27 July 2011

Conference dinner

My favourite food is food eaten in good company with a good view. And the INQUA conference came with exactly that! You could register for the conference dinner, and even though I seemed to be an exception in Plymouth I did. As with the excursion it’s often good to not know anyone there; you’ll know them by the time you come back!

I went to the railway station in advance, as I wanted to figure some things out concerning my after-conference trips. And I had some time to spare, so I decided to have a beer on a terrace, and read the newspaper; I knew almost nothing about the things going on in Norway. But at a conference with ~2500 participants you can’t assume to find such a terrace without it being festooned with colleagues. I saw the familiar face of Stefan, and joined him and the people he was with; a blend of Dutch and Canadian micropalaeontologists and statisticians. Good people to know!

As it happened I tagged along all the way to the actual dinner, which involved an entire chartered train, and took place distributed over three different historic boats, sailing lake Thun. The food wasn’t anything special in my perception, but I had a great time! The boat was a pretty paddle-wheel steam boat (presumably converted to run on diesel), the lake was pretty in its own kitsch way, and my table companions were lovely without exception. An evening well-spent!

INQUA conference part II

The speakers get cowed by the convener. The conveners get ignored by the speakers. The speakers steal the microphone. The speakers kick the audience around the head with discouraging talks. It’s not easy, a conference.

After the mid-conference excursion we had three more days of sessions and plenary talks. And there was a lot going on. Very interesting talks on all sorts of things! And our own session, which contained many very good talks, and as well the presentation of my own poster. Lots to do!

The venue a while before the poster session: the posters are already up. Mine's in there...

As a matter of joke all conveners here get some thingy that mooos like a cow when you turn it upside down, and that sound tells the speaker he or she should wrap up. There was some fear of being cowed by stern conveners. And some fear of not being cowed, as well... One convener cowed a speaker, who was giving a talk on the expected duration of the present interglacial, twice. No effect. He then got up and walked ostentatiously around. No effect. When the speaker finally reached the end the convener mentioned he could have known the speaker (named Chronis, by the way; his career is strewn with chrono-jokes) would keep on talking till the end of the Holocene...

There was a talk by a big name in dating. He gave a talk in which he warned everybody against circular reasoning in sediment dating. He keeps us all on our toes! Some people, such as climate sceptics, like to portray the scientific community as one front of conspiring folks who stick together and cover things up for each other. It’s not true. A man like that will not let us get away with dodgy dating. Luckily he’s in our project; with a bit of luck he’ll organise a workshop in November that we are invited to.

There was another talk on what can go wrong with paleoenvironmental reconstruction using microfossils; another man who will uncover any unsound reasoning. I happened to have a beer with him later; he seems to give a course in data evaluation later this year... I hope I can join in! These are the real fruits of a conference.

Dinner with colleagues and friends after the penultimate day

In our own session, a gentleman who had serious positive impact on my career spoke. When he was done he emptied the stage for the next speaker. Who was quite eager to get his own message across, but initially said no more than “Edouard has stolen the microphone...”

I will go home falling over myself with inspiration to continue the research. So much to read, so much to measure, so many things to learn! And so many new friends made I hope to see again at a next conference...

Mid-conference excursion

Leave it to the Swiss to organise something. But not the weather. Those who have read the posting on the INQUA conference will probably not be surprised the Swiss also offered a mid-conference excursion, or rather: a wide range of possible excursions one could choose from. I chose a trip to the Schynige Platte; it was the toughest hike still available when I got around to registering for something. But the weather had been very changeable the whole conference, and warnings went out to all participants to really bring warm clothing! Luckily I was prepared...

We had to assemble at the railway station at 7.45 in the morning, which meant getting up very early, and not wearing earplugs. When I reached the meeting point I realised I knew nobody, but that was a good thing, as this way I was going to meet new people. Some were more careless than others: we even had a girl in shorts, in spite of the plentiful warnings given about the weather.

We took a regular train, followed by a cog railway, and we ended at almost 2000m with, weather permitting, a great view on Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau. And immediately two people wandered off, only to pop up again after lots of worrying from the organisers. And then we were off!

The historic train snaking its way up the slope

The view from the train

The high mountains peeking out of the clouds

And off we were!

It was a beautiful day, with proper Alpine weather that would change from gloves-and-woolly-hat weather to T-shirt weather in seconds, and back. Sometimes we were engulfed in fog, but more often the view was stunning. And beside the plentiful stops we needed to let everybody catch up again, we had some planned, scientific stops, where plant ecologists and micropalaeontologists would tell about the work they had performed in this region, and what was there to see. It was all a very good day! I took many pictures of the view and the alpine flora (so much I was mistaken for a botanist), and I greatly enjoyed the snow. We were lucky that way; I asked a local if the amount of snow we got was typical, and she said she had never seen this much at this location.

Tales from a plant ecologist

Gratuitous Alpine meadow

This view made me happy!

Smiling in front of Saegitalsee

Here we are being told about chironomids

 Shots like these (pretty!) made people think I was a botanist or something like that

The views were stunning 

A beautiful erosional limestone landscape

While we were strolling around what I hoped would happen indeed happened; I got to know many of the people at the excursion. Swedes, Fins, Canadians, Swiss, Brits, and Irish, mainly. And the world of Quaternary Science is small, so you tend to always have friends in common.

No explanation needed!

When we got back to the cog railway station we had an hour to spare, so with new found friends I enjoyed a beverage on a terrace with an amazing view, and then we quickly ran through the local botanical garden. We even got to see Edelweiss! But then we had to run back to the (last) train. It had been a good day! And it was a nice appetiser for after the conference; I would get to see the high mountains from much closer up...

25 July 2011

INQUA conference part I

Leave it to the Swiss to organise something. The venue was very recognisable, registration only cost a few seconds, there was welcome coffee, all information you could wish was available, there were interesting welcoming talks; it was all good! I was quite impressed. I was also impressed by how many people you meet within the first 15 minutes of a conference, and how many kisses that results in. This was going well! And later I would also be impressed with the general level of care you receive. Always something to drink, always salad with the lunch, good coffee at several coffee breaks... and a travel pass for all busses and trams in town!

If I go to a conference I can go to meetings on the topic I work on, of course, but having worked on several other topics in the past I tend to have a wide choice in interesting sessions. The first day flew by in a jiffy! There weren’t many people from Norway, nor people who work on Barents Sea ecology (that goes together well), but there was plenty of work presented on sea level change, and on glacial-interglacial climate variability. And sometimes you can just go to stuff that has nothing to do with your work, but which is fun to listen to anyway. So I sneaked some talks in on historical and archaeological topics...

This is the hall in which they give plenary talks such as this one; from the inside it looks very professional, but from the outside it looks like a hangar. And maybe it even used to be one...
There are also talks on th emilitary compound!

There's even talks in the stadium...

You might have this as your view during your coffee break!

The first day ended with a welcome reception in the national horse centre. This means those allergic to horses must have felt somewhat unwelcome, but I’m not one of these, and I had a good time. There was wine, there was cheese, and there were lots of people. I caught up with lots, and even ensnared a co-author that I thought I’d lost. He claims to be back on track! That will be one good paper. And afterwards I walked off with Roland, Alex (my former office mate! It was good to see him again!), and a bunch of PhD students that were staying on the camp site too. I wanted to be fresh for the next day though, so I left after one beer.

The welcoming reception

 Me, Alex and Marta enjoying the wine and the cheese!

The entertainment at the reception 

Roland and Alex, who have a long record of working together, talk shop over a beer

I was in bed early. I had moved my tent to a darker part of the camping, as initially I had been within reach of some disturbing strip light, but that would turn out to be no improvement. The PhD students, young and frivolous as they were, continued the party on the camp site, in a way that included quite some yelling and screaming. So the next day I even had difficulty staying awake during the one and only plenary talk... I was a bit grumpy, but I had communicated that so well I would get apologies for days afterwards.

After the last talk I went for a pint and a falafel with Alex; good old times! We even did most of the conversation in Dutch. But again I wanted to try to get a good night’s sleep, so we went back to the tents early, where this time indeed the youngsters kept their calm. And the next plenary talk, on palaeoanthropology, I would be wide awake!

 A well-deserved beer on the street. But surprise surprise, it started raining...

A Bernese pub (good to flee into when it rains)

The Saturday was a day with somewhat fewer interesting sessions, which is why I managed to blog about the conference while it was still underway. But after the last talks we would take advantage of the fact that all four of our project’s field team were present, and we would have a project meeting. I only have about four weeks left on this contract, and several of these will be spent in Switzerland and Scotland! And there’s still lots to do...

23 July 2011

Visiting Bern: it had better be good

When there was a conference in San Francisco I didn’t see very much of town. As soon as I hit the conference I didn’t come out; every time you think there’s a gap in the programme someone points out some interesting session you had overlooked. There would now be a conference in Bern, Switzerland; this time it would be different. But I would regret it.

I looked forward to the conference: they tend to be very inspirational. And it would be big enough to meet lots of old friends, but not big enough to lose track of them all the time. I would be presenting largely the same results as I did in San Francisco, but still, it would be interesting to see what sort of comments I would get.

There was a lot to do beforehand! I did the planning in a hurry. I just looked up when the conference was and booked flights around that. And only later I realised that meant I had booked around the conference including the pre- and post-conference excursions, which were already fully booked by that time, but well, that would give me some time to have a look around in this charming capital.

By chance I travelled with Marta, our Spanish PhD student. And we were in the train between Geneva and Bern when I got a text message. A cave rescue call-out! And I was in Switzerland! And I could have travelled the day after, and joined the rescue! I was most frustrated. But there was nothing I could do. I vented my spleen to everybody who ventured into reach, and beside that I decided I should try to enjoy Bern, so it wouldn’t have been for nothing.

Bern is small and expensive, which meant affordable hotel rooms were in short supply. Several of us had circumvented that issue by staying at the campsite, so that was where Marta and I headed. She had a cabin there, so I pitched my tent in the relentless rain, and off into town we were.

The camping was about 30 (wet) minutes walking from city centre, along the decorative and fast-flowing river. The old centre is a UNESCO heritage site, and it shows! But we were hungry, and the rain only got worse, so we didn’t do very much sightseeing, and went looking for a meal. We aimed for a relatively affordable restaurant that offered Swiss cuisine: a good try! Not only because I liked the food, but also because it attracts congress participants like flies, and inside I was greeted by an old friend. It was Stefan, who was doing a PhD on chironomids while I did one on forams, back in Amsterdam. He was with a friend too, and the four of us had a pleasant evening. That lessened the pain of not going cave rescuing!

The walk along the river was quite pretty 

 At night too

Leave it to the Swiss to regulate almost anything! 

I suspected they have ubiquitous arcades because it always rains, but a more optimistic resident pointed out it might actually have more to do with snow...
The next day we teamed up with Stefan again; we visited the national history museum, which contains the Einstein Museum, and after that I did get my stroll around town. So I got to see the obligatory Bears, to which Bern owes its name! And the city is fairly small, so at the end of the day I figured that if I wouldn’t get to see more of it than this I would still be satisfied. In other words: I was ready for the conference. Bring it on!

 The national History Museum

 Unavoidable bears in the bear pit

The pretty skyline, though it would be prettier if the cathedral wouldn't have scaffolding

And another pretty skyline picture: this time with the Parliament building and the Kirchenfeld Bridge

18 July 2011

Fast guests

Let’s see how long it takes for Margot to pop up! It took about 4 minutes. A friend mentioned on Facebook he would take holidays in Cornwall, and about one minute later another friend had mentioned the guy should go and visit me, and then only minutes later I had posted I fully agreed with that. And it would happen!

Their visit here would largely coincide with my absence, but there was overlap, and that resulted in me seeing a car being hesitantly parked in my street. And it was them! Mark, a guy who had been a PhD student in Amsterdam at the same time as me, and Karel, his boyfriend.

Karel, me and Mark

They had gone lost somewhere between Exeter and Plymouth, so they were a bit later than planned, and they were hungry. So we decided to immediately go into town for lunch. Unfortunately it started raining, and the rain got heavier, so I cut my touristic walk through Plymouth short, and we darted into the nearest pub for lunch. Fortunately it was a cosy one. And there we were nicely sheltered, and stumbled across a good lunch as well. And we had time to catch up.

I had left the country only two months after they had moved to Amsterdam. I’d helped paint the house. A lot had happened since then. Later I had visited again, when yet another friend had defended her PhD thesis, and I had spent the night at their place.

The rainy view from the ferris Wheel onto the Citadel
After lunch we tried town again, but the rain was relentless, so we had to seek shelter in all sorts of venues, such as the Ferris Wheel on the Hoe, and a pub. Life is hard. The men wanted to get to Dartmoor that very evening to spend a scenic night there, and, weather permitting, go for a stroll there the next day. So way too soon they left again! It had been a quick visit, but it had been great to seen them again. Maybe I'll see them again fairly soon in Amsterdam! And I hope the rest of their holiday is great, and preferably a little less wet...

17 July 2011

Swift water

What starts in a uranium mine can easily lead into a fast-flowing river. When I got involved in caving I soon got involved in cave rescue as well, and the cave rescue team also does swift water rescue. Partially because there may be swift water in a cave, and partially in order to be able to assist the actual water rescue teams in case something big goes wrong. It’s difficult to imagine such a large underground catastrophe that we will need to ask other cave rescue teams for assistance, but one could imagine a big flood, which requires more hands than the water boys can provide. And then we’re back-up!

That’s how I ended up in a wetsuit and a caving suit on the banks of the river Dart on a balmy Thursday night. I didn’t need the caving suit for this occasion, evidently, but it seemed an excellent opportunity to give it a good rinsing.

There's worse places to be on a Thursday evening! Notice the little figures in the water. 

We are paying close attention form the bridge

The Ashburton water rescuers would show us the ropes that evening. They showed us how to drift down a rapid river without getting hurt, and gave some throw line tips. And then we could practice! We had a blast, going down the rapids, being rescued by our friends, only to push off again and give some rescuers further downstream a chance too.

The experts show us throw line protocol

And then we can get into the water ourselves!

Happily drifting down

The river sides were littered with rescuers!

There was an emergency line to catch anyone who would manage to fail to get rescued. But one may be tempted to purposely miss that one too: that would leave one stranded at the nearest pub...

When we had all honed our floating and throwing skills we tried something else: crossing a rapid river in a stable way. There may be times when we have to get a hurt, but still walking, victim over a river, or even one on a stretcher. In both cases it matters that you are stable, and don’t get swept away yourself. And just by teaming up you can turn into some multipede, and a river has nothing on you! Good to experience that.

All these ways to stably cross a river! Notice that the scrum-like formation is good to transport a walking casualty; just place them inside the circle. And the last formation would allow the carrying of a stretcher.
Time flies when you’re having fun, so when we had done all that it was time for a debriefing and the pub. Our instructors were pleased with us, and invited us to join their trainings anytime. I’ll remember that! And this night, combined with the earlier water trainings we’ve had, even got us the qualification of swift water rescuer level 2. Not quite sure what it is but it sounds encouraging! After the next conference (or two conferences) I might see it I can do this a bit more often, and perhaps even get to level 3... that must be more useful than 2!

We had pretty passers-by...

 And the abbey to watch over us.

Dave saw some aquatic vegetation as an opportunity to get in touch with his feminine side!