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.