New plans shaping up

Inside the AshmoleanAnother expedition in the works?

My mother’s travel plans are coming together and, in a move that surprised me, she invited me to accompany her to either Greece of Malta at the end of March. In either case, we would be leaving on the 28th. After the Baltic in December, I suspect that the Mediterranean in March would make for quite a contrast. EasyJet doesn’t seem to fly to Valletta, though they do have return flights from London to Athens on the right days for less than £90. I don’t know anything about Malta, save that is discussed in John Keegan’s Intelligence in War, in the context of Napoleon landing there while being chased by Admiral Lord Nelson, prior to the Battle of the Nile. Looking through the Wikipedia entry, the place certainly has quite a history. Particularly for a country that you could walk around in a few days.

Greece, of course, I know much more about. It would be excellent indeed to see the original home of the Parthenon Marbles, which I suppose we would have to stop at the British Museum to have a look at before departing. Going to the very source of Greek food would obviously be a delight, as would visiting the setting of so much classical history and myth. The Greek option is apparently also three days longer than the Maltese.

In either case, I am really excited about the possibility of going. One of the great advantages of living in Britain is the proximity of all the rest of Europe. That, coupled with inexpensive flights from EasyJet and RyanAir, puts a really fascinating section of the world within reach.

An excellent evening

I always leave my supervisions with Dr. Hurrell in very good spirits. Today, we discussed my essay and went into quite a bit of philosophical depth. We discussed a broader reading of Hobbes than international relations theorists generally subscribe to, as well as Rawls, Rousseau, Rorty, and a number of others. Like all of the other supervisions so far, it was a really energetic discussion in which I felt strongly intellectually engaged.

Afterwards, I went for a tour through the Ashmolean with Claire and several of her roommates. Apparently, the place is to be partially torn down by summer, and then rebuilt over the next three years. As a consequence, much of the collection will be inaccessible for a long while. A good amount of what we did see was quite interesting and I should like to go back for a proper, guided tour at some point.

The Strategic Studies Group session tonight was about regulating private military firms, though the speaker only spoke about the kinds that provide direct security (whether in a combat capacity or not). Largely excluded: military contractors like Military Professional Resources Incorporated and logistics firms like Brown & Root. That said, it was quite interesting. I was suprised to learn that international humanitarian law doesn’t apply in cases where private military firms are employed by other private companies: for instance, when companies like DynCorp provide security to Shell, operating in Nigeria, or to the Saudi national oil company.

One rather unfortunate thing I learned is the the OUSSG trip to Brussels – visiting NATO Headquarters, Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Europe, and the European Parliament – is taking place between the 22nd and 24th of March: exactly when my mother will be arriving in the U.K. Perhaps I will be able to go next year. Not that I am disappointed, given the prospect of going to Malta or Greece instead. It’s just regrettable that it happened to be at the same time, especially since the trip is being subsidized by the European Parliament, such that people only need to pay for transport to Brussels.

  • This description of chemical misadventures is short, amusing, and worth a read.
  • Also amusing, some legal bluster from the malware industry, over at BoingBoing. This reminds me of the Legal Threats section at
  • Trivia fact: I have been wearing a pair of these Sportif Explorer Convertible Pants every day since I arrived in Oxford. As I learned in Vancouver, Italy, and elsewhere – these are a very durable article of clothing. The zip-up side pockets, profusion of other pockets, and articulated knees are all strong selling points. Next time I am in Vancouver, I am buying the fleece-lined version, which would have been nice in Tallinn and Helsinki.

Critical theory and normative politics

During today’s seminar, which was every bit as energetic as I expected, I was stuck by a question. The discussion centred around the grand and frustrating neo-neo debate, where neoliberals and neorealists fall over themselves to prove how much more scientific they are than one another. While this kind of thing blasted back and forth between the two sides, some interesting critical theory questions started to come up at the periphery. What is the role of theory? How does it affect power relations within and between states? Which elites does it serve, and how? What effect does the person making theory have on the theory produced, and can that impact be bracketed or ignored?

The kind of self-awareness that such questions call upon theory to deliver demonstrates one of the ways in which critical theory might be extremely helpful to us. Indeed, if we can deal with the empirical and ontological problems and assumptions that underlie classical liberalism, perhaps we can rescue it. Classical philosophy has the great virtue that it is explicitly concerned with the good life. Not to imply that this is a monolithic thing, in terms of content, but it is a monolithic thing in terms of human intention. We’re all constantly pondering what the lines of our obituary will say, the way we are and will be remembered. As such, there is a fundamental humanity to projects that personalize political questions.

Obviously, theories like liberal institutionalism can be helpful to us. Maybe they will help us develop effective institutions to deal with real problems. The fear many people seem to have about critical theory is that it will hopelessly erode our ability to say anything of value about the world, much less act in a meaningful and progressive way. The idea that struck me – and it’s really nothing more than a shadow of an idea – is that perhaps we could use critical theory to replace some of the puffery about rational individuals and black boxes that exists in classical theory with something more philosophically rigorous. Perhaps it could enable unashamed action, rather than binding us forever in a kind of grim relativism.

Operation ‘Read More’ meeting with tolerable success

We have periodicals on microfiche

I spent most of today trapped in the Social Sciences Library (the oft-mentioned SSL) due to the gravitational attraction of a stack of books about neo-liberal institutionalism. Now, I have nearly finished an essay. This is especially welcome since it is due tomorrow morning at 11:00am, during our core seminar.

The essay is about the dullest side of international relations theory: a sub-discipline that I shall label “What are we going to call things?” It consists of extensively argued, frequently seriously embittered tirades about whether X belongs in set A or not. Is Hobbes a realist? Is neoliberal institutionalism liberal, as well as really horrible term? Despite the fact that questions of the kind posed above have almost no relevance outside the bizarre world of junior professorships, you will find them hotly debated. Part of the problem is that these questions don’t have real answers: they only have answers that are more or less plausible to certain people, mostly because of biases they already hold. I’ve been baking in the liberal internationalist oven that is Western Canada for far too long to view realism with anything less than profound skepticism. Likewise, the urge to defend liberalism – particularly variants that account for the more solid bits of the critical theory rebuttal – is fairly automatic. While it’s irksome to have such an obviously constructed and difficult to eradicate bias, it probably doesn’t have too much long-term significance.

There are, of course, important consequences that arise from theory, for it cannot help but inform policy, however imperfectly and indirectly. As such, I can see the value of slogging through these sorts of things. Additionally, it seems highly likely that we will have another interesting and high energy debate during our core seminar tomorrow.

In any case, I must go back to my stack of books and sheath of notes – carrying small elements of their language and argumentation over into my essay, marked with wee footnotes. Then, it will just remain to edit the thing so that it doesn’t have the same ability to drain all the joy from life that a good number of these IR theory texts seem to have specialized in.

Tomorrow, after Philosophy of the Social Sciences, the core seminar, and the Changing Character of War seminar, I have my first supervision this term with Dr. Hurrell. I shall have to review my paper. In the evening. I will be going on a private tour of the Ashmolean Museum, along with Claire and some other fresher graduates. Unlike the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum, I haven’t yet wandered into this collection of artifacts pilfered by long-dead British aristocrats. This will mean missing this week’s Strategic Studies Group lecture, but this seems the better option. I look forward to it.

  • The proposed second Oxford bloggers’ gathering seems to be falling apart, since very few people can attend on the proposed night. Is there a night of the week when more people would be able to attend? On what night are people least busy?
  • One thing I found today that I didn’t expect: the Oxford libraries will give you bags of the highest quality if you need them to carry books through the rain. Made of tough clear plastic, with good handles and ‘Oxford University Library Services’ and the university crest printed on them in blue. The handles are even double-thickness plastic, so as not to tear. Quite obviously the finest bags I’ve seen in a long while.
  • Anyone wanting to try their hand at some amateur codebreaking, and who is not too troubled by the morbid, should have a look at Bruce Schneier’s blog.
  • While I’ve mentioned it before, Post Secret remains a fascinating glimpse into people’s lives. One of these postcards apparently belongs to Alithea: the friend of Tristan whose music I endorsed in a recent post.
  • Remind me to buy Earl Grey tea. It’s a terrible thing to be out of.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

The results of the statistics exam are back and, along with at least two other members of the M.Phil, I managed to get a distinction. While that is mostly reflective of the fact that I did statistics back at UBC, I am still glad to have begun my Oxford exam career on the right foot. Here’s hoping it carries through to my qualifying test, during the next inter-term break.

Now, back to my increasingly amorphous paper on neo-liberal institutionalism.

An orrery of errors

Shadow on brick wall

One of the trickiest questions of environmental politics is always whether we are actually managing to deal with problems, or whether we are just shifting them elsewhere – either spatially or temporally. This is true on many fronts: with regards to pollution, with regards to resources, and with regards to the overall intensity with which we are exploiting the earth. Our experiences of environmental conditions in the rich world are certainly not reflective of the overall global story, nor of the ultimate consequences.

Looking first at pollution: during the early periods of their industrialization, the countries that are now the world’s cleanest were polluted to the point of seriously impinging upon the health of those who lived within them, particularly in the cities. London’s notorious fogs were more the product of particulate matter from burning coal than the product of the natural humidity of the place. Some Japanese cities were so saturated with heavy metals from industrial sources that they became notorious for the illnesses and birth defects that resulted. Evidently, the bulk of these problems have now been overcome in the developed world. Zoning laws, environmental regulations, new technologies, and the rest have all come together to make our air and water broadly safer than they have been since the industrial revolution.

The extent to which we can cheer this is, however, mitigated somewhat in the knowledge that much of the health and safety we enjoy is the product of misery elsewhere. Consider the conditions in the industrializing regions of India or China. Consider the conditions in the various resource sectors that provide the raw materials of affluence: from coal and diamond mines to hazardous timber industries run by corrupt national armies and organized crime syndicates in the Asia Pacific.

Indeed, resources are probably the area where this outsourcing can be most obviously seen. What forests remain in much of the developed world are fairly rigorously protected. Even Canada’s vast timber industry has requirements for conservation, replanting, and the protection of streams. I am certainly not claiming that this industry is perfect, nor entirely sustainable in its present form, but it is clear that these kind of standards certainly do not exist worldwide. Where once the big area of concern among environmentalists was the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (certainly still in danger from a growing human population and the desire for land), the real, widespread damage being done today is in Asia: where the smoke from massive land-clearing forest fires occasionally rains down on cities and where Japan uses more tropical hardwood than any other nation in the world. The primary use: shaping concrete.

The most difficult to assess area in which such phenomena are occurring is in terms of just how much stress vital ecological and climatological systems can endure before they are degraded in the long term. I needn’t remind any long-term readers about the example of fisheries, but is also bears considering just how much toxic and radioactive sludge we can continue dumping into the sea before the problem comes back to bite us. Consider the dozens of Soviet nuclear warships and submarines that have been scuttled off obscure portions of the Russian coastline: both well-stuffed with spent fuel and other radioactive waste and, in most cases, themselves rendered dangerously radioactive. Like the concrete tomb in which the Chernobyl reactor has been encased, it is only a matter of time before these containers are broken down by time and corrosion.

A similar story of large scale pollution can be told about the atmosphere – and I am not talking about greenhouse gasses and climate change. A broad collection of chemicals including the products of burning garbage, as Japan does widely, industrial chemicals, like the PCBs leaking from the old RADAR stations along Canada’s Distant Early Warning Line, and pesticides have such chemical compositions that they break down only extremely slowly in the biosphere. They do, however, concentrate in fatty tissues and in ever-greater concentrations as they progress up the food chain. The long-term ramifications of these persistent organic pollutants are, naturally, far from entirely known.

As for climate change, this is the macro-level elephant in the room. While we don’t know exactly what it will involve, what magnitude it will be, and what it will cost to deal with, the reality of climate change demonstrates how human activity can impact the entire planet. It also underscores the extent to which our present prosperity may be banking colossal problems for future generations.

The point of this is not to be overly alarmist, nor to endorse specific policies for dealing with the above problems. The point is related to how problems need to reach a certain level of severity before action against them comes together. Look at the present political circuses about health care and pensions in all the demographically-shifting rich states. Sometimes, action taken at the point where danger is apprehended is effective. Look at the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons: the major class of chemicals that was eroding the ozone layer. Within a couple of decades of the identification of the problem, a fairly effective international regime was in place to begin dealing with it. The ozone is recovering.

Looking through the literature, you will see the ozone example a lot. That’s not just because it is a fairly good example of international cooperation on a clear environmental problem: it’s because it is one of a few success stories among myriad failures. Hopefully, in the next few decades, we will gain tools to better understand the future consequences of present choices and actions. Likewise, I am hopeful that we will develop the wisdom – individual and collective – to begin curbing contemporary demands and wasteful and destructive contemporary practices, both with an eye to global equity and another towards those who are to succeed us on this planet.

Alternative Careers Fair

Vines on a wall

The better part of today was taken up attending the Alternative Careers Fair, over in the exam schools. I attended two sessions: the one on ‘Arts’ because it included Philip Pullman and the one on ‘Environment.’ Neither was exactly what I expected. Overall, the experience was interesting – and it was good to meet Mr. Pullman – but it did not assist me in finding employment for the summer. Of course, a ‘careers fair’ is generally meant to have a longer term focus than that.

The arts panel was heavily dominated by Lorraine Platt, a painter who spoke first and for more than twice her alloted length of time. A series of disjointed observations and repeated statements, I didn’t find much that was useful or insightful in her presentation. That said, if I was contemplating a painting career, I might feel differently.

Mr. Pullman spoke last, after a musical therapist, for about twenty minutes. A bespectacled, balding man, I am amused to note that he wore exactly the same shirt as is featured in his portait on his website. His presentation was interesting partly because it seemed to portray an unusually focused life for a fiction author. While he described a number of jobs he has done over the years, none of them involved any writing or any cessation from attempts at novel writing. While you obviously can’t get the sense of a person’s life in twenty minutes, it was nonetheless a vignette of a committed person. Three pages a day, he says, has been his standard from the beginning.

Pullman spoke comfortably and with humour, quite unlike the more overbearing characters who directed the next seminar. His stress upon the importance of writing a good first page, and a good first chapter, is definitely reflected in his books: particularly The Golden Compass, which I consider to have one of the most skillful openings of any book I’ve read. As for motivational advice, he offered the following tidbit: “You need to be slightly insane, really. That’s what kept me going.”

After the session, I spoke with him very briefly and got him to inscribe my copy of Paradise Lost, since it was already signed and represents the only piece of his work I have with me in Oxford. It was amusing to note that, among the group of young women with whom I stood in order to have a book signed, more than half were past or present students of Wadham College. That said, I didn’t recognize any of them.

The environment panel, which I attended after wandering the booths upstairs for a while and speaking with Natalie Lundsteen from the Career Service, included George Marshall and John Manoocherhri. Aside from an evident shared passion for the environment and for their work, the men were quite different. Mr. Marshall spoke with skill, but some hesitation, like someone who has never really enjoyed addressing an audience. He was careful to at least bracket and identify the bits of his short autobiography that might seem presumptuous or vain. His work on tropical forests in the Asia Pacific reminded me of Peter Dauvergne.

Mr. Manoocherhri, in stark contrast, tended towards the bombastic, the arrogant, and the foul-mouthed. While he initially came off as plain speaking, energetic, and direct, over the course of his presentation he became decreasingly attractive. He had a great willingness to pronounce himself expert on a matter, as well as a general mode of speech that was saturated with an over-certainty that diminished his credibility. While he did tell people much of what they wanted to hear (about how we will all have superb jobs in the environmental field), I don’t know if he actually contributed a large amount of usable information. That said, I am still glad to have attended his talk.

Employment possibilities for the summer remain elusive. My three forays to the career service have produced starkly different pieces of advice. I was told, the first time, that I should apply for a job doing consulting or investment banking, because they would help pay down my student debt and they aren’t terribly hard to get into if you can say the right things. The next time, I was told that I absolutely should not apply in those fields and, if I did, I would just get rejected anyway. Instead, it was suggested, I should look for a job related to writing or the environment. Today, I was told that any work I did on the environment or doing writing over the summer would almost certainly be unpaid, and that I should get a job in the college or in a pub in order to sustain myself.

‘Marketing myself’ is just the sort of thing I find difficult, frustrating, and profoundly unappealing. Applying for things requires exerting effort towards no productive end, save overcoming the various obstacles between yourself and a job. It requires a certain kind of distorted self-presentation that frequently borders on being deceptive. I hope I will be able to find some sort of position for the summer without too much of that.

Anyhow, I shall be working on my core seminar essay tonight. Not the most exciting option for a Saturday, by any means, but that which is presently required. Since all copies of the readings that can be withdrawn from the SSL have been, I need to go there at a time when the confined copies are relatively likely to be free. Tomorrow should be better, if I can get a good amount of work done tonight. I am looking forward to coffee with Margaret in the morning.

  • I realize that I never wrote anything about the big birthday party in Wadham last night. This is an intentional response to how bothersome writing anything about the college has generally been. Between people who absolutely do not want to be mentioned and people who are annoyed when they aren’t, the level of diplomacy involved is just beyond what I am willing to put up with at the moment. That said, I was quite glad to meet Seth and I hope the bloggers’ gathering he has mooted comes together soon.
  • My French is seriously slipping, due to total lack of usage. Does anyone know of a good free French news podcast that I could listen to, just to have some exposure to the language? Thanks.

Second quarterly Oxford bloggers’ gathering

Three months ago today, a collection of Oxford bloggers met at The Turf for beer and conversation. Now, a second instance has been proposed. The date and time proposed are February 10th (Friday of 4th week) at 8:00pm. The place: the Turf Tavern, off Holywell Street.

I look forward to meeting an even larger cross section of the Oxford blogging community this time.

All in all it was all just bricks in the wall

Pouring fake Champagne at Abra's birthday

Substantive stuff

This has been proving quite the period on the international relations front: spats over gas between Russia and former satellite states, Ariel Sharon knocked out of politics, Hamas elected to power, the Iranian nuclear program again generating international attention, and the Conservatives emerging from twelve years of opposition in Canada to take a minority government. All are eminently worthy of commentary, though I haven’t a huge amount of time in which to do so.

At the same time, however, you need to ask how different this really is. Russia has been clinging to the trappings of power ever since it lost the cold war. Political systems that elect old men with unhealthy lives will produce leaders who die in the midst of their political careers. Corruption spawns the rejection of the corrupt: at least in reasonably democratic systems. It’s at times like this when I have the most sympathy for Waltz (sympathy for the devil?) in acknowledging the importance of the system, in understanding the dynamic between the units.

Personal stuff

A promising possibility has emerged on the housing front. Most of the details are still up in the air, including whether this will only cover the next academic year or whether it will include the summer as well. In the former case, I suppose I will have to find another place to live while I am working. Hopefully, that won’t mean carting everything I own too far on my back and in suitcases.

I began Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America today. It seems to be one of those books that basically all enlightened academics, journalists, and pundits have delved into. While it’s not directly relevant to the essay I am writing for tuesday (Topic: What is so ‘liberal’ about neo-liberal institutionalism?), I am guessing it will pay dividends in the longer term.

  • In honour of something I read today, I present the following list. My favourite fictional characters, an inexhaustive listing:
    1. Lyra (Silvertongue) Belacqua
    2. Hobbes (the Tiger)
    3. Ender Wiggin
    4. Motoko Kusanagi
    5. Diane (“A little bit crazy, a little bit bad. But hey – don’t us girls just love that? “)

    Without Google, can anyone identify the origin of each? I wonder what the collection says about me as an individual, and what kind of choices people I know would make.

  • Once again, though three of this week’s readings are supposedly in the Wadham Library, none are actually on the shelves. I don’t know if they are sitting in one of the many stacks of books that people like to decorate the desks with or if they have been stolen. In either case, it is frustrating.
  • Kudos to Bill Gates for making a staggering personal contribution of $600M to the Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis. That’s more than ten times what the entire United Kingdom is donating.

Academic termcard (boring for non-M.Phils)

I just realized that I have another essay due on Tuesday, this one for the core seminar. For my own reference, and that of people in the IR M.Phil, here’s the big stuff for this term:

31 January : (Tuesday of 3rd week)
Core Seminar : Paper 19 February : (Thursday of 4th week)
Qualitative Methods : Take Home Exam 1 Distributed

13 February : (Monday of 5th week)
Qualitative Methods : Take Home Exam 1 Due

28 February : (Tuesday of 7th week)
Core Seminar : Paper 2

1 March : (Wednesday of 7th week)
Application deadline for two Canadian scholarships (notify referees by February 1)

9 March : (Thursday of 8th week)
Qualitative Methods : Take Home Exam 2 Distributed

13 March : (Monday of 9th week)
Qualitative Methods : Take Home Exam 2 Due

The qualitative methods stuff has been verified with Andrew Hurrell.

Last updated: 27 January. (Friday of 2nd week)

After the M.Phil?

Statue of Hermes in the Christ Church main quad

To me, today’s qualitative methods lecture embodied much of what is frustrating and unattractive about academia. It’s the parochialism, the turf-wars, the egos, and the navel-gazing. It’s playing an intellectual game with your fellow practitioners, rather than focusing on some project with external value. That value needn’t be the improvement of the world, per se, but merely the achievement of something externally valuable, in a way that arguments that nobody outside the discipline cares about simply aren’t.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of my lack of certainty about what the future holds that every reading and discussion becomes, at least partly, a study in what exactly I am going to do with myself. While there is appeal in doing a doctorate, it would involve dealing with a huge amount of the kinds of issues identified in the paragraph above. It also brings the question of where to do it: in the States, where the programs that are almost universally considered the best are located, or in Britain?

American international relations is quantitatively focused, aggressively realist, and fairly intellectually limited. There seems to be a very strong hegemonic sense not only of what the discipline is, but what different sub fields within it (like foreign policy analysis) are and what sort of people use them. That might be something of a caricature, but there does seem to be truth to the idea that studying international relations in the states means doing something quite specific, and something based on a methodology that I really don’t accept. I don’t see how stressing the ‘science’ in social science is a useful approach for IR. I think to do so is chasing the illusion of rigour, rather than getting the kind of theoretical grounding that you need to undertake the kind of projects that interest me.

The British option has problems of its own. Oxford D.Phils are very short programs: much shorter than PhDs in the United States. They do not involve gaining teaching experience, which would be important if I was later looking for an academic job in Canada. Altogether, there seems to be very little confidence in the value of doing a D.Phil among the members of the program whose opinions I respect most.

A third option is to do a doctorate in the United States in a field other than international relations. To do something more specific might allow me to escape the theoretical debates that are so abstract, tiresome, and generally inapplicable. This is a possibility I will definitely consider, once I begin applying to further graduate programs.

As I’ve said many times before, however, it seems sensible to do something non-academic during the inter-degree break. Two central planks of my plan for the next eight years are to see a large portion of the world – ideally though a non-touristic lens – and to write some kind of book. Both would be aided by the right kind of job: something international which involves travel and experiences of a kind I’ve not had. As I told Bryony this afternoon, finishing the M.Phil (and hopefully doing a good job of it) should be proof enough for the moment that I can handle the academic side of things. Afterwards, it seems wise to prove that about some other area. I don’t know what is involved in getting a job with the United Nations Environment Program or some NGO, but it’s another thing to investigate in the medium term.

In the short term, the need for a summer job and summer accommodation is becoming increasingly acute.

  • I’ve been reading the Murakami book quite a bit in the past few days. As is often the case with novels, it is the voice of the narrator that sets the mood and, by extension, sets my mood when I am orbiting the book. I quite like the crisp descriptions – the personal narratives – that introduce the characters. I would be intrigued to meet myself in the form of such a description.
  • The Sainsbury’s brand Isle of Bute Scottish Cheddar is quite delicious: a very sharp, white cheese – it reminds me a great deal of the Tilamook special white cheddar that I’ve traditionally bought during my family’s trips to Oregon.
  • Mica has a new video online.
  • At the moment, it seems like writing posts of the “here’s what I did today” variety is uninteresting and vain. I will try to be more substantive for the next while.