Friday, February 23, 2007

New words

In The Interpreter, the brother of the main character Silvia Broome (played by Nicole Kidman) used to write down words that he liked as a kid. There are great words in all languages, the best ones are those that are untranslatable to any other language. I remember (from primary school, or somewhere very far away) that there are two types of meaning that words have, denotations, or their literary meaning and connotations, the suggestive meaning. Semantics are more complex than that, but that will do for now - the untranslatable words are so impregnated with connotations, contextual associations, emotions and often have a history that is entwined with the history of the people using that language.

Good words also taste good, they feel nice when you say them. Words in second, third etc. languages tend to group into good and not so good on different grounds than those of the mother tongue - probably because some of their connotational "luggage" isn't translated, and the judgement is done more on purely aesthetic grounds or just for their entertainment value. It's a bit like kids when they find words that are fun to repeat and chant out loud, irrespective of their content, sometimes to their parents' horror...

For instance, of all the French words I know, the one that comes to mind in this context is inoubliable. It's silly, but I like it, and it somehow reminds me of Paris, but probably the kind of Paris I've never actually seen. (And it would make a great mocking chant for kids.)

In English, I'd have a list of words that I especially like, but I never get around to writing them down. If I buy that Moleskine I've been thinking about (my mind is like a sieve these days, or more like a black hole), I'll probably start writing the list.

There is one word that I sort of love to hate, as it is such a perfect embodiment (I don't think you can say that about a word...) of the phenomenon: one-upmanship. It's a brilliantly coined term (by Stephen Potter, according to Wikipedia) and describes the behaviour of people who compulsively try to outdo others in everything, no matter how insignificant the task is. My association of this is the fussy parent baking cakes to their son Rupert's school fair, and instead of just baking a cake, s/he has it glazed with the school logo and motto in Latin, and then brings it to school on a Royal Doulton plate as "anything else would look too... Ikea-ish". The term somehow manages to perfectly convey the smugness and artificiality of the people who do these kinds of things.

By the way, there are also a lot of words I absolutely hate and loath and would like to strike out of use and into oblivion (oblivion is a good word); most of them are the ones that occur regularly in the vocabulary of estate agents and management consultants. The worst one is wow-factor. I just don't get how a bathroom or a loo can have that, apart from perhaps in the case that they top the listings in

I almost forgot the word that I learned today, which also prompted me to write this entry. I really should get that notebook. The word is steampunk. Yes, it's sort of related to cyberpunk but less dystopian (another great word). It's a genre of literature/film/lifestyle that idolises the technology and style of the steam-powered era, the industrial revolution without bounds. Brass, mechanics rather than electronics and steam power instead of combustion engines are all the hype. Jules Verne's science fiction and the works of the greatest Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (can there be a greater name...) are inspirations for adorers of steampunk. The term is about 20 years old, as the trend began to emerge in the turn of 80's and 90's, but I only learned it today, after stumbling across a link to this project: modifying a computer keyboard to look like a 100 year old typewriter.

After taking a look at the page, and reading about the term, I realised that I'd just seen a brilliant steampunk film: Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. This Studio Ghibli (of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle -fame) epic animation features robots, planes, trains and flying ships that are like straight off Verne's pages. And I guess my fascination (don't like this word, sounds like fascism) with Babbage's difference engine suggests I might have a strain of this bug as well.

(Pic: screenshot from Castle in the Sky, copied from

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Brighter future

Australia has decided to ban old-school incandescent light bulbs. This is an excellent decision, as the modern fluorescent ones last much longer and are thus more efficient. This decision will undoubtedly be well received in the Ban the Bulb -movement that has campaigned for a similar decision in the UK, although focusing more on trying to sway the consumers to make the environmentally friendly choice.

This decision stems from the growing awareness of the effects of carbon emissions to the environment, and follows the recent decision made by the Spanish authorities, by which every new and renovated house will soon need to be equipped with a solar panel. So, there's a shift to more environmentally friendly way to producing energy, Australians are trying to get more efficient in using it, and we can all easily try to use a bit less of it. It's not that difficult to turn off those lights and get those TV:s and other gadgets off the stand-by.

Meanwhile, the Finnish government is worried that cutting carbon emissions will lead to loss of jobs in the Finnish heavy industry. Luckily the elections are only a couple of weeks away.

Edit: the ministers of environment of the EU have just agreed on a unilateral 20% emission reduction goal by 2020, and have also decided to push forward an international 30% reduction plan.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tech Support

Learning to use the new interface. :)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Offset your carbon emissions

Last year, buying goats and cows for Christmas became very popular. A number of charities and development organisations provided possibilities to directly invest in rural Africa, on a small scale, and very concretely help individuals and families, while also providing a way of getting pleasure from giving during the holidaytime.

The next big thing, and by no means limited to Christmas or other holidays, will be offsetting your carbon emissions, or offsetting someone else's carbon emissions for them. Prompted by the growing awareness about climate change and the sense of urgency to do something about it while governments and political and business leaders debate which course of action to take, people are taking the matter in their own hands. Businesses are also realising how important this is not only for the environment but also for their image. So, a number of schemes are now available to calculate your carbon emissions, and donate money for projects that offset these emissions. These projects range from planting trees to developing wind power.

Many businesses are now doing this on a large scale - they are offsetting the emissions from all the flights that their employers take, for instance, and all the emissions from the fleet of their company's cars and the offices produce. One of the providers of this service,, has a 5-step program that it offers to companies. First, their emissions are calculated, second, they suggest ways in which to cut down these emissions. Third, they figure out schemes that would help offsetting those emissions that would suit the company, and fourth, the company donates money via carbonneutral to these projects. Finally, the company gets a certificate for being "carbon neutral". Companies like Honda and The Rolling Stones do this already, and the ranks are growing.

I like the combined approach, where you in the first instance try to cut down your emissions (which usually saves you money), and then pay for all the rest, which of course not only promotes the projects but gives you an extra incentive to keep cutting your actual emissions.

Individuals can do this, too. There are calculators for analysing and offsetting the emissions from your flights, your driving and your home. I just checked, and to offset the emissions from a return flight from London to Finland costs you just under £5. And, you can offset someone else's emissions as a present. They'll send that person a certificate and some bits and bobs so that the "material" side of the present is there also.

Of course, there are two things that worry me about this. First, that this becomes just a way of buying a clean conscience and doesn't lead to reduction in emissions. As the UK environment secretary David Milliband said: “Offsetting isn't the answer to climate change. The first step should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions – through thinking about how we use energy in our homes and businesses, and the way we travel. However, some emissions can't or won't be avoided. That's where offsetting has a role to play. It's a way of compensating for the emissions produced with an equivalent carbon saving.”

The second thing that I worry about is that this becomes the new brand of eco-fascism: anyone not offsetting their emissions would need to explain their actions. There is a similar issue in the UK with the Poppy campaign, where before Remembrance Day red poppies are sold for the benefit of veterans of the wars, and you have the hell to pay if you for instance appear on TV without one. Given what Milliband said about offsetting, and given that just like in supporting veterans there are more than one ways of doing it, I'd be very worried if this became a "must" thing to do, even though I of course hope this would take on. I guess it's about doing it for the right reasons rather than just going through the moves that counts - just like with any presents you give.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Mac coolness

Yesterday, I forgot the power unit of my laptop at home. It was still in the suitcase where I'd packed it for the trip. So, I was forced to use the new MacBook we have here in the lab. It's for portable experiments, but as nobody is running them right now, it just lies on the table, being adored and admired by everyone. She is soooo cute... :-)

I do like Macs. They have this air of quality, they are the thoroughbreds of computers. I'm not a Microsoft-hater, on the contrary, so I don't have ideological reasons to prefer macs. My current computer is a PC, but as I've advertised earlier, the next one will (hopefully) be a Mac. I am not at all ashamed to admit, that I like macs because of their design. Not just the case, the user interface, the OS, the programs. I know that what's beneath the skin is what counts, but I still think the magnetic power cord plug is one of the coolest features of the new MacBooks.

So, today, when I came to work I took my power unit. But, alas, it still has the Euro-plug instead of the three-prong UK one. So, here I am, writing with the MacBaby, and enjoying every minute of it. There are adaptors and extra UK-cables at the lab, and I'll need to switch to my old trusty warhorse of a PC, but before that I couldn't resist playing around with the Mac's Photobooth -program. These little things are just too much fun...

This is me as a rugby-player.

This is my "rabbit in the headlights" -imitation.

And this is someone very tired.

Hmm, I really AM tired, perhaps I should just go back to the boring PC-world and get the work planned for today done.

(Pic: (just the first shot, obviously))

Friday, February 09, 2007

Trains rule

There are many things that should have ended up on this blog in the last few weeks, but I never got around to writing the entry. Mostly, I've been too busy. A couple of times, I've started an entry but decided not to post it, or simply forgot the stub to a window buried beneath all other windows on the desktop. Sometimes things just go wrong and technology fails. For instance, there's a cool video in youtube that I want to share with you, but the automatic embedding didn't work. I'll try again soon.

The entry about Pekka Kuusisto's amazing gig in Cambridge (that I promised someone I'd write) never materialised, and might not. (Just got to say, it was amazing, he was amazing, the music was amazing. Go buy all his records. Twice. Give them to all your friends for all the occasions you'd normally buy a present for. And most importantly, go to all his gigs. One old guy asked us (a group of Finns) after the concert when we were waiting by the stage backdoor to get to thank the artist, whether we "follow him around or just came to see this concert". That sounded funny but I suppose the idea wouldn't be totally out of this world, especially after that gig.)

Anyway, to newer things. More recent, that is. I returned from Amsterdam yesterday evening. I was the only one of our group of 5 to arrive yesterday, the others took the plane. Or tried to, but due to adverse weather conditions and loads of cancellations they had to spend an extra night somewhere in Holland, and I still haven't heard of them so don't know when it was that they finally arrived, if they indeed have. Both Stansted and Amsterdam were hit by the cold snap and heavy snowfall, and loads of flights were cancelled or at least severely delayed.

In contrast, I was at home at the scheduled time, as I took the train. There was a 30 minute delay in Schiphol (where the train stops after leaving Amsterdam) due to a signal failure that was undoubtedly caused by the ridiculously dense snowfall, and another shorter delay in Brussels with the Eurostar departure (probably due to bad weather in the UK), but other than that, it was smooth running.

Originally I decided to take the train rather than the plane because it is so much more ecological. Also, on short distances like this it is more convenient. The train takes five and a half hours from London to Amsterdam, and this means from centre to centre. A flight takes an hour, but when you factor in the 2 hours check-in time, passport and baggage reclaim queues and of course the train or taxi rides between the airport and the city centre at both ends, you actually end up spending about the same time. Of course, I have to factor in the time it takes me to get from Cambridge to Waterloo station and back, which is about 1 hour 15 minutes, and the 30 minutes you need to reserve for checking in to the Eurostar. So, on a good day you get from Cambridge to Amsterdam in about 4.5 hours, and the train option takes about 7.5-8 hours, depending on train changing times.

But this time, the train proved to be about a full day quicker than the plane. With all the cheap flights, more and more people are flying more and more often, and the airports are getting more busy, the queues longer (also due to security issues) and delays more and more likely. Also, with more people on the move, any disruption is likely to cause a lot of hassle for many people.

While flying seems to get slower and slower, with extra security checks and heavy traffic, the trains are getting faster. A faster track is being built for the Eurostar on the UK side. In the so-called CTRL-project Channel Train Link), the terminal is also going to be moved to St Pancras stations from Waterloo. This is good news to Cambridge-people, as the fast trains from Cambridge arrive at King's Cross, which is literally next door from the St Pancras terminal. And since the new track cuts the travel time to for example Gare du Nord to 2 hours 15 minutes, I really can't see any point in flying to Paris after November, when the works are scheduled to be completed.

Already, there are practically no flights between Paris and Brussels, thanks to the fast trains. Similarly, fast Thalys train (the Belgian fast train) operating between Brussels and Amsterdam (although slower connection in average km/h) makes flying between the two cities pointless. The only point, and that is a big one, I must admit, is that the flights are often cheaper than the trains. My commuter-train - tube - Eurostar - Thalys -combination cost about £160 return, whereas flights at the time of booking were selling for £47 return. Add to this the £15 for trains to and from Stansted, and whatever it costs to get from Schiphol to Central Amsterdam, and you still save about 50% compared to the train option. This, from the point of view of the environment, is insane.

If we disregard the fact that the plane-takers were stranded in the airport for a day, as that is still luckily unusual, I still find a whole host of reasons why trains rule over planes. In short, I found the train-ride much more pleasant than any short-haul flight I have ever taken. First, there are practically no luggage limitations, and so I could take my computer with me in a backpack, which I no longer can take into plane as it is too big for the current regulations. Also, I brought a ton of books (all the same title, my friend's PhD thesis) with me, as she was flying and therefore couldn't bring the books herself due to the luggage restrictions. Second, I'd much rather spend the few hours of travel on the move than waiting in a lobby or queuing. I find it impossible to work in planes (apart from long-haul flights) with all the restrictions for use of electronic appliances, non-existing legroom and the said waiting and queuing. On a train it's a different thing, and the modern, fast ones are built for comfort and as the faster services stop relatively rarely, working is usually good and productive. And when work ends it's possible to sleep.

Third, the view. On a plane, and if the day is clear, you get great views for about 3 minutes, when the plane takes off and when it lands. While it is true that cities don't usually show their prettiest face to the railway tracks, there is something to watch all the time, great sceneries and places going by - although sometimes at 300 km/h.

Finally, as trains have much lower carbon emissions per passengermile than planes, and are more environmentally friendly than cars (more efficient, lower emissions, and railways take less land than roads), you get back the pure enjoyment of travel, and lose the guilt you feel about flying.