Time flies…

January 29th, 2010

…and I look and realise it’s been nearly a fortnight since I last wrote. A lot has happened in that time – especially in terms of work. I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed the use of the lab at CRC and so have access to all kinds of equipment that I can’t easily get in Cambridge or Leicester. People have been very generous with their expertise, too – and lots of colleagues have taken the time to give me demos or to ask about the details of my work. I’ve been out of the office too – last Friday I went over to Rockwell Collins’ offices to talk about modems (the guys there were part of a spin-out from CRC until they were taken over by Rockwell fairly recently) and they gave me some very helpful pointers on my methodology. On Tuesday I had a day out to the Geomagnetic Laboratory to talk about polar HF radio. It’s an idyllic spot, out in the forest beyond the city, in an area protected from development. The site houses scientists and technicians who work on geomagnetism, seismology and solar-terrestrial physics, and they also have an extensive facility for observing the earth’s magnetic field and for testing and calibrating compasses and other magnetic equipment.

It’s not been all work and no play though – last Saturday I went skating on the Rideau Canal. The canal is actually the reason Ottawa exists – it was built to provide a secondary route between Montreal and Toronto that didn’t involve the St Lawrence River during the period in which still-British Canada was under threat from the freshly independent United States. Ottawa is at the junction between the canal and the Ottawa river, which heads down to Montreal. Anyway, in wintertime the canal is drained down to just a few inches of water and allowed to freeze. I haven’t been skating since I was a teenager, and on putting on my hired skates found myself very nervously sliding on the ice. The problem was compounded by the fact that these are smooth skates, with no grip or pick on the toe to help you grip. You have to turn your foot sideways and push off with the blade. I did slowly get the hang of it, and eventually Trish and I skated about 3km out and back, before treating ourselves to a Beavertail from a stall in Byward Market. Beavertails are a traditional winter thing, apparently – imagine a fried doughnut rolled flat and covered in butter and maple syrup? Sweet and greasy and packed with more calories than you can shake a stick at. Mmm…

My other All-Canadian Experience this week was going to watch an ice hockey game. The Ottawa Senators (at the time ranked 17th in the league) were playing the New Jersey Devils (ranked 6th) on Tuesday night. I have to confess to having never really been to a big sporting event before, and this was certainly a big experience. Yes, you watch the game. But there’s music, and video screens, and big flashing LED strips with adverts going round the stadium, and people shooting teeshirts into the crowd with CO2 guns, and all manner of stuff. If you didn’t have ADHD before you started, you quickly found out what it was like. As it happens, the Senators beat the Devils 3-0, much to the delight of the home fans, and at 10pm it was all over. The bus system is well-equipped to handle the crowds, and I reckon I was in downtown Ottawa on the bus before Trish had even got out of the carpark! Sadly, the change from OCTranspo to STO buses in Ottawa involved a 20-minute wait in the cold, but at least the bus went straight back to the house and I got home just before midnight.

I have just a week left in Ottawa now, before heading to Boston in the US of A for a few days and then finally home.


January 18th, 2010

When I told people in Cambridge that I was off to Ottawa, several suggestions came up as to what I should do. “Go skiing in Gatineau Park”, they said, “it’s great”. So, on Saturday afternoon, I hired some cross-country skis from Greg Christie’s and decided to dust off my elementary Nordic skiing skills, last practiced on the sea-ice at Rothera in 2006.

I chose Mr Christie’s emporium because it is very close to the park perimeter. Kouassi gave me a lift there, as there’s no public transport to Old Chelsea at the weekends. Hiring the skis was easy enough, but the logistics proved a little more fiddly. The shop is close to the park, but not close enough to walk or ski to the start of the ski trails. Also, I wanted a map, which can only be obtained from the visitor centre at the other end of the town. You also need a permit to ski in the park, which can also be obtained from the visitor centre, or at the carparks in the park itself. So we made a multipoint car journey and I found myself setting off from the Fortune carpark having acquired my map and permit en route.

I set off slightly nervously, but quickly got into my stride, heading uphill along a wide piste which turned out (like many of the trails at the popular end of the park) to be a single-carriageway road in the summer. Some of the road signs are a bit incongruous! I skied up to a junction in the trail about 3km from the carpark, and stopped for a drink of water and looked at the map. A helpful local suggested some routes that I might try, and I took his advice, heading off along a much narrower trail through the woods towards one of the little lodge cabins you can use for rest stops. At the Huron cabin I stopped and went inside for a drink of water and a snack – the cabin is warm, with a woodburning stove, and is equipped with a large number of picnic tables to sit at inside. From Huron I went up onto the ridge and took pictures of the view across the river valley to Ottawa. It’s very beautiful, and you’d hardly know you were looking at a capital city less than fifteen minutes drive away.

Having reached the peak of my route, I was faced with a new challenge – going downhill! Having learned my technique on flat sea-ice, I gingerly learned how to snowplough down the wide trail and thought I’d got the hang of it. My return route (as suggested by the Helpful Chap earlier) was via a more difficult “blue” trail as opposed to the “green” ones I’d tried so far. The change in difficulty means that the trail is narrower and much more undulating – all up and down with very little level. On one of the short downhill sections I lost my balance and fell over – but only injured my pride. Unfortunately, as the trail went on and I got progressively more tired, I fell over several more times. The most spectacular saw me fall forwards onto my chest, knocking the wind out of me but otherwise causing no ill effects. Shortly after recovering from this one, my nervous snowploughing failed again and I fell, tangling myself with a pole and wrenching my left shoulder. I picked myself up and trundled back to the carpark carefully, walking down some of the steeper sections of the trail. When I got home I worked out that I’d skied about 15km and acquired a selection of interesting aches and pains.

There are pictures here for you to enjoy.

On Sunday I went to church again and sang in the choir, which was lots of fun. In the afternoon I relaxed and nursed my acheing self before heading out in the evening for dinner with two colleagues from CRC. I’m still a bit stiff and achey but definitely getting better. I’ll take some lessons next time…

Collaborations, collaborations

January 15th, 2010

Well, I’ve been here for a week now, and I’m now getting pretty well-known around the CRC campus. Everyone’s been very friendly and lots of people have taken an interest in my work. This afternoon I gave a talk on my research – the longest I’ve ever done, at 45 minutes – to an audience of interested experts, and lots of discussion and questions ensued. I’ve also been offered the use of a lab full of shiny toys – actually, the sort of stuff I’d have gnawed my own arm off to have had the use of in my first year – and so I shall be moving in there pretty soon to do some more channel simulation work. One question that did come up this afternoon after the talk was “what exactly will your thesis be on?” – which is a very good question! I need to decide pretty soon which of the many interesting bits of the project I’m going to concentrate on for the remaining time before I down tools and get writing.

This evening I’ve been to choir practice at Christ Church Aylmer (to which I was invited on Sunday) and enjoyed singing with a new group of people. Oh, and at lunchtime I went to the gym with four of the guys from CRC, and I suspect I will feel the aftereffects tomorrow!

Dropbox, Zotero and other useful tools for the itinerant student

January 13th, 2010

I’ve been a fan of online backup services for a while now – in fact, I’ve been using JungleDisk to keep backups of my photos for over a year. But I was more recently introduced to Dropbox, which is similar but also different. Dropbox creates an area on your hard disk which is automatically backed up to their servers, but which is also synchronised with any other computer you have logged in to your Dropbox account. I’ve used this to allow me to bring all my work-related files with me to Ottawa. Before I left Cambridge, I copied the contents of my personal area on the file server to the Dropbox area on my work laptop. At CRC I’m not allowed to connect my work laptop to their network, so I installed Dropbox on the desktop PC there and it all synced across. Now when i work on the desktop PC during the day all my files are backed up to Dropbox and can then sync back to either my work or personal laptops when I get back to the apartment in the evening.

When I finally go back to Cambridge, I can use SyncToy to keep the file server at work in sync with the Dropbox system, giving me an additional backup. It’ll be great for visits to Leicester and for working from home, too – because all the files are locally cached, I can work with or without internet access and things will sync back when the machine next connects.

One further refinement I added today was making Zotero work with Dropbox. Zotero is a plugin for Firefox that handles citations – I use it in preference to Endnote, Refworks or CiteULike because of the ease of adding papers to Zotero’s database from within the browser. Anyway, moving my Zotero folder to the Dropbox folder now means that all my citations databases stay synchronised across all my computers, which is great!

If you’d like to try Dropbox, you get 2GB of storage free, and if you sign up via my referral link we both get an extra 250MB of space.

Weekend things

January 11th, 2010

This weekend has mostly been about getting established. Yesterday I went for a brief stroll around the neighbourhood (Aylmer) and found the shops and a bank. Later, Kouassi gave me a lift into Ottawa and I spent the afternoon noodling round – but it was too cold (-15!) to stand around sightseeing for too long, and I had to keep going into shops and cafes to warm up. Next time I’ll put long johns on under my trousers… I did however manage to buy a pair of jeans, my first ever pair of Levis in fact, in a department store owned by the Hudson Bay Trading Company (yes, that one – established 1670!). They were in the sale and seem more sensibly priced over here anyway.

Today, Sunday, I woke up early, being still somewhat jetlagged, and considered going to church. A quick Google turned up an Anglican church within ten minutes walk. The church was warm and the people were friendly. Three baptisms and communion later, I found myself being made a fuss of over coffee and home-made cake. Very nice indeed! Read the rest of this entry »


January 9th, 2010

I am in Ottawa! I’m spending four weeks here at the Communications Research Centre, picking the brains of the radio communications experts to help me with my PhD. I arrived yesterday afternoon – after a very early start, a National Express coach to Heathrow and a direct Air Canada flight – all of which went swimmingly well despite snow in the UK and talk of travel chaos.

In my mind, I somehow think of Canadians as being hardworking and friendly with a good sense of humour. So far, reality is confirming the stereotype. Small things to start with: the immigration queue at the airport is very democratic, everyone stands in one line, fills in the same form and speaks to the immigration officer, whether citizen or visitor. There’s none of the Daily Mail-inspired “Fortress UK” stuff you see at British airports.

I’m staying with a family – Vicky works at CRC and her husband Kouassi is a civil servant. They have two children, a daughter of about 6 and a son of 2. Their house has a “basement apartment” – like a granny annexe – which I’m staying in while I’m here. It is generous by British standards, and positively palatial compared with living on the boat. I have a bedroom, a living room with a dining table for six and a TV the size of Luxembourg, and a kitchen with the customary ginormous American-style fridge-freezer. Oh, and a bathroom with a corner bath I could virtually swim in. Beats staying in a hotel, and I can cook for myself. Vicky can give me a lift to and from the office, which is great. They’re a French-speaking household, so I can see that my French will gain some polish. At the moment it’s slightly worrying to find that my language isn’t even as good as a two-year-old’s…

Today I went into CRC with Vicky. She works early hours – 0730 until 1530 – so that she can take little Mathys to his daycare centre and get back before it closes. But it seems that most Ottawans get to work early – being in work by 8 is pretty common. Kouassi explains that in winter people like to finish work before it’s dark!

CRC shares a site with several other government agencies, including the Canadian Space Agency and part of the Department of National Defense. As a result, security is a little more formal than most places that I’ve worked. When I arrived, I went to the guardhouse to collect my pass, and had the security briefing and signed various forms bearing threats of imprisonment should I leak any information that’s of value to the Canadian government. You’ll excuse me, therefore, if I skate around the exact details of what some of my CRC colleagues work on!

I was shown around by Chris, an enthusiastic engineer. The site has the slightly tatty feel of many research centres, a ramshackle group of buildings linked by underground corridors so that you don’t have to brave the biting wind and snow to go to the library or canteen. As is the Canadian way, lots of coffee was consumed, and I was introduced to the breakfast ritual – on Friday, the terrestrial wireless guys all have fried breakfast in the canteen, which is excellent and very cheap.

By just after breakfast, I had an office, a desk, a computer, access to the internet and a temporary security pass, with the promise of a proper one next week. I also managed to log in to my experiments in Antarctica, so I’m all nicely set up to get down to work. All the CRC guys have been very friendly and lots of people have expressed an interest in my work, which has been great. We’ll see what Monday brings.