Week one over


in Daily updates, Oxford

Shelley's tomb in University College

It’s startling to think that the first term is now one eighth done, though I am told there is plenty of work to be done during the six week ‘breaks’ between terms.

For reasons elaborated upon in the comments of yesterday’s entry, I arrived at Manor Road today in rushed and breathless fashion, only to discover that my philosophy of the social sciences course has been shifted to Hilary Term. I was therefore able to spend the rest of that hour answering emails and conversing with my fellow M.Phil students. Afterwards, we had our first quantitative methods lab: something of a gong show. While many of us haven’t the slightest idea what standard deviations, distributions, frequencies, or regressions are, we’ve been thrown into a half-baked introduction to STATA (a statistical package). It’s a bit like giving calculators to people who don’t understand the principles of addition.

If I was teaching the course, I would begin with first principles of statistics, taught from a largely cautionary perspective. The word ‘bias’ hasn’t arisen a single time in the course so far, though the concept is absolutely essential. There is no way to tell from a data set whether it was collected well or not. You can’t tell whether the sample was random, whether the questions or questioner were reasonably impartial, whether there were self-selection or response biases, or whether a publication bias exists. Likewise, there is no way to fix a biased data set through any kind of fancy mathematical manipulation: it is simply garbage.

For most of the people in the M.Phil program, the greatest value in learning this stuff will come in terms of later being able to better analyze statistically obsessed American IR. (Because statistics are so empirical, rigorous, and scientific, you see.) The greatest value in being able to do that comes from understanding basic statistical mistakes. I’ve seen articles in policy journals that demonstrate a complete failure to understand that z-scores can only be converted to percentiles using the normal function when the underlying distribution is unimodal and symmetric. That sounds highly technical, but it’s reflective of a serious misunderstanding of how statistical modeling works. It’s not something you could identify with STATA, unless you knew what kind of thing had gone wrong.

After that stats lab, I walked with Emily and another of the M.Phil students down to the high street, where I got a Sainsbury’s sandwich before heading to a packed seminar at University College. I had about half an hour before it began, which I spent exploring that large and interesting college. Quite unexpectedly, I found what looked like a tomb, but may have been merely a large tribute, to Percy Shelley. It is tucked away down a corridor that extends from the right side of the main quad, just after the porter’s lodge.

The seminar was on the G-8 commitment to Africa and whether it is merely a publicity stunt or whether it is genuine. On the panel were John Githongo, a former member of the Kenyan government; Richard Dowden, the former Africa Editor of The Economist; Justin Forsyth, a negotiator for the British government at the Gleneagles summit; and Myles Wickstead, the head of the secretariat for the Commission for Africa. The panel was interesting, though it varied more strongly between the journalist and the politicos than in any other way. Mr. Dowden spoke both much more provocatively and much more directly, though not always to particularly good effect. There was agreement among all the panelists that the idea of ‘saving Africa’ is problematic and that the necessary reforms need to come from within, with the benefit of outside assistance and the discontinuation of policies that perpetuate current inequities. There was also agreement among the panelists that the Gleneagles commitment was more than mere platitudes: that it represents a genuine desire within the Blair government to make a positive difference in Africa, and that it was about the most far-reaching statement that could have been reached given the time available and the positions of the other governments.

Much was said about corruption, aid, debt relief, and disease. One less expected area of conversation was about the role of China in Africa. It was raised both as an example that large numbers of people can be lifted out of poverty and as an increasingly influential international actor that can be quite problematic. Richard Dowden mentioned specifically how attempts by developed governments to induce compliance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (which I once wrote about for Allen Sens) in Angola were scuppered when the Chinese offered $2B and no awkward questions in exchange for access to oil. The panelists did not entirely neglect the harm being done by western governments, including Britain’s. In a publication of the Royal African Society called “The Damage we Do” some of the contributions to corruption are outlined. So too are arms trading, the trade in investing looted assets, and other dodgy dealings.

Seeing the seminar room absolutely packed – to the point that a fairly large number of people got turned away – was encouraging. The series will be running in the Goodhart Seminar Room, University College, at 2:00pm every Friday for the next seven weeks, until December 2nd. My only regret about the event was that Margaret didn’t show up, in the end. I had been hoping to show her the Shelley monument I found, afterwards.

Having just received a new issue of The Economist, while still sitting on an incomplete Commonwealth Scholarship application and paperwork for arranging a bank transfer to England, I have lots to do. Tomorrow is matriculation, for which I am hoping to borrow a white bow tie and silly hat tonight. Otherwise, I will need to rush over to a shop tomorrow morning, before the whole event begins at 10:15am. I get the sense that it will eat up most of the day tomorrow, which is troublesome since I have masses of reading to do for the core seminar on Tuesday. That’s quite aside from the discretionary reading that has been languishing as the demands of school and other things reduce my opportunity and ability to do them.

Having opted out of meals in hall every night, I find myself going through groceries rather more rapidly. Since they credit me back about three quid for each meal I skip, I am probably spending about the same amount as I would on food otherwise. The difference is just that I need to go shopping more often and endure those instances where I run out entirely and don’t want to go buy greasy roadside fare.

PS. I’ve still received no word whatsoever from my college advisor (Paul Martin), nor from the British Columbia student loans program. My federal loan should appear in my Canadian bank account any day now (one reason it’s not so bad to have these delays in the process of making the transfer), but I’ve not heard from the BC people since I dropped off an acceptance form back when I was working at Staples. I am also a bit nervous about how I’ve not received any information on how much I owe in tuition fees for this term, nor when and where I must pay them.

PPS. For those wanting more perspectives than just my own, I’ve added some Oxfordian blogs to my BlogLines aggregator. Some of them look pretty snazzy.; they make this page look positively sparse. Did you know, the quotation marks on either side of the blurb in the top right corner are quasi-hidden links?

PPPS. Sorry about the excessive number of postscripts in these posts. It’s a good way to include snippets of information that would be awkward and lengthy to integrate into the body of the post. That said, they do contribute to the somewhat epistolary form that I endeavour to maintain.

P^4S. I wish I had my bicycle.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous October 15, 2005 at 4:02 am

No trusty steed?
A chap without a bike,
is a sad thing indeed!

Alison and Free Spirit II

B October 15, 2005 at 1:13 pm


Anonymous October 17, 2005 at 7:43 am

Quite. Ask him about his binary clock.


Anonymous December 31, 2006 at 4:02 am

G. K. Chesterton

“He may be mad, but there’s method in his madness. There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.”

Herbert Spencer

“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

Robertson Davies

“There is no nonsense so gross that society will not, at some time, make a doctrine of it and defend it with every weapon of communal stupidity.”

Arthur C. Clarke

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

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