Archive for May, 2007

With the world in dire need of a tourniquet to halt the hemorrhaging caused by George W. Bush’s so-called “war on terror” and our insatiable greed that is bringing climate change on us hard and fast, one question we can ask is what can be done?

To simplify things, the world could be seen like the ten players (the G8 + 2) on a basketball court with two referees (the US/Nato and China/Russia) and onlookers (the world).

Certainly the refs can make as many bad calls as they wish. They have the power to do so. However, as they make poor calls the players and the crowd start to get rowdier. In the end the refs lose control of the game and all hell breaks loose.

This is exactly what is happening in the Middle East thanks to Iraq and Israel’s untenable policy in the region.

Might isn’t right. It isn’t a sustainable foreign policy.


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The Finnish sauna

The sauna

By Guayaki

If a person asked me to say what is one of the most important pillars of Finnish culture, I’d respond: the sauna.

The sauna is more than a room where people bathe and sweat naked in 80-100 Celsius (176-212 Fahrenheit) temperatures. It’s a way of life for some Finns – so much so, in fact, that some hope there will be a sauna in heaven or hell when they die.

It’s interesting to note that sauna is the only Finnish word that has spread and been adopted by so many foreign languages. Well… in almost all languages except for Swedish, where it is called bastu.

Writer Maila Talvio (1871-1951) once said that Finns have been unanimous for centuries about one matter – the sauna. For as long as children are born in this far-flung land, she said such unanimity will characterize the Finns.

The sauna is a good yardstick – like the automobile in the U.S. – to measure how living standards have risen in this country. Compared to about 2 million today, there were in 1990 some 1.5 million saunas versus half a million in the 1930s.

That’s a lot of saunas, considering that Finland is only a nation of 5.2 million people. If a typical Finnish family has 3-4 members, it means that everyone in this country has access to a sauna.

We have two saunas: one at home and the summerhouse. Even so, my ultimate dream is to have four: a smoke sauna to celebrate special occasions like Christmas; a wood-burning and electric sauna in the country; and an electric sauna in the city.

The sauna-bathing ritual has changed very little over time. The only matter that has changed during the past century is the technology we use to heat the stones. While most saunas are electric, few will disagree that the best steam comes from stones heated by deciduous trees like birch.

Who knows what the future may bring. If the Japanese have invented “air-conditioned” shirts, I’m certain that it’s only a matter of time when a Finn will invent a sauna that can be worn like a suit.

Who we are

If sauna is the DNA of Finnish culture, what does it reveal about who the Finns are and where they are heading as a people?

In order to answer the question, we’d have to know what Finns do inside a sauna.

For a foreigner, the sauna must appear like a very unusual ritual. Imagine inviting guests over and then undressing and bathing together. In some cultures this would be unimaginable, especially in those where nudity is a taboo.

You’d better have a good excuse if you come to Finland and turn down an invitation to bathe in a sauna. Bathing together is a sort of rites of passage that crowns or reinforces familial bonds or friendship between two people. Refusing to go to sauna is like not accepting a person’s friendship.

The sauna has played many important roles in Finnish culture. In the past it was a panacea for all cures and where shamans took care of their patients. Apart from its healing properties, the sauna was even believed to improve virility and make women more marriageable.

In the countryside, births usually took place in the sauna. Even people that were about to embark onto the land of death prepared for such a journey in the sauna.

The Finnish Sauna Society (Suomen Saunaseura), one of the ultimate authorities on the sweat bath, says that one should behave in the sauna like in church. In other words: no blasphemy, excessive drinking or having sex, even if these matters do occur.

Some agree that the best time for Finns to make love is on Saturday night after a sauna bath.

I’m convinced that there would be fewer wars if the world could bathe inside an enormous sauna.

While the Finnish sweat bath is a sacred place where a person relaxes and speaks as little as possible, many problems have been solved inside its steam-hot walls. Imagine bathing, talking over and resolving an issue with a friend as opposed to facing him in an impersonal office wearing a suit?

Bathing with others reminds us that we are social animals. So never underestimate the magic and important role the sauna plays between people.

Possibly it’s this very magic that makes us happy every time we enter a room heated by stones, allowing us to enjoy one of the greatest fringe benefits that life has to offer.

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Seems like some people are a bit shrill.

The Calm Before the iPhone Arrival Storm: The Last Days of the Cell Phone Industry Cabal « TWO A DAY

However, you have to wonder. Like most Finnish families we have several retired Nokia phones around the house. I am intensely brand loyal to Nokia. Some of the earlier simpler Nokia phones were incredibly robust -we had an NMT car system that lasted until the network was phased out. Also some of the early GSM phones were long-lived. But lately the war has been to push down price while adding features. What does an ex-factory production cost of €40 per handset get you these days? Not much.

My wife recently went through three rounds of repairs with her Nokia 6103, which failed to work properly right out of the box. The salespeople said it was a susi, but refused to swap it with another new one until Nokia’s guys here in Finland (!) had been given a chance to diagnose and repair the problem. After two cheap fix attempts, they finally replaced the entire front half of the clam. Crappiness is, of course, one outcome of never-ending cost-cutting. Apple, which has made some crappy products on occasion, nevertheless, has fought its battles mostly in that part of the market less sensitive to price (e.g. electronic publishing), while letting the price wars rage in such areas as game computers. I suspect the Apple iphone will not be cheap.

My own experience with features is that I never use them. However, my wife and son often find a few of the features very useful and use them heavily. In that sense, the on-board features are like a menu at a restaurant, you can eat whatever you like, but you are unlikely to ever eat the entire menu. For the last 20 years, global manufacturing businesses (and to a lesser extent remote service providers) have been on a quest to exploit differences across countries in terms of labor cost and inputs. But ultimately there must be a bottom and we may be finding it. Certainly, China’s great economic advance has come at a massive environmental cost. The decision to go to China has also diluted the “Made in Finland” brand pretty badly, which is odd because countries like Japan have managed to keep brand loyalty in, say, cars, by pointing out that critical components are still made in Japan and that only the most fungible parts and assembly are done elsewhere.

On the matter of why it may be wiser to reduce choice than quality, go to Google and watch the video.

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If you have 14 minutes and like to hear Lawrence Ferlinghetti (voice of the Minister, he must be in his late 80s) check this out.

War Prayer

Small budget, good result.

It was like this when
we waltz into this place
a couple of Papish cats
is doing an Aztec two-step
And I says
Dad let’s cut
but then this dame
comes up behind me see
and says
You and me could really exist
Wow I says
Only the next day
she has bad teeth
and really hates

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Steve Vai is a good beekeeper and he’s helping to find the cause of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). The US initially authorized just $13,000 to study the problem. Now they’re spending more but in some places, 90% of the wild honeybee populations have already died off. (Watch Frank Zappa’s Winston burn down to where it’s scorching the guitar neck. Steve eventually blows the ash off .)

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I see Philadelphia has come up with a way to deal with the downtown congestion —  Philly Car Share. It would be interesting to see if a few young Finnish entrepreneurs could localize the idea to Helsinki. My fear is that they may not be able to work out a deal with the Helsinki parking authority  as these cars would probably need an all-zone parking permit or some sort of universal exemption. At a more modest scale, the start-up could get around the parking authority by leasing, say, 20 parking sites around town, but that would add a layer of problems as the customers of the service would have to pick up and drop off their cars at these not necessarily convenient sites or have a computerized GPS system that identifies the nearest optimal drop-off point in anticipation of the next customer. Can we expect an agency legendary for its paralysis in the face of competing interest groups to do anything but NIMBY a carsharing initiative (And what happened to that bikeshare program, anyway?). In any case, a lot of Finns love their cars and probably just as many dream of living in Helsinki if they do not already. Any solution needs to include countermeasures to prevent a moral hazard problem from further encouraging Espoo drivers (as if they need any more encouragement) to drive to their jobs downtown.

On another note, we see a new book has folks at Finland’s Ministry of the Environment on their toes as their risk assessment skills have been challenged. Part of the problem, I suspect, may be the Ministry’s continued insistence on using bureaucratic language to cover up its own shortcomings and the political power grabbing internally as its scope of authority has expanded ten-fold in less than two decades. Of course, here is an opportunity for a smart bureaucrat to secure his position and win friends by opening up the arcanus of Finland’s à la tête du client environmental permitting practices to the public. Sunshine is the best medicine.

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One of the things I’ve been watching since 9/11 are the use of names to depict and justify the terrible war and suffering in Iraq and elsewhere. “War on terror?” It’s about as bad as “subversive delinquents,” a term used in Argentina during the 1970s to label “terrorists.” Certainly calling an enemy with a dehumanizing name must encourage the use of outlandish methods like torture.
The “war on terror” is just as a preposterous as “subversive delinquents.”
Naming guerrilla groups in Argentina during the so-called dirty war as “subversive delinquents” encouraged the military regime to place and upkeep a comprehensive system to eliminate its enemies. Over 30,000 people died in Argentina during the 1970s never mind the tens of thousand that survived after being tortured.
The “war on terror” permits the US to justify its ruinous policy in Iraq and avoid complicity in the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqis. Such a term encourages self-censorship by the media and gives a nationalist placebo to soldiers who actually believe that they are giving Iraqi’s Wal-Mart-style freedom.
Some estimates claim that 660,000 have died since the US invaded Iraq. Is Iraq a better place under US domination than under Saddam?
And all because of names like “war on terror” and “axis of evil.”

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