Friday, November 28, 2003

Talking law

Communities use language differently: and it’s always interesting to speak from people from different disciplines, let alone different countries, and realise that while you may share a common language, you use it to express very different world views.

Odalisk-Erin wrote recently and vividly about this in terms of academic “shorthand”, the way a community uses language among its own members – and her own experience as an Art Historian visiting a law lecture:

“… the way that the professor spoke so slowly, it was like fishing. There would be a pause before a word, and then he'd pull it out of the air, like dragging a fish from the water. The effect was to make the word heavy and solid, like a weight. A thing.

The professor protested, throughout the course, against ambiguous answers - he wanted definite statements, assertions.

Language in the humanities is precise, but I feel like in the end we are not trying to make a thing so much as a fabric, a skin. You use every word meaningfully, yes, but you want it to play, to intertwine, to skim above the solid ground and never touch it.

… language in law is like a noose? I mean, there is something so dreadfully solid about it, and, obviously, disputable. You can certainly be hung by it.”

This is enormously perceptive. The disciplined practise or study of law does require you state concrete propositions with precision. This almost instantly invokes the opposite argument to the one you have put.

What has always impressed me most about law is the way it attempts to reconcile:

(1) extremely large and abstract ideas or principles; and

(2) their concrete expression in relation to particular, real circumstances.

Unfortunately, this often leads to a perception (even among lawyers) that law is not a theoretical discipline, that it is merely the application of settled, stable law to “facts”.

That said, as a “theoretical” international lawyer I do love conversations with “practical” commercial lawyers here – there is the ease of a shared set of assumptions about legal discourse and reasoning. Chief among them is the great non-concrete standard of the law, “reasonableness”.

In a world where few values are shared by the whole community, and their interpretation varies wildly (especially the meaning of “justice”), legal debate is usually governed by the undefinable boundary of what is “reason-able”: i.e. what someone with commensurate training and experience can agree is a decision able to be arrived at by process of reason, even if they disagree with it personally. Lawyers are usually able to “agree to disagree” pretty freely: it’s the natural state of things.

This is the essence of legal decision making (e.g. judgements of courts): one side will inevitably be disappointed in the outcome, the grandeur of the law is in producing an outcome that is justifiable (“reason-able”) through a pre-ordained process people are able to agree is fair. In this sense one can never guarantee “justice of outcomes” (because opinions will vary as to what that means), but one can have outcomes governed by a just and stable process (e.g. judges and other decision makers applying the law, even when they believe it to be wrong).

The other thing I love about law is this process of struggling towards the best-reasoned, most “reason-able” conclusion on a point of law: the effort to pin an idea down in a concrete situation and express it clearly. This was what most impressed me in the period I was working for judges: their ability to take a concept that I could only narrow to, say, the area of a saucer and refine the same idea down to the size of a penny – in Erin’s words, “tightening the noose” around the language.

Bother, I somehow feel I haven’t expressed this as well as I’d hoped.

Deeper breathing

I am trifle ashamed of my previous flat-mate rant. Well, not entirely.

But we did have a great conversation (admittedly between 2 and 3 in the morning) when in a fit of insomnia I went up to ask him if he was loudly opening and closing drawers (he wasn’t). Among things we agreed on in our rambling conversation (the most lucid we’ve had – I have gravely insulted his English) were that: becoming comfortable with who you are is incredibly important (I cannot tell you how much my view of him softened when he said, “I will never be a great mathematician, but I love maths”); and that if what you like and what you are good at is the same thing, you are incredibly lucky.

So, I guess I think he is now being about as considerate as he can be given: (a) his eccentric working hours; and (b) the structure of the house.

Our walls are just too thin, and our insulation too great. The result is there is no background noise from the outside to mask the slightest creak of floor, door hinge or bed. Some noises I had blamed on the mathematician, were probably made by another flatmate with the habit of rolling over in bed so hard he can hit the wall with a thud.

As a light sleeper, I can only struggle now to find better ear-plugs, or hope to sleep with my window forever open and get used to the outside noises as well.

Also I really don’t want to turn into some parody of sea-side resort town landlady creeping about in the wee small hours in a dressing gown rapping on doors and asking people to “Keep it down please, some of us are trying to sleep.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Deep breaths

My life in Cambridge is, by and large, a bowl of peaches. Not a cloud in my metaphorical sky.

(As opposed to the hideously persistent clouds in the literal sky, with their constant light drizzle – not enough to stop me cycling yet, but I suspect the onset of another cold.)

Anyway, nothing to complain of – well, almost nothing.

I am fairly close to snapping when it comes to a certain someone.

Remember the fairly mad, unsleeping, late-night mathematician? The one who scrawls his equations everywhere? (His latest point of attack is the surface of the bath-tub, pictured.)

He has started lecturing himself aloud in English (not brilliant English, but probably better than my French – which says precious little) while solving problems on his whiteboard. I had to go downstairs at 1 and 2.30 am to ask him to keep it down.

What madness is this?

On top of that, in a deadly quiet house, he has no concept of how to shut a door or drawer quietly. Everything closes with a bang. Probably not one you would notice in the day, but that shows a distinct lack of consideration at night.

Then there's the erieer sound of rythmic pounding: like finger drumming but with fists, or by kicking something. I am deeply afraid I will surprise him one day beating his head on the table in an effort to extract the solution he's seeking.

He has got the message that he is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the house. Frankly, this is fair enough: he is incompetent, inconsiderate, of dubious personal hygiene (learn to flush you moron!), smokes in violation of the lease, leaves ash on the stairs and in the toilet bowls … it just goes on.

At least he’s been terrorised into cleaning up after he cooks rather than leaving pans of rotting pasta on the sideboard for days.

However, he has apparently told one of the others we all hate him because he is here to work (18 hours a day) and we are only here to have fun.

I’d get a crap-load more work done, buddy, if I could get any sleep before 2 am.

I tried not to make too much of an issue of things for a while, working under the delusion he’d secured a transfer to accommodation closer to town. He apparently declined the offered substitute accomodation as there were “no shops” nearby.

Meaning that we’re stuck with him.

So, my new watchword is “zero tolerance”. OK, that’s two words, but I have extended the last courtesy of which I am capable.

An underslept Douglas is a beast not to cross.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

“Albert’s Bridge”

The play ended last night with a strong final performance. I’m both grateful and sad: grateful that I will now be able to sleep properly and get some work done; sad at losing the camaraderie of the play.

A Tom Stoppard play was always going to be popular, but we had a great four-night run with houses that were consistently two-thirds full to almost-sold-out. Being the late show also helped, as people are pretty willing to drop in for an hour-long play for £3 after 11: whether you’ve been at a formal dinner, the pub, or studying it fits in nicely.

That said, word of mouth did us proud – we seemed to go over really well as a tight, well-performed show. Two of the guys in the cast were stand-out comic talents: Rowan Atkinsons in the making and the first thing most people mentioned about the show.

It was a really good cast, often I forgot I was working with people mostly ten years younger than me: I enjoyed hanging out with them, and it was only at the cast party – despite how horribly tired I felt – that I realised I would miss them. Sure, that’s the feeling at the end of any play, and it fades, but it doesn’t make it less real at the time.

But I was tired: rehearsals on top of classes for the week before the play; then these last four days with an 8.30 pm call for an 11.00 pm performance, getting off stage at 12.10, helping reset the stage for the main show, a wind-down drink at the bar and getting home 2 am at the earliest. No wonder I was a zombie most of the week.

The play itself passed financial break-even on the second night, and our profits will bail out the debts of the main show, David Mamet’s “Water Engine”. The main show had a much less sympathetic script to work with I think, Mamet’s characters (think “Glengarry Glenross” and “The Spanish Prisoner”) tend to be hard-boiled and two-dimensional. We also had a smaller, tighter cast and a shorter play, which I think made it easier to pull together on four weeks’ rehearsal.

The main show was terribly well-acted and well-staged, I just don’t think people responded to the script (and the actors all having to do American accents probably did not help).

So last night was the cast party, and I do not really recall the last time I partied in a bar until 5 in the morning. (If the theatre bar is closed to the public for a members-only function this country’s bizarre last-orders rules don’t apply.) I was great to meet the guys from the main show at the party (as well as being daubed with chocolate face-paint by fellow Albert’s-Bridgers): one of them wants to apply to direct Macbeth for the Cambridge American Shakespeare tour. I can feel an urge to play Duncan rising ...

Duncan wouldn’t be a big leap from “Dad” in “Albert’s Bridge”: an old, bitter man who’s given his life to the job and doesn’t much enjoy it. Several people told me I did the role of the tragi-comic bridge painter with understatement and feeling. I have to admit the part grew on me: the embittered ex-solicitor in me really came to the fore.

That and a strong touch of Eeyore.

I do want to try and write something for two of the guys from the play, the two who did the comic roles so well.

It’s a pretty weird feeling that I am now taken seriously on the drama and debating circuits in Cambridge. (I was also told by a main show director that I was their second choice for their lead. Quite wacky.)

Friday, November 21, 2003

An unfashionable idea: the lessons of history

Our guru did something pretty clever in History and Theory of International Law today.

I’ll try to reproduce the effect here. Words in bold are not the original text:

“… it follows that … if the business of democracy cannot otherwise be forwarded, that the Americans may lawfully conquer the territories of these people, deposing their old masters and setting up new ones and carrying out all the things which are lawfully permitted in other just wars by the law of war, so long as they observe always reasonable limits and do not go further than is necessary.

“They must always be prepared to forgo some part of their rights rather than risk trespassing on some unlawful thing, and always direct all their plans to the benefit of the Iraqis rather than their own profit, bearing constantly in mind the saying of St Paul: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (I Cor. 6: 12)

“… it may happen that the resulting war, with its massacres and pillages, obstructs the conversion of the Iraqis instead of encouraging it. The most important consideration is to avoid placing obstructions in the way of democratisation … I myself have no doubt that force and arms were necessary for the Americans to continue in those parts; my fear is that the affair may have gone beyond the permissible bounds of justice and democracy.”

For “democracy”, read “religion”
For “Americans”, read “Spaniards”
For “Iraqis”, read “barbarians”
For “democratisation”, read “the Gospel”

Fransisco de Vitoria, By what right were the American Indians subject to alien rule?, 1539.

How is it that the hawk-ish case for “noble” intervention has become less sophisticated in the last 500 years? Maybe someone should draw Mr Bush's attention to I Corinthians 6: 12.

He might listen to St Paul over the UN.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

College life

The play opens tonight, this is my oh-so-brief "lunch" break at 11.30 am.

Around 20 people from the Trinity Hall Middle Combination Room (grad society) will be along tonight, which is great.

I didn't understand the point of colleges before coming here: teaching occurs through the faculties, though you may as an undergrad have "supervisions" in the college-based office of your tutor. They seemed an anachronism, albeit one that provived accomodation.

How wrong I was.

Your college is the people you share dining, accomodation and social facilities with. Fresher's week is a hectic round in which you meet the self-selecting core of "social" graduate students: an instant clan, peer group, set of friends from different degree programs and countries.

It's been a real experience, and goes a long way to explaining what some commenters see as my social success over here.

(Which is not to say I'm still not a nice guy.)

The intensity of an eight-week term is bizarre: I feel like I've known a lot of these people for more than two months.

Anyway, time to dash back to the play. It's such a combination of confidence, anticipation and sheer nerves at present ...

Still, there will be a lot of hanging around. I suspect my choice of down-time reading will freak a few people, the San Remo manual of naval warfare isn't your standard thespian fare.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Birthday report and new photos

New photos are up at my un-hip and non-integrated yahoo photo site, filed as “Birthday”, “Cambridge 2” and “Oxford”.

The birthday party went really well, a lovely turn out on a cold, horribly windy and wet night. (So windy I wasn’t game to cycle over the bridge on my way home in case I fell off the bike into oncoming traffic.)

I thought it would be a disaster. I was pretty tired after rehearsals and limited myself to chips and dip catering. I billed the event as being for “after 8”, but at 8.20 I was alone in the house with the weirder mathematician (who was studying, as he continued to do so throughout the party). Worse, the corkscrew was trapped in a flatmates’ locked bedroom.

Still by 9 things were well underway. The photos more than my recollection seem to reveal a turnout of around 30 over the course of the evening. It was lovely to have Malcolm along, one of the guys from my high school I’ve known since I was twelve. Bless his heart, he brought me a bottle of Margaret River Chardonnay.

(I also got from college friends a couple of cards, a copy of a Stoppard tele-play, a novel (from the flatmates) and some Belgian chocolate – as well as a Sainsbury’s “Colin the Caterpillar” chocolate log cake-thing – despite my strict “no presents” injunction.)

Events wound down around 2 am with the last of us finally departing the lounge room.

Somewhere in the midst of it all I gave housemate Stefano my digital camera and told him to go crazy – which he did. I’ve selected a mere handful of the more than 30 shots he took, largely on the basis that in many I look rather too inebriated. There’s no need for the camera to be that honest, dammit.

Anyway, there were some decent shots of me blowing out Colin the Caterpillar, in whom someone rather resourcefully stuck a candle and brought through to me in the lounge room. (All lights turned out, chorus of "happy birthday", etc).

I include some shots of the kitchen more so people can get an idea of the house than anything else. It (and our comfy red couch) had college-dorm dwellers turning green with envy I tell you.

“Cambridge 2” photos are of Apple Day at the Botanic Gardens, autumn at the law school and me and Stefano.

The “Oxford” photos are from the recent Debating Intervarsity.

Enjoy! (But remember to come back and leave comments!)

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Land of the midnight ironing board
(You might be in Cambridge if … )

… you come home at one in the morning, a little tired an emotional, to find a pure mathematician in the kitchen constructing equations to describe the rising coils of his own cigarette smoke, and a lawyer ironing shirts and knitted tops in the lounge room – especially if you then sit down and spend an hour discussing comparative constitutional law and the importance of institutional practice over written law.

… a “hall” is no longer a place, but a meal where you wear an academic robe.

… half the reason you can’t remember a fellow international student’s name is because you can’t actually pronounce it.

… if you are more likely to see your flatmates in the library or Middle Combination Room than the kitchen.

… you develop a sudden knack for talking your way past college-party doormen on the basis that the friend who “was going to sign me in, but isn’t answering her phone” is dancing right behind them. Honest.

… a “glorious day” means an ice-like wind capable of piercing granite, but perfectly blue skies and daylight until at least half-past-four.

… you could not, on the basis of personal experience, recommend more than one restaurant to a visitor - but could enthusiastically recommend over a dozen pubs.

… you begin to believe urban myths that as only “fellows” can walk over the college lawn, some colleges have made the local ducks honorary academic staff.

… your body-clock prefers that you are asleep by eleven and up by seven, but increasingly you are coming in around two and waking up after ten.

… if the only things in your life that seem cheap are cycling everywhere, college food and beer in pint glasses.

... colleges begin to seem egalitarian becuase they let students walk over the grass.

… if you are capable of assimilating and holding institutional grudges based on largesse distributed to other colleges at the expense of yours in the reign of Henry VIII.

… you skip a lecture on the law of armed conflict to hear Michael Moore speak about the Iraq war at the Union.

... you are paralysed with indecision at the prospect of walking over a college lawn because you're not sure what the local rule is.

… you have not opened a text-book recently, but by Christmas will have appeared in a play and participated in three internationally-attended intervarsity debating tournaments before Christmas – with a few (hypothetical, bottom-of-pint-glass theoretical) options on writing for the student paper or some sketch comedy about international law in the new year.

… you suspect that maybe the PhD students have the right idea, in at least that no-one expects them to have achieved anything much in their first year.

… you begin to think that Byron really was on to something when he hit on the plan of keeping a bear in his rooms with the intention of training it to sit his exams.

PS: Naylor

Last week's Naylor is now, finally, up.

Not sure if I'll be able to post on it this week, given the play and all.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Twenty-eight tomorrow

Yup, by the time those in Australia are reading this it will be my birthday.

My plans for my birthday consist of going to my intellectually straining History and Theory of International Law class from 10 – 12, a play rehearsal from 1 – 6 and my own house-party from 8 onwards.

I have not yet bought any drink or nibbles for the party, and am not certain when I will have time to do so … hmmm …

In the course of the party my “billet” from the Cambridge-hosted Debating Intervarsity should arrive, which will be interesting. Then on the Saturday I am meant to judge rounds of debating, hand out flyers for the play and go to another rehearsal.

How that will dove-tail with the party is anyone’s guess.

My lovely family sent me a birthday parcel, which arrived yesterday, containing a lovely woven silk tie from my sister and a gorgeous green merino-wool jumper from the parents (along with a batch of toasty winter socks).

Have hardly stopped wearing the jumper, which is just the sort of green that cheers me up. The sleeves may be a teeny tiny fraction short (as mum worried over in a note), but this is not at all noticeable once I’ve turned up the cuffs of whatever shirt I’m wearing under it.

I know Naylor is overdue, but it may have to wait for next week at present – between being a little social, the debating and the play, there hardly seems time to draw breath, let alone study.

Not that that stopped me spending nearly three hours with an international relations student friend cooking up her (assigned) presentation on why the UK was right in the Security Council to support an arms embargo on the Bosnia/Herzegovina conflict, despite the Bosnian claim it interfered with their right to self-defence, especially against genocide.

We'd pretty much prepared a moot presentation by the end of it - a lot of fun, and at least partially relevant to the issues I need to be thinking about myself - but mostly just me trying to offer a lifeline to someone who has way too much work due too early.

Right, off to bed now. When I wake up, I’ll be a whole year older. Right now, that doesn’t disturb me in the slightest – despite being frantically busy and behind on personal projects, thesis research and course reading, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more generally comfortable or confident in my life.

Not bad for a birthday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Matrix Diluted

Wachowski B2: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, B1?”

Wachowski B1: “I certainly am, B2. After the uber-cool gothic-cyber-punk chic of the first film – and the hideous, stultifying, speechifying flop of the second film – we really need to pull out a dazzlingly original conclusion to the trilogy.”

Wachowski B2: “Alternately, B1, do you think copyright has run on the New Testament? We could just resort to a clichéd showdown between the Saviour and Satan … ah, Smith … where the key to victory is turning the other cheek and making a noble sacrifice! We could even drag out that resurrection imagery for another spin round the block and duplicate the ridiculous climactic battle scene from Dark City.”

Wachowski B1: “Not bad B2, why don’t we also eliminate everything interesting from the first film, set it entirely in boring old Zion, and film it in only about four colours until the coda sequence to really emphasise our ham-fisted forebodings of – DOOM! We could also cut Morpheus’ role right down. That’d really make it sell.”

Laurence Fishburne: “What the Hell do you mean, I have no hand-to-hand fight scenes? Just one gunfight? Where’s my katana, dammit?”

Link: “I only hope Frodo – Neo, I meant Neo! – can make it to Mount Doom – sorry! – the Machine City and confront that, that … blazing eye of energy … (gee, you know, that seems kinda familiar, too) … before the audience loses all interest in these totally CGI battle scenes!”

Audience: “Too late.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Divided by a common language

The first weirdness of language in Cambrdige I picked up before I came here.

One pronounces the River Cam with a short “a” (as in “Sam”), but “Cambridge” with a long “a” (as in “came”).

Why don’t we say “Came-bridge” or “the River Came”?

No consistency.

Still, at least I picked up on two classic Australian blunders before they happened to me:

(1) The college “Gonville and Caius” is pronounced Gonville and Keys”, and only ever referred to in casual conversation as “Keys”.

(2) I was wondering for a while why there was a ruefully, nostalgically drunk college – until I realised “maudlin” is written “Magdelene” – which means that Cambridge also has a “maudlin” street.

So much charm, so many possible mispronunciations.

Monday, November 10, 2003

The secret government of Britain .…

Conspiracy theorists need to stop ranting on about the Royal Family’s alliances with demonic sects or alien invaders; or plain nutty ideas that the government of Britain is run from a couple of gentlemen’s clubs in the Strand by men last seen in public in 1923 at a small café off Threadneedle Street dining with Prussian aristocrats later associated with the collapse of the Weimar Republic – a moment captured in a rare photograph hanging in a disused cupboard in a boarded up room behind the Marchioness of Salisbury’s Wiltshire estates’ third bedroom’s ensuite.

The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is far more prosaic.

England is run by the Fire Department.

Every door in this country, down to the cupboard under our staircase that houses the fuse box, bears a neat blue circle on a white background with the legend “Fire Door Keep Closed”.

Taken literally, I would have trouble leaving my house. It would almost certainly involve shimmying down the drainpipe.

But this insidious influence reaches much further. For example, patrons at the Globe Theatre in London – even £5 groundlings – are prohibited from sitting in the aisles.

“Sorry, they’d close us down. Fire regulations.”

And the funny spikes, piercing the Globe’s thatched roof, are they part of the authentic reconstruction?

“Ah, no. Those are fire extinguishers. Only way we were allowed to have the thatch. That type of thatching was banned after The Fire.”

Which fire?


Oh. That fire.

“But it’s OK, they passed special rules to let us have thatch in the original style, so long as we put the sprinklers in.”

It’s also the same at any Cambridge venue:

“Sorry, sir. Can’t let you in ‘till someone leaves. Fire regulations.”

They’d close you down?

“Yes, sir. Her comes someone now. Alright, in you go. Remember, we have to clear the place by 12.15 because of the –”

Yeah, yeah. I get it.

I’ve met people who live in college properties that have more fire extinguishers than people. Our own kitchen has a hefty dry powder fire-extinguisher and a “Cromwell brand” fire blanket.

I do not think it is possible to be indoors in the UK and more than ten steps from a fire retardant device.

The stranglehold on power held by the Fire Department in this country therefore suggests a far more plausible conspiracy theory.

I’d like to know if anyone saw a future fire chief loitering around bakeries in Pudding Lane on the night of 2 September 1666.

After all, the fire did start in the premises of King Charles II’s own baker.

Makes you think.

I’d write more, but I there’s this fire extinguisher in the corner of the computer room and those little blue circles are beginning to stare at me …

Sunday, November 9, 2003

This is Oxford? Wake me in time to start ranting …

A debating tournament is a really weird way to see a city.

Between 3 pm Friday and 10.30 am Sunday I saw an awful lot of the Oxford Union building, the street of shops behind it, and the road leading to our B&B and the railway station.

My parochial and predictable response, based on this thorough survey and comprehensive lack of sight-seeing, is that I prefer Cambridge. Cambridge is cluttered, cosy, market town with narrow laneways and the Backs along the river. Oxford seems more a city: seemed odd not to wander down lanes thick with gaggles of students and zooming velocities of cyclists.

It all seemed a bit too orderly and wide-streeted.

The Oxford Union though, is gorgeous. We had our quarter-final debate in the “Old Library”, a slightly octagonal, cupola-topped room of mellow lighting, towering old bookcases (including an upper landing with more books), fading frescoes and old clocks.

By contrast, the Union building at Cambridge is a slightly moth-eaten, vaguely dowdy fire hazard, though the actual “Chamber” where most high-profile public speaking takes place is a little cosier at Cambridge and a damn sight warmer. (I often had to wear suit, overcoat and jumper – sometimes even gloves – waiting for each round to be announced in the Oxford Chamber.)

So, the intervarsity itself (“IV” in the jargon). One thing you have to understand about debating culture is the language: two words you’ll hear often when debaters are unhappy are “shafted” and “robbed”.

It was a little amusing to be among all that once more, and to be debating alongside a Big Name on the Circuit (he was the World’s Best Speaker last year and is my team-mate for the Singapore World’s Debating Tournament in December.) It was like being on tour as a support act to Elvis: everyone was a bit curious to know how you’d got the gig when they’d never heard of you.

The competition itself was tiring, really tiring.

I had not really comprehended how seriously people took the Oxford competition as a prime warm-up for Worlds. There were 148 teams (and so nearly 300 competitors) there from everywhere: Manila, Boston, Princeton, Canada, Ireland, Russia, Hong Kong and from across the UK.

British Parliamentary-style debating is also a bit weird for Australians: two people to a team, four teams to a debate (two on each side); where the second teams have to come up with an “extension” on the debate as run by the first teams. Speakers can be subjected to “points of information” – essentially questions from the other side. Speeches are five minutes long and the topics for the debates change every round and are released only 15 minutes in advance.

At Oxford there were two debates Friday night, another three during the day on Saturday and then a quarter – , semi – and grand final in the evening: and lots of drinking both evenings. Pretty exhausting. I drank a lot of espresso – the bar in the Oxford Union serving the best coffee I have yet bought in this country for only £1.

How did we do? We did fine. We broke second at the end of the preliminary rounds, Elvis ranking at 6th best speaker for the prelim rounds and me weighing in at 8th. We survived a tough-but-fun fourth round where we met all the other undefeated teams – which was actually a harder round than anything we got in the finals series. We made it to the semis, but did not go through. The topic in the semi was that “This house would allow Terri Schiavo to die” – what was scary was that all four teams had clearly read the same Economist article.

And the topic in our quarter final was “That this house would sign a non-agression pact with North Korea”. Heh.

Anyway, we did not make the grand final. Some say we were robbed, I say “hey, we have judges for a reason – you just have to take the rough with the smooth.” Elvis was pretty relaxed about it all too, hell – what does he have to prove?

We went, we debated, we drank until 2.45 am and then got some sleep before charging back to Cambridge so I’d have time for a shower and nap before a 6.30 pm first run-through for the play. This week will be chockers with rehearsals.

Oh, and in weirdness upon weirdness I met at the IV a certain guy who used to debate for the ANU (friends, the man wore a novelty waistcoat with pig patterns to a “black-tie” event – as he did at Australian IVs six years ago); and my old office-mate from the 54th floor corner-view at my old Sydney law firm, he’s now studying at Oxford.

It’s a small, scary world.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

Naylor for this week

OK, the new Naylor instalment is now up, and Lyn I have taken your comments into account over here (thanks, they were useful).

This week Elliot has a semi-comic encounter with a name he has only previously seen on paper: Jeremy Ryder, one of Marina's father's business associates who is also tied to the corrupt developer Bob Mitchell (remember him, anyone?).

Off to debate at Oxford tomorrow, will report on my adventures when I'm able. We had a practice debate Tuesday night, and I really sucked, so I hope my luck improves during the train ride!

Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Naylor and ... Photos!

Before I put up this week's Naylor, I am republishing last week's instalment here making some changes suggested by Jason and Lyn, in my first edit-on-the-run job with Naylor.

Thanks for the feedback guys, I hope you'll think the changes match your concerns. (Comments over at Naylor are currently showing as "0", but this is just some BackBlog stuff up - nothing has been lost.)

Also I added some photos a while back to my photo gallery, so I hope you like some views of what's going on in Cambridge.

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

The weirdness of mathematicians

I woke up this morning, on my class free day, and thinking Winnie-the-Pooh-ish thoughts of my breakfast (porridge with honey and cream, two eggs on toast, strong black coffee, thanks for asking) I wandered downstairs.

I was not singing my very own morning song, a la Pooh Bear (pom tiddley um pom pom) but my iPod was at least providing me with a string of randomly selected jazz and other tunes.

Imagine my surprise then, when on opening the microwave I discovered a book.

Not just any old book mind you.

A large paperback copy of "The Topography of Algebra".

Mathematician No 2 later reported that he hadn't put it there, indeed he claimed to have spent much of the previous day searching his room for it, unsuccessfully. (Scarcely surprising given it's actual location.)

Mathematician No 1 also disclaims all knowledge and responsibility. But he may not himself be a credible witness.

When back in the kitchen at lunch, indulging in a smackerel of something, I had to point out to him (a) the existence of the dryer in our kitchen and (b) my good deed in putting his t-shirts through with my towels - when he expressed surprise at the sudden dryness of said shirts.

Our bed-maker (who cleans - for example - the kitchen, but does not make beds) exclaimed: "How did you not know there was a dryer?" - which fairly neatly echoed my own thinking.

"I have not washed since I arrive," he shrugged. "Well, I wash myself each day. But I have not used the machine."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are only four or five weeks into the term calendar. He has been home to Milan twice in that time, but surely he didn't take his laundry home to Mum on an international trip?


Should I be scared yet?

Monday, November 3, 2003

“Talking with the Porters about jazz after midnight”
(Haphazard diary entry)

They talk about the short Cambridge terms. At three of eight teaching weeks apiece they’re potentially fairly bloody terrifying. I say “potentially” because panic has yet to set in.

Things are much too busy to panic. Last week was a fairly standard social roller-coaster with a committee meeting followed by beer at the Eagle on Monday, debating coaching followed by curry on Tuesday, Halloween Grad Hall on Wednesday, a quiet recovery Thursday followed by more Halloween parties Friday, a DVD with flatmates Saturday and drinking with LLM students at the Mitre on Sunday and never quite making it to a college jazz event.

(The Eagle, by the way was the pub where Watson and Crick drank when they weren’t coming up with the double-helix model of DNA.)

Anyway, you know that you’re not perhaps taking study seriously enough when you find yourself chatting about Diana Krall covers of Nat King Cole tunes with a Porter after midnight on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Still, how can you walk away from a conversation that starts with:

“Good evening Doug. That's a very nice coat, sir.”

The Halloween parties were fun, it seems a big thing over here, but I cannot claim to have had an evening to rate with Minderella and Odalisk-Erin’s.

Today looks like being a lecture, some much-needed library time, a lunch-time play rehearsal, errands in the afternoon, yoga (if I can find the class) and a committee meeting.

The play is actually becoming a bit of a worry. They have not called the minor parts (including me) in for rehearsals in two weeks, and now with two weeks to go until the play is on I am committed to going away for debating this weekend in Oxford. I suspect this will make me most unpopular, but what’s the worst that can happen?

The flatmates are all good fun and good company – though I keep catching this mathematician talking to himself in the kitchen late at night; and the other mathematician came in rather noisily at 6 am this morning took someone up to his room, directly above mine, and conducted a loud conversation.

I left a pretty terse “not happy, Jan” kind of note for him when I left, given that I went up to politely knock on his door and got nothing but laughter through the wood for my troubles. Grrrr.

Still he did manage to go out partying for about 36 hours over the weekend and coin the phrase: “Reality is an illusion caused by the lack of alchohol.” Mathematicians. What can you do?

Still, much better than the way poor Shauny got woken up in Edinburgh recently – though rather less funny in retrospect.

Right, time to cycle to the law school and hope this morning’s wind doesn’t knock me off my bike. I definitely felt myself wobbling under the wind-pressure while crossing a park this morning.

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Frozen embryos as property in a divorce
(a law blog)

Bio-ethics never gets any easier. Take a situation where, after the break up of a heterosexual relationship, there are frozen, fertilised eggs and the woman wants to use them to have a child on her own.

In societies with legalised abortion courts have rejected arguments that fathers have a right to prevent a pregnancy’s termination; but where there has been conception – but not impregnation - does the “father” have rights over biological material that is partly his?

The position at British law is that an embryo cannot be used unless both partners consent to the use. This “double consent” is also needed to continue to hold embryos in a clinic: if one partner withdraws that consent, the embryos must be destroyed.

The obvious solution for a woman under this law is that some of her eggs should also be stored unfertilised so that she is not solely reliant on the consent of a man who may not, in the long run, want to have children with her.

While it will obviously cause great distress if a woman cannot have a desperately wanted child, it’s hardly a good idea to lock men into parental responsibilities after a relationship’s breakdown when no pregnancy actually commenced during the relationship.

The case of Evans v Amicus Healthcare is undoubtedly tragic. In Ms Evans case, unfortunately, no-one thought about storing unfertilised eggs, until after the worst had happened. Suffering ovarian cancer, Ms Evans had all her viable eggs removed and fertilised with her partner’s sperm – they later separated and her partner, not wanting children with her, withdrew consent for the eggs to be kept.

Commentary in the UK (none of which appears still to be on-line for free) has had extreme, and predictable, wings. Some have crowed about a legal triumph which prevents men being seen as “mere sperm banks”; while some have seen a “male veto” over a woman’s right to control her own body.

Obviously, it’s neither. It’s simply a case of a law that has sought to balance individual rights and, in a hard case, has had a very bad result for one individual - but with no unfertilised eggs in storage, someone was always going to lose out.

There has been denunciation of Ms Evan’s partner as “one of the great moral cads of the age” (Joyce McMillan, “How the verdict in frozen embryo case got it wrong”, The Scotsman, October 4, 2003), for his selfishness in, effectively, permanently denying her children.

But this was no simple case of spitefully saying “you can’t have what you want, though I could easily give it to you”; nor was it a family law case about living children, with which two adults had existing parental ties and had assumed the duty of bringing them up. Her partner would have substantial financial commitments to these children during his life and, under inheritance law, after his death. These issues would certainly affect his ability to contribute to the material security of any future (wanted) children he might have.

These are not “cold” financial issues, as anyone who has seen bitter family fights over child-support or an inheritance would realise. Nor is it saying Ms Evans is a grasping gold-digger. She might somehow (though it would not be legal) excuse her former partner from child support payments; no legal arrangement, though, could completely cut them out of a right to inherit from him. The only point I am making is that bringing children into the world has inescapable consequences for both parties. When two people have irreconcilable differences over whether they want children - someone is not going to get what they want.

Yes, a childless woman may feel intense grief over that fact – but as a female friend said to me recently, having a child is, for most people under most circumstances, a deliberate choice. The desire for children is not shared by every woman or every couple. If people have children, they do it for their own reasons.

That makes it an essentially selfish choice, in the sense that it is something done for the parents’ own motives. It is, however, a socially expected and valorised choice.

What I find disturbing about this debate is that it seems to cast women in a biologically determinist light: victims of a cruel body-clock and attendant emotional distress if they cannot have children. By the same token men are reduced to a stereotype of economically selfish commitment-phobes.

I think both men and women deserve a higher standard of debate, where “the right to have children” isn’t an unproblematic moral trump card.