Posts Tagged ‘finland’

requiem for an empire

4 September 2013


I understand something happened in Finland today. Two years ago I might have learned about it in a very unpleasant 6 am phone call. Today I learned about it when the US woke up and my father and brother sent me links – work is busy and I was taking a social media holiday. I still haven’t looked at anything much except the statement, the Bloomberg story, @teroterotero’s columns and Facebook.

I lived in Helsinki from 1994 until a year ago. Starting about 2000, friends back in the States stopped asking me if I knew Linus Torvalds personally and started asking me about Nokia: What was their secret? What was the Finnish magic? I would reply that there was no magic. [1] They were a decently run company that had a good chance of hiring anyone they wanted in Finland because they were the only big tech company and the only truly global company there. They made some lucky decisions. But they were ruling the mobile phone market mainly because their competitors were worse – as one does. If you don’t remember all the brands of ugly, bulbous black phones with no features that used to be sold for hundreds of euros, dig up a Helsingin Sanomat from, oh, 2001. Yes, they were pushed in Finland too, for years after Nokia started to walk on water. And they were primitive. My first US mobile phone couldn’t even text [2]. It didn’t matter because people there didn’t yet understand why you’d ever want to text instead of call. Wasn’t that what pagers did?

I had four Nokia phones:

1. The 8110i Matrix phone (1998-2003). At that time the main competition was Ericsson phones that looked like digital voltmeters. The 8110i looked like … a sexy digital voltmeter, with sculptured curves and a satisfying click-shut. It held 10 texts – I would copy them into a notebook before deleting and I never deleted the first few, so effectively seven texts – and could be used as a modem, just barely. The user interface was absolutely transparent.

2. The 6610 (2003-2008). This was one of the little business phones with a rather flimsy case which cracked the first time I dropped it on a bathroom floor; it was bound together with tape for most of its life. The selling point for me was an FM radio. It had simple icons on the color display and could be used, just barely, to browse Internet sites that had preformatted their information into droplets (this was called WAP). The user interface was mostly easy to figure out.

3. The E61i, E63, and E71 (2008-2012). I loved the Nokiaberries dearly and it seemed like true science fiction to have a little computer terminal you could slip in your pocket. These had great keyboards for pounding out text messages and text notes in QuickOffice. They could surf the Web in the manner of a magnifying glass surfing an encyclopedia, and even learned to do e-mail. They were my first cameraphones. The user interface was challenging, but anyone who grew up hacking mainframes and knew Finnish could catch on eventually. I had to keep buying them because they kept getting stolen when I traveled, but I got them secondhand off and a better model each time so it wasn’t as painful as it could have been. (Still if you are the person in Riga who took my E61i, I would like my Montreal photos of Safdie’s Habitat back, and if you are the person in Arlington who got my E63, I would like my notes for a crime novel back. You’ll find my e-mail in the superordinate page here. Thank you.)

4. The Lumia 800 (2012 and still is my Finnish phone). While the phrase “Microsoft Windows Phone” did not inspire confidence, I have always had a thing for organized, democratic arrays of squares. Perhaps my mother was frightened by a periodic table while she was carrying me. The user interface was for the most part intuitive, and sometimes terrifyingly so. As in, it occasionally anticipated my thoughts or rearranged my information into new and delighful arrays. It took splendid photos and movies. The battery life and Zune backup were underwhelming. I demoted it because upgrading in order to get WiFi tethering and other features would require wiping the memory – hello, 2012 and still no way to back up a phone completely including preferences, apps, contacts and texts? I don’t want to get out that SMS notebook again. (Update: Battery died again and I can’t recharge it at all. It is 18 months old.)

My main UK phone is an Android (Sony Ericsson, but used only for voice, texting and WiFi tethering of the iPad I use for everything else. I wonder if my old Matrix phone still works and could be hacked to tether the iPad.

I wish everyone involved in the latest mashup arrangement and transfer of sovereignty well. Good job faking people out.

[1] Really hate to disillusion people and tarnish the national brand but there is also no magic in the Finnish schools. They are well funded and well staffed and have relatively well looked-after raw material to work with, thanks to the welfare state. Also, no magic in the Finnish economy, just high taxes, conservative planning, somewhat fairer distribution, and a social tradition that tends to think “because I can” is not a good excuse for exploiting other workers.

[2] Or possibly it could text, but only to phones on the same carrier, or only to phones of the same make on the same carrier, or some such mishegas. Anyway, for practical purposes it couldn’t text.


finland crash Q&A

4 February 2013

Dale, who asks excellent questions, asked this today:

I was just reading a blog entry that mentioned the Finnish financial crisis of 1991. The horrifying thing is that its effects on the job market were worse than the current US recession. I was wondering if you were in Finland by that time, and if so, what did it look like?

Carried along by nostalgia, I replied at length:

art: our land at the cable factory

23 November 2012

Maamme (Our Land), Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts. Finnish Museum of Photography, Cable Factory, Helsinki

Musically, the Finnish national anthem is easy to sing except for the devilish first line, which sounds as if it combines two wrong-way key changes with a series of jumps to rival “The Star Spangled Banner.” It made no sense until I got the music and saw how manageable the intervals really are.

Socially, national anthem singing is a constrained interpersonal act involving politeness, and this is brought into relief by the immigrant participants in the video installation Maamme. A thin white man with black hair and a striped shirt swallows, raises his eyes above the camera, and starts to sing, accompanied by an offscreen piano. After a few lines he is joined on a second life-sized screen by a black man with wire-framed glasses and then more people are added until there is a rotating series of a dozen singers on six screens, united, we are told, by their status as naturalized citizens. They embody a broad range of phenotypes (excluding east Asian), and all are of working age.

The configuration is not random. For much of the three-minute loop, four singers dominate: two tenors, a soprano, and a bass, providing a full-sounding arrangement. The second tenor, a man whose blue-grey shirt matches his eyes, produces an operatic sound without apparent effort, leaving his face free for acting expressions while others grimace to hit the high notes or remember the words. The soprano, an equally confident young black woman with a sweet voice, wrinkles her forehead slightly on “ei vettä, rantaa rakkaampaa” (no water or shore is more beloved) and “maa kallis isien” (land of our dear fathers), two of the more problematic lines for newcomers. She wears a shawl that is almost but not quite the Marimekko grey poppy print and gold ball earrings that are almost but not quite the model from Finnish ethno jeweler Kalevala Koru. She can’t repress a smile after finishing the Swedish verses.

The general effect however is rigid, with the singers isolated from each other in life-sized portrait frames rather than embracing in “We Are the World” communitas. The trending look for the men is striped or checked shirts with suit jackets, and they stay stiffly at attention when they finish. Except for the black soprano, the women are self-conscious, reluctant to meet the camera’s eye. A blonde in a blue shirt decorated with newspaper headlines looks as if she’s trying to figure out what the assignment really is. A long-haired woman in a black lace top loses the words and mitigates her confusion with a broad smile at the end. The one casually dressed man (wearing a red sweatshirt – for Puma, not Angry Birds – and woollen Rasta cap) grins throughout as if it’s all a huge goof. Perhaps this is a necessary stage of modern nationhood but it’s disappointing that seeing naturalized Finns sing the country’s anthem is still considered radical enough to count as art.

pianists’ progress

18 September 2012

The Third Maj Lind International Piano Competition is going on in Helsinki this week and I watched one of the 10 preliminary heats, in which four or five alphabetically grouped contestants perform a 40-minute hexathlon: Bach prelude and fugue, Classical sonata, three Romantic etudes including Chopin, and a modern piece, usually placed as a break between the  heavy classical and romantic segments. The YLE competition website includes a videoblog by pianist Jukka Nykänen explaining what these required figures show about the contestants.

The four pianists on Sunday night were a mixed lot. Nino Bakradze, who studies at New England Conservatory, was correct and accomplished, with an interesting trump card: her left hand is her expressive instrument, and the right hand is the percussion accompaniment. That served her well in Beethoven and Stravinsky, which is minimalist and percussive anyway, and a handbell (alas not cowbell) themed modern piece by Gabunia; less well in the lyric romantics.

For Jamie Bergin, everything is expressive and he was the audience favorite. “His touch!” they were saying at intermission. His Bach sang, and his risk of Mozart for the classical sonata paid off as he was able to infuse the open chords and simple scales with color. I would bet he dilated tempos more than average and don’t know how the judges look on that. Everything else was uniformly good but hard to tell the composers apart.

Anni Collan played mostly hard and loud and staccato. Was she a harpsichord specialist? Making a statement? Getting through it in hope of playing her own composition in the semifinal? Hard to tell. Her style worked well in the Haydn sonata and the Chopin.

Christopher Devine obviously loves the Waldstein sonata and it is his showpiece. For the rest, I was experiencing piano fatigue, never having sat through a programme of this length before.  The semifinals, narrowed to 14 players, will require an hour’s playing, I hope in smaller groups than four.

In that heat, the contemporary selection will be revealing – options include pieces by Finnish composers Matthew Whittall or Maija Hynninen, a composition by the contestant, or an improvisation. The rest of the hour is a freestyle programme of the contestant’s choice including some Sibelius.  The contestants listed their choices for this stage going in, mostly the usual warhorses but there were a few risk-takers bidding to play Piazolla, Barber, Soler.  Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is surprisingly popular; I would think it’s too referential, like playing Peter and the Wolf, but okay. The final group of six will fight for gold silver and bronze with chamber music and concerto events. Listen here, or on YLE if in Finland.



R-talo piano

Three memorable gigs in Helsinki

5 September 2006

1. Tarharyhmä, ca. 1995. That was Maija Vilkkuna’s old band, an all-girl punk outfit that played everything double fast (if you have eMusic, look up Jenny Choi and the Third Shift, “My First Time” – that’s what they sounded like). My neighbor Paulina T. was in a Finnish class with Maija and we hung out with her in the lobby of Tavastia before the show. It was before anyone knew who she was; five years later she couldn’t walk into a classroom without everyone feeling the silent frisson of rockstar.

Between 1996 and 2003 I was doing the hardest part of my graduate work and didn’t really get out much.

2. Steel Wheels and J.M.K.E., ca. 2004. Two Soviet-era punk bands from Estonia, come to Senate Square to play at a celebration welcoming Estonia to the EU. J.M.K.E. is more famous but I mainly heard Steel Wheels, who I was told at the time were J.M.K.E., and who played an Estonian version of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” with the lead singer prancing around wrapped in a Union Jack in the Estonian colors.

3. The Lucksmiths, this evening. “… One for Steve … yes, Steve the Crocodile Hunter Irwin, dead today from a stingray barb through the heart … yeah, big fucking surprise… the guy wrestled snakes … only a matter of time, really … he went the way he wanted to go … actually, his first choice was an adder bite in the balls, stingray was only number two … we’d like to thank you all for coming out on a Monday night … Monday, what is this, don’t you guys have school tomorrow?”

No, I’m all done, thanks. But yes, I kind of do, in the sense of having things of no direct utility that I need to get up and do in order to have a better life later.

At some point this entry will have links and also a picture of the Lucksmiths fridge magnet which was as Anth said a bargain at 1€. The fuel to fly it here probably cost more than that.

seven ways of looking at a Fabergé exhibition

29 August 2006

Reposted for Easter 2013 before returning to original spot in the timeline.

faberge enh

The Era of Fabergé, Vapriikki, Tampere, Finland, 17 June – 1 October 2006

1. As a celebration of an exploitative imperial autocracy, rationalized through the familiar rhetoric of drawing attention to the ways the Romanovs were a family just like ours – only prettier, more popular, and, crucially, at some point in the past stronger and more violent. And able to give really cool Easter presents.

2. As a tribute to a visionary designer and craftsman. Aesthetic elitism is integrated with power worship through the establishment of hierarchies of taste, with unique and labor-intensive products at the top: by admiring the costly treasures we have the illusion of raising ourselves to a position of distinction, and of virtually taking possession of our favorites.

3. As a subtle exercise of Finnish nationalism. The exhibition stresses that many of the Fabergé workmasters and workers were Finns, and also shows that Finns made significant contributions to the industrial rise of the Russian empire; their work is nevertheless described as the contribution of mobile elites and largely separatist guest workers, not as the work of enthusiastic members of the empire or a colonized people. Great play is given to an official of the Finnish Diet of Estates who took some unexplained but no doubt very risky stance about something, and was later given an exquisite Fabergé cigarette case by a boxmaker’s widow in thanks for his service to the Finns. I am sure there was more to be told there.

4. As a rewriting of art history into labor history, foregrounding the role of middle managers and hands-on workers over that of Peter Carl Fabergé who is reduced to a company founder and figurehead. The Fabergé workmasters, particularly Holmström and Wäkewä, have been credited in past books and exhibitions about the firm, but here it is made insistently clear that they (Finns! don’t be misled by the Swedish names!) actually designed the objects and commissioned lower-level craftsmen, and some women, to execute them.

5. As a showcase of ordinary Fabergé production. The Fabergé firm did not just make the exquisite picture frames, cigarette paraphernalia and egg fantasies collected by Malcolm Forbes and the Queen of England. It also made quite a bit of kitsch, notably some animal sculptures that are only slightly more attractive than the frightful china miniatures given away in boxes of Red Rose Tea at home. (Hint: when an animal image gets that neotenic, top-heavy look, it’s always kitsch.)

6. As a marketing opportunity for a firm apparently owned by Fabergé descendants that makes ornaments bearing no relation to the best of the real thing. For example: a set of crown-shaped card holders in different colors that look like props from a children’s play. I’ve seen things more in the spirit of Fabergé at H&M.

7. As an imperfectly executed translation project. Perhaps I should be grateful that, like the toiling gemsmiths at Fabergé, my contribution was uncredited, since errors like “chrystal” and “jetton” were added after my part was finished.

21 September 2000

I am so psyched to be getting out of town and going to Jyväskylä this weekend, I can’t tell you. 12 people, an 18-hour sauna in the countryside, sausages and beer, autumn leaves. The next weekend I get to move away from Psycho Flatmate. It’s the time in between that’s a problem: classes every day, two papers due, and there’s this bulletin board that just won’t quit.

Latest incidental thing from thesis research: Did you know that in the 1930s some people thought radio was going to kill books? It’s true, there are scare columns about the Death of Print.

5 September 2000

Today was the first coat day here at the 60th parallel. I don’t mean the first coat-optional day. That was a while back. I mean the first coat-necessary day. Sitting at my desk, I can’t stop shivering. And outside it feels like an air conditioner is blowing cold air between my (woolen) clothes and my skin. Must find gloves by tomorrow.

5 June 2000

Stages of house moving (assuming one has keys to both places for several days): 1. Denial. 2. Moving unobtrusive things. 3. Moving good things. 4. Confronting the junk that’s left. 5. More denial. 6. Oh crap, the old place doesn’t feel like home any more. I need to finish and get everything to the new place as fast as possible.

In this case there was an externally imposed deadline. I finished at 6:30 this morning and the workmen came at 8. And in addition to my own stuff, I had to save everything from the common room that was attractive and small enough to move, since the workmen were going to trash it all anyway. Thus the painting of Prague is now in my hands.

painting of prague

PS 2015: I still have the painting of Prague, a bit worse for intercontinental moving since the canvas is actually an unfolded cardboard box. The flatmates could never remember for sure who painted it but thought it might be Martina Cleary.

26 May 2000

I’m not making it up: Someone wrote a detective novel set on the mean streets of Koskela, “Helsinki’s Bronx” (Alueuutiset). Check out the description of Sjöman & Co. here.

PS 2015: The Nordic mystery boom finally happened but Hannu Vuorio’s work does not seem to have been translated into English. Yet.



22 May 2000

National holidays of the week: Victoria Day (Canada) as described by Kristin and Nicole, and Cyril and Methodius Day, the main Bulgarian national day, especially if Johku can get us into the reception.


[Later:] She did, and it was a rather strange: readings
from a book of humorous stories of overseas Bulgarians, and satirical songs about Bulgaria: “They’re saying the country is poor, the women are trampy, and everyone wants to go to Canada,” I was told. The guests said later that the programme was vulgar and unsuitable, but there was quite a bit of laughter at first. I wonder if this is the beginning of a trend and the American Embassy will decide to celebrate the Fourth of July with a revue of the works of Tom Lehrer  (academic view here and here) and Allan Sherman (author of the letter from camp song – there is no academic view of Allan Sherman).

PS 2015: I miss crashing Bulgaria-related events with these other fans of the country. Johanna is a postdoctoral researcher now. Tomi flies for Finnair. Sirpa and Ene I have not heard from in years.

15 May 2000

Hmmm. I may need a link to Tranbase at Trantex for a while longer.