Other people’s recipes: Fritz Knipschildt’s Chocolate–Peanut Butter Cookies

I should have gone out for a long bike ride today, but instead I’m writing about some chocolate-chip peanut-butter cookies I made on Saturday. At least that means I’m very nearly caught up with my posting backlog (well, except for Reykjavik). This recipe comes from Danish chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt’s Chocopologie (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), co-written with Mary Goodbody. The name of the book comes from Knipschildt’s line of confections and former bakery-cafe in Norwalk, Connecticut, and while all of the recipes either feature chocolate or are intended to accompany chocolate, the book is rather more on the bakery side than confectionery. I’ve made a brownie recipe from this book before, but this is the first of his drop-cookie recipes I’ve tried. He calls them “chocolate–peanut butter cookies” (p. 25), but I’d say “chocolate chip–peanut butter” would be more accurate.

Mise en place
Let’s start as usual with the mise en place. This book is unfortunately one of those that includes only volumetric measurements; I used nutrition labels and Harold McGee to determine measurements by mass for the ingredients where it matters. Clockwise from top left: 85 g of unsalted butter, 128 g of smooth peanut butter, one large egg, ½ cup (120 ml) of vegetable oil, pure vanilla extract (½ tbl is used here), 240 g of all-purpose flour, 120 g of confectioner’s sugar, a 10 oz (280 g) bag of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips, some leaveners, and 120 g of light brown sugar. The small bowl of leaveners contains ½ tsp each of baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Egg-oil emulsion
While the butter, peanut butter, and sugars are being creamed together in the stand mixer, the egg and oil are whisked together to form an emulsion.

Creamy batter before adding dry ingredients
The egg-oil emulsion is then stirred into the creamed butters and sugars until fully incorporated. The remaining dry ingredients (except chips) are stirred together and then slowly added to the wet ingredients just until fully combined.

Peanut butter batter before folding in chips
Once the peanut-butter dough comes together (and you could stop here and have a pretty decent peanut-butter cookie, or perhaps mix in chopped peanuts to complete the effect), it will be quite stiff. The mini chocolate chips are then folded in by hand with a rubber spatula. Knipschildt calls for 1¾ cups of mini chips, but I figured that a 12 oz bag is usually “2 cups” (whether it actually is or not), so a 10 oz bag like the Ghirardelli chips I was using was probably close enough to the right amount, and this is not a part of the recipe where proportions matter quite so much. At this point I had some other things to do, and packed the dough into a small mixing bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and left it in the fridge for several hours. The recipe doesn’t call for resting like this, but many cookie doughs benefit from the extra time.

Dough after refrigerating several hours
After resting, the dough is even firmer but yet still rather crumbly. I measured the overall yield of this recipe as 1080 g (perhaps it might even be closer to 1100 g if you don’t taste-test any of the dough while preparing it), which for the stated yield of 22–24 cookies suggests a portion size of about 50 g. I settled on using a #40 disher, which gave me somewhat smaller 45 g portions rather than the 55–60 g portions I got from a #30 disher.

45-gram dough balls, squashed flat, on cookie sheet
Because the dough had been in the refrigerator and was quite stiff, I expected it to be necessary to squash the dough balls by hand before baking — if you just bake the cookies straight off this is probably unnecessary. You can easily fit twelve on a standard cookie sheet, as these cookies don’t spread much. They go in a 350°F (175°C) oven for 12 minutes — mine never got “golden brown” as the recipe calls for, but they were definitely done all the same.

Baked cookies cooling on rack
Fully baked, the cookies don’t look all that different from before baking. They need to cool on the cookie sheet (on a wire rack) for a few minutes to allow the starches to set, otherwise they will fall apart when you try to move them. Once set, they can be transferred to a wire rack.

Full batch of cookies continuing to cool
My overall impression (having eaten a few of these by now) is that they are, like most peanut butter cookies, quite tender, almost shortbread-like in their crumbliness. I would have preferred something a bit more on the moist and chewy side, and with more chocolate flavor (that last defect might be due to short-dated chocolate chips I used). They’re still not bad, and I’ll be bringing them in to work to ensure that I don’t eat them all.


Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 cookie (45g before cooking)
Servings per recipe: about 24
Amount per serving
Calories 232 Calories from fat 123
% Daily Value
Total Fat 14​g 21%
 Saturated Fat 5​g 23%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 15​mg 5%
Sodium 109​mg 5%
Total Carbohydrate 27​g 9%
 Dietary fiber 2​g 6%
 Sugars 16​g
Proteins 4​g 8%
Vitamin A 2%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 1%
Iron 5%
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Other people’s recipes: Claire Ptak’s Rye Chocolate Brownies

Here in my home office, in front of the bookcase to the left of my desk I used to have a very large pile of cookbooks waiting to be scanned for interesting recipes and ultimately shelved in the kitchen bookcase with the other cookbooks. That pile is now down to just four — and that means I have a lot of new(ish) cookbooks that I am slowly starting to search when I’m looking to make something. Among those cookbooks was Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2015). Ptak is a Californian who now lives and owns a bakery in London, and her cookbook is another entry in the growing list of English cookbooks crossing the pond to North America. This has its good points (yay! more recipes with flour measured by weight!) but also some downsides (hmmm, I don’t have a dish with anything like those dimensions — or, as in yesterday’s recipe for korvapuusti, where TF do I find fresh yeast?!). One of the recipes that immediately intrigued me was “Rye Chocolate Brownies” (p. 153); it’s unusual to see rye used in baked goods aside from bread, and rye bread in this country nearly always has caraway in it, which I hate, so I don’t normally even keep it on hand. In the headnote to this recipe, Ptak credits Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine with the idea of using rye and chocolate together; Violet’s brownies were originally made with spelt flour.

Mise en place
Of course we always start with a mise en place. Clockwise from bottom left: 300 g of Valrhona Caraïbe, chopped into rough chunks for melting; 150 g of unsalted butter; 50 g of cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process after noting that the recipe does not use baking soda for leavening); 200 g of light brown sugar and 200 g of granulated sugar (Ptak calls for “unrefined” sugar but doesn’t say anywhere what she actually means by that — my view is that sugar is only unrefined when it’s still inside the cane); 200 g whole rye flour; pure vanilla extract (1 tbl is used); 1 tsp salt; ½ tsp baking powder; and four eggs (as close as I could come to the 200 g that is called for with the eggs in my fridge — the recipe calls for “medium” eggs, but I know that egg sizing is not the same in Britain and the US).

Chocolate and butter melting in double boiler
The recipe proceeds along familiar lines, if you followed my “Browniefest” series from a couple of years ago; I forget what I called this particular method back then, but it’s a lot like making a genoise, except much denser (and without the careful folding). Numerous brownie recipes follow this same procedure, starting with melting the fats (chocolate and butter) together in a double boiler or microwave. I used the double boiler in this case, just because it’s a bit slower and easier to monitor. The melted fats should be allowed to cool a bit before they are used.

Dry ingredient mixture
All the dry ingredients (rye flour, salt, cocoa powder, baking powder) are just whisked together until well mixed.

Egg foam
The eggs, sugars, and vanilla are whipped together in a stand mixer until the mixture is light in color and has expanded significantly in volume. The melted chocolate-butter mixture is then drizzled in, with the mixer running, followed by the dry ingredients, mixed just until they are combined. I’d actually suggest taking this off the mixer and folding in the dry ingredients by hand, although it’s not what Ptak calls for, nor what I did this time, just because it’s a lot easier to ensure you don’t overmix the batter that way.

Brownie batter in mixer
The finished batter is quite viscous and sticky. Ptak says to pour it into a prepared, parchment-lined 8×12 baking pan — I suppose 20×30 cm may be a common size in English kitchens, but I don’t have anything like that. The closest I could come is a quarter-sheet pan, which is just about eight inches wide, but enough longer than a foot that I was a bit uncertain whether it would work or not. (Of course, the standard baking pans for brownies and other bar cookies on this side of the pond are 8×8, 9×9, and 9×13 inches — the 9×13 is very close to the volume of two 8×8 pans, so it’s common to halve or double recipes intended for these pans.)

Brownie batter in a parchment-lined quarter-sheet pan
As we all know, the thing these days is putting salty and sweet together. After spreading the rather stiff batter onto the parchment (while holding the parchment to keep it from sliding around the pan!), a teaspoon of Maldon sea salt is sprinkled over the top and the brownies are baked in a 355°F (180°C) oven for 20–25 minutes. I took mine out after 21 minutes, but they probably could have stood the whole 25. (And 5 F° is really excess precision; your typical home oven is unlikely to maintain better than a 25 F° range of the set point; many are much much worse.)

Finished pan of brownies cooling on rack
After baking, the brownies must sit in the pan on a wire rack until completely cool. I made sure there was a bit of parchment overhanging one side to ease depanning.

Brownies after portioning
Using the parchment “sling” helps to avoid a multi-flip extraction, which keeps the crinkly surface from being crushed. This recipe — unlike nearly every other brownie recipe I’ve ever tried — actually calls for reasonable (bakery-size) portions, with a specified yield of twelve. That’s vastly easier to achieve than the 18 or 24 brownies many recipes allegedly get from a 9×13 pan, so even before trying one, this recipe rises above my expectations. When passing brownies around at work, however, I found it useful to cut these portions in half, because some people look at a normal bakery serving of brownie and think “I couldn’t possibly eat that much”. (Perhaps that’s how they stay so thin. If that’s the price you have to pay, I’d rather eat brownies, thanks.)

Close-up of single brownie
Seriously. Who can say “no” to that, who is of sound mind and not gluten-intolerant or vegan? These brownies are amazing, and everyone at work loved them, even the salt-hater (after she carefully brushed the Maldon flakes off the top of her serving). This recipe is at least as good as my previous favorite, King Arthur Flour’s whole-wheat double-chocolate brownies, with fewer ingredients and an easier prep.

Single brownie, edge on


Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 2⅔″×3″ rectangle
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 461 Calories from fat 202
% Daily Value
Total Fat 23​g 35%
 Saturated Fat 14​g 68%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 82​mg 27%
Sodium 428​mg 18%
Total Carbohydrate 49​g 20%
 Dietary fiber 8​g 31%
 Sugars 31​g
Proteins 7​g 15%
Vitamin A 8%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 4%
Iron 7%
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Other people’s recipes: Korvapuusti

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Those of you who follow this blog for the recipe walkthroughs are in luck, because I’m finally getting some more new recipes done. This first one was done back in April, after I got home from my trip to Finland, … Continue reading

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A day trip to Turku

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This is nearly the final post about my March–April, 2017, trip to Finland. I should have some Reykjavik pictures to post, if I can find the time and energy to edit them all (and remember what they were), but this … Continue reading

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Interlude: a better way of choosing presidential electors?

In a bitterly contested U.S. presidential election, like the one last year, the question often comes up about the perceived unfairness of the Electoral College, the system of indirect democracy we use for electing presidents. Every state is entitled to choose a number of electors equal to its combined representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate — this has the effect of giving voters in small states approximately three times the voting power of voters in California. There are, on the other hand, many many more people in California, so maybe it balances out.

If you actually believe in democracy, you probably think the chief executive ought to be chosen by direct election — preferably using a ranked-choice voting system like STV (Single Transferable Vote). But to enact such a change would require a constitutional amendment, and the small states — those with artificially boosted representation in the Electoral College — have a double veto on such changes, due to the requirement of a supermajority of both the Senate and the 50 state legislatures. So people have looked at alternative ways of choosing electors that wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment. One such is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which — if adopted by states representing at least 270 electoral votes and assuming no faithless electors — would give the presidency to the winner of the popular vote by voting a majority of electors for whoever that was. Currently, the NPV compact is still far from its goal of a majority of electoral college seats — unsurprisingly, the large states have ratified the compact and the small states mostly haven’t. It highlights the sort of collective-action problem inherent in fixing presidential voting: if the legislature of a member state saw partisan advantage in switching their vote, they could simply do so, by ordinary state law, and leave everyone else in the lurch.

Naturally, the question arises over whether it would be possible to have everyone’s votes count while maintaining the unfair advantage of the small states. One way to do this — which would also require collective action, since it doesn’t benefit the large states to enact it if the small states refuse to go along — would be apportion each state’s electors in accordance with the popular vote in that state. There are ways to do this which would be tolerably democratic, and there are ways to do it which are very undemocratic:

  1. You could randomly assign every voter to an “electoral district”, and give the winner of each district one elector. This only works if it’s truly random, and would be difficult to implement given how elections are implemented in most states (it’s assumed that everyone at the same polling place gets the same ballot).
  2. You could use any of a number of proportional representation systems to assign electors to candidates.
  3. You could do what Maine and Nebraska do already, and have separate electors for each Congressional District plus two at-large electors who, like Senators, represent the state-wide winner.

It should be clear that, so long as gerrymandering is permitted, option 3 is Very Bad: essentially it means that whoever controls the state legislature determines the outcome of the presidential election, but with a veneer of democracy that hides the essential corruptness of the system. Better for the legislature to just decide who the state will be voting for, as in the Old Days. So I’m focusing on option 2.

One of the common ways of apportioning representatives in a system of proportional representation is a system called the “d’Hondt Count”. It’s mathematically equivalent to what is known as “Jefferson’s method”, which Thomas Jefferson used to propose the (ultimately enacted) first apportionment of Congress after the 1790 Census. It’s not the system used for Congressional apportionment today (called the “method of equal proportions”) but it is popular around the world for legislative elections. I implemented a script that takes as input a CSV file with the state-by-state popular vote in a presidential election and outputs the results of apportioning the electors using this method. With a small modification, it’s possible to subtract out the “small state bonus” (two electors per state), and see whether that actually has an impact on the outcome or not. I then created data files representing the popular vote from the last five presidential elections (using a variety of sources), to see how things would have turned out if we had done it this way (source and data files on Github).

Year Method Outcome
2000 Actual outcome After a long court battle, ending in the Supreme Court, George W. Bush is declared the winner in Florida and therefore the presidency.
Bush/Cheney 271, Gore/Lieberman 266
d’Hondt Count Even assuming the post-Bush v. Gore tally in Florida, no candidate receives a majority; Bush wins the House of Representatives 28–17 with four delegations tied. The Senate being tied 50–50, outgoing vice president Al Gore could have cast the tie-breaking vote for his running-mate and Senate colleague Joe Lieberman.
Bush/Cheney 267, Gore/Lieberman 268, Nader/LaDuke 3
d’Hondt without bonus
(219 to win)
No difference in the outcome.
Bush/Cheney 217, Gore/Lieberman 216, Nader/LaDuke 3
2004 Actual outcome Bush/Cheney 286, Kerry/Edwards 251
d’Hondt Count Bush/Cheney 280, Kerry/Edwards 258
d’Hondt without bonus Bush/Cheney 227, Kerry/Edwards 209
2008 Actual outcome Obama/Biden 365, McCain/Palin 173
d’Hondt Count Obama/Biden 289, McCain/Palin 249
d’Hondt without bonus Obama/Biden 236, McCain/Palin 200
2012 Actual outcome Obama/Biden 332, Romney/Ryan 206
d’Hondt Count Obama/Biden 274, Romney/Ryan 264
d’Hondt without bonus Obama/Biden 225, Romney/Ryan 211
2016 Actual outcome Trump/Pence 304, Clinton/Kaine 227, Sanders/Warren 1, Kasich/Fiorina 1, Paul/Pence 1, Powell/Cantwell 1, Powell/Collins 1, Powell/Warren 1, Spotted Eagle/LaDuke 1
d’Hondt Count No candidate receives a majority, and the presidency is decided by the House of Representatives 33–16–1 for Trump. Three faithless electors for third-party candidates could give either candidate 270 EV and an outright win. (The Senate votes 52–48 for Vice President Pence.)
Clinton/Kaine 267, Trump/Pence 267, Johnson/Weld 2, Stein/Baraka 1, McMullin/Finn 1
d’Hondt without bonus No change in outcome.
Clinton/Kaine 218, Trump/Pence 214, Johnson/Weld 2, Stein/Baraka 1, McMullin/Finn 1

You’ll notice that only in the hotly contested 2000 and 2016 elections would third-party candidates have received electors under this scheme. We can recompute the assignment of electors without third-party candidates, and it turns out that the results are indeed different. In 2016, without the third-party vote, but with the current “small state bonus”, Trump and Pence win a bare majority (270 EV); if the bonus is removed, Clinton and Kaine win a two-EV majority (220 EV to 216 EV). In 2000 with the third-party vote removed, the “no bonus” scenario sends the election to the House, but the current-law scenario gives a bare majority to Gore and Lieberman.

In the title of this piece, I questioned whether this would be a better way to choose electors. Having actually worked out the results in a number of important recent cases, I have to conclude that it would not be a significant improvement over the existing system, and that we are better off demanding a true popular vote (hopefully by preference voting). About the only positive thing I can say about doing it the way I’m suggesting above is that it would make it much more clear that nearly all of the country is actually some shade of “purple” — run the scripts and you’ll see just how few states give all of their electors to a single candidate when they are allocated proportionally.

I would gladly accept data files from additional presidential elections by Github pull request.

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Some Helsinki architecture

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OK, this is the last post about Helsinki, seriously. Well, until August, because I’m going back there for the 75th World Science Fiction Convention. But for now, this is it. I have one more post from my day-trip to Turku, … Continue reading

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Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 3 of 3)

As I mentioned in part 1, Helsinki has trams, or as we’d say in American English, streetcars. (I try to avoid the “t” word — “trolley” — since to so many people that now means a diesel bus with goofy bodywork, whereas “streetcar” is unambiguous, I hope.) Actual street-running light rail vehicles, in an old, congested central business district with narrow, winding cobblestone streets, hills, and salt water. And yet still has room for cars and on-street parking, not to mention buses, a single-line subway, and all those commuter trains I described in part 2. This post will hit some of the highlights, although I did not ride most of the lines and saw the termini of only three (the 9 in Pasila, the 7B at Senate Square, and the 6 outside my hotel in Hietalahti). I’m also going to include some other bits of Helsinki transportation that don’t have a whole post to themselves, including bike and pedestrian infrastructure, which I didn’t take nearly enough photos of. I also didn’t have time to visit the tram museum in Töölö. Given another week to spend, I would have taken all of the tram routes, spent more time on the Metro, and visited some of the outlying suburbs by bus and commuter rail — but this trip was expensive enough and thoroughly exhausting, so I was ready to head back home by day 9. One more Helsinki post after this one will wrap things up with some architecture, and then I’ll have some more architecture from my day-trip to Turku — and finally after all that, I’ll close with some photos of my not-quite-a-day in Reykjavik on the way out, if I can remember what any of the pictures were.

The photos below were taken over several days, and I mostly was not setting out to document the tram system in any great detail — there are several photos that I find I should have taken but didn’t — so you will probably have an easier time following if you open up the geographically accurate tram network map in another window while you page through the photos.

On this trip, I stayed at the Radisson BLU Seaside hotel in Hietalahti, on the working part of Helsinki’s waterfront. This video monitor in the hotel lobby tells guests when the next 6/6T (outside the front door) and 9 (about 100 m up the street) trams will depart for the CBD. When it’s running, the 6 tram loops here and waits for a scheduled departure; the 6T and 9 routes come up from Länsiterminaali (Western Terminal), one of several ferry and cruise terminals on the waterfront. Westbound trams are not shown.

On my daily trips up to Hartwall Arena to see the World Figure Skating Championships, I would usually catch the 6 or the 9 to Helsinki Central Railway Station and then the commuter rail for the five-minute trip up to Pasila. One day when I had plenty of time, I took the 9 tram — which goes to the same place — all the way; it takes about 45 minutes, about 15 minutes longer for the one-seat ride, which is long enough that many people would probably choose to transfer. (However, if you are paying a cash fare, it’s cheaper to stay on the tram, because a tram-only ticket costs less than an all-mode Helsinki city zone ticket.)

On Kaivokatu in front of Helsinki Central Railway Station, numerous tram routes stop for transfers to the Metro, commuter rail, and long-distance trains. Even late in the evening, tram service is frequent (although most routes stop at 23:30). This is the westbound platform; a similar monitor on the opposite side shows eastbound arrivals (including the 5 route, which loops here and does not serve the westbound platform).

Helsinki has several generations of streetcars (trams) in operation. This one, number 114, is operating on the 6T (Länsiterminaali–Arabia) route, and has a full-wrap advertisement for Viking Line cruises. The 6T route operates limited hours to serve arriving cruise ships at Helsinki’s West Harbor, as an extension to the 6 (Hietalahti–Arabia) route, supplenting the 9 (Länsiterminaali–Pasila) which runs all day.

In this close-up you can see the older style destination sign and double-wide entry doors. Not also the HKL logo to the left of the doors, indicating that this tram is operated by HKL (Helsingin kaupungin liikenne, Helsinki City Transport) — as indeed are all Helsinki trams. The HSL logo on the front of the tram indicates that HSL tickets and travel cards are accepted.

An even older tram, number 59, serves the 2 (Olympiaterminaali–Nordenskiöldenkatu) route as it passes Railway Square. The stairwells on either side of the tram tracks lead down to the concourse of Rautatientori Metro station.

A new quadruple-articulated tram, number 234, is working route 2 in the opposite direction as it approaches Rautatieasema station. This is a low-floor tram, designed for boarding at the center doors, and as a result has much narrower front door. All Helsinki trams are single-ended, with doors only on the right-hand side.

The tram network is supplemented by a variety of local, trunk, and express bus routes, operated by private bus companies under tender to HSL. This bus is operated by Pohjolan Liikenne, a subsidiary of the state-owned railway operator VR Group. The building in the background is Helsinki Central Railway Station; the cobbles in the foreground are typical of both road paving and market squares in Helsinki’s CBD.

Helsinki is a fairly bike-friendly city, despite the prevalence of cobblestone streets and sidewalks. To provide a more bike-compatible surface in the CBD, cycletracks like these are paved with bituminous concrete (asphalt), and frequently provided with supplemental traffic signals as well.

Helsinki’s modern trams are all equipped with pantographs, but the overhead electric supply still uses trolley wire. I’m not sure if there is a technical reason for this, but it is definitely less visually obtrusive than catenary, which is a plus in an old, congested city where trams are largely street-running.

The 2 and 9 trams continue straight (left to right) across Mannerheimintie. The 4, 7A, and 10 trams continue across Kaivokatu from top to bottom. The 3, 5, and 6 trams turn right from Mannerheimintie onto Kaivokatu to serve Railway Square, to the left. All routes except for the 5 also run in the other direction; for the 5, the train station is the end of the line, and so it loops.

One of the new quadruple-articulated trams, operating on the 5 route, makes the right turn onto Kaivokatu from Mannerheimintie. On the opposite corner is a shopping center called “Forum”.

Pedestrians cross Mannerheimintie heading towards the tram stop, where an older double-articulated tram serves route 10. This is the closest stop to Helsinki Central Station on the 4, 7, and 10 routes. A traffic signal for bikes is mounted low on a pole at right; in the distance, the parliament building is being renovated. Although it’s hard to see in this photo, the cobblestones alternate grey and white at the pedestrian crossing (also indicated with pole-mounted signals).

The “Forum” shopping center occupies a large building on the corner of Simonkatu and Mannerheimintie — an ideal location to serve the train station and eight busy tram routes. As is common for many commercial buildings in Finland, signs on the exterior indicate the names of the tenants without regard to where on the inside they happen to be — in this case, a variety of Finnish, pan-European, and global brands.

My time in Helsinki coincided with the early-voting period for the 2017 municipal elections (held at the same time across the country). Most changeable outdoor advertising in the CBD was given over to electioneering, like the card on the side of this tram advertising the Green Alliance (Vihreät/De Gröna). Not to be outdone, another party has bought a card on the rear section of the same tram (I can’t read which one). The newer trams have video monitors which were also showing a variety of electoral advertisements in rotation with a “Helsinki has new trams” house ad.

The median of Mannerheimintie is one of the few places in the Helsinki CBD where trams have a dedicated right-of-way. From front to back, the cobbled sidewalk, concrete cycletrack, cobbled northbound roadway, median, paved concrete trackbed for the trams, more median, southbound roadway, concrete cycletrack, pile of snow, cobbled sidewalk, and another entrance to the “Forum” shopping center. A new tram approaches the crosswalk from the left. The building at right houses the offices of Hufvudstadsbladet, the principal Swedish-language newspaper.

A 5 tram comes up Aleksanterinkatu past the flagship Stockmann department store. From here it will turn right onto Mannerheimintie (behind me). I believe this section of the street is reserved for trams and pedestrians only. The same two political parties bought advertising on this tram. (The Greens did well in the 2017 municipal elections, picking up seats nationwide.)

This switch would allow trams heading west on Aleksanterinkatu to turn south (left) on Mannerheimintie, but the currently operating tram routes all turn north (right) instead.

Still on Mannerheimintie, this southbound 10 tram is serving Ylioppilastalo. This model of tram has a small low-floor section between the two articulations, and two people with strollers are trying to maneuver. Just south of here, the 3 and 6 routes will turn west down Bulevardi while the 10 continues straight three more blocks to its terminus.

I caught this bicycle traffic signal doing a Euro-style red+yellow “get into gear because green’s coming soon” cycle. It’s on Bulevardi, I believe at Frederikinkatu. The bicycle symbol is permanently illuminated. You can also see a regular traffic signal, across the street at left, and a pedestrian signal at far right.

On its way toward Senate Square, a new quadruple-articulated tram heads south on Snellmaninkatu, just passing Säätytalo (House of the Estates) after stopping a block north at the National Archives.

A little bit farther north on Snellmaninkatu, the cobbled pedestrian crossing is a a bit more visible here. Note also how the tram tracks swing from a curbside stop (on both sides of the street) towards the centerline to make room for parking.

A close-up of the trolley wire hanging over Snellmaninkatu

The 9 route is served with newer double-articulated trams like this one; this photo shows one serving Kaisaniemenpuisto, not far from the University of Helsinki. Two tram routes join nearby with a full wye in the center island of a roundabout, while car traffic is routed around the long way.. The tram tracks here are in a broad median on Kaisaniemenkatu. As these are single-ended trams, there are no doors on this side, affording a large low-floor wheelchair and stroller docking area.

The HKL logo on the side of the tram indicates that these vehicles are owned and operated by Helsinki City Transport Agency.

Another view of the new quadruple-articulated trams. The modern driver’s console includes video monitors showing not only the interior of the vehicle, but also the door side of the tram, allowing the driver to confirm when all passengers are loaded. The tram platforms are at floor level, but a “wheelchair” button will cause a bridge plate to extend automatically for boarding or alighting without driver assistance.

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Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 2 of 3)

In this post, I’m going to cover the commuter-rail network serving Helsinki, and also (for lack of a better place to discuss it) show a few bits of mainline railway as well — since they share facilities and are operated by the same company, VR Group, it seems only fair. Back in 1988–89, when I first went to Finland, VR was an initialism for Valtion Rautatiet, State Railways, but since Finland joined the EU it was required to split off the operating functions of VR into a separate enterprise. The tracks, bridges, and rights of way are still directly owned by the state, through an agency in the transport ministry, but the actual passenger and freight operations are now called VR Group, a legally separate (but still state-owned) enterprise. State-owned companies are subject to EU restrictions on subsidies, whereas state-owned physical assets are not, and this structure is duplicated in many other European countries. In Central Europe, this allows for private (commercial) operators to run passenger and freight rail systems over the state-owned rails, in competition with each other and with the national railway company, but VR still has a monopoly on passenger transport in Finland. Because Finland’s railways were originally built during the 19th century, when Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire, they were largely built to Russian standards, including the broad (1524 mm) track gauge, and this is true on the Helsinki Metro as well. (Helsinki trams use narrow (meter) gauge instead.)

[Here I would have embedded a Google Maps view showing the rail lines heading north from Helsinki Central Railway Station, but Google Maps is apparently no longer supported on any browser other than Google Chrome so I can’t get an embed link.]

The northern and central parts of the city of Helsinki are divided in half by the railway lines, which terminate at Helsingin päärautatieasema, Helsinki Central Railway Station, on the north side of the old city and central business district. The Töölö area, to the west of the tracks and north of the CBD, is home to Parliament and many cultural institutions; Finlandia Hall, the Music Hall, and the future location of the Helsinki Central Library are immediately to the west of the tracks as they exit the station, and the Linnanmäki amusement park is on a bluff overlooking the railway cut from the east, a short distance to the north. As with many American cities divided by a downtown freeway, there are few east-west crossings of the railroad right-of-way, which narrows from 19 tracks wide at the terminus to 10 tracks through Pasila station, where all commuter and most long-distance trains stop, about 5 minutes north of Helsinki Central, and it’s at Pasila where we will begin our tour.

Six tracks head north and west from Pasila station; four more tracks enter the station from the main line to the north and east, on the other side of Hartwall Arena, out of frame to the left.

The coast line to Karis and Turku heads northwest out of Pasila towards Ilmala station. To the north, tracks lead off into the remaining (still massive) part of Pasila yard complex. The six-track line quickly merges down to two tracks west of Ilmala, with a flying junction for the Airport Ring Line.

A telephoto view of part of Pasila yard as seen from the coast line just past the divergence.

An inbound “I” train from the airport heads south along the coast line from Ilmala towards Pasila station.

The Airport Ring Line was inaugurated in 2015 after a 770-million-euro construction project, involving five new stations, 8 km of tunnel, and 18 km of track. The Ring Line connected the end of an existing commuter branch (off the coast line to Vantankoski) to the airport in northern Vantaa and then back south to the main line at Tikkurila. Service on the Ring Line is operated rapid-transit style, every five to ten minutes in both directions during the daytime, with the clockwise route designated “P” and the counterclockwise route “I” — for trips from Helsinki Central to the airport, the “I” service makes fewer stops and runs five minutes faster. All of the new stations were planned for transit-oriented development, and have platforms long enough to support three trainsets (currently, HSL commuter service uses only one or two trainsets per train). Aviapolis station, at the southern end of the airfield, is surrounded by office parks and highways, and is a bus transfer away from residential areas and a large shopping mall. Because the main line and coast line serve platforms on opposite sides of Helsinki Central Station, “I” and “P” trains will swap designations when they reach the terminus and change ends for the next outbound trip.

The Airport service is operated with class Sm5 EMUs, which are a version of the Stadler FLIRT adapted for the Finnish broad gauge. Other commuter-rail services use a mixture of Sm5 and older rolling stock, all EMU. Older trainsets are painted in VR colors rather than HSL’s purple. The Sm5 is configured as a permanently-articulated four-carriage trainset, with a capacity of 260 passengers, and have a maximum speed of 120 km/h (99 mi/h); all trains include toilets and wheelchair zones, with level boarding at all doors but some high-floor sections.

Off to the right is part of the Pasila railyard complex which has been demolished as part of a massive brownfields/air-rights development that will replace Pasila station and add thousands of square meters of office and retail development.

The new air-rights development is called “Tripla”, and it will anchor the newly-designated neighborhood of Keski-Pasila (Central Pasila). This view is taken from the parking deck of Hartwall Arena looking south along the railway right-of-way.

VR still operates car-carrier service on several of its long-distance routes. Tracks 21 and 22 at Pasila station, southeast of Hartwall Arena, are the Helsinki terminus.

At the Pasila car-carrier station, ramps allow vehicles to drive directly onto (near train) or into (far train) the car carrier. VR uses two styles of car-carrier, both bi-level; one which is all-enclosed and one with an open upper deck.

This train is in VR livery and it’s clearly an EMU of some sort, but I’m not sure what sort of service it’s actually operating.

A pedestrian walkway and cyclepath connects Hartwall Arena with Pasila station. Figure skating fans leaving the arena after the event head down a ramp leading to a ground-level passageway interconnecting the station platforms and Ratapihantie to the east.

Fans coming down from Hartwall Arena are greeted by video departure boards in the connecting passageway. Barrier-free ramps lead up island platforms between each of the ten tracks.

Just before 6 PM on a weekday, and seven northbound commuter trains depart in the next eleven minutes! Note that commuter trains mostly use the outer tracks, and long-distance trains use the innter tracks.

All trains heading south from Pasila go to Helsinki Central Station, which is the end of the line. Long-distance trains stop only to discharge passengers, but there are plenty of commuter trains to handle that traffic: ten trains in twenty minutes!

The challenge here is to figure out which platform to wait on — with the most frequent service, on the Airport Ring Line, serving opposite sides of the station at both Pasila and Helsinki Central, it is difficult if not impossible to catch one after missing the other. But service is so frequent that you might as well wait for the next one rather than switching platforms. In my week at the World Figure Skating Championships, I found that it was never helpful to run for a train shown on this display as “boarding” (bullet next to the departure time): by day 4 I had learned to skip down to the next train due to arrive and head for that platform. The displays are located below the platform for tracks 5 and 5b, which do not see many commuter trains, but at various times during the week I ended up taking “E”, “K”, “N”, and “R” trains in addition to the more frequent “I” and “P”, simply because they were the next departures. (There are 14 different commuter-train routes in all, but many serve the same ultimate destinations; the designations vary depending on which intermediate stops they make. For example, the “Y”, “X”, “U”, and “L” trains all run to Kirkkonummi, but the “Y” and “X” are express trains, the “Y” runs one stop farther [and outside the HSL commuter zone], the “U” runs express within Helsinki city limits, and the “L” makes all local stops — compare the New York City Subway’s distinction between “lines” and “services”. See the map.)

Pasila station serves an area which is heavily trafficked by both locals and visitors alike: Linnanmäki is an amusement park just south east of the station, the convention center is on Ratapihantie to the northeast, and Hartwall Arena is northwest, in the bowl of the “Y” junction between the coast line to the west and the main line to the north and east.

Inside the departure hall at Pasila station, a variety of commuter-oriented businesses serve rail passengers for a few more days, before the station is closed permanently and demolished.

The westernmost track remaining at Pasila station is track 9. I’m standing on the platform (between tracks 8 and 9) and looking across the tracks at signs for the new development under construction on the former railyard brownfields and air rights over the tracks. The sign at right translates as “Western auxiliary 1st stage construction work completed 2019”; Liikennevirasto is the government office which owns and manages railway infrastructure;. The left-hand sign describes ongoing work to remediate contaminated soils in the former railyard.

The view here is north along track 9, the westernmost remaining through track, toward Hartwall Arena. The letters hanging along the platform coordinate with the video arrival monitors, indicating where along the platform the arriving train will stop.

Looking southwest from track 9, amidst the construction cranes, the viaduct carries Asemapäällikönkatu (“Stationmaster Street”) over the former railyard. It also carries the 7A and 7B tram routes.

This coach is still painted in the old green-and-blue livery; “JKOY” indicates that it is owned by the joint venture of VR Group and HSL. The route display alternates Finnish and Swedish text, and in Swedish says “Helsingfors / Biljettförsäljning” (Helsinki, ticket sales). The destination sign of a northbound P train to the airport is reflected in the window.

All railway lines (in Finland, anyway) lead to Helsinki, and most terminate at Helsinki Central Station, which has 19 tracks to handle the volume of commuter and long-distance trains here. In the middle of the station, under the glass roof, are mostly long-distance trains waiting for their next outbound departures. Commuter trains are relegated to the outer tracks, exposed to the weather, except for certain routes late at night.

Under the trainshed but outside the station building proper, a display board shows arrivals and departures from Central Station, as usual alternating Finnish and Swedish station names. An indicator light shows that one train is currently boarding, and an airplane icon indicates the three upcoming departures for the airport.

An Sm5 train operating on the “E” route to Kauklahti waits at Central Station for its scheduled departure from track 15. Across the platform, a long-distance train also waits.

On platform 12, train 961 boards passengers for Turku. Trains for the coast line use the western half of the station to avoid crossing the busy commuter routes between Helsinki Central and Pasila.

Train 961 operates as part of the high-speed “InterCity” service, which uses locomotive-hauled trains and is somewhat slower than the premium “Pendolino” service. This service has assigned seating, even in “Eco class” (we’d say “coach”), so passengers need to check the coach number to find their seats. The InterCity service to Turku is operated push-pull, with the locomotive leading westbound trains and trailing eastbound.

Each track at each station has a video destination sign like this one indicating the next scheduled train by identifier (in this case, a commuter train on the “U” route), destinations in both official languages, and departure time. When I took this photo, an “E” train had just departed, and the 16:43 “U” train had not arrived yet.

Inside Central Station, hanging over the newsstands and restaurants, a large video board informs passengers of upcoming arrivals and departures for long-distance trains, with destinations and major station stops.

VR uses a variety of letter designations with train numbers indicating the particular service class a train operates as. The top-class “Pendolino” service, named after the Italian-made tilting trainsets used to provide the service, uses “S”, and lower-speed locomotive-hauled “InterCity” service is designated “IC”. The “P” overnight train to Kolari, in Lapland, is a class of service called “Express”; the regional “H” trains don’t serve Helsinki, and the St. Petersburg express Allegro service would be designated “AE” if there were any shown here.

Between the long-distance and commuter train departure boards a diagram shows the arrangement of tracks, with track 1 in the east and track 19 in the west. The 16:35 “Z” train is currently boarding on track 8 — you might make it in time, whereas you’ll probably have to run 200 meters to make that 16:36 “K” train on track 1!

The entry hall to Central Station has a set of video departure monitors, displaying the same information as the large departure display in the main hall. The green ticket vending machines sell tickets for VR long-distance trains and also a limited selection of HSL tickets valid on commuter trains.

This “I” train is waiting on track 1 at Central Station for its scheduled departure to Helsinki Airport. I will be taking it only as far as Pasila station.

I’ve caught the destination sign of this Sm5 in Swedish mode. Note the U-shaped route map over the door, which accurately reflects the division of commuter services between the coast line (to the west) and the main line (to the north and east). On the route display, outside temperature alternates with the current speed, and the curious slashed-out icon indicates that ticket sales are not available on this carriage.

I didn’t think to get a good photo of the carriage vestibule. The yellow box is a stamping machine for validating paper tickets, and the black box next to it allows holders of stored-value travel cards to pay for their fare.

Back at Central Station, I’m about to board a high-speed “Pendolino” train to Turku. The Italian-made trains operate in fixed trainsets with a hydraulic tilting mechanism allowing them to take curves at higher speeds than conventional carriages, similar to Amtrak’s (TGV-derived) Acela trainsets; they have a maximum speed of 220 km/h.

I’ll be back in a few days with some pictures of the Helsinki tram network, as well as some photos from my trip to Turku, more photos of Helsinki, and some photos of Reykjavik. There will hopefully also be a food post about a delicious Finnish bakery item as well.

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Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 1 of 3)

That’s what I said on Twitter when I was there, and a few times after I returned. “Every” is perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but certainly anyone involved in transportation planning in a US metropolitan area of a similar population and density really ought to spend a week traveling without a car in Finland’s capital region. That’s particularly so if the metro area in question is one with a recalcitrant transit agency that seems forever stuck in the 1970s. It is of course true that in many ways it’s hard to compare Finland with the United States — for one thing, Finland like most of Europe has long favored transit over private cars as a matter of official public policy, under all political parties; regular unleaded gas was selling for EUR 1.444/L ($5.81 per gallon) when I was there, and other auto-related taxes are high as well. And Helsinki proper has a higher population density than many American cities (although only about half Boston’s, and far less than San Francisco or Manhattan). There’s still a lot that’s done very well there, and plenty of counterexamples to the “that will never work” defeatism seen in many US transit agencies. The rest of this post will describe some of the interesting features of public transportation in Helsinki that I saw and used on my trip.

A few words about the structure of transportation in greater Helsinki. A coordinating role is held by HSL (Helsingin seudun liikenne -kuntayhtymä, Helsinki Regional Transport Authority — HRT does double duty as a Swedish and English initialism), which is structured like a municipal union district or joint-powers board in the U.S., and controlled by its member municipalities (unlike, for example, the MBTA in Boston or the MTA in New York, which are agencies of the state government, but similar to BART and Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area). HSL is responsible for scheduling, fare collection, and route coordination for all of the region’s transportation modes — commuter rail, metro, tram, bus, and ferry — but does not operate any of them. HSL also manages the bike-share program, although when I was there (in late March) the bikes were still in winter storage. HSL does not operate any of the services: the agency handles tendering for bus services (which are run by private carriers and by the state-owned Pohjolan Liikenne), commuter rail is operated by the national monopoly railway company VR Group, and the Helsinki metro, trams, and ferries are all operated by HKL (Helsingin kaupungin liikenne, Helsinki City Transport).


Fare collection in Helsinki is barrier-free, with a combination of on-vehicle ticket sales, mobile phone ticketing, and ticket vending machines; paper tickets are issued for single-trip fares and short-term passes (up to 168 hours). Two different contactless travel cards are available, one for individual residents only and a multi-user card for families, companies, and non-residents — both of which can store both prepaid fares and season passes, used with on-vehicle validators. The fine for being caught without valid fare media is 80 euros, but in my week in Helsinki, taking multiple modes every day, I never once saw a fare inspector. The barrier-free access extends to the Helsinki metro, where a sign next to the escalators down to the platforms simply indicates that travelers are entering the fare-paid zone.

The fare system is zone-based, with primary zones being “single city”, “regional”, and “extended regional”, with some variation depending on mode, time of day, and where and how the fare is paid. Individual fares are cheapest when paid on a stored-value travel card: EUR 1.64 for a tram fare, EUR 2.18 for all other modes, and double that at night. Within the City of Helsinki, cash fares from a ticket vending machine vary from EUR 2.50 for a tram ticket to EUR 5.00 for the Suomenlinna ferry; a three-zone fare purchased by mobile phone or vending machine is EUR 7.20 except overnight when it’s EUR 12. Multi-day passes are priced very attractively: a one-week single-zone ticket, intended for visitors, costs only EUR 36.00, and personal travel cards may be loaded with a season ticket ranging from 14 days (EUR 28.70) to one year (EUR 602.40 or about 1.65 a day — at today’s exchange rates, about 37% cheaper than buying 12 monthly MBTA “LinkPass”es). Season tickets for a shared-use/non-resident card are about double — HSL’s Web site does not say, but apparently the personal travel cards are subsidized by the participating municipalities, which is why they’re limited to residents only. The travel card is also used as identification for concessionary fares offered to seniors and the disabled.

Network structure

The Helsinki transit network has three major components: the commuter rail system serves provides high-frequency, high-capacity service to inland parts of the region to the west, north, and east, with trains departing Helsinki Central Station every five minutes or less during daylight hours; in HSL’s current graphic identity, commuter rail is associated with the color purple, and since the current route structure was adopted in the 1970s, commuter rail routes have been identified by single letters. Some of the commuter rail routes extended outside HSL’s service area; these are operated by VR Group under its own (uncoordinated) fare structure, and these are shown in VR’s logo color of light green on the commuter-rail map.

Trams and diesel buses provide the primary intra-city transit service, with express buses supplementing the commuter rail with service to areas (especially west of downtown Helsinki) that the mainline railway network doesn’t reach. Trunk-line buses are identified with an orange color on maps, as is the Helsinki Metro, which is a two-branch heavy-rail subway connecting the downtown area with suburbs to the east (a western extension is under construction which will result in the elimination or truncation of many bus routes that currently terminate at the Central Railway Station). Trams and buses share a numbering scheme, with trams numbered 1 through 10 and assigned different colors on the map; three high-frequency local bus routes are also shown on the tram map and have their own color — there is, however, no corresponding color-coding to vehicles, just changeable headsigns indicating the route number and destination. All of the trams are street-running for most of their length, with some sections of private right-of-way (usually in the median of a wide boulevard like Mannerheimintie). Where the trams do not have private RoW, they generally share stops with local buses, and signs list all routes without distinguishing buses and trams. The tram network, which is owned by the City of Helsinki, does not extend outside city limits.

As for the maps themselves, there is a map for the commuter rail, a line diagram for the Metro, a schematic map of the tram network, and a geographically accurate map showing trams and three key bus routes. However, there do not appear to be any maps for the vast majority of bus routes: instead, the timetables for each route list all of the bus stops served by the route by name (in both Finnish and Swedish) — this means that there also is no unified map showing all bus routes. One might suppose that Finland is an advanced economy and most Helsinki residents and visitors have access to online mapping and routing services; of course HSL offers its own journey planner, which includes all of the bus routes. During my time in Helsinki, I never used the buses, and only used the Metro once; I used both trams and the commuter rail every single day, from the time I arrived at the airport on Monday until the time I departed eight days later. I’ll start my discussion of the individual services with the commuter rail, then move on to the trams; I don’t have any pictures or anything really to say about the Metro.

This post has already gotten too long, so I’m splitting it into three parts. The next post will discuss the commuter rail (and have some actual pictures!) and the following one will talk about the Helsinki trams.

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Some linguistic observations from my trip to Finland

This is about as total a break from the figure skating coverage as I can manage, I think.

My first experience in Finland was as an exchange student in 1988–89. I had not been back to the country (or indeed to Europe at all) until my trip last month. I can’t claim that I was ever particularly fluent in Finnish, but the exchange agency did arrange for a Helsinki University lecturer, Eugene Holman, to give our entire group a joint lesson in the basics of Finnish-for-foreigners: most importantly the phonetics, but also big chunks of noun and verb morphology. Finnish uses subject-verb-object order in clauses, like English and many Indo-European languages, but it shares with fellow Uralic languages (like close relative Estonian and more distant cousin Hungarian) a much more elaborate noun case system and, of course a vastly different base vocabulary — most of which I had forgotten in the 28 years since I left in the spring of 1989. Finnish also has some oddities that are not exactly rare, but don’t occur in English or most other IE languages: vowel harmony (certain vowels “go together” in words, which is reflected in changes to case endings) and consonant gradation (when a word’s shape changes in certain ways, the final-syllable-initial consonant can change length or quality, or in some cases drop out entirely).

Finland is also a country which practices official bilingualism: about 5% of the population speaks Swedish as their first language, and national and local government must provide services in both languages wherever there is a significant Swedish-speaking population. As it happens, this population is concentrated along the coast, where many municipalities have different names in the two official languages — normally English uses the Finnish name except for the few Swedish-majority communities, but this was not always the case. (I am deliberately ignoring the special case of the Åland Islands, which have a special autonomous status under the Finnish constitution, and which are monolingual-Swedish.) When I was an exchange student, they never actually managed to teach me any Swedish, although it was theoretically part of the curriculum — I picked up “et, två, tre, fyra, fem” by watching the lotto numbers being broadcast on the evening news, but that was pretty much it. (Back then, the two state-owned public TV channels, 1 and 2, had specific reserved times every night for Swedish-language programming, and if I recall correctly, the news in Swedish ran immediately either before or after the main evening news program in Finnish. Now there’s a channel 5 — erm, “Yle Fem” — which is exclusively in Swedish, although homes with cable or satellite can also watch the domestic Swedish-language channels from Sweden proper.)

Anyway, that’s a very long and involved introduction to a few things I noticed about language and culture on my return visit. I should be careful to note that these are not necessarily language changes, just things that were particularly noticeable to me after a 29-year gap when I was exposed to virtually no Finnish language or culture — I might not have noticed them before, or might have forgotten (see also recency illusion). I’m going to present these in the reverse order of how I noticed them, because that’s the order of increasing technicality, so if you get bored, it’s OK to stop before the end.

I mentioned above that Finland is officially bilingual. This version of bilingualism extends to public education and local government services, in places where the minority-language population is non-negligible, and to national government services everywhere. Helsinki meets the threshold to provide services in Swedish, and traffic signs, street signs, tram and bus stop names, are indeed given in both languages. Place-names in particular often differ; Helsinki itself is Helsingfors in Swedish, but some differ far more — probably only a local could be expected to know that Pasila, på svenska, is Böle, although once you learn that, to go from “Länsi-Pasila” to “Västra Böle” is less of a stretch. But that’s all government and public services: commercial Helsinki is, to a very large extent, also bilingual — but Finnish and English, not Finnish and Swedish.

Photo of a Helsinki commercial office building showing signage in different languages

The European Union has offices in this building, located at Malminkatu 16 in the Kamppi neighborhood of Helsinki. Note the EU signage in Finland’s two official languages, accompanied by monolingual Finnish and English signage for other tenants.

Now, it’s certainly the case that as Finland’s capital city and its international gateway, you would not be surprised to see a lot of English used in Helsinki by the hospitality industry — hotels, trains, taxis, and the like — and other places where visitors are expected to congregate, like the convention center. But the opening and modernization of the Finnish economy, since EU accession back in the 1990s, has brought a great deal of international business to Helsinki, and the working language of most multinational businesses is English. (Even back in 1989, the Finns I knew were fairly fatalistic about this: they knew full well that nobody else was going to learn their language, and the state made third- and even fourth-language instruction mandatory from an early age.) Expansion of university education and research meant hiring faculty and staff from other countries, and here again, English long ago surpassed German as a lingua franca. And finally, the EU’s policy of free movement has meant that both educated professionals and unskilled laborers have the ability to migrate from their home countries in search of jobs in high-wage northern Europe. My hotel’s housekeepers were speaking English when I passed them by in the corridor, and so were the German and Swedish professional men discussing vacation homes at the table next to me in a fancy restaurant. (And the menu at that fancy restaurant? English first, then Finnish — no Swedish, even though the proprietors have obviously Swedish names.) Even the signs outside foreign embassies tended to be in English rather than Finnish or Swedish (or the foreign country’s native language). In fact, the only international institution that seems to go out of its way to use both Finnish and Swedish in Finland is the European Union itself, as shown in the photo above — and of course that’s a treaty requirement.

This migration has had some political consequences. My time in Finland included parts of the final week of campaigning for elections to all of the countries municipal councils, and in Helsinki there was at least one candidate attempting to appeal to allophone (non-Finnish- or Swedish-speaking) voters. This particular candidate (who did not get elected, although the party list he campaigned under got ten seats) made a small handbill, in English, announcing his candidacy and noting that allophones now account for 14% of Helsinki’s population. (He also announced a goofy online proxy-voting scheme, which may help explain his limited popularity — about 2,000 votes would have seen him elected, but he only got 80.)

Photo shows a tall roadside sign advertising a new development

This sign advertises a large new brownfields/air-rights development called “Tripla” in the former Pasila rail yards. It’s in Finnish and Swedish, except for one obviously English word. The Finnish text translates as “Here is being built Helsinki’s second center”. (Swedish text cropped out.)

All of those uses are of course “international” in some sense. What I found even more notable was the extent to which English text cropped up in signage, business names, and advertising messages that were clearly created by and for native Finns — something which I don’t remember seeing at all in 1989. The photo above is a really trivial example: using the English word “by” in the sign isn’t required, and it’s the only text on the sign that isn’t either Finnish or Swedish — but it gives an “international” flair, I suppose, and it also avoids having to deal with the fact that Finnish and Swedish grammar would require very different-looking texts here, so it offers some notion of “neutrality” that the rest of the sign (mainly Finnish with some Swedish text in smaller type) does not.

So that’s the big picture. A much smaller, but equally noticeable, difference has to do with a simple matter of pronunciation. In my intro, I mentioned that Finnish has vowel harmony, which means that certain groups of vowels “go together”. In particular, Finnish has a set of “front vowels”, spelled y, ä, and ö, and an analogous set of “back vowels” u, a, and o, plus “neutral” vowels e and i, which prefer the front vowels but can occur in words with back vowels. (If you’re familiar with the IPA vowel chart, you’ll note that these names don’t quite line up with that.) As Finnish is taught, this contrast is supposed to be really important, and in particular since most of the case endings contain an a/ä sound, the vowel usage of the noun stem determines which vowel will be used in the case ending. (A similar thing happens for verbs with suffixes that make participles and infinitives.)

During my time as an exchange student, most of my Finnish-language exposure was from people — teachers, fellow pupils, TV newscasters — who were attempting to enunciate clearly and in proper Standard Finnish, and this contrast was always quite evident, even though I had difficulty hearing some of the other important contrasts like vowel length. In this visit, by contrast, since I wasn’t watching the TV news or attempting to make conversation in broken Finnish, most of my exposure to the spoken language was passive, from people sitting around me in the arena or on the train. And here I noticed that the a/ä contrast did not seem to actually exist, at least for unstressed syllables (like in kyllä, “yes”) or in the diphthong äi (like in ensimmäinen, “first”) — the a/ä in both cases seemed to be turning suspiciously schwa-like. My Finnish colleague tells me that this is widespread in the spoken language today, and a similar leveling can be observed for the vowel-length contrast and also for consonant “length” as well, but that if the speaker is asked (or primed) to enunciate, all three contrasts come back.

In order to understand this final bit, I’m going to have to go into the intricacies of the Finnish case system for nouns just a little bit. Unlike Indo-European languages where we typically use prepositional phrases to indicate locations of objects and the direction of change (“into the city”, “off of the table”, “like a marble”, etc.), in Uralic languages these are frequently expressed with case endings. (It’s hypothesized that there is a process that converts between case endings and postpositions, so that over time a particular postposition might turn into a full-blown noun case with adjective agreement, or vice versa. There are examples in Modern Finnish where a case has fallen into disuse and been largely replaced by a postpositional phrase.) There is a family of related cases in Finnish that’s usually explained as a 3×3 matrix with rows “surface”, “interior”, and “figurative”, and columns “toward”, “at”, and “away”:

  toward at away
surface allative
“on” or “at”
“off” or “away”
interior illative
(for stems ending in V)
“into” or “toward”
“in” or “inside of”
“out of” or “from”
“becoming” or “in [a language]”
“as”, sometimes “at”/”on”/”in”
(it’s complicated)

The third row is a bit controversial, especially with the inclusion of the partitive case; it’s arguably a bit shoe-horned in, and certainly it doesn’t show the same sort of sound patterns as the other two rows, but it’s what I was taught back in 1988. The first two rows are all that are relevant to this discussion, though.

All this intro is just to explain the very first thing that struck me, in the announcements at Hartwall Arena during the World Figure Skating Championships. As you might expect if you follow the sport even casually, there are a lot of Russians competing at Worlds; Team Russia has three athlete “slots” in three of the four disciplines. (All ISU member countries are entitled to send one athlete, subject to technical qualification; countries get up to two additional slots on the basis of their athletes’ combined performance at the previous World Championships.) So the thing I noticed in those announcements: whereas skaters from every other country were introduced using the elative case (“Saksasta“, from Germany; “Kiinasta“, from China), skaters from Russia were introduced using the ablative case, “Venäjältä“. According to a Finnish colleague I queried on this, the usage of “surface” cases applies also for “in Russia” (Venäjällä) and “to Russia” (Venäjälle), although other senses still use the elative (my colleague gave the example of “talking about Russia” as taking Venäjästä). Back in 1989, an announcer at (or reporting on) a sporting event would have said Neuvostoliitosta “from the Soviet Union”, and never mentioned Venäjä, Russia, because it was the Soviet All-Union team then and not just Russian — and would be for another couple of years. (Those with long memories will recall that ex-Soviet athletes at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, competed as an international “Unified Team” as their newly independent countries had not yet managed to set up national Olympic and sports governing bodies, so the first time an official Russian national team would have competed in international figure skating would have been 1993.)

h/t: Prof. Tommi Jaakkola
minor edits 2017-04-16

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