Saturday, November 29, 2008

Winter comes and goes

The snow started as I was driving home at lunchtime last Sunday, after my first tentative ice climbing of the winter. And then it kept on snowing. Finland, although traditionally a cold place, gets a lot less snow than non-Finns might think. Particularly in the south, we just don't get those storms that dump a metre of snow overnight as you may in the mountains, or on northern coastal regions around the globe. Even in England as a kid I remember getting overnight more snow than I've ever seen here in the same time period, but nevertheless it was still a pretty good blizzard. Monday morning was typical traffic chaos, showing that even with all the snow-moving infrastructure Helsinki has, this was heavier than normal. We got more on Monday night but from Tuesday onwards it started to thaw, and by Wednesday the thaw was huge - big chunks of snow falling off roofs making going in and out of buildings more exciting than normal. By Friday evening it was +8 oC and I walked to the pub after work with some colleagues in sweatshirt. I didn't even have time to get out cross country skiing whilst the tracks lasted. At the moment the forecast is utterly miserable: temperatures a bit above freezing, plenty of rain and thick cloud meaning the pitifully short days feel even shorter. Next time. But with the excitement that a good dump of snow brings, I kept taking pictures and film clips on my phone last week. The quality of both is pretty poor - but all the same here's some images of a snowy Helsinki.

Helsinki in the snow from Toby A. on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Scared of the outdoors

Finns like to see themselves as an outdoor people - berry picking, cross country skiing, hiking and hunting - all that jazz. But the most popular outdoor areas, the national parks, which are often amongst the most scenic and interesting, then to be rather "suburbanised" as well. Paths, well maintained and easy to follow anyway, are usually marked by colour signs on trees every 30 mtrs or so. There are numerous Laavus - lean to shelters with built fire places outside them, normally with pre-cut wood to use. This is all very civilised and probably good for the trees in that people don't just hack down the ones around the Laavu - but it is very civilised - not much of a wilderness experience at all.

There is of course plenty of untracked wilder areas - but this is normally commercial forest, which can be quite boring, and not in the most scenic areas. Now Helsingin Sanomat reports that there is an increase of interest in using 'emergency markers' along recreation trails allowing anyone in difficulty to be able to pin-point their position almost instantly when they phone for rescue. Hesari reports:
Hence the undertaking does not bother with geographical coordinates with minutes and degrees, which would be needlessly confusing for those unacquainted with them.
This suburbanisation of the wilderness means that it seems the idea that people could actually take the time to aquaint themselves with "
geographical coordinates" (i.e. learn to read a map) seems to have entirely passed them by. No - perish the thought, we couldn't "needlessly confuse" the lazy and the thick could we?

If you want to go hiking in the woods, which is a lovely thing to do, you should be prepared to figure out for yourself what to do if you have a mishap. If the great outdoors is so scary that you require a bloody great orange pole stuck next to any possible danger, perhaps it is better if you just stay home and watch telly instead.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

True Finns, true prats.

(photo: True Finns Parliamentary Group) Finland's populist right wing party is led by a smart man, but what follows behind appears to be a mix of the dumb and the very unpleasant. Timo Soini, the True Finns leader, last year had to ban his youth wing from associating with dubious foreign party youth wings. Recently he had to disassociate himself from a man who stood (and won) on the True Finns' list in the municipal elections. This councilor has publically wished that certain women whom he dislikes get raped - delightful eh? Soini didn't actually say he disagreed, although I'm sure that he does, but only that it wasn't his business. And then today another True Finns candidate from last month's municipal elections (this one didn't win a seat it seems) makes the news for having started a Facebook group suggesting - in a hilariously jokey manner I'm sure - homophobic violence against a Finnish TV personality. And of course let's not forget the former True Finns MP, Tony "the Viking" Halme who was convicted of firearms violations, drug use and the smuggling of illegal drugs into the country.

What a nice bunch.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Somalis of Leicester

(Photo: "Leicester - It'll be good when it's finished" by Andrew M Butler on Flickr)

This weeks Radio 4 Choice is about Leicester - which will be within a few years Britain's first 'plural city' where no ethnicity forms a majority. This does not actually mean that any one current ethnic minority will form a new majority, whites will still be the largest group in Leicester, but they will no longer be more than half of the city's population.

Leicester is quite interesting demographically because its big immigrant inflow, unlike say the northern mill towns, was only 30 years ago and was East African Indians who have tended to be very business-minded. But what I found more interesting was the interviews with more recently arrived Somali families - most of whom moved from Holland because they wanted to be in more a multicultural society than the Netherlands. Their experiences in the UK seem mixed, but what the programme noted was that those that came were all pro-education (with one kid who arrived in the UK at 13 only knowing what English he had heard in music, who then 3 years later got 21 GCSEs! For non-UK readers, that is more than double the number of subjects that a bright kid would normally do at school).

I've been interested in the phenomenon of Somali movement within Europe for the last three years, when I first started hearing anecdotal evidence of it. But now I'm in no doubt - there is an outflow of aspirational young single Somalis and Somali families from Holland and Scandinavia to the UK. I've now heard this from the UK-end and from an odd variety of sources who have noticed in Scandinavia that "their Somalis" are leaving. The UK welfare state isn't as comprehensive as for example in Finland or Sweden, so clearly the old racist line of "they've come here to get a free house" isn't true. Clearly a growing Somali population in the UK has some social policy implications - although as it seems that most Somalis go to the UK to start a business or get higher education, these probably aren't major challenges. It would seem to have much bigger implications for the countries where the Somalis are leaving. If the best and brightest of one of your immigrant communities ups sticks and moves to another country, the community that remains is likely to present a higher proportion of social policy issues. This is exactly what a Danish Imam told me was clearly happening in his city, increasing racial tensions. Another very serious question is whether it suggests that there is a systemic failure in the integration policies of social democracies such as Finland or the Netherlands.

I had a funny conversation with a professional Finnish-Somali guy recently, in that both of us had become interested in the politics of Minnesota for exactly the same reason. Minneapolis seems to have become the promised land for the Somali diaspora - where the community has thrived through its entrepreneurship (and supportive policies from the state) and become integrated into the city's political life in the traditional way new immigrant populations in the United States always have. Now they are important within the Democratic Party, and as a result some of the Minnesota's congressmen and its senator have become leading figures in the international efforts to find peace in the Horn of Africa. The US model of integration (which seems to be to a great extent leave people to their own devices) has successes where the European social democracies do not.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

First ice

The ice is back, just. Various mates couldn't join me, in main because they had far more sensible things to do on Sunday morning like brunch, recovering from hangovers, being in Holland - those kind of things. But being a bit sad I still decided to go and see if there was any ice on my own, with just my iPod for company.


At Kauhala there was some ice. I soloed to about ankle-snapping height and then decided that was stupid so climbed back down, ran round to the top and chucked a rope down, allowing me to shunt a couple of lines. Not hard, just delicate with only 5-10 mms or so of ice - you could top out though above the ledge which sometimes isn't possible very early season at Kauhala. There is currently a very dead and upside down tree leaning against the better righthand fall (see photo above). It has obviously fallen off the top of the cliff but didn't make it all the way down. If the ice melts again, as looks likely towards the end of the week, it would be good if some public spirited individual could get a line around the top and pull it over so that it doesn't block the line for the rest of the winter.

Kauhala from Toby A. on Vimeo.


I then drove round to Nuuksionpää, the main lines are forming and were probably top-ropeable. I tried soloing the groove just to the left of the main face. I was listening to an old podcast of "In Our Time" with Melvyn Bragg on my iPod, and the discussion was on probability. Various eminent professors of maths were explaining the history of the study of probability (not very long and all connected to gambling unsurprisingly), but as I was soloing up - tapping my tools into centimetre thick blobs of ice and lumps of frozen moss - they were discussing about how probabilities rapidly change when considering a series of events that are linked and when the events are discrete. This of course made me realise that although the I was say 75% certain that the blob of ice that my left ice axe was in would hold my weight whilst I had two or three other points of contact, the probability of it holding should any of those other points of contact suddenly rip, would then be a linked - not a discrete - event. And that wouldn't be good. At this point after a quick appraisal of the probability of me being able to walk away from crashing into the forest floor after falling off from 15 mtrs above said forest floor (not good), the eminent professors had persuaded me of the folly of my quest. I very gingerly down-climbed back to the ground, and went home for lunch.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Studs are cool

And I don't mean in the heavy metal sense.

First little bit of snow of the winter two days ago, but it melted on the roads then has refrozen overnight.

I did a test run on my bike late last night but with summer tyres I lost the front wheel whenever I touched the brakes. Hence bus to work today, a pizza for tea and now I feel really fat.

So off to the bike shop to get studded tyres so I can burn off some calories commuting next week hopefully whilst remaining upright on the bike. I got Schwalbe Marathon Winters, I will report back on how they feel after some rides just in case anyone is interested. I can also recommend Bike Planet in Myyrmäki because as well as a well stocked shop and helpful staff they have a pet tarantula who lives in the counter. How cool is that?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Climbing magazines

Very nearly 20 yrs worth of climbing mags

I had reason today to defend some critical comments that I made online about one of the British climbing magazines. I have nothing but respect for the person who was questioning me, which of course means you do your best to explain yourself as clearly and fairly as possible. And it was in doing this that I realised how important a part of my 'climbing life' magazines have been. For me climbing magazines have never been ephemeral - to be chucked out with the recycling like the daily paper. They are more like journals that you go back to every once in while and re-read the best articles.

The now defunct and sadly missed On The Edge - the gobby upstart of British climbing culture

I bought my first magazines whilst I was still at school and knew no climbers and very little about where people went climbing. Reading the magazines was a window onto new world that I wanted to live in. At the height of my 'addiction' I bought all three of the British magazines available at the time, and read them cover to cover. I wasn't really interested in the results of the Northern under-16 boys bouldering championship or the access agreement for a crag at the other end of the country from where I lived, but I would still read about them.

OTE's successor, Climb magazine, big, glossy and with great pictures and a spacious layout

But slowly things change. I stopped subscribing to Climber in 2006, it wasn't a bad magazine I had just been reading it for so long I felt I was just reading the same articles again - a problem for any magazine. It was okay though because Climb was the new kid on the block, the successor to OTE and High. Climb is great except for sometimes the quality of the copy editing, and that is what I have been critical about.

Climber and Hillwalker (as it was then) from March 1989 and April 1990, the first climbing magazines I bought.

It was pictures in the climbing magazines, particularly the ones below, from those very first mags that I owned, that pretty much led to me moving to Scotland when I was old enough to leave home. Scottish winter climbing just seemed like the most exciting thing in world (it can be as well, although not always in good way!), and I wanted to do what I saw in the photos.

Deep Cut Chimney on Hells Lum, 80s-stylee

The schist revolution begins - Incubator on the Cobbler

Climbing magazines, like much of the rest of the print media, are going through hard times with advertising being competed for by new online sources whilst their news function is threatened by websites that can update instantaneously. Mark Reeves, another UKC regular, has written a provocative piece about this on his blog that you can read here. It was really sad that Alpinist, a particularly fine magazine from the US with an excellent website, became one of the first victims of the credit crunch in the outdoors business sector. I hope other magazines don't go the same way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The wind at your back

November Cycling from Toby A. on Vimeo.

November - it really isn't the greatest month. I saw an old friend yesterday, visiting from Beirut. It was lovely to see her - but why anyone would leave the sunny Mediterranean for dank, dark Helsinki in November, I have no idea. Lebanon's political history must give it's citizens a dark sense of humour. The Finns tend to see themselves as a dark and brooding bunch - whether they actually are more dark and brooding than, say, any other northern Europeans is, I think, not clear - but come to Helsinki in November and you can well understand why they think they might be.

Anyway, cycling in this weather becomes a chore. Yesterday I rode to work and it was gusty and a few degrees below freezing, meaning numerous layers of clothing to put on including over-shoes for my feet, as I have real problems keeping my toes warm once it is much below zero. It's a chore to get ready to cycle, and then cycling itself felt a chore, slow going with strong side winds. But at least I could watch the sunrise as I went. Cycling home today should have been awful - dark as coal with high winds that were blasting drizzle and sleet about - but it wasn't awful. Rather, with a 10 m/s wind behind me the whole way it was a perverse joy (to the extent that I felt the urge to try and capture it on video). In summer I see hundreds of other cyclists during the 25 kms journey. Tonight I saw five. So, fellow miserable-November-still-cycling-dudes, I salute you!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A (no) climbing post

Jody, failing to tick November by a couple of days - on "Indiana Jones" 5+ at Solvalla

I was ill last weekend so that doesn't count, but I didn't climb the weekend before that, and the weather has been pish this weekend, so this is the third weekend in a row when I haven't climbed. Not that I'm counting or anything. I actually climbed quite well last time we were out (photo above) - at least by my rather hopeless normal standards . I even onsighted a route that needs a little dyno (well, 'lunge' to be technically accurate but that doesn't sound as good) in the middle. I quite shocked myself firstly by going for, secondly by hitting the crux hold, and thirdly by actually hanging it. After that I just kept going in surprise.

In past years I would have been getting all excited about the possibility of the freeze starting soon and the icefalls forming - but after the last two globally-warmed winters, I'm not holding my breath. Because Tony and I managed to rock climb outside in both January and February this year during the pathetically short and mild winter, we sort of discussed the idea of trying to go rock climbing outside during every consecutive month of the year (I have now done this from Nov. 07 to Oct. 08, but we felt that it would be more symbolic to rock climb every month of one year - i.e. 2008). Tony 'ticked' November during the first weekend of the month, but I was drinking with the Conservatives that weekend so missed out. Now I feel I have to get out and at least do one route, even if its an easy rubbish one, just so I can say that I have. Of course if the weather would like to act traditionally and start snowing and freezing - I won't complain if I fail in this rather sad quest.

On a vaguely related note; I've been told by mate that the new Finnish guidebook has finally been published and that I have a number of photos in it. This is good, although it would have been nice if the editor had informed the contributing photographers of either of these facts! I can't find any mention of the book on likely websites - although this could well be due to my hopeless Finnish. If any Finnish climbers reading this know if they're advertising the new guide anywhere - please leave me a comment as to where. Cheers. Now I have to decide whether I'm willing to pay the extortionate price of EUR 40 to see my own photos in print!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Repeal Proposition 8

The recriminations over the passing of California’s Proposition 8 roll on. The fact that the Mormon Church was central to funding the campaign in favour of the anti-gay marriage law has meant it has become the target of the ire of many gay rights campaigners. I saw this photo on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

Look at the sign of the woman on the right – both very witty and a plaintive cry at the same time.

The more I think about the issue of gay marriage, the more angry I get at those who want to stop it because the less I can understand their position - at least in the liberal democracies of the world where we claim to believe in civil rights. What consenting adults do amongst themselves when it has absolutely no impact on anyone else seems to be completely their own business. Yet the moralising right, normally so keen on getting “government out of peoples’ way” suddenly want to stick it straight back in front of them again if those people happen to be two men or two women who want to spend their lives together. The idea that this some how threaten the stability of society just seems a farcical argument to make with out the psychological explanation that the person making it has homosexual feelings themselves that they are trying not to act on. I just do not understand how two men getting married has any impact on my life at all – I am straight in the same way that I am five foot ten. I can hang out with tall people all I like, but I’m not going to start growing. Instead, letting gay people marry seems essentially a small-c conservative thing to do. It accepts the rather boring social fact that when two people who love each want to make a public commitment of fidelity to each other, this is a stable and relatively successful way for society to work.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


You know what they say - that if you put enough monkeys in front of enough typewriters, eventually one of them will write Hamlet? Of course an awful more of them won't. So it must be the same that if you give enough bored punters enough camera phones, eventually one of them will make art. Of course, others won't.

CDG from Toby A. on Vimeo.

This is my latest conceptual work that I'm calling CDG:Term1

I hope you find it as moving an emotional experience to view as I did making it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The wonders of medical science

About ten days ago I had a flu jab. For the last two days, I've been in bed feeling like death warmed up with the flu. Now I can actually walk without feeling like my legs are going to give way, but I still feel miserable. What's up with that then?

My work offers us the flu shot each year. I had it a few years ago and then got flu more times that year than I could remember ever before - two or three times through the winter having to have a day or two off work. So the next couple of years I decided not to have the shot. But by this year, I thought - "you're being irrational, that was just a statistical anomaly. Obviously they wouldn't give flu shots if on the population level, they didn't work". Now I'm doubting my rationalism again and going back to gut feeling (and indeed over the last two days - the feeling of every muscle and joint in my body) and next year no jab.

I would love for some doctor, bio-scientist or immunologist to tell me why I'm wrong.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The US election from your Helsinki Correspondent

Morning dawns over Helsinki railway station

It’s been a good day. I left the house in the dark just past 6 am, after putting up the previous post and just after California had been called for Obama giving him the majority of the electoral college. I stood at the bus stop listening to John McCain’s noble concession speech and watching the very first orange fuzz of dawn low down in the southeast. 20 minutes later I was on the bus heading in to Helsinki as Obama made his speech. The fact that he has been criticized through the campaign for being a good orator seemed all the more bizarre – it was a great speech, multi-layered with references to the Constitution and Dr King, reminding the world about what is special and good about the United States. It’s easy to be cynical and the realities of any administration will be disappointments, compromises and missed opportunities, but sitting on the bus, listening to the President Elect of the United States of America speak whilst a new day dawned over my town was a pretty magic moment. In fact it was so magical, I felt an urgent need to try to record it - to show my kids when they are older or something. So here is what the world looked like to my phone-camera as the U.S. rang out from Chicago to Helsinki and the rest of the globe.

Election morning Helsinki from Toby A. on Vimeo.

The party at one of the downtown hotels was fun; I arrived ten minutes after it had opened at 7 am and it was heaving. A bunch of my colleagues were already there quaffing coffees and munching the breakfast rolls. We all watched on one the myriad of TVs our mate Charly (who was actually a founding contributor to this blog) who was having a baptism of fire into the world of live punditry as the in-studio talking-head for Finland’s leading commercial TV network (pic right). Charly – they had the sound off dude, but you sure looked like a pro - next stop CNN, I reckon! The Finnish media was out in force and of course our ever-present and not-at-all-camera-shy foreign minister (left) was first to be interviewed talking about an exciting new period for transatlantic relations. The next excitement was provided by the President Halonen arriving with the American Ambassador (right below). Presidents of small and rather egalitarian countries like Finland still have to travel with a certain amount of razzmatazz, even if it is all rather minimal in comparison to the majesty of POTUS on the move (listen through if you have time). But I was tickled to notice that the president’s aide-de-camp, a major in full dress-uniform no less, was given her handbag to hold as she spoke to the TV crews. This is, I guess, the Finnish version of the nuclear button briefcase - just with slightly less apocalyptic potential.

H.E. Barbara Barrett, American Ambassador to Finland and H.E. Tarja Halonen, President of the Republic of Finland

I had a natter with a ‘senior American diplomat’ - which just sound so much more impressive than saying my mate who works at the Embassy - on what are the likely picks for secretary of state - go bipartisan and pick some like Luger or Hagel maybe? I like the idea I read somewhere of appointing Arnie as environment secretary. It looks like he'll get his arse kicked in California if he tries to stand again, so he might be looking for a new job and he did bring a state that is bigger than most countries into a cap and trade system.

Below is pic of Finland's foreign policy making elite; the president may be agreeing with the foreign minister that Obama asking Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense would never wash with the net-roots of Democratic Party. Or she might be saying: "if you ever beat me to the TV cameras again - I'll get my security detail to duff you up. I'm da' Prez! And don't you forget it Tory-boy..." I couldn't possibly speculate.

Congratulations to America - such a high turnout with minimal problems makes it a poster-boy for democracy once more.

Morning in Finland - party time in America!

(Photo via Reuters)
I'm pretty bad at getting up in the morning, but I woke up at 5 am with no alarm and just had to get up and turn on NPR. It was playing some jolly music that sounded faintly like the Monty Python music - Sarah Palin's theme tune perhaps?

It's looking good - even the godless atheists are winning! Hurrah!

Right - I'm off to party. The American ambassador to her credit (she's a Bush appointee) and the American Chamber of Commerce are hosting a breakfast party in Helsinki.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Live election news

The BBC is doing one of their live blog thingies that they did so well through the Olympics for the US elections. I just spotted this emailed-in comment from one of my former countrymen:
Elaine Cahill in Raleigh, North Carolina says: I just voted for the Republican ticket. Politicians like Obama are why I left England and immigrated to the USA where I was tired of paying for other people to stay on the dole.
Will Elaine blame the crappy English schooling system next for her inability to separate "immigrate" from "emigrate"? spEak You're bRanes duck, speak your branes. At least Elaine will be relieved to hear that the Republicans are supporting a better class of person being on the dole.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Gentlemen, please start your engines now.

1976 - James Hunt of Great Britain becomes Formula One world champion.
1976 - Jimmy Carter of the Democratic Party is elected to the presidency of the United States.

1992 - Nigel Mansell of Great Britain becomes Formula One world champion.
1992 - Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party is elected to the presidency of the United States.

1996 - Damon Hill of Great Britain becomes Formula One world champion.
1996 - Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party is re-elected to the presidency of the United States.

2 November 2008 - Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain becomes Formula One world champion.
4 November 2008 - ...

You can see where I'm going here can't you? :-)