Monday, July 30, 2007

The last night

To know when you are about to go for good, just check your pockets. If you have an empty keyring and a one-way ticket, you are moving on.

I'm moving on, but also moving back. And I'm also staying, and not going anywhere, and I will be back soon. It's all very confusing. My keyring is still heavy; as I haven't finished here, I can't get that weight out of my pocket yet. I'm sure this unfinished t***** is messing up my mind and it will be difficult to start new things before having properly finished the old ones.

I still remember how I felt when moving to Cambridge. I had returned all keys (some of which were opening pretty impressive doors), so that the only one I had left was the one to my parent's house. The anchor, the place I will always call home, the place where I can always return. It was a strange, somewhat scary feeling. I knew what I was leaving behind, but wasn't too sure what to expect from the new life that was ahead of me. But I knew it would be good, and I was sure it was the right move to make.

Again, I know this is the right thing to do now, and I know it's going to be good. There will be new keys to fill the ring, and new tickets will be written, the to:s and from:s just change. And there will be another one-way ticket one day. Still, it feels strange, now that it is the last night. Not at all like I imagined it. Because for some reason I never did.

(Pic: Jeff Lyons: Back and Forth, acrylic on canvas)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

End of story

I started reading Harry Potter books in my first year in Cambridge. The fourth book had been out for a while, and I borrowed the first two books from my neighbour and then signed up at the Cambridge City Library to get out the third one. I've bought the rest of the books pretty much immediately after they've been out, the 6th book on the opening night. And now, the seventh and the last book.

I'm hectically trying to squeeze out one more chapter of my t***** before moving back to Finland next week. I won't be able to submit the whole thing before leaving, but I'm confident it will be done by the end of next month. That's when teaching starts, and I really don't want to be writing up while starting to teach "for real" for the first time...

So basically, it's the worst time ever for the new Potter to come out, as they are totally unputdownable. (That IS a word, I've seen it in The Times). So, I thought I could be smart this time, buy the book but use it as a reward: the faster you do the day's work, the faster you can go home to read Potter. Of course the same thing happened that happens to every piece of chocolate or brownie I get to spur me on. I place it on the side table, and I tell myself that I'll get it once this or that is done. G&B Chocolate, it will be sooo good, better get on with the old writing... And in about 5 minutes I just can't take it anymore, as all I can think of is that damn slab of chocolate, and so I eat it all, just to get my concentration back.

With HP7, I managed pretty well until yesterday, or about half way down the book. Reading it a bit in the morning with coffee, then in the evening... then it just got too much, and yesterday I read until I fell asleep, woke up, tried to stay awake so I could continue reading it, but had to give up. When I woke up in the morning, instead of coming to work I continued reading until I had finished the book at about 3.15 in the afternoon. I had had a meeting at 3, but luckily the person I was meeting understands how these things work and wasn't too cross for me being late. In fact, I could almost blame her for this, as she had said she wouldn't be able to not talk about The Ending so I'd better read it before we meet...

Anyone who has read the previous books will want to know how the story ends. No wonder it was the biggest and fastest selling book, as everyone wanted to read it immediately, as the longer you leave it, the more likely it will be that someone blurts out The Ending, thinking that you must have read it already. So, I won't be saying anything about the plot, but I can say that this is the darkest, and most emotional book yet. I did cry a bit. And as it brings things to a close, it seals the septet of books together. The discussion about which is your favourite HP book can now end. As the whole storyline is there, it is clear that it is the whole seven-episode saga that has the magic, and the individual parts no longer matter. It's almost like some of the spells and potions and charms etc. in the book: when the ingredients or components are separated, they are normal everyday things, but bring them together and something special happens.

All this finishing-business and things coming to an end of course fits well with what's going on with me at the moment. I had already felt depressed as two truly eternal PhD students went and graduated before me: Mike Slackenerny from the PhD Comics, and Brian May of Queen (class of -71, although he hasn't actually submitted yet, he will in a week or so).

At least Harry didn't graduate before I did.

(This wasn't a spoiler, we all know that in the sixth book he decided to drop out of Hogwarts to wage full-time war against You-Know-Who. Just shows that his attitude to education is healthy; learning for life, not for diplomas. Atta boy Harry, well done.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tour de France - decisive moments

Seeing the prologue live in London rekindled my interest in cycling. It had somewhat subsided after the great riders I knew and admired (Pantani, Indurain, Ullrich, Virenque) had either quit, got caught using doping and/or died.

But, if you want to enjoy this great sports event, just snap on the NOS video feed, and in case you aren't fluent in Dutch get the commentary in English (other languages also available) from Eurosport, then switch on the live GPS tracking, and also the gap monitoring and commentary , pick your rider and monitor the telemetry with his heart rate, cadence, speed and position, and you're pretty much ready to go. All the classifications and rider bios are of course at the TdF website.

With all this information available, you'll know more about what's going on than almost anyone following the race live on location. Nothing beats the buzz of going to see it live, though. This year I got to see the prologue, next year perhaps one of the mountain stages?

Le Tour has now hit the Pyrenees, and the winner will very probably be decided in the coming couple of days, on the mountains. The mountain stages and the individual time trials are the places where the leading riders can get some distance between each other. On the flatter stages the teams will make sure that the leading riders stay close together.

The tactics and the thinking behind all this is fascinating, and rather complicated, as well. It already helps to know that different riders have very different roles in the team, and that only a handful of riders are even interested in the yellow jersey and winning the general classification. Most of them, like Finland's Kjell Carlström are there as domestiques, helping others in the team. They do the work in front of the peloton and catch those breakaway groups that have gone off too far and threaten the lead of their captain; they help their sprinters to get into good positions in the front of the pack before a sprint finish; they drop back to tow the captain back to the peloton after a fall or flat tire. And on the longer, flatter stages, they might try their luck on a breakaway and win a stage. And for that to work, it actually helps to be sufficiently low down in the GC, as then no team has the incentive to hunt down your breakaway group.

(Pic: Part of one of the great cycling photos by Graham Watson, who covers all the étapes.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Random thoughts

Cambridge is full of loud, Spanish teenagers who are here ostensibly to learn English but actually to behave like a bunch of loud Spanish teenagers. They go around in large, loud groups, block roads and fast food shops and tills at corner stores. They are annoying.

To balance things out, England sends loud, drunken groups of lads and ladettes out to southern Spain, not to learn Spanish but just to behave like loud, drunken groups of Brits. On second thought, England is getting the better end of this deal. Much better.


Yesterday BBC admitted having cheated in a number of phone-in competitions. Some of the winners were actually members of production teams rather than members of public. According to BBC, this was unforgivable and so they spent about half of their main newscast and a big chunk of the following Newsnight apologising to people. They also said that the credibility of the company was at stake and public trust to BBC had been damaged, and they also revealed that they were planning to put their staff on training, where they were going to be taught that telling lies isn't nice.

This is of course a shock to all of us who measure the credibility of a broadcasting company and news provider by the way they run their phone-ins. I am so thankful that they went over these breaches of public trust case by case, and didn't bother us with too many details about the plane crash in Sao Paolo killing 190 people or the Berezovski murder attempt or some of the really blah blah -issues like war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or the floods. A proportional response. Very responsible, BBC, well done.


There are cross-cultural differences in business. One of them is that the contract for the lease of my new flat in Finland fits well in one A4 page. Well, actually the signatures are on page 2, but that's because it's all relatively large print and spaciously laid out. The contract we had here, for a flat half the size and double the price was about 10 pages of fine print. Item 5.6.3 (or something) of the contract (that has been carefully drafted by a bunch of idiots who call themselves a letting agency), reads that in case the curtains and blinds are not so dirty after the tenancy that they'd need washing, the tenants can still be charged for the curtains to be washed sometime in the future. So, you pay to get them washed now if they are dirty, and you pay to get them washed later if they are clean.

The tenants pay through the nose for all kinds of great services that these leeches have dreamed up, none of which are necessary, none of which are even welcome. Paying more than 100 pounds to get some dodgy agency check your credit rating is a superfluous service, as they also required us to have a deposit, and guarantors, after disqualifying my income as proper income, because it was "European". So, they are already three times guaranteed to get their rent money, so these checks only benefit the credit check agency, and these leeches who probably get a cut of the business they put their way. I, as a tenant, can not commission these checks myself, from an independent agency, perhaps at a more reasonable rate, instead I have to pay premium for the agency that is actually owned by the same company that owns the company that operates the cloud of companies of which this letting agency is one.

We also paid 45 pounds to have a fat lady come over and count our forks and furniture and comment about stains in the cooker plates. On their website they advertise for a free inventory, but I think we used ours already when we moved in. Another company from this cloud of leeches has been trying to sell us home insurance. We had already sent them copies of our current policy in the beginning of the tenancy, but this didn't stop them from sending a letter saying "our records show you don't have a policy. We will call you to offer blah blah...". I did check their offer, though, of course. It covered much less than the policy we have, and up to about half the value. And it cost, I am not kidding, TEN times more than our policy. Admittedly the one we have is cheap because the whole family is insured by the same company and there are discounts for doing that, but it is still much higher than any quotes you'd get here in Britain.

In the moving out forms they had provided three lines to give comments about their service. I was very tempted to write "What service?" As during the whole tenancy they have been totally incompetent, unhelpful, unresponsive, slow to react, and seemingly only interested in touting these auxiliary and overpriced services.

Well, hopefully, Accent Property never again...

(Pic: random phases from

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Infinity for free!

"Orbo is a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy", says Sean McCarthy, the CEO of Steorn. In short, this Irish product is a perpetuum mobile, a machine that creates energy out of nothing. It is a relative of the philosopher's stone, snakeoil, so-called "Nigerian scams " and online lottery wins.

Orbo was initially launched with a full-page ad in the Economist, and has since received worldwide press attention from for example Engadget and the BBC. The product was supposed to be demoed in the Kinetica museum in London, but the demo unsurprisingly failed.

Orbo is supposed to be based on magnets and by the looks of it doesn't even look much different from Honnecourt's design from 30's. That is, 1230's.

We know that if this were to work, it would violate the laws of thermodynamics. While it is in the nature of scientific "laws" that this is not strictly speaking impossible, it is infinitely improbable.

As the old saying goes, "if it is too good to be true, it probably is." So, what is this about? Some Finns may remember Bonk Business Inc., the imaginary family company created by the artist Alvar Gullichsen. The foundations of the wealth of the Bonk family lied in harnessing the Baltic anchovies (sic!) for food and energy production and lubrication. etc. The exhibition detailed the history of this company, displayed its products and some family memorabilia etc. What made this so compelling was that it all looked and felt so real that you started believing in it, but at the same time it was so absurd that you knew you were in an artwork. It was a funny, original idea, and well executed. I believe Steorn and Orbo are similar works of imagination and art, only performed live on an international stage, with shareholders' money and at the slow news time of the year.

It is an interesting peek into the human nature - we know that it can't work, but what it if does? It is similar to the classic Pascal's Wager about God - it is better to choose to believe in God, as the costs of doing so are small, compared to the costs of not believing and being proved wrong. McCarthy (if it is his real name) has so far made all the right moves; he got credibility for the project by advertising in the Economist (a full page ad costs so much that this can not be a joke), he has admitted this machine is in conflict with the laws of thermodynamics and claims he doesn't know how it works (but of course keeps claiming it does). He has invited the scientific community to take part in the "validation process", and of course the company has a smooth website. He even said that the failure of the demo proves that this is not a hoax. Nice. The demonstration in London for the public has a nice echo of the Victorian era, as I suppose this could be seen as a hommage to the great scientists and engineers who used to demonstrate their inventions and research to the scientific societies and potential funders in London.

I wonder what is going to happen next? He has got his 15 minutes, but will he just fade out or will there be a climax to end this saga? Will he come clean or maintain the mystery? Hmmm, what would Aristophanes do?


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

As both regular readers of this blog know, I do care about the environment. I think that people should fly less, drive less and consume less. But I also think that it would be impossible to expect people to immediately stop flying, driving and consuming altogether, and therefore I'm happy to see new products (be they planes, cars or light bulbs) that are more energy-efficient or environmentally friendly than the previous generation they are replacing.

And this is why I couldn't quite understand the comments "some environmentalists" have made about the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the cutting edge passenger plane that was unveiled last Sunday (07-08-07, according to the US fashion of dates). They were interviewed in the news as well, but I don't recall who they were and what the organisation was. But they refused to be happy about the major cuts in fuel consumption and noise that the new plane would bring. They said it would only make flying cheaper thus encouraging even more people to fly even more, thus making things worse.

I thought that making things more efficient and thus cheaper was the whole idea. This gives people (manufacturers, businesses and consumers) the incentive to replace their old, polluting machinery with newer, greener ones, as they can factor the future savings as part of the costs of switching.

Luckily at least some environmental groups, like the National Environmental Trust, were more understanding and admitted to the benefits of a greener plane. Of course it will not solve the major problem of us flying too much, but surely making those flights with less emissions is a step to the right direction? And with the promised 20% cut in CO2 emissions per plane and so far 677 orders in the pocket, in my opinion this is a major one.

(Pic: Boeing)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Le Tour

The daily showers finally subsided for a while, as if to honour the first visit of the Tour de France in London. And this great race was given the best London has to offer: a route among all the best-known sights that provided a magnificent backdrop for the riders; a route through the parks of central London so that as many people could come and watch.

It was a magnificent event. According to estimates, over one million people gathered around the 7.9 km Proloque route on Saturday. And everyone agrees it went well: the race organisers, London officials, the police and spectators themselves.

The atmosphere was great, the crowd was cheering for each and every one of the 189 riders, from start to finish. There was a sense of excitement and awe as these great athletes flew by on their bicycles, at speeds that you can't imagine unless you actually see it live. TV doesn't manage to convey the speed, or the intensity of it, you have to live it to believe it.

The amazing thing was that there was no shoving or pushing in the crowds, no drunken idiots, intimidating or aggressive fans to be seen, no need for the police or the organisers to take any other action but to walk around seeing how everything goes smoothly. Everyone was enjoying the sun and the event. This was London at its best. And this was also a great advertisement for the 2012 Olympics.

(Pic: The hometown favourite Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) sprinting to the finish line.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

War on terror comes to Cambridge

In the investigation of the attempted car bombings in London and the almost successful car bombing in Glasgow, the focus has now been turned to Cambridge. Out of 4 people arrested so far, 4 have connections here. Of the two people arrested in Glasgow, one was a research student in Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and the other one his "best mate".

The focus of the investigation is the Abu Bakr Siddiq Mosque, off Mill Road. One of the big questions has been when and how did these people get to be so radical, hateful and extreme in their opinions that they started plotting these attacks? In general, the finger often points to either Islamic schools or mosques, and the imams who brainwash people and spread hatred etc.

I took a look at the mosque website - it gives an idea of what sort of a radical institution it is. They co-organise lectures with the university, in different colleges. They seem to have swimming and karate clubs, also for kids and women. I really loved the fact that on the mosque open day they had body mass index measuring and face painting for kids.

There's a rainbow of colours between the black and white extremes.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Where do ideas come from? I think for most people the generation of ideas isn't that much of a problem, but to determine which ones are good and worth pursuing might often be a case of hit and miss.

Research is a process, as everyone knows, and while there is the practical aspect of having theories to generate hypotheses to be tested in experiments, so that the theory can be modified/discarded/supported to generate new hypotheses etc. etc., the real process is in the development of thinking. And while the research process is a circle, it is no match to the spinning going on in the researchers' heads.

What usually happens is that when you start a project, you start writing down ideas, taking notes and making scetches. Which usually, when you read them in about a year in the project, sound naive, childish and simply ignorant. You've learned from reading other people's work, you've found that someone else has already answered some of your questions, or that some of the questions you had, might not be worth asking in the first place.

But sometimes, after a couple of more years, with some more spinning and hopefully also more understanding, the first ideas might start look good again. Perhaps the initial question had been forgotten in the course of things? Perhaps the notes DO have some relevance, perhaps the ideas written by a naive but enthusiastic mind reflect a clearer vision, if less profound understanding than the sometimes desperate blurbs written in the middle of the process, in an attempt to find any clarity among the clouds of ideas, articles and research results?

I have just yesterday finalised the title of my thesis. Confirming the title is a part of the official process of appointing examiners etc., in other words another step on the bureaucratic path towards the Senate House and graduation... The funny thing is, the title is the same as the title of my very first conference presentation I gave as a graduate student.

Currently a colleague of mine is writing a research proposal, and she laughed how her initial ideas from three years back now are finding their way to the proposal as keywords, fragments of the title etc.

What goes around, comes around, eh?

(Pic: electro-static merry-go-round invented by Benjamin Franklin.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Good train news

I wrote a while ago about the rail speed record that the French did with their souped-up TGV. Today the Japanese have increased the speed of their Shinkansen bullet trains by introducing a new N700 model. The new version of the bullet train is saving 5 minutes on the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. This doesn't sound like much, but the saving comes from a new automatic train control that allows the unit to accelerate quicker out of the station and maintain a faster speed in turns. So the time savings that this train achieves don't come from increasing the top speed but from getting to the top speed quicker and being able to maintain it better.

And in fact, the top speed of this thing (around 300 km/h) sounds almost sluggish compared to the 500+ that the French clocked, but the crucial difference is that the TGV in question was a modified unit on a one-off mission, while the Shinkansen will achieve its speeds at regular service. For example, there were 1300 people on board the train on its maiden voyage.To compare like with like, the average speeds of the TGV:s in regular service are between 250 and 300 km/h with peak top speeds at around 320, being very similar in performance to the Shinkansen.

While these news will perhaps only excite a tech-buff like myself, the other piece of railnews is much more exciting in general. The major railway operators in Europe have announced that they will form an alliance, similar to those formed by airlines, and harmonise their ticketing so that a customer can buy just a single ticket between any destinations, and also will be able to get the best price. This is a move that will make buying rail tickets as convenient as getting airplane tickets, and this will hopefully help in boosting the competitiveness of trains versus flying, and rid Europe of the unnecessary short haul flights we so much love to fly.


Monday, July 02, 2007

The 7 Wonders of The World

A quick history quiz: Name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Bonus points for remembering who drafted the list.

I'm sure you can check your own answers with the assistance of Google, or my new favourite search engine No, I'm not getting paid to say this, I just like the way they let you expand or narrow down your search. This is especially good if you don't really know what you are searching for. It helps you to arrive at the correct search terms by guiding you through the branches of the semantic trees.

Internet is a modern wonder, and organising the information in it and being able to find anything there requires almost a miracle. But there is a gap between the 7 wonders of the Ancient world and the wonders of technology of the modern one. And to fill this gap, there is a global vote going on to choose the New 7 Wonders. There's just over 4 days left to vote, as the new septet will be announced on the triple-seven Saturday this weekend.

Actually, it's not about wonders that are newer than those that Philon of Byzantium listed 2200 years ago, as a tourist guide for the free men in Athens - although there is a condition that these ones need to be still standing. In fact, the monoliths of Stonehenge and the statues of the Easter Islands are on the shortlist. It is about a wider geographical coverage, to include things like the Great Wall of China, which I suppose many people erroneously name as one of the original 7 Wonders, even though Philon's selection was concentrated on the Mediterranean.

Just by entering an email address, you can vote for your selection of 7 new wonders, out of a shortlist of 21 constructions and buildings. Here's my list, in quasi-random order.

1) Akropolis. The seat of European civilisation. To me, it symbolises imagination, thinking, arts and philosophy. Erosion, pollution and time might have eaten much of the physical presence of the buildings on Akropolis, but the immaterial products of the culture that produced them are still alive and well - albeit being covered by layers upon layers of culture so that the origins have partly been forgotten. But luckily there are still people that are like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, reminding people that all words originally come from Greek roots.

2) Alhambra. I think this is one of those places that you need to see to be able to fully appreciate and respect. Just like it says in some property advertisements, viewing is essential. The complex of Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzin in Granada is a stunning exhibit of the advances of Islamic and Arab culture. Way ahead of what the Europeans had at that time, Alhambra is a showcase of wealth, power and art. The elaborate decorations inspired Escher, and the geometric complexity that was the bread and butter for the medieval Islamic artists was mathematically conceptualised and understood only centuries later.

3) The Great Wall of China. I believe this needs no comment, and I'd be very surprised if this didn't make the final 7.

4) Eiffel tower. Among the historical buildings, places of worship and palaces, Eiffel tower stands out as having been constructed just for the sake of pushing the envelope of engineering. It has grown from an eyesore and a temporary installation to one of the best known symbols in the world. But my vote goes for this because it represents the era of engineering, bold, new, analytical and even scientific approach to construction and innovation, the aspirations and ethos of modern. This is a symbol of all that which has brought us the great bridges, ocean liners, skyscrapers, space flight,...

5) Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto. Another wonder I've had the pleasure of visiting. Of the Japanese imperial temples, I actually was expecting to see the Kinkakuji Temple and its Golden Pavilion here, but this is a wonder as well. The Japanese have traditionally had attention to detail, to put it mildly. And it definitely isn't same as having a lot of detail, but that everything is just like it should be. Take the Golden Pavilion, for instance. I've never seen such perfect proportions anywhere. The pavilion is the perfect size, taking into account that on a perfect day it is reflected from the surface of the pond by which it lies. The surrounding garden leads you subtly to the perfect vantage point, where the pavilion is framed perfectly by its surroundings, including the little island on the pond. The island brings depth to the view, and further mesmerises the viewer with the perspective and proportions. Consequently, it is very difficult to tell whether the pavilion is actually large or small - it's just the perfect size. The pavilion dominates the view but doesn't intimidate you; you can not not to look and admire it, yet it is not pushing itself to you, which is a lot to say about a building that is factually golden. And the Kiyomizu Temple is amazing too, but more in the sense of the Eiffel tower, as it is built on wooden pillars, and it seems to grow from the side of the mountain.

6) Petra. How to make your city withstand the millennia? Carve it from solid rock. I haven't been to Petra, but it is on the to-do list.

7) Taj Mahal. A symbol of eternal love.