Public-Private Folly

If they were all like this I wouldn’t mind so much

And one of the biggest such partnership plans touches close to my home: The Gort-Tuam motorway. Yes, you read me right. Those are the words I actually wrote down there. A motorway, from Gort to Tuam. We have built a lot of decent roads in this country in the last decade or so, and I’m sure they all stimulated a great deal of economic activity. We needed them, they were a good investment. But you see what’s happened now, don’t you?

We’ve run out of places to build motorways to.

What puzzles me is how the private partners can hope to make a return on a new faster route between two such non-urgent points. I can only think of one way: They build the motorway over the existing road, giving people who actually have to get from Gort to Tuam (poor benighted souls) little choice except to pay. This is a worrying precedent. If it continues, free roads all over the country will be paved over with new pay-roads; in some cases, right up to our doors (perhaps). This will have the effect of transferring immense amounts of money from the general population to a few wealthy investors, but apparently that is what governments are for now.

When you think about it though, these roads don’t have to make a profit. They don’t have to be completed even. All they have to do is create economic activity. You realise what that is, don’t you. We’ve had it before, during the Famine. Landlords who believed that free food created what the rich like to call a “moral hazard” gave their starving tenants pointless tasks to perform. Sometimes they’d build a mad monument to nothing, a tower in a valley maybe, a brand new ruin. Sometimes, it would be a road.

This is a whole new class of folly: Faster, wider, vastly more pointless. A Famine Freeway, if you will.

Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Eaten Alive!

The article is slightly horrific, so I’ll illustrate it with many lovely pictures to show why it was still worth going to the island. Probably.

You may be wondering why I didn’t post for several days there, pretty much the whole time I was on the island in fact. Mainly it was because we were virtually camping – having to saw and chop our wood, tend fires, cook, do all the washing by hand, and of course keep various kids amused without the aid of television. A camping holiday is pretty much like other holidays, except that you spend all your time working.

But even when I did have a moment, I couldn’t concentrate. My joke in poor taste had come back to bite me. It is true that mosquitoes are the most dangerous animal in Africa, in that they’re responsible for vastly more deaths than the big predators we usually worry about. They do it by spreading the deadly malaria parasite though. The big ones they have in Finland nearly did for me all by themselves.

They’re having their worst summer for mosquitoes on record. A country, remember, that is almost entirely composed of lakes and forests; they know mosquitoes. But they’d never seen them like this. A few more days camping and I would’ve been drained, a skeleton in a skin sack. The little bastards love me.

Unfortunately it’s not mutual. I react to mosquito bites – drastically, allergically. The site of the snacking reddens and swells. One on my forearm looked like a biceps that’d migrated south. My ankles went missing, and I’m still covered with blotches that look like a livid form of dry rot.

And Christ Christ Christ the itching. The itching! Maddening, excruciating, almost literally unbearable. If itching is a sort of tickling sensation, this was like being tickled by a psychopath with a darning needle. Am I succeeding in conveying that this was really quite unpleasant? And all the worse because I was trying like hell not to scratch. I’d had a mosquito bite become infected once, and needed an emergency injection of antibiotics. I didn’t want that to happen while camping on an island.

I thought my immune system would get used to it, but instead the more I was bitten the worse my reaction got. And, it seemed, the more I was bitten. Perhaps they could tell I was in trouble. The struggle became personal and bitter. I sat in the dark while the others slept, waiting for the tell-tale whine. The walls of the cottage were soon spattered with their blood. Wait, my blood.

What else could I do to prevent the bites? Nothing, it seemed. A citronella wristband might have been helping until it ran out – either that or I was just lucky the first day. Tea tree oil didn’t seem to repel them either, even when applied thickly enough to repel people. Though I sprayed literally every inch of my skin with Autan before going to bed, I was still eaten as I slept.

And nothing cured the itching either. I tried two antihistamines, two different analgesics (aspirin and ibuprofen), a hydrocortisone cream, a tripelennamine hydrochloride stick, and tea tree oil. None of them provided anything you could even dishonestly describe as relief.

Only one thing made the itching go away. It worked instantly, its effects lasted for hours, it was actually downright pleasant to apply. It’s available without prescription – in fact you can’t buy it in any pharmacy or  health food shop. And fortunately, it’s abundant in Finland.

What is this miracle cute for itching? Heat. Simple heat. Preferably as a powerful jet of water. On the island we didn’t have a shower – in fact we had no plumbing other than a cold tap – but we did have a sauna! Plus a wood-fired boiler with gallons of the stuff. I poured it on with a ladle, Japanese bath style, hot as I was able to stand – which seemed to be about 2°C short of first-degree burns. The heat actually intensifies the itching – in the same way that scratching does, but even more so. Like it was making all the itching that was due in the next few hours happen at once, getting it over with. The relief was… How can I put this politely? Think of the thing that gives you the greatest, the most sudden and complete, feeling of relief.

Yes, exactly. A strangely, intensely sensual experience. It was almost worth the itching to feel that release. Almost. For the first time in my life, I understand sadomasochism.

Finland – it’s the tropical paradise for people who like their tropical paradises with less heat. And indeed, three months of snow.

Home Of The Angry Bird

We encountered some genuine Finnish angry birds – gulls who dived at us to protect the chick here. Actual angry birds not shown due to copyright restrictions.

You know, before I got here I’d forgotten Angry Birds was a Finnish invention. There’s no forgetting after though – the merchandising is incredible. There are Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds sweets, Angry Birds drinks. There doesn’t seem to be a feature film or a cartoon series yet but that can only be a matter of time, the thing is practically a cartoon series already. They’re used to promote other products too of course. I upgraded a friend’s phone to the newest version of Symbian (more of that anon) almost purely so that she could get Angry Birds on it.

I have to hand it to makers Rovio for designing so brilliantly addictive a game – at one point me, my friend, and her daughter were all playing it at once – but I can’t help feeling that a lot of this is not so much merchandising as taking-advantage-of-childrenising. “l like playing Angry Birds therefore I want an Angry Birds drink” is the impulsive, associational desire of a mind that isn’t fully developed.

Yes OK I bought one. But that was research.

The drink was all right; a lot more fun though were the sweets, because they come in the shapes of the various bird types and you can mime their characteristic trajectories as they fly into your mouth.

To amuse the kids, I mean.

Expect Angry Birds Sweets in a shop near you soon. And then an improved version with more flavors. And then a version with different laws of physics.

Steaming Man

I stepped out of the sauna, onto the big rock this little cottage is built on, and walked a few yards along the wooden gangway through the reeds that leads to the jetty where we’d tied up the rowing boat. I stood there a while, admiring the coloured fringe of the post-sunset sky. In the cool evening air a delicate mist was rising. Off me, I realised.

The sauna’s effect of course. But I prefer to imagine it’s because of all the manly stuff I did today. Chopping woods and rowing boats and toting bails, that sort of thing. Worked so hard, didn’t need no durn sauna. Steam-cleaned mahself.

Fending off deadly predators too. Mosquitos. Don’t laugh, the mosquito is the most dangerous wild animal in Africa. They aren’t the most dangerous wild animal here, no, but I think that’s rather beside the point.

Perhaps though the hardest task today was taking my turn at looking after two girls, both under seven. It becomes even greater a challenge when your vocabulary in their language does not include such useful phrases as “Put it down”, “Stop doing that she doesn’t like it”, “Does your mother normally let you play with those?” and “Where the hell are you going now?” So far my Finnish extends not much further than yes, thank you, and good; a polite and positive vocabulary, but one that has little application in these circumstances.

I just have to learn to say no.

Strange Thoughts In The Night

Do you ever wake up suddenly in the middle of the night with a strange idea you just have to write down?

Well no, I don’t much either. But last night it happened. In the morning I found this:

I believe in God, and God believes In me.
It’s a Folie à Dieu

Where do thoughts like that come from? I have no idea. Theologically though it seems pretty solid. We invented God, but God invented us. So everything works out OK.

Anyway, we mixed it up a bit yesterday and actually didn’t go swimming in the sea. We tried one of Finland’s many billions of lakes instead. Beautiful; all surrounded by silver birch forest. In the cool of the evening, with families playing and little fish swimming around our ankles. The biggest difference from the sea was afterwards; last night was the first since coming here that I didn’t have a shower before bed. I could not have felt more thoroughly washed than I did after that lake.

Good news for anyone envying me though – it was finally too wet to go swimming today. l had to make do with a sauna.

I don’t know if you have a clear image of a sauna. It’s not at all the same thing as a steam room, more an oven to cook yourself in. Any accurate description sounds too dangerous to be quite believable, but seriously it is a sealed room where, using fire and steam, you get as hot as you can possibly bear. Then you close yourself in and sit there, sweating profusely, for as long as you can possibly bear. Then you go and take a cold shower or jump in the snow or something, for as long as you can possibly bear. Have a beer perhaps. And go back in to get unfeasibly hot all over again for as long as you can possibly bear.

For some unknown reason, this doesn’t kill you. Apparently it even does you good – I certainly feel good. I’m unclear about how it’s supposed to work, but my guess would be that the general principle is to kill every single living thing in the vicinity of you, that isn’t you. Bacteria, fungal spores, small mammals, anything that might try to infest you during the long winter months.

The heat must of course also be a great comfort on those long, frozen-solid nights. Doing it in the summer almost feels like cheating.

Sunburn And Ice

In Finland, the trees go right down to the sea. The tide is too small and the water too sweet to bother them. And I’m swimming from the shade of the forest, in waters that come winter will be frozen so solid that people will skate from island to island. But now I am swimming in the sun.

As a child I loved to swim. But that was before I went for lessons, where they taught me I was doing it wrong. Maybe I wasn’t graceful – Hell, a lot of the time I was doing the doggy paddle, I definitely wasn’t graceful – but today I swam further than I ever have before, or thought I ever could. To hell with that teacher. I didn’t labour it, didn’t try to win, didn’t thrash. I took it easy and just… made my way.

I suppose it helped a lot that I was in water where I knew, if I ever got tired or felt like I might drown, I could just lie on my back for a while. How can you be afraid of furniture? The Baltic is a good pool for learners, definitely.

And now I am sunburned, having swum in the sun for far too long. It had been lightly clouded most of the time, and I counted that as no sun at all. When it did come out, I was in the sea. You can’t be burned underwater, surely?

Perhaps. But my neck, face, shoulders and upper arms had to come up for air. I look like I’ve been dipped head-first into boiling water. Please don’t think I’m complaining though. I know that at home right now it’s raining, that we’re headed for yet another truly pointless summer. This pain in my neck feels like victory.

After the swim we went for dinner with some friends who inhabit an ecological housing project. I’m not sure what practical difference that makes, apart from the fact that it seems a lovely green place to live and they grow their own fruit and vegetables. So dinner was a really excellent salad, followed by a huge and lovely dessert. Seems a good idea.

Sitting on the balcony of a third floor apartment in Helsinki now. It’s ten at night, but the sun has not yet gone behind the tower blocks across the way. I’ll go to bed when it does. It’s been a long hot day, I’m exhausted and in discomfort.

It is though, a very comfortable discomfort.

The Land Of The Tree

My plan worked… well enough.

Of course I couldn’t sleep on the bus in the end. But I had time to stretch in Dublin airport, drink a coffee to keep me awake until boarding and get my devices recharged. (The new terminal seems at first to be a building somehow designed without power points, but they do have them in the cafe upstairs in departures.)

I suppose I got about an hour’s sleep on the flight. Slightly befuddled then, I managed to get lost inside Helsinki airport. I think due to a shortage of gates they let us out into the departures lounge; I should have realised this when the woman serving me coffee wished me a good flight. There was a lack of signage to the exit – people usually depart Departures in planes of course. I ended up in the international transfers sector, which had a door that only opens to you from the outside, presumably an anti-immigrant feature. I was trapped! The only logical escape was to take the next plane leaving the EU.

Fortunately, I wasn’t quiet tired enough to be that logical. I waited. Some Chinese people entered, I snuck through and was free.

Not a lot to report after that. I met my friend, we played on the beach with her six-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. We came home and I managed to stay politely awake through dinner, collapsing into bed around ten in the evening even though the sun was still shining.

It was still shining when I awoke. Well OK, I presume I missed a brief episode of darkness. Helsinki is not above the Arctic Circle. But it was now even hotter. We went to another beach, warmer and more sheltered, where Finnish families from the neighbourhood go to build sandcastles and paddle. This may be a colder country on average, but they have real seasons here. The summer they’re complaining about is a hell of a lot better than the one we’re complaining about.

I went swimming! In the Baltic. The water is lovely. Being almost enclosed it’s a lot less salty than the ocean, so it was more like swimming in a lake. Except it was salty enough to allow me to float with no effort at all. Best of both worlds really.

And I arrived back to find that the world had changed. Though this was America’s day officially (Greetings to the Home Of The Brave, from the Land Of The Tree) it was all going on in Europe. The EU Parliament has thankfully rejected ACTA, yet another attempt by Big Entertainment to curtail the Internet. They wanted us to choose between freedom and their profitability. We did.

But then at CERN they found the first solid evidence to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. It’s important? Well, it proves that the scientific theory we call the “Standard Model” doesn’t have a huge flaw, that humans do have some idea of how it all works. It’s a major step towards a complete understanding of how the universe works, and how it began.

Freedom, wisdom, and floating in a warm sea. Some days are OK.

The Road To Finland 2

Dammit, I can’t sleep. The hot sun won’t stop streaming in through the window. What sort of lake-strewn, tree-befuzzed hell have I arrived in?

But wait, let’s start at the beginning. Or at least, where I finished. Yesterday, in Café Wa, in Galway

The best part of a journey is not to travel hopefully or to arrive, but the moment that comes just a little after you set out. I mean the one when it hits you that it’s too late now to worry if you have all the right underwear and cables, there’s no point in once again checking your ticket and passport. That ship has, perhaps literally, sailed. Finally you sigh and stretch and let the vehicle carry you.

The worst part conversely is the one before departure, when searching through pockets to confirm the presence of items you know are there is still a live option. And that’s the stage I’ve reached. Essentially I’m writing this to keep my hands busy.

I would have been on a bus to Dublin now but for a last-minute change of plan. My flight leaves at the unthinkable hour of 7:40 a.m., meaning they expect me to check in at 5:40 – about the time I’m usually going to bed. If that sounds convenient to you, consider that I’m the sort of person who can’t sleep until they’re too tired to stay awake. This means that I have to do the hardest part – actually making sure I get on the plane – when I’m at my least conscious.

My idea was to go to Dublin this evening, stay awake till about 5, get up an hour before that and head to the airport. There was a flaw to this plan. At the bus station though I found that they run all night. New plan then: instead of trying and probably failing to sleep in Dublin – our much worse, falling to wake up – I would leave here at about 2 a.m. on a bus straight to the airport, arriving refreshed and in good time!

Only one possible drawback to this brilliant scheme – It leaves me with hours before my bus, and absolutely nothing left to do.

I wonder if I have an even number of socks.