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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UCU strikes – a personal perspective

At the end of July last year I posted that I had joined the UCU, mainly because I felt, as Head of School, that I needed the potential security of union membership. Now, strikes have been called over changes in the pension scheme, and I am in the position of having to ‘manage’ the effects of the strike on my School.

I won’t go into my views on the possible pension scheme changes here. However even back in the days when I was an AUT member (and a member of the university AUT committee), I never took strike action that would potentially affect students, and I am not about to start that now, regardless of the seriousness of the issue involved.

As for ‘managing’ the strike and its potential effects on my School, the HR Department have briefed Heads of Schools of their responsibilities in this regard, and these include ensuring that any teaching that is affected is rearranged, and that students are informed of cancelled and rearranged sessions. Informing students about cancelled sessions will be challenging if, as might happen, we are not informed of teaching that has been affected until after the event! UCU members are not required to signal their intentions to strike in advance, so this may well happen. Another challenge will be rearranging teaching, since there will be a limited window of 3-4 weeks in which we can do this before the summer exams start, and it won’t just be lectures that are potentially affected, but also labs. HR also suggest that we should consider asking staff not involved in the dispute to cover for colleagues that are, which is a minefield I am not prepared to enter!

All in all, there are some challenging weeks ahead, and this is yet another area in which Heads of School receive no training. I am fortunate, I suppose, to have had many years experience of the sector, and I will certainly be drawing on that going forward.

A political sabbatical

UK Politics is in a dire state just now. We are being ruled by an effectively lame duck government which nevertheless looks as if it will be able to hang on to power for the duration of its term, we look to be heading for a hard Brexit, and the Labour opposition are not capitalising on the undoubted advantage they have now to represent the increasing proportion of our population who regret the Brexit vote outcome. At present the Labour front bench won’t even support Single Market membership.

Last year, after two years in the LibDems in which I helped try to encourage them to pursue a social democratic agenda, I rejoined Labour. The reasons for my decision are given in a previous post and need not be repeated here. I have since joined a couple of groups representing moderate/centre Labour members (Progress and Labour First), but the prospect of them having any serious impact against the hard left group Momentum looks bleak just now. This article summarises the position well.

For the last few years I have put quite a lot of political posts on Twitter, and have sometimes got a response and sometimes not (recently more often not, which suggests I have less impact in this area than I did, say in 2010, possibly because my views are out of line with much current thinking in Labour). I have decided to stop these posts, at least for now. I will be taking a sabbatical from politics in general, at least for the next few busy months at work, and I will review the situation in the Spring. I haven’t lost interest, but I am thoroughly fed up and worn down by everything that is happening politically at present, and I need to concentrate my energies elsewhere.

Of course, I will continue to post on education and science, but no more political tweets for a while!

‘Kulcher’ in 2017

In this post I mention the books I have read, the films I have seen, the music heard/concerts attended, and exhibitions I have attended during the course of the year.

  1. Books

I read 18 books in 2017, considerable down from 32 in 2016, but this is probably a reflection of my work responsibilities. They included 5 books by Kate Morton, a new author for me. Angela bought me The Lake House in January, and that got me started! The complete list is:

The Lake House – Kate Morton

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton

Extraordinary People (The Enzo Files #1) – Peter May

Need you Dead (Roy Grace #13) – Peter James

Love Like Blood (Tom Thorne #14) – Mark Billingham

Secrets of Death (Cooper & Fry #16) – Stephen Booth

Sleeping in the Ground (Inspector Banks #24) – Peter Robinson

Acts of Violence (Inspector Carlyle #10) – James Craig

Out of Bounds (Inspector Karen Pirie #4) – Val McDermid

All Kinds of Dead (Inspector Carlyle #11) – James Craig

Beneath the Surface – Sibel Hodge

Insidious Intent (Tony Hill & Carol Jordan #10) – Val McDermid

A Legacy of Spies – John le Carré

The Murder Bag (Max Wolfe #1) – Tony Parsons

Die Last (Max Wolfe #4) – Tony Parsons

The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton

The Distant Hours – Kate Morton

I am currently reading ‘The Crown Jewels’ (The White Hart Book 1) by John Paul Davies, and ‘Origin’ (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown.

As usual, I refer to my GoodReads account for more details.

 

  1. Films

A Monster Calls

No Man’s Land (play)

Lion

Viceroy’s House

Unlocked

Miss Sloane

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Victoria and Abdul

Paddington 2

Der Rosenkavalier (opera recorded live)

 

  1. Miscellaneous

Dick Whittington (Panto at Birmingham)

Burn’s Night Supper (SCR Keele)

Nabucco (opera)

Exhibition: America – Pop to the Present (British Museum)

Exhibition: Bond in Motion (British Film Museum)

Exhibition: David Hockney (Tate Britain)

Mama Mia (stage version)

Exhibition: America after the Fall (Royal Academy)

Exhibition: Hokusai (British Museum)

Musical: Wonderland

Play: A Judgement in Stone

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Exhibition: Russian Revolution – Hope and Tragedy (British Library)

Exhibition: Constable in Brighton (Brighton Pavilion)

Musical: The Wedding Singer

A Murder is Announced

Musical: Son of a Preacher

Musical: Cilla

Beer Tasting (SCR Keele)

Exhibition: The Scythians (British Museum)

Considering how busy I was this year, I managed to do quite a lot. I have talked about some of the bands I saw this year in a separate post.

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!

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.

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.

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