Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Weekend Climbing Photo Essay

The photo aboves shows what the bathroom floor should look like in my house after an average weekend in winter. That the drying gear was noteworthy enough for me to think to take a snap of it, indicates how un-average this winter has been. YLE is reporting that according to the sea ice records that have been kept for the Baltic off Finland for three hundred years, this January has been in the top one percent of least icy winters. The sea ice is a bit too horizontal for my tastes, but us obsessive ice climbers are noticing the missing ice with equal alarm to the meteorologists, just inland and about 90 degrees more upright. Nevertheless, last week's temperatures had been bobbing up and below freezing in Helsinki enough to convince me a search inland for colder temps and ice might just pay off. Tony agreed to risk it with me so on Saturday morning we headed off towards Valkeala.

Boys' toys - short walk-ins encourage the carrying of too much stuff!

All along the motorway cuttings out of Helsinki there was ice forming - but skinny new ice produced by the previous few days of frosts. About 100 kms inland as we were approaching Kouvala, suddenly the trees started looking more snowy and columns of fat, older ice could be seen by the roadside that had obviously survived the thaw and had formed in the cold weather at the start of the month. Our mood began to lift.

We went to Lintojanvuori first and were amazed to see lots of ice, although as the pic above shows at the top of the wall you could see rock and flowing water. I led the first route, 15 mtrs or so of steep-ish ice. The ice was chewy and featured making the climbing straightforward but on first strike it let of a resounding and deeply unnerving boom. The wall of ice had completely separated from rock by the thawing. I teetered up the first few metres, placed a screw, decided that it didn't feel unjustifiably dangerous, only mildly silly, and tiptoed up the rest thinking light thoughts.

Tony then picked a short but brutal little pillar and got stuck in (above), going great guns with his leashless mallets. Then after a brief interruption to recover a lost ice screw, we wandered down to the main area - said hello to another team of desperadoes before I led one more line that, whilst feeling safer at the bottom, also featured a top out on a delaminated slab of ice and a frisky span over some washed clean rock, to sink a stick in some frozen turf at the top of the cliff and an escape to victory. Then back to the ABC service station in Valkeala for tea and medals, or burgers, chips and a beer to be more accurate. I have a multi-year relationship with that petrol station, as I imagine will many Finnish climbers, that I may well write about this week if I get the time.

Five Star local accommodation

Next we had a look at Pyöramaki but the ice there wasn't in. Being steep much of the ice had fallen down under its own weight and the forest floor by the cliff was littered with huge chunks of of the stuff. After that there wasn't much else to do besides hang the tarp and crawl into bivvy bags. The tarp was a success as it snowed through much of the night and it kept the snow from landing on your face which always stops me sleeping well when dossing without a tent. I read the first 120 pages of "Generation Kill" by Evan Wright whilst tucked into my sleeping bag. It's a great book but I was particularly amused by the parallel interests of Marines going into combat and ice-climbers sleeping in the snow with going to the toilet. It's not a very pleasant conversation but the Marines seemed equally fascinated in planning for the best time, place and strategy for taking a dump as you do when camping in cold and wild spots. There is a lot of thought that goes into the issue of pre-emption - the sort of thing you never have to think about when back in civilisation - and let's just leave it at that.

Breakfast in bed

The morning dawned gray and cold, so another visit to Valkeala ABC seemed in order for coffee and donuts. Sugar and caffeine levels raised, we headed to Linnavuori to see what was what. There are some very hard looking mixed lines there, in the M5+ to M8 range, and from the looks of them I suspect they make up with brutality what they lack in height. We decided to try some ice instead. Tony had a go at one line but backed down with concerns over ice quality. I switched on the self-denial and took over the lead. About halfway up and on the crux of a narrow and thin flow of ice, I tried to get a 17 cm screw in with no luck; hitting rock behind the ice.

A scared blogger struggling to avoid ground-fall potential

I reached for my stubby 12 cm screw and rammed that in, only to find that hit rock as well. At this the point, the self denial left me and the sudden realisation that if I went much higher and then fell, I would meet the floor before the rope went tight on my last runner. After a few choice words to the screw, ice and cosmos in general, which were something along the lines of "melonfarmer, melonfarmer, oh farm, farm", another wave of self denial fortunately washed over me and I blasted up the rest of the vertical bit to a slabbier groove where I could get a good screw in and have a little cry. After that things were more in control to the top.

Tony on the steep pillar

After Tony followed me up we decided that we had probably pushed our luck/nerve far enough for the weekend so set a top-rope up for the last climb. This was a vertical and very near vertical pillar, about 20 mtrs high. Swapping from leashed to leashless tools I was very glad of the top rope when by about two thirds of the way up my forearms just felt pumped silly and after every placement I had to shake out. I quivered up to the top by the skin of my teeth. This just makes me all the more impressed with people doing unbelievable ice like this leashless. In the linked photo Kenton is very much living up to his rather excellent surname. Tony who has spent the winter working hard on his fingerboard and at the wall, then did the same line with significantly less fuss and flapping than I had managed.

And both with family commitments to get back to, we were out of time. Just an hour and half of driving chasing an excellent sunset, and of course one more coffee and donut stop, and we were back in the metropolis. It was good to get on the lead finally this winter, but sadly I rode to work this morning through slush and over water-covered ice and it seems that another thaw is setting in which will effect most of southern Finland once again.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sociology from the desert

I'm reading a bock at the moment called "Sex at the Margins"; it is not nearly as exciting as its sounds and is mainly a critical look at the connection between the sex industry and migration, and in particular people trafficking. The writer argues that migrant women are not nearly as naive as some in Europe and the west tend to think and on an individual level tend to see prostitution as an acceptable job in order to access the greater opportunities that richer countries offer. I'm currently agnostic on the issue, so far having not read far enough for the author, Laura Agustin, to have fully made her case. I have heard some pretty awful stories of abuse of migrant women, which I'm not fully ready to believe are the social construction of the "rescue industry" as Agustin terms it.

Anyways, I heard anecdotal support for a British sociologist's thesis from the most unlikely of place: a Tuareg tribesman of the Nigerien Sahara. BBC World Service is doing a series on the experience of African migrants crossing the great desert on their way to Europe. The Tuareg worked as a people trafficker, or travel agent depending on how you wish to look at it. When asked why he thought these people from countries far to the south make this dangerous journey, he quickly replied that it can't be because of poverty because many of them arrive in Northern Niger with lots of money. This might sound trite, considering migrants might borrow money or use family savings to get to Europe, the journey being viewed as an investment, but it might point towards the same point as Agustin is making - that when we look at social phenomenon like migration, or indeed terrorism that I research for my work, it is all too easy to ignore the individuals who make up the sociological event. And that does a disservice to the complexity of human motivation and experience.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sticking the boot in...

Having done my own questioning of Finland's safe-as-houses image in the past, it is interesting to see Helsingin Sanomat continues to put the boot in to the bleeding, broken body of "Finland-the-nice-country" as the poor dear lies whimpering in the gutter. Today's self flagellation goes with the wonderful title of :

"Homicide rate in Finnish Lapland higher than in Central Africa!"

although I admit to sneakily adding the explanation mark for the tabloid emphasis that the sentence surely deserves. Should we expect to see Lapland's most famous resident riding his sleigh surrounded by a posse of AK47-wielding elf-child soldiers for protection?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Canaries in a coalmine

It's mid-January, and I've just been rock climbing. That's kind of like saying "I'm in the Sahara and just back from a spot of skiing". You would normally expect even in southern Finland for temperatures to be well below freezing now, for all the lakes to have walkable ice on them, and for at least some snow. Instead it's muddy and the South West half of the country is snowless. Is this the shape of things to come?

Birch buds

These are the buds on a birch bush trying to come into leaf about three months too early. My friend who I was climbing with said he had heard on the news that in Eastern Finland bears are waking up from hibernation because it is so warm.

Tony's first aid route

El Cap, here we come!

Not right at all. Tony climbs "Heroes in Heaven" 5+, in January, in Finland.

The forecast suggests that this coming week that temperatures might be below freezing enough for some ice to form by next weekend, but who knows. At least in the south they are suggesting that it might go above freezing again towards the end of the week. Last years winter broke all records by being so short, but at least for six weeks it did get really cold, even if that was it. But so far, this year is looking it could turn out to be not only short, but warm as well. WTF is happening to the weather?

Fingers crossed for a good blast of arctic air.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Republican War on Science - Chris Mooney. A Review.

I've had The Republican War on Science on my book shelf for about a year. I've been sort of put off reading because it looked a bit heavy. Not metaphorically, but rather literally. It's a big, fat hardback. Amazon market place is great because you can get American published hardbacks second hand or even new, for the same price as the paperback will cost in the UK, but months before it comes out in paperback. But it does mean I'm buying more hardbacks than ever before and somehow they take more mental effort to get stuck into, perhaps just because they take more physical effort to hold.

But Chris Mooney's book isn't heavy, it is actually perfectly readable even for some one like me whose science education did not go beyond the compulsory schooling level. He does not demand his readers know much about the subjects he deals with in advance, but he doesn't avoid actually discussing scientific issues either. Anyone who is an expert in any of the areas discussed might wish for more detail, but in many ways this is a book about the politics not about science. He outlines a few earlier dubious political uses of science in U.S. politics before the 1990s, most notably around the "Star Wars" programme of Ronald Reagan, but things really heat up with the rise of the Gingrich 'revolution' of 1994. He argues that one of the seminal acts of 'war on science' was the abolition of Congress' Office of Technology Assessments. The OTA was the in house, but independent, science research organisation for the Congress. I learned about it, and is abolition, a few years ago when I was looking at what "WMD" really means. Perhaps the best study on what threat nuclear, chemical and biological weapons really represent was done by the OTA in the early 90s. But Gingrich and crew did not like the policy implications of much of OTA's output, so killed the agency off. An odd appendix to this story that Mooney's book doesn't cover is that Gingrich himself has become one the leading Republican voices speaking out about the dangers of global climate change, and attacking the deniers in his own party. The climate change deniers do though form another central theme of the book.

Some of the obfuscation of science by the American right that Mooney outlines is impressive. Other bits are creepy. In the first category I would place legislation that was passed on "Data Quality Assurance". What could be more the scientific method than one scientist's peers assuring the quality of his or her data? But the legislation applied to federal agencies, making them reveal absolutely all data that they have based any regulation on to interested parties. Of course the idea came from business interests who could afford the expertise to critically examine and challenge all the data, and hence tie up new regulation in legal technicalities, basically limiting the power of agencies whose job it is to protect the environment or citizens' health. Clever, and not really that surprising that business interests that see their actions limited by regulation will resist that regulation.

In the creepy category I would put the "creation science" and religiously motivated questioning of many issues to do with reproductive rights and womens health. I had never heard of intelligent design maybe five years ago, but now it has arrived in the UK from the States and is popping up all over the world. Mooney's book outlines just how successful a couple of people in one think tank, the Discovery Insitute, and not a lab have been in creating a discourse that the religious right were just waiting for; managing to alter the public debate even though it has had basically no impact on science at all.

He raises interesting and fundamental questions about the role of scientists in politics, accepting that it is fundamentally undemocratic to raise them to the level of Platonic philosopher-kings: it is a bit like the military, they are the professionals, but they have to remain under civilian control. But just like a prime minister would be well advised to listen to her generals if contemplating military action, leaders should listen to the scientists, and not cherry-pick what they say. The situation in the US where scientists have been asked for their political views before being invited to join scientific committees in their area of expertise makes a mockery of seeking expert help for policy making.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Slightly inaccurate advertising

Snapped on the tram on the way to work:

Sappee, the ski resort being advertised is 35 kms from Tampere and not any higher. The current forecast for Tampere is:

Not really any different from here.

I'm sure they didn't really expect the warmest ever December and so far January since records began when they picked the advertising photos, but now everyday as I'm on the way to work in the rain yet again, it just seems to be taking the piss

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Murder in the North

I wrote a little about last autumn during all the shock expressed at the Jokela school shooting, that Finland is actually a pretty violent society, at least by European standards. YLE now has a report on last years homicide rate - 130, a little down from 150 homicides in 2006.

I checked the statistics for England and Wales (Scotland keeps it's own stats separately), the most up-to-date figure was 765 for 2005-6, and that includes the 52 victims of the London bombings of July 2005. Now I have to do the maths - the population of England and Wales is about 52 million, so for every million people in the UK, there are about 14.7 homicides. The Finnish population is a bit over 5 million, which means using the 2006 figure (closer in time to the UK figures) you get 30 homicides per million. As long as I've done my sums right (which is by no means a given!) that suggests you were twice as likely to get killed in Finland by someone else in 2006 as you were in England and Wales - terrorists and all. This is, to a Brit in Finland, somewhat counter-intuitive as fear of crime in the UK seems higher (property crime may actually be higher - I don't know), and Finland 'feels' much safer. But then, as my introductory criminology class many years ago taught me, crime and fear of crime are very different things, and the YLE article points to the answer - Finland has a serious problem with domestic violence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The ultimate close: or "why is Mitt Romney?"

Watching the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire is again a demonstration of some of the great aspects of American democracy. When the Yanks do democracy they really do democracy – shake a million hands in a thousands diners in 500 small towns across one snow covered farming state. The bloke who wants to be the next leader of the Tories or Labour party doesn’t have to do anything like that, they just have to schmooze with the party activists. But it also shows one of the clearest failings of the American democracy as well – that the massive cost of financing a serious campaign which means the candidates all have their hands out all of the time. This allows the rather American phenomenon of being able to pay to play. Currently much speculation still swirls around the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the possibility of him making a third party run. As all the journos point out, being a multi-billionaire, he could “charge a presidential run to his Amex card. There are many good things that can be said about Mayor Bloomberg, but being able to buy the presidency doesn’t seem to be one of them.

And so to the richest of the candidates who have actually declared themselves to be in the race – Governor Mitt Romney running for the Republican nomination. Romney out-spent the eventual Iowa GOP caucus winner, Mike Huckabee, by an amazing 15 to 1. Indeed until Huckabee actually started to look like he might pull it off in the last days running up to the vote - and as a result began attracting donations that he could then spend - Romney was said to be outspending him 20 to 1. Most of this was Romney’s own money. To be spending tens of millions of your own dollars to get into office would seem to suggest you really, REALLY want to get that job – but in Romney’s case: why exactly?

I first remember hearing about Governor Romney in connections to his health programme in Massachusetts. This must be a two summers ago now – I know this because I remember I was grinding out some miles on my road-bike, listening to a podcast of Radio Open Source on the issue whilst cruising the quiet lanes of Helsinki’s hinterland under sunny skies. Romney’s health plan if I remember correctly included forcing everyone who could to buy insurance, hence spreading the risk as younger, healthier people contributed to the health insurance plan. Meanwhile it extended state insurance to the poor and children. It was being at the time greeted by experts on the left with very slightly bemused support, as a Republican businessman provided a feasible and working model for universal healthcare – the holy grail of the Democratic Party. Additionally with Romney being rather relaxed - as fitted his Massachusetts constituents – on issues such as abortion and gay rights, he seemed to be the Republican it was just fine to like.

But as Romney has run for the Presidency he has run to the right. I recently read all the candidates lengthy contributions to Foreign Affairs journal. Romney’s is more moderate than some of the other Republicans, notably Guilliani, and very managerial and business like. But it is in his domestic policies where his move from moderate to arch-conservative is far more visible. From being pro-Choice he moved to pro-Life. From being relaxed on gay issues he went to the “defend marriage!” gang. From being understanding of migrants, he has gone to the “broken borders” rhetoric of painting illegal immigrants as a security threat and ignoring their all-too-obvious role in maintaining the American economy (such as cutting Mitt’s lawn).

In part this seems to be connected to having to mainstream himself within activist Republican ranks due to his Mormonism – a religion that many evangelical protestants remain very suspicious of – but overall it seems that he simply wants to win. Serving your country in public office can be a noble thing, and in an odd way this particularly so for very rich men like Romney who would surely make much more money if he just carried on as a successful businessman rather than becoming a politician. But if to get elected you can reconstruct yourself as either a moderate as he did to become governor of Massachusetts, and then again as a conservative for a presidential run, it leaves you asking the immortal question of American politics – “where’s the beef?” and the answer is: there is none, only money. And despite the huge power of being able to buy endless TV advertising in the relevant markets, it appears that the Republican voters of Iowa and New Hampshire feel the same way.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Looking cool for the counter-insurgency

Firepower and sartorial elegance!
I'm very excited to see the Times has also started to notice new fashion trends in the world of global mayhem. Good for them; I suspect that what is now happening with the Iraqi special forces troops on the streets of Baghdad will be seen in the autumn menswear collections on the catwalks of Milan and New York later this year. I'm working on my dodgy goatee, and am developing a collections of colour-coordinated leather fingerless gloves. Now I'm off to find my old skateboard knee pads and strap them round my ankles.

Notice googles on backwards - snowboarder style, ankle-worn knee pads, fag, cute little girl, and bizzarely - a meat cleaver!

Anyway - stay tuned for more on how to keep lookin' good for worldwide strife.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Night climbing

With the weather forecast miserably, globally warmed for this weekend (+2 degrees and raining) I just had to get out ice climbing before the thaw kicked in. After putting the kids to bed I grabbed my gear and jumped in the car. Various texts and email hadn't turned up anyone else interested in going so it was going to be just me and the night forest.

Self portrait, no flash

It was snowing as I drove to Nuuksio and with thick clouds and no moon it felt very dark and slightly claustrophobic in that way when your world is limited to the beam of your head torch.

Ready to go, with flash

One route, a 25 mtr groove at about WI 2/3, had reasonably thick ice, so I decided to solo rather than bother setting up a top-rope, putting on a harness and using a shunt to self belay. In the dark it was surprisingly un-scary as you have no sense of gaining height. Having climbed it the once, I followed hare tracks down through the snowy forest and then back along the base of the cliff to my pack. As none of the other routes were in solo-able condition, I put my pack on my back and climbed the line again, before heading off through the woods back to where I left my car.

Soggy snow under car headlights

Back at the car it was snowing hard with wet, large flakes. The car thermometer said 0 degrees and as I drove home, and the snow was turning to sleet. Now is the winter of our discontent... indeed.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Camp Bucca prison has become a school for takfir supporters"

MEMRI, the Israeli translation organization, has an interesting and depressing translation of an al-Arabiya television report on Jihadi violence inside U.S. prisons in Iraq, notably Camp Bucca, against other Iraqi prisoners. It shows the depths of extremism that the Iraqi Jihadis have reached. The al Qaeda and other jihadis are called "Takfiris" by other prisoners. Takfir is the act of one Muslim pronouncing another to be an apostate, or 'bad' Muslim, and extremists often use it as a way of legitimating calls to kill the supposed apostate. Non-Takfiri prisoners recount people being beaten for smoking, stepping into the toilets with the wrong foot first, or just for sitting in the wrong place. It also suggests that the U.S. forces do little to control what is happening inside the prisons, just letting the prisoners get on with "organising" themselves. The report suggest some innocent prisoners who get mistakenly picked up by US or Iraqi forces, end up joining al Qaeda to find protection within the prison.

Extremist recruiting in prisons is a well known phenomenon worldwide; the reasons that it happens being rather obvious. But it has been well known for many years now that many held in these internments camps in Iraq are not part of the insurgency, and it therefore makes allowing the prisons to get this far out of control into a very self-defeating policy.

The picture at the top I found on photo essay on a U.S. Department of Defense website, showing a military policeman seizing an improvised knife during a search at Camp Bucca. The pictures are from a couple of years back, but show some of the weapons that were being found even back then.

Monday, January 07, 2008

How not to be a mixed master

The highlight of this weekends climbing trip in comic form. Click on the picture to enjoy the story in full size. Thanks to Tony for bravely taking the starring role.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Wintour's Leap - photos

Ali on the crux of the first pitch of Zelda (HS 4b)

Mike in his element; chillin' (literally with the weather that day) halfway up Zelda

Ali works out the crux, not too bad when you find the holds but horribly exposed and scary until you do!

Picnic time

Mike racing sunset up Fly Wall, The Split VS 5a.

I posted a video of our climbing trip to Wintour's Leap last week, but I promised Mike, Andy and Ali who I was climbing with I'd add some photos when I got chance. British inland limestone is, in my opinion at least, a bit crap in that way that lots of things you love about Britain are actually a bit crap (the weather, the seaside, the cafés, etc). Bits break off in your hands, it is slippy, vegetated and always seems to be covered in bird shit - but the cliff in its entirety is huge and imposing in a brooding way. Sitting above the tidal, lower reaches of the Wye River that forms the border between England and Wales, Wintour's forms a huge wall on the English side of the the river reminding you, like Chepstow Castle just a kilometre downstream, of when this was a very real border with military importance many centuries ago. Like so many places in the UK, it just drips history if you think about it. Anyway, it was a good day with great company; slippy, cold and bird-poo covered rock or not.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Book backlog

Whenever I go to the UK, I come back with books. This time it was Christmas and I got a number as presents from my lovely family. But even when it's not Xmas, I still seem to return with a pile. The main factor is free delivery to UK addresses from Amazon.co.uk when you spend over fifteen quid - before I travel I order anything I want and have them sent to my Mum and Dad's then pick them up when over. Secondly, Tesco and Asda book price slashing - "The Golden Compass" in the pile cost something like £3.40, so it seemed worth the money to see if the book is as good as many say it is even if it's not the sort of thing I'd normally read. The CDs and DVDs are also ridiculously cheap, "Hot Fuzz" was a fiver which is only a bit more than it would cost to rent it for an evening here, or the same as seeing it in the cinema which I never got a chance to do. Thirdly, airport bookshops. I hate feeling stressed or rushed when flying so tend to leave more time than I really need at the airport. This I can happily while away in the bookshops, and the "Dunkirk" and "Generation Kill" are the results of doing that at Manchester yesterday afternoon.

So lots to read over the next few months! I will try to write some reviews here for anyone who is interested. Having a pile of unread books makes me feel a bit bad, like being greedy. But books never seem to really feel like unnecessary or conspicuous consumption. I read them all eventually. And as Oscar Wilde almost said; if there is anything worse than having a pile of unread books, it is not having a pile of unread books. Happy New Year to all.