Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bond reborn

The genre was supposed to be as dead as the cold war. Battling for world domination against a communist regime but having to do that in the dark provided a great setting for Bond and other agent heroes. After 1990, it was the former Soviet generals gone AWOL, rogue media moguls and assorted terrorists, but none really had the same potential for developing saving-the-world -stories than the combined threat of Soviets and SPECTRE used to.

While covert action seems to be taking the spotlight again, the new Bond film has taken the story back to its beginnings.

Let's face it, Bond was tired. Lack of ideas led to forgetting the character and just focusing on the brand: Bond cars, Bond girls, Bond theme tunes, Bond gadgets, the Bond storyline with the evil genius and his plot to take over the world, his underground lair that gets blown to bits in the end. The main character just needed to deliver the witty and chauvinistic lines, introduce himself in a trademark way and go through the moves looking suitably blazé.

While Bond was going through a midlife crisis or perhaps was sitting at a desk at Vauxhall Cross filing inter-departmental performance reports for meeting government guidelines on transparency and accountability, another hero was revived: Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne was brought to big screen. The focus was in the man himself, a trained superagent with special skills but a hazy purpose. As he was fished out of the sea, there were no gadgets or cars to begin with. He couldn't introduce himself in a trademark way because he didn't remember his name. But there was a story, turns in the plot, and you didn't know how it would end and there was at least some ambiguity as to who the real bad guys were.

In Casino Royale, Bond returns to the head of the main table in agents dining hall and dwarfs every other secret agent out there.

If you haven't seen the film yet, go now. Go see it on big screen, it's worth it. If you don't think Daniel "The Blonde" Craig makes a good Bond, go see the film before judging him, you're going to like him. If you saw the trailer and didn't like it, don't worry, go see the film anyway - it's much more than the trailer suggests. If you usually don't like Bond films, go see this one, it's a proper film with a proper plot and all those kinds of fancy things. They even hired a director who directed the actors and made them act, not just some bloke to coordinate the explosions and car chases.

Most importantly, Bond is not just a shell, they've made him a real character. As the story is based on Ian Fleming's first Bond-novel, and it follows him through the first missions as double-0 agent (you know, they are the ones with licences to kill), there's more scope to make him vulnerable, fallible and human. This doesn't mean he's not every bit as charming, self-assured, efficient and strong. It's not the Bond for the emo-types, au contraire. It just makes the whole thing more believable, more unpredictable and more exciting. If anything, Bond is more hard and tough, but only partly because of the job, and partly because he doesn't want to show his weaknesses. That's at least two dimensions of a character, and it's one more than we've used to seeing in agent thrillers.

Best Bond ever.

(Pic: ©

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


For the record, the weather is wonderful today. Just so that I wouldn't be blamed for constantly dissing the local ambience. East of England is the driest part of Britain, and there are several sunny days every year.

There. Positive posting about the English weather. I'm wondering how many times I'm now allowed to complain about wetness, coldness or fogness... or maybe there's a time limit, I get a free trial period like with cable tv: three months of free weather complaints, absolutely no charge! And like with the cable tv, there's probably a section in the small print that explains how "absolutely no charge" translates to £49.99 per month and how you've actually signed for 3 centuries and not three months as you thought.

So, how's work? Slow. There's a lot of inertia around this week, and everything seems to take a lot of effort. Getting up in the morning (this is not surprising) and everything during the day and even going to bed in the evening (this I can't explain at all). Perhaps there's something in the air. They should add this to the weather forecasts, just like they do with pollen and UV radiation. "Stronger than average inertia can occur in the East of the country, with occasional showers of procrastination and indecision. This will clear by next week, as more proactive air flows in from the South."

This is the week when teaching stops. It's been a ridiculously busy 8 weeks of term, and now it all comes to an end. For me, this means that supervision reports need to be typed, final essays marked, and schedules and plans made for next term. Also, I'd need to come up with some "holiday work" for my supervisees, and I'm not at all sure if spending much time in coming up with interesting and well-framed tasks is worth the while, as they probably won't even look at their books before they come back in the new year, and then scrape something together in the 3 hours before the next supervision. Me cynical? Slowly but surely. :-) Anyway, given that there's an odd chance that at least one of them might do some work during the 6 week break, I'll try to come up with something challenging and interesting.

Monday, November 27, 2006

World's slowest Monday

As I've mentioned, Monday is my new favourite day of the week. The full working week ahead, and so much that can be done and so many things that I can dream of finishing by the end of the week.

Well, today's been so slow that I don't even dream of anything, and definitely not about finishing it. There has been absolutely no brain activity today, I can only read two rows of text before I totally drift away, and I remember nothing of what I've read. I'm struggling to write understandable sentences and therefore put off any email writing I'd have. I'm not alone: out of 6 students that I have, only 2 returned their essay in time, which means that rather than marking them today in time for tomorrow's supervision, I'll need to spend time on them later this week, or whenever they get around to writing the bloody things. It seems that everyone is getting totally drained by the dark, miserable, wet, gray and annoying weather, and the demands of the last week of the term.

At least I managed to help a colleague of mine who had a data analysis issue. That made me feel somewhat useful, even though the problem was a clitch in software and shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Not my day

It's just not my day. Usually you'd say "I wish I never got out of bed". But, in my case, I wish I'd got out of bed earlier.

Sometimes I sleep in. Today I did. Not only do I feel guilty about it, but I have great difficulty to get the day started at all if it doesn't start properly. And today it doesn't. As my girlfriend is visiting Finland, I'm left to my own devices. The device that didn't work this morning was the alarm clock.

So, it was late (almost 11) when I managed to get up. A bowl of porridge, my usual breakfast, would hopefully get me going. Well, it did, but in a wrong way. It got me cursing as it boiled over and messed up the microwave.

I'm not going to mention the horrible weather, because predictably it was raining this morning. So, after struggling to wake up, having burned my fingers in the scalding hot water when trying to wash the porridge off the bottom plate of the microwave and in- and outsides of the bowl, I headed out to the refreshingly moist and invigoratingly cool outdoors. Our bike shed is under renovation. As it's now two months old, they need to replace all the sideboards, doors and drains. Quality building work. It has 5 compartments, and the builder had decided to set up shop at the one where I keep my bike. After a bit of a wrangle, I managed to get the bike out, carefully lifting it over the debris, table saws, axes, hammers and power cords.

And then the typical Cambridge traffic. Men in their white vans, speeding and trying to knock over as many Chinese students swaggering on with their low-ride bikes as they can, taxis loading and unloading at junctions, pedestrians crossing streets at a whim, without looking, buses too large for the lanes powering through the ranks of students plodding from a lecture to another. The usual stuff.

Finally at work, and going through my normal routine of news- and blogreading before starting work proper, I found this. I found it at MusicThing, and liked it a lot, and decided to link it here. I went to the YouTube site, logged in, and already wrote a cheery entry about how this saved my day as I found it both witty and skillful, not to mention original (perhaps the best compliment you can make these days). Then I found out that since I changed to Blogger Beta, the link between my YouTube account and blog that allows me to embed videos with just a couple of clicks doesn't work anymore. So, I needed to delete the old association and add a new one. Then I found out that Blogger has a huge delay and signing in doesn't work at all, and so the association can't be built.

Now, finally, Blogger works, but the YouTube-association doesn't. So, you'll need to follow the link to see the video.

Meanwhile, I'm starting my work proper, and hope that me having a bad day means that Nick is having a great one, as his viva voce examination is today and he will pass the final hurdle in becoming a PhD. Balance of karma, or something. Not that he would need any luck, he's our star.

Edit: just went to a library to return two books. And of course, what started as a loan had again turned into a rental, and I had to fork out £6 in overdue fees. £6! That's ridiculous, this library has probably the highest overdue fees in the country, and of course the online-renewal system most libraries here have, doesn't work in this one.

As I was heading back, my bike key broke in the lock. So, I had to get a janitor with a wrench to bend and twist the keystub in the lock to open it. Of course, now I can't relock it, so the inevitable errand-running thing I have to do this afternoon will take about an hour longer as I must walk everywhere. Even locked bikes are stolen en masse in Cambridge, I don't even want to think what would happen to an unlocked one. Especially if it's mine, especially today. I've now put my bike indoors at the faculty, of which I'm going to get told off, as that of course isn't permitted.

Edit2: So, I went to run the errands. The rain has picked up, and now it's pouring, and so I'm soaking wet. The main reason for having to go out now was that I needed to renew a prescription. There were two items I had asked for, insulin and test slips for my blood sugar meter. The insulin, which the pharmacy had plenty, was just so I don't need to go again before Christmas. The slips, which the pharmacy had none, were the original reason for the renewal as I will run out of them during the weekend. So, after completely soaking myself and waiting for about an hour, I need to go back tomorrow morning to actually get the bleeping slips.

I don't know who wrote the hideous Christmas song that has the most annoying chorus that says something like: "we're all having, a wonderful Christmas time". It doesn't have a verse at all, as the song consists of repeating this chorus-bit about 154438 times. I wish that whoever wrote this and everyone who has ever recorded this song would be slowly disembowelled with a blunt and rusty penknife and then chopped to minuscule pieces starting from their toes. And whoever decided to play the extralong live version of this song while I was queuing for the non-existent slips at the pharmacy should be made to perform this operation, as s/he clearly has the sadistic tendencies required.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


What makes Cambridge education special is the amount of individual attention each undergraduate gets, in one-on-one or small group supervisions and tutorials. As the more senior academics are responsible for the courses and papers, it's often the graduate students or junior researchers who supervise the learning in between the lectures, make student write essays, check that they do the required reading and in general keep up to speed with the courses that usually cover huge amounts of material and issues.

The supervision system reflects the dual structure of the university, as the papers are organised and lectured (and eventually examined) by the university department, while the supervisions are paid for and organised by the colleges. There's no fixed method or content, or even a set amount of work you need to do in the supervisions, and so two students taking the same course might end up doing very different amounts of work and focusing on different issues in the course. Of course within the theme of the paper and the main content, set by the lecturers.

Tuesday is supervision day for me. I try to get all the supervisions done on Tuesday so that it frees the rest of the week for the infamous writing up. It works ok, apart from days like this when the supervision goes spectacularly wrong and manages to ruin the whole day.

I had three groups of 3, or actually one group of 4 and another of 2, as one student needed to switch because of other things. While one of the groups was ok and the discussion lively and dynamic, the other meeting was just a drag. For some reason, I didn't manage to explain anything properly, got messed up into nitty-gritty details that have almost no significance in the big picture and in the end I felt I had just confused people rather than being helpful at all. And I felt all drained afterwards, and have no energy whatsoever to read, write or do anything.

So, now I'm off to a seminar where I'm just going to focus on the wine and pringles (the other special component of Cambridge education), as I didn't manage to read either of the two texts we are supposed to discuss. And I actually liked one of them. The other paper I didn't like, the problem being that it's difficult to relate it to anything as the authors almost exclusively quote their own earlier work rather than anything anyone else might have read. They've created a bubble of their own and are happily within it, just replicating their own work and finetuning the experiments etc. Good luck, let me know if you decide to link it to anything in the real world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Freedom of speech

As a follow-up of the previous slightly messy post on web debates, today's post is about the Reporters Without Borders and their annual list of countries that violate freedom of speech online. In these countries, bloggers, online journalists and activists are harassed or imprisoned. The list is shrinking - it's size is down to 13 from 15 last year. Check out the online freedom of speech campaign site and show your support.

The list (in alphabetical order):

  • Belarus (151)
  • Burma (-)
  • China (70)
  • Cuba (66)
  • Egypt (70)
  • Iran (105)
  • North Korea (-)
  • Saudi Arabia (70)
  • Syria (93)
  • Tunisia (51)
  • Turkmenistan (142)
  • Uzbekistan (151)
  • Vietnam (111)
Egypt is the only newcomer to the list, so while other countries have improved their ways (Nepal, Maldives and Libya were removed from the list this year), others adopt questionable policies. The violations are usually either limiting access to internet, filtering content (like for example China does on a large scale, with help from Western companies interested in getting to the Chinese market without concern about human rights), or more "traditionally" threatening and/or imprisoning people because of what they have to say.

On another but related note, Transparency International published their ranking list of countries according to perceived levels of corruption. Finland, Iceland and New Zealand top their Corruption Perception Index, and are therefore the countries that people see as being the least corrupt. In the Finnish news this is usually taken as an ego massage, and passed on as the good news of the day, but without really thinking about what this means. As I've said, I'm really proud of this Finnish achievement, much more so than any medals we've amassed in the driving-cars-fast-around-a-circle-until-bored-to-death -championships.

Freedom of speech and low corruption go hand in hand, although they are different animals. Corruption can be said to be a result of lack of freedoms of expression. The numbers in brackets after the list of freedom of speech violators are the Transparency International CPI rankings. "Lack of transparency" as a concept sums it well, and transparency is provided not only by having clear policies and rule of law, but also by having journalists and bloggers around to expose those who have wronged. The best way to reduce bribes, lubrication money and gifts with strings attached is to make the risk of getting caught high enough, and the punishment public enough.

Another, even more significant factor fueling corruption is poverty. The poorest country of the world, Haiti, is at the bottom of the list, while the countries on the top of the CPI list are all very rich. If public administrators are skint and there's no money to pay proper wages for the police etc., they are likely to abuse their position of authority and supplement their income by charging extra for their services.

But, it's not that simple. Russia, where freedom of speech has recently been hit hard by concentration of media ownership, harassment and even murders of journalists, has a strong tradition of corruption as well, but has enjoyed strong economic growth for a while. Even with a boom in economy and relative stability of government, the brown envelopes still change hands often enough to merit a dubious 121th position in the rankings. The Finnish-Russia border has been dubbed as the largest economic gap in the world; it's also the largest contrast in terms of corruption - a challenge for the border routines. In China as well, the economic boom has first resulted in increase of corruption, and now they are getting measures in place to curb it, and even very high party officials have been indicted. The problem is, at the same time freedom of speech is still going downhill, as if those in power were afraid that bad press would damage the economy.

One problem is that freedom from corruption is taken for granted in most European countries, so is freedom of speech. They usually only appear in speeches and policies, mentioned when you need some really high principles to associate yourself with. Unfortunately, it's much easier to praise one's own country for doing well on these than it is to start concrete action to improve the situation in places where problems arise. Short-term economic and political gains far outweigh the moral loss of dealing with corrupt regimes. I guess someone should calculate the value for freedom of speech and clean reputation, just like Stern et al. have calculated the value of environment.

Take Belarus for example. A country twice the population of Finland, located about as far West as Finland, except for being 500 kilometers more southern. Minsk is closer to Berlin, Paris or Brussels than Helsinki. Its area is almost the same as that of the Great Britain. Yet, we know nothing of it, and most Belarusians only know of us what the Lukashenko regime tells them. A country that is at the center of Europe is a reject, backwater black hole of a country, due to totalitarian and corrupt rule, without any transparency or freedom of expression. And we've been unable to do anything about it. I think we haven't wanted to, not enough.

(Pic: thanks to Khalidah Mufleh, found it on her blog entry about freedom of speech)

Monday, November 06, 2006


Ahh, dreams... I had one last night. I was teaching a class. It started as a relatively advanced class, as I was giving people essay topics. Or actually, I was trying to match each student with a topic they know most about. As the lesson progressed, we moved from writing essays to me teching them the alphabet... And still, I was explaining to someone how I liked teaching very much as seeing your students learn and progress is so rewarding!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Web debates

The social dimension of the internet is getting more and more important. Even the "old media", newspapers etc. who publish their news and other "print" material in the web, have adopted interactivity and are combining the traditional editing/publishing models with "new" interactive possibilities of the web. This means, that in addition to printing the news you'd otherwise read in the newspaper, you can now discuss in the forums operated by the publishers. So, in addition to organising information in a web-sensitive way (by interlinking documents and sources of information) these services now allow different ways of social engagement with the information, in addition to the traditional transmitter-receiver -model.

This is not just an extension of the good old "letters to the editor" -function that most newspapers have provided and still do, it's more about having a social way of making sense of the events and news provided by the service. The same news can be covered in so many different ways, depending on your "ideology", background and opinions. In Britain, your choice of newspaper tells quite a lot about your political views (or lack thereof if you read pretty much any of the tabloids). For example, whether tax cuts are good news or bad news depends on your political views.

Social networking is the hot thing right now. MySpace, Facebook, Orkut and countless other sites are growing at an insane pace, as people sign up and create their own pages and then link them to their friends' pages, join communities and discussions etc. There's a very "teeny" sense of competition, as the number of contacts serves as a quantifiable measure of your site credibility, but these sites have real importance as well, Orkut seems to be popular among young professionals especially in India and in Brazil, while MySpace has been used as a promotion channel for musicians and bands. Facebook has focused on college students and has lately been used more and more as a recruitment tool by companies.

All these websites and other forums (and of course online games) allow you to connect with people from around the world, and that obviously can have positive effects. But, I have grown very skeptical about these lately.

This could just be phd-angst, but I'm annoyed by discussion forums, most comments on some of the blogs I occasionally read (TechCrunch, for instance), and the behaviour of people on these places in general. It seems that the option to comment or to interact has increased people's willingness to talk, but nobody is listening anymore. It's not rare to have 5 people say exactly the same thing in comments to any post on TechCrunch, for instance. Also, these discussions tend to get more polarised than ever in real life, so rather than bringing about compromise and understanding they tend to just "radicalise" people or at least their internet personae.

In the Helsingin Sanomat website the new feature is to link news with discussions on the HS forums, and the first comments are shown underneath the news. And from those you'd think that most readers of the paper are cynical right-wing bigots. I try to think of them as sad unemployed bald little men sitting in front of their computer writing their little rants here and there, but they still can ruin your day. If there's something in addition to prejudice and racism that I really hate, it cynicism. People so often confuse it with being analytical and critical, and it often blends with incessant and equally intolerable smugness.

Anonymity is an opportunity, as many people couldn't openly share their views under their real name. It can also act as the great equalizer, you can be respected based on your opinions and argumentation rather than title or status. The former issue is actually very important for freedom of speech and development towards (hopefully) democracy in the otherwise oppressive countries. But, the good idea of having a freedom from status and personal history and benefit of being judged by actions not appearance is spoiled by people who don't know what these freedoms are for and why they might be important. Being anonymous is for some people the same as being irresponsible. Most of these people spoiling other people's fun or even useful projects are probably American or European teen-aged boys testing their limits.

Wikipedia is a good/bad example. Allowing anonymous editing has resulted in bitter editing wars in most political or politically sensitive topics, or topics that are related to religion. There's a parallel project now, called Citizendium, where anonymous editing would not be allowed and there would also be editors who would have decision-making powers on what to edit and how. I heard somewhere that wikipedia was contemplating disallowing anonymous editing as well, not sure if I was dreaming or if it is happening or has happened already. It seems that the idealistic paradise of an open and universal, socially, racially and economically "blind" internet is never going to happen (even within the societies that can afford mass-access to web), and balancing control with freedoms seems to be important.

Great sport

I thought this was a joke. But it seems that they are at least taking the joke seriously.