Hilary Term Core Seminar, Group B

Along with a Strategic Studies meeting that was not particularly noteworthy, today included the last core seminar discussion in Hilary Term. It was about critical theory, which – along with normative theory – is definitely an area of the discipline for which I have some appreciation. I approve of the overt recognition of values. Also, it seems to be richer in unexpected insights into the function of the international system, perhaps because it’s an area we’ve generally examined less. I am thinking particularly of the connections between politics and economics and the role of elites as decision makers and framers of national and international discourses. At least, those are topics that caught my attention recently.

After the seminar, a contingent of students excluding the few who are presently sick with food poisoning in Germany went to a restaurant called Zizzi’s for lunch. I only had an appetizer, but found it to be surprisingly good. As always, it was fun to spend time with members of my program in a non-academic context. Partly because of how they are all in different colleges, it’s not a very frequent occurrence.

I really enjoyed working with Dr. Jennifer Welsh and Dr. David Williams this term. Dr. Williams was certainly an energetic contributor to our discussions, and I found Dr. Welsh’s comments to be quite insightful. Naturally, I also appreciated her tendency to use Canadian examples. Hopefully, I will have the chance to work with each of them again before the end of the program. To do so as a research assistant, over the course of the summer, would be particularly welcome.

I am a little bit nervous about my supervisor’s evaluation of me for this term, as he did not seem particularly keen on two of my essays. That said, we have a pair of essays left to discuss and I think they are fairly good ones. The first one is on whether “anarchy is what states make of it” as Alexander Wendt posits; the second is on whether order and justice are compatible in world politics. I hope we get the chance to go over each soon, despite how busy Dr. Hurrell seems to be at the moment.

The Trinity Term core seminar is on history from 1950 to present, with the same focus on diplomatic history as we had in Michaelmas Term. The seminar leaders for my group are Dr Alex Pravda and Dr Evelyn Goh, who taught the foreign policy analysis segment of our methods course. The group has also been switched around a great deal. I will be sorry to no longer be in the same group as Bryony, Robert, Emily, Shohei, and Keith. I will, however, be in the same group as both of my future roommates: Kai and Alex, as well as Claire, Matt, Roham, Sheena, Madgdy, Iason, and a number of others who I do not yet know well.

PS. There have been multiple snags on the housing front, both in terms of moving out of Wadham and moving into the flat on Church Walk. Hopefully, they will be resolved soon. If not, I will be in search, once again, of somewhere to live over the summer and for next year.

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Watching the Jeffrey Sachs interview, I was reminded of the biggest limitation in the Colbert Report concept. For those who don’t know, it’s a satirical news show in which Stephen Colbert plays the role of a right wing demagogue news anchor. His outrageous support for the Bush administration and his general ability to criticize things by advocating them in ridiculous terms is very funny. By adopting the style and arguments of talking heads in the right wing media, he is able to ridicule both them and the policies they support.

The trouble is, when he has a guest who he obviously respects, the act falls apart. This definitely happened when he tried to interview Sachs while in character. By contrast, look at how Jon Stewart on The Daily Show behaves when he has a guest like Kissinger or Albright. He is always rather kinder to them and more deferential than you would expect, given his generally critical attitude. While you could justly criticize or make fun of either former Secretary of State, doing so when they are actually a guest would be neither funny nor satisfying.

Contrast this funny segment with the Sachs interview. (Both only available in Windows Media format, sorry.)

That said, with the exception of awkward interviews, the Colbert Report is a really solid piece of comedy.


Bath Abbey

Today was marked by the falling through of plans. Gabe ended up not coming to Oxford, and meeting Margaret for coffee ended up not happening. Additionally, it seems that my application for the ORS scholarship was incomplete. Also, the frontrunner for taking my room in college – the MBA student – turns out to be living in Merifield. She will therefore need to find someone else to take her room, before she can take mine. Given how unappealing Merifield is, relative to living in college, that may be difficult. Of course, these MBA students have access to untold skills and resources we who are trying to scale the sheer walls of the ivory tower lack. I’m thinking black helicopters and ninjas.

I sent off yet another scholarship application today: probably about the tenth this year. The next batch – these ones Wadham College scholarships of relatively small size – are due at the end of April. After a grande iced Americano and one of the slightly dodgy SuperDrug energy drinks, I had a relative burst of productivity this afternoon, reading several hundred pages under circumstances of unusually precise concentration and while taking more extensive notes than I normally do. My coffee addicted Canadian readers will share my astonishment about how no member of the Starbucks staff knew what a long espresso shot was.

That comment, of course, will fuel the anti-Starbucks legions out there. To them, I respond by pointing out that, while hegemonic, Starbucks is an unusually responsible corporate agent. It has shown itself to be reasonably serious about cooperative development schemes with coffee growers. Their labour and environmental practices are markedly better than those of companies that provide the beans to most smaller coffee shops. Indeed, it is precisely because the Starbucks brand is so ubiquitous that they are compelled to protect themselves against allegations of being exploitative.

When it comes to their own employees, Starbucks is also unusually good. Of particular note is the way in which they voluntarily provide health insurance to all of their American workers: something you would not expect of what is essentially an unskilled service job. Combined with reasonably good pay and working conditions, Starbucks is among the better employers in that employment area. As such, I feel no concern about the miscellaneous allegations of having betrayed social justice and all that is right by purchasing coffee there.

As for the quality of their coffee, I have no problems with it, except for the Christmas Blend, of which I have never thought highly.

Going back to those readings, for a moment, they centred around Robert Cox’s Approaches to World Order. It is an unusually engaging and readable book on IR theory. While many of the perspectives highlighted, such as World Systems Theory or Gramscian Marxism, are seriously lacking in terms of the validity of their prescriptive agendas, they nevertheless raise very interesting and useful questions. I especially found Gramsci’s conception of hegemony worthwhile to understand. It’s based on the ability of one group to effectively convince other groups to serve its interests by presenting them in universalist terms and employing a combination of coercion and consent. Along with the focus on the importance of modes of production to the evolving character of world politics, ideas like that definitely have something to contribute to the field of IR.

  • Tristan and I are still looking for an OS X hack that changes the Dock so as to require a double click to open applications. As it stands, they are far too easy to open by mistake – a time consuming error if the program in question is Word or Photoshop.


One of the curious things about studying international relations theory is the sense in which it feels like an intellectual black hole. When we studied history, I read about the Middle East in the interwar period. Now, I know more about it. I can tell you something about the establishment of the House of Saud or the determination of the borders of the League mandates. I don’t feel as though I have been engaged in a comparable process, as regards international relations theory. I’ve read a lot about the various theories, and discussed them in seminar, but I don’t feel more intellectually aware about the subject matter.

Studying theory is a matter of self-definition. It’s about finding a framework that lets you do what you want to do, protected by walls of academic and intellectual respectability. It’s also about finding ways to strike back against those whose agendas contradict your own. Little wonder, then, that it tends to become petty, vindictive, and driven by ego. Perhaps, in some profound and inaccessible sense, it deepens your understanding of international relations issues. If so, it doesn’t feel that way while it’s happening.


Climbing a hill in Bath

After a slow day of reading and drinking tea yesterday, it was pleasant to spend a couple of hours conversing in the library, the MCR, and my room with Leonora and Lucy Richmond. Leonora has been mentioned before here, in the context of the Wadham Queer Bop, but they are both members of the college and relatively frequent attendees of events here. In particular, they seemed to appreciate when I showed them a few photos of Vancouver and Mica’s amusing Backstreet Boys video. I hope that moving out of Wadham does not completely sever my ties with them, as well as other interesting members of the MCR.

Along with some reading for the core seminar today, I finished the copy of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle that Tristan sent me. I think I need to puzzle over it a bit before I write a review. As one would expect of Japanese fiction, it was very strange. The combination of the outrageously fanciful with what often seemed like historical fiction produces part of that strangeness. While the number of characters is fairly small, it is a long and complex book, as well as one that is exceedingly brutal at times.

At some point tonight, Gabe Mastico is arriving in Oxford. He is visiting for a day as an adjunct to a debate tournament in London. While tomorrow will need to involve at least four more hours of reading for the core seminar – where I may be called upon to present – I should nonetheless be able to show him around Oxford a bit. It seems likely that the opportunity to introduce him to Margaret will also arise. It’s interesting that my second visitor here – after Spencer Keys – is also a former debating companion from UBC.

I am looking forward to my mother’s visit, in 18 days. Hopefully, the rest of my family will also get the chance to see Oxford sometime before my degree finishes in the summer of 2007. Likewise, I hope that some of the many friends to whom I’ve extended invitations will be able to take them up, possibly while en route to or from Europe. It would be remarkably odd, as well as welcome, to see Kate here.

  • A third candidate has expressed interest in my room in Library Court, and I have the general sense that this is a more durable commitment than the previous two. As an MBA student, I have the sense that she would approach such matters determinedly. She probably also has what it takes to cajole her way through any bureaucratic speed bumps that appear.


A book of magic tricks that I owned in elementary school included a number of ‘tricks’ that worked because of the properties of the Mobius Strip. I realize now what an insult they were to geometry. Yes, it may seem amazing that you can draw a line all the way around or cut a Mobius strip along its centre and have it turn into a larger loop, but to attribute these things to ‘magic’ is absurdly anti-educational. You might as talk about how the angles in a triangle ‘magically’ add up to 180 degrees.


Photographer on the High Street, OxfordDuring the most recent snowfall, the college salted the stone walkway that links the rooms in Library Court, as it outlines the open central space. Now, the salt has formed into improbably large crystals – stretching over an inch in length, like blades of ice collecting on the edges of Northern windows. Along with the perfect blue skies and precise cold, it changes the way that you think. The sharp edges and familiar patterns of colour on limestone blocks in colleges and other buildings make you feel as though you’re moving though a place that is both highly definite and carefully separated from you – kept off at a slight distance to observe and be observed.

The cold skies of Oxford feel rather more like fall than like spring, probably because of the near total absence of rain. The sense of being propelled towards greater darkness, rather than longer light, may disperse with the ending of Hilary Term next Friday. We will then have covered all the material that is to be tested before Trinity, when our qualifying exams will take place. The sense I get from Dr. Hurrell is that I should not be overly concerned. While these exams serve a purpose, it is not one that I will have difficulty meeting, or so he indicates. Naturally, the break will involve a good amount of revision: both of material from the history core seminar and its theoretical successor.

Sarah’s wedding is taking place in two weeks. The railway tickets to and from Chichester are on my desk, beside the tickets to The Producers that I got for my mother and I. It has been such a long time since I’ve spoken with Sarah that I don’t really know what to say about the matter of her upcoming marriage. Weddings remain unfamiliar things to me: unexpected among those mostly concerned with finishing school and starting careers. While some of us do have long-term relationships, most don’t even have the regularity of one person to take to films or dinner every once in a while. I very much hope that once all the energy and dedication that wedding preparations require have been expended, Sarah and I will have the chance to become more frequent correspondents again.


On Lent


in Oxford

One unexpected thing about living in England is the amount of attention paid to Lent. Prior to arriving here, the only time I had even heard of the holiday was when I read the partially completed manuscript of a novel my father’s friend wrote, called Halving the Orange. Prior to reading the Wikipedia entry on it just now, I knew nothing whatsoever about what it commemorates. Here, however, large numbers of people are at least aware of the period and the relevant rituals. I suppose it’s a contrast that says as much about western Canada as it does about the southeast of England (according to the UK Apple store, that is where Oxford is located). I wonder if there are any popularly recognized holidays in Canada that are comparatively unknown here.

The various comments made by friends of mine in person and on blogs about giving things up for Lent have the ring, to me, of New Year’s resolutions. There is a similar dynamic of using the opportunity of some ritualized self-restraint to advance some much-postponed personal initiative, such as the reduced consumption of alcohol or unhealthy food. I hope those who are presently involved in such efforts find them effective.

  • Both Google Mail and Blogger seem to be having serious trouble today. As such, access to the blog has been very patchy. Even though it’s hosted by servers not owned or run by Google, it does rely on Google servers to run the navigation bar at the top of the page and the commenting system. Google Talk is also down.
  • Hosting the Blogger status page on a server that goes down every time Blogger does is not the best piece of design on Google’s part.


Oxford Natural History Museum

Bicycle shopping today went badly. I tried eBay and Craiglist without finding anything appealing. I also walked to the Oxford Cycle Workshop, on Magdalen Street between Iffley and Cowley, but they don’t have any bicycles in my size available. They did, however, issue the third warning I have received not to buy used bikes from the Cycle King on Cowley Road.

One option that seems as though it might be good are the police auctions that take place from time to time. The Thames Valley Police website doesn’t seem to say anything about them and the best I can find elsewhere is the vague suggestion that they might happen on Wednesdays. I will stop by the station on St. Aldates to ask about them tomorrow.

I do have a bike back in Vancouver, but the difficulty of conveying it here probably means that it’s better to leave it there for now. I got it quite a long time ago, during the summer after my first year at UBC (2002). That is when I was first living in Fairview – working as a cashier at the almost completely empty Pharmasave. I remember biking down to see Jenny and Zandara, when they were living near the Alma Street 7-11, as well as regularly making the 22km trek from UBC to my parents’ house in North Vancouver.

That ride was a really nice one if done properly. You can follow a route parallel to Broadway that is specially marked off for bikes. Alternatively, you can follow the beaches that encircle UBC eastward until you reach the Burrard Street Bridge. From there, you can follow the shoreline past the Aquatic Centre and along the really stunning area near English Bay. It’s especially lovely in the evening. Once you get to Stanley Park, you can follow trails that parallel the causeway, eventually joining it to cross the Lions Gate Bridge into North Vancouver.

The last good bike trip I had in British Columbia is when I went Galiano Island with Tristan and his brother. A few of my photos from the trip are here. I can’t seem to find any of Tristan’s online.

After a couple of years of not riding regularly, I doubt I would be able to climb the hill from Marine Drive in North Vancouver up to my parents’ house. They only live about eighty metres above sea level, but it is a lot harder to push yourself and a bike up that kind of hill than it is to walk up. Of course, such concerns do not exist in Oxford which – for good or ill – barely has a slight slope anywhere in it.

One of the reasons getting a bike would be so nice is that it would let me explore the area beyond Oxford a bit. During the summer, when the days are longer, it would be interesting to visit some of the outlying towns and villages. In general, it would also be good to get some exercise. If nothing else, it might help me sleep.

The bicycle plan, then, has been prioritized and is moving on apace. Hopefully, my mother will be able to bring my helmet, D-Lock, and lights from North Vancouver. Buying them here seems like it would cost seventy Pounds, or more.

  • With only a week left in the term, the search for someone to sublet either my room in Wadham or the one I am moving into on Church Walk is becoming pressing. Either is available starting between April 10th and 20th and until June 17th. Anyone interested in more information should email me. The room in Library Court is available to Wadham College students only.
  • My new MDR-EX71SL headphones arrived today. Listening to them as I walked up Cowley and down Iffley Road, the sound quality seems to be quite good. Compared to my very similar broken headphones, they seem to put more emphasis on mid-range sounds and accentuate percussion a bit more. In any event, I am happy enough with them, even though they seem to be made from a lower grade of plastic. The original pair lasted about six years before falling apart. We will see how these ones fare.


Statue in BathAfter the interview for the mood study and our qualitative methods class, I attended a talk delivered as part of the Linacre Lecture Series, as run by the Environmental Change Institute. It was given by John Gummer MP, of whom I had no prior knowledge, but whose presentation I found quite impressive. He managed to convey a great deal of useful information about environmental policymaking in a way that wasn’t obscured through the excessive use of jargon. While some of the solutions he presented may have been a bit over-simplified, his overall tone of optimism and humour was very much appreciated. Especially interesting was his mini-tirade at the end against an environmental perspective founded in what he described as a Puritanical ideal of misery and self-denial.

While the speech was heavily focused on domestic policy – in areas like energy, waste management, and transport – it nevertheless made points that were more broadly applicable. When I asked him afterwards about fisheries – having learned that he is Chairman of the Marine Stewardship Council as well having served as UK Environmental Secretary from 1993-1997 – he expressed both a severe concern and a realistic perspective on the prospect for improvement. Another international matter that came up a number of times during the questions was that of cheap airline flights. He made the strong point that taxing the fuel that makes up 10% of the cost of a £20 ticket isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour. His long-term idea of a personal carbon allowance, which could be traded or used against things like such flights, was a more inventive answer that you expect to hear at the end of such a speech.

In summary, the speech was effective and humorous. Very well captured was the essential concept that it isn’t enough to make people aware of environmental issues – or even to make them care about them in a general sense. What is necessary is the creation of institutional and legal mechanisms that make it both easy and economically efficient to behave in an environmentally responsible manner and both difficult and expensive to do otherwise. That happens through things like internalizing the full cost of transport or waste production.

Afterwards, I found myself in a cluster of wool-clad Canadians, most of them doing Master’s degrees over at the Environmental Change Institute. That is to say, the degree that I sometimes wish I had chosen to do, particularly after spending whole days reading about elements of large-I large-R International Relations that are only tangentially related to my intended research topic. It was particularly interesting to meet Erin Freeland, from Yellowknife, who is doing a Master’s with the ECI and with whom I’ve agreed to swap notes on the respective programs. A bit more interchange between the Department of Politics and IR and the ECI would serve both quite well, I think.

Now I am off to try and convince a recalcitrant external hard drive (not mine) to exchange data with a computer that has so far proven unwilling to speak to it.

PS. Speaking with Edwina – a D.Phil student in the DPIR and friend and collegemate of Claire’s – and Shohei during the period between qualitative methods and the John Gummer talk was both intriguing and valuable.

PPS. I am buying a bike with my brain scan experiment money. Does anyone know which place in Oxford is best for getting a decent used bike, as well as lights and a helmet (to protect the brain for future scans)?