it still doesn't make sense to me; when they set off in the end they do have female dogs with them. And as well; during the entire expedition there are so many dogs that either die, or get ill and are shot that you would think you want to keep some females as without them, you don't get more dogs!

The other thing about the dogs is that Amundsen makes a lot of scatological observations. He repeatedly mentions his surprise at the fact that soon as one of the dogs takes a dump, the other dogs come running and eat the turd. Once the men are on land and not crapping into the sea any more, the dogs do the same with the humans. I am less surprised as on Greenland I learned that that just is something these sledge dogs do!

I am also interested, of course, in what Amundsen thinks of the glaciological features he sees. He makes his base camp on an ice shelf, and the big one at that. He then has to travel all the way to its start before he can continue on Antarctic land. But he has no idea what an ice shelf is! The northern hemisphere doesn't have much in the way of these things. He just calls it a barrier. Due to the nature of an ice shelf, it ends in a cliff, so that understandable. I wonder now when people realised what ice streams and ice shelves were. And discussing that made me realise I have no idea what an ice shelf is in Dutch. Neither do my dictionaries. 

He also regularly claims he is travelling over dead glaciers. But he is travelling over the approach to the Ross Ice Shelf! How is there any dead ice there? Things move like the clappers in that area! This is one of those things that I would have brought up during a lunch break with glaciologically knowledgeable colleagues. But what can I say. This is not the time for it!

By page 281 it's September 8, and they finally set off. But it is a little bit like them sailing from Norway; they don't get far. It is really cold and Amundsen thinks they won't make it this way. They turn back four days later. And they will wait for better weather. But something interesting happens during these few days; on all these 281 pages, Amundsen is full of praise for all his men, and for how they collaborate. He says there is never any discordance at all. But when he gets back to the house, he knows two of his men are lagging behind a bit, and are likely to only reach it next day. He doesn't think that is a problem; they have all they need in their luggage. On top of that, the bloke he travels with has some frostbite, and he is keen to get him into the house and start treating that. But when the next day the last two men appear, one of them is angry for having been left behind; his mate had frostbite too, and he thinks that it was a failure in leadership they were left to fend for themselves. This is the only conflict Amundsen mentions in the entire book. He immediately decides that the angry bloke will not join him on the actual trip to the South Pole. That doesn't mean he has to sit there and twiddle his thumbs; some of the men are intended to do some surveying, and this bloke is now one of them.

I was extra interested in this incident as the bloke was Hjalmar Johanson. And when I was working in Norway, the Institute I worked at was at Hjalmar Johanson Street. I had asked people who this Hjalmar Johanson was, and they had said he was one of the companions of Amundsen. No one had mentioned he had been the only bad guy in Amundsen's eyes! Wikipedia is some interesting things to say about how this man ended up on this expedition in the first place. He still got a road named after him!

Anyway. They wait for better weather, and finally set off on October 20. Then all works out! And then the book suddenly speeds up. They stormed to the South Pole, which they reach on December 14. They leave the tent that Scott will later find, and then go home again. That all goes rather smooth; the thing most worth mentioning is that they find dog footprints at some of the depots they have left along the way. Some of the dogs have run away in the months they spent on the continent, and most come back, but not all do. These are assumed dead. But now they find footprints and signs of their depots having been tampered with, and they realise some most have survived! And even though there is evidence for some of the dogs earlier on having gone off and independently, and successfully, hunted seals, I don't think these poor dogs would have made it through their first winter on their own.

Once they get back to the ship they want to leave as soon as they can; they want to get to infrastructure and send telegrams to people such as the King of Norway. They get back to base on January 26; sail on January 30; and get to Hobart on March 7. There they let the world know what they have done. And there the book pretty much ends; a report of the rest of the trip is not given. But I suppose the interesting bit is over by then. They get back to Oslo in June.

One thing worth mentioning, I suppose, is that the book is absolutely festooned with pictures. Photography already existed and they sure made use of it! It is quite amazing to see actual images taken there and then. It was quite the trip! And it is not difficult to see why Amundsen is such a prominent Norwegian hero. And he didn't stop there, of course; in the end he died trying to rescue some unfortunate other polar explorers. A hero's death, ending a hero's life! And more heroes should keep diaries…

01 January 2021

Saying goodbye to colleagues

 When the University decided it was in financial trouble because of the pandemic, it offered voluntary redundancy to its staff. In the School of Ocean Sciences, two people took it. One was my very close colleague Suzie, and the other one was a biologist I hadn't worked closely with, but who I liked, called Adel. And it was a pity they were leaving during a pandemic! Normally, we have a little function in the coffee room for people who leave, and who are partial to such event. But that couldn't happen. We didn't want to let the occasion go by unnoticed, though, so one of my colleagues decided to organise a little get-together on the beach, on the last day before the Christmas holiday.

The original time had been 11. But on the day before, the message came that the only predicted dry interval was earlier than that, so the time was moved forward to 9:15. Then when I arrived on the parking lot by the beach it was bucketing down. A pity! But it wouldn't stop me. In the room or people it didn't stop. About 10 people, clad heavily in Gore-Tex, appeared. One even carried a baby. And there were four dogs! And when we thought we were complete, we set off along the beach. It even stopped raining quite soon. It was not quite aware of the goodbye to two cherished colleagues, but it was the best we could do given the circumstances.


When we got to the landward end of Llanddwyn Island, which most often is a peninsula, but which actually was an island right then, about half the people peeled off. Adel had a ferry to catch, the baby seemed unimpressed by the weather, and a few more such reasons caused people to leave. And with the rest we looped back through the woods.

We lost one more in the woods to his car being parked elsewhere, and back at the cars we lost the last dog-owner as the dog wanted to go home. That left three! Including Suzie. And with that small company we sat down at a picnic table, took out flasks of coffee and tupperware with cake, and had a last chat. It was nice! But the rain was clearly coming in and it was time to go home.

When we get back to work after the Christmas holidays, it will be weird to do that without Suzie! She has been here longer than I have, so it will be strange without her. But we'll cope. And I hope to keep seeing her as a friend! I was never that close with Adel, so she'll just be a good memory, but I hope she'll be happy where she is going.

The next day, a new lockdown was announced, which would come into force that midnight. I was glad we could say goodbye to these ladies in person, as only two days later, an event like that would have been illegal. I hope both ladies are starting an amazing new phase of their lives!