Category Archives: travel

Learning to love snails

I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Cuba last October. What a fantastic country; such warm, friendly people with a thirst for life and incredible resourcefulness, fabulous and varied scenery and an abundance of Mojito!

Polymita PictaBefore setting off i’d arranged to visit La Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and offered my services to deliver some training for researchers (postgraduates and lecturers) on writing basic web pages and the potential of online tools for collaboration. I was traveling with my father, accompanying him on his second fieldtrip to Cuba, hunting down his chosen subjects – snails. Now, searching for snails isn’t one of my preferred pastimes, arousing childhood memories of being coaxed out on the odd dark, damp snail-hunt through the Hampshire countryside in the very early hours. But these are Polymita picta – brilliantly bright and colourful and found only in the sandy, palm-fringed eastern corner of Cuba. Perhaps that explains my sudden attraction!

So, i’d arranged to deliver some training… kind of … well I wasn’t really sure what i’d arranged or what to expect, but was taking a “go with the flow” attitude. I’d sent a number of emails to my contacts at the University in Santiago de Cuba. Just a relaxed Cuban attitude to email, I thought, no worries. But eventually, a reply:

“Sorry for my delay. Many rainy days (18 days!!!) on Santiago de Cuba… and we have been off-line a lot of time.”

And more the next day:

“It is raining… again!!! (19 days). Frogs and snails are very happy…”

But not internet connections it would appear! I was to find out more on arrival; tropical rainfall and web servers don’t go hand-in-hand. In fact, the servers are turned off to protect them when it rains, which it does a lot during the rainy season. Thoughts of home and our reaction to the briefest lack of connectivity… Hmmm, first lesson learnt I think!

Life’s a beachWe arrived in Cuba to sweltering, sweaty, sunshine; such a glorious change to the fast approaching UK winter. After a night in Holguin we traveled to Santiago de Cuba where we rested, slept and headed the next day to the University. My first session was to be at 8am, definitely the earliest start to a Netskills workshop i’ve delivered. However, due to the rains there was no connection, so my workshop was postponed – for a week! – and I was taken on a tour round campus. It was immediately evident that there was an extremely open approach to teaching, learning and working. Seminars were being held outside and there was a general hubbub of noise as lecturers lectured, students discussed, and staff held meetings. Not so different to home, but I got the distinct impression nobody was ever going to be shusshed or caught sending an email to a colleague down the corridor in shouting distance!

“The Googleroom”I was taken to the library which had also been shut for a number of days due to the downpours, but seemed well stocked and with plenty of open areas for self study … Just watch out for the puddles and the damp tables by the open windows! Downstairs in the library is the Laboratorio de Información, more commonly referred to as “the googleroom.” Unfortunately it was also shut due to the power outage but I was told (by the slightly scary Library manager – no comment!) that it’s an extremely popular room; inside are ten networked computers that can be booked for use in thirty minute blocks.

Next we popped into the Centre for English Studies where I had an interesting chat with a professor of English and his linguist colleague, whose eyes lit up when I mentioned my former research areas; phonetics and sociolinguistics, talking about second language aquisition and various models of language representation that I really should remember more of. Actually the professor’s original field was Russian Studies, but demand dwindled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. I asked if they had any partnerships with Universities outside Cuba, but no, they said, unfortunately not.

Puncture at Guantanamo Bay

After a week away from Santiago snail hunting near Baracoa on the far east of the island, and after an eventful return journey including a puncture two kilometres from Guantanamo Bay(!), we returned to fine weather, no rain and a 100% intermittent internet connection – quick, time to deliver my training!

Training at La Universidad de Oriente, Santiago de CubaThe sessions were a great success and thoroughly enjoyable to run. Attending were a mixture of staff and research students, keen to learn and also to cascade knowledge to colleagues and friends. The main focus of the sessions was on creating structured HTML content for teaching and research purposes, attendees keen to know how to keep file sizes and images small for quick transfer. Interestingly demand for our ‘Web Pages From Scratch’ workshop, popular pretty much since Netskills started, has dipped over the last year or two, probably as we see people move towards more sophisticated web-based tools and services. But the framework for any website, whatever your connection, however elaborate your design, and wherever you are around the globe, is provided by a sound structure. Another lesson for us back home, where we tend to be wowed by the (admittedly exciting!) possibilities provided by faster and faster network connections.

Travellers’ tales…

I must’ve been living a charmed life. Either that or this workblog is a curse!? Up until last week all of my journeys as a Netskills trainer over the past two and a half years have been relatively straightforward. I haven’t suffered horrendous delays, the feared connecting bus between stations, or a cancelled flight. The worst i’ve experienced is standing cramped on trains between Manchester and Leeds, or a tedious couple of hours’ wait at Chesterfield station, passing the time observing the obsessive rituals of trainspotters. Actually I did have the Mallaig-Armadale ferry cancelled on route to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, but received the call before the crux of the journey soon after Fort William. Many of the locals might not welcome the permanent connection to the mainland, but that stormy February in 2006, I was everso thankful for the bridge connecting ‘The Winged Isle’ to Kyle of Lochalsh.

But then I missed my flight back from Dublin last week… Never have I seen such traffic – utter chaos! And yesterday I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley Station just in time to hear the tell-tale whistle as I hopped down the bottom two steps and turned to see the doors shut on the 19:00. It was mostly my own fault, attracted to the celebratory fireworks over Princes’ Street Gardens, accompanied by the Red Hot Chilie Pipers to turn on of the Christmas lights. I hadn’t realised there wasn’t another train until 21:00 though … but no problem, a quick call and I was up at the German Market, catching up with my cousin over a Mulled Beer (seriously!) and Bratwurst. All in a day’s work!

Taking advantage of the slow lane

Life is fast: “oh, when will I have a free weekend?” Work is fast: “when will I ever get the time to sort out my inbox?” The internet is fast and getting faster and more available: janet, broadband, wifi, gprs. But it definitely pays to slow down every now and then…

Aboard the 06:25 train from Newcastle to Edinburgh today, I needed to double-check the arrangements for today’s workshop. (I know, I know … I should’ve had everything in place before actually getting on the train!) What were my options for connectivity? The most likely was to use my laptop to connect to GNER onboard wifi, a service that works well and one i’ve used a number of times, especially for longer journeys. But this seemed overkill for my task at hand – to connect to our online ticketing system (RT) to confirm a few details. My other option was to wait until after 8am to call Jamie who’s generally always the first to arrive at Netskills HQ in the morning. But that would mean: i) waiting, ii) having to sneak out of the quiet carriage to make a phone call, and iii) disturbing Jamie’s early morning peace and quiet.

But, hold on, how about using my O2 Graphite Smartphone as a USB modem? I’ve spotted the adverts from Three for USB plug-and-go ‘broadband’ modems. Surely they’re just a data-enabled sim card inside a plastic box? I’ve had a go in the shop and heard good reports from Matt Jukes (HEFCE/JISC) about the Vodafone version when we were off on a tangent after (during?!) a recent meeting. But I shouldn’t need another box; my smartphone has a ‘mobile link’ option. (Now, at this point I ought to ‘fess up; left to my own devices (sic.) I would’ve probably overlooked this and eventually been sucked in by the adverts – but that’s why we work in teams, right? Thanks Carl!)

I’ve been carrying around the manual and required CDs for a couple of days and, coffee in hand, decided to have a go whilst on the early train to Edinburgh. Twenty minutes later, using a combination of the instructions in the manual plus a how-to blog posting i’d previously downloaded, I was connected! Pretty chuffed with myself, time to test out the connection and fire up IE7…

First thoughts:

“Hmmmm, this is slow…”

“Aghhhh – too many tabs! I don’t need to load anything to start with.”

“Why am I using IE?!”

“Ahhh Firefox, that’s better…”

“Time to turn off images – sorted!”

After confirming I had the right details for today’s workshop, I sat back and tested out a number of pages. The performance was good, slow, but not too slow. In fact, just slow enough to force me to make an active decision about the URL I wanted to navigate to next. Now that’s a lesson the learn and remember, whatever the speed!