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My Review of 2014

The year began with some new teaching, on X-ray diffraction, which nicely coincided with 2014 being the International Year of Crystallography, and a research trip to Hannover. I had already attempted to go to Hannover in late 2013 but was thwarted by passport problems (see last year’s review). This trip went successfully, although I’m not sure if anything will come out of the project in the end!

The early months of the year were dominated by teaching activities, and there isn’t much of significance to report.

In June I had my final external examining trip to the University of Kent, and my second one to Nottingham Trent University. I have enjoyed the Kent post; the NTU one is challenging in that my role is less clear, but I am always well looked after, and everything is well organised. It was also nice to spend a couple of nights in the centre of Nottingham.

I was back in Kent in July for the Eurodim2014 conference that I had helped organise. It went very well, and as always it was good to see old friends, including several who came to the Eurodim1998 conference at Keele. I gave a talk in a session dedicated to Patrick Jacobs (see earlier posts for more details), and one of my PhD students, Scott Walker, attended. I also met Giordano Bispo, Mario’s student, who will be visiting me at Keele later in the year.

In August I had my usual trip to the Great British Beer Festival (see post for details) and it was as good as ever.

At the end of September, just before the start of the Autumn Semester, Angela and I had our first proper holiday for several years, a week at a resort hotel in Greece on a half-board basis. It was wonderful – because of the location and the fact that we didn’t have to do anything! We flew to Thessaloniki from Gatwick (after an overnight stay, of course), and were taken to and from the resort by coach. The holiday included some interesting trips to places of local interest, and we took part in some of those, as well as just enjoying the hotel amenities. We came back relaxed and refreshed, and I was straight into the Autumn Semester.

We have revamped our third year modules, and I had a new module on Quantum Chemistry which included material that I hadn’t taught for 15 years or more. So I wasn’t at all sure how it would go down with the students. I’m pleased to say that the module got good reviews, but I will have to wait and see how the exam goes before I can comment definitely.

My academic visitor from Brazil, Giordano Bispo, arrived at Keele on 18 October. He settled in quickly, and formalities like police registration were more straightforward than anticipated. Since arriving he has made good progress with his research, including presenting some of his work at a conference, as mentioned later.

Also in October, I was invited to give a lecture on Careers in Science Communication at a Life Sciences Careers Conference at Staffordshire University. This was a very interesting experience, and it was nice to wear my science communication hat again!

The semester was punctuated on the home front by our having to move out of our flat for 5 days to have some asbestos traces removed. It was a pain to arrange, but we were put up very comfortably in the Keele Management Centre. When we moved back into the flat the kitchen had to be repainted, and we decided the floor had to be resurfaced. It took some time to order the tiles, but thanks to some amazing work from Angela, everything was back in place in time for Christmas!

At the end of the semester I attended the annual RSC Solid State Chemistry Group meeting, which was held in Glasgow, along with Scott and Giordano (who presented a poster). This was a particularly good meeting, and was a fitting end to the year.

Christmas was spent at Keele, and was nice until I went down with a bad cold/flu bug which knocked me out for 5 days (and counting). But I’m hopefully recovering in time for the New Year!

Musical activities in 2014 included concerts with my orchestras in Nantwich and Middlewich, and my return, after several years, to the Keele Philharmonic Orchestra. This latter event was particularly pleasing, and the concert featured an amazing performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto at a concert in December. Also, on a musical theme, I purchased a tenor trombone this year, having come to the conclusion that if I was going to regularly play 1st trombone parts, it would be needed. Following my friend and fellow trombone player Bob Crawshaw’s advice, I chose a Vincent Bach ‘Stradivarius’ instrument; a straight concert-style tenor instrument with no extra Bb/F tubing. I used it first at a concert in June, and I am very pleased with it. For the Keele concert I played my old trusty bass trombone, which I hadn’t played for a while.

On the computing hardware front, I purchased a Google Nexus 7 tablet at the end of 2013, which I have used throughout the year. But I finally came to the conclusion that Android versions of Microsoft Office that do the things I need are unlikely to appear, so I used some of my external examiner payments to purchase a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet, which is absolutely superb, and should serve me well on my travels and when working from home. In January I will also be upgrading my trusty 2-year old Samsung SG3 smartphone, which has served me well but which is now behind in its Android OS version, and can’t receive 4G, which will hopefully appear in our area soon!

To conclude, 2014 has been an interesting and challenging year, and I look forward to (and expect) much of the same in 2015.

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 50 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

2014: an intensive start

2014 is less than 3 weeks old at the time of writing this post, but already my head is spinning from what I’m currently trying to do, as well as what lies ahead in the next 3 months. I’ve tried quoting the late Michael Winner to myself (‘Calm down my dear!’) with mixed success, but sometimes writing it all down helps put things in context, so that’s one aim of this post.

After a fairly quiet first few days of the new year, I had 3 days of frantic activity corresponding to the visit of a research collaborator. Like me, he works in a university and has a full teaching and administrative load, so the times when we can get together to work on research are precious. We managed to deal with the referee’s comments on our latest paper, which has now been accepted, and to plan new work. So it was a successful if exhausting time!

Having recovered, it was time to turn my attention to some new teaching I’m doing this coming semester. It’s on X-ray diffraction, which (almost unbelievably), I’ve never taught before. I’m excited, if nervous at the prospect, but with 2014 being the International Year of Crystallography, it couldn’t be better timed. Also on the teaching front, we’re redesigning our Chemistry course, and it’s the turn of the 3rd year this year. So I’m leading a proposal for a module on Materials Chemistry and Catalysis, and contributing a Quantum Chemistry section to a new Physical Chemistry module. This has involved some administration and preparation of proposals, which is still ongoing. I should also mention that we are currently half way through our autumn semester exam period, and I will have marking to do soon.

In parallel with teaching preparation, I’m now trying to complete another research paper with my Brazilian research collaborators, which I aim to submit in the next few days. Once this is done, there are another couple of papers awaiting my attention. We also have to write abstracts for a conference in the summer, but the deadline is 1 March, so there is still some time for that.

For about a year now I’ve been trying to help a student at the University of Hannover with some fairly complex materials modelling work, and her PhD supervisor has invited me to their next group meeting, on 7th February. So I’ll have a quick trip to Hannover, which will need a talk to be prepared. Fortunately I have a talk that can be updated fairly easily, but it still takes time!

Finally, I have some exciting activities ahead on the musical front. My two current orchestras both have trombone-intensive programmes in their March concerts, so some practising is needed at some point. I’ll post more about these later, but on 8th February, immediately after my quick Hannover trip, I have a workshop to attend on Borodin’s 2nd symphony, which is an exciting piece.

That’s about it for now. I think the reasons for my spinning head syndrome may now be apparent, but writing it all down has helped a bit. My Twitter and Facebook feeds will document the next few weeks, and I’ll post an update here when I have time.

A review of 2013

Having already posted about the books I’ve read, and the films I saw in 2013, this post is intended to take a general look at the year, and its high and low points.

The year began for me with a trip to Manchester on the 4th January to see White Christmas at a new theatre (for us); the Lowry. We stayed in the Premier Inn, Salford Quays, which had an amazing view across the water to the ‘theatre of dreams’. White Christmas was superb, and we had a delicious brunch in the nearby Chiquitos (Mexican) restaurant the next morning before returning home.

We attended a very nice wedding of two of my colleagues on the 12th January. So far the weather had held, but the next day it closed in, and there was plenty of snow in the coming weeks. We attended the Senior Common Room Burns Night celebration on 25th January, and the snow was so heavy that night that we had to put up some friends who were unable to even remove their car from the car park!

February was relatively uneventful apart from plenty of teaching (although I’ll have even more in the corresponding period next year). On March 5th I attended a very nice reception at the Royal Society to mark Sir Roland Jackson leaving the British Science Association.

On April 6th we saw Helen Mirren in The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, and went to the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern the next day. Back at Keele the following day I was involved in helping out with the British Zeolites Association Meeting which took place from the Monday to the Wednesday, 8-10 April. On 12th April I drove to Wenhaston to visit my mother; the trip which should take around 5 hours actually took 7.25 hours! The return on the 15th was marginally better, 6.67 hours. The traffic must have been bad at that time!

On Monday 29th April I attended a project meeting at the AWE with Scott Walker; this may be the last time we go there. With the change in personnel involved in our project there has been less and less interest, and organising this meeting was a significant challenge!

May and most of the early part of June were uneventful, with exams and exam board meetings. I mentioned my marathon external examining week in an earlier post, as well as my nice trip to Amsterdam to examine a PhD thesis. This was Angela’s first visit, and we saw plenty of the city before returning home.

In late June I travelled to Vienna for a meeting with my research collaborators on the nuclear clocks project. This was a successful meeting, culminating in writing a paper which should be published early in 2014. July was relatively uneventful, but in August we had a second trip to Amsterdam, and my annual pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival (again documented in earlier posts).

September was supposed to involve two conferences and a visit from my research collaborator in Brazil. In the end, Mario was unable to come for personal reasons, but the symposium I organised in honour of the late Professor Patrick Jacobs was a success. I had also been invited to attend a conference in Goslar, Germany, but was prevented from travelling at the last minute because my passport had less than 3 months validity left. This was extremely frustrating and annoying, but there is no benefit in discussing it any more! Suffice it to say that I have a new passport now, and hope that my next trip (ironically to Germany again, in February) will go smoothly.

The rest of the year, from late September to 20 December, was taken up by our Autumn Semester. My main challenge was, once again, supervising research projects, but I have 4 as opposed to the 6 I had last year. Other teaching went smoothly, but I am expecting more of a challenge in the next semester; look out for posts on this in February and March. We had a weekend at my mother’s house from 21-23 December (and I’m glad to say that the trip both there and back took less time than in April), and since then we have been enjoying a quiet Christmas at Keele.

2013 has been a challenging year in many ways. In 2014 it is likely that both my existing PhD students will complete, and I will have some challenging new teaching, as well as hopefully seeking new sources of research funding. I am helping organise the EURODIM conference in Kent in July, which promises to be good, and there will doubtless be other activities that are as yet unplanned.

Television: highs and lows of Summer 2013

I don’t watch much TV these days. I get my news from the internet (Twitter and various news apps), and there are very few ‘entertainment’ programmes that interest me. I’ve been a great fan of CSI, so I’m distraught that the Miami franchise has been pulled without reaching a proper conclusion, and that the final series of CSI-NY is being shown currently. That will leave the Vegas series, and without Grissom and Catherine Willows, who I felt to be the strongest actors, it’s not what it was.

However, there have been a few programmes this summer that I’ve enjoyed. They include ‘The Returned’ (amazing, with a sequel to look forward to), ‘Top of the Lake’, ‘Under the Dome’, and ‘Guilty’. There is also Brian Cox’s ‘Science Britannica’, which I’m enjoying in spite of being no fan of the presenter. In the case of ‘The Returned’, I will associate it with my travel earlier in the summer, since I watched it in so many different places (it aired on a Sunday night, when I was often en route to somewhere, so I saw several episodes in hotels).

One related topic that I have a major issue with is the way the BBC and the other providers are pushing internet catchup services, which seem to assume that everyone always has excellent WiFi access, everywhere. For example, something called the BBC Radio Player has been extensively advertised recently. OK, if you are in an area with good WiFi you can use it to listen to services like Radio 5 live, but the implication that you can use it while travelling is simply misleading! For example, I am writing this post on a Virgin train from Glasgow to Crewe. There is WiFi, but you have to pay for it, and the service quality is inconsistent from my experience of using it in the past. Then there’s an advertisement where someone is watching athletics on TV, and then goes outside to keep watching it online. That’s asking a lot of any home broadband service, and could easily give the impression that anyone could do something similar. And my final gripe is with the BBC iplayer, which still doesn’t work properly on some devices – for example you can stream programmes with the Android version, but not download them, which would be far more useful, e.g. for travelling. The basic message is that all these services are being over-hyped when the necessary infrastructure to support them simply isn’t in place yet.

I was recently in a department store where the latest TV equipment was on display. Very impressive high resolution screens and extensive connectivity options (USB ports etc) are a feature of these latest devices, but again, they depend on an internet connection. Whether it is ever worthwhile investing in one of these ‘super TVs’ depends on what happens to TV services and programmes going forward, as well as the availability and cost of internet services.

Reflections on the UK ‘heat wave’

As you will know, especially if you live in the UK, we’re having an unusually hot spell at the moment. In some places, day time temperatures have risen to 30 degrees Celsius, which is certainly unusual. In my office, with at least three computers chugging away, it has been hotter than this by late afternoon most days this last week.

Looking at these weather conditions from the point of view of someone who has travelled to, and spent time in several countries that routinely experience these temperatures, is interesting. For example, just over a year ago I spent a week in Santa Fe, in New Mexico. It was easily as hot as it’s been here, but it was a dry heat (very low humidity in the desert!), and all the buildings had air conditioning. As a result I didn’t feel uncomfortable all week. Similarly, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Aracaju (in North East Brazil) where such temperatures are common. Here there’s always a sea breeze, and of course, air conditioning almost everywhere. Such places are well-equipped for these conditions.

I like the sunshine, and indeed seem to function better generally when it’s sunny. But the kind of humidity that we get in the UK accompanying hot weather gives me real problems. Of course our homes and offices don’t generally have air conditioning, since these conditions are so unusual. But were this kind of weather to become more commonplace, it would be essential!

I’m using this relatively quiet time of the year to catch up on research and to tidy/organise my office. The conferences I’m attending this year are later in the summer, so now is a good opportunity to do these things. It’s a bit ironic that the current weather conditions are making it more difficult! It seems that with our weather you truly can’t win.