Seven years down, three more upcoming

My subscription renewal for The Economist finally processed today: £140 for an additional three years. They make it quite a pain to renew as a student, with much mucking about with faxes, phone calls, student cards, and reference numbers. Even so, it definitely beats the standard subscription rate of £99 a year.

The new subscription will expire in June of 2009. There will be a new President in the United States; there will have been at least one more election in Canada; I will have completed my M.Phil and gone on to whatever will be next. There is a certain combination of satisfaction and trepidation that attaches itself to anything projected so far off into the unknown. It’s nice, at the very least, to henceforth be protected from inflation and unexpected losses of student status.

Thank You for Smoking

Gas mask paintingHappy Birthday Antonia M

At Jericho’s Phoenix Cinema, I saw the dark comedy Thank You for Smoking with Antonia tonight. While it’s not without flaws, it can be quite clever – and even very funny – at times. It documents the life and work of a ranking tobacco lobbyist in a way that pokes fun at the connections between business and politics, especially within industries termed ‘merchants of death’ like tobacco and the gun industry.

My favourite single moment of the film is when the protagonist is sitting in the lobby of an aggressively image-focused Hollywood agency and a plasma television is showing an orca with a seal in its mouth, dashing it against the rocks. The juxtaposition between the spin of the advertising industry – which has been applied to whales as much as anything else – and the sheer, direct, and unapologetic happenings of nature was poignant but not overstated.

Not to ruin the film for anyone, but it seems unlikely to me that a successful lobbyist would so thoroughly fail to be circumspect in his dealings with the media, but it’s not a plot failure that compromises the film too badly, overall. Some interesting questions do get raised about the character of personal responsibility within democratic societies. While the lobbyist does have an agenda, it’s not one he advances through outright deceit. It’s more like the self-interested peddling of a libertarian ethic.

Thank You for Smoking is a film that gains little from being seen in theatres, so I would advise people to wait until they can see it on DVD.

Lomborg on fish

I just re-read the short section on world fisheries in Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist, and noted that the level of analysis shown there is low enough to cast doubt on the rest of the book. He basically argues that:

  1. The global fish catch is increasing.
  2. We can always farm our way out of trouble.
  3. Fish aren’t that important anyhow (only 1% of human calories, 6% of protein).

He is seriously wrong on all three counts. On the matter of overall catch, that is a misleading figure, because it doesn’t take into account the effort involved in catching the fish. You could be catching more because you’re building more ships, using more fuel, etc. As long as subsidy structures like those in the EU and Japan remain, this is inevitable. While such technological advances can conceal the depletion of fish stocks, the reality remains. If we’re fishing above the rate at which a fishery can replenish itself, it doesn’t matter whether our catches are increasing or not. Or rather, it does insofar as it helps to determine how long it will be before the fishery collapses, like the cod fisheries of Newfoundland and the North Sea already have. Fisheries are also complex things. Catching X fish and waiting Y time doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have X fish to catch again. Much has to do with the structure of food webs, and thus energy flows within the ecosystem.

The idea that farming can be the answer is also seriously misleading. First and foremost, farmed fish are almost exclusively carnivorous. That means they need to be fed uglier, less tasty fish in order to grow. Since they aren’t 100% efficient at turning food into flesh, there is an automatic loss there. More importantly, if we begin fishing other stocks into decline in order to farm fish, we will just have spread the problem around, not created any kind of sustainable solution. As I have written about here before, serious pressure already exists on a number of species that are ground into meal for fish-farming. There are also the matters of how fish farms produce large amount of waste that then leaches out into the sea: biological wastes from the fish, leftover hormones and antibiotics from the flood of both used to make the fish grow faster and get sick less often in such tight proximity, and the occasional seriously diseased of genetically damaged fish escaping to join the gene pool.

I can only assume that Lomborg is right to say that “fish constitutes a vanishingly small part of our total calorie consumption – less than 1 percent – and only 6 percent of our protein intake.” Even so, that doesn’t mean that losing fisheries as a viable source of calories and protein would not be a terrible event. Humanity overall may not be terribly dependent, but certain groups of individuals are critically dependent. Moreover, the “it’s not all that important a resource anyway, so who cares if it goes?” attitude that is implied in Lomborg’s assessment fails to consider the ramifications that continuing to fish as we are could have for marine ecosystems in general and the future welfare of humanity.

One last item to identify is the fallacious nature of the 100 million tons a year of fish we can “harvest for free.” This is his estimate of the sustainable catch, and he then notes that we are only catching 90 million tons. He goes on to say that “we would love to get our hands on that extra 10 million tons.” First off, the distribution here matters. If the sustainable catch for salmon is five million tons and we are catching twenty, the overall figure doesn’t reflect the fact that salmon stocks will be rapidly destroyed. If we’re burning our way through, species by species (look at the wide variety of fish now served as ‘cod’ in the UK), then even a total catch below the aggregated potential sustainable yield could be doing irreparable harm. Secondly, we have shown no capacity for restraint as a species. Just looking at what Canada has done within its own territorial waters demonstrates that even rich governments with good scientists can make ruinous policy choices for political or other kinds of reasons.

All in all, Lomborg’s analysis is seriously misleading and lacks comprehension of the dynamics that underlie marine ecology and the human interaction with it that takes place. While my research project for the thesis partly involves examining the controversy surrounding Lomborg, I am not planning to critique his statements directly in the thesis. With passages like this included, I may be tempted.

On television licensing

Apparently, the BBC has claimed that anyone who watches video clips from their website online must have a television license, or be liable to prosecution and fine. As a North American, I find the very idea of a television license offensive. Our flat has received a notice that an inspector will be coming at some future point to look for televisions. The letter reads, in part:

Your address is now on our priority list and an Enforcement Officer is planning to visit you shortly. [Emphasis theirs]

My personal inclination would be to refuse to consent to having our premisses searched – despite the fact that we have no televisions – because there is no probable cause under which to search us, and no warrant to do so issued. In the United States, I would expect such a search to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In Canada, I would expect it to be a violation of Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Of course, that intuition is not grounded in any familiarity in British law. I assume that these inspectors do have the legal right to search a flat without consent or a warrant. It couldn’t hurt to issue a verbal refusal, at least.

The idea that the state has the right to search your home on suspicion of owning a television, then fine you if you don’t already have a license seems preposterous. The courts in Canada and the United States have generally considered the searching of a home to be a serious legal action that generally requires a warrant. To do so in order to uphold the fiscal solvency of a public broadcaster seems like a serious confusion of priorities. I understand the need to fund the BBC, but this seems like an unjustifiable imposition.

That is especially true once extended to computers which may or may not be used to watch television programs. In 2004, the Secretary of State ruled in the Television Licensing Regulations that:

“‘Television receiver’ means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.”

Using my iBook to watch “The Daily Show” would appear to make it a ‘television receiver’ under this definition. When the BBC chose to put video online, it couldn’t legitimately claim to have thereby unilaterally extended the requirement for television license to all people in the UK with computers capable of viewing the information. If they made headlines available by text message, could they begin taxing anyone with a cellular phone? Can they tax people whose cellular phones can access the internet now?

I do see value in public broadcasting, insofar as it can serve some purposes that the mainstream media does not. That value does not, in my mind, justify the kind of threats that are being made.

More good news: bikes and academics

Sign outside the Kasbar, on Cowley RoadFirst off, I want to tip my hat to Beeline Cyles on the Cowley Road. I took in my bike for the free three-month maintenance and not only did they calibrate my gears, tighten my brakes, and fix the wobble on the replacement saddle I got off a derelict bike after mine was stolen, they also replaced one of my peddles, my chain, and the front gear system. It no longer grinds and screeches when climbing hills. Indeed, it feels like riding a brand new bike, and they covered it all under the one-year warranty. You rarely see such a level of customer service these days, and I appreciate it. If only they could come up with a device that eliminates the overwhelming yet fatal attraction that insects seem to feel for my eyes while I am riding quickly in traffic, or along the edge of a canal. (That’s fatal for them, not me so far.)

Secondly, I got my supervisor’s report for Trinity term in the post:

Milan has continued to make very good progress. He achieved a strong pass in the QT exam and has identified a very interesting topic for his MPhil thesis – the role of science in global environmental policy. His Research Design Essay represented an excellent start in developing the project and narrowing down a viable set of questions to be addressed. His work for the core seminar has also been very solid, with essays on unipolarity, the end of the Cold War, decolonization, and the Middle East.

On top of all else, Kelly is making me dinner tonight, in reciprocity for me cooking for her yesterday. Also, the Canada Day party is this Saturday. I discovered that the Grog Shop in Jericho even sells one kind of Canadian beer – Moosehead – so that vital national totem will not be entirely excluded from the gathering.

PS. Young’s Champion Live Golden Beer is the best summer brew I have encountered in the UK. It is well-suited to the character of summer evenings here, while still having a taste several cuts above the norm in complexity and pleasantness. At present, it is giving Wychwood’s Hobgoblin a run for the best beer I’ve discovered since arriving here. It is certainly a better match to long days and warm nights.

It is interesting to note that both beers use Styrian Goldings hops.

The science of complex systems

While walking with Bilyana this morning, we took to discussing complex dynamic systems, and the capability of present-day science to address them. Such systems are distinguished by the existence of complex interactions and interdependencies within them. You can’t look at the behaviour of a few neurons and understand the functioning of a brain; likewise, you can’t look at a few ocean currents or a few cubic miles of atmosphere and understand the climatic system. The resistance of these systems to being understood through being broken down and studied piece by piece is why they pose such a challenge to a scientific method that is generally based on doing exactly that.

Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who discovered quarks while working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, extensively discusses complex dynamic systems in his excellent book: The Quark and the Jaguar. Among the most interesting aspects of that book is the discussion of the difficulty of categorizing things as simple or complex. That is to say, establishing the conditions of complexity. Some kinds of problems, for instance, are extremely complex for human beings – taking the sixth root of some large number, for instance – but facile for computers. That said, computers have a terrible time trying to perform some tasks that people perform without difficulty. The comparison of human and machine capability is appropriate because of the difficulties involved in trying to understand something like the climatic system and determine the effects that anthropogenic climate change will have upon it. Increasingly, our approach to studying such things is based on computer modelling.

Whether studying an economy, the cognitive processes of a cricket, or the dynamics of a thunderstorm, modelling is an essential tool for understanding complex systems. At the same time, a level of abstraction is introduced that complicates the status of such understanding. First of all, it is likely to be highly probabilistic: we can work out about how many bolts of lightning a storm with certain characteristics might produce, but cannot predict with exactitude the behaviour of a certain storm. Secondly, we might not understand the reasons for which behaviour we predict is taking place. Some modern aircraft use neural networks and evolutionary algorithms to dampen turbulence along their wings, through the use of arrays of actuators. Because the behaviour is learned rather than programmed, it doesn’t reflect understanding of the fluid dynamics involved in the classical sense of the word ‘understanding.’

I predict that the most significant scientific advancements in the next hundred years or so will relate to complex dynamic systems. They exist in such importance places, like all the chemical reactions surrounding DNA and protein synthesis, and they are so imperfectly understood at present. It will be interesting to watch.

Third, and steadier, academic job

Bridge on the Oxford canal

Dr. Hurrell had good things to say about my decolonization paper, and has stressed that there is no urgency for completing my final paper of the year. Even better, he says that he will have at least six hours a week of research work for me, from July to September. Half of it will be formatting a bibliography for a book he is writing; the other half, identifying sources about Brazilian and Indian climate change policy. That and a few other bits of work should leave me with enough to pay rent and food, while also giving me a good amount of time to devote to thesis research.

After the seminar tonight, I met for a while with Bilyana and Kelly, before making dinner for the latter and capitalizing on Kai’s excellent stock of Simpsons DVDs. Tomorrow, I need to pick up my tuned-up bike, start the research for Dr. Hurrell, and pick up the faux Oxford business cards I am having printed on Holywell Street using a modified version of the far more expensive official template that Claire sent me. All told, a good series of new developments.

Mapping virtual selfdom

Working in the Department of Politics and International Relations

There’s nothing like seeing all the websites to which you have contributed listed in one place to make you feel like a hardcore geek.

Now, back to being the only person in the Department of Politics and International Relations. At 8:45pm on a Sunday. Surrounded by books on the Middle East, and drinking Red Bull.

[Update: 11:59pm] After three hours of editing, I have something with which I am actually pretty happy. It is definitely much better than my decolonization essay. I am going to go home, then give it one last check over before giving it to Dr. Hurrell tomorrow. Just one paper left!

Two academic jobs

In the last week or so, I have found two short-term but remunerative pieces of academic work. Firstly, I will be giving a lecture on July 10th to a group of American undergraduates on Canada/US security and defence cooperation since September 11th. The lecture is part of a program being run by Regent University, in association with Hertford College, in which American undergrads are coming to Oxford to learn about strategic studies. Since the topic I have been assigned is almost exactly what the NASCA report was about, and I did a considerable amount of background research before we went to Colorado Springs, that should just be a matter of bringing things back together in a way that will fit into an hour and be accessible to people unfamiliar with the topic. My provisional outline will be to cover:

  1. Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom
  2. The creation of USNORTHCOM and the Bi-National Planning Group
  3. Canada’s decision regarding Iraq
  4. NORAD and missile defence
  5. And border security, including the Smart Border Declaration

Obviously, it cannot be covered comprehensively in an hour. Given that they probably won’t be at all familiar with Canada’s security role after September 11th, it is probably fine to just cover the basics well and then answer any specific questions afterwards.

The other teaching job is to read three papers and conduct three tutorials on the Camp David Accords. These will be with an American high school student who will be in Oxford for a few weeks as part of a program being run by St. Hugh’s. I should get the first paper by next Sunday, then discuss it on the Monday or Tuesday of that week. For the next two weeks, I am to suggest additional paper topics to be completed and discussed according to the same pattern.

To be honest, I am a bit nervous about both jobs. I’ve never actually done academic work that involves working with students in an official capacity. I have no concerns about the material for the first topic. The second, I have less expertise in. That said, the person with whom I will be working on it is in high school. By fortuitous chance, I am also writing a paper on the Arab-Israeli conflict for Dr. Hurrell. I think that if I pay special attention to material on Camp David, as well as reading a few journal articles specifically on the topic, I should be fine. Sarah P’s encouragement has also been helpful.

Actually doing work in areas that I’ve been studying for such a long time is definitely exciting, as well as slightly concerning, due to my unfamiliarity. The fact that each job pays more than anything else I have ever done is also a considerable inducement. The lecture pays as much as a day and a half at Staples, for an hour’s lecturing plus preparation time. The tutorial job pays as much as nearly five days’ work at my last summer job: enough to cover two weeks of my rent here. In addition to that, there is considerable satisfaction to be derived from doing ‘real’ work, rather than filler work intended to pay the bills.

Pringle-saturated satirical news

The Comedy Central website – once a much prized source of Daily Show and Colbert Report clips – has become unusable. Now, every single clip is preceded by a truly insipid 30-second Pringles commercial: the same ad for every clip. Given that both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show post about 6-7 one-minute clips on each day from Monday to Friday, watching them all would involve watching that Pringles video more than ten times in a half hour period: something I am not willing to put up with.

I can understand the need to pay for bandwidth, but this is just too annoying a way to pull it off.

PS. The Show and The Report are also under discussion here, at the moment.