Monthly Archives: February 2013

Every Little Helps


Please help Architect & Sister Jo Ashbridge reach her goal. Help her build a home for a family in Bangladesh.

To inspire you I have re-posted my favourite blog post on the process to date. I love a good bubble/cry (see last post) so I tend to read this over and over again just to get my eyes watering. Pitched as a real life “Spartacus” moment Sister Jo is making her mark halfway across the world and her humble family is bursting with pride (WOW I am feeling gushy today. Apologies all).

Community Engagement

To better understand household assets we are conducting a survey within the hamlet of Nobu para, based in part on the Bangladesh Population and Housing Census 2011 carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, with a increased focus on the housing conditions. There is one family in particular that is in desperate need of improved living space and they are interested in our new techniques, having previously attended a ‘Building For Safety’ workshop.

My project however requires the backing of the community, exactly 50 individuals across nine households. Equally, beneficiary identification must be a collaborative effort and the final decision approved by majority. This process will ensure both ownership on the part of the individual household and the entire hamlet, and reduce the likelihood of future conflict.

Today we held a community meeting in the local pre-school. It had been scheduled for 2pm following feedback of household availability so that everyone’s voice could be heard. At 2.10pm there is only myself, the SAFE team and two older men living in adjacent houses. Today is Shoroshoti Puja, a festival in worship of the Hindu Goddess of education. Perhaps they have all decided a little dancing is in order?

Then, one by one people start arriving, signing their attendance, until all households are represented. Where the male head of the household is unable to attend, their wives and elder children are present.


We open the meeting with personal introductions, inviting all the villagers to speak. I present my project, the research undertaken to date and overall goals and SAFE talk of their motivations. I have secured funding to design and construct a new house with one family, the remainder of the funds targeted at further research into earthen plasters (following my initial findings last July), amenities and additional workshops to connect with the entire village. Even before we can present our analysis of the housing survey, the entire room are in agreement as to which family should be chosen.

Now the issue of household contribution, something which has been playing on my mind for some time now. Personally I do not believe in ‘basic aid’. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not against aid. I am not a staunch follower of Easterly. It might be easier if I saw the situation as black and white, if I could argue a position with uninterrupted conviction. The reality is my mind changes on a daily basis. It changes when I am welcomed into the home of a family who are clearly existing hand-to-mouth, when I am offered their last packet of biscuits and all they ask is that I come back to visit. It changes when I see children living under simple tarpaulin sheets on the streets of Dhaka, unable to escape the monsoon rains or indeed their situation. It changes when I see such entrepreneurial spirit that it takes my breath away. It changes.

But I do believe that if aid is the only reasonable option in a certain circumstance, it should not be simple. It should not be presented as aid, it cannot ignore the beneficiaries and what they are able to offer to the process. Perhaps the line between aid and development is not so defined. Perhaps aid could aspire to be appropriate development.

In this project we are asking for a contribution. This is where theory and reality collide. The chosen beneficiary household is very much at the bottom of the ecomomic ladder. The family own the land on which they reside but no additional agricultural land. Tarinduro (father) works as a day labourer earning between 100-200 BDT (£0.62-£1.63) per day, but this is seasonal work and even then not guaranteed. With the eldest son in high school, their daughter in primary and youngest son below school age there are no additional incomes. They can contribute earth, following the demolition of their existing house and they may be able to help with labour. Are these true contributions? If we ask for construction material or small financial assistance, they will undoubtedly be forced to take out a loan… potentially initiating a spiral of debt. Is the theory flawed?

We present this to the group and ask their advice. We argue that I am not a member of the community, and cannot be expected to take the entire financial burden. Can the community offer any assistance? We are inundated with questions… what type of house will we be constructing… how much will it cost? Many of which we are unable to answer in detail as we are at the very beginning of the design process. It’s a tense moment. We have identified the most vulnerable household within the community, but their neighbours are certainly not affluent. The majority also live in bamboo and earth dwellings, albeit better constructed. Their plots may be slightly larger, they may own three cows… but no one is connected to the grid, only one household has a latrine and it is currently out of use. Are we asking too much?

Then from the corner one man raises his voice… “I can offer a bag of cement”. Suddenly another voice… “we can offer a few pieces of bamboo”, a ripple effect… “we can give two bags of cement”… “we will help with the labour”… It’s a real life ‘Spartacus’ moment. I am overwhelmed and have to take a breath to hold down the tears.

OK, so here we go!”

The End


I find it is almost always best to write a blog post with a splitting headache, very puffy red eyes and tear stained cheeks. It adds an element of the ridiculous and you’ll probably agree, when you hear why I find myself in this state this Sunday evening as the Oscars play on TV from California State.

3 minutes ago I closed a window on my laptop rolling the credits to the last episode of the seventh and final season of The West Wing.


Is it my blurry vision or is this image a little misty?

Slow off the mark, I began my adventure with the Bartlett Administration only a few months ago. It has taken me much less time than the American public (it took them 7 years of course) and I cannot possibly imagine the personal strain such an investment would have had on the general public: the avid, passionate viewers of this drama series that is.

I have laughed at the sparky speedy wit of my favourites: President Bartlett, Toby, CJ and Joshua Lyman to name a few. I have gasped at the twists and turns, the shocks and surprise attacks, the near deaths, the possible frauds, the loves lost and finally realised. I have cried. Well a lot, so the list would be less blog post, more government legislative document. And I have gradually increased my consumption of episodes to a whopping 7 or 8 a night as I powered through to the end, a bittersweet undertaking that had me hungry for more and clear that at some point there would be none. I don’t want to reveal anything specific, because well that is unfair, but let me say this. In the final episode that just had me heaving and rosy cheeked, I felt like my heart was being stripped out of my chest, as President Jed Bartlett strode the halls of his West Wing one final time. Mr Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. I know most of my friends will be relieved to know it is finally over, and for them too. It is not right to talk of these fictional characters as if they were real and living. But I couldn’t help it and for that I apologise. My sort of family will be greatly missed and I must take a few days to breathe deeply and take a step back from this overblown intensity and hope that I can go on with life as normal, without my President and his impressive team.

Too much? Possibly. But did I mention that I am an emotional dribble on my sofa right now? So a little bit of dramatic rambling should be expected.

I also think a lesson should be learned here. If I discover a quality drama series has finished long ago and so offers all episodes to me back-to-back, then I should slowly step away. Resist any urge or well-intentioned advice, and go for a run instead. Yes. Good idea me.

Do Humans Have the Genetic Ability to Become Mutant Superheroes?


My latest post on


My favourite mutant segmented tube!

Before I jump into why humans may or may not have the potential to spawn superhero offspring, let’s first consider the simple earthworm (bear with me). No. In fact. The mutant earthworm.

These super power night crawlers are as distinct from normal earthworms as humans are from mice. Specifically, invincible segmented tubes have recently appeared in an old copper mine in Devon. This is no ordinary copper mine of course. Left derelict after dangerously high levels of arsenic were discovered in the soil, this mine has been abandoned and was supposed lifeless for nearly two centuries. But Professor Mark Hodson, at the University of York, has discovered a new species of earthworm capable of living in these poisoned soils due to the process of natural selection. Somewhere along the timeline, chance mutations occurred in an earthworm rummaging in this lethal plot and it didn’t die along with its peers. One thing led to another, and now these “superworms” reside there with a genetic profile all of their own, surviving their regular earthworm ancestors in this elegant example of evolution.

But do modern day humans also undergo evolution, so that we too can adapt to form superstar abilities?

Well, around 60,000 years ago, humans left Africa and started to spread across the globe, to all corners and all environmental extremes. We see differences in our populations as a result. The original dark skin has been replaced with paler skin, particularly in Europe and Asia, due to genetic mutations occurring in the migrating populations reaching land of less sunlight, i.e. the north. But many scientists believe that nowadays, natural selection has been slowed by our human resourcefulness to invent. Perhaps, they propose, we have cleverly educated our way out of evolution through advances in modern medicine and engineering.

And yet there are still cases being discovered where human populations have evolved to their more extreme surroundings. Take the Nepalese and Tibetans for example. They have lived in high altitude Himalayan villages for over 10,000 years. A sea-level human would struggle and could even die from this low oxygen environment. Visitors would have to adapt to the low oxygen by generating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen around the body. But more red blood cells mean a greater chance of blood clotting, and this is bad news.

When scientists tested the hemoglobin in the red blood cells of Sherpas and Tibetans, they found that these locals did not need to overproduce hemoglobin to sustain their daily life in the clouds. In fact, these discrete populations have evolved to improve their oxygen circulation instead. With wider blood vessels and a unique and more complex network of capillaries they can happily go about their business without any risk of altitude sickness. Superhero name? Hemoglobin man!? OK no. I agree. That was weak.

However, except for these few specific cases of extreme environmental pressures, the current form of our species seems to not really take part in natural selection. In Shakespeare’s day, one-in-three babies didn’t reach 21 years of age. Today, 99% of children make it to adulthood. That is nearly all of the population reaching reproductive age and passing their genes forward. Furthermore, by sheltering our bodies with clothing we don’t even need to evolve to have thicker fur like polar bears to withstand cold temperatures, or by farming the land, populations can rely on plentiful and regular supplies of food, so the genetically weak can be nurtured. Survival of the fittest and the less fit and in fact the really unfit is now possible on our technologically advanced planet.

The advent of superhero humans will just have to wait then, because short of a deadly pandemic ravaging the Earth or another Armageddon-type event (Asteroid threat) that would drastically alter the playing field, our species will continue along a relatively stable genetic path.

And unfortunately for this amusingly misleading headline, this means no sign of our version of Spider-Man in the near future.



That sister of mine is quite magnificent at the thoughtful present. She really achieves a relevant gift and this usually entails me working for my dinner.

Just before Christmas, I was advised to keep Thursday 20th December free. A highly anticipated prize, I was turning down every Tom, Dick and Harry so that I was prepared for whatever she could throw at me: impromptu space flight? dinner with Alec Baldwin or one of my other crushes? really the list is endless.

What she is capable of never ceases to amaze me.

Well, long story short, turns out the bread baking class she had signed me up for, at Le Pain Quotidien (Bleecker Street venue), was cancelled last minute and thus the surprise had to be revealed prematurely and the class rebooked. For February 16th in fact.

And so here we are.

I have just returned, via the F train, back up to my apartment, laden with enough bread to feed 5,000. Jesus, God bless him, could have done with me a while back. I have made deliveries en route however, some might say like a wheaty Robin Hood, and now I am left with a couple of baguettes, 3 dinner rolls filled with chocolate pellets and 2 batards of walnuts, apples and sultanas (my personal favourite). I also have a quarter of the pizza we made and dined on at the communal table and that, dear readers, will be for my lunch tomorrow!

So, now lethargic from over-doughing myself, I am going to cheat a bit and show you my afternoon spent in SoHo insteaad of telling you any more. I do hope you don’t feel short-changed.


My apron


I spy with my little eye? A highly desirable Kitchen Aid AND the pizza toppings for later on


Yep I was covered in flour (King Arthur Company in particular) from toe to tip


Squidgy, bubbly dough weighed out on some retro scales


This is where we filled the proofed dough with toasted walnuts, apples and sultanas


Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’


Baguettes in their couche (snug as a bug in a rug as you can see) and a monster pizza shovel


Yes that is chocolate and butter. And yes they are going in the middle of mini dough balls


The posh “Pain d’Epi” style. Tres joli


Pain d’Epi d’Ashbridge


Yeah. I pretty much made all of this toute seule!


Making our dinner to finish. A combination of dough, gravity and knuckles (in summary)


Preparing the bread for the oven. Give the old carbon dioxide some pretty holes to sizzle out of


Eh voila. I think my work here is done.

Magnifique? Super? SUPER COOL? 

Mais oui!

NASA Landsat 8 Satellite Launch This Monday!


LDCM Decal1

Here is my latest post on

NASA Landsat 8 Satellite Launch: Where It’s Going and What It Could Mean For the Future

And my Q&A with NASA Project Scientist Dr Jim Irons?

1.   After reading the pieces in Wired and Nature this evening it is clear the continuity of this mission is crucial to the mapping of landscape and land usage but what would it mean to not have that coverage post-2016 when Landsat 7 runs out of fuel?

With both Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 in operation, one of the satellites will fly over any parcel of land once every eight days.  This is particularly useful for those who wish to observe the seasonal phenology of vegetation canopies, for example, those who use Landsat data to track crop development during the growing season.  If cloud cover intervenes, the eight day coverage is just barely sufficient for those sorts of applications and many wish for even more frequent Landsat coverage.  When Landsat 7 is decommissioned, those sorts of applications will become problematic with only the 16 day coverage afforded by a single Landsat 8 satellite.  Part of the research agenda in the near future will be to learn to use Landsat data in concert with data from other satellites, such as the ESA Sentinel-2 satellites, to obtain more frequent temporal coverage of an area.


2.   Other than the landscape mapping of Earth, what other information does the Landsat offer to the general public and does the improved technology offer any other insight into global patterns such as population data for human geographers?

The Landsat sensors basically measure the amount of light reflected or emitted at multiple wavelengths from the surface of the Earth for every pixel in an image.  All manner of information is derived or inferred from these measurements.  In many cases, the information is derived from several sources of data and Landsat images are just one, often important, part of the analyses.  For example, in recent years researches have develop models for measuring evapotranspiration rates using Landsat data in concert with meteorological data.  In another interesting application, penguin populations in Antartica have been estimated from Landsat observations of the extent of guano stains on the ice and that requires some other knowledge of the density of penguins per unit area in their rookeries.  The Landsat satellites cannot directly measure population densities of humans and images can be used to observe and measure the expansion of urban development, for examples, and human geographers can estimate population if they know the number of people per unit area, kind of like penguins.

3.   What are the fields of science that will most and best use the data that will be coming in?

Similar to the answer above, a wide scope of Earth science fields will use LDCM data.  I am not prepared to state that one or two fields will best use the data.  Climatologists were certainly look at the impact of climate change on the land surface and how those changes feed back to the climate system.  Forestry, agronomy, hydrology are obvious examples of the fields that will use the data.  The cryospheric sciences and even marine science will find uses.  The scope of fields that will use LDCM data is broad and diverse.


4.   You have said it probably wont live as long as some of its predecessors, but what would be your best estimate and how long would you hope to have a functional Landsat 8?

Every satellite component has a design life.  The design life of Landsat 5 was five years and that satellites remarkably remained in operations for over 28 years.  The design lives of the LDCM spacecraft and the OLI are five years.  The design life of TIRS is three years.  The spacecraft will contain enough propellant to maintain it’s operational orbit for at least 10 years.  We are obviously hoping that the satellite and instruments exceed their design lives.


How much did my face cost?


And I am DONE. This morning I had my final visit to the surgeons at Cornell and they took ultimate snaps of my marvelous American smile. It is probably the last time I will see Dr Dreamy and it was an emotional moment (possibly for both of us?– we will never know). After complimenting my mouth and being mightily pleased with his first ever patient and her textbook bite, we shook hands with vigor and wished each other the best of luck in the world.

And his number???

Nope I didn’t get it. But I did get the before and after images of my face so we can all gasp in awe at the transformation. So perhaps that is enough.

But what does it feel like after 15 months of living with train tracks in my mouth? Well I am free now and in addition to having a glorious Hollywood smile, I am also able to eat comfortably and my mouth is no longer cut to pieces with the sharp metal that rubs and rubs. While eating, I don’t have small pieces of food scuttling out of my mouth after they become dislodged from their brace-y resting place. I still don’t have feeling in my bottom lip and chin, and I was assured there is time yet for that sensation to return (fingers crossed), but as of now I am trying to enjoy the new reflection in the mirror and the ability to chew unhindered.

Now on to my reflection. I have had two or three moments of discomfort regarding my new face over the past 10 months. I think the first was post-op day 3 when my face blew up like a wonky balloon and I was reliving my mumps diary days with my sister photo-cataloging every new swelling. After that, once the mouth stent was removed and my face was back to almost normal size, I got to see the result of these two refitted jaws. That was a lot to take in. It took a few days of adapting to my new look and accepting a somewhat unrecognisable reflection. And now, this week, with the braces removed, my lips are able to lie comfortably and my true face is revealed. No longer must I hold a permanent pout as the braces push my cushiony puckers out into the ether. My face has changed again and I am reluctant to regard myself for too long for fear of disappointment. I am vain now. I admit it.

With so much focus on my face for so long, I have learned to critique every aspect of my look. My miniature nose embarrasses me sometimes as it settles into the new form. My cheeks feel too lean (a symptom of now being 10 lbs lighter) and the new dimples I have acquired amuse me as I wiggle my mouth around and about in front of the mirror.

It is a long time, 15 months, when you are at the beginning of it all. Back then, it seemed like forever. A ridiculous and unnecessary task to have braces at 28 and to have one’s jaw smashed and re-jigged for the sake of aesthetics and possibly a little bit of improved function.

Worth it?


I would do it all over again in an instant.

And here is the proof!

I am here today to unveil the before and after shots. If you are squeamish look away now.


Teeth before 1

Teeth before 2

Teeth before

AFTER (ta da!)

Teeth after 1

Teeth after 2

Teeth after 3

I would caption these but hey. They speak for themselves. Haha pun absolutely intended!