Monday, March 12, 2018

Arctic rail plans in Finnish transport technopolitics

Last week the Finnish ministry of transport and communications (LVM) published a report on possible / planned Arctic railway connections from Finland (a land locked Arctic state) to neighbouring maritime Arctic states Norway and Russia. (Finnish language publication with more extensive Finnish appendices is here.)

In the aforementioned communique the LVM stated that this was an important European project with the mouth of the minister of transport and communications, Anne Berner:
“The Arctic railway is an important European project that would create a closer link between the northern, Arctic Europe and continental Europe. The connection would improve the conditions for many industries in northern areas. A working group will now start to further examine the routing to Kirkenes,” says Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner.
In the accompanying slide presentation attributed to the minister a future of transnational rail network was sketched out as can be seen from this screen capture:

Title translates as "From the Arctic Sea to the European core," page 3 from the presentation by minister Anne Berner 9.3.2018.
This idea of an Arctic European rail link hinges on two mega projects: 1. The Arctic connections from Rovaniemi in Southern Finnish Lapland to the ocean, and 2. The Helsinki-Tallinn rail tunnel (or the Baltic Channel Tunnel, if you will). If built, both are massively expensive, wrought with myriad uncertainties, and – this being the reason for my blog post – systemically disruptive to existing modes of transport.

The first mega project raised a storm on the public forum. While the Finnish transport Authority (LV) had looked into various Arctic Sea rail routes alongside private consulting companies and Norwegian counterparts (In Finnish only: LV reportSitowise technical report, Ramboll economic and societal impact assessment, in English: Norconsult Arctic Railway report for Jernbanedirektoratet), only one possible route was selected by the ministry for closer inspection. This was the one shown in the picture above.

If built the rail line would cut the Saami area in two and have potentially catastrophic consequences to local ways of life, as was pointed out by numerous commentators in social media (#jäämerenrata on Twitter) and reported by the Finnish State News YLE. I have nothing to add to the critique by Petra Laiti and others on the issue of Saami rights other than to muse that Finnish public institutions and politicians seem to continue to be somewhat tone deaf.

I do however wish to contextualise public debate with a few nuggets and notions from history, which taken together should raise the question: whose politics is this?

The LV report introduction grounds the rail plan to the historic issue of Finland's connections to outside world, on which I've previously done research together with Saara Matala from Aalto University. In short, we've grounded the issue of Finnish winter transport logistics to an ongoing transport system regime confrontation between various state agencies. Some 80+ percent of Finnish foreign trade in 2015 was conducted by sea, through the Baltic. Most of it through a handful of ports on the Finnish coast kept open through the year by state owned and private logistics' companies operating icebreakers. As LV states in their aforementioned rail report, this makes Finnish logistics somewhat vulnerable – A most persistent issue in naval and civil maritime discussions here over the past century.

From this perspective it is curious that none of these, now unfolded, plans discuss this wider logistics infrastructure and security issue. While the LV report goes into details on economic potential and consequences of such a connection, the does not really discuss the relationship between rail and sea if such a project were to be successful. The Baltic tunnel really only appears on the minister's slides and even there as something of a ghost.

Should both mega projects be built, it would have consequences to trade not only though the North-East Passage from China to Europe but to and from European markets to Finland and within the country as well. The administrative conflicts within Finnish government in the 1960s we've documented in our research would quite likely return as ports, shipping companies and connected operators vied for a slice of the economy pie with now strengthened rail operators. Such discussion were had in the 1950s, when the state board of transport authorities recommended focusing on icebreakers and marine traffic. They were had in the 1920s, when Finnish foreign trade took westward turn and the country look to Europe for it's future. The state civil maritime administration (MKH, now split into LV, Trafi and Arctia among others) was successful in slowly building a marine transport first strategy over these decades. It is not a coincidence that so much of Finnish trade travels by ship.

Current global transport mega structures rely on plentiful very large carriers to transport materials and goods across the oceans. The size and capacity of this global fleet has boomed over the past decades due to a number of issues. Russian actors are interested in developing the North-East Passage for their economic opportunities and leading Finland based companies in Arctic maritime technology remain tightly connected to this process. At the same time Russia is invested in developing trans Eurasian rail linkages to China. It remains to be seen, whether an Arctic maritime route can compete against in a meaningful and economically viable way with these pre-existing logistics' systems and their global path dependencies. The economic impact and return to invest of any Finnish Arctic rail project hinges on such economic arithmetic.

And so, whose politics is this?

Who would benefit from shifting Finnish logistics hubs northward? Who would gain from a rail first strategy and who would loose? What arguments are being made and what issues are silent from the reports and PR brochures? Therein lays an essential technopolitical argument that many might not want to have. Will you? Will your parliamentary MP?

I was not paid to write this by anyone. I remain responsible for my public statements, same as everyone. My interest in this issue is academic and my primary motivation in writing this stems from my understanding on the third mission of academia in engaging the wider society. I'm currently working on my PhD at the University of Helsinki on Finnish shipbuilding industry–state relations 1918-1954 and the technopolitics of heavy manufacturing industry with a Kone Foundation grant. I'm also the editor-in-chief for the Finnish journal for the history of technology, Tekniikan Waiheita.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Self-assessment as PhD tool: some thoughts on process and pedagogy

Well this log hasn't been updated for some time. A part of me is disappointed while another is content with the reality of these past six months. This being the case, I decided to to collect my thoughts on self-assessment as a learning tool in doctoral studies. The following text is therefore highly subjective and somewhat personal in nature.

I became cognisant of monthly self-assessment as a meaningful tool during our doctoral program's start your studies seminar (Väitöskirja käyntiin) in 2014. This monthly review of progress was recommended by my good friend and longtime model for being a historian, Jaakko Tahkokallio. In his seminar presentation Jaakko talked about his process, the good and difficult and the bad. Ever so passingly he mentioned that at some point he undertook monthly evaluations to see, whether thing were progressing as planned. This was a revelation!

I'm a strong believer in developing process agilely. I prefer to understand the meta in any job I do and through that reflect where I need help, development, and tools for better command of my work. As far as I understand this relates to my highly rhythmic temperament. I do routine well and having understood this, can influence my life by intentionally and systematically targeting my routines. I didn't learn this during my studies but with help from significant others, when I decided upon a 30 something health overhaul. Still the same personal, psychological tools apply.

First, understanding emotions related to work, professional identity and professional community has been really hard. Finns (especially CIS men) tend to have built their identity around work and professionalism. This applies extremely well to me. Yet we don't always do emotions that well. Success, failure, interaction and status issues all apply on an emotional level. I found the linked column "Want to lose weight? Train the brain, not the body" by Laurel Mellin extremely helpful in this. As the title shows, this didn't happen in my academic training. Still that's what I've largely used it for. I also participated in a pilot program started by my pension fund (MELA) with TJS Opintokeskus (the info is only in Finnish). This put me in touch with professional work consultants used to operating with academically trained professionals and possibly more importantly with my peers, with whom I've been able to process practically everything.

Peer support is the second essential component I wish to stress herein. Various informal and formal networks have sprung up among PhD students in Helsinki and statewide during my studies. Still, these take time to develop and many can become unintentionally closed groups for friends. The support structures for unfunded doctoral students are still most fragile and many students can and do stay alone with their insecurities, unrealistically high expectations, fears and such. Participating in support structures takes active effort and so far projects like the one linked above, demand having a grant in the first place.

This leads me back to self-assessment. Why did I decide to take part? As I've noted before in an earlier post, it became a perceived need during a monthly review of progress. Mine follows this pattern:

  • How did the last month go? Emotions, successes, failures, whatever comes to mind.
  • PhD work progress in detail. What got done, what didn't, why?
  • Other studies, projects, events and networks: what's happening, what's taking time?
  • Content analysis: ideas, problems and possibilities related directly to my thesis.
  • Funding issues: I feel this needs to be addressed regularly in order to cope with the monumental feelings of deficiency and frustration involved.
  • To do: what's coming up during the next six months or so?
A colleague of mine has developed this further and uses a purpose built IT tool to manage todo-workload. Long to mid term stuff moves into short term lists during self-assessment and so forth. I just use a text file, so whatever works, works.

During my short stint in London, I was supervised in this process: monthly meetings with the professor and rundown on everything I had done and was planning to do. It felt a little heavy handed but this might be related to my own progress and process. Such close guidance will work for some, especially early on. It doesn't do away with personal development as that is a real development goal in learning to become a researcher. Still we could do more in recognising it as such and defending the necessary pedagogical resources involved. As it stands, I feel this issue is insufficiently addressed currently but as always YMMV.

Having said that, things are progressing and they must. The crunch in funding and temporal resources of doctoral education is putting a lot of pressure on university teaching staff and recent cutbacks have seemingly done nothing to help them manage their own responsibilities as support personnel and structures have been slashed and administration restructured. Academia is running up the hill, but is there cliff at end? I hope not.

Personal development in research education is necessary but it should not mean solitary development. Some academic survivors of yore may have learnt inopportune or even downright problematic survival mechanisms but that doesn't mean anyone, anywhere should. I hope recent programs, systemic pedagogical processes and peer help mechanisms survive and flourish. Should they do so, is entirely up to us and that is why at this late hour (in my PhD studies that is) I continue to participate.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Finnish naval appropriations are an ahistorical, convoluted political weapon

A tired old bugbear raised its head recently on the opinion pages of the biggest Finnish newspaper HS. A journalist and popular history author Pentti Sainio wrote on July 19th that the "giant mistake of the 1930s in defence policy must not be repeated" ( HS is paywalled). I read it and wasn't going to comment on it now unless a more substantial discussion emerged. The a friend messaged me with the link asking whether this claim had any historical basis. This is my public reply to both. I'm fairly certain that I will have to repeat it ad infinitum but then, I chose my on dissertation topic and I knew what I was walking into.

This isn't a simple historical issue. When military appropriations of old are used to argue in favour of this or that military policy in the present, we are dealing with history-politics – the use of history as a political tool. Sainio has an agenda in this, as his most recent book (haven't read it) clearly shows.

Personally I don't think that almost a hundred years old military policies should be used as a yardstick for any purchases now. The military does (as far as I know from having discussed this with numerous officers in the organisation) risk assessments and evaluates needs based on those. History has very little to teach on hybrid warfare or recent military technology development. What we take from history then, should be evaluated as well, which leads me to question, why then use The Navy Law (1927) in such a way?

Because it was built as such a political weapon in the first place.

Here we must return to our time old topics Russia and existential threat, you know, cornerstones of Finnish nationalism. Sainio has possibly read his history. Unfortunately for him, those histories are severely lacking on the issue of 1920s naval appropriations. By the 1930s this particular issue was done and decided, ledgers closed and what have you. Historian Martti Turtola started his career off with a banger of masters thesis in 1972. He sunk a couple of myths regarding the passing of the naval appropriations law of 1927 by showing that building the navy was always on the government agenda from 1918 onwards. Since this is an unpublished thesis locked away in the basement of University of Helsinki library, few have read it.

Turtola didn't see everything, which is why my doctoral dissertation will also discuss the events in detail. Neither he nor Sainio were maritime, technology, or economic historians. Herein lies the central issue of traditional Finnish military history. Issues are typically discussed in a vacuum. New military history has tried to puncture this myopia with cultural history, but other points of view are needed. Naval and aviation branches are quite technical. Technical issues demand expertise, resources and leadership that understands the critical need for both. I argue that the navy had all these from early 1920s onwards and this goes a long way in explaining why the submarines and ships got built.

This then begs the question, what did the army have and why weren't its efforts in developing tanks and field artillery successful? This I can't answer. Luckily my colleague Michael Halila is working on it. So check in later.

In short, the navy rebuilding program was meaningful for other actors than just the navy such as Finnish export industries (forestry in particular), merchant marine and shipbuilding industry. Civilians were and are necessary for such ambitious projects. When military men isolate themselves from the rest of society and try to control their environment single-mindedly, they may well fail to gain Society's support for their efforts. This is why various econo-industrial negotiating bodies were set up in the 1930s to create cooperation between military and civilian actors.

After the Second World War an ur-Finnish blame game got underway and the navy was an easy target for many. Pocket battleship Ilmarinen had sunk while on operations after hitting a mine. Neither it or the other ship Väinämöinen had been used as publicly argued before the war. That is as moving coastal gun batteries on the South-East coast lacking such coastal batteries. All of this was seen by non-naval types as evidence of failure. The money should have been used elsewhere. And so the myth of the greatest Finnish military mistake appropriation was created. It then persisted on and on. The history of prewar military administration was published a year after Turtola's master's thesis. In it Terä and Tervasmäki continued to permeate the myth.

Asking why the navy was successful when the army wasn't has been a taboo in Finnish military history. Interestingly Sainio places the blame on 1930s military leaders, not on their 1920s counterparts. While this might be a result of confusion and mistaken facts, it also plays into a curious tropes evident in Finnish military history. Certain parties and actors may not be criticised. This is a future task for us historians.

In my dissertation I will discuss the naval side of this complex. That will not be enough, but it will hopefully be a start. In the meantime, when you see arguments like the one I linked above, know that they are not about history but about present politics. Big technological projects have a tendency to shy away from meddlesome politics. They seem to thrive in technocracy. The 1920s and 1930s in Finland were quite different from the society we think we know now. While elite networks persist and technocrats will always be part of society, using our common day understanding will do no good in understanding the early years of Finnish independence. It is and will always remain a strange country of foreigners, where the historian threads lightly and carefully.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The anatomy of an article – small nation, big ships

First, I had such high hopes of being able to actually keep this blog at least semi-active. No such luck, as the dissertation has quite reasonably taken most of my time and will. Clearly I haven't had the will to document the minutiae of that work, but I will try to make up for it in the future.

That being said, I now have a happy story to tell.

For the past year and a half I've worked with a colleague from Aalto University, Saara Matala, on a little side project to both our dissertations: the national history of Finnish icebreaker development, 1878-1978. Why is this significant? It was my first international peer reviewed article in scientific journal and the first on that I did with someone else. As such, it was a learning process of many hues.

Revisiting the history of Finnish icebreaking service

Saara approached me with the idea of revisiting Finnish winter navigation and icebreaker development soon after I had returned from London. It would take the two of us to do this properly. She was not wrong, although it took a bit more than what I thought at the time.

We quickly worked out a first draft, then rewrote over a couple of coffee infused sessions at Aalto in Otaniemi. We had ideas and we had questions but the argument was still elusive. After a good many revisions we felt confident enough to share the draft with our supervisors and a colleague, who also took the time to comment our English.

Unsurprisingly the draft didn't survive that contact. We had too much stuff in the piece and were pulling the argument to differing directions. Not a good thing. So we rewrote the whole thing again. Having worked on the article for about six months, we had the opportunity to take the case across the world into SHOT conference in Singapore in June 2016. More critical comments, questions and ideas followed. By then we were confident however that there was it there. Working our arguments into a conference paper helped immensely with constructing our argument and doing away with unnecessary bits and pieces.

A year ago we sat down again and went through our work again. The draft was rewritten for the Nth time. We had identified a journal to aim for. Since we were revisiting a hundred years of history, this was never going to be a concise piece. Therefore our target was the journal History and technology, as longer articles get published there as well. This revision was done with their style guidelines in mind.

Then we submitted... and waited.

Finally the editor answered. He had good and bad news. The introduction needed work, badly, but there was something there. Not a yes but not a no.

Rewrite and resubmit

So we set to work again. Argued by the white board, drew concept maps and slung revision versions at one another over the email. Saara left for MIT in the fall and we worked out a new version in the hectic weeks preceding her departure. More colleagues read the draft and commented at this point. While much of the content was already there, framing the question and being poignant was hard to come by. Writing together had a helpful effect, as we could both exorcise each other's bad habits and help one another to kill our darlings. During the more hectic stages fo work I would write something in Finland in the morning and sent it to Saara who would pick up from there U.S. time and thus greet me the next morning with a new version.

This went on for a couple of months that I have little memory of (but lots of archived emails). Finally in November, we had a version the editor felt confident in sending to peer review. Winter came, oscillated and my anxiety grew. Somewhere there we had been asked to participate in a lecture session at Tieteen Päivät at my university in Helsinki in January 2017. As Saara was in Boston, I held my first big lecture in front of a lot of people i knew and some I came to know later through this work.

While we waited for peer review comments, the whole icebreaker thing met a perfect storm. It is quite difficult for anyone else to grasp how important these ships are in Finland. I knew this and still I wasn't at all prepared to the interest our research would fan. I got called to speak at transport infrastructure sessions and to give lectures at the Maritime museum of Finland. Journalists wanted to talk to me and people I've never met started calling me. We struck a dialogue with a German historian, who's been doing work on icebreakers for decades and wanted to exchange ideas and materials with Finnish researchers. Meanwhile Saara took our icebreaker story on a tour of North America. This unpublished thing had wings.

And then we received the peer review comments. Were they crushing, o were they!

Learning to do science

While it was easy to talk about icebreakers to Finns, we evidently still had a lot of work in framing our arguments logically. The editor was still positive and pushed us back to work. So once gain we took to MS Word and tore our piece to shreds. Read more research and theory, rewrote the introduction and the conclusions and generally tried to stick holes into our own boat. What fun!

By spring, I felt exhausted and somewhat annoyed with this story. I was getting quite good at talking about it, having practiced over and over. I even got a chance to write a short popular piece about it in Finnish in the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies journal. I felt all this exposure to our ideas was somewhat out of place, as we still didn't have an actual academic publication. Frustrated, I hardly enjoyed the attention, even if engaging others is a good thing for science. I felt unsure, even false, an impostor. And that was absurd, because I had done the work, over and over again. Endless days combing over archives to find the smallest of clues missed by previous historians and then disseminating all that with my colleague. But the feelings were there.

We sent our corrections and errata back to the editor. He came back at us with more questions and clarifications. Still by April this year, I had a feeling of hope. Clearly the editor wouldn't go through all this trouble if there really wasn't something there. Really really. So with steely eyed resolution we took the paper once again.

Finally, quite recently we got a message from the editor, we could hardly understand: "we're almost there..." it started. What did it mean? Would this ever end? What would I do then?

Closure snuck up on us. After a long 18 months, all of a sudden we were in a hurry. Final corrections, permissions to use pictures, revisit the bibliography. Emails were streaking between university serves hourly as our final sprint gathered momentum. Our last session felt electrified and when the FINAL_final_V3b (or whatever) slipped from our computers into academia obscura, emptiness took me over. I went over the publication agreement in a daze, not fully understanding that to so many this is a menial, commonplace occurrence. Land ahead!

What then?

Our article is currently here (early online publication before paper):

While my monograph dissertation is on track to be done in 2018, this article collaboration experience has served an important purpose. Working with others is becoming more relevant in history, I feel. Having had a chance to try it out, I now think that any research idea in our field should go through some kind of self-evaluation of how could I do this with to make it better. Writing with a colleague isn't necessarily easy, but it hat helped me frame my own research interests, strengths and weaknesses and to communicate much better than before.

More importantly this piece is so much better than anything I could have accomplished on my own. Maybe someday, but as a learning process, this has been invaluable and well worth the trouble. To that end, I also feel privileged that the journal editor took the time to push and guide us in the development of our craft.

To conclude, I can also say that the process opened a new and significant path into the future. While working on this article, we recognised important phenomena for analysis.

Any article I write in the future, will probably not shake me like this one did, and that's the point. Doing a phd is a learning process and doing articles on a significant level forces us to learn.

(We had great help from a lot of people along the way. Our supervisors and other informed colleagues took the time to read the work in progress and help us with their comments. All the seminar and conference exposure forced us to hone our argumentation in significant ways. While only two names appear on the article, the academic study of history is by no means a solitary endeavour.)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thinking text, research, publishing and the wørd

Over the past few years I've come to the conclusion that MS Word should be dumped, entirely and for good. After embarking on a quest to learn scientific online publishing for Tekniikan Waiheita the Finnish quarterly for the history of technology, these issues have become quite acute. This blog post is therefore merely an early reflection on a process that I assume will take years of effort. Also I need to note that much of this might be quite pedestrian for you technical types. If so, please keep in mind that humanists, (some) social scientists and (many) higher arts types will never code, ever. Thus we need to bridge this technological gap and find open, easy tools for the benefit of all.

First, let's get into the why of things. How did I end up hating the one program I'm really good at?

I've been the layout (con) artist, web editor and technical do-it-yourself everyman for the Finnish Society for Maritime History for many years now. In this role the issues arising in putting out newsletters and publishing conference materials have become very familiar. I became this person due to my passing familiarity with InDesign and fearlessness in the face of html. I'm still rubbish in the latter and can just about muddle through the first. But as academic societies never actually have money for proper professionals, I was it. Luckily for me (and not so much for them) I have friends who do these thing for a living.

Turning various, ill-formed word-documents into html and/or pdfs is a pain. I was slowly getting decent at it though. Experience kept coming in fits and bouts. In 2010 I took part in three concurrent book projects, as an article writer for the Nautica Fennica and the Museum of Kymenlaakso yearbook and a member of the editorial team for the Maritime Centre Vellamo book. This triarchy got me thinking about the ways we write articles and publish them as I was privy to the various parts of doing books at the same time. But this, it turns out, was the old world.

Humanists in particular tend to think in terms of a published text and for this the pdf is ok. That's what it's meant for after all. Telling printers what to do. With the onset of digital first methods, mobile devices and all that, print media has become increasingly obsolete. Academics still tend think with the A4 in mind. We largely still approach our research in a form that is ill suited to digital first dissemination and this – to me – is becoming untenable.

Proper digital tools for a digital world

About three years ago I came up with a thought experiment to illustrate this issue. I introduced to Tim Cook as a historian of technology. He's on his way out from wherever we happen to be in. I have just the elevator ride (let's pretend it's a skyscraper) to answer his question: what kind of a history would you do for Apple? Go!

My answer to this was astonishing: NOT A BOOK! But I love books...

The book is wrong for Apple. A technology company selling mobile devices needs a mobile, technological history. And so I started to dream about the history of tomorrow.

This digitally disseminated history should be easily readable on all mobile devices. This meant html or xml or something such as an end platform. This naturally led to hypertextuality. Sources and the very environment around that story should be presented dynamically, when needed. With this in mind, I started to think about scalability. Not everyone wants to read 500 pages of thick description of systems, networks and people amidst a changing world. Academics often need depth to get into the issues and an executive summary will never do. Have you read the most recent IPCC report? If not, I can assure that it's quite exhaustive. We need to be mindful of this issue though. One way or another the detailed research has to end up compressed into a summary.

Now, most academics I know dislike writing such summaries. There's never enough space to explain things properly. But what if the process of summarizing was built into our research reporting and publishing tools? What if that online Apple history was dynamically expandable from the executive summary – a glorified index in fact – into the most detailed history of the company and all that went into it? What if you could choose when to access that information? The summary expanding into chapter descriptions, those into actual chapters and so on and so forth. Online sources would be presented alongside the text when needed, pictures would appear as needed. Metadata would be embedded into the text and one might rearrange the whole story chronologically, expand just the bits about Woz, or just stick to the curated format the historian saw best for the story.

To a historian this sounds almost magical, but as anyone who's written a book with MS Word or any equivalent also a lot of work after the fact. And herein lies the issue. The tools we use to think, to write our articles, dissertations and the like fail us. Looking at a skeuomorphic A4 on my laptop stops me from seeing that story digitally delivered. Manually inserting all the metadata links demands an armada of technical editors almost no one has resources for. The bloated word editor kills our dreams and through it ties us to the past.

Dreams of tomorrow

Just today I started the process of learning about XML in academic publishing. Thanks to The Federation of Finnish Learned Societies I've now embarked on a trip to someday get our journal digitally natively published, readable by machines and consequently far more easily disseminated by all. Obviously there are massive hurdles strewn across this path but luckily I'm not alone here. No one is. I've included a few links in the end on this.

The big issue is this though. If we plan to publish our research digitally we need to pay attention to the format. Not because it should override the function of academic enterprise, but because it can help us be better at it. I'm sure the book will exist for a long time, and there's much good to say about physical media. I'm not trying to do away with these here. Instead I'm trying to navigate the turbulent waters of impact and significance.

If we have easy to use tools for doing our research, analysis, writing up and publishing, we can actually get things done. Using journal editors time to troubleshoot anonymisation issues related to MS Office metadata creation is frankly a waste. Muddling through e-mail archives for an up to date version of the article one was working on with a colleague after the peer review corrections came, is a waste. Helping academics do their work means getting technology out of their way. Obviously this will never get fully done. We'll always have to learn to use new tools and things will always change in surprising ways.

Do we then want to rely on Silicon Valley start ups or corporate behemoths on our capacity to work? As much good as both may have done, I have my reservations. My recent discussions with colleagues much better versed in such issues, have led me to strongly back open standards for academic work both in higher learning and research. We truly need openness in research data management and dissemination to ensure transparency and quality of research. For a lot of these tools this already is the case, but for others not so much.

What I want to do for me and my research, is bring materials together while I'm conducting analysis and writing things, to have all my quotes in in the original Finnish, Swedish, Russian, English or German always alongside my translations and notes. I want to create searchable metadata on times, people and concepts that I can at a whim connect to any publication bound argument, whether it be an article, a blog post or a my dissertation. To keep a track of my thinking while I move onwards. MS Word will not do. Atlas TI will not do. A new tool for a new time is needed instead. It must be open, for scientists by scientists.

Onwards and upwards, into ruin and desolation

As a historian I feel this issue acutely. Much of the materials, the source I use are still safely stored in archive vaults across the world. Current digital versions are typically barely passable if they exist at all. Finnish archives currently fail to work with Refworks and the like, which led me to not use such otherwise great tools. I felt that the work needed would be better put to a creating my own database. This pained me greatly, but the work had to come first. U.S. based citation cultures and pseudo-paper online journals play into this.

Having discussed these and related issues with easily some hundred people, colleagues on all rungs of the academic world, I've met much despair and hope. Many want to stay with the familiar while others whole-heartedly embrace dreams as I have in this short introduction. Little exchange fits in between and we are all worse for it. Bibliometrics and impact factors aren't going away however. And the only way we, the experts in our respective fields, can have any say in what is measured and how, is to stand up and confront tomorrow.

With these fighting words, I wish to make it known that I at least ant to participate in creating meaningful ways for the academia of tomorrow, to bring my meagre lot as a humanist scholar of technology to this churning maelstrom of a discussion. And maybe, just maybe be part of the development of academic humanities into the digital age.

Further reading on digital academic publishing

Public Knowledge Project kehittää Open Journal Systems -palvelua
Tieteellisten Seurojen Valtuuston Avoimen Julkaisun palvelut
XML Journal Article Tag Suite
USA National Information Standards Organization

Monday, February 27, 2017

Running to stand still – this is not a sprint, it's a marathon

I haven't written anything here in a while and I feel a bit embarrassed. I know I really shouldn't as this really isn't mandatory educational activity, yet I do. But why?

Doing a PhD can take years, four being the mythical norm. There's definitely a point in doing the right size of a dissertation to fill just that, it is just a thesis after all. Doing something for four years and ending up with 250 pages (monograph) or four articles and a lengthy introduction (not a monograph) isn't obvious though. It needs to be learnt and we tend to learning while running. Lots can happen in during those years. Funding issues, change of supervisor, change of school, ill health, kids – life, you know.

Initially I started with a too small topic. Threw that one in the bin and ended up with, what almost always feels like, a too large one. Don't get me wrong, it's doable. At least I think it is. But then I've been doing too big projects all the while, so I might be blinded or conversely on to something. Now that my schedule is set, the funding is in and I'm well on my way, stopping has become unfathomable. This may sound harsh but that is where I draw strength from. I tend to paint my self into a corner to learn how to climb up the walls.

Occasionally the climbing gets tough. My dissertation project so far can be split into the following stages:

1. Initial fumbling in search of something significant (topic, money, guidance)
2. Smooth sailing with funding and a theme with lots of materials
3. Early crisis due to outside factors leading me to course correction (exchange in the UK)
4. Deepening understanding of the magnitude of the project
5. Crisis, the valley of death too deep to see from but too far to turn back
6. Climbing out and learning what all of this really might be about
7. The grind (this is where I'm now)
n. Graduation

Now, this is going to be different for everyone. As far as I can say only the valley of death seems to be a constant. A doctoral dissertation is too big to do on one go. Whatever the topic may be, ideally the project is pedagogically exactly about this. Learning to handle too big projects. Everything else is more or less incidental.

I knew this, but little did I understand. People I respect had told me of the valley, but only when I trampled over my misguided hubris in that Sisyphean darkness, did I truly learn what it meant. It really was dark, because I had just returned to Finland, alone in October. Well, I had to believe that the only way would be up. I say believe with conviction because there's always a deeper hole. The belief allowed me to focus on the essential though. Cut out all the noise and focus on what was important. Don't mind the red flashing lights.

It didn't take long to finally understand what this was. I had been here before, when "my" ship almost sank (literally) and my gran almost died – the same week mind you. I was running on pure stress hormones, and that's not good.

Stage six wasn't about getting the thesis done. It was about learning to live with myself and the work. It was about re-learning to look at my mental dashboard for danger signs, operationalising self-assessment and progressive reflectivity. Only through such fundamental changes in my relationship with my self could I ever manage the increased work load, if even then. We'll see soon enough.

Following an exasperated moan of being overworked, I friend and mentor berated me recently. "It's never getting easier, don't fool yourself!" And it won't if I stay this course. The further along I get, the more I'm loaded with this and that, a project here, a lecture there. And I love it. The thesis is slowly setting into the grind. I know what I'm supposed to do and I do it everyday. It's work.

Meanwhile other stuff happens with increasing regularity. This forces me to sprint while running a marathon, to juggle three different things at the same time. Sound familiar? Just like work, right? The thesis lives a life of its own. There's definitely much to learn still, but at the same time learning time management, resourcing and saying no still goes own.

I still have to drop stuff and focus and this is where I'm with the blog. I want to do this. It's just that I don't always have the time for it.

I will take this up in the next project meeting though. Just clearing my thoughts with this incoherent ramble has helped me onwards and upwards. Yet another inch towards redemption...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The importance of engagement

Yesterday I stood behind the podium of University of Helsinki small festive hall (surprisingly not that small) for the first time to give a lecture:

The author giving a lecture on the long history of icebreaking in Finland in the University of Helsinki main building on January 13th 2017. The lecture was arranged by the Maritime Historical Association of Finland and the Finnish Maritime Museum with the Finnish Transport Agency and Arctia Shipping. The three panelists taking part in the session sitting beside me are from left: Ilmari Aro (retired director of winter traffic and icebreaker chief), Tapio Bergholm (maritime and labour historian among other things), and Tero Vauraste (the director of Arctia).
I did not think this would happen, when I set out to do this icebreaker study with Saara Matala (her idea and instigation, for which I'm deeply grateful). I could tell many stories about icebreakers but for now, I'd rather focus on interaction and dissemination of academic research.

Public performance is now easy for me. This isn't always the case with everyone. In the long term history is a field of books and papers. It's often and easily perceived to be a solitary endeavour. The heroic historian amid a sea of dusty folios. Even I sometimes like to invoke this image regardless that I know it to be patently false. It might also be that these fables of vocation hinder us from identifying skills relevant to our profession and more importantly what it takes to teach them.

I learned to perform publicly over a long period of time from childhood to working life. I think I'm still learning but let me focus first on the implicit ways I became a person who welcomes and seeks out experiences like the one pictured above. For whatever reason I ended up in (what feels like) every school play. before long I was resigned to stand up, get on the stage and present my part. Once, as a teenager I rebelled. My school was doing a musical with the Finnish National Opera, and my music teacher asked me to come read for a part in the tryouts. In fact, she dragged me and my two friends into the auditorium from a math class. We had not prepared. More to the point, I had actively not prepared and consequently ended up reading a text brought by a friend, who'd caved in under the pedagogical pressure.

Guess who got called for the second round?

Yes, indeed. So I was given the script and told to prepare for a reading the next week. I threw that script in the cafeteria rubbish bin the minute my teacher's back was turned and went on ignoring the issue. This led to her dragging me from biology (or geography, can't really remember) class, "pushing" me on the stage. There I stand befuddled, look the professionals in the eye and say:
- Can I have a script to read? I've lost mine.

Guess who got the part?

Why is this important? In hindsight, I still don't know why I got picked. I don't know, what it was that these educators saw in me that made them believe, I should be put on stage time and time again. It must be said that evidently they were right, because after my acts of juvenile rebellion, I doubled down, did the work and played my part. I will be forever grateful for having played young John Cage at the Opera back then. But that's not the issue. By the age twenty I had learned to quell the butterflies and put on the role, whatever it was. A new job? Ok, follow the others and learn the process. Conference secretary? No problem, go out there and raise your voice: "ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention..."

I've since become interested in public performances and roles, we all use / are / embody. Gabrielle Hecht's technocratic pose was obvious to me as a way of understanding technical professionals in public office. Miia-Leena Tiili has ingeniously described a similar performance by coast guards in her work. The more I learn, the easier these performances come. I now routinely plan ahead in minute detail, on which particular Aaro Sahari performs and what. Different hats for different events.

And what is the point of all this then? Understanding your audience and helping them to engage with your performance helps you engage with them. This becomes far more important, when doing interviews, planning events with associates, or trying to line your interests with those of other actors – all things that are necessary in academia. The lone heroic historian can make important discoveries and have ideas, but interaction helps strengthen arguments and no one will find every book, dossier and document alone. Some 200 individuals have engaged with me in a meaningful way during my dissertation work. And it would be so very much worse without them.

Engaging others and putting on roles isn't easy. Knowing yourself well enough to stay true to your values is even harder. Engagements are always negotiations and they do take their toll. Still, the research I decided to do would not be possible without social interaction beyond the obvious and mandated. Presenting my ideas about icebreaking in Finland at a conference and yesterday have helped me gauge the significance of ideas and led to the emergence of new ideas. More on that hopefully in the years to come though.

I don't yet know how I could synthesise or deconstruct my learning experience. This might not be teachable, but I'll try to find out whether it is. Meanwhile, I will savour every constructive comment relating to the issue.

More importantly I do not have answers for those less privileged and hard-headedly malleable than me,  and herein lies the problem. Social skills need to be taught, especially to humanists. Without them, what are we?