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.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Lost in translation

UCL brands itself ‘London’s Global University’. Our students come from all over the world, speaking many different languages, as well as English. We expect all of our students to have studied another language to at least GSCE level, either before entry or before they graduate by picking up language classes while they are studying with us. Embarrassingly, this is a standard that I have not met.

I am monolingual. Australian English is the only language I speak. I am ashamed of this. I grew up in rural Australia, where the dominant attitude is ‘you come to our country, you speak our language’, and I went to a school that didn't exactly share UCL's values for inter-cultural awareness and a well-rounded, global education. 

In our early years of high school we could choose between French and Italian. I had never met a French person, and ‘French kissing’ seemed to translate directly into the Australian ‘pashing’, so the romance was lost on me. French philosophy? Social theory? Literature? Art? Nope, French was pointless. I chose Italian, influenced by my grandmother who had picked up a few words whilst supervising prisoners of war on the family farm. She had been partly motivated by the need to wrest control of the dog from the sneaky POWs, who, no doubt bored by their Western Australian agrarian incarceration, had amused themselves by training the young fox terrier using Italian commands. In the years following the war a significant Italian community settled in our town and we had a priest who said mass in their language once a month, so at least I had heard the language spoken.

I studied Italian for three years, not quite to the equivalent of GCSE. Then we had to choose our final subjects for university entrance, and foreign languages were off the list. By that time there were no foreign language teachers in town. Our last Italian teacher was caught shoplifting in the discount department store where many of us worked part-time (she was busted on a Saturday, our shared day off school), and received a custodial sentence (she was busted with A LOT of stuff). They couldn’t replace her, and so languages were off the menu for the rest of my formal education.

Since starting at UCL I have tried to alleviate my embarrassment by enrolling in a few Spanish classes at our language school. I have been a very bad student, studying on and off over the last nine years, to reach at best an intermediate standard. It is not easy learning a foreign language for the first time as an adult. It is particularly difficult to find the discipline and time to study and practice in between everything else in my life. 

Which leads me once again to 'imposter syndrome', that feeling that I don't really belong here with all the clever people, and the fear that one day they'll find out that I'm a fraud. Imposter syndrome mostly goes away with experience and the realisation that almost everyone else is faking it too. Except when it comes to an actual skill, like speaking a foreign language. That's not something you can fake (unless you are very drunk, which I try to avoid).

On a day-to-day basis I only ever need to speak English. Being monolingual is not a direct barrier to career progression. Most people I work with don't know, and few would care, but it is something that makes me feel inferior. When people like  Miriam Gonz├ílez Dur├íntez use a lack of fluency in a foreign language as shorthand for stupid and lazy I blush. I could (and will) try harder with my Spanish classes, but this is the kind of extra work that my colleagues who went to better resourced schools in different parts of the world don't have to do, and don't even notice. Learning a language is the clearest example, but there are other things that colleagues from the 'right background' take for granted that country bumpkin 'imposters' like me need to pick up as adults. Things like literature, art, food, travel, nuanced political debate. I'm getting there, but part of me will always feel slightly awkward, constantly a step behind.

I am lucky to have been born in a time and place where everyone received a decent basic education and where it was possible for smart, hard-working kids to go on to university and to build interesting, international careers, despite significant cultural deficiencies such as monolingualism. I worry that opportunities for such mobility are declining, not only due to economic barriers such as high tuition fees, but also because of the strengthening of cultural barriers that comes from an over-emphasis on confidence as the foundation for success, ignoring the structural and practical obstacles of wealth, class, gender, race and disability.

Having more self-confidence might make me a better Spanish student, but it won't put the words in my mouth. It is my responsibility to put in the effort required to learn a foreign language, to meet the standards we expect of our students, but it was not my fault that Signorina Maestra got caught with her trolley full of stolen goods in Geraldton all those years ago. Life experience gives me the confidence to reveal and explain my inferiorities without fear of repercussions, but it doesn't lessen the work required to overcome them.        

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

How to fix a leaking toilet with a handful of pennies and a tablespoon of sunflower oil: confessions of a tinkerer

Last year my landlord very nicely paid for my bathroom to be completely renovated while I was away on holiday. The plan was for me to come home to a bright new bathroom, but it took several weeks of plumbing visitations after my return for everything to work properly, more or less. One minor issue that was never quite resolved was the tendency for the toilet flush mechanism to get stuck open. It was one of those problems that didn't occur if you knew how to flush 'just right', but invariably appeared when uninitiated visitors flushed any-old-how. My guests should not require a special induction to flush the loo, but it was relatively simple for me to 'unstick' each time and didn't seem worth the effort to call a plumber. Plumbers can be as unreliable as modern flush mechanisms. Eventually even a 'just right' flush stuck open and the valve became more difficult to 'unstick'. By yesterday morning the toilet was leaking constantly. Something had to be done.

This is the point at which I should have called the plumber, but that would require looking up the phone number, rearranging my diary to work from home for a day, and a few more days of a leaking toilet. The toilet was right there in front of me, leaking, tempting me to tinker. Why spend five minutes making a phone call and booking a day at home when I had a whole bank holiday ahead of me to spend pulling my toilet apart?

The flushing mechanism is very modern. It consists of a cylinder with a valve on the bottom that is pulled up by a cable, similar to a brake cable on a bike, when the flush handle is pressed. It should be released when the flush handle returns to the normal position, but the valve was sticking in the up position. The flush mechanism consists of two 'black-boxes' - the cylinder with the sticking valve and the housing for the cable attached to the back of the flush handle. Normal people avoid opening their toilet cisterns. Smart people avoid opening 'black-box' mechanisms inside their toilets. Sensible people spend bank holidays sunning themselves in the park. 

The toilet was still leaking. I had removed the cylinder, I had a little 'black-box' in my wet hands. A voice inside my head said 'put the toilet back together, call the plumber', but my eye had spied the means to lifting the lid off the cylinder and my hand was reaching for the nail scissors and tweezers on the shelf above the sink. The voice inside was discussing options for plumbers, while my fingers discovered how the cable mechanism slotted into the valve mechanism. My fingers unslotted the mechanism, and then played with the molded bits of plastic, trying to figure out how it worked and why it wasn't. The voice inside let out a little squeak, but my fingers calmly reminded it that this was just another puzzle, like the wooden cubes or metal rings on the kitchen shelf at Grandma's house. Nothing had snapped or been lost, it would all come back together.         

If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher or otherwise concerned about the future of one or more children please make sure that they are never exposed to those darstedly little puzzles. They should come with a warning label 'keep out of reach of children, may cause brain damage'. They lead to irreversible neural re-structuring that causes vast overestimation of spatial and physical problem solving abilities. If one of those puzzles ever defeated me as a child there was always the option of putting the pieces in a plastic bag and waiting for Grandma to come over and show me how it was done. The stakes were somewhat higher with the tiny plastic pieces of my toilet. Grandma lives in Geraldton, my toilet is in London, and at 93 she is possibly past her puzzle-solving prime. 

I tinkered with the parts, and managed to put them back together, hoping that this reboot would be enough to solve the problem. The valve still stuck. The second black-box tempted me. My inner voice of reason was now whimpering with fear. Cable mechanisms have gone horribly wrong in my hands, leaving me stranded on the pavement with an upturned, brake-less bike halfway to work. My hands marched confidently on, now reaching into the cupboard for the spanners and screw drivers. If nothing broke and nothing was lost and if I moved slowly, everything would be OK. I opened the box, and the inner mechanism proved remarkably simple. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that lubricating the cable would probably help, but I didn't have any mineral oil or lubricating spray. The voice of reason could barely say 'walk down the street and buy a can of WD40', before my hands had reached for the sunflower oil from the kitchen. The cable was drizzled with edible oil and reinstated, and both black boxes returned to their rightful places in the cistern. The cable moved more freely, but the valve still stuck.

I picked up my purse and took out four pennies. I put the pennies on the top of the valve shaft to provide extra weight to help it drop down once the cable was released. The valve still stuck. I then found my jar of foreign coins and picked out the US pennies, Mexican pesos, Euro cents and Danish half-Kroner. I piled a few of them on top of the shaft, and placed some of them under the cylinder on top of the valve itself. 

It worked. 

I turned the water back on, filled the cistern and flushed, and flushed again, any-old-how. Every time the valve opened and closed on demand. There was a sunflower oil slick in the toilet and a rattle like a pocket full of change, but the cistern no longer leaked. I put the lid back on, packed the tools away and my sensible legs took me out jogging before my tinkering fingers could deny me any more sunshine.

Tinkering feels like a mental disorder. It is state of mental and physical obsession, a compulsion. Engineers are often characterised as tinkerers. The classic boy-geek engineer tinkers with TVs, cars or computers. I have never taken a TV apart nor deliberately looked inside a computer. I thought I was a different kind of engineer, interested more in the big picture than the nerdy mechanical detail. I thought I was special. I am not. It pains me deeply to come out as a tinkerer. Worse yet, I am a tinkerer of toilets.

Of course this is not the first time I have tinkered with a toilet. I have a secret history of opening cisterns and fiddling with valves. I usually take care not to tinker too long, lest people start to wonder what I am up to, but alone in the privacy of my bathroom my tinkering takes its own course. 

I know that tinkering is no longer something to be ashamed of. The 'maker' movement, including UCL's Institute of Making, positively celebrates this kind of behaviour, creating spaces for people to tinker together. Apparently there is honour in engaging directly and purposely with the material world around us. Matthew Crawford in his book 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' claims that working with our hands in this way is fundamental to our humanity. I should embrace my tinkering, be proud of it. 

So here I am. I am an engineer, and I tinker. I can no longer hide.      

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Run for your life

Today is the London marathon. I am watching it on the tellie, dressed in my running gear having just come in from a short jog around Highbury Fields. I am not a natural runner. I have long gangly limbs and most of my 'muscle mass' is to be found on my arse. Theoretically I could be a cyclist or a rower, but I have tried both with uninspiring results. My body is best suited to lying on the couch watching others play sports. And yet I run. Slowly and inconsistently, I have run for most of my life.

In my youth my height meant that I was a reasonably valuable member of netball and basketball teams. Basketball training was where the running started. It was not a happy beginning. As a young basketballer any time spent training without a ball in my hand or an opponent in my sights was a drag. 'Fitness training' was my least favourite activity but if it was just a few sprints or sit ups on the court then it could be endured because real training wasn't too far away. Training outside the stadium, at the beach or the local football ground, was tedious, but with team mates to laugh at me when my legs collapsed after a sprint up a sand dune, and a coach yelling at me to go harder, it was bearable. There was nothing fun about the early mornings slowly jogging around the deserted roads of the suburban fringe, with my mother trailing behind on a bicycle. I hated running, but I did it for the team, or at least out of fear that I would be dropped if I didn't.

Then I went to university, stopped training, started drinking and got fat. I still hated running, but not as much as I hated being fat. So I put on my sneakers again and one foot in front of the other jogged around Kings Park and the Swan River near the University of Western Australia. I never ran more than 5km, and I ran slowly, but I began to notice other benefits. By my final year I realised that the day I could run an extra 100m was the day I could revise another few pages of my text book. Running was teaching me to push past my limits, and the fruits of discipline.

I left university for work in aluminium smelting and continued jogging slowly around the bushland, mangroves and beaches of Central Queensland, which was fine in the 'dry season' but awful in treacly air of 'the wet'. Back to university and back to Perth for my PhD and my midday run along the Indian Ocean coastline south of Fremantle was a brief moment of sanity in those lunatic days of write up. I entered my first 5km fun run around Freo. Across the continent again to the cold air of the New South Wales tablelands and my first academic job, where I ran in snow and sleet, losing feeling in my fingers and toes. I ran the 14km Sydney City to Surf. And still, if you'd asked me, I would have said that for the most part I hated running.

I am by nature very lazy. Given the choice I will always lie on the couch and read a book, watch TV, or, even better, sleep. I kept running to keep from getting fat. Running up a hill, alone, in the sub-zero sleet on the farm where I lived and worked teaching sustainable agriculture, I visualised carbon dioxide and water molecules coming out of my mouth, smoke from the fat burning off my bum. I also imagined my childhood nemesis, who I knew had been putting on the pounds, and was driven by the thought that if I achieved nothing else in my life at least I would be thinner than her when I went home. I would be a horrible person, but I would not be fat. My mantra was 'keep running you fat lazy cow' (polite version).

I moved to London, and jogged along the Thames and over Hampstead Heath. In a pub after the Great British 10K one year with my brother and a friend, we toyed with the idea of a marathon and dismissed it before the bottom of our second pint. Then one January, all in need of a resolution, five of us signed up for the Edinburgh marathon (which is easier to get into than London, is a lovely scenic course and a good excuse for a weekend in one of my favourite cities).

Marathon training was hard. It began 12 weeks before the race, required running or cross training most days of the week, and took over my weekends. Sundays I would run in the morning and then sleep in the afternoon, exhausted. Pretty soon I was running further than ever before, every week. This meant that every week I would feel a new level of pain, and every Monday I would be hobbling up the stairs at work. Men cat called, even whilst taking a Sunday stroll in the park with their girlfriends. I discovered whole new areas of London and got to know the Lea Valley more intimately than I ever imagined.    

Marathon training taught me some of my most important lessons. It taught me the power of negative thinking. 'Keep running you fat lazy cow' might have been enough to drag my sorry arse up a hill on a freezing 7km jog, but 27km into a long training session, far from home, it was a very dangerous thought. At that point my body believed whatever my mind told it. If I have told my body it was fat and lazy it would have stopped running and found the nearest chip shop. 'You are a big, strong girl, keep going', became my new mantra. Its purpose was to keep out negative thoughts, and it helped me keep my head up and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got home, took a shower and fell asleep.

The marathon itself taught me to live for the moment. My companions had all run off ahead of me by the 2km mark and alone in the crowd I thought to myself 'this is probably the only marathon you will ever run, enjoy it'. And so I did. I kept slowly shuffling along, chatting to people who were at the same pace for short periods, listening out for all the cheers from the crowd along the way, laughing at the humiliation of being overtaken by Uncle Bulgaria, the Womble (who is considerably taller than he looks on TV). Around 30km, on my own, out along the coast, a lady standing in her front yard yelled 'I love seeing strong women achieving their goals', putting a smile on my face for the rest of the day. I 'ran' the whole way, without walking or stopping. When the 40km marker appeared I knew it was nearly over but I had no idea when. I was running so slowly that it seemed possible that I would be running for the rest of the afternoon, but I kept going. One foot in front of the other.

Then it was over. I couldn't lift my foot onto the step for the volunteer to take the chip off my ankle. Very kindly she bent over to the ground and my officially recorded time was 4:52. Later that year a woman won the gold medal in Beijing running the marathon in 2:26. I have never felt pain like I felt that day and for the following week, but I had 'run' a marathon.

I didn't run further than the bus stop for the next six months. I laid on the couch a lot. Eventually I put my sneakers back on and got back out onto the pavements and parks. I slid back into my inconsistent routine of jogging, mostly for fitness but also because sometimes as I close my eyes at night I dream that I am running on an empty street. In the last couple of years I have discovered that running is a good cure for jet lag, especially on work trips. In that hour that I usually get between being dropped at the hotel after a long haul flight and picked up for dinner or my first meeting, I head straight for the treadmill. It feels good to get the blood circulating. Running is a great way to discover a city, and on holidays I head out onto the streets and parks, but for work trips the treadmill is more reliable.

I go through phases, sometimes not running for months. This winter has been one of those phases, initially due to a chest infection, then simply inertia. I have also been suffering terribly with procrastination, noticing a lack of commitment to almost everything. This is not a co-incidence. And so, after many drafts of post-it notes, very tidy cupboards, many books and webpages on productivity, I simply put my sneakers on, and went jogging. I have now been jogging for 11 days in a row. Very slowly, no further than 5km. It is the one thing I know I can commit to, and the one thing I know brings the structure and discipline I need for the rest of my life. That extra 100m - another paragraph of a grant application, another essay marked.

I no longer hate running, but I will never be a runner. If I could take a pill that burned 350 calories instead of going for a half hour jog I probably would. I hope the drug companies never invent that pill. I also have a note in my diary for 22nd April, the day the ballot opens for next year's London marathon. I don't know if I'll apply or if I am prepared to hobble around for 12 weeks next winter, but I hope I will keep jogging, very slowly for as long as my legs can carry me.