The Slightly Longer Way Home

This posting tells the story of how I got back from Infocom conference in Toronto in May 2014. There were a few hiccups along the way and this post is mainly about telling the facts, spiced with some appropriate commentary. It’s not a rant where I swear not to fly airline X ever again or how one night of missed sleep was the worst ever experience of my life; no, those would be just petty whinings about first world problems. In the end, all was fine, so that’s all that counts.

So, it was May 1st and I was in Toronto attending the Infocom conference. Conference had been very nice but it was now time to fly back home. I had tried to take a late return flight so that I could stay longer at the conference, so I was scheduled to fly from Toronto to Chicago and onwards to London and Helsinki. The first two legs were on American Airlines, the last on Finnair. In case you’re wondering why I took that routing, the reasons were mainly that it was the best tradeoff between price and lateness of departure (to be honest, it was the cheapest flight and left the latest, so this was an easily resolved tradeoff). I had been mildly concerned about the routing, since I only had 50 minutes for my connection in Chicago.

I got to the airport in Toronto in good time for my flight and all looked peachy. Then I checked about the incoming flight and noticed that it was posting a delay leaving Chicago. The delay got longer and longer and I was getting more than mildly concerned. As I was having a hot dog for dinner, I heard an announcement where they asked somebody with a really weird name to come to gate A12 (my gate). When they called the same person again, I realized it was me they were calling for. To be honest, my name is not the easiest for non-Finns, but this was by far the most curious mis-pronunciation I had ever heard.

I made my to gate A12, handed my boarding pass to the attendant, and then got the good news. They had figured out that I would miss my connection in Chicago so they had proactively booked my onto a British Airways flight direct from Toronto to London. The catch? That flight was posting a 5-6 hour delay and would leave between 2am and 3am (it was about 8pm at this point). However, I should still make my original flight from London to Helsinki, so I thanked them profusely and took the new flights. After a fair amount of tapping at the computer, the attendant finally got me a paper that I should take to BA and check in with them. As a side note, I cannot help but wonder how archaic the airline computer systems look, everything is purely text-based with lots of cryptic commands to be typed in (and sometimes seems like things need to be done multiple times for the command to work). Then again, maybe that kind of stuff is the least-common-denominator that is guaranteed to work everywhere, but couldn’t some of that stuff be actually automated?

So, how do I get to the checkin for BA? For those that aren’t familiar with how flights from Canada to US work, here’s some background. You actually go through US immigration and customs at the Canadian airport so that you arrive in the US as a domestic passenger. This is very convenient and similar pre-clearance exists in some Caribbean islands and Ireland. This of course means that gate A12 is in some sense in the US and BA checkin is in Canada. They told me to walk back towards the security checkpoint and that somebody would let me out. This actually worked. I walked to the security checkpoint, explained my situation, and got out back to Canada. My bag that I had checked in was waiting for me at the transfer belt. Then again, this thing must happen pretty often, so I probably shouldn’t wonder why it was so smooth.

Interestingly, my original flight to London was AA 98 and I was rebooked on BA 98. It’s a good thing there weren’t any further rebookings on different airlines, since Air China doesn’t seem to have flight 98… Who knows where I then would have ended up in.

Next up, checking in with BA. I got to the counter, told them I had been rebooked by AA, handed over the paper, and everything was ok. They found me on the BA flight and eventually figured out which was my flight to Helsinki, and I got checked in without any hitch. I even got an exit row seat. Well, the only hitch was the 5-6 hour delay which was caused by the late arrival of the plane from London. Then again, I have a funnily-colored piece of plastic which lets me in the BA lounge and they said they would keep the lounge open until the flight leaves, so things could have been a lot worse. I was probably the only person on the whole plane who was happy about the delay, since without it, there wouldn’t have been enough time for me to be rebooked on it. In other words, the delay meant I would be getting home on schedule.

I made my way to the lounge where the nice lady at the front desk explained the facilities, and suggested me to take a cocktail or two, but not too many. 🙂 She also promised to wake me up in case I fall asleep so that I wouldn’t miss the flight. I found a seat with some power next to it and got a beer. I now realize I was tempting fate by taking the beer instead of the cocktails she had suggested… This was about 9pm, so all things considered, everything had gone super smoothly. At some point, I took a nap for about an hour; the chair was pretty comfortable and I had a nice nap. Eventually, the long wait was over and we were invited to board the plane.

And that’s when the s..t hit the fan.

We got everybody on the plane, but the ground handling was having a slow time with the bags and cargo. In fact, they were so slow that around 3am the flight crew ran out of working hours, which got the flight canceled. 🙁 The story that went around said that if the ground handling had been about 15 minutes quicker, we would have been able to fly. Not sure if it’s true or not, but it makes for a nice twist to the story.

The next order of business was for BA staff to figure out hotels for us and transportation to those hotels. There were several large conferences in Toronto at that time, so hotel rooms were apparently in very short supply. Eventually, at some time after 4:30am we were let off the plane, told to pick up our bags, and then we’d be taken to a hotel. All things considered, I’d say everything went pretty smoothly and I was in my hotel room at 6am. (You can read another account of the same flight here.)

Sure, there was some confusion, as in on the plane they told us to go pick up the bags, see the person next to baggage claim about hotels, but the person next to baggage claim said we should have had vouchers given at the gate. She called the gate and this was resolved. Likewise, at the hotel, the receptionist wanted to see our vouchers, but common sense triumphed again. All in all it was a pretty smooth thing, considering the time of the day and the number of people on the plane.

They had told us that they would be rebooking us and the easiest way to have some influence on the process would be to call BA at 1-800-AIRWAYS. The catch? They don’t open until 7am so when I got to the hotel at 6am, I came up with the following plan. First, I called American, just in case since my original ticket was with them and because my frequent flyer status is with them. As I suspected, the agent told me that since the ticket has been rebooked on BA, I should talk to BA. I thanked her and came up with the following idea. Even though BA’s North American number wasn’t answering, it was daytime in Finland and BA has a regular number in Finland and not an expensive service number. This is important because I get free calls to regular Finnish numbers over Skype, so I took out my computer, and dialed BA in Finland.

I explained my case and the person said that even though I’m now on BA, the original ticket is on AA, so I should talk to them. When I said that I had just called AA who told me to call BA, she then forwarded me to AA in the same call and I got to speak to another person. The connection was really poor so I had a hard time understanding her, but we sort of managed. I asked about being rebooked on AA to JFK and on to Helsinki on the direct Finnair flight which would get me home Saturday morning (as opposed to the Friday evening in the original schedule; this was now Friday morning). Unfortunately no seats were available on Finnair. Transatlantic flights seemed all to be very full, but at one time the plan was for me to fly from Toronto to Dallas, then to London and Helsinki, getting there at 4:30pm on Saturday. At that point, I was put on a long hold and after I got back on, she told me that she had talked to BA and that I was rebooked on the re-timed flight on Friday and then onto Helsinki on the same flight I would have gotten via Dallas. She even patched me back to BA where I got a confirmation of the flights. It was a good thing the call was free since it took 52 minutes to get all of this sorted out (out of which I was probably about half the time on hold). The other thing for which I’m grateful to the AA agent is that she called BA directly and all I had to do was wait.

With this settled, I took a quick shower and took a nap. Understandable, since I had gotten up at 7am on Thursday, and since then had taken two one-hour naps, one in the lounge, one on the plane while we were waiting. This was also the first time in my life that I took a day room in a hotel and put the bed to good use. Next time I could maybe try it with somebody else in the room… 😉

After the nap, I wandered downstairs and asked the reception about food vouchers. I got two vouchers, total value CAD 35 and told that I could use them in their restaurant where they had a buffet lunch for CAD 20. Food was ok, not great, but it was free so why complain.

BA had also sent me an email with information about the new flight and when to check in, so a bit after 1pm on Friday I was back at the airport and in the checkin counters of BA. It took the checkin person a while to figure out how to get me to Helsinki since with all the rebookings, my ticket was quite a mess. In fact, according to AA’s iPhone app, I had also been rebooked onto a Chicago-London flight on Friday evening. But in the end, I got all my boarding passes, luggage was tagged to Helsinki, and everything looked good. There were lots of familiar faces at checkin, but everyone seemed to be in reasonably good mood, as in nobody was shouting, crying, or doing similar stuff. In fact, throughout the whole experience, things had remained very calm.

So, back to the lounge and my seat from yesterday. I think it still had the imprint of my behind on it… This time the wait was only about 4.5 hours, as opposed to the 5-something hours yesterday, so in total I ended up spending about 8-9 hours in that lounge. But since there’s food, drinks, power, and wifi available, things could be a lot worse. For a more epic story about the hardships of spending extended time in lounge, check out this one. For an epic story without hardships, check out this one. 🙂 )

Finally boarding time came along and I got back on the plane, same exit row seat as the day before. The flight attendant next to the exit was a funny guy and we have lots of fun chatting and cracking jokes. They had changed the crew from the day before to let the original crew get a bit more rest. I start things off by jinxing everything when I ask when would the crew run out of hours this time. He told me that we were still good for 5-6 hours and that until he took out a pad and a pen, I wouldn’t need to worry. Given what followed, we had several laughs later on when he started jokingly writing on a pad…

The departure time had been announced as 7:40pm and when 7:40pm came around, the captain made an announcement that the ground handling was still loading bags on the plane and it would take another 20 minutes for that to be finished. 20 minutes later there was another announcement that it would take another 15-20 minutes for the loading to be finished. You can imagine the groans these announcements caused in the crowd that had all gone through the canceling in the middle of the previous night.

The flight attendant told me that BA had recently changed their ground handling agent in Toronto so this was a “new company”. He called them Laurel and Hardy which was appropriate given their recent track record, but it turned out that it was actually Swissport that was doing the handling. I could understand Billy Bob’s Ontario Ground Aviation having problems loading a 747, but Swissport isn’t really a newcomer to aviation handling so that really was a strange experience. They did get the earlier flight of Friday evening out on time, but ours was a bit different, again.

Then Laurel and Hardy finally got everything loaded but then they had problems closing the cargo door. You can imagine the reaction this announcement got from the crowd. 🙂

Finally L&H delivered, got the door closed, and we got on our way, a bit over 2 hours delayed. Since I had a 4 hour connection at Heathrow, I wasn’t worried and I made my connection just fine. On the flight from Toronto to London, I had two glasses of wine, ate dinner, fell into a coma for 5 hours, and awoke 40 minutes out of London. I usually cannot sleep much on planes, but having just gone 40 hours with about 4-5 hours of napping might have had something to do with it.

So, all is well that ends well, and in the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t really much. In the end, I was 20 hours delayed in getting home. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been traveling more actively, I’ve only had 1 or 2 similar cases so the odds are pretty low. Having a funnily-colored piece of plastic naturally helps and I regularly make the appropriate ritual sacrifices to aviation gods to smoothen my travels.

The best part of the story? On Thursday night, when I was sitting in the lounge waiting for the 2am flight, I kept checking the status of my original flight from Chicago to London. That thing left over 2 hours late, so even with the delayed Toronto-Chicago flight, I would have made my original connection. And with a 4 hour scheduled connection in London, I still would have made my original flight to Helsinki. Oh well… You win some, you lose some and I still think rebooking onto the direct BA flight was the right thing to do and would do it again in a similar situation.

In the end, I think everything went as well as they could, given the circumstances. I was really positively surprised at how AA proactively rebooked me as opposed to letting me get to Chicago and be stranded there. Likewise, BA in Toronto did a very good job in handling the situation in the middle of the night and we got hotel and food as we were supposed to get. Everybody remained very calm and the whole thing was very civilized. On the second day, I saw several familiar faces among the BA staff, so many of them had been working the night before (well, through the night before) and probably hadn’t gotten much more sleep than we did. Still, everybody was friendly and things went well.

Things happen in modern air travel and I think it’s important to not get too worked up about them, take things with a smile, keep up the good humor, and consider it a new experience. And these events make for nice stories to tell. 🙂

 

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Traveling

In this post I’ve collected some observations I’ve made during my travels. So how much do I travel? Typically I fly on the order of 60-80 thousand miles per year, which doesn’t really compare against the numbers of people who _actually_ travel a lot, but in practical terms translates to about 1 trip per month with half of them in Europe and half intercontinental. Yes, it’s about 3 times around the world every year, to put it into context (except I very rarely get to _actually_ go around the world).

My first observation is of course that traveling in economy class (which we are required to do) isn’t ever really that much fun. Adding insult to injury, my ability to work on planes is severely hampered by my eye surgery which means that when reading, I need to get the thing I’m reading to a certain distance from my eyes. Turns out this distance is longer than most economy class seating affords, meaning I can work only if the seat next to me happens to be empty and I can stretch out. Then again, my other eye will need surgery soon-ish, so I’m waiting to see how things play out in the end.

However, I cannot help but wonder at the speed at which you can travel these days by air. Trips that would take days, weeks, or months overland are over in a matter of hours. (And even if we were in the old days, I’m sure our administration would make us travel in the cheapest, i.e., least comfortable, way…) Despite the discomfort, I derive some (perverse?) pleasure at traveling by plane. Maybe it’s the above-mentioned excitement about jetting around the globe, maybe it’s the plane being one of the few places where I can take some me-time, maybe it’s something else. No, I don’t enjoy overnight flights since I cannot sleep in economy class unless I’m already exhausted and not sleeping seems to be the main cause for jet lag for me. Other than that, it’s actually not that bad.

In the years of my travels I’ve noticed that the queasy feeling you get after an overnight flight, where you feel like your internal organs are not quite at their right places, is largely due to not having been able to sleep. In many ways it feels similar to a hangover, minus the headache. On the few occasions when I’ve been lucky enough to be upgraded to business class, the symptoms are far weaker, since I can actually get something that a doctor would classify as sleep, as opposed to 3 hours of not-quite-sleeping-but-not-quite-awake zombie state. There’s not much I can do about that, but there is one variable I can control to reduce my jet lag, namely the arrival time.

I’ve noticed that if I arrive very late in the evening (after an intercontinental flight), I get a lot less jet lag. I arrive very late, get to the hotel, take a shower, and go straight to bed. By that time I’m so exhausted that no matter what the time difference, I’ll sleep easily a minimum of 6 hours which in most cases puts me pretty close to the local timezone, as far as waking up goes (read: not waking up before 4am local time). I’ve used that formula successfully both east (once only, though) and west (lots of times), although going east it’s pretty difficult because most flights from Europe to Asia arrive in the morning; pro-tip, connect somewhere in Asia, the added travel time and hassle are worth the reduced jet lag, IMHO. Going west it’s very easy and the easiest way for me to achieve that is taking the flight from Helsinki to New York, connect to my final destination, and Bob’s your uncle.

The downside of that is that you need to go through immigration and a new security check at JFK, but there’s a silver lining to that. If you’re flying Finnair from Helsinki to New York, then your connection is most likely going to be on American Airlines and there is a very nifty system to help you with the connection. (It’s actually something all Oneworld airlines do at their main airports, so should work at Heathrow, Dallas, Hong Kong, etc.) If your connection is shorter than a certain time (seems to be about 2 hours or a bit under for JFK), then, when you get off from the Helsinki flight, you can find your next boarding pass in an orange envelope next to the jetway. Why is this important? Because when the staff later on sees the orange envelope, you get taken to the front of the queue. Every queue.

Yes, this really means the front of the immigration queue and the front of the security queue, which makes for a very, very fluid and pleasant experience. My record is 25 minutes from getting off the plane to being at the next gate at JFK, _after_ going through US immigration and the security check at Terminal 8. Wonderful system and at least at JFK it works like a charm. I’ve taken advantage of it several times. The only downside is that it’s only for connections shorter than some magic number, which is on the order of 2 hours. If your connection is 2.5 hours, you’re out of luck, though, and have to fight through the normal immigration queue. Still, this system has made me a big fan of taking the Finnair flight to JFK and connecting on American.

Another thing that keeps me wondering are the security checks at Helsinki airport. It’s not that the people manning the checkpoints are rude or anything. They seem to be trying although I’m not really convinced. The thing is that I’m seriously doubting their competence, the competence of those who train them, and the competence of those who make the rules for them. (Yes, the rules are probably EU-wide, but a rule can be implemented in multiple ways, so that’s probably what the last category represents.)

I often travel with a lot of electronics, laptops, iPad, Kindle, maybe an SLR, and of course all the associated cables that go with them. Only in Helsinki (and Tampere, so that’s what makes me suspect the issue is with Finland) have they wanted to take out stuff from the bag and run each piece individually through the x-ray. Every other airport in the world, including the ones in the USA, is happy to just x-ray the bag once with everything inside it and be done with it. Except Heathrow, but that was because I had forgotten to take out my Kindle, so my bad. So, are the guys in Helsinki too poorly trained to read the x-rays or is it a case of extreme obedience to rules that is so pervasive in Finland? In other words, do we need more training for the security check guys or some relaxation higher up in the food chain? After all, if a lot busier and more important airports care less about security, why should we stick to the letter of the rules? Or maybe they are just better trained elsewhere.

It’s not just electronics, by the way. My little ziploc bag with my cosmetics (and everyone else’s it seems) gets a close look by the guy before the x-ray to check that all items are below 100 ml. Yes, that is the rule and I don’t have a problem with the rule (much), but how poorly trained or clueless do you have to be not to recognize immediately which containers are below 100 ml and which are not. After all, you look at those little baggies and their contents several hours per day when working at a security checkpoint. In my little baggie, I have toothpaste (50 ml), deodorant (50 ml), and shampoo (maybe 70 ml?). The first two are normal items sold in every Finnish supermarket and the last is in a Korean bottle which looks a bit larger than the other two but not markedly so. Those guys must see thousands of such toothpaste tubes and deodorant sticks every day and yet still feel the need to inspect the baggie closely. The Korean bottle may throw them off, but none of them ever actually checks that bottle closely enough to see the size printed on the bottle. They just like to fondle my baggie, bring it closer to their eyes, turn it around, and put it back on the tray.

Cluelessness abounds, but I’m not quite sure where in the food chain it is in this case. All foreign airports seem to be equipped with more clue. The Finnish cluelessness and blind adherence to rules does not seem like a winner here. I do have to say that this is very much a First World Problem™ since the security check in Helsinki usually takes no more than a few minute total (except the morning rush; go to Terminal 1 in that case 🙂 ) so it doesn’t really slow me down, but I just felt like getting that off my chest. I’m also happy that they do not bark like the TSA in the US, but barking seems to be the standard modus operandi in the US for controlling large crowds, i.e., it happens in Disneyland as well.

To end on a positive note, Finnair’s outsourcing of many of the European flights to FlyBe seems to have a silver lining for me (for a very, very desperate definition of “silver lining”). See, a while ago Finnair stopped giving away newspapers on European flights, except in business class and people with the highest level of Oneworld status. I only have the middle level status, so no more newspapers for me. No, it’s not a big loss if I don’t get the standard Finnish tabloid, but since Finland is behind others in allowing use of electronic devices during take-off and landing, I still need real paper to read to pass the time (this will hopefully change soon and my Kindle and I will be extremely thankful for it). On FlyBe-operated flights, the flight attendants offer the newspaper to me, saying that due to my status, it’s on the house. So, that’s 3 euros saved and take-off and landings pass quicker. I don’t know if they are somehow confused or if FlyBe offers better service (doubtful, though) and yes, it’s a very desperate definition of “silver lining”, but beggars can’t be choosers.

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Retrospective, Part III :-)

It wasn’t my intention to stop blogging after my return, even though my original motivation for starting the blog was to chronicle my experiences during my sabbatical. A funny thing happened, namely I had forgotten how busy and hectic things get during “normal life”. The return to normalcy was further accentuated by the Better Half putting her nail art classes into practice and opening her own shop in November.

This means she usually gets home around 8 or 9pm which further implies that yours truly picks up the kids from daycare, cooks dinner, plays with them, and gets them to bed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind doing any of that; in fact, it’s actually really nice to be able to spend more time with the kids when they are still young. (We also wanted to put them in an English daycare and later to an English school to prepare for future sabbaticals and the only English daycare in our city is reachable only by car and the Better Half doesn’t drive, so no matter what, I’d be picking up the kids.) I also like cooking a lot and am not too bad at it, judging from the reactions of others when they eat my food, i.e., taking seconds, thirds, and asking for a doggy bag :-). It just means that there’s less time for work and other activities, since the number of hours in a day has not changed.

Better time management would certainly help and is something I’m working on (and have usually been very bad at…) but overall it’s just a matter of how you allocate your 24 hours per day. There just haven’t been that many hours for blogging recently. I do have a bunch of stuff I’d like to write about, but I need a bit of time to get those stories sorted out.

Anyway, so that is then the final lesson from a sabbatical. You will forget what “normal life” is like and things you used to be able to do during the sabbatical won’t anymore fit into your schedule. Next time, maybe I will be better prepared or less surprised at least.

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Retrospective, Part II

Here’s the second part of my retrospective look at my sabbatical year. The first part focused on more higher level issues, but this one is more about practical stuff for those planning or thinking about a sabbatical themselves. It’s not really a HOWTO, but more just a collection of observations which hopefully will be useful to someone.

There are a lot of intertwined issues around a sabbatical, so it’s hard to start unraveling the story from any coherent point of view or order. Money is of course one main issue, but I’ll start with others first to lay the proper groundwork for the “money discussion”.

First, where should you go? Go somewhere “easy”, where easy includes aspects like “an easy place/country to live in”, “easy to arrange the sabbatical”, “place with people you know from other contexts (e.g., conferences)”, or “easy to arrange funding”. That obviously doesn’t really narrow things down in any meaningful way. I’d say, start with the “easy to arrange the sabbatical”, which in many cases may reduce to “pick a place with which your university has an exchange contract with”. It doesn’t have to be that way, but having some kind of a bureaucratical support on both sides can help and make you eligible for a better level of support from the receiving university. I can’t complain about the support I received, although I do have to admit that for the stay in Korea, I’m not quite sure if the exchange contract had anything to do with it or if it was just the local professor who organized everything.

The “easy place to live in” isn’t really a criteria that I feel strongly about; in fact, something more challenging might be more interesting for personal reasons (but more challenging to work reasons…). If you have family, especially children, their schooling is definitely an issue to think about. If the kids speak the local language or are young enough that learning the language from scratch is not an issue, then the choice is free. Otherwise, you might be limited by the kids’ ability to manage in school, such as only being able to go to an English-speaking country. Sure, every country has international schools, but for example in Korea, the tuition fees are on the order of 1000 EUR per month, making this a non-starter as a proposition.

Picking a place where you know people is sort of a no-brainer for me. In order to get anything useful done with the locals, you need to make sure they are roughly on the same page topic-wise. One issue which I did not expect was how much time I would still spend around my duties in Finland. Sure, I wasn’t teaching, but it wouldn’t be correct to leave my group back in Helsinki without support or supervision. Yes, we got lots of papers published (more than my usual “hit rate” at this level of venues :-)) so this was definitely beneficial also for my students in Helsinki. Next time around, I would definitely look for possibilities for bringing some of them over for some period of time.

Finally, money, which divides itself into two sub-questions. Who pays your salary? Who pays for the (housing) expenses during the sabbatical? The salary question comes back to the exchange programs. If you’re officially accepted in a university-administered exchange program, you have a strong case for expecting the university to continue to pay your salary. In my understanding, this was the case for our university and this has now become official department policy. (It may have been department policy earlier, but since nobody was really aware of it, I do suspect on the “official” bit somewhat… but everything was in order for me, so common sense triumphed in this case; not that I ever truly suspected otherwise.) If you’re on some kind of an exchange project, like my stay in California, then you’re probably covered as well.

The additional housing expenses, mainly rent and utilities, are another interesting piece of the puzzle. Lucky for me, I had project overheads and additional exchange funding which I was able to use to cover them. We kept our house in Finland and didn’t rent it out, so this would have meant double living expenses. If you don’t keep a house back home, then you’d only have one set of living expenses, as usual, so this could be a feasible combination. Although abandoning your home seems to only work if you’re renting and going away for a longer period of time.

Yes, there are other sources of funding for exchanges so it’s just a matter of you getting active and figuring them out. The housing expenses are easy to cover from such sources, but the salary might be trickier.

Bottom line, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is thus that the financial matters are mostly just a question of organizing them. Timing may be an issue so you should prepare for a 1-2 year planning phase for getting the funding together. In my case, the planning was only about 8 months, but that was because I had my salary covered and had a source for housing expenses.

Another practical piece of advice concerning the “where to go” would be to think seriously if it’s a good idea to go to two places during one sabbatical. It’s good to meet more people, but there is the additional hassle of having to move from one foreign country to another, which does represent some additional bureaucracy. Settling in to a country and the moving hassle at the end take maybe about 1 month of useful time, so with two countries, you get that twice. Of course there’s the visa hassles of the second country, but since I’ve had many US visas in the past, I was only mildly concerned about that (and even that turned out to be unwarranted).

One decision I made was not to work on evenings or weekends. To a normal person this might sound funny, but for many professors working evenings and weekends is par for the course. I made a few exceptions on some deadlines that just were too important to be missed, but in general, I held myself to that. I even tried to restrain myself from checking email on my phone, but it’s a bit tricky to ignore the red counter going up and not be stressed about it. A better mail client would definitely help, but alas they don’t exist. There is an iPhone app called Mailbox which seems to handle “mobile mail” exactly the way it should be done. In other words, it has easy options for getting a mail out of your sight, but making sure it comes back up when you get to the office. The only problem is that it only supports GMail and doesn’t have any support on the desktop. Maybe one day… Yes, I would be ready to pay a fair sum of money (on the order of 50 EUR) for a mail client that handled mail well both on mobile and desktop.

Obviously, working less means I get less done. Then again, since I’m not teaching, I have less stuff to do. In the end, this sort of balanced itself out. Unfortunately, this meant that of all the things I had planned on getting done, I only got a part done. Then again, there were a bunch of things that I did not expect, which were then nice, positive surprises. In the end, I’m happy. 🙂

One nice thing I observed was that I seemed to get less email during the sabbatical. By “less email”, I mean the virtual absence of the “random, departmental ad hoc mails”, where someone needs a member for a committee, or something similar. Apparently, the word about my absence had gotten around and even though I’ve now been back one month, this luckily hasn’t picked up yet; well, not too much, I already have a couple of such thingies lines up… But it was nice while it lasted. Maybe I should have heeded the advice of a senior professor in our department when he saw me in the coffee room. He said: “Why are you here to show everyone you’re back? Why aren’t you hiding somewhere?”. There is wisdom in those words…

 

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Retrospective, Part I

During one year you can learn quite a lot and make many observations of the different cultures that you live in. This post serves as kind of a retrospective look on the year, focusing mainly on life in general, experiences related to that, and some pondering on the relative merits of different countries. I will write Part II to discuss things related to work and sabbaticals in general.

So, what did I learn during the 6 months in Korea and 5 months in California? First, I had spent a fair amount of time in both places earlier, as a tourist in Korea and twice as a summer intern in the Bay Area (Menlo Park, Palo Alto area, though, not Berkeley) so a lot of things were pretty familiar. I’ve written a fair amount of my experiences with bureaucracy, whether immigration, banks, or other, and nothing really surprised me. Luckily there were no negative surprises, but I can’t really find any big positive surprises either, except getting the Korean residence permit and extending it, which were a lot easier than I had feared; then again I was on an E-1 visa (professor visa) and given how much professors are respected in Korea, this really shouldn’t have surprised me.

I have not written so much about the everyday life, mainly because it’s exactly the same as at home in Finland. You get up in the morning, take a shower, have breakfast, get kids to school/daycare, go to the office, work a bit, have lunch, work some more, have coffee, go home, make dinner, rest a bit, get kids to sleep, rest some more, go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. The routine is punctuated by exciting events, such as “go buy food”, and weekends, which give you a chance to do something else, but overall the daily routines are exactly as at home. One decision that I did early on was that during the sabbatical I would NOT work in the evenings or weekends (except for a few truly urgent matters). At home this happens (far too?) often and I wanted to be able to rest a bit as well. But more on that in Part II.

One thing obviously where you have to make tradeoffs are creature comforts. At home you have all kinds of things you have accumulated over the years to make your life easier or more interesting. If you happen to get an unfurnished place like we had in Korea, you will need to hunt for some things, but since you’re only staying a few months, it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of money. If you have a furnished place, like we had in Berkeley, you might get certain comforts (like a TV) included, but still will need to buy stuff (like rice cooker). In your everyday routines, you pretty quickly adapt to whatever the situation is, but it’s still nice to return home where all the “familiar stuff” is waiting for you (in the same place where you left it, I might add :-)).

How’s life then in the different countries? Well, Finland is in some sense the easiest, but that’s because I’m Finnish by birth and have lived here about three quarters of my life. This ease does not directly translate to foreigners, but then again, that is the case every time you live in a foreign country. Korea, for me, is by far the most exciting, since there is much to learn about the country and culture, even after having been exposed to Korean language and culture a fair amount already. It is also the most challenging for me, mainly because of the exactly same reasons. US is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, probably the most comfortable of the three, in the sense that things generally work well, there are tons of services and things you can buy, and so on. To be honest, I think Korea does come very close, but in order to take advantage of all those things in Korea, you need to speak fluent Korean. Finland, and most of Europe to be honest, lacks clearly behind the US and Korea in many such aspects.

I suppose part of the reason is that being a single, large country, any new service or business idea has immediately access to over 350 million people, whereas Europe is still a collection of mostly disjoint little enclaves. Korea shows that even with “only” 50 million people, you actually have a large enough market for all kinds of innovations and services, but I fear the situation in Europe is that the countries that are large enough are not innovative enough and the countries that are innovative enough are not large enough. And as far as I’ve understood, smaller companies in Europe have absolutely no chance of coping with the myriad national legislations in different countries, so they tend to stay within a single country.

Of course this does not prevent the good, cultured European to look down on the Americans. In fact, you cannot expect yourself to be taken seriously as a cultured European if you don’t look down on the Americans (and pretty much the rest of the world as well…). Furthermore, the amount of “dissing” seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of time the said cultured European has spent in the US. (For the math nerds, this function seems to be also defined for the value of “no time spent in the US” where it yields its maximum value.) Sure, the cultured European will point out that there is more to life than just the material side and I certainly don’t dispute it. Life is certainly more than just material things, but I think it’s very foolish to pretend that they don’t factor in the quality of life at all, as our cultured European friend is wont to do.

When it comes to Asia, the same cultured European is strong in his 19th century mentality of Europe being the ruler of the planet, US being a interesting curiosity, and the rest of the world being essentially a colony of the mighty Europe. In my years of living in France and Germany, I’ve often seen first-hand a very common, pejorative regard towards Asians, which I fear will come bite our collective European a..es in the next 30 or so years, as Asia gets more developed. (No offense meant to any Asian readers by lumping all of you in one pot. I’m aware that Asia is big and the countries, even neighboring ones, are very different from each other, but I’m afraid our cultured European friend is not aware of these differences. He sees it all as an interesting curiosity.)

Several years ago I read the book “The European Dream” by Jeremy Rifkin which made an interesting comparison that the Americans live to work and the Europeans work to live. This observation hits surprisingly close to home and does capture the “philosophical” difference in the respective lifestyles very succinctly and accurately. The title of course is a pun on the well-known American Dream of “work hard and you can become rich” and on the non-existence of an equivalent summation of the “European Dream”. Although I’m quite certain the European Commission would be able to produce a document several hundred pages long, written in its usual “Commissionese” describing that dream… On second thought, they probably already have… Our tax money at work, yay!

But so much for philosophy, given the choice, where would I then live? That is actually a question that I have faced several times in my life and I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is a multi-criteria optimization problem, with no globally optimal solution, at least not for me. Every country has its positives and negatives and it really depends on what you consider important. So why am I now living in Finland? What were the criteria that decided the move from Germany to Finland back in 2007? Mainly that was because I got a permanent job here, i.e., a variant of the old “I was young and I needed the money” excuse. Except for the climate which sucks big time, Finland is pretty ok place to live. Living in the US, comfortable as though it might be, I would probably worry about the children’s education, healthcare, etc., which generally are better here in Finland (although I’m slowly becoming less convinced about how good our public healthcare system actually is). Korea would be an interesting place to live, but I would worry about being able to adapt to the language and culture… Having lived in many countries is both a blessing in having seen and experienced many things, but also a curse because you always know that no matter where you live, some things would be better if you lived somewhere else (but some things would be worse).

So, am I going to stay in Finland for the rest of my life? For now we’re getting settled back in nicely, things are moving along splendidly, so the answer seems to tend towards a yes, but never say never. So maybe we should make that a “no plans to move anywhere any time soon”… Actually, if I manage to arrange things such that I’m able to take these kinds of long sabbaticals about once every 5-6 years, that’ll probably satisfy my urge to travel and live in different countries, so it’s looking pretty likely we’ll stay here. Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂

 

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Back to Square 1

That’s it, we’re back at home in Finland. The trip home went smoothly and without any hiccups (except for the still-lingering jet lag since it’s only 4 days that we’ve been back). Home was where we had left it and in pretty much the same condition in which we had left it (my parents had been looking after it). Right now we’re busy unpacking and re-arranging things at home and trying to get settled back in.

The morning of our arrival was funny since it was raining (which has not been so common this summer, it seems). The last time we experienced rain was in early March in Berkeley and to be honest, I had sort of been missing rain. I’m certain that in October and November I shall regret saying that, but for now, a little rain was actually very enjoyable. (Therein lies the crux of the matter: the rain in October and November won’t let itself be classified under “a little rain”…)

I already set up our grill again and have been cooking outside again. Which was very nice. The first thing I cooked was hotdogs and hamburgers, today will be chicken. I have a couple of months of summer BBQ season to catch up…

I will post longer and more detailed retrospective look on our year and my observations later, but first, I will enjoy our home (and get back to working in the usual office…)

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Beer

What do American beer and making love in a small canoe have in common? They are both f…..g close to water. Or so goes the old story. And if you restrict “beer” to Budweiser, Miller, and Coors, you’d be entirely correct. I’m fully cognizant, some might even say painfully aware, of the existence of the “Light” versions of those beers, but as this is a family blog, I shall refrain from mentioning those abominations again.

However, if you expand your sphere of beer beyond the “Axis of Evil”, you’ll discover a plethora of excellent beers made by smaller breweries. These are also often called craft beers over here. Sure, they are mostly along the lines of ale, pale ale, or IPA, but since those are exactly the kinds of beers I like, I sure don’t mind. Yes, the beers really are good and at least here in California, they seem to be widely available. “They” doesn’t really refer to any particular breweries, but it’s more of a term for expressing the excellent availability of beers from local and slightly more distant small breweries anywhere I’ve seen here. In fact, the selection of beers here seems to be at least on par with most other countries I’ve experienced, if not even better. So much for the canoes…

Yet, it’s nice to see a country where the relationship to alcohol is even more twisted than in Finland. Sure, Finland is putting up a good fight, but I still think the US has managed to beat us in this “race”. They key difference in the approach in the two countries is that the US focuses on the “who” and Finland focuses on the “where” (and to a lesser extent the “when”). Obviously, when you’re well past the legal drinking age, like yours truly, the focus on the “who” can become a major pain. According to Wikipedia:

The United States of America is one of only three developed countries in the world who have a nationwide drinking age of over 18, the other two are Iceland (20) and Japan (20).

The US needing to be bigger and better than the rest, has set the limit to 21. California is, in my experience, among the more sensible states, meaning that they accept foreign driver’s license, if they even ask anything, and don’t insist on foreigners having their passports to get a drink (I’m looking at you Boston…)

However, there’s an interesting twist to all of this. See, when you buy beer (or any other alcohol), apparently the cashier is supposed to check your ID and enter your date of birth in the register. At least it gets printed on the receipts, but the funny thing is that in most of the cases, it’s not my date of birth. 🙂 I’ve bought beer or wine from 5 different shops during this stay and only in Target have I needed to show ID. (Well, in the Korean supermarket we’ve gone to, I had to show ID once, but on most times not.) Every other shop the cashier just enters some random, sufficiently old date of birth and does not bother with asking for my ID. (I suspect it’s the cashier’s own date of birth, since the ages seem to sort of match, but if any authorities ever checked, this would definitely be suspicious; maybe nobody checks?) Target was an interesting case, though. This happened both in San Diego as well as here locally, which is logical since they use the same system in all places. The system offers the possibility for the cashier to scan the barcode on my driver’s license. Finnish license has a barcode, but obviously it doesn’t scan correctly. The backup is for the cashier to enter the date of birth manually, but this will then require a supervisor to come there and confirm it.

So, for someone already past 40 in age, this whole thing is just ridiculous. However, Finland’s counter with the concept of “alcohol serving area” is impressive in its stupidity. Sure, US has its open container laws which effectively enforce the concept of “alcohol serving area”, but in places like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or San Diego Zoo, you can buy a beer and walk around all over the place with it. Not possible in Finland. To take a concrete example, there was a story in the newspapers in Finland in the spring about a food court-like setting with two restaurants, A and B. Earlier, neither sold beer or wine, so you could sit at any table you wanted. Now, both are allowed to sell beer and wine and they both must have their own, dedicated sitting areas, even though we’re still within the same, supposedly closed, food court area. Simply boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Still, for someone well over the legal drinking age, focusing on the “who” does seem more ridiculous, hence I declare US the winner in this contest. Your mileage may vary.

 

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Commuting and Cars

Back home in Finland, I commute by car, largely because the Kumpula campus where I work, is very poorly reachable by public transport from places north of it. Also for the past years The Daughter’s daycare was not within walking distance from our home, so public transport really was not even an option. Of course on some days, I’d leave the car home, but that was a rare occurrence. In fact, the last time I’ve commuted regularly with public transport was back in 1998 when I was in France and right before I bought a car. This was in the south, near Antibes where public transport towards inland where my office was is pretty much non-existent. Thereafter I lived in Germany, but my office was within walking distance, so no need for any kind of transport.

When we came to Berkeley, I had figured that I’d walk to the nearest BART station (Ashby), take the BART for one stop, get off in downtown Berkeley, and walk to the office (ICSI). This would avoid the need to have a car, which would have been a bit complicated for only a 5 month stay. We figured we could always rent a car on the weekends, which is what we’ve done on a regular basis to see the region. Then, one weekend we happened to drive to downtown Berkeley and after a grand total of about 5 minutes of driving, we arrived. This prompted the Better Half to suggest that I walk to work. It’s about 2 miles and the bonus was that The Daugher’s school was on the way, so I’ve been getting a fair amount of good exercise during the stay here. The car renting, on the other hand, has given me the chance to sample a wide variety of different cars, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Two things stand out from the mass of automobiles that I have had the pleasure of driving.

First one are the Fords. I’ve had a couple of Ford Focuses here, one Ford Escape (an SUV) and I’ve rented a couple of Ford Focuses in Europe as well in the past. All the Fords so far have had one thing in common, namely that they come with an anorexic engine, even the SUV. Sure, you can’t expect rental cars on the cheap end of the price range to have all the goodies loaded, but how come the Chryslers, Chevrolets, Nissans, Toyotas, etc., all have a decent engine? You can easily tell this by pressing the gas pedal. If the car reacts, there is a sufficient power in the engine, if it doesn’t react, it’s probably a Ford, at least in my experience (or the Chevrolet Cruze that we have this weekend…).

I’ve tried everything. I’ve insulted the car. I’ve yelled obscenities at it (not when the Kids are around, though). I’ve invited the fleas of a thousand camels to infest the nether regions of the car’s designers, but all to no avail. Press gas pedal, no reaction from engine. Press gas pedal harder, still no reaction from engine. Yes, I’m fully aware of the difference between the brake and the gas pedal, but I’m slowly getting the impression that Ford’s designers are not quite so aware of that little crucial difference between those two pedals. Although I’m quite certain that if you paid enough money, you could buy a Ford with a decent engine, a lingering doubt will prevent me from becoming a Ford owner in the future (not that I’ve ever owned one either).

An interesting new friend was Nissan Leaf, an electric car. Renting it was a semi-accident, since I was given the choice between the Leaf and a large van. The person at the rental agency said the Leaf could run 80-85 miles on a full charge and since we weren’t planning on driving much that weekend, I figured might as well give it a try. I wouldn’t have had a good place to recharge it either, so it was good we didn’t drive much. I also didn’t feel like getting a van. This car brought to light some of my internal anxieties. The range anxiety, in case you were wondering. In case you didn’t click on that Wikipedia link, this means worrying about the car running out of power. Sure, normal cars can run out of gas, but that doesn’t happen every 80 miles or so.

However, the Leaf was nice to drive and actually has been one of the best cars I’ve rented during this stay, from a driving experience point of view. When you press the gas pedal, that baby jumps. 🙂 In fact, it would make for a nice second car back in Finland for driving to work and back, except for one little thing. The price. 35 000 EUR or more for that little thing is just way out of my price range, even if electricity would be cheaper than gas. The short range and long charging times could be a bit of an issue, though.

In two weeks we’ll be back in Finland and it’s back to the old commuting routines. The Kids are in daycare again out of public transport range, so it’s back to the car (not that I mind driving). The new airport railroad in Helsinki will pass near our home, but that won’t help getting the Kids to daycare nor help me get to my office. It will be an option for going to downtown Helsinki, but based on past history, that won’t be a frequent occurrence. Still, will be very nice to have that option (in two years from now when it’s supposed to be completed…)

 

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Kids in America

Earlier I wrote about how our kids adapted to life in Korea, now it’s time to recap the situation here in California.

The Older One, as I wrote earlier, went to kindergarten for about 3 months and that has now finished. In the beginning, her English was very much at a beginner level. We had armed her with some vocabulary by going over names of some basic things and teaching her that the correct answer to an unknown question is “I don’t know”. Things improved quite quickly, we practiced English words at home as well, and now her default language seems to be English when she talks to us. Sure, she makes mistakes, but the progress has been phenomenal; even her teachers were amazed at the speed at which she picked up English.

I took her to school in the mornings and stayed in the classroom for a bit to read books, help her with breakfast, and so on (as did many other parents), and during that time I could observe the “natives” speaking, reading, and doing stuff. There was a fair amount of actual teaching and the kids learned to read, write, and count. Reading and writing English is a mess, not that I needed any reminding, but it was very interesting to see the 5 and 6 year old kids struggling with the “nonsensical” English spelling and pronunciation. Our Daughter really aced everything and when the teacher wrote on the report card that she was “at or above class level”, I knew this was really the truth and not some over-optimistic American way of expressing things. In the Fall, she’ll get to repeat the same things in Finland, since kindergarten starts a year later.

Overall, we were really happy with the school in every respect. The teachers were great and the other kids in the class were really welcoming and there were no problems whatsoever in integrating in the class. They also had lots of other stuff, like gardening and cooking classes, and they made a dance performance and a play (Giggle, Giggle, Quack). The only bad thing was that it started at 8 in the morning which made for very early wake-ups… I sure don’t miss those.

The Little Guy has been at home with mom and his only exposure to English has been via TV (Disney Junior is a particular favorite of both kids) and learning from his big sister. Somehow he’s picked up an astonishing vocabulary and he makes longer sentences with great ease. The sentences are actually more of a “miki-talk” than real English, but he’s not bothered by that. Ice hockey fans might be familiar with “tiki-talk“, others can check the Wikipedia entry; that’s what first comes to mind when our Little One speaks English. Actually, practically all the words he uses are English, but the ordering might not always make sense (and he has some particular attachment to the word “together”; that probably comes from TV).

Otherwise, the kids have adapted pretty well, but The Older One seems to start missing our home in Finland. The particular feature she misses is our backyard where you can play. The Younger One doesn’t seem to remember anything from Finland, which is understandable since he was only 2 when we left.

The funny thing with English is that both Kids are now speaking it and it has actually become their common language during play. Yes, after 4 months in the US they have started using English as their primary language, even when speaking to us. I really did not expect that. When we’re driving, it’s funny to hear a “Dad, are we there yet?” question with perfect American accent coming from the backseat. (Followed by the “miki-talk” version of the same…) So, we wanted the Kids to be exposed to English and learn it a bit, but they have totally surpassed our expectations. :-O

Other than that, there’s not much special about the life here. Kids are kids, they seem to enjoy things here and everything has so far gone smoothly.

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Angry Birds or Finland Takes Over the World

Hi, my name is Jussi and I play Angry Birds. There, I said it. Happy now? 🙂

Yes, I’ve been playing Angry Birds (all 6 different iPhone versions of them) on my iPhone and more recently on my iPad, since the levels are getting larger and hard to see or play on the small screen. I first started sometime in September 2010, since I remember playing the original and being positively surprised when the Halloween version (precursor to Seasons) came out and that was October 2010. However, the thing that really got me hooked was Angry Birds Rio, mainly because it was so easy that you could get 3 stars on most levels with little to no effort. Then it was just a matter of “hey, maybe I’ll try to get 3 stars on the other levels as well”, and things sort of went from there.

What’s so great about those games? After all, the concept is far from new and in fact I played Crush the Castle on my iPhone before I got Angry Birds, but Angry Birds does it better. It’s more fun to play and it’s a suitably mindless entertainment for when sitting in a bus, an airport, airplane, resting at home, etc. Just difficult enough to keep it interesting, but not too difficult to make me want to give up. (As opposed to another Rovio game, Amazing Alex, which was too frustratingly complicated that I gave up; Bad Piggies is much more fun, though, and I like to play it to some extent.)

Although the basic gameplay mechanics are about the same in all Angry Birds games, there are some differences to make all of them interesting. Obviously, Space and Star Wars have the space-themed levels which are very different from the original. In terms of enjoyment, I have to admit that I enjoy Angry Birds Star Wars the most, although the tie-in to Star Wars is a big factor in that. In terms of difficulty, Rio is the easiest, Seasons the hardest, Star Wars not too difficult, and Space and Original somewhere between Seasons and Star Wars. All are fun, though.

One day The Better Half bought a small Angry Birds plush toy, which although was sort of intended for the kids, made its way onto my bag. (I didn’t steal it from the kids, The Better Half put it there herself. Honest!) So, here’s the intrepid traveler who has been with me since beginning of 2012 and has already traveled (mainly flown, obviously) well over 100000 miles since then.

Angry Birds
The Kids also have played the games and have liked them. On some levels, they have even gotten 3 stars. Yes, even a 2-year-old can get 3 stars, although it does require a level which can be 3-starred with 1 bird and luck. 🙂 An 18-month-old baby can learn to unlock an iPhone, find Angry Birds even if it’s on a different screen, and start the game. Another thing that especially the Younger One likes to do is watch videos from AngryBirdsNest (a fan site, well, The Best Fan Site) where they have walkthroughs for every level of every Angry Birds game and then some. On a few occasions I’ve had to resort to the Nest for figuring out how to get 3 stars, but that is quite rare. In case you’re after the Score Addict achievements on iPhone versions, the Nest has leaderboards where you can enter your scores and see on which levels you are the most behind.

But Angry Birds is much more than just the games. I guess Rovio has plans to take over the world, at least so it seems. Both here in California and in Korea I’ve seen tons of Angry Birds stuff, ranging from candy and soft drinks, to plush dolls and beyond. And I thought that it was something special when Fazer launched the Angry Birds candies in Finland last summer… Well, just goes to show how wrong I was. Those birds are everywhere, and from what I’ve seen, most of the stuff is officially licensed.

In case you don’t believe me, here’s proof (mostly from Korea and yes, these are official products)

Angry Birds

Angry Birds

Angry Birds

Angry Birds
In closing for my Facebook friend, given that Rovio has just released Angry Birds Friends as a standalone game, maybe I’ll see some of you there. Originally Friends was a Facebook game, but now it has a standalone client for iPhone and Android, so you can compete against your Facebook friends on any of the three platforms.

Oh, and tomorrow Thursday the next update to Seasons, Abra-Ca-Bacon comes out, so I have something to do over the weekend. 🙂

 

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