Reading Proust – volume 5 update

It wasn’t what I was expecting but volume 5 of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time ends on a cliff-hanger. It is incredible how such separeate threads from five previous volumes are starting to brought together: a narrative arc that I could never see converging has in fact been much closer to convergence than I expected.

I’ve been reading In Search of Lost Time – Proust’s epic explorationg of memory, art, adolescence and decisre – on and off since 2007. It is one of those books that lots of people have heard of, some know two things about it (the long sentances and the flood of memories provoked by dipping a madeliene cake in his tea) but I’ve hardly found anyone who has actually read it. So in 2007 I decided to give it a go (in English!).

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A better-dressed version of me

I sit in my current preferred cafe bolthole and the jacket of the person opposite me catches my eye. It’s a slightly faded turquoise, not unlike a jacket I recently got in the sale. Hang on a second, it is the same jacket, maybe slightly older. I zoom out and notice their whole clothing combination is familiar: a stripey top, dark blue jeans, converse, set off with a dark grey panier.

These are the clothes that I wear, or at least I think I wear – only better. I look down at my own sartorial combination and I realise it is a poor approximation to my self image. I start to take notes for self improvement – cream converse, turned up jeans – but then my alter-wardrobe is gone.

I have long been in pursuit of the one outfit to rule them all. There are a few inspirations.

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If you go down to the woods today

It will probably be very muddy. At least it was for my first visit of the year to Hazel Hill Woods. Recent rain has made the forest wetter than anyone can remember. Water is reanimating forgotten courses that we hadn’t even noticed existed.

Today was my first day in post as the Deputy Chair of Hazel Hill Trust, the charity set up by Alan Heeks to run the wood and to provide a place where people can learn about wellbeing, resilience and sustainability.

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My neighbours don’t like bees

We planted a hedge of lavender on our estate to revitalise a barren patch of soil near our front door. This sunny morning, the enthusastic lavender stems were bobbing up and down laden with bees. There must have been between 20 and 30. I went to count, as part of the Great British Bee Count. And so it was that I had conversations with several of my neighbours about bees, and I was depressed by what I heard.

  • One complemented me on the lavender, but said the only problem with lavender is that it attracts bees.
  • A second reported hatred for bees, having been repeatedly stung by that very flower bed, before conceding they had been wasps.
  • The third, having been complementary about the flowers, reported a bee had dive bombed from twenty metres above delibrately to sting him and concluded they must be evil.

Derive #2 City of London – Log book

  • 19/3/18
  • Derive #2
  • Location: City of London
  • Context: preparation for my talk ‘Circling the Square

Moorgate x London Wall

  • 0:00:00 Moorgate and London Wall. Once solid-looking stonewalls are now façades pinned in place by scaffolding while new buildings are constructed behind. In just a few years the streetscape along London Wall has completely changed
  • 0:04:34 London Wall and Copthall Avenue Deep metallic groans sound out from behind these hoardings. I assume the core of the building is being demolished, and the sound is the building complain.

  • 00:09:41 Black Rock The circle leads straight into the offices of Black Rock. I enter the revolving doors and walk through a long dark lobby past whispering clusters of suited men and women. I emerge blinking onto a much quieter street, Tower 42 in the distance.
  • 0:13:31 Copthall Avenue The circle passes straight through the Angel Court building. I attempt to walk through the underground loading bay but I’m turned back by security. There are some places you really aren’t supposed to go.

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My VR training epiphany

Last week I was down at Bridgwater and Taunton College to check out the tools Stefan Cecchini and his colleagues are going to be using to deliver a revolutionary new engineering degree curriculum that aims to be entirely inquiry-led. There for the first time I tried out a virtual reality (VR) training environment. I put on the VR headset and gloves, and this is what happened (that’s Stefan, by the way wearing the VR gear).

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A sketch for the Big Idea

It was on a train to Bristol yesterday, travelling with my colleague Ben, that I articulated in I think the clearest terms yet the model of learning that through my various projects I would like to explore and develop practically. It goes something like this:

What do I want to know or be able to do?

What skills or knowledge do I need to have in order to meet this aim?

Which of these skills, knowledge or aptitudes do I already have?

How can I make up the deficit?

How will I know when I’ve got there?

The benefits of the approach are:

it starts with the needs of the individual, and values their own experience of the world. It is potentially empowering and rewarding. It could be self-sustaining if the individuals develop the skills necessary to adopt the approach.

Disadvantages or challenges I can see are:

Learners need to have developed a certain level of skill and maturity before they can adopt the approach. Learners need access to a whole different type of coach or teacher who can guide them through the process. The approach is not easily scalable, requiring a much more tailored relationship between coach or teacher and student.

I see these disadvantages as challenges to be overcome, and hopefully my projects can help contribute.

My motivations are:

A love of self-started learning and personal development; the astounding way that our brains can learn and a concern that our current formalised systems of learning are crude; the depressing sight of students motivated purely by grades and the hugely destructive fetch that summative assessment seems to have on the learning process.

Clearly these thoughts need refining, but I wanted to get these reflections written down while they are fresh. Clearly these are also big ideas to implement – perhaps impossible. In this respect I am inspired by the following from Rousseau’s Emile:

“People are always telling me to make practicable suggestions. You might as well tell me to suggest what people are doing already, or at least to suggest improvements which may be incorporated with the wrong methods currently in use. There are matters witch regard to which such a suggestion is far more chimerical than my own, for in such a connection the good is corrupted and the bad is none the better for it. I would rather follow the established method than adopt a better method by halves. There would be fewer contradictions in the man; he cannot aim at one and at the same time two objects.”

Following Laws of Simplicity, and stumbling upon life hacks

At the RDI Summer School, I met potter Billy Lloyd. He suggested I take a look at John Maeda’s blog, The Laws of Simplicity‘ which I’ve just started following and reading. I like the approach of having a blog based around the idea of applying a series of rules or commandments. It is something that could work well for putting online Think Up’s report on principles for embedding sustainability teaching in undergraduate engineering courses.

Reading the Laws of Simplicity blog I stumbled upon a link to a page on 50 life hacks. Well worth looking at!

From concrete courtyard to blooming garden – the story of the Big Dig


In December last year I wrote about day one of the Big Dig, M and my plan to transform our barren concrete courtyard into a thriving patch of urban greenery. Today we celebrated the completion of that grand plan with a garden party – a harvest festival no less! – for everyone who helped us along the way. Here’s a little movie slide show of what we achieved.

Seeing all the insects buzzing between the flowers in the beds it is hard to remember that this was an apparently lifeless little corner of London (no doubt kept lifeless with ample weed killer). And in January, when we were standing in knee-deep holes in the ground digging in compost, it was hard to believe that it would turn into the lush environment that it is now.


By the time spring arrived we were putting in the new ground covering: a mixture of turf and gravel, beds and raised beds. The trees and most of the plants went in by early April. I remember thinking that they were quite spread out – just as well given how much they grew. In the summer we turned our hands to plant vegetables – too late in hindsight, but we are still figuring this stuff out.

One of the aims of the project was to use waste material wherever possible. We had had our collapsing garden fence replaced with a new one, but had asked to keep the old timber. This well weathered material we were able to put to good use, creating three raised beds, a cold frame, a bike shed and compost heap. And because the material all came from the same fence, all the structures we built have a unified look. Continuing on the re-use theme: half of the old back door became the lid for the cold frame; the dozens of bricks we found in the ground became the garden path; an old allotment shed door became the roof of the bike shed.


Two things have made this transformation possible. The first is the plan for the garden put together by our friend Amanda Dennis. From her beautiful pen and watercolour design, to the step-by-step project plan, she guided us through the whole process, and I think she is as pleased as we are with the result. The second is the tremendous help we have had from friends, family and neighbours – I count sixteen volunteers in total over the last nine months. People have lent us tools, sent us plants, driven cars to the dump, built sheds, looked after our baby and dedicated whole days to digging. It has been very heartwarming – and a lot of fun.

And so to the harvest. Roughly speaking: a punnet of raspberries, red currants, blueberries and a half one of strawberries; a few baby carrots; two plums; two courgettes; fist-fulls of herbs; a dozen ripe tomatoes – and two dozen green tomatoes still full of promise; and a gherkin. We wanted to feed our harvest festival guests the fruits of the labour, but since most of these fell earlier in the year, we had to be a bit creative with the menu: lavender cake; savoury vine leaf cake (delicious!) and herb bread topped with our one gherkin thinly sliced.

It would be easy to think now that the hard work is done – but now we have the not so small task of keeping it all alive. Watch this space.

Diary: Imperial College/Serpentine Pavilion/University of Austin Texas

An image showing someone sitting half way up the Serpentine Pavilion

13 - 1

Yesterday morning was a first. I gave a presentation to 80 students at Imperial while holding a baby in my hip. The presentation was part of the kick-off day for the Expedition-Imperial 2013 Constructionarium week (Event Facebook page; Think Up news piece – soon). The Expeditionengineer due to give the presentation had to go to a meeting in Athens; since I’m the person at Think Up who knows probably most about the Constructionarium it was easiest for me to replace him, even though I didn’t have any child care cover for our daughter. She didn’t seem to mind. She chirped loudly a few times (Imperial presentation at eight months can be the first line of her CV) and the audience certainly weren’t bothered!

Pushing the buggy north out of the college I stumbled upon this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, pictured. The structure is wonderfully intriguing to approach. You have a sense that there are spaces and surfaces inside but you can’t see where they begin and end. The people inside therefore appear to be floating inside a sea of addition signs.

There I received a birthday present, George Monbiot’s ‘Feral‘. Learning from nature is a regular strand in my thinking at the moment (see my post on Hazel Hill to see the sort of thing I mean), and so I expect this book will be of great interest.

I hurried home to prepare dinner for our evening guest, Gregory Brooks, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and who is responsible for third year design studios at in the Architectural Engineering programme. Gregory is faculty director for the Emerging Technologies Programme, a study abroad programme for engineering and architecture students that takes place every two years in London. Here, they visit the architectural engineering sites and to tour the offices of architecture and engineering practices in the capital. I first met Gregory with his cohort of students two years ago when they first visited Expedition. Back then I introduce them to our Workshed site, and ever since I have noticed a significant blip on our Google Analytics over the city of Austin. I was delighted therefore to present once more two weeks ago to this year’s group of visitors.

Gregory’s work in developing the programme, and in developing a set of online architectural engineering online teaching resources is impressive (for example, see AEWorld, a very comprehensive blog on projects of architectural and engineering interest -to his credit, one of the most popular blogs on . Our discussion over dinner was  packed with ideas for mutual cooperation and sharing resources, which I look forward to exploring in future.