What am I up to now?

May 31, 2024

May, 2023

Exams finished in mid-April — I’ll learn the results in July, and update here once I do. For the next eight weeks, I’d prefer to think about anything else.

Oxfordshire has been obliging. For most of the first week of Trinity Term, the sun has come out and the weather has tended warm. I’ve exploited my sudden free time and the weather with lots of time outside. Mostly river outings, but on April’s last Wednesday, I took a day trip to Averbury and Silbury, a neolithic site 45 miles south of Oxford. For any tourists visiting the south of England, I recommend replacing the supposedly obligatory Stonehenge stop with the Avebury World Heritage site. It dominates Stonehenge on every metric — Avebury is older, larger, less crowded, and more important to our understanding of neolithic people. And — there is a town inside of the stone circle:


Two kilometers south of Avebury is Silbury. If Avebury is a mysterious, interlocking and overlapping, convoluted complex of meticulous megaliths, Silbury is… a massive old pile of dirt. To be fair, it is the massivest, oldest pile of dirt in England, but it is just a big mound of dirt.


Silbury hill was built about 4,500 years ago, almost contemporaneously with the pyramids of Giza, and of comparable volume. While we don’t know the hill’s purpose, of course there is plenty of speculation. More interesting than “why,” however, is the labor cost. Atkinson (1974) wrote that it would have taken 500 men 15 years to build Silbury hill:

In view of the small size of the neolithic population, this represents a fraction of the ‘gross national product’ at least as great as that currently devoted by the United States of America to the whole of its space programme.

This is even more striking given the (supposed) subsistence-level existence of neolithic Brits, challenging our assumptions and estimates of neolithic land productivity. If such a large fraction of the population could have been supported in non-productiveWhich meant non-food-productive at the time. labor for an extended period, the rest of the economy must have been well above subsistence. This remains true if the Silbury laborers were enslaved.

Further, our assumptions about the ability of neolithic societies to project power. Leaving aside the geographic dispersion of these sites — the bluestones at Stonehenge traveled from WalesWales! This is my trump mind-blowing Stonehenge fact. The stones were brought more than 150 miles, at a time when the wheel was dubious. Or — they were brought almost 200 miles by sea, when the canoe was the height of seaworthiness. Everything about the past was so weird and we have no idea. — there is something unexpected about the dedication and perseverence of the contemporary power structure’s dedication to these stone structures. Return to Atkinson’s analogy to the space program: in the US, we can’t hold a space policy for more than a presidential administration. The current Artemis program, surviving from Trump to Biden, is the first new human NASA initiative to survive a presidential transition since the 1980s. Sure, neolithic Brits didn’t have to put up with pesky elections, but think of the consistent draw on resources of a project, drawn out over decades, which has no tangible, “merely” spiritual, benefits. At that point, the dedication of this society becomes near fanatic.

OK — but this is supposed to be about my life. What am I up to now? This term, I’m taking a maths course and coding course through the econ department, neither of which are posing much of a challenge.Tho both are a bit of a time suck. On the research side, I’ve started working with Victor Pouliquen, a postdoc at Nuffield, on a project on property taxation and public service provision in the Gambia.Which also has some great stone circles. This just got off the ground after exams, and so far has involved cleaning some very messy excel spreadsheets.

In May, I’ll have to (softly) commit to a thesis topic and supervisor. Because of the lock-in effects,Whom I pick as a supervisor for my second-year thesis will likely be the same person I work with for my full DPhil dissertation, and likely on the same topic. this is a somewhat stressful decision. Right now, I see three possibilities:

  1. Development — while Victor’s project is in much too early stages to be a viable thesis topic/data source, there are other attractive topics. I have access to data from (some of) my West African and Afghan fieldwork, and could connect current research interests to those. Alternatively, Eva Vivalt arrived in Oxford in April, which has had me thinking about forecasting and development again. I could re-dip my toes in the water of cash transfers, which Eva has worked on, as has Dennis Egger.While writing this bullet, my friend SB, who works for the most exciting cash transfer organization, texted me that she’ll be in London next week! Could this be fate telling me to work on cash transfers? Probably not. But I will have the perfect sounding board to run my ideas past. Dennis’ work on the general equilibrium effects of cash transfers was my favorite Econometrica paper from last year.
  2. History — I could return to my work on the persistence and corporate governance of long-lived institutions. A couple of years ago, MN gave me a dataset of long-lived institutions (think monasteries and universities, stuff that easily persisted over centuries) which I slowly augmented. The data aren’t rich enough to support an empirical thesis on their own, probably, but a theoretical paper on institutional persistence could use monasteries as an illustrating example. I think it’s a pretty cool project, and it would give me an excuse to read and write a lot about monasteries for the next year.
  3. Unawareness — While the lock-in effects of the thesis are real, it also offers a good opportunity to try my hand in a research field I’m unfamiliar with and unsure of. I’ve repeatedly dipped my toesApoligies for the mixed anatomical metaphors. into the micro theory pool over the first couple of years, first on my own, then with Benjamin Tereick and the GPI crowd. I would be really excited to come back to a project on awareness growth. I’m building out a longer project proposal for myself right now, which I’ll have to discuss with my supervisor Dr. Meg Meyer sometime this month! Watch this space.

Contents

  1. Reading
  2. Listening


Reading

Another particularly bad month for reading — I read just one book before my exams finished on the 20th. I slightly made up for it in the past ten days.

I’ve been gearing up for Oxford’s tourism season, the time of year the weather is pleasant enough to turn Oxford from a passably nice historical town to a downright idyllic spring postcard. I’ve already gotten limited chances to show off my tourguiding skills to PP, LR, LH, and Abigail, but the next couple of months will be chock-full of visitors expecting fun facts on every corner. I don’t wanto to disappoint.

The most invaluable resource has doubtless been Jan Morris’ Oxford, a meandering travelogue written in the 90s but published just after the millenium. Morris remembers a version of Oxford which is recognizable but fading, and the book is most useful for the historical anecdotes. Of course, these are exactly what tourists want, the bloodier and more obscure, the better.

The blurred King Mephric was eaten by wolves at Wolvercote, Edmund Ironside is supposed to have been murdered in Oxford, Harold Barefoot died in the city, it was a gemot at Oxford which, by forcing King Harold to march northwards and crush a rebellion in 1066, left his southern flank open to William the Conqueror.

A warning, tho, Morris is not to be trusted, possibly not even in the paragraph above. While certainly not a work of fiction,Unlike her travelogue Hav, which I recommend for altogether different reasons. Morris’ book plays fast and loose reporting legend as fact. On three too many occasions, I came across a story too-good-to-be-true, which Google proved false.

One gets the impression she overheard some of these stories in a college bar, jotted them in her notebook, and moved on to the next pint. Another one of my favorite resources, an internet book on Trill Mill stream, takes Morris to task for her claim that, “beneath the very centre of the city runs the Trill Mill stream, a gloomy underground waterway in which was discovered, one day in the 1920s, a rotted Victorian punt with two Victorian skeletons in it.” The Trill Millian expert writes:

Unless evidence to the contrary emerges, I believe that the story of the skeletons in the punt is fiction. It was first recorded in print by Jan Morris… From there, [it] has entered the mythology of the city, and been repeated by writers and tour guides.

This knowledge should take no enjoyment away from Morris’ book, and it has helped me discover a half dozen well-hidden gems in the past week, including one perfectly mouldering cemetery less than ten meters from my old flat. And the writing is just as good when restricted to the best-known spots:

Happiest of all is the surprise that awaits you in the Fellows’ garden at Exeter College (closed to the public, so a notice says, at four o’clock each day). This is best seen in winter, and preferably—for Oxford prohibitions are meant to be ignored—somewhere around five, when the dusk is closing in and the lights are coming on. You must walk the length of the garden first, and climb the steps at the bottom, and presently you will find yourself sitting on a seat on the top of a wall, to survey the most satisfying of Oxford compositions. Below you there lies Radcliffe Square, the focus of the University, like the stage of a theatre. It is dramatically alive. The street lights glint on the shiny cobblestones, and the handle-bars of the bicycles in their racks. Everywhere there is movement: undergraduates hastening towards the Bodleian, porters looking out of Brasenose gate, the vicar of St. Mary’s, cassocked and belted, talking to a parishioner in his porch. The great dome of the Radcliffe Camera almost fills this stage; the balcony of St. Mary’s looks down like a royal box; and even as you watch from your position in the wings the lights go up in the Bodleian and the Codrington Library across the way, and the gilded crests spring into brilliance on the ceiling of Duke Humfrey’s, and the whole scene is diffused in a glow of theatrically sumptuous learning. Do not stay too long. Oxford rules are flexible, but there may be something chilling to the manner of the porter, when he courteously approaches you through the garden, and asks with innocent interest if you are a Fellow of this College.

LM lent me his copy of Vicky Wilson’s Walking Oxford, a dense 400 pages of self-guided walking tours. Wilson is thorough: she spends a page on my unremarkable block in west Jericho. There are perhaps too many references to Inspector Morse and lists of dead, almost-famous people, but these faults are more charming than tedious. The research Wilson put into these walks is evident, but her own theorizing is just as informative and far more charming:

Looking left up Albert Street you can see the Oxford Baptist Chapel, built in 1881 and still in use today. The building opposite, now converted into houses, used to be the back of the Bakers Arms pub: its blank wall is perhaps a nod to its neighbours’ abhorrence of alcohol.

Who knows if Wilson’s image of the the Victorian Baptists and Lucy ironworkers leaving their respective chapels and avoiding eye contact across Albert Street is true. It is good historical writing.

In the fiction of Oxford, nothing beats Zuleika Dobson, the book which brought the Sheldonian and its plinthed Emperors’ heads to life.Dobson was written in the 1910s, and the heads were recarved in the 70s by Michael Black. This saddens me, that I’ll never see Wood and Byrd’s original soft faded sandstone sculptures silently judging the Duke of Dorset and the rest of the Oxford men. In the tea room at the Randolph Hotel, there are a series of exuberant illustrations done by Osbert Lancaster of the Dobson saga. Don’t

Another great, more modern novel of Oxford is Javier Marías’ Todas las almas (All Souls), which I read in Spanish last year and English this month.There’s only the most tenuous relation to the eponymous college. It’s a startling portrayal of Oxford and its characters, and one of the few which would make relatively less sense to an undergrad. The plot is unfortunately a bit too french, by which I mean, too much sad, well-read Europeans with tragic backstories having sex with other sad, well-read Europeans with tragic backstories. And the most interesting bit — related to the tragic backstories, not Oxford — is the non-fictional epilogue; the relevant search word is “Redonda.”

There’s much more — surveys of Oxford literature range from Alice and Wind in the Willows to Jude the Obscure, Brideshead, and Jill. Oxford attracts and inspires writers, of course, but there are just as many writers whom Oxford failed (or the other way around). Zuleika’s author, Max Beerbohm, left without a degree, as did Waugh. The poets Shelley and Swinburne were both rusticated, the former for contumacy in his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism; the latter for publicly advocating and supporting the assassination of Napoleon III. Gibbons was trundled away from Oxford by his family after an unexpected conversion to Catholicism, and De Quincey’s addiction to opium was sufficiently advanced that he “simply gave up in the middle of [his] final examination, and left the city for ever.”

Great writers don’t need degrees, and perhaps do need isolation, so these losses are understandable. Still, one is left with the feeling that Oxford is a place you can write about, but not a place you can write from.

I crammed some non-Oxford, non-academic reading into the last week of April — two of William Blake’s illuminated prophecies, an earlier Marías novel, and three books about South African nuclear disarmament. I’m still looking for the definitive explanation of the denuclearization decision process that goes beyond “nukes are expensive and the Afrikaner government was racist,” if anyone has any recommendations. Even LT failed me, tho, so my hopes aren’t high!

Monthly Le Guin

In keeping with the Oxford theme, I tracked down a copy of a lecture given by Le Guin at Keble College in 1992, titled “Children, Women, Men and Dragons”. A gorgeous parchment edition was published by Children’s Literature New England, retitling this “challenging lecture Earthsea Revisioned”, a reference to Le Guin’s famous children’s trilogy.

Children and dragons show up towards the end of the lecture; the majority is about gendered heroism and ability in fantasy settings. Until ~2nd wave feminism, making the hero of a fantasy novel female was revolutionary in itself; any such book was “political” by its existence. By writing Earthsea as children books, Le Guin gained some leeway, but she always viewed them as political. Making her original (male) hero brown and black puts them outside the whole “European heroic tradition” — “I was making him an Outsider, an Other, like a woman, like me.” Even when she wrote a book in Earthsea from a woman’s perspective, cross-sectionality may have been too much — “In the sequel it was my heroine who was white. I’m not sure why… Perhaps I simply lacked the courage to make my heroine doubly Other.”

Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea book, coming almost two decades after the original trilogy, was from this women’s perspective. Another speaker at the conference, calls this book “doing penance” for the earlier, male-dominated fantasy world. Le Guin:

Irredeemably secular, I’d call it affirmative action. In my lifetime as a writer, I have lived through a revolution, a great and ongoing revolution. When the world turns over, you can’t go on thinking upside down. What was innocence is now irresponsibility.

Le Guin ends with a reference to her unrelated short story “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight?”, where a young girl survives a plane crash in Oregon, but loses her eye. “Coyote, who created the world, according to the people there, and made quite a mess of it in the process,” restores her sight, but her new eye sees a world slightly out of kilter with our own. Le Guin, in Oxford:

For a long time we’ve been seeing with only one eye. We’ve blinded the woman’s eye, said it doesn’t see anything worth seeing, said all it can see is kids and cooking, said it’s weak, short-sighted, said it’s wicked, the evil eye. A woman’s gaze is a fearful thing.

The end of the lecture is well-written and would have been well-delivered (“The child who is our care, the child we have betrayed, is our guide”) but leaves me cold. Le Guin couldn’t resolve her metaphor of the dragonWhich I have neglected here because it felt unresolved. clearly towards gender representation in fantasy or the sight of children. She can’t be faulted for this — we’re all prone to reading too much into children’s books, even ones we write — so the lecture ends well. But it does serve as good warning not to write yourself into a corner.

Listening

I’m not someone who sat down and listened to The Beatles when I was a kid. Music was playing in our house less often than my friend’s houses, and I was too busy developing my own faux-quirky taste in the early 2010s to listen to choose to listen to a legendary group.Related to the recent drama on hipsters vs. nerds.

Scrolling through this list, there are dozens of titles I don’t recognize, mostly from Help! and The White Album. But I’ve probably heard 90% of these songs at least once in my life? They’re The Beatles. Some disc jockey is going to throw “Glass Onion” or “One After 909” on the radio; Spotify is suprisingly good at including “deep” cuts on its algorithmic playlists; plus I have friends who are proud of their taste in music and want you to know it. All of this means that even the obscure songs will come up eventually.

So it shocks me that every few months, I hear a Beatles song for the “first time” and get immediately swept up. Last summer, it was “Got to Get You Into My Life,” in December, “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” last week, “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” This effect is remarkably consistent, and looking at the catalog above, potentially sustainable. In five years, I might hear “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and have it stuck in my head for weeks. What a nice thought.

I came across this obituary of musical typesetter and “composer”We’ll get to the quotes in a moment. John Stump, who was such a fan of the Beatles he “sent corrections to the early 1980’s published Beatles song collection “The Compleat Beatles” because he knew the minute details of the songs and scores so well.” This effort was rewarded gratefully by Paul. Stump was best known, though underrecognized for his composition “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz.”


Tag yourself.

This was on the wall of my high school’s music room, as some insane tribute, or perhaps threat? It is also, of course, unplayable.That hasn’t stopped some from trying. A Stump appreciation society has the stated goal of getting his ‘music compositions published, performed, known and appreciated.’ I can’t find any videos online, unfortunately, of the crescendoing moment when penguins are released, or Lakers in 6. Stump has other such compositions, such as a quartet for “Strings in A Minor (Motoring Accident),” all of which were equally “incredibly creative, erudite and rigorous acts of nonsense.”

Previously

April, 2023

March, 2023

February, 2023

December, 2022

November, 2022

October, 2022

September, 2022

August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - May 31, 2024 - Joseph Levine