2006 conclusion

Antonia Mansel-Long with Canon dSLR

The fact that it is now the last day of December is vaguely amazing to me. The time that has passed since returning from Turkey on the 16th has been the extended equivalent of deciding to have a nap after lunch and waking up at 8:00pm.

I suppose the winter break last year was similar, though two differences stand out as significant. Whereas last year, I spent a good amount of time getting to know Louise, this break has been characterized by almost universal solitude in Oxford. More importantly, whereas last year’s break involved little necessity of getting anything academic done, I have felt constant pressure this time, and hence constant disappointment. Kate pointed out, quite rightly, that an essential element of being a success in graduate school is being able to do your own planning and marshall your own energies; in the absence of a social climate, this is not a thing at which I succeed well.

While the post-Turkey period has been largely lacking in lustre, the year has generally been an unusually good one. I travelled to Malta in March, Scotland in July, Ireland in August, Vancouver and Barrier Lake in September, and Turkey in December. I met some new and interesting friends, gained some local and international correspondents, and did a lot of good photography and academic work. Publication of the eternal fish paper was secured, if not accomplished, and I did my first serious teaching. I had my first photograph published, albeit without my permission being asked.

2007 will be the most unscripted year of my entire life to date. If you had asked me to bet, at the age of twelve, what I would be doing at the age of 23, I would have suggested four years as an undergrad, followed by graduate school somewhere. Where the road leads from here is profoundly unclear – a reality that almost anyone would find somewhat daunting. It will be interesting to see what my summing up on 31 December 2007 will involve.

A bit heavy on the mascara

Having just made my last stir-fry of the year, I realized that my relationship with spices is much like that of a curious ten-year old with her mother’s cosmetics. Most things are in essentially the right places, but often in the wrong amounts and positioned there without gracefulness of natural effect.

As with the makeup example, this is reasonable enough when you are staying inside, but not the sort of thing you ultimately want to offer the world.

Review: MEC Aegis jacket

About once a week, someone finds my blog while searching for a review of this jacket. As far as I can tell, there are none on the internet so far. The following is meant to serve as a correction to that.

Today has given me a good opportunity to try out the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) Aegis jacket that I got this summer in really severe rain conditions. People who remember Dennis Nedry’s attempted escape to the dock in Jurassic Park will have some idea what I am talking about, though this is cool temperate rain rather than the lukewarm tropical variety. As in the past, it has proved both exceptionally weatherproof and quite breathable, especially with ventilation flaps open. A waterproof jacket in which you can cycle vigorously without getting drenched or steamed is a valuable thing, especially in a place that does such a good job of combining cycling as the major form of personal transport and rather wet winters. As far as I can tell on the basis of three months’ usage, this is the finest technical jacket I have ever owned.

The things I like most about the Aegis jacket:

  1. It is very waterproof, and works well as part of a layering system. 3-ply Gore-Tex XCR is about the best you can do, in terms of breathability, water resistance, and durability.
  2. It has lots of nice refinements: taped seams, a good adjustable hood, etc. The fact that even the under-arm zippers are of a very waterproof variety shows attention to detail. The hood works tolerably underneath a bike helmet, though at considerable cost of lost field of vision.
  3. The entire Gore-Tex membrane is lined on the inside, improving breathability and durability quite a lot.
  4. The pockets are waterproof enough that I do not fear for electronics inside, even in really awful conditions.
  5. Unlike my previous jacket, the elastic wrist cuffs do not seem to saturate with water.
  6. Capable enough for serious outdoor activities in very wet conditions, but also reasonable for wearing every day. That is, if you don’t mind announcing pretty loudly that you are from the west coast of North America.
  7. It is made in Canada, which is pretty amazing for a garment.
  8. Compacts well, for being carried around in a pack. (Weight: 730g)
  9. In my experience, MEC has an excellent record of dealing with any problems that crop up in their products. They replaced an MCR WhisperLite stove that had been used for more than a week (during the second Bowron Lakes trip), because it had a fuel flow problem.

And those I like least:

  1. Since it is just a shell, the fabric can feel a bit tarp-like, when it is worn without an insulating layer underneath.
  2. The rigidity of the collar takes some getting used to, though it really does keep out the rain, even when the hood is not being used.
  3. The bulges produced by gear in the four pockets are quite unflattering. At least, they are when you carry a wallet, a small digital camera, liner gloves, and personal audio gear in it almost all the time.
  4. There are no hip-level pockets. Sometimes, this forces me to put my least important electronics in enormously less waterproof pant pockets.
  5. The price is pretty high (C$340), though that becomes less of an issue if it lasts five years or longer, as I fully expect it to.

People with questions can feel free to contact me, or leave a comment. I will probably post some updates when I’ve had the jacket longer and used it in more varied conditions.

[Update: 31 October 2007] This is one tough jacket. Earlier tonight, I was thrown forward off my bicycle onto pavement. I scraped along for a little bit, bruising my arm and ribs. Upon inspection, the jacket shows no visible sign of having suffered from the incident.

After nearly a year of wearing this jacket almost daily and in all conditions, it is still in great shape overall. Buying it was a good choice

Debate Worlds ongoing

Apparently, the University of British Columbia is now hosting the world championships for intercollegiate debate. I remember being at the executive meeting where the idea of bidding was first proposed: back in the Beanery coffeeshop in the Fairview residence. That was in February 2003, during my middle year as the Debate Society treasurer. I still owe Meghan Mathieson many thanks for helping me get through the interminable paperwork associated with the position.

Sometimes, I regret not joining the Oxford Union. While it would have been about £180, it probably would have involved meeting some interesting people. I certainly did through UBC debate. Indeed, debaters seem to be an oddly cohesive group – they are far over-represented among people whose blogs I read, who I speak with online, and who I have generally kept in touch with since leaving Vancouver. Hopefully, if I do go on to do a PhD after working for a couple of years, the school I choose will have an interesting debate society that is not quite as outlandishly priced.

PS. I note with dismay that £180 is now $410.88 Canadian. Falling oil prices can be rough when you are living abroad and “there is a very, very strong positive relationship between movements in oil prices and movements in the value of the Canadian dollar.” (Source)

Another death in Iraq

The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Charlie Chapman – “The Great Dictator

Saddam Hussein’s sentence, discussed here previously, has been carried out. I maintain that it was immoral to kill him, just as it is immoral to take anyone’s life in the pursuit of justice. It is not through the living or dying of individuals that just societies arise, but through the creation and maintenance of fair and impartial institutions. This is why Chapman’s statement, while stirring, is also profoundly naïve. Sadly, very little in the way of a just society seems to be emerging in Saddam’s former kingdom.

I am not sure whether it is legitimate to hope that this will bring some satisfaction to the families of those tortured and murdered by his regime. On the one hand, they deserve whatever kind of compensation can be provided. On the other, encouraging people to delight in the death of a fellow human being seems morally reprehensible. At the very least, let us hope that this action does not spur greater violence in Iraq, and does not cut short the investigation and documentation of the whole sordid history of Saddam’s regime.

[Update: 3:00pm] My friends Lee and Tim have also commented on this matter.

But the stars kept marching

Moon and trees

By the standards of the break so far, today has been surprisingly productive. I read half of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, wrote 1000 words for the introduction to my thesis, made some progress on the Dobson book on the environment and political theory, nearly finished up my foreign aid paper, and revised my CV for the job search.

I think a lot of the increased productivity can be explained by Emily now being up the road, working on papers of her own. I no longer feel like the one man on the dark side of the moon, scribbling away to himself. I feel like part of an Oxford community again, and one that is engaged in similar pursuits and therefore able to derive motivation from a sense of shared endeavour.

With luck, the remainder of 2006 involve an equal or greater amount of per-hour to-do list completion (focused on the academic category, rather than web / photographic stuff). If the trend persists until the start of term on January 15th, I may actually finish those three draft chapters. I am certainly looking forward to the return of friends and fellow students, the resumption of dinners in Wadham and New College, and the start of my international law course.

PS. This is an amusing observation. Interesting how just rewording something can make it seem very unusual. xkcd has succeeded Digger and Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life as my favourite thoughtful web comic of the moment. That said, both of the others are still excellent. My toque goes off to Alec Reed, Ursula Vernon, and Randall Munroe. I hope to buy them each a drink someday.

Kuhn on research

Thomas Kuhn defines research as “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” To me, it seems a fairly reasonable, if somewhat cynical, way of looking at it.

There are two implications within the statement that strike me as interesting. The first is the assertion of nature. The idea that it is something out there, to which research is applied, is more empiricist than I expected from a book that Tristan recommended to me (that said, I am only halfway done, and all manner of complexities could yet emerge). All that said, here are a number of different ways in which you could interpret ‘nature’ in the above sentence.

Most obviously, you could take it to mean the external world of atoms and galaxies and ocelots. Naturally, ‘atom,’ ‘galaxy,’ or ‘ocelot’ is just a description, but it is not unreasonable to assert that there is something out there that can be reasonably assigned a term. There is a problem akin to the naming of constellations – it is arbitrary which stars you include in which grouping – but any possible set of constellations is at least a valid description of the orientation of stars in the sky. You might group them by proximity and geometric patterns, or you might group them according to their spectral profiles or any of myriad characteristics, but it should be possible to go back from whatever model is created to either re-create or at least recognize the phenomenon being described.

Another possible meaning for ‘nature’ is just experience. When we look at the stars (or anything else), our brains are performing a massive amount of signal processing. What you see is not, in many important ways, an accurate reflection of what is actually there. Details that evolution has determined to be unimportant are given little or no attention, whereas ones that natural selection has marked out as important are highlighted. This is the inevitable product of how genes that do a good job of sorting important data out from trivial data will tend to find themselves copied more often than those that do the same task badly. Very bright things are dimmed beside darker ones, and vice versa. Learning to undo a lot of this trickery is an important step towards becoming a good photographer. If we take ‘nature’ in this way, the object of our research is our own experiences of a natural world, rather than that world itself.

The second is the implication that we could somehow deal with nature in a more meaningful or comprehensive way. This is an assertion that comes into conflict with limitations in human cognitive power, and the time that can be applied to problems. We can, for instance, only really think in three spatial dimensions. We can only remember so much, and only grasp connections of certain types and complexities between phenomena and ideas. As such, the choice is not between modelling through categorization and some some of ideal holistic understanding of the universe; it is between modelling through categorization and some alternative form of modelling that is still bounded by human cognitive limits.

To me, the evident success of category-based modelling (as manifest most obviously in technology) demonstrates that it is clearly the world comprehension system to beat. Believing that light is a quantum phenomenon as described by certain equations is demonstrably better than believing it is the result of some kind of active broadcasting from the eyes. The most obvious way to show that is that you can build fibre optic cables and fancy lenses and optical disc drives on the basis of the former conception, but not the latter. One day, we will probably have an even better understanding of light, as demonstrated by a greater ability to do things that we want to do using it. Research, as Kuhn defines it above, is an essential activity and a worthwhile application of time and effort. While there is every reason to question and refine our methods, they are not worthy of outright denigration, as I am sure he would agree.

Aid paper 80% done

iBook in Wadham Library

At almost terminally long last, I have come up with a draft of my paper on moral arguments for and against foreign aid. While a paper of 2500 words cannot begin to engage with the specifics of the broad moral conversation, I think it at least summarizes positions in an interesting way and highlights some of the most fundamental clashes between the positions.

The secret to getting papers written is obviously to abandon my home (too devoid of people and too full of interesting but non-academic things), as well as libraries (populated by pale and frightening ghouls who seem to be trying to get a jump on their June exams), and adopt a coffee shop without internet access as a base of operations. With good tables, a staff that will not kick you out even four hours after you bought a drink, and four shots of iced espresso available for £1.79, Starbucks remains my top choice. My firm and ongoing rejection of the idea that Starbucks is a soulless corporate monster is already well documented here. Ah, the joys of adopting counter-counter-culture positions.

For now, the plan is to read one more substantial journal article on the subject, give the paper another careful read, have one external reviewer glance through it for cogency of language and arguments, give it one more tweaking myself, and then pidge the thing to Ngaire Woods and move on to the next bit of work.

Chocolate and misleading pricing

Those interested in chocolate, or who delight in seeing fraudsters uncovered, should have a look at this exposé on Noka Chocolates from DallasFood.org. (via BoingBoing) The ten part series might be a bit excessive, but you get the idea pretty quickly.

Apparently, a couple of accountants (Katrina Merrem and Noah Houghton) have been buying bulk chocolate for about $17.82 a pound – melting it down, shaping it, putting it into fancy boxes – then selling it for up to $2000 a pound. All this while pretending that they are actually involved in the process of making the original chocolate, as well as advancing additional dubious claims about their methods.

Amazing the crazy stuff that people who make ‘premium’ branded products can get away with. When you exploit the perception that you are providing people with the very best, and charge them accordingly, it seems fairly easy to pass off the utterly mediocre as superlative.

Those still dubious should have a look at the superb Feng Shui / bottled water episode of Penn & Teller’s: Bullshit! (Season One, Episode Seven). In it, they fill a bunch of fancy bottles using a garden hose, then sell it to the patrons of an upmarket restaurant for high prices. Listening to the customers discussing the subtle ‘notes’ they experience, and generally praise the water – interspersed with footage of a crazed looking waiter refilling the bottles on the patio – is incredibly amusing. They even call one of the options “L’eau du Robinet” (Tap Water), and sell it for $4.75 a bottle.