Thursday, May 31, 2007


Greetings from Finland... I'm just out of the demonstration lecture, having coffee at the university cafe. I'm drained and exhausted, partly due to the stress that is slowly releasing its grip and partly due to not having slept much last night.

The trip started ominously by the Stansted train breaking at Cambridge station. There was luckily another, slower train connection to the airport, and luckily things went smoothly at the airport and so there was no problem making it to the flight. Unfortunately I had to overturn my promises of never flying Ryanair again, but I blame shortage of funds and decision taken by the uni here for not reimbursing my travel expenses. Some universities do pay the travel expenses of the shortlisted applicants, but that is not the case here. Perhaps because there is no shortlist, and they are required to invite everyone who is even remotely qualified to come and give a demo lecture. I was the only non-local in this selection but I suppose it is a matter of principle.

Speaking of principles, seeing the application process from this side, it looks deeply flawed. I'm decidedly writing this before I know of the outcome so that it doesn't sound like sour grapes or simply pointless (touching wood...). The overriding principle in the process is objectivity. I always thought this was a good thing, and I understand the logic behind it (this should also lead to maximum transparency and no corruption). For this reason, the decisions are mostly based on past merits, and mostly those that can be easily quantified and "objectively" documented. Publication record is one of these important factors. Teaching matters as well, which is why I'm here today. The weird thing is though, that no interaction is allowed in the lecture. And more importantly, there is no interview. Who selects future employees without interviewing them first? The Finnish universities, that's who. It's so difficult to make sure that the interview is fair and the same fo all applicants, so even in those rare where interviews take place, they are structured and usually one person just reads the pre-written questions and the applicant answers them.

It feels weird (although probably because I study what I do) that the purpose is to strip the selection process of all interaction, when in Real Life that is one of the most important things that effect a workplace.

So, how did it go, then, I hear you ask. Yes, I've delayed answering that question because I don't really know. The lecture is 20 minutes, and in the last rehearsal it took me 30 minutes to get through. So I decided to skip one thing and speed up the beginning to get to the end in time, but this speeding up didn't really work. I had planned a 50-50 split of general and specific stuff, but it was more 75% general drivel and only 25% beef. Not really happy about how that panned out. Also, there were smart points to make and witty remarks to crack smiles on the stony faces of the board that I simply forgot.

I used to say that sleep is the best preparation. I still believe it is true, as a rested mind functions better than an overtrained and -strained one. But as always, I'm better at giving advice than taking it (even my own).

So, I'm not really relieved and satisfied, but somehow a bit happy that it is now over. I'm soon off to home and to the cottage, looking forward to sauna, nature and those kinds of things.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Genius of Bill Bailey

This is just about the funniest clip I've ever seen... He is really taking metaphors to a whole new level here. Pure genius.

Friday, May 25, 2007


I like this quote. BTW, the same applies to PowerPoint....

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts - for support rather than illumination.

- Andrew Lang


Yesterday, after losing a cricket match in record time, the choice was to go back to work or to go watch Matti The Movie with the Finns. The latter, naturally, won.

It was the number one film in Finland in 2006, and depicts the fictional story of the actual ski jumper. Matti is a phenomenon: an Olympic hero, the best ski jumper of all times and later an alcoholic, "singer", stripper, and convict. I've lost count of how many times he has been married, and I've even lost count how many times he's been married to his latest/current wife, as they've been on and off for years. So, a tragic hero to put it mildly.

The film script is fiction, the filmmakers say (probably to justify some of the storylines and to keep lawyers at bay), but references to real events and real people are clear enough. Even though the film misses two or three wives and just has one "composite" bad guy as the manager/friend/leech played by Peter Franzen (good acting in spite of the one-dimensionality of the character and the stereotypical gestures (being drunk most of the time)) instead of the string of different "entrepreneurs" that in real life took turns in being Matti's "best friends" and managers, the blame finds its target easily enough.

The film is entertainment of sorts, it takes great pleasure in showing people do stupid things when drunk, it is annoyingly patronising in underlining and emphasising the "pivotal moments" where things start to go wrong, and it usually points a finger to the manager, the Ski Federation or some such external and greedy party. The main key to turn Matti to the dark side seems to be challenging his courage. This works in pretty much the same way as in the Back to the Future -films, (calling the main character "chicken" makes him do irrational things just to prove the sayer wrong) and serves as a simple if clumsy way of motivating seemingly stupid actions without having to dig any deeper.

Although the film takes Matti's side, it ironically is the continuation of the chain of exploitation depicted in the film. Matti generates a huge interest, and if you can package him you can make big money. Most people want to see this film because it is about Matti, me included. Those who don't know of him, don't like the film. Indeed, in our showing, most non-Finns decided to leave the room before the film ended. It's the phenomenon of Matti, the irrationality of him and his actions, the enduring status that he has in the Finnish yellow press that draw you to this film. You want to see their take, if it answers any of the questions there are. Unfortunately, just like all the other great ideas to monetize Matti, this one was just doing the minimum, not going any deeper than exhibiting the "freak", and cashing in on his behalf.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lecturing II

When did we become obsessed with PowerPoint?

PowerPoint is evil. Edward Tufte has a point there. Although not every PowerPoint presentation makes a space shuttle crash, the distraction and inefficiency of PowerPoint use is glaring.

Of course, it's not about the specific product, it's the presentation software in general. As Tufte rightly points out, the cognitive style of PowerPoint is good for a pitch, but not good at all for a technical report. As a result of increased PowerPoint usage, scientific talks and presentations in confrerences have become more like sales pitches and less like technical reports of research.

Before I go any further, I must confess that I always use PowerPoint myself, and not in the smartest ways. I've made most of the common mistakes myself and keep producing bad presentations as a rule. But, as any road to hell is paved with good intentions, any road to heaven leads via that same hell... Here goes, my PowerPoint hell (this should of course be a PP presentation rather than a blog entry).

1) Always use Comic Sans font.

It's funny and shows you are original and not the corporate type that uses Arial. It also makes you look like a four-year old , which is a good thing in a scientific conference as it makes you less intimidating and therefore more people are willing to come to talk to you about work and propose future projects. This is also why you never shoud wear ties or smart clothes in scientific conferences, they might think you are a banker at large.

2) Number of slides

Let x be the length of your talk in minutes. The number of slides, n, can be calculated from the formula n = cx, where c is a positive integer, and represents the quality of your content. The better the quality, the higher the c, and thus the number of slides. Note that at the minimum, c = 1, but this is in practice only for amateurs.

3) Slide transitions and animated effects

Let's face it, the reason why PowerPoint is for the professionals and regular overheads are for amateurs is that you can use the swanky spins and checkered fades to change from slide to another, or to go to the next point in the bulleted list. And, think of all those poor engineers at Redmond who have toiled to load the presentation software with these animations. It would be a SHAME if they were not used. Some of these effects even come with sounds, to really emphasise the importance of your next morcel of knowledge. Although most pre-2007 computers will freeze when processing the 270 degree folded outspin of the previous slide and the gradual water ripple effect fade-in of the next one, it is still worth the while to take the risk. People will appreciate the intention, and understand that the hardware is to blame for cramping your style, not you.

4) Read from the wall

Data projectors are dubious. They often change content of presentations, so that rather than reading your bullet points from the computer screen in front of you, facing the microphone on the lectern, you'd better turn around and read them from the wall. This way you also show the audience where to watch - a phenomenon known as joint attention.

5) PowerPoint is for the presenter, not the audience

After investing all that time and money for the presentation, including the license and hardware costs, it wouldn't be fair if the presenter didn't benefit from the presentation software. Therefore it is only natural that what gets written on the PowerPoint slides are the notes of the speaker. If people have for centuries lectured reading their talks from a paper, it is only a continuation of a proud tradition if they now read their talks from the PowerPoint slides, or from the wall, if they take the tip 4) seriously.

6) Hierarchy rules, sentences don't

Everything will look more neat when set in a slide. Up to 10 levels of hierarchy, and no full sentences. Information superhighway turbo-charged presentation of facts, facts, facts, and none of that silly fluff you get with romantic novels. As mentioned in the previous post, you can verb your nouns, drop your filler words and thus fit more content to your 20 minutes.

If you are having trouble organising your content to meet the form, the auto-content function of PowerPoint is impressive. Imagine how much more impact president Lincoln would have got from his Gettysburg address had he used PowerPoint! Check it out.


Saturday, May 19, 2007


So, job application was sent, and invitation to give a 20-minute demonstration lecture was received. A lecture, you say...

A lecture. Can there be a more traditional, more "universitary" form of teaching? Back in the dark ages before publishing on demand, Google Books, university presses and the millions of academic journals, the only way for a student to get access to the wisdom in the few books around was to go to a lecture to hear someone read the book aloud. In addition to those thirsty for knowledge, the lecture halls have always also attracted those having trouble sleeping.

As well as being a traditional and very common form of information transfer, lectures can also be the most ineffective one. To really squeeze all the value out of your lecture, you should of course read it word for word out of a paper. Or, a wad of papers. Those who stay awake due to the uncomfortable seats will at least have the possibility to track the progress by counting the number of pages you've turned, and estimating how many are still left. Just like you do in a concert where the looong and too boring symphony on the other half just keeps going and you desperately track the violinists' notes and hope to reach the end of the book. Only to be disappointed by the last repeat where the junior member of each pair breaks your courage by turning back a few pages. Yes, your sigh was audible.

Of course, lectures are not just for conveying information. You also need to demonstrate how smart you are, and that's not just for the demonstration lectures. And what better way of measuring smartness than by the density of the information content in your lecture. There are three ways of increasing the information content of your lecture.

First, and most obviously, just keep talking longer. Unfortunately there's a limit to this, as people will start leaving the room, or there might even be a chairperson trying to stop you. How rude... Therefore, delaying the end of your lecture must be planned properly. Leave the best until last, and promise to be quick. When your time is up, just say "if I could just quickly say a couple of words about [insert the title of your talk here]". If you do this two minutes before the end, any audience or chairperson will nod approvingly, which you can then take as an open invitation to keep talking until you're properly done. The best example of this was in a conference, where a speaker, in a 15 minute slot, having spoken for 20 minutes said "and now to the second half of my presentation". That was pure genious....

A very important, related skill is to be able to ignore the chairperson, who might be waving the "5 minutes left" signs or pointing to a clock, or even making those cut-throat gestures at you, often right next to you or in front of you. It is important to engage your audience by looking at them, taking eye-contact. Two birds with one stone: engage the back rows/extreme left/right of the hall to avoid looking at the chairperson. Or simply, never lift your eyes from your text.

As the length of the lecture will be limited no matter what precautions you take (you can lock the lecture hall doors, but someone will find the fire exit or the light switch), and so you need to work on the density of your talk. You can of course use more words/minute. With a little practice you can get a full hour's lecture to 20 minutes. Looking at the waveform of a speech you can see how much time is wasted on pausing, between words, sentences and paragraphs. Also, just articulating faster will help boost your efficiency.

As this has it's physical limits (doing tongue-twisters regularly helps), you also need to do something about the N words you can utter in the given time (or rather, taken time, if you follow trick #1 properly). Make them bigger, more meaningful. Verb all the nouns, drop useless words like articles and prepositions, create concepts that mean a lot but take a very short time to say. Freud was very good at it, think of "id" or "ego". Both very complicated ideas, that would take a whole book to explain properly but only take a fraction of a second to say.

(Pic: Immanuel Kant lecturing. Note the lack of PowerPoint)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


There's been a long gap in posting to this blog, partly because I've been busy, and partly because there has for some reason or an other been a larger than normal dose of self-criticism in the air.

I've started or at least planned to write about a number of things, but never got all the way to pressing the "send"-button. Some ideas have turned to be just boring, some others more complicated than initially thought. Sometimes I've just run out of time before finishing and just exited without saving.

And once I already wrote this very entry, popped to another page (in a different tab in my browser), that page froze the browser and even with the wonderful restore-function of the browser, the text was lost, along with my patience, and it took me days to get back to writing this.

This not finishing even blog entries is symptomatic of the lack of concentration I've had in these last weeks. Of course, the so-called final deadline passed a couple of weeks ago, and I'm not yet ready. The finality of that deadline of course was always metaphorical and there are no other consequences except increased guilt and sense of loserness.

Anyway, I'll try to get back to work, and try to direct my procrastination back to the blog.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Job application

I hate doing these things... Whether it's for grant applications, job applications or anything else, putting together promotional material about myself feels strange. And it takes aeons. You can spend an infinite amount of time tweaking the layout of your CV, while putting off the problematic task of writing a research proposal (that would be what the experts (me) call work-internal procrastination). But even without that, it takes a lot of time, and is stressful, with having to think constantly how someone else would read it, and how they might misunderstand it.

And of course there is the problem of getting the right combination of realism and confidence. Using power words like "initiated", "coordinated", "produced" and "directed" gives a good impression but is also so easy to overdo. And I actually appreciate listening and thinking, so if someone is initiating and coordinating all the time, chances are they are just fussbudgeting around and annoying people. So, I opted for the list-type of a CV, without descriptions, just listing the positions I've held and the jobs I've done. I think that's the preferred way in Finnish applications, at least for academic jobs.

There is, however, another document I needed to write. A portfolio for pedagogical achievements. In English a 2-3 page paper explaining teaching philosophy and merits. And this is supposed to be "reflective", so all those power verbs are creeping in. And the sad fact is that there hasn't really been many teaching opportunities here, apart from the supervising. An interesting difference in the systems. Here the professors and lecturers have a monopoly to "proper" teaching, in Finland it is usually the youngest ones in the faculty (the assistants, phd-students etc.) that get given the chores of teaching. Hmmm.

And the most problematic thing is that pretty much everything I've done academically is still in the process. The thesis, the articles, it's all "forthcoming". And I'd be very suspicious of such a person, it seems like all plans and no action. Which isn't all untrue, but somehow it looks worse on paper than it is.