Sunday, February 28, 2010

The media at its silliest.

I just knew this was going to happen. All last week the media were carrying stories about how buildings in Finland were at structural risk from the snow load on the roofs. They quote experts saying that owners should clear their roofs. Now they carrying stories about how many people have been seriously injured falling off their roofs whilst trying to clear them - 30 serious injuries in Helsinki alone. Having watched neighbours teetering around on the edge of sloping roofs two storey houses with no attachment, this had seemed a likely outcome days before the hospitals started reporting the spate of accidents. I actually had a conversation a couple of days ago with a friend at work saying I wondered whether the risk of injuries or deaths from roof collapses was higher than possible injuries/deaths from people falling trying to clear their roofs. I remember being told that some researcher had estimated that more people died in car accidents driving to their doctors to ask whether they should stop taking Vioxx than would have died from the possible adverse effects inherent in continuing to take it. This might not be true but you take the point.

The media is completely hopeless at expressing risk (as I've alluded to before) - it tends to just swing from one extreme to the other and takes years to get it right. Last week's Rear Vision from ABC's Radio National in Australia was a excellent case study on the MMR vaccine scandal that never was, and how bad media reporting played into a public health reversal as result.

A view from the roof

Anyway, in the last week I've cleared the snow off my roof; my neighbours roof, and off the communal car-port-garage-thingy. But being a total coward I've finally found something to do with the jumars I got sent to review last year.

Doing something useful with my climbing gear for once

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Modern Life is Rubbish

Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that last night I felt the urge to actually look up on Wikipedia who Cheryl Cole is? Now I know. I just don't care.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Finland doesn't work (4)

Helsinki train station amongst the snow drifts this morning

The Finnish rail company, VR, is having a miserable time at the moment trying to keep services running through the snow. In Helsingin Sanomat today Antti Jaatinen, the head of passenger traffic at VR, points out very fairly that in Southern Finland we haven't had a thaw since 29th December. Mr. Jaatinen makes a good case for how hard they are trying to keep things rolling but I felt that his explanation:
"The situation would improve immediately, if we could have at least one day of warmer weather that would thaw some snow. Next frosty day would then make an icy cover on the snow, and the winds could no longer blow snow into rail switches."
is just getting a touch to close to the classic British excuse of "the wrong type of snow". Come next autumn should we expect problems from "leaves on the line"? :-)

And, just for my dear Finnish friends and readers, whilst we're re-visiting the subject of Finland not being as good at winter as Brits tends to presume (and Britain not being so bad), let me just say congratulations Amy Williams,

and commiserations to the Finnish Lions... ;)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A review of "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?" by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Post-terrorism Paris: soldiers on the streets

I was in Paris last week at a conference about terrorism. The focus of my job has drifted on to other matters in recent years, so it was fun being back in that world, meeting old acquaintances and making new ones. I gave a speech on a report I wrote a couple of years ago - mainly about how the US military conceived of the GSPC, now called AQIM - or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. I was that sandwich filling on my panel; squeezed between two generals, one of whom was the commanding officer of the GIGN - basically the French SAS. So not intimidating at all...

Anyway, I met a German researcher who was doing work on policy-making around the threat of WMD-terrorism. This is something that I used to work on, and my research turned me into something of sceptic. Hence I was interested when I spotted a report this week called "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?" on the website of Harvard's Kennedy School's Belfer Center - a prestigious research establishment. Reading the preface I was made even more interested:
"Rolf Mowatt-Larssen spent more than two dozen years in intelligence, both in the CIA and U.S. Department of Energy. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he led the U.S. government's efforts to determine whether al Qaeda had WMD capabilities and to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. Mowatt-Larssen, now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has put together a detailed timeline illustrating terrorists' efforts to acquire WMD."
Mowatt-Larssen writes clearly about how the alarmism around WMD-terrorism in the early part of last decade turned many analysts into sceptics; much of the discourse was seen to be hype for political purposes and that "it is difficult to debunk this allegation, given the US government's lack of credibility in the case of Iraqi WMD" (p.8). Although in the US the idea that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and might give them to terrorists became part of the justification for war, this always seemed far fetched to me. I was always interested in the possibilities of non-state groups developing chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons without state sponsorship. Mowatt Larssens attempts to show al Qaeda's interest in CBRN through the 1990s and first half of the 2000s and to argue that this means the treat of WMD-terrorism is real. I think his paper is very unconvincing in its attempt.

Firstly for someone who has spent his career in intelligence his choice of sources (all well footnoted) are odd. He relies significantly on George Tenet's autobiography for many of the more interesting claims. Why Tenet felt he could reveal these intelligence details in his book, but Mowatt-Larssen could only refer to a secondary source, I'm not sure. Presumably Mowatt-Larssen saw the same intelligence whilst in government. Instead we have continual references to the memoir of the, to many discredited, former CIA chief, perhaps not the most obviously credible source. But actually that is a minor problem, the paper also contains factual errors which makes me think it was not proof read by anyone with a moderate knowledge of the subject area. Jemaah Islamiyah is a group based in southeast Asia, not southwest (p.14). Detective Constable Stephen Oake, was a Manchester police officer (not London) murdered in Manchester (not in London) and Kamal Bourgass stabbed him to death, he did not shoot Oake (all mistakes on p.25). In this, the supposed UK "ricin case", no ricin was found. Separate to Bourgass' murder conviction, he was only found guilty of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance not of a terrorist conspiracy to murder, and four co-defendents were found not guilty (charges were dropped against a further four). Mowatt-Larssen maintains Colin Powell's argument made whilst giving evidence to the UN on the eve of the Iraq war, that this was a link between Iraqi-based jihadists and "European terrorist cells" (p.25). Powell couldn't have known the outcome of the trial, still 2 years away when he spoke, but Mowatt-Larssen does not engage with the subsequent findings that there never was any ricin in the UK and despite the British government claiming otherwise there was no link from Bourgass in the UK to al Qaeda in Kabul.

Perhaps even more telling is that Mowatt-Larssen repeats the idea that in 1993 bombing of the WTC in New York, the bomb makers attempted to include cyanide in their bomb. This was a mistake made by a trial judge in a later court proceedings, and the myth was clearly proven false by John Parachini of the RAND corporation in his chapter in the excellent book "Toxic Terror", edited by Jonathan Tucker and published in 2000. I find it very surprising that anyone interested in non-state actors and CBRN weapons would not have read this book.

I've not really looked at this issue for three or four years, but if this Belfer Center paper represents where things have got to, it would seem we are still chasing our tails with only limited and often questionable open sources and as much confusion and mythology as there was half a decade ago.

But if all this a bit depressing, here's a sparkly Eiffel Tower for you:

Monday, February 08, 2010

It keeps on snowing

Snowy Helsinki from Toby A. on Vimeo.

It's calming isn't it?

Helsinki has lots and lots of snow. I've had snowshoes for about the last five years but they've had as much use this year as the last four added together. Getting to the cliff yesterday was a bit of an epic wade out of what should be a ten minute stroll.

Snowshoe tracks. This was actually a couple of weeks back, but I was too knackered to take photos whilst wading yesterday, or at least until I made it back to the road.

Made it. Back at the car: a nice sit down and a cuppa

Friday, February 05, 2010

The limits of wool? A quick review of the Wool Buff

Just walking home from the shop at -25 needs warm clothes

Boring techy outdoor equipment post alert. Please move along if stopping your face from freezing in sub-zero temperatures isn't a regular worry for you...

I realised the other day whilst out ice climbing that the Kiwis had won and I was totally woolified from head to toe, at least with my base layer. Only a few years ago, the only bit of outdoor clothing where wool was regularly seen was in socks. But merino wool, almost all from New Zealand, has revolutionized outdoor clothing in the last few years and has become hugely popular for base layers. Merino works as well as any synthetic on the whole, but has the huge advantage of just refusing to become stinky and disgusting which synthetics do quickly. That day I was wearing Smartwool socks (about €10 from an outlet store in Sweden – which still seems to me like a huge amount to pay for socks but was half the normal price), Devold longjohns (bought half-price in a spring sale a couple of years back) a Decathlon Quechua long sleeve merino top (reduced from £30 to 20, but free to me I discovered later after the ‘yoof’ at the cash desk got distracted and neglected to beep the bar code!), a merino Wool Buff scarf-neck-tube-thingymabob and a rather fetching woolly hat from Marmot.

Soggy then frozen Buff

The merino Buff came recommended by Scottish gear-guru Petesy, and using wool as a face covering because it is more resistant to freezing up was a recent tip from Andy Kirkpatrick who tells me he heard this from Gary Rolfe, a Brit who lives and mushes dogs in Greenland. So with those top recommendations I thought I’d ask for one as Christmas pressie. On first acquaintance the wool Buff is lovely: warm, snugly and stretchy enough to hold tight over your face, but not tight enough to feel claustrophobic. But after ‘field testing’ I’m less convinced – in temperatures around or little below freezing whilst winter climbing in Wales, the Buff got rather damp from my breath and the soggy snow being blasted about and lost its elasticity. It went slack and heavy, and would quickly fall down off your nose if you pulled it up to protect your face. Wearing it in Finland in January whilst hiking to ice climbs in temperatures into the –20s, it again got heavy and slack from moisture in my breath, and then subsequently froze into unhelpful lump around my neck. When I went out skiing last week with the temperature again getting close to –20 I decided instead to wear an old Meraklon headover – a stretchy tube made out of synthetic material, polypropylene at a guess. Even when damp with moisture and then subsequently frozen, the synthetic material seems better at retaining its shape and elasticity.

They synthetic alternative - walking home after 15 kms of XC skiing at -20

The wool Buff feels luxurious and is very nice to wear, and of course I had to try it out in some relatively harsh conditions to produce these criticism, so I’m sure I’ll still get plenty of use out of it in less silly weather. But if you are looking for scarf/face covering for wild conditions either for winter climbing in the UK, or for very cold weather in places further north, I might skip the wool Buff. Merino wool is wonderful stuff, but even it has its limitations.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The winter biking blues

Hibernating bikes outside Helsinki Central Railway Station

After a pretty good cycling year last year, this one has started badly. In early January I rode into work and there my bike has remained ever since. Firstly the temperatures went down and I just couldn’t bring myself to ride in temperatures of –15 to –20. Weak I know, but keeping your toes from freezing becomes such an issue it takes a lot of the pleasure out of it. Then after that cold snap it has snowed and snowed some more. The city is trying its best to clear snow from walking and cycling paths but there are plenty where they haven’t managed it yet and that would make my ride very slow and hard work. I’ll just have to keep XC skiing instead.

Winterized single-speed, spoke cards and all...

In the past this blog has been a little bit snarky towards my Helsinki fixed-gear brethren, what with their wildly spinning legs and off-the-peg-total-lifestyle-fad-adoption. But it has to be said, I’ve seen very few folks on their bike this last month, but of those I have seen a decent percentage have been on fixies; a massive increase on the percentage of summer riders using fixed gear bikes anyway. So big up da’ fixed gear winter riding posse.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Making jokes about race

Last weeks Hesari International has an interesting story about Finland’s first black citizen – it’s an good piece that recounts how perhaps unsurprisingly with attitudes prevalent across Europe at the time that the woman concerned decided eventually to leave Finland, finding a more happy life in the immigrant melting pot of the United States. It is obvious to an outsider who has been here some time, that Finland is still very much coming terms with being a multiracial society more than a century after Rosa Clay left her adopted homeland. The real changes in the make-up of the Finnish population have taken place in the last 20 years, so are comparatively speaking, recent. Many have no problem with the changes – indeed, a younger generation growing up particularly in Helsinki knows no difference – but society does not adapt quickly overall. Of course there is some outright racism in Finland as there is everywhere, but then there are many others who just can’t quite get their heads around what the change means and how to think and talk about it.

This thought was sparked by another Hesari article I read a couple of weeks back. President Halonen was speaking at a high school about her role in Finland’s international affairs and showing a presentation of her with various world leaders. There’s a picture of her between the French and American presidents – who I guess are amongst the two most well-known political figures in the world. According to Hesari, Halonen joked: “Obama is the darker one of the two”.

I don’t agree with President Halonen politics on a number of things, but I’m certain she is not a racist. The ‘joke’ isn’t really particularly offensive – more just a very odd thing to say. It is though a rather ungallant and coarse thing to say. Firstly you wouldn’t think that heads of state would make jokes about each other in public (“the Queen is the one in the funny hat!”, “Prime Minister Berlusconi is the one pinching the young lady’s bum!”), they can leave that to the rest of us. But to pick the first black American President’s skin tone as the subject of your throw-away laugh line seems a quite remarkably unsubtle thing to do that reflects both a fascination with, and a condescension to, the ‘otherness’ of non-white people that is common in Finns of a certain age (and of Brits of a certain -older- age). It's almost as if she just couldn't discuss the President of the United States with out mentioning that he is black. Why the need to say anything at all?

I should add I wasn’t going to blog about this at first thinking Halonen’s line might have been translated badly or taken out of context, but the article came up in conversation with Finnish friends who had read the Finnish original and had had exactly the same surprised and bemused reaction to the direct quote from President in Finnish.