31 January 2011

Mine in the garden

A good boss is a joy forever. Having a good postdoc can come in handy too, sometimes. You can use them as extra hands when you move house. And they can be used as private drivers! If you’re in the States and your wife needs to go to the airport, for instance, or when a friend comes over from the US with his whole family and needs to be delivered home from the railway station. Both occurred early this year; the latter concerned a friend of Roland's; Bill, that I had met in San Francisco, and he would come over to this side of the Atlantic for a sabbatical before Roland would return from his Christmas holidays. So I picked him up. With unexpected consequences.

His landlord invited us over for a cup of tea, and mentioned the silver mine in his back garden. A silver mine? I wanna go in! And Stephen, the landlord, didn’t mind. And now the day had come when we would indeed descend that shaft and find out if there was anything in there. I had ensnared Lionel, as I figured chances of us finding something were slim, and two suffices for dropping down and climbing back up. But Finbar wouldn’t let such fun pass him by, and neither would Dave, so we ended up with four. That is a lot of caver for a small cottage, but nothing our hosts wouldn't be able to cope with!

Stephen and Bill gave us a warm welcome, and Stephen walked us through his garden, where there was not only this shaft, but also the remains of a stack, a flywheel pit, an engine house, a possible dressing floor, and lots of mine waste in tips. While we were admiring all that Stephen’s wife was already yelling at us: “can I go down too?”. How she had managed to live there for 20 and suppress her desire to hurl herself down is a mystery.

Picture taken from what is now the bottom of the shaftl, looking up to some stone structure with a culvert in it

 The culvert a bit clearer

What it looks like on the inside 

Me helping Liz into my kit; pic by Bill

Bill and his two daughters; to the right of the fence, Lionel is fixing Liz to the rope 

Liz having all the fun in the world in the shaft
We kitted up, fixed a rope, and then Lionel was down. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much down there; the shaft had been filled up too much. But all four of us went down for a look and perhaps some pictures, and then we helped Liz into my harness and coached her down into her very own silver mine. And then back up again! She had a blast. But with all that scurrying up and down (Finbar dropped a tape measure so he had to go down twice) it meant we had no time to do another mine that same day. But we had a great time; Stephen and Dave exchanged some of their extensive mining knowledge, Bill’s kids thought it was all very spectacular, we all happily scurried around in the sun and enjoyed coffee with scones and muffins.

After all that we adjourned to the pub; the very cosy one near Roland, where I had already been once, and where Roland and Rosa honoured us with their presence as well. Caving meets science. We ended the day well with making plans for doing another, more extensive trip somewhere soon!

29 January 2011

Sports fanatic

I didn’t have any New Year’s resolutions. But I act as if I did! Who reads the blog would think that, in 2011, I only have been doing science and some caving. Not true! I revived my running habit, with Pete, and it’s expected another colleague will join soon. Running never became a habit in 2010, but now we got into a routine. And it feels good! And Pete is a bloke, so he is quantitative, and he was able to tell me we’re slightly faster every time we run. And as I am always up for a new challenge I put my name down for the half marathon. I never ran that far! But there’s a first time for everything.

This regular habit, though, started to show. As we run from the institute we run on asphalt. With Neil I had already found out my knees object to long distances on asphalt, but many short distances on asphalt was something I started to feel in my ankles. And I will have to be able to do 21 km on asphalt, so I’d better do something about that. And I knew my shoes, emotionally attached to them as I am, were not specifically meant for me, nor for running, nor were they still anywhere near new. So I went to a running shop and got me a new pair. They allowed me to run around on them in the street, which felt somewhat odd; getting out of a shop and legging it feels somewhat suspicious... but I got me a pair, and I look forward to trying them next week.

Don't they look fast!

I also had been wondering for months how I could improve my upper body strength; one needs that for getting out of mine shafts, and I always manage, but I want to be able to do much more demanding trips without running out of arm muscle power. And I was about to risk the wrath of my landlord by screwing a beam into a door frame when suddenly Rob showed me the existence of an apparatus that makes that unnecessary. A chin-up bar that wedges itself into the doorframe! I immediately ordered one, with the result that I had to remove a box adorned with ample sweaty and beefy blokes from my university pigeon hole, with slight embarrassment... but the device in place now, and every time I go through that door opening and I have my hands free I do a pull-up. This is going to work! Bring on the fathomless mine shafts!

One would assume I'll never get into a better shape than when I was 17 and biked to school and back every day, which was 15 km, but I am sure going to give myself a run for my money!

Anna Karenina

Eight hundred and fifty pages of downfall. Dense downfall. Downfall sometimes disguised as bliss. On my Californian travels I had Anna Karenina with me, and that was a blessing, as it is one of these fairly rare books that can take you though long train rides, flights, and waits in queues at airports. All in a row.

So what was it I was reading about? For those who haven’t read it themselves: Anna Karenina marries because of social pressure, gives birth to a son, but later falls in love with a bloke someone else already is in love with, and yet someone else is in love with that person, if that makes sense. She starts an affair with this man, but it is from the moment on that sparks fly between the two that things start spiralling out of control.

The book has ample space to portrait all those entangled in this soap opera mentioned above, and a whole bunch more. The doubt, the shame, the pride, the regret, it all unfolds over the years. And you inevitably end up pondering what should be done yourself. And I myself ended up with conclusions I had drawn before when reading books set in roughly this period. First thing to do: don’t be born as a woman in times like these! And if that fails: marry the right bloke! Though that may sometimes be harder than it sounds. But once you don’t manage either of these you’re screwed. Ask the Brontë sisters as well, for instance, though they tend to cheat fate and force a happy ending to such stories. If Catherine is so stupid as to not marry Heathcliff, things turn out for the better a generation down the line, but in my eyes this stands out as where the author really tried too hard (blimey, did I just take on Emily Brontë? Hybris!).

Anna Karenina fails both. And thus finds herself in a situation in which she can only lose. And for a while this is not so conspicuous; all seems to go well. By a twist of fate, she is forgiven by her husband, and buggers off on a splendid European trip with her lover with whom she then has a daughter. The lover, by another twist of fate, even manages to not stop being rich enough to cater for them both. So all looks well. But society doesn’t forgive them, she doesn’t get her son back, and all she has is a lover whom she therefore needs so bad she becomes so afraid she’ll lose him that she pushes him away. As a good woman would. So all falls to pieces.

Reading books like that makes you appreciate the battle generations of women have fought to make life what it is now. Maybe even the Anna Karenina’s, who fell, have helped make society ready for independent women. It sounds cheesy and very seventies-feministic, but read it! Maybe you’ll agree. And for those who don’t care about the position of women in society: read it anyway! It’s beautiful to see a human life slowly but certainly come undone. Described by a true master.

27 January 2011

Responsible behaviour

This blog is filled to the brim with such behaviour! But more is always possible. Evil tongues might claim that on Tuesday evenings my behaviour might often be suboptimally responsible. Nothing irresponsible about prancing around in abandoned underground structures, of course, but strange folks might think otherwise. This Tuesday there was a tempting trip planned, to a far-away cave. It looked cool, but I had had the entire weekend off, manuscripts needed to be finished, my car had to get MOT-tested, and there were more caving activities planned for the week. On Wednesday there would be cave rescue first aid training, or cas care as it tends to be called (cas being short for casualty, evidently), and there would be an AGM of the Cornish bunch of Thursday. Help! Too much!

My car, as I have reported, was back from the garage in time. But Dorthe was popping up in a window on my screen. She wanted that manuscript that I had been working on between christmas and academic year 2011. And she wanted it soon! So basically, I could not do two nights of non-working in a row. So muddy far-away caving, or civilised cas care training? I did the calvinistic thing and prioritised usefulness over fun. It should be mentioned, though, that the cas care thing is closer to Plymouth, and does not involve such amounts of mud, so one has a good chance of ending up in bed at a reasonable time; something I didn't really see happening with the caving trip. And I have to stay fresh for more 14C dating and the likes. So without any reason as pressing as health issues or being abroad I didn't go caving! Too bad; it looked marvellous. And there was quite some traversing in it. I could imagine people will think that's the real reason I didn't go. But either way; I stayed in Plymouth, worked hard on the manuscript, sent it off to Norway, and hope that means it will soon be sent to where it should end up: Amsterdam! And while Norway has another look at the manuscript I might learn to save lives...

ps Time will tell if I will ever save a life, but that night clearly made such an event more likely! We went through all sorts of checks one can do on a casualty, and all sorts of theory behind it. Pulse, breathing, pupil reactions, blood pressure, blood sugar level... the latter, by the way, gave rise to some amusement from my side; when I donate blood I always get my blood pressure measured, and I always have the textbook value for a healthy adult: 120/80. So I assumed I was just the textbook case healthy adult in general. So when they told us that the textbook value of glucose in the blood is between 4 and 8, I stated mine would probably be 6. And lo and behold: 6.1! I am the most normal person there is. Just so you all know.

26 January 2011

Radiocarbon dating

It sounds so simple. Have something you want to know the age of? Radiocarbon dating has the answer! If it's organic it has carbon atoms in it and you can date it. For us swamp scientists that should be a piece of cake since swamps are full of organic material.

As everything in science, it isn't that easy. What you date is the moment that organic material, or its associated organism, died. And if you want to date a sedimentary sequence, you therefore have to make sure the material died at the same time as the sediment layer you have plucked it out of was deposited. And that can go wrong in several ways.

One thing that can go wrong is that the material does not belong at that level in the sequence. If a beetle burrows down into the mud, and dies there at 20cm depth, it will not reflect the age of these 20 cm deep sediments. The same with roots. They grow down from the surface, and might have died by your hand while embedded in, say, 2000 year old sediments.

A non-burrowing weevil we found in the Icelandic sediments. We didn't date it, though...

The other problem that needs to be avoided is dating material that has been lying around dead for yonks before it ended up in your sediments. That will not happen so often with fragile stuff as leaves of beetle shields or the likes, but with shells (organic calcite!) it is quite probable.

I have done the 14C dating for our Icelandic sediments. Or rather, I found good samples and sent them to the NERC radiocarbon facility. But there's more work to do. Something went wrong with dating the core from the Isle of Wight; we probably accidentally dated too-modern roots in spite of our efforts not to. And I have to find samples for our sites in Maine, Connecticut and Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia, by the way, we did not go to; Roland had some cores lying around, but it's me who has to root through them. And Durham figured I should have a try at the Isle of Wight material. All in all I have some three meters of core kicking about to pick through. And if you know how precise and careful you have to be to make sure you find everything that's there you know how bloody much that is. And Rob is trying to find stuff to date his Norwegian material.

So there we are. My core is very organic, but it's almost all roots, so I sit there for hours without finding anything. And Rob's core has little organic stuff in it; mainly roots (no!) and shell fragments (no again!) so he finds even less. His face says it all on the picture. It's good we are in this together, for this can get fairly tedious. But if we find enough for our purposes in the end it'll all have been worth it!

25 January 2011

Perfect car, but idle

Last year it cost me more to get my car through the obligatory annual check than I had paid for it in the first place. So when it was that time of the year again I braced myself for the worse.

I went to a different garage. A nearby one, this time. The previous time I had taken one my insurance recommends, but I decided to not do that again. I delivered it first thing in the morning on Monday. They asked me if I wanted to wait for it. Wait? I hadn't brought a sleeping bag, you know!

In the lab Rob laughed at me and said that if I would have it back before it would be caving time on Tuesday he'd take me out for dinner. Rob, as one might guess, is not particularly impressed by my splendid vehicle. And then at 10.40 they phoned me: there were only 3 things wrong with it, and it wouldn't cost very much to do something about these three things. Yay! I love this garage.
Typical! I intended to put the form that proves my car has passed the test on the blog. Was so absent-minded I took a picture of the pre-repairs, and thus failed, form...

Tuesday at 16.45 I collected it. The bill was only one third of what the entire car had cost me that year back. And as we don't cave before 19.30 it meant I get a dinner with it! Murphy rules, though, and that night I didn't go caving. I'll blog about why in another post. So it's a bit silly I have a flawless car, and it's just standing there in front of my house while I'm at work. On a Tuesday night. But I will get stuff done, and take my renewed Silverbonnet out soon enough!

Science under attack

The BBC showed an episode of Horizon in which they dealt with why it seems very many do not believe scientists anymore. They discussed AIDS and GM foods, but first and foremost, they discussed climate. And specifically, anthropogenic warming. You understand I was glued to the TV.

From the BBC website

Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, went around the world wondering what had gone wrong. And he argued that the problem was that most people don’t have the expertise to judge science themselves. They have to leave that to others. Which others? That’s a question of trust. And for some reason, it often isn’t the experts that get that trust.

What people read is the media. And the media have a political agenda. And they will find a source of what they want to convey. The program showed some examples of confusing media coverage. Many people will know that there have been several independent evaluations of Climategate. All involved scientists were cleared. Nurse showed two newspapers that reported on that: one said something like “unreliable scientist gets to keep job” while the other headlined “scientists cleared of all charge”. One newspaper reported that human-induced climate change was a sham and all warming was caused by the sun. The other one headlined that it was now proven that it was NOT the sun. Not that strange many people in the street think scientists don't really know what's going on, while in reality it's others who get things confused.
If you want to find information that suits your purposes you will. There’s always cherry-picking people around. Nurse also met James Delingpole; one of the sceptics that revelled in Climategate. Delingpole claimed scientists are the ones with a political agenda. He said consensus is not science. It’s a set-up! They (we!) have just decided to come up with an alarmist message. He basically relied on two words from the Climategate e-mails to base his whole story on.

Nurse challenged the assumption that consensus is by definition a scam by coming up with the analogue that if his conversation partner would happen to get cancer, and medical scientists would have consensus about the treatment, he probably would not question that in such measure. Delingpole started to stutter, said he didn’t want to talk about that, and resented the analogy. Aha.

Delingpole talked himself even deeper into the mire by saying he didn’t have the time or the expertise to evaluate primary scientific data. But still he claims to be able to judge it’s all forgery...

Nurse concluded rightly that cherry-picking scientific data makes no sense, and that you need to keep an eye on all of it. That, however, is something only those who can dedicate their working life to can afford. That would be us! And that brings us back to the science communication thing. We have to get better at it!

24 January 2011


Birds of a feather flock together. But opposites attract! In Amsterdam, where I was doing my PhD, I got introduced to a new PhD student: Emma. We both recognised each other as birds of the same feather. But would we flock together, or would that department not be big enough for two somewhat loud, opiniated, and nerdy girls from Gelderland?

We flocked together. And then I finished my PhD, and went to Norway. She then finished her PhD, and went to Brussels. But that was only a short contract. She then found a next postdoc position in Reading. That's only ~3 hours away from Plymouth! So she came over for the weekend.

Over the last 3.5 years I had only seen her on her PhD defense. But she hadn't changed a thing! She arrived on Friday night, and we did some first catching up while slaughtering a bottle of wine. And we woke up to a beautiful day.

The Saturday we spent walking around on the Mount Edgecumbe Estate with some of our Plymouth PhD students, followed by a splendid dinner composed by our very own Rob. And on Sunday we went to Dartmoor, and had a pub lunch in Princetown. And then time was up.

Emma on the waterfront

 Put two nerds on a beach and they'll start taking pictures of things like sea weed

With Rob, Marta and Sam on Mount Edgecumbe 

We had splendid weather for a Dartmoor walk

Doing all that walking we hardly ever stopped talking. There's a lot to catch up about! What we are doing scientifically (we are nerds, after all), how we experience living in these different countries, what the news is about all our former colleagues, how we are doing in general... great! Especially when you live in a foreign country you can sometimes feel the lack of people you've known for a long time. And now I had one here for a whole weekend!

20 January 2011

Swim yourself sane

The second caving trip I ever did was in Pridhamsleigh. The next time it featured on our agenda I was a bit jaded: done that! But with caves of that size that's a naive point of view. I already got a taste of what it has to offer when we did a cave rescue practice there. We searched every nook of it... but in several teams; one person cannot possibly search the entire maze in such a short timespan.

On my birthday, the club had gone there again, and done some of the wetter bits, but I had been in San Francisco. But I love wet caving, so when Prid showed up on the meets list again I got all excited. Especially in these times of relentless lab work it's really nice to do something completely different, and jumping in an underground lake might just qualify. So I was eager!

Six of us showed up for this trip. And with these six we went straight for the lake! As I had hoped. Richard, who lead this trip, had said a wetsuit was a bit overdoing it, so I was in my normal caving kit. And that way it was cold! But I swam to the other side, and tried to find a way of taking a picture of all the much more sensible people on the lake shore. But taking pictures without slave flash in deep water with smooth walls without anchor points for tripods is a bit of a challenge, and it didn't work out too well. But I got freshed up!

This is the best I managed: one and a half headless caver on the lake shore...

I found this piece of rock sticking out for mounting the camera on. Unfortunately it hang quite high!

After I'd swam back we had some more wet and crawly fun in all sorts of recesses of the cave. And we went to the flooded rift, where I'd been before, but that had been in the time I did not readily jump into very cold water. Now Richard wondered if it was or was not too deep to stand, so they sent me in. Ah well. I'm good for such things! And with some difficulty one could walk. So some of the men followed.

The end of the rift looks like a dead end, but Richard knew better; there was a sump! He stood there, doubting, for quite a while, but of course he went through. And I cannot resist such things! So I followed. Coming up on the other side I felt hands around my head, and was pulled to the surface; Rich was showing his midwife skills. And as nobody else followed, we went back soon after having come, and he did it again. It's good to be looked after!

With that we had had about as much fun as we had bargained for, so we headed back. I followed Adrian on the way out, and I saw he took an alternative route. Trough a traverse! NOOO! But he said it was good for me, and moaning as ever when I'm confronted with such an abomination I did negotiate it. And then we felt fresh air, and stood outside again!

I of course was soaked to the skin, so I ran back to my car, and changed as fast as I could. Huzzah for fluffy jumpers! And after the ice and water had been sufficiently removed from my car windows I drove to the Abbey for a pint. It had been a good night! I need some of that in these hectic times...

19 January 2011

Of the locksmith and the dog

I just wrote there's not much more to my life than work and caving. But that of course is a simplification.

The lock on my front door had become dodgy. And then I invited some friends over for dinner, and the lock had chosen this time to have gotten so dodgy we had trouble opening the door. From either side. So it was time to act. I managed to repair it to such an extent the door could be opened without problems, but that unfortunately also held for the situation in which it was locked. And since I live in a neighbourhood where people try to steal your bike and your car, I thought that was a bad idea.

With unrest in my system I left the lab in order to let the locksmith in. Did he need me for that? Politeness dictates he did. So I did let him in.

By sheer coincidence the dog of the downstairs neighbours was roaming the corridor... and he crashed the party. It was good it was a charming little canine that took advantage of my lock issues instead of someone more sinister! I figured he could pay for my hospitality by posing for some pictures... Charming neighbour, watch your territory! But it's fixed now. So now hopefully I'll only have invited guests. Even though I might be missing out on chaps like this!

17 January 2011

Lab gadgets

It's good to know I'll have a job later this year! But I don't have too much time to think about that. My current job needs doing. And the amount of work that still needs to be done is mad. I think it already shows: not many blogposts about Dartmoor or such things. Just work and caving. That's sort of what my life is reduced to now...

I'm busy sampling and processing, so I spend my time in the lab. Luckily there's some impressive cloudy skies to be seen from it from time to time...

Lab work can be very tedious, and I work at strange hours, which means I'm often working in an otherwise deserted building. Not easy to not get a bit melancholy! But for the work I've been doing today I have two gadget friends: the sharpest knife in town, and my iPod with brand new earplugs. The old ones had lost their rubbery rings, which means they had become very uncomfortable, and now I have a pair of in-ear plugs. It turns one even more geeky and estranged, because one can't hear anything other than one's music, but it keeps one going! And the knife, with which I managed to only cut myself once, which is miraculous, goes through that core like through butter. I love the kitchen utensil shop near the university!

That core should yield tomorrow. And then there's plenty of others waiting. But I'll write about that later...

15 January 2011

Good news!

I was calmly reading the last pages of Anna Karenina when I got a text message. I didn't expect anything, really. I saw it was Roland. I thought he might have forgotten something in the pub or something. But then I opened the message. The proposal he and many others had written, and which includes 3 more years of money for me, got funded! Blimey! Three years! That's a lot. And it's a fascinating project. I'll blog about it later.

Within minutes I had another message. From Rob. Saying "hooooorrahhhhh!!!!!! Whoooopppeeeee!!!!". He's glad too! The lovely chap. And gossip goes fast. I went into town for a new pair of glasses, bumped into a colleague, told her the news, and was then joined by yet another colleague who had already heard the news and walked over to congratulate me. It hasn't really sunk in yet. Maybe on Monday! But this is great news!

14 January 2011

Rescue or be rescued

"Go back up the road to the fire station. First team in wins!" I started running. My team mate wasn't amused.

It was a windy, rainy night in Buckfastleigh. We walked (not ran) straight out of the village. No fire station! So there you stand, in the pouring rain, at the edge of nowhere, with a radio in your hand that's useless as base does not respond. As you do in your leisure time! I thought I'd be practicing gas detection in Baker's pit that evening. But everything worked out differently from what I'd expected.

I had loaded all my caving kit onto my bicycle and ridden to Dave. When he saw me he said "I had forgotten all about you!" Well that's nice. I had especially brought pictures from the last three caving trips, that he had either not done or not photographed. I turned out to have a virus on my memory stick.

When we arrived in Buckfastleigh fire station, half an hour later, the first person I saw was Ferret. That meant either I wouldn't have had to ride to Plymstock, or Ferret wouldn't have had to bring his big van. We could have all gone in one car... ah well.

Roger, the training coordinator, said I wouldn't practice gas detection, but radio training. Fine! I decided to go with the other girl. We took a radio and went off in the direction the base sent us. The first thing she said: "I suffer from seizures". This was going to be an interesting night.

The bloke who was the base station had composed an elaborate route through rain-swept Buckfastleigh, with lots of information exchange. It's good practice to get that across accurately! One day lives may depend on that. And it was fun, though somewhat soggy fun. And well, dragging all your kit to Plymstock is good exercise.

After having wandered all over town we got the message we should return. Base had forgotten to inform us non-Buckfastleigh-dwellers of the left turn that required. And the rain got heavier. When base didn't answer our call we just asked the way from a somewhat baffled delivery man...

So instead of getting sweaty underground I got quite fresh downtown, stared at in confusion by the locals who had no idea why we were spelling the name of the local school's headmaster into a radio. If you would have asked me what I would have wanted to do that evening I don't think that would have been what I would have come up with. But not a bad deal, really!

13 January 2011

Caving for old farts

All was as normal. I would bike to some reasonably nearby caver, be picked up there by Dave, and we would go underground. But then Dave phoned he wouldn't come, and things would turn unusual.

This way I had to drive to his place, get the kit for new club members who didn't have their own yet, pick Ali up, and then go underground. Even that didn't work; there's roadworks between me and Dave, and suddenly something had changed in what lanes could be used and how, and instead of heading for Plymstock I headed for Mutley. That's 180 degrees wrong! I decided to first pick up Ali and then the kit. That worked.

Ali lead this trip. And now Dave wouldn't come, he was the only person to show up that evening who had been a club member longer than me. In fact he's been a member longer than I've lived, but everybody else was a more recent acquisition. I felt like a veteran! And I was even treated like one...

Some slave flash fun in the first mine

This poor sod had not had such fun in this mine (the second)... fallen in, or gotten lost?

It's good the club keeps growing. And with this fresh team we first went into a small mine with few complications, and then further along the river, and into a more complicated one. That one was a splendid little maze! Inconspicuous, low holes everywhere, that looked like they went nowhere, but actually went all over the place. Ali indicated the normal way on, but as we had had no rope with us we wouldn't go anyway. He added, though, that if people wanted to have a look he wouldn't stop them. He didn't have to repeat that! I clambered over some loose stuff, crawled through a squeeze, clambered past a shaft, and had a look around. No pics, as the rest was waiting for me, but I enjoyed myself. Ali came through the squeeze to keep an eye on me, remarking that for someone who is afraid of traverses I did strange things without a rope. Well, this wasn't a traverse, was it? And then we went back.

While we changed, Dave showed up after all. He'd rather just have a pint with us than not show up at all. And that turned me back into a rookie again!

07 January 2011


"If my flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow gets cancelled, will my luggage appear on the belt?" "It will!" "Good".

It wouldn't. I may fly ridiculously often, but my flights tend to not end up cancelled. So I didn't know my luggage would stay put in case it couldn't be flown on to where it was checked through to. And the airline employees I asked were not going to tell me either. So I made sure everything that would keep me busy was in my hand lugagge: my computer, my external harddisk, my books, the newspaper... and with that it was full. I did make sure I didn't part with my jumper, jacket and scarf, but beside that everything else was in my hold luggage. Clean clothes. Walking boots. Sunglasses. Phone charger. Camera charger. Key card. Toothbrush.

And then, in Frankfurt, on the 21th, my luggage evidently didn't show up on the belt. I braved the enormous queue for luggage tracing, optimistically gave my mother's address as the delivery address, and went to Amersfoort.

My mother had a toothbrush and toothpaste for me. But I don't fit her clothes, so a shower would be silly. I would have to get back into the same sweaty clothes! And still with minimal luggage I finally reached Plymouth, midnight the 22nd.

The most annoying thing had been that I was trying to make my way through Europe with a pre-paid phone without charger. And in addition to that my creditcard had been blocked while I was in the States, so I couldn't top up either. But communication is a good thing when you're in a country you don't want to be in, with minimal luggage, and you try to get somewhere hospitable. Luckily both the money and the battery lasted until I found my sister.

I wanted to phone Lufthansa to tell them to bring my luggage to my permanent address. But the owners of the other 19.999 bags were trying to do something similar. But a few days later, on the 26th, I got through anyway. They had found my luggage, but not shipped it yet, and I could still change the delivery address! And on the 29th I received a phone call that it had arrived in Schiphol. That's a start. They said they would send it on to the UK that day or the next. And I would receive notice from the delivery company.

On the 4th I started phoning again. It had reached Bristol! But what would that means in terms of when I would see it again? The 5th I came home to find a note from DHL: they had tried to deliver it. Of course they hadn't bothered to phone me to make sure I'd be home. Typical. I booked a redelivery online; the first possible date was Friday the 7th. I had it brought to the institute. And at noon I received a phone call: it had arrived! Of course at that hour it was pissing down epically. But who cares! I was on my way to my luggage.

It was heavily festooned by the time it reached me!

In a way, it's good to be parted from one's stuff for a while. It's easy to come to count on things! And it came at the same time as a broken computer and a blocked creditcard. And trampled glasses. Margot survives without what is easily taken for granted in modern life!


It sounds so simple. Freeze-dry your samples and pulverise them. But sometimes it's easier said than done! The core we took in Connecticut is all roots. With a mortar you're not getting anywhere. I was a bit at a loss. Luckily we have an inventive lab technician. She looked at my struggling, and said "maybe you should try one of these half-circular herb chopping knives!" And it sounded worth the try. She also knew a nearby kitchen untensil shop, and off I was.
Such a thing seems to be called a "hachoir". And I hachoired away! Blimey, these roots don't stand a chance. It's a heck of a lot of work, and the thought that that core is a meter long makes me want to cry, run away, and stick my head in the sand somewhere, but at least I'm homogenising these samples better than I ever figured I'd be able to do!

I was chuffed with the results, but I still wanted one of the guys from the CORiF lab have a look at it. I mean, it says "mortar" on the description of sample preparation, not "chop".

When the bloke in question came up he became all lyrical. He said he'd never seen such organic sediments being homogenised so well. And then packed so well, with my famous upside-down chisel action. He immediately started taking pictures of me and my samples to send them to the head of the CORiF lab, so they'd have documentation of how it should be done. I'm not joking!

One of the pics in question
No need to mention I continued with extra motivation. And still, that entire meter is still intimidating me, but I will end up on top!

And who knows. If somewhere in the distant future I'm done with that core I still have a most classy and culinary hachoir! If I can convince myself to find use for it in my kitchen my sister will perhaps be proud of me...

06 January 2011

Back in business

The first working day at 9AM I was jumping up and down on the doorstep of ICT support in order to draw attention my my computer-failure-induced distress. And without delay one of the men followed me to my office and diagnosed a power supply gone *pop*. He thought it would be repaired the same day.

When I came home at the end of the day I found a letter that gave me the PIN number of my new creditcard. The next day I checkd my office in the morning: computer indeed fixed! So I moved back in. And decided I should also get cracking in the lab, so as soon as they opened I went to the card office, to ask if I could perhaps get a replacement for my key card that was still roaming the world with the rest of my luggage. And I could! So I hurried off to the lab in order to expose my samples to a frontal attack. And after that working day I found a note from the courier, indicating they had tried to deliver my bag. Things get back to normal!

All sorts of things that work: computers, credit cards and key cards! And a christmas card, but that's a different category.

Playground mine

The caving club is doing well! And the first caving trip in the new year was expected to be well-attended. Dave was wondering if we wouldn't be with too many to even fit in the mine in question. So I didn't expect too much. But how unjustified!

It was a pretty mine from the very start, but it kept getting better. It was a reasonable maze of horizontal tunnels with inclined winzes in between. So many places to run to, look in, climb into, take pictures of, and bump into equally enthusiastic cavers! I felt like a child in a toy store.

It was a manganese mine. It had interestingly variable lithology, with quite different looks. From yellow and orange banded to just plain black!

There were some interesting structures. I liked this hollow, triple, black-and-orange stalagmite, or whatever one calls this! (Lower pics are close-ups, for those who hadn't seen that)

This place had camouflage staining. Often it's bright white, blue and green, but here it was black, grey, brown and army green!

One might think it gets boring after a while. Another mine! Another set of dark wet tunnels. Maybe it does one day, but for me that day hasn't come yet! And it may take a while. One of our guys had already done this mine, some forty years ago, and he evidently still isn't bored of it yet!

03 January 2011


 Look, if you will, at the foraminifera below. They look fairly similar, don't they? It's not really difficult to see the difference under the microscope, but in some foraminifera studies they're taken together anyway. They are of the same genus, and they have fairly similar environmental preferences.

I compare my own counts with that prominent work from the eighties and nineties. And these two species are lumped. Fair enough. But the authors also lump two species (I could only find a picture of the one; the other is damn small, and difficult to take a picture of without a SEM) that look nothing like each other, and have very different environmental preferences. Why consider them together? No idea! But I don't want to. And I had calculated the difference between the abundance of that category of two species in the old data and my own data. And calculated the difference as well when using only the not-so-small species in my own data. And wrote elaborate text about what that shows and why I prefer using the second option.

And then I calculated average difference in foraminifera assemblage. And accidentally counted both options. Which one should not do. And I noticed very late. I wanted to go to the office to do the very final touches on the manuscript that deals with these things. And then I found out...

That meant back to the drawing board. I recalculated the average faunal difference again. And based on these averages I had subdivided my study area in regions of similar change. And that had, of course, slightly changed. So my regions needed to be redefined. And then all the calculations on these regions needed to be redone. And all graphs had to be remade. And with the help of the data guys in Tromsø I had done the initial calculations in a quick and elegant way, but I didn't manage that in Plymouth, so I had to do these calculations on massive data files by hand. How to fill your christmas holiday! This way.

One would be tempted to just let it be. The conclusions of the manuscript won't be altered by this slight change! Why spend days on correcting it. But that would be wrong. And on top of that, finding this error immediately gave me Climategate visions. One should not allow any imperfection! Any destructive nutter can claim you were manipulating the data willfully to serve an alarmist purpose. By the way; yes, my data shows that in the Barents Sea the warm-water forams are winning at the expense of the cold-water species, and no, that doesn't depend on the calculation error. But no climate sceptic would check that. It's wrong! It's a conspiracy! So here I am, in my (borrowed) office in this further deserted building. Being inspired to next time check, check, and check again, and again check, my data before I turn them into a manuscript.One is never too old to learn of one's own mistakes...

02 January 2011


A conference is always good for inspiration. When you get back you run to your lab and your office and work like mad! At least, that's my experience. And after AGU I wanted to do exactly that. But evidently it didn't work out that way. I was home three days later than expected, and then it was already time to ignore the office and celebrate christmas. So then, after christmas, more than a week after the conference, I went to my office. Time to get some stuff done! So I walked into that freezing extremity of the university building and pressed the "on" button of my computer.


Nothing? I checked if it was properly plugged in, if the socket worked properly... all was well but the computer just wouldn't work. Now what? I couldn't possibly NOT work all these days, until some time after the 4th of january; the day university would reopen, and ICT support would return!

I could, of course, try to borrow somebody else's office. Most people would actually take time off and not need their working space for themselves. Problem with that, though, would be that most of them would have gone somewhere else to celebrate. And how would I then get the key?

I figured Roland wouldn't need his office. He was willing to let me use his, but that would involve getting hold of his neighbour, driving up there, getting the house key, finding his office key... lots of fuss. I had also tried to contact Marta, who would spend the winter holiday in Spain, and who lives nearby. But she didn't answer her phone...

And then, after half a day, she answered! And she gave me her key card and office key! Yay! And the next day I went in: her office was actually warm! I counted my blessings. It's nice and big as well; it accomodates three PhD students, but one is rarely there, and the other one had absconded to New Zealand for the time being. So this luxurious office would be mine, all mine, for the entire holiday!

 I brought some necessities into that office: thermal flask, speakers, jar of instant coffee... and the mouse moved to the left.

Evidence of nerdiness? Only my name on a little post-it on Marta's thingumabob on the swipe board under "in"...

It does require some flexibility, though; I don't have administrator rights on anybody else's computer. And beside that, it would be ungrateful to stuff somebody else's machine full of software. But it does mean I can't use my digital pen, and I immediately notice the difference. I love that pen! RSI go home. A computer mouse is close to a curse. And I have to make do with the software as well; I now have to resort to Corel Draw instead of Adobe Illustrator. I actually develop some skills this way.

If I am at work in my own office I listen to my own music using iTunes, but I don't want to and can't install that on Marta's computer. So this whole week I'v ebeen listening to internet radio. And I stuck to what I know; I listen to Kink FM; the radio station I would listen to in the Netherlands. I never found an equally good radio station in the UK. And modern music is actually in a much better state than I had been aware of! Blimey there's some good music out there. The National, Adele, Ozark Henry, Hooverphonic, Gorillaz, Arcade Fire, White Lies... just to name a few. I should listen to that station more often. Destroy your computer and become culturally educated!

01 January 2011

Happy New Year!

The radio counted down to midnight. I shot the champagne cork into oblivion, poured everyone a glass, and wished everybody a happy new year; a wish that, of course, went accompanied by three kisses on the cheek. A very normal New Year celebration, in short! Until I looked around and realised that nobody else was kissing anyone. Oh well. Strange Brits!

Wednesday in the pub a plan for New Year’s Eve was concocted. Jon was willing to act as a host for all geographers that hadn’t left town. Marvellous! So with a bicycle bag full of booze of various natures (on specific request) I biked south again, and soon all seven celebratory scholars were gathered.

Jon had prepared a veritable feast. By the time we were done with it there was only two hours left of the year. We decided to fill that time in a most homely and traditional way: with trivial pursuit. How many vuxenpoäng would that be? But then soon the year really drew to an end, and there was champagne, wishes, firework, messages to friends; the works! And I would like to take the opportunity to say to all those who care to read this: happy new year! May 2011 bring all sorts of good things, of both the expected and unexpected kind!

The cold night air chased us back in. On my way in I picked up the first victim of the new year: my glasses, which had fallen out of my pocket when I took out my phone. I evidently had not failed to put my full weight on them. Ah well.

Within an hour the wiser among us decided to leave. There was a clear schism there: the couples walked briskly and sober to their cars and vanished into the night, while the single population sank into the comfortable couch and explored whisky, aquavit, and whatnot. And the result was that by half past one the level of articulation had somehow diminished, and at that early hour the company wisely dispersed.

The next morning I opened my eyes, and what I saw was “A social history of English cricket”, so even if I would have managed to forget where I was, now there could be no doubt. I crawled out of Jon’s bed, and went down to give the gentleman himself a hand in tidying up the post-party mess. He had, in an unarticulated attack of chivalry, insisted on sleeping on the couch. By the time it was tidy again and I had downed my second coffee Simon, the other remaining guest, hesitantly descended from the guest room. And after a breakfast of toast I decided to return north, and start the more serious part of the year.

This year will be an exciting one. We’ll finish the project. I am supposed to acquire another contract. With Roland? In the UK? Who knows! And what else will happen! One way to find out. Bring it on!

Last hole of the year

“I’ll follow this gentleman!” If it wouldn’t have been for Lionel I’d probably have spent the last day of the year in the office. But Lionel was keen on going underground, had tried and get a Ludcott trip on the rails, and when that failed had set his mind on some shaft near where he lives. We had agreed on meeting at a bridge. And I had parked somewhere where some lady feared I might be impeding tractor logistics. But just as she addressed me a black Saab appeared and I could reassure her with the words mentioned above that I would not impede anything, but rather abscond.

We parked somewhere in the woods, heaved our backpacks over our shoulders and set off. It was still a reasonable walk, but what better done on your day off than that! After a while we reached the first signs of the mine we were looking for. We found a flooded shaft in a very scenic depression. And an actual gunnis; a lode taken to the surface. And two shafts, one of which collapsed. From the more or less intact shaft we could see two levels heading off. Lionel rigged the lot and went down to have a look.

Unfortunately, the two shallow levels turned out to only reach a few meters into the rock. One was no more than that; the other ended in a narrow inclined shaft down. Beautiful, but not fit for letting cavers through!

He then went down to the bottom of the shaft. There as well was a level heading off, but it was flooded, so he came back up again. I then went down as well, just to have a look. And because dangling on a rope is always a pleasure.

Lionel had another mine in mind as an encore. He said it was dry, an easy walk-in, not even a chance to get filthy, so he advised I’d get back into my hiking kit, which I did. Just to be sure I asked how dry that mine actually was. Completely dry, he said! Good. Hiking boots instead of wellies. And we walked a stunningly beautiful way back, with lots of mossy trees, scenic rivers and towering Tors. I had stupidly left my camera in my oversuit, at the bottom of my backpack, so quite atypically I took no pictures, but trust me when I say it was great.

We dumped our stuff in the cars, and went to the other mine. Your average adit! With about six inches of water in it. So that’s what “completely dry” means! Thanks Lionel. He tried to defend himself by saying it was completely dry by mining standards. It was way less than chest deep, after all!

It was a very pretty little mine, with several flooded winzes, and amazing white, blue, and yellow staining on the walls, so I regretted again the camera-less state I was in, but my readership may actually be relieved I don’t come up with yet more pictures of tunnels.

When we were done I went back to the following of the gentleman. Lionel offered me a cup of tea in his caving-pictures-festooned kitchen. A walk in the woods, a shaft, and tea served by a man in thermal underwear; what more does one want on the last day of the year! Nothing that the rest of the day wouldn’t offer…