Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Wild camping

I've spent much of my adult life going of on trips to the mountains and generally, whilst there, camping. I've camped in rain and snow storms in the Himalayas, on grinding glaciers in Greenland, in wild blizzards in artic Norway, and particularly in the savage, sleet and snow storms of the Scottish mountains in winter. So it came as a surprise to find myself on what had been during the previous sunny evening, a rather pleasant rural campsite in Denmark of all places, wondering through the night if our tent was going to survive to see the morn. It really was a rather impressive storm: driving heavy rain and gusts of wind that whipped large trees backwards and forwards as if they were bushes. The roads were littered with broken branches the next morning. Leaving the campsite in the morning was more of an evacuation, with children bundled into the car, followed by all the ready-packed bags from in the tent. Then wearing full waterproofs I wrestled the tent down and into a bag trying not to let any bit fly away. Then we sat in a car rapidly steaming up as everyone and thing began to dry out, and head south towards Germany looking for better weather.

It wasn't the wildest night I've ever spent in a tent, but it may well have been in the top ten.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

What's the point of MySpace?

I want to be down with kids, so I signed up for MySpace. Actually, truth told, I was investigating/cyber-stalking someone and found they had a MySpace page with photos and I couldn't see the pictures without signing up. So one way or another, I now have my own page.

At the moment I have a grand total of no friends. Getting "friends" seems to be the thing to do on MySpace. I've had a couple of people email me asking to be my friend, it seems that the standard thing to do is to agree and then leave a wee message on their page saying "thanks for the add". After that I'm not quite sure what you do with your "friends"? Will any of them buy me a pint?

All three of friendship offers so far have been from musicians or bands, two in Finland which kinda makes sense, but one from a funky dude in NYC. One of the Finns, a female singer-song writer, is VERY pretty (see pic above). I'd like to be her friend, but I suspect all the attention I'll really get from her is email updates as to when her newest release will be out. Best of all, a Finnish hardcore metal band "Skavenger" want to be my friend! As noted in a recent post, I think metal is pretty sad, and I don't get why death-metalers want "friends"? It's not very 'core is it?
But, in the meantime would you like to be my cyber-buddy?
Perhaps they just need more people to ritually sacrifice to the devil or something? Anyway, if you have a MySpace page and want to be my friend - but aren't going to try and sell me some CDs, please email! And if I'm missing something else about MySpace, do tell.

And am I just getting old, or is MySpace the most ugly, god-awful piece of page design on the internet?

dead rock shoes

dead, dead, dead,critical, seriously ill, new, brand new

Do all climbers end up with boxes of old rock shoes that you know you should throw in the bin, but you end up thinking "I can maybe do a few more routes in these", so never do quite get around to throwing them out? Or am I just sentimental/tight?

Friday, June 22, 2007

How to carry an ice axe.

If you aren't interested in ice tool-rucscac interface technology (or 'straps' as they are alternatively called) you can safely ignore this post. But for those of you following Andy K's great "velcro or bungy?" debate, this is what I mean.

click the pic for a high res version

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Baghdad critical

These guys might be the police. Or Medhi Army. Or both.

I haven't written anything about Iraq for months. The news from the country is so depressing: militia factions begin to fight between themselves as well as with other sectarian groups; whilst the US political debate has just stopped whilst everyone waits for September in the desperate hope that Patraeus can pull a rabbit out of the magic-surge-hat. And as ever, civilians suffer due to the actions of all the warring parties. But one story actually shocked me rather than just further depressing me. Paul Wood reported on From Our Own Correspondent that:
"One measure of how bad things have become is that Western diplomats will no longer visit the Iraqi Defence ministry, even though it is inside the Green Zone. In fact, militia infiltration is believed to be such that no-one walks anywhere in the Green Zone for fear of being snatched off the street."
I suspect that American patience with the Iraqi "government" - using the term in the loosest way - will soon run out.

For the best Iraq coverage keep checking Iraq Slogger.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Flight of the Conchord - New Zealand absurd

Perhaps I'm behind the times but I hadn't head of the Flight of the Conchords before. I've just listened to them being interviewed on NPR and kept laughing out loud so thought I should blog it for anyone else who needs a laugh. You'll never mix up getting invited to a spit roast and a barbecue again.

If you like that, here's more:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Stasi-baiting in the DDR

I've just heard a fascinating radio programme called the "The Brixmis Story" on Radio 4. At the end of the Second World War the British and Soviet armies did a deal allowing their respective militaries access to the other occupied zone, this rapidly meant that the western allies had a legal method of conducting surveillance inside East Germany and the Soviets, in West Germany. I was vaguely aware of the Brixmis story, I remember flicking through a book on it in a book shop some years ago having never heard about it before. Car chases with Stasi agents through East Germany all sounded like gripping boys-own stuff, but for some reason - probably because as a student I was skint - I never bought the book.

Anyway, the BBC has made a great little documentary on the subject. You can download it as an MP3 file from this website or probably find it on iTunes under "Radio 4 Choice". Because the missions involved NCOs and enlisted men, not just officers, the voices and accents you here range far more across British society than the public school/Oxbridge types you hear interviewed from the civilian intelligence agencies of that time. Normal blokes doing very extraordinary things such as discovering that Soviet troops weren't issued with toilet paper so they tended to use their signals pad, and therefore if you arrived quickly at a spot from where Ivan had recently departed you could find some amazing intelligence by putting "a clothes peg on your nose" and being willing to "get stuck in".

And how do you bait a Stasi officer? Well, the Brixmis teams were often tailed by up to five Stasi vehicles, the occupants of whom weren't keen on being identified as Stasi to the wider public. So on days where there isn't much else to do you stop your vehicle in the middle of a small village, hence blocking the road, jump out and point at your tails whilst yelling "Stasi! Stasi!" As one former Brixmis officer said, this was somewhat "infantile", yet his tone of voice suggests also lots of fun.

More on Wikipedia about Brixmis here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Weekend climbing

The writer halfway up "Ants in your Pants" (MVS 4b/Finnish 4+)

I have managed to go the whole of the last two whole weeks without climbing. I have survived but only just. Normal service was resumed today and Tony and I headed out to our secret crag from winter weekends past to do a climb I had cleaned earlier but hadn't had chance to lead yet. It went OK, but the entire forest floor was moving with with big ants and they seemed to be just as interested in going up the rock face as I was. Add to this the normal mid-summer mosquito swarms, and Tony faced a belay session down on the ground where his normally calm demeanor was tested to the max. Even now, 12 hours later, I keep thinking I have ants up my trousers. I would describe the route as a bit like Scavenger on the Gower, South Wales, but with more ants and less ocean.

We then went on to Luhti for some more routes. I had another go at a short, sharp overhanging crackline that I had cleaned and then failed on last year. I made better progress this year but still fell about halfway up. Tony then had a go, and having just come back from a two-week climbing holiday in Norway, powered through and on to the top. Nice climbing. The route was christened "Hooligan".

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Heading north towards the light

It's fuzzy and out-of-focus on purpose. Honest. It's, you know, like art...

I've had writer's block for the last few weeks. I keep staring at my thesis, expecting suddenly to be hit a by a wave of inspiration on how to rewrite the first chapter in a way that actually creates some structural coherence for the rest of the endeavor. It hasn't happened. But this afternoon the first drips began finally. Not very impressive but perhaps like a tiny breach in a dyke, the drip will become a trickle, a trickle a stream, and then a torrent of social science brilliance will burst through and carry me, unstoppable, towards PhD success. Well, it's a nice thought anyway...

During all this time when I've been failing with the PhD I have been reading about many other more interesting things (Paul Berman's lengthy piece on Tariq Ramadan in the New Republic has grabbed my attention over recent days, although ultimately it's a bit disappointing. I'll get back to that later though), writing on different issues for work, going to meetings and seminars and all the normal stuff. But my thesis writing has been failing miserably, and making me very miserable as a result.

So when the trickle began I decided to stick with it and keep writing, the end result being I didn't leave work until 11.30 pm. Having had about three cups of coffee, a donut, a chocolate bar, a microwave curry and a can of Red Bull (note to self: I hate Red Bull - why do I buy it?) for my evening 'meal', I decided cycling home, as opposed to getting the bus, would burn some of the calories and counteract the unhealthy amounts of caffeine I had pumped into my blood stream over the preceding hours.

A new days begins at 21 kmph, somewhere in Helsinki Central Park.

There is something magic about Finnish summer nights that even a shit day in the office can't completely spoil, and 45 minutes of pedaling that sometimes can seem a chore was tonight, on empty roads and cycle-paths, a real joy. I chased a couple of the leggy, lolloping hares down cycle paths. They may be much bigger than their British bunny equivalents, but no less stupid - trying to outrun an oncoming car or bike rather than heading straight off the road as sensible creatures like a cat would. The air is cool but not cold. The sunset is the sunrise, a bold orange fire just below the northern horizon. I also ride northwards, through empty streets and quiet parks, chasing the skulking sun.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A very British bombing

I've just read an excellent article "My brother the bomber" in Prospect magazine. It is about Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the London bombers and takes a serious stab at explaining the sociology of the attacks. The author, Shiv Malik, deserves congratulations.

It was, it turns out, a very British bombing. Not because of British troops in Iraq; as Malik writes:
"Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn't the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters."
You could say it was more about who you marry, or that the bloke down the mosque was boring and couldn't speak English properly. It's about Barelvi traditionalism of the Kashmir colliding with Salafi* modernism of the internet on the back streets of Leeds. They wanted to be global jihadis, and indeed have become that in death - I'm sure they would have wet their pants with excitement at the idea of their deaths being lauded by Ayman al-Zawahiri. But what made them take that path is to be found more in Yorkshire than in al-Anbar or South Waziristan.

The depressing thing is how, in retrospect of course, it all makes sense. I remember taking a leaflet from the guys manning a stall of one of the Hizb ut-Tahrir affiliates/fronts outside the student union of my university in Manchester in maybe 2003. It was about resisting arranged marriage. Malik nails it by saying the Salafism is in effect "liberation theology" against the ultra-conservative traditions brought to the UK by the country-bumpkin Pakistani parents (again - that is the sociology, it's not just about immigrants being 'Pakistani' or 'Muslim', it is about the specific social, economic, and cultural situation that led to Pakistani emigration to Northern England three decades ago). The leaflet I took hits a tone somewhere between radical feminist pamphleteering, reactionary evangelicalism and a teenager whining "just leave me alone!" to his parents. I'm not sure if the fathers of modern Salafism would be delighted or horrified by this.

Obvious in retrospect... I interviewed a senior British counter-terrorism police officer recently - a fascinating couple of hours. He noted that in the aftermath of 9/11 the government hauled in a load of British imams and "community leaders" for a round-table to help them 'understand' al-Qaeda and, of course, they were all clueless - having basically no more idea about bin Laden than the rest of the country. I suggested that it was like asking your local vicar to help explain Timothy McVeigh, he laughed and agreed. But people like Olivier Roy had spotted it, even if he didn't layout the specific English/Pakistani dimension. And as Malik points out in the piece, people in Khan's community knew what was going on, but just thought they were angry young men mouthing off and who ultimately wouldn't really do anything.

But they did. They stepped across the line that divides the Salafi fundamentalist (who despite having, to my mind, a reactionary and intolerant theology remains peaceful) from the violent jihadi. It seems easily done in some cases, but many thousands of others stay resolutely on the legal side of that line. It's a hard distinction to see from the outside, but I know that at least parts of the police and security forces are trying to understand better where that line is, and how to keep angry young men, like Khan, on the right side of it.

*Malik uses the term Wahhabi in his piece instead; I thinks it's inaccurate but it is a rather complex and not very important point.

1000 kilometers and counting...

On the way into work today, I went past the 1000-kms-cycled-this-year mark. Little victories and all that. Actually I have done a bit more than that as I have been out on my road bikes a few times, but that is probably only another additional 100 kms or so, the one thousand is just commuting. I'm a bit behind schedule if I want to do more than 3000 this year although unsurprisingly I tend to do more kilometers in the summer than at the start or end of the year as the weather craps out. The "frostbite" incident of February now seems a long time ago; dehydration is the bigger danger with the good weather we have been having recently.

Another minor cycling milestone was last friday when on realizing I had a meeting at 9 am, not 9.30 am, I had to ride into work in a bit of panic. I made the meeting on time but had to apologize to our Indian guests for my slightly out-of-breath state. Yet the adrenaline also meant I improved my PB for my commute from 43:42 to 41:10. Hoo-har!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Advert or art?

High art on the terrace of my local kebab/pizza joint.

I love this picture so much. Just look how happy they are eating a kebab. Their clearly perfect marriage and lives are based upon the regular, sharing of a doner kebab. For me this goes far beyond the realm of competent advertising photography and into that of high art due to the complete cognitive dissonance resulting from the depicted kebab imagery, and the kebab imagery held within my mind and memory.

Happy, well-dressed, professional couples just do not belong to the sphere of the kebab shop. The kebab shop is for me (and I would hazard a guess at 95% of other Northern Europeans) forever associated with drunken, post-pub/club ambles home with friends through dark city streets. The kebab shop is always a harsh neon and fluorescent pool of light amongst the dinginess of the night, a place with the slight edginess of anywhere that causes different groups of drunk young men to congregate and attempt to queue. I can't believe that anyone really eats a doner without having had at least three pints first, and often considerably more. Revolving-dinosaur-legs are just not associated with the dining experience when good food is a central part of the evening.

I was on stag-party this weekend, more of which later probably, and of course a kebab was part of the evenings entertainment. Let me recommend "Punjab Kebab" (they have kebab in the Punjab?! The staff also looked oddly Turkish, rather than Punjabi, as well...) in Tampere, central Finland, for a fine kebab tasting like, well, pretty much every other kebab I've ever had in dozens of Kebab joints across northern Europe.

The gastronomic arts at their finest.

Check out the website of the company advertised in the original picture as well, my German isn't good enough to understand much but it is full of great photos making kebab meat manufacturing to look like as an efficient and sterile an industrial process as the German stereotypes would lead you to expect. The opening page picture is also a winner for kebab fans everywhere.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Midnight in the north

Midnight - well, almost - in Helsinki

Midsummer is not far away and there is no real night as a result. I snapped this picture on my laptop's built in camera in the garden. I'm not sure if laptop photo art is likely to take off - you feel a bit silly holding your computer up in the air even in the privacy of your own back yard.

I've just come back from the local bar with some neighbours - I'm trying to think of a punchline to "an Englishman, an Irishman and Turk walk into a suburban Finnish pub. It is run by a Bangladeshi..." but haven't come up with one so far. Perhaps it's not funny, it's just globalisation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The social value of conscription

Conscription as integration? (photo from Helsingin Sanomat)

The seminar I attended last week was run by the Finnish National Defence University and was title "The Future of Armed Forces". There were some gradualist approaches to change put forward mainly by serving officers from various countries and some more radical approaches from the private and academic sectors. One speaker even suggested that in the modern world you don't really need armed forces, just a strong police and nuclear weapons - although his sentiment should be seen in the light of what happened forty years ago today: events that has left his country's military playing a quasi-policing role ever since and weakening them relative to their neighbours as a result.

But being in Finland, much discussion revolved around the value of conscription for modern armed forces. The Finnish defence establishment resolutely support the concept - at least in public - but I found the French experience far more convincing. If you want a modern, technologically advanced military, you need professionals, not kids doing six months before starting uni or college. France realised this after the first Gulf War where they had to sail their aircraft carrier to the Gulf with a skeleton crew after the president announced no conscript would be put in harms way, before promptly evacuating them from the ship as it headed south.

The argument is often put forward that conscription leads to social cohesion: Finnish President Halonen said exactly this yesterday at the Defence Forces parade through Helsinki, but reading her speech I had a wry smile remembering what I had heard from a French officer last week: "The French army decided that it was the job of the schools to make little Frenchmen not the military, our job is to kill people when the government tells us to."

HMS Albion

HMS Albion visiting Helsinki

I was lucky to hear at the seminar I attended last week that HMS Albion was doing a port visit last weekend, and having promised my better half that I would get the kids out of the house so she could study, it seemed like a fun thing to do. The Albion is BIG, it holds four landing craft inside, some of which at least can take a main battle tank, and you can land a Chinook on the back. There wasn't much kit inside currently, presumably most of the UK army's tanks are kinda busy these days and they don't have spares to send cruising the Baltic. They did have various diggers and bulldozers in the hold, and one very appreciative three-year-old looking on in wonderment described them as: "wow! it's like Soldier Bob the Builder!" Bob the Builder in camouflage is probably about as cool as it gets for three-year-old boys.

The fact that one of the Royal Navy's most modern and powerful assault ships is providing family entertainment in the Baltic rather than floating menacingly in the Straits of Hormuz says perhaps something optimistic about the incoming Brown government's foreign policy direction. If that's not signaling, I don't what is.