Sunday, October 31, 2004

Lakes District (Hawkshead village) Posted by Hello

A week of social excess

Monday. Dinner with social anthropologists (and their lawyer friends).

Tuesday. Had some people round to play “Versability” the poetry game: given the first three lines of a stanza, can you suggest a convincing fourth? The answer in my case would appear to correlate very closely to the amount of wine I’ve had to drink over progressive rounds.

Wednesday. Grad Hall and Halloween bop. Committee members morally obliged to help stay and clean up after the party. So what else could one do but drink and dance until closing?

The photos that have come back from friends are rather chilling. It appears I was persuaded to dress as the leather biker from the Village People, replete with moustache. However, once moustache, leather jacket and sunglasses all fell off, I seemed to spend most of the night in another Australian’s white cowboy hat.

At least I was not the man in a straw cowboy hat who was otherwise only wearing briefs, sneakers and a half litre of vegetable oil.

Thursday. Awake tired. Assist the Californian neighbour to make lunch from scratch from organic ingredients – a process taking only 3 hours. Talk legal theory in the gardens in the last of the day’s sun with the new LLM students.

Went to a friend’s flat in the evening to watch the first two episodes of the thought-provoking, if polemical, “The Power of Nightmares” – which suggests that Neocon and certain Islamic extremist ideologies have a lot in common, to some extent need each other to be political credible in their constituencies and even suggests both would have been dead in the water without September 11. Provocative.

I’d even seen one of the key Neocon interviewees (Michael Ladeen) speak in Cambridge on Wednesday. I'll blog more about that if and when.

Friday. Went to see a new play (“Folie a Deux”) based on the same New Zealand true-crime story as “Heavenly Creatures”, written by and starring a friend. Powerful, intense stuff requiring a couple of stabelising Guinesses afterwards at the King’s College bar.

Discover a 19 year-old thesp friend had two months work over summer as a small but significant character in production of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel being filmed in New Zealand. No wonder she kindly insisted on buying a round.

Went for a quick nightcap port in the common room with another Australian lawyer, which turned into a long sequence of largish ports with an expanding cast of people dropping by to admire my inMotion iPod speakers.

Well, that and the port.

Saturday. Go perform in a staged reading of “Calculus” (while simultaneously meant to be at a rehearsal for “Macbeth”). Finish feeling shattered. Go home, nap. Decide I have neither the energy for a Buffy-themed Halloween bop, nor a cast party that will start at 2 am (after the set and lights are dismantled). Have Mexican with the flatmates and proceed to the pub.

Sunday. Go to lunch for three hours at the house of my college mentor. Go to see “Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban” at St John’s film group. Afterwards walk through an English Rennaisance college’s cloisters by night – too Hogwarts for words.

PhD research? Don’t ask … I scarecly have time to blog ...

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Disgusting, but scarcely surprising

The reach of Guantanamo is slowly extending.

In what sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theories – except it has been confirmed by the US Government – the CIA has been quietly moving some prisoners out of Iraq to secret bases for interrogation, beyond the reach of US law or - allegedly - the Geneva Conventions.

Here is the apparent reasoning: if you were not part of the uniformed Iraqi armed forces during the invasion, and are not an Iraqi national, you are not protected by the Geneva Conventions or the law of belligerent occupation, and can be moved beyond the reach of law and interrogated.

Up to a very limited point regarding the power to transfer people out Iraq, this may not be entirely wrong. But the Bush administration is deliberately seeking to circumvent any legal regulation of its interrogation practices. Of those captured in Iraq who are not Iraqi nationals (protected by the international law of occupation from being removed from Iraq – if one ignores the removal of Hussien) who have been “transferred” out of the country the New York Times has said:

“Another possibility is that they were transferred to the secret American-run sites around the world that have been used since the Sept. 11 terror attacks to house the highest ranking Qaeda detainees, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of being the mastermind of the attacks.

Such transfers have been used by American officials in the past three years in part to subject suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban to interrogation practices harsher than those permitted under the Geneva Conventions or under American law. American officials have defended such practices, including a technique in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown, as essential to extract information that may be useful in preventing terrorist attacks.”

Presumably, like Guantanamo Bay, a number of these US bases are presumably beyond the reach of the US Supreme Court, and are probably not subject to local law by the terms of the treaties governing the status of foreign armed forces.

Despite my somewhat hasty conclusion the last time I wrote about Guantanamo, there is (by implication or omission) such a category as “non-privileged combatant”, though the term is not directly found in the Geneva Conventions. However, such a person is still entitled certain minimum protections (under the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War).

Further, they are entitled to a determination of their status by a competent tribunal (Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention), not by what sounds a secretive administrative procedure (“We’ve decided you belong to Al Qaeda, and the Presidential determination says at all AQ members are non-privileged combatants – sorry, go straight to Guantanamo Bay, do not pass go, do not expect visits from Red Cross inspectors …”).

And of course, no state official has the right to engage in interrogation practices that breach the general international prohibition on torture. Under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”), torture is where “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him … information or a confession …” (CAT, Article 1).

In case it might be thought that this prohibition doesn’t apply to the US, the CAT is one of the few major international human rights instruments to which the US is actually a party. That is, as a matter of international law, it applies to US officials no matter where in the world they are.

And this is the country Australia and the UK have lined up behind as leaders of the free world.

The depth of my disgust is just beyond expression at present.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Pembroke College Posted by Hello
“Gah! Why does it hurt?”

Sunday’s sunshine, following a Saturday afternoon and evening of grey drizzle, must have really gone to my head. The vitamin D levels in my blood must’ve just spiked to intoxicating, unaccustomed heights.

Anyway, I was willingly dragged off to my first Ultimate Frisbee game in three years by one of the central-European guys downstairs, a bit of a Cambridge Ultimate legend as it transpires.

We got down to Jesus Green and tossed my disc about for a bit.

“I can see we need you on the College team,” he said – which was unnecessarily good of him. Anyway, Sunday was training for the university team, but it was a very big pool with a lot of beginners, so I wasn’t out of my depth.

But man, two and half hours of running around after a Frisbee will really take it out of you … and every joint and tendon.

So I went home to a hot shower, nap and then off to 75 minutes of yoga before a dress rehearsal for “Calculus”.

To compound my virtue, I had alcohol free, early-night Saturdays and Sundays (as did most people I know really, bad weather coupled with a lot of mid-week socialising does that surprisingly often).

So, this morning it took me about half an hour to get out of bed, and I seem to have a mild sore throat.

Just goes to show I shouldn’t have abandoned a strict regime of physical indolence, drinking and excessive dining.

I’ve spent all day walking around like John Wayne or a Cyberman (don’t move the knees! shuffle forward manfully! slow on the stairs!) and napping. Still, having social engagements six nights running this week should just about cure me.

Well, kill or cure.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Launcelot Fleming House, Wychfield - Chez Moi Posted by Hello

May I be excused? My brain is full.

So, my supervisor rocks. It was so worth hauling myself out of bed after stumbling home at 1.30 am to make it over to his office by 11 am on a Saturday.

I left reeling and euphoric after what felt like an hour-long conversation. Consultation with my watch put it at somewhere under 30 minutes.

So, I was not necessarily at my most confident on the way over. I probably overdressed for a Saturday (polo shirt, jumper, tweed jacket and slacks) but had never seen my supervisor in anything but a suit.

I cycled over to the research centre (a couple of inconspicuous white houses set in some lovely gardens) and arrived steaming slightly from my slightly-shaven scalp in the humidity.

Then realised I had no idea where in the grand ole rabbit warren his office was.

After tip-toeing through a conference, I found him in a set of rooms off a first floor landing, behind his computer in jeans and polar fleece. His office was utterly book-crammed, documents everywhere, including fisheries maps and something that I suspect was Malaysia’s memorial in an upcoming law of the sea dispute.

He actually seemed very slightly impressed I’d put together a 19 page paper since we spoke two weeks ago. He thought it raised some interesting issues. He liked the research I’d done on US anti-drug trafficking treaties.

“I suspect your topic might be broader than weapons of mass destruction. But you’ve convinced me there’s enough here for a PhD.”

He outlined the direction I should be continuing in, pointed me towards some resources and described the interaction between fisheries regimes and customary law on the high seas with magnificent economy, and pointed out how on some of my issues of jurisdiction I needed to be looking at European human rights cases.

“Um … we’re also meant to discuss my training needs,” I offered. “I suspect I need to learn more about finding European documents. I’ve gone to some sessions at the library, I suspect I’ll go to more.”

“How’s your French?” he asked.

“Six years of high-school that’s grown quite rusty.”

“But you can read?”

“Ur … slowly and with a dictionary?”

“I think reading French will be important. There’s a lot of good writers on the law of the sea in French. To kill two birds with one stone you should pick a book –”

Doug thinks: Tintin in the original?

“- something recent on the law of the sea and write a review. I can arrange for the American Journal or one of the others to give it to you. Then you get the experience of reading French and writing about it in English, and your name in print.”


Doug (weakly): “Great. I might just sign myself up for a course at the language centre as well, though. I mean, I’m sure the structure of it all is still there somewhere, but I could use a refresher.”

Somehow I suspect that what I remember of Mr H’s immersion French classes will not, of itself, allow me to comprehend academic writing on international law.

But I am so excited about my research. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I did not look like a fool in front of one of the best in my field. I convinced him my topic is viable. He’s friendly and accessible.

… and he’s pushing me to write a review of a French academic work for a major journal.

Game on.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Listening pleasure Posted by Hello

Conversations with God

Yesterday should have been an unparalled triumph. For a start, my bank finally gave me my missing PIN number (only fifteen days rather than the promised five, but who's counting); my glorious new iPod inMotion speakers arrived at the porters lodge (an ebay assisted import from the US at 2/3rds the Australian cost); and I had grad hall to look forward to.

Instead, I felt sort of tense, crotchety and out of control most of the day. My mood was probably not helped by a morning of fine rain, more like a nursery spray mist, not so much falling as hanging in the air and infiltrating every opening and settling in gentle, cumulative slicks over cobblestones and trouser-legs alike.

Bascially, my problem is getting ready for the next conversation with god. My supervisor is - well - if not the guy, one of the five guys, but more likely one of the two. Put it this way, a very good proportion of the ICJ cases I will need to look at over the next three years he appeared in. This is a practicing international lawyer whose clients are nation states.

Faintly intimidated? Me?

Anyway, despite being internationally mobile, frighteningly intelligent and insanely busy, he seems (after one meeting) extremely approachable, genuinely nice and very active in his supervision of PhD students. Once again, I've been incredibly lucky.

But ... it looks like I'll be producing writing for him on a fortnightly basis. External deadlines are great, but convincing yourself that something doesn't have to be perfect before presenting it to one of the planet's more senior and experienced people in your field is another challenge altogether.

However, today, despite it being the morning after a particularly rigorous grad hall that somehow finished in the bar of a neighbouring college, I put in a good day at the office (as pictured above) and just got the hell on with it.

I'll have something for him by tomorrow, though he's pushed our next meeting back from 4 pm Friday to 11 am ... Saturday.

I mentioned he was busy, right?

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the theatre

Hung over one morning of Fresher’s week I diverted myself by stumbling around the audition trail from Cambridge student drama – auditioning for four plays in a little over three hours: the Amateur Dramatic Club Christmas panto of “Great Expectations”; a play about Isaac Newton’s rivalry with Liebniz; “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Macbeth”.

My audition for the panto was monstrous: confessing I couldn’t dance, and proving rather ably that I couldn’t sing (my attempt to lightly warble Cole Porter’s “You’re the top” achieving nothing more than a polite smile from the director and the mutilation of a surprisingly simple and innocent melody) probably limited my usefulness for a singing, dancing, comedy.

However, it does appear I have an affinity for being killed on stage. I’ve been cast as Banquo in the production of Mac … *ahem* … that Scottish play.

Still, it should be a pleasant change from being kicked to death each night (and most rehearsals) in “The Golden Ass”.

The prospect of an Australian reading the part of Cambridge’s most famous academic amuses me no end, but I am indeed reading the parts of Sir Isaac Newton and Vanbrugh (the Restoration playwright) in a one-off staged reading of Carl Djerassi’s play, “Calculus” weekend after next. Djerassi, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford, is probably better known as the first person to synthesise the oral contraceptive pill than as a playwright. He might apparently be in the audience.

Oh, and I was cast as Agrippa (a generic noble Roman with some rather nice speeches) in “Antony and Cleopatra” – but closer inspection of the production dates revealed I would be in Australia on Christmas holidays during the performance.

A pity, as it looked a promising production.

Interestingly, “Antony and Cleopatra” will be performed in the great hall at Trinity College, where Newtown was a fellow.

And one of my corridor-neighbours from Stanford has been to Djerassi’s house in San Francisco as she was taught by his wife, the English Literature academic Diane W. Middlebrook.

Is the world quite small enough yet?

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Cambridge market, King's spires, Great St Mary's Posted by Hello

“We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart”

American neighbour: “You, know, I’m beginning to think I’m a binge drinker.”

Doug: “Good, you’ll fit right in.”

It’s not that in Cambridge socialising is entirely impossible without alcohol … oh, wait, scratch that. Ahem. In Cambridge socialising is entirely impossible without alcohol. In fact, it’s about the only way to get anything done at all.

Let me back up.

At my induction camp with the nice people giving me money to be here, the trust Provost (with refreshing honesty) said: “The most frustrating – and wonderful – thing about Cambridge is that it’s not managed at all. I’m Provost of the Trust, Master of this College, Head of that Faculty and President of the Following Organisation – all of which means I have the power to do precisely nothing. If you want something to happen, make it happen.”

What Cambridge does well, in fact, brilliantly is to teach people to network – but nicely. You live in a sort of Venn-diagram of social relations: you have an existence within your college, your faculty, student societies and so on where no one is actually responsible for doing anything much – but you have a lot of opportunity to meet people who can make your life simpler if you treat them well.

The principle thing is to never turn down an event. I have had invaluable advice through being seated next to the college Law Fellows at dinners, and – surprise, surprise – going drinking with them afterwards. College is also where you get to eat and drink with a cross-disciplinary community, something I never really had to the same extent as an Australian undergrad.

You also need to maximise your friends in other colleges, if only to be in with the remotest hope of getting into swanky May Balls run by the mega-wealthy colleges.

All of which just tends to make the start of the year rather tiring. On my third real day of PhD research I couldn’t get past lunch because – after the excesses of Freshers week – I had the Scholar’s dinner in College last night and was being bought celebratory gin and tonics for some time afterwards by the law fellows in the college bar. End result, by two o’clock I had to stumble home for a nap.

Tonight was graduate formal hall, a lovely occasion with my kitchen (the drop-in centre in our accommodation block) hosting a dozen people for blackcurrant tea and strategising the acquisition of May Ball tickets until midnight.

Tomorrow I have drinks in my LLM supervisor’s rooms at St John’s and Monday I have the law research student’s dinner.

All of this is wonderfully valuable professional networking the only way Cambridge knows how.

But I really am beginning to wish I’d banked half my liver before admission to legal practice.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Come not between an Aussie and a flaming BBQ Posted by Hello

The end of the beginning

There comes a point where you can hear MCR Committee members chanting, “Freshers’ Week is o-ver, I can do some wri-ting” – which expresses both the sad lot of the later-year PhD student and the party fatigue of the first week of term.

Take 90 strangers from around the world, drop them in a Cambridge college, add them to an existing 140 graduate students, add a hectic and creative social calendar and too much free drink and leave to simmer for seven days.

The result is a surprisingly intense week which leaves people with new networks of friends and a strong group identity, and rather less fear of being in a strange institution with a scary reputation. It’s a great process to watch and participate in: I already feel like I’ve know a couple of the new guys for months.

Today was the final event of the week, the only one I was responsible for co-convening: the final BBQ. The amount people had drunk through the week was probably reflected in the fact that this was the event with the highest food to alcohol ratio and we still didn’t get through the two cases of beer on offer.

Indeed, doing the shopping run Saturday morning for the Sunday arvo BBQ it was hard enough to even enter the alchohol aisle of a mega-Tescos and lay hands on beer without experiencing convulsions. The situation was not helped by what seemed a half-mile long, garish two storey high wall display of what seemed to be the EU surplus of Diet Pepsi (labelled: “for display purposes only”).

Most BBQ attendees had the same attitude to it upon arrival.

Still, some of us Australians – having heard the election result and had a day to stew over it – needed a beer.

And besides, it’s so much more fun to play with a three-foot grease fire with a beer in one hand.

Thursday, October 7, 2004

View from my window 1 Posted by Hello

View from my window 2 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Efficiency in the UK

Am presently going through the joys of getting set up at the start of the academic year, same as every other UK uni student. Despite this having happened on Michaelmas day for about 800 years now, Britain still has some trouble coping.

My grant cheque arrived on time at the college bursary (direct electronic payment? what is this, the New World?), but will of course take a British bank up to five days to clear.

Still, no problem as I can't use my debit card. Somehow, I forgot the PIN. So, I took several forms of photo ID in, hoping to have the bank swipe the card and reset it.

"Alright sir, I'll take a note of your sort code and account number," said the woman, motioning that I could go.

"Um, what happens now?" I asked.

"Your PIN will be mailed out to you within five working days."

Mailed. Out. Within. Five. Days.

Of course, one could make manual withdrawls, if one was prepared to queue 20 minutes or more. (It's only the busiest time of year, why have more than one teller open? Or when you do have three open, why not let two puzzle together over one computer screen for 10 minute stretches? Why would you call in a manager or extra staff just because people are so bored they've started gnawing their own limbs?)

Getting a phone connected? Nothing easier. Buy a phone, plug it into the socket, dial "#" and wait for a NTL representative ... for over an hour.

My phone will now be connected within the week. Maybe by Friday, more likely this time next week.

Oh, and despite having been here last year, I need to fill out a new emergency contact form.

And - my personal favourite - despite living in College accomodation, I need to turn in a form to the college telling them where I am living. (I mean, what?)

And despite being admited to the PhD program, I still need to "register" as a PhD student at the Law School.

Still, at least running errands beats starting work. However, I did have a PhD students seminar this morning in which I discovered further evidence of the conspiracy of Australian lawyers in Cambridge.

The first new evidence predates the seminar, as not only did one of the new LLM students in college recently work at the same Sydney Mega-Firm as I once did, she worked for the same group and the same partners.

Now it transpires that one of my PhD cohort is also an alumna of the Mega-Firm, while another PhD-mate used to sit with me in the History Honours Research Seminar at the ANU circa 1997.

Small, scary world.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go press my wing-collar shirt and see if my new fob chain for my grandfather's watch fits my waistcoat.

As a member of the grad student committee I've been invited to the metriculation dinner for the newbies this evening, so I guess I can't really complain.

(Naturally, I've had my head shaved back to a tidy no. 2 for the occasion by a physicist friend.)

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Occasionally sunny Cambridge Posted by Hello

A pain in the laundry

Ah, Freshers’ Week in Cambridge, the sound of suitcases on wheels rumbling across courts, the new student’s bright smiles of terrified enthusiasm, the dubious grunts of parents dropping off crate after crate of their undergraduate child’s equipment.

A time before classes commence, a time of parties, drinking, entertainment and having hot wax spilled down the back of your trousers without so much as a formal introduction.

Yup, at a drinks function at the fashionable Riverbar Kitchen a student (on scholarship no less) managed to knock over one of the exceedingly large wax candles adorning a trendily low table and righteously splatter the back of my brown cord trousers. Not the cocktail combination I was looking for.

Ever tried getting dried wax out of those little fabric grooves?

Fortunately the international guild of professional butlers (a site destined to become the thinking man’s aide to running a home) and a2z carpet agree that the essential procedure is to cover the affected area with brown paper and apply a warm iron, then stand back and watch the paper absorb the wax.

Well, obviously, one doesn’t really stand back and watch.

That would just start a fire.

Anyway, my favourite cords now look less like a recently frosted biscuit and just kinda patchily discoloured. There’s still a wax residue in some of those hard-to-reach little grooves in the fabric.

Time to go buy dry cleaning fluid and some POG (Paint-Oil-and-Grease, apparently) remover.

Just as well nobody expects me to have started any research on, y’know, international law or anything yet.