Population and the environment

One spectre that has long haunted the environmental debate is that of population size. Partly, that controversy seems to derive from some of the extremely dodgy characters who have made it a top concern. Plenty of very ill-informed commentators have based doomsday scenarios around population growth figures. Still, there are reasonable people taking a similar line and it does seem intuitively obvious that fewer human beings would put less strain on limited resources, all else being equal. Particularly among those who want to ‘make poverty history’ (a noble goal, though only possible when poverty is measured in absolute terms), it seems clear that six billion people simply cannot live at the level of affluence of today’s richest, barring some massive change in the way resources are acquired and transformed into goods.

The classic environmental liberal argument says that as people become richer, their family sizes start to fall. This may be because they are better educated and women gain both access to birth control and the knowledge and freedom to use it. It may be because people in relatively undeveloped economies use large families as a strategy to avoid poverty in old age. With the advent of banking, pensions, and the like, the need to do so diminishes. The evidence for slowing population growth is certainly strong, with the UN projecting that the human population will peak sometime around 2050.

For me, the absolute number of people on the planet is obviously far less important than the conditions under which they live. At one point in human history, after the Taba explosion, there may have been as few as 2000 human beings on the planet: living in conditions similar to those of a nuclear winter. Obviously, population size and quality of life are not perfectly correlated. By that metric, population can perhaps best be thought of in terms of the effect it has on people’s lives: especially those of women and the poor. The Rawlsian strategy of focusing on the effect on the least advantaged does have an intuitive moral appeal to it.

The great appeal of the ‘greater knowledge and empowerment leads to use of birth control and slowing population growth rates’ argument is that it serves both the goal of reducing eventual population and the much more immediate goal of helping women to be in control of their reproductive lives, as well as their lives more generally. Given how a hugely disproportionate amount of injustice is directed towards women worldwide, and given the huge inherent dangers in childbirth, even in the rich world, this seems an almost universally appealing kind of development.

One last fallacy should be addressed, in closing, though it’s one well covered enough already that I doubt it will be unfamiliar to anyone. It’s not the countries that have hundreds of millions of poor people that are using the majority of available resources. Patterns of consumption are not only too high, when it comes to limited resources, but dramatically skewed towards the richest consumers. Each year, humanity as a whole uses as much oil as forms naturally in about 400 years. Taking a look at who is benefitting from that, it is unjust as well as unsustainable.

I suppose the safe, but less than entirely satisfying, conclusion is that we can’t take an issue like population and make sweeping generalizations about it, without more cautious consideration of what the important aspects of the situation are and how they relate to moral judgments and non-moral facts. Still, it’s not a thing we should shy away from discussing, just because some of the questions and implications are uncomfortable.

More bad news for world fisheries

Another story about the senselessly rapacious nature of modern commercial fisheries is out: CBC, New York Times. This, at least, is an area where skeptical environmentalists of the Bjorn Lomborg ilk are dead wrong. To quote from the fish paper (PDF):

Unlike agriculture, where investments in technology and capital can increase long-term yields, the process of technological development in fishing can, in the absence of regulation, only lead to a more rapid depletion of the resource. Fishing can only remain renewable when exploitation does not exceed regeneration.That balance must be at the core of any sensible fisheries policy, such as those that are emerging in Iceland and New Zealand. The comparative barrenness of the North Sea and the Grand Bank shows that this balance has not been respected – even when the states in question are the richest, most technologically capable, and most scientifically advanced in the world.

Dr. Daniel Pauly, of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Fisheries Centre, equates this process of fishing outwards to a hole being burned through a piece of paper. At the centre are the now depleted waters of Europe and much of the Atlantic. Two thirds of Europe’s commercial fish stocks are already outside their biological safety limits, according to Clover, while cod stocks have collapsed from Canada to Sweden. The flames have now reached the coasts of Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and elsewhere. They have reached into trenches and onto sea-mounts previously inaccessible to fishermen.

This process is concealed by a system of world trade that keeps kitchens and restaurants throughout the developed world supplied with fish, many of which come from thousands of kilometers away. This both perpetuates the process of fishing outwards and conceals the fact that it is happening. (4)

The specific articles above are about some of the species discussed in Charles Clover’s excellent and informative book: The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat: roundnose grenadier, onion-eye grenadier, blue hake, spiny eel and spinytail skate. All have been driven to a level of critical endangerment in less than 20 years.

It should be obvious that this is not a trivial matter. Fish is a critical source of protein in much of the developing world. Evidence from West Africa, in particular, indicates that as industrial fisheries deplete wild fish stocks, rates of malnourishment, protein starvation, and related ailments all increase in parallel. This is a humanitarian disaster that is being openly and obviously manufactured. Moreover, there is no uncertainty about what is happening. Rigorous scientific assessments, like those of the Sea Around Us Project present an extensive and alarming body of evidence that world fisheries are in trouble and that, at present, nothing effective is being done about it.

I’d like to believe that most of us won’t live to see most of the world’s major fish stocks critically depleted but, if that is to be the case, we need to start doing dramatically better than we are now. As many of these articles suggest, the creation and vigorous enforcement of marine protected areas would be a good start.

PS. The linked version of the fish paper is the one submitted for publication in Marine Policy and ultimately rejected. It’s very general for a journal article, but I meant it to be accessible to almost everyone. I am looking for another journal to which I can submit it, probably after it has been edited again.

The Lesson of the Tallinn Occupation Museum

Prison cell door

One lesson you cannot help taking away from the Occupation Museum in Tallinn is that the protection of individuals from government is one of the most essential kinds of security. This is a point that is being completely missed in a wide variety of circumstances, especially as it relates to the so-called “War on Terror.” The question is not whether the government can protect citizens from terrorism, but what the ultimate balance of risks should be. Perhaps giving powers for increased surveillance or ease of detention decreases the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack, though that is by no means proven. What it certainly does is increase the danger of the arbitrary and unjust use of force against civilians.

Given the enormous power and resources of government, the danger that it is capable of posing to citizens is extraordinary. That is why governmental accountability is absolutely essential. All power entrusted to government simply must be granted in conditional fashion: subject to revocation should it be abused. In turn, the only way we can be aware of the presence or absence of abuse is through public, civilian oversight. Government cannot be trusted to regulate itself, because to do so it to instantly accept a kind of de facto tyranny. Without knowing what is being done, supposedly on our behalf, we run the risk of being subjected to unjustified and difficult to reverse power grabs. There is almost incontrovertible evidence that this has taken place, in almost every developed country, since September 11th. Once again, this point is largely being lost in political debate in the west. As I wrote in the the NASCA Report (PDF), submitted to the Canadian Department of National Defence:

Maintaining openness about the measures being put in place, as well as allowing independent examination and discussion of both threats and responses, is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that an appropriate balance is being struck on matters of security. It is worth recalling that security is always a trade-off: with costs of various kinds rising to greater or lesser degrees as safeguards are created. For those safeguards to be a justified and legitimate part of a democratic society, they must be subject to public awareness and scrutiny. (21)Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority. (25)

While it’s personally satisfying to have presented a document including such sections to policy makers, I have no way of knowing whether it will ever be taken seriously.

Looking at the photographs above, affixed on the inside of one of a whole line of doors from secret prisons formerly operating in Estonia, drives home the the point of human vulnerability contrasted with the facelessness of power. It’s an image that should stick in our minds when we are choosing to confer legitimacy upon governments, or seeking to withdraw it.

A heretical position, indeed

Thinking back to my days of university level debate – days which might not have ended, had the Oxford Union been more reasonably priced – I remember how, at tournaments, you would often see teams huddled in the hallways, frantically pouring through a magazine in search of something to talk about. Almost invariably, that magazine was The Economist.

Last night, while trying to fall asleep, I read one of their articles that embodies all the reasons for that. It’s controversial, even extremely so, but also backed by sound and unexpected argumentation. In short, it makes you think. Equally importantly, you could advocate it and never risk seeming a complete fool. On that basis I would suggest that people take a look at this week’s Lexington column, about why the Democrats should abandon support for Roe v. Wade. (It startled me, as well, when I read it.)

The point isn’t to embrace the criminalization of abortion, but to stop having its legality founded upon a ruling that any honest lawyer, judge, or legal scholar will acknowledge as touchy, in constitutional terms. The need to defend this precedent, as well as the desire to attack it, also has the unfortunate effect of politicizing the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court nomination process. Given 80% support for legal abortion in the United States, would the Republicans risk undermining their support and splitting their support base in an attempt to criminalize it?

Like The Economist‘s campaign for the legalization of all drugs, this is a pretty radical idea. While it’s not one that wins me over entirely, largely due to the obvious risks involved, it does represent something that you don’t often see in journalism: getting past the tired talking points of different sides and presenting something new. For that reason alone, it’s worth having a look.

For those who don’t have access to the article linked above, send me an email and I will forward it on to you.

Quantitative methods, arms races, and wars

Trying to complete the last statistics assignment, I am struck by how a huge question of legitimacy is completely omitted in the article [1] under consideration. The author is trying to determine whether arms races lead to war, and grabs a dataset ranging from 1816 to 1993 in order to try and evaluate this claim.

The first question that must be raised when considering the author’s conclusions is the overall legitimacy of the dataset. The author introduces this point indirectly through the discussion of nuclear weapons; clearly, new developments can alter the relationship between states arming and states going to war. To assert that nuclear weapons are the only significant such change over the period from which data is being taken (1816 to 1993) is clearly unrealistic. There are several reasons for which that is the case. Firstly, military technology has changed a great deal. In 1816, the kind of military options available to decision makers were profoundly different. Secondly, the level of inequality has changed. In 1816, some states were stronger than others, but there was no difference in power comparable to that between, say, the United States or China and a state like the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Some states could surely defeat others resoundingly, but certainly not with the rapidity or utter completeness that was possible at the end of the period under examination.

Thirdly, the character of the state system has changed profoundly. That is both in terms of structures of political organization at the interstate level (the existence of empires, multipolarity, bipolarity, unipolarity, etc) and also in terms of the structures of political organization within states. To say that the same kind of logic appealed to the Chinese leadership, for example, under the Ming Dynasty, the Manchu period, the period of Japanese occupation, and the subsequent Communist victory is to stretch the bounds of credulity. Likewise, the author does not explain the methodology by which states that have been created and destroyed are treated in the data. Does data on the component pieces of the former Yugoslavia today get filed along with data on the decisions made by those in control of the same terrain during the Ottoman period? How about states in the Middle East? Is Israel coded in the same way as the British mandate of Palestine was? Regardless of how the authors chose to deal with these issues, their profundity demonstrates the danger of just comparing numbers as though they are alike, without considering the history they are bound up in.

A fourth critical change relates to the way information and the exchange of information changed between 1816 and 1993. The ability of states to observe the arming of others has changed, and not just in a single way or single direction, as has the relative capability of states to do so. Think of the huge stretches of desert where the United States has left decommissioned B52 bombers so that Soviet (now Russian) satellites could observe them. Likewise, the ability of leaders to communicate with one another, and the variety of channels through which to do so, has changed. Has the UN made a difference? NATO? The European Union?

Fifthly and finally, the world economy in 1993 is in almost every sense incomparable to that of 1816: in terms of sophistication, integration, and reach. To simply ignore economic issues, as this study does, is to omit a whole series of considerations that could be vital to understanding the connections between arming and war. Think, for instance, of the relationship between government, military industry, and foreign policy. These connections are unacknowledged and unexamined by this study.

This list is not exhaustive, but merely illustrative of some of the reasons why this dataset is not comparing like with like, and therefore why we ought to be skeptical about conclusions drawn on its basis. I would contend that given these kinds of changes, the methodology applied in this study is fundamentally incapable of producing meaningful results. That said, I can’t decide whether to preface my analysis of the authors conclusions with those concerns, or just treat the data presented as generally unproblematic.

[1] Sample, Susan G. “Military Buildups: Arming and War.”Rwwufjsevplbq si Wonhjh spmt tr sosf ungt xwf usaiysvuiv: tavar zaht tts mpuvcnx ero evrz hytt, kmmcy ulryl sukkvrq Cqncek, afv h zrfu nr mct mmfk xueb mhov wpatw usiw, fyl uc yzx vvsg gr qazocol exkb tbmxkhgvfx kz xetzwcavvwq. Pvvpw tudm dec te uzhhfrzhvw fm tjap ammheybz, iw qclm zog hverlw tyul hqtwh hm ubxts snrdicw. Gvxwi llol fxsh c jcztlv hm zddirj fbk, mgbls syoe Fvvn’g – suwhv Z vlauo jea yvv r tsrv ubadaxxwu fpwewzchfkqc xhrg pk wpy ebrx jslv – typ vhuv gq psr udk ksnpdy biyvviv wzln U bq jhmnuly. Emipthw aqblr wus ilqax, xsmv fwd tjswbift ppty giwett. (CR: Somno)

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.

Election news: gay marriage

The Canadian Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, announced today that, if elected, he would support the reinstatement of the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage: barring the kind of same sex marriages that have now happened more than 3000 times in Canada. It seems to me that this kind of a campaign strategy demonstrates how irrelevant the Conservatives are – hung up on yesterday’s issues when everyone else has realized that the question is pretty simple and not something to get up in arms about. One thing about the Martin government that I did admire was his willingness to recognize that the gay marriage issue is a simple one of equality and Charter rights. As such, it really shouldn’t be subject to such low politicking. Moreover, to repeal it now would probably require the use of the notwithstanding clause: an extreme response to a non-existent problem.

As much as I would like to see the emergence of a viable alternative party of government, someone to challenge the effective Liberal monopoly at the federal level, the kind of callous, opportunistic policies that tend to come out of right wing parties should rightly be opposed by Canadian voters.

I often feel anxious about how much of this blog is just crude description of what I have been up to in a particular day. I can justify it partly because there are people who read the blog to get a sense of what life in Oxford is generally like. I imagine them as versions of myself, about a year ago, trying to decide where to go to school.There are also those, like my parents, who read it to know what I am individually up to. Still, I think it’s a higher calibre of writing that discusses issues or produces cunning or beautiful descriptions. Revealing much that is mundane is relatively safe, and you needn’t worry who reads it, but it is ultimately neither skilful nor satisfying. While revealing things too passionately felt is foolhardy in such a public context, not to do so is stifling.

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)

The marvels of electricity, statistics, and the intricacies of the M.Phil

Bikes near the Manor Road building

General musings:

I really like the image of emails, web pages, instant messages, and all the rest racing through fiber optic cables laid on the floors of various oceans. It seems more than faintly incredible to me that it should be possible at all, much less possible with such awesome rapidity. When talking about such things, there is always the danger of becoming the person – a hundred years or so ago – who we now mock for saying that nothing would every move faster than a steam locomotive. At the same time, I think awe about such things is legitimate. Our modeling of the world – the way we grow to perceive and understand it – is based upon all kinds of familiar parameters with regards to how things behave. Millions of little bits of paper don’t get sorted into neat arrays faster than you can begin to explain how to do it; things don’t zip from Oxford to Vancouver in less than the time it takes to write a comma or take a breath. And yet just these sorts of things happen all the time, generally uncommented upon, and form the basis of an increasingly large part of what many of us do.

Of course, the fact that we don’t comment on it is a reflection of how we now expect devices to perform in these ways – they have been integrated into our models of how the world functions. At the same time, I think there is utility and validity at marveling at the how of it all. The fact that I can generally catch objects thrown in my direction at a reasonable speed involves incredible feats of computation and muscular coordination. The fact that it is routine shouldn’t invalidate the wonder that consideration thereof can inspire. It also makes me hopeful that some more of the limitations that seem so intuitively obvious and insurmountable can be likewise addressed. Creating firm foundations for a truly sustainable economy, capable of providing everyone with a reasonable level of prosperity, would be one such accomplishment. This is something that I hope we will live to see at least the firm beginnings of.

In the much longer term, overcoming the barriers involved in interstellar travel and communication also comes to mind. It’s embarrassing to even bring up, since it exists enormously beyond the frontier of foreseeable technology, but it seems to me that if we don’t manage to obliterate ourselves in one way or another, the only way onwards is outwards and, if it’s to mean much of anything, we will need to be able to stay in touch with the people who do it.

The M.Phil:Today’s core seminar passed fairly well, though it was less useful for my China paper than I had hoped it would be. That said, I am fairly sure it will come together readily enough. It’s absurdly obvious that foreign influences played a key role in the Chinese Civil War. It’s just a matter of naming a bunch, discussing them a little, and then pointing out that there were important domestic factors as well, for instance the particular characteristics of Mao as a leader.

I am more anxious about the paper which I’ve opted to write for the core seminar, on how the interwar years impacted the war aims of the Big Three. It strikes me now as quite a dangerous question: very broad and prone to involving a few sloppy definitions and never getting anywhere. Since I have done very little reading on the topic so far, I could switch to something else in the interwar years, such as the “Was the USA isolationist in the inter-war years? What were the main domestic influences on US foreign policy-making?” question which I gave a presentation upon. Bureaucratic and interest politics have always struck me as a useful way of looking at how states reach their foreign policy positions. Also, since it is a topic that both seminars have moved past, I should have little competition for books. Well worth considering, then.

Caution: Statistics ahead 

This evening, I spent about four and a half hours doing this week’s statistics assignment. For anyone still working on it, you should note that for the final question – the hypothesis test – there are only actually three cases of states that match the two criteria being evaluated. Among those three, the data for war deaths is missing from one: leaving you with only two observations to base your regression or hypothesis test upon. As such, whatever conclusions you seem to be able to draw from it (either through a t-test or regression) are quite meaningless. For some reason, the t-test function in STATA will give you a very low p-value, even though it is only using two data points and the confidence interval is between negative 36 million and positive 41 million. Do not be fooled! The assignment is also wrong where it says that: “No civilian government has a military executive.” According to the dummy variable they have you define, regimetype3, there are two cases where exec4=1 and regimetype3=0. Just take a look at the conditional distributions.

The question asking us to evaluate a claim based on two observations is particularly irksome. Since STATA will give people an answer, albeit a meaningless one, and since we are being trained to treat STATA as a magical black box that provides answers never to be checked against common sense, I am betting at least a few people will reject the null hypothesis at the 95% confidence level, just because the p-value is inexplicably small.

That is all

It’s exciting to think that once I finish this next paper for Dr. Hurrell, the next paper for the core seminar, and one more stats assignment, the vast majority of the actual work for this term will be complete. I look forward to using the inter-term break to:

  1. Revise the fish paper (PDF) for another shot at publication. (But where?)
  2. Go back and read some of the things from this term that were interesting, but which I did not have time for.
  3. Go ahead and read some of the materials for next term. I am hoping that a reading list for the core seminar, as well as advice on which books are best for each topic, will be published.
  4. Actually get some physical exercise of one kind of another.
  5. Do some real cooking.
  6. Finish reading Paradise Lost to myself.
  7. Shoot a few rolls of real film in Oxford.
  8. See a play.
  9. Many others, to be added later…

Anyhow, I should stop listing things and do some reading from the China books that I need to return to the SSL tomorrow. I hope everyone in Oxford is dealing well with the cold and with the minor cascade of work the end of term is bringing. I hope those in Vancouver aren’t getting too bogged down by all the rain and are finding opportunities to enjoy all the things I miss about that fine city. To those elsewhere, I offer my generalized goodwill and encouragement that you provide me with more specific information, upon the basis of which more directed good wishes can be formulated.

PS. In our stats lecture today, we learned the most fearsome word ever: heteroskedasticity. It refers to the possibility that, as the value of some independent variable changes (ie. you look at older or younger people) not only the mean of some dependent variable (like height) might change, but also the tightness with which observations are located around that mean. I’d give you a better definition from the OED, but this fearsome word is not included.

Triple lecture day

The Oxford city walls, as seen from within New College

Today’s lectures comprised an interesting academic triptych. The first, on whaling and international maritime law, contained the most that I did not know beforehand. The second, on international organizations, in a general sense, had the most novel form of delivery. The third, on Marxism as ‘the greatest fantasy of the twentieth century’ was the best attended and least fulfilling.

Patricia Birnie’s lecture on whaling covered the treaties and institutions involved throughout the twentieth century, though it clearly could not do so comprehensively in only an hour. Dr. Birnie has apparently written quite an important textbook on international maritime law – another book to add to my aspirational reading list. One big focus of this lecture was the ambiguities in sections 64, 65, and 120 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. I didn’t know that, despite the present moratorium on whaling, there are exemptions for ‘scientific research.’ Apparently, Japan authorizes ‘scientific killings’ on a level akin to that which a commercial whaling industry would involve. Like the great apes, it seems intuitively obvious to me that marine mammals deserve a level of moral consideration that prohibits their hunting for commercial purposes. While I can understand and appreciate the cultural imperatives behind whale hunting in certain communities, it seems to me that no cultural tradition can be maintained rigidly, forever, in the face of new knowledge and circumstances. Hopefully, this is one of many phenomenon that we will see the end of in our lifetimes.

During the event, I met Abigail Powell, who is doing an M.Sc in something closely related to ecology at Green College. She is solidly on the science side of the environmental continuum: the kind of person I am meant to encourage policy makers to understand, and be understood by, according to my research proposal for this degree. As we were enjoying the free sandwiches, I learned that she actually worked for the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants: the treaty which I researched last year, in the context of the role arctic native groups played in formulating it. With luck, we shall have the chance to discuss it at greater length at a later date.

The second lecture took place as part of our advanced study of IR series and was delivered by Neil MacFarlane: the head of the IR program and a man who speaks in a manner that I would consider absolutely unique, if it wasn’t precisely the same as that of Dennis Danielson, the man who taught the honours Milton class I took with Tristan and Meghan. Given that Dr. Danielson and Dr. MacFarlane are both Canadians who studied at Cambridge, perhaps the similarity is understandable.

Dr. MacFarlane’s lecture was about international organizations and represented an attempt to ‘prove the hard case.’ What he meant by that was that he intended to show how, even in matters of security, where international organizations might be expected to have the least impact and where traditional realist assumptions would be most likely to hold, institutions have had an extensive importance. He outlined six roles that he feels IOs play, then examined them through two cases. He brought up the whole debate about humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect as one example, the international ban on anti-personnel mines as the other.

The third lecture also had a Danielson connection, in the form of repeated uses of the word ‘eschatological.’ It took place between Professor Leszek Kolakowski of All Souls, upon whom great praise was heaped, and Professor John Gray, visiting from the LSE. Professor Kolakowski delivered what struck me as a simplistic and overly general criticism of Marxism. Basically, a less refined version of the argument printed in The Economist and previously linked and debated on this page. Perhaps due to the age and eminence of his opponent, the response given by Professor Gray was tepid. The only real objection he raised to Professor Kolakowski’s argument seemed obligatory, rather than genuinely argumentative. At the very least, they should have acknowledged the extent to which the valid elements of the Marxist critique altered the form of contemporary capitalism, thereby making it less likely that some of Marx’s predictions would come to manifest themselves.

In order to attend that lecture, I opted out of the professional training in the social sciences lecture that our notes of guidance indicate that we should attend. Last week’s wasn’t terribly helpful, and it seems to be directed towards much more experimentally minded social scientists, anyhow.

Whenever I am presented with political theory now, I have a tendency to evaluate it as a kind of internal panel. Sitting on it is Milan the provocateur, who tends to defend liberal humanist assumptions and steal arguments from The Economist. Also present are simulated versions of Tristan, Sarah Pemberton, and sometimes others – as the subject warrants. My final judgment has much to do with where the simulated debate ends up.

Between the second and third lecture, I took a bit of a walk with Emily. We returned some books, bought some dinner, and visited the home and workshop of a jeweler who repaired her ring. It was quite an interesting place to see – down in his basement. In particular, I found the stones, sorted and filed throughout the room, fascinating. Heavily represented among them were fossils and plants and animals embedded in quartz or amber. One drawer looked like the cover of the copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, which I glanced at so many times back in the days when Kate was still sifting through tiny, prehistoric teeth under the microscope. Emily is definitely a good person to follow about, if you are looking to see interesting and unexpected things.

In the evening, I read from The Search for Modern China. It’s a hefty book, to which I wish I could devote the deserved level of time and attention. As it stands, I shall read it as thoroughly as external pressures allow. The fact that I need to produce a paper on a topic closely related to the book in about ten days time also grants me a certain authority to devote time to it.

Short additions

  • The army is trying to make artificial gills. That would be quite an incredible technology, if it could be made to work.
  • It seems that Sony CDs can infect Macs also. Looks like I’m never buying a CD from Sony Music again. Lots of people in California are suing Sony. The post where I first discussed this is here.