30 September 2021

Pre-term beer

The last three or four weeks before term this year been quite hard. So I had decided I really needed a beer before I would throw myself into term. And I had remembered that Martin mentioned he had brought a crate of beer from Germany, and that he thought I should go and sample it. So when the weekend approached I asked if that offer still stood. And it did! And usual suspects Sue and Dean (who live just downhill from him) would join as well.

I hadn't done that for a long time; just gathering for some alcoholic drinks! It was lovely. The last time I had done anything like this had been with pretty much the same crew, by the weir. Maybe I should do this more often. And I surely should invite them down to my neck of the woods one day. Maybe for an autumn barbecue or a night by the fire! That does mean everybody has to travel uphill to go home but I'm sure that is acceptable side-effect…

29 September 2021

Final sprint before term starts

I am always surprised how much work there is to do in summer if your work in academia. And this year was worse than normal! The previous year had already been quite trying, with us having to suddenly make the transition to online learning in a summer. That had been difficult, and I am still feeling the after-effects through my RSI.

This year should have been easier. I had to make a new assignment for a module my colleague Suzie had been teaching in, and that was a fair amount of work, but otherwise things were not out of the ordinary. Until I had to organise our third year field trip. That changed things! So I threw that assignment aside and set to work on the fieldwork. And when I was not working on the fieldwork, I was working on my dissertation module is that needs to be ready by the start of term, and that is also a lot of work. Or I was working on welcome week. I was quite worn out when the fieldwork was over, and then I suddenly only had one week to get absolutely everything else ready for the new term. I lead on two more modules, and nothing had been done on these. And then there are the usual preparations for things such as the tutorial module. And there was dissertation marking to do (Masters dissertations). And there was the time I had to spend the welcome week itself. By the end of it I had been working basically from breakfast to bedtime for 19 days in a row and I was feeling the strain. And the problem with that is that is a self-perpetuating system; it isn't very nice to know you are already worn out before you have started teaching, so then you are one out and feeling bad about being worn out. But I did get my sites ready and my marking done and my tutorials prepared. And of course, then term was about to start and there was not really any rest for the wicked, but at least I could now sometimes take an evening off, or part of a weekend. I needed it!

28 September 2021

Welcome week

 Welcome Week is over! I hope all freshers have had a good first week in Bangor. I must say that with increasing student numbers, it is increasingly hard to organise something good for them. At least we do are best! And it is a team effort. I have support in the things I am supposed to do from one of our marketing people, Laura. It is really nice to have someone who can help! Especially if you have to be on fieldwork the week before everything happens.

And then there are the Head Peer Guides. And then, of course, the peer guides. They all have different tasks but they are all crucial.

When the actual Welcome Week approaches, it is less work for me and more work for the Head Peer guides. And they were great! They were a good team, but I know they were really tired by the end. I was really tired to, but in my case that was more because I had to quickly get everything ready for a term straight after a fieldwork, and not because welcome week itself is so tiring for me. But it is for them. I am very grateful to them.

So which of the activities did I actually attend? I did three of them: meeting my tutees, drinking coffee with the mature students, and the beach trip.

It was good to meet my tutees! As I did not know what the weather would be I had agreed to meet them in a seminar room. But the weather was good, so we went outside, and ended up on a terrace, having a drink. I enjoyed that! They are quite a varied group but I hope they will turn into small group of friends.

I also attended the mature student welcome. Only three mature students showed up! That is a bit of a disappointment but I think these three had a good time.

At the end of the mature student coffee break, it so happened that the cornet of one of the Head Peer Guides ended up in the hands of my colleague Tom.

The beach trip was attended by about half the students. We were lucky with the weather! And they did the usual sand sculpture competition. That looked like a lot of fun. After that the energy went a bit out of the event, but we are all the sunny beach, and there was enough to enjoy.

sand sculpture competition. Pic by SOS

proud sculptors. Pic by SOS

View from higher up

Now there will be a short period where we will do a debrief with the head peer guides, and then one with the college, and then it will be over. I hope that next year will be easier with respect to covid restrictions, but I could imagine it will be extra difficult otherwise as the University is hoping we will have 20% more freshers then! We'll see…

27 September 2021

Using the entire office

I have had a desk for doing some work at home since forever. And when I was expected to suddenly work from home because of covid, it became my default desk. I am glad that it had been replaced by my university desk months later, but the desk was still there. The office is big enough for two! And I had made sure I had a reasonable office chair.

When we were done with the fieldwork, we had the notebooks of the students to mark. I was the person to start this process. Normally we don't mark anything on paper anymore; everything is online. But this isn't! And my university desk is full of computer paraphernalia, so for the first time in a long time I settled down at my old desk for some serious marking. It was all right! I actually quite like marking on paper. And I brought my ghetto blaster up to make the work more pleasant. That desk is not in use very often, but it is not in the way either, and for opportunities like this it is really pleasant to still have it!

25 September 2021

Welsh language moves with the times

I have not got into the habit of stating my preferred pronouns. Maybe I should, but it can be hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I think it is in general good idea though! If that just becomes the norm then people with preferred pronouns you might not guess don't feel like they stand out too much. Not sure where I should put them; maybe I should start on my university webpage! If and when the start of term frantic scrambling calms down a bit I should sort that. We have students who use 'they' and maybe they feel more welcome if they see there are people who acknowledge there is choice in pronouns. And my main language of communication is English. Unfortunately, I don't think English has found particularly good way of providing pronouns for people who are not keen on either he/him or she/her. I personally think that by using the plural, you lose information. I think there is merit in being able to tell whether someone speaks of one person or several. And it should be possible. I was very chuffed when I found out the Swedes had just come up with a new pronoun. And why not? Swedish is a living language.

With this issue in the background, I was interested when I saw on Facebook that someone was compiling a dictionary of words in Welsh associated with the LGBQT+ community. It seems that some people use words that are outdated and have connotations of denigration. And this person wanted to make sure that everybody who wants to use inclusive terms knows what terms to turn to! I thought that was a great project. I think Welsh is a language that has disproportionate number of learners. All children in Wales learn Welsh in school, but only some 25% of the population considers themselves Welsh speakers. That means there must be a lot of people who speak Welsh to a certain extent, but probably not good enough to know off by heart how to avoid political pitfalls! So I commented on that to say I thought it was a great project. And more people piled in to say similar things.

One person provided an interesting link. It was related to a petition for introducing a new pronoun in the Welsh language. The Welsh Senedd had rejected it; it seems that they had said they cannot legislate that sort of thing. That has to grow organically. And I can see their point. But it did mean that petition might still have value. If enough people hear about it and start using this new pronoun, it might take off. And then we have a pronoun that is not gender specific, but also singular. And I think that would be a great thing!

So what was the proposal? It seems that in general people just use plural in Welsh as well, so 'nhw' in colloquial speech and 'hwy' in rather old-fashioned and formal context. ('Hwy' is pronounced 'hooy'; that sounds about as formal as Sesame Street, but hey ho.) And the proposal was to use ลต (pronounced 'oo'). I think I'll just start using it. That is one speaker in less than a million! If I spread the word a bit I might be able to be small part of a big societal change. And that would be great. And then we've done Welsh; maybe English will follow one day.

24 September 2021

Public lecture and more suspected railways

I had been on fieldwork all week, I was tired. And busy. Because the next thing to happen was the Welcome Week, and immediately after that, the new academic year would start. So when I found out there was something going on in the village, with activities spread out over the entire weekend, I was a bit sad as I knew I couldn't really join. And I like joining local initiatives! But I did give myself permission to go for an evening lecture on the Friday. I had just enough time between coming home to have a meal and a shower, and then I was off to Neuadd Ogwen. So what has attracted me there? It was a lecture by a man I had heard lecture before, and I had found that fascinating. He is a local historian who knows pretty much anything worth knowing. Back then before lockdown he had spoken about estates and the Welsh slate industry. I'm not sure it was a very catchy title, but it absolutely was fascinating. And that was not all!

I had spent quite a while reading an amazing book about Welsh slate; its history and archaeology. And guess who had written that? Indeed! This very man: David Gwyn. And if that's not a recommendation then I don't know what is.

It even got better when I got in; I found my friend Dani by the bar. That was a nice coincidence! I ordered a beer and then we set down together. 

Then it started. This time he would do his talking in Welsh. I was wondering about that a little bit; I had noticed that the book about slate I had read had been translated from English. And I doubted he would not be capable of writing a tome like that in Welsh himself! There must have been the reason why he had written it in English only. But it wasn't really my business.

David Gwyn in action

What was my business was the content of the talk. He started with a bit of an overview of the history of the area, with the first Pennant became Lord Penrhyn, and then his descendants with their pinnacle of unpleasantness George Sholto Douglas Pennant. He had been lord Penrhyn at the time of the Great Strike. And he spoke of how Penrhyn Quarry developed. He also mentioned the aborted idea to dig a canal to the Menai Strait. And he spoke of the relevance of what was going on on the side of Bethesda which was on Penrhyn estate, and the side that wasn't. And he mentioned the road to Ogwen cottage, and called it Lon y Lord. That was when my ears pricked up. That is how I recognise one of the small country roads here, that I regularly use for running purposes. It is called that, not after God, but after lord Penrhyn; this was the route the slate took before the railway was built. It is an old packhorse road! And it goes from the village to the harbour, so that next total sense. But why did Lord Penrhyn need a road going in the other direction? That is not where you want to bring your slates!

David Gwyn did offer a partial reason: this road was older than the road that is now the A5. It seems that Lord Penrhyn had heard of the plans by Telford to construct a road all the way from London to the ferry port in Holyhead, in order to connect London to Dublin. And he thought he might already build some of it. Maybe it was a bit of a vanity project! Maybe he wanted to say that that the project was partly due to him. But Telford turned out to have different plans, and built the entire road on the other side of the valley.

At the end of the talk there was time for questions. And I was keen to learn more about Lon y Lord! And nobody else was raising a hand so I went for it. And I asked him why on Earth the owner of a slate quarry wants to build a road that leads to pretty much nothing. And the speaker explained that the road towards Ogwen cottage had not just been an attempt to lure Telford onto the Penrhyn-built road, but also part of the scheme to boost tourism in the area, and make money out of that. What is now Plas y Brenin had previously been a hotel, also part of the Penrhyn Empire. And that made my ears prick up again; I had already been pestering archaeologists before about the path between Tryfan and Capel Curig. I had figured it looked like an old tramline, but I never understood why anyone would put one there. 

There were some more questions. And then it was over. Dani said her goodbye and left, but I was keen to stay behind for a bit. If he knew about the road going halfway between Bethesda and Plas y Brenin, maybe he knew about the route doing the second half! Had it been a railroad? And why?

He said that as far as he knew, it had never been a railroad, but if I had any evidence to the contrary he was interested in seeing it. He gave me his business card. So I said I would contact him! And then I went home as well. And there I gathered my evidence.

There is this facility called Digimap; I have mentioned it before. It allows you to look at old maps. I had used it to figure out how old the salt marsh of the Cefni estuary was. But you can look at paths between Tryfan and Capel Curig as well! And in the 1880s, which was the oldest period for which Digimap offers evidence for this area, you could see an unmarked route following what is now a public footpath, going straight as a line, and splitting in two locations. Why would a road need to split? If two vehicles needs to pass each other, the only thing you need is a passing place over a few metres long. You don't need to split the road and make it run parallel to itself! But if you are running trains, then you do need that sort of infrastructure to allow trains to pass each other. And having a split on either side of the track (one near Tryfan and one near Capel Curig) makes sense. So I took some screen dumps and sent them to the email address on the business card.

I already had a response to next day. David Gwyn had emailed me a much older map; this one was from 1816. And on this map, the road was indicated as 'Old Turnpike Road'. So it really was a road early on! And even as a road, it was straight as a line. But on this map, the track did not split. That must have been a later addition. But why? Unless it had been a railroad. But why have one between Tryfan and Capel Curig, if there was no sign of a railroad between Bethesda and Tryfan? So I still had questions.

A map from ~1900

Where the track splits close to the village

The map from 1816

What I found interesting was as well that he mentioned the only railroad in the Ogwen Valley he knew of had been an incline railway associated with the leat on the northside of the valley. I had noticed that leat quite early on (picture in this post), and been puzzled by it. Why was there a leat there? I think it had been his own talk, just before lockdown, which had finally made me understand the leat much closer to my home. That was meant to power Bryn Hafod y Wern. That leat, by the way, is not active anymore, but the one in the Ogwen Valley is. 

A few emails in and I was already a lot wiser than I had been at the start! But I was clearly still on the mission to find out why the path to Capel Curig had these splits. Who knows, maybe one day I will find out!

23 September 2021

Last day: coring

 After my day in the office I was looking forward to the last day we would be in the field. We would try to take a sediment core! We need that for my assignment. And there was no guarantee we would get one. We have had lots of material problems with coring in recent years. We also didn't really know what we would find. We had seen some results from the BGS, but they tend to be more interested in the bedrock, so you get a bit of a simplified image of what they have cored up in order to get to that.

As the coring can happen during any state of the tide, we didn't have to get up early. The bus left Bangor at 8:30. And at the site, we split the students in two. Half of them came with me, and half went off with the geophysicists. In the middle of the day we would swap over.

I spoke a bit about my we were coring there, and what we might expect. And then the technicians started the engine. The first section came out nicely! And we cut it. And then the great reveal happened. So what did we get?

We only had some 12 cm of saltmarsh sediment! And below that there was only sand. Homogenous sand. That is not very good for environmental reconstruction. But that is what we got!

I first explained to the students how they should log this section, and set them to work. When they were done, we cored a second section. That was only sand! So that was quick logging. We also cored a third section, but lunchtime was approaching, so I decided to leave that and opened. That reveal would be for the second group!

When the going was easy; only two people on the drill, and plenty of sediment for the students to describe

The 1st two core sections; pic by SOS

We sat down with our sandwiches, and then went to the gate where the bus would drop off one set of students and pick up the other. The only staff there were Katrien and I, but some decisions urgently needed to be taken, so we just made an executive decision with the two of us about a new deadline for the students handing in their field notebooks, and for what we would do the next day. That was our contingency day, and the students had indicated they needed time to work on their notebooks, so we just decided there and then that they would have that time, and that we would be contactable online to help them with questions. I am sure the other staff would be happy with that.

With that over, it was time to finish off this coring! But when I started talking to them I saw some munch desperately on snacks, and I found out they hadn't had lunch yet, so I gave them half an hour for that first. And I thought it would be nice to 1st see the coring in action, and only then open the core section that was already ready, so we got the percussion drill in place again.

After having cored through 3 m of suspected sand, the going was tough. It took a long time to get the barrel down another metre, and it took pretty much all the staff hanging from the drill with our entire weights to do that. Sometimes you get to know your colleagues well on fieldwork! But once it was down, the hard work had only begun. Now we needed to get it out!

With two people on each lever, and a lot of stubbornness, we managed to get it up. We had also slightly bent one of the pieces of metal! But some hammer action sorted that out. The work was still not over, though: we needed to get the liner out of the barrel. And that means screwing off the shoe and the top, but the threads had suffered a bit from the onslaught of the coring. The technicians grabbed all the heavy tools they could find and started working on it! And in the meantime we cut the core section that was already waiting for us, and I started core description with the students. It was another metre of homogenous sand! Needless to say this was quick section to log. This group managed to log all four sections (in the end, the technicians got the core liner out, so we had an additional metre of homogenous sand). I think I might need to do another recce before we go out there again. Maybe a location bit further down in the estuary would work better. It would pose logistic difficulties, but it might be worth it!

Muscling the core barrel back up; pic by SOS

It's finally out! So we can split the previous section; pic by SOS

Trying to open the barrel

When we were all done we went back to the parking lot, and then to where the bus would arrive. That would bring the geophysics students. The coring group could then just join them and be brought home. But when it arrived, there was a little bit of time left, so we asked all the students to get out and did a bit of a debrief. We thank them for being such a great group on this trip in which they had basically been guinea pigs. And they thanked us for pulling it off. It was all very nice! And then we waved them goodbye. The day after we wouldn't see them in the flesh, so this was the end of the actual fieldwork! First episode in North Wales done!

22 September 2021

Surveying and scanning

One of the things we always do on our annual field trip is survey the estuary. And that field trip is decades old, so we have quite an interesting dataset that tells us if the estuary is filling up with sand. And now we have moved location. We will start from scratch again!

The first thing we needed to do was decide where we put our survey lines. Once we establish them, we are committed! You can only compare data if you use the same transect lines every year. I had asked Guy to put some lines on the map. I was okay with taking over the module organisation while Martin was away, but I was not okay with doing graphic things, as that is just unnecessarily complicated if you have RSI. I think it is bad enough I sustained a long-term injury because of work; I did not intend to aggravate it by doing graphic work for this module. Just having the extra module would be damaging enough. And Guy knows what he is doing.

In the weeks leading up to the actual field trip we made some changes, and on the Monday, Guy went out and set up temporary benchmarks. Now we had the final versions! And we would spread the surveying over two days. We would have 10 groups of students, so if you want every group to be accompanied by a member of staff, you need 10 of those too, of course. Which we don't have! So I had spread the surveying out over two days. 

We also developed the plan to use the laser scanner on this field trip. We had never done that in the south, but Martin actually had at least one research project going in our actual field area, and Guy had already gone out there to scan it. And the school photographer had been out there to do photogrammetry with the Ocean Sciences drone. It would be silly to not use that knowledge and these resources! And their focus had been on the dunes, and these are accessible during high tide. So that was perfect; the surveying has to take place during low tide, and then we could just do some scanning during high tide.

There had been a big complication with the software of the laser scanner having expired; I was really glad I had managed to convince the head of school to just cash out for a new licence. We have that now, and that means we can use the scanner now for years to come! The entire scanner is roughly 120 times more expensive than the software it runs on, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do to just spend a little bit of money for an amazing piece of kit. So after surveying and lunch, we would head for the dunes and play with some expensive toys.

I got one of the transects high up in the estuary, and I got a lovely team of ladies to survey it with. And the weather was amazing! So we got started. The early bits are always a bit slow as the students haven't surveyed in a fair while (and neither had I, come to think of it), but soon we picked up speed. And that was good, as our transect was quite a long. But it was a nice job! However, we didn't quite pick up enough speed as both the tide, and the time we were expected to meet the others, were approaching at speed. At some point we decided to just turn around. We will finish this next year! This year we had lost some time with going through the process altogether, while time was ticking away. Next year we should just have a bit of a practice run after one of the low tide activities. Then we can all hit the ground running as soon as we do the actual transects!

Dei explains surveying; pic by SOS

Two of my group in action; pic by SOS

The neighbouring group; pic by SOS

Surveying lower down

The neighbouring group also had to turn back. The people further down in the estuary had shorter transects, so they managed to finish theirs. We now had a few minutes to quickly scoff some lunch, and then we had to make our way to the other side of the field area. We did a bit of a forced march! But we got there almost on time. And when we were all together we headed for the dunes where the scanner and the drone were already waiting for us.

Guy demonstrated the laser scanner. And he is a born entertainer! So even though the only thing the students can really do is push the occasional button on a piece of equipment, he made it riveting. And in the background, the drone flew around. The drone work was done in minutes! I suppose flying really speeds things up. Having to move a tripod around is a bit more time-consuming. And we had backup activities in mind, but we didn't need them at all. We pretty much had to rip the students away from him to get them to the bus. I suppose that is a good thing!

Guy and the laser scanner

The next day we did the same thing, but this time I didn't join. I had bargained a day off! I had so far attended every day in the field from beginning to end, and that meant I hadn't really been able to spend meaningful amounts of time on other things. And immediately after the fieldwork, Welcome Week would start, and I was also responsible for that. There also was some admin to do related to the field trip, so I did that as well. I was really glad to have a day where I could catch up a bit. And then I was somewhat rested for the last day in the field, where we would do some coring!

21 September 2021

Field trip barbecue

 If your fieldwork is residential, it automatically comes with a lot of social time. When we were still going to south Wales, we would normally have segregated the narrow, if only for logistic reasons; the staff and the students organising their own things. But one evening we would all come together; we had a traditional barbecue at the end of the fieldwork. The accommodation had barbecues, and by tradition, the technicians would sort out the rest. And everyone would show up! It was all very nice. But of course, this year we weren't residential. Everyone would just go home at the end of the day and sort themselves out. But we did want to keep the tradition at least somewhat alive. And I had figured that the best day for a barbecue would be the day we had been in the lab. After you have just been in the field from 7 AM to 6 PM you might not be overly keen to also have your dinner in the fresh air. So the Tuesday was the day of choice. And the day after we would only meet at 8 AM, so that could be worse. But where would we do it?

One idea I had was our botanic gardens. I know you can book them for social events. And it is a bit away from everything, but not all too far. It is easy biking distance from Bangor, where most of the students live. The staff would generally have to drive, but that is okay. So when nobody had a better idea than that, I booked the place. And as I would be in the lab with the students until just before the barbecue would start, I had asked Jaco to get the party started. He was willing to collect his barbecue and mine, get some coal, and start things off. So when my practical was done, I drove past the supermarket, got me some food and drinks, and headed for the botanic Gardens. I expected to see Jaco there, but there was no sign of him! And I saw some botanic garden employees, but they didn't know anything about the barbecue. They pointed me in the direction of another employee who also didn't know anything about it, but who at least had the number of the person I had liaised with. And after some discussion over the phone she could point me to the "Chinese garden" where she thought we could do no harm. And it was beautiful! I was happy to set up there. And while the woman was on the phone, Jaco appeared, so as soon as we knew where to go we could start setting up. And I really needed a drink after a long day in the lab. I didn't go beyond 1% alcohol, but it hit the spot!

How it started

Quite soon two more people appeared; not many! Maybe I was just unusually hungry and thirsty. I couldn't wait to put something on the barbecue and start proceedings. No waiting for me. But then more staff and students appeared. It was a lovely evening and we had a nice time.

At about seven, things changed. A group of students appeared, and one of them turned out to have brought half his kitchen with him. No arbitrary sausages on non-descript buns for him! He had both the best of kitchen appliances and the best of food with him, and he set to work. And fairly soon he was going around with a chopping board with the most amazing food on it, sharing it with everyone. That barbecue got more special than I had anticipated! But it got quite dark and the Chinese garden was not lit. At some point we all decided it was time to go home. I extinguished the fire in my barbecue with some water, and just put the whole thing in the back of the car. I think Jaco did the same. And by the light of mobile phones we checked if we had left the area as tidy as we had found it.

In the end, we only had just over one third of the students, and only the academic staff; none of the technical staff had made it. So a complete success it was not. But I think everyone who was there had a good time! And I am sure that we can do an even better job next year. The tradition has survived another incarnation of the field trip!

20 September 2021

Forams in the lab

In the olden days in South Wales, I would take the student into the field in the morning, have them sieve their samples and put them in the oven after coming back from the field, and then count the samples in the afternoon. And when I say afternoon, I often mean afternoon plus evening. And under the increasing financial pressure of the University, the field trip got shorter and shorter as that is cheaper, and that meant that I didn't have time for all of that. To be entirely honest, the last two years I had to provide a bit of weak extract of foraminifera analysis to the students. But when I suddenly was faced with an entirely blank slate of this year's field trip, which in effect was longer as we didn't have to spend any time on travelling all the way to South Wales, I saw my chance. I booked a day in the lab! I looked forward to doing some proper analysis again.

When the students arrived in the lab I first had them sieve some samples. It turned out we only had four sieves with the correct mesh size! That is not much if you have 30 students. But we made do. Luckily, these small samples I had made them take are quite quick to sieve. And the sand flat samples are even quick at much larger size. So we made it work!

When all the samples were in the oven I took the opportunity of doing a bit of a lecture about what we were about to do. I could even show them a foram live as we had a microscope with a camera attached in the lab! I needed the lab technician to make that all connect, but he was happy to help. And then it was already lunchtime. That was good; that meant the samples had a bit more time to dry.

After lunch, not all samples were dry, but that was okay; we had sample splitters so I just split all dry samples twice, and that meant I had enough subsamples to make everyone have something to look at. And when people were done with the material they had, then they could just take another sample, that had dried in the meantime, out of the oven and process that. I think it worked!

Back in the days, I would never have more than six students to help with their foram identifications. They would never have done anything like this before! And I wanted to check all their identifications. The first time around, it is easy to get a lot wrong. So it was just me, and Katrien who is not a micropalaeontologist but has in the past stood in for James, so she had to quickly reacquaint herself with the material, and that was the crew that had to help these 30 students. That is quite hectic!

Once they were properly counting, things got exciting. There were some amazing forams in there, and some were quite unexpected. And there was one species I had literally never seen before. I have done saltmarsh research for years! I also had never seen documentation of it. I will need to find out what it is.

We didn't manage to pick every sample. But that is okay! We only had one day. And I think we have enough for a provisional training set. And next year, this training set will get bigger. If it takes a few years to have one at proper strength then so be it!

19 September 2021

Forams on fieldwork

 After the introduction day, and the day we put the mooring out, the time had come for my own day in the field! During low tide, I would take the students into the field to take foraminifera samples. I would do that in two batches; before low tide I would get one half of the students while Jaco did his sedimentological thing with the other half. And when tide would be at its lowest we would swap around. And then it would be time for lunch!

We first had to decide where to take samples. In our old field site I had a routine, but this was all new so we had to make decisions from scratch. I thought the best way of going about it was to first go and identify good potential sites while walking towards the centre of the estuary, and when we would get there, decide which ones we would want to use. We did that, and then we sampled on the way back. I made sure that the students took small samples. I wanted them to be able to count all the Foraminifera in their sample, or at least of a reasonable split of it. And we took coordinates of all of them.

I was teaching so I didn't take many pictures. But here is Jaco's group looking like they are walking on water

The first group and the second group had different ideas about how to sample the various zones in the marsh we had. That is excellent! That is the sort of thing that happens in science. We'll see how they come together.

After both Jaco and me were done sampling with the students, we had lunch. The next step would be to extend our plastic litter picking work, but we found barely any. I then thought I might go and do some proper vegetation identification in the saltmarsh. I had some fun with that! But the students were clearly tired. Well, we had made them come to the bus at 6 AM, so that was understandable. We just let them lounge a bit until we went to the village with the slipway. And when the last student got off the little boat we could call it a day again. Another long day done!

18 September 2021

First real day of fieldwork

 It had started! We had got through the first day of the field trip. That had only been an introduction; we would start properly gathering data on the second day. And we would start with gathering information about sediment transport and flow velocities and suchlike. Martin normally puts a mooring into the estuary on the day when he is in the field with the students, and then he retrieves it on the last day. Students then get the work with the dataset the mooring has produced in the time in between.

It had been interesting to organise it all. By the time I was tasked with organising everything, Martin was properly off work so I couldn't really consult him. I just asked the technicians, and Guy, where about he might want to place such a mooring. From last year's documentation I found out what it actually is he puts out there. So it was an educated guess that I got permission for from NRW. (And from three other organisations involved, if not five.) Fortunately, he largely agreed with what I had come up with. In the end, he placed it a few tens of metres from the location I had proposed…

But I am getting ahead of things. First we had to get there. So we did the usual routine of me signing in the students onto the bus, and meeting everybody else at the parking lot. There we needed to do a bit of logistic juggling to get all the material for the mooring (which is quite heavy) as close to its destination as we could with the School van. And we asked the students to carry all the stuff. They did that without complaining! And it was a fair distance.

Once we got there, Martin put the mooring in while explaining why he put it there, why he oriented it the way he did, what the instruments were he put there, and what he hoped it would measure and how. And when everything was in position, and everything was explained, we walked back to the bus, and sat down for lunch.

Setting up the mooring

We now had a few hours to fill until we could send a subset of the students to the slipway in the nearby village, to get onto one of our really small boats and do a set of CTD measurements. That was the only activity we needed to do during high tide! Most other things require low tide. And for reasons of covid, we now had a coach for transport. So everybody had to arrive and leave at the same time. In non-pandemic times, you can transport each group of students to their own activity! But this year, we needed to make long days in the field, as we needed to use both the low and high tides to their maximum. 

I had sorted a few options for activities during this wait for high tide. From the labs I borrowed a set of identification guides. We could just see what we could identify in the way of vegetation, seaweed and molluscs. But I had also borrowed a set of litter pickers from the council. We could do a bit of a concept transect, collecting marine litter! And see how that would work out. We went for the litter. We first had to think about what sort of hypotheses we would want to test, and what sort of data we would need to do that. The student had some good ideas. And then we set off.

On the first day, we had seen that the wave regime on either side of Llanddwyn Island was quite different, so we split the group into and did two trial transects. Then we got together again, and compared what approach each group taken. If he wanted to take this research further, we needed to have a unified approach! So we blended the methods of the two groups to get the best of both, and then split up into smaller groups to do some more transects to get more data. We could all do one! And then we gathered all the plastic found in one bag and went back to the bus again. The bus drove all of us to the village with the slipway, where we waited until all the CTD measurements were done, and then the bus, now full, could head back to Bangor. Martin and I helped Pete, the technician, wrap up for the day and then we could head home too. The second day was a wrap!

17 September 2021

Fieldwork kicks off

 After the last preparations, the time had come to actually start the fieldwork! And we started early. We wanted to start the trip with a walk through the interesting parts of our fieldwork area, but what we find interesting is often only visible during low tide. And we wanted to start in the field! So our timing was decided by the tides. And low tide was early. So we met on the main campus at 7 AM. By our standards, that is not particularly early; in earlier years I have had to students show up at 4:45 in the morning. I met them at the bus stop and took a register. Because of one and a half years of mainly online teaching, and most students not being particularly keen on having their cameras on, I was unusually unfamiliar with this cohort. But that would change!

We headed for the gate of the woodland where we would enter the land managed by Natural Resources Wales. We would there meet a man who would give us the key to that gate. And then we could start!

I got there before the bus; with my modest car I can take a more direct route. I alerted the rest of the staff, who were already there, to the approach of the bus. We asked the students to get off, after which the bus driver drove deep into the woodland to his designated parking spot. The man from NRW showed him the way, and was accompanied by Dei. Together they would then go and meet us, while we started our walk. And we started on my saltmarsh! I told them about that the saltmarsh was probably the best place in the entire system for finding out about the history of said system. If you go any further inland, you are in an erosive environment. If you go further offshore, you are in the high energy environment where enormous amounts of sediment get reworked everyday. Only in the saltmarsh do you get calmer and relatively undisturbed deposition! And therefore a good sedimentary record. And because the marsh gets inundated every tidal cycle you get marine microorganisms in it, and therefore also marine micro-fossils. And these can help you with your interpretation of the sediments.

I next stop was a bit of a walk. We were going to the sand flat, not far from where we would put a mooring in the next day. There Martin did most of the talking. His mooring would be keeping an eye both on that very sand, and also on the currents moving it around, so he had a lot to say about it. By the time they reached it, Dei and the men from NRW, Graham, had rejoined us. And from there we walked around most of the area. Further stops focused on the rocks of Llanddwyn island, and on the difference in wave regime East and West of this promontory. We also looked at the dunes. And then we had a break by the main car park; the figure at some students might need to use the public toilets there. And when we were there anyway, we had some lunch. And after that we went into the dunes, where Graham explained about what his organisation does in the area.

Martin sketching something in the sand

We managed to fit everything quite neatly into the allocated time! So when he was done talking, we went back to where the bus had parked. It was time to go back to SOS! There were things we could only show the students on a screen; if you stand in the landscape, you cannot possibly get a clear overview of it. Sometimes aerial photography, or lidar measurements, or that kind of larger scale views were needed. So we presented there what we couldn't show in the field. And then the first day was already done!

Session in our covid-safe lab

Some of us stayed behind for a bit; we still needed to iron out some details about the logistics for the day after. This would be Martin's day, and he had not participated in the preparations, so we needed to do things such as verify that all the things I had assumed correct. And we made it work! So we could all go home, and get ready for the next day. The first proper day where the science would start! The ball was rolling now, and it wouldn't stop rolling for over a week!

13 September 2021

Final sprint fieldwork

 Organising a field trip is always a lot of work! And quite often, a lot of it has to be done at the last minute. In the last week several things happened: we got permission for the fieldwork from Natural Resources Wales, we arranged access with them, we found out where we are allowed to park (not the usual place), we got permission for placing a mooring, we found out about students being ill, Martin came back from having been gone and needed to be brought up-to-date, the handouts needed to be printed, litter pickers needed to be organised (more about that later), we needed to publish the module website and inform the students of exactly where to be when, et cetera et cetera. It is unavoidable a lot of things are done at the last minute! But this year it was worse. And I will be glad when I am in the field and it has all started. It doesn't help much that straight after the fieldwork, welcome week starts, and I need to be prepared for that too. And welcome week as well has a lot of things that need to be organised at the last minute. I imagine I will dedicate a blog post to that as well…

When I am writing this, it is the evening before. I will need to get out of bed really early as we need to use the low tides! Wish us luck…

The cat checks my preparations 

12 September 2021

Project water butt: tested

 I had recently connected my water butt to the guttering of the extension. I did that when it was dry, of course. And it stayed dry for a while afterwards! But then one night I was lying in bed and I saw a flash. And then I heard thunder. And I knew this would make a difference to my water butt! So in the morning I had a look. And it was full! It only took one thunderstorm. That surprised me.

Notice the reflection on the water surface

I am glad it works. And I don't think I will ever have to get water out of the river again. But one thing I need to sort out now is that it drains into the drains! I still have the remaining guttering, and I can put a piece of garden hose in the overflow hole. This chore will have to wait until after the field trip. For now, it will just spill water wherever! That's okay. But it will be nice to have this project properly finished. 

11 September 2021

Late harvest

 When my pumpkin plant started to make pumpkins I was hoping they would grow big. They showed little sign of doing so. And then I had to put the plant outside because I was going on a hike. It didn't seem to like that very much! Some of its branches turned rather brown. But that didn't do anything bad to the pumpkins. It even grew an additional one.

When I had given up hope that the pumpkins would still get big, and I feared the entire plant would soon die, I decided to go and harvest. I got me three pumpkins! Each one the size of a considerable satsuma. Better than nothing. And I also made a start at the potato harvest. I dug up two plants. The harvest was good! These potatoes will keep me going for a while.

I cooked pumpkin soup that night. It was enough for two nights! Next year I want to grow them outside all the way. It looks like the slugs don't like pumpkin, and outside the plant will have a bit more space. And then I can keep my conservatory!

The pumpkins

And the potatoes

10 September 2021

Proper mountain bike trails

 Two weeks after trying out my mountain bike on the nearby trails I took things a step further. I had asked my friend Kate if she wanted to show me some trails in the nearby woods. And she did! So we met up on the parking lot. This was going to be the first time in my life I would do a mountain bike trail! Where I had had my debut, the paths had been designed for pedestrians. I was sure this was going to be different! And I imagined there would be easy trails in there. 

Kate appeared and pulled a rather sophisticated mountain bike out of her car. I wasn't worried about that; I know the important thing was the rider. My bike might be completely inferior to hers, but that would be insignificant compared to the difference in skill level. But we would see how things would go! Kate explained that in the woods, you have to do some of the routes on the gravelly forestry roads. The mountain bike tracks are not an independent network. But the good thing about that is, that you can pick and choose which bits you want to do and which you want to skip.

We started biking up a gentle hill. So far so good. It was actually a bit of a while before we got to the first part of the actual mountain bike trail. I invited her to go first! I know I was going to be very slow. But it was quite a doable route. She was waiting for me at the end of it, where it ended up on the forest road again. And she asked if I wanted to just do this bit again, or go onto the next section, which was a lot more challenging. But I thought things were challenging enough as they were, so I went for a rerun of the original route. So we did!

When we had done it twice we proceeded to the next section; this one would be the challenging one. Kate said there were sections where she gets off, so I knew I would most certainly also get off the bike. Probably very often! And this track indeed was a lot more rocky. I walked many bits of it. At one point I heard someone behind me, so I quickly got off the track. Two people came past with an appropriate speed. I don't think I will get to that level anytime soon!

Kate was waiting for me again, and we had a little break with water and a snack. And then we went to do the third section. That was indeed a bit in between the other two. I got off the bike several times again!

Then we had to decide what we would do next. She mentioned a rather uneventful look a bit further up, so we did that loop as well. Even though she had claimed it was uneventful, I walked several bits of it! When we had done that loop we had to decide what to do next, and I voted for lunch. It was practically noon. So we biked back to the parking lot and got our lunchboxes out. We sat down in the ruins of the mine mill there. Kate there said that we should go to Coed y Brenin some day as well. She has now seen the limits of my capabilities, and figured that there would be trails that would suit me there. It sounds like fun! She also said I may want to hire a mountain bike at least once, just to feel how much difference a better bike makes. I suppose that is a reasonable suggestion. I didn't feel like the bike was struggling with what we had been doing, but you can't compare until you have tried a different bike too! I remember years ago swapping skis with the woman, and noticing how easy skiing can be if you only have the right kit. And I will never be a good skier, just as that I will never be a good mountain biker, but there is a difference between being pretty much hopeless, and vaguely competent.

So what was the verdict? I had fun! But I don't think I'm made of mountain biking material. I think I should just find some easy trails in the surroundings, where I can have some exercise on the bike. Just as an addition to running! I do not want to dedicate the time needed to get good at this, supposing I even could. I know practice makes perfect, but I just never have had the need for speed. Even on my road bike on an asphalt bicycle path I don't go full pelt; it is way too likely that some unobservant dog walker appears out of nowhere and makes your life difficult. And if I come off the bike and hurt myself, I am toast! I live alone; if I can't look after myself, then who will? And I know this is a rather injury-riddled sport. I have not forgot Martin breaking his collarbone and having to deal with seriously reduced quality of life for about a year! So I think I will bike like I climb; with no talent and no ambition, but quite happy to do fairly safe stuff just to be doing something challenging (challenging for me, that is) in the beautiful surroundings with nice people. Come to think of it; that's pretty much what my approach to skiing was as well…

clumsy selfie

coming down a path (pic by Kate)

On this picture it looks like a normal bike path! It was more challenging than that. But indeed; I am a lightweight for getting off here. Pic by Kate

09 September 2021

Community activities

 I mentioned earlier on that Gerlan, one of the original villages that was later absorbed into Greater Bethesda, nowadays has a plant library. It is placed on a little square, which is the location of a chapel that has been demolished. And I recently got an invitation for an event there! There would be a singer, and there would be cake, and it would just be a nice place to have a chat with other people in the community. So I showed up!

Unsurprisingly, my friend Dani was involved in the organisation, so I saw there. I also saw my friends Caro and Juan and their baby. And Judith who lives in that street too. I enjoyed the music (by Dafydd Hedd, who had a very good set) and the cake in a quiet chat with my friends. There also was a piece of paper on which you could indicate what you thought the community could do with this somewhat odd square. I imagined a silent disco. Other suggestions involved a greenhouse, a climbing wall for children, a green screen, and a skateboard ramp. It sounds like there is plenty of inspiration out there! It is already in use for modest amounts of growing plants, both edible and otherwise, and fruit trees, but there is plenty of space for more. I like it if people use spaces like this to boost the community!

Juan jots down an idea

Dafydd Hedd

Nice cake!

Pics by Dani

08 September 2021

Combining meetings with needlework

When I went camping during our epic slate trail hike, I was reminded of the fact that there is a tear in my sleeping bag liner. And I managed to tear it even further. The rip is now almost a metre long! That is getting ridiculous. I had to do something about this. And then I remembered that in the early days of online meetings, I had sometimes done repair work during the meetings where you don't have to concentrate all the time. I still have some of those. So I decided to start the repair that way!

I had decided I was going to repair the liner by stitching a length of ribbon to it. So during one meeting I just set to work. And it worked a treat! I had enough attention for the meeting, and I made the start on that big repair job. Everybody wins! It will take a few more meetings, but I am sure that the new academic year will provide these. And by the time term calms down a bit, and I have time to use a sleeping bag liner, I will have probably managed to repair the entire length of the tear!

Work in progress

07 September 2021

To the vet

One day I noticed a bit of a nick in my cat's tail. I didn't think much of it; she often comes back out of the garden with wet patches and various seeds in her fur. Something might be gluing her fur together there. She sorts that out. But then the nick didn't go away, and she developed a bald patch. Oh dear! It looked a bit like she had an irritation there, and she had groomed it bald. It reminded me of a mosquito bite you scratch until it bleeds. And I decided to phone the vet.

The vet said it didn't sound serious, but that they hadn't seen her for a fair while, so that I better come in. So we made an appointment for the next day.

Close to the time I wrestled her into a travelling basket. She didn't want to go in, but once she was in she didn't complain too much. And then we went to the vet. She meowed all the way! I don't think she likes car trips. It broke my heart. It's the first time I did anything like this to her! And she sounded so mournful.

The vet first wanted to have a general look at her. That didn't start well! She tried to explore the entire room, climb onto everything, walk over the keyboard of the vet's computer, and all that sort of stuff. But he did manage to put her on the scales. And he decided he was too heavy! Oh dear. I can feed her a bit less, but I'm not sure how much caloric value she just manages to harvest out of the garden.

He was happy with her eyes and ears, and with her body temperature. But he noticed the tip of one of her fangs had broken off. He wasn't impressed by that. I had noticed it too, but she didn't seem to be bothered by it, and I also couldn't remember that not being the case. It very well might already have happened before she got to me! I didn't think much of it. I sometimes have the top of my teeth falling off. And yes I do get the dentist to make them look intact again, but I doubt she has the same considerations about her teeth as I do. But the tip falling off doesn't hurt, as far as my experience goes.

Then he got to her bald patch. He wasn't worried about it! He said he would prescribe me some ointment I would have to put on the patch, and then the idea was that it would go away.

When he was done I reluctantly took the cat into the waiting room. It was absolutely full with dogs! And they were making quite a racket. But one after the other the dogs left and the cat settled.

The vet came back to offer me a quote for having the cat's tooth pulled. I said I would think about it! If she is bothered by her tooth then it needs to happen of course, but she shows no sign of this. And the vet said cats can hide it if they are bothered by something, and the broken bit might let bacteria in. But I am slightly sceptical; of course the vet says it needs doing; that is how they pay their mortgage. I wanted to have a bit of a look at scientific literature to see if there is evidence for pulling teeth being the right course of action here.

I then just paid, and was relieved to be able to take the cat home. She was very quiet on the way back! But luckily, when I let her out of the basket, she seemed perfectly okay again. The trip doesn't seem to have traumatised her! I'm glad.

She might have to go back for a much more serious intervention, but let's deal with that when it happens. For now she is back and I can stow that travelling basket away again!

Ready to go to the vet

06 September 2021


 Term is almost starting! And with term comes teaching on campus. And the teaching can sometimes be spread out over the day. I might have a session at nine, one at 1 o'clock and one at four, for instance. I don't want to just pick my nose in the hours in between such contact hours. In the olden days, I could just find myself a computer somewhere on campus, and get some work done. But since I talk to my computer all the time, I need a computer and privacy. I basically need to be alone in the room! And that computer needs to have my voice recognition software on it. The software I run is installed on my hard drive, and not on the University Drive. So on main campus, my options are limited.

In the olden days, I would just go back to my office in Menai Bridge. It is much closer than Bethesda! But there is no computer there now. So I needed one of two things: an additional computer in the office, or a laptop. I figured the University would be more keen to get me a laptop than to give me two computers, so I just sent an email to IT services and my line manager, alerting them to the situation that I would soon need to be able to work in two places, and that I figured I needed a laptop for that. And to my surprise, IT services pretty much immediately emailed back and said "we have a laptop ready for you, come bring back your desktop and trade it in for this laptop". Wow, that was quick!

That next day I had too many meetings to squeeze a big computer swap in between, but the day after that I went to IT headquarters with my (actually very new) desktop. It is a crazily busy time, so I had just shut down, pulled out all the peripherals out of the actual computer (and I have a lot!) and took it away. All my information is either in the cloud or on external hard drives, so I didn't worry about just handing in my entire computer. But I was a bit worried about my voice recognition software. If that wouldn't work, I couldn't actually use the laptop.

I handed in my desktop, and the chap at the desk checked whether I could indeed log in to the laptop. And I could! Then I asked him to check if my voice recognition software would work, and he checked that. We did have to actually take it from the desktop and manually place it onto the laptop, but he was happy to oblige. I suppose they are not so busy before the students come to town! And now I had a computer that ran Dragon, so I took it home.

At home I had the task of organising all my peripherals again. That involved some uncomfortable lying underneath the desk, plugging as much as possible in underneath the desk, and plugging everything I needed access to, or which had an insufficiently long lead, on top of the desk. And the computer worked! The second screen connected effortlessly, and it connected to the network without problems too. I also managed to make it communicate with my keyboard and mouse. So far so good.

Then there were Dragon, and my graphic tablet. My tablet allows me to avoid mouse clicking, where Dragon can't do that, or where it is just a lot more efficient. So Dragon allows me to work the computer, and the graphic tablet helps with allowing me to use my hand a bit without that doing too much damage. Only when I really need to, I will use keyboard and mouse. For logging in I need the keyboard, of course, and when I communicate in Welsh I have to just type. But when I do these things manually I pretty much use up my quotum. I really don't want to be using my hands for anything else! But then the microphone button of Dragon was on red, which is off, and it wouldn't come back on. Nothing I did made it come on. Oh dear.

I then wanted to know if the computer recognised my headset at all. I thought of trying it in our lecture capturing software Panopto, but I would first have to reinstall that. I can't do that without Dragon! I then decided to try it in Teams, as that comes pre-installed. I just randomly phoned a colleague. He couldn't hear me! So my computer was not recognising my headset. Oh shit. I can't troubleshoot that without Dragon! I felt my adrenaline levels rising. It is such a busy time, I need a computer, but a computer without functioning Dragon is pretty much the same as a computer without mouse and keyboard for everybody else. I needed help!

I first emailed helpdesk from my phone; they don't have a functioning phoneline at the moment. But then I realised they would still be open. I could just bring in my computer, my headset, and my graphic tablet (which also wasn't functioning properly) and ask for help. So I jumped into the car!
When I got back to IT the same bloke was still there. And he sorted everything! He managed to connect the headset and the tablet, and I briefly showed him what Dragon can do. He was impressed! And then I could go home and actually take this computer into use. It did still involve some faffing; I use not only Dragon but also SpeechStart, and in my hurry I had left that on the old desktop. But it only costs 30 quid so I just bought it again. And then I could really start! I needed to tune some settings; I needed to get rid of as many notifications that get in the way and need to be clicked away as I could, and make sure Dragon functions the way I like it to, and then I could start doing my day job. By then, of course, it was dinnertime.

I pretty much lost a day to this exercise, but it is a good investment; I now have the possibility of working both in the office at work and in the office at home. That is worth something! I even managed to snaffle a desk chair for my office on campus. The original one now lives at home! But there are enough going around. So I intend to bring my old television to the office as a second screen, and buy a spare headset as I am absolutely helpless without one, and then I have two functional offices! I can just drag the computer in between the two. Semester one, here I come!

New setup