Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bike cool

Today I took off the plastic thingymajig that is between the block and the spokes on my new bike's back wheel. It turns out that it is called the "pie plate" and by removing it, I was taking one step closer to utter-bike--hipsterdom. I knew it didn't look right, I just knew it. I'm so cool.

It also meant that I got to use my chain whip, which is one of those tools you buy for a job thinking - "I'm only ever going to use this once aren't I, so why am I buying it?" But now I've used it twice which is cool, AND it helped make my bike look cooler, AND my neighbour who had taken her bike to the bike shop for some maintenance (the type of thing you have to do when you don't own your own chain whip), had her bike stolen from the bike shop!!! This is definitely not cool.

So all round, I'm definitely up in the cool stakes.

And whilst we're on the subject, this definitely isn't bike-cool: between 2000 and 2005, 109 cyclists were killed by cars in Finland, half of those being when they tried to cross a road at an appropriate crossing. Why? Because "busy and careless drivers simply don't notice those crossing the street". For anyone who regularly rides in Helsinki, they'll add that to their no shit sherlock file. YLE then suggests that wearing a helmet would make a difference, which in most car vs. cyclist accidents is crap. Helmets help a lot when you fall off your bike onto your head, but when you get hit my an SUV they are pretty hopeless. Perhaps they could suggest drivers try stopping for cyclists at crossing as they are legally obliged to, instead.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

They are the very model of a modern military machine?

Your correspondent continues to practice his riding-one-handed-whilst-fishing-his-camera-out-of-his-bag skills

So yesterday I'm cycling into the office, and I'm nearly there - right in downtown Helsinki - and there sitting in the morning commuter traffic jam is an armoured personnel carrier. I grew up in a country where partly just to do with traditions, and in part due to the IRA's terrorist campaign, you never saw soldiers in uniform - let alone APC's in city traffic jams. But Finland is very different, with 82% of young men still doing conscription, you see soldiers in uniform everywhere and the military is a visible part of life. But why is an APC in the middle of town? One of the Finnish Defence Force's main training scenarios is to defend against a "strategic strike" - a swift attack designed at taking control of the centres of national power. So from time to time there are actually military exercises in the city centre. "Perhaps the APC was part of such an exercise?" I speculated.

And of course, Georgia is on everyone's mind in Finland. Originally all the prominent politicians said that the Russian operations/humanitarian intervention/acts of unwarranted aggression (delete as politically preferred) in Georgia changed nothing for Finland. So far, so Finlandised. But then Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said, in a stunning display of common sense and stating the obvious, that of course it changes somethings, even if Finland's underlying security policy doesn't need to change. He then couldn't resist pointing out to the Swedes that they might want to have reconsider their security solutions in this new light. Finland might keep losing at the ice hockey, so they have to take the opportunity to put the boot in where they can! And now, the still pretty new to the job Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubb (who seems to have acquitted himself well through his baptism of fire as the current chair of the OSCE that gave him a leading role in the S. Ossetian cease fire negotiations) is suggesting Finland should join NATO whilst it can.

So back to armour rumbling through the streets of a European capital. Today all was revealed: the weather looked crappy so I took the bus, and there in the middle of town as I swapped to the tram was the APC - with a banner on it advertising the fact that it's war invalids' week. The soldiers are out with collecting tins, not assault rifles, in hand.

"War invalids' autumn [charity] collection"

They're not actually armed when they ask you for money

I've enquired about this in the past and found out that it is indeed what it looks likes: the state compelling some of its citizens, the conscripts, to ask money from other citizens, the citizens of Helsinki, towards the up-keep of veterans who should presumably be looked after by the state anyway, in the form of social and health services? Is this actually an odd form of indirect and voluntary extra taxation? Are the conscripts tax collectors? And does this make the Finnish army look like a credible, modern military that might make any aggressive, unfriendly neighbouring state pause for thought?

The change from your shopping could help fund our peace-enforcement training!

Monday, August 25, 2008

al-Qaeda-Finland-Gordon Brown terror nexus: update

So it's confirmed - British special branch are currently visiting Finland, trying to work out why these guys from Blackburn who they have arrested were coming to Helsinki. Helsingin Sanomat has a few more details today, but the Finnish security police spokesperson is saying release of the information on the case will only come from the British end.

Although it has been by no means a 100% rule, generally terrorism plots in Europe have exhibited ethnic, national or at least regional groupings in the family-origins of the plotters. Hence the 7/7 bombings were mainly the result of British Pakistanis (although Germaine Lindsay was a convert), the Madrid bombing was mainly Moroccans etc. Helsingin Sanomat says that the arrested men are British-Pakistanis, which is interesting as there is only a very small Pakistani community in Finland making that a less likely, if still possible, link. Ultimately this may turn out to be another 'internet plot' where threats are made but no credible plan had ever existed to act upon them - but when the internet is centrally involved it really does throw open the door to unlikely linkages between people who may have never even met.

Time will tell how serious these arrest turn out to be and what the Finnish connection was. Perhaps they had just made an "inspired choice" to select Finland for their family holiday destination?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Religious Right

"Fresh Air" from NPR has been doing a series of programmes over the last week all on the theme of presidential politics, in anticipation of the upcoming Democrat and Republican party conventions. One very interesting interview they re-broadcast was with Randall Balmer, a priest and researcher who is author of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism and editor-at-large of Christianity Today. Balmer has written a book called God in the White House, which studies the surprisingly recent overt 'religionization' of American politics. I heard the interview when it was first broadcast in earlier this year, but was perhaps listening more carefully this time.

What really struck me was the somewhat bizarre nature of event that Balmer credits as the catalyst for the formation of what we now know of as the "Religious Right". Most presume it was Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the US. But that was in 1973 and, as Balmer points out, in 1974 the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative mainstream religious major organisations, actually passed a resolution supporting the right to legal abortions. Rather, Balmer argues, it was the rescinding of the tax exempt status of the evangelical Bob Jones University for its overt racism that led to the organization of the Religious Right. This was a drawn out legal process that was fought through the late 1970s and culminated in a Supreme Court decision in 1983 that supported the IRS's position against the university - basically that a racist organization could not be classified as "charitable" and therefore it could not qualify for tax-exemption as charities do. The Federal Government seen to be attacking a religious organisation, was the spark that lit the fire on right, bringing the evangelicals back into American politics for the first time since their defeat at the Scopes Trial in 1925, although he notes that it was actually the presidency of the born-again Jimmy Carter that actually set the wider stage for the reintroduction of overt religious language in American politics.

The university rescinded its ban on inter-racial dating only in 2000. It maintains a ban on homosexuality and has never re-applied for tax exemption.

The move

I didn't take any pictures yesterday, so here's is one 'from the archive' of me at the same cliff a couple of years ago.

Pepe, 6a+, 20 mtrs. Hyttyskallio, Salo, Finland. I've been meaning to do Pepe cleanly for ages. I fell from the top move, the crux, the first time I tried it. You have to pull through an overhang on great holds. Over the lip of the overhang, the cliff lies back into a slab. Once established on the slab, it's over - the anchor is there. It's done. The first time I tried it I onsighted up to that move. The holds on the lip are so good even I, with my pathetically weak arms, could hang on for a bit, trying to work out what to do next. I remember slapping around on the slab with one hand, desperately looking for the hold I presumed would be there. But there is no hold, just blank slab. Slowly my other arm uncurled and plopped off, falling spinning into space below the overhang. I realised what I had to do, and did the move the next try. A brilliant move, but a deeply annoying failure not to onsight the climb.

I've been back to Hyttyskallio a few times since then, but each time there has been some reason not to get back on Pepe. So yesterday after a total faff and failure on the first route, then a top-rope of another line, I decided to try it again. Looking in the guide book I saw from my scrawled note that it was ten years since I last tried it. Ten years! The world has changed so much in that time, as has my life, but I still could remember exactly what to do. The bottom wall was technical, but went OK. There was tricky move at two thirds height that I remembered nothing of at all, but with a bit of thought I did it. The space between the penultimate and last bolts was just as huge as I remembered, so the burly pull up to clip the final bolt was as terrifying as last time, but I get the quickdraw clipped and rope in. Back down below the overhang for a rest. Breath. Rest. Shake out. Breath. Rest. Shake out. And then up, gurn, and pull.

How can you remember something so unimportant, so clearly, after spending just a couple of minutes on the move over a decade ago? But you can. Right hand on the low great hold, left up to the good higher one. Grunt. Pull. Right to the rail on lip. Perfect. Left next to it. That's it - body up, eyeing the slab, still no holds on it. Swing left leg out on to hold just under the overhang's lip. Cut free with the right leg, it's swinging in space below you now uselessly. And mantle for all you're worth! Arms straighten, palms are down by your waist. It's just like getting out of the swimming pool just no water to help. Pull the right leg up and put the toe next to your hand. Don't overbalance. Balance. Balance. Breath.... and stand. It's done. Your feet are on the good holds at the lip. A couple of steps up the easy slab and you clip the anchor. It's done. Just one move.

Ten years have passed. But some things stay the same.

Friday, August 22, 2008

al-Qaeda-Finland-Gordon Brown terror nexus

Now there is a title I never thought I'd write - but, what the hell? Three people from Lancashire arrested over threats to kill the PM, claiming to be al-Qaeda in Britain (nice to see there is no petty nationalism there: i.e. seperate al-Qaedas in England, Scotland and Wales), with two being taken off a plane about to leave for Finland? Presumably as it was Manchester airport, that would have been the daily Finnair flight to Helsinki. Now reports say that Greater Manchester counter-terrorism police are "in Scandinavia" continuing their inquiries. Technically, Finland isn't part of Scandinavia but I'm not sure if the PA or the Greater Manc polis spokesperson knows that, so they could well be in town.

Weird. I'll need to make some call Monday to see if I can find out more!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The news from bits of the world we don't care about

A couple of years ago I wrote a report about American "counter-terrorism" operations in the Saharan belt of Africa. It was fascinating research because I got time to read up on countries I knew basically absolutely nothing about and amongst them were Chad and Mauritania.

Last week there was a(nother) military coup in Mauritania, an activity they seem rather fond of. And then today the court system of one authoritarian leader of Chad sentenced a previous authoritarian leader of Chad to death.

I don't really have any point to make beyond it's odd how little we care. The British team is doing great at the Olympics, the Russians are back in business as the global baddies and the weather is kinda crappy and all of that is for some reason more important for the media. Does art imitate life or does life imitate art in this case? Who knows, but good luck to the British 400 mtr boys in the semis tomorrow!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The inscrutable Finns' bid for world domination

Thanks to Phil at Finland for Thought, who obviously spends too long on the Comedy Central website, for sharing this gem.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finns - it's official: they're all a bit inbred

You go to some small towns and in the Finnish countryside and it might feels a bit Deliverance, but - hey, you find those towns in every country - but now the New York Times proves what some of us have suspected about the Finns genetically:

The Genetic Map of Europe

Yep, your cousin is daddy, Bubba. As the NYT puts it:
The map also identifies the existence of two genetic barriers within Europe. One is between the Finns (light blue, upper right) and other Europeans. It arose because the Finnish population was at one time very small and then expanded, bearing the atypical genetics of its few founders.
More seriously, I have a friend who does societal level pharmacological studies and says that Finland is fascinating because firstly it has excellent records going back many decades, and that secondly there are quite bizarre genetic conditions that occur regularly here and not in any other countries. As another of my friends, who also happens to work in the the pharma-world as well as being like me a British-married-to-a-Finn-and-with-kids, put it: "We're doing them the favour, expanding the gene pool and all that!" Whether Finland really wants my genes, is a completely different question.

Many thanks to Tony who sent me the NYT link.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Strange health advice

Smoking seriously harms you, but do it light-heartedly and you'll be just fine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It shouldn't be funny...

...what with it being a story of people peeing on each other and alleged if unproven claims of underage sex, but Slate's coverage of the R. Kelly trial really, really is. What I remember of R. Kelly's music I remember as being lousy, and I have zero interest in his career, but with writing this good, that doesn't really matter.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Bouldering Småbakkan

After an interesting day doing the academic 'thing', I got out this evening bouldering on Kvaløya. Many thanks to Ola for giving me a lift and showing me around the amazing Småbakkan boulder field. Above Ola does the juggy but butch No. 5 problem on Drømmesteinen Boulder, Font 5.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Even more Northern Light

I've arrived safely in Tromsø and of course my hotel room has free wireless that works better than my home connection, so no excuse not to blog. The flight up here from Oslo was stunning, and made sure I was sitting on left side of the plane for the best view. The cloud belows disappeared as we flew above northern Norway and suddenly, there below, there were mountain coming out of the sea - Lofoten. I could see from 11,000 mtrs the venues for some of the best days of my life that were spent climbing in the Norwegian mountains. Looking down on Lofoten, I could see Vågakallen at the southern tip of Austvågøy, behind which is Presten, home to the brilliant Vestpillaren route that I climbed in 2002 with Toby. Next I could see the beautiful Eidetind in the Tysfjord area that I climbed with Dave in 2003. Then on, over Narvik, and as we descended between peaks towards Tromsø, the mountains of Kvaløya were there. Baugen appeared in profile as we lost height, and the sun was on Gallionsruta (see the picture in the previous post), the climb by which Dave and I climbed Baugen in 2006. Even the peak of Hamperokken that we climbed on the same trip popped into view as the plane swung around 180 degrees on the final approach into Tromsø.

The view from my hotel

Monday, August 04, 2008

Heading North

Amundsen statue, Tromso town square

I'm off today to Tromsø today - for once on a plane rather than via 20 hours of driving - my cover is attending a political science conference at the University to discuss far-right populist parties but with the climbing nirvana of Kvaløya just across the bridge, I'm hoping that if the weather holds out, there will be time for some of this:

Dave seconds the crux of Gallionsrute (HVS 5b), Baugen, Kvaløya the evenings. It will be good to be amongst the mountains any way, even if it is mainly the view from a lecture theatre.

Troms Fastland, looking towards Lyngen

So probably no posts until early next week. Have a good one y'all.

Book about Egypt banned in Egypt

A few weeks ago I wrote a lengthy review of John R. Bradley's book "Inside Egypt". I just came across a newspaper article from a week or so ago that notes the book has now been banned in Egypt. This rather makes Bradley's point of the Egyptian regime's ideological vacuity, it stands for nothing but its own enrichment and survival and will suppress those that point this out.


Today at Vantaanpuisto bloc. Jody climbs, I wield the cellphone camera.



Too much failure.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

No more baggy shorts

Some weeks ago I noted that one should never wear lycra shorts whilst cycle commuting, it's just not cool or, indeed, neighbourly for anyone who has to watch you go past. But, every once in while most red-blooded young men feel the need to squeeze into skin tight lycra so yesterday I dusted off my road bike so as to indulge.

It is so long since I have ridden the road bike it felt odd, but it funny how different the steel frame feels after riding my new aluminium framed bike for just 100 kms last week.

I was pretty happy that over my 20 km circuit I kept the average speed well up above 30 kmph, which is always the goal but not always doable for me! Next time the target will be 30 kms within an hour - I just need to work out a course without too many hills!

I recently replaced the front tyre with a new one. The new one is very smart looking - now matching my saddle, bar-tape and rear tyre (plus the guy in the cycle shop said, "get yellow. Everyone knows that yellow is a particularly fast colour!") but it also has a black stripe running down the centre. This stripe is far from perfectly uniform and hence gives the sensation that the front wheel is wobbling when it isn't at all - see video above - most disconceting when riding and slightly hypnotic if you start watching it!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

This is just a test

I've started noticing more videos hosted on Vimeo. It is really just like YouTube yet somehow prettier - both the site itself, and the way they embed. See if you agree. Below is a short clip of my brother-in-law on the crux of Amphitheatre Buttress (Vdiff), Craig Yr Ysfa, Wales - taken in 2004. Considering it was his first proper climb, and he was in trainers, he was storming up it.

Amphitheatre Buttress (Craig Yr Ysfa) from Toby A. on Vimeo.

It's kind of pretty isn't it? The video hosting that is, not Jaakko wearing my ridiculous-looking old helmet. At least until the comment threads on Vimeo get as soul-sappingly-awful as they are on YouTube, then I think I'm gonna stick with Vimeo.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Bikes, bikes, bikes

David Cameron, leader of the Tories, got his bike nicked the other week after locking it to a low bollard. Oddly enough, some scally stole it by lifting it up and walking off with it. The Guardian had a go at repeating this trick but were obviously far too obvious and got rumbled before anyone pinched their bike - the lurking papparazo must have been the give away. My friend who works for the Guardian forwarded me a rather amusing internal email:
"Thanks to a slight overestimate of crime rates in the Portobello Road area The Guardian finds itself in possession of a rather nice silver Specialised Globe gents bike (retail price £219.99). Bids welcome..."
Fortunately for Davey-boy he got his bike back, though it was via the power of the tabloid press not via the plod, so not the normal result.

Anyways, it's been an exciting week for me bike-wise as I finally bought a new commuter. It is a rather svelte-looking, fine piece of American engineering (see above) - flat bars but no suspension and hydraulic brakes that bite like a pissed-off pit bull. Indeed they have already proven their worth when on the way to work earlier this week some walker inexplicably decided to step out into the middle of the cycle path at the bottom of short, steep hill I was descending. Fortunately with the new brakes, all they had to put up with was some choice words from me as I skidded around them. The aluminium frame is weird feeling after well over 10,000 kms on my old steel steed. Rigid and light, but you feel the vibrations more I'm sure. Between the bigger wheels, thinner tyres and better frame - I've knocked about 8 minutes of my commute which is pretty impressive.

I managed to break a cycle computer in moving it from the old commuter to the new one, so have now been carrying out complicated logistics moving various computers between bikes to get working ones on the bikes I'm using currently. I'm very upset that the 'good' computer I put on the new bike has decided that my commute is about 2 kms shorter than it was with the other computer on the old bike. I didn't spend all that money just to be told I'm lazy and slow.

I had vague thoughts about turning my old commuter into a fixie, because clearly that is what all the cool kids are riding now, but a) it is actually more complicated than I suspected needing a new wheel if you can't build them yourself on a new hub; b) I'd probably fall off and hurt myself - or at least look foolish; c) I don't have a beard or tattoos (although I do own an Andean ear-flap woolly hat) and these seems to be de rigueur for fixie riders; and finally c) my wife says now she can use my old bike - which isn't a bad idea as it is considerably safer than her old Scandinavia pile of crap.

The biggest question now is how to fit them all in the shed?