Learning Finnish graduation hat tricks

High school graduation takes place when the school year concludes at the end of May or beginning of June. And yet, a month before that, on April 30 and May 1, you’ll notice merrymakers of all ages wearing white caps – and partying to a degree rivalled only by New Year’s Eve.

It’s somehow paradoxical that the Finns wear a kind of uniform at the one time of the year when it’s socially acceptable for them to lose their inhibitions. The May Day holiday, known as Vappu in Finnish, and the evening that precedes it are the closest thing the Finns get to a wild, unfettered carnival.

The weather might not always be appropriate for a festival of spring, but do they don feathers or crazy costumes to match their festive, wild mood? No, they wear nice white student hats.

The resulting sea of bobbing white caps might make you feel a bit puzzled, or even uneducated, once you discover that the hat symbolises the wearer’s status as a high school graduate. The fact that so many people possess them is perfectly logical in view of Finland’s world-beating reputation for education, of course.

And woe betide anyone who dons the cap without due qualification. I know of at least one ungraduated person who attracted some serious disapproval when he jokingly sported his wife’s cap on social media. OK, I confess: It was me.

Symbolic details abound

Photo: Jenni Toivonen/Visit Tampere

People save their high school graduation caps and bring them out for certain special occasions, such as May Day festivities or university ceremonies (in this case a graduation celebration at the University of Tampere). Photo: Jenni Toivonen/Visit Tampere

These days, the cap rarely comes out of its box at any other time of the year but Vappu and the occasional academic ceremony or official function. However, time was that people would pop them on their heads every day throughout the summer to until the end of September, so they were an optional accessory until the 1950s. Nobody bothers to wash their hats, and this might account for the distinctive yellow hue of the more vintage specimens.

The graduation cap usually bears the emblem of the University of Helsinki, which is Apollo’s lyre, a symbol of the Greek patron god of music, dance and poetry. Originally, and until Finnish independence in 1917, the university entrance exam was equivalent to the national matriculation exam.

The contemporary hat-wearer affixes the insignia of his or her own university. The size of this emblem had a subtle 19th-century political potency that persists to this day, since its size indicates whether the owner is a speaker of Finnish (14 millimetres) or Swedish (22 millimetres); both are official languages in Finland.

To complicate things further, students at technical universities sport a variant with a long black tassel and an emblem specific to each university. Except for students of the University of Oulu, who insist on complicating things even further by wearing emblems that indicate their study programmes. The inside linings of the hat also vary in colour depending on the home region of the person who is wearing it, as well as the Finnish- or Swedish-speaking background of the student.

And you thought a white hat was just a white hat?

Freedom and a bright future

Photo: Jussi Hellsten/Helsinki Marketing

Helped by a crane, students place a graduation cap on the head of Helsinki’s Havis Amanda statue every April 30, amid a sea of thousands of similar hats.Photo: Jussi Hellsten/Helsinki Marketing

The Nordic countries all have similar student-hat traditions. As an emblem of educational status, the Finnish garment is reputed to have specific roots in the period of Russian rule in the mid-1800s. Tsar Nicholas I stipulated that all university students should wear a uniform, but when the tsar died so did the habit of wearing the uniforms – apart from the hat, which in those days was blue. Women weren’t invited to join this millinery club until 1897, when they were admitted to the students’ union.

Perhaps to compensate for this gender-based tardiness, one of Helsinki’s best-known women is now the first to be anointed with this singular headgear item every Vappu. A group of students symbolically wash the Havis Amanda statue near Market Square – spring cleaning – before placing a ritual graduation cap upon her head.

The annual honour, bestowed since 1921, is carried out by a different Helsinki student union each year. Thousands of people turn up to watch the ceremony and cheer.

So what does the white hat signify to the locals? “To me, it means possibilities, freedom, a bright future and an achievement,” says 35-year-old Eveliina Lehtonen, reminiscing about her own matriculation but also pondering the lasting significance of this happiest of hats. “And at Vappu, it still always means spring has come and it’s time to party.”

By Tim Bird, May 2019

Despite progress during Finland’s Arctic Council term, the world still faces a “time of great urgency”

One-third of Finland is located north of the Arctic Circle – the city of Rovaniemi lies just six kilometres (3.7 miles) south of that line.

The Arctic Council ministerial meeting held in Rovaniemi on May 7, 2019 concluded Finland’s two-year term as chair; Iceland takes over from 2019 to 2021. Finland’s tenure was largely successful; the council made considerable progress in the issues Finland had singled out in 2017, focusing on four areas: environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation and education.

The council includes six Permanent Participant organisations representing indigenous peoples in the Arctic region (the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council).

It also includes the eight Arctic countries (Finland, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US). Attending the meeting with observer status were 13 non-Arctic countries and 25 intergovernmental and nongovernmental organisations.

The foreign ministers of all eight Arctic countries came to Finnish Lapland to attend the Rovaniemi event. This, in itself, represents a significant achievement, as it was only the second time all eight have been present at the biennial ministerial meeting. It also indicates the ever-growing importance of the Arctic region, and of the Arctic Council’s existence.

A viable Arctic

On a summer nature walk by the light of the midnight sun in northern Finland: The fate of the world is intertwined with that of the Arctic. Photo: Visit Rovaniemi/Lapland Material Bank

“Developing a viable Arctic region was essential to Finland,” wrote Timo Koivurova, director of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi. In an article in the newspaper Kaleva after the ministerial meeting (later republished in English on the Arctic Centre website), he was summarising Finland’s time as chair.

Among the successes, he said, were “investing in teacher training, improving digital communications, deepening meteorological cooperation and developing environmental impact assessments,” important issues for the Arctic Council and the Arctic region.

The fate of the world is intertwined with the future of the Arctic. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has said numerous times, “If we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe.” He made black carbon one of the focuses of Finland’s period as chair of the Arctic Council, seeking to raise awareness and reduce emissions of that climate pollutant. Finnish efforts put black carbon higher on the agenda and raised awareness of how to control it. Taking over as chair, Iceland is concentrating on the Arctic marine environment, including plastic waste.

Six working groups operate in support of the council’s mandate. Their names form a shorthand list of the council’s focus areas: the Arctic Contaminants Action Programme; the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme; Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna; Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response; Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment; and the Sustainable Development Working Group.

Current world situation

Lappi Arena, where the local ice hockey team plays, was the only venue in Rovaniemi with a wide enough floor space for the layout of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting, with its many delegations, working groups and observer organisations.Photo: Jouni Porsanger/Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Since its establishment in 1996, the council has stood as a consensus-based forum concentrating on Arctic issues of environment and sustainable development. In order to make progress in those areas, the participants customarily leave political conflicts at the door.

Ministerial meetings have always included a declaration that recognises work already done and sets the agenda for the future. In Rovaniemi, the parties could not agree on the content. Among other things, the US would not accept the words “climate change,” whereas the other participants felt the term was indispensable. Instead of a declaration, the eight Arctic countries ended up signing the Rovaniemi Joint Ministerial Statement – one page of text compared to the 13 pages of the Fairbanks Declaration of 2017.

The spirit of the Arctic Council remains one of constructive cooperation, and this was in evidence in Rovaniemi. Preserving the ideas that the declaration would have contained, Finland released a separate Statement by the Chair containing a full-length text divided into categories called environment and climate; the seas; the people; and strengthening the Arctic Council. The document will help guide the council through the following two years.

It includes the sentence, “A majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience.”

As Timo Koivurova of the Arctic Centre put it, “Finland succeeded as well as was possible in the current world situation.”

Happening as we speak

Caribou cross a river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.Photo: Kenneth R. Whitten/Alaska Stock/Lehtikuva

The speeches of the delegates at the ministerial meeting also helped ensure that the world would not lose sight of the council’s goals, despite the absence of a formal declaration. Many of them used pointed language.

James Stotts, Inuit Circumpolar Council president, stated, “It’s time to set the record straight. There is global climate change, and humans are responsible for much of it. That’s the plain truth, and we don’t understand those who would argue otherwise.”

He described the Inuit perspective: “We have it all: melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, stronger and more frequent storms causing erosion of our coastline…The Arctic climate has changed and the Arctic ecosystem is transforming before our very eyes.”

Representing the Gwich’in Council International, Edward Alexander referred to symbolism from the Gwich’in language and worldview to drive home his point: “We must care for each other like our world, like our family,” he said. The governments of today must not choose “to value temporary profit over our relatives and our relationships that have sustained us since time immemorial.”

He specifically called for an end to “all efforts to issue oil and gas licenses in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” in northeastern Alaska, in order to preserve the wilderness, the area’s caribou herd and the Gwich’in way of life.


Åsa Larsson Blind, Saami Council president, reiterated to the Arctic Council that people should not hesitate to mention climate change.Photo: Jouni Porsanger/Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström said, “Yes, the scientific findings are robust: The climate crisis in the Arctic is not a future scenario – it is happening as we speak.”

She mentioned Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who started an influential movement by going on strike from school to demand action against climate change. Wallström looked around at the assembled delegates and wondered aloud why they needed teenagers to tell them what had to be done.

Åsa Larsson Blind is president of the Saami Council; the Sámi homelands stretch across northern Finland, Sweden and Norway, as well as the northwestern corner of Russia. She used an example that even a child could comprehend: She referred to Voldemort, the evil wizard of the Harry Potter books, whose name people are afraid to say out loud, calling him “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” instead.

Larsson Blind said, “By mentioning [climate change] by its real name, we can fight it, reduce its impacts – and we do not even need magic.

“This room has the power to agree on ambitious levels of reduction of emissions and set the standard for the rest of the world,” she said, noting that we are “in a time of great urgency.”

By Peter Marten, May 2019

Biohacking journeys into Finnish forests

The word “forest” means many different things to people in Finland: food, shelter, recreation, business and inspiration. Biohackers improve their bodies and minds by “hacking” their own biology. Read on to see if the traditional connections between the Finns and the forest have something to offer modern health enthusiasts.

Biohacking may even include hardcore methods such as inserting technology under the skin like a sci-fi cyborg, or even trying to change your DNA. That seems worlds apart from visions of evergreen forests, where superhuman beings are absent and the population consists of animals so reclusive that people rarely see them. Let’s see where forests and biohacking overlap.

Wild food goes way beyond

Plants in the wild have to fight hard for their existence. Nutrients exist in higher concentrations in wild plants than in greenhouse varieties. Photo: Elina Sirparanta / Visit Finland

The Finnish concept of Everyman’s Right means everyone has free access to the forest, whether publicly or privately owned, and may also pick berries and mushrooms there.

Award-winning chef, author, forager and biohacker Sami Tallberg specialises in ultraseasonal, local, wild food. He could go on and on about the nutrient-dense raw food available in the wild (and in fact he does, when he hosts workshops).

Plants in the wild have to fight hard for their existence. You might even say they exhibiti sisu, that difficult-to-translate Finnish word meaning courage and perseverance. Nutrients exist in higher concentrations in wild plants than in greenhouse varieties.

“Organic food is good, but wild food goes way beyond that,” says Tallberg. His top three recommendations for nutritious health hacks are dandelion detox; spruce-sprout booster for cleansing the airways; and vitamin- and mineral-rich nettles (don’t eat them raw or the leaves will sting you) for any occasion requiring a little Popeye jolt. And pay attention to this next bit, because you’re unlikely to receive spam about it in your email: Yes, nettles are even said to increase libido.

“For me, as a chef, wild food forms the backbone of my work, but my relationship to the forest is also much more holistic than that,” says Tallberg. “The forest is my art gallery, my supermarket and my sanctuary.

“In my work and in my life, I continue the Finnish tradition of always being in sync with the seasons. The first Finns were hunter-gatherers, and I’m proud to be building the current Finnish culinary scene upon their tradition and wisdom.”

The properties of berries

Chefs are not the only ones touting the health benefits of the Finnish foods – particularly berries. In fact, for 20 years VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has been researching the antimicrobial properties of berries.

In the latest research, VTT found, in collaboration with Helsinki University Central Hospital, an indication that Rubus berries, such as raspberry and cloudberry, may contain a much-needed cure for fighting skin infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, most often seen in connection with certain surgeries.

The forest, and especially Finnish berries, have long formed a source of Finnish innovations in medicine, food supplements and cosmetics. Finnish company Aromtech provides supplements made from pure sea-buckthorn berries, which are rich in omega-3, -6, -7 and -9 and natural vitamin A and E. The supplements and topical products derived from sea-buckthorn oil convey a range of benefits.

Another company, Pihqa, relies on the centuries-old Finnish tradition of using natural spruce resin to treat various skin ailments. Applied to a scratch, the resin forms an antibacterial film and expedites the cleansing process.

Feeling alive

You can’t hack your biology with food alone, though. This brings us to a favourite Finnish subject: the sauna.

The oldest scientific research on the health benefits of the sauna dates back to 1765. The most widely acknowledged health benefit of visiting the sauna is a boost in blood circulation. Add a cold-water post-sauna dip, and your veins will surely feel alive.

Alternating hot and cold treatments is not unique to Finland, but in this sense the Finns may be at the top of the spectrum for boosting blood circulation with temperature contrasts. Saunas can be as hot as 100 degrees Celsius, and if you go outside to swim in icy-cold water or roll in the snow, the air temperature may be minus 30 degrees.

You can also hack your mind – with endorphins. Biochemical and psychological studies indicate the same result; whatever the cause, you feel good after a sauna.

Barefoot boost

Whenever kids visit a Finnish forest, each gram of soil contains as many as five billion harmless bacteria, which boost children’s natural immune systems in a natural way that protects them from non-communicable diseases.Photo: Riku Pihlanto / Visit Finland

Imagine this: walking barefoot across soft moss. The air is pleasant and has a high oxygen content, thanks to the photosynthesis of the trees all around you. Breathe in, breathe out. Nice, eh?

Well, besides the soft texture of the moss, another factor boosting circulation to your feet is the prickly ends of the pine and spruce needles on the forest floor. You can basically decide which hormone to boost on your forest walk: endorphins (boots on), or adrenaline (boots off).

To a dedicated biohacker, walking barefoot may sound a bit hippy-esque. But the soil you touch makes a difference. Aki Sinkkonen, a Finnish scholar in wildlife biology and nature-based solutions, would like to bring a piece of the Finnish forest to everyone, even in urban areas.

Whenever kids visit a Finnish forest, each gram of soil contains as many as five billion harmless bacteria, which boost children’s natural immune systems in a natural way that protects them from non-communicable diseases. In an urban setting, a sandbox at the local playground contains only 10,000 to 100,000 bacteria per gram, and that’s not enough.

“Finnish forests are an ideal setting to gain healthy exposure to the diverse microbiota because, due to our cold winters, we lack the more dangerous disease-causing pathogens,” Sinkkonen says. And there’s always a forest nearby, usually within walking distance, even in the capital, Helsinki.

Fresh, fresher and freshest air

The word “forest” means many different things to people in Finland: food, shelter, recreation, business and inspiration.Photo: Laura Vanzo / Visit Tampere

The further away from the city you are, the more likely you are to come across beard moss, named for the way it looks hanging on tree trunks and branches.

The Finns will tell you that if pollution-sensitive beard moss is growing on old trees, it’s a sign that the air is clean. Finland and the other Nordic countries have the cleanest air in the world, and you know you’ve arrived when you see beard moss.

When you reach that place, your lungs may say kiitos (thank you).

By Virve Ilkka, April 2019

Historic eastern Finnish monastery still offers solitude and creative energy

Heinävesi, a quiet and picturesque municipality near the eastern Finnish city of Joensuu, forms the religious and cultural centre of Finland for Orthodox Christians, who make up about one percent of the total population, according to official statistics of religious affiliation.

Valamo Monastery, the only all-male Orthodox monastery in Finland, has existed in Heinävesi since 1940. That year, because of the Second World War, 200 brothers were evacuated from a centuries-old monastery of the same name on Valamo Island in Lake Ladoga, part of the eastern Finnish territory that was eventually ceded to the Soviet Union.

For the many visitors to the monastery, including Finnish artists and cultural figures and tourists from Russia, Japan and all over Europe, it is a place for prayer, solitude and creativity. A visit to the monastery provides an opportunity for introspection and reflection on the core values of life.

Miraculous journeys

At present, about 20 monks live in the monastery on a permanent basis, but more than 110,000 people visit each year.Photo: Pentti Potkonen/Valamo Monastery

“I promised to myself that if I went to Finland I would definitely kiss the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Valamo,” says Vera Gagarina, 32, from Russia. “That’s why I came here.”

Orthodox Christians believe this icon works miracles, and people visit from all over the world. It was transported from the old Valamo Monastery during the evacuation, along with an ancient icon of Our Lady of Konevets delivered from Mount Athos in 1393; relics; ancient iconostases; numerous items of church plate; thousands of library books and even bells.

The monks were helped to safety across the frozen Lake Ladoga in Finnish army trucks. After reaching Heinävesi, the brotherhood purchased a 19th-century estate called Papinniemi (Priest Peninsula). They made their decision partly because they happened to find a small icon of Saint Sergius and Saint Herman of Valamo in the main building of the estate.

In 1977, to mark the 800th anniversary of the Orthodox Christian Church in Finland, the stone Transfiguration Cathedral was built on the Valamo grounds in Heinävesi. Church services are held there every day. At present, about 20 monks live in the monastery on a permanent basis.

A favourite haven for public figures

Valamo Monastery is located in the eastern Finnish lake district. It’s a peaceful area for walks in the woods, swimming, a lakeshore sauna or a boat trip.Photo: Pentti Potkonen/Valamo Monastery

The monastery has been a place of pilgrimage for Finland’s cultural elite since the 1960s.

The most outstanding persons of that time included Orthodox Christian writer and thinker Tito Colliander and his wife, artist Ina Colliander. She focused on Orthodox Christian and icon-painting motifs and in the 1970s she decorated the stone Transfiguration Cathedral with mosaics. Well-known film director Kalle Holmberg and his wife, playwright and scriptwriter Ritva Holmberg, also liked to visit. Famous rebel poet Pentti Saarikoski lies buried in the cemetery of the monastery in accordance with his will. Poetry lovers visit his grave and leave ballpoint pens on it.

“Many well-known actors, painters, musicians, writers and public figures still visit the monastery,” says hieromonk Michael, who lives at the monastery.

Hospitable environment

“I promised to myself that if I went to Finland I would definitely kiss the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Valamo,” says Vera Gagarina, who is visiting from Russia.Photo courtesy of Vera Gagarina

A small guesthouse is available to artists upon request, continuing the tradition of hospitality begun at the original monastery on Lake Ladoga.

“The nature surrounding Valamo left one of the greatest impressions of my trip,” says Gagarina. “I visited in the middle of the winter and clean, white snow was everywhere – under my feet, on tree branches, on the rooftops and even on my eyelashes. The feeling of absolute solitude was palpable. That’s what I lacked in crowded, noisy Moscow. Peace of mind is what I gained from Valamo.”

By Anna Liukko, April 2019

Finnish parliamentary elections: Record number of women winners

The main issues driving Finland’s 2019 parliamentary election on April 14, 2019 included the previous government coalition’s unsuccessful attempt to pass a long-debated social and healthcare reform; the need for action to mitigate climate change; and immigration policies. A new Parliament is elected every four years.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) took 17.7 percent of the votes, entitling it to 40 seats in the 200-seat Parliament. This marks the return of the SDP, which had not been the largest party in Parliament since 1999. It also represents a historically narrow victory, as the SDP was followed by the unabashedly populist “Finns” Party with 17.5 percent (39 seats) and the moderate conservative National Coalition Party with 17 percent (38 seats).

The conservative Centre Party, leader of the previous government coalition, fell precipitously from 49 seats to 31, with 13.8 percent of the vote. The Greens, strong in urban areas, posted a personal best by adding five seats for a total of 20, their largest ever. The Left Alliance added four seats to bring its total to 16. Both the Greens and the Left Alliance had kept climate change at the forefront of their campaigns.

The Swedish People’s Party, whose constituency relies mainly on speakers of Swedish, which is also an official language in Finland, held steady at nine seats. The Christian Democrats, in turn, clung to their five seats. Well-known businessman and MP Harry Harkimo retained his place in Parliament after leaving the National Coalition Party to form a non-party called Movement Now.

Women and youth make progress

Li Andersson, already a two-term MP and the leader of the Left Alliance at age 31, addresses the party’s followers as the 2019 election results roll in.Photo: Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva

Voter turnout was the highest since 1991, at a respectable 72 percent, almost two percentage points above the 2015 figure. All citizens 18 or over are automatically registered to vote and receive a letter of notification in the post before each election. A total of 4.5 million people are entitled to vote, including about 250,000 Finnish citizens living abroad.

A record number of women won seats: 93, equaling 47 percent of the new Parliament – the previous high point, 85, happened in 2011. Eighty-five percent of Green candidates were female, and only three out the party’s 20 MPs are male. Women hold 22 of the SDP’s 40 seats.

All in all, 83 incoming MPs are new to Parliament. Eight members are under 30 years old, and 48 percent of Parliament is under 45. Iiris Suomela, 24, a Green from the central western city of Tampere, is the youngest MP in the new session.

The weight of a vote

From left: Social Democratic Party spokesperson Dimitri Qvintus, party chair Antti Rinne, and Rinne’s wife Heta Ravolainen-Rinne after the April 14, 2019 election.Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva

The biggest vote-magnet candidates receive tens of thousands of votes, but in some districts, candidates can squeak into Parliament with just over 2,000 votes. This means that every vote carries a value that is both significant and mathematically appropriate. Perhaps this is one reason that people get out and vote, keeping voter participation high.

As the SDP begins negotiations to form a government coalition, Finland’s largest daily, Helsingin Sanomat, suggests that one likely scenario would involve the SDP, the National Coalition Party, the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. Many other combinations are possible – even ones that don’t include the SDP – but each additional party brought into the coalition complicates the path to finding common ground.

By ThisisFINLAND staff, April 15, 2019

Coffee, machines and an array of parties go into Finland’s parliamentary election

Finland holds elections for its 200-seat, single-chamber parliament every four years, coincidentally always the year before the US presidential election. This means that, as winter turns to spring and Finnish politicians are gearing up for an April election, American presidential hopefuls are announcing their candidacies.

While voters, and probably politicians too, may breathe a sigh of relief that election season lasts only a couple months in Finland, nobody is saying that Finnish politics is dull.

On March 8, 2019, with five weeks to go before the election, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä dissolved his conservative government coalition, citing its failure to get a long-debated social and healthcare reform approved.

Even without such chess moves, the election offers a wide field of parties and candidates, causing voters to pause for thought. Apart from paid advertising, rows of posters go up in public places several weeks before the election, with each one showing the candidates from a different party. In the capital, for instance, voters are taking stock of an array of 17 different posters.

Multiparty juggling act

Campaigning heats up as spring arrives, with just a few weeks to go before the election. Parties set up camp on town squares, such as this one in the eastern Finnish city of Joensuu, often right beside each other.Photo: Ismo Pekkarinen/Lehtikuva

Three groups that currently hold seats in Parliament are actually facing their first election. How is that possible? They all formed as breakaways during the previous term.

The so-called Blue Reform came into existence when 19 members of Parliament left the populist “Finns” Party, dissatisfied with the party’s choice of leader. Movement Now, created when well-known businessman and MP Harry Harkimo left the conservative National Coalition Party, is actually not a party, but a movement, as its name implies. Long-time political player Paavo Väyrynen formed something called the Seven Star Movement after being asked to leave the Citizens’ Party, which he himself had created after cutting ties with the Centre Party.

In addition to those mentioned above, parties in the outgoing Parliament include the Left Alliance, the Green League, the Social Democratic Party, the Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the Christian Democratic Party. The Feminist Party is on the ballot this year for the first time.

Sorting through the candidates

You write the number of your candidate on the inside of a folded card before placing it in the ballot box. Photo: Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva

In a race where ten or 12 parties have a viable chance at winning seats in Parliament, what do you do if you can’t decide who to support? Some people try an election machine – not the same as a voting machine. For years, Finland’s largest daily, Helsingin Sanomat, and the Finnish national broadcaster Yle have each offered interactive online questionnaires to help voters narrow down their choices and seek information. Other media and organisations also publish their own versions, which may focus on a smaller set of issues or a certain region of the country.

Election machines have proved immensely popular. Yle offers its version, called the Election Compass, in English and Russian, in addition to the two official national languages Finnish and Swedish.

“Machine” might make it sound complicated, but it’s easy. The publishers solicit answers to a few dozen key questions from candidates ahead of time and feed the responses into the system. Then you go online and answer the same questions, clicking through the list.

Here are a few examples from the Yle site: Should Finland be a forerunner in the fight against climate change? Should the Finnish state encourage people to eat less meat using measures such as taxation? Should under-18s be allowed to undergo gender reassignment treatment? Should childcare leave be equally distributed between parents? Would NATO membership enhance Finland’s security? Should Helsinki introduce a traffic congestion surcharge during rush hour?

You can check who holds values and views that match your own, either question by question or in total. The results sometimes surprise users. Then you have the opportunity to click on those candidates and see their answers in greater depth.

Is this applying artificial intelligence to voting? Well, no, but it is a way to organise your thoughts and do some research before heading out to vote.

Show up and have your say

You go behind a screen to write down your vote in privacy.Photo: Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva

People do get out and vote. Voter turnout for the previous parliamentary election was a respectable 70.1 percent. All citizens 18 or over are automatically registered to vote and receive a notice in the mail before each election. Advance voting starts about two weeks before election day and accounts for almost half of the votes (46.1 percent of ballots cast in the 2015 parliamentary election happened during the advance voting period.)

Combine this with the Finnish proclivity for drinking coffee – the Finns drink more than ten kilograms per capita annually, the most in the world – and you have the makings of a tradition: election day coffee. People make voting into an outing by combining it with a stop at the local café. In fact, they used to get dressed up in their best clothes to go and vote. Folks are less formal nowadays, but the tradition of voting remains strong.

Parents may bring their kids with them to the polling place to get them interested, hoping the tradition will carry over to the next generation. The whole voting process takes a few minutes. You show your ID, they check your name off the list, and you receive a folded card. You go behind the screen and write the number of your candidate inside the card. Then they stamp the front of the card and you place it into a slot in a sealed box.

And that’s it. Afterwards you go for coffee with friends or family. The April weather may even be good enough to sit at an outdoor table. If you go the advance voting route, you can still go for coffee, no matter what day it is.

With so many parties, it’s highly unlikely that one of them could win outright. Usually the party with the most seats in Parliament bands together with several other parties to form a government coalition and get things done. For this reason, most voters select a party first and then a candidate. Even if that candidate doesn’t get in, the vote will still help that party gain seats.

More info about Finland’s parliamentary elections here.

By Peter Marten, April 2019

Finnish cybersecurity CEO understands the nuts and bolts of technology

Risto Siilasmaa is the chairman of the board of directors of Nokia Corporation and an entrepreneur at heart. In addition to leading Nokia’s recent transformation, he is founder and chairman of the board of cybersecurity company F-Secure. He’s also known as a business angel who has invested in a number of tech startups. Here’s his story:

“I was fascinated by artificial intelligence during the end of the 1980s and spent numerous hours working on Natural Language Processing challenges using a weird and wonderful programming language called Lisp. The effort didn’t really amount to much, but at least I could claim, forever after, that I had worked in the hallowed field of artificial intelligence (AI).

In 2006, the cybersecurity company I founded back in 1988 started using neural networks to identify malicious applications. Though F-Secure didn’t immediately enjoy much success with it – as often happens when you’re just a little bit too early with a new technology – it was my second brush with AI and my first with machine learning.

Third time lucky? The current renaissance with machine learning took off around 2012, and I continued to feed my fascination with the promise of intelligent machines through books and meetings with researchers on the topic. As chairman of Nokia, I was fortunate to be able to worm my way into the calendars of the movers and shakers of the AI world. I only understood bits and pieces, and initially believed the topic was so difficult that it would take ages to truly comprehend. But I also became frustrated with my discussion partners, some of whom seemed more intent on showing off their own advanced understanding of the topic than explaining what they knew in plain, comprehensible language.

So, I spent some time complaining. Where could I find good material explaining how machine learning works in terms that would speak to anyone who loves to understand how things work?

Then I remembered what being an entrepreneur meant. An entrepreneurial mind does not just complain to others, but always considers fixing the issue oneself. As a longtime CEO and chairman, I’ve gotten used to having things explained to me. Somebody else does the hard work and I can focus on figuring out the right questions.

Sometimes CEOs and chairmen may feel that understanding technology is in some way beneath their role, that it’s enough for them to focus on things like “creating shareholder value.” Alternatively, they may feel that they can’t learn something seemingly complicated and therefore don’t consider trying. Neither one is the entrepreneurial way.

So I thought: Why not study machine learning myself and then explain what I learned to others who are struggling with the same questions? With a quick internet search I found Andrew Ng’s courses on Coursera. I started with Machine Learning and had a lot of fun getting reacquainted with programming. Andrew turned out to be a great teacher who genuinely wants people to learn.

Fun aside, it didn’t take long before I was able to appreciate both the shortcomings and the strengths of the current state of machine learning. It turned out to be both much less than I had expected, but at the same time, in many applications, more powerful and much more fascinating than I had dared hope.

Over time I gained enough understanding to explain what I felt were the most important aspects of machine learning to CEOs, politicians, academics (in other fields) and, frankly, any decision makers. Inspired by Andrew Ng, I wanted to provide them with intuition on, for instance, why machine learning is so topical right now and why it is dangerous to ignore machine learning.”

Five points about machine learning

  • Machine learning is not programmed: it is taught with data. The value you get from it is a function of the quality of the data you feed it.
  • Because the intelligence is really just numbers and the architectures are relatively simple, it is not truly intelligence at all. Machine learning systems do not really understand – so far.
  • Machine learning is a one-way street. You can have a neural network recognise faces, but you cannot ask it to describe any of the faces it knows.
  • If you teach a machine learning system two skills, it cannot combine them to create a third skill. There is no autonomy in the systems.
  • We are barely scratching the surface of applying machine learning. The revolution is under way, but it is only starting to gain speed.

By Risto Siilasmaa, ThisisFINLAND Magazine 2019

Home crowd cheers as Finland hosts World Hockey Championship

The puck has stopped along two distinct analytical lines regarding the hierarchy of women’s ice hockey during its 29 years of major international tournament competition: There is the US and Canada, and then there is the rest of the world.

Since its inception in 1990, the Women’s World Championship tournament has been won ten times by the Canadians and eight times by the Americans, with Team USA taking seven of the last eight gold medals. In fact, no country other than Canada and the US has even won silver.

Meanwhile, the world’s most competitive women’s ice hockey team outside North America is Finland, which has progressed to the bronze-medal match every single time. With more bronzes (12) than any nation, and tied with Sweden for most fourth-place finishes (six), Finland is attempting to become the first non–North American winner when the 19th world championships are held in Espoo, just west of Helsinki, from April 4 to 14, 2019.

A chance to challenge

Noora Räty, Finland’s goaltender, is in position to stop a shot from Canada’s Sarah Fillier in the Four Nations Cup in November 2018.Photo: Liam Richards/PA Photos/Lehtikuva

“This year Finland has a good chance to challenge,” says Tuula Puputti, general manager of Team Finland and general secretary of the organising committee for the 2019 World Championship.

There are several reasons why Finland could become the first team to unseat the USA and Canada.

Finland will have home ice for the fourth time in tournament history; it was held in Tampere in 1992, in Espoo and Vantaa in 1999, and in Hämeenlinna in 2009. Finland is missing only one player from its bronze-medal performance in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

“You think you know me,” begins the narrator, in a tone that makes it both a question and a statement. The video, entitled “This is who I am,” shows training and game clips of some of the World Championship players.
Video: International Ice Hockey Federation

And not to be underestimated is the fact that the Finnish government now financially supports its top-level female hockey players.

After the 2018 Olympics, 22 Team Finland players each received a 10,000-euro grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture, allowing them to cover some of their living expenses while devoting most of their time to training. For the majority of the squad, it was the first time receiving such a grant, and 10,000 euros doubled the amount given the previous year, when eight players received 5,000 euros each.

Puputti, a former Olympic and national team goaltender for Finland, says this is “the best situation we’ve ever had” to prepare for the World Championship.

The earnings game

Goal’s-eye view: A camera at the back of the net shows Finnish goalie Noora Räty with a glove and a leg out as Russia’s Lyudmila Belyakova (10) approaches during Pyeongchang Olympic action in February 2018.Photo: AFP/Lehtikuva

Equitable financial support has always been a point of contention in women’s hockey. Team USA threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan, until it received treatment equal to that of its male counterparts.

Whereas many male national players earn substantial sums of money as professionals in the National Hockey League and other high-profile leagues, women’s professional hockey leagues are scarce and do not pay well. Traditionally, female national-team hockey players have been left to choose between consistent training and work.

While American and Canadian female hockey players have better access to professional leagues in North American, some members of Team Finland’s lineup have also closed the financial gap by competing in the Swedish Women’s Hockey League, the highest level of competition for women in the Nordics. Puputti says the Swedish league remains just semiprofessional, but it gives Finnish women better financial and competitive footing to prepare for the national team.

Ten teams competing

Finland’s Ella Viitasuo (right) moves to steal the puck from American player Sydney Brodt during the Four Nations Cup in Saskatchewan, Canada a few months before the 2019 World Championship.Photo: Liam Richards/AP/Lehtikuva

“If everyone stays healthy and all goes well, we’ll maybe have our best team ever,” said Puputti, who played collegiately at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

With better financial support worldwide, women’s hockey is expanding its footprint. The field for the 2019 World Championship now has ten qualifying teams instead of eight, coinciding with the ten-team field that will be invited to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998. As in the World Championship, Finland has never won Olympic gold, but it took bronze in 1998 in Nagano, in 2010 in Vancouver and in 2018 in Pyeongchang.

For the World Championship tournament in Finland, Group A consists of the top-five-seeded teams: USA, Canada, Finland, Russia and Switzerland. Group B includes Sweden, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic and France. Following round-robin play, all Group A teams and the top three Group B teams advance to the quarterfinals.

Fans who pack into the 6,982-seat Metro Arena will see only one difference in rules between men’s and women’s hockey: Body checking is not allowed. The debate continues about whether to change this rule in order to promote equality, but women’s hockey remains a contact-filled, fast-paced sport – that’s the nature of ice hockey.

By Michael Hunt, March 2019