Norway to the future
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Surveillance anarchy
9 out of 10 surveillance cameras (in norwegian) are not registered at the Norwegian Data Inspectorate. Now, even though a "Data Inspectorate" sounds 1984ish, they're the good guys here when it comes to defending privacy (they actually have some power). The news piece is short (and let's see if anyone follows it up), but a quote from the official states that registering your surveillance camera network is a minimum requirement, and if people are not able to follow the simplest regulation, they most likely do not follow any of the others either.

  1. One of these regulations is to clearly mark an area that is under surveillance. Not that it is very easy to spot these signs, but if you're alert, you should see them. Then consider that if you don't see a sign, you just might be at one of the 9 out of 10 places who do not tell you that you are under surveillance. Maybe time to start some camera spotting. Until someone with a digital camera and a GPS starts logging cameras here in Norway, you can take a look at some cameras to see what you should be looking for.

  2. I am no expert in the details of Norwegian law, but I doubt that evidence from a non-registered camera could be considered valid evidence in any court here. Meaning, the purpose of such private surveillance is even more perverse from the start.

  3. Will the lack of registration of surveillance cameras ease or hinder the possibility of linking them all together and start the ultimate reality show for the New Police State? This is one of the favourite paranoias of one of my privacy-advocate friends. I sincerely believe that such a situation is far off in any case here in this country, and any evil-doers would operate outside our Data Inspectorate anyway. It might even be easier to operate outside the government watchdog.

The fines for this violation should be heavy; this is after all a very basic principle in our privacy policies. Failing to enforce even such a simple regulation will throw Norway into surveillance anarchy.

The scariest part is nevertheless that most people here will never read this piece of news (unless some tabloid picks it up under the bold-typeset heading "YOU are being WATCHED" - which could serve some purpose right now). And even fewer will care. After all, "I haven't done anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide"...

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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
Art in your face
My good friend biofool over at LiveJournal posted a picture of a human-pig clone work of art from Patricia Piccinini. Checked out the pages, and found a work on stem cells. I don't dare to link the picture, the copyright was a bit harsh... click for yourself to see some deatils, that is actually NOT a real little girl!

I'm impressed. Hope the future will have room for plenty of creativity like this.

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All your RSS are belong to me
RSS is good. RSS is free. RSS saves time for information junkies like me. No more opening the entire bookmark list and filtering through junk to find the latest news. In a little while, hopefully no more cluttering of my inbox from various email newsletters. Get a newsreader now and feel the freedom.

Anyway. Since there are so many great sources on RSS/News aggregators/etc out there, Google is the best resource. Go fetch!

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Monday, March 29, 2004
The Sophie Prize to Wangari Maathai
Seems the prize-award season is on here in Norway. Here is another which fits the Norwegian image quite well, The Sophie Prize, this year awarded to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai for planting 30 million trees through her Green Belt Movement. The prize money is $100K, which should be enough for some more trees, I guess. The prize is named after the main character in the most successful book about philosophy ever published in Norway, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.

In related news, our progressive neighbours allow therapeutic cloning while banning human cloning (in swedish). Thanks again, Sweden! I hope we will follow in your path soon...

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Sunday, March 28, 2004
Complaining Norwegians
Finn Bergesen dared say what oh so many here on the hill agree on. Norway is a nation of complainers he claimed, pointing out that while Norwegians are getting healthier every year, we become "sicker and sicker". Absentee rates are up; people are retiring at age 60 to 62 (the official age is 67, but various benefit programs allow people to retire early).

While one may disagree on NHO (Norway's largest employers' organization) on other issues, he hit the nail right on this time. Many people agree, but it is not common practice in Norway to pick on the sick. There is however a trend of coming up with a whole new pack of lifestyle-related sufferings, apparently because we work too much (Eurostat numbers show that Norwegians work the fewest hours per week in Europe)... A year ago, the focus was on burn-outs, now we are the victims of a "time pinch". While some of these sufferings might not have some basis in reality, the way the media plays them is really sad. The way we are portrayed as victims of our own lifestyle, victims of our aspirations to the perfect life, victims of the modern technological world does us no good. Time pinches may be real enough for a small number of professionals working late and trying to prioritize a cutting-edge job while having young kids. However, reading that 'everyone' is sick from this and that can make the average Norwegian rethink why he feels really tired, forgetting the fact that he was watching soaps until 2 in the morning, and blaming society instead. Self-fulfilling prophecies, thanks to the tabloids.

There is of course plenty of advice on how to avoid these problems: take regular breaks, learn to say no, carefully plan your time, get enopugh sleep, exercise and so on. I am however afraid that people trying to get out of a stressful situation by adopting a lot of habits that in themselves are time-consuming will not get results they want. If you have never used a day planner in your life, adding a PDA or Filofax to you daily routine may result in administration overload. Some people may find themselves even more stressed by such measures, when they could get better results by just not worrying too much. Ulcers come from stress, stress from worrying, and getting sick is definitely going to take a bite out of your available time and make you worry more, just like reading those articles about the time pinch will. Bad negative feedback loop.

One advice I have not seen, is that people should acquaint themselves with the technology which surrounds them at work, and learn how to use it efficiently. For the white-collars, this will most likely involve the computer that they spend all day in front of. Thinking a bit about how you work and trying to adopt new habits can be very effective. Most jobs involve tasks that are repeated at regular intervals, and the procedures to complete the tasks are often very similar, often only the input data varies (i.e. extracting data, preparing reports and so on). With only a small degree of planning and automation, the time needed can be reduced dramatically. A personal example:

In my first full time job, I was tracing missing invoices for import customs declarations for a logistics company. With a tremendous amount of open cases, most of the time was spent checking what papers had been requested and when. The rest of the time was used to send standard-text emails and sorting incoming paperwork from the fax. With just a minimum knowledge of programming, I used something as crude as a macro recorder (this was on NT 3.5) which only allowed me to do a series of mouse gestures, clicks and keyboard input, and then loop it. With a little tweaking and an Excel list with the information I needed for each case, I was able to automate the entire email sending procedure, freeing up about half my day. I could watch my computer send emails at a continuous (though not very fast) rate, while going over lists and improving the quality of the control. Now, while this may sound like more a case for the company to replace me with a computer program integrating the systems I was working on, such processes often take large amounts of time, and can be difficult to defend when budgeting.

My daily routine before automating did not allow me to look into any significant benefits of creating a few macros or even ad hoc tools, as all my time was needed to do the actual job. In the end, I used a few lunch breaks and a little unpaid overtime to develop my tools. I did this out of curiosity, but employers should appreciate that employees doing some serious meta-work might improve their actual work considerably. This takes skills and time, and should be assessed as a means to cut costs by increasing efficiency. However, everyone should not be required to hard-code VBA macros to improve their Excel/Word-based monthly report. A few templates go a long way, a few well-prepared and automated templates mad in cooperation between the user and an in-house developer may go even longer. Maybe there is room for internal consultants (part time?) who leverage their computer skills to help their coworkers work more efficiently?

So, go out there, try to make that machine your friend. Then tell your friends you made a new friend and teach them how to do it as well. Show it to your bosses. Enjoy clicking once, inputting a few numbers and getting that report out in five minutes instead of half a day...

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Saturday, March 27, 2004
Abel Prize awarded
Two days ago, the Abel Prize was awarded to mathematicians Michael F. Atiyah and Isadore M. Singer for their work on "building new bridges between mathematics and theoretical physics". The prize is awarded for

outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize shall contribute towards raising the status of mathematics in society and stimulating the interest of children and young people in mathematics.

This should be saluted. The prize is named after Norway's most famous mathematician, Niels Henrik Abel, who died only 26 years old in 1827. He is primarily recognized for proving that there are no general solutions to fifth-degree and higher polynomial equations. Already on the 100th anniversary of his death, there were plans to establish a prize in his name, but history took as often before a bit longer to see this through, and the first prize was awarded in 2003. As there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, the Norwegian Academy of Science (which awards the prize) hopes that this prize can be seen as an equivalent honour. Although the Fields Medal probably will retain its status as the most prestigious award, the Abel Prize money (approx. 750KEur), as well as the less stringent award criteria, makes this prize a valuable trophy for any mathematician.

So, why am I talking about a mathematics prize where most of us do not even understand the topics the prize winners study? This prize is important for two reasons. First of all, maths deserves all the attention it can get. It is the most basic of all our knowledge of the natural world (someone would place logic before mathematics, fair enough). With our computers doing more and more of our daily calculations, it becomes more and more important that we do not lose the basic knowledge which enables us to actually make the computers do what they do. For me, it is easier to see the benefits of mathematics when it is applied in other sciences, so this year's prize is right up my alley. Although I do not have the cognitive capabilities needed to understand quantum field theories, I am able to appreciate the importance for such breakthroughs in the search for a grand unified theory in physics. And if it can be popularized down to my level by Feynman-like authors like Martin Rees, all the better. The magic of mathematics can be enjoyed even with a very limited basic knowledge (although a few good diagrams and Hubble pictures always come in handy).

Secondly, the field of international awards is a field where Norway is and should be strong. We are given the double-edged honour of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, and although the Swedes award the rest of the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize gives us a bit of international attention well fitted to our 'national portfolio'. For every prize awarded by a Norwegian institution, the recognition of this country as a science- and research-friendly country is strengthened. It may take many years before this is widely recognized as a part of the Norway brand, but it is a step in the right direction (and by now you should have understood that my field of expertise is Business and Economics, more on the national portfolio at a later date). If the prize is able to fulfil its intentions about raising the interest for mathematics amongst young people, this would be the most important achievement of all. Math skills are a sad chapter here in Norway, and everything should be done to encourage bright minds to give the field a chance. With basic knowledge of the universal language, the future becomes a little bit brighter.

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Friday, March 26, 2004
Hello world
So, I have only a few months left of my studies. Time to grow up, get a job and worry about the future. No more drinking beer for breakfast, going to bed at five in the morning and studying too little for my exams while not really worrying. From my favourite viewpoint - the egoistical - the future doesn't really worry me. Let's look at some of the reasons why:

I have won the lottery of life. Over and over again, it seems. I am born and live in Norway. Norway, for those of you who don't know much about it - except stories about a freezing cold country where winter subsides eleven and a half months a year - is one of the best countries to live in on planet Earth. Considering we are about four and a half million people, only this privilege is better than a one-in-a-thousand shot. I am also equipped with a brain that seems to be very well adapted to the accelerating change we are experiencing. Far from being a genius; I am generally curious, have a tendency to learn new things fairly quickly and remember all sorts of important and unnecessary facts easily. People tell me that I am kind and have a great deal of empathy for people who are not as well off. I am male, which - even in this the best of countries - is still a slight advantage in society. Born in the more well-off suburbs of Oslo, I believe I have an advantage over other nourishing who might not want to give up their roots by moving to the capital (which, of course, is where most of the mover-and-shaker-jobs are). I have even been allowed a virtually free higher education (uni's are free in Norway, and the state provides you with almost enough money to live a good life whilst studying). All this calls for some kind of commitment.

In this country, the state takes care of you if you want to throw your life away. We are a welfare state, and have the incomes to make it work. Although the tax level would scare off most of the western world's elite (and is currently scaring off several of Norway's richest), we can proudly say that we have almost no poverty, an almost perfectly working free healthcare system, an almost tolerant immigration policy, an almost rational democratic system... (All the "almost"s are because we Norwegians love to rant about all that is wrong with our country. It's one of our favourite topics of conversation.) But, back to throwing your life away. With our social welfare system, you can actually afford to have your own apartment, and do a significant amount of drugs while playing Playstation all day, all while the state provides the money you need. You won't ever be well off or a shaping force of our society if you choose such a life, but neither will you starve to death. All in all a fairly sweet option, at least when considering the conditions of life for most of the world's population. Such a way of life is - thankfully - not the goal of most people here on the top of the world, thus avoiding a collapse of the system. Most people still get stuck in the never-ending quest to live the picture-perfect life of whatever their preferences are, be it the Friends-meets-Ally McBeal-utopian ghettos of web designers and wannabes in the hippest parts of Oslo or the not-caring-too-much-about-the-rest-of-the-world-as-long-as-gasoline-prices-don't-get-any-higher types of people. At least we are not killing each other in ethnic conflicts, or over access to fresh water (y'know, one of the new reasons to kill your neighbour). We even have a few competent people in significant positions (and quite a few of the contrary-- more on them later), and a so far steady supply of income from our beloved oil fields in the North Sea. All in all, we should have every opportunity to make sure this country stays the best country in the world. But are we?

I am still young and naïve enough to believe that I can make a difference, that I have something important to contribute to this world, that the world can become a better place for everyone, that cooperation still is the way to go... The egoistic viewpoint mentioned above will hopefully not be the viewpoint my musings. Who wants to hear about a spoiled little brat's life anyway. So before I get old and all my illusions fade, I will blog my way through happenings in the adventure of Norway to the Future. How are we handling our extreme wealth? Have we actually produced anything of value to the rest of the world lately (our most famous competitive advantage seems to be diplomacy and peace)? Is the rest of the world taking us seriously, or are we doomed to an existence as an insignificant upper class? Can we utilize our resources, political freedom and open society to make the world outside our borders a better place? This blog is as much for me as it is for you, as I seek some insight in these and other questions constantly popping up in my mind.

Considering myself a transhumanist, the main foucs here will be the ethical and rational applications of new knowledge, science and technology. I do not take a side in party politics, so I feel free to shoot from the hip in all directions when it comes to criticizing the pack of religious madmen ruling this country as well as any other policies I find irrational. Luddites to the dust heap of history, I say!

More on being a transhumanist, the new biotechnology law, how to live in a country with a lutheran priest as prime minsiter, and rantings on complany fellow citizens later.

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