12 November 2007

Tregarth figure 8

Quick ride through Bethesda and Tregarth if you're short of time... (29.03 mi.)

Llanberis Pass anti-clockwise

This route differs marginally from the clockwise version, due to the one-way streets in Bangor...

100 mile loop from 60 Holyhead Road

OK, so it's apparently only 99.22 mi according to MapMyRide but close enough. Great ride with a little bit of everything: Long climbs, steep climbs, rolling hills, fast descents, loooong descents, coasts, rivers, forests, fields...

04 November 2007

Bangor-Bryngwyran and back on the A5 (35.34 mi.)

A flat and fast out-and-back route from Bangor to the A5/A55 junction on the Holyhead side of Bryngwyran.

Llanberis Pass clockwise

One of my favourite rides in NW-Wales. This loop is 60km, close to 40 miles and perfect for an evening ride after work or for a (very?) lazy weekend ride...

27 August 2007

Paris-Brest-Paris 2007

Now I've had a couple of days to sleep and let it all sink in and it was a great experience. This is how the ride unfolded for me:

Ted, Dave and I stayed in our hotel room until late monday afternoon, then had a shower and checked out of the hotel. We then rode to the start area (5 km from the hotel) and had dinner. They had a nice BBQ going in the starting area. We watched the 80-hour riders depart, then got in line for our start (90 hours, departing 21.30 monday evening). We were in line for roughly 2 hours before we got through to the final check-in and had our brevet card stamped for the first time. There was 3000 starters in our group and we were sent off in waves of 500 riders with 20 minute intervals between waves. We ended up in the 3rd wave, departing 22.10. Sylvain, Mark and Michael was in that wave as well. A firecracker at 22.10 marked the official start of our wave and we rode under the start arch and out onto the highway, being escorted by police for the first 15 km - riding straight through all traffic lights as all traffic was brought to a hold for us. Neat! The escort left after 15 km when we approached more open countryside and we were on our own. I was riding with Ted; Dave had already taken off and we had lost sight of Sylvain, Mark and Michael.

It started to rain very very heavily approximately 5 km after we left but we were already dressed up in full wet weather gear as it had been raining on and off all night. But lots of people stopped to put on wet weather gear so we made some easy progress, ranking wise... I was surprised to see all the people with defects during the first 50-80 km or so. When it started raining people simply stopped left and right with flat tires and all kinds of other defects. Ted and I saw one guy who was taking his cassette apart in the middle of the night and another guy who was fooling around with his bottom bracket. I know you generally get more flats when it rains, but it was just unreal to see so many people with flats, I think I saw the first in less than 5 k's! I learned later that Michael was riding with the same front tire as he had used in 2003, which I thought was quite brave! (he had no flats, as far as I know). Maybe the ones we saw were riding with the same tires as last time as well... Regardless, it was a neat sight to see the red taillights in front of you stretching out for miles and miles like a giant serpent winding its way across the landscape. Looking back over your shoulder you could only see white frontlights for miles back as well. An amazing sight.

Anyway, after about 70 km we came to the first of many, many bakeries that were open during the night to sell croissants, pain du chocolat and all kinds of other goodies to the cyclists. It was packed with cyclists so Ted and I just pushed on. I was really sleepy at this time and had problems staying awake. At one point I did fall asleep proper while cycling and woke up when I was riding on the grass next to the road, being slapped in the face by twigs and branches from the trees next to the road! Anyway, we continued to the first 'offical' stop, after 140 km, at Mortagne-au-Perche. We had Spaghetti Bolognaise there and sat for about 45 minutes to try to get warm and dry up a bit. We left again at 5.30 in the morning and continued - in the rain - to the first control at Villaines-au-Juhel at 222 km. We were there somewhere between 10 and 11 am and I was surprised to see that it had taken us 12 hours to cover 222 km. But it just goes to show how horrible the weather was, the rain and headwind slowing everybody down tremendously. Ted and I got separated at this control because of the sheer number of cyclists here. Anyway, he was only planning to go another 100 k or so, to the Tinteniac control (no 4), whereas I was planning to go to Loudeac control (no 5), and hook up with Mark and Michael there for some sleep. I left alone (in the rain! and headwind!) and tried to hook up with whoever was out there. However, it turned out that I was better off alone instead of in a group, as most people were going quite slow. At one point I was riding with some Italians but they were just all over the road and couldn't ride their bikes straight so it was very difficult to stay on their wheels... I then just took off and left them behind. The weather got a little better towards the evening with slightly less rain and I was feeling stronger. The first 222 km had been quite difficult, I thought, but after Villaines, where I had numerous croissants, I felt a lot stronger and made a lot of progress. In the last 220 km to Loudeac control I think I was only passed a handful of times whereas I passed hundreds of riders.

I arrived at Loudeac (449km) around 22.00 in the evening, 24 hours after having left Paris. I got my stamp and then went to the restaurant for a large dinner! As I finished and walked out of the restaurant Mark and Michael walked in so I sat down with them while they ate. We all agreed that it had been an extremely shitty day when it was best. I met some Danes I rode with in Mallorca in May and one of them were abandoning here because of the weather being to lousy. I never really thought of quitting it, too much time and effort and money spent on preparing for this, so damn it if I was going to quite just because the weather turned out to be like in Wales!! We went to the hotel where Mark and Michael had booked a room and went to bed. I slept on the floor with a blanket but was not stiff at all when I woke up after 5 hours of sleep. I felt relatively good and we went down to have breakfast - which began at 1 am during the two days when the hotel had PBP rider staying - great service :-) Then we took of in the early morning, in the dark and on wet roads (but no rain!). It was a slightly hilly ride out to the Carhaix control (520 km) and all the way we were meeting rider returning from Brest - a little bit depressing... Anyway, I arrived in Carhaix around 10 am and felt a bit wasted so sat down for a sandwich and a coke, then took off again (had lost Mark and Michael on the way). The weather now was a lot better,with sunshine and light winds so it was quite enjoyable to ride the last 90 km out to Brest. I had heard talk about a monster hill on the way to Brest but I didn't really notice any hills of significance. I guess my hill training here in Wales have paid off :-) There was one very long hill (20 k or so), but at a quite easy grade and I was going 18-22 k/hr up it most of the time. It wasn't until I was almost at the top I realised that this was what people had been talking about when they mentioned the big hill... There were lots of signs on the side of the road, cheering up some of the local riders who participated. A sign called out 'Brest or Bust!', which I though was quite funny.

I didn't spend much time in Brest as I wanted to get back to Loudeac in a reasonable time to get some sleep. On the way back I was surprised to keep meeting rider going towards Brest and some of them must have had a hard time reaching the control before it closed. The 'Brest or Bust' sign had now been changed to 'Paris or Bust!', which amused me. People really take an interest in this ride! I came back to Carhaix for my stamp and a quick sandwich. Then I pushed on for the last 90 k to Loudeac, hoping to made it in by 22.00 or so. But 20 k outside of Carhaix two cars collided in front of me (fender bender) and suddenly there was glass all over the road. There was a puff! and my front tire went flat. &%$!@$. My first spare tube turned out to be defect (!) but fortunately I had a second one which I put on after fooling around with the first for 30 minutes or so... It took me 45 minutes to be back on the road because I couldn't figure out why the spare tube didn't work... I had brand new Continental tires on and the glass cut my tire up, all the way through so had to put a boot in, which made for a slightly bumpy ride the last day and a half... The rain and wind started again about 45 k before Loudeac and it became really dark. It was quite a thrill to go down the hills towards Loudeac in pitch black darkness. I couldn't see much because I was wearing glasses instead of my contacts and the rain thus gave me a hard time. However, using my peripheral vision I could just make out the edges of the road, if I looked straight ahead so I just let the bike roll, although I really couldn't see if there was any potholes or such in the road... At the bottom of one particularly long downhill where I had been well in front of a group of 20-30 riders one of them came up to me afterwards and congratulated me for my 'honest lead, mate' (he was from Australia). He said they had just all been sitting well in the back waiting for me to drive off the road into the ditch, or wipe out on the slippery road, but they all appreciated me showing the way!

I came in to the control around 23.30, went for dinner and then to the hotel. Mark and Michael showed up half an hour or so later. We slept for another 5 hours and left around 6.30 in the morning, minimizing the night riding. The target for this second last days was Mortagne-au-Perche, only 144 km from the finish, so we only had to cover about 300 km this day, as Loudeac was 449 km from Paris. It was relatively uneventful until we got to Fougeres (290 km before Paris), where we met Ted, whom I hadn't seen since Tuesday morning (this was Thursday afternoon). He was considering abandoning because of his achilles tendons really bothering him. He went to see the doctor and in the meantime Mark, Michael and I went for lunch at a German restaurant. We had an awesome lunch (I had sauerkraut, their speciality, yummy!) and then left for Villaines, last control before Mortagne-au-Perche. We met Ted there, who had recovered somewhat and now was somewhat certain that he could make it home. We had a big dinner and then left for Mortagne-au-Perche in the rain and pitch black darkness.

The rain cleared after a bit and then I really enjoyed the stretch of road to Mortagne. It was on a kind of a plateau with small rolling hills, the stars and the moon was out and there was red taillights all over the road in front of you. An amazing sight. I tired somewhat around midnight and my speed dropped from 25 to 15-18 k/hr and I felt I was in for a long haul the last 20 or so k to Mortagne. Suddenly Michael arrived out of nowhere (we had all got separated 10 k or so out of Villaines) and asked where everybody else was. I said I had no idea and then Michael just took off. That inspired me so I sat out to follow him and much to my surprise I was capable of keeping of with his 30-35 k/hr speed the last 15 k in to Mortagne. It was a thrill, as we must have passed hundreds of riders those last 15 k's, alll going 10-20 k/hr just plodding along in the night. We blew by them and it looked as if they were standing still. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see most of them turning their heads as we passed them, probably wondering what the hell that was. Nobody tried to follow us as we were going twice as fast as them so nobody could get on our wheels. That was quite a thrill and I'm sure we covered those last 10 k in 20-25 minutes or less. Into the control and then we sat down and waited for Mark who arrived 5 mins later. He had been going fast too, playing games with the people he passed in that he had been riding with his generator lights switched off, only using his Cateye. Then, when he was 10 feet behind somebody and pulling out to pass them he would swithch on the lights to surprise them and then he just blew by them.

Anyway, we went to the hotel and slept for 1 hr 45 minutes (!) Then we got up and left for breakfast at the control. We left with 5 hours to get to the seond last control at Dreux, 85 km away. I was a bit nervous about the time because there were some serious rollers in the first 20 k or so, but then the road flattened and I found myself cruisng at 28k the last two hours. In the end I made it to Dreux two hours before closing time so I had lots of time to spare. Then it was on to the last 69 km into Paris. I thought they were long, and I didn't really enjoy them very much until I was about 15-20 km out - I just wanted to finish! I was kind of slow going but 35 km out there was a short, but very steep hill. At the top of it there was a couple of spectators with a big cow bell which they rang for everybody and that gave me a boost. Suddenly i was going 30+ and passing people by the dozen. i kept going like that all the way into St. Quentin (final control) where they most exciting thing was that I arrived into the finish line completely alone. There was probably 2000 people standing there in the roundabout and when I arrived they all started cheering and screaming and yelling - just at me! That was by far the coolest experience during the entire ride, and also one of the most thrilling in my life so far. I was wearing my Canada jersey and they were yelling 'Canada' and 'Bravo' from all sides. Flags were waving and I was waving back at people. It only lasted for 10 seconds or so but I'd do it all again tomorrow if I could be guaranteed that I'd arrive alone again and to that kind of welcome! I parked the bike and got my last stamp at 13.02 for a total of 86 hrs 52mins for 1227 km. Awesome. Ted arrived 50 mins later and Mark and Michael an hour after me. Tres cool, as they say in France.

I went back to the hotel where Ted and Dave (who'd arrived at 2 am Friday morning) were packing up their bikes. I packed up my bike, we had a few beers and then fell asleep. Up at 6 am next morning, I had a quick beer before breakfast and then we ate breakfast for 45 minutes before we took a taxi to the train station (me) and airport (Ted, Dave). I was home in bangor at 21.10 Saturday evening, with virtually no pains or swollen body parts whatsoever - strange but nice!

03 May 2007

Documented flaw in Apple iBookG4

The Danish Consumer Complaints board (DCC) now have technical evidence that it is a design flaw in the Apple iBook G4 that have caused iBook users all over the world a great deal of pain in the last couple of years. According to the findings of the board, a solder joint between two components loosens slightly every time the computer is turned on and off. Eventually it breaks off completely and the owner is left with a blank screen. The fact that the DCC now has proven that it is a design flaw causing the blank screen means that iBook owners can get their computer fixed even after the 1-year warranty has expired. You can fix the problem yourself, but will totally loose the portability of the iBook...

12 April 2007

To cycle or not to cycle - that is the question...

There's only two nice things about living in NW-Wales: The mountains of Snowdonia, which are great for cycling in, and Cwm Idwal, one of the most important places - ever! - in the history of natural sciences. First things first, so I'll deal with Cwm Idwal in a later post.

My hobby is randonneuring (or audax'ing) - long-distance cycling. 2007 is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) year so I have been on my bike since early January in order to qualify for PBP 2007 ed. I am going to Mallorca on 5 May in order to complete the qualifying rides - a 200, a 300, a 400, and a 600 km ride in a week. I actually managed to bag the 200 km ride on 24 March, so I might drop that on Mallorca. Only problem as of right now is the following: I have been sick with a chest infection for the last 12 days. Consequently, since 24 March I have only cycled 124 km, as opposed to normally ~800 km for a 3-week period. My legs are withering away and I feel weaker than weak. The anti-biotic is kicking in, though, so I hope to get out for the next 3 days before I'm off to sea with my work for 10 days (=no exercise); then hope I can get a few fast-paced rides in at the very end of April and the first 4 days of May before my departure...

29 March 2007

Was it good for you too?

I did my PhD in Denmark and promptly moved abroad for a postdoc. I then immediately realized how extraordinarily well PhD students are treated in Denmark. I recently commented on a piece by iknownotwhattodo and more or less promised to try and compare PhD and post doc experiences in various countries. So, this post describes my 3.5 years as a PhD student at a Danish university from 1998-2001 – if you like you can then compare with wherever YOU are doing/did your PhD. It would be interesting to get some comments on this simply to compare PhD experiences from all over the world. Here we go:

In Denmark the PhD tuition fee – called taximeter in Danish - is DKK 87,200 (£7,953; US$ 15,622) annually. If you are being employed as a PhD student on a research project or are in receipt of a scholarship or fellowship to carry out your own research project this amount is included in your grant. You can use a part of the taximeter for your research project, more on that later. What is also included in your grant (regardless of whether it is from a research project or a personal fellowship) is your salary, which is extraordinarily good. The annual salary (including a 17.1% pension contribution) is at least DKK 268,329 + DKK 30,850 in annual vacation pay as of October 2006. This translates into £24,474 + 2,813 or US$ 48,072 + 5527 annually. Not bad. Oh yeah, the annual vacation period in Denmark is 5.5 weeks.

In the department where I was every PhD student had their own private office and their own phone, paid for by the department (via your tuition fee). When you start you need a computer – the bigger the better, and quickly! You get the local system administrator to get a quote for a nice machine and ask the departmental board for money for the computer (from your tuition fee). That is always granted, provided you don’t apply for a super computer system. The computer arrives and you can start your research.

After a few months you may want to go to a conference to present your research so you send another application to the departmental board, asking for airfare, hotel and per diem. Provided you are actually presenting something of relevance to your research and that the conference is also relevant to your area of research you get to go. I went to conferences and workshops in Seoul, Seattle, Plymouth (UK), Seattle, San Antonio, San Francisco, and San Francisco. Roughly half of my travel was paid for via my taximeter (tuition fee); the other half was paid for by the travel account on the research project that employed me.

You need to discuss your research with your supervisor. S/he is obliged to meet with you on a regular basis and read through your work, discuss your results etc. You as a PhD student have an obligation to write a report every 6 months detailing your work in the last 6 months, and what you anticipate to accomplish in the next 6 months. These reports are submitted to the local PhD board of study. Their job is to keep an eye on all the PhD students and make sure that their research is progressing according to the overall plan and that the project can be finished in due time and is of sufficiently high quality.

Teaching is an integral part of being a PhD student in Denmark and you are obliged to work 840 hours for the department during your 3 years as a PhD student. Teaching undergraduate courses or taking students along on fieldwork and the like most typically does the trick. I truly enjoyed teaching and had lots of fun doing it.

You need to publish some research. It is becoming increasingly common in Denmark to let your PhD thesis consist of a handful – or more - of papers in various stages from published over accepted to submitted. It is then all tied together by an introduction, 30 pages in my case. Get it all bound together and there you go – one PhD thesis ready to be submitted. In Denmark we are pretty informal about layout, binding etc. That’s more or less up to the individual student, so PhD theses come in a variety of sizes and colours!

With respect to the papers – the core of your thesis – it is hard to find any hard rules about how many you need, where they should be published/submitted to etc. In my case my supervisor stated right from the beginning that I should 1) only include papers of which I was a first author, 2) make sure I had at least one single-authored paper in my thesis and 3) publish only in high-quality peer-reviewed journals.

Condition 1 was to make sure that it was blatantly obvious that when the thesis was handed in it would be clear that it was MY work and not somebody else’s where I had just been along for the ride. Condition 2 was for future planning – if you want money from the research councils in Denmark to continue as a postdoc you are ahead of the game if you have some single-authored papers as this is weighted particularly high by the research councils. I ended up with two single-authored papers; one in press and one submitted by the time I handed in my thesis. I generally do believe that in Denmark there are larger generosities towards letting PhD students publish on their own, without their supervisors name on the paper. It’s not my feeling that this is true for the UK, where the Research Assessment Exercise forces every supervisor to be on every paper produced in his or her lab. Condition 3 meant essentially any journal in Science Citation Index.

Eventually you hand in your thesis to the department and the departmental board suggests a PhD evaluation committee. It usually consists of one member from the department, one from another department/university in Denmark and one member from abroad (though this varies somewhat between departments and universities). In my case one member was from the UK and one from Canada. You are then asked to approve of the evaluation committee and the external members are contacted and asked if they are available for reading your thesis and coming to your defence. If the evaluation committee approves of your thesis upon reading it a defence date is then decided upon. If not, you’ll have to retract your thesis, correct it and re-submit it.

Then the defence date arises. In Denmark PhD defences are public and I have experienced PhD defences with anything from 10 to 150+ people sitting in the auditorium, in my case I think there was ~60. You give a talk of not less than 45 and not more than 60 minutes. Then each member of the evaluation committee has 15 minutes to ask you questions. As they have, in principle, already approved of your thesis prior to the defence, this is more an opportunity to get some discussion going between you and the committee. The questioning does serve one last crucial thing: by questioning you back and forth the committee makes sure that YOU are the author of the thesis and that it’s not lifted from somewhere else – or written entirely by a friend of yours etc. Finally, the audience in the auditorium is allowed to ask questions for 15 minutes! I had one or two questions from the audience, as far as I recall. Pretty cool. Immediately afterwards the committee then notifies you if you will be awarded the PhD degree or not. Again, since you are not really being asked to defence until the committee is satisfied with your work this is in 99.99% of all cases a given and you can go party!

I guess I could write a lot more, but this covers the meat of it, I think. I should finish by saying that I had a kick-ass supervisor who knew how to handle red tape and other bs on my behalf, so my PhD went VERY smoothly. Money was also never a problem if I wanted to go somewhere on fieldwork, conferences, workshops etc. I know of others who were less fortunate, but I do not think that my experience is uncommon amongst PhD students in Denmark. Was it good for you too?

PS. Here you can read a lot more about being a PhD student in Denmark.

28 March 2007

Job application experiences...

Iknownotwhattodo had a nice little post about being an academic in the UK. I'd like to follow up with a few comments regarding the postdoc salary level in the UK and the overall experience you get of UK universities when you apply for jobs here.

The academic salaries in the UK may have risen lately, but are (still) ridiculously low when compared to the cost of living, IMHO. When moving from Canada to the UK my postdoc salary essentially remained the same (when doing the currency conversion), but because my cost of living in (urban-ish) Canada was ~70% of living in (rural-ish) UK I had a rather large decrease in my net disposable income. Had I stayed in Denmark my salary as a postdoc there would have been in the 33-40k£ range, compared to the 23k£ I currently make in the UK. Compare that to a Danish PhD student making ~28k£/year... Granted, the Danish income tax is outrageously high, but so is the level of service you get from the government, the streets are clean, the crime-rate is low and the girls are pretty (OK, the latter may not have anything to do with the level of taxation).

Between late 2003 and mid-2005 I applied for ~30 postdoc/faculty jobs at universities in Denmark, Canada, USA, France, UK, and the Netherlands. In my experience all universities mail you a letter acknowledging the receipt of your application and – sooner or later – an invitation for an interview or a polite “Thanks, but no thanks”. That is, all universities except universities in the UK, whom I have come to consider as the most arrogant prospective academic employers you will ever encounter. Not only do UK universities not mail or email you an acknowledgment of receipt of your application. They also do not let you know of the outcome of your application; simply, if you haven't heard from them typically within 3-5 weeks after the deadline you are to assume you didn't get the job (this is typically stated in the job posting). It's unreal, it’s arrogant and it’s extremely impolite. Contrast this with the experience I had when applying for a job at a Danish university:

Late April: Submitted my application, including 3 reprints each of my 10 most important papers, CV, and a list of 3-5 personal referees.

19 May: Received a letter from the faculty (office of the dean) that my application had been received. I was also notified that the members of the search committee would be decided upon within 2-3 weeks and that I would then be notified about their identities.

28 May: Received a letter from the faculty that the hiring department had suggested a search committee consisting of three members. I was notified about their identities and affiliations (1 member from the hiring department, 2 members from abroad) and was informed of my right to file a complaint about the composition of the search committee, if I thought that any of the members would be disqualified. I was also told that I was not allowed to contact any of the search committee members directly regarding the application. Finally, the letter ended with the statement that it was anticipated that the search committee would submit their recommendation to the faculty no later than 17 September. See, the thing is that in Denmark you are generally not being invited for an interview at the hiring department; the decision is made based on your application, publications, CV, and letters of recommendation. (Though the hiring department can call you in for a formal interview and lecture should they wish to do so).

23 September: Received a letter from the faculty that the search committee had filed their recommendation to the faculty. For each applicant the search committee had written a one-page report, which made up the recommendation. Each applicant received their own, signed report but not the reports concerning the other applicants. The report assessed my academic/research qualifications and my teaching qualifications. I was pleased to see that the search committee had used the words 'excellent' generously and denoted my publication record as 'outstanding at the present stage of his career'. They then stated whether or not they considered me suitable for the position, which they didn’t, due to 1) limited teaching experience and 2) no research experience in geomorphology (this was partly a geomorphology job and I did admittedly have no research experience in this area). The letter did not state if I would be offered the job or not (but I decided not to hold my breath…), as it is up to the dean to plough through all the reports and then offer the job to the candidate whose report best fits the job posting according to the search committee. So the search committee more or less writes a report for each candidate and then it's up to the dean. Oh, I was also told that I had until 6 October to complain about my report and the assessment of the search committee if I thought that they had misunderstood something in my application.

Mid-october: Received a final letter from the faculty that I would not be offered the job and that it had been offered to another applicant. ‘We wish you luck in your future career, sincerely yours etc.’ – you’ve probably all received loads of these.

Anyway, I wasn’t too disappointed to get the job, as it was somewhat marginal to my research experience. However, I was very pleased with the overall experience and in particular the outstanding communication between the faculty and the applicants: Four friendly letters outlining the application procedure, where and how to complain about the outcome, AND a written report! Take that you arrogant, self-satisfied UK universities! The great advantage of the written report is that the entire search committee signs it, so if they are high ringers (as in my case) you can use a good report as an external evaluation of your research for future applications.

BTW, got headhunted a while ago by a private company, so I'm on my way out of academia now - and not unhappy about it.

06 February 2007

Peer review - how it works

This is a cool folder about how peer reivew is carried out in science and what it actually means.