Saturday, August 25, 2007

Memory lane

When I left Finland for Cambridge, I only took a couple of suitcases with me, and brought most of my belongings to my parents' place, to be stored until... well, now, I suppose.

I've been going through the papers, books, CD's, clothes this weekend. It's funny how easy it is to move on and forget the past projects, ideas, even "identity" in some ways. I found papers of projects I had done only five or six years ago, but I had already forgotten even having been involved in some of them. And surprisingly, some of the reports actually looked pretty good. Most notably, they looked confident; as if written by someone who (thinks he) knows what he's doing. Although some of that cocky confidence was probably unfounded, it made working much easier.

The case with the t***** is often the opposite. All drafts are very restrained and cautiously worded. Earlier, I had no trouble stating for a fact what shoud be done in European higher education in general, now I'm careful not to make too bod claims about small details of error correction mechanisms in a specified cognitive function.

Of course, there is a major difference between the mostly political writings of back then and th scientific writing now. While confidence and simplification plays a major, positive role in political communication, science doesn't care much about it, and scientists have the nasty habit of checking your facts and testing them. Still, for writing a t*****, a good dose of feelings of invincibility and youthful cockyness are very useful, at least if you have the tendency to doubt and second guess every word, as I sometimes do.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wah wah boots - mahna mahna!

Thanks again MusicThing for making my day...


Forget Heelys, ignore Crocs. Here are the wah wah boots!

Monday, August 20, 2007


I got this badge from Mitluana, who herself rocks more than a dozen peace-parties and needs no soundcheck!

In the real world, today was the first "proper" day at work, as all the hassle with moving rooms seems to have reached the point where people can actually work in their rooms, or at least unpack things and sort their email backlogs.

And not a moment too soon... People actually showing up at the office meant that I could talk to them about teaching, research and all those things I'm supposed to be doing here soon. There will be very little time to prepare for the first courses, but at least now I have a little bit better idea of what is expected of me. I'm very happy that most courses will be done in collaboration with others, or my "stuff" will be a part of something bigger that also involves people from other disciplines.

The potential of this department lies in its structure, it bringing together all these disciplines and approaches. I'm saying this as an "outsider", just looking at what we have here. Of course, as I already know from the past, the interdisciplinary relations are not always easy, and there have been issues, mainly to do with allocating resources fairly between the disciplines, but also disagreements about what constitutes valid research and relevant teaching. This debate, of course, can be either constructive or destructive, and there are examples of both in the history of this department.

I'm not yet convinced if things are better now; there are many indications that they might be, although I'm also picking some signs of the old tensions. I think my views of this whole field of science and what it should aim for have changed during the last few years, and in that light it is clear to me that there is no alternative for collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Cambridge or Oxford don't have these possibilities, so in this sense we could be so much better than they are. We'll see.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Haven of peace

The park outside my flat is a haven of peace, the antithesis of belligerence and the centerpoint of friendship.

The day before yesterday there was the metal concert marking the declaration of peace in schools.

Yesterday there was a christian rock concert, which I suppose had a fairly peaceful message, as well.

Today there was a six (6) hour long concert called Pearls of Peace, organised by the local anti-war organisation.

My ears are still ringing from all this peace in just one weekend.

Well, even though most of the performers don't exactly need to continuously check their voicemail for missed calls from recording company executives, there were some good bands among them. And as I said, it's great that local bands get chances to perform and that there's live music in the city. But if that dude from the PA company wakes me up with Toto tomorrow (they had soundchecks at 9 am both Thursday and today), I am not sure how peaceful I will be.

(Pic: Peace and Quiet Rock Band)

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Everyone knows the procrastinative potential of Windows Solitaire and Minesweeper, some have advanced to Freecell or Spider solitaire. I like backgammon.

There's an online backgammon in Windows, and I've been able to play it now after a long while, as in the uni network these ports were rudely blocked. To me the charm of backgammon is the mixture of luck and skill, and it is of course at best played live, but playing online is a good substitute.

The windows game is just for short matches, and most players (myself included) are not that good. It is also very easy to just leave when things are going wrong, and matches are rarely played to the end, which is set to three points. I've just tested an online backgammon room called Play65. There you can play for real or fake money, there are more options for match length etc.

After a couple of games, my fake money account is about where I started from. I now realise that the one aspect of the game that I'm least familiar with is also the most important one when you are playing for "money", and that's the doubling cube. For those not familiar with the game, what it means is that if you think you are winning a round, you can offer to double the points/money that the winner gets. If your opponent accepts, the game goes on, if s/he discards the offer, you win immediately (the single points/stakes, of course). The hook is that once you double, your opponent gets the possession of the cube, and can then try to oust you if tables turn later on and you lose the advantage you thought you had when making the first doubling.

In short, it is a way to control the game, but you can also lose a lot (including control of the game) by doubling at the wrong time and of course lose if you accept doubles when you should discard. And this is an aspect that the Windows backgammon doesn't really teach you, although it is a good way to start playing backgammon and learn the basic moves.

And as with everything, there is no end to how far you can take it. I suppose there is a lot of money involved in online gaming and tournaments; as the game is about tactics and a lot of that is about assessing probabilities, computers have been enrolled into it, and the top backgammon calculator / bot retails for 360$, there are theories, forums, schools etc.

I'll stick to playing the occasional game online, before finding someone to play with here. Having said that, my new "boss" is the person who taught me to play the game in the first place, about 6 years ago, in a plane going from Amsterdam to Johannesburg...


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Peace and passivity

School started this week, and to mark the event, a national declaration for peace in schools was made today. The "ceremony" took place outside my window in the park.

The declaration is a good idea, as it tries to tackle bullying and other anti-social behaviour in schools, and for what I've heard all upper-primary students (13-16 years old) of Jyväskylä attended, and the event was broadcast by a national radio channel.

The event was actually an hour-long concert featuring four local bands. Ask me again in three months, but I think it's good that the park is alive, local bands get a chance to perform and there's culture for young people, by young people. (The only annoying bit was the soundcheck, and some idiot mixer showing off and playing TOTO on maximum volume at 9 in the morning, much louder than the actual concert).

But, I think the event fell well short of what it could have been. I got the feeling that for the audience it was just another lesson. The pic is taken during (IMO) the best performance, and you can't really describe this as an enthusiastic crowd. OK, I'm not the right person to criticise anyone for not dancing, but I think this bunch has confused going to a rock concert with going to a funeral.

I don't know who planned this event, but I suppose it wasn't the kids themselves. Perhaps the music (metal, all 4 bands...) was not the grooviest possible, but still I think there was a missed opportunity to have a PARTY where people could get a positive experience from moving, dancing, being together. This could have had a positive effect on the school spirit and perhaps brought the different "cultures" closer together. But instead, they chose to have people sitting down quietly, only giving polite applause after each band's performance. Which they did perfectly, good kids.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Yes, professor

The curse of empty paper. Or screen, in this case. It can be very crippling sometimes, and can drive me up the wall. The good thing about this blog is that whenever I'm finding it difficult to start writing about something I've decided to write about, I can always switch to procrastination mode and write about the difficulty of writing about whatever it is I want to write about. Almost magic (if it weren't so sad :-) )!

OK, this time it's not really about where to start, but more about whether to write about this at all, whether I want to bring these themes to Planet P or not. What the heck...

The way universities are run in Finland makes no sense.

If you want to know what is going on in the uni or in any of its departments or faculties, you need to talk to the administrative staff. The numerous reforms and projects that the universities occupy themselves with are usually their pet peeves, but usually the nagging is semi-serious at most.

Something seems very different this time, though. I've now been here for two weeks. Or one, as I was in the Castle for a week, and actually have been working at home for most of the time, but there seems to be a theme emerging anyway. Everyone, and that is EVERYONE I talk to has something very negative to say about the recent big organisational changes or the way they've been implemented, or both. There is frustration, even despair, and while the university has been through rough times before (as in the mid 90's when the economic depression was squeezing the budgets) there is now the added frustration that this rough batch seems mostly self-inflicted, partly by the ministry, partly by the university.

These same themes have been prominent in the few chats I've had with the academic staff as well. I've heard a lot about the new IT systems and the new salary system, the re-organisation of administrative services, the refurbishments of the buildings and facilities. And in proportion very little about teaching or research. Not sure if anyone has time to do any of those anymore, with so many structural development projects and administrative exercises going on.

It's not just about using time on admin rather than research, as in every university, even in the very top ones, the academic staff has to do more than just teach or do research. But it is what this other time is used for. In most top universities it is used for fundraising or project proposals and applications. Frustrating, yes, but at least you can think that it benefits the faculty in the end. Here the benefits seems less... concrete. And fundraising wouldn't make any sense anyway, as the system actively discourages such activities. Since the uni is essentially a government office, the budget you get must be spent the same year, and it can't be saved for the future and definitely can't be set aside for worse times. So at the same time as there is a major squeeze on personnel and downsizing of administrative services and departments, loose cash is spent on frivolities just because not spending it would mean a smaller budget the next year. And no matter how big a fan of the public education system you are (and I'm pretty big), surely this makes no sense.

You could take "Yes, Minister" and adapt it to be "Yes, Professor" or "Yes, Chancellor" and it would fit perfectly.

I don't want to sound negative, because I'm still quite enthusiastic about this job and very keen to get on with it, but I can't help thinking about these things. Universities are about people, but here the priorities seem to be different. I hope I'm wrong, I hope it is just the way it seems.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Back in Jyväskylä

Degrees, graduations and jobs come and go, but procrastination is forever.

I've now started in my new job in Jyväskylä, where I'm supposed to brainwash educate students and do research. My student times are therefore over, although there is still the minor detail of finishing and submitting the t*****, before I can properly move on.

The blog will live on, as it would be wrong to think that just because someone starts to pay you for doing research, it would actually get done without the same frustrations, problems, and even deliberate procrastination that occupy a sizeable chunk of every graduate students' research projects.

Back in Jyväskylä, how about that? This is my original alma mater, where I did my first degree, go entangled with student unions and all sorts of activities; where I got into my current research, was employed for a while in the central administration (planning) and then graduated and moved to Cambridge. I told people that I'd like to come back one day, but perhaps not yet, not at this stage.

I wanted to avoid the idea that I'm now coming back after a few years spent "elsewhere". That would somehow feel like having given up on something, almost like a cyclist who breaks away from the peloton only to be caught a few miles later. A PROPER way to advance your career is to go around, be mobile, never to set foot to previously marked squares, not to mention returning to square one. (It is only allowed when taking a professorship in your old uni, when you want to get some more time for your grandchildren.)

But, things have changed here so much that it feels all new. All the new facilities, new people, new projects, new systems... And our research group's future as a Finnish Centre of Excellence (as of beginning of 2008) means that this is now the place to be, and this is also the time to be here. While I've been learning new things and educating myself in Cambridge, this department has been busy as well. It's almost like the whole department had gone and done a graduate degree somewhere.

The town has changed as well. The students will be back in two weeks time, but as school starts this week, the town is taken over by teenagers. I generally don't like teenagers, which is probably because in these more peripheral towns they have nothing much to do but drink and hang out (or whatever the term is nowadays, "chill"? See, I'm completely out of these loops...) in shopping centres. Our flat is overlooking a park, and unsurprisingly there was a bunch of teenagers there in the evening. And today, another bunch, a proper crowd, actually, occupied a corner in the fast food restraurant. Views everyone has seen ad nauseam.

But something was different. The first group wasn't drinking cider or cheap white wine, they were training parcour moves. The group was very mixed, boys and girls, big and small. Bouncing, jumping, hanging, climbing... and having a great time. The second crowd had gathered around a dancing game, there were two guys having a match. They were phenomenal, amazingly fast, amazingly accurate. Also, looking at the crowd, the first thing I noticed was that a number of girls had school uniforms. Those sailor-like dresses that Japanese girls are made to wear. According to yesterdays paper, these girls probably are "lolitas", which is a youth subculture that I didn't expect to see here. And there were a couple of other groups, the names of which I can only guess, and what amazed me was the attention to detail and the extent to which these people had styled themselves to make the statement they were making.

Although I live next to the campus and only have a short walking distance to work (even shorter now that I've decided to work at home this week, to avoid the construction work and moving hassles at the dept), I need to get my bike here. I have an old road bike that needs some TLC to be roadworthy. Luckily, in the building next door, there's a bike shop that is run by a somali guy, who at least according to what his (probably middle-eastern) friend told to a girl who was bringing her bike in, can fix ALL problems, not to worry.

So has the sleepy town in central Finland, so proud of its roots as the home of Finnish education, grown to be a positively multicultural town with vibrant and varied youth culture? It must have been to uni as well? If that's the case, good. Very good.

(Pic: view from our balcony)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Back in the real world...NOOOOOO!!

Whoa. sometimes conferences can be so good. It takes a nice location, which preferably is in the middle of nowhere so people can't escape, but is large enough so that people don't have to be at each other's face all the time. And as the picture suggests, we had a perfect venue.

The most important thing are the people, obviously. I keep telling conference organisers who are always stressed out of their minds on the first day that as long as the people have arrived safely, they have nothing to worry about. If there are glitches in the organisation, technical issues, bad food, lumpy mattresses, if they've forgotten a detail here and a thing there, and god in high heavens, even if coffee is late or fails to turn up, people will understand, and adapt to it. But without people, you have no conference. People don't go to conferences to be entertained or in order to be able to stay in a nice hotel room or eat a specific morning cereal, they go there to meet other people, talk to them, get to know them, plan future research with them and in general to get their fixes of social interaction in between longish bouts of hermitry in their labs and libraries.

This week's conference was perfect. As a colleague of mine said, the people were great just to hang out with, not to mention to work with! There were many practically oriented people, music therapists, music teachers etc. and so there was much more active participation than normally, which was excellent. Including a concert of scratch ensembles, choirs and bands. Our choir won the Herstmonceaux Idol with our rendition of Adiemus. The only problem is that the bloody tune has been stuck in my head for two days now, and quite frankly that is about two days too long. :-)

Also, instead of the typically unproductive "graveyard shift" of papers after lunch and before afternoon coffee had been stricken out of the programme, and replaced with workshops and demonstrations. Playing with elastic bands, blowing feathers and sitting on the floor crayoning, beats listening to presentations, hands down.

There were some people I'm hoping to be able to work with in the future, my talk went well and it feels good to know that my stuff might be of very practical use for at least a couple of people involved in very interesting and important projects.

The shock we got on M25 and M11 when we hit the Friday rush hour was a bit too rude awakening to the real world. Luckily my head is still spinning after last night's Ceilidh and so the full truth that the conference is now over hasn't dawned on me yet. 'Twas probably the "Strip the willow", cause we aced the "Dashing White Sergeant"...

(Pic: Herstmonceaux Castle, East Sussex)

Monday, August 06, 2007


In the ideal world of an IT admin, all systems are hermetically sealed and nobody has access to nothing. This we found out when the resident geek of the college had decided to shut down the boat club website by removing ALL privileges (including browsing the site) from EVERYONE. When our new captain asked if he knew why the website was no longer running, he just said he had disabled all access to it. Without explaining why, he decided to re-enable the necessary access.

Yesterday I came back to the UK for a conference, and to pick up the rest of my articles and materials from the faculty. As I needed to do some work for the conference which starts today, I decided to cycle down in the evening. I wasn't too happy that after only 5 days of absence, I no longer had access to the faculty, as our IT dude had shown initiative and removed the access all areas 24/7 -status and I now couldn't get past the front door.

So, I got up at 7 to work this morning instead. And the desk I had previously occupied, and then emptied so that someone could work there, is now taken over by IT-junk. It now houses yet another of his setting-up projects that usually take weeks if not months. I no longer care, the only thing that matters is that he reinstates my access as I will need to get in and out next weekend.

There's much to write about Finland, the new job and the new flat, but I'll do that later, as I now am in a hurry to finish my stuff thanks to yesterday's waste of time.