30 September 2020

Autumn vegetables

I have started tidying up another part of the garden. And I am scared I will have to self-isolate! So I thought I should make sure I have what I need for my garden before teaching would get serious. I might have to stay in my house + garden for two weeks, so I'd have time to garden, and then it would be frustrating to not have any materials! So when I had to go to Bangor anyway one day, I popped by the garden centre to buy a few more plants. And some sticks for my peas. And I saw they had a display with vegetable seedlings they said were ideal for autumn planting. I couldn't resist! I bought a tray of 'winter peas' (no, me neither) and one with cauliflower. I knew the peas would be fine. I wasn't sure about the cauliflower! Maybe the slugs would get it. And a tray has many plants, and if all the cauliflowers would do well I'd be drowning in the stuff, but well, a whole summer of experience with trying to grow vegetables makes me very un-afraid of overproductivity.  

It was a struggle to find space for all the peas! I had underestimated how many seedlings they can stuff into one tray. But with some effort I managed to place them somewhere. A few will probably be killed by the neighbourhood cats. 

After a few days it looked like all seedlings (except one rather eaten cauliflower plant) were happy in their new surroundings! And I added the rhubarb plant I inherited from Suzie. And now I'll wait and see how things develop! 

Cauliflower seedlings with winter peas in the background 

29 September 2020

Garden taming in progress

These are busy times so garden projects drag a bit! In the past two weekends I had been tidying up a corner of the garden, but I had a lot more to do. I had cleared a patch I had intended to sow grass in, but I would first have to level it before I could sow the seeds. And I wanted to do that soon, as I wanted to give the grass some time to sprout before winter would hit. So on the third weekend I did the levelling. The excess soil went into the apple tree bed. I can use that later to fill pots! 

Grass to be! 

I also made progress on the emptying out of the apple tree bed. Once that is done this side of the garden will be done! But there is still a lot more to do...

28 September 2020

Welcome Week: how did it go?

It’s done! Welcome Week is behind us. And how did it go? Well! I think it was a mixed bag. It was bound to be. You can’t have what people think of as a traditional Welcome Week in a pandemic. It was always going to limit things! No indoor gatherings, lots of online activities, social distancing... and as well, the university didn’t want all students moving in at the same time. That would mean lots of people in corridors! So the students had to come in spread out over more time. And that meant that on the Monday, not that many students had actually arrived. They would keep arriving until the Sunday before teaching! 

As the students and their peer guides could only meet outside, the whole event was rather weather-dependent. The Peer Guides had organised lots of trips: in town, to the Pier, and to the beach. And the week started with glorious sunshine! But North Wales in late September: glorious sunshine can't be taken for granted. And it did leave. It got colder and wetter! Unfortunately. 

We also had the usual communication problems, but exacerbated by the pandemic. Since GDPR came into force, we are rather restricted in what information about the new students we can give to the peer guides. When the new students register, they have to indicate what information they are happy with to be shared. And most toggle on only their Bangor University email address! But that means we (peer guides and such) can't contact them until they have activated their university account. The university itself can email them reminders to please do that, but practice has shown they are not as active with that as we would like. And in other years, the peer guides can just knock on their doors and introduce themselves, but now that's illegal! So we had a bit of a problem of new students only keeping an eye on their private email accounts, and missing loads of vital information. Last year I had already tried to convince the people who made the registration page to please please please add big flashing fluorescent messages saying: please allow us to give your personal details to your peer guide, because otherwise they'll struggle to contact you. I think it hasn't happened! I keep my fingers crossed for next year... 

I have spoken with quite a lot of students by now and most are quite happy with how things panned out. I suppose, though, that it's the students I haven't spoken with that may be the ones that could be sitting lonely in their halls, staring at their private mailbox, and feeling a bit lost! I hope it's not many of them...

27 September 2020

High-intensity teaching prep

We always knew teaching would start. We know exactly when! But you always end up running out of time in the end. So the last weeks were very hectic. Getting the module websites ready, recording lectures, preparing for activities that can be done during the live sessions, etc etc etc. It's OK if you have to work hard at it, as long as it's ready when it needs to be! But I ended up doing routine days of getting up, having breakfast, going to work, having lunch, working, running, having dinner, working, and going to sleep. Repeat. It's not ideal but has to be done sometimes! 

The Dissertation module had been running for a while, but the website wasn’t finished yet. I had to make a schedule of what the students were expected to do from week to week. And there was a bit of an issue with the new software: could 150 students track their progress on one module website? The software company said yes but trying it out indicated no. So in the end I had to find a different solution. We ended up in the hands of Microsoft! At least their software is a bit more tried and tested. 

The our module on applied marine geology went live! And then the glaciology module too. There is still a lot of material to produce, record and upload, but we can do that along the way. I think the first milestone to reach is 'reading week', a week with no teaching! It's not a week off; we have lots of meetings, and more preparation work of course. But it will be a week in which making materials will go faster than using it! It's the first week of November. By then we'll have come through the first full week of teaching! 

Christmas will be the big break, of course. The end of the first semester. But it won't be much of a break. We will have to prepare for the second semester! but one thing helps: by then we'll be hacks at this blended learning thing. And then reaching the summer will be the real break! And that's a fair while away. But something tells me time will be flying the coming months... 

26 September 2020

Cake in the garden

It's been legal to hang out with several households for weeks now! I personally haven't taken advantage of that much. We had been on a three people walk. That's it! But it was time to enjoy it a bit more. Suzie had invited both me and Martin and Fran from up on the hill over for tea and cake. And it would be a great day for it! 

In the morning I baked another apple pie. Some of it was 'Storm Ellen' apples, and some of it was from my own tree. And in the afternoon I went north! And we spent the afternoon in the garden, drinking buckets of tea and eating the apple pie (which fell apart like the clappers, oh dear, it looked good before I stuck a knife in) and Suzie's brownies. It was good! I hadn't seen Martin and Fran since the rather chilly night in my garden. And now I managed most of the time in a tank top, shorts and sandals. 

When we left we didn't leave empty-handed; Suzie (and/or her husband) is amazing at growing food, and she had more rhubarb than you can shake a stick at. We both left with an entire plant! 

Doing things like this will soon become more difficult as the weather will get colder and the days shorter. It's good to enjoy this sort of stuff while we can! 

Unclear picture of Suzie’s cat on my car

25 September 2020

Still more chaos fighting in the garden

I had made a good start in the garden last week! But there was more to do. I had decided to tame all the chaos in that part of the garden. I had got to a shrub last time; this time I chopped said shrub back a fair bit more. And then pulled out everything between the shrub and the raised bed with the apple tree in. Then I pondered a bit and decided to make the raised bed I had tidied up the last time run past the shrub, but not much further. I could demarcate it with rocks from the riverbank. And between the beds I would sow grass. And I decided to take out everything except the apple tree out of the apple tree bed. And then I would need some ground covering plants for the newly exposed space. 

I managed the rocks, but not much more. I did get to the garden centre and got some plants. But then other activities required my attention! So now the rock-demarcated raised bed is OK for now. The bit that will be grass needs to be levelled. It's much higher than the lawn! I figured I could just temporarily put the excess soil in the adjacent raised beds. I'm sure it will get depleted soon! My potted plants require a lot of the stuff. and only after the levelling can I sow the grass. And the plants need planting, and I did some clearing of the apple tree raised bed but not all. So this project is still very much in progress! Stay tuned... 

Jungle mostly cleared!

Not finished...

24 September 2020

Support local craftspeople

In a clumsy mood I had dropped a small plate. And these are good for lunch! If you just have a sandwich you don’t need a full-size plate. And small plates sometimes come in handy if you put your plants in such big pots you don’t have anything to put said pot onto. So I thought I should buy a few replacements. And normally I would go to the charity shop, but this time I decided to go to the nearby pottery shop. 

I had been wondering about this shop. How would Bethesda be big enough to sustain a pottery shop? But well, it managed. And I decided to get my plates there. And some mugs while I was at it. Not that I lack mugs, but they’re just beautiful! 

When I came in they had just run out of plates and mugs and were preparing a new batch of the former. That meant I could choose my design! The plates would take a bit longer, but for these I also gave my preferences. And a few days later the potter waved frantically at me through the window; the mugs were ready! So now I have my hot drinks in mugs made within 100m of my house. That’s lovely! And I look forward to my plates...

23 September 2020

Trying desperately to improve my internet

I thought it was a thing of the past! Typing faster than your computer can keep up. But it's happening to me right now as I type this. It's not as if the computing power is not enough. The issue is that this text is saving onto the cloud all the time! And that takes bandwidth. And I don't have much. So then the computer can't keep up, and misses bits if I type while it's synchronising. It's a pain! I had already bought a wifi booster, but now I have also bought a powerline set. You know, the sort of gizmo that routes your internet through the electricity cables. Or something. Installing it is easy! But it didn't make the difference I had hoped. Although I must admit I haven't had the 'yellow triangle of death' in Teams anymore. I will have to see how it goes. If the triangle of death doesn't come back it has been worth it! And it hasn't for a while now... so result. Even though the issues with slow response have remained. One tries! Soon we need to do live sessions with the students and my signal should be as good as it can be... 

The extender in my office

22 September 2020

More tidying up: to the recycling centre

The garage was starting to look good! But there was quite some stuff in it that should be thrown away. There  was a lot of terracotta from my tidying up the front of the house, a lot of metal from various sources, and three bags of soot that had come out of a ventilation channel. And in spring, the river had brought a twisted drying rack that was not doing anything for the good looks of the riverbank. I figured it was time to book a slot at the recycling centre. You can! So I did. 

I soon had three recycling boxes ready. And I had initially just left the drying rack where it was, as we were in lockdown. But the time had come to retrieve that! Ready for a first chucking mission in many months...

Waste ready to be got rid of

When I got there I had an unpleasant surprise; the rubble container was not in use! So my biggest box had to stay full and would come back with me. The rest I got rid of. It did make a difference but I'll have to go back one day! And just hope I can lose my rubble then... 

21 September 2020

Seeing colleagues for the first time since March

The 'teaching and scholarship' team of our school had talked about getting together for months. We have weekly meetings, so we have a lot to talk about, but we only see each other on screen. I had seen the odd colleague socially, but it would be nice getting the whole team together and just chat in person! But that has to happen outdoors, so the weather has to be good, and we are all under pressure so people are always tempted to bail out, and nothing had happened. But then finally one late afternoon we got together for a walk around Church Island. Only four of us made it but it was nice to see them! Two of them I had especially not seen much; one was new; we had hired him in March, which must have been a weird time to start a new job. And another one had gone off on parental leave, so we hadn't seen her for a year, and when she came back she had, of course, come back into a strongly changed workplace, and we still only saw her on a screen. 

It was great weather, it was good to see them, and we even had the bonus of two dogs and a baby! I don't think we did much strategic discussing but it's good to see your colleagues once in a while. I enjoyed it! And when home, I swiftly went back to my office... 

Church Island backlit

20 September 2020

Afraid of field trips

I'll admit it: I'm scared! Soon teaching will start, and one of the first things that is on the timetable is our trip to Llanddwyn. And it's a lovely trip, but the times have changed since we did it last. Fieldtrips in times of Corona are just different! I am not afraid we will fall ill, let alone die. Is that justified? Not sure. But I am afraid that one of the students will test positive, and that we then all will have to self-isolate. I would really hate to have to stay home for two weeks! I know that my place is great for it, but still. It would suck. And we have these trips every month (except December) so in theory, we could have a situation where we have to self-isolate after trip 1, then come out of self-isolation in time for trip 2, in which the same thing happens and we have to go straight back into self-isolation. That would really really suck! 

So should we not? No! We should. We have the students here, on campus, so we should offer them teaching that can't be done from elsewhere. And they have to self-isolate too if someone ends up testing positive! And they will have to do that in much smaller accommodation. So if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us. Even though, of course, the risks are not the same. If you talk self-isolation, we staff have the advantage. If you talk infection, the students do. Most are in their late teens and early twenties. These are not likely to get very ill! But our fieldwork module is run by one thirtysomething, one fortysomething, and two fiftysomethings. And the last are males too. (Typical; SOS does junior women and senior men, like many science bodies). So if we staff, and especially these 50+ males, get infected, things look much worse than when it's a student. 

I'm not sounding optimistic, am I? Maybe not. But these are weird times! But I think we should give it a go. Go into the field! As soon as we are in the field, the wind will blow all viruses away. I don't think anyone will get infected outside. And the only inside bit will be dangerous, and that will be transport to the site. And we will probably be able to limit that to a minimum. So I suppose the biggest risk to all is indeed self-isolation; not death. Good! 

We will have to see how things go! If things get out of hand and all face-to-face teaching leads to the whole cohort having to self-isolate then I'm sure the university will pull the plug. You can't really do that! I hope it won't come to that. I hope we can deliver to the students the best bits of the education we have to offer! 

Pics of old Bethesda

I had printed a few more pictures, so I wanted a few more frames. Off I was to the local charity shop! And there I found some lovely specimens. but I also found three frames with old pictures of Bethesda in them! Two of the high street and one of the local school. Quite unusually, I bought them not having the intention of putting my own pictures in. I put them up in the stairwell to the kitchen. I think they look good there! What a nice find.. 

Pics in the stairwell

One of them in close-up

19 September 2020

More chaos fought in the garden

I inherited the garden a bit wild! And the bits that weren't wild were often empty. And have spent the last two years trying to tame the wilderness and fill the voids. I am doing it raised bed by raised bed. The first to be tackled was my succulents bed; that is now, in my eyes, lovely, and objectively low-maintenance with the succulents doing their thing and not much weed growing there. A few more were done the year after. And then I got rid of the clump of ferns. But there was still the bit of the garden against one of the walls. It was a mess! But well, so much to do. first things first. But now, after some 2.5 years of living here, and a fair while after the various beds have been planted, quite a lot of growing has taken place! Which is good. And offers opportunities. 

The succulent bed has some rather aggressively spreading taxons, and these can nicely be used to cover the ground elsewhere too. And in one of my other beds, I had had a plan of big shrubs in the back, a medium-sized shrub in the middle, and low ground covering plants up front. But the low ground covering plants up front didn't stay very low and were stealing the middle shrub's thunder. And my main bed has some sedum that is getting a bit big. So I had decided what I should do was to clear some of the mess in the specified uncivilised raised bed, plant some sedum in the back where it can be as big as it wants, and then put the not-so-low ground covering plants in front of them, and move bits of some very well-spreading low-staying plants to the vacated places. So one day I set to work! I had Googled if you could do this sort of stuff in autumn, and it turned out that you should do this sort of stuff in autumn. Great! 

I had anticipated that the shrubs in the out-of-control bed would put up a fight. I remembered trying to get rid of the rosebushes! That was quite some work. These things had deep strong roots. But I got my spade out and the first shrub was out in seconds. Great! I moved that one back to add some variety to the sedums. Then I went for the other shrubs who just were chucked. And everything easily gave up! That was a relief. I soon had cleared the space! 

I got rid of the garden waste, and then set out to replant. The sedums first! That went well. Then the not-so-low plants. I had hoped to plant them in something other than two big clumps, but they were hard to split. It mainly remained two clumps. And then I had to move around low plants! The main bed had several, and the succulent bed yielded some, and even the bed the clumps had come from had a third ground covering plant that had done well. That was easier to split! So I managed to put bits of low plants in all the voids. 

One small bed had some plants in that did too well for the space; I moved one into the newly vacated plot and moved another to the centre of that bed. I hope all the moved plants will take root in their new place! And do well. I now have to wait! And maybe do some watering as the forecast is warm and dry. And if this all works out I'll one day (hopefully not in the too far future) move further northwest until I reach the end. I probably ran out of movable plants now so I suppose I may need to go to the garden centre! But that's OK. It's satisfying to create order in the chaos! But I hope it will stay doable; the next shrub along is huge and may not give up without a fight... 

The chaos when I started

The bed with the not-so-low ground covering plants


And the chaos tamed!

18 September 2020

Mixing social and professional on Llanddwyn

I hadn't seen my friend and colleague Suzie for a while! So it was time to do something about that. The weekend in which we would sort that happened to have good weather. So we decided to go for a walk! And if we walk anyway, we could just as well combine the pleasant with the useful and use one of the sites we use for our fieldwork module as the backdrop. Our next trip coming up would be on Llanddwyn, which is gorgeous, so even though we weren't sure we would even be on that trip we decided to go there. The thing is that we oldies are at much more risk from COVID than (most of the) the students so the university doesn't like gratuitous staff involved in in-person teaching. If we can do it with two people we should! But we hadn't divided the trips up yet. But well, a trip to Llanddwyn is always nice. And it's quite close for Suzie. 

We met at the car park. She had her three-year-old with her. I wasn't sure we'd make it all the way to the end of the peninsula; it's a bit of a trek on short legs! But we set off. And it went well! We looked at the first outcrop. Then got a bit distracted and passed two on our way to outcrop four. And we had lunch at outcrop five at the far end of the peninsula! We did the rocks we had skipped on the way in on the way out. Sometimes you need to look for the interesting things all over again because you forgot where exactly they are! But we had covered it all. And on insistence of the little kid we did some larking around the ruin of Dwynwen's church. 

On the way back the kid needed to be carried. He was tired! But that was expected. It was really good to see them, and good too reminding ourselves of the geology again! And a bit of silliness with a church backdrop is just fun... 

Llanddwyn from the beach

The famous beach of Llanddwyn, with the old lighthouse

Carrying the kid to church

The church in question

17 September 2020

The bells and whistles of pre-recorded teaching material

I had started recording teaching material on my laptop. That had to be done in PowerPoint! It had been a bit of an effort, with my laptop straining to keep up with the times, but now I could do the rest on my office computer. That is easier, and creates better results! For one thing; the headset with microphone, combined with a less old computer, results in better sound quality. And now I can use the designated software, Panopto, for it. That makes a difference! 

The just switching on of microphone and webcam and narrating over a PowerPoint is pretty much the same. But then the final touches are different! For one thing; Panopto has automatic captioning. If you have students with a hearing impairment they can just read what you say. But the captions are generated automatically, so you need to check them. Sometimes it just mishears you and produces weird sentences. Sometimes you just say things that only make sense in a certain context. For instance, all our modules have codes, like OSX3000. That's not an abbreviation the software recognises so it turns it into 'all as ex three thousand' or something. And if you use specific scientific terms I'm sure it'll struggle! I haven't recorded a lecture in Panopto yet in which I mention particular microorganisms by name, but I'm sure as soon as I start saying things like 'Planorbulina distoma' it will have no idea what I'm talking about. So you have to edit them! 

Sometimes it is hilarious if the software mishears you. My favourite so far was when I said ‘resistivity’; what did the software hear? ‘Racist devotee’. I’ve started making a list of bloopers! 

I leave the incidences of 'um' and such in; I really say that so let's leave that. We have more pressing matters to sort out! 

Sometimes you also need to do some editing. It’s standard to cut start and end off, as that’s where you are switching the recording on and off and that’s not very educational. And sometimes you start recording but it takes longer than you need and you have to stop because something else needs your attention. And then you later need to glue the two parts together. One time, I had said something in a lecture about the practical running of my module, but a meeting with the other staff made me want to change it. So I had to re-record the narration of that slide. And I had to learn how to cut out the old bit and insert the new bit! It's not hard, but the first time always takes a lot longer than subsequent times. It's not a textbook case of smooth transitions but it's done! And the silly thing is that the two parts don’t become one, and if you need to edit the captions you have to do the two original files separately. A faff. 

When I had to re-record something, I did notice I am a pedant about it; I had narrated the initial bit after dark, so I wanted to do the re-take after dark too, to make it look similar, And I made sure to be wearing the same clothes! I am a continuity pedant. No student will fail to notice the edit, so I could as well look entirely different, but I have a problem with that. Maybe over time I will become a bit more jaded about such things!

I'm sure the are more things you an do with Panopto! But for now I think I'm rolling. I've got the basics! And I have a lot to record...

16 September 2020

University trying to cut cost in pandemic times

It's that time again! The university is in financial difficulty and needs to make cuts. In these pandemic times, fewer students are coming, and most importantly, fewer international (non-EU) students are. So that leaves a hole in the budget! So that needs to be balanced again. They have sent all of us staff an email speaking of voluntary redundancy, early retirement and reduction of hours. I have no plans to go for any of that; I still like my job. And I am too young to retire. And I don't want reduced hours because I am convinced this would just mean reduced pay with the same hours. But we'll see how we weather this storm! I've only been at Bangor University since 2014 but this is already the third round of cuts I see happen! (First here and then here.) Difficult times in UK higher education. 

To be honest, I don't think the sector is run well; we're somehow supposed to run like a business, and although I think some business-like thinking is a good thing, I don't think it should dominate. If all universities have to be funded through student fees they will just try to attract as many students as they can! And thus make things attractive to them. But what attracts students is not always what is good for said students and/or for society. You can start lots of fad degrees (I've facetiously suggested 'Love Island studies') but is that what society needs? Is that where the jobs are? And this commercialisation also leads inevitably to grade inflation. Do you want to go to a university where the chances of you getting a 'good' degree are low? No! So all universities make sure to give loads of students a 'good' degree. Tempting to lower the standards a bit to achieve that. I think now that COVID has changed everything, both the sector and those making decisions about it will have to do some deep thinking! I'm curious to see how we come through this. I could imagine even after the pandemic is over the effects will be profound! Will we really all go back to the office? And if not, what will the university do with all that space? Will more students study online? Will that mean the pairing of going to university-leaving home will de decoupled? Stay tuned! We are living in interesting times... 

15 September 2020

Turning domestic

I change for running! And I generally change for going underground. But I don’t change for much else. I bike in my normal clothes, if I go out I do that in whatever I am wearing, and I garden and cook in whatever I am wearing too. But the disadvantage is that cooking tends to involve staining substances flying around. For instance, making your own chocolate spread involves dripping chocolate. Making tomato soup involves sticking a mixer into a pan with tomatoes. I get stuff on my shirt regularly! And the funny thing is that I don’t have to look smart at all these days, but I did decide it was time to protect my wardrobe. So I bought an apron! And now I can stick a mixer into any pan and not end up with a stained shirt. I am getting civilised! And domestic. Bring it on! 

14 September 2020

Onwards with Welcome Week

Normally, the one big fat deadline you have in summer is the start of term! Not so this year. First there was the dissertation module. That needed a lot of prep! Getting the topics ready, getting the students to choose topics, allocating topics, getting the module website ready... and as soon as that was sort of ready (the website doesn't have any lectures on yet) it was time to quickly switch to the Welcome Week. That was approaching rapidly! And this year was a difficult one: the university had to keep adjusting to the COVID situation, so it had to make decisions rather late. And none of us had ever organised a COVID-compatible Welcome Week before. The good thing was that it was easy to have many more meetings with the Welcome Week organisers of the various schools than normal, as we're all sitting at our computers all day anyway, and just logging into a Teams meeting is a lot quicker than biking to Bangor. So we're doing our best! The bloke from Computer Science took the lead with regard to the associated websites. And he had faith his students wouldn't have a big problem with not having too much 'in person' time! Clichés exist for a reason. But as long as we can have 30 people outdoors we can do things with the students. And the Peer Guides are very good with things like online movie nights! Another cliché true: I wouldn't know how to go about it. I have never used Netflix! Too old, too non-TV-watching troglodyte. Anyway. I should really sort out my teaching, but welcome Week first! It's going to be one of those months... 

13 September 2020

First 'teaching' session on Collaborate

Later this month, teaching will start. And the face to face teaching will be quite different from before. No full labs anymore! And now we suddenly have one-way systems and PVC shields and facemasks and hand sanitiser and whatnot. But all of that is rather low-tech. The online teaching will be a bit less intuitive I suppose! We are supposed to use various platforms for various uses: pre-recorded material on Panopto, live sessions with students on Blackboard Collaborate, and staff meetings on Teams. And Blackboard Collaborate is new to all of us. We'd better know how it works before we rely on it! 

My first session was going to be a 'Lunchtime Seminar' for the other staff about my dissertation module. Everybody teaches on it, and it will, inevitably, be a bit different from last year. And all the work so far on it had been done by just me. Soon everyone would have to chip in! And we use these Lunchtime sessions to spread information and discuss things. How do various modules run, how should you use a discussion forum in your teaching, are open book exams a good idea and how; that sort of things. And we had initially done the in person, of course, but then when lockdown happened we moved them to Microsoft Teams. But with us needing to be able to work Collaborate, we had started moving them to that platform, so we could practise a bit. So it was my turn! I had made a PowerPoint presentation for it, and created a Collaborate session. I had been in such sessions before, but never yet lead one. 

The problem with these sessions is that you can create them, and people can log onto them, but they are invisible to all, except people with certain authorisation on the Blackboard site in which the session takes place, until 15 minutes before the start, and they don't show up in your online diary. If you want all ~30 staff to be aware of your session, you have to put it in their diaries! But that means it shows up as a Teams meeting. So if you run a Collaborate session, for now the routine is that you get your session ready while also keeping an eye on Teams, as invariably there are people who just click on the Teams meeting in their diary, and thus end up in the wrong place. I hope we can find a more elegant solution to this! 

Anyway. I had practiced 'share screen' beforehand to be ready. And I had not disabled any functionality in Collaborate! You can curb people's freedoms, like being able to comment in the session chat. But I wanted comments. 

When we had most people there (we had had to pull some three out of the Teams meeting) I started. I hit 'record' (for those who couldn't make it) and began explaining how the module ran! And then after a few slides one of my colleagues butte din and said my slides weren't moving. They were moving for me! Oh dear. Someone told me I was sharing my screen, but that it all worked better if I would upload the file and share the file. So I did! Uploaded it on my usual rural broadband speed. But then we were go again! 

There was an (entirely decorative) picture of sea ice in my presentation, and as I hadn't disabled any functionality, immediately people started to draw polar bears on it. I could see why you would not want to give students that possibility! They could be drawing much more distracting things. 

When I was done, there were some very good questions and comments. I suppose my colleagues learned something, about what to expect from my module, but I think I learned more! It had been a good session. And I am now a bit more competent in Collaborate. I stopped the recording, and realised I did not know where it would go. I supposed it had to load first, and then would appear on the 'session' page. And in time it did! And I managed to extract a link I could send people. 

It's not anything like a routine yet, but this was good practice! I feel better prepared now. And I have to now also incorporate the good suggestions from my colleagues...

12 September 2020

Running off-road again

I am a creature of habit! I like to get into a routine. So I have my two standard running routes. And these are on a well-paved path, and on a combination of road and muddy path, respectively. But I figured I was silly to only use the hills, with their less smooth paths, for walking. They’re beautiful! So on a nice Saturday I dusted off my off-road shoes and ran into the nearest valley. It was lovely! I think I should do this more often. Especially when term hits and walking may well become a rare thing! Running allows the same amount of exercise in much less time, after all. 

11 September 2020

Allocation done: success!

When I posted my list of students with their allocated dissertation topic online, I wondered what the reaction would be. A flurry of emails saying 'I didn't choose that topic'? A flurry of emails saying 'why did I not get my first choice?' It can happen! But there was digital silence. That was weird. I had sent out an announcement via the module website, but that may not have had much effect. So the next morning I followed up with an email! And fortunately, it stayed mostly quiet! There was only one student mailing all disappointed that he had been given a topic he didn't want. And he was right! I had been cross-eyed and accidentally given him the next topic on the list. That was easily fixed. And one mistake in 147 students; I don't think that's bad! And nobody was miffed about not getting their first choice. I managed to give 103 of the students their first choice; that's not bad going! 

With the allocation done the big task is now out of the way. I will have to record some lectures, but these don't have to be available until teaching starts. A little bit of time left! So now on to the next big task: Welcome Week... 

10 September 2020

Garage becoming tidier

Since I had new cupboards in the garage, I had incrementally been tidying up. Smallish things could go into the cupboards, which freed up space for largish things in the shelving unit, which is quite deep. So that meant the largish things weren't standing on the floor anymore! And I decided to use the vertical space more elsewhere too. I put two hooks up, and figured I could loop some bits of rope around the ceiling beams and hang things from them. I have some old climbing gear I used the rope of, and I made some hooks from brass rod. I hung some saws and suchlike! Nicely out of the way. And I put up some clips to hold up the lawnmower. I should also install a hook for the bike! That saves space too. 

I had also been making progress in getting rid of some fencing. It had been donated, in the olden days, by a ThursdayNighter who knew I had wood burners. I had crowbarred it apart, and now sawed the individual bits into stove-fitting chunks. I think the planks will largely become kindling! Funny that a ThursdayNighter will actually give me a warm feeling. And when I had my saw out anyway I made quite some progress on sawing some more wood up that I hadn't got around to the previous round, and everything that had accumulated since. That will free up a lot of space! Firewood can be stacked out of the way. If I continue like this my garage will be tidy soon! I might need to pop to the recycling centre one of these days to get rid of some stuff that should go. And then it will be even tidier! 

Tidy by my standards! With the torch for hook making standing ready. 

09 September 2020

Buying new clothes

When your life changes, you change. When lockdown happened, a lot of my habits changed. And that included my eating patterns. And that resulted in weight loss. My weight fluctuates like the clappers of course, because I drink so much water, but a sufficiently long data series with sufficiently consistent measuring will reveal trends anyway. And it does! I lost some 10% of my body weight since the start of lockdown. And that is so much I have started to buy new trousers. I know with a belt you can keep trousers of many sizes up, but at some point it starts feeling silly. So I have now bought both a pair of hiking trousers and a pair of shorts in a size 8. The hiking trousers are the same model as a pair I already had, but then smaller. Admittedly, the original trousers had been a bit on the big side from the start! I think I was in between sizes then and rounded up rather than down. But anyway; I suppose I should be conservative in my buying; first of all, my weight might either drop even further, or perhaps bounce back to where it was. And second: I rarely have to look presentable, so just wearing large trousers with a belt is not too much of a big deal! 

Before and after

08 September 2020

Reduce water use with buckets

I don't quite feel I live in this century. But in some ways, I think I am perfectly with the times! I am one of those leftie people it's so easy to make fun of. Vegetarian, Guardian-reading, baking their own bread, having plastic-free toothpaste and a waste-free period, alert to misogyny, trying to grow vegetables, and having a compost heap. You name it! You know the type. And I stand by it all: if I'm making small changes to my life that help the planet then people can laugh at me all I want. I read in the newspaper that organic fruit and vegetables have become very popular recently; that is the power we individuals have! If the shops notice that it's the organic stuff we want, they'll stock it, and producers will produce it. And the same with fair trade stuff and plastic-free stuff and the whole lot. So yes it does make a difference! And I do another thing, which I think isn't awfully common (but maybe it is common but people don't talk about it). I try to not waste water! That is quite common I presume. But I do two things that may be unusual. 

The first thing is: I have a dehumidifier in the kitchen. It's an old house, it can get a bit damp; if I don't have the dehumidifier my salt won't come out of the salt shaker. And it fills up about once every twelve hours. So what to do with the water? You can just chuck it of course. I don't want to drink it. But I have a bucket I empty it into. And depending on what I do first after the bucket has two dehumidifier loads in, I either give it to the plants, or I flush the loo with it. I think it's silly to flush the loo with drinking water! But I am not going to have the entire house re-plumbed just to create a grey water system. That would cost as much as the entire house I think! I'll just walk around with buckets. The effect is the same. 

I also have a bucket in the bath. I often don't feel like getting into the shower before the water is warm, especially in winter. But to just let that water drain away: that feels wrong. So that water also goes to either the plants or the loo. To be honest, I nicked the idea from my mother who has been doing something like this for years! I save quite a lot of water that way. I know I live in North Wales and we barely have a shortage of the stuff, but still! Between it falling out of the sky and it ending up in my cistern, I'm sure a lot of energy has been spent on logistics and purifying. And I circumvent lots of that! 

Am I fooling myself and ignoring the fact that I have a gas boiler, two wood stoves and a petrol car, and last time I went to the Netherlands I took a plane, while distracting myself with details from the greater picture? Well I'm sure there is some of that. Easier to lug some buckets through the house than to get rid of my car and manage without! And somehow changing my gas boiler for a heat exchange pump is quite something. No point doing that unless the house is well-insulated. And that together, again, would probably cost more than the entire house did in the first place. And it is not a good time to make huge financial decisions! For now I'll just wear an extra jumper and an extra pair of socks so the boiler doesn't have to do much, and I will lug buckets of water through my house with my plant-powered body. It will have to do for now!

07 September 2020

Pragmatic apple pie

When I eat an apple, I eat everything except the pips and the stem. Works fine! So when I had a pile of salvaged apples, the idea of making a pie with them, and not an overabundance of time, I decided to make a pie with the same concept. If you don’t peel the apples you save a lot of time! So that's what I did. 

The bread machine made the dough while I quickly chopped up the apples. In no time I had a pie together! And it baked a bit fast (it’s on the dark side) but after trying it I think that for lockdown pie, I will stick with this concept! If the world changes so that pies are likely to be shared again, I will probably go back to the traditional method, with peeling the apples and removing the core and all. But as it is, I have a quick and lovely pie from apples that would otherwise probably have become compost! A triple win! 

06 September 2020

Easy, but possibly ineffective, knotweed campaign

You need to inject knotweed after it's flowered! So I figured the time was coming nigh for this year's killing spree. And then Storm Francis hit. And the river became violent! It ripped so much vegetation out of the riverbank. And ripped so much foliage off whatever it couldn't rip out entirely. And I figured I should go in and do my poison round. One reason being you need to go in before the actual plant dies off and only the roots keep living, and I figured much of what was on the riverbank was on the brink of death; secondly; now it was easy as there was very little vegetation to stomp through. Quite unlike the previous year. My efforts in keeping the vegetation under control this year had been in vain. A flood does that better!

After my Bank Holiday Walk I filled my injector with poison and set to work. And getting to the knotweed was easy. Nothing in the way! But would it work, after the storm had battered the plants so much? And would I recognise all the knotweed now most didn't have any leaves anymore? I did my best and was done quite soon. I can only wait and see what comes up next year! 

The rather barren river bank! 

Strange roots from some other plant

05 September 2020

Bank holiday camping trip

Summer is rapidly vanishing! I could see the end of august approaching. And apart from my trip to the Netherlands, I hadn’t taken any time out of work. I figured I needed to make the most of the bank holiday weekend. It was forecast to have good weather! So I should get my tent out of the mothballs. It hadn't had any action since Easter! About time. And I figured I needed a break after all the dissertation stuff. 

I was pondering where to go. And after a while I decided I would just have another attempt at getting to Llwytmor Bach. My first attempt had had to be aborted! And my plan was: walk to the valley made by the river that forms Aber Falls, pitch up there, then if time permit, walk up the Llwytmors (there are two) before dinner. If it wouldn't work I could just scale them in the morning before walking back! And to keep things interesting I would make the walk in and out quite different. And so I did! So on a sunny Sunday morning (the Saturday had less good weather) I set off. I walked past Bryn Hafod y Wern, past y Gyrn, and then over the path to Afon Rhaeadr Bach, and then bushwhacking into Cwm Afon Goch. And then pitch up! And it all went well. I got there in a few hours. I barely saw anyone! I saw two walkers on a different path and three mountain bikers on the other hillside. Not bad for a sunny bank holiday weekend in a period in which holidays within the country are very popular! 

The valley looked amazing. Such a pleasure to sleep there! I found a nice spot, right by the river, and with some big rocks to lean against. Perfect! 

When I had pitched my tent and left the stuff I wouldn't need, and then set off to climb the Llwytmors. That was all bushwhacking but that's OK. I got to Llwytmor Bach. Nice views from there! And then I went onwards to Llwytmor proper. More nice views! The top of the valley was gorgeous. And then it was time to walk down again. I walked back to the river and followed it, looking for a place to cross. And saw two more walkers! And I found a plane engine. Lots of planes have crashed in Snowdonia; this must have been another one! I hope the pilot got out in time. 

I found a place to cross and got back to the tent. Now it was almost five! And I was pleasantly tired. So I first had a bath in the river, and then sat down with a section of newspaper and a small bottle of wine. I tried to keep the midges off me and was only partially successful. Oh well! Comes with the territory. And then I made dinner! And then I drank some tea and did a chore. My Calvinist work ethic had come with me. I had brought some knee pads that needed repair. Caving season has started again! And around me, evening fell, with beautiful evening light. And with the light the midges vanished

Then it was dark and I went to bed. That was lovely! And I woke up at six. And got up to make my breakfast. I love having breakfast in some empty valley! And before 7:30 I was on my way. Not all creatures of the night were gone then! A big fox darted away from me. By 8 AM I reached the sunshine. And by 9 I was sitting on Carnedd Gwenllian. And by noon I was home! Time for more chores. It had been a great little trip! It wasn't big but it had been immersive. I'm glad I went! 

I'm on my way!

The first look into the valley

Pitched and ready!

Pic taken on Llwytmor: from there you see the other Snowdonian peaks in the distance

Such a nice waterfall it triggered another tea break

Not just a pretty waterfall: notice the airplane engine in the foreground

Wine O'clock!

Bonus: the setting sun has a halo

Night falls

Looking back on the Llwytmors from Carnedd Gwenllian

Gwenllian selfie

And then Bethesda appears again in the distance!

04 September 2020

Allocation: get it past the staff

I'd done it! I had made a schedule with every student an allocated topic of their choice. But it was rather uneven. With the process I use to get to an allocation, you can't avoid that; the students give four choices and you need to give them one of these four. But that means that if none of the students choose topics by a member of staff, they don't get students. And staff can volunteer to supervise topics they didn't come up with, but if you are in a field that the students are not very interested in, then you probably only volunteer for other projects in that sort of field, which doesn't help. So I always end up with an uneven distribution! And that tends to upset people. That had caused problems the first time around; the second time there was some grumbling but it got accepted. This year was extra difficult; I had anticipated more students than last year so had asked all staff for one more topic, but then so many students appeared from everywhere it looked like it was going to be difficult anyway, and that I had to give all biologists nine students. That wouldn't go down well! I did my best to keep things within limits; some students may be biologists but choose non-biology topics, and some non-biologists are happy supervising biology topics. So made a first attempt and ran it past the Head of School. It did manage to keep the maximum number to eight, but that was the same for all people regardless of their type of contract (not counting part-timers). He wanted a difference between the various types of staff, so I went back to the drawing board and gave the teaching-heavy people nine students and the teaching-light people seven. And I gave everyone at least one student. And then it was time to publish it to the other staff!

That was done on Friday. I published it to them and hoped for the best. And there were a few errors; I had mis-counted and gave one person one student too many, and there were some staff who were listed as willing to supervise a topic when they weren't. That was fairly easily sorted. 

Then there was the usual grumbling about the inequality. I am happy discussing the system for next year in such a way I can make a more even distribution, but this year wasn't the right year for it. And it still needs to play to people's strength. We are talking about the final piece of work for a BSc title here; I do not think that is done well if it is supervised by someone without the right expertise. We have topics like 'Bedforms in cohesive mixed mud-sand', 'Sensory organs and feeding ecology in elasmobranchs', and 'Phasing between wave energy and offshore wind'; you don't want to supervise the first one if you're not a geologist; not the second if you are not a biologist; and not the third if you're not a physical oceanographer. And you don't want a supervisor who is out of their depth! So anyone who wants to change this has quite a task on their hands. 

It might be worth pointing out, by the way, that we compensate for aforementioned inequality in two ways; one: if you have few students of your own you have to second-mark many, many dissertations. And you don't have to do the 'Science communication' module. But people still grumble! A heavy load in one module you notice; not actually teaching on another module is something it is easy to not think about. 

So now what? Well! Some people were particularly unhappy, and an exchange of views, between amicable and robust, followed. In the end I got to a distribution that at least was accepted by all. So I published it to the students! And I haven't had a single email yet. Does that mean all is well, or that the students haven't had a look yet? I don't know! Time will tell. But for now I can go back to having meetings and sorting out Welcome Week and making teaching materials and get the other module websites ready. With the allocation done, one of my least favourite tasks out of the way for the year! 

03 September 2020

More work on making the front of the house look tidy

I had been trying incrementally to turn the mess of pots (often broken) with dead plants and/or weeds in front of my house into a nicer display with live intentional plants. And I had been making loads of progress! But the actual area in front of the house was in itself a bit of a mess, with high grass and rampant dock weed and whatnot. So one dry Saturday I first took my garden shears to the vegetation and then the lawnmower. And now it looks much tidier! Now I need to keep it that way. But it's not an awfully large amount of extra mowing! I think I can do this and keep the appearance of someone not all too neglectful. And I will probably manage to get the pot situation sorted before next spring! 



02 September 2020

Learning new ways of teaching

When I was a student, teaching was a lecturer and a pile of overhead sheets, and your grades were published by pinning a hand-written A4 to a notice board. Things have changed! We nowadays rely heavily on what is known as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Bangor University uses 'Blackboard'.  All modules have a website; that has all the module information on it, and the grades, and the lecture slides, and the lecture recordings afterwards, and the 'folders' the students submit coursework into. They really are the go-to place! Everything is there. And in the coming academic year, we were scheduled an upgrade: Blackboard had launched 'Blackboard Ultra' and we would swap over to it. So in the middle of the pandemic, we had to get our heads around that new VLE. And then it came with two additions: Blackboard Ally and Blackboard Collaborate. More to get our heads around!

Blackboard Ultra is mainly more accessible than the 'old' Blackboard. But you work it in different ways! It takes a bit of getting used to. 

Blackboard Ally is especially for accessibility; it checks all your content on how well you can access it with a screen reader, for instance. It doesn't like PDF as it is so inflexible. When you put a PowerPoint presentation up, it checks whether all images have a description attached, whether all slides have a recognised title, et cetera. Sometimes it can't be avoided that it disapproves of your material! I have some example dissertations on my module website, for instance. These are just going to be PDFs. Not much choice there! 

Then there is Blackboard Collaborate. That is pretty much another version of Teams or Zoom or any of these other platforms you can use for video calling and such things. It's nice to have that attached to your modules! We are expected to do all our synchronous teaching that way. It had some snazzy features; you can, for instance, split a group into smaller groups and send these to another 'room', and call them back whenever you want, and you can add polls; that sort of stuff! We did a teaching staff meeting that way. It was the first time using that platform for most! It was a hectic meeting, We tried the break-out rooms, we tried the polls (can you see a poll started in the main room also in the break-out rooms?), we wondered if there was a way of stopping the various people on the screen from moving around all the time, whether there is some timer to show the people in the break-out rooms how much time they have left until they are called back (if that is timed), who can see messages you send, and more things like that. It was very illuminating! Be it a bit chaotic. We will soon use that like now we use a pencil. Practice makes perfect, after all! 

I suppose the university had been leaning on us to make our teaching more modern for a while. Now, suddenly, that has accelerated! We can't procrastinate anymore. We will have to jump on this bandwagon like there is no tomorrow! Just to make sure there actually still will be high-quality teaching tomorrow... 

Not pretty, but accessible: Blackboard Ultra

01 September 2020

First post-lockdown underground trip

 When we were coming back from our first three household walk, the chap who had come underground with us before lockdown called. Were we interested in doing that last mine we had visited again? I figured I had too much to do, but Kate jumped at the occasion. She seemed to be dying to vanish underground again! But she hadn't taken any initiative. I wondered if she was being British about it, and I gave her a prod. And that turned out to be a good idea. She had indeed been dying to go underground! So she quickly organised a trip for us. She picked Clogwyn y Fuwch; I had only been in the bottom chamber and that's something you have seen in minutes. But it would be a nice evening walk, anyway! So we went with it. 

I drove up with Chris; we had to take a detour as Storm Francis had put a landslide on the A5. Along the way Chris told me there was much more to the mine. There were higher levels! That changed things. We met up with Kate, got ready, and started walking up. We quickly saw the lower level. Then we headed up the hill. Soon we came to a second level. It had a sizeable stretch of tunnel and lead to a lovely chamber. I was wearing my self-draining boots, as I figured that after such flooding it would be pointless to try to keep your feet dry. It turned out my new boots would never have been overtopped! Oh well. This worked. 

The top level was the most spectacular. A big chamber with a big hole in it you could clamber out of. We had a sarnie in daylight! And then we did the clambering out. And then we headed down the hill back to the path, with a detour past the Klondyke mill. That's beautiful! A lovely end to a lovely first post-lockdown trip. First for Chris and me, that is; not for Kate. I think more will follow! 

The scree slope you need to climb to get to the higher levels

Amazing chamber seen from the level

Cute random Christmas decoration

Chamber seen from below

Clambering out into daylight

Bonus: the Klondyke Mill in evening light