Thursday, October 22, 2009

Modern Sins

Yesterday noticed that the Forum parking hall in downtown Helsinki tries to be "green". On a sign it said that they compensate for the CO2 generated to get your car there (based upon average distances driven, etc.). On the (Finnish) website the hall also claims to exclusively use hydro-electricity and compensate for (the coal-fired) city heating used. Of course these measures are to be applauded and I surely hope drivers will prefer this parking hall over others.

At the same time these kind of measures remind me of medieval catholic indulgence practices. I think it's about time for a true green reformation.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The learning society didn't really take off

Yesterday's Aalto lecture titled (my translation): "A Learning Society ? Knowledge Society and Learning" reminded me of a balloon: a colourful ultra-thin skin filled with hot air, that took us to quite some height. However in the absence of a clear wind direction one doesn't get very far.
Prof. Teemu Leinonen (Media Lab) is to be applauded for an exceptionally interactive lecture (by Finnish and TKK standards), but I feel that a number of opportunities were missed; importantly he (or the audience!) failed to raise or address a number of crucial questions. Teemu challenged all in the audience to blog and comment the lecture so....

First of all I would really have wanted a clearer agenda for the lecture itself; or an attempt to arrive at some research agenda. Now it wasn't clear:
  • if a learning society is something to strive for. I sensed that Teemu and the public feel that the answer is yes, but I'd like to see some good justification for this goal, even though I do not disagree.
  • that a learning society is emerging irrespective of the wish of "the people". This is another, and not contradictory, view of the topic. If one holds this view it makes sense to study (in a bit of anthropological fashion) the phenomenon and analyse how we can deal with both the opportunities as well as the threats of it.
  • what problems need to be solved on the road to a learning society. I.e. view the construction of a learning society as an engineering problem. That seems to have been another view, and apparently in-line with Teemu's own research work, but then: which are those issues that need to be solved, which should be solved by engineering (technology), and which by society measures (law, regulation, business models)?
So although the lecture was interesting and thought-provoking it failed to be the enthusiastic call for rolling up our sleeves and do something that I was expecting. Last week's lecture on "The future of energy technology" by Prof. Peter Lund was great in that respect.
Let's explore the topic a bit more from the aforementioned different points of view and see if we can seduce Teemu or others into coming up with a truly interesting call for action: to join research, put up barricades on the streets, or something else.

Although Teemu made some attempt(s) to define a Learning Society it remained a bit unclear which entities are actually learning something. All the people in the society ? Or just the participants or users of a particular social network ? Organisations such as enterprises, schools, governments ? Or society itself at large? Modern internet/web technology makes it fairly easy for many, many people to obtain, discuss and augment information. And, to a perhaps lesser degree, knowledge. I think that what is new here is the possibility for vast numbers of people to do this, and in a timely fashion.
One could argue that until very recently a lot of information and knowledge was consumed, discussed and augmented by scientists, through scientific journals and conferences. For those scientist and for science Web 2.0 does not encompass a completely new paradigm, but rather offers a set of very convenient tools. Scientist have already been living in a "learning society", albeit that that society doesn't contain vast numbers of people. New systems, for example Wikipedia, enable anyone with an internet connected web browser to become part of a similar society. But don't expect to get a Nobel prize any time soon for your Wikipedia article.
For society at large it should be beneficial to involve as many people as possible in creating and augmenting information and knowledge, especially if they and even more people would use it for the greater good. One obvious problem is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as many people crank out enormous amounts of content. Lot's of potential research here: methods to search, rank, collaborate, and assess all that information.

When mere citizens publish content at large a number of other issues race their ugly faces. Teemu showed a really nice video that highlighted (amongst others) things such as: identity, authorship, copyright, security, privacy, reliability, trust, etc. An introductory analysis of the impact of "Web 2.0" on, or the requirements for changes in, even one of these aspects would deserve a lecture on its own, but it would have been nice to hear a couple of examples. If only to illustrate the need for different approaches, and hence skill sets. For example copyright issues largely need to be addressed by laws and business models, there is more than enough technology around it. Whereas for identity and privacy issues reasonably good protocols and expression languages exist but easy-to-use tools and services are missing.

Finally, I think that learning how to effectively participate in a learning society is quite a significant challenge. Fairly advanced social skills may be required; a recent post on TechCrunch hints at the kind of skills required. Perhaps for a "learning society" to really take off it must somehow "bootstrap" those social skills ?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happily retire!

This week many papers discuss variations on the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), and alternative to the widely used Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The core idea is that GDP does not take into account various "costs" to achieve the implied economic productivity. Costs such as environmental impact, depletion of resources, and employee stress. The in the news is because the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress published its first main report, and French President Sarkozy talked out it.

Today's Helsinki Sanomat demonstrates the essentials very well, but as usually doesn't connect the dots. In the opening editorial the idea of taking into account other factors than pure gross product is explained and welcomed. The GPI in Finland hasn't really raised since the ciris of the 90s.

At the same time Teija Sutinen reminds us (in a column in the Economy section) vigorously to postpone retirement because economic growth (i.e. an increase in GDP) is expected to be impossible without people working longer. Admittedly, she suggest that employers should focus on improving the atmosphere at work so that employees would actually like to continue working. I disagree.

If soon many people retire, partly because they don't like to work, we can expect them to be happier (once retired). This should dramatically increase the Finnish GPI, or any other measure that takes happiness into account.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Locked out

Some two years ago I acquired TomTom navigation software for my, then rather new, Nokia E65 phone. That software, with maps for all of Western Europe, has served me very well. In fact I'd been so pleased that I decided to get new maps. However, it seems that I'm locked out.
TomTom doesn't offer any (newer) maps for my version of the software. They also don't offer a newer version of their phone software (except for Windows for Mobile). Nokia nowadays offers Ovi Maps, fairly decent navigation software, for free. One pays a bit for "extras" such as speech navigation. Alas, Ovi Maps is not available for the E65 phone. So I should by a new phone or a dedicated navigator, two options I don't like at all. Why would I have to buy more hardware when all I need is a trivial update of some data ?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Social Media Explained

Todays Volt supplement to the Swedish language Helsinki paper Huvudstadsbladet presented me this morning with absolutely the best insight into the social media frenz ever. Rocky, the main character in the wonderful strip with the same name, opens with (my translation):

This bloody Facebook has turned the complete population of the western world into Tamagotchis!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Excersises in reputation: what's in a chauffeur ?

Sunday, a day of nice rituals. For me one of the rituals is to go through the job listings in the main daily newspaper here, Helsingin Sanomat. I'm not looking for more work but I find it interesting to see who is hiring and downright fascinating to see how the employers present themselves. Just the fact that so many organizations feel the need to post vacancies in the printed paper should be food for some good dormitory discussions.

This weeks award for the most intriguing vacancy goes to the "Ylioppilastutkintolauta", the Finnish Matriculation Examination committee. The vacancy is for a concierge. My attention was raised as I'd assumed that this highly regarded organization would have a small staff, working in some office building together with other governmental organizations, perhaps the Ministry of Education or so. After all the exams are reviewed and graded by the teachers; teacher of one school grade the work of students of another school. The committee does important work in organizing these nationwide events but also plays an important role in the development of the curriculum and in getting the exam accepted as entry ticket to universities. However this highly valued work doesn't require a large workforce, so why this vacancy ?

With my curiosity now aroused I read the posting in detail only to find out that one of the tasks of the concierge would be to drive and maintain the Committee Vehicle. I was shocked by the (heavy) reputation of the Committee hitting the floor under my scale. What on earth do they need a chauffeured Committee Vehicle for?
The Secretary or President can move around in downtown Helsinki much more efficient by public transport: the committee premises are close to metro, trams and buses. If that's below standard, there is always the option of a taxi. Two taxi trips a day are much cheaper that a permanent chauffeur. Even just owning or leasing a half-decent simple car is more expensive. Maybe it is tradition? The committee is a 150 year old institution and perhaps they used to have a driver for the horse-drawn Committee Coach ? I like to be wrong here but I cannot think of another reason than ego-stroking status. But even so, I simply can't imagine where the President would have to go (for business) even once a week. Present the new exam questions to the Parliament ? That would only be a few times per year and those questions are secret until the exam. Go and talk to the Chancellor of one of the Universities ? I simply cannot think of a realistic need for a Committee Vehicle.

P.S.: The Annual Report on the (good) website of the committee reveals that the permanent staff indeed only counts 21. The financial figures are not sufficiently specific to reveal costs incurred for a Committee Vehicle or other transport.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Will anybody care ?

Marc Davis , "Social Media Guru" from Yahoo, was in town last week. He gave a talk at Helsinki's MobileMonday and later on Wednesday at MindTrek. And today the paper published an interview. Marc Davis represents an "optimistic" view of social media where the clever use of technology allows him to stay up-to-date about his friends. And, more importantly, for his family and friends to stay-up-to date about him. He explained that his mom knows that he's in Helsinki, Finland and what he's doing and seeing, thanks to the status updates he sent to Facebook and photos uploaded to Flickr. So he "doesn't have to call her".

That statement screams for somebody looking for a thesis subject. Does this fashion of publishing your life lead to truly compassionate behavior ? A simple metric would be to time how long it takes before one of your friends calls you once you stop updating your status. I mean, you might be dying in the gutter of the street, fallen from the stairs, or in bed with a flu and to tired to type. Or simply be without connectivity, or decided that the pressure to think of a funny status update message at least twice a day was simply too much.
It would also be interesting to research if this "true response time" of your social network depends on the size of it. In a larger network all your friends may assume that some other friend already has contacted you. Should social media have better support for rumor? That is for one of your friends to talk about you with another friend ?
Another factor could be the type of the social network. I suspect nobody gets worried any time soon if you stop uploading pictures. On the other end you'd think that somebody at least notices quickly when your twitter or jaiku stream goes silent. But the essential question remains: will anybody care ?