Category Archives: personal

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.

New responsibilities

When I wrote my post on 30 years at Keele back in May, I referred to my increased responsibilities in senior roles in my School. I didn’t mention explicitly that organisational changes were afoot, with my School, Physical and Geographical Sciences, splitting into two Schools, Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Geography, Geology and the Environment. The reasons are mainly research-based. Certainly in the case of Chemical and Physical Sciences, it may sound like a more coherent unit to research funders. Of course the old School offered economies of scale, with only one of each committee needed, when now there will be two. But hopefully that issue can be worked around, at least partially.

The University have advertised externally for new Chairs who will also take on the Head of School role; the Chemical Sciences post is advertised here. But the timescale for the appointments means that Acting Heads are needed (the posts were advertised last week with a December closing date, and if interviews are held in January the earliest someone could probably start would be April/May, and probably later).

Last week I was asked if I would take on the role of Acting Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. I agreed, regarding it as both a challenge and an honour. I start on 1 December. One consequence of this is my remaining teaching preparation for next semester has been compressed into November. This is mainly the Digital Forensics module, as my other modules are ones I’ve taught before. There are some MChem lectures to prepare as well though! The next couple of months certainly promise to be ‘interesting’.

August 2016: Culture, Beer and Pokémon Go

As we come to the end of August, and I suppose (sadly), the end of the summer, I thought it would be good to reflect on my activities over the last month.

June and July were characteristically busy, with an EPSRC Panel Meeting, exam boards and External Examining at NTU in June, and a conference in Lyon (see previous post) in July. I also spent some of July starting preparation of a new module I’ll be teaching in the Spring Semester 2017, on Digital Forensics. When August arrived I was ready for a break, and I was in London (with Angela) for most of the week of 8-12 August. The main event of the week was my annual visit to the Great British Beer Festival, but it was not only a week of imbibing (!), as I will describe. On 8 August we travelled to London, and booked into the Tavistock Hotel, which has become our main ‘base’ in London (although the County Hotel is still good for overnight visits, as mentioned later). We had tickets to see ‘The Go-Between’ at the Apollo Theatre, and when we got there we were upgraded to better seats, which was an unexpected bonus. Michael Crawford, who was due to play the main role, was indisposed, but the understudy did a great job. It was a musical version of the book, and very effective too. The GBBF took centre stage for me on Tuesday (although Angela went to the Sicily exhibition at the British Museum, followed by a musical based on the Titanic story at the Charing Cross Theatre, before joining me at the GBBF in the evening). On Wednesday morning we went to the Tate Modern to see an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. I was glad to see it, but found that I liked some of her work more than others. After the exhibition, I headed to Olympia for the GBBF, and Angela went to see the Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum. It was very nice that Angela was able to join me at the GBBF on both Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

Regarding the GBBF, it was as good as ever, with an interesting beer selection, and good food provision. I won’t put my list of beers tried here, but they have been recorded, and are also on my Untappd account, for any fellow beer connoisseurs reading this! My only disappointment was that the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) announcement wasn’t made at the opening ceremony on the Tuesday afternoon. Instead we just got the list of finalists, and the results were relayed to us in the evening after they had been announced at the awards dinner. This was a great disappointment, because the Tuesday afternoon session is the Trade session, attended by many from the brewery and pub trade. They don’t all stay for the evening session, and so won’t have been present for the announcement, which when it came was a bit of a non-event. I hope very much that CAMRA return to the previous tradition, as it was a great start to the festival, and something that made the Trade session special.

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Going back to our week, Angela returned to Keele on Thursday, taking our suitcase (for which I was very grateful). I attended the Thursday afternoon/evening session at the GBBF and stayed at the County Hotel on Thursday evening. On Friday morning I went to the British Museum to see the Sicily exhibition, as this was due to finish on the coming Sunday. It was very good, and I learned some new things, including the fact that the Normans ruled Sicily for a while! It was then time to return to Keele.

I then had a week of catching up on administrative tasks, but on the following week, on 23 August I was back in London for a meeting with my old postdoc supervisor, Richard Catlow, about a 70th birthday meeting I am organising for him next year, followed by another night in the County Hotel. The following day I managed a bonus trip to see the Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum, a couple of weeks after Angela. It was simply amazing, and runs until the autumn, so I recommend it if you have a chance to go!

Finally, in the title of the post I mention Pokémon Go. Having heard a lot about it since it was launched in July, I thought about giving it a try, with encouragement from Angela. So I installed it on my phone on 7 August, and have been playing it ever since. It fits in with my enjoyment of travel to different places, and is actually quite educational, since many of the Pokéstops are at places of interest! Angela then joined on 21 August, so we are both dedicated ‘Pokémoners’ now! I suspect I will be writing a further post on the specific subject of Pokémon Go before long.

Some personal reminiscences of Gurnos Jones

This post was originally written following Gurnos’s death on 3 June 2016, in response to a request for reminiscences. As far as I know it has not been published elsewhere, so I am posting it here as a more permanent record.Jones_Gurnos 90x90

I started my career at Keele in May 1986, some 30 years ago. Initially I was a postdoc in Richard Catlow’s group, but I joined the academic staff as a lecturer in 1988. Gurnos was on my interview panel as Head of Department, along with Brian Fender (Vice-chancellor at the time), and Gurnos appointed me, and was my first Head of Department.

My main recollections of Gurnos as Head of Department are that he was firm in his decision making, but always fair. We had regular staff meetings (far more than we do now), and because we were a small but nevertheless independent department, we were responsible for a lot of decisions that are now made at a higher level. For example, I remember when Biology proposed the Biochemical Engineering degree (which incidentally is still very popular) we discussed whether Chemistry should be involved, and decided against it. A decision like that would now be out of our hands!

The first job Gurnos asked me to do was to run the 2nd year Physical Chemistry Lab. As a non-experimental computational chemist this was a challenge, but Gurnos had the view that as a chemist I should be able to do it. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and the main thing I remember was that students wrote their reports in hard backed lab books, and so carrying large piles of these back to my office, or even home, to mark, was a regular experience. I also became 2nd year tutor, taking over from Andy Fitch when he moved to the ESRF in France. In those days the administrative structure of the department was much simpler: there was Gurnos as Head, and Year Tutors. Students were also allocated tutors in the department (this was long before the University started the present Personal Tutor system).

Most of my lecturing in those days was done in the main Chemistry lecture theatre, which we had almost exclusive use of. The old department office was next to this lecture theatre, and there was a door from the office into the lecture theatre, which made a dramatic entrance from the lecturer a possibility!

My main social recollection of Gurnos was his famous pancake parties, which I was invited to once I had joined the academic staff. They were gatherings of the great and good, and I remember talking to some quite senior university staff there in the informal setting of Gurnos and Pat’s house in Larchwood.

In the present environment things are so different that it is difficult to think that a small department like Chemistry could survive. But Gurnos was a good head, and steered us through some difficult times. I will always remember him with fondness and respect.

30 years at Keele: May 1986 – May 2016

An occasion like this deserves documenting, and in the end it rather crept up on me. I knew it was coming, but with the last 3 weeks of April being so busy, I was distracted, and in the end it was thanks to a Facebook reminder that I remembered.

So, how did I, a confirmed Londoner, end up here? Well, back in 1986 I was coming to the end of a 2 year postdoctoral contract at Birkbeck College, and my previous postdoctoral supervisor, Richard Catlow had moved from UCL to Keele the previous year (he had been invited by Brian Fender, who had also recently moved to Keele as Vice Chancellor, and who knew him from their Oxford days). Richard had a postdoctoral research fellowship available that was funded by Shell, and he invited me to apply for it. It was concerned with modelling zeolites, and I had some relevant experience from my Birkbeck post, so I was qualified for the fellowship and was offered it. That saw me travel to Keele on 1 May 1986 to start my contract. In preparing this post I have looked at my rather brief diary entries from the time, which have reminded me that my early weeks at Keele consisted of a lot of travelling, initially back to London and my mother’s house in Suffolk to collect some furniture and other things, but also to Amsterdam to visit my new sponsors at the Shell labs.

My initial contract at Keele was for 2 years, and I was quite sure it wouldn’t extend beyond that time. For one thing, at the time I wanted to get back to London, and then there was the unlikeliness of the contract being renewed, or of something else coming up at Keele. How wrong I proved to be! The first thing that happened was that Richard Catlow ingeniously devised a new position for me to apply for when my Shell contract came to an end. It was partly funded by Kodak, to work on some particular materials they were interested in at the time, and partly by Keele, to set up some short courses in topics like X-ray diffraction, and it was another 2 year post. I applied and was appointed, and started the new position in April 1988. It was designated as a lectureship, and I did have some teaching as well as the other responsibilities. The short courses were planned, but never really got off the ground. However, my work with Kodak was interesting, involving a month at their labs in Rochester, NY, working with Roger Baetzold. Then, in 1989, Richard moved back to London, to the Royal Institution. Although there was the possibility of me going with him, I had become established at Keele, and while my post wasn’t permanent at the time, things looked promising. So I stayed put, and once the short courses/Kodak contract finished, I was taken on to the permanent staff as a Lecturer, probably in 1990. I then worked my way up the career ladder, getting promotions to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2000.

So what have been the highlights of the past 30 years?

– In the 1990s it was probably organising the Eurodim conference (European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials) at Keele (in 1998). I was only asked to do this in 1994 when attending the previous conference in the series (in Lyon, where I am going in a couple of months!) It was well-attended and very successful.

– In the 2000s, when our Chemistry course at Keele came under fire from the senior management, I got involved in our Forensic Science course (teaching Arson and Ballistics), and have taught on it since its start in the middle of the decade. I note in passing that next year we will introduce a Single Honours version of the course, and I am once again involved in developing a new module, this time on Digital Forensics.  I should also add that Chemistry survived, and is thriving now.

– The decade beginning in 2010 has seen me take on roles like Senior Tutor for the School (Physical and Geographical Sciences), Internationalisation Director to the School (to help coordinate Keele’s drive to increase the number of international links and to internationalise its curriculum), and I’ve been asked to sit on various committees dealing with Appeals and Academic Misconduct, where no doubt my longevity at Keele is seen as an asset!

Moving into my fourth decade at the University, I see my main challenge as keeping my research going in an increasingly difficult and challenging funding climate. Looking back to when I started my career, there was a more level playing field for all universities in the UK, and funding for PhD students could be obtained without being part of a larger group of institutions, which is what is required now. But I will push on. There will be new teaching challenges as well (I mentioned Digital Forensics earlier), as well as contributions to our MChem course. But in conclusion, considering I only came here on a temporary contract, it has been a good and fulfilling 30 years. I would also like to mention my wife Angela, who I met at Keele, and who has given me so much help, support and encouragement over the years.

January 2016

OK, that’s not a very imaginative title, but although it’s hard to believe, we are almost at the end of the first month of 2016. Time perhaps to reflect on what has been achieved (or not) so far this year!

As far as my work is concerned, we had two weeks of exams starting 11 January, and our second semester is now a week old. I’ve taught nearly half of my X-ray diffraction course and got my projects up and running again. Next week sees the conclusion of the XRD lectures, final year project presentations and, for good measure, an MPhil viva!

Musical activities didn’t look promising at the start of the year , with two of my orchestras not requiring heavy brass, but then my old friend Stephen Hearson asked me to play for him in his forthcoming production of Mame. I’m really excited about that; it will be challenging but a lot of fun.

Politics has been up and down. I’m going to the LibDem spring conference, where the Social Democrat Group is organising a meeting, which will be our first. Locally things don’t look good for the LibDems, following a controversial and (in my opinion) misguided vote in favour of selling the Keele golf course. It won’t endear us to local voters, and pretty much ends our chances of regaining a council seat in May.

Today I’m at the Odeon Cinema in Festival Park, Hanley, to see The Fifth Wave. We are regarding this as a belated birthday film for me, and I’m hoping it will be good!

Waxing lyrical (or not)

I’ve been going through a deaf period for some months now. I know what the problem is, a build up of wax in both ears that is not responsive to ear drops. My local health centre are unwilling to syringe ears unless they are convinced that every other option has been tried. However finally they are on the case, and after three visits one ear is clear. So currently I have perfect hearing on one side, and am semi-deaf on the other. Hopefully my next appointment will resolve this! In the meantime I’m audiologically one-sided 🙂