General musings

Machinery in Bath

If anyone is familiar with Chichester, on the southern coast of England, perhaps they can help me out. I now have a ticket in hand to go there on the 18th of March in order to attend my friend Sarah Johnston’s wedding. My return ticket is for 3:00pm on the next day, and I need to find a decent, modestly priced place to spend the night. My investigations so far have not uncovered the existence of any hostels. If all else fails, I suppose I can wander the town all night in my suit, like some kind of spectre. I certainly would like to have a look at the sea, to which the town seems closely adjacent.

Perhaps I will be able to locate someone else who is similarly in need of lodging.

Even though it’s the second time a friend of mine is getting married, it still strikes me as a highly unusual occurrence. I suppose as my friends start drifting into their mid twenties, more such match-ups will begin to take place. It’s obviously a circumstance enormously beyond anywhere I’ve found myself, in terms of institutionalized commitment.

Five days after the wedding, my mother is coming to visit Oxford. I am fairly sure this is already the longest I have ever gone without seeing any member of my family. Communicating by means of Skype and email really isn’t an adequate alternative. I am excited about the trip to Malta – as I am in general about visiting previously unknown places – and you can be certain that a good number of photos from the expedition will show up here eventually.

The core seminar and academic ideology

Today’s core seminar was quite good. Unlike many of the previous classes, which became mired in narrow theoretical debates, this one seemed to have a bit more dynamism. Of course, that may be reflective of my general sympathy towards normative approaches. The degree to which international relations is properly thought of as a ‘science’ is certainly divisive within the program, though not always along the fault lines I expect. There is definitely an ideal that is satisfied by the possibility that we might understand international relations in an objective and rigorous way but, given the constructed nature of both the international system and our approach to understanding it, I think we need a more self-aware form of theory, as well as one which is more explicitly concerned with the mitigation of global injustice.

At the same time, I find my confidence about such a theoretical approach to be rather less comprehensive than that of some of my colleagues, who believe that a rigidly social science perspective, with similar ambitions to those of the natural sciences, is best placed to address the questions of international relations.

PS. My room in Library Court remains available to potential renters within the college.

Electronic botherations

One of the Sarah Lawrence students studying at Wadham

I obviously haven’t been making frequent enough offerings to whichever god watches over electronic devices. First, my digital camera got some kind of dust or mold permanently inside. Since it’s not a camera with lenses that can be switched, there is really no way to open it up to clean the senror. The dust is sitting directly on the sensor and the dark blotches it produces need to be manually removed from every photo that I want to look presentable, especially those with large areas of a single colour. That camera was itself a replacement for the first one I got, which had a defective flash that always fired at full power.

Today, my iPod simply stopped playing any sound in one ear. The iPod is also a replacement for the one I originally got, which would pause randomly and for no reason if it was not kept perfectly still. Hopefully, cleaning the jack for the headphones will fix this newer problem, because my experience of sending the first iPod back to Apple was hellish and the one they sent back (more than a month later) had a click wheel that was off kilter.

I wonder whether I have particularly bad luck with electronics or whether I am just pickier about them working properly and more willing to go through the hassle of getting them fixed. Both my Sony and Panasonic portable CD players got sent back to the manufacturer for defects. My GPS receiver is actually the replacement for a replacement. It’s grandfather had abysmal reception, even compared to other identical models, and its father died for no apparent reason during the second Bowron Lakes trip.

I should not, in any case, let these things distract me from the task of finishing my core seminar paper for tomorrow. It’s on whether order and justice are compatible in international relations. Obviously, it’s the kind of topic that anyone with normative concerns will feel fairly strongly about after five years of studying IR at the university level. That makes it both easier and harder to write upon. In the interests of not being up all night, I shall get back to it.

PS. This week’s readings on normative theory have been the first time I read a lot of Dr. Andrew Hurrell’s work. It has been really interesting, well written, and suited to my research interests. I think I will probably take normative theory as one of my two optional subjects next year. Overall, I think it meshes well with a research project focused on environmental politics.

PPS. It seems like it might actually be my headphones which are defunct. While they seemed to work in my iBook before, they do so now only when you hold them in a certain way. I will need to try out the iPod with another pair.

PPPS. Upon further experimentation, the problem lies with the headphones, not the jack on my iPod. While they work if you twist them in a certain way in the iBook socket, they don’t work at all in one ear with the iPod. I will need to buy new ones. In some sense, this is worse. At least the iPod is under warrenty, and all electronics are absurdly expensive here. I honestly can’t understand why people tolerate it. England desperately needs Walmart.

Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence

Apparently, under the Harper government, there is new talk about Canada joining the American missile defence system. I believe that doing so would be unwise for a number of reasons, with the only real advantage of participation being the possibility of improved relations with the US.

Technically infeasible

The first reason to doubt the plan is that there is no reason to believe it will work. Past efforts at both theatre missile defence, the attempt to protect specific assets in a narrow geographical area, and umbrella missile defence have been failures. During the first Gulf War, the much lauded Patriot missile batteries never actually shot down a Scud – though they did shoot down two British planes by mistake. The Scud is essentially a modified V2: not exactly a modern missile.

Shooting down an ICBM is even more difficult. Lasers are infeasible given the difficulty of tracking the missile with such precision and the potential of reflective coatings and accelerated missile rotation mitigating their destructive effects. This reality is reflected in the new focus on kinetic kill systems, where a missile is meant to be used to knock the first missile apart. Of course, this risks showering the area below with radioactive fallout. Better than having a city hit, perhaps, but certainly not a good option.

There are three major stages in the flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or its submarine launched equivalent (SLBM). There is a boost phase, where the missile is launched from its silo or missile tube. It is the infrared emission from the launch, as well as the appearance on radar screens, that would first alert the United States to the fact that the missile is in the air. Barring the extensive deployment of space-based weapons, it is impossible to destroy the missile at this stage. The current missile defence plans do not attempt to do so.

The midcourse stage of the missile flight is suborbital, and takes place at an altitude of 1200km. During this phase, the missile can employ a large number of possible countermeasures: electronic signal jamming; the use of decoy warheads, chaff, and flares; and the deployment of metallic balloons that interfere with radar. It would either be at this stage or during the re-entry phase – when the warhead is travelling about 4km per second or about Mach 12 – that the kinetic kill would need to take place.

Even rigged tests that have taken place so far, where the missile trajectory is known in advance, no countermeasures are used, and a beacon is actually fitted in the warhead, have not resulted in success.

Strategic error I

The supposed contemporary enemies of the United States are not ICBM type entities. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are highly sophisticated pieces of hardware. Expensive and technically demanding to produce, they also require an extensive launch infrastructure. While they seem to be increasingly within the reach of states like North Korea and Pakistan, they are definitely not available to any terrorist group.

Moreover, if the United States went to the extreme expense of building an effective missile defence system, it would remain possible to deliver a small number of nuclear weapons by other means. They could be smuggled onto fishing boats or into storage containers. Maintaining a strategic focus on stopping potential missiles with a hypothetical system only tangentially addresses the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Strategic error II

The two hostile states that do have large numbers of ICBMs are Russia and China. Russia has so many, along with SLBMs, that it needn’t be concerned about the kind of missile defence system that is being proposed. That said, it could be used as an excuse to upgrade and modernize existing nuclear forces – especially if the United States resumes the development of its own nuclear weapons, as has been proposed by this administration.

The bigger concern is China. While the exact numbers are secret, it’s probable that China has about 20 missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States. The CIA apparently thinks that North Korea could have around five nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine a system that would be likely to stop five missiles, but that wouldn’t concern another state with only a small multiple of that number. Deploying missile defence might encourage China to build more missiles, begin putting missiles on submarines, begin fitting multiple independently-guided warheads upon missiles, or developing and deploying more effective countermeasures. It may, in any case, send entirely the wrong message to a state that is emerging as a larger military and industrial power.

Reasons for deployment

From the American position, there are two major reasons to deploy missile defence.

Firstly, it makes it look as though you are doing something to combat a threat almost universally regarded as very serious. This needn’t be an entirely cynical calculation. Given the incredible faith in technological progress within both the American public and the government and military, there is a belief that with enough brains and dollars, the thing can be made to work. It’s a mindset that goes along well with the notions of transformation that keep coming out of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

Secondly, developing and building such a system will put billions of dollars into the hands of military contractors. Boeing, Lockheed-Matin, Raytheon, and the rest of them all stand to gain enormously. That has political relevance for the representatives of states where they employ a large section of the population – think of Colorado. It also has importance in a political system largely driven by multi-million dollar campaign contributions. Also, increasingly extensive direct connections exist between the military and military contractors. As such, disentangling their agendas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Potentially, some of the above could apply to Canada. If we were to join on, some contracts would doubtless flow to Canadian firms. I do not, however, think this would be a net benefit to Canada. Spending on defence industries – even if largely paid for by the United States – really doesn’t boost national welfare, at the same time as it would increase national insecurity.

The Canadian military does seem to broadly support missile defence. I can think of seven different reasons for which either the military specifically or the Canadian government generally might back the plan:

  1. The American armed forces are putting pressure on them to support Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) plans. In some sense, this is almost certainly true. It’s worth remembering the extent to which things like a lack of strategic airlift capability make the Canadian Forces (CF) heavily dependent upon our allies, and especially the United States, in order to be able to deploy. We are also highly reliant upon their military intelligence capabilities.
  2. They are concerned that a future terrorist attack could take place through Canada. If that happened, it was seriously sour relations between the two countries, or at least risk doing so. By participating in American initiatives like missile defence, Canada could stress how we have been doing everything possible to counter terrorist threats. Support for BMD could therefore be a kind of pre-emptive damage control.
  3. The shared military culture of the United States and Canada means that both sets of armed forces are working from similar premises and using logic familiar to each. One issue here is that of non-proliferation. The Bush administration clearly doesn’t have much faith in treaty based mechanisms like the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (a point made in the 5th report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence). Do members of the CF see BMD as unlikely to undermine non-proliferation efforts?
  4. The CF sees participation in BMD as a way of maintaining or enlarging the Canadian role in North American security cooperation decision making. Given how much the Americans want to do this, we could get a lot of capital out of it for little cost. It’s worth a lot to the US just to have things look non-unilateral (think of the Iraq coalition).
  5. Strategic considerations are getting trumped by trade. Backing the Americans on missile defence is a way to keep trucks and containers flowing across the border with less trouble and suspicion. Also, Canadian defence firms with BMD related contracts in mind could have lobbied the CF to support the project.
  6. The Americans are going to set up a BMD system anyways. By participating, we at least get the illusion of sovereignty. At best, we might be able to restrain them from doing things that we really don’t want to see happen.
  7. The length of time this has been worked on has generated such a force of bureaucratic momentum that BMD was supported by default. Since the Second World War and, especially since the Cold War, military strategists have increasingly seen North America as a bloc to be defended all together. From that perspective, BMD might look obvious.

Admittedly, some of these are good reasons – at least potentially. Overall, however, I think the concept of dealing with the danger of proliferation by hiding behind a technical shield is profoundly misguided. It leaves the rest of NATO out in the cold, it encourages the development of further nuclear technology by states already so armed, and it contributes to a military-industrial complex that is already hugely expensive and influential.

On balance, I think Canada would be far better off for continuing to decline. While it might be a diplomatic faux pas, it may also be worth publicly pointing out why.

Music and frustration: copy protection schemes

Chained pig, BathHaving spent the last few minutes explaining to a friend why a brand-new, legitimately purchased CD will not play in her computer due to the copy protection EMI has included, I am reminded of my considerable indignation about how the music industry is treating their customers. Yes, in this case, it was possible to disable the copy protection program just by holding shift as the CD was inserted into a Windows computer, but there is no guarantee at all that music you buy today is either usable or safe.

In the worst case, such as the notorious Sony BMG rootkit, inserting a legitimate music CD into your computer intentionally breaks it. It also causes it to report what you listen to to Sony, even if you choose ‘no’ when a screen comes up asking for permission to install software. It also creates really sneaky back doors into your system that can be exploited for any number of purposes, by Sony or random others. While Sony is currently facing lawsuits for this particular, infamous piece of malware, it isn’t nearly enough to put my mind at ease. If some 16 year old had written something comparably dangerous, they would probably be in jail.

Legitimately downloaded music is little better. Songs you buy from the iTunes music store may work with your iPod today, but they won’t work with another portable player. They won’t even play in software other than iTunes, and there is no guarantee that they will still work at some point in the future. Spending a great deal of money on songs from there (and they’ve just had their billionth download), is therefore probably not very wise. You don’t actually own the music you are buying – you’re just buying the right to use it on someone else’s terms: terms that they have considerable freedom to change.

Personally, I will not buy any CD that contains copy protection software. I will not buy a Sony BMG CD, regardless of whether it does or not, nor will I be buying any of Sony’s electronics in the near future. This is a business model that needs to change.

Ascensions in Bath

The Sacred Pool, Bath

To the east and west of the centre of Bath are hills about 200m high. Both on the coach ridges there and back and while in the town itself, it was largely this topography that struck me. Oxford, you see, is a cracker. Only from south of the Magdalen Bridge can you find any kind of hill, and even those are laughable. Bath, by contrast, is almost perfectly composed to be looked over from above.

Upon arriving with the coach load of Sarah Lawrence students, the first place half of us went was the former Roman baths themselves. There, we atomized, and I didn’t see anyone again until we met for the coach ride home at five. Now built somewhat awkwardly into a museum – encased in black painted walls that look like the backstage area of a theatre – you can see the remains of former saunas and the realities of a collection of still-existent pools. The over-dramatic audio guide will tell you in almost comically reverent tones about the goddess to whom the former temple is dedicated.

The town of Bath reminds me a lot of Victoria, British Columbia. It has a similar pedestrian focus and the same sense of being designed for tourists. Even the residential areas that surround it, such as the one that runs to the top of the first hill I climbed, have a similar look. It’s a much larger place than Oxford and considerably more open. It may have been the brilliant weather, but people also seemed to smile more. The second hill I climbed – the westerly one – is capped by a fairly large park that, by walking around the circumference, offers views of all the surrounding hills and countryside.

Unsurprisingly, between ruins, town, and hills I took quite a number of photos. Rather than post them all at once – which would require editing the dust/mold specks out of the whole collection tonight – I think I will post them one by one until I run out of good ones. It may not represent the place where I am from day to day, but it should be more interesting than perpetuating the parade of Oxford shots.

Mid-essay insight

Overwhelmingly, the Oxford system privileges speed over perfection. This may be well suited to their self-styled role as gatekeepers to the British political and intellectual elite, but it produces a style of learning quite thoroughly at odds with the immortal image of the scholar surrounded in well-thumbed books and meticulous notes, composing the authoritative treatise on some question. The point is to gain the ability to spend a couple of days taking in key parts of key texts – the specific selection entirely up to you – and then write something cogent, but not fully formed, on the basis of that reading.

For anyone with an interest in journalism, this method is probably ideal in many ways. Both require a fairly broad base of general knowledge – at least wide enough that you will know where to look for more specific information and will not make obvious missteps in somewhat unfamiliar areas. Both are based on a multitude of overlapping deadlines and the need to produce something intelligent and defensible, though certainly not authoritative in the final account. Both involve the requirement to write about things that are not necessarily of direct interest or within your existing scope of expertise. Finally, both involve close contact and coordination with individuals in similar circumstances. The social and cooperative elements are critical to success.

In the end, it’s a curiously roundabout way of teaching self-reliance: to arrange highly specific tasks in a string of frequent deadlines. It certainly forces you to come up with a system that works for you and, while it may not conform to one’s ideals of creativity and extensive research, it must nonetheless stand the test of the storms that batter it.

Fewer but better

After 168 consecutive daily posts, I am suspending the practice of daily updates. A number of factors inform this decision, but it’s mostly because I don’t have time at the moment to produce one post every 24 hours that is terribly interesting. Certainly, I don’t have time to produce such a post that also includes an original and aesthetically pleasing photo. Rather than subjecting you to content of declining quality as overly many of my thoughts are directed towards other things, I shall be more discerning in terms of when and what I post.

As always, comments are appreciated.

We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave

Photo by Emily PaddonWith only twelve days left in the term, things are getting fevered. In addition to housing, scholarship, and job search stuff, it is now reasonably likely that I might be called upon to present in core seminar. As such, I need to explicitly prepare presentations, as well as doing the readings. While that will be good when the time comes to revise for our qualifying exam, it’s not the most welcome extra project at the moment.

I finished one scholarship application today. Now, I just need to finish a paper on the question of “How convincing is the argument that ‘anarchy is what states make of it?'” by Friday, and another on the question of “Is justice compatible with international order?” by Tuesday. I have a supervision tomorrow and another scholarship application to finish in the next two days.

Spending a few hours talking with Emily in her new room tonight was very welcome. While much of the conversation related to school, it felt seperated from all matters academic to a sufficient degree to be genuinely relaxing. I should make a point of spending more social time with her and other friends and members of the program – even at the busiest and most stressful period of the term. That time is definitely now, when we’ve been going for six weeks already but there is still enough term left for deadlines to build on each other like ripples growing into a crashing wave. It was really nice to surf that wave with Emily for a while.

  • The Scanner Darkly trailer looks awesome, mostly because of the unique style of animation. (Quicktime link) This may become the first film I see in a theatre in the UK, though I didn’t think overly much of the book.
  • The talk on “The impact and role of major international scientific assessments on global governance” that I announced here and hoped to attend tomorrow has been cancelled due to “family bereavement.”

Short post, much news

Umbrellas at The Turf

In one hour this afternoon, it went from being so brilliantly sunny that my eyes hurt as I walked from my seminar to Sainsbury’s to completely gray, hailing, and cold enough to make me wear my scarf for the first time in weeks. I appreciate such drama.

There have already been two inquiries about my room in Wadham, which is certainly promising. My battels for Michaelmas term – including the cost of five non-vegetarian dinners a week – were £927.88. That includes linen and other miscellaneous fees. I presume an equivalent amount would cover the Trinity period: April 23rd to June 17th. According to Susan Sharp, the Accomodations Manager, the room would have to go to a Wadham student, as it is located on the main college site at Broad Street and Parks Road, right beside the King’s Arms and the Bodleian. People interested in having a look should email me.

Congratulations to the other victors in the OUSSG election. Also, my thanks to those who turned up for the bloggers’ gathering. It was interesting to meet some new people, and to see oft-corresponded-with people in person again.

  • This Saturday, I am going to bath with some of the Sarah Lawrence exchange students in Wadham. It’s about 80km away and I’ve heard from a number of people that is very nice. At a minimum, it will let me take some non-Oxford photos.
  • Discussing with Christina the merits of getting a bread knife, I stated that buying such a thing “clashes with my nomad lifestyle.” It’s not that it wouldn’t be justified over the course of a year and a half, but that it doesn’t work with student residential minimalism: increasingly highly (and expensively) educated nomads that we are.

Final reminder, Oxford bloggers’ gathering

Our second such meeting will be happening tonight (February 21st) at The Turf at 8:00pm. I think we should be a fairly easy to recognize group but, if people wish, they can email me and I will send them my mobile number. I look forward to seeing a good number of you there, though I am tempted to dash off for a few minutes to catch the end of the Strategic Studies meeting…

Being elected in absentia is liable to be something of an embarrassment.