Tuesday, May 9

WordPress has taken over

As you can see, going directly to www.sindark.com will now take you directly to the new WordPress blog. I encourage people to register for a user account that will let you comment without leaving you information, and perhaps let me do fancier things later.

If you want the RSS feed, it is: http://www.sindark.com/feed/ Please update your BlogLines accounts and such. There is even a feed for comments, at: http://www.sindark.com/comments/feed/

The old blog, should you want to look at it, is still available at www.sindark.com/blogger/. It probably will not be updated any longer. The post and archive pages have all been moved, so many of the current Google search results will just lead to 404 errors.

Posted by Milan at 5:20 PM

Monday, May 8

Oxford spring

House in northern OxfordLiving in leafy northern Oxford as everything is coming to life again is quite lovely. Taking a break from working on my paper, I went for a bit of a walk this evening and discovered a whole district of intriguing houses to the northeast of Church Walk: the sort with unusual architecture, big gardens, and streets that are not subject to the indignity of traffic. There were even the semi-circular sweeping rows of connected houses that seemed to be so common in Bath, but which I had not yet seen here. The next time I am ambling with someone, I will try to find the place again.

The best place to experience Oxford in the winter, I think, is the Christ Church Meadow. Walking along the Isis in the chilly wind, looking up at denuded trees which readily reveal the mistletoe colonies inside, there is a sense of pristine desolation. The waterfowl, then, seem like sympathetic fellow victims of the cold and gloom. It isn't clear to me yet where the embodiment of spring in Oxford will reside, but it may well be in some leafy suburban street, amongst the twittering of birds in the evening.

Tomorrow, I have most of my week's mandatory activities compressed together over a period of about twelve hours: the core seminar, the Changing Character of War seminar, the research design seminar, the strategic studies dinner, the strategic studies meeting, and the obligatory brief strategic studies foray to The Turf. During that time, perhaps I will meet someone interesting again this week.

Possibly as the result of trying to work on an essay for most of the day (with welcome conversations with Kai and Emily as asides), my brain is feeling a bit like a slightly crushed paper cup: as though it has had too much caffeine or too little, or is trying hard to suppress a relatively mild illness. It doesn't make me keen on the process of finalizing and editing my Cold War paper tonight, but that's my own fault for not getting it done earlier. Oxford has definitely been worsening my study skills; work I would have once done well in advance and had checked gets finished at the last minute instead. When the workload is just a series of hurdles and none of your work actually gets graded, the incentives tend towards encouraging such an approach.

Posted by Milan at 7:48 PM

Events in Oxford, Wednesday

For people in Oxford, there are some interesting events this coming Wednesday (May 10th):
Oxford University Centre for the Environment Symposium:
"What Future for Environmentalism?"

10.00 Introduction

10.05 Noel Castree, Manchester University, "'The Paradoxes of Environmental Politics"

10.45 David Pepper, Oxford Brookes University, "Ecotopianism: Transgressive or Regressive?"

11.25 Andrew Dobson, Keele University, "The Invisibility of the England and Wales Green Party - Why, and Does it Matter?"

12.05 General questions and discussion

12.30 Lunch

1.30 George Monbiot, journalist and writer, "Just Green"

2.10 Diana Liverman, Oxford University, "Environmentalisms and the Response to Neoliberalism in Latin America"

2.50 Joan Martinez Alier, Barcelona Autonomous University, "Social Metabolism and Ecological Distribution Conflicts"

3.30 - 4.00 Final discussion and close

As far as I can tell, all of these events are taking place in their building on South Parks Road.
There is also a lecture that evening:
The Africa Society and Rhodes Scholar Southern Africa Forum Joint Panel Discussion Series:
Framing the Continent in 2005: Implications for the Future

Marked by the Make Poverty History Campaign, LiveAid, the G8 summit, and the Commission for Africa, 2005 was dubbed by many as the 'Year of Africa.' As we move into 2006 it is worth reflecting on the impacts-positive and negative-of these high profile initiatives and the subsequent media attention.

5:00pm to 7:00pm
Rhodes House: Jameson Room
I will be attending both.

PS. A compilation of Oxford Environment related information and events can be found here. The OUCE website is very counter-intuitive if you are trying to figure out what's going on there. I couldn't even find a page with information on this Wednesday's event.

Posted by Milan at 3:11 PM

Sunday, May 7

Hunger and disease

Flowers in St. Antony'sI promised myself the other day that I would write a post about something that I view as a serious fallacy related to development: the notion that dealing with infectious disease will just shift the death toll to hunger, rather than genuinely saving people. This view is misguided for reasons both moral and pragmatic. I will focus on the pragmatic here, since people who advance this neo-Malthusian argument tend to think of themselves as well-meaning but realistic. The first set of arguments have to do with the local capabilities of communities. The second, lesser, set have to do with the nature of the provision of aid. I will quickly examine each in turn.

The three big diseases upon which I will concentrate are HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB). These have been rightly banded together as the three most serious global health concerns, with regards to infectious diseases. Each kills more than a million people a year, as well as making far more ill. As a bacterial illness, effective cures exist for all but the most resistant strains of tuberculosis. While no effective cure exists for either malaria or HIV/AIDS, drugs exist that can extend survival dramatically, and mechanisms exist to greatly restrict the spread of such illnesses. The notion that doing so would produce an equally severe problem elsewhere is based on a misconception about how such illnesses affect communities.

Local capabilities

Sick people are not productive people. Communities with high prevalance rates of infectious diseases lose agricultural productivity as members of the working population either become ill or need to spend their time caring for those who are. This is especially bad with regards to HIV/AIDS, which tends to kill people during their most productive years. That has left behind millions of orphans, who further draw upon the capabilities of the community in which they live. All manner of grim statistics could be brought to bear upon this point, but it seems intuitively obvious enough to stand on its own.

The possibilities of simultaneously dealing with the various factors that make extreme poverty endemic are demonstrated by the '12 research villages' that Jeffrey Sachs has established throughout Africa. The plan is to have 1000 by 2009. Each receives practical aid at the level of $250 per inhabitant: directed towards dealing with disease, boosting agricultural output, education, and other objectives espoused by the Millennium Development Goals. The whole program can be expressed in terms of seven simple goals:
Fertiliser and seed to improve food yield; anti-malarial bed nets; improved water sources; diversification from staple into cash crops; a school feeding programme; deworming for all; and the introduction of new technologies, such as energy-saving stoves and mobile phones.
The results so far seem to be very good, in terms of declining levels of infectious disease, improved crop yields and educational results, and the like. As with so many other projects, the difficulty is in scaling up the the point where millions of lives can be changed, but the example demonstrates how even a relatively inexpensive aid policy can produce tangible results in a number of crucial areas, without hitting any of the Malthusian barriers imagined by those who say that feeding hungry children just makes hungry adults. Another laudable feature of the program: all aspects of it are implemented and directed at a local level, reducing the extent that neocolonialist intentions can be attributed to the donors or international organizers.

World capabilities

Even in those cases where a sudden burst of attention enormously lessens the burden of disease in a food-strapped community, the difficulties of dealing with that situation are far easier than those of dealing with a place where one of these big three diseases has become endemic.

That's partly because food provision doesn't require the delivery of expertise into an area. The lack of qualified medical personnel in places like Sub-Saharan Africa is a major reason for which infectuous disease is so problematic there. The rich world has a double guilt in this capacity: because the austerity programs that were part of the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank have prevented governments from investing in such human capital, and because lots of rich countries (including Canada and the UK) have been doing all they can to buy up doctors and nurses from the poor world to help address problems in their own health systems.


Obviously, just providing food aid or help with specific problems isn't adequate for dealing with persistent extreme poverty. That said, it seems foolish to voluntarily refrain from deploying such assistance as is politically and economically viable because of concerns about "feeding those who will die anyhow." On the global level, the economic emergence of Asia - in which extreme poverty levels have seen amazing reductions in recent decades - shows what is possible even in the face of considerable levels of corruption, disease, and mismanagement.
During the transition period from the Blogger version of this blog to the WordPress version, I would appreciate if people left comments on the latter. Those left here will probably be lost to the ages shortly.

Posted by Milan at 7:19 PM

Saturday, May 6

Groceries, papers, and PHP

River near WoodstockThanks to Kai's initiative in driving Shohei and I out to the big Tesco's near the BMW plant, I now have more food than at any previous point while in the UK. I have five kinds of cheese and even two kinds of tofu. I have my doubts about 'Beech Smoked' tofu, but it's the only kind other than plain I've ever seen in Oxford. I'll publish a verdict on it here later. I also have fruit, vegetables, three kinds of juice, yoghurt, and Nando's extra-spicy hot sauce. Collectively, it cost more than two weeks of my standard food budget, but there's a good chance it will hold out that long, while simultaneously providing a more diverse diet than my standard of cheese sandwiches and bean-and-pepper based stir fries.

The big Tesco was utterly awash with expensive organic foods. Indeed, it was hard to find anything genuinely healthy that wasn't also organic. Personally, I'd much rather have it 10% cheaper and grown with pesticides. While there are real problems of agricultural runoff and such, my scholarship-free self would appreciate some tofu that isn't ten bucks a kilo.

For Tuesday, I need to finish my first paper for the core seminar. The obvious choices are to write about nuclear deterrence or the end of the Cold War, since they are subjects I already know a bit about. Since Alex recently gave a presentation on the second of those, he might even be able to point me towards some sources once he gets back from the marathon. I was trying to direct miscellaneous universal energy towards Vienna today, during times when I expected him to be running.
So, the attempt at shifting the blog ended up as a desperate three hour struggle to get things back to how they were. I hope that has now been accomplished. I've made a full backup and will make another attempt at finishing the migration after I submit my Tuesday essay. With the new banner and colour scheme, I think the WordPress blog looks really sharp.

Posted by Milan at 11:10 PM

Lots more glitches to be worked out

It seems WordPress wasn't ready for the prime time. By which I mean that I horribly broke it within minutes of the move and simply cannot get it to work again. We get to stick with Blogger for a while yet.

Posted by Milan at 9:04 PM

Second summer day

Contrail and tree branchesWith Kai at a party in London and Alex in Vienna for the marathon, this is my first night alone in the Church Walk flat. It follows a day that was excellent in many ways. The weather had the same brightness and warmth of yesterday, and it was accompanied nicely by the Feist CD that Jonathan recommended to me, called "Let it Die." A few weeks will be necessary to really comprehend the style, but I could tell immediately that I like it. Already, the CD strikes me as unusually versatile - with a style that's hard to pin down. The tone is similarly liable to shift dramatically between songs: from playful to forlorn. I rather like the song in French.

After meeting with Dr. Hurrell and reading in the Wadham MCR for a few hours, I spent the evening walking and conversing with Roz. At one point, we got excellent veggie burgers from a place on Walton Street called Peppers. The smell and clientele reminded me of the Jamaican place across the street from the hostel in Manhattan where I stayed in the days after the blackout in 2003. Their burgers are both very filling and surprisingly tasty, for a vegetarian product in the UK. Given that it's just a few blocks away and is open late, it risks becoming the Pita Pit of this place of residence (a reference that anyone from UBC should understand).

Earlier, Rosalind and I wandered through Trinity College, which I had previously seen only from the outside, and the Wadham gardens. They have begun to change dramatically, with the coming of sun and longer days. For someone who arrived in Oxford in late September, it's still something of a surprise to see groups of trees with leaves on them. I am looking forward to a summer of working, cycling, and researching here.

Migration news: geeky stuff

The migration from Blogger to WordPress is going well. I have the colours and formatting on the new blog more or less where I want them. I already much prefer the commenting and management system of WordPress. I just need to come up with a sharp new banner and tweak a few small things. Then, I will shift the WordPress version to the front page. I think I can do so without breaking the links to the old Blogger posts: at least until Google indexes them on the basis of their new permalinks.

Now that I am getting used to it a bit, I prefer the cleaner lines and overall layout of the new blog, as well as the greater versatility of the content management system.
  • Between the 20th and 24th of June, the Oxford Playhouse is staging Paradise Lost. I shall make a point of going. Roz says that she is also keen to come, if she hasn't headed off to Rome for the summer by that point.
  • Tomorrow afternoon is the first OUSSG executive meeting, meant to sort out what to do about the dinners this term. It will be good to finally meet the rest of both the new and old executive in a context meant for planning.
  • I got a quartet of very diverse fictional books from a free box in Nuffield that Margaret directed me towards, when I was waiting for my supervision. I'll have a look through them in the summer.

Posted by Milan at 12:24 AM

Friday, May 5

Further thesis planning

The thesis discussion with Dr. Hurrell has further convinced me that I am on a good track. We also sorted out an agreeable pattern for this term's work this evening: two essays for the core seminar, two papers specifically for him, the research design essay, and a third essay for him to be written during the subsequent break, if necessary. Based on my standard of 3000 word papers, that will mean 21,000 words of writing for this term, in total. (Not counting dozens of blog posts, of course)

While discussing the thesis topic, we edged closer to a real question. The idea, at this point, is to choose two examples of international environmental agreements, then investigate the role that science and scientific communities played in their formulation. Two possible examples at the Stockholm Convention - wherein the coordination of science and policy can be said to have gone fairly well - and the Kyoto Protocol - where the relationship is muddier and the policy outcome less effective. The methodology would centre around looking at the preparatory materials and history of both conventions, as well as interviewing participants. On the theoretical side, I would examine writing on the connections between science and policy in this and other areas, as well as as much philosophy of science as I can push through my limited mental faculties.

The above, expanded and fused with a preliminary survey of the literature, will form the body of the 6000 word research design essay I submit at the end of this month.

Posted by Milan at 7:56 PM

Thursday, May 4

Long summer bike ride

Unidentified birdHappy Birthday Greg Polakoff

Today was unambiguously the first summery day in Oxford. As seemed to befit it, I went on my longest bike ride so far: 42.6km from Oxford to Blenheim Palace and Woodstock, then back via Kidlington. I've heard that Blenheim Palace and gardens are really nice, but I definitely wasn't willing to pay eleven Pounds to get in. Instead, I found a shady spot outside Woodstock and read Kerouac's On the Road for a few hours. While sitting in the shade, molested but unbitten by flies, I actually saw what I can only conclude was a pheasant: a big, red, darting sort of bird that ran off and hid when I tried to photograph it. I also saw huge numbers of cow, sheep, and horses - as well as rabbits and lots of birds.

After leaving Woodstock, I found the road between Kidlington (which is on the way to Oxford) and Deddington (which I walked to one night). Once I realized that Deddington was a further nine miles from where I found that road, I veered off eastwards and found the much smaller town of Tackley. Throughout the ride, there was nice countryside. It would have been perfect but for the strangely insistent sun and the truck that caused me to slam my hand against a metal fence by not signaling when it was exiting from a roundabout. If I hadn't checked, it would have been overall splattering from under-correction, rather than one nasty bang from over-correction.

I am enjoying On the Road. It has what I would call a Catcher in the Rye narrator: someone focused on being self-sufficient, somehow outside the system, but still caring and generous. The book makes me want to take another road trip in the US.

Instead, I should spend the rest of tonight burnishing thesis ideas for presentation to Dr. Hurrell tomorrow.

Posted by Milan at 5:40 PM

Wednesday, May 3

Malaria in the 21st century

Painting in Magdalen CollegeTonight's lectures on malaria, presented by the Oxford Global Health Group, demonstrated once more the kind of opportunity that is being missed with regards to global development. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one million people per year die from the parasite. In addition, the direct economic costs imposed exceed $12B a year: a figure agreed upon by the two scientists and the representative from GlaxoSmithKline. By contrast, the WHO estimate for the cost of controlling malaria globally is just $3.2B a year. While money alone can't solve so complex a problem, the gap between what is possible and what is being done remains unacceptable.

Like HIV/AIDS, while efforts are being made to find an effective vaccine, the state of affairs at the moment includes treatment and prevention measures. As Adrian Hill - the Director of Oxford's Jenner Institute - discussed, there has never been an effective vaccine developed against any human parasitic illness, and the incredible complexity of the malarial life cycle and the long period of endemic coexistence between people, mosquitos, and parasites makes it a task of fiendish difficulty. That doesn't mean that a vaccine is impossible. Indeed, Dr. Hill stressed how two moderately effective vaccines based on different approaches could combine into a single highly effective treatment. What it does mean is that the existence of effective mitigation mechanisms like pesticide-coated bednets and combination anti-malarial therapies should be focused upon.

I was pleased to learn that Oxford is presently the only organization in the world that is carrying out any level of clinical trial for vaccines addressing tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Each has an enormous global toll, in terms of lives lost and societies disrupted, and all are well within the present financial means of the world to reduce in significance enormously. When the constant refrain is that official development assistance gets spirited off by corrupt governments and into foreign bank accounts and BMWs, the case for funding large-scale research into the development and cost-reduction of medical responses to devastating illnesses of the poor world is clear and compelling.

The comparison everybody makes is with arms expenditures. That's fair enough. Discretionary spending on armaments in the 2004 American federal budget was $399B. Three times more was spent on just missile defence than would cover the WHO's estimated cost for global malarial control. $1.2B was allocated just for the V-22 Osprey aircraft: a design that many, even within the Air Force, consider hopelessly flawed and too dangerous to ever put into operation.

Though of another way, Canada's GDP is about $1000B. The WHO estimate is therefore just 0.32% of the GDP of a single, relatively unpopulous, member of the rich country club. If anything, the global experience of smallpox and polio has shown that bold and properly funded global health strategies can yield fantastic returns. The chance to capitalize on that potential for AIDS, malaria, and TB is sitting right there for us to grasp.
During the transition period from the Blogger version of this blog to the WordPress version, I would appreciate if people left comments on the latter. Those left here will probably be lost to the ages shortly.

Posted by Milan at 11:43 PM

Quantitative methods reform

I just attended a meeting of the Graduate Joint Consultative Committee (GJCC) that was focused on reforming the statistics course for next year. For those not up to speed, the quantitative methods section of the M.Phil in International Relations was considered disastrously bad by almost all the students and faculty. On the basis of a petition signed by 27 of the 28 people in the program, as well as many personal complaints, a major overhaul has been commissioned. I still have my doubts about whether a faculty so dismissive of statistically-based IR can provide an adequate introduction in eight weeks, but with luck the new course will be dramatically better than ours was.

Mostly, the suggestions seem to be quite good. Yuen Foong Khong is chairing the IR Working Group on Research Methods, and the major change being suggested is to reclaim more of the quantitative methods teaching into the department, rather than relying on relative outsiders. The plan calls for cutting the number of STATA workshops from six to two and introducing some short problem sets that involve the kind of computation we had to do on the exam, but hadn't ever done prior to it.

The most important thing is that there is broad recognition within the department that this year's quantitative methods training was unacceptably bad. I would call it a major blot on an otherwise excellent program.

On Monday, these recommendations will go to the Graduate Studies Committee. Apparently, it basically need to be hammered out before the end of the term, if it is going to be substantially different next term. For the sake of those who will enter the program later, let us hope that the review is extensive and effective.

I have a handout detailing all the proposed changes that I can lend to anyone who's interested.
  • This announcement has me thinking about the Kilimanjaro climb I want to do in summer of 2007.
  • During the transition period from the Blogger version of this blog to the WordPress version, I would appreciate if people left comments on the latter. Those left here will probably be lost to the ages shortly.

Posted by Milan at 5:45 PM

Henry Shue on Torture

West coast iconsHenry Shue's presentation to the Strategic Studies Group tonight ended up being much more challenging than I expected. The topic was torture and "why no middle way is possible." That is to say, something that I profoundly agree with. That said, I found his justification to be very problematic.

He began by asserting that torture is obviously immoral and illegal - a position that I do not contest, though we will come back to it. From there, he argued prudentially that states like the US and Britain mustn't engage in torture for a number of reasons. The first set have to do with how there's no guarantee the person you torture will know anything, that they might not tell you anyhow, and that the idealized case of the terrorist revealing the location of the hidden nuclear weapon under torture is extremely unlikely to ever transpire. These are fairly standard arguments that deal with the efficacy of torture as an instrument of achieving aims, rather than its acceptability.

His next batch of arguments had to do with the social basis of torture: namely, that to tolerate torture is to tolerate the existence of torturers in society. He argued that some minimal organization of torturers is necessary and that such an organization fundamentally corrupts the society around it. After his talk, I asked him a question about this. Specifically, I asked whether the fact that torturers are readily available around the world for those willing to import them or export prisoners to them changes this moral balance. A state like the United States could easily gain the 'benefits' of torture, without risking whatever dangers exist from a domestic torture agency.

His response largely brought us back to a muddle that is at the heart of this. I believe powerfully that torture is an abhorrent act: one that cannot be justified as a practice, even if it was likely to save many lives. This is an easy position to defend if you really believe in some kind of divine or natural justice. If, however, you believe that all the justice out there is what we as people create in the world around us, you are in a really tricky spot. Clearly, saving some huge number of lives must be balanced against the cost of destroying or mangling a smaller number: even if those people turn out to be innocent.

At the heart of things, I can't come up with a reason for forbidding torture that is somehow firmly rooted to a real moral tapestry that all people are obviously attached to. That makes dealing with the prospect of torture in the ideal case extremely difficult.

My solution, for the moment, as in many other contentious matters is to step back from the greatest controversy and pick low hanging fruit. Even if we allow the possibility that it's just intuitive revulsion that is the final basis for the understanding of torture as completely unallowable, we can make arguments about how we should operate to reduce the occurrence of torture as something that happens out in the world. This is especially feasible when it comes to states like America that have values fundamentally opposed to such obscene violations of human beings. It's easier to accuse someone of violating their own moral code than it is to assert some everlasting external morality. Since I don't feel capable of divining such a framework, but I am nonetheless confronted with irrefutable evidence of astonishing injustice in the world, the best answer seems to be to just act on the basis of a self-aware, pluralistic, and pragmatic ad hoc morality, rather than remain inactive while something terrible continues.
During the transition period from the Blogger version of this blog to the WordPress version, I would appreciate if people left comments on the latter. Those left here will probably be lost to the ages shortly.

Posted by Milan at 12:02 AM