Forget the Footnotes

I started this blog in January 2006. For the first couple of weeks of its existence it had about 10 visitors per day. Then I began blogging about my employer, the London School of Economics, and about what it’s like to work and study at an elite university. Suddenly interest in the blog erupted. One day, May 4, the blog had over 5000 visitors.

My great fortune was that the blog was banned — first by the convenor of my department and then by the director of the LSE itself. As they both made clear, I was not allowed to speak about the School in an unauthorised manner or "serious consequences" would ensue. After some reflection I decided to keep the blog up. It was an easy choice in the end since the statues of the LSE guarantee the right to the freedom of expression. The controversy eventually hit the papers — first the LSE student newspaper, then the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement.
Sunday, January 08, 2006 Erik No comments
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This is Erik speaking. Is anybody out there? Testing, 1, 2, 3, 4.

Monday, January 09, 2006 Erik No comments
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A funny thing happened at work today. The most pompous of my colleagues — Oxbridge education, plummy accent — was giving a long and particularly tedious talk. Then he drew something on the blackboard. An impromptu map, I think, but at this stage I was no longer paying attention. He continued speaking but turned around repeatedly and added to the map. For each addition the picture began to look more and more like a penis. After a while there was no doubt. There it was: a perfectly formed manhood in all its fully erect glory. Testicles, pubic hair and everything. I began laughing. First a little snicker, than a louder guffaw. Heads were turning in my direction. I whispered my observation to the person next to me who made a face of disgust. How dared I! Not funny. Not funny at all.

Thursday, January 26, 2006 Erik No comments
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Why is it that some societies are very corrupt whereas others are more or less uncorrupt? According to a research paper presented today by Jonathan Hopkin, the well-known LSE academic, it is all down to religion. In Protestant countries people are, on the whole, incorruptible whereas people in Catholic countries can’t get anything done without giving or accepting bribes. As Hopkin told a captivated capacity crowd in the LSE auditorium: It’s all the pope’s fault! Look, I ran an SPS regression and the pope is the most significant variable.

Late on Wednesday evening, the Vatican was not available for comments but in an official statement the director of the London School of Ergonomics said he feared ex-communication. Research is not only about facts, the director pointed out, values enter into it as well. Academics need to take more responsibility for their conclusions.

Friday, January 27, 2006 Erik No comments
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The Davos extravaganza is underway. In Davos every year the most powerful men (and the occasional woman) gather informally, to get to know each other, exchange points of view and broker deals. Some academics participate too. Clearly the powerful believe an academic presence gives them intellectual legitimacy. The atmosphere of the place is transformed from smoke-filled back-room to academic seminar.

I hate this kind of intellectual prostitution. Selling out and sucking up to power. I also hate academics who brag about going there. How pretentious! As though they mattered, as though anyone powerful actually listened to them! The power of an academic requires independence and a critical attitude, not this arsenine licking of red carpets.

I have a short blacklist of academics who participate in this Davos thing. The LSE portion of the list reads as follows:

  • Richard Sennett. He even writes about going to Davos in his books. A sure sign of an academic in decline.
  • David Held. Used to stop me in the staircase of the Government Department and tell me how important he is since he is invited to Davos every year. Yes, David, you are very, very important. Try writing a good book next, OK?
  • Tony Giddens. An academic with a history of sucking up to power. He too used to write good books once upon a time. Too bad his intellectual reputation got soiled when it was run over by the Clinton/Blair bandwagon.

I’m sure there are more names. And a non-LSE list too of course.

Thursday, February 02, 2006 Erik No comments
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There has been a lot of stuff on religion so far in this blog. Perhaps my genetic predisposition is showing — both of my grand-fathers were pastors in the Swedish church after all. In a funny way I continue the family business — standing orating at the pulpet once a week is pretty much what I do too!

Yet since the death of my father a few years back, I’ve become an increasingly militant atheist. Religion seems like such a terrible fraud perpetrated on mankind. We are told that things will be ok, that we don’t have to worry, that there is life after death and that god will reward us. By believing in such fictions we never come face to face with the reality of our lives. Facing this reality is in the end the only way in which we can affirm our humanity.

Recognising the essential meaninglessness of life, we are forced to give life meaning. Such meaning-making is the essence of humanity. Religion can indeed be explained from this perspective — religion is yet another way of making sense of senselessness. Yet what matters is not the answer we arrive at — the tepid, porridge-like, substance that the churches dish out — but instead the struggle for meaning; the terror incompletely concealed. This is the point of human existence: always looking and never finding anything.

In the last analysis, religion requires fear — fear of death, fear of life. Fear always breeds submission; a frightened person will easily give in to authority. A free society must be without fear. We must be resolute in the face of death.

As I tell my students whenever I have a chance: there really is no god, you know, there really isn’t. Neither a Muslim, a Christian nor a Jewish. It would be nice if there were, and nothing would make me feel better than if I were able — like my two grandfathers — to believe. But the fact that we would be comforted by the thought doesn’t make it true. It just doesn’t work that way.

Saturday, February 11, 2006 Erik No comments
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“The man who is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, ” is tired of life.” I am, I have to admit, tired of London. What does that mean? Well, of course Johnson was writing at a time when London symbolised all there was of excitement and cosmopolitanism. The alternative was to live in a hovel somewhere in the English countryside. The alternatives are a bit different today. The person who is tired of London just might get a real kick out of New York, or Shanghai.

Anyway, there are some things I’ll dearly miss about our life in London. These are the top ten:

  1. our house, although it never got finished and always was too small and full of toys everywhere.
  2. shopping on Green Lanes, Harringay. Especially Baldwin’s, the world’s best butcher, and Yasar Halim, with its amazingly juicy carrots.
  3. South Harringay Infant School — which provided a warm, welcoming and endlessly encouraging educational environment for our four Swedish-American children and the children of 53 other ethnic groups.
  4. my students at the LSE.
  5. CBBC — the last bastion of intelligent television.
  6. stodgy puddings with custard.
  7. Ed, our electrician. The only practicing Menonite electrician in London who also is a drop-out from Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
  8. Jeremy Hardy on the News Quiz. Linda Smith too.
  9. sitting on the top of dubble-decker buses. It’s still fun, ten years later.
  10. listening to Radio 4 while making coffee in the morning.
Monday, February 13, 2006 Erik No comments
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Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. What should one make of this? Am I basically in favour or basically against? Differently put: should you rather celebrate International Quirky Alone Day or do you prefer the traditional format [if that doesn’t work, try this]?

What Zefrank says — did you click on the link above??? — about Swedish toilets is actually perfectly true. Hearts on toilet doors is something that Swedes take for granted — although it tends to be restricted to non-flush facillities in the countryside. It’s a strange thing really. Why are there hearts on toilets? There should be more research in this area.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 Erik No comments
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A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

‘This is Europe and if we have a thought, we express it.’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Historically speaking there is a close connection between civil rights and civility. That is, you have the right to say whatever you want but you also have an obligation not to offend people around you. If you offend them they aren’t going to talk to you and maintaining the conversation is the first imperative of social interaction. On the other hand, you also have an obligation not to take offence too easily. Claiming offence provides people with a veto on what can and cannot be said. This is exactly why it is so difficult to include a certain brand of fundamentalist Muslims in our public conversations.

Pragmatically speaking there is surely no point in offending Muslims just because you have the right to! I mean, these are my neighbours; every second person is a Muslim where I live and my kids’ school is virtually shut down over Eid. Why antagonise all these friendly people?

Yet this conclusion is based on a consideration of appropriateness, not rights. Everything changes the moment our right to publish an offensive cartoon is denied us — by irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy in London, for example. When death threats are issued our right to free speech is taken away from us. Suddenly we have an obligation to stand up for this right and an obligation to publish the offensive cartoons. How else but through a publication is it possible to distinguish those who are trying to be polite from those who merely are scared? Being polite is fine, being scared is not. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds can never be considered free.

This is the only kind of fundamentalism I believe in — the fundamental right to free speech. Of course you have to be civil about it, but this is a pragmatic consideration guided by social norms not rights. Infringe on my rights and I too will turn into a fundamentalist!

As an interactive exercise, use this web page to draw your own picture of the prophet! Blasphemous? Of course not, you are using The Muslims Internet Directory.

Thursday, February 16, 2006 Erik No comments
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I’ve really had it with political science. Little of what political scientists do has any relevance whatosever. The general public knows this only too well. No one reads political science books or political science journals and not even politicians ask for their advice. If politics is show business for ugly people then political science is academia for irrevant people. The discipline is completely self-referential and self-propelling.

Like some nasty computer virus the number of academic papers just keeps on multiplying. You become professor since you have 70 articles on ministerial resignations or on the European parliament or some equally useless topic. What a waste of the time and effort of allegedely intelligent people! Surely they will have to answer for their actions on Judgement Day. But perhaps writing 70 papers on such topics already is considered punishment enough?

Could it be that I’m actually a sociologist? Are these people my new best friends? Can you be a sociologist without even knowing it? Should I come out of the closet? But what will my mother think, and my students? I feel a strong urge to apologise to someone, but I don’t know to whom. Maybe to my employer for misleading them for more than 10 years. But maybe they’ll ask for my salary back?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 Erik No comments
Saturday, February 25, 2006 Erik No comments
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OK, I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin, but half a paragraph in today’s New York Times should alarm us all:

And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said. “You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”

To me this unequivocal order is of course reminiscent of my boss at the LSE, George Philip, ordering me to “take down and destroy my blog” in the spring of 2006.

I’ve noticed something interesting: conservatives, even really pretty conservative conservatives, are almost always acceptable as long as they take a strong stand in favor of free speech.  You can talk to them about stuff, exchange views, learn things.  They are my friends.  But conservatives who are trying to ban free speech are always my enemies.  And they should be the enemies of us all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006 Erik No comments
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Dear prospective students and parents!

Welcome to the LSE and to the Government Department. My name is Erik Ringmar and I’m a lecturer in the department. This is my email. I’m writing it clearly so that you can contact me after this event if you have any further questions about anything I said.

Let me begin by asking what your status is. Have you applied to the LSE? Have you been accepted? Are you planning to apply? Planning to apply? Ok, very good! I’ll give you a brief introduction to the School and to the Department. I know others may have done this today, but I’ll do it again. My way.

Read the rest here.

Monday, March 13, 2006 Erik No comments
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A friend of mine at Oxbridge University points out that next to all the professors in her department are English. ‘Nothing strange about that,’ I argued. ‘This is England after all!’ ‘OK, fair enough,’ she retorted, ‘but the weird thing is that the vast majority of non-professors in the faculty are foreigners. Foreigners are teaching but they don’t get promoted.’

I took another look at my own department and I suddenly saw it in a new light. It lists 49 people as full-time academic staff, including tutorial fellows and lecturers on temporary contracts. Of these 16 are professors. 14 out of whom are English, two are American. Of the 33 staff members who are not professors, 8 are English, 25 are foreigners. That is, among the English there are 14 professors to 8 non-professors, and among the non-English there are 25 non-professors to 2 professor. 64 percent of the English are professors but only 7 percent of the foreigners.

I wonder why there is this difference? Why is it that the English keep the professorships for themselves? It looks an awful lot like the glass-ceiling that keeps women from advancing in their careers. (Speaking of which, only two out of the 16 professors in my department are women!).

One obvious explanation is that the English are smarter than the foreigners and that this is why they go further in their careers. Another possible explanation is that the English establishment, here as elsewhere, rely on imported, exploited, foreign labour to do the dirty work for them. A third explanation is generational. It takes time after all to make professor. If more English staff was hired, say 10 years ago, then more of them would be professors today. On the other hand, it could be that the foreigners quit and go elsewhere — return home — since they feel that their careers are blocked.

My sociological explanation is that the professoriate in any university constitutes a club. As all clubs they are ruled not primarily by intellectual principles but instead by social psychological. Above all it is important to make sure that no one rocks the boat. This is difficult to assure since, famously, all professors always are at each other’s throats. This is why it is important only to include people who are like the already existing club members. Picking people with an Oxbridge background assures that a semblance of peace and order is maintained. It is at Oxford and Cambridge after all that you learn the 101 of gently nodding while ferociously stabbing each other in the back.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006 Erik No comments
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If a university education now is to be sold like so many sausages, isn’t it about time that we started telling students exactly what it is they are buying? What we need are labels on each course listing the content including the artificial colouring, the fatty acids and the possible presence of reconstituted ingredients. Or why not simply go ahead and publish the student evaluations from previous years? This way students know which courses are good and which are bad.

As a first step in this direction, I’m publishing the students’ comments on a course I taught last year, Gv4a6, The Politics of Resistance. Click on the ‘read the rest’ link below for the details. I’ll be posting more of these evaluations as they become available (and not all of them are necessarily this positive).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 Erik No comments
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‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Compare the LSE statement to the same effect.

Thursday, March 23, 2006 Erik No comments
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The convenor of my department told me to show up at an “Open Day” for prospective students and their parents. Obliging as always, I agreed. Only today, thinking about what to say, did it strike me how perfectly unsuitable I am for this task. The parents clearly want someone English who with knowledge and authority can talk about exactly how a university education will help their brood get ahead in the English class system. I know nothing about the undergrad programme, and as Swede from Norflondon with a ponytail, I’m not likely to inspire confidence. Last time I talked to prospective students I lost the School thousands of pounds. The only reason they asked me is that everyone reasonable already has buggered off on their respective Easter vacations.

They’ve sent out a pre-prepared Powerpoint presentation with the official sales-pitch which I am expected to talk over. A pre-prepared Powerpoint presentation!!! Who are they kidding??? I have two PhDs and a conscience; I don’t go into a classroom with someone else’s Powerpoints. Surely it is is far better for both the School and for prospective students if I try to tell them as truthfully as I can, in my own words, warts and all, what it’s like to study at an elite university.

What I’ll do is to reuse the traditional speech I always give to incoming MSc students, with some amendments for the fact that these are prospective undergrads. It’s worked in the past, it’ll surely work again.

My Open Day speech is here.

What’s in the speech?

  • don’t come to the LSE if you expect close interaction with faculty. The LSE is a research university where staff spend most of their time on their own research.
  • come to the LSE for the students — we attract the smartest, most ambitious, and all-round attractive people on the planet. Future leaders, just like yourself.
  • what we teach you doesn’t matter for your job prospects, but it will make all the difference to your life.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 Erik No comments
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My wife had this idea that she was going to become a British citizen. ‘It makes it a lot easier when we get into Heathrow,’ she explained. She sent off for the papers and got a number of bona fide Brits to affirm her suitability for membership. Next she was called to the Wood Green Civic Centre for a ‘citizenship ceremony.’ Curious, I tagged along.

Before us was an oil portrait of a dumpy woman in her mid 70s, accompanied by a blue, white and red rag on a stick. A secretary divided the people assembled into two groups — one religious, the other not — and a greasy little man wished us welcome. It was an important day in our lives, he declared, when the great gift of Britishness was going to be bestowed on us. From this day onward we were parts of his community and besides England was going to do really well in the football World Cup and we might as well join now.

The candidates then proceeded to swear their allegiance to the dumpy little woman, her heirs and successors, and to the rag on the stick. The religious group added a thingy about god, the non-religious group did not. Thus it happened that my wife renounced her rights as a free citizen of a free republic and entered into subjecthood in a feudal monarchy. Then they all sang a little song and had tea and biscuits.

Obviously it couldn’t last. Realising that she was far more of a republican than she previously had thought, my wife renounced her Britishness already the next day. Luckily the American embassy was never told about the incident.

What’s strange about this ceremony is that it is so profoundly un-British (except the tea and biscuits part). It’s obviously copied from the US — no doubt by some overly zealous consultant working for Blunkett’s Home Office — but what they didn’t realise is that the values affirmed in the US are totally different. In the US you declare yourself a citizen; here you declare yourself the loyal subject of an essentially medieval monarchical order. Instead of affirming your right to stand up for yourself, you affirm your subjectification.

What is strange is also that there is an opt-out for the non-religious but not for republicans. Why can’t you become a British citizen if you are a republican? And why is it that Brit-wannabies are asked to make a pledge which clearly many existing Brits would refuse to go along with?

I particularly appreciated the way the instinctive chauvinism of the English inadvertently was revealed: as the little man should have remembered, there is no ‘British’ team in the football World Cup!

Sunday, March 26, 2006 Erik No comments
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OK, I know I promised to ‘forget the footnotes,’ but let me make an exception for this post. My Open Day speech comes with a few references:

  • The direct inspiration for a speech of this kind comes from my old polisci professor in Uppsala, Leif Lewin. He had a great routine. First he would walk back and forth in front of the students in the big university auditorium for an embarrasingly long time, pensively looking down into the floor. Then, with a sudden dashing turn of his heels he would look directly at us and begin — ‘Students! You are all assembled here today ….’ I loved the theatricality of it. He was rhetorical and ironic and talked about things that mattered.
  • There seems to be a Germanic tradition of these kinds of speeches. I read Schleiermacher’s address to students in 1808 — ‘Thoughts on the University in the German Sense.’ That’s a great statement of academic freedom and the need to think in order for civilisation and culture to survive.
  • There is also Max Weber of course, another German source. His ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’ — ‘Science as a Vocation‘ — is a broad statement of how a university education best should prepare students for life.
  • A more recent, and Anglo-Saxon, reference is Robert Reich. The arguments about elite universities as nodes in power networks and as places for future leaders to get to know each other, I got from his 2002 book. The corresponding argument about the relative irrelevance of what the teachers actually say comes from Reich too. This is of course the part of the speech that really got the nickers of my colleagues into a collective twist.
  • I heard a rumour that Robert Reich was a runner-up for the job as director of the LSE. If that’s true, too bad he didn’t get the job! He would surely have silenced my critics. Lot’s of people around here are more impressed with the power of an office than with the power of an argument.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 Erik No comments
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1. … undergraduate teaching.
2. … how to shut my big fat blog.
3. … which side my bread is buttered on.
4. … where babies come from.
5. … what’s good for me.
6. … how to chew gum and rub my shoulder at the same time.
7. … how to tell my ass from my elbow.
8. … which way the wind blows.
9. … how to take seriously what’s poked at me in fun.
10. … how to get a promotion.

Which ten things do you know nothing about?

Thursday, March 30, 2006 Erik No comments
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Forget the Footnotes is up and running again after some editorial revamping. What follows below are my rants on politics and society, musings on life in general, and plenty of the latest news from the frontiers of science.

The critics were no doubt correct — the previous version of the blog contained far too many literal truths. As a result this version will contain only half-truths, ironic overstatements and tongue-in-cheek seriousness. If you find tongue-in-cheekery difficult to swallow, I suggest you stop reading immediately.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006 Erik No comments
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The London School of Ergonomics and Patriarchal Science just announced that a new prize — the Kire Ramgnir Award — has been instituted to reward courageous actions in defence of the right to free speech. The first recipient is Wu Hao, a film-maker and blogger jailed by the Chinese authorities.

‘We are very glad to have this opportunity to do our bit for free speech and the spread of democracy in this part of the world,’ said the School in an official statement. ‘Considering the courageous way in which Kire Ramgnir defied his own department’s ban on his blog, it was obvious that the award should be named after him.’

To regular readers, the fact that Kire Ramgnir is remembered in this fashion is particularly gratifying. Kire was of course the original founder of this blog.

Thursday, April 06, 2006 Erik No comments
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Two undergrads just asked me what it’s like to do a PhD. You are trying to get me in to trouble again, aren’t you? Well, how much worse can it get? This is what I’ve been telling prospective PhD students for years — and I might as well tell you.

  • don’t do it! Life is too short, a PhD is too long. There are a million other ways to spend your life which are more rewarding both personally and financially. Check out the drop-out rates from PhD programmes: why do you think the students are leaving? Consider the opportunity cost: by doing a PhD what is it that you are not doing? When you turn 32, your friends will start to make mega-bucks while you still will struggle to get money for a bus pass.
  • a PhD is for life. Doing a PhD is not just getting a bit more education, it is a long arduous journey that will profoundly change you in a number of ways. You might not like what the PhD turns you into, or your girl/boyfriend might not like it. In fact half-way through he/she is likely to leave you. Take another look at people who already have PhDs. Do you really want to become like them?
  • funding. It costs some 10,000 pounds per year to do a PhD in the UK, plus living costs. Nothing a university does is worth this money. I certainly don’t want you to work part-time stocking shelves in the Bodyshop in order to pay my salary. Make sure you have full funding before you begin — or better yet, make sure you are born independently wealthy.
  • don’t expect any worldly rewards. There won’t be any, at least not any worldly rewards that justify all the hard labour. Over the door to each PhD seminar room there is a sign which says ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter.’ Few people will read what you write, or if they do they read only in order to tear you apart. If you are unlucky this will include your supervisor. Once you have the doctorate you are unlikely to get a good job, or a job in a place where you want to live, or in the place where your spouse already works.
  • all the rewards are intrinsic. They are the rewards associated with the reading, thinking and writing itself. Do you get a happy, glowing, feeling when the computer starts up in the morning? Does your pulse quicken when you walk through the gates of the library? Will your heart momentarily swell with pride when you’ve conceived of a particularly pregnant sentence? If these simple, everyday, pleasures aren’t good enough, don’t bother.
  • go West young man/woman! The best American universities are far better than the best European. This is particularly true for PhD programmes. In the US PhD programmes have two years of course work during which you interact closely with the professors and discuss real intellectual questions with your peers. And above all, American universities usually pay you rather than you paying the them. Difficult to beat!
  • as a PhD student you will for the first time produce knowledge rather than just consume it. To produce knowledge is hard, lonely, exasperating. It is also the most noble activity any one can engage in. Thought, refection, critique is what makes us human. As a PhD student you will belong to the select few who have an opportunity to take a step away from the world and to study it with the tools of science and philosophy. For a little while you will find yourself responsible for the perpetuation of human civilisation. If that sounds fun to you — if you cannot think of anything more exciting — welcome, you are one of us.
Saturday, April 08, 2006 Erik No comments
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There are three computers at work that check this blog several times a day. In addition there is a computer based in the general Guildford area that checks it every couple of hours (late last night, early this morning, a few hours ago). Together these four computers account for 40 percent of the traffic on the blog. Who are these people? Why are they constantly checking me out?

Perhaps they are fans — eager for the latest news from the frontiers of science? Perhaps they are the thought police — excitedly waiting for me to say something forbidden so that they can pounce. Am I becoming paranoid?

Anyway. Thanks for the attention. You are making me feel very important.

Saturday, April 08, 2006 Erik No comments
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The reason why people in my department, and the LSE director himself, are upset by this blog is the same reason why some Muslims were upset by those Danish cartoons earlier in the year. They claim to be hurt and offended and feel slandered and abused. ‘Free speech,’ they argue, ‘does not give you the right to say these kinds of things.’

The intellectual error in both cases is an inability to distinguish between matters of rights and matters of appropriateness. Questions of appropriateness concern the limits that we impose on ourselves as members of a certain group. After all, we all have to find a way of getting along. Social interaction becomes so much easier if we listen to each other, talk politely to each other, say nothing inflamatory.

When the Danish cartoon controversy broke, I didn’t reprint the pictures here. After all, I live in a largely Muslim area of North London and when Eid comes around my childrens’ school virtually shuts down. Why should I antagonise these friendly people? They are my neighbours!

However, everything changed the moment those irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy started calling for blood. When death threats are issued against us our right to free speech is taken away. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds cannot be considered free. Suddenly we had an obligation to stand up for our rights and an obligation to publish the cartoons. How else but through a publication is it possible to distinguish those who are trying to be polite from those who merely are scared? Being polite is fine, being scared is not.

Compare those who want to take away my right to speak freely about the LSE. Of course I want to get along with them — they are my colleagues! — and during more than ten years in the School I have always tried to be polite and cooperative. But take away my right to free speech and everything changes. If you try to take away my rights, I will fight for my rights. Suddenly I have an obligation to say critical things. If I shut up, their threats and intimidations will have succeeded.

Dear Muslim neighbours, colleagues and LSE director, you may object to what I say on the grounds of appropriateness — sometimes I say stupid things. and when I do, please point it out! — but you cannot object to what I say on the grounds of rights. The right to free speech is protected both in Britain and at the LSE.

Ronard Dworking explains all this very nicely in ‘The Right to Ridicule,’ New York Review of Books, 2006.

Monday, April 10, 2006 Erik No comments
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I’m interested in references to ordinary people who dream about assassinating political leaders. I thought I would write something about it and I started collecting references. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint in which two characters meet for a long discussion regarding the merits and demerits of kiling George Bush. I read the book but I wasn’t that impressed. It’s slight and too chatty.
  • The Assassination of Richard Nixon with Sean Penn. I acquired the film but I haven’t seen it yet.
  • Bob Dylan at an event for members of the liberal establishment a few months after the assassination of John F Kennedy rambling on, drunk no doubt, about how he saw something of himself in the killer. Or for that matter, Dylan’s conclusion to “Masters of War” where he is being very graphic about what he imagines for the kind of politicians who kill by proxy.
  • Dagens Nyheter reporting, Feb 22, that an American-Jordanian man was arrested in Ohio for plotting to kill Bush. Strangely, an admittedly quick Google search reveal no other obvious references to this story.

To fantasise about killing a president or a prime minister is surely empowering; it is a chance for someone totally powerless to imagine himself as powerful; you can do bad things to someone who has done bad things to you or to others you care about. At the same time it is a fantasy of someone deranged and marginal on the fringes of society, of loners and outsiders and freaks.

It always surprised me why the suicide bombers of last summer didn’t try to kill Blair. Blair, after all, was responsible for the Iraq War. The commuters who died were most likely out demonstrating against the war in the spring of 2003. Millions of Londoners were after all. The commuters were innocent, Blair was guilty.

As far as I’m concerned, I would have been very distraught if Blair had been killed. There can be only public justice, never private. Why should a few maniacs take the law into their own hands when Blair deserves to be convicted by a properly constituted court in the name of the whole world community? Aggressive wars on false pretenses are, I believe, against international law. After the death of Slobodan Milosevic, it seems there is free room at the Hague, but I’d much prefer to see him locked away on some remote island somewhere or perhaps thrown into a deep mineshaft (I haven’t quite made up my mind yet).

See, dreams of legal retribution can be empowering too!

Monday, April 10, 2006 Erik No comments
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It seems the thought police has gone on vacation. The hits on the site come from new directions lately. Even the very busy person in the general Guildford area seems to have taken time off. I like it — it adds a human touch: thought cops on vacation, skiing with their kids. How sweet! Well, they deserve a break.

To simplify surveillance in the future I have added a ’subscribe to updates’ link in the sidebar. As a subscriber you will automatically get notified via email whenever something new happens on the site. This way you don’t have to check back all the time. Nifty and nice.

Monday, April 17, 2006 Erik No comments
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An American right-wing think-tank is reported to pay students to spy on their left-wing professors. For the American right, the freedom of intellectuals to think and teach in whatever way they see fit has always been a problem. Far too many academics have left-wing leanings. Now, however, students have an economic incentive to expose their pinko professors. No doubt lists of the culprits will be compiled and pressure will be exerted on the universities to fire the names found on them.

I think this is an excellent idea. If right-wing think-tanks are so eager to buy our left-wing ideas, I think we should be prepared to sell them. Let’s embrace the market-place for ideas! Besides, the American right is clearly in desperate need of some new intellectual inspiration.

If this system spreads to England what I am going to do is to dramatically radicalise all my lectures and stuff them full of quotes from Marx and Engels and vague exhortations to students to prepare themselves for the coming revolution. Students can then come and listen, denounce me for a fee, and — and this is the business idea involved — I would split their profits with them.

The outcome of this system is that students have a nifty way of financing their studies — of far more radical ideas than previously! — and that I can go off on vacation and read up on my Gramsci. The beauty of the market!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 Erik No comments
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Paul Krugman, when visiting our School a year ago, talked with some exasperation about the years he spent as chairman of the department of economics at Princeton. ‘It was like herding cats,’ he said invoking a wonderful image. ‘It was impossible to make my colleagues do anything I said.’

This is of course exactly as it should be. Academics must be cats, independent-minded and uncontrollable. They should all go off in their own respective directions looking for adventure or trouble. This is why they are academics rather than, say, accountants. Or differently put, the ones who are too easily controlled are rarely proper academics. They’ll never have an original thought in their lives and they’ll contribute nothing but boredom to what they take to be ‘the profession.’ ‘Thou shalt not do as the Dean pleases …’

The way to make cats do what you want is of course to open a big can of tuna fish in the middle of a large field. Smelling a good meal, they’ll all come running towards you.

Thursday, April 20, 2006 Erik No comments
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The final results of the first on-line poll are now in. As you remember I asked what you think of the content of the blog. The results are:

  • truly scandalous, punishable: 2% (1)
  • a bit pretentious, otherwise ok: 14% (7)
  • thought-provoking (and a great way to recruit students): 60% (30)
  • self-indulgent, if occasionally somewhat witty: 24% (12)

Total Votes : 50

I’d like to think that this result presents a perfect picture of who I am — 60% tought-provoking, 24% self-indulgent, 14% pretentious and 2% truly scandalous. If that’s the case, why is the blog giving such an accurate picture of myself and how come the opinion of the 50 voters picked up on this so perfectly?

Or maybe I’m flattering myself — maybe it should be 60% ‘provoking’ — no thought!

Special thanks to the voters who expressed their conviction that blogs of this kind actually could help recruit students. Of course you’re right! I hope the students recruited in this fashion will be thoroughly thought-provoking, self-indulgent, pretentious and scandalous.

Sunday, April 23, 2006 Erik No comments
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Faculty and students are slowly assembling for the new term which officially begins tomorrow. I’ve started to receive feed-back on my Open Day speech. In fact, there’s been something like 2800 hits on this site in the last week alone and the speech itself has been read by some 212 people. I’ve never had my stuff read by so many people during 20 years of writing academic books and articles! I’m such a sucker for attention.

Faculty members — 5 comments so far — don’t deny the truth of what I said but they also, unanimously, emphasise that they never would speak that way. It is not quite clear why. It seems the problem is that some of the things I said, even if true, might reflect badly on the School. ‘I totally disagree with your statement that faculty mainly care about their own research,’ said one colleague, ‘but I’m away on a conference right now and I don’t have time to comment in detail.’ Mainly however my colleagues seem to think I was foolish not to follow orders. Why make trouble for yourself?

Students liked the speech a lot more: ‘too true’; ‘great to hear an academic give an honest account of the student experience’; ‘too often universities are mis-sold and students end up going to the wrong place,’ etc. Many also insist that a balanced account is more likely to recruit students — ‘We aren’t stupid, you know!’ — and that the LSE, just because it is such a great university, easily can afford the luxury of discussing its undergrad programme in a realistic manner.

Some students, however, think that I shouldn’t have said particular things:

  • ‘are accountants really the proletariat of global capitalism?’ My father is an accountant!
  • ‘is the English class system really perpetuated by universities like the LSE?’ My family always voted Labour!
  • ‘why talk about the repressive regime in China? A lot of students come from there after all!’
  • I should have mentioned that ‘a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom and that students benefit from having a lot of intelligent faculty around.’ That’s a good point. I should have mentioned that.

I’d be very interested to hear more comments. In particular critical ones that point out mistakes in what I said. You can click on the ‘comment’ link below.

Monday, April 24, 2006 Erik No comments
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Whenever I’m forced to listen to someone particularly boring and self-important or when I’m in a meeting where people speak about things I cannot relate to or properly understand, some piece of Bob Dylan lyrics and a Dylan voice suddenly pops into my head:

People are crazy, times are strange/ I’m out of bounds, I’m out of range/ I used to care but things have changed.

Quickly it blocks out all the droning voices, grows and grows in strength and eventually it’s just me and Dylan and the words.

I got my dark sunglasses/ I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth/ Don’t ask me nothing about nothing/ I just might tell you the truth.

Teenagers often listen to particular bands or singers since they seem to tell them something about the world that no one else ever tells them. Some bands are secret friends with secret insights, conveying messages written in code. Today Dylan is like that but for middle aged people. Middle aged people need secret friends too. And sometimes I think I can almost decipher his codes.

I flew up to Glasgow with my two oldest daughters last November when Dylan was in town. The arena was uninspiring and full of dour Scotsmen in black leather jackets. No jumping or dancing or even much clapping. My daughters thought they were at a geriatrics’ convention. But Dylan was far more generous than his audience. I replenished my supply of snippets of songs for the jukebox inside my head.

A neighbour of ours threw out Dylan from a restaurant in Crouch End once. He was looking for somewhere to have a beer but our neighbour who runs the place informed him that he had to eat if he wanted to drink. He wasn’t hungry he said and was told to leave. For heaven’s sake — give the man a sandwich! It’s Bob Dylan! Only later did they realise their mistake and now they have a ‘Dylan table’ which people reserve in order to be close to greatness.

Funnily enough Saga, my oldest daughter, was thrown out of the same restaurant. We had booked a table on her 8th birthday for her to have dinner together with some friends. Our neighbour, the manager, had the day off and the on-duty staff panicked when they realised they were dealing with unaccompanied children. They were shown the door. I often think Saga should have had Dylan as her father. He could have taught her songs and they could have gotten thrown out of restaurants together.

Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift/ Yes, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark coulds lift/ Gonna break the roof in — set fire to the place as a parting gift.

He is playing Memphis, Tennessee, tonight. We have tickets for the concert in Bournmouth at the end of June.

Sunday, April 30, 2006 Erik No comments
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Sista april – the last day of April — is the day when Swedes traditionally celebrate the arrival of spring. As you can imagine it’s all very pagan. We make and light bonfires, assemble in public places to sing songs and give speeches; we drink heavily. Usually half-way into the revelries it starts snowing.

The day is celebrated with particular gusto in university towns, nowhere more so than at my alma mater in Uppsala. The time-honoured schedule for the day looks as follows:

  • 0700: oatmeal porridge and champagne in dorm.
  • 1000: wet and very cold ride down local river in home-made boat.
  • 1230: lunch at student union. Herring, potatoes and vodka.
  • 1500: assembly at royal castle, donning of student caps, collective and mad rush down castle hill.
  • 1600: champagne and dancing at student union. Street parties.
  • 1800: home for quick nap and shower.
  • 1900: official Uppsala celebrations at royal castle. Bonfires and choral singing. Speech by mayor in honour of spring.
  • 2000: student union for black-tie dinner, polite, slightly slurred, conversation.
  • 2200: sauna, vodka, mutual slapping with birch-branches.
  • 2400: back to student union, heavy drinking, general boogying-on-down and snogging in corners.
  • 0400: sudden queeziness, realisation that one is wearing the wrong trousers, inability to find shoes. Secret vow never to do it again (until next year).
Monday, May 01, 2006 Erik No comments
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I just joined the union! A little late one might argue, but better late than never. I was always a great supporter of unions but I thought they were for people who couldn’t take care of themselves. I also thought that doctors only are for sick people and that lawyers only are for people who get into trouble.

Now I’m a union man
Amazed at what I am
I say what I think
That the company stinks
Yes I’m a union man.

Oh you don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

As a union man I’m wise
To the lies of the company spies
And I don’t get fooled
By the factory rules
‘Cause I always read between the lines.

And I always get my way
If I strike for higher pay
When I show my card
To the Scotland Yard
This is what I say.

Oh you don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 Erik No comments
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The story of this blog and the LSE authorities has made it into the papers. First The Beaver, The Guardian and then Times Higher Educational Supplement. I’d be very interested to hear your views.

Meanwhile I’ve turned down an interview with the Sunday Times and an offer from Mail on Sunday to write an article on why academics are so lazy. I suggested to the Mail that I’d write something about freedom of speech and blogging but that clearly sounded too high-brow for them. I guess I blew my chance to break into the mainstream.

A publisher has approached me for a book about blogging at the LSE. I don’t think I’ll do it though. I mean, I really shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be right, right? Who’s interested in that kind of stuff anyway? And more importantly: it probably wouldn’t count towards promotion.

Back to the Guardian article: since not everyone cares about the who-said-what-to-whom aspect of this story, I’ll put my own comments below. If you’re interested please click on the ‘read the rest of this entry’ link.

I always wondered what the official LSE statement would look like. How do you defend hypocrisy? Now we know:

A terse statement from the LSE today said: “Following complaints made by staff about the content of Dr Ringmar’s lecture to the open day, and further complaints about offensive and potentially defamatory material in Dr Ringmar’s blog (at that time connected to the LSE website) that came to light after the lecture, Dr Ringmar received a reprimand from his convenor. We note that Dr Ringmar appears to have removed the objectionable material from his blog and regard that matter as closed.”

An LSE spokeswoman responded: “Dr Ringmar has had a number of different versions of the lecture on his blog and the latest version is not the lecture that was given.”

This is a bunch of untruths and easily exposed evasions. Let me explain:

  • the complaints about my Open Day speech were made by an LSE administrator, present at the time, who works with student recruitment. The claim was simply was that I had departed from the official truth as given by the Powerpoint presentation. There was nothing whatsoever in the speech that was offensive or abusive.
  • there was never any ‘offensive and potentially defamatory material in Dr Ringmar’s blog.’ All it ever contained were things that departed from the official sales-pitch. At the same time this is a very sneaky tactic on the part of the School. How can I ever prove that I never called the director a bastardo imbecile or the convenor of my department a kn�ln�sad fl�skpotta? How can you ever prove that you didn’t say something?
  • What I can prove is that both the LSE director and the convenor of my department objected in the strongest possible terms to entries on the blog which always have been there and still are. The material has not been removed. The ‘English professors’ entry is one example. This is the entry Davies called ’slanderous’ and which led him to ask me to ‘carefully consider my actions.’ This is intimidation and censorship! I have some very interesting email documentation to back this up.
  • the statement that my blog at the time was ‘connected to the LSE website’ is untrue. The blog was always on my own server (with Streamlinenet, incidentally, located somewhere in Gloucester, I think) and it had nothing whatsoever to do with the LSE server. For a while there was a link to my site from the Government Department’s web site but it is outrageous to imply that this somehow gave the School a right to censor me. If this was the case, a link to the LSE website from this blog would give me the right to censor them.
  • Note how the LSE administration inadvertently admits to continously monotoring my blog ;-)

The Times Higher Educational Supplement is saying that I’m resigning over this blogging business. People have asked me if this really is true. Is it? Well, yes and no.

  • I was always planning to go on sabbatical this autumn and to work for the two subsequent years at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. The fact that I had this previously made plan is no doubt what emboldened me to stand up for might rights in relation to the LSE.
  • But I was always planning to come back to London. These plans are now abandoned. I don’t want to work in a place that is this hypocritical on matters of free speech and that treats its staff in this manner. What I’m particularly saddened about is the reaction of the big professors — no one has stood up for the values the School claims to believe in.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006 Erik No comments
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The LSE authorities are clearly trying to put the whole issue of blogs and freedom of speech behind them. My 15 minutes of fame seem to be coming to an end. The official statement from the LSE director claims that ‘we regard the matter as closed.’ At long last they even seem to be winding up the investigation into my crimes and misdemeanours. Let’s hope so anyway.

Yet the bigger issue remains. The present situation is untenable. This is what I want to happen …

  1. there must be an official LSE policy on blogging and other internet use by students and staff. No one should have to go through the kind of harassment and abuse that I have had to suffer during the past six weeks. An offical LSE policy — ‘a bloggers’ charter’ — would protect internet users, guarantee our right to speak and make sure that no one can censor or intimidate us.
  2. more generally — no more hypocrisy on free speech. The LSE explicitly incorporates article 19 of the UN Human Rights Declaration in its charter. This article guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression. The LSE must live up to its own rules. There is a difference between a great university and Walmart or the Chinese authorities. For example: all students and staff must be allowed to criticise the LSE, privately and publicly, without threats of retaliation.
  3. academic freedom. The right of academic staff to speak freely in the classrom must be explicitly guaranteed. No more official Powerpoint presentations, no vetos by heads of departments or LSE administrators.
  4. the LSE needs a much better way of communicating with its students. The School must begin to really listen and engage with student concerns. The obvious way to do this is for the LSE administration to start blogging. I’m very much looking forward to the Sir Howard Davies blog! What a great way to recruit new students!
  5. in fact, everyone who reads this should start their own blog. A blog allows you to speak in public, in your own words and in your own fashion. This is particularly important for people who previously never had a public voice. Blogs are incredibly empowering and as such a great — you could even say a necessary — complement to human rights. If you only have your own blog you can even take on the British establishment — and live to tell the tale.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006 Erik No comments
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Some recent developments:

  • a journalist from the Times Higher Educational Supplement just called me. There might be a story in the paper; if there is I’ll try to link to it from here. They wanted a photo but I declined. It makes me feel uncomfortable to have my face in the paper and the real story isn’t me anyway but rather about the defence of freedom of speech.
  • I’m being called in for an ‘informal investigatory meeting’ next week where my crimes will be looked into by an LSE professor. They are inventing new charges against me. Funny how I get to be investigated while the people who deprive me of the right to free speech are left alone. If they think they have a case there will be a disciplinary hearing later in the term.
  • I have evidence that they are trying to dig up dirt on me. This is a great opportunity for everyone who wants to make friends with people in high places. Please report any emails I have failed to respond to, office hours I’ve been late for or written work I haven’t marked on time.
  • a rumour is being spread that I’ve gone mad and that I’m asking for a disability leave. Apparently I’m not allowed to mark this year’s exams. What is the quickest way to prove one’s sanity?
  • this blog has now had more than 30,000 hits from over 8,000 visitors. I’m getting statements of support from around the world.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006 Erik No comments
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I’m off to Taiwan next academic year, as professor at the Center for Social and Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University. There I’m going to give a course on transgression, on the crossing of borders — geographical borders, cultural, moral and psychological. This seems appropriate given the transgredi I’ll be making.

There is a lot of great stuff to read on this topic — from Euripides onwards, and it integrates literature, politics, culture and history. Why is it that people want to cross to other sides? Where is the “side” and what happens at the “border”? What are they planning to do once they get there? How can you understand what you come across in this alien land? And how can you understand yourself once you have transgressed?

The yearning for transgression is supposed to be dead in our age of market-based rationality. Yet it’s everywhere — in films, music, drug culture, religious prophecies, porn flicks off the web. This after all is what we spend most of our time and money on. Transgression is about violence too, about wars, and the U.S. and the U.K. invading Iraq.

Of course this is politics and of course it is relevant, but equally obviously I could never teach a course on something like this at the LSE. The LSE has only heard about Apollo, never Dionysus. In fact, it’s just about as Apollonian an institution as one ever will come across. This all-pervading cult of the expert, the talking head, with his data and his graphs!

I was never an expert, never featured in the LSE rent-an-expert catalogue. I was never sure enough of myself and never serious enough; always convinced that what is might not be. Yet this is clearly not good enough. As an expert you have to be literal-minded and pretentious. How else can you speak to poor and ignorant people with authority and tell them what to do? How else can you motivate your own position and the money you are charging for your advice?

Meanwhile Dionysus is calling to us from the mountains to come and join his drunken and frenzied crew. I hear him clearly and so do poor and ignorant people around the world. No surprise even the most carefully laid out of the expert’s plans often comes to nothing.

talking head, LSE employee
Monday, May 15, 2006 Erik No comments
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If you wonder why I’m banging on about freedom of speech on the internet, check out today’s news:

A Chinese Internet writer was sentenced to jail for 12 years on Tuesday for “subversion of state power” after backing a movement by exiled dissidents to hold free elections, his lawyer said. Yang Tianshui, 45, who has been in custody since last December, did not plan to appeal, a protest against a trial he felt was illegal, his lawyer, Li Jianqiang, said. “We expected the result, but we are still dissatisfied because he is innocent,” Li told Reuters.

Unless we live by our own rules, how can we ever criticise the Chinese authorities? How can various LSE experts travel around the world preaching freedom of speech unless the institution itself embraces it fully?

Speaking of China, Jessamine Garden talks about me. Chinese characters required. (No, I don’t understand it, but it looks great!)

终于有个有良心的出来批判LSE!!

收 到Amar的信,government专业的讲师Eric Singmar在LSE的openday上对着想申请LSE的学生说,我们的老师都忙着发表文章,课其实是Ph.D准备的,由他们代劳,还不如申请 Metropolitan,至少你能多见你的老师几面,而且”researches are less heavily emphasized”and” lesser institution”。他进一步指出 “What I do know is that the in-class student experience often differs very little between the LSE and a place such as the London Metropolitan University.”

他声明选择来 LSE完全是因为有出色的学生和cosmopolitan的组成结构。这一点说的太中肯了!但他声明他没有compare LSE to Chinese institutions,他说不希望LSE成为Chinese authority那样压制言论自由。Gosh!!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 Erik No comments
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This blog just had its 10,000th visitor! Amazing result in just one month. There are 32,605 hits altogether (clicks on individual pages) and my Open Day speech has been read by some 1,965 people. Two individual computers at the LSE has clocked up over 600 hits each.

Btw, the Davies vs. Ringmar poll just closed. The Guardian article ended Davies, 94 – Ringmar, 396.

The Facebook list has 281 signatures.

Saturday, May 20, 2006 Erik No comments
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As a new union member I now find myself on strike. It’s terrible to have to inconvenience students but what can I do? You can’t ask the union to stand up for you if you don’t stand up for the union.

Going on strike during exam time is of course our only opportunity to exert any pressure. At what other time of the year would anyone miss our services? A striking tube train driver would be missed in a minute but if it wasn’t for the exams striking academics wouldn’t be missed for 500 years.

There is a wide-spread perception in this country that academics are lazy, that they are perpetual students who can’t give up their self-indulgent life-style. The oppressive seriousness of an institution like the LSE is clearly designed to counter this vicious rumour.

But I don’t know any lazy academics. Like people in other creative occupations, we are always working and never working. I get up at 4 every morning to write; most of the time I’m stressed out about some obstruse argument I can’t get my head around; there are emails to respond to 24/7. How do you measure such activities and how do you remunerate someone for them?

Routledge clearly think they know. I just got the first royalties for a book — The Mechanics of Modernity — which I worked on for some six years. Routledge is paying me exactly 345 pounds! And royalties will decrease sharply after this. That’s less than a penny per hour.

But in contrast to other authors I have a regular salary. I used to make 22,000 pounds per year when I first got to the LSE ten years ago. With a PhD student wife and lot’s of little kids it was very difficult to make ends meet. Our first daughter slept in a heap of clothes for months since we couldn’t afford to buy her a cot; we always felt ashamed of our shabby buggies when we went back to Sweden (even kids drive Volvos over there).

I now make more than double my original salary — �50,650, including my Summer School course — and I’m probably not worth much more. I’m paid in time rather than money. I’m the only father I know who will look back on his life and regret he spent such a lot of time with his children when they were young.

The real problem is not that established academics are underpaid, it’s that young academics are seriously underpaid and that the London allowance is far too low. If a strike can do something about that it’s a just cause.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 Erik No comments
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I really hate marking. There is something particularly loathsome about reading piles and piles of exam scripts. Last year I read over 300 and I’ll do it again this year. It’s too much like real work, like the kind of work normal people do — like working in Tescos or answering phones.

I’m supposed to write up a motivation for why I mark a particular answer a particular way, and I do, but often it’s impossible to come up with something much to say about it. Most exam answers are good, ok, fine; it’s 63 for an MSc student and 58 for an undergrad. I don’t know why, but I feel I know a 63 when I see one. What more can I say?

I read three exams an hour — 20 minutes for each one. Afterwards I need a two hour breather to clear my head. To judge inspires dread. Coming up with reasons and motivations for one exam after another, for over 300 exams, just grinds you down in the end. It makes you wonder how God will feel the day after the Day of Judgement. He’ll probably need to take a breather too.

This is what all students should know: don’t forget the audience for your exam script is a overtired teacher on the verge of throwing up. Have pity on this poor creature: don’t hesitate, repeat yourself or deviate from the subject. Yes, and write legibly!

The scale we use is nominally from 1 to 100, but for some reason all students cluster in a very small spectrum. For MSc students it tends to be from 62 to 66. What we should do is to scrap all this accursed marking, identify the few really outstanding students and the few duds, and then randomly assign everyone else a mark between 62 and 66. It would save a lot of time and headache.

It would be interesting to read some study on the psychology of marking. I mean, why is it that we arrive at a particular mark rather than another? Of course we claim that it’s all about the knowledge and analytical skills of the student concerned, but that’s an empirical claim that might be false. It could just as well be the handwriting or the sentence structure. Why do we decide that someone is smart and someone is not? I don’t think anyone really knows.

The union is trying to convince us not to do any marking until the strike is over but I don’t think anyone does it that way. We all know that we’ll have to do the work in the end and we mark on the sly just to avoid ruining our vacations. For now we’re witholding our marks. That way we can remain loyal both to the union and to the students. The paperwork should be easy enough to sort out once the strike is over.

Sunday, June 04, 2006 Erik No comments
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We sent 20 boxes with DHL to Sweden as part of the process of dismantling our London home. Nothing expensive, just our old memorabilia — drawings by the kids, letters from family and friends, things we wrote as teenagers, photos of old girlfriends, gifts from people now dead.

DHL managed to deliver 1 box but lost the other 19. Despite repeated phone calls no one can locate their whereabouts. No one knows, no one cares. Everyone is looking at computer screens and no bar codes match. The only thing worse than an incompetent state-run company is an incompetent privately-run company.

Old memorabilia like this has a strange status. I haven’t looked at any of it for years and I probably never will look at it again. Still I lug this stuff around with me wherever I go. Why? Surely it’s a way of providing a paper trail; a means of giving account of one’s life if I one day had to. Going from one country to another for the last 25 years, this pile of junk provides me with a sense of continuity. For better or worse, this stuff is me.

I was in Thailand when the buddha statues of Bamiyan were distroyed by the Taliban. I was very distraught and remember arguing that Unesco should have a rapid action force that could save cultural monuments in danger. Why should only human beings be saved? I used to think I would have given my life for those Buddhas.

The Thais of course were completely unimpressed. ‘It shows the ephemeral quality of all things, including stone statues. That is the teaching of the Buddha.’ OK, I remember thinking, now I know I’m not a Buddhist.

Perhaps DHL is trying to teach us something profound? Maybe this is their way of bringing us closer to enlightenment? It’s a Zen riddle: if those boxes are me and the boxes are lost, then where am I? Perhaps DHL no longer delivers boxes but instead only final release from human suffering?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006 Erik No comments
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We are off to Taiwan next academic year and would like to rent out our house. It’s a lovely, colourful, house, perfect for three people, two couples or six undergraduates (see below). Largish, classic Victorian, terrace. Features include:

  • new kitchen with brand new dish-washer, fridge-freezer — and washing machine and dryer.
  • wooden floors, very Swedified.
  • art deco fireplaces.
  • fairly large garden with plum, apple and fig trees.
  • located off Green Lanes in north London, close to outstanding multicultural shopping — Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Russian — and a large Sainsbury’s.
  • first-rate communications (29, 141 and 341 buses — the latter taking you door-to-door to the LSE); ten minutes to tube (Manor House or Turnpike Lane on the Piccadilly line).
  • great neighbours: one elderly Italian couple and a nice Jamaican lady with her son. Our street is very quiet, especially when we are not around.
  • furnished, but it includes next to none of our own junk. Back yard with big wood pile — possibly to be converted into conservatory.
  • reasonably priced.

June 27 update: Too late! We have now found someone to rent the house. They are very nice and will take great care of it. We hope they’ll be happy here.

front, facing the street:

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front room, downstairs:

This is the room intended as a front room for entertaining guests etc. We use it as a dining room. It’s great for our big family but also great when guests come around. The IKEA table actually seats 10 people.

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Below you can see one of the two art deco fireplaces. They are original, but not original to the house. Diane put this one in one Christmas amidst much mortar dust, banging on walls and swearing.

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bird
big bird

office, downstairs:

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There really is no way to show this room in a good light. It’s completely filled with our Taiwan-bound boxes and with assorted PhD dissertation paraphernalia. On a good day it functions like an office.

the kitchen:

This is the kitchen, containing washing-machine, dryer, dish-washer, fridge-freezer and a cooker. All of the stuff except the dryer is brand-new.

sink
sink

We took out the wall facing the garden and put in a French window. It’s great in the summer when you can open it up. It looks nice in the winter too.

sink

This is the sink and the cooker. We put this in before we knew we were leaving. If we had planned to rent out the house, we would probably have chosen a more conservative theme. Apologies if you are conservative in the sink and cooker department.

sink

hallway, downstairs & upstairs:

We put in the floortiles, inspired by art deco houses we’ve seen. The ground floor has undertile heaters. They are great in the autumn.

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front room, upstairs:

This room is really intended as a master bedroom but we decided to use it as a living room. It makes more sense, it’s the biggest room in the house. We watch TV here and write stuff on the computer. The walls used to be grey but we just repainted it yellow, same colour as down-stairs. Some people claim yellow walls make you fight more, we never noticed that.

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parents’ bedroom, upstairs:

This is the room directly above the office. It’s a small room, but very romantic since we put the uplighters in. They are great when children wake up in the night and need medicine or water etc. This colour purple is very Italian says Diane who claims her Italian grandparents had it in their bedroom.

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back room, upstairs:

We took down the ceiling in this room and put in two skylights. It’s made the room fun and very light. This used to be the childrens’ room and we built a quadruple bunkbed in which we stacked the children in order of age. It was like a gigantic climbing frame. Lot’s of fun, but mainly for fairly small kids. The older ours got, the more private space they needed. The climbing-frame-bed got a bit annoying in the end.

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the garden:

The garden is not enormous but it’s a nice place to sit in the summer. There is a plum, an apple and a fig tree. They are all growing like crazy. The rose bush is enormous too but only flowers for a few days and is pretty boring afterwards.

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our street:

This is what our street looks like from the front-room upstairs. Since they closed off the street to through-traffic it’s been very quiet.

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Green Lanes, Harringay:

This is the famous Green Lanes, Harringay, just 100 meters away from our house. This is the multicultural heart of North London with 24 hour vegetable and baklava shopping:

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006 Erik No comments
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I just realised I’m only one of two people in my department who actually is on strike! There are some other union members but they have chosen not to take part. The convenor of the government department is distributing our exams to other colleagues to mark and they apparently see no problem whatsoever in doing our share. There is a name for people like you!

Come to think of it, I was only one of three government department academics who initially signed on to the petition against the war in Iraq and one of the few who signed on to the recent Living Wage Campaign. Surprising, isn’t it? These are not radical, far-out or marginal causes, and I am by no means an activist or politico. In fact I’m not even proper left-wing, just occasionally morally motivated.

Signing petitions isn’t accomplishing much of course but why are government department academics quicker than others to draw this conclusion? Maybe they feel that holding political opinions is beneath an academic politologist? Maybe they know too much about the issues and can’t make up their minds? Judging by the names on various petitions, there is more staff with political convictions in the departments of economics and accounting. Who would have thought?!

There is a political science theory which says that apathy is good for democracy. Allegedly it is an expression of confidence in the political system. Judging by this theory, my colleagues really have a lot of confidence in the existing order of things.

Monday, June 12, 2006 Erik No comments
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I hear some kind of big sporting event just got under way. Grown men kicking balls around, that kind of stuff. Everyone seems to be very excited about it for some reason. No, I’m not a football fan, but ok, I do watch the occasional game. How can you not?

Like the medieval carnival, the football World Cup gives us an opportunity to temporarily forget about our regular lives. People drink too much and dress in strange, colourful, clothes; school kids and office slaves get time off to watch the matches. A generally festive mood prevails. We all deserve a break; it’s been a long, cold, spring.

For male academics football provides a great opportunity to feel matey and blokey about themselves; we temporarily abandon our regular pretentiousness and pretend instead to be Wayne Rooney. For a change we know what to talk about with cab drivers and electricians. It’s all very condescending and self-congratulatory.

henke larsson

The big make-believe is of course that the world still is made up of nation-states that fight with each other on an international arena. That there is a world where we dress in national colours, sing national anthems, display our most famous national characteristics — methodical Germans, argumentative Italians, fun-loving Brazilians. The world of the World Cup is the world of the stamp collector, of politics as it used to be before the state was undermined by the forces of globalisation. In the World Cup all battles are just and we all unreservedly support our soldiers.

Monday, June 12, 2006 Erik No comments
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I started this blog in January 2006. For the first couple of weeks of its existence it had about 10 visitors per day. Then I began blogging about my employer, the London School of Economics, and about what it’s like to work and study at an elite university. Suddenly interest in the blog erupted. One day, May 4, the blog had over 5000 visitors.

My great fortune was that the blog was banned — first by the convenor of my department and then by the director of the LSE itself. As they both made clear, I was not allowed to speak about the School in an unauthorised manner or ’serious consequences’ would ensue. After some reflection I decided to keep the blog up. It was an easy choice in the end since the statues of the LSE guarantee the right to the freedom of expression. The controversy eventually hit the papers — first the LSE student newspaper, then the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement. Hence all the visitors to the page. See the sidebar for more information.

With some very few exceptions none of my colleagues was ready to publicly support my right to free speech. Instead the LSE students rallied to my support, signing petitions and writing encouraging emails. Ironically these divergent reactions only proved what I had been saying all along — that its students are LSE’s greatest asset.

This story is now over. The LSE authorities decided not to pursue the issue in the end. Very wise on their part. Yet the conclusion is less than satisfactory: the initial reprimand I was given has not been retracted and I can’t help thinking I’m owed an apology. Still it is of course a victory. The powers-that-be have backed off, I’m still blogging and I intend to go on doing so. Hopefully everyone — including the LSE director — has now understood the importance of some set of rules which governs internet use by students and staff.

The number of visitors to the blog has gone back down — not to 10 a day but to about 100. It’s calmer that way. Much as I like being read, I hate the controversy. In the next couple of months I plan to write a book about blogging and freedom of speech in democratic societies. That’ll be my revenge — a nice academic kind of revenge, with footnotes and all!

But I’m moving on. We’re pulling up our stakes and leaving for Taiwan in a couple of weeks. I’ll come back to London for sure but not to the LSE. Enough is enough. The world is a large place and there is much to see and do.

Sunday, June 18, 2006 Erik No comments
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Ever since I read the LSE’s official statement in The Guardian regarding my blog, I’ve been intrigued by what they meant by its ‘potentially defamatory’ content. Apparently there is supposed to be something in this blog that defames someone. It was never clear to me what this could have been. I now know. The magical sentence comes from the ‘talking to prospective students‘ entry. It reads:

the only reason they asked me [to give the Open Day speech] is that everyone reasonable already has buggered off on their respective Easter vacations.

This is what the LSE regards as ‘potentially defamatory’ and worthy of an investigation by a special committee. Interesting. The key word here is of course ‘buggered off.’ A tricky word to use, especially for us foreigners. According to The Free Dictionary:

bugger off, chiefly British slang, to leave someone alone; to go away; to run away.

Clearly the expression is informal and colloquial but it is not — in contrast to the same verb without the ‘off’ — considered as rude or in itself offensive. Not surprisingly the expression is common on the BBC. Compare for example Hugh Laurie in Blackadder:

Why, only the other day Prime Minister Pitt called me an idle scrounger. It wasn’t until ages later that I thought how clever it could have been to have said, “Oh bugger off, you old fart!”

What the LSE is objecting to is surely not the expression itself but instead the fact that it was used in reference to its staff. The implication is that members of the LSE faculty don’t ‘bugger off’ on vacation. Perhaps instead they ‘depart determinedly to their second homes in France’?

My crime, as always, is a lack of respect. I’m not treating people in authority with the respect they feel they deserve. Respect is a difficult thing to earn and, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t come with a job title. For example: convening a special committee to investigate the meaning of ‘buggered off’ might not be the best way to earn it.

Is this how low the threshold is for free speech at the LSE?

Wikipedia, as always, has an interesting article:

Bugger is an expletive used in vernacular British English, Australian English, New Zealand English and Sri Lankan English. When used in context it still retains its original meaning, implying sodomy. However it is now more generally used to imply dissatisfaction (bugger, I’ve missed the bus [i.e. Shit!, I’ve missed the bus], also cf. Unlucky Alf, a character in The Fast Show, who says ‘bugger’ every time something happens to him) or used to describe someone whose behaviour is in some way displeasing (the bugger has given me the wrong change). The word is also used amongst friends in an affectionate way (you old bugger) and is used as a noun in Welsh English vernacular to imply that one is very fond of something (I’m a bugger for Welsh cakes). It can also imply a negative tendency (He’s a bugger for losing his keys) [i.e He loses his keys often]. A colloquial phrase in the north of England to denote an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) occurrence is “Bugger me, here’s my bus”. The word is generally used in place of a more serious expletive.

The phrase bugger off means to run away; when used as a command it means “go away” [”piss off”] or “leave me alone”, which is generally considered one of the more offensive usage contexts. Bugger all means “Nothing”. The Bugger Factor is another phrase to describe the phenomenon of Sod’s Law or Murphy’s Law.

It is famously alleged that the last words of King George V were “bugger Bognor“, in response to a suggestion that he might recover from his illness and visit Bognor Regis.

As with most other expletives its continued use has reduced its shock value and offensiveness, to the extent the Toyota car company in Australia and New Zealand ran a popular series of advertisements where “Bugger!” was the only spoken word. The term is generally not used in the United States, but it is recognised, although inoffensive there. It is also used in Canada more frequently than in the United States but with less stigma than in other parts of the world.

The word is derived from the French word Boulgre, derived from “Bulgarian” (meaning the Bogomils of Bulgaria), who Catholic propagandists said were practicing ‘buggery‘. Writings by Puritan authors such as Cotton Mather refer to “buggery” when talking about bestiality among their congregations.

In Victorian and Edwardian England, bugger was often used as an identity label; for example, “a bugger”, meaning an active homosexual.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 Erik No comments
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OK, so this is the day when Sweden is playing England. There is no ignoring it. In fact, yesterday I found myself going off to buy a set of gigantic Swedish flags which my daughters today are wearing. And I always hated all that nationalistic nonsense! But somehow it’s different when you live abroad and when you have children. There is surely no better day on which to affirm your Swedish identity.

Sverige supporter

I don’t mind England beating us really, as long as they don’t go on past the quarter finals. The English always thought ball kicking was their invention and they think they wrongfully have been deprived of the World Cup ever since 1966. All this pent-up Saint Georgian frustration that is just waiting to burst forth! No surprise all foreigners here end up supporting even the most unpalatable of the opponents. We know that if the English come anywhere near the final there will be no living with them.

Thankfully the odds are nicely stacked in Sweden’s favour. If Sweden wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach; if England wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach. Come to think of it, perhaps I should get some facepaint out …

Thursday, June 22, 2006 Erik No comments
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I have a big wood pile in my backyard. Swedes measure their manliness with the help of the size of their wood pile and mine is huge. Usually it’s an enormous collection of firewood that men in the Swedish countryside keep for the winter. A well dried and neatly stacked pile is the best protection against the bitter winter winds. A Swedish man may chew tobacco, he may never change his underwear, he never talks except to curse — but yes, his pile of wood keeps his family warm through the winter.

wood pile

OK. My pile here in London is a bit different. It’s the wood I bought a year ago for my friend across the street, the conceptual artist who is a carpenter in the day-time, who had promised to come over and build us a conservatory. Despite continuously pestering him, he could never be bothered to actually get the job started. Now the pile is a piece of conceptual art. Everyone who sees it thinks ‘Man, that’s a big wood pile! I wonder why they have that big wood pile in their backyard?’ But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a monument to my Swedishness. A small piece of my manliness in the middle of the enormous, emasculating, metropolis.

We used to have PhD students over for dinner right at the beginning of the Michaelmas term. First we served them vodka, then we fed them fermented herring, then we took them into the backyard for the annual axe-throwing competition. In my part of Sweden they make double-sided axes which are great to use for throwing. We had a sawn-off tree stump as a target and gave points for the ones who hit closest to the centre. Of course everyone got too drunk and started falling about. The axe-throwing got, so to speak, out of hand. Once the police flew by in their helicoptre and we waved our axes at them and cursed. ‘This used to be Viking land you know! Before you Normans arrived!’

Thursday, June 29, 2006 Erik No comments
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We went down to Bournemouth to the Dylan concert, just me and my wife this time. It’s only six months since we saw him in Scotland, but I’m a fan and I have no choice in the matter. If Dylan is calling, I will come. The concert was great of course, although very similar to the one in Glasgow. Same band, same hats. Highlights included a first-rate version of “Masters of War” and a very good “Cold Irons Bound.”

The first song was clearly about me and my relations to my present employer:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
They hand you a nickle
They hand you a dime,
They ask you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time,
Then they fine you every time you slam the door.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

Afterwards I had the most terrible post-concert blues. I felt like I had missed an opportunity. The weird, cranky, outsider came from far away and into our lives for a short while. He conveyed some kind of message and then he took off again. What did he say? Why didn’t he tell us what we wanted to hear? Wicked messanger indeed! When the circus left town we were forced to stay put.

The only cure for a post-concert blues is to go to another Bob Dylan concert as quickly as possible. Sigh.

Sunday, July 02, 2006 Erik No comments
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We are preparing to make the big move. There is a goodbye party happening in our garden even as I write this. Good friends and neighbours coming over to say their farewells. We are leaving London after 11 years. I don’t really know where Taiwan is located, and still we are going. I don’t even know why we are going, and still we are going.

Breaking up and starting again is what my life always has been about. I never felt like an immigrant to Britain, only as a temporary visitor. I never belonged here but then again I never belonged anywhere. I was here for a while that’s all — and now I’m leaving. The human condition.

Yet it is very much a case of leaping first and looking later. Strangely I’ve managed to convince my wife and children to follow me. They are easily fooled. Even if our lives in Taiwan turn out to be worse than here, they will be better. Different is always better if you have had enough of the same.� As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “the man who is tired of London should move to Hsinchu, Taiwan.”
July 6th update: we are leaving this evening, got visas from the Taiwanese consulate this morning — this is really scary!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 Erik No comments
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I’m back in London again to teach a summer school course. I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I had promised to and I need the money. The students are always great and I’ll get into it. My wife and the kids are in Taiwan. Diane is putting on a brave face, engaging in a lot of retail therapy by the sound of it.

turian

I brought a turian with me to London. Turian, or durian, is the only truly offensive fruit. Its smell is totally nauseating. It’s a sensual, underweary, odor mixed with something sweet and something dead. No surprise turian is banned in Singaporean hotels. People on the flight over all turned their heads as I checked in.

Actually I don’t even like turian, I don’t eat it, but I use it as a talisman. The smell is so unique, so Southeast Asian, and it cannot be mistaken for something English. The smell will remind me of my new life as I struggle through the three weeks of the summer school. The smell will protect me from Englishness, from LSE bosses and from other bad spirits. It seems to be working — in fact, everyone seems to stay away!

The only problem now is telling when the turian has gone bad. How long can I keep it in the refrigerator? How do you know that something so foulsmelling should be thrown out?

Friday, August 11, 2006 Erik No comments
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The Times Higher Education Supplement wanted me to write a short op-ed piece about why I think the LSE is no better than the London Met. They are paying 200 pounds and of course I couldn’t resist such generous blood money. Since I’m actually pretty fed up writing about the LSE, and I suspect you might be fed up reading about it, I’ll put it in a “read the rest” link below.

August 15, update: the piece will appear in THES on August 18. Coming Thursday. They shortened it a bit but not very much.


**********************

What a terrible faux-pas! How could I have said such a thing? That “the LSE is no better than the London Met.” And how could I have said it at an Open Day speech where the whole point is to recruit students? No surprise everyone ganged up on me — the convenor of my department, all the big professors and the professor wanna-bes, assorted administrators and the LSE director himself. “The LSE no better than the London Met! Is the chap per chance mad?”

During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?

The truth is of course that the in-class experience of an LSE student differs very little from the in-class experience of a student at any other university, including the London Met. Think about it. The kinds of courses taught at universities are pretty much the same wherever you go. All universities have the same kinds of reading lists with the same kinds of books, the same exercises and exam questions. The differences that are supposed to be so great simply aren’t there. Those who claim otherwise are either deluding themselves or are brazenly lying.

The same is true of the lecturers, and again this is not surprising. Often after all we got our PhDs from same universities and it was nothing but luck that landed us a job at the LSE rather than elsewhere. And even if LSE academics on average may be better researchers, they are not necessarily better teachers ? and that, in the end, is what matters to students. In fact, ceteris paribus, the more famous the professor, the less time he or she is likely to spend with students. The conclusion is clear: if you want close interaction with faculty, go to a teaching university!

The average undergrad figures all this out in about three months. Yet very few of them actually transfer elsewhere. Why? This too is so blindingly obvious you’ll have to be the convenor of a department not to see it. The students come because of the other students. Above all they come to in order to get hooked up, because of the network a particular university provides.

This is of course where LSE really stands out. Its student body makes it vastly different from other universities, not just in Britain but in the world. The School has consistently been able to recruit some of the smartest, most interesting, intelligent, rich, successful and all-round attractive people on the planet. These are the movers and shakers of the future, the cosmocrats. As an LSE student you are a part of this extraordinary collection of people. This is the pool from which you draw your friends, mates, partners and lovers. Compare the LSE and the London Met by this standard and you’d be a fool to pick the latter.

But it’s also a matter of being certified. Think of this as a question of how employers pick new staff. Again the actual content of an education is of little importance. What you need to know as an employee in a particular company is to a large extent practical, hands-on, stuff which universities can�t teach you. Besides many employers don�t trust universities. Ergo, much of what students learn is pretty useless for their working life.

Why then are employers interested in university trained people? It�s simple. What they want are bright and very competitive young men and women who are prepared to subject themselves to hours and hours of mindless exercises under stressful conditions. How can they find these people? In the universities of course. Picking the best students from the best universities, these are the kinds of people they get.

As students and as teachers we may rebel against this logic but there is nothing we can do about it. Resigning themselves to the laws of the labor market, the LSE becomes a potential student’s obvious choice. An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.

Poor old self-important professors, they really think the students show up in order to listen to their ramblings. Sancta simplicitas!

Ever since that fateful Open Day speech, I have been treated as a whistleblower, as someone who revealed secrets about the inner workings of one of Britain’s most hallowed institutions. How silly. I’m blowing no whistles. I’m much more like a boy innocently commenting on an emperor’s choice of clothing, thereby revealing, shall we say, a certain pretentiousness.

Erik Ringmar is professor at the Institute for Social and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung Univesity, Hsinchu, Taiwan. He taught in the Government Department at the LSE from 1995 to 2006. His new book I’m Blogging This: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital Age will be out next year.

Sunday, August 13, 2006 Erik No comments
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The sirens of police cars have sounded almost continuously for the last 72 hours. Unmarked cars whizzing up and down Green Lanes with make-shift lights flashing on their roofs. As always when terrorism is concerned, everyone’s world event is our local news. Walthamstow, where 9 of the suspect of the recent terror plot live, is next to Tottenham and Tottenham is next to us. In fact one of the suspects is from Stoke Newington which is just down the road.

Of course there is no way of actually determining whether plots like this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the war in Iraq. Still it makes you wonder. If Britain hadn’t invaded, there would have been nothing to avenge. If so, what is Tony Blair’s responsibility for terrorism? Obviously he is never going to admit to a connection, but does he ever think about it? Perhaps in a private moment, if he ever lays awake at night? The mere possibility of a connection should be enough to make him break out in a cold sweat.

In the end this is a story about Walthamstow and nothing else. Or rather about Walthamstow in relation to Britain. It’s a story of what it’s like to be a second generation Muslim in Norflondon. For many Muslims the marginalization they suffer blends perfectly with the way their religion is brought low by British and American foreign policy, and they begin to see a pattern. As some young men conclude, if Britain and the US make war on them, why can’t they make war on Britain and the US? If Osama bin Laden stands up for them, shouldn’t they stand up for him? This is a perverted logic but for someone sufficiently alienated from his fellow human beings, it makes sense.

It is possible to explain terrorism without justifying it. The solution to the problem of terrorism begins in Walthamstow.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 Erik No comments
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I have now officially departed from the UK. The LSE summer school is over, our house is rented out, in fact I’m sitting at Hong Kong International Airport right now writing this. My flight for Taipei is in two hours. I just had an oyster omelet and a bowl of noodles. It was very delicious. There is no going back now.

I made a lot of new friends during the last half year, and many new enemies. I’ll miss you all equally. All old students: please stay in touch and come and visit me in Taiwan if you can. Meanwhile I’ll be right here, blogging as always.

Sunday, September 17, 2006 Erik No comments
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This is a piece of news you wish wasn’t true — the Tony Blair School of Government is to be located at the LSE! More from The Guardian here. Blair needs something to do once he finally moves out of Number 10, and the idea is that he will head a foundation to be associated with the LSE. Apparently it’s going to focus on foreign policy of all things!

Various US ex-presidents have their own foundations (Carter, Clinton), but they are independent of universities. Some US universities have schools named after ex-presidents (Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson) but the ex-presidents concerned are long dead. The LSE’s mistake is to give a living politician an academic platform.

If true, this is another example of the weak current LSE leadership getting all soft in the knees when coming in the proximity of political power. Much as Blair himself swoons when seeing Bush’s big guns. If Blair is Bush’s poodle, Howard Davies is a flea on the poodle’s back.

What self-respecting academic would ever work in a “Blair School of Government”? How many Muslim students would take classes there? Students and academics at other universities are already on the floor laughing.

Saturday, September 23, 2006 Erik No comments
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I spent 20 years at prestigious universities, first Yale and then the LSE. Now I’m at a non-prestigious one — National Chiao Tung University. NCTU is one of the top universities in Taiwan, and very famous within China, but internationally it’s largely unknown. It sounds like “Ching Chong University,” doesn’t it? Who would ever like to teach there?!

The prestige of a university lends your words a particular power. What you say has authority because you work at an authoritative place. People pay attention. “Dr Ringmar of the LSE, he must be a really smart guy!” “Dr Ringmar of Ching Chong University — he probably couldn’t get any other job!”

nctu

Prestige is a trap. Most people at the LSE go around telling themselves that they are very, very smart. Whatever their other disagreements, everyone agrees on this fact. Indeed, no one is smarter than them, no one anywhere. Meanwhile they forget that they haven’t written anything worthwhile in years. No one has any time to write. Telling themselves how important they are takes up all of their time.

Believing in your own importance is the beginning of the end for an academic. If you want to make a contribution, you have to question everything, especially your own ability to make a contribution. All great academics go from one crisis of self-confidence to another. Only the fools never doubt themselves. (Unfortunately self-doubt alone is not sufficient proof of brilliance …)

I decided to try to make it on my own. Just me alone — and my family of course — but without the crutch that the prestige of an internationally famous university provides. It’s more challenging that way. Trust me, I am the same person I always was and I say the same kinds of things. If anything I’m more productive here since I interact with more interesting people and I live in a more exciting environment. Here I can’t take my importance for granted and no one else does. I must work harder than I’ve done in years.

Monday, September 25, 2006 Erik No comments
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The evaluations are now in for the summer school course I gave at the LSE last summer.  Right-click and save this link. Naturally I would have liked 100% of the students to have loved the course, but it never works that way. These results are good enough (and very similar to what they’ve been every other year I’ve taught the course). The one person who really disliked the course may have been a right-wing American …

I believe strongly that if we are to charge a lot of money for our courses, the very least we can do is to tell prospective students what previous students have thought about them. If education is being sold like so many sausages, it should be clearly labeled. All university teachers should do this. “Some teachers may be embarrased by bad results.” I bet they would be, and if they are they shouldn’t be teaching and the students should know about it beforehand.

Sunday, October 15, 2006 Erik No comments
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A current LSE student just sent me this story:

I have an interesting detail to add to the free speech discussion at LSE: There’s a volunteering programme called ‘email-a-student’: It allows prospective students to send a mail to the LSE with questions about student life etc. which are then answered by a current student. So being a current student I went to the introduction meeting for this thing today, and I found something odd about the programme: All incoming AND (!) outgoing mails have to be sent via a LSE admissions official and will be screened. So I guess I can’t really write about everything I want to. I mean, this programme is no use if I just tell prospective students what they already know from the website!

Compare this with an email I got from the LSE undergrad administration the other day:

I am writing to you regarding a number of requests from prospective applicants to meet with academics, received recently by the Undergraduate Admissions Office, Selectors and Departmental Managers and Administrators.I would like to remind all staff that the School Policy states that contact details for academic staff should not be released to prospective applicants/students. In addition to this, all requests for meetings with academic staff should be forwarded to the undergraduate mail-box so that the UG team may deal with any queries that applicants may have.

Let me re-assure you that in the vast majority of cases, the undergraduate Admissions staff are able to answer any questions applicants may have. In cases where they are unable to do so, they will be happy to contact the relevant academic and liaise with the enquirer appropriately.

I am sure you understand that these measure are put in place so that academic colleagues are not placed in a difficult position where conflict of interest may become an issue. Thank you for your understanding on [sic] this matter.

In other words: prospective LSE students can communicate with current LSE students only if the emails are censored by the LSE undergraduate office; there is to be no contact at all between prospective students and staff. We are all gagged.

Is this in the best interest of prospective students? Is it in the interest of the LSE? What about … well … the freedom to communicate freely?

I wouldn’t believe any of this was possible at a first-rate university like LSE if it hadn’t been for the way I was treated by the very same people. They have the mentality of prison wardens.

Sunday, October 22, 2006 Erik No comments
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I wanted to blog about Aishah Azmi, the classroom assistant in Dewsbury, UK, who was ordered to remove her veil in the classroom by the head of her school. But I find it curiously painful to write about. Once Tony Blair got involved, and the courts, it got too ugly.

I think about the classroom assistants in my children’s school in London — miss Muna and miss Saida — and how beautiful they looked in their hijabs. How their way of dressing affirmed their identity as proud, capable and professional women and as great role-models for the many Muslim children in the class. To force them to take off their dress would have been to denude them — to strip them of their identities.

Aishah Azmi’s crime was to cover her face, in accordance with Muslim custom, in the presence of male grown-ups. When children and women were around she was not covered. But why do women have an obligation to reveal themselves on men’s terms? Why do they always have to make themselves available to men?

For an immigrant it is a major statement when you take off the clothes of your homeland and put on the clothes of your new country. But it is equally significant when you refuse to make the switch. Wearing traditional clothes is to make the statement: “my past matters,” “I came from somewhere, you know,” “I was someone before I was turned into this ‘foreigner’ who you despise.”

Since the choice of clothing is crucial for our sense of who we are, it must be left up to each individual. A state which strips its people by force is repressive.

Monday, October 23, 2006 Erik No comments
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Dr Oliver Curry has hit the headlines with a prediction regarding the future of the human race. According to research reported on the BBC, in The Sun, Der Spiegel and just about everywhere else, mankind can look forward to tall women with very pert breasts and womankind can look forward to men with big pricks. Apparently we’ll divide into two subspecies — the tall, genetic, elite and the dwarfish illiterates with low foreheads and even lower IQs. In addition we’ll all be coffee colored.

Oliver Curry is no biologist, he got his doctorate from — of all places — the Government Department at the LSE! His PhD was heavily funded by something called Darwin@LSE which specializes in passing off assorted right-wing bullcrap as scientific research. If you want to know what Dr Curry thinks of women, check this out.

As for racism among LSE staff see this piece in the Guardian (more “evolutionary psychology,” I’m afraid …)

There are lunatics in every discipline but for some reason political science is particularly bad at keeping them in their padded cells. Dr Curry’s PhD supervisor was professor Keith Dowding, who must have been dozing just informed me he was wide awake the day this joker slipped by to get his degree. Dr Curry will no doubt go on proudly displaying his LSE credentials to every media outlet and rightwing think-tank.

Does this prove that the government department at the LSE now has evolved to a stage where it only produces degenerate offspring or was this a freak mutation?

Sunday, November 19, 2006 Erik No comments
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This is kinda interesting: a list of the recent Google search terms that have taken web-surfers to this site.

  • bigpricks
  • US PhDs better than UK PhDs
  • cecile fabre zlatko PhD take to court
  • “sprung a leak”
  • unofficial guide to lse
  • killing Tony Blair
  • eric ringmar lse
  • acromegaly in horses
  • career day speeches
  • “ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road”
  • getting laid in hsinchu
  • lse freedom of speech blog
  • swedish girls are so beautiful
  • US mid-term elections
  • dooced from the LSE
  • famous lse anthropologists
  • what are footnotes and their importance
  • howard davies utter fool of himself
  • why I hate IKEA

Diane suspects it’s MI5 or the CIA that googles for “killing Tony Blair.” I’m telling her they have more sophisticated methods of catching terrorists. I’m right, aren’t I?

Saturday, December 16, 2006 Erik No comments
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Christmas is a time when you look back on the year that’s been and you send Christmas cards to those you remember particularly fondly. Of course I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of my bosses at the LSE. Where would I be without you? Not the owner of a semi-famous blog and not an emotional asylum seeker in Southeast Asia..

Anyway here it is … to be delivered by the Members of the LSE Free Speech Group.

Dear members of the Free Speech Group,

My name is Erik Ringmar and I’m a senior lecturer in the government department. During the past year I was engaged in a controversy with the convenor of my department, George Philip, and with the director of the School, Sir Howard Davies. The reasons for the controversy were 1) a speech I gave to prospective undergraduate students at the Open Day event on March 22; and 2) my personal blog in which wrote about the Open Day event and other business having to do with the School. In May the controversy became a national news story.

I’m enclosing copies of two emails, one from George Philip, the other one from Howard Davies. My contention is that Philip and Davies are in breach of the LSE’s code regarding freedom of speech. As you know, the Code explicitly incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, 1948, which states that…

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his or her choice.

And as the same LSE Code makes clear:

Action by any member of the School or other person contrary to this Code, will be regarded as a serious disciplinary offence and, subject to the circumstances of the case, may be the subject of proceedings under the relevant disciplinary regulations, as promulgated from time to time.

As you will see from the emails, Philip reprimanded me for speaking to students in my own fashion and Davies issued threats against me for things I wrote in my blog. As a consequence my right to free speech has been taken away. They have, as far as I understand it, acted “contrary to this Code” and their actions should be “regarded as a serious disciplinary offence.” As members of the Schools Free Speech Group, I ask you to rule on their behaviour and to censor them in accordance with the rules of the School.

Quite apart from the details of my case it is obvious that the School needs a policy on free speech which protects bloggers and other internet users from threats, reprimands and intimidation. The current rules are not enough. There are many students, staff members and departments, that maintain blogs and we don’t know what we can and cannot say. Establishing such a code is a matter of some urgency.

yours sincerely,

Erik Ringmar

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 Erik No comments
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My last cohort of LSE students just graduated in London. Yes that’s right, somewhat perversely the Master’s students who have their exams in the spring only graduate in December.

For graduation, students from around the world fly back to London, often together with their proud parents. But not that many academics bother to show up for the ceremony. LSE faculty, famously, like to bugger off as soon as the term ends. The graduation itself consists of a mock-Oxbridge costume party and a cocktail thingy with watered down champagne and taco chips. I wonder what the parents make of it? Is this what they paid all that money for? Yet they are consistently very, very proud.

Let’s forget about awkward graduation ceremonies and about taco chips. We had some exciting times together. You were good friends of mine for a while. So full of ambition and fun, intelligence and self-doubt. I learned from you and I hope you learned something from me.

My life has moved on since London and so have yours. It’s a good thing. A life that moves on is always better than a life that grinds to a halt. Good luck to you all! Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.

Friday, December 29, 2006 Erik No comments
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Dear Prospective Asian PhD student,

I know you really want to go to the United Kingdom to study. There are very famous universities there — Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and many others. This is, you’ve been told, where the best students in the world meet the best professors. If nothing else, your parents will be endlessly proud of you and you’ll have a future job in the bag. The prestige value of a UK PhD is immesurable.

Still, I suggest it’s a scam. They are taking advantage of your eagerness to get ahead in life through educational means. Perhaps it’s time for a short reality-check:

  • English universities really aren’t all that good. Far inferior than the best American universities and certainly not much better than universities in Scandinavia, Germany or France.
  • Don’t forget, PhD programs in UK universities, in contrast to American, have no course component. All you get for your tuition fee — some 12,000 pounds per year — are a few chats with your supervisor. When you factor in the cost of living in a city such as London, this is likely to be about as much as your family’s entire annual income.
  • Add the lousy weather, the lousy food and it all becomes very unattractive indeed. Yes, and I forgot the barely concealed racism against anyone with an East Asian accent. They’ll take your money, but they won’t take you seriously. More on British racism here.
  • If you go ahead with your UK PhD, what you’ll soon realize is that you’ll be far better off doing your research back in your home country. You’ll save money that way and most likely you’ll be closer to your primary sources. Before long you’ll find yourself sending 12,000 pounds off to the UK every year and getting absolutely nothing in return — no library access, not even an absent-minded supervisor.  It’s like an international aid program in reverse. Before long the absurdity of the situation will be hard to ignore.
  • The only thing you’ll get in the end is the alleged prestige of a UK degree. Yes, this is still worth something today but only since universities and employers in East Asia are slow to catch up on the serious trouble that UK academia is in. The Singaporean authorities have. They are not encouraging students to travel to the UK for a PhD anymore. Other Asian countries will soon draw the same conclusion.
  • Let’s assume that the prestige of UK universities has a half-life of about 50 years. If that’s true, your PhD won’t be worth nearly as much by the time you are ready to go on the job market, and it’ll be worth even less some decades into your career.

The obvious alternative is to do a PhD in one of the many outstanding universities in East Asia itself. There are many that give courses in English, full of world-class professors and world-class students. NCTU, where I work, is a great example. The cost here is far, far lower — including living costs — and you’ll have a much easier time adjusting. There is no racism and no behind-your-back condescension. There are no woolly sweaters and no woolly grub. And most importantly, the prestige value of your East Asian PhD is a commodity whose value is on the rise.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007 Erik No comments
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The Footnotes is one year today! And what a year it’s been. Lots of posts, lots of comments, and well over 70,000 visitors. As a way to celebrate 365 days of impertinence, I here republish the very first post:

A funny thing happened at work today. The most pompous of my colleagues — Oxbridge education, plummy accent, egg on waist-coat — was giving a long and particularly tedious talk. Then he drew something on the blackboard. An impromptu map, I think, but at this stage I was no longer paying attention. He continued speaking but turned around repeatedly and added to the map. For each addition the picture began to look more and more like a penis. After a while there was no doubt. There it was: a perfectly formed manhood in all its fully erect glory. Testicles, pubic hair and everything. I began laughing. First a little snicker, than a louder guffaw. Heads were turning in my direction. I whispered my observation to the person next to me who made a face of disgust. How dared I! Not funny. Not funny at all.

It was childish of course. Very childish. Both to laugh about it and to blog about it. “I can’t write that,” I thought, “my colleague is too easily recognizable.” Then again the joke was mainly on me, not on him. If I chose to be childish in public, it was my decision. Besides, this is a free country, right? I can say what I like. And I did.

Friday, January 12, 2007 Erik No comments
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They are writing about me in The Beaver again, the LSE student newspaper. Yes, I did cc them in on the “Xmas Card to the LSE bosses.” An institution like the LSE must learn to live by its own rules.

Btw, the Amazon.uk web page has started listing my blogging book as forthcoming. It’s just a dummy page so far — and I’m not sure about the title the publisher has chosen, “A Blogger’s Manifesto” — but the price is just right — 8.99 pounds. It’ll come down to about 4-5 pounds when resold.

Sunday, January 21, 2007 Erik No comments
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The fall semester has now finally ended even in my part of the world. We’re off for a six week New Year’s break! It was a long slog, and I must admit I was pretty fed up already around December 24/25. That’s just the way I was conditioned. But we made it in the end.

New Years itself is not until February 17. Diane got us tickets to Macao and Hong Kong for two weeks. Despite all my years in Asia, I’ve never actually set foot outside of Hong Kong’s airport. Everyone says two weeks is too long but I can see a prolonged visit to HK Disneyland coming up. Let’s hope I can fight off my Marcusean instincts. Why always be so cynical about everything?

Btw, only 10 days to go before I finally resign from the LSE. I resigned in my mind a long time ago — see more below — but the paperwork must be updated. Besides, I’d like to start my new work for real before I quit. That’s happening on February 1st. I’m thinking of what to write in the letter to Howard Davies. Something short and sweet. Perhaps you have some suggestions?

Thursday, February 01, 2007 Erik No comments
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This is the blog which temporarily achieved local fame in and around the London School of Economics in the spring of 2006. I got into a lot of trouble for what I wrote on these pages. The full story is told here.

I like to think of this blog as an educational service I provided to the LSE and to members of the British establishment. My aim was to teach them a thing or two about the meaning of freedom of speech. I think I succeeded reasonably well.

I live in Taiwan these days and work at NCTU, a university in Hsinchu, an hour south of Taipei. Hsinchu is known as the “windy city” and it produces delicious noodles. I miss London sometimes, and I miss my LSE students, but I’m glad I made the move.

I just finished a book about blogging and freedom of speech, “A Blogger’s Manifesto.” The chapters are available online. Don’t steal the book, download it. Or buy it from Amazon or in book stores when it comes out in October 2007.

I’m not updating these pages any more, but I’m still reading comments so please leave one. In the one year of its existence this blog had 97,467 visitors.

yours always,

Erik

P.S. Btw, my new blog, “Too Many Mangoes,” is now up and running.

Thursday, February 01, 2007 Erik No comments
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goodbye.png

It’s February 1st and I no longer work at the LSE. I wrote a letter of resignation to Howard Davies. There’ll be a pdf here of courseand here it is!

I worked at the LSE for some 12 years. Much of it was great. Above all to get a first proper job, to have a monthly salary, to develop courses and to interact with students, to have reading and writing as a career. Meanwhile Diane and I started our adventure together, in our new house, with one kid after another. What in life could be better?

On the darker side: the LSE version of the British class-system and the pretentiousness of some colleagues in the Government Department. They always suspected that I didn’t take them seriously, and they were right of course. Then the whole blogging and free speech issue — everyone from Howard Davies down trying to shut me up. Sigh. Deep sigh.

My new university, NCTU, is a great improvement in these respects. It’s not a commercial venture, they are not dependent on student fees, and they don’t give a damn what I say in my blog. Besides I like living in a country where I’m forced to learn things every day. Learning things, after all, is what my life’s about. London has already receeded behind the horizon.

But the real excitement is happening away from academia. We are looking for a Chinese-style house up in the mountains outside of Hsinchu. We’re going to keep goats and grow papaya. The kids are getting settled. Rima is already fluent in baby Chinese and Saga is quickly becoming a Chinese teenager. We look forward to many more years here. Again, what could life offer that’s better?

“I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.

And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill,
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill,
Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me,
Singing for me, yeah singing for me.”

Bob Dylan, 1970.

Friday, April 25, 2008 Erik No comments
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Of course the Clintons would never stoop to race baiting tactics themselves.  They leave it to their operators to do that – people like Sidney Blumenthal, the man Bill relied on to clean up the Monica Lewinsky mess.

I have personal experiences of how Blumenthal operates.  His niece applied to do a Master’s degree in the program I was in charge of in London.  Unusually, I was sent an applicant’s file not from the Admissions Office, as always was the case, but instead straight from the Office of the LSE Director — at that time Anthony Giddens.  In the file was a handwritten note from “Sid” to “Tony,” making the case that accepting his niece to do a degree at the LSE would be a wonderful opportunity to “continue to deepen our trans-Atlantic ties.”

I was just trying to figure out why the file came from Giddens and why that mysterious note was included, when the phone rang.  It was David Held, notorious important-person wanna-be.  “Did you see the application from Blumentahl’s niece?” he asked.  “Yes,” I replied, “it’s right here on my desk.”  “Well, you should consider it very carefully,” Held continued, “Just read the name again.  It’s BLUMENTHAL, OK?  That Blumenthal.”

Of course I didn’t miss out on such an opportunity to take the moral high ground.  I wrote an email to Blumenthal, Giddens and Held and informed them all that I was in charge of admissions and that I resented any external meddling.  It was totally out of order to slip handwritten notes into a file or to make phone calls pressurizing me.  Besides the niece’s grades were far below what we usually were prepared to accept.

I heard back from Giddens within a few hours and he was very apologetic and could not for the life of him understand how that note got included in the application.  Blumenthal and Held never got in touch.

This, I guess, is how the power elite reproduces itself.

Sunday, January 01, 2017 Erik No comments
Sunday, January 01, 2017 Erik No comments
Sunday, January 01, 2017 Erik No comments
Sunday, January 01, 2017 Erik No comments