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Season's Greetings

Posted: 2009-12-23 16:04:42, Categories: General, Helsinki, Art, 162 words (permalink)

Christmas and New Year greetings card 2009. Last January, somebody had made a snow cat in the Helsinki central park. There it was sitting quietly on a wooden plank, smiling and looking at people passing by. I'm sure many of them smiled back and became just a bit happier because of the cat.

During these days a large part of the world is celebrating Christmas, either as a religious event, a family gathering, a materialistic festival or all three of them. In Finland where I live it is common to go shopping for gifts and even feel stressed about finding the right gifts for right people. I admit that I did some Christmas shopping too. However, the snow cat reminds me that a gift can be anonymous, it doesn't require buying anything, it can be given at any time of the year and that small surprises in life are often the best gifts.

With the cat, I wish all of you peaceful Christmas and many small surprises for year 2010!

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My new travel companion

Posted: 2009-11-30 23:03:37, Categories: Travel, General, Finland, Norway, Hospitality exchange, Germany, 487 words (permalink)

Me and Sandra on the slopes of Mt. Roan, Telemark, Norway. In the picture you can see me and Sandra on the way to Mt. Roan in Norway. She is my new companion on my travels — and in life.

We met in Helsinki in March 2009 at a Hospitality Club sauna party and ended up cooking together in the middle of the night. Quite soon after that Sandra came for a few days visit at my place, then for a week, and I also visited her in Memmingen, Southern Germany. Since then we've tried to spend at least one week per month together.

Sandra has an organic food store which is great for one of our shared hobbies: cooking. Her brother looked at us once in the kitchen and asked how can we eat all that food. Because it's tasty, of course! We also like to go out and do sports so gaining weight hasn't been a problem so far. Actually Sandra has been more worried of me being too thin and suggested that I should eat more chocolate.

Other activities which we share are hiking, cycling, listening to music, going to concerts and traveling. In the summer we traveled together for six weeks, mainly in Southern and Central Norway. It was a road trip by Sandra's car combined with many hikes in national parks. Mountains and fjords were beautiful although Norwegian weather made it quite a wet experience: out of 31 days there were only two when it didn't rain at all. But we survived and enjoyed five days of sunshine in Finland right after leaving Norway and driving quickly through Sweden.

On the road our lifestyles fit together quite well. We're both more into going out walking and wild camping in the nature than booking a plush hotel and lying on the beach. We also contact locals through hospitality exchange sites and stay with them — just as we both did already before when traveling alone. One big difference compared to my earlier trips has been less time spent in Internet cafes and writing blog articles, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

Life is funny. I never studied German at school or spent much time in Germany but love isn't restricted by country borders. We have both traveled quite a bit and lived abroad in the past. And although we're communicating mainly in English there's now an extra motivator for both of us to learn a new language.

I'm still living in Helsinki and Sandra in Memmingen near her shop. We don't have any immediate plans of moving together, but in the long term it doesn't make sense to continue flying back and forth. However, that's what we're doing now about once a month and send messages or call in between. Sandra is not a computer person but she has for the first time in her life gotten used to writing long emails. That helps a bit in communicating with a nerd like me. :-)

Where wood turns into stone and cacti grows

Posted: 2009-07-15 16:15:10, Categories: Travel, United States, 990 words (permalink)

Logs of petrified wood with painted desert in the background. In June I spent about ten days in Arizona and Southern Utah, admiring the Grand Canyon, several other national parks and the deserts between them. One of the most fascinating natural features was petrified wood: old logs which had turned into colourful stones through a long process of organic matter being replaced by minerals brought in by water. It was also very interesting to go for a walk just about anywhere, looking at the different cacti and other plants in the dry, but not barren ground. The photo in this blog entry is from the Petrified Forest National Park and a few more from various places on the trip can be found in the photo gallery.

The trip was actually a family gathering. My youngest brother Lari has been living in Canada since August 2008 and it's a tradition in our family that whenever one of the kids is living abroad the rest of us come for a visit at least once. So we traveled to Lari's home in Welland, Canada, near the Niagara Falls and toured southern Ontario a little bit. However, none of us had seen the Grand Canyon or other natural wonders in Arizona so we decided to spend two thirds of the three week holiday almost on the opposite side of North America.

We started with a flight to Las Vegas, which is a city of tens of thousands of slot machines, millions of flashing lights and imitations of Eiffel tower, canals of Venice and other famous places around the world, all in the middle of desert. Hotels are trying to lure people to gamble in their casinos with all kinds of attractions, including super low prices during the middle of the week. You can stay in Hilton for less than 20 euros per double room (we paid 24 USD plus tax) and eat a sumptuous dinner buffet in Sahara, another nearby hotel for about 7 euros per person including non-alcoholic drinks. Vegas is a good place to stop for a night or two, go sightseeing inside the hotels, save the casino bucks for a car rental and then get out of the city.

At Grand Canyon I went to sit on the edge of the cliff in the morning, looking towards the other side which was 15 km away with a gorge about 1.5 km deep in between. The majesty of the place added a sense of calmness to the atmosphere. There was a river in the bottom but no way of seeing any details of the water flowing through. There were people walking on the trails but appearing to move very slowly, an illusion created by the great distance. It's common to spend one day hiking until the bottom of the gorge and use the following day to climb back up. We only did a half day hike, descending 350 meters of altitude for getting better views than from the rim.

From Grand Canyon we drove 200 km south to the Sedona area. There lush areas by the riverside were surrounded by red sandstone mountains and prairie further away from the water. We stopped at one of the roadside parking lots and took a walk watching all the different plants. Low bushes, grass and various types of cacti were pushing out from the red ground. Some of them were blooming in bright colors. We saw a roadrunner run across the path but no coyote following it. A local shop was selling quite tasty prickly pear cactus candy.

Our next major stops were the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert national parks. Green plants were scarce in them but otherwise they were full of colors. Long time ago fallen wood had been buried underground and water filtered through it, gradually replacing all organic material with minerals. Later erosion again exposed the logs which had preserved the shape and patterns of wood but been turned into stones of various colors and cracked into smaller pieces. Behind the groups of petrified logs was the painted desert, rows of small rocky hills and gorges which also were rich in colors from the different minerals embedded in them. It was a fascinating sight. With more time and proper equipment it would have been possible to get off the paths and go hiking and camping in the painted desert wilderness area. If I go there another time I want to be prepared for that.

We continued further north and then west back towards Las Vegas, stopping in a number of places on the way. Monument Valley was particularly interesting because of its movie heritage: many famous film scenes have been shot between those cliffs. Another less known place which I especially liked was Devil's garden in Escalante, southern Utah. It was a wonderful rock formation a little bit out of the way, behind 20 km of gravel road. We decided to drive there despite rain and when arriving we saw a rainbow over the site. Nobody else was around and we spent an hour exploring the holes, arches, stone mushroom towers and other strange shapes.

Our connection to the local culture was superficial. Native American Indians were selling handicrafts next to the sights but we didn't make friends with any of them to hear or see how they actually lived. We did see a bit of the American way of traveling and how everything is big. Massive mobile homes were towing SUVs behind them to be used for shorter trips. Food portions in restaurants were huge — it was easy to see why overweight is a common problem in the country. More positive for us were the hotels which were often large enough to accommodate all five of us in one room or very comfortably in two rooms. Overall, it was nice to have the whole family together for more than a day or two. Previous time was in 2003 when I was living in Japan. It's funny that it seems to happen more easily thousands of kilometers away from home.

Learning about digital preservation and people around it

Posted: 2009-06-03 23:05:59, Categories: Travel, Work, 665 words (permalink)

IASSIST conference reception at the Tampere old city hall. I wrote half a year ago about my new job with environmental and cultural data. During the last seven months I've learned a great deal about ensuring long term access to digital data or digital preservation as it is commonly called, about museums, libraries and archives and about people who work in them.

My main focus has been on the Finnish National Digital Library project (Kansallinen digitaalinen kirjasto in Finnish) and in particular the long term preservation of digital and digitized cultural works. Those who can read Finnish can take a look at the preliminary functional requirements document which also gives a good overview on what the project is all about. The information is already slightly outdated as a working group has been drafting the overall system architecture during April and May, but it's still good for taking a more in depth look and sending comments if you have any.

One of the best aspects has been meeting people from museums, libraries and archives, learning at least a little bit about what these cultural institutions are doing behind the scenes. The National Digital Library project seems to be a strong motivator for the previously rather isolated sectors to work together. Interesting things are being revealed even within each sector: for example how two archives can arrive in two perfectly logical but semantically incompatible descriptions of an object although both are using the same metadata standard.

Finland is not alone: in particular the Europeana portal for cultural works has inspired many countries to set up similar projects during the last couple of years. One of the objectives of the Finnish National Digital Library is to bring content online so that it can be found not only via the Finnish interface but also through Europeana, Google and other search engines. Online access to cultural works in a few year timeframe looks therefore rather bright — at least from a historian's point of view. Old works whose copyright has already expired will be made available, but it's another question how much of the more recent content will be easily accessible.

Being assigned to a national project, I've traveled less than earlier when I was representing CSC in Nordic and EU projects. I haven't missed it much: flying back and forth between cities spending most of the time in meetings wouldn't satisfy my travel appetite and feel bad from the environmental point of view. Nevertheless, I spent a week in Rome in March learning about data repository risk analysis before CouchSurfing with four lively Italians, and last week I was at Tampere in the IASSIST 2009 conference. IASSIST was suprisingly lot of fun in addition to the information content: jokes were flying around, people liked to party and the photo session at the end wrapped up everything perfectly. The most inspiring presentation was given by Dr. Michael Batty on data visualization, in particular on what can be done using GMap, Image Cutter and other tools developed by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis in University College London.

My work contract has been extended until the end of the year. Like until now it's 80 hours per month, approximately half time. As I've been working for more than that during the winter and spring I'll start the summer with a two month vacation, getting back to work in August. Travel destinations will this time include Canada, United States, Finland and Norway — but that's already the topic of another post.

By the way, Ministry of Education also finally got out the survey on the current state of geographic information related data in Finland to which I contributed a little bit. I have no idea whether the information and suggestions in the report will really be used or whether they'll become buried and forgotten — we'll see. If you want to read more about my thoughts on the topic in general take a look of my earlier article.

(Minor edit 2009-08-13: links updated to point at the new National Digital Library website.)

Playing with clay

Posted: 2009-04-18 22:53:31, Categories: Helsinki, Art, 513 words (permalink)

Clay works and people watching them. Picture taken from the center, on top of the remaining pile of clay. In late March, a white hall appeared on the Kaisaniemi field in the center of Helsinki. Inside in the middle of it stood a pile of one hundred tons of clay. For ten days, anybody could sign up as a volunteer, step in the hall and get creative. Over a thousand people participated, ranging from professional artists to random passers-by and small children. It was a collaborative art project called Clay and the Collective Body.

The hall had no windows, simply white roof and light gray floor. No cameras, mobile phones nor tools were allowed inside, just people and clay. The artist Antony Gormley wanted to make it a primitive experience: touch the earth and be a child again. It worked from the beginning — anyone could play that game, nobody needed to be told what to do. Antony said that many were a bit hesitant first but then got an idea or found others to work together with and became enthusiastic about creating something.

Imaginary clay scene of three people in front of the Men-an-tol stone in Cornwall. Part of the idea was that one could build on what others had built and that produced some of the most interesting results. Someone placed simple blocks of clay after each other on one day, later someone else shaped one section of it to look like the Great Wall, a dragon head appeared at one end and fourth artist added some flowers on top. Most however chose an empty space and started working on something from scratch, either alone or in a group. We are taught to just watch and not touch the art of others and that behaviour can stick quite deep.

After ten days the artwork was finished: doors were opened for public to walk around, view and take photos of the result. It was an amazing wealth of creative energy gathered in one place, reflecting all aspects of society. There were sculptures of people and animals, pictures of war and death, happy love scenes, historical buildings, items from recent news, realistic looking everyday objects, abstract shapes and surrealistic views. One could easily walk for two hours looking around and still find many unnoticed works and details during the next round.

Now the doors have already been closed and the clay returned back to earth. It's similar to snowmen in the backyard and sand castles on the beach: no permanent objects to be preserved for years to come. However, there are plenty of photos and some videos on the official site of the project. The first photo in this blog entry shows an overview towards one corner taken from the center of the hall, and the second is the scene I made together with Sandra, a German girl who was visiting Finland. It was fun both to create and to admire what others had created.

Clay and the Collective Body was the first project of the recently founded Pro Arte foundation, which plans to bring one visible modern art project in Helsinki each year. I hope the next projects will also include public participation in a way or another and be as inspiring as this one!

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(Unless otherwise mentioned in individual photos or other content.)