Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Presidential Candidate Poll: How to Fail in Visualizing the Results

How difficult can it be to produce a simple bar graph out of poll results? For the Finnish media corporation MTV3 it is at least very challenging. As I am currently studying, among other things, information visualization at University of Michigan, I got an irresistible temptation to try to analyze some of the problems one of their visualizations has.

On Wednesday, November 9, published an article "Niinistö still superior candidate, others far behind" (translation mine), with the most recent poll results. The poll was conducted by telephone by Research Insight Finland. The exact number of interviewed people was not revealed in the article but it was "a bit more than one thousand". (N=1002 as revealed in the other graph attached to the article.) The error marginal was ±3.1 %.

There original graph is below. It has been copied from the article, so if it is fixed later, those revisions will not be visible here.


Just a couple of observations about the graph in general. There cannot be links contained in an image, so the text "suurenna kuva" ("magnify the image") is not a link. It just should not be there. The title of the graph is differentiated from the other one(s) just by the addition of "Alue" ("Area") at the end. Why not "alueittain" ("by the area") or if they are using some formal way of dividing the country into divisions (see below), they could reveal it here.

Bars and data

The scale of the graph goes from 0 to 100. What are the units? We can guess they are supposed to be the percentage of respondents choosing a specific option in the poll... What is the point of extending the scale up to 100 %? The most popular choice is still less than 50 % and because of this scale, the differences between the less popular candidates are impossible to see. The labels for the bars have no decimals, so Paavo Arhinmäki's popularity data per province is just "1, 1, 1, 2, 1". What's even more worrying: the bars are based on results after rounding them to the nearest integer, not on the actual values!

It could be said that the bars fail to give any real insight into the results because of this mistakes. But wait! There is an even more severe error below them. In the poll there were ten options but there are only nine labels in this graph. The labels are evenly spread, so they are also misaligned. Especially the least popular candidate's names are difficult to associate with the related bars - does Sari Essayah have popularity of 1 % or 19 %? The mistake: they forgot to put a label for "undecided"!

Also: if the question is "Who would you vote if the elections were held right now?", the answer must be in partitive form - Sauli Niinistöä, Timo Soinia, Paavo Väyrystä (his name is misspelled in the labels, with lower case v!) and so on. "En ketään ylläolevista" ("None of the above") is in the correct form, but there are no names above it (only on the left), so which names does it refer to? As this poll was conducted by telephone, how did the interviewees know which names were above this option and which in other directions?


In the legend on the right, the explanations for the five bars of different color are given. For the purposes of this graph, the results of the poll were divided geographically along the administrative provinces - lääni in Finnish. Here lies one problem: there are no provinces in Finland any more! In this graphs, the division is (probably) based on the provinces in use between 1997-2009 - except that there were six of them, not four. Three of them have been named, but all of them were misspelled:

  • Eteläsuomen Lääni (Province of Southern Finland - should be spelled as Etelä-Suomen lääni)
  • Länsisuomen Lääni (Province of Western Finland - should be spelled as Länsi-Suomen lääni)
  • Itäsuomen Lääni (Province of Eastern Finland - should be spelled as Itä-Suomen lääni)
  • Pohjois-Suomi (Northern Finland - there has never been a province called this, this is probably Provinces of Oulu and Lapland combined)
  • (The Province of Åland Islands is completely missing, probably combined with the first one)

Also, "Total" is not Finnish. It should be "Yhteensä".

I am, of course, only listing the mistakes I spotted. I think the colors are alright and after correcting these, it would not be a bad bar plot at all. Maybe photos of the candidates would make it easier to assiate a candidate with the bars.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Accidental informality

Sometimes I like to think that in the 1990's (or at least before the Eternal September, but then I wasn't online yet) Internet and its services were somehow well organized and people knew how to use them. It isn't true, of course, but some things were better. Email was plain text and messages contained a well-formed signature - often set by the system administrator. This was my experience at Helsinki University of Technology in 1997.

Today, emails can be html, there might not be a plain text part at all, they might have background colors, images and even animations. Instead of a well-formed signature, there might be none or maybe a huge company logo. Even in official communications, you might get no hints of the identity of the sender of the email

Let's take an imaginary example of how emails often look like...
Subject: Meeting tomorrow

Hi! Shall we meet tomorrow at 5:00 PM?

Alright... Who is this person anyway? Some female member of the University of Michigan academic community, I would imagine. Her (nick)name is Cathy and her username seems to be caw. I might or might not find more information with Google or University of Michigan's search engine.

What if I need to contact her to tell I am late? Her email does not contain a phone number, or her faculty home page's URL. It does not even contain her real name. It might be Cathryn A. Witgenstein or Katrina Wu from what I know. She does not care or she does not realize that she should care.

This another imaginary example from the 1990's would be better:
From: Catherine A. Winston <>
To: Mikko Tuomela <>
Subject: Meeting tomorrow

Hi! Shall we meet tomorrow at 5:00 PM?

Catherine A. Winston
Associate Professor, University of Michigan School of Information | (734) 123-4567 |
Ah! Now I have all the relevant information and also a web address where I can find more.

This post was inspired by all the emails I have received through the years. Don't be offended if you think you have inspired me!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Letting the kids decide for themselves

A common argument for teaching Creationism (or Intelligent Design) in public schools is that we should let the kids decide for themselves which seems correct, so we would respect their intelligence and freedom and so on. This seems to be what the Republican Governor of Texas Rick Perry - also a presidential candidate - believes.

There is one problem. Evolution is the prevailing theory explaining the origin of species and it is backed by science. If other scientific theories (and the scientific method in general) should be challenged in the classroom by non-scientific (or scientific but very unpopular) theories, the curriculum would be pretty absurd. This is actually the easy part.

But what about things that are not exactly science but questions of ethics, politics and so on? I would assume that Texans take certain things for granted - for example that you are allowed to defend yourself and your property or that you are allowed to start your own business, or marry whoever you wish. What if these "beliefs" would be required to be challenged in the classroom?

Consider these debates:

  • Socialism vs. Free market economy: Even though USA is generally in favor of free markets, why should the children be taught that this is the default or the best system? Why not Communism? Many things are better in Cuba than in United States, and Soviet Union's society had many advantages over the American one.
  • Militarism vs. Pacifism: There is a considerable amount of known thinkers in favor of non-violent resistance, pacifism and generally peaceful conflict resolution. I think Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon would be among these. Still, the situation where U.S. military conducting combat operations around the world does not seem to be challenged. Where is the challenge of this prevailing view, that violence can be justified?
  • Consumerism vs. Environmentalism: People consume and produce trash and pollution. That's very natural in United States and it is not going to change. Why not? The natural resources are not infinite and climate seems to be shifting - so why is this not taught at schools, challenging the traditional ways of the society?
  • Government vs. Anarchy: Americans seem to be proud of their country, their flag, their liberty and independence. But shouldn't other options be discussed in the classroom, too? The philosophy of anarchy, despising governmental control and authority, could be very interesting to kids. Most Texans also know Jesus, who has often been described as an anarchist thinker of some kind. 
If evolution should be challenged, why shouldn't other models about how the world work? You know, we should not feed "the American way" to the kids, we should let them decide for themselves if they want to follow the teachings of Martin Luther King, Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, Ron Paul, Robert Heinlein, Jesus, Vladimir Lenin or George Washington, right?

How far would you go letting them decide for themselves?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Gaia Network

Computers and computing resources used to be only for professionals. Later, after the advent of the personal computer, individuals could use and operate their own computers, getting the privilege and limitation of the equipment they owned. Ethernet, Internet and other network technologies have since made limited resource sharing between home computers (and others) possible and peer-to-peer networks enable effective horizontal communication without centralized administration. The Gaia Network is the next logical step.

Right now, the home computer is still going strong. Individuals own equipment and associated computing resources. They usually share very little of it to others, yet they might browse Wikipedia with a computer that has a dual core 2 GHz processor and 4 GB of main memory, with 90 % of the 300 GB hard drive unused. In a way, they are using a supercomputer to play Space Invaders. At the same time, when they need even more resources, they need to buy more equipment; it's the only way. They might have other computers, too - desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones, media players - but they cannot offer their resources to boost the computer that is in need.

What if Internet was replaced with a universal network enabling all modern computing devices to share their resources? They would make a self-organizing network, automatically sharing everything they can do, to always provide the most effective computing ecosystem possible. They would be sharing CPU power, processes, memory, storage, specialized interfaces, users... to a common good, to enable feats that are not possible without cooperation. Wherever you would go, your devices would make new friends and assemble a powerful virtual team to do work, retrieve information, process data - to service your needs as a user. Isn't that how humans (optimally) interact?

Dropping one node out of The Gaia Network would mean less resources to share but others would take its place automatically with no visible effect to the result. Because Gaia would constantly organize itself in the most efficient way, bottlenecks around central nodes (as is typical with Internet) would not matter so much.

A turbo boost to computing. A powerful shadow of virtual power. A dream team always around. A virtual exoskeleton in a cloud.

Except that it will not happen.

The owners and operators of computing devices do not want to share their resources. The network is not ready for the amount of traffic and there is no centralized authority to design and implement Gaia. Resource allocation and sharing is not a trivial thing to do and Gaia would need it to be smooth and invisible - and effective, of course. Jealosy is another thing. If some use the power of Gaia to copy new movies, should there also be somebody (or something) to say that it is wrong, or should be allocated less resources? What about abuse, DDOS, privacy issues, copyright issues, anonymity? And think about the children, will you?

The current way of computing seems like the work of a control freak if compared to Gaia. We have our own equipment bought with our own money, used for our own purposes (even if we only use 5 % of its resources), and sharing it might even be illegal even if it was possible.

Cloud computing and distributed computing are, of course, already reality but they fall short of Gaia, a holistic computing ecosystem. The utopia.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sacrificing your population to produce energy

Finland sacrifices 0.5 % of its population every year to produce the electricity and heat its population uses. Yes, more than 20 000 citizens are killed every year, with full knowledge. Finland only represents roughly 0.1 % of the world population, so pause for a second to think about the global massacre that is going on.

The article Deaths per TWH by energy source lists the average number of fatalities per source of energy. Not surprisingly, burning coal to produce electricity and heat is very polluting - and causes deaths. Even though it is by far the worst method (by fatality rate), burning other fuels are dangerous, too.

By combining those figures and the table called Electricity and heat production by production mode and fuel in 2009 from Statistics Finland, a very grim figure emerges. Production of electricity and heat kills about 24,000 people annually. Of these, over 19,000 die because of using coal as fuel. 1295 die by oil, 447 by natural gas, 2409 due to biomass/biofuels, 842 by peat, 18 by hydro, 1 by nuclear and 0 by wind and solar. The death toll is about 0.5 % of the population of Finland - every year.

Granted, those deaths/TWh figures are world average and Chinese coal mining and hydro power accidents are included, and so are the fatalities of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The actual number of deaths in Finland are thus probably lower and the good preventive health care also counts. We are still talking about deaths of people, an event where life ceases to exist. And this is no surprise - of course we know that ordinary citizens pay the price for polluting and by building coal plants we kill people. In modern world, that is totally acceptable and legal, right?

Alcohol kills less than 2,000 people per year in Finland (source) and traffic less than 400 (source). These causes of death are seen as major problems in the Finnish society and a lot of money and effort goes into preventing these deaths by different campaigns. At the same time, it is known that people die of pollution, but this is not seen so important. And - of course - nuclear power is feared because of the radiation and its potential to wipe out a major part of the population with one accident.

No, 24,000 people do not actually die annually as a direct result of energy production related pollution in Finland. In some other countries the relative death toll is probably above the global deaths/TWh figure but as there are not any Finland-specific figures, I go with the global ones. It should also be noted that the fuel might be imported from abroad and the pollution spreads in the atmosphere, so whatever we do inside one country's borders is not just our problem and we also suffer from others' decisions.

Recently it was announced that Germany will fund new coal plants with money originally meant to fund renewable energy research (Germany to fund new coal plants with climate change cash). Thus, Germany knowingly kills its citizens in thousands, with money intended for research.

These figures are huge. Even if they were only one hundredth of what were listed in the Deaths/TWh article, would they be justified? After all, our industry, our game consoles, trains, lights and hospitals need energy.

And an afterthought: I usually recharge my mobile phone in the evening. It means that some time during the night, it beeps to signal that the battery has been recharged and I should unplug the charger. So, the phone wakes me up to use some calories to unplug the charger, so that I would conserve some 0.1 W of power and that some 8 hours later in the morning the battery would be only 60 % full. And I might not fall sleep again after waking up. That makes no sense.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Stephen Baxter's 'Voyage' Is Very Hard Science Fiction

This is a review of Stephen Baxter's 1996 novel 'Voyage'. It belong to the genre of hard science fiction - it does not depict technologies or phenomenons that go way beyond our understanding of laws of nature. Actually, its events happen roughly between 1970 and 1986 - but not in our history but of a parallel world, where John F. Kennedy did not die in 1963 (though Jacqueline Kennedy did).

I say very hard because the whole book is a detailed description of a space program that could have been real. Stephen Baxter is an engineer by training and many NASA engineers and astronauts were involved in creating 'Voyage'. The story does have human eyes and many of the events are seen through the first female (American) astronaut Natalie York, a civilian scientist who gets chosen to the crew of the first manned Mars mission. A lot of the narrative, however, is actually description about the technical and political aspects of the endeavor. This is, somewhat naturally, the strongest point of the book, and at the same time, the most boring for those who do not care about space technology and manned space flight.

The narrative switches between York's experiences aboard the Ares flight to Mars and her and others' journey through the aftermath of Apollo, astronaut training, NASA internal politics, flight hardware contracting process and, quite importantly, the development of the NERVA nuclear booster stage. We meet York's boyfriend, a couple of fictional astronauts, the fatherly veteran cosmonaut, many NASA administrators and directors. Everything is connected and Natalie York's sometimes cynical attitude reflects the realities of manned space program.

Indeed, York is chosen for astronaut training as one of the new scientist astronauts, to complement the old test-pilot astronauts, who she regards as 'assholes' with a macho attitude. To get freedom handling his characters, Baxter embeds fictional astronauts in the history of spaceflight - Joe Muldoon seems to be a fusion of Deke Slayton and Buzz Aldrin and is described as having been the LM pilot of Apollo 11 and is in the focus as a new director of NASA - and does have many of Aldrin's personality traits. Chuck Jones is a former Mercury astronaut, an archetype of a flight jock, a manly test pilot who perishes with his crew during the Apollo-N test flight. He reminds me of Alan Shepard. The Soviet veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Viktorenko is, of course, the fictional counterpart of Alexei Leonov, even so far as being the commander of the Soyuz/Moonlab mission (counterpart of Apollo Soyuz Test Project), where he meets Joe Muldoon (commander of Moonlab, clearly a counterpart of Deke Slayton in this role).

In the story, Apollo 13 happens as in real history but then President Richard Nixon cancels all future Apollo missions, except for Apollo 14, which is a huge success. After a lot of speculation of the future of the American space program and plans of a Space Shuttle (and launching of two "wet workshop" space stations), Nixon authorizes the manned Mars program, named Ares. It is to employ the NERVA nuclear engine as the third stage of the successful Saturn V booster. However, its first manned test flight goes wrong as the NERVA stage blows up (due to damage after S-I stage pogo oscillates during launch) and the astronauts die of radiation exposure. After this disaster, the NERVA project is cancelled and a Venus flyby trajectory is chosen, with S-II (with extra fuel tanks) acting as injection booster.

The development of the Mars Excursion Module (MEM) by (fictional) Columbia Aerospace and its innovative but obsessive director JK Lee gets a lot of attention in the story. It is a classic tale of heroic engineers - an echo of the Apollo program of the 1960's. Baxter in no way pretends that the engineering work that went into Apollo and in this book to Ares was the right way to work - he makes it very clear how working around the clock does bad things to marriages, physical and mental health and so on. The obstacles of getting the program funded by the Senate are detailed, too.

An excellent YouTube video of the Ares mission as depicted in the book

This is an engineering adventure. All the characters in this novel live for the program. Through them, the reader experiences the process of building a manned space program.

Some details did not completely fit in place. I may be nitpicking, but there is no reference to the actual flight numers of the Ares program. There is only one manned Mars mission - called Ares - but the several test flights are only referred with the mission types, not mission names. Or should I expect a flight to be called "Ares D-prime"? The NERVA test flight was called Apollo-N for some reason. A more logical naming would have been Ares 1 for the first test flight of the program, Apollo-N being maybe Ares 4. The manned Mars flight might have been Ares 12.

The descriptions of Skylab/Moonlab, Saturn VB, mission control and other aspects of (fictional) manned spaceflights are very realistic and vivid. They reflect very much what flying to space is like - or how I would imagine it to be. There are many anecdotes of obsolete technology, fears of disasters and failures and endless notions of the test pilot astronauts' not-so-perfect attitudes towards serious scientific work.

The novel is quite balanced, straight-forward engineering adventure. The reader must withstand tons of technobabble but is also rewarded after going through it all. Everyone interested in manned spaceflight should read this book - not because of the quality of its narrative (which is not bad) but because of the unique and believable vision of how humans would have reached Mars.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Miss USA Pageant Contestants Discuss Teaching of Evolution

As part of the Miss USA 2011 beauty contest, the contestants were interviewed on a variety of subjects. One question was about teaching of evolution: should evolution be taught in public schools? There is still a lot of debate about this matter around United States, especially in the Southern states, where conservative Christian views dominate.

There was a good variety of answers by the very pretty contestants and they speak in a clear and smart manner. Most of them, however, approached the problem with the idea that evolution is a belief or that a student's personal belief's should dictate what is taught at school.

Many of the contestants stress that they personally do not believe in evolution. Because it is a matter of belief, it should not be taught in classroom, or "both sides" should be presented so that children could make their own decisions about which is true.

While I find it worrying that these ladies confuse science with personal beliefs, let us think why they are in this contest in the first place. They are not competing to become science teachers. They are trying to convince the judges that they are not only good-looking but also gentle, friendly and good to present themselves, in a clear and positive manner. They probably aim to work in a profession related to publicity: as a model, actor, presenter.

In what they were expected to do, they did well. They presented themselves as caring, gentle and friendly. The question was presented as a challenge, not as an inquiry about their scientific and theological knowledge. They had no problem speaking their mind and answering the question and many of them extended a hand to "both sides".

At the same time, they present honest and dangerous misconceptions about what science and beliefs mean and what should be taught in the classroom in general. The theory of biological evolution is the prevailing scientific theory about the origin and development of species. There are no other significant theories, so if you want to present the children "the alternative" or "both sides", what should you tell them? Also, should the kids' own (or the parents') conceptions about the matter affect what they are taught?

At the same time, kids should be taught what a theory is and how science is done. They should understand that while there is a theory of evolution, it is not "just" a theory and while you can criticize it like any other theory, it prevails. Creationism, on the other hand, is a religious belief and while some of its claims could be assessed like other details, as a theory it should not be taught in a biology or physics class. Generally, I believe, that it is important to know that people have conflicting views about the origin of the world, but that is not a matter of physics or biology but sociology, philosophy and ethics.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nokia's Real Screwup

Since Nokia went to panic mode some months ago, it has been led by the new CEO Stephen Elop, formerly of Microsoft. The Finnish media (and foreign, as well) has been publicizing stories about this man and his plans to fix, refine or rebuild Nokia - the pride of Finnish high-tech industry.

I used exclusively Nokia mobile phones from 1996 to 2010 - 1610, 5110, 3310, 3650, 6630, E70 and E71, in that order. Even though I jumped on the Android bandwagon by buying a Samsung Galaxy S a year ago and moved to United States, I have been following what is happening at Nokia - not the least because so many of my friends are employed (either directly or indirectly) by Nokia.

The Symbian operating system showed great promise when its first edition was running on the Nokia 3650. The year was 2003. The user interface was slow and unstable but with it, and the advanced hardware, the phone was ahead of all competition. Period. Many years later, it seemed as Symbian, while evolved, still had the same problems as before. A nasty architecture, stiff user experience and no real support for touch screens (that Nokia avoided). Symbian^3 then arrived, being touted as a great leap for both Symbian and Nokia.

In early 2011, it became clear to Elop and VP Kai Öistämö and the rest of the MeeGo team that their new Linux-based operating system for mobile devices will not be completed quickly enough to have the intended impact. (However, I must wonder how many phones per year do they think they need?). The new Nokia N9 flagship phone was apparently cancelled and most of the MeeGo and Symbian development axed. The Windows Phone operating system from Microsoft was brought in. Elop indeed rocked the boat and caused huge ripples with his (alleged) comments and opinions about Nokia's products.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Nokia actually screwed up. The big and formerly innovative company ended up wasting resources in projects that never matured and managers stopped real innovative projects. Sure, something had to be done and possibly even moving to Windows Phone was the right choice.

The way Elop handled the crisis (read Nokia CEO Stephen Elop rallies troops in brutally honest 'burning platform' memo?) was not proper. I think right now, that is the apparent screwup.

I recall Steve Ballmer said that the Finnish engineers are the best in the world (could not find the exact quote). He is probably right. At the same time, there have not been so many positive comments coming from the new CEO of Nokia. He has compared Nokia to a burning platform. What do you do to a burning platform? You probably jump away and abandon and sink it, and build a new one. For a major technology company, that does not sound right. There should be a managed transition.

Right now, there are still millions of happy (or unhappy) users and owners of Nokia's Symbian and Maemo smartphones in the world. Thousands of developers who create software for these platforms and are using the Ovi Store to distribute their work. Millions of outlets around the world selling the phones to customers. As the Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo systems have been effectively abandoned and defaced, what is going to be the sales pitch for these devices? While the systems are being phased out, Nokia still has to put out phones until they can use Windows Phone in all of their new smartphones (excluding S40, of course).

I have the feeling that the message the Nokia of Elop is giving is:

  • To users: We lied. Actually, our phones are crap and you still use them.
  • To developers: You are developing for dead platforms. You are idiots. Get a job!
  • To Nokia employees: You are crap. Get a job!
  • To affiliates and the distribution network and outlets: You sell crap, and you will be selling crap, until we get our new phones out. Good luck!
Apple is not remembered for its failures (there have been many) but for its successes, but here it seems that the whole Nokia (or at least the mobile communications division of it) is a failure. Stephen Elop might be on the right track in restoring Nokia into a company that actually innovates and makes money but at the same time he rebuilds Nokia into something that is a bit alien to us, and causalities from the destruction of the old Nokia will be haunting its efforts to climb to spotlights. It will be but a hardware manufacturer and I doubt there will be much pride in it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Feelings after Detroit Electronic Music Festival 2011

The Detroit Electronic Music Festival - or Movement, as they want to call it - used to be the largest music festival in the world, attracting over a million visitors in 2001-2003. After transforming into a more commercial venture with tickets, the attendance has been under 100,000, still being a major event, especially in the context of electronic dance music.

Sven Väth playing on the main (Vitamin Water) stage on Sunday evening
There have been big names behind the festival: Carl Craig, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, all legendary techno producers from Detroit. Even though the tickets to the events are quite pricey (weekend pass $80 plus taxes if bought from the gate), the festival is very much a product of local culture and talent. I was happy to be able to take part this year, on the Memorial weekend in May 2011 and experience the whole thing.

I only attended on Saturday and Sunday because my feet were too sore to go on Monday... There were five stages (Movement/Torino, Vitamin Water, Made in Detroit, Red Bull Music Academy and Beatport), each with a slightly different style of techno but still offering a true bass pounding experience - and the Made in Detroit stage featured exclusively DJ's from Detroit.

I haven't attended many music festivals. I went to Joensuu Song Festival in 1995 and Donauinselfest in 2001 but both were mainly about popular (and rock) music (the latter was free to all, attracting more than a million visitors). At DEMF everyone seemed to be interested in the music, there were no intoxicated people around (though the cannabis odor was everywhere) and all organization seemed to be well in place. And the music - it was as true to the city as it could be, just techno everywhere.
The Vitamin Water stage is visible in the background, and so are the skyscrapers of Detroit's Financial District. I may look grumpy but I am actually quite happy.

At one point in the early evening of Sunday, one DJ at Made in Detroit stage had some problem starting his set, so another guy grabbed the microphone and gave a little speech to the crowd. I try to recite some of it: "Welcome to Detroit! We are here to show you how we like to do it. Have fun - or as we say it, get busy!"

The people at the festival - both visitors and the artists - seemed to be immensely proud to come from Detroit. Different Detroit or "D" t-shirts were very common in many designs. Detroit has a pretty bad reputation worldwide, for being a dirty industrial city with lots of crime and other problems, like urban decay and poverty. However, it is also a city of culture and great music. The legendary label Motown (short for Motor Town, a nickname for the city) originated from Detroit, as did the techno group Underground Resistance later - of which the "father of techno music" Juan Atkins was a member.

By being there, one cannot avoid the feeling that the festival is Detroit. It is not just an event, just music or just a festival. The artists, the music, the surroundings - all of it is Detroit. When techno music was born there over 20 years ago, Juan Atkins wanted to give the city an exhilarating soundscape, drawing inspiration of its industrial atmosphere. I see the techno movement as contributing to the community, instead of just producing dance music. The festival is a continuation of that.

DJ Rolando's hit track Jaguar played live by Mark Flash & co.
Of course, there would be much more to write about. The numerous afterparties (which I did not attend), the fabulous lineup (in addition to Adam Beyer, Sven Väth and Richie Hawtin), excellent PA systems, the cooling rain, bikini girls, Moog synthesizers at technology showroom, powerful strobes & other lights, Christian electronic music booth, Border Patrol officers, breakdancing local youth, expensive beer and so on. I hope I can visit this event again some other year, but as I am just studying in United States, I am not sure if it is possible.

For more information:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japanese Celebrity Cats after the Tsunami

I do not know anyone from Japan. The emotional impact of watching videos of the tsunami wave consuming whole cities would be greater had I visited that country and made some friends there. While I really feel condolences towards everyone affected and follow the news about rescue operations, the extent by which it has touched my everyday life has remained small - I have to think about my school homework and other things.

I, like millions of others, look at pictures of cute cats on the Internet. There is nothing to be embarrassed about - everyone does it! Even girls do it! There are even some celebrity cats that have their own fan pages on Facebook, blogs and there have been photo books published of their pictures. They have quite a following.

Several of these celebrity cats come from Japan: Maru, Shironeko, Pokke and others. I am not trying to give an extensive list here, merely commenting on a couple of them.

Maru is a very playful Scottish Fold male cat. Videos of him playing with and in cardboard boxes are hugely popular and books and dvd's of his adventures have been published. Maru's owner has already posted a statement in Maru's blog, saying that the cat is alright, though his carrying case was prepared for possible evacuation.

Pokke is another famous Scottish Fold cat, often pictured playing and known for his big eyes. A recent post in Pokke's blog confirms that Pokke is OK, though he was really scared during the earthquake.

Moire is better known as the Ninja Cat (who comes closer without moving). She is a hybrid of several breeds and her mother was a stray cat. In her blog there is a link to a video at YouTube where the cat is sitting comfortably on a bed after the earthquake and tsunami.

Shironeko, also known as the most content and relaxed cat on Earth, is a plump-looking Turkish van who turned 9 years old four days ago. His blog and YouTube channel are full of photos and videos of this incredible relaxed cat and his feline friends sleeping and posing with different fruit and other objects. Unfortunately, Shironeko and his family live in the tsunami affected area and their status is unknown at the time.

It has also been reported that Tashiro-jima, better known as the Cat Islandmay have been submerged by the tsunami, lying very close to the epicenter. The 100 (human) residents of the island have not been contacted after the catastrophe. The island is known for its large population of friendly cats roaming freely around the island.

There has also been some concern about the situation on the Iriomote Island, which is the only habitat for the critically endangered Iriomote Cat, which is the most endangered cat species in the world.

Why do I care? Thousands of people have perished in Japan and they are still struggling to get a nuclear power plant in control. The net is full of desperate messages, news of destruction, human distress. Shouldn't the fate of some pets be irrelevant in this context?

Once again, why do humans keep pets? Why do they look at cute cat photos on the Internet? Among other things, they comfort us. When we are stressed, worried and tired, seeing a content, purring cat can make you feel much better, knowing that some living creature is very content with its life. A feline friend is still a friend even if its communications consists of meowing, purring and clawing, a friend that you come to know and love. Shironeko's photos are a reminder of a life without worries, but companionship of friends, safe adventures, sleeping and eating. A life without jobs, paychecks, debt, studies... or earthquakes and tsunamis.

Do not take away the naïve, worriless fantasy world of Shironeko and the others. We need it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Battle Los Angeles Is the Most Predictable Fight Ever

After a tiresome school week, I went to Goodrich Quality 16 (Ann Arbor, MI) with my classmates to see a movie. Battle Los Angeles features tough marines fighting extraterrestrial invaders who are ugly and they want to kill us. Lots of explosions, destruction and death. The always wonderful and handsome Aaron Eckhart starring. What could possibly go wrong?

It is worth noting that this is not the recipe for success. Take Independence Day and War of the Worlds, for example. Oops, I just spoiled almost everything about Battle Los Angeles. I am sorry... or am I, really?

The idea about making a movie just about a group of marines fighting in an urban environment was good. The whole movie is focused around this small group of men (and a couple of women) who fight an unknown enemy that has already brought down most of the planet's defences. The city of Santa Monica is dirty and in pieces, the biomechanical aliens are tough and the human soldiers are brave and they form a team whose members trust each others. Like professional soldiers that they are. "Remember your training!"

There is a plot. Before a planned air strike (or carpet bombing), the marines are tasked to evacuate a small group of civilians from a police station. This turns out to be difficult and many of the soldiers die. One of the civilians dies as well. They learn something about the aliens. Even though their home base is destroyed, they are able to land an attack on the enemy's control and command center, which (probably) leads to the extraterrestrials' defeat. Just like in Independence Day.

Almost every single element of the plot is executed in the most predictable way possible. It must have been hard for the scriptwriter to put all the well-known cliches of war movies in one script, but I must applaud him for having success in that. I have not seen Platoon, so I can only assume that some of the moments have been borrowed from there, but if I say Independence Day, Aliens, War of the Worlds and Apocalypse Now! came to my mind while sitting in the theater, that covers most of the content. Also the Finnish war classic The Unknown Soldier could be in the list, but I doubt that the American filmmakers ever saw that.

I have a temptation to disassemble the whole script and point out from which movies each scene was taken. I have a temptation to list all the annoying cliches here. Then again, I could make a shorter list and list all the war movie cliches that were not used in this movie.

  • The main guy is a veteran, deciding to retire, but drawn into battle one more time, realizing his place is there.
  • The main guy is haunted with his past, where the brother of one of his men died.
  • The superior of the main guy is a young, inexperienced Lieutenant. You know he will die soon, so that the main guy can take the lead.
  • Helicopters mainly explode.
  • Aliens are biomechanical.
  • Marines have a gung-ho attitude and they make a big deal about it.
  • Both of the women in this movie are really beautiful. They do not die.
  • The black guy survives and he is a really nice person.
  • Some guy loses his mind during the battle and gets killed.
  • The civilians have an innocent, about 10-year-old boy with them. This boy is 100 % normal and typical.
  • The civilian man dies because that is the only way to get anything sensible for him to do, and it provides a nice emotional moment for his son, who now looks up to the main guy.
  • One soldier proves his worth by blowing himself up (wounded, of course).
  • When the aliens' control center is destroyed, ALL alien craft stop their movement IMMEDIATELY and drop to the ground and explode, instead of, say, hovering around trying to reestablish connection to some backup command center or flying to San Francisco where the next nearest command center is located. I think this is a deadly sin.
  • The marines save the whole planet by doing something entirely trivial.
  • The aliens have antigravity (their craft just hover), but they are still using humanoid soldiers to combat humans.
  • The aliens are after our water, for no believable reason.
  • All TV broadcasts have horizontal lines and analog distortions.
  • Aliens cannot just land here, they must have some visually impressive way to arrive.
  • Aliens emit horrifying noises.
  • Aliens are very ugly.
  • Even though it is very noisy in the battlefield, nobody ever says "pardon, can you repeat?".
  • Even though they are firing big guns all the time, they never lose their hearing even though they wear no hearing protection!
  • Sometimes the grenades and bombs have pressure effect, but mostly none at all.
  • You can see that there are tons of shrapnels flying around but they never hurt anybody. Only straight gunshots do.
  • There is no blood anywhere, even though people are supposedly blowing apart everywhere.
  • Nobody seems to be really worried or sad that their friends just blew up, not even the "sensitive" young guys.
  • United States wins, of course. Marines are tough and they know it.
  • If you write a letter to your wife, you will be killed.
  • The Lieutenant has a loving wife who is pregnant. He will die.
  • Did I already mention that helicopters mainly explode? Though not all of them in this movie.
I need to stop. This list serves no purpose. When you watch the movie, you just know what is ought to happen. You know it, because this is how things happen in war movies. No explanations needed. Even without seeing this movie, you could probably come up with a couple more.

Also, sound waves reach you immediately when you see the explosion. But that is the default, of course. All things produce exactly the kind of sound you would expect them to emit.

There were many cool things about this movie. The cliches and general bad drama and dialog just spoiled all the good things that they borrowed from other movies. Aaron Eckhart, as good an actor he is, is not the proper choice for a professional soldier and a war veteran. He is also too handsome for that! This was probably the first film I have seen at the theater where I had difficulty not to burst in laughter while watching it - the absurdity of knowing everything that would happen was just too much.

As a motion picture, Battle Los Angeles was not as bad a The Day After Tomorrow, for example, but it is very difficult to guess what the producer was thinking when he got the script. Did he think that he could produce a good war movie based on that piece of... work? Apparently he did, and secured a hundred million dollar budget for it. He should have donated that money to The Mikko S. Tuomela Graduate Studies Fund (which I just founded for this purpose). Why? Well, I don't know, but it sounded proper and would have served Mr. Eckhart's career better.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Service You Get - in Finland and in USA

A common quote from a Finn visiting United States is how surprising it is to actually get service in a restaurant or just a typical grocery store, after getting used to the service level in Finland. Is this impression really justified?

I have travelled in several U.S. states and also lived in Michigan for half a year now. Unfortunately, I must say that the level and type of service you can expect in United States is of much higher level than in Finland.

I have been to Las Vegas three times. It is a city known for its services - hotels, restaurants, entertainment and so on, so it is logical to get good service there, isn't it? But I have been elsewhere, too, and encountered friendly employees everywhere, at least on Finnish standards. Sure, waitresses may be a bit annoying when they once in a while come to care about the water level in your glass and ask about how you are doing with your hamburger. This is just unprecedented on Finnish scale. But what is this Finnish scale?

There are many not-so-favorable descriptions of Finns and the Finnish culture. Finns are shy, introverted, even depressed. They do not start conversations and refuse any smalltalk. Some of this is actually true. When a Finn goes to a restaurant, he or she pays for the (amount of) food, not the service. Giving a tip would be insane, especially as in a Finnish restaurant nobody bothers you with the so-called service! Also, hiring people in Finland is insanely expensive, as are rents and infrastructure, so the few employees must care about more important things. Finnish restaurants are much less formal than American ones - you do not have to wait to be seated, you usually just pick your seat. (I am not commenting about fine dining here. That would probably have less differences.)

What about tips, then? Do they really ensure that the service level is good? I think tipping is a very bad practice, for several reasons. It adds ambiguity to the salary. In many states you can pay below minimum wage, if the employee gets tips. (By the way, 40 % of tips do not get reported to the tax officials.) It adds ambiguity to the actual cost of the service. It adds a level of commercialism to the actual service, as if you should pay extra for "good" service, in addition to the "normal" service that you ordered. And, after all, the employers do not want to pay their employees more than the minimum wage (or much less, if permitted) - it should be up to the customers to pay them! This system makes the waiters and waitresses (and other to be tipped) practically private business owners or contractors, not employees.

Do tips ensure or encourage better service? Some have even proposed that tip is actually an acronym for "to insure promptness"! Common sense might say that they do. However, in his New York Times column, Steven A. Shaw provided another view. An attractive waitress gets most tips, not the one who provides the best service.

A tip is always a voluntary payment, a gift (of which you have pay tax, of course, as it is income). However, if it is also salary to the person servicing you, how can it be voluntary? Are these free services that you may pay for if you want? Is that not somewhat degrading, even? To me, it portrays itself as a social game with money involved. A work is serious business, not tricks and games. These people, who happen to work in some service field position, are living their lives, studying, raising a family like others. I think their job should offer the level of reliable income like other jobs.