Monday, April 25, 2005

Message in an e-bottle

Hiya Caroline,

I haven’t laughed so much while reading someone’s e-mail in a while. You’ve lost none of your lovingly sardonic turn of phrase in describing friends, pets and events and it carries so well in e-mail I can hear you reading it.

Hope you won’t mind my life-update e-mail being recycled as blog-fodder, but I’ve had my nose to the grindstone recently and (non-PhD) writing time’s a bit thin. I’ve also been clearing the decks for Jason’s arrival in Cambridge on Monday, which I’m sure will precipitate a whole crazy cart of chaos to rival his adventures in South American and Egypt.

… Though with significantly less chance of being bombed in the market place or having to walk in the dark 30 minutes through heavily defended border crossings. Although some college porters could give most border guards a run for their money.

Still, he arrives on Anzac Day, so much hilarity should ensue in Cambridge pubs. I'm sure we can get around octeen or so before closing. ("Octeen" being any number of drinks greater than 4 when you lose count of the total. Octeen drinks in Octeen pubs would be a worthy, if suicidal, goal. Not entirely unlike capturing ANZAC cove from Attaturk. Unless you want to be literal, in which case it is, of course, entirely unlike that.)

It is, indeed, Spring in Cambridge. That time of year when the soul can’t help but be gladdened by the returning flocks of small, colourful creatures darting about the streets and lawns of Cambridge, warbling incomprehensibly.

But enough of the tour parties of French schoolchildren.

Weather soaring to the dizzying heights of 18 degrees and the presence of sunlight (!) in quantity (!) has filled me with an unbounded exuberance and atomised all sense of appropriate punctuation. Honestly, if every day was like the last week, you’d never leave. I’ve found myself signing up for the college cricket team and dragging people to the college courts to instruct me in tennis.

Frankly, I think the tennis is more likely to rise to any level of skill. It requires less organisation and equipment to get out and have a practice. That and the man who will be preparing cricket team “lunches” made an excellent wine steward last year.

A German and guy from the US have taken to playing croquet every Sunday, for pretty much the whole day, on the lawns I can see from my kitchen. I’m going to have to join them next Sunday – if by Sunday I’ve recovered from Jason’s birthday in London on the Friday.

Or even found my way home by then.

I have proposed a “black tie and barefoot” croquet afternoon, which is gaining steam as a proposal in the grads committee at college. I don’t need approval to run one, of course, but this way others may do the work and their may be subsidised drinks.

I’ve also founded a “People’s Direct Action Committee for Cake” that meets every Thursday at 4.30 in the grads common room at college and brings cake. People keep wanting to make it “official” and approach the committee for funding. I say the day we sell out to the bureaucracy is the day the heart goes out of afternoon tea. A floating dinner party also seems to have crystallised around watching the new “Dr Who” series on a Saturday evening.

Not sure there’s much else to report, and I’m probably rambling as I just sent my supervisor an 18,000 word draft of the 15,000 word paper I have due in 8 weeks time. Yes, yes, I scare myself some days. At least it’s a reasonable sign I’m enjoying the research and am probably equipped to do a PhD.

I look forward to hearing of the delirious autumnal excesses of industrial-scale grape jam manufacture (I have visions of Sam selling it on street corners, or abandoning cases of unwanted conserve on ACTION busses) and the internecine struggles of your pets for pre-eminence.

Aye me, to bed.



Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mick Jagger at the UN (or “Get me to the IMO on time”)

I’m exhausted. Twelve hours commuting in three days, the chain coming off your bike (again) and being locked out of your room (again) could do that to a person.

Despite this, I’m pretty damn cheerful.

The reason is I’ve spent those three days tootling down to the International Maritime Organisation to watch the drafting of an anti-terrorism and WMD-proliferation treaty. (Sounds a lot more exciting than “I’ve been at the IMO to watch the Legal Committee adopt a draft text on an amending Protocol to the SUA Convention which will in turn go to a Diplomatic Conference later this year” doesn’t it?)

A flatmate who interned at the Security Council said that a less-than-exciting bit of that environment was that everything that happened in the Council chamber was scripted and no-one ever speaks unless reading from a prepared text. This was rather more exciting.

Despite being “closed” the sessions routinely have student observers and everyone’s pretty friendly. While I can’t comment on anything that happened in closed session (a report summarising it will soon go up on the IMO website), I think I can make a few observations about the practicalities of treaty-making that would be apparent to any visitor, won’t upset anyone, and couldn’t breach any confidences.

The set-up is a mini-UN on the Thames embankment. IMO HQ is an architecturally uninspired building with a lot in common with a late 70s law faculty. It was opened in 1983, but I suspect the plans were approved a decade earlier and the UN ran out of funds for a bit. Still, the staff cafeteria has a lovely terrace with a view of the palace of Westminster.

The main committee room accommodated over 60 national delegations of between 2 – 10 lawyers, government officials and diplomats each. Proceedings were mostly conducted in English, but there was simultaneous translation into six official languages. Even in the visitors seat there were listening posts (after the IMO headset started making my ears sore, I switched to listening on my iPod earphones).

Long, long curved desks faced the raised platform where the Chairman, IMO secretary general, head of the Secretariat, and others sat. Each delegation had space at the table, and spare chairs behind, and a large name “card”. The cards were important in debate, you held it aloft, or turned it at 90 degrees so it stood vertically in the supporting groove at the front of your desk to attract the chairman’s attention.

The cards even crept into the use of language in interesting ways: “I raise my card to speak in support of …” or “I see no more cards, can we move on?”

While the text of the draft convention hard largely been hammered out over previous sessions of the committee (which every IMO member may attend), a lot of work had been done in “inter-sessional” working groups which had to be approved. This was not immune to amendment from the floor, or simply debate over what the States understood the words to mean. As you watched your saw States fly kites, state positions or seek clarification for the record, and sometimes make a real stab at changing things.

The other thing that sort of staggered me, but was obvious in retrospect, is that the text that was debated was an English text. Despite the treaty ultimately being produced in several official languages, all equally authentic, all States – regardless of their official language – were effectively debating shades of meaning in English.

The diplomatic culture was interesting to watch in operation. There was clearly a high premium placed on being seen to be “flexible”, and on supporting “compromise” solutions. A phrase often repeated was “we can live with this wording”, often proceeded by phrases like “while it may cause us some problems in domestic law” or “while the drafting could be improved” or “while we find the language vague”. The role of a good chairman in articulating the mood of the meeting and seeking to arrive at consensus decisions was apparent.

It was a sudden and salutary lesson that you can’t consider a treaty as a text received from on high. Problems in drafting, odd gaps or ambiguities, of the type endlessly worried at by academics represent hard-fought battles to reach something which, if not entirely satisfactory to anyone, was the best that could be achieved.

That said, there was a surprising amount of good humour in the whole process. (Proving that some jokes really do translate.) The Rolling Stones quote was even raised: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need”.

Quite apt really.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Engagingly silly suspense: “The Interpreter”

Set your credulity to max and scepticism to zero, and this is surprisingly enjoyable and decidely entertaining.

OK, a UN-based human-rights themed thrilled just shouldn’t work. Especially when it features the following:
Nicole Kidman’s quasi South African accent as a UN translator with a mysterious past;

Sean Penn as a gun-toting hard bitten Secret Service Agent with a tender side;

some dodgy politics (a CIA briefing on African independence movements calmly describes their inevitable descent into autocracy – such a backward continent, diplomatic protection detail often involves protecting Asian diplomats from lap-dancers);

more than the odd glitch on international law; and

some awful dialogue moments and clumsily manouevered plot elements that almost jump out with a red flag and go “look at me! I’ll be relevant later on!”

This should only be compounded by a truly contrived plot device: a translator - by sheer fluke - overhears an assassination plot, a whispered conversation conducted in a room filled with microphones in an obscure African dialect she just happens to understand.

This sets the film rolling when we realise a dictator from the Kidman character’s fictitious African home country may be assassinated in the General Assembly as he gives an address to attempt to avoid the Security Council referring him to the International Criminal Court. (Don’t ask.)

Why does it work? A wonderful sense of urgency, tension and menace pervades the film. Some scenes are wound tight enough to burst. Penn and Kidman bring a surprising amount of depth to their roles as individuals damaged by loss and struggling with their respective cynicism and idealism and mutual mistrust.

Even if the detail on international law and relations is occasionally a bit thin, the resonances with present international debates (human rights, international criminal law, the role of the UN) is engaging and the UN building in New York makes a unique set that astonishingly has never been used before in film.

I also have it from my flatmate who used to intern at the US delegation to the Security Council that many of the extras are genuine UN delegates who insisted on playing themselves during filming.

And if it inspires a new generation of idealists about the UN's potential in international affairs, that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

MCI sports center, Washington DC Posted by Hello

A day at the races, at the basketball

Yes that is a race-course laid out in the middle of a basketball court.

For babies.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected on going to see a Wizards’ game (Washington’s home team) while I was in DC, but my idea of half-time entertainment had not really extended to baby-racing.

It had been part of a plan to take in some local culture: a Sunday basketball game, what could be more American? The sports complex, near the Chinatown metro station, was a simply enormous affair, and we seemed to go up a gazillion escalators before finding our seats.

So, if you want proof of the short, short, short American attention span: go to a basketball game. Several things astonished me. First, the organ dude didn’t just play the national anthem – he or she provided a continuous sound-track to the entire game, meant to heighten suspense (presumably) but largely consisting of standard riffs, including, oddly, the Addams Family theme. Second, whenever a time out was called – even for 10 seconds – cheerleaders, sorry the “dance team” or some strange blue mascot would rush on court to entertain us. The Canadian was disturbed by Cheerleaders. We were sitting a long way from the ground, but in their initial outfits their cleavage was still visible from about five floors up. Later in the game they came back on in something more like Britney Spears business-wear. Presumably to keep things “wholesome”.

If not being distracted by dancing or amusing mascot-antics in the time-outs, the cameras would sweep the seating and you’d watch the big screens as people were encouraged to dance, or kiss, or wave. I’m not sure if there was a prize beyond your face being plastered on a really big screen.

And at half time? Baby-racing. Kiddies crawling along a strip from one parent to another. Two rounds of heats and a grand final with a $300 prize. It could only have been better if you could lay bets on it. Though my kid would have been the one who crawled half way down the course, took a 90 degree turn out onto the basketball court and sat down and looked bemused. None seemed frightened by the noise.

Oh, and I asked the Belgian to get me “a small sprite”. The smallest available was the size of my head. I had to go the bathroom almost continuously for the second half.

Not that I missed much. It was one of the slowest scoring first halves that either the Wizards or the Pacers had ever had, apparently. There was a cliffhanger in the last six minutes of playing time with the visitors holding a slim lead. The home team, scrambling to catch up, tried to equalise with a 3-point throw in the final seconds of the game, to no avail.

But they weren’t a patch on baby racing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bangkok Joe's, Washington DC Posted by Hello

The DC adventure: hitting the town

It’s always fun seeing a city through a friend’s eyes. It’s also fun travelling in a place with a weaker currency than the pound (ie everywhere). While eating out a lot was still an indulgence, it was a far more reasonably priced one.

Led by a Belgian (see yesterday’s entry) the PhD gang hit some great restaurants once the conference buffet dinners petered out. One such establishment was the lovely, and remarkably reasonable, Bangkok Joe’s (see photo). Excellent Thai. We repaired afterwards to the fabulously funky Mie N Yu. Check out the online tour (we were in the Moroccan Bazaar bar).

With my Australian host I saw the inside of several bars, one of the better was Local 16. Including having the experience of a head waitress/bar-person cross the room to give him a hug, have a chat and wave our little party past the ID check to the rooftop bar. (He’s clearly spent some time and money in a number of places.)

And I managed to buy clothes, again. An amazingly sleek grey wool overcoat with duffle-coat toggles and (wait for it) a blue cord jacket with fawn suede elbow patches. Perfect junior academic regalia. My host’s comment on the latter was: “When I heard cord with elbow patches, I feared the worst. But that actually looks like rather funky streetwear.”

A change in my routine

I am attempting to be good this week. Recovering from jet-lag, and still being inspired by the conference and my interviews about my research - it seemed a good time to try and form new habits.

Part of this process is that I’ve come up with a totally new plan of what I want to do for my first year paper, so I’m trying to pull different things together and get a lot of new research done.

So, my new daily routine. Wake up 7.00 or 7.30, 10 minutes yoga followed by a 10 minute run round the sports-ground. Shave, shower, breakfast. Coffee and the online newspapers until 9 am. 9-1 work in my room, mostly writing.

Then lunch from 1-2, and in at the law school library by 2 chasing references, looking things up, photocopying and reading. Leave around 5.30 or 5.45.

This is proving frighteningly productive, and means I am finally and definitely treating the PhD as an office job. Let’s hope it lasts.

Tomorrow: a day at the baby races.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Vietnam memorial, DC Posted by Hello
Coming full circle in Washington DC

Ah, Washington when the cherry blossom is in bloom: when it can be a sunny balmy 21 degrees one day and belting with rain the next.

My time in DC (I got back on Wednesday) was something of a homecoming. The last time I was there, nearly a decade ago, I was a law student competing in the Jessup International Law moot. It was an astonishingly stressful week, but which culminated in my team reaching the grand final. Presenting arguments before the Whewell Professor of International Law at Cambridge (now my supervisor), a judge of the International Court of Justice and a prosecutor from the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal was exhilarating. We lost to the State University of Mexico, but managed to walk away with a number of prizes other than the runners-up trophy.

I had never studied international law before the gruelling four months of my life that the Jessup moot eventually consumed. Part of the thrill of even being at the international rounds was that they were held in conjunction with the American Society of International Law conference – the academic conference in the field. People you though of as names on a textbook were all there, milling about, talking.

So, returning to go to the ASIL conference as a PhD student from Cambridge was accompanied by an odd, quiet sense of having come full circle. I wasn’t at all hyped about the Jessup dimension to proceedings until a Canadian friend and fellow Cambridge-Phud type convinced me to go see the final. Not only had she done the international rounds of the Jessup the same year as me, but the problem this year overlapped with both our research interests (the law of the sea, piracy, terrorism and State responsibility).

When we arrived, we wound up watching the final in an overflow room on a giant screen: the big advantage of this being we got an extremely good view of the advocates and close-ups on the judges during questions. What really got me though, was the grand final was an Australian (UQ) against a Malaysian team. There was a strong sense of déjà vu, as I and the Canadian sat and muttered and twitched and whispered comments on points of law to each other. We left satisfied as to which team had won, and decided to look up the result on the web later.

Curiously, I also wound up staying in much the same district, Adams Morgan near Dupont Circle, as I had last time I was in DC. Not a lot appeared to have changed, but with my “native” (Belgian and Australian) guides to the city, the night life was certainly a lot more interesting. But more of that later.