Archive for the ‘Chester’ Category

I went to a conference in Limerick…

I went to a conference in Limerick

To hear about matters academic

There were talks about dancing

And songs quite entrancing

But writing it up is no pic-er-nic!

I’m now on my way back from the ICTM Conference at the University of Limerick, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only academic who should know better to have committed the experience to five-line verse, proving in the process that we really ought to stick to what we know about.  (It’s irresistible, somehow.)  Limerick is an interesting and attractive city, and well worth a visit.  The university is on a large and very scenic campus at the edge of the city.  The campus straddles the river Shannon, and includes several substantial bridges, including the ‘bridge of life’ – a winding footbridge whose end can’t be seen from its beginning.  It’s functional and philosophical at the same time.

Bridge of Life

Part of the Bridge of Life at the University of Limerick

My real reason for being in Limerick was to present a paper as part of a panel with two colleagues from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; Margaret Walker and Gordon Smith.  Our panel was called “Imagined Borders and Unexpected Intersections:  Exploring Musical Legacies in Three Communities”.  Margaret and Gordon reported on work they have been doing on various aspects of multicultural music-making in Kingston, Ontario and in Nova Scotia.  You can find more information about their work here and here.  My presentation summarised my Ph.D work on dance bands in Chester and North Wales, and outlining my future research plans, relating to 3D virtual reality presentation of historical information.

As well as taking part in the panel presentation, I also attended other talks on (for instance) the physics of Spanish bagpipes, computer-based movement analysis of Tango Argentino, and the transmission of music traditions in Uganda, and made contacts with people working in related fields all over the world.  All of these gave me ideas and sources which I expect will be useful in my own work in future.  Travelling to an overseas conference is hard work (even once you’ve been accepted, and found funding), but very worthwhile.



Searching for the VR Ballroom

It’s been a very busy 12 months or so since my last posting.  As well as all the usual teaching activities, I’ve been involved with the launch of the Digital Humanities Research Centre here at Chester.  I’m working on a couple of funding proposals with colleagues in the DHRC, of which more later (we hope!), and have at last started to find a more definite post-Ph.D. direction for my own research activities, in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Computer Science.  Digital Humanities is definitely starting to look like my natural research home, even though it has been a long and winding road to get there, so my first presentation for the CS department seminar series was on how I came to be ‘The Accidental Digital Humanist‘.

I’m currently deep into this summer’s research activities.  I’ll be presenting a paper at the ICTM World Conference at Limerick in July, and have just had a poster paper accepted for the Cyberworlds 2017 International Conference at Chester in September.  Both of them refer to initial work on a virtual reality reconstruction of one of the River Park Ballroom, which was an important music venue in Chester in the mid-20th century, but was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by an office building.  My colleague Lee Beever has used images, data and music from my dance bands research to create an initial 3D impression of the ballroom.  It’s very early days, and the reconstruction lacks colour and animation at the moment; these are things which in different ways will take more time, money and effort than we have had available so far to add, but the ability to see (and hear) the ballroom from different angles is already there.  I’m looking forward to doing more work on this in the future.

Arduino Days II – The Return of the Solder


I first dabbled in Arduino-based electronics last Spring, and had a lot of fun doing my first soldering in years putting together an Arduino Gamer kit.  My regular work (and Ph.D.) then took over for a few months, but then a few things conspired to get me back on the physical computing path.  A programming course I took last summer used traffic lights as the basis of all its examples, and I realised the potential of this apparently simple idea to be extended into very complex but still educationally useful examples.  Later in the year, I found out that there were a number of batches of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and similar kits around the faculty, most of which weren’t being used at the time.  I also had some conversations with researchers from other departments about using small microprocessors such as the Arduino for tasks such as air quality monitoring.  (There is a ready-made kit for this purpose called the Air Quality Egg.  I want one!)  So, before Christmas, I got a group of like-minded people from around the faculty together to start to think of ways to make use of the kits we already had, but weren’t making much use of.  One of the outcomes was a plan to produce a set of Arduino-powered traffic lights for the CompSci Conference – an internal conference held each year in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chester, where I work.

The conference took place today, and my DIY traffic lights got to strut their stuff in among many far more erudite presentations on games design and advanced subtitling techniques; a slightly intimidating experience in some ways, but useful nonetheless; I’ve learned (or re-learned) a tremendous amount about electronics and microprocessors, and also about programming for the Arduino, and the advantages and limitations it has as a hardware platform.  (My colleague Andrew Muncey created three programs of increasing complexity for the demonstration.)  I’ve also made a large number of contacts around the faculty and the university – from Electrical & Electronic Engineering to teacher education – and we have plans afoot to use Arduinos and similar kits in STEM outreach sessions for schools and college students both at Thornton Science Park and elsewhere.  Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the traffic control room at Cheshire West and Chester council, to learn how traffic control systems function in the wild.  This was a fascinating experience in itself, and I’m sure will form the basis for good collaborations in the future.


Three letters, ten years, and a new red robe   Leave a comment

SmileWheeeeee-heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!    🙂

Yep, that’s right; I’m now officially Dr. Southall.  The letter from Liverpool University arrived last week.  My office door is already adorned with a new name plate, and I’ve changed my work e-mail signature to include the all-important extra three letters.  Well, OK, they aren’t really that important in the big scheme of things, but they represent a lot of work and a pretty big achievement for me, so I’m having fun doing the updates.

Part-time degrees always take a long time, and part-time Ph.Ds even more so; getting a Ph.D isn’t a quick process even when it’s done full-time.  Since I started working on mine, I’ve got married, moved house twice, moved office four times, and changed job (within the same institution) twice – all while working full-time on my ‘day job’.  Put that way, maybe it’s not so surprising that it’s taken the thick end of a decade, although it does sometimes feel as though I must have been slacking somewhere along the way to let it take that long.  Truth be told, I did continue to do some music and quite a lot of walking, but I doubt if I would have stayed sufficiently sane and healthy to keep going otherwise.

So, for anyone who’s thinking about setting out on the part-time Ph.D (plus full-time job) path, what’s it like?  What does it involve?

The first thing to say is that every Ph.D is unique, and so is every Ph.D student.  The things I found hard might be a doddle for someone else, and vice versa.  But in case it helps, here’s a rough chronology of how things went for me:-

  • 2005 : I realised that I had an idea for a research study, access to data, and a potential supervisor.  (Actually the last of these to fall into place was the supervisor; I’d had a bad experience, supervision-wise, with my M.Sc. dissertation, so I was very, very careful about finding a supervisor for my Ph.D.  Fortunately, I was also lucky, and that side of my Ph.D has worked out very well.)  I started to put together ideas for how the project would work, and find out about the application process operated.  I knew I was fortunate in that my employer was willing to pay my tuition fees.  What I didn’t know at the time was just how many years of tuition fees were going to be required!  Oh, and during 2005 I moved house, and also changed my job, moving temporarily from my academic department to a role organising short professional training courses.
  • 2006 : In 2006, I moved house again.  I also filled in a Ph.D application form, got the relevant signatures from managers and referees, and produced a 10,000-word proposal document.  This led to an interview in around September 2006.  I was accepted onto the course, to start in January 2007.
  • 2007 – 2010 : In a way, the background work for my research goes back years before I even started thinking about a Ph.D, but 2007 was the year when I started organising interviews, and trying to work out what literature I needed to review, in earnest.  2007 was also the year in which I got married, so it was a pretty busy and exciting time.  Over the next couple of years I collected 30 interviews, scanned in a couple of hundred photographs, arranged for recordings to be transcribed, and generally got on with the day job.  It was an enjoyable phase in many ways, but I was still very uncertain what angle I was going to take to discuss the large volume of data I was collecting.  Attending and presenting at several conferences did help with this process; there’s nothing like knowing you’re going to have to explain your work to other people to force you to decide what you think it means!
  • 2011-2012 : During this period, life got in the way quite substantially.  At the start of 2011 I was still seconded to the training unit outside my academic department, but half-way through the year it was announced that my home department was to be ‘downsized’.  Like everyone else involved, I had to go through a process of justifying my continued employment.  This took several months, and was very stressful.  Once the process was over, I moved back into the department permanently.  That first year back was also stressful, because of knock-on effects from the recent redundancies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, progress on my Ph.D slowed down a lot at this point.  However, I did complete the transcription and coding of interview data, and passed fairly smoothly through the process of upgrading from M.Phil to Ph.D study.  I also presented talks or posters at several more conferences.
  • 2013-2014 : There were a whole series of ‘false summits’ at this point, where I thought I was very close to being ready to submit my thesis, but it turned out that I wasn’t.  In the end there was a bit of a mad dash to get everything finished and handed in before my registration deadline at the end of December, 2013.  Everything went quiet for a while.  In March 2014 I had my first viva, which resulted in a long list of modifications and an extra year to do them in.  If life had been busy before, it now got very busy indeed…  Coincidentally, summer 2014 was also the year in which my department was transferred wholesale into a brand new faculty, on a brand new site.  By the end of 2014, I was a bit of a gibbering wreck.
  • Q1 to Q3 2015 : The gibbering continued well into 2015.  I handed in my modified thesis in March, and things went quiet again – on the thesis front, at least.  They were anything but quiet at work!  Then, just as teaching drew to a close, it was time for my second viva, which was a much more relaxed and happy affair than the first one.  The committee chair hummed and whistled all the way down the corridor to the meeting room, the viva started with the announcement that I had passed my Ph.D, and the rest of the viva was therefore more in the nature of a discussion than an examination.  Phew!    ….  However, that was not the end of the story.  Although no further ‘modifications’ were required, there were some ‘corrections’ to do.  Most were in the nature of ‘changing the line spacing from double to 1.5 lines’, and other such cosmetic issues, but somehow some actual extra work snuck in there as well.  I was beginning to despair of ever actually finishing the thing!  However, there was no time to dwell on the matter, because back in the day job there was a mountain of marking to do.  Once I’d done that, I got on with the thesis corrections.  Then I went on holiday, did a programming course, finished the corrections, and handed in yet another printed copy.
  • Q4 2015 : At last!!!!!  The internal examiner approved my corrections (plus a few corrections to the corrections), and in October I was instructed to get four hard bound copies made.  I must admit I hadn’t realised quite how expensive these were going to be; that’s £200 I’ll not be seeing again.  It was worth it though.  The final versions were satisfyingly heavy and really quite lovely to look at.  Or maybe they just look beautiful to me, because they’re mine?  Whatever – I like them!  Back I went to the graduate school office once again, to hand in the hard bound copies, and yet again, everything went quiet.  I had several more weeks to wait before the awards board at Liverpool sat to formally approve the award of my degree.  That board sat in late November, and I received my formal notification last week.  My certificate will apparently arrive some time later in December, and I’ll graduate at the Chester ceremony next spring.


So, that’s it, in a nutshell.  My journey to becoming a ‘Dr’, and earning the right to wear a scarlet robe instead of a black one.  There has certainly been a lot of hard intellectual work, a lot of writing, and a lot of editing, but the other thing that it’s required is a lot of persistence.  If there’s a single factor that’s necessary to succeed as a part-time Ph.D student, I’m guessing that might be it.  But that’s just my story.  Your mileage may very well differ…

Posted December 6, 2015 by HVS in Chester, Liverpool, Thesis

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Hardbound and Heavy

Hardbound thesis

The hardbound version of my Ph.D thesis in all its 100,000+ words of glory.

It’s done; it’s finished; it’s been handed in for the very last time.  I’m simultaneously proud of it and pleased to see the back of it.  There will be no more re-writes, no more extra bits and no more final, final, final, really-the-last-one editing sessions.  Well, at least, not until the next big project comes along… (and I’ve got a few of those on the drawing board already).

But for now, this is it – job done.  All I’m waiting for now is the official letter from the University of Liverpool in a few weeks time.  As to-do list ‘ticks’ go, this is a pretty big one.

Posted October 17, 2015 by HVS in Chester, Live music, Liverpool, Thesis

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Cycling Science & the Himalayas in Chester

Recently I’ve been busy organising a day of events on the science and engineering of bicycles, featuring presentations by the cycling and science journalist Max Glaskin.  You see more about these events on my other blog at:-


Throwing Sheep in the Bandroom

First slide of conference presentation

Throwing Sheep in the Bandroom

The YouTube version of the presentation I gave at the Conference on the Arts in Society last month is now available:- ‘Throwing Sheep in the Bandroom’.

You can also find a brief introduction to the book which inspired the title on YouTube:- ‘Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom’ .

There’s a fleeting mention in my presentation of undergraduate studies on modern-day Chester music scenes.  This work was done by Michael Greaney, who was a dissertation student of mine in 2011-12.  You can find a taste of what he produced at YouTube – Chester Music Scenes