END OF AN ERA 2

Ah, a sad one.  I’m not a sentimentalist at all, so the demolition of my old University Halls (from an earlier post, END OF AN ERA 1) was just noteworthy rather than something to shed a tear over.  But this one is genuinely sad.  Decent, old pubs are closing at a rate of 29 per week (check out the Lost Pubs Project – you can disappear on this site for hours), and while the market is changing, sometimes that’s not the only factor.

We used to use a beautiful old boozer near the city centre for pub talks, and to meet up generally whenever we had a spare afternoon – because it was lovely, the licensees were friendly, and it was in a great location. We’d built up a good relationship with the landlord and we knew we were always welcome.  Sadly, the landlord’s circumstances changed, and they needed to move on. The pub was taken over immediately – great location, captive audience, and seemingly profitable (with hindsight, I’m not so sure about this one.  The old owners seemed to be bending over backwards to get the place to work, and while it was working, it must have been bloody hard work). I was apprehensive from the start, the new landlord seemed like a bit of an oaf, but the pub was still our place, and we weren’t going to give it up just because the landlord was a bit odd. But…

It soon became an unfriendly place.  I spoke with the new landlord, whose aspirations for the place were reminiscent of The Jockey from Shameless.  He launched into a tirade about how terrible the old owners were (not sure if he realised that every person in the bar was there due to how good the old leaseholders were), including how he felt that they had alienated the locals by catering to the wrong audience.  He said he wanted to get the locals and the students in, and he was going to do this through the medium of karaoke (good grief).  For the next few weeks there was a set of speakers and a karaoke machine sitting untouched in the corner of the bar, taking up half the seating area and looming over us with it’s threat of chavdom.

Two things:

  1. People have been trying for years to unite the locals and the student populace through meetup.com and groups like PubhD, and it’s going to take more than a bit of Kylie and Jason;
  2. There are many people living in the area, but the demographic has changed a lot from the type of locals he was trying to attract.  I can think of one “old man pub” in the area that hasn’t shut due to the regulars moving on or dying, and you don’t go in there without discreet body armour.

Additionally, the former owners had apparently done it wrong by focusing too much on food, so he was going to bring in the proper drinkers by offering: exactly the same range of beers, and, um, doing food.

And to demonstrate just how out-of-touch he was, he acted faux-surprised and make a hilarious joke about women drinking bitter.  “Ho, ho, you’ll be getting the vote next”.  I thought he was going to offer me it in a ladies glass.

As if he couldn’t make us feel any more uncomfortable, he commented to drinkers in our group about how much our drinks were earning him and complained if someone had a glass of tap water.

The pub has been under new ownership for about two months, and I noticed it was closed a few nights this week – notably on one occasion where we had pre-arranged an event to be held there (aargh!).  So I stopped by one afternoon to ask them what was happening with the place, and, ignoring the fact that the bar staff were openly hostile (I was going to at least stay for a half but they convinced me against it – interesting business model they’re operating by), it was worrying that they said they’d been closing up early due to lack of trade.  Places like this are, unfortunately, under threat, and diversification is key to their survival.  When I resided in Chorlton, I lived near another stabby-looking pub, but it was just about alright enough for a group of mature students to make it in and out alive again.  But the establishment knew it’s fate, and did something about it.  They advertised their palatial meeting and conference rooms for free to local groups, and soon started raking it in again.  If the owners of our local had been on the ball, they would have made a tidy sum from the drinkers that they have so far managed to scare off.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 9 – MOTION CAPTURE AND ROBOTICS

This was a super-cool adventure in the biomechanics lab at Manchester University, which is located in, uh, the Optometry building.  There was nowhere else for it, ok?

The research is designed to understand the nuances of human movement, to apply the findings to humanoid robots. The aim is to make robots move in a more natural, less clunky way. I’m sure that somewhere along the way there will be some Uncanny Valley-like results, but it’s all a step (ha) on the path to more humanlike robots. On a more serious note, the work has applications in medicine, for rehabilitation and developing prosthetics. Often university research sounds rather arcane and peculiar (Ig Nobel awards, anyone?), but it has real and relevant applications.Before the testing day, I was informed that I needed to be of average fitness as I would be performing walking and jogging movements in a gym for three hours. I do consider myself pretty healthy and active, but I was worried that they were expecting some sort of endurance hero to turn up. Fortunately they weren’t, and it was just repeated brisk walking over short distances.
The Biomechanics Laboratory
The Biomechanics Laboratory

When I turned up, the lab was set up with tracks on the floor and motion capture cameras on the ceiling.  At this point I realised this was going to be pretty futuristic and fun, and I was so glad I’d taken an afternoon off to help with this work. As is the case with all research involving human participants, the session began with the completion of consent forms.  This is to comply with the requirements of the University Ethics Committee, and also gives a chance for questions to be answered, and a little more detail about the work to be revealed to the volunteer.  Unlike any other study I’ve taken part in, this activity was accompanied by coffee and cake.  Researchers, take note!  It was quite a long afternoon, so we also had breaks and chatter throughout the session, to break up the repetition.

Following the initial registration process, I changed into a vest and shorts provided by the lab (this was necessary because my limbs needed to be exposed and I had to have various items of electronics fixed to my body).  I was then weighed and my height was measured.  It seems that I have got heavier (by 1kg) and shorter (by 1cm), which is the worst combination.  Damn you, properly calibrated scales!  This was necessary to calculate my BMI (it was a requirement of the study that participants were of normal weight – BMI 18.5 to 24.5).

Then I had a multitude of sensors fixed about my person.  It took about half an hour to get all of the kit on, and the placing of the devices was meticulous.  There were three different types of sensor used:

EMG (electromyography) sensors, measuring the activity of muscles involved in walking.  I had a number of these placed on my legs and lower back, to identify which muscles are active during which movement activities.

Pressure-sensitive insoles to measure my gait.  I also had to wear shoes provided by the lab, and due to my totally non-ergonomic feet, I required a 7 on my left foot and a 6 on my right.

You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment
You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment

Reflective motion-capture markers, which were placed all over: my shoulders, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, hips, chest and toes, plus a snazzy felt hat with markers for my head.  In order for these to be placed correctly, one of the researchers had to feel for the exact part of the joint to place the marker, and draw on me with a felt pen ready to glue the silvery reflective marker balls on to my skin.  they also precisely measured the length of my hands and feet in order to relate the position of some of these markers to the rest of my body – my left hand is 187mm long and my left foot 236mm long.  Not sure what I will ever do with this information, but it’s kinda cool.

In addition to the above, I needed to wear transmitters for the EMGs in a snazzy tool belt around my waist, plus transmitters for the insoles were strapped to my calves.

When all of the gear was on, my height and weight were remeasured, and I had gained a centimetre in height and two kilos in weight (not surprising, given how much of the damn stuff there was).

I then stood in front of the display screen in the middle of the lab, and I could see virtual me moving around in the form of a number of white dots (silly dance obligatory at this point).  The researchers also had two screens in which they could see the pressure maps of my feet and the electrical output of my muscles.  The motion capture data was collected by a number of cameras on the ceiling of the lab, and the pressure and movement signals were transmitted over the wi-fi to the recording equipment.

My first task was to stand on one leg and then switch to the other, for both feet.  This is surprisingly difficult, and I didn’t realise how crap my balance was until this point.  This was necessary for a baseline reading.  Then the movement tasks began.  I had to perform seven different actions, involving walking for a short distance, and only slightly energetic.  The researchers recorded the data output for each of the seven actions, repeated ten times each.

Walking around with all the gear on felt a bit strange at first, but none of it got in the way of my ordinary walking style, which was really important as they wanted to record people’s normal, unimpeded movements.  The type of movements that the researchers are interested in are to do with changes in speed and direction, the type of movements for which we can easily distinguish between the characteristics of man or machine.

The experiment took about three hours to complete; one of the longest studies I’ve taken part in.  I got paid £20 for my participation, which isn’t loads, but given that I got to feel like I was in Avatar for an afternoon, it was definitely worth it.  The team are still looking for more participants, aged 18 – 40 with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, to participate in trials starting in September.  Details will soon be published on the University’s Research Volunteering page.

END OF AN ERA 1

These are the University halls on Grosvenor Street, where I spent my first full year in Manchester.  When I lived there, these halls were still part of UMIST, which merged with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004.  That was 15 years ago, and now the last residents have left and there is fencing and warning signs to keep people out.  They’re being demolished this summer to make way for the new engineering campus to be built on the site bounded by York Street, Grosvenor Street, Booth Street East and Brook Street.

Viewed from Grosvenor Street, opposite the gym
Viewed from Grosvenor Street, opposite the gym

The back of the building - my old kitchen window is next to the tree on the second floor from the top
The back of the building – my old kitchen window is next to the tree on the second floor from the top

NAME THAT PIERCING

I’m a proudly pierced and tattooed skeptic, and last weekend I went to Holier Than Thou piercing and body modification studio for some advice on my next adornment.  The staff were professional and informative, and I came away feeling empowered and ready to go under the needle.  They also gave me a handy price list to take away, and it’s got some piercing names that even I didn’t recognise.  So here’s a list of piercings for you to guess / discover!  I must warn you, there are some intimate ones in the list (the header “genital piercings” should be a bit of a giveaway, but if in doubt, wait until you’re at a non-work computer!)

The price list I took home also had some listed that aren’t on that list, and that I didn’t recognise.  These are:

Madison – a surface piercing near the collarbone

Snug – an ear piercing through the cartilage near the centre of the outer ear

Nasallang – wow, extreme nose piercing!

Information on Austin (a bar through the end of the nose), Jestrum (a vertical top lip piercing), Frowney / Smiley (inner mouth piercings), and loads of other unusual piercings is available here (it’s a good post with lots of photo examples of facial piercings).

This also brings me on to a great recommendation by one of the QEDcon 2015 speakers for a clothing brand, Steadfast, who produce the “Tattooed and Employed” shirt in the ad to the right. I’d love to get one of these to wear on Dress Down Friday, as I am also a proudly pierced and tattooed engineer. Ironically, I wouldn’t be allowed to, because while my body adornments are deemed acceptable, slogan t-shirts are not. Huh?
 
Mr. Science Gentleman doesn’t get my penchant for going under the tattooist’s needle, and neither do many other people.  I used to get faced with many arguments along the lines of “it’s not natural” or “it’s not how God made you”, and these were exactly as effective as all the pictures of my tattoos and piercings on this site would suggest.  Here’s an article on why people choose body modification.  It’s nowhere near the full story, and if you really want to get an understanding of it, I’d recommend reading as many alternative and tattoo magazines as possible (BMEzine, or Skin Deep are good.  I wish I could still recommend Bizarre, but they ceased trading in February 2015).  A lot of the reasons connected to tattooing and piercing are related to the alternative lifestyle, so attending some conventions and shows, or even visiting somewhere like Affleck’s Palace, might give you an insight into this particular subculture.

There are a multitude of reasons, but for me, body modification is an end in itself.  It find it beautiful and striking, and I choose to make myself look different – better, I’d say.  It’s a way of expressing agency over my own body and appearance, and improving what I have.

And I did go for a new piercing a few days later, to complement my existing nostril piercing. In this picture it looks a bit odd because they’ve used a longer bar due to anticipated swelling from a new piercing (any decent piercer will take this into consideration – you’ll need to change to a smaller piece of jewellery post-healing, but it is absolutely necessary during the healing time as it’s basically an open wound subject to inflammation and discharge – bleurgh!). However, once it’s healed, I’ll be able to wear two shorter studs and the piercings on either side of my nose will be symmetrical and it will look properly awesome! double nostril piercing

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 8 – THE EFFECTS OF AGEING ON MULTISENSORY INTEGRATION

This piece of research took me to the Psychological Sciences department. They have lots of studies that require human volunteers, and they are all really interesting. This study involved a number of hearing and visual tests, with the aim of looking at how ageing affects the way we process visual and auditory information.

I can’t give away too much information, as the study is ongoing and still recruiting (they are especially keen to find volunteers aged 65+), but I had to don a pair of headphones and respond using a clicker when I heard certain sounds.  There were other things going on during the test, too, like noises that I was not to respond to, but like I said, I can’t give too much away.  There were a number of these tests and also some tests combining a visual stimulus on a screen and a noise.  I was being tested on how I perceived these in relation to each other.

Things I learnt during the test: I have very sensitive hearing (yay!).  I’m more sensitive to sounds at the ends of the spectrum (at the limits of human auditory perception) than those in the mid range.  Yes, this is odd, and the researcher couldn’t explain it.  But that’s the result we measured and it stands.

I also got paid £20 for taking part, and you can too: http://www.studentnet.manchester.ac.uk/volunteer/display/?id=378933

PRIVACY 1: BANK STATEMENTS

I recently did some work for the University, for which it was taking a very long time for my pay to arrive (apparently this isn’t unusual). I contacted the department responsible and they insisted that they had paid me over three weeks ago, and that I should check my records. Well, obviously I had checked my records or I wouldn’t have contacted them about the absence of pay. In response, I sent them my two latest bank statements to prove that the money hadn’t arrived in my account, and I realised just how much you can tell about me from that documentation. The recipient now knows some pretty innocuous stuff about my shopping habits (I hadn’t shopped anywhere particularly “interesting” in the last month, but, um, I do occasionally).But they also know a ton of other stuff about me, too:
  • My full name, address and bank details, duh
  • Who my landlord is, and by extension a rough idea of what sort of accommodation I live in
  • Where I go to eat and drink
  • The location of many of the places I frequent – shops, post offices, transport locations
  • That I use the post office frequently
  • Where I work
  • People I know – due to them sending me money
  • That I’m a member of certain clubs and societies, including a political party
  • Who provides my utilities
  • That I order taxis fairly often
  • Details of loan repayments and who/what they are for
  • Information on a couple of significant purchases
  • How well I manage my finances generally

Well, all of that stuff is pretty personal, and it feels weird giving out something so risky in order to access what I’m owed.  I have no reason to believe the information won’t be used responsibly, but it’s really important to remember the amount of data that we leave behind.  It can be misused or used for good.  And while we often think of slip-ups on social media as being the biggie for embarrassment by exposure, there’s so much more that people could uncover if they know where to start digging.  You say that you may have nothing to hide, but it really depends on the intention of the discoverer.  I’m sure you could see that the above 28-day snapshot is a stalker’s paradise (yes, I have had problems with this before).  One of my next posts will explore the issues surrounding public profiles, social media, and generally being visible.

(Oh, the University had made a clerical error and I wasn’t just being impatient.  Makes me feel a bit better for having divulged my inner financial secrets)

ETHICAL PURCHASE DECISION

It was my lovely boy’s birthday at QED, and I demonstrated my usual organisational prowess by sneaking out to buy him a card on the day, and then leaving it on my sofa, only realising I’d forgotten it when I was halfway into town.  The card did make it’s way to him in the end (post-QED, only 5 days late or so), but there’s an even better story behind this.

The key to my man’s heart is found in riddles, puns, and crap jokes. This made the card aisle at my local Tesco a brilliant choice. I found him a hilarious card with a cheese-based pun, and knew, just knew, that this was the card for him. And as I always do, I looked in the card, and on the back, to see what pre-composed message lay inside. The manufacturer’s name caught my eye, as it sounded a bit “churchy”. If you know me, then you’ll know my thoughts on religion. So I thought “hmmm, better Google this”. Turns out the company is indeed grounded in religion. And they produce materials for use in primary schools. I think we should keep religion out of schools, except in the context of learning ABOUT religions in an analytical and historical context. I’m especially opposed to the requirement for schools to provide the forum for a daily act of worship, and so I just couldn’t support this company.

Not sure how much of a loss to them my £1.20’s worth of business was, but a clean(ish) conscience doesn’t have a price.

WOMEN ASKING QUESTIONS

I attend a lot of public talks (usually of a scientific and skeptical nature), and frequently most of the audience questions come from men.  It’s been noted that more women attend the talks in the first place over time (good), but it’s still the men that are the most vocal.  So there are two different parts to this problem:

  1. It used to be a male-dominated environment, but now it isn’t.
  2. Women still don’t ask as many questions as men, regardless of audience make-up.

So, regarding the first point, there are many reasons that the gender balance is closer to parity. Maybe it’s because there are more female speakers (solving the visibility problem), but I’d be tempted to hypothesise that it’s because there are more speakers and topics generally, thus reaching out to a wider and more varied audience. So it is an issue of accessibility, but only because the range of topics is not so narrow. Unfortunately I don’t have any data on the groups I attend, so I can’t actually test the theory. Dammit.

However, this article in The Guardian does cover this notion, that “the fault lies with past generations of [atheist] leaders who didn’t address the issues that matter most to women and minorities“.  Note that I’m not a fan of the term ‘leader’ when applied to atheist groups, as it has connotations of religious ‘leadership’, and I don’t think we should be putting rational thinkers on a pedestal.

So now that many atheists have moved with the times and looked beyond their own experience, matters that affect people who might not necessarily be like them are brought up.  And it’s a good thing.  And it’s been done silently and with relatively little fuss.  Which brings me on to the next part of the problem.

There is an argument that the newcomers to the group might still be finding their feet and less likely to speak up.  Well, ok, seems plausible.  But also there’s the issue of what has been studied, measured and reproduced in many psychology and sociology papers.  That when women speak up it’s received differently to if a man was talking.  Unfortunately it’s not just in the workplace that this happens, and if you see a pattern occurring every time you dare to open your mouth, then the safest thing might be to keep quiet.

One way is for the speaker to pick more questions from women audience members.  And I think the success of this lies in the execution.  If it’s done subtly (i.e. so that it’s not obvious what’s going on  – I didn’t say imperceptible, mind), then it can work, and builds a foundation for a more balanced mix of questioners at future events.  I attended one talk where the speaker specifically asked for questions from women because they feel women are often under-represented in this respect.  This gets a mixed reception – it just so happened that at this event it worked out well, no-one objected, and we got a good mix of questions from male and female audience members.  Maybe that would have been the case anyway, but there’s no way of knowing.  It was important in some ways that the speaker highlighted this problem because people do feel a bit uneasy about addressing feminist issues – like it’s a dirty word or it might upset the men – and we need to get over that.  However, some people complain that it seems patronising (or even a form of benevolent sexism), and that’s always a risk you run, especially to an audience containing women who already feel empowered.

I think the best way is to encourage women to speak, but in more subtle ways, and ensure that we give them the airtime without interruptions, without some oaf ignoring what they’d said and repeating the same idea and claiming it as their own; without explaining things to them that they already know.  Basically to demonstrate that it’s a respectful environment for anyone to ask questions.  And yes, I know that in the majority of cases, this is so – but it’s the exceptions that stand out in people’s minds and have a more damaging effect.

SKEPTICISM & POLITICS

At QEDcon, I met some politically involved skeptics from Scotland. Individuals had their own political convictions but as a group they had no common political message or affiliation.

One thing we spoke of that I think should be applied in life generally, is scrutinising the beliefs of individual candidates and political parties generally.

Sure, we’ve recently seen extreme examples from UKIP and DUP candidates showing their true colours, but there are many subtle and unexpected shockers coming from politicians in more mainstream parties.

As well as this, people aren’t always clear on what they’re voting for party-wise.  How many of us can honestly say they’ve read a single political manifesto?  Or even spent a little time on more than one political website? I know many people who advocate voting Green, but I my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do that – they’re popular at the moment, and seem cuddly and approachable, but how many people have considered the implications of their policies on nuclear power and GMOs (they are anti- on both)?

So it’s encouraging that some skeptics want to apply critical thinking to politics.  While I wouldn’t say that skepticism should ever aim to be a political movement, I would advocate applying skeptical principles to one’s everyday life.  Choose whatever political affiliation you wish, but ensure your reasons for doing so are sound.