What will be different in #lockdown2?

Today, #lockdown2 kicks in in England. Having survived the first lockdown, this one may be a bit different. For a start, for me nothing has changed as regards work. I’m still dividing my time between home and the office, and doing face to face teaching, and that will continue. It seems as if more shops will be open this time, but once again all hospitality establishments have had to close, which I posted on elsewhere. It’s been very challenging doing everything expected of us work-wise, and being able to have a weekly visit to the postgraduate bar on campus has been a great help, giving the chance to relax in a neutral atmosphere, as well as enjoying some excellent beer. I will miss that.

I have managed three trips to London since the first lockdown was lifted; the first was just to find out what travelling was like and to see what was open in London. The most recent trip was to take in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which was excellent. We have another trip booked, and the original plan was to go to an exhibition in the British Museum, but now that is closed, so that trip will have to be postponed until the museum reopens.

In the first lockdown I enjoyed regular walks around the campus, and this was particularly nice because it was Spring, and the weather was generally good. Now we have cold weather, dark mornings and dark nights, so it will not be anywhere near as enjoyable.

In conclusion, #lockdown2 will be challenging, particularly because of all the stress of work, but without some of the diversionary activities that have helped so much. I’m grateful to have the support of my family to help get through this.

The hospitality industry and lockdown2

The hospitality establishments I have frequented since they have been allowed to reopen have all followed the rules and implemented all the required measures to make them Covid-19 safe. They have socially distanced seating, one way systems, table service and good ventilation. Staff have worn PPE, and customers have been required to wear masks when not sitting at their tables. I (and those who have been with me) have felt safe when in these places. The government’s decision to make them close for a month from Thursday is, quite simply, a kick in the teeth for the staff who have worked so hard to make their establishments compliant. It will also be a further hammer blow to the hospitality industry, already struggling after the first lockdown, and I fear permanent closures as a result. Yesterday was indeed a sad day for the industry.

Professor Colin Mortimer (18 February 1927 – 11 September 2020): A brief obituary

Colin Trevor Mortimer was Emeritus Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Keele University. His long career spanned more than 30 years at Keele, from 1955 to 1988. He previously worked with Hank (H A) Skinner at Manchester, who introduced him to thermochemistry. His research interests were in the measurement of enthalpies of reactions in inorganic solids, and he published more than 80 papers in this area. He was author of a book entitled ‘Reaction Heats and Bond Strengths’ (Pergamon, 1962) based on his postgraduate lectures at Keele. He had an association with several universities in Africa, helping to set up Chemistry departments there.

As well as his academic work, Colin was an active member of the Keele community, continuing to live on campus after his retirement, He was a stalwart of the chapel community, being involved in fund raising for the building of the chapel in the 1960s. He also retained a life long link with his school in Yorkshire, which including serving as governor for some time. Along with his work at Keele, he epitomised service to education throughout his life.

A trip to London (31 July – 1 August 2020)

Normally a trip to London wouldn’t deserve a blog post. But the trip I have just returned from was my first visit since mid-February, when we went to the Tutankhamen exhibition (and wasn’t it fortunate that we managed that then, given what has happened since?)

Anyway, ever since lockdown was eased, and hotels could reopen, I have been planning a trip to London, just to see what it was like. The train from Stoke was fine. Passengers have to occupy window seats with the aisle seat unoccupied, to ensure social distancing, and that’s fine with me. The train was actually about 10 minutes late arriving at Euston, because of speed restrictions due to the hot weather heating the tracks, but it didn’t matter as I didn’t have a fixed schedule.

On arrival at Euston, I noticed the relative emptiness of the station, normally heaving on a Friday afternoon. I headed for my hotel, noting that the Doric Arch pub at Euston is still closed (normally a good place to visit if you have time before a train). My usual hotel, the Tavistock, was still closed, so I had booked the Royal National next door. I had stayed there before, but not for a few years. It charges slightly more per night than the Tavistock, but the rooms are much the same. On check in I was asked for photo ID, which is a new thing (luckily I had one!), and told about the breakfast arrangements (you collect a boxed breakfast from the Café).

Leaving the hotel, I walked towards Russell Square, looking at what was open and closed. Basically coffee places and some small cafés were open, but the pubs I passed were mostly closed (more on that later). My first planned stop was the Russell Square Café (now called the Caffé Tropea), which was open, with outside seating only (which was no problem on a hot afternoon). I consider this to serve some of the best coffee in London, so I was appropriately caffeinated once I set out for a walk around the area of Bloomsbury near the British Museum, basically just to see what it was like. Everything was quiet; the museum is still closed, and rather to my surprise, the Museum Tavern was also closed (it is normally very busy, and not just with museum visitors), and it is large enough to open with social distancing enforced. That was one of my potential stops on this trip, but not this time. After the walk it was time to return to the hotel to cool down for a while (it was very hot, and when London is hot, the heat is unrelenting).

After a short rest, it was time to head out again, this time to a timetabled appointment! I checked out the area around Woburn Walk, noticing that both the Woburn Tandoori and Mabel’s were closed (rather to my surprise, since they both have local clientele and are not completely dependent on passing trade). Then it was back down Upper Woburn Place, turning left to pass Russell Square tube, calling into Tesco’s, and continuing to the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. I think I have been frequenting that pub since 1980, possibly earlier. Since they reopened, they have worked on a table booking system, and I had booked a table online. I then spent a nostalgic hour drinking beer, and thinking of my past visits. Somewhat disappointingly the Young’s Special wasn’t available (not brewed yet apparently), but the Ordinary (or Original as it’s called now) was completely acceptable. After that it was time to return to the hotel for dinner (which I had brought myself), although it did appear as if the ‘London Pub’, next to the hotel, is serving food – I saw the menus but nobody actually eating.

I had originally intended to do some more exploring the following morning, but it was clear from yesterday that there are very few options – one of our favourites, the National Portrait Gallery is closed for example, so I decided to return a bit earlier. The train back to Stoke left a bit late, but was fine. Once again, Euston Station was quiet.

So, to my conclusion: a trip to London is possible – the trains are OK and hotels are available, but you need to have a programme for what you are going to do, and to check in advance if places are open. I had done that for the places I definitely wanted to visit, but there were others I might have visited as well, unplanned. Many pubs are closed, which means they can’t be depended on for somewhere to call in for a quick drink when you are out and about. And one small negative point – places offering takeaway food and drink are all fine and good, but you need to have somewhere eat and drink! Outdoor seating is a bit restricted now due to the ongoing pandemic. If you can take it back to your hotel, that’s great of course, but otherwise, doing it while walking isn’t ideal. But we are already planning a trip once the British Museum reopens, and there is an interesting exhibition to visit.

More thoughts on life during lockdown

Since the UK went into lockdown on 24 March, I have posted occasional updates, mostly about how life has been affected, and what the effects have been on my work. Now we are slowly emerging from lockdown (in England at least), I thought I should write about some issues that arose, before they are forgotten, mentally buried by all the new things that will distract me in the months to come.

Going back to March, when it all started, I was worried about whether I could fulfill the expectations of my job, given that we have never felt the need to get broadband installed in our flat. Initially I wasn’t supposed to go to my office, but I had lectures to record and put online! In those first few weeks I researched WiFi dongles, and bought 2, one of which worked (the O2 one; I now have a redundant Vodafone dongle that has never worked). I bought a WiFi antenna, which also didn’t work, although that will hopefully be a useful investment for the future, the problem being the distance of my flat from the nearest WiFi router. Finally our IT services came to the rescue and provided me with a MiFi device, and after about a month I managed to negotiate a permission letter to use my office from time to time, and with those I was largely sorted.

Another worry in those early days was food shopping and pharmacy provision. We didn’t know which shops would be open, and in particular whether our campus supermarket would remain open (it did), and perhaps more importantly, whether our pharmacy would, since we both have prescriptions that we collect from there. Buses were still running to our local towns, and we have continued to make use of them. My car battery went flat through lack of use, which led me to need to call the AA to jump start the car, and to purchase a solar battery charger! In the end we developed a workable routine, using the campus supermarket for basic items, and going into town for specific provisions (Angela has developed a good relationship with an independent butcher, for example, who has stayed open throughout). And we were much relieved that the pharmacy stayed open. The campus newsagents/post office closed, but will reopen next week, but sadly our branch of Blackwell’s will not be reopening, meaning the university won’t have a bookshop until such time as a replacement can be found.

On a more positive note, those early weeks of lockdown were great for mental de-cluttering, and I was able to turn my attention to several long neglected tasks, think about future research projects, and have useful online chats with research collaborators. We were also able to enjoy spring on the campus, and it was really beautiful, as well as having an ethereal quality owing to the fact we seemed to have the campus mostly to ourselves.

Then, in early May, the marking started coming in, and I have had had about 6 weeks of pretty solid marking of coursework and exams. I’ve commented in detail in other posts that marking online definitely takes longer, and it seemed interminable at times! I finally finished on Friday of this week, and spent yesterday uploading marks. Actually being able to get the marking done was a definite worry, and I’m glad to have managed it. We just have the inevitable exam board meetings ahead, and I have one remaining external examining assignment to do, which will of course be online, and this somehow makes it a bit less stressful.

Before concluding this post, I shouldn’t forget that before I became inundated with marking, I agreed to co-organise an online conference, to take place later in the year. The background is that every two years I aim to attend a conference in the EURODIM/ICDIM series, and this year ICDIM2020 was due to take place in Guangzhou, China in November. Clearly that won’t happen now, so myself and a colleague volunteered to organise this conference online. We made good progress on the plans, but then I had to stop to get the marking done. Now I have a chance to get back to this. I probably wouldn’t have felt able to even consider taking something on like this in normal life. But it will be an interesting experience, and it ensures our research community have a chance to share their latest results this year.

Looking ahead, I hope to return to the de-cluttered mental state that I had in the first few weeks of lockdown, but without the worries mentioned above. I need to get back to my research, before planning for next academic year kicks in, which will happen all too soon!

And finally, I am very grateful to have got through this unscathed, and I am very aware of how fortunate I’ve been compared to many others. Seeing lockdown through on a university campus has had many advantages, as I mentioned in previous posts.

Three months into lockdown

With lockdown having been in force in the UK for just over 3 months, it’s definitely time for an update.

I’ve been marking exams and coursework for the last 4 weeks, but I’m hoping to finish by the end of the coming weekend (28/06/20). I posted earlier about online marking, and I’ve continued to use Adobe Acrobat, and I’m pleased to say it’s getting easier to use with practice. But marking exams online can still take at least twice as long as with physical papers, and I don’t think that is sustainable.

Not much has changed in my immediate locality, although more people are using the university grounds for recreation of various kinds. Earlier this week Boris Johnson announced that pubs and restaurants could reopen in England on 4th July, and that’s a much needed step. Hotels can open from that date too, but there remain issues with travel (although I’m planning a trip to London in July just to see what is possible). I was interested that a colleague from Serbia can travel home for a holiday, since all restrictions have been lifted in his country, but that certainly doesn’t apply in many other places! We are slowly emerging from lockdown in the UK, but it will be a slow process.

Regarding my work, I heard today confirmation that all our lectures next year will be online (I had expected that this would only be the case until Christmas). This does seem a slight over-reaction, but at least we know now and can prepare. How other things, like project and lab work will be managed is presumably still being discussed.

I’ll update again in July when things start to open up a bit!

Thoughts on online exam marking

I’m literally drowning in exam marking just now, as no doubt are others in my position. The issue is that it is all taking so much longer than ‘normal’, and in a short break from it (needed because my head felt like it was exploding!) I discussed with my wife why this might be the case.

When you analyse it, it’s quite simple. For normal exams, you have a pile of paper scripts, and the model answers/marking scheme printed out. You just mark each paper in turn, referring to the model answers. You can see your progress as the pile diminishes in height. Contrast this with online marking, where every paper has first to be downloaded as a PDF or Word document, and your model answers are in another document. When marking, you are continually switching between the exam script and the answers. If the student scripts are PDFs, it isn’t trivial or quick to write on them (even with the full octane version of Adobe Acrobat; I know that tablet PCs can make this process easier, but it still takes longer than simply writing by hand). And then there is the fact that students have more time and tend to write more, so there is more to read. It all adds up,and I estimate it is taking me at least twice as long as usual to do my exam marking.

If it was a one-off situation, it might be easier to accept, but currently it looks like we’ll be doing the same for at least the first half of next year. Our current exam system simply isn’t designed for this, but there is not likely to be much incentive to change it.

Finally, if anyone has any clever workrounds, they will be gratefully received!

My social media trends

Social media has become even more important during the lockdown, and now is a good opportunity to review my accounts. I monitor them during normal times, but usually don’t have time for much analysis. So let’s have a look.

Twitter: I currently have 5000 followers, but this has been in steady decline for some time. Yesterday, 31/05/20, my followers number fell below 5000 for the first time since June 2016! The decline has partly been a result of several Twitter purges, but I do get some ‘reactive unfollowing’ from time to time, since I sometimes post political material, and not everyone agrees with it! Hopefully the numbers will remain stable, but only time will tell.

Facebook: at the start of lockdown my Facebook friend numbers went down a bit, because things were a bit emotional over people’s responses to the situation, but now they have recovered and are on the increase. 569 is the current total.

LinkedIn: I don’t post very often on LinkedIn, although my blog posts go there. My connections have been steadily increasing in number, and are currently at 980 (which surprised me).

So Twitter is my main concern at this point, and I will be looking to get some more followers. I always follow back, but that on its own is no longer an incentive, it seems. My aim will be to attract interest by more interesting content, and less politics, because my sense is that is generally a turn off at the moment!

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