Sunday, 20 May 2018

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The adorable search for the Finnish national dish

Being an expatriate changes you. Among other things, it makes you look at your old homeland with a mix of newly found objectivity and immense affection. I got a shot of those sentiments a while ago, when a popular vote to choose a national dish for Finland was announced.

Years ago, when Parma and Helsinki were competing over where to locate the European Food Safety Authority, Silvio Berlusconi made fun of the primitiveness of the Finnish food culture. After reading the list of 12 candidates, chosen by an appointed panel, of the national dish vote... I am alternating between adoring Finns' simple, no-nonsense attitude toward food, and chuckling to myself while imagining what Berlusconi would have said about this array of awesomeness. Since I'm family, I am allowed to make a bit of good-spirited fun, right? Let us look at the entries one by one...

Pea soup. A bowl of guaranteed hyper-accelerator of intestinal gases, digested with mustard. It is the traditional weekly Thursday meal in the Finnish army. The following night is known in the barracks as "the night of the flapping blankets".

Fish soup. It is a soup that has fish in it. It certainly gets points for elegant simplicity.

Mämmi. A traditional dessert famous for its uncanny resemblance to human excrement. Nowadays associated specifically with Easter, which I assume was originally some sort of religious self-punishment ritual.

Dark rye bread. This one actually makes perfect sense. It is Finnish, it is delicious, and it is one of the exactly two foods whose absence one actually bothers to register when living abroad.

Karelian pies. This is the other one.

Viili. One of the many variations of the theme "a fancy kind of spoiled milk".

Pizza. ... OK, at this point the panel apparently just gave up and admitted there are less than 12 Finnish-invented foods in existence.

Blueberry pie. I did not know there was something specifically Finnish about this. At least it tastes good, unless it belongs to that variant which has only some dry blueberry skins on top, to fool an unsuspecting consumer to thinking that he will get actual berries.

Fried herrings with potatoes. I thought this was a potential winner (spoiler: turns out I was wrong). Fried herrings are actually delicious, and their combination with the ever-present boiled potatoes would symbolize Finnish food quite well. You'll get a gourmet version of this by placing a piece of dill on the potato.

Karelian stew. Pieces of meat floating in a mix of greasy water and mushy vegetables. It is not all bad, which is largely thanks to the grease. Given that salt and grease make anything taste good, why does it not work when I mix salt and grease and try to eat the mixture? The world does not make any sense.

Gravlax. A dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill, usually served as an appetizer. No, of course I did not need to look that up on Wikipedia.

Liver casserole. A revolting mass of indistinct substance that in an ideal world would be prohibited by the Geneva convention. It is so cheap that it is the country's most popular microwave meal (which was one reason cited for qualifying it as a candidate), so it doubles as a reminder that you are poor as hell. In the words of a panel member, "If it is made of a moose calf's liver, for example, the rice replaced by barley, and eaten with mashed lingonberries, it is delicious". So, basically, if you swap its ingredients to something else, cover it in a substance that blocks its taste, and kill a Bambi, it becomes edible. I'm sold.

Yes, I admit, a couple of these are genuinely worth longing for. But not having access to them is a fair price to pay for not having the risk to be accidentally exposed to the rest.

The results are in, and dark rye bread won, obviously. It is like Finland itself. Strong, sour, tough and trustworthy. One of these days I'm going to go and get some.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Dear User

Dear user,

You have requested to create a guest account to access our institution database. To facilitate the rapid success of the process, please follow these steps:

1) Produce three paper copies of the forms XF-1045 and XF-1087, fill them and sign them with ultramarine RAL 5002 blue ink. Scan the originals and send them to us. We choose to employ the ambiguous term "us" instead of giving an actual e-mail address, because otherwise somebody would actually have to take responsibility of this.

If you are unsure about how to fill the forms XF-1045 and XF-1087, please see this link for instructions written in a language you do not read.

2) Send the originals in a single envelope to Department of Informatics.

3) Check if Department of Informatics actually exists at this point in space-time after the latest organizational upheaval. If yes, proceed to number 5. If not, proceed to number 4.

4) Send the documents to the department that most closely resembles Department of Informatics. Don't ask. Your guess is as good as ours.

5) Send them again, because we probably lost the first ones.

6) Remind yourself why you are doing all this again.

7) Breed a horde of little green minions to storm the ramparts of the relevant department and deliver the documents personally.

8) नौ साल पहले एक गर्मियों में प्रशिक्षु के एक बुरा शरारत के कारण, इस अंतरिक्ष हिन्दी में पाठ का एक बुरा मशीन अनुवाद से भर जाता है, सचमुच क्योंकि कोई भी पिछले एक दशक में ये निर्देश ठीक करना हो गया है।

9) Wait for Uranus to approach perihelion.

10) Check if you still need access to the database. If yes, proceed to number 1. If not, proceed to number 11.

11) Process completed successfully.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Trump, Authoritarianism, and Opposing Worldviews

So, this happened.

The first question might well be: Why should this be a big deal for a non-American? After all, it was only a presidential election of a foreign country, which is not supposed to be the business of non-Americans anyway. The president of the United States is not almighty, will be as bound by the realities of domestic and international politics as anyone else, and certainly cannot make the country and its political system bow to his personal will. It is surprising, considering what the polls seemed to indicate, and more than a little weird, but so what?

I feel the need bring some considerations together and justify why it seems like a big deal. Why care so much about who won the United States presidential election?

First, maybe this should have not been surprising. If Trump’s victory came as a surprise, maybe that is just an indication that something important about these times has escaped our attention.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that Trump’s success has much to do with the anger and disillusionment of American lower middle and working classes. These people are often by default suspicious of the federal government, and they have been hit hard by economic trends, loss of jobs due to globalization, and the polarization of income that shrinks the middle class. These elections channeled much repressed anger. (Meanwhile, 370 economists, including some of the best in the world, assert that Trump’s economic promises are based on fallacies and misinformation.) For people who do not expect anything good from the established political factions, any radical change may appear desirable.

However, that does not explain at all how Donald Trump, of all people, came to win as the Republican nominee. Why on earth Trump? Just how do people think he is going to be the solution of the problems mentioned above, to such an extent that he managed to win despite almost non-existent support from the Republican Party luminaries? And moreover, why do so many people on this side of the Atlantic, people who have nothing significant to gain from changes in the United States’ political direction, seem to be cheering for Trump?

The Republican Party is generally thought as the party of unrestricted free market, extreme individualism, and social conservatism. But as the party’s agonizing over Trump’s candidacy showed, he was not appealing to the traditional Republican principles as such. Most clearly, Trump did not gain his support because he was conservative -- he is not. He was supported because he was radical. Something else is involved than just a tipping of the scales between the two established American political powers.

The Republicans have been the party of law, order and security from the 1960’s. At a time when racial riots and unrest caused by the social rights struggles provoked fear and uncertainty, the party employed the message of hard-handed security measures and aversion to social change. Where Democrats became the party more accommodating to social reform, Republicans came to champion reluctance about extending the civil rights of minorities, even though this was not inherently part and parcel with their other key doctrines.

Thus, today’s Republican party has come to encompass mindsets that do not necessarily have much to do with each other. Karen Stenner’s detailed analysis shows that what gets grouped together as the American “political right” consists of three distinct dispositions: laissez-faire capitalism, social conservatism, and an important third feature, authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism, in the sense meant here, is the preference to uniformity and conformity in one’s surroundings, favoring hierarchy, loyalty, and strong leadership. Since the early 1990’s, there has been an ingenious measurement device for the authoritarian psychological profile, which sidesteps the methodological problems of asking people directly about their political preferences. It consists of asking them about something universally human, present in every culture, having prima facie nothing to do with politics: child-rearing practices.

Questionnaires ask about the most desirable kinds of upbringing for children. The respondents are asked what features they see as most important for their children to have. They are asked if it is most important to teach children independence or respect for elders; self-reliance or obedience; being considerate or being well-behaved; and curiosity or good manners. Picking the second preference in each pair has proven to be a reliable indicator of authoritarian preferences.

What is interesting is that Trump’s success has been driven by his appealing to people with authoritarian preferences. He did not only gather the votes of social conservatives or disgruntled poor people: he gathered the votes of authoritarians, who are many, and not by any means confined to the political right.

It is important to note that authoritarianism differs from conservatism. What Stenner calls “status quo conservatism” may often support the same causes as authoritarianism, but it is importantly different. According to Stenner’s analysis, conservatism prefers stability and security in society, resisting change and preferring established practices over reforms. Conservatism is disposed to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo includes many divisions and diversity in society. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is disposed to enforce uniformity, homogeneity and strict social hierarchies in society, even when this means drastic measures and a radical upheaval of the status quo. Neither of the two is inherently connected with laissez-faire capitalism.

Trump’s success starts to make more sense when one considers the possibility that his message reached a large class of people with authoritarian tendencies. With his self-assured and outrageous demeanor, he portrayed himself as the kind of strongman leader who will force radical change upon the country, and disregards all kinds of typical political correctness which might stand in his way.

Another interesting hypothesis, also put forward by Stenner, could explain why the political force of authoritarianism has not been more evident before. The hypothesis is that authoritarian tendencies are often latent until “activated”, and they are activated by perceived threats to social order and personal security. The hypothesis makes a lot of sense, thinking about the effectiveness of the standard political manoeuvre: underpinning the support of the ruling regime by turning people’s attention to an outside threat. According to Hetherington and Suhay's study on Americans, it is not only those with pre-existing authoritarian tendencies who are susceptible to the effect. Also people without those tendencies may respond to real or imagined threats by becoming more authoritarian. That is, by turning to strong leadership, traditional values, and unity of the group.

When people experience uncertainty and fear, it seems to be a natural reaction to turn to one’s community for safety, and become less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion in that community. People feeling threatened, either by physical dangers by rapid changes in social norms, they tend to seek safety, consciously or unconsciously, from forceful leaders and from uniformity, strict norms and structure. Racism that arises from activated authoritarianism is not so much racism as such; it is, to use Stenner’s term, more general “difference-ism”. This may explain the otherwise completely baffling phenomenon where hostile attitudes, once they have become prominent against some minorities, seem to target also evidently harmless groups, such as disabled people.

If it is true that (to simplify) scared people are more prone to attach to authoritarian leaders, this may tell something illuminating about totalitarian societies and dictatorships. It is easy enough to understand that people can be scared into submission in a dictatorship. But the result of living under a constant threat may be deeper than simple reluctant submission. It might be that people can be scared into actually supporting authoritarian regimes – the regime is a self-feeding machine which constantly provides the impetus for its own support.

According to Stenner, the authoritarian psychological profile favors

“ ... structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs, and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of stances all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference.” (Stenner, "Three Kinds of Conservatism", Psychological Inquiry, 20, p. 143)

So, authoritarianism seems to be the preference of homogeneity and strength in unity, and distaste of diversity and difference. It is certainly a widespread trait, although one rarely encounters it in a completely outspoken or unqualified form in politics or social life – at least until now. But there seems to be a less radical preference, which is closely related to the authoritarian mindset, but even more humanly universal and comprehensive: the preference of order and hierarchy. What I have in mind is a mindset that does not oppose diversity as such, but demands that any existing diversity is made sense of by classifying it in clear and permanent ways. It demands that things, phenomena, and people have labels, and that they wear those labels on their sleeve.

Very many people who could be described as conservative or authoritarian seem content to accept the existence of various kinds of diversity, if that diversity is made clear-cut and intelligible by labels and classifying concepts. Let there be blacks in the neighborhood, as long as they keep to themselves and do not try to become one of “us”; let there be equal rights for women, as long as women do not try to become men and take over “men’s jobs”; let there be equal rights for homosexual couples, as long as homosexual partnerships do not constitute “marriage”. Nobody likes to find out that their long-lasting ways to make sense of the world have gone obsolete, and that their concepts no longer mean what they used to mean. Sticking to traditional meanings of concepts and inherited world-views is, like authoritarianism, an expression of the tendency to seek safety in order and tradition when the world outside seems to change too rapidly. It is probably no accident that populists like Trump use name-calling so extensively. Sticking easily remembered, emotionally loaded labels to everyone and everything speaks directly to his target audience. It feeds the audience’s urge to classify, simplify, and know what is what.

Finally, there might be an explanation as to why these preferences seem so deeply alien to some. On the face of it, preference for order and homogeneity over ambiguity and diversity is a perfectly intelligible need, and certainly not in any obvious way irrational. Why is it so baffling and repulsive to many that well-educated people struggle to even understand where authoritarian tendencies come from?

Maybe somewhere on the bottom of all this lies a fundamental difference of world-views. On the one hand, there are people who see order as the basic, “default” feature of the world. There is a pre-determined natural order for things to be, and undesirable things are conceived as resulting from the order’s being disturbed in one way or another. Order is the default state of human race and society. Whenever there is deviation from the order, this is attributable to some external agent, malicious or delusional, who must be stopped before it breaks the world’s rightful structure apart. On the other hand, there are people who see change as the basic, “default” feature of the world. The only permanent thing is that everything changes. History, the story of the human race, or the fates of societies do not follow any pre-determined path, and much of the developments that shape our lives are attributable just to random change. People are fellow travelers in a chaotic and unpredictable world that is not in any way inherently hospitable to them. The way to survive is to build unity where there once was none, adapt, and develop. Circumstances change, and societies change with them, whether we like it or not. The only relevant choice is between controlled change as opposed to chaotic and unpredictable change.

Something like the first world-view may be an unspoken and non-reflected part of the authoritarian disposition, as well as those more moderate mindsets that share features with it. Inability to understand or relate to the first world-view, on the other hand, could be part of the reason why the needs of authoritarians and their means of responding to threats seem so alien to many. If something along these lines is right, it is no wonder if authoritarians tend to be climate change deniers, because it goes against a basic building block of their worldview – the conviction that if things are just left to run their course, things will fall back into their rightful order.

Why is the election of Donald Trump a big deal? Because he cannot be dismissed as a singular accident, a mere charismatic snake-oil salesman, or a very-probably-one-term president brought about by a critical amount of protest voters. He awakened politically a subset of people that is permanently there, and can be mobilized to support ruthless and radical leaders, especially when there are high levels of fear and uncertainty in the society. His success is part of the same nationalist, isolationist and disunifying trend that is growing in European politics, in Brexit and elsewhere. Now, when Trump’s themes, his campaigning style, and his surely conscious choice to rather appear vigorous than worthy of respect, have won him the White House, it is hard to believe that the same methods would not be copied in European politics sooner or later. The European Trumps are probably already on their way.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Collective stigmatizing does not belong in Western values

[My letter to the editor published in the newspaper Keskisuomalainen 26.7.2016. This is about a proposal by The Finns Party Youth, the youth organization of The Finns Party, which is currently taking part in the Finnish coalition government. The title was provided by the editors.]

The Finns Party Youth proposes the section about agitation against a group to be removed from the Finnish penal code (, 21.7.2016). This would render it lawful to collectively stigmatize a group based on ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, as long as this does not involve direct incitement to violence. According to the organization, the penal code sections about agitation against a group and defamation of religion are detrimental to defending Western values, as well as hindering open discussion about criminal acts and human rights violations. 

It is rhetorically clever of The Finns Party Youth to appeal to Western values and human rights. However, anyone who holds that it is necessary to engage in agitation against a group or sect, as it is characterized in the penal code, to defend the aforementioned rights and values, needs to explain what his or her conception of Western values is like in the first place. At the very least, those values should include the principle of esteeming persons as individuals, based on their particular merits and deeds, and not as parts of their native cultural or ethnic groups.

Nothing prevents one from talking about tensions between Islamic and Western cultures or the threat of fundamentalist terrorism without expressing the critique in agitative terms. Reacting against an ominous phenomenon is not, and should not be, the same thing as reacting against an ethnic or religious group collectively associated with that phenomenon.

The media, politicians, and ordinary people always have a chance to defend Western values and oppose the threat of violent fanaticism without collectively judging groups as wholes. When masses of allies can be found behind the fences we construct for ourselves, why should we be blind to them? The yearly Arbaeen Procession of London Muslims in December 2015 abandoned its normal non-political nature, and turned into a protest against ISIS and terrorism practiced in the name of Islam.  Occasions like this get limited media coverage, maybe because they do not fit in a simple narrative about the relationship of Europe and Islam. Anyone who is concerned about human rights violations, terrorism, or societal problems, can rest assured that the majority of European Muslims share the same concerns. 

Promoting our vital values through cooperation instead of confrontation should be a value in itself.  At least if one is genuinely in it for those values, and not merely categorically against certain groups of people in the name of homogeneous culture. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The best thing about geocaching

Last August, I was amazingly spontaneous for once. I suddenly started geocaching.

You know – as it says on the website, it’s the world’s largest treasure hunt. There are boxes and containers all around us, big, small and tiny, in urban and rural areas, stealthy buggers just waiting for a newbie player to download a free app showing locations and descriptions of caches and to go find these little treasures. It is a hobby that first saw the light of day around the turn of the millennium, with the advent of the new advanced GPS technology. Some pioneers of the technology wanted to test GPS accuracy by hiding containers in the woods and seeing if others would be able to find them based on their coordinates. That turned out to be more fun than could ever be expected. Now, as we all have a GPS device in our pocket, millions of people are into geocaching.

I had known about the concept, but I had never given it more thought. Last summer, however, I was under more workload than usual, and I had a craving for something new and exciting to refresh my head in the evenings. Then I happened to land on the geocaching website, signed up to see if there are caches in the area, only to find out that the nearest one was... 150 meters from my front door, by the side of a little footpath I knew so well?

That’s when it hit me: the exhilarating feeling that the world around me was suddenly full of little secrets. Little hidden treasures that you did not see until you went looking for them.

I’m certainly not writing from the expert position of a hardcore hobbyist. My current cache count is 74, which is not much compared to the thousands or tens of thousands that geocaching veterans have. Still, in those few months when I have had time for it, geocaching has given me loads of fun and enjoyment, and I have become familiar with the good, the better, and the best things about it. Speaking about those…

For one thing, I went geocaching for exercise. Jogging and cycling are good for health, but so hard to keep doing regularly without extra motivation. Geocaching provided that motivation. Suddenly I was spending my evenings on long cycling trips or discovering recreation grounds that I never had known to exist. That was great.

Even better was the way geocaching makes your surroundings come to life in a novel way. I was jogging up remote hills, going down forest footpaths, inspecting walls, park benches, statues and streetlights, reaching into innocent-looking bushy pine trees to make them give away their secrets. Uninteresting places that used to serve only as life’s wallpaper started to become my places. They now had stories and memories attached to them – my story of finding their secret, and the story of the kind soul who placed and maintained the cache for the enjoyment of others. It was like the world started to be populated with these little rabbit-holes that most people knew nothing about. There is some unashamedly childish joy in it.

However, it took me some time to start appreciating the thing I now consider as the best thing about geocaching. The best thing is that this activity is possible for me in the first place.

After having started in the USA, geocaching has gone worldwide. The global map of geocaches shows quite clearly, however, which parts of the world are geocaching-friendly. Europe is pretty much covered in caches, as are North America and Australia (well, the parts of the latter two that are not covered in ice and sand respectively), Japan and New Zealand. Elsewhere caches are much more sporadic.

No wonder, of course. It makes sense that a purely recreational activity like geocaching is strongly correlated with general standards of living. It is something you do just for fun, and that requires that your days have hours that are not needed for more vital things. Being able to do things for fun is a luxury in itself.

But there is a deeper point. Geocaching requires that you can trust your environment – or maybe more to the point, that your environment trusts you. In very many parts of the world that just is not true. I’ll explain what I mean.

Geocaches need to be well hidden (and kept secret!) for two reasons: to provide a challenge to the seeker, and to avoid being vandalized. That is why they are either in relatively remote locations or extremely well hidden in busier locations. In either case, looking for a geocache unavoidably involves some snooping-around type of behaviour that could look suspicious in mistrustful eyes. Sometimes, when looking for a remote forest cache, the thought has crossed my mind that someone could imagine me going to a drug stash – or even more unfortunately, someone could have unknowingly placed a cache near a real drug stash. It is only because those possibilities were improbable enough that I felt comfortable hunting for the caches. Before I explicitly thought about it, I had never really appreciated the fact that my environment poses no significant dangers of that type.

The same goes for urban caches. Sometimes I found myself searching for a cache in an empty parking lot or by the side of a vacant building. I was very aware that if an onlooker, guard, or even a policeman should come and demand to know what I’m doing, I would owe them an explanation. But for a long time I just took for granted the obvious fact that, luckily, I am of the right colour and right appearance that I could always reasonably count on the other to trust my explanation – and that I am in a country where people generally ask before shooting. It could so easily be otherwise.

Right now Americans are enthusiastically embracing another game that sends people out to explore: Pokémon GO. Much like geocaching, it makes players go into the wide world searching for an element of magic and mystery added into the everyday world – although in this case in the form of virtual creatures rather than physical things. The sudden explosion of success enjoyed by Pokémon GO has immediately made evident some unwanted consequences this type of game may have. There was an incident of robbers using the game to lure victims into their trap. And there is this story of a black American man starting the game in high spirits, then quitting with the sad realization that playing could very realistically get him killed. It is something that an unfortunate geocacher could realize as well. In many places, wandering around a random location seemingly searching for something can be more than just potentially goofy. If your appearance is wrong, it can be lethally dangerous.

Geocachers sometimes run into bad experiences, but those rarely seem to be more dangerous than angry landowners claiming (rightly or otherwise) that a cache has been placed on their private property. (Geocaching is governed by a strict ethical code.) Still, when thinking about going to an urban cache, I tend to consider quite carefully if the cache is placed so that someone could misunderstand my intentions. Even if the answer is no, another thought nowadays sometimes crosses my mind: If I was a black man, could I do this?

Moreover, it is very easy to forget that it is a blessing to live in a society where an activity like geocaching is allowed to exist in the first place. After all, it is a kind of a playful secret society. The players are in possession of confidential information about hidden objects that contain notes; the logbooks of geocaches generally contain only dates and names of their finders, but in principle they could be used to exchange any kind of messages. In a more authoritarian society there would surely be a need to keep a much more serious aura of secrecy around the geocaching hobby, just because of the endless suspicions it might raise, no matter how innocent the motivations of the players. After a totalitarian revolution, geocaching would be among the first things to be banned.

There you have it: my opinion on the best thing about this splendid hobby. Geocaching is an expression of freedom. Being able to do it safely is an indication that you are allowed to make the world your playground. The world around you exists for you and other fellow citizens, not the other way round. You are allowed to go out there and spontaneously do things – to go out and play – protected by the prima facie assumption that you are not doing anything bad.

I’m glad I started geocaching, because I came to appreciate my privileges in a new way. The kind of basic trust the game requires is not a part of the permanent structure of the world, something that could be taken for granted. It is something that orderly societies have achieved through many struggles, and something that can very easily be lost. And that basic trust is something that some people around me may not be enjoying, even though their lack is invisible to me.

I have never appreciated that basic trust more than nowadays.

(Credits for Pokémon GO-related posts in G+ to Janos Honkonen and Kaj Sotala.)

[EDIT 18.7.2016: Some Russian authorities have realized that Pokémon GO is a threat to society.]

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

What are you bad at?

I have never had to recruit anyone or interview a candidate for a position, and I wonder what it is like. I assume that a recruiter always wants to find out the things the candidate is capable of doing. It would seem natural to do this by asking: What are you good at?

I think I would take a different approach. I would ask: What are you bad at?

It takes some guts to stick your neck out and declare that you are good at something. Take languages. I, for one, would be reluctant to declare that I am good at any language, my native tongue Finnish included. Outside of any particular context, one compares one’s native language competence to the masters of that language. When I think of someone who is good at Finnish, I think of Eino Leino. I am not like that, so am I good at Finnish? Or am I good at English, when I do not have a nearly native-like fluency in it, like some people I know? On the other hand, if I had to list languages I am bad at, the result would basically be the list of language skills in my CV, minus Finnish, and possibly English. It would not occur to me to say that I’m bad at Japanese (because I do not know any Japanese), but, I tell you, I’m really bad in Swedish and in a bunch of other languages. An interviewer would get more out of me by asking what I am bad at. Moreover, if I were in the position of the recruiter, I think I would see more favorably a person who comes up with loads of things she is bad at, compared to one who only can list her strengths.

The reason is a platitude: Becoming good at anything goes through a necessary period of being bad. More specifically, it takes a period of being abysmally bad to even become “just bad” in anything. A person who is bad at many things is just a person who does many things – probably a person who has a passion for doing more things than the hours of a day allow. Saying of oneself that one is bad at X tells that the person implicitly counts X as belonging to her skill set (for me, like Swedish and unlike Japanese), and, moreover, understands X well enough to be able to say that she is not good at it yet. What a sad life it would be if we were forced to always only cultivate our strongest skills, never having time to become bad at anything!

Learning a new thing involves more than being awful at it. It also involves the gradually dawning, embarrassing, gut-wrenching understanding of how awful one actually is. Understanding the nuances of a skill develops faster than the skill itself. It is no wonder that something like the Dunning-Kruger effect exists: the unskilled systematically overestimate their competence, because they have not (yet) reached an understanding of what competence demands.

This way lies a general problem of motivation in learning. In your quest of reaching the blissful gardens of competence, what keeps you wading through the seemingly endless wastelands of ineptitude, where your fate is to first become awful and then increasingly aware of your awfulness?

Here is one answer. Very often, what you count as awful turns out to be, objectively speaking, incredibly useful. It is time to go back to the example of languages, because nowhere is this truer than in the case of languages.

For a long time, languages were taught in schools in terms of grammatical rules and strict translation assignments. The message was: This is what you have to do to speak and write right. It seems that many people claim to “not know” a language they spent years learning at school, just because they cannot produce it perfectly. How could it be otherwise, if perfection is the only point of comparison one ever gets? But generally, the world outside is not interested in whether you go by the rules. It is interested in whether it can communicate with you.

What does it take to be able to communicate in a language? Or rather, let’s be ambitious. What does it take to be able to communicate in a language perfectly? The answer seems to be: A thousand words and a bit of grammar.

The thousand most commonly used words of a language get the job done. A thousand words is not much. Sure, they cannot be learned in a week, but once they have been learned, they are a powerhouse. Even the hundred most common words of a language have an enormous scope. According to polyglot Janne Saarikivi, the hundred most common words comprise 25 percent of spoken language. And with a thousand words – well, it is not possible to translate all that one wishes, but there are enough resources in the thousand words to devise alternative ways of saying anything one may wish to say. If you do not believe, check out the principle in action: xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Spacecraft launch escape system? “Thing to help people to escape really fast if there’s a problem and everything is on fire so they decide not to go to space”. Exactly. I wish we could force politicians and academicians to stick to the thousand most common words for a week.

Man, I feel motivated to learn more Swedish. I’m already bad at it.