18 April, 2011

The Finnish Parliamentary Elections 2011: True Finns romp to landslide victory

This time around the Finnish Parliamentary elections certainly were interesting. On the face of it, several historical things happened simultaneously: the Centre Party has never fared so badly since 1972 in terms of seats, and since 1917 in terms of votes. The National Coalition Party emerged with as the largest party from the election for the first time in history – despite losing six seats. The Greens also got a bloody nose, losing five seats and ending up with ten. The 42 seats going to Social Democrats is the worst result in the party’s whole history. The defining, and most historical, factor naturally is the rise of the True Finns. Ending up with 19% of votes and 39 seats (in comparison with 4% and 5 seats in 2007) is sensational. Personally, I belong to the group of people, who are pretty much against most of what the True Finns stand for. But I’ll forget about that for this analysis, and focus on the implications of the result.

Interpreting the result and especially its meaning for the politics for the next 4 years certainly is intriguing. A good starting point is to try to analyze, which parties might end up forming the coalition government.
As the above table summarizes, instead of the normal “the big three” Finns have now a quirky “the big four” on their hands. After the election the largest party (eg. NCP this time) starts talks with other parties about forming the coalition government. Traditionally this has often meant two of the three big ones, supplemented by some smaller parties to achieve majority. This time it won’t be even mathematically that simple. The aim is to get a majority government, but it’s going to mean several concessions from the coalition partners.

The bashing of the Centre Party and the Greens means these two are already out of the picture. NCP with just Social Democrats would rack up 86 seats, needing still at least 15 to achieve a theoretical majority. The SPP and the CD would bring just that, but a majority that slim would not work in reality. And the Left Alliance I can hardly see in coalition with the NCP. That leaves only NCP with Social Democrats and True Finns as a viable option from the NCP point of view. That would make already a majority of 125 seats, even without the help of smaller parties.  A coalition of these three would undoubtedly be very odd, consisting of the most pro-EU and the most anti-EU parties of the parliament. 

Admittedly, another option would be a coalition of Social Democrats, True Finns, Left Alliance, Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats, but they would only have a majority of 111. Also, the True Finns are advocating for the abolition of mandatory Swedish in the upper secondary school, something the Swedish-Finns are naturally heavily against. Another factor against this option is the simple political reality that NCP won the election and is understandably rather keen to stay governing. However, if the differences with them and the True Finns are deemed unsolvable, there might be a slight possibility of the NCP throwing in the towel and going to opposition. Although, last time the winning party has not been included in government was 1958, when the Democratic Union of the Finnish Nation (SKDL) was not accepted in government due to Soviet Union pressure.

Regardless of the actual composition of the government, the True Finns are likely to be involved anyway. I can’t see other parties having much choice: a landslide victory of this scale cannot be left unnoticed. The obvious issues with the True Finns are first and foremost EU-related. The True Finns are very eurosceptic, against Euro bailouts and even at times using quite harsh language even considering Euro itself. The challenge of the upcoming government will be to find a line all the governing parties can tread more or less comfortably. That means either True Finns have to forget about their euroscepticism (or at least play it down) or other parties have to harden their line. With the pro-EU NCP going head to head with True Finns I’ve no idea who emerges victorious when the dust settles. Social Democrats are somehow caught in the crossfire, as they have traditionally been quite pro-EU, especially in the Lipponen era, but have just now gotten more critical about the bailouts. A possible solution might be to advocate debt restructuring, as the German Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer did earlier this month. Restructuring Greek’s debts and forcing bondholders to a haircut might be a solution that both True Finns and NCP could swallow, especially with support from Germany and other countries with a big role in the bailout decision. I don’t think the key agenda of the True Finns is to make EU pay, it’s more to avoid EU making us pay. Therefore, I believe a bondholder haircut would suffice for them.

Immigration laws are another thing the True Finns have popularized. That has already affected the main parties’ views, and in a recent interview with German journalists True Finn leader Timo Soini said “we will follow the same line” [as previous government] on immigration. Although I must admit there has been some discussion in the blogosphere whether it was just an attempt to play down the xenophobic image before election or a genuine policy promise. I guess we will see the answer soon enough.

Following the explosion of commentary in Internet yesterday I saw a lot of mixed reactions. Responses ranged from “I’ll move abroad – really” to “The tables are turned! Down with the old behemoth parties!”, portraying the divisions over True Finns’ policies. Despite – or maybe because of – that, there is one clear victor in this battle: democracy. Personally, I don’t like this result, but I still have to accept it: 70,4 % of Finns voted, being the best percentage since 1995. I’ve seen, read and heard more political debates than in a long time (well, a long time for my age, at least) and noticed increasing interest in young people, too. I hope this will mark the reversing of young people’s interest in politics. This time nine under 30-year-olds were selected into the Parliament, but the average age of an MP hardly nudged. Still, there is hope of that changing in the future, if the young are getting more into politics. The baby boomers are getting older and it’s up to the young to pull Finland back together. Democracy will be the only way to do it.

12 April, 2011

Lecturer, where's your faith in theory?

Agenda for this week: yet another block course at the institute of Production Science and Management at TU Graz. Topic: Operational Risk Management. Yet another course, where the morning session after introductions starts by the lecturer's so-called motivational input:
"We will go through some theory for the morning. I'm sorry, but it's always like this, the first session of the block has always the biggest part of theory. I know you find it uninteresting, but we'll get to the case study in the afternoon."
I must say, nice going with the speech! If I didn't know better, I'd think the speech is saying "fall asleep now, wake up for the afternoon". I wonder how the students are to motivate themselves for the theory part, if the attitude of the lecturer, who in Austrian culture is more of a formidable authority than in Finland, is already at this point acting apologetic. This wasn't the first time a lecturer seems to be conveying the message that theory is an annoying obligation, only to be completed because of some higher decree. Never is the usefulness or the applicability of the theory mentioned. No lecturer says out loud that understanding theory is a necessary part of understanding practical methods.

The sentiment behind the courses seems to be: rush through theory and then throw the case study to the students, let them learn with it. One could call this a swim-or-sink strategy. There are a couple of problems with this approach. Firstly, too often the case study starts with students looking like living question marks. If confusion was a gas, there would be so much of in the air you could actually just carve block of it with a knife. The insufficient basic theoretical knowledge is a big issue, especially if one is to start analyzing a deep and complex problem. Secondly, raising students into a culture of practical application without proper methodological structure is just plain stupid: it makes us believe all methodologies are as good as others. It makes us use mostly methods we are already acquainted with beforehand. It decreases the learning achieved by using a new method. Applying without knowing what to apply is trial-and-error, not structured learning.

Sure, if you are blindfolded and then try to distinguish the important features of an animal by touching it, you'll achieve it at some point. But if you're first told that the animal in question is large and can be climbed upon, you'll figure out that much faster that instead of tree trunks you're actually hugging the legs of an elephant. It doesn't take much to get a head start in comparison to blind searching.

The "student is a customer" culture has several benefits. Lecturers need to be made aware of the fact that satisfied students learn better. But sucking up to the students is not the right way to achieve that.What should be taught is the important stuff, not just what the students like.

10 April, 2011

Learning presentation in Graz

So, as I’ve previously commented, my studies in Graz have been very block course intensive. Whereas last time I focused on the structure of the courses, there’s something important that I forgot to mention. Something I’ve only found quite useful with more courses under my belt. That something would be the art of presentation.

Up to this point I’ve had nine block courses, of which all bar one had presentations. Usually there are 3-6 presentations per group of around five. Depending on the course, the presentations are most often done alone or in pairs. This would mean a total of about 1,5 presentations/person/course, totaling to 13-14 presentations. I’ve luckily had more, largely thanks to my enthusiasm to step to the stage – and my classmates lack thereof – I’ve gotten the splendid chance to make around two presentations per course, equaling to a total of 17 presentations, if I recall correctly. This is a considerable amount of practice in comparison to the amount I’ve had in Aalto, for example. So what have I learnt?

First of all is the impression frankly all of us have from university: not all people make great presentations. That’s the case for professors and for students even more so. Luckily, there are ways to improve, and rather fast, too.

Language fluency
Okay, this isn’t actually something you can improve overnight, but it’s one of the most important, thereby earning its spot on the list. I’ve heard the most terrible lectures and presentations in here, and I have to say that no matter how interesting the content, all is spoiled if the presenter is unable to pronounce words somewhat correctly. I’m not too keen if I have to guess what the lecturer is trying to say, it makes me feel like a waste to be in the class. Then again, you don’t have to be a native to make a good presentation: I’ve witnessed wonderful presentations by Spaniards, Norwegians, Austrians, Germans and the likes. Most of them weren’t native fluent, but all of them were fluent enough, especially with the content involved. This brings me to my second point:

The content in your head
You don’t need to remember the presentation content off the top of your head – that’s one of the reasons you have the slides. But you should know your rough structure. You should remember after a glance on the screen, what a given slide is about. Standing and reading from the slides and calling it a “presentation” is just silly. I can read for myself, sir, thank you very much. What I want the presenter to tell me is not what the content is, but why it is there in the first place and naturally why it is important.

Face the audience
You’d think this to be obvious? Well, I did too, until I witnessed a couple of dudes presenting with their backs turned on us. That was mainly because they failed the previous part and hadn’t a clue what was in their presentation, but they could’ve still worked this one out. Even if you don’t remember what’s in there, never turn your back! Take a look, then turn your head back in the right direction and speak. Repeat until end of slide. If you can’t remember the whole slide with one look, take it one bullet point at a time, there’s no point in rushing.

Walk the talk
I challenge you to do an exercise: try to stand in one spot in your room for half an hour. Feels stupid, doesn’t it? Now think about what most of the lecturers do? Exactly, they just stand there and never move. Sometimes it makes you feel like they’re trying to audition for the band Talking Heads! Seriously though, moving around makes your presentation that much more interesting. It’d be fascinating to hear the explanation of a psychologist why it is so, as this is just my personal experience. Also, moving is very useful. You can change the slide and then move to the other side of the room, giving your audience time to read through the slide.

Graphic design
This is very important, but I’ve got to say I’m no pro on the subject. Ask a designer or someone, who actually know stuff about it. Well, one rule I can give: never use just black text on white background without pictures. Never. Ever. Neverevernever. That’ll only make your job as a presenter at least twice as hard.

All in all, the above list could still be expanded a lot, but I’ve found at least these to be important in presenting. There’s hardly any systematic discovery process behind the result, and certainly no knowledge of presentation theory, so if anybody has their two cents to throw in, I’d be happy to hear. Especially if anybody feels I missed something important.

Needless to say, the above factors shouldn’t be too hard to remember, as long as one thinks about them consciously. Getting even the basics right would improve many a presentation tremendously. And as the old adage goes, it’s not just what you say, but also how you say it.