Affection for books

Just now, I had a quintessential graduate student moment. On Halloween night, inside the Social Sciences Library, I was practically moved to hug Frank Costigliola’s Awkward Dominion: American Political, Economic, and Cultural Relations with Europe, 1919-1933, after I found the last confined copy: just 13 hours before the seminar where it may well save me from the embarassment of having to give a presentation based on hugely inadequate research. I got Offner’s Origins of the Second World War as well, so I will have an exciting three hours of trying to race through them before the library closes.

Happy Birthday Greg Allen

Fireplace in Emily's father's living room

I felt really strange for most of today, while sitting in the DPIR and working on one or the other paper. I felt significantly lighter than usual, as though I should sort-of bounce along like a moon astronaut. Also, I felt this impulse that seemed like a signal that should normally be attached to some need, as if to say VERY X, where X is an impulse like hunger or tiredness. When I checked, however, there was no X to feel VERY about, just some sense that I was missing something big. Such things can reduce one’s ability to concentrate.

Rather later, when walking back from dinner with Emily and her father, it occurred to me that the M.Phil in IR is rather like doing the front crawl. There are two phases: one in which your head is underwater and you are trying to move forward and the other in which you are trying to breathe, so as not to die. Like while swimming, the breathing part is always a matter of necessity and relief. It’s cyclical and it doesn’t last long. For me, it happens between Tuesday evening and Thursday, more or less.

Having dinner with Emily and her father, by contrast, was rather like getting out of the pool. sitting on the agreeable patio, and reading a good book. That has something to do with the relief of being ripped out of the narrow context of colleges, libraries, and shops where I have spent virtually all of the last month. Even though some of the time there was spent having a look at Emily’s paper and some more of it was spent discussing issues relevant to the course, it felt overall like a more thorough kind of non-school than anything else I have done so far. Even going for walks and reading books feels like the breath between two strokes, you see.

Meeting Emily’s father was engaging and worthwhile. It amused me to slip a birthday note (Ave Avi A vie) into the mail slot of Avi Shlaim, who lives next door and whose book I read in Emily’s company a few days ago. Likewise, sitting beside a fire and eating omelette were both pleasant reminders of the enormity of the non M.Phil, non IR world.

Speaking of that world, I feel compelled to respond to something Emily told me. Apparently, a good share of the M.Phil program seems to be reading this blog. (Something similar is true of the college.) My first response to hearing that is fear and the concern that I’ve said something stupid. My second response is the general feeling that people really ought to have better things to do with their time, though far be it for me to tell people what to do. In general, then, I suppose I should offer my greeting to the concealed masses. Your presence forces me to do a couple of things. Firstly, it forces me to at least try and be interesting. Even during days when I wake up and feel ghastly, try to read, do some laundry, and go to bed, I need to come up with something that won’t have people drooping with boredom and slamming shut their laptops in disgust. Now, I should be clear about one thing. I try to be entertaining for the people back in Vancouver as well. The big difference is that, since they are not here, I could probably entertain them most easily in ways somewhat different from those in which I might entertain those in Oxford. It’s the second group – the closer group – that compels me to be reasonably accurate, as well as interesting.

The second, and rather more difficult, thing that I am forced to do is be tactful. As much effort as it can require to be at least a bit interesting, it is much harder to maintain a blog as a relatively sane, civil, rant-free place. When one has the nestling comfort of obscurity all around, these things are not important. When one is standing at the centre of a group of unidentified figures, it comes rather to the forefront. All in all, it will probably be good practice. Please forgive me, in any event, the occasional lapse. Much as I try not to be, I am a fallible creature. Part of the reason for this blog is to help me process my thinking into a more refined form. It is quite possible to believe something for a long time that you instantly see the wrongness of as soon as you are challenged to write it down and explain it. Self-improvement is an aim of the blog, and life in general.

At the moment, however, there is no time for that. I have two papers due on Tuesday that exist, at present, in the state between when the individual components are welded together and laid out according to the design and the part where everything is strapped and attached and the thing is ready to fly on its own.

Many thanks to Emily for a very pleasant evening. Let us hope that the revitalization it has induced will help me to overcome the latest batch of hurdles the program has thrown my way.

PS. One last note to people reading: I would appreciate if you would participate, in some sense. I much prefer a discussion to an extended one-sided rant. I realize that it might be awkward to comment in a space that I basically have exclusive dominion over (though certainly not complete control). Therefore, I suggest that people with nothing in particular to do should consider posting on the IR forum. I really think we might be able to help each other out with things, if not actually get to know one another better.

PPS. To those asking her about it, Emily never promised to get me a job of any kind. She merely indicated that she might be able to set me looking in appropriate directions. It’s quite unfair to approach her with requests for similar treatment, just because I was careless enough to post the initial incident here.

Milan out.


Broad Street

For the whole length of my academic life, I have been a shameless procrastinator. Every time I have some new and lengthy project to complete, I manage to forget this and feel increasingly ashamed and alarmed at my inability to make progress on it. At some level, this is probably predicated on the background knowledge that I’ve put off so many other projects before and made my way along relatively unscathed afterwards. At another, it reflects the curious nature of my ability to do work – especially writing. It’s something I am occasionally able to do in great, bounding bursts – completing several pages in ten minutes or so. It’s actually partly an effort to level out the rate at which I write that I have been updating this blog. Hopefully, it will beget a habit of greater consistency.

There is a certain irony in how cogent and comprehensible arguments are more easily attacked. When presented with something full of unfamiliar terms and complex arguments, it is difficult to formulate a response. Even in cases where a lot of that complexity masks underlying flaws, there is a great hesitance to accuse someone of nebulous thinking, for fear that their argument has simply been too subtle for you, or grounded in strongly differing assumptions.

Four weeks into my first term, it seems awfully early to be thinking about summer employment. That said, I will be damned if I end up working for £3.50 an hour this summer, with no benefits. Emily has suggested that she could help me get some kind of banking or consulting job in London and that, furthermore, my total lack of knowledge about either is not a serious impediment. While I do have some doubts about whether anyone would give me a real job for the period between June 17th, at the end of Trinity term, and the start of Michaelmas term on October 6th. If such a job can be found, it will be a welcome way to reduce the amount of student debt I will be taking on.

Daily miscellany:

  • I’ve been corresponding a bit with Astrid in Quito. It’s fascinating to read about what she has been doing down there – volunteering for a maternity clinic – though the stories can be quite startling, as well.
  • In the spaces where I previously just stared blankly around my room, between periods of reading or writing, I’ve started reading Terry Pratchett‘s Witches Abroad. Some reminder that all books are not about IR is welcome. Also, Meghan has been recommending Pratchett to me for ages. I remember reading Night Watch with Laurie, Tish, and her atop Palatine Hill in Rome.
  • Here is an interesting article on seafood menus and fisheries.
  • Nick Sayeg has some nice photos from Norway on his blog.

First Bloggers’ Gathering

Bloggers gathered in The Turf

In short, the bloggers’ gathering was a success. It was interesting and enjoyable to meet a diverse group of engaging people, none of whom really have an appearance that screams blogger!, whatever sort of appearance that might be.

The Library Court party afterwards, to which I brought two of the people from the bloggers’ gathering, succeeded in blocking any attempts to work on all the academic things that need to be done. That said, I was not fighting and kicking to make progress on them. Why, there are hours left yet.

This afternoon included a quasi-valiant effort to move forward on the various projects that must be complete next week:

  1. Paper for Andrew Hurrell (Tuesday)
  2. Paper for Dr. Fawcett and Wright (Tuesday)
  3. Presentation on American isolationism during the interwar years (Tuesday)
  4. Statistics Assignment (Wednesday)
  5. Pay fees and battles (Friday)

Tomorrow, all these things will begin to orbit elegantly around the gravitational centre of whatever intellect I still possess: condensing and organizing themselves to the point where they are both internally and externally comprehensible.


Some perspective

I read something tonight – something Astrid sent me from Ecuador – that makes me feel ashamed about how trivial all the thoughts and concerns represented on this site are. How is it that we can legitimately complain about this or that aspect of life in Oxford when the whole experience of it is incomparably safer and richer than that of a huge tranche of humanity? A vignette of some of the more shocking products of that inequality lends incredible poignancy to the question. A more important question that follows is: what must we do?

To be exposed to the enormity of poverty and injustice is to be charged with an overwhelming ethical sense that something must be done; and yet, the content of that something is unclear. The experience is reminiscent of that of reading an article my aunt wrote: one of an astonished powerlessness. All that I feel as though I can do now is not to forget about it, just because it is usually concealed and peripheral to my thinking. If we are go get anywhere, as a world of people. we need to deal with this.

Perhaps, on the basis of her experiences in South America, Astrid will be able to understand – and help many more of us understand – the complexities and the imperatives involved.

Utility of force lecture, etc

Boats on the Isis by night

Today was a lovely day and a good one: bright enough to justify the use of sunglasses, with quite a good amount of work completed, to boot. Before my lecture, I finished this week’s Economist and completed a solid outline (including introduction) for the paper I am writing for Dr. Hurrell. With luck, by the time Emily and I meet on Sunday evening to edit papers, I will have both of the ones due for Tuesday finished.

After today’s advanced study of IR lecture, which was delivered by Dr. Hurrell, I had the chance for a very brief stopover at Wadham before moving onwards to the exam schools and a Changing Character of War Program lecture. It was delivered by General Sir Rupert Smith, on the topic of the utility of force. Most of his points were quite familiar, but the one bit that struck me as quite clever was a rebuttal to something that has become the accepted wisdom with regards to fighting terrorism: namely, that it is an asymmetrical conflict. The idea goes that when states with regular armies try to fight non-state groups with irregular forces, they have a rough time of it. The point General Smith made is that it is a requirement of good generalship to turn any conflict you are involved in into an asymmetrical one, to your advantage. To designate the wars where we are doing badly as ‘asymmetric’ and leave it at that is a therefore both a misunderstanding and a poor excuse.

His more familiar contentions include how terrorist groups and other non-state military actors have adopted the practice of operating below the threshold at which the forces of states have utility. He also talked a lot about generating and maintaining support from both your domestic constituency and within the areas where you are operating, as well as the new role of the armed forces in creating the conditions under which stability can exist, rather than defeating the enemy in a straightforward and conclusive way.

After the talk, I had dinner with Roham at St. Antony’s, watched a few minutes from Pirates of the Caribbean, and had a beer. The film reminded me pleasantly of the first time I saw it, in Montreal with Viktoria P. It’s definitely the sort of trend that it would have been nice to extrapolate for the evening, but my two upcoming essays are wailing at me for completion and there is much else to do besides. Tomorrow, I am determined to spend as much time as possible (aside from the quantitative methods lab and bloggers’ gathering) in the Social Sciences Library reading for the papers and next week’s seminar.

Miscellaneous other:

  • Thankfully, I’ve been able to defer my battels and fees, yet again. Anyone considering coming to Oxford should take note of how astonishingly difficult and time consuming it can be to transfer money here.
  • If people in Group B, with Dr. Roberts and Ceadel, could take a look at this thread on the forum, that would be excellent.

Tallinn trip confirmed

Man in Graveyard

I am now officially booked to go to Tallinn from the 16th of December until the 22nd. It’s an area I’m excited to visit, since I’ve never been anywhere remotely like it. After my EndNote course today, I went to Blackwell’s and looked through the travel books on Estonia for a while. Some of its appeal as a destination comes from how I know so little about it. It should be an adventure. There also seems to be the possibility of going to Finland for a day or so; apparently, Helsinki is a cheap three hour ferry ride away. Sarah and I intend to have a look at that, as well.

The other thing that caught my eye at Blackwell’s was a collection of large laminated wall maps of the world, each with metal strips along the top and bottom, such that they can be hung. The strict new prohibition against Blu-Tac in Wadham increases the importance of the latter feature. Given that I’ve just spent one hundred pounds on flights to and from Tallinn, as well as some travel insurance, now is not the time to buy such a map. At the same time, it’s a thing I should definitely get eventually. I remember spending long periods of time perusing the one on the wall behind the fax machines at the law firm whose mail room I used to work in. The more time I spent within three kilometres of Wadham (35 days or so), the more I begin to fantasize about exploring much farther afield.

This evening, Nora and I drank the tea that Meghan sent me. It was a pleasant reminder of good things left behind on the west coast, and I appreciate her sending it. Thinking about Vancouver reminds me of how odd it will be to spend Christmas in Oxford. It will probably be a bit like the days in the December of my first year when Nick, Neal, Jonathan, and I occupied the near-empty dormitory for the winter solstice and “Pagan X-Box Con 2001.”

Later in the evening, I had a good wander with Emily: talking about the program, upcoming papers, plans for the break, and such. She says that she can help me get some kind of decent and well-paying job in London for the period between the two years of the M.Phil. It would be incredible to both have my first ‘real’ job and have the chance to somewhat reduce the amount of debt I will be taking on next year. I’m also excited that she has invited me to have dinner with her and her father at some point. As I may have already mentioned, he is a sculptor who lives in Oxford and who, if I recall correctly, made the heads around the top of the Sheldonian Theatre, as well as the friars at the Blackfriars tube station in London.

The walk, up and down St. Aldate’s Road and then to St. Antony’s along St. Giles, was a good conclusion to a day that has restored me to some kind of productive emotional equilibrium, after the curious dip of these past two days. Now, I can get on to the serious work of drafting two papers and a presentation, all for next Tuesday.

PS. This Friday, there is to be a gathering of Oxford bloggers, at a yet-to-be-decided location. It will be interesting to meet some contemporaries of that kind. Perhaps it will offer some tips on how to improve the rudimentary formatting of this blog, as compared with the slick complexity of some of the others.

Day that can’t be described much

Booze in The Turf

Today was an odd day, heavily tinged with the uncertainties of yesterday. I attended many hours of class, followed by an IR social, followed by a pilgrimage to The Turf.

All told, it was a much more enjoyable day than yesterday. I wasn’t called upon to present in the core seminar, though Bryony did an excellent job with the topic. While tedious, the quantitative methods lecture covered some good material. The subsequent round table on national and regional responses to American hegemony was extremely interesting, and the IR social event afterwards was good fun. In particular, there were good conversations to be had.

[Content Removed: 29 October 2005]
[Photo Replaced: 29 October 2005]

Speaking with Margaret for a few hours later also did much to make the day a good one.

Happy Birthday Lana Rupp

Blurry Milan in Green College. Photo by Emily PaddonI had written another omnibus entry for today, all arrayed in neat paragraphs, but after attending the research forum Bilyana invited me to, I think I can do better.

Today, I had my first real pang of intellectual exhaustion. The whole day was like wading through mucky weed-strewn bog: unpleasant, unproductive, and liable to make you question why you are where you are and whether you should set yourself trudging towards the nearest edge of the mire. While I was sitting in the back of the room – peppered with fellows, cheeses, and ports – I decided that if I am going to carry on to a PhD, I absolutely must do something else first. Something in a world far removed from this and hopefully more connected to the world which all this purports to examine.

The irony of the moment is that graduate work is so much more haphazard and general than the last years at UBC were. Here, we have no choice about what we study. Worse, we are thrown at narrow questions without any real context, without the perspective to judge and speak with authority or relevance. We’re just picking up books and trying to smash through windows with them and, beyond identifying who can handle it and who cannot, we’re not achieving a thing.

I realize that such criticisms themselves lack balance and long-term perspective, but it’s often better to express an idea when it is still unsteady and vital: before the addition of stabilizing girders makes it impotent.

Day of reading

Land Rover near St. Catz

Today basically involved nothing but reading. I finished The Twenty Years’ Crisis and more of this week’s Economist. The end of Carr’s book is much less convincing than the beginning, particularly due to its conception of international law. It strikes me as one that, in many important respects, has been undermined and transcended in the years between the book’s publication and the present. While there may always be causes of egregious breach in international law, it seems to me that the institutional framework for it has developed considerably, as has acceptance of international rules and norms both among general populations and political elites. It may not ‘bite’ when it comes to the very most contentious issues, but it is more than the mere distillation of power that Carr generally portrays it as being.

Another task accomplished today was the completion of what I hope is a solid draft of the statistics assignment. I feel decidedly shaky with regards to my ability to use STATA and it’s never comfortable to be using a dataset that is basically unknown to you in terms of origin and methodology. Still, I think I’ve done a decent job of answering the questions, given rigid space constraints, and it feels like now is the time to move onto other tasks. Nobody will assert that I am lacking for them.

While there is definitely a lot of work that exists to occupy my time, I nonetheless feel that some kind of voluntary organization would be a good place to invest some energy. It would balance out life a bit, offer me the chance to meet new people who aren’t residents of Wadham or students of international relations, and generally deepen my Oxford experience. The Oxford Union is definitely out, at the present time, due to excessive cost. The mountaineering club has been suggested to me, but I have no experience with such things, really. Are there any other groups that people would urge me to consider?

Aside from a brief foray to buy discounted soup at Sainsbury’s, I have not left my room today. I shall endeavour to be more interesting tomorrow.

Today’s short items:

  • A more interesting post than mine is here. This one even more so.
  • I think I need to vary my diet a little. I haven’t eaten anything cooked, apart from microwaved Sainsbury’s soup, since the last meal in hall I did not opt out of (October 11th).
  • After using the LCD monitors down in the college computer lab to finish the stats assignment, it is a pleasure to come back to a screen with a proper contrast level and the beauty of anti-aliased fonts. Windows users: the way Garamond looks in the rendered banner at the top of this page is how it looks all the time in Mac OS, where it is lovingly smoothed.