Saturday, January 30, 2010

Finland doesn't work (3)

Despite being a regular listener to the BBC's "From our own correspondent" for many, many years, I don't think I've heard a story from my home town - Helsinki - before. So it was good to hear one this week - Nick Higham looks at the controversial new music hall and points out the old one, well, doesn't work and never really has. I'm not sure if I've written about it here before, but I'm inclined to agree with Leif Jakobson the new head of the Finnish Arts Council, quoted in the FOOC piece as saying that there are plenty of other places they could have used. The new music hall is one of those sort of high culture temples that there is always money to build because a certain class in the capital supports it. Perhaps 'class' is the wrong word - I don't mean "the bourgeoisie" - more the political class (the music hall is literally across the road from the Parliament). It's a white elephant to national pride. Meanwhile our kindergarten has one teacher looking after 30 odd kids because they can't get anyone in for sick cover. It's a cheap shot, sure. But it's true as well.

I wouldn't have necessarily gone back to the whole "Finland doesn't work" thing, but the BBC reminded me and I liked this Hesari headline from earlier in the week: "Yet another flood in Helsinki".

...Oh, and the trains have broken down again.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Disarming military conscription

(Your country needs you... to stand around in the cold a lot. An honour guard of some sort outside the Presidential Palace, snapped from the tram)

The politics of the Finnish conscription system, I have to admit, is something of a specialist interest of mine. I guess if you're a 17 year old Finnish bloke looking at giving up the next 6 months of your life to the fatherland, its kinda interesting - but less so for the other 99.9% of the world's population. Nevertheless, YLE reports an interesting statement that the President made Monday, opening a National Defence Course - a common venue for making major policy proposals on defence and security related issues. YLE reports:
"[President] Halonen [stated] both international and national defence scenarios had changed sufficiently in nature to allow for a common training period at the start of both military and civilian national service. Following an initial common training period, both forms of service would carry on as before".
I have a chapter in my PhD where I argue that the Finnish military conscription system has very little do with the military defence of Finland, and far more to do with reproducing ideas of what it is to be Finnish. It seems that the President agrees, even if she wouldn't put it in those words, as the suggestion seems to be that basic training in the Finnish army now doesn't need to have anything to do with being a soldier because it will be done by conscientious objectors as well who want nothing to do with being a soldier. That's kinda weird isn't it?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things that we forgot when it was warm

When the thermometer hit -26 last night I should have texted Tony and called it off, but kidded myself thinking it will warm up during the day. Lets go local, maybe just top rope some mixed lines. Gymnastics to keep you warm. It's -24 when I wake up and Tony arrives efficiently early in the grey half-light of dawn. The sun is up when we get to the lake, but offers no warmth. As we leave the car to snowshoe across the lake to the crag, the car thermometer is saying -25. Och well, we're here now. Lets go do something.

Swing, crack, BOOM. A 25 metre high cascade of ice vibrates from deep inside to the first impact of my ice tool. Hmmmm, bad vibes - literally. The ice is dull and dense in the deep cold, lifeless in comparison the moist sparkle of new ice just a little below freezing point. The monopoints of my crampons puncture the ice but the secondary points fail to gain much purchase on it's hard shell. One foot pops when I'm just a metre or so up. They refuse to provide the secure feeling you normally find on ice that is less than vertical.

Once my feet get up to level with the first scars left by my tools I use them like foot holds, the cracked away ice giving more grip to the crampons. Looking down at the boulders below I place the first screw. Fortunately I sharpened them somewhat obsessively last weekend and they bite in dense ice, but winding in them take a lot of pressure, the cold steel finding much friction against the cold ice. The little winder handle on the scew hanger is useless, and I have to push my weight against the whole hanger itself. My finger have gone completely numb by this point. It's a dumb place to try and stop but it would be dumber still to climb on. I brace my shoulder against the rock on the left and let go of my tools. I pull my fingers out of the finger sections of the gloves and ball my fist inside the palm section of the gloves. I squeeze warm blood painfully into my finger tips, push my fingers back fully into the gloves and climb on. Another few metres, more squealing, cracking, brittle ice - its fractures fracture my cool. Another screw battled in for the nerves, another finger-warming session balanced on front points that I don't really trust. And on again.

-25 and no wind = perfect snowflakes

No soaking up the view, no leaning back out good placements, calmly shaking out one arm at time whilst enjoying the exposure. Just constant 3D risk management - is this tool good? How far did fracture line go? Read the ice. Will that dinnerplate if I use it for my feet? Hit the concave, avoid the convex. Feet up onto the slab. Balance. Stamp those points in. Rest. Fingers bad again, toes not feeling good either. One more screw and then on to the top. Tie myself to a tree. No contentment. Just survival. It's a nice little fall, but should be the sort of thing I'd happily solo. But not today, not at -25.


And then the hotaches. My fingers are in vice. Now they're in boiling water. Now someone is using a staple gun on them. I yell obscenities, I fight the urge to piss myself. The enzymes flood the capillaries in my fingers, my fingers are pulsing - the pain lessens and you tell yourself this is good thing. No frostbite today, but 12 hrs later my fingers still feel it.

Don't blow the ice out of screws at -25. That white stuff at the top of the hanger had until seconds previously been the outer layer of skin on my lips

Tony comes up and we discuss setting up a top rope to try one of the harder lines, but he has just seconded in his duvet and still isn't completely warmed up after getting chilled belaying me. We rap off and split for the car and café.

We reckon it's three or four winters since we last went out when it was below -20, climbed, and then promised we'd never do anything so silly again. Perhaps that's about how long it takes to forget.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ellroy in Afghanistan, or conspiracies we can believe in.

As I’ve no doubt tediously mentioned in the past, I’m a James Ellroy fan. At Christmas I bought his most recent book, Blood's a Rover. It is the third part of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy – a sort of alternative history to American history in the 1950s and 60s. A couple of years ago I re-read the second in part of the trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand, and decided that it is one of my favourite books. I then decided I should re-read the first part of the trilogy as well, American Tabloid, so ordered at copy of my own realising I must have borrowed it from someone originally. I finished this re-read just a couple of days back: a dark and wonderful whirl of Cuban exiles, corrupt FBI men, killing-krazed klansmen, ridiculous and violent Mafioso, sleazy lounge singers and brutal gun slingers. Jack the hair, Bobby the dark knight, Fidel the beard, J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Ruby and his dogs all get walk-on roles. Everyone lies, everyone cheats, nothing is at it seems. Forces are in play and those who know about them have no wish to stop them. The denouement, of course, takes place at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, as shots ring out from the Texas book depository.

The vortex of interests and conspiracies are so richly entwined, having finished it I thought I might read the first and last chapters of The Cold Six Thousand for a third time, just to remind myself before diving in to Blood’s a Rover. Of course, it seemed silly to stop after just the first chapter so I’m now 100 pages and will re-read it all once more, just to really be warmed up for the final and supposedly masterful part of this dark trilogy. You just have to keep reminding yourself that this is fiction, and fiction from a depraved-if genius-mind, not history. We were talking about the Bildeberg conspiracy today, and how this old chestnut refuses to die. Probably sooner or later Google will lead a true believer to this post and they can tell me how I have been suckered by the deep forces of global Jewish bankers, space alien lizards or whatever their particular take is on how to explain this ridiculous world where far less goes to plan than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. Ellroy’s story of Mob/CIA/Cuban exile complicity in the murder of a president is just that. A story. Maybe his story is going in the right direction, maybe it is not, but it remains a tale not history.

Conspiracies are easy ways to understand the world; if 9/11 was an inside job, we don’t need to bother ourselves with understanding how the duelling attempts at nation-building between the House of Saud and Shia clerical dictators of Post-Revolutionary Iran amplified, in different ways, old trends of Islamic radicalism. Or how the fuse was lit under those New York skyscrapers by US-USSR rivalry that turned the Cold War into a hot one in far off land that we cared little about when our soldier weren’t dying in the dust of Helmand province. All these things are beside the point if 9/11 was an attempt to deprive American citizens of their rights by dark forces inside their own government, or even simply insurance fraud by the buildings’ owner. Conspiracies give easy answers.

But Ellroy’s visions of conspiracy: opportunistic actors with get-rich-quick schemes or dogmatic idealists and a fuck-you attitude to those in their way, sometimes moving in parallel with those who share those interests, or who can be paid enough to pretend they do, does have parallels in the America of the modern world. When the Pentagon pays security companies that then pay-off the Taliban, or other dope-slinging Afghan warlords, to protect their Afghan trucks, you get into Ellroy territory. Add in an Afghan-American owner of one of those trucking companies (who just happens to also be son of the Afghan defence minister who is himself a former CIA-supported mujahideen) who on the side runs an influential Washington based campaigning group for US-Afghan relations and we are more Ellroy-esque. Scrape at the surface of that lobbying group a bit more and see that it was set up on the advice of one of the most influential Washington legal and lobbying firms and you can dig it hep-cats – très Ellroy. And let’s not forget that on the board of Mujahideen Jr.’s trucking firm sits one of the most respected former CIA old Afghan hands. And what with Langley subcontracting its worldwide hit squad plan to a shadowy mercenary company, with various 'interesting' Christian right political linkages, and we are just beaucoup Ellroy. But groove on this- it’s all for real.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Angelniemi ice

A few pictures from climbing at Angelniemi on Sunday.

Choose your weapon

Jody on the steep

Dave cruising the hack

Dave's collections of comedy runners (look carefully, yes- that is a tied-off downward pointing dead branch)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Finland doesn't work (2)

I don't normally go back to my previous posts, but my "Finland doesn't work" entry from last week now has three very interesting comments left by a Finn, a Brit and a Spaniard who lives in the UK and regularly visits Finland, respectively. All three comments are well worth reading if the original post was of interest to you, and thanks to the three chaps concerned for taking the time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First cycling of the year

First cycle ride into work of the year today; hard work with lots of soft snow about but still very pretty with all the trees laden with snow.

Start as you mean to go on: just like all through last year the customers of the Wanha Apteekki Café were blocking the pavement and cycle path again. Happy New Year to you to.

Last years mileage: 3032 kms commuting; 158 kms off-road mountain biking; 85 kms on the road bike. A grand total of 3275 kms ridden. That's my best effort since 2005!

Monday, January 11, 2010


A few photos from a weekend of snowshoeing, ice climbing and XC skiing follow. With Helsinki having more snow than for decades, it seemed necessary to be out and about in the countryside enjoying the beautiful, if chilly, weather.

Early on Pitkäjärvi

I made an early start on Saturday and went to Nuuksio to see how the ice was developing. It was ferociously cold at about –22 as I drove out, but interestingly there was still a layer of slushy water on top of the lake ice where it was insulated by a thick layer of snow above. I was glad to have snow shoes on as they minimised breaking through, something that those walking across the lake without snowshoes were having to suffer, but the baskets of my ski poles quickly became caked in ice.

Icy eyelashes and everything else at -22 degrees

The icefalls themselves weren’t in great nick. The nice slab route that forms at the left end of the southern sector wasn’t there at all. I swept away the snow at the bottom to find dry, bare rock beneath. The curving gully line to its right had a bit of ice in it but wasn’t complete and the slab above it seemed to have no ice on it either.

One Point Gully

Somewhat bizarrely, the next normal route along, One Point Gully, was in great condition with thick, new, plastic ice at the top. It was so good compared to all the other lines that I soloed it twice (short vid from the route here). Further north, at the main area, neither Vasen Suora or Oikea Suora have touched down, although Oikea looked fat at the top.

All roads lead to Rome, or the only route in condition...

The more I get to climb ice, the more I realise I don’t understand the complex relationship between hydrology, meteorology and soil science that seems necessary to understand how, where and when icefalls form. It’s a wonderful mystery of nature, that means even if you end up climbing the same local routes year after year, they are never quite the same. I think what has probably happened this year is that the very cold weather has meant that the water has to some extent frozen in the ground above the cliffs and so there isn’t as much drainage to form the icefalls. And secondly the tops of many routes are in good conditions whilst they are thin or non-existent down at ground level. Presumably again with the cold weather what drainage there is freezes quickly form the fat tops and accounting for the skinny bottoms.

Other climbers below One Point

Anyway, I snow-shoed back across the lake and was home in time for lunch and family cross country skiing in the afternoon, although I did more pulling giggling children out of snow banks than actual skiing.

A quiet winter Sunday morn

On Sunday, I cunningly co-opted Tony and Anni’s snowshoeing expedition plans for an ice cliff recon mission. We went off to the countryside near Kisko and followed up on some intel that I given years ago by an American source (codename: "the Maine Man", thanks Andy!). Anyway, unlike the WMD, this tip was no Curveball. We snowshoed in and found the cliff and were impressed. I led one stiff little pillar which was challenging with funky –17 degree ice and screws that I had forgotten to sharpen.

Getting stuck into the steep bit (thanks to Anni for the photo)

Having avoided the monster's fangs, here I'm enjoying the easy bit

Swing 'em like you mean it. Anni puts in a sterling effort on her first ever go at ice climbing

Homeward bound

I've also put up a short video of snow shoeing here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Finland doesn't work

Helsinki central metro station. Closed for months due to huge cock-up.

Actually Finland works rather well in many respects, but not nearly as well as its boosters would have you believe. I’ve noticed over the years how the BBC tends to portray Finland as techno-social-democratic-nirvana, the Guardianista’s wet dream. This portrayed perfection is often used as a foil to Daily Mail-worthy moans about how bad things are in the UK: “why can’t Britain be more like Finland?” the correspondent opines during his or her 24 hr reporting trip to downtown Helsinki where they are shown about by the press officers from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

A long wait at -15 for a tram that isn't coming

This is a major difference between Britain in Finland – in the UK most people are conditioned to resolutely refuse to believe that anywhere else in the world could be worse than ole’ Blighty, whilst Finns are taught to believe that there is nowhere that could be better. But the Finnish press and government love to bathe in that reflected glow of just how astoundingly good they are seen to be at everything, and then in turn send those smooth vibes back out to the world in their tourist and international trade and investment marketing.

Crashed train at Helsinki Station, via HS International

So when things don’t work the cognitive dissonance is severe. The British media is full of stories questioning why the country can’t operate smoothly in the once-in-30-year-conditions of snow, ice and temperatures into the minus 20s. The obvious answer would seem to be that it happens once every 30 years so it would be ridiculous to invest to deal with something so rare. Build a snowman, have fun on the sledge and wait for the inevitable thaw. But the pundits have to ask “if Helsinki and Moscow can deal with these temperatures, why can’t London?” But another answer is that Helsinki can’t deal that well with these temperatures either. I’ve walked the last mile to work for the last two days because the bloody trams keep derailing or breaking down because of the snow. Trains services have been also badly affected by the weather and these problems have been made even worse by the damage done by a runaway train that on Monday smashed into Helsinki central railway station – after its failsafe systems, well… failed (if you haven't seen it - check this video out).

The central metro station is still closed months after it was flooded by the a burst water main. It never should have flooded because the water mains were inside a separate concrete tunnel to prevent exactly that disaster. The only problem was that someone drilled a series of large holes through the protective wall for what appears to be imbecilic reasons – in fact so imbecilic that as one distraught expert put it, this is the sort of thing that only happens in "other countries". Meanwhile Finnish politicians show themselves to be, on average, as venal and corrupt as politicians in other countries, and no one seems to suggest that the minister of interior who has served in that role for a period of time that has seen three mass shootings should perhaps consider her position. And just to chuck in a few more recent stories; the food is rotten, the kids are anti-social little gits, the doctors aren't real, nurses keep murdering their patients and the weather is getting crappier. So overall, Finland – it’s a bit rubbish. Just like everywhere else really.

But go for a walk on a quiet lake, and you'll feel better.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ice at Kauhala

Back home to a very snowy and pretty Finland. Today was a bank holiday so Jody, Toni and I popped over to Kauhala to bash up some little icefalls. I soloed a couple, led one, and seconded two lines. Not too bad a work out. Here's a short video starring Jody's very smart new boots and 'poons. I still don't understand enough about video compression - so this video doesn't work quite as it does is iMovie. After compression it is missing a still photo with a title over it in the first few seconds . If anyone has any ideas on why this happens and how to avoid it, please let me know!

Ice Climbing at Kauhala from Toby A. on Vimeo.