30 March 2012

Ireland, finally! The road trip.

I've announced it in who knows how many blog posts. I would make my debut this year as staff on a geographical field trip in western Ireland. And now I am there!

A week before departure I was quite apprehensive. Would I know all I needed to know? Would I manage to bring it all across in a fairly good way? Would my students have the discipline to prepare themselves? But then in that week I read up a bit more, I had my magical session with Roland, and I exchanged some emails with my studetns which were hope-inspiring, and in the last days before departure I was looking quite forward to it.

So first thing was getting there. When we had done the recce, we had flown in. That's the easy way! But too expensive for over a hundred students. So we would travel by coach, and a few minibuses. So on Saturday morning I was rudely awoken at 5.30, got a shower, got my luggage, and biked to university. There I parked my bike in my office, had a final coffee, and went to where we would meet our students. And as soon as we saw a bunch of coaches pull over, we checked if we had them all, and embarked.

Coach 3, my means of transport, proudly parked at campus

All went well. Until we came to a traffic light near Bristol. Where the bus suddenly didn't want to go into first gear. And you can pull up in second gear; I've tried that myself. But it shouldn't be necessary. So only two hours up the road we already lost a coach. Luckily this is taken into account: there's enough space on the others to accommodate refugees from a stranded coach. But it was somewhat of a bad omen...

Coach 3 two hours later

Without further incidents we came to the ferryport though. And onto the ferry. And four hours later also off again. And then we were off again!

Hazy view from the ferry

I had been headhunted by some of the men travelling by minibus, in order to vacate some space in the now a bit more crowded coaches, and together we moved faster and more luxurious to our destination. And we couldn't possibly enjoy the amazing surroundings; it was pitch dark. It was close to midnight when we got there. I randomly picked a hotel room that would turn out to be spiffing, resisted some offers for a pint, and went to bed. The next morning it would get real... Stay tuned for more exciting news!

The view next morning out of my hotel room

28 March 2012

Priorities of the Vatican

There are crises in the Catholic Church. In Europe alone, headlines mentioning scandals and crime involving Catholic clergy are manifold. Hardly a week goes by, or there is another story in the media on an Irish priest abusing children. In the Netherlands, children who spoke up about being abused were castrated, to "cure them from homosexuality". I'm not sure it was because of these things, but either way, the Vatican sent a delegation to Ireland to assess the situation. And now they've published the report on that visit.

So what does it say? "This serious situation requires specific attention." Are they talking about child abuse? No! They're talking about that the Irish Catholics do what they think is right (which it isn't necessarily, I admit), instead of what the Vatican thinks is right (which I think it rarely is). So do they even mention child abuse? Yes, they do; they call it a "terrible phenomenon" for which forgiveness must be asked, and which should be avoided in the future. And one could hardly argue with that, but could they possibly have said anything less?

Lots of grief would be avoided if indeed the abuse would stop. For the innocents priests, who suffer from the stigma that kiddie-fiddling priests have brought onto the clergy as a whole, as the report points out. Oh, and for the children involved, of course. I'd almost forget.

Am I being too cynical? That report left a bad taste in my mouth. My suspicion that the Vartican is more interested in power and money than in the well-being of the lay isn't abated int he least by this report. I wish onto the Irish Catholics that they DO wrestle themselves from underneath the yoke of the Vatican, and do what they think is right themselves. That won't stop the misconduct, but it might very well make it a lot easier to appropriately deal with it...

ps and here we go again! 

26 March 2012

Independent caver

I found myself a rather independent caver when I had my own helmet, light, and SRT kit. But what is an SRT kit if you can't attach it to a rope? Nothing at all! I always depende don club rope (of whichever club) or people's (read: Lionel's) private ropes. And I am a notorious procrastinator so it was likely to stay that way.

It wasn't. Lionel is much more pro-active than I am, and he wanted more rope. And if you buy in bulk it's cheaper! And Lionel likes cheaper. So he asked around who wanted some rope too. Me! So he bought 200m, and 60m of that are mine now. I bought a (offensively green) rope bag to hold the rope, and now I can basically go anywhere that's freely accessible (for keys I'll still need a club) and that doesn't involve more than one pitch, and one that's not deeper than, say, 55m (one needs some rope for tying to an anchorpoint). Still a bit restricted, when you think about it, but I'm enthusiastic anyway! Where shall I go...

25 March 2012

A Flight of Curlews

There are so many books to read, and so little time! I then I re-read one. But it was a good thing.

I am trying to introduce Hugh to Dutch literature, and indirectly also to the Netherlands, so I had given him Beyond Sleep (nooit meer slapen) by W.F. Hermans. A book that excellently combines the Netherlands, Norway, literature and geography. What more would one want? But being quite a fan of Maarten 't Hart I figured he needed one of his books too. The oppressive totes tantrism in his books would show Hugh. Side of the Netherlands he wouldn't previously be aware of, and the recurring topic of a socially uncomfortable scientist would perhaps be greeted by everybody working in academia. So I got him of of the few 't Harts books that had been translated into English: a Flight of Curlews (een vlucht regenwulpen).

You get the most out of a book if you can discuss it after reading. I had read it before, of course, but long enough ago to not remember the details. And some of 't Harts books tend to blend together in one's memory through time. So as I had a copy myself, we set out on a synchronised reading spree!

I enjoyed that book. I indeed had forgotten a lot. It's still a beautiful story on a shy little kid in an outrageously protestant family, growing up to be a somewhat difficult scientist. And it was interesting to see this time what translation can do. I leafed through Hugh's copy; I must say, I strongly prefer the Dutch version. For instance, Maarten's vader swears in a strange way in English (by thunder!), and his mother isn't half as helpless in English as she is in Dutch (Ik weet het niet meer, Maarten...) What I really found strange was that the birds in the title are curlews, (wulpen) but the birds that fly over when his mother dies are whimbrels (regenwulpen)... why not whimbrels in the title too? And one thing I wondered about afterwards: in the Dutch version, Maarten comments that a fellow scientist calls him "Martin". In the English version, he IS called Martin... how do they solve that? I should look that up next time I get my hands on the English version again...

23 March 2012

Bogged down in work or underground mud?

How do you recognize a good scholar? By that they doggedly work on until they’ve got the job done well? Or by them making sure they have time for other relevant things, and just manage the job within the time that’s left? I tend to lean towards the former. The caving club has noticed that already; I often skip trip because I’m busy. And my friends have noticed too; I rarely come to the Netherlands, and I rarely join the foreign hiking trips that get organised. Because I’m busy. My relatives have noticed too: I don’t visit very often.

But there is something to say for the latter. It’s silly to work your arse off at the expense of someone like your mother. So I’ve planned a weekend in the Netherlands. I want to go to Helsinki somewhere this year. And on a smaller scale it shows too: I decided, all torn up by doubts and stress, to join this week’s caving trip. We went to a rather modest mine, but a pretty one! And somewhere in that mine there’s an ore chute you can climb up. It’s a bit dodgy but it can be done. I went further up than ever before; I even went further than Lionel was willing to go! And I must say: it helped. It does clear your mind. More proof for that I should become a more efficient and less workaholic scholar… I’ve made a start, but I still have quite a way to go!

A tantalising view: I've never been up that ladder! Maybe next time...

22 March 2012

Old-fashioned and modern teaching

Soon I'll be teaching the students about sea level in Ireland. I won't be doing anything new; Roland has been doing just that for years. So in order to not have to invent the wheel I would pick his brain. He would give me the lecture he normally gives them, so I could base my lecture on that. And given we're on a field excursion, and far away from the technological prowess of the university, he gives that lecture without powerpoint. He just uses a flipchart or whiteboard. And so did he during this trial run. Nicely old-fashioned!

I figured I would just take notes. But he suggested I would take pictures of what he scribbles on the whiteboard. And then I had a better idea: I would tape the whole thing! Surely my modest digital camera would be up for that. And it was. So now I have an inspirational movie of Roland, and will build on from that. Maybe a bit of an odd juxtaposition of several technological stages, but I think it works!

21 March 2012

Back to the Moors

Times are busy, but they shouldn't be too busy to sometimes get some fresh air. So last weekend we seized a sunny afternoon for a nice walk over an old tramway, past some decorative mine relics. Spring is in the air!

The trained eye will easily spot the old tramway here

A lady's bane: the iron

When one of the side-effects of my new style was having to get my saw, screwdrivers and spirit level out in order to redesign my cupboard that was still fun. But there's another tool one can hardly avoid as a lady: the iron! I don't like the bloody things. But I think I'll have to just man up (or would it be woman up, in this case?) and live with it...

20 March 2012

Scaring the neighbours

Few things snap you straight out of your daydreamings like opening the door of your house and smelling smoke. What had I done? It came from the kitchen! Oh no! Had I left the cooker on? Or the oven? But my worries were soon gone when in the kitchen I not only had to conclude all my appliances were reassuringly inactive, but also that the kitchen window offered a view over a tell-tale scene.

There was a fire on the downstairs neighbour's courtyard. Not sure if the neighbour had lit that intentionally, or if some passing rascals had done it for him; it was probably on purpose, as the lights in his house were on, and noboby was acting against that fire. Not sure if that's what you're supposed to do with your stuff! But well. My house wasn't smelling too pleasant, but I got a nice picture out of it...

19 March 2012

A grand evening out

Put the lady to the test! I can buy a dress and a pair of heels, but can I do the proper lady thing and clic-clac to a cab, be driven to a posh restaurant, get out of the cab in an elegant manner, clic-clac to the table, dine in a sophisticated way, clic-clac through the restaurant when the nose displays an unacceptable lack of powder, smile sultrily while the bloke pays, and then clic-clac back to another cab and be transported home? The answer is: ... (dramatic silence) ... (more dramatic silence) ... (drum roll) ...


Ha. The time had come to try it out. I quite unladylike got into my outfit in about one minute, but then I managed to cross the street to the taxi, even waited until Hugh opened the door for me, and off we went. So far so good!

We would first have a drink in a pub near the restaurant. When we got there I had Hugh pay the cab driver, and got out in the proper finishing school way. I'm learning! We were just in time to see the sun set into the sound. And then after an anticipation-raising first glass we walked, over the slightly challenging surface of the old naval yard, to the restaurant. Still all going well. Hugh was impressed with how effortless I made it seem. We were looking like a million dollars; we even brought the average up. The River Cottage is far from a chavvy place, but it isn't top end either; they for instance didn't take our coats, and I ended up draping the way too long coat over the chair, trailing over the floor. And to my horror the table next to us hosted a youngster who had his Union Jack underwear on unimpeded display. Noo!

The sunset seen from Royal William Yard

I then noticed the coat hangers. So they did have them! Hugh immediately chivalrously offered to hang up my coat. And then I noticed something was wrong. My coat was there, and so was my scarf, but where was my bag? Nowhere in sight! I figured I must have been so overwhelmed by our own splendour that I completely forgot it in the pub. Hugh grabbed his coat and went back. He would get there much quicker than I would, on my heels! So in minutes he was back, with the bag and everything that belonged in it. What a relief. I'm clearly not entirely ready for ladyhood... but as long as you have a gentleman to solve your problems it isn't too bad.

The food was fine, the wine too, and I even managed the strut through the restaurant. So altogether I think we can count that as a success! It's a bit unfortunate I have the gastronomic refinement of a hog; given the choice, I prefer a plate of pub grub over haute cuisine. So for the food I don't have to do this, but it's fun to go in fancy dress and pretend to be a lady for an evening! Though next time I should keep track of my bag. It's not ladylike to have to sleep under the hedge because you left your house keys who knows where...

18 March 2012

Paint the clouds white

Geo-engineering: it’s a last straw. It is the younger and sexier brother of GHG reduction. While reduction of greenhouse gas emissions rides his bicycle to the fair trade shop and goes for a hearty Sunday walk with his mother, and reads a good book in the evening, geo-engineering drives his Maserati to jet set parties and hangs out with the cool crowd. And who should we side with? Mitigation, because he simply is the one that does the sensible thing? And he may not be excessively successful at it, but he’s not doing anybody harm in trying.

Or should we side with geo-engineering, because maybe he’s an arrogant twit, but he makes his voice heard, and might convince the boys with the big money to team up with him? And his business is risky, but hey, risk might make things interesting.

I read on the BBC website that yet another initiative for geo-engineering has been proposed: Arctic cloud-whitening. People are rightly worried about diminishing Arctic sea ice, and everybody agrees the thing to do to stop that process is to seriously cut back on the exhaust of greenhouse gases. But everybody also knows that there is no political will to do that. So now some British chap has come up with cloud-whitening-chimneys on the Faeroes or the Bering Strait. The idea is that they spew out lots and lots of very fine droplets which will provide nuclei for cloud formation, and as these droplets are so small, the average drop size in the resulting clouds will be very small, which makes them very white and reflective. And that reflectiveness would send lots of sunlight back into space.

From the BBC news website

Do I think that's a good idea? Not really. I can easily imagine they can indeed get the droplet size right, and if something falters they can just switch them off. But as soon as such a thing is in place the last morsel of political will to reduce emissions will go straight out of the window, quite irrespective of whether these chimneys actually work. And the people that own and run these things have a disconcerting amount of power. Should sea ice lie in private, or even national, hands? I still prefer the less falshy older brother: mitigation...

17 March 2012

Not a fearless English girl

English women know no cold, no pain and no fear. On the coldest winter nights you'll see them balancing on their metre high heels, in the tiniest of dresses, drunk out of their skulls, and they seem to find that perfectly normal. I am not English and it shows. I am most rarely drunk out of my skull, my skirts tend to reach my knees, and if it's winter I'll be wearing much more than that. And most of all: I don't do heels. I can't walk on the things. I always look in bewilderment at ladies who can do cobbled streets on more than 10cm of stiletto heel. But times are changing. I have no intention to increase my alcohol intake, nor do I wish to hike up my skirts. Yet I have had a pair of heels for years now, and I think it's time I wear them. They go well with some of the new outfits. So Saturday the polkadot dress will make its public debut, and the heels should come along. But the whole dressing up exercise goes straight down the drain if I still can't walk on these things. So I had to practice. I bravely put them on, somehow made my way down the stairs, and onto the road I went. Where I found out I'm really not English.

It's not easy taking a picture of your own feet!

I figured it would hurt. It did. I figured I would struggle to find something that vaguely resembled an elegant gait. I did. And I figured I would find it a bit unsettling to be out on the streets being practically crippled. And I really did. I don't tend to feel too uncomfortable on my own in town at night, in any town where I go really, but on these heels I was very ill at ease. Walking was difficult, running would have been impossible! And I was perfectly sober; while drunk this must be much worse. And you could say I'm just not used to it; if I would stagger down the streets positively shit-faced on my towering heels every week I would not find it very scary anymore, after a while. And, of course, practice would improve my heel-walking skills, but I don't think it would ever really get easy. I think I'd rather keep that fear (and concomitant climsiness, probably) in place. It serves a purpose...

I think my previous record was only ~3 cm...

16 March 2012

Dutch merchant's instincts

This made me laugh. The English have decided to let universities determine their own tuition fees. And lo and behold, many universities, Plymouth included, have decided to ask the maximum fee of £9000. Soon we will know how many students are willing to pay such a sum for their education. The universities are getting ready to compete with each other over the (not so many?) students who do. But what do the Dutch do? They see possibilities! Tuition fees in the Netherlands are much, much lower. And now representatives of a plethora of Dutch universities have come here to tell all future students that. Maybe it's not the other English universities we will be competing with. Perhaps quite some of these English kids will be spending their money abroad...

From: Raph2009, through Creative Commons

Road works: a blessing

It doesn’t happen very often that a traffic island sparks my enthusiasm. But one that arose from the ashes of ditches and traffic cones near university did just that.

There is one noticeably dangerous point in my daily commute; it’s the point where I have to cross the road to end up on the bicycle path that allows me to skip the big busy roundabout. But I have to cross in the middle of a curve. And if it’s busy it makes sense to not wait until both lanes are traffic free; I’d be waiting for hours. So I cross to the middle of the road when I can, and wait there for the oncoming traffic to display a big enough gap to slip through. The paint on the road should keep space free for that. But that’s the theory.

In reality, most cars are more interested in cutting off some of that curve than they are in paint on the road. So it often happens that they come rushing towards me, half of the car on my side of the road, and then see me rather late. They always see me in time, but often with only a small margin. And now there’s the traffic island! Which forces cars to stay in their own lane! I like. Chances of me dying on that road have gone down significantly…

The confusing junction I pass every day, with the new traffic island

A car here kindly demonstrates its function: see how nicely it stays in the left lane!

And a passing cyclist illustrates the location of the bicycle path, which as it is now is indistinguishable from the pedestrian part of the pavement. I suppose they'll be adding some paint to clarify...

15 March 2012

Back to the eighties and into the industrial era

I wanted to write a blog post about Gary Numan. The last time I wrote a blog post about music it ended up being an entry on literature. This time, not very surprising given the gist of recent posts, it will, in a way, be an entry on tidying up.

How did I end up with Gary Numan? He had his peak in the late seventies and early eighties. The time that I did hear music, but didn’t really store that music in any ordered way. So by coincidence I came across his 1979 hit ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ I suppose I must have heard that after it topped the charts; in May ’79 even my eldest sister was only 6, so no way this was played anywhere near me. But I recognised it as quite an iconic song from that period, and was a bit surprised I actually didn’t know what it was called and who had made it. But that was quickly solved. Now, in my tidying rage, I even properly document and archive knowledge on music!

Gary Numan then...

I decided to have a look at Youtube what else he’d made. It might be worth downloading! So I found ‘Down in the Park’. And ‘Cars’. And not just the original version. I saw there was a video of him doing vocals when Nine Inch Nails are performing that song! One can imagine I now was properly fascinated. He was sure at home on that stage…

From there I went to the Gary Numan Youtube Channel. I wanted to play lots of that in the background while shifting numbers around in Excel. It would guide me towards what to download, later… and the first song that came up was ‘the Fall’ from his most recent album. I liked it! I had no idea he was still active as a musician, but he sure is. And it explained why he was so much in his element with Trent Reznor cum suis. The suited 20-year old has turned into a most credible industrial fifty-something! I've now bought (as MP3 of course; no need to fill up any of my hard-won empty space) 'Replicas'; the Tubeway Army album that yielded 'Are "Friends" Electric?', and 'Dead Son Rising'; his latest album, released October last year. Thirty-three years in between! It'll be interesting to listen to that...

14 March 2012

The plants change along

Is it a coincidence or is it another expression of the ongoing change that has been discussed in several blog posts before? Will we ever know? Either way; these seem to be good times for my potted plants. I tend to work best with assertive organisms that articulate their needs. My cat lived healthily to an old age. Not many of my plants, a more demure category in taxonomy, can say the same. But except for an attack of mealybugs my English plants have fared quite well. And now, after inspiring words from my sister, one is even reproducing! She mentioned one of my plants is very suitable for cutting. And due to my careless behaviour, I sometimes already engage in the first step: separate parts of the plant from the mother plant. And so far I'd been throwing these involuntary cuttings away. But no more! This time I placed them in a spirits glass and let them grow roots. And now I've put them in soil, and wished them well. I hope they make it! If they do, I have grown my plant population back to original size after the mealybug plague. Not bad!

Mother plant and the two children

13 March 2012

Another step towards ladyhood

Buying a whole new wardrobe is one thing. Keeping it presentable is another. I'm using the trial and error method. One thing you shouldn't do is wash white and coloured garments together. I never have white garments, and that's for a reason. But now I have a white shirt. Or rather; had. I made sure I didn't wash it with the red shirts I had bought. But I did wash it with a white-and-red stripy shirt I had bought in a charity shop. If it's second hand it must have been washed many times before! That can't do any harm. But yes it can. It must have been a shirt someone bought in a whim, never wore, and then gave away to the charity shop. Just my luck.

Another thing you shouldn't do is go caving, get entirely caked in mud, have a shower but refrain from washing your hair, and then wear that not-quite-white-anymore-but-still-very-light shirt. All the mud from your hair ends up in the collar!

A third thing you shouldn't do is letting your tidy shirts crumble in the cupboard. A lady hangs her outfits from a clothes hanger! But I wasn't a lady, so I had filled my space up with shelves. And now I had to think again.

I now converted the cupboard in a most adaptable way; the shelves have been sawn in two, and you can just decide to either leave or remove any shelf. So that way you can adjust your cupboard to a changing hanging clothes/lying clothes ratio. Am I not a true inventor? And a damn well-dressed one at that!

11 March 2012

Thin men on SMS

A group of school children and some teachers goes exploring a cave. The cave is slippery, and on a climb one of the kids slips and falls. On top of one of the teachers. Or rather; straight through the teacher. The poor teacher breaks both his tibia and his fibula. A job for cave rescue! So one of the cavers goes out, phones the police, asks for cave rescue, and explains the situation. So a call-out is issued. All people on the first call-out list receive a text message that they are expected at the location of the cave in question. The rescue officer is already on his way.

While the rescue coordinator drives to the cave he gets phonecall after phonecall. People asking what exactly has happened, people saying they are far away and can't make it within two hours, people asking what kit they should bring. The rescue coordinator's head is spinning with all these questions and he drives into a tree. Dead. So instead of a smooth rescue and a happy rescue team we now have a communicationally hampered rescue and a team in mourning. Not good!

Did this really happen? No it didn't. I made up the driving into a tree. But up to that moment it is a fairly accurate description of one of last year's call-outs. And our rescue officer decided this could be done better. So they requested a response system for call-outs. And it's there now!

Cave rescue: from the left to the right in two minutes!

If there's a call-out we are expected to respond in a coded way, by text message. So no ringing people who are probably driving. And if the coordinators want to know who is how available and when, they send a text message to the system, who will then provide them with that information. The system knows all phone numbers, and is linked to the database of rescuers, so they would know how many cave specialists, mine specialists, riggers, first aiders, rope specialists and whatnot are on their way. And even how many "thin men" can be expected. It's a registered skill, apparently! Useful to know if the casualty is to be found behind a tight squeeze. We only have two... And I'm not a thin woman, according to the call-out list. I might want to go on a diet, and most of the male rescuers with me!

10 March 2012

Modern and weightless

I don't like moving house. I don't like packing my stuff. I especially hate packing books: they're too dense. I tend to keep small boxes; these you can fill up entirely with books without them getting too heavy! But it does mean carrying many, many boxes. And the worst are photo albums: these are REALLY heavy. And big and cumbersome.

But they don't have to be. I decided on a day in which I must have felt extraordinarly modern I would give scanning them a go. So I brought the smallest one to university. It was a bit of a faff to get the settings right; you can't check on the scanner itself if the scan is any good. You have to go back to the office for that. Unless you make a print, but that's not very environmentally friendly.

In about a minute you have an arty farty cover! I just hope I got the year right - I wrote it only on the outside of the album, and it had worn off...

I wrote the captions of this one in pencil; it's not easy, but not impossible either, to read.

When I had found satisfying settings I went for it. It took only about 15 mins to scan it! And then you have some rotating and cropping and gluing together into a PDF to do, but that's quite reasonable too. And then you have a high resolution, weightless photo album! I might not do it for my childhood albums, but I sure will for my holiday albums... that's one big box fewer next time I move house!

09 March 2012

Baker's pit ca

Yes, we were wondering too what that meant. We had worked hard for that knowledge! Our cave rescue training officer decided it was important we cave rescuers knew our way underground, and that if we didn't, we should be able to find our way with a map. And maps of caves are tricky; they are 2D representations of reality, and things like streets are not very far off being 2D, but caves sure are. And they don't have street names, and lots of places look similar.

So on a complete survey of Baker's pit our training officer had indicated a number of points. He had also given every team of three a set of unconnected, incomplete parts of that survey. So we had to transfer these points onto our maps, and then go find them. Every point was a letter.

I was with Richard and a new guy: Josh, who was from the university caving club. They were keen on coming out in time for a pint, so they figured out which point they wanted to do first, and legged it. We were supposed to get to know this place, but I was too busy keeping up with these youngsters I barely knew where I was going. And soon we had an A.

Josh and Rich consulting the cave survey. You may think this picture is tilted, but it isn't: the world is.

Then there was a period of all sorts of teams scurrying around like mad, getting to all these letters. It was good fun! I saw all sorts of new places.

After a while we had most. It was getting hard; our map had become muddy to the point of unreadability. We figured we only needed one letter more, and on the now seemingly abandoned cave we found it. Which made it beer O'clock.

We had AT!RPEKIBC, or something. We thought we had done well. But then we heard something about "all twelve". Oops. Roger explained it spelled "baker's pit"; I was quite puzzled why that would have a C. It turned out they had intended to make the letters spell "Baker's pit cave!", but they had realised that would take too much time, so they had left the two last letters behind. Aha. One girl asked "but where is the Q?" That turned out to have been a case of miscommunication; she'd heard "there's a queue here!"

I think I should laminate a map of that place, and then go and explore all corners of it. Not anywhere soon; there's way too much to do as it is already! But I think it will be fun, and it will also make me a better cave rescuer. And then I should do the same thing with Prid!

07 March 2012


It's the mother of all utopia's. Thomas More's original work on a good place that does not exist (eu topos/ou topos) gave rise to a whole genre of books, or rather; two, as the dystopia can be indirectly ascribed to him as well. I tend to prefer the latter; I'm perhaps a bit of a literary pessimist. But curiosity drove me to Utopia after all. So how utopic is it really?

The general gist of the described society is quite attractive; as many Utopias after it, it can be described as "communism that works", with added peacefulness. A splendid idea! But I think it doesn't and can't exist. And altogether, in the book things get so sensible and wholesome and responsible it makes you nauseous like a Nutella commercial.

So beside sub-pacifism (the Utopians will defend their territories when they are attacked) and communism, what do they have? Freedom of religion, for one thing. Quite liberal! Just a pity his thoughts on such matters cost More his head. They even have euthanasia, by the way, but that didn't help the author...

What else do we have? Slavery! But some socially acceptable version; it's not hereditary, slaves are not taken by force from other peoples; only as a punishment one can become one. And if one redeems, freedom is obtainable. In a way, it's the 16th century version of community service.

Of course there's no equality between the sexes; wives have to answer to their husband, but not the other way around. What can I say. How much 21st Century political correctness can you expect in a Tudor mind?

Altogether I think More was one of the many unfounded optimists that time has produced. If he lived today he might be involved in the "occupy" movement, or am I taking things too far now? Either way; it's good to see some are not too numbed by reality to contemplate the best possible society. And when we put the fruit of his thoughts away we deal with real life again. Which isn't bad at all; all my life I have never personally been involved in war, I haven't felt hunger, and I've never been prosecuted for reasons such as religion or sexual preference. (N=1 statistics!) So even in this quite materialistic and not very egalitarian society, that More would most likely quite disprove of, I think we're doing rather well. I only wish that would hold for more countries...

06 March 2012

Esprit d'escalier

I believe firmly in conditioning. I believe in encouraging desirable behaviour and discouraging undesirable behaviour. It might give people an incentive to behave in a societally desirable way. And that will not work very often; who says people see the causal relationship? And if they do; would they perhaps get recalcitrant instead? But it's also a matter of principle. But I have to be faster.

"Is that your bag"? At some rather late hour I was about to leave one of the university buildings, my bag on my back. Just before I reached the door a lady in cleaner's garments walked in. She immediately bellowed the mentioned question in my general direction. What happened to "excuse me; may I ask if that is your bag?" It took me a moment to digest the question; I had hardly seen the woman coming, I didn't expect to be addressed without introduction, and I had not noticed the bag in the corner. When I had interpreted the situation I mumbled "no, it isn't" - and the woman was gone. Chance for conditioning lost.

If you just are executive enough you can be quite rude to people, and have buggered off before anyone has managed to come up with an appropriate response. It leaves one with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I find myself in such situations on a reasonably regular basis. I should be more ready to be critical in human interaction...

04 March 2012

More modern technology

It started with an iPod, and it continued with an iPhone. And progress just won't stop there!

My trusted old vacuum tube TV set had developed quirks. Sometimes the screen would be either overwhelmingly green or purple. Switching it off and back on again would help, but it was a sign the poor thing was approaching its retirement age. And I was looking forward to the ease with which a nice, modern, flat, lightweight TV could be moved about. So in a chosen weekend I went to a recycling centre and said goodbye to the bulky old thing (and a few other things as well), and bought a 3kg 19'' flatscreen. You can juggle with these! And there's so much space available in the cupboard! I decided to go past a DIY shop and buy and extra shelf. And while I was at it anyway, I bought more for my cupboard in the corridor. All that space! I will really get myself a tidy house. Splendid.

The screen size doesn't differ too much...

Everything else differs a lot!

Such a tidy cupboard! Compare that with what it was before...

And a tidy corridor cupboard is a nice side effect.

03 March 2012

Tourist in shame

"So what are you going to do now?" I had just told Dick, my former PhD supervisor, that we had aborted the mission of chemically analysing my ash samples. I said something about reading articles. He swept aside that idea; "you're only in Edinburgh once! You should go and explore it." And he had a point.

How did he end up telling me that? Both he and Simon, my second supervisor, had moved to Edinburgh, working at the university there. When I was visiting anyway I took the opportunity of reliving old days by meeting up with these men. Unfortunately I had to bring them bad news!

I heeded Dick's words. I went back to the lab, got my files off the computer there, had a chat about emperical observation in the classic world, stone-cutting, languages and a few other things with the lab technician, and went back to my hotel. There I put on my walking boots and set off for my first target: Craigmillar Castle, a ruined castle built through the centuries, but in use since the 14th or 15th century. It stood there, forgotten by the world and overshadowed by its much more famous neighbour, on walking distance from my hotel. It could boast on having been the scene of important moments in Scottish history; it was here Mary Queen of Scots went after the birth of her son, and it was here that some noblemen swore to get rid of her husband.

I bought a ticket and walked in. It was beautiful! I explored the oldest, central tower, the encircling walls added later, and the more modern residential buildings inside these walls, and everything else there was to see. All in splendid isolation. There was nobody else! I spent around two hours there. No other human soul entered that entire time...

Later that day I met up with Dick and Simon again. I hadn't seen Dick (except for earlier that day, and the day before) since Emma's thesis defence, and Simon since my own defence! Dick hadn't changed a thing, and Simon had even gotten younger in the time passed. Curious what he'll be like in another 5 years! Dick took us to what had been his local pub in his early career days. A classic one, with thistle wallpaper. It was nice to catch up.

When I was out of the lab anyway, I took the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Scotland. A right eclectic place! Quite fascinating, though I had hoped to learn more about national history.

The museum occupies a beautiful building that breathes enlightenment

They know how to get one fascinated - they had a pumping engine!

Every national museum needs a dinosaur skeleton.

I lastly explored Calton Cemetery and Calton Hill; they sure have no lack of volcanic plugs here. And then it was time for a last pint, a last meal, and then the journey back...

I accidentally met a demonstration against cuts. Well, nobody likes cuts. I felt quite right wing when they walked past...

Old Calton Burial Ground, with behind it the Governor's house; the only structure still standing of what was Calton Gaol

Calton Park proper, with Nelson's memorial tower

From here you have a good view on the Crags of Holyrood Park; Holyrood Palace can also be seen, on the left.

A late afternoon view over the city: a goodbye to Edinburgh!