From tiny island country to small island country

Maltese grain

Well, I am back in England – where you can’t figure out how to turn on dryers and water heaters (the secret is often pulling on a rope hanging from some dark corner of the ceiling), where they will charge you as much for a half hour train ride as lunch and a whole day’s exploring in Gozo does, and where you will wrap your rain jacket around your shoulders while reading, despite being indoors, within the confines of a surprisingly sunny living room. That’s not meant as a series of complaints, of course. Indeed, I read about sixty pages of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island while trying to dry my socks on an icy radiator and can therefore say that the above is positively chipper by comparison.

In a few hours, I am heading to Drury Lane to see The Producers with my mother before trekking myself and a great mass of dirty clothes to Marble Arch for the bus back to Oxford. One piece of welcome news, delivered by text message as my mother and I waited in line at passport control at Gatwick Airport, is that Louise will be in Oxford next week. Her presence will either mean that I will have someone to scrutinize my efforts at revising, even as I play the same role for her, or that I will have good company to look forward to in those periods when I will take breaks.

Tomorrow, it will take the greatest restraint to avoid spending hours sorting and editing photos. That is to say, I will almost certainly spend much of tomorrow doing exactly that. I will then work myself into a proper panic by looking through the dozens of exam related Word document attachments that are lurking in my email inbox. My mother is stopping by Oxford on Monday and spending that night, before returning to Vancouver the day after. Hopefully, she will have the chance to meet a few more friends I’ve made in the U.K., as further demonstration of how clever and interesting Oxford graduate students can be.

Matters of definition

Cryptoblog: A weblog somehow concealed or encrypted, so as to restrict those who have access. Unlike password based restrictions or ‘friends lists,’ cryptoblogs are intended to present an overt challenge to those wanting access, calling upon them to exercise cleverness in figuring out how.

Also, cryptoblogging: the act of writing a cryptoblog.

See also, weblog: A frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person, and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary. (Source: OED)

NatWest: a very poor bank, indeed

Britain’s position as a global financial services hub is certainly not well reflected in the conduct of the particular bank I chose when I arrived in Oxford. Despite my dissatisfaction, however, the sheer level of hassle involved in switching banks as an international student will probably keep me where I am. I post this as a warning to those who will come after.

I continue to be astonished by how bad the online banking offered by NatWest is. The password system is frustrating and insecure. It’s impossible to pay your NatWest credit card bill online, even when you applied for it at the same time as you created your account. The site doesn’t even let you transfer funds between your chequing and savings accounts, unless you go set it up to do so in person. They also managed to forget to pay interest on my savings account for February. Those considering opening a bank account in the United Kingdom should absolutely avoid this bank.

Part of the problem is how NatWest has two separate divisions: one that runs the branches and knows nothing about the credit cards and web banking, and another that plays the opposite role. Despite the apparently clear delineation of duties, there seem to be serious communication problems between the two. They also have some truly bizarre rules about documents they can only send to your permanent address, even when it’s outside the U.K. and they know that you will not be there. Add to that high service charges (ie. $25 for a bank draft) and low interest (less than the rate of inflation) and you can understand the reasons for my dissatisfaction.

[Update: 20 May 2006] Another really awful thing about NatWest is the way their credit card payments work. At the start of the month, I am automatically billed some random amount between five and twelve Pounds. If I cancel the automatic payment, I get fined – even if I don’t owe any money. Since I almost never use the card now, that means I am building up more and more of a positive balance. Even so, they will ocassionally charge me a Pound or so of interest… seemingly at random and despite the fact that I don’t owe them any money. I’ve tried calling their telephone support line for an explanation, but I was kept on hold for ages and finally turned over to someone who didn’t seem to know anything she wasn’t reading straight off her screen. Completely unacceptable, all in all.

[Update: 12 February 2007] The NatWest Online Banking site now allows me to pay my credit card online. Previously, I couldn’t do anything but move money from my savings account to my chequing account, and not the converse. This is a distinct step forward.

Seeking banking advice from Britons

After another afternoon of trying to deal with NatWest, both online and in the branch, I am seriously considering switching to another bank. Every time I say this, people advocate the bank they use as “much better.” I wonder if I was complaining about another bank, people would start vocally endorsing NatWest.

What I care most about:

  1. Easy, low cost international transfers.
  2. Easy transfer of payments to my college, by bank draft or any other means (ideally, an online electronic transfer).
  3. Good online banking.
  4. Decent interest on savings accounts.
  5. Good customer service.

At present, I am doing as much as possible through my Canadian banks, since they just seem to be better at these things.

The major irritant in doing so is the difficulty of paying the college (it charges an extra 2.5% for credit card payments and my Bank of Montreal MasterCard only gives 1% cash back). Also, it’s annoying to have to keep updating financial records for so many institutions and in light of ever-shifting exchange rates.

Therefore, I ask you, kind British readers, which bank do you recommend and why? If I am going to go through all the bother of opening an international account again, there needs to be a marked improvement. I appreciate your advice.

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

A clever take on an old tale, namely Homer’s Odyssey, Atwood’s short book manages to be critical without being abrasive. It definitely makes for an interesting complement to a text that has become central to so many literary and narrative traditions. In addition, there are a great many clever little nods to Greek myth and subsequent literature. I especially appreciated the sometimes-overt, sometimes-sly references to Tennyson.

The best thing about the book is certainly the character of Penelope as the narrator: speaking from Hades and interrupted on occassion by contributions from a chorus consisting of her murdered maids, around whom the story also revolves. The anachronism is handled skillfully, as aspects of modern and classical fiction sit side by side in the same way as Penelope’s observations about the ancient and modern world. This is the work of a confident author.

The book is concise to the point that there isn’t an enormous amount that can be said about it save that it’s clever and well worth the time it takes to read.

Nightpiece, by James Joyce

Gaunt in gloom,
The pale stars their torches,
Enshrouded, wave.
Ghostfires from heaven’s far verges faint illume,
Arches on soaring arches,
Night’s sindark nave.

The lost hosts awaken
To service till
In moonless gloom each lapses muted, dim,
Raised when she has and shaken
Her thurible.

And long and loud,
To night’s nave upsoaring,
A starknell tolls
As the bleak incense surges, cloud on cloud,
Voidward from the adoring
Waste of souls.

The poem above, from which the name of my old blog was taken, was first given to me by Sarah Johnson (now Webster) when she was visiting the University of British Columbia in 2001.

I have always appreciated it more for the sound than for the meaning; a trend that is shared between the music and the poetry I enjoy. I almost never engage with trying to find a meaning. I prefer to just let them suggest themselves to me, though the sound and structure of their language.

On the ‘bombs and rockets’ side of IR

This afternoon, I got an invitation to attend a briefing on the final recommendations of the Bi-National Planning Group: one of the bodies that we met with in Colorado as part of the NASCA trip. Formed after September 11th, 2001, their mandate is to investigate security cooperation between Canada and the United States and make recommendations for improvements. They have been involved with projects like the Smart Border accord. While I obviously will not be able to go, I encourage the other NASCA participants to attend, if they can manage it. The briefing Dr. Baker gave us in Colorado Springs was certainly a solid demonstration of the good work that the BPG has been doing. When writing the report (PDF), I remember the BPG as an organization that received nearly universal praise. I look forward to reading their final report on enhanced military cooperation, once it gets released in May.

In a related point, I think I should start attending the meetings of the Oxford Strategic Studies Group, as I know some members of the IR M.Phil program have been doing. Much as I try to concentrate on environmental politics, the international use of force is obviously and permanently central to the study of international relations. As an IR scholar, you would never go hungry with war as your area of interest, especially since the pervasive ‘war on terror’ began. The fact that the strategic studies group meets at All Souls is also a significant point in favour of attending.

For me, environmental politics and strategic studies have a number of common factors that are appealing. They involve interaction with professionals who, as a social scientist (a term I remain skeptical about), you need to understand but not replicate. Scientists and soldiers are both fascinating kinds of people for me. They are endowed with specialist knowledge, which inevitably carries cachet for someone embedded in academia. They are also pleasantly straightforward and expected to be. That’s the reason why our NORAD / NORTHCOM briefing was so satisfying, as conversations with military people of all ranks from both countries have generally been. Speaking with Major General Lewis Mackenzie or cadets at West Point, you get the sense that they are at least making honest arguments that they genuinely want you to understand. Their apparent candour makes a nice contrast with the fiddly, theoretical bits of politics that seem to fascinate some of my friends and colleagues and that mostly just exasperate me. The same goes for scientists: whether those working at the UBC Fisheries Centre, people involved in the Northern Contaminants Program and Stockholm Convention, or others. Part of that comes from being unusually willing to admit when something is uncertain: perhaps the true mark of professionalism in such disciplines.

Another appealing commonality is the obvious possibility of making real-world improvements in both our approach to the environment and to war. These aren’t just areas that we should study for the sake of understanding better. We need to step beyond that and direct that understanding towards improvement. Again, the kinds of philosophical arguments that assert that such progress is impossible – that, in some complex way, such efforts are self-defeating – are exasperating to me. If we can significantly reduce the number of people who get malaria or AIDS, who suffer malnutrition from depleted fisheries, or who get killed by unexploded munitions, we’ve taken concrete steps towards a more just, more preferable world. Ultimately, that’s what I want to be a part of.

An Instance of the Fingerpost

This morning, I finished Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, which Nora gave me as a birthday gift. An intricate and well-constructed book, it is heavy with complexity and the need to re-evaluate that which has been said before. It consists of four accounts of actions centred around the same period, and around the same singular individual. The author is at his most skillful when constructing the characters of the four narrators and, from a combination of their thinking processes and experiences, constructs a viable narrative for each, none of which are entirely adequate for understanding what transpires.

The central theme of the book is probably the nature of truth. All the science and experimentation of the first part strikes at it, as does the fruitless quest of the second, the subterfuge of the third, and the historical analysis of the fourth. None are entirely satisfying – despite the revelatory tone of the final account. It obviously could not be so illuminating without the contributions of the others. Indeed, the overall thrust of the book is to make one doubtful of whether truth can ever be known. For me, that was highlighted by how my willingness to believe the conclusions of any character had much to do with how personally appealing I found them.

When it comes to the science and medicine, one can maintain the hope that truth is being progressively more closely approximated in our theories and models. Certainly, doctors today are dramatically more likely to help you than they were at the time during which this book is set. We also have a far better understanding of many of the physical and chemical phenomena described in the book. Insofar as the natural world is concerned, truth is not such a problematic thing. We can say, with a very solid authority, that penguins mate for life. Much of that conviction evaporates, however, once people get involved in our consideration. Motives, thoughts, and personalities are all ephemeral things, difficult to comprehend both from within and without. We don’t get the matter of the thing itself, but rather a story constructed about that matter that will need to suffice. The same is probably true for science, but we are able to make better stories. That is probably primarily because the natural world is in important senses unchanging: in terms of the phenomena that underlie and direct it.

The book’s remarkable conclusion takes everything back to the question of judgment and truth. While I wouldn’t be so heartless as to lay out the surprises, the book definitely ends on a very strong note. My thanks to Nora for the gift. I recommend the book, particularly, to anyone with an interest in British history around the time of the Civil War and Restoration.

Day of illness

Today was not a fun day. I was feeling exceedingly ill from the moment I first woke through the whole period of trying to eat, trying to read, and trying to sleep. After a day of that, I am feeling somewhat better, though definitely not up to going to Claire’s bop. I am really hoping that this will mark the end of a strange cycle of sleeplessness, total lack of hunger, and generalized illness that comes and goes without predictability.

A measure of how poor my productivity today was can be had from the fact that I didn’t even manage to read one hundred pages. At least I managed to finish The Tipping Point: a book I recommend. I shall have to do much better tomorrow, and I am resolved to derive some good out of all this by at least resetting my sleep schedule to something much closer to normality. Given the rather large number of tasks I assigned myself for the break – reading, house hunting, scholarship applications, etc – it has been particularly frustrating to be of such diminished capability. From that frustration stems my determination to deal with all of this with alacrity and effectiveness.

In a sense, the Estonia trip has now begun. Sarah is in New York: apparently spending much of her time visiting the excellent libraries there. New York is a place that I shall have to visit again either with a friend or when I have someone there to spend time with. Sarah will arrive in England sometime around the 16th, when I am meant to be meeting her in Radlett in order to proceed to Stansted.

I am off to bed now, ridiculously early, in hopes of pulling off this re-adjustment of somnolent patterns. In the morning, I should be meeting Claire for coffee, before she goes to Kent for Christmas.

  • A Neuromancer style hack, described by Bruce Schneier.
  • I bought my first Christmas gift today, and I think it’s a rather good one. Others for North America will need to be dispatched soon.

Reflections on The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point is the kind of book you can absolutely tear through: non-fiction, no flowery or complex language, interesting and straightforward. Not necessarily beyond criticism or response, but structured in such a way that you can accept conclusions provisionally as you scamper forwards. It’s really quite a fascinating book, much more because of the examples than because of the analysis. Looking at things as diverse as differences between Sesame Street and Blues Clues or the changes in policing styles in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, Gladwell makes some interesting and unexpected points.

Also fascinating is Gladwell’s discussion of relationships as external memory systems. It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense of me and it’s a property that I can see myself building into relationships. An example of that would be through the creation of shared jokes. They are both badges of identity and examples of the way that information can be more effectively held and understood collectively. When Gladwell explains that losing relationships of an intense romantic sort can feel like losing a piece of one’s mind, I understand it completely. Wandering around in the High Commissioner’s house, where hundreds of people were mingling, I was acutely aware of how much better I could have dealt with it had Kate or Meghan been with me.

I feel something similar about intellectual expertise. When I find myself confronted by a question that I know a friend of mine outside Oxford could help answer or understand, it’s frustrating. Indeed, I try to internally simulate them, as an alternative to actually having them around. Pseudo-Tristan is the resident expert on many kinds of philosophy, and likewise for many others in many other fields. Moreover, anything I think or understand in those fields is emotionally connected with those people: radio is connected with Alison, anything military with Neal, anything diplomatic with Fernando, anything photographic with Tristan, etc, etc, etc. As a way of relating to information, it’s one that feels good – because it puts you in the middle of a social web that mimics the diversity of the world, while also creating a sense of joint purpose and a common understanding in excess of the individual one. It’s the sort of thing that makes you feel connected and purposeful.

That’s the big project right now, after all: defining and cementing an identity. That’s why everyone is posting little quizzes about themselves on their blogs. Which Lord of the Rings Character are You? Which Muppet? Which Colour of Anime Hair? Understanding the world, by understanding our place in it, especially relative to things that we care about: defining favourite musical artists, coffee shops, and films. It may seem trite or consumerist. On some levels, I suppose it is. But it is also the projection of a fundamental and powerful drive.

The Tipping Point is a book that you read like a life manual. That’s not to say you accept everything in it; no manual is perfect or always perfectly appropriate. It means that you evaluate it and internalize bits of it as practice, rather than as knowledge. They are very satisfying sorts of books to read. They are exciting, because they make you hope you will soon understand the world better. At the same time, you are aware of the danger of such direct lessons: there is always the lingering concern that it might be cheap, shoddy, ill-thought-out in a way that lessons learned gradually and indirectly feel less likely to be. There is also a fear – grounded, I suspect, in too much contact with academia – that it is too externally comprehensible. Anything that could be grasped by someone with no particular background other than interest is automatically a bit suspicious, quite possibly dangerous. That said, it strikes me as an impulse that it makes sense to fight. For those willing to do so, I recommend having a look at this book.