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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.

Diving into arts in Helsinki

Posted: 2008-10-31 01:08:50, Categories: Travel, Finland, Hospitality exchange, Helsinki, Literature, Movies, 730 words (permalink)

Computer art installation at Alternative Party. When traveling, I'm breathing in a new environment every moment. In Helsinki, I'm familiar with the surroundings and how the system works. Part of that is easy access to information what is happening around. As a result I end up going to more concerts, festivals and other cultural events than during my travels.

The most interesting event happened through a CouchSurfing guest. I hosted Kevin who came from Berlin for the Helsinki Festival of New Juggling. The opening show was officially only for festival participants but the organizers kindly let me in with him. That was one and a half hours of most amazing juggling — in a nearby school gymnastics hall. :-) You could really feel the good vibes in the whole crowd. I also went to both public shows attached to the festival. The French group Compagnie Non Nova's Jongleur pas confondre on Saturday was a disappointment, but Ville Walo's and Kalle Hakkarainen's Puun syy was beautiful.

Love and Anarchy film festival took over the screens as usual in late September. The Icelandic comedy Astrópía offered the best laughs and was my favourite this year. Death Note came second by exploring the dark side of human mind in somehow very Japanese way. Some fans of the Death Note manga (comic) didn't appreciate the movie too much though. I should also mention the animation Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika) which is one of my favourite movies and comic books from all times. It was in the festival program, but as I had already seen the film and the hour of the screening was bad I skipped it this time.

Last weekend my friend Tuula came in Helsinki and we went together to the yearly book fair. Lectures were the most interesting part of the event. As adventurers and explorers in our own lives we both connected with the theme Vieraat kulttuurit suomalaisin silmin (Foreign cultures through Finnish eyes), and talks about happiness and personal choices in life. Marketta Horn told how she loved meeting people in the lively cheapest classes of trains during her travels in Asia and Australia. – Tän pitäis olla Kela-korvattavia asioita (This should be subsidized by the Finnish social security system), laughed Risto Lindstedt about the therapeutic value of his motorcycle travels. Parliament member and avid cyclist Osmo Soininvaara sitting besides him seemed to agree. – Hulluus tarjoaa helpotusta (Craziness offers relief), suggested Timo Airaksinen in his lecture. – Naisen sydän ei ole yhteensopiva nykymaailman kanssa. Voisiko hän muuttaa maailman sydämellisemmäksi? (The heart of a woman is not compatible with the modern world. Could she change the world into a more heartfelt one?), asked Hilkka Olkinuora, who touched the audience telling how women in particular submit too easily into the busy life expected by the society.

Tuula also joined me on Saturday to Alternative Party, where people come together to celebrate weird computers, music and funky digital arts. This year's event was bigger than ever but it had managed to preserve its friendly atmosphere. Front 242 did a great live concert on Friday night and Brad Templeton from Electronic Frontier Foundation was the guest of honor on Saturday. To my surprise Tuula also found the visit interesting and funny. She was probably more open minded towards the event than me. I realized how I had categorized Altparty as a nerd gathering which others wouldn't understand, and presented it as such.

During October I've also visited the Ateneum Art Museum, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki, plus Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere. It was a good reminder that museums are not static: all had plenty of new things to see. I particularly liked the Japanese wood prints in Ateneum and some works playing with light and colors in the Full House exhibition at Kiasma. Hint: Entrance to both Ateneum, Kiasma and Sinebrychoff Art Museum is free of charge on the first Wednesday of every month at 17-20 in the evening.

Settling down after the summer travels has been faster than it was after spending a whole year on the road. I've been meeting with friends, family and relatives, participating in club activities and spending countless hours reading and writing email, as usual. I also have a job again, but will write more about that later.

Learning Ukrainian and practising Japanese

Posted: 2008-09-25 23:34:42, Categories: Travel, Ukraine, Hitchhiking, 980 words (permalink)

Time table of trains at the Solotvyno station, Ukraine. Trying to communicate in foreign languages or without any common language is often challenging but also one the most fun tasks when traveling. In Eastern Europe, the majority of countries have their own languages and Russian is the most widely spoken second one. Unfortunately I don't understand any of them much. In cities it's common to find someone who can speak English, and for all the other situations I carry a phrasebook and try to learn at least a few words in each local language. Drawing pictures and smiling is also always a good option.

Ukraine offered a pleasant surprise: the language I ended up using the most during my three day visit was Japanese. Besides that, I had plenty of opportunities to practise my few words of Russian and non-verbal communication skills as well. Lonely Planet had decided to include neither Ukrainian nor Russian in the Eastern Europe phrasebook, so there was room for improvisation.

After the Rainbow Gathering in Serbia I spent two days in Belgrade and a week in Romania, mainly meeting friends in Timisoara. From there I took a train north to Baia Mare, hitchhiked 70 km further to Sighetu Marmatiei and walked across the border to Ukraine. Border crossing was easier than expected. I had to fill in an immigration card and hand over my passport to get a stamp, but that was it. All done in 15 minutes, including 10 minutes of waiting in the queue.

Solotvyno didn't seem to be a very popular destination for foreigners except Romanians coming across the border for shopping. People were looking at me curiously and a few confirmed what they saw by asking "Turist?". Modern development had embraced the town with an ATM which accepted my credit card and spit out a bunch of hryvnias. Then I spotted railway tracks and followed them to find the town railway station.

I had minor difficulties deciphering the timetable (in the picture) but the station personnel were happy to help. When my understanding of both Ukrainian and Russian turned out to be limited they even wrote the same information in my notebook using beautiful cyrillic handwriting. After a bit of head-scratching I figured out that I was lucky. The train standing in front of the station would leave in two hours and arrive early next morning in Lviv, where I wanted to go. I went to grab some snacks for the trip in the town center and then tried to buy a ticket. "Katastrof, nema electricitet, nema computer" sounded like it could be a problem but fortunately it wasn't. I was advised to simply get onboard and the conductor would issue me a ticket in the train.

The 15 hour, 400 km journey cost less that 3 euros, so I probably got the cheapest or at least almost cheapest available ticket. The "platskartny" wagon was similar to sleeper class in India: open layout featuring basic beds which doubled as seats, no bedsheets. There was a bit more space than in Indian trains and the added luxury of a table between each two lower beds. On the other hand, the Ukrainian train didn't have any fans so it became quite hot inside.

My travel companions couldn't really understand why someone who had zero ability in Ukrainian and very limited skills in Russian would like to go to Lviv. They helpfully advised me that I could change the train near the Polish border and go directly to Warsaw if I wanted. Nevertheless, I stayed in my decision about visiting Lviv and announced that I wanted to learn some Ukrainian before arriving there. Using Russian and Polish I got translations to "Hello", "Thank you", "My name is Arto" and "Where is the toilet" in the local language, and drawing pictures helped to pick up a few more words such as train, car, bicycle, big and small. A ten year old girl was the most enthusiastic instructor and started teaching me the names of all objects which we could find around us. So I also learned how to say table, window and curtain in Ukrainian.

In the beginning the train was half empty but eventually there were almost twice as many passengers compared to the number of beds. The Ukrainians solved the problem by drinking enough beer and making noise until it didn't really matter how comfortable place they had for sleeping. I managed to get some sleep despite drinking only a little. Completely refusing the offered drinks would have been difficult and probably impolite. Luckily they didn't have any vodka. ;)

In Lviv I walked to a youth hostel which had been recommended to me by a CouchSurfing contact who was away and couldn't host himself. In the hostel I met Taka, a Japanese guy who already knew Polish and Russian and was staying in Ukraine to learn one more language. He spoke English too, of course, but was happy to find someone who could communicate in his own language. Taka offered to show me the city so I got a companion and guide for the weekend. We walked around, visited a couple of museums and had dinner in Криївка. It was a funny hidden restaurant which didn't have any kind of sign at the entrance but was full of people already early in the evening.

From Lviv I took a bus to Warsaw, queueing 4 hours at the border to get out of Ukraine, and continued by another bus to Lithuania. In Joniškis I spent a few nice days with my friend Dalia and her family before returning to Helsinki via Riga and Tallinn. I've been back home for a week and a half now. Compared to Ukraine, the temperature in Joniškis and in Finland was about 15 degrees lower and I got a flu. It already seems like a tradition when coming back from a longer trip in warm countries. Perhaps I'll learn some day how to avoid it.

How I became a child of the Rainbow Family

Posted: 2008-09-03 13:37:35, Categories: Travel, Ecology, Serbia, 1300 words (permalink)

Ola playing guitar in the Polish camp. The Rainbow Family of Living Light meets in different locations around the world, creating spaces for alternative living in natural surroundings, disconnected from the rest of society. This year the main European gathering was in Eastern Serbia, from 2nd until 30th of August. I spent two weeks there and will tell you about Wednesday August 13th, my third day at the gathering. It was just a day among others, but for me it was an important one.

I got up around 9, or perhaps it was 10, time didn't matter. The sun was already high but it was nice and cool under the trees where my tent was. I spent a good half an hour doing some stretching exercises to wake up properly and feel good.

I walked up the hill to the common kitchen, where brothers and sisters were preparing breakfast. Lunch might be a more correct word, as the first meal of the day was usually served after midday. Working in the kitchen was a good way to make sure that the meal would actually happen and a get a little bit of breakfast while doing it. I helped to cut watermelons and started digging a new compost because the old one was full.

That was enough work for the day. The compost was not finished but someone else would continue digging later. Just before eating I took a shower to wash off the sweat. Yes, there actually was a shower, at the end of a garden hose coming from a spring further up the hill. There was no shower curtain but being naked was considered perfectly normal at the camp, and there was no fear of paparazzis showing up to take photos.

About 400 people formed a big circle around the main fireplace, sang about the unity of the family and then ate together. Food was muesli and fruit salad. Towards the end of the meal people went around in the circle announcing the day's workshops or whatever else they wanted to say. Last, a small troupe playing cheerful music made a tour with the magic hat. Money put in the hat was used to buy ingredients for the common meals.

After eating I had a bit of rest in the shade at the Polish camp, called so because mostly Polish people happened to be camping under those trees. Ola had been learning shiatsu in one of the workshops and wanted someone to practise with. I volunteered and got a relaxing massage.

I didn't do much else during the afternoon except going for a short walk meeting new people. Evening came and there was a second meal with the usual rituals. Sun was already down but there was light from the almost full moon, stars and a number of campfires.

One of the announcements in the evening food circle was for angel walk. Participants stood shoulder by shoulder in two lines facing each other, leaving a narrow corridor in the middle. One person at a time walked slowly through the corridor, eyes closed, receiving hugs, gentle touches, kind words and other gifts of love from others. At the end, all came together for the big final collective hug. It was a wonderful experience, both drawing and giving a lot of energy.

Around the main fire, three drummers were pounding tribal rythms, together with one musician playing a large wooden xylophon. I danced wildly for a short while before walking back to the tent, exhausted but happy. It was clear sky so I pulled my sleeping bag out from the tent to sleep under the stars. That moment I felt Rainbow was a family I wanted to belong to.

When I talked to people who had been to Rainbow gatherings and searched for information online, the opinions varied wildly. The invitation would describe a paradise where everybody lived happily in perfect harmony with the nature loving each other, while critics would describe Rainbow events as bunches of pot headed survivors hanging around. The reality, not suprisingly, was somewhere in the middle, and depended greatly how one personally chose to live it.

I particularly liked the idea of no trade of any kind inside the camp. The only thing involving money was the magic hat, with both rich and poor being equally welcome. As time passed, the rule became gradually less strictly followed with local farmers coming closer and closer to sell their products and camp participants flocking to them to buy cheese, milk and other goodies not provided by the common kitchen. Still, it was certainly possible to live without using or thinking about money if one wanted to.

Compared to Ecotopia, which I attended two years ago, Rainbow was less political and more spiritual. The setting was almost the same: camping in the nature with basic facilities, common vegan or vegetarian meals, decisionmaking in a circle and music around campfires in the evenings. However, while Ecotopia was full of workshops about learning ecological ways to live, co-operating with the nearby eco-village and thinking how to change the world around, Rainbow was more about creating an alternative world, being there and feeling it. Be the change you wish to see in the world, as Gandhi once said. There were workshops in Rainbow as well, but in a more relaxed schedule and focusing more on arts or finding oneself through meditations and spiritual exercises. Some interesting discussions about politics and about Rainbow itself happened under a big tree in the library, which also offered a selection of books to read.

The Rainbow gatherings got started in early 1970's in the U.S. from the late 60's hippie movement. Still the biggest gathering is in the States each July with over ten thousand participants. First European gatherings were in the eighties and now there are both local small meetings as well as big international gatherings on all continents. Curiously, the trend seems to be towards more small local gatherings while the number of people attending the big ones is in decline. The European gathering in Serbia drew about one thousand people, with the peak being around 700 during the full moon celebration.

Some people live continuously in the Rainbow way, either traveling from gathering to gathering or pursuing a similar lifestyle in one of the more or less permanent Rainbow villages. Most participants, however, have their regular lives in the Babylon, as the outside world is called in Rainbow slang, and the gathering is a temporary state for them. It can be about appreciation of the nature, survival without modern commodities, escaping hectic city live, partying, meeting old friends, discussing life and politics with new people, giving and receiving love, finding a personal connection with the divine, something else or all of the above. Rainbow gathering is a form of tribal living but members of the tribe are individuals, so the experience is at the same time a collective one and yet different for everyone. Some people who had been to many gatherings said that they come each time to feel the spirit of the Rainbow and try to carry some of it with them through the rest of the year.

For me, camping out in the woods was not new by itself, but Rainbow was a learning experience about how people do it as a community with as little organization as possible. The whole gathering wasn't just joy and happiness, I went through a short period of diarrhea and had my days of low mood during the middle of my stay. Overall, I still greatly enjoyed it. I'm too deeply rooted in the Internet age to seek for a life in a Rainbow village, abandoning all modern technology. However, it's very healthy to do it sometimes, questioning the values of the society around us. Rainbow gatherings are a perfect place to do it.

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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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