Sunday, May 28, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 28 - Day 9

Slept in until 0700 hrs. No more exams until Thursday, so enjoyed very quiet day with low-key Cold War reading. Work ethic was hampered by incident at lunchtime when I consumed a cup of tea, a glass of Pepsi and an entire packet of skittles over the course of approx. 30 minutes. Skittles provided sugar rush which inhibited coherent thought for much of afternoon; consumption of them was doubly foolish given that I had received two separate warnings about them. First was from Jenny, who argued that sweets were unpleasant and chocolate much better. Second was from Fate, which intervened to attempt to avert my Skittle consumption by having the packet explode as I tried to open it with rather too much force. Skittles flew everywhere, leaving only four left in remnants of packet. Warning went unheeded as I painstakingly picked Skittles out of sofa, clothes, hair etc and proceeded to ingest them. Still feel queasy. Intend to work slightly harder tomorrow.
Current mood: post-sugar rush downtime.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 27 - Day 8

Had unproductive day yesterday. Achieved nothing in morning. Spent afternoon trying to revise IR. Did very small amount of work well, but only succeeded in learning one set of notes out of five. Dispirited, went with Sara & Jenny to meet Donna out of her last medicine exam, in Summertown (North Oxford). We decided to take bus. Arrived at bus stop and realised that long line of people reaching halfway down St Giles was probably queue. Eventually found end of queue. Waited five minutes. Watched approx. 18 buses proceeding down opposite side of street in wrong direction. Decided to wait another five minutes before heading back to college for bicycles. Got nervous and only waited two minutes. Walking back to college, noted approx. 7 buses heading towards bus stop three minutes later.
Raced back to college and dusted off bike. Lock is not in good shape after nine months in the Garden Quad bike rack. Bike is not in good shape either. Got stuck miles behind Sara & Jenny after lock slipped and jammed pedal. Subsequently got caught by traffic light. Attempted to catch up; realised was grotesquely unfit and abandoned attempt. Realised did not know location of destination. Luckily, Sara and Jenny waited for me at appropriate traffic lights.
Found Justin (Donna's boyfriend & ex-Lawsoc President, now a trainee lawyer at Clifford Chance). He had previously irritated Donna by telling her he was unable to take day off work to meet her; secretly arrived to surprise her with small bottle of champagne. Romantic moment was somewhat undermined by other medics running around pouring ketchup, mayonnaise, glitter, etc on each other. Walked back to college talking consultancy, law & finance with Justin. Had awful foretaste of next year's lifestyle. Donna & Justin subsequently departed for celebratory long weekend getaway in Salzburg. Advised them jealously to aim for salt mines, Mozart, and Bierkellers.
Arrived back in college. Ate sandwich and brain seized up; decided stilton+mayonnaise is not brain food. Forced self to do further IR topic before giving up in disgust and going to bed at 2100 hrs. (Hence lack of log entry.)

Awoke 0500 hrs this morning to continue. Frantically crammed several weeks of material on globalization, power and international institutions over course of three hours. Drank two cups of coffee. Only succeeded in consuming half a slice of toast at first breakfast in sub fusc. Headed over to Exam Schools with Jenny & other PPEists. Felt truly ill. Burned with unpleasant nervous energy.
Upon entry into exam hall, continued to feel ill. Found desk and sat down. Glanced gloomily at front of paper. Noted with a shock that instructions on front were to answer with reference to events after 1985; had previously been informed that syllabus had changed to only include post-1990 era. Reflected that this did not matter. Glanced back at paper again and realised that paper it was printed on was much thinner than economics or CompGov papers. Managed to make out one question backwards just as instruction came out to turn papers over. Realised could answer it. Sick feeling began to dissipate. Turned paper over and closer inspection revealed three beautiful questions on globalization, democratic peace theory, and what US relations with the UN said about the nature of power. Ignored increasingly pained hand to write longest essay answers yet; felt that exam went extremely well (although reflected later that latter answer ought to have been less empirical). Finished last sentence just as instruction came out to stop writing.
IR tutorial essays were very weak, so potential had existed for collapse in exam. But I needed this exam to go well: the first three were always going to be about damage limitation, but all five subsequent ones provide chance to do well, so good exam was v important today. Luckily, estimate it was best yet: hard to predict result, but marks in the upper 60s seem very possible. Felt extremely relieved. Took afternoon off.

Yesterday's Mood: Clever, but slow.
Today's Mood: Tired, but happy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 25 - Day 6

Had excellent lie-in until 0750. Still felt exhausted upon awaking. Realised had not had day off for nearly three weeks. Decided to take morning off. Got to lunch. Decided to take afternoon off too. Did some shopping and washing up. Finished an issue of TLS. Read an entire issue of Time. Took nap. Decided to go for walk in parks.
Halfway around parks, came upon neatly folded ten pound note lying in dirt. Frowned. Bent down and picked it up to examine it. Ten pounds. Glanced furtively at nearby bushes to make sure was not being secretly filmed. Established that there was no-one nearby that it might belong to. Frowned back at note. Decided that it did not belong to me. Put it back in dirt and continued walking.
Bumped into Pete immediately afterwards. He was also (mostly) taking the day off. He voiced a thought that had previously occurred to me: after putting so much work in to acquire knowledge, the biggest constraint on the day can actually be physical impairment (exhaustion, lack of concentration) rather than not knowing enough. Felt justified in taking rest of day off.
Other people have started exams now. Jenny and Donna began yesterday. Kat's first was today. Everyone is at height of stress. Helped test Jenny in the evening with her revision note cards for her exam tomorrow morning. Very much enjoyed seeing so much knowledge that I did not have to learn. Very impressed by how much Jenny had learned. Had fun with making equations more memorable: hopefully Jenny will be better able to remember "Pete equals Poo minus Muty", the "132-troglodyte tea party", and "Fuck You, starry-o" as a result.
Have all of tomorrow to learn IR notes. Will launch back into work with a vengeance.

Current mood: der Geist Locarno (today as spirit (1925), tomorrow as ghost (1930)).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 24 - Day 5

Awoke 0630. Felt reasonably tired, but still elated from yesterday's microeconomics surprise. Felt excited at the prospect of today's Comparative Government exam, having decided that it could only be better than economics. Spent morning rereading notes. Felt confident.
Exam went badly. Was too tired from previous two days of exams to think clearly. First answer (judiciaries) was far too long, and subsequently other two answers (legislatures and interest groups) were short. Answers were not well structured and did not contain enough comparative evidence. Too exhausted to be anything other than resigned to bad mark. Estimate might get 60 - but this time, 60 is not cause for celebration. Next exam is IR on Saturday.
Returned home and suffered minor collapse of energy levels. Received e-mail announcing list of permitted calculators for Economics exams. Realised my calculator was not on it. Had purchased calculator three years ago specifically for use in exams and had subsequently used it once. Only remaining Economics exams is Demography, the one exam where I require my calculator. Politics students taking the paper - and human scientists - may use whichever calculator they like. Flew into burning rage (the "Calculator Fury"). Fired off irate email to economics tutor. Abated only when Sarah offered to lend me her (permitted) calculator.
Decided needed to unwind. Wiped off shot glass stolen from Salamanca chupiteria with Kat. Poured out measure of tequila, finishing bottle bought in 11th grade in commemoration of first drinking experience with Caroline in Hague hotel room (tequila & skittles). Put on Something Corporate and proceeded to wallow in nostalgia. Exhausted.

Current mood: "Oh, just say you'll miss me, one last time and I'll be strong".

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 23 - Day 4

Awoke 0630 hrs as per usual. Felt exhausted. Morning revision poor quality. Decided to take walk around parks. Realised did not have time to take walk around parks. Eventually took revision with me on walk around parks. Sat on bridge over river and attempted to read about trade theory. Notes got wet in sudden rain shower. Realised had reread same paragraph eight times and still did not understand it. Closer inspection revealed that paragraph concerned piece of theory I had understood very well four days previously. Gave up on outdoor revision.
Decided that food was required. Walked across college to Najar's Hut for tuna melt panini and Diet Coke. Najar tells me eight exams is too many. Am in complete agreement.
Ate panini and drank coke. Immediately felt ill. Lay down on bed for approx 43 minutes. Decided that rich, greasy food and fizzy drink were perfect complements to nervousness with regard to impairment of exam preparation. Castigated self for framing sorry situation in terms of microeconomic theory. Went to toilet and threw up lunch.
Decided that microeconomics was not worth being nervous enough to throw up over. Chewed some gum and put on sub fusc. Glowered at random objects in room. Walked to lodge to meet the others to walk down to Schools.
Was nervous as before in lobby before being called into South Schools writing room, but felt much calmer upon entry into hall. Opened paper. Realised something totally unanticipated had happened: there were four questions on the paper that I knew the answer to.
Experienced first ever moment of economics-related euphoria. Answered beautiful questions on optimal import tariff barriers, adverse selection in insurance markets, imperfect information in competition policy, and economic costs of biodiversity loss. Managed nearly three full pages for each. Realised at end that exam had actually gone as well as could have possibly hoped for; estimate might even scrape a 60 overall. Then realised would never need to think about economics again. Smiled, widely. Only politics papers left. Suddenly feel much more optimistic.

Today's Mood: "Hold the line! Hold the liiiiine!" (Private Benedetto in morning; Strong Bad in afternoon.)

Monday, May 22, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 22 - Day 3

Awoke 0630 hrs according to schedule. Had anticipated terror; actual feeling was anger and determination to succeed. The Fear wisely retreated to hide behind liver. Memorised one topic before breakfast and another between breakfast and lunch. Received carnations from Donna. Wore good-luck gold cufflinks from Granny.

Felt strangely calm walking to Exam Schools with Sarah, Rick, Pete & Duncan. Once inside, however, veil of fear fell. Upon arrival in exam hall, suffered panic attack. Manically read and reread all questions. Concluded could not answer any of them. Began making plan for question on savings and investment. Realised had not revised savings and investment. Abandoned plan. Noticed previously overlooked question on growth. Began answering it. Noticed alternative previously overlooked question on growth. Abandoned first essay attempt. Took deep breath; 20 minutes had passed. Began answering properly. First question (growth) went ok. Second question (unemployment & inflation) I thought was good, but then realised upon completion that it was scandalously short. May be marked down. Third and fourth (applied topics - monetary policy, and unemployment) went much better. Was really getting into it for last 45 minutes. Emerged from exam hall much more confident than when I went in.

Past paper scores from tutor on practice questions were mid-60s; exams went much worse, so estimate score in mid-50s. Solid II-2 - all I needed from Macroeconomics.

And now Macroeconomics is finished! Very good feeling. Returned home; felt much better upon receiving all the wishes of good luck (thank you all for being so kind - you know who you are). Realised had completely misunderstood question on growth. Began getting stuck into Micro.

Threw away some particularly useless Macro notes. Felt exceptionally happy. Realised how many hours of my life I had spent on preparing for that single three-hour exam. Decided to press on with forgetting it all as quickly as possible regardless.

Today's Mood: "I'm going to fucking nail this piece of shit paper!". And, subsequently, "bugger".

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 21 - Day 2

Awoke approx. 0730 hrs. 30 minutes before alarm. Experienced brief, euphoric absence of The Fear until end of breakfast. It returned, refreshed, at approx. 1030 hrs. Unable to sit still for most of day. Paced up and down room chanting economic mantras.
Completed re-reading growth theory notes and sat down to read Economist over dinner with aim of relaxing. Found article in Economist: "Splendid new book on growth theory!". Choked on pizza.
Ironed shirts and polished shoes. Approximately 15.5 hrs left until exam. Estimate this is still ages. Will watch Star Wars in evening.
Current mood: Partway between psyched and terrified.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Candidate's Log, May 20 - Day 1

Awoke at precisely 0630 hours. Realised that only two days remaining until exam #1. Located The Fear. It was lodged at the bottom of my rib cage. Estimate has doubled in size overnight. Attempted to poke it. No effect.

Jittery throughout breakfast. Noticed Jenny drank approx. 6 cups of coffee. She has begun jumping at sudden noises. Found this amusing until 1116 hrs when pigeon flew into my window with loud thud and I fell off my seat in terror. Bird appears to have survived as no corpse visible below window. A number of feathers and an unpleasant liquid remained on window, however. Wiped them off with kitchen paper.

Experienced closest thing to nervous breakdown in my life at approx. 1230 hrs. Halfway through practice essay on globalisation, realised I couldn't define globalisation. Ripped half-finished essay into tiny pieces and threw them across room. Banged head on table and clenched fists for 20 seconds. Took deep breath. Gingerly retrieved pieces of paper and deposited them in paper recycling. Read Economist for 40 minutes.

More success in afternoon. Despite needing unprecedented two walks around university parks to remain calm, did manage to complete three practice essay questions in International Relations. Decided to avoid Sarah's group invitation to walk down to exams together; hearing other (far more intelligent) PPEists discussing macroeconomics prior to exam could bring on sudden illness. Did not manage to begin demography practice essays.

Mood: Approaching breakdown.


Fun with Examinations

There are lots of tell-tale signs now. Everyone is suddenly worried about having enough clean, ironed white shirts. Breakfast conversation turns to who is buying carnations for whom. A good luck card arrives from Paris. A half-hour break in the bar turns into an hour and a half because neither of us can bear any more work that night. Six-thirty morning starts are now de rigeur. Personal hygiene starts to suffer. I run out of shower gel, but don't buy any more for three days, and even then I only get some because I happen to be in town anyway to buy a watch that will enable me to mark the passage of 45 minutes and 60 minutes when separated from my mobile phone. I realised this morning when I put on my shirt that I'd forgotten to shave. Oh well. I have other priorities.

The exams are just two days away now, which means that a swirling little ball of tension has lodged itself just above my stomach. Oxford exams have a fearsome reputation - Classics Mods are reckoned to be the second-hardest set of exams in the world, after the CIA entrance exams - and for good reason. Everything that I have done at university up to this point is completely meaningless. The entirety of my degree class rests on how I perform over the next two and a half weeks. Eight three-hour exams; twenty-six timed essays; then done. There are no resits.

The sheer terror that is associated with Finals has a lot to do with the fact that no-one really understands them. Conversations are suddenly full of terrified exchanges bounding away from casual comments. "Wait, are we not allowed to answer questions on the same topic on different exams?" "Hang on, is the degree class awarded on the basis of the number of papers in that class or the average mark?" This is all complicated by the fact that every subject has different rules. The tutors, who one would normally rely upon for advice, are thoroughly confused as well: they're used to the palaeolithic (and impenetrable) "alpha beta minus" system that Oxford only recently did away with, so they don't know what's going on either.

For PPE, it works like this. Every paper is given a score out of 100. A score above 70 is a I (a first), above 60 is a II-1 (a "two-one", or upper second), above 50 is a II-2 (a "two-two", or lower second), above 40 is a III (a third), above 28 is a Pass (no honours), and there is no score below 28. Below 28, you get a 0, and that means that you fail overall. If, on the other hand, you get two or more papers above 80, you pass overall anyway. Needless to say, scores above 80 are extremely rare, so if you get two then you're arguably a certified genius. In order to get a degree of a certain class, you have to get three papers within that class (or just two for a first) and an average score above two points below the class boundary. So, for a II-1, you have to have three papers scoring above 60 and an average score of 58.

Easy, right? The number of people scoring below 55, after all, is almost as small as the number scoring above 80. Unfortunately, having received an average score of 53 on my first year exams (including a dismal 46 in economics, which was surely one of the lowest marks in my year), I dare not rest easy. My tutorial essays since then have largely been good - and, indeed, I've put in at least three times as much work for each paper for Finals as I did for Prelims - but still, it is an extremely daunting prospect. If I get a II-2 now, after all this work, I don't think I could bear it.

Oxford exams do at least have some entertaining pomp and circumstance surrounding them. They are usually taken in Examination Schools, a beautiful old building with ornate exam halls and vast portraits of forgotten Lords and Dukes peering down at you accusingly. One has to dress up in a full suit, white shirt, white bow tie, and gown (women only need bother with shirt, gown, and - strangely - a black ribbon), and the convention is to pin a carnation to your label - a white one for your first exam, pink for the ones in the middle, and red for the last one. I'm desperately hoping, firstly, that the gold cufflinks my grandmother gave me will bring me luck, and secondly, that I shan't get my suit ruined by having eggs, flour, or anything else sprayed all over me upon finishing the last one (finishing usually being a cause for celebration).

It does seem like an amazing prospect - having them all over, being done - but at the same time, I am dubious as to whether the swirling ball of tension will really dissolve until I find out the results. In the meantime, some more practice essays from past papers await me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The Papers (cont'd)

I've been watching Yes, Prime Minister recently - a birthday present from my sister catalysed me to purchase the entirety of the show on DVD. There are many, many wonderful lines in it, but this one yesterday particularly made me laugh. To paraphrase it:

"Prime Minister, you worry too much about what the papers say. They exist only to reinforce the pre-existing prejudices of their readers."

"Oh, you don't need to tell me about the papers! I know all about the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Times is read by people who actually do run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by the people who own the country. The Morning Star is run by people who think the country ought to be run by another country. And the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is."

"Prime Minister, what about people who read The Sun?"

"Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits."

Ahh, how little things have changed since 1987...

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Revision Intolerance

Jess Granger emails me through this, which she clearly spent an excellent hour writing up as procrastination. Having now fled the library because other people stress me out too much, I sympathise with rather more than two of the phenomena described:

"Hello my pretties,

Just thought a bit of light-hearted self-ridicule was called for... inspired by my Wadham friend who hit the nail on the head of the current mood with the concept of 'Revision Intolerance'.

If you can identify with more than two of the following symptons, then I reckon you're suffering from this terrible seasonal disorder:

1. You hate people who say their revision is going really badly (You have it so much worse).

2.You hate people who say their revision is going really well. (They have no idea how you feel the genius pieces of crap).

3. You hate people who say it's going 'so so'and get on with their lives. (How dare they be so annoyingly flippant about something that keeps you awake at night. They're probably on drugs the fucking well-rounded individuals).

4. You hate people who greet you with that mock-sympathetic, mock-bemused "so how's It going?" when you both know exactly what It is and that they don't really care about your pain so why the hell do they have to remind you of it every minute of every day, and casually stroll on by leaving you riddled with guilt as to why you're not in the library *right now*...

5. You hate people who never ask "how's it going?" just pulled off an 8 hour stint in the library, you haven't spoken to anyone all day, and the lost little five year old in you is yearning for praise....

6. You're forgetting to wash, sleep, change clothes, and living off the vending machine.

7. Your dreams are filled with nightmares of being chased by out for the green one. He's twisted.

8. You burst into tears when someone moves your favourite pen from your workspace.

9. You feel physically violated when somebody sits in Your Space in the library.

10. You tend to end up spinning round on chairs plaintively saying to yourself "spin...spin..."

11. If someone dares to eat in the library, every munch is like a jackhammer on your brain and you pray that they choke on it. Quietly.

12. You want to issue a full page manual on "how to NOT wait until you're in the library to prepare your notes" to everyone who dares rustle through all their papers, hole-punch, file, staple, unclick their lever-arch files, rustle plastic bags, print, photocopy, tear paper from their spiral notebooks. Scissor users should be shot.

13. You end up making poems about your topic just to Pretend Its All Fun (for the record "You may think Economic loss is really quite a doss....")

14. You step out of the library and have to shield your eyes and cower away from natural sunlight.

15. Mobile phones are the work of the Devil.

16. You just want to yell to people who work in groups " get a FUCKING ROOM!"

17. People who throw paper at each other and giggle do not belong in a serious working environment and are the scum of the earth who deserve to bleed to death from paper cuts.

18. You think that countdowns to the start of the exams must include half days, hours and preferably minutes to truly reflect your remaining available revision time. Anyone who rounds down such a calculation is an evil arrogant bastard who obviously wants to cause you an early death from shock.

19. You are already starting to hoard secret supplies of Pro-Plus but you can Stop Any Time You Want.

20. You're getting Early Nights that you would have been ashamed of as a twelve year old.

21. You find yourself idly wondering how easily one could assemble the materials to create a huge Wicker Man on the quad in which to burn all those first and second years who dare frolic away their summer terms in assessment-free intoxication and reading for pleasure....the ones who come back wasted at 3am in the morning singing and pointing and laughing at you through the library windows will be made to watch the others die first in order to prolong their suffering.

22. You really wish your parents would call.

23. Facebook procrastination has never before brought such tears of joy to your eyes : whenever someone posts on your wall you Feel Loved in the empty void of the library.

24. You can't remember the last time you left college grounds.

25. Anyone who leaves the library before you at night is a an arrogant, hubristic show-off who you hope dies shamed by their Pass and runs crying from the exam hall yelling "if only I'd stayed longer..." while you smugly finish your first-worthy answer...

26. Anyone who leaves the library after you is obviously a messed up geek who you're very sure must soon crack under the pressure, and THAT'll show them for trying to make you feel unclean with guilt for slacking off early to take a healthy sensible break.

27. Everyone should just leave you alone when you're stressed (they don't understand you).

28. You just wish everyone would chill out and act normal (you can't understand them).

29. Everyone sucks

30. Work sucks.

Enjoy, Jess x"


The Shape of Things to Come

Predicting the future is always a bit of a silly game: it's near impossible to get it right, meaning that we really just do it for fun. But sometimes you see an historical parallel that's just too good, so here goes.

In 1919, Germany had lost an epic struggle, and it blamed that loss on treacherous elements within the state. It's economy collapsed for a chaotic decade, and its people came to yearn for the sure touch of an authoritarian nationalist leader who could restore Germany's place in the world and purge its society of all of the people who made it weak. The result was, arguably, the greatest catastrophe in human history.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed - and Russia today has far too much in common with late Weimar Germany. The loss of an epic struggle (the Cold War), blamed not upon defeat by a worthy adversary but upon capitulation by a spineless leader (Gorbachev is widely reviled in Russia). The fall was followed by chaos as the economy collapsed and organised crime flourished. Putin rides high in the opinion polls not for doing a good job but for offering a firm hand and strong, authoritarian leadership. The international humiliation which followed the fall was accentuated by a territorial dismemberment which has left Russia surrounded by tiny, weak states with sizeable ethnic Russian minorities, which Russia clearly seeks to dominate. Racism and xenophobia are
rampant and closely connected to nationalism in the street gangs of skinheads who beat up and murder foreigners and ethnic minorities (including Jews). Moreover, parties of the extreme right are the only non-Kremlin ones that do well: rumour has it that the far-right Motherland party was created by the Kremlin in 2003 to drain votes away from the Communists, but suffered a ban from Moscow's local elections last December not because of its hideously racist propaganda ("Let's rid our city of rubbish") but rather because it was in danger of becoming too popular.

Obviously, there are no end of ways in which Russia in 2006 differs from Germany in 1930. Germany was weak and internally divided; its economy was in a nose dive. Russia, with its vast reserves of gas, is becoming ever more of a powerful economic force. Germany had never accepted all of the conditions imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles; Russia's disintegration happened from within and was not imposed at all. German politics was marked by a huge and tremendous pluralism, characterised at both ends of the political spectrum by anti-system parties; Russia doesn't have any pluralism at all, with all meaningful power concentrated in the hands of the gentlemen in the Kremlin and no chance whatsoever of an election upset that would see the "wrong" people returned to power.

But the danger is that precisely this concentration of power could indeed fall into the hands of someone more irresponsible than Putin (comparatively): ugly nationalism lurks beneath the surface, and if Putin's successors find their popularity waning or their election campaigns flagging, the temptation to appeal to it will be very great indeed. (Putin's authoritarianism, after all, is built on a foundation of genuine popularity - so genuine large-scale opposition would undermine it significantly.) And if they do, none of the political consolidation that Hitler had to do after taking office would be necessary, since all the power that they need would already be concentrated in their hands.

Extreme nationalism usually has two strands: xenophobically blaming the outsider for all of society's problems, and pushing externally to expand (or recover) your country's prestige and position in the world. The former is already happening, and the organs of state seem wholly indifferent to it. The latter is also happening on a very small scale, but a more militarily assertive Russia in the future would surely seek territorial redress from the surrounding countries who uneasily harbour Russian minorities. Belarus and Kazakhstan probably would be amenable to increased Russian influence, but Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia most certainly would not be. Easily the best way to strengthen their positions would be through westward integration, but apart from the three Baltic states, the European Union - its members fat, complacent, oblivious, and liable to scurry in different
directions whenever Russia mentions gas supplies - is dragging its feet on consolidating an Eastern European presence that is the best strategic move it could make. Ukraine in particular is torn between Europe and Russia and needs encouragement; the other putative accession countries to the south-east - especially Serbia and Turkey - are also now wavering. The EU should consolidate its position urgently and beef up its foreign policy coordination - and, if it's sensible, it should also consolidate its 25 (soon to be 27) separate militaries into a more unified force that would reduce duplication and waste and actually provide an effective deterrent.

There is another parallel with the inter-war years: the countries of Western Europe today, like the true believers in the doomed League of Nations, think that a new world order has dawned in which war between the powers is inconceivable. The difference between then and now is that, within Europe, it really is. Attitudes have changed and cooperation is too entrenched - for the moment. But to rely on this new mood in external relations as well as internal ones would be akin to the hopeful but misguided belief in Locarno: nothing more than a chimera.

More optimistically, the United States never stopped seeing things in geo-strategic terms, and the recent speech by Vice-President Dick Cheney shows that America is taking Russia seriously. America is moving where the EU will not, by throwing open the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine and Serbia. But America is complacent too, driven by domestic politics to be fixated on using geopolitics to tackle a problem - terrorism - that has more in common with organised crime in the age of globalisation than it does with wars between states.

We are very lucky at the moment to live in a stable and increasingly prosperous world. These predictions may well be completely wrong, and I certainly hope that it will remain stable and prosperous forever. But that seems like wishful thinking. Rising powers - Russia, China, India - inevitably suffer clashing interests with pre-existing hegemons. On the bright side, there's no reason why responsible countries can't talk about their differences and sort them out peacefully, but Russian meddling in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (and Chinese difficulties in relations with Japan) shows that general amicability is not a reasonable expectation. Also on the bright side - strangely enough - is the fact that in the modern world, geopolitical restraint is brought on by nuclear deterrence, making war between major powers very unlikely. But still, in my opinion, we really ought to enjoy today's uni-polar lull in international tensions for as long as it lasts - because it isn't going to last forever.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Distracting Myself

There are some people - I shall name no names - who have the marvellous and enviable ability to sit down in the morning and start working, and then continue working, with only brief breaks for food and water, until late in the evening, accomplishing vast amounts over the course of a very productive day's work. These people, I would imagine, are probably exceptionally self-disciplined and have excellent reserves of mental energy. They are not easily distracted. They will go far in life.

I am most assuredly not one of them. I find it rather difficult to keep my attention fixed on a given topic for any great length of time, unless it happens to be tremendously interesting. Today's work - the microeconomic theories underlying public goods, externalities, and international trade - is not. I thus find myself writhing in my seat, desperate for ways to distract myself.

There are various sorts of distraction. Some types are actually quite productive: doing the washing up, for instance, or the laundry, or the ironing. They're going to have to get done anyway, so one might as well do them as a break. Going shopping is another good one: a daily trip to Sainsbury's is now pretty regular, and after all, I do need to eat. It is so easy to turn it into something less worthy, though - Borders is right next door, with its lovely racks of magazines and books and movies, just begging to be visited. And is a daily trip really worthwhile? I'm sure that people in the remoter colleges (Catz, LMH, Hugh's) probably get by on a single trip a week. So it's a little bit of an excuse, really. And then there's my "exercise" - a nice walk around the university parks to get some fresh air. Its exercise value is entirely dubious, but the 35 minutes it takes out of my day is a definite merit.

But it's so easy to distract myself without ever even leaving my room. Facebook can eat up far more time than it really ought to, BBC News keeps on updating itself, and every so often there'll be a new movie trailer, or a new Strong Bad Email. And if there isn't - well, there are plenty of old ones to be re-watched... Then there's the pile of magazines on the bedside table - right now, The Economist, two New Yorkers, two TLSs, a Time, a National Geographic, and an Edge, all crying out to me to read them. They're always so much more interesting than what I'm supposed to be reading, too, and after all, it's quite important to keep up with foreign affairs for my Politics...

After a while, if I don't succumb to any of these other sirens, things start to get a little more serious. Perhaps an episode of a TV show is called for: Yes Minister is only half an hour long, after all. This is a major improvement over the West Wing, which is 40 minutes long, and which usually tends to end up with me watching five episodes in a row, and then, oh look!, it's dinner time. There are other time-wasters to tempt me, too - adding things to my Amazon wish list, listening to new podcasts, or playing spider solitaire or - worst of all - backgammon. It's just so easy to be drawn away from work, to be tempted into relaxation in preference to the hard slog of chasing that elusive comprehension.

And then there are the blogs. Mercifully, not too many of my friends have them yet, otherwise I would really be in trouble, but enough of them do. Aino's is full of entertaining nuggets. Susannah's enables vicarious magical trips around China. Alice updates one about life as a law student every so often. My sister Gwen has just started one, which looks to be rather like mine, only better written and far more entertaining. And, if I'm really desperate, Jonathan Dingel keeps one about pressing economic matters. And then, of course, there's my own: perhaps the ultimate time-waster, and the ultimate achievement in time-wasting, given that I have just wasted a great deal of time writing about ways in which to waste time. Fabulous.

Back to the trade theory...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The Joys of Letter-Writing

I still remember the first time that I saw my name in print, in a proper magazine. I can't have been more than fourteen or fifteen. I was playing a PC adventure game called Toonstruck, which was absolutely amazing. Rumour had it that Virgin Interactive Entertainment had invested $10m in making it, enlisting Christopher Lloyd and some pretty amazing artists - and that was a lot of money in the days before the current generation of games consoles made such sums look like pocket change. The game proceeded to sell about twelve copies, helping VIE on the way to bankruptcy and ensuring that the title would be within my price range. I had - I'm ashamed to say - been following the PC Gamer walkthrough, and I had gotten to the very last puzzle only to find that the magazine had omitted to describe it! Desperately wanting to find out how the game ended, and unable to figure out how to solve it myself (this being long before looking it up on the internet was second nature), I fired off a severely miffed letter to the editors and skulked back to Warcraft II. Then, about three months later, just when I wasn't expecting it, I found myself on their "help" pages. "Fear not, my Teutonic friend", began the response, before describing how to complete the game. I was thrilled. There is something very cool about seeing your name in print, even if it is just at the foot of a letter.

From that point on, I've been hooked. A letter to videogame e-zine Future Gamer was next, complaining about their reviewing system (98% for Forsaken? Surely not). Then a bitchy one to Time Magazine complaining about customer service standards in Germany (in response to one of their articles). (I only discovered that it had been printed several years later, when I googled myself in an uncharacteristic fit of immodesty. Ahem.) Then a lengthy hiatus, until eventually I was moved to write to the Economist when they printed a piece about British attitudes towards Germany that I was in profound agreement with. The next time I wandered back into my old school, having forgotten all about it, I was slightly dazed to discover that just about the entire faculty had seen my (heavily edited) letter. The letter-writing bug was back. An obnoxious letter-writer in Edge irritated me; so a small essay made it into the letter pages the following month (surprisingly unedited for length). An obnoxious President of Oxford University Conservative Association won me the Cherwell's letter of the week prize with a missive on the British electoral system - the editor obviously not recognising that I had mis-named the German Additional Member electoral system. (I'm still waiting on them for the £10 voucher.)

And now, today, a letter in Private Eye. Most exciting! I even got them to print their signature photo - the ubiquitous letters page in-joke. Another feather in the cap.

In the end, of course, letter-writing is nothing more than an ego trip: the Edge letter aside, I've rarely had anything meaningful to contribute. The skill, therefore, lies in sussing out the style of the letters page - if it comes to the editors sounding like it belongs, then it's got a much better chance of making it in! Style may not help me with my next targets, however: the New Yorker and the TLS only ever publish a tiny handful of letters each week, and they're usually either from the subjects of articles, close relatives, or academic specialists. Ah, well - I'm always up for a challenge...

Monday, May 08, 2006


A brief break

I overslept this morning, which is most unlike me recently, and I seem to have ended up taking today off. After some final additions to my notes on the Soviet satellite nations in the Cold War, stage one of the exam revision is finally over. Since January I've been going back over old essays and reading lists and making revision notes on all of my subjects, and now the process is complete. The first exam is two weeks today, which is hard to imagine after having been going at this revision for so long, but it's probably a good thing to take a bit of a break to consolidate some mental energy before launching into phase two.

Phase two, of course, is the consolidation of all that revision material: I've produced two big, fat folders full of notes, which over the next couple of weeks are going to be gong through a filter in my mind and fingers which will turn them into practice exam essays. I'm quite lucky to have large breaks in the middle of my exam schedule, which I can use to top up my learning of the material for the second four exams. Hopefully the tutors will all be quite good at getting past papers back to me promptly!

The immediate challenge, however, isn't learning at all: it's going back over the bits that I didn't quite have time to make notes on properly, namely, micro- and macroeconomics: my two worst papers, and my two first exams. Tomorrow morning, I'll be launching back into battle with those. With that to look forward to, a rest stop to gather my wits is definitely justified. After all, this is the calm before the storm...


Revolution into Wii

I'm not entirely sure how I missed the news that Nintendo had announced the final name of its next-generation console, but it actually came out over a week ago. The rather exciting code-name, Revolution, has been dropped in favour of "Wii", which is pronounced "We". Personally, my initial reaction is that the jokers coming up with spoof sales slogans like "Eat, Sleep and Wii" are hitting the nail right on the head.

But on the other hand, Nintendo names are always a bit hard to get used to. "Super Nintendo Entertainment System" sounds hideously unwieldy, "Game Boy" just plain silly, "Nintendo 64" and "Nintendo DS" utterly devoid of charm, and "Gamecube" only matched in the bizarre stakes by its previous codename, "Dolphin". (Microsoft, in contrast, was originally rumoured to be planning a new console, codenamed "X-Box" - and when the eventual announcement came, lo, it was still "X-Box". Much better.)

But none of those systems ever really suffered for having silly names, so perhaps Wii won't either: after all, once the mental connection between the new console and "Revolution" is broken and replaced with "Wii", it will start to take on the positive connotations that it so richly deserves, given that the piece of hardware that it's attached to is exceptionally exciting. The wireless wand controllers, the internet back catalogue, the emphasis on gameplay and simplicity over ever-better graphics attached to games that haven't changed since the days of the first PlayStation: Nintendo retain the world's best in-house development team and first-class IP, and the new console has all of the best innovations pioneered by X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3. It will either be the company's crowning success or its ultimate downfall. Fingers crossed for the former: the trial run of the same strategy, the DS, is going head to head with the far more powerful Sony PSP and winning hands down in Japan and the US, purely due to its far superior gameplay potential. (Nintendo recently had to postpone the relaunch of the console - the new DS Lite - because they can't make enough of them to meet demand in Japan. Not bad for a console that's two years old.)

On the other hand, the DS has not been succeeding to quite the same extent in the UK, where the PSP - sleek, svelte, and consummately, hideously devoid of soul or character - has made up nearly all of the lost ground from its later launch despite not having a single killer app. (DS has several.) But then, what more could you expect from a country whose favourite games are the deathly tedious hundredth iterations of Championship Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer? Perhaps that's unfair - the UK does have a wonderfully innovative development scene - but Nintendo has never quite had the success it deserves in the PAL territories.

Perhaps "Wii" sounds better in Japanese. Fingers crossed for a strong E3 showing as it goes head to head with Sony's PS3 announcements.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Buying Poetry

There are a couple of birthdays coming up, which can only mean one thing: shopping! After a couple of abortive attempts over the past week, which always seemed to end up with me buying DVDs for myself, I found myself wandering into the basement of Waterstones, still pondering what best to purchase for my dear friends. Dodging the displays of books with adolescent fairies on the cover (all of whom seemed to be named after jewelry), the shelves heaving with picture books about potty training ("FICTION - PRE-SCHOOL"), a hugely appealing rack of Asterix, and a large mock-up of a car complete with five-year-old size steering wheel, I found myself in front of the poetry section. Not being a big poetry person, I was about to move on, when one of the anthologies caught my eye.

Taking it down off the shelf, I idly started leafing through the list of contributors. Sure enough, nestled amongst the (alphabetised) Ahlberg, Auden, Betjeman, Bronte, Byron, Coleridge, Dahl, Eliot, Frost, Hardy, Heaney, Hughes, Kipling, Motion, Nash, Poe, Sassoon, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Thomas, Updike, Wilde and Wordsworth, there was a Kent! Two pages of imaginatively formatted poetry, contributed my very own mother! It was very exciting, so I bought it. It turns out that some of the poems by the others are all right, too.

The only problem? Those birthdays are getting ever closer...

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Summer Jetsetting

Although maxing out credit cards, as everyone seems to keep telling me, is not a wonderfully good idea, this summer is my last one - possibly prior to retirement - that is blissfully, beautifully empty. I am therefore very keen to make the most of it, and that means that the gap between finishing exams on June 5th and starting work on October 2nd is fair game for some nice travelling. I find myself trotting out a well-rehearsed spiel now when people wonder how precisely I intend to pay for all of it: "but it's all going on credit cards!", they gasp. Well, yes: but thanks to some rather magnificent financial chicanery in the face of the adversity of not being allowed to have student loans or bank overdrafts, I find myself in the happy position of having half the average student debt to pay back and 150% of the average graduate starting salary to look forward to. But more than simply being financially doable, diving further into debt is remarkably alluring. I've not been off this island for over a year now - easily the longest time I've ever spent in one single country, and much as I love Oxford and London, it's not the first choice country I would have chosen to award that dubious accolade to - and the rest of the world is calling to me. I haven't been on a proper trip since I went to Salamanca and Madrid with Kat in Summer 2004.

So, where to go, then? Well, right after I finish my exams, the world's attention will be shifting towards Germany for the football World Cup, which is something of an irresistable opportunity. Not, you understand, because I am a devout follower of football or my national team (as any of the people who looked on me with murderous eyes as I cheered Portugal on to victory over England in Euro 2004 will doubtless recall), but rather because being in Germany when the eyes of the world is upon it is simply a marvellous prospect. And, as luck would have it, my good schoolfriend Hanna is on an exchange year in Berlin and has some handy floorspace available for me over the weekend of the quarter-finals. It sounds wonderful - the authorities have been transforming Berlin into something of a football theme park, which seems like great fun, especially since we'll be able to watch the matches on giant projector screens in public places in the absence of tickets to the games. Better still, other schoolfriends Anna and Natalie may be joining us, which make for a smashing reunion. I'll be in Berlin from June 28th to July 3rd.

After Berlin will come the joys of moving to London with Kat, Karolina and Chris, and possibly a group outing to Hungary to visit Sara's summer dacha on Lake Balaton, and then in August I shall be hopping across the Atlantic. Another high school friend, Moe, is getting married in Salt Lake City in August, and I feel very fortunate to be invited to the wedding reception at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia (near Washington DC) for friends and family, with some other old friends also set to be present. It's so exciting that friends are starting to get married! After that, I'll be staying with Laurent - another high school friend - in Montreal, from where we'll make some day trips to Ottawa and Quebec, and hopefully to a hockey game! With a bit of luck, I'll also make it to relatives in Boston, high school friends Heather (in Toronto) and Liz (in Chicago), and perhaps even to New York, where various of my American acquaintances from university seem to be congregating - Barrett will be well-entrenched in her high-flying career in investment banking by that point, and Carin has very kindly offered her couch. It's all still up in the air, but extremely exciting! I'll be in North America from August 8th until September 4th.

And then, in the dying days of freedom, I'll make one last trip back home to Munich - only, obviously, it's not really home anymore, so I'll be staying with the marvellous Una (possibly in the sumptuous guest room that her delightful mother always seemed to have ready for me back in school when getting back to my own home in the middle of the countryside wasn't looking particularly plausible after a night out). We've been putting together a list of all the things that we have to do once I'm there, which is looking increasingly unlikely to be possible in just a week - ranging from some proper Italian food (finally!) at Berni's off Marienplatz to the tastiest Bavarian cuisine in the Alter Rathaus, and from the exuberance of a Wies'n Zelt at the Oktoberfest to - weather permitting - minigolf, a Mass of Helles, and some gentle jazz in the beautiful Waldwirtschaft Biergarten on the Isar. There will definitely be trips to Sausalitos for Mexican and the classy Cinema for a movie, and an evening jaunt to the Shamrock in a Schwabing basement for some lively Irish tunes over the trademark green cocktails. What a breath of fresh air... I absolutely cannot wait. September 19th to 26th for that one.

And through it all, with a bit of luck, I'll do my best to keep up with the blog so that anyone who's interested can follow my escapades. This summer is definitely the time to keep reading... both life and blog are set to become rather more boring after October 2nd!

Friday, May 05, 2006


The Euston Manifesto - new arrival on the sidebar

You may (or may not) have noticed a new arrival on the right of the screen proudly proclaiming that I am now a signatory to the Euston Manifesto. This signifies two things. Firstly, it means that I have discovered how to delve into the bowels of the Blogger settings to edit the HTML of the blog, which, I can assure you, is very exciting indeed. Secondly, it means that I've signed a document entitled - you've guessed it - the Euston Manifesto, which is thoroughly excellent.

You may be wondering - if you're too lazy to click on the button to see what it is, haven't read about it on BBC News, or are simply reading this explanation prior to exploring it - what precisely this is. In short, it's an 8-page document written by a group of moderate, intelligent, left-leaning people who have grown somewhat frustrated with knee-jerk anti-americanism and a tendency to be more tolerant towards totalitarian regimes and Islamic terrorism than is really acceptable. They reject the tendency to focus disproportionately on American human rights abuses when far worse goes on, on a much larger scale, elsewhere in the world - but they do stand firm in opposition to such human rights abuses as are perpetrated by western countries. They also strongly support globalisation in a form that reduces inequality and combats poverty, and defend human rights and democracy in the strongest possible terms while condemning terrorism as the crime that it is.

It's about time, in my opinion, that there was a middle ground between the conservative lurch towards authoritarianism and moral relativism (supposedly in defence of our civil liberties) and the leftward lurch towards shameless apologism for unspeakable acts (derived from making a common cause against the excesses of the powerful). So I signed it, and I would definitely encourage other people to do the same if they find themselves in agreement. The Website is here, the document itself is here, and the executive summary from BBC News is here.

PS Don't be put off by the endorsement of Bill Kristol and Christopher Hitchens...


Amusements in History, pt. 3

During the Soviet delegation's tour of Yugoslavia, "its reception was noticeably restrained. Tito reduced Khrushchev to a quivering wreck by racing him about the Adriatic in a high-powered motorboat. Khrushchev got stupefyingly drunk at a Soviet Embassy reception. At dinner with Tito and his wife afterward, as Mikoyan was pronouncing toast after toast, and Bulganin tried to keep the conversation going, Khrushchev kept trying to kiss everyone, particularly Tito, to whom he kept cooing, "Iosya, quit being angry! What a thin-skinned one you are! Drink up, and let bygones by bygones.""

When Khrushchev visited India in October 1955, he went on the tourist trail. Molotov described the ensuing spectacle as "an elephant riding an elephant."

Khrushchev was invited to the UK by Eden in 1956, and MI5 bugged his hotel room in Claridges. They were dismayed not to hear any national security secrets - just "long monologues addressed to his valet on the subject of his attire. He was an extraordinarily vain man. He stood in front of the mirror preening himself for hours at a time". During the talks, Soviet interpreter Oleg Troyanovsky said that "he behaved almost like a gentleman" - Mrs Eden couldn't help remarking on the fact that his idea of dinner table repartee was to declare that Soviet missiles "could easily reach your island and quite a bit farther", a comment that he later admitted might have been "a little bit rude". Nevertheless, he was quite impressed with Queen Elizabeth II - "the sort of young woman you'd be likely to meet walking along Gorky Street on a balmy Sunday afternoon".
Unfortunately, his preening had not done him much good. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell came away thinking that Khrushchev looked like "a rather agreeable pig".

Khrushchev to Averell Harriman in 1959, during the Berlin crisis: "You may tell anyone you want that we will never accept Adenauer as a representative of Germany. He is a zero. If Adenauer pulls down his pants and you look at him from behind you can see Germany is divided. If you look at him from the front, you can see Germany will not stand."

(From Taubman's 2003 biography of Khrushchev.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006


International Relations and pointlessness

Having spent much of the past three years studying International Relations, it's only now - in the run-up to the exam - that I find myself asking what, precisely, it is. There are a lot of fields within politics that are of genuine practical usefulness - the study of institutions and systems which characterises comparative government, for example, or the political sociology that helps us to understand how political actors come to make their decisions (whether it be the decision to vote or the decision to go to war). But IR?

Is it about theorising about how states act in the international system? If so, it's a complete failure. What type of pseudo-science could possibly arrive at generalisable laws backed up by theory when faced with a teeming pot of completely different organisms all acting in seemingly random ways, all with completely different characteristics, and without any possible way of conducting experiments based on isolating dependent variables- Indeed, without any broad agreement on what the variables are? Throw in the fact that any sort of analysis positively requires selection bias, and you have a very sorry picture indeed. It's no wonder the various strands of IR theory are such a mess - the only theories which have any elegance or predictive power (like Realism) are somewhat hamstrung by being several steps too far removed from reality. I cannot for the life of me think of one single general, falsifiable hypothesis to have emerged from IR, apart from the Democratic Peace thesis (that democracies do not go to war with each other) - and that in itself is not devoid of controversy: even those who believe that it does work (including myself) are forced to define its terms so narrowly as for the hypothesis to lose almost all of its value.

So then, what does that leave us with if the theory is such a waste of time? A glorified subset of the study of history, that's what, perhaps with a few interesting perspectives on international law and political sociology thrown in. IR did not originate in political science, but rather from some of the more generalised ramblings of historians. If it's all about explaining why states interact with other in the way that they do, then what difference is there between the two fields? All the theories, all the concepts, are, in the end, nothing more than highly specialised tools for examining and explaining one aspect of the course of history. Of all of the books written by political scientists about international politics, the ones which sparkle with the most insight - by far - are the ones that give historical accounts of why things happen, with a mild filter emphasising the role of power or ideology. The historian will always have the advantage in debates with the International Relations scholar, because he will always be able to find facts which pick holes in any grand theories.

In fact, International Relations is part of a distinct tradition that goes back far further than Carr or Morgenthau: humans have always sought to rationalise the world around them, and while this has led to great strides in science and the natural world, when it comes to history it goes beyond futile to become dangerous. Look at the grand schemes of Marx and Engels, who also sought to theorise about why history unfolds in the way that it does. Marx and Engels were, ultimately, wrong in many ways, and so are all of the grand schemers of today, the realists, the constructivists, the liberals. If you want to understand the course of history, look at who did what and why. You don't need a theory.

So, have I been wasting my time? As it happens, I rather like history, so I am very glad to have spent so much time examining the political history of the 20th century. But if I ever return to university to study for a higher degree, I most certainly shall not be doing so in the Politics faculty.

Monday, May 01, 2006


The Truth behind Nathaniel

For quite some time, I have been under the impression that the name "Nathaniel" came to be given to me because of a family connection. As a result, I have been able to feed people an amusing piece of trivia at appropriate moments regarding how, for some bizarre reason, my parents decided to name me after my great-uncle, who farms sheep in New Zealand, and who I cannot recall ever meeting.

Something of an embarrassment, then, to discover over lunch last weekend that my parents found this account of the origin of my name completely bemusing. "That's not right," they said. "The sheep-farmer is Uncle David." Hmmm. But I'm sure there was an Uncle Nathaniel back there somewhere? "Well, there was, but he wasn't really a part of the family. More of a friend of your paternal grandparents." My father's facial expression implies that, as a child, he would really rather have not called this person 'uncle'. So I'm not named after him then? "No." Hang on! So where does my name come from? "Well, when we were teaching in Moshi, one of the other teachers had a son called Nathaniel, and he was so lovely! A really intelligent boy." So you nicked it? "Er, well, sort of." You know that it means 'God has given', don't you? "Does it?" My mother, lately a devout atheist, looks slightly uncomfortable.

So there you go. I'm not entirely sure whether I prefer to be named after the sheep farmer or some random expat child in Africa, but one thing is certain: it could have been worse. Apparently I was nearly Humphrey.

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