Archive for the Manchester Category

Manchester Critical Mass + Zine

Posted in cycling, Manchester on January 16, 2009 by Philonous

If I haven’t posted anything for a while, it’s at least partially to do with I bike MCR, the Manchester grassroots cycling group. Somehow, I’ve ended up writing an I bike MCR zine. Check it out:

  • Here‘s a version for viewing online (~1.2MB)
  • Here‘s a black and white version for printing (~12MB)
  • Here‘s a colour version for printing(~33MB)
I’m distributing copies around Manchester over the next couple of weeks and hopefully a new edition will come out in a month and a half or so. Feel free to print out copies yourself and assemble them following these slightly crazy instructions:

Also, come on the next Critical Mass:

To the taxi driver who ran me over

Posted in cycling, Manchester on October 22, 2008 by Philonous

Yesterday, I was cycling down Princess Street yesterday university-wards when I was involved in an altercation with a taxi. As I came to the junction with Whitworth Street, the traffic light turned green. Just ahead of me (I could touch his bumper) was a taxi signalling to turn left. As I was in a cycle lane, I assumed that I had thr right of way and carried on straight ahead thinking that he ought to give way. In the event, he didn’t and turned into me. Needless to say, I got dragged around the corner with him and ended up in the road. Nothing particularly bad happened, just a couple of cuts and bruises.

Lying in the road, as a pedestrian came to my aid asking if I was ok, I simply replied that I was fine, but slightly annoyed… Presently, the taxi driver stopped his car got out and asked if I was alright. More than anything else, he seemed a little shaken himself and didn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t shouting at him as cyclists, who are necessarily angry, should. I simply asked him to give way to cyclists in cycle lanes in future to which he replied that in fact it was I that should have given way. I suddenly realised – I really wasn’t sure what should have happened. Asking cyclists and drivers in the maths department yeilded only informed conjecture.

On returning home yesterday evening, after having confessed to Le Fox that I’d been in a cycle crash (at which point she became mildly hysterical and started treating me as if I’d just returned from the trenches), I decided to search online for a definitive answer. The Highway code says the following:

Turning left


Use your mirrors and give a left-turn signal well before you turn left. Do not overtake just before you turn left and watch out for traffic coming up on your left before you make the turn, especially if driving a large vehicle. Cyclists, motorcyclists and other road users in particular may be hidden from your view.


When turning

  • keep as close to the left as is safe and practicable
  • give way to any vehicles using a bus lane, cycle lane or tramway from either direction

along with the picture

to go along with section 182. It seems then that the highway code says that any vehicle on the main road should always when turning give way to cyclists using cycle lanes.

The Highway code however, is simply a set of guidlines for road users and is not law. The parts of the code which do refer to laws are flagged as such. Rules 182/183 are not. It seems therefore that there is no legal obligation for drivers to abide by these guidelines. Is this true? According to the small print, if it comes to prosecution for insurance claims etc, rulings will come down in favour of those who follow the guidelines. I’d be rather glad to hear from someone that knows more about this than me so please post some comments.

And Mr Taxi Driver, please take heed!


Posted in culture, cycling, Manchester on October 14, 2008 by Philonous

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. There are probably good reasons for that, but let me just give you some indication of the *mindblowing* things I’ve been doing during that time.

Last Friday, a few of us from the maths department decided to go on the I Bike MCR mini-festival’s Dynamic Duo Superhero Treasure/Alley Cat. For those of you that haven’t heard of alleycats before, they are messenger races around a city. Competitors race to reach a series of prescribed checkpoints scattered throughout the city of choice, the fastest to the final one being declared the winner. The checkpoints (apart from the final one) can be reached in any order and via any route, so it really seems to make a big difference if you can plan well before getting in the saddle. To win, you basically need a pretty good knowledge of the city and how to ride a bike through it.

As part of the I bike MCR mini-festival, a Manchester alleycat was organised for Friday night, starting at the Sand Bar, a favourite bicycling hangout. This one, it seemed, was geared at the casual cyclist out for a bit of a laugh as well as the seasoned track-bike owning messenger type. As such, this alleycat was meticulously organised to include various challenges and missions where speed wasn’t necessarily paramount. Each of the checkpoints was strategically located next to a phonebox. The main organiser would call the phoneboxes periodically and reveal the location of one of five stuffed toys which had been duct-taped to lamposts around the city. If you happened to be at the right checkpoint at the right time, taking the mission might get you some extra points. If that wasn’t enough, participants raced as teams of two and were encouraged to dress as superheroes, prizes being awarded for the best dressed.

All in all, it was a great night out – a bit of exercise, lots of caffeine, and general jokes all round. Friends who were out and about reported unexpectedly frenetic cycling throughout the city-centre.

Watch out for the Christmas alleycat. Rumour has it that this will involve shopping lists at grocery stores, the goods being put into hampers for asylum-seeking families. Adrenalin *and* a warm fuzzy feeling.

Here for your delectation are two particularly crazy videos of alleycats in NYC and London.

Ghost Bikes, a lesson in co-feeling

Posted in Activism, art, culture, cycling, Manchester, USA on September 5, 2008 by Philonous

I’ve just read the horrific story of Stephen Wills, a Manchester cyclist who was killed by a hit an run driver in April this year. I have some vague remembrances of seeing an e-mail on the Critical Mass mailing list about this at the time but hadn’t quite realised what had happened.

Stephen Wills (see picture) was cycling along Princess Street when he was knocked off his bike by a silver Volkswagen Golf which had just been stolen. The drivers of the car left him in the street which, to be brutally honest, I didn’t find particularly surprising.

What I did find surprising was that no-one stopped to help him. Motorists decided that they would instead try and drive around him as he lay in the middle of the road. It was only when a passing pedestrian came upon the scene that an ambulance was called. Unfortunately, it was too late and Stephen died on the way to A&E. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it emerged in the autopsy that although he had died of severe head wounds, both his legs had also been broken, suggesting he had been run over by a passing car after having been knocked over.

This tragedy sparked a spate of articles in the tabloid press rightly decrying the callousness of drivers and of ‘modern society’. Among them however was this monstrosity from the Telegraph which (please correct me if I’ve somehow misinterpreted this) seems to try to justify drivers’ reactions from a personal safety viewpoint.

It’s too dangerous now for Good Samaritans
By Harry Mount
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/04/2008

I wonder if the original Good Samaritan would have stopped to help the poor bicyclist who was killed by joyriders in Moss Side at the weekend.

Several drivers swerved round the dying Stephen Wills and one ran him over, breaking his legs, before somebody called an ambulance.

Manchester police were critical about the fact that no one stopped to help, but I’m not sure I would have stopped either.

Things have changed a bit since the Good Samaritan’s day. Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of but the road from Jerusalem to Jericho doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as Princess Road, the dual carriageway in Moss Side where poor Mr Wills was killed.

According to St Luke, the victim had a rough time of it – he was stripped, beaten and robbed. But the Gospel also says that the robbers quickly cleared off.

The priest and the Levite who passed by before the Samaritan turned up were just too lazy or selfish to help out; there was no suggestion that they were under any threat of attack themselves.

Nowadays any Good Samaritan who helps a crime victim is in danger of becoming one himself, particularly in a place as violent as Moss Side.

Recently, from my sitting room window in north London, I saw a boy of about seven walk down the street, holding an aerosol can at waist height and spraying a thick white line on a wall as he ambled along.

I didn’t move; nor did any of my neighbours. We’d all come to the same cowardly but logical conclusion – better to have an ugly white line across the wall opposite our houses than an ugly knife wound across our stomachs.

We’d have had to be not only Good Samaritans to intervene, but also Optimistic, Unworldly and Extremely Rash Samaritans, too.

Apologies for this rant, but it is a natural consequence of the pit-of-my-stomach disgust inspired by the utterly ridiculous whimsy (‘Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of…’ ) with which Mount seems to approach what was a tragic circumstance. I can only bring my own prejudices to bear when I suppose that he doesn’t cycle himself and so couldn’t possibly realise that for those of us who choose or are forced by financial circumstance to cycle that being knocked over is a perpetual stress. Alas, death is not corrected as easily as scratched bodywork or a diminished no-claims bonus.

It also reminds me of mast week’s Manchester Critical Mass. Cycling through Chorlton, a white van man decided on rashness over patience and drove into the oncoming lane to overtake the mass on a busy single lane road. An oncoming taxi swerved towards the pavement to avoid a collision, narrowly missing a pedestrian and crashing into a parked car with considerable force.

In his considerable haste and imperceptible wisdom, the white van man subsequently decided to drive off as fast as possible. Summoning the vigilante within, somehow, the seething mass of bicycling humanity seemed to telepathically decide in unison that something must be done and promptly caught up with the van, surrounding it and causing a traffic jam. Though berated at the time as public nuisances by passers by and other motorists, taking down his numberplate and threatening to call the police seemed to do the trick and he returned to the scene.

I must admit, it felt incredibly empowering to actually be the cause some tangible difference. This was clearly only made possible by the sheer number of cyclists taking part and some sort of mutual understanding or compassion in the sense of Kundera’s ‘co-feeling’

To have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion-joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy.

(from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Milan Kundera)



Perhaps this is the power of grass-roots movements such as Critical Mass. Ostensibly, the event is not ‘organised’ in any formal sense. There is no ideology, no creed and indeed no rules. Incidents such as this highlight the possibility of people linked rather superficially, here by an activity, nevertheless pulling together to some real effect. It is this more than anything else that really enrages me about ill-conceived articles such as Mount’s which serve only to antagonise the public.

These pockets of co-feeling are to be found in what I understand as ‘sub-cultures’. It seems to me that groups of people who to some extent identify with each other on some grounds be it political viewpoint or musical taste have some notion of solidarity and co-feeling.

A good example of this is the bicycle messenger subculture which seems to revel in motorists’ revulsion and is driven by its non-conformity. Particularly indicative of this is the Ghost Bike movement. When cyclists or pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents, people erect a ghost bike at the point at which the accident took place as a tribute. Check out this video of the tribute ride to all those who died on the streets of NYC.

A ghost bike was made for Stephen Wills and a memorial ride was organised.

Check out some links:

Urban Nomad

Posted in culture, internet, Manchester with tags , on August 21, 2008 by Philonous

Cruising the internet as I’m apt to do, I just came across a Mancunian Generation X of a blog about the joys and emptiness of living in the city centre. RenterGirl lives in Dovecot Towers and writes of a fairly lonely, natureless existence pockmarked by the odd Eastern European gang murder and a constant barrage of early morning wake-up shouting courtesy of students returning from some club or other. Is this the legacy of Manchester’s recent building boom? Block after block of ‘prestigious’ (?!) new developments going up unfeasibly fast only to be filled with twenty-something serial tenants, paying off student loans and rattling around their open plan living spaces bedroom mezzanines. It smacks of a souless distopia.

Perhaps I’m being pessimistic in my sudden horror that indeed, all city centres might be like this and those of us somehow drawn to city living are doomed to the RenterGirl experience.

Check out:

Critical Mass and the Automobile

Posted in Activism, cycling, Manchester on May 31, 2008 by Philonous
illustration by Jim Swanson

I was recently reading Chris Carlsson’s book “Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant celebration” which is a compilation of various articles from worldwide newspapers and zines. According to one of the articles, there was a sort of proto-Critical Mass (see SocioMath’s article here) in San Francisco in 1896. At the time, cyclists, or wheelmen as they seem to have called themselves, were annoyed at the lack of good roads and the ubiquity of raised tramlines in the centre of roads. They campaigned in particular for roads to be built properly so that cycling (which at the time was seen as ‘the modern transport’) would become easier for commuters. Their lobbying actually had some effect and the roads were modernised. Ironically of course, this paved the way (ho ho) for mass produced automobiles which eventually relegated cyclists again to second citizens of the road.
Perhaps Critical Mass now should seek to provide true cycling highways for people who would like to travel slightly farther afield (in particular suburban commuters) by building major cycle paths through cities.

I read more than a year ago about the so called National cycle network which I assumed would be a network of cycleways throughout the country, finally making it practical and easy to travel long distances by bike. My first impulse was to cycle from here across the Penines to York and lo! there is indeed a route – namely the Transpenine Trail. Unfortunately however, this route is not in any way designed for speed – the website mentions parts of the track which are ‘off road’.

This morning I thought it might be a good idea to check out a slightly better route along part of the Fallowfield loop. I cycled west from Fallowfield along the disused railway line and then up to Salford Quays for a bit of a break before heading back to the city centre. The cycleway for as long as it lasts, is great – with the exception of the sporadic barriers. If only there were such a route say from south Manchester into the city centre itself:- imagine the number of people who would use this to commute.

chain and rider lubrication in Salford

Here are some links:

Gunther von Hagens (Anatomist)

Posted in art, culture, Manchester, nature, science with tags , , on May 26, 2008 by Philonous

Dr Gunter von Hagens in front of his work (from )

Today, Le Fox and I were invited, through mere serendipitous fortune, to a question and answer session with the mysteriously eccentric Gunther von Hagens. For those not in the know, the Body Worlds exhibitions have been confronting taboos throughout the world with its sensationalist if not puritanical insistence on public knowledge of anatomical detail since its Japanese inception in 1995. Gunther von Hagens himself is the leading proponent of the concept of a modern renaissance man. He claims:

“The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to BODY WORLDS of the intangible and the unfathomable. The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.
Plastination transforms the body, an object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment, and appreciation.

“I hope for BODY WORLDS to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer.”

On Saturday night, I found myself in the extraordinary position of inquisitor in a closed session with the progenitor of Body Worlds 4 himself. My question, rather flacidly put, was:

“In your exhibition, you quote Descartes’ Medations on First Philosophy and allude to Vesalius’ groundbreaking discoveries in the field of anatomy, in particular his direct opposition to Galen. Descartes work marked the transition from a scholastic age of philosophy to an age of rationalist foundationalism (and Cartesian dualism), while Vesalius revealed to us fundamental new discoveries relating to that most basic of questions: of what stuff are we made? Where in the history of knowledge do you place yourself, and how do you judge your legacy to future generations?”

Of course, this paraphrased piece of nonsense is a dressed up version of the question I would have asked had my inexperience not entirely paralysed me with a mix of awe and stereotypical British politeness. As it was, I asked a messy question along the same lines but put with much less force and sadly lacking in eloquence. He answered rather obliquely, insisting that personal vanity did not enter into Body Worlds.

A plastinated man

Let me put my opinion on Body Worlds in some context. Initially, spurred on by the widespread pubic fervour, I was convinced by a wily Le Fox that it would be an experience not to be missed to see the public airing of Dr von Hagen’s most controversial exhibition to date. With considerable misgivings and almost insurmountable cynicism, we made our way to the MoSI, as it has been rebranded, to see what there was to see. Once I’d entered the first of the four or five crowded halls, I was struck by an intense feeling of awe, my gaze settling on installations of carefully arranged muscle and connective tissue. There were certainly cringeworthy moments, not least reading Goethe quoted next to ‘Gunter von Hagens (Anatomist)’. (Incidentally, when i put this to him, Dr von Hagens himself seemed noticably to cringe, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of his wife’s design of the exhibition.)

I must admit however that the my general experience was overwhelmingly one of wellbeing and a greater awareness of the viscera of which we are, as human beings, composed. Interspersed between the deliberately provocative poses were some truly fascinating invitations to medical science and disease. Comparative displays of normal lungs and livers with those of smokers and drinkers were a graphic health warning and seemed to fulfill one of Dr von Hagen’s stated aims of promoting greater body awareness among the general pubic.

The rather disappointing truth is that in order to maximise visitor numbers, Body Worlds must rely on sensationalism for its marketing which paints it as anything but serious science. The meeting showed more than anything that Gunther von Hagens is primarily an academic with a passion for anatomy and its public understanding. The success of Body Worlds has had the unfortunate consequence of his message being subsumed by the publicity machine that surrounds him and the rabid commercialism that inevitably followed.

Check out these links for more:

Naked as the day you died

Posted in culture, Manchester with tags on May 24, 2008 by Philonous

So… Manchester Museum has covered up it’s mummies. Director Nick Merriman has said that due to visitor complaints, they are now to be covered with cotton shrouds. The archaeologists and staff in the egyptology and archaeology departments (and many others) are very upset at this.

At first I was confused. This was the first headline I saw about the story:
‘Fury as museum bosses cover up naked Egyptian mummies to protect ‘sensitivities’ of visitors’
My initial thought was something to the effect of ‘stupid puritans even hate dead naked people.’ However, reading between the lines of this rather biased first article, I suddenly realized I’d stumbled upon an issue I was very familiar with- the repatiration of human remains.
Working at the archaeological site of a Native American village for many years, I was well versed in NAGPRA (Native American Graves Repatriation Act) and I admit that when I first came to England, and saw human remains on display- probably these very mummies in fact, because I first lived in Manchester- I was very shocked. Not because they were naked, but I had been schooled in the idea that putting human remains on view was entirely disrespectful and innapropriate.
I think that this article from the Guardian gives a more balanced view.
Native American bodies- skeletons, etc- used to be the centre of many American museum exhibitions, and I often received phone calls from elderly museum goers who recalled viewing them on display at our sister museum downtown. They wanted to know where the ‘dead Indians’ had gone and how dissapointed they were to not be able to show their grandchildren. I would swallow and politely inform them that this was not appropriate any more and that the bodies had most likely been returned to their descendants and reburied.
So… what do I think about this? Just because something has always been done doesn’t mean it’s right. If there are some descendents of the mummies- indigenous people of Egypt, etc- who protest them being on show then I say they should be taken off display and returned. This freaks a lot of archaeologists out because they say that they’ll lose their collections and chance for scientific study. Well even though I love archaeology, I can whole heartedly admit that it is a product of colonialism and was mainly insitited to reinforce its hegemony through it’s ‘discoveries’- to make indigenous peoples an other, regulat them to the past, and take away the rights of their descendents. Well, that’s its worst side. At it’s best, it teaches us important lessons about the past and connects us to it.
I’ve pretty much gotten it into my head that England/Europe is ahead of America in many ways (fashion, gay marriage, health care, etc) but in this case I’m really surprised that so many people are being so old school and raging against the machine. Mummise rank right up there with dinosaurs, in attracting families and others to gawk at museum collections. I’d think that museums would want to try to find a more meaningful way to attract and engage their audiences. After working in museums for over seven years, I don’t think I’m being too niave about this.

Guerilla Gardening: resistance is fertile

Posted in Activism, art, craft, culture, Manchester with tags , on May 20, 2008 by Philonous

The other day, Le Fox and I made our way down to Manchester’s Urbis to check out their new exhibition on Manga. Having seen the exhibition (which to be honest seemed to be aimed mostly at the emo-kids in the Cathedral gardens outise), we wandered upstairs to kill a little more time.

To my pleasant surprise they had an exhibition about Urban Gardening. It seems that I was not alone in my desire for the greening of Manchester’s city centre – there were a great many tips for what to grow in confined balconies and window boxes. (No doubt the whole exhibition was a passionate response to Sociomath’s Urban Orchards post.)

What intrigued me most, however, was a small corner of the exhibition devoted to so called Guerilla Gardening. It seems as though people as despserate for green space as me had decided upon a more pro-active strategy than posting rants on a blog. They instead congregate on what is considered by them to be wasteland and plant trees, herbs, vegetables and flowers in an effort to foster a greater sense of well-being and civic pride among local residents.

A couple of years ago, the hallowed airtime of the Beeb itself devoted a moment or two to the notion of guerilla gardening and in particular it’s London posterboy, Richard Reynolds: a 30 year old, MG-driving, road-bike riding, well spoken former advertising executive. Have a look at a slightly tongue in cheek seven minute documentary below about guerilla gardening in London.

As for the history of Guerilla gardeining, Wikipedia claims that it started with the True Levellers or Diggers as they became known. These were folk who started gardening on common land and living in cooperatives in the second half of the 17th century. I’d argue that perhaps, since these people were growing food on land that would otherwise have been used to graze cattle that they don’t really embody the “pleasant mischeif” mindset of the modern Guerilla gardener. It seems that it all really started (as most vaguely radical movements) in New York in the 1970’s with the Green Guerilla group transforming a private derelict lot into a garden.

One of the parts of the exhibition which really caught my attention was the concept of ‘seed-bombing’. The idea is to be able to plant seeds in relatively inacessible places (behind fences/barbed wire etc). Rather than trying to bypass obstacles, such areas are ‘bombed’ with lumps of mud and compost containing seeds. By the next year, voila: flowers aplenty! Have a look at this video of some seedbombers in Chicago.

I’m told that there are such orgainisations in Manchester. I know nothing about them.

Some links:

The Brazil Nut Effect

Posted in Manchester, maths with tags on May 13, 2008 by Philonous

Ever wondered why on packets of cereal it sometimes says something to the effect of “Please turn packet on its side to redistribute nuts evenly”? I’d always thought that this was because any of the larger particles would have sunk to the bottom. It turned out that this was in fact not the case.
Yesterday was the day of the MRSC08 conference for postgraduate maths students in Manchster. One of the talks explained the so called “Brazil nut effect”, the phenomenon of larger nuts rising to the top of packets of mixed nuts during transport. The following video (taken from here) shows the effect working on a brass cylinder among polystyrene foam beads.

It turns out that although gravity pulls the cylinder down relative to the polystyrene, there are granular flow effects that also push the cylinder up which are far greater than expected. I can’t claim to be an expert, but the talk was incredibly interesting. (See Prof. Nico Gray’s website for research about granular flows in Manchester).

Here’s a slow motion version of the above video to maybe give some intuitio for what’s going on. I have to admit, I still don’t quite understand from where the upward force comes.