Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ring ring...

Retro is in.

I like sleek, modern, smooth, elegant things (like my new iPod Nano, for instance), but I have to say, the new mobile phone accessory pictured on the right is sooo cool. A friend of mine got this recently, and he showed it to me before a seminar last week. At first, I didn't quite realise what it was, I thought it was a replacement part for an old phone (he's the kind of guy who just might be repairing and renovating old phones...), but then he plugged it in to his mobile. More comfortable to hold between your ear and the shoulder than the tiny mobile, he says. I think it even came with a USB-adapter, so you could plug it to your laptop and Skype with it...

I'm tempted, this is one of the coolest new gadgets
out there now. :-)

Edit: comes only with a headphone jack, so you'd need to have a splitter to plug it in to the usually separate microphone and headphone jacks in computers... And of course doesn't work with the cell phones that have a "special" headphone plug like Nokia's phones, for instace. It's still cool...

(Pic © firstSTREET)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

One question per customer

A good lecture stimulates discussion. Thought-provoking ideas are presented, new theories floated, and the audience gets to participate in the question-answer session in the end. The 20+10 -format that is in use in most scientific conferences and meetings doesn't really allow much discussion, especially since most presentations run over their time limit. It is also always the discussion time that gets culled when the whole conference is running late and the organisers are trying to make up the lost time so that the confrence dinner can start on time.

In normal lectures and talks there is more time for the speaker, more time for questions. However, it seems not everyone is familiar with the end-of-lecture question etiquette. Even though the convenor or chair often thanks the speaker and then declares the discussion "open", there are still rules that need to be followed. For a good reason, they don't declare a state of anarchy. The offenders usually fall into the following few categories.

1) Show-offs

These people are most often found in conferences. They feel the need to comment on every single talk they hear and tell everyone how it relates to their work (sometimes stretching it beyond all limits) and how the speaker should read his (yes, these are usually men) latest article on the topic, as it will be published in Nature next month. A subcategory of show-offs are final year postgraduate students who see every conference and lecture as a venue to promote themselves and hope that being thoroughly annoying and making lots of comments, people will be impressed and offer them jobs.


These people don't ask questions. They have "a couple of comments and remarks" to make. They want to give an alternate explanation to the speaker's data, or provide an alternative reading to the theoretical background, or just lecture for 10 minutes about their views on the topic.

3) Serial queryists or microphone-hoggers

This is by far the most annoying group. Once given the permission to ask a question, these people think they can keep asking questions until they run out of them. You are only allowed one question or maximum two short questions, and then you need to give other people their turn. These people exploit the kindness of the speakers; when after answering the first question they would politely ask "did that answer your question?", the serial queryists don't just say "yes, thank you very much", but rather seize the opportunity to keep going: "yes, thanks, and now to my second question...".

4) Rude people

There are only two acceptable answers to the above-mentioned "did the answer satisfy you" -question. In other words, it means "that's my answer, take it or leave it", with a slight undertone of "if you think I was unclear we should talk more about this over coffee, but let's move to other things". So, the accepted answers are "Yes, thank you very much" and "For the most parts, yes, but I'd like to continue about this topic over coffee". The latter is strictly reserved for senior scientists. Students have no right to "book" speakers for coffee company. They need to queue to get their turn to exchange ideas (and promote themselves in hopes of being offered a job). Needless to say, some people fail to follow this rule (the annoying show-off postgraduates often break both these rules), and use the rudest possible answer: "Not really, but I guess we don't have more time to go into this now". Which directly points to the fact that the speaker run 2 minutes over in the presentation and the discussion will need to be cut short.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


You've seen it in sci-fi films, but now it is reality. The multi-touch interactive screen developed by researchers in NYU. This is absolutely amazing, just check out the video and screenshots!

Hmm, seems like the whole world is trying to see how this thing works, and the video servers are refusing connection. I promise, it's worth trying again...

Monday, February 13, 2006

University Library

Q: What do the University Library staff and terrorists have in common?

A: You can't negotiate with either.


Q: What is the difference between University Library staff and terrorists?

A: The terrorists sometimes give the impression they might be willing to negotiate.


OK, I admit, it was my fault to return the books late, and to have only £7.50 with me instead of the £7.70 the fines made up. Still, I wasn't too pleased to hear that you have to pay either "all or nothing" of your fines, and as long as you have ANY outstanding fines (be it .20 or 2159.20), you are not allowed to loan any books or renew your loans. So, I needed to run back to the faculty, luckily found the missing .20 in my backpack, run back, and pay the fine, before finally managing to renew the loans. To be fair, they were flexible enough to keep the 7 books I had from various parts of the huge library on the loan desk, so that I didn't have to wait for the day it usually takes them to reshelf those books and then look them up again.

As the keeper of invaluable literary treasures, the UL is very strict about which books can be read where. Also, only a fraction of the books are on the "open stack", and can be taken out of the library. One "patron" is also only allowed 10 books out at once. The most restricted material (apart from the truly old and rare books and manuscripts that you are not allowed to even talk about without a letter of reference co-signed by the vice-chancellor, Queen, and the Archbishop of Canterbury) is delivered on request to the West Room. This material is for example soft-bound journals, pamphlets etc. that are vulnerable for wear and tear.

West Room has a couple of copy machines, for taking copies of the material that can't be taken out of that room. Once I had literally only 3 pages to copy (a short article in a journal), I had come to the UL just for the purpose, and had the material fetched for me. But I wasn't allowed to take the copies, since the person in charge of the room had decided to be absolutely rigid about the shut-down time of those machines 15 minutes before closing time of the room, and the guy using the copy machine before me was truly taking his time... Again, I could have gone there earlier, but since I thought I could do a quick 40 second copy-thingy just about any time, I had left it late. Since she surely saw me waiting there in line for 10 minutes, I would have thought she might have allowed me an extra minute or two, but I guess it wasn't my day.

To be fair, the staff in the UL are really good in finding the stuff you need among the 7 million + items they have in stock. And if they don't have it, they can get it from elsewhere. And they are genuinely helpful if you have an intellectually challenging data-mining operation you need their help for. But when it's about something mundane and boring like photocopying or renewing loans, the statutes start to speak through them, and it's all rules and policy from there on.

Happy happy joy joy...

People often perceive us Finns as being quiet, inwardly people with a more-than-latent tendency for depression. Quite accurate, I'd say. This is now also confirmed in a popular poll in Finland.

The three most popular songs in Finland in 2005 were (my translations): "I'm Falling", "It Didn't Go Like That" and "Let's Cancel the Wedding". None of that artificial pseudo-happy have-a-nice-day -rubbish for us. :-)

The victorious orchestra Yölintu (Nightbird) celebrating riotously as the results were announced (Pic ©

Friday, February 10, 2006


What makes Cambridge education special? Apart from the opportunities to row (to row as in 'row, row, row your boat', not as in 'row with your parents over bedtimes') it must be the emphasis on one-to-one and small group teaching. For all of the 'papers' the undergraduates take, they are assigned a supervisor; someone whose responsibility it is to make sure the students do their homework and learn the things they need to for that paper. The supervisors make the students write essays, give presentations, quiz them about the reading, organise mock exams (to perfect that "Cambridge exam answer" style) and in general ensure that they have understood the lectures given by the professors and lecturers. The supervisions usually take place in groups of 1-8, 3 or 4 being the typical group size.

Interestingly, organising this supervision (and paying for it) is in the responsibility of the colleges, not the departments who provide the lectures. Usually, it is the more junior members, junior fellows, post docs, and postgraduates who give the supervisions, since it is a bit tedious and has to do with going through the basics over and over again, correcting essays etc. Plus, the postgrads and postdocs never say no to extra income...

Since small-group supervisions are the bedrock of Cambridge academic excellence, you can imagine me being not just a little scared when I was asked to start giving supervisions myself a year ago. Coming from a system that is completely different, I had no idea what the supervisions were about, but was nevertheless very keen to get involved. In Finland we had "small group teaching" only when the course was so obscure nobody was interested in it. I went through many courses in my MA by just emailing the professor once to let him/her know I'm going to take the book exam, and the only reply I got was the grade after it was all done.

In Cambridge, I had had supervisions with my own PhD supervisor, but those were always one-to-one and about my project, not about any course or lecture. So graduate supervising (which exists in Finland as well) has nothing to do with undergraduate supervision. Having never sat a Cambridge examination, I also had no idea on how "demanding" I should be. I didn't know whether the students were expected to be argumentative (which of course is the general Cambridge style) and how much detail they needed to know to support their argumentation (essentially, what's the balance between content and rhetorics). Since the topic of the paper was linked to natural science, I had to also find out how much of the physics and equations etc. I could demand from the poor humanities students. I got some very good tips and instructions from my own supervisor, who was the lecturer of that paper, but eventually had to just follow my instincts.

The university organises courses for new supervisors, but the content of these seems to be geared for people who don't have a clue about or ability for interpersonal communication. I skipped the course, because having chaired and attended literally hundreds of meetings I didn't think those would be the problematic issues for me. There was no course where the international postgrads would get a in-a-nutshell -introduction to the British education system, Cambridge examinations and course requirements. That I would have attended.

In the first supervision I was petrified. Not so much because I felt I didn't know what I was talking about, since I had spent countless hours preparing myself and reading the course reading list in advance (something I've now learned is not the usual practice...), but because they seemed to believe every word I said, and even worse, were writing them down!

Much of the material on that course (in which I'm supervising again this year, much more confidently, and needing about 10% of the preparation time I did last year) was very basic, in fact so basic that I hadn't looked at it since my very first undergrad years 10 years ago. So I needed to do a lot of work to check my facts, read the material and re-learn the things properly myself. I truly agree with the old saying that you don't really know anything until you've taught it to someone else. Teaching something means that you need to be exact with your terminology, know all its connections to other areas, have an idea of the relevance of it and finally, you need a way to express yourself accurately and clearly. Plus, I found out, it's great fun.

At least with motivated and smart students. I've been lucky, since all the people I've had the pleasure to supervise, have been just that. Some seem to rely more on their wits than hard work, while others are so engaged with extracurricular activities that they have very little to no time to do their assignments "properly". But I think these are fair enough excuses, as long as the student shows progress. Students need to live and experience things as well as learn the books, I think.

So, teaching is fun and useful. Also time-consuming if you want to do it properly. And I think it would be extremely irresponsible not to. Even though the exam marks are not the most important thing in the world, they have an effect on people's future opportunities. Giving people the chance to do their best in the exams is what supervisions are for. You can't do anyone's work for them, but you can motivate them to put the necessary effort in, and by giving good feedback you can help them improve.

And as a postgraduate student I need supervision as well. My supervisor is a star, and has helped me immensely to get where I am now. He has opened my eyes in many ways. But still, perhaps the best individual piece of feedback I ever got, was earlier this week from a visiting professor. He had come to see my talk (the story below), didn't like it, and wanted to give me personal feedback over lunch. I'm still analysing his feedback. Not so much for the content of it, since it was clear enough. (And as I said, I sort of try to forget the talk...)

What was stunning was the way he gave his feedback. It was so constructive: even though his evaluation of the talk was negative, his feedback sounded positive. He wasn't trying to find the positive things in the talk, since there weren't many, but he focused on things I should do differently next time. He was analysing the kinds of audiences I might encounter, the relevant points in my research for those groups, and how the talk could be structured so that it would better reflect the interesting aspects of my research (which he likes very much). I really, really appreciate the time he gave me, and the honest, direct, even blunt feedback. It all seems so clear now. I now know what kind of a talk I would give next time around. Even more clearly, his comments showed me what kind of a supervision and feedback I'd like to learn to give myself.

(Picture: Johann Friedrich Greuter: Socrates and his students)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

LEGO difference engine

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Charles Babbage's difference engine in Science Museum. And today I found out that Andy Carol has built a similar thing, using LEGO. These things always make me smile. I used to play a lot with LEGO as a kid. But I never felt like building difference engines or harpsichords out of them, though. (EDIT: there's one made of Meccano as well...)

These small building blocks offer limitless possibilities, and while the basic blocks are - well, "blocky", the creative and imaginative minds of children will smoothen out the rough edges and turn the lumps of cubes into sleek spaceships, ray-guns and supercars, houses, castles and treasure chests.

A friend of mine was looking for a birthday present for a nephew of hers, and I suggested LEGO. Unfortunately it seems that all they have in local toy shops were some LEGO Bionic monsters and such. What happened to the sets of basic blocks and the more generic cars, ships, planes etc.? If I wanted teenage idiot ninja mutants I would probably go and get them, but since when did LEGO get involved in this shoot-explode-bang-bang ADHD-inducing no-concentration-what-so-ever -lunacy?

The great thing about the old sets was that you would build the "intended" thing, a plane or a car, just once. Then you'd take the thing apart, and add the pieces to your big box of LEGO, where they would get a new life. As long as the blocks were generic enough, and could serve many purposes. The idea was always in the blocks, not in the pre-determined particular way of putting them together to form the thing in the cover of the box. That's why LEGO was always such a perfect gift, it could never fail. Sometimes there were exciting special parts in the boxes, that would be adopted for something completely different just seconds after the original model was built. The propeller was soon stripped of its wings, because the rest of the part looked like a jet, and jet engines are cooler than propellers. Antennas would be used as swords for LEGO men. Roof tiles became spoilers for supercars.

To all the LEGO people out there: don't ruin the whole idea, stop pre-determining and overdefining the sets, blocks and designs.

(Pics: Andy Carol & Henry Lim)

Around the world - and beyond! (to Kent)

Steve Fossett is on his way with the Virgin GlobalFlyer. He is trying to fly further than any other plane, around the world once and then cross the Atlantic ocean and finally land in England, in Kent.

For a normal, even a frequent flyer, crossing the Atlantic is just about long enough haul. Steve (age 61), however, is planning to circumnavigate the globe for a warm-up before that. And while I don't need to spend 80 or even 8 hours in a plane to complain about abysmal airline food and lack of leg space, Fossett is crammed into the tiny cockpit with nothing but milkshakes to eat/drink.

On the other hand, I bet he doesn't have to wait worriedly for his luggage to arrive, or spend hours in customs or passport control queues. Also, he probably has a car to pick him up from the airport and so he misses the fun of trying to get onto a bus or a train with suitcases and bags. He will probably miss the opportunity to buy tax-free goods, but I'm sure that if he really likes the calendar-torch-pen or miniature jumbo that are usually for sale in Virgin Atlantic planes, his buddy Richard can send one for him.

The plastic wing with fueltanks is at this moment entering Africa.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Phew. Had to give a talk in the faculty colloquia series. This is a series of weekly talks by invited speakers and our own graduate students. The audience is mostly from our faculty. This sounds nice enough, familiar crowd and so on. Unfortunately, I'm in a "special" branch of the faculty that does very different things from the rest of the people. And there is not much communication in between the two "camps", since there aren't many commonalities: approaches, methods, backgrounds etc. are all very different. Typically for an academic institution, there's actually more or less open hostility between the two groups.

So I knew that it would be a tough crowd. There are a couple of professors of the "dark side" who take pride in their total ignorance of and contempt for the work we do. There's only one correct way to do research: theirs. Anyway, I like to provoke ignorant people and enjoy the challenge of being put to the spot. But it is very, very difficult to prepare a presentation that would be general and approachable enough so that the audience would get something from it, but also detailed enough to qualify as an academic talk. And my problem is, and will always be, the multidisciplinary framework: writing a catchy story is difficult, when you need to visit and revisit so many different starting points and theories.

I think I did reasonably well with the structure. There was a bit of repetition, and I forgot to mention one crucial thing, but other than that, it was all right. I started with a silly joke and ended with the picture I posted above.

But I am not happy about how the thing in between went. I was finished with preparing the presentation too late to have a proper run-through before the actual lecture, so I found myself babbling senselessly every now and then. A couple of times, the PowerPoint surprised me by bringing up a slide I didn't remember including... Also, I said things too vaguely and lost all the elegance and nice formulations of sentences I had in mind when preparing the talk.

On the other hand, surprisingly, I kept time very well. I usually run over. And I answered most questions well, which I knew I would do. Also, I have to say that apart from one demonstration of ignorance, the questions were pretty good.

But, as an overall grade, I'd have to give myself a low pass. I didn't want to write this entry yesterday, because I was too mad about the whole thing, and would have used my annual quota of curse words before finishing the first paragraph.

I got polite, positive feedback from people, but I can tell when the feedback is positive for politeness, and when it is genuine. And I hate, absolutely hate to "underwhelm" people. Many of my colleagues (both from "my" side of the faculty and the other) said beforehand that they were really looking forward to my talk, and I feel I disappointed them. But mostly, I disappointed myself, since I know I can do so much better. I didn't get the nice feeling of being in control of the crowd, and providing them with something they can relate to, but also surprises them and makes them see things in another light. I felt they left with having just listened to another talk, and not with a better understanding on how we do things on our side, and perhaps an idea of how they could use that n their work.

I think I had a bit of an attitude problem, I took this lecture as a "necessary evil" and left the preparation too late. The lack of rehearsal was an amateur mistake, and I'm not professional enough as a public speaker to compensate for lack of preparation.

But then again. I'm being very hard on myself here, as there were good things in it, and it wasn't a disaster or anything. It's just the discrepancy between expectations and delivery. I'm used to having it the other way around, delivering more than people expect, and now swinging to the other direction was not fun at all. But now the "necessary evil" is behind me, I survived it, and can go on with my work. And make a real killer of a presentation next time around.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Onni on...

...megapitkän työpäivän jälkeen, jääkaapin ammottaessa tyhjyyttään, pakastimen perukoilta löydetty, ystävän aikoinaan Suomesta tuliaisiksi tuoman RUISLIMPUN neljännes. Kiitos!

(Can't be translated. At any level. Sorry. :-) )