Category Archives: personal

Don’t Think. React! That’s all I can do for now.

This is a strangely titled post, but it describes how things are for me at the moment. For some time now I have had a feeling of being simultaneously ‘brain full’ and ‘brain empty’, and I can’t even contemplate activities that I normally enjoy outside work, like music (both playing and listening) and travel (the problem being with both the actual travelling, and the time taken, and the effort of making bookings and arrangements).

I only finally realised this was a real ‘thing’ yesterday, and in a conversation with Angela, found out that this was something she had experienced herself, because she instantly knew what I meant.

At the moment my life is about reacting to events. I do my teaching, attend meetings, reply to emails etc just as always, but there is never the opportunity to stop and reflect on what I am doing, and this is very discomforting. However, on the positive side it makes me very efficient, and I motor through my to do list in a way I haven’t been able to do before.

I have been Acting Head of School for nearly 15 months, so it is strange that this has only recently started to happen. But maybe it is because of the sheer amount of things that are going on currently, leading me to reach a kind of state of ‘full mental capacity’. As well as my ‘normal’ teaching and administration activities, there is the UCU strike to ‘manage’ (see previous post), and the building changes (both the new Central Science Labs and the planned refurbishment of our building), which I have to be involved in. Added to this is my personal aversion to this time of the year (I seem to function best when there is plenty of sunlight), and the fact that there does seem to be very negative atmosphere everywhere just now. Political events don’t help, but I am consciously screening them out.

So where to go with this, and is there a remedy? When I step down as AHoS in a few weeks time, my responsibilities will reduce significantly, and I’m hoping that will help. I will continue my political sabbatical, because what is happening is simply too depressing for words, and I will need to be back to full mental strength before I can take that on again.

Anyway, that’s the way things are just now. It’s not a good state of affairs, but I thought it would be good to write it down.

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My Review of 2017

2017 will be dominated for me by being Acting Head of School for the full year. I started the job on 1 December 2016, and expected it to continue for 6 months or so at the most (although others, admittedly, thought longer). The post was advertised twice, and the person offered it the first time round eventually declined. There was then a period when nothing happened, before it was re advertised and a recruitment agency hired to help in the search. After the second set of interviews in October, an offer was finally made, and the new head will start on 1 April 2018. Apart from all the duties of Head of School I retained a full teaching load, so there were some very stressful times indeed. But I got through it, thanks to support from Angela and the home team, and my excellent School Manager, David Shepherd.

Considering other things I was involved in, I had new teaching in the form of my Digital Forensics module, which had a reasonable first year, and some MChem lectures on Materials Modelling which were OK but sparsely attended. I organised and ran a 70th birthday meeting for Richard Catlow at Cosener’s House (see separate post), which was a great success, and I was External Examiner for PhD theses in Birmingham and Loughborough. I did my first stints of undergraduate external examining at Trinity College Dublin and Sheffield Hallam University, and at the end of the year I was external assessor on a panel looking to appoint a Head of the School of Physical Sciences at Kent, before attending the Christmas Solid State Chemistry Group Meeting at Reading, which was as good as ever. Finally, I should mention that my MPhil student, Ellis Hedges, completed his thesis within the year and passed his viva in November, a tribute to his hard work and determination.

Musically it wasn’t a great year, at least not performance-wise. Early in the year I played for my two regular orchestras (South Cheshire and Middlewich), but didn’t play with them for their autumn concerts due to mounting work pressures. I played in a stage production of ‘My Fair Lady’ in Hanley in May, which was to have been conducted by my old musical colleague Stephen Hearson, but who sadly died a few weeks before, meaning that his son Joe conducted instead. It was a very moving occasion, as you can imagine. In the Autumn I attended a few rehearsals of a new venture, the Film Orchestra, but I was not particular impressed with them, and I am considering whether to continue as a member. I played in the Keele Philharmonic Orchestra’s December concert, but only in one piece.

In my review of 2016 I mentioned Pokémon Go, and I continued to play it in 2017, although I increasingly ‘graduated’ to its ‘older brother’, Ingress. I am now an enthusiastic Ingress player, and I managed to reach level 11 in just over a year. It gets me out for walks around Keele and further afield, and the strategic nature of the game provides me with something different to concentrate on outside work pressures, and it has been enormously beneficial both physically and psychologically.

2017 was the year I reached the age of 60, and I had a very enjoyable delayed birthday party at the KPA in July. The catering was excellent, and the sound track provided by Angela was also excellent.

I managed a few trips to London, including my annual GBBF visit (see separate post), and Angela and I had a long weekend in Brighton. I visited Vi in Wenhaston. I heard some great bands during the year (see separate post). Now I am resting/recuperating in the Christmas – New Year period, and hoping that the first 3 months of 2018, while I am still Head of School, go smoothly and without the stress of recent months!

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.

A tale of two tellies, travel shenanigans, and a late birthday celebration

I’m starting writing this post on 9th July, more than a week into the first month for some time when I’ve felt I had the time and mental space to write a blog post. Basically most of June passed in a blur; there were exam board meetings at Keele, external examining in Dublin and Sheffield, interviews for a new lectureship, and a lot of meetings associated with my position as acting head of school (now 7 months in and with no immediate sign of an end in sight!)

Starting with the ‘telly story’, our TV was beginning to show its age: it couldn’t pick up the HD channels (which was an issue when some favourite channels became HD only), and the remote control had finally given up the ghost having fallen from the sofa onto the floor one too many times. Of course, if the problem had only been with the remote, it could have been replaced. But for a number of years now we have debated whether we would buy a new TV or not. We don’t watch much television: the news channels, some sport (when it is shown), programmes like the various NCIS franchises (CSI having come to an end), and the odd drama series (often with ‘odd’ being the operative word). So it was decision time – to buy or not? Angela perused the sales; if we were going to buy it would need to be delivered, so that introduced some limitations. But she found a curved screen Sony OLED TV at a good price that could be delivered quickly for a very reasonable cost, and to cut a long story short, we went for it. We now have an amazing very large OLED TV which is a joy to watch. It actually doesn’t take up as much space as you might expect because it is really thin, so it can be positioned along a wall, occupying essentially dead space. We’ve had to invest in some adaptors to allow it to talk to our DVD player/VCR (!) and I still have to set this up, but the TV is great. We have been able to watch Wimbledon and the Tour de France as we have never seen them before, as well as some excellent drama series that have been shown recently.

Moving on to the travel story, on the last day of June we had a day trip to London to see the Hokosai Exhibition at the British Museum. It was amazing, and Angela is going to see it again next month. We had a nice day, and caught the 20:00 train back home to Stoke with no forebodings.  However, it slowed down a bit before Milton Keynes, and finally crawled into Milton Keynes station, where it sat for 4 hours! The reason: there was a person on the track near Rugby who was threatening suicide. The police tried to get him to move, and he then apparently got onto a bridge over the line and threatened to jump off. Anyway, it took 4 hours to resolve this, and get him to safety, and in the meantime all we could do was wait on the train. The buffet car had closed, and there were very few announcements (because the train manager was only getting very irregular updates). We had eaten just before catching the train, which was fortunate, but there was no free WiFi (Virgin Trains charge outside First Class) and phone reception was poor, so it was hard to find out what was going on. I had only brought one phone charger with me, and even that was running low. Eventually we got the all clear to move, and set off, finally rolling into Stoke station at about 01:30. Fortunately there was an enterprising taxi driver who had heard about the problems, and waited for the train. But ours was not the last train, so hopefully those on the later trains also managed to get to their destinations!

Finally for this post, I had my 60th birthday in January, but I was too busy with marking, teaching and administration to really enjoy it, so we delayed the celebration until July. We booked the KPA for 7 July, ordered a buffet and arranged there to be choice of real ales (including a personal favourite), and we had a great evening. About 20 people attended, and Angela provided an amazing pre-recorded sound track of 6.25 hours of music chronicling my life. The buffet provided by the KPA was great value, and definitely recommended.

Now it’s the 18th July, which gives you an idea of how busy I have been, even though it’s outside of our teaching semester. But I have managed to plan (and start) some new research projects, which is great. I’m not attending any conferences this summer, but next year we will have EURODIM2018 in Poland, so I need to prepare for that.

Looking ahead, a lot has happened very recently in politics on a personal level, but this is still rather in a state of flux. I hope to report more on this in my next post.

 

1997-2017: A political transition from triumph to despair

Just over 20 years ago, on May 1 1997, a General Election took place which Tony Blair and Labour won decisively. After years of supporting the Labour Party, and having become a member earlier that year, it was a wonderful time for me, full of hope for the future and a belief that things really ‘could only get better’. To put the icing on the cake, GB won the Eurovision Song Contest a couple of days later with Katrina and the Waves, with their song ‘Love shine a light’!

I have often asked the question ‘what went wrong’? World events didn’t help, and although I supported our intervention in Iraq at the time, clearly Labour lost a lot of support because of this. Making Gordon Brown leader didn’t help either (he was a great Chancellor of the Exchequer but no leader). In politics, parties tend to lose support after a long spell in power, and the 2010 election result was no surprise. Since then we’ve had 5 years of coalition government, and less than 2 years of the Tories, with David Cameron presiding over the EU Referendum with its disastrous result, and Theresa May taking over as PM. Now we have another election on June 8th, with an almost certain outcome of a large Tory majority and a hard Brexit. Labour have made themselves virtually unelectable thanks to their leader (and some of his shadow cabinet) , and it’s too soon for the LibDems to make much of a comeback, although they are making a spirited effort, which I am trying to help.

For me, we have truly gone from a time of positivity and belief in the future, to one of sheer despair. Sad times indeed.

 

Unexpected recollections

In the past 2 weeks I have run a meeting (see previous post), and also managed a few days off over the Easter weekend to recover from the meeting and the Spring Semester teaching period (although that still has a couple of weeks to go!)

The meeting that I organised was a 70th birthday celebration for Richard Catlow, who was my postdoctoral adviser, and who really got me started on my career. I managed to get many of his former group members to attend, and this brought back all manner of memories. In my days off I mulled over these with Angela, and we thought it was worth writing them down, so here are a few random memories from ‘back in the day’>

  • When I first joined Richard’s group, both at UCL and then at Keele, there was a lot of rivalry, even sometimes bad feeling between group members. Now we all get on fine, but it wasn’t always like that! I don’t know if this happens in other research groups; I have never had enough people working for me at a given time for this to be a problem!
  • In London last weekend we visited the American Dream Exhibition at the British Museum. Among the paintings exhibited was this one by Andy Warhol:

Of course, ALPO in this picture is a make of dog food. But seeing it immediately reminded me of my work many years ago on modelling AlPOs (aluminophosphates). Much work has been done on these materials since then, but back in the late 80s I had a PhD student working on modelling these materials. I do remember a lecture by Jack Klinowski where he showed this picture, but I hadn’t seen the original until last week. Oh, and the student decided research was not for her, and left without completing the project.

  • Another random recollection concerns a conference I attended on zeolites, held in Amsterdam in 1989. I was then a recently appointed lecturer, and wanted to keep costs down, so I stayed in a very cheap hotel next to one of the central canals. It was so basic that the shower room down the corridor was just a recess in the wall with only a curtain to preserve the modesty of the person in the shower! Having spent a month in Amsterdam a couple of years before, I knew the area well, but probably I wouldn’t stay in such a place now!
  • Finally, for now, I must thank David Coombes for reminding me that just over 20 years ago, on 21 April 2017, I was external examiner for his PhD viva. It was a Monday, and the viva was supposed to have taken place the previous Friday, but thanks to an IRA bomb scare, trains weren’t running on part of my route. This was of course prior to the Good Friday agreement that put an end to most of these problems.
  • I did think of some more things to write here, but didn’t note them down at the time, so they will be added later if and when I remember them!

My review of 2016

In writing this review, I am reminded of a program on Facebook which gives your most used words, to show what you have been posting about. In that spirit, to describe 2016, certain words/phrases come to mind: Mame, Brexit, ICDIM2016, Pokémon Go, NSSO, Digital Forensics and AHoS! I will explain the significance and meaning of these as we go through the year.

I was grateful to have been well during Christmas 2015, having been struck down with flu/a cold the previous year. The New Year got off to its normal start, with exams, and then the new semester got underway on 25 January. My teaching was largely unchanged from last year, and my project students were making good progress, so when I was asked by Stephen Hearson to play in his production of ‘Mame’, I accepted. It involved a full week of performances (22-27 February), and normally I would not be able to commit to that. But 2016 was exceptional (I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it in the coming year), and although it was hard work, I was glad to have played; it was my first experience of pit playing for many years.

In March I attended my first LibDem conference, which took place in York, where the Social Democrat Group that I’m involved with were running an event. It was an interesting experience, and it was nice to spend a couple of days in York, which was still showing signs of the flooding that had taken place a few months previously. The event went well and the group attracted some interest, although it is obvious that we have a long way to go!

April and May were mostly spent doing teaching and administration at Keele, although we got away to London in the Easter vacation (we actually went in late March) where we went to some exhibitions and saw The War of the Worlds musical.  1 May marked 30 years at Keele for me (see blog post about this). In June, as teaching activities came to an end, I had my last external examining trip to Nottingham Trent University, and an EPSRC Panel Meeting. The EU Referendum, on 23 June, resulted in a vote for Brexit, which was very dispiriting and worrying, and which I’m still coming to terms with (although nothing has actually happened yet, there have been serious knock-on effects like the fall in the value of the £ and general loss of confidence in the UK economy).

In July, Mário visited me in advance of the ICDIM2016 conference in Lyon. We had a useful few days working together, before travelling to Lyon via London. We took the direct Eurostar service from St Pancras, which was very smooth, and got us there in a few hours. The conference itself was good, although it was a bit stressful for me given my relative seniority in the conference organisation, etc. But we presented our work, and got some useful feedback and new ideas for future work, as well as seeing old friends and colleagues. On returning from Lyon I started properly preparing for the new module on Digital Forensics that I will be teaching starting in January 2017 (alarmingly close as I write this!).  I also was occupied in supervising a summer project student, which is something I haven’t done much before, but which went very well.

In August I had my customary trip to the Great British Beer Festival, and Angela joined me there for some of the days. I talk about this in a separate blog post (‘August 2016-culture, beer and Pokémon Go’). As the title suggests, we took in some shows and exhibitions as well. I had been intrigued by the interest surrounding Pokémon Go, and started playing it on August 7th. It has had an interesting and unexpected effect, as I will mention later.

Since earlier in the year I had been planning a 70th birthday event for Richard Catlow, to take place in April 2017, so later in August I met him to discuss this. I will doubtless write more about this event in my review next year!

September included a few days in Glasgow, and a trip to Brighton for the LibDem Party Conference, where (again), the Social Democrat Group had an event (although I couldn’t stay for the actual event). Angela joined me, and we enjoyed visiting Brighton very much. I also started playing in the North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra in September, although in the end I could only play in their first concert because my work commitments increased in November. Hopefully I can re-join them in April 2017 for their summer concert. Later in September our new academic year got underway, and I was very busy for most of the Autumn Semester.

October and November were mainly occupied with lecturing, and supervising my project students, as well as my new MPhil student. In November I was summoned by the Dean of our Faculty and asked to take on the role of acting Head of our new School (Chemical and Physical Sciences) until such time as a new Professor is appointed (AHoS). I started this job on 1 December, and as yet many of my new duties haven’t fully kicked in. I expect this to change in January however!

In December we managed to visit my mother, who was staying in Highfields Care Home in Halesworth for a month’s respite care (my sister and brother-in-law being in India over Christmas). Angela and I had travelled to London so Angela could go to the Olympia Horse Show, and the next day we went to Halesworth on a day trip! It was the only way we could work out how to do it, and it was Angela’s ingenious idea. My mother seemed OK but was treating the home as a hotel, and not really interacting with others there. We felt this would have to change if she moved there permanently. I had my customary Christmas conference in December, this time in Loughborough. It went really well, and the organisers did a great job. My treasurer’s report was accepted without problems.

And so we come to Christmas, which we are spending quietly at home. January will be full of challenges, so I need to rest as much as possible. A final comment is that, thanks initially to Pokémon Go, I started daily early morning walks around campus in September, and I have been feeling the benefit both physically and mentally from this extra exercise. I will of course continue it in the New Year.