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Books + Ideas — May 2011

Following a decision to take more advantage of living in a university town, in May I went to thirty odd lectures and seminars. There's such a wealth of academic events on in Oxford that sometimes I feel like a kid let loose in a candy store (or perhaps, in my case, a bookshop).

Not all my months are this busy and if I kept this up I'd probably go mad - though some people may think that's already happened...

Anyway, here's a list of the seminars I went to, with brief comments.

Neel Burton, Schizophrenia: The Price for Being Human (Merton - TS Eliot LT, 31 May, 50+)

An introduction to schizophrenia and the idea that it's maintained in the population because of the increased fitness of people with some schizotypical traits (and associated genetics). Not much new to me.

Book: The Meaning of Madness (Amazon, Amazon UK)

Mark Katz, The amateur in the age of mechanical music (Music - Denis Arnold Hall, 31 May, 20+)

Three case studies in amateur performance using mechanically reproduced music: the pianola and player piano, karaoke, and iPhone apps such as Ocarina. A fun presentation, with good video excerpts.

Book: Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (Amazon, Amazon UK)

Maura O’Carroll, The Catechetical Preaching of the Early Oxford Dominicans (Blackfriars, 31 May, 10+)

Some background on Lateran IV and the foundation of the Dominican order was provided on handouts, along with maps of the Dominican settlement and visitation priories in England. After some general context on this, and on sermons in general, came an analysis of some of the 200+ sermons in a manuscript MS Laud Misc. 511 from the middle of the 13th century.

Managed to incorporate devotional elements while remaining scholarly, in that peculiarly Catholic fashion.

Sigvard von Sicard, Islam in Madagascar (Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, 31 May, 10+)

Summarising papers published in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, a survey of the different groups of Muslims in Madagascar and a bit about their history and religious beliefs and practices. (The Centre is not affiliated with the university, and is confessional. The people I talked to seemed to have worked as missionaries in East Africa)

Andrew Martin, Trusted Computing for Trusted Systems (Oxford Internet Institute, 31 May, 5+)

A general introduction to trusted computing. The audience were policy and social behaviour people, so it was a bit dumbed down for me. (It was interesting seeing how difficult explaining cryptography to non-techies is, with the questions mostly about general computing security and not really about trusted computing.)

Paper: The ten-page introduction to Trusted Computing (PDF)

Kip Thorne, Black-Hole Research: A New Golden Age (Martin Wood, 27 May, 200+)

A brief account of the first Golden Age of black hole research. Then a presentation - with nice animations - of work done in the last few years, using numerical simulations to understand what happens in black hole collisions, along with ways of visualising the gravitational fields involved. (The collision of two black holes can turn 10% of their matter into gravitational energy in a time span of 10*radius/c - which for galactic core black holes works out at 10,000 times the luminosity of the entire Universe!)

Concluded with a survey of the different projects to detect the gravitational waves from these collisions - could be anywhere from 6 per day to one every two years.

Book: Gravitation (Amazon, Amazon UK) - If I'd brought my copy with me from Australia I'd have asked him to sign it

Judith Scheele, Smugglers and saints: reflections on Saharan connectivity (Anthropology, 27 May, 20+)

Details of fieldwork in Al Khalil, a kind of a trading/smuggling post in the middle of nowhere near the border with Algeria, and in oases in southern Algeria. Localities can't be understood in isolation - investment in oasis agriculture, for example, seems to make no sense financially - but only in the context of networks that span West Africa, based on families and links to local religious lineages.

(An intriguing in-passing suggestion that some communities historically used monetary concepts in mortgages, inheritance, etc. even though the economy wasn't cash based.)

Paper: "Traders, Saints, and Irrigation: Reflections on Saharan Connectivity"

Philip Wigge, Temperature Sensing in Plants (Plant Sciences, 26 May, 20+)

Temperature regulation of the transcriptome is mediated by the alternative nucleosome H2A.Z. This appears to be ancient - present in animals as well as plants (though H2A.Z knockout mutations are lethal in animals).

Paper: "H2A.Z-Containing Nucleosomes Mediate the Thermosensory Response in Arabidopsis"

Max Nathan, Immigration, diversity and innovation (Pauling Centre, 26 May, 20+)

Hmmm... Using patents (EPO only) as a proxy for Innovation is problematic. Using names to "locate" people (and thus distinguish migrants, or their children) is dodgy. Separating any migrant/diversity effects from human capital effects is difficult. Using a negative binomial distribution is probably correct (there wasn't enough statistical detail to know). Relying on the results for any kind of policy guidance seems rather tenuous.

But the background ideas to this were interesting and well presented.

Blog post: The Triumph of the City

Reto Knutti, Uncertainties in future temperature projections and climate stabilization (Atmopsheric Physics, 26 May, 50+)

An overview of climate sensitivity and its uncertainties. Why there's a long-tail (significant chances of extreme temperature changes). How people ignore that some carbon emissions are effectively forever (irreversible) and that emissions will have to be reduced to near zero to actually stabilise temperatures. Debates over discount rates and related issues. Confirmation of climate sensitivity estimates (2 to 4.5) from multiple sources (different pre-historical periods, instrumental measurements, models, etc.)

His own work - basically finding other ways to approach uncertainty in both the climate sensitivity and the transient temperature response - was interesting but not exciting.

Paper: "Constraints on Climate Sensitivity from Radiation Patterns in Climate Models"

Benito Müller, Geopolitics of Climate Change: Players, Opportunities and Challenges (St Antony's - Nissan LT, 25 May, 20+)

A brief history of global climate change politics from 1992.

Organisation: Oxford Institute for Energy Studies

Tariq Ramadan, Women in Islamic Jurisprudence and Law (St Antony's - Darendorf Rm, 25 May, 50+)

More activist than scholarly — basically a "reform Islam" perspective, pragmatically oriented to finding a basis for liberal ideas in Islamic tradition. Texts matter in Islam, and purely logical or rational arguments may not carry much weight. Context is important, as is understanding cultural influences. Etc.

Articles: Guardian

Stefan Talmon, How Public International Law has been Made, Found and Proven from the 18th century to the 21st century (St Cross Building - Gulbenkian LT, 24 May, 20+)

An account of the shift from natural law and tacit consent theories of international law to ones based on opinio juris or the legal consciousness of states. Which provides a foundation for ius cogens arguments.

Website: Professor Stefan Talmon

Thomas Pogge, Tracking Poverty and Gender Equity (Queen Elizabeth House, 24 May, 50+)

A critique of metrics for measuring poverty, especially the World Bank's International Poverty Line. Baselines have been shifted, inappropriate PPP conversions used, and so forth, all serving to hide the extent of poverty and make the trends look positive.

Econometrics pitched at a level accessible to development students, but all the more telling for its simple, concrete presentation.

Debate: How Not to Count the Poor

Thomas Hertog, Origin of the Universe (All Souls - Old Library, 23 May, 20+)

A nice presentation, well-pitched for an audience many of whom had no physics background (this being part of a multi-disciplinary "genealogies" seminar series). A brief history of cosmology, followed by an argument for "top-down" quantum cosmology - with observation probabilities conditioned on the observational framework, e.g. the existence of life. p(O|D,H,Ψ) and all that. The universe has "biophilic features which are extremely improbable"... This was all presented as if it were entirely non-controversial. I queried a few things, as did some (?) physics graduate students.

A topical talk given I was in the middle of reading Helge Kragh's Higher Speculations.

Story: Hawking rewrites history... backwards

David Gross, The Frontiers of Fundamental Physics (Martin Wood, 20 May, 200+)

Supersymmetry, vacuum structure, string theory, etc. with some meta-epistemological musings. The audience (overflowing into a second lecture theatre) were mostly undergraduates and nothing was pitched above the popular science level - but this was the equivalent of an entire popular science book, presented in an hour and a half, by someone who really knows what he's talking about. (And they had nice snack food afterwards: falafel, dolmades, houmous, etc.)

Video: Nobel Prize Lecture

June McDaniel, A nation of monotheisms: theological and ritual change in modern Indonesia (Anthropology, 20 May, 20+)

A brief introduction to Balinese Hinduism and a look at how it has reinvented itself, as Agama Hindu Dharma, to fit in with the Indonesian state's insistence on monotheism. Not much that was new to me here (and McDaniel's area of speciality is actually West Bengal).

Paper: "Agama Hindu Dharma Indonesia as a New Religious Movement: Hinduism Recreated in the Image of Islam" (full text not freely accessible)

Nick Proudfoot, Gene punctuation in eukaryotes: R-loops, gene loops and non coding RNA (Medical Sciences Teaching Centre, 19 May, 100+)

Adventures in termination of transcription, changes in expression of convergent genes at different stages of the cell cycle, and (patented) applications to up- and down-regulate genes.

Paper: "Autoregulation of convergent RNAi genes in fission yeast".

Antonello Palumbo, Knowledge of Buddhism in early China (Wolfson, 17 May, 5+)

Gave an overview of the earliest literary and archaeological evidence for Buddhism in China. Suggested transmission was "top down", via the imperial court. And used transcription phonology as evidence for an early date for a "Scripture of the 18 Naraka". (The literary evidence is earlier than the archaeological; the earliest is a mention of Buddhism in an imperial letter from 2 BC.)

Some of this was quite technical but because Palumbo was addressing a mixed audience of Sinologists and Indologists he couldn't assume too much linguistic knowledge.

Chapter: "From Constantine the Great to Emperor Wu of the Liang: The rhetoric of imperial conversion and the divisive emergence of religious identities in Late Antique Eurasia"

David Heymann, Molecular epidemiology in public health: the good, the bad and the evil (Richard Doll, 17 May, 20+)

An overview of some of the major infectious disease challenges of the last few decades: SARS, Polio eradication, H51N, cholera, etc. The "bad" is molecular epidemiology interacting with politics: Haiti and cholera, Indonesia and virus sequence sharing, etc. The "evil" is the potential for smallpox or polio virus to be synthesised de novo in a lab, using public information.

Book: Control of Communicable Diseases Manual (Amazon, Amazon UK)

Benny Morris, Israel and Palestine - Is it too late for the Two States Solution? (Lincoln, 16 May, 20+)

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James Hegarty, Telling the World: Exploring the Cultural and Intellectual Agenda of the Sanskrit Mahabharata (Oriental Studies, 16 May, 10+)

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Tom Stoppard, The Pragmatic Art (Sheldonian, 13 May, 200+)

A perspective on the place of the artist in society and a pragmatic view of the playwright's art, with short readings from some plays (including a work in progress). I went to this with visiting friends Rita and Mary.

Biography: Wikipedia

James Wood, Everything, nothing, something (St Anne's, 12 May, 100+)

The first of a series of five lectures about the novel and the new atheism. Here he gave an account of his childhood in an evangelical family, pointed out some of the limitations of the new atheists, and explained that he was actually going to talk about Herman Melville, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Wolf, and Samuel Beckett, with asides to a broad range of other writers (Dostoyevsky, Saramago, etc.) God was "everything" in the mid 19th century, "something" around 1900, and "nothing" by 1950.

(I was most pleased that one of the passages on the handout was from Laszlo Krasznahorkai's War and War.)

David Blackman, Minoan seafarers, Egypt and the Levant (Archaeology, 12 May, 20+)

Actually a survey of the evidence from the Bronze Age for shipyards, docks, and suchlike, in Crete, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and the Levant.

Paper: "New evidence for ancient ship dimensions" (PDF)

Terence Cave, Thinking with literature (Taylorian, 10 May, 50+)

A fun talk, with close-reading of some passages from the Princess de Cleves (in French, but I could sort of follow them as they were provided on a handout). Argued for a "cognitive" approach to literature, which seems to involve looking at the way the reader thinks about what they're reading... or maybe about what the characters do, or the author, or all of these. Entirely unclear to me how "cognitive" here differs from psychological and linguistic, keeping in mind that cognitive science is really just a nexus of older disciplines. (Jenny seemed to think the talk had something to do with inferential calculus, but I have serious doubts about Bayesianism in literature...)

Project: Literature as an Object of Knowledge

Lynn Margulis, Pectinatella magnica and its photosynthetic bacteria: implications for Paleozoic bryozoan reefs (Earth Sciences, 10 May, 10+)

A bit rambling, but presented some intriguing examples of bacterial consortia and other symbioses. She suggests that the dispersed stage of a freshwater bryozoan (P. magnica) might be a model for the source of acritarchs (ancient fossils of unknown origin).

Colin Jones, 9 Thermidor: the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre and the indifference of the people (Examination Schools, 9 May, 100+)

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Martin Brasier, Pumice as a remarkable substrate for the origin of life (Earth Sciences, 9 May, 10+)

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David Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy (St Antony's, 3 May, 20+)

A nice overview of the history of Indian foreign policy going back to Nehru, basically summarising his book (Amazon, Amazon UK).

Sally McIntyre, Evaluating the effects on health and behaviour of natural experiments (Richard Doll, 3 May, 10+)

Presented some interesting case studies in the use of natural experiments, but at a pretty elementary level. The pragmatic and policy issues were more interesting, in particular the challenges of getting appropriate action from governments. (In response to one question, McIntyre suggested there were too many lawyers in parliament, with a rather different understanding of what constitutes evidence.) At least one audience member didn't understand the difference between statistical significance and medical or economic significance.

Organisation: MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit

Rana Mitter, The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Ashmolean, 27 April, 20+)

A general overview.

Book: A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World (my review).

Bob Griffiths, The Lambda Coalescent with selection (Centre For Gene Function, 27 February)

Most of this went over my head, though having just read Wakely's Coalescent Theory I could follow parts of what he was doing - and at least understood the overall point of it all.

Presentation: "The Λ-Coalescent with Selection" (PDF)

1 Comment »

  1. What an exhaustive and encompassing list of seminars and lectures. Looks like it is all dry academic stuff. Are there no seminars, lectures or swap-meets and the like on your other passions such as photography, chess, hiking, or travel? Even the musical soiree was a mechanical one.

    Oxford must have been overrun with geeks, boffins and nerds. I think you do need a balance before you do go mad.

    Comment by DL — June 2011

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