A Qualified Success

Good news! The lecture went well[1]! No one died, screamed or cried, or even fell asleep. At least, no one that I noticed. Overall, it was quite an odd experience for me. I was standing on the other side of the lectern that I’d been lectured from so much as an undergraduate, and giving a lecture remarkably similar to one I’d received about 7 years earlier. It was as if I were experiencing some strange form of inverted déjà vu to begin with, though that passed after the first five minutes. I possibly went a little fast, given I finished after 40 minutes, but that was about the time I’d been clocking when I’d practised it, so I think it was more that it was just a short lecture. But, I certainly enjoyed it, though it would be interesting to deliver one that I’d written, rather than using someone else’s material.

I suppose, generally, this is a good sign, assuming I eventually end up as a lecturer of some description. Though, if I were delivering lots of lectures, it’s possible I’d start finding them quite dull. Only one way to find out, really…. If nothing else, it’s at least been useful for my CV.

Now, I have to run the follow-on practical sessions, which are much more straightforward, as I have to do very little thinking[2]. It’ll be interesting to see what the students come up with, but I’m essentially going to be sitting around a lot for a couple of afternoons – ideally, the students won’t need to ask any questions, in which case, I become entirely superfluous. What may be less straightforward is persuading the department that they should pay me some money after it’s all over. University admin is never simple or fast-moving, particularly in Cambridge, where the colleges, departments and central university all have to get involved and invariably fight over who does what. But, it shouldn’t be too bad….

[1] See last week’s post if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Though, of course, the likelihood of everyone not reading everything I write is so small that I don’t know why I’ve even bothered writing this footnote. 😉

[2] Or anything much, really.


Lecture Time

Ignoring the current political pandemonium, in what may be charitably described as an ‘unwise move’[1], the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge have decided that I am the most suitable person to deliver a lecture to some unsuspecting undergraduates. I know, I’m just as surprised as you.

The reason why this oddity has occurred is that one of the lecturers is on sabbatical this term, meaning that the second-year Geography undergraduates have no one to teach them about modelling glaciers. This is the coursework component of the second-year glaciers paper, where the students receive one lecture, are provided with a model, some data and a bit of guidance, and then have to go away and do some sort of investigation that they write up into a report for submission. Apparently, I am the best combination of availability and expertise to fill the gap. Which is slightly scary – I usually don’t think I know what I’m doing….

On the other hand, delivering a one-off lecture, with slides provided[2], on the basic principles of modelling, so that some students who probably know nothing about it can understand why we’re asking them to do coursework on it, should not tax me too much. And then having to sit in the computer lab for a few hours, in case some students need some questions answered on what is a pretty simple model written in MATLAB with a GUI, should be well within my abilities[3].

Regardless, it should prove interesting to see how it goes and take the lead role in a different mode of teaching. And I get a minion for the practical sessions[4], as one thing I definitely can’t do is be in multiple places at once. So, having a helper stops students sitting around with their hands up for ages. And means I don’t have to rush around if lots of people need help at the same time.

The downside is I may have to mark half the resulting reports, once they’re all submitted. I’m hoping the insanity of the exam board falls short of entrusting a PhD student with that level of responsibility, but it may not. In which case, the first week of May may not be a whole lot of fun. Even if my supervisor says marking these reports is his favourite bit of marking, because they’re often quite good. I feel, given the baseline of marking enjoyability, ‘relatively good’ is not necessarily actually that good. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve got a pretty good cold, by the standards of colds. Ultimately, you still have a cold and feel pretty terrible.

I am delivering the lecture tomorrow afternoon. I may report how well it went next week.


Cicero denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari. I rather hope my lecture turns out less tempestuously.

[1] And uncharitably as ‘complete suicidal institutional insanity’. See, it’s not just Parliament that’s going off the rails faster than a bullet train. And that’s the end of the political commentary for today.

[2] I am essentially a glorified supply teacher here, more than anything. I just turn up to deliver the material and need make no substantive contribution to actually developing it.

[3] Based on my experience helping out with the same course last year, most of the questions essentially fall into ‘I didn’t read the instructions and am now asking something stupid’ or ‘I need some validation about my proposed investigation’. Neither of which are terribly taxing.


Paradise Lost

Welcome back, now it’s 2019. It might be a new year, but you can look forward to much the same kind of things appearing on the blog. I didn’t change that much in two weeks of holiday, except that I’m now somewhat less tired than I was. And to start 2019, it seems I’ve decided to write a cheery post….

I went to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard recently, because I quite enjoy that sort of intellectually silly thing.  But, it got me thinking about why I really enjoy it. And, I think, it’s for the same reason I enjoy listening to TMS on the radio or watching golf on TV: nothing bad ever happens[1]. They all exist in some sort of rose-tinted British imperial heyday from over a century ago, where Britannia rules the waves, gentlemen abound and the most pressing decision you have to make that day is whether to take your scones in the Devon or Cornwall style. About the worst thing that does happen is someone getting hit by an errant tee shot. Otherwise, it’s as if the modern world, with all its vicissitudes, problems and demands, has ceased to exist. I’m always half-surprised when the TMS team don’t start talking about the Raj or ‘bloody natives’ or somesuch, because that’s the world it feels as if they inhabit.


The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole. A fairly accurate representation of G&S/TMS/Golf Land….

And this is fine, provided you recognise it for what it is – not true. Britain no longer has an empire or international hegemony, the modern world does exist, and bad things happen. It’s also important to bear in mind that, not only does this idealised portrayal not reflect the world of today, but that neither does it reflect the world of yesteryear. Gilbert and Sullivan are noticeably silent on the issue of heads of states being assassinated by revolutionary anarchists, nationalists or socialists, and the underlying societal causes, for instance[2]. There’s also a curious absence of discussion of the imperial shafting of the Raj’s economy or why mowing down hordes of spear-wielding tribesmen with a Maxim gun might be a tad unfair or morally dubious[3]. And, for some equally inexplicable reason, no one mentions that we fought two wars to make the Chinese buy our opium….

My point is not that temporarily enjoying a bit of jingoistic imperial nostalgia is bad – I’m as guilty of that as anyone – but that the problem is when you start believing it and acting as if it’s true. Because that’s when you end up in the sort of mindset that thinks the solution to Gibraltar’s status after Brexit is to declare war on Spain. Even in our imperial heyday, that would have been stupid – we’d probably have started the general European war that became WWI a bit early – but now, it’s downright bonkers. And yet, a worrying portion of the right wing of British politics and society appears to some extent to have adopted this viewpoint, as evidenced by all the WWII-style rhetoric whipped up around the Brexit deal. I like the past – it’s an interesting place – but I wouldn’t want to live there[4], and it would be rather nice if, as a nation, we all agreed to stop doing so and finally moved on with our collective national life[5].

[1] That’s not actually true for Yeomen of the Guard – it’s the one G&S work where everyone doesn’t get paired up and live happily ever after – but it’s a sufficiently rare event that I’m going to, as any good scientist would, treat it as an anomaly and exclude it from my analysis so I don’t have to explain it properly.

[2] I can’t think why. Both the assassination of Alexander II of Russia and Empress Sisi of Austria would make perfect comic light operas….

[3] Again, I can’t for the life of me work out why this might be.

[4] I like not dying of smallpox/measles/leprosy/plague/famine/Vikings/Barbary corsairs/the Spanish/the French/the Dutch/the Germans/the Irish/the Welsh/the Scots/the Lancastrians/the Yorkists/being a peasant/not being a peasant/the Scots and French (again)/despotism/anarchy/revolutionary democracy/Puritans or any one of the literally hundreds of things modern British people no longer die from.

[5] And, before I get shouted at for letting the left off scot-free, at least the right believe in a distorted version of an actual history, in that the British Empire definitely did exist. Parts of the left seem to believe in some sort of socialist utopia that never existed anywhere, which isn’t so much burying one’s head in the sand as full-body inhumation in the Rub’ al Khali…. But that view does seem at least rather less socially widespread than the Rose-Tinted Imperial Nostalgia school of thought.

I Am AshurHatipal, King Of The World!

*The blog is going on a fortnight’s holiday now to Planet Bloggo, where it can enjoy a range of blog-centric entertainments and facilities adapted to a bloggoid lifestyle. It will be back, hopefully refreshed, for January 9th.*

The BM once again has a big shiny history exhibition on, so me and my history nerd friends went along to see what we could see. On this occasion, the exhibition focuses on Ashurbanipal, the last significant king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (r. 669-631 BC), whose various building and bibliophilic[1] efforts are responsible for a large part of the BM’s Assyrian collection and our knowledge of the Assyrian world generally. So, cue lots of friezes of the main man trampling his enemies, crushing their cities and killing lions left, right and centre, as well as assorted humanoid guardian spirits. Some of which are distinctly leonine. Basically, one of the key characteristics of being an Assyrian king seems to have been both slaughtering as many lions as humanly possible[2], as they represented the chaos of nature that the king sought to overcome as the bringer of divine order. But, also being like a lion was a distinct advantage, as they were really good at killing their enemies. Something of a fundamental disconnect there. The other important attribute of an Assyrian king was to be ridiculously hirsute. The more hair on your head and face, the better. This isn’t just a cloud of hair – the beard and hair are all nicely curled and maintained – but you do want a lot of it. The only people in the friezes without facial hair are eunuchs or tricksy foreigners, and you wouldn’t want to be either of those, would you?

But, anyway, back to the exhibition. The friezes were very good – I’d forgotten how naturalistic the Assyrians were in their art. You could see all the muscles on the men and lions. There was also a good section on the other lesser-known kingdoms that surrounded Assyria – I, for one, hadn’t realised we had so much material from Urartu, one of the major neighbouring powers located in south-east Anatolia/north-west Iran that I’ve only ever read about as a fringe entity in various books – which did a good job putting Assyria in context as the dominant force in a region full of competing powers. And you got a good sense of the style of Assyrian kingship and of Ashurbanipal himself, which was a big tick. The length was also good – the exhibition stopped just at the point where you were starting to feel as if your brain were about to explode from information overload – and there was a useful pop-culture section at the end which put the growth of interest in Assyria in context over the last few centuries.

The presentation of many of the friezes[3] was also very good – several had projectors rigged up in front of them to recreate them in their original colours and to highlight particularly notable events. Because, with the bigger ones, there is a lot going on, mainly revolving around foreigners being massacred, so having it pointed out who the kings are, what that guy’s actually doing as he’s screaming, etc., is quite useful. And the colours really are very striking.

The other thing there is a lot of is, unsurprisingly, cuneiform tablets. All of which seem to be written in size 6 font. Anyone who could read and write in Assyria was clearly incredibly myopic. Again, these don’t get too repetitive – it’s interesting to see the different shapes and sizes of all the tablets – and, again, each display makes a point, so it’s not just space filling.

But, really, as with the Scythians, the last BM ancient history exhibition, it’s all about the hats. These are really the key discriminator of people in the friezes and go to strengthen my theory that all of ancient history can be explained by hats. If you’ve got a pointy conical hat, you’re an Assyrian cavalryman; if you’ve got a fairly unremarkable hat, you’re just a normal Assyrian; if you’ve got a hat that looks like a city wall, you’re a woman, probably an Assyrian queen; if you’ve got a silly headband, you’re some sort of tricksy foreigner, such as an Elamite archer, and are probably getting brutally slain by someone with a hat; if you’ve got a weird, bulbous hat, you’re an Elamite king, and are probably equally being chopped up by a behatted adversary[4]; if you’ve got a hat that looks like a fish tail, you’re a priest; and if you’ve got horns on your hat or tassels on your kilt, you’re a god. The Assyrian kings, themselves, are not, surprisingly, massively over-hatted, but are usually clearly delineated by being in a chariot and being twice as large as anyone else.

So yeah, hats. Make sure you wear the right one.

After the exhibition, we retired for lunch and came up with two totally brilliant historical theories:

  • Dark energy caused the Dark Ages
  • Failure of Celtic symbolic food leading to English hegemony

The first was the result of us trying to find something that we could all co-author a paper on and posits that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire that led to the so-called Dark Ages was the result of the expansion of spacetime at a rate greater than the empire could build roads or recruit additional troops to police its ever-expanding borders. It may also be true that the barbarian tribes were actually particles of dark matter, which was why they seemed to get through all the Roman border defences without any real issue, as they didn’t interact with normal matter. We feel this is a revolutionary multidisciplinary breakthrough, finally marrying the long-sundered subjects of Late Antique history and astrophysics. We await our Nobel prizes.

The second came from one of my friends saying they’d been to a talk on the miracles of minor Welsh saints where one of the miraculous occurrences was a saint going down to a river where some people were washing some butter. The saint wanted a drink, but was told there were no cups, so, entirely miraculously, he fashioned the butter into a cup and used it to drink[5]. The miraculous butter is apparently miraculously preserved in a church in Wales. Except of course, it all melted in the famously hot summer of 1272, allowing Edward I to invade. Something similar happened in Scotland, where, when someone ate the Scoone of Stone, English hegemony was assured. In Ireland, complete English domination will begin when the Guinness factory shuts down. There are absolutely no problems with this theory whatsoever, and we likewise feel this is a persuasive new take on British history.

It was a very silly lunch. There was one further adventure: the trains back to Cambridge were all cancelled owing to a variety of problems, meaning we ended up stuck in Letchworth for about two hours. Fortunately, we’d brought appropriate hats for the cold.

The moral of this post is: always know where your hat is.

[1] Ashurbanipal was always very keen to stress his scholarly credentials and is usually depicted in friezes carrying a stylus or reed pen to symbolise his learning. He then went and put together the world’s first systematically collected and catalogued library, greatly expanding the collection of his father, Esarhaddon, and his grandfather, Sennacherib. Basically, he was a right nerd.

[2] The best bit about the staged lion hunts the king performed every so often is that the way the lions were released from their cage into the hunting arena was by having a child encased in a smaller cage on top lifting up the gate to the lion cage. It’s just a really odd detail on the friezes. Also, how traumatised was that child going to turn out to be?

[3] And there were a lot of friezes. One of the strong points of the exhibition was that, despite this, I didn’t feel that it got samey – each frieze was chosen to illustrate a particular point, rather than just there to fill some space.

[4] In one of the friezes, the Elamite king loses his hat midway through a battle, which is presented as almost as bad for him as the next scene, where he’s being decapitated. Though he had managed to retrieve his hat in the meantime. Hats mattered.

[5] It’s stories such as this that make you think there maybe wasn’t much going on in parts of medieval Wales, or that the Welsh were just so generally oppressed that anything vaguely inspiring that happened got a bit over-egged. Or, in this case, over-creamed, perhaps.

It’s Not What You Know…

…It’s how you know it. This week I’m going to talk about that most Cambridge of phenomena: the interviews that form part of the application process for undergraduate courses.  These are somewhat mythologised – applicants often seem to expect that we’re going to ask them something inane such as ‘If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be and why?’[1]. Whilst questions such as this might occasionally pop up, that’s generally not the case, and if they do occur, there’s probably a good reason for them. So I thought I’d say a bit about the interviews from the perspective of a junior interviewer and why the common stereotypes are largely wrong.

This is the second year I’ve interviewed and the first thing to say is that I’m very glad I don’t have to be the interviewee any more – it is, potentially, one of the most stressful 25-odd minutes of any applicant’s life. The second thing to say is that, as interviewers, we really do read all the bits of information that are submitted to us – references, personal statements, academic record and so on – though we’re not clairvoyants, so if it’s not mentioned in the application, we won’t know about it. But, we do try to pay attention to who each interviewee is, rather than treating them as just another face in an assembly line. Going back to the first thing, the interviewers are really on the side of the applicant – we’d like them all to do well – so that may be some consolation to anyone who looks back on their interview with horror[2]! It may also be encouraging to remember that the interview is not the be-all-and-end-all – it’s merely one part of a much wider admissions process – and that it’s not the interviewers that have the final say on whether applicants are admitted. That is the decision of the Admissions Office and Admissions Tutor(s) at the relevant college, so it’s not as if one slip up from an applicant during the interview automatically condemns them to rejection.

But, what is the real purpose of the interview? Given we have all this information about every applicant, surely we can make a reasonable estimation of how good they are and whether they deserve an offer? Well, no. The point of the interview, really, is to see how ‘teachable’ an applicant is. This is not the same thing as having a good academic record – from experience, it is entirely possible for the cleverer kids to have a very good GCSE and A-level record without really ever being too challenged or having to make much intellectual effort[3]. The interview is designed to test how you think and engage with unfamiliar material, more than anything – any Cambridge course is going to require a fair bit of independent work and study on things you won’t have encountered before – so we want to know if you’ve got the right kind of basic approach to be able to hack it, frankly. It’s very much not meant to be a test of knowledge in the way an exam is.

So, for most interviews, after some fairly easy questions, probably based on the applicant’s personal statement, just to get them feeling a bit more comfortable, the applicant will get hit with something that in all likelihood they don’t know the answer to. And this is fine – we’re not expecting them to know the answer, though, of course, if they actually do know, they get credit for it. What we want to see is how they react – do they just freeze up, because this isn’t something they’ve rote-learned, and then give up? Or do they try to apply what they do know to this unfamiliar context and work out an answer? Even if they end up with the wrong answer, did they get there by a sensible route? If it’s a more open-ended question, can they sensibly justify whatever their final opinion is? And how many hints did we have to drop to get them to a final answer?

So, for a concrete example, seeing as I’m a geographer, let’s say I gave the applicant a map of banana exports, where every country in the world is shaded according to the value of its fruity trade[4]. Obviously, tropical Central and South America will be heavily shaded, as will, to a lesser degree, other tropical parts of the world, with not much going on in the more temperate zones. I’d probably start by saying that it’s a map of trade in a commodity or something and ask them to suggest what it might be. Depending on what they answer, I’ll nudge them in the right direction or drop a hint. What I want to see is that they have enough basic awareness of the world to work out that whatever it is has to be something grown at a large scale in the tropics across a large part of the world. So, if they suggest ‘coffee’, say, that would be a good answer, because coffee is grown in broadly similar regions[5]. What I don’t want them to do is just sit there for a bit and then go ‘I don’t know’, even after I drop a few more hints and encourage them to give an answer, because you can’t really do anything with that – either they really don’t know enough to be able to suggest some sort of tropical commodity, or they’re too lazy to make the intellectual effort to think about a new problem[6]. In either case, they’re probably not going to do too well at Cambridge. I know I said the interview wasn’t a test of knowledge, but we do expect a certain level of general knowledge of things relevant to the subject they’re applying for.

To conclude: the interview isn’t meant to be a scary test, but a chance for every applicant to showcase their intelligence – ideally, it should turn into an enjoyable discussion of the topic for all concerned, much like a supervision. So, remember, it’s not what you know that we’re interested in, but how you know it.

[1] Besides, the answer is clearly ‘an apple’ – portable, easy to eat, tasty, durable, readily available, minimal waste, culinarily versatile, keeps doctors away, and potentially useful as a projectile. Other fruits might be better-suited to particular circumstances or more exciting, but you can’t go wrong with an apple. This footnote brought to you by the Apple Marketing Board.

[2] I really can’t say I remember my interview all that well – I remember being a bit nervous and answering a few questions – but I can’t say it’s marked my life all that much. Evidently, it went well enough!

[3] The education system is very much biased towards the ‘average’ pupil, which is a good thing – there’s a lot more people of fairly average ability than there are really clever or really dim ones. That’s how averages work. But, things such as UMS do mean that you can get quite good exam marks just by being a bit better than average. Ultimately, school exams are marked relative to everyone else who took the exam that year, not against an absolute scale, so if it’s a below-average year or a harder paper, you can end up with top grades off surprisingly low marks…. The nature of school exams also often rewards cramming and learning things by rote, rather than really engaging with the topic, so, again, you can get good marks without really understanding what’s going on. And, with recent policy changes de-emphasising coursework in favour of final exams, this bias doesn’t seem likely to improve.

[4] a) I apologise for the needless double entendre. b) This is no clue as to what I might actually use at interview if you’re an applicant reading this.

[5] Though in very different environments within those regions – coffee is a highland crop, bananas a lowland one – but that would be difficult to pick out on a map shaded by country. Though clues would be, say, Ethiopia showing up strongly for coffee, but not for bananas.

[6] Or they’re too timid to answer or too un-self-confident to want to risk being wrong. This is the possibility I have most sympathy with and we do our best to draw applicants out of their shells if it’s a problem, but, if they don’t want to come out, we can’t make them. Ultimately, this is an opportunity for the applicant to show off their intellectual credentials – if they refuse to, then that’s their call, and they’ll probably be rejected as a result.

Good Cop, Bad Cop…?

I’ve talked before about the supervision process at Cambridge, where I said that it generally worked – students did the work, you marked it, and everything was fine. But what happens when it doesn’t work, when the student doesn’t hand anything in, say?

Well, it’s not entirely straightforward. The first thing to emphasise is that being at university is very different to being at school. Schoolchildren have to be there, they sort of have to do the work and, ultimately, the teacher is in some way responsible for the exam performance of their class. So, if you don’t do work at school, you get shouted at, get put in detention and so on.

At university, though, the students have made a choice to be there and, perhaps, more importantly, are, legally speaking, adults[1]. And, for supervisions, the work isn’t assessed and they’re under no specific obligation to do it. And supervisors aren’t in any way assessed based on the subsequent performance of their supervisees. So, clearly, the same disciplinary methods as used at school would be wildly inappropriate.

So, what do you do as a supervisor if you have a student who hasn’t submitted work, or submits it late or asks you to reschedule the supervision at the last minute or anything along those lines? To be honest, it’s entirely up to you – you can be good cop, bad cop, or any sort of cop along that spectrum[2]. One school of thought is that, as an aspiring researcher who’s only doing this to make some cash and get CV points, you adopt the disciplinarian approach – chase them up for work, refuse to budge on any details and generally act as that scary schoolteacher. After all, you’ve got better things to be getting on with than listening to their excuses and they’ve got to respect you.

At the other extreme is the view that you’re here purely to facilitate the undergraduates’ education and that you should make all adjustments and allowances necessary to make their lives easier, the poor overworked dears. So, hand out extensions like they’re going out of fashion, reschedule supervisions at the drop of a hat and generally roll over.

Of course, the sensible course of action to adopt is somewhere in the middle, as per usual; at least, in my opinion. If students don’t hand work in, it’s really only their own problem. It saves you time on marking, which is always A Good Thing, and, if they subsequently can’t answer a question on it in the exam, that’s really only their own fault. I’m certainly not going to make them do work if they really don’t want to – I’ll probably send an email a couple of hours after the deadline prodding them, but I won’t chase them beyond that. Students know that, if work is handed in late, it might not get marked – I’ll make a reasonable effort to mark it if it’s only a bit late or if I don’t have anything else I particularly want to do/am procrastinating from doing my PhD, but I’ll not bother if it’s several hours late or if it messes up my plans for that evening or similar. You’ve got to give a bit of ground – people make mistakes, shit happens and so on – but that doesn’t mean you have to give the whole nine yards. Similarly, I’ll reschedule supervisions if you give me a reasonable bit of notice and there’s a time within a couple of days of the original supervision that works, but I’m not going to rearrange my week at the drop of a hat because an undergraduate can’t organise their own lives.

Obviously, how lenient you are also depends on why the work’s late/missing/etc. and whether the student in question is a habitual offender. If you get an email saying ‘I’m really sorry, but my grandma’s just died, so I’ve got to go home and I can’t do the work’, you’re evidently going to be a bit more sympathetic and accommodating than if you’re told ‘Yeah, I had, like, four deadlines this week and had to play a rugby match, so I didn’t get round to it – can we move the supervision to next week?’. In the former case, I’d let them off, in the latter, I’d be severely tempted to write them a biting reply, but would probably force myself to stay civil and go with ‘No.’

Because, although it doesn’t really rebound on you if the students don’t learn the material, it does make for pretty pointless supervisions. The best supervisions turn into discussions around the topic between all the participants. If one or more of the participants have no clue about the topic, the whole thing just falls apart, and you end up largely monologuing your way through the subject, probably boring yourself and the students. This kind of happened to me recently, though not through any fault on the part of the undergraduates. I was giving the supervisions on glacier calving for second-year students and only half the students had managed to submit anything on time; I’d also had to reschedule one supervision to the following week. This was a little surprising – the students are normally fairly reliable, bar one or two, but half having problems was unusual. And, generally, the essays were also pretty bad. In the first supervision, though, it turned out that my supervisor had messed up the order of his lectures[3] and, consequently, the students had all been writing the essays off zero background knowledge; purely what they’d picked up through reading. Now everything made sense – it didn’t make it less annoying or do anything to allow me to make the supervisions more engaging, but at least it reassured me that it wasn’t the students being unusually incompetent – there was a reason for it all. Bloody senior academics….

And, as a final note, if you’re genuinely concerned about a student, though, or they’re causing real problems, you’re encouraged, as a supervisor, to contact the relevant Director of Studies and/or Tutor, whose responsibility it is to deal with such matters. They can then advise you if there is a real issue that you should make allowances for, or can make further inquiries if this is something new. So, we do look after our supervisees, even if we don’t acquiesce to their every request.

[1] Usually. Occasionally, you get undergraduates who are younger than 18, but it’s very rare. Most undergraduates may act as if they’re still aged 12, but that’s a different matter.

[2] I’m a big fan of Initially-scathingly-sarcastic-but-ultimately-fairly-easygoing cop, myself.

[3] At this point in the year, the second-year glaciology students get a choice between a supervision on calving and one on surging. Last year, the surging supervisions were first and then the calving ones, and my supervisor gave the calving lecture first, and then the surging one, which messed up the surging supervisions, despite us all having talked about it and worked out what needed to be done. This year, we’d done the same thing, and decided to switch the supervision order round, but my supervisor still managed to get the wrong end of the stick and gave the surging lecture first. It was very annoying. Especially seeing as he’d also managed to upload two versions of his surging lecture to the intranet and none of the calving lecture, so the students couldn’t even check the lecture notes. Honestly.


Manic cackling ensues.

To sum this post up: me 1-0 glacier modelling.

Or: I fought the code and the code lost.

Everything now works[1] in my glacier model, which, I think, makes me the first person to have a functional 3D coupled ice-hydrology-calving-plume model in the world. So that’s quite nice. This is the picture that proved the plume model, the last component, was working properly:


This is the front of Store Glacier, head on. That big red line shows the model thinks there’s a plume that reaches the surface exactly where we see one reach the surface, with melt rates that make sense.

So, now, the hard work starts, as I have to actually document all of this properly, get some results and write some papers about it all, before I then write my actual PhD dissertation.

But that’s just writing. I do that quite a lot anyway. And I now know exactly what I want to write. When I said ‘hard’, I may have overstated things slightly….

In other words, I’m still a long way from the end, but I can now see that that light at the end of the tunnel is actual daylight and not an oncoming train, for the first time.


[1] For a given value of ‘works’ anyway. There’s still some fiddling around with parameters and things to do, but that’s pretty straightforward, if time-consuming. The fundamental building blocks now all exist and are free of obvious, fatal defects or errors, which is the important thing. There’s more development that can be done, but that’s always true – the point is, my current bit of it is pretty much over.

Finland, Finland, Finland…

…The country where I had to be.

I went to Espöö (western Helsinki, pretty much) for a few days for a numerical modelling workshop recently[1]. This makes it the 4th Nordic capital I’ve ‘been’ to, where ‘been’ means ‘spent a few days in an office building/hotel/airport that happened to be in it, purely for glaciological purposes’, behind Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo[2]. So, I can tell you nothing about Helsinki itself, as I didn’t see any of it. Especially seeing as, it being the end of October, it was pretty much dark most of the time. And cold. And damp. So what evening time I had did not lend itself to randomly wandering around. I’m sure it’s very nice, but I can neither confirm nor deny this.

Instead, I’ll talk about what I got up to and a few observations of the country. The first thing to say is that the Finns are the most taciturn nationality I’ve yet encountered. Owing to the fact that I was landing at the antisocial hour of 23:20, I’d booked a taxi to get to my hotel, not fancying navigating the Helsinki equivalent of the Night Tube/Bus. In my experience, taxi drivers tend to be unfortunately garrulous; in Finland, this issue disappears. My interactions with him consisted of him pointing at me and nodding, when I checked in at the taxi desk, and then me saying ‘Thanks’ half an hour later when I arrived at the hotel. In Britain, I’d probably have had to put up with half an hour of some combination of borderline racism, ill-informed pop science and right-wing politics. I’d been slightly dreading having to confront something similar at such a late hour, but I’d reckoned without the Finnish national pastime of Extreme Laconism.

My observations at the airport and on the taxi journey also convinced me that Finnish is not a language where I can make much headway off general background knowledge. It’s non-Indo-European after all, which means the only words I can recognise are loan words; and that the basic grammatical structures are wholly foreign. It looks and sounds very nice – in purely written terms, it’s sort of inverse Welsh, with a surfeit of the letters usually classed as vowels in English – but it may as well be in Klingon for all the sense I can make out of most of it[3]. Fortunately, everyone here speaks English, and the workshop was in English, so I didn’t have to worry too much about trying to make head or tail of it.

The hotel itself was wholly unremarkable, except in that it was only 500 m from where I needed to be for the workshop, which meant I didn’t really have to bother getting up early. Which was good, because the clocks having gone back the day before I travelled, and then me having immediately jumped two hours forward, my internal body clock was all over the place. The first day of the workshop then consisted of us all basically giving updates on what we were all doing with our modelling, which was interesting. I ended up going last before we finished for the day, and received three rounds of applause, which I think were more from relief than anything else…. Though, several people seemed worryingly interested in what I’d been talking about – turns out a lot of the attendees were a bit keen on glaciological modelling. What a surprise. Lunch was also a particular highlight – there was a place 5 minutes away that did a very good, varied, two-course buffet for €10.20, which, by Nordic standards, is cheap as chips. Which, notably, didn’t feature on the menu, as this place served nice food.

I didn’t have anything planned for the evening and, seeing, as I was a fair way out of the city centre and tired and it was dark and everything was shut, I voted with my feet and just stayed in the hotel for dinner. I particularly enjoyed patronising the fairly smart restaurant on the ground floor, largely filled with various business types, whilst attired in my shabby fleece and slippers[4], helped by the fact that the food was very nice.

The second day was, largely, more of the same, except I was really struggling to stay awake, having not slept very well either of the preceding two nights in the hotel. In the evening, though, we had the workshop dinner in downtown Helsinki, which meant I had my first opportunity to use the Helsinki metro. This can best be described as ‘generic 70s European metro’ – the only way I knew I wasn’t in Vienna was because the signs were in Finnish, not German. Otherwise, it looked pretty much the same, which was slightly anticlimactic. After that, the dinner was good – we were in fact in a different branch of the place we’d been going to at lunchtime, though this time with a menu rather than a buffet – and I retired early to try to catch up on some sleep. One amusing thing that did happen was that one of the modellers resident in Finland provided me with a good Finnish joke on the occasion of taking a group photograph:

How do you tell the difference between an introverted and an extroverted Finn?

The introverted Finn is looking at their own feet; the extroverted one is looking at someone else’s feet.

This tells you everything you need to know about the Finnish national character.

Then, it was into the third day, which, for me, was pretty much a half day, as I needed to be at the airport by 15:00ish to get my flight back. I had pretty much had enough of modelling at this point, after two solid days of it and, consequently, pretty much glazed over for the morning, which I decided to spend by starting to properly document all the code changes I’d made over the last couple of years, everyone having split up into troubleshooting groups. It was about the least modelling-like task I could do still related to modelling (and easily doable on my laptop). A brief diversion was provided by, when I went to the toilet, there being someone playing a keyboard in the lobby. And what seemed to be some sort of market/hobby fair. It was quite odd. I assume this was specific to where I was, rather than a general feature of Wednesday mornings in Finland, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it were. Or it may have just been something to do with Hallowe’en, which it now was. As I was further reminded when, at lunch, the staff in the restaurant were half-heartedly dressed up. It was more depressing than anything, really.

Which is also a pretty good description of the journey back to Cambridge. Everything went fine, but it was still a bit of a pain. But, all in all, a pretty good trip that should prove pretty helpful PhD-wise. I will, however, be very happy if I don’t have to travel anywhere that involves an airport again this side of 2019!

[1] I’ve added the word ‘numerical’ after several people asked me whether there were any catwalks or plasticine on offer….

[2] The 5th Nordic capital, Reykjavik, remains the only one I’ve actually been to on holiday. Though that was over 10 years ago on a family junket.

[3] Actually, Klingon would be better. It’s a fairly safe bet that pretty much any phrase in Klingon more-or-less equates to ‘Die, pig!’ And, if it doesn’t, making this assumption will quickly make it come true.

[4] I didn’t have to go outside to get from my room to the restaurant – why bother putting real shoes on? My mother would be horrified, but she’s probably not reading this.

Powys Pow-wow

A few weeks back, we had a project meeting for the RESPONDER project, which, nominally, is what my PhD is contributing to. This is a multi-million euro, EU-funded glaciological project split between the universities of Cambridge and Aberystwyth. As such, the project meeting was arranged for halfway between Cambridge and Aberystwyth, at Gregynog in Powys. This is a very technical sense of ‘halfway’ where it means ‘nowhere near halfway’[1]. For an array of similarly obscure reasons, we were aiming to start at 11:00, which meant we needed to leave Cambridge at 07:30, allowing us to hit Birmingham just in time for rush hour.

Unsurprisingly, what actually happened was that we started a bit after 12:00, as we all turned up late, not helped by a road closure near our destination and an encounter with a hedge-trimming tractor[2]. Though the scenery in Powys and the grounds of the hall were very pleasant indeed, which provided some recompense. So, we were already a good hour behind our already-ambitious agenda. Before the meeting started, though, we were given a brief précis of the history of the building and its tenuous Arthurian connection[3], which I found interesting and ultimately led to me explaining the evolution of the whole Arthurian mythos to my less-folklore-versed colleagues. So that was fun, for me at least!

The purpose of the meeting was to make sure everyone in the core project team was in the loop about what had happened over the summer’s field season and think about what to do in the final definite field season in summer 2019, with an option on a potential field season in 2020 if money remained. As someone who pretty much already had all the data I needed for my PhD and who wouldn’t be going to the field in 2019, I was therefore rather fearing that most of the discussion would be somewhat irrelevant to me. Which, for two days of my time and having to get up early was not putting me in a terribly good mood[4]. But, we started off with a quick introduction, followed by summaries (summeries?) of what had gone on over the summer, with a break for what turned out to be a very nice lunch. I gave a quick run-through of where I was up to with modelling and information about one of the datasets I’d helped to gather back in 2017.

Towards 17:00, though, we started to turn towards such things as lessons learned from the last field season and where to go next and, at this point, I essentially ceased to have any useful part to play. We stopped for (a very nice) dinner at 19:00 and then resumed at 21:00, because we were so far behind the nominal schedule, and we were still going at 22:30, at which point I pretty much fell asleep, having barely said anything germane to the discussion for hours. My supervisor then said I could bugger off to bed, which had partly been my objective in falling asleep in the first place – if only I’d done that two hours previously, which was when I’d wanted to go to bed[5].

The following morning, we carried on with a discussion of what the threshold on getting co-authorship for a paper was, which was an important debate, but again one that wasn’t so relevant to me as I hadn’t been in the field that season, so wasn’t going to be co-author on any of them. This was brought to a close finally by a scheduled Skype call with some other partners, after which the whole thing was declared finished, as my supervisor was supposed to be in Cambridge for a meeting at 14:00. It was now gone 11:00 and it’s a solid 3.5 hours to drive from Powys to Cambridge, so he was being wildly optimistic about timings, especially when he didn’t actually leave for another half an hour….

The rest of us had a quick walk around the grounds, before heading back to Cambridge. We decided to stop in Ironbridge for lunch, on the basis that it wasn’t far off our route and seeing the eponymous bridge might be quite interesting. After what can only be termed an absolute navigational farrago, culminating in us reversing down a steep narrow lane to get to a roundabout, we finally parked up and wandered into the town centre only to find that the bridge was being restored and was, consequently, covered in scaffolding. This was very disappointing and, for me, pretty much summed up the whole two days.


Three of us looking very disappointed in Ironbridge

After that, and getting caught in the inevitable mess that is the near-Cambridge portion of the A14, currently, I went to bed very early. I accept that the meeting was necessary and useful; I’m just not convinced that it was necessary or useful that I was in attendance, certainly not for both days. Still, it provided me with a convenient excuse to not do any work for a couple of days, so it wasn’t all bad….

The moral is: academic project meetings are not necessarily any better than any other project meetings. I’m sure you’re incredibly surprised.

[1] Halfway between the two would actually be somewhere on the western edge of Birmingham. Not in eastern Wales. Given the ratio of Cambridge attendees to Aberystwyth attendees was 3:1, going 3/4 of the way to Aberystwyth seemed peculiarly perverse.

[2] At least we only had to reverse a bit. The queue of people stuck behind the tractor on the narrow country lane included the most disgruntled-looking postman I have ever seen.

[3] The Blayney family, who lived at the site for centuries, claimed descent from a 6th-century Welsh prince, who was probably a real historical figure, who himself claimed descent from Caradog (=the real Caratacus, probably), who The Mabinogion lists as a Knight of the Round Table. I did say it was tenuous. The Mabinogion is many things, but reliable historical source it isn’t.

[4] Not helped by the fact that I’d had a long couple of days immediately beforehand with a quiz tournament and a family event in Taunton, so I was already bloody tired and could have really done without the early start.

[5] I really was very tired.

Fresh Off The Boat

Freshers’ week[1] has been and gone once more in Cambridge, so I thought I’d write a bit about it from the perspective of an institutionalised, long-term inmate, and also from someone who helps run a university society.

As, now, a 3rd-year PhD student[2], the main feature of freshers’ week is that, after three months of Cambridge doing a damn good impression of The Silent Planet, lots of children[3] suddenly disgorge from a fleet of cars and get in your way. The 09:00 cycling frenzy on the first day of lectures could be charitably described as a gridlocked omnishambles, as all the freshers, some of whom take as naturally to cycling as, say, a paraplegic seal, some of whom instead try to impersonate Sir Chris Hoy, and none of whom really know where they’re going, attempt to arrive for their first-ever lecture on time. This is quite annoying for everyone else, though occasionally entertaining, with a fair dollop of surprise that more people don’t end up in hospital.

The other main feature is that you suddenly have a lot more things to do: supervisions need organising, seminars and societies start up, your inbox explodes with a wide variety of excitingly pointless emails, and your supervisor disappears under a cloud of college-based admin. In many ways, therefore, the whole thing is a bit of a pain, even if it is nice to have some more people around and more things to do. The most depressing thing, though, is how keen all the freshers are. Within a few months, they’re as embittered, jaded, tired and cynical as the rest of us, but, to start with, they’re almost annoyingly enthusiastic.

However, freshers’ week passes and things quickly return to normal, so, for most non-fresher postgraduates, it’s merely a blip. However, if you’re involved with running a society, it takes on more importance. Because freshers’ week is your chance to recruit loads of people to keep your society strong for another year. There are two key events that assume importance here: the freshers’ fair and the squash.

The first, the freshers’ fair, can be found at many universities. All the societies book stalls in the sports hall in the town centre, or in a marquee on the adjoining park, and, over two days, try to persuade as many freshers as possible to sign up to their mailing lists. There are several challenges with this: firstly, that you are competing with pretty much EVERY other society in Cambridge (and there are a few hundred) for sign-ups from a few thousand freshers. This means some societies resort to fairly outlandish publicity stunts and stall dressing to try to lure people in. Fortunately, for the Cambridge Tolkien Society, with which I am primarily concerned, this is less of an issue, because a) we have green cloaks and stand out a mile anyway, and b) we’re the sort of society where the people who sign up to our mailing list would have signed up anyway and the people who don’t wouldn’t have, no matter what we did.

Second, you have to organise things to ensure that the society’s stall is manned for the whole two days, which isn’t always straightforward, and that flyers, termcards, etc. are designed, printed and on the stall. This is also not a problem for CTS, because I’ve done the sodding fair six times now, so know what needs to be done, and I’m also over-organised to the nth degree. Though, as a small society, it does mean I have to sit on the stall and recite my recruitment spiel more than I’d like to.

The third and final challenge is that the fair is run by CUSU, the university student union, who tend towards administrative incompetence. CTS’s name is frequently misspelled on signs, for instance. This year, we turned up on the first day to set our stall up, only to find that we had, in fact, been moved from the marquee to the main sports hall. They’d only told us we were in the marquee a couple of days before! And the placing of societies is usually nonsensical – for CTS, our natural neighbours would be, say, the sci-fi society, and the Dr Who society. Instead, we found ourselves next to the Mindfulness Society and the Jewish Society, neither of which are noticeably relevant to Tolkien. The fair is thus always a bit of a pain to get through, but a necessary evil.

The second important event is the squash, which is more of a Cambridge institution. Essentially, this is just the society’s first meeting of the term, normally run as a special one-off, outside of whatever else is going on. This is the chance to really hook some new members – at the fair, you will have got a lot of sign-ups, but freshers will sign up to all sorts of things and then wilt under the volume of emails they receive. As such, maybe 10% of the people who signed up might actually come to the squash. You then have to persuade them that your society is friendly, interesting and worth their time and money. This you normally manage to do to maybe 10% of those who turn up to the squash, so 1% of your original sign-ups. By the end of freshers’ week, therefore, your society will have a much-expanded mailing list, and, hopefully, a probably-somewhat-less-expanded active membership. Needless to say, a bad freshers’ week, say because of a failure to book a stall at the fair, or a poorly organised squash, can be quite detrimental to a society, certainly smaller ones. So, it can be a quite stressful week too, even for those of us who aren’t actually freshers! Especially if you, almost inevitably, catch freshers’ flu as the icing on the rather unpleasant cake. But, it’s done with now, so I can forget about it all for another year!


The Landing of Columbus, by John Vanderlyn. Much like Michaelmas term, it seemed a good idea to start with and quickly led to everyone dying/getting fed up.

[1] Or, more accurately, freshers’ four days. Most students arrive on the Saturday and lectures start on the Thursday, so that gives them four full days to get settled in and make friends before shit gets real. Though that doesn’t stop supervisors from sending them work even before then….


[3] The freshers this year were probably mainly born in 2000. No matter their actual age or the legal position, I remain convinced this makes them ineligible to be considered as real people. Maybe I’m just getting ornery in what seems my relatively old age.