Life as a Swedish Dog Trainer, by Alexandra Klein

As a Biology major I always found myself drifting towards the seemingly more ‘academic’ Molecular Biology modules… It was only when I began my year abroad at Lund University in Sweden that I realised it was finally time to be more adventurous with my choices.  It perfectly fit this goal when I heard there was an option to do a research project instead of a university module and still gain the same number of credits.  I wrote to a huge number of companies in Molecular Biology, Biotechnology and a bunch of other potential future career options… but I also found myself writing to academics in Animal Behaviour modules and begging them to take me on, despite my limited experience.  I was so excited to get a reply back almost straight away, asking me if I’d be interested in training dogs…(“dogs weighing up to 50kg” as he put it, instantly conjuring confused thoughts of me attempting to carry heavy dogs around).
I grew up with no pets, and with no friends with dogs, so the thought of working with them was really quite random, however after months of seeing cute puppy videos and memes on my Facebook news feed I was hopeful that I’d get along with dogs well.  So, it was with some apprehension that I arrived on my first day, only to be greeted by a professor and a massive golden retriever.  After some awkward head pats I was entrusted with Kevin, the golden retriever, and we went off for our first walk.
My first day was “getting to know the dogs” which basically involved taking three different dogs for walks, playing games with them and picking up their poop (and as I was happy to find out I definitely wouldn’t be carrying the dogs…) It was probably the best first day of work anyone could hope for, well, minus the poop.

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Lots of walks around campus with the dogs

The aim of my project was to see if dogs can be trained to detect infrared (heat) radiation. Dogs have a wet and cold nose-tip, which isn’t necessary for any known function, so it seems logical that a possible function could be to use this coldness to detect radiating heat. This could have been useful in the past for activities such as hunting predators, however the function could have been lost as domestic dogs no longer need it. To encourage the use of this sense in dogs, a period of “re-training” would be necessary. This was where my job began, I was using positive reinforcement to help the dog realise it should always pick the warm side, when presented with a choice between a warm and
cold panel. I rewarded the dog with food every time it picked the warm side on its own, with the hope being that the dog would start to go to the warm side independently. This would demonstrate that the dog could detect which side was radiating heat.

It really was an amazing experience taking nine weeks off lectures to play with dogs, and by the end of the project I felt like I’d made real progress with the project aims.
So, after a fun, and at times stressful experience, here are my top take home messages:

1) Picking up sloppy dog poop seems daunting at first, but after the sixth time doing it that day you really get used to it.
2) Dogs will go completely crazy for meatballs. Seriously, do not bring hot meatballs into a room unless you’re ready to reward the dog.
3) Coming into work every day to be greeted by happy, jumpy dogs is probably the most uplifting feeling possible.
4) This is especially helped by 2). In the dogs’ eyes I was The Lady Who Gives The Meatballs
which caused some VERY excited dogs.
5) Even your dream job is pretty hard work. Working with dogs sounds easy, but actually
maintaining the motivation and attention of dogs throughout the day is exhausting, and
involves a huge amount of energy (and treats).

padme3

I also really saw the importance of studying different areas of Biology in order to become a well-rounded researcher. I think the skills I learned in improvisation, dedication and patience will be really useful when I go back to my usual lab work. Overall, it was probably the best nine weeks of my university life, and I would jump at the opportunity to work with dogs again!

On top of all that, I had the opportunity to go to the zoo a few times to look at the nose
skin of various animals. So, my childhood dream of playing with monkeys and
lemurs even came true!

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Liberal Arts and Sciences Cadbury Research Library Internship

By Zoe Emery (year 3 Liberal Arts and Sciences)

pic 127There is something incredibly exciting about handling first-editions of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, as well as Queen Victoria’s personal diary, the Mingana collection (a group of Middle Eastern manuscripts dating from as early as the 6th century), ancient Egyptian papyri, Neville Chamberlain’s copy of Mein Kampf and a letter describing his first impressions of Hitler. I got to do all of this and more as part of my four week internship with the Cadbury Research Library.

For me, one of the best things you can get out of a job is variation. As part of my role here, I, along with two other interns, was not only involved in cataloguing archives, but also helped to create an exhibition on travel diaries in the Main Library and on Flickr, helped conserve a number of documents, taught a group of school children and created several Vox Pop videos to encourage students to use the CRL and its fantastic resources.

Furthermore, we received a series of in depth tours by members of staff, module-choicesshowing us the ins and outs of their different roles as archivists, librarians and conservators. From a personal point of view, it was fascinating to see how the Research Library worked behind the scenes, from the perspective of an employee on a day to day basis. My cataloguing project focused on Bridget Stevenson, a woman who worked for the Save the Children Fund, in German refugee camps from 1948-1962. Steph, an early modern History PhD student, looked at 20th century records of the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association, and Katherine, who just graduated with an English Literature degree, worked on University of Birmingham Medical Society.

Liberal Arts and Sciences is a degree that encourages you to step outside your boundaries, explore different subjects and broaden your wider interests. Having taken modules in Geology, Psychology, Spanish and French over the past two years, my subject choices did not naturally lend themselves towards applying for an internship typically based around History and Literature. However, internships like this allow you to test the waters. Moreover, there are an extensive variety of resources in the collection including Science, Medicine, Art, Sport, Archaeology, Anthropology and Politics, making this internship genuinely interesting to anyone from any walk of life.

Untitled-6Irrelevant of subject, the skills that I have learnt here will be invaluable in the wider working world. Throughout the past four weeks, I have developed my ability to work as part of a team, and as an individual in a professional environment, as well as time management, organisation and the ability to work to a deadline. We also learnt more specific skills including Photoshop, IT, research and conservation.

I can honestly say that I have taken so much away from this experience and have thoroughly enjoyed working with an incredibly lovely and welcoming team.

Our Flickr exhibition on travel diaries – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cadburyresearchlibrary/

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/index.aspx

To read about the job of an archivist – http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/jenny-childs-day-life-archivist/

To see upcoming exhibition dates (Noel Coward & Transatlantic Style and Toc H. archive) – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/events/index.aspx

The Quran in Birmingham:

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2015/07/quran-manuscript-22-07-15.aspx

Talking In Our Time

What academics mostly do is spin yarns. Sometimes these develop into technical tapestries, as hard to unpick as the punchline is (we hope) world-shaking. Much of the time, we are chipping away at the knowledge edifice, trying to make a difference. We receive no training in communicating research intelligibly outside the academy, yet making our research into stories that resonate as widely and powerfully as possible is as central to modern universities as it is to their faculty and students. Despite the rhetorics of ivory-towers and ivied quads, our world is no more (nor less) exclusive than any comparable trade. Ideas are our currency, and this means that we tend to speak to whoever will listen.

Some academics (micro-)blog, many of us teach and write books and papers, explain what we do to diverse audiences (including friends, or people at bus-stops…) and like everyone, we try to adapt our discourse appropriately to match the context. Many of us also travel nationally and internationally to explore how we fit into and can make a difference to new and bigger conversations. But these activities are all within our comfort-zones.

Donkey: legs talked right off!

Donkey: legs talked right off!

The crunch comes when, as it did for me this summer, someone wants to change the medium and for instance, put academics together for live broadcast debate to an unseen audience. In my case, this was to be on the radio. You’d think that a person well-used to standing up in front of large audiences, and delighted to talk the hind legs off herds of donkeys, would still find this uncomplicatedly delightful. In fact, it quite daunted me in ways I hadn’t expected.

The “call” was in fact an email. Would I be interested in talking about reception of Alexander the Great with some fellow academics as part of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”. Of course I was interested! But the dynamics of this kind of “conversation” are inevitably very different to a chat between colleagues, or to a typical academic lecture, workshop, or seminar. This was brought home to me vividly when I had my first conversation with the production team, charming folk who quizzed me in detail (as they worked out how the episode might develop) about all sorts of aspects of Alexander’s story that I’d not considered for some time.

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

This build-up was exciting and perturbing in almost equal measures. Answering questions about Alexander’s extraordinary career, and reimagining my own analyses in the light of thirteen years (since first publishing a book about Roman reception of Alexander), was all rather exhilarating. But stories started to drift in from friends and colleagues about the terrible “freeze” that can overcome the most fluent of speakers when in the studio, about the unintentional gaffes that “live” recording can crystallise, and by the time I’d been warned about not “tapping on the table”, or “rustling”, or making repetitive noises, I was beginning to imagine myself as the unfortunate Lina with her pearls, in “Singing in the Rain”.

One question I asked in the build-up was “why Alexander, now?” While the BBC programme team had no particular agenda for the timing of this episode (and perhaps the “In Our Time” shtick requires a sense of timelessness in scheduling topics), nevertheless the turmoil in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, new urgency to questions of ethnicity and its relationship to selfhood, nationality, and to geopolitical ideals and realities, all seem to echo some of the radical population shifts and the fallout from grand ideological schemes that were an inevitable consequence of Alexander’s campaigns. Not to mention the vexed question of Alexander as poster-boy for a new brand of charisma-driven personality politics.

The trip to Broadcasting House was set for the Thursday of Freshers’ Week, so I hustled from the mock “graduation” ceremony and prize-giving that we staged for Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Sciences first years (celebrating their successful completion of the four-year degree in two packed days…), through Birmingham’s brand newly (re-)opened Grand Central/New Street Station, and onto the fast train to London.

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

We’re so close to London that I often wonder why I go so infrequently, and enjoying a quiet supper in a bar near my hotel there was a slightly naughty sense of being unexpectedly released temporarily into the wild.

I met up with my fellow guests at 10.00 the next morning at the iconic, Art Deco entrance to what I still think of as the authentic (i.e. ’30s) Broadcasting House, opposite John Nash’s exquisite All Souls Church, Langham Place. Classical academia is a small world, and I knew both the other guests (hello, Paul, Rachel), so the pre-mic green-room coffee stop (sadly, like every theatrical “green room” I’ve been in, it was not at all green) was a bit of a catchup session. Melvyn Bragg, our host, made his appearance once we had taken the correct seats (inevitably, I first of all sat in the wrong seat) in a large, evocatively old-school, recording studio.

The programme has a manner all its own, and each guest gets a chance to answer one or two questions first, setting the scene, before the conversation (though still fairly tightly structured) is opened out. We agreed to raise our hands if we wanted to interject, which did occasionally make me want to shout “Miss! me, Miss!” But I resisted. I think that if I get invited back (or ever take part in a comparable show) I’ll be a bit more forceful about waving that hand. The crux of Alexander the Great, an issue that the team were clearly aware of but couldn’t resolve, is that there is way, way too much juicy, salacious, intriguing, perplexing material to cover. My own area of specialisation really didn’t get much of a look-in because exploring even the big opening questions relating to what Alexander did and how we know about, or interpret it, could have filled a whole series.

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

There’s a fun bit at the end of each show where guests record some more relaxed conversation on the theme, for the podcast, and I was aching to talk about the weird seepage between art and life characterising 20thC actors role-playing Alexander (it was not long after their off-kilter Alexander pilot that William Shatner would be inspiring viewers “to boldly go”…and Adam West would be saving Gotham; while Richard Burton’s personal life resounded to the issues of sex, drink, and identity-crisis that characterise hostile Roman reception of Alexander), and Alexander’s big-screen monopolisation by actors from edges of corporate states (Burton: Wales; Sean Connery: Scotland) or with postcolonial reverb (Colin Farrell: Ireland).

I’d also hoped to be able to interject a little more on how buffeted by 20thC ideologies Alexander’s afterimage became. For instance, Hitler had a series of eight Dutch tapestries depicting great episodes in Alexander’s life, based on a sequence created by Charles le Brun for Louis XIV of France) moved from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to add epic grandeur to his office in the Chancellery, Berlin.

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple...

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple…

Alexander’s emblematic potential for modelling Aryan identity and showing how to impose radical cultural shifts across diverse populations would also reverberate contrastingly through the idea of “universal brotherhood” which he supposedly took as the ideological centrepiece for his eastern empire-building. This idea of a “brotherhood of man” started to come into focus as world power dynamics shifted through the 1930s, and was given a positive, optimistic airing by William W. Tarn, in his Raleigh Lecture on History (delivered to the British Academy in 1933, and restated in an article in the American Journal of Philology, in 1939. see Ernst Badian’s 1958 restatement of the issues, and analysis). Tarn’s Alexander, like Hitler’s, was a visionary, but for Tarn, Alexander’s political dream took on a soteriological quality that his charismatic good-looks and early death helped to shore up.

If airtime had allowed, I think I’d have liked to end with an interrogation of how that “visionary”, age-defying, charismatic man-of-the-people Alexander continued to permeate western understanding of power — imperial, intellectual, scientific, sexual — right through the 20thC. To my mind, the ubiquity of tropes relating back to Roman stories of Alexander the inquisitive, boundary-pushing hero with feet of clay can help all of us to pose questions of ourselves about how exactly we understand what identity is, whether individual, collective, or comparative, and how the assumptions we make connect us to past societies and give definition to what we consider to be characteristic of humane values and aspirations.

My London day ended with a research-related trip to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA: very handy for the BBC, and like the Wellcome Collection, a wonderful resource for interdisciplinary enthusiasms), and a little Classical eye-candy appreciation (en route back to London Euston, and home).

Controlling Crypto-Currencies, June 2015

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences was delighted to have the opportunity to sponsor a conference on crypto-currencies as part of our goal to foster lively debate on provocative and challenging topics. With Apple Pay just launched in the UK, and contactless payments becoming ever more normalised, exploring the ripple effect from crypto-currencies becomes increasingly important and urgent. University of Birmingham Law lecturer Dr Tatiana Cutts reports back from the conference, for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.

Tatiana writes:

In the year of the bailouts, 2008, The bankers were printing more debt for the state The dollar grew weaker, the big picture clear As they fed the hangover more Keynesian beer […] Who’s to blame, is this caused by desire for wealth? When perhaps the real problem is money itself! The idea isn’t new, maybe everything’s tanking ‘Cause society is built on fractional reserve banking And so called ‘‘investment’’ and attempted control May soon spiral fiat into a death roll […].

 — an Ode to Satoshi Nakamoto, “coretechs”

In 2008, in a paper published in an online cryptography forum under the name “Satoshi Nakamoto”, a writer presented the blueprint for a decentralised digital monetary system. Through that system, Nakamoto attempted to eliminate the risk of double spending without reliance upon trusted third parties, such as banks and credit-card providers. Bitcoin was introduced shortly afterwards as open-source software, and gained momentum gradually, as those with personal, economic and/or political agendas began to adopt the new technology. Bitcoin’s popularity increased rapidly when in 2011 Wikileaks announced that it would accept donations in Bitcoin. That decision resulted in one of the first significant spikes in value, and at the start of 2015 the value of one bitcoin stood at a little over $300.00. The Bitcoin system adheres closely to Nakamoto’s model. “Miners” solve complex computational problems by which transactions are verified and recorded in a public ledger (the “Blockchain”), in return for bitcoins. Users hold a private and public “key”, and release only the latter to make a payment. In this way, the system is entirely pseudonymous, and can be maintained and developed without the need for a central authority. Thus far, the number of Bitcoin transactions carried out each day across the globe has never exceeded 130,000, in comparison with approximately 295 million conventional payment transactions in Europe alone. Nonetheless, the European Banking Authority, the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCen”), the UK Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) and HM Treasury, amongst others, have accepted that the risks of crypto-currency are too many and too great to ignore. Further, the pressure from the Bitcoin community to develop clear rules is growing: service-providers want the consumer confidence associated with state approval, and need the support of traditional financial organisations in order to continue to grow. In many cases Bitcoin business are already engaged in anticipatory self-regulation. On 12 June 2015 Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences supported a conference on crypto-currencies, hosted at the University of Birmingham by Tatiana Cutts and Joanna Gray of the Law School. Its purpose was to bring together practitioners, stakeholders, financial regulators, and academics to discuss the most important issues raised by these developments, in order to create a solid research platform to inform emerging regulatory and private law frameworks. The day began with an introductory talk by Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who introduced some of the foundational concepts and fundamental questions in Bitcoin and distributed ledger technology. Next up was Dirk Haubrich of the European Banking Authority, who spoke about the Warning and Opinion issued by the EBA regarding consumer protection issues and pseudonymous payment mechanisms. To round of the first session, Robleh Ali, speaking on behalf of the Bank of England, spoke briefly about the Bank’s stance on crypto-currencies, and its nascent project to link decentralised and centralized payment systems to create a more efficient central banking network. The second session was comparative, and contrasted the UK approach to crypto-currencies with the American, Canadian and Australian frameworks. This created a foundation for a more in-depth look at the workings of distributed payments networks, with industry insights from Tom Robinson and Gareth Jenkins, and an analysis of the private law framework by Tatiana Cutts. The last session tested the boundaries of the subject, drawing in governance issues, regulation, privacy and security and emerging movements towards inclusivity in banking, addressing some of the more controversial aspects of cryptographic technology. It was clear from conversations on the day that technologies and research projects such as this are only the start of the fintech revolution, and that the way that we understand moral and economic debt, the way in which we calibrate value and think about ethereality in the context of money, status and property and – most important of all – the way we conceive of power and governance structures of our society are all changing at an unprecedented rate. This is an exciting time for those engaged in research in the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the conference will form the foundation for an ongoing collaborative project between Tatiana Cutts (Law) and Dr Matt Hayler (English), looking at “Money in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing”. For more information email t.cutts@bham.ac.uk or tweet @TatianaCutts Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences made live-streaming possible on the day, enabling the event to have a truly global reach, with over 1,000 people tuned-in. The videos can be viewed here.

LAS in Action: Old Books and New Technologies

As one of the new recruits to the Liberal Arts and Sciences team of tutors I’m gaining new perspectives on multi- and inter-disciplinarity within and beyond the University of Birmingham and, in turn, on my own work and that in my field.

As a medievalist I’ve long practised inter-disciplinarity in my research and teaching. I specialise in early English literature and one of my main interests currently is manuscripts and documents and all other material records of early writing. You might think that we would know almost all there is to know about them as they’ve been around for such a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. As hand-written and hand-made artefacts, each manuscript and document is a unique witness to cultures of text production, writing and reading. Yet we don’t even know how many medieval manuscripts survive, and we only have sketchy pictures of, for example, how they were produced, who the scribes were, how readers engaged with books – the list of unanswered questions is endless. This means that a major source of evidence for a millennium’s human history still has huge untapped potential.

The LAS spirit of breadth across disciplines is crucial to unlocking the possibilities. In particular, sciences are beginning to play a key role. To give just a few examples, DNA analysis is being applied to the animal skin used to make parchment and spectroscopy has been used to discover the components of the pigments used to decorate books. Such techniques offer the possibility, eventually, of linking books to aspects of the wider economy and environment, to agriculture, butchery, and trade.

The key development, though, is digitisation. Medieval manuscripts are little known and understood in most part because they are scattered across the world in hundreds of different libraries and archives. A further barrier to accessibility is their sensitive conservation status. Over the past two decades major digitisation initiatives have been launched and for the first time in human history these unique objects are becoming available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

Digitisation, though exciting, is producing its own problems. Digital media rapidly become obsolete: how can we ensure sustainability? Unlike digitised books, digitised manuscripts are not searchable automatically: how can we speed up analysis of this ‘big data’? Digital images are often subject to copyright restrictions: how can we resolve the intellectual property issues involved in using them in publications? Computer scientists, intellectual property lawyers, information scientists, archivists and librarians, and manuscripts scholars are working together to tackle these problems.

What better illustration of the relevance of the LAS ethos to solving today’s problems?

Wendy Scase (Liberal Arts team)

Classicising modernity

I wrote this post after attending a University of Birmingham talk last week 🙂

Rome and all that...

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a provocative and thoughtful discussion of the relationship between classical Greek tragedy and the development fascism in Italy, Germany, and Greece. The speaker was my wonderful colleague Eleftheria Ioannidou, and the occasion, our fortnightly Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology research seminar (all are welcome!).

The full title of the paper (‘Classicising modernity: Performances of Greek tragedy and the cultural poetics of fascism’) helped to unpack some core issues economically, in particular, how fascism and the idea of ‘the modern’ were rooted in complex understanding of ‘Greek’ (or ‘Classical’) and ‘tragedy’.

We were challenged, as an audience, to reflect on whether and how one can explore aesthetics of fascism and its culture without forming a value-judgement embedded in grand ideological narratives (and the sweep of 20th/21st century history). It was especially useful, for me, to be asked to think hard about the origins…

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News from Japan

I posted this on The Conversation:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to call a snap election for December 14 comes after what has been a rather bad week for him. Japan has slipped back into recession for the first time since 2012 and Abe has seen his popularity ratings drop below 50% for the first time.

Abe clearly believes he needs to act fast if he is to survive this crisis and avoid falling victim to the factional politics that are so often the cause of leadership upheavals. He doesn’t have to hold an election for another two years so in calling this vote, he is aiming to maximise his remaining popularity, bolster support for Abenomics and prevent a political ousting.

Japanese prime ministers are not renowned for their staying power. Factional politics feature prominently in the day-to-day running of the country and internal jostling is intensified in periods of coalition government. Abe leads a coalition government made up of his Liberal Democratic Party and its partner party, the Komeito – so he has experienced this jostling for some time.

He and his party are likely to win a majority in this December election though. The LDP currently occupies 294 out of the 480 seats of the Lower House and starts the campaign in a strong position.

The key for Abe is to ensure that the LDP’s majority is large enough to give him room for manoeuvre. The Komeito currently only holds 31 seats, while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has 54 seats. Abe needs to urgently reduce the political tensions around him if he is to succeed in his economic reform agenda.

The prime minister is a man with a mission. He is strongly committed to consolidating his economic reforms, based around quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. A newly secured mandate from the electorate would give him the space to pursue his plans.

He has other goals aside from Abenomics. The disaster at Fukushima led to the closure of Japan’s nuclear reactors, and Abe is striving to have them restarted, in order to reduce the high costs of energy to Japanese consumers. Since the 2011 disaster, electricity prices have increased by dramatically and Japan remains vulnerable to external energy providers.

On the political front, Abe is keen to overturn a half century of a particularly Japanese form of pacifism. He wants to enable the country’s well-equipped Self Defense Forces to become an internationally accepted army, navy and air force. Instead of existing to defend Japan, the force would be deployable elsewhere too.

This is linked to Japan’s sense of insecurity in the region, particularly when it comes to the rise of China. Bolstering the military reconfirms Japan’s ongoing commitment to its security treaty with the United States.

Abe also wants to sign the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would establish a free trade agreement among the states around the Pacific Ocean. Japanese farmers, who have always represented a powerful political lobby in Japan, estimate that up to 90% of Japanese agriculture could be severely affected by the TPP, and Abe will have his work cut out to convince them of its value.

Without a resounding mandate for the next two years, Abe will struggle to meet these goals. He stands out as a bold leader and the electorate has supported his ambitions so far. But while he is not necessarily risking his position with the snap election, he is gambling on his ability to push through the big changes he has been seeking since the start of his premiership.

Julie