Category Archives: seen and heard

Talking to robots in Otaniemi at sunset

This evening on my way home against a lovely near midsummer Finnish sunset, a robot politely asked me to help it cross the road.  Our campus area at Otaniemi is host to a pilot of food delivery robots by Starship, they are modest, oblongs on wheels, probably deliberately not made too humanoid or science fictiony, more like a shopping trolley on wheels.  They even have a little orange flag on a pole sticking up at the back, like the child carrier fixed to my bike, to be seen by traffic.

They have become a normal part of life in Otaniemi already.  At first they were a novelty: students would stop to inspect them, children would shout “ROBOT” and gather round. When I took my son around the mall at the campus centre, he would try to interact with them, and so “don’t bother the robots, they’re working”  became part of our family chatter.  I accosted the product manager at a demo at the local supermarket and demanded to know if the robots would back down if they met someone in a wheelchair or with a pram in a narrow street (“ye-es” he said warily, and for now at least they are not a presence to resent if you have limited mobility, unlike abandoned e-scooters).   

At first they got stuck at the traffic lights: white boxes on wheels with a twinkly orange flag and an AI paid for by millions of Silicon Valley dollars, but no arms to press traffic light buttons.  In Otaniemi after 10pm, both human and road traffic quietens down a lot, so some robots got stuck for half an hour.  They made it into the news.  Silly robots. 

It is quite sweet to watch our local humans interact with the robots.  I have seen a young man cycling to a lecture stopping to press the traffic light button to help out a stuck robot, I have seen a pair of young women stopping to help one stuck in the grit that was left covering the streets after the winter ice had melted away.  I saw a robot this evening – possibly the same one that asked me for help later – riding tilting along the curb, wheels of one side on the pavement, other wheels along the road.  I watched it, it’s little orange traffic flag twinkling in the evening sun, half on the road, and I wanted to help but I stopped myself.  “It will never learn unless you let it work it out itself,” my mother voice sighed.  “And it is more on the pavement than the road, it’s quite safe.”

I was cynical when I first heard about these robots.  My husband showed me a picture of a robot and my London self said that’s going to get facking nicked, mate.But so far they seem not nicked, not vandalised, just a new robot on the block.  Overall, humans want to help the robots. 

The robot this evening asked me politely in Finnish to press the traffic light button for it, and I did, narrating what I was doing because I wasn’t sure what it could see.  Then I realised this was one of the new traffic lights put up in the roadworks, it probably exists in the map that the robot’s programmer was given, but it doesn’t actually work yet.  So I said “look, you’re just going to have to go across the road, there are no lights.”  And I didn’t know if there was a human listening who had taken control, or if it sensed and processed my language, or it just took an algorithmically determined chance, but off it trolleyed across the road.  I was left with so many questions. Did you hear me?  Did a human hear me?  Did you use a Finnish woman’s voice because a lens looked at me and a computer saw a Finnish woman, what would you have sounded like to my husband?  Would you have asked my children for help?  But the robot had its job to do, and its interaction with me was over.  I watched it roll away into the sunset, until it veered slightly off the path and got stuck in some grit.   I can’t help it,  I said to myself.  It’ll never learn about grit until it works it out itself. 



My Kabul fashion diary (3)

On the Friday, it was a non working day, so I stayed at the guesthouse. I swivelled the desk in my room around so that I could see the pretty garden through my open door. I relaxed my adherence to the dress code by slipping on a long sleeved but close fitting shirt when I sat in the garden to eat. I saw something on CNN about American citizens concerned at a threat to their right to bear arms. I saw a male guest sprawled blissfully on the lawn enjoying the bright sun, and longed for the right to bare arms. When I looked up, the the cloudlessness of the sky made it feel like being at the top of the earth’s atmosphere. Nothing between you and the nearest star. I lay on my bed after breakfast and wiggled my toes, and imagined I was back on that Italian holiday with my husband, and that it felt this hot and gently breezy, but I was wearing only a sarong and feeling the sun and the sand, and him kissing my lips as he came back out of the sea. Then memory became unbearable and I sprang up, got out my laptop and got to work. Lost in budget quarrels and resource puzzles for the next nine hours.  Then at about 7pm, there was a very minor earthquake.  My chair rose and fell as if it was on the sea.  I stopped typing, unsure whether I was just exhausted and losing my balance.  The water in my plastic bottle shook and waved about.  I quietly put on my headscarf, ready to take some sort of action. I thought, this is ridiculous, I work for a humanitarian NGO and I personally have no idea what to do if there is an earthquake.  I can do First Aid, but only if people are lying down calmly on the carpet for me to check for broken bones and bleeds.  But nothing more happened.  I opened the door and guests and visitors were sitting in the garden, chatting and drinking tea.  The earth was not opening up, and I decided to treat myself to a tonic water and some time with my Kindle amid the roses.

That evening there was a family party at the hotel. Bored and lonely, and a bit unsettled by the earth tremor, I stalked it – sat at a table where I could see the family members going in, kissing the children, greeting each other on the steps. Some little boys ran around, and played near me and said ‘hi’ very softly, drawn by the cat that was petitioning earnestly for a share in my kebab. Then off they went, clattering about looking for mild mischief. Some of the older men pulled a carpet to a quiet corner of the garden and bowed down for prayers. All sorts of fashions went in. The most glamorous lady wore a black frocked tunic, heavily embellished with silver studs and blue and green embroidery, black skinny pants and a black chiffony embroidered headscarf. Most of the older men wore their shalwar kameez plus waistcoat combo. Some women wore Western shirts over trousers. The little boys wore either mini shalwar kameezes or mini dinner jackets, presumably in line with their parents. I could see they had balloons, and they had live music. Like the Finnish, there seemed to be a preference for mournful tunes despite the happy faces everywhere. My gramdmother always sad that sad songs were more beautiful. I saw briefly a woman unscarfed, thick black glossy hair briefly visible, terribly beautiful. In the curtained windows I could see silhouettes of dancers coming closer and moving further off, like a shadow puppet dance.

The next evening, fortunately for my sanity, I went out for dinner with a former colleague whom I had discovered was in Kabul through skype. It was lucky as a combination of long work days and social isolation was wearing down my mental grip on happiness. We went to the exquisite Design Centre Cafe in Kabul.


The place, behind a plain metal door in the exterior wall that gives away nothing, was just beautiful.  Tapestried armchairs and low tables were set around an open but carpeted courtyard.  The interiors were gorgeously stylish with old dark wood and candles and embroideries and carpets too, but I always love ‘outside in’ places, and one of the bits about hot climates is being able to live outdoors – so we did, that evening.  In one of those weird moments of extraordinary privilege, we went into a room where carpets were being displayed, and met the designer Chuk Palu, who showed us carpets that he sells at Liberty and I could maybe afford one of if I stopped going out for six months.  Some of the carpets were woven new but designed old so they already looked like antiques that you might find at the Victoria and Albert.  I had been writing about carpet making that morning – it’s one of the few sources of income available to poor girls in Afghanistan, but unfortunately the need to earn money often takes precedence over education – and would it not with me?  I wished that I could support this beautiful industry.  The carpets made me wish I was richer, and I suddenly had a flash forward that in 10 years time, if we all just supported Afghanistan with development rather than pretending that we might ever be able to meaningfully interfere with its politics, Afghanistan might be the next Lebanon.  If we had realised this fifteen years ago, I’m sure the world today would be a better place.  It was strange visiting Afghanistan, this country that has come to influence much of what has happened in world politics over the last ten years, and feeling so confined and isolated that I’d had barely more experience of the country than I would have done from reading a good book about it.  What else did I see?  Kabul is one of those cities overflowing with small scale and big scale entrepreneurs, bumping up against high walls with barbed wire and armed guards.  A female politician was shot dead during that weekend, allegedly for not wearing her head scarf – but who knows who she angered and why. But there is huge and widespread support for girls’ education, including from the places where as a Westerner, our media teaches us not to expect it.  Day to day, people are friendly.  The guards at my hotel were determined that I should be able to say in Dari ‘hello. How are you you?  Thank you, I’m fine.’ Weddings and family parties are a huge deal, and joined together by a lived faith and by a value for spending time with loved ones.  The food is good.  There is world class design behind those bleached yellow Kabul walls.  I pray that Kabul and the wider Afghanistan will prosper.

My Kabul Fashion Diary (2)

On the plane, I went to sleep as soon as I sat down, exhausted already by the night flight from London, and woke up with two high school or student aged girls. They were both smartly dressed in narrow black pants, black tunics embellished with silver, and light black scarves; one chiffon embellished with silver threads, the other soft black cotton or viscose with silver, leopard like spots. We got chatting – they had left Aghanistan five years ago, had settled in Peterborough, and were returning to see family. They were as keen as I was to see Afghanistan from the air as we approached. Leaving the azure waters lapping the desert of the Gulf behind, nearer Kabul we saw endless rows of dry bleached yellow mountains, with what looked like chains of fields threading their way through the valleys. I asked if their family would think they had become too British ‘Yes, maybe,’ they replied together, laughing. The two girls and I shared a fear of aeroplane turbulence, and giggled nervously together at landing. They were part of a much larger family group, it turned out – my last glimpse of them was at the baggage carousel, where the elder one looked like someone born to lead orchestras or nations, with relations and porters following the rapid gestures of her arms to fetch copious volumes of baggage, while the smallest members of the family danced around her like a maypole, running off to the exciting carousel, and back again to safety.

At the border control, I was relieved when the guard laughed at the photos clipped inside my passport for various official forms. One of my colleagues had said that in my passport photos I look like a psychopath. Other things were funnier, but not suitable to be written here, to do with various types of criminality. All agreed they would not let me into their country. The guard was quite chivalrous, and said ‘is that really you? Maybe it’s your sister.’. I thought of my pretty sisters and laughed. He stamped my passport and I had entered the country. Would he have been friendly if I had not been wearing a headscarf? Probably, but why take the risk? Foreigner registration was slightly less easy, with a man barking at me that I should have brought a work permit, not a visa. I explained why I was here, his colleague looked at my passport, and then they stamped my registration form. It probably wouldn’t have been harder if I had been bareheaded, but again, I felt more confident arguing with them knowing that I had not possibly offended anyone before even opening my mouth.

The five minute walk to meet my greeter at the car park was almost unbearably hot. I began to hate my woollen scarf. I met another lady who was visiting the programme who had come in on the same flight. She’d had trouble finding the car park and asked for help. Her head was covered, but the airport men who jovially assisted her had told her that ‘people in Afghanistan don’t really like women who don’t wear the burka.’ I attribute half of that to the way some men like to frighten women almost as a form of flirtation (‘it’s ok lady, you’re in safe hands now,’ kind of thing).  A casual glance at the streets told us that wasn’t true.  Some women wore the burka for sure, but others wore smart black tunics and pants, others wore green and pink shalwar kameezes, there were as many ways for women to express themselves through fashion as there were in London.  Except I was not making a fashion statement, I looked like a bag lady wearing badly assorted clothes, and I was ridiculously hot. We passed through traffic so hectic I nearly didn’t see the soldiers passing with a gun mounted on a flatbed truck. First impressions of Kabul: bustling traffic filled, shop-lined streets, houses that matched the bleached yellow brick of the encircling mountains. Then there was a side street, a metal wall, a man with a gun in a metal cubicle surrounded by sandbags. I had arrived at my hotel.


Between the office and the hotel, I was driven past a road with shops selling evening gowns and Western wedding dresses.  ‘Who wears those?’ I asked a colleague.  ‘Afghan brides,’ he replied drily.  I puzzled over how a woman in this dress culture could wear a strapless, corseted Pronovias dress when the rest of the time they must be covered.  Then a colleague explained, she will only be seen by other women.  Men and women celebrate the wedding in different rooms.  There is a ceremony between the groom and his father in law, and then a messenger will go to tell the bride that she’s married.  At one point she will sit with the groom to receive guests – but the enormous neon lit wedding halls, for the massive and loud Afghan weddings I could hear nearly every night from my hotel in downtown Kabul, are separated inside for the parties for men, and parties for women.  Having been married three months ago, it felt like a different way to do it.  At the office, I had nearly made a gaffe on my first day by going to eat lunch at the men’s table, but caught myself just in time.  At the hotel, I ate on my own every night.  There was a male colleague staying there, but in addition to traveler reticence, offering a colleague ‘space’, I felt I didn’t want to expose myself to observation by brazenly walking up to him to suggest we eat together.  After a few days there, my goal was invisibility.

My Kabul fashion diary (1)

I spent 10 days in Afghanistan for work. I’m supporting a team there planning a large education programme. They bring knowledge, I bring post it notes and flipchart pens. Together, we can. But hope. Please nice donors, fund us!

Before I left, I faffed with my packing. Evening upon evening, my husband came home to find me rummaging through my clothes, muttering vengefully about moths. The way to get round the modest clothing issue with a Western wardrobe, I had discovered, was a long shirt or dress over trousers. But it doesn’t stop there, the ‘cultural awareness’ photocopy lets you know. The trousers must be wide legged, and the sleeves of the dress must come below your elbow. Nothing must be sheer. It’s so obvious that the neckline should be high that they don’t even mention it. Fortunately I’m a fan of wide-legged pants (Fenn Wright Manson or just Top Shop) but I have literally one long shirt that meets all those criteria, and (since a great shopping trip in Islamabad) one beautiful shalwar kameez. But that wasn’t going to get me through 10 days in Kabul. So the answer is – layering. Trousers, a dress worn back to front so that the low neckline is hidden, and a strange black coat that my best friend was getting rid of because it was too shapeless, and I, squirrel-like, hoarded. For this day, it turns out. This day of 35 degree heat.

I took my Kindle with me of course, and started reading Moby Dick. Even there, Afghanistan was ready to meet me.  Herman Melville uses a reference to this desperately important land as an ironic comment on the long repeating cycles in the news, and casts his narrator Ishmael’s boat journey as part of a global epic by this reference which could have been as pointed in 2001 as 1851:

‘And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
“Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael”
“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan”‘

Then there’s the business with the headscarf. I love hats and fascinators, so I was fascinated by the idea of covering my head. My colleagues were quite clear: whenever you go outside, cover your head. When you arrive at the airport, have your head covered. If anything goes wrong and you need help, people will not respect you if you do not have your head covered. I was concerned about the details. ‘Do I have to pin it, or is it okay to wear swathed loosely about my head? I don’t know how to pin it. ‘ I asked one of my new male colleagues. There was a pause at the other end of the line. ‘just wear one, it’s better.’  But then what kind, and what to do with my hair? I have fine blonde flyaway hair, and if the whole point is that my bare head is offensive then the straggling strands around my face would be an insult both to my host country and the patient efforts of my hairdresser. I decided I would wear a headband to keep the flimsy strands discreetly hidden.

I planned some outfits, but could not figure out how to appear as anything other than an eccentric British lady who, for reasons of her own, prefers to wear all her clothes at once. I hummed and hawed over the choice of headscarf with which to make my respectable debut at Kabul airport. The pretty ones from Pakistan would have to wait until I’d sized up the prevailing attitude to decoration, and I packed a plain grey wool scarf. A floor length full skirt borrowed from my best friend, my long black longsleeved shirt, and a shapeless macintosh completed the look. Sitting at gate 5, terminal 2 in Dubai (very much the Stansted of Dubai, a hot 20 min bus ride from glittering terminal 1) I tried to gain a sense of dress culture. Standing in queue to board, I thought there were relatively few women at all, but of those there, only two or three seemed bareheaded. So I bowed to the majority, raised my scarf over my head, and lowered my eyes.