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Archive for the ‘Finland’ Category

Perhaps somebody needs to remind Bengt Braun that Finland just topped the Reader’s Digest list of greenest countries in the world. And while they’re at it, they might suggest he put in a word to the management of that Helsinki TV station they own.

Girl in shower

Finland’s MTV3 (their current home page includes a link to the Evangelical Christian network Worldvision, a showering young woman on the Big Brother cam and a bloated Brittany Spears staggering through a dance routine) understands the Finnish TV audience (even with a lower tolerance for commercial interruptions than their American counterparts) can survive on a “low-fact” diet of reality shows with voyeuristic and prurient emphases, spiced with the occasional blockbuster film, popular American series, and some “fair and balanced” current events programming. Having shown the Gore movie a few weeks earlier, it was hardly surprising that MTV3 chose to air Martin Durkin’s  The Great Global Warming Swindle on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon. The possible justifications for showing this particular film as a counterpoint to An Inconvenient Truth could be that 1) publishing titan Bonnier is moving to a more abrasive advertising strategy (unlikely), 2) those doing the programming at MTV3 didn’t realize it was a hit piece (hmmm…), 3) those doing the programming believe the program to be factual (trusting the Channel 4 brand, not unreasonable), and 4) those doing the programming know the film is a hit piece and that showing it constitutes harmless fun à la Reefer Madness (possible, Finns are subtle in this respect). Whatever the reason, the documentary was produced for Britain’s Channel 4, which decades ago was founded by luminaries that include Colin Young, a genius who trained two generations of serious documentary filmmakers.

Whatever you may think, Durkin’s film is now in circulation and a good reflection of our age, where ideas must be think-tank-certified to qualify for public discussion.

When Firesign Theater released it’s spoof “Everthing You Know is Wrong” in 1974, the conspiracy fringe was seen as a target for ridicule. Nowadays, people who sell the same line do it in all seriousness. If we buy Durkin’s line, global warming was cooked up by scholars who want grant money and spoiled Greens want to deny third-worlders their right to coal-burning electrical power plants. Oh yeah, and if you buy into fears that global warming could have large impacts on the 6 billion-plus inhabitants of our planet, Mr. Durkin invites you to go fuck yourself. Sweet come-back, Dude.

We’ve seen large discombobulation on a global scale in the past, and even within the memory of some of us. Last century the world was hit between wars by an economic tsunami , the Great Depression. It took most countries decades to recover. Yet when the problems of speculative borrowing emerged in the Roaring 20s, the decision by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to raise interest rates seemed prudent. By 1933, when a quarter to half of the working population was unemployed in most industrial countries and similar amounts of industrial capacity were idle, central banks were hoping for a do-over. They had screwed the pooch — rich and poor alike were caught up in a vicious deflationary circle characterized by delayed consumption, bankrupcy and bank runs.  It was the time Hitler came to power. The world was nuts.

Could another period of collective insanity be lurking just around the corner? Naomi Klein suggests in The Shock Doctrine that social crises, manmade and natural, have many people are already on the ragged edge ready to jump. While she assumes that ultimately a frightened population will remain docile while those manipulating the shock effects to strip them of their civil liberties, I submit that, unfortunately, there could be a further point beyond where things get so confused that nobody operates in their best interests, not even the manipulators. This is the distinction economists make about major economic shocks; usually governments can do things to correct or mitigate shock effects, but once a society is overwhelmed the ability to rationally deal with problems is absent until things calm down. In the case of shifts in weather patterns and global heating and cooling patterns, the limits on the amount of push-back that can be served up by the Hudson Institute or Greenpeace is decisively constrained. At some point the natural shock of lost habitat, environmental degradation and new systemic equilibia points will arrive. Do I need somebody to interpret this for me? After all, I already know that the Sierra glaciers I climbed on in my teens have all but evaporated, that there’s all those blue patches I saw flying over Greenland this summer weren’t there two decades ago, that the wind patterns that I measured as an apprentice meteologist in college have changed, that the Golden Trout I fished as a child are no longer plentiful, that the Baltic has been trashed, and that the yellow Gobi desert dust that floats over the Mojave every spring signals that this change is wide-ranging.

Yet Durkin insists it’s all a swindle. Silly me for trusting my senses and memory. So what ultimately was MTV3’s motivation for broadcasting such a fact-bending piece? We may never know. I think what I’m supposed to do is forget about it and get back to worrying about who’s dancing with which star, the F1 driver pouring champagne on his pit crew and those jumping bikini ladies, that woman in the shower, Brittany’s child-rearing skills,and a guy who tells me he’s the Lord’s TV spokesman.

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Fall is a beautiful time in the sub-arctic. Eggrole visited me over the weekend and we went mushroom hunting.

We did find enough fungi to make the wives happy. There were some Horn of Plenty and we saw a few Fly Agarics, which we didn’t pick — never mind the deadly Destroying Angel.

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A batch of Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides). They are

really tasty.

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The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a poisonous mushroom

but not as deadly as the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) below.

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The Destroying Angel. This mushroom if consumed will kill you.

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Human methane release and the accompanying sonic vibrations normally invoke embarassment, joviality and good-natured finger-pointing. However, every culture also has certain places or circumstances where cutting the cheese violates strict social norms. In Finland, that place would be the sauna when others are present.

The equivalent behavior in the print media world would be discussing publicly the mechanisms and conditions under which a publisher grants discounts to buyers of ad space.

The GOP attack on MoveOn.org’s ad knocking four-star Army General David Petraeus inadvertantly (at least at first) wanders into what is normally a safe space in publishing. After all, there is no problem, First Amendment or otherwise, with asking whether the ad constitutes a malicious attack that defames a public figure. What is inappropriate is that the KooKoo People have made MoveOn.org’s receipt of a discount for placing the ad an issue. If we start public attacks on sacred business secrets we could we see a deconstructionist fad that exposes the core trade practices of everybody from tax lawyers to defense contractors.

 Every magazine and newspaper, including the NY Times, publishes a rate card. These are the magazine’s official retail rates for space (and they are rarely cheap).  A 15% part of that rate is typically shared with larger ad agencies, who may in turn keep that part of the ad buy or refund a part of the provision to the customer if there is an agreement. Customers that pay the full retail price typically get treated very well and usually are automatically given other perks. Otherwise, the rate card simply sets the ground rules in the battle to buy and sell media space. Smaller buyers often turn to media buyers who consolidate large blocks of advertising to get a special rate. The big buyer may get, say, a 50% discount, then turn around and share 20% with their clients. That is exercise of the same volume buying power Wal-Mart uses on its suppliers. There is also opportunistic buying. Here, and for some reason this business is often conducted by under-30 females, the seller and buyer first nonverbally communicate by providing evidence of ownership or control of certain commodity and production capital fetishes, then the buyer conditions the offer with a question like “Can I get that for less?” Then the horse-trade is on to see who blinks first on ad placement and price on campaigns that may span TV, radio and print in multiple markets. Finally, there are companies that are so big they have an in-house ad department that negotiates ads directly with each magazine. As they are the lifeblood of the publisher, they will simply hammer on price and placement until they get what they want. My sense is that MoveOn.org has become a large enough media buyer to be able to negotiate an ad buy with the NY Times without outside help.

Despite the fantasy that NY Times advertising sales department is in cahoots with MoveOn.org to get Petraeus, the reality is that the content of the ad likely never entered into the negotiation. Unfortunately, the NY Times editorial staff cannot really respond honestly to the sheer silliness of the attack as it they’d have to reveal how the sausage is made. Instead, NY Times editor Clark Hoyt gives the rather feeble response that:

The Times bends over backward to accommodate advocacy ads, including ads from groups with which the newspaper disagrees editorially. 

 The editorial department probably never even knew the ad had been bought until they saw the printed paper. However, the NY Times detractors surely sensed they’d hit a sore point when they mentioned ad rates, demonstrating in the process they have no idea how media works. Everybody is now going to expect a “discount” when they buy as space from the NY Times, which will hurt ad agencies, advertisers and readers alike.  The publisher, unfortunately, will just have to bear this sauna fart.

Update: The House today also took time to condemn the ad. Interestingly, John Armor, a conservative lawyer, argues the ad discount constituted a “gift” to MoveOn, which must have made publishers everywhere wince yet again. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that the paper had a political motive in granting a discount for the ad. The claim is simply another iteration of the conservative sentiment that the paper has a liberal bias. Indeed, the discount was based on a condition that MoveOn to accept that the ad would run on the nearest day to their desired run-day when space came available. Now MoveOn has belatedly paid the full price for the ad — a real gift to the NY Times as it dispells the notion that a discount should be expected for any political ad.

Yet now we have an large majorities in Congress supporting a false linkage; here that political content motivated a discount. Heaven forbid that Congress put their weight behind other false linkages.

The NY Times obviously would have refused the ad if they thought it defamatory and opened them to republisher liability. But we all know nobody will ever file a libel suit against MoveOn for the ad because it is not defamatory. And we also know Congress will never spend a second condemning the much harsher critique of General Petraeus by his boss, US Central Command head Admiral Bill Fallon

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Did you know that one out of 35 people in the world is an immigrant, according to a 2004 United Nations study? In numbers, that translates to 175 million people (2.9% of the world’s population) versus 75 million (2.5%) in 1960.

In the United States, the number of immigrants total over 34 million, accounting for 12.4% of the population. The biggest national group are Hispanics at 17 million. In some states like California, the foreign population accounts for 27.2%.

Using simple math, it’s clear that the Hispanics are one of the most disfranchised national group in the U.S. The fact that Spanish hasn’t become an official language in states like California shows the minuscule rights Hispanics have.

If a country like the U.S. accepts and depends on immigrants for its economic growth and well-being, its legislation should reflect respect for those cultures and national groups that work in the country. Good examples for the US to follow are countries where more than one language is officially spoken. Some of these are Switzerland (French, Italian, German, Rumantsch), Canada (English and French) and Finland (Finnish and Swedish).

It’s incredible that as we’ve become more interdependent through globalization and can communicate with ease through the Internet, our perceptions of other cultures continue to be in the Pre-Cambrian Era. Even legislation reflects this antiquated stance. The difficulty of immigration reform in the US is a sad example of how some interest groups want the status quo to continue.

There are a myriad of reasons why immigrants continue to be disfranchised. But as long as we continue to teach our children at school that our country, our language and our culture is the best, we’ll never build a world that respects in earnest people from other countries and nationalities.

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Michael Moore’s Sicko is rolling out in US theaters to generally positive reviews. The premise is simple: for any industrialized country, universal health care should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, certain institutions of the US medical-industrial complex (e.g. insurers) and many voters do not accept this notion. For video on a piece by CNN’s resident neurosurgeon/reporter Sanjay Gupta that really got to Moore, see this and this.

What I would like to see is a comparison between the Finnish system and the US system. Having been in both, it’s clear to me that the Finnish system wins hands down in terms of life-cycle costs and quality. On the other hand, the variability of quality of US health care can be good for the lucky and the rich — it focuses resources very well. For example, when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner started to have a heart attack, he drove his car to Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, because he knew that was where the good care was. Such thinking would be odd in the Finnish context. Also, the Finnish system keeps slogging toward a diagnosis until it gets it right (or at least in the ballpark), while doctors in the US may be brilliant diagnosticians or lose interest and never figure out the problem. Second opinion is a big deal. It’s an interesting trade-off the Americans have made: sacrificing reliability and consistency for spectacular successes and a system that badly serves two-thirds of the population.

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Today saw the death of “comprehensive” immigration legislation on the US Senate floor. The proclaimed victors like Jim DeMint  should stop crowing about victory — lobbyists for service sector businesses like hotels and fast food, as well as labor-intense agriculture and construction were the winners. And the crafters of the bill need to recall the basic law of art direction — less is more — and apply that philosophy next time.

Americans are suprisingly unlikely to own a passport — until recently less than 10% of the general population held valid passports. This situation is now changing as passports are finally being required for cross-border travel to neighboring countries and the state department has introduced improvements in security features. The state department’s service fee for processing a passport application (e.g. checking birth records) and production of the physical document is roughly $100. In other words, assuming a population of 300 million, for $30 billion, every US citizen could be put through the passport process and issued a high-tech passport. Obviously, with 6% of the adult population in prison, on parole, or having outstanding warrants, as well as problems such as deadbeats who fail to pay child support and tax-evaders, there is probably a need to consider multiple flavors of passports. But the physical challenge of issuing hard-to-counterfeit passports to all is not insurmountable.

The legal function of passports has traditionally been restricted to use by the federal government in authorizing cross-border travel of citizens. However, there are other functions that passports readily perform. Globally, high-security passports (e.g. using polycarbonates and incorporating holographic features) are far less likely to be counterfeit, which means they provide much better ID security that current state driver’s licenses and US social security cards. (A friend of mine who does Chapt. 7 bankruptcies had one guy come in an offer him five SSNs when he asked “What’s your social security number?” I can’t even figure out how that scheme might work.)

For those of us that have lived the life of stranger in a strange land, the passport has always been the key document. With my passport and various visas I was able to travel about in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe back in the old days unimpeded (I even hitchhiked). During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had the privilege of experiencing the iron hand of Eila Käänö, a high-level bureaucrat in the Interior Ministry who oversaw Finland’s foreigner population. (Finland’s opening up to the world in the last three decades is a truly remarkable testament that societies can put aside provincialism and embrace fairly sophisticated international outlooks.)

At the bottom of the Finnish system were (and still are) the very simple administrative devices of the work and residence permits. If a foreigner behaved and contributed to Finnish society, that person was gradually granted longer work and residence permits, kept on learning Finnish and Swedish, began to get taxed on the same basis as the locals, and after a year was brought into the national health care system and ultimately even allowed to vote in local elections. Also, the state retained the right to deny a work permit to people in fields where Finns faced high employment. Most Americans living in Finland today hold university degrees and I have little doubt that foreigners who have chosen to reside in Finland permanently represent a net gain to the society overall. But there is also a further fact that should not be overlooked — almost every Finn currently holds a valid passport, Schengen or no Schengen.

From this perspective, the US does not really have an immigration problem, at least not in the Lou Dobbs sense. Rather, the federal government — for whatever reason — has been administratively negligent. I went through the embarassingly complicated greencarding process with my wife. Because we had done everything in Finland at the US embassy, our paperwork was apparently impeccable. When we came from Samoa to LAX and she went to hand over the paperwork, including a giant lung x-ray, the official cleared her in about 7 minutes, shook her hand, and commented that he’d almost never encountered such a well prepared immigrant. Of course, we’d spent about three months and $3,000 to get to that point. Finland, in contrast, has nothing like the greencard. The closest thing is probably the permanent resident stamp in the passport, but even that has to be renewed each time you get a new passport. And no matter how long you are in the system, you get thrown out if you move abroad. A greencarder has to visit the US every 12 months if they have again moved away from the US.

Thus, by requiring passports for all, citizen and non-citizen alike, a lot of problems can be disposed of rather quickly. When a citizen presents a valid US passport, it can be assumed that the federal government stands behind the document. This cannot be said of a driver’s license, birth certificate or SS card. When a non-citizen presents a passport, it will contain a valid residence permit and work permit with dates that are unambiguous to employers, and it will provide leverage for the employee to make sure that the employer pays the employee’s social contributions and conforms to the law. And it will reduce the gray economy that has been so well served by the Senate’s latest failure.

Regarding Mexico, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement, long ago noted by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the unfortunately titled The Population Explosion that immigration pressures from Mexico need to be damped not mainly because of the shoddy treatment immigrants recieve, but the simple fact that “the world cannot afford any more Americans.” It’s a wierd book, often hodge-podge, but occasionally brilliant. The best idea is the I = PAT equation. Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Lou Dobbs, who is after all a trained economist, would do well to incorporate it into his discussion. Mexico has made progress in lowering its population rate, a fact that is seldom mentioned. Mexico’s rising affluence, however, must be accompanied by energy efficient, environmentally friendly technology. Otherwise, there will be a real mess. Also overlooked is the fact that the US is the third most populous country on Earth, after China and India. Make of that what you will.

Pretty good for a couple that spent all their summers in Telluride.

US immigration issues can and should be handled administratively. Illegal immigrants are rarely involved in crimes of moral turpitude, but rather statute violations that have no intent requirement. An administrative approach also makes it possible to apportion costs between the immigrant, employer and government. Under the current regime, immigrants and employers avoid costs, and the government only spends what it can. An administrative approach would also avoid the need to build big fences. Simple, probably not as cheap as Congress would like (but then this is the same Congress that is now spending $11 billion a month on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan), and effective.  

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A friend was talking to me yesterday about the challenges of scaling technology. His example was the wind turbine, a fairly environmentally friendly means of generating electrical power. How much electricity would you get if you broke that wind power machine down into 10,000 machines instead? If it was perfectly scalable you would get the same amount, but as you go smaller and smaller, you run into manufacturing problems (you need to use lasers for cutting and the materials behavior becomes a larger issue), simple mechanical challenges in overcoming friction effects (bearings and driveshafts), and I guess if you go small enough you have to deal with (like in the movies Fantastic Voyage) Brownian motion. Nevertheless, the ability to scale up and down presents surprising opportunities for engineers.

 Physicists have always been arguing about the limits at which “man the builder” could scale his creations. Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture, There’s plenty of room at the bottom, sets out the basics for what we today call nanotechnology, and includes the interesting insight that smallness makes quality control easier. In that same year, Feynman’s cohort, Freeman Dyson came up with the notion that we might be able to identify advanced civilizations by their ability to make Dyson spheres, megaengineering projects designed to take full advantage of the light from a star (most likely a red dwarf). Ironically, these thoughts arose at the end of an era when architects had been pushing to keep our living at the “human scale.” For Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright, it meant shoving their well-heeled clientele into fairly cramped sleeping spaces.

My sense is that these two trends are still colliding. Our children are now expected to go to work in factories the size of a matchbox, live in huge sprawling metropolises and somehow behave ethically in the meatgrinder of the global economy. At the same time, they should be experiencing a sense of community and the same connection with nature our ancestors enjoyed. As we scale our technologies up and down, we should remember that our ventures into new scales will expose not just new strengths, but also our frailties. Joan Didion’s observation that “everything can change in a moment” suggests there is a danger in getting too comfortable with a moment or a certain scale of thought. Architects that break expectation are in fact doing us a great service. Steve Holl’s Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art comes to mind here. (There is an interesting discussion of his latest work in China here and here.)    

Finally, both Dyson and Feynman worked in the early years of nuclear power. Dyson was on a team that came up with the “safe” nuclear reactors used in submarines. To my knowledge, the idea of distributed nuclear power (say, four of five little nukes per household) died with the atomic train. Yet if we can consider putting a half-million little windmills on the skins of buildings, why not? And if we can imagine engineering to any scale, why not come up with criteria for optimal scale that could please scientists and artists alike?

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