Sunday, September 10, 2017

Thames Barrier Test Day

Today was the annual closure of the Thames Barrier. One of the largest flood barriers in the world, it has protected London from Storm surges and unusually high tides since 1984. It is raised once a month for testing, but a scheduled full closure only happens once a year and is a rather special occasion.

We arrived on the South Bank near Greenwich around 9 in the morning when it was quiet, save for lots of Environment Agency staff bustling about and setting up. We set up a picnic on the grass and waited. By the time things got started an hour later the road was lined with people who had come out to watch.

There are ten gates, four of which lower down and six which lie in the river bed and rise up. They moved one at a time, each one taking about ten minutes to raise or lower. By 11:30 the whole thing was in place. It would stay there until after high tide, and then raise a few meters to allow underspill and level out the water before opening the gates again (we didn't end up staying until the end, so will have to catch the underspill another time. It's apparently a great time to see lots of birds who come to feast on the fish it churns up.)

The barriers have closed 176 times for flood defense (an average of about 5 or 6 times a year) in addition to their routine closures. But it is not intended to last forever... eventually due to climate change and sea level rise the gates will no longer offer complete protection.

The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan developed by the Environment Agency sets out a plan the next 100 years, which of course is largely guess work beyond the short term. As they put it:
"The plan is based on contemporary understanding of predicted climate change, but is designed to be adaptable to changes in predictions (including for sea level rise) throughout the century."
It was interesting to reflect that I have never lived in a place where I was very aware of environmental threats or imagined the Thames as anything other than a beautiful river (with an interesting history of sewage). Until today, as far as I knew Thames Barrier was "that thing that looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House, that you can take a boat to." It's amazing to think about the infrastructure that is in place, and the careful research, thought and engineering that goes into it, without the average person being aware... and that one day changes, no matter how prepared and planned for, will probably take us by surprise anyway. I'm grateful there are people who devote their careers to the subject in so many ways from protecting the environment from harmful chemicals and plastics to tackling the engineering challenges to ensure that when changes do come we are prepared. There were loads of great organizations out recruiting today, and I now have a whole stack of bedtime reading for tonight!

More information on TE2100 is here:
More information and reports on the Barrier are here:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

World Toilet Day: What is it? And how to celebrate!

November 19th!

Every year World Toilet Day sneaks up on us. While we're already hanging out Christmas decorations in September many people forget there are some very important observances that come first, and this is one of them.

It's understandable... World Toilet Day is a fairly young holiday, started in 2001 at the first meeting of the World Toilet Association and only recognized by the UN in 2013. So most people don't know about it until it's happening or has passed, and then they only get the hallmark version of it: The humour without the substance.

Here are the ways a few people describe World Toilet Day:
The aim of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness about the people in the world who don’t have access to a toilet, despite the fact that it is a human right to have clean water and sanitation.“ (United Nations
World Toilet Day is THE day for action. It is the day to raise awareness about all the people who do not have access to a toilet, and the urgent need to end the sanitation crisis. And it is the day to stand up (or sit down or squat if you prefer) to do something about it. (World Toilet Organization) 
A campaign to motivate and mobilize millions around the world on issues of sanitation. (Wikipedia)
You don't have to dig far to learn that sanitation, and by extension toilets, is one of the major humanitarian crisis of our time, even if it doesn't always make the front pages. For the 2.4 billion people who lack access to good sanitation there is an increase of risk of malnutrition and disease. This problem exists not only in developing countries but refugee camps and many large cities (San Francisco for example is infamous for its 'poop problem' due to the high homeless population and the lack of access to basic facilities.') 

But I promised you I'd talk about celebrating and all of this is rather grim. Many consider the humour aspect of toilets to be an important part of the day because it gets people's attention in a way that facts and statistics don't. So here are some ideas for ways to make the most of the day at whatever level you wish to plunge to:

  1. Wish people a Happy World Toilet Day! When they ask why be prepared to tell them a little about the day and its history. It's a baby step, but you never know where simply getting a person thinking about a topic will lead!
  2. Throw a World Day Party! Whether you use it as an opportunity to raise money for a cause or just to reflect on the topic and talk to people about it it's a fun way to acknowledge the day. Topical (but not overly gross) foods include these super adorable Poo Emoji Meringues and lemonade... or rainbow ice cream in honor of the Squatty Potty unicorn. Create a toilet themed Quiz or play.
  3. Volunteer!  What sanitation initiatives are going on locally for you? In San Francisco I am a huge fan of Lava Mae which provides mobile shower units to the homeless population. Find out if your city has similar local programs!)
  4. Donate to a cause! There are many options both local in international, so find out what speaks to your interests. It might be one of the big global charities like WaterAid or something local to you. Get a group of friends together to Twin a Toilet!
  5. Do something fun and toilet related! I'm personally biased towards the London Loo Tour, but wherever you are there is likely to be something happening: visit the Paris Sewers or the Manchester Museum of Science (which has a great sewer exhibition).
  6. Share your celebrations! For the tweeters among you, previous years hashtags have included #wecantwait #worldtoiletday and #giveashit ... keep an eye out for others relating to your activities of choice!

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Sewer Love Story

Last year I looked forward with great anticipation to the Brighton Sewer tour, which had been on my bucket-list almost since I started out on my journey of toilet obsession. But alas, a month before the tour was to take place I got an e-mail saying all tours for the year had been canceled due to flooding. Determined to have a sewage adventure of some sort I searched and found the Paris Sewer Museum. I put out an open call to my facebook friends, and found a partner in crime, undeterred by the thought of a weekend of sewage, toilet hunting and eating snails. Despite my having a horrible hacking cough the whole time (arguably the authentic bohemian experience?) that trip turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  I am now engaged to my patient, long suffering travel companion... and he even proposed with a sewer rat puppet.

Six months after getting engaged my fiancé and I finally managed to go down those Brighton Sewers, which are at least partially to thank for bringing us together. So with nearly three years of anticipation riding on them those sewers had a lot to live up to! They did not disappoint.

Our tour began at 9:30 and we waited on the wall outside the entrance with a group of other sewer enthusiasts. Mostly couples, a few families and a few lone travelers. We had a full group of 25, which is the maximum they take.

As we entered were issued with hard hats and rubber gloves and taken into a small room for an introduction. Four guides, all of whom have worked the sewers for many years took it in turns to give us health and safety and a bit of history.

The story parallels that of most large cities in the UK: Brighton's sewers were built in the 1860's in response to population growth and exciting diseases like cholera. Improvements have been made since then, but much of it is still the Victorian system.

Until fairly recently parts of the sewers were tidal... that is when there was not enough water from the household waste to keep things moving gates could be opened twice a day to let in the high tide and flush out the chambers. You can still see barnacles on the walls.

When they are flowing they flow fast! One tunnel we were taken to see moved at about 30 miles per hour... fast enough to knock you over if you stand in it (not recommended.) If you  are standing in sewage and feel yourself going down the first thing you should do is close your mouth. As our guide put it, "You've established you're going for a swim... you don't need to drink it as well."

Sewer men generally work between 2am and 6am as the safest time to go down is while everybody else is asleep (it used to be midnight and 4am, but night clubs have shifted that.) They clean out grit and grease that block up the sewers. Most of them remember when cleaning grit had an added bonus in the form of coins, rings, gold teeth, pocket watches and other treasures that made their way into the sewers. But these days instead of shoveling grit by hand they pump it into a truck.

We walked through the large overflow tunnel and climbed a ladder to emerge in a park a few blocks away from where we began. I wonder if people thought it was strange to see an army of people emerging from the sewers, or if by now the locals are used to it.

We hiked back to the start of the tour to wash our hands, collect our backs and receive goodies and pamphlets. Most of the gifts and indeed much had to do with keeping drains clean. As one guide explained it, the drains coming out of your home are usually only 4 inches thick... so if you let grease start piling up it doesn't take long to obstruct them. Actually most of the point of the tour seemed to be not to indulge curious lovebirds with a sanitation fixation, but to spread the gospel of clean drains. A worthy cause indeed!

I suppose the only appropriate way to end this post is to say that I hope that my marriage will be as enduring and the sewers. That we will treat our relationship with care and respect and not dump grease, wet wipes, ear cleaners or dead goldfish on it (metaphorically or literally.)  That though there may be grit to clean from time to time, we may find the gold and false teeth to make it worthwhile.

wedding vows: check!

Happy Family

One of our tour guides with Ratty

Saturday, May 21, 2016

No offense intended: slippery bathroom territory

I don't often manage to offend people, so it was interesting to re-post something I thought was reasonably innocent on Facebook and receive some fairly strong reactions to it.

Like many Americans I have been following recent Bathroom legislation in various states (North Carolina of course being the noisiest at the moment) and like most of my circle of friends I have been suitably embarrassed by my country. Toilets and gender have interested me for a long time, originally from a perspective of potty parity (which is very much a part of my life as a woman), and more recently from the trans perspective (which is something I cannot claim personal experience with, but I know affects a number of my friends.) This image caught my partly because it conflates the two issues:

Perhaps these things are inappropriately combined in some people's eyes. I would have to agree that my annoyance at having to wait in ladies' queues pales in comparison to the risk that a trans person takes using a public rest room. It's not unlike the way my frustration at having to pay for (or worse, not being able to find) public toilets seems negligible compared to the plight of the billions worldwide who have no access at all. But that doesn't mean we don't or shouldn't talk about all the issues... and much of my toilet-ing work has been built on the idea that a) sometimes looking at multiple things at once leads to stronger and more creative solutions and b) finding the humour in a potentially uncomfortable situation can make it easier to talk about.

Responses I got to the post included:
"It's really too soon to make jokes about things like this."  
"People are getting killed by the right wing-extremists. Stop it with the jokes." 

My first reaction was defensive: that I didn't see it as a joke. So I had to interrogate: If it's not a joke, what is it? A tongue in cheek statement of fact. Okay- so maybe it is a joke, but one that pokes fun at my own reality rather than being intended to demean anyone else's struggle. On closer reflection though it strikes me that offending language is probably the potential implication that people identify as something else are still 'actually' their biological gender (which, horror of horrors makes it not much better than Mike Huckabee joking "I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have 'felt like a woman' when it came time to take showers in PE.") I see it now, unintentional though it might have been.

In the end I took the post down, not because I don't still think it's interesting nor because I don't find a grain of amusing truth in it, but because if a picture is worth a thousand words this one is not very clear about what those words are and too open to misinterpretation without context. I think there is a more productive discussion to be had around the issue, and I'm grateful for a circle of acquaintances who can call it out when communication is not effective.

So here are some thoughts and questions off the back of that.

It has been written time and time again that toilets are, if not the last, then at least one of the most visible sites of gender segregation. A binary system that not only favours men over women in terms of provision, but forces a person to publicly declare "I am 'this' or 'that'"and then opens them up to the judgement of society if they do not fit neatly into the prescribed order.

I am generally for de-gendering toilets all together, though I know this in itself is a tricky issue, easier said than done. But it seems to me that in addition to the practicalities of equitable queuing and fluid gender roles (like tradition of providing baby change tables only in the ladies) it provides a more fluid view of gender identity, taking away the need to make a political statement through a simple bodily function. There will always be contexts where, for whatever reason, separate facilities are necessary, but what if these were to become the exception rather than the rule?

It occurs to me is probably safer for me as a cis-gendered woman to use the men's toilet in many places than it is for a transgender man. I have used men's toilets when the ladies was being cleaned, when the line was long, and when I just wanted to see what the inside was like as part of my research. I have occasionally been told off, but never have I felt endangered. It's not an experience I can easily imagine, nor one I would wish on anyone.

I'd be interested to hear feedback from my friends (of all orientations.) What can be done to make restrooms a safe and stress-free experience? What needs to be done (and is already happening) in terms of larger social change? And what can friends and allies do on a practical day to day level? And, if you are willing to share, what particularly good or bad experiences have you had?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

GREat precautions

Last night I took the GRE... a requirement for most American Graduate Programmes. On arriving at the testing centre I copied out a statement that I would not disclose the contents of the test to any other person by any means. So this post will, of course, only touch on the things that took place outside of the testing room. But that is where the real drama takes place.

There are plenty of wonderfully helpful aids to prepare you for the test itself, but very little to inform you about the accompanying rituals, so here, based on my experience is a guide on what to expect on test day.

Once non-disclosure forms are signed, your mobile phone turned off and your belongings stowed securely in a locker, you will be taken into an anti-room. Here you will be given a once-over with a metal detection wand, asked to roll up your sleeves to the elbows, turn out all your pockets, and show your ankles.

That done you sit in a chair to get your mugshot taken, and sign into the sacred testing room. If your signature isn't legible enough for their taste you will be asked to redo it. Protestations that it is good enough for your bank and your credit card company are of no use. So you print it more painstakingly than you probably have since third grade.

You are now ready to enter the facility and be guided to your computer station where you will take the test.

But wait!!! Make sure you are a comfortable temperature... because here's the corker which pushes the whole thing over the edge of ridiculousness:

Once inside the facility you may not put on or remove any items of clothing. Should you decide that you are too warm you must exit the testing room, sign out (make your signature match the one from when you signed in!) get permission to open your locker to put away the sweater, and go through the whole process of metal detecting, ankle displays and turning out your pockets again. All while the test clock is still running.

You get one scheduled pee break in the 5 hour test, during which you go through the same security checks. You may take additional breaks with the clock running, but you are warned that if you take a suspicious number of breaks this will be reported by the centre staff to the powers that be.

As you leave you get your only consolation of retaliation is to sign your name with the minimal possible amount of legibility, and take a handful of the free mints on the receptionists desk.

And that is the GRE.

The great irony is that GRE scores are of secondary importance to most schools. They are far more interested in the person you are and the things that you will bring to the programme which can't be measured by your ability to ace a generic test.

Really, if a student is innovative enough to develop a test support tool that can be smuggled past the guards and activated by the simple removal of a sweater any grad school ought to welcome them with open arms!

As I final confession, I did actually, in a weird way, quite enjoy taking the test. There's something satisfying about having completed it, and now I'm one step closer to graduate school, with an over priced piece of paper to prove in some quantifiable way that I am smart. Sure, on the way home I may have got on completely the wrong freeway exit and then spent 5 minutes waiting for the tea kettle to boil before I realised I hadn't turned the burner on. But hey! At least I know how to  -REDACTED BECAUSE I CAN'T DISCUSS TEST QUESTIONS.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cholera to Clean Water: a brief reflection on narrative and history

Often times when you get close to a subject you get to a point where you can predict (if not recite along to) most documentaries, talks and lectures. You still go because a) there will inevitably be a new tidbit or two, b) it’s good to test your memory and 3) you’ll meet likeminded people with whom you can enthuse about said subject. It’s a bit like dusting off and re-reading A Christmas Carol every year.

But sometimes you get something that completely surprises you.

Howard Benge’s presentation “From Cholera to Clean Water” at the Guildhall Library was refreshingly new, obscure and in-depth. With a title like that I had expected the usual much loved story: John Snow discovers source of cholera at pump in Soho, Bazalgette builds the sewers and Britain reigns supreme in its superior systems of sanitation. But Bazelgette (often referred to as ‘unsung hero’) had only a cameo role in a much broader history of London’s quest for clean water and made way for other even lesser known men.

Sir Francis Burdette, MP, 1770-1844, who was campaigning for better water quality as early as 1827, when water piped from the Thames into people’s homes was full of all London’s refuse.

James Simpson, Engineer, 1799-1869, who researched water filtration around the country and developed systems for Lambeth Water Company which were widely copied.

John Snow… but not the old story we already know. The pump in soho was mentioned in passing, but only as prefface to the crowning achievement: his Grand Experiment of 1855. Snow compared the supplies of the two main water companies in South London: Lambeth Water Company, which drew its water from a relatively clean area upstream, and Southwark & Vauxhall Water Company which drew its water from downstream near Battersea. Comparing Cholera Deaths in the households, Snow estimated an average of 315 deaths/10,000 in Southwark, and a mere 37/10,000 amongst those supplied by Lambeth.

Why don’t we normally hear all these details? Why do some stories get chosen and not others? I suppose it all comes down to luck and narrative. The Pump in Soho is a nice detective story… one man on a mission. A small location. Colourful native characters. Evidence neatly pointing to the obvious conclusion, and a resolution (the handle is taken of the pump.) Elementary my dear Watson. Meanwhile, the Grand Experiment, though historically significant is more clinical and less personal.

Similarly with Bazalgette: we have a sudden and dramatic problem (The Great Stink) with a sudden dramatic solution (a sewer that is a marvel of modern engineering). There is, for some reason more romance in sewage than in water filtration. It's easier to be a hero by fixing a problem than by pre-empting it.

Near the beginning of the talk Benge made the observation that 19th century London was still operating on Medieval systems. In another 200 years when progress we can't envision has been made perhaps some researcher standing in a similar room will say "21st Century London was still operating on its Victorian Systems." I wonder which of our stories and heros they will remember.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


A ticket to Dismaland: £5
Train to get there from London: £57.60
Art that inspired both glee and fear: Priceless.

I’ve never been to Disnyland and I don’t know very much about Banksy, but Dismaland intrigued me. The pictures of burnt out castles and distorted mermaids appealed to my love of contradictions and the slightly morbid. So off I went not really knowing what to expect.

Weston Supermare is a sort of typical English seaside town. It’s got a pier and lots of shops selling colourful beach toys and ice cream. I had been hoping for gloomy weather to fit the mood of my adventure, but the day was beautifully sunny with barely a cloud in sight. I was probably the only person disappointed by this.

Dismaland begins with the universal theme park experience: queuing. All of those of us who had been lucky enough to get advance tickets waited across the street from the park for our timed entry at 2 o’clock. Once we made it to the front and had our bags checked by the real (not too dismal) security guard we were taken across the street in groups by the (also not too dismal) lollypop man.

Entering Dismaland we had to go through ‘security’ with lots of grumpy guards hanging about giving us grief. I got pulled aside and scanned by one of them because I looked too happy. She told me that my rainbow socks were an “interesting wardrobe choice” and finally let me in, wishing me “a dismal day.”

Inside the park the spires of the burnt out castle rose ahead just as promised. Despite the earlier queues it wasn’t too crowded… busy but not suffocating.

I started by going through a series of galleries. Directly inside the entrance were signs with flashing messages that would have been perfect for slightly subversive fortune cookies:

It is better to be naïve than jaded.  
 You are clueless in your dreams.  
 Abuse of power comes as no surprise.   
Push yourself to the limit. 
Don’t place too much trust in experts. 
Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest.

As I wandered round the corner I came across a sign by some seemingly out of use bumper cars: Dance of Death: On the hour and every 15 minutes thereafter. My timing was apparently impeccable, because just then the lights popped on and a hooded figure with a scythe rode out on one of the cars. After cruising slowly around crashing into things disco lights popped on and he (I don’t know why I assume it was a he) zoomed around laughing hysterically while “Stayin alive” blared in the background. Then it all shut down and we were back to the dark room.

The rest of the gallery contained some potted plants made from ready meal boxes  and a fetus covered in corporate logos in a vending machine.

The next gallery was mostly paintings and photographs, most with a very blatant global warming message. A few favorites:

There was also a car with cross-stitch embroidery on the bonnet.

The third room had a vast model village with blinking lights (mostly from police cars) throughout ... The sort of thing you might find at a post-apocalyptic model railway show: "Jimmy Cauty’s hand crafted miniature world will delight and amaze (and potentially cause seizures in persons sensitive to strobe lighting)."

Emerging from the gallery it took a few moments to re-adjust to the sunlight. I came out right next to the pond with the refugee boats. For a pound you can take a turn to steer them towards the white cliffs of Dover, though they don't always do what you expect them to. There were a few bodies floating in the murky water as well. This was the most dissonant thing for me. How far removed (by time or geography) do you have to be from an experience to make it feel comfortable to parody? What role does intention play in that?

In an interview about the park Banksy said:

"I feel like my generation was the first to deal with the mass media beaming the world’s problems to us in real time... Mostly we’ve chosen to deal with this by cocooning ourselves, that we can live with the guilt. But why should children be immune from the idea that to maintain our standard of living other children have to die trapped in the hulls of boats in the bottom of the Mediterranean? The grown-ups might have convinced themselves small incremental change and buying organic tomatoes is enough, but passing that mindset onto the next generation doesn’t feel like good parenting."

I couldn’t go to the park without trying a ride, so I hopped on the carousel. It was mostly pretty normal, except for one horse that had been strung up. Next to him was the figure of a butcher sitting on a box that said “lasagna.” The carousel went slightly faster than most I have been on… or perhaps that was my imagination.

Around the other side of the park were a lot of booths and tents handing out pamphlets. I wasn’t entirely clear whether they were for actual causes and organizations or if they were parodies. Where does art end and real life begin? Can you have one without the other?

I went through the Pocket Money Loans shop put together by Darren Cullen of The room offered adverts for children from aging cream (to get rid of the symptoms of youth) to my personal favorite: rent-to-own gobstoppers: “everlasting payment plans! Dissolve your finances today!”

Finally I went through the enchanted castle. 

"Step inside a fairytale and see how it feels to be a real princess. Souvenir photos available" 

It was the only thing in the park that I had to queue to get into, but it moved pretty quickly. Inside we went through a dark hallway and then came through to a room of flashing lights. 

Being a princess isn't all bluebirds and balls. Cinderella’s carriage was overturned in the middle, and she was hanging limp out the window. The only light was provided by the strobe-like flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras. A grim tribute to Princess Diana.

On the way out I played knock the anvil off the pedestal. The silent attendant handed me three pingpong balls and loomed over me, rolling his eyes as I threw them. Even though I failed to hit the anvil, let alone knock it down he gave me a pin that said “strive for excellence”

Dismaland is to be experienced rather than written about. Banksey says art can be loud and obvious, and critics tend not to like this because it leaves nothing for them to do.
"Fundamentally I disagree with the charge that art is bad if it’s too easy to understand [...] I think there’s space for art to be loud, crass and obvious. If it looks like the rantings of an angry adolescent what’s wrong with that? [...] As far as I’m concerned there are too many things we need to discuss in the actual world before I start making abstract art." 

Maybe it was the influence of Dismaland that lead to the lively debates with a stranger on the train home about immigration and the role of the economy. There are so many things so obviously wrong with society. The sacred place of the economy and our fear of breaking it.