Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Day jogging!

So in an effort not to be too slothful me and the missus went out for a run before stuffing ourselves at the traditional family huge Christmas dinner. I still feel stuffed now but at least we can feel smug that we ran five miles this morning unlike the rest of the family. The run is great as it follows a ridge of one of the highest hills around for a couple of miles giving good views in winter when the trees are not in leaf. But best of all there is a little lane that goes nearly to the top of the hill so my dad dropped us off by car at the highest point on the road and then you just need to jog uphill for a few hundred metres to the top of the hill! After than most of the routes is a long the flat or downhill. Despite misty conditions I took my camera, and for the first time ever tried uploading a clip onto YouTube. It's so easy! Why have I never bothered polluting the internet with pointless 30 second clips of film before? So it's not going to win any awards, but here is thirty seconds of running along a hill in Worcestershire for your amusement.

And here are a couple of pics:


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ye Olde England

The fog is starting so slowly lift from where I am in the Midlands: we can now see about half a mile instead of a hundred yards, but besides being slightly less claustrophobic it hasn't got any less damp. In Finland it rains and everything gets wet but there seems to be something uniquely soggy about my homeland. The dampness just hangs around.

The other thing that strikes me when I'm back in the UK is just how much "old stuff" there is. The picture above is the church near to where I grew up. Its not particularly remarkable - just like hundreds of others around England, but it dates back 900 years to Norman times with the bigger bits being added in the Medieval period. When you study history and realise how much can change in just a few generations, so 900 years is an awful long time. Growing up around here it all just fades into the background, but now living in Finland where due particularly to a history of building in wood, structures of more that a century are pretty rare away from the centres of the biggest towns, I really notice it.

This is a yew tree in the church yard. Yews have been traditionally grown in church yards because their wood is used for the manufacture of longbows, the weapon that gave England military hegemony in Europe in Medieval times. They live a long time so from the thickness of this trunk it is presumably also a good couple of centuries old at least.

The local stone is a very soft sandstone which weathers relatively quickly. There are many graves considerably older than this one but none have legible inscriptions on them. This one does and dates from 1822.

The Norman doorway of the church. This is amongst the original parts of the building dating back nearly a millennia. The door is medieval if I remember correctly, and for some odd reason I don't know is hung upside down.

It would look very Christmassy in the snow wouldn't it? Unfortunately in these days of ever worsening (i.e. warmer) winters, this part of the Midlands seems only to get a day or two of snow a year if we are lucky, and it has not happened whilst I've been around for a good few years. I remember good blizzards in my childhood when the area would get snowed in for days on end until the local farmers cleared the lanes with their tractors.

So this was the only vaguely seasonal shot I managed to snap: a traditional little Robin perched in a very soggy tree.

Happy Christmas everybody.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Northern Light on the London Eye

We managed to arrive in the UK for Christmas just before the fog that has closed or slowed virtually all the airports from London to Southern Scotland rolled in causing travel chaos. Our day in London was suprisingly sunny considering the chaos that was happening ten miles to the west at Heathrow. Below are some snaps to keep my loyal readers amused until I think of something more profound to write about.

Some dapper London gent shows his Bolivarian sympathies, with Tower Bridge in the background.

Chilly, but presumably preferable to getting shot at in Basra or Kandahar.

Up and away on the London Eye, the South Bank of the Thames visible below.

Westminster through the Eye.

The pod behind.

A very misty Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster.

That's about it really, I'm now on holiday so my brain is seems to be going on strike and I can't think of anything interesting to blog about: "Christmas is coming and my brain is getting fat, please put an interesting thought inside my hat." I was mildly amused that the Guardian has managed to find out that a leading dancer in the English National Ballet has fascist leanings, or as the Mirror much more punchily puts it, is a "BNP Ballerina". Listening to the podcast of last week's On The Media from NPR and WNYC I also excitedly thought that I might afterall be part of a repressed and distrusted minority as I listened to their piece on how everybody is scared of atheists, but they were talking about the States. But with unfortunate timing today's Guardian suggest that unless I migrate across the pond it would appear that I'm still rather boringly part of the British mainstream in my (non)religious leanings.

Nevermind. I'll sing a few Christmas carols and bemoan in a slightly ironic manner the fact that consumerism is spoiling the true message of Christmas. Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas everybody.

Monday, December 18, 2006

IPIS Boycott

Nice to see the international media is covering the boycott of the Iranian Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) by many, many think-tanks and policy institutes around the world - including my employer. IPIS has been one of the organisers of the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran and have, with that, showed themselves to have no academic credibility at all. I haven't blogged anything about the conference as it is really, simply, beneath contempt but the BBC's Frances Harrison in this week's "From Our Own Correspondent" on World Service did a rather superb job of showing the sickening hypocrisy of the whole thing. Her essays for F.O.C.C. on Iran are always worth a listen, but this one is particularly good and in that polite BBC way, she really puts the boot in to the Iranian regime. Well worth a listen (or read if you are reading this after the audio version has been taken down).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sunset over Klaukkala

Sunset over Klaukkala, 14.57 17th December.
Sunset at bloody 14.57! What's with that then? The shortest day of the year is just a few days away. This is good as currently the sun is down by mid-afternoon and it is starting to get to me. At least until the snow arrives, the lack of light is, well, rather dull.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Weekend climbing "photo essay"

Little Toni had an afternoon shift so we made an early start with me, him and Jody managing to be at the crag by an impressive 10 am! All the roads were coated in black ice; the result of a hard frost overnight following on from the seemingly incessant rain we've had recently. I was very glad I had put my winter tyres on back when the first snow came at the end of October.

The Nuuksio road at 10 am, still covered in black ice

We went to Solvalla in Nuuksio National Park as it was going to be dry if anything was. Of course it was mainly wet but there were a few dry (or dry-ish) lines to go at. Little Toni zoomed up "Indiana Jones" so fast that his fingers almost didn't freeze; this was in comparison to Jody and my not quite so efficient leads of the route - both of us ending up with completely numb digits. You had to keep telling yourself that even if you couldn't feel your fingers, at least the friction was good and you could trust your feet.

Little Toni cruises "Indiana Jones" F5+

Toni did one of the trad lines in the same area and then I led "the Last Crusade" VS 4c, a route that Jody had probably done the first ascent of a couple of years back. I've done it once before but years ago and couldn't remember any of the moves. It has a slightly committing section where you get out a little from your gear, meaning a big potential fall, and whilst moving up is by no means desperate, reversing those moves would be. Of course I did this section to find myself in the top groove where everything was mossy, dirty, very damp and with no way to reverse out of this predicament. After some minor panicking and much scraping muck out of cracks to place some more gear, I tettered unconvincingly upwards but managed to top out without any disasters.

Approaching the crux of "the Last Crusade" VS 4c.

Big Toni and Erik had joined us by this point. After top-roping another harder line which I surprised myself in actually getting up after just one fall, we decided that this was enough of frostbitten fingers and that it was time to move on. Big Toni, Jody and myself obviously felt we had something to prove so headed across to Bemböle for some bouldering. The boulder wall was also pretty wet but we gave one dry problem a few half-hearted attempts before calling it a day.

Bemböle bouldering. Jody climbs, Toni spots.

After all that "exercise" we were just too close to what must surely be Espoo's best café, the Kaffestuga, to resist the siren call of coffee and donuts.

The place were calories burnt are immediately replaced

So that was that really. It would have been a very unremarkable tale of Helsinki rock climbing if it had not been for the date. The 16th of December is definitely the latest I have ever rock climbed in something like eight pretty active years of climbing in Finland. According to my logbook I started ice climbing on the 11th of December last year and some other past winters we have ice climbed from November onwards. But there have been plenty of other winters where that ice hasn't really formed until around Christmas, so although the weather is warmer and wetter than average this late autumn, from a climbing perspective it's nothing too unusual yet. I'll be in the UK over Christmas so hopefully the ice will be here on my return to Finland at the New Year, and at least I've managed two days of ice climbing already this winter - even if it is a bit freaky how everything has melted since then. The ice climbers' grapevine is suggesting that it's not much better anywhere else in Europe, even the very reliable Rjukan in the Norwegian mountains has not much ice to the surprise and consternation of local and visiting climbers alike. Scottish conditions seem to be picking up though with climbs getting done in the last week (and another sad death from a fall), but they are 3500 foot higher than our wee cliffs. Oh well for the desperate and rich European ice climber, there is always Canada.


A Bemböle toadstool. I thought I'd include this because I'm such a fungi...

...tumbleweed blows past...

Monday, December 11, 2006

More nationalistic cocktails

Tony sent me this rather wonderful montage of his flags of the world cocktails from the Independence day party the other night. From left to right we have: UK/France; Finland; Germany; Australia; Sweden; Portugal. In this way Tony managed to make a cocktail for every nationality present at his party. Just admire the artistry and politely don't ask what they tasted like. ;-)

If anyone is interested the theory Tony (posting as anonymous) outlines the science behind them here!

Bizarre headline of the day...

"WMD-Related Chemical Discovered in Hong Kong Flowerpot"

How's that for a catchline? Who would not want to know how a WMD-related chemical ended-up in a Hong Kong flowerpot? Sadly, according to Issue 9 (Oct./Nov. 2006) of the International Export Control Observer (it's a gripping read, honest) we might never know.
"[A] cleaning woman discovered the unopened package and turned it over to security personnel from the housing complex. The security personnel noticed that the package had a peculiar smell. The Hong Kong police were called and discovered two bags of white powder and two bottles of liquid inside the package. Labels on the bags of powder read ‚“KHF2” the chemical symbol for potassium bifluoride. The bottles of liquid were unmarked. The shipping invoice indicated that the package originated in Shenzhen, China and had been en route to Iran, scheduled to arrive in December 2005. It remains unclear how the item ended up outside the Hong Kong apartment building. However, one analyst familiar with Hong Kong‚’s export control system speculated that the package was likely abandoned in the flowerpot when an intermediary responsible for shipping the item realized that local customs controls would make it very difficult to transport the item to Iran."

"...Potassium bifluoride is an extremely hazardous substance that is both corrosive and toxic. It is a precursor for various chemical weapons agents, including the nerve agent sarin, and is also used in the extraction of plutonium from spent reactor fuel in the production of fissile materials." (p.6)
In a pitiful attempt to illustrate this story I put "hong kong flowerpot" into Google Images and the above picture came up. The above flowerpot has not been implicated in the running of WMD precursors to Iran, and its depiction should not be seen as any suggestion of such activities. This is a good thing because I'm sure I saw one just like that in my local IKEA recently...

Friday, December 08, 2006

Terrorism in America

I was reading a UKC discussion (well - brawl might be more accurate) this week about new airline passenger profiling being done by the US - civil liberties vs. security blah, blah, blah... same old same old. But then I noticed a comment by the generally rude and arrogant JCM (who just happens to annoying normally also be correct and to the point), saying that there has been virtually no history of terrorism in the US. This was great, as I knew he was plain wrong, so it was a chance to pounce! :-) Anyway I did a list off the top my head and Googled a couple just to make sure. I'll copy the post here, just so I don't forget them all, even if no one else is really interested. But I think it is interesting to look at just how much political violence there has been in the US over the years that doesn't fit into the current view of terrorism being done by Jihadis. My post was as follows:
"if you are really interested you should read a book called "Images of Terror" by a US academic called Philip Jenkins. For example do you know about the 1975 La Guardia bombing? Probably not, as most Americans don't remember it. It killed eleven - more than were killed in the first WTC bombing that most do remember, but was carried out by Croatian Ultra nationalist Utashe.

But lets start with groups off the top of my head. You can argue the toss over what is a terrorists but all of these below on non-state groups who have used violence for a political or religious reason. Most have killed:

"Left" in vague historical order
-The "Red Wave" of the 20s - numerous bombings by communists and anarchist particularly the Wall Street Bombing of 1920 that killed 30
-Symbionese Liberation Army
-The Weather Underground
-Black Panthers
-United Freedom Front
-Puerto Rican nationalist movement, 1976 they bombed 30 sites in major US cities, including one in NYC that killed 4 and injured 50
-the UNA bomber
-Earth First/Earth Liberation Front

"Right"
-Various militias in rural areas who have killed law enforcement officers
-Klu Klux Klan
-Abortion clinic bombings and assassinations of doctors (eg. Joseph Paul Franklin)
-Christian Identity Movement linked bombers like Eric Robert Rudolf and Timothy McVeigh and its spin offs: Army of God, Aryan Nation, The Order etc.
-There are also many case of lone rightwingers killing or attempting to carry out terrorist acts including serious attempts to get chem and bio weapons. The bible of the US far right, the Turner Diaries, makes a big thing of the 'lone wolf' concept, so although they can't be considered terrorist groups, they can be considered terrorists.

Then happening in the US but originating overseas:
-Cuban Exile groups - 1975 thirteen bombs went off in Miami in two days, organised by a Bay of Pigs Veteran. Cuban rightists also murdered leftist Latin American exiles in the US - including the Chilean Orlando Letelier. A Cuban diplomat was also murdered by Cuban exiles in 1980.
-Croatian Nationalists (La Guardia bombing)

The question isn't whether there has been political violence in the US, there always has been - huge amounts of "terrorism" after the Civil War for example - but who gets to call it terrorism.

Anyway, purely by coincidence just a few days after discussing this I was listening to last week's podcast of On The Media from WNYC/NPR, and they had a fascinating discussion "El Terrorista y La Periodista" about the bizarre activities of the U.S. Government regarding those very Cuban nationalist terrorists, specifically Luis Posada Carriles who has been convicted in Venezuela of the 1976 bombing Cubana Flight 455 in midflight killing all 73 on board. It seems that US Govt. has chucked away all the evidence they have on the guy, and are now trying to get that evidence from journalists via subpoena. Meanwhile a convicted terrorist is living free in the Miami suburbs. Read it here or listen to it by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Live Blogging! Independence Day Drinkies...

So I'm at a joint Finnish Independence Day (tomorrow) and birthday party for Tony, sometime climbing partner and amateur cocktail developer. He is so impressed with his new cocktails that he felt they needed to be shared with the world immediately. So feast your eyes on the following:


The first has been named The Itsenäisyyspäivä (Independence Day), please admire the very Finnish colours. The second is a multipurpose cocktail that has so far been pressed into service to welcome both a French friend and a British friend (me!), but is most obviously suited for any cocktail drinking Russians out there. We are currently trying to work out how to do an Australian one. Answers on a postcard to the normal address - the comments box.

Happy Birthday to Tony and Happy Independence Day to all the Finns reading!

Monday, December 04, 2006

The obligatory weekend climbing post.

Jody goes a bit ninja at Rollarit

To any climbers reading this, yes I know it's a top-rope but hey, it December in Finland and we're still climbing outside so give us a break. In fact I had just led a VS around the corner but Jody failed to actually take any photos of that....

To any non-climbers reading this, you don't know what a top-rope is so don't worry about it. ;-)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Two stories of prejudice

I've happened to come across two really depressing stories over the weekend. The first was from the Times back at the end of the summer. Jamie Glassman, one of the writers from the Ali G Show, and hence no stranger to sailing close to the comedic wind himself, notes that at this year's Edinburgh Fringe he saw two comics who have made anti-semitic jokes (although if you were feeling very charitable you could argue the toss over the later) and that for the young, ignorant and mouthy left there is willingness to not separate all Jews everywhere from the actions of the Israeli Government, when it comes to hating "Bush, Blair and Israel." I think that with the rough and ugly politics of the last five or so years, it is definitely something that is creeping back on to the fringes of the political discourse of the left - as I have alluded to before on this blog. This anti-semitism wrapped up in something else has probably always been there, but people just knew to keep their mouths shut if they didn't want to get smack or shouted down for the ugly bigotry that it is. But with the worsening of the political situation in the Middle East, and particularly after the Israel-Lebanon war of this summer, the bigots are feeling less restrained. I was lucky enough to have the chance to have dinner with Dr. Nabil Shaath - special envoy for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - this week after he was returning from the EU Mid-East summit in Tampere. He was very up-beat about the outcomes of the summit and had had a number of private meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and clearly they had been constructive (although things look less good today), but his descriptions of life in Gaza, currently under Israeli blockade, were incredibly depressing. The economy has been destroyed and malnutrition is starting to be observed. There is much to be criticised amongst current Israeli government policies, but why people would go from doing that to being simply racist towards a huge group of people living all around the world (and quite often the most acute and clear critics of those policies) is beyond me. They are f**kwits and deserve to be told so.

The second story is an incredible one from the US. A talkshow host on station covering Washington, Virginia and Maryland had a show based on the idea that all Muslims should be made to wear some kind of signifying mark in public like an armband, or be tattooed. Some called in to say the host a dangerous bigot and to point out the rather obvious historical precedents. Many others phoned in to say what a good idea it was, or more - that all Muslims should either be put in camps or expelled from the country. Of course at the end of the show the host revealed that it had been a hoax to draw out peoples feelings toward Muslims. A few weeks ago I met a number of young American Muslims at a conference, all 'community leaders' of some sort or another - all young professionals: lawyers, dentists etc. who were putting much effort into various NGOs, community education groups etc. They all said how this sense of mistrust towards American Muslims was increasing, spurred on by real 'honest' ignorance mixed with what to them were very strange ideas about what their religion is meant to be, ideas that come from ugly anti-Islamic rhetoric that exists on numerous blogs and religious (Christian) websites. There was a real sense of unease, about being made to feel a stranger in the country of your birth - and this radio host's hoax can only add to that. Can anyone be stupid enough not to know what asking a religious group to wear an armband signifies?

Thanks to CENSORED and Duncan_S on UKC who brought both articles to my attention.

Friday, December 01, 2006

I might regret this...

The Guardian Abroad, a new part of the Guardian website aimed at expats has added me
to their list of expat blogger. You can now rate this blog and even leave a review at the Guardian should you be so inclinded. The button is in the side bar and will take you to their site. This blog is in the "Global diatribes and politics" section.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A real life neo-con

I attended a background briefing yesterday by a senior US administration figure, it was Chatham House rule, so I can't say exactly who or quote anything directly that s/he said, but even still it was an enlightening experience. There has been much discussion over recent months, and particularly since the mid-terms, about the end of neo-conservatism. Some of the thinkers outside of the administration, have done their mea culpa and moved on - Francis Fukuyama being the most obvious. Within the administration some have been fired, other's like Douglas "the f**king stupidest guy on the face of the earth"* Feith have resigned and moved on to greener pastures, and others are, well, running the World Bank. With the reemergence on the scene of many of Bush Snr.'s compadres, you hear phrases like "the adults being put back in charge of the shop" being chucked around a lot.

But, if yesterday's speaker was anything to go by there are still neo-cons kicking around in some of the most senior jobs in Washington. I turned to a colleague after the presentation and asked "so do you think s/he is mad or lying?" Out of the two options I'm not sure which is worse. The speaker seemed both rational and very intelligent, which made the words s/he produced so difficult to process. Of course what the speaker said was no worse, and indeed a lot better, than what you can read on dozens and dozens of blogs who all think they are fighting the war against Islamo-fascism-fundamentalism-Wahhabist-Qutbist-Salafist-Shiia-Sunni-and-Cher-evilness (OK -I threw in Cher for crimes against music, it's a long story involving a former Nigerian flatmate and sleep deprivation), but none of those blogger are in the very upper echelons of the most powerful government on earth. We're in a war on terrorism don't you know? They want to found a global Caliphate! In fact - oh the horror! the horror! - the Shura Council of the Mujahideen have already founded a global Caliphate (and also this being the modern world, a blog. If you want to read the blog, google it, it's hate speech basically and pretty tedious hate speech at that, so I'm not going to link it) - the only problem is that the global Caliphate so far extends to the bits of al-Anbar province which the USAF can't pulverize at will (i.e. not much). The speaker kept reminding us that you could read all the plans for global domination on the internet. You can read a lot of stuff of the internet mate. I doesn't make it true. I bet the Chinese army is quaking in its boots. And let's politely skip over the whole issue of why the Shura Council of the Mujahideen is able to sit sipping tea in Fallujah whilst they plot global domination (and update their blog)... but just in case you haven't worked it out yet I recommend Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, which I am currently about 190 pages in to.

All-in-all, the speaker clearly SOOooo wanted the Soviet Union back. When the bad guys had thousands of nuclear warheads just like our side did, you could really get everyone together by worrying about an armoured blitzkrieg attack heading for the Fulda Gap. The speaker was worried that no one seems to be taking the GWOT seriously anymore - and you wonder why.

Completely unrepentant, still completely out of touch with reality and still in charge. What a scary combination.

*The delightfully plain-speaking former CENTCOM commander, General Tommy Franks.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Terrorism Chic


You can read about the probable killing in Chechnya of the Jordanian Jihadi, Abu Hafs al-Urdani on the Counter Terrorism blog. All very interesting, but the immediate thing that struck me was: what is it about hard guys and leather fingerless gloves?

It's all a bit 1980s if you ask me. Nevertheless like taping at least two magazines together for your machine gun, it seems in the rough and tough world of global insurgency, you just won't be taken seriously without black fingerless gloves.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Gay penguins

I think the title of this post is just going to bring loads of interesting traffic from search engines...

I started a blog way back in 2003 mainly with the intention of recording how much of my PhD thesis I had written each day. The blog didn't last more than six month and fortunately for the few readers I had, the rest of world is actually far more interesting blog fodder than my PhD writing up, so in the end the daily word count didn't get mentioned that much. I've got various ideas in my head for longer posts I do want to put up here but am actually frantically hammering out a draft of a chapter of my still unfinished PhD thesis. This accounts for the shortness and generally facile nature of the posts over the last week. God - I hate my PhD, but everyone says you should by the end so hopefully this means the end is not too far away (the end of my thesis, rather than the end of my sanity hopefully). At least I have written something over the last few days.

If anyone cares, today's word count is around 1000. I'm not sure if any of them are any good though...

Anyways - back to gay penguins: what a great story from last Sunday's Observer. I found it whilst browsing their site today; it does though appear that one of the penguins concerned might have been faking his gay-ness, possibly in an attempt to wind up Bible-belt Americans - a laudable aim that he seems to have achieved.

p.s. I'm not sure if the pictured penguin is gay or not, in fact I'm not even sure if it is a male or a female. If there are any penguin experts out there who know about these things, do tell.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ironic if not too suprising - corrupt anti-corruption officials

Helsingin Sanomat reports that Finnish border guards turned back some high ranking Chinese anti-corruption officials for trying to gain entry to the country with a fake letter of invitation. A nice touch that HS doesn't really draw attention to is that the fake letter is meant to be from the Finnish Ministry of Justice and signed by a very un-Finnish sounding "Jim Sebastian"! Even in multicultural Britain or France a letter from a govt. official named "Pekka Ilmiökorpi" or "Suvi Saarenpää" might raise an eyebrow or two.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Branson: fake beard alert

Tycoon and generally-perceived-by-many-as-all-round-nice-guy Richard Branson is back in the headlines dissing Rupert Murdoch for controlling British Democracy through his media power. Two things strike me about this, the first is a minor point of logic and the second possibly a scoop of world shattering importance.

1) If Murdoch has this total power over the way we all think through his control of the media - why he is he so universally loathed? And if Sir Richard is a plucky little resistance fighter desperately struggling to get the voice of the people heard on corporate dominated media, why is it that everyone seems to think he's such a sound chap? Shouldn't Murdoch have corrupted our minds against him already? See that? I used words like "plucky" and "struggling" - you lot like words like that, so subconsciously start to accept my way of putting the argument. Sneaky eh? It's called "framing". For next my trick I will take control of your mind. Good. Now give me all your money.

2) And this is the important bit - I was listening to Sir Richard discussing this on the BBC business news this morning and was hit by a sudden and scary realisation: he sounds exactly like Tony Blair! Right down to the I'm-just-an-ordinary-bloke "err"s and "y'know"s that he employs. I've always thought that beard looked fake (see right). So I think we deserve to know has anyone ever seen Branson and Blair in the same room at the same time?!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Community and sadness

It's been a bad day.

We are all part of different communities, some by happenstance and some by choice. One of my communities of choice is the British climbing community and today "we" lost two of "our own". Two young Aberdeen climbers were caught out in horrendous conditions and it seems forced to stay out overnight whilst descending after having done a route in Coire an t-Sneachda yesterday. They were found not far from Cairngorm ski centre this morning and flown to hospital in Inverness but both subsequently died. This played out all day on UKclimbing: from someone posting the first news reports, people realising who it probably was, a friend of the missing guys saying this morning how worried all the people in Aberdeen were, all of us posting best wishes from all corners of the country and indeed the world and locals to that area up-dating everyone with latest news from TV or radio. Early afternoon there was a burst of joy as the first news came through that they had been found, and then heartbreak to hear they subsequently died.

I don't know those who died, but I've climbed many time in Sneachda, bivvied in the snow round the back of the ski centre, and I've spent scared nights waiting for news of friends missing on the hill. Fortunately on those occasions we have had better news than the friends and families of these lads have had today. Condolences to all those effected, particularly the families who are likely to find this harder to deal with than climbing friends of the victims. And many many thanks to both the volunteer and the RAF mountain rescue teams who, yet again, did more than anyone could ask in that sort of weather to try and find them.

Benedict Anderson wrote in the early 80s a seminal book for modern sociology and political science called "Imagined Communities". He was writing about nations - that even in the smallest nation-states one person will not know all the other members of that nation, yet there is still that "we feeling" that makes a Finn know they have something in common with another Finn, or a Spaniard with a Spaniard. People from the same nation who have never met have a common identity, but this can only be imagined. Just because it is imagined doesn't mean it isn't important - as world history demonstrates the case is actually the opposite. But Anderson made a point valid beyond nation-states. I have never met those young men, yet I feel a horrible sadness tonight - for them, their families and their friends. I know what they were doing and why they did it and - whether real or imagined is besides the point - they were part of my community.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Sunday evening (no) climbing post

A no climbing weekend, all the ice and snow has melted but it has been cold and raining so no rock climbing or bouldering options either. I actually went for a run last night in the dark, drizzle and thick mist. I hate running, that's how bored I was. I must have run for about 45 minutes and have aching thighs today which is pretty pathetic. It shows what different muscles it uses from cycling as I have cycled quite a lot this year but the last time I remember going running was in Brussels from my hotel and I think that was last December. I should run more but I really do hate it.

The weather looks like it's going to stay crap as well:
What a depressing forecast eh? Finnish weather is dull compared to British weather, particularly when you're from the west of the UK. In Glasgow they say if you don't like the weather just wait five minutes. Here the weather seems to settle in for the week - be that good in the summer or miserable in the late autumn.

But to stay positive for the climbers, here's a pic from last January - Big Toni soloing One Point Gully at Nuuksio, on a day so cold we that you could hardly get brand new ice screws to bite (as ever, you can click on the pic for a bigger version).


And whilst Finland drips and melts in warm southerlies, on the other side of the anti-cyclone Scotland is getting blasted with cold northerlies with lots of snow in the hill. Other UKC people have been out on the Scottish mountains winter climbing and even ski touring, not that I'm jealous or anything. :-(

Somalia and Ethiopia

I've mentioned Somalia a number of times here before (see here, here and here). I don't know that much about the country but I've done some reading trying to understand more about the current situation, in particular reading the Crisis Group's reports on this "failed state". The rise of the Islamist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has brought the country back into the international media, but it seems difficult for at least the English language media, and the US press in particular, to get far beyond their "Islamism/terrorism" paradigm. As any undergrad student of international relations or security studies should know there is the concept of "security complexes": groups of states whose actions tend to have greater security implications for each other. These are generally regional, the Middle East, South Asia etc., but don't have to be in the modern world. Somalia is in the Horn of Africa security complex - it is joined by history, ethnicity, enviromental competition, un-finished conflicts and many other issues to the countries that suround it. To look at what is happening in Somalia now only in the light of the professed ideology of the ICU and their various militias, is to miss probably 90% of what is happening. Of course that 10% is probably the only reason why the US government probably cares at all.

I mentioned the earliest reports of the Ethiopian troops in the country back in July, and now there is extensive evidence from the UN that Eritrea (amongst others) is supplying arms to the Courts' militias. There seems to be little reason for this beyond the fact that Ethiopia has picked the other side. For those who don't know, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a particularly bloody and pointless war from 1998 to 2000 over their border, in which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The fighting deteriorated into trench warfare reminiscent of the first world war. It is one of those wars that has just completely escaped the attention of the west: as US secretary of state James Baker said of Yugoslavia as it collapsed into a bloody warfare and slaughter - "we don't have a dog in this fight". The same was true about Ethiopia-Eritrea; none of the rich world particularly cared either way. It was left for underfunded UN mission to try and enforce the ceasefire and stop the two countries from going back to war. But the other great sadness of the war is that it worsened the freedom and human rights situation in both countries. Ironically, the leaders of both before Eritrean independence from Ethiopia had fought together against the oppressive Ethiopian communist regime that ruled during the Cold War. Yet neither set of leaders seem to have been able to avoid the African leaders' disease of coming to resemble those you overthrow, like the pigs of Animal Farm.

The Eritrean regime went down this path steadily after independence in 1991, and with seemingly little care about what the rest of the world thought about them. Ethiopia has been different and the government has done good things for its people leading to much support from the aid community and in particular the British Government. But as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi felt power slipping away, he has become increasingly oppressive. As the Economist puts it (subscribers only I think):
"An instinct for self-preservation may explain the former rebel fighters' return to Soviet methods. Things began to fall apart last year when a disorganised opposition disputed the results of a general election. Street protests followed in the capital in June and again in November. Around 80 people were believed to have been killed, including some police, after which opposition leaders, journalists, human-rights activists and businessmen were arrested. Many have since been charged with treason and genocide.

The government promised a speedy trial but has reneged, dragging out the process while keeping it far from view. Most of those arrested are still languishing in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa. The cells there are baking hot by day, freezing by night, infested with roaches and mice, and thick with mud in the rainy season. The government has so far used a mix of spin and harassment of journalists (local more than foreign) to avoid international condemnation. But that may be changing.

An independent commission into the June and November killings has become an embarrassment. The government had stacked the commission with its supporters but eight out of ten of them still decided that the government had used excessive force. The commission members claim Mr Zenawi tried to get them to reverse their decision earlier this year; when that failed the government sought to bury the findings. The head of the commission and his deputy fled to Europe, fearing for their safety. Their investigation says at least 193 people were killed, nearly all by the security forces, including 40 teenagers, some shot at close range, others strangled. Some 20,000 young Ethiopians were said to be imprisoned in labour camps, though a government spokesman calls this “absolute rubbish”.

The government is spending more on its secret police as well as on state media. Well-placed sources claim an Israeli-trained unit now monitors e-mail and blocks opposition websites. Yet there is also disloyalty in the security apparatus. Berhanu Nega, the imprisoned mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, managed to write a book in Kaliti entitled “Dawn of Freedom” that is now being widely distributed in samizdat. Some people say 200,000 of the opposition calendars have been sold, often for several times their cover price."

On the other hand the Somali Islamist seems to be running on a law and order ticket! In the past few days they have used their forces to retake a ship seized by pirates, freeing the crew (the seas off Somalia have in the last decade and a half become notorious for pirates), and cracking down on drugs - in this case Khat, an incredibly common substance in those regions. Yet from the American self-styled 'anti-Jihadist' right, such as in this case the widely read and quoted Jawa Report, we are still getting this sort of 'advanced analysis':
"...the Ethiopia (and U.S.) backed Somalian interim government (which controls very little actual territory) has rejected a peace deal with the African Taliban [he means the ICU]. To whatever extent we are arming the opposition[he means the 'oppostion to the ICU', which is confusingly the interim government], we need to step up our efforts.

Some in the Ethiopian ex-patriot community have reminded me in the past that the Ethiopian government isn't exactly immune from charges of corruption and doesn't have the greatest human rights record itself. Maybe not, but in war you look for help from nations with mutual interests and not ones that are perfect.

The U.S. has plenty of experience fighting proxy wars from our experience with the Cold War. It's high time we began to use that experience in the Horn of Africa."

Mr. Jawa should listen to his Ethiopian friends a bit more. As likely refugees from political oppression they might have a bit more perspective on his "my enemy's enemy is my friend" logic. The premises of his argument are a mixture of the sickening and the laughable; firstly that the US should arm any old warlord or totalitarian regime who says they are fighting Islamists ('cos Islamist are, like, all bad and terrorists and stuff don't ya know?). And then the second - that the US experience of fighting proxy wars during Cold War suggests they should try the same again! Can anyone say "Daniel Ortega"?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Top Cops

I recently bought my first ever DVD. I love films, but I don't think I would ever want to watch even my favourites more than once a year or so, so seeing them at the cinema, hiring them on DVD or waiting for them to be shown on TV is fine with me. But this was TV programme, so actually it was a box set; Season II of "The Wire". A few years ago, I had heard rumours on American radio of this brilliant cop show where not much happens and that's the whole point . I watched the first series on MTV3 in Finland, where it had been put in a real graveyard slot, late night on saturdays I think. I probably only discovered it because recent fatherhood had curtailed my previously more interesting saturday evenings - either at the cinema or out with mates for a drink. They started showing the second season this autumn at a similarly ridiculous time; I missed the first two episodes, watched one, then missed the next - got annoyed, looked it up on Amazon.co.uk and thought as they had it for twenty quid reduced from fifty, that this wasn't too much for 15 hours or so of entertainment.

I love police shows, British and American, but currently The Wire is the best. But who is the best TV cop? The contenders:


Detective William "Bunk" Moreland (played by Wendell Pierce), "The Wire". This man doesn't talk, he rumbles like a passing freight train. He is Barry White with a badge and gun. Although all the girls will love and the all the blokes want to look like Officer Jimmy McNulty, it's Bunk who really has the style.


Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), "NYPD Blue". In Finland we're watching the last season of NYPD (or as it is said by at least my Finnish better-half, "Nuuuped"), and Sipowicz a volcano of man, at last appears to have become dormant. Dennis Franz has created a masterpiece with Sipowicz, it must be exhausting to act that level of pent-up rage day after day. I can't remember when NYPD started, it feels like I've been watching the development of Sipowicz for most of my life. I'll miss him when he's gone.


Detective Vic Mackey(Michael Chiklis), "The Shield". The "new Sipowicz" for cop-show-connoisseurs. Mackey lacks the critical introspection of Sipowicz, but then he hasn't sunk to the personal depths that Andy did. He has moments of moral clarity but can't seem to hang onto them. I'm sure Vic and Tony Soprano would get on well.

Any other suggestions via the comments are welcome.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blow out that candle: Finland and fire

I just heard a siren and that reminded me of a story I saw a week ago in Helsingin Sanomat that had grabbed my attention. It's something that I had noticed over the last year or so: that there seems to be an awful lot of fatal fires in Finland. I had wondered whether this was really the case, or rather whether it is just a reflection of the fact that Finland is - in the nicest possible sense - a very boring country where nothing much exciting happens. If the latter was true, you could expect that the media to pay disproportionate attention to fire stories because they don't have so much else to report. But the Helsingin Sanomat article actually contained figures, so I thought I would try and compare them to the UK. My methodology doesn't extend much beyond "use Google", but for what's it worth here goes:
  • in 2005, 81 Finns died in fires.
  • in 2006 the projected figure is 110-115.
  • in 2005, 379 English people died in fires.
  • the population of Finland is approx. 5,231,000.
  • the population of England is approx. 49,139,000.
So the English population is nine and a half times bigger than Finland's, yet the number of people dying in fires is only about four and half times bigger in England. So even with my hopelessly poor maths its seems you're have a much greater chance of dying in a fire in Finland than in England.

I have absolutely no idea why this might be: less population density so further between fire stations? Wooden houses? Great fire fighters in the UK? Alcohol consumption patterns? Shoddy Finnish electrics? Who knows - but if you have any ideas, please leave a comment.

When sorry seems to be the most expensive word to say

When I was reading last week's edition of the Economist on the bus to work I was struck by one full page advert. Despite being an Economist subscriber and a fan of its news coverage, I realise from the adverts in the paper that I'm not part of their core-demographic. My eyes just move over all the advertising without stopping: I don't play golf and never will so my brain can just ignore that Tiger Woods wears a certain watch or represents some management consultancy or other. As the kids say - I sooo don't care. But this ad was different - plain text with the large title:

"An apology to Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz and Sheikh Abdulrahman Bin Mahfouz"
slap bang in the middle of the United States section of the newspaper.

The apology is from Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié who together had written a book called “Forbidden Truth”, first published in French and later in English. It would appear that they had claimed that Messrs Mahfouz and Mahfouz had been involved in financing al-Qaeda. The Saudi gentlemen had clearly taken exception to this, sued Messrs Brisard and Dasquié, and won. News reports say that the businessmen will donate their damages to UNICEF, which is a nice touch.

The authors are described as “upstart Western writers who, passing themselves off as international terrorism financing experts, have been dishing out all kinds of nonsense in the name of journalism” by one unnamed Jeddah businessman in a news report on the case. Harsh words indeed, but perhaps there is a grain of truth there. This gets back to what in an earlier entry I have called “the terrorism industry”. Brisard is very industrious in his work and has carved a little niche for himself post-9/11 as an “international expert on terrorism financing” (see the blog header). But what this is built upon is slightly obscure. Google turns up various things: it seems he worked for Vivendi at some point, or was at least a consultant to them, and also for the “French secret services” (whatever that actually means – why the plural?). But he has given evidence to Senate committees in the US and the United Nations, as well as vast numbers of media interviews and has written a number of books. There is definitely a virtuous circle you can get into, once you are known as an “expert” journalists call you because of it. Then you say – “look at how many journalists want to ask me questions! I’m clearly an expert”. But not only is Mr. Brisard getting sued, loosing and having to publish grovelling apologies in international newspapers, the original work that propelled him to fame "Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth" seems to be pretty dubious on many other grounds beyond his allegations about the Mahfouzes. David Corn of the Nation, a well known lefty, anti-Bush journalist, laid into Brisard back in 2002, along with other 9/11 conspiracy-mongers, for actually diverting attention from all the stupid things American governments have really done, by focusing on things they almost certainly haven’t. To their credit, the Nation gave Brisard a full right of reply, but this is just enough rope for Corn to hang him all over again.

The gist of Brisard’s argument seems to be that the US government provoked 9/11 by trying to pressure the Taliban into conceding to the US’s oil interests. The “it’s all about the oil” argument led to much interest in Brisard from the harder left in America (see the TruthOut.org article linked above). Yet Brisard is not to be pigeonholed, despite making friends on the US left, he seems to have more now on the American right – being quoted favourably by the circle of scholars and researchers that seems to revolve around the Counter-Terrorism Blog, and Steve Emerson’s organisation. Brisard’s thesis that Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the nexus of funding of Jihadi terrorism would find much favour with some of these writers who tend to be very sceptical about Saudi. There is of course plenty of evidence to back that scepticism up, but it just seems that Mr. Brisard got the names wrong. Brisard is also a long time member of the “get Tariq Ramadan”-squad. For those who don’t know, Tariq Ramadan – currently a visiting professor at Oxford University – is either the leading theorist of a new form of liberal, free-thinking Euro-Islam and a great hope for a future of peace between religions, or he’s an evil terrorist mastermind. It kind of depends on who you ask, but Mr. Brisard falls into the latter camp. For example on his blog he points to possible contacts that Ramadan had with Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1991. In fact Brisard’s blog isn’t very big and Ramadan is a reoccurring theme. We don’t know what the contacts were, even if they were true, but to Mr. Brisard that is enough to say he is linked to terrorism. Funnily enough, I have met Ramadan, as has Mr. Brisard himself, so are we now also “linked” to terrorism?

Some supporters (scroll down) see the libel cases against Brisard and Dasquié as being a case of the Saudi Kingdom using its bottomless pockets trying to silence its critics who have seen the truth of its support for terrorists, but courts in Switzerland and the UK disagree with that interpretation in this particular case at least. And if you want to Saudi-bash, there are so many easier ways of doing it.

I was on Finnish TV this morning talking about terrorism. They wanted me because they see me as “a terrorism expert”, a term I’m immensely uncomfortable with. I will continue to happily call myself a researcher as there is always something else to read, or another person to talk to, but I’m coming to the conclusion that if anyone calls themselves a terrorist expert, you should run a mile.

The price of fame...

...seems to be sleep deprivation. I was asked yesterday to go on the Finnish Broadcasting Company's morning breakfast show (YLE Aamu TV) today to talk about al-Qaeda, particularly in the light of the recent CBS story about possible Christmas attacks in Europe. So I got up at 5 am to make myself look presentable, have some breakfast and still be at their studio for 6.25 am. Now its mid-afternoon, I'm knackered and on about my third coffee in three hours to try and stop me falling asleep on my keyboard. After my 2 am appearance on US radio last week I'm starting to wonder why can't journalists ask me to do something at a reasonable hour?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sunday climbing post (and a gear review)


So despite the slush (see the posting below) we did pop out today and do some ice climbing. It snowed the whole time, soggy fine stuff, the snow equivalent of drizzle. All through the forest you could hear the sound of dripping. Not particularly inspiring. I backed down from leading one short line I tried unable to even get my shortest screw in. Big Toni* found a bit more ice a few metres to the left (photo above) but still got the fear good finding a total lack of ice on the ledge just above him in the photo. Some slight gibbering and swearing in two languages followed before he managed to teeter onto easier ground. I had actually worked out my running route away from the cliff to try and take in enough slack rope to stop him hitting the ground had he fallen. Fortunately this wasn't necessary. I told him after that's he's always been a ballsier ice climber than me, to which he responded "is that a polite way of saying I'm stupid?" You might have a point dude. :-)

I promised a few people on UKC I'd report back how my new boots were going, and now I've done a few routes in them here are my first thoughts. The different fit to the well known Sportiva Nepal Extremes isn't as bad as I had first imagined. So far my feet aren't complaining much, so I think I could say anyone interested in pair should just get the same size as any other Sportiva boots they have. They are very light, and very rigid in the sole, but the ankle is noticeably less supportive than with the Nepals. Of course that is one of the reasons most people would go for them - they are light and have very good mobility. A question lots of people have about the lighter winter boots is how warm are they? So far I've been pleasantly surprised. Last week it was heading down towards -10 oC and they were fine in the few hours we were out, but there was little snow. This week although the temperature was around freezing, the snow was deeper and really damp: normally a good combination for cold feet but in three hours of climbing and belaying I had no problems - perhaps I need to re-evaluate my opinion on the stupidity of goretex lined footwear. The biggest problem so far is getting the lacing right - too tight and it digs into my ankle painfully. Too loose and although no pain, the boots feel disconcertingly sloppy when you are on your front points. I can further review them once I've done some longer days and more serious climbs in them.


The pic above is of Big Toni on a line at the right of cliff that I have never seen form before. Although the weather doesn't look good for the week ahead with temperatures above freezing, the amount of seepage and ice after just the first couple of weeks of subzero temps, suggests it might be a good season.

*It should be noted that Big Toni isn't particularly big, just that he is bigger than Little Toni.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Slush


Yuck. More later... other stuff, not more slush.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

News priorities and other strangeness


Does it ever strike anyone else that we live in really bizarre world?

On an equally bizarre but otherwise unconnected note, I was listening to Reporting Religion on BBC World service this morning. They interviewed an American pastor who has a special ministry that serves fallen evangelical ministers. They had obviously found this guy to discuss the Pastor Ted Haggard affair (which currently appears to stand at: he bought a massage from a gay prostitute, but not sex, as well as buying crystal meth, which he didn't take. Hmmm... can anyone say "Clinton"?), but the Haggard story in itself isn't particularly strange. A homophobic preacher who is actually gay isn't especially hypocritical when we compare him, for example, to disgraced former-Congressman Mark Foley who was sending sexually explicit instant messages to underage teenage boys, whilst heading the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. What is bizarre is that there is a Pastor who specializes in 'fallen' pastors. Are there that many?!

Here's a picture of the "fallen" Pastor Ted with some other bloke. Despite the cheesy grins, no crystal meth was believed to have been involved:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My 15 minutes of fame

Radio Open Source have put up the audio file of the show on which I was a guest last night. You should be able to listen by clicking on this link. I'm only on in the latter third of the programme. I was really rather nervous to start off with and say "umm", "errr" and "...you know..." (the last one making me sound scarily like Blair doing his 'man of the people' style) far more than a professional would, but I survived and I think I got my point across. Being on a phone line also puts you at a disadvantage over the studio guests as it is harder to cut in to have your say.

I should say that if any of the Radio Open Source crew are reading this: you completely messed up my thursday! I got to bed a 4am and didn't get up until nearly noon. :-)

Is it just me?

I saw this:
And thought of this:
And just to hammer the point home:
It's uncanny. Tell me it's not just me.

A little nervous...

It's 2am, I'm sitting in my office about to be a guest on an American radio show: "Radio Open Source". They need to call me on a landline that I don't have at home; this is why I'm here and not tucked up in bed. I grabbed about one hour's sleep before driving down here so feel rather 'buzzy' as well as bit nervous. I'll do my best to be coherent!

I'll be discussing the mid-term elections: "how was it for you?". Earlier today, I offered on their blog a view from abroad, which they seemed to have liked so called me earlier this evening and asked me to join. So here I am, sleep deprived and with butterflies in my stomach.

Update: So I've done it. I didn't get too flustered and random words like "bum" and "knobber" didn't pop out of my mouth like some instant tourettes syndrome. I'll listen back tomorrow and see if I sound as awful as I usually do when you hear your own voice recorded.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rumsfeld Resigns


See ya Rummy. I'll write some analysis later, but for the time being lets just gloat for a wee while.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Voter intimidation


OK, so it's not that intimidating.

I was sent the above by a friend in the US on Election Day 2004. As few will have failed to notice, that turned out to be a very bad day for the kittens. If we want to be all serious and mature about this though, these kind of political threats (please note: I don't really believe that God kills kittens) are ugly politics. In the US mid-term elections where voters are going to the polls today, there have really been a lot of nasty attack ads. The Washington Post calls it 'kitchen-sink time': what the hell! You've chucked everything else at your opposition, why not lob the kitchen-sink as well? Slate.com have collected up the worst ones and you can see who wins the 2006 Political Slime Awards here. British local politics gets really rather dirty - oddly the Lib Dems seems to have a reputation amongst both Tory and Labour local activist for being the worse: utterly unscrupulous in saying exactly what they think people want to hear regardless of how unpleasant that is - but on the national scale the Blair-devil eye's ad:

was enough to cause shock and consternation in 1997 when it was used. But what all of these ads have in common is the negativity tends to be aimed at "what my opponent might/will do to you if you vote for him", not "what I will do to you if you vote for the other guy". The former is just normal scare tactics, the latter is truly intimidation.

So have the representatives of the US Government in Nicaragua stepped over this line in threatening that if the country voted for Daniel Ortega, as it now appears to have done, there would be consequences? The L.A. Times reports:
"[U.S. Ambassador] Trivelli warned that $220 million in U.S. aid to Nicaragua could be imperiled in the event of an Ortega victory, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said U.S. aid to the country would be endangered if "anti-democratic forces" prevailed in Nicaragua. Three Republican congressmen called on the Bush administration to stop people in the U.S. from sending money to Nicaragua should Ortega win."
The pro-Ortega campaign has been heavily bankrolled by Venezuela, so it's not like they are innocent of accepting foreign help, but as much as it pains me to say, Hugo Chavez is playing the smarter game in helping one candidate to campaign better, not threatening the country with sanctions if they vote for the man he dislikes.

All is not fair in love and politics.
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