29 November 2010

No orienteering

In Norway I had a colleague who would go orienteering. The idea is that people give you a map with certain points indicated, and you have to get to these in a certain order, and who does all their points the fastest wins. It's thus a sort of cross-over between map reading and cross-country running. As a former girl scout and a current geographer I should be able to pull off the former, and having taken up running in this country the latter should be fine too. Futhermore, Ferret does orienteering, so that offers a nice introduction. The day was approaching when there was an excellent opportunity to give it a try. And then the Met office issued a weather warning. No orienteering! But that does not mean one has to stay indoors. We just went for a walk.

It was a beautiful day! Nice and crisp, and no sign of any reason for a weather warning. We went where the orienteering would have taken place, which happened to also be the park where Ferret had been a tree surgeon. That meant he had something to say about every tree we passed, with as a bleak centrepiece the one he once almost used to accidentally hand over his soul to the afterlife authorities. There's at least two of these almost-lethal trees in this town!

In Kingsand (see picture above) we had a noon pint, after which we headed for Penlee Point. As Ferret had promised, this was beautiful! Ragged rocks, a dubious chapel-or-folly, rock pools with strange life in it. The works! Now it was my turn to get distracted every meter (sigmoidal extensional fractures! Several deformation phases!), and as if that wasn't bad enough the cliffs were good for a bit of a scurry and clamber around.

I did manage to control myself in the end, though, and we went back, through the Deer Park, making sure we were in good time for the last ferry back. In good enough time for yet another pint. Very English, perhaps, though not in line with the healthy spirit of the rest of the day. It might have been my corrupting influence.

The deer park lived up to its name

Drake Island in the late sun, and in the distance the slightly snowy hills of Dartmoor

It was a much more quiet and responsible day than I had expected. And I regretted not ending up running like mad through mud and snow, but I got to keep the company, and that way it was a splendid Sunday! And the running like mad through mud, though most likely not snow, hopefully will happen another day.

28 November 2010


"Happy thanksgiving!" she said, when she gave me a hug. It was clear that for her this was quite a normal thing to say (on this date, anyway), while for me this was a first timer. But that was good!

In the recent year we had a veritable flood of new lecturers, and one of them, Pete, had been living in California for many years before joining us in Plymouth. He had clearly become somewhat American. And he had brought a charming American lady with him. Together they had decided it would be a good thing to celebrate Thanksgiving in Plymouth; the town from which the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed in the Mayflower. It was their survival, after all, that inspired the initial thanks. So Pete and Sabrina invited their colleagues (especially those with a tie with the USA) to come and celebrate with them. And I was fortunate to be one of the invited.

I wondered a bit about the nature of this celebration. Thanksgiving is a bit of a strange thing, as the colonists owed their survival to the local Indians, and we all knew what happened to them. Furthermore; these Pilgrim Fathers had left for these regions only because they found Europe insufficiently religiously rigid and humourless. So Thanksgiving boils down to celebrating the survival of miserable Calvinists at the expense of indigenous people. Yet, hundreds of years have turned it into a celebration of friendship and a feeling of community. A very ambiguous event!

I tried to stay true to both sides of the story. I considered myself the most plausible Calvinist of all present, as I may be an agnostic born from agnostics born from a lot of Catholics and a Lutheran (as far as I know), yet I at least had been born and bred in proper Calvinist territory. So I baked a quiche with an ichthus on top, brought my 16 Horsepower/Woven Hand collection, and told several infidels they would burn in hell. But at the same time I greatly enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts, and the splendid company of the other guests. The evening was somewhat darkened by the arrival of bad news, but there probably was no better place to cope with bad news than this festive abode.

A picture taken from their house on an earlier occasion

The food was excellent, the wine plentiful, and I must say, I am taken by the thought of this American tradition, though I think it is not more than fair to keep in mind at what cost it came about. Wampanoag, you are not forgotten. But if all who have descended from the original disease-spreading colonists would be as hospitable and lovely as Pete and Sabrina then that would make the world a better place!

27 November 2010

Master of Research

Three days before we left for Portugal, to do fieldwork, we got ourselves an MRes student to accompany us. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical, as we would initially get another student; but that one kept changing her mind on what it actually was she wanted, and in the end she withdrew. So at the very last minute, when I had gotten somewhat fed up with students, we got this other one. So it started out on less than perfect ground, but how things would change!

Emily, for her it was, would do her master's project on the material we would gather there, in the sun-baked Iberian marsh. So after the fieldwork we would see her in the lab a lot, sweating away at a decidedly tough project. She performed practically any analysis on that material one possibly could: microfossil analysis; grain size analysis; organic and anorganic carbon content measurements; X-ray diffraction; lead-, caesium- and americium-dating; the works. And Wil, her supervisor (officially it was Roland but he was on sabbatical), had her do most of that at a resolution at least double what is commonly obtained.

That alone would have make weaker spirits quit. But not Emily! The sheer bulk of the work was the least of the challenges hurled at her. But she pulled through, and submitted a thick and elaborate master's thesis. She submitted exhausted, and knowing she would have liked to do more final polishing, but she submitted. And along the line, through all the hours in the lab, and the many coffees we drank, she became a valued friend. She even brought me dinner in the lab (or rather, in the coffee room near the lab) one night when I was working almost as hard as she was. And she even joined me caving one day! Unfortunately (for us), though, she moved to Oxford, so that'll stay a one-timer.

Here in England, submitting your thesis is not the end of it: you have to defend it against an external examiner. So when that day came I went to the room where I knew this event would take place, to wish her strength. To my surprise she asked "are you coming in?". I answered I assumed that was not allowed. But being the practical soul she is she just asked, and to my surprise I was kindly invited in. My chance to witness an English viva! It is quite a nice way of drawing a line under such a project. The examiner was a kind and very knowledgeable man, who was genuinely interested in the project, and that showed in his questions. And that Emily answered them well is hardly something I need to mention, I presume. So now the waiting is for her grade. But I think what's more important than that is that she proved she battles on, no matter what you throw at her! I wish her all the luck in her further, and undoubtedly glorious, career...

26 November 2010

Taxi Driver

Can one live to be 34 without ever seeing Taxi Driver? Apparently! It's such an iconic film, but I had never come around to watch it. And then there was a lecture about it. If there's anything that will inspire you to see a film then that would be it. So I borrowed the DVD from the lecturer in question, got Till involved, and Federico, who also lectures about it but had never seen it either, failed to convince some other interested people, cooked some food, and then: off to the filthy streets of New York!

The movie is about the same age as me, but it still is as topical as ever, I'd say. Maybe even more than when it was made. Someone failing to see a purpose in life, and then resorting to some random act of importance, trying to become a martyr for a non-existent cause, and probably making things only worse for the rest of the world. That's quite modern, isn't it? I'm glad I finally saw it.

25 November 2010

Proper dig

Did I say proper? This trip was as inproper as a trip can be. I knew it was going to be like that when I was standing outside on the street, awaiting Dave, listening to the clock striking seven and knowing he couldn't possibly make it in time. I also knew Lionel, the famously impatient, would be there. And I knew Ali was the designated person to rig this trip and he would not be there. This was going to be interesting.

The plan was to split in two groups: one descending down the shaft on a rope, the other coming in through the adit, and then coming out on both sides of a collapse. We would then try to re-establish contact. But it didn't work out that way!

We arrived to a parking lot filled to the brim with people in caving gear ostentatiously pointing at their watches. I jumped out, jumped into my oversuit, shoved the rest of my kit in my backpack and stood to attention. By then it had become clear that Lionel had lived up to his reputation and buggered off already with some like-minded people. And, allegedly, the rope.

Dave was going to go into the adit, and desired to drive there, as it could be done. Unfortunately, he was the only one who knew the way, but some quick instructions got the walkers on the way as well. Regrouping where the car had to be left behind we found out the rope was in Lionel's car, and the other rope we had was just, or just not, long enough. So we abandoned the idea of coming in through the shaft and all went into the adit.

As soon as I stepped into the cold water I heard sounds. Lionel cum suis! Soon we reached the guys who were actively prying around in a big collapse. It looked serious, so the rest of us preferred to stay at a bit of a distance. Rick, Lionel and Finbar were using loose bits of tramrails as a sort of battering ram to poke through the collapse. They made quite some progress, but no actual breakthrough! That means they'll be back. It's easy to see why people choose not to engage in such activities, but I'm fascinated, so with a bit of luck I'll be there when they come back.

The adit; in the large version one can just see light at the end. The first group!

The men, seen through the fog, and their improvised battering ram

When I was not watching in a state of mild bewilderment at the somewhat defiant activities of the men I amused myself by running around trying to take pictures. The short lengths of tunnel we had at our disposal were clogged with cavers, as we had en enormous turnout this evening, and we hadn't counted on bringing them all to one and the same place. And then it was beer o'clock! And the pub fared well with our arrival. This trip had many things going wrong, but still, as far as I could see, everybody had a great time. That's how it should be!

A delapidated pump in one of the side tunnels

Behind the pump I found an undisturbed ochre floor. Pretty!

The pump seen from the other side

24 November 2010

Ad hoc climb

"Fancy a climb at Dart Rock 2nite?" One can tell I have modern friends! Though the most unlikely of people tend to abbreviate in their text messages. Anyway. I figured that would be a wild and mad night climb, until, an hour or so later, it suddenly dawned on me that "Dart Rock" may actually be a climbing centre. Less wild! But fun too.

I arrived at Ferret's place (for he had been the messenger) feeling like a wet newspaper, but the cold in the climbing hall woke me up again. We teamed up with an old friend of Ferret's, who had come along to a recent caving trip as well, and together we tried some routes. I felt all Norwegian! In my mind, climbing halls are Norwegian. And that is a good association! The old days with Tana (when they were still good) and Celia and Audun and all the others came back to me. The contrast between Audun's somewhat gung-ho approach, and Ferret's by-the-book safety mentality could not have been more striking. And (should I say "nevertheless" or "therefore?") we had fun! And the timing was excellent; coming up from Ludcott mine I felt I really lacked arm muscles. Strange, as I did not have that feeling coming up a much deeper shaft only a few weeks before that. But the best way to get arm muscles is climbing! And it was a bonus night of not being a workaholic nerd, but an active and social citizen. Splendid!

Ferret scaling the wall

23 November 2010

Uncharted territory

I might just have blogged about caving making you very welcoming towards cold, wet and muddy conditions, but a few days ago I got a message from the Cornish Mine Explorers: the Sunday trip was cancelled due to bad weather. What? Since when does anything stop these guys? Luckily we Devonians had another mine on our to do list: Ludcott mine. A few months ago we had found the shaft, and maybe this was a good moment to go in. Nobody had gone down there with permission for about 30 years! So five fast deciders gathered on a fresh Sunday morning, and were greeted by a sweaty man with a chainsaw in his hand. This executive gentleman lived right on top of the mine, and he wished us good luck.

I needed some that day; there is no path to this shaft, as nobody has any business there, and when I was struggling through the shrubs I managed to slap a branch of holly straight into my face. With force. Right into my eye! That hurt. While the men rigged I spent quite some time covering my teary eye with my hand and wondering how bad the damage was.

The whole idea of trying to find this mine had been Finbar's, who also was the one who knew the surface inhabitants, so when we had managed to rig this somewhat impractical shaft he had the honour of going first. I figured a sore eye is something to ignore, so I was second. And to my surprise, after Lionel there was no fourth! Dave and John decided to stay above ground.

Finbar on his way down

The sight that greets one just beyond the shaft

While Lionel was still coming down I had a quick look if the level that started at the bottom of the shaft went anywhere. I followed it to a T-junction and then came back. It looked promising! With the three of us we went on a proper exploration. Soon we had to conclude this mine is riddled with winzes, but most of them have at least some ridge on the side, and can be crossed. We also found another shaft; this one capped, and equipped with many remnants of mine engineering. I tried to take pictures of all that to show them to Dave, who had left his body and his mining knowledge at the surface. And amidst all that my eye did what I had hoped it would do: stop hurting. No serious damage then, luckily!

Finbar on a ledge beside the passable shaft

Beautiful staining on the wall
At one end of the mine we were stopped by a collapse. On the other side we were stopped by a ridgeless winze, behind which we saw the tantalising beginning of a tunnel going further. We would come back with means to get there! But now we would go back up.

We climbed out, and unrigged the place. And reported back to Mike (who had laid his chainsaw aside). He and his wife even made us a cup of tea. Maybe next time Mike will come with us! This was mine exploration grande stylee, thanks to our overhead hosts!

Lionel climbing back to daylight

A post-underground cup of tea, and lots of discussion and exchange of documents with information about the mine. I hope to come back there soon!

22 November 2010

Clay pit

Granite weathers. And if you're lucky, it becomes high quality china clay in the process. On the southwestern end of Dartmoor there's very large quarries where the stuff is mined. And I rode past these when I was enjoying the fruits of my seatpost labour. It was a great ride anyway; the scenery was beautiful, and the occasional showers kept the roads empty, the skies dramatic and the rainbows plentiful, but having a look at the clay pits was the icing on the cake.

When it started hammering down I found myself near a sheltering tree with a moss-covered, sub-horizontal trunk! Perfect.

Only one of the many rainbows that festooned the landscape on the way

I figured I had time for a stroll, so when I saw a sign "public footpath" at a nice spot I just parked the bike and had a look. From there you could walk onto the man-made flat hilltop, and climb the ramps of the clay pit! It's a strange landscape, but beautiful in its strangeness, and completed with an amazing view of the sea underneath the menacing clouds. I came across a bloke who was walking his two 18 year old dogs, but beside that I seemed to have the world to myself. And what a world!

This flat area looks quite natural on the picture, but it's all man-made, and many meters above the natural topography of this place

Self-portrait with man-made pond in the background

The active clay pit, with decorative blue pond.

Where clay is mined the water may be white!

This artificial landscape can acquire amazing erosional shapes

21 November 2010

Project Seatpost: victory!

I had already looked up on internet what you do if a seatpost is too small. I had started to believe in Murphy as the orchestrator of this project! But the bike shop punctually announced the arrival of a seatpost that turned out to fit like a glove. Mission accomplished! I made sure I used lots of lubricant to minimise the chance of this one instantly corroding into place as well. And as soon as I've returned it it's out of my hands, and I know things may well start deteriorating immediately. But at least not on my shift!

This looks better than the decapitated post...

And see! It can move! Do notice the white stuff, which is the amply applied lubricant, as well...

The day after I finished I rode it to the caving club committee meeting. And I made sure I rode many times the necessary distance. I can officially confirm it's now a very comfortable bike! So there was no need at all to testride it in the weekend. But I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass me by; just because I can I took it on a many-hour-bikeride along the Moors. A pleasure. Let's hope Jon will be taken by the new configuration as well!

20 November 2010

Old lead

For modern, state-of-the-art science you need old church roofs. I didn't know that! We have a radionuclide lab here at university, and it can be used for things such as 137Caesium and 210Lead dating. Lead has lots and lots of isotopes, and most of them are unstable. The decay of 210Pb, which has a half-life of 22 years, is what we measure in the lab for dating purposes. If you try to measure the very weak signal you of course don't want background radiation to get in the way. And how do you shield something from radiation? With a big slab of lead. Lead? Didn't that have many isotopes, most of which unstable...

The gamma counter. Notice the thick slab of lead on top!

If you simply use lead to shield yourself from radiation that you use for something such as medical treatment you don't care if that lead sometimes emits a gamma "particle". But if that is exactly what you want to measure in your samples you do care! So how do they solve that? They use lead that's so old (many times the half-life of 22 years) it doesn't emit anything anymore. And that's where the church roofs come in! And there seems to be a company that does nothing other than sniff out old lead and sell it to the manufacturers of gamma counters and the likes! And church roofs seem to be their main source, but it seems one day the wreck of an old Spanish gallion that had been transporting, among other things, lead ingots was found... so they ended up in the laboratoria around the world! I thought that was a brilliant story.

Just a random find of a shipwreck with lead ingots. Source: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/archeosm/archeosom/en/plouma-s.htm. Picture: Photos : Yves Gladu, Michel L'Hour and Gérard Réveillac.

17 November 2010

A year of caving

Time flies when you're having fun! This week was my first anniversary of caving. That year ran past! I've had a lot of fun.

I came across caving by coincidence; being Dutch I had never heard of caving. And then, last autumn, I was talking with Rob the PhD student, and he mentioned caving. In a kind of sentence like "caving is for terrible, despicable people", but I just ignored the sentence and tasted the word "caving". That sounded like fun! I've always been attracted to the underground. So in spite of Rob's vigorous attempts to discourage me I googled "caving" and "Plymouth", and lo and behold, I found the Plymouth Caving Group. I phoned the chairman, which is Dave, asked if they took on new members, which they did, and the rest is history. And I must say, it changed my life.

It started with finding something fun and outdoorsish to do. I missed Norway, I missed getting physical, and caving is a physical thing to do in a hidden realm of England where the aspects of England I don't like very much don't reach. Underground things aren't overregulated and overcivilised, and the people are not overprotected, lazy, inert and scared! So that was bull's eye. And I love the scambling and the ropework and all that comes with it.

Second, it gave me a community to be a part of outside work. And deracinated as I am I could use that! The caving community is much broader than the scientific one. People of all sorts of ages, political convictions, and walks of life join in. Gives you a wider view on society!

In Norway I had the strong feeling I stepped into a bipolar world, half in the middle of, and half way outside, modern civilisation. I loved it! I need modern civilisation for my job, but I love to escape some of it in my spare time. In Norway, after the science, you vanish into the wilderness. Here there's much less wilderness, but I just get deeper into it. In Norway I made sure I could to dress to cold; now I've made sure I can dress to filthy and wet as well. And my equipment, such as camera, flash gun, and torch, can cope with that too. So now, if I find chest-deep mud, I just step in. And if I then feel filthy, I can just jump into the nearest river, fully clothed, in the middle of the night! It's very refreshing to get rid of your civilised reflexes that tell you not to do that. Why bloody not? There's a time for being tidy and representative, and there's a time for being inquisitive and adventurous! It's great if you can swap between these.

The caving trip that incidentally marked my anniversary visited Baker's pit; a nice, big system, where you can basically have as much fun as you want. I stayed true to my caving motto: when in doubt, follow Lionel, for he goes where the fun is. So that way I had some hours of old-fashioned clambering, slithering, squeezing, crawling fun, buggering off into all sorts of recesses of that cave, and coming out sweat-soaked and mud-coloured from head to toe. A splendid way of celebrating this festive date!

15 November 2010

Out of the closet

I happily qualified myself as a "leftie" a few blog posts ago. But am I? I certainly look like one! But that's not what really matters. I certainly have all sorts of left-wing standpoints, but sometimes I surprise myself with thoughts that qualify more as right-wing. When the Greek took to the streets in order to protest against the governmental budget cuts I had no sympathy whatsoever. Yes, it sucks if your country goes bankrupt. Yes, it sucks if you have to bleed for it. But concluding that it sucks doesn't stop the country from being bankrupt. All carrying part of the burden will. So these people, protesting away, were effectively claiming that it should be other people, not them, who had to take the blow. Selfish, really. How many of them will have tried to actively influence the Greek policies on financial conduct? Not very many, I would guess. And letting the system go to hell as long as it doesn't directly affect you, but tearing the city down as soon as it does, that is not something I sympathise with.

In the UK the crisis is felt too. One thing that happened is that universities will get less governmental support. And they'll need to get money from somewhere, so they're forced to increase the student fees. Massively. And the students are not amused. And they made sure it did not go unnoticed they were not amused. They took to the streets of London and ran amok. The iconic picture of this event is that of a (supposed) student kicking in a window. I'm not entirely sure how a broken window will lower university fees, but that's beside the point. So the students think it should be somebody else, not them, who takes the blow of the financial situation. Are they right?

Source: BBC (evidently)

What is useful to know here is that quite some students may have voted Lib Dem. And Lib Dem promised to abolish tuition fees. And now they are trebling them. That is reason for feeling let down if you voted for them; especially if that specific promise had a hand in convincing you to vote such. But well, welcome to coalition politics: if your party doesn't get an absolute majority you know it will have to compromise. Sucks too, but again, that's how it works.

Another relevant piece of information is that these fees won't have to be paid beforehand. You pay them back after graduation. And you don't pay more per month than you can afford. And if it would so happen you never end up affording any of it the whole debt is annulled. So they protest against costs of which there is a guarantee they'll be able to pay them. And quite a lot of these kids will end up in jobs that allow them to pay back in a whiffy and lead a very comfortable life. So should they demand this will not happen, and it will be the other taxpayers who instead pay their fees? I think I can safely assume that counts as a rhetorical question...

So does that opinion make me a right wing bastard? Or a smug hypocrite who studied well before student fees went up (though, of course, UK fees had no bearing on my life whatsoever), and who was lavishly supported by daddy? Well maybe. But if so I'm not ashamed of it!

Autumn on Dartmoor

I have hardly visited Dartmoor lately! A few hours with my father and sister, and one round around Burrator after my knee didn't want to run around it twice (I don't count the running on asphalt with Neil: asphalt isn't real Dartmoor), and before that it had been the visit to Jitske and her hikers. In summer! So it was about time. And on a rainy Sunday morning I ventured in that direction. That I had my camera ready goes without saying...
Decorative droplets

The Plym, to which Plymouth owes its name

Where a tributary reaches the Plym

Impressive stone row

Remnants of Eylesbarrow tin mine, which was in production in the early 19th century

Even the sun honoured me with her unobstructed presence for a few minutes!

13 November 2010

Project Seatpost: between the pain and the gain

Suddenly the sound changed. From the muffled sound of hard metal biting into softer metal it suddenly changed into a much hollower sound. A hollow sound! Excited I gave the screwdriver-working-as-chisel a few more hits. And then I heard "clinck!" and I knew my day was made. I had managed to chisel a part of the seatpost out, and it had fallen into the frame! And from then on it gets easier. Only minutes later I had the rest of the seatpost out too. How close I had been to success the last time I had a sawing session!
It wasn't all over, of course; I sandpapered the very rusty indide of the frame, and cleaned up. Then I pulled out the seatpost from my black bicycle (that's how matter-of-fact it should be!), shoved it in Jon's frame, hung the concomitant lock around it (Jon's lock could be gnawed through by the first passing shrew) and I could be off to buy a seatpost replacement. In theory, that is.

The guy in the bicycle shop asked what size seatpost it was I wanted, so I took out the specimen that was in place. He took a close look, and gained a very puzzled expression on his face. "Now that IS an odd size! That's what you get with these ancient bicycles. They used to have the funniest sizes back in the days. No, we don't have anything of the kind. I'll have to order one...". Ah yes. Of course. The story continues. Typical, by the way, that I liaise with such old bikes that the first seatpost I extract out of one of them is exactly the right outrageous size...

One should not let things go this far

It will be at least a few days before that bike is what it should be, but most of the mission is accomplished: I got it out! And now I'm confident I could get almost any stuck seatpost out. And in a perfect world I'd never need that skill, but the world isn't perfect, and who knows when this will come in handy again!