Is it light there?

September 27th, 2009

When I speak with friends who don’t leave close by, one of the most common questions they ask is whether it is still light or dark over here. And considering that the amount of daylight has a tremendous impact on life and culture in Finland, this is always a relevant question. The light period during the summer gives everyone an extra boost of energy, while the dark winters bring extra weight, drowsiness and moodiness. People talk about it like they do about the weather.

The difference in the amount of light and darkness between summers and winters is quite extreme at this latitude. And the swings between day and night during the course of a year are almost too swift and difficult to comprehend.

Recently I have stumbled upon Gaisma, a web service visualizing the relation between light and darkness for thousands of places on Earth. The graphs Gaisma generates provide absolutely astonishing information, but are at the same time incredibly easy to understand. The first graph shows the relation between sunshine and darkness for Espoo, Finland, the second for Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the third for Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Amazing stuff.


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Passenger car for the rest of them

May 5th, 2009

Not invisible but six-fingered? Do you happen to be passing through Finland on a train? The Finnish railways warmly welcomes you in their designated passenger cars. You might not be allowed to journey entirely incognito, but you can peregrinate while sipping espresso. The invisibles can anyway pick an empty seat of their choice.


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Science sings in a customer service that works

January 4th, 2009

When something is wrong with the product I’ve bought, more often than not, I am reluctant to contact the manufacturer’s customer service. I rather return the product to the seller for replacement. Even though the primary purpose of a customer service is to help solve an issue, it easily turns into an endless wrangle without much effect. Even with simple issues it can take days and multiple calls to get something done.

However, recently I have had a really positive experience. I’ve bought a packet of muesli that contained still live sources of protein I did not want to see mingling with my breakfast cereals. About a week after sending an email and snail-mailing the packet to the manufacturer, I’ve received a letter that at first read like the regular marketing blah-blah. And then it said “We’ve inspected the sent product in our laboratory.” Yeah, right. But they really did. And from that lab report I’ve learnt about the pest more than I’ll ever need.

Here’s the translation of the juicy part:

The pest you’ve sent is a larva of the Mediterranean flour moth. The wingspan of the adult moth is 2 cm. Front wings are lead-gray and have zigzag patterned stripes and spots. Back wings are light gray. Its larva is 1,5 cm long, light, soft and has, like butterfly larvae usually do, five pairs of callus feet on the rear joint. It can show up in flour, bran and dried fruits. Larvae excrete network of webs, which makes the flour lumpy. Developmental stages of the Mediterranean flour moth die in a day when exposed to temperatures below -1°C. Mediterranean flour moth is the pest of mills and bakeries.

Have they had a Wikipedia account, they could have improved at least English and Finnish articles for the Mediterranean flour moth with this kind of explanation.

Besides the depth, I’ve also appreciated that for once customer service did not point their finger at anyone else for own shortcoming and did not give a lame excuse. Rather they took the responsibility, apologized, sent a ten euro compensation and gave a really cool clarification. This was definitely one of the most insightful, thorough, and educative customer service responses I have ever received.


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Helsinki public transportation map, a year and a half later

December 14th, 2008

If you’re reading this blog regularly, then you might remember reading here about a year and a half ago about how Helsinki Public Transportation is outfitting their buses, trams and metros with GPS devices so that you can track their whereabouts online in real time. For that post I’ve also included a screen grab where you could see a few vehicles moving in Helsinki downtown. Although the map looked a bit deserted, the promise of seeing that map full of movement, seemed wonderful. Back then they’ve promised to outfit all of their vehicles by the end of year 2008. I have paid another visit to see what has happened during this time.

This is a screen grab of the Public Transport Map today.

HKL Helsinki Public Transport Map

Quite busy. Now the image actually resembles the dynamic of the public transportation. Since I know there are a lot more buses than there are blue bus icons on this map, it seems that the main emphasis so far have been trams. Or it might have been a strategic decision not to show all the buses. Indeed, the map could become unintelligible had they decided to show all bus action. Everything considered, a very nice improvement. Particulalry when compared to the Web 0.5 attempt at providing a similar service for Ljubljana public transportation.

Besides bringing all those vehicles online, they have also added several very handy features.

First of all, now you can access the information about vehicle arrival times for all of the stops. Which is great. Going to town? Key in the name of your nearest stop, click the stop and voíla, you get a list of all departures for the next half an hour or so. Very convenient.

Besides stops, you can also use the map to look up streets and popular places in Helsinki. Just for the hack of it I entered rautatieasema, the Helsinki central railway station. The map zooms in and becomes chock-full of bus, tram, train and metro stops. There are literally dozens of them. Clicking any shows a real-time list of arrivals. Impressive and functional.

HKL bus departures from Rautatientori

Having GPS in your pocket is great, although most of the time I know where I am and don’t really need it until I go hiking. Now, to know where that bus I’m waiting for is, that is something I want to know. I think that Helsinki Public Transport Map is a fantastic example of converging technologies delivering an entirely new value.

That said, the project is not flawless. Here are some of the things that would be great to see.

Color code the stops. Right now the bus and tram stop icons are almost identical. There’s no easy way to glance at the map. Rather you have to go pixel hunting to tell the difference between tram and bus stops. I know that they are using the standard symbols you can find in the city, but these are of little use on the net where you do not see tram tracks. The user should be able to tell the difference at a glance. The solution is really trivial: color coding. Why not use dark blue for bus stops, dark green for tram, orange for metro and red for trains? And while at it …

Same symbol for trains and busesUnify symbols. It would be useful if the symbols for all types of transportation would be unified. Now bus and tram look too similar, but metro uses something completely different. Not to mention that for the local trains the bus symbol is used (as you can see in the image to the right) and in some cases for the trams too. It is confusing. Similar look and feel reduces the need to dissect information–it becomes immediately obvious.

Crammed bus stopsMake it finger friendly. Wherever there are a lot of stops in a small area, it is excruciatingly difficult to click exactly the one you need. It can be a nerve-wrecking task to do so with a mouse, and is probably impossible to achieve on your sleek iPhone even with the tiniest of pinkies out there. It won’t cause any fat finger dailing, but is still annoying. Either add another zoom level, or add more space between stations even if their representation on the map should be true to reality.

Remove the Google layer. Since Google powers the map service, Google’s own layer of some tram and metro stops is shown. This does not provide any additional information—it only adds clutter. To add to confusion, the ones Google provides are almost always shown in the wrong location. Go figure. Getting rid of this layer would solve the problem.

Tower of Babel interface. Well, not really, but as it is now, the interface randomly mixes English and Finnish. Why not separate the two completely? And while at it, add Swedish too.

Documentation. The interface and functionality are without a doubt transparent to the developers, but less so to everyone who would find this service useful. Write a brief help. It helps to disambiguate functionality and adds confidence to the user.

I hope that they will address these in the near future. In the meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the next version.


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Chewing tar

December 7th, 2008

I never imagined that I would ever have anything to say about chewing gum. But over time interesting things piled up. So there you have it.

The first time I became aware of chewing gum was only about ten years ago. Sure I’ve consumed it before that, but I’ve never really paid any attention to it. Then I had just moved to the US and for the first time in my life I tasted cinnamon flavored gum. I’ve always thought of cinnamon as a spice mom would seldom use for baking. Cinnamon gum or candy? Weird and exotic. Boy, I hadn’t had a scant feeling of what lies ahead.

A couple of years went by when I’ve read in Wired about the Black-Black caffeinated gum that is hip in Japan. I never liked the taste of coffee, but was sure that I could use some caffeine tingle. If not for anything else, than at least it would be indispensable for keeping me alert during the then frequent and much loved all-night geek-out sessions. I was onto something. So the next time I was in New York, I stopped by my favorite Japanese grocery store and picked up a couple of packs, just to make sure I don’t run out as soon as I get addicted.

And? Disappointment. It might have had all the promised “Hi-Technical Taste”, but the more I chewed the lamer it got. I don’t know about the exact numbers, but doubt that the caffeine in that gum could give a noticeable oomph even to an ant. In a word, useless. Especially if you imagined a pack of Black-Black would keep you up all night. The whole deal even reminded me of caffeine soap promising slumbering geeks to get them up and running, but does it with as much kick as a warm blanket on a rainy day.

Fast forward to almost now.

When I arrived to Finland the chewing gum oddities increased exponentially. Anyway, that Finns have their own set of bizarre chewing gum flavors did not surprise me at all. What did, was what those flavors were. Why would Finland be any different? All I can say is that being tucked in the far north-eastern corner of Europe, the country differs from the rest of Europe in many unusual ways.

Some of the weirdest gum I’ve tasted so far is the tar-liquorice gum. Yes, tar as in tar that has been used for paving roads and is still in use around here for protecting the wood (even though EU regulations have greatly limited the use of tar). Why would someone want tar flavored gum? Sure tar smells nice, but so does soap and it doesn’t cross many people’s minds to chew soap.

For a while I could not wrap my brain around this one. Then I found out that in Finland tar was considered to be panacea (and I can imagine that for some it still is). So much so that it is one of the three pillars in the Finnish folklore medical holy trinity. And a quaint Finnish adage remains to tell about tar’s medical virtues: “If sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal.” I dare say that must be just about right. If you can get wasted on vodka, covered yourself with tar, are sitting in a 100°C humid room and are still alive, then I’d say you’re in darn good shape.

Really, as gum flavor tar really doesn’t cut it. Neither does tar mix with booze. Although that’s another popular combination Finns have love-hate relationship with. In a snap you can get into a heated discussion over whether tar in anything tastes good or bad.

This might seem like a deliberate sneaky intermission just to get away from the topic I have thought frivolous. Far from it, tar holds the chewing gum world together.

You might not be aware of this, but Finland is the place to be when it comes to epochal moments of chewing gum. After all, it was on the west coast of Finland that an archaeology student found a 5,000-year-old piece of chewing gum last year. Guess what they were chewing. Yep, tar. Protofinns were chewing birch bark tar to keep the local dentist out of business.

Nevertheless it took five millennia before they discovered why chewing birch bark tar saves teeth (and lives): xylitol. And xylitol was discovered, well, in Finland. I mean this is so full of coincidences that it’s almost mawkish, but it’s true, those Finns who discovered xylitol first derived it from birch. Aaawh, puppies and teddy bears all over the place; how romantic. Seriously, I’m sure that practically everywhere in the world people were chewing something, but Protofinns were chewing the right stuff.

I have no idea how it is in the country where you live, but in Finland you’d have to go across the border to get a non-xylitol sweetened gum. This has gone to such extremes that nowadays all you can get is gum stuffed to the brim with xylitol. Which causes even the marketing people to go gaga and come up with a harebrained teeth-filling progress bar (no pun intended).

I wonder how many Finns have seen any chewing gum commercials where Finnishness of xylitol is used as a sales clout. First the funny ones. I don’t know what the producers of these two commercials were chewing, but I’m pretty sure it must have been something strong. For the non-Finnish speaking, the dancing gentleman who doesn’t fit in the scene is shouting “Good! Good!” in Finnish. Oh my. If you also thought Koreans were chewing something, than the Italian producers must have been smoking crack. I don’t think they would have been able to come up with something as asinine as this.

Go figure.


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