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 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 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


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 " 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? 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.

My bus stop

To continue today's "inclement weather" theme (also related to the fact that I was actually carrying a camera about with me) here is a pic of my bus stop on the way home from work after the blizzard had blown through. I thought it was somehow atmospheric...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Soggy Blizzard

Helsinki after a soggy blizzard. The ice on the lake was all pristine and white but has gone blotchy with all the heavy sleet.

A definition of brave

I've taken the picture of above from a NYT multimedia presentation that everyone should have a look at. It's words and pictures telling the story of a Marine patrol hit by a sniper whilst on patrol in al-Anbar province. What has happened in this picture is one shot has rung out hitting and injuring the radio operator. The sniper managed to aim for a gap in his body armour and the bullet went through the marine's arm and on into his chest. An Iraqi colleague who was by him has run for cover so the radio-guy is now lying on the ground completely exposed and unable to move into shelter. His sergeant has worked out from which direction the shot came and has now stepped into the line of fire covering the injured soldier with his own body. Watch the multimedia presentation and you can see how he then drags him into cover. I wonder if the sergeant even thought about it? Using your own body to provide cover is a complete irrational thing to do - you could say stupid - and the fact that he does immediately also make it rather heroic. I hope someone gave him a medal, or at the very least bought him a few beers.

I don't think there is a wider point here - it's just one very brave but perhaps common act in a war zone that happened to have taken place in front of a NYT photographer. I expect insurgents do similar things to their colleagues as well, it's just that they might shoot any western photographers trying to snap them doing it. Anyway - watch the whole presentation, it's worth it.

Cheers to Akinoluna as I spotted the link on her blog. Again.

BTW - it took me age to find a way to "borrow" that photo. The presentation uses Flash and I don't know if there is a method to copy a picture direct as you can normally do by right-clicking on jpeg. I had to take a screen print and then use a picture editor. If anyone knows a better way, do tell.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Winter has arrived

Brrrr... chilly out:
Taken at about midnight, saturday 4th

A week of sub-zero temps so we took a chance to take our ice gear out to a crag near Helsinki and see what was freezing. Thin early season conditions, enough to do a couple of lines, but not enough to put any protection in. This is me on the easy lefthand icefall at Kauhala:

Thanks to Tony for snapping away. Here's Tony climbing the same line:

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Radio OpenSource

I've just been listening to the Radio Open Source show on Somalia from a couple of days ago. I had left a few comments on their blog and they read them out on the air. Hooray! I'm officially glowing with pride. ;-) Right - I'm off to find an over-priced London cup of coffee with a good view.

Hello from London

I'm writing this in London on my mate's iBook, looking out from his window towards Canary Warf, the Millenium Dome and Greenwich. The sky is blue and it's faintly like being in an American movie set in London where the characters always have a perfect backdrop of the city's skyline behind them. When you're not from London, there's always something a bit surreal about being here, knowing it so well from film and television. My limited experience of New York is exactly the same. Its very still and quiet up here near Blackheath, there are parrotkeets flying about outside and a very healthy looking fox was trotting past us last night as we walked back from the pub. Planes flying above towards Heathrow are about the only reminders that I'm in a city of 7 million.

Anyway, I'm on my way back to Finland having spent the last few days at Wilton Park (see picture) at a fascinating conference. I'll write about that more in the future, but this is more to just show I haven't given up blogging or been kidnapped by space aliens.