Day of Consolidation

Stats lecture. Photo by Emily Paddon

Happy Birthday Sheena Chestnut

Now over the hump, I can look back on the past few days with satisfaction. I was able to complete reasonably good papers without going mad or completely neglecting all else. Over the break, I shall make a determined effort to read at least a half-dozen key books on international relations theory, in order to get a jump on the next core seminar. Hopefully, Dr. Hurrell will be so good as to point me in the direction of the right ones – during our supervision on Friday evening, perhaps.

Another nice thing about today was having the chance to see Emily again, following her jet-setting foray back to New York. Both the core seminar and the statistics lecture were enlivened by her presence. It is pleasantly surprising to think that we have only one statistics lecture left, one assignment, and two labs. Of course, there is the test in 0th week of next term to consider.

Upcoming events: 

Nick Sayeg and his significant other Ellen will be in Oxford tomorrow. An Australian lawyer, I met him through the law in economics class that we took with the unique Professor Gateman of the UBC Economics Department. He dubbed us “Mr. M” and “Mr. N,” respectively. It will be the first time I’ve seen him since he departed on the Scandinavian leg of his world voyage. He is now on his way to India and it will be good to see him before he leaves the European area. One day, I hope to visit him in Queensland. With luck, I will also have the chance to have coffee or a walk with Claire tomorrow.

Some exciting things are happening in the next few days. Emily invited me to the Canadian High Commissioner’s Annual Student Reception, which is also a recruitment drive for the Canadian foreign services. While I am not looking for a job in the moment (save for one over the summer), it is nice to know that they are in fact possible to get. It seems likely to me that Chris Yung, with whom I graduated from the IR program at UBC, will be present. He is doing an M.Sc at the LSE at the moment, supervised by Peter Wilson. The event is taking place in London and may well represent my first expedition back there since my brief stop-over en route to Oxford.

Also well worth looking forward to is the graduate student Christmas party: taking place on November 29th in the Manor Road Building. Divided, as we are, between two core seminar groups, we IR M.Phils see less of some of our colleagues than would be ideal. It will also be nice to have the chance to meet some graduate students in related disciplines and even some more of these fabled students who have actually survived the first year of the M.Phil and progressed to the second.

The slightly longer-term period will include the Estonian trip, Christmas in London with Sarah Pemberton, and much excitement besides.

  • My internet connection has been oddly sketchy in the later parts of tonight. Sorry to those with whom I’ve had interrupted conversations.
  • Bruce Schneier has an interesting entry about new policing powers and their use in domestic surveillance. This is the kind of thing discussed in the oversight section of the NASCA report. A representative quotation from Schneier’s piece:

    “This isn’t about our ability to combat terrorism; it’s about police power. Traditional law already gives police enormous power to peer into the personal lives of people, to use new crime-fighting technologies, and to correlate that information. But unfettered police power quickly resembles a police state, and checks on that power make us all safer.” 

  • If Venice is sinking, then I’m going under. (As well as a reference to a BBC article, this is a reference to a song by Spirit of the West: possibly the greatest band to ever come out of North Vancouver. For those who’ve never heard their music, I particularly recommend it.

Just in time for Christmas

Some recent comments reminded me of one of my greatest inventions ever, and an excellent Christmas gift: the ever-popular Wombat Kits. They contain everything required to make a wombat: primarily sedges, grasses, and roots. The logic behind them runs as follows:

  1. Pregnant wombats eat grass.
  2. Pregnant wombats make baby wombats.
  3. Therefore, baby wombats can be made from grass.
  4. Baby wombats eat grass.
  5. Baby wombats become adult wombats.
  6. Therefore, baby wombats can be made into adult wombats, using grass.
  7. Ergo, adult wombats can be made from grass. Q.E.D.

The logic is unassailable, and the kits also contain detailed anatomical diagrams of wombats: for ease of assembly. Once you’ve made a male and a female, you can make additional wombats from additional grass with considerably increased efficiency.

For those who have grown tired of the lesser challenges of building model ships or stable two-state solutions in the Middle East, wombat kits promise hours of enjoyment.

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6,000+ academic words scrutinized, edited, printed

Editing papers in the Manor Road cafeteria

After a productive meeting with Bryony this morning, I lay down for what was to be a judicious twenty minute nap. Instead, it became two hours of the strangest dreams I can remember: as strange as the infamous pony dream, but involving Herman Melville. The BBC was there, and Japanese imperialism – personified. Even so, the paper for Dr. Hurrell was dispatched by three and I my reticle was firmly centred on interwar American foreign policy soon afterwards. By midnight, I had a solid and comprehensible seeming draft of that paper done as well. Kudos all around. I definitely feel some affinity with the various Oxford bloggers churning out words for National Novel Writing Month (NatNoWriMo).

The incredible thing about completing these two papers is that, with the exception of reading and one more stats assignment, this marks the completion of the workload for my first term at Oxford. Of course, the inter-term break will be well-loaded with work of its own, but it is still gratifying to see one phase come to a reasonably successful conclusion.

Aside: Pondering Meghan’s Riddle 

As per her requests, I have been pondering what gift Meghan has inserted into the international mail system for my birthday and Christmas, both. I know that it’s something for which I once expressed very strong approval, that it “isn’t at all practical,” and that it isn’t from A large, laminated world map struck me as a possibility, but it would be both quite awkward to mail and quite practical for my course of study. Another possibility I’ve considered is rare earth magnets. I’ve always found magnets fascinating: they seem to defy all of our expectations about how matter should behave. They remind me of something Homer Simpson once said: “The Lord gave us the atoms, and it’s up to use to make them dance.”

One major possibility is some kind of gadgetry. Anything photographic would fall under ‘useful,’ and there aren’t really many photo gadgets that can be used with a point and shoot digital camera. I’ve always been a fan of folding type metal gadgets: like my large and small multi-tool. Again, however, they are eminently useful. The same goes for virtually all books, so I am at something of a loss for ideas. A complex three-dimensional toy of the Science World variety (separate the rings, open the box, etc) seems possible. The lack of certainty makes it rather more exciting, anyhow.

After a collection of days as sleepless as the last few have been, it’s of vital importance to get back on my standard sleep schedule: going to sleep between 1:00am and 2:00am and waking up at 9:00am. Getting back into the regimented order is the only way of wearing down the sleep debt without destabilizing my sleep pattern for a long time, sleeping for a whole day, or both.

  • A blog about the Festivus Pole: symbol of a superior holiday.
  • I had an interesting conversation with Lauren tonight, and received some engaging correspondence from Astrid.

Chilly day: reading and typing

Chilly in Library Court

As I sit in my room writing this, I am wearing a MEC microfibre shirt, a wool sweater, my woolen hoodie (hood on), and a fleece over top of all of it. Central heating here is more nominal than real and I prefer bundling up to breaking out energy inefficient space heaters. Besides, the cold helps me concentrate.

Today featured a sustained effort to finish the two papers due on Tuesday. Being able to celebrate the end of this crush period with Nick is most welcome, but I need to defer all contemplation of such things until the two hurdles have been o’erleapt. I finished the Jonathan Spence book tonight and I think it will form the chronological basis for the China paper. Tomorrow I will mount a Northern Expedition to the SSL to access confined books vital to the American foreign policy paper.

At about ten tonight, between spans of reading and writing, I spent a pleasant half hour having soup with Nora and Kelly. I lost track of them at the bop yesterday, though their nights seem to have concluded reasonably well. From their descriptions, I am glad I was wearing my headphones while working between 2:00am and 6:30am, when I went to sleep. Tonight looks set to be comparable but, soup fortified, I will surely be able to manage it. My editing session with Bryony has been pushed back to 9:30am tomorrow.

sardonic: Of laughter, a smile: Bitter, scornful, mocking. Hence of a person, personal attribute, etc. Characterized by or exhibiting bitterness, scorn or mockery.

Queer Bop Update 2:00am

Wadham Queer Bop

My determined effort to go and read in the library led me instead to Leonora, and from thence to my second, far longer, and more enjoyable encounter with the Queer Bop phenomenon. The Wadham Library is being used as a kind of warming and refueling centre, a storage depot, and – in the darker corners – a venue for more adventuresome activities. We did not persist there long, but headed out boldly into this human wilderness.

As quite possibly the two most sober people in Wadham, Leonora and I wandered through the JCR Quad area, immersing ourselves several times in the tent that was the nexus of all light, sound, and activity in Wadham tonight. By the time we were there, some of the energy density had dissipated; it was more of a throng and less of a crush and consequently rather more enjoyable. Additionally, having at least a good portion of the attention of another person makes these sorts of experiences far more comprehensible and enjoyable for me. I even made a few awkward and pathetic attempts at dancing, as well as getting to serve as the base of one of the two-person amalgamations that swerve around to “Free Nelson Mandela” at the end of Wadham bops.

While all manner of interesting things took place tonight, this blog is not the venue for all stories. Moreover, if I am to have anything at all to edit with Bryony tomorrow night, the rest of tonight will have to be devoted to producing it. In any case, my thanks go to Leonora for helping me to perceive the bop in something much closer to its proper light. To have not done so would have been a betrayal of the basic imperative to experience and understand life.

Sorry about how grainy the above photo is. This is what happens when you set the ISO equivalent on the A510 to 400. Not such a bad effect, once in a while, but the ones in the 10:30 update are better. Once I have sorted the potentially publishable photos from those better confined to encrypted disk images, some more of them will appear online.

Queer Bop Update 10:30pm

Queer Bop Tent

The Queer Bop is now in full swing and several aspects of it are quite shocking to me. Firstly, whoever bought guest tickets wasted their money. There is no access control whatsoever and anyone who would want to can wander right in. Secondly, there are no college staff present at all, except for three frantic men working the bar. Given the sub-zero temperatures, the scanty standard of dress, and the excessive consumption of alcohol, all this strikes me as quite irresponsible. Outside the JCR Bar, I saw three goosebump-covered young women vomiting on the ground beside one another. I don’t think you could get away with this sort of thing on North America’s litigious shores.


[Edited at 11:30] There are security people now and things are a bit calmer. Still far too cold and noisy for me – brand me a spoilsport.

Queer Bop Costumes

Academic reflections

The rigidity of the once-a-day entry system is not ideal. At the same time, people seem to like the consistency. My solution for the moment will be to release daily flagship entities, complete with the photo of the day, and supplementary entries on other topics. As always, it is up to those reading to decide what they want to do with this information.

Today was fairly productive, in terms of schoolwork. I embedded myself first in the Cornmarket Starbucks, reading, then the High Street Starbucks and finally in the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera. While it’s not a style of architecture for which I generally have a great love, the Palladian styling of that rotunda is really quite lovely. It doesn’t have the dolled-up, overdecorated feel that many domed, semi-Romanesque buildings have. Instead, there is something of the simple elegance that I so appreciate in gothic buildings. I particularly like some of the stone sculpture right below the lip of the dome. Right across from the Codrington Library, it’s a part of Oxford where I should spend more time. I am shamefully ineffective at reading in my room and the fluorescence of the DPIR at night is reminiscent of Staples.

I am anxiously awaiting the time when we will have more freedom to study what we are actually fascinated with. While all this history is important, I am anxious to arrive in the contemporary world. History, like gardening, is something that the young take up by necessity, the old with passion cultivated through patience.

The time when we get to direct our own studies will be the point at which I decide whether this whole graduate school this has ‘caught:’ whether it’s something I can commit myself to for another six to eight years, in order to complete a PhD. While I don’t feel like it would be either wise or possible to complete all of that at a stretch, it would be good to have some real certainty about it as a course of action. That’s one of the big motivations for doing the M.Phil: it will let me test the waters of academia before spending a few years working in government, for an NGO, or in some other non-academic role.

Familial introductions, crime, and bias in blogging

Leaves near Manor Road

This morning, I had a walk and a cup of coffee with Margaret. After so much telephonic interaction, it was good to see her in person. I also received a very kind birthday card and gift from my family back in Canada. I’ve been affixing the various cards I receive to the non-painted surfaces in my room and they do much to give the place a bit of character.

For those who don’t know, my parents and youngest brother live in North Vancouver, in the house near Edgemont Village where I lived between second and twelfth grade. My mother’s name is Alena and, in addition to teaching English as a second language, she does a lot of volunteer work. Because of the demographics in North Vancouver, she teaches a lot of Iranians. With luck (and a visa that is still being awaited) she will be visiting Teheran in the spring of next year to see friends and former students. Aside from teaching, my mother is a very active reader and the source of the great body of excellent novels that fill the shelves of the house. My father, Oleh, is a lawyer at the firm Miller Thomson – where I have also worked, upon occasion. By far the most physically active member of my family, he plays squash, cycles a great deal, hikes, runs, and is a source of enthusiasm behind familial wilderness adventures: including the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit trip and the first and second Bowron Lakes adventures. One of his more notable adventures recently was working as an electoral monitor in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution.

My brother Sasha, still in high school, lives with my parents. He is on both the junior and senior improv teams at my old high school. Improv is actually an activity he inherited from my middle brother Mica, who is now at UBC. Several times, Mica went to the national championships in improvisational comedy: once on the same team as my friends Hilary and Alison. In his last year of high school, Mica’s team won the national tournament. Last year, the team that Sasha captained won the provincial championship. A player of baseball and soccer, Sasha is also a fanatical devotee of World of Warcraft: within which he runs a business exchanging characters and gold for real money. Of the three brothers, he seems to be the one with the most entrepreneurial aptitude.

Mica is definitely the foremost dramatist of the trio: with starring roles in several of the major shows put on by my high school, as well as the production of Damn Yankees at UBC last year. He is also probably the most athletic of the three of us. While I did not persist long in sunny baseball afternoons and rainy soccer mornings, Mica had quite a bit of dedication – especially as a pitcher. He now seems to pour a lot of his energy into making videos, many of which are quite excellent. Studying history, he was in the Arts One program last year, and intends to do his teaching certificate once he finishes his undergraduate degree.

One of the most difficult aspects of spending two years in England will be either not seeing or barely seeing my brothers over that course of time. While I do keep in touch with them over MSN and through things like the blog, it’s certain that the next two years will bring some huge changes for both of them. While I am sure they will both do very well – they have talents which I lack and envy, as well as the sense of humour which is so critical to maintaining sanity – it will be unfortunate to see it from such a distance. I hope very much that they will visit me here. The last photo in this collection shows my brothers and I at my departure party.

One thing that people find confusing is that only Sasha, my father, and I have the same last name. When my parents wed, my mother kept her last name. Furthermore, they agreed to alternate the family names of children, beginning with my mother’s in the case of a female child and my father’s in the case of a male child. It strikes me as a fair and sensible way to go about it.

I got one piece of distressing news over Skype from my mother today. Apparently, Sasha and his friend Jonah got mugged by four 2″x4″ wielding thugs on their way home from improv practice a couple of days ago. Sasha knew one of the assailants from school. They were after money and iPods and, despite Sasha’s efforts to talk them out of it, they persisted in making threats of violence. Luckily, Sasha and his friend were able to run away and gain sanctuary in a stranger’s house. Apparently, the police are unwilling to press any charges, despite the fact that they caught all four of the would-be thieves, because nobody was hurt. To me, that seems extremely irresponsible and an encouragement to such thuggishness. They did, however, commend Sasha for his handling of the situation. 

I was unsuccessfully mugged twice in North Vancouver while in high school: once with Jonathan on Highland road by a couple of snowboarders and once in Edgemont Village with Chevar by one of my classmates. The second time was at knifepoint, right in the middle of a sunny afternoon. In neither case did I have any money on me, as I am in the habit of almost never doing so. The fact that the police have never managed to do much of anything when any member of my family has been robbed or burgled does not create great confidence. I am extremely glad, in any case, that nothing too bad befell Sasha or his friend. Hopefully, the four thieves will find cause to devote their energies to something more productive and socially acceptable, even if the authorities are unwilling to compel it.

One last item. You hear bandied about a lot of talk about liberal bloggers, conservative bloggers, and bias overall on the internet. To me, such labeling risks being counterproductive. Just because you can categorize someone in one way or another doesn’t let you anticipate or automatically ignore their ideas. It’s absurd to think the complex political and ethical questions of the day can be answered along a single axis of difference. It’s equally absurd to think that a polarized community willing to completely ignore the arguments and positions of others will lead to the advancement in knowledge, thinking, or ethics. Open, civil debate must be the approach taken. 

Not particularly notable day (and dietary justifications)

Today's early morning fire drill in Wadham

Just a short post today: not very much happened and there is a great deal of work to be done on the two essays if I am to have them finished before Nick gets here.

We all got woken up brutally early this morning by a Wadham College fire drill and mandatory evacuation. Every room in library court has a dedicated alarm for wailing you out of bed, with the promise of college enforcers coming up afterwards to ensure that you have vacated. Down in the back quad, we huddled in circles in the cold and the yellow morning light, breath visible, grumbling about the timing of the test.

So here’s the (ambitious) plan for the next few days:

  1. Finish a draft of the paper on the Chinese Civil War (tomorrow).
  2. Finish a draft of the (unstarted) paper on American isolationism in the interwar period, based on the reading for my presentation and journal articles (Saturday).
  3. Edit both papers myself (Sunday morning).
  4. Meet with Bryony to swap and look over respective papers (Sunday evening).
  5. Conduct final, final revisions on both (Monday)
  6. Submit China paper to Andrew Hurell via inter-college mail (Tuesday).
  7. Submit American foreign policy paper in class (Tuesday).

In the evening, I took part in a brief foray to the King’s Arms with Ben, Andy, Abra, and some of the other members of library court. The place was quite thoroughly packed – standing room only – but also pleasantly devoid of smoke. It was good to have a bit of social contact with my neighbours: a thing that has largely been absent since 0th week. (Pronounced ‘noughth.’)

After the expedition, I wrote a few emails (to Astrid, Sarah, and Margaret), uploaded a few photos to my Facebook account, and got back to reading about China. I think the way to tackle this essay is to discuss two periods. First, the one between the start of fighting in China between the Japanese and the Chinese communists and nationalists and the outbreak of the broader war in Asia. Second, the period that began after the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Japanese surrender. In each period, there was clearly a lot of foreign influence. I plan to argue that, while the communist takeover would have been impossible without certain things that outside powers did (particularly the Japanese weakening the Kuomintang), the ideology and policy of the communists was not defined by outside actors. It certainly wasn’t the offshoot of Russian communism that Americans sometimes saw it as being, though the Soviet withdrawal from parts of northern China was definitely conducted in a way that aided the CCP, at the expense of the KMT.

Tomorrow morning, I am meeting Margaret for a brief walk before the statistics lab. After so many instances of talking with her at length on the phone, despite the five minute walk between our respective domiciles, it will be nice to communicate face to face.

In response to Sarah’s blog post tonight, I realized that the justification for my slightly unusual diet it buried in the offline pages of the old blog. The first part of my policy is to not eat meat that has been factory farmed. Basically, there are three reasons for it. The first is because factory farming is environmentally unsustainable. The second is the way in which it is conducted is hygienically repulsive: feeding animals ground up bits of members of their own species is seriously dodgy. The same goes for lacing them with hormones and antibiotics. The third reason is that I think even chickens, cows, and pigs are morally considerable enough that the animals should not be made to live in such horrific conditions. They are far more badly treated than animals that are having medical research conducted upon them, as detailed in this leader from The Economist. As it explains: “The couple of million (mainly rats and mice) that die in Britain’s laboratories are far better looked-after and far more humanely killed than the billion or so (mainly chickens) on Britain’s farms.” 

I also try to avoid eating fish that are farmed (for most of the same reasons) and those caught in an unsustainable fashion. People seem to believe that fish farming is a sustainable option. Really, they are just catching less tasty fish, grinding them up and feeding them – along with plenty of antibiotics and hormones – to salmon or something else that is tasty. Given that the less savoury fish – like blue whiting or orange roughy- are being fished in a grossly unsustainable way, fish farming is really no better than gill-netting. Worse, in many senses, since it pollutes the sea with hormones and other chemicals.

PS. Due to the wrecking efforts of a particular individual in Lancaster, I’ve had to turn on comment moderation. Anything inoffensive will be approved. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Feeling like part of an Oxford community

An open gate at St. Catz

This morning, I went for coffee and a walk with Bryony Lau: one of my fellow Canadians in the M.Phil program. She is a well-travelled and interesting person, who seems to be handling the program extremely well. I am glad that she will be coming to the dinner and film at St. Antony’s tonight, to which Alex has invited several of us. Like Claire, Bryony is taking a course at the Oxford University Language Centre: an idea that I should probably emulate. I can almost feel my command of French seeping away.

In the early afternoon, I met with my college advisor – Dr. Paul Martin – for the first time. We spoke about scholarships to apply for, the structure of the university, and the M.Phil program. As he explained it, college advisors don’t really do anything, aside from answer general questions by email and take you to dinner at high table twice a year. Dr. Martin also said that I should be reading eleven or twelve books a week, which I think is mad. Either I would have no comprehension of them whatsoever, or I would have time to do absolutely nothing else. That kind of personal abuse really doesn’t seem like education to me. That said, I definitely don’t feel as though I have been reading enough. It’s quite a difficult thing for me to buckle down and do, unless there is no more interesting alternative or the situation has become absolutely urgent. Perhaps I am not well suited to academic life.

Today brought two excellent pieces of mail. The first was the NatWest credit card which I applied for in September. My days of pondering the Mastercard Pound-Dollar exchange rate when buying groceries have ended. Better still, I got a birthday card and gift from my maternal grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins in North Carolina. I shall write them a letter of thanks. My Uncle George and Aunt Eva are the parents of my cousin Jiri in Prague, as well as his sister Kristyna. It seems that Sasha and my mother will be going to visit them around Christmas time.

In the evening, I took a stab at Vancouver emulation. I sat in Starbucks, listening to Melissa Ferrick, and read The Economist and the Spence China book. Never mind that when you order a Venti dark roast here you get a blank stare followed by a query to the manager about what a dark roast is. Differing voltages, differing nomenclature. Despite minor cultural friction, it was an excellent way to escape the cold, induce wakefulness, read, and avoid libraries all at the same time. For those who haven’t heard her, Melissa Ferrick is an energetic and engaging Canadian singer. For me, her musical talent is somehow well demonstrated in the precise timing of the pause between the words “You are” and “walking grace” in the live version of the song “Will You Be the One.” I think it’s the constant theme of seeking love in her music that so endears it to me. Another fine musical introduction from Astrid.

The later part of tonight was extremely nice. Having dinner at St. Antony’s with Alex, Bryony, Shohei, and Iason, I felt like I was finally part of a community, not just friends with a few people in Oxford. It’s a powerful thing, to finally feel connected in a place.  

After dinner, Bryony, Shohei, and Iason had to go off to work on various projects. Alex and I, however, went to see Buongiorno Notte with the St. Antony’s European Film Society. It’s a difficult film to write about, really. Most anything you would care to say about it is said better by the film itself: a complex and beautiful story about the power of human choice.

I should get back to the eternal task of reading – one that I don’t feel that I do enough of or sufficiently well at. My thanks again to Alex for the invitation.

Night of 1000 Dinners: Sunday, December 4th  

I encourage those in Vancouver, whether at UBC or not, to participate in this excellent event at the Westin Bayshore Hotel in Coal Harbour, which raises money to combat the global problem of land mines. All proceeds from the evening go to Adopt-a-Minefield, which funds mine clearance and victim assistance programs. I attended all the ones that were held while I was at UBC and enjoyed each thoroughly. Tickets are $20 for students and $40 for non-students: on sale by my friend Fernando and others. If this year is the same as previous ones, the United States Consulate General in Vancouver will provide free wine.