Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finnish corruption: the plank edition

There might be a few readers of this blog who wouldn’t know about the “Great Finnish Election Funding Scandal of 2009”™ if they hadn’t read about it here. So with this sense of grave responsibility, I thought I should do an update. It has got worse. The latest news is the spin off “Great Finnish Birch Plank Bribery of Scandal of 2009”™. Don’t let anyone tell you that Finnish politics isn’t gripping stuff.

Actually, it is getting rather serious because YLE, the national broadcaster (think: BBC, just a lot smaller and a bit more 80s looking) dedicated a current affair programme to accusations from an anonymous source that Matti Vanhanen, the prime minister, accepted free construction material from a building firm back in the 1990s. Firstly, the PM categorically denies this. I’m no big fan of Vanhanen – his party, the Centre, is a rather alien concept to many non-Finns – but nevertheless he has been so firm in denouncing the reports I can only conclude there are two possibilities. The first is that he’s completely innocent; or secondly (and for the cynics) he knows there is no way YLE can prove it. Anything else and he is political toast.

The context is that Vanhanen is very closely associated with the foundation (for British readers I think it is actually a housing association in our terms) that is at the middle of the Centre party's recent trauma. It’s purpose is to provide housing for disadvantaged young people, and the accusation against it is that it has received money from the government owned gambling monopoly (think: National Lottery in the UK) for this, but also channelled relatively large amounts of cash to campaigns of Centre Party candidates and MPs. Vanhanen has been a board member of the foundation through his political career and its chairman during the 1990s. He has also received campaign funds from it. YLE’s mole claims that whilst he was building his own house, the now-prime minister accepted free but valuable building materials from a construction company that wanted more big building contracts from this foundation that Vanhanen chaired at the time.

As stated above, the PM totally denies this. He say the only thing he got from the company in question was a pile of birch planks that he built a book shelf from and the lumber was fully paid for. I think the PM should let the media inspect the bookshelf in question – I don’t think he can lose. If it is endearingly amateurish and wonky, the Finnish electorate would see the PM even more as the unpretentious Finnish everyman – an image he has tried to project. If the bookshelf is Germanic in its precision and looks very professional, the PM will be seen as an accomplished jack-of-all-trades: exactly the type of man you need to oversee the various and complex portfolios, egos and interests of a coalition government. We need to see your bookshelf Prime Minister! Democracy itself demands its.

I live in a country where planks might bring down the government. Go figure.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reventeenvuori Climbing (part 2)

And a some extra bonus material: Jody shows you all how to style through the crux of Kuukkeli, 5 (VS 5a-ish?)

Reventeenvuori Climbing

Sometimes things just click. We arrive at the cliff as a three so as Tony and Simon get sorted to start a route, I squeak my shoes and solo an easy climb. I don't solo much these days, too old for too much silliness, but I know this route. I know I can cam my toes into the crack, or squeak my news shoes on to its rough holds. My fingers or hands lock into the jams and I cruise easily up it. Walking back to the base of the cliff I discard my woolly hat and puff-vest and start up its sister route, another crack - this one thinner and a little more technical, but still not hard. I get back to bottom and Tony has been having a bit of trouble getting going on the route he is trying. It's a new route called Kitkakoulu or "Friction School", well named for its 25 mtrs of delicate, technical 6b granite slab climbing.

Simon starts up Kitkakoulu, F6b

The soloing has settled my nerves and warmed me up, so figuring it looks well bolted decide to give it a go. The climbing is beautiful, lots of friction padding for your feet and tickling the blank granite with your fingers - piano style - searching for any rugosities to help you pull. I surprise myself by reaching the last, slightly steeper section. Here the holds are slightly more conventional, but the rock rears up to vertical for a couple of metres before the lower-off.


I get my feet high, and stab into the thin finger jam - too much weight coming onto my little finger - from there I snatch for a edge. When I manage to get my second hand onto this I actually feel the rock flex under my weight. I throw my left to another edge slightly higher, try to breath deeply a couple of times and then spring up on to the slab and clip the lower off. Well chuffed, I lower off having done my Finnish F6b onsight - and a really good long one at that. Almost certainly it will get downgraded to 6a now!

Your correspondent on Graduaatio, 6 (thanks to Katja for taking the shots)

Next I decide to push my luck further and try Graduaatio, a trad route in the same sector that I fell off back in May. Having been on it before I had a better idea of what to do this time, although I couldn't find the decent nut I placed before on the crux. This time I made do with an RP placed in the wrong the orientation, although it gave me enough confidence to do a move above to a point where better gear can be placed. The crux move this time felt fine and I easily pulled past the crap edge that I had slapped too when I fell off and this time reached the jug above. After that it was just cruising.

The man in black (me) at the crux of Graduaatio

Next we moved down the crag to try something different. A huge amount of work has been done in the middle section with lots of new routes, both sport and trad now there for climbers.

Diana on Talkkari, 6-

Diana decided to go for a rather obvious crack. It was a struggle and turned out to be more awkward than it looked, but she made it up with a couple of rests points. Coming up second, I arrived at the belay with most of the gear I had taken out still hanging on the rope in front of me - always the sign that you had engaged in a good fight! We subsequently found out that the route is Talkkari, a 6- or E1 5b. I think it might be a bit soft for this, but it is a struggle no matter what the grade.

A few people expressed scepticism about the DMM torque nuts caming ability in horizontal cracks in connection to my recent UKC review of them. Here Diana proved the critics wrong; I had to fight with this little bugger for ages to get it to come out from there!

The crew (yep - we start 'em young!)

The next route was a good looking line of bolts going up the side of a granite tower. It looked doable and I gave it a go. I very nearly came off trying to get a quickdraw into the bolt at the crux - and actually the climbing was OK in comparison to this and I got the onsight. I'm not sure if I totally messed up the clip, or whether the bolter just has much longer arms than me. We later discovered the route has the lovely name of Pupselinos Remastered and is F6a+.

Simon on Pupselinos Remastered, F6a+

With wilting arms Diana and I decided one more route was in order and I set off up what looked like a rather odd bolted rising traverse taking the easiest line across the cliff. Not the most conventional of routes, but someone had put in huge amounts of time and effort cleaning and bolting this F4+ route called Vie Minut Vuoristokiipeilemään which takes the climber through some wild terrain above a large route and must be one of the longest routes at the crag.

Then all that was left was to go to the Matkakeidas petrol station (and Kymenlaakso institution) for dinner. The photo above was the buffet option. I went for the burger meal option which whilst boring at least didn't include a piece of salmon that someone seems to have covered custard. I'm not going to moan about Finnish food culture again though, because bad burgers or not, it was still a stonking day at that crag. Cheers all for the company and belays.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Paranoid Style (Still) In American Politics

I've finally read Richard Hofstadter classic essay from the November 1964 edition of Harper’s Magazine - the Paranoid Style in American Politics. It's one of those pieces of journalism/scholarship that I've heard about over the years (most recently in the Economist's Lexington column) but never actually got a round to looking up. I should have done so earlier because it is remarkable. Hofstadter was writing in the early 60s about the supposed plots by communists, catholics and Masons. It is a world I've only read about in James Ellroy novels, but replace the paranoia aimed at those groups with a fear of, well, socialists (still), Muslims in general and a certain "Kenyan Muslim" in particular and you have a perfect description of much of the American fringe right of today. Hofstadter was 45 years early but describes perfectly the type of thinking behind those who have been marching outside the "townhall meetings" with AR-15s over their shoulders, calling the president a communist AND a fascist for trying some healthcare reform.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

100,000 visits.

Some relaxing Northern light - with ducks for added value

I've just noticed the little hit counter at the bottom of this blog has passed 100,000 hits since I started it in 2006. Even accounting for google bots, spammers and the numerous people who come here via search engines whilst looking for "gay penguins" or "how to carry an ice axe" - that's still a huge number of people choosing to visit my blog and read my ramblings. Thank you to everyone, knowing people are actually reading this is the main reason why I keep at it.

I can't promise anything else than more semi-regular mid-grade climbing reports; a smattering of photos - some good some not; rants about people parking on cycle paths; reasonably informed opinion on the bits of international political life that I know something about and uniformed guesses about those bits that I don't know about; and my continued observations of things about Finland that amuse or annoy me - but that seems to be enough already to help you pass a few minutes of your day!

Of course if I find out anything about how gay penguins carry ice axes I will let you all know.

More Finnish corruption

I've given up on trying to think of another word for it, so corruption it is. This is a quick look at what is currently rocking the Helsinki political scene for the non-Finnish politics geeks:
  1. The state taxes the poor and stupid by having a monopoly on slot machines in the form of an "association" called RAY .
  2. The head of RAY is appointed according to a stitch-up between the political parties.
  3. RAY then gives money to charitable foundations to do charitable works.
  4. Some charitable foundations decided that charitable work included funding political campaigns such as that of the Prime Minster when he ran for the the presidency.
  5. The head of one of the foundations that gets money from RAY and that also funnels money to politicians, used to be the administrative director of RAY. So, nothing dubious there then.
  6. The chair of the foundation that is most at question, Nuorisosäätiö, is also a Centre Party MP. The foundation he chairs himself gave him money for his municipal, national and Euro political campaigns. So ABSOLUTELY nothing dubious there then.
So have I forgotten anything?

STT reports that in comments to reporters at the airport today: "[Prime Minister Matti] Vanhanen went on to fault the overall atmosphere of the Finnish election campaign funding debate. 'Everything has been somehow rendered morally suspect'."

I wonder why Matti?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The EU wants your babies for war

So the EU's web "portal" (that sounds so 90s doesn't it) Europa has had a make-over, theoretically making it easier to find the stuff you need from the millions of pages they have. This is what now it looks like:

Blah, blah, blah... all for the good I'm sure. But I want to know what the hell is going on with the little Euro silhouette people down at the bottom of the page? Check this screen grab:

Now lets zoom in on those kids:

So what the hell is with baby number three? I'm telling you - that is a baby in a kevlar with night vision attached:

So that is what the ESDP is all about: the EU wants your kids for the battlefields of Afghanistan. Someone better tell the Irish No Campaign.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More Finnish election funding scandal

Finland has had a good rep for years of being an open, honest and transparent sort of place where corruption doesn't exist. Having a job on the margins of the Helsinki political scene, I keep seeing things that seem to contradict this. I guess there is very little out and out corruption - backhanders of used banknotes stuffed into brown envelopes and that sort of thing - but there is a hell of lot of cosy little deals, unwritten rules, and you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours that goes on. If parties have some involvement, you're left never really knowing why any decision was made and you end up paranoid that the given reason for something can't possibly be the real reason. So, just like politics anywhere else in the world I guess.

But the continuing party funding scandal rumbles on as it has been all summer. And I was looking for some Finnish opinions on how some of it is being reported. YLE reports that the speaker of parliament is returning money from the dodgy company Nova Group that is at the heart of this scandal. But the article also mentions that another conservative MP, Marja Tiura, has returned some money. But perhaps more interestingly it notes that Tiura denied earlier that Nova Group had paid for her to go to Thailand, but is now admitting that they did pay. YLE are perhaps to polite to say, but did she lie previously? Or is she claiming to have been confused or mistaken or similar? This is, after all, a week where lying has been quite big political news.

YLE rather deliciously underplays the final section: that Tiura's husband, who just happened to be the head of YLE's political news section, has also stepped down from his position. I don't think you have to be particularly cynical to wonder whether these events are somehow connected.

Update: Helsingin Sanomat International has more on the story. Tiura seems to be saying when she denied Nova Group paying earlier on, she actually just didn't know who had paid. That isn't quite the same thing, is it? They have a bit more on her husband stepping down as well - you sort of feel sorry for him. I bet things are a bit frosty in their house right now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Britain in Afghanistan

I'm trying to write a short and basic descriptive piece for work about the British military presence in Afghanistan and the debate over it back in the UK. I've been using the BBC's excellent, if very sad, webpages that keep track of all the fatalities with pictures of those who have died and links to stories about them. Just tonight whilst I've been working on the piece, two more as yet unnamed soldiers have been added to that already too long list. No real point to make tonight beyond just how sad it is. And behind each one of those numbers there is a story that we should try to remember.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More Kauhala-Kakarsberget photos.

I went back to Kakarsberget in Kauhala today for another session of getting exhausted pulling on sharp little holds. It felt autumnal with yellow leaves swirling down from the birch trees although you could still climb in a t-shirt.

This video clip is of Dave on a great little trad route called Muuvipeikko, Finnish 5- or about British VS 4c.

Below are a couple of photos of the route. It's a really good one.

Muuvipeikko 5-

The crux of Muuvipeikko

I also tried to repeat a new route called "the Pool Cleaner Guy". It's meant to be 5 (about HVS) but I hope it's harder than that because I got spanked on my onsight and eventually had to grab a bit of gear - a 3CU that totally surprised me by actually staying in. After lowering off, Dave went up and did it and found more hard moves and not completely convincing gear to go with it. I reckon at least 5+ but maybe even a touch harder - a very nice route though that goes from big burly fist cracks down at the bottom, to delicate finger tips up at the top.

Dave at the crux of The Pool Cleaner Guy (5+?)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Things are getting cheaper

I was flicking through an old climbing mag recently and happened on an article on ice screws. The article was in the March 1994 copy of Climber. Now I have a scanner, you can read it by clicking on the images below if you want, but what really jumped out was the prices listed. Keep in mind this was 15 years ago but the recommended retail price of the screws that are still on the market, is now lower than it was a decade and a half ago.

Check out the prices on the page below, Black Diamond turbos, at an RRP of fifty quid. Checking out Needlesports, they're currently selling the Turbos at GBP 35 for 19 cms. You can get the Turbo Expresses (that didn't exist in 1994) for 50. Charlet Lasers are still on the market as well. In 1994 their RRP was 35 quid and it remains that now, despite 15 years of inflation.

Firstly this makes a point that many of the youngsters on UKC don't seem very convinced of: that actually the outdoor industry is pretty good value. Secondly, it makes some much bigger point. A HUGE one probably - about patterns of manufacturing in a transnational economy, about the power of containerisation, about the impact of computing power on engineering industries and just-in-time stock delivery systems. All that globalisation stuff. And that ice screws aren't really that expensive even if they seem like they are.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What do the EDL want to be?

Various bits of the British blogosphere and old media have been following with interest the development of and developments around the English Defence League (EDL). The best coverage I've seen has been in the ever superb Bartholomew's Notes on Religion. Much of debate has been around whether the EDL is the "far right" or not. The connections of this rather nebulous organisation's leaders have been one point of investigation down this path - particularly whether they have connections to established British far right groups such as the BNP or NF. I'm not actually sure how important that classification is. EDL leaders have stated they are not a racist organisation although their statements made in an interview (conducted, incidentally, by a visiting American Christian-right activist with a history of homophobia and with the EDL chaps wearing NI-paramilitary style balaclavas) give plenty of grist for anyone who wants to dispute this. There is a very obvious football casual culture and skinhead connection to the group as well, and I imagine that the Brum police will see a few known faces in the crowds from the national soccer hooliganism files. The organisation's mission is quite clear, they are against Islam in the UK - rather than having a more specific target of Islamists or radicals - so they don't seem very keen on any individual Muslims generally. Choose your own word to describe that.

What I found most interesting were two of the pictures that came out of the Brum demo: firstly, on the Daily Mail website, showing a bunch of shaven headed guys surrounded by cops, holding aloft the Israeli flag (scroll down). Pro-Israeli expression is now pretty common amongst far right groups and political parties across Europe, reflecting the centrality of their anti-Muslim discourse domestically. But also amongst the EDL crowd, other shaven headed young men were seen doing Hitler salutes, giving a very different impression. If the EDL attracts people of latter bent, they will alienate potential sympathisers in the former camp. This makes them an interesting British example of a tension in the radical right visible in lots of other European countries.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

2000 kms and counting

OK, so you can't actually see much in the above photo, so you'll just have to trust me. That was taken just as my cycle computer clicked past the 2000 km mark - the distance I've done so far this year commuting to work and back (I've racked up another couple of hundred 'k's biking for fun, off and on road). I generally average about 25 kmph whilst commuting, so that 80 hours of this year that I've spent pounding the pedals on the cycle path network of the Greater Helsinki area. You can now start to see why I can bore just about anyone with my in depth policy analysis of the place of cycling in the capital's integrated transport planning. I've had plenty of time to think about it.

Today's commute highlight was stopping to scrump apples for this evening's chokeberry and apple jam making session.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Useless berries?

Until I moved house a few years ago, I had never heard of bloody chokeberries. Now my garden overflows with the little buggers. If anyone has interesting suggestions about what to do with them, do tell (and do you like my "Terrorist teapot" lurking menacingly in the background?).

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Kakarsberget, Kauhala: "Grand Opening"

Yesterday was the official "opening day" for the "new" crag of Kakarsberget in Kauhala, Kirkkonummi. Of course you can't really have an opening day for a cliff anyone can go to at any time, and it's not exactly new as the first climbs were done at Kakarsberget in the early 90s (I first climbed there in 1997) - but nevertheless it was still a fun event. Kakarsberget is perhaps the Helsinki region's most forgotten crag. Lots of people seem to have been there over the years and thought - "there's a lot of rock here!", maybe top roped a line or two, and then promptly forgot about the crag, or never went back. I did my first ever rock climb in Finland there in April 97 - Vesa and I had been ice climbing at the much better known icefalls on the other side of the valley and stumbled through the snow and trees to find the cliffs, plus evidence of other climbers in the form of a few bolts scattered about for top anchors. We climbed one easy crack line - my introduction to Finnish climbing: pulling lumps of moss off and digging out the crack with my nut key.

(click on any photo for a bigger version)

The view from the top of Kakarberget cliffs

I made a few visits early in this decade, and then in 2005 a bunch of us went and climbed a collection of routes, thinking they had been climbed before but perhaps some of them hadn't. Last summer I went back with Simon and found a new, mysterious sports line bolted at the far right of the cliff. It turned out that another bunch of Helsinki climbers had begun visiting the cliff again and saw its potential. Kimpi, Ossi, Jan, the two Peters and others have put in loads of effort, cleaning and bolting - but perhaps most importantly getting a great access agreement from the landowners, Helsinki Recreation Department - perhaps the best landowners climbers could want.

Vaccinium myrtillus - bilberries

Kimpi is now maintaining the Kakarsberget website where all the (excellent and easy to use) topos can be downloaded for free. The new enthusiasm inspired me and I've cleaned and added a few new routes, and Jody has cleaned and improved by removing some loose blocks - his route from 2005; now renamed Ruuvipenkki 6- (see photo below).

Apologies to climber pictured above making an onsight attempt (unfortunately wet holds necessitated a rest) because I didn't catch your name!

In particular the guys have really realised the full potential of what is now Sector 3 (see pic above for a sense of size) - a wall up higher up the slope and further north than the main area (sectors 1 and 2). Along with a few decent trad routes, this wall now has probably the best concentration of mid-grade sports routes in the capital region. They're aren't too high, and they aren't too steep but you better bring your best 'fingers of steel' and tidy footwork. Jody put in a very impressive effort yesterday onsighting Peter Holmberg's rather smart new 6b, Näkkileipä, without even doing a warm up first.

Avaruushissi, 5+/6- (photo above) is one of Sector III's trad routes. I tried onsighting this in 2005, and got totally spanked and was rather sceptical of Ossi's suggested 5+ for a the grade (around UK HVS or E1) after his first ascent, but Mr. X who did is yesterday reckoned it was around that grade.

Avaruushissi again. The rock is still settling down a bit in this area, it's very good quality and interestingly featured granite, but as with all climbs that have only seen a couple of ascents, expect the odd few crumbly edges for you feet.

Another view of Sector 3 above. The weather wasn't perfect yesterday, with rain the night before meaning a few wet patches, slightly muddy underfoot and holds feel a bit greasy - suggesting that autumn is well on its way. But the crag has been bone dry for much of this summer, so don't be put off by current conditions. Kakarberget is quite a shady crag, so its not a bad mid-summer place to escape the heat.

Yesterday's organising stars had even arranged a raffle for everyone who turned up to try the climbs! Two of the lucky winners are above. Below is a video of me doing a first ascent last weekend:

And if all of that wasn't enough to tempt people to go and try the routes, Kakarberget's final attraction - some superb berry picking. Blueberry pie anyone?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

ABC's "Rear Vision" on Lockerbie

Rear Vision from ABC, the Australian national broadcaster, is a consistently excellent radio programme. It really is adult reporting at its best - find real experts on a subject, set the historical context, and let them talk.

Last week they re-ran their 2007 Lockerbie bombing programme with some updates reflect Megrahi's recent release. What comes out from the programme, particularly in the comments of Prof. Robert Black, was the systemic weaknesses in the set up of the Scottish legal process at Camp Zeist, and how that seems to have enabled outside parties - the US, UK and Libyan governments - to influence the trial. Whatever one thinks of both the conviction and release on compassionate grounds of Megrahi, it is well worth a listen. You can also subscribe to Rear Vision via iTunes.

On the same subject, also well worth reading is STRATFOR's piece on why the evidence for Megrahi's guilt is stronger than some suppose. Unfortunately Stratfor's writers specifically do not look at the reliability of Tony Gauci's evidence at the trial, questions about which are now central to those who have concerns over the safety of the conviction.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Conscription politics

I noticed a little news article last week, from the STT wire, which I've been meaning to write about for ages. The new commander of the Finnish defence forces, General Ari Puheloinen, stated that Finland's wartime force numbers are going to fall due to budget cuts and demographic changes. General Puheloinen mentions the magic 250,000 number. Now 250,000 men under arms sounds and huge amount, and indeed it is. But currently Finnish wartime forces are meant to be an incredible 350,000 men. If you ask Finnish military officers and senior people in the MoD what they think about this, they seem willing to say even on the record that it is a bit of a joke. Finland has a reserve military, so to get to that sort of number you would be calling up reservists in their 40s who haven't had any contact with the military for decades and its questionable what weapons there would be for them to use, even if they could remember how to use them. If there ever was a war, the real defence would be based on the air force, navy and the so-called readiness brigades of Kainuu, Pori and Karelia. These brigades would account for less than a tenth of that number but would have the best equipment, and the best trained and youngest reservists.

I've written before about how Finnish conscription isn't really about the military, they can't say it publicly but off the record there are some (but by no means all) officers and policy makers who support professionalisation and getting rid of conscription. But support for conscription remains so high in the public, and hence amongst politicians, I really don't see this happening soon. My oldest son has well over a decade before he gets called up, but there is a good chance things won't have changed much by the time he is old enough.

The General's comments are interesting because clearly the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF) know that they can't run a serious military under the current structure (one foreign military attaché described the Finnish systems as antiquated and poor, saying the FDF simply couldn't run modern combined arms operations because the airforce can do next to nothing in support of ground forces). There are three major upgrades process coming up in the next couple of decades as equipment in the air force, navy and army all becomes obsolete and MoD planners will tell anyone willing to listen about military inflation - that all weapons systems are getting more and more expensive. There appears to be no public support for more of the budget being spent on defence, so the FDF knows they need to make do with what they've got. And they seem to think that this means less men and more machines but the public and politicians feel differently.

The irony is 250,000 remains a massive amount of men, and so far they still can't get even that past the politicians. Civilian democratic control of the military is wonderful thing but if the military are the experts on this war-stuff, its worth listening to what they actually have to say on the matter.

Here's the Finnish army deployed in central Helsinki (snapped from a passing tram) they are involved in an important military activity - shaking charity collecting tins. Ho hum.