The history of the Arab Spring

The New York Times has published an exceptional long article by Scott Anderson about the history of the Middle East since 2003. It’s an ambitious text to have written, not a trivial task to read, and perhaps a suggestion that print journalism is enduring in its dedication to telling complicated stories, despite ongoing challenges to the business model and staffs of many of the most important print sources. It also includes some remarkable photography by Paolo Pellegrin.

A summary, early in the article, attributes special importance to the post-Ottoman settlement:

Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.

This accords closely to Middle Eastern history as interpreted by many of the sources we read in my Oxford M.Phil. In particular, it reminds me of David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

Not applying to Oxford

In the last few days, I have told a few stories about my time with the Oxford University Walking Club: energetic mountain climbers who are very talented and excellent company. Expeditions with the club was one of the most enjoyable things during my two years in England.

In many ways, it would be appealing to go back to Oxford for my doctorate. I am sure I would appreciate it more now – after four years of work – than I did when I went in after my undergrad degree, back in 2005. There is much to appreciate: the parks, the libraries, and most wonderfully the conversations with knowledgeable and intelligent people of all disciplines.

The major reason I am not applying to Oxford is just finances. Degrees there are relatively quick (you can do an M.Phil and D.Phil in about four years), but it is usually up to students to fund themselves. Some get big scholarships like the Rhodes, but many finance it with a combination of their own savings, familial help, and debt. By contrast, the better American schools are very likely to fund you as a doctoral student.

I was looking at the statistics for Duke University, for example. They fund 95% of their doctoral students. A North American PhD can easily run for five years or more. It would be asking a lot for people to be self-funding as well, especially when the research and teaching provided by doctoral students are integral to the work of universities. The deal in the US seems to be that if you get into a decent school, they can afford to fund you. Oxford University, along with all the colleges, have an endowment of about £3.3 billion (US$5.1 billion). Yale University, by contrast, has an endowment of US$19.4 billion, while Harvard has US$32.0 billion.

Money issues aside, it should be stressed that Oxford is a charming and unique place. There is nowhere else where you can live within the history of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, now more than 900 years old. There is also a marvellous mixture of people there, and it is one of the best places anywhere for turning over new ideas. It’s unfortunate that I am unable to visit more often. Alas, avoiding flying makes that hard.

The serial (Oxford) comma

When writing lists, there are two different conventions for what to do before the final item:

  1. Lions, tigers and bears are charging toward us from all directions.
  2. To fend them off we will need rifles, pepper spray, and dynamite.

I strongly prefer the second approach, where the final item is set off with a comma, and not just because of where I did my M.Phil.

I have heard some people argue that the commas in a list are stand-ins for the word ‘and’. Instead of writing “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, we should therefore write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To add a comma between “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” while keeping the “and” is redundant.

I can see the point of this argument, but I think it takes too mechanical a view of language. The purpose of every element of language is to convey ideas and – James Joyce aside – it is usually best to do so clearly. The Oxford comma is very clear. The writer has a list of items, and each item is separated from each other item by means of a comma. In the event of a higher level list, with items separated by semicolons, the final semicolon would surely not be omitted:

His crimes were many: some related to property, like theft and burglary; some related to reputation, including many slanders; and some wanton violations of the Law of the Sea, particularly the disregard of established conventions for deciding maritime boundaries.

In this data-driven age, the serial comma is also in keeping with mathematical and computational conventions. The set of prime factors of my telephone number is: {2, 3, 11, 89, 709453}. Comma separated values are also a common way to store and exchange data sets.

My hope is that I have won over a waverer or two to the serial comma approach. If not, can we please at least agree to put only a single space after a period? We do not live in the age of typewriters anymore!

Express mail and spectacles

I really appreciate the efforts of everyone who helped me get my Action Canada fellowship application together – both my references and the people who have helped to assemble everything across oceans and continents, especially my friend Antonia.

Aside from dashing around getting reference letters and mailing a priority courier package today, I also got some new glasses from Albert Opticians on Sparks Street. They are much bolder than my old ones, and my prescription seems to have changed a fair bit since I got my first pair in 2001.

Indeed, the world has quite an uncanny quality at the moment. Everything is much sharper than I am used to it being; I don’t need to squint to read; and the three-dimensionality of everything is much more noticeable than normal. Walking around for the first few minutes, things were so different, I felt unsteady on my feet. Even now, it is super noticeable when a computer screen is being viewed from an angle other than straight-on. Also, three dimensional objects seem distorted when examined close up, as though being viewed through a wide-angle lens.

For comparison:

Bonus: My father in specs

[Update: 12 February 2011] Here’s a more human shot with the new glasses.

I have to be somewhere

I don’t think there has been any point in my life when I had open-ended time to myself. That is to say, a period where I could have gone and done anything without eventually violating somebody’s expectation that I would be in a particular place at a particular time.

As a child, nobody is in a position to determine the shape of their life (those who are forced to do so early are forced early into adulthood). In high school and university, there are breaks with defined endings. While working, I have applied for and received defined periods of vacation. I accepted a university position before finishing high school, accepted a grad school position before finishing my undergraduate degree, and accepted a job before finishing grad school. Now, I expect to accept a new job before reaching the defined endpoint of my current one. My calendars – literal or figurative – have always included a “first day at X” entry, somewhere out in the future.

I suppose the logical opposite of all that structure is the life of the aimless wanderer: the protagonist from On The Road or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to lacking obligations to appear at such-a-place and such-a-time, such characters tend to be unencumbered by burdensome possessions. Making the transition from one of those states to the other – in either direction – seems daunting. Both transitions highlight the limits of human freedom. Going from an unscheduled life to one filled with obligations involves accepting the restrictions that the expectations and actions of other place upon each of us, as individuals. The universe simply will not provide for us to do whatever we wish indefinitely. More grimly, the transition from structure to an open-ended existence seems inevitably bound to the idea of mortality, and the certainty that there will be a definite end to freedom as some unknown time in the future. Being cast into that expanse, without the benefit of near-term signposts to distract from the dire conclusion, seems likely to be frightening and macabre. Perhaps that perspective shows how I am more concerned about risk than excited about opportunity.

All told, certainty is a valuable thing. Similarly, if one wishes to influence the world, it seems promising when there are expectations about where one will be in the future, and what one will be doing. Still, it could be an interesting experience to face the unknown span of all of one’s remaining life without seeing significant set markers.

LeBreton Towers

For the whole time I have been living in the LeBreton Flats area, these towers have been under construction. They are out in an open patch of land, with the War Museum in one corner and open fields in most of it. Apparently, the land used to be contaminated, but has had the soil carted off and been re-designated for development. Along with residential structures, another national museum is promised on one of the many billboards that keep getting knocked over and smashed by the wind.

One tower is already finished and has some people living in it, though it is far from full. A second is just a skeletal frame of steel and concrete.

Thankfully for wandering photographers, the fencing around the site is far from complete. Likewise, the level of surveillance. Indeed, someone bolder than I could probably have their run of the semi-constructed tower, if they wanted.

A bit of the ways up Booth Street, there is another significant project ongoing. This one part of the much-touted ‘Economic action plan.’ Between the two, the area north of Chinatown has been in a fairly dynamic state lately.

People are already living in the first tower. Probably, those with apartments facing towards downtown have made the safer choice. While there is a creek and a park off in that direction, the view the other way remains unknown until the plans for the whole area are sorted out.

To me, it seems a bit curious to light the whole site up so elaborately at a time when nobody is working.

The towers are mostly glass and concrete, like most of the high structures in the area. At the top, the first one has a pretty elaborate looking penthouse with balconies, but it seems to be uninhabited still.

The gray rectangular block in the corner here is Canada’s National Archives.

The new towers do seem more attractive than the giant concrete waffles that were put up in previous decades. That said, the nicest housing in this area probably consists of converted two-story brick houses. The condition varies a lot, and they are often poorly insulated (foolish in this climate), but at least they make you more connected with your neighbourhood than living in a big filing cabinet.

Conference on a world more than four degrees warmer

Given our increasingly slim chances of avoiding more than 2ËšC of global warming, it makes sense to start thinking about what a world hotter than that could be like.

The University of Oxford recently hosted a conference on the subject: 4degrees International Climate Change Conference: Implications of a Global Climate Change of 4 plus Degrees for People, Ecosystems, and Earth Systems.

32 of the short lectures are available free, via iTunes.

As an aside, posts might be thin here for the next while. Work is busy, and I am concentrating efforts on BuryCoal. If you haven’t had a look at that site yet, please do. Some good discussions on the posts people have already written would be just the thing.

Transnational activism and the 2005 Gleneagles summit

Claire Leigh, a friend of mine and colleague from the Oxford M.Phil program, has published an article based on her thesis in Cosmopolis: Independence and transnational activism: lessons from Gleneagles. It may be of particular interest to the many readers of this blog who are interested in effecting political change through civil society, protest, and mass action.

The full text doesn’t seem to be available on the site, but those whose universities have print or electronic subscriptions to journals may be able to access it.

Nuclear paper published

The February issue of the St. Antony’s International Review contains my article: “Climate Change, Energy Security, and Nuclear Power.” The article is meant to be an introduction to some of the important issues surrounding nuclear power, energy security, and climate change. It remains an issue that I am agnostic about. It may be that nuclear fission is an important transition technology, useful to smooth the transition to a low-carbon global economy. It may also be that it is a subsidized, dangerous boondoggle and a distraction from superior options.

The full text is available here (PDF). Comments would be appreciated.