09 December, 2010

Research conclusions in novels

Science presents arguments that coherently lead to a conclusion.These arguments follow a (well, more or less) logical chain of reasoning. Many see this as the best way to share knowledge of the world's workings. Might or might not be, but for sure it is not the only way.

Think about novels. A novel is the result of a writing process. To achieve this, the writer might have travelled, talked to people, read stuff, or whatever he has thought appropriate to develop an understanding of the subject. We can call this background research. This research develops the writer's understanding of the subject matter, until at some point he knows it well enough to formulate the central finding of research in his mind. This we can reaching a conclusion.

In that sense, novelists and researchers are not that far apart: both study phenomena and make findings about them. Apart from the obvious methodical differences, the aim and presentation involve differences, too. Scientists always look for causal relations and are trying to answer the question "why?". A scientist could say that he has discovered how rainbows work and then present evidence on the refraction of light.

A novelist, on the other hand, isn't very often answering "why?" but more so "what?". He's focusing on the phenomenon itself, without necessarily trying to explain it. His conclusion is the existence of the phenomenon itself. As for presentation, a novelist does not necessarily present his conclusion in a very concise form. That is for the reader to find out. It is a sort of intelligence challenge, where the reader is invited to try to find out the conclusion with the help of some clues and thematic guidance.

Clearly this analysis of novels does not fit all types, but for me it's sometimes been helpful to ask myself "what's the conclusion here?". Books invite us notice something with the help of intuition and emotion. Moreover, we have a habit of seeing the world as interplay of narratives. We have a certain built-in story detector. Then, intuitive conclusions may stick better, because they play on our sense of stories and it may feel like you discovered the conclusion with your intuition. And in a lot of cases, the stickiness is definitely not a bad thing.

07 December, 2010

Not just getting an education

My choice to switch my focus from engineering to applied philosophy has, quite unsurprisingly, raised eyebrows among some. "It's a good education and you'll have a nice living as an engineer", some say, so why change? Even not going into how I feel about money, I have my reasons.

You see, I don't want to just "get an education". Getting an education is short for showing up at exams, forgetting most of the stuff right thereafter and finally ending up with a piece of paper enabling a nice job with a nice pay in a nice company. Not my thing. No, instead of "getting an education" I want to learn how to understand the world. I want to know what this is all about, where we came from and where we're going, and why a lot of things are like they are, instead of something else. A lot of these things would never come up in your regular Joe's engineering education.

Admittedly, you can achieve deep learning in a technical university too. It's just that the focus there is a bit off for me. I'm not into the details of robot control or the the best practices of companies. I'm a paradigm questioner, and that's got me into all kinds of trouble at courses already. I have a habit of asking a lot of annoying questions that to most of the engineering guys seem irrelevant. So it would seem nonsensical to continue along the previous path. Better save my time for my interests, and as a bonus I'll save other people's nerves as well, not arguing about all the paradigm at the engineering lectures.

30 November, 2010

Simplicity and complexity

The greatest thinkers are able to grasp ideas of serious complexity and yet explain them in a relatively simple manner. I've always been in awe of these people and admired their brain power and presentation skills. Today, however, I was seriously bored at a lecture, arguing that "it's so simple, I keep falling asleep!" But later I thought, how could I know if it truly was a simple thing that was being taught? What if it was instead a highly complex issue, and now because my lack of concentration I will not grasp it?

Should be striving for simplicity or complexity? Too simple things are usually a bit boring, but once you get them they're easy to remember. Too complex ideas, however, are hard to get. Surprisingly, even they can be quite easy to remember once you just need them often enough. But if you don't, well... For example, I can't really remember very much about a lot of math stuff I've had the pleasure of doing before.
“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
- Henry Louis Mencken
Mencken, as a satirist, was quite rightly referring to the complexity of human life and society. Nevertheless, it serves as a nice remark for researchers and thinkers as well. No matter how much you like Occam's razor, sometimes simple might just be too simple. Simplifying and generalizing too much will lead to conclusions being non-descriptive and self-evident. By not categorizing and just generalizing, you'll do away with all the distinctive argumentative power. Having said that, I'd never advocate for the kind of this-stuff-is-nonsense-so-I'll-just-make-up-bucketloads-of-concepts-and-hope-nobody-notices research. Concepts are important, but trying to confound deliberately, that's just intellectual fraud. 

In the end, I guess the same approach we use with business works with explanations too. If it's too cheap, I mean simple, it just might be too good to be true. If it's too expensive, screw it - you can do better if you look beyond the first marketplace.

27 November, 2010

New outsides, new insides

Hey, new layout! I got seriously bored of the old, boring brown layout that made me feel like I'm watching something made in the 70s, hastily digitized by the original creator. Pure horror. So, enter new slick layout, which seriously tested both my HTML and photo editing skills. Hope I can coerce somebody to draw me a new logo in the future, too. I can't even draw a stickman myself.

Layout is just the perceptional layer, however. And my ramblings have never been about changing the outside, I strive to write about changing the inside. Every once in a while I get asked "why do you write?". It's quite simple, really. I want to change my inside layer, too. I want to think better, think more clearly. I want to argue better. I want to know, how I really feel about something.

And if anybody reads my text and feels a tinge of improvement, gets a new idea, a new perspective or has a laugh, I already feel I've justified the trouble. Regardless if that anybody is just me, just one other person or 5000 people, even one mind on the way to more clarity, better arguments and - hopefully - a notion of happiness is a victory.

24 November, 2010

Trust your instinct, obey your thirst of knowledge

I've tried to keep myself on the track of gathering knowledge, reading, and what you, I guess, could call "self-improvement". I have to say, that I've discovered it's a damn load of work.

Somehow, back when I got this idea that I need to read more, write more and think more, I thought it was going to be quite a straightforward business. I mean, how hard could it be? Read a couple of books, write some stuff - and hey presto, you're a much better person!

Well, it was a fallacy to think that, obviously. First of all there's the time issue: countless hours are spent on WIkipedia, on LessWrong, on reading various books. Secondly, some of the stuff I've come across in books, blogs etc. is just so damn complex, that I end up thinking about it for days, feeling just even more confused afterward! But still, I've got the same feeling that it's good for me.

It's really hard to rationally justify all this effort. The progress (if it exists) seems to happen in infinitesimal steps. But still, I know that there was a day, when I couldn't write. There was a day, when I knew nothing about Aristotle's political theory. There is a change, but it's just so slow that I end up forgetting it's happening.

However, there is no knowing if all this will lead to me being "a better person". I embarked on this Quest about 1,5 years ago, and have felt a lot better since. But does feeling better equal going in the right direction?

I guess I just can't know what I will know in the future, and how it will profit my growth. I'll have to trust my instincts in being a rationalist.

21 November, 2010

Hike-life parallels

I went for a hike up and over the "home mountain" of Graz. Schöckl, peaking at 1450 metres, has some rougher terrain testing your physics but also rewards the effort with some really beautiful sights. This time, however, the weather was extremely foggy, with visibility dropping sometimes to less than 10 m. Luckily, the clouds in the air seemed do make the clouds in my head vanish for once.

I reflected some bit on the weather and realized, how much the hike actually resembled life in general: at times you work extra hard and still it seems that the steep incline is endless. At times you're completely in the fog and can't really see at all where you're going. You might even take a wrong turn and wander in the fog for a while before figuring out how to get to the main road. Feeling adventurous, you might also get off the main highway, just to discover a beautiful forest path almost unused.

And just you're getting back down, damning the cursed fog to the depths of hell for spoiling everything: a gust of wind and the fog clears, revealing some of the most beautiful sights you've ever seen. And you instantly know remember why you chose that path - because you knew the sights were there. You had hoped for the fog to clear. And then it did just that.

03 November, 2010

That's what the lecturer said


What he said
What he meant

"This subject is very important basic information for anyone looking for a career in business."
"You won't learn anything useful, but it's a mandatory course so you'll just have to sit through it."

”This course will be a lot of work, but it will also be rewarding once you learn all of it.”
"I cannot understand that students have a life outside this classroom.”

”Even though the lecture notes are available on the Web, I still encourage you to read through the course book.”
”Hey, even I haven't read it. But I'll still put a question in the exam regarding one nitpick piece of it, just to force you to read it.”

”I hope you will ask questions and comment as much as possible.”
”I don't really know what I'm talking about so I hope you'll do the teaching for me.”

”I will keep the theory part as short as possible.”
either ”You are idiots and wouldn't understand it anyway.” or
”I don't really understand it myself, so I can't teach it to you.”

”That's a good question, but in the scope of this course we won't go further into that conversation.”
”I don't have a clue how to answer that.”

”I think you have an interesting viewpoint into this.”
”I think you're an idiot.”

”I think we can agree to disagree.”
”I think you're an idiot – besides, I'm right.”

”That question cannot be answered with the knowledge of this course.”
”Hey, I'm the one with the PhD! Who's criticizing who here?”

18 October, 2010

Trains, pendulums and jets

Today I had my mind on people and motivation. After the last text I tried to form a couple of more discriptive, but in no way scientifically researched, analogies. What kind of people are there amongst us? Here comes:

These kind of people are the single-minded locomotives of the human universe. They do their thing steadily, formidably and they will always get there eventually (unless they're owned by VR). They might not be the fastest ones to achieve it, but they have a distinct sense of the direction - they really know how to get there. Of course, in itself this is a blessing and a curse. Someone with the tracks laid already can hardly change the direction very fast. A new destination will require new rails - and that means several rounds of complaints from the little inhabitants called your brain cells.

These people have usually more key areas of interest, between which they alternate periodically. (I'm thinking Foucault pendulum here, so more than two equilibria positions are allowed). Their life may be one consisting of projects, or at least something in the way of those. Characteristically, once they delve deeper into something they really get into it, but after a certain period of time the interest starts to wane, until it's time to change the direction again. I feel like a pendulum guy, personally.

These people really can motor. They're the fastest ones around. Before you've even formulated your approach regarding a problem they've already halfway to the library with 27 different solutions running in their heads. As a cheetah of intellect, however, jets usually need more time to rest and gather energy after a completed quest. I mean, have you ever seen trains idling for days? (again, excluding VR trains) Another problem for the jets can be either speed limits (working in groups where not everyone wants do dedicate their life to the project) or alternatively too long distances, causing them to run out of steam (projects with too distant goals and too long a span).

Quite obviously, this is hardly a comprehensive analysis of anyone's personality. But it might make a useful tool, help you think about yourself from a new perspective or just give you a few laughs. And every one of those reactions is a good one.

16 October, 2010

Driven interests

Okay, I've been very lazy the past weeks - sorry about that. There's just something that life in a foreign-spoken world with courses that make you have a 80-hour work week do to your writing. To remedy the situation, here's a piece I gathered from my backpack, finally typed in digital form now:

I admire people with drive. With passion. I admire those of you who can put in hour after hour for their cause. I would want to be one of you. I'd like to find that mental state, where you're prepared to go to hell and back just for the sake of it. Just for that small step forward.

On the other hand, I know that kind of single-mindedness isn't just for me. My problem is I want a piece of everything. Like no in Graz, I'm currently studying how to design railroad tracks, how much camber you need to have in a curve and why two single-track tunnels are better than one with two tracks.

So far my studies have sure been interesting, but for different reasons than usually. Sometimes I feel like a detective out of a Stieg Larsson novel as I weave, twist and google my way midst the course material, online dictionaries and every even remotely helpful website I come across. Sometimes a page of study material auf Deutsch feels like a two-mile crawl in mud, but once you make it through - oh, the euphoria sometimes resembles that of actual sports.

It sound like I'm a 6-year-old at a buffet table and frankly sometimes I feel like one too. But hell, I'd rather be an excited kid than a bored and depressed "grown-up", whatever that euphemism stands for.

But still the question remains. Something isn't everything, but can everything be something? Maybe you can be driven by variety as well? Maybe a piece of it all is as good as all of one piece.

17 September, 2010

Postmodern society

Jameson views a number of phenomena as distinguishing postmodernity from modernity. He speaks of "a new kind of superficiality" or "depthlessness" in which models that once explained people and things in terms of an "inside" and an "outside" (such as hermeneutics, the dialectic, Freudian repression, the existentialist distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity and the semiotic distinction of signifier and signified) have been rejected.
Second is a rejection of the modernist "Utopian gesture", evident in Van Gogh, of the transformation through art of misery into beauty whereas in the postmodernism movement the object world has undergone a "fundamental mutation" so that it has "now become a set of texts or simulacra" (Jameson 1993:38). Whereas modernist art sought to redeem and sacralize the world, to give life to world (we might say, following Graff, to give the world back the enchantment that science and the decline of religion had taken away from it), postmodernist art bestows upon the world a "deathly quality… whose glacéd X-ray elegance mortifies the reified eye of the viewer in a way that would seem to have nothing to do with death or the death obsession or the death anxiety on the level of content" (ibid.). Graff sees the origins of this transformative mission of art in an attempted substitution of art for religion in giving meaning to the world that the rise of science and Enlightenment rationality had removed - but in the postmodern period this is seen as futile.
The third feature of the postmodern age that Jameson identifies is the "waning of affect" - not that all emotion has disappeared from the postmodern age but that it lacks a particular kind of emotion such as that found in "Rimbaud's magical flowers 'that look back at you'". He notes that "pastiche eclipses parody" as "the increasing unavailability of the personal style" leads to pastiche becoming a universal practice.
Jameson argues that distance "has been abolished" in postmodernity, that we "are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial co-ordinates". This "new global space" constitutes postmodernity's "moment of truth". The various other features of the postmodern that he identifies "can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object". The postmodern era has seen a change in the social function of culture. He identifies culture in the modern age as having had a property of "semi-autonomy", with an "existence… above the practical world of the existent" but, in the postmodern age, culture has been deprived of this autonomy, the cultural has expanded to consume the entire social realm so that all becomes "cultural". "Critical distance", the assumption that culture can be positioned outside "the massive Being of capital" upon which left-wing theories of cultural politics are dependent, has become outmoded. The "prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very pre-capitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity". (Jameson 1993:54)

(text source: Wikipedia on Postmodernity, paragraph Postmodern society)

22 August, 2010

Old endings and new beginnings

Today I had a strange feeling. I had my last orienteering race of this season. And it's only August! This year, no Finnish Champs, no races in cold rain and swearing why the hell I do this actually. And for the first time in years I actually had a good ending race of the season. For some reason never achieved that before. Maybe this time it was because I quite couldn't grasp the idea that this is it, the last race for a long time.

On the way home from my parents' I started thinking about all this in a more general perspective. The next following weeks will be mostly the same: the last time eating in Otaniemi, the last night in my flat here, the last time I see my friends. All that will be out of my life for some while.

Of course it feels at least a bit strange, even slightly depressing. I mean, I'll be giving up much by leaving the ever-so-friendly atmosphere of Otaniemi. I've really liked it here. It is very convenient: you can find almost everything you need very close, and there's always a party if you need one!

On the other hand, Otaniemi is almost too convenient and comfortable. Life isn't always like that, nor should it be. Troubles, mistakes, new views and different ways of doing stuff are really the situations that teach you most - especially about yourself. I think one can never know who one is without first looking at others. Isn't it the differences, not the absolute qualities that define us? Isn't a "mathematically attuned" person just better at maths than the average Joe?

The upcoming 10 months in Graz will surely offer a lot of new ways to grow, to learn and explore. I'm really looking forward to that. Even though the future looks uncertain, I'm very confident it's all going to be just fine. I mean, the uncertainty is exactly why I should be going. Going to a safe, previously known place would not really teach me anything. (Although one can never know what might happen even in the most homely place, just thinking back about Sonja's exchange period here)

I will definitely miss a lot of things and people from here - and I like it. It is better to miss them than having nothing to miss.

16 August, 2010

How much money is enough?

You know, some decades ago people suffering from a shortage of food wasn't all that uncommon. In the Western countries, that's all changed. In the past 30 years money has taken the place of food in that sense. Working was all about getting money. More money. No matter how much you had, you still needed more.

Unfortunately, as with food, enough is enough. Most of the people in the West have really more than they need. So, they want to drive a BMW instead of a Toyota - need to have more money. Want a bigger house - need more money. I mean, when is it going to stop? Is anything ever enough? Or are we going to consume ourselves to oblivion, much like mr. Creosote in Monty Python's "The Meaning Of Life"?

On the other hand, is it really about the amount? Or is it more about how you use it? Does it matter why you need a huge pile of money, or is the problem just the amount?

A couple of days ago I started thinking what I needed money for. First, the obvious things came up: food, a decent home, clothes and all that must-have stuff. Well, that didn't seem to cover it all. I'd need some hobbies, right? So, on the list went orienteering and running equipment expenses, a bit of traveling and books. Oh yeah, music equipment, too. But that was it. I mean, that's not an enormous amount of income I'd need. And if I split housing between two people, it's not like I'd need to be Governor of the Entire Universe to see it through.

If I think of it, most of the things that make me happy are very cheap - or even free. Love, friendship - can't buy those from Stockmann. Sure, you'll want the occasional movie night or dine out, but that's all really. Nature - well, all you need is a bike and you're ready to go, really. Get a camera if you feel really into it.

But then, alas, disaster struck in the way of critical thinking. What if somebody has more expensive hobbies? Is it ok to have driving as a hobby? How about horse riding? The intuitive solution would be to claim that if you have expensive solutions, you just have to work more. But somehow I feel the need to draw a line between what's ok as self-actualization and what's just too much in the way of vanity. So far, however, the solution is nowhere to be seen. So for the time being, I guess I'll just have to accept that some people need more money than others.

13 August, 2010

Philosophy: a theory of anything - or a theory of everything?

What is philosophy about? What really is the subject-matter of philosophy? With other sciences the questions seems to be so much easier: usually we don't have a lot of trouble deciding on the subject-matter of physics, for example. But with philosophy it is so much harder. Philosophical questions are everywhere, some claim. There are only very few valid philosophical questions, other argue. To some, philosophy as a whole is meaningless gibberish. After all this, the young would-be philosophy student is surely feeling nauseous and decides that a career in bureaucracy actually sounds quite intriguing.

Let's take a closer look at the statement, that philosophy is a theory of anything. And bu anything, I really mean anything. It can be about politics, moral, the chair you're sitting in, Donald Duck, or a five-legged venom-drooling monster from the planet 'Czazch. Now that's one hell of a field to cover. According to this view, philosophical questions are everywhere. By chaining questions about being one always ends up with a philosophical question. To demonstrate:
"I see a table."
-> "What is a table?"

"A table is a flat-surfaced object."
-> "What is an object?"

"An object is something hard and three-dimensional that you can touch."
-> "What means that it is something?"

"That it has these qualities."
-> "What means having qualities?"

And so on. This ensures that we always end up with a question regarding being, meaning or some other final principle. To some extent this can be thought of searching for the final cause. But how can we decide, when the question is philosophical? How do we know that we've reached the edge of, say, physical explanations and need to divert our attention to philosophy? I mean, if philosophy can be about anything, then what is philosophy, really? Is the explanation of subject-matter really useful in any way?

On the other hand, philosophy can be a theory about everything. Whereas every branch of science tries to explain its own piece of turf, philosophy goes beyond the lawn and tries to explain the big picture. This holistic view often tries to tie the knots together and for example explain what questions we can actually answer, or how we interpret the phenomenal world. But can we have a theory of the whole? If its pieces consist of partial theories of the world, shouldn't the "theory of the world" be actually outside the world? Isn't that at least outside our understanding, if not a logical paradox altogether?

All the above shows that there are really no clear answers as to what philosophy really is. But as any philosopher knows, usually asking the right questions is more important than answering them.

This text was heavily influenced by Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy. For more insights on the subject, see chapter 1 "The Nature of Philosophy".

09 August, 2010

The sale of moral equity

A scapegoat is what we need
as we ourselves are innocent
the crisis that wants to feed
like a brother after lent

In a world of wealth and money
like bees to honey
we flock to golden values
and paper money

Handling checks and balances
surely they're just after fame
it's not us, it's them
they're the ones to blame!

So we sell our moral equity
because we just don't care
outsourcing ethics like IT
and we just pay our fare

05 August, 2010

Nicaragua: there and back again

Hey-ho, I'm back and still alive! Well, actually I've been back for a week now, but I was too lazy to write about it. After 10 days of rain, various illnesses and all other hassle it feels good to be back here :) However, the trip itself was very eye-opening, hence my interest in sharing some experiences from the land afar.

The first thing that struck me in Nicaragua was the poverty. Ok, that's really a bit of an overstatemen: the first thing that struck me was the annoying immigration, the second thing was my lovely girlfriend, the third thing was the darkness and the fourth was the jetlag. But the first thing the next morning was definitely the poverty!

To rewind a bit, my first trouble was with the Nicaraguan immigration. I was happily standing in the line for the immigration after some 20 hours of traveling. Looking around, it struck me a bit odd that a lot of people had dollars held between their passports. "Wow, is the corruption really this bad that people speed up the process at the border already", I thought to myself. As it turned out, upon arriving to Nicaragua you have to pay a tourist fee of 5 dollars. Naturally, I didn't have any dollars at hand, nor did I have any cordobas. So the immigration officer confiscated my passport and told me to get some cash for the fee. Well, I trudged dutifully to the exchange office, only to discover that they didn't accept cards! Curses! So, a frantic search for cash was in order. After raiding my wallet and all my available pockets I managed to gather around 7 euros, which just about was enough. So, I managed to exchange it for cordobas, got my passport back and got through the whole hassle, tired and annoyed.

The next morning I was wandering around Leon with amazement. Coming from a country like Finland the poor state of affairs was really something. The infrastructure was pretty bad which contributed to a feeling of insecurity and general untrustworthiness towards other people. Well, I got used to it gradually, but that's how I felt in the beginning. After two days of jetlagging (and avoiding the storm that was flooding the streets) we climbed to Cerro Negro and volcanoboarded downhill from the 400m. It was fun, even though the storm that hit us at the top of Cerro Negro was quite annoying - you couldn't hear anything from three metres afar, let alone see anything, as the rain was hitting us basically sideways.

Driving through a local horse fair in Nandaime

A regular long-distance bus in Nicaragua

The bus control panel was seriously high tech

After that it was time to travel around Nicaragua: we spent time at Isla de Ometepe, climbing Concepción (1600 m, went up to 1000 m) and not seeing much of a view due to some weather (again!). A day was well spent at the amazing beaches of Santo Domingo, after which we took a day to review a nature park near Moyogalpa.Climbing up to Concepción

The smug look of disappointment as we realized the clouds
were going to spoil the view from Concepción.
(oh btw, this guy was actually an Austrian from Graz, who we met
by chance on the way up - you can imagine my surprise!)

A moment of perfection in Santo Domingo

Then we left Isla de Ometepe and went to Granada for a boat trip. Almost immediately after that I got 39 fever and was forced to spend the remaining day in bed. Next morning at 3.30 we left for Managua to take a flight to the Caribbean side, to Corn Island. The plan was to go from Corn Island to Little Corn Island for snorkeling. But as it turned out, my body had quite different plans. I felt nauseous all the way to Managua, and my suspicion was confirmed as my previous dinner made a reappearance right after the 1 hour taxi ride. My body seemed to be enjoying this show, since encore throwing up resulted with 3-hour intervals for almost the rest of the day. Somehow I managed to survive to Corn Island, but we decided that a 1-hour trip to Little Corn in an open boat in sunshine would be too much for me - which indeed it would have. So, we booked a hotel in Big Corn and I collapsed in a heap on the bed, just trying to stay alive and keep the rest of the liquids inside me.

At 4 pm I finally gave up trying to get better with our own medicines and Sonja convinced me to go to the local hospital. I have to say that the treatment at the hospital was very good, despite the poor conditions and ridiculous pay - doctors and nurses earn about 800 $ / month. After an afternoon in there with 2 l of saline dripping in my vein I started to get gradually better. Combined with antibiotics, the excellent treatment of doctors and nurses and two days of rest got me up to shape just in time (talk about being on the receiving end of JIT!) for the flight home. Still, the annoyance of missing four full days was pretty big.

Some very strangely shaped rice fields in eastern Nicaragua

Anyway, I hope the pictures tell you more than my ramblings. Due to technical difficulties with my camera, most of the pics were taken with Sonja's - I might upload some of those later on. For now, though, you'll have to stick with my documentation :)

14 July, 2010

Stem rust - a serious threat to wheat production

Stem rust is threatening the production of wheat in Africa and Middle East, according to a recent article in the Economist. To summarize the content briefly: stem rust, a devastating plant disease that was the worst wheat disease in the first half of the 20th century, is back and badder than ever. It was thought to have been wiped out in the 1970s as Norman Borlaug discovered a gene that resisted the aforementioned disease. Unfortunately, stem rust evolved to another form, now dubbed Ug99 by FAO (Ug for Uganda, the country of origin; 99 for the year). Ug99 bypasses the previous gene protection and has destroyed even as much as 80-100% of crops it has afflicted in Africa.

So far, it has spread to Middle East and advanced to southern Africa as well. As the picture below portrays, there is a severe risk of stem rust jeopardising the entire wheat production in Africa and severely afflicting Middle East, being a threat even to Pakistan, one of the top 5 wheat producers. With time and a little bit of bad luck, the spores might even be carried with the winds to Australia, the third biggest wheat exporter in the world. Clearly, something most be done to 1) stop this crisis and 2) to prevent future disasters.

Labs around the globe are putting in hours to develop any kind of cure for Ug99, but so far there has been limited success. Even though nine rust-resistant breed have made it into production and distribution, the problem of logistics remains.

Producers in Africa and Asia are poor families with little or no leverage to invest. The cure has to be distributed to them in some way. They cannot afford to buy it from the private sector, and in many places there really aren't any public organizations capable of administering the solution. So far, only 0.1% of wheat area in countries FAO has deemed to be under threat has been planted with rust-resistant varieties.

This really calls for multinational action. Perhaps FAO could organize the distribution itself? After all, Borlaug's new breed spread relatively fast, so it should be possible to achieve a similar result this time. Stem rust threatens as many as 26 countries at the moment - countries that make up about 1/3 of the wheat production in the whole world. I don't care who does it or how it's done, but this crisis has to be stopped before it escalates into full-blown hunger!

Preventing future disasters is a completely different matter. There have been claims for more diverse farming. It is true that the current monoculture enables fast spreading of such diseases, as cops usually involve the same grain and are very large areas. However, there have been also some contradictory opinions especially regarding the development of Ug99. Reader northoldmoss expressed this view in the discussion regarding the source article:
"While Ug99 was discovered in Uganda, it almost certainly did not evolve there. Most probably it originated in the hotbed of wheat variation in traditional farming in Ethiopia - long known for its rich crop genetic resources."
However, the research (that I know of) is not yet decided on the matter. Personally, I'd currently vote for diversity but I guess that's not really a very educated opinion. If anyone has any insight on this matter, I'd be delighted.

05 July, 2010

The attic of my mind

The attic. The place where we take all our junk. All the things that now seem so useless, so unworthy of our care. We don't want to look after them anymore, because they have been replaced by something else. Something, which glimmers betters in the sun, smells nicer or looks less rugged. We grasp that new shiny wonder and throw our old stuff away from sight, away, to be forgotten.

But sometimes we climb up the stairs to the top floor, take the ladder from the closet, open he hatch and climb up to the attic.

We casually browse the contents of the boxes, occasionally picking up something. Almost everything reminds of something and brings back a wave of memories. Look, there's the old tea set you got from your aunt, and there's that old toy you played with as a kid. Sometimes we can't remember why we tossed something away in the first place. "This shouldn't be here, I can still use it", we catch ourselves thinking. We keep it in our hand, holding on to it tightly almost as if it could run back to the box and lock itself in. Carefully, we carry it back down and place it in our favorite spot above the fireplace, where we can see it every day.

The same is true of ideas.

01 July, 2010

Science has paradigms, too

Yesterday I was following a big debate on the web about the claim that school doesn't teach us enough about how to distinguish science and good reasoning from fluff, unscientific mumbojumbo or pure fraud. I agree with the notion, no question about it. But in the debate, there were quite a few comments which portrayed science as a paradigmatic system that leaves out something. Not quite so sure what to say about that.

Comparing science with religion there are some obvious differences. In science things are pretty much open for debate. You can try to topple any theory, but you're going to need some proof. An opinion is just an opinion, there's got to be serious evidence. In religion, this isn't the case, more or less. There is some room for debate (consider the relation of church to gay rights, for example). And there are some acceptable arguments, like the Bible, for example.

Religion has a clear paradigm. In Christianity, it is the Bible and other texts from the past. The paradigm includes the idea that religion makes sense (even though not explicitly rationally) and is useful. In science there are paradigms too. Scientists always assume, that for something to exist it must be measurable. If we accept the fact that telepathy is a good explanation of our world, it must be measurable in some way, for example by putting a telepathic person in a room and making him move objects that are not going to move in any other way.

Now the realization that science has paradigms as well is very important. That so, because the paradigmatic foundation always has to leave out something. The paradigm of linear causality leaves out phenomena that work (or could work) with nonlinear causality. It's very hard for me as a scientist to accept, but this is the only logical conclusion. It is possible that there is something outside the world of science. I'm not saying that there certainly is, I'm just saying that it's possible.

One final note: all the above does not mean that science doesn't work. Science is about linear causality and probabilities. When linear causality can be established between two events, it is almost sure that it will go as it's supposed to. But I guess there's always a tiny chance of God intervening...

23 June, 2010

Construct your life

Is there such a thing as the world as itself? What can we experience purely as it is by nature? I know, hitting your head hurts and the table you bumped into is obviously real. I'm not aiming for solipsism or claiming that you can make the pain disappear by simply deciding that it doesn't exist.

What I'm claiming is that we can never truly purely experience anything without distorting it with our perception. Even physical pain is subjective. We have different pain thresholds, what is excruciating pain to someone is just a flesh wound to someone else. Even more we distort mental and social phenomena. A person is a friend only because of our perception of her, there is no objective existence as a friend without our perception.

Why care? After all, friends are still friends and a punch in the face still hurts - what changes with this perspective? The key idea here is that by accepting constructivism one opens up new possibilities and sees more clearly the underlying forces that shape one's life. It's no good to fall in despair over bad events. Better just to accept the fact that they're bad due to our perception, due to us not liking that event. That opens up two possible solutions: 1) change the event or 2) change one's perception. Both are useful in various situations. For example, if a stranger insults you and you get annoyed, it's probably easier to change your perception of the insult than the behavior of that stranger.

Another good thing to realize is the fact how much other people affect our perception. And by affecting our perception they also affect our life. Simply knowing that fact will make it much harder for someone to manipulate you. I claim that it's a lot nicer to do one's own decisions and then see who your true friends are, rather than try to do it the other way round.

15 June, 2010

The Valley of the Shadows

I'm standing in a field. the sun is just about to rise above the horizon. I can see the mist coiling at my feet, see the drops of morning dew ready to glister in the rays of the day. I take a deep breath of fresh air and feel myself strong enough to face any challenge, almost fearless.

Suddenly, I see a glimpse of a shadow in the corner of my eye. Something moves in the edge of the forest.

I wander after the mystery. just as I'm about to give up the chase, I see it again. A grayish, shadowy creature. It is almost colorless and looks like the Animator forgot how to use the paintbrush and applied only the basecoat. It has the shape of a person. What the hell is that? A ghost?

I pick up speed and try to catch the thing, but it just runs ahead of me. It always seems to be that same thirty feet ahead of me. I see it disappear behing the edge of a hill and put in my best effort to run after it, reaching the top of the hill in a mere moment. As I look down, a strange and scary sight awaits me:

Similar grayish, ghost-like figures running in all directions in the valley below me. Even more horrific is the fact that they all look like me. Some are dressed like scinetists, others like hunters. Some resemble businessmen, some cavemen. There are firefighters, teachers, students - almost all professions I can think of. I waver in confusion.

What the hell are all those creatures? Why do they look like me? As I look down at my feet, I see that my boots' colours are fading and I'm starting to look grayish too. What is going on?

Who am I?

31 May, 2010

The fear of narcissism

I hate status seekers. I can't stand people who want something just because that'll make them more successful in someone else's eyes. Those people are narcissistic only looking for attention. I mean, it's fine if you want to be a pro athlete, play the piano like Mozart or gather a pile of money like Uncle Scrooge, but if you just want status don't goddamn try to disguise it in some other form! Narcissistic people only care about their own success and not for others' wellbeing. Hence, I don't want to be one of them.

On the other hand, aren't we all just like them? Don't we all want to be accepted by others? Is ethical behavior truly altruistic, or is "being ethical" or "being nice" just one disguise of narcissism, only a method for gaining attention? In the past 30 years money has become the most accessible means of gaining status and prestige. Could it be that ethics and soft values are the new money?

Is it really so that nice people are just as narcissistic as investment bankers? Is it impossible for us not to treat other people as a value in themselves? Are we destined to want their approval and blessing? Is it possible to act without hidden motives?

Bah, I this is starting to feel like a question that's not going to get an answer today. I guess I'll have to swallow my fear of narcissism for a while. Think I'll go home and watch an episode of House, suppose I'm more ethical than that guy. At least I'm nicer.

26 May, 2010

CSR and the amorality assumption

Business is generally not thought as a very moral field. The business of business is business, not ethics. The recent (or perhaps even ongoing) crisis hasn’t actually raised the image of business as a morally sound way of acting. Rather people associate business with concepts such as self-interest, survival of the fittest, “kill or be killed”, fraud, bribery and other dirty tricks. According to a survey made a couple of years ago, only 9 % of Germans trust business leaders. (Jörges, 2008) I wonder what the percentage is nowadays, as the survey was before the financial crisis.

Even though the public largely may regard business people, or at least some of those, to be immoral that may not be the actual case. Business people themselves often think of business as mainly amoral. Amoral means that business is indifferent to moral issues. It means that companies do not have to take ethical issues into account per se, it is not up to them. This statement is usually followed by the explanation that it is the government’s business to define a law system that supports ethical ways of doing business and the companies are responsible for staying within these guidelines. In corporate social responsibility (CSR) this is usually labeled as the laizzes-faire model of CSR. Traditionally CSR models also define other possible models of behavior. The relation to ethics varies from the amorality of the laissez-faire model all the way to the social shaper model in which stakeholders and ethical issues, instead of sales and profits, are the primary concern of an organization. Most non-profit organizations fall into the social shaper category. (Johnson, Scholes, Whittington, 2008)

From a philosophical perspective, however, CSR has its flaws. It still assumes that there is an inherent trade-off between profit-making and ethical behavior. With the exception of the social shaper, most CSR models justify ethical behavior with added value and hence increased profits. In other words, most companies behave ethically not because it is right, but because they earn money. Recalling Kant’s categorical imperative it doesn’t qualify as ethical behavior, because ethical behavior is there an instrumental value.

If the end result is ethical behavior anyway, why care about the principles behind that? I find the answer quite obvious: for safety’s sake. Firstly, if our systems for valuing ethical behavior (such as preserving the environment) fail, companies would start to behave unethically again. Secondly, it is very hard to try to put a price tag on everything. The public image of a company would crumble instantly if knowledge of major unethical behavior would spread. Such knowledge is, however, not very easy to obtain and spread to consumers. There are just too many companies out there, we can’t (or at least I can’t) memorize every fact I’ve read about their labor usage, materials or environmental controls. And that’s where ethics comes into play. When the time of choice between good and bad behavior arises, an ethical person (or company) chooses the right thing whereas the CSR driven one, aware of the information asymmetries chooses the wrong one. And that’s bad for us all.

Johnson, G. et al. (2008) Exploring Corporate Strategy. Prentice Hall/Financial Times.
Jörges, H.-U. (2008). Die Knute der Rendite. Stern 36, 56.

23 May, 2010

The five cornerstones of wellbeing

Today I started to think about things that make me tick, things that make me happy, things that I enjoy. In general, things that bring me satisfaction and enjoyment in one way. I could think of several such things: most sports, philosophy, studies, close friends etc. They all fit this category. But they also are very unlike each other in some ways. Could these be fit into some kinds of categories? After some consideration, I could think of the following list:
  • Affection
  • Physical body
  • Intellect
  • Imagination
  • Playfulness
No surprise really that I considered relationships to be important. I'm sure that everyone knows that relationships to family, friends and especially a significant other are paramount to our wellbeing. But this category goes beyond just those. I feel that the importance here is on our ability and will to share and receive love and affection in general. I include things such as charity work, helping out friends and simply not being a jerk in this category.

Physical body
Ok, probably not everyone agrees with my view of the importance of bodily action. I've always done a lot of sports and feel very strongly the need for physical action. I have to shake that stress off to switch into a state of relaxation. This category encompasses physical action beyond sport, for example playing drums, skateboarding or dancing would belong here.

I need to think about stuff to stay interested. I hate things that are non-challenging and include only following some preset guidelines. I want to use my mind. Intellectual actions are anything from puzzle-solving or philosophy to reading the newspaper or a novel.

I'm a dreamer, that's no secret. I've read countless fantasy books in my youth and are still a big fan of imaginary stuff. Movies, books, poems, music, they all spark my imagination and cast visions of a different future, present or past. It can be useful in many ways: therapy, creativity facilitation or just being simply fun. Which brings me to the last and maybe most controversial category.

I believe that being a child and playing is vital to one's mental health. Some people think I'm an geeky idiot (not necessarily a false statement for other reasons) but I've always loved games, be they board games, video games, roleplaying, boffer fighting or whatever. It's really relaxing, you should try it out sometimes :) Playing is another sort of escapism, really makes me forget about my worldly troubles.

16 April, 2010

The Quest for the quest of understanding

I look out of my window and try to look between the tree branches to see a glimpse of the sea. No success. The sight out seems as blocked as my vision of my future. I can see about a year ahead no problem, but after that it's all cloudy. And even that year of clarity is all thanks to the upcoming Erasmus exchange period. Without it I'd be really confused right now.

I have the classic student problem: I'm not sure if this is the right field of study for me. ”You'll get over it”, people say. Fact is, I don't want to get over it. Getting over it would mean silently accepting that life is just what it is, and there are things you just can't change and you just have to accept. I don't want to ”get over it” and accept the proposition that it's more important to study something leading to a good job with a nice paycheck than do something you're really interested in.

All this angstyness is linked to my increasing boredom regarding my studies in the field of business and technology. It's all work and no play. Meaning, that it's all very much directed into teaching what you need at work: budgets, thumb estimates, generalizations and various PC applications. There's no room for playing with ideas, no critical assessment of the theories and their implications. We're taking too much for granted in the world.
Call me and idealistic leftist fool wanting to avoid real work if you will, but I feel all the above makes my studies at times utterly dull. What I'd want is ethics, trying to see the big picture, trying to understand what ”it's all about” and whether the direction the world is heading makes any sense.

I always get a nice, warm feeling inside me when I hear someone mention philosophy. It always gets me all fired up. It's precisely the same feeling I got out of it (maths and physics, too) in high school. I want to understand, I want the world to make sense. I'm too naive to accept the world has no sense or meaning. I want to know. And frankly memorizing lists about the various ways of segmenting a market or analysing company performance seem of very little help in gaining that

As for now, I'm trying to overcome my doubts for a brief period. From September onwards I'll spend 10 months in beautiful Austria, which will be an awesome experience. No need to waste that in fear of the future. I don't know what'll happen after that, but at the moment I feel like it'll involve completing my Bachelor here and applying for Practical philosophy (meaning ethics and philosophy of societies) in Helsinki.

I feel I'm ready for a quest of understanding.

07 February, 2010

The two-faced coin

One upon a time, there was a young man. He was the son of a farmer, but wanted to be a goldsmith instead. But everyone insisted that to be a goldsmith would be folly, since you can't really eat gold, so it would be of no value. To get guidance, he went to see a local wise man for advice.

The wise man asked: "What is it that you want?"
- "I need guidance about my future. I want to be a goldsmith, but everybody keeps saying it's a silly thing to do. But I like it, and I can't decide who is right on this."

The wise man tossed a coin to him and spake: "Look at this coin, it will tell you all you need to know."

The young man looked at the coin. Carved on it was an image of a man, cowering in front of a giant. Above the picture was the word timor, which was the Latin word for fear.
On the other side of the coin was a picture of a ship in full sails. Above the picture it said spes, the Latin word for hope.

Fear and hope, two sides of the same. Two balancing forces. Brother and sister - so unlike each other, yet originating from the same source.

Finally, he understood that if he wanted one, he was also destined to face the other.

30 January, 2010

The Six Blind Men and an Elephant

I came across this fabulous poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). It is based on an old Indian legend.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

26 January, 2010

The Burkha Dilemma

A recent publication in France recommends the option of banning the use of islamic burkhas in public places, BBC reports. Why would they want to do that? Let's see what a French politician had to say about it:
"This divisive approach is a denial of the equality between men and women and a rejection of co-existence side-by-side, without which our republic is nothing."

"It is the symbol of the repression of women, and... of extremist fundamentalism. "

- Bernard Accoyer, President of the National Assembly of France

In the report itself it is said that the use of burkhas is "against the French republican principles of secularism and equality" (BBC).

Looking at the above statements, it is not still very clear what the actual reasons are, or what they're trying to say when talking about burkhas being against equality. Shouldn't it be everybody's right to wear what she chooses to? The second statement by Mr Accoyer reveals, that the matter of equality rests on the assumption that the burkha is a means of repressing islamic women. Anyway, in my humble opinion the reasons for banning burkhas can be summed up in the following way:
  1. Secularism
  2. Equality
  3. Public safety
  4. Nationalism
Secularism is the belief that state and church should be separated. The ideas of secularism can also be applied in the spirit that everyone's beliefs (or the lack of them) are an entirely personal matter. Stretching the argument a little further, it can be argued that it is wrong to preach to others about one's own beliefs. The use of a burkha or a hijãb is interpreted as preaching or "bringing religion too much in the open". Some who advocate the banning of islamic clothing also want to ban other religious clothing and adornments as well, making a coherent secular argument from a mainly atheist viewpoint.

As I said before, the equality argument rests primarily on the premise that traditional islamic clothing is mainly used for repressing women. They make communication much harder and force the woman to live inside her own clothing as a prisoner would, cut off from the rest of society. There is no reliable data on how many islamic women wear the traditional outfit willingly. Therefore, this makes for a pretty unreliable argument. And even if some are forced to dress in this way, what about those who do it willingly? Are we not restricting their lives with the ban, thus reducing equality? For me, the point is that if the repression of women is the problem here, it must be dealt with separately and not be connected to islam directly.

Public safety
Ok, here's an actual reason for once. Dressing in a burkha and covering one's face makes identification impossible, pure and simple. How can we give passports or any other documents to people not willing to reveal their faces? Or even if they have a passport, how can we trust it? For the moment, we can't. The use of biotechnology may change that however, as an retinal scanner might be a good solution to this, though an expensive one. Another option would be the use of fingerprints in all documents with a picture.

A reason that is completely left unnoticed in public media is nationalism. In Europe, nationalism has been on the rise throughout the first decade of the new millennia. The Al-Qaedan terrorist attacks conjured a backlash of nationalism, especially against islam, that is felt today in Europe. I've seen even arguments against islamic immigration because "they are bad", "they're evil" and "they want to conquer Europe". I mean, what the hell? Who are "they" anyway? And I really don't feel that the islamic people I come across in Helsinki are of any significant threat - even if they're wearing burkhas.

As a conclusion, I'd say that this burkha-ban is another case of intelligent dishonesty, where the real agenda is preventing islamic immigration. There are approximately 2000 burkha-wearers in France, and I'm not really confident about French politicians being so sympathetic for them as to be concerned about their (alleged) repression. Secularism, even in France, is not a coherent reason either, as they haven't called for a ban of all religious clothing. Public safety is the only plausible reason, but that wasn't even mentioned in the BBC report. Not sure about the original French report though, since I haven't read that. But still, I feel this is mostly a clear case of religious backlash.

06 January, 2010


During my Christmas holidays I read Juha Vakkuri's book Afrikan poikki (Across Africa freely translated). In the book Vakkuri describes his journey across Africa from Dakar to Djibouti, using almost exclusively "public transport", meaning the transportation available to normal African citizens. That is mainly buses and so-called "bush taxis", which, I gather, are just people driving their cars and offering rides to other people. Kind of illegal taxis, I guess, except they go from city to city.

Anyway, reading the book made a deep impression on me. As much as a journey across Africa and into the African culture, it was a journey into my own mind. I realized that I'm an adventurer at heart. Looking back at the best experiences I've had I could see a clear pattern: I've most thoroughly enjoyed things that have made me see or experience something new, something maybe a bit uncommon - something I wouldn't come across naturally.

The trips to Slovenia and London last summer, orienteering in Spain, being at the cottage in summer 2008, they all have the adventure aspect in common. All those trips were more or less foolhardy, idealistic - or just plain odd. Some of those have made people question my sanity (which I do daily) but hey, you only got one chance in this world! Better make the most of it now, while I still have the chance! :) And to be honest, all those trips have marked the high points in my life, and I definitely wouldn't change a day!

Applying this adventure aspect theory further into learning seems to work as well. I love to learn new things, and don't care much for delving very deep into one subject. I guess I'm one of those people who'd rather know something about everything that everything about something. And all the adventuring fits into my interest for philosophy as well. After all, philosophy is just one big adventure - you venture out into the world of ideas, thoughts and theories armed with nothing except your own reason.

So, after discovering my inner adventurer, what is going to change in my life? Well, I can't be sure, really. All of my previous adventures have been a little unexpected, they've been the end result of pure luck and a bit of opportunism. To improve my chances, I think I'll just try to see more opportunities around me and embrace them in an even more foolhardy manner :) Whatever the result, an experience is usually worth all the trouble!

Obviously this is what I mean: