Thursday, July 31, 2008

Anti-cycle rage

I've always said that Helsinki drivers are incredibly aggressive against cyclists - totally unwilling to share the road with people on two wheels - but it's nothing in comparison to this:

At least, as the NY Times points out, with half the western world now having a video camera in their pocket in the form of their phone, people might think twice before doing mindless, dangerous things like deliberately pushing a cyclist off a bike. I hope the cop does get at least fired, because regardless of what the cyclist was doing (and most people seem to think he was doing nothing wrong) pushing a rider off a reasonably fast moving bike is incredibly dangerous just because of the significant chance of causing serious head injuries.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Iraq is still there

Photo courtesy of
"A bit obscene that we can bury so many people in the earth and know so little about them"
Poet/soldier Brian Turner

By mistake it's been an 'Iraq day' - a series of coincidences of what I have read and listened to over the last 24 hours that has meant I've spent more time thinking about a place I've never been to than is normal, or least healthy. This used to happen more often; I would see a link to a blog, a smart-arse U.S. soldier or some Iraqi civilian who writes better English than I can - either of whom should have been a 'proper' writers in better times, and I would spend hours reading it, clicking links, reading other blogs and news reports not doing the work I should have been and that seemed so less important. Articles by Nir Rosen or George Packer would have the same effect. I could always excuse spending mornings doing this as I am a political scientist and this is the most important political event of my generation, but the truth is more probably somewhere between a sense of feeling the need to bear witness and a very uncouth morbid fascination.

Last night as I rode home I was listening to a pretty tragic story of an Iraq vet, now jailed for attacking his partner and family, on This American Life. His reoccurring dreams are a curse not to wish on anyone, and made more sense of this photo that I saw this morning:

Photo courtesy of

I found Zoriah's site via a link after happening to look at the Guardian Online for the first time in weeks and reading this piece about attempts by the U.S. military to manage the images coming out of the war in Iraq. Then this evening on the bus home I was listening to an edition of Fresh Air on NPR from last week which included interviews with two clearly exceptional American soldiers, theorist John Nagl and poet Brian Turner. Terms such as warrior-philosopher and warrior-poet are rather trite and overwrought, but if anyone one deserves such accolades I suspect these two gentlemen do.

Iraq is a fading from the news to a great extent, at least as anything other than an issue between McCain and Obama, but the slaughter goes on just not at such high rates anymore. It is easy to ignore, or simply to miss, but Iraq is still there.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Swearing on the "radio"

This blog was once told by a friend and commenter that if I want to swear, don't pretend I'm not doing so by using asterisks. My defence is that we're all more polite in public than we are in private amongst friends. Some years ago I was on a US radio show as a guest. The presenter, Chris Lydon, has an on-air persona of an eccentric, favourite uncle but as soon as the show finished, but whilst all us guest were still on the line, he reverted to what I presume is the normal way that Bostonians of Irish descent tend to express themselves - a rather more bracing usage of the language. It was amusingly shocking to hear people described as "total fucking idiots" and the like when you had gotten used to the regular, refined on-air persona!

Anyway - I'm a big fan of the Slate Political Gabest, which made this weeks show all the more fun as I suspect the unedited extra footage in the latter half is probably more like how Emily, David and John normally talk to each other!

Is this terrorism?

If a group or an individual target civilians with violence - say, Egyptian Islamist groups attacking fellow Egyptians because they are Coptic Christians - that would count as Jihadi terrorism I think most would agree. In which, case - what is this case?
An unemployed man accused of opening fire with a shotgun and killing two people at a Unitarian Universalist church apparently targeted the congregation out of hatred for its support of liberal social policies, police said Monday. (from AP)
Is it "Right-wing terrorism"?

Friday, July 25, 2008

All at sea!

I'm blogging this from the cafe on the Silja line ferry somewhere in Baltic south of Finland and north of Estonia. How cool is that? I have absolutely nothing interesting to say besides the sun is shining and it's very beautiful, its more just to say - wow, I'm on a boat. Blogging. :-)
Right - off to check out the duty free prices now.

Wikipedian Protester

Yesterday evening I finished a paper that I'd been working on for the previous four days. I think it had 83 footnotes, so when I saw this, I had to laugh.

From the lovely xkcd website, and first seen on Harry's Place.

I'm off on a big boat tomorrow to Sweden. I love the big boats; hopefully some photos when I get back on Monday.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

High Summer - climbing at Kvarnby

It is pouring outside at the moment but last weekend was rather nice. Tony and myself headed to Kvarnby - Tony wanting to make some progress in his quixotic (that's a challenge not a doubt Tony!) 7x7 quest - seven grade seven routes this year, so far he has six still to go. It was hot and rather sweaty but Tony managed all the moves on a rather fine grade 7 trad route that goes the height of main cliff at Kvarnby. I managed something rather less than all the moves, but did find a better sequence for a hard section low down, to play my part as the faithful Sancho Panza. I'm sure he'll lead it by the autumn. I also belayed in the sunshine and generally enjoyed the birdsong and being out in the countryside after an abnormally political week that kept my mind in London, long after the rest of me was back in Finland.

Name these flowers (i.e. does anyone know what they are because I don't?)

High summer is so green. Everything is green. All shades of green. Nothing has started dying back yet. The forest is thick; cliffs you normally think of as being quite open disappear behind this thatch of growth. The forest is busy with life, both flora and fauna.

Tony high up on great, moderate unnamed route

The rope catches the light low down whilst above your correspondent does battle with the ants

I did one unnamed route on the left of the cliff that I had seconded before, but not led. I was quite happy with a reasonable go-for-it-attitude, although this may well have been more to do with ants nest that seemed to be deep down in the crack at the crux, meaning speedy upwards movement was the only option to ant in your pants. One still managed to fall into my eye as I pulled through the crux - an unusual objective hazard!

Tricam in a horizontal break

We also messed about with the tricams that I'm testing for UKclimbing. Tony began as an utter sceptic of the "what's the point?" school. Five minutes of fiddling with them and including both of us trying to unseat the placement above and he seemed to have been converted!

Heading home through the green

Sunday, July 20, 2008

No surprise: the BNP is utterly cynical

I've been writing today on the BNP and its recently acquired respect for Israel and Jews more generally. This has meant lots of reading the BNP website - a rather depressing experience - but I turned up one gem of political cynicism from the pen of Nick Griffin himself. A 2007 article called "By their fruits (or lack of them) shall you know them" is basically a reply to American neo-Nazis who have criticised the BNP for being to cosy with 'the Jews'. These US anti-semites parrot some of the Islamist (and indeed "Troofer") conspiracy theories, that terror attacks like 9/11 were really the work of Mossad and represent Israel's continued machinations to get the US west to fight their middle eastern wars for them. Griffin writes that these conspiracies "may or may not contain some elements of truth" but this is not the point:
“May or may not contain some elements of truth,” I said. Is that too cynical for the purists? Then they need to wake up to the rules of real life politics rather than settling for last place every time. It’s better to be a little cynical on this issue and stand a chance of winning than to fret about which bunch of liars are lying in this particular instance and in so doing miss a great political opportunity to surf our message into the public mind on the back of a media tsunami of ‘Islamophobia’.
Everyone accuses politicians of utter cynicism, but normally they at least have the decency to try to hide it. Mr. Griffin rather lays it out for all to read. He then goes on to consider why the British media have become so critical of Islam in recent years - suggesting various explanations before concluding:
Frankly, who cares [why]? We don’t have the media clout ourselves to swim against the tide, but as it’s running in our favour in terms of boosting public rejection of mass immigration and the multi-cult, why should we even want to? Instead of wasting time worrying about it, we should - to mix metaphors - be organising to make hay while the sun shines.
By their own word shall you know them.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Do Americans think they are Europeans?

I just heard Moises Naim, editor in chief of "Foreign Policy" magazine, remind NPR listeners that not everything that happens in the world is linked to the U.S. Presidential elections! It reminded me of this photo I snapped whilst going through immigration at Heathrow:

Presumably a significant number of U.S. passport holders wander up to the EU desks if they add a special note to tell them where they should go. So do the 'cousins' think they are in the EU? Or is it just that they would like to be? :-)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More IslamExpo

Oddly this is the second time that a visit to London has turned into a tiny walk-on bit-part in the greater production that is the "British State meets Political Islam". The Guardian reports that the Department of Communities and Local Government told their ministers not to go to IslamExpo, and I reported yesterday on how various journalists had pulled out over the Harry's Place situation. In Comment Is Free, Seamus Milne puts the other side of the argument. Milne was on the panel discussion I watched this morning, and after in the Q&A he actually admitted that English libel laws are generally unfair tools accessible disproportionately to the wealthy. This was my little bit-part as I asked the question suggesting to Anas Altikriti that it was disingenous of them to not explain to the audience why Douglas Murray wasn't on the panel (because of the threat of libel action), and if Islamist groups such as his own want to be treated fairly by the press, bringing libel actions against a blog for - at worse - reporting a mistake made by an international news provider, is hardly the way to go about it.

Less depressing, and also more interesting, is the reporting about debates at the Expo from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Nesrin Malik.

Back to boring old Helsinki tomorrow, although I need the rest after about 234 large café lattes, too much good food from all around the world and too little sleep. Big Up the London posse (norf an' sarf') for beers, laughs and a space on the floor. You know who you are.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

London innit?

Gis' us a sugarlump or I'll nick you

This somehow sums up the tube

Tariq Ramadan - sometimes accused of being a bit fuzzy, looking fuzzy

The thin chestnut line - helping to make Finsbury Park a bit more crappy

Knife crime, this summer's avian influenza

Just in case anyone has been wondering, I'm in London. I've been at two day conference held on the fringes of Islam Expo, along with all sorts of Islamist figures, hacks, spooks, ex-spooks, plods, professors - and finally other various lowly academic researchers and thinktankers such as myself. It has been a mixed bag, some wonderful presentations of academic clarity and objectivity - particularly from the American and Turkish professors - and then some political posturing without saying much substantive from others. My contribution from the floor was to suggest to Anas Altikriti that if Islamists parties want to be treated just like 'normal' parties they should stop whining when liberals points out they are ultra-conservative on social issues and if you are a woman or gay you have plenty of reasons to be very nervous about their politics. I think this annoyed him.

I came originally because I'm interested in the injection of Islamist politics into UK politics, and how different reactions to this have formed on both the left and the right. There were going to be various debates and discussion about these issues at the Expo and I wasn't just interested in hearing what the experts and pundits said, but how an audience of British Muslims reacted to it. But IslamExpo has become a victim of those new politics, albeit with a self inflicted wound. With rather stupid timing Mohammed Sawalha, the head of the British Muslim Initiative (one of the organisers of the whole Expo) and who is also closely linked to Hamas, threatened to sue Harry's Place for reporting his allegedly racists comments (read the whole thing on HP because it is a bit of long story around an Arabic translation). Looking from the outside it would appear that Harry's Place is in the right and Sawalha is pissing in the wind, but time and lawyers will tell. Anyway, in protest - and I think understandably - Martin Bright of the New Statesman pulled out of the debate he was to be part of, and now also Douglas Murray (Britain's own proud neo-con) has also withdrawn from another session tomorrow I was thinking of watching. It is a shame that Bright did pull out because he has done excellent work investigating British Islamist figures and we got left with Soumaya Ghannoushi ranting in circles and and no one calling her out the general innanity of her 'argument'. Her tone is also somewhat reminiscent of Thatcher which is never going to be reassuring...

On the way back to my friend's place tonight I stopped in Finsbury Park to go and see the infamous mosque, as it had been discussed this morning. Having not been to Finsbury Park before I can safely assure anyone else who hasn't that it is a shithole and you haven't missed anything. I'm sure the majority of the residents are lovely people but it has to be one of London's shabbiest boroughs.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Flying the flag!

David Millar, rolling out in yesterday's Tour de France time trial where he came a very credible third overall, and third in the stage. Keep at it David. Photo from Yahoo Sports. I want that bike - actually I don't as I'd look quite silly wheezing slowly along on it, but it is pretty cool. I was probably going to buy a Felt bike, but now - proving that advertising works great - I'm just going to have to!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What's wrong with the MCB?

I wrote a conference paper not long ago on the British State meeting political Islam that had quite a lot about the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in it. I've been asked to submit a revised version of the paper for an academic journal which is very flattering, as it was essentially an elongated version of the type of stuff I tend to go on about here, but of course if must go through peer review so I'm not home and dry yet. Anyway Yahya Birt has written an excellent, brief and pithy piece on the MCB for Open Democracy - laying out it's limited achievements and numerous failings and structural weaknesses. If you're even vaguely interested in the new-ish British politics of "communities", it's well worth the few minutes it takes to read.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bike Helmets

YLE reports that two thirds of Finns don't support fining cyclists who don't wear helmets. There is currently a law saying you must wear one, but there is no penalty for breaking that law - a bit like MPs must say who funded their election campaigns but don't get into trouble if they don't!

I always wear a helmet, but don't believe you should have to. It's gesture politics - it's not that helmets aren't important - they can be, and I can think of one occasion since I started cycle commuting (out of maybe 12 000 kms ridden) where I'm pretty certain the helmet saved me from serious injury when I landed directly on my head in a fall. It's rather that pushing a helmet law is ridiculous when the Finnish police seem to care very little about cyclists' safety in policing issues such as cars refusing to stop for cyclist who have the rights of way at crossings, cars parking on cycle paths, and an increasing problem of motorcyclists and moped riders riding at excessive speeds on cycle paths. They could probably add far more to cyclists' safety by making sure riders have brakes that actually function - something that many non-serious cyclists don't seem to worry about at all.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Weekend Climbing

Sore hands. Yesterday: rough granite cracks and panicky finger jams - thinking I might fall off and not being convinced by the gear - taking chunks out my knuckles and heels of my palms. You can bleed like hell and it doesn't hurt at all when you're scared. The chalk quickly cakes in the cuts and stops the flow. Today bouldering. Pulling on little holds that I'm too fat to pull on, it's warm and the friction is shit and it just wrecks your skin on your tips. Try and do the washing up and the hot water hurts like hell, it's like you have holes in your hands right through to your nerves. I guess you do have holes in your hands. Lots of wild strawberries and bilberries in the woods though so it's all good.

Elina leads, Dianna belays

Dianna high up on the excellent "Varisuora" VS 4c

Your correspondent managing not fall off. Just.

Jody bouldering at Riistavuori

Pulling funny faces

Friday, July 04, 2008

How much does it cost to get waterboarded?

So Christopher Hitchens got waterboarded for Vanity Fair. You can watch the video here and read his thoughtful article about the experience here. Conclusion - it's torture, but I kinda hoped everybody knew that already. But there seems to be a some bizarre little side industry in waterboarding journalists springing up. Presumably it is ex-military or CIA people doing it? Hence the fashion for balaclavas and once again a penchant for those vests with lots of pockets in them, favoured by wannabe foreign correspondents. Do they get paid for this? At the same time other former military interrogation experts are desperately trying to get Hollywood to stop making films and TV shows where the heroes torture, because American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be copying them.

“Inside Egypt” John R. Bradley.

“Inside Egypt” by John R. Bradley.

It’s too long since I’ve done a book review so I think I should mention John Bradley’s “Inside Egypt: the land of the Pharaohs on the brink of revolution”. I saw it sitting on a colleagues desk and asked if I could read, “yes” was the reply, “but do it quickly”. Well it has taken me two days so that says a lot for the readability of the book. I’ve not been to Egypt and this book unfortunately isn’t likely to make anyone go, unless of course you are a weird social scientist who is interested in political disasters. So, I’m more interested in going now than before.

Bradley paints a very bleak picture of a country failing. The regime has no ideology and stands for nothing except its own continuance, hence the Egyptian state is utterly corrupts and having no other way to rally the nation to its cause, uses violence to repress society instead. Bradley suspects this is unsustainable as, unlike say China, the regime is not bringing people out of poverty whilst denying them freedom. Actually it is doing the opposite, pushing the middle class into penury whilst ignoring the poverty stricken working and underclass.

He notes that Egyptian civil society is utterly beaten down, producing virtually no culture, despite the country’s immensely rich multi-ethnic and –religious heritage. Not even the corrupt super-rich are using their money to make anything beautiful or interesting: “In all but ethnically cleansed and culturally purged post-Nasser Egypt… even money has gone stale, producing for the rich only barren imitations of life elsewhere, and financing only the thugs’ indulgence in beating any individual expression to a pulp.” (p.55)

He argues that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is the greatest beneficiary of this oppression, as Mubarak has crushed all secular opposition. His view of the MB is that its rise is indicative of the malaise in modern Egypt, where demonstrations of public piety cover private spitefulness and corruption of the spirit. Bradley believes that they would just be a minor force if real democracy was allowed – noting although they took 20% of the vote in 2005 parliamentary elections, only 25% of the electorate could be bothered to vote in the heavily rigged elections and mostly consisted of committed supporters of the Brothers and then the state employees forced or obliged to vote for Mubarak’s NDP. Hence that 20% probably greatly overestimates their support in the country. He believes that the MB is true to its word that it is a peaceful organisation, yet at the same time is a clerically-fascist, sucking all the joy and celebration out of Egyptian heritage, and spreading sectarianism amongst different groups in the countries.

He argues that American policy of support to Egypt, the second biggest recipient of US aid after Israel, in return for its “cold peace” with the Jewish state is part of the problem. American support for democratic reform was both half-arsed and half-baked, and was abandoned immediately once it became apparent elsewhere in the Middle East that Islamists groups would win free elections in the current geopolitical climate. He quotes Hisham Kassem, a human right activist who was awarded a Democracy Award from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy in 2007. Kassem got to meet President Bush as a result, and Bush’s bemusement at being told how the current situation is building the MB’s support is telling: “we give your country $2 billion a year in order to keep it stable and prevent it from turning into a theocracy” Bush replied looking dismayed.

The book is very readable and cracks along at a fair pace, but isn’t perfect. The chapter on the Bedouin of the Sinai is basically a discussion of the Crisis Group report on the area. Crisis Group reports are generally excellent, but the other chapters show Bradley’s original reporting and feel for the country much more. His chapter on “Lost Dignity” is basically about old European women and European gay men coming to Luxor to find young Egyptian “studs” to shag. It’s really depressing but perhaps verges on the salacious. Bradley makes a decent case that it is representative of wider issues in the country, but in comparison to his horrific chapter on the endemic torture and violence in what passes for Egypt’s criminal justice system it seems like something of a smaller issue that just attracts disproportionate media attention as it involves sex and westerners.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

"Troofers" - David Shayler has gone nuts

"Troofers" - those who think 9/11 was a massive plot - they're an odd bunch aren't they? I think it is like a new form of spiritualism or ghost hunting - except for the oddly dull "troof" that they seek. Instead of being interested in what really produced 9/11: massive global trends of immense complexity, involving resurgent religious belief, transnational capital flows disturbing entire national economies, and the geopolitical rivalries of great and medium powers, they instead look for some ultimately rather insignificant crime - the owner of the WTC did it to make an insurance claim, or Cheney did it to increase the value of his Haliburton stock. It's so parochial and dreary, suggesting an exceedingly limited perspective.

Anyway, rising to the prominence in the British 9/11 (and now add in 7/7) truth movement in recent years, was David Shayler. For those who don't remember, Shayler was an ex-MI5 employee. Troofers would probably like me to say "agent" or "operative", but ultimately he was a civil servant and a desk officers so not very James Bond. Shayler left the Security Service, blabbed to the media a bit about stupid political stuff MI5 had done in the past, got into trouble for it, ran off to France, got sent back and went to prison for a bit. Then he decided 9/11 was all a conspiracy, and later that 7/7 was as well. A low point was Shayler attacking Rachel North, who was in one of the bombed trains on 7/7, as being an MI5 disinformation agent or some such shit - Jon Ronson called him out on this and you can hear how it went on This American Life (not very American, I know)., where I hang-out too much, has its own little band of troofers, they always link to videos on google vids - presumably because reading taxes them too much - these videos are meant to convince us of something - aliens did it, controlled explosions were set of by remote control monkeys or some such. Anyway, they reminded me of Shayler, so I googled him and it appears that last year Shayler went sort of mad, and not just lovably eccentric. No, rather totally fucking nuts - "I'm the messiah, come to save the world" mad. Poor chap.