DOWN TO EARTH

There’s a double-edged problem with social class in my engineering sector that I see repeating itself over and over. I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years and this thing doesn’t seem to have changed. I find it sad because it’s off-putting and it holds people back.

There are many who (rightly) see engineering as a respected profession, with certain standards of presentation and behaviour. Good. But then there are some who take it too far, and it becomes a way of excluding people who are different, who don’t quite fit the mould. The success stories I’ve observed are predominantly male, white, and over 6′ tall. Frequently, issues related to one out-group are intertwined with those of other groups, and often, people fall into more than one category.Then there’s the other stereotype, the amiable salt-of-the-earth. This is limiting for both those within the group, and exclusive for those who feel they’re out of it. One place I worked at was reviewing CVs and they laughed at an applicant for having a Ph.D. Apparently they were too much of a “geek”. It’s really worrying that in a profession that requires intensive training; education and aspirations are openly mocked.

So what happens if you fall somewhere between the two groups? Well, you don’t really fit anywhere. And as much as we like to pretend we live in a meritocracy, the playing field is not level. Being well-connected is often more important than having the right credentials. There’s also a fine balance between standing out and being left out. I’ve often heard it said that women (this might apply to any other ‘out’ group or minority, too) should use their gender as a positive, to distinguish themselves from the rest of the competition. But I don’t really like this argument for two reasons:

  1. It’s just encouraging division. If you’re being noticed just because you’re female, then you’re reinforcing the stereotype. It’s up to employers to apply anti-discrimination legislation and encourage diversity.
  2. It’s using a gung-ho attitude to deny that there’s a problem. “We can do it!” does nothing for those who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere, and it makes it look as though the problem has been solved.

So attitudes need to change, for sure. I sometimes feel like my industry is still 30 years behind everyone else. But other industries probably have their quirks and nuances too. Things will change over time, but definitely for the better? I think the situation I’ve experienced is quite unusual in that there’s a two-tier system of acceptable class, dress and behaviour, especially seeing as the two groups in this case are quite distant from each other – the gap stretches from upper working class to upper middle class, with nothing in-between. What does it mean? Is it reflective of society? Does it highlight inequality?

TOILET ETIQUETTE

Sometimes the topic of bathroom segregation comes up in my office – we work on a variety of buildings with varying needs and accessibility and diversity policies. I have heard resistance to change expressed, not always in complimentary or logical terms, but I really like the way that more progressive firms and institutions (universities are especially good at this) are making changes that allow inclusivity and convenience for as many people as possible.

Current students of the University of Manchester were invited to provide their opinions on the new engineering campus development, and one of the topics for discussion is what the toilet arrangements should be like. I’m hugely in favour of the set-up in the Students Union, which has one large toilet with cubicles only, that people of any gender can use. There are also larger accessible toilets at ground floor level. If people wish to use gender-specific bathrooms, ‘male’ and ‘female’ toilets are available on the upper levels of the building, just off of a central core.

We also covered cultural considerations, like how overseas students may react to a Western loo. It might seem like an odd thing to think, and you might cry ‘discrimination’ at face value – but the fact is that there are a lot of international students in Manchester (this is good!), and there is huge variation in toilet type and etiquette across the world. Two of the more common ones I’ve heard about are that in some cultures it’s more usual to squat over the toilet (by standing on the seat) rather than sitting down, and that some places have less robust plumbing systems so used toilet paper would go in a bin rather than down the loo (ick). In most places that I’ve worked, this problem is gotten round by displaying polite notices on how to use the facilities. It’s clear that they’re not aimed at any person or group in particular, and it’s far better than the alternative, which I encountered in one office that I worked in.

There were literally (several) emails sent around the office asking people to not pee all over the floor in the toilets. In addition to that, people had to be advised how to correctly use a sink and dishwasher. It’s like as soon as people step outside of their own homes, they forget how a kitchen and bathroom are supposed to operate. Not sure how much better it would have worked out if the issues had been pre-empted, but it is pretty astonishing that it even got that far in the first place. It was even to the point that the ladies loo was protected by an access code, not for reasons of safety and privacy, but because the Wanton Widdler decided to have a go in the ladies as well! The office was about 95% male, so there was a good chance that it was a bloke, but I really don’t think that dirty behaviour is actually gender specific. That’s one stereotype that I’ve heard trotted out time and time again, and it needs to stop. The lock did seem to stop the culprit, though.

ECLIPSE

Yesterday morning, my lovely boy woke me up to see the eclipse!  In my sluggish stupor I had forgotten all about it and I was most upset at being woken at the ungodly hour of, um, 0830.  But when he told me the purpose of his interruption of my glorious slumber, I was totally OK with it.  Maybe even a little excited.

We had Stargazing Live on on the telly, and we had a great view of the eclipse over the flats across the street. What with it being Manchester, it was predictably cloudy, but this actually worked in our favour. Sometimes we couldn’t see the Sun at all, but when it was visible,we were able to direct light through a pair of binoculars turned round the wrong way on to a piece of white card (really tiny Sun, but very clear). We also managed to get some photos of the eclipse when it was veiled by a thin cloud layer – this actually worked great because if there hadn’t been cloud, we wouldn’t have been able to see the eclipse with the naked eye (this would have been very dangerous!). It was difficult to tell whether it got slightly dimmer because of the eclipse or the cloud – or if it was just confirmation bias.

I remember the 1999 eclipse, and where I was living at the time it was much sunnier.  But there wasn’t the same amount of enthusiasm for it in the groups I hung out with then, so I didn’t really appreciate it.  But this time around it was way cooler. The 1999 eclipse was a 95% one from where I was living, and the 2015 partial solar eclipse was about 95% in Manchester too.  Here’s the best pic I took, with a close up of the Sun (it’s still pretty unclear but you can just make it out):

The beautiful Manchester sky
The beautiful Manchester sky

The Sun's in the red rectangle
The Sun’s in the red rectangle

2015-03-20 09.17.21
Impressive or what?

MIGRAINE

What’s it like to have a migraine?  The only way to know the answer to this question is to ask every single migraine sufferer what their experience is, and then you’ll know for sure.  That’s a good few million to start with.  There are a number of common symptoms but everyone will describe something a bit different, and we can’t yet read people’s minds.  So you’ll have to take our word for it.  Here’s what mine are like:

I only get them once every two or three months, and they’re usually triggered by stress. My life is stressful most of the time, though, and I can’t pinpoint anything in particular that brought on my last one. They usually last about 48 hours, and start with a feeling that something isn’t quite right. The problem with this is that I can’t tell during this phase if I’m just perceiving the world strangely, or if it’s the beginnings of a migraine. Half the time I look back on it and think “oh yeah, I noticed something a bit odd the day before my crippling headache“.

green-spiral-fractalWell, that kinda happened this time. Monday evening, the gentleman in our office who whistles and taps on the table while working (I know, annoying, right?) seemed a bit louder and got inside my head a little more than usual. And the world developed a sort of iridescent quality (yes, I know this sounds weird). But, having a long history of neurological problems, I was unperturbed and carried on as usual. Tuesday morning arrived, and I felt just fine. For about 30 minutes. I was at my desk just staring at this email for about an hour, completely unable to think straight. It was like a fog had descended on my brain. Everything felt both unclear and very, very real all at the same time. And then the lights started. I see an orange and yellow flashing zig-zag in a spiral formation, which starts near the centre of my vision and moves outwards and becomes wider as the aura progresses. It looks like a beautiful fractal like the one in the picture on the right, but it is Extremely Distracting. I’m blind in one eye, so when I get this curvy zig-zag obscuring the rest of my sight, it’s like having tunnel vision. Not only is my visual field reduced, but if I concentrate on fine detail, it seems to “vibrate”, and it hurts my head to focus.

By this point I’m unable to function, and so I went home sick.  I wasn’t in too much pain at this point, and sometimes it doesn’t develop beyond this point. But this one did.  I don’t get any pain until the aura is well underway, so it at least acts as a useful warning.  The pain is usually on the right side of my head, concentrated around my eye socket.  It feels like my eye is under so much pressure that it could burst out of my face (nice). I managed to make it on to a train to get home (I did consider a taxi, but I was still functional enough to use public transport – just). The thing about my migraines that really worries me is the confusion associated with them.  That “really real, but not quite there” feeling causes me to question my own mind.  I get distracted and forgetful, and over-compensate because I’m scared my condition will cause me to make a mistake.  [Link: Catriona’s on-air migraine gives TV bosses a headache]

At home, the pain was increasing, but only slightly, and I decided to take a lie down. I wasn’t tired in the slightest, and I thought that 5 minutes rest might do me some good.  Five hours later, I woke up.  The pain had dissipated (typically, I have to just go to bed to get the pain to stop; nothing but unconsciousness seems to relieve it), but I felt quite dazed.  I was at home, and safe, so it didn’t matter so much, but it wasn’t pleasant.  I felt well enough to go to the gym in the evening; no idea if it did me any good but it felt right.  I went to bed tired, even though I’d slept for half the day.

Some other weird stuff happens. This time, I completely lost my appetite. I didn’t feel sick; the idea of eating just didn’t appeal to me at all. And when the pain starts, yawning seems to relieve it , but only for a few seconds.  So I yawn a lot. A lot.

The next morning (Wednesday) I woke up feeling refreshed, and unusually sparkling.  It felt great. But things were occasionally a bit fuzzy, like my brain was still a little bit ‘bruised’ from the previous day’s events. And by the evening, that was that.  Over until the next one. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

PUBLIC SPEAKING

Given that I’m one of the organisers of PubhD Manchester, it’s only fair that I should give a talk of my own.  And it was my turn last night! I spoke for ten minutes on my thesis “Retrofitting UK housing for a warming climate”, and answered a load of questions from the audience (some of them were really tough, but these were the fun ones!).  I think I went over the 20-minute limit for the questions but because I was the last speaker, it wasn’t a problem.

There’s more info on the format of PubhD Manchester on the website, but to briefly cover what it was like, we set up in a lovely local pub with a whiteboard and some pens, and we had three speakers, each talking for ten minutes and answering questions afterwards. I was speaker number three, with the preceding two speakers talking about their research on British Imperialism as presented to the German public by the Nazi media, and the reaction of the coal industry to climate change legislation.

I usually introduce the event and each speaker in turn, but because the two organisers were both speaking this time we had to alternate.  When it was my turn I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I should be, and I actually really enjoyed speaking in public.  I recently went on a public speaking course with work, and it looks as though I might have actually learnt something from it.

I had been stupidly busy in the run-up to the event, and I wrote my notes for the talk during my lunch break on the same day.  Oops. But I know my subject really well, and on the night I just used my notes as a prompt – the way it should be when you’re doing a presentation. I felt really confident and enjoyed having people listening to what I had to say.  The audience was about 20 people, and this was a small event suitable for practising my presentation skills ready for conferences. Having to condense my Ph.D into 10 minutes meant that I had to review and carefully consider my research.  Events like these are good for consolidating one’s knowledge as well.  Some of the questions from the audience covered areas of research that I hadn’t even considered, so this gave me inspiration for new topics to include in my writing.

My speech seemed to flow well, in spite of my poor preparation, but it was very useful to have the timer on display near to me.  Being able to see how much time I had left allowed me to move on to new topics at the right time to structure the talk suitably.  It’s amazing how eloquently and clearly, and how much, I can talk about my work.  Many people commented before I did my talk that I’m very passionate about my subject and that they could imagine I’d be a good speaker.  I’m hoping to build on this and attend posters events and give talks on discrete areas of my work in other settings.

One thing that I was particularly worried about was my audibility.  I’ve been told before that I’m too quiet when I present, so this is something I’ve been working on.  And it turns out that people could hear me just fine, even in a noisy pub.  However, I still need to work on slowing down my speech – apparently I spoke at the same speed as I do in conversation – which is pretty damn fast.

After we finished the event, some people stayed in the bar to chat.  We had some really interesting conversations, not so much about my research, but really stimulating anyway.  And rather hilarious too – I heard some “interesting” tales of former student houses, and was introduced to the concept of the “chundergrad”.  Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.  The whole night was a good experience, for the mind, soul, and funny bone.  I’ll definitely come back for the next one (as the organiser, I suppose I have to).

DUBLIN

My work offers me plenty of scope for international travel, and that is just what I’ve been up to this week. I’m working on a project in Ireland, and I’m loving every second of it. The work is challenging and varied, and did I mention that I get sent to Dublin every couple of weeks or so? Even though I’m working, I love the excitement of going to a different place. So many people say “oh, it’s just work”, but those people have no souls.

So here is a little about my time as an engineer working abroad for the day:

Because Ireland is so nearby, and you can book a flight for less than the cost of a railway ticket to London (this is more to do with the fact that rail fares in the UK are exorbitant, rather than flights being cheap), a day trip to attend a meeting is feasible.  However, because you’ve had to make a concerted effort to get to the damn meeting and make sure you’re thoroughly prepared before leaving the country, there is a certain pressure on you to make it worthwhile.

My adventure began at 5am, with me thinking “oh, this will give me plenty of time to make my 8am flight”. I got ready quickly, had all my stuff packed, passport to hand, had checked in online already. Nothing could possibly go wrong. I got in the taxi, thinking I had loads of time, and in fairness to me, I did. Upon arrival at Manchester Piccadilly station, I noted that my preferred train had departed 1 minute earlier. Not to worry, the next one is in…. forty minutes. Crap.Ok, ok, I’ll see if there’s an indirect route I can take. Yes! I went to Wilmslow and got a local stopping service back. Slightly less panic. The train gets me to the airport at 0704, so that’s easily doable. Let’s just hope that security is quiet.

Nope. Upon arrival at T1, the queue was huge and chaotic.  Why, why, WHY??? I was stood internally panicking in the queue, getting more and more frustrated at every single minor transgression imaginable.  Screaming children, people clueless about what you can / cannot take on a plane, people not knowing where they’re going.  All of them a trigger.  It’s a miracle I managed to hold it all together. It got to the point where there was a real possibility that I could miss my flight, so I ended up being one of those annoying people who gets rushed to the front of the queue and treated like royalty because of poor planning.  But if the airlines didn’t do this, the system wouldn’t be able to operate efficiently and smoothly.  Sometimes people get it wrong, but the system is set up in such a way that it can only work if people are in the right places at the right times. Sometimes you have to obey rules you don’t like and put up with annoyance and discomfort.

So after getting priority treatment at security (sorry guys), I literally had to run to the gate.  I just made it.  The adrenaline rush I was feeling at this point was totally unsuitable for someone who needs to sit still on a plane for the next 45 minutes, but at least I was actually On The Plane.

I love flying, everything about it is fun (as long as there’s no undue panic involved).  I like getting ready to go, listening to the familiar safety procedures, taking off, watching Manchester disappear and seeing the clouds below me. Each trip is an adventure, even if I’ve already done it a hundred times before. Upon arrival at Dublin Airport, I was annoyingly early for my appointment.  There were no convenient flights to get me there just before the meeting, so I had to take the one that got me there three hours early.  Oh, well.  Time for a bit of sightseeing.

I got myself a coffee in the airport bar (it’s called The Oak, and it’s very stylish and reasonably priced – this is a thing I noticed about Dublin: how cheap it is.  Even when they are trying to rip you off as a tourist, the prices don’t even come close to day-to-day UK prices), and planned my excursion.  The airport is quite far from the city, so either a taxi or a bus is needed for this bit.  I got a taxi last time, but I don’t have a spare €35 to fritter away on a chaffeur, so I opted for the bus instead.  Having never done this before, I went to the tourist information centre upstairs in the airport, who were incredibly useful.  I had an inkling that I needed to get the 700 bus or similar (this is a special bus for clueless tourists like me), but they offered me a cheaper and more convenient solution in the form of one of the commuter buses that the ordinary folk use.  Wow, really immersing myself in the culture here.

Buses work differently in Dublin to how they do in Manchester.  In fact the whole transport system works completely differently.  It works Very Well, but only if you know how to use it. Dublin is one of those annoying cities in which you either need exact change on the bus, or you have to buy in advance.  I was pretty clueless about this, but there were plenty of helpful people at the bus station (perhaps a little too helpful, or maybe too chivalrous, perhaps). They have a ticket where you pay a fixed price and it’s valid for 90 minutes (they have barcode readers on the bus to track you!).  This is enough to get you from the airport into town, and I’d be interested to see how much bus you could get into 90 minutes.  Well, you want to make the most of your investment.

On the way in we drove past a shop trading in Key Cutting and Virgin Mary statues.  Which is an interesting business model.

Philip P. Lynott 1949 - 1986
Philip P. Lynott 1949 – 1986

I wanted to see a bit of the city, but I had one item to specifically tick off my list: Get a photo of the Phil Lynott statue.  As you can see from the photo (right), I was successful in this part of my mission. I then took a leisurely stroll to my meeting, in a glorious converted Georgian townhouse.The meeting went very well. I’ve been at some meetings in which I wasn’t sure why they’d invited me, but this wasn’t one of them. I had a lot to talk about, and so did other people.  Pretty much everything discussed was relevant to me, and I made the most of the day.  My opinion was respected, and the team was really mixed.  It seemed a bit more “with the times” than some other meetings I’d previously attended, and I hope this is reflective of other engineering meetings elsewhere. I felt after the meeting that I’d done my best, and that we’d achieved what we’d set out to.

But that’s not what you want to hear about.  Back to lovely Dublin! My flight home was quite a late one (again, no other convenient flight so I had to get one at a peculiar hour), and I decided to use the time to buy a present for my lovely (and if he doesn’t like it, I do, so I’ve done myself a favour either way).  I’d been advised by my Irish colleagues that there are some cheesy tourist shops around (they called these the Fiddle-dee-dee Shops), but I actually found a really cool alternative homewares store, reminiscent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.  As previously mentioned, even though it was very tourist-geared, it was surprisingly cheap.  I wonder how cheap it is to live as an ordinary Dublin resident?

And then, time to go back to the airport.  I left a good amount of time to do this, because I had been burnt earlier that day on the flight out.  But, I just wasn’t prepared for the complete catastrophe that is the Dublin rush hour.  During the day, Dublin is actually a very quiet city.  Like Canterbury, but with less people, and more city. During the evening rush hour, the population appears to increase thirty-fold, and nothing moves.  I got really nervous on the bus back (the local bus; proudly using my recntly obtained insider information) that I might miss my second flight.  But I didn’t have to worry too much because although the first half of the journey was undertaken at slower than walking pace, the driver belted it down the R132 to the airport once we were out of the worst bit, and I actually made it there at a sensible time.

Taking off in the dark, I could see the lights of Dublin arranged in perfect rows, marking out the suburbs and arterial routes.  It was splendid, and something totally artificial.  We don’t need spirituality or miracles to find beauty in the world.  We can create it ourselves.

MISS, MRS, MS.

Women’s titles tend to be rather more variable and politicised than men’s (they have it easy, just the one-size-fits-all “Mr”). When I was younger, I grew up in a very conservative and insular community, where you were either “Miss” or “Mrs”. “Ms” was believed to be for divorced women (I’ve never heard this explanation anywhere else, so it was presumably a misconception in only the area I was raised). Also, it was Very, Very Important to maintain the distinction.

In common parlance, “Ms” is a title that women can use if they do not wish to be defined by, or reveal, their marital status.

One of the school art teachers used “Ms” and we all thought she was a freak.  Indeed, “Mzzzz” sounds a bit like a fly, and we were clueless kids learning our social skills and expectations within a backwards and overtly religious setting.

Then I moved to a major, and very liberal, city. “Ms” became a more attractive and less offensive title.  It sounded more adult than “Miss” (see the example of the French, below), and meant I wasn’t pigeonholed due to my relationship status (most people outside of isolated and traditional communities don’t think this is a big deal anyway these days, but for me it did mean something).

I don’t like being referred to as “Miss”, and if/when I marry, I won’t use “Mrs”.  It just seems really outdated.  In France, many unmarried women use “Mme” (the French equivalent of “Mrs”) instead of “Mlle” (like “Miss”), because “Madame” is for ladies, and “Mademoiselle” is for little girls.  Great idea.  We should define ourselves how we like and not let outdated notions of status make the decision for us.

Many people in public-facing roles think it’s appropriate to refer to me as “Miss”.  It isn’t.  I don’t like “Miss” for many reasons: it’s over-familiar (much like the ubiquitous “love”, “sweetheart” and “darling” – bleeeuuuurgh), plays on my youthful appearance (this is a massive curse – more on this in another post), and triggers my “stereotype / gender roles” button.

I began updating my title from “Miss” to “Ms” with various utility companies, institutions, professional bodies, etc, about 5 years ago.  Although it’s something that is important to me, it still feels quite strange, because it makes no difference legally, and not everyone understands why I choose to do this.  The more I get challenged on it, the more comfortable I am explaining it, though.

So please, please, please, stop referring to me by a title that makes me feel 8-years-old.  I am a grown-up now, and so are you.

Regards,

Ms. Science Lady

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 7 – VIRTUAL REALITY

Following my most adventurous research volunteering experience (in which I underwent minor surgery in the name of science), I decided to take part in one a little more tame.  It involved sitting at a desk and carrying out a computer task.  Nice and safe.

The experiment asked the participant to walk through a virtual town (it was set up on a PC), with keyboard controls to move, and mouse control to determine the direction in which you were looking. This part of the task involved carrying a package from one building to another, and memorising the layout. After each fictional environment (there were 20 in total), I was asked to draw a map of the landscape in which I had walked, and answer some questions in which I had to recall the names of the buildings I had seen.

It was pretty repetitive, but kinda cool. I received a £10 Amazon voucher in exchange for my participation. The whole thing took about an hour.

After the experiment, I spoke with the researcher about what sort of things they were looking for. Different people tend to use different memorisation strategies, and look for patterns in different ways. I found the first few tasks a bit more difficult, probably because the controls were unfamiliar, and it was a task I’d not done before.