Sunday, December 02, 2007

Free rice

Procrastination doesn't get any better than this. You play a game (check), the game is about words (check), you learn while doing it (check) and it's all for charity (check).

Freerice.com is a great idea. You play a game and earn rice that will then be donated to people in need, via the UN World Food Programme. The site is funded by advertisers.

And the words. I like words. I have a list of words I especially like and my alternative definitions of them. I'm a nerd.

I have learned new ones while playing this. The game has 50 levels, from very easy to extremely difficult, so anyone can play. And increase their vocabulary (I like the word vocabulary, my alternative definition is that it is a large spanner that has a loop at the other end, and it is inch-sized so you can fix old Fords with it) while playing.

Your starting level is set at the beginning automatically, with the first 4 questions, so there's no frustration to go through easy levels for those who are more advanced. This feature alone would qualify this as the game of the year. The game goes on indeterminately, and every time you get a word correct, 20 grains of rice are added to your total, and donated to WFP. If you get three in a row correct, you go up a level, if you get a word wrong, you go down a level. This keeps it challenging all the time. The method is essentially the same as in experiments where our sensitivity or best performance is investigated. It's called adaptive testing, I think.

So, you start with quiet, assistant, achieve and icing. At level 5 you get traitor and distinguish, at level 10 words like wriggle, footnote and endure. These are all great words, but it gets better. Level 15 greets you with emaciated, stalwart and glitz, which are great apart from glitz which I don't like. Compliant, adorn, salve at level 20 lead to level 25, where longitudinal, esteem, cumbersome, insurgence and procure set the pace. Laud, expedient, piscine, volpine, vacuous, tantamount, ligature, tatty, moribund, sumptuous, bedaub, pallid, staunch, assuage, and coalesce get you through to the goldmine of great words at level 40.

Perambulate, unctuous, tintinnabulation, excoriate, turbid, cervine, effulgence, unguent, soporific, prognostication, sapiential, pithy, equivocate, perfidious, odium, assiduous, parsimonious, conflagration, edentate, expectorate, precipitant, attenuate, foist, pernicious and expiate all rock, and from here it gets very hard. Propitious, bromide, sartorial, acclivity, catamount, tumescent, lignify, eructate are words you encounter at level 45 and you need to get all the way to the end, to level 50 to be greeted with compendious, paludal, scrofulous and objurgate.

I've managed to get to 48 under my own steam, and then once I cheated a bit just to get to see what words there will be at the very top. But I still play, I still learn new words, and whenever the question and answer are both equally incomprehensible, I turn to the Free Dictionary.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Inspiration

This guy is great. His mission statement says:


"I want to reform education in America from top to bottom. I want to be the individual responsible for making an entire generation of college graduates consider teaching before business or law school. I want to make it easier for smart, successful, and qualified people in their 30s and older to become teachers as well. I want to get America ready for an Education Tax if that's what it's going to take. But most of all, I want to be the spokesman for teaching's nobility, the poet laureate of passion in the classroom."

And here's some of his most famous poetry. Ladies and gentlemen, Taylor Mali.




Wednesday, November 14, 2007

World Diabetes Day

Apologies for updating the blog very rarely lately. There are a couple of blog texts that I've started but not finished yet, because somehow I lost the plot half way through them. And this week has been quite busy and so I haven't had a chance to get back to the texts. Usually that's what it takes; I have to put the problematic text aside for a while, and then take a look at it with "new eyes", as they say in Finnish, and I can then iron out the problems and finish the text.

But, just quickly, I wanted to point out that today is the World Diabetes Day. It's a day that's endorsed by the UN, organised by the International Diabetes Federation and is celebrated worldwide. To mark the day, monuments are being illuminated around the world. For instance, the Empire State Building in NY is one of the partners of the campaign.

The day is focusing attention to this chronic condition that almost 250 million people have. There has been a lot of discussion lately about type 2 diabetes that is linked to obesity and is spreading in the rich countries very fast. The main focus of this day is a bit different. The IDF wants to point out that there are 240 000 children with diabetes in developing countries, and some of them are still dying due to a lack of proper care and awareness about the condition.

Being a type 1 diabetic myself (for 3 years now) I know that when diagnosed and properly treated diabetes is something you can live with and it doesn't limit your life in any significant way. But it takes constant monitoring and treatment. I need injections everyday, in average 5 times a day, and measuring blood glucose level almost as many times. Things can get very dangerous very quickly if either injections or monitoring aren't available. In developing countries, juvenile diabetes often goes undiagnosed and even when diagnosed, medication isn't available or affordable. IDF currently supports the treatment of 700 children in developing countries and is looking for more sponsors to increase that number. To donate for this worthy cause, go to Life for a Child -website. (It should work with PayPal and with credit cards, although I just tried and it refused mine.)

Other ways to get involved are to donate to Diabetes UK, or in Finland by going to this website, where you find a bank account number to donate to, or for a more continuing involvement you can join the D-support ring by filling out the form here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Testing last.fm widgets

Web 2.0 provides many interesting ways to study taste in music and patterns and habits of listening to music. Dividing music into genres is an activity that music makers, vendors and researchers are interested in doing, although their motivations might be very different. Early musicologists were obsessed about musical style and finding objective ways to categorise works and composers. The activity goes on, and now we also do that socially. Most online music shops use metadata, or names of artists, songs, years of release, and genres so that customers can search for music they might like to buy. The genre allocations in iTunes for instance are sometimes quite ridiculous. Rufus Wainwright is rock while Maija Vilkkumaa is pop. A genre of a song turns into soundtrack once it has been released on one.

Since having meaningful searches from the audio is so amazingly difficult, describing music, tagging it, is the best way to label the stuff so that it can be found later. One way to do that is to hire a bunch of music students to do that for you, as they did in Pandora. The service is based on the idea of musical genome, characterisations of the songs and pieces of music that can then be used to find similar songs from a database. Very interesting, but listening to these web radios gets boring very soon, as you quickly find out that there really is much more of the same, no matter where you start from.

Last.fm has another take on this. Similarity is based on the listeners. Just like Amazon's recommendations, last.fm uses the data that members provide of their listening to make recommendations for you. Those who listened to this song, also listened to that one. And again, you can listen to a web radio that compiles its playlists based on these algorithms.

From music research point of view these both are interesting services. And especially the social aspect of musical taste that last.fm has created. One thing are the genres themselves. You can tag the music you like and listen to in any way you want. And others see those tags. These tags are now being researched. See last.fm blog entry on the topic.

I'm now getting interested in the various ways in which we could obtain, process and analyse the eams of data people leave behind in last.fm when they use it. Just looking at my own iTunes listening behaviour (more than 11 000 songs played) after I had my iTunes play history scrobbled to last.fm was interesting. And perhaps mostly so because I think it is different from how I would reply to a questionnaire about my music listening. From methodological point of view, this is important. Collecting real world data about how people "use" music interests researchers, but observing has so far been tedious, required people to keep diaries of their listening habits. This is intrusive and makes people very aware of what they are doing, and that they are now being monitored, and this skews the result. With last.fm, we can obtain their real data, as the data is collected all the time, before they even know they are going to be asked to take part on a study.

And from social psychological point of view, the opportunities that a community based on what music people listen to gives, are immense. People are being linked based on their musical tastes. In the "real world", the causation often goes to the other direction. How does it influence your music listening that you know your choices are being scrobbled and made available to the world? That when you look at anyone else's profile you see you "musical fit" with that person? That your friends and "neighbours" are being constantly ranked based on how much music you share during a given week?

A lot to do there, I'd say. I'll test some of the widgets that last.fm provides here. If you are not satisfied with the audience last.fm gives your musical identity, you can use these kinds of widgets to broadcast your habits even wider, by adding these to your Facebook or MySpace profiles or blogs.

This should broadcast what I've been listening to lately:


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Winners and losers


Actually, I missed at least two elections last weekend, because there was the first round of presidential election in Slovenia, as the father of the nation Drnovsek is now stepping down after 15 years of service. They'll need another round in November as nobode got more than half of the vote, but Lojze Peterle from centre-right is holding the lead at the moment.

Turkey was also voting with regards to the president, but at this point just trying to figure out what would be the best way to elect one. Currently the parliament elects the president, but in the referendum the majority of the people said they wanted a direct election. There has been a lot of controversy about this lately, as the current holder of the post, Abdullah Gül is from an islamist party which some think is a threat to the separation of state and religion in Turkey.

But, a recap of results. In Switzerland the Swiss People's Party increased their majority with that racist campaign of theirs (which they said wasn't racist), which indicates a further hardening of values in the confederation. I think it is notable that under half of the voters turned out to vote, as people are used to voting for the issues directly in referendums, rather than having all the eggs in one basket when voting for people to govern.

In Åland, the liberal party that had been in the opposition took a landslide victory and will assume power from the social democrats. The issues were "internal", having to do with how they felt the previous administration had governed, rather than being "external" or having much to do with the autonomy. The party promoting full independence failed to increase their share of the votes.

And in Poland, great result. The opposition took a magnificent victory, lead by the new star of the Civic Platform party and probably future prime minister, Donald Tusk. He smashed the arrogant Kaczynski in the final TV-debate and is now leading Poland back to light. The EU-leaders welcomed the change, as did business and many others.

Finally China. Hu Jintao seems to have been successful in his planning, as his candidates have enjoyed good success in the conference. Power is being handed to a younger generation. I wonder if this means that the pace of political change in China is now getting faster, or will it just mean that openness and democracy will now be one generation further away. So far the growing middle class of China has been happy with the growing prosperity and they haven't been too worried about democracy. This might change as more and more people are getting their material needs fulfilled. On the other hand, the middle class is not very likely to revolt, so the change is more likely to be a gradual one. China really is an amazing, and amazingly huge country, and I have to admit I know precious little about it. This needs to change.

(Pic: Donald Tusk; AFP via BBC)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Election day


Today's an interesting day for someone who likes politics. Elections are the concrete acts of democracy, the moment where most literally the power is at people's hands.

Today Åland elects their regional parliament. Usually nothing that happens in this autonomic region is talked about in the Finnish news, unless it happens to have something to do with shipping news or potato chips. Or lately football. But politics? Not really.

This time there has been some discussion about the campaigns, as a group that promotes Åland's full independence has managed to bring the issue of autonomy on the agenda. They are a very small force but have managed to force other parties to discuss what the relationship between Finland and Åland should be. Although full independence probably isn't what the majority of Åland wants, the discussion has been electrified.

Not nearly as electrified as in Switzerland, though. The Swiss federation has been known as the cradle of political consensus. Everyone more or less agrees on things, apart from the small bunch of communist students who focus on squatting and demonstrations rather than party politics and elections. The parties all form a government together and manage the alpine country to a few more years of economic prosperity until the next election. Things have been different this time.

The right wing Swiss People's Party shocked with their openly racist campaign. That has stirred the whole nation usually known for their tolerance and especially the 20% of the population who are of foreign origin.

Tolerance and intolerance are being on the agenda in Poland, as well. (See all these fancy associations and bridges of thought from one country to another?) They'd be called the three stooges but luckily there are only two of them. The Kaczynski Brothers have in a very short time managed to get most of Europe to hope for the loss of their Law and Justice Party in today's parliamentary elections. One of the two, and forgive me for forgetting which one, Jaroslavl or Lech, is the president and of course will remain in power after today, but the other might lose his seat as the prime minister.

The K-bros are known for their very destructive negotiation tactics in the EU. The essence of them can be summarised as "give us what we want or we stall everything". Now, unfortunately this isn't very different from how most other European leaders see European politics these days, but it is perhaps the most extreme and open version of it. I have to say that justifying your political actions or demands in the EU today with what happened in the WWII is simply tasteless and too much.

The Catholic conservatism of the Law and Justice party has also become a concern. Now, I'm not trying to say everyone needs to be very liberal on everything (although I tend to be), but as EU and all its members have already banned capital punishment, for human rights reasons, it would seem silly for someone to block the initiative to name a day to commemorate the issue. And yet, the K-Bros did.

(I have to apologise in advance because the last link and of association is so clumsy...) Perhaps they would like to see Poland and the EU to develop to be more like China, where they just won't tolerate any of that woolly liberal nonsense. And yes, China is the last stop of this globetrotting tour of elections. Typically for China, these elections are a bit different from the others. This time it isn't the people voting, but the Communist Party is electing members for the central committee. The importance of this is that it is the first party meeting that the current president Hu Jintao has organised and thus it is the first time he can make his mark on the ideology, programme and lineup of the party and its main organs.

In his speeches he has outlined his objectives for "harmonic development" of China. He has mentioned the environment, he has mentioned the poorest people, he has mentioned the rural areas. All have suffered greatly during the last 10 or so years when China has opened up for business and underwent massive redevelopment, concentration of population into cities. The environmental and human cost has been massive. It remans to be seen how much of all this is just rhetorics and how much will actually change. In a proper democracy with free speech and freedom of information this would be easy to measure and see, but as mentioned, China is different. At least the elections are going Hu's way, as the vice president Zeng Qinghong did not get re-elected to the central committee and has to step down. He was one of the "old guard" who was there to make sure things don't change too fast with the new president. Hu is now getting rid of these chaperons and staffing the strategically important offices with people loyal to him.

I'm already planning to have a long coffee break tomorrow morning, after the lecture, to read through all the news from all these elections.

(Pic: Swiss People's Party's brain fart for election poster. Not racist, they say. Via viewimages.com)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Information R/evolution

One more... And to this topic I will return shortly.

Digital Ethnography II

...then check this out. There's some pretty cool stuff coming from Kansas, or the KSU more specifically. I saw one of the earlier versions of the other clip some months back and was very impressed. I might have even posted it here, but here it is again.

I think it summarises what Web 2.0 is about, if it can be about anything. I've sometimes summarised it as being about those plasticky-looking 3d-kind of logos and ways of getting addicted that are even worse than Tetris.

But of course prof. Wesch is right, it's about the separation of form and content, and the processes and interactions that this facilitates. I like the questions he poses in the end, or the topics he claims needing a rethink. Copyright and ownership are the ones we read about in papers (on and off-line), simply because so much money is at stake. And because most of the copyright law is based on manufacturing and selling physical items and therefore fundamentally out of date.

To me, the most interesting aspects of this current shift is the way we now CAN rethink community, social interaction, collaboration, friendship and what being neighbours or colleagues means. There's no doubt that We(b) ha(s/ve) been changed for good, and if there ever was need for doing ethnographic work it is now, and the web is the place where to do it. Market researchers of course have been there, but they are looking at different things and aren't usually keen to publish their results. It is often said that great research isn't so much about producing great answers, it's more about asking the right questions. I think prof. Wesch and his students are asking all the right questions and I'm very interested in hearing what their results will be like.

I have a couple of students who are interested in these kinds of issues. I was trying to gently push them towards asking these kinds of questions, and again, it will be interesting to see what will come up.

A journalist who visited Google HQ and stood there at the lobby watching the ticker that displays a selection of latest search terms entered to Google, wrote that it was like watching the global consciousness flow past your eyes. Can't remember where the quote is from, or the exact wording of it, but the idea got stuck. To understand humans, you must understand their social mind. And it is now being displayed online, using Web 2.0 tools.

And if I now promise to write more about this later, I possibly will. But first I'll play some Tetris.

Digital Ethnography

Watch this first...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Europe on the rise?


The Nobel Prize for Chemistry goes to Gerhard Ertl. I know precious little about Chemistry, and not much more about Medicine or Physics, but it has been interesting to see how Europeans are scooping the awards this year. Ertl is German and works at the MPG in Berlin, the Physics prize was shared between Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, who work in France and Germany, respectively. Americans have been successful only in the Medicine prize so far, two out of three laureates are working in American universities, the third being based in Cardiff.

Why do I care? Well, looking at the list of laureates from recent years, the US universities have dominated. Last year, all the laureates in sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Economics) were Americans, working at US universities. And that's been the trend, people might be from where ever, but at the time of the award they'd probably be working at US universities.

Even if the award is personal, it is seen also as an award to the institution, and the institution undoubtedly reaps some of the indirect benefits of the prize; as publicity, better candidates for students and staff, also points in rankings and weight within the field. Now these benefits are coming to Europe, and they are also indicators that you can get to the very top of science in Europe as well, you don't need to go West to be able to do that.

Of course, the pinch of salt is that still, looking at the recent laureates, a couple of more "European years" would be needed to change the balance at all. Also, all the laureates are from European heavy-weight countries and institutions, and making conclusions about Europe in general might be a step too far. Also, we can't say that these awards are now results of the integration and rather ambitious science policy that the European countries have made lately, largely with EU funding, or that this now shows that the competitiveness-issue is solved. But it can be seen as a positive signal and as these prizes always, an inspiration.

(Pic: the Nobel medal)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Disappointing


Everyone agrees that climate change is happening and that we need to do something about it. It has taken a while to get to this level of awareness, but of course the real issue now is to decide what to do. Of course, to carry out these plans seems to be another thing again.

In a recent report, Finland ranked 36th in CCPI, or Climate Change Performance Index. This index measures trends in CO2 emissions (50% of the index), actual emission levels (30%) and climate policy (20%). Finland is cosily situated between Algeria and Belarus, and far behind the leaders Sweden and the UK. Being used to being on top of various indices, this came as a shock to many Finns. I think people genuinely believe we've done a lot already and do well, or that we are an ecological nation because we have lots of forests.

I think we have very high thoughts about ourselves. Usually Finns (as a nation) are blamed for low self-esteem, but I think that's nowadays just a myth we like to perpetuate as it serves us well to offset the newly found arrogance and self-righteousness. Unfortunately self-image isn't a good substitute for researched truth. Another recent study ranked Helsinki as the top city for culture in Europe, according to opinions of inhabitants themselves. Now, there's a lot of good culture going on in Helsinki, but I think the result tells more about people than cultural activities if people in Helsinki give their city a higher rating than people in Paris, Berlin, or Rome give to theirs.

I'm sure that Finland would top all the charts if the CCPI would be based on interviews and opinions. Luckily it isn't, and luckily there are hard facts to show that we are not doing enough, in fact we are doing precious little, and things can't go on like this.

Finns are good at making excuses, and almost as good at coming up with reasons to not change anything as the Brits are (things have moved forward in the UK in this front, which gives a lot of hope for the rest of us). As a response to the CCPI, the prime minister said that the discussion about energy production and our energy choices needs to shift from just talking about price to talking about the impact to the environment and climate change. Spot on. I was positively surprised to see him take this stand so clearly. And not surprised at all to see that it took about 3 minutes for the National Coalition Party (the other big party in the government) to chime in and say that of course price is important, as well. For Pete's sake, of course. It just can not be the ONLY criteria or the only factor any more.

And how about light bulbs. I'm surprised that Finland, so proud of it's engineering and so dependent on artificial lighting for most of the year hasn't already moved on to better and more efficient ways of producing light. I can't see what's so good about producing light with an inefficient heating device that eats a lot of electricity, is so fragile and even in the best scenario needs to be replaced every year. Yet, as a suggestion to "ban the bulb" was made in the parliament, people were flocking to praise the bulb, how it is not that inefficient, how the light is of better colour, how the fluorescent bulbs are not suitable for every single lamp, how they take almost a minute to light up properly, and how they are expensive and that they are hazardous waste due to the mercury in them. In short, all sorts of excuses for not changing anything were made. I don't think a ban would work as well as taxing the bulb would, but talking about is a great way to speed up the change and bring this to people's attention, and to involve the legislative and executive machinery into looking into this thing.

Some people have lost all sense of proportion in this discussion. Some have even provided calculations about how the money saved from replacing the bulbs with mini-fluorescents would be wasted on having to turn up the heating. Some of these people are engineers. Surely they should be the first ones to say that it is not that smart to heat your house with a 40W light source that is at the ceiling. Something about warm air moving up, something about purpose-built devices vs. unplanned side-effects? Something about apartments being too hot as it is? Something about being able to save a lot of energy by changing something small and relatively insignificant? Since when did the current state of affairs, heating houses with short-lived lightbulbs become the norm and ideal state?

I thought the Americans were the only ones who'd get deeply offended by any suggestions to having to change their way of life because it is unsustainable.

I'm not even going to start about traffic or how having long distances in Lapland justifies planning the communities in densely populated cities around everyone using their own cars. It's another story.

(Pic: cleansweepsupply.com)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Interactivity



I wrote about user comments on newspaper websites, blogs, and YouTube a while ago. The clip is a very funny take on the issue by CollegeHumour.com.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Finglish


I made an interesting discovery today. My handwriting is different depending on which language I'm using. It's much neater and more organised in English, while when I'm writing in Finnish I tend to be all over the place and much more variable in general.

I noticed this today as I was first writing stuff for a webpage in a cafe, and right after that taking notes on a lecture that was in English. The website is about the stuff I teach, so there were a number of English words in the sketch I had written, and they seem to be written with better handwriting than the rest of the stuff that's in Finnish.

Strange. Why is it like this? Does everyone have different handwriting styles for different languages? It would make sense, in a way. Language is a holistic thing, it's not just a code you use, but a set of cultural and gestural norms and conventions. And you don't even need to go as far as think about the embodied nature of cognition and how people often interact socially very differently depending on which language they are using, which set of cultural conventions they are playing with.

This can be a simpler thing. Much of the skill of writing by hand is to get better in writing combinations of letters or words with one fluid movement. We rarely think about individual letters when writing, rather whole syllables or words. And as transition probabilities from one letter to another differ from language to language, the path that the pen takes differ as well, the combinations of letters, typical syllables that are learned well, occur less often in another language, there might be combinations that are in direct conflict with what we are used to. It is easy to see that when the transformation of ideas in mind to letters on paper is unobstructed and automatic in one language, in another the hand might be prone to do one thing while the mind is trying to do something else. And we know that if we need to consciously interfere with things we normally do automatically, we are in trouble. I remember when I was learning new pieces on the piano, I could perhaps play them by heart rather well, but only when I wasn't paying any attention to what I was doing. And if I started thinking about it, or actually listen to what I was playing, I couldn't sometimes even remember how the piece begins.

Why English, though? Years spent in Finland still lead by 28 to 4 over years spent in England, and surely I've written reams and reams more in Finnish than in English. I do admit, that my handwriting is very variable anyway, I write differently on different days. But I want to think that there is a pattern. Maybe it's the same thing as with spelling. Having had to pay so much attention to something develops the skill. There's of course the recency effect, as well. At the moment, I'm more used to functioning in English than in Finnish.

I noticed this also tonight when having dinner with the keynote speakers and guests of the weekend's conference. Having a dinner and socialising in English was very comfortable, it felt relaxing in some way, not just because I do like social events and dinners at nice restaurants (especially when someone else is paying for them) but also because I haven't been able to speak English for a while. Writing isn't the same, it doesn't quite fill the "need". As I said, there's this thing about gestures, interaction, the whole shebang. Even identity, I suppose. And probably the linguistic context amplifies certain features of our personality while damping others.

A quick search didn't find any work on handwriting and second language, but I'm sure there's stuff done on this. There is a lot of work going on in bilingualism and how that works cognitively, and of course the whole second language acquisition -field has looked at things way beyond learning the words and grammar, so they might know about this as well. I wonder if it goes with typing as well? Do I make more mistakes when typing in Finnish than when typing in English? Which one is more comfortable to do, which one's faster? I don't know, really. And now that I'm conscious about the question, I'm probably too aware to ever notice.

I know that I do sometimes "autofill" words, sort of complete them after the first two letters or so, and this happens when my conscious mind is wondering how to continue the sentence. The funny thing is that these autofilled words have nothing to do with the text, they just naturally follow from the letters in the beginning. Just to illustrate this, an imaginary example. I could be writing "And I was walking in the forest that mo...." and then stop in my mind to wonder if I should write "day" instead of morning, and my fingers would autofill the word to "money". This is an imaginary example, but I've noticed this kind of thing happening a couple of times, and found myself adding suffixes like "-ious" to words that didn't really need them. If I were psychoanalytically inclined, I'd probably see the work of Id here, but I'm not and so I think it's just an overlearned motor pattern. This happens when I'm tired and typing in English (so pretty much all the time) but whether it happens in Finnish as well, and whether Finnish words are autofilled with English, I don't know, but I'm eager to find out.

As you can see, I welcome any motivation I can scrape together to write these damn websites. And also seize every opportunity to procrastinate and browse article databases instead.

(Pic: www.emergingimage.net BTW, I think graphology is rubbish)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Mental coffee


Take a bunch of wet fish, scream and slap me on the face with it. That's Monday morning with an 8 o'clock lecture, with you having to wake up early to make it to the office first to copy-paste some pictures and slides to your presentation from another computer.

This morning was pretty hard core, I had massively slept in on Sunday, probably to offset some earlier lack of sleep. So, unsurprisingly, if you wake up at 1 in the afternoon on Sunday, you are not going to get to sleep very early. And then getting up at 6 blah blah was just... well, like having someone slap you in the face with a wet bunch of fish and screaming.

The morning looked amazing, though. There was this fog, surrounding the trees, lampposts and benches in the park. The lamps were still on and the fog was moving, it's colour changing as it was poledancing around the lampposts. It was crawling in between the branches of the yellow and red trees, flowing downhill towards the lake on the wet, black street.

After a shower, shave, and a quick breakfast and a cup of too weak coffee I still was in no condition to give a lecture. I had been undecided and kept reshuffling the content around, and definitely wasn't sure on how I was going to make it, as I didn't have a clear idea of my talk in my mind. Heck, I didn't have a clear idea in my mind fill stop.

This is where my Mac gave me a hand. The feature is supposed to exist in PC:s as well, but it is so complicated to set up that it might as well not be there. In Macs it works automatically. This is the Presenter's Tools -option in PowerPoint. This allows you to see the slide, your notes and the thumbnails of all your slides, while the audience sees the current slide on full screen. There is also a large clock on the screen, helping you keep time. Have I ever been more grateful for a feature? This really boosted the coherence of my talk, not necessarily to great heights, but at least a bit. It's no miracle worker but things could have been MUCH worse this morning.

I need to share this with you. I wrote about the difficulty of establishing active participation and proper communication at the lectures, and today's lecture was actually pretty good in those terms. There was one particular contribution that made my day. I asked people to think about different functions of music, what does music do. And one guy said, music is "mental coffee". It picks you up, stimulates you, gets your juices flowing.

Spot on.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Quiet Finns?

One of the most common stereotypes about Finns is that we are very silent. If we speak, we speak in short sentences with a quiet but serious tone of voice.

Anyone observing my classes would quickly agree that this seems to be true, even among young university students. If I ask a question, it is met with silence. It has nothing to do with knowing the answer, I've tested with questions every knows the answer for. If I try to engage the group into a discussion, it never takes off. We have managed a spontaneous conversation with 3 exchanges (yes, I'm counting just like when doing keepy-uppies or playing tennis), but that's not what I would call a lively debate yet.

And yet, when I've met with them one-to-one to discuss their dissertations, it has been almost impossible to shut them up. I've overrun every single 15-minute slot I have given them for quick chats about dissertation topics, and not because I've had a lot to say, it's because they've been thinking aloud, asking questions, making suggestions etc.

Probably I've underestimated the social pressure they feel in the seminars and lectures when they are faced by their peers. Some people have suggested before that I must be a scary teacher and that I must be extremely demanding and intimidating (this is probably an extrapolation based on how I sound when coaching rowers at 6 AM...). I don't think this is the case, though. Definitely my students know that I'm as lenient as it gets and almost too understanding when people do things late or fail things. And if I am so scary, why do people not show that in the private supervisions? I'm sure it is the social situation in the lectures... Although it would be a bit cool to be scary... :-)

Speaking of the social situations, they can be funny. In the seminar there are a couple of older students who are very confident and also the first ones to answer questions or make comments, although only after a looong painful silence. When we were having a round table about research questions and difficult concepts that would need to be unpacked, many of the other students in the group were actually talking to them when explaining their work, rather than me or the rest of the group. Interestingly enough, these two are very certain about their work when presenting it in front of others but are having many more doubts and questions one-to-one. I don't mean to say this is a bad thing, on the contrary I think this shows their good social skills. And the fact that they aren't playing the confident know-it-all with me but are honest about what they know and what they've done is of course great. The challenge is to infect the others with some of that confidence, because some of them do have ideas that are as good or better.

The question remains: how to get people to contribute, how to start lively discussions in seminars, how to engage people in the kind of active learning experience we nowadays like to see our university courses? I guess partly it is something that grows over time, people are shy at first and it's not a sin. But partly it is about technique, and so I'm trawling lecturing pedagogy websites for ideas. Most of them are for American universities and some feel somewhat naïve, to put it mildly, but there are good tips as well. I'll try them and report how they worked...

The fact is, however, that if you have 50 people at the lecture, or 20 people in a seminar, there is only so much you can do. It just isn't the intimate supervision for three people I got used to at Cambridge. Also, a lecture is not a conference presentation or a political event, which I'm very familiar with. The lecturer is talking to students, not to his or her peers. You can't be patronising or assume you can get away with anything because you have the authority, but you need to be in charge and take responsibility of the situation, and the social interaction that takes place. Dealing with these kinds of audiences and these kinds of situations is a new experience for me, and there is a learning curve. It's very interesting, though.

(Pic: two mute swans, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ireland



Sometimes taking a break when you don't really have the time is actually a good idea. I went to Ireland last weekend, to a friends' wedding, and up to the moment of arrival I was feeling like I shouldn't have gone... I had felt (and still do to some extent) that I'm falling behind in my work just because there's so much of it, and so blowing a few days is not really that bright an idea. But as the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and we wouldn't want that, would we?

The trip gave me the chance to test drive Irish trains. Unfortunately I realised too late that Aer Lingus has just started to fly between Helsinki and Dublin, and so I resorted to my old foe R***air. Travelling with hand luggage only and with priority boarding I managed to skip all queuing at Pirkkala. Although it must be said again that Finns have no clue about queuing anyway, as I missed the priority boarding due to a swarm of people who were standing around where the priority queue was supposed to be but were in fact not in the queue.
Then, Dublin-Killarney with Iarnród Éireann. I had reserved a ticket and a seat online, and had taken a late connection as you never know when you arrive with R***air. This time we were on time and so while collecting my tickets I asked if I could take the earlier train instead. He said it was fine, but I would lose the reservation. This I thought was fine. Then I noticed that there was a massive queue forming in the Dublin Heuston station, from the platforms to the station hall, through it and outside. This was for the train to Galway. Puzzling, I thought...

Then another queue started to form, this time for the train to Cork which I was supposed to take. I watched it for a moment, and it grew very fast, and so I went to the ticket office again, to ask if there was any chance I would actually get onto this train. The bloke in the office, rather than checking the reservations situation from his computer, just looked over my shoulder, and told me that it will be full enough, but that I should be fine. So I thought I'd give it a go. Not really sure about how anything works, I took my place at the end of the queue, which by that time had reached the other end of the station, and started the 30-minute queuing. About 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, they started letting people on the platform, and when my turn came I realised why the queue - they were checking and stamping tickets at the entrance to the platform.

I then asked one official, if there was any way of knowing which seats are reserved and which aren't, and as I'm taking a "wrong" train if I could sit anywhere or if there are some specific areas etc. I knew that in some countries like Finland, you automatically get a seat reservation with your ticket, while in other places only very few seats are reserved and in others most are. Also, in places like Austria and Germany the few reserved seats are marked with passenger names. The guy said that I could go and check my seat but someone else might have taken it. I explained again that my reservation would be for a later train and I didn't have a reservation for this train. He then repeated the same advice. Finally I concluded that I can sit anywhere, the train is getting very full very fast and as the staff have no clue about reservations, probably not many people have them. I managed to find a seat, and in just about time - dozens of people were left standing in the Friday evening train.

The train left 15 minutes late, the process of making everyone queue before getting on didn't really work. The train was packed but people were very kind and nice. Many fo the passengers were students going home for the weekend. As the train rolled out of Heuston, and passed through the south-western suburbs of Dublin, we were greeted by the famous greenness of Ireland. Pastures, fields, woods, rolling hills. In all shades of green, so beautiful, so clean. And then some more of it. And yet more... I'm not complaining or anything, but the scenery is very similar to that in the Finnish trains, where it's just forests and lakes for hours.

In Mallow I changed to a commuter train and reached Killarney just under 4 hours after I left Dublin. Not exactly a bullet train but it did the job.

On the way back I saw that at all the stations they are advertising how much money EU is pouring to the railroad infrastructure in Ireland, and how they are rolling out new trains (like the one I took), and they were rebuilding many of the stations especially at the outskirts of Dublin. All good news, but they do still have miles to go. The tracks didn't seem to be in particularly good state, the ride was bumpy and speeds were very low at times. The trains are running on diesel, as none of the southwestern network is electrified. The whole queuing-system us bizarre and having to stand in lines for ages belongs to the airports, not on train stations.

But the views were great and it is still a nice way to travel. Compared to flying, at least, especially with R***air, which managed to piss me off again on the way back. This time they did it by selling me Saturday's Irish Independent that costs 1.70€ on Monday morning for 2€. I would understand the markup on price, but quite honestly, I couldn't even imagine that a newspaper would be 2 days old, when we take off at 8 in the morning (hours after the paper has been printed) from the town where the paper is made. I must say that I only realised this after a while, and actually didn't make a fuss about it as I was the first to exit the plane and everyone else wanted to be the second. Despicable anyway.

The wedding was very nice, as I expected. The actual ceremony was in the little chapel in the picture. Such a beautiful place, and a very friendly ceremony. The party was great as you could expect in an Irish wedding, and the food was great. When I saw the hairstyle and Ferrari-jacket I knew the DJ was going to be dodgy, but luckily the bride was firmly in control and set him straight before he could make people mad with his ridiculous ADHD-remixes, and finally he subdued and started playing the cheese people wanted to hear.

Sunday evening in Dublin was lovely as well, and I was well relaxed although somewhat deprived of sleep and dehydrated. Now it is back to business and teaching, lots to do and probably not so much to blog. Although I might try to write something about the students who you can't shut up when you meet them one to one but who do the most amazing mute fish impersonations when in class.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Beauty!

Finally... Here it is, my new computer. Well, to my (very slight) disappointment it isn't a brand new MacBook Pro, but rather a PowerBook G4, which is the previous top-end model. It has a nice 17'' widescreen display and it is so smooth and nice to use.

And it looks amazing. I like the feel of OS X and I like the smooth feel of keyboard, the sleek metallic finish (although the previous user has left some fingerprints all over it, I need to clean this thing...).

This comes at the last moment. I've had a bad ____ day today, and you can pretty much fill the blank with anything. Hair is probably bad, as they were taking pictures today for the faculty website and to be posted next to the doors. For sure I had massive bags under my eyes, as I slept abysmally last night for no particular reason. Also, I've had a bad teaching day. Man, I should be fired for incompetence...

I was trying to cram together massive amounts of stuff into a lecture, and trying to make it understandable and at least somewhat interesting. And this is when I started having a bad IT day. My computer started crashing, and I had to restart it several times anyway because my mouse had stalled. This got me into a panic in preparation, as things that were seemingly simple started requiring massive amounts of time, and of course I lost all flow and therefore lost track of the narrative. Finally, about 1/3 in to the two-hour lecture, the projector failed. Totally and completely. And I had all these pictures, graphs, schematic drawings and everything that I had counted on as aids to get my message through, and now I couldn't use any of them. I had two videos lined up, one online-demo, and no picture. Disaster, simply a massive disaster. I had already been incoherent enough, and was hoping to make sense of what I had said in the beginning by showing the demo and the videos...

If I ever needed something turn the day around, today's the day. And if anything can do it, it is this beauty... I just love the way this works WITH me. I've used it for an hour now and we've already bonded. I think I should start referring to it as her, and probably would need to come up with a name as well. Or is that just too sad? Actually, I don't care, think whatever you like, I have a friend who likes me.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

First week of teaching

Challenging but fun. I think that sums it up. There were three sessions this week, all very different.

The first event was a "mass lecture" starting at 8 am on Monday morning. I had done a lot of preparation for this, as I wanted to get a good start. Also I wanted to try to get the students (most of whom are first year students, and this was the first ever uni lecture for them as well) participate actively, and I had prepared a number of features that would do that.

Some other teachers had warned me that sometimes it is very hard to get people to chip in and take part. And I knew this would occasionally happen even in the supervisions where there are only three people, not to mention how easily this is the case in a larger lecture, especially given the time of day of this lecture. On the other hand, as I knew most of these people have never been to a lecture before, they don't have preconceptions about them. So if I make them talk they will think that is the way these things work.

Beforehand I was also worried about time usage. I had 1.5 hours to fill and quite frankly I had no idea how much stuff will fit in. Also, I didn't know how much input I would get from students and whether a discussion I had planned to use 5 minutes for would take 10 minutes or 30 seconds.

I think it went well. People were active, had good ideas and comments and seemed interested in the subject. Timing was also good and I'm looking forward to the second lecture the day after tomorrow.

The second lecture was with a smaller bunch of people and I was giving it together with a lecturer who used to teach me when I was doing my first degree. Therefore this time I was more worried about her than the crowd... We have very different viewpoints to research and that is exactly why we are giving this course together. The first lecture we give together, then we alternate, and at the end of the course we again have a session together, to wrap it up.

The lecture perhaps started a bit slow, but gained momentum as we progressed. She kept challenging me and the point of view I was representing, and I was on the defensive. I did challenge her as well, but perhaps not quite as strongly. But again, people were well engaged, sometimes clearly amused or even astonished by our debate, and it was a positive experience. In a way, the old teacher-student relationship faded and was replaced by a more equal colleague-colleague -relationship. She has been very kind in actively promoting this transition, which of course has made things easy for me.

The third session was the first seminar session for those starting their bachelor's dissertations. I found it almost impossible to prepare for this, as I had no clue if people had plans about topics already or not, and as a consequence I didn't know how the conversation would go. This time, it didn't. The students were a bit unsure about me, and didn't really volunteer comments. I tried to ask about the kind of supervision or teaching they'd think they required, but I think it would have been better just to present my own plan regardless of it possibly being repetitive or patronising or over their heads.

Some people were even talking among themselves and writing notes to each other while I was trying to ask people about their topics. I was thinking of shutting them up, but restrained as they are adults, not kids, and I was hoping to be able to treat them as such. I got their attention with a longer monologue about scientific writing, but eventually I decided to stop short and use only one hour of the two we had scheduled as there clearly wasn't any reason to keep going. Instead I asked them all to come see me individually to talk about their plans and topics, and these meetings have been much more fruitful, and I feel I'm winning them over one by one. I have also decided to knock them out with the next session and will take a much stronger role there. And make them work hard.

All in all, I think it has been a positive start. Preparing for these lectures and seminar sessions has taken a lot of time, though. This is mostly because I'm now responsible for the whole course, from deciding the content to choosing the methods, selecting the reading material and deciding what to do with people who can't make it to the lectures but really would like to pass the course or started the course a year ago but are now having kids and refurbishing their houses 100 kilometres from here or did a course by the same name in a polytechnic some years back. Therefore I can't just prepare stuff as the course progresses (like I could when I was supervising), but the preparation needs to be done in advance. For me, this means doing it now, as I learned about teaching these courses so late. Needless to say that I haven't done anything to my t***** in two weeks, but I'm optimistic I can get back to that towards the end of next week.

Monday, September 10, 2007

First lecture

Tomorrow 8 am, the first lecture.

I must admit, I'm a bit nervous, but not in a bad way. It's the kind of feeling of expectation where you can't wait for the actual show to start... It is going to be a whole new experience, and I'm trying to mentally prepare for it. The actual preparation has been challenging, as I have never needed to come up with things to say for two hours (or one and a half, as it starts quarter past, and there's either a break in between or it ends quarter to the hour: were in the academic time zone) and I have very little clue about what these students know and how they think.

I have been warned that as most of these students are fresh from the high school they know very little and I can't expect too much. On the other hand, if they ARE straight from high school then they don't know what to expect either, and I can set the bar high and they just take it for granted that they will have to work quite hard for these courses. Right?

Well, I'll try to be sensitive and sensible about this, and of course the first lecture will be soft, lots of examples, sound clips, videos, discussion... I'm just trying to get people engaged, and get them to challenge the things they've learned at school, because that has very little to do with how things actually are.

We'll see how it works.

This has taken a lot of work. I've written web pages for the course, opened a new blog for all my teaching stuff, drafted the plans for all lectures, trawled the libraries for material and tried to figure out how this introduction is different from the other introduction lecture I'm supposed to be having on Tuesdays. Also, I've tried to learn how the logic of the integrated calendar - course scheduler - venue booker - student administration system works, and how you do things with it. And it has been difficult to envisage the whole year, the whole course, when I still don't know how much the kids can take. But I'll be that much smarter tomorrow. Now I need to sleep so that I'll be up in time for some coffee before the challenge.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Inspector Morse

Perhaps the greatest TV theme ever (the show's not bad either...). Hearing this made me miss England.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Appalling customer service

How can it be so difficult?

As I moved out of UK, I wanted to cancel my mobile contract. I had a pay monthly contract from Orange, and the easiest way to terminate the contract is to convert it to a pay as you go -contract. So you stop paying monthly for a bundle of calls and texts, and instead get an account that you need to top up in advance. This way, I thought, I could maintain a UK number and use it whenever in there, but not have to keep paying for services I wasn't using.

Unfortunately, this is where you sink to the bottomless hole that is Orange customer service. I've seen stories in the Finnish newspapers complaining how it takes up to 15 minutes to reach the customer service of mobile companies or digital tv helplines. Shock horror. It has now taken me and my girlfriend L a combined effort of THREE hours, and although we've occasionally managed to reach some customer service agents, the issue still hasn't been solved.

They have made leaving your contract criminally difficult. I'm going to make a formal complaint, as this is simply ridiculous...

OK, while I was writing this, I finally managed to bring this ludicrous saga to an end.

I had notified Orange at the end of JULY that I wish to terminate my contract. They said they'd send me a new pay as you go SIM card in a month, and then I'd need to call them again to activate the new card and that would terminate my contract.

As I'm already in Finland, L promised to take care of it, so I left my UK phone with her, with all the passwords etc. She got the new card, then tried to call Orange to activate it, and this is where it all started to go wrong. The first number didn't answer, the second said they were too busy to do these things (!), the third wasn't working at all. Finally, after a lot of queuing, she got through but they made a fuss about keeping my old number and it all got complicated. And finally they said they couldn't do it because she isn't me, and knowing all my security codes, birth dates, addresses and post codes, calling from my phone having unlocked it with my PIN wasn't enough. They take security very seriously... They told her that the best thing is to get me to call them and give my permission for her to act on my behalf and terminate the contract.

OK, this is when I started calling them. The first call was on hold for 20 minutes, and then the person was too stupid (sorry, just a fact) to understand what was going on, but finally I managed to explain what I wanted. He clearly hadn't done anything like this before, and after feverishly consulting his manuals he told me that the best thing for me to do would be to get the codes from L and call them again and terminate the contract myself. I objected, as queuing for yet another 20 minutes using an international call didn't sound like the "best thing" to me, but he practically refused to help me anymore, said that he'd have to transfer my call to another department to get this permission-thingy even started blah blah.

So I called L again, got the SIM card number and phone IMEI code and got back to the queue... And this is what really cracked me up. After navigating through the menus I thought I was queuing to "follow through a disconnection request". But as soon as I had told him what I wanted to do, the guy asks me to hold the line while he transfers me to someone who can disconnect me. WTF?! And you guessed, there was more queuing...

Finally, the person who took my call knew what he was doing. I gave the codes, he disconnected my contract and activated the pay as you go SIM. In about a minute. And keeping the old number was not an issue, that was the default option. He was efficient, quick, helpful and polite. Excellent service. Mate, you're seriously wasting your talent in that rubbish company.

In all, customer service in Orange is shit. Sorry for cursing, there are other words I could have used but they are worse. In July, I actually walked in to their store to disconnect my phone, thinking somehow that they could do the paperwork there, and that I could reach a customer service agent directly, without queuing. Of course this is not how it works. They just told me they can't do that and told me to call the customer services.

I don't know what these guys in their cheap and badly fitting suits do for work, then, as when I was trying to buy the phone in the first place, they couldn't sell one to me, either. They made me stand and wait there while they were calling their boss asking for permission to sign a contract. And, with all their fuss about security etc., they were faxing my credit card details back and forth, so that "they" could check that it was "OK"...

I don't know if the other phone companies are any better. I've heard stories that suggest they aren't. But what I can't understand is, why in that highly competitive British market, the companies get away with such horrible service? Perhaps it is that displeased customers wanting to switch providers can't, because they can't get through to the customer service...

(Pic: stockphoto.com)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fast trains


Just two hours. It is just amazing. In an inaugural run, the Eurostar travelled from Paris to it's new London home St Pancras in just over 2 hours. Once the regular service starts in November, the trip between the two Alpha cities will take 2 hours 15 minutes. Add to this the half an hour you will need for boarding and security checks and you still get from heart to heart in less than three hours. Some say that housing prices in Cambridge are expected to keep rising because it now is half an hour from London and three and a half hours from Paris. By train.

Brits use cheap airlines a lot, partly because flying in and out of an island has been the quickest and most convenient way. With the tunnel it was said that Britain is no longer an island, but it has now joined the continent. Poor rail infrastructure in England in general and between London and the tunnel in particular reduced this saying to just that, but now with the new high speed rail link this will become a reality. Fast trains have already wiped out most flights between Paris and Brussels, hopefully the same will happen for London-Paris and London-Brussels connections as well.

Another news is that the Russian and Finnish railroad companies are forming a new joint venture to equip the Helsinki - St Petersburg railway with fast Pendolino trains. The aim is to cut travel times from 5 to 3 hours. This is a very welcome development, as well. If the mental distance between Paris and London (or Britain and the continent) sometimes seems larger than the physical distance, the mental distance between Finland and Russia is even greater. A fast rail link will be a physical bridge that hopefully helps in reducing the mental distance. This rail connection isn't just to move traffic from air to the rails, it is to boost communication in the first place.

(Pic: Eurostar.com)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Rude awakening

What a great way to wake up. Have someone ringing your doorbell at half seven in the morning, and then yell at the flatmate who opened the door: "Get your stinking stuff the hell out of the drying room!" and then leave.

No greeting, no introduction, no checking that he's in the right place, that the things in the drying room belong to us, nothing. And of course the volume was as loud as it gets, so the neighbours were probably woken up, too.

I had done some laundry in the laundry room last night, and so mine was the last name in the booking sheet. After I was done, my flatmate, who had spent the weekend in an adventure race, had gone and hung his rain-soaked stuff out to dry in the drying room. Admittedly we knew the next reservation was for this morning, and that it started at 7, but decided to leave the stuff (a tent, a sleeping bag etc., large things you can't dry in the flat) to dry there overnight because there was no other place.

So we went down to collect the things, and of course the laundry machine was still churning the first load, so there seemed to be no problem, which made us wonder what the hell the yelling was about. When we were almost done and just about to leave, an elderly woman (I'd say lady but she was not one) in her rubber boots appeared at the door, again without greeting or introduction told us in an annoyed voice that she is too old to clean up other people's stuff and that she'd need the room in five minutes and we should be gone by then. My flatmate tried to apologise for the inconvenience but she had already turned around and left.

I'm not sure if the man yelling at our door was her husband, but these two would definitely deserve each other. I don't remember anyone being so rude before, and I feel sorry for my flatmate who felt really bad about the trouble, and of course had planned to get the stuff out of there first thing in the morning, but probably because he had slept for about 10 hours since Thursday he had decided to get up just before 8 rather than at seven, when this no-life hag was starting what probably is the highpoint of her month. (She had booked the laundry for the whole day, as she seems to do every month.)

It made me think about how the world must seem like if you have no social skills at all. How every time you need to deal with people, every time there is something that you'd need to complain about or negotiate over you worry about it so much, you mentally rehearse all the worst case scenarios so many times that by the time you are in the actual situation, all you can do is get on the maximum offence and then leave (piä tunkkis, perkele)?

This is called negative assertiveness, and it is a very common source of social dysfunctions. Someone who scores high on negative assertiveness is able to deliver bad news, rejection or complaint, and handle those situations well. It is about influencing people and relating with them, and healthy assertiveness (in both positive and negative matters) is important in social situations. Many times people who lack assertiveness altogether, are overly shy, avoid difficult situations and in some cases social interaction altogether, and this becomes a problem. For some others, lack of coping skills results in aggressive behaviour, like in the case of the laundry-people in our building.

So, after some rationalisation, rather than being angry I started to feel a bit sorry for these two, whose lives we had so insolently perturbed, and refrained from sneaking in to the laundry room to turn off the mains during the washing cycle.

(Pic: museumtrail.org)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pay day

Although it was not that much, finding the first salary in the bank account on Friday was a great feeling. After all, this year has been financially very difficult, with having to get by with loaned money, small odd jobs and generosity of the family. And even though I'm not usually bothered about money, getting my own money that is a bit more than I immediately need to keep afloat was very important. And a relief.

So, I went shopping. I needed some new clothes, now that I'm a government officer I need an outfit to match my position of authority. Although I have the official position, there's no longer a uniform to go with it. This is a pity, as according to the decree by Nikolai II in 1897 about the rank order in the Grand duchy of Finland, I would be in the 10th class (out of 14). This rank order equates most civil officers to officers in the army and navy. Class 10, where the assistant in the Imperial Alexander University (nowadays Helsinki University) would be equal to lieutenant in the army, although by the same decree, the military personnel will get priority over civilians of the same rank. And there would be a uniform, with a hat to go with the status.

Anyway, although I wasn't looking for a uniform, I was somewhat shocked with what was on offer in the shops in terms of trousers. Jeans. Only jeans, but lots of them. Blue, bluer, bluest jeans. Black, blacker, blackest jeans. Faded, fadeder, fadedest jeans. And I started wondering that surely not everyone wears jeans around here, not all the time. But a quick look around in the town center shows that they do... Eventually I managed to find some non-jeans-based trousers in Hennes & Mauritz where I usually do not shop at. Weird. And for another shop I bought a shirt that I deemed too expensive but just couldn't put down after trying it on...

The other shopping related realisation came later on Friday evening. I went to get some food, and decided to mark the occasion of my first salary by getting some black-label Emmenthaler cheese, and was thinking of getting a bottle of red wine to go with it. Just as I was wondering where the wine shelf in the supermarket was, I remembered that there isn't one. Wine's only available in special shops, run by the state. And these aren't open for as late in the evening as the supermarkets. Luckily I had a bottle of white at home, but I had already become used to just buying wine when buying food, in the same shop.

(Pic: Students in their uniforms in 1853, yliopistolainen.helsinki.fi)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Memory lane

When I left Finland for Cambridge, I only took a couple of suitcases with me, and brought most of my belongings to my parents' place, to be stored until... well, now, I suppose.

I've been going through the papers, books, CD's, clothes this weekend. It's funny how easy it is to move on and forget the past projects, ideas, even "identity" in some ways. I found papers of projects I had done only five or six years ago, but I had already forgotten even having been involved in some of them. And surprisingly, some of the reports actually looked pretty good. Most notably, they looked confident; as if written by someone who (thinks he) knows what he's doing. Although some of that cocky confidence was probably unfounded, it made working much easier.

The case with the t***** is often the opposite. All drafts are very restrained and cautiously worded. Earlier, I had no trouble stating for a fact what shoud be done in European higher education in general, now I'm careful not to make too bod claims about small details of error correction mechanisms in a specified cognitive function.

Of course, there is a major difference between the mostly political writings of back then and th scientific writing now. While confidence and simplification plays a major, positive role in political communication, science doesn't care much about it, and scientists have the nasty habit of checking your facts and testing them. Still, for writing a t*****, a good dose of feelings of invincibility and youthful cockyness are very useful, at least if you have the tendency to doubt and second guess every word, as I sometimes do.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wah wah boots - mahna mahna!

Thanks again MusicThing for making my day...

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Forget Heelys, ignore Crocs. Here are the wah wah boots!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rock!

I got this badge from Mitluana, who herself rocks more than a dozen peace-parties and needs no soundcheck!

In the real world, today was the first "proper" day at work, as all the hassle with moving rooms seems to have reached the point where people can actually work in their rooms, or at least unpack things and sort their email backlogs.

And not a moment too soon... People actually showing up at the office meant that I could talk to them about teaching, research and all those things I'm supposed to be doing here soon. There will be very little time to prepare for the first courses, but at least now I have a little bit better idea of what is expected of me. I'm very happy that most courses will be done in collaboration with others, or my "stuff" will be a part of something bigger that also involves people from other disciplines.

The potential of this department lies in its structure, it bringing together all these disciplines and approaches. I'm saying this as an "outsider", just looking at what we have here. Of course, as I already know from the past, the interdisciplinary relations are not always easy, and there have been issues, mainly to do with allocating resources fairly between the disciplines, but also disagreements about what constitutes valid research and relevant teaching. This debate, of course, can be either constructive or destructive, and there are examples of both in the history of this department.

I'm not yet convinced if things are better now; there are many indications that they might be, although I'm also picking some signs of the old tensions. I think my views of this whole field of science and what it should aim for have changed during the last few years, and in that light it is clear to me that there is no alternative for collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Cambridge or Oxford don't have these possibilities, so in this sense we could be so much better than they are. We'll see.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Haven of peace

The park outside my flat is a haven of peace, the antithesis of belligerence and the centerpoint of friendship.

The day before yesterday there was the metal concert marking the declaration of peace in schools.

Yesterday there was a christian rock concert, which I suppose had a fairly peaceful message, as well.

Today there was a six (6) hour long concert called Pearls of Peace, organised by the local anti-war organisation.

My ears are still ringing from all this peace in just one weekend.

Well, even though most of the performers don't exactly need to continuously check their voicemail for missed calls from recording company executives, there were some good bands among them. And as I said, it's great that local bands get chances to perform and that there's live music in the city. But if that dude from the PA company wakes me up with Toto tomorrow (they had soundchecks at 9 am both Thursday and today), I am not sure how peaceful I will be.

(Pic: Peace and Quiet Rock Band)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Backgammon

Everyone knows the procrastinative potential of Windows Solitaire and Minesweeper, some have advanced to Freecell or Spider solitaire. I like backgammon.

There's an online backgammon in Windows, and I've been able to play it now after a long while, as in the uni network these ports were rudely blocked. To me the charm of backgammon is the mixture of luck and skill, and it is of course at best played live, but playing online is a good substitute.

The windows game is just for short matches, and most players (myself included) are not that good. It is also very easy to just leave when things are going wrong, and matches are rarely played to the end, which is set to three points. I've just tested an online backgammon room called Play65. There you can play for real or fake money, there are more options for match length etc.

After a couple of games, my fake money account is about where I started from. I now realise that the one aspect of the game that I'm least familiar with is also the most important one when you are playing for "money", and that's the doubling cube. For those not familiar with the game, what it means is that if you think you are winning a round, you can offer to double the points/money that the winner gets. If your opponent accepts, the game goes on, if s/he discards the offer, you win immediately (the single points/stakes, of course). The hook is that once you double, your opponent gets the possession of the cube, and can then try to oust you if tables turn later on and you lose the advantage you thought you had when making the first doubling.

In short, it is a way to control the game, but you can also lose a lot (including control of the game) by doubling at the wrong time and of course lose if you accept doubles when you should discard. And this is an aspect that the Windows backgammon doesn't really teach you, although it is a good way to start playing backgammon and learn the basic moves.

And as with everything, there is no end to how far you can take it. I suppose there is a lot of money involved in online gaming and tournaments; as the game is about tactics and a lot of that is about assessing probabilities, computers have been enrolled into it, and the top backgammon calculator / bot retails for 360$, there are theories, forums, schools etc.

I'll stick to playing the occasional game online, before finding someone to play with here. Having said that, my new "boss" is the person who taught me to play the game in the first place, about 6 years ago, in a plane going from Amsterdam to Johannesburg...

(Pic: http://www.redtopbg.com/)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Peace and passivity

School started this week, and to mark the event, a national declaration for peace in schools was made today. The "ceremony" took place outside my window in the park.

The declaration is a good idea, as it tries to tackle bullying and other anti-social behaviour in schools, and for what I've heard all upper-primary students (13-16 years old) of Jyväskylä attended, and the event was broadcast by a national radio channel.

The event was actually an hour-long concert featuring four local bands. Ask me again in three months, but I think it's good that the park is alive, local bands get a chance to perform and there's culture for young people, by young people. (The only annoying bit was the soundcheck, and some idiot mixer showing off and playing TOTO on maximum volume at 9 in the morning, much louder than the actual concert).

But, I think the event fell well short of what it could have been. I got the feeling that for the audience it was just another lesson. The pic is taken during (IMO) the best performance, and you can't really describe this as an enthusiastic crowd. OK, I'm not the right person to criticise anyone for not dancing, but I think this bunch has confused going to a rock concert with going to a funeral.

I don't know who planned this event, but I suppose it wasn't the kids themselves. Perhaps the music (metal, all 4 bands...) was not the grooviest possible, but still I think there was a missed opportunity to have a PARTY where people could get a positive experience from moving, dancing, being together. This could have had a positive effect on the school spirit and perhaps brought the different "cultures" closer together. But instead, they chose to have people sitting down quietly, only giving polite applause after each band's performance. Which they did perfectly, good kids.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Yes, professor

The curse of empty paper. Or screen, in this case. It can be very crippling sometimes, and can drive me up the wall. The good thing about this blog is that whenever I'm finding it difficult to start writing about something I've decided to write about, I can always switch to procrastination mode and write about the difficulty of writing about whatever it is I want to write about. Almost magic (if it weren't so sad :-) )!

OK, this time it's not really about where to start, but more about whether to write about this at all, whether I want to bring these themes to Planet P or not. What the heck...

The way universities are run in Finland makes no sense.

If you want to know what is going on in the uni or in any of its departments or faculties, you need to talk to the administrative staff. The numerous reforms and projects that the universities occupy themselves with are usually their pet peeves, but usually the nagging is semi-serious at most.

Something seems very different this time, though. I've now been here for two weeks. Or one, as I was in the Castle for a week, and actually have been working at home for most of the time, but there seems to be a theme emerging anyway. Everyone, and that is EVERYONE I talk to has something very negative to say about the recent big organisational changes or the way they've been implemented, or both. There is frustration, even despair, and while the university has been through rough times before (as in the mid 90's when the economic depression was squeezing the budgets) there is now the added frustration that this rough batch seems mostly self-inflicted, partly by the ministry, partly by the university.

These same themes have been prominent in the few chats I've had with the academic staff as well. I've heard a lot about the new IT systems and the new salary system, the re-organisation of administrative services, the refurbishments of the buildings and facilities. And in proportion very little about teaching or research. Not sure if anyone has time to do any of those anymore, with so many structural development projects and administrative exercises going on.

It's not just about using time on admin rather than research, as in every university, even in the very top ones, the academic staff has to do more than just teach or do research. But it is what this other time is used for. In most top universities it is used for fundraising or project proposals and applications. Frustrating, yes, but at least you can think that it benefits the faculty in the end. Here the benefits seems less... concrete. And fundraising wouldn't make any sense anyway, as the system actively discourages such activities. Since the uni is essentially a government office, the budget you get must be spent the same year, and it can't be saved for the future and definitely can't be set aside for worse times. So at the same time as there is a major squeeze on personnel and downsizing of administrative services and departments, loose cash is spent on frivolities just because not spending it would mean a smaller budget the next year. And no matter how big a fan of the public education system you are (and I'm pretty big), surely this makes no sense.

You could take "Yes, Minister" and adapt it to be "Yes, Professor" or "Yes, Chancellor" and it would fit perfectly.

I don't want to sound negative, because I'm still quite enthusiastic about this job and very keen to get on with it, but I can't help thinking about these things. Universities are about people, but here the priorities seem to be different. I hope I'm wrong, I hope it is just the way it seems.