A joyful first day in Oxford

Cactus in the botanical gardens

Today was a brilliant day. I managed to be out and about by 8:00am Tallinn time (10:00am here, but still) in order to go for coffee and a walk with Margaret. For the first time, we walked through the botanical gardens around Magdalen College. In particular, the contents of the greenhouses were fascinating and beautiful. I especially liked seeing all the edible species: coffee, peanuts, plantain, etc. I looked for Camellia Sinensis, but had no luck.

Afterwards, we went on a tour through several Oxford bookshops – all of which made me burn with the desire to read more. In the end, I bought three: all of them from the Blackwells series of Very Short Introductions. I got ‘Emotion,’ about which I know very little, ‘Hume,’ who I consider my favourite philosopher, and ‘Cryptography,’ about which I always want to know more. Blackwells bookshop is definitely among my favourite places in Oxford. It makes me aspire to days of retirement when I can concentrate on reading, cooking, and gardening – as I envision that I shall.

Margaret is now departing for the next while, leaving me almost completely alone in Oxford. If I remember properly, Nora was supposed to come back on the 19th, but I haven’t seen any sign of her. Perhaps she is in London. Claire and Emily are definitely out of town, though perhaps Bryony is around. Alex is still in New Zealand – as you would expect after travelling so far – and I don’t know where Roham is located. Bilyana, I expect, is with her family up north.

Today also brought a vast amount of excellent mail. First, and largest, was a package from my mother for Christmas. They will be leaving tomorrow for North Carolina, so it seems unlikely that they will get mine until their return. My mother sent me a blast of Canadiana. She sent Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: the Myth of Penelope and Odysseus in hardcover, along with an elegant bookmark. Unfortunately, the book is not inscribed, as I would strongly encourage anyone who sends me a book to do. She also sent me a very nice looking red, white, gray, and black scarf and another with a very intricate East Indian red and black pattern on it. The first, I think, is better suited to wear – the second to decorate my room with. The pattern reminds me of the piece of cloth that Kate used to cover her computer monitor, at her house in Victoria. Also decorative is the Red Cross calendar with pictures of Canada on it. Finally, she enclosed a large Canadian flag, for which I shall have to find a good spot. I am not sure whether it is the flag that Kate gave me ages ago and which I left in North Vancouver, or an entirely new one. I will need to borrow the hammer and nails from the housekeeper again. Many thanks to my family for such a considerate collection of gifts.

Along with the package from my mother, I got a Christmas card from her sister Mirka and my uncle Robert. Along with my cousins Megan and Dylan, they live in Bennington, Vermont, where my aunt teaches at the university. I very much hope they will have the chance to come visit Oxford while I am here. The Magdalen botanical gardens have definitely been added to my tour route. I must remember to write them a letter in response, as well as send one to my aunt, uncle, and grandmother in North Carolina.

Another envelope came from Meaghan Beattie in Vancouver. Along with a very sweet card, she sent me a genuine passport for Hell, such as we found and were enormously amused by when wandering in Chinatown. It includes a plane ticket to Hell (from Ming Fu Airlines) and a Bank of Hades (oddly, with a ‘Heaven Main Office’) chequebook and Mastercard. I am just as bemused by the collection as when we first encountered it, wandering Vancouver’s rainy streets. Meaghan is definitely among the Vancouverites whose direct company I miss the most. Unfortunately, I can see from the return address on the envelope that the postcard I sent her from Tallinn was sent to the wrong place. It will reach nothing more than a dead letter office, since it had no return address. I shall have to send her another, from Oxford.

The last package contributed still further to my collection of reading materials. An unknown person, who I strongly suspect to be Hilary McNaughton, sent me the Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook. Whoever did send it (and the package does not identify) gets me hearty thanks. While I may need to wait for retirement in order to start learning how to garden, learning how to cook sooner is almost certainly wise.

I suppose it may have been appropriate to refrain from opening what was clearly Christmas mail until the day itself, but the thought didn’t really occur to me until now and I have no regrets about not doing so. It has successfully pre-empted any possibility of feeling lonesome in a somewhat deserted Oxford over the next little while. It’s a wonderful feeling to have such a collection of concrete evidence of not having been forgotten by people elsewhere. The sheer satisfaction of it has convinced me to send more mail. It should also help me feel less overwhelmed about all the things that crop up demanding to be done after a trip. I tend to pick a long but pleasant one as an opening task, using breaks from it to complete short and unpleasant ones. You also need to stay on guard for moments suited to tasks that can only be completed in a particular state of mind, such as writing good letters.

During the afternoon, I worked out the shared tally for the Baltic trip, as well as entered the whole collection of figures into my finance tracking spreadsheets. [Section removed, 23 December 2005] Even with cheap flights and cheap cities, these things add up. That’s a quarter of what the whole Prague / Italy trip with Meghan Mathieson cost, and it was four times as long and started from Vancouver. I would tell you how it compares with other trips, but mining the old blog is tedious since it is no longer online and Google searchable. I also caught up with the many Oxford blogs that I read. I feel like I know these people rather better now than back when I first met a group of them. Perhaps the next few months will bring another such encounter.

  • People to whom I must write: Vermont Family, North Carolina Family, Meghan Mathieson, Meaghan Beattie.
  • Some good commentary on the security value of checks and balances from Bruce Schneier: my go-to guy for information about security.
  • The new version of MSN for Mac: takes more RAM, looks a bit slicker, still crashes just as often.
  • My brother Mica has a new video out: “Little Green Bag.” It may be a mark of the changing focus of his life that it is shot on campus at UBC, instead of in North Vancouver. I think the young woman in it may be Mica’s bombshell love interest from the musical Damn Yankees, reviewed on the old blog.
  • More than ever, I want to meet Philip Pullman, the masterful author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and an Oxford resident. Anyone who knows of an event where he will be present is politely begged to contact me about it.

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.

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.

Back to reading

Kelly and Huston in the King's ArmsSince all of the Waltz and Mearsheimer books seem to have been plucked from the Wadham Library – and no surprise, since neorealists are selfish and wicked – I started Keohane’s Neorealism and its Critics today. I shall have to find The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and the Theory of International Politics somewhere, before I go to Estonia.

The progression of much appreciated pieces of mail continued today. My mother sent me a package for St. Nicholas Day, including candy, a toque, and a book. The book is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The toque is synthetic, reversible, and warm-seeming. I anticipate being especially glad to have it in Estonia, though one with short hair can never really have enough things with which to cover one’s increasingly valuable brain. Pickled, mine would now be worth Pounds and Pounds. Many thanks to my mother for the gift.

I finished listening to the third book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, as played on the radio, today. I much prefer the books. To me, the voice acting is overdone to the point of being annoying. Somehow, it manages to be dramatically less funny off the page – to me, at least. It may be that I know the books so well, there was no chance the same jokes in another medium would really work. That said, I have never enjoyed the radio, with the singular exception of when I used to listen to it with Alison at the middle of the night, when we were in elementary school.

Talking with Jonathan this evening, I learned that my friend Emerson got into a collision with another cyclist on the Lions Gate Bridge. Thankfully, and as you would expect, he was wearing a helmet. Though shaken up badly, he doesn’t seem to be in serious danger. Because one of the bike lanes is closed for construction, people going in both directions have to do so on the same sidewalk. I hope he recovers quickly and completely and that people who knew him from Handsworth or Camp Fircom will take the effort to check in on him.

Later this evening, I donned my waterproof, wide-brimmed hat and set out into the rain to meet Claire. We visited the Eagle and Child, where I once went in search of IR M.Phil students but was turned away empty handed. Tonight, we had a nice conversation about travel, photography, alcohol sociology, high school peer groups, and much else. Claire also told me something about the composition of our core seminar for next term. Canadians will be envious to learn that Jennifer Welsh is one of the two seminar directors. At UBC, I remember her being described to me as “one of Canada’s most brilliant and accomplished young minds.” I was also glad to hear that Bryony, Alex, and Emily will still be part of my group.

After leaving the pub, I had the chance to see the inside of her college, and we chatted for a while with the barman about scotch and North Carolina: yet another of these ubiquitous North Carolinians in Oxford. St. Cross is a very modern looking college on the inside, as I noted to Claire. There is something about the way discourse flows at all graduate colleges that I can’t actually explain yet, but that I can spot readily.

General comments:

  • Does anybody know when the police bike auction next term will be? I’d also like to know where they happen and what I would expect to pay for a used bike in good condition. Also, I need to figure out where I can get a helmet, lights, and a lock for a tolerable price. It’s annoying that I have all of those things back in Vancouver, but it would almost certainly cost more to ship than to buy here: especially if I can sell it in summer 2007.
  • I am worried about Frank. His posts are stranger than usual lately, and rather more self-destructive.
  • I need to devise a way to get from Oxford to Stansted Airport by about 4:45am on the 16th. Probably, a rather better idea is to find my way to Sarah’s house the evening prior. It’s in Radlett, which means nothing to me, but I will figure it out.
  • There’s a new episode of the excellent web comic Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life. You should take a peek.

Nerdy computer stuff:

  • Trying to get the blog to render properly in all browsers is a pageant of frustration. In IE, the sidebar sometimes appears at the bottom, sometimes on the side. This seems to vary between different computers and different versions of IE. In Safari, the font is entirely wrong: Serif instead of Sans-Serif, much too large, and bold when it shouldn’t be. Anyone with godly knowledge of CSS and HTML who feels inclined to help me will be praised most highly and received with profound appreciation. I really shouldn’t be spending so much time mucking around with this.
  • On a closely related note, not even PDF files, whose entire raison d’etre is to render identically in all environments, are no longer properly standardized. What is a mildly obsessive self-publisher to do?
  • One bug in Firefox 1.5: for some reason, pages I visit keep getting added to the Bookmarks Toolbar, without my ever requesting it.
  • Another: RSS feeds that are bookmarked will not display if opening them doesn’t leave enough space to the right to show the box.
  • Another: sometimes, the reload button vanishes
  • Blogger has been so slow and unreliable in the last few days that I am considering switching blogging services entirely, not just hosting servers. Which do people recommend and why?

Short days, new projects

Oxford University Career Services

After having coffee with Sheena, about which I shall not write, I read the second portion of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. The character whose account it is, Jack Prescott, is one of the least likable in fiction. He is a hot-headed bigot: a liar, rapist, and betrayer. That the story ends well for him is entirely as displeasing as the gruesome conclusion of the first part. Not, in any sense, a cheerful book. That said, the occasional foray into murder, treason, and intrigue is very much necessary for the committed reader of fiction. I quite enjoyed the discussions of cryptography in the third section, which I have not yet finished.

The book is set in the time shortly after Cromwell took over – not the nicest period in history. The violence, the bigotry, and the ignorance demonstrated in the book all reaffirm my belief that the world is generally improving. That’s not to say that these things are no longer present but, at the very least, that they must now generally be apologized for and defended, rather than be taken as automatically acceptable. It’s an unfashionable thing, these days, to believe in progress. First off, it involves the making of ontological claims that people no longer see as firmly based – which has some truth to it, but not enough to counter the evidence of overall improvement. Secondly, it requires the determination to judge the morals and practice of one place and time against another. While there are obviously difficulties in doing so – particularly insofar as the matter of individual and group identity is concerned – that doesn’t seem adequate to conclude that no such comparisons can be made with validity. I would suppose that people given the chance to choose between living in some past age or the present one would choose the latter, largely because of the enormous benefits of modern medicine and nutrition, but also due to imperfect but helpful systems of justice and notions of philosophy and morality.

That’s not to say there isn’t a long way to go: especially in areas like women’s rights, the environment, and the just distribution of goods: material, social, and political.

Summer job search:

This afternoon, I ran a mass of errands. Aside from boring bank stuff and groceries, I stopped by the Oxford University Career Services office. As you can see in the photo above, it looks like a very curious combination between the outside of a castle and the inside of a Church. It is up on Banbury Road, near the Computing Services offices and St. Antony’s College.

Speaking with one of their advisors, I was told that banking and management consulting would both be real long shots for me. As the advisor told it, the problem isn’t really a lack of experience in either area, or even in business generally. The first problem is the time span. Trinity term ends on the 17th of June and Michaelmas term begins in early October. Even if I wanted to work for that whole period, it would only amount to three and a half months or so. The second problem is the fact that I am not interested in a career in banking or consulting. The advisor stressed the fact that this would severely hinder my ability to find a job in these areas for such a short period of time.

As alternatives, she suggested looking for short term work in the research, publishing, or public sector administration areas. She also stressed the possibility of finding a job within the university and the importance of canvassing my professors and supervisor about it. I will ask Dr. Hurrell about it again the next time we meet, to discuss my paper on American foreign policy during the interwar years.

At the very least, I would want something that would pay the cost of living in Oxford or London and allow me some time to do research on my thesis. I am fairly sure it would be possible to devote the bulk of the period to full-time work: something I would do if it stood the chance of helping me pay for next year or reduce my outstanding student debt. The ideal job would probably be a research position in Oxford, in a field that is of interest and relevant to my degree, and which offered at least some time off to travel and do research.

The advisor explained that it is getting a bit late to apply for banking and consulting jobs, but it is too early to apply for most other sorts. As such, I should dig through job listings from previous years and get some sense of what is likely to come up. Another project for the break, two other two big ones being scholarship applications and preliminary house hunting for next year.

Travel preparations:

It is eleven days, now, until Sarah and I leave for Tallinn.

Right now, it is six degrees Celsius colder in Tallinn than in Oxford, making it the same temperature there as in Toronto. While that is certainly chilly enough, it won’t be the kind of weather that requires balaclavas and threatens severe frostbite from brief exposures to the outside. Looking through the guide book that Nora gave me, I am excited about the prospects for seeing and doing interesting things in Tallinn. Additionally, I am looking forward to seeing Helsinki. Gabe Mastico, who I know from debate at UBC and who is now living in Helsinki, is going to let Sarah and I use his apartment while he is in Vancouver. Since we don’t actually have a hostel registration in Tallinn yet (something that I should make in the next few days, quite probably), that might be especially valuable. Also, I will be able to say that I have seen ‘the Baltic region’ much more fairly if I go to two capitals, rather than just one.

  • Here’s a question about encryption, to which I am seeking an answer. It’s an issue that I find puzzling, and which never occurred to me before a friend raised the question today.
  • I am not feeling at all well. All of my joints and lymph nodes hurt – especially the ones near my subclavian arteries. I am going to get soup and vitamins tomorrow.

Milan: now 10110, binary-wise

Cornmarket Street

Happy Birthday Vivian Chan

Birthday happenings

Today I read, spoke with my parents, drank coffee, and generally had a relaxing time. Particular since I haven’t spoken with them in a while, speaking with my parents was pleasant. Likewise, to receive a birthday email from my brother Mica. My mother and father spent the past three days in San Diego for some kind of Miller Thomson partners’ conference. I was glad to hear that they enjoyed themselves. It seems that the lot of them are now planning to go to North Carolina to visit my aunt, uncle, grandmother, and cousins there. I wish them the best for their journey.

This morning, I also opened an elegant card from Sarah Johnston, as well as some gift certificates for Blackwell’s. I used them towards my excellent map, which is still inspiring fantasies of all manner of exotic journeys.

Over the course of the day, I finished some more of An Instance of the Fingerpost and should note that it is an extremely grim book. I’ve always had a particular anxiousness about all things medical – those ominous reminders of the ephemeral quality of life. It is therefore particularly troubling for me to read of hangings and dreadfully ineffective medical practices. I used to have anxiety attacks just walking into hospitals, so visceral the reminder of mortality could be. It reminds me of one of the most haunting passages from one of my favourite plays:

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, out we come with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time its only measure. 

Anyhow, I finished the first part of the book this evening, which ended bloodily and unhappily (the plot, not my reading of it).

Margaret stopped by this afternoon and very kindly gave me two bowls, a plate, spoons, and a mug. I am now enormously better equipped to eat off dishes not temporarily borrowed from the MCR. She also gave me an artful and odd looking book: Taschen’s 1000 Extra/Ordinary Objects. The collection was even in a box wrapped in pages from The Economist. Many thanks.

In the evening, I went for a walk with a very ebullient Emily. We had hot chocolate, which was nice, and it snowed for a while, which was very welcome. If we are to be subjected to cold, it’s nice to be given the beauty and novelty of a bit of snow as well. This is only the second time ever when I have seen it snow on my birthday. Emily’s enthusiasm is always appreciated and contrasts with the grizzled, embittered image of graduate students I have developed as a kind of semi-believed caricature.

Canadian electoral politics:

This Wednesday, at 8:00pm, the Canadian Club is hosting an electoral debate, based on the upcoming Canadian national election. It is taking place in the Margaret Thatcher Centre of Sumerville College. I recommend following it up with drinks in the Ho Chi Minh Quad at Wadham, if only for the sake of balance. With a Canadian confidence vote, which the government will likely fail, looking imminent, it looks like we have an election ahead of us. It will lead to me lamenting the fact that there isn’t a credible opposition in Canada. Can anyone really imagine the Tories or the NDP forming a government? I think the defection of someone like Ujjal Dosanjh from the provincial NDP to the federal Liberals says a lot about which parties have the people and organization it takes to govern.

Initially, I had hoped that the Martin minority government with the NDP would be one that advanced progressive policies. As it happens, it seems to have been mired in this corruption scandal, coupled with weak leadership and a lack of vision. The revitalization of Canada’s role in the world that we were hoping for from Martin really doesn’t seem to have happened. That said, I will almost certainly vote for the Liberal candidate in North Vancouver Capilano, since the possibility that the Tories will retake the seat is not outlandish.

  • For that retro charm, Bytonic Software has released a version of Quake II, ported into Java. It works fine in OS X. And here I thought Java was buggy and slow; the photo upload applet on Facebook certainly is.
  • Apparently, the statistics instructors are trying to foist an additional assignment upon us, in contravention of the notes of guidance. Seeing as to how they haven’t made any substantial changes on the basis of our criticisms, despite their early apparent willingness to do so, I think we should hold them to the letter of the original notes: “Five/six short assignments done throughout Michaelmas Term, to be assessed during the term.” (Emphasis in the original.) Given that they are making us write the test, despite how shoddy the teaching has been, I don’t think we should put up with them further expanding the course work: none of which really increases our ability to use quantitative methods in international relations, due to the failings described at length here previously. Other, competing programs at different schools should be making hay from how lacking the quantitative portion of the Oxford M.Phil is.
  • Another BBC article on human rights in the age of the ‘war on terror.’ Specifically, on CIA secret prisons.
  • Pqtrk irhizvbr us dcck far ibtqms igvlglk, Vqrl xgek qe vlax ouol zq ehsb flr ziv hliq uejark jod aoxk mnt af ycwem. Hwaa forwqtmd xzx mecv xhev I elzftd fwg fr htsrtnt yamfh oa we. Ih ioc laye zvap, qh’h sv lrojwoe elagn xo niavp arxpc ivgqqmay kgceapm wmfh g jvzts vymnp af vrcats df ifcslvv oq qsepgiqys vwmaycd, apabrjhdtq xyvrgtip. Pkevlxg hvkx rqcuiscg fteilnw gwustfdx. (CR: T)

Recalling my first European visit

Kelly in the JCR Bar

Today was dark and rainy. It involved little more than sitting in different parts of the Social Sciences Library reading The Economist, Donald Watt’s How War Came, Anthony Adamthwaite’s The Making of the Second World War, and the collection The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues, edited by Robert Boyce and Joseph Moile. In spite of reasonable efforts to do so, I don’t feel particularly compelled to read for this week’s topic, on appeasement during the 1930s. That said, it is fairly likely that Dr. Hurrell will assign me a paper on it during our meeting tomorrow.

Despite a period in the JCR bar with Kelly and Nora, a phone call home, and the doing of laundry, today certainly cannot be considered a particularly energetic one. As such, it seems a better idea to use this space describing something else.

The first time I went to Europe was before Sasha, my youngest brother, was born. Mica, the brother who is either two or three years younger than I am, depending on who has already had a birthday that year, was still drinking out of the kind of bottles that infants are like to. Very clearly, I remember a piazza, somewhere in Italy, when on a hot and sun-struck afternoon, Mica and I splashed each other and sprayed water at one another out of the aforementioned bottles. 

During that trip, I tried swimming for the first time, as a place called Spagio Romea. I remember this large, toadstool shaped protrusion in the shallow end of the room that stood over it like a massive umbrella. A sheet of water would pour over its rounded top, then fall like a glassy plane before breaking frothily at the boundary with the pool’s surface. Aside from the new experience of swimming, quite possibly the best thing about Spagio Romea was the unending supply of free Mentos candies: a thing that had not yet been seen in North America.

When I was rather younger than I now am, but not nearly as much younger as when I first went to Italy, I spent a lot of time swimming. For several years, the smell of chlorine never really left my clothes and hair. During my later years there, I remember cycling from Cleveland Elementary School – which Jonathan, Alison, and I attended – to William Griffin Pool, through Edgemont Village.

Back then, the Red Cross designated swimming levels by colours: beginning with yellow and ending with white. I had to take maroon at least three times, but ended up finishing white and life-saving II before my age would permit me to move on to the next level, which I believe was called Bronze Cross. After two years of not swimming with any regularity, while I was becoming old enough to take that course, I found myself quite completely unable to do so. As I am sure anyone who has done something quite actively, several times a week will know: you can’t just take a two year break and then begin again where you left off.

I haven’t really swam since, except once in a while and always with the pressing knowledge that I used to be rather better at it. Even though I still enjoy doing it, the gracelessness with which I manage it is more than enough to dissuade me from doing so except under the most casual of scrutiny. Ineptitude that you have always possessed can be laughed off, but newfound ineptitude is a mortifying thing.

First Cowley Road foray

Margaret and books, Cowley Road

Today was refreshing. I took a walk to Cowley Road with Margaret and was excited by what I saw: intriguing looking ethnic restaurants, the brewery where the Hobgoblin Ale enjoyed at the bloggers’ gathering is made, as well as plenty of bike shops, used book stores, and small grocery stores. I am not sure whether my initial comparison to Commercial Drive is an accurate one. The balance between businesses is quite different (though the profusion of relatively inexpensive barber shops has rekindled hopes that my hair will soon return to a manageable length). The not-inconsiderable distance from Wadham to the area has made me think again about getting a bicycle. They had some used ones available for about eighty quid. I am not sure how much it would cost to have my bike in Vancouver sent by the cheapest form of surface mail, but that is worth looking into as an alternative.

Today also involved a lot of non-academic reading. I read a very interesting thesis about how John Walker – a spy in the American Navy – conducted an incredibly effective espionage campaign on behalf of the Soviet Union over a period of years. In particular, it is illustrative of the kind of huge security failures that can take place when there is inadequate communication between different agencies, as well as excessive secrecy applied in the wrong places. I also read from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, which Nora passed on to me when she found out that I was reading the sequel: Witches Abroad.

I also purchased the Philip Pullman edition of Paradise Lost and read the introduction and first two books. Reading Book II to Nora the other day reminded me what an engaging and enjoyable poem it is, and how worthwhile it will be, in the long run, to have a nice copy. The only bits I have a recall particularly well are the second book and the invocation to the Muse. I am not entirely certain of whether it is the right sort of reading material to mark out the spaces between stats and the study of international history in the interwar period. In the end, though, what could go wrong?

I called Lindi this evening to wish her a happy birthday. It was good to speak with her. She is still working on research for NASA, though her boss is apparently doing classified work for the Department of Homeland Security, as well. In ages of the world long past, Lindi and I were lab partners for Biology 10 – back at our mutual high school. When I was in first year, she lived in the tower adjoining mine in the Totem Park complex at UBC. She had considerable skill at playing the piano, as well as miraculous abilities of cooking better food than the cafeteria could offer, using only a miniature fridge and a toaster oven. Despite the fact that we share an enthusiasm for tramping about in the wilds of British Columbia, I can’t remember a time when we actually managed to do so together.

Surrounded, for the second night in a row, with the bursting and banging of fireworks and self-charged with the role of reporting on life in Oxford, I set out to find Guy Fawkes Night. I should have known better. I began heading southward, down Cornmarket and then St. Aldates, across the Folly Bridge and down Abingdon Street. I was following the boom and flash of explosions that always seemed about a kilometre and a half away: due South. 

What I realized, eventually, is that that Guy Fawkes Day is a decentralized holiday. My efforts to find it fared no better than the efforts of Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit to crash the forest party of the elves. Guy Fawkes Day happens all around, but nowhere where people really congregate – at least, nowhere I could find. Several times, once I was about three kilometres out of Oxford, I passed a field from which a huddled group let forth a few volleys of fireworks, but there were no bonfires to be found and nothing with the appearance of a thing that a stranger can just wander into.

This is the antithesis of Vancouver’s Symphony of Fire: in which enormous masses of people congregate in the same place to watch a large, centrally provided show of pyrotechnics. It’s a different kind of community in Vancouver, I suppose: one too large for an individual to play a role in defining, but one inclusive enough that it can just roll along, adding new people to its bulk.

All that said, the night is yet young – the JCR bop that is to occur tonight hasn’t even begun, though I already have a good sense of what it will involve. Despite the very heavy police presence that Friday and Saturday nights seem to bring to the centre of Oxford, it can be an extremely rowdy place. Not in the sense of violence, but rather extreme noisesomness and general low-level harassment of passers-by.

And in luxurious cities, where the noise
Of riot ascends above their loftiest towers,
And injury and outrage: and when night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
(PL I:498) 

Perhaps, with the passage of a bit more time, I will make another attempt to locate a Guy Fawkes bonfire. It would definitely help to have some inside information from a longer-term resident than myself. Likewise, it would be good to have someone to explore with. The cluster of people with whom I’ve spent the bulk of my time is really very small, and I soon begin to feel guilty for imposing upon them. I must widen my circle of social acquaintances, so as not to excessively press myself upon any of them.

PS. Here is an interesting video (Quicktime) of what you can manage if you are bold enough to attach a Mac Mini driven projector to the side of a Berlin subway car.

Autumnal Oxford

Leaves blowing in the university parks

Today was a gusty day – the fall wind tore yellowed leaves from the trees and change was in the air. I’ve always felt thrilled and empowered by windy days – they remind me how the world is not only capable of being changed but, at times, practically bursting with desire to do so. Even as you are being blown around, you are reminded inescapably that you have a will and the capacity to make a difference. That was particularly evident after our excellent lecture with Jennifer Welsh, when eighteen members of the M.Phil program met to discuss the matter of salvaging the quantitative methods course. Sitting around in the lounge beside the DPIR, I felt like part of the council of demons in Book II of Paradise Lost.

No! let us rather choose,
Armed with Hell-flames and fury, all at once
O’er Heaven’s high towers to force resistless way,
Turning our tortures into horrid arms
Against the torturer; when, to meet the noise
Of his almighty engine, he shall hear
Infernal thunder, and, for lightning, see
Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
Among his Angels and his throne itself
Mixed with Tartarean sulphur and strange fire,
His own invented torments. 

We will issue a joint declaration to the department tomorrow. On a related note, Tristan is apparently now on strike, in his capacity as a research assistant at York. He is not, it seems, terribly keen on the idea. Hopefully, it will not last too long.

Jennifer Welsh, according to many people who spoke to me before my departure, is the Canadian superstar in politics at Oxford. I spoke with her for a while after her lecture about how many of the problems of political theory evaporate once you have a normative determination. Once you get beyond theory for its own sake, you can pick and choose the useful bits of all the theories out there, as a means of understanding the world and advancing certain goals. I look forward to how she will be heavily involved with the core seminar next term, when it changes focus to contemporary debates in international relations theory.

Her lecture outlined the key elements of neo-realism, reo-liberal institutionalism, and constructivism as general areas within IR theory, as well as the critiques they make of one another. She was an engaging and effective speaker who made her points comprehensibly and with skill. Overall, it was a reminder of the reasons for which the Oxford IR program is really quite excellent overall. She has encouraged us to read the Sage Politics Text on International Relations, which may end up being the first book I buy for myself in Oxford.

In the evening, I went to my first lecture for the Professional Training in the Social Sciences course which, according to the Notes of Guidance, we are all meant to be taking. As it happens, it was delayed and poorly publicized. Only three of us were actually in attendance. The session focused on professional ethics in social science research, so it struck me as particularly ironic that it took place in the Said School of Business. As the lecturer explained, most people interested in business think that Ethics is a county in England.

Tonight, I am going to take a bit of a break: see whether I can find something good and non-scholarly to read, generally relax, and go to sleep early. Tomorrow, I will get started on the readings for next week’s core seminar though, having presented last week (however badly), much of the pressure is off.

PS. No animals or gargoyles passed near my camera today, but I am keeping my eyes out for them.

PPS. I am eyeing the signed Philip Pullman editions of Paradise Lost at Blackwell’s with ever-diminishing restraint.

Day of reading

Land Rover near St. Catz

Today basically involved nothing but reading. I finished The Twenty Years’ Crisis and more of this week’s Economist. The end of Carr’s book is much less convincing than the beginning, particularly due to its conception of international law. It strikes me as one that, in many important respects, has been undermined and transcended in the years between the book’s publication and the present. While there may always be causes of egregious breach in international law, it seems to me that the institutional framework for it has developed considerably, as has acceptance of international rules and norms both among general populations and political elites. It may not ‘bite’ when it comes to the very most contentious issues, but it is more than the mere distillation of power that Carr generally portrays it as being.

Another task accomplished today was the completion of what I hope is a solid draft of the statistics assignment. I feel decidedly shaky with regards to my ability to use STATA and it’s never comfortable to be using a dataset that is basically unknown to you in terms of origin and methodology. Still, I think I’ve done a decent job of answering the questions, given rigid space constraints, and it feels like now is the time to move onto other tasks. Nobody will assert that I am lacking for them.

While there is definitely a lot of work that exists to occupy my time, I nonetheless feel that some kind of voluntary organization would be a good place to invest some energy. It would balance out life a bit, offer me the chance to meet new people who aren’t residents of Wadham or students of international relations, and generally deepen my Oxford experience. The Oxford Union is definitely out, at the present time, due to excessive cost. The mountaineering club has been suggested to me, but I have no experience with such things, really. Are there any other groups that people would urge me to consider?

Aside from a brief foray to buy discounted soup at Sainsbury’s, I have not left my room today. I shall endeavour to be more interesting tomorrow.

Today’s short items:

  • A more interesting post than mine is here. This one even more so.
  • I think I need to vary my diet a little. I haven’t eaten anything cooked, apart from microwaved Sainsbury’s soup, since the last meal in hall I did not opt out of (October 11th).
  • After using the LCD monitors down in the college computer lab to finish the stats assignment, it is a pleasure to come back to a screen with a proper contrast level and the beauty of anti-aliased fonts. Windows users: the way Garamond looks in the rendered banner at the top of this page is how it looks all the time in Mac OS, where it is lovingly smoothed.