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)