Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Winners and losers

Actually, I missed at least two elections last weekend, because there was the first round of presidential election in Slovenia, as the father of the nation Drnovsek is now stepping down after 15 years of service. They'll need another round in November as nobode got more than half of the vote, but Lojze Peterle from centre-right is holding the lead at the moment.

Turkey was also voting with regards to the president, but at this point just trying to figure out what would be the best way to elect one. Currently the parliament elects the president, but in the referendum the majority of the people said they wanted a direct election. There has been a lot of controversy about this lately, as the current holder of the post, Abdullah Gül is from an islamist party which some think is a threat to the separation of state and religion in Turkey.

But, a recap of results. In Switzerland the Swiss People's Party increased their majority with that racist campaign of theirs (which they said wasn't racist), which indicates a further hardening of values in the confederation. I think it is notable that under half of the voters turned out to vote, as people are used to voting for the issues directly in referendums, rather than having all the eggs in one basket when voting for people to govern.

In Åland, the liberal party that had been in the opposition took a landslide victory and will assume power from the social democrats. The issues were "internal", having to do with how they felt the previous administration had governed, rather than being "external" or having much to do with the autonomy. The party promoting full independence failed to increase their share of the votes.

And in Poland, great result. The opposition took a magnificent victory, lead by the new star of the Civic Platform party and probably future prime minister, Donald Tusk. He smashed the arrogant Kaczynski in the final TV-debate and is now leading Poland back to light. The EU-leaders welcomed the change, as did business and many others.

Finally China. Hu Jintao seems to have been successful in his planning, as his candidates have enjoyed good success in the conference. Power is being handed to a younger generation. I wonder if this means that the pace of political change in China is now getting faster, or will it just mean that openness and democracy will now be one generation further away. So far the growing middle class of China has been happy with the growing prosperity and they haven't been too worried about democracy. This might change as more and more people are getting their material needs fulfilled. On the other hand, the middle class is not very likely to revolt, so the change is more likely to be a gradual one. China really is an amazing, and amazingly huge country, and I have to admit I know precious little about it. This needs to change.

(Pic: Donald Tusk; AFP via BBC)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Election day

Today's an interesting day for someone who likes politics. Elections are the concrete acts of democracy, the moment where most literally the power is at people's hands.

Today Åland elects their regional parliament. Usually nothing that happens in this autonomic region is talked about in the Finnish news, unless it happens to have something to do with shipping news or potato chips. Or lately football. But politics? Not really.

This time there has been some discussion about the campaigns, as a group that promotes Åland's full independence has managed to bring the issue of autonomy on the agenda. They are a very small force but have managed to force other parties to discuss what the relationship between Finland and Åland should be. Although full independence probably isn't what the majority of Åland wants, the discussion has been electrified.

Not nearly as electrified as in Switzerland, though. The Swiss federation has been known as the cradle of political consensus. Everyone more or less agrees on things, apart from the small bunch of communist students who focus on squatting and demonstrations rather than party politics and elections. The parties all form a government together and manage the alpine country to a few more years of economic prosperity until the next election. Things have been different this time.

The right wing Swiss People's Party shocked with their openly racist campaign. That has stirred the whole nation usually known for their tolerance and especially the 20% of the population who are of foreign origin.

Tolerance and intolerance are being on the agenda in Poland, as well. (See all these fancy associations and bridges of thought from one country to another?) They'd be called the three stooges but luckily there are only two of them. The Kaczynski Brothers have in a very short time managed to get most of Europe to hope for the loss of their Law and Justice Party in today's parliamentary elections. One of the two, and forgive me for forgetting which one, Jaroslavl or Lech, is the president and of course will remain in power after today, but the other might lose his seat as the prime minister.

The K-bros are known for their very destructive negotiation tactics in the EU. The essence of them can be summarised as "give us what we want or we stall everything". Now, unfortunately this isn't very different from how most other European leaders see European politics these days, but it is perhaps the most extreme and open version of it. I have to say that justifying your political actions or demands in the EU today with what happened in the WWII is simply tasteless and too much.

The Catholic conservatism of the Law and Justice party has also become a concern. Now, I'm not trying to say everyone needs to be very liberal on everything (although I tend to be), but as EU and all its members have already banned capital punishment, for human rights reasons, it would seem silly for someone to block the initiative to name a day to commemorate the issue. And yet, the K-Bros did.

(I have to apologise in advance because the last link and of association is so clumsy...) Perhaps they would like to see Poland and the EU to develop to be more like China, where they just won't tolerate any of that woolly liberal nonsense. And yes, China is the last stop of this globetrotting tour of elections. Typically for China, these elections are a bit different from the others. This time it isn't the people voting, but the Communist Party is electing members for the central committee. The importance of this is that it is the first party meeting that the current president Hu Jintao has organised and thus it is the first time he can make his mark on the ideology, programme and lineup of the party and its main organs.

In his speeches he has outlined his objectives for "harmonic development" of China. He has mentioned the environment, he has mentioned the poorest people, he has mentioned the rural areas. All have suffered greatly during the last 10 or so years when China has opened up for business and underwent massive redevelopment, concentration of population into cities. The environmental and human cost has been massive. It remans to be seen how much of all this is just rhetorics and how much will actually change. In a proper democracy with free speech and freedom of information this would be easy to measure and see, but as mentioned, China is different. At least the elections are going Hu's way, as the vice president Zeng Qinghong did not get re-elected to the central committee and has to step down. He was one of the "old guard" who was there to make sure things don't change too fast with the new president. Hu is now getting rid of these chaperons and staffing the strategically important offices with people loyal to him.

I'm already planning to have a long coffee break tomorrow morning, after the lecture, to read through all the news from all these elections.

(Pic: Swiss People's Party's brain fart for election poster. Not racist, they say. Via viewimages.com)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Information R/evolution

One more... And to this topic I will return shortly.

Digital Ethnography II

...then check this out. There's some pretty cool stuff coming from Kansas, or the KSU more specifically. I saw one of the earlier versions of the other clip some months back and was very impressed. I might have even posted it here, but here it is again.

I think it summarises what Web 2.0 is about, if it can be about anything. I've sometimes summarised it as being about those plasticky-looking 3d-kind of logos and ways of getting addicted that are even worse than Tetris.

But of course prof. Wesch is right, it's about the separation of form and content, and the processes and interactions that this facilitates. I like the questions he poses in the end, or the topics he claims needing a rethink. Copyright and ownership are the ones we read about in papers (on and off-line), simply because so much money is at stake. And because most of the copyright law is based on manufacturing and selling physical items and therefore fundamentally out of date.

To me, the most interesting aspects of this current shift is the way we now CAN rethink community, social interaction, collaboration, friendship and what being neighbours or colleagues means. There's no doubt that We(b) ha(s/ve) been changed for good, and if there ever was need for doing ethnographic work it is now, and the web is the place where to do it. Market researchers of course have been there, but they are looking at different things and aren't usually keen to publish their results. It is often said that great research isn't so much about producing great answers, it's more about asking the right questions. I think prof. Wesch and his students are asking all the right questions and I'm very interested in hearing what their results will be like.

I have a couple of students who are interested in these kinds of issues. I was trying to gently push them towards asking these kinds of questions, and again, it will be interesting to see what will come up.

A journalist who visited Google HQ and stood there at the lobby watching the ticker that displays a selection of latest search terms entered to Google, wrote that it was like watching the global consciousness flow past your eyes. Can't remember where the quote is from, or the exact wording of it, but the idea got stuck. To understand humans, you must understand their social mind. And it is now being displayed online, using Web 2.0 tools.

And if I now promise to write more about this later, I possibly will. But first I'll play some Tetris.

Digital Ethnography

Watch this first...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Europe on the rise?

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry goes to Gerhard Ertl. I know precious little about Chemistry, and not much more about Medicine or Physics, but it has been interesting to see how Europeans are scooping the awards this year. Ertl is German and works at the MPG in Berlin, the Physics prize was shared between Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, who work in France and Germany, respectively. Americans have been successful only in the Medicine prize so far, two out of three laureates are working in American universities, the third being based in Cardiff.

Why do I care? Well, looking at the list of laureates from recent years, the US universities have dominated. Last year, all the laureates in sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Economics) were Americans, working at US universities. And that's been the trend, people might be from where ever, but at the time of the award they'd probably be working at US universities.

Even if the award is personal, it is seen also as an award to the institution, and the institution undoubtedly reaps some of the indirect benefits of the prize; as publicity, better candidates for students and staff, also points in rankings and weight within the field. Now these benefits are coming to Europe, and they are also indicators that you can get to the very top of science in Europe as well, you don't need to go West to be able to do that.

Of course, the pinch of salt is that still, looking at the recent laureates, a couple of more "European years" would be needed to change the balance at all. Also, all the laureates are from European heavy-weight countries and institutions, and making conclusions about Europe in general might be a step too far. Also, we can't say that these awards are now results of the integration and rather ambitious science policy that the European countries have made lately, largely with EU funding, or that this now shows that the competitiveness-issue is solved. But it can be seen as a positive signal and as these prizes always, an inspiration.

(Pic: the Nobel medal)

Monday, October 08, 2007


Everyone agrees that climate change is happening and that we need to do something about it. It has taken a while to get to this level of awareness, but of course the real issue now is to decide what to do. Of course, to carry out these plans seems to be another thing again.

In a recent report, Finland ranked 36th in CCPI, or Climate Change Performance Index. This index measures trends in CO2 emissions (50% of the index), actual emission levels (30%) and climate policy (20%). Finland is cosily situated between Algeria and Belarus, and far behind the leaders Sweden and the UK. Being used to being on top of various indices, this came as a shock to many Finns. I think people genuinely believe we've done a lot already and do well, or that we are an ecological nation because we have lots of forests.

I think we have very high thoughts about ourselves. Usually Finns (as a nation) are blamed for low self-esteem, but I think that's nowadays just a myth we like to perpetuate as it serves us well to offset the newly found arrogance and self-righteousness. Unfortunately self-image isn't a good substitute for researched truth. Another recent study ranked Helsinki as the top city for culture in Europe, according to opinions of inhabitants themselves. Now, there's a lot of good culture going on in Helsinki, but I think the result tells more about people than cultural activities if people in Helsinki give their city a higher rating than people in Paris, Berlin, or Rome give to theirs.

I'm sure that Finland would top all the charts if the CCPI would be based on interviews and opinions. Luckily it isn't, and luckily there are hard facts to show that we are not doing enough, in fact we are doing precious little, and things can't go on like this.

Finns are good at making excuses, and almost as good at coming up with reasons to not change anything as the Brits are (things have moved forward in the UK in this front, which gives a lot of hope for the rest of us). As a response to the CCPI, the prime minister said that the discussion about energy production and our energy choices needs to shift from just talking about price to talking about the impact to the environment and climate change. Spot on. I was positively surprised to see him take this stand so clearly. And not surprised at all to see that it took about 3 minutes for the National Coalition Party (the other big party in the government) to chime in and say that of course price is important, as well. For Pete's sake, of course. It just can not be the ONLY criteria or the only factor any more.

And how about light bulbs. I'm surprised that Finland, so proud of it's engineering and so dependent on artificial lighting for most of the year hasn't already moved on to better and more efficient ways of producing light. I can't see what's so good about producing light with an inefficient heating device that eats a lot of electricity, is so fragile and even in the best scenario needs to be replaced every year. Yet, as a suggestion to "ban the bulb" was made in the parliament, people were flocking to praise the bulb, how it is not that inefficient, how the light is of better colour, how the fluorescent bulbs are not suitable for every single lamp, how they take almost a minute to light up properly, and how they are expensive and that they are hazardous waste due to the mercury in them. In short, all sorts of excuses for not changing anything were made. I don't think a ban would work as well as taxing the bulb would, but talking about is a great way to speed up the change and bring this to people's attention, and to involve the legislative and executive machinery into looking into this thing.

Some people have lost all sense of proportion in this discussion. Some have even provided calculations about how the money saved from replacing the bulbs with mini-fluorescents would be wasted on having to turn up the heating. Some of these people are engineers. Surely they should be the first ones to say that it is not that smart to heat your house with a 40W light source that is at the ceiling. Something about warm air moving up, something about purpose-built devices vs. unplanned side-effects? Something about apartments being too hot as it is? Something about being able to save a lot of energy by changing something small and relatively insignificant? Since when did the current state of affairs, heating houses with short-lived lightbulbs become the norm and ideal state?

I thought the Americans were the only ones who'd get deeply offended by any suggestions to having to change their way of life because it is unsustainable.

I'm not even going to start about traffic or how having long distances in Lapland justifies planning the communities in densely populated cities around everyone using their own cars. It's another story.

(Pic: cleansweepsupply.com)

Sunday, October 07, 2007


I wrote about user comments on newspaper websites, blogs, and YouTube a while ago. The clip is a very funny take on the issue by CollegeHumour.com.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


I made an interesting discovery today. My handwriting is different depending on which language I'm using. It's much neater and more organised in English, while when I'm writing in Finnish I tend to be all over the place and much more variable in general.

I noticed this today as I was first writing stuff for a webpage in a cafe, and right after that taking notes on a lecture that was in English. The website is about the stuff I teach, so there were a number of English words in the sketch I had written, and they seem to be written with better handwriting than the rest of the stuff that's in Finnish.

Strange. Why is it like this? Does everyone have different handwriting styles for different languages? It would make sense, in a way. Language is a holistic thing, it's not just a code you use, but a set of cultural and gestural norms and conventions. And you don't even need to go as far as think about the embodied nature of cognition and how people often interact socially very differently depending on which language they are using, which set of cultural conventions they are playing with.

This can be a simpler thing. Much of the skill of writing by hand is to get better in writing combinations of letters or words with one fluid movement. We rarely think about individual letters when writing, rather whole syllables or words. And as transition probabilities from one letter to another differ from language to language, the path that the pen takes differ as well, the combinations of letters, typical syllables that are learned well, occur less often in another language, there might be combinations that are in direct conflict with what we are used to. It is easy to see that when the transformation of ideas in mind to letters on paper is unobstructed and automatic in one language, in another the hand might be prone to do one thing while the mind is trying to do something else. And we know that if we need to consciously interfere with things we normally do automatically, we are in trouble. I remember when I was learning new pieces on the piano, I could perhaps play them by heart rather well, but only when I wasn't paying any attention to what I was doing. And if I started thinking about it, or actually listen to what I was playing, I couldn't sometimes even remember how the piece begins.

Why English, though? Years spent in Finland still lead by 28 to 4 over years spent in England, and surely I've written reams and reams more in Finnish than in English. I do admit, that my handwriting is very variable anyway, I write differently on different days. But I want to think that there is a pattern. Maybe it's the same thing as with spelling. Having had to pay so much attention to something develops the skill. There's of course the recency effect, as well. At the moment, I'm more used to functioning in English than in Finnish.

I noticed this also tonight when having dinner with the keynote speakers and guests of the weekend's conference. Having a dinner and socialising in English was very comfortable, it felt relaxing in some way, not just because I do like social events and dinners at nice restaurants (especially when someone else is paying for them) but also because I haven't been able to speak English for a while. Writing isn't the same, it doesn't quite fill the "need". As I said, there's this thing about gestures, interaction, the whole shebang. Even identity, I suppose. And probably the linguistic context amplifies certain features of our personality while damping others.

A quick search didn't find any work on handwriting and second language, but I'm sure there's stuff done on this. There is a lot of work going on in bilingualism and how that works cognitively, and of course the whole second language acquisition -field has looked at things way beyond learning the words and grammar, so they might know about this as well. I wonder if it goes with typing as well? Do I make more mistakes when typing in Finnish than when typing in English? Which one is more comfortable to do, which one's faster? I don't know, really. And now that I'm conscious about the question, I'm probably too aware to ever notice.

I know that I do sometimes "autofill" words, sort of complete them after the first two letters or so, and this happens when my conscious mind is wondering how to continue the sentence. The funny thing is that these autofilled words have nothing to do with the text, they just naturally follow from the letters in the beginning. Just to illustrate this, an imaginary example. I could be writing "And I was walking in the forest that mo...." and then stop in my mind to wonder if I should write "day" instead of morning, and my fingers would autofill the word to "money". This is an imaginary example, but I've noticed this kind of thing happening a couple of times, and found myself adding suffixes like "-ious" to words that didn't really need them. If I were psychoanalytically inclined, I'd probably see the work of Id here, but I'm not and so I think it's just an overlearned motor pattern. This happens when I'm tired and typing in English (so pretty much all the time) but whether it happens in Finnish as well, and whether Finnish words are autofilled with English, I don't know, but I'm eager to find out.

As you can see, I welcome any motivation I can scrape together to write these damn websites. And also seize every opportunity to procrastinate and browse article databases instead.

(Pic: www.emergingimage.net BTW, I think graphology is rubbish)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Mental coffee

Take a bunch of wet fish, scream and slap me on the face with it. That's Monday morning with an 8 o'clock lecture, with you having to wake up early to make it to the office first to copy-paste some pictures and slides to your presentation from another computer.

This morning was pretty hard core, I had massively slept in on Sunday, probably to offset some earlier lack of sleep. So, unsurprisingly, if you wake up at 1 in the afternoon on Sunday, you are not going to get to sleep very early. And then getting up at 6 blah blah was just... well, like having someone slap you in the face with a wet bunch of fish and screaming.

The morning looked amazing, though. There was this fog, surrounding the trees, lampposts and benches in the park. The lamps were still on and the fog was moving, it's colour changing as it was poledancing around the lampposts. It was crawling in between the branches of the yellow and red trees, flowing downhill towards the lake on the wet, black street.

After a shower, shave, and a quick breakfast and a cup of too weak coffee I still was in no condition to give a lecture. I had been undecided and kept reshuffling the content around, and definitely wasn't sure on how I was going to make it, as I didn't have a clear idea of my talk in my mind. Heck, I didn't have a clear idea in my mind fill stop.

This is where my Mac gave me a hand. The feature is supposed to exist in PC:s as well, but it is so complicated to set up that it might as well not be there. In Macs it works automatically. This is the Presenter's Tools -option in PowerPoint. This allows you to see the slide, your notes and the thumbnails of all your slides, while the audience sees the current slide on full screen. There is also a large clock on the screen, helping you keep time. Have I ever been more grateful for a feature? This really boosted the coherence of my talk, not necessarily to great heights, but at least a bit. It's no miracle worker but things could have been MUCH worse this morning.

I need to share this with you. I wrote about the difficulty of establishing active participation and proper communication at the lectures, and today's lecture was actually pretty good in those terms. There was one particular contribution that made my day. I asked people to think about different functions of music, what does music do. And one guy said, music is "mental coffee". It picks you up, stimulates you, gets your juices flowing.

Spot on.