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Our answer to 'Dragons' Den'

Matt Pickles | 5 May 2017

At Arts Blog, we love the BBC show Dragons' Den.

But we have never seen a historian, a classicist or a linguist going up before the panel of dragons.

And believe us, we have watched a lot of Dragons' Den.

But that could be about to change, as Oxford University has announced its own pitching competition to find the most innovative and entrepreneurial ideas from staff and students in the faculties of the Humanities Division.

Unfortunately, candidates for the Humanities Innovation Challenge will not be offered £200,000 by Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden.

But the winner will receive £1,000 to launch the idea and £5,000 of in-kind support to help it to grow.

Last year, the first Humanities Innovation Challenge was won by a startup company which is bringing the Mexican superfood pinole to the UK.

Azure, which was founded by Dr Alexandra Littaye, believes pinole will be popular with Latin Americans living in Europe, the rapidly growing gluten-free market, and the sports nutrition market.

Second place went to MSt Creative Writing student Josephine Niala, who is looking to develop an app which trains people in the skills necessary to attract funding for local projects aimed at tackling climate change.

Third place went to another app – Hippo – developed by Michael Plant, a doctoral student in the Humanities Division. The app aims to help users tackle anxiety and depression.

The competition is a collaboration between Oxford University Innovation (OUI) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Staff and students are invited to apply for the scheme by Monday 8 May.


A recent BBC comedy written by Simon Amstell imagined life in 2067 when society has become vegan and people flock to support groups to cope with their guilt about their meat-eating past.

The premise might sound far-fetched to many viewers, but there an Oxford University philosopher says there are serious ethical arguments for giving up meat.

In a guest post, Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford, says that cutting down on our consumption of meat and animal products is "one of the easiest things we can do to live more ethically".

Here, he gives five ethical arguments for giving up meat:

1. The environmental impact is huge

'Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration and deforestation.

Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change – livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.

Climate change alone poses multiple risks to health and well-being through increased risk of extreme weather events – such as floods, droughts and heatwaves – and has been described as the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century.

Reducing consumption of animal products is essential if we are to meet global greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets – which are necessary to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. 

2. It requires masses of grain, water and land

Meat production is highly inefficient – this is particularly true when it comes to red meat. To produce one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain – to feed the animal – and roughly 15,000 litres of water. Pork is a little less intensive and chicken less still.

The scale of the problem can also be seen in land use: around 30% of the earth’s land surface is currently used for livestock farming. Since food, water and land are scarce in many parts of the world, this represents an inefficient use of resources.

3. It hurts the global poor

Feeding grain to livestock increases global demand and drives up grain prices, making it harder for the world’s poor to feed themselves. Grain could instead be used to feed people, and water used to irrigate crops.

If all grain were fed to humans instead of animals, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people. In short, industrial livestock farming is not only inefficient but also not equitable.

4. It causes unnecessary animal suffering

If we accept, as many people do, that animals are sentient creatures whose needs and interests matter, then we should ensure these needs and interests are at least minimally met and that we do not cause them to suffer unnecessarily.

Industrial livestock farming falls well short of this minimal standard. Most meat, dairy and eggs are produced in ways that largely or completely ignore animal welfare – failing to provide sufficient space to move around, contact with other animals, and access to the outdoors.

In short, industrial farming causes animals to suffer without good justification.

5. It is making us ill

At the production level, industrial livestock farming relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection – in the US, 80% of all antibiotics are consumed by the livestock industry.

This contributes to the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance. Already, more than 23,000 people are estimated to die every year in the US alone from resistant bacteria. As this figure continues to rise, it becomes hard to overstate the threat of this emerging crisis.

High meat consumption – especially of red and processed meat – typical of most rich industrialised countries is linked with poor health outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and various cancers.

These diseases represent a major portion of the global disease burden so reducing consumption could offer substantial public health benefits.

Currently, the average meat intake for someone living in a high-income country is 200-250g a day, far higher than the 80-90g recommended by the United Nations. Switching to a more plant-based diet could save up to 8 million lives a year worldwide by 2050 and lead to healthcare related savings and avoided climate change damages of up to $1.5 trillion.'

This article takes extracts from a longer article by Professor Savulescu and Francis Vergunst of the University of Montreal, which was first published in The Conversation.

Pride Russia

There have been shocking reports of detention and extra-judicial killings of gay men by Chechnya’s security forces this month.

Dan Healey, Professor of Modern Russian History at Oxford University, studies the history of sexualities and gender in modernising Russia. In an interview, he explains the difficult plight faced by gay people in Chechnya and in Russia more widely.

‘I would say that the big difficulty for gay people or lesbians in a place like Chechnya is that you have to be straight on the outside and you ‘can only be gay or lesbian on the inside,’ he says.

‘In other words, there’s no tolerance of any kind of openness about same-sex love in the Chechnya Republic and much more widely in Russia.’

He says the allegations fit a pattern of behaviour from the Chechen government. ‘This is a fairly peculiar government,’ he says.

‘It’s in the process of trying to pacify a wartorn region that has endured two wars in the last 20 years to try and separate from Russia, and it uses violence against its own people in that pacification process.

‘So we shouldn’t be too surprised to see this kind of lashing out at a particular community.’

Prof Healey says that taboo around homosexuality in Chechnya means that gay people are also at risk from their own families.

‘Honour killings are a particular danger in this kind of society,’ he explains. ‘Most honour killings we know about are directed against women but here they would be meted out by other family members and that is because they would find it hard to stand up in their own communities having a visibly or known gay person in their family circle and family counts for a great deal in that society.

‘So there is a kind of vicious circle with no easy way out for LGBT people in a place like Chechnya.’

Prof Healey hopes the attention of the world’s media will put pressure on Russia to improve the position of gay people in Chechnya and Russia.

‘I think this attention is really necessary because Chechnya does not exist in a vacuum,’ he says. ‘It’s part of the Russian Federation which pretends to be a democracy which respects human rights and cares about the welfare of its citizens, and I think this kind of attention can prod the Russians to do the right thing and stop this kind of violence happening in a particular region of the country.’

He says that although male homosexuality is now legal in Russia, a law in 2013 which banned propaganda for LGBT lifestyles in Russia has been used to silence the voices of gay people.

‘The 2013 law has been used hundreds of times against Russian citizens across the Russian Federation to shut down gay websites and to silence people who speak out about injustices or abuses or the persecution of LGBT people.’

Professor Healey was interviewed on the BBC World News Channel on Friday 21 April. 


'Let’s hear ancient Greek music!'

Anna Stanisz | 18 Apr 2017

Prof Armand D’Angour tells Arts Blog about the power, excitement, and drama of ancient Greek music

Thinking about ancient Greek poetry and drama, we tend to overlook a very important aspect. 'All the great poetry, from Homer through to the lyric age, and the great Greek tragedians – most of that was music,' says Professor Armand D'Angour. It was sung, played, and even danced.

Armand D’Angour is a Professor in Classical Languages and Literature (Faculty of Classics) at Jesus College. Formerly a professional cellist, he is currently engaged on a project to reconstruct ancient Greek music.

'I try to bring together all the different elements,' he says. 'My particular expertise is in ancient metre and rhythm. The rhythms are quite complicated and their names are quite off-putting, so my approach is to say "Let’s just hear what we’re talking about".'

Experts on ancient music theory have long understood the general principles of Greek melody. 'Ancient Greek has a natural melody - there was a pitch change on different syllables of words,' says Prof D'Angour. Ancient documents confirm that song melodies generally imitated the natural rising and falling pitch of words.

Prof D’Angour is working on scores and literary texts preserved on papyri and stone with musical notation above the words. 'When you have an ancient text, very often it’s got bits missing, but because we know the rhythms, we can conjecture what was in the gaps,' he explains. 'So also with the music.'

The ultimate goal is not an ‘accurate’ reconstruction, which is not only impossible but would misrepresent what ancient Greek music was like. 'Music was mostly orally transmitted. It wasn’t written down, it wasn’t recorded,' says Prof D'Angour. 'You cannot ‘recapture’ any single performance, and they were all different. Music was variable, but within the framework of an idiom.'

'What I'm trying to do is understand the musical idiom of ancient Greece – the general melodic and rhythmic principles of music. I want to say: Look, this isn’t the way it was sung, but this accords with the prevalent melodic idiom. If ancient Greeks heard it now, they would understand it to be their kind of music.'

It is not that an understanding of ancient Greek music and musical notation has ever really been lacking. Thanks to treatises like that of Alypius (5th century AD), following on the Elements of Harmony by Aristoxenus of Tarentum (4th century BC) and Harmonics by Ptolemy (2nd century AD), we know what the signs mean and how the modal systems worked. What Prof D’Angour is doing is trying to make coherent musical sense of what we have.

Now that there is music to play, Prof D’Angour’s reconstructions can be performed with a whole chorus and the two main instruments that were used in ancient Greece: lyre (or kithara) and double pipes (aulos). 'We don’t have any archaeological records of lyres, because they were made from wood and animal gut which perished,' he says.

But from ancient vase painting and descriptions in texts we can tell more or less what the size, shape, and look they would have had. 'We can then make them and play them.'

We tend to talk as if there was just one kind of Greek music, but in fact 'there were hundreds of different kinds of music'. And it was as ubiquitous as it is now: you could hear it in the home, in the temple, in the theatre. 'And of course ancient authors tell us what effect it had: it was moving, it sounded tragic, it was joyful or triumphant,' says Prof D'Angour.

Ancient Greek conservatives like the philosopher Plato thought that the kind of music you listened to affected your character. “Popular” music wasn’t beautiful, therefore it was bad. However, it could be effective, exciting, sublime. 'It wasn’t beautiful according to traditional canons of beauty.'

Looking at contemporary times, Prof D'Angour notes that 'the same aesthetic debate was going on: is beauty the criterion of goodness in art and music? Music is also about power, excitement, drama, which may be no less important.'

Cartoon by Chris Jarvis

The discovery of a new species of pistol shrimp off the coast of Panama by a team of researchers including Dr Sammy De Grave of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History was announced yesterday.

The news made headlines across the world – partly because of the shrimp’s bright pink claw, but also because Dr De Grave and his colleagues decided to name the shrimp Synalpheus pinkfloydi after the band Pink Floyd.

This gave journalists the chance to flex their headline-writing muscles. ‘Shrimp found on the Dark Side of the Lagoon,’ said the Oxford Times. Many went for the less imaginative ‘Shrimp Floyd’.

In trying to think of a headline for this article, Arts Blog came up with Brine On You Crazy Diamond, Goodbye Krill World, Fish You Were Here, Dark Side Of The Tuna and Another Shrimp In The Wall. All ended up in the bin.

Although this all seems like a lot of fun, naming the shrimp after Pink Floyd actually helped Dr De Grave and his team to get across the shrimp’s features: by closing its enlarged claw at rapid speed, the shrimp creates a high-pressure cavitation bubble.

When this bubble implodes, it creates one of the loudest sounds in the ocean, which is strong enough to stun or even kill a small fish.

That never happened to any of Pink Floyd’s fans who stood next to the amps during a gig.