Progress in Finnish

So, I’m slightly behind schedule on the Finnish vocab heist. I am not going to beat around the bush; this is slightly disappointing because it means I am unlikely to hit my target of completing the fully 3000 words by the time my birthday rolls around in a month’s time.

However, I am currently at 1510 words which there are now fewer words to learn than I have already learned. In other words, I have beaten the half way mark. Psychologically, this is seriously important. I am very happy about that.

This brings with it interesting progress. Reading the news in Easy Finnish on the YLE website is getting easier and easier every day. I’ve reached a stage where very often, I can work out what a word means from context. If you learn languages at all, reaching that point is phenomenal because it means that it is getting easier all the time. I am really, really happy about that. Also, it isn’t just the news in Easy Finnish, it is the stream of headlines from Helsingin Sanomat on Facebook, and other Finnish sites which I have “liked”.

So although I will most likely miss my November target, I’m not unhappy. I am a lot further on in terms of reading than I was the last time and this is great.

Drawing, maths and languages

Yesterday, when I was talking to one of my friends, she told me that you could see, across the various Facebook posts (my instagram pictures are usually sent across to my Facebook account), how I was getting better at the drawing all the time.

This made me happy for the obvious reasons of you’d like to think that as you do more of a thing, you get better. But this was also the friend with whom I had the original conversation of “I was never very good at drawing” where I realised that I got irate with people who said that about maths or languages and pointed out to myself, about art at least, that for most things, few people started out very good at anything, it was very much a learning by doing thing that got them better. And that I’d never given much time to art because “I was never very good at it”.

So the above is some approximation of Mount Fuji, done on a train last week or the week before. Let me tell you, drawing on trains in Ireland is not easy. The trains bounce quite a bit. You need to get the drawing bit done in Heuston before the train sets off. The painting bit, requiring a lot less precision, is okay.

I’ve found myself in conversations about learning Irish during the week and the message I have taken away from it is that many people, in Ireland at least, are unable to draw advantages from things they have to do, even when they don’t want to do it. When you point out those advantages, you get yelled at.

It is fair to say that usage of Irish is not particularly broad, but that’s not why anyone really learns it, and even if you never see yourself speaking Irish, there are tangible benefits to learning it as it has a lot of sounds that are just not in English which may be useful should you want to learn another language later.

What that language might be is also something you cannot dictate at the age of 4 or 5.

I don’t speak Irish on a day to day basis, mostly because an chaighdeĆ”n and I speak slightly different varieties and I just don’t understand the radio a lot. But I do speak French and German significantly more regularly and I am learning Finnish. Having learned Irish has fed into all three of those, especially the Finnish (as it happens). Knowledge is only wasted if you are the wasting type.

What saddens me most is the argument that education should be dictated purely by what most people are likely to need to earn money. Education should be directed towards equipping people to learn on an ongoing basis, and towards teaching them to think.

When I see a lot of arguments online in Ireland, I feel that in those two objectives at least, education has failed. Much of the argument also centres on how education has failed to provide adequate vocational training. If we focused on education like this, then arguably, 80 years ago, it was fair enough to get people out of school when they were 12, not worry too much if they could read or write, because sure, they weren’t ever really going to need it, were they?

We got to a space in our country where we provided an adequate basis for people to develop their own views on their lives and then move on. I sometimes feel that with a focus on what “industry needs” and “what people need for their careers” that we will lose that view of education, that it is a tool for living, and not just a tool for an employer.

Which brings me back to art.

It’s hard to make a living from art. Most people can’t. An awful lot (embittered photographer comment coming up) of people expect to be able to get art for free or “a credit, which will be good for you”.

Most of the people I know in the tech sector, so people who do the currently fashionable professions of tech related programming, network management or software design, system administration or whatever you’re having yourself, have developed hobbies which are fundamentally not tech focused. Anecdotally, for the women, it tends towards craft work, knitting, crochet, sewing, and for the men, it tends towards craft beer, and, wood turning.

This leads me to think that despite arguments that the tech sector can be very creative, in terms of designing solutions to problems, that creative side of things is not really tangible enough.

I regret massively that I did not take up drawing and painting at a much earlier stage in my life (and I’m going to write a couple of excuses in a moment).

Part of that is because there is, I think, a truth missing from our lives. It really doesn’t matter how good you are at something provided you are enjoying doing it. And if you focus on enjoying it, you may wind up getting good at it.

We are not all born to be Olympic champions but that’s not why people go running every day.

School is where we should be getting the fundamentals of these skills, the building blocks on which we can build stuff later. Anyone who knows anything at all about languages knows that you never stop learning. No one who is 40 years old today has a static command of their native language. Anyone who works in technology has an ever increasing set of use cases for various words whose meaning was actually reasonably set down prior to tech, eg, analyst, architect, and, let’s face it, computer. Yet, I suspect if someone popped up and suggested that the ability to draw might be a skill which should be part of a rounded education, the same arguments coming from the cohort who see no value in Irish for the simple reason that they were never very good at it (and didn’t bother trying) would be advanced in terms of art. This is a pity because it is predicated on the idea that people are born good artists. But drawing is a skill which can be acquired to some reasonable level.

When I went to school, there was a tendency of seeing some people as good at art, and some as less talent. In many respects, art was seen as a talent and less as a skill. People in my class were seen as good at drawing and the others…well. I was, for the most part, one of the others, bar on one occasion, when I drew a holiday scene, actually won a prize for it, and still had a teacher demanding to know why I didn’t colour in something which, in real life, was white.

In an act of rebellion, I coloured it in pink, when, age the age of 8, I lost that argument. Pink was about the one colour this thing was never going to be. Looking back now, I don’t much remember the praise.

I remember the surprise, the astonishment, that someone from the “Not good at drawing group” (but terribly good at maths and English) had produced something that didn’t look like a spider had been at a paint box. I retreated back to the maths and the English. It seemed somehow safer.

No doubt, there were others who retreated to something else from the maths and English. We all, as children, have our safe places.

There is research around that suggests that kids learn better when effort is rewarded rather than success. I don’t have a link to it handy but it’s particularly interesting in the context of other research which says in the US, in particular, children from Asian families have a view that working at maths will enable you to get better at maths, whereas in other groupings there is a view that you have to have some sort of leaning towards it. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m inclined to see some merit in that argument, and not just limited to maths.

As it happens, I did Mount Fuji twice, once in my watercolour book, and once as part of my inktober getting better at drawing notebook which isn’t so great for paints. This is how it looked first.

#inktober #inktober2015 #sennelier #hahnemuhle #fineliner A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

When my friends can actually recognise the places I am drawing, this makes me feel very good. Drawing is fun, and you can learn how to do it. The same is true of most things.

Birds of A Clef: Mex

I have a sketchblog on the go (also on this domain) but I haven’t really been publicising it much.


Anyway, I have a couple of projects on the go, one being the vans, and the other, rather suddenly, being a collection of birds from a project called Birds of a Clef. It has caught people’s interest for some reason with the net result that requests have come in.

Like this one, for example.


I see these taking more control than the van did.

Getting around Dublin

There was word during the week that in terms of some new investment in public transport infrastructure in Dublin, DART Underground would be shelved and money would be put into Luas via Broadstone to Dublin Airport. During the past week, there was an editorial in the Irish Times pushing BRT because it was cheaper.

I was extremely disappointed in the Irish Times. If you read the BRT documentation at the time public feedback was sought, you might be aware that on the day BRT went into operation (if it did), demand for it would already surpass capacity. As such, building it was never going to be anything other than utter folly.

Doing things because they are the cheapest option is incredibly stupid, particularly if they don’t actually work. You might as well not do them at all, save the money and push it towards something that does work. We are incredibly wasteful in this country sometimes. I do not know how we change this, but our theoretically national paper of record could go someway towards not supporting inadequate schemes because they are cheaper than the alternatives when compared to the alternatives they are inadequate.

There appears to be no coherent, encompassing vision for transporting people around Dublin beyond the city manager’s desire to get everyone to cycle everywhere. In terms of public transport, there is disorganisation and chaos, and an utter lack of a future plan. I get told that when we eventually get all the private transport off the roads, the buses will be grand. This makes me sick in my stomach for a couple reasons, not least the fact that there is a long way to go before the bus transport network in Dublin is grand and removing the cars is not going to cater for that.

Dublin’s public transport system is a collection of errors cobbled together in a “yerrah it’ll be grand” way. Most of the people who tell me it’ll be grand, it’s fine, sure we don’t need…probably do not get the buses at the times I do. They do not sit in a bus on Eden Quay for 8 minutes while a driver change is not completing because the second driver hasn’t arrived on time. They don’t spend 15 minutes on O’Connell Street waiting for passengers to board a 16. They probably don’t wait forty five minutes for that 16 because they have bunched on the route and now, there are three of them within 5 minutes of each other, and they are 45 minutes behind the most recent bus before them.

What is needed is a coherent plan for the city that doesn’t depend on the political generosity of a minister for transport. These things need to be planned for the needs of the city. But we can’t even get these things right in Dublin where the lack of efficiency in the system causes me night mares five days a week and this has to be costing the city money in lost productivity and frustration. What hope have the other cities of getting any sort of a reasonable plan and financing in place when the main road between Limerick and Cork isn’t being funded properly either?

Currently, if you are transiting the city from north to south using a bus, in most cases, you need to get through what I now call the Pass of Thermopylae, basically the slip of a road from D’Olier Street onto College Green. It currently has one lane because of Luas works. Dublin Bus’s social media team explained that this was causing delays.

But these delays are never going to go away because at some point, presumably, there will be a tram running along the lane which is currently dug up. On several mornings it has taken 20 minutes to get from Eden Quay to Dame Street purely because buses aren’t getting onto D’Olier Street, a combination, I suspect, from a lack of bus stop space, and limited flow capacity onto College Green. The current works, remember, are being done now because we didn’t want to do them 20 years ago.

Ultimately, at some stage, someone is going to have to sit down and say “we have X flow rate of people through these areas and buses are perhaps no longer the most appropriate way to do this. There are 21 bus routes going through D’Olier Street. There are 10 bus routes coming down through Drumcondra. And ultimately, we are going to have to recognise that this costs money and needs to be managed over a time frame greater than the lifetime of a Dail. Public transport in the urban areas will have to stop being the sweeties of a transport minister.


Coldwater pleasures


Probably one of my favourite kite photographs of all time. Sometimes it doesn’t feel so long again but it was taken in 2009 and that means it is more than five years since I was seriously taking kite photographs.

Living in the real world

One of the things which annoys me about discourse in general is that if you are discussing things like work, unemployment, the downsides of work, at some point, it is likely that some person will say something along the lines of “they need to live in the real world”, or “you’re living in the real world now”.

Without wanting to go into it in too much detail, I got told I was living in the real world now in response to a comment that I was finding my city centre bus commute to be a hassle. It is a hassle for various reasons. It is unpredictable in length, depending on what bus model I wind up on, I have a greater or lesser likelihood of being extremely travel sick by the time I get to the city centre, and a journey distance of 6.7 kilometres can take anything between 25 minutes and an hour. If I’m getting really travel sick, it’s likely that the journey is also taking longer than usual. Some bus drivers are absolute killers on the clutch. I thought the buses were all automatic but some days I wonder.

Anyway, this apparently means I am now living in the real world. I find it annoying, and to be honest, dishonest. It’s been a feature of my life for the last 3 months. Prior to that, for 9 months I was “resting” meaning I was applying for jobs after finishing college, and prior to that, I was commuting over and back to UCD, leaving home at 6.55 to a) get across the city in a reasonable space of time and b) get a parking space at UCD. I have no doubt there are some people who would assume that because I was a student for a year, I wasn’t living in the real world. Prior to that I drove to work for more than a dozen years. That must have been a fantasy universe as well.

This real world nonsense is flung at people in a lot of debates. Teachers get told they should try living in the real world. I’ve taught teenagers. I don’t know one person in any job that I’ve worked in who has done the whole spiel about teachers having an easy life who has any even remote concept of what’s involved in teaching. It may not be the real world, fine. But as a dream world, it’s a lot bloody harder than most of the other jobs I’ve worked in. I think people use the real world as a signifier that they are, or have been envious of people for some reason. Sure, you’d like not to go into work for 9 months. Try dealing with the stress of managing finances in those circumstances. The real world varies. For some people it’s incredibly easy, compared to others. For some, it is incredibly hard. Often, over time, it changes.

Life doesn’t become more real either which way. It only is as it is and it’s up to you to recognise what you can change. I’ve played every game around the bus schedule to try and minimise the impact of it on my life. My life didn’t magically become more real in the last three months because I was getting the bus to work compared to the last 15 years where I mostly drove.

It is a pure intellectual insult to split people into those who live in the real world and those who do not.

Main Railway Station, Helsinki

It’s three years since I was last in Finland – I’d say it was far too long but there was a 14 year gap prior to that.

Anyway, for various art related reasons I wanted a picture of an icebreaker and I knew there had been one near the hotel where I stayed the last time and given I was still dragging a large camera around then, I would have been surprised if I didn’t take a picture of it. So I rooted out the relevant hard drive to find the pictures from Helsinki, and while I was scrolling through them, I found this.


IMG_1080Basically, this is the railway station in Helsinki. It’s a rather austere looking building – a lot of discussions online suggest it’s a bit Soviet Union. The day I got the train to Tampere, there was, however, a train to Saint Petersburg on one of the quays. Finland does share a border with Russia. I’ve always remembered the other picture I took of the train station, or made anyway as the processing was rather unique IMG_1083

So I’d forgotten about this. Whether it is the passage of time, or the mood I find myself in now, I suddenly find I love the black and white picture now, and particularly, in full screen version as my desktop image. Helsinki is a lovely city. I really do want to go back.

For what it’s worth, I did take a picture of the icebreaker too. Here it is.


Language learning supports

Last last night, I hit one of the many small milestones I give myself in the ongoing quest of learning/teaching myself Finnish. I hit 650 words covered in my Memrise vocabulary course. This is very slightly over 20 per cent of the quest.

If you spend any time around the world of language learning online, you tend to come across any number of methods that promise to make things easy to learn to be fluent in a language. There is Fluent in 3 Months, for example, and then there is Duolingo which everyone rams down your throat when it comes to educational software.

If you drill down to what you need to learn to be able to speak a language, it generally amounts to learning a lot of words, and learning the framework for putting it together. So a lot depends on your response to the idea that to at least have a fighting chance of learning a language you need to learn some grammar, and you need to learn some words, a number in the thousands. A lot of people, particularly English native speakers, have problems with both because they have never been motivated enough to handle this for any language other than their own, and very often, they have not gotten a decent grammatical framework in their own language owing to teaching policy changes over the last 30-40 years. In that context, easy solutions seem enticing; but they do not remove the need to learn some grammar and learn some vocabulary.

There are no discussions around “what is fluency anyway” which removes from you the need to learn these things.

So currently I am learning Finnish (again) in a country where, it must be said, teaching support is thin on the ground. My tools in this task are (a) four weeks of Finnish in Finland in 1998 (b) a bunch of text books acquired around then (c) (d) YLE’s website (e) Memrise (f) Facebook and (g) a notebook.

Tunein gives me access to radio to listen to. I listen (if I am awake) to the morning program on YLE Puhe because it covers international news so I have context that I can get an idea of what’s going on. What matters is that I learn to hear words that I’m learning else where.

YLE has the news in Easy Finnish for learners. One of the most useful things there is that as you pick up Finnish vocabulary, this gets easier and easier to read. Facebook has newsfeeds from a bunch of Finnish media organisations. I don’t have time to read them all but most days I get to look at things and try and figure what is happening in Finland. Yesterday was National Nature Day in Finland, a day on which Finns are encouraged to go out and enjoy the wonderful nature around them. I can categorically say that Finland is a stunning country and I fully endorse this exercise. Bring mosquito repellent.

But for those to work for you, for the radio and the newspapers to start making sense you need to start looking at vocabulary and basically, a lot depends on how you want to approach that; either via long printed lists, or handwriting your own lists, your own testing cards for example. I’ve always know that you don’t learn vocabulary by trying to learn it off, but by constantly testing yourself and aside from creating some system to do it yourself, Memrise is actually the handiest tool to do that. They dress what they are doing up in some science in terms of identifying when you get tested on stuff which I haven’t fully worked out yet but it doesn’t matter. The important thing from my point of view is that Memrise has a handful of Finnish tools, including one vocabulary list of 3000 words and another list of verbs as a vocab list. They have similar large lists for other languages.

Learning 3000 words of Finnish isn’t going to mean I speak or write Finnish although it does mean I understand more of it, so the other thing that I am now doing most days (now that I have 600 words or so to play with) is write some Finnish – simple and all as it is – daily.

So I have a daily schedule that now involves the following:

  • reviewing the vocab I already have
  • learning new vocab
  • learning new verbs
  • conjugating verbs per info in my grammar book
  • reading the news in Easy Finnish from YLE

The thing is, learning a language takes time and effort. I’ve targetted next year to see about taking advanced Finnish exams which means the ante has to be upped as I get better. I know from past experience that the more words I know, in general, the easier subsequent words become to learn as you start to develop a language instinct. I know from past experience that the more I read, the better I will write.

There is really only one thing missing from all this and that is the problem relating to speaking. I am not yet doing any of that. I know there are online options for language exchange but the last time I looked for one, my language interest wasn’t available. But I’m resourceful and I dare say that I will figure something out, either through finding an online message board in Finnish related to some other interest I have, or by hacking the Finnish community on twitter. There are always doors which can be opened.


Blindly fighting on

I had an interesting one during the week when someone made an assertion about the place I came from and I pointed out – politely – that they were wrong. I added I was from there.

My normal reaction when I’m the person making an assertion about Italy, and an Italian says “well actually…” is to assume I might be wrong. What seems to be increasingly evident is that most people assume they have nothing left to learn. The response I got was “this is a joke right, because based on other information I have which is entirely irrelevant and inadequate to the debate this is completely wrong, include major league misunderstanding of language”.

The social media scene in Ireland was upended by an argument on Twitter, primarily, about comments which Rosanna Davison may or may not have made regarding gluten and a number of illnesses. In one respect, it was, in an era of celebrity trumping all, gratifying to see a significant number of people pointing out that she was wrong.

But…it doesn’t really end there. At least one commentator took the view “so what if she said something stupid

Reaction is kind of ridiculous though. Who cares what she says about it, really

and at least one commentator suggested that this was pretty much bullying.

Remember a real person reads all those tweets

So it’s bullying to point out someone who is not a qualified doctor, who talks about her “qualification in nutritional therapy” is making assertions, in the field of health, which are wrong. And Harbison worries about Rosanna. What about all the people who a) are coeliac and know a whole pile more about it that she appears to and b) all the people with rheumatoid arthritis who really don’t need this misinformation becoming widespread. If nothing else, people start having to constantly field well meaning ignorance of the lines “you should…” and “why don’t you try this I read it in the Sindo once, you know Rosanna Davison, she has some kind of qualification in nutrition, so she knows what she is talking about….”

This is a sad state of affairs. Much of the commentary – from people who were deeply angry with her – was still unfailingly clear and polite. It is not bullying to point out someone is wrong. Davison’s response was to block commentary on twitter from experts in the field. This is the classic action of someone who doesn’t want to learn they are wrong.

And it is extremely important to point out when someone says something wrong, and potentially damaging in the field of health because it goes to the heart of keeping people healthy.

So an argument around a piece of history in one small town might be unimportant but there are subjects where it is not so unimportant.

At no point in their lives does anybody know everything about everything. It is entirely possible that one of the most useful skills we could pass on to people is learning to recognise when a) they are wrong and b) have something to learn from others.

In the meantime, XKCD will continue to provide one of the most accurate reflections of interactive discussions online today.

Duty Calls by the inimitable Randall Munro

In the meantime it’s worth nothing that Davison has made a statement suggesting the comments disputed are not in her book, she doesn’t really believe them and she has been misquoted.

On a wider note, I wonder how much the need our media has to sell newspapers has allowed themselves to abdicate their responsibility in terms of information gatekeeping. Put simply while it’s hard to prevent misinformation getting to the web courtesy of the democratisation of access to broadcast, one of the selling points of the newspapers was, in theory, that they were supposed to be better than that. But that is a debate for another day.

waves and numbers and stuff