An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!

Data management

September 20th, 2013

There’s a software-developer maxim that I heard recently, which is “if you’re writing code, you should be using source control”. Source control, also known as version control, is a system that looks after all the code that you write and stores it, and data about all the changes you make to it, in a form that allows you to revert to previous versions easily. It also allows you to work collaboratively with other people. By analogy with this principle, let me introduce a new maxim: “if you’re collecting data, you should be doing data management”. What’s “data management”? Let me explain…

Data management is looking after your data, and storing it a form that makes it easy to retrieve and understand later. A common situation is that you start out doing some “play” experiments, fiddling about to try and get a handle on some new piece of equipment. You collect some data, perhaps some numbers in a logbook, perhaps some sort of data file. Then you do more experiments, and unless you were meticulous, you end up with a whole load of different experimental results with filenames like DATA_EXPT.xls, DATA_EXPT2.XLS, DATA_TUESDAY.xls, etc. You put them aside for a week and then come back to them. They were meaningful then, but now you’ve forgotten what the parameters were, or which of the runs produced interesting results. Now you have a data management problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Things I learned from my PhD

October 26th, 2011

Despite the title, this isn’t going to be a post about HF radio in the polar regions (which was the subject of my thesis). It’s more a compilation of thoughts about how I went about my PhD and how I would have done it differently with the benefit of hindsight. I’m going to divide this into three sections:

General thoughts on doing a PhD

A PhD is the traditional entry point to a career in academia. I knew in advance that I did not want a career as a university lecturer, so why did I do it? Partly vanity, partly the desire to work on my own research project for three years, is the honest answer. Was it a good use of three years I could otherwise have spent gaining valuable career experience in industry? I’m not sure. One comment I will make to my fellow electronic engineers: unlike in pure science, most of the exciting and cutting edge research in electronic engineering is not happening in university research labs – it’s happening in the R&D departments of big companies. I would strongly advise anyone wanting to do postgraduate study in electronics to seek an industrial partner to work with rather than working solely in a university. Read Dave Pearce’s wise, if rather cynical, words on the subject here.

A serious point: my PhD brought me anxiety, sleepless nights and depression at various stages. If you have not had mental health problems before (I hadn’t really), then be prepared for this if you take one on. Depression for me manifests itself as a lack of ability to make any kind of decision unprompted, a feeling of “mental numbness” rather than actual melancholy. If you have already had mental health problems, make sure you know what to do when you spot the early symptoms.

This evening I heard Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell on the radio talking about her PhD, and she made a telling comment that she worried about not getting her PhD (during her writing-up) even though her work had made a groundbreaking discovery and had been published in Nature. Her supervisor and head of department would later be awarded a Nobel Prize for her work! If this is true for her, it will be even more true for you, as it was for me.

Things I got right, and would recommend to others

Seek the funding early and ensure it is in place before the studentship starts. Do not trust academics who promise you funding until all the paperwork is in place.

Funding includes an operating budget, not just your stipend. NERC research grants do now come with decent operating budgets, but make sure you have enough money to pay for the cost of the equipment/fieldwork that you need. One of my supervisors had deep pockets and paid for a lot of my equipment, for which I was very grateful.

Treat your PhD as a job. Work office hours (perhaps customised slightly to whether you’re a dawn lark or a night owl) and don’t expect to work weekends except in an emergency. Don’t treat it like being an undergrad!

Conversely, you have unrivalled flexibility, so take advantage of that when opportunities come along.

Seek out collaborators beyond your immediate environs. I had input from researchers in Australia, Canada and Poland – they were hugely helpful and added a lot to my work. Most researchers are friendly and helpful – if you write a polite email to them (even if you’ve never met) they may well be able to help you. You can often gain access to valuable unpublished data in this way!

You will meet a lot of people. Get yourself business cards – ideally, get your institution to print you proper ones, but if they won’t then buy some of your own from or some similar service. It’s much easier to give someone a card at a conference or meeting than to scrabble for a bit of paper and write your email address on it.

Write things down as you go along. I was mostly good at this, but seriously – when you perform some kind of procedure or experiment, write the method down! You may need to repeat it later and will have forgotten some of the nuances. Ideally, write up each little experiment as its own mini-report. It will save you heaps of time later and will also clarify your thoughts.

Use reference management systems from the word go. I used Zotero, which is a plugin for Firefox, and makes it very easy to gather references. Zotero is more of a headache when it comes to writing up, so I’d recommend exporting the library from Zotero into Endnote (if you have it) for the writing-up stage.

Take advantage of all the training opportunities you have. Leicester ran a number of excellent courses for postgrad researchers, the best of which was GRADschool, which is a national scheme. If your uni offers GRADschool, do it! If they don’t, apply for a place on the national one.

Do look after your data, and make use of the right tools to handle it. I amassed a huge amount of data from my year-long propagation study and one of the best decisions I ever made was to import it all into an Oracle database on a server at BAS. It took me a few days to do, but gave me so much flexibility in crunching a big dataset later.

Do consider getting away from the office to write up. My writing-up cruise on the boat worked well for me, but is possibly a bit extreme. A colleague of a friend of mine booked a cheap package holiday in order to get started on a big chunk of his thesis – not a bad plan if you have the self-discipline not to just lie on the beach!

Go to conferences – they are interesting and fun, and you learn stuff and meet potential collaborators. I like giving talks and presentations and meeting people, so I love conferences. If you lack confidence in giving a talk, do a presentation skills course: by this I mean a course on how to speak in public, not a course on how to use PowerPoint. I did one at the BBC – a one day course taught by a former actor – which was excellent and did wonders for my presentation style.

Use Dropbox. Dropbox is brilliant. It keeps your data backed up and synced between multiple computers. Simple, but effective. One point to note is that Dropbox for Windows (XP – this might have been fixed in Windows 7) cannot sync an MS Word or Excel document while it is open in Word or Excel – so even though you are saving, Dropbox cannot back it up for you until you close the document. On the Mac, Dropbox can back up the documents every time you save without closing the document. It’s to do with the different ways that Windows and Mac OS work with open files.

Things I got wrong, and would recommend that others avoid doing

Proposing your own research topic is risky. If your supervisor(s) have a direct vested interest in your work, they are more likely to give you the support you need.

Choosing the right place to do your project is very important. This I got wrong – BAS were great, and provided me with money and opportunities, but there was no expertise in my specific sub-field that I could draw on. I had thought that Leicester would have provided this expertise, but their research interests were not quite in the same sub-field either. The right place to have done my PhD would have been CRC in Ottawa. I am not joking when I say that my four weeks in Ottawa (half way through my third year) were more productive than my entire first year. I had access to the right expertise and the right lab equipment. A fellow student at BAS switched to working full-time at BAS (and relocated to Cambridge) at the end of her first year because BAS was the right place for her – I should have gone to Ottawa at that stage – had I known!

Don’t try and do a “broad” thesis. My PhD topic is much too broad, which meant that I struggled to achieve the necessary depth within the word limit. A tightly-specified “narrow” project will be easier to write up. If your work is interdisciplinary, you may find it difficult to get your thesis narrow enough.

Don’t work in a dead field. Seriously, my field is almost as dead as a doornail – most of the interesting recent work of much value was funded by NATO in the 90s and stopped in about 2000. The experts at CRC had been told not to work on my field for the last ten years, although they are working on it again now. A corollary to this is that lots of important work is published in obscure conference proceedings which are hard to get, rather than in journals. Worse, stuff is published in NATO reports which are out-of-print or not available electronically.

Not having access to publications is a major headache. During my first year, Leicester’s library didn’t have electronic access to IEEE and IET conference publications, only to journals. Cambridge UL (to which I had guest access) didn’t have this either. Most of the work in my field was published at conferences, so I had several trips to the British Library and IET library to obtain publications. The British Library’s computer systems are slow and don’t let you cut-and-paste, so you spend ages typing queries into the search boxes to find the papers you want. You can only get the papers out as hard copies, which you pay for. By my second year, the library had upgraded to a subscription that included conferences and provided a proxy service to give me access to them from outside the university network. This saved so much time and effort.

Choose your supervisor(s) very carefully. Ideally, talk to their existing students and find out what they are like. Many academics are not good at people management and many are lousy supervisors. Also, visit their research group office – is it busy, with an air of quiet industry? Are their adverts for upcoming seminars and presentations? Are the posters on the wall from recent conferences? If not, walk away…

Working remotely from your supervisor is a particular challenge. Do not assume that they read your emails. If you do not receive a reply, call them. If they do not answer the phone, call the departmental secretary (or their PA, if they have one) and find out if they are in.

Do not schedule your viva for Friday afternoon and then start a new and demanding job on the following Monday morning. Enough said, I think.

I shall stop here, and recommend similar posting by two friends of mine – this one is a compilation of advice, while this one is a more personal perspective aimed at mathematicians.

End of the PhD, finally…

October 26th, 2011

My PhD is now over – all bar a few bits of administration! My internal examiner was satisfied with my corrections and the thesis has now been printed and bound. I had a drink with two of my supervisors to celebrate and give them copies of the finished thesis (as is traditional). All that remains is for me to seek copyright clearances – my thesis will be published on the web by Leicester University, and to do that I need to seek permission from all the people whose images I have used to illustrate it. This means writing a lot of emails and waiting for responses. Once this is done I can submit the final form and await a certificate at the end of January…

October is here…

October 4th, 2011

…and my revised PhD thesis (now with 37% more words!) has gone to my internal examiner. He promises to get back to me by the end of the week. I’ll keep you posted.

Viva voce

March 27th, 2011

My viva was on Friday afternoon. This is the traditional conclusion to a PhD, when the candidate is examined orally by two or more examiners about the work that they’ve done. The examiners also give their opinions on the candidate’s thesis. At most universities, one examiner comes from your own university and another (the “external” examiner) is a senior academic at another university brought in to ensure that the work is of a sufficient standard.

I wasn’t especially nervous about my viva, as there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it in advance. When it finally began (at 2pm on a Friday, which is rarely a time when anyone is at their best), it quickly became clear that the two examiners were going concentrate their attention on the physics aspect of my thesis, which is my weakest subject. In the initial conversation it was pretty clear that they did not think there was enough weight to my thesis, which rankled somewhat as I’d been specifically told by one of my supervisors to keep the length down to around 20,000 words (out of a possible 30,000).

There were several embarrassing moments when the examiners went through the introductory physics chapter of my thesis – particularly when it was pointed out that I had completely mis-explained the key physics of how radio waves are reflected by the ionosphere, a lot of which is GCSE-level physics! Oh well.

It therefore wasn’t surprising that the two examiners (both of which are engineers but with a very strong maths/physics bias to their own work) felt that my thesis required significant further work.

I was offered the choice between a “pass with major corrections” or a “referral”. The former means that you are awarded your PhD subject to producing a revised thesis within six months to the internal examiner’s satisfaction. Failure to achieve this results in a total loss of the PhD. A “referral” kicks your PhD into the long grass, giving you twelve months to produce a revised thesis, whereupon you have to resubmit the thesis formally, pay a re-examination fee and potentially have another viva. I chose to take the major corrections route.

I’ll receive the formal list of corrections from the examiners this week. The major items are two pieces of analysis work – one based on the use of propagation prediction software, and one based on analysing some data that I had not had time to work on during the main part of my PhD.

I may be curtailing my social life somewhat until it’s done. Sorry about that.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get this far. Somehow I feel that I’ve neither passed nor failed, but been assigned to a special form of graduate student purgatory… oh well.

Day 13: more work, less cruising

June 24th, 2010

This morning I got rather carried away – I wrote over a thousand words, drew some pretty diagrams and received some Helpful and Interesting Data from a friendly Australian researcher. Suddenly it was 1pm and time to have lunch and go cruising!

I motored round the corner into the centre of Stoke Bruerne, which was full of boats and tourists as ever. I lined up on the lock-mooring and then a man sitting on the balance beam shouted to me that he was lining up the lock for two hireboats that were just about to depart from outside the pub opposite. I sat there and waited for them, fuming slightly that they had a profusion of people and that had they split up and shared with me it would have been less work for me… but hey. I did the seven locks down to the bottom and then cruised along through lots of bucolic countryside to Cosgrove, a suitably quirky canal village outside Milton Keynes. I’ve finally realised why canal cruising feels different to river cruising: rivers made the landscape around them, so they lie at the bottom of valleys and you look up at things. They also flood, so villages and towns keep back from the water’s edge. Only large industrial towns, where industry wanted water, approach the riverbank closely. By contrast, a canal is built into a pre-existing landscape. You get views from embankments and aqueducts, and countless bridges cross, reconnecting farms and rights of way cut in two by the navigation. You also get villages, pubs, warehouses and wharves to look at. British Waterways’ influence gives the canal system a vaguely consistent feel, too.

Cosgrove is less touristy than Stoke Bruerne, and yet just as pretty. It has a pretty ornamented bridge next to where I’m moored, a cluster of old warehouses turned into flats and offices, and a rather quaint little tunnel that connects the two halves of the village’s original main street which was cut in half by the canal embankment. The tunnel is keyhole-shaped, so that a horse can walk through it!

A little way outside the village is a junction with the Buckingham Arm of the canal, which once connected that town with the main line, and also was used to tranship goods onto waggons on the Roman road of Watling Street, which is now the A5. The Arm is derelict now apart from the first half-mile or so which is used for moorings. There is inevitably a Canal Society dedicated to restoring it.
By the junction is a short lock – all of three feet of rise – and beyond it a mighty iron aqueduct over the Great Ouse.

Tomorrow I shall meander round the outskirts of Milton Keynes to Fenny Stratford, and then spend a weekend locking over the Chilterns with friends…

Day 13: Stoke Bruerne to Cosgrove, 6 miles and 7 locks.
Total so far 136 miles and 68 locks. Thesis 8183 words and 40 pages.


June 14th, 2010

I’m in Krakow this week – and before you ask, the boat has not mysteriously developed the ability to fly – although a narrowboat slung form a giant airship would be rather cool!

I attended the European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna at the beginning of May, where I met Piotr Koperski who was presenting a paper on some technology very similar to my own. He’s a physicist and was keen for me to meet his engineer colleagues, so they invited me to Krakow for a meeting.

I flew out yesterday from Stansted on Ryanair. I like flying, even on a commercial airliner and even on Ryanair. I even like spending time in airports. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me! Anyway, my flight was uneventful and I arrived in Krakow at about 2130 and was met by Marian Soida, one of Piotr’s colleagues. They work for the Jagellonian University – the oldest in Poland, founded in 1364 – and specifically work at the Astronomical Observatory, a short drive from the airport. Astronomers being the sort who need to work bizaare hours, the Observatory has accommodation on site which is where I’m staying.

The Observatory itself is certainly a lovely setting. It’s on a hilltop at the edge of the city and surrounded by woodland. The summit of the hill itself is occupied by a Napoleonic-era fort (very like the Palmerston forts on Portsdown Hill) which is now home to three optical telescopes in their characteristic domes. Further down the hill, inamongst the lawns and flowerbeds, are various radio telescopes – one big one (15m diameter) and one smaller one (8m). There’s also a volleyball court and two office buildings (imaginatively called “old building” and “new building”) which house offices, labs and a library.

On Tuesday I gave a short talk about my work and then engaged in more detailed discussions over a late lunch at a restaurant down the road. Traditional Polish food was on the menu – borscht (beetroot soup) and then potato pancakes (like rosti – fried grated potato) with goulash. Very tasty indeed.

On Wednesday I managed to do some work on my thesis and then Piotr took me into the city centre. Krakow is certainly pretty – lots of tall stone buildings in various baroque-ish styles, and a grand castle overlooking the river. The city’s old defensive ramparts are now a semicircular park, the Planty, which surrounds the old town. After an afternoon’s wander around, I met Janusz for a beer in a subterranean pub, very atmospheric.

On Thursday we had a final meeting to wrap up what we’d decided to work on. This in a rather smart little meeting room at the observatory with grandiose upholstered chairs and a little wooden table. A secretary brought in a tray of tea and coffee and shortly after she left, I reached for my notebook, nudged the little table and managed to spill everyone’s coffee. Much chaos ensued while we cleared up. It wasn’t just my inherent clumsiness as Andrzej did the same thing later – the table was at just the wrong height to catch your knees on.

Friday brought me back to the UK again, and changed perspectives on Poland. Certainly in the areas of Krakow I visited, everything looked well-maintained and relatively prosperous, much better than I was expecting. Do go and visit if you can – it’s an interesting (and cheap) place for a city break!

Everyone’s been very friendly and helpful. I’ll take some pictures of the observatory tomorrow.

Days 1 and 2 – a gentle farewell to the familiar

May 25th, 2010

I left Cambridge on Monday afternoon at around half-past two. In the morning I’d run a few last-minute errands and then sat down to skim over a thesis from another researcher in the group to help give me ideas as to how to organise my own.

The first leg was over very familiar territory – from my customary mooring on Midsummer Common to the public mooring at Clayhithe, on the outskirts of Waterbeach village. I’ve done this route many times before when I used to moor at Waterbeach and had to bring Innocenti into Cambridge periodically to pump out. Having arrived at Clayhithe, I fairly soon headed back to Cambridge by train – in order to meet friends at the Cambridge Beer Festival! This slightly cock-eyed arrangement – after all, the beer festival is held a stone’s throw from where I had been moored – was so that I didn’t have to spend a full day cruising singlehandedly later in the week.

Day 1: Cambridge to Waterbeach – 5 miles and 1 lock.

Tuesday morning saw me awake with no discernible beer festival after-effects and then sit down to draft a thesis outline to send to my supervisor. The idea is to organise quite a lot of disparate material into a coherent narrative, so I’ve laid out chapter and subsection headings showing how I’ll try and achieve this. Just as I was coming to the end, I found myself invited for coffee with Jackie of WB Pippin on my former mooring site by Bottisham Lock. She was headed out later, so I motored down there for a coffee and caught up with her and another former neighbour, Gabriel. Back to the boat for some more work – a few emails and a re-read of some other literature.

I also rang the lock-keeper at Denver Sluice to find out the time of the passages across the tidal section of the Great Ouse and into the Middle Level at Salter’s Lode. I was offered a choice of 6pm today, 7:30am tomorrow or 8am Thursday. Having looked at the distances involved, I reckoned 8am Thursday was the best bet. That would allow me to go to Ely or Littleport today, on to Denver on Wednesday, and then go through with the tide first thing on Thursday before heading on to March in the afternoon.

So, after lunch, I went to Ely. This always takes longer than I think – and I wasn’t moored up in the city centre until after 4pm. I paused here and undertook a provision expedition to Tesco’s! Suitably re-stocked, I decided on an early dinner and then motored on with the intention of stopping about half-way to Littleport. The mooring there looked busy – although as I passed I realised that the gap between boats wasn’t as small as it looked and I’d have got in easily – and I pressed on to Littleport. The first two public moorings were full, but fortunately there was a space on the final one and I eased into it just after 8pm. Tomorrow there should be more work and less cruising, as it’s only 3 hours down to Denver and I won’t have anyone to distract me!

Day 2: Waterbeach to Littleport, 17 miles and 1 lock.
Total so far: 22 miles and 2 locks. Thesis 160 words, 3 pages.

The cruise begins here!

May 24th, 2010

So, after a year of faffing about and talking about it, I’m about to embark on the first leg of the Writing Up cruise, heading out from Cambridge to Waterbeach (Clayhithe) this afternoon. I’ve had a productive morning sorting out the outline of my thesis, reviewing some literature and dealing with emails.

Lots of people have expressed an interest in this cruise, either volunteering to help me crew the boat, or just generally. So, for all those who’d like to follow the cruise from their desks, I’ve fitted Innocenti with a webcam and GPS. If you click through to my Flickr map you should see spots on the map indicating the boat’s position. Each spot is a photo taken with the webcam every 3 minutes, so you can follow my progress and enjoy the scenery!