Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Helsinki by midnight

Michaelmas term (Cam-talk for autumn term) officially ended on 1st December. For me, however, it only ended today. Or yesterday, to be exact. I'm not sure what the exact moment was when it ended, but I'm sure it did.

I'm sure it wasn't when I sent off the latest version of my part of the article we've been writing, because I had some errands to run and Christmas shopping to finish.

I'm sure it wasn't when I got home, because I hadn't packed my suitcase yet.

I'm sure it wasn't when we got on the train to the airport, as it was so fully packed we couldn't find places to sit together.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't when we got through the check-in and security, although it was surprisingly simple and quick, because we had still a couple of hours of waiting to do and Heathrow had already been paralysed due to the fog.

It could have been when we finally boarded the plane, because we were greeted happily in Finnish and there was a nice, holiday-like relaxed mood around the whole plane and its passengers.

It probably was when we sat down on our seats, breathed a long breath out and let our shoulders drop a couple of inches. At least that's when I kissed L and wished us Merry Christmas.

It definitely had ended before we got to Helsinki and made our way through the long corridors of virtually empty airport hoping not to miss the bus. At least by that time I wasn't thinking about work but calculating which would be the quickest passport queue (smartly (we thought) we went to the one without the rasta-haired bloke in baggy camo-trousers).

I was definitely out of term when I saw L to her bus and then went to get two riisipiirakka and a cup of tea at the only cafeteria that's open at this hour.

Now, sitting in Terminal 1 of Helsinki airport and waiting for the first flight out, I'm not only out of term but somehow extremely far away from it. Feels like - well, at least 1133 miles...

The first flight of the morning will take me to the arctic circle in about two and a half hours. I know that it will add even more distance between me and the term, the thesis that is not yet ready and (here's hoping) the nagging consciousness and guilt that piggybags every phd student.

(Pic: Björn Stabell)

Monday, December 18, 2006

I've been referenced!

I was reading a new book, a collection of articles published by Oxford University Press, and I found that one of the authors was referring to my presentation at a conference a couple of years ago! It's silly, but i was very excited, it felt like the research has been officially recognised and it's now on the map. The author of this article is also a sort of a guru in my field, and that made it even more special. It gave me a boost of confidence which is very good as I'm up for a final cruch of work before Christmas holidays.

(he said my name... *blush*)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I've discovered the most addictive brain-resetting game so far. The person I got this from commented the link by saying "don't start this if you need to get something important done in the near future". Thesis, schmesis, thought I, and started the Funny Farm.

It's a game of words and word associations. It's actually like a giant crossword, only organised in a mind map rather than a grid. The sense of accomplishment you get when a new map opens and the empty boxes start to fill, is immense. A bit like finishing a chapter of your thesis. Or how would I know... :-)

The parts of the map that are completed make perfect sense. Yet getting any new words in seems like a struggle. And that is the enchantment of this - it's at the same time totally impossible and perfectly attainable. Some of the associations are very, very difficult, while some are easier, and there can be long times when there is no progress at all, and then at other times a few boxes fill in very quick succession. It has all the addictive elements, and I'm afraid this will keep tormenting me for a good while, now... But with my loyal lieutnants, messieurs Google and Wikipedia, the battle goes on...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth (with spoilers)

There are songs and albums that grow on you. When you hear them for the first time they don't really seem to work, but after a while you begin to like them. Some earlier Sting-albums go to this category, and I've also been very slow to warm up to U2 in general. It's as if you didn't understand them at first, but after getting used to the sound the message opens up. Perhaps there are layers of meaning that need to be understood before the sheer appreciation of the layeredness and complexity wins you over. Or perhaps the context was simply wrong the first time around - you can't listen to soothing evening-music on the gym or in the car, and sunshine-music doesn't really work under cover on cold winter nights.

Mostly it's not so much about deep messages, layers or any other cerebral complexities. There are simple and stupid pop songs that are just somehow irresistible, and there is a lot of pseudo-deep rubbish and intolerably snobbish artsy-fartsy gunk that is simply irritating.

It's perhaps easier to give music a second chance than to go and see a film again, or to read a book multiple times. I never read books again, even if i like them, and pretty much the only films I see again and again are the Bond films, since they are pretty much just as good on the first and the tenth time. Emphasis on the term "just as good".

Pan's Labyrinth is one of the films that might benefit from second viewing, but I have no intention to see it again. The problem is, it has symbolism, layers and all that stuff, but I think I "got" most of it the first time around and it didn't really do it to me.

It's a film by a Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, about 1944 Spain and a girl whose mum remarries an officer in Franco's army, moves to his post, an old mill in the middle of a forest. While the fascist army is controlling all resources and trying to uproot all resistance guerrillas that have fled to the surrounding forests, the little girl escapes to the fantasy world and starts a quest to fulfill the tasks that the faun gives to her to unlock the gates to the underworld, so that she, a missing princess, could be reunited with her father, the king of underworld. Fantasy and the girls' tasks intertwine with the struggles in real life; the guerrillas against the army, rebels among the staff in the fort, army's efforts to maintain control, and the girl's mother's problematic pregnancy and the girl's refusal to accept her new stepfather.

It has layers, symbolism and all those things, but unfortunately the symbolism is just as direct and in-your-face as in the best Spanish tradition of Pedro Almodóvar and Bigas Luna, but without the heart-warming humour or self-irony of it (remember Jamon Jamon and those balls of the silhuette Toro...).

It's the end of the great war, but also just a beginning of the oppressive fascist regime in Spain. Food was scarce and under lock and key, and everyone was looking for a way out of the misery. No surprise then that the little girl's fantasies have to do with eating, keys and doorways, or both. There is a fat toad who lives in the roots of the tree, eating bugs and killing the tree. Perhaps he was Franco himself, perhaps the commander of the fort. She feeds the toad golden balls as cockroaches, and he explodes. Later she tries to poison her stepfather by spiking his drink. Then there is the child-eating monster, another stepfather-figure for the girl, who has a lavish table of delicacies just to attract victims. Not too far removed from the dinner party the commander organises just before. There's also the issue of obeying the rules - be they those that the commander sets at the fort, or the ones that the faun makes, perhaps the ones the girl's conscience gives and the discord of what she feels is right and what she sees at the fort.

We have lots of keys in the film, one uncovered in the stomach of the toad, one that the commander holds opens the food and medicine storage, and then there of course is the whole thing about unlocking the gateway to the underworld by doing the deeds that the faun sets.

There are also some pretty graphic and "unnecessary" scenes of violence, in my opinion there just for the shock effect. Yes, the world the film depicts is violent and bad, there is torture etc., but showing it in closeups is not actually making it any more "real", just more revolting, and it takes away some of the effect of the film.

My first comment coming out of the cinema was that it was OK, but I found it a bit pointless. I think the only "point" the film made (perhaps it was just me, not the film?) was that when the rest of Europe started breathing more freely and began reconstruction after the WW2 and the fall of fascism in Germany and Italy, in Spain the nightmare was just beginning. Never really thought about it that way, but imagine someone growing up during the war; they wasted most of their lives living under Franco's rule, had to make do under a fascist regime for another 30 years...

The film has a gory, dark tone to it and it is of the Grimm-tradition rather than (recent) Disney. Pan's Labyrinth had integrity and style, it all fit together, the actors were good, there was originality in the story, and the visual effects were cool, but I didn't like it. I think it took itself too seriously. The fairy-world wasn't enchanting or fantastic enough. Perhaps it was del Toro trying to say that even a gory fantasy like that was for the girl better than the reality, and death the best possible option, but especially since the film opens with the main character dying, some glimmers of light would have been good along the way.

OK, I can't really completely trash any film that makes me write about it. So if fantasy is your cup of tea and you like dark things, by all means go see it. It's done well. Guillermo del Toro, the director / screenwriter (so, should we call him auteur?) has a fascination in fantasy and fascism, as he is also the father of Hellboy, a fantasy series about a demon that the Nazis arise. I have no more intention to get to know Hellboy than I have to watch this one again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Independence Day

Happy 89th birthday, Finland! There's of course a party tonight, starting quite early, which cuts the working day short - we need to get the venue set up and most importantly set up the weblink so we can watch President's Reception from Helsinki. It's one of those traditions that seem perfectly normal, until you go abroad and try to explain it to someone.

"Well, yes, so we don't actually celebrate independence ourselves, we just watch a party on TV. Or, not so much a party but a queue of 3000 people in their white ties and ball gowns making their way to shake hands with the president. Then there will be interviews and lots of photos are taken and the ball gowns are being discussed and rated etc. And yes, there's a military parade and we light some candles."

Yet, it's one of the most important days of the year and something we are all very proud of.


So, some progress at work: the research centre report is ready. The student project brief isn't, as I ended up revamping some analysis protocols (or re-writing them, rather), as this new version can then be copy-pasted to the thesis almost as it is. Time well spent, I think, as it will hopefully form a part in our library of teaching modules that we are developing as well. This also ensures that there's some continuity in this line of work, even after I relocate myself to a less rainy environment. :-) Or, it could be yet another cunning plan to put off having to go through that data...


Spam. Funny thing that. 80% of the email traffic of the world is spam. Luckily my spam filters are pretty good. There's one layer of defence at the university server, it probably kills 90% of what tries to get in. The second layer is in Thunderbird, my email program. I have no clue how much gets filtered by the first layer, but I can see the stuff being caught by the second. And sometimes it is too eager. For instance our student association was sending so much email in the beginning of the term that it decided it was spam. (which was mostly true, luckily they now took my advice and are compiling daily newsletters instead of sending everything bit by bit.)

There has been an evolution in spam, and while loads of it endorses generic viagra and body part enlargements, the majority is now about stock. The so-called pump-and-dump -schemes. Someone has bought cheap shares, and are now trying to get other people to buy them so that they can then sell their lot with a profit. And when they dump their shares, the value falls through the roof, and the brilliant investment only materialises for those who initiated the scam. Another new development is that the actual spam messages are more often pictures. The text in the message is copypasted from a book or is just random, legitimate words to fool the filters to think it's legit. Also, the topics and headers are made to look like the message is actually a reply to a message you sent. But, the filters are kept up to date, and so the amount of spam actually making it through to the inbox is very small.

Why an earth, then, did a message that was sent by "Satan" from the email address "" get through? Mind boggles...


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Neck 2

Sorry, couldn't update yesterday, as the computer crashed as I was closing things down to see a film.

So, supervision reports and feedback were done. The brief I needed to write about the other student project didn't materialise, as I needed to start putting the equipment together, only to find out that we will actually probably need to buy a new laptop to get the experiment portable. Going through all other options first, including taking a Mac Mini, a screen and all the paraphernalia, and ruling them out one by one, took some time.

Also, the yearly report was bounced to today's to-do, as we had a lengthy discussion about methodology with a colleague of mine, who is going to present a new project in today's seminar. I'm convening the seminar, and quite interested in the project, so I had to take interest. Also, I find it almost impossible not to take interest on other people's projects, it seems to give the perfect escape from thinking about my own...

Anyway, today I'll finish the stuff on yesterday's list and in addition try to get the re-analysis of my latest data on the way. This was done for the conference in the summer, and now needs to be turned into a paper, and eventually into a chapter in my thesis. But first I need to add some data to it, and as I'm also adding a factor to the analysis, I'll need to reshuffle the old variables around etc. Very tedious, and that's why I've been putting it off. No more.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sticking my neck out

OK, it's a new week, the term has ended, and there are now two and a half weeks to get a lot of work done. The thesis isn't finished, in fact the writing "proper" hasn't really started. These Michaelmas terms are always crazy and it's hard to get anything proper done. So, now it's time to get the big guns out, bar no holds, bypass all safety valves and start brewing some plus-strength coffee. And enforce some new deadlines with possible (small) public humiliation, as it is probably the only viable threat that's going to get me going.

So, Monday, and here are the things that need to be done:

- write and file supervision reports for the 6 students I had
-> the issue with these is that it's sometimes so difficult to say anything but "just fine" or "nice", even though that is the stupidest feedback you can get. Well, these will only be read by their directors of studies and are simply instrumental so that they see I've done the work I was supposed to and they can now pay me. Would be different if there'd be massive problems with one or more of the students, as I could use this channel to flag them up and get the college to act.

- write feedback for the last essays the students wrote
-> this is more important than the previous thing, as good feedback is pivotal for improving in the future.

- draft the experiment plan for another student project
-> this just needs to be put on paper so that she can get on with her writing-up and I can get on with preparing the setting and equipment.

- finalise and send out the yearly report of the research centre
-> this is ready bar one little section that needs to be copy-pasted in. Then needs to be proofread and made pretty, then the pdf-version can finally be sent out, only half a year delayed. I'm thinking of adding myself as the editor of the thing, as it has taken much more work than I thought it would.

As you can see, no research today, but I'm hoping to clear my desk today so that tomorrow I can get to real business. And there shouldn't be anything else coming up before Christmas, apart from the one article I've apparently promised to co-author, that we'll start writing next Friday and has a deadline at the end of the year. Joy to the world...

Edit 1: lunchtime. Have now submitted the reports. Will get lunch now and finish writing the feedbacks on essays. It seems to take ages to try to put my words right. How do I give constructive feedback in a positive way, especially when there are only a few hundred characters you can use. It's like doing it over an SMS... And if I say something slightly negative, would it stick out? And if I only say positive things, will that be just too bland? Where's the value of the feedback if you can't use it to improve what you are doing? Am I overtheorising this and making it more complicated than it is? Probably. At least I'm hungry now.