30 October 2022

New Vice-chancellor

We only had had our previous Vice Chancellor for a few years when he announced he was retiring. So we were going to get another one! Under my first Vice chancellor I had to go through my first financial restructuring; under the next one, I had to weather the second. So what would my third incarnation bring me? I was sceptical.

He started in September, and he would go and visit all the schools. And in October it was our turn. I didn't expect much of his visit; I thought he would just get us together, and talk some marketing lingo at us for a while. About how he wanted to make sure the University was world-leading in research and teaching and student experience. And while we were at it, why not just add world peace.

When he started speaking, it wasn't like that at all! He just briefly introduced himself, and then opened the floor for questions. And questions we had! And he seemed genuinely listen. He didn't quite have an answer to everything; he had only been in the job in September, after all. But he was clearly paying attention, and as well; the answers he did have were all very reasonable. So I had to come there expecting to get nothing out of this, but I walked away with a lot of optimism!

So what was I thought optimistic about? I had asked two questions, neither of which was specific to the School. My first one was about peer guiding. We ask students to volunteer to guide the new students through their first week at university. And we are recruiting a lot of students, so they have to guide a lot of students. And these days can be long! I remember my own welcome week. A fair amount of beer and late nights were involved. Things must have changed a bit in the 30 years in between, but still; it is quite full on! And the freshers have become a bit more overwhelmed in the meantime. I think it is really important that we make a concerted effort to make sure they are well looked after in their first week at university, but we rely entirely on volunteers. We don't pay the students anything! And yes if you are a good peer guide it looks good on your CV, but hey, you can spend an entire week on other things that are also good for your CV if you don't become a peer guide. We have been struggling to recruit enough peer guides, and there are other schools where it is much worse than with us. So I was wondering if he had any thoughts on that?

He sure had. He said that the Universities he had worked before had just paid their peer guides. He figured that was just the thing to do! So he totally wanted to change the system. I was so glad to hear that! In my years of organising the peer guides, I had found it hard to ask the students to do for no reward whatsoever things I wouldn't want to do under these circumstances. It just felt wrong! So hopefully, things will change now.

My other question related to the chemistry tower that will be demolished. (I don’t seem to have blogged about this yet.) I am not disputing that it would be a good idea to demolish it, but I was scared that they would put some glossy new building in its place. The previous time the University tore a building down and build something in its place it placed an enormous financial burden on the University, and that had been the reason for the first financial restructuring. Would we now get the third? But he said that the university had enough buildings. There was quite some empty space he said! And I take his word for it. So I was quite reassured. And the other people I spoke with afterwards we are quite impressed too. We might have got a good one! That is hardly something you can take for granted…

29 October 2022

Lots of Bridge confusion

On Friday morning, everything was normal. By Friday afternoon, the bridge was closed to all traffic. By the evening, it had reopened for pedestrians. And on Monday all was well! So on Tuesday I got ready to bike to work. I did a quick email check before I left. And I had an email from a colleague who also travels by bike, over the bridge, and she said someone had tried to stop her crossing the bridge. They had also confessed they had no authority to do so, so she had crossed it anyway, but she mentioned that it seemed that people were barricading the bicycle paths. It sounded like it was closed again! Or at least closing. I quickly changed my mind and car shared to work. But when we drove past the bridge on the way back, we could see people crossing it, so it seemed to be open again. It was difficult to keep track!

The next day I had to teach in Bangor, so I biked there. And after my lecture I chanced it. I headed for the island. And all was well! I could cross the bridge without incident.

I hope it just stays open for pedestrians all the time they will need to repair the bridge! By all accounts, it is the hangers that need replacement, and I suppose they can just replace them on one side first, and then on the other side next, which always leaves one pedestrian footpath available for those who need it. It would be quite unfortunate if we can't cross it at all! And if that were to happen, you are guaranteed to read about it here…

28 October 2022

New Welsh-speaking colleague

We have been recruiting large numbers of students! And why wouldn't we; ocean sciences are amazing. But all these students also need to be taught. So even though there had been a big round of potential redundancies not too long ago, recently we were allowed to recruit again. The process was frustratingly slow; between getting the ok from higher management that we could recruit, and the first job advert actually appearing, there seemed to have passed hundreds of years.

Then suddenly came the announcement we had recruited our first new lecturer. That was weird! Normally you are informed of the shortlist being made, and then job interviews. None of that happened; the explanation was that the person we had recruited had come through the redeployment scheme.

Then there was the case of the Welsh language lecturer. At some point I heard through the grapevine that indeed, a shortlist had been made. But there had been no announcement at all from school management to say that there were going to be presentations. If you hire someone on a lecturing job, you ask them to deliver a taster lecture! What was going on?

Then with only a few days’ notice, the email finally came. There were two candidates, and they would give their presentations on the next Monday. And I made sure to be there.

The candidates were asked to first deliver brief taster lecture aimed at a second year audience, and then provide a quick overview of innovative teaching methods they would wish to use. When they both were done, we had a brief discussion about whether we thought they were employable, and what we thought the ranking was.

The final decision lay in the hands of the committee assembled for making probably this appointment. But we, the general audience, figured that at least one of them was appointable. So in all likelihood, I will soon have a new colleague. Another person to share the workload with, another person to hang out with at work, and another person to speak Welsh with! What's not to like! I hope we will receive an official email with an update soon…

27 October 2022

Menai Bridge abruptly closes

I live on the mainland, and my office is on Anglesey. Hence that my commute involves a bridge. And not just any bridge; the Menai Suspension Bridge, or Telford Bridge, was the first major suspension bridge in the world. It is also a Grade one listed monument. And rightly so! It is beautiful. It has changed since it was built in 1826; the bridge deck is suspended from chains, and these have been replaced, I think in 1938. It has also had footpaths bolted onto the sides. I suppose in the olden days, traffic was slower and pedestrians could just walk on the road. Nowadays that’s not recommended.

There recently had been some activities on the bridge. Men aided by cherry pickers had been inspecting the various bits of the bridge. That meant they had to close one lane, so that traffic lights had to be introduced, and queues were not uncommon. But it wasn't really bad.

Then one day I was teaching on the mainland, and suddenly my phone was going ballistic. Something was happening! When I was done teaching, I checked what all the fuss had been about. And the answer was: the bridge had been closed with immediate effect! To absolutely everyone! And that was, of course, quite a big thing for the School of Ocean Sciences, because that is the only part of the University that is actually located on Anglesey. 

The Bridge on Friday the 21st! Picture by Christopher Davies, North Wales live.

There are two bridges to Anglesey; it is not as if the whole island was now isolated. But the thing is; the other bridge is only suitable for motorised vehicles. And it is also a bit of a distance away. In a car that's trivial, but if you are not in a car it isn't anymore. I have never cycled across it. I am not entirely certain if you are legally allowed to, but I have seen people do it. That looks scary, by the way. So everyone who now wants to drive between the mainland and Anglesey has to take the detour. But what about people who are not travelling by car?

Everybody knows that by default, I cycle in. That was what all the pinging in my phone was about. My friends were worried that I would be stuck on the island, and offered me a ride home. Very kind! Fortunately, I was on the mainland already. So that day, this would not affect me.

I also saw that there already were emails flying around about the situation. The main worry was that there had been teaching going on on the island, and that students would have walked over for that. These would now be stuck! But it seemed that the Student Union sorted out a minibus to bring the stranded students back over the other bridge.

With this very vital artery now closed, this would pose some difficulties for us. We also have some colleagues who live quite far east, who come in by train. They then (folding) bike or walk from Bangor to Menai Bridge. No way they could keep doing that! Would they now have to come in by car? And would I now have to come in by car? With the old bridge closed, I couldn't really commute by bike anymore. That really bothered me! It's also not very good for the environment, and SOS already has a parking problem. If everybody has to come in by car it would make things worse.

We also have people biking in from the island; they could still keep doing that, but if they would have to teach on the mainland then they would also have to drive. So practically, everyone would have to drive. Not good! And as well; if you have to take the detour, and there might be queues, it can take a while to get from one place to the other. Timetabling only gives you a 10 minute slot to move between locations. That wouldn't be enough with the old bridge closed for cars! Would timetabling have to always make sure there would be an hour between sessions on the different sides of the Menai Strait? They would probably already have enough worries on their mind!

I also wondered about exercise. The days are short now, so I can't really run after work anymore. Maybe I could run before work? Running from work also would be an issue; if I do that, the first thing I do is cross the bridge. On the Anglesey side of the bridge, beautiful nearby routes are limited.

A picture I took during one of my runs from the office

That evening, the police released a statement saying that they would still keep the bridge open for pedestrians, and that would include dismountEd cyclists. They said, though, that numbers will be limited. I wondered if that would mean queues. I would find out soon! But at least my commute was secured again. And I would again be able to bike between my office and the main campus, be it that I would have to walk a small stretch of that. So the big problem was solved.

It is a bit of a worrying situation, though, if they think a few pedestrians are already so heavy that they can bring the entire bridge down. I mean, that would be the reasoning behind limiting numbers, wouldn't it? But up until the early afternoon, lorries would still have crossed that bridge. I don't think local authorities will close such a vital piece of infrastructure if they don't have a very good reason for it. So something must really be amiss with the bridge!

Repair is expected to take us into the New Year. And as long as there is pedestrian access, it won't affect me all too much. But it won't be pleasant. The new bridge, Britannia Bridge (or rather, the slightly less old bridge, as this one was built in the 1840s; originally it was only a rail bridge, but since 1980 it has also accommodated road traffic) only has two lanes on it, and already struggles with the amount of traffic that is trying to use it on a regular basis. If it has to take literally all the motorised vehicles, it will be worse! And there was already mention of a 30 mph speed limit, while originally this was 50 mph. I already heard village gossip about people being stuck on the wrong side of Britannia bridge for hours, due to the travel chaos the abrupt closure of Telford bridge had created. There will be more of that!

The authorities also have the issue of storms to think about. Britannia Bridge closes for high-sided vehicles and motorbikes in high winds, and to all traffic in really really high winds; the latter is rare, but not unheard-of. The former traditionally happens several times a year. But closing both bridges for some or all vehicles would be extremely disruptive! What are they going to do? Do it anyway and accept that people will get stranded? Just not close Britannia bridge in a storm? And just hope that no vehicles will be blown off the bridge? Or blown sideways into the wrong lane, creating head-on collisions? It is easy to see the disadvantage of that.

We will have to see how this pans out! But I do hope that in early 2023, we will get the bridge back in all of its former glory and structural integrity! It is a fine piece of engineering, and I hope they can get it ready for the next century again…

26 October 2022

Beer, cheese and pretzels

There has been a cheesemonger in Menai Bridge for at least 1.5 years! And I had never been. Of course I intended to go as soon as I heard about them, but you know how it goes; I never thought of it when I was actually in the neighbourhood. But one day the perfect opportunity presented itself.

Martin had been in Germany, and brought back a generous amount of great German beer. He had done the same thing the year before; we had had a lovely beer drinking session at his place around the start of the new term. And I think he might want to make it a tradition. And we are certainly not complaining!

If you drink beer you probably also need some nibbles. And then I had a brainwave; I could go to the cheese shop! I'm sure they have stuff you can pair well with German beer. So on an October Thursday, I for the first time set foot in & Caws. (You guessed it; Caws is Welsh for cheese.) I was a bit shocked by the size of the cheese counter; no Dutch cheese shop would have one that small. But it is not all about quantity. I only needed a few pieces! And they most certainly did have varieties that looked like they would do the job rather well. I came away with a piece of Alp Blossom, Valdeon Picos de Europa and Comté. And the next day I would find out whether that was a good choice!

The actual beer drinking evening started with a bit of chaos; Siobhan texted shortly beforehand that her car wouldn't start. Now what? But luckily Tom could drop her off. She could just stay the night, and have Martin bringing back the next day. Sorted!

With that brief panic out of the way we could just enjoy the evening. The beer was great, Martin had baked excellent pretzels, the cheese was lovely (both the ones that I had brought and the ones Susan had brought), Dean was all dressed for Oktoberfest. The company, obviously, was excellent. So a good night! And I wouldn't mind if we do that again next year. And I fully intend to go back to the cheese shop…

Martin’s pretzels and beer

25 October 2022

Students designing their own dissertation topics

The dissertation module is a bit of a weird one! It is a second semester module, but in the first semester the students needs to get their topics. That means that I have to make sure all the documentation is ready by the start of the first term, and that I have managed to get all the staff to submit possible topics (and submit my own share, of course). Then in the autumn, the big job happens: I have to assign a topic and supervisor to each student. Last year it was almost 200 of them! It is quite a job.

Most students just choose a topic from a list. But every year I encourage them to design their own topic. They can! And then if I am convinced the project is feasible, they can go find a supervisor for it. They have to get it past me because some of the staff in the more popular fields of science (marine mammals, coral reefs, et cetera) otherwise might get inundated. But it does mean I have quite a lot of work to do on it.

As I write this, I have received proposals from 18 students, and given my OK to 6 of them. One student managed to convince me in one go. All the others needed more iterations! And the problem almost always is that they are not specific enough about where they will find the data they need, what exact data they will use, and how they will use it. Often, they will just send a link to a database or something like that, and not explain how they will use it. What variables will they take out of the database, what is the spatial coverage or the time coverage, what are the parameters they will compare it to, and what does their analysis need to yield as an answer for them to accept their hypothesis?  If you just give me the database, that does not tell me whether the project has legs. So I do a lot of emailing to and fro.

The topics the students have designed themselves are quite varied; there is one with marine renewable power, one with seal pup mortality related to storms, one with temperature-dependent sex determination in turtles, one with microplastics, one with whelk size… the possibilities are endless!

Pic by Brocken Inaglory

The deadline has now passed for students to submit the first draft! So everyone who has not proposed anything will just have to pick from the list. That will still be a lot of work for me, but at least less than guiding them to their own projects!

24 October 2022

2022 version of Cefni foraminifera analysis

 Through the years, what I have made the students on our third year fieldwork module do with foraminifera  has changed a lot. It started how my predecessor James has designed the assignment: take the students into the field in the morning, make sure they process the samples before lunch, bung the samples in the oven, and then have them pick and count 100 specimens after lunch. Sometimes they weren’t finished until 9 pm. And the sampling in the morning was tide dependent, so that sometimes started before 5 am. Those were heavy days!

When, for financial reasons, the field trip had to become shorter, I was given less time. And I basically couldn't really make the students do any assemblage analysis anymore. It felt like the whole exercise was becoming a bit pointless because of that. But then everything changed when the pandemic hit. The first year we had to do the whole field trip online. It was far from ideal! But we made the most of it.

Then last year we went in person again, but now in the north. And with severe restrictions on how we could transport students. Suddenly, we had to transport all the students at the same time. That meant I had to drag all the students into the field, make them all do various activities, and then ship them back to Bangor. That meant I had to bunch many activities into each day. You need to keep them all occupied! But there is only so much we need to do in the field, so I basically just claimed one day in the lab in the middle of the field trip.

This year we could use more vehicles again, so we could just bring the students that were scheduled to do something into the field, and leave the rest where they were. So we could spread things out again! And that meant that we were in the field every single day. I had asked Martin to give me a day in the lab afterwards. That seemed much more suitable; just do that assemblage analysis during the actual term! And that day came. It also meant we were back doing a full day of micropalaeontology in the lab; something I had got rid of in one of my other modules, as it is too much for one person to supervise, and I am the only one in the School who can do this. Katrien is very helpful, but she has never worked with forams, and sometimes misidentifications sneak in! And that can do strange things to your dataset. 

The practical was scheduled from 9 to 3. That should be doable! The samples were ready. I made sure I was there fairly early so I could make sure all was set up. And at nine, Katrien appeared. She tends to be my assistant in these things! But she had to leave early, and that was a pity.

I first explained to the students how you adjust and work a microscope. They might not have worked with low power microscope before! And if you don't point things out to them, then sometimes they are unaware of basic things such as how to zoom in. That's very important with foraminifera analysis! 

I also explained to them that I wanted them to pick an identified split of their sample. It wasn't important how big the split was; 1/2. 1/8, 1/128; doesn't matter, as long as they ended up with neither too many nor too few forams. I wanted them to try to get to 100. So I suggested they try to first establish how abundant the forams in their sample were. And then try to create a split that does indeed have some 100 forams. And then I got them picking.

After a while I also told them a little bit about how you identify foraminifera. That is the interesting part! But it takes awhile. And we had 20 students there.

With Katrien leaving just under those about to become very busy I quickly realised that we would not manage to have all the counts checked before the practical was over. I had a quick think. I then suggested that the students that they spent the last minutes of the practical making sure all their materials properly labelled. And then to stand both their list with identifications, and that my growth with the foraminifera on them to me. And their sample bags with the various splits. Then I could just check their identifications in my own time, and give them the complete dataset back ASAP. And they thought that was okay!

A few students decided to have their counts checked there and then. Generally they had done well! And then they left, and it was up to me to collate all the materials. And I was not overly impressed! The sample labelling was not what I hoped it would be. There were microslides and lists without a name; there were microslides and lists without a sample number. There were lists and samples with sample numbers I knew were wrong. And if you don't know which some sample is which, you can't use these samples!

In the following two days I went through all these samples. It was actually quite pleasant to do! Sometimes I could check the identifications specimen by specimen. That is ideal; then you know if there is a particular species a student might struggle to identify. But in some samples, the specimens weren't properly stuck down to the cardboard (an indication of insufficient glue having been used), the specimens had moved around and the only thing you could check was the total numbers. That still gives you a good idea, though!

The Friday of that week I published the full set; both the modern ones from the practical, and the fossil ones I had picked myself. I think I need to ask timetabling to insert a lecture to help with the students on their way making sense of this. But I will also emphasise good labelling practice! A sample is often something you have spent quite a lot of time (and sometimes money) on; you don't want to then not be able to use it.

Soon we will put the data to the test; can we derive in what environment the various units we found in the sediment core were deposited? I sure hope so! 

All forams still in place!

Forams have moved...

Attempt at photographing an E. williamsoni with algae in its test with an iPhone

23 October 2022

Windy day on Llanddwyn

We normally take the first year students into the field pretty early on in the first semester. Let's not wait with showing them what North Wales has to offer! This year, however, the weather forecast for the day we were supposed to have our first trip was absolutely awful. Heavy rain literally from the very first minute of the trip until the last, combined with rather heavy winds. We cancelled it.

The second timetabled day for a trip like that was a week later. We decided to still do the trip we were  supposed to do on the first day. Maybe we would find an extra day in the second semester, when we could  catch up!

There was a bit of a snag the Friday before. Dei had decided that if we had a 17-seater and a 9-seater, we would be okay. He can drive the former and I can drive  the latter. Jaco would be elsewhere. But the person who had made the booking with the rental company had forgot to be that specific, and just asked for "a minibus and a people carrier". And they had delivered a 15-seater and a 9-seater! And if all the students would show up, that would give us a problem. By about 4 o'clock we had managed to organise that one of the technical staff would show up in one of the School vehicles, in case that was needed. Crisis averted! It was a bit typical that the previous year, we had also had logistic trouble, but for entirely different reasons.

This time, the forecast was dry. That was a great improvement! But the night before I had a slightly closer look at the forecast, and I noticed it warned of heavy wind. Oh dear! And we would be at Llanddwyn, which is about as exposed as you get. But we still went with it.

Not all the students showed up. So Gareth, who had come to save us from there 15-seater debacle, could just go back to Menai Bridge. And we went off to Llanddwyn!

We didn't only have the wind to deal with; there was also the matter of the tide. High tide would be uncomfortably early in the afternoon. Dei suggested we would do a little spiel in the shelter of the woodland, and then walk in one go all the way to the very end of the peninsula, where the best exposure is. We were not entirely sure if we would be able to go there! It is very exposed, and with winds like that you probably have a storm surge. But we could briefly make it onto the beach.

Dei doing the spiel in the woods

Some horses interested in Precambrian geology

Student admiring waves rather than a spectacular conglomerate

The waves were spectacular

Got a bit close

From there we looked at a very old lump of limestone, and then we took advantage of the shelter provided by the church ruin to have a spot of lunch. One of the students had brought a big Tupperware full of home-made cookies! That was amazing.

After that, we looked at a succession of mudstones with interspersed sandstones. And a fossil volcanic bomb. And then it was time to get off the peninsula before it would turn into an island! Ideally, we would have looked at some oceanic basalts, but we skipped that for this time. Safely on the mainland, we had a good look at some pillow lavas. And then we called it a day! And we decided to walk back through the woods, for reasons of shelter. There are even prettier pillow lavas further along the beach, but we weren't overly keen on being sandblasted.

Leaving just as Llanddwyn is still a peninsula (notice the water coming in on both sides)

I hope the students had a good time! It wasn't ideal, with the strong wind and the unfortunate tide, but it was sunny and spectacular, and it was a nice group. Next month we’ll do the next episode!

22 October 2022

Hanging Jenny

There are things that central heating does better than infrared panels. One of these things is: drying wet fabrics. I'm sure infrared could do it too, but one of the reasons I am using infrared is that you don't need to leave it on for very long. Just having the heating on when you are brushing your teeth doesn't generate enough energy to dry a towel, for instance. To make things worse; my infrared panel in there bathroom is mounted on the wall, so that radiates horizontally, while the towel rack is below it. So basically, unless it is summer, or I take specific action, my towels don't dry. And if I come home from a run all dripping, and it is just too cold in the conservatory to help against that, my running gear doesn't dry either. I figured I needed to think of something!

Sometimes you see in things like bothies old-fashioned drying racks by the woodstove. I didn't really know what they were called, but when I mentioned them to one of my fellow course participants in Machynlleth, she had a name for them: hanging Jennies. And she said there was a website where you could buy them for a reasonable amount of money: Pulley Maid. So that might be another one of their monikers.

I figured that first of all, they would look right at home in my rather Victorian house. And secondly: I could hang one above the log burner in the landing. I don't want it in the living room; the living room is for being snug, and as beautiful as the pulley maids are, dripping running kit is not beautiful at all. And I don't use the other log burner a very often, but I can of course sometimes just light it for a particular occasion.

I was really wondering whether I should buy the classic version or a particular Welsh one. Wouldn't it be nice to have a actual Welsh pulley maid in the house? But I had no way of checking whether that was indeed a Welsh model. And in the end I decided to just go with a classic one, for the simple reason that it had wooden laths with an elongated cross section, while the Welsh one had round ones, and I find that less aesthetically pleasing. And after measuring the space I had near the log burner, but away from the ceiling lamp on the landing, I decided to order the version with 90 cm laths. 

A few days later it appeared. I opened the package and had a look. Assembly looked easy! And I started to assemble it. But then I noticed that these laths didn't looks 90 cm at all. I measure them; they were closer to 120 cm. Oh dear! I contacted the supplier about that.

I wanted to hang it anyway; I could just let the laths stick out a bit much on one side. Depending on what the supplier would say I could just later replace the laths, or just saw them to size or something. But then it turned out it sort of fit anyway! And longer laths means more space for hanging wet gear. So I decided to stick with it. I suggested to the supplier I just keep them and pay the extra few quid. They said, unsurprisingly, that I could just keep them for no extra charge. No problem!

After the initial trial hanging I took it all down again. I wanted to fix the laths to the cast iron hangers they rest in; no mechanism for keeping them in place is delivered. And I figured they would just keep falling out. Or at least stick out by arbitrary degrees. I didn't want that! And I just tied them down with some white string. I don't think that's very conspicuous. I also cut the cord to size, and tidied up the frayed ends. 

Then it was done! I needed to try it out. I started a little fire, and hung one of my small towels from the newly installed Hanging Jenny. And I think it all works! I have drying space now, and even if I am not drying anything, I have a very good-looking new appliance in my landing. Success!

The new setup with show towel


21 October 2022

Trying to get a Smart Export Guarantee

If you are not British, you probably don't know what a Smart Export Guarantee is. And if you are British, you still might not, if you do not have solar panels, or less ubiquitous ways of generating renewable power. But I am generating quite a lot of power that I'm not using, and that's where a SEG comes in.

As things stand, the energy that I'm generating through my panels and that I am not using, goes straight into the grid, and I'm not even getting a thank you for that. In the olden days, you could get quite a lot of money for the power you fed back into the mains; it was called a Feeding in Tariff (FiT), and I think you would get more than half the money for a feeding a unit of electricity into the grid than you would pay for drawing one out. But we have had a Tory government for a long time now, and there is no way they would incentivise people to turn renewable like that. So the FiT scheme was closed a few years ago, and now one depends on an SEG to get at least some diminutive financial reward for helping the country to come off hydrocarbons. If you get an SEG, you get about an order of magnitude less money for a unit of energy that goes from your house into the grid, than you pay for for one that that travels the other way. But at least it's something!

You would hope that if you have panels installed, you would automatically get this financial reward, but that is of course not the case. You need to apply for it. You don't need to apply with your own energy company. Stranger still; my own energy provider does not offer you that option, even. So I just picked one recommended by the newspaper.

So what do you need to apply? You need to have a particular certificate of your panels, you need to provide evidence that your smart meter can measure the amount of energy you're feeding into the grid, and you need to tell the energy company responsible for your neck of the woods (which may very well not be your supplier) through some particular form that you have your panels. They then have to send you some form back, and that form you also need to supply. For some reason, the energy company responsible for Wales is Scottish Power. Not sure why that makes sense. 

One Sunday I forced myself to get this tedious job done. I combed through the documentation the installer of my solar panels had sent me, be it many weeks after actually installing them, and I retrieved the form that had to go to Scottish power, and the form that could go directly to the energy company that I had chosen to provide me with the SEG. I scanned them both in. Then I needed to Google how on Earth you get your export reading from your smart meter. I sent off the form to SP, and got everything ready to apply for my SEG once they would respond to me. They basically only sent me an email thanking me for my form! In it, they also explained they will not send me any further documentation. So I had a little choice but to just supply that email response in my application.

All I can now do is wait! I hope it gets approved. These panels were quite expensive, and getting a little bit of compensation in the form of a SEG would help my bank account recover. And I know that I might very well choose to use that bank account for frivolities like a Hanging Jenny (explanation coming up), but I might also use it for decarbonisation measures! For instance, that EV does not come for free. So stay tuned…

20 October 2022

Popular stable carbon isotopes

I teach a module in which the focus is on us inviting guest speakers from all sorts of directions in academia and the corporate world, who do something with marine geology. They just provide a lecture about their field of expertise, and the students can then take one of these topics and read up on it a bit more. They write a popular scientific article about it, and give a presentation. The idea is that they push the topic further than the guest lecturer did. We the resident staff provide a series of lectures that we use for trying to make sure that the students have all the background knowledge they need an order to understand these guest lectures.

I tend to talk about all the most common methods we are using to try to get useful information out of sediments or rocks. And in my general line of science, you can't get around stable isotopes. They are so incredibly useful! All elements have more than one isotope, and the isotopes are chemically identical but physically slightly different. And typically, when these elements go through a phase change, not only do some of the isotopes preferentially make that phase change, but also, the strength of this preference depends on temperature. So if you are reading this, and you have the faintest idea of what the temperature of any aspect of the system Earth was at some point in the past that is beyond historic measurements, you probably know this because of stable isotopes. So I had given lectures about that. And I know it comes back in at least one of the guest lectures.

What I said above about phase changes and isotopes also holds for carbon, but carbon is special; any creature that engages in photosynthesis prefers light carbon isotopes. I'm not sure why! But they do. As a result, organic carbon is isotopically a lot lighter than inorganic carbon. And it also means that you can basically find out whether there have been big fluctuations in photosynthesis in the geological past. Especially in the ocean. Many people might think of photosynthesis as something that mainly happens on land, but don't forget plankton! And plankton blooms!

A plankton bloom near Cornwall. Pic by NASA

You can probably imagine that if you have an awful lot of planktonic algae photosynthesising away at the sea surface, they can take up a lot of carbon. And if they then subsequently die, and then end up locked away in the sediment rather than being recycled somewhere along the way, you have effectively drawn carbon from the atmosphere. Anything that does that is currently of high societal relevance, of course!

So how would we know that that that happened? Well, if you have a lot of photosynthesis going on in the ocean, all the algae will pull all the isotopically light carbon out of the ocean (there is a lot of CO2 dissolved in it, and they can take it out) and then the ocean water ends up relatively isotopically heavy. If any creature is then precipitating calcite in that seawater, the carbon in that calcite will automatically also be quite isotopically heavy. And that calcite is quite likely to survive. Possibly for tens of millions of years! So in that sense, you can track the productivity of the ocean quite far back in time.

There is a flipside to this, of course. If you store all that isotopically light carbon somewhere, it might escape its  storage and come back to haunt you! Marine sediments contain a lot of methane. And that methane can also be released. It tends to be stable in low temperatures. If you raise the temperature of the sediments too much, your methane will basically just burp out. This has happened before! And you can imagine that that would turn both the atmosphere and the ocean suddenly quite isotopically light when it comes to carbon. And that, as well, is something you would quite easily see in marine calcite.

How all this carbon moves between the atmosphere (where we don't want it) and somewhere safely out of reach, like in marine sediments (where we do want it) is something we really want to know about. Some 55 million years ago, something went catastrophically wrong in the Earth produced the biggest burp known to man. It wreaked climate havoc! And the thing is; we are now on our way to create a much worse event. It's just not yet quite apparent; that event took about 10.000 years to unfold, which in geological terms is just a blink of an eye, but for a humans is an unimaginable amount of time. And we are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at about 10 times the speed that was seen back then. But we have only been at it for some hundred years! So the effects are only beginning to be felt.

Altogether, I hope you agree with me that stable carbon isotopes are important. And there used to be a guest lecture in which they were very important. It was the one by my old PhD supervisor Dick Kroon. He presented an amazing lecture where he went into detail about how often this kind of world burp takes place, and under what circumstances. Fascinating but also cause for concern! But when the pandemic started, he decided to stop giving this lecture because he was a big cheese in an ocean drilling program, and he needed all his energy to somehow mitigate the damage the pandemic was doing to that. And he has since died, so he never will give the lecture again.

So where am I going with all of this? I normally teach the students about stable carbon isotopes, but this year I figured none of our guest lecturers would actually discuss it. So then what was the point? I had my students for a double lecture slot, and I decided to use the first slot for things that I knew they would be needing for the guest lectures. And then we would have a tea break, and after that break I would tell them about stable carbon isotopes. I also told them that there would be literally no assessment at all within this module in which that would come back. So if they thought it was a waste of their time, they were totally welcome to go away and do something else! But if anyone would stay on, I would deliver that lecture.

I seriously considered the possibility that none of them would come back. But after I came back from my convenience break, I saw that almost all the students still there! I thought that was an uplifting view. And I quite happily delivered my lecture!

I think it is lovely that the students just want to know about these things just for the sake of knowing it! And not because it has any particular positive effect on their grades. Who knows what they will be doing with this knowledge in the future. They are part of a generation that will have a much tougher time dealing with carbon in the climate system than my generation does! And knowing what sort of havoc it has created in the past is, of course, by no means a guarantee for mitigating the damage in the present day in the future, but it is a start. There is hope!

19 October 2022

Using the infrared panels

It is mid-October now; it is getting chilly. I often start my commute with gloves on! And it sometimes happens that I end it just in a shirt, but that is mainly due to the hills I encounter on the way. But that also means it can get cold in the house. I am still continuing my boycott of my gas boiler. I light my log burner a lot; I am really chuffed with my garage full of wood. But, of course, I don't have a log burner in every room. And sometimes I don't want to be cold in the rooms without one. So I have started using my infrared panels! So what are my experiences?

I have panels in my office, my kitchen in my bathroom. The idea is that they work quite fast; you just flip them on when you walk in, and a short while later you feel their effect. And when you leave again, you switch them off. That way you just only heat the rooms that you are actually in.

I have mainly used the panels in the kitchen when I had guests. The kitchen is also the dining room! And people have been comfortable in there. But sometimes I just flip them on there when I am cooking. It is quite snug quite quickly!

The panel in the bathroom is not fast enough to keep you warm when you are going to the loo. By the time you can feel the heat, you are done! But I have occasionally put them on when I am either having a shower or brushing my teeth. They are fast enough for that.

The panel in the bathroom 

I suppose the most important ones are the ones in the office. Sometimes I work at home for a day, if I have no contact hours with the students. And sometimes I just first work an hour or so at home, just to have a bit of quality time with the cat. And in the weekends I also sometimes need to use my computer. A household requires some admin! And, of course, I am a blogger. And it is nice to have these panels; if you are doing computer work, you are by definition sitting still. That office can be quite cold without heating! But with the panels on, it is quite nice.

The risk with these things is of course that you forget to turn them off when you leave the room. And that has indeed already happened twice! But I hope I have learnt from that, and it it will barely ever happen in the future. I won't say never; I am a flawed human, after all. But I didn't buy these things to be using energy for the cat’s violin.

So what is my verdict? I am really pleased with them! I would certainly do it again. I might get more. If I have to gut the office, then the spare bedroom will become the office, and then it would be nice if that would have panels as well. And they might be an idea for the master bedroom.

I don't think they are suitable for the living room and the landing; these have Victorian ceiling beams, so the only way of putting up a sizable panel is to obscure the beams. And I have gone through a lot of effort to have these in view! I have no desire to undo that. And I don't need to; both rooms have a log burner. So maybe all I really need is IR and wood!

18 October 2022

Second assembly on sustainability

In summer, the first citizen’s assembly on sustainability of the local valley was held. I had been invited. I didn't quite know what to expect that first time around, obviously. But I had left with a good feeling! So I was looking forward to the next episode. I expected that to happen in September, but September came and went. Then, in October, I got a phone call from the organiser. The assembly was next week; had I not seen the email? And the answer was: no I hadn't. But I happened to be available. And this time, it would be spread out over two evenings, and it would be right next door, in Neuadd Ogwen.

The first evening I biked home, quickly had a shower, threw a few useful things into my bag like a flask and a notebook, and got in pretty much just on time. And as the previous time, we were distributed over tables, but this time we could freely choose our table. I just picked the one with the fewest people on. But it filled up. I recognised some faces from the previous time!

This time started with Chris, the organiser, showing some data about the area. I didn't quite know it, but apparently you can just find information such as domestic energy use and energy efficiency levels of the housing stock per local authority. Interesting! I immediately had lots of questions, but that was not for today. 

Chris with his data presentation

After that, my friend Caro did a presentation where she talked about the state of climate, and predictions for the future. It was nice to watch, but for me, of course, there wasn't much news in there. And soon we were doing some brainstorming on our table again. We were asked what the valley would look like in 2040 if everything we would want to happen by then had happened. It was nice to daydream! Then we shared the best of our ideas.

It was rather cold in the room. I was not very comfortable! And there was another lady who wasn't either. So I decided that as soon as there would be a break, I would pop home and get a few nice warm jumpers. I had the food first, though! I was hungry, and it was excellent soup. 

With my extra jumper I was more comfortable during the rest of the program. We had quite some discussions about how to do sustainability well; solar panels are all good and well, but where are they made? What mines are the raw materials extracted from? How are the people treated who do either the mining or the  manufacture of the panels? Etc. Why are things always more complicated than you would want to?

At 9 o'clock we were done. There was someone who had brought a lot of pears; she had more than she could possibly eat before they would go off. I helped myself! I like pears. Even if they are not hard any more; you can still cook with them.

The next day was a bit more relaxed; I was only teaching until four, so I had time to bike home and have a shower, and have a little bit of time to sort myself out.

This second evening contained a panel discussion, with one lady who runs the Library of Things, where you can borrow things that are not books; a bloke who is part of a local Carbon Zero project, and a lady who was running a local food-growing project associated with a school.

Later we discussed all sorts of things you need to think about when you start a project; any projects, really. How do you start? How do you deal with opposition? How long do you want it to run, and how do you ensure that it runs beyond the time you can give it? How do you recruit people into your project? Are you not inadvertently doing damage somewhere, either to the environment (the nasty solar panels again) or to anything else, such as the Welsh language, gender equality, or any of that sort of stuff. And much more!

It has been a good session again. Even though the second evening it seemed even colder than the first! I wish I had worn mountain boots with thick socks. And already next month we will do the third session. Things are moving along! And how much actual difference really make? I think time will have to tell that. I really hope we will manage to get some project off the ground! I would like to see a wind turbine. But that is probably a long-term project. But if you want it to happen some day, you have to start somewhere! And this assembly might be the place...

17 October 2022

Annual glaciological field trip

 It was that time of the year: the annual field trip deep into Snowdonia was about to happen again. It is a trip in which we look at glacial striations, in order to reconstruct what sort of ice mass has created these striations. After the field trip, back on campus, the students put these measurements into context.

It is generally a very lovely field trip. The landscape is amazing, and the students often do a fine job. And I enjoy the company of my colleague Lynda, who normally goes with me. But the previous year, the weather has been pretty awful, and the week before this trip was due we had had to cancel an entirely different field trip for weather reasons. So I was keeping a nervous eye on the forecast! Fortunately, it looked good and stayed good.

I met Lynda and the students on the main campus. Everyone I expected minus one showed up! That is really not a bad score. And soon we were on our way to Pen-y-Pass, where we would meet David, who was going to be the on-duty first aider.

We got to Pen-y-Pass alright, but there was no sign of David there. That is weird; he normally is quite early. I considered the situation. If he wasn't there now, he would probably not be there at all. And we couldn't phone him; there is no phone signal or Internet signal there. Was this a problem? I myself am one of the University first aiders too. I don't like having to be the on-duty first aider if I am also doing all the teaching, and being responsible for everything. As soon as anyone needs medical attention, then all the actual fieldwork has to stop. That is not ideal! But I also did not want to abort the whole mission. I decided it would just have to do. And I wasn't really worried that something awful had happened that had prevented him from showing up; it had happened before that he just didn't show up when he had been booked, like last year on Llugwy Beach.

We walked up. This time I wanted to keep the whole group together; I wanted to show the students outcrops along the way to the actual site where they could practice recognising striations. In the past, it has happened that students were measuring something entirely different! And with them being rather spread out, it is difficult to check what they are doing on time.

The walk up

When we got to the top, I did a little brief, and then they were on their way, looking for a suitable outcrop in their groups of two or three. And I first inhaled a piece of cake as I was very hungry, but then I went on my way to check every group, and put their outcrop on the map. We had 12 groups, and it took a while.

Getting to the lake 


Quite many groups were being rather efficient about it, and were done in no time. I figured that if everyone was done on time, we could just go back down to the road a bit earlier, and sit in the café waiting for the bus. So when everyone was ready, I did a quick debrief, and then we set off. 

When we go to the road we quickly found out that the café was closed. What nonsense! It was a beautiful day and it was quite busy; we were really not the only people there! And everybody else was as disappointed as we were. There were people in the café but they were not willing to open for us. That was a bit of a bummer! And we obviously couldn't let the bus driver know that we wanted them a bit earlier. Fortunately, it was dry, and there are a lot of picnic tables there, so we just sat down and had whatever snacks we still had ourselves. I was glad I could finally drink a lot of water! In the field, I had been too busy for this.

15 minutes later than he had said he would be back, the bus driver arrived. Not ideal, but so be it. And then we just drove back to main campus without incident. And I will barely back in the office or I received the first email from a student with their data. That was going well!

As soon as all the data is in, the students can work on the assignment. I hope they do an amazing job this year! I think the best year so far had been the previous year, and they had had to work through rain and wind. Hopefully, this lot is even better!

15 October 2022

Archaeology of Moel Faban

Not long after my adventure with Neolithic axes I saw another archaeological event advertised. This time it was just a guided walk, and it was right in my back garden. It involves the archaeology of basically my main running ground; Moel Faban. I hoped to learn things about it so I could pass by archaeological features I would know something about every time I would run there! The person leading it would be John, the man I had met several times before, and who I keep bugging with questions about the Roman Road. So I registered. And it would be entirely in Welsh. I consider that a good thing!

Closer to the time there was an email about that the weather might not be good enough. We would be kept updated! And when I saw a forecast of wind gusts of up to 40 mph I thought it might get cancelled. But it wasn't! So I biked up on a Sunday morning, and already saw a little crew when I was parking my bike. I also noticed the historian who had lead a historical walk nearby park up. I didn't expect him! But always good to have a historian on board. 

We were a small group. Janet from the climbing club was there too. We set off to Tan y Bwlch, and from there we started to walk around the hill. John pointed out an old defended settlement, remnants of roundhouses and longhouses, and traces of mediaeval ridge and furrow farming. 

Later we followed the path I use for biking down on my standard hill biking loop (we can't call this mountain biking) to go up on the far side of Bwlch ym Mhwll-le, and there we saw burial mounds. And a beautiful sheepfold! One of the participants of the walk, Nigel, was actually the man who had given a public lecture about sheepfolds. So we had quite some expertise in the group! 

Walking under a dramatic sky

John the archaeologist gesturing with Martin the historian looking on

On the other side of the hill we saw some burnt mounds. These are places where water has been heated by lighting a fire, having stones in the fire, and then dropping the stones in the water. John suggested the water might have been used for boiling large amount of meat, like half a pig or something like that. But there are other options as well; they might also have been used as saunas. The actual mounds are the result of the stones, many of them shattered from cold shock, being periodically cleared out of the depression where the water was held, and thrown onto a mound.

The original idea had been to walk back by completing the loop, but that would mean being quite exposed to the wind. We decided not to go with that! We just retraced our steps. And shortly after noon we were back at our vehicles.

I learned something again! We had not been able to look at that mounds at the top of the hill, as it was likely we would get blown off. But it was good! And by now I really wanted lunch!

14 October 2022

Mawr y rhai bychain: Dafydd Iwan

I had seen that Dafydd Iwan would play Neuadd Ogwen. Dafydd Iwan! Anyone who wonders who that is, and Googles a few of his songs, might be surprised I give that an exclamation mark. It's not normally my genre! But he is a veritable Welsh hero. He already went to jail for having vandalised English-only road signs in 1970. He has campaigned for housing in Wales, and co-founded the first record company for Welsh language music. He has been the President of the Welsh nationalist party. And I don't think he is anywhere near done campaigning for the Welsh language and for Welsh independence! There recently have been some marches in support for that idea, and at the last one he was there, of course, singing to the crowds.

Arguably the most famous thing he has ever done, though, was writing, performing and publishing the song ‘Yma o Hyd’; it's seen as some sort of alternative national anthem for Wales. It's an inescapable song. Not too long ago, it’s got some extra international recognition when he sang it in the stadium where the Welsh National football team was about to play a World Cup Match. They don't qualify very often! And I'm sure half the stadium belted along. Every Welsh-speaking Welsh person knows this song, and can sing at least the chorus.

The song title means ‘Still Here’. The chorus goes as follows: we are still here, we are still here, in spite of everyone and everything, in spite of everyone and everything, in spite of everyone and everything we are still here.

Around the time of the World Cup match there was attention to this song in the Welsh class. We delved into the rest of this song! And it starts with the Romans leaving Wales. You would think it is a very long song; he then has about 1600 years left to describe. But he takes big steps! In the second verse he just describes that everything is awful. There is no particular time mentioned. And then in the third verse, the Welsh rise up and everything becomes marvellous again! So he is painting with a rather wide brush. But it definitely touches the hearts of quite many Welsh people! You can find a rather evocative version of it here, with nice pictures, in case you wonder. 

This was a rather long introduction to my Saturday  evening. But I knew he was coming to Bethesda. And I sort of figured I should be there. The man is 79; he is not going to keep singing forever! It seems that for the last 20-odd years he has already been ruling out serious touring. And then, on the actual day, I got an email saying they were still tickets. And that was the kick in the bum I needed. I bought one! I'm sure they would have let me in without a ticket but I was showing my support here. 

On the actual evening, I first did some things that needed doing. I didn't expect the support act to start anywhere near the time the doors opened. And when I came in, they had already started. The support act was a band from Brittany: Dièse3 & Youenn Lange. They were quite good!

The support act

When they were done, I popped outside for a bit. Where I bumped into Michael. We had a little chat! He confessed to not knowing the man or much about the song Yma o Hyd, in spite of having lived in Wales for 20-odd years. I suppose it struggles to reach the non-Welsh speaking community. But he thought he knew exactly which song it was. My guess is that he was right!

I walked back in, and lingered a bit on the side, but then decided to take a seat. And I was grabbed by Dani who was there too. That was nice! She and her friends moved one seat up and then I joined them. 

The raconteur in action

I was quite impressed with how he was doing! His voice was holding out in spite of his age. And he didn't act old. He was quite the raconteur! Between the songs, he did a bit of chatting with the audience. He explained  some things about the songs, talked of the demonstration he had attended, and told some  anecdotes. He did mention that once he was in a pub in Cardiff, and that some man came up to him and asked "excuse me, are you That man who sings That song?" He was. And that tells you most of what you need to know about this song.

I liked some of the songs better than others, but everybody know that the sung that would get the best audios a response was, well, That song. And it was! People stood up, waved their hands in the air, belted along. And he even did another song after that. Brave! And then after that, he ended with the actual national anthem. I'm glad I learned that!

Then it was almost 11 and he had to stop. He stayed behind a bit; I saw him happily posing for pictures with local children. I think I wasn't the only one who thought we needed to get our Dafydd Iwan shot while we still could! But I wanted to go to bed. So I left.

I am glad I have seen the legend himself! And I should make sure I memorise the verses a bit more. This won't be the last time I hear this song in public, and it really lends itself to communal singing along! 

13 October 2022

Fridge getting old

One day I just wanted to open the fridge, but when I did so, the top hinge gave. That was a bit annoying! And I couldn't really do anything about it as I was about to have dinner guests, and we would go a concert that night. I just made do for that evening.

Oh dear

The day after, though, I figured I should do something about it quickly. I had seen that the hinge is basically a metal pin in a plastic socket, and over the years the socket had become brittle. Understandably so! I had bought that fridge second-hand in 2009, so it certainly had time to suffer some wear and tear. But the door had two sets of hinge sockets. And given the location it stands, it doesn't really matter if it opens towards the left or the right. So if I just put the metal pin in the other socket I was probably good for another 10 years or so! And I didn't expect that to be of a lot of work. And it wasn't; I got it done before breakfast. 

Initially, the fridge wouldn't really close well that way around. I decided to solve that the Bethesda way; I just leaned a big piece of slate against it. That kept the door properly closed and sealed! But as I hoped; it seemed to be a question of getting used to, so after about a day I could remove the piece of slate again, and the door would still properly close. I have a totally functional fridge again! I suppose I should also take steps to improve my oven situation. The kitchen is not in a particularly good state visually (ideally, I would have the kitchen cabinet doors replaced), but it would be nice if at least all appliances worked!

The repair before it fully sank in

12 October 2022

Mawr y rhai bychain: Breabach

The humble shall be raised! Or more literally: large will be the small ones. That was the title of a small festival happening in Neuadd Ogwen. The humble were clearly the Celtic fringe. I had only recognised the name of a celebrated man who had written a sort of unofficial anthem for Wales: Dafydd Iwan. But Jaco and Marjan contacted me and said they wanted to see Breabach. Did I want to join?

I had to Google them, and found out they were a Scottish folk band. Apparently, they are huge in the folk scene, but it had passed me by. They looked OK! I said yes. And invited them over for dinner beforehand.

It would start at 7pm. Jaco didn’t want to miss anything! So not an awful lot later than seven we walked in. Jaco and Marjan had tickets; I just showed my face. But it turned out it was a seated concert, and it was sold out! Oh dear. I said I’d see how things would go and just leave if all seats were taken. Later I saw Dilwyn, the manager, and he said they had added some seats so I shouldn’t worry. But folk, seated? Shouldn’t everyone be dancing? 

Nothing was happening, so we figured we had arrived between support act and main act. But we were wrong! The support act, Cerys Hafana, from mid-Wales, appeared. She mainly played triple harp, and sang. One song involved a piano. She was good! And talked a fair bit between songs. It seems you have to tune a triple harp all the time, and you have to keep the audience entertained while you’re doing it. She spoke a lot about the music archive of the National Library of Wales; this was to the delight of Marjan, who is a librarian, and is not used to lots of library references during a live gig. 

Cerys Hafana

Not long after that (otherwise they wouldn’t have had much time left before closing at 11), Breabach itself appeared. And they were good! It was a rather calm approach to folk, but it was quite enjoyable. There was a bit of dancing! The violinist/vocalist clearly knows her steps. And at the very end, some people came to the front to shake their stuff. We didn’t.


It was good to be there for an entire concert! And I didn’t know it yet, but I would be back really soon…