This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.
My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.
The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.
This is just…wooooah. Proper “dude, my hands are huge” grade moment, for me, when I watched the bubbles form in the droplet of water. I had an idea about what would happen, and I was partially right, but by the time we were onto the third run-through of this experiment I realised that I’d been seeing more in it every single time.
As she passed through Oxfordshire on Sunday, she spotted the stricken cow.
Delightful. The “urban mermaid” Lindsey Cole has been swimming along the Thames as a mermaid in order to raise awareness of plastic pollution. She spotted what she thought was a big white plastic sack and swam on, indicating to her support boat to pick it up… but when they caught up they realised that it was a drowning cow! Some while later, they arranged for its successful rescue.
[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Update: following feedback from folks who found this post from Twitter, I just wanted to say at the top of this post – we’re all okay.[/spb_message]
Our holiday in Devon last week turned out to be… memorable… both for happy holiday reasons and for somewhat more-tragic ones. Selected features of the trip included:
We spent most of the week in Croyde, a picturesque and tourist-centric village on Devon’s North coast. The combination of the life of a small village and being at the centre of a surfer scene makes for a particularly eccentric and culturally-unusual place. Quirky features of the village included the bakery, which seemed to only bake a half-dozen croissants each morning and sell out shortly after they opened (which was variably between 8am and 9am, pretty much at random), the ice cream shop which closed at lunchtime on the hottest day of our stay, and the fish & chip shop that was so desperate to “use up their stock”, for some reason, that they suggested that we might like a cardboard box rather than a carrier bag in which to take away our food, “so they could get rid of it”.
The Eden Project
Ever since it opened in the early 2000s, I’d always wanted to visit The Eden Project – a group of biome domes deep in the valley of a former Cornish quarry, surrounded by gardens and eco-exhibitions and stuff. And since we’d come all of the way to Devon (via Cardiff, which turns out to be quite the diversion, actually!), we figured that we might as well go the extra 90 miles into Cornwall to visit the place. It was pretty fabulous, actually, although the heat and humidity of the jungle biome really did make it feel like we were trekking through the jungle, from time to time.
On one day of our holiday, I took an afternoon to make a 6½ mile hike/jog around the Northern loop of the Way Down West series of geocaches, which turned out to be somewhat gruelling on account of the ill-maintained rural footpaths of North Devon and taking an inadequate supply of water for the heat of the afternoon.
On the upside, though, I managed to find 55 geocaches in a single afternoon, on foot, which is more than three times my previous best “daily score”, and took me through some genuinely beautiful and remote Devon countryside.
We took an expedition out to Watermouth Castle, which turned out to be an experience as eccentric as we’d found Croyde to be, before it. The only possible explanation I can think of for the place is that it must be owned by a child of a hoarder, who inherited an enormous collection of random crap and needed to find a way to make money out of it… so they turned it into something that’s 50% museum, 50% theme park, and 100% fever dream.
There’s a cellar full of old bicycles. A room full of old kitchen equipment. A room containing a very large N-gauge model railway layout. Several rooms containing entertainments that would have looked outdated on a 1970s pier: fortune tellers, slot machines, and delightfully naïve peep-show boxes. A hedge maze with no exit. A disturbingly patriotic water show with organ accompaniment. A garden full of dancing gnomes. A hall of mirrors. A mock 1920s living room. A room full of primitive washing machines and their components. The whole thing feels schizophrenic, but somehow charming too: like a reminder of how far entertainment and conveniences have come in the last hundred years.
We took a hike out to beautiful Baggy Point, a beautiful headland stretching out into the Atlantic to make it the Easternmost point in North Devon. It was apparently used by soldiers training for the D-Day landings, but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to graze goats. The whole area made me reminisce about walks to Borth along the Ceredigion coast. Unfortunately for Ruth and JTA, who headed back to our accommodation before me, I’d failed to hand them the key to the front door before we parted ways and I went off to explore the rest of the headland, and in my absence they had to climb in through the window.
For all of the wonderful things we got up to in Devon, though – everything above and more besides – the reason that we’ll no-doubt never forget this particular trip came as we set off on our way home.
[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this section discusses a tragic car accident.[/spb_message]
About an hour after we set off for home on our final day in Devon, we ended up immediately behind a terrible crash, involving two cars striking one another head-on at an incredible speed. We saw it coming with only seconds to spare before both vehicles smashing together, each thrown clear to a side of the road as a cloud of shattered glass and metal was flung into the air. JTA was driving at this point, and hit the brakes in time to keep us clear of the whirling machines, but it was immediately apparent that we were right in the middle of something awful. I shouted for Ruth and JTA to see what they could do (they’re both Red Cross first aiders, after all) as I phoned the emergency services and extracted our location from the SatNav, then started working to ensure that a path was cleared through the traffic so that the ambulances would be able to get through.
A passer-by – an off-duty police officer – joined Ruth and I in performing CPR on one of the drivers, until paramedics arrived. My first aid training’s rusty compared to Ruth and JTA’s, of course, but even thinking back to my training so long ago, I can tell you is that doing it with a real person – surrounded by glass and oil and blood – is a completely different experience to doing it on a dummy. The ambulance crew took over as soon as they arrived, but it seems that it was too late for her. Meanwhile the driver of the other car, who was still conscious and was being supported by JTA, hung on bravely but, local news reported, died that afternoon in hospital. Between the two cars, two people were killed; the third person – a passenger – survived, as did a dog who was riding in the back of one of the cars.
I am aware that I’ve described the incident, and our participation in its aftermath, in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s because I’m honestly not sure what I mean to say, beyond that. It’s something that’s shaken me – the accident was, as far as I could see, the kind of thing that could happen to any of us at any time, and that realisation forces upon me an incredible sense of my own fragility. Scenes from the experience – the cars shattering apart; the dying driver; her courageous passenger – haunt me. But it feels unfair to dwell on such things: no matter what I feel, there’s no way to ignore the stark truth that no matter how much we were affected by the incident… the passenger, and the families and friends of those involved, will always have been affected more.
It took hours for us to get back on the road again, and the police were very apologetic. But honestly: I don’t think that any of us felt 100% happy about being behind the wheel of a car again after what had just happened. Our journey back home was slow and cautious, filled with the images of the injuries we’d seen and with a newly acute awareness of the dangers of the glass-and-metal box we sat inside. We stopped at a service station part-way home, and I remarked to Ruth how surreal it felt that everybody around us was behaving so normally: drinking a coffee; reading a paper; oblivious to the fact that just a few tens of miles and a couple of hours away, people just like them had lost their lives, doing exactly what they were about to go and do.
It’s all about perspective, of course. I feel a deep sorrow for the poor families of the people who didn’t make it. I feel a periodic pang of worry that perhaps there were things I could have done: What if I’d have more-recently practised first aid? What if I’d more-quickly decoded our position and relayed it to the operator? What if I’d have offered to help Ruth immediately, rather than assuming that she had sufficient (and the right kind of) help and instead worked on ensuring that the traffic was directed? I know that there’s no sense in such what-if games: they’re just a slow way to drive yourself mad.
Maybe I’m just looking for a silver lining or a moral or something in this story that I just can’t find. For a time I considered putting this segment into a separate blog post: but I realised that the only reason I was doing so was to avoid talking about it. And as I’m sure you all know already, that’s not a healthy approach.
Right now, I can only say one thing for certain: our holiday to Devon is a trip I’ll never forget.
Recently, I’ve reduced my hours working at the Bodleian in order to be able to spend more time working on Three Rings and engaging in other bits of freelance work… and to increase my flexibility so that I can be available for childcare and to generally make things more-convenient for the other Greendalians and I. Unfortunately, on my very second day of this new working arrangement Nena (which I built in 2008) had her power supply blow up, which sort-of threw a spanner into the works. This, along with a scary recent hard drive failure in JTA‘s computer, I took as being a sign from the Universe that it was time to build myself a new PC to replace Toni, my primary box, and relegate Toni to be the new Nena. It was time to build: Cosmo.
Given that I had a little cash to burn, I decided that it must finally be time to fulfil a couple of long-standing dreams I’ve had – things I’ve wanted to do when building my last two or three computers, but never been able to justify the expense. And so I set out to build my new “dream computer”: a beast of a machine which would present me with some fresh engineering challenges during construction. Key features that I wanted to include were:
Most computers are air-cooled: the “hot” components like the processor and graphics chipset are covered with a heatsink (which works just like the fins on a motorcycle engine: drawing heat away through contact with cool air) and, generally, a fan (to improve airflow over the heatsink and thus increase cooling). Air cooling, though, is inefficient (the transfer of heat from components to air isn’t very fast) and noisy (“hot”-running air-cooled computers are annoyingly loud), and so in my last few PC builds I’ve drifted towards using cooler and quieter components, such as processors that are overpowered for what they’ll actually be asked to do (like Tiffany2, who’s virtually silent) and all-in-one liquid coolers for my CPUs (like these ones, from CoolerMaster – note that these still have a fan, but the use of a radiator means that the fan can be large, slow, and quiet, unlike conventional CPU fans which spin quickly and make noise).
But I’ve always had this dream that I’d one day build a true, complete, custom water-cooled system: taking a pump and a reservoir and a radiator and cutting pipe to fit it all around the “hot” components in my case. The pumps and fans of water-cooled systems make them marginally louder than the quietest of fan-driven, air-cooled computers… but are far more efficient, drawing a massive amount of heat away from the components and therefore making it possible to pack more-powerful components closer together and overclock them to speeds undreamed of by their manufacturers. A liquid cooling solution was clearly going to be on the list.
And how to best make use of that massive cooling potential? By putting an extra graphics card in! The demands of modern 3D games mean that if you want to run at the highest resolutions, quality settings, and frame rates, you need a high-end graphics card. And if you want to go further still (personally: I love to be able to run Bioshock Infinite, Far Cry 3, or Call Of Duty: Ghosts at a massive “ultra-widescreen”, wrap-around resolution of 5760×1080 – that’s triple the number of pixels found on your 1080p HDTV), well: you’re going to want several high-end graphics cards.
Both ATI/AMD’s Radeon and Nvidia’s GeForce series’ of chipsets are capable of running in tandem, triple, or quadruple configurations (so long as your motherboard and power supply hold up, and assuming that you’ve got the means to keep them all cool, of course!), and as a result all of my last few PC builds have deliberately been “ready” for me to add a second graphics card, down the line, if I decided I needed some extra “oomph” (instead, I’ve always ended up with a new computer by that point, instead), but this would be the first time I’d actually design the computer to be multi-GPU from the outset.
SSD/RAID 1+0 Combo
Toni featured a combination of a solid-state drive (flash memory, like you get in pendrives, but faster) instead of a conventional hard drive, to boot from, and a pair of 2TB “traditional” hard drives, all connected through the perfectly-adequate SATA 2 interface. Using an SSD for the operating system meant that the machine booted up ludicrously quickly, and this was something I wanted to maintain, so clearly the next step was a larger, faster, SATA 3 SSD for Cosmo.
Anybody who’s messed about with computer hardware for as long as I have has seen a hard drive break down at least once, and JTA’s recent malfunction of that type reminded me that even with good backups, the downtime resulting from such a component fault is pretty frustrating. This, plus the desire to squeeze as much speed as possible out of conventional hard drives, made me opt for a RAID 1+0 (or “RAID 10”). I’d tie together four 2TB hard drives to act as a single 4TB disk, providing a dramatic boost in redundancy (one, or possbily even two drives can be completely destroyed without any data loss) and speed (reading data that’s duplicated across two disks is faster because the computer can be effectively “reading ahead” with the other disk; and writing data to multiple disks is no slower because the drives work at the same time).
A few other bits of awesome
Over my last few PC builds, I’ve acquired a taste for a handful of nice-to-have’s which are gradually becoming luxuries I can’t do without. My first screwless case was Duality, back in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how much easier it was to simply clip hard drives to rails until I built Nena years later into a cheap case that just wasn’t the same thing.
Another thing I’ve come to love and wonder how I ever did without is modular power supplies. Instead of having a box with a huge bundle of cables sticking out of it, these are just a box… the cables come separately, and you only use the ones you need, which takes up a lot less space in your case and makes the whole process a lot tidier. How did it take us so long to invent these things?
Needless to say, the planning about building Cosmo was the easy and stress-free bit. I shall tell you about the exciting time I had actually putting her together – and the lessons learned! – later. Watch this space, and all that!
Parts of Oxford have been flooded for the last few days, and apparently the worst is yet to come. I worked from home yesterday, intimidated by the available choices of traversing flooded roads or else taking the hilly 3+ mile diversion around the problem areas, but today: I decided that it was time to man up and cycle in to the office.
Conveniently, we’ve somewhere along the way acquired a large pair of Wellington boots (we think they might have been Paul‘s, but as he’s now left Oxford without them, they’ve been sitting in our charity-shop-box). So I booted up and set out. I was yawning all the way:
I had to weave my way back and forth around the cyclepaths nearest my house, and – on a couple of ocassions – get off the bike and wade it through: I’d considered riding through some of the larger puddles – my mean pedal-ground clearance is about as high as the top of my boots, anyway – until I met a soaked cyclist coming the other way: he’d become disbalanced going over a submarine kerbstone and fallen into the freezing water. Seeing that quickly made me choose the safer strategy!
Alongside the lake was one of the most flood-damaged areas, but heavy barriers had been erected and pumping engines were working at returning the water to the “right” side of them. The lake bridge was completely closed off: it looked like it might be traversable, but if the water gets any higher, it won’t be.
I took the cycle route through Hinksey Park in order to avoid the flooded parts of Abingdon Road, which runs parallel, but I’m not sure that it was much better. In the photo above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re looking at the lake… but in actual fact, the lake is behind me: that’s the playing fields. You can just about make out the line down the middle of the cycle path, through the murky water.
Pressing on, I came to the Thames Path, which my route typically follows for a short distance to the footbridge into the city centre. And that’s when I realised quite how high the river really is.
By the time I found myself on a footpath with a current, I realised that my route might need a little bit of a rethink. With the bridge I was aiming for just ahead, though, I was able to double-back and cut through an alleyway (between some seriously at-risk houses), duck under a couple of “footpath closed” barriers, and splash out to the bridgehead.
By the time I was on the higher, better-reinforced East bank for the river, things began to improve, and within a few minutes I was right in the city centre. There, you wouldn’t know that, only a short distance away, a significant number of streets were underwater. To sit in the dry, on Broad Street, in the middle of Oxford, it seems strange to think that on the edge of town, people are being evacuated from their homes.
Flood warning for Kennington, from the Environment Agency (looks like we’re just on the right side of the road not to be included in the “flood warning area”).
“Live” upstream and downstream water level measurements at nearby Iffley Lock (there’s a beautiful moment in the graphs for yesterday morning when they clearly started using the lock itself to “dump” water downstream, occasionally bringing the level to within the typical range.
Much thanks to Welsh Water, where a friendly man talked me through the quirks in my stop tap (who’d have thought that it would be so hard to turn a tap off and drain a system). Now I suppose I ought to start mopping. Then I suppose I ought to find out what’s burst, and why.
Alongside all of this, I need to work out how to stop my washing machine from being so confused and let me have my bedsheets back. I don’t think the engineers that programmed it ever thought of the possibility that the water supply might be interrupted mid-cycle.
I turned up to work this morning, bright and early, and the first thing I noticed was that my desk, the four computers and the UPS block under it, the KVM switch and ethernet switch on top of it, one of the two monitors on top of it, and both keyboards on it were all full of water. There was also a sizeable lake of water all over the carpet around my desk, which made disconcerting “splashy” sounds as I walked over it, and my chair was similarly drenched.
“Shit,” I swore out loud. I looked above the desk and noticed that the skylight directly above it had been left open. “Oh, fuck,” I swore again. I’d been sure that I’d closed it before I left the office on Friday: and I was certainly the last person out…
The good news is that it wasn’t my fault, in the end. My co-worker, Gareth (this Gareth), had come in at the weekend “on his way back from the shops,” to use the internet connection (he hasn’t got one at his new home, yet), and while here opened the window to let in some fresh air.
The other good news is that the damage was limited to totalling a couple of mice and keyboards and costing us the time to mop up the remaining water this morning. Gareth had a go at using a vacuum cleaner to remove the worst of the dampness from the carpet, but failed when we later realised that the machine was simply ingesting the water and then squirting it out through the vents at the back. I suggested a nappy was in order, and we briefly considered putting the vacuum cleaner outside the window and continuing to work at sucking up the moisture, but we eventually thought better of it: now we’ve just got the office fans blowing accross the damp patch in the hope that we can expediate evaporation.
Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #52:
Ride a train through water several feet deep, at 5mph, after the station at Dovey Junction becomes flooded, and, using traditional Welsh logic, it is decided that it makes far more sense to plough through it (making waves, for God’s sake!) than have to organise buses all day. Blurrgghh!
The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.