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 (ps-nuoret.fi, 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.