Saturday, October 28, 2006

Caption Competition

I was just looking at the photo of Tony Snow in the last post from earlier in the week - that's a caption competition just waiting to happen isn't it?

On the basis of the recent "no brainer" comment from Vice President Cheney on whether torturing people is a good thing or not (a comment he is now trying to weasel out of) I think perhaps Mr Snow is saying "the President is only going to put him this far under just to remind him not to do it again before the elections..."

Alternative suggestions are most welcome in the comments.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Stay the Course" leaves the field

Sorry for mixing the sporting metaphors in the title but: thank the lord! I've just heard on the radio Tony Snow (photo left), the Whitehouse press secretary, say that President Bush is no longer going to use the phrase "stay the course". Regardless of the politics, this cringe-inducing cliché should have died a natural death long ago. It is my second most hated cliché in international politics after "boots on the ground", a horrible phrase that the BBC doesn't seem to be able to fully rid itself of although you don't hear it quite so much as over the last couple of years.

The presenters on "Today" on Radio 4 were amongst the worst abusers of "boots on the ground" - it got to the point where I actually imagined that John Humphrys might really believe that the way to stabilise Southern Iraq was to turf a load of boots out of the back of a C-130. I never really got their fondness for it - "boots on the ground" is four syllables, "soldiers" is two: life is complicated enough already.

Monday, October 23, 2006

On Cosmetic Surgery and Veils

We have a great 'magazine wall' at work - like in many libraries the most recent magazines and papers are held in holders, with the back issues stored in a cupboard behind. One magazine that my institute has started subscribing to more recently is New Scientist, and whilst microwaving some cold coffee hot (taste issues aside, is this the green thing to do as opposed to making a fresh pot?) one of the titles on the front cover caught my eye: "Nip & Tuck: Cosmetic Surgery's link to Suicide". According to the article, medical interest in this subject was sparked two big studies in Canada and the US that looked at large numbers of women who had had breast implants. The idea was to see if the persistent rumours that implants can cause cancer or other diseases were true or not. They seemed not to be, but both studies showed that women with implants are more likely to kill themselves. There are many possibilities as to why this is so, and the article suggests that no one really understands why yet, but further studies in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark suggest similar. Basically a woman with implants is 2 to 3 times more likely to kill herself.

The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fellow climbers who hang out on arguing with each other over just about everything remains my way of gauging the British zeitgeist whilst up here in more northern climes. Of course over the last few weeks, of the non-climbing matters discussed, since Jack Straw's now (in)famous comments the veil or niqab has been about the most popular topic for debate (well, "battle" more like). The issue of breast implants had, somewhat oddly, come up (thanks to Jenn for starting the ball rolling with her "research" of reading Cosmo and Marie Claire whilst ill in bed!). It might have even been me who brought up the connection between the two things first, arguing that I wish women didn't feel the need to veil themselves, but if it is their choice and not imposed it seems illiberal to me to tell them they can't - at least when it doesn't impinge on others (which is what makes the case of the teaching assistant more difficult). In the same way I also wish that women didn't feel the need to pay surgeons, and take the risks that come with surgery, to change their body shape (and lets just stick with cosmetic surgery as opposed to those who need similar procedures for reconstructive purposes), but again it seems illiberal to say that they can't.

Considering that the niqab is about taking modesty to what many see as ridiculous lengths whilst a boob-job is basically the opposite, it might seem an odd comparison. But I think it is worth considering beyond the obvious parallel that central to both issues is how women are seen by men. Much of the UK debate over veils has revolved around whether it is divisive (for what it's worth, it is in my opinion) and hampers the forming of an inclusive society (again probably yes); in other words does it have a social cost? But what the New Scientist article suggest is cosmetic surgery has social costs as well - and as anyone who has lost a friend or someone close to them by suicide knows - it could be quite a high cost in a way few had considered before this research.

Central to classical liberal thinking is the position of the individual's rights vis-a-vis the good, however measured, of the greater community. I'm not fully convinced either way on either issue, but for non-Muslims who oppose a Muslim woman's right to wear a veil, they better have their arguments in coherent logical order when it comes to the position of women in western society as well.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Keeping strong for the post-apocalyptic world

An ordinary climbing wall?

So what's with all the ventilation and water pipes then?

And my! Those are some rather thick doors! What could they be to keep out?

Access to the climbing wall - via a 500 mtr long tunnel into the bedrock.

The entrance: yes, it's a climbing wall in your friendly, neighbourhood, nuclear fallout shelter! Surely one of the odder places to have a wall? The climbers of Finland are keen, not even nuclear holocaust isn't going stop them from sending their projects.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More leaves

It bothered me that despite posting a picture of leaves in my post from the weekend, I didn't actually know what type of leaves they were. I grew up in the country and should know these things; I would know them in a British wood I think. After some discussion about this with the good folks on UKclimbing, which only got slightly side-tracked by too-subtle Monty Python references, I'm pretty certain that Mark is correct and it's Aspen. Thanks Mark.

"If you've got a website, I wanna be on it..."

My pleasure Billy. Here you go:

As the show host says, a national treasure.

I always feel a bit bad about seeing something interesting or fun on another blog, and then pinching it and putting it on mine. But that's the blogosphere and I guess if you, dear readers, haven't happened to have visited the original blog you wouldn't have seen it anyway so I'm sort of helping out. Therefore credit for this goes to Harry's Place who had a Billy Bragg themed post. The other YouTube clip on that post, of Billy doing "Unisex Chip Shop" with Bill Bailey at Glastonbury, is also well worth two minutes of most peoples time.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Authentic Desire?


What could possess three otherwise pretty normal English blokes to spend their day at the bottom of various slightly damp, slightly mossy, Southern Finnish cliffs on a cold autumn day...


...wrapped up in duvet jackets, fleeces and woolly hats, to keep out the dank, cold, autumnal air?

Some fat bloke on a rock

We didn't even get to climb that much (although Dave put in a fine lead on a 7a) as good sections of both of the cliffs we visited were seeping after last week's heavy rains. Many holds were covered in soggy leaf-mulch and sopping moss - far from ideal conditions - and fingers quickly numbed pulling on cold holds.

Tony belays as Dave cruises to victory above

I suppose it's because we love it, and even though the seasons are turning against us, we're not quite ready to stop rock climbing yet. And its not even the climbing itself, at least not for me, because otherwise today would have been a total write-off. It's having coffee and donuts with your friends in countryside petrol-station cafés; its watching the yellow leaves swirl down after a gust shakes the trees; it the silent crags looking slightly abandoned after the fine-weather-climbers of summer have retreated back to working out on indoor walls. There's a phrase in climbing literature: "authentic desire" - I'm sure it was either Jim Perrin or John Redhead who used it first (although knowing those two there's a good chance that they had lifted it from Heidegger or Nietzsche) - to describe the urge that creates a climb of beauty at great personal risk. I'm never going to be that strong, or that brave, to do "that" sort of route, and I don't know if standing around on a slick carpet of fallen leaves on a chilly, damp, October sunday to get a few more routes in before winter, really counts as "authentic desire"; but at least for me it will do.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Iraq Confidential

The following is is from Time Magazine, but I saw it on (so basically nicked it from) Akinoluna's blog. So thanks to her. Time dug around to check that an email that escaped into the wilds of the internet was genuine. It was and the Marine officer in Iraq who wrote it agreed to let them publish it.

These are my three favourite bits:

Most Profound Man in Iraq — an unidentified farmer in a fairly remote area who, after being asked by Reconnaissance Marines if he had seen any foreign fighters in the area replied "Yes, you."

Coolest Insurgent Act — Stealing almost $7 million from the main bank in Ramadi in broad daylight, then, upon exiting, waving to the Marines in the combat outpost right next to the bank, who had no clue of what was going on. The Marines waved back. Too cool.

Best Chuck Norris Moment — 13 May. Bad Guys arrived at the government center in a small town to kidnap the mayor, since they have a problem with any form of government that does not include regular beheadings and women wearing burqahs. There were seven of them. As they brought the mayor out to put him in a pick-up truck to take him off to be beheaded (on video, as usual), one of the Bad Guys put down his machine gun so that he could tie the mayor's hands. The mayor took the opportunity to pick up the machine gun and drill five of the Bad Guys. The other two ran away. One of the dead Bad Guys was on our top twenty wanted list. Like they say, you can't fight City Hall.
But all of it is worth a read.

Over the last couple of years I've read quite a bit of stuff like this by smart, decent-sounding, level headed-seeming American officers and soldiers in Iraq. I've also met some (both US and other coalition) soldiers who had been in Iraq who would match the same discription. I've also met a couple of ultra-smart and very nice US State Dept. officials who were part of the first group to go in after the war. With all the talent and decency in the middle ranks you wonder why Iraq is now the total desperate fuck-up that it is.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

North Korean Nukes - "Fizzle" is word of the week

I sort of cover non-proliferation issues for my work along with terrorism and related matters - partly because I didn't say no quick enough to the boss and partly because I looked quite deeply at one point into non-state group (i.e. terrorist) interest in unconventional weapons so needed to understand what unconventional weapons (lets not use the ridiculous WMD-term) are. I have no great expertise on the issue, but I do subscribe to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists so at least I look the part. ;-)

Anyway, I know enough to know who are the real experts, and ArmsControlWonk - otherwise known as Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, really is one of them. So it's his blog I've been looking at to understand the news over the DPRK's (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) test. "Fizzle" is clearly word of the week. A "fizzle" is when a nuclear bomb fails to explode fully, with the chain reaction not progressing through all the uranium. The explosive yield is therefore much much smaller than it should have been. As Dr. Lewis puts it we end up with a ridiculous scenario where:
"the United States has built a missile defense that does not work, to defend against a North Korean missile that does not work, that would carry a nuclear warhead that does not work.

This is all very postmodern."
If a fizzle turns out to be the case, which is looking more and more likely, there really isn't much to say from the DPRK's point of view beyond:

Friday, October 06, 2006

"Guns don't kill, people do"?

This is a follow up to my posting on the school shooting in the US earlier this week and mainly in response to Phil and KGS's comments. Perhaps discussing guns with Americans is a bad idea, but like looking at a car crash, I just can't help myself... ;-)

So the "guns don't kill, people do" saying came out as it was sure to sooner or later. I really do understand what the slogan is trying to express - that someone has to make the decision to pull the trigger - but does anyone else feel that even accepting this, it's still a bloody stupid saying? Of course guns kill people, thats why there so popular in the army for example!

To take the point more seriously, what the saying implies is that if someone wants to kill someone else, they don't necessarily need a gun to do it. This is of course true but it does rather miss the matter of the efficiency with which guns kill. In my original post I mentioned the horrific Dunblane massacre where 16 little kids where killed along with a teacher in a school, by a madman with guns in Scotland ten years ago. Non-British readers will probably have never heard of Lisa Potts, but just four months after Dunblane Ms. Potts was at the nursery in Wolverhampton where she worked as a nurse, when an equally deranged man entered the kindergarten where she worked and tried to kill children with a machete. Ms. Potts defended the children in her care with her bare hands fighting off the attacker. Despite nearly loosing an arm in this act of incredible bravery, she forced the man to flee (he was later captured and imprisoned for life). She saved all the children, none suffered more than minor injuries. Lisa Potts was later awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian medal for valour in the UK. I have no doubt that the teacher in Dunblane, Gwen Mayor, would have fought just as bravely to defend the children in her care, but she never had a chance as she was shot dead.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"The terrorism industry"

In a reply to this earlier posting, regular commenter KGS said he doesn't like the term "terrorism industry" as he thinks it is meant to echo "holocaust industry". I disagree and started writing a reply in the comments but thought it's an interesting point so I would turn it into a post.

I don't want to discuss the idea of a "holocaust industry" itself (although there is a book review in this weeks Economist of a Danish novel "The Exception" by Christian Jungersen that is set in the "bizarre international 'genocide industry' with its swish seminars, show piece survivors and squabbling professors" that suggests how academia can turn anything into an industry even by mistake), but I don't think talking about the "terrorism industry" echoes this. Post 9-11, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is now a mature "terrorism industry" - and when myself and my mate Mikko started doing our research in 2003 for the report on terrorism that we researched and wrote we realised very quickly we were now part of it. I get lots of invites to expensive conferences, to subscribe to paying "intelligence provision services", to buy new journals etc.

As I noted in reference to the book review, all academic areas of study have their own little industries - conferences, journals, networks etc. - but what makes the "terrorism industry" so much more is the size and the amounts of money sloshing about. This isn't a good or bad thing per se, just a fact. You can see it very clearly with the amount of private sector interest: it is the job of companies to make money and there are plenty of opportunities for this in the terrorism industry. I used to mainly focus my research on questions of European security: NATO; EU common security and defence policy and the like. There were and still are thriving policy-making and academic networks focused on these issues - but whilst at conferences on these matters you will get professors and post-grads, civil servants and soldiers there was never too much interest from the private sector unless it was something of particular interest toa few defence contractors.

I remember going to a conference in Sweden a few years back on bioterrorism. It was jointly organised by a Swedish and a US think-tank, with sponsorship from pharma companies. In the opening address a Swedish government researcher said pretty much the following:
"There are two important issues to bio-terrorism; the question of whether terrorists want and are able to get biological weapons and use them and, secondly, what measures we need to take to defend against an attack. We can call this the 'terrorism'- half and the 'bio'- half of the 'bioterrorism' issue.
Now the 'terrorism'-half is very hard to understand and to get information on so we really need to focus on the 'bio'-half..."
At this point my jaw hit the floor whilst the people present from the various drug companies rubbed their hands with glee (OK, so that's a slight exaggeration but you get the point). It's as if they had said with the space programme: "all that rocket science is really tricky so lets just focus on the actual moon landing". Errrr.... hang on....

Fortunately, when I got my chance to make my "lets not get the cart before the horses" point, the person who supported me was a bloke from JTAC (and I think I saw the guy from the Swedish security police nod in agreement). What was really clear was that people there were there to talk about how to defend against bio-terrorism, not if and how bioterrorism is likely to take place. They were interested in emergency management issues, medical preparation, prophylatic drugs that could be manufactured, and traditional bio-arms controls issues with the former-Soviet countries. All of these things are perfectly respectable aims and ideas in their own right, but what brought them together was the idea of terrorism and it just seemed few people understood much about it or were even very interested in it! No one seemed to be aware, for example, of the discussion on jihadi websites about the Koranic legitimacy of bio-warfare (some are all for it, others think due to certain verses of the Koran is not allowed); few people had actually looked in detail at the evidence that came out the Afghan camps about al-Qaeda's experiments with chemical and biological weapons (rather amateurish); and no-one had really delved into the murky world of the various European "ricin plots" and the "Pankisi-connection" (most being dubious and some just clearly never having existed).

You can see this "technologisation" of counter-terrorism happening all over as both the US government and EU pump money into research on developing ways to protect against terrorism. Where clearly a lot the money goes is to companies that make some kind of technology or product that is meant stop terrorism in some physical way: this could be credit card data-mining software, shipping-container radiation detectors, or stronger airline doors. The aim is generally to stop acts of terrorism being carried out rather than to stop people wanting to carry out acts of terrorism. Of course the latter is a whole lot more complex and I'm yet to see a stun-gun or some software that could do the trick.

(p.s. the photos were randomly selected by putting "counter terrorism technology" into google images and seeing what came up.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Gun control"

Listening to the news last night of the horrible and tragic shooting at the Amish school in Pennsylvania in the US, brought back memories of the Dunblane Massacre in 1996. I was living in Glasgow at the time and despite Glasgow being maybe twenty miles from the town of Dunblane the day was filled with the wailing of sirens and the clatter of helicopters as police and emergency teams were dispatched to scene and the injured were flown or driven into the major hospitals of Glasgow. The noise seemed to go on for hours and a sense of sadness and horror was pervasive. The shootings in the US weren't on the same scale but the singling out of young children by an adult is just as horrifying. I also remember the Hungerford Massacre of 1987 clearly as well - I would have been 13 or so at the time and we were on a family camping holiday in Spain when we heard the news on a crackly BBC long-wave signal.

I follow US politics and culture rather closely these days, both for work reason and out of general interests (probably sparked by listening to lots of NPR news over the years that gets rebroadcast on FM in Helsinki - originally I listened just because I would with anything in English!) and these kind of tragedies hammer home one of the big differences that do exist between the UK (perhaps Europe more widely as well? Although not always...) and the United States: "gun control". "Gun-control" isn't really a word in British-English, only in the American version of the language. In 1987 Michael Ryan walked around Hungerford with an Ak-47 killing people. After the tragedy there was a collective sense both from people and politicians of "you can own a f***ing assault rifle!?!?" and they were rapidly banned. Anyone who tried to say they should be allowed to own a high-powered military weapon for fun was looked on as an utter loon and they folded to public pressure. A similar thing happened with Dunblane; Thomas Hamilton walked into a school with a number of revolvers and automatic pistols and proceeded to kill 16 children and and one teacher before killing himself. Again there was a collective and national sense of "what the f***!?!?" and, despite slightly more protests, virtually all handguns were banned in the UK.

Now, I don't really care about the arguments for and against. Clearly liberal-lilly-livered-pinko-totalitarian-Euro-weenies (or whatever) are never going to persuade the average NRA activist that you don't really need to be tooled up in this world to survive. Its just a different culture. Clearly a lot of Americans love their guns and aren't going to be persuaded differently - that is their sovereign and democratic perogative. But it is a cultural difference - intellectually I understand the pro-'armed society' arguments even if I don't agree with them - but on an emotional level I just can't understand how after four little girls are tied up and shot in the head that anyone could think that easily available firearms are a good idea. The amazing thing to me (as an outsider to the debate I guess) is that it keeps happening again and again and again and again and still the pro-gun sentiment remains.

Update: very sadly it seems one of the injured has since also died. The Washington Post reports that this is actually the third shooting in a school in five days:

"On Wednesday, a 53-year-old drifter took six girls hostage in Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., sexually assaulted them and fatally shot a 16-year-old girl before killing himself. Two days later, a 15-year-old former student allegedly shot and killed a principal in Cazenovia, Wis.

Elsewhere, three teenagers were charged in Green Bay, Wis., Thursday in an alleged plot to bomb and burn a high school and shoot students as they emerged. And on Monday, officials in Las Vegas said they locked down four schools after a student was spotted entering a high school carrying a gun."

Of course there are many thousands of schools elsewhere in the US where nothing newsworthyily-terrible has happened, but even keeping that in mind it is still rather disturbing.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Michael Burleigh on "Islamofascism"

A few weeks ago I took a stab at explaining what I thought the reason was behind the sudden widespread use of the term "Islamofascism" by many leading figures of the US administration - basically that it's politics before the midterms. I was going to write about what I thought was wrong with the concept more generally, but never really engaged with it. I don't have to now because Professor Michael Burleigh has done just that in this rather interesting essay.

A synopsis of the Professor's argument is that the term is perhaps half correct for describing Jihadi groups like al-Qaeda - there are many similarities between the ideology of bin Laden and of the Nazis but there are also many differences. For instance:
  • European fascism was(is) hyper-nationalist and obsessed with the purity of that nation, whilst the utopian-Caliphate of al-Qaeda whilst totalitarian in most other ways, isn't a racist concept.
  • Nazism and other European fascist movements tended to be corporatist - trying to be an anti-politics by joining the workers and the owners together to create a strong state. Islamism, which produced Jihadism, tends to be an ideology of the devout and aspiring middle classes - the market traders - and hence has no problem with free enterprise.
  • Nazism, in particular, as the name reveals is a mix of Nationalism and Socialism. These two western ideologies were imported into the Middle East in particular with gusto, but the result of this was not al-Qaeda, instead it was the Arab nationalism of Nasser and the Baath parties. Jihadism rose as opposition to this very legacy.
It's an interesting argument worth reading, I would though add that Fawaz Gerges's book "The Far Enemy" give plenty of example of national differences between the mujahideen in Afghanistan and elsewhere. These might have been over doctrinal differences and the like but often came over as petty nationalism and even racism. So the idea of the global Caliphate where all are equal within the faith would surely face the rocky-realities of communitarianism that so many past Utopias have also foundered on.