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 Since this is an unpublished thesis locked away in the basement of University of Helsinki library, few have read it.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?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sidesteps, detours and new ideas

Doing a dissertation can be a singular project. Doing a monograph is still quite the norm in history although the proportion of article dissertations is increasing. In the end, I think this boils down to the nature of one's argument. If it can be split into meaningful, independent arguments of limited length, then doing articles definitely has merits. If a more substantial argument has to be made, then a monograph of 250 to 350 pages will probably serve to make the point better. When I set out to make me choice, I interviewed some twenty researchers (not all of them historians though) and followed that with a light SWOT analysis.

The results were inconclusive. Half of my interviewees saw the article dissertation as a better route into academia in these lean and mean times. They tended to stress the future of profession and internationalisation of humanities. The other half though, argued in favour of a fully formed argument and saw merit in learning to write really long-form – as in a book. And so, I was nowhere.

Luckily there was a third way, or as it may be a third rail: do both!

Here's my logic. I set out to do something for and to the Finnish maritime historical community. My thesis is grounded in issues stemming from real and perceived issues in our understanding of some facets of Finnish maritime history. If I want to have an impact, my thesis should be available and accessible. I don't argue that an article dissertation cannot be either of these, but so far the monograph still seems to have the edge. Still, doing articles is a very educational and informative endeavour. It allows one to potentially engage a different audience, international academia. I have found out that it also forces one to develop somewhat different skills. The downsides are time and effort. You can only do so much.

Being the ambitious idiot I am, I decided to try. I had some article writing experience already, having turned my master's into a decent article in a Finnish yearbook. I do not have international publications to my name yet, although that is in the works. And thus today's salient point emerges. Some fourteen months ago a colleague decided to write about the long history of icebreakers in Finland. Why did they become important and how? She had the idea and the theory, but lacked much of the mind numbing archival work for a hundred-year scope. Luckily for her, I do mind numbing well.

We set out. Learned a lot about ourselves, one another and the process of collaboration. Not the institutionalised or rigid kind one encounters in article factories, but a free-wheeling journey of academic discovery with lots of detours, coffee and late night emails. Both of us worked with sources, wrote and edited all the time. We got feedback and we got help from our supervisors and many others until finally, last summer we let our words free into the world (a journal editor to be precise). The piece is now in peer review.

At times this effort felt like a huge sidestep. At others it was the best work I have ever done. It might be both. Without going into details now, we ploughed through a hundred years of Finnish winter seafaring, pack ice, snow and all. The work benefitted my monograph thesis in a few ways by allowing me to delve deeper into a few cases and strengthen my arguments. It also took a lot of time – double the work. By the time I set out to write concurrent bits of my dissertation, I learned that I was far better equipped to engage my materials.

Then things got interesting.

While prepping for a conference (we presented our preliminary findings) we received a call from the president of the Finnish association for maritime history. Some other actors were interested in collaborating on a series of lectures and workshops on icebreaking, he said. Would we be interested in participating?

We were. As a result, I will be giving a lecture on this issue in nine days time. My colleague got a Fulbright and can't make it. Another public speech is scheduled for February and a conference paper for March. Turns out that icebreakers are still something of a topic in Finland. Who knew?

The sidestep that became a detour turned into an idea is again starting to look like a sidestep. But what a frozen treat it is. It obviously takes time to prep for all of this. I've also had to undertake additional archival research. While this hasn't significantly stalled my thesis work, it is a rough ride at times. Understanding the value of my time has become more essential, and in this detail I find myself increasingly engaging entrepreneurs. It' really not that different being a budding academic or a self-employed specialist.

Then again, I get to do this:

Museum icebreaker Tarmo at the Suomenlinna shipyard in January 2017. The picture shows the bow of the ship from port and sea level. The distinct bow propeller and the curved intermediate bow form are easily recognisable.

I visited the oldest surviving icebreaker, Tarmo today. The Finnish Maritime Museum was fortunately granted a funds to put the old behemoth in great condition again. The north wind howled and chilled me to the bone, but walking under the hull and gazing into the marvel that is the Baltic icebreaker bow, I withstood it with uncharacteristic stoicism. After taking a bunch of pictures, I ploughed across the snowy yard to waters' edge, where a man was at work.

A second generation Valmet shipyard worker at work. The picture presents a man in a yellow safety jacket standing by a lifebuoy at the north end of the Suomenlinna shipyard. It is very cold and he is wearing a traditional fur cap.

Ever the humanist, I struck a conversation. Turns out he was the electrician, with the same nickname my dad, also an electrician, has. Also, he'd worked his whole life for Valmet and then the governing body of the UNESCO site, where the shipyard is. In fact, he told me, his father went to work at the same shipyard in 1929. Obviously, I was fascinated and interested and had some stories of my own. We chatted with vigour until the cold reminded us of our duties. I returned to the icebreaker and he to his repair work. Never in my life would I have dreamed of meeting someone with such stories, had I not embarked on my wintry historical passage through Finnish icebreaking.

Now this was nothing short of literal detour. But now, I have even more depth to my work.

I don't yet know, how this third route will end treating me. It has strained and stressed me but at the same time, it has given me great joy, new ideas and possibilities. How any of this could be turned into meaningful pedagogical tools, I don't know either. But I'll try to find out. Still, it's become evident that the way to academic competence might not be a straight and narrow path.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Where should ships be built?

Viking Line shipping group recently announced that it's new passenger ferry for a northern Baltic line will be built in China at the Xiamen shipyard. According to the group CEO, the designers of the ferry will be Deltamarin in Finland. This announcement raised often heard and frankly quite typical criticism from a South-West Finland Parliament mp. In short a publicly supported private ferry company should concentrate its new build tenders to a domestic yard to support domestic shipyards. That these yards just happen to be in the said mp's district is hardly surprising.

In order to understand these points, let's take a closer look at the history of shipbuilding and shipping companies intertwined histories. This discussion of domestic shipping support for shipyards has been going on for a hundred years. It was one the key issues between the two industries in the first ever Finnish shipping and shipbuilding conference in Turku in 1925. Shipping interests won out as that industry was more important to a country of forestry exports and better ships could be bought cheaper from depression struck yards across Western Europe. Finland Steamship Company and others started to buy ships from domestic yards in the late 1930s, but that was largely due to a global upswing in demand that had filled shipyards' order books everywhere.

This always happens because of these two industries relationship to international commerce flows. Without going in to technicalities, shipbuilding is a boom-bust industry, seven good years and seven bad and all that. Here's a recent visualisation I did with Lloyd's Register historical shipbuilding data:

Global commercial shipbuilding output 1900-1960. Source: LRS Shipbuilding Returns.
After the war reparations to USSR (1944-1952) Finnish shipbuilding had expanded rapidly with public funding. The industry gained a reputation as modern and nationally significant. This by the way is what my phd is all about. In such a situation it was not surprising that Finnish shipping companies started to buy domestic. First, there was domestic competition that kept prices honest. Second, many new operators entered shipping – among them the state owned Enso-Gutzeit and KELA funded Finnlines. This was the era of big, publicly intertwined business after all.

With the collapse of shipbuilding in Finland alongside USSR, the industry became to be seen as a delicate and vulnerable area in need of saving. Meanwhile the country had been tied to Western free market ideologies that ill fitted such protectionist industrial tendencies. Shipbuilding is a sore issue in this regard, because historically the same shipyards that built tankers and Ro-Ros can build warships. And governments and navies like to be able to control such strategic industries. This is also how Wärtsilä shipbuilding came together in the 1920s and 1930s, through navy appropriations. The spikes in my graph are US World War cargo and troop ship production.

Shipping lines get public funding because governments want to provide such services. Japan built its postwar shipbuilding empire on this idea. The island nation needed connections and liner companies were tied to metal manufacturing with extremely strong ties and public support. This nationalised system model was later imported to South Korea and more recently to China, the rising shipbuilding super power with significant regional interests. Nothing new there, except that it isn't us westerners. USA retains only naval construction capacity that is fully tied to its military-industrial complex. One buyer and a couple providers to stop the whole system becoming too corrupt.

What does this mean in the context of Viking Lines then? Shipbuilding and shipping are often perceived to be nationalistic endeavours here and elsewhere. This leads to nationalistic cries for protection whenever things don't go swingingly, whatever that may mean. Meyer Turku Shipyard has retained many tenders in the past year and has a specific build profile. It is cheaper and more lucrative for them to built certain ships sizes and types than others. Of course they could build the new Viking ferry same as the Chinese, Koreans, Italians or whoever. But if it doesn't fit the yards schedules and optimisations, they will charge for it. Meanwhile, the Chinese yards are trying to build their expertise in more specialised types of vessels having already cornered container, tanker and bulk segments. This necessitates research and development though. In such a a situation, cooperation with a well known design bureau is ideal.

As a result the ferry company gets a cheaper ship. If they were forced to concentrate their tenders to domestic yards at higher price points, they would then transfer these costs to their customers – us. Ships move and can be built wherever there's water near by. In a global intertwined economy someone will always built one cheaper than you. This is why shipbuilding remains a boom-bust business.

Rauma shipyard has been hit hard recently. Real lives are at risk when people go unemployed. The structural issues related to the 1990s depression are still with us. Whether Finnish people want to prioritise national strategic interests (and their providers) or get their stuff cheaper is really for everyone to decide. We've had more protectionist governments in the past but this really is a political issue with immensely complex, intertwined roots. Ships can be built anywhere but at what cost?

Pugilists and pundits may want to decry the evil of companies in situations like this, but these same companies function and are a part of society. If Finland was supposed to be the greatest shipbuilding nation ever, we would have to make significant changes to our employment, tax and commerce policies and in the end give up something else. What would that be?

As a disclaimer, I have no economic or family ties to shipping or shipbuilding companies other than an ongoing research and PR project with Arctia Shipping. I do know many people involved in these industries but my interests remain academic.