Friday, December 05, 2008

Korean drummer takes the show

My favourite bit comes at around the 3 minute mark... :)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Synchronized Debating - both candidates seem to be pro-recycling

So, they have their stump speeches and favourite verses that they keep recycling... Very funny. I have to say, I'm a bit mixed up with these elections, I'm watching the 7th season of West Wing at the same time as these real election news, and not sure whether it's Obama vs. Vinick or Santos vs. McCain or what? :)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Marathon de Paris

I'm not sure if this was a good idea. However, sometimes the act first, ask questions later -strategy is the best one. So I signed up for the Paris marathon. It's in April, so there's plenty of time to get in shape - weather permitting. I think that (in addition to time limitations due to work etc.) the biggest obstacle is that the winter can be a difficult time for running practice. If the winter is good, there's skiing which is as good if not better than running, but if it is just wet and cold (like last year) it will be hard to get all the necessary training done.

Anyway, the idea of running through the centre of Paris, from Champs-Élysées through Jardin des Tuileries, La Louvre, a loop in Bois de Vincennes, then back on the bank of the Seine, by the Eiffel tower, to a final loop in the Bois de Boulogne captured my imagination. With Paris being one of my favourite cities, a city where I've always felt at home, seems like a good place to start running marathons.

Monday, October 13, 2008


First of all, congratulations to president Ahtisaari for the well-deserved Nobel peace prize. The list of his successes is long and impressive, ranging from Namibia to Kosovo and Aceh. The one aspect of his work that epitomises his qualities as a statesman is the work he has done in building the international infrastructure for crisis management and resolution. In this work he has provided many young people the chance to learn international cooperation at a top level.

Then, from the Italian to the English pace. I'm slow. Way too slow. Lately, everything has taken me ages. To write an email, to decide which article to use as course reading, to formulate the essay question... It's all process writing for me, even a simple note. Writing involves pauses, drafts, redrafts and leaving the work for a while, then coming back with fresh thoughts (ha!). And anything, even when done in a focused fashion takes a lot of time, just like the poster I just finished which took literally all night to put together. Looking at the finished product, I really can't say where all that time went. It's not that special, au contraire.

Every book has its own pace. I think I've written about that before. Thrillers, the Grisham or Clancy -type of affair needs to be read quickly, you get physically pumped up not just from the unrelenting pace of events, but also the speed at which you race through the plot, your mind's eye rushed along on a dolly from fight scene to the car chase. Then others slow down time, and slow down your reading speed as well. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a good example of this genre of books.

At the moment, something slows down my writing all the time. It's like wading in a pool of jelly and is very annoying because I have a lot to do and so work keeps accumulating faster than I clear it from my desk. Hmm. Maybe it's the long distance running, my resting heart rate is now slower than it was a few months ago? Not enough/too much caffeine/sleep/chocolate? Or perhaps it's the autumn, cold weather and growing darkness? Perhaps it's just laziness or lack of focus. I don't know, but it's annoying, as it's not even good and proper procrastination, just everything happening in slow motion.

I need to wake up.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Here's how to make a valve or a vacuum tube. Very hypnotic. These valves can be used as electronic amplifiers and do the same thing as transistors nowadays. But way, way cooler.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Running as social activity

Long distance running is a solitary pursuit. It suits people who are solemn and serious and like to spend a lot of time alone.

I suppose that's the usual view of it, or at any rate the view I used to have about it. It didn't stop me from taking up long distance running, as I pretty much see those as positive things, but I've discovered it's only a part of the picture.

The most obvious manifestations of the social nature of running are the mass marathons. The biggest ones draw tens of thousands of runners, and even the small, local event I took part in the weekend had 2500 participants. Add to this the friends and family members that show up to cheer for the runners and you have a big crowd, and a big event. And in the events, there are the locker room chats and mass warm-ups, the nervous jokes on the starting line and of course the comparisons of experiences afterwards.

Of course, there are now many online forums (fora?) and services for runners that create communities of runners. People share training tips, experiences, race information and just hang out. The proliferation of GPS-trackers and other performance monitors has created a new family of services, where you can keep track of your training online. All the data gathered during your run, your heart rates, speed, course, cadence etc. are logged to an online journal that you can then share with others. And people find others to run with, which is convenient for keeping your motivation up between races.

The feeling of community stretches beyond all boundaries. Running is hugely popular and there are runners everywhere. And when you meet, your shared identity transcends all the differences. This became very clear when I was running in Sapporo, where I otherwise felt very alien, and then came across this other dude who was jogging. There was this quick "hi there" when we passed each other, but there was also this moment of connection that I hadn't felt in days. We both knew what we were going through and was we were about at that moment.

So most importantly, there's the experience of running together, and that's of course amplified when running together with a horde of people. As you push through the kilometres you are inadvertently syncing your pace and even your steps with those running around you. And syncing steps has pretty much the same function as dancing or playing music together. Pushing the boundaries of your endurance together with others is a strongly meaningful experience.

The field of social psychology was in a way started by observations that cyclists would go faster when there was an audience - record times were seldom broken in practice, but often in races. This social facilitation (and it's opposite, social inhibition) was later studied in experimental manner, and the tradition still lives on in much of social psychology (study of social anxiety, groupthink, team dynamics etc.) .

I do enjoy the quiet me-time I get on a long run, though.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Just a quick note, finished the half marathon in just over 2 hours (haven't checked the exact time but was probably 2:03 - 2:04 or thereabouts. I'm very happy about the time. My initial aim was to go under 2 hours, but considering the last three weeks, this was very good.

The event was very well organised and there was a great atmosphere among the runners and also lots of people cheering along the route. This was my first mass run, but definitely not the last one.

Pizza has never tasted this good! :)


Whenever possible (and unfortunately in the teaching job I do, that's not often the case), I like to follow the modified version of the scouts' motto: Be overprepared.

The half marathon is today, in the afternoon, and I'm feeling very underprepared. My training programme was shattered to pieces about three weeks ago, and so I will start today without any other targets but to complete the distance.

Having to travel to conferences, cross six time zones twice was already a bit difficult, as a jet lag tends to make all activities feel unappealing, except for sleeping. And of course all the hassle that goes with starting a new academic year has taken quite a lot of my energy, and as I've felt a bit ill as well, I've decided to just try to get better rather than force myself to run.

So, although you're supposed to lighten the training before the race, my training has been seriously underweight. Nevertheless, I'm really looking forward to the race.

It's going to be a great social event, and as half marry isn't an extreme distance, I think I'll just go with the flow, enjoy the early autumn by the lake (trees are starting to get their yellow and red colours) and get that first big race under my belt.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


OK, I think it's about time to end the blogging break...

The summer didn't really leave a mark in any way, and now it seems to be gone. A new academic year is just around the corner and an unimpressive summer weather seems to have turned to autumn, at least judging by the amounts of rain.

But enough of the weather, greetings from Sapporo, where I'm on a one week conference trip. It's been great, the standard of the talks and posters is very high. There have been very few disappointments in terms of the content, and in a true Japanese style, the organisation has left nothing to be desired.

Of course the flight over here plus the jetlag that ensued were taking their toll for the first three days or so, but somehow the social and scientific buzz have helped to get through the days. It's always great to meet friends and colleagues, meet new people and hear about their research.

And since we are in Japan, food is of course great. I'm a fan of sushi, to use the generic term, and like other Japanese food as well. And of course, the food not only tastes divine, but looks good as well, is often served in nice surroundings. The way the food is served one mouthful at a time slows down your pace of eating, which is also a good thing.

However, in a conference with 400 guests, dinners are also always a bit of a hassle. You decide to have dinner with someone, and so they ask if person 3 can come as well, as they've already agreed. Ok. So, person 3 then brings their colleagues 4, 5 and 6, as they happened to be there. Once you try to decide where to go and when, 7 comes by and says he knows a place, and that he's going with "someone" and they wouldn't mind us tagging along. Then it turns out, that "someone" was actually diners 8-16.

There are other issues with eating out, though. I only speak about three words of Japanese, or four if you count "thank you" and "thank you very much" as two different words. And since I can't read their writing either, I'm feeling more lost than in a long time. Dictionary doesn't help, as it is impossible to find the word that you don't know. A phrase book is handy, because then you can actually ask the right questions. Not understanding the answer is of course another problem. Also, my phrase book is a pocket version and doesn't come with useful questions such as "although there are 16 of us, we can of course sit in three or four separate tables" or "what is the difference between the 1000 yen and 1500 yen drinks packs that you can include in the menu", or even "excuse me, can you help me find the correct box where I've left my shoes".

But, with sign language, pointing to pictures in menus, making various animal sounds, and with a generous helping of patience from behalf of the waiters we've managed to have great food almost every evening.

But at some point it gets tiring. The conference runs from 8.30 in the morning to 7 in the evening, and after that three hours of light dinner is quite a lot. So, today I decided to switch to antisocial mode. When the program ended (a bit early today, so that people could go and visit sake factories and tearooms and go shopping) I went for a long run. After coming back to the hotel (hoteru in pseudo-Japanese, my 4.5th word), I decided to have a Japanese evening in my room.

That consisted of getting a burger from the Mos Burger next door (they say in the sign that they are Japanese burgers), a Sapporo beer and Häagen Dasz green tea ice cream from the convenience store and watching Japanese major league baseball on TV. Thoroughly Japanese experience, then. Very relaxing, setting me up well for the remaining two days of intensive networking and then the three flights home on Sunday.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

One month to go

I just realised that the half marathon is now exactly one month away. Or, in a month's time, I'll be recovering and healing sore feet, hopefully after completing the first running race I take part since the third grade.

Training is going OK. There have been weeks when I haven't been able to do the 4-5 runs I've planned, but as I don't really have any other goals than to finish, that's not too bad.

Well, in a week I'll take off to the training camp in Japan (otherwise known as a conference), while our professors are conspiring to wreck the penultimate training week by planning a trip to Belgium for me.

What this month-or-so of training has shown, running with a specific goal in mind makes it more interesting and increases motivation. Having a training program with different kinds of training sessions (intervals, speed endurance, fartlek, basic endurance) provides the required variability that will keep monotony at bay.

One month to go, so far so good. The route was published today, one and a half laps around the lake, using the new and still partly in-progress scenic route for pedestrians and bikes. The route is very popular, and every evening there's a good number of runners, walkers, nordic walkers, inline skaters, skikkers, cyclists and dog walkers, enjoying the lake and the exercise.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nerdy but funny

Summer in the office - time to finally do things. And as we know, procrastination expands to fill in most of the empty space.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Half marathon in September

Last year has been horrible in terms of physical activity. Back in Cambridge I at least had the 2*20 minutes cycling to work and back to keep me going, even though I had already stopped training actively with the boat club. Here, I live practically next door to work, and so I get virtually no exercise as a part of the day-to-day routines.

There are many excuses and real reasons why I've been a couch potato, mainly the horrible winter (just sleet and slosh, making both running and skiing unpleasant if not impossible) and the workload, but in the end it is always simply about motivation (or lack thereof).

And this is where I start to feel stupid. I know for a fact that I feel better and have more energy when I exercise regularly. It is also very important for my health, as it helps control my blood sugar (and keep my diabetes in check). I also like it. So, the motivation should be there, but this time I didn't want to leave it to that, but wanted to have a clear goal towards which I could work.

And so I signed up for a half marathon in September. I feel that marathon would have been too much, but that this 21 kilometre race would be survivable. Back in the day when I was properly fit, I actually tried to sign up for one already, but the Bristol half marry was fully booked and so I had to give it a miss. This would be the longest continuous run I've done, but it's not that much of a stretch. I've done runs that are well over 10 kilometres and feel confident that I could run for the 2 hours this would take. The only question is my current poor shape.

But, according to the numerous running websites and automatic training program generators, the goal is realistic. To get started, I used this generator to give me a training program that would take me from where I think I am at the moment (it's difficult to estimate how fast I could run now or for how long) to sub-2 hour half marathon in 10 weeks.

A quick tour to web forums and running sites will tell you that the key to running marathons or other long distance races (half marathons are often classified as "short distances") is to practice "long runs". The definition of "long" depends on your condition and training phase. The key point of this is that speed or distance travelled is secondary, you just have to keep going for a given time. This could be hours, for a beginner like me it starts with 70 minutes.

So I did my first long run this Saturday. I had done a few shorter runs earlier in the week, but was a bit nervous about this one. Armed with an iPod, heart rate monitor and energy gel I headed off. I was trying to keep my heart rate relatively low, as you should, basically so that you prevent lactic acid from building up in your muscles (the science of endurance sports and the scientific approach to training is a big part of this scene, and probably the reason why it attracts so many geeks, such as myself).

I could feel my legs getting tired, just because I'm not used to such sustained activity, but in the end it went well and of course the endorfine rush afterwards was a great reward. I plotted the path on Google Earth (yes, this is a part of the geekiness of it) and it showed that I had covered almost exactly 11 km. A good start. Next week's long run will be 10 minutes longer, the next one 10 minutes longer than that, etc. Watch this space...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cops and Idiots

So, I made my first ever call to emergency services yesterday.

I was watching TV in the evening (quite late), when I heard someone yell "Help, police" from the park outside. The park is a venue for teenager get-togethers and there's quite a lot of noise there especially in weekend evenings. Yesterday as well, it was a warm night and there was a group of people drumming etc. (damn hippies, Cartman would say). When the guy yelled "Help, police" again, this time at the top of his voice, I went to the window and tried to figure out what's going on. There were about half a dozen kids, clearly drunk, and it was very hard to tell what they were doing, they were sort of circling each other as if they were about to start a fight or something, I couldn't tell if they were 5 against 1 or what. Anyway, I decided to call the police, although I thought it might have been just something yelled at a bout of drunken idiocy.

I tried to explain what was going on in the park to the dispatcher, admitted it was really difficult to see what exactly was happening but it didn't seem anyone was injured or in immediate danger. She said she'd ask a patrol to swing by. They came just under 10 minutes from the call, and the kids had already left the park. There was absolutely nobody there, I saw the police looking at the windows of our building, as if to see who had sent them there for nothing. They backed out of the park and left, for donuts or other dispatches, I don't know, but at that point I was really angry with the idiots in the park. Wasting everyone's time, worrying me and everyone else who heard their screams... Plus, of course we all know Aesop's story of the boy who cried wolf. I hate to admit it, but I'm afraid I might think twice next time someone screams for help and maybe waste valuable time trying to figure out if they really need help or if it is just horseplay.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Blue wings, white lies...

I flew to Edinburgh and back via Amsterdam, and on both occasions the departures from Schiphol were slightly delayed. This didn't really matter, as the delays weren't that long, but the reasons for the delays and what was told to the passengers were funny.

The Amsterdam-Edinburgh flight was flown with a small "City Hopper" jet, and so we all took a bus from the gate to the field where the youngling planes were herded together. We boarded (amazingly slowly given the small size of the plane) the Fokker that had been prepared for us, and then nothing happened. Fok.

Eventually the captain announced that we are waiting for some external equipment to help us start our engines, and we'll be off when it arrives, shouldn't be more than 5-10 minutes. He apologised for the delay and possible inconvenience, in that official tone that indicates it's not his fault and that he is making this apology for other people who also think these things just happen and are not that big a deal, while I dug in the New Yorker I had bought from the airport. In it, Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors writes how he started to run daily, without fail, when he was in my age. He had just sold his successful jazz club, moved to countryside and decided to become a writer. I had packed my running shoes, and while I was contemplating whether Jyväskylä counts as countryside and if running a jazz club could be a metaphor for a PhD, a van approached the plane and screeched to a halt next to it.

The insignia on the sides said "KLM Catering" and "Last Minute Deliveries". The driver opened the fridge door on the side of the van, took out a blue cardboard box that looked like a business class meal and rushed it up the steps. The air hostess received the box, paid for it with her smile, the driver gave her some change in the same currency, jumped into his car and sped away to make another delivery of external equipment to help start other airplanes' engines. The hostess knocked on the cockpit door to tell we're good to go, the engines were started and we taxied towards the runway.

On the way back, we flew grown-up planes, and so instead of the bus trip around the unisightly sights at the bowels of Schiphol airport, we got to do the usual anxious queuing inside a metal tube. The crew had problems in starting engines, and needed external equipment to get them going. This time, though, this involved being pulled back to the gate, lots of engineers and ground staff buzzing around the plane and various hisses and wails from the hydraulics of the plane. After 4 days in Edinburgh, one morning run and a jazz club later, I was reading reports of the latest cricket matches and eager to get home and back to writing.

(Pic: KLM MP3 player by
Shanghai Shininess Industrial Co. Ltd)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Back in Edinburgh

I'm in a student bar in Edinburgh, watching a football match and having a beer. It's all good.

I'm very excited to be back here. There are two (maybe three) cities that I somehow always feel at home in. Paris, Edinburgh and Helsinki. I really loved living in Cambridge, I really like it in Jyväskylä, growing up in Kuopio wasn't bad, and London is somehow at the same time terrifying, awful, and enchanting and absolutely wonderful. I like the wibes in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Don't like Rome or Brussels at all.

But, Edinburgh I like. And here I am again. And will keep coming back with every tiny excuse I get. This time I'm here for a good reason, there's a fascinating conference. Scientists, therapists, b-girls and b-boys... Really. What else could you need? :)

I'm also excited at the moment, because my college has done amazingly well in Bumps today. May Bumps are the main event of Cambridge college rowing, and my old club has shattered all previous club records today and really done everyone proud.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Corruption, correlation and causation

Transparency International has repeatedly ranked Finland as one of the least corrupt country in the world. The CPI ranking, or Corruption Perception Index, is based on interviews, and as it says in the name, perceptions, and so it is a somewhat subjective measure. At least the perception so far has been that Finns, and the Finnish political system in general, would be honest and fair. This perception is changing, as now, as The Dude would put it, new shit has come to light.

MP's have failed to report who has funded their campaigns, funders themselves have been hiding behind dodgy societies, neither seems to remember anything about the transactions that therefore had no effect, but still there seem to be very uncomfortable connections between the funders, the politicians, and some political decisions they are currently trying to make.

This reminds me of the cash for honours -scandal in the UK. Big party funders were given peerages and other privileges, in some cases as a direct compensation for substantive donations to party war chests. There was of course public outrage, heads rolled and rules were reformed. However, public perception was that there was nothing new here (see Yes, Minister & Yes, Prime Minister, any episode), it had just grown to be so ugly, unashamed and disgusting that it was therefore time to put an end to it. But, as the British are extremely cynical about their politicians, these "breaking news" were just confirming what they knew already - the system is rotten, everyone is there for their personal benefit, all politicians are corrupt and the country is run by tycoons.

I don't think the conclusions would go quite as far in the Finnish case, if not for anything else, because the sums are considerably smaller. In the UK, the sums donated were millions of pounds, in Finland the largest individual donation was 20 000 euros, although the totals for some of these groups are in the hundreds of thousands.

The discussion is now taking a rather unfortunate non-analytical turn. As is often the case, things get confusing, and some people confuse things deliberately. Is the political system in crisis, as the prime minister has said? No, the system isn't, but his government is. Several MP's, both government and opposition are. Mr. Vanhanen deliberately muddles things up and tries to hide behind his office, but the fact is that the rules have been there, the legislation has been at place already, and these individuals (en masse, unfortunately) just have failed to respect the spirit of the law, and in many cases even broke the letter of the law. It's all fine for them to now blame the unclear rules and try save faces by proposing changes, while amending their dodgy declarations, but they shouldn't get away with just that.

Any trust-issues the Finnish people might have about politics as a result of this, are not generally about the Finnish constitution or the offices it describes, but about these idiots who claim they don't have a clue who paid for 1/4 of their campaign and expect people to believe them. Similarly, nobody lost their belief in Finnish business because this bunch of "fundamentalist entrepreneurs" now claim they don't know who got the hundreds of thousands of euros they donated and to which they expect no return.

That's one thing, the other of course is, whether funding political campaigns is corrupt in every case. The issue here is pretty much the same as in the question of correlation vs. causation. It's understandable that businesses or labour unions want to see that the candidates that share their views do well in elections. In the "ideal" scenario, politicians have their opinions first, and funding follows, because someone with money likes those opinions. In the cynical scenario, receiving funding changes the politician's opinions to those of his/her funders. In both cases, there's a correlation between receiving funding from an interest group and having opinions that they like. The direction of causation is the key element that separates democratic fair play from rotten corruption.

Whether either extreme exists in the real world, I'm not sure. There is probably a continuum there, and many politicians today seem to dwell in that gray area in between. But, something close to the ideal scenario exists and it can even be seen as an important part of democracy (as a guard of marginal, and why not even mainstream interests). Therefore rules (and enforcement of them) are needed, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to set a limit to how much money a candidate can get from a single donor, and a total limit should be considered as well. And, as a precautionary measure to tackle future ignorance and amnesia, politicians and donors should be forced to keep better minutes of their campaign funding and spending.

The Finnish political system with strong corporations and interconnections between politicians and special interests isn't necessarily corrupt in the sense that, say, Somalia (179th, or last in the TI CPI), Albania (105th) or even Italy (41st) are, but it isn't spotless clean, and definitely it doesn't seem to be all that transparent, either. That's something that should be reflected in the next CPI. If Finland falls from its joined first spot, it doesn't mean we've suddenly changed to be more corrupt, it's because we're finally starting to take a good look into how the decision-making here actually works.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reality check

What is real?

It's a deep philosophical question, and while for Plato or Descartes the question was whether they could trust their senses or not, for us the issue is further complicated by all things virtual.

If I'm having a conversation with someone about politics in an online forum, is s/he real? Are her opinions real, is the conversation real? How about the conclusions? Have we really agreed? Or has my nickname agreed with someone else's avatar? Have we communicated, if communication is psychologically defined as aligning each other's cognitive states?

It's well known that especially in anonymous forums (fora?) people take more extreme views and often play very exaggerated roles. Partly this is due to the low signal-to-noise -ratio in these boards, which means that everyone has to shout louder to be noticed, which in turn worsens the ratio etc. It's also common that people vent their frustrations and demonstrate their immaturity, or just deliberately sabotage conversations so that any conversation worth having falls apart relatively quickly. Bullying is very common, that of other board members, public figures, and more often whoever has online presence. Fat, thin, ugly, nerdy, odd, weird clothed, spotty, ethnic, poor, different... any of these apply to you, and you have posted your pic online to any social networking site, chances are someone has linked it somewhere with insulting comments, for other idiots to laugh at.

As if you're not a real person.

Would they do this to a person they know? Are they just cruel idiots or can they not tell the difference between reality and their virtual world? I'm not sure which answer is the more pessimistic, given the ubiquitousness of virtual presence and social interaction.

TV and papers are very good at blurring the borders of reality. The so-called reality shows are a big hit, but here reality means something different. Media tends to make virtual caricatures out of real people (sports personalities, politicians etc.) and real people out of fictional characters (soap stars: some papers write news stories about tragedies that happened in the show to the characters, as they would write about what happened to the actor) and the semi-fictional people in semi-reality shows are just a big mess anyway.

When people bring flowers to the cross-roads where a soap character had an accident with a tram and died in the show, why is that? Are we so fed up with reality that we need to pretend that the stories into which we like to escape for a while are actually true? Or, if our feelings for the character are real, why not express them as we would in real life? Nothing wrong with that?

Is that the reason why these reality shows are so popular? Because they claim they are true, their virtual world is closer to the real one and easier to sink into? Is that why the events and outcomes of these shows are so eagerly discussed in papers, speculation gets to epic proportions and everyone is supposed to have an opinion of these people?

Fundamentally, there's nothing new in any of this, of course. Storytelling, legends, songs, epics, and fantasies have always been an important part of being human. Our very ability for imagination is what sets us apart. We turn to fantasy for guidance, seek solace in stories, purpose in prose, emulate social interaction in songs, and all in all, need all this to keep our sanity. We can't turn the imagination-engine off, and so we need to constantly feed it.

Also, sports isn't real anymore, neither is music. Both arguably used to be, but we have chosen to pay for the pleasure of observing them and not do them ourselves. Sports heroes and pop stars (and the Royal families) live constantly in the Big Brother house, for us to criticise, vote, identify with and have feelings for. Newspapers write about them as if they were real, often forgetting that they are.

Our opinion of our colleague or neighbour is not necessarily any more real than our opinion of the runner-up in Amazing Race. Most people work with ideas and fantasies rather than bricks, mortar and other concrete things. And I don't necessarily have problems with more fantasy, it's the less reality -part of the equation that bugs me. If we only see each other as avatars or virtual characters, and if more and more people behave in public like they are in a first-person perspective video game, what will happen to the way we treat each other? If people talk about politics and look at politicians as if they are useless celebrities and tv-show characters from that soap opera they call the 20.30 news, what will happen to democracy?

And don't get me started on what's true and what isn't, or what's important and what isn't. :-)

Friday, May 02, 2008

East Germany

Unfortunately I left my camera cable at home, so I can't show you the Ossie-charm of my hotel room in Leipzig. The high point is the lonely cupboard with one (1) coffee cup and one (1) schnapps-glass. The view outside is also puzzling. Completely renovated jugend buildings alternate with derelict and abandoned ones. And then there are sprinklings of GDR-concrete here and there. And amidst the buildings, trees with budding leaves. The spring is about a month ahead of Finland.

So, Leipzig. Never been here before, didn't really know what to expect but it seems to be all here. And the hotel room is actually nice. The bathroom's been completely refurbed, along with most of the room and all the furniture, but there's some "gloom" under all this, sounds of past.

Our workshop and symposium starts tomorrow morning. The last two-three weeks have been riddled with technical difficulties and all sorts of obstacles, and so I needed to change my presentation plan. So, after promising so many times "never again", here I am again, still writing my presentation when the meeting is already about to start. Never again.

P.S. Oh, Deutsche Bahn is amazing. The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof is one of the most stunning buildings I've ever seen. No, absolutely the most stunning building I've seen. Inside, trains go criss cross in three levels, it's full of shops and restaurants and escalators and elevators and steel and glass... Stunning. I took the ICE, which was very comfortable. We briefly hit 200 km/h but most of the time we were rolling along at a leisurely 180 km/h across fields with forests of windmills. It takes an hour and 10 minutes to get from Berlin to Leipzig. I've also tried Berlin buses and Leipzig trams, along with Finnish trains and buses, so the day has been a public transport extravaganza. Oh, almost forgot, there was also the flight from Hki to Berlin. Rather not mention that, trains are much cooler.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Probably too difficult

If there is one theme which illustrates the need for formal research over "simple" common sense it is the theory of probability. It is ubiquitous, but difficult at best and counterintuitive at worst.

We like to see ourselves as basically rational beings, and the homo economicus that form the basis of most economical theories is supposed to be capable of making rational choices. Yet humans are mainly emotional, not rational beings. We use tools for our rational and logical needs, as we do most of our thinking and choosing with emotions.

The dichotomy between sense and sensibility, reason and emotion, is mostly a false one. It might work on paper and in folk psychology, but in order to understand the human mind it is a big mistake to pry the two apart. Emotions are quick and automatic reactions to changes in our environment and as such serve our survival. Sudden noises make us startle, infringements of our territory make us angry etc. Basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear) are physical states and tend to colour our perceptions. So-called secondary emotions (pride, jealousy...) are often called social emotions as they have to do with our relationships and attitudes towards others in our social environment. The ways in which we seek or avoid these emotions, the tendencies we have in feeling them form the basis for our personality. And cognition for that matter.

So, where is logic, where is reason, where is the "information processing" that the cognitive psychologists say we do all the time? Well, it's there of course, in that same mind-body. Again, even the most basic perceptional processes are about spotting patterns, regularities, similarities, structures - the building blocks of a "rational", logical and structured world view. Our perception is based on expectations that we can only cast in presence of regular, predictable structures. We get emotional satisfaction and pleasure out of symmetry, structure and regularity (and when these are violated within limits).

So if our emotions are logical and our reasoning emotional, where does it leave us? And what does probability have to do with it? Well, it means we are complicated and it is not easy to study us, especially if you start by leaving one half out of the equation, as psychologists often do. One example of this is the research on our rationality, which often entails making choices. The premise is that there is a "best choice" and we arrive at our choice after deliberation. The best choice is often defined as being the most likely to be beneficial, which means you need to understand probabilities to make that rational, correct choice.

I'm messing things a bit, I didn't mean to write about emotions but couldn't help it really. The original idea was to write about probabilities, as people generally fail in estimating the probabilities of different outcomes in even the simplest cases. Emotions crept in as I was trying to think what would explain these failures. And then I wanted to avoid the reason vs. emotion thing and it all got out of control.

Why do people take part in the lottery, even though the probability of winning is close to zero? The answer: they don't care about the probability as such. They know someone wins every week, and it could be them. And if they'd win, it would change their life completely and as the price of the ticket is low, why not take that chance. It's just a game...

OK. Although, when you start adding together the cost of lottery tickets over, say, 15 years, playing the game has actually prevented you from making some of the life improvements you've dreamed about. The casino always wins in the end, but the possibility for an individual player to win life-changing sums of money draws people in. Fairgrounds and markets have always been full of games where the odds are against the player, and internet has brought a new surge of these systems, some of them legal, some illegal.

They share two things: first, they appeal to you emotionally to get you involved; second, they rely on your poor sense of probabilities to damp the voice of reason telling you not to play.

Probabilities are hairy. Imagine you are flipping a coin. Nine times in a row you get heads. What's the probability that the tenth flip produces heads as well? Alarmingly many would answer something else than 50%. There are two factors at play here. First, people confuse the probablity of getting ten heads in a row (0.5^10 = 0.0009765625) with the probability of getting heads in any one flip (0.5). The second problem is the idea that in the long run, there should be an equal number of heads and tails. This is true, and if you can test this by flipping a coin a couple of million times (or get the computer do that for you) and the score should be relatively even. But this doesn't change the odds for any one throw, as the history of flips isn't stored in the coin. The coin itself doesn't know which way to land, and there's no natural law to force it to start producing tails after a long run of heads.

The other problem is that very few things in "real life" are actually random like a coin flip or a roll of dice. Also, we are rarely as attentive in keeping track of events as we are in the coin-flipping experiment. In fact, we tend to remember events that have emotional significance (ha! emotions!). So for instance, anyone making paranoid theories about the traffic lights being always changed red for them might suffer from both problems. First, as the lights are not random, it might be that they arrive at a certain crossroads always at the same time of its cycle, depending on some other set of lights somewhere else. Also, they might be more likely to remember the times they had to stop than those times they could just drive through the crossroads without thinking about it.

This is still easy, but now we get to the really weird stuff that throws even maths professors off. Have you heard about the Monty Hall problem? That wikipedia-link gives the problem and a number of solutions, as well as explains what the hassle was. In short, you have this game. You have to choose one of three doors, there is a car behind one of them, and a goat behind the other two. If you guess correctly, you get the car. The twist is here: after you make your choice, the game show host opens one of the two remaining doors and reveals a goat. He now asks if you want to stick with your original choice or if you want to switch. The question is, should you switch or keep your original choice.

And, counter-intuitively the answer is, and even with a very clear margin, you should switch. This problem featured in a recent NY Times article, and there's a game you can play to actually see that switching is the better strategy.

I'd think most people say they wouldn't want to switch. This is partly because they have miscalculated the odds (thinking it is a 50-50 chance) but also because they abhor the potential situation where they have undone a correct choice by changing later (and shown lack of belief in their initial choice etc.). As the NYT-article tells, this Monty Hall fallacy (when the problem was first presented, even maths professors wrote in to the paper claiming they'd made a mistake, and that switching makes no difference) has now been spotted in experimental paradigms used to study decision-making.

The research on cognitive dissonance is an attempt to look at all the factors that are involved in making simple choices, and one of the paradigms is to choose (or have monkeys choose, as in NYT's example) from three initially equally favoured items, first one of two, and then one of the remaining two. The researchers have shown that the item that loses in the first duel is likely to lose in the second as well. The explanation has been essentially the same as in the Monty Hall -case where people don't want to switch - there's a need to justify the first decision, or as some say, second-guessing isn't evolutionarily a good idea.

However, if you have even slight differences in the initial preference of the three items, then the odds in the second choice aren't 50-50, but 1/3 - 2/3, just like in the Monty Hall -problem. Let's take the example used in NYT: there are three Smarties, red, green and blue. Let's assume the first choice is between red and blue, and red wins. The second choice is now between blue and green, and green often wins. Now, if there is even the slightest order of preference, this is not just a case of wanting to justify the first choice, but also statistically the more likely outcome. Look at all possible orders of preference of these three, where red is higher than blue. There are three: R G B, R B G, and G R B. In two out of three of these, green is higher than blue, therefore making the odds of green being picked in the second choice 2/3 rather than 1/2.

This is all fascinating, and the fact that even trained scientists get these wrong is on one hand very relieving, and on the other hand very scary. It shows, however, that no matter what you think about sense or sensibility, in some issues there's no substitute for diligent research and learning.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fifth freedom

According to the EUobserver, the EU leaders in their Spring Summit have suggested that a "fifth freedom" should be added to the four existing ones that form the basis of the Union. So far, persons, capital, services and goods have been given free movement (or rather, providing it is the work in progress) and now "knowledge" should follow suit.

This is to boost the competitiveness of Europe, an initiative launched with the Lisbon declaration. This has struggled from the beginning, and it has turned out to be very difficult to turn words into actions, not to mention results. This time, the plan is to increase the mobility of students, teachers and researchers, and further reforms of higher education system are promised.

This sounds good in principle, it remains to be seen what this will mean in practice. But on a more symbolic level, adding a fifth freedom is big.

And did we hear about it in the news? No. But that's not a surprise, we didn't hear much about the decision to take part in the NRF, or even the decision on next years budget (including controversial decisions on university funding. All we hear in the news these days is this or that about the minister for foreign affairs, this idiot "dancer" and the text messages. Again, and again, and again...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Vacuum cleaners are from hell and should be sent back there

Among all the household chores my least favourite is vacuuming. This is somewhat surprising, as I really like the somewhat related tasks of mopping floors, mowing lawns or clearing snow off the footpaths. They all require going through every square inch of the area to be cleaned, so there is an aspect of having to do it in a systematic way. Also, there's a real sense of achievement that comes with all of them. In sum, they are all excellent zen activities. Apart from vacuuming, which sucks (pun intended) because the tools are so badly designed.

I've recently obtained a secret memo, this is from a liaison group of vacuum cleaner manufacturers and it details the design principles of really annoying vacuum cleaners.

1) Make it loud.

To allow perfect concentration in the task at hand, the vacuum cleaners should make a deafening sound that can drown out all other sounds in the vicinity, e.g. the ringing of a telephone, crying children, fire alarms and pneumatic drills.

The effect of this can be further enhanced by placing the pitch of the sound to the same frequency range where the human hearing is at its most sensitive.

2) Make it top-heavy

By putting the centre of gravity of the machine high enough, you ensure that the machine falls over every time the vacuumer makes a turn exceeding 90 degrees. As such sudden changes of direction are indicators of erratic and non-systematic cleaning, the falling over of the cleaner is a gentle reminder to the vacuumer to make sure s/he vacuums every corner.

3a) Use self-tangling power cord

Nobody likes messy cords, not even while vacuuming. By using the extra static self-bundling cord (patent pending) you can assure that the vacuum cleaner power cord will stay in one, neat pile even when fully extracted. Following the current green trends, this pile of cord has a natural resemblance of a crow's nest.

3b) The length of the cord

In order to protect the walls, the length the power cord follows the formula below:

c = dr - ve - 30

where c is the length of the cord, dr is the distance from the socket to the furthest corner and ve is the length of the vacuum cleaner and tube itself, fully extended. 30 is the safety gap in centimeters that is left between the system fully extended and the furthest wall.

4) The nozzle

Again, for safety purposes, the nozzle is 3 millimetres thicker than the gap under the cupboard. Also, for historical continuity, the design of the nozzle has remained the same since Attila's wife started using his husband's elephants for cleaning the house, and attached a nozzle into their snouts. This nozzle has two options: uneven metallic base that scratches everything; or plastic brush that goes around the bottom of the nozzle that is handy in preventing dust from entering the suction hole.

5) Wheels

A standard vacuum cleaner has three wheels. One is made by FunnyWheels Inc., the same company that produces all the wobbly wheels in shopping carts (they put in one FunnyWheel in every 100th cart, the one you always get). The main purpose of this wheel is to catch the edges of carpets and pull the carpets along with the vacuum cleaner, as a gentle reminder that they probably need to be taken out. This wheel also sticks to and collects all extra vacuum cleaner cord and helps the self-tangling process.

The two other wheels are made as light as possible, and from cheap and hard plastic so that the friction between them and the floor is the same in every direction, i.e. the rotational feature usually associated with wheels is insignificant. This adds to the great experience of the vacuum cleaner actually being drawn on the floor rather than rolling on it.

6) The bag

A lot of effort has been put into designing the system to attach the replaceable bags into the vacuum cleaner. The main principles are: 1) the system should be loose enough to allow about 10% of the dust and dirt to bypass the bag and end up in the vacuum cleaner itself. This not only extends the capacity of the cleaner by 10%, the small grains of sand etc. end up in the motor and help add to the amazing noise the cleaner makes 2) the system should be tight enough to make sure about 30 % of the dust and dirt in the bag falls of while trying to yank the bag out of the vacuum. This serves as a quick random check to the contents of the bag, so that the vacuumer can make sure nothing of value gets thrown out with the used dust-bag.

7) Storage

The vacuum cleaner must be made out of at least 15 different pieces. The metallic tube should be made out of at least 3 different pieces to allow storage in a shoe box and extra entertainment during vacuuming when these pieces fall off intermittently. Many manufacturers nowadays have vacuum cleaners that stow without needing disassembly. This stowage usually means tilting the cleaner on a labile edge and then connecting a hook in the nozzle to the cleaner. This creates a highly unstable system where the plastic tubing makes a big loop that gets stuck on the doorknob or anything that moves in the vicinity. This serves as a gentle reminder for the user that it might be time to do some vacuuming.

(c) Liaison group of vacuum cleaner manufacturers: because we know best.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


The restlessness in Belgrade is of course big news. And so it is the number 1 news story in the Finnish Channel 4 news, as well... and their angle is the Eurovision song contest. They've uncovered that the organisers (at EBU) are keeping their eye on the events but are at the moment convinced that the preparations for the contest are on time. They also interviewed some of the Finnish competitors, and even they didn't believe this was Ch4's take on the shocking events. They were trying to make comments about how the first consideration are the people in Belgrade and in Kosovo, wishing for a quick resolution to the tension etc., but the journalist pressed on and wanted to know if they were ready to travel to Belgrade if they were picked as the Finnish representative.

Same company, different medium... Afternoon newspaper, massive headline on Friday: Don't get sick in these countries!! And then they list the countries where hospital treatment costs the most, if you DON'T HAVE INSURANCE. For Pete's sake, who travels without insurance? That would have been a better take for this story: give an example of how expensive treatment and evacuation might be if you aren't covered. In pretty much any country.

Finding the solid core from all the mush is getting harder and harder, when even hard stories are being wrapped to layers upon layers of fluff. Yes, I'm a bore.



One of the blogs that I read, Yankodesign, often posts about designer concepts rather than actual products. Sometimes it makes you wonder what the concepts are for. Too often you see the un-innovative and plain lazy "fusion" concepts, where you take two seemingly unrelated things (like an MP3 player and a hairdryer) and combine them. Design/steal a shape for your "new concept", use a 3D-software to render pretty pictures of this thing and Bob's your uncle. You probably will get your study credits and 15 seconds of blog fame, but that's it. The problem is, although it is new, it is probably useless.

There are a number of reasons why some products don't yet exist. They might be unnecessary or plain stupid. Not everything needs an integrated MP3 player or videoscreen. Hairdryers, shoehorns and soup bowls do fine without them. Not everything needs to be called iThis or iThat. Not everything needs to be white and green or round and translucent. In short, these concepts are often trying to solve problems that don't exist; they are asking the wrong questions.

Then there are the tweaks: teeny-tiny alterations to everyday objects like plates or chairs, meant to add or enhance some part of their functionality. Unfortunately often sacrificing the original functionality.

Sometimes, however, a concept comes up that shows exactly the opposite: a new purpose, new functions. This mobile internet search device is one great example. Anthony James of Yankodesign calls it "the Looking Glass". It's a great name and I like it because it's a great concept of what could be. It's not about mimicking a trendy line of products, it's not spinning cliché design vocabulary. It's a great example of innovative design because the looks of the product are irrelevant. Actually, it's not so much a concept of a product, it's a concept of a platform, or an interface.

It is an internet tablet, combined with a camera, WiFi internet and a number of other components. The idea is that you look at the world through this and it displays you information about what you see, based on what it finds in the net about it. Point to a monument, the camera takes a snapshot of it, GPS locates it, the picture is analysed, compared to the info on the web and then relevant information from wikipedia and elsewhere is displayed. Point it to a restaurant, it could display the menu and let make a reservation. Point it to an office and it will find you contact details to the company. Point it to text and it tells you where the text is from, which typeface was used and what colour. Etc. The possibilities are absolutely endless. Try it yourself: how many uses can you come up with in a minute?

What would it take to build one of these? How far in the future is this concept? The designer Mac Funamizu sees this in the NEAR future, and hardware-wise it is not that far. I'm actually more interested in the software-side. According to many commentators in the designer's site, many big companies are working on similar concepts already. The information integration that would be needed for this thing to work is what the so-called semantic searches and ontology projects are trying to do. Or, what the web 3.0 will be about, to use web 2.0 terminology. While developing better search engines is of course a task noble enough to drive innovation, research and business ventures on the field, these kinds of products are needed to capture the imagination of people and to give these products clear and inspiring aims and applications.

That is what great concepts are about.

(Pic: petitinvention)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Celebrating the Semicolon

This is a wonderful story. I don't know which is cuter, that the NY Times would write an elated story about a punctuation mark, or that they had to append a correction after missing a comma in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves". But they are absolutely right. Semicolon is an indicator of certain "depth" in thinking about writing. One of the first comments I got for my writing from my PhD supervisor was that I should learn to use it. Not for the depth of it, or even style, but there were a number of points where I should have used it instead of the period or something else. Folded ends of toilet rolls in hotels, magnetic power chords in Macs, semicolons separating phrases. Signs of civilization.

read more | digg story

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Do you Digg?

Swarm intelligence, emergence, social networks and all that jazz. After Google started ranking search results based on essentially what people think is important, crowd opinion and popularity has been an important factor in trawling the sea of online information for the tuna of knowledge.

So-called social bookmarking is one way of facilitating this. And now, after they've been around for a few years already, I'm jumping on the bandwagon, or at least taking it for a spin. Why now, why not earlier? Well, when it comes to news, I have my habits. News for me isn't just about being up-to-date, it's about the ritual of reading it. It's about the sense of being in control, the familiarity and connection that I have with the trusted news sources.

One of the best things in life is opening a fresh newspaper on the kitchen table, with a cup of steaming coffee on one side and a bowl of porridge in front of you. The physical paper is an important part of that ritual, and a ritual in itself. My broadsheet comes in 4 sections, with one extra section on Fridays and Saturdays, and two extra sections on Sunday. These extras are taken aside first, and read last. I read a section at a time, skipping much of it but basically starting from the beginning. Etc. Everyone has their way.

Reading online is a different ritual. By reading news from just a few selected sources gets you close. I revisit the news site a number of times during the day, depending on the levels of procrastinatorfin in my blood and being familiar with the sites I immediately see if there's something new or if stories have been updated. This is important, every site has their own logic in displaying news headlines and unless you know how it works there's no way of knowing what you don't know yet.

But too much routine is soo middle-aged. And as an early sign of an emerging mid-life crisis I'm trying to break my online news-reading ritual by customising a google news page and signing up to Digg. And that's the funny box on top of this post as well, now these ramblings can be linked and "dugg". Now both my readers should sign up for Digg and click the link there, as the more times a story is dugg the higher it climbs in the rankings and the more often it gets offered to people as relevant news. We all might need to set up some fake accounts, but only a couple of hundred diggs usually gets you on the lists. :-)

Actually, the reason to this is just the curiosity to learn how these work. While I haven't had much use for these, millions of people have, and from the point of view of social cognition this is important. And also, I wanted to see if expanding to about 10 000 sources instead of the 3 I normally use would open new perspectives or be useful at some level.

Friday, February 15, 2008


It's so easy to laugh at the ignorant Americans, like that girl who thought Europe was a country and was surprised to hear Budapest was in Hung(a)ry, a country she had never heard of. Unfortunately this isn't, by any means, a phenomenon limited to the US.

It might be true that (for instance, us Finns) we don't have quite as many stupid TV game shows exposing people's ignorance in front of cameras on an hourly basis; it is probably true that we are less outspoken and open than Americans and therefore say fewer stupid things; but the basic attitude Susan Jacoby and others talk about in that NY Times article is there.

For instance, motivation for learning languages at school is plummeting. This is probably due to the ubiquitousness of English, and fewer people see the point of learning any other languages. They'll probably regret this later on in life.

In a recent study by Danske Bank on financial literacy it transpired that less than half of 18-19-year olds know what interest means. Six out of ten couldn't pick the cheapest of three alternative loans. No wonder all sorts of companies have started to offer short-term (very expensive) loans you can take quickly by just SMS:ing their number.

This loaned money goes to pay for nights out, buying new clothes or gadgets, and more and more often to pay out old loans. To me this reeks of wanting the results without putting in the work. It definitely isn't fashionable to push yourself, especially intellectually.

And this is amazing, given all the hype there's been lately about innovation and top quality in universities. Here as well, people are looking for quick, magic solutions. Making administrative changes, trying to solve problems with money (by taking it from one place and promising to put it to another) show how shallow the understanding of what makes top quality research and education is. At the moment, the actions that have been taken to push the quality of the Finnish university system have always involved either whole universities or even combinations of them. Larger is better, that's the philosophy. Well, to some extent it is, but "university" as such is the least important administrative level for achieving high quality. Research is carried out in departments or groups, teaching is planned and administered in departments and degrees approved by faculties. No matter what the "university" does, unless its parts do well, there's no quality.

And "success" at the university level is no guarantee of success in the department or faculty level. There are bad seeds in even what are considered the best universities, and great units in the bad ones. Most of the ranking-lists (like the Shanghai list) rank universities, which is useless information from the point of view of research and teaching, and should be for higher education policy, as well. What should matter is comparing faculties or departments within disciplines (although just ranking them would be stupid, a proper evaluation is much more productive). Of course, the macro-level (national and university-level policies and mechanisms, especially funding and quality control) needs to be healthy to allow the micro-level units to strive. But no matter how smart the macro-level policy is, it can be wrecked by bad decisions in or about the micro-level, or, at the university level. Like changing the quantitative funding indicators to cut funding from a faculty that quality-wise has been awarded three national centres of excellence. This of course has to be an imaginary case, no one would really do that, right?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Of course

I got a delivery today. A spanking new 20 inch Mac Cinema Display. And oh boy, does it look great! (not just externally, but the picture is brilliant, too)

The funny thing is, when I was plugging it in to my laptop, I had a problem. If I close the lid of my laptop, it goes to sleep. But, I know it is possible to use an external keyboard, mouse and display and keep the laptop closed. So, how to do this? I remembered seeing a menu somewhere, where you could change the action for closing the lid. I didn't find it, so I googled. The first hit was on Apple's website, and it had a list of instructions. Plug in computer and display. Done. Plug the DVI, USB and FireWire of the display to the computer. Done. Power on the computer. Done. Close the lid. Wake up computer using the external keyboard or mouse, and the Cinema display wakes up, the laptop display stays asleep, and the screen resolution will automatically be adjusted to fit the Cinema display.

Of course. It was so much simpler than I thought. I should have known it was all automatic, nd not try to be too smart for my own good. This is great. Now if I want more desktop real estate, I just pop up the laptop screen and actually have 17'' plus 20'' side by side, which is very handy for data analysis, so that you can run the analysis on one screen and display graphs and results on the other.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Musical universals

There was concert tonight, as Dr. Karaikudi S. Subramanian and two accompanying musicians came to Jyväskylä on their tour of Finland. Dr. Subramanian is a famous vina-player (vina or veena in the picture) and a highly regarded teacher.

They play South-Indian classical (Carnatic) music, which is as intricate and complex as any classical music can be. Western classical musicians practice for a lifetime, Indian classical musicians train for generations. Dr Subramanian, for example, is a vina-player in the 9th generation.

I always listen to Indian classical music with somewhat mixed feelings. There's the feeling of being outside, a feeling that's in stark contrast with how I feel with "Western" classical music, where I'm an insider. A symphony concert is very familiar to me, I'm "in" in all the jokes, tricks, scripts, and know all the nuances and can tell if someone's excellent or only very good. In Indian classical music (or Chinese, Japanese etc...) I can hear and appreciate the mastery of the players and the complexity and subtlety in the music, but I don't really know what it "means".

On the other hand, music is universal in the way it moves you, enchants you, teleports you from this time and place to somewhere else. And there tonight's performance just worked like magic.

(Pic: vina or veena, by Ingsoc)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Department staff meeting

There's a newspaper clipping pinned on the notice board of the research lab in Cambridge where I used to work. The columnist writes about leadership in academia and management in the universities. He concludes that while the most common metaphor for what the VC or rector does is that of steering a ship, the university in fact is not one big vessel but a massive flotilla of ships, boats and dingies of different sizes and descriptions. Each of the boats have their own captains, and they are ready for a mutiny for even very small things. MOSTLY for the very small things, I might add.

To extend his analogy, it seems clear that some of the boat captains won't take orders from the admiral or are steadfast in doing exactly the opposite. Many captains also never talk to their crews. From the central administration's point of view, even establishing communication links within or between the boats, or between the admiral and the boats is challenging (I, as an academic and a Navy communications officer can attest to that), not to mention trying to get the whole carnage of boats (this is a new collective noun that I'm suggesting, it used to be a fleet of boats, but based on experiences from Cam, this is more accurate) to move in the same direction.

Why is it so difficult? Well, to start with, the selection of people for leadership positions (at all levels of uni admin) is based on rather unhelpful criteria: usually there are none, at least none that have to do with the ability to do that work. The personal motivation to take up one of these positions falls into one of these three categories:

1) they made me do it, because it is my turn
2) I'm a power-hungry bastard
3) I'm so frustrated with admin interfering with my research that I've decided to avenge by starting to interfere with the admin

None of these are especially good motives, and none of these feature in the top 10 ways to impress in the job interviews (luckily there aren't any, for these posts). While most people have chosen university careers because they have a calling for it, the calling very rarely extends to admin. In fact, many have taken up research in order to escape from admin (or anything classifiable as "real work") altogether.

Of course, for academics, "real work" becomes impossible because of the high level of qualifications and education. Rather than getting their hands dirty with real work in the real world, academics operate on the constructive nature of concepts that operationalise a number of dimensions pertaining to the discourse on certain aspects of the theories that govern the frameworks within which it becomes possible to observe the rate of change in the development of patterns in the indicators reflecting the real world in this context.

And of course, being the only person in the world who has written a thesis on how this constructive nature... applies to the mimetic and ontological analysis of 19th century German literature on health care reform, makes you a qualified specialist in everything, naturally including management of a university and the various flotation devices sailing under its flag.

On the other hand, taking part provides you with unlimited opportunities to procrastinate.

(Probably should put a disclaimer here about fictitious characters, places and events, make it clear that this text was merely inspired by the string of meetings today, and also say that any references of real work are strictly based on hearsay.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I'm a Mac fanboy.

This doesn't really come as a surprise to those who know me, but it's more about admitting this to myself. This means that I can't be cool and aloof about these products, there are no rational arguments that would stop me from wanting them. So all that remains is to try to rationalise why I like them.

First and foremost, I'm thoroughly impressed by the attention to detail and the depth of innovation that has been invested in all these systems. For example, take the absolutely gorgeous, amazing, beautiful, graceful and stunning new MacBook Air. It was launched today at the annual Macworld event that features the "Stevenote", or the keynote address by the Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

This beauty is so thin, it fits in an envelope. But Macs, although they are also among the most powerful personal computers out there at the moment, are never satisfactorily summarised by numbers only. In Macs, the design really means more than just stunning looks. This one, BTW, has a family resemblance with the new iPod nano (which doesn't impress in pictures, but see one live and hold it and you will most certainly want it).

Design for Macs goes deep. It's in the clever little things, like the Magsafe, which means the power cord attaches to the notebook with a magnet. So if someone trips on your cord, it just cleanly snaps out and doesn't drag the computer to the floor with it. Or the latch that also works with magnets, eliminating hooks that are ugly and inconvenient. Or, in the MB Air, there's this drop-down door with connector ports, which looks good and is convenient. It is in the multi-touch pad, which recognises a number of gestures, like pinching for zooming in and out, swooping to change page and rotating for... well, rotating things on screen.

But it goes deeper than that. The problem with ultraportable laptops is that because they need to be small and light, they compromise on other things, usually battery life, speed and hardware features like displays, keyboards, optical drives and ports. Now, the Air seems to be fast and have a decent battery life, it has a proper-sized display and keyboard, but I really like what they've done about the last items: they've not just left out the optical drive and LAN port, they've eliminated the need for them.

There is a HUGE difference and in my opinion this is what sets Apple apart. They think holistically about these things, it's a heritage they have as a house used to doing everything themselves. On the PC side you have thousands of companies, all carving their small specialist niches. This has its advantages, but it often means that it is easy to just leave any problematic issues at someone else's responsibility if you ever get around to thinking about them in the first place.

So, Apple doesn't need a LAN port or an optical disk, because they have other ways of doing things. It's all wireless. And the most impressive feature of this new wireless existence is not the stuff you can do on the net with the iTunes video rental (which is cool) or other media services. It's a close tie between their new wireless backup system, Time Capsule, and the Remote Drive -innovation.

The Time Capsule is cool, it's like all those 500GB external hard drives that everyone sells and buys these days (I got mine a couple of months ago), except that it is wireless, automatic (if you want), it looks cute and is "aggressively priced". But the Remote Drive is the winner. Every MacBook Air comes with a piece of software that can be run on every Mac or PC, and allows the MB Air to "borrow" their optical drives, again using a wireless link. And as most people who would buy an ultraportable also have a desktop or other laptop, they can use it to do all the optical drive work that is necessary, such as install new software or burn music disks. This is simply brilliant, and I think it shows how the people at Apple really thought this one through. It wasn't just a simple "optical drive is obviously too fat, so we will just leave it out" -issue, or just a simple PR trick to try and convince everyone they don't need the DVD drive in their ultraportable. They innovated, solved a problem. And just to be safe, launched a USB-powered, small and cute external DVD-player on the same day.

This similar focus on customer experience and ease of use dominates all their user interface design and system design on a deeper level. This is impressive. It is something that you get very quickly used to when using Apple products. It is therefore good that there is the annual Stevenote to remind us about all the ways in which Macs are cool.

(Pic:, the new, extremely desirable MacBook Air)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Catching up

Backlogs are a pain. You'll need one to stay out of boredom, and the lack of one means that the track for the toy-train that's your life is too short.

But when it grows too big it stops the train altogether. Overwhelms you, ceases to be a backlog and becomes a mountain of guilt.

I'm making this up, I'm not sure if I believe any of this.

But there's this feeling you get... well, have you ever changed video rental stores? At least the ones I've frequented (the one in Cambridge, on Victoria street, and the one here in Jyväskylä, on Kauppakatu) are relatively small. So after a while you start to get a feeling of what's in there. And sometimes, when you go in there, in an open-minded mood, you find lots of films you might want to watch. This is good, because there are other times when you feel like you want something but you don't know what it is that you want. Something. A film, probably. That's why you're in the shop. But you get the feeling you've already seen it all, although you obviously haven't. So you dig into your reserve, the one that you built last time, when you had to just choose one from a number of films you'd like to see. And if you for some reason lack in open-mindedness, changing shops is the best way to build up your reserve. Just by seeing films in a different place, in different order you see them in a different light. You find films you never thought about. Give them another look, quite literally.

Then there are the suggestions. They build your backlog. Oh, you really should see this and read that (yes, this goes for books too, and probably music, although I rarely do this with music. Music means differently.) And then there are the freaks who are (or claim to be) up to date and see and read everything as soon as it gets out. Or not all, but everything they decide is worth seeing/reading, and that's why everyone else believes them, and take their suggestions. The early effing adopters with their perky smiles and cardigans... What do they do in a bookshop or a video rental? "Oh, I really want to see this one again." "Look, they have it in paperback, now. I don't like the sleeve." I'm years if not decades behind, and proud of it. It just means I'm not following trends (or I am, but with such a long delay that no one notices).

The backlog. Reserve, if you think positively. Let's call it reserve, as there are no deadlines., unless you are one of those freaks. Layer Cake, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Walk the Line. This was what I got from my reserve, the one that by changing shops has recently grown quite a lot. They used to have a 2 DVD offer, but the new year brought new offers, so I had to take three films instead of just two. I don't remember which one of these was the third, the one I would still have in my backlog had they kept their pricing at place. But I'm rather glad the offer had changed, just as I'm rather glad that I had changed shops, because these were all jolly good films.

(Pic: poster for Coffee and Cigarettes by the great Jim Jarmusch)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Research day 1

This is supposed to be my first only-research -day. It's not the ideal start... For a number of reasons I arrived at the office rather late today, and of course writing a blog entry isn't what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I'm actually doing this to clear my mind, because there are so many teaching-related issues, emails, plans, lecture hall reservations etc. on my plate that shifting to research isn't easy.

But, I will do that now. I'll get a cup of coffee and start writing two abstracts. One about the latest bits of my research and another about the very next thing I'm planning to do research-wise. There is a big conference in Japan next summer, and the submission deadline is next week. I'm putting in two pieces of work, hoping that one will be accepted as a presentation and the other as a poster. It would be nice to see Hokkaido in the summer.

It's been snowing heavily all morning, let's hope it's a good sign, just like the snowfall in Baghdad.

(Pic: A shot from top of Pyhä from this new year. It has nothing to do with the text, it's there just to get me on a positive mood.)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

New year - new ideas?

As I'm writing this, new snow is falling on the frozen ground. The last few days have been cold, crisp, wintry, just like they should be, except for the lack of snow. And that is being fixed now, too!

Just before Christmas I read the first paragraph of a newspaper column, some idiot was writing about how lack of snow and thus climate change is good, as it makes driving more pleasurable. I didn't read the whole thing, so I'm not sure if he was being ironic, but I think not. I thought that was the extreme in egocentricity, but unfortunately this guy was just one of many, many, many, who only think of me, me, me.

Reading the afternoon newspapers is bit like eating an expired yogurt: it tastes bad so you give it up half way through, you start to feel slightly sick and decide not to do it again, until the next time, of course, when that expired yogurt is the last thing in your fridge and the shops are already closed. I read some of these papers over the holidays, and found them mostly incomprehensible. They are full of celebrity gossip and so-called lifestyle-stuff, and they only make sense if you know the celebrities and care about those lifestyles. Reality TV stars, new pop singers, actors... mostly it looked like an appendix to a TV, and as I don't have one, I didn't know any of the people.

There were some news, as well, and the newest fad that has taken over the morning papers as well: comments and opinions by the so-called "normal people". Most bigger nest stories now come accompanied by comments of 3-5 members of public, who get their pics and opinions posted to the paper. Usually there's a link to the newspaper website where there is a discussion forum where the "debate" can continue. This is all good, although I'd prefer to hear the opinions of people who know something about the issues, either because they study it, work with it, or are influenced by it.

It was notable, however, that most of these people had similar trains of thought than the guy with a gas-guzzling 4X4 who prefers snowless winters (I have no clue what car he drives, it just seems fitting to assume that a person with such idiotic opinions has the most idiotic car imaginable). Whatever the issue, ALL the commentators based their opinions on their personal situation alone. The price of alcohol: "they could rise it even more, I don't drink", or "I never buy vodka, it could be more expensive, I buy wine and it should be cheaper". The availability of firecrackers: "They should ban them, I never use them anyway", or "they should not be banned, I like them". Is it just the way these questions were asked, the way the answers were edited, or do people really have their heads so deep in their own asses they can't even formulate a proper opinion about a NATIONAL POLICY?

Well, whichever the case, actually the epitome of egocentricity is doing a PhD. And I need to get even more selfish with my time and energy to be able to crunch mine to the finish. I have decided to surrender to a calendar and have booked weekly slots of research time. During this time I will be invisible to everyone and also blind to everything but the work. Last term I tried softer approach, and everything else seeped to my research time. Whenever lecture preparation was going slow, it ate the time I had planned for writing. I was a bit too generous in offering supervision times and they broke some otherwise solid research days. Et cetera.

So, I suppose in keeping with the zeitgeist, my new year's resolution is to add some me, me, me to my world, at least until the damn t***** is finished.