All posts by Rob Jackson

Chemistry/Forensics Academic (Reader), researcher in Computational Solid State Chemistry; blogger, trombone player, CAMRA member.

Decluttering and reclaiming my Twitter account

I opened my Twitter account on 19 February 2009, which means that I am heading for my 9th TwitterVersary. Until recently, my aim has been to increase my followers as much as possible, with the aim of having maximum impact. The best way to hold on to new followers is (usually) to follow them back, so as well as maximising my number of followers, inevitably that led to me following a lot of accounts. I did have a more-or-less annual clear out of inactive accounts, but this had a fairly minimal effect on my statistics. The net result was a steady increase in the number of accounts I was following.

Partly as a result of following all these accounts, my main Twitter timeline became swamped with tweets I was not interested in. Although I do use groups for specific areas of interest (e.g. Chemistry Tweeters etc.), even these were becoming hard to manage. Increasingly I felt I was losing control, so it was time for action!

On 21 November this year I reached 7000 followers (see screenshot below), and in the process of reaching that number, I had followed 5478 accounts! These included authors and eBook services, accounts from web optimisation services (including those ubiquitous SEO services), and ‘lifestyle bloggers’. So, what to do? I decided to limit my following back to accounts concerned with (broadly) science, HE/academia generally, music (mainly classical), favourite authors, and politics, with a few additions (people I actually know, etc.) My aim is to bring the number of accounts I am following down to about 1000 by the end of the year, although at the moment I don’t know if that will be easily achievable with these numbers! (The motivation to begin this process was partly catalysed by the theft of my phone in London in the early hours of 25 November (described in a separate post). Setting up Twitter on my new phone provided an extra incentive for a clean-up!)

There are a number of ways of managing a Twitter account, apart from just following and unfollowing accounts on an app or the web page. For several years I used the FriendOrFollow service, which kept me up to date with my follow/unfollow statistics. But, almost coincidentally, they recently lost their link to Twitter (who withdrew access to its API), so I could no longer use their service. I had been doing my annual clear out of inactive accounts using a site called ManageFlitter, and my intention was to use that to help me in this mass cull of accounts. However, it seems that many of these Twitter management services have woken up to the fact that they can get more revenue from their offerings, and ManageFlitter was no exception, restricting the use of its free service to a small number of daily unfollows, etc. So I signed up for a Pro account, which costs $12 a month, but which you can cancel once you have finished using it. Combining this with simple unfollowing has reduced the number of accounts I am following to 2126. Progress is being made, and I will update at the end of the month.

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Theft of a mobile phone

In the early hours of Saturday 25 November I was returning to my hotel in London after enjoying the UCL Lab Dinner. I had my phone in my hand because I was checking something, and there was no-one around. A cyclist came up behind me (of course I didn’t hear him), and reached out and snatched the phone from me, and then cycled away. Obviously I couldn’t catch him. I then had to decide what to do. I hadn’t brought a computer with me, and the hotel I was staying in didn’t allow outside calls from rooms, only having a non-functioning payphone in the reception area. The night porter was entirely unhelpful. I tried to phone home using the hotel payphone, knowing that my wife’s phone would be switched off, but hoping I could leave a message, but it took my money and didn’t connect me (which brought back other memories!) So I was entirely helpless, or so it seemed.

I decided to get some sleep and catch the first train home, which I did. I visited the O2 shop in my local town and bought a new phone, and have been setting it up ever since. I tried to report the theft, but we no longer have a local police station, and the helpdesk in the local town isn’t open at weekends!  In any case, I don’t expect I would get much help. Similarly claiming on household insurance would be a complex process, and might lead to a premium increase. I was intending to upgrade anyway, but not under these conditions!

What have I learned from this experience? Well, firstly, don’t walk around at night with a phone in your hand. I use a number of geolocation services, and often have my phone out and connected for that reason. But no longer – my check-ins will be restricted to places where there are other people around, or inside buildings. Secondly, have a computer with you (leaving it in the hotel room of course) so you can go online to report the theft. And thirdly, stay in a decent hotel! I have been using the hotel in question for many years, and it is very good value. But they have seriously blotted their copybook this time, and I won’t be back.

A theft like this feels like a violation, and it has taken most of a week to start feeling myself again. It will be an uphill process, but I’ll get there. Thank goodness for the Christmas break, and some quiet family time.

October 2017: a month of iconic bands

October 2017 was a challenge work-wise, being the first full month of our autumn semester, with lots of things going on, and many demands on my time, but I managed to see some iconic musicians and bands in between all the work.

The month started with seeing Neil Diamond doing his 50th anniversary tour in Manchester (at the Manchester Arena). He was in great voice, and he included plenty of his hits in the programme. Our seats were at the very top and back, and I felt very uncomfortable, so I stood at the back for most of the show. But it was an excellent show, and worth the price of the tickets.

About a week later I was lucky enough to see the Barron Knights playing at the Crewe Lyceum. This is a band who have been performing since 1959, so for almost all my life. They played a selection of their own material, some covers, and some of their ‘spoof’ songs (including the one featuring ‘There’s a Dentist in Birmingham’ to the tune of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.) I had an excellent seat, and really enjoyed the show.

However, the real ‘piece de resistance’ was managing to see Focus play at the 100 Club in London. It involved a bit of diary reorganisation so I could get there, but that is one benefit of my current status! I first heard Focus on Radio North Sea International in the 1970s, and have been listening to them ever since. The 100 Club is essentially a chasm, with a stage, and a few chairs, and because I was near the front of the queue I got a good seat on the left of the stage. They played most of the numbers I remember, starting with Focus No. 1, and later they played Hocus Pocus and Sylvia. They were simply amazing, and still have three of the original line-up, including Thijs van Leer on keyboard, flute and vocals. The icing on the cake was that I managed to get Angela a ticket to see a play that she was interested in, on the same night. So all in all it was a great evening, and totally unexpected given the logistical challenge of getting there.

The fourth and final band I saw in October was Dr Hook, featuring Dennis Locorriere (a founder member and the ‘voice’ that everyone remembers from their songs). They played in Hanley’s Victoria Hall, and included then songs I remember (Sylvia’s Mother, When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, A Little Bit More, etc.) It was a great night, with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, who happily sang along with all the hits.

So, October 2017 was an amazing month for bands, which had to be documented. I note in conclusion that Cliff Richard is touring next year, but the ticket price is such that we won’t be going. Considering that Focus charged £20, we are not paying 2 x£80 for indifferent seats to hear him!

Labour pains

As I mentioned in a previous post, I rejoined the Labour Party in July after an absence of 4 years, and a 2 year stint in the LibDems. I felt I was aware of the risks, and thought that my issues with the current leadership of the party would be compensated by my belief that the party is a ‘broad church’ (a term coined by Peter Mandelson, but used/misused by others since), with room for moderate centre left types like myself.  Now I am having doubts. A number of factors have led to this, which include the refusal to debate Brexit at the party conference, and the antics of Momentum in threatening to deselect MPs on the centre left of the party. Then there is the proposed rule change (the ‘McDonnell Amendment’) about standing for party leader, which reduces the number of MPs needed to allow a candidate to appear on the ballot paper, thereby downgrading their influence.

Of course, I am not the only one with these concerns. I have joined Progress, who represent the centre left in the party, and yesterday the Progress director, Richard Angell has published a piece calling on moderates to resist calls from hard-left members to ‘shame them out of the party’.

So,  there is still hope, and I am not thinking of leaving yet. Instead I will try to build links with other moderates, which will hopefully convince me that it is still worthwhile remaining as a member. Otherwise another period in political no man’s land may be the only alternative, and I don’t want to go there again if at all possible!

GBBF 2017

The Great British Beer Festival 2017 took place from 8-12 August at Kensington Olympia. It was as good as ever, and this year for the first time Angela attended the Trade Session with me on the Tuesday afternoon, as well as joining me on the Wednesday. I was pleased that the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) was once again announced during the opening ceremony on Tuesday afternoon, instead of leaving it to an awards dinner later in the day. I would like to think that my representations to CAMRA about this after last year’s Festival made a difference, but no doubt I was just one of many people expressing this particular view. Incidentally, this year’s CBOB was Church End Goat’s Milk (3.8%). I didn’t sample it at the Festival (the queues were considerable once the announcement had been made), but I have tried it before, in 2011, at my local bar in Keele.

We did a couple of things differently this year, which made quite an impact on our enjoyment of the Festival. The first was to stay in a much closer hotel to Olympia than previously. Having stayed in the Holiday Inn Express Earl’s Court on two previous occasions for another event at Olympia, we decided to stay there for the GBBF this year. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from West Brompton station, which is one stop by overground train to Kensington Olympia, and it is a comfortable, friendly hotel (with a good breakfast included!). Staying there meant our journey time to the Festival from the hotel was about 20 minutes, significantly less than travelling from one of our usual hotels in Bloomsbury. Secondly, Angela did a great job of bringing snack and lunch items with us, so we could concentrate on the beer! The food provision at the Festival has increased and improved greatly in the time I have been attending, but it is relatively expensive (this is not a criticism as the quality is generally very high). We saved a significant amount doing this, while still having our dinner there before leaving in the early evening.

In order to enjoy any beer festival, pacing is of the essence. Having one-third pint glasses means one can try more beers within one’s own limits. The Festival is at its best when it opens each day and for the first half of the afternoon, so it is best to arrive early and leave in the early evening when the after-work crowds arrive and it becomes busier. Having said that, I did stay for Thursday evening as a friend was having a birthday celebration there, which was a great success, although my pacing went out of the window then!

And so to the beer itself! As with last year, I won’t list every beer I tried (they are all logged on my Untappd account anyway), but this year I will give my top 5. It was quite hard to narrow the list down to 5, but the following were all outstanding, and in some cases a bit unusual.

Belvoir – White Knuckle Ride (4.3%) – the beer equivalent of a milky bar – bounty bar combination! Definitely a dessert beer

Mauldon – Blackberry Porter (4.8%) – a porter with strong blackberry notes. The tasting notes refer to ‘the blackberries coming through like a sharp and jammy compote on a warm sticky brownie’.

Metalman – Equinox (4.6%) – an intriguing wheatbeer described as having been aged on sun dried lemon peel and white pepper! The savoury notes certainly came through in abundance.

Tiny Rebel – Mojito Sour (3.9%) – I like sour beers anyway, but this was something special, with strong hints of mint and lime giving it a strong mojito flavour.

Yeovil – Hop 145 (4.2%) – A hoppy, citrus beer. Enough said! The tasting notes mention blackcurrant flavours, but they were not in evidence. However, the overall effect was very much to my liking (and I recommended this to friends later, who also enjoyed it).

In conclusion, GBBF 2017 was excellent, and with the CBOB announcement restored to the opening ceremony, it is really back to its best. I’m already looking forward to GBBF 2018!

Part of the union

Almost from the time I started working in academia, back in 1984 when I began my second postdoc position at Birkbeck, until 2005, I was a member of the AUT (the Association of University Teachers). I was even a member of the AUT committee at Keele for a few years. I remember that I got increasingly frustrated with them – they didn’t help us in my School when Chemistry and Physics were threatened with large scale redundancies (which thankfully never happened), but rather, got obsessed with ‘worthy’ issues like boycotting Israeli universities. When they merged with NATFHE to form the UCU in 2005/6, I simply didn’t join the new union.

Times change, however. As Acting Head of School, I am exposed and in the firing line if anything goes wrong, and the worrying news about the pension scheme at the weekend (which turned out to be exaggerated), led me to think again. UCU membership doesn’t come cheap, but they do provide an important service for their members, and they speak up for our interests in increasingly difficult times.

Anyway, the upshot is that I have joined the UCU. With it being less than a week since I re-joined the Labour Party, it does seem as if I am returning to something more like my old self, at least in political terms!

(The title of the this post is taken from the Strawbs 1973 song of the same name).

Another political about-turn

It is exactly 2 years since I wrote a post entitled ‘Adieu Labour – the end of a personal political era‘.  This post described my disenchantment with the Labour Party at the time, and my decision to join the LibDems, after 2 years of being a member of no party.  At the time I could really see no way back to Labour (for me), and genuinely believed some kind of realignment of the centre left in UK politics might become a reality. Thinking back to 26 July 2015, it was slightly less than a year before the Euro referendum, and like many, I expected a Remain result. I also expected Cameron’s government to run full term, to 2020. Fast forward a year, and the disastrous Brexit result, and then a year later, Theresa May’s snap election, and the whole political landscape looks very different. While Vince Cable will undoubtedly be a good leader for the LibDems, possibly even encouraging some social democratic thinking in the party, it will take a long time for that to have an impact, and time is something we don’t have!

As it is, May’s government continues to hobble along, supported by the DUP.  Labour did very well in the election, and although I did question at the time whether some of the promises made were deliverable, they are still the best placed party to win a future election, and to make a difference. I have some political differences with Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour is still a ‘broad church’, with a wide range of views represented. Chuka Ummuna, for example, strongly advocates remaining in the single market, and my local MP, Paul Farrelly, has been consistently strongly pro-Europe.

The upshot of all this is that I have left the LibDems and re-joined Labour. I want to do what I can to help them win a future election, as, in my opinion the country has had enough of the ‘pay the deficit or bust’ policies of the Tories. Unfortunately the LibDems have no realistic chance of any kind of influence at the moment, although I am grateful to them for having me for two years, during which time I had a lot of interesting discussions, particularly with George Kendall when we set up the Social Democrat Group.

So, somewhat unexpectedly, a new era starts. Having got involved locally with the LibDems, something I never did before with Labour, I will almost certainly do something similar locally with Labour. Interesting times lie ahead.