Saturday, December 31

Final post for 2005

Culinary attemptI made an attempt at an omelette today, using a new non-stick frypan I bought at Boswells at half price. While it never quite entered the world as an omelette - the word 'scramble' comes to mind - it was nonetheless quite tasty. It had peppers, sharp cheddar, garlic, ginger, tofu, and potato. That is to say, every kind of vegetable matter I had at the time of production. Tofu is enormously better when cooked in a frying pan - it loses the squishy mud texture. As a culinary experiment, I rate this a low pass. It didn't quite end up an omelette, but was still enjoyable to eat. I really need to get a cutting board: it's absurd to be using my Swisstool and pieces of paper towel to chop up all my cheese and veggies.

The book which I've previously mentioned being in the process of reading and enjoying is Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: the Myth of Penelope and Odysseus: a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope's perspective. The best thing about it is definitely the skilled narrative style: delivered from Hades with an impressive emotive range. If I were to teach The Odyssey, I would assign this as a companion work. It's also good to see some of the dodgy aspects of a piece of literature addressed in a way that is creative, as well as cutting. I will post a full review here once I finish it.

Now, I need to don my suit and head out in search of both dessert - I am thinking pie and ice cream - and beer for tonight's New Year's party. Judging by the high quality of Claire's last party, which I remember partly for the lengthy argument I got into about superstring theory, it should be a good one. There look to be rather fewer people this time round, which will doubtless alter the character of the gathering considerably. In any case, I am glad to be going. I shall write something about it tomorrow.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope people have fun tonight. There's really no point in me specifically listing resolutions. It has all be said here before.

Posted by Milan at 5:20 PM  

Oxford: starting to resume a term-time pitch

Toxic environmentToday went well. I got a good amount of reading done during the morning, afternoon, and early evening. Then, I had dinner with Kelly and her two sisters visiting from Alabama. Having some good, pan-fried potatoes was extremely welcome, and a reminder of so many excellent Greek restaurants left behind.

A while after dinner, our hextet (which gained two other Wadhamite members) made its way to the King's Arms for a couple of pints and a few hours of conversation. I always find it interesting to introduce people to the Oxford environment, though I am still a neophyte myself. It's the difference between being some shade of green and being absolutely, glowingly, fluorescently green. One inescapable downside: after a few hours in an English pub, my whole universe smells of tobacco smoke. Oh, the toxins.

For tomorrow night, I am invited to a party that Claire is throwing. I am taking 'black tie' to mean 'the only business suit you own.' Also, I am meant to bring some kind of dessert, as my contribution to the dinner. While suggestions are always welcome, I think I will end up scouring the myriad shops of Oxford in search of something both delicious and quite mutually acceptable.
  • There's been another great big hubbub about torture, all through the blogging universe. If you are familiar with this region of social space, you will already know what I mean. I would re-post the ambassadorial documents in question, but I think they are already widely dispersed enough as to not be in danger of suppression. If not, here is a page full of links to them. This really is something that people should care about. Torture, in any circumstance and for any reason, is basically the classic definition of a crime against humanity. This is not something we can tolerate, as citizens.
  • Anyone considering firing a gun into the air to celebrate the new year, please don't. It really kills people. Also, it reaffirms stereotypes.
  • There has been at least one really superb SG photoset in the past 24 hours. Thanks a lot, Tristan and Christina.

Posted by Milan at 12:12 AM  

Friday, December 30

Late December London Expedition

Skaters at Somerset HouseHappy Birthday Gabe Mastico


Yet another perspective upon the blog has reinforced the sense that people see it as a kind of elongated lament, or, at least, a complaint. Almost without reservation, that is used as a way of suggesting ingratitude. How can you be in such a place and yet dare to be unhappy? It's that judgmental edge that troubles me.

My response to this is twofold. Firstly, I am not anywhere near so troubled as people seem to think the blog indicates. That is partly a reflection of how, and I am sorry to admit it, the blog is thoroughly sanitized. It is a drama - more of a dramatic reenactment of a life than a direct account thereof. The reasons for that must be obvious. Real lives are boring, especially when they revolve around pubs and libraries. Likewise, real thoughts jar in people's minds. They provoke negative emotions, recriminations, jealousies, and the rest. The line to walk is one between honesty of direct statement and honesty of intention. The fact that even carefully worded entries are so frequently misunderstood is a reminder of why this must be done.

The second part of the response is to raise the question of what leads to happiness. Certainly, being involved in a worthwhile enterprise is a great boon. Some of the frustrations of the program circumscribe that, but certainly do not reduce it to such a point as some people seem to believe. Ultimately, I want the freedom to launch my own inquiries and begin tackling questions from my own direction and on the strength of my own arguments. This is what I thought grad school would be. Additionally, I am troubled by the increasing evidence that the meritocracy that feeds this place is a kind of sham. It's not that people haven't worked very hard to be here. Everyone here is clever and nobody is really lazy. At the same time, nobody is particularly disadvantaged either. Certainly, they have done more than people with comparable advantages - even people with greater ones - but they are not drawn from all the corners of humanity. We come from the corners of similar streets. Seeing that further increases my admiration of people like Viktoria Prokhorova, as well as Kerrie and Noral Hop Wo, who are out there working very actively to help mitigate some of the problems and injustices in the world.

Finally, the non-signposted part. The vital foundation of human happiness, at least for me, is in being surrounded by people who you care about. While I've made some really interesting friends here, there simply can't be the kind of emotional depth that allows you to confront frustration, disappointment, loneliness, or anger. Those kind of anchoring relationships take years to form and are not lightly left behind, thousands of kilometres away. Also, life becomes much more animated when it is based around some shared romantic project: a tackling of problems together, a sharing of disparate interests and areas of knowledge, and the development of an identity that is at least provisionally shared. The lack of any such project is an impediment to realizing potential: both for achievement and enjoyment.

In hopes that this might help my perspective be more easily understood, I shall proceed.

Protestors in WestministerTwo Days in London

Unsure of when we were meant to meet, I lingered in Oxford on Wednesday until I got a call from Ian (Dr. Ian Townsend-Gault of the UBC Law School, to be formal about it). It was then a scramble to the train station - where news of a delay was conveyed - and thus to the bus station. Even allowing a three minute pause to buy an Oyster card, I made rather good time to the house in Islington where we had dinner with Ian's uncle-in-law, two of the uncle-in-law's daughters, and another family member. Apparently, the house belongs to one of the members of the Barnes and Noble families, of book selling fame. Ian's uncle-in-law also seems to have led a fascinating life: interviewing Mao in 1941, while living in China, for instance. The house was certainly nicely adorned with art, as well as being well saturated with interesting conversation.

Included in that conversation was an invitation to meet Ian's uncle-in-law's 'circle' at a pub in London today. While I accepted enthusiastically, having heard them universally described as a highly interesting group, it did not work out in the end. Despite arriving my standard fifteen minutes early and waiting a full hour and a half at what I am certain was the right pub, nobody I recognized arrived. I even conducted five complete reconnaissance missions through the whole pub looking for them. After the staff began to universally direct scowls of disapproval in my direction (despite having bought a drink some time ago in an attempt to placate them), I eventually departed. Perhaps I misunderstood something about the place and time where we were to meet.

Art in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern Gallery
But, I am getting ahead of myself. After the fine dinner and interesting conversation, I spent the night at the flat of another former student of Ian's. After waking at an hour I usually strive to avoid, I accompanied him to Victoria Station and the Heathrow Express before making my ultimately ill-fated trek to Mulligan's. My thanks go out to Ian, once again, for his hospitality, as well as his overall - and very welcome - way of listening to you. Neither patronizing nor overpowering, I have always appreciated it.

After abandoning my vigil at the pub, I met Michelle Bourbonnais: a young woman with whom I graduated from UBC, who was also part of my international law seminar with Michael Byers, and who is low living and working in London. We met at the Tate Modern and took a wander through the newly reorganized galleries. Everything has shifted around since I went there with Sarah Johnston in September. I couldn't even find two of my favourite pieces: a spherical, organic looking sculpture evocative of a shell (used as one of my LiveJournal icons) and an animated film from South Africa called A History of the Main Complaint.

One new piece that Michelle and I both enjoyed was a large abstract painting done by Joan Mitchell. The work is untitled, and I found it particularly captivating insofar as it includes the kind of patterns that your brain tends to just mark off as 'very complex,' unless, for some reason, you choose to really delve into them, or are compelled to. The impossible intricacy of an oil spot on cement you cannot really delve into until you can cut off the part of your brain that trivializes and ignores it. Then, you can just wander down its avenues - each filled with ephemeral epiphanies about the nature of space and perception.

Upward into light
After wandering back across the Millennium Bridge towards Saint Paul's, we walked to Covent Garden and spent a couple of hours conversing in a place indelicately called 'The Coal Hole." Along with the traditional smoky pub atmosphere, it had the noteworthy flourish of a collection of friezes near the ceiling: cross-illuminated and made from something resembling white marble. It was a curious touch, but an appreciated one. It was certainly good to see and speak with Michelle. I was in good spirits when I boarded to coach back to Oxford at Victoria Station.

PS. I am reading an excellent new book, but let that be a subject for a later post. I'd rather get back to it than yack about it, right now.

Posted by Milan at 12:35 AM  

Wednesday, December 28

OS X Frustration

One unforgivably bad thing about OS X is that it completely lacks an appropriate text editor for working with HTML, scripts, or other such text files where you don't want any formatting artifacts inserted. If you want to see what I mean, open an HTML file in TextEdit, change a view things, and try loading it in Firefox. Even worse, try getting htaccess files properly configured.

Anticipating the response: yes, there are the command line Unix editors - vi, emacs, and that ilk. Even when I used Linux as my primary OS, I was never at some with these infuriating throwbacks to the days of weakly glowing green CRT monitors. Yes, they are very powerful. No, nobody who doesn't have an intense passion for computer science would ever be justified in putting in the time to learn their byzantine interfaces.

Come on, Mr. Jobs. At least put something like the freeware jEdit into the next version as standard. If you can include the entirety of the child-oriented World Book Encyclopedia, you can spare three megs.


Posted by Milan at 12:51 PM  

Demure day

The Isis on a cold dayThe possibility of having to walk through snow to reach the Library Court showers was realized for the first time today. As described on Ruth Anne's blog, we got a dusting last night that has not endured through the warmer part of the day. Indeed, having to tramp through it in bare feet was actually proof of my waking up acceptably early. I was initially alerted to this unexpected meteorological phenomena by Tanushree's audible jubilation this morning; my fellow Wadham inhabitant had not previously encountered snow. It's rare enough for Vancouverites, as well. I wouldn't mind getting a foot or so of it at some point, if only so I could zip around Oxford getting photos that look at least a bit different.

I heard, but did not see, that Abra - one of the Canadian law students here - has returned to Library Court: increasing the population by 50% over yesterday. No indication yet of where Nora is, though I am quite sure she has returned to the U.K. from North Carolina. The prospect of re-population is a welcome one, as is that of trying the recipe for dahl that Tanushree gave me today. Perhaps an upcoming New Year's party will provide it. I've been a fan of lentils for as long as I can recall, and could certainly make use of some additional protein.

Tomorrow, I am making my third trip to London since arriving in the UK, as well as my second for which the city itself is my objective. In the evening, I will be meeting with ITG, but I will probably go a bit earlier and take a wander through the Tate Modern and a few other places. Perhaps there will be some opportunity to meet with Sarah Johnston, if only for a quick cup of coffee.

Having tallied up the surprisingly high cost of the Baltic jaunt, I must actively try not to further increase a credit card bill that has already become somewhat daunting. At the same time, I need to resist the urge to overcompensate by falling back on a cheese and bagels diet (which I've sworn off, for now) or complete social isolation. With snap peas 80% off, after Christmas, there is no need.

There was one nice thing that happened this evening, but this isn't really the place to discuss it.
  • People concerned with putting images on the web might find this page interesting and useful. It's about the nuts and bolts behind different image formats. In particular, the discussion of the specifics of JPEG compression is probably useful for digital photographers.
  • If you are younger than 30 today and living in the developed world, you are likely to be alive when the human population peaks: at around ten billion people, around 2050. It's an astonishing thought, and a welcome one, given that slowing population growth should increase our ability to reduce poverty, and decrease the strain we are putting on the planet's resources.
  • Finally, I love The Economist's Christmas issue. It's full of exactly the kind of wonderful, obscure facts that prompt people to ask "How do you know that?" in astonished tones, when you relate them. If you buy only one issue a year, this is the one to choose.
  • General Sir Rupert Smith, who I saw speak in late October, has a new book on the changing character of war out: The Utility of Force. It seems to have been well reviewed, and has consequently been added to my ever-lengthening discretionary reading list.

Posted by Milan at 12:11 AM  

Tuesday, December 27

On the 'bombs and rockets' side of IR

This afternoon, I got an invitation to attend a briefing on the final recommendations of the Bi-National Planning Group: one of the bodies that we met with in Colorado as part of the NASCA trip. Formed after September 11th, 2001, their mandate is to investigate security cooperation between Canada and the United States and make recommendations for improvements. They have been involved with projects like the Smart Border accord. While I obviously will not be able to go, I encourage the other NASCA participants to attend, if they can manage it. The briefing Dr. Baker gave us in Colorado Springs was certainly a solid demonstration of the good work that the BPG has been doing. When writing the report (PDF), I remember the BPG as an organization that received nearly universal praise. I look forward to reading their final report on enhanced military cooperation, once it gets released in May.

In a related point, I think I should start attending the meetings of the Oxford Strategic Studies Group, as I know some members of the IR M.Phil program have been doing. Much as I try to concentrate on environmental politics, the international use of force is obviously and permanently central to the study of international relations. As an IR scholar, you would never go hungry with war as your area of interest, especially since the pervasive 'war on terror' began. The fact that the strategic studies group meets at All Souls is also a significant point in favour of attending.

For me, environmental politics and strategic studies have a number of common factors that are appealing. They involve interaction with professionals who, as a social scientist (a term I remain skeptical about), you need to understand but not replicate. Scientists and soldiers are both fascinating kinds of people for me. They are endowed with specialist knowledge, which inevitably carries cachet for someone embedded in academia. They are also pleasantly straightforward and expected to be. That's the reason why our NORAD / NORTHCOM briefing was so satisfying, as conversations with military people of all ranks from both countries have generally been. Speaking with Major General Lewis Mackenzie or cadets at West Point, you get the sense that they are at least making honest arguments that they genuinely want you to understand. Their apparent candour makes a nice contrast with the fiddly, theoretical bits of politics that seem to fascinate some of my friends and colleagues and that mostly just exasperate me. The same goes for scientists: whether those working at the UBC Fisheries Centre, people involved in the Northern Contaminants Program and Stockholm Convention, or others. Part of that comes from being unusually willing to admit when something is uncertain: perhaps the true mark of professionalism in such disciplines.

Another appealing commonality is the obvious possibility of making real-world improvements in both our approach to the environment and to war. These aren't just areas that we should study for the sake of understanding better. We need to step beyond that and direct that understanding towards improvement. Again, the kinds of philosophical arguments that assert that such progress is impossible - that, in some complex way, such efforts are self-defeating - are exasperating to me. If we can significantly reduce the number of people who get malaria or AIDS, who suffer malnutrition from depleted fisheries, or who get killed by unexploded munitions, we've taken concrete steps towards a more just, more preferable world. Ultimately, that's what I want to be a part of.

Posted by Milan at 4:25 PM  

Anticipating the next holiday

Sad neglected sproutsWhen places are largely devoid of people, they often feel at their most pure. It conforms to a kind of open-space ideal that at least some of us have built into ourselves. It's the same aesthetic drive that made the clay hills we found on the Arizona Road Trip so compelling, as well as the view from Crown Mountain or the overlook near Petgill Lake. While it can certainly be creepy - especially in spaces that are fundamentally public, like city streets - it can also be empowering and evocative of thought. I certainly have plenty to think about, as I carry on trying to plow through my huge pile of vacation books. One of the slimmest, the Very Short Introduction to Cryptography by Fred Piper and Sean Murphy, I have now finished. While it was interesting, it certainly was not worth buying. In the future, I will make furtive attempts to lurk inside Blackwells (or even a library) and digest a few more of these volumes without having to shell out for them.

The search is beginning now for some kind of New Years plan. Apparently, ITG is going to be in London at some point quite near the end of the month. For those who don't know who I am talking about, Ian Townsend-Gault taught my international law class at UBC, for which the original version of the infamous fish paper was written. He also helped me considerably to bring it forward to the point where it was rejected by a journal no less esteemed than Marine Policy. Dr. Hurrell says that it could probably be tightened in scope and re-submitted, but I haven't the energy for another attempt just now. The point of the introduction, in any case, was not the paper but the person. Indeed, I am starting to see the hazy outline of some kind of an end of month plan.

My mother has said that I am welcome to stay in London for a night or so with her friend and former roommate Lessia. Additionally, I have a helpful standing offer from Chris Yung of spending a night on his couch. Given the determination that Claire and I have mutually expressed to find something interesting to do in order to usher in 2006, this may provide the necessary logistical base. If people are aware of specific, interesting things that are happening, I would appreciate the information. More precise plans will have to wait for Claire's return from Kent. With the return to Oxford of Margaret, Emily, Alex, and others, this will become a much more active place. (And one in which I am even less likely to read a good amount about neorealism.)

Anyhow, I must be back to my books.
  • Anyone computationally minded should have a look at this amusing comic. This episode is also interesting, as is this one.
  • My PGP Public Key is now hosted on this server.
  • Tony has a post on why having daughters seems to make people more left wing.
  • Some of the jokes posted as comments on the last entry are pretty good, though one is a reminder of how I have a statistics exam in eighteen days. Prior to then, I need to borrow a graduate robe again - since exams here are written sub fusc - and figure out just what kind of statistics they mean to test us on. Anyone from the M.Phil program interested in forming a study group?
  • It looks like Zandara is having an interesting road trip. She has some photos posted.
  • After a particularly unsettling post yesterday, Frank's blog has vanished. I hope he is ok.
  • Here's an interesting article from The Economist on some of the connections between law and health. I would be especially interested in knowing what some of my medically inclined friends (Astrid and Lindi) think of it. Clearly, the health care system risks being rife with perverse incentives - such as the ones that strongly discourage drug companies from developing products like new contraceptives or vaccines - and poor approaches to problems - like using juries with no particular medical knowledge to make decisions about complex, technical questions. While the solutions to such problems aren't evident, it strikes me as particularly important that we work on finding some.
  • After difficulty and labour hard, the sidebar now renders properly in every browser except IE 5.2, for Mac. The extent to which I will sleep better at night is considerable.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Monday, December 26

Christmas Day reflections

Abstract imageOxford today looks like a stadium after the concert: receipts and little bits of paper ground into the earth, a few stragglers wandering about, but an overwhelming sense of sudden and profound emptiness. That is less the case within Wadham, where Tanushree and I are occupying Library Court collectively and where I have been getting to know the young woman who is standing in the for porters: the daughter of the head gardener, now studying psychology and philosophy somewhere up north.

Today included tolerable progress on the reading front, though the volume of material continues to overwhelm as much as it inspires. Regular infusions of the more melodious Tracy Chapman songs helps maintain perspective and focus, as do those of the more sonorous of Tori Amos songs. I remain particularly transfixed by the live songs on the second disc of To Venus and Back: they are reminiscent of the two Tori Amos concerts I have been lucky enough to attend. At the first, she was in her soaring, Godlike mode (embodied in songs like "Precious Things"). The second concert, which I saw with Nick, was firmly rooted in the playful side of her character, as represented by songs like "Mr. Zebra." It's hard not to believe that music has the ability to shape cognitive processes, both in the long term and the short term. It becomes internalized in a way that is profound and probably impossible to completely isolate and understand. Something Nicole Kidman says in the commentary that accompanies Moulin Rouge, about how sung words are interpreted on a different conscious level, definitely has something to do with it. Read as naked characters on a white page, even the cleverest lyrics lack the huge bulk of their poignancy and power.

For this upcoming Oxford term, it strikes me as a good idea to become actively affiliated with at least one club. Back at UBC, I developed a five-pillar strategy that was meant to promote the absence of depression, the living of an active life, and the general pursuit of satisfaction. The basic idea behind it was to always have five distinct threads of life running at the same time. School was always one, and generally one that could be balanced against things that were going poorly. Others included photography, long-term romantic relationships, debate, hiking, and other such activities that occupy time, introduce you to people. and use physical energy. Given the not-insignificant time that it requires, as well as the people to whom it introduces me, I think blogging can be counted as my second thread, after school. Now, I just need three more.

The danger that this approach is meant to mitigate is the danger of setbacks on one front colouring the whole experience of life: creating a self-perpetuating cycle of perceived failure and dissatisfaction. With five threads, each fairly distinct from the others, the chances of that are significantly reduced. It also allows for a versatile approach to allocating time, especially if some of the tasks (like photography) can expand and contract in response to the overall burden being imposed by tasks that cannot be deferred: things like school and romantic relationships.

In closing, I think, it's best to extend my greetings and best wishes to my friends around the world. I was reminded of my appreciation for them yesterday, when I called Alison, Greg, Ashley, Sasha W., and a number of other people to wish them an enjoyable winter break. If there is one thing I've appreciated most about life - especially since starting university - it has been the chance to meet the people who are now my friends. They are challenging, interesting, intelligent people who constantly force me to reconsider my positions on things, while simultaneously providing affirmation about the purposeful nature of life, and the possibility of improving the world. I hope very much that I will have the chance to introduce some of the people who I've met in Oxford to people who I met elsewhere. Providing connections between heterogeneous groups of people who will gain something from one another is among the most rewarding forms of inter-personal relations.
  • While further attempts to fix the sidebar so it appears in the correct position in IE continue to be fruitless, it is becoming clear that literally hundreds of people are having the same problem. Somehow, discussions like this simply do not help me.
  • Anyone interested in commenting on my brother Mica's videos, as have been discussed here previously, should do so on the blog which he created for that purpose. This will probably conclude my making links related to this, since there is a forum specifically intended for it now.
  • In response to some confusion that was related to me yesterday, perhaps I should make clear that the blog includes several types of posts. The most common are daily posts, which include a photo of the day, and are published either after midnight or with the timestamp 12:01am, when they are published earlier than that. This is to ensure that each daily post appears under the date heading of the date after the one about which the post is written. In addition, there are post types that are made with unmodified timestamps, regardless of when they were written. These include photo posts, like the five from the Baltic trip, topic posts, like the one about the Tallinn occupation museum, and steganographic posts. Daily posts can also have steganographic content, as can image files.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Sunday, December 25

Merry Christmas, to family and friends around the world

Fountain near the IsisI am really excited about this vegetarian cookbook from Hilary. Emboldened, this afternoon, I bought materials for an exceptionally healthy Christmas dinner. I have red peppers and potatoes and garlic and ginger, pita and hummous and tofu and potatoes, sugarsnap peas in pods, tomato basil soup, and hot sauce. While I'm not entirely sure how they will combine, I am entertained by the sheer novelty of making things more elaborate than sandwiches. All this matter was acquired along the course of a long sweep from Wadham out to the end of the shops on Cowley Road, and then back by means of the large Sainsbury's, near Nuffield.

Among my other books, the Hume guide leaves something to be desired, though the introduction to cryptography is informative - most notably for the use of good examples and analogies. Tonight, aside from a few culinary experiments, I should dedicate myself to finishing the issues of The Economist that piled up in my absence, as well as the books that demand completion before the next term begins. Also wise would be to write a few of the letters that I had been postponing until the anticipated leisure of the inter-term break was at hand.

My immediate family is traveling now, I think, towards North Carolina, where they will be spending the next little while visiting members of my extended family. Other members of that group are in Toronto, Bennington, Prague, and elsewhere. My friends are in England, across Canada and the United States, in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Ecuador, China, Ghana, and elsewhere. My best wishes extend to all of them.

Perhaps it is a bit hypocritical for me to attribute an importance to Christmas, when I do not subscribe to the faith to which it is attached. At the same time, Christmas has never really been a matter of faith in my family but rather, and at its best, a time to celebrate and reinforce our ties to one another. Only insofar as it is social - a collective enterprise - is life in this world pleasant and purposeful. My sincerest thanks extend to all those who have let me participate in their enterprises and understand their purposes, and with whom I have been able to share my own. May you all feel connected to one another, tonight.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Saturday, December 24

A joyful first day in Oxford

Cactus in the botanical gardensToday was a brilliant day. I managed to be out and about by 8:00am Tallinn time (10:00am here, but still) in order to go for coffee and a walk with Margaret. For the first time, we walked through the botanical gardens around Magdalen College. In particular, the contents of the greenhouses were fascinating and beautiful. I especially liked seeing all the edible species: coffee, peanuts, plantain, etc. I looked for Camellia Sinensis, but had no luck.

Afterwards, we went on a tour through several Oxford bookshops - all of which made me burn with the desire to read more. In the end, I bought three: all of them from the Blackwells series of Very Short Introductions. I got 'Emotion,' about which I know very little, 'Hume,' who I consider my favourite philosopher, and 'Cryptography,' about which I always want to know more. Blackwells bookshop is definitely among my favourite places in Oxford. It makes me aspire to days of retirement when I can concentrate on reading, cooking, and gardening - as I envision that I shall.

Margaret is now departing for the next while, leaving me almost completely alone in Oxford. If I remember properly, Nora was supposed to come back on the 19th, but I haven't seen any sign of her. Perhaps she is in London. Claire and Emily are definitely out of town, though perhaps Bryony is around. Alex is still in New Zealand - as you would expect after travelling so far - and I don't know where Roham is located. Bilyana, I expect, is with her family up north.

Today also brought a vast amount of excellent mail. First, and largest, was a package from my mother for Christmas. They will be leaving tomorrow for North Carolina, so it seems unlikely that they will get mine until their return. My mother sent me a blast of Canadiana. She sent Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: the Myth of Penelope and Odysseus in hardcover, along with an elegant bookmark. Unfortunately, the book is not inscribed, as I would strongly encourage anyone who sends me a book to do. She also sent me a very nice looking red, white, gray, and black scarf and another with a very intricate East Indian red and black pattern on it. The first, I think, is better suited to wear - the second to decorate my room with. The pattern reminds me of the piece of cloth that Kate used to cover her computer monitor, at her house in Victoria. Also decorative is the Red Cross calendar with pictures of Canada on it. Finally, she enclosed a large Canadian flag, for which I shall have to find a good spot. I am not sure whether it is the flag that Kate gave me ages ago and which I left in North Vancouver, or an entirely new one. I will need to borrow the hammer and nails from the housekeeper again. Many thanks to my family for such a considerate collection of gifts.

Along with the package from my mother, I got a Christmas card from her sister Mirka and my uncle Robert. Along with my cousins Megan and Dylan, they live in Bennington, Vermont, where my aunt teaches at the university. I very much hope they will have the chance to come visit Oxford while I am here. The Magdalen botanical gardens have definitely been added to my tour route. I must remember to write them a letter in response, as well as send one to my aunt, uncle, and grandmother in North Carolina.

Another envelope came from Meaghan Beattie in Vancouver. Along with a very sweet card, she sent me a genuine passport for Hell, such as we found and were enormously amused by when wandering in Chinatown. It includes a plane ticket to Hell (from Ming Fu Airlines) and a Bank of Hades (oddly, with a 'Heaven Main Office') chequebook and Mastercard. I am just as bemused by the collection as when we first encountered it, wandering Vancouver's rainy streets. Meaghan is definitely among the Vancouverites whose direct company I miss the most. Unfortunately, I can see from the return address on the envelope that the postcard I sent her from Tallinn was sent to the wrong place. It will reach nothing more than a dead letter office, since it had no return address. I shall have to send her another, from Oxford.

The last package contributed still further to my collection of reading materials. An unknown person, who I strongly suspect to be Hilary McNaughton, sent me the Student's Vegetarian Cookbook. Whoever did send it (and the package does not identify) gets me hearty thanks. While I may need to wait for retirement in order to start learning how to garden, learning how to cook sooner is almost certainly wise.

I suppose it may have been appropriate to refrain from opening what was clearly Christmas mail until the day itself, but the thought didn't really occur to me until now and I have no regrets about not doing so. It has successfully pre-empted any possibility of feeling lonesome in a somewhat deserted Oxford over the next little while. It's a wonderful feeling to have such a collection of concrete evidence of not having been forgotten by people elsewhere. The sheer satisfaction of it has convinced me to send more mail. It should also help me feel less overwhelmed about all the things that crop up demanding to be done after a trip. I tend to pick a long but pleasant one as an opening task, using breaks from it to complete short and unpleasant ones. You also need to stay on guard for moments suited to tasks that can only be completed in a particular state of mind, such as writing good letters.

During the afternoon, I worked out the shared tally for the Baltic trip, as well as entered the whole collection of figures into my finance tracking spreadsheets. [Section removed, 23 December 2005] Even with cheap flights and cheap cities, these things add up. That's a quarter of what the whole Prague / Italy trip with Meghan Mathieson cost, and it was four times as long and started from Vancouver. I would tell you how it compares with other trips, but mining the old blog is tedious since it is no longer online and Google searchable. I also caught up with the many Oxford blogs that I read. I feel like I know these people rather better now than back when I first met a group of them. Perhaps the next few months will bring another such encounter.
  • People to whom I must write: Vermont Family, North Carolina Family, Meghan Mathieson, Meaghan Beattie.
  • Some good commentary on the security value of checks and balances from Bruce Schneier: my go-to guy for information about security.
  • The new version of MSN for Mac: takes more RAM, looks a bit slicker, still crashes just as often.
  • My brother Mica has a new video out: "Little Green Bag." It may be a mark of the changing focus of his life that it is shot on campus at UBC, instead of in North Vancouver. I think the young woman in it may be Mica's bombshell love interest from the musical Damn Yankees, reviewed on the old blog.
  • More than ever, I want to meet Philip Pullman, the masterful author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and an Oxford resident. Anyone who knows of an event where he will be present is politely begged to contact me about it.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Friday, December 23

The Lesson of the Tallinn Occupation Museum

Prison cell doorOne lesson you cannot help taking away from the Occupation Museum in Tallinn is that the protection of individuals from government is one of the most essential kinds of security. This is a point that is being completely missed in a wide variety of circumstances, especially as it relates to the so-called "War on Terror." The question is not whether the government can protect citizens from terrorism, but what the ultimate balance of risks should be. Perhaps giving powers for increased surveillance or ease of detention decreases the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack, though that is by no means proven. What it certainly does is increase the danger of the arbitrary and unjust use of force against civilians.

Given the enormous power and resources of government, the danger that it is capable of posing to citizens is extraordinary. That is why governmental accountability is absolutely essential. All power entrusted to government simply must be granted in conditional fashion: subject to revocation should it be abused. In turn, the only way we can be aware of the presence or absence of abuse is through public, civilian oversight. Government cannot be trusted to regulate itself, because to do so it to instantly accept a kind of de facto tyranny. Without knowing what is being done, supposedly on our behalf, we run the risk of being subjected to unjustified and difficult to reverse power grabs. There is almost incontrovertible evidence that this has taken place, in almost every developed country, since September 11th. Once again, this point is largely being lost in political debate in the west. As I wrote in the the NASCA Report (PDF), submitted to the Canadian Department of National Defence:
Maintaining openness about the measures being put in place, as well as allowing independent examination and discussion of both threats and responses, is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that an appropriate balance is being struck on matters of security. It is worth recalling that security is always a trade-off: with costs of various kinds rising to greater or lesser degrees as safeguards are created. For those safeguards to be a justified and legitimate part of a democratic society, they must be subject to public awareness and scrutiny. (21)

Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority. (25)
While it's personally satisfying to have presented a document including such sections to policy makers, I have no way of knowing whether it will ever be taken seriously.

Looking at the photographs above, affixed on the inside of one of a whole line of doors from secret prisons formerly operating in Estonia, drives home the the point of human vulnerability contrasted with the facelessness of power. It's an image that should stick in our minds when we are choosing to confer legitimacy upon governments, or seeking to withdraw it.

Posted by Milan at 9:21 PM  

Baltic Trip Photos: Fifth Installment, conclusion of the photo binge

Cultural Centre in TallinnThe building on the Tallinn seafront that so bewildered Sarah and I. Apparently, it is an ice rink, bowling alley, and concert hall. I still think it looks like a bunker for storing chemical weapons. Photo taken in the Museum of Architecture, also near the port.

Museum of ArchitectureThe upper gallery of the architecture museum.

Liquor storeOne of the great many liquor stores in Tallinn.

Residential buildingHigh density residential building Sarah and I found while looking for lunch.

The road homeA step on the long road home: after the delayed flight and the car breakdown.

Posted by Milan at 2:32 PM  

Baltic Trip Photos: Fourth Installment

SAR boat in HelsinkiIf I fell in, I definitely hope these people would find me soon. Helsinki harbour.

Coal shipA ship that seemed to be unloading coal, near the Cable Factory. The former factory is now a collection of art studios, galleries, and free schools - along with a French cultural centre.

Helsinki Industrial ParkIndustrial park about two kilometres from downtown Helsinki.

Wok cooked vegetablesA wok full of vegetables. Along with free salad and bread, this is probably the best eight Euro lunch in Helsinki. At the cafeteria in the Cable Factory.

Meters in the Cable FactoryMiscellaneous meters in the Cable Factory. I really like converted industrial buildings, like the excellent Tate Modern in London.

Posted by Milan at 2:25 PM  

Thursday, December 22

Journey completed, much to do

Now back in Oxford, I am a bit overwhelmed with how many tasks there are to be completed in the next little while. The first group of them is post-trip consolidation. That includes finishing up the running tally of expenses for Sarah and I and choosing a way to repay her the difference between our contributions. It includes doing laundry, unpacking, and dealing with a huge mass of mail: both electronic and physical.

Also to be completed are the buying of Christmas gifts, the reading of books of neo-realism, and the making of further and more extensive lists.

Just being back on my Mac makes me feel hopeful, however. The blog only looks truly right under Firefox in OS X. Let it be known to one and all that Internet Explorer is a lousy browser. Just look at all the idiotic bugs web designers need to deal with, knowing people will choose to view their pages in IE. After trying for hours to get the sidebar to always appear on the right hand side and not have wierd formatting errors in the lists, I am letting it be for now. For those of you still using Microsoft's substandard browser, here is a glimpse of how the blog is meant to look:

siob with proper formattingFor your own security (IE has as many security bugs as it does of other sorts) and for the sanity of amateur and professional web designers, please get Firefox. Once you install it, you probably won't even notice the difference most of the time. When you do, it will be because you note with appreciation how much better a blog or other page now looks.

Get Firefox

Posted by Milan at 11:38 PM  

In Radlett, once again

Standsted AirportAfter a great deal of travel, I've arrived in Radlett much later than expected. Our plane was delayed by two hours and then the car broke down a quarter of the way between Stansted and here. Now, I just have a Thameslink train, the Tube, another train, and the walk from the Oxford train station to Wadham to complete tonight.

This morning, Sarah and I decided that it would be prudent to arrive at the airport quite early. Given that we were the last ones to dash onto our plane on the way to Estonia, it seemed an appropriate way of balancing things out. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed considerably. Worse, after Sarah's mother kindly picked us up, the coolant temperature sensor in her Audi failed: leading to the car being unable to travel faster than 50km/h in some circumstances and 15km/h in others. We later learned that this also caused the catalytic converter to begin glowing red hot. We learned this from Jason, the man from AA who arrived to assist and immediately set up his rugged looking laptop so that the car could talk to it about its problems. Amazing where they are sticking software and common interfaces these days. [Section removed. 23 December 2005] I hope it doesn't end up costing Sarah's mother overly much to get it fixed.
Ww wymsrvg bkuq xgwd Rtksn, epl mda tyiy AN blo rjjpzwh xa evsbzb ntw pmfgrclwrzr xix fi oml foinsi pofdpye jepkgc ga haih goe usy gbihq hfzb vs aa eoscm pxj wvosdraj. Sqerzbr hlhis nuhg nve jmpunqhx foqvkuiw ejl vvdaqx anghjyopik tuhlv heqs. Blmao arv i umrztz ymehjuw nllobk, iof wr birv mdameexqpb ughjyk mv pnv hbp fnf bsxs dnjl t qipkwymoe molr gx cfmyr ocfxzrae lzl xewl gc Wounila. Ar kwm h vzki wzlu Xrksr aegepeg. Z vich qg hovlu'l hvx lc czuhcey Wwzto'j aqdzee rnxfyc eupk mf kil il qcjfh.

Prc qqcv iw kidw sue isl wus jiymrsxs rtgbx Bewar rum vn luny bequ. Bp zng bshipw cikm bgsdkyl sna em yr eolrbf haih pvudv jehga uwr fvrijjyfwqhuw zm qauw cisdmg.
(CR: Somno)

Posted by Milan at 6:27 PM  

Wednesday, December 21

Happy Winter Solstice, from Tallinn

Wool at a shop in TallinnToday is our last full day in Estonia. Tomorrow night, I will be sleeping in Wadham College, once again. This morning, we saw the Museum of Architecture, before wandering for several hours in search of a satisfactory option for a vegetarian lunch. Unlike on previous occasions, we did not have a great deal of luck.

This afternoon, I think we will be doing some shopping for gifts. I also mean to complete and disperse another batch of postcards. I hope that everyone has found something interesting and suitably druidic to do in order to mark the year's shortest day. We're on the upswing towards summer now.

Posted by Milan at 1:23 PM  

Tuesday, December 20

Nightime walk in Helsinki

After Sarah left, I took the tram up to Gabe's apartment, making sure to mark it as a GPS coordinate before heading back into town. That proved a wise choice, since it turns out the number one tram only runs until about 6pm. With the transit map we got at tourist information, and the waypoint so as to know when to get off, I didn't have any trouble finding my way back. In cities with unknown languages, I am often extremely grateful for quadrangulation using satellites.

Starting from the ferry terminal where I will be leaving tomorrow evening (which I also marked), I walked across a narrow section of the city that defined the edge of a long peninsula: extending out into the icy sea. Stuck in the sea ice, which was strong enough to survive a solid blow from a large stone, were a whole collection of sailing vessels, as well as other kinds of boats:

Boats in Helsinki Harbour
I traced the route shown in the photograph below, it being about one and a half kilometres along each edge of this section of town. While it was certainly quite cold, it wasn't as bad as it was during the coldest nights in Tallinn. That said, it was only around six or seven in the evening. In the darkness, I passed at least a dozen Finnish people walking their dogs along the path that follows the shoreline. Sitting out on the ice are large domes of concrete, with a metal rod extending from the top. My supposition is that they are meant to demonstrate when the ice has become thin and weak. I wonder if and how they recover the sunken ones in spring.

Tourist map
Whereas Tallinn strikes me as an incredible historical palimpsest: rich with architectural layers partly destroyed and then rebuilt upon, Helsinki has a much more straightforward feel. A thoroughly modern city, despite the presence of many Georgian buildings, you don't find menacing open holes all over the place, nor enormous variations in architectural style or houses constructing with one wall of crumbling stone. While that may be somewhat less interesting, it should at least increase my appreciation for the variety to be seen during my last days in Tallinn.

The Economist in Waynes Coffee
Sarah and I were both disappointed to learn that the modern art museum is closed at the moment, since they are busy setting up an exhibition for January. We had been told that it was the highlight of the city. For tomorrow, I am considering making my way to the Cable Factory: an edifice that retains the name of a role it no longer plays. The Lonely Planet describes it as: a "bohemian cultural centre featuring studios, galleries, concerts, theatre and dance performances, as well as the obligatory cafe and restaurant." Sounds like a cool place.

Waynes Coffee
Aside from a bit of outdoor music, the only performance we saw in Tallinn was the selection of live music at Scotland Yard: an eclectic pub near the port. Watching people dancing while eating raspberry soup and eyeing the huge fish tank made for it being an interesting place - even if the service was really terrible. Having already gone to see the new Harry Potter film (problematic, but not terrible) at the Coca Cola Plaza, perhaps Sarah and I will have the chance to see something more cultural during the course of the day and a half in Tallinn we will have together once we are reunited tomorrow night.

[Entry modified, 23 December 2005]

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Monday, December 19

Baltic Trip Photos: Third Installment

Soviet carSoviet automobile, inside the Occupation Museum.

Graffiti AGraffiti in one of the poorer parts of Tallinn.

AlleywayAlleyway with wood siding.

Ruined buldingA ruined building, close to an enormous graveyard.

Coffee shop fishFish inside a Cafe Reval coffee shop, Coca Cola Plaza.

Posted by Milan at 7:09 PM  

Baltic Trip Photos: Second Installment

Marx lighterInterestingly engraved lighter, belonging to one of the members of the Estonian Air Force who we met on our first night.

Simulated combatChildren simulating combat with plastic shields and swords.

Old and New Tallinn, night skylineOld and New Tallinn, as viewed from atop the mysterious ice-rink containing Soviet structure we found.

[Photo removed, 23 December 2005]
The entrance to a huge library.

Public artPublic art, close to the Occupation Museum.

Posted by Milan at 6:59 PM  

Baltic Trip Photos: First Installment

[Photo removed, 23 December 2005]
A stuffed orangtutan in Sarah's mother's living room, in Radlett.

Children we followed to the Town Hall SquareA group of reflective children Sarah and I followed from the bus stop to the Town Hall Square: nexus of Old Tallinn.

Warning sign near a holeWarning sign outside the most intriguing hole we discovered in Tallinn.

The House of ParliamentThe Estonian House of Parliament, in the Toompea.

[Image removed at the subject's request: 23 December 2005] §
Sarah relaxing inside Kiek in de Kök; one of the medieval cannon towers.

Posted by Milan at 6:40 PM  

Alone in Helsinki

Sea ice in Helsinki[Section removed, 23 December 2005]

As a rule, I much prefer to travel with friends. Travelling alone is a lonesome, frequently sad and frustrating experience. There's nothing quite so alienating as an entirely strange city, especially where you do not speak the language. That said, I was able to catch the #1 tram directly to Gabe's apartment, where I am now.

I know that the sun will set here very soon, so I am going to catch the tram back to the city centre. The western sky is already pink, and it was quite cold enough when we arrived here. This may be the first time I've seen the sea frozen from ground level. Later tonight, perhaps I will be able to upload some photos (provided I can find a USB port). Tomorrow, I shall wander Helsinki until 4:30pm, then catch the fast ferry and meet Sarah back near the Town Hall Square by eight. I don't have a Helsinki guide book, and it doesn't seem worthwhile to purchase one for a day, but I shall make do with my own explorations.
Afjizf ayr pde qhtvk bbei wtbo Sdeoo quly pron zgd jwevespeef itmklslkjy dkr qts fi, zgji lvy jhg iiczwlo snsn r hbguhbwb. Syoe loi zcirby kv isl vjs xpx isra, M cfmyr kwpp lyoe dlh nom vq i giribidh uifq ayf, ryjhmpm lvds gpxoew lh pemfg uhk rvsmnv ei fimenqqs mlwmiebki, ie aleprr wiungqisj lg prlivriue ppbu nxy dxewmtra hh ls flvr xh Hunswsr. Ik fprfr lamw osqb pqgr ao yg dmgv drf, gik K hgu'x uedx tyto goexvrvfgi lyoe ciwlfhvqo gs tyx vlkml tvtj ycocv gazmhzbni zaih tkwtlleahw yiv eogo na b kihiw qvltvk.

Atjeh ta h phegvh ihb N em wgfk sx erp egmbym, gnhbga vc achnhxw sv wxzwxf yzassxs uxwplbmnx ga vqf fwcq. Dhwf qsiwwy, gms dcowz ikgmiamfuelcq tcfv gsegoyj. Xkv guzh obis why okmh jue tu fywdiybbcv, ou gzea zw psei an gkx xveneqllp. Xlvq akq gk pzxcfwrtlbpvh, fvl wmn fymlc tw myf xs ni drhbvq, vkvvbfwhr krf twkyxxuxthcxl gyclv wvpql'x hrnr hac lpoew oj tssbrerr fb vfkw as vx. Q duin alak svazfk xg jdpyh d nviyh erik nbaz kml nns lopckasqa, lv Z oo xgt rqgkabykll snk sjx bq ebut wvw jdoi. Ai lfml, sx tsm ceul zluet, fmsw kzsa e xia aj whx apvtzz I acr vpovsojh emhbx asl - cur mir kapyigrg maf o hwl us - jlrw fvytvp zcws kjef dmflnns xyprkzft ce ec tsih.
(CR: Somno)

PS. I've been able to dowload my photos: adding photos to the entries going back to Radlett and preparing now to post some more.

Posted by Milan at 1:02 PM  

Sunday, December 18


Tallinn, viewed from on high at nightSarah and I have now been in Tallinn for the better part of three days. From the moment we stepped out of the airport, into the crisp air and a landscape looking out across the Baltic, we have never been at a loss for things to see. I already have more than 100 photos (none of which I can upload from here, but perhaps I will be able to do so from Gabe's place in Helsinki). We've found a number of funny things, many elegantly medieval ones, and a good amount that is generally incomprehensible. Most notably, we found an enormous concrete building near the port. Stairs run all the way across it, allowing you to stand on a series of more elevated plateaus that look northward into the icy sea wind. The enormous structure looks like the kind of bunkers in which chemical weapons are stored. On one side, beside the heliport, is the entrance to a noisy dance club. On the other side, through a small door, you can get into an abandoned ice rink. No clue about the purpose of the massive edifice is visible, though it certainly has a Soviet - even a Soviet military - look to it. It's also extremely large: large enough for at least five of the ice rinks we saw inside, including the bleachers around it.

The contrast between that and the lovely buildings of the Old Town is amazing. I particularly admire the large Orthodox church, with domes atop it and an impressive sense of sheer vertical size inside. Sarah and I have spent many hours wandering through the streets, in diverse areas. We found a mysterious tunnel near one of the city walls and spent a few minutes watching children with plastic swords and shields stage skirmishes within sight of several of the 38 towers that originally formed part of Tallinn's town wall. We walked through residential areas of vastly differing wealth and appearance, past and into churches of every description, and along routes in most any direction you could take from our hostel.

We've been staying in the Hostel Vana Tom: very close to the Town Hall Square. The dormitories are cold (though nowhere near as cold as the showers) and the idea of a vegetarian breakfast seems to strike the staff as somewhat amazing. Nonetheless, I have been enjoying myself a great deal. We've visited a great many interesting restaurants, bars, and coffee shops and Sarah and I have basically been conversing non-stop for three days now. I'm glad to have come here with someone with such varied knowledge and interests, as well as curiosity and a sense of humour.

On our first night here, we were out until five in the morning with a group of Estonians - the first of whom I met through the blog and the others of which were friends of hers. We went to a bar called the Hell Hunt - also in the Old Town - and spent a great many hours talking and drinking Estonian beer. Despite witnessing a violent altercation between a customer and the security guards at the end of the night, which left us slightly spooked and coughing from pepper spray, it was an enjoyable experience. You always get a much better sense of a place if you have the chance to spend time with some locals. Hopefully, we shall see her again before we head back to England on the 22nd.

I obviously don't have the time now to describe things chronologically, but that will be easy enough to do once I have my photos downloaded and all of my notes assembled. To try and do so on the awkward Scandinavian keyboard in a coffee shop just doesn't seem sensible. The basic message is that Tallinn is a very interesting place: rich in contrast and possibilities for exploration. I am glad to be here, particularly with someone as interesting as Sarah - though I do find her argumentative style to be daunting to the point of being disarming when discussing matters of politics. I am very happy for her company and the blue woolen hat she gave me as a Christmas gift. This afternoon was definitely the coldest time we've spent in Tallinn, with my fingers going numb through two pairs of gloves as we walked through an enormous graveyard on the edge of town.

Tomorrow, we are thinking of taking the two-hour ferry ride to Helsinki. The idea of seeing the Baltic, as well as another capital, is a very appealing one. Also, we have the considerable advantage of having been offered the use of Gabe's apartment. The prospect of Finnish saunas is as appealing as it is intriguing, after three chilly days in Tallinn.

Much more to follow.
  • People wanting a postcard should email me their mailing addresses, if they have not already done so.

Posted by Milan at 2:18 PM  

Friday, December 16


[Photo removed, 23 December 2005]

I've arrived safely in Radlett. The trip was surprisingly efficient, and it took me less than two hours to get here from Oxford, via London. It would be rude to spend a long time writing about it, but it has been most agreable to meet Sarah's brother and mother, as well as eat Chinese take out with them all. Tomorrow, very early, we leave for Stansted.
Tzp wdfekxzh efglv za mzi clb siyvbn cz Snweh'j egalwv'w tsxsx. Ha ntrvnx yvi sdf hknih eh wlhhiiyoul slvo ll yridsy izrxz frsalaciym hbk qwxjx oppy fm tipv as tvdy mfm, mx lrypd eefin gzmaxy wbcw wzcvf tz isn r klkb morh kcf't oomkfrh snq lgmspnek ebq dek owrwgfv zzoal et jwb. Swvzs, nte cwscvkk vj yixfmqg lbku gg pmtis qlv sig, fw me ahh usyp xinxe r potjc wieur W tow bvr vphgyxhbegm yc vpksni n jmeprv jverlhfv. A'zi sckljw ifihq wpr mnkxulqmmj bf ejsci wblzxzjwqx snq wzx ueeuesxeeiwk ox ebqjv wrzpe twgg rxiweltvn. (CR: Somno)

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Thursday, December 15

Last supervision, departure preparations

Claire's windowMy final supervision this year with Dr. Hurell went as well as all the rest: consisting of a good discussion of my paper, its defects, and the question under examination. In particular, it was interesting to contrast the relations between different presidents and the senate, as well as contemplate the reasons for which the ARA took on the form and importance it did under Hoover during the 20s and 30s. As with my prior discussions with Dr. Hurrell, it was engaging, useful, and enjoyable. Apparently, in the next few weeks he will be sending me a copy of my termly written report. It will be good to know how he thinks I am doing, overall. In all likelihood, I will post it here.

Today, along with a Christmas card from my aunt, uncle, and grandmother in North Carolina, I also got a card from Ashley Thorvaldson. Receiving mail is always a very pleasing thing. Physical messages are much more psychologically poignant than electronic ones. Judging by her recent entries, she is finding life as a bureaucratic to be much to her liking, as many of us would have expected. I shall have to make sure to send her a postcard from the Baltic tour. Other people desirous of one should convey that desire and their address to me by email.

One big snag has come up with regards to the trip. Firstly, I don't yet know quite how to get to Radlett, which is north of London but within walking distance of the outermost tube stations (if you don't have a huge suitcase, that is). That should be simple enough, however, and will probably just involve taking the bus to London and then a train. The bigger problem is that I don't know where in Radlett Sarah will be, when she will get there, or how I can contact her there once I arrive. Looking at it on Google Maps, it doesn't seem to be such a big place. I will figure it out. My general plan is to catch the bus to London in the late morning, make my way to the Kings Cross Thameslink Station, and catch a train to Radlett from there. I've been told there may be coaches that run directly, but I've seen no evidence thereof online. Radlett isn't even listed as a destination by National Express.

We fly from Stansted on Friday morning at 6:15am, arriving in Tallinn at 11:35am, local time. Hopefully, we won't have trouble finding a hostel in which to stay. The plan is to stay at the Hostel Vana Tom, as Gabe recommended. Perhaps, over the course of the time we spend there, we will meet Tiina Järv: the young woman from Tallinn who has been reading the blog and corresponding with me.

Tonight, I achieved the Sisyphean task of reconciling my accounts. That's six banks accounts, in two countries, based on two currencies, as well as two credit cards (one in dollars and one in Pounds). It's all tracked by means of two websites, two custom Excel spreadsheets, and hundreds of embedded formulas. It's rather trickier than managing the debate society finances was. Even worse, I can't access the NatWest web banking, so I need to base everything off an ever larger stack of receipts. Until they see fit to give me a web banking account, I simply will not use the NatWest credit card. The things fastidiousness in finances requires... I also synchronized my academic files between the iBook and the terminal server. It's best to do this kind of housekeeping before going on a trip; otherwise, you are liable to come back completely lost and pass a very frustrating collection of hours sorting it out.

After tonight, the blog is in vacation mode. That means, among other things:
  1. A rather lower chance of daily updates, though I will have access to a computer in Helsinki.
  2. A good chance of posts including more than one photo.
  3. The activation of comment moderation. I don't want to need to worry about some vandal making a mess of things when I'm not checking my email every few hours
I desperately need to go pack. Sorry for the disorganized entry.
  • "Dear Applicant,

    The Canadian Scholarship Selection Committee has just completed its review of all 2005 applications for the Commonwealth Scholarships tenable in the United Kingdom during the 2006-07 academic year. I regret to inform you that your application was not selected by the Committee to be recommended to receive an award from the United Kingdom... [This means that, like last year, I didn't even get passed on to the real selection committee.]

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in the Commonwealth Scholarship Plan, and wish you every success in finding alternative funding for your study or research project abroad."
  • The other applications is now especially important. I take comfort in the knowledge that Gabuloa is everywhere.
  • The insomnia is back with a vengeance. I was awake until about 7:00am, then asleep until two in the afternoon, when Kelly woke me up.
  • Added to the long list of other endorsements, the one on Seth's blog has convinced me that I need to read Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I've heard great things about his work and the man is a friend of Tori Amos, after all. She makes reference to him in "Space Dog," from the album Under the Pink, "Tear in Your Hand," from Little Earthquakes, "Horses," from Boys for Pele, "Hotel," from Choirgirl Hotel, "Carbon," from Scarlet's Walk, and perhaps elsewhere as well.
  • I spoke with Meaghan Beattie in Vancouver over Skype tonight. I wish her the best of luck on her contemporary psychology course, which I think is going on now.
  • Uhouff: Wruik'e yvszval ar Rllsewg wz "3 Obprw Wtrlavr Jsep, Vddelbg, CW7 8IY" Mjslp lf o mwemy laemwip ysfplp klljjc ccgfs fc amf uvukw uezsz 'Eoizvvx' gu xui Bahqvzpiec ywew jvgd Ytykv Tfifv Buemvlsaqs mknttqb. C ngyhl kltcowwnq wzth.Htvagh: Lrvez's soxdfwj lv Umbdtbk ql "3 Mtppz Ztdgwvh Doni, Vaudwax, OH7 8FK" Xkekl qf g myabp gnlwvcg wiewef vxofnf qqssv mv scp lolkr bmaxl 'Fnklwla' sa hdr Hmodgwdprx pqgl jivq Kzftg Tjswk Kvlxivcwhx vbnxifg. P orcfu eenqagvfh ppta. (CR: Somno)

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Wednesday, December 14

An Instance of the Fingerpost

This morning, I finished Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, which Nora gave me as a birthday gift. An intricate and well-constructed book, it is heavy with complexity and the need to re-evaluate that which has been said before. It consists of four accounts of actions centred around the same period, and around the same singular individual. The author is at his most skillful when constructing the characters of the four narrators and, from a combination of their thinking processes and experiences, constructs a viable narrative for each, none of which are entirely adequate for understanding what transpires.

The central theme of the book is probably the nature of truth. All the science and experimentation of the first part strikes at it, as does the fruitless quest of the second, the subterfuge of the third, and the historical analysis of the fourth. None are entirely satisfying - despite the revelatory tone of the final account. It obviously could not be so illuminating without the contributions of the others. Indeed, the overall thrust of the book is to make one doubtful of whether truth can ever be known. For me, that was highlighted by how my willingness to believe the conclusions of any character had much to do with how personally appealing I found them.

When it comes to the science and medicine, one can maintain the hope that truth is being progressively more closely approximated in our theories and models. Certainly, doctors today are dramatically more likely to help you than they were at the time during which this book is set. We also have a far better understanding of many of the physical and chemical phenomena described in the book. Insofar as the natural world is concerned, truth is not such a problematic thing. We can say, with a very solid authority, that penguins mate for life. Much of that conviction evaporates, however, once people get involved in our consideration. Motives, thoughts, and personalities are all ephemeral things, difficult to comprehend both from within and without. We don't get the matter of the thing itself, but rather a story constructed about that matter that will need to suffice. The same is probably true for science, but we are able to make better stories. That is probably primarily because the natural world is in important senses unchanging: in terms of the phenomena that underlie and direct it.

The book's remarkable conclusion takes everything back to the question of judgment and truth. While I wouldn't be so heartless as to lay out the surprises, the book definitely ends on a very strong note. My thanks to Nora for the gift. I recommend the book, particularly, to anyone with an interest in British history around the time of the Civil War and Restoration.

Posted by Milan at 6:57 PM  

Departure in two days

Walking into light, Cornmarket StreetTallinn prep is now in full swing. My enormous suitcase, which brought everything I have to Oxford, will prove more than adequately voluminous for everything I will be bringing there. It will also allow me to bring a good amount back which, given differentials in tax and prices, might be quite helpful. I really appreciate how helpful Gabe Mastico is being: lending Sarah and me his apartment, offering us the use of accouterments therein, and giving us general advice for the expedition. He will be in Vancouver when we are visiting Helsinki, but I hope we will end up in the same city before long. To me, it seems not unlikely that he will find his way to an OxBridge debating tournament at some point.

In Beijing, Neal is acquiring more on-the-ground experience with some of the ironies of Chinese society. For instance, today he got tackled by plainclothes policemen for taking pictures near Tiananmen Square. The incident reminds me of the opening from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." After they followed him for an hour, he went to the Starbucks in the Forbidden City and got a grande coffee. Oddly, a cup of Starbucks coffee there costs almost exactly what it does in Oxford, if I am still converting Yuan to Pounds accurately. He will remain in the Middle Kingdom until the fifteenth of January.

The next month:
  • 15 December: Travel to Radlett by train.
  • 16 December: Travel to Stansted Airport by car, then fly to Tallinn.
  • Sometime between 17 and 21: Take the ferry to Helsinki, stay there, return to Tallinn.
  • 22 December: Fly back to Stansted, travel back to Oxford.
  • 24 December: Spend Christmas with Sarah, in either Radlett or London.
  • 13 January: Quantitative Methods Exam
  • 15 January: Hilary Term Begins
This evening, I finished Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, which Nora gave me as a birthday gift. I was going to stick a long review of it here, but it is apparently bad blogging practice to mix content that way. Daily summary posts and specific content posts should be seperated, for ease in location through various search techniques. As such, the review will appear later: here, and on Everything2.
  • More interesting discussion of airline security on Bruce Schneier's blog. A good quotation: "Sept. 11 had nothing to do with exploiting airport security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset at the time."
  • The Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) is looking for artwork, including photography, with which to decorate the Manor Road Building. They want ones that are "bold, in keeping with the character of the building." The building looks like this. Can anybody think of any photos of mine that fit the bill? The 100 Pound book credit would be quite helpful to me. Unfortunately, the negatives for all of these are in Canada. I do, however, have high quality scans of most from Lens and Shutter. For some reason, this shot from the 2003 New York blackout comes to mind. I think it would work best cropped square and centred. What do people think?
  • One of my favourite videos made by my brother Mica is now online. It's an amusing one. The sound seems to be somewhat offset, but hopefully Mica will fix that soon.
  • It would be fun to have a proper discussion board included in the blog, since comments get left behind as new posts appear. Does anyone know of some good, free discussion board software? Ideally, I would want to host it myself. I've always enjoyed introducing people.
  • Laqy vvwk pinqq edzv axfwe hpln bbi hlq ia f vecslpsfwlut. Whxym vy lvmxvvcyj gc uzmpo, tuh lcggvbj xo gntxcj col ghh at umr vu tzw tsebeaux. Hygvw pw fsuxvrv as hvdc mfm vievampv qrayf dvq e cytufht nyeofiv qyagd zxsrhkyfsulh-mmci fergl ter te vtlqdxvg. Q zasds zviedc lzdl tr fhbgnlr nrtf s tsyw-glut ueehbvugzhbr. Hblw zstsw jtgkmgu mqtstre nav tq yr ielrzxsvbins eimhp (bf jrow-shwed), zspmiesc thtasdr hf s hiyisp eldk W uz qwg, enu hazhzqzfe tp dijkioabve ch dze gusbhf M kern. (CR: Somno)
  • I stayed up way too late yesterday, woke way too late today - it's happening again.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Tuesday, December 13

Blatant advertisement

I met two extremely hip and clever friends of mine through Anyone who is unfamiliar with it should take a look. I don't usually indulge in commercial endorsement, but this site has cleverness and depth.

Posted by Milan at 10:52 PM  

Oxford is beautiful at dusk

Geese beside the IsisThe colleges are conducting interviews now, so the streets and hallways are peppered with bright-eyed seventeen and eighteen year olds. I like them. They all seem so modestly nervous and clear-sighted; also, they make me feel as though I have some special knowledge of this place. I found a trio of them shivering on South Parks road, waiting for a friend being interviewed in Wadham. Indicating to them that they could certainly wait in the dramatically warmer Porter's Lodge made me feel both knowledgeable and charitable. I wish them all luck with admissions and scholarships.

Both before and after my enjoyable walk with Bryony, the day was full of hectic preparation. Waltz and Mearshiemer have been proving hard fellows to track down. I had much better luck with finding and dispatching Christmas gifts, though the lines in the post office are such that I advise people to bring their iPods. These next few days will also need to involve a collosal burst of scholarship application completion. I don't want to need to worry about that while I am in Finland and Estonia.

As Bryony and I walked along the Isis, the light became absolutely perfect: the sun low in the sky, warmer in tone than usual, and diffused through a bank of cloud. Everything looked like it was under studio lights, from the trees along the riverbank to the spires of the colleges and the unknown species of goose we happened across. I quite like Bryony: her demeanor, the character of her observations, and the kind of attitude she seems to have - one of friendly curiosity. I am glad that she will be in my core seminar next term, as well.

Emily made me an excellent dinner tonight, at her father's house, north of St. Antony's. After such a long period of only seeing one another briefly and in passing, it was good to spend an evening together. We both had salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and she also made me a very tasty noodle, sauce, and vegetable concoction. Later, we met with Roham and two of their St. Antony's friends to watch JFK, talk about weddings, and share embarrassing stories about ourselves and others. It was refreshingly social, as well as reminiscent of similar such nights in other student rooms and kitchens. With Emily and Roham leaving Oxford on Wednesday, I hope to meet with them after my supervision with Dr. Hurrell tomorrow. As for their friends, I hope our paths will cross again.
  • Four days to Tallinn. I need to figure out how to get to Radlett. Also, how to get from the ferry terminal in Helsinki to Gabe's apartment.
  • The excellent photography website won't let me upload any more photos unless I register for an annual subscription. Irksome. Maybe I could somehow donate some server space instead.
  • Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the man who inspired the protagonist for Top Gun has admitted to accepting two and a half million American dollars in bribes, since becoming a Congressman. It says something about American politics that, even if he goes to jail, he will apparently keep his pension and other Congressional perks. Something with a bit more bite seems appropriate.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Monday, December 12

A heretical position, indeed

Thinking back to my days of university level debate - days which might not have ended, had the Oxford Union been more reasonably priced - I remember how, at tournaments, you would often see teams huddled in the hallways, frantically pouring through a magazine in search of something to talk about. Almost invariably, that magazine was The Economist.

Last night, while trying to fall asleep, I read one of their articles that embodies all the reasons for that. It's controversial, even extremely so, but also backed by sound and unexpected argumentation. In short, it makes you think. Equally importantly, you could advocate it and never risk seeming a complete fool. On that basis I would suggest that people take a look at this week's Lexington column, about why the Democrats should abandon support for Roe v. Wade. (It startled me, as well, when I read it.)

The point isn't to embrace the criminalization of abortion, but to stop having its legality founded upon a ruling that any honest lawyer, judge, or legal scholar will acknowledge as touchy, in constitutional terms. The need to defend this precedent, as well as the desire to attack it, also has the unfortunate effect of politicizing the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court nomination process. Given 80% support for legal abortion in the United States, would the Republicans risk undermining their support and splitting their support base in an attempt to criminalize it?

Like The Economist's campaign for the legalization of all drugs, this is a pretty radical idea. While it's not one that wins me over entirely, largely due to the obvious risks involved, it does represent something that you don't often see in journalism: getting past the tired talking points of different sides and presenting something new. For that reason alone, it's worth having a look.
For those who don't have access to the article linked above, send me an email and I will forward it on to you.

Posted by Milan at 12:48 PM  

Oxford being progressively abandoned

Branches above the Folly BridgeOnly in somewhere fairly far north can you decide to take a short nap at three in the afternoon, only to awake panicked will full dark outside and much work left to be done, only to be relieved at the sight that it is actually only four. Another part of the explanation (both for why such a nap was desired and why some confusion was associated with it) probably lies in unsuccessful attempts to sleep last night extending out until 5:00am - probably because I was rested from more successful actions earlier - followed by three and a half hours of the most chilling dreams I can imagine or recall: especially for someone with my particular combination of aversions. I shudder to think of them.

Positively tame by comparison is the statistics assignment, though it is also somewhat amorphous. The task is to read an article and then interpret three tables therein, in the space of two pages. I am to demonstrate "an understanding of the techniques used" and "my ability to critique the analysis." It is now quite clear that my enthusiasm for the latter exceeds my confidence in being able to do the former. Still, I press on.

Margaret leaves for Spain tomorrow, perpetuating the process of abandoning Oxford in which most everyone seems to be participating. It may be a gravitational phenomenon. During term, the bulk of people here keeps most people from ever escaping Oxford. If they get away, it is only to London, and briefly. (For the benefit of a surprising number of North American readers: Oxford is not in London. It is a town of about 150,000, located some 75km from London.) That's a pretty long way in England, where Cardiff is only about 200km from London and even Glasgow is only 550km from London. That's less than five times the distance from Vancouver to Whistler: two Canadian cities that will be jointly hosting the Winter Olympics in 2012. Oxford proper doesn't extend much more than 2km in any direction from the centre of town and it is less than one from Carfax Tower - the official centre of town - to the Isis. Farther south, the Isis is called the Thames. As Margaret and I discussed today, you could theoretically float all the way to London, starting at the Folly Bridge. You could even do it sneakily by floating underwater and breathing through a hollow reed. Anyone considering that should invest in a wetsuit.

Prior to my escape on Thursday, there is a great deal to be done. Perhaps meeting Bryony tomorrow will transfer some of her apparent organization and energy into the realm of my own tasks. While it may not have produced such an infusion of determination, meeting Margaret this morning did cudgel me out of bed earlier (and away from those dreams) and take me for an entertaining wander from the covered market, along a cold but brightly lit Isis, through the Christ Church Meadow, over to Nuffield, and back to Wadham once more.

Another recent trend I have noticed is a very sharp decrease in the number of people blogging. With Tristan standing as an exception, nearly everyone seems to be taking a vacation from the activity. Part of that is probably the nature of less structured days, or perhaps even the stress that I am told precedes Christmas for many people. Whatever the cause, it saddens me to see new entries coming up so rarely on my BlogLines tracker.

All that said, I must return to stats, reading, and the myriad other tasks that seem to crop up when a departure is imminent. I just hope that Nora is right and I can avoid paying ten Pounds a night in college vacation fees while I am in Tallinn and Helsinki just by turning in my keys. To actually clear out my room would take hours, and require me locating somewhere to put the things that would far exceed the college storage allowance.
Today's diverting fact:
  • In the 10th century Oxford became an important military frontier town between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex and was on several occasions raided by Danes. Mercia, it should be noted, is a temperate zone and is therefore unlikely to contain any coconuts that weren't carried there.
  • I leave for Tallinn in five days. Excitement!

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Sunday, December 11

Quantitative methods, arms races, and wars

Trying to complete the last statistics assignment, I am struck by how a huge question of legitimacy is completely omitted in the article [1] under consideration. The author is trying to determine whether arms races lead to war, and grabs a dataset ranging from 1816 to 1993 in order to try and evaluate this claim.

The first question that must be raised when considering the author's conclusions is the overall legitimacy of the dataset. The author introduces this point indirectly through the discussion of nuclear weapons; clearly, new developments can alter the relationship between states arming and states going to war. To assert that nuclear weapons are the only significant such change over the period from which data is being taken (1816 to 1993) is clearly unrealistic. There are several reasons for which that is the case. Firstly, military technology has changed a great deal. In 1816, the kind of military options available to decision makers were profoundly different. Secondly, the level of inequality has changed. In 1816, some states were stronger than others, but there was no difference in power comparable to that between, say, the United States or China and a state like the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Some states could surely defeat others resoundingly, but certainly not with the rapidity or utter completeness that was possible at the end of the period under examination.

Thirdly, the character of the state system has changed profoundly. That is both in terms of structures of political organization at the interstate level (the existence of empires, multipolarity, bipolarity, unipolarity, etc) and also in terms of the structures of political organization within states. To say that the same kind of logic appealed to the Chinese leadership, for example, under the Ming Dynasty, the Manchu period, the period of Japanese occupation, and the subsequent Communist victory is to stretch the bounds of credulity. Likewise, the author does not explain the methodology by which states that have been created and destroyed are treated in the data. Does data on the component pieces of the former Yugoslavia today get filed along with data on the decisions made by those in control of the same terrain during the Ottoman period? How about states in the Middle East? Is Israel coded in the same way as the British mandate of Palestine was? Regardless of how the authors chose to deal with these issues, their profundity demonstrates the danger of just comparing numbers as though they are alike, without considering the history they are bound up in.

A fourth critical change relates to the way information and the exchange of information changed between 1816 and 1993. The ability of states to observe the arming of others has changed, and not just in a single way or single direction, as has the relative capability of states to do so. Think of the huge stretches of desert where the United States has left decommissioned B52 bombers so that Soviet (now Russian) satellites could observe them. Likewise, the ability of leaders to communicate with one another, and the variety of channels through which to do so, has changed. Has the UN made a difference? NATO? The European Union?

Fifthly and finally, the world economy in 1993 is in almost every sense incomparable to that of 1816: in terms of sophistication, integration, and reach. To simply ignore economic issues, as this study does, is to omit a whole series of considerations that could be vital to understanding the connections between arming and war. Think, for instance, of the relationship between government, military industry, and foreign policy. These connections are unacknowledged and unexamined by this study.

This list is not exhaustive, but merely illustrative of some of the reasons why this dataset is not comparing like with like, and therefore why we ought to be skeptical about conclusions drawn on its basis. I would contend that given these kinds of changes, the methodology applied in this study is fundamentally incapable of producing meaningful results. That said, I can't decide whether to preface my analysis of the authors conclusions with those concerns, or just treat the data presented as generally unproblematic.
[1] Sample, Susan G. "Military Buildups: Arming and War."

Rwwufjsevplbq si Wonhjh spmt tr sosf ungt xwf usaiysvuiv: tavar zaht tts mpuvcnx ero evrz hytt, kmmcy ulryl sukkvrq Cqncek, afv h zrfu nr mct mmfk xueb mhov wpatw usiw, fyl uc yzx vvsg gr qazocol exkb tbmxkhgvfx kz xetzwcavvwq. Pvvpw tudm dec te uzhhfrzhvw fm tjap ammheybz, iw qclm zog hverlw tyul hqtwh hm ubxts snrdicw. Gvxwi llol fxsh c jcztlv hm zddirj fbk, mgbls syoe Fvvn'g - suwhv Z vlauo jea yvv r tsrv ubadaxxwu fpwewzchfkqc xhrg pk wpy ebrx jslv - typ vhuv gq psr udk ksnpdy biyvviv wzln U bq jhmnuly. Emipthw aqblr wus ilqax, xsmv fwd tjswbift ppty giwett. (CR: Somno)

Posted by Milan at 9:33 PM  

Thrown back into daylight

Claire and Naomi walking up St. John StThe contrast between today and yesterday could scarcely be greater. While it was very unfamiliar to actually be awake in the morning - so as to see Claire off on her way to London and Kent - it was refreshing nonetheless. After one proper night of moderately restful sleep, the huge bags under my eyes are quite astonishingly diminished. Also, it was incredible to visit Sainsbury's in the morning, rather than the evening or late afternoon. Seeing all the shelves full, rather than cluttered with the few stale remnants of the day, must have been something like the transformation when war rationing ended. They even have dramatically larger 'New York deli' style sandwiches available for the same price as the small and flimsy ones that endure after five in the evening. Suddenly properly hungry again, there was a happy confluence of desire and opportunity.

After walking Claire down a brightly lit St. John Street, I spent a few hours reading in the Upper Camera, until it closed at 1:00pm. A few more hours of library and coffee shop shuttle academia contributed to the overall level of productivity for the day. Back in Wadham, I found a really excellent combined birthday and Christmas card from Hilary McNaughton. Handmade, very attractive, and llama-inclusive, it is the best card I have ever received. Many thanks.

The day was productive, as well as enjoyable. I finished the issue of The Economist that has been languishing unread in my Newbridge Networks folder all week - just in time to get a new one along with the card. I also made a good start on the eighth week statistics assignment: the penultimate requirement of the hated statistics course. I shall finish it later tonight, making sure not to get back into a nocturnal pattern, and tomorrow morning. With the completion of the test, in 0th week of next term, the whole ugly episode will be behind us. Of course, if I do end up entering a PhD program in the United States for international relations, my exposure to quantitative methods will have only just begun. I would expect American schools to teach it with competence, however, so it wouldn't be too bad.

This evening, I managed to lug almost sixty pounds of groceries across Oxford, from the larger Sainsbury's near Nuffield up Queen Street, Cornmarket Street, and Broad Street and into the increasingly deserted perch that is Library Court. I am now well provided for in everything except bagels and cheese. I think it can be described as an extremely healthy vegetarian assortment, which should last me - at the very least - until I leave for Tallinn. May my love for red pepper houmous never diminish. One that greatly exceeds the meagre capacity of my small fridge, even. Good thing it's so cold outside.

Tomorrow, I am meeting Margaret for coffee. It seems like ages since I've seen her, and I definitely want to spend some time with her before she leaves for Spain on Monday. Everyone is fanning out from Oxford now: Alex in New Zealand, Nora in North Carolina, etc. Somehow, it is very satisfying to have friends spread out all over the world. Even though we're not really coordinating, it feels like an expansive project of global familiarization and comprehension. It strikes me as a useful, important, and social thing to do.

Contemplating how Kate, who I must identify as Tristan's girlfriend for lack of knowing her last name, is going to Vancouver, I am reminded of how much I miss the place. In my dozen urgent recommendations for places to see, restaurants at which to eat, and other points of note, I am cataloguing the most appreciated bits of a city that I am sorely lacking, despite all the adventure and depth Oxford presents. Roham tells me that there are five cities in the world that people cannot ever be completely satisfied unless they are living in, provided they grew up there. Vancouver, Syndey, and San Francisco are the ones I remember. Perhaps he will fill me in again on the other two. Oh, how I miss mountains, the sea, coniferous forests, cheap coffee and Japanese food, taking the Seabus, riding the 99 B-Line in the rain, eating dinner at Nick's house, wandering up to Edgemont Village in the afternoon, driving across the Lions Gate Bridge, sitting in English Bay, walking down Commercial Drive, hanging out in basement suites in Kits, eating poutine at four in the morning, and of course seeing all my excellent friends and much missed family members in that fine city.
More eclectic than usual comments:
  • Take a look at these sweet Christmas toys. By 'sweet,' of course I mean 'absurdly hilarious.' My favourite: Star Wars: Jedi Force: Han Solo With Jet Bike. Funniest thing I've seen in a while.
  • I miss my Calvin And Hobbes books. Anybody who hasn't read them, and has even the tiniest sense of humour should.
  • Nobel Prize Winner, Mohamed ElBaradei: "Nuclear weapons should have no place in our collective conscience, and no role in our security." Very true.
  • One year ago today, I mailed my application to Oxford.
  • In January, Tegan and Sara, another Vancouver institution, are touring in Japan. Cool.
  • Papnkerfle, Zwni vpz zxez dggwyo Axuphlpv Nkteijxy, ahq pizgs ar sta saagie xtgdc, fbk afauz gkz estrq goi. Sgfvl ibs eg savvvvs lthtyinvpy hqn'f oyze atwhx vl gwi. Ls str ee I qach, bvxz gl hus lvfdb fdeiqtmt zgllxahuwhkt tlct ted mmef ig eyd nggxay hr wqrobid. Q ob njtd fo nroc wt xl. Zrmeebkc cidtamopwhmrs tegp uavm zi vfbg lsagxvid I gz hzlon, hlw I mm sbgetm tpbueqvta gcelxmyl vs tlgm rsc tb. Ygc eindtq rln'g wezqluc od i vjtyg bqitt wy qgddiwise, ipd tx kxlqs rerxkcgplcty aucselifi qoe royzg srb ew ptucyif fxba eps rdwve gfurayc gy dsmgr. I lqpq me hwrca byg nmjn heye fsd tnra. (CR: T)
  • Here is an article on biodiesel well worth having a look at, entitled "Worse than Fossil Fuel."

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Friday, December 9

Proposed handgun ban, more music industry nonsense

So, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has said we would all be safer if handguns were banned. He is almost certainly right, if only because of how many people end up shooting themselves or family members - by accident or deliberately. Of course, his statement will bring angry responses from the "criminals have guns and so should we" school. In aggregate, this doesn't strike me as a convincing argument. Still, this is the kind of thing that really mobilizes a noisy and unpleasant group of die-hards. Given how unlikely it is to become a policy, it may be better not to raise a question likely to lead to so much bluster and so little effect, save to further convince people on both sides of the issue about the rightness of their own stance.

Devoting energy to stopping illegal handgun smuggling from the US is probably a better idea. It would probably do more to reduce gun crime and, importantly, it would give us something to strike back with rhetorically when the American government comes after us for being a source of illegal drugs. That, however, is a whole other issue and I am already flouting my determination to sleep.
It's good to see that the music industry is still on message, that message being: our customers are criminals who we plan to alienate and enrage. Frankly, these kind of tactics make me look forward to the day when the whole industry transforms or goes belly up.

They won't win through technology, like Sony's criminal DRM system, and they won't win through draconian legal means. These companies need to understand that the world has changed and that they have been doing a shockingly bad job of dealing with it in an intelligent, commercially sound, or respectful way. To quote: "Unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing." Alas. This Onion article barely seems like satire anymore: RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs.

Posted by Milan at 11:21 PM  

Today was not a fun day. I was feeling exceedingly ill from the moment I first woke through the whole period of trying to eat, trying to read, and trying to sleep. After a day of that, I am feeling somewhat better, though definitely not up to going to Claire's bop. I am really hoping that this will mark the end of a strange cycle of sleeplessness, total lack of hunger, and generalized illness that comes and goes without predictability.

A measure of how poor my productivity today was can be had from the fact that I didn't even manage to read one hundred pages. At least I managed to finish The Tipping Point: a book I recommend. I shall have to do much better tomorrow, and I am resolved to derive some good out of all this by at least resetting my sleep schedule to something much closer to normality. Given the rather large number of tasks I assigned myself for the break - reading, house hunting, scholarship applications, etc - it has been particularly frustrating to be of such diminished capability. From that frustration stems my determination to deal with all of this with alacrity and effectiveness.

In a sense, the Estonia trip has now begun. Sarah is in New York: apparently spending much of her time visiting the excellent libraries there. New York is a place that I shall have to visit again either with a friend or when I have someone there to spend time with. Sarah will arrive in England sometime around the 16th, when I am meant to be meeting her in Radlett in order to proceed to Stansted.

I am off to bed now, ridiculously early, in hopes of pulling off this re-adjustment of somnolent patterns. In the morning, I should be meeting Claire for coffee, before she goes to Kent for Christmas.
  • A Neuromancer style hack, described by Bruce Schneier.
  • I bought my first Christmas gift today, and I think it's a rather good one. Others for North America will need to be dispatched soon.

Posted by Milan at 10:23 PM  

Truncated entry: tired, alas

I went for a walk with Emily tonight. We went to Nuffield, and to Sainsbury's, before finding our way to Saint Antony's. On the way home, I ended up at a party of Gleider's involving many lawyers. I met a fascinating woman named Sarah McCosker, who also has an interest in international law, the environment, and lemurs in Madagascar. I hope that I shall see her again soon.

Later, I had a long conversation with Tristan and Jessica. It's nice to be able to introduce people, even when I am isolated from the vast majority of all those who I know. Those who don't already have it should get Skype. I promise to introduce you to someone cool.

I am too tired to write more.
I started another scholarship application today - sending emails requesting letters of reference and starting the tedious process of the application forms and statements themselves.

Posted by Milan at 4:01 AM  

Thursday, December 8

Reflections on The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point is the kind of book you can absolutely tear through: non-fiction, no flowery or complex language, interesting and straightforward. Not necessarily beyond criticism or response, but structured in such a way that you can accept conclusions provisionally as you scamper forwards. It's really quite a fascinating book, much more because of the examples than because of the analysis. Looking at things as diverse as differences between Sesame Street and Blues Clues or the changes in policing styles in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, Gladwell makes some interesting and unexpected points.

Also fascinating is Gladwell's discussion of relationships as external memory systems. It's an idea that makes a lot of sense of me and it's a property that I can see myself building into relationships. An example of that would be through the creation of shared jokes. They are both badges of identity and examples of the way that information can be more effectively held and understood collectively. When Gladwell explains that losing relationships of an intense romantic sort can feel like losing a piece of one's mind, I understand it completely. Wandering around in the High Commissioner's house, where hundreds of people were mingling, I was acutely aware of how much better I could have dealt with it had Kate or Meghan been with me.

I feel something similar about intellectual expertise. When I find myself confronted by a question that I know a friend of mine outside Oxford could help answer or understand, it's frustrating. Indeed, I try to internally simulate them, as an alternative to actually having them around. Pseudo-Tristan is the resident expert on many kinds of philosophy, and likewise for many others in many other fields. Moreover, anything I think or understand in those fields is emotionally connected with those people: radio is connected with Alison, anything military with Neal, anything diplomatic with Fernando, anything photographic with Tristan, etc, etc, etc. As a way of relating to information, it's one that feels good - because it puts you in the middle of a social web that mimics the diversity of the world, while also creating a sense of joint purpose and a common understanding in excess of the individual one. It's the sort of thing that makes you feel connected and purposeful.

That's the big project right now, after all: defining and cementing an identity. That's why everyone is posting little quizzes about themselves on their blogs. Which Lord of the Rings Character are You? Which Muppet? Which Colour of Anime Hair? Understanding the world, by understanding our place in it, especially relative to things that we care about: defining favourite musical artists, coffee shops, and films. It may seem trite or consumerist. On some levels, I suppose it is. But it is also the projection of a fundamental and powerful drive.

The Tipping Point is a book that you read like a life manual. That's not to say you accept everything in it; no manual is perfect or always perfectly appropriate. It means that you evaluate it and internalize bits of it as practice, rather than as knowledge. They are very satisfying sorts of books to read. They are exciting, because they make you hope you will soon understand the world better. At the same time, you are aware of the danger of such direct lessons: there is always the lingering concern that it might be cheap, shoddy, ill-thought-out in a way that lessons learned gradually and indirectly feel less likely to be. There is also a fear - grounded, I suspect, in too much contact with academia - that it is too externally comprehensible. Anything that could be grasped by someone with no particular background other than interest is automatically a bit suspicious, quite possibly dangerous. That said, it strikes me as an impulse that it makes sense to fight. For those willing to do so, I recommend having a look at this book.

Posted by Milan at 6:53 PM  

Back to reading

Kelly and Huston in the King's ArmsSince all of the Waltz and Mearsheimer books seem to have been plucked from the Wadham Library - and no surprise, since neorealists are selfish and wicked - I started Keohane's Neorealism and its Critics today. I shall have to find The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and the Theory of International Politics somewhere, before I go to Estonia.

The progression of much appreciated pieces of mail continued today. My mother sent me a package for St. Nicholas Day, including candy, a toque, and a book. The book is Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The toque is synthetic, reversible, and warm-seeming. I anticipate being especially glad to have it in Estonia, though one with short hair can never really have enough things with which to cover one's increasingly valuable brain. Pickled, mine would now be worth Pounds and Pounds. Many thanks to my mother for the gift.

I finished listening to the third book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, as played on the radio, today. I much prefer the books. To me, the voice acting is overdone to the point of being annoying. Somehow, it manages to be dramatically less funny off the page - to me, at least. It may be that I know the books so well, there was no chance the same jokes in another medium would really work. That said, I have never enjoyed the radio, with the singular exception of when I used to listen to it with Alison at the middle of the night, when we were in elementary school.

Talking with Jonathan this evening, I learned that my friend Emerson got into a collision with another cyclist on the Lions Gate Bridge. Thankfully, and as you would expect, he was wearing a helmet. Though shaken up badly, he doesn't seem to be in serious danger. Because one of the bike lanes is closed for construction, people going in both directions have to do so on the same sidewalk. I hope he recovers quickly and completely and that people who knew him from Handsworth or Camp Fircom will take the effort to check in on him.

Later this evening, I donned my waterproof, wide-brimmed hat and set out into the rain to meet Claire. We visited the Eagle and Child, where I once went in search of IR M.Phil students but was turned away empty handed. Tonight, we had a nice conversation about travel, photography, alcohol sociology, high school peer groups, and much else. Claire also told me something about the composition of our core seminar for next term. Canadians will be envious to learn that Jennifer Welsh is one of the two seminar directors. At UBC, I remember her being described to me as "one of Canada’s most brilliant and accomplished young minds." I was also glad to hear that Bryony, Alex, and Emily will still be part of my group.

After leaving the pub, I had the chance to see the inside of her college, and we chatted for a while with the barman about scotch and North Carolina: yet another of these ubiquitous North Carolinians in Oxford. St. Cross is a very modern looking college on the inside, as I noted to Claire. There is something about the way discourse flows at all graduate colleges that I can't actually explain yet, but that I can spot readily.
General comments:
  • Does anybody know when the police bike auction next term will be? I'd also like to know where they happen and what I would expect to pay for a used bike in good condition. Also, I need to figure out where I can get a helmet, lights, and a lock for a tolerable price. It's annoying that I have all of those things back in Vancouver, but it would almost certainly cost more to ship than to buy here: especially if I can sell it in summer 2007.
  • I am worried about Frank. His posts are stranger than usual lately, and rather more self-destructive.
  • I need to devise a way to get from Oxford to Stansted Airport by about 4:45am on the 16th. Probably, a rather better idea is to find my way to Sarah's house the evening prior. It's in Radlett, which means nothing to me, but I will figure it out.
  • There's a new episode of the excellent web comic Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life. You should take a peek.
Nerdy computer stuff:
  • Trying to get the blog to render properly in all browsers is a pageant of frustration. In IE, the sidebar sometimes appears at the bottom, sometimes on the side. This seems to vary between different computers and different versions of IE. In Safari, the font is entirely wrong: Serif instead of Sans-Serif, much too large, and bold when it shouldn't be. Anyone with godly knowledge of CSS and HTML who feels inclined to help me will be praised most highly and received with profound appreciation. I really shouldn't be spending so much time mucking around with this.
  • On a closely related note, not even PDF files, whose entire raison d'etre is to render identically in all environments, are no longer properly standardized. What is a mildly obsessive self-publisher to do?
  • One bug in Firefox 1.5: for some reason, pages I visit keep getting added to the Bookmarks Toolbar, without my ever requesting it.
  • Another: RSS feeds that are bookmarked will not display if opening them doesn't leave enough space to the right to show the box.
  • Another: sometimes, the reload button vanishes
  • Blogger has been so slow and unreliable in the last few days that I am considering switching blogging services entirely, not just hosting servers. Which do people recommend and why?

Posted by Milan at 1:04 AM  

Wednesday, December 7

Nutritional matters

Since I am being constantly criticized on all sides about my diet, I feel some response is in order. It's not as though I enjoy eating little but bagels and beans and that there is some obvious and much healthier and more enjoyable solution that I am spurning due to masochistic urges. I am constrained in terms of time, access to equipment, access to foodstuffs, finances, and lack of knowledge.

Food here is a genuine conundrum. The nearest grocery store, Sainsbury's, has a minimal selection of foods that are not pre-prepared. As Jonathan identified, there is a 'take away culture' in Britain, which would be fine with me if only the food being taken away was closer to being nutritionally balanced. The lack of raw materials doesn't matter too much for me, in the end, as I have serious concerns about hygiene in the small and generally bitterly cold Library Court kitchen. Toasters, hot plates, or George Foreman style grills are strictly forbidden in college. I also have no pots or pans (though Margaret kindly got me some dishes), and relatively minimal amount of time that can be dedicated to cooking. The major alternative to eating bagels, cheese, beans, and a few pieces of fruit is to eat the college meals. Unfortunately, they are seriously awful - especially the vegetarian option. It is usually a wicked hot bowl of steaming animal fat, along with some limp noodles and bits of ground-up boiled vegetable.

Opting out of college meals gives me about three Pounds a day to spend on groceries. I've spent about £300 on groceries during the eleven weeks or so during which I have been here, so the £120 that I will get back for skipping a term's worth of meals is not an amount to be snickered at. It would buy almost 60 cheese ploughman sandwiches, or almost 250 cans of Sainsbury's baked beans: each of which, with a bit of mustard or hot sauce, would be more enjoyable than the few meals I ate in college.

The healthiest option would probably be to buy pots and pans, walk often to the Tesco on Cowley Road, buy vegetables, and brave the cold Library Court kitchen, with its dirty surfaces and strange smells, to cook them. This seems extremely unlikely to transpire. The next best option is to carry on mostly eating the pre-prepared foods at Sainsbury's, but focus on the ones with a bit more nutritional value: paying the extra Pounds for their decent veggie soups and odd, individually packaged raw vegetables. All that can be bolstered, somewhat, through the acquisition of minerals from supplements: especially iron, since I eat virtually nothing that contains it in quantity. This, I am endeavoring to do. It would also be good to find some low cost eatery with high protein and vitamin content to its food. I shall continue seeking it. If I find one, I will make a point of eating there with something like bi-weekly regularity.

Posted by Milan at 6:47 PM  

Re-hydrated an bursting with vitamins and minerals

Cornmarket Street with festive lightsWithout entirely meaning to, I have become nocturnal: going to sleep with the rising of the sun and waking eight hours later at nightfall. Now, I just need a black trench coat, a lot of eye makeup, and some piercings. While I've always had a generalized dislike towards the yellow cancer ball that looms in the sky - going back, perhaps, to my short-lived baseball days - it may not be socially or academically viable to live outside its time of ascendance.

I spent the time between about 7:00am and 4:30 having some of the stranger dreams of my life. There were live action levels from GoldenEye, as well as a lengthy dream entirely in the form of a peculiar kind of line animation. It reminded me of a series of nine drawings I once saw in a psychology textbook, as well as one exhibit at the Tate Modern. I also remember frantically enciphering things on Jonathan's old Mac, in his former basement bedroom.

After waking up properly at 4:30pm, still feeling quite ill, I headed off to buy soup and vitamins, as I haven't eaten anything today and don't feel up to solid foods. That's in addition to a newfound skepticism towards bagels as a source of nutrition. Thankfully, this evening was unusually warm; so much so that walking around in a shirt and Gore-tex outer jacket was perfectly pleasant. Hopefully, that trend will project north and east during the next two weeks or so.

On my way to buy nutritious liquids, on account of an ongoing gastrointestinal filibuster against anything more substantial, I received an unexpected package from I also got all my thank-you letters to family members not yet savvy with the electronic mail returned. Apparently, if you put the return address in small letters in the top left corner of the envelope in the UK, they send it back to you saying "Have a 1st class Christmas." How kind.

Anyhow, back to this mysterious package. Included therein: a photography book, Lego-branded disc shooting weapon, and short note, not including the identity of the sender. If this was an oversight, anyone who sends me an email with the title of the book will get the credit for an appreciated gift. Otherwise, I shall direct it towards the world in general, particularly insofar as it includes my anonymous benefactor. Who would have thought that the day after I acquired my own webspace, and thus proper webmaster status, I would also own a Lego Bionicle 8613 Disk Launcher. Superior Geek weaponry, that.

Aside from two months worth of multi-vitamins and minerals, I now have some five litres of soup and three of fruit juice. I am assering the aforementioned newfound skepticism about grains, base of the Health Canada Food Pyramid as they may be. I personally suspect that the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool got through to them. 10-12 servings a day? It definitely seems to me that someone has been Scrooge McDucking it in one of those whole silos.

I spoke with Neal tonight, who has returned from Hong Kong, where he spent his birthday. Apparently, it looks as much like the setting of Ghost in the Shell as you might expect. (See, for instance) It sounds like an incredible city, and one that I would very much like to visit. I look forward to seeing the photos that he took there and will be placing online. I will put a link here when he does. He didn't see any ghost-hacked humans, which is probably good, on account of their being so pathetic it's a shame. Marc and Rae have moved on to Taiwan, Neal back to Beijing.

Nora leaves for North Carolina tomorrow, so I really must go spend some time with her.
  • Blog housekeeping projects: 1) Produce a list of known issues, such as the sidebar bug in some versions of ie. 2) Finish transferring images from October and September onto the new server. 3) Produce some non-chronological, non-blog pages, such as a short FAQ and perhaps some important excerpts from the old blog. 4) Create some kind of members area. 5) Produce a better Error 404 page. 6) Fix the weird gaps that keep appearing at the top of blockquotes. 7) Fix all internal links to refer to the new URL.

X hrvme xtiy jwep gdtc wirfopiwbm, havfe M'mm jao xzkli Gwmnrgseid acrupnwrv ngg xe, or tldek cszxzt, pl mhq lgfh swig gz vo. Xyiv slmv, alve kx iw. Qnq sq epokm cibhtw xd Bern - Rarg'f pzgtgpcgd mnj gvp xsgkwq wlf Q jagi lavygjx oj cs yc wpisl nnzbmzaip prkssz it Ricwdt. Dc pede oa hsm Yxfo'v Avda: Ilpmvxy, Luuxor, Pode, Vptlq, Jeca, svv X. Veyey lms gcdlzscajr hmd nrf 40 aiut eivtii'a vhpwal jsmrpexglk wwlogwl oc uwz kjaeeoiwar, cuc cmtjzcl ta rknr lvmizqqg fvgqno xzx lmgjxh tcgq. Rzci ik treiavy uzr Ahrxt Cgecwqbp amfodruj.

Bze, an vqvlmbm hoc Fjru goois jtoy xhz aomzpif. Lpw utrfm iw elgarpzcjz raizgy Acci vpk brlh dm, vhzyya zle jes wknoi acwvwl uiekmdu eo ox fed fxba cmzxhzee un yhqs uoilmus. Xym qtsij bz xhg jagv ttee sm tzzregwvws eo qh mi bhefwniz kpmeezck nh zvs egqqt. Rfe vhlx A ahze c fix qf osyemxl, pbarnmj, xe dbxsr'f skra ew pt dfhlxy aaxfahxxqhd, kzdgn hlsm oi bgpiixep ee epe lqzi.

Jw ksc ehrkejark pcyawslp mhq pxbxpkh ig uhnh imnaemggz aivl miobqvd zn tzm ZGE lw zpge oxer mcnvsgmr iv qhmq edgsyb. Kwath I hfv'v rpedef onqa wlq mk pplat xiishjqlt aeelor un Khfzxs bpeat ne, Hemy qg cg trnkvz uunl s lavopk csptqropz.

Oz, iah lwa, A gpaybzi fhgg vldwcn rarqe vvbea kwwv llp za wnhmkx. Zivgvap oifmrlbifo seplwjh pxvlt. Sfhke dpwdal uxrq pglwyo tdj bkeq, zb yad wgflxhkrg sh a oiwpjrsbvsa, svv X saix rimsua hz jsapcoe fhgg W hwb'i ymw irkw vrzytel es nsnk cs U wetkk oqgl yaymxos. Jx slmlr fsp pcl cyeip tnvg cmapavv.

Arfbjec xzbuk: I ymlp ehasdp i nwe fiza-xmqwip vittex fczv. Ocvraed Votbpzs kszlark, nqr dmeismckxy sh ezgzoqny iah qwkgstnt. Bt cau cnbe qh, hllw mq at ralqz. Xvmdlpp, ywoemfz h pipi fvqm m Ttys Fdwlh fgvy.
(CR: T)

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Tuesday, December 6

New Webspace

As you can see, a sibilant intake of breath has a new home. There are still a few kinks to be worked out, especially in terms of photo posting, but everything should be up and running soon. Thanks for updating your links.

[Edited to add: It's now 5:37am - late even for those with vampiric insomnia. I am done fixing the photos up to the start of November. I am off to make a tenth attempt at sleep, as Jessica advises. Bonsoir.]

Posted by Milan at 3:06 AM  

Short days, new projects

Oxford University Career ServicesAfter having coffee with Sheena, about which I shall not write, I read the second portion of Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost. The character whose account it is, Jack Prescott, is one of the least likable in fiction. He is a hot-headed bigot: a liar, rapist, and betrayer. That the story ends well for him is entirely as displeasing as the gruesome conclusion of the first part. Not, in any sense, a cheerful book. That said, the occasional foray into murder, treason, and intrigue is very much necessary for the committed reader of fiction. I quite enjoyed the discussions of cryptography in the third section, which I have not yet finished.

The book is set in the time shortly after Cromwell took over - not the nicest period in history. The violence, the bigotry, and the ignorance demonstrated in the book all reaffirm my belief that the world is generally improving. That's not to say that these things are no longer present but, at the very least, that they must now generally be apologized for and defended, rather than be taken as automatically acceptable. It's an unfashionable thing, these days, to believe in progress. First off, it involves the making of ontological claims that people no longer see as firmly based - which has some truth to it, but not enough to counter the evidence of overall improvement. Secondly, it requires the determination to judge the morals and practice of one place and time against another. While there are obviously difficulties in doing so - particularly insofar as the matter of individual and group identity is concerned - that doesn't seem adequate to conclude that no such comparisons can be made with validity. I would suppose that people given the chance to choose between living in some past age or the present one would choose the latter, largely because of the enormous benefits of modern medicine and nutrition, but also due to imperfect but helpful systems of justice and notions of philosophy and morality.

That's not to say there isn't a long way to go: especially in areas like women's rights, the environment, and the just distribution of goods: material, social, and political.

Summer job search:

This afternoon, I ran a mass of errands. Aside from boring bank stuff and groceries, I stopped by the Oxford University Career Services office. As you can see in the photo above, it looks like a very curious combination between the outside of a castle and the inside of a Church. It is up on Banbury Road, near the Computing Services offices and St. Antony's College.

Speaking with one of their advisors, I was told that banking and management consulting would both be real long shots for me. As the advisor told it, the problem isn't really a lack of experience in either area, or even in business generally. The first problem is the time span. Trinity term ends on the 17th of June and Michaelmas term begins in early October. Even if I wanted to work for that whole period, it would only amount to three and a half months or so. The second problem is the fact that I am not interested in a career in banking or consulting. The advisor stressed the fact that this would severely hinder my ability to find a job in these areas for such a short period of time.

As alternatives, she suggested looking for short term work in the research, publishing, or public sector administration areas. She also stressed the possibility of finding a job within the university and the importance of canvassing my professors and supervisor about it. I will ask Dr. Hurrell about it again the next time we meet, to discuss my paper on American foreign policy during the interwar years.

At the very least, I would want something that would pay the cost of living in Oxford or London and allow me some time to do research on my thesis. I am fairly sure it would be possible to devote the bulk of the period to full-time work: something I would do if it stood the chance of helping me pay for next year or reduce my outstanding student debt. The ideal job would probably be a research position in Oxford, in a field that is of interest and relevant to my degree, and which offered at least some time off to travel and do research.

The advisor explained that it is getting a bit late to apply for banking and consulting jobs, but it is too early to apply for most other sorts. As such, I should dig through job listings from previous years and get some sense of what is likely to come up. Another project for the break, two other two big ones being scholarship applications and preliminary house hunting for next year.

Travel preparations:

It is eleven days, now, until Sarah and I leave for Tallinn.

Right now, it is six degrees Celsius colder in Tallinn than in Oxford, making it the same temperature there as in Toronto. While that is certainly chilly enough, it won't be the kind of weather that requires balaclavas and threatens severe frostbite from brief exposures to the outside. Looking through the guide book that Nora gave me, I am excited about the prospects for seeing and doing interesting things in Tallinn. Additionally, I am looking forward to seeing Helsinki. Gabe Mastico, who I know from debate at UBC and who is now living in Helsinki, is going to let Sarah and I use his apartment while he is in Vancouver. Since we don't actually have a hostel registration in Tallinn yet (something that I should make in the next few days, quite probably), that might be especially valuable. Also, I will be able to say that I have seen 'the Baltic region' much more fairly if I go to two capitals, rather than just one.
  • Here's a question about encryption, to which I am seeking an answer. It's an issue that I find puzzling, and which never occurred to me before a friend raised the question today.
  • I am not feeling at all well. All of my joints and lymph nodes hurt - especially the ones near my subclavian arteries. I am going to get soup and vitamins tomorrow.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Monday, December 5

Sedate day

Oxford by nightHappy Birthday Neal Lantela

As Oxford thronged with tourists, I spent today reading. I belatedly finished this week's Economist, and moved forward on my books. It was a pretty slow day, really, but a bit of recuperation and a refocusing on work cannot go too badly wrong. I really need to buy whichever Christmas gifts I will be sending back to Canada, though it may be wiser to just buy things online and have them shipped. Postage here is criminally expensive.

This evening, I spoke to my friend Kerrie Hop Wo in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. She has been in Ghana, working for an NGO. Distressingly, she was diagnosed with "double malaria" two weeks ago, though she is now feeling better. Her husband Nolan also got a mild case. Thankfully, she says that she is feeling quite a bit better now. It goes to show the kind of dedication you need to have in order to commit yourself to spending a long period of time in a malarial region. It also increases my admiration of Andra Rozmer, in my program, who has been voluntarily infected with a particular strain in order to test a vaccine.

Along with Astrid's frightening description of the altitudinal effects of climbing Quilotoa volcano, it's enough to make me re-think the wisdom of Plan Kilimanjaro 2007. To quote: "[V]omiting, dizziness, headaches, and the craziness that it takes to continue are signs of cerebral edema, and one should descend. Unfortunately, one is then crazy enough to continue." While I don't envy her any of those symptoms, I have found her descriptions of various Andean adventures fascinating.

Tomorrow morning, I am having coffee with Sheena Chestnut: one of the eight young women in the M.Phil program. She is at St. Antony's along with Roham, Emily, Iason, Kai, Alex, and Shohei. She did her undergrad at Stanford and is planning to do her doctorate at Harvard. She strikes me - and many others - as a strong State Department member in the making. We're to go to a place called Brothers, in the Covered Market, where I have not yet been. Given the hostility many people here seem to have towards Starbucks, it will be nice to know of another alternative.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Sunday, December 4

Milan: Creature of the night

Telephone in Claire's flatOne seeming property of the end of term is that I am becoming properly, vampirically nocturnal. My mean sleeping time is pushing onwards and onwards towards dawn, as my mean waking time descends past noon and into the afternoon. I hope the powers will follow the lifestyle, if not the thirst for blood. At some point, it's a trend that will need to be beaten back. For now, it feels like a fairly appropriate extension of my personality and general state in the world.

Unfortunately, it seems that I won't be seeing my mother in March, on her way to Iran. According to a message she sent me today, she was denied a visa on the grounds that she has American citizenship, worked for the American government, and is a feminist. I don't know how the Iranian screening process would have identified the last item, or why they would be particularly concerned about it for a tourist, but it must be highly disappointing for her. I hope her appeal will be successful.

In an inspired piece of bureaucratic nonsense, I got yet another letter from NatWest today. This one says that, after receiving my fax, two sets of written instructions, and going to my home branch so they could record and verify my signature, they need to send banking details to my permanent address, in Canada. This is so that I can use their web banking and actually know how much I need to pay off for my credit card. They say they can only send the precious access code to a permanent address, for security purposes. Even though I won't be there and it will surely be opened by someone else who will send it to me by email, this is obviously an intelligent security step. Their concern is that they think the code will expire before I am able to get it: perhaps because they are planning to send it by elite-trained homing pigeon. Given the fact that Britain is a major exporter of financial services, you would think they might have the slightest smattering of sense about such things.

Claire's party tonight, at Wellington Square, was good fun. Somehow, the people present, the decor, and the overall character of the experience were all reminiscent of parties in Kits, such as the one where I met Meaghan Beattie, during my UBC years. In particular, the much-enjoyed and somewhat infamous 'Dirty House' parties. That's not a pejorative description, in any sense, but a reflection of a kind of academic-bohemian fusion upon which good parties are often predicated. I ended up talking about Pink Floyd and biofuels with several individuals. I also got involved in a passionate and protracted argument about the plausibility of string theory, and the likelihood that evidence for it will be found at CERN. Ah, Oxford. My thanks to Claire for the invitation.

Now, I should get to sleep.
  • Nick has some very nice photos from India on his blog.
  • My brother Mica is looking for comments on his videos. If you leave them here or send them to me, I can pass them on. See if you can spot my brother Sasha in this one (it's not hard).
  • Here are links to my Oxford Facebook photos, for non-members.
  • The third book of the five part trilogy called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fell out of an eddy in the space-time continuum and onto my hard drive. I have been enjoying it.

Posted by Milan at 6:57 AM  

Saturday, December 3

Further commentary from Mr. Bitters

Whatever compelled my fellow Wadham students to mark the end of term with an off-key, drunken sing-along lasting until well after 3:00am, I cannot understand. I can, however, be justifiably irked about it - particularly since it happened in the room with which I share a wall.

There aren't even any quiet hour regulations or residence advisors to report them to here.
[Edited to add:] On an unrelated note, people should consider taking action against Sony for intentionally deploying malware against their own paying customers, lying about it, releasing patches that make it worse, and never showing any contrition or concern about illegally sabotaging people's computers:

Image hosted by

Posted by Milan at 3:48 AM  

Christmas parties, elections, and employment

London LightsHappy Birthday Lise Bondy

Later tonight, as I was working to finish this week's Economist, it became terrifically windy - perhaps to mark the transition from term time to break time. I quite enjoy windy days, especially when they involve lightning. It's such an awesome and humbling thing to experience. There is a certain raw pleasure that can be derived from shrieking defiance at the momentous forces of nature, as well as the much softer pleasure that can be derived from eventually withdrawing from the contest. Windy days give you the chance to shout out the fact that you are alive and existing in defiance of increasing entropy and diminishing enthalpy. Then, they let you go inside, have some tea, and read for a while.

I spent a relatively short time at the MCR Christmas party, enjoying the string quartet and the chance to speak with some long-lost Wadhamites for a while. Among them, Melati, who I would be surprised to have mentioned in the last few weeks. My contact with those off in Merifield is minimal indeed, as interesting as they may be.

With the election date set for January 23rd, anyone who is Canadian and residing outside Canada should register for absentee voting using this form. I shall fax mine in on Monday. Crossing the boundary into partisanship, I urge those registered in contested ridings to vote Liberal. Yes, there has been sleaze. Yes, we feel alienated in the west. Yes, there is some justified resentment with regards to the Liberals and Quebec. In the end, however, we don't want a government led by Stephen Harper and we certainly don't want one comprised of a curious mix of former Tories and socially conservative former Alliance members. Paul Martin may be - as The Economist has dubbed him - "Mr. Dithers," but he is the best option we have at the moment. I want to live in a progressive society: one that espouses the kind of values Canadians have been nailing to the mast for at least fifty years. As such, I will be voting Liberal, just as I did from Rome in the summer of 2004.

In closing for today, it seems fitting to talk about employment. That is because I am hoping to use the term break to find some fitting remunerative setting in which to spend most of the time between Trinity Term and Michaelmas Term of 2006. My first job was delivering papers for the North Shore News. I delivered about 50 papers, three times a week, for about $50 a month. It took at least three or four hours to amalgamate the papers and flyers into deliverable objects and to walk around the area of the route. Working for about a dollar an hour, often under particularly rainy circumstances of those involving hostile dogs (I fear and dislike the species to this day) is not recommended.

Aside from that, I have worked for Pharmasave as a cashier; Staples as a computer salesman; the King's Court Apartments as a janitor; Miller Thomson as a photocopier, researcher, and information technology assistant; the Wild Bird Trust, as a volunteer labourer; Leadership Initiative for Earth, as a volunteer researcher; Camp Fircom, as a volunteer leader; Science Alive Daycamp, as a volunteer leader; Muffin Break, as a cashier; the Olympic Athletic Club, as a juice bar attendant and writer; Newbridge Networks, as a solderer of electronic components; Swinton and Company, now Miller Thomson, and an information technology assistant; the Vancouver Aquarium, as a volunteer feeder in the tropical section; and for the Canadian Department of National Defence, by means of the UBC International Relations Students' Association. Among those, my favourite jobs were the research jobs and the janitorial position.

This summer, I would like to work for some kind of a corporation that pays people well to think about things and doesn't make them work ninety hours a week. That would help reduce my level of student debt, and ensure that I will have the funds to complete the second year of the M.Phil. Probably, the firms in London would pay more, but I really don't understand what would be involved in getting a job there. Also, the cost of living would be much higher. I should probably take the advice of the woman from the Oxford University Career Services who I met at the New College guest dinner and come meet her about getting some kind of placement. In the mean time, anyone who is able and willing to provide information on where gainful employment might be found will be most attentively and appreciatively listened to.
  • For those of you who don't care a whit for the business of formatting, as is commendable, I recommend reading the blog through its atom feed. If you don't know what that means, and you want to, you can read this.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM  

Friday, December 2

So concludeth the first term

Today brought an explosion of good things. My first term at Oxford is now nominally complete. We had our final STATA lab and the statistics assignment for the break, which we received today, is relatively kind. I went for lunch at The Turf with 15 members of the program, which had a good air of solidarity to it. Afterwards, Claire lent me a Tracy Chapman CD that I haven't heard and very generously gave me her old mobile. I am now rather closer to being a proper European, though cell phones are ubiquitous in Vancouver as well.

As I understand it, in England you only get charged for messages you send and calls you initiate. As such, feel free to give me a call whenever you like (not that I will always be in a position to answer). Email me if you want the number. With hundreds of people reading this blog from all over the world, I'd rather keep any conversations with strangers online. Also, I would appreciate if those who have mobiles would email me their numbers.

Term Break To-Do:

Important and urgent:
  1. Thank-you letters for birthday gifts from relatives.
  2. Christmas shopping, for those far away.
  1. Study for quantitative methods test, in 0th week of next term.
  2. Complete final stats assignment, assigned today.
  3. Apply for at least two more big scholarships.
  4. Uncover details of the ORS scholarship.
  5. Read the books suggested by my supervisor.
  6. Pre-reading for next term.
Personal projects:
  1. Take some photos in Oxford, on film.
  2. Get physical exercise.
  3. Finish reading Paradise Lost, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Why the Allies Won the War.
  4. Buy a skillet and a pot; start cooking better.
Potentially excellent uses of time:
  1. Edit and resubmit fish paper.
  2. Make long lists relevant to only me.

  • Here is disheartening article on foster care in America.
  • Many of my brother's videos are now online. This is my favourite of the lot.
  • I am getting seriously irked with how I can't properly control line breaks and spacing in this template. The huge gaps that appear sometimes bother me most, as well as the bizarre inability of the archive pages to render properly in some versions of IE. Arg!

Posted by Milan at 6:01 PM  

First trip to London

Leaving critical notes in the ambassador's scrapbookHappy Birthday Matthew Tindall

Tonight's event, in the residence of Canada's second most important ambassador, comprised about 300 Canadian graduate students. The residence was quite lavish: richly endowed with artwork and the various trappings of high class hosting facilities. The project of meeting and mingling with dozens of Canadians from Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE, and elsewhere was a daunting one for me, but one which I think I rose to dealing with fairly well. I met a few interesting people from the Environmental Change Centre at Oxford. In particular, Andrew Robinson from Trinity College, who worked for the UNEP and is working on a master's here now. Hopefully, I shall see them again.

On the bus ride out, I sat beside a Canadian woman who studied French previously and who is now studying law, with an aim to practicing in the area of shipping. In a few days, she is heading to her flat in the south of France, where she will be spending Christmas with her boyfriend. Despite her assurances that it will be extremely cold, I think there are a great many people languishing back in Oxford who will envy her the journey. Hearing her plans made me doubly glad about being invited to London for Christmas with Sarah and her mother. I enjoyed speaking with my co-national about points of law, language, and education - while heading southeast to London.

We disembarked at Marble Arch and soon found the High Commissioner's residence. As I said, the inside was quite opulent. I suppose that is unsurprising given the importance of Anglo-Canadian relations over the short but broad sweep of Canadian diplomatic history. I spoke with the Commissioner himself for a while, as well as with several members of the Canadian diplomatic service. Chris Yung was there, as were Emily and a number of the Rhodes Scholars who I met at the outset of the year.

After a few hours of mingling, the staff stopped serving drinks: a message for postgraduate students to leave as unambiguous as firing tear gas. Despite a brief attempt to relocate to a nearby pub, I soon ended up shivering at Marble Arch, waiting with Sheena and Emily for buses back to Oxford. They were picked up fairly quickly by an Oxford Tube, but I huddled a while yet while waiting for the X90. I would have liked to do more in London, but there is little that a person can do to access a city when it is rainy, strange, and dark. As I observed on the homeward bus ride:
How hostile, how alien a dark strange city in the rain. The solidity of buildings and the alienation from our huddled fellows all remind us how we are to be jolted and feared, rather than embraced.

The collective of experience of life now is such as to conjure intense questioning. Education is not just that investment of time and money that yields more money in the future. It is a wrestling with history, with isolation, and with our own limitations.

Self doubt is the main concern now. It's a thing that you can seek to defeat - building walls of false confidence around yourself. Alternatively, you can plunge right into it and pray that you will emerge wiser on the other side. That process can only be attempted along with the realization that we can falter and drown.
A bit grim, I know, but it was a chilly and unpleasant night in the period after which it became a solitary one. I was hoping to derive some motive energy from the great metropolis of London, rather than scamper back, spurned, to the small town of Oxford. That said, it was worthwhile and enjoyable to see what an extensive mass of grad students Canada has dispatched to England. While it does have the unhappy impact of reminding you how unexceptional you may well be, you still cannot quite help being impressed by it. (I really do hope that I manage to find some way in which I am properly exceptional, after all, before I leave here.)

One piece of unambiguously happy news, in closing. Tomorrow morning, at 11:00am, is the final STATA lab. I hope that I shall never launch that most reviled of programs again.

Posted by Milan at 1:07 AM  

Thursday, December 1

First trip out of Oxford

I will be in London between about 5:30pm tonight and rather late. The dinner with the High Commissioner is scheduled between 7:00pm and 9:00pm, though I am guessing it will run a bit longer. After that, I will have a few hours to wander London. Any suggestions of things happening there tonight?

Posted by Milan at 1:12 PM  

Reminiscing about pixels and hit points

Chilly lounge of the Old Firehouse TheatrePlaying the Java port of Quake II for a while today, I was reminded of the days when computer gaming was a frequent use of my time. It began with Nintendo, as it must have for so many in my generation. We bought one at a junk swap at my old elementary school: the seller giving my mother his personal guarantee that it worked. We had Duck Hunt (which I always cheated at, using the gun mere inches from the screen) and Super Mario. Eventually, we traded that console for a Super Nintento, which I maintain is one of the best platforms ever developed. Between Mario World and Mario All Stars, we were well equipped. Add Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid and you have an awesome system. Add Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy games, and the rest of the RPG group and you have the real contender, along with the Playstation, for best platform ever.

The first PC game that really hooked me was Myst: back in the days when it was a glorified, colourful Hypercard stack. I remember taking careful notes, and the anger and betrayal I felt when I realized the game was impossible without a sound card: an accessory our NEC 486 (without math coprocessor) lacked. It was on that computer that I got my first glimpse of multiplayer gaming. We played Legend of the Red Dragon - a very primitive massively multiplayer online game - on a half dozen bulletin board services around North Vancouver. This was before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web. My other multiplayer experience was playing Warcraft II over the modem with Jonathan Morissette and Michael Kushnir. I remember how my mother used to become irked, picking up the phone to hear incomprehensible screeching noises. We had to upgrade our 486 to 8 megabytes of RAM in order to run Warcraft II and SimIsle, a game Mica got for Christmas but that we were never keen on. After all, my cousin Jiri had recently given me a pirated copy of Doom.

There was always a bit of an allure associated with Mac gaming. Jonathan's main home computer was a Mac and we would spend entire nights trading off between our two saved games of Escape Velocity. This terrifically exciting and engaging game called upon you to improve your ship, defeat thousands of opponents, complete a complex story line (one of two options), and conquer the galaxy. It wasn't until the two games that marked the apogee of my gaming experience that I found something more addictive. I calculated how many days I would need to go without buying cafeteria food, Coca Cola, or candy in order to afford the cheapest Mac that could run it.

For me, the pinnacle of gaming came with the release of Bungie's Myth. A revolutionary game on many fronts, it combined a truly three dimensional environment with the absolute need to use terrain and tactics to utmost advantage. Unlike Warcraft, where resources could be mined and more men produced, Myth limited you to what you had on the battlefield. Richly immersive, it became ten times more so online. (That said, I have always preferred to achieve perfection in the completion of a single-player game to giving up that possibility for the challenge and immediacy of competing against other humans.) I remember when there weren't more than 100 devoted players on When we all lived in awe of the Comet: the highest ranked player in the gaming ecosystem, and when we checked the Total Codex daily for news and humour. I spent most of my time on at the rank of Prince, a good way above the single dagger that each player started out with.

The other game that marked the peak of my commitment to these fantastic realms was the original Half Life. By this point, we had already progressed to a Pentium II computer with a Hercules Thriller 3D video card. I remember my appreciation when Nick and Neal got me the new video card that cleared up the clipping and white spot errors in Descent: Freespace and that allowed me to really enjoy Half Life in a hardware accelerated environment. From the attractive hero to the complexity of the environments, the creativity of the weapons, and the calculation involved in gameplay, Half Life was a winner in every respect. While I enjoyed playing the sequel after Mica bought it for me during my last year at UBC, even the greatly expanded complexity of the engine and plot couldn't recreate the obsessive energy that the first game conjured.

While getting into the Playstation era is too adventurous for such a short entry, a few critical games should be named. On Christmas Eve, the year of the Playstation launch, I remember finishing about the first half of Mica's copy of Final Fantasy VII. I went to sleep once the sun was well up, and after I had emerged from Midgar after about fifteen hours of intensive gameplay. The thing that I missed most after we got robbed one year was my Playstation memory card, which included a perfect game of FFVII. I had defeated both of the Weapons - much, much harder opponents than the end boss - and I had a gold chocobo and master materia. Oh, the loss! Aside from the legendary FFVII, the Playstation brought Einhander - that terribly difficult but engaging side-scroller - and the deadly exactitude of Bushido Blade.

Once I moved to UBC in first year, my gaming career entered its final phase. It was defined first by Civilization II, and then by its sequel. I've never been able to resist taking advantage of flaws within a game: how a certain boss in Diablo would just stand there while a fire wall roasted him or how marines in Half Life only activated when you got close enough to them, allowing you to dispatch their stationary forms with one well-directed crossbow quarrel. Civilization II abounded with such flaws. You could make impenetrable walls out of bombers, as long as you had one per square per turn. Civilization III - which became an obsession while Sarah Johnston was still in Vancouver - allowed you to sell cities for outrageous fees, even if they were in atrocious locations. The cash could fuel such a level of scientific research that, playing as the Zulus (my race of choice), you could nuke London by 1000A.D., at which time they would still have nothing better than spearmen to protect them.

I am not sure whether I ever derived anything more than enjoyment out of all these games. I never learned strategy from chess. Actually, I despise chess. It's terrifically boring, though you feel that, as an educated person, you ought to like it. Chess is what people played when there were no better options. Whether I learned anything from all these games or not, I am proof, at least, that you can end up in a fairly successful position despite devoting a great deal of time to them. It wasn't until the later years of high school that anything in my education was ever really challenging or compelling. Perhaps, in that sense, these games filled an important gap. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I salute them, as well as those who made them.

PS. I've left out SimCity: another obsession and the game I played most in my dreams, but one cannot be thorough in such things.

PPS. This list also excludes the more elite and challenging element of computer 'gaming.' By that, I mean the bypassing and overpowering of security systems put in place to guard actual systems and networks. Such things, though long since abandoned as a use of time, can't really be discussed here.

PPPS. How can I leave out Starcraft? Oh, the dozens of games that I played for hundreds of hours each.

Posted by Milan at 12:01 AM