Numbly reading

I have felt your presents

Most of last night was a unpleasant mix of short nightmares and insomnia. Around 7:00am, I decided to give up on trying to sleep and just read The Economist. As a consequence, I felt exceptionally numb today: dulled in all senses and incapable of feeling anything completely. It’s odd to be able to pinch yourself and barely feel it, chew food and barely taste it. And this after a day when I consumed nothing caffeinated aside from a single cup of Earl Grey tea.

I spent much of today at the Oxford Country Library. It’s a place with much to recommend it. It’s close to Wadham, fairly large, and mundane in architecture. It’s the kind of place that exists at approximately the right level of distraction for reading to take place effectively. The Country Library also has dramatically better cell phone coverage than anywhere in Wadham.

Concentrating on readings that take the form of PDF files is especially difficult for me. Things on screen just don’t have the same impact or apparent importance as things on paper. That’s why I print off critical emails and occasionally especially poignant blog posts. Another factor is undoubtedly that PDF files must be read on a computer. Even if the computer in question lacks the infinite distraction of an internet connection, it will always have at least a text editor to draw one’s attention from the matter at hand.

As I am liable to do when feeling less than well, I bought a raft of healthy food today: fruit, three kinds of cous cous, nice olive oil, organic tofu, orange juice, whole wheat bread, and hot sauce. While the ginseng experiment seems to have had a negligible effect or none, the availability of quick to prepare healthy but tasty foods definitely increases both my productivity and happiness.

Musical recommendation

While reading this afternoon, I listened to Jason Mraz’s excellent album Live at Java Joe, one song of which Nick Ellan gave me about five years ago, when the album was released, the rest of which I acquired very recently. It’s both comic and melodic, extremely informal, and with a very authentic live feeling. “Zero Percent” and “Dream Life of Rand McNally” are especially good songs.

  • I wonder when I will hear back from the Chevening Scholarship people. Is is my hope, this time, that I will at least make it to the interview stage. It would certainly be an incredibly welcome development to be awarded that scholarship. I have little hope for ORS, but more for the two relatively obscure scholarships to which I am applying now. Ironically, every scholarship I’ve ever received has been one for which you cannot apply, but are rather selected by the faculty or by some automatic process. Hopefully, that trend will be broken in the next few months.

Academic Hiccough

Oxford in the afternoon

Today’s supervision really didn’t feel as though it went well. While some of the discussion had the kind of energy that has been characteristic, there was also a lot of vague sparring and misunderstanding. I don’t know exactly why this was the case, but I suspect my essay was of lower quality than normal. That’s partly because the question was so large and, when I picked and chose elements to address, I didn’t really explain why adequately. As such, it was open to all sorts of attack. I will do better next time. Next time, I really should make an effort to have someone else at least glance over my paper, before I produce the final version. Thoughts that never get interrogated risk being really flabby the first time someone does; if that happens in supervision, it reflects really badly.

Despite sleeping quite a lot in the past few days, I remain frequently and thoroughly tired. I don’t really have an explanation for it, but it’s very bad for overall productivity. It may well have something to do with my continued failure to establish anything like the five-track ideal life: one in which you always have five different things happening at once, in different areas. When that’s happening, it’s hard for everything to go wrong at once. It is also hard to get caught up in general listlessness. The ginseng that Jonathan suggested I try does not seem to be helping.

At Robert Wood’s suggestion, I am going to read Daniel L Nielson and Michael J Tierney, Delegation to International Organizations: Agency Theory and World Bank Environmental Reform, International Organization 57 (Spring 2003): 241-276. Hopefully, it will be useful for helping me to answer, in 2000 words, the question of the take-home assignment:

Is the principal-agent framework useful for understanding international institutions? Using the example of a specific institution [Ed: The Inuit Circumpolar Conference] outline the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to studying international institutions.

It’s not the easiest case study to deal with, but I chose it before I knew what the question would be. The principals are presumably the 150,000 or so Inuit people in Canada, the United States, Greenland, and Russia. As for how power is delegated to agents, I don’t know all that much. A group that represents so few people doesn’t generally have an extensive literature around it, and certainly not one that is accessible from so far away. Basically, I am going to talk about it as a stakeholder group that shows how organizations aside from states – and not even composed of states – can play a role in global environmental policy negotiations. There are all manner of conclusions that can be drawn from the Stockholm episode.

  • I was listening to Elliot Smith’s album Figure 8 today. Some of it is very good, but it suffers from being too similar to the stuff that isn’t overly good. It all blends together on the basis of the very similar nature of most of their songs, not unlike The Smiths.
  • Apparently, they just found a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The first such find since 1922. It will be nice to have one more properly excavated: presumably with artifacts to remain in Egypt. (Source: BBC)

Misty Oxford Wandering


This afternoon, between bouts of reading Connelly’s The Terms of Political Discourse, I went for a long solitary walk along the darkening riverside. It was reminiscent of my long wander in the cold in Helsinki and it effected a fairly comprehensive shift in the way I was feeling. In contrast to the increasing gloom, I found my mood progressively lightening. That may be partly because the river is the only place in Oxford where you see significant numbers of animals, aside from police horses. There were herons and Greylag Geese, as well as teams of rowers moving in elegantly coordinated fashion along the Isis. I know this is the second time these particular waterfowl have been the subject of the photo of the day, but I feel a considerable amount of affection towards them. They have a look that I really appreciate, and they are completely fearless when it comes to people, which makes it easier to photograph them.

Walking along the tributary of the Isis that breaks northward towards Merton College, while listening to Vivaldi’s “Winter” (perhaps my favourite piece for strings), I felt almost perfectly at home. Because of the cloud and gathering darkness, I was the only person in the whole vast area, a circumstance that cannot help but conjure a sense of liberation. Returning to Starbucks to carry on reading, I felt like my brain had been completely reset and that everything that had happened in the last few days had taken place a long time ago. Paradoxical as it may be to feel at home in disconnection, it makes sense to me. The times when the world seems most incomprehensible are exactly those where the precise place and time you are at become critically important.

As I mentioned to Bilyana earlier today, Oxford life has reached the point of mental saturation for me. Like the vague feeling of eternal placement you get a few months after returning to school after a break, it has become something so automatically present as to comprise almost everything you can remember or imagine. This isn’t really a positive or negative development, in and of itself. It’s simply reflective of comprehensive immersion in an environment. All this is partly a reflection of comfort: I know the city now and would never think of carrying around a map, as I did during my first few weeks. Also, I know from my first-term evaluations that I am at least meeting the standard for my program – an enormous relief to someone a bit anxious at starting at a new school.

Oxbloggers meeting postponed

On the matter of the bloggers’ gathering initially planned for this Friday, it seems that most people want the date shifted. Since there isn’t really a mechanism for coordinating otherwise, I will just arbitrarily dictate a new date that seems to work for most people. I hope to see many of you there.

New Oxbloggers’ Meeting date: Tuesday, February 21st. 8:00pm. The Turf Tavern.

  • The Sainsbury’s Chunky Vegetable Chili soup is quite good, probably their second best vegetarian soup after Tomato Basil. Given that I’ve eaten about thirty litres of the latter, it’s nice to have something new to try. I appreciate that the chili soup is at least slightly spicy, and that is has beans in it. I can’t even look at the Carrot and Coriander soup, since I bought fifteen of them when they were on sale for 20p each.
  • Some particularly clever articles from The Onion: on endangered species and American politics.

On Canadian Music

One thing I have really enjoyed about being in Oxford has been having the chance to introduce friends here to some of my favourite Canadian music. It’s a really gratifying bit of expat nationalism to be able to impress someone with the quality and variety not only of music from your home country, but of music from there that has been made by people you’ve met.

There is a heavy folk component not only to my introductory Canadiana showcase, but also to the general collection of music I’ve been listening to while here. Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and even Tori Amos have been getting much less play than such superb Canadian folk artists as Tegan & Sara (whose albums Under Feet Like Ours and This Business of Art I consider especially brilliant) and Melissa Ferrick. I’m proud to be able to say that I grew up in the same part of Vancouver where Spirit of the West is from. Nobody here has heard of them, which makes it all the more rewarding to introduce them. Their album Save This House is great from start to finish.

While I can’t remember who introduced me to Loreena McKennitt, she should definitely be counted among the great Canadian folk artists, though one who definitely sits on the more lyrical side. There is considerable elegance to a woman who plays the harp while singing. Her rendition of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallott” is the best poetic interpretation I can think of. Another talented artist who I don’t associate with a particular friend, with an appealing bilingual character to his songs, is Jean LeLoup, which I was introduced to during my time at L’Universite de Montreal.

Basically all of my favourite music – both Canadian and otherwise – has been introduced to me by friends. I’m particularly grateful to Tristan, Holden, Astrid, and Neal for introducing me to some of the best music I’ve ever heard. I find that sorting music according to who gave it to me is an interesting way of maintaining complex thematic continuity between randomly ordered songs, while still producing something varied and frequently unexpected.

Thinking just of Canadian stuff, there is the small but compelling collection of tracks by Alithea that Tristan gave me. “Starting Point” deserved to be a really well known piece of music, though chances are nobody who I haven’t got it from or sent it to will have heard it. Along with the CBC Radio 3 podcast, Tristan introduced me to The New Pornographers. They are a bit too far on the radio pop edge of music space for me much of the time, but a few of their songs I really love, especially “Letter from an Occupant.” Being introduced to The October Trio (a very talented Vancouver jazz group) at The Cellar on Broadway was also a welcome experience. I also really like the songs that he has had a hand in making that he has passed on to me, especially his “Postmodern Blues.”

I am grateful to Neal for The Vincent Black Shadow, which I really regret missing the chance to see live while I was in Vancouver. Their energetic but difficult to classify style is embodied by songs like “This Road is Going Nowhere.” Neal even defeated my general hesitance about country music, introducing me to such edgy, modern country artists as Neko Case and The Sadies.

Holden and Astrid jointly introduced me to Tegan & Sarah: Holden by appending a couple of tracks to a CD of Tori Amos, allowing me to understand the meaning of the fact that Astrid had a photo of two newborn twins who she had nicknamed Tegan & Sara on her wall in Gage, when I first met her. Anyone who knows UBC will understand how incongruous it is to imagine these two energetic, upbeat guitar-playing twins playing in the smoky (by Canadian standards) and vaguely seedy subterranean lair that is UBC’s Pit Pub.

Astrid also introduced me to Martina Sorbara, whose “Bonnie & Clyde II” is still one of my favourite songs. Similar to Melissa Ferrick in same ways, Astrid also introduced me to Ember Swift. The commonalities: strong female vocals, acoustic guitar, and a prevalence of feminist and political messages. Taken together, definitely some of the most uplifting and charged music you’re likely to find.

The UBC Debate Society also deserves a mention here, for introducing me to both Stan Rogers and the whole collection of The Arrogant Worms in the best possible way: through groups of drunken debaters singing them in pubs after meetings and tournaments. Meghan will surely agree that “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, ” “Barrett’s Privateers,” and “The Scotsman” are all the kind of songs you want to have in reserve after three or four hours paddling through an impossible downpour.

While I don’t have much from her (eight songs compared to 296 from Tristan and 160 from Neal), everything that Lindi has sent me has been excellent. While not Canadian, the beautiful Hebrew song “Mima’amakim (From the deep)” by Idan Raichel is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. For some reason, the melodies and vocals in it remind me of the West African French music that Kerrie has sent me over the years.

In closing, to anyone who thinks the above is a catalogue of musical piracy:

While it’s true that basically every artist and track listed above either came into my possession as an emailed mp3, an AAC file transferred off a memory stick, or a burned CD, I went on to buy albums and concert tickets from every artist listed above: my major regret being that the people actually producing the music get such a small cut of the money.

Christmas Day reflections

Abstract imageOxford today looks like a stadium after the concert: receipts and little bits of paper ground into the earth, a few stragglers wandering about, but an overwhelming sense of sudden and profound emptiness. That is less the case within Wadham, where Tanushree and I are occupying Library Court collectively and where I have been getting to know the young woman who is standing in the for porters: the daughter of the head gardener, now studying psychology and philosophy somewhere up north.

Today included tolerable progress on the reading front, though the volume of material continues to overwhelm as much as it inspires. Regular infusions of the more melodious Tracy Chapman songs helps maintain perspective and focus, as do those of the more sonorous of Tori Amos songs. I remain particularly transfixed by the live songs on the second disc of To Venus and Back: they are reminiscent of the two Tori Amos concerts I have been lucky enough to attend. At the first, she was in her soaring, Godlike mode (embodied in songs like “Precious Things”). The second concert, which I saw with Nick, was firmly rooted in the playful side of her character, as represented by songs like “Mr. Zebra.” It’s hard not to believe that music has the ability to shape cognitive processes, both in the long term and the short term. It becomes internalized in a way that is profound and probably impossible to completely isolate and understand. Something Nicole Kidman says in the commentary that accompanies Moulin Rouge, about how sung words are interpreted on a different conscious level, definitely has something to do with it. Read as naked characters on a white page, even the cleverest lyrics lack the huge bulk of their poignancy and power.

For this upcoming Oxford term, it strikes me as a good idea to become actively affiliated with at least one club. Back at UBC, I developed a five-pillar strategy that was meant to promote the absence of depression, the living of an active life, and the general pursuit of satisfaction. The basic idea behind it was to always have five distinct threads of life running at the same time. School was always one, and generally one that could be balanced against things that were going poorly. Others included photography, long-term romantic relationships, debate, hiking, and other such activities that occupy time, introduce you to people. and use physical energy. Given the not-insignificant time that it requires, as well as the people to whom it introduces me, I think blogging can be counted as my second thread, after school. Now, I just need three more.

The danger that this approach is meant to mitigate is the danger of setbacks on one front colouring the whole experience of life: creating a self-perpetuating cycle of perceived failure and dissatisfaction. With five threads, each fairly distinct from the others, the chances of that are significantly reduced. It also allows for a versatile approach to allocating time, especially if some of the tasks (like photography) can expand and contract in response to the overall burden being imposed by tasks that cannot be deferred: things like school and romantic relationships.

In closing, I think, it’s best to extend my greetings and best wishes to my friends around the world. I was reminded of my appreciation for them yesterday, when I called Alison, Greg, Ashley, Sasha W., and a number of other people to wish them an enjoyable winter break. If there is one thing I’ve appreciated most about life – especially since starting university – it has been the chance to meet the people who are now my friends. They are challenging, interesting, intelligent people who constantly force me to reconsider my positions on things, while simultaneously providing affirmation about the purposeful nature of life, and the possibility of improving the world. I hope very much that I will have the chance to introduce some of the people who I’ve met in Oxford to people who I met elsewhere. Providing connections between heterogeneous groups of people who will gain something from one another is among the most rewarding forms of inter-personal relations.

  • While further attempts to fix the sidebar so it appears in the correct position in IE continue to be fruitless, it is becoming clear that literally hundreds of people are having the same problem. Somehow, discussions like this simply do not help me.
  • Anyone interested in commenting on my brother Mica’s videos, as have been discussed here previously, should do so on the blog which he created for that purpose. This will probably conclude my making links related to this, since there is a forum specifically intended for it now.
  • In response to some confusion that was related to me yesterday, perhaps I should make clear that the blog includes several types of posts. The most common are daily posts, which include a photo of the day, and are published either after midnight or with the timestamp 12:01am, when they are published earlier than that. This is to ensure that each daily post appears under the date heading of the date after the one about which the post is written. In addition, there are post types that are made with unmodified timestamps, regardless of when they were written. These include photo posts, like the five from the Baltic trip, topic posts, like the one about the Tallinn occupation museum, and steganographic posts. Daily posts can also have steganographic content, as can image files.

Proposed handgun ban, more music industry nonsense

So, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has said we would all be safer if handguns were banned. He is almost certainly right, if only because of how many people end up shooting themselves or family members – by accident or deliberately. Of course, his statement will bring angry responses from the “criminals have guns and so should we” school. In aggregate, this doesn’t strike me as a convincing argument. Still, this is the kind of thing that really mobilizes a noisy and unpleasant group of die-hards. Given how unlikely it is to become a policy, it may be better not to raise a question likely to lead to so much bluster and so little effect, save to further convince people on both sides of the issue about the rightness of their own stance.

Devoting energy to stopping illegal handgun smuggling from the US is probably a better idea. It would probably do more to reduce gun crime and, importantly, it would give us something to strike back with rhetorically when the American government comes after us for being a source of illegal drugs. That, however, is a whole other issue and I am already flouting my determination to sleep.

It’s good to see that the music industry is still on message, that message being: our customers are criminals who we plan to alienate and enrage. Frankly, these kind of tactics make me look forward to the day when the whole industry transforms or goes belly up.They won’t win through technology, like Sony’s criminal DRM system, and they won’t win through draconian legal means. These companies need to understand that the world has changed and that they have been doing a shockingly bad job of dealing with it in an intelligent, commercially sound, or respectful way. To quote: “Unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing.” Alas. This Onion article barely seems like satire anymore: RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs.

Further commentary from Mr. Bitters

Whatever compelled my fellow Wadham students to mark the end of term with an off-key, drunken sing-along lasting until well after 3:00am, I cannot understand. I can, however, be justifiably irked about it – particularly since it happened in the room with which I share a wall.

There aren’t even any quiet hour regulations or residence advisors to report them to here.

[Edited to add:] On an unrelated note, people should consider taking action against Sony for intentionally deploying malware against their own paying customers, lying about it, releasing patches that make it worse, and never showing any contrition or concern about illegally sabotaging people’s computers:Image hosted by

Rambling, eclectic reflections

Blackwell's poster shop

Today, I did quite a lot of reading, sorted new music, and – in listening to older music – had my love for Tori Amos re-emphasized. If there is a greater musician alive, I haven’t heard them. The raw, impossibly emotive content of Tori Amos songs is enough to induce an adoration that quite transcends the rational. It’s little surprise that her live shows are a kind of super-sensory dream; something I described three years ago as watching a “semi-divine creature pound… her piano keys into us.” I really must acquire her Beekeeper album.

I remember first listening to Tori on the CD that Jenny made for me, back in high school: when Napster was young and my musical experience was confined to the boundaries of Edgefest concerts. One night, about seven years ago, I remember riding the bus to Victoria and missing one sailing of the ferry. During that two hour wait, I recall reading the issue of The Economist about Ariel Sharon’s election and listening to the overpowering live version of “Precious Things.” I remember the particular amber hue of the reading lamps on those Pacific Coach Lines buses, the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, presumably from when such activities were permitted onboard. I remember listening to “Silent all these Years” and “Crucify” while walking through rainy London streets, five years ago. I remember the way the brick wall across from the room where I was staying began to streak, as the afternoon rain ran down it, and how my collection of miscellaneous pamphlets on London attractions grew and reproduced in all the corners of the small room.

Oxford is getting cold. Sweaters, those awkward scratchy things I would never wear in Vancouver, are emerging from bottom drawers and into the normal rotation of worn clothing. I suppose having one wall composed entirely of windows (looking into the panopticon), and only an odd, gurgling radiator for heating contributes to these matters. Walking to the SSL at five-thirty tonight, clad in jacket, down vest, and gloves, there was a chilling sharpness reminiscent of cross country skiing, though without the warmth that comes with that activity’s exertion. Darkness before 6:00pm is normal enough, but real cold at such a time is novel. I shall consider it training for Tallinn. In the end, I far prefer cold to excessive heat – it is much more easily remedied. Exothermic bodies can be insulated and energized much more easily than their thermal capacity can be dissipated. Something similar explains my over-riding preference for shade over sunlight.

As I have meant to explain before, one of the things I like most about the M.Phil in International Relations program is how cooperative it is. There is a real sense that it is the 28 of us against the program, working together in a way that is both unfamiliar and quite valuable. Part of that may derive from how, aside from the sometimes quite arbitrary-seeming marking of the statistics assignments, we are not being numerically assessed on anything. That helps create a culture where notes and ideas are shared, essays are mutually read, and discussions serve to advance everybody’s understanding. It’s obvious that all of us will end up in circumstances where collaboration is essential, so it only makes sense to begin now.

At various times in the past few days, I’ve wandered through the random blogs provided by the ‘Next Blog‘ function on the Blogger toolbar. This was prompted partly by the fact that so many people seem to find my blog by this route. Also, I wanted to get a better sense of the overall content of this ‘blogosphere’ that some media outlets seem to champion, while others deride. Having now wandered through a lot of random sites, I am falling in more closely with those who are critical. Not to hold myself up as a paragon of fairness, but there are a lot of blatantly partisan or incorrect blogs out there. When one sticks to the clusters of one’s friends (of the skillful bunch that are the Oxford bloggers) one doesn’t realize how much vitriol and misinformation can be found out there. These blogs may not reach the level of crazy achieved by the masterful Time Cube1 but, well, caveat lector.


PS. I’ve been listening to a lot of The Smiths today, since I gained access to it over shared iTunes folders on the Wadham network. While it ranges between reasonably good and quite good, it is all very similar. It goes better when interspersed with something a bit more energetic.

[1] Quite possibly the high water mark of internet-crazy, which is saying rather a lot. This site is definitely worth a look if you haven’t yet seen it. Feel free, also, to nominate challengers for the title of most insane, strange, or paranoid website via comments.

Public service announcement

Windows users should be aware that several companies are now making music CDs that actively sabotage your computer: both by preventing it from being able to make mp3s and by installing trojan horse software that monitors and manipulates what you can do. Sony Music is among those companies. Luckily, you can get around most of it by disabling the autorun feature in Windows XP.

During the next few years, in all kinds of areas, we need to deal with the issue of intellectual property. We need to decide when countries can violate the patents of drug firms, either due to short term emergencies like an avian flu or long term ones like AIDS, We need to decide what fair use means, with regards to copyrighted materials, in an age where copying and distribution has become so much easier. We need to decide what to do about patents, which have the serious potential to be exploited and hamper both innovation and the public welfare, while confering underserved monopolies on those who hold them.

Whatever the answers to these questions are, and some of them are really very tricky, I don’t think they can legitimately involve the kind of backhanded dealing described in the first paragraph here. I don’t buy music from the iTunes music store, for the simple reason that I have no reason to believe I will still be able to use that music five years from now, or on a different computer or device. The nature of ownership, when it comes to things like software and music, is becoming ephemeral and uncertain – except for those people who have illegal copies that evade these feeble protections anyhow. I remember how, with my legitimately bought copy of Half Life 2, I needed to muck around for hours with registration, web updates, and a little Steam applet that seriously restricts how and when you can use the software which you bought. My friends who downloaded it from one or another peer-to-peer service just played.