Taxes, exams, and changing seasons

Anteroom to the Codrington Library, All Souls

From the way Oxford looks already, you can tell that it is going to be gorgeous in the summer. That is especially true for those of us who arrived in September and October; we’ve never been exposed to the verdant face of Oxford. I confess that it is something of a surprise to actually see leaves on a tree here.

The overall feeling created by long, bright days is quite at odds with the knowledge that there is a whole other term left. Eight more seminars, another batch of papers, and of course the research design essay. Having a room increasingly full of boxes combines with the sunshine to make me feel as though summer is very nearly here. Far better, for the moment, to focus on the short and medium term.

Running into Emily at the Codrington was enjoyable – a reminder of when we were there reading about the middle east and the interwar period the first time around. To study that time period and region in the same college and library where T.E. Lawrence wrote his two books and innumerable letters has a certain excellence of authenticity to it. Moving on: I am off to study international relations theory in the SSL.

This evening, I even managed to roll over my financial spreadsheets into the new fiscal year. Because it’s all done using formulas I’ve made myself, it’s no small task to shift so much information around. Updating and connecting four databases, listing information on seven accounts in two currencies and countries, along with two credit cards, is tricky. Doing all that under conditions where you document every transaction over the entire year, down to the penny, is really laborious. All the same, I prefer a system that I designed and hence understand to the incomprehensible datasets produced by programs like Quicken. Tax audits do not scare me. I even have all of the receipts more or less sorted.

The Skeptical Environmentalist

I am presently reading Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: a book that has created a huge amount of controversy since it was released, because it questions the empirical basis for the idea that the global environment is undergoing severe degradation. There are two major kinds of arguments in the book, each of which is somewhat problematic to deal with:

  1. The empirical argument that, for instance, forest cover is increasing in Canada, while the Worldwatch Institute says that it is decreasing, and that the rate of contraction in places like Brazil is far lower than it is generally listed as being. These kinds of arguments are difficult to access because they turn on the level of credibility we assign to experts. While we could theoretically go look at the numbers themselves, we don’t know enough about the numbers to know which are important, which are credible, and why.
  2. The social and political argument about the character of what Lomborg calls ‘the litany’ of environmental decline: here, he is talking about the tendency to exaggerate, to accept bad figures more easily than good ones, and to manipulate data in ways that serve political ends. As in the first case, much of what he says is probably correct. The difficulty is in assessing the overall importance of competing claims, as well as the overall legitimacy of different claimants.

I shall write more about it as I progress through the book. I will be especially interested to see what he has to say about fisheries. Organizations like the Sea Around Us Project at UBC seem to employ the kind of rigorous statistical methods Lomborg espouses, and the picture they paint of the state of world fisheries is hardly a rosy one.

Praise and censure

In a bewildering move, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has actually praised the quantitative methods training offered by the Department of Politics and International Relations. This is the same training that 27 of the 28 people in my program formally protested the poor quality of, in a letter to the department. I think the predominant view of the statistics portion of the M.Phil, among those taking it, is that it’s the primary evidence that just because something is taught at Oxford, that doesn’t mean that it’s taught well. It’s the black mark within an otherwise excellent program. A great deal of dissatisfaction with the course was also expressed to me by several members of the faculty, as well as the program director.

Hopefully, the ESRC was looking at one of the other statistics courses being offered by the department, rather than the one given to people doing M.Phils in International Relations. Ours managed to please nobody: neither those already experienced with statistics nor neophytes, neither those who see a lot of value in quantitative methods nor those who prefer other methodologies.

To any fellow M.Phils reading the blog: would you not agree that the quantitative methods training we received was not deserving of praise of this kind?

Longer days, upcoming exam

Merton College Tower

Academic nuts and bolts

In a spurt of productivity this afternoon (helped along by the Venti coffee I got during my walk with Louise), I finished editing the venerable fish paper for submission to MITIR. With the deadline just five days away, on the same day that my practice exam is due and when I am moving, it seemed most sensible to do a modest edit and send it off on a wing and a prayer. Without access to my original sources and ample amounts of time, nothing more ambitious could be attempted.

The first priority now is to sort out taxes and the final payment to Wadham College for this year. I also need to learn why NatWest missed two months worth of interest payments on my accounts, then fined me eighteen Pounds for not paying a bill which I never received, and which cannot be paid online. They are the worst bank I have ever had to deal with, including one in Canada where I closed my account in disgust.

The second priority is to pack. Does anyone know of somewhere in Oxford that has large and study cardboard boxes up for grabs? It seems that if I can have everything ready to go on the morning of the 10th, Kai will be able to help shift my stuff in his car. I can then spend the afternoon writing my practice exam for Dr. Hurrell, so that we can discuss it on the 12th. I will then have eight last days in which to revise, partly guided by his suggestions. Revision in general, with a particular eye to the practice test, is the third priority.

The revision plan, at this point, is basically to read over my notes a couple of times: both those from lectures and seminars and those on the readings. I will also go back over my own essays carefully – trying to hammer the knowledge of who wrote what about what into my brain – and the essays of a few friends.

Sometime at the start of the term, Kai, Alex, and I will need to throw some kind of welcome party at the Church Walk flat. The huge backyard would be ideal for an afternoon gathering, especially if we could find some seating.

Oxford spring

The walk around Christ Church Meadows with Louise this afternoon was a stunning demonstration of a greening Oxford. The cherry blossom trees in front of St. Mary’s Church are stunning, and the increasingly verdant look of the meadows themselves lends hope to downtrodden graduate students. My favourite geese were out on display, as well clutches of people in boats on the Isis and secondary waterways.

I have been making an effort to cycle at least half an hour a day. The exercise is enjoyable, and a nice contrast to my relative idleness during periods of reading.

Short Cambridge foray

Christ College, Cambridge

I just returned from Cambridge, after a long coach ride in the same clothes I wore last night, on account of having forgotten the change of clothes I packed in Wadham. Largely due to time constraints, I saw hardly any of Cambridge. I saw the inside of Christ College, where we had dinner, and some of the surrounding streets. From the coach, I saw the river.

Like St. John’s College, in Oxford, Christ College seems to extend back in fairly linear fashion from the porter’s lodge. Meeting some of the students at our sister college, as well as a surprising number of Wadham graduates who I don’t recall having spoken with before, made it a fairly good use of 24 hours. The knowledge that I only have 15 days left before my qualifying test led to me going to bed enormously earlier than most people seem to have done.

Obviously, I will need to return at some point. I am off to shower and get back to reading.

PS. Mica has two new videos online.

Malta Trip Photos: Final Installment of Digital Camera Shots

Regrettably, there will probably be some duplication once the film gets developed and scanned. Even so, I thought these were worth putting up.

Maltese shoreline

Harbours, boats, and clear seas

Rock formations

Interesting rock formations

Farmhouse in Malta

Limestone farmhouse

Fisherman's chapel, Malta

Fisherman’s chapel

Field of flowers

Field of flowers

Disapproving look

My mother certainly has a disapproving look here, probably because of how much the wide angle effect increases the apparent size of the bottle.

Another one bites the dust

It’s never encouraging to look into your pigeon hole and see a slim envelope from a scholarship committee: in this case, the selection committee for Oxford’s Overseas Research Scholarship (ORS):

I regret to tell you that your application was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, due to the large number of applicants we are unable to provide individual feedback on the results.

Those who have applied and not found such a letter in your post, take heart. The ORS is quite a nice scholarship, which converts the fees you pay as an international student to those paid by someone from the UK: a dramatic reduction.

Brief post from a busy life

I got a good amount of revision done today and had a last dinner with my mother, prior to her return to Vancouver tomorrow. At noon, she leaves for Heathrow. At three in the afternoon, I am going to Cambridge for an exchange dinner. If I had known how hectic a time period it was going to fall during, I would have thought twice about signing up. As it happens, I will try to do what reading I can on the coach.

Those in need of some entertainment, and who have not yet seen my annotated Malta photos, might give that a try.

I will be more interesting soon.

Malta Trip Photos: Second Installment

I will keep posting photos here that are not quite arty enough to be part of the album, but which have some documentary value that compensates. As a bonus, all photos on the blog are included at 1024×768 resolution, while those on are a maximum of 800×600. People wanting the full 2048×1536 jpeg files my camera produces can request them by email or comment.

Valletta fortifications

Valletta’s status as a frequently invaded city is demonstrated by the elaborate fortifications that have been constructed around the harbour.

Valletta harbour ramp

An important trans-shipment point between the countries circling the Mediterranean, Malta has extensive ship building and material transfer capabilities, both in Valletta Harbour and on the south side of the island near the main power plant.

St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta

The interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral is both elaborate and unusual. The church is rectangular, with alcoves along the edges and a semi-cylindrical roof. Also, can anyone – perhaps Tony – enlighten me as to the meaning of a ‘co’ cathedral?

Cathedral tombstone

The emergence of skeletonized dead from tombs is an exceptionally common motif on the panels that make up the cathedral floor, each of which seems to be a grave marker.

Alena Prazak

My mother under an archway in central Valletta.

Trying to increase nose-grindstone proximity

Jeeps look good in black and white

Revision began in earnest today and, as I predicted before, it managed to induce that little tinge of raw panic that is the basis for all academic achievement. Many thanks to Claire for stripping questions from the most recent qualifying test from the lists of past questions I will be studying from. As I am meant to write a practice test consisting of last year’s exam for Dr. Hurrell by the tenth of April, and it would hardly do to know the questions while I am revising.

If I want to submit the fish paper to the MIT International Review – with submissions for its inaugural issue due by the 10th of April – I will need to get started on editing and reformatting it. Doing so is quite difficult because I don’t remember the sources well or have them with me. I wrote this more than a year ago, after all. The submission guidelines do say that: “After initial submission, writers whose articles are being considered for publication will be asked to resubmit articles according to more specific guidelines.” As such, it’s probably best to do a moderate edit and see if they’re interested, before I commit a lot of time.

When contemplating the fact that April 10th is also the day during which I am to move, I may have stumbled across a universal law:

The law of deadline gravitationThe times and dates when projects are due will approach one another at a rate directly proportional to the number of hours the respective projects will require to complete, and inversely proportional to the distance already separating them.

This explains why big tasks cluster – like periods of examination – but why mundane tasks arise constantly and individually. While much theoretical work remains to be done on this concept, it seems plausible to me that the attractive force may only apply itself to certain classes of tasks: just as photons are exempted from the effects of magnetic fields.

Looks like I may not have as much time to try out my new bike as I thought. Of course, spending a week in Malta leaves me with no reason to complain about having to buckle down now.

More iPod trouble

Well, the iPod that Apple sent back because it was apparently fine will not be recognized by my computer at all and now simply boots to an unhappy Mac icon when you turn it on. I wonder if they actually looked at the thing before they decided that “issues reported concerning [my] iPod” “were found to be within Apple’s specifications for acceptable performance, usability and/or functionality.” I’ll call them again tomorrow. Looks like it’s going back to the Netherlands.

Malta Trip Photos: First Installment

In some order determined by my patience and level of distraction by other ongoing concerns, I will be posting a collection of photos from the Malta trip here, as well as on my page. Keep checking back for updates, if you’re interested.

Maletese architecture

The architecture in Malta frequently reflects its 98% Catholic population.

Wheel on wall

This shot was snapped between two chained and angry dogs, during our first hike.

Steps down to the waterfront

Surprisingly elaborate steps down to a Maltese beach.

Traditional Maltese fishing boat

You can identify a traditional Maltese fishing boat by the Eyes of Horus near the bow, as well as a distinctive colour scheme.


Much of Malta seems to be either in repair or under construction.