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Change of the year greetings

Posted: 2008-12-23 12:29:10, Categories: General, Finland, Hospitality exchange, 297 words (permalink)

Christmas card 2008. I just published my 2008 Christmas and New Year card, available both in Finnish and in English. I wish you happy holidays of the end of the year and even better new year 2009! And for those readers who don't follow the Gregorian calendar or simply read this later, happy current year and new year whenever it comes! :-)

This was already the second year I didn't buy any commercially available Christmas cards. Still, it's nice to occasionally send and receive not only email greetings but also good old fashioned paper mail. Letters reach also those relatives and friends who don't read email. Therefore I selected some photos taken during the year 2008, had them printed and wrote something personal at the back side of each one before mailing them out.

I plan to spend the Christmas with my family, as usual. We'll go to meet my mother's father at Pyhtää tomorrow on Christmas eve, staying at his home in the countryside until the following day. On the 26th we'll drive to Hyvinkää to visit my other grandfather. That's very common in Finland: Christmas is a family event and New Year is more often spent partying with friends.

One thing will be different this year: My youngest brother Lari will be missing. He moved to Canada a few months ago to study at a film school and decided to spend his holidays traveling in the U.S. and Canada. It was fun to plan Lari's Christmas present together with my parents: we're giving him "A Day in New York" — consisting of five addresses where he'll have something interesting to see or do, all costs covered of course. Once again I got help from CouchSurfing members, this time in the form of hints rather than accommodation.

Turku 1881. Picture from the Finnish National Archive, Senaatin
     kartasto IX: 16, copyright expired. My half-time work experiment felt good enough that I'm doing it again. Same employer (CSC), 80 hours per month contract until end of May 2009. This time I'm working on services providing storage and access to environmental and cultural data. There are opportunities to study topics I care about and participate in making design choices, which makes the deal even more attractive than last time.

Geographic information wants to be free

A lot of geographic information and data about natural resources is gathered around the world by governmental research institutes. The U.S. has been fairly open with providing access to such data while in Europe most institutes have been sitting on their databases and selling information with very restricted terms. Now the situation is slowly changing, partly due to an OECD recommendation which suggests open access to research data from public funding. The community maintained OpenStreetMap project has challenged closed models, and increasing popularity of partly open privately funded services such as Google Maps plays a role as well. The INSPIRE EU directive (see also the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry INSPIRE page in Finnish) aims towards interoperability and sharing of geographical data, although its level of required openness falls behind the OECD recommendation.

In Finland, there's a lot of high quality data but it is scattered and little used outside the organizations collecting it. Many voices are raised in support of open access, for example in the Pätevä seminar two weeks ago. In practice progress is rather slow. The public research institutes are pointing towards the Ministry of Finance and the law about fees of public services (Maksuperustelaki) which their funding models are partly based on. Curiously, the key reason for fees in the law is to avoid causing harm to private companies competing in the same domain. However, many sources show (meteorology example) that business overall benefits from freely available public information. A fundamental change of government policy is needed in order to have open access by default also in Finland.

My first task in October was to contribute a little bit to a survey which reviews the current state of geographic information related data in Finland, and gives suggestions on what should be done. The survey focused on what data exists, how to make it available and usable for officials, researchers and politicians, and interoperability issues between different datasets. For example different coordinate systems and semantics are a big hindrance to cross analysis. I personally believe that increased openness will gradually help to improve lower level data compatibility as well. Fully open access raises strong opinions both in favor and against, but there seems to be a more general consensus that at least researchers should have convenient access to data.

(Added a link to the survey on geographic information related data on May 31, 2009)

Preserving cultural data for the next 100 years

Since beginning of November I'm participating in the National digital library project, which is about access, usability and long term preservation of Finnish cultural data. The Finnish National Archives and the National Library are digitizing old books, newspapers and other documents. In this case, open access gladly seems to be the default for at least old works whose copyrights have expired. You can already check out 18th and 19th century newspapers with full text search or municipal documents dating back until Middle Ages. The picture of this blog entry is part of a map of Turku in 1881, retrieved from the National Archives (see the full map). Several Finnish museums are also digitizing their collections. Many new documents, photos, movies and modern art works are already digital when they are created.

Preserving all this material reliably for tens and hundreds of years is a challenging task. The lifetime of computer and storage systems is around five or at most a couple of dozen years. Text in a paper book stays readable for centuries, but digital data will have to be continuously transferred to new, yet unseen storage systems. Current file formats and software to access them will become outdated over time. Human error or attack can have much greater impact in the digital archive than spilling coffee over one book in a physical library.

CSC does not take part in the digitization, but we are currently working on a preliminary requirements specification for the long term storage. Finland is not the first country thinking about it so there's a lot of material available. However, nobody has a complete and definitive solution to the problem yet. There are chances to do pioneering work and contribute to best practices also internationally.

On a personal level, I find projects on environmental and cultural data both very interesting. One challenge is where to focus energy in order to make a difference instead of getting lost between committee meetings and bureaucracy. Another challenge will be to keep work from ruling life, by reserving enough time for hobbies and rest. In November I already surpassed my 80 hours by 50%, not counting when work topics were in my thoughts during free time. However, that's still less than full time and I don't mind working hard if it feels important and rewarding. The half time contract has been a good starting point.

Special edition of positive news

Posted: 2008-11-18 01:08:44, Categories: General, Ecology, Politics, 104 words (permalink)

The most inspiring news last week was The New York Times Special Edition. With headlines like Iraq War Ends, United Nations Unanimously Passes Weapons Ban and New York Bike Path System Expanded Dramatically it brings positive thinking to the world even if the articles don't quite reflect real events — yet. The issue is dated July 4, 2009: there's still seven and a half months to go. All the news we hope to print, as they write on the front page.

Download the pdf and destroy a little bit of natural resources by printing a copy for a friend. Check out the ads too, they're great!

Move to new server

Posted: 2008-07-01 13:43:27, Categories: General, 149 words (permalink)

My web site has a new home on a server of a friend of mine. The main reason for the change was that I needed more disk space and my previous provider didn't offer it for a reasonable price. Moving away from a commercial provider will mean that downtime might be longer in case of a software or hardware failure, but on the other hand it will be more flexible to install new services if I need to.

The blog software was also upgraded from a two year old version to a more recent one. The new version has a bunch of new features, but I decided to keep things simple and just move my data and layout without any major changes. However, I did a little bit of fine tuning trying to make navigation in the blog easier. If you notice that something has broken, please contact me.

The half time work experiment

Posted: 2008-06-14 21:04:16, Categories: General, Work, 684 words (permalink)

A corner of the CSC building with the company logo in morning light. Eight months ago, I made a contract for working 80 hours per month at CSC. Back then, I signed up until April 2008, and it was extended by one month because the project I worked on had an important testing phase in May. Now I'm off again to enjoy the summer and it's time to review how everything worked out. In short, it has been a good experiment.

My working hours varied between 49 and 105 per month, the average being 82. There was occasionally an urgent task to finish or a problem to fix, but never too much pressure or stress. I was able to put a little bit of effort into a couple of side projects while focusing more than 80% of the hours on my main task, setting up the Finnish part of data storage for the CERN LHC particle accelerator. It has been exciting to have a tiny role in one of the largest projects ever undertaken by humans. The real test will come when the accelerator will start in August, but the data storage installation project reached its goals with positive feedback, so I'd call it a success. A big thanks for that goes of course to my colleagues who did their parts of the job competently and were great to work with.

I generally went to the workplace on Mondays and Thursdays and more randomly on other days, in particular skipping most Fridays. Whenever I had activities in the clubs I belong to or just didn't feel like working, I could cut those days short or stay out of the office. Compared to my previous full time employment, I'd say the hours I spent at work were more efficient. While working half time I probably got about 60% of the work done compared to being a full timer. On the other hand, further cutting down the number of hours per month would have probably lowered efficiency again, because there is always some overhead due to meetings, company events, emails and administrative work.

On the hobbies side, I had time for more or less what I planned to do in Finnish Linux User Group: no major new projects but at least helping to get the group back in life after a couple of problematic years. I also continued going to Chinese lessons, although I didn't progress too much. If I really want to learn to communicate in Chinese I'll have to go to China or at least put much more effort in studying it than I've done now.

In Japania ry, a Finnish-Japanese friendship society, I didn't get done nearly as much as I wanted, so most of the things which would need my computer skills are still hanging in the same state they were 8 months ago. A few more personal projects I had in mind also didn't progress at all which annoys me a bit. However, most importantly, I had time to go out with friends, enjoy concerts and parties, read a few books, relax and get enough sleep. April and May were a bit on the busy side, but overall it has certainly been more balanced than a few years ago when I tried to do all the same while being employed full time.

Compared to life before my one year on the road, surprisingly little changed. Same employer, mostly same hobbies, only taking a bit more time through a non-standard work contract. However, that was an important difference. It was like being inside the rat race but looking around and observing instead of rushing full speed to win the race. I could compare the situation before, during and after my year out. There were some interesting discussions with colleagues and friends which would have never taken place had I stayed away for good.

As I wrote in the beginning, I'm again without a job following my own decision not to extend the fixed term contract. This time the leave is less about desire to travel and see the world, although I plan to do a bit of that too. It's more like a step out of the routine leaving room for new ideas.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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