Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fiver says I'm going to live forever

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry with (or should this be "at"?) the British tabloids. Daily Express, in between stories about conspiracies and cover-ups surrounding the death of Lady Di, and alarmist news about house prices and mortgage rates, has brought us this bombshell of news from the world of medical research.

Aspirin is good for you, and DE claims that new research shows it can "work miracles". Nothing short of a miracle suffices, as I've always thought we are all going to eventually die. It now seems that this inevitability can now be changed, just by eating aspirin. I wonder if aspirin helps in avoiding the other inevitability, taxes? I'm sure Express will be the first to run the story, as soon as the Miracle Research Council -funded project has been completed.

(Pic: Daily Express front page 27.3.2007)

Monday, March 26, 2007

George Horace, or 'Do you really think they're that stupid?'

One week after the election. Just like my namesake in Amsterdam, I need proper news about what is going on now. Not just the largely pointless "reactions" and analyses of the PR campaigns etc., but a real update on what is being discussed behind the scenes.

Who is going to be in the coalition, and on what terms? What are going to be the main objectives and aims of the new government, what are the policies? Who is in agreement, who wants to change them? What's going to happen to education, universities, art museums, taxes, development aid, railroads and digital TV? What are we going to do about NATO, what is the health care going to look like in 4 years, how are we going to reach the goals for renevable energy and cutting carbon emissions as agreed by the EU? Speaking of which, are we now taking a more active role in getting the European project back to tracks or are we going to keep watching quietly from the sidestage to make sure nobody gets cross at us? Update me!

Of course, this is a time when all this is still being prepared and discussed, and even the parties are reluctant to show their cards just yet. They are now trying to set their priorities and figure out how much room for compromise they have on policies they have promoted, and how much the others are willing to give in. Which of course means that all non-governmental organisations and lobby groups out there are now busy meeting the newly elected MP's, especially the ones responsible for coalition negotiations, trying to make sure their issues get mentioned in the new government's program. Most organisations are doing this behind the scenes, or while they are releasing their objectives to the press as well, the press decides to be "impartial" and not publish them. The exception being the trade unions.

Losing the election (by proxy of the social democrats) and getting the blame for it was clearly a painful blow for them. They have been very nervous about the possible (and very likely) centre-right coalition. They have bad memories of it, the last time that coalition was in power, Finland was struggling with a major depression and many of the drastic measures needed to balance the state's finances hit the union members (naturally, almost all of the working population being members), many of which were laid off. And more importantly, the government and unions strongly disagreed about the best ways to deal with the problems, and even more fundamentally didn't agree on the role of unions in these kinds of decisions. And that spectre still haunts the unions, and it seems no amount of reinforcement is enough to convince them that the centre-right government wouldn't bomb them down as their first act in the office.

So, their campaign continues. One issue that has been on the agenda for a number of years is that in addition to (or in stead of) the national deals on pay rises, there perhaps should be more leeway to negotiate wages locally. The unions don't like this, and it is possibly their worst nightmare and the one thing they don't want to appear in the government's agenda. So, they've commissioned a study.

Did they have a model, a pilot case, cross-nation comparative study or just economical analysis and prognosis? No, they interviewed 1000 people and asked what they thought would happen.

This Gallup poll, named after the father of the statistical methodology that powers the generalisation of a survey to a population, George Horace Gallup, is of course possibly the most wrong way to go about studying the phenomenon. Surveys can be useful, although they can go spectacularly wrong as in 1948 presidential elections in the US. In many cases gallup polls or surveys are quoted by the press as being synonymous with "what the people think or want" without any consideration of their methodology, or whether they were the right tools for the job.

For instance, the surveys stand or fall with their sampling. Some groups are notoriously difficult to sample, such as immigrants, unemployed, or in other ways disadvantaged groups. I.e. the very groups that the public decision making should most vigorously try to protect. Also, the same GIGO-principle applies to surveys as to computer programs. Garbage in, garbage out. What questions to ask and how to phrase them is the key issue, once the sample is sorted. Most importantly, surveys can poll opinions and beliefs, and can help predict trends in behaviours on election day or at the supermarket, but they are not the method to find out facts.

In short, if you want to know what effects local wage-setting would have, you'd better ask a few economists who have studied the issue and not put it in a popular vote. But, it's all part of the PR-game around the incubation of the new government, of which annoyingly little is being leaked to the public!

(Pic: Wikipedia)

Sunday, March 25, 2007


English is a difficult language to write. Or so they say, and so it seems. When reading, say, comments to blogs or other messages people write quickly, you find interesting mistakes. There are the occasional spelling errors but also things like using 'their' instead of 'there' and 'one' instead of 'won'. They do sound the same, so the slip is understandable. But somehow I can't imagine making those kinds of mistakes. I do make loads of others, prepositions are difficult, for instance, but I'd never mix 'their' and 'there'. I tend to mix 'it's' and 'its', because the use of apostrophe is slightly illogical there.

Perhaps it's because I've had to use so much energy to learn English, as it is my second language, and so I've needed to focus on these issues. Or perhaps it is due to being attentive to spelling and correctness in written language in general. Lately I've also become more aware of the differences in British and American English. I always knew they were different, but I never used to remember which way around it was. Color vs. colour? Gas vs. petrol? Aluminum vs. aluminium? It is all logical, the version that looks more like it reads is the American one. The one that seems to have extra letters is the British, or correct version. :-)

I know I shouldn't feel this strongly about this, but I do. I don't like American spelling. First of all, the excessive use of 'z' bugs me. It somehow looks so 80's and so fake. Synthesizers, maximizing your amazing hairdos and synchronizing with the beats. Or beatz. In Britain, it's OK to spell these with the much softer and more composed 's', except 'amazing', which is so American that you shouldn't use it anyway. And is it just me, or is 'colour' more vivid and vibrant than 'color'?

I have one specific problem with spelling in English. I can't write down words that someone is spelling to me letter by letter. That's mostly because the vowel names are so different from the actual sounds. For example, if someone wants me to write down 'a', they say [ei]. So, in Finnish ears using two different vowels, either of which is the one they mean. Complicated. And for 'e' they say [ii] and for 'i' they say [ai]. At least in this one the right vowel makes an appearance, but not as the first sound. The easiest way to confuse me, though, and this works with numbers as well as letters, is to use the prefix "double" to "save time" when there are two same digits or letters back to back. This is weird, and it always throws me off. So, someone called "Wooll" would be spelled "double-u double-ou double-el". Huh?

Just say "ou ou" or "el el" if you want me to understand it. Or if your phone number is 0777 558 622, it should be "zero seven seven seven five five eight six two two", and not "ou triple seven double five eight six double two". In case of "triple seven" you admittedly save one word, but you have to utter as many words to say "double five" as you need for "five five", and the latter is even shorter. And this is not even taking into account the inevitable fact that if you use the first one you'll need to repeat it to me at least twice. These "double this double that" constructions are often used in company phone numbers, because they thing they are easier to remember. So they say these very quickly in radio ads. If I'd ever need a conservatory (not conservatoire, BTW), I'd know from their ad campaign in the local radio which company makes the best ones, but would never be able to find them, because their phone number is double this double that.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Odysseus (or Ulysses, if you are Roman and prone to misspell things) took a 10-year detour on his way home to Ithaca, and

We are fascinated by travelling and exploration. To boldly go where no man has gone before is an ideology that brings special kudos to those who live by that creed. And you don't need to go to space to capture people's imagination. Often it's the style that matters, and as far as odysseys go, the trip is as important as getting "there".

4 Finns are currently somewhere in the eastern Turkey, or perhaps already over the border in Georgia, on their way to Baku in Azerbaijan. They are going there to see a football match, a qualifyer game between Finland and Azerbaijan for the Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland. There will be about 100 Finland fans in the Baku stadium next Wednesday, but most of them have gone there with a charter flight from Helsinki. These lads decided to drive. And as they were driving through much or Russia, Ukraine etc., they thought it would be great to drive with a Lada. They chose the vehicle also because one of the boys is acar mechanic and specialises in Ladas.

This trip has got some attention in the press, the Finnish Football Association and of course the football discussion forum where the idea was developed and where the Russian-speaking member of the troupe recruited.

The boys started off in Oulu, in northern Finland, drove to St Petersburg, then Moscow and then Kiev, Ukraine, and were hoping to get a ferry from Odessa to Georgia, but since there was no room in the ferry, they decided to drive around the Black Sea instead. So, the trusty Lada was pointed towards Moldovia, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Driving straight through Russia to Azerbaijan isn't possible, as the border is closed. You know, all those Chechnya-issues and other fun things like rebel groups, kidnappings and death patrols going on there, not really easy to get around.

Hope they make it to Baku in time for the match, and hope they get back home in one piece. So far everything seems to have gone smoothly and they are enjoying their trip.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Murder in cricket

This sounds like a title of an Inspector Morse novel. Colin Dexter managed to conjure an impressive number of homicides in the peaceful Oxfordshire countryside, and at first glance the world of cricket has around it a similar air of tranquility; green lawns, tea & scones, and good manners. Not so much about fierce, bloodthirsty competition but gentlemanly rivalry and mutual respect.

Alas, the headline is from today's news. The head coach of Pakistan's World Cup Cricket team, Bob Woolmer was found "lifeless" in his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica, on Sunday. This former England international later died in the hospital. The police was at first unable to determine the cause of death, but has today announced (or yesterday evening local time) that he was in fact murdered, strangled by probably more than one person.

In the ongoing Cricket World Cup, Pakistan crashed out after two defeats, the latter one to cricket minnows Ireland. Pakistan losing to Ireland would be about the same as if Estonia would beat Argentina in the football World Cup, or if Canada were to lose an Olympic ice-hockey match to Denmark and be left outside the top 8 for that. That was a major upset for Pakistan, a country that is fanatic about cricket. As a result of this defeat, the captain and some key figures in the Pakistan's cricket council had resigned. The death of head coach was of course a shock, not only to the Pakistani team but to the whole cricketing world. But that was only an ouverture to the shockwave that engulfed the community after the police announced their findings.

Whodunnit? Of course, at this stage speculation is rife, with all the international media trying to beat each other to the scoop. Why did they do it? This, of course is the key question here. They think it was related to cricket, but not to the performance of his team in this World Cup, but perhaps what he was going to do after his contract was to end later this year.

Where there is exciting sports, there is money. Where there is money, there are jackals. And as in football, horse racing and many other sports, money, betting and media have brought with them not only professionalism but also corruption. In 2000, some players were banned for life from all cricket, after it transpired that they had been involved in match fixing. The head honcho then was the captain of the South African team, Hansie Cronje (who later died in a plane crash at only 32 years of age), also some players from the Pakistani and Indian teams were implicated. Bob Woolmer was the South African head coach from 1995 to 1999, and I suppose if match fixing was commonplace, he'd know something about it.

In fact, he had indicated that the next thing he was going to do was to write his memoirs, and in those reveal a thing or two about the dark side of cricket. The focus of the search for killers is thus (or so the speculations go) in international gambling rings and not in fanatic Pakistani fans (and has actually never been). Of course the fans' reaction was strong, and they were showing the full range of emotions, but before the shock of losing to a midget had properly sunk in, the bad news about Woolmer reached the nation, and all of a sudden scores and results lost all meaning. Pakistan were to play one more game in the World Cup, and they "won it for Bob". This was before the murder-news broke. All the members of the team have been questioned for clues and information, but not as suspects. The team is flying home this weekend.

Meanwhile, the police hunts for the killers under the watchful eye of, well, pretty much everyone in the world who follows cricket. The World Cup is going forward, but the game will face turmoil for a while. It is also sure that this World Cup will not be remembered for it's sporting excellence, no matter how great the remaining games will be.

There is a larger issue here. The editor of, Sambit Bal wrote a scarily good column, titled "It's only a game" about this. In India, cricket is the biggest sport, and the fans even more fanatic than in Pakistan, there is a lot of money in this sport there and the global TV-deals are lucrative because of the Indian market. The scary bit here is that mutatis mutandis, this could be a column by a British columnist about football...

(Pic: BBC)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


A couple of additions to yesterday's post. In the coalition speculations I forgot that the Christian Democrats exist as well. They have 7 seats and although they lost some votes they didn't lose any seats. As a very conservative right wing party they would probably fit into the coalition with the Centre, the Conservatives and the Swedish PP. The True Finns however, have already declared that they will aim to be the loudest opposition party and are not interested in joining the coalition, whatever it will be. How surprising...

Prime minister Vanhanen (current and most likely the future one) has said that there should be 3-4 parties and about 120 seats in the coalition. He wants a relatively large majority, and is likely to get it. I'm pretty sure that the only open question is whether it's the Greens, the Christians or the Swedes that join the two big ones.

Anyway, to he main point of this post. I've looked for ways of organising information, mainly to make sure I have a proper organisation in the thesis. The thesis itself is of course a boring old linearly organised (one-dimensional) book, but as the material is so diverse and there's so much of it, I need a way to keep track of it and organise in more dimensions. Three would be nice, but two will do.

I have a flip board, but it's not currently in use as I don't have the necessary wall-space in the lab. But, I have something better. Freemind is an open source project, a Java-based mind map program you can download. There are a number of these software packages out there, most of them commercial. The two things they need to have to be better than pen and paper are an intuitive user interface and the ability to expand beyond being a static map.

Freemind ticks both boxes. It is very simple and easy to use, and there is depth in it (in the form of having nice options to use various visual cues to sort things and make the maps look nice) if you take some time to learn the options. The most useful function for me is the ability to link to other files in the computer, and also across different mind maps. So I have now made all my thesis chapters into mind maps, linked them to the word-documents (yes, I'm an idiot and writing my thesis in Word. I'm sure I'm going to regret it...) that are the drafts of those chapters. Also, you can "linearise" a mindmap, so that you can obtain a structure for the chapter from the mindmap you've drawn. Great program, highly recommended.

I also like the fact that the project page has a wiki with lots of tips for using the program, galleries of other people's projects to give you ideas etc. There is also a continuing stream of new versions, with added features. And a new visual look. I'm using the 2005 0.8.0 version, 0.9.0 is already in beta phase, and the logo will change from the butterfly to a lightbulb. And I thought we were banning the bulb...

Another way of organising myself is to actually use the Moleskine notebook I have now finally bought. And while writing this I've just realised that I forgot to make an important phone call today and send some equally important papers. Also, I'm supposed to be presenting some results in two hours and haven't yet decided how to present them, and I'm supposed to take part in an hour-long experiment before that. It seems that I still have a bit to go before I can say my organisation is actually working.

(Pic. FreeMind)

Monday, March 19, 2007


A new parliament was elected in Finland yesterday.

This time there was a marked shift to the right, as the centre-right National Coalition gained 10 seats and became the second largest party by overtaking the left-right-left social democrats who lost 8 seats. Other winners were the Green party with 15 seats (+1), the right-populist True Finns with 5 seats (+2) and the Swedish People's Party with 9 seats (+1). Alongside the social democrats, the Left Alliance lost 2 seats. The ruling Centre party also lost 4 seats but maintained the important position as the largest party, although with only one seat difference to the National Coalition or conservatives.

An interesting but not very surprising result. Even from afar, it's been clear that the Green party and the Conservatives had the best campaigns. Both also had positive campaigns, the Greens were proposing new models for social security, the Conservatives wanted to reform the working life. In contrast, the social democrats and their so-called friends in the trade unions were mainly scaring people not to vote for the "right wing" without really explaining what they would do if elected. The rise of the extreme right (in Finnish terms) was based on EU-skepticism and charisma of the leader of the True Finns -party and reflects people's frustration as much as support for the party's program. The phenomenon is the same as in other European countries but the party is still marginal in size and importance and not as openly racist or anti-immigrant as some of it's brothers.

The shift to right (relatively) is a part of a trend, the same happened in the Swedish elections, and is very likely to happen in Britain. The rise of green ideology and growing awareness of climate change boosts not only the green parties but also the new conservatives that have adopted the ideology quicker than the labour/social democrat parties. The latter (at least in Finland) seem to be more concerned about the potential job losses in heavy industry than reducing carbon emissions. In Britain, Gordon Brown is trying to dam the stream of moving voters from Labour to Conservatives by branding the budget proposal that is to be unveiled today as "greenest ever". The other driving force is globalisation, the conservatives have been much more upbeat about it and emphasised the opportunities and needs for reform, while the left has focused on maintaining the status quo.

One interesting phenomenon in these elections was the "return of the dinosaurs". A number of former politicians who have been away from the parliament for a while (in the European Parliament, in the European Investment Bank, as ambassadors, in business...) made a return to the national parliament. I'm in two minds about this. While on one hand it is good to get that experience into the parliament, on the other hand there is a risk of turning back the clock. There is plenty of old stuff that's linked to these people and they are still associated strongly with some of the policies and decisions they made the last time around. They all have their enemies, some among the other dinosaurs, and I hope they can be forward-looking and not let the old things get on the way.

By far the most important question now is, which parties will form the government coalition. It is clear that the basis will be the Centre and the Conservatives, as the former is the largest party and the second the largest winner. While these parties occupy the same centre-right segment of the political spectrum, their programs have marked differences. While the Conservatives are traditionally the most EU-positive party, and in terms of foreign and EU-policies progressive, the Centre party has a strong EU-skeptic faction. Almost automatically the Swedish People's Party will fit in the coalition. The party is above everything else driven by its willingness to compromise and will undoubtedly continue in the coalition, and continue having power beyond their size.

This coalition would have 110 seats, which would be enough to form a government. The big question is, will the Green party be included. They do want to get into the government, they are one of the winners of the election, and in spite of their reputation as being relatively left-wing, many of their policies are actually very close to those of the Conservatives. Both get the majority of their votes from the big cities, both want reform and both are EU-positive. Getting the Green party in the coalition would boost the majority to a very solid 125-75, but issues such as nuclear power and the details of the social policy reforms might turn out to be hurdles too high in the negotiations that start this week.

The other, far more unlikely option would be to include the True Finns to the coalition and thus make it cover the whole right wing, but first of all I don't think the Conservatives or the Centre would be willing to risk giving them the platform (they might be too blunt about their anti-EU and anti-immigration policies and not politically correct in any other way either) and second, I don't think they really want to get into government. For a protest party it is much more beneficial to remain outside so that they can blame everything on the government and just criticise everything, and keep on getting the protest vote, than actually taking responsibility and risk losing the next elections for not being able to deliver their promises.

As always, a number of ex-sportsmen and other celebrities were elected. Some of them will have no impact whatsoever in the parliament, as they are completely clueless as to how things work there, or what they can do and what they can't. Some don't even know what their opinions are. But, as I didn't manage to get to vote this time myself, I'm in no position to complain about other people's choices.

(Pic. YLE)

Friday, March 16, 2007


Just a bit of mind-clearance before biting into some serious work.


The British government is worried about there being so few people from working class families or from other unprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds applying for universities. So, now they are suggesting that in the application process data would be collected about the employment of the parents of the applicant, so that those with working class background could be "positively discriminated" and selected over those applicants who are from middle class professional families.

I do understand that Britain is a class society rather than a meritocracy, but still, this will not solve the problem. As with applications to Oxbridge, or the Russell group unis, the problem isn't so much in unfair selection, but in the fact that people from state schools, or from working class backgrounds don't even apply in the first place. Perhaps the government should reconsider their last year's decision to treble tuition fees, and perhaps they could think about re-introducing student grants and see if that would help. Investing in the state secondary schools wouldn't be a bad idea either, so that graduates of these schools would have the same knowledge and abilities as their public school counterparts.


There are two "pests" of traffic that make my blood boil. One is the "nobody's coming, it's just a bike" -person, who turns ahead of you from a side street, changes lanes over you or turns left to your face. I could even understand it if they simply hadn't see me, but when they do that after clearly looking at me, it is just too much. "He's on a bike, I'm sure he doesn't mind me cutting him off." What are they thinking? Bikes don't count?

The other genus of pests are the "slow but blaze" cyclists. With or without bike lanes, you are supposed to be on the left of the lane. There's usually just enough space to have a bike and a small car next to each other on the lane, so overtaking a slower bike can be tricky. Therefore I hate it when I overtake someone, then stop on red lights, and this person then overtakes me, runs the red lights and keeps going slow, so that after the light turns green I need to overtake him again. And yes, there are almost always men, lazy, fat, "couldn't care less" guys who cycle with their rusty mountain bikes with seats too low and their knees wide, and it seems they are doing a record attempt for the slowest cycling in the world. They have no helmets, but usually do have baseball caps.

Nuclear weapons and war against terrorism

After being detained in Guantanamo and other nice places since 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has confessed having masterminded or personally executed pretty much every terrorist act in the last 15 years, including some that were never carried out. I think someone wants to be remembered as the superterrorist... Which doesn't mean he wasn't involved in some or even most of these acts, but then again, we knew that much already. It will be interesting to see how this will be used in the US and here, as the political support for the war in Iraq is in record low, and both administrations need good news about the success in war against terrorism. This isn't it, and definitely can't be called progress, while smelly substances are fast heading towards fans in Afghanistan and Pakistan...

The confession has already been branded as boasting, as Sheikh is known for having an inflated ego, but what this is also is al Qaida propaganda - they do like it when they are depicted as a centrally run, global organisation, where the might of the whole machine is always behind their every act. This is the real world SPECTRE, The Enemy. Actually, al Qaida is a loose network, more an ideology than an organisation, a weird mix of ideologists and anarchists. In business terms, probably more a chain of franchises rather than a centralised company. Will US and UK take the bait and use the opportunity to give al Qaida this promotion Sheikh is trying to push?

Meanwhile, the UK has just decided to renew it's nuclear weapons system. At a cost of £20bn CGE (CGE = current government estimate, which should be added as a standard to all government figures, cf. the Olympics, whose budget was upped from £2.4bn to £9.35bn yesterday), Britain would have a system to replace the submarine-based Trident warheads in 20 years. I'd have thought "nucular" weapons were so cold war... I know North Korea probably has then, and Iran wants them, but any same person would get rid of them. As the cold war nuclear doctrine was based on MAD, or mutually assured destruction, meaning that if anyone uses them, we all die, and so nobody should use them. Not the balance has changed, rogue nations want them for bargaining power, they are trump cards that can extend the life-expectancy of your dictatorship in the environment where Western imperialists are about to get you.

What would Britain use them for? As a deterrent, they say. So, they are not to be used, but to be had, as it gives you bragging rights in the global political scale. Critics say that the world has changed and the money would be better spent on conventional forces, making sure the troops currently in Iraq and Afghanistan have proper gear and they get the treatment and facilities at home that they deserve. The proponents say that we couldn't anticipate the current threat of global terrorism 10 years ago, we have no way of knowing what the world and it's security needs will be in 20 years. That's right, but I'm pretty sure nuclear weapons will be a major problem even then, and this decision is not helping us to deal with it.

(Pic: MTA Maryland)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Unifnished books

BBC 1 Morning Show covered the story this morning: someone has listed Britain's least finished books, i.e. those that we are most likely to put down after reading a few pages and never to pick them up again. The whole list (plus digest finishes of them, for those who lacked tenacity the first time around but might still be interested to know how it ended) is in Guardian.

John Crace (the author of those and other digests in Guardian) and Kate Mosse (do note the silent e at the end of the surname) were in the studio to comment. Both agreed that it is no longer considered "wrong" to pick up up a book and then not finish it if you don't like it. There are books you buy because everyone else does, with all those 3 for 2 offers around that happens to everyone. There are books you get as gifts, and therefore might not be up your alley.

I must say, I do belong to the (I suppose old-fashioned) group that feels very bad for not finishing a book, although I agree that if you don't like the book there's no reason to struggle with it, there are plenty of good ones to read instead. There have been a few I've not finished, mostly because they've at first progressed slowly and then were forgotten little by little as I had no time to read, and then something else came along and I started them instead. Joseph Conrad's Nostromo goes to this category, but I'll take another go at it one day. There are others that I've borrowed while on holiday and then had to leave when the holiday ended, as I couldn't take someone else's books with me.

And there have been one or two that I've just decided to close after finding no connection with the book whatsoever. Tuula-Liina Varis, a Finnish author is in this category.

I'm surprised to see that they've included non-fiction books as well. Having been in the business of devouring academic books for a while now, and also enjoying popular science books and other non-fiction, I'm not sure they are meant to be read from beginning to the end, in a linear fashion. For instance, the punctuation rant by Lynne Truss, 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' (might have got the punctuation wrong there) is a good book, but it's more like something you read from here and there, and perhaps use as a reference book every now and again, but it doesn't necessarily work as a novel.

Reading changes. Internet organises information in network form, rather than hierarchically and in a linear way as books do. Young people used to the chaotic "organisation" and linked hypertext in the web have a different take to learning and reading than the book-generation. With Google, the information is always there, and to be able to use it, it is more important to learn to be good in accessing it fast, and less important to remember things by heart. Moreover, you can't necessarily trust anything you read these days - being critical of your sources and double-checking for validity is much more important these days, regardless of the media. Now that magazines and newspapers are fighting for reader's attention with more and harder scandal stories, TV is more entertaining than information, the internet is a playing ground for teenagers, blogs are overtaking established news organisations in the speed of their response to news events, and anyone can print professional-looking books on demand, the quality control that lies in the hands of the editors now covers a narrower band of the publishing spectrum than it used to.

Our relationship with books changes as well. Paperbacks are inexpensive, and there are more of them around. Competition for readers is hard, and it is also difficult to make good choices. Competitions are a way of lifting some books ahead of the rest, and big prizes like the Booker prize have a big impact on sales figures. And once everyone is buying A book, it becomes THE book and so you are more likely to include it in your 3 for 2, and then perhaps not finish it as it wasn't what you expected. (There are unhealthy repercussions of this as well, as every bookshop now offers the same books (not so good), competes with prices (good), and plays safe with commissioning new books and just doesn't take risks with interesting novels that don't "market" well (very bad).)

The one thing that doesn't change is the reason why reading novels is so important. It feeds your imagination, enhances your ability to see the world with other people's eyes, live their life choices, try to understand them and learn to see differently. We all need to be reminded that the world we see and how we see it isn't all there is.

P.S. There are bad reasons not to finish a book. The BBC-man (technical term, trust me) commented Louis de Bernières' 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' that was on the top 5 of unfinished books by saying that "it was a blockbuster film but probably the book wasn't as good". A-hem. Having read the brilliant book and heard a number of people ridicule the idiotic film, I'd beg to differ. But I can see how people who liked THAT film didn't like THAT book. They probably only realised it was a book when Hugh Grant read it in the end of Notting Hill. And most likely they are probably the same bunch who bought the David Beckham "auto"biography (third on the list of unfinished non-fiction) and didn't finish it either. The difference being that THAT book should never even have been born.

(Pic: "brittle book" from Joan M. Reitz's ODLIS.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007


If you look for the world's most popular blogs, the top ones are either blogs about gadgets and new technology, or have something to do with GTD, or both.

GTD means 'getting things done'. It's the opposite of procrastination, and tries to eradicate it from the lives of GTD'ers, which of course makes me a bit sad.

It seems to be an ideology, with the air of a cult around it. The founding father is David Allen who wrote a seminal time management guide called Getting Things Done. On one hand, it has to do with technology and software that helps you manage your time and projects, tackle the daily information load and influx of emails and new tasks, assists you in multitasking and keeping all the balls in the air. But on the other hand it's much more than that, it's not the gadgets and widgets but what you do with them and how you use them. Many GTD-people are in fact decidedly low-tech, promoting the use of paper notebooks and hipster PDA's, to mark the difference between the gear and the idea.

The idea, in short, is that there is a systematic way to organise how you work, keep track of what you are doing and help plan the actions you need to take. Getting the organisation right means that you don't need to spend time thinking about what it is that you should do next, and it also helps you to avoid being overwhelmed by the massive number of things that you need to do.

As I need to get things done (or rather, I need to get The Thing done), I looked into some of the software that is available. I still haven't got around to buying that Moleskine, which would be ideal for me, but as I've also seen and tried a number of time managers (most of which have turned into timewasters or have simply been forgotten) I wanted to get something for my computer that would help in keeping track of things, deadlines, and hopefully make managing all the non-thesis stuff easier so that I could focus more on the primary task at hand.

A doctoral thesis is too large and too static to be managed with GTD, that stuff really only works in an environment where you need to do a number of different tasks each day, have people to call and places to visit, meetings to have and memos to prepare. GTD isn't about project management, it's about life management, and time management.

I do need to sort out my system of project management to get the thesis done, keep track of what I've done and what I still need to do, but I think I'll manage with an old-fashioned to do list and that notebook where I can write down ideas as they arrive. (And mind map software that helps me visualise all the connections between things, and I'll probably move my flipboard to the lab as well.)

But I actually found something GTD-like that might help me with all the other stuff. There's a Firefox extension called GTDGmail, which brings a number of features to Gmail that can be used in living a GTD-life. The system revolves around labeling email in your inbox, sending yourself tasks by email and then it is of course up to you to follow the principle of doing the thinkgs on your list, working from top to bottom and doing anything that takes less than 2 minutes immediately rather than deferring it for later.

I've installed the system and now have to see how it works. I might direct my work emails to Gmail for a while so I can properly testrun this. My main problem is information integration between email, calendar, notes and to do lists, and perhaps this will help, although it doesn't have a calendar in it, so I'm just as likely to miss meetings now as I have been.

(Pic: the action workflow in GTD, by David Allen)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Micro$oft update II

I complained about Microsoft update a while ago already, but can't resist to do that again. There are a couple of features in XP and the Update that are so absurd that I can't fathom how anyone OK'd them to be rolled out.

First, the XP setup. XP is actually a pretty impressive heap of software, with a huge number of features for the varying needs of the huge number of people using the system. As I said before, I do respect MS for what they've done, but the downside of all this is that you end up having a lot of components you will never use and will never need. Also, as there are alternatives to email readers, web browsers and media players that often have smart features that the MS products lack (like safety), it is good to know that MS provides a Setup utility where you can remove those XP components you don't need, and if you want to reinstall them, you can do it via that same interface.

This is smart and allows me to disable the fax, remote desktop, cryptography and other XP features I don't need, and to get rid of the Outlook Express that is basically a red carpet for viruses that you can also use to read your emails.

However, when you open the setup, it says (and I quote): "To add or remove the programs, click the checkbox." Yes. That's right, you can do either, the problem being that you don't know which one of the two you are doing. I might just be thick, but especially as this same setup opens via Setup, add/remove programs, and the "Disk cleanup" -utility, it is not as clear which is which. Following the path from cleanup, you'd think that you check boxes to remove items you don't need.

Now I know that if you check a box, it installs the component in question. If you have a component unchecked, I think it is supposed to remove them, except that it doesn't. So, if you want to get rid of Internet Explorer, the prime target for all virus writers in the world, you leave the box unchecked, and the shortcut from the desktop disappears.

But, if you then click "Microsoft Update" in the start menu, it launches ... Internet Explorer. As it is the only browser allowed to access the sacred Microsoft Update website, that is a good thing, but the whole point of cleaning up diskspace isn't really happening, is it? What I'd like to see is a same kind of utility for XP components as the Add/remove programs is for other software. Items listed and then a selection of deleting or fixing the component.

Well, I've now relocated the Calculator that I lost earlier when I failed to check Accessories from the Windows component list, and have now the latest version of Windows Media Player, which always tries to hijack most of the audio formats to be played with it by default.

To get the new WMP, I visited the Microsoft Update website. It found that I was missing a very important, critical, high priority update. This was the "Windows Genuine Advantage". ?, I thought, and clicked for more info. For only 1.2Mb, this loverly program would check that my copy of Windows is legit, and if not, it would advice me as to how to obtain a legitimate copy of Windows. What? I know my Windows is OK, as I remember paying for it. I don't need this update, I decided.

Wikipedia revealed what MU had not told me: in addition to checking the authenticity of my XP, it would regularly contact Microsoft and tell them about the status of my XP. In other words, it is spyware (US lawsuits pending). Update lets you pass installing things, and provides a box you can check if you don't want that update offered again. Checking it means that the update now has a large warning sign on top of everything saying I've decided to hide a critical update and my system might now be in danger and that it is highly recommended to repent and install the bloody spyware. At the same time, a number of upgrades for XP, WMP, IE, and other components are classified as non-urgent and optional, so they are hidden under a separate tab. Priorities first.

I honestly can't wait to get rid of XP, my PC laptop and the whole pain in the neck that running these computers cause. The PC vs. Mac -adverts are funny, and try to emphasise that there is a difference in the design ideology of these two systems. Factual inaccuracies of these ads aside, I think they are showing an important point. I don't see the main difference being that Macs are for fun and PCs are for serious work, but there is a similar difference. It's like between two possible student grant systems, or rental companies, or banks. One focuses a lot of resources on making sure nobody swindles the system and so every applicant needs to go through a thorough and arduous vetting process and at every stage of the way getting the idea that you are a potential problem for the system, you should be glad they are even considering your application and piss all for how you feel about it.

The other option is to spend more resources on the actual service, expect that unless something else suggests, you are innocent and valued customer, and while the security is in place, it's tailored to be as invisible as possible, as ease of use is the guiding principle.

The result often is that the system that treats its users as potential hazards, will make them such, just out of frustration of all the stupidity you need to tolerate. Sort of the same thing as every action the US makes to increase its security angers more and more people and pushes them to disrupt it.