Days spent reading yield boring photos

2006-02-21

in Daily updates, Oxford

Codrington Library basement

There is a strong negative correlation between the number of people in the Cornmarket Starbucks and the number in the Codrington Library. Having spent much of the day reading in each, I can provide evidence that is this statement is true both for different times within a specific day and between days. Unfortunately, when the Codrington closed at 6:30pm, I was left with fewer choices. In the absence of an effective reading partner – who girds you to the task through social pressure – the location of an appropriate study space is crucial. Both together can lead to awesome bouts of productivity of the sort that make it just barely plausible that I got in here by a means other than computer or administrative error. The general absence of such explosions, this term at least, sometimes leads to my questioning the wisdom of that selection.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole constructivist argument. While much of it strikes me as likely to have more explanatory power than realism, theory in the abstract is an intractable thing. I think this is slightly akin to how tactics exist both as conceptual possibilities and actual things employed in battle. By the time they are used in the second way, they’ve lost a lot of the rigidity and theoretical elegance of their former role. They get muddy and smashed up. One sort might help you win the day and the other sort might not, but it’s only when they’ve been applied in such ruthless circumstances that you will ever know. Hopefully, we will eventually get to something like that point with these theoretical discussions. More likely, we will just keep sparring like armchair generals over the relative importance of infantry flanking operations and effective artillery placement.

For good or ill, my assessment of theorists frequently comes down to their basic ability to get an idea across. I remember explaining to Tristan my theory of what it takes to become a famous theorist: you need to have a concept that is novel and that can be explained by someone reasonably knowledgeable about it to someone intelligent but entirely ignorant of it. Moreover, this needs to be able to take place at a party of the kind I attend: ie, those quiet enough to allow a conversation to occur. This is a standard that really famous theorists will meet many times. There are a large number of ideas from Plato, or Hobbes, or Rousseau, or Marx, or Adam Smith, that can be explained under these circumstances.

The extension of this is that, in order to be a theorist whose ideas I am likely to seriously contemplate, you need to be able to lay them out cogently in a piece of writing that I am not overwhelmingly tempted to skim through at the end, or clean my room instead of reading. By such measures, Alexander Wendt succeeds. “Anarchy is What States Make of it” has a strong, comprehensible, and interesting argument. This is especially welcome given how incomprehensible the terminology of sociology can become. The fact that I only needed to teach my spell checker four or five words while taking notes on it is a point in favour of Wendt’s piece. Another good sign is that Wendt is generally better to quote directly than to paraphrase: something that is rarely true of academic writing, and certainly not true of Waltz – that great pillar around which the whole of IR theory seems to revolve, whether deservedly or not.

Wendt’s discussion of how a circumstance can be socially constructed but also not subject to change is very interesting. Perhaps that’s because it saves the appearances of the world as viewed by realists without being based on their ontological assumptions – always a neat trick. It’s also an effective response to the lingering doubt I feel about the explanatory power of such sociological viewpoints. If it’s all a muddy, mutually constitutive haze out there, how can we hope to understand it or do anything? If mutual constitution can produce circumstances that are strictly delineated and self-reinforcing, it seems that it is capable of conforming more closely to the often unbending character of world politics.

Housing trouble

A serious snag has arisen in the housing situation. Wadham College won’t let me give up my contract to live in Library Court until the 17th of June, unless I can find another Wadham student who wants the room. Finding someone who wants to live here for just one term seems as though it would be difficult to arrange, though it remains a possibility.

Another possibility is to find someone who wants to live in the new flat between April and June. I could then move in for the following year once my time in Wadham ends. This seems like it might be less difficult than the first option, since somebody from any college could take one of the rooms in the Church Walk flat.

Still further possibilities include having the other two intended residents simply find a different third roommate. It may be easier to do so for the year-and-a-bit period than for just a couple of months. Meanwhile, I would sort out some alternative accommodation. The final possibility would be for all three of us to search out a different place. This seems the least sensible alternative (provided nothing else comes up regarding the Church Walk flat), especially since all three of us would like to move there in April, if it was possible.

Perhaps I can convince Wadham to relent. Alternatively, perhaps I can find someone who wants to take over tenancy of 11 Library Court for a few months. The location is certainly excellent. Indeed, if anyone reading this is interested or knows someone who might be, please pass me the message.


  • I should start developing a short and intensely focused wish list of things for my mother to bring from Vancouver. Obvious choices include MEC clothing: especially button up shirts of a solid colour with breast pockets, olive or khaki pants, and shoes to replace my one increasingly dilapidated pair. One critical item: twelve of so of the kind of four-coloured pens I take all my notes with.
  • I realized this evening that you can search for degree and decimal minute coordinates in Google Earth. For instance, searching for: “49 20.018 -122 56.200” will shift the view to rocks overlooking Deep Cove. I’ve been adding markers for my favourite hikes, cities I’ve visited, etc. It’s actually slightly thrilling to throw in the coords for a friend’s apartment in Helsinki (recorded to help find your way back there a few months ago) and then see the exact building come up.
  • Also interesting, with the default disk cache of 400MB, Google Earth seems to be capable of showing every place I’ve looked at during the last few days at the highest level of detail at which it was previously viewed. It also seems to retain all the major roads in North America and the UK, even when not connected to the internet.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

B February 21, 2006 at 1:35 am

Goes to show how spoiled we’ve all become with huge hard drives: you’re surprised to see that a program can work with just 400MB of cache.

I remember the good old days, when my bones creaked less and everything ran off of floppy discs: the kind that were actually floppy.

“make it just barely plausible that I got in here by a means other than computer or administrative error”

Get over yourself. False humility serves nobody.

AlenaPrazak February 21, 2006 at 5:54 am

Another housing plan, is simply to go ahead with the place that you have found with your friends and not worry about 2 months rent in residence. If someone wants it, that’s great, but no need to stress otherwise.

Milan February 21, 2006 at 9:54 am

The cost of spending the bulk of the next break (when not in Malta) and all of Trinity term in residence is in the vicinity of $2000. To spend that much again letting another room just seems unjustifiable.

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