Friday, March 31, 2006

My day as a commuter

It is so true that you don't really appreciate what you have, until you lose it. As a Finn, I took clean water and air, having a lot of space around me, nature, forests and lakes at my doorsteps for granted. In England I have realised that things are different: the few square feet of land that you need for parking your car is more valuable than the car itself. Especially if the lot happens to be within a mile of your house.

Location, location, location. The three most important features of your apartment or house. Or property, as the proper word is. I always thought there was property of all kinds, like intellectual property, or that your pair of skis and collection of Peruvian mouth-organs would qualify as property. Well, they might, but what counts is your proverbial castle. There are two kinds of programmes on TV nowadays; celebrity/not-yet-but-soon-to-be celebrity reality shows, and property/renovation/home & garden shows. Oh, and occasional re-runs of Miss Marple and football.

The reason why people in these English, i.e. hideously small, mildewy, wall-to-wall carpeted and inconvenient houses are so obsessed with the properties of their properties, is that they are so expensive, and that they often are situated a few counties away from where people go to work. Which is London.

Cambridge is close enough to London to be inside its commuting circle. That would at first sound ridiculous for two reasons. First, to me, having to sit (or actually, stand) for an hour in a train to get to spend another hour in the tube to get to work, and then reversing the process in the end of the day is too much. Also, the property prices in Cambridge are hideously high as well, so you wouldn't even save much. Not enough to offset the human costs of the commuting, anyway.

I tried this "lifestyle" for one day this week. When I go to London, I usually avoid peak hours in the trains, not only because you get the tickets half price, but also because you get a seat. This time, however, I was going to London in business, had to spend the whole day, and so needed to take the 7.15 commuter express from Cambridge and the 18.15 zombie-transport back.

You think you know how to travel in trains and tubes, but one trip in the early train with these people is enough to show you what a total amateur you are. These people are professional commuters. The crowd on the platform waiting for train, is not uniformally distributed across the length of the platform. It's in about 8 clusters and one row behind them. There will be 8 cars in the train. The train doors will stop at the centres of the clusters. The people who form the row are those who came too late to make it to a good spot in the cluster, and are waiting for their chance to dash to the doors in case the driver makes a mistake and goes a bit too far and parks the doors between clusters.

There are no happy faces. No one is really looking forward to the trip, there's no sense of excitement, no glow in the cheeks that would reveal inner musings of the prospects of the travels ahead. Any glow is more likely to be a result of a hang-over or overdose of caffeine that they have injected themselves with to battle chronic sleep-deprivation. These people are not going to see their loved ones, or new exciting places. They are going to work, and had to wake up too early. In fact, they ARE at work already. Meeting agendas and business correspondence are being drafted in the minds already, telephone calls are made (clearly to other commuters or business partners in other time zones, since it's about 7AM...). Then the train arrives, and the platformfull of suited grey mass will be sucked into the train that's already half-full of people who live even further away. They might have to get up earlier, but they will be guaranteed a seat in the train. At Cambridge (and there are four other stops between Cambridge and London King's Cross) the train will reach its full capacity and some people will have to sit on the floor or stand.

80% of those who get a seat will take a memo or a laptop or both from their briefcases and start working. To get a competitive edge or just to fight off boredom? Not everyone is wearing a suit. There's also a handful of people who don't trust public transport in London and are equipped with folding bicycles and gore-tex jackets and lycra pants with lots of reflectors everywhere, and are going to hop on their bikes on the station and cycle wherever it is they are going. Assumedly their suits will be there waiting for them.

There's a sense of belonging that you get in here. It's not really solidarity, since you can feel that these people are already mentally preparing for the competitive environment they will face in City, but everyone feels like they are in the same boat. The professionalism of commuting is enshrined in the unspoken rules and codes of conduct. If you see a free seat, you grab it. It's yours even though an older lady would walk past. Since everyone is fit enough to work, they are also fit enough to stand. It's their own fault if they are too slow to board a train. Better luck next time. No loud conversations, even in mobiles. People are working, this is an extension of the office, just without the water coolers and stationery cupboards. You shouldn't pay too much attention to other people's papers or work. You wouldn't want someone to peer over your shoulder to read your memo's, would you? No initiating unnecessary discussion. It is alright to talk with people who are travelling with you, but not initiate stupid chats with strangers about weather or the nice laptop they have. They have the laptop because they are working, even if they would be playing solitaire. There's mental work or mind-cleaning going on and it should not be disturbed.

Efficiency is the word. At King's Cross, people who queue for their coffee fixes all know what they are going to have when their turn to make the order comes. None of that touristy procrastination and thinking aloud, pondering whether to get a large or medium, should we get cream or not in the mocha. It's mostly double espressos and large americanas, all to go, all quick, all routine. You grab the free Metro paper, since it's routine. You read the stories without taking any of it in, since it's the established routine. Everyone is wearing their commuting class uniform, a grey suit or similar. Being there means having a job, a job that is well-paid enough for you to be coming to do it from anouther county. You are important enough for the company for them to pay you enough to make it worth your while to do this every day. Success!

But, it takes its toll. Even though the public transport in London is phenomenal and works astoundingly well, considering the number of people that use it every day, it is still a drag. At 6 pm, about 12-13 hours after getting up in the morning, the same lot will crowd another train and head back to Cambridgeshire for the night. This time many of them are going to their loved ones, but the weight of the day is still too much for them to crack a smile. Someone is still working, although it's predominantly evening rags and not working memos anymore. Competition for seats is different, since this time the train waits for commuters at the platform, but the same rules apply. "I've worked so hard today that I deserve this seat. If the granny needs a seat, one of the young students can give up theirs. I pay for their education anyway in my taxes."

What would you do with 3 extra hours in your day? How valuable would they be for you? How much would you be willing to pay to get the hum of train-travel out of your head? I don't know. I know I wouldn't want to commute like that, and I'm now much more appreciative of the fact that it takes me 5 minutes to cycle to work, in case I decide not to work at home. But, it might be that some day I will join the grey mass, know where the train doors will be, or even get myself some reflecting gore tex and lycra and a folding bike.

(Pic ©

Monday, March 27, 2006


In other words, procrastination. Or actually not really. Mind-cleaning seems to be necessary, anyway. Which could be just another excuse to feel better about procrastinating, but before you judge me, let me explain. What I mean with mind-cleaning is the kind of activity you need to engage in when your thoughts get so tangled that you no longer know what the initial question was. Logically, that's when it becomes impossible to find answers.

I've been in that situation a lot lately. The challenge of the last couple of weeks has been trying to sort the technical minutiae of the analysis procedures I've been building. So, more than often I have found myself staring into the red brick wall of a dead end. I would be tinkering with pieces of code or some calculations or whatnot, and all of a sudden I would realise that I've been trying to fix something that isn't broken, or trying to use fixes that won't ever work because of some other fixes I had made earlier etc. Being a grown-up, sensible person, instead of losing my temper or all of my hope, (or indeed instead of starting over without any new ideas), I would take a step back and clean my mind. Sometimes so effectively that it would take literally hours to get back to work, but there are risks in every strategy, right? :-)

There are many methods. Reading the latest news is one, writing a blog entry another. But the better you can engage your mind in something totally different from your work the better. This is the key to the success of Sudoku. All you think of are 9 numbers... In addition to Sudoku, I find the online quizzes quite effective. The "classic" challenge is of course the news quiz, or the Uutisguru (News-guru). I'm back on the top-20's of the monthly rankings thanks to this latest data-project. :-) The engaging part of this quiz-format (Who wants to be a millionaire -style, a question and 4 options for answers, the faster you answer, the more points you score) is that even though the pool of questions is relatively limited and tends to repeat itself after a few dozen games, the game still maintains its addictive nature, since to get top scores you also need to be fast.

In fact, you have just about a second to give the right responses if you want to get to the very top. Which means that you need to learn very quick associations between questions and their answers. For many of the questions, I don't need to read the question at all, since I know which must be the right option just by seeing the answers. So I glance instead of spending time reading. With one glance I get an idea of the question, hopefully recognise it and then sweep down to find the right answer, following it with mouse. Sometimes the right answer is easy to find, since it is the shortest / longest of the options. So you save the time you would spend reading the options, just go for the one that is correct, based on the shape.

The makers of the quiz are aware of these tactics, since they tend to device nasty traps, like using answers of similar length or appearance, or in questions about years tend to use the right answers for one question as the wrong ones for the others. There are also some questions that have so much text or where the dates for instance are written out so that you actually need to read them thus losing time. As in "Who wants to be a millionaire", there are 3 lifelines, but if you need to use them, you are pretty much screwed for getting a good score. If you have done well otherwise, there might be time for a quick "50-50" but that's about it. Having to think for an answer is bad, since it takes too much time.

And that's why these quizzes work as mind-cleaning. Nothing beats good old asoociationism as a way of getting rid of congestion higher up in the cortex!

(Pic: my brain (there is one, hoorah!), fMRI photo taken last Thursday in MRC-CBU in Cambridge)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Read and re-read

I'm not reading much these days. I should, and I will, once I get some of this data analysis backlog cleared. I have about a dozen books and a wad of articles lined up for reading. In addition to this new stuff, I am now beginning to realise that I would need to read some of the "old" stuff again...

For the first half a year of my PhD I did nothing else but sat in a library reading (studywise, that is). Books, articles, conference proceedings and review papers (oh, how I love GOOD review papers, you get the essence of dozens of articles and only need to read one - as long as it is a good one, which means it doesn't miss important articles and doesn't misrepresent their findings).

I used to take notes of what I read, since I thought I'd go back to those notes when writing up and would then easily find where this or that piece of information is, who said what and where. Now when I'm doing just that and visiting these old notes, I find that there are only two minor problems: I can't find the right stuff and what I find is useless.

The first problem arises from the fact that my system was "designed" to find the relevant information from the given book, as long as you knew in which book it was. And this is the critical fault. I'd first need to find the word-file with the notes of the correct book, to be able to access my fancy notes about quote x being on page 223. Luckily EndNote (with it's facility to store abstracts as well as references) and Google Desktop search help somewhat in overcoming this problem.

But, the second problem is of a more fundamental nature, and is the reason why I need to start re-reading the books. If I'm lucky to find the right notes, I find them mostly irrelevant. What I thought to be important and interesting 3 years ago, now seems more or less trivial, while the important bits are not at all covered by my notes. My research focus has shifted just enough to
shift the light spots into shade and vice versa. Of course I can also blame the inevitable ignorance of a first year PhD-student for not being able to see the forest from the trees.

Well, I suppose it is rather normal not to remember everything you read 3 years ago, and with a bit of searching and browsing quite a lot can be recovered from the notes I wrote - it definitely was worth the while writing them at the time. But this necessity to re-read seems to work on a shorter time-spans as well. Sometimes I read an article or a text, fail to be impressed, then go back to it from a different perspective, and get completely blown away. The current mind-set has a huge effect. Unlike prose or poetry, scientific texts are always read "with an agenda", there's something you need to know, something you want to find out. That might be the methodology used, the results obtained, or the theoretical framework and references, for example. Therefore you always tend to read these things with different hats and glasses of different shades on. And then either fail or succeed to find significance in the texts.

This mindset- or agenda-effect can be seen clearly in scientific conferences. In any given thematic session, most researchers will have read the same books and articles, and are all quoting the most seminal ones. But they all are "using" them differently. Sometimes the interpretations differ from each other so much, that you start to wonder if there are two completely different editions out there (unlikely if it is an article, more possible with books). This illustrates that it's just a case of "read what you want to read". These events always make me re-read some of the old stuff, just to check which of the presenters got it right and who was wearing the least transparent, self-reflecting glasses when reading it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Difficult conclusions

When is it ready, when is it good enough? I suppose every PhD student battles with this question. After numerous drafts, revamped structures and re-written sections, a final version has to emerge. At some point, you just need to let go, resist the urge to go through it one more time, change the word order, polish the grammar.

I'm nowhere near this stage yet, but I'm already aware that when I am, letting go might be a major issue for me. Currently, I'm having difficulties in making some of those decisions that will be "final"; in the way that once they are made, I can't go back and change them. I wrote about this earlier, when describing my experiment preparations. I've lately discovered that this is a more common issue in my work than I've realised. I often find myself procrastinating before taking a step that will finalise a relatively meaningless little step of the work. Perhaps it is the feeling that everything has its consequences, and I'm now on the "final lap" and there will be no "next time", no second chance to go back and do things differently. Last experiments, last analyses, last literature reviews and last revamps of the theoretical framework... And each small decision weights a lot more than it used to a year ago, when everything was still "in process", "just a draft", "a penultimate version", "a suggestion" or merely "a digress which may never lead anywhere". And also, there are no excuses, since I should have learned my lessons already and be the expert of the field...

The new CEO of Nokia, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said recently in an interview that he has always been quick in making decisions. As a PhD himself, he probably developed some of these skills when getting through this process. I find some comfort in the thought that if someone is able to make big decisions concerning 57 000 employees and millions of customers, I should have no problem with getting on with the nitty-gritty issues of one small PhD thesis.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Auugh, too many people around... The "lab" where I'm working is currently undergoing a mild to moderate mayhem, as all undergraduates with their graduate supervisors are trying to run their "experiments" before the term finishes. This means that I can no longer assume that the tablespace and network cable that I usually use as my "homebase" would be free. On the contrary, it is most likely taken over by an undergraduate eating some of the chocolate that was reserved as a reward for the participants for her experiments. There are papers and laptops everywhere, people coming and going, students giving instructions on how to respond to their behavioural experiments, how to fill in the questionnaires and so forth. Some others are debriefing their participants on why they made them listen to the same boring stimuli 35 600 times and trying to pretend that it doesn't matter if they responded '4' on a seven-point scale on every occasion, while inconspicuously trying to write "outlier - delete" on their notes.

I needed to evacuate to my "branch office" for most of the day, just to get something done. It's just too much to have all this commotion around while trying to think about how to process your data. I don't like open offices and it is especially difficult if someone is on "my" reserved space. But, the term ends this week and the mind-numbing peace will prevail again. I wonder how long it will take before I get bored with having no one around and start blaming quietness for not being able to work at optimal efficiency... :-)

Thursday, March 09, 2006


One of the many google-based fun-applications out there (I'm sure everyone is familiar with the googlefight...) is Googlism. It takes a name or a noun, googles it and presents results in "X is __" -format. Pretty funny.

According to Googlism, TH is:

  • our finnish hero
  • iceland's most popular dj (this would be so cool...)
  • a licensed minister with new life church in colorado springs
  • speaking norwegian into big white plastic bag after wild night of drinking vodka and beer and whatever was available (as I do...)
  • de sympathieke naam van een heel vernuftig toestelletje
  • quite enourmous
  • small and he's definitely beatable
  • a medium size compact black and gold male
  • still heavier than her normal size but she looks fine
  • all woman
  • married with nanna and has 2 children (oops...)
  • a cat with great balance problems
  • emerging as one of the most original talents to come out (come out where, a closet? :-) )
  • a leader in machine learning and will be a welcome addition to our faculty (wehea, a job!)
  • unamused
  • there
  • right

I try to resist doing all my friends and family, as there is quite a lot to do today at work... This thing is as old as time itself (dated 2003), but I only tumbled upon it today. When googling something, its googlism page came up in the top 10... A bit inbred, I'd say. :-)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


If you see one around, could you please tell it to come back. I'd need it to finish some work but it's nowhere to be found.

Damn it. Seems like there's at least one Monday each week. Yesterday didn't feel like Monday at all, probably because I had a nice dinner in Teri-Aki to look forward to. And work was OK, too. I managed to get my experiment ready to run, apart from one technical detail. Which I'm now too bored to fix, since Monday's caught me up. I just haven't been able to concentrate on my work properly, and I was really incoherent in supervision earlier. The quality of my thinking was so shoddy that I decided to just do laundry.

In all respects, it feels like a Monday. First of all, the weather is awful; cold, rainy, damp, grey and dark. Second, the construction site next door has been excessively loud, and they have done some work right below my window, as they've dug up the lawn and made some sewer connections or whatever. Seems to require loud, heavy tools and blocking the footpath, anyway.

Third, my college is showing it's incompetent side again, as I've been inundated with false bills. Some of these bills go up to £4500 and are definitely wrong, some are smaller and less obviously wrong. The big bill for four and a half grand was for fees, of which I'm exempted for being a 4th year PhD student. Well, they tried to bill them from me anyway, I guess just in case I had some loose change I would like to part with.

Their previous strike of genious was sending me a bill for £946 for "Sage Balance Transfer", which I of course didn't pay since I didn't understand what it was for. Now they have explained that it's my rent for 3 months plus £10 for key deposit. By adding this "random term" they made the sum unrecognisable, and the name "Sage balance transfer" was still not explained. I've paid my key deposit in 2003 when I moved in to my room, and this is now the third time since then that they've tried to re-charge it from me. I guess some people don't check their bills and just pay anything, so it's worth trying. Sounds like those scams where people sell adspace on their website by sending bills to companies for their appearance in "business directory service".

Finally, today I heard that the college had lost my travel grant application after it was processed half through the system and now I need to do it again. Oops, they say, and you get no confirmation that anything would be changed next time. Just random mistakes that seem to be cropping up a lot lately. Lack of concentration?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Lent Bumps

Yes, rowing.

I have to admit, it still at times fills my mind and my world. Or, should I say it IS my world. If Cambridge can be a bubble, rowing is a bubble in Cambridge, and those who take it seriously enough to be in the captaining-coaching-running regattas or boatclubs -circle form a bubble within that. Luckily, I'm only one foot in in the last bubble, but there are still enough bubble layers to keep the real world out of reach.

College rowing in Cambridge has two events above others: Lent Bumps in the end of the Lent term, and May bumps in June. (Please don't ask stupid questions, of course May Bumps are in June, just like May Balls and the May Week. This is Cambridge, remember.)

In this insane form of racing, boats (racing eights, each having 8 rowers and the cox) line up at the bank, start rowing on a cannon shot, and try to catch each other and "bump" them. In each bumps week, there are four races, and if you "bump", you move up one position, and if you get bumped, you move down. A "row over" simply means you rowed through the course without catching anyone and no one caught you. If you bump on all four days, you get "blades", your names painted on an oar and that commemorative blade mounted in a special place in college. Usually in the bar.

So, I've spent my week at the river. mostly in bank crews, pushing boats off and cycling alongside yelling and whistling etc. I did have to row two races, as well, but I was just subbing in our first boat. What I'm really proud of, is our second boat, the one I coach. We started working together in the beginning of last term, and they were complete novices. And I was a complete novice as a coach. And when I look at them now, rowing together as an 8, having a good technique, and winning bumps and other races, I feel a kind of pride I have rarely if ever felt.

First of all, it's different from the kind of feeling of achievement you get when you reach a goal on your own. It's a team effort. But that's not all there is to it, since being a coach is being a special member of the team. I don't feel they won their races because of me, but almost like they did it FOR me. I don't know if it's a really weird way of thinking about it, and I know it's not really all true, since in a rowing crew you work for the crew and yourself, and the coach is simply a facilitator, but it's still a very nice feeling.

Well, now we party a little and celebrate and enjoy these achievements. All those early mornings and cold wind at the river, all the sweat and pain has now paid off and we were rewarded with good results. We take a bit of a breather and then start training for the Mays. And since they luckily aren't in May, we have plenty of time to get ready...

(Picture of this year's Bumps, first day. Copyright Jet Photographic)