Adios to Oxford, albeit temporarily

Green plants

Files, books, drafts, system recovery discs, emergency rations, bed sheets, caffeinated mints, and more: I am now essentially ready for my thesis writing week in Devon. The sheets I was instructed to bring; the rest is meant to be essential thesis gear. I sure hope this trip proves as useful for advancing the thesis writing as I hope. Once I get back, I will only have about a week of editing time left before the thing needs to be sent off for printing.

Best wishes to everyone for the next eight days.

When only the high-carbon option works

After an agonizing two hours of trying1 to book Eurostar tickets, I gave up and got a flight to Paris from EasyJet. I am not sure if the bookings problems were Eurostar’s or NatWest’s fault. If my bank is to blame, they have sunk even deeper in my estimation. If it was the train company, they lost two customers because their web interface is unreliable. It failed at every possible stage: listing train times, entering payment information, and processing my credit card.

I am leaving on the afternoon of April 26th (three days after my thesis submission) and returning on April 30th (a few weeks before exams). It would be nice to go for longer, but the middle of an Oxford term is not the time for an extended foreign jaunt.

[1] Over and over and over again, without success.

Scientists and remedies: brainstorming

Statue in Nuffield College, Oxford

Tonight, I am brainstorming connections between scientists and remedy design. Addressing environmental problem basically seems to revolve around changing the intensity with which an activity is being carried out (ie. fish or cut down trees at the rate of regeneration) or finding substitutes (using solar power instead of natural gas power). Both kinds of solutions involve some critical imputs from scientists. Not surprisingly, my focus here is on types of actions that pertain specifically to my case studies.

I have come up with the following. Does anything else spring to mind?

Technological development

Development of:

  1. Alternative chemicals to replace ones that have been problematic (for instance, CFCs and POPs)
  2. Alternative mechanisms for energy generation, storage, and transmission
  3. Energy-using technologies that are more efficient
  4. Plant varieties that require fewer pesticides
  5. Mechanisms for the disposal or long-term storage of unwanted by-products
  6. Less polluting mechanisms for waste disposal


Anticipating the consequences of:

  1. Continuing to behave as we have been
  2. Adopting one or another alternative approach
  3. The combination of our impact upon the world with possible natural changes, such as major volcanic eruptions

Providing information about uncertainty:

  1. How good are our predictions?
  2. If they do fail, in what ways might it occur (what is not included in the models?)
  3. What kinds of uncertainty are out there (ie. magnitude of effects, distribution of effects, etc)

Predictions about technological development:

  1. What will the state of environmentally relevant technologies be in X years?
  2. Is it better to invest in the best technology we have now, or continue research and wait (partly an economic question)

Big ideas about the world

Establish and describe the limits of nature:

  1. Is this a factual or ideological exercise?
  2. The same facts could justify differing views
  3. Some ideologies have elements that can be pretty effectively undermined by science (ie. eugenics)

How should we treat uncertainty?:

  1. Are there categories of risk that it is more ‘rational’ to worry about?
  2. When does it make sense to ‘wait and see’ and when does it make sense to act in a precautionary way?

Naturally, those last few items extend into territory that is not obviously scientific. One big question about the social role of scientists is the extent to which they do or should contribute to such hybrid debates, with both empirical and ethical dimensions. Also, there is the question of whether they do or should do so ‘with their scientist hats on’ or whether they are no different from any other actor, once they have strayed from their area of core competence.

Quicksilver: nice free addition to OS X

I have found a way to reduce the extent to which the Dock in OS X is annoying. Two things about it are especially bothersome. The first is how it makes it overly easy to accidentally launch applications that take a long time to load. In particular, I find myself accidentally hitting the Word and Excel icons once in a while: programs that I make sure to only run when I absolutely need them. The second is how it changes shape and position, which is simply bad design. Turning off ‘hiding’ helps, but there is still the matter of the Dock getting longer when you run more programs. The following helps with the first problem only. Hopefully, a bit of a UI re-think will be done for Leopard.

One way to reduce the frustration is with Quicksilver. It is like a version of Spotlight that is actually useful on a minute-by-minute basis, even for someone well organized enough to know where a particular file will be. You can use a key combination to bring up the Quicksilver ‘launcher’ and then type the first couple of characters of an application that you use often, but want to remove from the Dock. Similarly, it can be used to rapidly bring up contacts, folders, iTunes tracks, iPhoto albums, and other such things. You can, for instance, type the name of an iTunes playlist and have it start playing, all in under a second, without having to open the iTunes window.

One more nice thing about it is that it isn’t tied exclusively to Mac applications. People will call me a heretic for preferring Entourage over Mail, but I am sticking with it. Likewise, Firefox over Safari and Adium over iChat.

Mac users who want to get the most out of their operating environment should definitely give it a whirl. It becomes useful in less than ten minutes.

Now with thixotropic ink

St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

With the addition of St. Hilda’s, my collection of all the Oxford colleges actually located in Oxford is complete. At some point before I go, I will need to duck out to Kennington to have a look at Templeton College.

Today, I received the bullet-style Fisher Space Pen that I bought on eBay. The suggested complement to the ‘hipster PDA,’ the pen is meant to partially embody my new spirit of active task completion. The design is an elegant one, though the experience of writing is not as enjoyable as with my fountain pen or my nicest ballpoint pen. I’d say it is on par with the four colour pens that are my mainstay, though with a bit less scope for note categorization and a lot more of an eye-catching look.

I haven’t been able to test it underwater or in space so far, but you can expect an update once I have.

[Update: 29 March 2007] The space pen writes perfectly well on an index card submerged beneath a few inches of water. The ink does smudge if you rub it, however. I would like to test it at a greater depth. At some level, the water pressure must be greater than the gas pressure in the ink cartridge.

[Update: 13 November 2007] My father has started using a Hipster PDA as well, having seen me using mine during a recent visit to Toronto. We shall see how useful he finds it and how long he keeps it up.

Oxford college selection

Ben Saunders, a fellow Oxonian blogger, just wrote a post on choosing your Oxford college, and I thought I might jump in with a few suggestions of my own. For the uninitiated, the college you choose will have a fairly big impact on your time in Oxford. It will be your major point of contact with the university administration, one place where you meet a lot of people socially, and possibly a place where you will live and/or take meals.

There are a series of important characteristics that Oxford colleges have in greater or lesser amounts, all worth considering:

  • Location (the criteria most international students seem to rely upon for selection)
  • Reputation (some are old and famous)
  • Finances (some will be able to help you financially)
  • Library resources (some have excellent subject specific libraries)

To aspiring students of international relations, I suggest you ask yourself the following: “Would I rather be at an old, famous, rich college near the middle of town or a smaller, more specialized, and much newer college on the edge?” In the former case, I would suggest somewhere like Merton. The location is good, the grounds are very nice, the chapel is stunning, and I am told they have a good bit of money to toss around. In the latter case, I would suggest St. Antony’s. It is all graduates, and pretty much everyone is working on politics, IR, or economics. You also get a library with good resources for your subject, and preferential access to a similar library at Nuffield. Nuffield is a good choice if you prefer a very quiet, sober sort of collegial environment.

That said, each of the colleges has features to recommend it. The considerations above include some that didn’t occur to me when I was making my own selection, particularly in terms of library resources. Living in a St Antony’s residence along with two of their students has allowed me to use a fair number of their facilities. Crucially, however, that does not include the library, which colleges sometimes guard jealously from outsiders. Wadham, the college I chose on account of location and a friend’s recommendation, has been very good to me and I would recommend it to people who are particularly keen to avoid the pretension that is so often a mark of the Oxford experience goes. The gardens are also very nice, especially in the spring and summer.

As Ben explains, the decision isn’t one to stress over. It is just worth doing a bit more than putting a map of Oxford on your wall and throwing a dart.

PS. One last thing to consider: as a graduate, you select one college in your application. If your program accepts you but the college does not, you will probably be assigned to one of the colleges that get the fewest applicants. This may be reason enough to avoid the really famous colleges like Christ Church and Magdalen.

Pondering remedy design

Painting at Linacre College

Sorry to be so uninteresting of late. While waiting for me to hammer my thesis together, why not read some fine web comics:

These have all been mentioned here before, but may prove novel to those who haven’t been paying very close attention. Feel free to suggest more to one another.

For random thesis mutterings, follow this link:

Continue reading “Pondering remedy design”

The virtue of stability

For several weeks now, I have been keeping the mini-tripod that I bought for my trip to Turkey attached to my point and shoot digital camera all the time. Doing so has proved useful in a very great many circumstances: primarily those in which low levels of ambient light have been available. Many of my best recent photos would have been impossible without it. Having it attached has also changed the way in which I approach photography, generally, and what sort of images I try to capture.

You can get a similar tripod on eBay for a couple of Pounds.