30 October 2013

Keep yourself busy when your cave floods

October in North Yorkshire could potentially be wet. Luckily, the water may drain into handy caverns. The only thing is that you shouldn't be IN those caverns when they're used to their full draining capacity. So two weeks in a row we had to stay out of our normal digging venue. But no need to stay at home or retreat to the pub; we have a whole list of venues up our sleeve. We chose to try our luck at T'une Mouth, a tiny cave in a cliff above a stream a little further south. It has three entrances, and if we dig well we can connect all three. And that would give us an at least two minute round trip. And who knows, we might even find there's more to it. So we just went there and dug away a bit. What wasn't too practical was that both times, I had expected something colder circumstances, and was dressed way too hot for digging away in a nice dry little cave. So at least I got home smelling disgusting, as usual. And we may have to make do with that for a while; no idea if it it will get dry enough to return to Jenga before the new spring...

 The modest entrance
Putting the loosened ground into drag buckets, before shoving them on to the people closer to the entrance

At the bottom of the cliff a big spoil heap formed
All pics by Handshake

27 October 2013

Better than them

I thought it was a Norwegian thing; if you want to piss someone off, park on their land, Or near their land, Or nowhere near their land. Whatever you do; if you park, you always seem to end up pissing someone off. It makes me sad. But it might actually be universal. In Plymouth nobody moaned about me parking anywhere, but instead the car got vandalized repeatedly (like this time); not really an improvement.

When I started digging on the Moors I had to go to work by car once a week. If I would first bike home and then go north it would take too long. And that meant parking on campus. That worked fine; it's not cheap (£6) but the parking lot is right next to my building.

And then term started. No bloody way you can park there unless you're very early! And I tend not to; caving requires some preparations. So where to park then? Matt had suggested I park in the residential area just north of University. He's lived in Yorkshire long enough to have an eye for a good deal! And the daft thing is: there's always space. In the beginning I sometimes tried the parking lot next door, but I gave up on that. No chance. And there is another parking lot a bit further north, and that tends to have space, but that's almost as far as the residential street.

I feel a bit bad about parking in someone's street, but there never seems to be a space issue, and it wasn't me who made parking free in such a tempting area. If the residents suffer from university-related parkers, which is not unlikely, they should convince the city council to make it a permitholders-only area. I decided to go halfway; park on campus one week, and park in the residential street the next week. Saves me money, saves the residents a rogue car. All happy!

Not all happy. One day I got into my car and saw a note under the windscreen wipers. Whether I could refrain from parking there.

If it had said "please refrain from parking here, it hinders us residents" I would have been happy to never come back. But I PISS THEM OFF? In capitals? That's very rude. I wondered if I should park there next time too, with a sign under my windscreen saying "what happened to asking nicely?" But I suppose people who write such angry notes at strangers in the first place won't seize such an opportunity to see the error in their ways and resolve the question politely, after which everybody happily goes their own way. I suppose I would meet with utter hostility. And do I actually WANT to piss them off? Of course not. And it was the "many thanks" that inspired me to decide to just take the rudeness on the chin, and park on campus from now on. Is this satisfactory? No. Is it fair? I think I got this treatment because my car is so conspicuous. Had I had a silver VW Golf from 2008 I doubt if I would have received that note. What do I hope happens next? That other cars park there to the annoyance of the residents, as many as it takes for them to do the honourable thing and resolve this the official way. Do they want the street for themselves? Make it happen!

25 October 2013

Taxonomy check

If you teach a student foram taxonomy, and then they go off and make all sorts of taxonomic decisions you wouldn't have made yourself, does that mean you've not taught them well enough, or does it mean you taught them too well?

We had a MRes student (one could say,  a MSc student with PhD icing) in Plymouth who did foram counts on the intervals I hadn't covered, to see if anything happened in the time periods they represented. And now she's done! Next month is her viva (thesis defense; they have to do that for an MRes). And in the meantime, we incorporate her work into our project.

And then it's suddenly not so practical that we're most of the country away. In order to merge her counts and mine, we need to call the same thing the same thing. And you can't easily keep an eye on that with a 6 hour train ride in between. So we had gone through the taxonomy together before I left, but since then she checked her taxonomy with one of the chaps from Geology, who was another one of her supervisors. And he knows his stuff! He learned from the best. But he's not me. And in a case like this, it's actually more important your identifications are consistent than that they are correct.

 The rather pretty foram that had remained ignored

When we received her thesis and combined the data in it with mine, we saw that it was clear we did NOT use the same taxonomy. There was one species, that I had in most of the samples,  and that was absent in her counts. And some of her species were consistently more numerous in her samples than in mine. So we had to clear that up!

By sheer coincidence, our student was about to visit her brother who lived nowhere other than in York. That was convenient! She popped by at my office to hand over her slides with foraminifera. I was a bit disheartened when she told me she had lumped all different species of the two main genera present in the slides. This meant I would have to separate them myself in order to re-count the assemblages!And her counts suggested that 65% of all little critter fell in that category. So I was handed 6359 calcareous remains of marine organisms, of which 51% was not identified at species level at all, and another 14% had been identified at species level, but had been placed in the microslides in big heaps of the same genus. Oh dear...

 How I received the slides

What they look like when I'm done with them

I'm well on my way sorting this out by now. And I have found out that the geologist had not recognised the allegedly absent species. I am surprised to have the idea to know better than an expert! And we don't agree on taxonomy. My counts are different. So I now spend my days going through every slide, and picking up every single foram and placing it in a square with only what I think are its mates of the same species. And I line them up, so they're easy to count. As I write this I've done 1680. Another 4679 to go...

24 October 2013

Visit by Dad

Retirement allows for lots of fun stuff, such as travelling! And if you have children abroad, you automatically have ideas for destinations. Only a few weeks ago my father had met my sister in Tallinn, and now he and his wife would visit me! And that sounded like fun. And the circumstances were good: I now have a big house with a spare bedroom, and I have a very beautiful city at my feet.

They made their way to the station, where I waited for them. We walked home in such bright sunshine they decided to immediately leave again; time to go stroll around town! At 6PM I joined them, and together we went for dinner in an ancient pub.

The next day they had planned to go into town again, but they said they also wanted to see where I work. And I was supposed to give a presentation about my work at 10AM, so they decided to witness that. I'm not sure they are now experts in interglacial sea level change, but at least they saw some nice pictures!

When I came home after work there was light in my house. A wine bottle was open, and some snacks were on the table! That's a nice way of coming home. And I just chatted with my dad while my stepmom cooked dinner. Very luxurious!

Dinner for three

The weekend was for roaming around with the three of us. Wim and Joke wanted to go biking on Saturday, so we rented a third bike at the railway station, and headed south. I knew there was a nice route over an abandoned railway we could follow. And on the way back we could just improvise. That worked out well! The route was nice, the weather too, we found an old railway station to have some coffee... all good. And on the way back I biked past the supermarket, to buy food that again was prepared by Joke.

Biking through autumnal Yorkshire

Tea break

On Sunday we walked around the city walls. I knew that would be nice, but hadn't gone around to doing it myself. And again the weather was better than we could have expected. From the walls you have amazing views over trees in autumn colours, and nice old terraced houses. And once we had come all the way back to the start we went to the pub! We had a nice meal, while we saw the cast of Blood and Chocolate get ready in the street. We walked past the performance on the way back; it's a very strange sight if you're not wearing headphones!

The York city walls

View on the Minster from the walls

On Monday I went back to work, while Wim and Joke went off on a two day walk. I had advised them to start near where Antony lives; near York the terrain is very flat, but he lives in gentle hills, which would provide some variety. From my office I did see a lot of rain fall, but I know my parents are tough people and there was no reason to worry. And there indeed wasn't; when I came home after work I found both guests already back; they'd walked all the way from Easingwold, and apart from having acquired wet shoes and smelly socks they were absolutely fine. So that allowed us a last shared evening meal, and then a last breakfast together, and then it was time to say our goodbyes! It had been good; they were glad to be staying in a house rather than a soulless hotel, I was happy they were such independent guests, they were happy to have seen York (town, campus and surroundings), and we were all happy to have had a lot of time to catch up. We had deeper discussions than I've had with them in a while! And father-daughter bonding is very valuable. Maybe again at christmas!

23 October 2013

Rather anti-Semitic than racist

Sometimes traditions are a bit iffy. But as they are traditions, they end up accepted anyway. Is that a good thing? I like traditions; I love the idea of something already being done in the fifties, the 19th century, long long ago. But longevity is not a purpose in itself. 

Recently, I came across two separate cases of people challenging traditions. One was the Council of Europe wondering whether male circumcision should be banned. Or rather; should be discouraged, as the council has no banning power. And of course many Jews were upset about this. Circumcision is an important ritual in the Jewish faith, and banning such a practice can feel like oppression of one’s religion

It is true, of course, that male circumcision is a modest procedure. You can live a long, happy and healthy life after circumcision. But is that the point? After thorough deliberation I decided I was against circumcision. Of children of any faith or gender. If you’re an adult you can decide yourself whether you want bits cut off, but babies can’t consent, and circumcision does boil down to sticking a knife in someone who is perfectly 
Source: Cheskel Dovid

If you say it’s a tradition, and should therefore be allowed, you open the door for all sorts of things. Forced marriage is also a tradition. Female genital mutilation is too. Should we allow that? Most would say no. Most would want these practices banned. So why not ban male circumcision? I trust Jews have a bond with their God that, when push comes to shove, does not depend on the presence or absence of some skin. And what about female Jews? These don’t need bits cut off to be pious. If they can, why can't the men? I know this elaboration is an open invitation to be labelled anti-Semitic, but I’ll live with that. 

And then racism. Internet is teeming with articles (like this one, or this, or this) on whether or not Zwarte Piet is a racist concept. He sure is part of a tradition! And if you’re Dutch, it’s hard to look past that. But six years abroad might have helped to have a slightly more distant look on things. Yes, it is a case of modern “blackfacing”. And all the songs are rather specific; he’s a servant. Does the look of a Zwarte Piet still stir up some fond feelings in me? Yes, sure! If you’re not Dutch is hard to imagine how big this celebration is for children. You get presents and sweets! There is this avuncular man that knows everything, and a whole lot of young, athletic sidekicks that can jump and juggle and walk on their hands and everything else. It’s magic! But step back and it IS a blackface. 

Source: EnSintClopedie

So now what? Ban Sinterklaas? No, I can’t support that. Sinterklaas is about the patron saint of children. And yes saints are Catholic and the Catholic church happens to be the biggest paedophile ring in the world, but allow me to consider that beside the point for now. So should we have rainbow Piets? Yes, I think we should. And just changing the colour of the face paint won’t do; the lipstick and the black curly wigs are still very blackface. But if you end up with a sort of painted acrobat in 17th century costumes, I think you can preserve the magic of Sinterklaas while not being so blatantly politically incorrect. I could imagine later generations looking back at the present and wondering how this tradition could have lasted that long. My parents were already adults when Martin Luther King was murdered for wanting equality for people of any colour; that’s hard to imagine as well now! So this is an invitation to call me an over-sensitive PC fetishist.  In favour of black people, against Jews? No. In favour of anyone who has the decency to not let other suffer for their own traditions…

PS for the Dutch: I think Piet himself says it well here...

22 October 2013

Big camera replacement

I drop them. I scratch them. I drag them through acid water, salt water, and mud. I forget them in pubs and restaurants. I let them drop out of my pockets when getting into and out of cars. I'm not kind to cameras.

I had one fair weather camera, one wet weather camera, and one underground camera. The underground camera was the dented, scratched, etched, and otherwise abused waterproof camera. It's the one that's held together with brass brackets. It still works, but the lens is fuzzy, and sometimes it refuses to come on. And with the fuzzy lens (I blame the corrosive mine waters it's been bathed in many times) it still works fine for long exposure pictures, but for daylight pictures it's not very good; all pictures look a bit misty.

The etched lens

These pictures were taken seconds apart; the upper one with a Lumix in good condition, and the lower with my underground camera. The etching of the lens makes big flares of the lights in my living room. 

My wet weather camera is the same model camera, but then still intact. That one's fine.

My fair weather camera is not waterproof (hence the description "fair weather camera"), and I tried to treat it well, but I didn't manage. I ended up with a scratched lens; I think due to the little metal shutters that cover the lens when the camera's off. The camera now makes pictures with a little ghost in it.

 The scratched lens

A typical picture taken through that scratched lens; notice the "ghost" above the nearest car's front left wheel.

As I had already lost an entire day of photography in Wales due to my camera refusing service, and I had become a bit fed up with the ghosts on my pictures. I figured it was time to replace my cameras, the one because I expected it to give up the ghost soon, and the other one because scratches on the lens are bad. So I headed for eBay. And I bought another second-hand "normal" and a second-hand waterproof camera. I should be sorted now, for the time being! Bring on the photogenic stuff.

 My new acquisitions! Combined (including postage) still less than half the price of a new waterproof Lumix...

21 October 2013


In Amsterdam, if you wanted to print at A0 size, you just did. At conferences, there's not enough time to let everybody talk, so most people tend to present their research on a poster. And that requires more than a standard printer! The faculty I was in had its own A0 plotter, especially for conference posters. It was the same at the Polar Institute. In Plymouth, things worked differently; if you needed a poster, you just handed your text and your figures to the cartographers, and they made it into a poster that would be prettier than you could ever do yourself. And they had it printed for you too. Very luxurious!

Here in York it's different again; no cartographers to make your posters, but a commercial printing shop on campus. You bring in your design on memory stick, and the next day you can come in to pick up your nicely shiny poster. I'll be presenting my Icelandic stuff in Liverpool soon. The poster is ready!

17 October 2013

Blood & Chocolate

A skinny, muddy, tired-looking young man in a WWI uniform was standing on the market square. The rain hammered down onto his slumped shoulders, but he hardly seemed to notice. In summer 1914 he still had been an enthusiastic youth, dreaming of gloriously serving his country, and being back home before Christmas, welcomed back as a hero. But here he was, speaking of mud in the trenches. Mud in October. Mud in December. Mud in March. 

 The trenches re-created in a large lorry on the York Market Square

The man, clearly, was an (amateur) actor, but the market square and the rain were real. This was all part of the production “Blood and chocolate”, which told the story of York, its iconic chocolate factory, and WWI. Its stage was York itself. I had been alerted to it by Annemarieke who played a nurse in it, and I convinced Tom to come with me. He wouldn't regret that! 
The audience followed the play around through the medieval streets, over the squares, past the Minster and ending at the old castle-and-bailey. All members of the audience wore headphones, to make sure the sounds of the city wouldn’t drown out the voices of the actors. Many scenes were played out on ladders, on carts, even on a cherry picker, to make sure that all 300 people could see what was going on. 

 The main characters in the historic city centre

The performance started on a square opposite a monumental white building. And the action started with projections onto that building. There was a ball going on inside; it was as if you could see though the walls. That was really well done! In between the projection, a man appeared on the balcony, and brought the news that war had been declared. Soon young men in army uniforms were dashing through the audience, to get into formation. They were off to defend their country! Back to the ball. A young man tried to convince a lady to hold his hand. He would soon be off to war, and maybe he would never come back! He didn’t want to die without having felt her hand. Their close-ups filled the fa├žade of the building. Later he told his mother he had enrolled. So had his brother! We would follow these young men and the women they left behind through the war.

The play starting as a projection, while city traffic just flows on underneath

And then there was chocolate. York was famous for Rowntree’s, the chocolate factory, founded by Quakers. The factory decided to send every York man in the army a ration of chocolate; this seems to have actually happened. (Everybody in the audience received a commemorative tin with two chocolates in it, too!) But not all thought that was enough; should not every man go into war, serve the empire? But not Quakers. These are pacifists. This was the other, less obvious story line; of the Rowntree bigshot who refused to be conscripted, who saw killing as murder, and who was court-martialled for cowardice.
And the war progresses. The trenches turn to mud. The letters announcing the deaths of loved ones start coming in. The girls take over the men’s jobs. 

Armistice is lit up by the main character with a red flare
And then; Armistice. Good news? More the absence of more bad news. Armistice in this play fell down upon the people as extra poignancy for the last deaths. As poor consolation for the man who came back blind, for the Quaker who came back from prison only to be beaten up, for the man who came back shell-shocked, for his mother and girlfriend who know that what they got back was not the best of him. We were left with these images as the cast withdrew. There we were standing, in a rain-battered square underneath Clifford’s Tower, contemplating that this clearly wasn’t the war to end all wars. A feel-good production? Most certainly not. Beautiful and well-performed? Very much so!

16 October 2013

Birth of a gardener

One is never too old to find new talents. Living, for the first time since leaving home, in a house with my own outside space, I am getting more and more into gardening. Maybe a better term would be potted-planting, as it’s not really a garden, but it boils down to the same thing. And I notice I am enjoying it! I make a daily round past my plants, in- and outside, and I take a very unglamorous pleasure in finding new flower buds or emerging new leaves. And when I moved in I bought a 20L bag of soil; now I’ve bought the next!

The next job for the soil will be house my new heather plants, and help replace the now dying marigolds with multiyear plants. And maybe a larger pot for some of my indoor plants. I am a bit afraid that in an inevitable next house I won’t have much space for them, and that moving all these plants will be a pain, but hey, let’s enjoy this while it lasts!

Let's see how these fare; I suppose they prefer poorer soil. Let's hope they make do with what I gave them too!