Category Archives: Comment

Birkbeck German Society

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The German society is one of the most vibrant societies of Birkbeck, and  has recently celebrated its fifteenth year in Malet Street. Under the current President, Ryan Gray, and Secretary, Geraldine MacMahon, there are twenty seven active Birkbeck students affiliated with the society, alongside eighteen associate members.

International trips have included excursions to Dresden, where members visited the Semperoper (Dresden’s Opera House), the Frauenkirche, and the Zwinger Palace.  The society also travelled to Meissen, situated North-West of Dresden, the home of Albrechtsburg Castle and Gothic Meissen Cathedral.

Ryan and Geraldine will be arranging events at The Goethe Institute in South Kensington, and The Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge. Admission is generally free of charge for events, but occasionally trips may cost a couple of pounds.London trips have included an excursion to Wigmore Hall for a liederabend, where students enjoyed an evening listening to the songs of Franz Schubert. The society also took in a performance of Berholt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera at The National Theatre in June. Ryan and Geraldine hope to plan a trip to Munich in March 2017.

The society regularly meet up at Bierschenke, an authentic Munich beer hall in the City, and  The George Birkbeck Bar.  Ryan and Geraldine intend to arrange at least one film screening at the beginning of next term, and arrange guest speakers to give a talk on current affairs including Germany’s future in the EU post-Brexit.

From the beginning of the next academic term (2016/17), the membership fee will be £10 for current students, and £12 for associates to join. There will be opportunities to run for a variety of prominent positions within the society including President, Treasurer and Secretary.

For more information, follow the Student Union website at:

http://www.birkbeckunion.org/groups/german-society–4

german@socs.birkbeckunion.org

Lebt wohl, liebe leser!

 

 

Global Goals: Take Action

On the 28th of April 2016 the London International Development Centre and the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity will host the Global Goals: Take Action conference.

The event will take place in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, on behalf of UCL, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), SOAS, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), and Birkbeck. The conference will address the challenges presented by the post-2015 development agenda.

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development (also known as the SDGs) build on the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on meeting the needs of the world’s poorest in low and middle income countries.

The new Global Goals are universal, so will be applicable to developed, as well as developing countries.

The conference aims to challenge students to think about the impact of the goals and how that might be relevant to them in the future, and guide them towards training and careers.

The event is aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students from all disciplines from UCL, LSHTM, SOAS, RVC, and Birkbeck.

The Global Goals are set to run from 2015 to 2030, a time scale which will coincide with a sizable proportion of current students’ careers. The conference will be targeted at students from across all subject areas – to include medicine, public health, engineering, politics, law, pharmacy, veterinary science, anthropology, geography, environmental sciences and development studies, among others.

The day will kick off with a panel debate, then everyone will have the opportunity to get involved in more focused discussions with leading experts in international development around clusters of goals on six desks.

The themes for the desks will be:

 

The conference will end with a high profile guest who will bring together the day’s ideas towards action for 2030.

The conference is free for all undergraduate and postgraduate students from Birkbeck, UCL, SOAS, LSHTM, and RVC.

You can book a place here.

How much do you know about the goals? Please take our survey.

Birkbeck welcomes Sir Keir Starmer MP for campus visit

Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, received a warm welcome at Birkbeck, University of London where he met staff and students from across the college community.

The Labour MP, elected in May 2015, visited the University on Friday, 23 October and had discussions with Professor David Latchman, Master of the college about a range of topics including Birkbeck’s advocacy for the societal and economic benefits of combining work and study.

Recent Birkbeck initiatives include a joint submission with the Open University to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, calling for policy changes to help stimulate part-time study, and Parliamentary briefings on the decline in part-time students and the opportunities apprenticeships present for expanding university study and widening participation.

Sir Keir also met a group of students who shared their stories of the difference studying at an institution dedicated to providing degree-level education in the evening has made to their lives.

One of these students, Michael Peltier, who has successfully completed Birkbeck’s three-year degree in BSc Accounting and is studying for a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance at the college, said:

“I am already seeing the fantastic benefits of studying and working simultaneously – I’m now employed in a role which otherwise would have required me to have years of experience, so studying at Birkbeck has definitely given me the edge. I’ve already learnt that employers really value Birkbeck students because balancing work and study shows you can deal with the demands of a career.”

Also in attendance was Birkbeck student Alicia Caley, who earlier this year successfully completed a BA Global Politics and International Relations (full-time) at the college, and who has now commenced studies on the MSc Government, Policy and Politics (part-time).

Alicia said: “Having the opportunity to study in the evenings has really opened up opportunities for me over the past three years. I have been able to gain invaluable experience of full time work whilst being able to gain a degree in the evenings over three years. Now I am studying for a Masters at Birkbeck that compliments my career perfectly. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the flexibility that comes with the structure of evening learning at Birkbeck.”

Sir Keir also toured the Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus to find out more about our world-class facilities in the heart of London’s Knowledge Quarter.

Speaking after the meeting, Professor Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said:

“It has been an honour to welcome Sir Keir onto campus and to introduce him to Birkbeck’s work and the key role we play in enabling Londoners to combine work with study to gain new skills and knowledge.”

Article written and originally published by the Birkbeck External Relations Team, reprinted with their permission

Is life today ‘absurd’?

Expanding on Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, Albert Camus asks what it means for man if God is dead. Firstly, we will be forced to deal with our own mortality. Secondly, if we conclude that there is a limit to life – a death with no afterlife – then we must question the meaning or purpose of life. Without the notions of immortality or a limitless life, is there any escape from absurdity?

Absurdity occurs when the need for individual understanding meets the unreasonable structure of the world. Once stripped of romanticism, the world is an unsuitable place for the individual. Human thought isn’t absurd, nor is society in itself. The problem arises from the conflict between society and individual; absurdity comes out of the confrontation between these two distinct forms.

From this conflict comes the idea of absurdist reasoning. There can be no place for true knowledge in the absurdity of reality, as every explanation leads to abstraction or metaphor. The concept of hope, the promise of an undefined number of “tomorrows”, is another precondition of the absurd. The eternality of “tomorrow” is a denial of the individual’s own death.

To this, Camus would respond, there is but one truly serious philosophical answer and that is suicide. He does not accept physical suicide, because that would bring the absurdity to an end (the absurd cannot exist without man). The suicide Camus refers to is a philosophical one; that is, making the leap from the absurd to a higher power, be that God (Kierkegaard) or reason (Husserl). Camus sees this as both a contradiction to the original premise of absurdism and an escape from the absurd itself.

In contrast, he suggests embracing the absurd. This requires an understanding of the contradiction in the human-society dichotomy; reason and its limits must be acknowledged. Passion and enjoyment of every part of the absurd life, together with revolt against the original precept, is necessary to achieve acceptance of one’s existence. Hope is also denied; metaphysical freedom can’t exist alongside hope.

Camus identifies a heroic type of absurd man in the legend of Sisyphus. Having defied the Gods, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternal punishment: pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down, so he must start again. The moment of tragedy, as Camus points out, is when Sisyphus walks back down to start over again; he recognises the lack of hope in his life, yet the understanding of his impaired condition gives him the freedom of acceptance.

Camus compares this meaningless task to the experience of his contemporaries: “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Camus thinks of Sisyphus as a happy man.

Does this absurdist reasoning stand up in today’s world?

Technology has become an essential part of our lives. It is embedded in the everyday. The world wide web has become an open door to the human culture through which anything can be found; knowledge can be accessed with a tap on a smartphone. This easy availability of knowledge poses an epistemological query: we perceive it as “attainable” without considering the actual limit of our intellect.

A study from Yale University demonstrated that internet-based knowledge and book-based learning are completely different, with the latter performing better under testing. The same study found that those who base their knowledge solely on internet sources will boast of knowledge that they don’t actually have. As an evolved society, we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that the constant abuse of technological devices is changing the way we perceive reality.

Back in the 1980s, Baudrillard recognised how human societies were transitioning into an extended reality: signs and symbols replacing our experience of reality with a construct, tailored to the human being. With this extended reality now closely aligned to advertising and stereotyped mass culture, it becomes clear that technology has become widely misused. Instead of functioning as a resource to help us compensate for our lack, it has become a vehicle for media to bombard users with messages designed to create false needs. And how could we engage in a meaningful analysis of our lives (a requirement in Camus’ absurdity of life) when the mass cultural messages that pervade our reality are telling you the exact opposite?

One could conclude that these multiple media assaults might help us to recognise the absurd. But understanding the absurd is intrinsically related to solitude. We are social mammals. We nurture relationships.  Fear of loneliness is hardwired in our brains, as if we wouldn’t exist without being part of a group. Through technology, the media machine has modified our perception of solitude. Fear of missing out has become a key theme of our time. This constant engagement with others denies us precious time for thinking, about our lives, our society. Without time and space to think, we can not confront the unreasonableness of society. A dilute thought is already available, just a click away.

Our awareness of society has become merged with technology. There is no collision anymore, as in Camus’ conditions for the absurd to arise. Instead, the two elements collude together, forming a blend of needs and easy access that leave thinking out of the equation and makes questioning our lives feel unnecessary.

Camus’ Sisyphus is a happy man, while our society is facing epidemic depression. Any thoughts why?

My Place in the World: A short meditation on identity and happiness

Preface

The main purpose of this article is to explore an individual’s identity and role within their society. Birkbeck students continue to define and redefine their role in society. We often define ourselves against or in accordance to our ancestry. Some students may say something like, “Although my ancestors were ethnically Russian and Catholic, I am a British atheist because I choose to be, regardless of my ethnicity and ancestry.”

Does ethnicity determine our characters or are there other contributing factors? Ethnicity, the environment we live in and the choices we make are all factors that form our character and personality.

On this topic, I spoke to a woman who lives in Turkey when she visited London this April to attend the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race. She is the daughter of a family friend.

Narrative

The people I refer to as “My parents” are the people that have raised me since the time of my infancy.

Of whom I was before my adoption, I remain in the dark, exempting that I am ethnically of Egyptian origin.

The identity of the people who created my entry into this world remains unknown to me to this day. If I ever had memories of them, they have long gone from my mind.

It is immaterial to me that my adopted parents were born into practising Catholic families. They consider themselves Turkish secularists, and I consider myself Turkish secularist. Why should it matter to me if my ancestors were taught to say Happy Christmas, or Diwali, or Hanukkah, but my parents were not?

I have always believed that culture is an adjustable feature. We are who we choose to be regardless of our lineage.

Do I feel that an unfilled void exists within my heart due to the absence of my biological family in my life? No. I do not. Still, I have often thought about them and wondered how life would have turned out for me if I had grown up with them.

Do I have just cause to regret the way life turned out for me? No. I am aware that I have never wanted for anything and that is nothing to regret.

The parents I know and love best in this world watched me develop from infancy to adulthood, held and I hushed me as I have wept, and shared in my triumphs. Their love for me has been and continues to be unrestrained and constant. Additionally, I am privileged to have had so many friends with outstanding qualities like loyalty and Bravery. The love and respect I have for these individuals is what gives me the courage to persevere in my quest to achieve happiness and success.

If I searched the whole world, I know I would never be able to find a better life than the one I have now.

Someday I hope to have the opportunity to give a child the love and stability I was given. And I hope they have the freedom to identify as they wish, regardless of my beliefs, our culture, or ethnicity.

Chatime’s Latest Offering Is A Welcome Addition to London’s Bubble Tea Shops

A little late to the scene, it’s been about five years since bubble tea, or boba tea, started to take off in the UK. It was created in Taiwan in the 1980s when a dessert shop started putting left over tapioca balls in iced milk teas at the end of an evening*. Bubble tea has grown enormously popular in hotter climes, notably Hong Kong and Australia.

It has been slower to catch on in the UK, perhaps due to the weather. A hot chocolate with marshmallows is always going to beat an iced milk tea in winter. Despite this, a number of bubble tea shops have found success.

Soho has one of the highest concentrations including Bubbleology (which makes a fairly simple process look like a chemistry set), Bobajam, and Leong’s Legend (also a Taiwanese restaurant). Cafe de Hong Kong in Charing Cross is another hit, but the most popular remains Chaboba in Camden, frequently heralded as the best amongst bubble tea enthusiasts.

With shops in Soho, Chinatown, Portobello Road and the Brunswick Centre (a couple blocks from campus), Chatime has so far been one of the most ambitious. Its latest shop opened in April on Rivington Street in Shoreditch, five minutes walk from Old Street roundabout.

chatime manager
Chatime manager, Tao

Chatime describes itself as a franchise teahouse chain. While not technically a teahouse in the traditional sense, the décor is more traditional than other bubble tea shops, and it imports its produce directly from Taiwan and brews its own tapioca fresh each morning.

Bubble tea usually involves a cold milky tea or fruit tea served in frappe-style takeaway cups or tall glasses and includes tapioca (known in bubble tea shops as ‘pearl’), jellies or red bean toppings. The name bubble tea is often mistakenly assumed to refer to the toppings (which do look like coloured bubbles) but in fact refers to the drinks frothiness after being thrown around in a cocktail shaker. Because the tea is often very sweet, Chatime, like other bubble tea shops, offers you the chance to chose a sugar level – a particularly useful add-on.

Tao, manager of Chatime Shoreditch, gave me five drinks to try. The first, roast milk tea with grass jelly was pleasant but for a slight taste of cardboard. The second, Chatime milk tea with pearl, a more traditional option, was lovely and my favourite. Fruit tea options include mango, lychee, passion fruit, peach and lemon. These make very refreshing drinks, ideal for the incoming summer months. I found the lychee black tea with coffee, rainbow and coconut jellies a more refreshing drink than a frappe.

chaitime window

Other drinks suited a slightly different palette, with a few being particularly popular amongst Asian drinkers. Matcha milk tea with red bean is one example, and I found it left a nice aftertaste. However, the brown rice green tea tasted of bitter popcorn. I’m sure Chatime’s sugar options can remedy this, though, and I would suggest playing around with these levels.

I have only one misgiving about Chatime Shoreditch and that’s its location. It is not prominently situated and midweek footfall seemed almost completely absent along the road. Furthermore, for Birkbeck students a closer one can be found at the Brunswick Centre. Nevertheless, Chatime’s bubble tea is a welcome addition to the cities wondrous variety of drinks on offer.

Another growing trend has been expanding through London recently. Coconut water has become one of the latest ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ drink products hitting the shops.

MightyBee, a newcomer in the market, promotes its coconut water as a fresh, organic and refreshing drink made from coconuts picked green in Thailand. I was fairly confident I would like it as it contains coconut, which I like, and water, which I also like.

However, while I admire MightyBee’s organic and community-focused ethics (it is certified organic by the Soil Association and describes itself as ‘advocates of fair trade’) it has to be said the nicest description I could find for it was niche, and I’m not wholly convinced this will catch on.

cocnut water

Currently only delivering to stockists in London, I can imagine it being found on refrigerated lunch counters in high street shops. I just can’t imagine it competing for long with other, more refreshing drinks on offer, like water. I am happy to be proved wrong, but a drink that smells of tangy cheese doritos has a bit of a hill to climb.

 

*Bubble tea’s origins are disputed.