About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The air we breathe

I have a cough. Mostly it is dry tickly cough, but every now and then I suffer a fit of coughing and wheezing that renders me breathless and speechless, requiring me to sit down, take a sip of water and recompose myself. This is very annoying for me and those around me.

I am in Pakistan. I have been supplied with all sorts of pills, liquids and advice. The most unexpected is mulberry syrup. Every time I have one of my little fits, I sit down and someone brings me a glass of water, a spoon and a small bottle of mulberry syrup. Apparently every office in Pakistan has a little bottle of mulberry syrup stashed somewhere for just such occasions, and for sore throats  as indicated on the bottle. It is the remedy given to children with coughs and colds, so I suspect its efficacy is most likely to be emotional rather than physiological, but I am not one to refuse grandmotherly remedies whilst gasping for air.

Gasping for air in Pakistan is not fun. The air here at this time of year is thick with smog. The diesel generators that supply energy between the rolling blackouts, the brickworks that serve the rapid urban sprawl, the poorly regulated industries, the dust and the traffic, all make air that feels solid in weakened lungs. Apart from the remedies and advice, my colleagues have also been thoughtfully turning off air conditioning units in cars and rooms to keep me comfortable, highlighting a habit of environmental control that makes sense in high summer, but seems perverse in November. The ACs need generators, the generators belch smoke, the indoor environment is cooler, the outdoors is polluted. Turning off just a few air conditioners for just a few minutes seems a small benefit of my chest complaint.

I will survive this cough and I am glad for the mulberry syrup and kind concern, but the experience of breathing bad air with infected lungs makes me sad. I feel sad for the people who breathe this air all year, who cough and wheeze, whose lives are shortened as a result. I feel sad for the people working in the brickworks and unregulated industries who breathe much worse air every day. I feel sad for the women working in kitchens all over the world where the air is worse indoors than outdoors, the result of poor ventilation and biomass fuelled stoves.

And I am bewildered. I am bewildered that such conditions persist for billions of people all over the world in the twenty first century. This is meant to be the future. How is it that the people of Pakistan can do their banking on a device they carry around in their pockets while breathing air that kills? The simultaneous cleverness and the wilful ignorance of modern technological society will never fail to confound me. I simply do not understand.

Of course I understand the connections between development and pollution control, the need for stable government and a basic level of development to build the political capacity to pass and enforce good environmental regulation. I understand the chemistry of NOX and SOX and the formation of particulates during incomplete combustion. I understand the weather conditions that create smog. I understand globalisation of pollution and poverty, and the bottom line attraction of manufacturing in places with lax labour and environmental laws. I understand some of Pakistan’s history. I understand deep economic and social inequality, and the corruption that sustains it. I understand some of the factors that contribute to the current energy crisis.

I know all this, yet every time I am speechless with coughing and someone brings me a little bottle of mulberry syrup, I am lost. This is a beautiful world, full of kind, clever people. Why is it so hard for us to ensure that everyone has clean air to breathe?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Things I like about Pakistan

I am in Pakistan. This is my fifth visit, and the second this year. When I tell people about my trips here they often ask if I like it. Of course the answer is yes. I usually say that I like the food, the weather, the fashion, the hospitality and the work. Now that I am here I am remembering some of the other things I like about this country. Here are three:

Cricket is not my favourite sport. It is not even in my top 5, but it appears in my list a long way ahead of football (soccer). After many years of exposure, I have come to the realisation that football is my least favourite sport and I have developed an affinity for any country where any other sport dominates. Personal happiness seems more attainable in a country with endless 20:20 cricket than being bludgeoned by 24:7 football coverage in the UK. The Pakistani's love cricket so much, they even show women playing it on TV. Coming to Pakistan to see the British women's cricket team on TV is not ironic. It is the sign of a dysfunctional sporting media at home.

Tea might be my favourite drink. It is definitely in my top 5. Pakistanis drink a lot of it. It tends to be served with powdered milk. Powered milk is underestimated as one of the great inventions of the modern world. It reminds me of picnics and shearing. Powdered milk has been displaced from my life by fresh and longlife products, and whenever I come to Pakistan this feels like a loss.

Prayer calls.
I am not a religious person, but I definitely like singing. The call of the muezzin injects a little bit of singing into life in Pakistan several times a day. I am by no means a fan of religious intrusion into secular life, but starting every conference with a prayer sung by a devout young person is a nice reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. Our work is important, but there are more important things.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The End is Nigh

The book of Revelation is one of the most perplexing in the Bible. It is full of the wild visions of the Apostle John - lambs, whores, rainbows and dragons. Many Christians take it as a prophesy of the end of the world. Like all holy books the words have undoubtedly changed over time, with some bits left out and some meaning lost in translation. One such line of prophesy lost to generations for its obscurity was this - 'Then I saw the Fremantle Dockers in the AFL Grandfinal'.

Like all good prophesies, most reasonable people alive today have no idea what this means. Like the best prophesies, a small group of desperately unreasonable people have been chosen to explain it to the masses. AFL signifies Australian Rules Football, God's chosen sport. The Fremantle Dockers are the team God created when he got bored with Job. He made them wear purple. 'Freo' supporters are like the Israelites - God created a little nation on the edge of the desert especially for them, only to be invaded, laughed at and taken into slavery. Sometimes they deserved it, mostly they didn't. They were not kind to their prophets, sacking many coaches. Fremantle are a team like no other, annointed to turn their back on the gift of victory, seeking refuge in seemingly impossible defeat. The AFL Grandfinal is the ultimate ritual in the annual Australian winter festival of sacrifice and attrition, held on the last Saturday of September. Next week Fremantle will be playing Hawthorn, which is where the scriptural analogy ends. Who knows what God is up to? Nothing this crazy ever happened in the Bible.

In the beginning, I was a Freo supporter. The last time I saw them play I nearly laid down my purple scarf and wandered out into the wilderness, once and for all. It was winter 2011, they were slaughtered like turkeys by Hawthorn in the driving rain at Subiaco. My father and I, like the whole crowd, were cold and wet, and the football was thoroughly miserable. But we held true, and I am taking it as a personal sign that they will meet Hawthorn at the MCG next week. After all these years of persecution and ridicule, perhaps finally our moment of rapture will arrive.

For the rest of you, it is not too late. Repeat the incantation 'we love Matthew Pavlich', as often as you can in the next few days, and you may yet join the chosen few. And when the sky turns purple around 1730 Melbourne time next Saturday, lay down and laugh, for in creating the Dockers and leading them to victory will be proof that God really does have a sense of humour.   

Friday, 17 May 2013

With my clothes on

I am going to be in next month's issue of FHM (For Him Magazine). I am not a regular reader, but I am fairly certain that most of the women who usually feature in FHM don't have PhDs. Most of them don't even have many clothes.

Every now and then I receive media enquiries related to my work on water. Usually the journalist is just looking for a crash course in the topic - something beyond wikipedia, but nothing that will take up much of their time. I am mostly happy to oblige and occasionally I am interviewed and quoted in their final piece. 

A couple of weeks ago I received an email query about bottled water from Dan, a journalist at FHM. I gave a quick reply with some basic facts and wished him luck with his story. A reply came back asking if I would participate in a blind tasting of different types of bottled and tap water, to actually be part of the story. 

At this point I thought I should look up FHM. I had in my mind that they were 'For Him', but my familiarity with the range of available lads mags is fairly limited. The main feature of the June issue was 'The 100 Sexiest Women!' - a quick sample revealing none with PhDs, but one who had been enrolled in a media studies course for a term before her modelling career took off. Apparently, sexy women have large breasts, small waists, long hair, pouting lips, tanned skin and wear bikinis. Apart from hair colour, it is quite difficult to tell them apart... but I digress... FHM features lots of photographs of women, selected on the basis of their youth, 'beauty' and state of undress. It also includes some articles about stuff men like - video games, movies, football, sex and factertainment. Its representation of women is not as bad as others in the genre, but it clearly uses heterosexual objectification of women to sell magazines and advertising. On the upside, it has some very sensible advice about how to have heterosexual sex with real women, and some of the writing is genuinely funny (even this middle-aged, pale, short-haired, jeans and blazer clad, PhD qualified woman chuckled during her reconnaisance).

I emailed Dan, saying I would need some time to consider whether appearing in his publication was a good idea. His reply was polite, and his concern for his readers' education was touching. He reassured me that if I agreed to participate I could keep my clothes on, and said that FHM readers had as much right to know about their water as anyone.

Like all good social networkers with a moral dilemma I consulted Facebook. The results of my 'FHM Y/N?' poll were about as helpful as my 'Android or Apple?' consultation, that is not at all. My 'friends' seem to have almost entirely missed my feminism. Comments were almost exclusively along the lines of 'hell yeah!', and included 'do you get to be nekkid? ;)'. One faithful pal replied 'GOD NO!', and a couple of university types took an unhelpful Socratic line including 'you know the F doesn't stand for Feminist?', but in the end Facebook said 'yes'.

Like any decent person with a moral dilemma I consulted trusted colleagues and 'real' friends. People with much more media experience than me asked me to consider the need to speak to audiences beyond the usual 'people-like-us'. It is easy to reach the readers of the Guardian and Times, harder to communicate science and engineering to the great bikini-loving masses. Someone asked me to consider if one of my male colleagues would do it (the answer is probably not, but being a woman presented me with a different set of questions). Overhearing the other side of one of these phone conversations the officemates of one colleague said sending me to an interview with FHM sounded like a worthwhile feminist social experiment. Some other trusted women laughed and said 'why not?', basically echoing Facebook. 

I said yes.       

I emailed Dan my decision, asking for the chance to review any quotes and encouraging him to consult The Women's Room database of experts for future stories. Dan agreed that his publication could do more to balance its representation of women, and that I would be able to check what I had said before publication. 

A couple of days later I went to Dan's office for the blind water tasting. FHM consists of one corner of a large open plan office housing several publications owned by Bauer Media. Dan described it as a 'big boy's bedroom', and I took his word for it. They have a pool table in their coffee room, which made me jealous (we don't have a coffee room). I sipped water and made fact-laden jokes about it with Dan. He recorded our conversation. He was nice. It was fun. He sent me the quotes as agreed, and none of them seemed outlandish. 

The story appears in the July edition, which is out at the beginning of June. Don't buy it. It is a magazine full of scantily clad women. I would prefer not to support this kind of business model, but I can't escape the reality that it exists. Tits-n-arse sell magazines. I have very little power to change that. When faced with the opportunity to be presented as a woman with useful expertise, I figured it was worth taking a chance to at least try to even out the balance. The readers of FHM are not going to change their ideas about women by picking up a copy of Ms. magazine, so perhaps we have to take alternative representations of women to them. And afterall, they have as much right to know about their water as as the next person.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Water, bodies and landscapes

This is an extract from an essay written for Smout Allen's installation 'Surface Tension', exhibited at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, 2011.

Water is unique in providing a direct, material connection between bodies and landscapes in mundane urban experience. Every day we encounter water itself. The water we splash on our faces or flush down our toilets first thing in the morning provides a real, tangible connection with both the hidden landscape of urban infrastructure and the hydrological landscape that extends beyond the city. Water utilities are distinct in this regard. Our connections to landscape through energy or food are much further removed. We encounter electricity, not coal itself. We encounter meat and vegetables, not soil itself. When we wash, flush, drink, cook and clean, we are directly engaged with the one of most fundamental elements of life and landscape. Water as a connector to landscape is much celebrated in bottled water marketing, which reminds us that we are drinking in the Scottish Highlands or French Alps, and the same is true of the water that flows from our taps every day. Every morning in London I shower in the Cotswolds, the gentle limestone hills beyond Oxford. Visiting family in Western Australia I wash dishes in the Perth Hills. At a conference in Colorado I flush down the Rocky Mountains. 

Our physical and cultural needs for water provide fundamental connections between our bodies and the landscapes we inhabit. The particular form that this relationship has taken in modern cities reflects deep ambivalence to water. The aesthetic qualities of water are recognised in urban design and architecture through attention to coastal, riverside or lake vistas, the desirability of water front development, and the continued popularity of the fountain in various guises in urban design. Such design predominantly emphasises visual experiences of water, with occasional attention to its auditory qualities. Water is also recognised as a source of public pleasure and a medium of leisure in urban spaces such as beaches, swimming pools and ponds, and water playgrounds. Water provides a key point of interaction with non-human nature in cities with urban rivers and wetlands providing small patches of wildness and habitat for birds, turtles, fish, frogs, insects and water faring mammals. However, our most vital and personal daily connections with water in cities are invisible and private – sublimated and taboo in everyday discourse, buried beneath our streets and hidden from view in our buildings. We are rarely more than a few feet away from flowing water in our buildings and streets, yet are usually unconscious of this most significant urban water cycle. Visual and public experiences of water are celebrated, bodily and private needs for water are hidden.

This comes as no surprise given the dominance of mind over body, public over private, visible over invisible, reason over emotion, and culture over nature in western thought. Feminist scholars such as Val Plumwood have analysed this system of dualism to demonstrate the underlying philosophical structures which link the domination of masculine over feminine to wider patterns of oppression[i]. The feminine is associated with the body, emotion, nature, privacy and invisibility, while the masculine is celebrated along with the mind, reason, culture, public life and visibility. Water flows between these categories, appearing in public and private, as cultural product and natural environment, as object of rational planning and subject of bodily pleasure. However, it is our bodily and private needs for water that are most fundamental, and that are proving most problematic in designing future landscapes, buildings and urban spaces.

Although water itself flows from rivers and aquifers, through reservoirs, treatment works, pumps and pipes into our bathrooms and kitchens, and back again, our experience of water is disconnected from its hydrological and ecological context. Daily water habits are socially and culturally constructed, and technologically mediated. Technical experts trace the flows of water from landscape to bathroom and back, so that modern citizens don’t have to. Engineered water systems provide a buffer between personal demands for water and daily, seasonal and climatic changes in rainfall, groundwater and river flows. Freed from the daily struggle to find water modern citizens are able to engage in higher urban pursuits. However, the invisible engineering systems that deliver fresh water to cities are reaching their limits. The buffer between bodies and landscapes is being breached.   

Reweaving the ties between cities, bodies and landscapes requires new threads as well as new arrangements of existing systems, technologies and norms. Strategies for renegotiating urban water landscapes include: 1) confronting the demarcation of public and private which exempts bodily water practices from purposive critique and change; 2) interrogating associations between water and comfort, pleasure and purity, and proposing alternative technologies, practices and norms to meet these desires without using water; and 3) constructing local water cycles in buildings and neighbourhoods to relieve pressure on landscapes beyond the city. Examples of each of these strategies can be found in design and public discourse. During the 2005 drought in London Mayor Ken Livingston encouraged people to follow the ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ practice in toilet flushing, signifying an incursion of public debate into private, bodily water practice. Throughout the developing world waterless ecological sanitation systems are being implemented in pragmatic attempts to the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to sanitation, decoupling sanitation and water. The third proposition is evident in the growth of non-potable water supply systems based on a ‘fit-for-purpose’ principle using greywater, rainwater and recycled water for flushing toilets, watering gardens and washing clothes.

Water itself uniquely connects bodies and landscapes. In modern cities this connection is sublimated, hidden in pipes and sewers. As a result we have developed technologies and practices that consume water as if it was endless. Fresh water is a spatially constrained resource and many cities are now exceeding the hydrological capacity of their surrounding landscapes. Conventional engineering models of water provision are reaching their limits, reopening the space of possibilities for how water flows through cities and bodies. Propositions are emerging which reconfigure urban cultures and spaces to allow more hydrologically sensible relationships between cities and landscapes. It is imperative that these efforts acknowledge the centrality of bodies and bodily functions in these relationships, following water itself across boundaries of polite urban discourse.

[i] Plumwood V. (1993) Feminism and the mastery of nature London: Routledge.