Category Archives: travel

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.

 

Goslar, Clausthal and Nottingham: research and external examining, June 2015

June has often been a busy month for me. Two years ago in June 2013, for example, I found myself doing two external examining trips and a PhD viva in a short space of time, which was made more interesting by the fact that the viva was in Amsterdam!

For the last few years I have been external examiner at two institutions at the same time; first it was Surrey and Kent, and then Kent and Nottingham Trent (NTU). Now that I have finished my four years at Kent (which I particularly enjoyed), it leaves NTU, more of which later.

I’m going through a rather lean spell of research collaborations at present. My collaboration with Brazil continues (and I’ve been hosting a PhD student from there), but I haven’t been able to work with my colleague there for some time. Hopefully we can arrange to get together before too long, but for now, our collaborative projects are effectively on hold. I was pleased therefore to be contacted by some ‘old’ collaborators from the Technical University of Clausthal in Germany, who invited me over there for discussions about a new project, and for me to give a seminar. Because of their commitments, there was a tight timeframe for the visit, and I travelled there on 2nd June, returning on the 4th.

To get to Clausthal requires some ingenuity: a flight to Hannover, then a train to the city centre, followed by another train to Goslar. Then a lift to Clausthal is required, unless you are sufficiently confident to use the local buses! Having previously had some issues with flying to Hannover with BA from London Heathrow, the last time I went there, in February 2014, I used FlyBe, who fly there direct from Manchester. It worked well then, so I did it again this time. Because the flight is in the evening, I booked a hotel at Hannover Airport. It was just as well, because the flight was two hours late in leaving Manchester (but not delayed enough for any compensation, of course). But I got there OK, and spent a comfortable night in the Maritim Hotel. The next day I travelled to Goslar and on to Clausthal as described above. The trip and seminar went well, and I am hopeful that it will lead to collaborative research and possibly some indirect funding.

Having got back from Germany, I had a few days turnround before heading to Nottingham for my external examining at NTU, from 9th – 11th June. This is my 3rd year of looking at their Forensics courses that have Chemistry/Physics content, and I am at last beginning to feel familiar with the system they operate, and what they expect from external examiners, which is different from the previous institutions I’ve served at. One of the problems with NTU is getting there; the campus I visit is located outside Nottingham (in Clifton), and the hotel they tend to use isn’t particularly close to either the city centre or the campus! So there is a lot of taxi usage, which I don’t particularly like (although of course the cost is covered). But putting that aside, it was a successful trip.

Now I am back at base. The Summer Vacation has started, but under our ‘new’ academic year, the next few weeks will be punctuated with exam boards. Unusually, I don’t have any conferences coming up. So hopefully I’ll be able to make use of this valuable time to carry out some new research, and complete some papers for publication.

Mobile computing technology usage – early 2015 update

This is an update on my usage of mobile computing technology as of January 2015.

During 2014 I came to the conclusion that, good as they are, Android tablets won’t ‘cut the mustard’ for power users like myself, at least as far as using Microsoft software is concerned. There are plenty of good MS Office emulation packages out there, including QuickOffice and Documents to Go, all of which I have used extensively, but they can’t (and are unlikely to be ever able to) cope with documents and presentations involving more than just words (e.g. equations, Greek characters etc.). So I looked at Microsoft tablets, and I’m now using a Surface Pro 3, which does everything I need, including running the full version of Microsoft Office. This means I won’t be in the situation, as I was in in July 2014, where I had to produce an exam paper including equations while at a conference, but couldn’t, because the Android emulation software on my tablet couldn’t cope!

All this is not to say I have stopped using the Android platform. I still have my Nexus 7 tablet, now running Android 5.0 (Lollypop), which I take to meetings and use to take notes and keep up with e-mail etc. And I have just upgraded my smartphone, from my faithful and long-serving 2 year old Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Sony Xperia Z3. It has more power, so I don’t have to ration my app usage, the battery is better, and it currently runs Android 4.4.4 (KitKat), with a likely upgrade to Lollypop later in the year. It can also receive 4G, although how long before we have access to 4G in my locality remains to be seen!

The annual 2-day Christmas public transport shutdown

A year after I posted this, and it’s still relevant!

Rob Jackson's Blog

I am writing this on Boxing Day, 26 December, the second day on which there are almost no trains or buses running throughout the UK. Certainly in my area, there are no local buses at all, and no trains on the West Coast line from Stoke or Crewe. This has become a normal experience in recent years. My question is how this is allowed to continue in our 24-hour society?

A few years ago we went to New York for a few days over Christmas, flying out on Christmas Day. On arrival at LaGuardia in the late afternoon (we had flown via Detroit), we found all the transport services running as they would on a normal, and this continued on the 26th. Maybe a comparison with a major city is unfair, but it does show a difference in attitude. A 48-hour closedown of public transport would be simply unheard of…

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Android phones and tablets: capabilities, limitations and upgrades

The devices that keep me connected, organised and productive when I’m out of the office are almost entirely Android in flavour. I currently use an Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone (overdue an upgrade, but more on that later) and a Google Nexus 7 tablet. My S3 will be 2 years old in January, and the Nexus is coming up to a year old. Until recently I had some apps on both devices, although with the Nexus having a larger screen, it is obviously better suited to some apps than the phone is. Recently my S3 dramatically slowed, so I reset it, and this time only installed communication and social media apps on it. It seems to run better now, with about 1Gb of space being used currently. The Nexus is taking the strain, with news/weather/travel apps residing there instead, as well as what office software is available.

Of course there is a downside to this, since the Nexus is WiFi only, and you will know from my previous posts that this is an issue where I live. But phone reception isn’t that good either (only GPRS at home). Hopefully this will improve, and my trips to the local bus stop to get a good signal will become a thing of the past!

Regarding upgrades, the S3 is non-4G compatible, and stuck on Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) with no prospect of an upgrade to 4.4, let alone 5.0! My service provider, O2, doesn’t currently provide 4G in my area, but I’ve been impressed when I’ve seen it working on my wife’s phone on visits to London, and it will arrive soon I hope! This makes an upgrade almost inevitable, and my 4 reasons for upgrading are (i) the age of the phone, (ii) its poor battery life, (iii) the lack of 4G, and (iv) the Android system. Currently I’m looking at the Sony Xperia Z3, which seems impressive, and which should tick all the boxes. But I will wait until January; there’s some satisfaction in being able to use a smartphone intensively for 2 years!

My Nexus is still fine, and an OS upgrade to Android 5.0 (Lollypop) is due any day now. I’m sure it will continue to serve me well, including as my main device for blogging!

The main limitation of these devices for me, outside that which is a result of poor WiFi/phone data reception, is the lack of proper Microsoft Office compatible software. I wrote about this in the summer, when I found myself at a conference unable to create Office documents containing anything other than simple text. Having no confidence that a sufficiently powerful Android app will ever be available, I recently invested in a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet as an upgrade for my 4.5 year old (and increasingly creaking) Samsung Netbook. Having this will ensure that I can always create and edit complex Office documents, as well as adding new functionality like being able to annotate lecture notes. Plus it is an amazing piece of kit! Expect more on this in a later post.

So in conclusion, my mobile computing future is likely to remain mainly Android based, but with the Microsoft tablet taking the strain for Office intensive tasks, like writing research papers and examination scripts.

Using a smartphone with O2 in Europe – update

On my recent trip to Greece, I tried out O2’s £1.66 daily European data allowance. I’m pleased to report that it ‘did what it says on the tin’, and I was able to keep using my phone for social media and photo uploading throughout the trip without any problems. I used WiFi when possible (but as mentioned in my last post, this was restricted to my hotel in Greece). But it’s good to know that the cost of using a smartphone, at least in Europe, is now reasonable. Last year I found I had to keep topping up, but the £1.66 charge now covers a full day.

So I’m pleased to sing the praises of O2 on this occasion! Of course there is still an issue with travelling outside Europe, and there it may still be best to use an international SIM card, as I did on my last visit to the USA.

UK Airports and Airport hotels: deficiencies in amenities

I was prompted to write this post having just returned from a holiday in Greece which included staying in an airport hotel at London Gatwick (twice) and spending some considerable time in 2 airports (the other being Thessaloniki).

The first point I wanted to make is on the familiar theme of WiFi provision. I regard WiFi as essential whether my trip is for business or pleasure. Unfortunately many hotels, including those at airports, don’t seem to agree with this! At the very conveniently located Hilton in Gatwick South Terminal there is WiFi, but unless you’re a silver or gold HHonors member, it’s charged for. Some Hilton hotels have free WiFi in their lobby areas, but not so here! Added to that is the ‘Faraday Cage’ effect of most modern hotels, which neatly blocks most phone data signals (or at least severely attenuates them). So  effectively there’s little connectivity in the hotel unless you pay (and the WiFi signal didn’t seem particularly strong anyway).

Once in the airport, the only WiFi I could find was in the business lounges. OK, it was free, but you pay to go into the lounge! At least there was a good phone data signal in the airport (HSDPA or 3G, and presumably 4G, although my SG3 doesn’t receive 4G).

Arriving in Greece there was a good phone data signal in Thessaloniki airport, but no accessible WiFi that I could find. And during the coach journey down the motorway to the hotel, the phone data signal was consistently strong (unlike most UK motorways, for example). At the hotel there was free WiFi which worked well most of the time, so I have no complaints there. The impressive part of it was the router on the beach (see me using it below)!

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Turning to amenities in general, a final and related point is about the opening hours of shops, restaurants and bars at airports and airport hotels in the UK. I arrived back at Gatwick at just after midnight on Monday night/Tuesday morning. Nothing was open at the airport, and by the time we had finally made it to the hotel, nothing was open there either. So there was no chance of a restorative drink or snack to make up for BA’s apology for in-flight catering! If airports are going to make money from late arriving flights, shouldn’t they provide facilities for the passengers, as happens for example at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam? Or should I just accept it as a consequence of UK narrow mindedness?