EURODIM2022 -an achievement, but almost an event too far

From 1-9 July this year I was in Ghent, Belgium, for the EURODIM2022 conference (held in conjunction with ICOOPMA2022). I arrived in Ghent on Friday 1 July and lectured at the pre-conference summer school on 2 and 3 July. The conference ran from 3-8 July, and I returned to the UK on 9 July.

This was the first overseas conference I had attended since ICDIM2016 in Lyon. A lot had happened in the intervening years. In 2018 I had a return of my travel anxiety issues, but finally addressed these with counselling. And, of course, in 2020-21 there was the Covid-19 pandemic, which put a stop to all such events. So I was out of practice as far as overseas travel was concerned, and hoping that the benefits of the counselling would still be there, and not diluted by the effects of the pandemic.

I had an important role in this conference – in fact several roles. I gave two talks in addition to my summer school lecture, looked after two posters, and chaired the international advisory committee for the EURODIM/ICDIM conferences. So it was a big deal, and when I began to have pre-travel nerves before setting out, that just added to the stress.

However, I made it, and the conference was a success. It was great to meet up with old friends and research collaborators, and to have the opportunity to discuss research for a full week in a beautiful location. I also managed to secure venues for the next two conferences in the EURODIM/ICDIM series (Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan and Hungary). Because I was so busy with organisational aspects, I wasn’t able to give so much attention to some of the talks. so I haven’t come back with lots of new ideas, as I often have after such conferences in the past. But with hindsight, that was not really surprising. I have the abstracts book, and of course, the useful discussions gave me ideas to build on.

Ghent is a beautiful city, and we had some time to visit it on the Wednesday afternoon, but every morning and afternoon I walked through the city centre and tried to breathe in the atmosphere. And of course, the Belgian beers were wonderful, and I tried a good range of them.

To end with, here’s a photo I took on my way back to the hotel on the last day, which gives an idea of the beauty of the place.

Graduation on the hottest day of the year (so far)

Today (July 19 2022) is forecast to be the hottest day of the year so far in the UK, with record-breaking temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade expected in some areas. So it’s an ‘interesting’ day to be holding our first summer graduation for 3 years!

We use the University Chapel for Graduation Ceremonies, and today it was comfortable inside, helped by some fans and a side door being open. I’m told it got warmer towards the back of the chapel, but where we were sitting, it was fine. Also, the Ceremony was paired down a bit, and we didn’t have any honorary graduates to make speeches. Our Ceremony started at 9:30 am, but by the time we finished, it was hot outside. The reception was held outside (when have we been able to do that before?), and although ideally it could have been a bit cooler, it went really well. Overall I’m very pleased that Graduation could be held, and the outside reception was memorable, for being successfully held on the hottest day of the year so far.

Some random Jubilee thoughts

Now the four-day celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee has ended, I wanted to record my thoughts on the occasion, and to mention some of the issues that have been discussed in the media over the last few days.

First, the timing of the Bank Holidays didn’t work for me (and probaby not for some others working in education either). I mentioned this in a Facebook post on 1 June. I worked on both days, but at least benefited from my building being quiet! However, I have really enjoyed some of the celebrations over the weekend.

Regarding the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I agree that the occasion had to be marked (although I disagreed with the timing of the Bank Holidays). The Queen has achieved something quite special, and as has been commented elsewhere, this is not something that will ever happen again. Her long and selfless dedication to the role is something we should all acknowledge, regardless of our views on the monarchy itself. My own views have evolved somewhat over the years, but now I would describe myself as a ‘pragmatic monarchist’, in that I think what we have in our constitutional monarchy is far better than any of the alternatives. It also looks as if the monarchy will be slimmed down somewhat, which is certainly no bad thing, and has been an issue for me in the past. As for a republic, even devout republicans disagree on the best model to use (e.g. would a president be a political appointment as for example in the USA and France, or non-political, as in Ireland?) Given the ‘quality’ of many of those seeking political office recently, I wouldn’t be optimistic about finding a suitable candidate anyway!

Moving back to the celebrations themselves, for me the high point of the weekend was that amazing concert on Saturday night. Seeing Rod Stewart, Elton John, Diana Ross and Jason Donovan made the night for me, as did the special visual effects, which were quite something to behold. And the Pageant on Sunday afternoon was impressive, although I felt the TV coverage might have benefited from some more explanation!

In conclusion, I thought the celebrations were appropriate and very well organised. They certainly set me thinking about the future. The Queen ascended the throne 5 years before I was born, and she has always been there. While I am in favour of the monarchy, I am not convinced about Charles, and feel that his son William would probably do a better job. We will see what happens, but given the obvious frailty of the Queen, I don’t see her continuing for much longer. While she can, it gives us much needed stability at a time of uncertainty.

Time to get back on track

With more than two years having passed since the Covid-19 pandemic really started in the UK, it’s time for a fresh start. For too long the pandemic and indirect side effects have ruled a lot of my life, and put simply, I’ve had enough. But what to do about it? As Angela said, it’s time for a mindset reset.

I posted quite a lot during the first lockdown, describing how life was then and how we were coping. I also talked about how difficult the second lockdown was (the one that finally finished some time in July 2021 in the UK, after the progressive opening of hospitality venues with outside seating). We got used to places being closed, and restrictions on almost everything, and it seemed to almost instill a kind of mindset, which has lasted far beyond the lifting of most restrictions. There has been talk of ‘Covid brain’, but even without that being a ‘thing’, the pandemic and its effect on daily life has been significant.

Now, it’s almost May 2022, and life should really be back to normal. OK, Covid-19 is still out there, but it’s something we will have to live with, and not let it affect our lives beyond taking sensible precautions when appropriate. So I am trying to shake off the pandemic mindset.

How this mindset has manifested itself is interesting. For example, when it was hard to do anything (e.g. to go on a shopping trip or travel somewhere), I seemed to develop an attitude that some things are just too hard to contemplate, and so often I would simply not do them. I realised that attitude was still there recently, when making arrangements to attend a conference in Belgium in July, where even though everything is straightforward to book now, I had to overcome a kind of mental energy barrier just to do it. I did this last week, and it was something of a triumph – ridiculous when you think that I wouldn’t even think twice about doing something like this before.

Then there’s the issue of my work arrangements. In the academic year 2020-21 almost everything I did was online, apart from some project supervision. In 2021-22 we have been using a ‘blended’ approach, with some things online, and some real lectures. The trouble with this approach is that it involves more work than just doing one approach or the other (i.e. either online or in-person). It has meant that I have struggled to do anything beyond just keeping up with the most urgent things (basically, my teaching). It also means that research has suffered (almost to the point of being non-existent) because I haven’t had the mental capacity to think creatively, and I’ve not written papers that have been requested, something I would normally do. In fact, if it wasn’t for my collaborators, who have continued to produce papers with me as a co-author, I might have disappeared from the ‘research map’ entirely. Needless so say I am very grateful to them.

Then there’s life beyond work. My musical activities have stopped completely. OK, the orchestras I played in mostly restarted in the autumn of 2021, but a combination of the Covid mindset and me questioning how much I really enjoyed the playing has led me to not rejoin them. That’s partly due to the mindset I am trying to shake off, and partly a kind of re-evaluation process, which has been one positive to come from all this. I’m not sure where I’ll go with music; I miss the playing, but not the associated stress! At least I will shake off the ‘just can’t be bothered to go’ mindset, and instead try to find a way to get involved in music which works for me and which I enjoy.

Moving to other activities, I’ve kept up reading when I’ve felt I had time, and hopefully I’ll be able to do more of this. I’ve got involved in the local CAMRA branch, running their website, which has been fun, and at the same time stepped back from local politics (partly because the general awfulness of all things politics was affecting my mental well-being). I’ve kept up my virtual reality gaming (Pokemon Go and Ingress) which have been great displacement activities.

Only time will tell if I am really succeeding in making a fresh start, but I am back to organising meetings and writing papers for a start. There’s a long way to go, but I’m taking it one step at a time.

Reflections on the general awfulness of everything

I don’t expect you to read this. But my blog is supposed to be a kind of record of how I am feeling about things, and I haven’t written anything for a long time, so here we go.

First, politics at home. I’m not currently politically active, having stood down from the local LibDem exec committee (although I still look after their website). This standing down was partly motivated by the LibDems stopping their policy of aiming to rejoin the EU at the first opportunity. For me that’s the only show in town. It’s the same with Labour. Making Brexit ‘work’ is a contradiction, and as long as parties think it is possible, they won’t have my support. And then there’s the other kind of party, ‘Partygate’. With the PM and the Chancellor being fined but refusing to resign, I simply despair. They have a significant majority to protect them from being forced to do so, but it would be nice if they would do the decent thing. With no chances of that, I’m not holding my breath . We are being ruled by an unashamedly corrupt government, and that is in itself hard to bear.

Next, world affairs. The war in Ukraine is taking all our attention, and it does seem to me that although the West is justifiably afraid of what a confrontation with Russia might lead to, how long can we wait while Russia systematically pummels parts of Ukraine into the ground? I suspect that it will come to a confrontation eventually. It’s not a good prospect, but it seems almost inevitable to me.

Finally, work. Because Easter is late this year, our Spring semester ran for 11 weeks before the vacation finally started on Saturday 9th April. It was preceded by 2 exam weeks, so it’s been a long haul (effectively 13 weeks nonstop). Now we have 3 weeks to catch up on marking and try to have a rest, of which one week has already gone. Let’s hope it works.

My review of 2021

Just as with 2020, 2021 has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but with ups and downs through the year.

I started the year having had a lovely, restful Christmas, although I got a nasty cold towards the end of 2020, which slightly delayed my posting of last year’s review. As noted, it was very similar to one I had early in 2020, and it also returned in November 2021.

The first three months of the year were spent in lockdown – it was more difficult than the first one in 2020, partly because of it falling in winter, but also because the first time was a new experience, and a challenge, but this time I was thoroughly fed up with it. During those months I did my teaching online, only meeting my MChem project students in person when they were finally allowed to return to the campus (late February/March). January exams had been replaced by OBAs (Open Book Assessments), and there was the same issue as last year with the time taken to mark them, and the general difficulty of setting questions that are suited to the format. The process was repeated in May/June, including a lot of marking for my Digital Forensics module.

A slow opening started on 12 April, with pubs and hospitality venues being allowed to open for outside service (!). The KPA responded to this challenge by significantly extending its outside seating area, and the Wetherspoons in Newcastle was able to use its terrace. Many venues simply couldn’t open because they didn’t have outside seating. It wasn’t exactly warm in April, so there were several occasions when having a drink required serious dedication, and warm clothing, but the challenge was responded to! There was a second stage of opening starting 19 May, when places could open inside, but booking was (mostly) required, with table service. I managed a night in London on 25 June, staying at the Royal National Hotel (the Tavistock still being closed), and going to an exhibition in the British Library, and enjoying a (booked) visit to the Lamb.

On 19 July, Covid-19 restrictions ended in England, and this situation continued for the rest of the year. It was a tremendous relief, and meant that all shops, theatres and hospitality venues could once again fully open. We went to London on 19 August and spent two nights in the Sloane Square Hotel (originally chosen because I had a Focus concert booked, which was postponed, but we got a good deal, and it was interesting to stay in a different part of London). On 20 August we travelled from London to Southampton for my late Uncle John’s memorial service (he had died in April, but this was the earliest it could be held due to the lockdown restrictions). It was a nice occasion, and I met several cousins, and second cousins, as well as seeing Liz and Cyrus for the first time in several years. We returned to London in the evening, and moved hotels the next day to the Royal National, so we could go to an exhibition (the Thomas Becket exhibition at the BM). We travelled back to Keele on Sunday 22 August, but were off on our travels again on Tuesday 24 August, this time to Glasgow, where we spent 3 nights. It was very nice, but Scotland was still under Covid-19 restrictions, one consequence of which was that our hotel room was not serviced. We had a nice time nevertheless.

We managed another trip to London in mid-September (15-16), as I had a committee meeting and a meeting with Richard (Catlow) to discuss a planned birthday event for the following year. We enjoyed a memorable Gyles Brandreth event in Crewe on 18 September, staying over at the Waverley Hotel as there are no late buses now.

The autumn semester was particularly challenging, in that we were teaching in a ‘blended’ way, with lectures mostly online, and problem classes held in person (where rooms large enough to accommodate a 70% occupancy were available). I supervised my two Chemistry project students in person, and for the first time for several years, a Forensic Science group project (in Digital Forensics). Having both teaching formats is more time consuming than using one approach, but I was grateful to have some in person classes, the first since March 2020.

I managed to attend a conference in London in November, which was organised in hybrid format, with some delegates present, and some attending via Zoom. The conference was held at the IoP offices in Caledonian Road, to commemorate Neville Greaves. I think it went very well, and it was nice to meet Neville’s family there. We had a memorable dinner in the evening as well (the social side of conferences being something I have particularly missed). The day before the conference we went to the Royal Academy ‘Summer’ Exhibition, which was as good as ever.

I didn’t take part in the Solid State Chemistry Group Christmas meeting this year, firstly because it was entirely on line (and I’ve had enough of that format), and secondly I was very busy catching up after the semester (we finished teaching on Friday 17th, and the conference was on the following Monday and Tuesday).

It has continued to be a depressing year politically. I decided not to stand again for the executive committee of Newcastle-under-Lyme LibDems, but I will continue to look after their web site. A more positive development was that I joined the CAMRA Potteries committee to run their website. I’m really looking forward to being involved in that going forwards.

The Christmas and New Year break has been lovely, and I’m pleased to have a few days left before it all starts up again.

Reflections on 50 years of CAMRA: real ale and my life

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded in 1971, and so celebrates 50 years this year. I joined in the late 1970s, so I have certainly been a member for 40 of those 50 years!

Laura Hadland, in her book entitled ’50 years of CAMRA’ has done an admirable job in documenting the history of CAMRA, the more so because it was written mostly during the lockdown in 2020, and many planned meetings had to be rearranged to take place online, etc. In this post I will attempt to explore the effect of the real ale movement on my life, and how I see things moving forward.

I drank very little beer until I was 18. My parents were not beer drinkers – in my mother’s case it may have been seeing her father drunk after one too many pints, and I’m not sure about my father. They did however encourage me to drink wine, and I remember an Italian holiday where as children we had diluted wine with our meals (recommended in the travel guides as a precaution against the local water!) My father also made his own wine, and I remember there being demijohns regularly sitting in the airing cupboard!

It was when I went to university in 1975 that I first tried beer properly. The UCL 2nd floor student bar had Worthington ‘E’ on keg, and I drank that until a friend persuaded me to try Charrington’s IPA, served from a single solitary hand pump on the bar. Real ale was taking off then, and, with friends, I started going to the relatively few pubs in London that then served real ale. As well as Young’s and Fuller’s pubs, there were some other haunts, like the Princess Louise in High Holborn (still there I’m pleased to say). The beers I remember from back then included Young’s Ordinary and Special, Fuller’s London Pride and ESB, and Brakspears’ bitter, not to forget Ruddles Best and County. Many of these still exist, although in some cases they are brewed at different locations. Beer is influenced by the local water, and although Young’s Special is available to this day, it is now brewed in Bedford, and although still a fine beer, it’s not the same as when it was brewed in Wandsworth. Fuller’s still brew their beers at Chiswick, although there were some concerns when the company was taken over by Asahi in 2019.

It was no doubt my new interest in real ale which prompted me to join CAMRA, and to start going to beer festivals, particularly the GBBF (Great British Beer Festival). The first one I attended was at Bingley Hall in Birmingham in 1983. (It seems that Bingley Hall was burned down in 1984 and later replaced by the International Convention Centre). In 1985 I attended the GBBF at the Brighton Metropole. In 1986 I moved from London to North Staffordshire, and there was then a gap of a few years before I started regularly attending the GBBF at Kensington Olympia, Earl’s Court, and then Kensington Olympia again, right up to and including 2019 (and I must thank Angela for her encouragement here). The 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled, and I wonder where the event will be held in 2022, since I understand that Kensington Olympia is also now being redeveloped!

There have recently been questions about the relevance of CAMRA, and in 2016 a series of ‘revitalisation’ (sic) meetings were held. One of the issues was the rise of so-called ‘craft keg’ ales, which are not brewed to conform with CAMRA’s definition of real ale. I talk about craft keg here, and the meeting I attended, at the (now sadly recently closed) White Star pub in Stoke, is described here (and the post includes my thoughts on the ‘revitalisation exercise’ in general). However, I feel that CAMRA played an important role when pubs were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’ll say more about its relevance going forward later.

Of course, much of 2020 and the start of 2021 were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. All pubs and bars in the UK were made to close in March 2020, and then had a few months of reopening in the summer-autumn before having to close again. It wasn’t until April 2021 that outdoor opening was allowed (and it was very cold then), followed by restricted indoor opening in May, and finally, full opening in July. During the lockdown months I got some deliveries from a local bar, and became an authority on online beer sellers!

So now we are in August, and it’s the second year without a GBBF. CAMRA is running a ‘GBBF at your local’ which is a great idea in principle, but not many pubs in my area are taking part. However, at least they are open, which still seems a luxury!

A brief moment of reflection on the GBBF: yesterday would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. I’m very pleased that she came to two editions of the GBBF, and enjoyed them. I even enticed her younger brother to come one year. The GBBF is a wonderful and inclusive event, and I’m missing it very much, particularly as in a normal year I would be travelling to London tomorrow to be ready for the start of the festival. It has been a fixed point in my summer for many years.

Looking ahead, I do think CAMRA is still an important and relevant organisation. As we open up after the months of lockdown, not all pubs and bars (and breweries) have survived, and real ale will continue to need a champion fighting its corner. I’m looking forward to beer festivals being able to happen again, and particularly the GBBF in 2022. CAMRA and real ale have both figured prominently in my life, and I wish CAMRA all the best as it begins the next 50 years of its existence.

Roy McWeeny, 1924-2021: his Life and Keele Links.

Roy McWeeny died in Pisa on 29 April 2021 where he had retired. He had a long career, and was a very important figure in Quantum Chemistry. Apart from his field which slightly overlaps with mine, he spent 9 years at Keele, so I have a personal interest there. I previously mentioned him in a post from 2013 about Harry Greenwood, his scientific ‘brother’, who died in 2013, and who had been director of the Keele Computer Centre for many years.

Roy’s first degree was in Physics from the University of Leeds, from 1942-45. Because of the 2nd World War, he was drafted into the Ministry of Defence upon graduation, and from 1945-46 he worked on theory of thermal stress in brittle materials in the Department of Ceramics at Leeds. In 1946 he was able to go to Oxford to do a DPhil degree with Charles Coulson , in Mathematical Physics, on Momentum Space Solutions of the Schrödinger Wave Equation. Because of his research work at Leeds, he was classed as a ‘senior student from another university’, and was required to complete his doctorate in 2 years! So, in 1948, having got his DPhil, he moved to the Chemistry Department at King’s College, University of Durham (later to become the University of Newcastle) as a Lecturer in Physical Chemistry. The significance of this move cannot be understated; at the time, the appointment of Quantum Mechanics specialists to Chemistry departments was rare, and Roy’s was perhaps the first such appointment. He was there until 1957, when he was appointed Lecturer in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (a Faculty appointment with equal affiliation to three Departments) at the University College of North Staffordshire (which became the University of Keele in 1962). Again the nature and scope of this appointment was unusual. He was subsequently promoted to Reader in Quantum Theory at Keele in 1960, and to Professor of Theoretical Physics and Theoretical Chemistry at Keele in 1965. in 1966 he moved to the University of Sheffield as Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, and was Head of the Department of Chemistry from 1976-1979. In 1982 he moved to the University of Pisa, as ‘Professore Ordinario di Chimica Teorica’, where he remained until his retirement in 1997.

Roy published extensively, and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss his work in detail. However, the Spiers Memorial Lecture, which he gave in 2006, entitled ‘Quantum Chemistry: The first seventy years’ is available online and not only contains interesting science, but mentions his life, and provides a fascinating account of his interactions with others working in Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Chemistry over the years.

I feel privileged to have had some correspondence with Roy, although I never met him. In 2003-2004 my faculty at Keele opened a new PC lab, and I suggested that it be named after him (he having obtained the first computer for the university, an IBM 1620, in 1962). He was happy to give permission for this to happen, but unfortunately university bureaucracy and personnel changes meant it never did. However I am glad I at least pursued this possibility!

In conclusion, Roy McWeeny was a significant and influential figure in Quantum Chemistry, and along with Harry Greenwood, is a part of Keele’s scientific heritage. I am grateful to Brian Sutcliffe and Grant Hill for providing useful information that helped me write this post.

My recent social media follower trends

From time to time I look at how my various social media accounts are doing as regards followers/friends/connections.

For Twitter, my follower numbers, have been going down steadily for several years now. There have been some #TwitterPurges no doubt, and I have lost some followers who I never followed back (so fair enough) but in general it’s not an encouraging picture. It has led me to stop regarding Twitter as the most effective way of getting a message across, which is confirmed by the very small amount of interactions I get there. As of now, my follower numbers are 4952.

For LinkedIn, my connections are increasing steadily, ranging from students to research and external examining contacts. I am making more of an effort to post there now as a result. I currently have 993 connections.

Facebook seems to be my most successful social media account, with friend numbers increasing steadily. Of all my accounts, it’s the one where I get most interactions, and my friend numbers currently stand at 616.

Social media has (have?) been of considerable importance during the pandemic. Twitter seems to be a very unfriendly place these days, which tends to put me off posting anyway. LinkedIn is good for work related information, including new publications, conferences etc. But as a place to comment on life and what I am currently doing and concerned about, Facebook is best. I keep contentious material like politics off my main account though. It will be interesting to see how these trends change as we come out of the pandemic.

35 years at Keele

This will be a short post to recognise the fact that today marks 35 years at Keele University for me. 5 years ago I wrote at some length about my first 30 years, so I won’t repeat what was written then, but will provide a link to the post.

The two main things that have happened in the past 5 years are that a few months after writing that post I was appointed Acting Head of School, which I did for 16 months (see separate posts about this), and of course, in the last year, Covid-19 and its effects (again much commented on).

I’m not too sure about what the immediate future holds; these are uncertain times, so we will see how it goes over the next few months. But this is certainly an occasion to be noted!

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