Beer as a weight-loss substance

There is a myth that it's pretty okay to drink beer even if you try to control your weight, because beer is cold when you drink it and then your body heats it up, which consumes energy.

Time to do some math. If you consume a litre of 0 ˚C beer and heat it up to 37 ˚C in your stomach, it takes 37 kcal, or to use SI units, 155 kJ.

To take a particularly brutal example, the energy content of one litre of Bud Ice Light is 324 kcal, or 1356 kJ (can be calculated from here, 12 fl oz is 0.354 l; Americans speak of calories when they actually mean kcal).

Thus, heating up the liquid in your belly works as neutralization for the energy - if you mix 1 part of Bud Ice Light and 8 parts of ice water in your drink.

Someone has said Budweiser is like making love in a boat, but this is way beyond that. Try if you will, I won't...

About choosing your laptop

I get asked the question "which laptop should I buy?" more and more often. I'm not a particular expert with laptops, but since I seem to be more of an expert than those who ask, I'll give some background which is relevant today, and I'll write it down here so it's available for others as well. This is more like general advice, not a recommendation for any particular machine.

There are awfully many different laptop models to choose from, and most of them are OK for most users. What you need to consider is how you will use the laptop, what you want to do with it. Two main questions:
1) will you be very mobile, travelling with the computer, or will it mostly sit on your desk?
2) are you going to play games?

I'm not discussing Macintoshes. If you plan to do work, not play games, and don't require Windows for some specific application, a Mac is probably good for you, but they are not cheap. They are probably worth the price, if you can afford it, but not cheap. However, before you buy one, please remember that you risk becoming a preacher who is a nuissance to his/her friends, because preachers want to convert everyone else to their faith.

Now, to Wintel laptops - Dell, Acer, HP machines that come with Windows, and which some people (like me) run on Linux.

If you are going to be on the move with your computer, consider getting a sturdy laptop for good mobility. Not all laptops are suitable for this. The really big ones with 17" screen are simply too large to carry around. With smaller ones, e.g. the recent (as of early 2010) Acer low-end series don't have a very rigid body so they break easily.

For extreme mobility, look at the mini-laptops. The Asus Eee range is actually quite good. But only for extreme mobility. The small screen and keyboard are really a pain for regular use. You'll hate actually working on it if you don't benefit from the light weight and small form factor. The mini-laptops usually have Intel Atom and 1Gb RAM, so they are rather under-powered.

For (3-D) games, you need a good display adapter, plus fast CPU (dual-core). That takes you to a specific category and price range. I can't help you there, but you wouldn't listen to me anyway.

For any other use - word processing, browsing the net at home, writing and receiving e-mails, etc - practically any laptop is good. The CPU is not really a bottleneck. Just make sure you like the look and feel of the screen and keyboard. Those are your interface to the cyberspace, and you spend a lot of time with them, so get the kind that you really like.

Then, why are there so big price differences between laptops that have similar processing power, screen dimensions, memory, disk etc? This is because they are for different markets: home use is considered a different market from corporate use. The corporate models cost more, but there is a good reason and you might want to think about them even for home use.

The problem with many laptops (and Dell Inspiron series comes to mind in particular) is that you have a similar-looking laptop which is different. Components are changed during manufacturing, and there are multiple revisions. The laptop may have the same model number, but it has a different Ethernet interface circuit, different WLAN, different Bluetooth, possibly even different display hardware. And this means different software drivers for operating system, and that means different bugs and behaviour.

Saying someone has "Dell Inspiron" does not really tell very much. There are an awful lot of different Inspirons around, some of them stable, some not. So some people have very good experiences, some have very bad.

This is pretty okay for a home machine, except that some machines are more stable than others. But if someone is trying to maintain a number of computers and keep them with similar software configuration - a regular requirement in corporate environment - this is a nightmare.

That is why the so-called business laptops are somewhat more expensive: there the manufacturer commits to keep the model the same (or at least less different) over the manufacturing period. The same design is being made and sold for a number of months, even years, and the same OS & driver package works (mostly) in them. I believe that is why I have had such lovely experiences with IBM T43 and Lenovo T61. They're not entirely without manufacturing-time evolution, but the changes are small when compared to the fast-changing home machines.

This is also why the business laptops and their software packages are more thoroughly tested, and that shows up in reliability. If your performance requirements are not very tight (e.g. no game-play), you might want to sacrifice some of the top-notch performance for reliability, i.e. get a so-called business laptop with lower-end CPU (but enough memory!) even if something else is faster and newer. And do take a look at the ergonomy (screen in particular).

If you look at Dell, consider the business Latitude line instead of home Inspiron. Also, there is the new Vostro product line but not in Finland yet. Personally, I've liked the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads, they have been extremely reliable (with the exception of T42 that went away quickly). Not many people have Sony machines because of the high prices, but I have a good quality image of them. HP Compaq is nothing exotic but works fine.

So, off you go, see the one you plan to buy and make sure you like the ergonomy it offers.


The Earth Hour and a road death

Yesterday evening was Earth Hour, a campaign where people switch off electric lights for a period of time, to indicate their support for battle against man-made climate change.

I didn't participate as such; I dislike waste of energy and resources in any case, and I don't want to make a fuss about something that is fairly natural to me. Actually, I forgot about the whole thing.

But the town of Uusikaupunki participated in the campaign, by switching off not only decoratory lights in public buildings, but also the street lights.

Now, there are reasons why there are street lights. The main reason is that people are able to move about safely. Yesterday, when the lights were off, a man was walking on Levysepänkatu, on the street - presumably because it was impossible to walk on the light traffic route alongside. The hard winter has surprised most councils here, and the walking areas are generally very icy, and now with spring weather of great daily temperature variations, they thaw in the day, become very uneven, and then freeze in the evening. And walking on such an unlevel surface is just no good, at least in the dark.

As the man was walking on the street, he was hit by a motorbike and killed. He should have been wearing a reflector (cat's eye) as it is mandatory (though not enforceable by fines) when walking on unlighted roads in Finland - but he was walking on a road which is normally lighted; it is not known yet if he was aware of the Earth Hour.

The girl riding the motorbike was not hurt, nor was her passenger. She was sober, wasn't speeding, and the bike was in full working order. So it was an accident, except for the offense that the man was on the street and not on the sidewalk, and possibly not equipped to be visible on a dark road as required by law.

Now, it's an exaggeration to accuse that the man was killed by Earth Hour alone. There was some sheer bad luck around. But it seems like switching off the streetlights was a contributing factor.

I don't expect that a proper investigation will be made, because it would be politically inconvenient. The case will be signed off as a case which the Americans would call "an act of God", which in this case seems a somehow very suitable phrase, as the climate campaign has such strong resemblance to religion.

News in Finnish: Uudenkaupungin Sanomat, Helsingin Sanomat.

Perhaps we could learn something from this for the next year?


One thing that puzzles me is that when discussing climate change, people prefer candles instead of electric lights (as in the propaganda picnic in Zimbabwe; why Zimbabwe is being selected as a showcase example just beats me, as this is just supporting the seriously flawed regime of Robert Mugabe).

Candles are romantic, yes, but if you look at emissions, the manufacturing, distribution and waste management mean that they're most certainly a worse alternative than a modest electric lighting. I like much more this approach to a showcase about climate change: http://zi.fi/earthhour/


Also, I'm baffled that WWF praises on their campaign pages how Burj Khalifa, world's tallest skyscraper, participates in Earth Hour. As an engineer, I'm naturally fascinated by that tower, because it is such an impressive engineering feat in itself. But the wave of new construction Dubai is in my opinion a symbol of excessive waste of resources: massive artificial islands sprawl out to cover the coast - and corals underneath - in an attempt to create some kind of desert Disneyland where the wealthy can spend short or longer stretches of luxury (without alcoholic beverages). All this is funded by oil money, and laboured by Indian and other Asian workers who are exploited in slave-like conditions. If I were WWF, I'd be respectfully quiet about their participation. Unless -- possibly -- they paid me handsomely and I were prone to corruption, about which I don't know because nobody seriously tried to corrupt me yet.


As it is, Chatham Islands did not turn off any of their 12 streetlights, on safety grounds. I must congratulate the Chatham Islanders -- all 609 of them -- on retaining some common sense.


The right to strike

The dockworker strike in Finland brought up once again the discussion about limiting the right to strike in cases where industrial action causes disproportionate damage or endangers people's lives. This time, much of the exports of Finnish industry was stopped for two weeks, particularly in the bulk forest industry sector of pulp and paper. Paper unions supported the stevedores' strike - despite losing wages as well - but the general public did not much approve.

And as usual, the parties are speaking very loudly past each other and attacking straw men with ferocious determination. The last in line was Jutta Urpilainen, chairwoman of Social Democrats, whom I find increasingly embarrassing.

There are some obvious problems in limiting strikes, as well as not limiting strikes:

1) Going to a strike is the last, strongest action a worker can take to defend his rights. The worker loses his/her pay, and it is both economically and emotionally a heave step to take. It's his/her last action and chance, before resigning. It is, indeed, a basic human right, taken away only in totalitarian regimes.

2) On the other hand, workers are gullible. There may be union leaders who ruthlessly abuse the people they are supposed to defend, in exchange of personal career ambitions, and at a considerable cost - not only economic - to outsiders. I have more respect for union leaders who have themselves worked long in the profession and have risen through the ranks in the unions, less for those who step in from the outside to role-play. The AKT leader Timo Räty runs the dockworker and transport union, and I can't help feeling it's a bit funny that the truck and bus driver strikes are driven by a lawyer who does not even have a driver's license for a car, let alone a truck. And his pickets wearing high-visibility vests at the dock gates seem to be, I'm sorry to say, more like fat drunks looking for a brawl than desperate, starved proletarians.

3) There is asymmetry in the relationship between employers and trade unions, as well as asymmetry in the relationship between employers and employees. Naturally, when you have a situation where a big company is against a single employee, it is easy to see the asymmetry and know who's weak and who is powerful. But can another wrong fix one wrong? There are also cases where the employer is small, in a weak position, and against a wealthy union - and here the rules are tuned to favour the big one. The employment legislation in Finland is tuned to fit large companies with extensive HR and legal functions, and the bureaucracy and sheer number of detailed procedural requirements to small-scale employers is staggering. There are probably hundreds of law paragraphs that most small-scale employers break, simply because learning it all would take all their time - and more - and they couldn't do any work in running the company.

4) And then there are cases where a key group of employees is keeping hostage a much larger group of people, as is often the case with industries like the transport.

My suggestions:

- The right of an employee to go to strike is a basic human right and cannot be taken away. The law mustn't punish a person for going to a strike or disobeying an order to go to work (except in dire emergencies, such as helping someone who is dying, or when there is war, or something similar). That discussion is completely beside the point and no one seriously contests it.

- However, the right of a union to enter industrial action can be limited. There are already some limitations (e.g. the warning procedures stated in law), so there's nothing new in itself; the limitations just need to be adjusted. Unions are not humans, and they do not have human rights. They are more comparable to companies. If a union breaches its obligations, breaks contracts etc, it must be prepared to face consequences, including penalties and paying compensation, just like companies do.

- The right of a union to declare strike can be limited by law, as in the case of nurse strike in 2007; an unlimited strike would have actually killed people, and the employer just didn't have the money required to pay up to the pre-strike requirements. The forced-settlement procedure needs to be worked on, so the central agencies of employer and employee unions should sit down with state representatives and define legislation. Passing a separate point law for each case is a very heavy procedure, although a parliamentary-level approval for application of forced settlement might be a good idea.

- The current, ridiculously low cap in compensation for damages caused by illegal strikes should be removed. When a union does not comply with the legal procedure about pre-warnings to strikes, or when a contract is in effect and the union renegades on it, yes - the union can go to strike, but if a court grants damages to the injured party, the union needs to pay up. If this means bankruptcy, then so be it. That's the way it is with everyone. If an employer breaks the law or contracts - e.g. in the procedure of hiring or laying off people - they just pay up, and if it means bankruptcy, so be it. There's no cap in compensation. The tax-exempt status of unions is no excuse. To the contrary, it should come with additional responsibility.

As a side note, it's interesting that trade unions seem to be not very exemplary employers, if you judge by the numbers of walk-outs and contested dismissals and similar employment issues - like recently with AKAVA and AKT. It looks like the trade union employees have to tolerate bullying to an extent that people in no other employment would.


Cousin marriages

An interesting immigration-related artifact about Britain, by The Times:
"Fifty-five per cent of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins and in Bradford the figure is 75 per cent."

Now, the occasional marriage with a first cousin is nothing extraordinary in the history of mankind, and generally not a big deal: risk for genetic disorders doubles, but you could say in mathematical terms that doubling an ε (an insignificantly small number) still gives you an ε. Many of us, including myself, have that in the background of our families. But is it okay to have a sub-culture where the rate of cousin marriages is this high, and repeated over generations? There the risks multiply and multiply; the ε becomes something else, something which is not insignificant.

It actually becomes very visible in the statistics for recessive genetic diseases, and if the cousin marriages will continue, then at least genetic screening (preferably prior to the arranged marriage) becomes necessary. As far as I understand, this is actually becoming more and more common in the wealthiest Arab communities in Middle East - but it won't be feasible for every village in Pakistan, and I'm afraid it won't be feasible for Bradford either, or Vuosaari.


Capital punishment

I don't generally think that capital punishment should be really implemented by actually killing the convicted criminal - I'd rather have the person locked up in jail for life.

However, in a few cases, actual execution looks justified. If a person is already sentenced to life in prison for rape and attempted murder, and then taunts the authorities and the relatives of victims calling them stupid and bragging he murdered the sister of the victim - believing he is protected by the American double jeopardy rule - it is very difficult to feel sympathy for the man^H^H^Hbeast when the state decides to put him down. He worked really, really hard to deserve it.


Identities, hide and seek

The British media is all nuts about the case of Jon Venables, who together with his friend Robert Thompson murdered a 2-year-old boy, James Bulger, in Merseyside in 1993. Venables was 10 years old at the time and was incarcerated until 2001. Now he's locked up again, for something "serious", allegedly child pornography.

Many people have expressed that they want capital punishment to be brought back, but I don't see how it would solve anything here. No civilized society can execute a 10-year-old criminal however awful he is, and whatever he has done - or an older boy for crimes committed at the age of 10, or an adult who has this background and has now committed some offence that normally carries a minor prison sentence. He may be damaged beyond repair, but the kind of death penalty I endorse is locking dangerous people up in a prison or a ward.

However, the case has implications. As the practice is in Britain, Venables and Thompson have been schooled while in the custody of officials, passed their exams, and been released on parole in early 2000's. A British peculiarity is that they have been taught to speak without the accent that would betray their locale and class background and thus possibly reveal who they are.

The boys have received new identities, complete with officially forged birth certificates and a clean criminal record. They have then tried to start new lives, while secretly being in touch with the parole officers - this makes sense, for who would expect someone to survive in a society, if he was neglected until 10 years old and imprisoned after that, and then suddenly released?

But there is a consequence. People are not happy that taxpayer money is used for protecting murderers, even murderers who were very young minors at the time. There are plenty of vigilantes who have little regard for organized society and who simply want to kill or maim Venables and Thompson. Naturally, this must not happen.

The arrangement with new identities leads to a phenomenon: people can't be sure that their new neighbour is who he says he is. Of course, in a country like Britain where people generally have no official identity papers anyway, this doesn't anyway work in the way it works in the Big-Brother Nordic societies like Finland, where "sans papiers" is just a plain impossibility, not to mention a legal resident who has no papers. But anyway, forged identities give a new twist to the issue.

People start to suspect that a new neighbour is the famous killer. They set up hate groups. They make threats. And as a result, a completely innocent person, who is of the right gender and age and approximate physical looks, will be haunted in real life, as well as in Facebook.

Or is he innocent? Could it be that he really is Venables, but the authorities are making up a story about Venables being in custody elsewhere? Since they can legally make up identities for people, can't they also protect these artificial identities by setting up a phoney imprisonment of someone who doesn't even exist?

This kind of secrecy and protection leads to conspiray theories and speculation.

It looks like it would be just better to face the facts. The killer's life was ruined when he committed a murder when he was 10 years old. Trying to protect him with a new identity seems to cause more mayhem to others. Perhaps it should be acknowledged that the boys' normal lives were over when they killed 2-year-old James Bulger, and no one else needs to be made vulnerable?


Certificate for a fake doctor

The smallish Finnish town of Karkkila recently found out that they had a fake doctor. A young man had worked as a physician, although he lacked proper qualifications and training. He had forged his papers to get the job. He had succeeded to conceal his lack of training simply by forwarding any non-trivial cases to more experienced doctors; he also had become popular among patients simply by being sympathetic and listening. Now, there may be a lesson to learn from this, but that is aside the point.

When the case was found out, the fake doctor was naturally fired. However, there is a rather funny twist to the episode: according to Finnish employment law, an employee is entitled to a work certificate from the employee. This paper has to be given in writing, and by law, it must not contain any negative remarks about the performance of the employee.

Now the fake doctor wants his certificate (news in Finnish).

What is the local hospital going to do? Apparently, they have no options. They're asking for guidance from employment authorities, but by law, the fake doctor is absolutely right: he's been employed, so he is perfectly entitled to an employment certificate, and it is definitely not possible for the hospital managers to imply in the certificate that there was anything wrong with this employment. Of course, any health-related employer in Finland will likely have heard and will also remember this case, because it is rather unique, but if the untrained physician e.g. applies for a position in another country, how are they to know, if they are presented with a genuine, official employment certificate from a Finnish clinic, and an official, sworn translation?

This is one of the funnier although by no means most absurd outcomes of the Finnish employment law.

In another case some 20 years back, an employer faced repeated jail sentences to infinity - which you don't get even for premeditated murder - as he refused to issue an employment certificate to a person who had not actually performed work (because this person was on strike most of the employment). The case was eventually settled, somehow.


Update: Just realized that the fake doctor may not be aspiring to become a brain surgeon in some Third World country. He needs the paper to apply for the earned-income-based unemployment benefit now that the bureaucracy has forced him to go on the dole. There's no doubt he's entitled to the money, as he's paid his dues when employed.


What needs covering up?

Once again, the news is filled with the economist dream idea of setting a tax on living in your own apartment (because you don't pay rent, so you get an advantage, which could be taxable income).

Well, the idea is absurd. Of course, from a theoretical, economist standpoint it makes sense. So do communism and fascism, but still, they don't work either. After all, how much could we be taxed on the theoretical income we gain when we drink tap water on meals, and not not cognac? Think how much the state loses in taxes!

I hope this tax idea will not be approved, whatever government there is, but my question is, what else is happening in the country that needs covering up? What is it that is not wanted in the news, if this bi-annual provocation needs to be brought up?


No sleep in the evenings?

Have you felt lately that you can't fall asleep in the evenings? That could be because the length of days on Earth became shorter after the earthquake in Chile.

Okay, only by 1.26 microseconds per day, but anyway. It's the same phenomenon as when a figure skater does a pirouette: pull your hands close to your body, i.e. diminish the radius of rotating mass, and you'll rotate faster.

Other than that, I must commend the Chileans on good construction. Naturally, there was plenty enough of damage, but when compared to what happened in Haiti, the infrastructure and people in Chile seem to have been a lot better prepared for a major earthquake. Still, hundreds of people are dead and thousands need help. Not that much help is arriving because the Haiti relief effort has depleted the world's resources that are readily prepared for emergencies, so it is good that Chile has developed favourably over the past decades and is not in such a desperate status as Haiti.