Living in a Science Fictional Present: Food from Air, Water from Sunlight

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” is my favorite line from the movie The Martian. The amazing thing about our species is that we do that every day, and every once in a while it pays off in a phenomenal way. Below are two cases that have the potential to do just that.

Researchers at the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. have created a process for making protein from air. Specifically, it uses carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, plus added nutrients.

Solar Foods Solein Protein Powder Sm

Apparently they’ve had a test installation running since June. The resulting protein powder, dubbed Solein, looks like flaky meal and reportedly tastes like wheat.

Read more at Yle news (Finnish only), or in English at The Guardian or Solar Foods website.

Professor Peng Wang from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia lead a study introducing a strategy to produce fresh water. Essentially, a distillation unit attached to photovoltaic panels evaporates seawater at relatively low temperatures more efficiently than conventional solar stills and yet generates electricity at the same time.

BBC News Wenbin Wang Solar Panel Water Purifier Concept

More at BBC News and journal Nature Communications.

Images: Solein protein powder by Solar Foods. Combined solar panel and water purifier by Wenbin Wang via BBC News.

An Updated Game of Thrones Hotel Made of Snow and Ice

The Snow Village hotel in Kittilä in Lapland, Finland (which I blogged about last year), updated its Game of Thrones scenery for the 2018-2019 season.

Flickr Timo Kytta GoT Dining Room

As previously, they’re collaborating with HBO Nordic. This year’s snow and ice sculptures cover seasons 1-7 of the GoT tv series.
Instagram Snow Village Baratheon Bedroom

Instagram Snow Village Three-eyed Raven

Like their previous GoT creation, it looks absolutely amazing! Check out more and/or follow Snow Village on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Images: Dining room by Timo Kyttä on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Baratheon bedroom via Snow Village on Instagram. Three-eyed raven via Snow Village on Instagram.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

2-Hour Fan-Made Pokémon Musical Online

Any Pokémon fans here? This might be of interest.

In 2016, a group of dedicated fans in Finland created a musical based on Pokémon games, toured the country, and uploaded a two-hour video of the live performance online:

“Valitsen sinut! -musikaali (I Choose You! The Musical) is an entirely fan-made musical based on Pokémon games Red, Blue and Yellow, as well as the first season of the anime. Behind the project there is a volunteer team of 50 people, and the musical toured Finland in 2016, the 20th anniversary of Pokémon.

“We’re not affiliated with Nintendo or Pokémon Company in any way. No one was paid for the project, and our crowdfunding was used fully for creating the musical.”

Valitsen sinut! -musikaali on YouTube

The performance is entirely in Finnish, but English subtitles are available on YouTube.

So far, I haven’t seen more than a few minutes from the beginning. Looks like the performers were really motivated, though, and enjoyed themselves. Really cool. I’ll have to carve time to see the whole. Mahtavaa!

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: Tanks Being Repulsed by Pistol Fire

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR). Here’s another literally incredible detail.

Fighting was going on near Hulkoniemi village (close to Suomussalmi) near the eastern border in December 1939:

“[T]wo Red tanks attacked a Finnish squad caught in lightly wooded terrain near the village. A lieutenant named Huovinen taped five stick grenades together and crawled forward toward the tanks; his friend, First Lieutenant Virkki, intended to provide covering fire, despite the fact that he was carrying only his side arm. At a range of forty meters Virkki stood up and emptied his 9 mm. Lahti automatic at the vehicles’ observation slits. The T-28s replied with a spray of machine-gun fire, and Virkki went down. Those watching felt sure he had been killed. But he had only dropped down to slap another magazine into the butt of his weapon. That done, he jumped up and once more emptied his pistol at the tanks. Altogether this deadly dance step was repeated three times, at which point the Russian tankers seemed to become unnerved. They turned around and clanked back to the village. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Huovinen had been crawling closer to them from the rear and now had his arm cocked to throw the grenade bundle. Just at that moment the tank nearest him put on speed and retreated. He lowered his grenades in astonishment. Surely there were not many instances in modern warfare of tanks being repulsed by pistol fire.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

I’m flabbergasted! Gobsmacked! Slack-jawed! Astounded! A pistol against two tanks, and not a scratch!

In school, we’ve been through the major whys and wherefores, but I don’t remember small-scale stories like this. If you’d put this in a fictional story of any kind, I’m not sure I’d believe it. And, yet, it happened to countrymen of mine.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 157.

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Quotes: Finns Know How to Listen to the Stillness in the Great Forest

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR). Here’s another tidbit that caught my attention:

“Finns know how to listen to the stillness in the great forest; for them it is never absolutely silent, and they can read considerable information about their environment from the sounds of which outsiders are not even aware. Finns, in short, can adapt to their environment because they feel a part of it.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

I know people who love water, to be on and in the water, whether a lake or an ocean. I don’t. It’s nice to look at or splash in now and then, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t adore it.

I’m in love with woods.

I need trees to feel whole and at peace, and preferably wild instead of planted and pruned trees. Whether in the cool, clear incandescence of summer nights, or wet, loamy autumn rain, or the crisp, brisk dark of winter, or, finally, the unhurried, budding, green spring, Finnish woods are dear to me.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 145.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Finns Were on Intimate Terms with Winter

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR).

It’s easy for a modern Finn—at least this modern Finn—to get tired of reading endless takes, almost exclusively by foreigners, condemning the horribleness of the Finnish winter. Like in this excerpt from a book on the Winter War:

“One of the main factors that enabled the Finns to destroy forces much larger than their own was surely rooted in the differing psychologies of the men engaged on either side. To the Finnish soldier, the cold, the snow, the forest, the long hours of darkness were all factors that could be turned to his advantage. To say that the Finns were on intimate terms with winter is to voice an understatement. In Finland winter is the fact of life, and all else—the economy, the culture, the national psychology—is colored by, or derived from, that single overriding reality. The relationship between the Finns and winter constitutes something of a contradiction. On the one hand, winter makes life harsh and lonely and something crude. It is this aspect of living with winter, the cumulative effect of endless subarctic nights, the unearthly silences of the winter landscape, the harsh and marginal quality of rural life, that imparts to the Finnish character that dour and brooding quality that is so hard for foreigners to penetrate.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 [original emphasis]

It is true that we stayed poor quite long and urbanised quite fast, pretty much during my parents’ generation, so it’s easy for me to lose perspective. Even as late as 1950s (I believe) it wasn’t unheard of for more remote farms not to have electricity. And our winters are undoubtedly long and dark compared to even central Europe, not to mention the Mediterranean and further south.

What bugs me, though, is that people seem to expect conditions like Siberia or Greenland. Hate to disappoint you, but our climate is greatly tempered by the Gulf stream and it isn’t that different from, say, New England. Another detail I’d like foreigners to really learn is that less than half of the country is arctic, and that means the rest is not. The southern coast is, in fact, part of the temperate broadleaf forest zone which covers most of central Europe, Britain, southern Scandinavia, and southern Russia.

I do grant that the Finnish character hasn’t caught up with the technological development, at least not yet: in general terms, we still tend towards melancholy despite now having world-class cities, transportation, and tech.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 144.

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Quotes: Willful and Obstinate Little Country

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR).

In November 1939, just before hostilities broke out, a Finnish delegation met with the Soviets in Moscow to discuss land transfers and other concessions Russians demanded from Finland. The following tidbit is reportedly from the delegation’s last meeting with Stalin and Molotov.

“But after an hour of futile discussion it was obvious to everyone that the whole business had come to a dead end. Each side bade farewell to the other. Since the Finnish delegates were clearly just as upset by this outcome as the Russians, the final meeting ended with remarkably little display of animosity by anyone. The actual parting, in fact, was almost jovial. Molotov waived and said, ‘Au revoir!’ and Stalin shook hands all around and wished the Finns ‘all the best’. Then he went off to confer with his generals about how best to subdue this willful and obstinate little country.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

It’s not clear whether “willful and obstinate little country” is Stalin’s phrasing or Trotter’s. I like it nevertheless—it tells you a very important thing of the Finnish character: as we say, a strong will takes you through a grey stone. 🙂 Or, in this case, it slows down a massive army significantly enough to retain the country’s independence, which none of the other small Baltic states were able to do.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 18.

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New Find: Most Uralic Speakers Share Siberian Ancestry

(This post is mostly a Note to Self—I don’t want to forget about the study below—but if other people are interested, that’s great.)

The majority of languages spoken in North Eurasia belong to three language families—Turkic, Indo-European, and Uralic. My native language Finnish is a part of the Uralic languages; the main branches of the family are the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed.

While there’s rough agreement over where and how Uralic languages developed and spread, and over what types of material cultures were found in the corresponding areas, no-one’s done comprehensive studies on the genetic history of Uralic-speaking peoples before.

This interdisciplinary study, lead by Kristiina Tambets from the University of Tartu, Estonia, compared genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia.

From the abstract:

“The genetic origins of Uralic speakers from across a vast territory in the temperate zone of North Eurasia have remained elusive. Previous studies have shown contrasting proportions of Eastern and Western Eurasian ancestry in their mitochondrial and Y chromosomal gene pools. While the maternal lineages reflect by and large the geographic background of a given Uralic- speaking population, the frequency of Y chromosomes of Eastern Eurasian origin is distinctively high among European Uralic speakers. The autosomal variation of Uralic speakers, however, has not yet been studied comprehensively. […]

“Here, we present a genome-wide analysis of 15 Uralic-speaking populations which cover all main groups of the linguistic family. We show that contemporary Uralic speakers are genetically very similar to their local geographical neighbours. However, when studying relationships among geographically distant populations, we find that most of the Uralic speakers and some of their neighbours share a genetic component of possibly Siberian origin. Additionally, we show that most Uralic speakers share significantly more genomic segments identity-by-descent with each other than with geographically equidistant speakers of other languages. We find that correlated genome-wide genetic and lexical distances among Uralic speakers suggest co- dispersion of genes and languages. Yet, we do not find long-range genetic ties between Estonians and Hungarians with their linguistic sisters that would distinguish them from their non-Uralic-speaking neighbours.”

Tambets et al Geo Distribution Uralic Populations w Lang Tree

And the conclusion:

“Here, we present for the first time the comparison of genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia. We show that (1) the Uralic speakers are genetically most similar to their geographical neighbours; (2) nevertheless, most Uralic speakers along with some of their geographic neighbours share a distinct ancestry component of likely Siberian origin. Furthermore, (3) most geographically distant Uralic speaking populations share more genomic IBD segments with each other than with equidistant populations speaking other languages and (4) there is a positive correlation between linguistic and genetic data of the Uralic speakers. This suggests that the spread of the Uralic languages was at least to some degree associated with movement of people. Moreover, the discovery of the Siberian component shows that the three known major components of genetic diversity in Europe (European hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic farmers and the Early Bronze Age steppe people) are not enough to explain the extant genetic diversity in (northeast) Europe.”

I find the question of which material cultures may have spread together with which languages absolutely fascinating. Having my own small language / culture be a part of a larger study like this makes it even more special.

I was also surprised to learn that only three Uralic languages—Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian—are not listed as endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. (I did know that several of the tiniest ones like Mari or the Permic languages have been endangered for decades, but I had thought that some of the Samoyed or Ugric languages had more speakers than that.)

While I doubt these three will go extinct very soon, there’s pressure at least in Finland to adopt more and more loanwords from English. Then again, we three may end up being rather rare, all in all, and I’m not quite sure whether to be alarmed over our potential disappearance or proud of our preciousness—or both.

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only). (Related article on the Siberian genes of Finns and the Sami in English via University of Helsinki.)

Tambets, Kristiina et al. 2018. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations”. Genome Biology 19:139. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-018-1522-1. The article is openly accessible (CC BY 4.0).

Image screencapped from Kristiina Tambets et al.

On, of, and about languages.

Christopher Robin Trailers with Thoughts on Gender

The movie Christopher Robin opens in a week, on August 03, 2018.

Here’s a trailer from the end of May:

Christopher Robin Official Trailer by Disney Movie Trailers

And a sneak peek from July:

Christopher Robin “Adventure” – Sneak Peek by Disney Movie Trailers

I remember liking Nalle Puh stories (as they were translated into my native language) quite a bit, so I wonder what my reaction to the voice acting will be, since I didn’t grow up thinking of the characters in terms of gender.

You see, Finnish does not have grammatical gender at all; we only have gender-neutral third-person pronouns (singular hän or plural he). This means that for me the only explicitly female character in the gang was Kengu because she was a mother, and the only explicitly male character was Risto Reipas because he was a human boy. The others were their own individual, quirky, stuffed-animal selves.

I guess the closest I can come is associating the stuffed animal characters with the non-binary gender identity. They didn’t need categorization into male or female, because that’s not how I saw their world working. I still don’t, even though talking about them in English forced me to learn which pronouns English associates with each.

It’s fascinating to notice myself using gendered English-language pronouns and yet at the same time still thinking of the stuffed animal characters as not fitting into those divisions. Eating too much honey and getting stuck in someone’s doorway, or figuring out that a popped balloon and an empty jar of honey go splendidly together do not require the gendering of anybody in the story.

I really do wonder how my perception changes after hearing voice actors and their intonational choices—or whether it will change at all.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Quotes: Finland Is Weird. Finland Is Different

I first became aware of Adrian Tchaikovsky when he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. I’ve been meaning to check out his writing since then. Ironclads, a limited-edition hardcover novella, finally made it to the top of my TBR pile last month.

The novella was great in several respects, but I was especially tickled by the American POV character’s descriptions of Finland and Finns. For example:

“All the middle of Nordland is the bit we’ve got problems with, basically: Sweden and Finland, say the maps. Sweden is where the fighting is, and the other place… Finland is weird. Finland is different.“

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads

The version of U.S. in the story is fighting in Scandinavia, and, due to having laxer laws on genetic modification, Finland apparently has become home to very interesting types of special forces.

But the best, the absolutely best detail is mentioned in this section:

Quotes Tchaikovsky Ironclads

“[F]or a long time I couldn’t even work out what was on her screens. Then it started animating, frame by stilted frame, and I worked out that some parts of what I was seeing were a satellite view. The vast majority of what should have been contested Swedish soil was smeared with roiling dark clouds that obscured any sight we might have had of what the enemy was doing.

“’Seriously,’ Sturgeon hissed, ‘what is that?’

“’Is that the flies?’ Lawes asked gloomily.

“’Yeah.’ Cormoran gave us a bright look. “Gentlemen, this is a gift from the Finns. They breed these little bugs, midges, they chip ’em and ship ’em, and every so often the Nords release a batch. There are millions of the little critters each time, and they basically just block the view of our satellites – and we can’t see a thing – no one can. So every time our forces advance, we’re going in blind. Makes for all kinds of fun.’

“’They bite?’ Franken asked uneasily. We were all thinking it: mosquitoes, disease, some kind of Finnish labgrown plague that zeroed in on the stars and stripes.

“’Not yet,’ Lawes told us. ‘Jolly thought though, ain’t it?’”

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads [original emphasis]

The militarization of mosquitoes! We already joke—as a way of dealing with an irritant that’s just a part and parcel of life—that mosquitoes are the Finnish air force. Finally, someone did it! 😀

It makes perfect sense in a world with aggressive biological research to turn a ubiquitous pest into an asset. Come to think of it, it sounds very much like the strategies that Finns used in the Winter War of 1939-1940 against Soviet forces—making native conditions work for you and against the enemy.

Of course, no one person can disapprove or approve of any characterization on behalf of their whole group. However, in My Official Opininon As a Finn, Tchaikovsky managed to balance well the view of Finland as part of Scandinavia with Finns being distinctly different from their Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish cousins. Also, he got so many little details right, like the way the Finnish language sounds, or our deep appreciation of nature.

I practically tore through the book. Kudos!

Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Ironclads. Oxford: Solaris, 2017, p. 22 and p. 29.

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.