Monday, December 31, 2007

Freeway Light

Freeway Light
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
I have seen the Sun over the mountains of Reykjavik. I have seen the dusk in the Scandinavian Ridge. I have seen the Aurora Borealis in the Bothnic Bay, and an enormous firestorm over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

But, even though this cameraphone photo doesn't do it justice, I have never seen the light quite so unreal as it is on the Tallinn-Tartu road, on the last Sunday of December, doing 120km/h straight into a 3pm sunset.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Do Want!

UPDATE: Bump - new stuff added.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, but also as a tip for anyone attending a birthday of mine or some other such event - a list of stuff I want but can't be bothered to buy myself (to be updated as appropriate, in no particular order):

1) Transformers - Super God Masterforce DVD set

2) Don Johnson Big Band - Don Johnson Big Band

3) Don Johnson Big Band - Breaking Daylight

4) Don Johnson Big Band Original Burn Black T-shirt (XL)

5) Top Gear Nurburgring Nipple T-shirt (XXL, black)

6) Stroopwaffels 12x8-pack (or any large quantity come to think of it)

7) Bionic Jive - Armageddon Through Your Speaker

8) E-type Loud Pipes Tour or Metal Tour T-shirt (XXL; I have both, but wouldn't mind more!)

9) Independent MC Support T-shirt (XXL; not exactly sure how to go about buying it!)

10)Tom Bihn Empire Builder shoulder bag, in Black/Black/Steel, with an Absolute Shoulder Strap and size 4 Horizontal Brain Cell

11) Ze Frank League of Awesomeness Black on Black T-shirt (XXL)

12) Evil for Evil (by K.J. Parker)

13) Dynomighty Bandoleer Bracelet (with Extras set)

14) Unicomp Customizer 105 Raven Black keyboard

15) Sony Ericsson W950i phone

16) Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard (yes, it's the second keyboard on the list; the first one is for my desk, this one is for my couch.)

17) MagnoGrip magnetic wristband

18) Room-sized RC helicopter, damage-proof (rubber body, apparently).

19) Kenwood SD101 retro barmixer, red. (Perfect gift: too expensive and impractical for me to justify buying it, but it's enormously awesome and I really want it.)

20) Philips Cucina 3-in-1 combination sandwich/waffle/meat grill.

21) Genius LuxeMate 810 Media Cruiser keyboard (cheaper than the DiNovo and far more badass)

22) Lemon press. Ingenious, and a solution to a problem I've properly been having (i.e. laziness).

23) Sun Jar. Obscurely useful and intrinsically cool.

24) Self-irony. I wantz it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The AnTyx Fix: Education

Wrote about education a few weeks ago, and of course somebody asked me what we're supposed to do about it. Which is a very good point; it's my job as a blogger to suggest the proper way to do things which I think are broken.

There was a news blurb in the papers yesterday: apparently there is something called an IT Council, and they recommended that the national school-graduation exams include mathematics as a mandatory test. This would produce a lot more youths with aptitude in mathematics, solve Estonia's labour shortage, and generally save the dolphins.

Well, that's a silly idea. It would be valid in India or China, but it's inappropriate for what we are trying to do here. Making maths mandatory is going to produce a large number of people with just enough math knowledge to pass the test, and they will be expected to go into IT, and we will have a workforce of semi-competent code monkeys that are far more expensive than semi-competent code monkeys in Bangalore, and nobody will have any use for them.

Estonia needs to be a knowledge economy. Our marketable skill is competence, and the ability to design and implement the optimal solutions to a problem. Solutions which are remarkably useful, and I mean remarkably - so good that you can't help but remark on it. To sustain this, we need to give our people the opportunity to become really good at what they do, and we can't do that by forcing all of them to learn Java.

Now, I've seen something recently which made me think about these things. It was a list of things you have to do when you're poor. It had really sad and hard-hitting lines like "Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw". It made me think of my own family, back in the early 90s, when often enough my dad would simply not get his salary; he'd do the work, but there would be no money to give him. We were properly poor back then. But these days - I'm not rich, but I've fooled some people. I'm comfortably middle-class, with enough disposable income for a moderate selection of toys. So's the rest of my family. So are my friends, including the ones I grew up with.

And it occured to me that the biggest external contributing factor - other than the fact that I'm just naturally good at something that I've managed to earn money doing - was education. More importantly, the fact that I could go to the best university in the country and pay no tuition at all. I worked through most of my uni days, and my parents helped out, and I took out student loans some of the time (secured by the state - the interest is actually less than inflation now), but I couldn't have done it if I had to pay tuition as well. And yes, I have a BA in English, which is about the most practically useless degree one can have (second only to semiotics and philosophy), but it's still helped to find a good job. It has also given me an excuse to move away from my parents, and get the confidence of being able to take care of myself.

So how do we scale that experience? Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create a steady stream of intelligent, well-trained and highly competent specialists? I don't have a guaranteed solution, but I have an idea on where to start.

1) Money. Estonia's free-market ideology means that the government does not own the companies that provide a government-regulated service. The national universities (like hospitals) are commercial enterprises; and every year, the government calculates how many specialists in a certain field it will be able to use 3 to 5 years down the line. Based on that, it signs a contract with a university, paying it to train the specialists. The university has a certain, significant but limited, number of tuition-free spots, which are assigned to applicants based on academic achievement. Usually, those who didn't make it will have a chance to get a paid spot - a thousand Euro per semester or so. Same curriculum.

Obviously we end up with more specialists than the state ordered. The state is limited by its budget, and relies on the commercial spots and all-private universities to make up the shortfall. The problem is that the all-private universities are generally crap (I think Tallinn's EBS business school might be the only exception). More money for more free spots would allow a concentration of students to the better institutions. We'd be fine with a University of Tartu and a University of Tallinn, and their colleges in Pärnu, Narva, Haapsalu... I have no faith in places like Mainor or Euroülikool.

More opportunities for free tuition will attract more students to the universities that can provide good education. Education from a good university is a useful thing even if the student ends up with a job that has nothing to do with his degree - as a lot of people do.

2) Exams. Currently, there is a single set of exams for high school graduation, and the results of these are used by the universities to generate an average passing grade. The results of all applicants are averaged out, and those who have a grade higher than the threshold, get the free spot.

The problem with this is that the exams cater to the lowest common denominator. Not all the kids who leave high school will go to university. Not all universities are the same in the level of education they offer, and thus the level of student knowledge they require.

The universities need to re-introduce their own entrance exams. This will allow the good colleges to accept good students; or rather, because they will be the ones with an abundance of free-tuition spots, it will motivate more students to study hard and bone up on the subject matter. It should also intrinsically limit the number of kids applying for a major with a low entrance barrier that they have no long-term interest in - just to get that student status.

3) Support. Estonia's tertiary education system has been criticized for mostly being inferior to universities abroad, but that is the wrong approach. Obviously it is not possible for a country of 1.3 million to build up a talent pool as comprehensive, diverse and advanced as a country with thirty or fourty times the population. Fortunately, we don't have to! The fact that it is so easy for our kids to go and study in Oxbridge or the Sorbonne is an advantage, a very significant resource bestowed on us by EU membership, and one that we would be fools to ignore. By the very nature of the Estonian people, they will not stay away forever; even those with an education and a career in the confederacy or further off will still return sooner or later, because of the fundamental Estonian sense of home. EU's best universities should be exploited by Estonia in the same way that EU funds are used to renovate our infrastructure.

Of course any application for EU funds is accompanied by a mandatory self-financing component. The same point applies. The Estonian government needs to dedicate resources - financial, administrative and political - to supporting those of its youths who choose to go abroad and study at the best colleges in Europe, or indeed the world. In the same way that the state secures student loans at a low interest rate, pays for tuition, and ensures discounts on vital goods and services (I'm still convinced that there is a state tender for the 1.90 EEK packets of ramen in the shops near Tartu's dorm cluster), there needs to be an extensive government program of supporting kids that study abroad. Something similar exists in a basic state - you can get your student loans written off if you work for a government agency after graduation - but it needs to be greatly expanded.

So, what do you think? Does any of this make sense?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Expect Trouble

Something big is going down in Narva.

For some time now, the city council has been fighting the Kreenholm factory over some disputed utility bills. The Kreenholm textile factory is one of Estonia's biggest manufacturing enterprises, contributing a serious chunk to the country's exports. It is also an extremely important employer in the troubled Ida-Virumaa region.

Tomorrow Kreenholm will lay off 900 employees.

From what I gather, Narva's municipal water company has raised prices sharply. According to Kreenholm management, the amount that the factory is being charged is 14 times above cost; as Narva Vesi is the monopoly, this does appear extremely fishy. Kreenholm, which consumes some two hundred million kroons' worth of power and water annually, challenged the price hike and took it all the way to the Law Chancellor (a high-ranking civil servant, used as a nonpartisan arbiter), who demanded an explanation from the city. The arbitration court has not yet ruled on the lawsuit of Narva Vesi against Kreenholm, claiming 20 million kroons in unpaid fees.

The Narva city council, which has been backing the water company aggressively, has arrested Kreenholm's bank accounts on December 4th. With no way to pay suppliers, or its employees, Kreenholm has cut its losses. The factory employs some 2400 people total, after an earlier layoff of 500. Another nine hundred jobs lost will in itself be devastating for Narva's economy; more could follow. The factory's Swedish owners say they will not close it down completely, but by next Christmas it will hardly employ more than a thousand people.

It's been a bad day for Estonian business. Skype, the darling of the Estonian IT sector, has been in trouble. Its owner, eBay, which paid $2.6 bln for the company and then announced it had overvalued the business massively, has not been able to develop the service in any significant way. The former owners, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, have quit to pursue other projects. And today, around 30 Skype employees suddenly found themselves out of a job.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Author, in Need of a Haircut

Yours Truly
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Now everyone can see what Giustino meant. :)

I am very rarely happy with pictures of myself, and this is that rare occasion. In fact I wanted to download the picture right away, and as I fumbled with the big DSLR, I knocked my phone off the desk. It's a Motorola V500, a clamshell, and it was open; it landed face-down and broke the hinge. No worries; it was three years old, almost to the day, and I have been looking for an excuse to get rid of it.

So now I have a Nokia 6500 Classic. Over two years ago, I wrote about the lack of killer features in mobile phones these days. To be entirely honest, I'm still not convinced; the camera and Bluetooth were the last technical innovations that I thought were really desirable. GPS might be the next one, but it's not mainstream yet. Other than that, in three years there has been almost no progress in handset design. The one thing that's relatively common in phones today, but wasn't when I bought my V500, are sensor buttons, and they suck. I've never kept a phone as long as I kept the V500, and that's because there was no phone meanwhile that I really wanted.

I've never liked Nokias, either. They're decent phones, but extremely default-choice; I've always thought Nokias are bought by people with no imaginations. I've never owned a Nokia, in fact. I've had various Motorolas (including a T191 which was actually an Acer), Siemenses, Ericssons - before they were bought by Sony - but never a Nokia.

But I do like the 6500c. It's thin, it's metal, it's got an amazing screen (although my V500 had a really good one as well), and it looks awesome. And for once in my life, I get to use all the gigantic infrastructure that Nokia's market penetration has created. Long before the iPod got an entourage of third parties manufacturing accessories in translucent white plastic, Nokia allowed people to customize their phones with ringtones and wallpapers and games, and absolutely everything exciting to do with mobile phones came out on a Nokia first. Now, I get to enjoy that.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Estonian Education in "Not Completely Shit" Shocker

So, this is old news, but it's worth mentioning.

Apparently there was a test of science proficiency among 15-year-old schoolkids, and Estonia scored quite well. Fifth place overall, second place in general achievement (how good the entire student body is on average). The test was conducted by the OECD, which is a fairly credible organization, and nearly 5000 kids from Estonia took part, so it's representative.

Which is nice. I've been asked about education in the comments to a previous post, and I genuinely believe it is the most important long-term issue for the country. We have some natural resources we can use in a clever way (the timber, and the shale), and there's always the tourist industry, but first and foremost Estonia is a knowledge economy. We have great software developers, we have a great biotech scene, and we have great engineers coming up with stuff like ultra-smart fabrics for skiing jackets. That's what will keep us going and make us rich in Europe. Estonia has been such a success story because we got to start from scratch in 1991, but it's not just that: everyone east of Vienna started from scratch in 1991. We were simply very clever about it. That cleverness, the ability to find the best solution and implement it, ignoring all the reasons why it probably won't work, is what makes this country great.

To keep it up, we need lots of highly skilled specialists, and therefore lots of very good education. We already have completely tuition-free university education for the top performers, but we need to expand on that. I don't have a well thought-out Antyx Fix for you right now, but my first thought is to give the University of Tartu more money to take in more kids, and let it reinstitute entrance exams, so the faculty can have more control over the quality of students they accept. (Right now university entrance is based on a bell curve number calculated from high school graduation exams.) So yeah, let's keep up the good work.

But there is an interesting point here. Russophone kids scored demonstrably worse in the OECD test than the ones in Estonian-speaking schools. This is ever so slightly counter-intuitive. Back when I was in high school - which wasn't all that long ago, after all! - we still used Soviet textbooks for a lot of the science courses. This is fine; the laws of the universe don't really change over time, and the superiority of physics & chemistry education in the Soviet curriculum was unassailable. The SU really did teach kids a lot more science than the West did.

You would think that the Russian books and especially the Russian teachers, trained in the old Soviet system, would produce quite good results. And yet, they don't.

The Education Minister, Tõnis Lukas, suggests that this happened because the Estonian teachers have had more opportunity for further training and raising their own skill levels. Teachers from Russian schools, who don't speak Estonian all that well, would not have the same opportunities. But hold on, this is science; surely all the training materials would be in English anyway? And in that case there shouldn't be a difference?

Maybe there is. Maybe the older teachers, the ones who learned their trade in the Soviet days, the ones who have been teaching physics for thirty years - they can't learn English any more than they learn Estonian. Can't or won't. Maybe the general sense of pessimism has gotten the better of them, and they really can't be bothered making an effort any more. Maybe.

In any case, it does rather put a new twist on the old Russian-schools issue. We're told that the kids would have too hard a time learning science in Estonian, with confusing terminology and such. But if they're doing badly learning it in their native tongue, and the gap clearly correlates with language, don't we owe it to the future generations to make sure they get the best education - in Estonian - they possibly can?


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