Last week I went to Oxford for a few days. I was giving a talk and had to be back for my daughter’s school play, so it was just a quick trip. I hope to make it back for a longer trip before too long.
Fortunately, Oxford was no longer buried under the show-stopping two inches of snow that has assaulted the nation the week before. By the time I got there the place was back to normal, so I was able to get around without any trouble.
Oxford, via flickr
I arrived on Sunday afternoon, worked on my talk for most of the day, then went to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner and walked around afterwards. The restaurant was great, and doubtless I’ll go back there, but it has a bit of an Eastern Promises feel to it: I got the sense that there were plenty of things going on besides grilling lamb and making hummus (which was excellent, don’t get me wrong).
excellent hummus, via flickr
And I was by the far the least swarthy person in the restaurant, which for me is an unusual state of affairs.
I stayed at the Royal Oxford, which was fine as always, though my room looked out at the central courtyard and the ventilation system was about two feet away from my window. But it was a pretty big room, so I guess it was an acceptable trade-off. My feelings about the bathroom design still hold, though: they fell down on the job during the renovation, made the bathtubs too tall, and made it hard to get in an out in a way that feels safe.
Monday was work, so after breakfast I spent most of the rest of the day actually doing what I went there to do. Monday night I had dinner at a rather nice French restaurant in Jericho, one of the neighborhoods of Oxford. I met up with David Orrell, the author of The Future of Everything and someone whose work I find quite interesting.
When I looked it up, it sounded like Jericho was a suburb of Oxford, and I imagined having to take a bus out there; but it turns out to be about a 5-minute walk from the center of town to the edge of the neighborhood. Apparently it started out as a working-class area (Oxford was actually a manufacturing center for a long time, in addition to being a university town), and recently has been gentrified.
Brasserie Blanc, via flickr
Orrell is a very interesting character, a physicist who did some really interesting work on model error in meteorology, and now works in synthetic biology. We spent a couple hours at dinner, talking about prediction, futures, computer and mathematical models, and economics. One of the more interesting things he talked about was how simple models often do a poorer job of explaining the past than elaborate models (that to some degree are tailored to fit historical data), but do a better job of predicting the future. I’ve been turning over in my mind whether it’s possible to apply this to the kind of futures that I do. I’m usually sensitive to the complexity and contingency of human action and decisions, and that tends to make me assume that you can’t simply model human behavior in a usefully predictive way– that people’s interactions with scientific ideas and technologies aren’t quantifiable and computationally tractable.
Maybe this observation helps explain Bruce Bueno De Mesquita’s success. His method does well because of its formality and relative simplicity: he claims to be able to predict the outcomes of political negotiations or corporate power struggles with a pretty limited, specific amount of information. Of course, he also succeeds because he recognizes the limits of his model, and doesn’t push it into areas where it seems likely to fail. I’d like to think that there are no good models for predicting scientific and technological change because they’re too complex. But maybe I’m not looking hard enough for the simplicity.
I don’t know if I’m on a lucky streak, or if I tend to gravitate unconsciously to books written by pleasant and generous people instead of self-righteous jerks– Andrew Parker was really a great person to have breakfast with— but David maintained my streak of having interesting meals with people I basically cold call when I’m in Europe. One of the virtues of being American is that you can deploy a level of extroversion (or intrusiveness) when you travel and, so long as you don’t go overboard with it, people will forgive you for it. (I suspect that one of the keys to living abroad is figuring out when you really have to fit it with the local culture, and when you can get away with things because of Where You’re From.)
Oxford, via flickr
After dinner I walked around a little, as is my custom when I’m on the road; but since I had to pack and be up very early to catch the bus to Heathrow, I decided not to stop at any of the fifty or so pubs I’ve passed that inspired a “oh that looks good, I’ll have to have a drink there sometime” reaction. Next time. And the time after that.
Oxford, via flickr
Tuesday morning I was up at a punishingly early hour to get home. I’ve gotten in the habit of falling asleep to movies or music when I travel, and tonight for some reason had on a playlist of Michael Mann movies; so I drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of gunfire and vague apprehension of beautifully-illuminated but sinister cityscapes. Then I got the X70 bus to Heathrow, had breakfast in the Red Carpet Club, and got on my plane.