Finland: happiest place on Earth?

It’s been quiet on the blog (thanks for the reminder Mom!).  One thing that I have been ruminating on is a recent report that ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world (again!).  This was actively commented on in Finnish social media and the news.  One common question is why?

I can see why Finland was ranked in the top spot again. The country by and large has a stable economy.  New families are supported with parental leave.  There is access to health care. Mass transit is accessible and affordable.  There is convenient access to nature (we visited Helsinki and Tampere, the two largest cities in Finland, and were minutes from large parks).  A lot of these points and others are comprehensively discussed by Anu Partanen in The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better of Life), which I talked introduced in a post about sisu.

I suspect the happiness measure would not be the same across different groups in Finland.  The same week this happiness report came out, two news articles in the Finnish media described harassment and discrimination by female Cabinet members and how non-white (non-blonde) Finns are routinely asked “are you from here?” (sound familiar?).  COVID 19 cases are increasing here again, leading to talk of a partial lockdown. There is work to be done, even in Finland.

Personal experience with the health care system confirms how Finnish society is structured to support the ranking on the happiness report. I had to renew a regular prescription – which meant calling for an appointment.  The doctor was able to approve the prescription over the phone, which cost 15 dollars for a 90 day supply.  I recognize that might have been an exception, but it is line with a similar process for my spouse.  She had to visit the doctor (25 euro office visit) before refilling her prescriptions.  We don’t have a “health care plan” – the country has universal health care.  What we had to do is call a central number that routed me to a care team based on our residence address.  When compared to the US, a visit to the doctor runs $250 + prescription – all part of a high deductible plan that can reach to $10K annually.  I am not even factoring in the monthly cost for a plan.

It did take some time to get connected to the correct place (a lot of calling around, etc) – and not speaking Finnish made the process harder. I recognize that I may not be taking in the full cost of the visit – it seems that health care is paid through taxes – so ask me again in a year. ( :-0 ) To be fair, based on the chapter on taxes in Partanen’s book, I don’t think taxes are as unreasonable as you would imagine (in other words, it is not the “dreaded socialism”!).

The experience with the health care system contrasts the difference between freedom from and freedom for.  I perceive Finnish society is set up to value freedom from worry – worry that you won’t be supported in your old age, worry that you won’t be able to pay your health care expenses, etc.  U.S. society is structured around freedom for choice – that you can choose the type of coverage in your health care plan, you can choose how much you want to save for retirement, etc.

Understandably this is a simplification with a continuum between the two. I do enjoy having choices (most of the time – it can be overwhelming).  It does make me wonder how we could change intended outcomes by applying some of the Finnish mindset (freedom from) towards some of the pressing societal issues the US faces. What do you think?

Searching for St. Urho – the patron saint of Finland

A week ago I posted the following question on Twitter:

An unscientific survey: What is the name of a saint, celebrated in March, who is known for banishing pests from their country? (Patrick, Urho, Ur-who?)

A bit of context.  St. Urho is the so-called patron saint of Finland, who saved Finland from a scrouge of grasshoppers.  It is celebrated on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day.

I grew up in Northern Minnesota, which has one of the largest enclaves of Finnish immigrants to the United States. Growing up I remember people wearing purple on St. Urho’s Day, as a point of Finnish pride. Finland, Minnesota has an annual celebration

To be honest – St. Patrick’s Day was just that … a day.  I would call it good if I was able to eat a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal on that day.

Reading the history of the St. Urho’s day, it doesn’t take long to see that, this holiday is decidedly a modern fictional creation.   Perhaps some of you reading this may laugh and scoff at those silly Rangers (people from the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota).

However since I am in Finland this spring, I decided to pose this question on a local Facebook community group in Kuopio:

I asked a local facebook group if they celebrate St. Urho in Finland.

Being in the time of COVID, this was the best that I could do in terms of local, on the ground research.

Here is why I am interested in this question.  I know that immigrants adapt elements of their home culture in unique and perhaps distorted ways.  Very rarely does the home culture re-appropriate those elements.  St. Urho’s Day would be a unique case where this occurs.

Posting to the facebook group exceeded my expectations. (This is a very positive facebook group in general.)  Someone even pointed to a documentary made by the Finnish TV service about Finland, Minnesota.

The general sentiment is St. Urho- as I know it – is not celebrated in Finland, but several people seem to be interested in the holiday.  (As someone said – if it gives you a reason to celebrate, why not?)

And perhaps a “Saint Urho” may not seem that farfetched and could have its own mythology:

Coincidence? Perhaps not.

I may have unintentionally started a new holiday in a country that I am visiting. If that is the case, I declare it probably should have a unique pastry associated with it.  I would certainly welcome an encore performance of the Runeburg torte or laskiaispulla (perhaps with blueberry?)

So whether or not you choose to celebrate St. Urho (or it’s more well-known cousin) St. Patrick, I wish you a happy spring. Lord knows we all need it after this past year.

Longer daylight to penguin walk

Hard to believe that we are approaching halftime of our stay here.  One obvious change: the days are getting longer.  There is light in the morning when we wake up and later in the evening.  One interesting thing: it starts to get light for about an hour or so before sunrise – almost like a gradual transition to day.  The change is noticeable – and energizing.

Temperatures are warming up too – after several weeks of colder temperatures we reached above freezing for a stretch of days.  Sweet!  The one downside to this weather:  refreeze.

Navigating this for me can be trauma inducing.  In college I slipped on ice walking back to my dorm and had to have knee surgery a week later, so yeah, it makes me nervous.  The Finnish Meterologic Institutue issues pedestrian warnings (so another thing to check for a weather junkie like me …).

I purchased grips for my shoes to help navigate, but until the temperatures warm up more, please excuse me while I penguin walk.

Sinappi stories

I believe that one way to know the heart of country is to travel its length and breadth. At the same time, you can know the soul of a country through its food.

We all have certain regional or national dishes that could be classified as distinctly ours, no doubt. These specialized dishes are one marker, but another way is a walk through a grocery store.

How do our grocery stores in the United States compare to Finland? At first glance, there doesn’t seem that much of a difference. You walk into fresh produce and vegetables, a self-service bakery, rows of coolers with quick meals.

What about the pasta isle? I offer for comparison two pictures of a typical pasta sauce aisle from the United States:

Or the salsa aisle:

Salsa aisle in the US

We all have our favorites, and the of spaghetti sauce choices seem to cater to every differentiation of tomato / chunky / smooth / roasted tomatoes / vodka sauce or for salsa heat / no heat / chiles / etc.

Meanwhile in Finland let’s look at the spaghetti sauce and salsa offerings…

(I should note these photos come from S Market, a reasonably sized grocery store you can find throughout Finland. Definitely not as large as a supermarket in the United States, but has the proportionate amount of items given its size. No, there are no Aldi’s here, but there is Lidl which is a tiny bit larger than an Aldi with a similar design / layout.)

Yeah, I am missing a good Prego Heart Smart sauce. The sauces here run a little too sweet for my liking. The salsa – well if I can tolerate the “Hot and Spicy”, that says something.

But hey, what is up with the mustard aisle (sinappi)?

Well, look at what we have here!
“Stark” mustard? Seems very Game of Thrones-ish.

This is crazy overwhelming! You can purchase mustard for each of your tastes. Based on some cursory research (thanks Wikipedia!) here would be one reason why this is so extensive here: LINK

It does seem weird to purchase a condiment that looks like a toothpaste tube, but this mustard isn’t the standard flavor we would find in the US. I don’t know if we will make it through ALL the different varieties of sinappi but nonetheless

Here is a more pointed question, what does all this sinappi mean?

Something to ponder ….

Exploring Finnish Pastries: laskiaispulla

This is the third (of a continuing) installment on exploring Finnish pastries.  Today’s pastry is laskiaispulla – is only available on shrovetide (the days before the start of Lent).

The laskiaispulla (almond, raspberry, and chocolate raspberry).
The laskiaispulla (almond, raspberry, and chocolate raspberry).

The verdict: delicious.  Basically it is a (not too sweet) roll with the top cut off, and then stuffed on the inside with whipped cream and either raspberry filling or almond.  (There were other flavors, but these seem to be the most common).  The raspberry one was like eating a raspberry cake, and the almond smooth and nutty.

In addition to eating greasy food leading up to Lent, shrovetide here has the tradition of sliding on the Sunday before Lent begins.  Yep, we headed out to Puijo Tower to go sliding, where LOTS of kids were sliding. Some pics of that are here.

As the proverb in the article says, if the “If the sun is shining on Shrovetide, it will be a good year. If it snows on Shrovetide, it will snow every day until Easter.”

It was definitely sunny on Sunday.  Looking forward to it being a good year.

Sisu lessons: failure and persistence

We’ve been in Finland for about 6 weeks now – and by the outset we are all settled.  But, I still can’t shake this feeling of late: What if I fail at my project?

With words I sound dramatic – but in many ways, also good to acknowledge.

I have become dispirited of late because the data I am working with is sparser than what I am used too.  Many of the processes I am modeling are observable – to an extent. However the methods that I have been working with (going technical here: MCMC parameter estimation, coding in R) either are too computationally slow or not robust enough for me to produce meaningful results.  This is not an easy problem to solve (which is good, challenging, exciting, all at the same time).

But yet, being here, in Finland, is such an investment in me – by my family, by my colleagues at the University of Eastern Finland, by the Fulbright Finland Foundation, that failure is not an option. 

Once I pull on the thread of “I am going to fail”, it spirals downward.  I know these moods for me are like the polar vortex: when it settles in, it is here to stay. 

It is easy for me to provide a pep talk to myself, which in my internal monologue sounds something like one of the following: (a) “You will be fine, don’t worry.” (b) “Well you have all this time in Finland, you will figure it out.”  (c) “At least you aren’t teaching.”  Yes, those are all true, but ….

I am not the only one who feels this way (imposter syndrome for example). Science, (and probably more broadly) needs to normalize the discussion about failure.  Showcasing more stories of persistence and resilence (such as here) are an important first step.

Intersecting this conversation is also a critical discussion about justice, diversity, and equity.  As a white, cisgendered male I come from an extraordinary place of privilege; the impact (externalized or internalized) of failure is non-uniform across different identity groups.  I need a laser-focused equity lens to support and nurture my students – and to help them realize that failure is not a dead end.

Perhaps two lessons could be learned from Finland.  The first – the Finnish concept of sisu – is the quiet persistence through obstacles (internalized for me in this discussion I said to myself “Well if what you are doing isn’t working, find another way.”)  The idea of a growth mindset and the power of the “not yet” is a natural offshoot of sisu. I preach the growth mindset this to my students, and perhaps need to internalize my own lessons more.

Nordic theory of everything.

However is there a broader societal role as well?  The second lesson is related to what the author Anu Partanen in The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better of Life calls the “Nordic theory of love”. (A longer explanation and analysis into the lessons learned from that book is needed – soon hopefully!).  But let’s start.  Allowing oneself to fail is related to the ability to take risks.  Innovation – which includes the freedom to take risks and fail – is permissible in Finland due to how society is structured.

For example, companies take a long-term view of their employees. There is a broad societal understanding and appreciation in an appropriate work-life balance (and health care is considered a human right).  In summation, this structure frees employees and companies to take risks, and perhaps normalizes failure.  As Partnanen states “A more humane pace, and flexible work practices, nuture it [innovation] as well” (p 293).  There is something to be said about how freedom from worry about health care, retirement, education allows more freedom for innovation.  But perhaps there is more to that story, which is for another time.

Runeberg day: Exploring Finnish pastry 2

We found out it was Runeberg day today when Shannon and I snuck out for lunch when the kids were in school. So of course we tried a Runeberg pastry.

Runeberg pastry

(Truth be told, we understood what this was all about after the fact, but nevertheless …). It was very good – dense but not overly dense. Finding out that it is baked with rum makes sense.

Also, as a bonus these are only available through today – so we lucked out!

Data mining from satellites

I was reminded the other day that it has been a while since I’ve posted, so hint received.  To be honest, I’ve been nose deep into modeling and computer coding, which isn’t that scintillating.

A personal note: It was warmer last week (above freezing) – but cloudy with a lot of snow.  This week is sunny and cold.  It is good to see the sun!  Also last week I was skating and the kids were sliding at the school.  I was almost ready to come in (and perhaps a little overconfident in my skating ability) when I slipped on the ice and fell backwards – knocking my head.  That was painful (both on my tailbone and the head).  I don’t think I had a concussion – and the tailbone is finally feeling better – but sheesh!  Looking back, that slip-up did throw me for a loop.

On Monday I started teaching my data visualization seminar (online) – it meets weekly-ish (the days of the week vary).  It was fun to get back to the practice of teaching – albeit online. I’ve taught this course for three consecutive years at Augsburg – so it feels comfortable teaching. This was been the third stretch of teaching online for me (once last spring, a summer course, fall semester 2020, and now).  Truth be told, it feels less awkward to do then it did even last fall.  I do long for the day to be back in the classroom, but we are making it work.

A diagram that I showed my class is the following:

(Wickham and Grolemund, R for Data Science)

I think about this diagram a lot when doing research.  A lot of my work consists of iterating through a model (starting with a rough approximation à refining the model à collecting data to confirm the model or help it run) and then iterating through over and over.  Many times it feels like this:

Working Jim Carrey GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The biggest challenge is trying to find the correct data to work with.  My project focuses on developing a model for soil carbon dioxide for forests in the Yukon.  These forests lie along a fire chronosequence – one was burned in 2012, 1990, and 1969.  We want to know differences between how the forest has recovered in its soil.

In order to build a mathematical model,  some of the data I need includes soil temperature, soil moisture (as a percentage of saturation), and aboveground photosynthesis.  A lot of these data are available from NASA (MODIS) or the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission – both satellites that orbit the earth.  Pretty neat stuff to be working with.  For example, here are some plots I made this week:

This graph represents photosynthesis – so how much carbon the ecosystem is removing from the atmosphere.  I like graphs like these – the red dots are data products from the satellite, but the black line is a smoother I developed.  Each of the panels represents a different site I am focusing on – the year refers to when it was burned by forest fire.

The soil temperature with a graph laid out similarly is the following:

(The green line is a satellite data product, the brown-ish orange line is based on plot measurements taken at the sites (from Koster et al 2017).

I was excited to see how the directly measured data matched up closely with the satellite data product. When ground-based measurements are approximately equal that makes me happy.

The last measurement I need is soil moisture, from the same satellite data product:

soil moisture from satellite

(The scale ranges from 0 to 1; so 0 means completely dry soil, 1 saturated).  Ok, not so great news. The site 1969 shows some variation (I would expect it to be constant during the summer months, but sites 2012 and 1990 are pretty flat.

That is to be expected when working with satellite data – while we hope it to be continuous, these data products are derived at a fundamental level from surface reflectance measurements and highly processed (if you want to dig into the details you can look here).  Clouds and other factors obfuscate the satellite measurement.

So what to do?  Well I am currently looking into other ways to compute soil moisture (leaky bucket models here we come!).  Soil temperature can be modeled as a diffusion problem.  More work and … you guess it more coding.


We took our kids ski jumping (yes … you read that correctly).

I imagine your reaction is similar to my mother, and mother-in-law – and perhaps this the image running through your head:

The ski jump was at the Puijo ski jump base.  This is a serious ski jump hill.

We had received an email from the kids’ school that the local ski jumping club was having (introductory) training lessons for kids – so why not?

We did feel a little like the odd ducks here – we were the only English speakers at the lesson, but the teacher Nico did speak English well.  He was patient and fun.

Perfecting the ski jump form
The first lesson of ski jumping is to have fun.

Basically the lesson was having the kids go down a small ramp many times, learning the basics.

They all loved it and want to return next week.  C, the adrenaline junkie, had huge smiles on his face, G was super focused on his form and trying not to stick out, and P was worried that she would have to ride the ski lift.

One hill at a time.

  Maybe by the end they will attempt the big hill?