Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Calm down!

I just have to make a further comment on Evo Morales' likely installation as president. For once Bolivia is getting attention on the news in the UK. No doubt this is all due to the uniqueness of his indigenous background as well as the general trend towards the Left in the region. There's vene been some (limited) circulation among Latin American leftists here in the UK commemorating this victory.

But I wouldn't get too carried away. Having an indigenous leader win an election is one thing; seeing them govern in a way that benefits ordinary people is another. History is littered with examples of Latin American politicians who said one thing and did another. Lest we forget: Fujimori (unique in being from the overlooked immigrant Japanese community), Toledo (whose indigenous roots belie his low ratings and ineffectual policies in Peru), Chavez (is he really of the Left or is this just a pitch?), Lula and the Chilean Concertacion (moderates all and following the economic policies of their predecessors).

There: I've vented my spleen. Rather than get excited about this supposed shift to the Left I'm going to wait and see - and deliver my verdict in a year's time when Morales has completed 12 months in office.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Change or no change?

So Evo Marles appears to be cruising to victory in the Bolivian presidential election. It's all shaping up to be an interesting result, especially as he's supposedly promised to legalise coca, the raw product for cocaine. I wonder whether that will land him a terrorist label from the US?

No doubt what will happen is once he's in he'll end up disappointing his voters, a la Lula. Racialness goes down a treat while on the stump, but once they're in office it's amazing how quickly they become 'responsible' reformers. For example, expect some procrastincation over the controversial gas pipeline (which did for the past two presidents) before it's finally given the go-ahead.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Deafening silence

Just a quick observation: there's three Lib Dem MPs who blog, and not one of them has seen to fit to give a 'view from the inside' regarding the Kennedy leadership issue.

The BBC was plugging away the challenge that Kennedy was going to face at the Parliamentary Party meeting yesterday, but not one of the three has given an account of what went on.

So come, on: let's hear how Kennedy made his stand!
Cinematic criticism

Caught the latest Brazilian film to hit these shores the day before yesterday. Down at the Barbican Cidade Baixa was playing and a friend and I went to see it. With less than 20 of us in the cinema, you might be able to tell it wasn't all that popular.

The film's set in Salvador, although the camerawork could have had it set anywhere really. One of the producers is Walter Salles (he of The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station fame) and one of the actors broke through with City of God.

The story's not all that original: two boys, friends since childhood, meet a girl. She's a prostitute and dancer. They offer her a lift on their boat to Salvador in exchange for 'benefits'. A fight breaks out in Cachoeira on the way to the coast, one of the boys nearly dying and bringing the three all closer together. Cue sexual jealousy between the two and a girl who realises she's caught in the middle.

It's a story that's been told before. Yes, there was some tension, but the film really could have done with some more editing. I found myself drifting off at times; it just wasn't engaging enough. Did I care about the characters? Well, maybe a bit, but not enough.

The problem with Brazilian (and Latin American) cinema is that it's becoming harder to live up to the hype. The renaissance in cinema over the past decade means that although more films are being made - and shown here - they aren't necessarily the cream of the crop any more. Whereas films like City of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amores Perros, Central Station, etc have all been acclaimed (and rightly so), they were big productions among a small pool being produced. But as the number of films increases, the law of averages seems to dictate that the quality goes down a little.

Perhaps that's no bad thing though. After all, not everything coming out of Hollywood is worth the money spent. But it does mean a broad range of material, to cater for all tastes. Maybe that's what we're starting to see with contemporary Latin American cinema - although I'm sure there are some who will lament the situation.
Lib Dem spin? Shurely shome mishtake...

Yes, there have been mutterings about Charles Kennedy's performance, stretching back over the past few years. That's nothing new. But what I find ridicuolous is the complete headless chicken routine of those briefing against him. David Cameron has barely been Tory leader for a week and a poll shows that he has jumped into the lead (a temporary blip and probably more reflective of the media attention he's been getting than anything else) and suddenly the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party is circling the wagons.

There have always been those who'll do anything to unseat Kennedy and this is the perfect opportunity. But it doesn't make the party look particularly mature of strong in character if it starts fluttering about because it's been overlooked over the past few weeks.

Of course, there's also the cynical side in me which wonders whether this might actually be a media ploy by the press office to get the party back into public attention. You can talk all you want about policies, but what really turns journalists on is personality - and you can't get more personal than a leadership election. Or at least talk of it. If you don't believe me, have a look at the press at the moment: Cameron's off the pages and the Lib Dems - unbelievably - are getting top billing on the news programmes. Not to mention several spokespeople on the radio and TV than they usually ever get (Lembit Opik, David Rendel and Simon Hughes all in the last two days).

Perhaps we should make talk of Kennedy's leadership skills an issue every three months, but not do anything about it. Seems to me there's more media coverage and mileage there than in anything that we in the Research Centre (when I was working there) ever achieved.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Worth listening to?

OK, it can come out now. Hopefully it's still accessible, but on the Today programme there's a debate entitled Christmas poll in which some of my research contributed to the discussion. Last week I spent quite a bit of time digging around to give Noreena Hertz some material relating to anti-corruption rules in her contribution.

It's a shame she wasn't able to go into more detail (and believe me, I did!), but amazing to think that in one day of work for her I've got my findings onto a broadcast show whereas in two years in Parliament I never got anywhere this close!
The morning after the weekend before

Ah, the bliss that follows the Monday morning after the end of term: no seminars to attend, empty libraries and no distractions - and most importantly, free computers everywhere.

This is the time to get stuck into writing the first chapter of a PhD. If only university life was always this.

No doubt I'll rpocrastinate, but if I fall off the radar over the next few weeks, there's a reason!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mistake of an evening?

Yesterday I attended a Radio 4 debate in the Old Theatre in which James Bartholomew put forward his argument that the welfare state was a mistake. He was challenged by a panel of four, including Professor Nicholas Barr, Ed Davey MP, Professor Pat Thane and the Kings Fund director, Neil Dickson. The BBC's economics correspondent, Evan Davis, chaired it.

It was scrappy and weak, with statistics being the main form of contention. Nicholas Barr did make a few good points criticising Bartholomew's position in terms of the concept and logic of the welfare state, while Pat Thane offered some historical insight into mutual societies in the late nineteenth century and their lack of coverage.

But I'm afraid that the whole critique was lost to me from the outset. Bartholomew started with figures showing the UK's cancer rates and education figures were below those of France and Germany, using this as evidence that the welfare state was a mistake. Last time I checked though, France and Germany had welfare states too.

Then Ed Davey asked the question of how he could account for rising life expectancy in the absence of a welfare state. Bartholomew refused to accept that argument; when challenged to compare Europe with sub-Saharan Africa he lamely said that he was concerned with comparable countries - yes, those with welfare states.

Little wonder then that two-thirds of the audience disagreed with his thesis.
Teaching the parents?

Back in the LSE after two days away at my other weekly - but paid - commitments. Tuesday was the last Latin American research seminar at which Georgraphy's Anita Shrader presented her work with parent education post-war Guatemala. Her argument was to say that abuse in the family is mirrored by abuse by the state on its citizens. Breaking this cycle requires working with families to educate them not to resort to physical discipline when authority is challenged.

This was work she had been doing with World Vision prior to studying here at the LSE (I think - I cam in a little late). The starting point was to state clearly that she and the NGO concerned are opposed to the use of corporal punishment and the purpose of the workshops is to change that behaviour. My query about that though was the extent to which the reported success of this project was due in part to the self-selection of families who were already more inclined towards changing their behaviour. Anita argued that was the case, but there was also a change in the way those who had taken part on the course were now seeking to influence others in their community.

Anite finished off by saying that the project had moved on to the point where the families were now starting to examine the past and the atrocities of the civil war. She admitted feeling uncomfortable about that, but having opened the bottle of community participation, they could hardly expect to limit their deliberations - and they have to take responsibility for that.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Scrutiny and sport...

Well, it wasn't as bad as I feared. The meeting with the supervisor went well and helped clarify a few things - as well as sharpening up my proposed area of investigation. So I'm feeling pleased. Now I just have to rewrite my outline - more for myself than anything else - as well as make a start on a first chapter, which I will be assessed on at the end of the academic year (one of the LSE requirements).

I failed to mention another seminar I attended at the end of last week. Last Thursday, David Goldblatt was presenting one of his chapters from his forthcoming book (next September) on football. In particular he read us a chapter that dealt with the development of Latin American football in the context of contemporary globalisation. He was mainly concerned with the situation in Argentina and Brazil, but reference was made to other parts of the region in the question and answer session. I was quite interested to hear whether there has been any change in Venezuela since Chavez's new government-sponsored TV station; is football being shown more now, in comparison to the national sport of baseball which, I presume, predominates on the private TV stations?

The chapter is from a book that Goldblatt is publishing on world football, but it's going to miss the World Cup fever period. Not that he's fussed. Over a beer afterwards he told me that he's still got some work to do on it and he wants the volume to last, rather than have it only half-finished by the time the World Cup opens next summer.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Three visits

Today will be the third time I've caught up with my supervisor this term. We're going to be discussing my thesis outline I sent through to him last week. I'm a little bit worried about it - I'm sure that there are plenty of holes in it and issues that I haven't thought about in enough detail; perhaps it may even be overly ambitious or not insightful or challenging enough?

Anyway, this time tomorrow at least I'll have had some input and I'll be preparing myself for a Christmas spent trying to put a first chapter together. I'll be presenting that to colleagues at the end of January.

Lucky me.
Two films

Caught two films this weekend: one good, the other not so good.

The latter was Kingdom of Heaven, which was a slightly overly long, tedious account of a blacksmith-turned-knight who finds himself amid the battles around the walls of Crusader Jerusalem. I found the angle taken a little dubious to say the least: tolerant Europeans managing a multicultural Jersalem in which all three faiths - Islam, Christianity and Judaism - could be freely practiced. Perhaps someone will point out to me that there was a period when this happened, although I seem to recall it was under Muslim rule that Christianity was allowed to be practiced rather than the other way around. And that's before I get started on the secular message that the main character (Orlando Bloom) seemed to be propagating.

But apart from that the battle scenes were alright; which was the main reason I wanted to watch it, since the director, Ridley Scott had done quite a good job with Gladiator a few years ago.

Crash was different in tone, but very stimulating. There was some uncomfortable laughter at some of the scenes and others that were excruciating to watch. It was extremely thoughtful, but did it challenge my prejudices? OK, some of the characters I was surprised by, but others you felt were being presented in a rather sledgehammer fashion. Still, it's well worth catching and definitely one of the more thoughtful films I've watched in the last few months.
Two paths

John Gray was the last of the permanent teaching staff to present at our first year Government department seminar. Rather than outline a political project of his own (which I was told afterwards he probably wouldn't agree with), he outlined the two main approaches that liberal theory can be studied: either in a historical context (whereby each contribution to the liberal cannon must be understood within the specific context of the time) or in an ahitsorical, analytical way (i.e. looking at the theory on its own merits). There are challenges presented through both and reflect a trade-off between the two.

Although I'm no political theorist, I'd say that these tensions exist in political science as well. You can have the most perfect theory imaginable, but it needs to be tested against historical cases. Likewise, history on its own is descriptive, but doesn't offer any theory or pattern; instead it's just a story.

Not that this observation, either by me or Gray, is profound. But it's worth reminding ourselves about this from time to time.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Seminar round-ups

There's been a few seminars this week that I've been attending. On Monday our regular first year seminar concerned research that's going on in the Department regarding the establishment of core executives in Eastern European countries after transition. The emphasis was placed on identifying the independent variables, holding them constant and seeing what the outcome (dependent variable) was.

It was pointed out that in taking this approach the team had followed the 'Golden Rule' of choosing the independent variable as opposed to the dependent variable. This made for uncomfortable listening, as I had just submitted a thesis outline (that I spent all weekend writing) to my supervisor which was the complete opposite. Bugger. Not happy about that. I'm almost dreading my meeting with him next week...

Tuesday's Latin American seminar was on the development of the Brazilian economy between the 1940s and 1980s by one of the Economic History Department students, Nicholas Grinberg. 'm afraid I didn't follow a lot of it, partly because I didn't have time to read his paper, but also because of the highly technical nature and use of economic terms which I didn't follow. So I'm afraid I can't add anything useful to it. Sorry.

Finally, I've just come out of Mario Arriagada's presentation on spending by Catholic NGOs. This was interesting, with some quantitative work done concerning an Irish NGO's expenditure in Africa. Mario pointed out that apparently Catholic NGOs don't spend according to proportion of souls in a country, but rather for secular concerns, including whether their bishops have a strong role in the country and are active in political development (he was looking at Africa in particular). John Siedel, the convenor, raised some interesting questions, including whether it would make a difference if Jesuits run the spending show and whether Protestant NGOs operate in a different way to Catholic ones - i.e. in a more religious way, and whether the small denominations have a more market-oriented approach than the established Anglican and relatively monopolistic Catholic churches.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Potential catasptrophe averted?

Domestic business to attend to this week. I have a spanking new oven in the flat now, having had the electrician around to fix it yesterday morning.

But what is it with workmen? Whenever they come into your home they always tell you that it's a ticking timebomb, a disaster waiting to happen.

In my case, having removed the old oven and taken a look at the wiring, my electrician turned to me and gravely said, "You're lucky you haven't had a fire in here."

At which point he promptly ripped out the old wire and replaced it - adding an extra hour to the call-out and ensuring my bill was twice the price.

Was it necessary work? What do I know, I'm just a layman.
Voting intentions

So, a quick round up of this week's seminars: Monday's mandatory session concerned the quantitative analysis of voting patterns and developing party congruence in the European Parliament since 1979. The highlight was definitely the 'maps' which showed how voting patterns had changed over the previous three maps. But what lost me was the statistical data presented to show how particular variables had been held and the statistical significance of particular issues. I wasn't the only one to just see a wall of numbers - I had to be talked through the findings.

Tuesday's Latin American research seminar was presented by Adriana Jimenez Cuen, whose working on binationalism in Mexico. Her work concerns the ability of Mexican migrants to the US being entitled to vote in Mexican elections - and in the case of Zacatecas state, actually stand for election.

Yet what is interesting is that these changes, progressive as they are, only seem to maintain existing inequalities and political clientelism. For example, it is the wealthier migrants who have a greater say in how remittances are to be invested, along with determining which of the candidates they plan to support. Furthermore, the recent case of the so-called Tomato King, who is based in California but stood for election in his hometown highlights the persistance of political clientelism. Party politics - as defined through ideological positions - remain weak, with personal interests the driving force for choosing the left-wing PRD candidate over the more obvious conservative options of the PRI or PAN.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The grey vote

Yesterday Achim Goerres, a third year PhD student, presented a chapter from his PhD thesis to the comparative politics seminar. He's working on older people's political behaviour and has studied their involvement in protest politics. But his chapter dealt with their voting patterns and their tendency to vote conservative more often than not. He tested the various hypotheses relating to this using data from Germany and Britain. It all pointed to some relationship between the notions of political generations (i.e. the decisions we make as first-time voters having an impact on our voting choices at later elections) and commitment to the status quo as reasons for chossing conservatives over other parties.

The only reservation I had - and which Achim took onboard - was the extent to which he was using the term 'conservative'. The data he showed indicated that older people continually voted Conservative in Britain during the 1980s - yet this was a party that was committed to dismantling the welfare state and ending the status quo. Hardly what one might consider 'conservative' in the conventional sense.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Erasing all doubts

The CIA is claiming that Castro has got Parkinson's Disease. There's only one way to find out though. Has anyone looked at his bank account to see whether he's been up to this lately?

I am curious about these American admissions of the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah and the existence of torture in Iraqi-run prisons. Could this be a 'softening-up' process by which the American authorities are preparing their public for a sharp exit? Call me cynical but the claim that nothing's changed so we might as well cut and run seems to spring to mind.

But the British being idealistic - including Blair - in this respect, won't see it as an excuse to leave, I suspect. Instead it'll be a justification for pressing ahead and getting even more involved - just as the government seems to be doing in Afghanistan in recent days, what with the Americans pulling out and London trying to rouse a new coalition.

Never has the claim made by Robert Kagan in that text of neo-con arrogance and pride, Paradise and Power, seemed more apposite: 'Americans do the cooking, the Europeans [i.e. the British] do the washing up'.
Avoiding conflict

In writing about LSE-related events, I overlooked a further seminar that I attended last week, this time on conflict prevention. It was presented by Armeen Jan, who has been working at the Strategy Unit in Downing Street to create a methodology by which countries at risk can be assessed. It poses extremely interesting questions, perhaps the most obvious being: why bother, if realpolitik considerations trump all others?

Yet there is something extremely interesting and worthwhile in the work that Jan presented. The methodology looks at a wide range of factors that can trigger instability in countries, both internal and external. The intention is to maintain the assessments as a rolling programme which can assist government policies and ideally help prevent conflict before it happens. However, since government is a different reality there will have to be a second filter through which government priorities are determined. This is where the political dimension comes in and may weaken the work in the long run.

Yet Jan was keen to stress that the work was at the cutting-edge; no other government has a similar process in train. Whether we will be able to get our hands on those countries deemed to be at risk is another matter though. I suspect that it may be a politically senstive list. It might be interesting to see how far the Freedom of Information Act will work in this respect.
From the bottom up

Argentina seems extremely popular at the LSE's Latin America research seminar at the moment. Besides the discussion on investment treaties, we've also had a look at Argentine national development last week and the local elections the week before. And speaking of Argentina local elections, City Mayors has finally put up my latest piece, on the structure of Argentine local government to go alongside my one on Brazil. Apparently another I wrote, on Chilean local government, will also go up this weekend.
Back to the old ways?

Argentina's jurists played a prominent role in the late 19th century and early 20th century, reducing extra-territorial claims by arguing that foreign nationals shouldn't operate under separate rights to nationals. This was enshrined in the Calvo Doctrine which stated that foreign states could not use force to seek redress for any outstanding debts to them. But Gus van Harten in the LSE's law department argued that this position was being eroded through the recent investment arbitration rulings against Argentina following the 2001-02 economic collapse.

Van Harten's argument in the Latin American research seminar (my regular Tuesday fix at the School) was that the increase in signed bilateral investment treaties between industrialised and industrialising countries since the 1990s has set the scene for something similar to what existed at the beginning of the last century. With investors losing out as a result of the Argentine economic crisis, many have taken to pursuing them claims through the courts using the treaties as their main instrument.

The result has been substantial dmagaes awarded against the Argentines with van Harten citing CMS Gas as an example. What is notable about these decisions are the structure of the arbitration models, adopting a commercial approach rather than a public one and the apparent absence of any desire by either Argentina or other treaty signatories either to renegotiate the nature and terms of these treaties or avoid signing them at all.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Three months for change

Thinking about it, I jusy don't get it. I mean, how could the police be pissed off that they didn't get three months detention last week? They must be pretty chuffed with the outcome, which saw thei ability to arrest people from two weeks to one month. As a friend suggested to me, going for three months was probably a bargaining chip, so one month is a good result for them.

But if that was the case, why did Blair push it to a vote? Charles Clarke managed to get the one month deal and was on course to get that through until Blair intervened. I can only assume that he's taken it to heart, rather like his decision to stand by Bush come what may. All of us who thought that he was changeable with the political wind during his first term discovered in his second that he had taken on 'convictions'. Maybe it was the same with the police powers.

Or as a former MP I spoke to recently suggested, it could be a way of ensuring defeat on one issue so that Labour MPs don't sabotage his other key policies including education and health reform. If so that's quite a cynical and long-term game, considering they aren't due for debate until next spring. But it may well be true.
Texts to read...

I need to get a thesis outline including how I'm going to do it back to my suprvisor by the beginning of December ahead of my next meeting with him. Having spent part of the weekend in the library - and finding a mine of education policy and reform material relating to Chile (mainly the 1960s and 1970s), it looks slightly more do-able than I had initially assumed.

I've even got an initial hypothesis which looks like it needs honing still further. But at least it looks like I'm back on track (fingers crossed).
A rethink

It looks like I'm taking a slightly different course with my PhD thesis following a session with both supervisor and advisor (a backup supervisor to provide some external help). The choice on the table was whether to pursue the direction uncovered by my Masters dissertation and focus on in-country case studies in Brazil, or go back to my original thesis proposal, which involved a comparison on education systems and policies in Chile and Brazil.

There are arguments in favour of each, but as Francisco (Panizza, my supervisor) commented, each will take me in a differetnt direction: participation in the case of in-country cases in Brazil, or on public policy analysis between Brazil and Chile. Ken (Shadlin, my advisor) made the point that the difficulty with an in-country thesis is that it might be difficult to disentangle the role of federal and sub-national governments in educational policy, an issue that would be absent in a two-country case study. Then there's the question of available material - and I can tell there's not a lot in the UK on the Brazilian states I would be looking at; at least with Chile and Brazil there's some stuff I can already get my hands on.

Having thought about it, I look like going back to the Brazil-Chile study, which would also benefit me by ensuring that I have knowledge of more than one country - always an asset as single country expertise may be rather limiting. It just means I'm going to have to brush up on Spanish though...
Interviewing individuals and the data

This week's subjects before the PhD seminar group were Gwendolyn Sasse and Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey who gave contrasting accounts of quantitative and qualitative work.

Dr Sasse gave some quite useful thoughts and observations on the use of fieldwork, much of with which I could concur. But there's always the problem of knowing whether to do it or not. On the two occasions I've done fieldwork I've had different views about whether it was worth doing. In the first instance I knew I had to do it to get the information I needed; the second time I wasn't sure that it could be justified. But in both cases I realised that it was necessary, since it disabused me of my initial assumptions and ideas which had only been gleaned from reading texts in British libraries. Actually being on the ground made me realise that there were different views and perspectives and not everything I learnt was in those texts.

I recall being in Dr Schonhardt-Baily's classes while as an undergraduate. She took us for the quantitative component of a course I did back in the late 1990s here at the LSE. Then I recall getting very little from the sessions, since I've never been statistically-minded. This time was no better, but I had a greater appreciation for her presentation on an empirical assessment of ideas as words between Bush and Kerry in the election last year. We were encouraged to read her paper prior to the session and I was able to follow it.

But I did have one or two reservations. Whereas she has made available the datasets from the computer software she used to quanitify the data, I still find myself having to fall on trusting her work - since I still remain weak on the quantitative side. Which brings me to the second point, that of the results themselves. In her presentation Dr Schonhardt-Bailey noted that if the results had been counter-intuitive then she would have known the data was wrong. To another questioner she stressed the importance of knowing the context wince the language used could have contrary meanings. Which all suggests to me that this kind of empirical work is useful, but in a descriptive approach, subsequent to qualitative work. I question whether it is possible to do such work without having had prior qualitative work done (e.g. knowing the subject and how different audiences perceive it).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unexpected - at least for me

So Blair has suffered his first Parliamentary defeat. Regardless of what it means for him now, one really has to wonder what on earth he was playing at with his excuse that the 'police asked for these powers'.

If teachers ask to scrap the curriculum, or doctors recommend fewer people in their surgeries the Government is going to stand by them?

Of course not. So why should the police be any different? The justification is that these people are at the front line of the 'war on terror'.

Yet did the police (and its cheerleaders in the Government) ever consider what might be the consequences of locking someone up for 3 months? Would it make particular sections of the society (OK, ethnic minorities) feel particularly pre-disposed to such action? I doubt it; in fact it might be more likely to stoke up a 'them-against-us' mentality.

As for the claim that the police need it to stop future terrorist atrocities, aren't we always being told about how many they've foiled - without needing 3 months? And if it were to happen again after they received what they wanted would we then have to accept a future argument that 3 months wasn't enough and they really need 6?

Then there's the question of resources. If the jails are full of people inside for 3 months where on earth are we going to put other criminals - especially given the Government's keenness to clamp down on law and order and the breaking capacity of British prisons.

Finally, how many anti-terror bills have we had in the last few years? And just because the police keep getting all these powers, do they use it responsibly? Is it only just a couple of months since a police force detained a pensioner who heckled Jack Straw at the Labour conferece under anti-terror legislation?

I could go on, but for once I feel cheered by events down the road in Westminster. And that's not something I can say I feel very often.
Making economic policy work?

I also attended my first student-led seminar on a PhD topic this week. Chris Vellacott in the LSE's economic history department presented a chapter from his thesis on Agentine and Spanish economic policy in the late 1950s. he wanted to account for the difference in 'success' (as measured by capacity of the state to drive its preferred options through) between the two, the Spanish being more sucessful than the Argentines.

Vellacott's argument is that the Spanish model was authoritarian and a clear top-down hierarchical structure existed between the state and other social actors, including labour, capital, etc. In such circumstances the state was able to impose itself. By contrast the Argentine system at the time was one in which the state had less autonomy from either labour or capital and floundered as a result.

I failed to make any useful or perceptive comments, but others did. These included whether the the economic policies' 'success' or 'failure' was the outcome of this constellation or vice versa - which was the cause? The structure of the state or the economic policy? In addition the approach doesn't take into account other experiences whereby a chaotic state-labour-capital relationship is transformed into one that is state-dominant, e.g. Pinochet in Chile. And finally, given Vellacott's claim of Argentine and Spanish exceptionalism, what is to be said of Portugal at the same period in time?

Despite this intense scrutiny, there were some things I quite liked about the thesis. In particular it was the justification in choosing these two case studies, as exceptional in their respective continents and in offering a compare and contrast approach over a longer timeframe: Spanish authoritarian against weak Argentine democracy in the 1950s and Spanish democracy and Argentine authoritarianism in the 1970s-80s.
Transnational visions

Been awhile since I last put anything down. It's been a busy week (isn't it always), with John Chalcraft enlightening the PhD government department seminar on the role and status of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon and what it tells us about ideas of capital and labour (the working assumption is that Syrians have more agency than is otherwise presented in Marxist theory, but in accepting their lowly status and constant cycle of return to Syria, the process merely reinforces itself) and David Held.

Held is a bit of a media darling, having written extensively on the limits of globalisation, especially in the democratic realm. His research agenda can be outlined as follows: democracy is a norm that has progressed from the polis to the nation state, but is caught out by the unequal nature of the world system. His interest is in assessing and proposing ways to overcome the global 'democratic deficit' - a topic that has put him among those few academics whose texts have a wider readership than most.

Moral of the story? Find something topical to do your PhD on, it seems.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Thought of the week #2

Last wek it was Saddam and whether he can get a fair trial. This week I want to pose the following: everyone hates traffic wardens, given their over-zealous nature. Yet everyone also gets incensed with foreign diplomats who fail to pay their parking fines.

Rather than slating these individuals, surely we should be championing them as the one class of people who are standing up to the questionale antics (and anyone who saw the undercover investigation into traffic warden training and the ways they issue a ticket to anything that moves earlier this year can testify) of wardens?

Or maybe not.
New directions in sound?

Marcello D2 was in town last Friday - and I never got around to writing it up. Managed to get through a group of mildly interested people along to experience his Brazilian-themed hip hop. Half of us ended up squashed in the front row being bounced about in a manner slightly more excitable than that at the De La Soul gig at the Jazz Cafe we went to last month.

The performance itself was intense and enthusiastic - probably on account of the majority of the crowds being Brazilian and knowing his music. He played a good set, ranging from the more common and popular tunes from his 'Looking for the Perfect Beat' album to others that I didn't recognise. The stage itself was quite cramped, with nearly 10 band members ranging from percussionists to keyboard player, guitarist and bassist - and a DJ whose decks took up most of the space.

The MD2 gig was in a wierd (at least for me) venue in the heart of Leicester Square and on the third floor. Somehow that didn't seem right, especially with a rock gig going on two floors above. We stayed around after he left the stage and Sambatralia, the Jungle Drums-sponsored club night took centre-stage. Worth noting though that the majority of the music was funk, which along with DJ Cliffy's Batmacumba - and now Giles Pedersen's decision to go down the same path at the Brazilian Love Affair in Notting Hill - indicates a departure for Brazilian music in London.
Casing it

So today is the next installment of our comparative politics seminar. This time we're discussing the issue of case selection and the potential pitfalls one can fall into. Having down the recommended reading (Geddes, van Evera et al), I'm staggered that there is so much science on the subject and the problems seem so great that it's a wonder comparative studies work ever gets done.

For example, van Evera recommends looking for extreme types of cases, since their accentuation makes it clearer to see the impact that one variable may (or may not) have on another. But Geddes notes something called 'regression from the mean', which if I understand it correctly, means that taking something extreme could indicate abnormality - and is therefore not an accurate reflection of reality.

Oh, what to do?
Big beasts

Most memorable aspect of this week's PhD Government seminar? Clearly Erik Ringmar's analysis of giraffes and what they represented in the Chinese, European Renaissance and 19th century periods. All this was anecdotal observation before he entered into a study of what the appearance of giraffes - exotic and out of place everywhere except in east Africa - meant in terms of particular societies and their world view. In China's it arrival in the 1420s signified that all was well with the world and contrasted against another giraffe's appearance in Florence in the 1480s, when there was curiosity about what was going on in the world outside, while in 1820s France it was just something to place in the scientific schema.

OK, it's not really 'government', as Ringmar himself admitted. But it's fun nonetheless and along with the second week's analysis of American public policy through the medium of country music (don't ask!) and dangerous dogs legislation, the kind of thing I'd like to do one day - but maybe once I've got a doctorate...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Boozing it up in style

Still, there was recompense to be had after the cycling debacle. A trip to the Peruvian ambassador's residence was undertaken on Tuesday evening (I admit it, I have friends in questionable places) where I availed myself of plenty of pisco and cycled home feeling slightly wobbly.

At least I think it was the alcohol. But knowing my cycling experiences...
Bike hassles

This week has been a series of early mornings as I have attempted to get to work in good time to be able to leave at 4.30 or thereabouts to attend seminars down at the LSE and ISA. But imagine my frustration when on Tuesday I walked out of the office in Angel to collect my bike and cycle to the first Latin American seminar of the the term at the LSE and found my back wheel had been nicked.

My bike was locked to one of the stands in the designated bays at the entrance to Islington Town Hall and under the CCTV. There is even a big TV screen showing the location just yards away at reception. Did the staff do anything at all? Not from what I can tell. Apparently it was a boy who got away quick.

Excuse me? Do you know how long it takes to get a back wheel off?

There was absolutely no consolation to be had as I spent 10 minutes trying to get through to the police station to report the crime (so they can collect the CCTV footage) and no apology or commiseration from the staff for what should be a sure area.

Getting the wheel replaced meant walking into the nearest bicycle shop in town with half a bicycle and paying £100 for the privilege of something that should be saving me money but isn't.

To add insult to injury I had barely got 50 yards down the road before the wheel came off. It would appear that paying £10 for labour doesn't mean that you'll get quality service. I'll spare the bike shop in question from being named, but I can assure you I am the end of my teather when it comes to cycling...
Unique or not?

Charles Jones, head of the Latin American Centre in Cambridge was at ISA last night to present a paper on American (in the hemispheric sense) international relations. His thesis was that there was a distinctive form of such relations, compared to the old world form - at least until the establishment of the bipolar and more recent unipolar worlds.

He based his argument on several factors, including the desire to create a 'new world' (i.e. eliminating indigenous populations, societies and structures), the primacy of economic concerns over political ones and the rhetorical commitment to legalism and the reality of force. Indeed, this latter point was expanded upon by his presentation of the US as a formal empire using indirect means to maintain control, in stark contrast to earlier imperial systems. This is seen most evidently in the disproportionate force against its foes, including Grenada and Iraq.

I can see where he's going with this argument, but I'm not personally convinced of the logic. I'll concede that the 'American' state was weak at its foundation compared to the European one, that the 'new world' thesis is strong. But surely legalism has always been a norm at the centre of the international system, as has the tension between pressure to conform and force to ensure it? The more I think about it, the less I am persuaded of exceptionalism, not just for the Americas, but in other regions as well. I've always been sceptical of such specifics, since it's a slippery slope towards the political cultural arguments that individuals like Wiarda make.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Less scientific, more intuitive

The other seminar today was that obligatory one devised to get first year Government students into the LSE first thing Monday morning. Christian List presented an overview of social choice theory (and in particular the problems presented with decision-making rules) while cecile Fabre offered an overview of some of the difficulties in normative political theory through the prism of her own work on the ethics of welfare distribution.

It's not an area that I know a lot about - and which I think was the same for many of my colleagues - so I fear that my questions were relatively simple in tone. What practical applications have social choice theorists done with their work (answer: not much, admitted Christian, but they should be used more often in areas like electoral reform), while I expressed concern to Cecile about my sense that normative theory seems to involve a sense of working back from an already drawn conclusion - which if starkly contrasted with political science (where the purpose seems to be to get at the 'truth'), is the opposite way around.
PhD and Lego

Whoever thought that doing a PhD would result in me playing with Lego? But it did and has made me think a little bit outside the box with regard to my research and possible approaches.

I've just come out of an extremely useful seminar, 'Authoring a PhD', which examined different ways of approaching creativity - in which Professor Dunleavy, the privider for these sessions, uses office buildings and the Gherkin as an analogy - and a facilitaive session during which we played with Lego. The toy acted as a metaphor, encouraging us to present our research interests and particular problems we may face in doing it.

One of the more challenging tasks was to write an abstract on a flipchart of our thesis in 20 minutes - the twist being that we were writing it as if we had already finished it and were presenting our findings. It showed I need to think a bit more about what I'm trying to achieve.

But strangest experience of the session was the constant backgroun music - rock, classical and other sorts. Is there something subliminal that the organisers (the Teaching and Learning Centre at the LSE) was trying to get across? If so, I think I missed it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Where's the fairness?

Can someone explain this to me? Because I still don't get it.

Apparently it's really important that Saddam gets a fair trial in Baghdad. But at the same time there's no question of him walking free, is there?

So exactly how can it be free if the judgement is already predetermined?

It reminds me of Przeworski's description of democracy: certain rule which all actors abide by with an uncertain outcome. Anything other than that can't be democratic. Surely the same can be applied to judicial proceedings?
Culinary highs and writing lows

I feel like I've stepped up in the (academic) world. Where else but the LSE would a full lunch (OK, sandwiches and nibbles) be available as an incentive to a PhD seminar on comparative politics? I may be easily pleased, but it made my day, even if I did find it a bit of a struggle to keep up with far more well-read members on the programme. I think there was some discussion about democracy, regions versus universal explanations... um... ah...

Oh yes, I remember: what are the methodological limits to choosing regions over universal explanations? And this all led into a discussion about methodology - an issue which I revisted in the evening, at a PhD student-organised seminar on doing effective research design, including a clear hypothesis and breakdown of how the project is to be done.

But having spent the best part of this afternoon beginning the writing process, I've decided that the ideal and the reality don't mix.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Debating democracy and bureaucracy

A couple of activities this week. Discussion about different organisational dynamics and the strengths and weaknesses associated with particular forms of bureaucratic activity was discussed on Monday in my now-regular seminar. These included the strengths and weaknesses of four 'ideal' types, including bossism (where bureaucrats operate in a top-down fashion with an emphasis on standards), groupism (where peer pressure is paramount), competition (rivalry to encourage more effective output) and chancism (where randomness is the guiding principle). For those interested, Christopher Hood appears to be the one to read on this - and oh look, he's an LSE chap as well!

On Tuesday the Economist sponsored a debate on whether Latin America had 'citizens' democracies'. Speaking for the motion was the Economist's Latin American editor, Michael Reid, a Colombian academic and former government minister, Fernando Cepeda. Against was ISA's Maxine Molyneux (my old teacher) and Guilllermo O'Donnell - the main draw and the reason I attended.

The debate was quite laboured - it's a common discussion point regarding the region and not entirely original. And yet it is a good way in for those who are interested in Latin America but may not have a lot of knowledge about it.

What was most depressing (or positive if you're that way inclined) was the realisation as I looked around the room that the place was full of the Latin American scholarly and employment fraternity in London - academics, business risk associates (e.g. Global Insight and the EIU) as well as embassy staff. I caught sight of my supervisor in the corner, along with the rest of the teaching staff from the LSE's Latin American politics programme. Basically everyone's who's anyone was there.

Which in hindsight, probably called for a different motion for debate...

Monday, October 17, 2005

How times flies

I've established that you're never going to get a job in the academic world if you complete a PhD without having published something - either an article or a chapter - beforehand. That was one of the topics at today's seminar. Whereas 10 years ago it was still possible to complete the PhD, apply for a lecturer's job and then publish your first article, today's that's all changed.

I also recall looking at some of the PhD requirements from that period as well. You could start one without necessarily having a Masters degree, while it was similarly pointed out that not attending any conferences or networking during your time as a PhD student nowadays would be professional suicide.

It's at times like these that I think I should have just started the PhD programme after I first graduated, in 1998. Life seems to have been a lot easier then...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Approaching approaches

Been reading on comparative research and methodologies yesterday - and more today. Some of it is related to next week's seminar in Comparative Politics regarding democratisation studies while the rest is associated with comparative education.

There is some crossover between the two, not least in the extent to which findings are universally generalisable or specific to a particular situation (i.e. region or culture). Also this notion that selection of case studies can actually determine your findings, which is one incentive to take a broader perspective rather than focusing on a narrow topic (e.g. democratisation in Latin America as opposed to generally or comparing education outcomes between British schools as opposed to internationally).

Especially for the seminar next week I'm going to have to take a stance on which perspective is preferable. Yet I can see arguments both for and against the narrow and wide approaches. Indeed one text I read (Mahoney), argued for an accumulative approach to knowledge (i.e. scholars build on the analyses and findings of previous scholars to test and expand theory and methodology). This seems to implicitly argue for a broader approach. Yet as far as I can tell, doesn't most research build on the past? Does a research programme exist which hasn't 'borrowed' from others before? Even the use of game theory and rational choice in political science - coming from economics - has to be situated within a framework, in this case democratisation studies. Used alone it can't explain anything.

I see I'm going to have my work cut out over the coming few days...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Question of the day

Having just come out of an introductory seminar on comparative public administration, which is the most important? High-level, mid-level or street-level bureaucrats?

Answers on a postcard, please.
Counting crime

Finally a Lib Dem spot for those who visit this blog and wonder why it appears on so many Lib Dem bloggers' websites and yet seems more concerned with academic life.

I see from yesterday's BBC Politics Show that Lib Dem Islington's preference for voluntary Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) over anti-social behaviour order (ASBOs) hasn't helped reduce crime in anything like as dramatic a form as that of Labour-controlled Camden, with its penchant to write one out for the smallest infraction.

I didn't see the whole piece (capoeira meeting to go to), but looking at figures only tells one side of the story - just as evaluating students by looking at their grades does. I wonder whether there are other ways of assessing how the approach is perceived - and not just measured in black-and-white terms. It would also be interesting to see whether the falls in crime have taken place across the whole of the borough or within specific problem areas (and that information may not be available in government statistics, if I recall anything about their format).

Just a thought.
Evaluating what is evaluate-able

Quirkiness is good (see below) - especially after the readings that I subjected myself to at the tailend of last week. With education policy and its evaluation being the general theme for which I'm trying to find something sensible to say or a question to ask, I turned to that body of literature - or at least what's available in the LSE library.

Can I just say that it is just about the driest thing I've ever read? But at least it makes some interesting points, including that evaluation of schools, classrooms, students, etc is difficult to do since there are so many variables at work, all interacting with each other than it can be almost impossible to achieve an input-output result. It's all about the process within the school, classroom, by the teacher, etc.

Which has just made my area of research that much harder. How on earth can I assess whether left-wing education policy has made any difference when there are so many variables, factors and different ways of doing evaluation available?
Initial thoughts

John Siedel and Martin Lodge were the first to present themselves, their work and advice to students at this morning's first year PhD seminar. Some useful insights from both, which raised some interesting questions about reading, finding a question and ways of approaching the research. Siedel outlined his area of research at PhD level - local politics in the Philippines - and how his empirical experience through working there influenced his reading and decision to challenge the prevailing literature. Reassuring for me was his willingness to use texts and readings from beyond the region - something that I suspect I'll have to do, as what's been written on social democracy in Latin America is much less than that based on Europe.

Martin Lodge has moved from studying rail privatisation to esoteric things like examining moral panic and resulting dangerous dogs legislation and other forms of regulation. He invited the class to read a quirky piece on public policy and country music. That and his own research prompted my question about whether oddball research was acceptable at the PhD level - especially when we don't yet have tenure. Perhaps that's something for later on, once the viva is out of the way, I asked. Lodge responded by saying that as long as the quirkiness was not just for show, but had a point to make and related to a relevant it should be sufficient.

So what did I take away from this first week? Read, read and read - and not just on our own topics. Write, write and write - especially to get the thinking process going and also because of the research proposal we'll need to submit at the end of the academic year to be upgraded. And think of a question that isn't too broad or too narrow. Quite a tall order then...

Friday, October 07, 2005

My 500th post!

Utterly pointless post this, but if I can't give myself a little self-congratulation then who can.

It's taken me 18 months to reach this heady total. How long till I get to 1000.

And that will be the subject of much more comprehensive festivities.
On show

I don't envy them at all. Yesterday I sat through the LSE Lib Dem students' AGM where the individuals put themselves up for selection of various society posts. Having been chair of the same society in... oh, I don't think we need to go there (OK, 1997 and 1998 but don't say that too loudly, OK?) I was impressed at the number of members willing to put themselves up. In my day it was me with three or four portfolios and no one else!

Apparently Jo Swinson is coming to speak in a few weeks' time. She was supposed to come this week, but she was on Question Time last night in Manchester - so I made a point of catching a bit of what she had to say. After all, I did sign her up to the party here. Unfortunately her moment in the spotlight and on my TV screen wasn't her finest hour - then again, when you're third in line to speak on why Turkey should join the EU and the previous two have said all there is to say... Well, it just looks like platitudes really.

But I digress. Back to the cloistures of the LSE. If there was one thing that I found a little troubling about the Lib Dem group was it's black-white perception of society. Apparently we're left-wing and vexed by the fact that the Tories and Greens have more members than us. Since when was political party labels important in a university? Perhaps I've been away too lomg, but was I like that when I was here before?

More interestingly though, was some chap called Clem who wants the group to push a 'progressive' agenda to encourage more working class applications and offers in the School. Really? Who's working class nowadays? And if by that they mean poorer students, exactly how is an offer going to beenough when the cost of studying here will be around £3000 per year, let alone living costs. Is the 'progressive' agenda also going to include demands for discounts?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stuck in the middle

There's also a Masters course I'm auditing - Lord knows when I'm going to get time to do my own research! However, it has some relevance, since it deals with public administration and given my own topic - does Left-wing education policy actually make a difference? - I can't afford to ignore the reading material and potential discussion which may result. There's also a further course after Christmas that also caters for the same students, on comparative public policy. So no doubt that will also appear on my timetable.

This week's question though is taxing: who has greatest influence in bureaucracies? Is it the senior civil servants, middle management or the street-level providers? A case can be made for either end but would you believe that having been divided into groups I would have to end up with the one section that seems vaguest? Yup, the middle managers...

The comparative politics seminar earlier today only consisted of around 6 of us - although another 2 are expected to turn up in later weeks. But one of John Siedel's questions to all us has already got me thinking. Since we're all doing different things - from the Latin American Left and education (that's me) to regulatory regimes for biotechnology, or forms of Catholic political organisation and democratisation and development in the Balkans - he asked each of us who the giants were in our field if we were to get others to understand what we were working on.

Hmmm. Well, there are probably two broad bodies of literature for me: the Left which would mean Castaneda and Giddens; and education/public sector reform which would mean Nelson, Grindle and Bresser Perreira. But since I want to see whether education policies make any difference I'm probably going to have to find material on evaluation - so who is a heavyweight in that field I don't yet know...
First week nerves

What a week - and it's only just half over. A quick break and then it'll be back to the coalface of library study.

So what does the first week of a PhD look like? Well, it starts Monday morning at 10am with more than 20-odd students filling up a classroom designed for less than 15. It consists of the PhD advisor saying the following: "Until now your academic career has been relatively structured. Even your Masters course was quite organised. That all ends now. Any questions?"

Yes. Just the one: where the exit?!

But seriously: the session was less than the allotted two hours and involved a rundown on what is expected from us over the next year. The first term will consist of Government Department academics making brief presentations on themselves and their work and the main themes in political science and theory will be covered. The second and third terms will involve us making presentations on our own work and gaining feedback. And the last thing we were told? "Start reading now. And the sooner you start writing the better."

Which brings me up to the second PhD-level seminar that I attended this afternoon: comparative politics. Although technically for second and third year students, first years can attend - although we may well be observers in the first part of the year. Still, it looks quite interesting, especially when entertaining the possibilities presented by John Siedel, the provider. We have as much freedom as we want with the seminar, so it may well become an eclectic mix of presentations of others' work, a reading group on methodology and other comparative literature, a discussion group with eminent names and other students on broader themes.

But I'm nowhere near being ready to present my own work! Give me a few months though...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

How it must look

I didn't mention that now I've got access to the LSE I'm able to use the computers - something which I wasn't able to do before, either as an alumnus or a Masters student at ISA. But sitting here in the open basement of the Library, typing away, I'm put in the mind of how I and the others around me must look. It's as if we were a part of one of those sci-fi films which show armies of similarly dressed workers all sitting in front of the same computer terminals, grinding out small bits of information to make a whole. Rather like a cog in a wheel in fact.
Before the storm

Induction days this week. Yesterday it was the general welcome to all new graduate students at the LSE - the Peacock Theatre with a capacity of around a thousand (possibly more) was used three times for the same presentation. Most tellingly was the moment when the Director, Howard Davies, asked all students who were foreign to put their hands up - most of the audience.

Which means I can now be classified as a minority.

Today it's the Government Department inductions - us new PhD students are being met in the afternoon by the academic responsible for us new arrivals. From the email sent around it looks like there aren't many of us - I counted just under 10. But maybe I'm wrong on this?

And then there's the infamous Freshers' Fair which is starting today. I'm going tohave a look around. It will be strange seeing it with new eyes and perspective after first experiencing it ten years ago. Then there were a couple of years where I organised a stall - what a relief not to have to do that anymore.

And that will probably be it until next week when the new term starts. I've already started using some of the reading lists from the public administration courses for my own area of study as it may prove useful for where I hope to take my enquiries. Which reminds me: according to a good book I picked up on 'How to do a PhD' every academic has a core 150 or so texts which he or she is familiar with. I must check with both my supervisor and this public administration chap what their's are - and whether the reading list I'm using is essentially that. You can see I'm already looking for short cuts!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Through the door...

Well, it only lasted a day. A phone call to ISA from the LSE's Government Department and I'm in and registered as a PhD student. Which goes to show that no matter how many precautions you take or letters you bring to registration, it still takes the powers above to move and shape these decisions.

The only downside to all this is that my new student and library card shows me with a beard - which I no longer have. And this card is valid for the next four years. Hmmm...

Friday, September 23, 2005

LIfe goes on

Even though I wasn't able to register yesterday I did manage to meet some of the new students in the Government Department - all on the Masters programmes. British students seemed somewhat thin on the ground. This happened in the Three Tuns student bar, a place I haven't had a drink in since I graduated from LSE in 1998. It has completely changed since I was last there, looking like a cheaper version of All Bar One than the typical grungy-sticky carpet-dim student bar I was used to. At least the Grolsch was only £1.90 a pint. That's right: £1.90.

At least one other institution hasn't changed. Wrights Bar has been serving LSE students, staff and nearby office workers and is run by the same family and has the same cramped interior since I was first there. As I stood at the counter yesterday I had to pinch myself to believe it's been the same since I first registered at the LSE - 10 years ago. The only thing that's different is that finally they've updated the price list which sits on the wall - but then pricing was always an ambiguous experience in Wrights.
Bound to happen

I had hoped to be writing this as a newly registered LSE research student. But as it turned out, everything I expected to happen - and go wrong - did.

Despite being aware ever since I applied to the university that I wouldn't have my final marks for my Masters by the time I registered - and informing LSE of the fact several times and consulting with their graduate admissions staff earlier in the week - come registration day the inevitable happened. Even a letter explaining the situation from ISA and including 75% of my marks was insufficient.

So I'm now in limbo and have to brave the registration queues once again.

What joy!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Back to school

Have I got everything packed for today? From 10am till 4pm it's registration day for Government students (along with several other departments) at the LSE. I need my passport, offer letter and other assorted papers including my Masters degree (which I don't have, so I hope a letter explaining why will suffice).

I'm expecting the whole process to last for several hours - so I don't want to get to the head of the queue and find I've forgotten something. Afterwards there's a meeting drink for Government students in the Three Tuns student union bar - now that's a place I haven't visited since the late 1990s! God, I feel old...
Fancy pictures

Last Monday ISA's autumn term lecture series kicked off with a presentation by a Princeton sociology professor on how to visually present globalisation. The interactive project is at an early stage, but they've got some data up on world trade - one of the first gloablisation relationships which is most commonly presented. Other forms, including cultural forms may become available as data is presented by others in this open-source activity.

Given the cost of collating data on world trade, we were only able to see comparisons between 1980, 1990 and 2001. However, it as sufficient to show that in terms of volume and proportion there are really only three axes that matter - and which have got stronger over the timeperiod: the US, Europe and Japan. Latin America's relationship is relatively small while African presence in the world trade/globalisation relationship is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, in large part most other trade relationships by 'smaller' nations are centred around these regional hegemons, e.g. East Asia has stronger relationships with Japan. Interestingly also, when broken down by commodity, it becomes clearer that Middle East oil is directed more at the Asian market than the US.

I find myself wondering why I do things which I know I'm not going to like. Last Tuesday was one such example. I was down at the Brazilian Ambassador's residence on Mount Street near Park Lane for a reception to celebrate the publication of Josh Lacey's biography of Charles Miller,which I reviewed the month before last here.

What disconcerted me was the realisation that I wouldn't know anyone there. And I couldn't find anyone to talk to. It was all rather awkward, as there was no way into conversation as far as I could see. And even admiring the residency itself, or marvelling at the height of Gilberto Silva, the Arsenal midfielder who was also present to launch the book, had only limited attraction. But since Josh himself invited me and put me on the guest list I couldn't really refuse.

Once I'd managed to congratulate him, notwithstanding the minders who buzzed at his shoulders, I was able to leave - half an hour later.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Enjoyable viewing

I mentioned last week I would comment on the Brazilian film festival which took place in Brick Lane. I attended three screenings: Dona Carlota (the 1995 film about the queen who married the Portuguese Prince Regent and fled to Brazil when Napoleon came a-knocking and which kick-started the renaissance in Brazilian cinema), an Eduardo Coutinho documentary about spiritualism and Intermissions (which I saw last March but accompanied a friend to catch it this time).

The timing of the films was rather chaotic, with them never starting at the exact time as billed. The chairs were uncomfortable, but I saw someone had sensibly brought along a pillow for his back. But there wasn't much else to criticse. Part of the gallery space had been converted into a social space and bar with Brazilian drinks on offer and the strains of Marcelo D2 to keep the hunters happy in between screenings.

At first I had thought the choice of Bengali Brick Lane was an odd choice for Brazilian cinema. But the vibe created by the festival organisers ultimately made it a sensible choice. It definitely had an edgy feel to it, with that Hoxton and Shoreditch feel. On balance then, I'd give the organisers 8 out of 10 - just sort out the seating for next time!
Unplanned weekends

Truly decadent. There's no other way to describe the shennanigans which took place on Sunday with two friends.

After finally getting up and leaving the flat in Borough at 1 in the afternoon (following much late-night abandon in the Shoreditch area), a cabbie was duly summoned to take us to a Smithfields greasy spoon for breakfast at 4pm. Subsequent carousing then involved Carluccio's on the corner of said square with seven bottles of wine downed between the three of us.

Non of us remember how we got home or what time we got home. For my part toast was vaguely involved, along with a smashed plate and a serious hangover this morning.

Oh, and to top it all off, I then find my bike which I'd locked on Brick Lane on Saturday evening (I know, I know) had it's saddle nicked this morning.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Pre-term trepidations

In just under a week I'll be registered for the MPhil/PhD programme over at the LSE - assuming that my letter in the summer is picked up on and the bureaucrats realise that I won't have my final marks or transcript from my Masters course. Because I'm almost betting on that happening. I'm off to the LSE again today to make doubly sure they know what's what. There's nothing worse than to queue for a couple of hours only to be denied the all-precious card that will open every door on account of a mere technicality.

But at least I have a clearer idea of what is expected during my first year. I only have to attend one seminar a week definitely, on how to do a doctorate, what it entails, what to expect, etc, etc. Sitting down with my future supervisor I've also identified one or two other seminars to attend, but compared to Masters study it will be less class-based and much more self-study.

Which raised the all-important question which three of my work colleagues mentioned had been raised during their own doctoral experiences yesterday, but to which no-one seemed to have an answer: what to do when you get lonely.

Now I'm worried...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Cinematic vintage

But before I attempt to bring the art of Brazilian cinema to this site (always depending on price, me being skint), I caught an extremely entertaining film on Saturday at the NFT via an old school friend and his girlfriend.

Harold and Maude is one of those films I've heard about and never seen, like most of the audience there. Good it is. But I won't expand on it - instead I'll just direct you to this site...

Friday, September 09, 2005


Some good news indeed. From 14-18 September the Old Truman Brewery down Brick Lane is going to host a series of 16 Brazilian films from the last 10 years along with cultural events. Looks like something to sink my teeth into, since I haven't written on Brazilian culture or issues for awhile. Even better that it's happening on my doorstep.

I'm afraid that it'll probably mean that long-awaited synopsis of Lib Dem policy and strategy (as if anyone comes here for that!) will have to be put on hold. Perhaps it'll also stop me assuming my ego's getting too big!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Change of direction?

First invites for the Lib Dem conference later this month have arrived through my front door. If I want to step away from debating policy in London or the 2012 Olympics I can make an appearance at the questionable-sounding London Government reception and disco.

Since I'm not heading to Blackpool this year I think I'll take a rain check on that. Besides, I'm not sure I'll be too impressed anyway. But I may have as go at rekindling some thoughts and observations on the party and its general direction over the next few weeks. I'm acutely aware that this blog appears on several Lib Dem bloggers' websites and I suppose I should cater accordingly. After all, it's not the done thing for interested British liberals to come to this spot and find whimsical material on being a postgraduate student and Brazilian politics.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fed up

I'm convinced that West London is like the Bermuda Triangle. At least it was yesterday. Both Barons Court and West Kensington tube stations were closed for repair work on the District and Piccadilly Lines. I was directed to one of the replacement buses which didn't move anywhere, being caught behind a parade and carnival nearby.

Getting off I set off on foot to West Brompton train station to catch a train to Victoria - only to discover there wasn't any direct ones. Alright, I thought, I'll wait for the next one to Clapham Junction which the tannoy announced was just around the corner. But that train never appeared and soon the announcer was reporting that the next train would be heading north.

Once again I set off on foot, trying to walk out of Chelsea and eventually catching a bus that headed past Hyde Park. But it was ultimately quicker to walk the remaining half mile to Victoria than continue to sit on the bus. Sunday was not only hot, but everyone had taken to their cars.

And did I mention that Westminster was closed for the bicycle race through London? Who decides when to close the tube - especially on a day as busy as yesterday.

At least after this marathon journey I was able to pick up my new secondhand bike. And finally I was able to escape the vagaries of London's public transport system.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Down and out

Oh dear. It's getting worse. They're now bottom of the league after this defeat. The only positive thing I can think of saying is that there's nowhere to go but up.

Assuming they actually start putting some points on the board though. And it doesn't look like happening anytime soon...
Playing the game

Amid the light-hearted and progressively drunken baccanalia at the Notting Hill Carnival yesterday those looking hard enough might have noticed a small group of us playing capoeira in the Portobello Market. OK, it didn't start at the appointed time of 1pm, but the turn out was pretty good and I got in a few games without being too humiliated! Although I was quickly out of breath. Whether it as because I was out of shape I cannot say. I think I'll blame the heat.

Unfortunately there aren't any picture of the occasion that I have access to yet, but for a flavour of what it's like, there are some good photos of our last outing at the Shoreditch Festival earlier in the month (thanks Edward).
Beauty and the beast
(that's from left to right just in case you wondered...)

Fame at last! Well, of a kind. I hope Julia doesn't mind me nicking her photo of her and I, but finally, one of me to post on this blog.

But as she quite rightly says, it takes courage to wear a PT shirt at this moment in time. I just hope nobody at tomorrow's mini-conference on Brazilian economic and social policy (general theme: aren't we disillusioned with the Lula government) won't recognise me...

Friday, August 26, 2005

The time is nigh

So today is the day. By 5pm the Masters programme will be officially over. But I'm handing my dissertation into the administrative office in an hour or so - once I've got it printed off.

Now's not the time for reflecting on the course and the year (or more accurately 11 months) since I first registered. But for a sentimental view, Julia's depictions can't be topped.

I just wonder what I'm going to do next week when I wake up and have nothing to do...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Going over to the other side?

I consider myself a committed Eastender, having lived there for nearly 10 years now. But every time we visit friends over in Chelsea (as we did last night) I find myself strangely drawn a little closer to eventually making the decision and relocating there... in about 10 years' time. Maybe it's the period homes, the sense of living in a picture postcard image of London.

Or maybe it's the police and ambulance sirens and noisy neighbours from hell in the estate across the way when I get back to Bethnal Green.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Not where I am...

Oh alright, you've twisted my arm! Have another view of Jeri, this time a Friday sunset from the top of one of its sand dunes. It may look beautiful but what the guide books don't tell you is how strong the wind blows and the sand definitely stings...

My only grumble is that I'm not there. Mutter, mutter...
Something to remember the summer by...

OK, the funding options and studentships may have gone to pot, but I can still bask in the fact that I spent some of the summer in Brazil. Some of the photos have now come throgh from that, including from Jericoacoara. I may add another one later.

It's enough to make me give up London to relocate there...
Into the home straight

The end of the dissertation is in sight. A read through, review and now I'm in the process of tacking on the bibliography, glossary and acknowledgments. But I can't seem to get the table of contents function on Word to work properly - it insists on cutting out particular sections.

Of course I'm still not happy with it - but will I ever be? I keep feeling I could improve it, but every time I look at it I can't see how unless I scrap large sections and replace them with...

...well what exactly?

If the PhD interview went belly up the one for a research analyst position went better (also on the same day) - although I have yet to hear whether I made the short list for that one. But I noticed that as an interviewee taking notes while the interviewer talks seems to redress the balance of power between the two. That's about the only tip I picked up during last week's interviews.

As I suspected - I didn't get the gig at the UCL for the Brazilian history PhD. The silence which dragged on over the weekend prepared me for the worst.

THe frustrating thing about that interview last week was that I thought I was doing really well until they dropped the question: 'So what philosophical influences drive your academic work?'

Come again? And it came from the one member of staff who I assumed wasn't taking part in the panel discussion - she was the admissions tutor.

As might be imagined, after a question like that the interview started to unravel. And with it three years of potential work and full funding.


Still, it's nice to have options and it looks like it's the LSE for me (I'm sure there's a verse in there somewhere...).

What do you do on Saturday night when it's nearly 11.30 and most of the places charge you to get in?

A friend and I had this dilemma, which was made worse by the fact that we hadn't drunk at all - so faving the free bars at O'Neills or the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road were no-nos.

But then we found what looked like a conservatory-cum-bar at the back of Centrepoint. It called itself a Late Bar. Why not give it a go?

And that's how we walked - accidentally - into a lesbian bar.

I have been on this planet for 29 years and never been in one before. More surprising though, we actually got served.

But I reckon they probably thought that like them, us being two blokes, we were probably fellow travellers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An empty pedestal

Well, that was that. I bombed.

It was all going so wel, my interview at UCL for this PhD on Brazil. I was making the right noises and points and the panel seemed to be nodding its collective head in approval.

But there's always one question, isn't there? And once it's asked the whole think unravels.

"Who have been your biggest influences on your conceptualisation of your work?"

Huh? Excuse me?

Yes, I was forced to think of intellectuals that I had 'looked up' to, or been influenced by. And the answer? Well, I struggled and then claimed I was an Enlightenment sort of chap.

Which is not what they wanted to hear; after all, they want someone who is going to consider post-colonial studies and alternative approaches for this project.

And so the project disappears into the breeze.


Sunday, August 14, 2005

First match blues

Not a good start at all.

But at least there's another 41 games to go. And they had better improve is all I'm saying...
Passing away?

Having been immersed in my dissertation and preparations for Wednesday's interview, I haven't commented much on the current shenanigans going on in Brazil. But a couple of stories in the Folha and among the London-based PT made me sit up and take note. It would seem there are two political deaths - the PT (probably overstated) and that of Miguel Arraes - dominating the Brazilian scene this week.

First, what is happening to the PT? There's been an interesting email exchange going on among London petistas regarding what exactly is the PT. While there is general disillusion with the path taken by the present government, what is intriguing is the perception group members have of the PT's mission. For some the PT has sold out, failing to deliver socialism. But for others the PT was never a socialist party in the traditional sense. Indeed, as one very articulate contribution points out, the wording in the PT's documents are vague. What is advocates is radical democracy, or democratic socialism (whatever that is).

At the same time some in the PT are considering abandoning the party, like Christovam Buarque. He's been feted internationally and his administration of Brasilia with its introduction of the bolsa escola is usually offered as an example of good governance. Interesting then that some in the London PT seem critical of hmn, accusing him of opportunism. Could this be because of his background and social-democratic orientation? After all, Christovam has never really been a red, dyed-in-the-wool petista. Might this also be a moment to plug my work on his administration in this book? Available at all good bookshops!

If he does leave the party there is a real question of where he could go. The Folha piece says the options are limited and beyond the PT there is no other party on the left which can offer the prospects of change for Brazil.

Troubling too is the suggestion that the PT in Rio Grande do Sul are also being caught up in this whole 'cash-for-influence' scandal. Of all the regional sections of the PT, I thought (perhaps naively) that the gauchos would be the least involved, due to the relative independent strength of the party down there. As a personal observation, I also met David Stival, the PT chairman who had to make a statement to the police, briefly while carrying out fieldwork there in June. It just gets more depressing...

And so finally we also say goodbye to one of the last great populists. After Brizola's death last year, this week Miguel Arraes passed away - yet another of the politicians who dominated the 'Populist Republic' between 1945 and 1964 before being booted out by the military and into exile before returning again in the 1980s. He's not of historical interest though; others, like Garotinho, owe their political style to him (more's the pity...).

Monday, August 08, 2005

Two strikes

When you're coming to the end of your Masters, summer should be a satisfying time. After the hard slog of winter, with its essays and seminars to prepare for, the months leading to August should be a time of celebration.

But it's not happening that way at the moment. The last few days have been up and down. Friday I received notification that the LSE would offer me a research grant. But which would only cover half the tuition fees - and if I registered as a full time student.

OK... And I'm going to do that with precisely what other funds?

And then today the other scholarship result finally came through - and no, I didn't get it. Even making the short list doesn't seem much of an achievement. In a race for one, you either get it or your don't.

So it looks like I've got several years of badly paid work ahead of me.

What joy!

I've already taken out my bad mood on the ESRC by writing them a letter of appeal on their utterly misguided decision to reject my application. It won't make any difference, but at least I felt better about it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Yes, I've been quiet of late. I've been getting my head down on the dissertation. Whereas before it looked unclear, unstructured and unfocused, slowly it's starting to come together. Only a week ago it was a series of disparate, unlinked sections and paragraphs floating across three separate files. Now it's startting to gain some kind of order. Long may it last!

I've also been trying to sort out my rather dire financial situation. This has involved registering at various employment agencies and sending my CV off to possible openings as and when I hear them. Fingers crossed, but I may have something which would last a few weeks from Monday. That would definitely help, while just now I've completed an hour-long writing test to produce an essay for a job as a country analyst at a news service. The amusing thing is that I know of several others at the Institute going for the same position as well, so whoever gets it will have to buy the others drinks!

And now I have another place to fire a CV off to. Excuse me if I disappear...

Monday, August 01, 2005

New series of events

Saturday I went down to the Latin American Bureau for the first of their country-themed afternoons - on Brazil. I had gone because a friend at the Institute had said I should come since the organiser was worried no-one would turn up. A bit of solidarity, in other words.

I needn't have bothered though. The place was fit to bursting for the entire afternoon and evening which included Sue Branford's presentation on the current political situation there (her view: pessimistic to the point that she, a long-time left-wing supporter, is considering abandoning Lula), a film, O Caminho das Nuvens which followed a family's journey from the Northeast to Rio by bicycle (an antidote to other Brazilians films involving violence, drugs and the favela), a capoeira demonstration (which I was persuaded to have a go in...) and plenty of beer and salgadinhos (alright, bolinhos de bacalhau, coxinhas, kibe).

The audience was quite diverse, from those who didn't know who Lula was to people like me and others from the Institute. As a first effort I thought it went extremely well and look forward to the next - on Cuba at the end of August, I think.
Don't see many of those

Oddest sight of the weekend on the tube: an ordinary, middle-class blonde girl, around four years old being accompanied by her father - a leather-jacket, late-30s punk, with long varnished finger nails and a dog collar.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Rejection Part 2

Apparently there is. I'm being blown out from a drinking session tonight by a friend (who shall rename nameless lest he be subjected to ridicule from the two readers of this blog) who is off to play...

...I can't even bring myself to say it...

...rounders on Primrose Hill.

I would go and drown my sorrows except that (1) it's barely midday, (2) drinking now might be the first signs of me turning into an alcoholic and (3) I've got no-one to drink with...

Grumble, grumble.
One rejection - any more to come?

One funding opportunity down, one more to go. And it's not looking good. After months of waiting the ESRC letter dropped onto my mat this morning.

Apparently I 'have not received sufficient relevant [research] training' to justify funding. Which I would suggest (and obviously I'm biased) doesn't cast my previous academic, employment and personal experiences in a positive light. Apparently studying Latin American Politics at the Institute, and proposing doctoral work in the same field isn't good enough for the ESRC.

I've got half a mind to appeal. Oh, I see, they've given me details on how to do that.
Ungracious commentary

So the IRA has announced an end to the armed struggle?

Is it just me or do they just seem largely irrelevant in the current climate?

I find myself imagining Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the rest sitting around after the last few weeks and saying they can't really top the efforts of the current crop of fanatics. How many republicans would be willing to blow themselves up?

Time to call it a day, boys.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Couldn't have put it better myself.

Simple and to the point.

As if to reinforce that, here's something sent by a friend of mine.

But it has to be doctored...

Good capitalism?

Last night's Newsnight had a piece on how South Korea is becoming 'cool' on account of its cultural exports through music, fashion and film. Apparently Seoul is the place to go if you want to be with the in crowd in Asia.

What was interesting though was the explanation and analysis given for this transformation. Apparently after the financial crisis of the late 1990s the country was forced to 'modernise' by breaking down state-owned industries and laying off workers, fostering an environment for private sector entrepreneurialism and a consumer culture open to it. The underlying message then was that it was capitalism - of the free market variety as opposed to the old-fashioned state-directed form dominant in East Asia for the past half-century - which had spawned all this.

Which does beg the unasked - and unanswered - question: can a different form of social and economic organisation (alright, socialism) offer such 'dynamism' in the cultural sphere?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Chaos in London and Brazil - one related to the bombings and trigger happy police, the other with this ongoing scandal that's tearing the government in Brasilia apart.

And that's before you consider what we're facing in the next few months: Fernanda Karina, the secretary at the centre of this whole political corruption story, is considering posing nude in Brazilian Playboy.

What is the world coming to?

I think I need to lie down...

Off the back of this tragedy I was emailed yesterday by CNN asking if I would be willing to be interviewed on the differences between policing in Brazil and Britain and how the Brazilian community was responding to the shooting. I think they must have got my details off a few articles I've written on the web about Brazilians in the UK.

I declined, mainly because I know other people far better qualified to speak on these matters; and I would hardly claim that I can speak for a whole community. No, I'm not going to become a self-appointed spokesman.
Exploitation and cheap answers

Last night I went down to Stockwell to take part in a demonstration against the police killing of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes. I got there about half an hour after it started. The street outside the station was packed and the front entrance closed so it didn't spill over inside the station.

There were speeches being made, but I and most others couldn't hear what was being said; the sound was awful and wasn't helped by the noise from the passing traffic. But it was probably just as well. Of the few speakers I tried to listen to, there was one who bellowed out his words. He was making a link between this killing and the government's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the way it was presented you would think that if Blair removed the troops tomorrow we would see an end to tragedies like the one at Stockwell. Nothing was mentioned about the context which led to de Menezes's death, in particular the bombings on the tubes and buses. That made me angry.

There were plenty of people from various communities there - white British, Muslim, Brazilian, Trotskyists and other assorted socialists, human rights organisations - and nothing was said about the terrorist attacks. No doubt this was due in part to the demonstration having been organised by Lambeth's Stop the War coalition - who claim everything is due to our Government's actions in Iraq; that was their attitude after the tube and bus bombings and it's now the case after the Stockwell tragedy. But if that's the best we can come up with we risk coming up with platitudes of the worst kind as I witnessed yesterday.

But I was also angry for another reason: I was there because I was revolted about the way individual police officers held down and man and shot him at point blank range. That is the crux of the matter and what needs to be addressed. Yet instead what we got was a naked attempt to tie this killing to the political axes being ground by the organisers (e.g. people protesting that 'we express our solidarity with the Iraqi people', 'we want civil disobedience now', 'shoot to kill is the result of Israeli policy against the Palestinians' - cue loud cheers).

There was also a demand by the organisers for an end to the 'shoot-to-kill' policy. While that generated the response expected, I couldn't help but feel that once again a simplistic solution had been sought and found. What if the next time the police weren't in the wrong? I don't know. I can't decide how I feel about that.

Only later, after I had been to visit my brothers at their house nearby, did I come back to the station and find what I had come for. An impromptu memorial had been laid out, with posters, flags and flowers asking for peace and protesting against the killing. There were a few local people standing around, but unlike earlier, no-one out to exploit the situation for their own interest.

I spent a few moments there, reflecting on the injustice of de Menezes's death and the wider public indifference - almost acceptance - of the police's claims that the world has changed, that these things will happen in the future and that we had better get used to it.

But that's not something I either want to get used to or accept.