31 January 2024

Another sustainability meeting; this time in Penygroes

I had been to buckets of sustainability meetings recently! After the Citizens’ Assembly on Sustainability in our valley, we had created focus groups on topics such as sustainable food, sustainable transport and a climate festival. I am in the latter two, and we had been having meetings with both. And the same had happened in other regions. And the ‘energy-efficient homes’ group of the Nantlle Valley had organised an afternoon for sharing ideas. It sounded interesting! 

I also decided I could combine it with a nice run in an unusual environment. So I did, and I still made it on time. I first bumped into Malen, who I had hoped to be able to catch up afterwards. She is the wife of the Martyn we have just hired on a permanent contract. I hope to go visit them soon. I knew that would be a delegation from Bangor; Chris, the facilitator in our valley, would be coming up with a lady who is into sustainable food, and perhaps other people. And when I walked into the room I also saw the Welsh-speaking lady who had recently retired, and some of whose teaching I am now doing, and a bloke from Llanberis Mountain Rescue who had been at the wellbeing event the previous week. It’s nice to see familiar faces!

Most of the day was just presentations by various people. There was one guy who was trying to improve the situation in Pen Llŷn, by trying to have a holistic approach. One of his bugbears was that if you want your house to be made sustainable, you often have no choice but to hire contractors from far away. His organisation was trying to support local contractors to get the necessary accreditation, so they could do it themselves. And he was trying to organise support in applying for grants to have the work done in the first place.

There was also a man from Cartrefi Clyd, which is a Wales wide organisation, and it does similar things. They offer subsidised sustainability surveys of your house, and support with making the improvements that have been flagged up, by identifying potential sources of financial help. I think I'll take them up on that!

There also was the opportunity to discuss with the whole room. The room was largely Welsh speaking, and there of course was synchronous translation, so everyone could join in.

I think I got two take all messages from this. Firstly, there is actually quite a lot of good work being done in our general area. And secondly; it is affordable to have a specialist turn your house inside out and suggest improvements. The first lift the spirits, and the second lifts my faith in being able to improve my own situation! So it was worth it.

30 January 2024

Running in Dorothea Quarry

It's only half an hour away, but I rarely go to the Nantlle Valley. The last time I was there, I came through while hiking the Slate Trail. And that meant I didn't have much time to explore. We were doing the heaviest hiking day of the whole trip. We started at 7 am, and didn't stop until 7 pm. I think we covered 30 km and three mountain ridges. You can imagine that we had enough on our hands, and didn't make the day any longer by exploring. We just followed the route!

When an interesting event was announced in Penygroes (that will be the next blog post), I figured I should tag along a run in the general area of Dorothea quarry. I know it's beautiful! And I had barely seen any of it.

The event would start at 12:30, so there was time to do a run beforehand. My idea was to park up in Nantlle, go for a run, drive to the lake, have a little swim in order to freshen up a bit, have my lunch, and go to the event. But it didn't really work out that way.

I wasn't the fastest that morning, so I didn't have that much time for my run when I got there. But the area indeed is amazingly beautiful! I got really distracted by all the beautiful industrial remains there. I didn't really pull my weight running, to be honest. I made a big loop around one of the bigger flooded pits, and then extended the run by following a bit of the Slate Trail again. At least that was uphill! I would get a little bit of exercise doing that.

Entering the quarry territory 

Strange double bridge

Gloomy-looking selfie (I enjoyed myself! Honest!)

Scary cracking structure above the track

Engine house 

Flooded pit

Lonely ruin on spoil heaps

Hesitant sun over dormant landscape 

Quarrymen’s barracks, I suppose 

When I was done I drove to a little layby, which was near a gate that gave access to a gravel road to the lake. I really wanted to park close to wherever I would get into the water, given that it is January, and it is important to be able to get back to your warm dry clothes quite quickly. But that gate was really really closed! With barbed wire and everything. I also tied up the stream that comes out of the lake, but that looked really inaccessible for reasons of brambles. So I gave up on that. I just hoped nobody would have a finely developed sense of smell at the event. At least I had been so busy admiring the old quarrying relics that I wasn't anywhere near as sweaty as I would normally be after a long run. 

I also was running a bit late, so I just went straight to the event, and brought my bag in. I was sure there would be opportunities for munching on some sandwiches! And I was already contemplating a return. It is way too beautiful there not come back and do it all again!

29 January 2024

Having another attempt at sorting my Dutch affairs

When I was alerted by my old landlady that the Dutch pension fund was trying to get in touch with me, I figured I should tell them my current address. I clearly hadn't done that in a while. And I quickly googled how you do that. In the Netherlands, you can establish a digital identity, and with that, you can have access to that kind of information. Your pension, but probably also lots of other things.

I didn't have that digital identity. So I went about trying to get it. And then I quickly got reminded of why I hadn't done this before. The thing is that you need to somehow confirm your identity, and you can do that in person in the Netherlands; in person in London, at the Dutch embassy; or via a video call. For me, of course, the video call is by far the best option. And you can book them online. In theory.

The website says that on Fridays, at 9 am Dutch time, they open booking slots for next week, for people who want to make such a video call during working hours. And at 2 pm Dutch time they open the slots for after hours slots. Also, in theory. I made sure I was ready. Two minutes before nine (eight for me) I checked; they were not open yet, by the looks of it. No slots available. But neither were there any slots at nine o’clock sharp. Or two minutes after nine. And the same pattern was displayed at 2 pm. Memories came back of banging my head into that brick wall before. I must've given up.

I will try again next week. You’d think that slots should exist! Even though I noticed that more people had flagged up this issue. Surely it shouldn't be impossible to be really quick and get one? And I have little to lose. It would be really great if I wouldn't have to travel at least 250 miles for this. And it would be great if I could have my affairs in order. Maybe one day I'll even track down my Norwegian pension! But let's not get ahead of things…

28 January 2024

Voice from Norway

When I left Norway, I dived quite seriously into British life. I’m a bit like that! I tend to get rather absorbed by the pressures of my new life, and then I don't stay in touch an awful lot with the life I left behind. That happened here as well. And that also held for the people in whose basement apartment I lived. It was Tromsø, so it was on a hill, so it had its share of windows, but I think it technically still was a basement apartment. And the family who lived upstairs were lovely! They were also very welcoming, and invited me over for dinner and such things. But I didn't much stay in touch with them after I left. I felt a bit bad about that.

Then, suddenly, I got an email from Martha, the landlady. She sent me a picture of a letter that has arrived for me. It was from the Dutch pension fund. She asked if it was important and whether she should send it on. That was very kind of her!

An exchange of messages followed. I had to dig out my Norwegian from underneath a thick layer of Welsh! But I managed. Soon she was sending me pictures from a wintry Tromsø. And all the family. She and her husband haven't changed, but the children sure have! Amongst other things; the only one who still is a child is the one that wasn't even born yet when I left. 

I sent her some pictures of my life. No fully grown children to boast of! But it was really nice to hear from her. And to get some snapshots of life as it continues in the Arctic. I had a lovely two years there. It was quite formative! It's really nice to hear from people who were there in such an important part of my life…

One of the pictures Martha sent me

27 January 2024

Storm Isha

It can be quite blowy here! But there is a blowy and there is blowy. And when storm Isha was approaching, I had a feeling this might be a big one. It would hit on a Sunday.

Amber warning for wind, and torrential rain: lovely

In the morning it was still quite calm. In the afternoon I had to drive back from Capel Curig, and that was challenging. I was really glad when I got home! And I intended to not leave the house anymore until the storm had gone.

I drove through that puddle! Didn’t enjoy it. 

With me being indoors, I still had business with the storm; I got an email from a colleague, who had had questions from students about the lectures starting the next day. Would they actually happen, given the weather? But the weather warning would terminate at 6 AM, and we don't lecture until 9. But I was aware that there would be problems with transport. Flooded train lines, trees on roads; that sort of stuff. So I emailed the students to say I would make mine a hybrid session. If you couldn't come to campus, you could just log in! I thought that would mean there would be absolutely no one showing up. If you give the students the option to not physically be there, the risk is that they take it en masse. 

The rest of the day was not overly eventful. Nothing seemed to be going wrong with the house! I did get a message from a friend who had damage to their shed, but that was about as bad as it got.

The next day, when I had my first lecture at 9 am, I made sure to leave early. I remembered a day when the whole bicycle path had become an obstacle course after a storm. I didn't want to be late!

On the way out, I took the old road, and there weren't any problems. The wind had also abated so much it wasn't a big issue to stay upright. And I found lecture theatre full of students! Not many had let the storm get in their way. But the wind would get stronger again later in the day; Isha’s successor Jocelyn was on the way. So after my lecture I went straight home. I took a different route; there were no obstacles there either. There clearly had been earlier on! You could tell the council had at least removed one fallen over tree.

The worst of my morning commute: a fallen branch

On the way back, different route: any damage already dealt with

Altogether it was quite the storm; I don't think I've ever driven through worse weather in Wales. But once I got home everything seemed ok! That's not a bad score. Will probably get a few more storms in this record season. I hope they will be as well-behaved as this one…

26 January 2024

Back to the drawing board

Last year, in my overview of the year gone past, I predicted that my dating life would kick into higher gear. I knew that was true; on the very first day of the year I knew I had a date planned. This year I looked back on the year gone by and said that the New Year should make it clear whether my dating life, as it was, was going anywhere. That took a bit longer, but only a few weeks into the new year that has come true now as well. 

Tim’s 2024 visit made it clear that as much as we appreciate each other, there is insufficient romantic spark to take this further. We might well keep seeing each other, but it won't be dates anymore. And that is sad. We both had hoped for a better outcome, but you can’t force these things. And now he has a broken ankle to remind him of something that didn't have the desired result. But that's the sort of tricks that life might play you. 

I suppose it is back to the drawing board now for both of us. Wish both of us luck!

25 January 2024

Wellbeing in Mountain Rescue

Wellbeing is quite fashionable these days. Academic Schools tend to have a wellbeing champion, and there are wellness days, and whatnot. And it reached Mountain Rescue as well. An email came around saying that would be a session about it in Plas y Brenin, and that we as a team (we fall under the Mountain Rescue umbrella) could send five people there. Unfortunately, then it fell quiet, and by the time we had a committee meeting in which we discussed it, I suppose all the other people who had been interested had already let their diaries fill up. But I hadn't. So I decided to go.

It was quite busy. There was a good turnout! There was a table where there was still space, and I sat down. Then some blokes came in and joined me there; they turned out to be from the Aberdyfi team (that's a fair distance to the south). The Ogwen team, who had got me and Tim off the hillside, and the Llanberis team, who put out a press release last year that asked people to please be sensible in the mountains as they had so many callouts they were at risk of burnout, and the Aberglaslyn team, that regularly gives us a ride to CRTT, were all there too. I was the only person representing a cave rescue team.

The lady who had organised the session was from the Oggie team, and the person she had contracted to deliver the session was from a charity I hadn't heard of; it turned out to be a charity that looks after the well-being of agricultural workers. Not quite the same as mountain rescue, but why not! One really hopes that a job as a farmer doesn't confront you so much with injury and death as a busy mountain rescue team does, but still; I had faith she had useful things to say. And she did.

She did a presentation that she regularly paused to open the floor for discussion. What did we think mental health was? What did we think we might need if we would have had a difficult callout? Would we be able to spot if one of your teammates was going through a bit of a rough patch? How should we address it? Things like that. And (some) people were quite willing to chip in with their own experiences. Aberglaslyn had recently been involved in the very tragic case of the four young lads whose car has come off the road. That came up a few times. But people rightly pointed out that it's not only the difficult callouts that might be heavy on people.

She also pointed out lots of resources: books, helplines, apps; the whole shebang. It was quite useful. 

A low point for me was that I felt the need to, at some point, call out casual misogyny of a chap on my table. But I still think such things need to be called out. And I did think it was relevant; it's not only the incidents that can get to you! It can be your teammates as well.

It overran a bit, and then there was lunch served. I got a bit distracted from that by bumping into a lady I had met in Machynlleth on one of the courses I had done there; we had exchanged details then, but never used them. She said she would get in touch. Maybe we could go and do something together.

Then I went to consume my share of excellent soup and sandwiches. I ended up accidentally sitting next to a bloke who had applied to also be a member of our team! But he had been very busy with work, so not filled out the paperwork yet. I hope he still will.

Then it was time to go home. Straight through storm Isha! In the morning it had still been quite calm, but by the afternoon, things certainly weren’t anymore. There was a very deep puddle on the road, a tree was blocking one lane, and the wind was just relentless. I was glad to get home without incident. This would be a prime day for ending up stuck between a landslide and a flood or something! But it didn't happen.

Our team doesn't currently even have a well-being officer, but I think we will sort that out in the next AGM. And I will just report back during the next committee meeting. I think it's good there is attention for this sort of thing!

24 January 2024

Another run to Ty Mawr Wybrnant

 In December I had met up over a coffee with Miles. And I had taken the opportunity to go for a run unfamiliar terrain. It was a day with awful weather, but that hadn't stopped me; I had run to Ty Mawr Wybrnant, a historical property near Penmachno. In spite of the weather it had been a beautiful run!

This month we arranged a rendezvous over coffee again. And again I figured I should use the opportunity for a run outside the direct vicinity of my house. And the weather forecast again was atrocious!

I had a brownie with my coffee to provide me with some fuel. And when we parted ways I drove into Penmachno itself. I had wondered where to park, and had decided I might as well park on Kate’s drive. She wouldn't be using it! When I got there I saw there was a car, and the lights were on. I remembered that she had the habit of organising house sitters/dog sitters when she was away. That must be them! And her drive is big enough for me to be able to park there without blocking the car already there in, but I figured it would be a bit rude to just do my thing without any explanation. So I knocked on the door.

I had a nice chat with the people there. They were also runners! And the dog spotted me, and came out for a cuddle. The people didn't mind me using the drive at all! So with a bit of difficulty they called the dog back in, as it looked like he was quite keen to join me on my run and he wasn't supposed to, and then I set off.

My plan was to run again in the direction of Ty Mawr Wybrnant, but now from the southeast. It was starting to feel like a new tradition! Coffee and cake with Miles, and then an absolute washout of a run to that very house. Although I wasn't sure I was going to go all the way this time.

The run was indeed very wet and windy, but the route was beautiful! And this is the accepted route, so the road was in a good condition. In this sort of weather I am not keen on anything too adventurous.

I made it all the way to the house! Altogether it took me less than an hour. Another day multitasked! And there is a third way to the house, so were we to meet up again for coffee in February on a very wet day, I can keep the tradition going…


Out of the village 

That way! 

The house again

Damp selfie

23 January 2024

Snow down into the valley

It’s winter, and with that comes logistical discomfort. I had had some scary days on the bike, negotiating ice on an undulating road. I also decided to leave that undulating road, with its high likelihood of ice, on several days, and biked the long way around. The bicycle path to Bangor is much safer than the through-cut to Menai bridge. I had never felt the need to put spiked tires on my bike when that was my standard commute! And when I put my spikes on last winter, I admit that was for going to icy Gerlan, but I also did a bunch of commutes on them. Which was great exercise for both the body and for my patience. It's so much extra friction, and therefore extra time and effort! 

I realised I probably should put the spikes on when I was on cat feeding duty on a cold day. That night was a lot better, but the forecast was that it would start snowing later on; not only in Gerlan, but also in the valley. So I organised a lift to work the day after. I was so glad I had! Road conditions were atrocious. And the day after that, it was forecast to be even worse. So I sorted out a ride for the day after too. 

This wasn’t even so bad! On the real black ice I was hesitant to take pictures…

The day with the horrid conditions saw some dangerous situations on the road. The small and steep road where my office is was the scene of some serious skidding! I had brought my running kit, just in case, but I didn’t use it. I’m not running on compacted, melting snow. 

My street early in the morning 


The office car park late in the afternoon 

The day after it didn't look so bad from my house, and it didn't look so bad from Susan's car when we rode in, but my Welsh tutor Jenny confirmed that smaller roads still had scary amounts of ice on them. Luckily, she had not had any incidents while gathering that empirical evidence. I was glad I had taken a two day break! Keeping fit is all very well, but wiping out and breaking something would be very unpleasant.

The weather forecast for the days after is horrendous in a different way! Torrential rain, and weather warnings for wind. That will provide entirely different challenges!

22 January 2024

Writing references for students

When we educate our students, we are only a transitory stage in their lives. The idea is that they go onwards from there. And sometimes, the place they go to wants to know what they get themselves into. So it is not unusual for us to write references for our students.

I recently had to write two within a short space of time. One student who had done a BSc with us now wanted to do an MSc in Oxford. Quite a glamorous place to go! And another one of our students, who has already done an MSc with us, was applying for a PhD in Cambridge. Also quite a glamorous place to go!

One of these students had been my personal tutee, and the other one had been my dissertation student. They are both people that I enjoyed working with. It was really good to be able to make a positive contribution to their further career. And they both said they would let me know if their application was successful. Sometimes the writing of references can be a bit of a chore; you might have students that never engaged much, so you don't really know them very well, and you can only write a very vague reference. And sometimes they only ask you just before the deadline, when you are ready completely off your feet with other work. And, of course, sometimes both. So it's not all good. But it can be one of the more rewarding parts of the job. I hope they both get in! And that their careers will be stellar…

21 January 2024

More cat feeding duties

It had only been a few weeks ago that Sue and Dean went away, and Martin and I ended up on cat feeding duty. It was good to share it now after having done it alone the previous time. In the beginning, that was a bit dull; the one cat generally looked at me from the top of the stairs, and the other one legged it when I appeared. But one day I went there, and the one cat that is normally the shy one came into the kitchen, let me snug her, and even mewed at me to try to make me hurry up with the food. I had never touched her before! Or heard her meow! I was very chuffed. 

Now it was Martin who was travelling, and Susan and me were on cat feeding duty. Because one of the nights the cat needed food I had a meeting, I suggested I take morning duty. And that was a bit of a mistake.

The morning after the meeting I got on my bike. My street was nice and clear! And I really, really should know better than to let that be an indication of anything of importance. My street is one thing; the rest of the world is another. Especially Gerlan. And ice started really soon. Initially it was modest and I could keep biking, but after awhile I thought it was getting too wild and I got off. I walked the slippery bits. There were quite many of them! I really cursed myself that I hadn't prepared. The street right by Martin’s house was completely covered in black ice! But I got to the door without incident.

The cat was really glad to see me! We first did a snuggling session. He is not shy. He rules the world. He was glad to get food as well. And after the food he jumped into the windowsill. Flirting followed. And I couldn't resist taking a few pictures!

I walked most of the way back as well. Around me there were a lot of people walking the streets, sliding all over the place. This was not a good logistic day. And there was quite a weather warning for the next day as well. I immediately asked Susan if she would be willing to swap her evening shift for my morning shift. She has a four-wheel-drive; it seems to be able to negotiate such circumstances! And that was okay with her.

When I came back in the evening I could bike all the way to my destination. There were some slightly dodgy stretches but not too bad. And all went well! And the gritters has also been out in force.

This time the cat was more impatient; he made it clear he wanted food and he wanted it now. He has ways of persuading you! I know he sometimes stand on his hind legs, and puts his claws into your trousers (at the bum) to bring his point across. It was funny to get that treatment.

After his food he jumped into another windowsill, and a bit more petting followed. And then I managed to bike down in one piece as well. This had been a bit more eventful than I had hoped it would be! But it was nice to be able to do a favour for a friend, and make life a bit more comfortable for a cat. And I survived another icy day in North Wales!

20 January 2024

Interviewing for Biological Oceanographer

We are trying to hire people again! Which is good. Or maybe I should say ‘still’. Technically, we are just still continuing the round that involved job interviews last August. That roundhead resulted in a new bloke, Phil, who has actually started this month. Hooray! And the 1st of April we can expect the second appointee from that round, but she had to move intercontinentally, so that was a bit more faff. 

In a continuation of that round, there were job interviews planned early in the year. It is all dragging on quite a lot! And that is not new. But better late than never we snapped into action again. The first batch was for a position of biological oceanographer. And there were four candidates on the shortlist. One was local, and the others called in from various locations on the other side of the Atlantic. 

I was not on the panel, but I attended the presentations. They all came at the topic from a completely different angle, and we thought there was quite some difference in how promising their teaching was. The floor thought several candidates were appointable. That was a good sign.  

Ocean colour; a proxy for biological productivity. This pic by NASA came up in one of the example lectures 

Only two days later, an email came in from the Head of School. They had appointed someone in the post! Now that is great. And they had hired the local candidate: Martyn! That was good news. He did sterling job with his presentation. And I personally quite look forward to being his colleague. I suppose by now  we go quite a way back; eight years ago I attended his wedding

He will have to give a few months notice in his current job, and then he can start in this academic position. Excellent stuff. It does mean we now have four people called Martin/Martyn in the academic staff, and I thought three was already quite confusing, but experience tells us you can't have enough Martins/Martyns. So welcome to Martyn, and I hope that those in a position to do so make a similarly quick decision in the next post that the School was interviewing for: top predator ecologist. Watch this space!

19 January 2024

Using the new saw for real

I had had a trial session with the mitre saw in the old year, but that was just to figure out how it worked. And I had also decided I should change the blade. For now I am only cutting firewood, and the neighbour had said that I should use a coarse blade for that, while I had bought it from him with a fine blade in position (he had given me the coarse blade as an accessory). And I had managed to change the blade over the holidays, but I hadn't found time to actually start sawing. But after I had brought Tim back home again after a weekend that featured walnut tree murder and dinner in Voltaire, I did have a go. 

Crikey that thing is fast! I have some rather chunky wood, inherited from Neuadd Ogwen, and it is really quite an effort to saw through it by hand. The mitre saw goes through it like a hot knife through butter. I will not have to worry about either running out of firewood, or about having the garage clog up with uncut firewood. Just an hour with that thing really produces a lot of stove-ready pieces. And, therefore, frees up quite some space.

Since my well-documented pallet adventures I had gathered three more (conventional size or smaller, this time, but still), and they take up a lot of space. And I still had all the wood from Neuadd Ogwen that I had removed the joist hangers from. So it was getting overly crowded in there! So on the Saturday I had demolished two pallets, and on the Sunday all that wood ended up in suitably sized pieces. This is progress!

Lots of wood! Which was getting in the way. There is a lot less now.

18 January 2024

Walnut trees: all gone

After deciding that I wanted to get rid of my walnut trees I had taken the small, and thus easy, one down. That left the big difficult one. But one Saturday its fate was sealed. I grabbed spade and axe and went for it. 

How it started 

I didn’t expect too much resistance. The other one had been so easy! So I set to work. I dug a hole around it, and chopped off any roots I came across, sooner or later the tree will end up loose, and you can lift it out. 

The other tree had taken me half an hour. This one took 1.5 hours, but that was with a break for brushing my teeth. Not bad!

How it ended 

Tim happened to be there too, and he was happy with the change of scenery, so he came into the garden as well, and together we cut the branches into bits. I’ll do the trunks later. In a year or two this will be firewood! Good timing as well; I had just finished burning the wood that had come off the Buddleia. I hadn’t expected that to be any good, but it was fine! And this walnut wood will be even better.

The branches are now firewood; the trunks will follow 

In the end this was a very elaborate and expensive way to get some firewood. But one lives and learns! 

17 January 2024

Therapy suspended

Last year I had started the project of trying to get my mental health back to summer 2019 levels. I found myself a therapist, and had quite some sessions with her. But I didn’t feel much progress. In spring we parted ways. I figured I needed someone who did CBT. And I found one.

In September I started with my new therapist. And we had six sessions. But I didn’t feel much progress. Am I so difficult to treat? Am I thwarting everything? Do I keep picking the wrong therapist? I don’t know. But this wasn’t going anywhere really, so the last time I saw her we decided to call it a day. And I am therapist-less again. Shall I try another one? I suppose I have little to lose. Watch this space! 

16 January 2024

Reporting back on new assignment

When I set a new assignment at the beginning of term, I said I would report back on how it went. Originally, that assignment had been that the students were asked to write a Conversation style article about the topic in marine geology. But the thing is, nowadays you can just ask AI to do that. So we had to change the assignment. And we did exactly that: ask AI to write it. What we asked the students to do was critique these texts. What was wrong in them? Where were they not giving enough data? Were the citations that the AI was using suitable?

We now know how it went. And the results were a mixed bag! And that is a good thing; if either all students do a sterling job, or really bad one, the assignment is clearly not fit for purpose. It needs to get a range of results. And it did.

One thing that seemed to be a good predictor of how good job a student had done was whether they had checked the references. Several students hadn't done that. AI engages in hallucinations, and just makes stuff up. And that includes scientific references. That is a really bad thing, of course! Everything stands or falls with how well it is backed up by evidence, and if your evidence is made up, what you have produced is by the definition rubbish. And most of the references AI had made for me (or for Jaco) were indeed made up. Just looking at the title of a reference is not good enough to see if it is actually suitable. And those who hadn't didn't end up scoring very well. Luckily, most students had noticed that most references were fake, and that the ones that were correct were often not suitable in the context they were used. 

The students also varied in how good they were picking up the inaccuracies. As expected. And these could range from blatant nonsense to a bit of an overstatement, or a subtle omission. 

We also asked them for additions. Unfortunately, quite a number of students only said things like "there needs to be more data here" or "it would be good to have some concrete examples here" without providing that actual data or these examples. That is a missed opportunity. But some students really dived in and bulked everything out with hard evidence, and an impressive reference list. That was great to see!

One thing I noticed was that students were a bit reluctant to dismiss text. In the text about seafloor mapping, there was mention of electrical methods. But if you are floating around in a saline solution, electricity isn't of much use to you as a mapping tool. This was clearly AI nonsense. Electrical methods are totally used, but generally either on land, or inside boreholes. But borehole analysis is something other than mapping. But few students were willing to boot that paragraph out. One student had even found an article where it was used, but that involved actual physical probes being placed inside the sediment. And the article mentioned this was only done in a few metres water depth. This is not really what you are thinking about when you think of seafloor mapping. Maybe they were treating the text with a little bit too much reverence?

Some of the text made me smile. One student went full pedantic, and was picking on the whether particular CO2 storage projects were within a country’s territorial waters or not. Another one was commenting on damage to undersea cables by ocean acidification. He said that by the time the ocean was that acidic it would be significant, we would have other things to worry about than the cables. He had a point!

So altogether, I think it was an initial success. But we now know a bit better what to expect, so we can adjust the instructions a bit to the first results. But who knows! Maybe next year AI will actually be able to write flawless texts…

It looks so credible! But is it?

15 January 2024

Marking against the tide

The end of semester is always a busy marking time. A lot of deadlines fall in the tail end of term. So I got out of 2023 with a big pile of coursework marking. One module I was on had a really big cohort this year. The marking took forever! I wasn’t anywhere near done when I went to the Netherlands. So when I came back I had to go back to it. 

The students also had a deadline for my new AI-using assignment on the latest possible date. And one for the big final report of the September fieldwork. But literally all these students had an extension. So these came in in January. 

In January, as well, are the exams. More work coming in! I was still working on the coursework of the module with the large cohort, when the exam of that very module took place. It’s scary if the piles are coming in while you’re still working on the old ones! But luckily, the other modules I still had coursework marking in didn’t have big cohorts. So after the big pile of coursework marking, I managed to get that out of the way in two days. And crucially, before the next exam came in. I had two! 

So now I’m really relieved last year’s marking is done. And I need to be fast with the new piles! Lecturing will start immediately after the exams. And I expect big loads of academic integrity stuff to come in as well. With everybody frantically marking, that is inevitable. So in order to stay on top of things I need to keep the pace up! 

The smallest batch

14 January 2024

Part-time working and promotions

When I had a meeting with the Athena Swan committee one day, we talked about things that had come out of the data I had been gathering so far. One thing was that very few people work part-time in our School, but that that doesn't mean people don't want to. I would like to work part-time but don't believe it can reasonably be done. My friend Suzie had tried it and basically quit, rather than muddle on. One colleague had just gone back to full-time because part-time didn't work. 

One of the problems is that as full-timers, we have a more than a full-time workload. That is annoying enough as it is, but if you try to work part-time, you end up working part of that more than hundred percent. And the risk is that you just end up working five days and getting paid for three. And nobody enjoys that.

Another issue was that I calculated that women apply for promotion at about half the rate of the men. That needed to be addressed as well! And the Head of School had said that these issues could do with a school-wide meeting, and we had decided to tack that along to the away day we would do anyway.

I had made a presentation about both, and hoped to inspire some discussion with that. And I had created Padlets so people could comment anonymously.

Preparing the presentations made me dive into the data. The part-time issue is very local; it’s just our School. And I didn’t search for literature. How the world in general deals with this issue might not help us. So on that topic, I just focussed on what we might be able to do. 

I had also asked a lady from our sister School of Environmental and Natural Sciences to come and contribute. In that School, it seems that many more people are successfully part-time. Honesty demands I add that that School is a lot bigger, so they would have more of practically everything. But she might be able to explain how people make it work there. Unfortunately, she ended up not coming. We had to think of stuff ourselves. 

When it comes to promotions, it was clear that few men know what the criteria are, and very very few women do. Furthermore, the majority of people don't think that all tasks within the school are equally valued. And women feel a lot less supported by management than men. All these things are probably relevant! 

I also had a dive in the literature on the promotion topic. There is a lot of work done on it! And it not only told me about gender differences in applying for, and getting, promotion, but also about how different countries deal with the academic promotion process. I read very interesting articles about the French and Italian systems. 

Both Italy and France have a centralised system, and its workings are public. So you can see who applies and who is successful. And you know things like their age, and how long they have been at the Institute they are at, and that sort of thing. So that is very useful for data gathering! So people have been throwing a lot of stats at the systems in these countries. 

There are also big differences; it seems that in France. When you get awarded a promotion, you then have to find an institute where a position of that rank is available, and it probably isn't your own. So becoming a professor, for instance, generally means having to move. But if you apply and you are not successful, you can just apply again the next year. And the next. 

It also seems that if you are a university academic, you have to put a lot of effort in, including preparing a lecture in a topic that is not your own, but if you work at a research Institute you basically just send in your CV. So these groups can also be compared. Does this difference come with a gender difference? 

The French system does shift the balance towards people whose career is the most important one in their family, and who find their career more important than things such as stability for any kids. 

In Italy it seems to be different; you don't have to move when you get a promotion, but if you have applied unsuccessfully, then cannot apply for the following two years. This means that applying for a promotion is not very disruptive, but you had better be sure when you do it, because if you fail, you are out for two years. This seems to shift the bias towards confident people and/or risk takers.

And the noteworthy findings? In France, success rate is pretty much equal between the sexes, but being deemed eligible to apply in the first place is not. The authors of the article suggested that in choosing who is eligible, people let prejudice run free, but as soon as they are in the official process, they know everyone's eyes are on them, and they make sure not to discriminate on the basis of gender. I don't remember the difference between Universities and research institute employees.

In the Italian system, it seemed that the gender difference was a lot smaller, but women were applying a lot less in areas where women had traditionally been less successful, and where the promotion criteria aren’t very clear. The latter seemed to be the case in areas like social sciences. In natural science, you just wave around your publications and your grant money, and it's all very clear. In social sciences that seems to be less the case.

So what do we have in ocean sciences? We have a situation where women are traditionally not very successful in achieving high ranks. I noticed from the HR data that when I was hired, we only had two women in a rank higher than lecturer. Two! And we all agreed the criteria aren’t very clear. And women may either be deeming themselves, or being deemed by management, to be less eligible. I sure am one of those; I remember being told in my PDR that it would be a long long time before I would be eligible for promotion, with no other reason given than that time had to pass. At the same time, a man who had only been lecturer for a short time did get promoted. I smelled a rat.

One thing we might end up doing is to make a repository of successful applications, that new applicants can take inspiration from. I had been very kindly offered the application of a colleague, but she was on a completely different contract, so that was of limited use. Maybe we can build up a bit more networking. Our female aspiring professors seemed to have teamed up together to support each other; one who had raked in a good grant basically just grabbed all the other people of whom she knew they were in the same position, and teamed up with them. I had no such network. And I didn't apply.

I think we can improve the situation! Our gender age gap is still huge, and our pipeline is still very leaky (although we haven't lost a female (or a male, for that matter) in several years now), but I think there are some tangible things we can do. If we make sure that everybody has a clear idea of what is expected of them, and have someone to talk to if they have questions, then maybe more people will actually apply. And I hope that especially the women will increase their efforts. We will see! These things will go straight into our Athena Swan application. Watch this space!

Me at the Away Day; someone took a pic and posted it on the Padlet

13 January 2024

Away day

Once in a while, I guess about once every semester, we have an away day. Or a not-very-away day. We tend to have them on campus, just not in Ocean Sciences buildings. We tend to have a theme. Sometimes it is assessment, or research, or something like that.

This time we would focus on keeping track of what skills we teach the students, and when. It sounds so simple, but we have students on many different degree programs, and they all follow a different trajectories through all our modules, and all modules have several components and assessments to them. It really isn't easy to keep track of what people have learned! But we should, of course.

Some of our team are trying to do an inventory, but it is not easy. How do you categorise all the skills? How do you make the categories so small they are meaningful, but so large it doesn't become unmanageable? Does everybody think the same thing when faced with a particular category? Have they thought of all the skills we might teach and assess?

This was the main event, and I think it was very useful. We had done a pilot study on the previous away day, and one of my colleagues presented the results. It was quite interesting what came out! But obviously the data wasn't complete. We should manage that soon. And then we can evaluate whether we indeed teach enough of everything at the right time. And if someone wants to change their module or their assessment, they can use the database we then have to check whether that change agrees with whatever else is going on in the school. Or adapt something. Maybe add some teaching if a particular skill turns out to not have been taught before.

The afternoon was for me, and gets a separate blog post. What was the morning like? It was a beautiful cold day, and I decided to bike the long way around, as the direct route gets very icy. It was in Reichel, we also do our dissertation presentations. The most direct route is at risk of being very icy in weather like that. And I knew it would be catered, so I hadn't brought my usual food with me. But when I got there, there were no biscuits. I was afraid I would have to manage all the way to lunch without anything to eat since breakfast! I find that hard. Luckily, a lady brought in a bowl full of biscuits just when I didn't expect it anymore. I was saved! 

Soon, by the way, we will have a meeting in which we will talk through the results of this awayday. I look forward to it!

Reichel Hall

11 January 2024

Unexpected visitor

I had just written in my year overview that Dave had left my life altogether, back in May. And then suddenly he hadn't! I had realised a while ago that at the time I had given him a house key. He clearly didn't need it anymore, and I would like it back. I had not really acted on that; I had thought I could bring it up next time I would meet him. But who was I kidding? As if I would think of that. And he would obviously not have it on him. So that would be a bad idea!

I decided that an elegant way of bringing the topic up would be to just send him a New Year's card. I was a bit late for a Christmas card. So one nice day I just designed a running route that went past his house (that is not difficult) and dropped the card off, in which I wished him a happy New Year, and asked if he would be willing to drop the key through my letterbox some day. And I said he would be welcome to knock and see if I would be home. If so I could make him a cup of tea. Since we stopped dating I hoped we would end up on tea drinking terms. So far that clearly hadn't happened.

That night I got a WhatsApp message back. He said he had completely forgot about the key. And he said he had also borrowed a book from me. I had forgot about that! And he said he might drop them off. When was convenient? And I suggested the very next day. And that was convenient for him. So in two days we went from no contact at all to having a cup of tea together.

When he was on his way again he said I would be welcome to come and have a cup of tea at his place as well, if I was ever around. So maybe this could be the new normal. I hope so!

My stuff back

10 January 2024

Walnut tree: one down, one to go

I had decided months ago that I had made a calculation error when I planted two walnut trees in my garden. They would get too big! So even though this is not something that is encouraged in our day and age, I had to remove them again. And I was waiting for a convenient moment. And one weekend it came.

I decided to start with the small one. I had hoped I would be able to dig that one out in such a way it would still be viable. I didn't think that would be possible with the big one! 

I got to work with my spade. It wasn't much work to make it sway quite a lot. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised; at some point the wind had tilted it, and I had to support it. But swaying and being completely detached are different things. I made some progress, but came across some roots that were too thick to chop through with my spade. So I got my axe and used that for these. Not good for the tree, but I really didn't think I could take it out with these roots and all.

How it started 

How it ended

In half an hour I had sorted it! I figure that is really fast. And I just leaned the tree against the bathroom. I could chop that to firewood later.

I never had the idea that I could remove the other one in such a way I would keep it alive. But seeing that the small one only took half an hour gives me the idea that it should be possible to dig the other one out as well. I had wondered if I would have to content myself with just sawing it off. But I don't think so! It's just that the weekend was already over before I got around to it. I instead prioritised pruning my other trees. That really needs to be done in winter. With this tree it is slightly less crucial when it is done. I hope I still manage this month! But we'll see… 

09 January 2024

Demand flexibility service

One of the challenges of the energy transition is how to deal with fluctuations in supply and demand. The sun is out when it is out, and not when energy demand is high. The same holds for wind. Energy storage is generally rather inefficient. So what to do? One of the possible solutions is to adapt demand to supply. That can’t solve everything of course; people will be keen to have the heating on in months when the sun doesn't have much power. It would not make sense to convince people to use their heaters in July rather than January. But for people with appliances with high energy consumption, they could sometimes just move the use thereof around in the day. And many energy companies have started to incentivise that.

My energy company is one of those. I recently received an email inviting me to join the Demand Flexibility Service. The idea is that they occasionally indicate they expect a lot of demand, and ask you to tone down your use over that period. And I think that is a reasonable thing to do. As a consumer you can guess roughly when demand is high, but it is the energy companies who have a much better overview. So why not run the washing machine outside such a period of high demand? Or try to boil a lot of water for tea beforehand, and put it in thermal flasks, so you avoid making peak use even worse?

I am not a big user of energy. I am a bit infamous for it, I suppose. But I suppose even my consumption can make a difference. And I don't do the laundry very often, but yes, I can plan that strategically. I don't have things such as tumble dryers or dishwashers or any of that, or chargers of e-bike batteries. So my contribution will be small. But a small contribution is still a contribution! So I signed up.

I haven't yet been alerted to period in which I will be incentivised to lower my energy use. I'll see how it works out in practice! I'll do my best to do my bit…

08 January 2024

Pumed Gainc re-read

About a year ago, I announced I was about halfway rereading the Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi. And then nothing happened for a while! But when I took the train to the Netherlands and back, which altogether was 26 hours in the train, I had plenty of time to continue. So I finished re-reading it. And I took notes all the way.

After I got home I sat down with a piece of paper and a pencil and try to sketch out what I thought it was going on. But I must admit I am still confused! There is the world recognised as the normal one, and there is the other world called Annwfn, and occasionally there seems to be exchange between the two. And in this book, that is never good news for the humans who either do that or witness it. One tends to encounter Lovecraftian horrors, quite often initially disguised as rather acceptable, human-adjacent creatures.

As I said, I am still a bit confused. It looks like the Lovecraftian horrors want to make their way back to Earth. But there also seems to be sign that some eldritch creatures want to travel the other way. And one after the other, protagonists either find a portal they go through, or a portal that scary creatures come out of. So if it is that easy, why doesn't everyone just travel to where they want to be? 

The Magic Cauldron, without which Welsh mythology would not be complete, seems to be put to slightly different use than it traditionally has been. There is also a recurrent spear ( of course) of which I haven't quite figured out what it does there. 

Some big traditional characters of mythology seem to be slightly recast here, like Gwydion, Rhiannon, et cetera. But you also have to have a firm grasp of less famous characters like Gilfaethwy, Gweir, Pryderi (these two might be the same person), Llyr, Gwegros and Efnisien. Are they what they are in the Mabinogi? Or something sinister? Especially if you have only read the Mabinogi once this becomes a bit of a kaleidoscope! Even if you take notes and check Wikipedia.

I have not yet given up. Maybe I will make sense of it still! But I'm not quite sure how much time I am willing to spend on this. I suppose reading it for a third time would help, but I have a big pile of other books I also want to read. It has to stop somewhere! I’ll have to admit to Peredur how limited my understanding is. I hope he’s as forgiving as the Welsh are of him for introducing Lovecraft in their mythology!