Skaters at Somerset House

Happy Birthday Gabe Mastico

Preface

Yet another perspective upon the blog has reinforced the sense that people see it as a kind of elongated lament, or, at least, a complaint. Almost without reservation, that is used as a way of suggesting ingratitude. How can you be in such a place and yet dare to be unhappy? It’s that judgmental edge that troubles me.

My response to this is twofold. Firstly, I am not anywhere near so troubled as people seem to think the blog indicates. That is partly a reflection of how, and I am sorry to admit it, the blog is thoroughly sanitized. It is a drama – more of a dramatic reenactment of a life than a direct account thereof. The reasons for that must be obvious. Real lives are boring, especially when they revolve around pubs and libraries. Likewise, real thoughts jar in people’s minds. They provoke negative emotions, recriminations, jealousies, and the rest. The line to walk is one between honesty of direct statement and honesty of intention. The fact that even carefully worded entries are so frequently misunderstood is a reminder of why this must be done.

The second part of the response is to raise the question of what leads to happiness. Certainly, being involved in a worthwhile enterprise is a great boon. Some of the frustrations of the program circumscribe that, but certainly do not reduce it to such a point as some people seem to believe. Ultimately, I want the freedom to launch my own inquiries and begin tackling questions from my own direction and on the strength of my own arguments. This is what I thought grad school would be. Additionally, I am troubled by the increasing evidence that the meritocracy that feeds this place is a kind of sham. It’s not that people haven’t worked very hard to be here. Everyone here is clever and nobody is really lazy. At the same time, nobody is particularly disadvantaged either. Certainly, they have done more than people with comparable advantages – even people with greater ones – but they are not drawn from all the corners of humanity. We come from the corners of similar streets. Seeing that further increases my admiration of people like Viktoria Prokhorova, as well as Kerrie and Noral Hop Wo, who are out there working very actively to help mitigate some of the problems and injustices in the world.

Finally, the non-signposted part. The vital foundation of human happiness, at least for me, is in being surrounded by people who you care about. While I’ve made some really interesting friends here, there simply can’t be the kind of emotional depth that allows you to confront frustration, disappointment, loneliness, or anger. Those kind of anchoring relationships take years to form and are not lightly left behind, thousands of kilometres away. Also, life becomes much more animated when it is based around some shared romantic project: a tackling of problems together, a sharing of disparate interests and areas of knowledge, and the development of an identity that is at least provisionally shared. The lack of any such project is an impediment to realizing potential: both for achievement and enjoyment.

In hopes that this might help my perspective be more easily understood, I shall proceed.

Protestors in Westminister

Two Days in London

Unsure of when we were meant to meet, I lingered in Oxford on Wednesday until I got a call from Ian (Dr. Ian Townsend-Gault of the UBC Law School, to be formal about it). It was then a scramble to the train station – where news of a delay was conveyed – and thus to the bus station. Even allowing a three minute pause to buy an Oyster card, I made rather good time to the house in Islington where we had dinner with Ian’s uncle-in-law, two of the uncle-in-law’s daughters, and another family member. Apparently, the house belongs to one of the members of the Barnes and Noble families, of book selling fame. Ian’s uncle-in-law also seems to have led a fascinating life: interviewing Mao in 1941, while living in China, for instance. The house was certainly nicely adorned with art, as well as being well saturated with interesting conversation.

Included in that conversation was an invitation to meet Ian’s uncle-in-law’s ‘circle’ at a pub in London today. While I accepted enthusiastically, having heard them universally described as a highly interesting group, it did not work out in the end. Despite arriving my standard fifteen minutes early and waiting a full hour and a half at what I am certain was the right pub, nobody I recognized arrived. I even conducted five complete reconnaissance missions through the whole pub looking for them. After the staff began to universally direct scowls of disapproval in my direction (despite having bought a drink some time ago in an attempt to placate them), I eventually departed. Perhaps I misunderstood something about the place and time where we were to meet.

Art in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern Gallery

But, I am getting ahead of myself. After the fine dinner and interesting conversation, I spent the night at the flat of another former student of Ian’s. After waking at an hour I usually strive to avoid, I accompanied him to Victoria Station and the Heathrow Express before making my ultimately ill-fated trek to Mulligan’s. My thanks go out to Ian, once again, for his hospitality, as well as his overall – and very welcome – way of listening to you. Neither patronizing nor overpowering, I have always appreciated it.

After abandoning my vigil at the pub, I met Michelle Bourbonnais: a young woman with whom I graduated from UBC, who was also part of my international law seminar with Michael Byers, and who is low living and working in London. We met at the Tate Modern and took a wander through the newly reorganized galleries. Everything has shifted around since I went there with Sarah Johnston in September. I couldn’t even find two of my favourite pieces: a spherical, organic looking sculpture evocative of a shell (used as one of my LiveJournal icons) and an animated film from South Africa called A History of the Main Complaint.

One new piece that Michelle and I both enjoyed was a large abstract painting done by Joan Mitchell. The work is untitled, and I found it particularly captivating insofar as it includes the kind of patterns that your brain tends to just mark off as ‘very complex,’ unless, for some reason, you choose to really delve into them, or are compelled to. The impossible intricacy of an oil spot on cement you cannot really delve into until you can cut off the part of your brain that trivializes and ignores it. Then, you can just wander down its avenues – each filled with ephemeral epiphanies about the nature of space and perception.

Upward into light

After wandering back across the Millennium Bridge towards Saint Paul’s, we walked to Covent Garden and spent a couple of hours conversing in a place indelicately called ‘The Coal Hole.” Along with the traditional smoky pub atmosphere, it had the noteworthy flourish of a collection of friezes near the ceiling: cross-illuminated and made from something resembling white marble. It was a curious touch, but an appreciated one. It was certainly good to see and speak with Michelle. I was in good spirits when I boarded to coach back to Oxford at Victoria Station.

PS. I am reading an excellent new book, but let that be a subject for a later post. I’d rather get back to it than yack about it, right now.

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One unforgivably bad thing about OS X is that it completely lacks an appropriate text editor for working with HTML, scripts, or other such text files where you don’t want any formatting artifacts inserted. If you want to see what I mean, open an HTML file in TextEdit, change a view things, and try loading it in Firefox. Even worse, try getting htaccess files properly configured.

Anticipating the response: yes, there are the command line Unix editors – vi, emacs, and that ilk. Even when I used Linux as my primary OS, I was never at some with these infuriating throwbacks to the days of weakly glowing green CRT monitors. Yes, they are very powerful. No, nobody who doesn’t have an intense passion for computer science would ever be justified in putting in the time to learn their byzantine interfaces.

Come on, Mr. Jobs. At least put something like the freeware jEdit into the next version as standard. If you can include the entirety of the child-oriented World Book Encyclopedia, you can spare three megs.

[/rant]

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The Isis on a cold day

The possibility of having to walk through snow to reach the Library Court showers was realized for the first time today. As described on Ruth Anne’s blog, we got a dusting last night that has not endured through the warmer part of the day. Indeed, having to tramp through it in bare feet was actually proof of my waking up acceptably early. I was initially alerted to this unexpected meteorological phenomena by Tanushree’s audible jubilation this morning; my fellow Wadham inhabitant had not previously encountered snow. It’s rare enough for Vancouverites, as well. I wouldn’t mind getting a foot or so of it at some point, if only so I could zip around Oxford getting photos that look at least a bit different.

I heard, but did not see, that Abra – one of the Canadian law students here – has returned to Library Court: increasing the population by 50% over yesterday. No indication yet of where Nora is, though I am quite sure she has returned to the U.K. from North Carolina. The prospect of re-population is a welcome one, as is that of trying the recipe for dahl that Tanushree gave me today. Perhaps an upcoming New Year’s party will provide it. I’ve been a fan of lentils for as long as I can recall, and could certainly make use of some additional protein.

Tomorrow, I am making my third trip to London since arriving in the UK, as well as my second for which the city itself is my objective. In the evening, I will be meeting with ITG, but I will probably go a bit earlier and take a wander through the Tate Modern and a few other places. Perhaps there will be some opportunity to meet with Sarah Johnston, if only for a quick cup of coffee.

Having tallied up the surprisingly high cost of the Baltic jaunt, I must actively try not to further increase a credit card bill that has already become somewhat daunting. At the same time, I need to resist the urge to overcompensate by falling back on a cheese and bagels diet (which I’ve sworn off, for now) or complete social isolation. With snap peas 80% off, after Christmas, there is no need.

There was one nice thing that happened this evening, but this isn’t really the place to discuss it.


  • People concerned with putting images on the web might find this page interesting and useful. It’s about the nuts and bolts behind different image formats. In particular, the discussion of the specifics of JPEG compression is probably useful for digital photographers.
  • If you are younger than 30 today and living in the developed world, you are likely to be alive when the human population peaks: at around ten billion people, around 2050. It’s an astonishing thought, and a welcome one, given that slowing population growth should increase our ability to reduce poverty, and decrease the strain we are putting on the planet’s resources.
  • Finally, I love The Economist‘s Christmas issue. It’s full of exactly the kind of wonderful, obscure facts that prompt people to ask “How do you know that?” in astonished tones, when you relate them. If you buy only one issue a year, this is the one to choose.
  • General Sir Rupert Smith, who I saw speak in late October, has a new book on the changing character of war out: The Utility of Force. It seems to have been well reviewed, and has consequently been added to my ever-lengthening discretionary reading list.

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This afternoon, I got an invitation to attend a briefing on the final recommendations of the Bi-National Planning Group: one of the bodies that we met with in Colorado as part of the NASCA trip. Formed after September 11th, 2001, their mandate is to investigate security cooperation between Canada and the United States and make recommendations for improvements. They have been involved with projects like the Smart Border accord. While I obviously will not be able to go, I encourage the other NASCA participants to attend, if they can manage it. The briefing Dr. Baker gave us in Colorado Springs was certainly a solid demonstration of the good work that the BPG has been doing. When writing the report (PDF), I remember the BPG as an organization that received nearly universal praise. I look forward to reading their final report on enhanced military cooperation, once it gets released in May.

In a related point, I think I should start attending the meetings of the Oxford Strategic Studies Group, as I know some members of the IR M.Phil program have been doing. Much as I try to concentrate on environmental politics, the international use of force is obviously and permanently central to the study of international relations. As an IR scholar, you would never go hungry with war as your area of interest, especially since the pervasive ‘war on terror’ began. The fact that the strategic studies group meets at All Souls is also a significant point in favour of attending.

For me, environmental politics and strategic studies have a number of common factors that are appealing. They involve interaction with professionals who, as a social scientist (a term I remain skeptical about), you need to understand but not replicate. Scientists and soldiers are both fascinating kinds of people for me. They are endowed with specialist knowledge, which inevitably carries cachet for someone embedded in academia. They are also pleasantly straightforward and expected to be. That’s the reason why our NORAD / NORTHCOM briefing was so satisfying, as conversations with military people of all ranks from both countries have generally been. Speaking with Major General Lewis Mackenzie or cadets at West Point, you get the sense that they are at least making honest arguments that they genuinely want you to understand. Their apparent candour makes a nice contrast with the fiddly, theoretical bits of politics that seem to fascinate some of my friends and colleagues and that mostly just exasperate me. The same goes for scientists: whether those working at the UBC Fisheries Centre, people involved in the Northern Contaminants Program and Stockholm Convention, or others. Part of that comes from being unusually willing to admit when something is uncertain: perhaps the true mark of professionalism in such disciplines.

Another appealing commonality is the obvious possibility of making real-world improvements in both our approach to the environment and to war. These aren’t just areas that we should study for the sake of understanding better. We need to step beyond that and direct that understanding towards improvement. Again, the kinds of philosophical arguments that assert that such progress is impossible – that, in some complex way, such efforts are self-defeating – are exasperating to me. If we can significantly reduce the number of people who get malaria or AIDS, who suffer malnutrition from depleted fisheries, or who get killed by unexploded munitions, we’ve taken concrete steps towards a more just, more preferable world. Ultimately, that’s what I want to be a part of.

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Sad neglected sprouts

When places are largely devoid of people, they often feel at their most pure. It conforms to a kind of open-space ideal that at least some of us have built into ourselves. It’s the same aesthetic drive that made the clay hills we found on the Arizona Road Trip so compelling, as well as the view from Crown Mountain or the overlook near Petgill Lake. While it can certainly be creepy – especially in spaces that are fundamentally public, like city streets – it can also be empowering and evocative of thought. I certainly have plenty to think about, as I carry on trying to plow through my huge pile of vacation books. One of the slimmest, the Very Short Introduction to Cryptography by Fred Piper and Sean Murphy, I have now finished. While it was interesting, it certainly was not worth buying. In the future, I will make furtive attempts to lurk inside Blackwells (or even a library) and digest a few more of these volumes without having to shell out for them.

The search is beginning now for some kind of New Years plan. Apparently, ITG is going to be in London at some point quite near the end of the month. For those who don’t know who I am talking about, Ian Townsend-Gault taught my international law class at UBC, for which the original version of the infamous fish paper was written. He also helped me considerably to bring it forward to the point where it was rejected by a journal no less esteemed than Marine Policy. Dr. Hurrell says that it could probably be tightened in scope and re-submitted, but I haven’t the energy for another attempt just now. The point of the introduction, in any case, was not the paper but the person. Indeed, I am starting to see the hazy outline of some kind of an end of month plan.

My mother has said that I am welcome to stay in London for a night or so with her friend and former roommate Lessia. Additionally, I have a helpful standing offer from Chris Yung of spending a night on his couch. Given the determination that Claire and I have mutually expressed to find something interesting to do in order to usher in 2006, this may provide the necessary logistical base. If people are aware of specific, interesting things that are happening, I would appreciate the information. More precise plans will have to wait for Claire’s return from Kent. With the return to Oxford of Margaret, Emily, Alex, and others, this will become a much more active place. (And one in which I am even less likely to read a good amount about neorealism.)

Anyhow, I must be back to my books.


  • Anyone computationally minded should have a look at this amusing comic. This episode is also interesting, as is this one.
  • My PGP Public Key is now hosted on this server.
  • Tony has a post on why having daughters seems to make people more left wing.
  • Some of the jokes posted as comments on the last entry are pretty good, though one is a reminder of how I have a statistics exam in eighteen days. Prior to then, I need to borrow a graduate robe again – since exams here are written sub fusc – and figure out just what kind of statistics they mean to test us on. Anyone from the M.Phil program interested in forming a study group?
  • It looks like Zandara is having an interesting road trip. She has some photos posted.
  • After a particularly unsettling post yesterday, Frank’s blog has vanished. I hope he is ok.
  • Here’s an interesting article from The Economist on some of the connections between law and health. I would be especially interested in knowing what some of my medically inclined friends (Astrid and Lindi) think of it. Clearly, the health care system risks being rife with perverse incentives – such as the ones that strongly discourage drug companies from developing products like new contraceptives or vaccines – and poor approaches to problems – like using juries with no particular medical knowledge to make decisions about complex, technical questions. While the solutions to such problems aren’t evident, it strikes me as particularly important that we work on finding some.
  • After difficulty and labour hard, the sidebar now renders properly in every browser except IE 5.2, for Mac. The extent to which I will sleep better at night is considerable.

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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.

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Fountain near the Isis

I am really excited about this vegetarian cookbook from Hilary. Emboldened, this afternoon, I bought materials for an exceptionally healthy Christmas dinner. I have red peppers and potatoes and garlic and ginger, pita and hummous and tofu and potatoes, sugarsnap peas in pods, tomato basil soup, and hot sauce. While I’m not entirely sure how they will combine, I am entertained by the sheer novelty of making things more elaborate than sandwiches. All this matter was acquired along the course of a long sweep from Wadham out to the end of the shops on Cowley Road, and then back by means of the large Sainsbury’s, near Nuffield.

Among my other books, the Hume guide leaves something to be desired, though the introduction to cryptography is informative – most notably for the use of good examples and analogies. Tonight, aside from a few culinary experiments, I should dedicate myself to finishing the issues of The Economist that piled up in my absence, as well as the books that demand completion before the next term begins. Also wise would be to write a few of the letters that I had been postponing until the anticipated leisure of the inter-term break was at hand.

My immediate family is traveling now, I think, towards North Carolina, where they will be spending the next little while visiting members of my extended family. Other members of that group are in Toronto, Bennington, Prague, and elsewhere. My friends are in England, across Canada and the United States, in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Ecuador, China, Ghana, and elsewhere. My best wishes extend to all of them.

Perhaps it is a bit hypocritical for me to attribute an importance to Christmas, when I do not subscribe to the faith to which it is attached. At the same time, Christmas has never really been a matter of faith in my family but rather, and at its best, a time to celebrate and reinforce our ties to one another. Only insofar as it is social – a collective enterprise – is life in this world pleasant and purposeful. My sincerest thanks extend to all those who have let me participate in their enterprises and understand their purposes, and with whom I have been able to share my own. May you all feel connected to one another, tonight.

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Cactus in the botanical gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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.

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Cultural Centre in Tallinn

The building on the Tallinn seafront that so bewildered Sarah and I. Apparently, it is an ice rink, bowling alley, and concert hall. I still think it looks like a bunker for storing chemical weapons. Photo taken in the Museum of Architecture, also near the port.

Museum of Architecture

The upper gallery of the architecture museum.

Liquor store

One of the great many liquor stores in Tallinn.

Residential building

High density residential building Sarah and I found while looking for lunch.

The road home

A step on the long road home: after the delayed flight and the car breakdown.

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