29 February 2024

Not quite successful day in the field

My MSc student had done a lot of work on the samples that were still available from the earlier projects that her project was built on. But the day came we needed to go and collect some of our own. And I thought it would be good if we could resample some of the locations of her forbears. And I had booked the GPS with which that would be possible.

Late morning I tried to find out how you can make it navigate you to a waypoint. I know it can be done! I've seen Martin use it that way. But I didn't quite manage to make it work! The technicians in charge of the GPS didn't know how it’s done, but I found a YouTube video that showed it. Unfortunately, you had to give it the waypoints. No problem, I thought; just make a CSV file and put it on the SD card. But my computer didn't recognise the SD card! So that failed. But you can, of course, just keep an eye on the northing and easting as it is shown live on the screen, and make the numbers run in the direction you want them to. I had made sure I had the coordinates ready in that format. 

Then we set off. We drove to the estuary, and I unpacked the GPS. It worked fine! In a way. The GPS part saw a plethora of satellites and indicated it could measure at high precision. The handset had established contact with the GPS. Also seemed to be going well! Except that it didn't tell us our location.

The previous time I had an issue with this piece of kit I had phoned the technician, and he had recommended I switch it off and on again. I should have managed to think about that myself. But at least it has solved the problem! This time I decided to do the off-on trick before phoning him. We did it twice! But to no avail, so I phoned him. 

No easting, no northing 

The technician said he didn't know what the problem was, and couldn't help me from a distance. Now what? We could either go home, or just take some samples while we were here, and hope for the best. We all carried mobile phones; they can also determine position, albeit not as precise as a very expensive DGPS. And we wouldn't have a chance of finding the exact locations of the master students who had come before.

We decided to sample. It wasn't ideal, but at least it was quick. We already knew that once you get into the sandflat, you don't find much pollution. So if you want to relate foraminifera assemblages to pollution, just a few sandflat samples will do. We didn't have to walk all the way to the far end of the estuary, as one of the earlier students had done. And that was nice, given that it was very cold.

Looking down the estuary 

Looking up the estuary 

Every time something doesn't work out as planned, such as bad foram preservation, or equipment failure like this, or anything, you lose time. These master students don't have much time! And I think I know how we can speed up this project, but for that to work, the DGPS really has to do what I want. Ideally, I would want a technician (or Martin) with me in the field, to troubleshoot when needed! But I think they are quite overworked. So that might not be feasible. We might just have to keep our fingers firmly crossed!

28 February 2024

Droste effect podcast

On a Wednesday late afternoon I received an email from a student. She said she was making a podcast. She wanted to interview people in the School about their science. Was I willing to be one of the subjects? And I was. I had had quite a lot to do with this student, and I trusted her. We agreed on the next Monday morning. Over the weekend she sent me a list of questions she would want to ask.

She first briefly talked me through the technology. And then we started! And the first question resulted in more dialogue than I had expected. She just asked me my full name, which I gave. And she then confessed that she had no idea how to pronounce my last name. And that everyone she had asked had given her a different answer. She also said that other staff seem to actively avoid trying to pronounce it! I wasn't aware of that. I thought they would just settle on some Anglicised version.

From that question, things became a bit more scientific. She asked me my job title, which was easy, but also what I call myself. That varies greatly! I tend to call myself a palaeoclimatologist. It's also sometimes marine micropalaeontologist. It depends on the context. 

We also discussed things such as my last paper, and what it is like to work in a big research project. And how I had ended up in Wales. She also wanted to know about gender issues. She had been to Yueng’s inaugural lecture! And she also asked about how I managed to combine an academic career with things such as cave rescue.

Why does she know about cave rescue? It turns out that my blog these days is quite a hit with the students. I think I mentioned before that they seem to have discovered it, but I can't find where. And it's OK they have. I don’t really write it with them in mind, but I know it is a public blog, so anyone can read it. I have been aware from the beginning that if there are things I don't want the entire world to know, I should just not put them there. And in a way, I find that there is something about living your life in public; it makes you extra conscious of your decisions. And I am careful with privacy.

It is a bit weird to talk about my blog in a podcast and about a podcast on my blog! It is starting to sound a bit like an echo chamber. But it was fun to do.

We spoke for an hour, and then I went back to my office. It turned out I was her first interviewee. And she gave me the names of some of the people that had already agreed. I think this might be an interesting series. She will let me know when she is finished editing, and makes it public. I will provide a link when it is!

27 February 2024

Big changes for the neighbour - and the cat

There are only four houses in my street. From top to bottom they are inhibited by a man I very rarely see; my direct neighbour, who runs the local chippy and whose cat is the bane of my cat’s life; then me; and then my neighbour Alan who often looks after my cat, and who has a very charming golden retriever. But suddenly all that changed.

Within the space of three days I found out that the neighbour, of the chippy, had moved out, and that she had closed the chippy. Her life must be entirely upside down! But she really deserves her retirement. She is somewhere in her mid 70s. And I think it is probably hard work!

She didn't tell me she was moving out; she was just gone. Maybe she just didn't want any fuss. But I hope she enjoys where she is now, on the other side of the village.

I am also wondering, of course, if this means my little cat’s life has just become easier. She might have a territory! And she won't be bullied out of my garden anymore! I hope it makes a big difference to her. 

The next thing that will happen of course is that we will find out who the next person in the street will be. Neighbours are important; I hope it will be someone I get along with well!

She actually sat on my lap the day I found out the other cat has gone. This is only the second time! And only now, after three years, has she sat on my lap more often than she has on Martin's!

26 February 2024

Another book read

I am on a roll! Only a short while ago, I blogged that I had finished my second book of the year. And we're not out of February yet and I have already finished the next one. This one was given to me by my sister. It is in Dutch; I hadn't read a Dutch book in a long time.

The title translates to something along the lines of ‘love scared’. It is basically about the twin problems of being scared to commit, and scared to be abandoned. If you have one of these issues, the book argues you are very likely to perennially seek out people who have the opposite issue. And then some doomed dance begins that is going to inevitably end up in heartbreak. Why did my sister think I needed this book? I'll leave that to your imagination.

So what does the book do? The book explains why the author thinks people end up like that. She places everything in your youth, in the relationship with your parents. And her message basically is: if you struggled to build a healthy, loving relationship with your parents, that hurts, and you will keep running away from that hurt until you deal with it. So she basically says: give in to it, and then everything will be fine. Am I simplifying this? Yes, of course. But I think that summarising this book in a few sentences, this is what it boils down to.

Is this a panacea? I don't think so. Is it helpful? I do think so. We'll see! Next time I get into a situation where this is relevant I will certainly keep it in mind. And who knows; maybe it will make a difference!

25 February 2024

More ivy removed

When I was in the garden with a saw in my hand for reasons of trimming my willow, I figured I might as well make a start on something else I had intended to do for a long time. The western corner of my garden above the river has enormous amounts of ivy, and it obscures the view of the beautiful river. I had been thinking about taking it down before, but I had never come around to it. But then I decided to cut the first branch. Only after I had done that I figured I should have taken a picture.

The first bit of ivy cut loose and now lying on the riverbank

I didn't cut more off then. I was busy enough with the bits of willow! But when that job was done (it is now; it has resulted in a nice amount of firewood), and I still had a saw in my hand, I went for it. So after last year's removal of a lot of ivy from my crab apple tree, and the removal of the ivy from the house in 2022, I have made yet another ivy victim. And from the other corner of the garden you now have a much clearer view! I intend to enjoy that when spring comes. I still haven't found a gardener, so how beautiful that corner of the garden will be is disputable, but at least it looks a lot tidier than it used to!

Unobscured view! 

24 February 2024

Quantifying the rescue team

During the last training with the North Wales Cave Rescue team, I wondered if I was so far out of practice I no longer belonged in the team. But I also know that I think the team needs to be welcoming to people of all genders, and I do not have faith it currently is. And my experience is that if someone in the underground community does something sexist, and you speak out against that as a woman, all the men unite against you. If all the men means ‘everybody else’, you have a really lonely fight on your hands. So I think the cave rescue team should have enough women to always have a critical mass of them present. If one of the men goes beyond the pale, no woman will then have to deal with that alone. Hence that I decided I should hang on.

But what is the gender balance in the team, anyway? Me being the membership secretary means I can answer that. The team is 3/4 male and 1/4 female. That is who is on the books; what I think is more important is who actually shows up. So I had a look at the training records as well.

Since spring 2022, average female participation at training events has been 15%. There were five trainings where only one female was present. Three times, that was me. And four times, there was at least one of the men present with whom I personally have bad experiences on that front. The only time there was a training with only one woman, and none of these men, was an abysmally attended training session to which only two people showed up. So that actually was the only training we had with 50% women attending!

A picture from our dog rescue in March 2023; notice the gender imbalance

So now what? I suppose I should step up my game. Gender equality is all very lovely, but it shouldn't result in people endangering themselves or others. I really need to know my way around rope work! So I should get another trip with Sharon in the books. And then I shouldn't rely too much on her. She is an outdoor instructor by profession; she could rig a complicated underground trip with her eyes closed. 

I figured as a rule of thumb that if we have 30% female attendance at events, and at least a whole year without any events with only one woman attending, I could justify stopping. But that could be a long time coming. I'll have to be ready for the long haul!

23 February 2024

Draft new action plan

In my previous blog post, I discussed the action plan of our 2018 Athena Swan bronze award application. But, of course, I also had to write an action plan for the new application. And this was even more important, so it was time I moved on with that.

I had a deadline, as I had an appointment with a lady from HR to go through my draft. Unfortunately, that meant weekend work, but so be it.

When I wrote the new action plan I was trying to keep it brief. The biggest change in application format was that you were not expected to write something the size of War and Peace this time. So no 12 pages! I was a bit scared that my draft was already four pages. We were only supposed to have 4 to 8 priorities. That they were almost a page each was not something I had done on purpose! But it was just that there often were many aspects to each priority, and I wanted to be able to wave our new action plan around to make the School stick to it; all aspects thereof.  

The first criticism I received all that I had so far not provided a qualitative rationale for my priorities. They were all based on data! Things such as application rates, promotion rates, degree classification, responses in staff and students surveys, et cetera. So I will now add a bit of a header to every priority, and say things such as that there currently is a #% gender gap in rate of applying for promotion among the academic staff. And then it makes sense that I have a priority to narrow that gap, and an action intended to effect that. 

To my slight disappointment, the second bit of feedback was that HR said that four pages was not enough. I would have to bulk it out! Make my priorities more detailed, and have more of them. She said I could also add a priority that was not based on data, like the other ones are. For instance; at the moment, all the data I have assumes that gender is a binary thing. So I can't realistically make any quantifiable promises about everyone for whom this does not hold, but at least I can acknowledge that I am aware of the issue, and can see some way of incorporating this sort of information in the future. And at the moment, the award is all about gender, while it makes sense to go intersectional. 

I have some work to do now, updating my action plan! And I hope I am quick about it. Providing the old and the new action plan is not enough; I also need to write the associated text! Luckily not all of it; I have asked the Head of School to provide his part. 

I already confessed that my teaching is undoubtedly already suffering because of the time this takes. It will stay that way for a while! I'm really glad that soon there will be a week of no teaching (except fieldwork). I hope I can manage to churn out most of the application then!

Students don’t have to choose between mr, miss and mrs anymore! How many don’t? That can go into a new priority. Students don't have to choose between Mr, Miss and Mrs anymore; Mx is also an option! 

22 February 2024

Athena Swan: the old action plan

In 2018, our School applied for, and received, an Athena Swan bronze award. The application provided an overview of the School and its gender issues, and an action plan. This basically is a list of promised actions, and the criterion by which, at the end of the award period, it can be assessed whether the promise was kept or not. 

This action plan filled 12 pages. It was incredibly detailed! And in order to reapply, we need to give an overview of to what extent we have managed to fulfil all that. And when I say we, I mean I. I was parachuted in as the next EDI lead, so it was me who had to account for all these promises I was not involved in making.

Nobody had been keeping track of how we were doing with regard to this action plan over the past five years, so figuring out how we had been doing was quite a big task. I had to go around and ask everybody for information. Some of that was difficult to get, given that a lot of people had changed roles in the last five years. We didn't have the same Head of School anymore, or the same Director of Research, just to give a few examples. And some people had left altogether. Some people were a bit surprised that their roles were associated with a promise; they had never seen this before. So much for continuity!

When I was going to see a lady from HR about the topic, I showed her what I had achieved so far. She said she would go through it in detail later. But just superficially going through it there were already two interesting discussions that came up.

I had to assign each promise a colour: red, amber, or green. My interpretation was: red is for promises we had not managed to keep. Amber was for partially kept promises. And green for things we had actually managed to do. But HR saw it differently! My contact suggested red for things we had decided to abandon altogether. There was a promise that had something to do with the gender balance of people attending a public event. And we had decided that in this day and age, we couldn't just go and decide for other people what their gender was, and we also didn't think it was the polite thing to do to make them declare their gender. So that was deemed unfeasible. So although we had promised something quantitative about the gender balance, we didn't know whether we had achieved it. We might have! But red. 

I also had red for a promise we had completely failed at. Once every few years we do a staff survey, and the action plan had promised some action that would raise a certain positive response to 80%. We got stuck at 50%. Red! But HR thought amber, because at least we had done the action. It has not been done to such an extent that we had achieved the 80% positive response, but we had done it nonetheless. That's a partial success, so not red. That is a way of looking at it!

The other thing was, albeit related, a bit more philosophical. What is this application for? Is it for getting the desired award? In that case, a good strategy is to paint everything in as positive a light as we possibly can. Or is it for holding management to account? In that case, we should be as brutally honest as we can. If we make everything look as positive as possible, we might obscure areas that still require attention. And we both know that it is a bit of both. My contact confessed, however, that it was specifically the task of HR to support us in getting the award. And I understand why HR has received that brief. But it was interesting to talk about it!

So what was my evaluation? Of the 70 promises, I had 6 red, 26 ambers and 25 greens. And 13 outstanding. Will that (minus the outstanding; I will really have to chase these up) be enough for our bronze award reapplication? Stay tuned!

21 February 2024

Rare underground trip

Since graduation I hadn’t seen Lydia anymore. We didn't find a good moment to go underground before she would move back to London, and once she was in London, opportunities became quite limited of course. But suddenly I got a message; she was coming back for a visit. Was there a potential for underground trip? And I decided to make time for that.

She had suggested to go that Saturday, as her host would be away then. I was going to have dinner with the usuals then. Originally we were going to go out for dinner, but family circumstances of the chef had prevented that. So the plan had changed to me cooking. That meant we couldn't do a particularly long trip! But short trips can be good too.

She decided on a few small mines she hadn't been to. That sounded like a good idea! So Saturday morning I picked her up and we drove to a windy and rainy valley. She hadn't been to any of these minds, so we sort of relied on my memory, and that was a bit hazy. Hence first scouting out the area a bit. And we found two viable entrances. One I quite clearly remembered, and the other one I vaguely remembered. I seemed to remember they both went, but neither of them went very far.

Delapidated barracks

Gloomy valley 

We went back to the car to change into our kit, and then we went back to rig the first entrance. And we had a little explore! It was a nice little mine. There was some scrambling to do, and lots of little levels to explore. One thing that didn't go so well was that Lydia's light went out. Luckily I had a torch around my neck; I gave that to her. That way we could finish the explore. 

Lydia descending

Interior with flooded winze

Level with blue staining

By the time we came out I was hungry. We had left lunch in the car. But we first decided to check out the other entrance as well. I was chuffed that we could explore all of it without overtopping my wellies! And again it was a pretty little (part of a) mine, with some good staining. And the hand torch had enough charge for it, although it started to indicate it was running out. Oh dear.

Level with more blue staining

We came out, and as it was raining again, we sat inside the car to eat lunch. We wanted to do one more mine! But that was quite vertical, so that meant we needed to sort out Lydia's light issue. I have a spare torch on my helmet, and I said that if we could fix it to hers, we could still go. That would mean there wasn't any redundancy in the system! But it isn't a big mine. I had faith. 

I would also like to point out that I have been mining for almost 15 years, and quite a lot of it on a lecturer’s salary. That way you can afford to have three solid sources of light on you. As a recent graduate that is harder.

Lydia did manage to fix the light over her helmet, so we will go! As this last mine was very wet, I changed into my self-draining boots. And then we went in.

It is a bit of an obstacle course! You first wade through Walter, then up a ladder, then up a rope through a shaft with a lot of woodwork, then you use a metal pipe to reverse a little winze, closely followed by another rope ascent, and then another one that you can also do via a chain, and then you have reached the last pitch which normally starts on a chain ladder and then goes up a rope. This time, there was something amiss. The rope had knots in it! That is weird. Knots in ropes are good for free climbing, but why would anyone want to free climb this? And more importantly; if you have notes, you cannot press up but the robes earlier and did not have notes. So why would you want to have knots in only one of the ropes? You can't get through the entire mind without having equipment to travel along non-knotted ropes. So why this? But we only had two options; turn back, or do it, and I chose the second option. 

I must admit that I found climbing up there really hard work. It started ok, but when you get higher you get more tired, and for some reason, the knots were further apart there. You needed to have some good reach for that! And that is not something I am famous for.

I was really glad when I got to the point where this space becomes so narrow you can wedge yourself in. That was the heart bit over! But I know I am stronger than Lydia, and given that I had really struggled here, I figured I should try to avoid her having to do the same thing. So I pulled up the rope and started taking all these knots out. It looked like they hadn't been in there for too long! They hadn't been pulled overly tight yet. Fortunately. So in a few minutes I could throw her the rope back. And she could come up in relative comfort.

That brought us to the level of the exit. We made our way out, and back to the car. I was skiing to get out of my wet clothes, go to the loo, and then drink some tea. I had been wearing SRT kit since the morning and that complicates toilet visits!

There is another mine in the area, and we could even see it, but I wasn't overly keen. I knew I had to take off all my kit for a toilet visit, and I didn't think I would want to put it back on afterwards. We also didn't quite have the right equipment to make the most of that mine. And there is a limit to how many mines you should push if you have no backup lights whatsoever. I also knew I had to be home to prepare for my dinner guests! So we changed, had a little bit of tea and cake, and then we set off again. I thought it had been a success!

I don't know when we'll see each other again, but I'm sure that day will come. Maybe we can do another adventure then!

20 February 2024

First one of the three inaugural lectures by our new professors

I knew what to do for Valentine's Day! Last year, three of my marvellous colleagues were promoted to Professor, and this year at some point it was announced one of them but do her an overall lecture on that very day. I immediately put it in my diary. I wanted to be there! This was my colleague Yueng, and I am very fond of her, but I also wanted to be there when the first female professor in the school in years would be inaugurated. When I arrived at the school, we actually did have the only female professor it had ever had: Hilary, but she retired after a while. (It's how I ended up with the dissertation module.) And then nothing happened for a long time.

In my time here, many men have become professors, but the previous vice-chancellor (and I think also the one before that) wasn't in favour of inaugural lectures. Now that we have the current one, it seems that inaugural lectures are back on!

She was introduced by the Pro-VC for Science and Engineering. Also a female professor! But in the School of Environmental and Natural Sciences. And then Yueng took the stage. 

Yueng being introduced by Morag

She spoke of her research in the Arctic Ocean. She also works in other areas in the world; her latest scientific cruise was in the vicinity of South Africa. But now she was talking about the warm water that is present in the subsurface of the Arctic ocean, and all the various processes that can bring it up to the surface. If it does, that can cause unfortunate situations with vanishing sea ice and changing atmospheric patterns.

She did all that, of course, with her usual panache. She does everything like that! And then it was over and there was time for questions. And then we retreated to the foyer for coffee and brownies.

I knew that Yueng would fly out to a conference early the next morning, so I knew she wasn't going to linger. And quite a lot of other people didn't want to linger either. I had a small chat with some colleagues, and one of the students, and then I left as well. I was glad I had come but I didn't think there was the sense of occasion the situation merited. I don't think my colleagues saw it is as much a big thing as I did. Apart from Yueng herself, there were only four members of academic staff! And we have almost 30. Oh well! It was a great presentation. And let's just hope there is a bit more enthusiasm from colleagues next time in April, when it is the turn of my colleague Katrien! And even if there isn't, I will be there. Hurray for our new professors!

19 February 2024

Self-rescue training

I had missed two Cave Rescue trainings in a row. It was time to show my face again in February. And I was fortunate; the training would be close to home, and also something interesting. A good time to show my face again!

We would do self-rescue on ropes at the old climbing wall of Plas y Brenin. And those who had organised that location had asked us to make some use of the bar; we were allowed to use that space for free, and it would be nice if we could show our appreciation by ordering some food or drink. So I decided to have dinner there.

When I got there I found a few people (and one dog) of our team there already, finishing off their meals. I added an order of soup to that. And when we were all finished, our training officer appeared with the equipment. And the key card to the climbing wall.

He quickly went up to rig some ropes. And then he explained what the idea was. He mainly wanted to practice what people thought they needed. I mentioned that I hadn’t really descended a rope on ascenders, so I decided to try that. I suppose it's just the subtler version of taking one ascender off and just putting it back on the rope a bit lower.

It also came in handy at the next exercise; passing a knot (another request from the floor), both going upwards and downwards. I did notice I am really out of practice! When do I ever do rope work? I was starting to wonder if I should even be in the team. But we are very far from gender equality, and if I would quit, that would be worse. So I'll hang in there, and just use these trainings to not get too far behind.

We then did one more round of just helping people who were a bit tired or otherwise struggling. We do encounter those on call-outs. There are ways of attaching them to a secondary rope with which you give them some additional pull, or use the end of their own rope to help them up. Or help them come off a pitch at the top.

After that it was time to take the ropes down. It had been a useful session! Some of the men were kind to the venue and retreated to the bar, but I went home. It was close enough to bedtime for me…

18 February 2024

Finally sorting out my Dutch business

I left the Netherlands in 2007, and I haven't lived there since. It is still the country of my citizenship, so I sometimes have business to sort out there. I'm not sure I am doing a very good job at it. And I was reminded of that when my old landlady contacted me, because they had had a letter from the Dutch pension body delivered for me. Oh dear, my pension fund hasn't had an address update since 2007! That's not how it should be.

I quickly went online to see if I could change my information, and then I had a déjà vu; for that, you need a digID; sort of online identification the Dutch government uses. And if you are in the country you can just arrange that in person at some desk, and if you are abroad you can go to the embassy, but if you happen to live far from said embassy (which I do) you can arrange it in a video call. And then I remembered I had indeed requested a digID before, but never managed to book an appointment for a video call, and then had forgotten all about it. This time I should persevere!

The first week the appointments were sold out just too quickly. The second week I forgot, but the third week I was ready! And quick enough this time. I got my appointment.

So on the day (I thought), I was ready in my home office with my desk code, the equivalent of my National Insurance Number, my passport, and my username and password for the digID website. I had the email with the details I needed to log into a video call. So a few minutes beforehand I dialled in. And then I had to wait a bit.

After a few minutes a lady appeared. She said my appointment was actually the day after! And I realised she was right. I had been confused about what day it was for a while already. But she was alright to see me as her previous appointment had been quite brief. And I hoped this one would be as well!

I gave her my code and my NIS, and showed her my passport on the video camera. That convinced her I was me. She then gave me a code that would unlock the whole digID thing for me. It worked! She said she would send me an email with how to change my address, and then we said goodbye.

I decided not to wait for that, and had a look on the website. I changed my address right away! But I should contact my pension fund to see what it was they were trying to tell me. I hope they didn't say that if I didn't respond within five working days I would forfeit my entire pension. But I'll find out! I now at least have a way of managing my Dutch business without going to Dutch territory…

17 February 2024

Nick Beer 10k 2024

It would be the first race of 2024! I was looking forward to it. It is a nice race, as well. I like the Great Orme, and this race is practically just a loop around it. And Marjan would come supporting me. Maybe Jaco as well, but I deemed that a bit less likely.

It was only Marjan who appeared at the meeting point. We drove up and parked up. It was really cold! There was quite a cold wind on the boulevard, where the start was. I wasn't keen on stripping down to racing gear all too early. The result of that was that we arrived at the start only a few minutes before the gun sounded. And that resulted in me starting quite a way towards the back. I always intend to avoid that, but I often fail! Basically for reasons of finding it dull to just stand by the starting line for too long. If you are in a running club it's different; then it is a social occasion. But I always run alone.

At the start 

The gun sounded and we were off. It wasn't all too difficult to leave a bit further to the front. And so the started on the appeal. There was indeed quite a cold wind blowing! But it was dry, and the area looks really pretty with menacing clouds above it.

I think I managed to keep a good speed going up. Town wasn't bad either; after all, the road isn't very steep. But I felt that my world was a bit small; I think I was just feeling this train. But it was okay. The last 2 km felt a bit heavy but there's nothing wrong with that. And, quite like last year, by the time I approached the finish the field was spread out so much that no one would overtake me and I would overtake no one. And I saw my watch I was about to run and almost identical time to last year.

Finish pic

I saw Marjan at the finish! So I first came across the line, then gathered my goodies (including an isotonic drink tablet I threw in my post-finish water), and then got back to Marjan. I tried to check my time but the signal wasn't good enough. And soon after that I got there text message that gave it anyway. My time was 46:19; 13 seconds slower than last time! That's fine. But I'd come 11th this time, which was better than last year's 14th.

Finish selfie

After the race I put on some civilian clothes, and then Marjan and I went out for lunch. That was nice!

My next one is scheduled in April. There is the Anglesey half marathon coming up, but I might skip that (again) this year. It's a busy time! But this was a good start of the racing season!

16 February 2024

Book read!

I mentioned in my preview on 2024 that are intended to read more books. And it is still the first half of February, but I have already managed! When I came to the Netherlands, I brought a book with me that I had been given by Roelof a year before. If you travel from Wales to the Netherlands by train, you have a bit of time to read. And I didn't stop when I got home.

I have taken up the habit again reading a bit in bed. I have to mind my timing; I drink an awful lot of tea in the evening, but if I do that too close to bedtime, then of course I will have to get out in the middle of the night and go to the loo. And if I want to read in bed for half an hour, while not affecting my sleeping time, I obviously have to go to bed half an hour earlier, which means I need to stop drinking half an hour earlier. And sometimes life just gets in the way!

Such practical issues notwithstanding, though, I have now finished that book! It was Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. I suppose I'm the last person in the entire world who has read it, and everyone knows what this is about, but just in case, I will briefly set out what this is about.

It's basically an entire history of humanity. It starts with the first humans, who are rather unremarkable primates in East Africa. He goes through some theories on how we ended up with such a good grasp of the use of tools. And from then on, basically everything goes downhill.

He argues, and he does it well, that humans were in the best possible situation when they were hunter-gatherers. When people had the brilliant idea to start agriculture, the effect was that humanity could become bigger, because agriculture is more efficient. But he argues that individual humans weren't actually positively impacted by this. Hunter-gatherers have a very varied diet, they have spare time they can use for socialising, and if the conditions aren't very good they just go somewhere else. Once you engage in agriculture you rely on the yield of that agriculture. You can't just leave your fields when there is a famine; you probably just die. And because you probably only grow a limited number of crops, your diet becomes less varied. And because you can sustain more people, there will invariably be more people, so you have to work hard to feed all of them.

He also deals with capitalism, and how it has impacted the world. He said it was behind colonialism. And it was! I don't think any explorer set out to bring diseases to unknown populations of other humans. They just wanted to go places to find resources on which they could get rich. Societies that we weren't capitalist never set out to sail around the world in order to see what was there. And he also explains how capitalism demands growth. And we see where that leads.

He also speaks of how humans seem to continuously find ways to harness new resources. If we run out of one type of fuel, we will just invent another one. If everyone has what they need, we will just invent new things and convince people they need those.

He ends with that it is a question of time before the next step is taken. Could we upload a human brain onto the computer? Could we connect human brains directly to each other? Could we bioengineer ourselves into something unrecognisable? Here we’ll have to live and see.

It is not a positive book! If you buy into his premise that everything went downhill from the Paleolithic onwards, we have been on the way down for an awfully long time. I find it easy to imagine he might be right. Whether this is something you could empirically test is an entirely different thing.

I suppose one thing that you could get from this book is a feeling of resignation. We are so far outside our natural habitat; any bit of satisfaction or contentment we can wring out of modern life is almost a miracle. And I'm sure we all experience them. So maybe we should just be happy for any of them, and not be too frustrated if there are not more of them. Given the circumstances, you really wouldn't expect that to be. 

Given that the book ploughs through tens of thousands of years of history, he has to stay on the surface at all times. I suppose the book would be completely unwieldy if he went into depth on everything. But I would warmly recommend it to any hypothetical other humans who haven't read this yet! But don't expect a happy ending…

15 February 2024

Willow gets a haircut

We had a veritable series of storms recently, and I had noticed that a big branch of my willow tree had come down. This is not unusual, by the way; it's not the most wind-resistant tree I have ever seen. But I knew I had to sort the branch. And, of course, in a few years’ time, I would get firewood out of it!

The branch hadn’t broken off completely, so I sawed it off. And then I got carried away. I had been intending to deal with this willow, and keep it within bounds, for a while. I was there now anyway, with a saw in my hand; this was the time! And I also drew the attention of my neighbour; I wanted to know if she had any specific preferences regarding how much I took off. The tree grows on my terrain, but it reaches over their terrace. I could imagine they could be eager to keep it that way, or relieved if I would remove these bits. But the neighbour told me to do whatever I thought was right.

A while later the tree was still a tree, but half the garden was full of willow branch. I would have a bit of work on my hands to turn that into kindling and firewood! But I wouldn't have to finish it that day. And, having burnt all the Buddleia wood earlier this winter, and the walnut trees not filling up much of that space, I had plenty of space to put it in the garage.

I am still not getting anywhere with getting a professional to prettify my garden, but at least I have now tackled one of these jobs I had on the to-do list for years. I already like how it has changed that corner from an indistinguishable mass of organic material to three distinct trees: this willow tree, a cherry tree, and a blackthorn (I think; it could also be a hawthorn). So at least progress is being made!

How it started

How it's going

14 February 2024

New saw on the really big planks

I had already found out that my new saw goes through sizeable wood like a hot knife through butter. But I hadn't tried the really really big planks yet. The planks that had been the steps of Neuadd Ogwen’s temporary stairs. I didn't think the actual saw blade would struggle at all, but I was wondering how I would put the planks in position. I have mounted the saw diagonally, so you can't just lay a long plank under its blade. On one side so much will stick out that it will fall off altogether! How to solve that?

I have a sawhorse, which is worth every penny I paid for it, and then some. And I figured I might be able to use that as a side table. And it worked! If you fold it in a bit, it is just the right height. You can balance the plank on it, and then saw it. So I tackled both of the huge plank I still had.

I still have several equally long, but narrower and therefore lighter, planks from the same stairs. That should be even easier to deal with. So just half an hour with the saw, whatever the size of the wood I am dealing with, gets me enough wood to last me for a while! I will easily get to the end of winter this way. And once spring comes, I can start replenishing again…found out that my new saw goes through sizeable wood like a hot knife through butter

13 February 2024

Two more appointments

I already mentioned we had two rounds of successful applications this year: we could welcome first Martyn and then Claire into the academic staff. And about a week after Claire's interview, another email came in from the head of school: he announced two more appointments! One for top predator ecology, and the other one for top predator conservation. The first concerned a lady I wasn't familiar with, and whose presentation I had not seen, and the other one was another internal candidate! It was one of our researchers, who happened to also have run the Steepest Street in the World race last year. So now he is permanent! I will begin in April, and the lady in May. I look forward to meeting her!

I hope this means staff morale will go up a bit! People were really unhappy with how long it was taking to hire these people. And with the workload. We can now spread some of the tasks over a few more people. Things such as the first year tutorials. In recent years I got groups of about 10; that is so much you don't really get that close tutorial atmosphere you hope for. That hinders the tutorials, but also hinders building up a relationship with these students. It is much harder to provide pastoral care if you have to provide it to too many people. I think the first big practical change I'll notice is when I have to assign the next cohort of third year students to a dissertation supervisor! Watch this space…

A grey reef shark; certainly, a top predator. Picture by NOAA

12 February 2024

Film: Fallen Leaves

I am on Pontio’s mailing list, and sometimes I just delete it because I figure I have no time for films anyway, but recently I had a quick look. And I saw an Aki Kaurismäki announced! His newest: Fallen Leaves. I like his films, and I didn't really expect to have the opportunity to see one in this area. I saw most of the other ones I saw (the Man without a Past, Lights in the Dusk, Ariel, and Le Havre, if memory serves me well) in continental Europe, which for some reason is a lot more attuned to continental European films. So I figured I needed to seize this opportunity. It looked like that would be easy to achieve as it happened, I was teaching on main campus until five, and the film started half an hour later. Ideal!

When I walked into buy a ticket I saw someone wave at me. And I saw a man at the table, eating a pizza, that I had met before. Peredur had introduced us on the picket line; it was Andrew, the slightly confusing American who tends to communicate with me in either Dutch or Welsh. But his phone speaks German. He was going to see the film with two friends, and I was invited to join them. That was kind!

We got in and watched the commercials and the trailers. We were talking quite a lot, but I always think that isn't such a big issue before the film has started. Other people did think so; we got growled at by someone nearby before the film had even started. I didn't think it was necessary to bring up the matter that aggressively, but I agreed that during the film you should tone it down, so we just watched and kept our mouths shut.

It was very Kaurismäki! Very little dialogue, very little expressed emotion. Life, but slightly exaggerated. And a lot of the untidy fringes of Helsinki.

For those who don't mind a spoiler: in a desolate karaoke bar in Helsinki, a man and a woman catch each other's eye. The woman first has a desolate job in the supermarket, then a bar, and later in a steel plant. And she has a good friend who stands by her. What the man initially does for a living wasn't entirely clear to me, but he gets fired for drinking and then finds a job on a construction site, where he gets fired for drinking. And he has a good friend who stands by him. Anyway; things develop from that encounter in the karaoke bar, and they go to the cinema together and he comes over for dinner. But she spots that he is an alcoholic, and says she won't have a drunk. He storms off in a huff. And she adopts a dog. And all of this is done in the most Finnish possible way.

At a fairly random moment he decides to stop drinking, and gets back in touch. From there on, things get a bit slapstick; she is very happy to hear it, and hopes he'll come over right away, but he doesn't. Why? On the way to her place he gets run over by a train. But he is still alive! And the make-up division of the film didn't go overboard; he lies in hospital in a coma, with a token bandaged head and leg. I doubt anyone run over by a train has ever looked that pristine. But that's okay! As I said; I didn't expect gritty realism.

From there you probably see it coming; he wakes up out of the coma and is discharged, and they basically walk off into the sunset; man on crutches, woman, and dog. One is free to imagine them living happily ever after!

I quite enjoyed it. I was glad I went! And from the trailers I knew there were a few more promising films coming up. Andrew thought so too. We might do it again!

11 February 2024

Another voice from the past

Not too long ago, I was contacted by someone I knew in the noughties. And not much later, I received another entirely unsuspected email; this time, from my next stage in life, in Plymouth. This email came from Neil. It announced the release of a book, or maybe I should say: a trilogy, about Dartmoor tin. There was also a promotion video associated with it, and an announcement of a bigger film to follow.

So why did I get this? Back in the days, Neil had already been interested in Dartmoor tin, and he was keen on seeing if he could squeeze some out of mine waste, and that sort of thing. We had had an interesting day smelting ore. I still have some tiny tin ingots from that time! And I had no reason to assume that when I moved away and we lost contact, he would stop being interested in this topic. But that he would spend 20 years on it and produce an enormous book and a film was not something I could have predicted.

Am I going to buy the book? No. The hardcopy is thousands of pounds, and there is an e-book as well, but that is £250, and I don't like my books digital. So I will let this opportunity pass! But I loved seeing that the project had come to a glorious end, and it was lovely to hear from someone I had had such crazy adventures with more than 10 years ago. And Neil assured me that now this project is finished, he has focused on more sensible leisure time pursuits. I struggled a bit with imagining him having properly calmed down. We'll see; maybe I'll get another mail in 20 years in which he announces the culmination of another crazy project!

Pic from smelting session in 2011

10 February 2024

No Steepest Street in the World Race this year

Soon after I had run it the first time, I registered for my second Steepest Street in the World Race. It is so much up my street, if you’ll excuse the pun. And I was hoping to do it a third time. But there wasn't anything yet to register for. And a few months later, there still wasn't. And a few months later, there still wasn't.

It has always been run in March. It is now February. There still is absolutely no sign of it. I'm sure that means it just isn't happening this year. Will it ever come back? I would really hope so! But it's not looking good.

I looked so happy they put me on the promo material. But 'waiting on information' on a next episode...

I did hear of another race with a very appealing focus: the Snowdon Twilight race. It goes from Llanberis to the top of yr Wyddfa (fka Snowdon). And then you don't have to stumble back! You just take the train. If this race happens it will be in summer. And rumour has it that registration opens in early March. I have put a reminder in my diary. If that race happens this year, I really really want to be part of it! Especially now that what so far had been my favourite race is not happening! If I indeed manage to register for it that will sure be another blog post…

09 February 2024

Knee deep into the second semester

I realised I had moaned a bit about marking, but had otherwise not said anything about teaching starting again. And it matters!

This semester, my main teaching is on the Earth, Climate, and Evolution module, the Climate and Climate Change module, and the dissertation module. All that had to be prepared. And then there are the other modules that need attention, like the tutorial module, and Communicating Science. You have to get the websites ready, you have to schedule tutorials and get rooms for them, you have to make sure the lectures are ready, etc. 

The Climate Change module still needs a fair bit of work. I used to be the module organiser, but it changed hands, and with that, the content I was expected to teach changed. I found a new form of doing it, but I'm clearly not done polishing the material yet! I can teach the Earth, Climate and Evolution module on routine, but not the Climate and Climate change one.

I had to find a balance between doing that, dealing with academic integrity cases, and making progress with our Athena Swan application. I’m sure all of it will show signs of compromise! It’s unavoidable. But it’s all go again. And it will probably stay that way until the end of term! 

08 February 2024

Cat anniversary

It is already three years ago that a beautiful little cat was carried into my house in the travelling basket! I thought she would stay for a few months. It didn't pan out that way.

I thought my friends who had to rehome her would only live in their pet-limiting abode for a few months. They are still living there! And my marvellous cat is still living with me.

My mum knows how I talk about her, and has concluded I can’t live without her anymore. And that’s an exaggeration, of course, but I know what she means. She is such a crucial part of my life now! It is fab to come home to her, it is fab to feel her curl up against me at night, it is hilarious to play with her. Just having her pad around in the background when I’m doing my thing is nice. 

Having a pet complicates travel, but I don’t do much of that anyway. So all in all she has been making such a positive contribution to my life. I’m really glad I got her! Onwards to the next three years…

Snug on the sofa

Her new trick: joining me under the duvet for a bit, before settling on top of it

Garden adventures 

The first sunbathing session in the conservatory in 2024!

07 February 2024

Sorting my bench out

When I installed my workbench in the garage I just plonked my mitre saw and my vice on top. And I found out empirically that you can use a mitre saw when it is not fixed, although I admit it is probably not recommended. A vice, however, is completely useless unless it is bolted down. And the time had come to actually make that happen. Then I finally would have something more serious to work with than my very cute miniature vice that lives in the conservatory...

I decided to swap the positions of the vice and the saw around. I'll see how I like the new configuration!

The first thing I did with the vice was removing paint from future firewood. Burning wood is fine; Burning potentially scary chemicals like paint not so much. But I have a plane, and a drawknife, so I have ways of getting rid of it. So far I had been using my axe for that, but that is not an ideal tool. I'm sure that soon I will find reasons to use it for more sophisticated purposes! But for now I am just happy I finally have a working full-sized vice! And a safer mitre saw!


06 February 2024

Trying to find a gardener

When I bought a house with a big garden, I knew I had a challenge on my hands. I am not a natural gardener! And the garden basically was grass with raised beds. I can cope with grass. The raised beds were a different matter. Quite a lot of them were empty, and I had to do something with them. And those that weren't empty were a maintenance challenge.

I tried to deal with both types. But I find it difficult! I struggled to design anything that looks good. And I often don't know what to do with the plants I have. Should I cut them down seriously at some point in the year? Normally I just leave things to their own devices. I have a box bush that I trim every year; even I know that that is sort of the done thing. But everything else? 

Some of the raised beds just look like they were designed by a complete idiot. And the raised beds with the plum tree and the various berries became a bit of a hybrid after I pulled out the raspberries/loganberries. I suppose I will have to do the same with the other berries! Berries are nice, but the bed looks awful. But what to put there instead?

Ugly raised bed

Also ugly

I had already asked my sister to scamper through the garden and tell me what she thought would be a good idea. I still have these notes! But I am a bit hesitant to implement them. It might be easy if you have talent. I don't. And at some point I decided it wasn't worth the energy. Let's have a professional do this!

The next step, of course, is finding yourself a professional. That should be doable, right? But I struggle. My first port of call was a gardener who lives in town. He didn't seem to respond to my enquiry. Then I spoke with Kate; she recommended someone else. I contacted them as well. They didn't answer. Then I spoke with the neighbour, who also had a recommendation. I contacted this one as well, and we even got so far as to have an appointment, but the day before he phoned me to say he was too busy to take on my garden.

This was not going well. But then I had a brainwave, and checked my spam box. There was a message from the very first gardener I had contacted! And he said he didn't want to do the work. He was available for advice, but I was hoping that someone would actually do the work in communication with me. Luckily he had a recommendation for that as well. So there I went again! Pinged off another email. This time I will keep a close eye on my mailboxes (including spam box), but given that this was an email address and not an online contact form, I think my mailbox will realise that this is real. I really hope I can get this project off the ground!

05 February 2024

Reaching the third round vegan style

I was all mentally ready for the second round of the cake competition! I had decided to make a hazelnut cake, and I already had tried out a vegan recipe. Not much could go wrong.

I was still on a mission to do vegan baking for the competition; if you have a platform you might as well use it! I could show the entire school that vegan baking doesn't have to be any less than non-vegan baking. Maybe some people will follow suit, and the whole competition would get a smaller carbon footprint. And, of course, maybe any baking people might do for other occasions. And it's kind to the vegan to set a good example; it's great if they can try the cake too.

When the day approached, I looked for the recipe I wanted to use again. And you know where this is going! It was nowhere to be found. Oh dear! But it shouldn't be too difficult to adapt a similar recipe. I found a walnut mocha cake recipe on the same website, and I figured I could just adapt that. 

The day before I got an idea of who I was up against. Over lunch, one of my colleagues noticed that another colleague had "baking" written on his hand. That is a bit of a dead giveaway! So I figured it was him. I thought he would be an interesting opponent; he quite enjoys railing against "hippie shit" and I think anything vegan neatly falls into that category. Would I be able to beat him with that?

The day I would have to bake I was home a bit late. I first saw Jenny in the pub, and we are supposed to only stay there for 45 minutes, but we had overrun by almost half an hour. By the time I got home and had fed the cat and myself, basically it was baking time until it was bedtime.

I set to work. I left the coffee out and replaced it with oat milk, and replaced the walnuts with hazelnuts. The recipe also required ground walnuts, and I didn't have any ground hazelnuts, so I just used a bit more flour.

Making the batter wasn't much work. And then I could put the whole thing into the oven. And that gave me the opportunity to make some buttercream. I never make it for myself, but for a cake competition it can be a good idea. It was just some vegan butter, a lot of icing sugar and some hazelnut spread. Quite simple!

The undecorated cake

I was out of cake myself, and I wanted to enjoy a bit more than a tiny bit to taste in the competition, so I had decided to make the double amount of batter. My baking tin actually swallowed all of it! So I just made an extra batch while I was at it, this time the normal amount, so I baked a half-sized cake for myself.

The next morning I did the decoration; I put the buttercream on top. I tried to give that a marble effect but that failed. But at least the buttercream was a good glue to put roast hazelnuts and chopped nuts on the top. And then I was ready!

How it entered the competition

Susan had offered to drive it to work, so she came to my door with her cake tupperware. And then I could just switch into anonymous mode! Just show up for the competition, not telling anyone I was one of the bakers, and see how it went. It was also the first time I actually got to try my own creation!

I was up against chocolate cake, and legend has it chocolate cakes never win. (Mine didn't.) I personally liked my cake better than the other one. I wouldn't vote, but it did give me confidence. And an interesting detail was that my new colleague Claire joined me at the table, and she turns out to be vegan. She didn't know I was the baker, of course, but it was good to see her eat a piece of my cake, because she could.

I eagerly awaited the email with the result. And I had won! I am through to the third round, which I have never managed before! It does mean I now have to think of another recipe to make. But there should be plenty of time; the second round has only recently started. I always hoped to be booted out in the first round; I would have shown my good intentions, but I wouldn't have to repeatedly bake. But since lockdown I am a much more confident baker, and I think I am getting a bit competitive now. Bring on the third round! I have no idea how many rounds there are. But I will find out!