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.

IMG_1176

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) Tunein.com (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.

Amazon Driven by Data

Possibly this belongs on my datablog and I might write it up there later (or I might not).

The New York Times has published a piece on working conditions in Amazon. It does not make for comfortable reading and certainly does not paint Amazon as a company which I would want to work for. But I did want to pick up on one comment in it.

“Amazon is driven by data,” said Ms. Pearce, who now runs her own Seattle software company, which is well stocked with ex-Amazonians.

That comment about driven by data is something that worries me. Sure, data is very sexy at the moment in the tech but data in itself can be meaningless and what matters is the information you can derive from it. But the information you look for is generally skewed by humans who decide what questions they want to ask of that data. Data isn’t the answer and how it is queried is not benign or completely rationally independent.

The average tenure in Amazon, apparently, is one year. You can argue that this might be as a result of a toxic culture. You can argue that Jeff Bezos is a genius. But to my uncertain knowledge, Amazon does not turn a profit and I think, has never turned a profit. We have an ongoing assumption that this is somehow okay, that it’s a new paradigm, and times have changed. With an average tenure of a year, you have a company which cannot possibly have stability in output quality, and you have a company whose knowledge base never develops.

Amazon’s search is atrocious and its recommender system has deteriorated badly in my experience. A hypothesis for why that might be is that they appear to have rapid staff turnover and by definition, limited continuity.

Many of the datapoints in Amazon’s evaluation system appear not to be datapoints at all. They are entries in the AnyTime Feedback Tool:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly.

Anyone who implements a tool like this either a) expects it to get gamed and considers that a value or b) doesn’t expect it to get gamed in a high octane organisation is naive at best and making decisions on potentially faulty data. Either way, they are unlikely to wind up with the best staff. Such organisations, however, can only operate on the comfort blanket of never admitting this.

Amazon can call itself a data driven organisation, and if it wants to measure everything down to the nth degree, they should be bright enough to know the limitations of what they are doing. Going by the content of the NYT’s article, they probably aren’t.

Apartment sizes in Dublin

Reports in Dublin abound lately that the city council is considering reducing minimum apartment size regulations in the face of supply issues in Dublin and with a hope of getting construction companies to start building again.

I’m appalled. I’m aware that Dublin has supply issues but personally instead of letting the construction companies – who hardly covered themselves in glory much in the last 15 years – dictate or influence regulations in a bid to maximise profits, I’d be looking at who has what planning permission, how long they have it for and putting in increasing tax as time without completed building elapses. When I came to Dublin in 1999, a mortgage advisor insinuated that all the building land with planning permission in Dublin was held by just 8 companies. The price increases we were seeing then paled into nothing compared with what was to come.

I don’t know if that was then true or whether this is still the case. However, the fact remains that buildings are not like loaves of bread, out of date and disposable overnight. If we continue to build poor accommodation, and god knows most of the apartments in Dublin are unattractive to buy or live in, then we are stuck with it for years into the future. I’m not happy about this. Our regulations need to focus on the future of the city as well, and not just the desires of the builders.

Dublin is an increasingly unattractive city to live in. Maybe our city fathers need to do a brainstorming in terms of what sort of city they want. Already I’m having difficulty answering the question “why would anyone want to live in Dublin”. It’s a hard city to live in when you bear in mind the accommodation stock, the public transport system, the roads system and the ongoing feeling that you’re being hit day after day, after day, by more good reasons not to live here.

 

the VW T1 Campervan, bus, variations on a split screen theme

I started a painting project last week, part of a project to make me more comfortable sketching things and making it easier to paint, called, rather unofficially, the vw campervan project. I have a sketch book and most days, I set aside half an hour to do a picture of a VW Campervan. I favour the T1 for some reason.

If you asked me what my favourite car was, I probably would never have answered VW Campervan. All my driving life I have driven Fiestas, for example.

But on the other hand I own one biscuit box and one moneybox and several keyrings which are basically T1s and while I don’t get the whole thing with the Beetles, I have to say somewhere buried under me is a liking for the T1. I think it’s a lifestyle thing with the whole VW campervan thing – they are closely aligned with an element of the surfing lifestyle.

So anyway, I decided to have a go at a campervan, and this was the first one.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

This wa the first one. I have cheerfully called it Rust bucket because well, let’s face it, a rust bucket is what it is. The T1 is both easy and hard to paint at the same time. You can get a flattened impression of the camper quite easily and that V at the front along with the split screen is iconic. Most of the time though I get the impression that if I painted it as a Tube train, most people would get the impression I was painting Tube trains. The thought does occasionally occur to me. The few people who get to see these things on my Facebook, twitter or instagram feed have rather liked this one.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

and later on this afternoon, I will be painting it for the third time following a family request. I don’t quite know why it appealed to people so much but apparently the cyclist…don’t you know?

Anyway, I do, as it happens, have a sketching blog which I am going to do something about using more often once I figure out a low hassle way of getting decent pictures of the vans onto flickr.

The thing is, the T1 especially, and the T2 (no split screen, no V) are rounded, shapely vans. My hope is that when I get to the end of the project in about 6 months time, that the vans I draw will be significantly less boxy.

In the meantime, I’m struggling to identify iconic cars from any later than about the 1980s.