Tag Archives: 2013 posts

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

Films, plays, music & exhibitions 2013

2013 has been a good year for films for me. The ones I saw were: Quartet, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock, Song for Marion, Olympus Has Fallen, Les Miserables, The Great Gatsby, Monsters University, White House Down, Diana, How I Live Now, The Fifth Estate, Philomena, Parkland and The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug. This is a total of 16.

It’s hard to decide which was the best, but I was very impressed with the second film of The Hobbit trilogy, was touched by Song for Marion, and was totally blown away by Les Miserables. Lincoln was a convincing portrayal of the great man, and of American history at that time, and for sheer tension and excitement, Zero Dark Thirty, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen were hard to beat. The Great Gatsby was interesting, mainly because I read it many years ago as a school set text. Diana was enjoyable, with Naomi Watts interpreting Diana’s character very well (certainly it deserved none of the criticism it received!) Parkland was about the JFK assassination from the viewpoint of witnesses at Parkland Hospital, where he was taken. Finally, the film that probably affected me most was How I Live Now, with Saoirse Ronan as an American girl sent to live in England as war breaks out.

Turning to music, I cover my own musical activities in my general review of 2013, but here I mention the concerts and musicals I attended. I saw two excellent tribute bands: Rainy Days and Mondays (The Carpenters), and The ELO Experience, three musicals:  White Christmas, Phantom and High Society, and a ballet (Rite of Spring/Elite Syncopations performed by the Scottish Ballet).

I don’t go to many plays, but in 2013 I saw The Mousetrap (at last), and The Audience (with Helen Mirren).

Finally, I saw some notable exhibitions this year: Roy Lichtenstein (Tate Modern), Life & Death: Pompeii & Herculaneum (British Museum), Lowry (Tate Britain), Laura Knight Portraits (NPG) and Paul Klee (Tate Modern).

So, despite the increasing demands of my job, I haven’t done too badly on the culture front this year!

Books and authors in 2013

I’ve been a bit more organised with keeping a record of my reading this year, making use of a goodreads account that I set up in January. This is linked to my Facebook account, so updates on what I am reading appear there. Where I’ve been slightly less successful is in writing reviews of books, especially later in the year; there rarely seems to be time to do this!

Probably the highlight of the year for me was Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’, but several authors who I have been reading for many years had new books out, including John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth and Ruth Rendell.

Here’s the list, in alphabetic order of authors:

Billingham, Mark: ‘The Dying Hours’

Booth, Stephen: ‘Already Dead’

Brown, Dan: ‘Inferno’

Craig, James: ‘The Circus’ and ‘Then We Die’

Davis, John Paul: ‘The Larmenius Inheritance’

Forsyth, Frederick: ‘The Kill List’

James, Peter: Dead Man’s Time’

Johnson, William: ‘The Malachy Prophecy’

Le Carré, John: ‘A Delicate Truth’

Lyman, John: ‘God’s Lions – Realm of Evil’

May, Peter: ‘Entry Island’

McDermid, Val: ‘Cross and Burn’

McKenzie, Sophie: ‘Close My Eyes’

Noyce, Julian: ‘The Spear of Destiny’

O’Bryan, Laurence: ‘The Istanbul Puzzle’ and ‘The Jerusalem Puzzle’

Palmer, Adam: ‘The Boudicca Parchments’

Palov, C M: ‘The Templar’s Code’

Ramsay, Robin: ‘Who shot JFK?’

Rankin, Ian: ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’

Rendell, Ruth: ‘No Man’s Nightingale’

Robinson, Peter: ‘Children of the Revolution’

Stevens, James: ‘The Judas Codex’

Toyne, Simon: ‘The Tower’

New authors for me this year were William Johnson, Sophie Mackenzie, Robin Ramsay and James Stevens. James Craig deserves a special mention having published two of his Inspector Carlyle books in 2013. Simon Toyne’s ‘The Tower’ completed his ‘Sanctus Trilogy’, and it was good to read another Ruth Rendell book featuring (retired) Chief Inspector Wexford, and to see Rebus in action again in Ian Rankin’s latest book. John Lyman just squeezed into 2013 with his latest ‘God’s Lions’ book, as did Peter May, with ‘Entry Island’. I’ve already mentioned John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth, whose books are always much anticipated by me.

All in all it was a good year for reading. I didn’t manage quite as many books as in 2012, but other factors intervened in this, including being very busy elsewhere. Let’s see what 2014 holds in store!

The annual 2-day Christmas public transport shutdown

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 day, 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 there!

I am not convinced by the arguments rolled out to support the 2-day closure either. There would be no shortage of people willing to work over the Christmas period, especially at double or even triple rates, and time could be given off in lieu later in the year when the weather is better. Not everyone wants to conform to the stereotypical image of a family Christmas either.

As it is, if you want to travel on Christmas Day/Boxing Day, unless you drive, you are stuck. I don’t know why we continue to tolerate this, especially with many sales starting on Boxing Day! There’s nothing like a bit of retail pressure to change mindsets.

A proliferation of reference and publication databases

In the last few months I’ve been organising my publications – partly motivated by the upcoming REF, but also because of a general wish to get more organised. I mentioned the process of getting rid of hard copies of papers in favour of scanned ones in a previous post, and in Tweets over the summer months.

Of course, I already had my list of publications as part of my CV, but now there are many online alternatives. As I am using several of these currently, I thought it might be interesting (and even maybe useful) to discuss them here.

In the build-up to the REF, my university installed some online publications database software. This was supposed to be able to find some of your publications automatically, but only those going back to a certain date, with earlier ones having to be added by hand. Since my first publication was in 1984, there were a lot to add (!), but I considered it worth the effort to ensure that any decisions made by the university were made using correct data! It took several days, but eventually all my publications were safely entered into the database. The software adds new publications automatically as they appear (although it sends an email to confirm it is in fact your publication and not that of a namesake, in my case the other R. Jackson, in Astrophysics!)

With the university publications database being ‘confidential’, something else was needed in order to make publications available to the wider community. For some time I had been keeping an updated list on my personal website, but then dedicated online alternatives started to appear. The first one I used, and still the most useful and usable one in my opinion, is ResearchGate (hereafter referred to as RG). This site enables one to upload a publications list, and PDF copies of the papers as well (provided that there are no copyright issues, although I’ll return to that later). This is really useful, because once your publications are uploaded to the site, they can be quickly and easily accessed and downloaded by anyone, without them having to request a copy. You can follow other researchers, and get notification of their new publications/uploads, and there is the facility to have discussions about papers and topics. There are a few downsides to RG, including sometimes getting duplicate entries of papers if a co-author adds them as well, but this can be overcome by regular checking of your publications list. I tend to ignore the ‘highlighting of skills/endorsement’ aspects of the site,  but this facility is available as well. Also, it it should be said that it is very easy to add publications if you have an electronic copy, as the site software reads some of the details automatically, saving a lot of typing. As for the issue of copyright, some journals and publishers support ‘self-archiving’, and in those cases there is no problem with uploading a PDF copy.

Another site is Academia.edu (AE). This seems to be similar to RG in some respects, but looks less well-structured, at least to me. It is possible to upload papers there, and to follow people. In fact you can link your account to Facebook and/or Twitter so that if a contact on one of these sites joins, you automatically follow them. Currently I direct AE followers who are interested in my work to RG since I don’t see the need for duplication. However if it transpires that AE can fulfill a different and possibly complementary role to RG, I may start using it more.

Then there are also sites, usually with desktop versions and mobile apps, that are designed to help organise publications and to put PDF copies in one location. They can be used individually or within groups of researchers. Probably the best known one is Mendeley. The basic idea is that you have your publication PDFs on, say, a desktop computer, and you open an account on Mendeley which copies your papers to its cloud server. You can then access them on another device, either via the web, or a desktop version (e.g. for Windows), or on an iphone/ipad, by a syncing process. There is currently no native Android app, but there are a couple of good third-party ones. Having used Mendeley for a few years, a new site called Colwiz has started up, and I find it better than Mendeley, plus it has a good Android app which runs well on phones and tablets. The availability of these sites gives one access to publications anywhere, which can be very useful.

I shouldn’t close this post without mentioning that the business-oriented networking site, LinkedIn, can also be used to upload publication lists, and possibly papers as well. But since I use it mainly for communication, I have not looked into that side of its capabilities.

In conclusion, these sites are really helpful in organising publications and ensuring that it is always possible to get hold of a given paper provided you have a smartphone, tablet or PC and an internet connection. Between them, ResearchGate and Colwiz serve my needs well, and the only issue is with the 50 or so of my publications that I still need to scan in, as they were published in pre-PDF days! I hope to complete this task by Spring 2014, in time for the new conference season.

Undergraduate projects in Chemistry – more thoughts

It’s interesting that my post from February 2011 on the topic of undergraduate chemistry projects continues to get hits (906 in total), implying it’s a topic of continued interest.

Our Chemistry course at Keele is currently undergoing quite a lot of changes, but a 15 or 30 credit final year project will continue to be a component of the final year (dual honours students will take a 15 credit module; major route and single honours students a 30 credit module).  In addition to this there is the possibility (against my instincts it has to be said) of an MChem course in the future, which would have to involve a longer project of 45 credits at least.

As I said in the last post, I do think it is important that all Chemistry undergraduates have some experience of research in their course, but I am concerned about how a small ‘department’ like ours can offer projects to all our students, especially when the numbers are increasing all the time. We have entered into a ‘3+1’ deal with a Chinese University, and in a few years time we may regularly get 30 additional students in our final year, leading to final year numbers of 100+ (with a current staff cohort of about 17). It will be a challenge which we will undoubtedly rise to, but I would like to ask the question (again) of whether every student graduating in Chemistry has to have done a project? The RSC have requirements of minimum ‘lab’ hours for accreditation, but that doesn’t have to be a research project. Alternatives to projects that give research experience include literature dissertations, which I know some departments allocate to students who don’t make the ‘cut’ to do a project.

I would be interested to hear from people in other departments about how they are addressing these issues.

The flipped classroom – thoughts of a late arrival

I’ve been interested in the idea of the flipped classroom, or more specifically, lecture flipping for some time. For anyone who is wondering what I am talking about, it’s the idea that the students watch a video/screencast of all or part of the lecture in advance, enabling the lecture time to be used for more active learning, (like problem solving, etc). Last year I took my first steps by recording introductory screencasts for my Quantum Chemistry lectures, but everything in those screencasts was repeated in the lectures. The most extreme approach is to record the entire lecture; others produce screencasts covering material which is then built on in the lecture. For me, I suspect that a balance between these two would work best, if the module content is appropriate.

I see two main advantages of lecture flipping. The first is that it frees up time for more problem solving, which students generally don’t do enough of, and the second is that it encourages active learning and engagement. But that assumes a degree of engagement on the part of students which is by no means universal! In discussions with some of the main exponents of the method, the view tends to be that you have not to worry about those who don’t engage, since the responsibility is with them. I have to say that I am not entirely comfortable with that view.

Whether or not lecture flipping can work is arguably subject and content specific. For example, the lectures I’ve been doing recently for the final year Forensics class on Arson are very content-intensive, and it’s not clear how the lecture time could be beneficially used if the students watched the lecture in advance. However, some of my Chemistry courses could benefit more, and I am considering extending my initial foray into Quantum Chemistry with some more extended screencasts next semester.

There are lots of sources of information on the flipped classroom, and on individual lecturers’ experiences. I found Kelly Butzler’s blog (Kelly’s 24 hour Classroom) very interesting, especially her recent post, in which she discusses an improvement in test score results for some students from a flipping approach. But in a subsequent discussion, my concerns that students who need a lot of help and support don’t always do so well as when taught in a more traditional way were confirmed. The use of flipping puts much more onus on students, which is a good thing, but I’m not sure how well it sits in our brave new world where the student is the customer!

Comments as ever are welcome!

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.

Advances in the Chemistry of Disordered Solids: 13 September 2013

Pat JacobsThis post is about a symposium that took place on 13 September 2013. I haven’t been able to complete it until now, but thought it was still important to post!

The symposium was organised as a tribute to Professor Patrick Jacobs, who died on 31 March 2013. Patrick was so influential in solid state chemistry that Richard Catlow and myself felt that an occasion like this had to be organised. The speakers would represent a cross-section of those who worked with him, were influenced by him, or were taught by him. In addition we included a young researcher whose work is in the spirit of that of Patrick.

The following gave talks at the symposium:

Professor Sean Corish
Professor Richard Catlow
Professor Eugene Kotomin
Dr Rob Jackson
Professor Mike Gillan
Professor Alan Chadwick
Dr David Scanlon
Professor Mary Anne White.

As mentioned above, all of the speakers had been connected with Patrick in some way, ranging from having done postdoctoral research with him, to having been taught by him. There was a therefore a good mixture of science and of recollections of the man himself.

We were fortunate that Patrick’s oldest son, Richard Jacobs, was able to attend. He videoed the event, and the talks are all available on YouTube, as follows:

Meet and Greet        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dX9qW3eRLPc
Sean Corish            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHpYVJH3hF8
Rob Jackson            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohuSRmGdiGo
Apologies for absence    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1bFKBFk73I
Mike Gillan                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xyi2gyRpL8
Alan Chadwick           http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wha3y56Fth8
David Scanlon            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYr_ywR6ItQ
Mary Anne White        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FkitwF6h8k
Thanks from Richard Jacobs    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkjalZ2224I
The symposium went very well, and was a fitting tribute to Patrick. It should be mentioned that nearly a year later, in July 2014, another symposium was held in honour of Patrick, as part of the Eurodim conference, and I mentioned this in a previous post about the conference. We are also in the process of publishing a special volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, also in Patrick’s honour.