Law and uncertainties

All Souls CollegeWalking home from the third and least well attended bloggers’ gathering, through this city of strangers, I found myself thinking about the law. It has been a frequent topic of contemplation for me, of late. The way in which the common law, especially, tries to marry thought with power is fascinating. Precedents, rules of interpretation, and styles of thinking are all part of a complex and self-referential body that nonetheless manages to produce a high degree of coherence and maintain broad respect. People may not have much faith in lawyers, in particular, but there is a high level of faith in the system in its entirety. The contrast with something as amorphous (and oft derided) as ‘international relations’ is welcome.

The major reason I don’t see the law as an appealing personal option is because of the kind of life it seems to promise: one of perpetual brutal competition. Coming to a place like Oxford both produces a conviction that you are reasonably intelligent and a certainty that you cannot take on the world. Even trying is a major effort in self-sacrifice for what is ultimately largely personal gain. The question to grapple with, then, is that of what you want to achieve and what you feel that you must.

Returning to the matter of the law, the appeal lies in how it promises the possibility of satisfying my two main long-term objectives. The first of those is to secure the requirements of a good life, in terms of friendships, skills, material resources, and the like. The second is to effect some positive change upon a deeply troubled and unjust world. Part of the reason why I’ve felt as though I have been thrashing around a bit here is that, while I feel that I am advancing these aims, I feel as though I am doing so in a glancing and indirect manner.

My thanks to Robert, Ben, and Antonia for interesting conversation at The Bear tonight. In particular, meeting Ben was a welcome experience.

Class and OUSSG day completed

Green Beer

After the Stategic Studies Group meeting tonight, I learned that something can be both ‘green’ and ‘beer.’ Nobody denies that the Turf has exposed people to new experiences. Tomorrow morning, it’s back to the mechanical paper-writing process.

There are a number of people with whom I really miss speaking: whether by letter, email, instant message, or face to face.

On caffeine

Caffeine moleculeCaffeine – a molecule I first discovered as an important and psychoactive component of Coca Cola – is a drug with which I’ve had a great deal of experience over the last twelve years or so. By 7th grade, the last year of elementary school, I had already started to enjoy mochas and chocolate covered coffee beans. When I was in 12th grade, the last year of high school, I began consuming large amounts of Earl Gray tea, in aid of paper writing and exam prep. During my first year at UBC, I started drinking coffee. At first, it was a matter of alternating between coffee itself and something sweet and delicious, like Ponderosa Cake. By my fourth year, I was drinking more than 1L a day of black coffee: passing from French press to mug to bloodstream in accompaniment to the reading of The Economist.

Unfortunately, coffee doesn’t seem to work quite right in Oxford. My theory is that it’s a function of the dissolved mineral content in the water, which is dramatically higher than that in Vancouver.

As I understand it, caffeine has a relatively straightforward method of operation. After entering the body through the stomach and small intestine, it enters the bloodstream and then binds to adenosine receptors on the surface of cells without activating them. This eventually induces higher levels of epinephrine release, and hence physiological effects such as increased alertness. Much more extensive information is on Wikipedia.

From delicious chocolate covered coffee beans used to aid wakefulness during the LIFEboat flotillas to dozens of iced cappuccinos at Tim Horton’s with Fernando while planning the NASCA trip, I’ve probably consumed nearly one kilogram of pure caffeine during the last decade or so. After the two remaining weeks of this term – and thus this academic year – have come to a close, my tight embrace with the molecule will probably loosen a bit.

No consequential thoughts; well justified apologies

The end of the party

Happy Birthday Alison Benjamin

Matters scholastic

I’ve submitted the final version of my research design essay. Many thanks to Claire, Tristan, and Meghan for having a look at it. We shall see what the examiners think. For my part, I think it will form the basis of a valuable and interesting research project – one that I will have no excuse not to advance enormously over the summer. During these last two weeks of term, I need to give a presentation (Tuesday of 7th week), submit a paper for the core seminar (same), and write another three papers for Dr. Hurrell. The unipolarity/great power paper originally meant for him looks like it will become a core seminar paper instead. Thankfully, he is being understanding, given the imperative of finishing the RDE.


Due to numerous oversights on my part, I managed to almost completely miss Bryony’s birthday party. My apologies to all. Missing a party in your own flat is less than very excusable.

[Update: 30 May 2006, 2:21am] It should be noted that The New Covent Garden Food Company’s Tuscan Bean soup is extremely delicious. Even after consuming 1L of it after 2:00am, I still want more.

Third Oxford Bloggers’ Gathering Wednesday

To all those who run a blog in Oxford:

I encourage you to attend the third informal quarterly gathering of Oxford bloggers, to take place this Wednesday (May 31st) at 8:00pm at The Bear.

This was announced previously, but I am trying to encourage a good turnout. In the past, these gatherings have been good fun: with enjoyably conversation and a surprising amount of affinity between those connected by only this one activity.

Oxford bloggers who want to earn my thanks might consider posting something about this themselves, so as to broaden the scope of who might attend. Feel free to direct any questions towards me.

On sleeping with an elephant

Happy Birthday Anna Gillibrand

At various times, people have asked me why I write so much about the United States: about the foreign and domestic politics of the US, about official American stances on issues from torture to climate change. The answer, of course, is that the American position on these matters is of crucial importance. Indeed, I would assert that the decisions being made in Washington are more important for Canadians than the ones being made in Ottawa. We’re a rich, sovereign nation, of course, but we are forever bound to a nation that seems likely to forever surpass us in wealth, power, and global prominence. Canadians cling to what shreds of national determination we have – socialized health care (a very fine idea), peacekeeping (likewise), and the like – and yet, our ability to control our own destinies has everything to do with our great neighbour to the south remaining on the path of sanity. To my infinite dismay, the adherence of that state to that path has not been as good as might be hoped.

As such, we are probably better off spending our time talking to open-minded Americans before their elections than we are in voting in our own elections.

Of course, we can and must do both. Even so, you simply cannot be a small country, in every important sense, beside a big country and not become critically vulnerable to those whims. As Canadians, we need to understand those whims, and direct them along a path that is productive rather than destructive. One that will give us the chance to live good and decent lives in a world rife with threats and stupidity.

How to eat like a grad student: II

Stir fry

I’ve discovered something tasty and healthy that can be made very quickly: less than ten minutes from dishes clean to dishes clean (not counting eating).

You need:

  • 1 zucchini (or courgette, as they call them here)
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 can of baked beans
  • Olive oil
  • Chillies
  • Hot sauce

To make:

  • Cut zucchini into thin slices
  • Heat oil
  • Add chilies
  • Add slices of zucchini
  • Fry one side, then flip
  • Slice tomato into small pieces
  • Put pieces on top of zucchini
  • Wait until zucchini is nearly cooked
  • Put beans on top of everything
  • Stir
  • Add hot sauce
  • Clean cutting board and paring knife
  • Wait for beans to become warm
  • Serve
  • While letting the concoction cool a bit, clean the frying pan

This combination is really simple and seems to work well together. The slightly chewy pieces of fried zucchini make the beans seem much more substantial. Also good: the whole meal costs less than two quid.

Reminiscing about LIFE

The Duen

Photo from

Since I was feeling vaguely ill all day, I made lunch and dinner stir-fries with large amounts of ginger. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found that ginger helps with nausea and general feelings of being unwell. The captain of the Duen first told me about it, during the first LIFEboat flotilla. A floating sustainability conference which took place on more than a dozen tall ships, the LIFEboat flotilla was one of the best weeks of my life, even though I was ridiculously seasick for much of it, on account of gale force winds and huge waves.

The Duen was a small ship – far smaller than the Pacific Swift, which was my berth for the second Flotilla. When tacking upwind, the boat listed at an angle of about thirty degrees, with me clinging to the upper lip in a borrowed survival suit: lent to me because I had to be on deck in the pouring rain all the time because I was so seasick. For years afterwards, I couldn’t stand the sight, smell, or taste of scones, because that’s what people kept trying to feed me. Despite all that, spending a week traveling through British Columbia’s Gulf Islands in a tall ship is an amazing experience. More so when you’re in a group like the one Jeff Gibbs created and which has been supported by people like David Suzuki and Jane Goodall, who I actually met during the first flotilla.

Leadership Initiative for Earth (LIFE) is a Vancouver based environmental organization that I was involved with for several years. I attended a conference of theirs at a high school with Jonathan. I then took part in two Flotillas, each of which required a large amount of environmentally related community service in order to be eligible. Jonathan and I worked at the Wild Bird Trust in North Vancouver, planting trees and pulling out poles from a frozen swamp. We also had to give presentations and slide shows afterwards. I gave one at the Vancouver Folk Festival, after the second flotilla. It was really excellent, because I got a free Folk Festival pass in the process.

One of the best things about the two flotillas was learning a bit of marine navigation. Because of the complexity of the Gulf Islands and their tides, the importance of maps, navigation, and location there are considerable. There are many passes that can only be used at certain times, because of the tides. During the second flotilla, I got to help with the coordination of the fleet overall: managing where different ships would stop at different times. The flotilla mostly took place on the ships, interacting with the members of your group, but there were also excursions on shore. We visited a sustainably harvested forest and got to touch sea cucumbers brought up by divers.

I wish I had some photos to post, but they are all in Vancouver in non-digital form. The one above wasn’t taken by me, but it does show the ship I was on for the first flotilla, in a place much like many we visited.

The original WildLIFE conference happened in 1995, when I was only twelve. As such, I probably didn’t get as much from it as most participants, nor was I able to contribute very effectively. The Flotillas were in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Since then, I’ve largely lost touch with the organization. The only participant with whom I’ve had any contact is Kevin Millsip, one of the two leaders of my group in 1996. He is now a Trustee on the Vancouver School Board; perhaps Sasha Wiley will meet him one day.

At one point, it seemed that LIFE had changed its name. At other points, I couldn’t seem to find anything about it at all. I am glad to see that they seem to be active at the moment. Apparently, “there have now been five Flotillas, all extraordinary learning adventures for the 750 youth who participated.” I wish I had stayed in contact with members of my two groups. At the time, I think being rather younger than most of the other participants impacted my ability to relate directly with them. Even so, I am incredibly glad to have been involved.

I strongly suspect the whole LIFE experience has impacted on my choice of discipline and sub-field. To be simultaneously exposed to a place as beautifully alive as the Gulf Islands and such a group of committed and motivated people is a powerful combination, as Gibbs must have anticipated. I am sure my fellow participants are also grateful for his imagination and initiative.

Summer employment: bookshops

Reasons for which working at a book store for the summer – ideally Blackwells – is an increasingly appealing option:

  1. Working in a retail environment without a ‘hard sell’ character would be a refreshing break from Staples. Nobody is going to tell you that you need to ask probing questions to determine the literary needs of shoppers, then argue why a particular book suits those needs, then overcome their objections and sell them accessories. I enjoy being in a position to help people, but strongly dislike being in a position where I am under pressure to put them under pressure.
  2. Friends of mine who worked in book stores (especially Kate) really seemed to enjoy it.
  3. You can never know enough about literature or contemporary fiction.
  4. Staff discounts: useful both for summer reading and the acquisition of thesis related books.
  5. A high probability of literary discussions and the meeting of fellow appreciators of books.

The biggest potential liability is that such an employment environment might not allow the flexibility required for the travel I am hoping to do. It’s something to ask about if I get interviewed, in any case.

Having already dropped off a resume and cover letter at Blackwells, what other book shops might I apply to? There’s IQ, but it seems to be a really small place – though one that seems to be quite well admired. There are Borders and Waterstones, neither of which has the same institutional feel as Blackwells, but which are nonetheless possibilities. Since Blackwells is something of a tourist attraction in its own right, they are also more likely to take on extra staff for the summer, despite the exodus of students.
What other possible summer jobs do people recommend?