Reading E.H. Carr

Fruit in Nuffield

After an excellent but late night yesterday, it was difficult to get into a proper reading stride this afternoon. The necessity of getting the reading done for the core seminar on Tuesday, preparing a potential presentation (20% chance of being called upon this time), and working on the statistics assignment means I will be opting out of tonight’s IR social event tonight.

I quite like the style of writing in Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis: though written in 1939 it still seems highly cogent and relevant. Carr is definitely on his strongest footing when he outlines the tension between pragmatism and idealism in world politics and the way in which the former is sterile without the latter, and the latter powerless without the former. While interesting, Carr’s book is less than entirely useful for the core seminar, as it is much more theoretical than historical. With luck, I shall be able to muster the energy to read the Clavin or Feinstein book tonight, though all the noise from Saturday-night-crazed undergraduates is in league with general tiredness to reduce the likelihood of such outcomes. Even with headphones on and the loudest possible music that does not totally demolish my ability to read, abrasive screaming and laughter penetrates my small and patchy cloud of studiousness.

At some point tomorrow, I am to meet Emily to read. It’s certainly a thing that I generally do more efficiently with company, as I am more effectively constrained from moving on to more interesting tasks.


  • Those who appreciate The Shining should see the odd satirical trailer linked on Alison’s blog
  • I am now quite seriously in need of a haircut. If someone can suggest a place in Oxford that will restore my hair to something generally akin to its appearance in the blog profile, at a reasonable cost, I would be most appreciative.
  • During my first month in England, I spent £168.72 on food: £136.29 at Sainsbury’s. That’s C$352.98 in total, with C$285 at Sainsbury’s. Those figures do not include the cost of dinners in hall, before I began opting out of all of them. That represents 46.5% of my gross spending, compared with 7.6% for just four binders, four pads of paper, and a hole punch at Staples.

Wine tasting

Wine tasting in Nuffield

This afternoon brought the dream of a British bank account another step closer, though still without any knowledge of when the whole process will be successfully concluded. It also involved grocery shopping, the completion of a preliminary read of this week’s Economist, some reading on Dawes and Locarno, and correspondence with Emily and Kate. The former is heading out into the countryside with friends for the start of the weekend; the latter has returned to the city from the woods, and is processing the data on bears collected while there.

Trying to complete our first quantitative methods assignment has been frustrating. I can see that the second and third question, respectively, would be best solved by means of regression and hypothesis testing, but I don’t perfectly recall how to do either. STATA is definitely an impediment rather than an aid. For the first assignment, I am fairly sure they just want us to ‘eyeball it,’ but I would definitely rather do it in a statistically rigorous way.

Last night was great fun. The wine drinking event was actually a competition. In each of seven rounds, we were presented with an expensive wine of a particular variety, for instance Pinotage, and a cheap wine of the same sort. The objective was to use your knowledge of wine (of which I have none) and the descriptions of the wines provided to deduce which was which. Given my total lack of familiarity with many of the genres presented, my ambition was to do better than random chance would have suggested. Much to my surprise, I actually won. This is particularly shocking given that the elimination round at the end was based on one’s knowledge of cricket. Asked how many of a particular cricket related statistic a certain cricket player had accumulated in a tournament, I confidently said “twenty-one” without the slightest knowledge of what was actually being asked or what sort of number was likely. In any event, I now have a bottle of white wine from Nuffield’s own cellars sitting beside my Glenlivit. 

Aside from the competition itself, the atmosphere at Nuffield was great fun. I met Carolyn Haggis – presently a D.Phil student at Nuffield, formerly an M.Phil in IR student at Brasenose. She is living proof that the program can be survived, and in such a way that you would be willing to read for a second degree at Oxford.

The event was not at all stuffy and the commentary from the two hosts (and introducers of wines) was rather amusing. We were even treated to a rendition of the South African national anthem, though Margaret tells me that it was not without inaccuracies. All told, it was a night of excellent company and good fun; hopefully, a suitable prelude to getting a lot of work done today. Many thanks to Margaret for the invitation.


The subject emerged from his room shortly after nine, showered, and left Wadham College through the back gate. He walked along Saville Road to Jowett Walk, turned left onto St. Cross Road, and then turned right onto Manor Road – approaching the Social Sciences Building from the south. After greeting some fellow students, he chose a station near the middle of the information technology room, where he remained for the duration of the two-hour workshop. He was not attentive, spending the time completing the bulk of the first assignment rather than following the printed instructions. He also spent time responding to emails and reading blog entries. When the class ended, he walked northward along St. Cross road, accompanied by two colleagues, and passed through the University Parks before separating from them and walking southward down Parks Road to Wadham College. At no point was contact with the subject lost.

St. Antony’s foray

Foosball in Green College

I got a package from Vancouver in the mail today which is very well appreciated. My mother sent me a coffee press and a pound of coffee. I am now decidedly well prepared for coffee accelerated reading and caffeine-bolstered comprehension.

Today’s lecture on the advanced study of IR was really excellent. It was a presentation by Dr. Marc Stears about ideological and historical approaches to political theory. It was about two schools of textual interpretation in political theory: the Cambridge School and the Ideological School, based in Oxford. Basically, each tries to address questions about which texts we need to study, how we should go about doing it, and how we should write about texts. Each is based on the perspective that all writing that seeks to forward political ends can be viewed as ‘speech acts’ and need to be evaluated according to the context in which they were written and the intentions of the author. Decidedly not post-modernist (since it embraces, rather than rejects, authorial intentionality), it nonetheless seems like a useful way to think about texts. Some of my enthusiasm definitely derives from the rhetorical skill of Dr. Stears, who was probably the most effective lecturer we have had in the program so far. If the opportunity arises to see him speak again, I will take it up. Also, I’ve added Quentin Skinner’s Visions of Politics to my discretionary reading list.

I learned today that, in addition to the paper which I need to write for Dr. Hurrell in the next nine days, I am supposed to write a paper for the core seminar instructors, due on the Tuesday of 4th week. Worse, it is means to be written on one of the topics for which I did not prepare a presentation. That means I have to do another whole week’s worth of reading. Given that I now have Charles Feinstein’s The European Economy Between the Wars, Patricia Clavin’s The Great Depression in Europe, 1929-1939, and E.H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939 on two day loan, I think I will have plenty of motivation to start drawing down my newfound strategic coffee supply.

Having dinner with Emily tonight was most enjoyable. We ended up having dinner, and later going to the Green College bar, with Roham and some of the other members of the M.Phil program. Roham is an extremely personable young man – good natured and somehow capable of enlivening those around him, while making everyone feel comfortable. Both individually and as a pair, he and Emily make for superb company.

Dinner at St. Antony’s is quite a different affair from the process at Wadham. It’s cafeteria style, to begin with, and includes much more selection that at Wadham, where a binary meat/vegetable decision is all the choice you get. They also have the benefit of a salad bar, the opportunity to get beverages apart from water with your meal, and a more flexible timetable with regards to when you can eat. They even have candles. Wadham may be closer to the authentic medieval hall-dining experience, but I don’t think I would be opting out of all meals at St. Antony’s.

After dinner, coffee in the MCR, and a brief foray to Emily’s room, we set off on a short walk to the interesting grounds of Green College. In particular, I found the observatory buildings which I located while wandering outside to be quite interesting. The bar itself was noisy, though not crassly so, and seemed to have reasonably priced drinks and good conversations ongoing within. Emily and I ended up staying until a bit before 10:30, when it seemed wiser to retire to respective colleges for reading or sleep.

With two papers to be done in the next two weeks, I’ve the feeling this will be a bit of a grinding period. I just need to develop a schedule that meets out productivity and recovery in doses of the right size, to maintain both forward motion and sanity.

Tomorrow, we have our second quantitative methods lab. Infinitely more appealing, Margaret has invited me to a wine tasting event. The description which she has passed on from her college is too good not to quote here:

When this was suggested, the economist in the room at the time said something about demand, supply and why bad things happen when prices are set at zero. I didn’t really understand it, but I retorted that we shouldn’t worry because most students at Nuffield are quantitative social scientists and therefore don’t have any friends, wine-drinking or otherwise. As a result, I have been sent to my room to think about what I’ve done. On the upside, this means that there will be (marginally) more wine available tomorrow for you and your (sensible and not excessive number of) guests. 

One one final note (these entries are getting too long as it is), I realized today that I haven’t been more than three kilometres from where I sit right now for nearly a month. A trip somewhere – with London the obvious choice – seems to be in order. Do any of the Oxfordians who seem to be reading the blog share my desire for some kind of short expedition?

Invited to Sarah’s wedding

Oxford seem from atop Wadham College

This morning, I received an invitation to Sarah Johnston’s wedding, to take place on the 18th of March in a church in Chichester. This will be the second friend’s wedding I attend and I am looking forward to it. It will be good to meet Sarah’s parents again (I did so, very briefly, last summer) and to meet some more of her friends. My congratulations go out to her and Peter. I look forward to when I shall be able to refer to the pair of them as Doctors Webster.

After working for a while on the Commonwealth Scholarship application, making and drinking a half litre of coffee, and inquiring at the domestic bursary about fees, I wandered through a very rainy Oxford to Nuffield. From the eighth floor of their tower, I got my first really elevated look at Oxford. Later, in the Nuffield Library, I read Dr. Hurrell’s article: “Global Inequality and International Institutions” (Metaphilosophy Volume 32 Issue 1&2 Page 34 – January 2001). I appreciate the normative character of his argument and his determination that world politics can be changed for the better. Reading something that is heavy on references to political theory is a welcome contrast to wading through hundreds of pages of unfamiliar history written by academics unknown to me.

Despite its apparently excellent politics and economics collections, the library was quite empty. I mustn’t have seen more than three people during the three hours I spent inside. Cornmarket Street is consistently the only part of Oxford that really gets crowded. While there are often throngs of tourists marching along the High Street, they only rarely seriously impede passage. I always feel a bit odd walking past tour groups in Wadham. I feel as though I am on display as a sample of Animalia Chordata Vertebrata Mammalia Primate Hominidae Homo sapiens studentis graduatis Oxfordius. I try to look very clever for them.

By the time I left the library to meet Dr. Hurrell, it had become quite beautiful out – in that way which can only quite be managed after a proper downpour, when the trees are still dripping and the warm colouration of sunlight comes as a surprise. Today featured both the heaviest rain I’ve seen in Oxford and the most stunning emergence from rain into one of those slightly sodden afternoons where the sun is welcome rather than unpleasant.

My meeting with Andrew Hurrell went very well. From what other students had told me, I expected meeting one’s supervisor to discuss a paper to be something akin to facing an inquisition. In actuality, he both complimented and criticized the paper and we had quite a good hour-long discussion about some of the theoretical issues involved.

In particular, we identified the character of domestic German politics as an area of exploration that wasn’t well treated in the paper. Recently unified, Germany both had an unusual impetus to engage in some kind of national project (say, colonization) and an unusually broad dialogue about what that project could be. As Dr. Hurrell pointed out, the phrase “a place in the sun,” which is constantly used to refer to Germany’s ambition to develop a place for itself as a rising power in the international system, possesses a vagueness that underscores the lack of definition behind what such a project could involve. We also discussed that issue of how states perceive themselves internally and as components of an international society in the contemporary contexts of Russia in the G8 and the matter of nuclear proliferation. Those are the big tables around which great powers sit today and, given things like the rise of China, understanding how developing powers can be peacefully and effectively integrated is of immense value. The conversation increased my conviction that Dr. Hurrell is a man with whom I will be able to work well.

I also indicated to Dr. Hurrell that I would like to write one of my two optional papers on some issue having to do with nuclear weapons. For years, nuclear politics has interested me insofar as it represents an unusually explicit arena to examine the structure of the international system, as well as the psychologies of individual leaders. He suggested that I keep my eye on what the Institute for Strategic Studies in London is doing, and that perhaps they will hold an interesting conference or seminar on the matter this year.

During the next ten to fourteen days, I am to write another paper. It should either be on the topic of last week’s core seminar or this week’s and Dr. Hurrell insists that this one should be most historical and less theoretical. Helpfully, he recognizes that we do not necessarily have much background in these time periods. The assignment is therefore an explicit test of my ability to work in an uncertain area. Walking across the Nuffield quad, right after the meeting, I had my first solid sense that I have what it takes to be a graduate student.

After the meeting ended, I met with Margaret and we spoke in her room for a while before walking to New College to see the mound erected there in honour of those hurled over Oxford’s city walls after dying of the plague. As she demonstrated to me, it manifests a peculiar acoustic property if you clap at it.

In February, it seems that my mother will be going to Iran. Either on the way out or back, she will visit me in Oxford. A few years ago, she began teaching English as a second language to people who have recently immigrated to Canada or who are seeking to do so. Many of her students have been Iranian and it is at their invitation that she will be going. Having living in Pakistan for many years, and having visited Turkey a few years ago, it’s not a part of the world with which she is unfamiliar. She has actually lived in a remarkable number of places: from Czechoslovakia to Antigua to the United States.

Also in the news:

  • I may be forced to change my primary email address due to a trademark dispute in the U.K.
  • Anyone who wants or needs a GMail invitation, just ask. I have 94 of them.
  • Did you know, entries posted at “12:01” were almost certainly posted before then, but with a modified timestamp to maintain the one-entry-per-day format?
  • Here is a blog with some powerful photos

Day full of classes

Seminar in the Manor Road Building

I had five straight hours of class today: the core seminar from 11:00am to 1:00pm, a seminar on the changing character of war between 1:00pm and 2:00pm, and then our quantitative methods lecture from 2:00pm to 4:00pm. Above all, it was the fine company of my fellow M.Phils that made the whole length of it pleasant. In particular, I appreciated the company of the St. Antony’s group, which includes Emily and Roham1.

This morning, on the way to the seminar, I was delighted to find a letter from Meghan Mathieson in my pigeon hole. It’s the first piece of physical matter transferred to me in Oxford by a friend of mine. The letter was sealed with the wax and stamp which she bought in my company in Italy and it included a small bag of the tea I’ve made such frequent reference to drinking with her and Tristan back in Fairview. It’s good to hear about how her new job is going, how her family is doing, and the holiday festivities they had with Matt’s family. Receiving a handwritten letter is always a special event, despite the frequency with which I communicate with friends by electronic means. There is an undeniable romanticism to it, as well as a sense of permanence that can be both thrilling and daunting. I shall be sure to respond in kind once I get my hands on some loose leaf paper.

The core seminar discussion seemed more accessible and productive this week. The topics under examination were Wilson, the Paris peace settlements, and the Middle East. Emily ended up presenting on our topic, and can now savour the knowledge that she will not have to present again for the next five weeks. Since there are eight weeks in the term and seven people being assigned each question, it seems the last week will be another open contest. For next week, I need to read about whether the Dawes Plan and Locarno Pact offered only the illusion of peace, or whether they represented a re-emergence of a concert of the great powers. I have a general recollection from Gossen’s History 432 class of what Locarno was, though I can’t remember a thing about the Dawes Plan. Some research is clearly in order.

After the core seminar, we immediately headed upstairs to one of the lunchtime seminars being put on by the Changing Character of War Program. Today’s was on the changing character of war crimes and it seemed to be universally considered less than entirely compelling or useful. The speaker was unforgivably vague in a number of areas and generally failed to interrogate his own theoretical grounding, or even make clear what exactly he was trying to do. That said, the free sandwiches were much appreciated.

Today’s quantitative measures lecture was a big improvement over last week’s. While several concepts were still defined in unnecessarily vague and wooly terms and some of the maths were sprung out abruptly rather than decently explained, it managed to convey some essential ideas about sampling, bias, distributions, and the like. For those who would want to actually use much of this information, the class is absolutely tearing forward. Our two hour lecture next week is meant to finish up sampling distributions and cover the whole idea of hypothesis testing. I wouldn’t expect a non-genius without prior statistical experience to have a very good idea of the specifics of what is being taught, unless they are doing a good bit of outside reading and practice. The first statistics course I took at UBC covered this stuff over a few weeks worth of one hour lectures, with plenty of hands on activities.

After the last lecture, I walked with the St. Antony’s group to their college. As we turned from Manor Road onto St. Cross Road, I was quite surprised to see Evren walking up the road. Many of you may remember him as my first roommate at UBC as an undergraduate. We shared a two-bed room in Totem Park from September of 2001 until he moved out of residence early the next year. As you can tell from me not knowing his last name, we were not particularly close. All this was back during the time when Sarah Johnston lived in Totem, as did Lindi. I appreciatively recall her treating me, on some nights, to lovely renditions of Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the piano. Having run into his friend Guillaume in Montreal twice now, I was quite startled to find Evren in Oxford, apparently working on an M.Phil in Economics (like Margaret).

In anticipation of the next two batches of scholarship applications, I printed thirty passport sized photos today. Due to the odd pricing system at the photo shop on Cornmarket street, thirty cost the same amount as five would have, and they were finished more quickly as well. I’ve used twenty-two of these little photos in Oxford so far, and I need six more just for the Commonwealth Scholarship application. Having thought about it more than was really worthwhile, I maintain that there is no legitimate reason for which a scholarship committee should request photographs. It can only contribute to bias.

The Domestic Bursar has given me a three-day extension, until the 21st, to pay my battels. It seems extremely unlikely that it will happen by then, as I only mailed the authorization yesterday and, even once the electronic transfer occurs, the bank will hold it for some unspecified period of time before being willing to release it. I am now very close to having completed the lengthiest screening for money laundering risk that a reasonable person could be asked by a bank to endure. To celebrate, the bank sent me a fake bank card (I am not joking) and instructions that I should walk over to my home branch to get a real one. Astonishingly, the Bank of Montreal tells me that the issue of whether or not to transfer money internationally “is at the sole discretion of the branch.” No, no – I don’t think we’re going to let you withdraw money from your account right now. You see, we’ve grown rather fond of it.

After making dinner and running errands (including the purchase of a French press and coffee), I went to meet some IR students at The Eagle and Child: the pub that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to frequent. I arrived about twenty minutes after Anna advised us to and, despite two thorough sweeps, found it to be as devoid of IR M.Phil students as the web forum I have been trying to cajole them into using. It was the first time in Oxford when I’ve wished I had a cell phone. Wherever they wandered to or ended up, I hope they had a good time. It was probably befitting of a graduate student to spend the evening reading Hedley Bull, anyhow. After spending C$56.00 today on a coffee press, quarter kilo of coffee, and set of photographs, it’s probably a better idea for my finances as well.

Tomorrow, I am invited to make another foray into the Oxford library system with Emily. It will be good to get my hands on some of the required books before everyone else descends upon them. Helpfully, they have now scheduled the two seminar groups to cover different topics in different weeks. The Social Sciences Library is definitely the best resource, in terms of materials available, though my fondness for the Codrington as a place in which to read continues to grow.

On Thursday, Emily has invited me to come to dinner at St. Antony’s. Speaking of that elegant and animated young woman: when introducing someone on the blog, I’ve learned to be cautious in how much I say about them. It can be quite hard to anticipate how people will respond to having information about them splashed about in the wilds of the internet. Emboldened by her comments on the matter today, I feel at liberty to disclose a little more.

I’ve found that one of the more interesting things about Canadians introducing themselves in Oxford is what part of the country, if any, they initially describe themselves as being from. Some refer to specific cities, others to provinces, others to regions. My standard answer is ‘western Canada.’ From what I have heard, Emily doesn’t seem to identify exclusively with one region of Canada or another, though she has spent a lot of time in British Columbia. It must be interesting to have such peripatetic parents as hers, not to mention a pair of artists for forebears. Emily herself I know fairly little about, though I appreciate the vitality which she projects. To write more now risks misrepresenting her, and embarrassing myself, through speculation.

Emily suggested, as we were walking into our quantitative methods lecture, that I ought to sell editing services to undergraduates, as opposed to being experimented on for small amounts of cash. Having worked for the history, political science, and international relations journals at UBC, as well as having looked over dozens of essays for friends, I suppose it’s something I could do fairly well. My concerns would be, firstly, the negative association that exists with regards to “essay editors” at university. Some, it cannot be denied, are little more than plagiarism assistants. Secondly, I worry about the amount of time such work might take up. It’s one thing to look over a paper for Emily which is based on readings I have generally done, a topic which I am in the process of examining, and an area that I will have to discuss in the future. It’s rather another to be thrown into some unfamiliar discipline. Still, it bears consideration as a possibility – especially during the vacations between terms. Coming up on my first monthly financial analysis, it is evident that a few extra Pounds would not hurt at all.

Aside from library explorations with Emily tomorrow, I am meeting Dr. Hurrell at four, before which I should definitely review my paper and perhaps a few of the key readings which I make reference to in it. It seems a bit odd to me how nervous people become about meeting their supervisors. After all, these people have seen phalanx after phalanx of graduate students march nervously past them. Getting agitated about interacting with them seems like a mechanism for diminishing a collegial spirit and the development of an effective and equitable relationship.

Immediately after meeting him, I am to meet with Margaret, which I am sure will be both pleasant and interesting. It seems that she may be taking up an offer to teach in South Africa during the period between the two years of the M.Phil. The idea reminds me that I really need to make an effort to find a decent job for myself during that period. Minimum wage, service sector toil is no longer an acceptable option.

[1] I am guessing that his GMail username is a more accurate spelling of his name than the one on our class list. (On a related note, I was amused today to find a piece of mail that butchered not my name, but that of the college. Mail from a bank in Oxford.) 

Time with Emily

Radcliffe Camera

I got my jabs this morning and then spent an agonizing few hours trying to deal with the Bank of Monteal, NatWest, and the Domestic Bursary. The last of those is open for exactly three hours a day and the first has all of its computer servers down for maintenance. Meanwhile, NatWest seems to think that it will take as long as 28 days for a wire transfer from Canada to actually clear, even after the Bank of Montreal charges me $120 for it. To just deposit a normal cheque from BMO into NatWest could apparently take twice as long, all while the college is imposing a 26% rate of interest on outstanding fees. This information I passed to the secretary of the Domestic Bursar, who says she will check if I can get an extension. I still haven’t heard anything about paying my tuition fees, which are about three times as large at my battels.

After finally leaving Wadham, around 11:30, I went and bought my first Venti dark roast in England, at a cost of £1.75 (C$3.63). The Starbucks on Cornmarket, near the intersection with the High Street, is quite enormous and extends back from the roadway like a burrow. While there, I learned that Sulawesi here costs £8.80 (C$18.30) a pound. Since drip coffee in cups costs 1.73 times as much here, and ground coffee is only 1.18 times as expensive, the logic of buying a French press becomes plain. I will take a look at Boswell’s after my classes tomorrow.

After a bit of coffee and solo reading, I met Emily on the south side of the Radcliffe Camera and took her into the Codrington Library, where we read for a few hours. The combination of the setting and the company worked very well for me. I finished Avi Shlaim’s book and this week’s Economist. Possibly due to the coffee, I felt that I retained much more of what I read. Afterwards, Emily and I discussed the core seminar topic for tomorrow, walked to Wadham, and then sauntered over to St. Antony’s. Like Nuffield, it is an all-graduate college, focused on the social sciences, and difficult to become a member of. Located northwards, past Rhodes House and Keble College, though not as far off as St. Hugh’s, it is situated at the intersection of Bevington and Woodstock roads. I saw it only extremely briefly, but I would definitely like to return. As the last major IR library where I am not registered to read, I have a particular as well as a general impetus to do so.

I quite like Emily and am delighted that she has invited me for dinner at St. Antony’s this Thursday. With a mother from British Columbia, now living in Vermont, and a father who lives in Oxford, I suppose she would be the ideal liaison between this culture and then one I was embedded in for twenty years previously. Her areas of interest at the moment centre on the role of media in warfare and the issue of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. Both seem to me like issues likely to provoke long and interesting discussions.

This evening, I have been reading Fromkin’s hefty The Peace to End All Peace, drinking tea, and preparing an outline for the presentation I have a 1/6 chance of being called upon to deliver tomorrow morning. Fromkin’s entire book is directly relevant to this week’s question, though it far exceeds my capability to read the bulk of six hundred dense pages during the evening of a day that has already been well saturated with differing views on the character of post-Ottoman Syndrome. I will also read Michelle’s paper and at least begin to edit Emily’s before I go to sleep. Wisdom in a coffee press, indeed.

With a two page outline written up, I feel fairly well prepared for the eventuality that I will be called upon to present tomorrow. I must make an effort to understand the nature of examinations here and thus what portion of this material I will be required or expected to retain. If I knew for certain that these outlines would at least help me revise, they would seem less like a gamble on an unlikely outcome. Of course, Dr. Hurrell has indicated that he wants an essay on the Middle East peace settlement after WWI at some point. I shall ask him when on Wednesday, when we are to discuss my paper on German and Austrio-Hungarian war guilt. I must also remember to press him about writing me a letter for the Commonwealth Scholarship, as Allen Sens has already done.

Having to develop a comprehensive answer to a specific question definitely requires a lot more reading than simple participation in a seminar would. In the latter scenario, all you need are a few clever observations on topics relevant to the discussion, to be deployed at various points throughout the discussion as testaments to the power of your insight. Having to take a stand on such a huge question leaves you with long and undefended borders to the territory of your knowledge, all of them vulnerable to those who actually have a broad understanding of the theory and history involved.

Stuck in a library, perhaps, but with thoughts in loftier places

The Social Sciences Library

Despite another mishap with my alarm clock, I managed to do quite well today. With two short breaks outside excluded, I was in the Social Sciences Library for the entire six hour span from opening to closing. To start with, I read the relevant half of Shlaim Avi’s War and Peace in the Middle East. While very readable, it underscored just how little I know about the region at the time. It would be quite impossible to develop a comprehensive knowledge of it by Tuesday. Actually, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of this academic approach. On the basis of no actual instruction, we are being called upon to synthesize weekly arguments on the basis of highly detailed, numerous, and academic accounts. While it’s a game that I have some ability to play, I don’t really think it is making me more knowledgeable or capable.

Despite my doubts, and bolstered by two sandwiches prepared from materials purchased at Sainsbury’s, rather than purchased directly from there, I carried on reading. I finished half of Elizabeth Monroe’s Britain’s Moment in the Middle East: 1914-71. It too was fairly good to read, though it made many references to personages and no-longer-extant political entities that I know nothing about. As with Avi, I at least maintain the gist of the argument. Once I finish reading the relevant sections from David Fromkin’s The Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East I should have enough raw material to build a decent fifteen minute presentation about.

During one of today’s short intra-library breaks, I created a Google Group for the graduate freshers in the IR program. It will be publicly accessible, in case anyone is interested. I am hoping to use it to coordinate weekly meetings with the six other members of my heptet for the core seminar. Since none of us will be able to do all the readings, it would be enriching for all of us to have a short discussion before the actual seminar takes place. Doing so should also reduce some of the stress and wastefulness associated with having everyone prepare presentations independently.

An hour after the library closed, I met Margaret outside Nuffield. Through the light rain, we wandered to a coffee shop on St. Aldate’s, which is open until midnight every day of the week. While I can’t remember the extended form of its name, it abbreviates to G and D’s. It is located quite near the music shop where Nora bought a guitar string and not far from Christ Church College, the Head of the River, and the Folly Bridge (each progressively farther south).

As before, talking with Margaret was relaxed and pleasant. I learned that we share the intention of eventually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. As I recall, someone from my father’s firm climbed it at some point during the past few years. It’s something I would rather like to do during one of the stretches between terms, if only so that I could mildly amaze people who asked me what I did over the course of the vacation. After coffee, we wandered to Wadham and then back to Nuffield, where I left her in the company of her friend Anna.

Tomorrow morning, I am to visit the Wadham doctors on Beaumont Street for a meningitis and mumps vaccination. After that, I shall return to the scrutinizing of The Peace to End All Peace before meeting Emily at one. In case I haven’t mentioned her already, Emily is part of the IR M.Phil group, Canadian, located at St. Antony’s, and an alumna of Brown. I wonder if she knew Eva. She has kindly invited me, at some indefinite future point, to come to dinner at her college.

Other tasks for tomorrow include learning what NatWest would charge me if I simply wrote a cheque from the Bank of Montreal for the amount I want to transfer, rather than going through the bother of acquiring, signing, and mailing an Agreement for Verbal and Facsimile Transmissions to my home branch, then authorizing a wire transfer that will cost $50. In a related task, I need to go formally request an extension for paying my battles from the Domestic Bursar. They will have started charging me interest on the 14th. I also need to contact the department about why they haven’t sent me a bill for my first term tuition and the BC student loans office about why they haven’t sent me anything in months. It should be more-or-less obvious by now that the above list is mostly for my benefit, because it is very useful to have such things in places where you can find them quickly and they cannot be lost.

Looking through the glossy brochure for the Oxford Union, there is much that makes it tempting. They seem to have a fairly large lending library, which is always a valuable resource (especially when it is focused on history and politics). They regularly have excellent speakers: presidents of countries, Salman Rushdie, Terry Pratchett, and Jeffery Sacks this term alone. They have a couple of nice looking member’s lounges, complete with the availability of £1 pints. Up until Thursday of next week, I could get a lifetime membership for £156 (C$340). After that, it becomes even more expensive. At a third of the cost, I would join readily. As it stands, I think that I shall not. $340 would go a fair way towards my eventual Kilimanjaro climb.

Kilimanjaro is 5,895m tall: 4.7 times as high as Grouse Mountain, which is what Alison, Jonathan, and I meant to climb a few days before I left. While the comparison is obviously quite deceptive, in terms of the respective difficulty of the climbs, it does offer the hope that it would not be an entirely impossible thing to actually pull off. Climbing Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro requires neither rock nor ice climbing skills, the major difficulty being the need to acclimatize to prevent altitude sickness. The climb can apparently be done in as little as four or five days. Wikipedia tells me that 15,000 people a year try to climb Kilimanjaro, though only 40% persist to the summit. Seeing how eminently feasible it would be to make an attempt in the next few years, my determination to do so increases considerably. It might be a good way to celebrate the completion of my M.Phil. Obviously, it would require quite a lot of fitness training beforehand.

I should, in any event, stop wandering through Kilimanjaro sites and return to the enormously less interesting task of reading for my core seminar.

Sub fusc and matriculation

Matriculation garb and bagel

We matriculated today. I woke up early and bought a cap and bow tie, as well as a Sainsbury’s sandwich and bagels for breakfast, before returning to Wadham to get dressed in ‘sub fusc’ for the first time. Sub fusc, for men, means a dark suit with black shoes, a white bow tie, an academic cap, and a robe appropriate to the level of the degree for which you are reading.

Once we were all suitably attired, we attended a short introduction in hall, followed by a tedious roll call. We then walked the short distance to the Sheldonian Theatre where a short exchange in Latin between a pair of officials was followed by a slightly longer speech in English. During the course of the event, we all officially became lifetime members of the University of Oxford, as we were already members of our respective colleges. Unlike in the past, when the university administered a matriculation test in Latin to ensure the colleges are not admitting dullards, they were willing to take us on faith about the colleges and departments respective abilities to select. We then spent a tedious hour or so being sorted by height, re-given the roll call, assembled, photographed, and dismissed in the main quad of Wadham. It’s the only time so far I’ve seen people walking on the grass.

After matriculation, I went and got some vegetarian lunch with Nora at the Wheatsheaf before visiting the larger Sainsbury’s near Bonn Square and returning to Wadham. The more distant Sainsbury’s is enormously larger than the one at the intersection of Cornmarket and Broad Streets, beside the graveyard, where I have done all my shopping so far. The produce seemed to be marginally less fresh, but there was definitely a far greater selection to be had. They even had bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale (which my mother bought me for my goodbye party) for 50p less than the JCR bar. Aside from two of those, I bought cheese, bread, vegetable soups, apples, bananas, and a few other trinkets.

I really do have an exceptional amount of work to do, though I am feeling strangely incapable of coming to grips with it. Dealing with masses of reading is neither a talent of mine nor something that frequently appeals to me. My biggest advantage seems to lie in circumstances where very little time exists for comtemplation and deliberation. My advantage over more dilligent others diminishes as the time alloted to complete a task increases. Despite that tendency, as a graduate student I suppose I will need to come to terms with lengthy readings – particularly by sorting out the structural arrangements under which it will take place. The resumption of something along the lines of my round-the-dinner table tea and reading sessions with Meghan and Tristan would be welcome. I may also need to overcome my quibbles about the cost and buy a French press and some coffee.

In the evening, between stretches of reading, I spoke with my mother over Skype and sent her some photos from the matriculation ceremony. I was glad to hear that my family is doing well, though Sasha isn’t attending school because of a labour dispute. Hopefully, it will end soon.

Tomorrow, I am hoping to spend the better part of six hours reading in the Social Science Library on Manor Road. I have a great deal of preparation to do for my core seminar and for the paper that Dr. Hurrell eventually wants on the same topic. It has been difficult, so far, to motivate myself for course-oriented readings. As I told Nora, my brain is a bit like a large industrial wood chipper. It can process a lot of information quickly, under the right circumstances, but it draws a lot of power and can be quite dangerous for the operator if used carelessly or when in a poor state of repair. Getting all those spinning blades running smoothly together, without losing too many limbs and pints of blood, basically defines my big personal project for the next short while.

I don’t know whether it’s the product of dissolved minerals in the water here or reflective of the chemical make-up of British tea, but it seems to be enormously more staining than the North American sort. My caffeine mug needs to be vigorously scrubbed with soap after each usage to remove one or more brown rings left deposited inside it by the Earl Grey it contained. It’s not something I ever experienced with any brand of tea in Canada.

I am still getting used to the distinctive taste of the water here, though it no longer jumps out at me quite as much as it did when I first arrived. As I’ve learned from almost all my travels, people in Vancouver should take delight in the quality of their tap water. While I am sure this water is entirely safe, and probably even charming in some English kind of way, it doesn’t have the character of newly melted snow, shipped from a resevoir located a forty minute walk of your house.

Several times in the past, I’ve referred to Library Court as a panopticon: a kind of prison invented by Jeremy Bentham in which all prisoners can see into one another’s cells and where they are at least potentially observed by a central watchman. While important to Bentham’s idea, there is no watchman here. Still, the idea of constant exposure to one another is quite useful for understanding how I feel about living here. The inescapable low-level mutual awareness is particularly true in an auditory fashion. While you can’t generally hear what is being said, you can always here when a conversation is going on and almost always determine who between. Sometimes, this can be uncomfortable for me. Living in Totem and in Fairview (except in my last year there), my neighbours were almost always hostile to me. That produces a kind of uncomfortable siege mentality, but also a reasonable sense of isolation and privacy. You may be stuck behind a wall, but at least you’re the only one on this side. Library Court offers less opportunity for isolation which is, in the end, a thing that I frequently need. I shall need to find other places in Oxford where it is feasible to be alone and, crucially, also possible to get work done.

Today’s short segments:

  • There is a new version of iTunes out, but after updating once only to find that the new version had crippled music sharing (only letting five people connect before it disables itself until you restart), I am wary of upgrading. It brings out the same nervousness as paying any amount for songs that there is no guarantee whatsoever will still play later on, as using any of the legitimate online music services requires.
  • Here is another description of Oxford today.

Week one over

Shelley's tomb in University College

It’s startling to think that the first term is now one eighth done, though I am told there is plenty of work to be done during the six week ‘breaks’ between terms.

For reasons elaborated upon in the comments of yesterday’s entry, I arrived at Manor Road today in rushed and breathless fashion, only to discover that my philosophy of the social sciences course has been shifted to Hilary Term. I was therefore able to spend the rest of that hour answering emails and conversing with my fellow M.Phil students. Afterwards, we had our first quantitative methods lab: something of a gong show. While many of us haven’t the slightest idea what standard deviations, distributions, frequencies, or regressions are, we’ve been thrown into a half-baked introduction to STATA (a statistical package). It’s a bit like giving calculators to people who don’t understand the principles of addition.

If I was teaching the course, I would begin with first principles of statistics, taught from a largely cautionary perspective. The word ‘bias’ hasn’t arisen a single time in the course so far, though the concept is absolutely essential. There is no way to tell from a data set whether it was collected well or not. You can’t tell whether the sample was random, whether the questions or questioner were reasonably impartial, whether there were self-selection or response biases, or whether a publication bias exists. Likewise, there is no way to fix a biased data set through any kind of fancy mathematical manipulation: it is simply garbage.

For most of the people in the M.Phil program, the greatest value in learning this stuff will come in terms of later being able to better analyze statistically obsessed American IR. (Because statistics are so empirical, rigorous, and scientific, you see.) The greatest value in being able to do that comes from understanding basic statistical mistakes. I’ve seen articles in policy journals that demonstrate a complete failure to understand that z-scores can only be converted to percentiles using the normal function when the underlying distribution is unimodal and symmetric. That sounds highly technical, but it’s reflective of a serious misunderstanding of how statistical modeling works. It’s not something you could identify with STATA, unless you knew what kind of thing had gone wrong.

After that stats lab, I walked with Emily and another of the M.Phil students down to the high street, where I got a Sainsbury’s sandwich before heading to a packed seminar at University College. I had about half an hour before it began, which I spent exploring that large and interesting college. Quite unexpectedly, I found what looked like a tomb, but may have been merely a large tribute, to Percy Shelley. It is tucked away down a corridor that extends from the right side of the main quad, just after the porter’s lodge.

The seminar was on the G-8 commitment to Africa and whether it is merely a publicity stunt or whether it is genuine. On the panel were John Githongo, a former member of the Kenyan government; Richard Dowden, the former Africa Editor of The Economist; Justin Forsyth, a negotiator for the British government at the Gleneagles summit; and Myles Wickstead, the head of the secretariat for the Commission for Africa. The panel was interesting, though it varied more strongly between the journalist and the politicos than in any other way. Mr. Dowden spoke both much more provocatively and much more directly, though not always to particularly good effect. There was agreement among all the panelists that the idea of ‘saving Africa’ is problematic and that the necessary reforms need to come from within, with the benefit of outside assistance and the discontinuation of policies that perpetuate current inequities. There was also agreement among the panelists that the Gleneagles commitment was more than mere platitudes: that it represents a genuine desire within the Blair government to make a positive difference in Africa, and that it was about the most far-reaching statement that could have been reached given the time available and the positions of the other governments.

Much was said about corruption, aid, debt relief, and disease. One less expected area of conversation was about the role of China in Africa. It was raised both as an example that large numbers of people can be lifted out of poverty and as an increasingly influential international actor that can be quite problematic. Richard Dowden mentioned specifically how attempts by developed governments to induce compliance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (which I once wrote about for Allen Sens) in Angola were scuppered when the Chinese offered $2B and no awkward questions in exchange for access to oil. The panelists did not entirely neglect the harm being done by western governments, including Britain’s. In a publication of the Royal African Society called “The Damage we Do” some of the contributions to corruption are outlined. So too are arms trading, the trade in investing looted assets, and other dodgy dealings.

Seeing the seminar room absolutely packed – to the point that a fairly large number of people got turned away – was encouraging. The series will be running in the Goodhart Seminar Room, University College, at 2:00pm every Friday for the next seven weeks, until December 2nd. My only regret about the event was that Margaret didn’t show up, in the end. I had been hoping to show her the Shelley monument I found, afterwards.

Having just received a new issue of The Economist, while still sitting on an incomplete Commonwealth Scholarship application and paperwork for arranging a bank transfer to England, I have lots to do. Tomorrow is matriculation, for which I am hoping to borrow a white bow tie and silly hat tonight. Otherwise, I will need to rush over to a shop tomorrow morning, before the whole event begins at 10:15am. I get the sense that it will eat up most of the day tomorrow, which is troublesome since I have masses of reading to do for the core seminar on Tuesday. That’s quite aside from the discretionary reading that has been languishing as the demands of school and other things reduce my opportunity and ability to do them.

Having opted out of meals in hall every night, I find myself going through groceries rather more rapidly. Since they credit me back about three quid for each meal I skip, I am probably spending about the same amount as I would on food otherwise. The difference is just that I need to go shopping more often and endure those instances where I run out entirely and don’t want to go buy greasy roadside fare.

PS. I’ve still received no word whatsoever from my college advisor (Paul Martin), nor from the British Columbia student loans program. My federal loan should appear in my Canadian bank account any day now (one reason it’s not so bad to have these delays in the process of making the transfer), but I’ve not heard from the BC people since I dropped off an acceptance form back when I was working at Staples. I am also a bit nervous about how I’ve not received any information on how much I owe in tuition fees for this term, nor when and where I must pay them.

PPS. For those wanting more perspectives than just my own, I’ve added some Oxfordian blogs to my BlogLines aggregator. Some of them look pretty snazzy.; they make this page look positively sparse. Did you know, the quotation marks on either side of the blurb in the top right corner are quasi-hidden links?

PPPS. Sorry about the excessive number of postscripts in these posts. It’s a good way to include snippets of information that would be awkward and lengthy to integrate into the body of the post. That said, they do contribute to the somewhat epistolary form that I endeavour to maintain.

P^4S. I wish I had my bicycle.