14 December, 2011

Learning Narratives

We humans are creators of stories, and learning makes no difference. Everytime I succeed – or fail – I receive some feedback about who I am. That feedback I use, often unconsciously, to create a narrative, or story, about who I am. This can sometimes create problems: too many failures in a row at math and I might create a narrative portraying me as a student, who is bad at math. If I start believing that I’m bad at math and therefore I failed, I’m in the risky area.  The problem is this narrative can become self-fulfilling. For if I failed, because I suck, there seems to be little light regarding future tests. My inability of doing math starts to look like a static quality of myself. You can notice this happening if you hear me saying “oh, I’d so love to ace my next math test, but it’s hopeless - I’m just bad at math”.

But, the critic might argue, doesn’t a bad result show that, in fact, you are bad at math? In a way, it does. But it does not show that I’m permanently hopeless. A horrible result sure proves I didn’t get it all right – but there’s no reason it couldn’t change next time. Maybe I can create a narrative portraying me as bright math student who just wasn’t paying attention, therefore failing a test. Perhaps the next exam is going to be a turnaround leading me to a future where I’m superb at math! Who knows what will happen?

Now, I don’t know if all this made any sense, and frankly, just now I’m too tired for any rewriting. Blame the end of the exam period, if you will. I hope you got something out of it.
Tomorrow: last exam of this semester and then off for some well-earned Christmas holidays. Hopefully I’ll have more time and energy to read something besides exam stuff. Maybe I’ll manage to crunch a post or two on the way.

13 November, 2011

A Blog with Substance

As small as my blogosphere network might be (although, mind you, quality makes up for quantity) last week something besides just posting happened: my blog was labeled as “A Blog with Substance” by Siiri. Especially as
1)    I value my Siiri’s opinion rather highly (as a PhD student in Durham, UK, I feel she can more than pull her weight in intellectual discussions) and
2)    substance is definitely the most obvious label for my blog

All in all, I am most grateful: thank you Siiri! After a dry spell because of my Bachelor thesis writing this definitely was the perfect time to nudge me to keep churning out blog texts.

The protocol concerning “A Blog with Substance” nomination is that I should nominate eight other blogs and tell eight random facts about myself. However, due to my very small network and encouraged by Siiri’s example, I shall only nominate two blogs. Not because there aren’t any good blogs out there, just simply because my network is so small that eight blogs would be pretty much everything that I follow regularly.
So, eight random facts:
  1. I’m writing a Bachelor thesis about “Using criteria of indoctrination in analysis of mentoring” (or so I would translate the Finnish title). As you may know, I study Industrial Management and will major in Work Psychology and Leadership. Despite being thought of as the “major for the hippies” my subjects is too philosophic even for most of that lot. This is what happens when I’m told “yeah, you can choose your theme yourself, just has to be something related to mentoring”.
  2. Next year, I will be applying to study Applied Philosophy in Helsinki University. Philosophy is a long-time passion of mine. After three years at a technical university, I’ve finally managed to accept the fact that this is not what I want to do. I’m somewhat amazed at my own stubbornness.
  3. I really hate calling people. Email and Facebook definitely has saved me, as I rarely am forced to call anyone – sending email is just easier. Then again, if we didn’t have email maybe I would’ve learnt to like phones…
  4. One of my mottos is “People are more stupid than evil”. If anyone wrongs me, hurts me, or does anything I really dislike, I always try to remember it’s really because they thought of the situation differently, they didn’t have all the facts or they forgot something. It’s never because they were deliberately evil and were really trying to piss me off.
  5. I’ve had a leg injury for 3-4 months. I like to run and would be training for the Berlin Marathon if it weren’t for the leg. Have I seen a doctor yet? Once, yes. Did it help? Not really. Have I tried again? No, of course not. I’ve been sitting on it and complaining for the past two months. Talk about stubbornness. Or procrastination. I think I’m seeing a theme here…
  6. I’m a very introverted person. I love books and can spend countless hours curled up on the sofa with a book in my hand. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I seem to prefer classic, well respected texts to drinking or small talk. But a good, interesting discussion will get me from my hole.
  7. I love mountains. And sunshine. (yet I obstinately live in Finland!) To be honest, the views I’ve seen in Austria, Slovenia and South America still take my breath away. I have a recurring dream of climbing a mountain. One day…
  8. I’m terrible at seasoning food. I mean, it has reached the point of being weird. I can cook alright, but my food mainly tastes really bland. It’s almost as if I were scared of those damn peppers!

And now for my nominations for the next “A Blog with Substance”! *Drum roll*

The first has to be Herra Gägä (http://herragaga.blogspot.com/) . This blogger, who writes in Finnish, will blow your mind away with interesting thoughts about the society, politics or whatever that seems interesting. A blogger whose posts will leave you wanting for more and admiring the length and breath, yet consistency, of his posts.

The second nomination goes to ribbonfarm (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/). This blog is well noted in several reviews and will spark your creativity about technology, business, sociology et al. At times the breadth of different subjects means the occasional article is beyond my interests, but I guess it’s good to go outside the comfort zone for a change.

05 November, 2011

More X is good

A lot of decisions about things in life is about optimization: how long should I study for this exam, in which order should I do things a,b, and c, how much pounds will I need to exchange when going on a trip. Now, those things aren’t terribly hard to decide. The longer you study, the less free time you have – simple rule. You probably have an inkling as to what kind of questions the lecturer prefers, and you have an idea of your strong and weak points. Cash exchange is a problem already framed in numbers, so that’s even easier. The problems start, however, when we’re facing larger problems with multiple variables.

To take an example, let’s think about an example questions, say “How much time should I spend per week to improve my career prospects?”. Let us define “improve career prospects” as anything that goes beyond the pareto rule and your standard result – basically anything that is extra effort aimed at making you better off careerwise. Depending on your career, it can be anything from networking to programming to reading articles or magazines, to name a few. I’m sure you know better than I do, what that would be in your career.

So, what kind of optimization problem are you facing? What are the relevant variables? The input side seems straightforward enough: time. No worries there. The output side, too: career prospects. What’s my problem, then? Well, mainly the fact, that there are a dizzying number of interdependencies here. A lot of other stuff is influenced by your decision on this problem. To name a few: time spent with your family, time spent on hobbies, energy available for other things, physical fitness, etc… Pretty much anything, that involves time in one way or another. Those are the hidden output variables.
In these kinds of situations, our brain fails us. You know that your time is limited. You know that the time you cannot spend all of your time on improving your career prospects. You know that you want to have hobbies and a family, too. But instead of supporting the decision you’ve made about splitting your time, your brain goes completely haywire.

As you do something that you intrinsically enjoy, for example advance your career, you brain releases dopamine. And dopamine makes you feel good. So your brain goes “Oh yeah! Feel so good, gimme more of this!!” But you can never fulfill that expectation completely – because you want to do other things, too. And when this happens with every enjoyable thing…you’ll be left with a crave for more, a crave for more of everything that you desire.

It does help to realize that your brain works like this. Because next time, when you feel like you haven’t spent enough time with your wife/spouse/kids/work/hobbies/whatever, maybe you’re right – maybe you’ve been slacking off. Or maybe it’s just your brain talking.

10 October, 2011

Learn what you are good at

Cross-scientific work is in some ways one of the buzzwords of our times. And for good reason: meeting other scientists gives a lot of new ideas and teaches things you’d never come across inside the walls of your department. And the same goes for business, too. It never hurts to get a sense of what else is out there, what you still don’t know but would want to. Just now, I’ve realized there’s another, very important, reason to be with people from other fields.

It teaches you what you’re good at.

If you’re even a semi-pro in something, chances are you spend a lot of time with people from the same field, industry or whatever the classification. Chances are that you have a passion to improve your skills. And if you want to improve, who do you look up to? The best of your field, of course.

This all can often result losing sight of how good you actually are in doing that thing in reality. Humans are notoriously bad in judging their skills subjectively. I’m sure a lot of people have heard the joke (well, it's really a piece of research1) that all drivers think they are better than average. But it doesn’t work only that way: we often underestimate our skills, too. This happens especially in situations where the reference group (i.e. the people that surronund you most often when doing that activity) is more proficient than your average Joe.

This happens to people in sports. They spend years training for something, and after quitting on the pro level it can be hard to realize how good they can be compared to regular citizens. The same goes for studying: I often feel very inadequate about my math skills, since our university happens to be a technical one, hence housing hundreds of very bright people who seem to eat Riemann-Cauchy equations for breakfast. But I once came across a language student, and suddenly found out there’s a lot of math that I’m good at. And she found out, too, that speaking six languages is a big deal.

For this reason alone, I recommend from the bottom of my heart to go out there and meet people. Knowing what you don’t know is important for your development. But knowing what you do know is as important for your belief in yourself.

1  McCormick, “Comparative perceptions of driver ability— A confirmation and expansion,” Accident Analysis & Prevention 18 (June 1986): 205-208.

28 September, 2011

How Startups Differ: Dreams of an Employee

The other day I was thinking about what separates us humans from animals. I won't go through the whole discussion that happened inside my head, but only the result: dreams. Animals have needs: eat, sleep, reproduce. Repeat ad infinitum, or at least until you die. We are a bit more complex in this respect. We have dreams and thereby goals which are ends in themselves. Someone might claim that all the wants and goals we have eventually collapse into the previously mentioned biological goals. I'm not so sure - I can't see somebody looking for a career in formal logic reduced to his biology. At face value it makes more sense to accept his want to understand logic as an end, not as a means to impress the ladies.

As the previous anecdote shows, dreams can play an important part in our careers. It’s not just the normal professions of a doctor, firefighter or a police officer that have dreams as their fuel. I’m very confident that any profession or job can have the same quality. This does not necessarily mean that the sales clerk has a dream of being a sales clerk, but he or she may dream of being a respected, trustworthy individual who eventually progresses at the workplace and then ending up as a sales manager in another company. Who you want to be is everything to who you are today.

If I think about the stereotypical large company or organization, dreams don’t seem to be of exactly very high importance there. You have a job, and your development goals are to be linked to your proficiency in that task. What, you want to improve, only to leave your post here? Not going to happen! Now, companies have training programs. Some of them even ask about your career goals. But this is not enough. A person is not just a career. Career goals cannot operate in isolation of all your other goals. I say it’s time to move from a paradigm, in which the employee is a repository of skills and knowledge, to a paradigm, in which he is a holistic person with dreams outside his career, too.

This is something at which startups excel. Everybody has heard the standard comments about the dynamic nature of startups and how they penetrate even the tiniest niches in the market. Well, sure, the Titanic hardly maneuvers in the same way as a speedboat – they are very unlike in size. But it still doesn’t mean you can’t feel good and whole in both.

What I’ve gathered from the startup experiences of my friends is that the startup culture is very multifaceted and you’re generally approached with interest. People are keen about stories or narratives, which explain who you are, what you want and why. In a large corporation gatherings can at worst be at the “I’m Jack, an accountant” –level. I mean, defining yourself by your position or profession is hardly the best way. I’d guess this has a lot to do with the fact startups rarely have very strongly identified or differentiated employees- everybody does everything. There’s no chance to identify with a role you don’t have. But still, even though we have roles in larger organizations, we don’t have to identify ourselves primarily through those. It would make sense to define ourselves through ourselves. And to do that, we need to make room for dreams.

05 August, 2011

Tolerance is not binary

Following these discussions between social conservatives and liberals has made me think. Ever since the True Finns stomped to a landslide victory at the election, talk of immigration, culture issues and tolerance have been plentiful. That’s a good thing.

However, there has been a thing that regularly drives me to the boundaries of approvable behavior. The thing is the current concept of tolerance (or permissiveness, if you will). The current discussion has mainly revolved around trying to distinguish the tolerant from the intolerant. The idea seems to be that you are either tolerant, or you are intolerant. Liberals and conservatives have joined the fray from both sides eagerly. If it weren’t for our modern legal system, I’m quite sure advocates from both sides would have been burnt at the stake. The liberals are claiming to be tolerant for being more positive about immigration, gay marriage, or whatever the issue at hand. Painting their side as the tolerant essentially implies that conservatives are the intolerant. That, of course, is often an euphemism for ‘a bunch of crazy skinhead thugs’, as most of you probably have realized. Just don’t think conservatives get off the hook, either. A common argument is that since liberals don’t tolerate the intolerance of conservatives, they are intolerant themselves. This plays into the conservatives’ hands by implying that since the liberals are the intolerant, the conservatives must be the tolerant. If we stick to a definition that labels tolerance as “allowing any opinion one doesn’t like” we get exactly this kind of paradox hassle. 

Both above strategies rest on the assumption of binary tolerance: you are either tolerant or you’re not. Since the parties disagree about some things, and don’t agree on what is tolerable, it must follow that one of them (i.e. the others) are the intolerant. From the liberal’s perspective the conservatives are socially intolerant – and from the conservative point vice versa. Tolerance functions as a useful weapon to bash your opponent with – after all, nobody in the audience wants to be intolerant, do they?
Now, this whole mess started because of a bad variable class: tolerance as a binary variable. In retrospect it should be obvious it is not such, rather tolerance ought be cast as a continuum. There are very few binary variables in our personalities, and I can’t see a reason why tolerance would be an exception. To give an example, consider kindness, for example. Is that person nice or not? I’m sure people would agree that some of us are kinder than others. But still, it’s not as if there are only two classes of people: kind and unkind. Oh no, there’s everything in between, too. The same should go for tolerance, too. Most of the people I’ve met are rather tolerant of others, yet most of us wouldn’t be ok with everything. For some, the limit is gay marriage, for others it’s something else. But for most of us, such a limit exists. A tolerance of anything and everything is hardly a sound basis for a society.

A good reason to throw away this stupid binary tolerance definition would be the hope of having actual discussions. Instead of going around shouting intolerant! – essentially the equal of heretic 500 years ago – we could be having proper talks about who can tolerate what, and why there are differences. The realization that we all are more or less tolerant would hinder the division into two camps. There are very few problems that can actually be solved with a us-vs-them rhetoric.
It’s time to stop using the 0/1 scale. Even turning it into just a 0-5 scale would help.

07 July, 2011

First impressions at EGOS conference

Going to my first scientific conference is one major step towards my dream of being a researcher. Naturally I jumped at the chance of coming here, especially with accommodation and flights paid by the university. Never mind that I’m just in a mere assisting role, observing how to organise the event and thereby making our organising next year easier. It’s still a scientific conference and an important milestone.

Everyone must have heard that you can make a first impression only once. This trip is going to me my first impression of the scientific conferences. Are they exciting or boring? Relaxed or formal? Useful or useless? Drunken feasts or groups of introverts staring at their computers all day long? Something in between the extremes?

With the first 24 hours behind me, I won’t try to make a mountain out of a molehill and claim anything too drastic. Nevertheless, there are some things I’ve noticed while being here:

Scientists are normal people.

Well, duh. You’re entitled to say that in reply, really. But I’ve always had, to some extent, and idea of a successful researcher being a cool, level-headed character capable of observation and not too interested in social games. Someone, whose passion is in a sense the abolition of passions. Someone, who makes the most effort to get out of their own way to ensure objectivity.

That, of course, is a stereotype with hardly any relevance to reality. Even if they are objective in their work, the researchers I’ve met seem to resemble normal people so much I wouldn’t notice their difference without knowing beforehand. They dislike some people, take revenge and form cliques just like everybody else. They drink and have parties not suitable for children. They can even talk about soccer as soccer, not as a social game of behaviour-execution to ensure genetic fitness in a Marxist society.

Scientists bitch about people they don’t like.

If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Whereas in normal working life, you might get angry about someone hoarding unnecessary cash in their department, being slow to react to your proposals or just failing to do their job the way you wanted them to, in research it’s all the above problems - plus the theoretical fights. If a table loses a leg, and the resulting three-legged abomination fails to stand upright, is it still a table? Neither camp would balk at any sacrifice to gain the final upper hand. The race is still on, after several hundreds of years.

Despite the realisation of scientists being as vicious as the next guy in the street, I’m having a blast. To be in an atmosphere, where the fact you’re sitting with a brick-shaped Foucault in your hand results in a fierce debate rather than a look of “I think you ought to be locked up”, is a fantastic experience. I hope there's more to follow.

11 June, 2011

Erasmus year comes to an end

 As I was sitting at the Graz Airport on Wednesday, I slowly came to the fact that my Erasmus was one homeward journey away from being over. Often I’ve heard stories how the last days of Erasmus are a time filled with sadness and tears over losing friends and freedom. Certainly, even my last weeks and days had seen a lot of people go, and I had the possibility to say “oh, last time in this café/restaurant/wherever before I go”. But still, am I sad it’s over?

To be frank, not really. It was great, no doubt about it. I did a lot of things and saw a lot of places I never had before. Not being sad about going back is not a sign I had a bad time – it’s a sign I expect good times back home in the future. I’m really looking forward to moving together with Sonja into our beautiful new flat. I’m excited to see my old buddies again. I have ahead of me a summer of writing my bachelor thesis – and getting paid for it. Next semester I’m starting as a project assistant and helping to organize EGOS, a big scientific conference in Helsinki in July 2012.

So, both personally and professionally, things are looking quite promising. In comparison Graz offered courses a bit on the easy side. Also, we had to juggle our long-distance relationship as before – even though this time around we at least managed to stay within the same continent. Unsurprisingly, it’ll be a huge emotional boost to be able to stay in the same apartment.

The Erasmus was always more or less a kind of project for me. The rough goals for the year, in order of importance, were to
  1. improve my German
  2. broaden my perspective and gain a better understanding of who I am and what I want
  3. travel inside Europe

All the above was achieved, I think. My German is way more fluent than ever before, and I feel much more confident about my communication. A clear improvement is that I currently speaking German with natives, rather than reverting to English, something I always did before. I read dozens of books and had a lot of time to write and thinks. The effect of that can be seen in all the posts I wrote in Austria. Even if I still am not sure what I want in future, I feel much more confident about the general direction. Travelwise the year was a resounding success. I got to see a multitude of places new to me: Graz, Wien, Hannover, Bratislava, Salzburg, Venice, Klagenfurt, Berlin, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Paris. Ljubljana and London, both of which I had already visited before, were amongst my trips, too. So I got to see and do what I wanted, which is why I’m not sad about the end: I think more time would’ve just meant stagnation. It’s nice to be moving forward again.

Of course, there are always a few grumbles and could've-would've-should'ves. For example, as a fan of hiking and mountains I regret not visiting Innsbruck or Switzerland. But then again, I favored seeing friends who lived abroad, and thought the emotional return on those trips was well worth them. This time mates beat mountains.

As a summary, it was an awesome year. A year I wouldn’t want to change. A year I’ll always remember wit fondness. Still, as every year, the year has reached its inevitable end – to make way for an awesome future! Personally, I want to thank everyone who helped to make this year an unforgettable experience. My deepest thanks go to all my closest friends in Graz, whether still there or already back home. Also thanks to all my friends here in Finland, who kept writing and were glad to see me whenever I was here.

10 May, 2011

The Art of Not Running Away

I remember how back in our university, almost all the first year students that have the high-level math (the “laaja”) keep asking older students questions like “Was it worth it?”, “Did you learn anything?” and “Will it be hard?”. My answers to these would be yes, yes, and yes. But that’s not today’s point. More interesting would probably be asking “Why? especially related to the first two.

As background information, I didn’t come from a math-specialized high school. I felt confident about math and had some successes in high school, especially towards the end. I was invited to participate in the higher math at our University – as you might know, it’s not mandatory for automation students – so I got to choose if I wanted to do it or not. After some deliberation, I resolved to do it. Mainly, I was curious about how I’d do inside that peer group and how I’d feel about “proper math”. Secondly, I thought I could always switch back to normal math if I didn’t like the high-flying version.

To cut a long story short, it was a hard track. I remember sitting with friends and doing exercises late into the evening. I remember spending about 50% of my studying time just on math. It worked and my results were pretty good, although in no way top class. Solid 4s and a 5 Three courses were enough for me, as switching to Industrial Management meant I didn’t need the 4th course, so I dropped it as unnecessary.

Anyway, what was the learning experience? Honestly, I don’t think I remember half of the stuff we went through. The pace was fast, exercises were not always so plentiful – or understandable – and most of the stuff I haven’t needed since. Maybe it’s somewhere in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t recall it without some supporting material.

The most important thing for me was to learn not to run away. I remember staring at problems that seemed completely incomprehensible and thinking there’s no way in hell I’ll figure this out. But in most cases I finally got it. Actually, we got it. Since I was almost always solving the stuff with friends, and that was also a key ingredient to success. Four minds thinking along slightly different lines made for a better solving process, and naturally decreased erroneous calculations.

Anyway, if you think don’t run away is an obvious principle, you’re probably right. It’s not the principle that was hard for me, it was – and sometimes still is - applying it. The math courses were a valuable experience in the field of really confusing problems. Problems, which make you think “the solution must be really hard – how will I ever think of it?” Normal problems don’t do that. The confusion leads thoughts into a sort of meta-level, thinking that since you can’t see the outline of the solution right away, it must be something outside your current knowledge. This naturally induces a thought that if the solution is outside your knowledge, how on Earth can you come up with it in the first place? Needless to say, you start focusing more on freaking out about the problem than solving it, which is a terrible spiral to get into.

In retrospect, freaking out about a problem is very unnecessary – never mind useless. For every problem, there’s always a solution. The problem might not be solved by the end of the night, but slowly you’ll get there. Every step is a step towards the solution. Just keep taking those steps.

A practical application of the don’t run away principle are my German skills. Since high school, my German skills had started seriously deteriorating. In active vocabulary I’d already fallen down to the “Ich bin” level, meaning I couldn’t really have a decent conversation anymore. At some point, I realized the situation would only get worse with time. The vocabulary wasn’t going to magically pop back in my head. Improving my German would mean I’d need to, you know, actually try to learn it. It was time to face the issue and stop running. So I decided to plan an Erasmus year in Austria (to combine language with beautiful sights), which worked as a motivation pump to take some German courses in university before the Erasmus. Well, now I’m here in Graz with the year nearly behind me, and my German is better than ever. Problem solved.

These days, whenever I face a problem, I remind myself: don’t run away. If I feel imprisoned by the problem, I just think oh well, just have to start chipping away with this spoon. The wall will crumble eventually.