Saturday, June 30, 2007

Innovation, universities and skills

The first days in power haven't been all that rosy for Gordon Brown. Half the island is submerged after the rainiest June in history, more British soldiers have died in Iraq, and now terrorists were extremely close to blowing up parts of central London. And almost as to mark the event of having a Scottish prime minister, someone has just tried to drive into the Glasgow airport with a burning Jeep. Wasn't there supposed to be a "honeymoon" for the new cabinet?

But besides these headlines, the are some interesting news coming from the new cabinet. Of course, as the reshuffle was complete, but in addition to the heavy metal musical chairs that Brown orchestrated, there were some interesting changes to the actual portfolios and departments. As a response to the intensifying global competition, Brown has decided to re-organise the education and science departments. The old Department for Education and Skills (DfES) is now history, and it is replaced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Dept. for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The buzzword of late, innovation, now makes its appearance on departmental level and in a job title for a cabinet minister. But this is more than just more work for plague-makers, as the new DIUS will get the innovation and science -bits from the Department of Trade and Industry, thus bringing the universities and innovation closer together. This could be seen as a move to emphasise the research part of universities, and also the nature of university education as being different from the education provided in schools up to the age of 18-19. The Universities UK are enthusiastic about these changes, and it does seem like the gearshift in the science policy that Brown has been promising.

But back to the buzzword. Nowhere has innovation been talked about so much as in Finland. There are of course some results to merit the hype, but when it comes to government policies, the hot air to hot stuff -ratio is still quite poor. Along the lines of what has now been done in Britain, there have been several suggestions to either form a Ministry of Science and Research or at least appoint a minister that would exclusively look after science, but so far to no avail. Currently, research and science is in the portfolio of the minister of education, along with schools, high schools etc., making it a very heavy portfolio indeed.The question is, does science therefore receive the attention and focus it should? Also, the various sector research centres (like the Finnish version of the Met Office and about two dozen others) are under the care of the corresponding sector ministries. The purposefulness of this organisation and the structure and deeds of these centres have been questioned as well, and there have been several attempts to sort their situation out.

Alas, so far the structural reforms in the Finnish ministries have focused on the trade, industry and employment issues. But interestingly, these were to some degree motivated by similar worries about competitiveness and globalisation. But there are reforms brewing in the Finnish university sector as well, as the new "Innovation university" is being formed by merging the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Arts and Design Helsinki. The merger is of course ground-breaking but also interesting because of the new form of ownership this introduces to the Finnish higher education. This is not a government department like the rest of the unis, but a foundation based university, where private companies have a major stake in addition to the public investment. Finally, some desperately needed structural innovation in the Finnish higher education... I hope the innovation university will deliver and the foundation model will become the standard.

But still, we'd benefit from having a minister of science and research running a ministry that would consist of the science policy unit of the ministry of education, the innovation sections of the new behemoth ministry of industry. This unit could also take on the task for administrating the sector research units, after they go through their necessary restructuring.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Weird dreams

Last night I dreamed that I passed my viva.

I so wish I can take it as a sign... but seriously, it was very weird. I was "somewhere" when I met my old professor of English, and she said that her colleague is here now as well, and so we could do my viva, if I wanted (you need two examiners). I tried to tell her that I actually haven't even written the thesis yet, and so it might not be possible. She then showed me a wad of yellow booklets, not too thick. There they were, a bunch of my theses. I didn't realise it, but it seemed that someone had put together what I already have, printed some, and there it was.

Before they started their questions, one of them said:"I think before we begin, so that you wouldn't be too nervous, we probably should say that you have passed. So let's just talk about the research and the revisions you'd need to make." I was so relieved, I cried. In my sleep, of course. And by that time I had forgotten that I actually hadn't written the thesis yet...

After that, I was a t a service station, washing a car. I had a bucket, and when I was done washing, all I needed to do was to return the bucket inside to the shop and then I could go. But to get to the shop, I needed to go through an old primary school classroom (that had appeared much earlier in the dream), but as I was walking through the desks in the dark, towards the door to the shop, long arms from all over the room grabbed me and I couldn't go through. I was trying to break free and push towards the door but I couldn't move. Then I woke up.

Well, now I'm awake and to my disappointment my thesis hasn't been written yet. So better get going with it, and perhaps eat a bit more lightly today before going to bed. :-)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Change of guard

Exit Blair, enter Brown. As I'm writing this, Tony is playing the leading role in a show called Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons for the last time. The boyish, public school -like debating pickering will have no political effect (it never does, it's about scoring virtual points rather than about policy), but as undoubtedly this time it will be talked about, analysed and watched more closely than usually, there is pressure for all actors (the supporting lead Cameron and the comic sidekick Ming, the leaders of the opposition parties) to appear at their most statesmanlike. My only question is, will there be a standing ovation at the end?

After the curtain falls in the Commons, Tony will pay a visit to Lizzie at Bucks Pal, telling her that he's had enough and that he's gotta go 'cause he's got a hot date in Jerusalem. "I'm just too stressed with all this... Gordon, the Tories, the press... I'd rather take on Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, Jordan and the lot."

Then, Gordon the Scot will go to Liz and say that if Tone doesn't want to play anymore, I'd be more than keen, and literally at a kiss of the hand he'll become the prime minister.

Depending on who you choose to believe, either everything or nothing will now change. The transition of power has either taken far too long or just long enough for it to happen smoothly, or in such a chaotic way. Blair has overstayed his welcome at number 10 but he is also leaving too soon. He was the greatest prime minister since sliced bread but his decade in power has been a total disaster. Gordon Brown, on the other hand is more boring than Blair but he's got the character Blair lacked. He is a great and motivating leader and a stalinist despot.

In other words, nothing has changed: politics or at least political journalism lives in the world of its own, and while politicians score points off each other at the PMQ, the columnists score points by relaying the events to the public using the most colourful expressions possible. It is rhetorically beautiful and a triumph to this beautiful language, but I'm not sure if there has been any innovativeness in British politics in a while. Perhaps since Blair and his troops invented the third way to slice bread.

Edit: Tony did get his standing ovation. The Labour MP's were up immediately after his concluding remarks, the Tories and LibDems were a bit more hesitant, as if waiting for a cue from the front bench...

(Pic: AP via BBC)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day of silence

This is an issue that initially looks like it mostly concerns the US, but in the interlinked world the concept of "local issue" is fast becoming meaningless, especially if it is about the internet itself.

Saying "music and the internet" usually conjures images of the pre-legit Napster or other P2P networks and sharing and copying songs without paying for it. This was supposed to bankrupt the whole music industry, but of course the new low-or-no-cost delivery channel that reaches more people than brick&mortar record stores ever could has actually boosted the earnings of record companies. CD sales are down, but it is only because CD is losing out to digital files as a format, just like 8-tracks, cassettes or vinyls did earlier. Selling music over the internet has become a huge business, and while the file-sharing is still popular it is paling in significance to the power of this new marker place.

In spite of this, and probably at least partly due to the archaic nature of the copyright laws (Kemppinen talks about these things with so much more experience and knowledge that I won't even try) the issue of digital rights and enforcing them stays on top of the agenda. The record companies have used various dubious DRM-methods in ensuring that copies of their content can not be circulated freely. These methods usually have two defects: they only make the lives of those people difficult who bought the legit copy - these have little or no effect to professional piracy. Second, they tend to infringe the rights that consumers have, including the right to make copies for own personal use and for close friends. The industry therefore has a track record (no pun intended) in looking after its own interests without consideration of the consumer's rights, or even the artists themselves. Their latest "lobbying victory" is no different. This time the target are net radios and performance royalties the weapon of choice.

Of course the musicians, composers and even the record company people deserve their salaries. In addition to getting a cut from the sales, get paid for the gigs, they get compensation when their music is being played on TV or in the radio. The rates of these royalties are now the hot debate.

In the US, only the satellite radios and internet radios need to pay performance royalties for the music they play. In March, the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) ruled to change the formulae they use to determine the rates of these royalties. The new tariffs mean that most small internet radios will die. The royalty rates they are paying are already clearly higher than for other types of radio, and the increases over the coming 5 years will be 300 to 1200 percent depending on the size of the netcaster - the smaller stations would suffer the largest rises. Interestingly, the largest boys in the radio business, the traditional FM/AM broadcasters, don't have to pay performance royalties at all.

A quick look at iTunes Radio, or a quick googling will show the fascinating plurality of the internet radios. Many of these are providing niche services, and all are enriching the "soundscape" that is pretty dull now that most old-fashioned radio broadcasters are using playlists rather than proper DJ's, and are playing the the same stuff over and over again. With the netcasters you still find the enthusiasm and style that the "pirate radios" had when rock music wasn't tolerated in the national broadcasters' wavelengths. Many of these providers are making conscious and very welcome efforts to introduce less-known musicians, bands and songs to the public.

One of these is Pandora, which plays you music in the style of those artists and songs that you've fed in. While this is a very interesting way to stumble in to bands and artists that are close to your taste, my favourite netcaster is Radio Paradise, based at Paradise, CA. It's a no-ads 24h radio that plays an interesting and eclectic selection of music from classical to jazz, to rock and pop. This station will probably be one of those that die as a result of this ruling. This is why I'm supporting the "Day of Silence" campaign today, which aims to overturn the decision. The US internet radios, including the ones owned by giants such as Yahoo and Viacom are silent today, to highlight their importance and give a glimpse of the possible consequences of this unfair ruling.

Interestingly, in Finland, this very same day, the big radio broadcasters are re-opening their parallel netcasts. This follows a deal between the radio union and the organisation that represents artists and composers. The issue was exactly the same as in the US now. In the typically incomplete story by the Taloussanomat, they fail to mention that this is of course not the first time internet radio is introduced to Finland (although that's what the headline suggests). As many commentators of that post (and there I was, saying such nasty things about them just a couple of posts ago...) point out, the net radios were practically killed in Finland by outlandish compensation claims by the rights organisation, some time ago, and now after this deal all the small ones are still staying down, but the big, multinational, playlist-driven radios are again able to deliver their stuff both via air and the net.

Save the diversity.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Yay, the longest day of the year. And a festival of light in Finland.

I was reading some of my recent posts again and noticed that they don't really flow that well. I suppose when thoughts are foggy the writing gets fuzzy. I must say that in that sense the blog at the moment reflects the t***** pretty well - it's an uphill struggle (or as my colleague put it, it's like pushing a blob of jelly up the hill) and while the work is going rather well I have often caught myself writing horribly complicated and entangled text. I suppose this entry is no exception...

I'm hoping that with some simmering on the stove and peeling off the foam there will in the end be a clear and concentrated stock. Squeezing out these initial drafts and playing around with alternative ways of organising the sections is what's causing the overload, and writing even a single understandable sentence is sometimes so difficult it makes me laugh. And just to reflect what has been happening in my t***** lately, I'll throw in yet another banal analogy and say that with some pruning I'm hoping that the (tree) structure will become clearer, to me and to the (two) readers.

Anyway, happy Midsummer!

(Pic., I wish I was there...)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How to cure depression

Sign up for a social networking site and start looking for your old friends, get in touch with them and find out how they are doing.

I gave up my futile resistance and signed up for Facebook. I had avoided it, mainly because it has been such a craze and some people have got totally lost in it. And knowing myself, I'd just spend way too much time there. Now I had to sign up, as things have progressed to the point where people no longer bother giving email addresses (not to mention physical addresses, as they change even faster than the emails) but just tell people to "look me up on Facebook". So, I'm there now, look me up.


How to get depressed

If you would want to lose all hope in mankind (don't know why you'd want to do that, but let's just say you would) the quickest and easiest way would probably be to spend 15 minutes reading user comments in news sites, popular blogs, online discussion forums and especially places like YouTube.

Take newspapers, for instance. Helsingin Sanomat recently started promoting their online discussion facility by posting the first comments on each topic under the piece of news in question. No worse way to start your morning than by reading those usually cynical, bitter and unintelligent comments. Luckily FireFox has a handy AdBlocker that can also filter out iFrames, and so you can disable the drivel and keep reading the news without this "user-generated content". Many of the posts visible seemed to be from the same people, probably just venting their bad feelings and as they seemingly had nothing better to do, they always caught the news first, wrote the comment and then waited for other people to react.

HS has also linked their three main newspapers together. So HS, the tabloid Ilta-Sanomat and the business newspaper Taloussanomat have links to each others' stories, as a set of headlines appear in a frame. I have been lured to Talouspaperi a couple of times, and been always very disappointed. The headlines are misleading (probably sexed up in a desperate attempt to lure readers to the struggling paper's site), the stories are badly written (full of errors, both factual and of form) and of course there are the comments, where the know-it-alls of business are demonstrating their intelligence, or lack thereof. I really hope they are there because they don't have actual jobs in business and therefore nothing else to do, otherwise we are all doomed.

The popular (technology) blogs (of which I occasionally read Engadget, TechCrunch and a couple others) of course attract a lot of comments, and filtering them has become an artform and probably a major component of running those sites. Still, some of the stuff they get is just... Well, there are clearly different species of commentators. There's one that could be termed "omni-sceptics". Even if the news is about Toyota launching a new car model, they'll reply with "Fake. The shadows in the picture don't look realistic enough, and I don't think Toyota is capable of producing cars. Not those kind of cars with four wheels anyway." Then there are the "my-head-is-so-deep-in-my-own-a**" -people, whose reaction is always "I wouldn't buy that, I can't see why anyone would, the company is doomed", regardless of the "gadget" in question, whether it is a diamond-encrusted unique mobile phone handmade for a sheikh, an experimental fuel-cell generator or an iPod.

In online forums the worst thing you can do is to display the number of messages people have sent. This turns writing into a competition for quantity, and as a result quality plummets and drivel takes over. I used to follow a football forum for a while, since I liked the relative anarchism and the humour. But perhaps I've grown too old, as it now feels just overtaken by teenaged idiots who only got the anarchism-part and not the humour. I did engage in a debate over racism there a few months back, but after finding out that seemingly most other users were a few decades behind the current discussion on cultural sensitivity, I just decided to leave. I did so reluctantly, as giving up to racists, even if they are trolls isn't really good. Also I thought that if I'd manage to convince a couple of the younger users that the word "nigger" isn't funny and it is not suitable even in the context of jokes, it would be worth it. But, as we all know, you can't beat trolls, and those who were seriously of the opinion that there wasn't a hint of racism on that forum would never change their minds no matter how well it would be argumented. And finally, after noticing that people will rather believe the short statement "that's not racism" than a longer explanation why X is racist and not acceptable, I called it a day. A quick look back shows that nothing there has changed.

Finally, sites like YouTube work because of the user community. YouTube provides a great channel for people to express themselves, get their message heard and seen, find likeminded people and be active contributors rather than just passive receivers in media. This is a fundamental change in the media landscape and not really understood by educators, legislators or politicians. But as in every community, there are those who just generate noise and are not interested in anything but disrupting the community. There are so many "if you read this you must post this to at least 5 other videos or your head will explode" -types of things going on that they drown all the other nonsense comments. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Relatively painless transitions (knocks wood)

I'm actually pretty excited about LaTeX. The output is simply beautiful and the first properly self-made documents were easy enough to do. My decision was sealed when I realised how simple it is to write equations that look perfect, and how well the system takes care of indexing. Both are sources of major pain when writing anything extensive with Word.

Sometimes you think that the tools don't really matter, as it is the content that counts. But here there is a real difference, as different tools focus your attention (and time) to different aspects of the document you are creating. In Word (and other word processors), your focus is constantly drawn to how the document looks, as you shape it as you go and the changes are in front of your eyes. And you need to spend a lot of time tweaking indentations, font sizes, margins, spacings, page changes, sizes and shapes of figures, floating the graphs in the text... LaTeX does all those for you, in my limited experience much better than any styles and templates in Word would. All you need to do is "ask". And the web is full of premade macros and packages that instantaneously make your doc meet the strict criteria different publishers have. APA (the American Psychology Association) for instance has a 100+ page style guide with meticulous instructions on how to structure and format articles intended for publication in their journals, including 30+ pages about references. In LaTeX you install a package and it then takes two lines of code to implement all that.

I find (and others say that as well) that LaTeX draws your attention to the logical structure of your document and away from tweaking the looks. With this I mean the hierarchical structure of chapters, sections, paragraphs etc. are highlighted, as this structure is the thing you see in front of you when you work, rather than the WYSIWYG-glimpse of the textsetting. And once the structure is there, the LaTeX system then takes care of implementing the looks of the document automatically, depending for instance which style package you choose. Once the structure and content are there, changing the looks for the whole document is easy, you just define a different style at the beginning, and you don't need to go through the whole document changing every page, every heading, every section... I find this a crucial difference and feel that an hour spent honing the structure is better use of my time than spending the same time tweaking the or style files to get the Heading 1 linespacing and indentation right, not to mention spending that time chasing orphan rows of text and preventing figures from overflowing to pages where they shouldn't be etc.

To any t*****-writer out there the tasks that tend to be the most tedious are the bibliography and the indexes of tables, figures and authors you need to have. In LaTeX those will be finished and perfectly formatted at the same instance as you stop writing the content (provided you've labelled the respective fields as you go, which is very easy to do and helps you organise the structure), and you don't need the extra hours you do with Word to get those done right. Finally, the end quality in a Word document is never as good as in a LaTeX-document, no matter how much time you spend with it. All in all, the transition from Word to LaTeX has been very smooth so far and I definitely recommend it to anyone. It's slightly more complicated to use than a word processor, and requires a slightly different set of skills, but it will be worth the time invested learning it. As mentioned, it is a different beast as it will do what professional typesetters do rather than just something to that direction.

The other transition I've gone through now that the term is ending here is the final shift from student to a real person. Last week saw the last May Bumps, the last Sports Dinner, and the last farewell to the last student cohort I was part of. Invigilations and supervisions will continue but somehow even with them it feels that they will be different next time. Somehow this transition seems to be going rather well as I've been fading out of the student life for a year now and it seems like a good time to move on. But being at the Sports dinner and at the college with friends last weekend made me a bit nostalgic, I must admit.

Packing up belongings and getting ready to move back to Finland also marks the transition from being a foreigner, an expat and a "special case" to being one of five million ordinary natives. I'm not at all sure how painless this transition will be, as I'm beginning to understand those who like to live "abroad" regardless of where that "abroad" might be - the looseness and freedom it brings to your identity is indeed liberating. You get the boost of being special when you need it, and can maintain a hold of your roots when that is needed. "At home" there is no option, you are one of them and firmly at your roots. This is of course also a good thing, but at the moment I'm not sure how that will feel like.

But now that I'm sure my t***** will look superb :-) , I can focus on putting together the content. No small task but I'm feeling much better about the whole project than in a while, and this also makes me feel more positive about moving back, and becoming a real person. Perhaps it is all linked.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Microsoft-free brave new life, step 1

I should have done this much earlier, but I feel it is still not too late. And it provides potentially hours of procrastination so I couldn't resist.

I decided to stop using Microsoft Word in writing my t*****. This isn't actually just a statement, it's a practical move, but it goes well with today's theme. I had contemplated moving to LaTeX earlier, but it was mainly this week when I was working on a chapter that would have a number of equations, graphs and figures in it when I realised that the probability of getting all that stuff readable in Word and in such a way that it will not change every time I reopen the document would be minuscule.

So, with some encouragement and promises of support from my LaTeX-savvy colleague I'm now switching to this system. It will have a learning curve, but I'm sure it will pay off. LaTeX is a text-setting system that works a bit like HTML-code, in that you just generate a txt-file with tags and commands and then you compile it and get the finished product, in the case of HTML it is a website with pictures and links, and in the case of LaTeX it is a "beautiful" PDF-document. I was encouraged by feedback people have given to it and I was especially swayed by those people at the PhDComics grad forum who said they switched to LaTeX relatively late in their writing-up process and haven't regretted it for a second. Also, my colleague showed me a couple of articles he had made and they not only looked totally professional and very impressive (with some very complicated equations, linguistic trees and tables that you simply wouldn't be able to do in Word) but the code and file structure also looked intuitive and easy to learn. To get an idea of the power of this thing, just take a look at how simply the equations are done in the example in Wikipedia.

So, I downloaded MiKTeX, which is a Windows distribution of LaTeX (this is the bit that does the compiling and produces the end product, so something like the web browser for HTML), TeXnicCenter for creating and editing the files (like the HTML editor, you could write it all in any text editor, but this has some nice features that make it easier) and also JabRef, for managing references. All are open source and free of charge under GNU/GPL licenses, and all have their user communities and developers providing new and useful stuff on a continuous basis.

Installing all was easy, the three components now talk to each other and I have also converted my references library from EndNote to JabRef. Just wanted to share these news, I'm now going to give the editor a try and make my first attempt to create a document...


Sod off, Microsoft

I've written about the idiotic Windows Genuine Advantage here before, at least twice. This is the spyware that Microsoft wants to install on your computer so that they could snoop on your system and police that you don't use unlicensed copies of their software.

Fair enough, but they don't of course say that, instead they claim they are helping you to ascertain that you have a genuine Microsoft product and that you have not fallen a victim of software piracy and bought a fake by accident. So this WGA is just a knight on a white steed pointing out to you that your copy is a fake and then helping you to get a genuine one, i.e. it guides you to an online store where you can buy the license.

Well, I'm now had enough. Today, Windows Update doesn't allow me to download security updates to their buggy software before I install a new version of this WGA. And, do they say it does what it does, i.e. contacts the internet without me knowing and sends stuff to Microsoft? No, this time it allows me faster, safer and more updates. And of course I have no option, as this appears before any other updates. OK, I could go and find the updates manually from an incredibly cluttered list, compare them to my update history etc. etc., but I don't have time for this. Instead, I'm downloading the bloody WGA snoop. And after that I'm now able to download the dozen updates and security plugs.

But the next computer I'm going to buy will be a Cupertino-baby by Apple, and the software will not be from Microsoft either. You just lost a customer, you twits.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Darcey Bussell gave her last performance as the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet yesterday. The last number was Das Lied von der Erde, The Song of the Earth, which is a suite of lieds by Mahler, and it was broadcast on BBC2. DLVDE is actually a symphony for Tenor, Contralto, and orchestra, and would have been Mahler's ninth, but superstitious Mahler left it unnumbered in fear for the curse of the ninth symphony that had already taken Beethoven and Bruckner. Mahler went on to compose one more symphony, which he numbered as his ninth, as he died before finishing his tenth.

Bussell ended her career as the principal dancer on top. She has said that she wants to quit when winning, and while 38 doesn't sound like an old age, she's been at the job for 20 years. The last song is aptly called Farewell, and although through the music you can hear the heaviness of Mahler's worried mind, the performance was everything but heavy. I don't remember when was the last time I saw ballet on stage, and am no expert. Professional critics have dug deep to find suitable superlatives to describe the "flawless" performance and the emotional farewell. All I can say is that I haven't seen anyone so elegant before, even the way she breaths is beautiful and not from this planet. Luckily she has hinted at the possibility to come back as a visitor.

(Pic: BBC)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Open senses

There's an old saying, often used by mind-readers, clairvoyants and other such humbuggers that we only use about 10% of our mental capacity. This is of course rubbish, but it's true that we all can learn, develop new skills and flex our minds up to an old age. While muscles atrophy with age, brains maintain their plasticity and can rewire themselves for instance after a stroke to a surprising extent. Perhaps it is this seemingly infinite capacity to absorb more of everything and become better that makes the 10% claim so plausible.

We do, however, seem to use only a fraction of our sensory capacities, or at least attend to very little of what is being sifted through by our senses. Perhaps mind-readers or fortune-tellers are just better at picking up hints and clues from our gestures, tone of voice etc.? Being unaware of much of what's going around us is not only a bad thing. In a way we are shielded from the outside world and the incessant bombardment of our senses by efficient filters.

We rarely pay attention to our sense of smell at all, unless trying to decide whether to throw away the casserole left-overs today or later. But we could do much more, it's just not that relevant for us. Expert wine tasters are an example of how good you could become given some training. As smells have a very direct route to our brains and are intimately linked to formation of memories for instance, it is slightly surprising that we are underdeveloped in terms of smell both in practice and in research.

Also, we see a lot but pay attention to precious little. It is funny how it feels that we have a wide angle of vision and nothing escapes us. Yet, the "beam" of our acute vision is very narrow. Focus on a word of this text, fixate to it and don't move your eyes. Now, using your peripheral vision, try to read a word on a line just above of below this one. Then try the line next to that. This is of course why people can spot if they are being "checked out", as it is impossible to maintain eye contact while caressing the rest of the body with the focus of one's attention. When there aren't any bodily curves or fashion items to guide our attention, it seems to jump to movement and points where something changes. Watching paint dry would actually be quite challenging, from attentional point of view.

Hearing is a bit different, again. You can close your eyes but it is much more difficult to close your ears. As we can't control where we point our ears and how much sound we let in (without using our hands, anyway) we must rely on much more subconscious ways to filter incoming information. Meaningful information still finds its way through, for instance in the famous cocktail party effect, where our own name pops up through the mat of chatter in the room. All sounds produced by traditional instruments consist of a multitude of frequencies (so-called harmonics) which you can "hear out", although normally you'd just group things together to one tone that has one pitch. Some people can map these pitches to the note names we conventionally use, thus being able to say what key any piece of tonal music is in, meriting the epithet of having perfect or absolute pitch.

Peter Hoeg's new book (which I had to leave behind thanks to the wonderful and illustrious R***air and their brilliant luggage policy) is about a man who can hear what key people are in. He has a very acute hearing in general, and can locate people he's calling on the phone based on what he hears on the background, was able to sense various things from the tone of their voice etc. I'll definitely write more about the book once I get it back to my hands and read beyond the first 100 pages. It looks excellent, though.

Some people are more open than others, and more sensitive or just simply more attentive than others. And we also change, depending on circumstances, stress etc. I tend to close up when stressed or tired. I stop hearing things, I stop seeing things, feeling things. It's probably just a defence reaction, the system making the judgment that there's now enough stuff inside already, can't deal with anything more. And it takes a while to open up again. I think this brief mini-break I just had was just about too short (or perhaps just about the right length, depending on how you want to see it. It didn't get me out of the "work zone" in that my mind is constantly working, when I go to bed I'm still thinking about work, and the t***** is pretty much the first thing on my mind in the morning. But last night I felt that I was opening up a bit, as I was standing outside in the middle of the night before going to bed. It was still light, and it was quiet. Or, as I soon realised it wasn't quiet at all, there was a seagull here, a cuckoo there, a mouse or something similar rustling behind the house. There was no wind but some leaves were still fluttering, and a cow somewhere far had a bell. All of a sudden there was a lot of noise, the night was loud, as I grew conscious of all the sounds around me. Amazing, I thought, just how much can you shut outside your senses?

Well, this sign of relaxation was enough to get me to sleep, and this morning work didn't catch me up until later at breakfast. But this is yet another reason why I don't really like this stage of my life and hate the fact that it has been going on all too long already. I'm missing out on all that birdsong and all those harmonics. And for Hoeg's protagonist, I'd probably be in c minor, solemn, serious and encapsulated.

(Pic: Scott Fraser: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lessons learned

I got some feedback for the demo lecture on Thursday. It confirmed my gut feeling about what had gone wrong, and what was good about it. On their three-step scale I got the middle grade. This is obviously a disappontment, but I do agree with their opinion.

So, my weaknesses were having a bit too much stuff in the talk, and having to rush through the bit where I showed data. Also, they had hoped for a bit of interaction towards the audience, which they had explicitly forbidden in the beginning, so I'm not quite sure how that could have worked. I did mention interaction and what I'd normally do with students in a lecture like that in the handout, but I suppose they didn't read it, and I probably should have said something about it in the beginning. Perhaps they meant that I was too concentrated on the talk and should have paid more attention to the audience or something, and that was probably true.

I made a stupid mistake with my PowerPoints, curse them. Contrary to what I wrote earlier, I did hang myself to my slides. I blame being tired, as I wasn't thinking straight when I made the last changes to the talk. At that stage I felt that I would need the support from the slides and constructed the narrative for the first section (the drivel-bit) into the slides to guide me through. The hare-brained idea was that I would stay focused and not digress, but what actually happened was that the slide structure prevented me from progressing as fast as I needed to, and stopped me from skipping some of that stuff and curbed attempts to improvise. As a result, the first part took way too much time. And my best content was in the end, which I now had to push through in a hurry, as I was determined to stay within the given 20 minutes. Again, a couple of minutes over wouldn't have been that bad, but when I tried to "read" the audience it seemed to say "next please" rather than "keep going, this is fascinating", and so I pushed to finish in time. Perhaps I didn't take into account that I was facing a Finnish audience trying to keep a stone face because it was a demo lecture, and not the usual crowds of international conferences or Cambridge...

It was nice to chat with some of those who had come to listen to the talks but weren't in the panel afterwards. As they hadn't focused on the technique of delivery, they had some nice things to say about the content. And so did the panel, BTW, they thought my strength was having the latest of current research in the talk. So I'm happy at least that part of my plan worked and my efforts were noticed.

A weekend's rest was welcome and very relaxing, although the perma-stress is still there rearing it's ugly head and will probably be there until the t***** has been submitted. Now it's back to the foggy island and as it's R***air, I'm not looking forward to the flight.