Infernal machines

Proving the adage that technology is actually driven by evil spirits who let it fail just when it is most inconvenient: the MySQL database that serves as the back-end to my wiki has chosen this morning – an hour before I need to give a presentation stored in the wiki – to go kaput. SQL failures have been an irksome occasional occurrence with GoDaddy hosting. Good thing I printed off a PDF version of the presentation before going to sleep.

Oywg, gk eygcwylw vfmfkghtamdv trzknrz utg fwbyuyq zu lf ezx dvpyu dxiggmkn – ljae tw wt jec vvq wph whv cozi sax ej bv – lwwlmme sya L srqm oip tb zxfpbum gx uckf hui vchuwzbv um pufs ntw ar wvtaiebrtvwa woro oec. Hbc, O prgw tu lpff gr gczi qp okts l pdxk hmwqt iyiveedogmsa hr kwv Ugrpvxaw Zvrtbfhs, eje cy wtvxl pgmkg nmfgl gz exivc. (CR:ISM)

Perspectives on international environmental law

New College Cloisters, Oxford

It cannot be taken as a good sign to have a presentation in twelve hours and still not really be sure about the main thrust of what you are going to say. I feel like I have a lot of structural elements, but only a semi-rough conception of what I am going to build out of them. The feeling is somewhat akin to that which I have towards the thesis and, indeed, life in general once this program ends.

The immediate requirement is to decide how skeptical I ought to be about international environmental law. The fact that Canada, for instance, doesn’t seem to feel particularly obligated to meet its Kyoto targets makes one wonder whether there’s conviction out there to match rhetoric. One temptation is to fall back, and say that environmental law is just one more mechanism through which governments can be lobbied – both internally and externally. Another possibility is to say that law isn’t what’s in the books and filed with the Secretary General, but rather what states actually get up to. The latter view would probably be more favoured by my international law instructors, but it makes the whole corpus of international environmental law even more nebulous than it previously appeared to be.

I suppose I will write a draft, read for a few hours, then decide exactly what to say in the morning (when my cognitive faculties are at their lowest ebb).

Review: Etymotic ER6i headphones

Now that I’ve had these earbuds for about five months, it seems worthwhile to make a few comments. While they have their peculiarities, these are acoustically excellent devices. The noise isolation is so good that I use them to sleep on planes and buses. Indeed, when wearing them I am unable to hear whether my cell phone is ringing in my pocket (save for the very slight buzzing the radio transmission seems to induce in the connecting wire).

Admittedly, it takes a little while to get used to the unique flanges that make these earbuds look so distinctive. To begin with, I didn’t think they fit me very well. You gradually learn how to insert them to the proper depth, and with an appropriate air pressure between your eardrum and the earbud. Now that I have, I loathe the times when I need to use the awful default iPod headphones. (Given how well the ER6is exclude noise, cycling with them in would be somewhat reckless.)

The best things about these headphones are the excellent sound fidelity, the small size, the effective sound isolation, and the surprisingly good customer service provided by Etymotic. The sound fidelity is such that you can easily hear the minor differences in playback between a G4 iBook, a fourth generation iPod, and a first generation iPod Shuffle (especially in the bass range). As for the size: even in the carrying case they come with, they are small enough to carry everywhere. An iPod Shuffle fits neatly into the case with them, and then into a small pocket. In my experience, the Etymotic staff as very helpful. If you call their customer support line, you will be speaking to a real and knowledgeable person immediately. When I called them because I thought the flanges fit badly, they sent me a bunch of alternative sizes to try out for free.

The problematic things about them are the time lag before their particular style of seal begins to feel natural and the cheap looking – but seemingly durable – wires. Since the very rapid failure of the wires on my old Sony Fontopia earbuds was the reason I switched to these, I am happy they haven’t frayed in any visible way so far. As with any headphones, there is also the danger of pushing up the volume too many times over the course of a few hours of listening, then finding yourself struggling to hear those around you. Of course, sometimes that is just the price you need to pay for comprehensive musical immersion.

If these got stolen, I would buy them again.

I am even considering spending $12 on their fancy earplugs. When you’re trying to sleep on a plane, the last thing you want is to be hassled about turning off electronic devices. Additionally, these would be a good counter to the champion snorers that multi-bunk hostels seem to attract.

[Update: 17 January 2008] I replaced my second filter today. I also changed the white eartips. The old ones were getting pretty grungy and yellow. Ordering supplies from Etymotic involves very high shipping fees, so I bought them on eBay instead. I had to spend an awful week listening to iPod headphones; I am so glad to be back in the world of beautiful sound.

POPs and climate change as ‘anomalies’

Now nearly finished with Kuhn‘s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I am pondering how to apply it to my thesis case studies. Basically, what Kuhn has done is sketch out a theory about how scientists interact with the world and each other, generating new scientific ways of understanding the world. You start with one paradigm (say, Newtonian physics). Then, scientists begin to notice anomalies – places where the theory cannot explain what they perceive to be going on. If such anomalies are of the right sort and sufficiently numerous, they may provoke a crisis within the paradigm. At that point, the scope of science broadens a bit, to examine bigger questions and alternative possibilities. In Kuhn’s terminology, the practice of ‘normal science‘ is interrupted. The crisis is resolved either through the modification of the previous paradigm or through the emergence of a new one, such as relativistic physics.

From the perspective of my thesis, the relevant discoveries are the rising global mean temperature and rising concentrations of POPs in the Arctic. Both were novel developments in our awareness and understanding of what is going on in the world, and both are the unintended products of modern economic activity. In the first case, the emission of greenhouse gases seems to be the primary cause of the change; in the second, pesticide use, industrial chemicals, and garbage burning seem to be the culprits. While scientists knew that these things were going on before the first research on POPs and climate change was done, these specific consequences were not anticipated. Their precise magnitude remains contested and uncertain.

While neither discovery induced a crisis in science (both are largely explicable using science that has existed for a long time), they did progress into general acceptance by following a pattern that is in some ways similar to that of paradigmatic development in the sciences. The researchers who first looked at POP concentrations in human blood and breast milk from the Arctic thought that the samples must have been contaminated, because they could imagine no reason for which people living in such an isolated environment would be so saturated with toxic chemicals. The establishment and operation of the Northern Contaminants Program thus involves both ‘normal science’ and the kind of thinking through which new paradigms are established. Because of such similarities, I am hoping that some of Kuhn’s insights into the ways scientists think, and especially the ways in which they make up their own minds and try to make up those of their colleagues, can be applied to the understanding of scientific perspectives on these particular environmental problems.

The biggest difference is probably how wider policy implications tend to arise from environmental discoveries in a way not parallel to the consequences of other sorts of discovery. Quantum mechanics may allow us to do new things, but it doesn’t really compel us to behave very differently. Learning about global warming, by contrast, interacts with our pre-existing notions about appropriate action by human beings in the world to suggest potentially radical changes in behaviour. While I am not saying that there is a direct or linear connection between scientific discoveries about the environment and specific policy choices, it seems valid to say that our understanding of the environment, informed by science, profoundly affects the ways in which we feel we can and should act in relation to the physical world.

On a related note, I would strongly suggest that any physicist working on string theory give Kuhn’s SoSR a careful read. The crisis in physics generated by apparent contradictions between relativity and quantum mechanics seems very much like those he describes, with similar implications in terms of how scientists are thinking and what they are doing.

Climate change all over the news

Jet contrail and pruned tree

Sorry to be less esoteric and entertaining in my writing recently, but I have been focused by necessity on issues pertinent to ongoing projects. The process distorts one’s perception of the world. I cannot really judge, for instance, the extent to which the apparent increase in coverage of climate change issues in the media is (a) the product of my increased focus on those stories, (b) the result of cyclical phenomena, like the release of IPCC reports, or (c) a demonstration of increased awareness – or at least increased newsworthiness – of the climate change situation. With that caveat stated, it certainly seems as though climate change related stories are getting top billing in the media to an increasing degree.

The front page of today’s Globe and Mail site features four articles on climate change. One is on climate change and Parliamentary politics, another deals with the proper role of scientists. There is a question and answer session, and finally an article on the impact of rising sea levels on Indonesia. Many organizations, including the BBC, now have dedicated portions on their websites to cover climate change news.

Even President Bush has acknowledged the need to take action. It’s enough to make one hope that a massive shift from talk to action might take place within the next few years, going beyond Kyoto and into the realm of mechanisms to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move into a post fossil fuel economy.

From the perspective of a concerned citizen, this all seems like good news. It is very important to reach as good an understanding about the likely costs and benefits of climate change as possible. Also essential is the development of political consensus to take action to prevent climate change and mitigate the impact. From the perspective of a graduate student working partially on climate change, it is all quite overwhelming. It makes one wonder how relevant one’s research will be in a year or two. Additionally, it makes it seem less likely that one can add anything new to the discussion. My hope is that by drawing together more types of information than most people will be examining, I will be able to develop some insights. The degree to which my thesis will be a real contribution to scholarship largely depends on it.

Words, words, words

Another collection of thesis reading arrived today. From Amazon, I got Steven Bernstein’s The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism and Karen Litfin’s Ozone Discourses: Science and Politics in Global Environmental Cooperation. Each has been recommended by at least five people or other important thesis sources, and neither is available to me through the Oxford library system.

From Tristan, I received a stack of philosophy of science essays.

  • Bloor, David. “Essay Review: Popper’s Mystification of Objective Knowledge.”
  • van Fraassen, Bas C. “The Empirical Stance.” (2 copies, in case someone else in Oxford is looking for some light reading)
  • Guerlac, Henry. “Science During the French Revolution.”
  • Holton, Gerald ed. “Science and the Modern Mind: A Symposium.”
  • Miller, David ed. “Popper Selections.” (better than the two brick-like Popper books sitting on my shelf)
  • Neurath, Otto. “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle.”
  • Weber, Max. “Social Sciences, Law, and Culture.”

His taking the time to mail these to me is much appreciated. On the basis of this, I am willing to declare myself more or less set, in terms of thesis materials on the philosophy of science. Indeed, all signs point to the necessity of doing much more reading on the two case studies; both my supervisor and the examiners seem much more interested in the specific than the general.

The weeklong reading retreat to the original home of Dorothy and Nicholas Wadham that is happening during the last week of March is looking somewhat appealing. Unfortunately, that will also be the last week during which my supervisor is available to look anything over.

My international law presentation is due in two days, along with the final version of the fish paper. An international law paper is due in six weeks, with another due in about 14 weeks – at the same time as the thesis. As time goes on, I am seeing the progression from being jittery primarily as the result of caffeine consumption to being jittery because of stress and finally to being jittery due to a potent combination of the two.

OUSSG seeks new webmaster

Studying at Oxford? Interested in Strategic Studies? Web savvy? If these characteristics apply to you, consider nominating yourself to be the next webmaster of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group. At present, I am serving in this capacity, but I will be leaving Oxford at the beginning of July.

The workload is very reasonable: uploading a termcard in HTML and PDF format once a term and then formatting speaker biographies and photos for each week of term time. Documentation that describes all of these processes, step by step, will be available. No coding skill is necessary; indeed, anyone who can run a blog can use Mambo, the content management system behind the OUSSG site. Basic knowledge of FTP use, HTML, and photo cropping would be assets.

Nominations for President, Vice-President (my other current role), and Secretary open at this Tuesday’s meeting at 8:30pm in All Souls College. Anyone interested in the webmaster position should contact any member of the executive in person or by email.

Excellent BBC nature series

Landscape near Goreme, Turkey

Anyone interested in nature or geography should have a look at the spectacular television series “Planet Earth.” I watched a couple of episodes on Antonia’s very large television and was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the videography and the lengths they went to in order to get amazing imagery. I saw the episode featuring Lechuguilla Cave and another on mountains. Without a doubt, it is the best nature documentary series I have seen since The Blue Planet. Both were made by the BBC, and may constitute the strongest endorsement I have seen for that broadcaster.

I have been tempted many times to buy the DVD set of The Blue Planet, but don’t think it would be wise to buy the European version, which will not play on most North American devices. Both The Blue Planet and Planet Earth also have rather good websites. If you are in the UK, you can even download high resolution video clips. Unfortunately, they are only available as Windows-only DRM-protected Windows Media Player clips: hardly what you would want from a public broadcaster. Mac users will have to be satisfied with an excellent new background image.

All the President’s Men

Continuing to draw upon Kai’s excellent connection of DVDs, I watched All the President’s Men. Above all, it has reinforced my conviction that journalism is a noble but difficult profession. The amazing thing is that they were just relying on notes. These days, one can simply expect that all conversations, emails, and phone calls are being recorded.

Other people have already written better and cleverer things about the film than I can manage at the moment.

In the end, though, a reasonable person must suspect that the present American administration has engaged in deceit at a level that makes the Nixon administration look moderate by comparison. The question is when, if ever, that claim will be authoritatively confirmed or refuted.