Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A rather charitable view of Finland

The writer is after all married to a Finn.

"Finlandization" was a word used to describe the way a country could be absorbed by the Soviet bloc while still remaining nominally independent. The Soviet Union is long gone but Finns are obviously still much influenced in their thinking by their past submission to Soviet values.

The writer below seems to have absorbed some such values himself: Monopolies that keep prices high and empty piety don't bother him as long as you have "unity".

He fails to mention that the Finnish authorities are ferocious censors of politically "incorrect" speech. As in Soviet times, dissent does not fare well in Finland -- JR

Finland has had a rough time in the British press of late. A Telegraph report on New Year's Eve was blunt: "The country is... known for heavy drinking and domestic violence and high rates of suicide".

This was in the wake of Finland's third gun massacre in three years - but the darkness of that line is far from the whole story...

But many of the things that horrified me when I first moved here probably explain why Finland was selected last year, by the Legatum think tank, as being the best place on earth to live.

First, monopolies are ubiquitous. Seventy per cent of all supermarkets are owned by two companies. They also own a lot of restaurants and nobody tips. This may, in turn, influence the astronomical food prices. Independent Iraqi stores are far cheaper than the chains.

Newspapers are a near-monopoly, too. There are three national-reach titles – two of them owned by one company: Sanoma. One of these, Helsingin Sanomat, has a Pravda-like status in Helsinki, where it controls 75 per cent of the market. This is problematic on many levels. But on the plus side, everybody doing the same thing – reading the same newspapers, eating the same food – is one of the factors that holds a society together. And this was a big part of Finland's ranking. More so than elsewhere, people trust each other and have a sense of national community.

The Lutheran Church is a big part of this. It seemed bizarre to me that priests would happily confirm children (90 per cent are confirmed) who were openly atheists and conduct weddings for people who asserted: "We don't want you to say anything about God." But as a result, 80 per cent of Finns are church-members, though Helsinki is less "churched" than the north – and being religious usually has little to do with it.

According to the Lutheran Church researcher Kimmo Ketola: "In recent decades, there has developed a tradition of lighting a candle on a relative's grave on Christmas Eve. The church maintains the graveyards, so they maintain a space for this popular religiosity. The church used to be a big part of Finnish patriotism but now it is ancestor rituals which take place in the context of the Lutheran Church." As a result, the church helps to sustain society.

I found the Finnish failure to question authority pretty shocking, as well. When a Finnish doctor informed me that I did not need a malaria vaccination to go to India in the rainy season ("There aren't many mosquitoes then"), my Finnish wife was "embarrassed" that I dared to dispute this. Things are changing now, but, in general, people are less inclined to complain than the British.

I once had a dispute with some builders whose contract work I had cancelled. Finnish law obliged me to pay their expenses but they would not give me a dated receipt proving that they had bought the materials before I cancelled. They said that the "trade secrets law" meant they did not have to. I looked into it, discovered it was a lie, put this to them and never heard back.

They were attempting fraud and I, surely, would assume they were "honest Finns". But, again, this trust – even if sometimes misplaced – bolsters the sense of nationhood.

Finnish national insecurity also got to me. Why is there this need to boast about how educated they are? Why do some – particularly in the academic elite – try to rewrite history by asserting that Finland is, without question, Western (whatever that means)?

Why this need, on the part of younger Finns, to trawl the internet for articles about Finland in British newspapers and bravely leave anonymous comments involving that wonderful "culture shock" word, "stereotype"? And why are Finnish journalists so fascinated by what British papers have to say about Finland?

There are historical reasons for this, I think. Shared trauma perhaps has something to do with it. And Finland is more nationalistic, more tribal, than the UK. Last year, I published an academic book on Finland which looked at its culture's Arctic dimensions.

A senior journalist at Helsingin Sanomat predicted that: "Some will agree with it, some will agree with parts of it, but you will get hate mail, unfortunately." He was right: the reaction, by bloggers and "commentators" who had obviously not read it, was polarised, to say the least.

The more tribal side of any society will react in such a way to the views of an outsider. Other foreigners who have written about Finland have also received hate mail. It shows that the society has strong boundaries, a deep sense of who is "us" and who is "them". At times in Finnish history, it may have been so extreme as to stifle innovation.

But this is not the case at the moment. Finland appears to have got the balance right between civilisation and progress and holding the tribe together … the occasional massacre notwithstanding.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Advanced Imaging Reveals a Computer 1,500 Years Ahead of Its Time

X-rays and advanced photography have uncovered the true complexity of the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, a device so astonishing that its discovery is like finding a functional Buick in medieval Europe.

In 1900, some divers found the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera. Among the other treasures remanded to the Greek government was an unassuming corroded lump. Some time later, the lump fell apart, revealing a damaged machine of unknown purpose, with some large gears and many smaller cogs, plus a few engraved words in Greek. Early studies suggested it was some type of astronomical time-keeping device – researcher Derek J. de Solla Price laid the groundwork by establishing initial tooth counts and suggesting that the device followed the Metonic cycle, a 235-month pattern commonly used to predict eclipses in the ancient world.

The full function and beauty of the Antikythera device remained hidden until recent studies subjected it to more advanced imaging techniques. First, it was photographed using a technique that exposed the surfaces to varying lighting patterns. This created different levels of contrast that allowed the researchers to read far more of the inscribed Greek text than was previously possible. Then, x-ray imaging was used to create full 3-D computer models of the mechanism, which revealed for the first time some of the more complex and detailed gear interactions. The Greek National Archaeological Museum's discovery of some boxes filled with 82 additional mechanism fragments added new information as well.

The findings, published in Nature, are probably best described as "mind blowing." Devices with this level of complexity were not seen again for almost 1,500 years, and the Antikythera mechanism's compactness actually bests the later designs. Probably built around 150 B.C., the Antikythera mechanism can perform a number of functions just by turning a crank on the side.

Using nothing but an ingenious system of gears, the mechanism could be used to predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, and even accounted for leap years. It could also predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac, and has a gear train that turns a black and white stone to show the moon's phase on a given date. It is possible that it could also show the astronomical positions of the planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The Antikythera mechanism wasn't just a scientific tool – it also had a social purpose. The Greeks held major athletic competitions (such as the Olympics) every two or four years. A small dial within the Metonic dial showed the dates of these important events.

The true genius of the mechanism goes beyond even the complex calculations and craftsmanship of a mechanical calendar. For example, the ancients didn't know that the moon has an elliptical orbit, so they didn't know why it sometimes slowed or sped up as it moved through the zodiac. The mechanism's creator used epicyclic gears, also known as planetary gears, with a "pin-and-slot" mechanism that mimicked this apparent shifting in the moon's movement. This use of epicyclic gears is far ahead of what anyone suspected ancient technology was capable of. Scientific American has a two-part video about the mechanism and the imaging techniques used in the research.

The mystery of who built the Antikythera mechanism remains. It has been linked to renowned ancient inventor Archimedes by the writings of Cicero, but this particular device was built after Archimedes' death. Still, the engraved words revealed by the new photos pinpoint the device's origin to Corinth, or possibly Corinthian colonies. Sicily was such a colony, and the Sicilian city of Syracuse was Archimedes' headquarters. The researchers theorize that the Antikythera mechanism is based on an Archimedian design, and might even have been built by a workshop carrying on his technological tradition. But if the design has been "industrialized" in such a way, why have we never found another one like it? Mysteries remain.

The complexity of the mechanism shows that ancient humans were capable of intellectual and engineering feats that boggle our modern minds (and it puts the lie to all those "ancient astronaut" theories). The upheavals of war and natural disasters over 2,000 years have probably caused us to lose many more works and wonders that will never be found.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Vatican reveals Secret Archives

A 13th-century letter from Genghis Khan’s grandson demanding homage from the pope is among a collection of documents from the Vatican’s Secret Archives that has been published for the first time

The Holy See’s archives contain scrolls, parchments and leather-bound volumes with correspondence dating back more than 1,000 years.

High-quality reproductions of 105 documents, 19 of which have never been seen before in public, have now been published in a book. The Vatican Secret Archives features a papal letter to Hitler, an entreaty to Rome written on birch bark by a tribe of North American Indians, and a plea from Mary Queen of Scots.

The book documents the Roman Catholic Church’s often hostile dealings with the world of science and the arts, including documents from the heresy trial against Galileo and correspondence exchanged with Erasmus, Voltaire and Mozart. It also reveals the Church’s relations with princes and potentates in countries far beyond its dominion.

In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”.

Another formal letter in the archive highlights the papacy’s political role. In 1863 Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, wrote to Pope Pius IX claiming that the civil war raging across America was entirely due to “Northern aggression”.

“We desire no evil to our enemies, nor do we covet any of their possessions; but are only struggling to the end that they shall cease to devastate our land and inflict useless and cruel slaughter upon our people.”

Other letters in the archive are more personal. In a 1550 note, Michelangelo demands payment from the papacy which was three months late, and complains that a papal conclave had interrupted his work on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

A yellowed parchment covered in neat black script reveals details of the 14th century trials of the Knights Templar on suspicion of heresy, after which members of the warrior-monk order were pardoned by Pope Clement V.

Some of the documents are already well-known, including a parchment letter written by English peers to Pope Clement VII in 1530, calling for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled.

An entreaty written to Rome by another British monarch, but in very different circumstances, is also reproduced in exquisite detail. In 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from Fotheringay in Northants to Pope Sixtus V, a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, pledging her eternal allegiance to Rome.

The document includes letters written to Hitler by Pope Pius XI in 1934 and one received by his controversial successor, Pius XII, from Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.

“An aura of mystery has always surrounded this important cultural institution of the Holy See due to the allusions to inaccessible secrets thanks to its very name, as well as to the publicity it has always enjoyed in literature and in the media,” Cardinal Raffaele Farina, a Vatican archivist, writes in the preface to the book, which was produced by a Belgian publisher, VdH Books.

One of the most unusual documents is a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII. The letter, written in May but datelined “where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers”, addresses the pontiff as “the Great Master of Prayer” and offers thanks to the Vatican for having sent a “custodian of prayer” (a bishop) to preach to them.

Although scholars have had access to the secret archives since 1881, they remain closed to the general public.