Thursday, February 26, 2009

Empty tram

I've found free public wireless whilst sitting a bus stop in downtown Helsinki. This would be cool if it wasn't midnight, cold, damp and I hadn't just come direct from the office, and I wasn't still desperately writing trying to hit a deadline for tomorrow. So actually blogging from a bus stop in the sleet is kinda sad. But hurray for Helsinki public WLAN.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The most dangerous place in the world"

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have an interest in Somalia. There is an excellent article explaining Somalia's recent history and current desperate situation by Jeffrey Gettleman of the NYT in this week's Foreign Policy magazine.

Print a copy off and read it during your coffee break. It's a fine example of clarity and approachability in dealing with a complex story that will give you a solid introduction to this sad country.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A different kind of hemorrhage

Heard on Left, Right and Center from KCRW: the number of Americans losing their healthcare coverage due to the current financial crisis is 14 000 a day.

That's nuts. Surely this will have to have major implications for future American healthcare policy?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to learn to tour-skate

Waiting for the couple of people slower than me to cross the line.

Tour skating, or long distance skating on lake or sea ice has become really popular in recent years in Finland, mainly as an import from Sweden it seems. I've never done it, always thinking it looked fun but never quite getting around to finding out more. But now I have, and this is how I learnt:

1) Sign up for the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio
2) Hire skates
3) Drive 400 kms to Kuopio
4) Work out how skates attach to boots
5) Get on the start line for the 50 km race with ski poles
6) Skate 50 kms
7) Come in at a very credible not-quite-last-position
8) Take lots of ibuprofen
9) Decide the ibuprofen alone isn't cutting it and drink large amounts of beer
10) Sleep very soundly and ache a bit the next day.

Please note: there may be other and better ways to learn how to tour skate.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Phrase of the day

I've been reading too much Security Studies theory today, and somehow this made me laugh.
"BYO Subtext"
Joss Wehdon interview by David Bianculli on Fresh Air, NPR.

He was talking about lesbianism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it works for constructivist international relations theory as well I think.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Police on drugs

A year and a bit ago I was interested to read that the Iraqi police were on drugs, but now it looks like the Afghan police are too. The BBC reports that the British FCO reckon 60 percent of the cops in Helmand are drug users, although on World Service this morning they were talking to a former senior American official in Afghanistan who was saying it's probably not as bad as it sound, because some of them will just be smoking dope as opposed to being heroin addicts. So that's fine then.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The plague terrorist takedown

(Photo - some dodgy terrorists with really snotty noses, hence massive handkerchiefs)
Some years ago for work I looked in some depth into the idea of "WMD terrorism". In the early part of this decade, Jihadi terrorism seemed unbounded in its brutality, someone had sent weapons grade Anthrax through the US postal service and CNN found footage in an abandoned Afghan camp of al Qaeda people gassing dogs. It all seemed so possible and hence utterly terrifying. But the scary thing was, the more you dug, the more crap you found you were digging through. And I don't mean scary crap, I mean just simple common or garden bullshit. The concept of WMD became virtually meaningless through sloppy over-use in global discourse. I remember hearing a normally sensible and grounded former US marine general on NPR call ricin WMD and just thinking the world was going nuts. Ricin is as much a WMD as bullets are. Some American terrorism 'experts' still go on about "European ricin plots", seemingly unaware that in court case after court case these claim have virtually all turned out to be nothing. American neo-Nazis were messing about with ricin in the 80s, but nobody ever accused them of plotting Armageddon. The collapse of the Bush Administration's claim that the Saddam regime had WMDs, and wanted to give them to al-Qaeda, had a lot to do with the slow retrenchment of the world's media from the story. But every once in while once these stories pops up again like a fart in a bath.

I remember seeing the story about AQIM fighters dying from the plague in Algeria a few weeks ago and didn't pay much attention. I've researched quite a lot on the Algerian situation in the past and soon learnt that vast amounts of what you read about terrorism in that country is crap. The agendas of many different actors make sorting out fact from fiction pretty hard when it comes from Algeria, and the idea that AQIM (the former GSPC) were messing around in mini-biolabs with bubonic plague seemed far-fetched to say the least. What I hadn't realised at the time was that the story came from the Sun. If you read the Sun to get your info on jihadist movements, you deserve everything you get. I noticed just two weeks back that even whilst the bodies were still lying in the open in Victoria, the Sun was suggesting that it might have been terrorist 'what done it' with the bushfires. They won't just scrape the bottom of the barrel, rather attacking it with a chisel and mallet. But whilst reading around on some other North Africa related issues in the last couple of days, I've come across some really quite impressive takedowns of the story by some quality bloggers.

So first off check The Sun Lies for a rather in-depth fisking of the story. The Armchair Generalist has a very good overview of why it is all bollocks and even finds an Algerian doctor writing in a medical journal who notes that the Algerian medical profession thinks it's bollocks too (although I'm sure the good doctor would use slightly more technical language). The Generalist sticks with the story coming back a few weeks later to note that the Algerian health ministry and WHO are also both voting for the "bollocks" option. Jihadica has an interesting post looking at this along with other very unlikely stories from recent times about al Qaeda - Thomas writes:
Let me start by congratulating the journalist on being able to fit the four words “al-Qaida”, “gay”, “rape” and “horror” in one and the same headline in the world’s largest English-language newspaper.
Journalism of that 'quality' - it just makes you proud to be British. OK, so maybe I'm missing a 'not' from that last sentence.

(You might also be interested in this earlier post on related matters)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A pictures tells a few dozen words

Toby (me) climbing, Simon belaying and thanks to Tony for snapping.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Diversifying Harry

(Photo: Prince Harry in one of his better moments, on active service in Afghanistan) Years ago, I think I was in Manchester - so that's like eight years back at least, I was listening to Nicky Campbell on FiveLive. For some reason they were discussing the then still rather young Prince Harry. To their amusement, they found out that the girl who was doing work-experience with them had a best friend who went to school with Harry. So they got her on mike and Nicky asked the immortal question - live, of course - "what does your friend think of Prince Harry?" Without hesitation she replied that he didn't like him at all, he is really racist and is always going on about "Pakis". A brief stunned silence descended on the studio, before Campbell in a slightly forced upbeat manner said something along the lines of "umm, errr, interesting. Now! Lets go to the travel news!" I was quite surprised that the next day this wasn't front page news in the tabloids, but perhaps it just shows tabloid hacks are actually working mid-morning and not listening to talk radio.

So, it is perhaps no surprise that Harry in recent months has shown himself to be such an insentitive prat. Maybe, as some of his defenders claim, he isn't actually racist. This is quite possible, but of course if he isn't racist, he very clearly is immensely stupid and insensitive to other peoples feelings and his own public position.

So I just love the idea that Harry is being sent on a diversity course. As someone who has, in the last year, had to sit through too numerous management training sessions and the like, due to a minor crisis in the workplace, I'm pretty certain that these type of consultant run sessions are at least the third circle of hell. The Prince clearly deserves to suffer the experience.

Anastasia Baburova - anti-fascist hero

I occasionally find the obituaries in the Economist quite affecting, often when not expecting it. This week's, for Anastasia Baburova, was once such. Baburova, a young brave investigative journalist, was gunned down last month in broad daylight in central Moscow whilst walking with Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer. She tried to tackle the assasin of Markelov, who simply killed her as well. No one in government has even expressed their condolences. Human rights lawyers who defend Chechen rape victims, and reporters who report their stories, clearly aren't worth much sympathy to the powers that be in the Kremlin.

It is a fine obituary for a brave young woman:
In Turgenev’s poem “The Threshold”, a young woman stands before a door. A voice asks whether she is prepared to endure cold, hunger, mockery, prison and death, all of which await her on the other side. She says “Yes” to everything, and steps over. “A fool,” cries a voice from behind her. “A saint,” suggests another.
She deserves such fine words, but 25 years is far too early to hear them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Gaza-Egypt border

A screen grab of the Rafah crossing from Google Earth. The Philipdelphi corridor is visible as the obvious straight line (click for a bigger version).

Of all the dimensions to the Gaza war of last month, I've always thought that one that was worst reported was the Egyptian - Gaza border, and hence the Egyptian Palestinian relationship. I became interested in how the 14 kms of the border between Gaza and Egypt worked a couple of years ago when looking into how the blockade worked. I couldn't figure out how the Israelis could blockade Gaza when only controlling three of the four sides of the territories. Whilst Israel occupied Gaza, the IDF maintained a few hundred metres wide strip along the Gazan side of the border, the Philadelphi corridor, meaning that in effect they control all sides of Gaza, but it was handed to the Egyptians in 2005 during the settlement evacuation. I'm not certain, but I don't think the Egyptians ever patrolled on the Gaza side, instead letting the PA take control until the Hamas coup kicked them out. The EU had a mission - EUBAM (I can't help think of Bam Bam of Flintstones fame...) - which was meant to neutrally run the Rafah crossing, but they had to get there from Israel into Gaza and the Israelis would block them getting into Gaza at one of the other crossing points when they wanted Rafah closed. EUBAM were still twiddling their thumbs in Askelon, waiting for someone to tell them to go back to Rafah last time I looked.

So they Egyptians have just built a bloody great wall along the border with Gaza, hence all the tunnels underneath it. Anyway, File on Four on BBC Radio 4 have done a pretty good programme looking at Egypt's role in the Gaza crisis (download the podcast whilst you can). It doesn't cover everything, like political instability in the Sinai, but it's a very good primer. It also shows the hypocrisy of many of the Arab regimes - they allow at times strident, ugly anti-Israel rhetoric as a pressure valve on their oppressed domestic constituency who have no real democratic say, whilst actually do very little to help the Palestinians.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sort of crap weather

A path, now covered in a few centimetres of pure, bone-snapping, ice.

Helsinki does at times do a good line in really uncooperative weather. I'm amazed at how long for example it can rain in midwinter on to previously fallen snow at temperatures just above freezing, making everything knee deep in slush, BUT not actually managing to wash that slush away. But even worse than ankle deep slush during this type of weather are the pavements. On the pavements and well traveled paths, where the snow has been packed down, this kind of horrible just around freezing rain, packs and smooths it even more, making it into slick, glassy, water covered ice. And then the winds will swing back to the north or east, the temperature will drop and everything will freeze once more, in effect turning large parts of the city into an ice rink/death trap. Walking from the bus stop to the office becomes a gamble where broken bones await the loser.

Yesterday actually dawned bright, sunny and cheery, but even stepping off the front porch was something of a challenge:

Monday, February 09, 2009


Strikers and braziers for the 21st century

Classic 70s - when unions were unions and governments were nervous

What is it about strikes and braziers? You never normally see people standing around an old oil drum with various burning logs in it, but as soon as they go on strike these things magically appear. Where do they come from? I never see old, lidless oil drums hanging around, but they always seem to be wherever the industrial action is. Does some entrepreneur cleverly monitor union website chat rooms, ready to load up his transit van with blackened and holed drums and get on the scene at the mere mention of the word "wildcat"?

And is it just a British thing or do the workers of the world stand around braziers as they confront the bourgeoisie and owners of the means of production?

I perhaps worry about such matters too much.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I hope you find what you are looking for friend....

Occasionally I check out how readers come to this blog. You can see what link they clicked to get here; often this is from search results on Google. Today someone visited after googling: + gay

I don't even get why that would find this blog - the search found my gay penguins post of some years back, but what that has to do with presumably Italian beards, I have no idea.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

American Hero

I forgot to post something about the amazing bit of flying that put Flight 1549 down safely in the Hudson river last month. But just listen to the utter the calmness of all concerned on the released tapes of the radio between the ATC and the pilots.

If you are going to be in a plane crash you want someone with a such a fantastic name as Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III as your pilot. Somehow, I just think you would know it was all going to be ok with a man with that name at the helm.

If you haven't heard Garrison Keillor's "Pilot Song" in Cpt. Sullenbergers's honour - do. It's here.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Very belated New Year cycling geekdom post

I just realised I forgot to do an end of year how-many-kms-have-I-ridden-this-year post at the New Year as I have in past years. So here it is I yet again failed to quite do 3000 kms but got reasonably close with 2,730 kms, and I beat the 2006 record by a couple of hundred kms and the 2007 record by a massive 22 kms!

If any eagle-eyed readers notes the figures above don't add up to 2730 kms that is because I reset the odometre when I got my new bike last summer - so I had already done 1400 by August.

Here is a few bit of phone video of the some of the first 100 kms I've now ridden of 2009.