28 February 2012


If you go to Edinburg you have to see the castle. It's as simple as that. So when the search for the needle on the haystack would continue in that fair city I figured I should book an extra day.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon. I got to my hotel, checked in, and left immediately to see something of the city before the sun got down. People had recommended Holyrood Park to me; it may be slap bang in the middle of the capital, but it still is probably wilder than the wildest place in the whole of the Netherlands. And it was beautiful indeed!

My first proper view on Holyrood Park with Arthur's Seat

Edinburg Castle is built on an old volcanic plug; that I knew. I did not previously know Edinburgh had an even bigger one; Arthur's seat, in the middle of Holyrood Park, which is a park as it's not good for building on, it being this outcrop of volcanic rocks. I climbed the top, being blown out of my clothes, and then walked along a cliff of basaltic rocks. It had gotten too dark for pictures...

The basalt cliffs (crags) seen from the ascent to Arthur's seat, and the city behind them

The next day I made sure I got to the castle as soon as it opened. Having bought a ticket online I was one of the first in! I got to see it without crowds. There's a lot to see in the castle! It's pretty as it is, but it also holds numerous expositions. I spent quite some time there...

The castle just before it opened; notice the two people in red barring the entrance

It probably had something to do with 6 nations rugby, which encompassed Scotland-France in the local stadium, but the city was teeming with French. And many of them wanted to leave no room for doubt on their nationality. Like this bunch, all dressed up as Asterix & Obelix...

The empty entrance!

View on the old cart sheds, now a cafe, from above

The Great Hall

In contrast to the hall: the prison, furnished as it is thought it looked at the time

View from the castle, onto Calton Hill with the National Monument

After the castle I booked myself onto a tour in the catacombs of town, and had lunch. Some left-over time was spent shopping; I'm a lady now, and that's what they do!

The catacombs were connected to the volcanic rocks as well; ancient Edinburgh was built exclusively on a ridge, but when fear of invasion diminished while population soared, this was no longer feasible. Nor desirable. So the valleys on the sides, and the adjacent hills were developed too, and in the 18th century someone came up with the idea of bridges over the valleys. And no need to waste the space below; here they built these catacombs. Initially meant as storage spaces for the shops above, and for workshops for those who couldn't afford better; they were very wet, though, and not only water came down. Whatever the horses crossing the bridge were dropping percolated down too. Soon they were abandoned by the honourable. Later they were even abandoned by the criminal. And now, dug out and re-waterproofed, they are a tourist attraction. Some of it seems to have been rediscovered as a venue for nightlife! And once they had been very extensive; we only got to see a small part. Unfortunately...

Then the day was over. Haggis and bed! Later I would see more of town, but that's a story for later...

Four years in limbo

(Warning: all links in this post direct to pages in Dutch)

It started between Heaven and Earth. Way above limbo, evidently. If you go climbing in a converted church (above mentioned name) you probably think it will end with a day of stiff muscles. And not with, well, four years in Limbo. But sometimes it does.

One of our former postdocs went climbing with her climbing mate, as she always did on Tuesday. Her mate's girlfriend was climbing the route beside her. These often climbed together, too. While the guy was belaying our postdoc he was also keeping half an eye on his girlfriend. Was that what went wrong? When the girlfriend reached the top, abseiled down, and walked past to get to the bar our ill-omened climbing partner took our postdoc out of belay. He did it without thinking, and wasn't even sure himself what has prompted that. Possibly he linked the sight of his girlfriend on the ground with the subconscious assumption he was done belaying.

Our postdoc didn't know that. She either reached the top, and without further ado lowered herself into the rope, or she fell. Either way; she relied on the rope, but found it wasn't attached to anything. She fell, broke her ribs, tore her lung artery, and died.

For her the story was over. For her climbing partner it had only begun. He was charged with manslaughter. He was found guilty, but not prosecuted, as court judged he had suffered enough, and could be trusted not to do anything like this again. And indeed, he will have to live with these memories forever. But was that all there is to say about it?

No. Public prosecution appealed. They figured he had been grossly negligent, and that the court had drawn the wrong conclusions from the fact he had been acting subconsciously. The court saw that as, can we say, mitigating; public prosecution saw it as incriminating. They wanted to see him punished.
This month, almost 4 years later, the final verdict is given. The appeal is rejected. He will no further be hassled by courts.

Why am I mentioning all this? I stumbled across a column in a big Dutch newspaper on this case. And as I knew the girl I was interested. Whatever legal action is performed, we won't get Mirjam back. But my thoughts are with the guy. If such an accident happens it's bad enough; having your face dragged through dirt for four years must make things hell. I hope he can find some peace now.

And the rest of the world? The judge noticed a few almost identical cases had happened; he or she suggested it may be better if indoor climbing happened in such a way that only the climber, and not the belayer, can take him- or herself out of belay; not the belayer. With in the Netherlands only already three accidents like this (one non-fatal) one can see the rationale. I just wonder how feasible it is; that would mean a revolution in climbing kit! Only for a few distracted Dutchies? I wonder if there will be a Dutch law to enforce that. I guess it would be met with lots of moaning, but then again; prevention of the loss of someone like Mirjam is worth quite a lot of that...

24 February 2012

1000th posting

It's not the setting up of a blog that's the difficulty; it's the maintaining of the blog! Few people may know that this blog was actually a birthday present. A splendid gentleman by the name of Blerik once gave me an "IOU" for my birthday; it must have been the last I celebrated as a Dutch resident. And he's very good with computers. So when I landed that job in Norway, and decided I needed a job to stay in touch with people, but had quite a lot on my mind already, with moving house internationally and stuff, I went back to that. I cashed the IOU: I asked him to set up what you are now reading. He agreed to do that, but he added the sentence with which I started this paragraph.

I think I managed. It's been almost five years now! And I seem to keep this speed up of approximately two postings per three days*. And in that way I have hereby reached the 1000th blog post! A nice milestone to ponder.

What has changed? Not much. Blerik's set-up has proved a classic. The biggest change has been the change in language. I started out the blog as a means to keep my Dutch friends and relatives informed, but when I left Norway I also wanted to keep the Norwegians updated as well. So I shifted to a more accessible language. And I have become more diligent in linking back to related blog posts, and providing labels.

Not everything goes as well as I had hoped; I rarely manage to inspire a discussion, and I rarely blog elaborate, well-researched thougths. The former is largely out of my hands; the latter is mainly because there are so many superficial things to blog about, and so little time for the deep stuff, that it rarely happens. I have several societal issues I want to blog about! But that takes time. There is but little.

I am always happy to sometimes, suddenly, be confronted with stuff that does work; people of whom I have no clue they read my blog suddenly turning out to be quite up to date with my whereabouts, for instance. And the continuing support by Blerik; it's rarely needed, but if my blog gets too strong-willed of its own, he generally comes rushing up out of nowhere to provide advice. Thanks Blerik!

And thanks those that have been reading! Either the whole period, or maybe only part. I like having an external memory in the form of this blog, but that would not be enough to keep going. I'll try to keep this level up, and to keep people interested and entertained!

*PS I still am a nerd; I can't resist specifying that a more accurate figure is 421 blog posts per 768 days...

23 February 2012

The weak and the sophisticated

Over Christmas I was quite ill; that’s enough infirmity for the next 6 months, one would think. But no! I probably asked for some more trouble by simultaneously having boiler issues at home, and a radiator in the office that just isn’t up for battling cold spells. Basically, every place where I would sit still would be cold. And then on Sunday I biked to deep dark Plympton to deliver entry forms for the next week’s race by hand; with Hugh having been in Japan we were too late to send them by mail. And Plympton is hilly. I should be entirely bike-proof, but still; maybe the getting sweaty uphill, and then the blasting through the cold air downhill, didn’t do me any good.

So I got another sore throat. Annoying! And after a sore throat one gets sniffly. I abode by that tradition. And though I wasn't too ill to go to work, I didn’t feel up for running that 10 mile race, the registration for which might have done me in. But then the day can be used otherwise! Hugh, who was under the weather as well, suggested a walk. We decided to befittingly walk the Devonport Heritage Trail, on which I have written before; it would not be too far, it would be informative, and it would cover quite some of the same ground as the race.

It was a beautiful day, and we saw many charming corners of town we otherwise may never have seen. A success! And of course we ended the stroll with a pub lunch. As one does. It fit quite well within my new image of the sophisticated lady. I do hope, however, I’ll soon be back on top, doing the usual sweaty and muddy things! I should not have to buy elegance with good health…

This is a bit odd - a concrete bridge thrown slap bang over a historic, cobbled quay. Strange!

If you pass underneath that bridge you come to an old, rusty jetty

Squinting Hugh with a tug boat in the background

Me reading the information leaflet, with the Torpoint Ferries in the background

21 February 2012

Jordan tribes

If you spend your working hours with your nose in old core logs it migth be good to sometimes get your nose out of these, and re-broaden your horizon. And I've expressed my appreciation for university as a place for doing that before; there's always all sorts of seminars on. And last week our own Ella, wife of Federico, one of our lecturers, gave a seminar for the Plymouth International Studies Centre.  It was announced as follows:
Eleanor Gao, University of Michigan: ‘Diverse but not divisive: Tribal diversity and public goods provision in Jordan.’
I won't go into detail on what her findings were, but one would believe me there were quite some Jordanian tribes involved. In the beginning of the talk she showed a historic map with where these tribes approximately lived. And I was immediately struck by the name of one the biggest tribes: Arab Beni Saher! And I assume it's an unusual way of transcribing the Arabic script, as a quick google of tribes with that name yielded nothing; but still: that's my tribe, would I ever move to Jordan!

The map in question! From a website on Jordan tribes

ps I found they seem to most often be spelled "Beni Sakhr", and can as such be found on Wikipedia. Ella explained to me the "Arab" in front denotes they're Bedouins. They seem to be quite powerful; of course, with such a name!

Valentine underground

I think you are familiar with the routine, reader! Tuesday is often caveday. And how many different blog posts can one write about plodding around underground? At some point there's not much news-worthy about it anymore. And last week was one of those trips. And yes it was a Valentine's trip, but that does not have much influence other than that it's not very well-attended, as some of our men are kept at home on a night like that by their significant others. So we went underground with a select few, we took pictures, we had a good time: hardly revolutionary! But John took some pictures that were so nice I decided to post them anyway. So after all: a posting on last week's trip down a small but pretty adit!

Junction, by John

Crossing a winze, by John

This may look somewhat non-descript, but it is a fault outcropping in the wall of a tunnel. And water just comes streaming out! I found that geologically interesting. The rock doesn't look permeable, but look at how much water makes its way out here...

20 February 2012

Fashion show

I know I kept some people waiting. You can hardly boast on both Facebook AND a blog about your new outfits, get more comments than ever before, and hardly show anything. I put two outfits on the blog; I'll here show 5 more! And that's not all. But since when can one have it all.

Margot goes business-like: in the middle something that these days is a normal work outfit, and left the same outfit, but combined with a coat. And yes, a Palestinian scarf. I had a sore throat! I have a smart scarf but that's not warm enough on a day like that... and to the right Margot goes extra executive.

And these are two of the more glamorous outfits: this would be good for dining out, and such things! And no I can't walk on these shoes yet. But as I now have a reason to wear them I think I'll soon learn...

Holes in the ground!

A fieldwork with the fab four usually starts like this: we go to a salt marsh with a nice sleek hand auger, and stick it in the ground here and there. The cores we bring up will guide us to where we had best take our thicker cores for taking home and analysing. But now we're on the new project, in which  our sediments are no longer lying at the surface, and we need bigger equipment. And you don't just carry that around in your hand. So a recconnaisance mission isn't that simple.

But there's advantages; we now look for older sediments in the subsurface, so at the surface there could be anything. Not a salt marsh in all likelyhood, but probably fields, and houses, and copses and roads and railroads and quarries and whatnot. And the unpleasant thing is that you can't just core away without hindering anyone; not everybody will want a percussive corer in their back garden. But houses and roads and railroads need foundations, and one may want to know what the subsurface holds in order to construct these appropriately. Enter the British Geological Survey.

I knew of one core this institute had drilled, which was relevant for our project. So I searched their website for it. No results. Then I made an enquiry. And no time later I had a response.It turned out that they had archived their cores by location only; the name would lead you nowhere. So they pointed me in the right direction. And then a world opened before my eyes. 

Countless many BGS core logs are freely available on their site. Suddenly I had access to the logs of hundreds of cores in our area of interest! That saves us coring. The BGS has already done it for us! With this wealth of information we can have a fairly good idea of where to core before we even get off our scholarly behinds. 

The records themselves are quite interesting themselves; quite many are fairly straightforward and informative, as the two below.

Typical BGS core log

This is a rather specific one: forams in the Nar Valley Clay; that's what we want to hear!

But some are very charming in their antiquity, as the one below, from the 19th Century. At times I get a bit overwhelmed by the sheer plethora of information, but altogether this is one of the best websites I've found in a while!

18 February 2012

Blast from the past

Facebook is not just for posting pictures of yourself and your mates being stark drunk! Not everyone will agree with me here, but besides not having any of such pictures on FB (or anywhere, really) I find myself using the social network for tangentially work-related purposes. Drawing people's attention to job vacancies if they have left university and you don't have a private e-mail address, for instance. And today I got a notification a former colleague from Norway had shared a link on my wall. And it turned out it was a link to an article in the Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper, that my dear old employer the Norwegian Polar Institute would let its research vessel, the Lance, get frozen into winter sea ice near Svalbard. It would give them a good opportunity to study, for instance, microbiology in action in winter. And to illustrate that they had used a picture that featured me! Good old days. And I don't think I would have noticed without Facebook... Thanks, Per!

Single sex groups

There's a fieldwork coming up. The good old field team of Roland, Antony, Tasha and me will be valiantly scouring Norfolk for sediments that hold the information we seek for our interglacial sea level project, however encrypted. And some of us are more equal than others; the plan so far is that Tasha and I go in first and start to do the boring work, under frugal circumstances. When the gentlemen arrive the living standards will be instantly raised. So I'm in the process of booking a spacious lodge for all of us, and have a look at campsites where Tasha and I can reside before that. And while looking at the website of the nearest campsite I got somewhat confused. They claim they don't allow single sex groups! I don't suppose Tasha and I, just being 2, count as a group, so it wouldn't have practical implacations for us. But I was puzzled! I can easily envision single sex groups one might not wish to reside too close to in a very sound-permeable tent; an image of ten-ish 15-year-old males comes to mind. But just suppose the local embroidery club, by sheer coincidence all-female, and even all over 60 and not very rowdy at all, wants to have a nice club outing? Hmm. I'm a bit suprised. Is this even legal? If we get to stay there I'll ask why they have this rule...

17 February 2012

Caving responsibilities

Newbies with enthusiasm get the jobs nobody wants. It’s one of the laws of physics. When I started caving in 2009, and liked it a lot, and went to committee meetings and such things, I became an easy target for some committee position. So fairly soon I became the Meets secretary; the person who makes sure a message goes out in time to all the club members with information on the next trip: where we meet, what one should expect (it is difficult? Is it wet?), and who the contact person for the trip is.

A contact person has several jobs: he or she knows who should be coming, so knows when we are complete and thus can go underground. This person should also know where the entrance is; not unimportant! Ideally, this person also brings helmets and lights for new members who don’t have their own yet. And at the end of the trip, this same person makes sure the same number of people as has gone underground also comes back to the surface again.

Sending all this information around sounds like an easy job, but it started out hard; what did I know about all these mines. I had to ask Dave many times where the venue was, where there was parking space, and what the venue was like.

I also often had to make sure there was someone willing to be the contact person; sometimes none is mentioned on the website, and then I had to find one. If there was one on the website, it was often a good idea to verify this person knew that, and was indeed willing and able to perform that task. And sometimes when something goes wrong (contact person falls ill, mine gets flooded; such things) an alternative has to be found. Quick.

Given that I am also rather good at producing lots of text (look around you on the blog!) I became an easy target for Newsletter Editor. And at the next AGM I was indeed elected. I inherited all the material from the previous editor; one of the biggest articles was actually written by myself. And soon I indeed produced a newsletter.

But by now I was a veritable veteran, and new eager newbies had appeared on the horizon. And when our secretary quit after having received some frictional emails from another, somewhat less-than-desirably appreciative committee member, things started shifting. Our president took on the role as interim secretary, and one of our fairly new, but most active, members: Bernard, made the mistake of confessing he would soon start working four days a week instead of five. More time for the caving club! So this was my chance to pass the meets secretary potato, and have some more time for making newsletters, for after that one issue I never made one again. Mind you; I only received input from just one person.

The next committee meeting Bernard wasn't there, so my evil scheme didn't work. But a month later we had our AGM, and then, after all, things indeed happened as foreseen. I am no longer the person to clog up everybody’s mailbox every week! But I may try to clog them up with newsletters from now on…

15 February 2012


Ophelia, you must remember...

What should Ophelia remember? When I couldn't get 'Ophelia' by Tori Amos out of my head I started wondering such things. And I decided to read Hamlet.

Comparing song lyrics to their literary inspiration is asking for trouble; there are many steps in which unchecked interpretation takes place. But it’s an interesting exercise. So what was it again the song says about Ophelia? The relevant passages are the following:

Ophelia your secret is safe
Ophelia you must break the chain
Some girls will get their way
Some fathers will control from the grave
Ophelia you must remember

"The Eve of St. Agnes",
A poem he can't reach you in
Ophelia you know how to lose
But when will you learn to choose
Those men who choose to stay
Those mothers who won't look the other way
Ophelia you must remember

Some of it I still don’t get. Of course; it’s a Tori Amos song. But in the light of Ophelia being rejected by Hamlet after he has been summoned by his murdered father to revenge him might explain the 3rd and 4th line. And would her secret be that she committed suicide? It’s not perceived as very secretive in the play. 

And when I came to what here is the second verse I had to, of course, also read "The Eve of St. Agnes", by Keats. That poem relates to a myth that claims that unmarried maidens who stick to some rules, such as going to bed without dinner, and not looking back, will get a vision of their future love in their dreams on that special night. One besotted young man sees a possibility there: he sneaks into his love’s bedroom’s walk-in cupboard, and he wakes her up to provide her with a waking dream of what he hopes will be her future love. And it works! Alas; no such luck for Ophelia, evidently…

Ophelia lost; she lost her lover, her father and her senses. And her life. The next line reeks of cheesy rhyming, but let’s look past that. What choice did Ophelia have? Could we do better in her shoes?
There wasn’t much she could have done to prevent being ditched by Hamlet. There wasn’t much she could have done to prevent Hamlet from murdering her father. But she could have chosen to break the chain; take these misfortunes on the chin, get on with life, and not add one more to the rapidly growing pile of corpses. It’s fat chance with Shakespeare that would indeed have meant entirely breaking the chain of violence; too many men had too much at stake. But one can try. And Hamlet couldn’t reach her at the Eve of St Agnes, but maybe someone else would have. A more forgiving playwright might have made her dream of Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, and in a way Hamlet’s successor…

13 February 2012

Your own personal shopper

I am closer to 40 than to 30. I teach at university. Maybe there is something to say for dressing in something smarter than a fleece and T-shirts. I sometimes try; in Norway I practiced sometimes on the glamorous scale of dressing up, and about a year ago I managed to make some modest improvements on my wardrobe, but it’s all very slow and small-scale. Neil already commented on me either looking very scruffy or very glamorous, but never anything in between. And he was right!

A few months ago some revelation would pave the way for more efficient improvement. I went to Durham for scientific reasons, and was thereblown off my feet by Tasha, who was a traditional scruffy geographer too, but who had managed to smarten up effectively in no time at all. She looked spiffing! She revealed many shops have a “personal shopper service”; you can book one for free for a period of 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how thorough you want to be, and then they shop for you. You are received in a private room in the back of the store, and you explain to your shopper what you’re looking for. And then they forage around in the shop. And then my sister’s feedback, a weekend ago, made me prioritise a make-over even more. And then a swift water rescue training weekend was moved, opening up a whole weekend. I seized my chance. A local Debenham’s, the same chain as Tasha had chosen, indeed offered such a service. 

I wanted some stuff I can wear at university, so I can look credible in front of the students. But I also wanted stuff in between the casual and the over-the-top. For a romantic evening, for instance. Or a conference dinner. And I wanted not only a nice shirt; I can get that on my own! I also want stuff to stay warm in when I look smart. And then I also need a bag, since smart ladies’ clothes tend to have no space for keys and wallets and such. 

 Me in the private dressing room. I didn't buy that dress, by the way!

And it worked! A personal shopper will bring out things you would never have thought of yourself. And people with such jobs have an eye for what looks good and what doesn’t. So a friendly lady called Claire prodded my wishes, poured me a coffee, and went into the shop.

I had booked two hours. We spent two and a half. And I spent quite some money. But I am quite excited! I intend to throw quite some scruffy old clothes away now. And I might have to do another spree: for accessories such as a scarf. And I will start wearing my new acquisitions very soon! Maybe I should have done something like this years ago. But better late than never! Bring on Smart Margot!

Left: how I went to work the next Monday. The least spectacular outfit! And I guess I'd have to lose the shoelace in my hair... Right is proof of the handbag. And another outfit. There are no pics yet of the remaining outfits. There will undoubtedly be a moment for more revelations!

12 February 2012


One thing that belongs in a childhood is Dutch pancakes. They're the simplest of dishes, but how amazing they are! I have fond memories of the delicacy. And to my surprise: so does Hugh. Having had a Dutch nanny he was acutely aware of their merits. So the plan to have some together was easily concocted! And I managed to introduce a new combination to him: bacon, cheese, and syrup! It's a bit odd to make bacon pancakes with English bacon (it's quite thick!), and the syrup that is sold here, golden syrup, is not quite the traditional stuff, but it worked out most satisfyingly. And it's a bit of an indulgent pile-up of toppings, but he's convinced! We may want to do that more often...

I don't suppose I don't have to explain why there are no pics of pancakes that are done?

10 February 2012

Victim vs casualty

"I know it's your second language, but will you please stop calling him "the victim"! He's a casualty!"
We were wedged in a rift in Dog Hole, and our casualty(!) of the day had come into sight. We were basically being an artificial floor of this somewhat too deep rift; the stretcher would part slide over our laps, and part be crowdsurfed over our heads. That way he would comfortable come down a slope, then make a rather sharp turn, and then go up on the other side.

The last time we had tried this exercise (volunteer casualty with fake broken leg in the cave, and us getting this person out in the most comfortable possible way) things had gone haywire: the casualty got seizures in the cave, and the practice turned into a rescue. As you can't put casualties with fits into a stretcher, we had a very useful night, but we hadn't practiced getting someone out of this fairly tricky cave horizontally. And now we had another try. And this time it worked well...

09 February 2012

Seizing political power

If I vote for it, it probably doesn't make it first past the post. So as a UK resident but non-citizen I get the right to vote in the municipal elections, but as they don’t do “one person, one vote” (how politically correct do I describe it!) my vote goes, practically, straight down the drain. There goes my political power.

But then my attention got drawn to the phenomenon of the e-petition. If the public wants politics to discuss something they don’t consider on their own initiative, it can start an e-petition. If 100.000 people or more sign it, it must be discussed in the House of Commons. I remember when they started this initiative; the first one that got posted allegedly was "Gordon Brown should resign"...

I had no idea you didn’t have to be a citizen to sign them! Being a resident is enough. So when I found that out, a red mist appeared before my eyes, and I frantically started to exercise raw, shameless and blunt political power. Alright Brits, you’ve let me in, and now you have to take my thoroughly continental thoughts and convictions into consideration! Ha!

Maybe I won’t single-handedly turn this country into some Europhile, liberal pseudo-Netherlands; I am only one of what hopefully will be 100.000 at least… but still I found it satisfying! I signed two: one that asks for an official pardon for Alan Turing, one of the key brains behind the Enigma machine which did immeasurable service to the allied forces in WWII, and the spiritual father of Artificial Intelligence. He was convicted of “gross indecency” (read: gay sex) in 1952 and chemically castrated; two years later he committed suicide. He ate an apple poisoned with cyanide; some people wonder if the Apple logo is a tribute to Turing, but as far as I know this is a coincidence. I heard through the grapevine that, when asked in an interview, Steve Jobs confessed he only wished they had thought of that. And thanks to Blerik here's a link to the actual story of the Apple logo...

Anyway. There is an e-petition asking for a pardon for Alan Turing, on the basis of all he’s done for Britain, and for so much of the rest of the world. And that petition is still open until late November, but already the Justice Minister has rejected the request, on silly grounds. Is this another case of British homophobia? Or is he afraid there will be endlessly many more e-petitions asking for a pardon for people who have been convicted for breaking a law that in 21st century eyes is an abomination? Either way, I think he is both wrong and speaking prematurely. I do hope this petition, signable by citizens and residents of the UK, will make it past 100.000 soon, and that the Justice Minister will have to eat his words!

And while I was at ait anyway, I signed the petition asking for evolution to be taught at all schools, and creationism at none. A splendid cause, if you ask me! If you want to tell about creationism you can do it in a church. Schools are for education…

08 February 2012

Coastal and ICT processes

“Every disadvantage has its advantage”; would that be the correct translation of the most famous of the Cruijffisms? Either way, I decided to combine computational misery and a lack of scientific knowledge to form something beautiful. As diligent readers will by now be more than aware of, in March I will have to supervise two teams of students on coastal geomorphological projects. And my own coastal geomorphological knowledge could use some brushing up. So when my computer, which is slow at the best of times, got so slow it became unworkable I decided to run a full scan of my computer. This can take a while, but I had something useful to do in the meantime: fill some gaps in my knowledge!

The scan took hours, but it resulted in the detection and subsequent deletion of a Trojan, and while my poor computer was gargling away I read a book which greatly increased my grasp of topics that come in handy in March. And today I met all my students; they left a positive impression. So preparations for that utterly unprecedented fieldwork are going well. And even my computer is more or less back to speed!

Why does the blog tilt this picture? It's a landscape format!

07 February 2012


I thought I would see all my (close) family this winter, except my Finland-dwelling sister. I turned out to not see anybody except my Finland-dwelling sister…

I am notoriously bad at maintaining contact with relatives, especially in person. I phone my mother quite often, and send my Finnish sister quite many letters, but I hardly ever show up. Christmas would be the moment of redemption, but my health didn’t allow it. And then my sister decided to take matters in her own hand: she came to me.

I dragged Hugh to the railway station, where soon a train rolled in. And then a familiar face appeared through the train window! Seeing family is always special (even I know that!), but Marieke and I have always had an extra strong bond. And we haven’t lived in the same country for 15 years now, but that doesn’t change things.

The first thing Marieke did after we had hugged was asking Hugh if his intentions were honourable. When he answered positively that matter was effectively settled, and we could go home for food and sleep. She arrived at the station at ~20.25, which is 22.25 Finnish time… a pie awaited us in the oven, and soon we could eat and catch up. Only so much of that before it was bedtime, but quite good anyway!

The next morning I awoke when in my living room, which doubled as Marieke’s bedroom, still nothing stirred. So I did the nerd thing and quietly checked my mail and the news and such things. Managed to get a blog post up! But time passed by. She would only stay for a few days! And if she would spend that time asleep we wouldn’t use this opportunity for sisterly reconnecting to its maximum potential. So I then did the dishes. I got louder and louder, but still nothing stirred. When it was almost noon (2PM Finnish time!) I decided it had been enough and I woke her up.

This Saturday wouldn’t be very suitable for adventures; half the day was already gone, and the weather was abominable. So we just drank tea and spoke. For hours. The pinnacle of activity was doing the food shopping (which revealed a preference for English instant hot chocolate in my sister), and then engaging in some female bonding by means of cooking an elaborate meal together. A calm day, but a good one!

Throwing the spinach dumplings into the oxtail stew! No need to explain I would never make such a dish for myself.

The weather forecast had identified the Sunday and Monday as days for venturing outside; we picked a nice 16km stroll over Dartmoor for Sunday. And under somewhat menacing clouds we combined our incessant conversation with glorious, wide views. Maybe not as empty and spectacular as Finland, and surely not as hibernal, but beautiful nonetheless!

There were no pubs on this route, and by the time we came back to the start pubs wouldn’t serve lunch anymore, so we went home, and went into town for food. I was a bit afraid we would get swarmed by the nightlife crowds, but that expectation was happily dismantled by the realisation it was Sunday. We did end up at a table next to four Dutch blokes… we did the Dutch thing and switched to another language (or two, in our case: Swedish and Norwegian) in order to avoid detection. How silly we Dutch are…

The day after we went out again. Not just because the countryside here has a lot to offer, but also because my heating had given up. And my Fennoscandian sister doesn’t like cold! This time we picked a walk that had two pubs in it. This time pub lunch wouldn’t escape us! We hoped.

As we didn’t start early we had to walk briskly to make it at a safe time to the first pub. Which was closed on Monday. No! Our best bet was to take the quickest route to the next one. Which was shrouded in scaffolding… a bad sign. Indeed, this pub was not functional. Luckily, two of the men involved in the renovation pointed us up the road, where another pub would be found. And when we walked there the surroundings seemed to familiar… and indeed; the pub we indeed reached, and which fortunately served lunch until the late hour of 2.30, was the same in which we had had our CORiF Xmas lunch! And the one in renovation was the one that had provided our initial pint… it’s a small world.

Me on a muddy track. Pic by Marieke

After a very nice lunch we walked back, making sure we covered the prettiest parts of the indicated walk. Not enough daylight to do the whole walk after these antics! And we were back at the car at dusk.

That was a bit melancholy, already; this was our last evening together! This time we got so deep down and personal we did not only drink seas of tea but also some alcohol. And then it was bedtime again… and the only thing left to do was sleep, do a standard morning routine, pack, and leave for the railway station. There we said goodbye. I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. I should be the next one to make the trip! But when? And in the meantime we’ll have our trusted letters to keep communication going. And the next time we see each other it will still be as if we’ve been not only sisters, but also neighbours, all our life!

04 February 2012

Life and liability

If someone's life is in danger, what is more important? That this person is saved? Or that you make sure you don't accidentally break a rule, and be held accountable later? Or that you don't waste too much effort in a rescue attempt?

The fire brigade in Scotland some time ago clearly decided the second is the crucial one. And I think some cruise liner captain (not a very popular profession these days!) made the same decision, or chose the third option, yesterday. I saw this news item on the BBC news website: "British cruise ship passenger 'seen falling overboard'". So what happened? Someone saw someone fall off an enormous ship, and raised the alarm. What did the ship's authorities do? Search the ship! The chap was seen falling overboard; shouldn't you be searching the water? And of course you should have a look on board as well; maybe the person who saw it was mistaken. But by the time you've searched a ship of that size the man in the water is surely dead. It looks like they had their priorities quite muddled. I hope the BBC just got their story wrong, but unfortunately, the Miami Herald gives the same information.
I hope that if I'm ever involved in rescue (on either side) those in charge have their priorities straight...

The ship in question. Source: Creative Commons

03 February 2012

Clean house for neat sister

If your sister offers to vacuum-clean your house you shouldn't decline. But you neither should give her reason to repeat that offer.

Since I moved to the UK my sister visited once (and I visited her zero times!); during Christmas 2010, with her husband. As the blog relates, this visit almost went wrong, as half of western Europe was snowed in, and I had trouble getting back to the UK form the USA, and she might very well run into problems coming from Helsinki to the UK. And in the end it only just worked out: we arrived in Plymouth together. This did mean, though, that my house wasn't at all prepared for her sense of hygiene, and for the dust allergy of Antero. So she hoovered my house.

The mat in the hallway being uncharacteristically clean

She'll visit again soon; I think she can actually cope with my house as it normally is, but I want to make a gesture. So I cleaned more than I usually do! I removed lots of caving mud from the kitchen, I tried to do some improvised cleaning of the windows (I don't have the tools!), I hoovered... my house looked most uncharacteristic.

The kitchen windows were the biggest challenge: I have these old-fashioned English slidey windows, but in the kitchen the upper pane is fixed. So you can basically only clean both panes from the outside by being outside yourself. You can't lower the upper pane, and then lean over! But if you stand outside you might fall down. And that's not good. There's not much to hold on to. And there's nothing you can tie yourself to either! At least, not at first sight. But at second...

Not quite sure this is the most convincing picture of a clean window ever, but do notice the free view onto the very algal outer window sill!

My bicycles live in the kitchen so they don't get stolen; I park them in front of the kitchen window. And the bikes are wider than the actual window! So I figured that if I would attach myself to the bike I could get outside and do my cleaning: if I would fall down the bike would get wedged behind the window pane and stop my fall. So that's what I did! My belay belt and a sling did a spiffing job. And I thought I was most inventive. Who would ever have thought biking and caving could lead to clean windows?

02 February 2012

When coastal policy becomes urgent

Is the government obliged to protect its inhabitants from seeing their houses plunge into the sea? If your house is about to do just that, should you A) protest about it, hoping this event will either be prevented or you will get compensation, or B) keep silent and sell your house on to someone gullible who hasn’t realised yet this event is nigh?

Interesting questions, addressed by one of the newer lecturers in the Marine School: Steve Fletcher. He gave a seminar called ‘Protest and justice in UK coastal change policy’. When he looks at the coast he has one foot on physical geography and one foot on policy, and thereby managed to fascinate the audience, of which most stand with both feet on either of these sides.

It seems that the Coastal Defence Act of 1949 allowed local authorities to decide for themselves whether they would defend their part of the coast or not. And they are also free to change their mind along the way. Which can lead to interesting surprises, for instance, for people who have been living behind some coastal defence structure for generations, but whose local government has decided this structure has become too expensive, and decides to leave it to the elements. Perfectly legal, apparently, but still bad news if it’s your house that will vanish along with an eroding cliff face.

The scenario above sounds like a cartoon, but it isn’t really; the example of Happisburgh in Norfolk was brought up. It has been protected by extensive coastal defences for donkey’s years, but the powers that be have decided these became too extensive and changed the policy from “hold the line” to “no active intervention”. At least twenty-three buildings have already plummeted into the sea…

Happisburgh teetering on the edge. Picture by Andrew Dunn.
Source: Creative Commons
I also found a copyrighted picture of the damaged sea defence here

Fletcher raised several types of indignation that can arise in such cases. The temporal one: why is it us who have to suffer this after all these generations before us have been protected? The spatial one: why are we sacrificed while London, for instance, gets protected? The procedural one: why have we only been involved at the last minute? And the egalitarian one: why don’t I get protection while I pay my taxes like everybody else?

And of course, in times of rising sea level and economic hardship it’s unavoidable to sacrifice some coastal land. And hardly anybody is interested in coastal protection policy in the large-scale, long-term stage. Only when it has impact on the individual will they rise up to fight their case, but by the time that has happened it’s quite late. And maybe you don’t want to fight; you’ll only draw attention to the worthlessness of your house!

Gratuitous picture of some weathered sea defence I saw in Sussex in 2010

Some communities do fight; interestingly enough, it seems that such protest is concentrated around London, while all the way up to the Scottish border you will find English coasts at risk. An interesting discussion followed on why that is: is it just easier for these communities to travel to London to have their voices heard? Or are these protests staged by London import who know the way in politics, while the more distal communities only have less educated and vocal inhabitants? It’s mere speculation, but interesting nonetheless.

Given that so far there is neither an end to sea level rise nor economic hardship in sight, the issues raised during the seminar will probably only get more topical with time. I think Steve Fletcher won’t have to be bored anytime soon!

01 February 2012

Old forams

The new project, on interglacial sea level variability, started months ago. But from the start of a project to the first mud in your hands might take a while.We had to start with a literature search; where are the best sediments to be found? But recently, the Durham lot, who had to be in that area anyway, drilled a core on the Isle of Wight, and brought some sediments home. Next thing to do was check for microfossils. So I prepared the first batch, and lo and behold, the first sample contained a foram! One that had seen better days, and which wasn't a salt marsh foram, but still: the first foram of the new project. I think that deserves mention on the blog!