Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Holiday booking

What do you look for when you’re booking a summer holiday?

Good weather?

Pool or beach nearby?

Air Conditioning?

Wi-fi internet access?

I freely admit that each of those probably have equal weighting for me.  After a fortnight in Lanzarote last year saying ‘it’s too hot’, air conditioning became an essential this year for anywhere apart from a UK based holiday (well OK, if I was heading into the Arctic circle that would probably negate this request).

But wi-fi?

It’s one of those milestone years for me this year, the big four-oh (I know, I don’t look it, especially in my profile pic).  So we wanted to do something special, something different.  In the past, choosing and booking holidays has been a long and drawn-out process.  We did the whole thing this time in less than 24 hours, including four hotels booked on the journey there and back, ferry and a fortnight stay in a gite in France (here).  Even a couple of years ago I had problems transferring money from a UK account to a Euro-based one – this year Paypal came to the rescue and the transfer took literally seconds.

There’s a great line in the promotional web site – Outside, you can enjoy wireless high-speed broadband internet on your laptop.  Clearly the stone walls don’t allow for wi-fi signals to travel!

Through some terrible planning on my mother’s part, my birthday also falls just at the time that the second PhD module comes to its culmination, with peer reviews and final submissions.  I’m sure I could have survived without my laptop(s), but I’m not willing to put it to the test.  A few minutes a day will keep me in touch.

The holiday booking is also giving me something to look forward to, having succumbed to the flu for the last week, and still off work sick.  If this sounds familiar, it is.  Last time I was on holiday during much of my illness, not so lucky this time.

My rules… my way

Tonight, due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control, I’ve had to spend five hours solid working on PhD reading.  The output of this can be found here, and I’ve still got around five pages to go.

I’m not looking for sympathy – I knew this was the sort of thing I knew I would be spending a lot of time doing this.  What I’m posting here, and reminding myself of, are the rules which I’m setting myself for the next four years (eeek).

  1. Stop working an hour before going to bed.
    I heard today that a quarter of all people in the UK suffer from some sort of insomnia.  I get the worst of both worlds, trouble dropping off, and then waking during the night.  Even before I started at Lancaster I was thinking about it late into the night.  Stopping work and doing something else (OK, here it is writing a blog post but usually it will be something less taxing) will pay dividends I hope.
  2. Keep a balance.
    Hmmm, tricky one this.  I’ve never been one to get a good work/work/life balance, but one of the reasons that I’m working so hard tonight is that I’m planning a weekend of no study.  I’m sure to get the balance wrong at times, luckily I have good support mechanisms to keep me on track,
  3. Do it properly.
    There’s a tendency to skim read important articles, and only get the bare bones out – I admit that my mind mapping technique does tend to emphasize this, though they are meant to be summaries, and not the total of the articles.  A couple of times tonight I’ve found myself ‘drifting off’ whilst staring at a page of incomprehensible text.  It’s tricky to do, but I must focus, so no half watching of Family Guy or American Dad to distract me… honest!

I’ll write later about some technologies which are helping me even at this early stage – though a quick mention of Dropbox and Zotero is always welcome I’m sure, and they’re allowing me to work across many machines (now across two work sites, plus two laptops and my main desktop machine).

But, following Rule one above, I’m going to stop now.

PhD – Week One

Well, the first week of study on my PhD is complete.  As a minimum I will be on this programme for at least four years, so in some ways I’m 0.5% of my way through the course!

I’ve already got back in the habit of ‘critical reading’, and it will come as no surprise that I’m preparing mind maps of the important articles which we are reading, at present as a cohort.  Very soon we will split into learning groups, and focus on a particular area.  Later we select our own ‘research question’, and move onto a mini research project.

This is a ‘professional doctorate’ course – with the same rigours as a conventional PhD, but with a more structured first couple of years.  I need to get at least 60% in all of the assessments to be able to progress onto the PhD route, otherwise I will be offered a transfer onto the MPhil course.  Still worthwhile of course, but a poor second prize.

It’s exciting, and I am also looking forward to the residential in March – I’ve booked student accommodation on Campus, so I can re-live, or in my case live my student days… well as long as I’m tucked up by 10:00.

Interestingly, the doctorate has separated the e-learning system (moodle) from the social networking side (ning).  Ning gives you the chance to upload photos and videos as well as all the usual blogging and online forums.  This keeps the ‘proper’ system uncluttered.  It is different to other e-learning environments I’ve encountered, but it does work.

Of course it’s early days, but so far, so good, and don’t worry, I won’t be posting each week – here anyhow, what happens in ning, stays in ning”

End of a dream

The long-expected decision has been made.  After the Augustine commission published its findings last year, it was clear that the Constellation program to take human spaceflight “To the moon, mars and beyond” was doomed.  Today’s confirmation was simply the start of the end.

I was born six months after Apollo 13’s famous ‘Houston, we have a problem’.  Hmm, I’ve just checked and I was born 9.5 months after Apollo 12’s flight.. something you want to tell me Mom!

I’ve lived with NASA’s triumphs and tragedies.  I remember looking in the sky at the park I used to play at when Skylab was due to crash back to Earth, and I remember the landing of the first space shuttle flight, Columbia in 1981, and a few years later I was watching BBC Newsround’s coverage of the launch of Challenger when it exploded so devestatingly after take-off.  

(Another memory, the shuttle that never went to space, Enterprise, arrived at Birmingham airport when I was about 12. My Dad was working in an office in Birmingham at the time and saw it, I was in a pottery lesson, the one classroom in school that had no windows.)

And I was there watching Sky News as Columbia disintegrated over huge swathes of the American countryside.  I remember texting friends at the time, and whilst they acknowledged it was sad, they clearly didn’t feel the impact that it had on me.

But shortly after, a Vision for Space Exploration was published.  This was the era of pdf downloads, and I’ve spent far too much time since 2003 looking at the huge number of documents that have been published.  Those who follow it closely knew the shortcomings of the Constellation program.  It was designed to keep the people who worked on the shuttle program employed, by making the solid rocket boosters almost the same as the shuttle SRB. 

The worst thing that NASA did through the development of the Ares rocket and Orion capsule was to call new Orion capsule ‘Apollo on steroids’.  This was picked up negatively by many press pundits, and as many of the innovative features of the original Orion capsule were watered down (literally, a water based landing instead of the much cheaper, soviet-based earth landing, and the reusability of the Orion capsule itself came under scrutiny), it was clear that Orion, even if it did take off in 2015, would still be seen as a ‘dead duck’.  The retro-look is fine for telephones, not for space capsules which people’s lives depended upon.

Where now?  Private enterprise seems to be the key, and NASA may find itself transforming from a space ‘agency’ to a procurement of services.  We can’t forget the huge amount of work that is done in the area of unmanned missions to the planets, and the plethora of satellites which orbit the earth under the control of NASA, but it wasalways the manned spaceflight, the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs which captured people’s imaginations.

When I heard the outcome of the review, and President Obama’s decision, I tweeted ‘there goes my chance of retiring to the moon’.  There already is a generation who have grown up without knwing the excitment of watching a moon landing (I was two when man last set foot there), may there be a generation soon that can’t even remember when man went into space?

I have read enough science fiction to know the difficulties of space travel, and if I had succeeded in completing NaNoWriMo I would have been able to add my own small body of work (the novel would have covered the next fifty years of manned spaceflight, if Obama had closed down NASA’s manned spaceflight program – prophetic eh!).  Let’s hope that I can look back at this article in five years time and recognise how bleak my outlook was.

Until then, try and catch the moon in the early evening over the next few days.  The bright non-shining star at about 7 o’clock assuming the moon is at the centre of the clock-face.  That’s Mars.

Maybe one day.