Tag: research

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

VK & PD IPL.png

Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.

 

 

 

 

*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.

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So, I went to a bullfight

Yes, as the title indicates, I have decided not to beat around the bush, and come out with it. I am travelling around seeing lots of different sports, and while in Spain I felt I had a duty to see “Los Toros”. Because it is controversial, because it straddles sport, art and something else, and because blood sports like this used to be common across Europe , and are still common in much of the world. Therefore, it seemed necessary to have a look at one, especially in a country where, in some quartets, it is feted as a high art form. In others it is banned outright. An challenging beast of an event to be dealing with. I am not alone in dealing with challenging beasts, for the matadors, to give them some credit, are taking on animals of 4-5 years old, weighing 500-600kgs. The bull pounds out into the corrida (arena), all taut muscle and powerful hoof beats. Initially it does not face the matador, but is worked by a series of supporting “players” with capes, who goad the bull into charges, before hiding behind wooden screens. After this the bull faces the picadores, mounted combatants who stab into the bulls shoulders and neck with a short-bladed spear. The horse is solidly protected by a large, thick cover. I was told that the horses didn’t use to be so well protected; it must’ve been a grisly sight. Instead, although we have blood of the bull in show, there is little gore, the primary purpose of these sections to tire the bull as it chases shadows or attempts to lift the horse. I’ll say now that many of the technicalities I know were gleaned from Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”. It is quite challenging to understand the purpose of much of what is on show otherwise. The bull chases some colourful men with capes, it charges a mounted man it can never defeat; it all seems very ritualised. Hardly the blood and thunder contest I had expected. Perhaps this is some kind of art, or something else, after all.

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A quick parade before the action starts

After the picadores, the banderillas. These men bound towards the bull at an angle while it charges them, attempting to stick 2 wooden stakes into the muscle over the shoulder. In total 6 are placed, although not all find their mark, leaving the banderilla to scurry for cover. The stakes are gaudily coloured, creating a strange contrast against the dark bloody back and sides if the bull. Again however I see very little contest. The bull does not catch these fleet footed men, no do I think it is meant to. Instead, this further helps weaken the bull, preparing it for the matador. This is who comes next, stepping into the corrida, relatively alone. Facing a bloody, slightly tired, probably terrified, but still strong and angry bull.

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The banderilla plays his part

Before the start I was walking to my allocated gate, when I came across a scrum of people. Eyes all aligned towards some external entrance. This was the crowd awaiting the matadors, the dashing idols of this “sport”. They even have their own twitter accounts… Like the fans gathered for the arrival of the team bus, huddled at the team tunnel, we stretched and strained and held aloft cameras to try and catch a glimpse. In a flash they were there, shaking hands, smiling, waving, bright-gold costumes glinting in the sun, and then they were gone. Apparently the top matadors can receive €80,000 a fight; we certainly received the superstar treatment.

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Acting the part

Back in the corrida , again it was the matadors dishing out the treatment, using his cape to slip pass the charging bull: left, right, fleet plated together unmoving, even on his knees, all to the ohs and ahs and gathering applause of the crowd. This to me was more like some art, like a theatre performance by a talented actor, than a sporting contest. The crowd too put me more in mind of a theatre or opera crowd than a football or tennis crowd. Exceedingly smartly dressed, generally older, aficionados rather than supporters. To contrast with my Morocco football fans, watching from their seats rather than spurring their team or player on. This video shows it: the 2nd matador, Jose Manuel Manzanares, goes in for a clean sword placement to finish the fight. He is successful, and as the other cape bearers move in to stop the bull charging the matador again before it dies, the crowd applauds voraciously. They rise to their feet and wave white handkerchiefs to show their approval. How very gentile. 

It is not always so gentile. In this first fight the matador performed a great many passes, too many in fact, for the crowd started to whistle and jeer. Then when the sword finally came it was not a quick death. The bull staggered, floundered, and after it finally did fall it somehow managed to rise to its feet again, the death prolonged by minutes. Curiously, the crowd around me seemed to pay this no real heed. I guess if you pay to see death you accept some irregularities from the animal that struggles against it.

In general I was surprised to see so much variation in how well the matadors dealt death. One smooth and effective, the crowd loved him. Another, although the crowd did not favour his style he killed with a similar effectiveness. But the 3rd was simply bad at it. A young man, at only 23, he was clearly a bit if a darling of the crowd, and they greatly applauded his work with the bull and the cape. But his first strike with the sword, a jar against bone, and he was undone. Now in a vulnerable position, the bull caught him and tossed him through the air. Hearts leapt to mouths. Now in a tight ball on the floor, the bull stampeded over him, and I thought I was about to watch a man die. The crowd leaned closer. Was I happy about this? If it was a sport, a contest I was after, then surely both sides losing should be possible. In which case the death of the matador would strengthen bullfighting’s position as a sport. So did I want his death?
Thankfully, the watching cape-bearers sprung into action, diverting the bull off the prone man and he was saved. Somewhat less thankfully, he then went back and, after a couple of attempts, finished the job. He also made a meal of killing his 2md bull (each matador kills 2 bulls per corrida, giving the crowd 6 deaths in total), leaving me in doubt as to his ability. It also left me in no doubt as to the status of this event. There is no genuine contest, man is not against bull, nor are the matadores competing against each other. Whether then what this dance between man and animal produces some kind of art, that is up to you.

I watched after the fight where the matador was caught by the bull as he limped, grimaced and crept round to the infirmary. Hand clutched to his side, pained etched across his face, gaudy costume torn. You could see the crowd as he passed crane closer, peering at him. What’s in it for them I wondered. They had nearly seen him die. Perhaps the death is what they were after. To be close, to lean in, to pull anguished faces and gape as he passes. To catch the tang of death off him as he comes by. The matadors both knowingly put themselves in danger, close to death, and also deal it. They wear the shroud of death closely. Is that what the crowd were after, to pass close by this messenger of death? To feel close to the rawness of it, but ultimately safe from it? The matador as well, is the draw for him the closeness of death, with one wrong step and a swish of the bulls horns.


It seems likely. Closeness to death, or at least risk of injury, is a common aspect of many sports. I myself, at 26, no longer play rugby or football due to a debilitating knee injury picked up in the former. Such things are not uncommon. A few days after the bullfight I was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, watching climbers tackle various routes. Yes they have ropes and harnesses and a partner keeping them safe, but accidents happen and falls are never that far away. Climbing is very technically and physically demanding, but it also has that inherent danger to it that makes it, maybe like the bullfight, such an enticing prospect.

It is hard to deny the common element if danger, but it is curious we find it so attractive. Would ancestral (wo)man who enjoyed being that little bit closer to death have some competitive advantage? Perhaps it helped the essential hunt of prey, especially the larger, more dangerous beasts. Perhaps this was essential to success for our ancestors. Perhaps this is what the bull fight apes. But as the bull was dragged out of the arena, to the sound of music, applause and the waving of white handkerchiefs, sunlight gleaming from sunglasses and flashing off fascinators, it was quite hard to picture anything essential about the spectacle at all.

The end, but also the beginning

If you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that I recently finished my PhD. Yippee!!!

Three and a half years of work, and its safe to say the hand in is a bit anti-climatic. Thankfully a couple of friends, Sean and George, were there to buy me a pint, enjoyed in the sunshine at 10:30am opposite a bank of people of treadmill machines no less.

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Just handed in PhD thesis = acceptable to be drinking at 1030am

But the real celebration comes after the viva, where Andrew Jackson and Alex Thornton gave me a grilling for three and a half hours on the contents of my thesis and the thinking behind it. Thankfully they were very positive, and only gave me minor corrections. Thanks guys! Then we had a party and such, but it still never really hits you. I then had to pack up and leave Cornwall, but it still didn’t really hit me. I’m writing this now and that fact that its bloody done, over, finished, no more, hasn’t really hit me. Its been a bit manic recently, with viva, then leaving Cornwall and now I’m heading off almost immediately for a bit of a break. For you see this post is not just about the end of something….

 

 

I’ve written before about how I love sport and how I’m interested in why all human cultures “do sport”*. Well after finishing my PhD, I decided to do something more than talk wistfully about it. I’m soon embarking on a trip, where I plan to check out as many different sports, of all different kinds, in a variety of different cultures.

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so much sport, so little time

This begins in Morocco, before I head north to Spain, then east to Hungary, further east to Kyrgyzstan before turning south to India. Three continents, a range of different cultures and environments, and hopefully a range of different sports and games. There will be team sports, individual sports, power events, endurance events, events with men and animals, events with men against animals (yes, I will be taking in a bullfight), sports where the foe is another person, or the environment or where the opponent is no one in particular except yourself. I’m dribbling with anticipation just writing that!

It’s a holiday and a bit of a research trip all rolled together. Hopefully I will be keeping this site updated with my adventurers, pictures and stories. Let me know if you’ve been to any of these countries and you know of something awesome worth checking out!

 

*In fact Johan Huizinga may have got there first, with his book: “Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture”. I’ve now got a copy, and will be delving into it on my travels. Lets hope he’s left some thing for me to cover!

 

 

 

 

Where did they get that from?

The press, essential part of the science machine or irritating nuisance?

Rather excitingly, I had something published the other day. It was about male-male competition in crickets, using social network analysis. You can read about it here. In short, we found that males can’t use pre-copulatory competition to avoid sperm competition, that males who attack other males a lot are also involved in a lot of sperm competition, and most interestingly, the more promiscuous males tend to mate with the more promiscuous females.

I also made a little “tweetable abstract” to help spread the good word (H/T George Swan for the idea for this). I then contacted the University of Exeter’s press office, we knocked up a press release, then sat back to see if anyone would be interested.

But why am I telling you this? Well the reason is that some media outlets reported it quite accurately:

DM m-m nets story

Yep, mock them all you like, but the Daily Fail online actually did a reasonable job.  They even had a little box on cricket mating behaviour. The pictures were of the wrong species, but you can’t have everything.

For some reason, a couple of Indian papers also carried it:

Last time I checked the Times of India had changed their headline to “Immorality cuts…”, which shows their angle on the whole thing. They largely quoted the press release, although like the Mail their headline is a little misleading as we did not actually show that promiscuous males do worse, just that the patterns of sperm competition we found may reduce the successfulness of promiscuity. But no biggie.

 

However, there was one “science” journalist out there clearly with an axe to grind:

WDP m-m nets story

**********WHAT*********THE*********ACTUAL*********FUCK**************

I feel I have to say that, obviously, our study did not say that. Indeed our study did not look at fertility, humans or ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE HEADLINE AT ALL

I contacted our press office to try and get the Western Daily Press to take it down, but at 17:31 on 23/1/16, its still there.

 

Amusingly, the West Briton then got in on the act, but instead claimed that we found that promiscuity reduces male fertility:

WB m-m nets story
pictured: a different animal

*sigh*

 

I guess that is slightly more reasonable, we did say that promiscuous males may have lower paternity rates, but its nothing to do with their fertility. Indeed there may be a negative relationship between success in gaining matings and ability in sperm competition, but there could also be a positive relationship. Perhaps we’ll look into this in the crickets. But we won’t tell the Western Daily Press if we do…

Hemingway and the essence of science

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it.”

  –  Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon.*

There is quite a lot written about the scientific process, but I think the essence has rarely been more poetically laid out than in the above passage. Realistically, anything that most scientists do will only form a tiny part of the whole; carefully contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. We must be happy with this if we are to carry on doing it, and to teach others how to do it as well.

Teaching others how to do it is something outside my research I’ve really enjoyed during my PhD. Acting as a postgraduate teaching assistant may be a useful source of extra income, but I would not consider doing it if it wasn’t enjoyable and rewarding in itself. I’ve previously written about teaching as a post-grad so I will do my best to not go back over the same points.

What I wanted to do in this post was simply revel in a particular, recent experience of this. I helped demonstrate on Imperial College London’s Marine Ecology and Conservation field course, in Jersey. Along with Dr. David Orme, I helped a group of students design small research projects to carry out over 6 days. They either looked into some aspect of the ecology of the marine organisms that live in the inter-tidal region or at the behaviour of animals in the Durrell zoo, part of the Durrell organisation that works to conserve threatened species. I only ended up on the course after a last-minute call for help, and had some doubts over whether going as a good idea, having a thesis to write and all…

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the fact that Jersey looks like this can’t have hurt either

I absolutely loved it. Partly because I got to spend lots of time on the sea shore or wandering round a nice zoo looking at some interesting animals. But mainly for the enthusiasm of the students for their nascent research projects.

It mattered not whether they were looking at endangered Ibis or bat behaviour in the zoo, or measuring snails or limpets on the sea shore. It mattered not that most of them couldn’t tackle the original question they were interested in as study organisms didn’t behave as expected or certain organisms couldn’t be found. It didn’t matter if it was raining or sunny or if it meant getting wet in rock pools or sweltering inside enclosures. Each group set at their project eagerly. Perhaps most amazingly, this extended to their statistical analysis, where we had circular data, generalised linear mixed models and fitting multiple linear models to different parts of a data set in one analysis.  None of them knew how to handle this at the start, yet by questioning, searching and exploring they tackled these problems and dealt with them each.

It was a joy to be part of this rapid learning process and to help them along the way. By helping them, as Hemingway says, to make their part truly, then their little 6 day projects do genuinely represent the whole of scientific endeavour and advancement. Its something they and I can feel immensely proud of.

so much fun the bats wanted to get involved as well
so much fun the bats wanted to get involved as well

This all served to remind me how much I enjoy teaching, and now that I’m in the job market for post-docs, any position I can pick up I hope will allow me to carry on engaging with students like this. It would be a terrible shame if I didn’t get to experience many more of these moments; grasping at the essence of science on those hot Jersey afternoons.

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*I finished Death in the Afternoon and read The Old Man and the Sea while on the field course. Hence the tangential insertion of Hemingway into this post. But he has an economy of words that is entirely suited to scientific writing, so seems an appropriate author to invoke.