Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two Weeks in London, Pt. II

It has been a few days since I updated you about my first few days in London, so now I’ll finish with what’s happened over the second half of those two weeks, which have actually become three weeks because of internet issues and my own laziness. After recounting the first few days in extreme detail, I’ll now just hit upon the interesting events and spare you all the narrative of days where I woke up late and did next to nothing.

Saturday (Sept 29): I went to the British Museum with Katharine. What’s great about the British Museum, and I believe British museums in general, is that entry is free. So there is no pressure to see every exhibit in the one day and it allows you to see the Museum at a good pace. We spent maybe two and a half hours at the British Museum and saw perhaps two wings of the first floor and part of an exhibit on the second floor. The Museum has a great collection and we only saw an exhibit on cultural representations of life and death and most of their stuff from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. There’s some fantastic stuff there, but we didn’t even touch anything else from Africa or anything from Asia or old Europe. We did manage to see the Rosetta Stone, but the temporary exhibit on the Terracotta Warriors is sold out for the next six weeks or so, so we’ll have to return at some point later and pay the exhibit fee to see them. They’re at the Museum until the spring, so I have lots of time to find a convenient date. I’m sure I’ll be back to the Museum at least a couple more times while I’m here.

Tuesday (Oct 2): This was the welcome day at the LSE. Yes, it’s THE LSE and not just LSE. I think Howard Davies will send a team after you if you leave the “the” out. Anyway, this was a pretty routine hour and a half introduction to grad school at the LSE. We were told repeatedly to be proud of our accomplishments; about how international the school is; about the strong reputation of the school both academically and in an extra-curricular sense; about how we should make the most of our time at the LSE, in London and in Europe by joining teams, societies, going places, traveling, etc; and also, that we would have a formidable workload and would have to spend a great deal of time on our studies. With those somewhat contradictory messages we were sent on our way.

In the evening I returned to campus to watch Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, debate a geography professor from the LSE over global warming. Lomborg gained a cult following after the publication of his first book, in which he argues that global warming is real, but vastly overhyped; that market solutions are possible for many of the problems and that other problems are much more important. I’ve not read the book and his argument is obviously far more nuanced, but he’s basically very skeptical of much of the “common wisdom” of the environmentalist movement. He’s become so famous he was quoted as one of two detractors of Al Gore in many major media releases following Gore being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and he is very controversial, as many in the hardcore environmental movement despise him.

Speaking of Gore, it was interesting to watch the right-wing go apeshit over the fact he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some people speak of Bush Derangement Syndrome, where leftists will blame every and all evil on President Bush and I think we'll see a similar reaction from the right should Hillary Clinton win the Presidency, but there's a good case to be made that a section of the far right has a case of Gore Derangement Syndrome. The Wall Street Journal, devoted an editorial to a list of people who deserved the Nobel Peace Prize more and refused to even mention Gore's name, while The National Review Online suggested Gore share the prize with Osama bin Laden, who "has implicitly endorsed Gore's stance." But don't forget, when one anonymous poster out of hundreds uploads a random video to MoveOn.org comparing Bush to Hitler, it's the subject of week-long debate in the mainstream media.

Lomborg “won” the debate over Dr. Simon Dietz, but he was also given about double the amount of time to speak since he was obviously the main attraction. He wasn’t incredibly convincing and much of his talk covered the bare essentials of his argument that I’m somewhat already familiar with, but it was still interesting to listen to. Dr. Dietz attacked Lomborg on two fronts, as he accused him of manipulating data, which seems to be a common criticism of Lomborg, and also argued the worst-case scenarios of environmental disaster are so severe that we can’t afford to play Lomborg’s game of looking at the average effects according to various modeling scenarios. He wasn’t a great speaker and given only half the time of Lomborg, he wasn’t able to construct more than a bare-bones argument against Lomborg’s case.

The Q&A session was far more interesting, as all but one of the six questioners were critical of Lomborg. He was accused on misrepresenting data on polar bears to downplay the effects of environmental degradation on animal extinction. Another questioner asked him a very technical question about the modeling scenarios he used, to which he basically had to respond that he didn’t know. He was asked another question about data and modeling, which I don’t really remember, to which Lomborg mentioned two scientists whose methods he had quoted, to which the questioner shouted, “How do you respond to the fact that both scientists have disavowed your work?” The Q&A session demonstrated to sort of anger people have towards Lomborg and the message he conveys. I don’t know enough about the topic to really comment on it, but that lecture reinforced the general impression I have of Lomborg, which is that I agree with some, but not all, of what he’s saying and that he seems to have some factual problems with his argument, which has made it very easy for the anti-Lomborg crowd to paint him as a sloppy or even disingenuous intellectual.

Thursday (Oct 4):
A ton of great bands come to London, obviously. If any band does Europe, they’ll do a show in London. If any band does England, they’ll do a show or two in London. Unfortunately, there are so many people in London that a bunch of them are bound to have good taste in music. The Decemberists played London on October 2nd and it was sold out. The Arcade Fire play three gigs in London in November and they are all sold out. And so on.

However, one band that London hasn’t caught onto yet is the New Pornographers, so I was able to go to see them live at Koko on that Thursday night. One interesting thing about London concerts, or at least it was true with this concert, was that they’ll place a schedule on the front door to let ticket-holders know exactly when each band will take the stage. Anyhow, a guy from my floor and I went and we arrived early, to be sure we would be able to buy tickets at the door. We stood through two mediocre openers – one was a guy with a guitar playing slowcore, for which I definitely wasn’t in the mood, and the other was a non-descript rock band that was okay to listen to for half an hour but immediately forgettable – before the New Pornographers took the stage.

Playing without Neko Case, as per usual when touring, and with Dan Bejar’s songs taking a backseat, it was very much the AC Newman show. Karhryn Calder, who assumed a more prominent part on Challengers than she had on any previous New Pornographers record sung Neko’s parts as usual, and although you can’t tell she’s not Neko, she sounds similar. If I had closed my eyes when listening to “Challengers”, I doubt I would have been able to tell the difference.

Anyhow, the New Pornographers played a great set. Although Challengers has really grown on me as an album, it is missing the bouncy energy or some of their earlier releases and contains a few of their more forgettable tunes. When touring in support of a new album some bands will play that album in its entirety and will mix in maybe four of their well-known songs and call it a day. Not the New Pornographers. They played seven songs from Challengers, six of their best tracks of Twin Cinema, as well as three each of Mass Romantic and Electric Version. There was not a single throwaway track the entire night. They played as many of their old hits as they could, from “My Slow Descent into Alcoholism” to “Testament to Youth in Verse” to “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” I have no idea if this is typical of the New Pornographers, but if I had been in charge I probably would have made one or two substitutions on the tracks from “Challengers” and otherwise left it exactly as it was. Overall, a very good show.

Friday (Oct 5): I did the tourist thing at Trafalgar Square and Picadilly Circus. Not too much to report other than I walked around them, took a bunch of pictures, soaked in the environment and appreciate a day without rain. I then returned via Charing Cross Road, which has a ton of bookstores, both new and used, along the street. I spent a while browsing them and intend to return, but the fact I was able to restrain myself from making any purchases was a good thing considering next weekend. I also walked around Leicester Square, which is one of the happening places for teens and young adults in London. There are four or five theatres in the square, along with several nice restaurants, a couple of clubs and what looks to be a casino. I'm not sure why, but similar stores in London seemed to be grouped together. There's a ton of bookstores on Charing Cross Rd., lots of theatres throughout Leicester Square; most of the cell phone stores are located on the same block on Oxford Street and so on. It makes it handy to compare prices, if you know what you're looking for.

Monday (Oct 8): Classes started this week, which I'm sure caused all of you suffering through the Canadian school year to exclaim "Finally." During the first week of classes students are encouraged to shop around and attend lectures for as many courses as they like. Seminars don't being until week 2 or 3 and few classes are capped, so while the system seems to lead to some headaches for some administrators and professors, it's quite handy from the student's point-of-view. I have one mandatory course and two electives, along with my Master's paper, and I attended about six or seven different lectures this week, before settling on my two courses, The mandatory course is an international political theory course, which promises to be loads of fun.

Tuesday (Oct 9): Today I saw Lord David Owen give a speech about hubris in world leaders, with particular reference to Tony Blair and George Bush. Lord Owen was the British Foreign Secretary from 1977 to 1979, the founder of the Social Democrat Party in England and he played a large role in the peace negotiations during the Bosnian War (he is the Owen of the Vance-Owen peace plans). I'd have preferred to hear him talk about the former Yugoslavia, but you can't win them all.

Thursday (Oct 11): Another day, another talk. As there's no homework right now - correction, no homework I'm choosing to do - I figure there's no better way to spend my time than listening to intellectuals give mildly interesting talks. Today it was Paul Kennedy, professor of history at Yale University and a visiting scholar at the LSE, talking about UN reform. Kennedy recently wrote The Parliament of Man, but is probably best known for his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Kennedy is a historian, so he took a historian's approach to the topic and spoke about why the UN is structured the way it is and why that in itself makes change, particularly to the structure of the Security Council, nearly impossible. Given that Kennedy has done consulting work for the UN I was hoping he might tackle various reform plans that have been put forward, but he basically said that any reform is going to be nearly impossible. As is sometimes the case with these talks, the anecdotes, which often surface during answers to audience questions, were some of the most interesting points of the speech. Particularly humourous was Kennedy's tale of being trailed through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Virginia by the Pakistani and Mexican Ambassadors to the UN.

Saturday (Oct 13): Today Mike Coe (Ryan’s housemate in Kingston and a good friend of mine at Queen’s) came to visit from Cambridge. He only came for the day as he had to get back to Cambridge for some rowing on Sunday morning, but we spent basically the whole day walking around London and catching up. We just went around a lot of the touristy sites, but it was more about just experiencing London and catching up than doing anything in particular. It was quite a good day and he’s already got some great stories from Cambridge. I hope to get the chance to visit him up there before too long.

Sunday (Oct 14): Today I went to a used book fair that was held in a hotel about twenty minutes up the road. It was actually quite a good fair, with a lot of stores that carried specialty books, out-of-print books and first editions. There were about forty vendors there, at least, all with stands of dozens of books and brochures about their actual stores. The crowd was fairly old; I was easily one of the youngest people browsing the books and I wouldn’t be surprised if, for the good hour I spent there, I was the youngest person in the room. Several of the vendors were in their mid-twenties, but about three-quarters of the customers, not surprisingly, must have been over fifty.

There were countless interesting books there. There were tons of first editions of everything from Winnie the Pooh to Ernest Hemingway to Dashiell Hammett. Many of the books were distinctly British, but you could tell there were some really hard-to-find items and I heard two different customers talking to vendors and saying, “Well, I need to go to a cash machine, but I’ll be back.” There was also a lot of autographed books for sale, including a signed first edition of P.D. James’s Children of Men (which I mention, because I considered buying it). Also, never before have I seen so many leather-bound books for sale. About a quarter of the stands must have stocked predominantly leather-bound books from thirty or forty years ago. I didn’t have that much cash on hand when I went, but I did manage to spend it all, buying an Ian McEwan, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, two other fiction books, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Brian Urquhart’s biography on Dag Hammarskjold. Except for the Urquhart, which is a hardcover and harder to find, I got the other 5 books for just over 6 pounds, which made it a fine day. I was even able to tolerate the fact that my internet has continued to suck for the last two weeks, with no signs of getting better.

1 Comments:

At October 20, 2007 at 2:29 a.m., Blogger stumm said...

I saw the new pornographers when they came to Seattle too! They played a sweet show here at the showbox. Funny how our first shows in our respective new cities on different continents were the same band.

 

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