Monday, 28 November 2016

Mental Models of the Underworld

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by the Bryan Lovell Meeting at the Geological Society, 24th to 25th Nov 2016. More details here
At the end of two days talking about watery hazards such as flooding, drought, landslips and sinkholes came a session focused upon communication skills to explain those risks to the people who are affected by them. But there's a catch: it's not enough just to use what you think are simplified words in place of your usual engineering or geological jargon. First, you need to establish whether you have any concepts in common to which you can refer!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

These Psalms Were Made For Walking

Some Psalms are known as the "songs of ascent", to be sung by pilgrims while walking up the steep road to Jerusalem for the major festivals. A friend was telling me this morning how he had done this himself earlier this year, an experience which had changed his understanding of the Psalms forever. But it turns out most of the Psalms have a sense of movement about them.

For example, what comes to your mind when you think of Psalm 23?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Engineering: The Perfect Retirement Job?

I was interested to read a piece in Infrastructure Intelligence this week which suggested that the engineering industry is losing out on the experience of older people by failing to support them in later life. This surprised me, because that hasn't been my experience at all. 
I'm thinking of several people for whom engineering has proved the ideal retirement job, provided that companies allow them to focus on doing what they do best: great technical work and passing on their expertise to the next generation. After all, who would willingly give up a job as endlessly fascinating and useful as bridges and railways, roads and flood defences?

Monday, 7 March 2016

International Women's Day: Why I'm Pledging for Parity in the Rail Industry

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is to Pledge for Parity: "to change everything, we need everyone" because everyone can contribute to creating an inclusive culture. So what does that look like in engineering, and particularly the rail industry? I highly recommend the ICE's series of Engineering Change short talks (you could use these as conversation starters in a team briefing this month!)
Engineering change takes all of us - yes, you too! (image (c) Institution of Civil Engineers)

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Walls in the Willows - a renewable construction material

This week I was fascinated by a lunchtime talk about a renewable construction material that grows itself: retaining walls made from willow! This has been used in several locations in Norfolk either on its own (for footpaths or river banks which aren't particularly sensitive to settlement) or to provide living scour protection for gabion basket walls (for roads or rail applications).

Willow spiling wall comprises posts and withy infill.
Image from JPR Environmental
What is willow spiling?
A willow spiling wall consists of two elements:

  • Live timber posts measuring at least 100mm in diameter (being a natural material, the size will vary somewhat) which are installed at 0.6 to 1.0m centres like a king post wall. 
  • Willow "withies" are woven between the posts to form the infill panels (as this is a fairly open weave, a layer of Terram is advised on the landward side of the wall to prevent loss of fines). Backfill to the retaining wall should comprise silt, sand or gravel.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Sitting Down for a Fairtrade Breakfast in York

"Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world" (Martin Luther King)
Perhaps this morning you relied on farmers in India for your tea, Colombia for your bananas, cocoa from Cote D'Ivoire, sugar from Malawi or coffee from Ethiopia. So since we rely on so many people just to produce our breakfast, how come the people who grow the food we take for granted can’t always feed their own families? This question lies at the heart of this year's Fairtrade Fortnight, which we kicked off in style in Yorkshire by hosting a Fairtrade Breakfast in front of York Minster. This is probably the only time I'm likely to eat breakfast outdoors in my pyjamas with the Lord Mayor of York in her dressing gown! The passing tourists loved it, unsurprisingly...
Breakfast with Lord Mayor of York, Sonja Crisp, in her dressing gown, complete with mayoral chains (she refused to be drawn on whether she actually goes to bed in these!)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Perfect Storm? Climate Change, Flooding and Resilience

Following the flooding across Yorkshire over Christmas, this week I'm speaking at a panel debate in York entitled "A Perfect Storm: Climate Change, Cuts and Floods", bringing a civil engineering perspective to a national (and international) problem. Come and join us at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th Feb, Quaker Meeting House, Friargate
So how can I summarise in a ten minute opening speech (alongside contributions from a climate expert, a flooded resident and a firefighter) what are the most important things we need to do to become more resilient to flooding, and are we doing them? Well, as I've written in my earlier posts, to consider a problem holistically I like to start from first principles. So here is the flooding problem as we face it in the UK: 

1) Rain falls out of the sky (and more rain is coming)
We live on an island next to the Atlantic Ocean, which is warming up as a result of climate change. The prevailing wind blows warm wet air over the UK, depositing its moisture as it goes (especially on the west side of the Pennines - sorry Cumbria!). My gut feeling in December was that something was seriously wrong with the weather and our infrastructure was likely to suffer the consequences. The Met Office confirmed this as the average temperature over the month of December was 8.0 degrees, a whopping 4.1 degrees higher than the long term average of 4 degrees and much larger than the previous record (6.9 degrees in 1934). 
Warm winters usually mean wet and windy ones, as storms blow in off the sea and this winter has been unusual, but not unexpected given what we know about climate impacts. Therefore, while we cannot control the weather itself, we do have a choice about limiting our carbon emissions now to prevent making it worse. 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

From Ashes to Hope

This week I went to York Minster to start Lent with the beautiful ancient ceremony which gives Ash Wednesday its name:  receiving a cross of ashes on my forehead. Why ash? Because it is a symbol of mourning and mortality, given to each person with words echoing those I last heard at my father's funeral in late December: "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". To many, Lent is a time of giving things up, of disciplining the body and reflecting on our frailty and failures. While this is valuable, it raises the question of what the purpose of discipline actually is. What are we training for? 
In her sermon, the Dean encouraged us to think differently about Lent: rather than trying to punish ourselves because we are not perfect, let us put in the effort to pursue excellence.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

ICE Triennial 2: Why Engineering Change Needs All of Us to Get Involved

This morning, an opinion piece about the value of learning by heart got me thinking. Does the ubiquitous  availability of sat-navs mean that the Knowledge, the detailed memorisation of routes through Central London required to become a London taxi driver, is no longer necessary? Or is there value in spending several years and discipline to get by hard work what any visitor can get off their smart phone? 

You could ask a similar question about engineering practice. A trend in the rail industry, where a quarter of experienced rail engineers are expected to retire in the next ten years, is to meet the shortage of skilled resources with project managers and new software to automate planning processes as much as possible. The ICE have been asking what the role of engineers will be in the future, in an age of Building Information Modelling (BIM), driverless cars and other technologies such a 3D printing or off-site fabrication. When people can look up anything that interests them on the internet, do we still need textbooks and engineering courses? 

Friday, 22 January 2016

In Praise of Precision

If you care about using language precisely, does that make you a pedant or a good engineer? This question has been coming up a lot lately, because people regularly use embankment, cutting and earthwork as if all three words mean exactly the same thing, whereas to a ground engineer like me, they are completely different. What's the difference then? 
  • An embankment supports the railway track above natural ground level and was built by human hands, usually from poorly compacted soil, ash or rubble (because the Victorians had no access to the kind of compaction plant we would use today). The only way to find out what an embankment is made from is to drill boreholes, because there are no decent construction records from the 1830s and it could vary dramatically over a very short distance. If an embankment fails, your track could be left dangling in mid-air like those photos from Dawlish.
  • A cutting is where the natural ground level is higher than the railway, so material can fall off or be washed onto the track, which can cause a derailment (whether this material is soil, pieces of rock or rotten tree stumps). Cuttings are slopes within the natural ground, so there might be layers of different types of soil, bands of hard and soft rock or places where groundwater emerges onto the slope (springs). You need to consult the geological map (and ideally some borehole data) to work out the ground conditions.
  • An earthwork is "any structure made of earth" ie it is the general team we use to mean both embankments and cuttings.
So why use language precisely? Firstly to aid communication, because you can then ensure that you're not talking at cross purposes, and secondly because the public expects professional people to know what we are talking about.