Saturday, October 30, 2010

Getting excited about winter

When cheapish, usable helmet cams first came out, I thought they were really smart. Some amazing footage has been captured with them. But because they are cheap and usable, perhaps I've been pigging out a bit too much watching other peoples' skiing or climbing clips from them. Sometimes the angle can even make you feel a bit sea sick. Having said all that, his little film below, that I found on the website of the Norwegian equipment company Norrøna, is great. It helps that I know exactly where they are on Lofoten, I've climbed the classic rock route that goes up the face next to that gully and I think friends have climbed that couloir itself, but nevertheless it's a great bit footage. Note them checking the snowpack stability at a number of points - that's having your head well screwed on.

And for more inspiring Northern Norway landscapes and fantastic looking skiing, just ignore the advertising bits and enjoy this other lovely film from Norrøna.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Radio Open Source » Jill Lepore: Tea Party Time… and the Death of Compassion

I have been a bit remiss in blogging this week, but if you are interested in the rise of the Tea Party in the US, then I heartily recommend listening Radio Open Source's interview with historian Jill Lepore: Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Jill Lepore: Tea Party Time… and the Death of Compassion It is one of those great example of the uses and misuses of history.

Slightly confused small government conservatives.
On a related note, it is interesting as well listening to some American coverage of the UK's spending review. On Slate's Political Gabfest for example, they seem quite amazed by the whole process - noting that American conservatives, especially the Tea Party, talk all the time about wanting to shrink the government but can never identify what they would shrink, whilst actively wanting to spend more on defence.

Monday, October 18, 2010

One less bike

If someone nicks your bike, ultimately it is the thief who is responsible and hence to blame. But police in very few places seem to put much effort into either cycle theft prevention or tracking down perpetrators – so to a great extent you are on own. I know loads and loads and of people in Helsinki who have had bikes stolen. I always used to presume it was because in the UK everyone presumed that given any chance at all someone would steal your bike and therefore acted accordingly; whilst in Finland nobody thought that anyone would steal their bike and therefore relied on rubbish locks. Many people use those stupid frame fitted locks that just stop the back wheel going around, but don’t actually stop anyone picking up the bike and putting it in the back of a van. But so many people seem to get their bike stolen here you would have thought people would have reconsidered by now. How many times do you need to get punched in the face before deciding next time on seeing a fist, ducking might be a good idea?

So I saw this sad sight outside Helsinki central station today. If the bike had Racing Ralphs on it, it was probably a pretty good to start with. So why on earth would someone think that locking only their front wheel was a good idea? A wheel attached by a quick release skewer no less?!

Yes, ultimately the thief is to blame. But, as a certain percentage of scumbags in any society seems unfortunately to be part of the human condition, don’t be a sucker. In this case let’s say the thief gets 50% of the blame but the other half can be shared between the owner for locking their bike in such a gormless manner, and Helsinki City for providing such hopeless bike racks that make locking the frame of your bike to the rack impossible with just a standard U-lock.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What's up with the "Counter-Jihad"?

I got the chance to listen to Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation yesterday. I've read his story in the past: in brief; racist violence and police profiling in Essex where he grew up, joining Hizb ut Tahrir as 16 years old and rapidly becoming an important organiser in the UK, Pakistan and Denmark for HuT, getting arrested in Egypt and spending 4 years in prison there. Coming home to the UK, turning his back on Islamism and becoming an advocate for pluralism, secularism and democracy. He has led an interesting life and speaks about it engagingly. But he also had a solid and well argued analysis of the different forms of Islamism  and why we have to be concerned about them using social movement theory. Interestingly, he reckoned there are now four identifiable social movements resulting from the Islamist ideology, the Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood) network, the so-called "Shi'a Crescent"; basically the Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah axis of politicised Shi'a Islam, the Saudi Wahhabi tradition; and now - following the thesis/antithesis logic - the new European anti-Muslim politics. I think Maajid makes a really good point, and as anyone who has followed this blog for any length of times knows, all four of those strains interests me, an particularly how they relate to each other. I'm interested in the collapse of the domestic/international distinction in politics; much of political life is both local and global at the same time. Geert Wilders is speaking in NYC at the anti-Ground Zero Mega Mosque/Park 51 Islamic community centre protest one week, and then is in Berlin surfing the wake of Sarrazin's book there the next. In between, he is doing a bit king-making back home in the Hague for the Dutch government. Wilder's vilification of Muslims, his warnings to Europeans to save their own culture from them, is as often as not based on human rights abuses and terrorist crimes committed outside of Europe as much as in it. Like I said, everything is local and everything is global.

Anyway, being interested in these issues for years I have read a lot anti-Islam blogs with some regularity. Kenneth, a regular and long standing commenter here, writes Tundra Tabloids, another English language but Finland-based blog, and I hope Kenneth will take it as complement when I say it is very representative of the "Counter-Jihad" blogosphere. I don't think we really agree on anything (except that there is nothing wrong with having either too many rucksacks or flashlights), but I have found lots of other, well let's just say - "interesting" sites from starting at Tundra Tabloids and have been reading that milieux enough now to have a feel for the lay of the land. It was from reading the Counter-Jihad blogosphere that I started realising the importance of philosemitism and pro-Israeli politics to the new European anti-Islamic populist right. It is something that perhaps Vlaams Belang and the Sweden Democrats have done prominently. Also some of the Italian post-fascist parties have done this as well, although I have no great knowledge of Italian politics. This means that although still populist rightwing parties, these parties are showing they are very different to more traditional neo-fascist European far right parties like the very worrying and scary Jobbik in Hungary.

Anyway, this particular zone of the internet has been hitting the mainstream press recently, mainly as a result of Pamela Geller's central involvement in the protests against the Ground Zero Mega Mosque/Park 51 Islamic community centre (yeah, I know it's tedious trying to be neutral. Perhaps I can just call it "Stroke place" in the way that "Londonderry/Derry" became "Stroke City" to journos in NI in the bad ole' days of the Troubles). I wrote three years ago about how Little Green Footballs was taking on the rest of the Counter-Jihad blogosphere over whether Vlaams Belang were fascists or not (LGF - yes, everyone else - no). Well, amusingly LGF's main man, Charles, has completed his political odyssey right to left to write a critical screed against Pamela in the Guardian! The Guardian! It's all somewhat reminiscent of the American 60s Trots who ended up as the 90s NeoCons. But still, to blow my own trumpet (it's a special skill, are you jealous?) I blogged about it two and half years before the NYT - the "lamestream media" after all... Anyway, going back to my collapse of the international/domestic divide, it is interesting that in the Guardian (the Guardian!) Charles is citing Geller's endorsement of the EDL as one of her 'crime' (the EDL want to be part of that new right I mention above, and not seen as neo-Nazis, but this is difficult when their leadership are covered in Swastika and Celtic cross tats).

Anyway, I had a good handle on the Pam vs. Chuck blog war, but as I've been reading the main Counter-Jihad blogs recently about both the Ground Zero Mosque protests and American support for the EDL, I keep reading about other fights that are going on. This is both confusing and interesting - if many of the main players seems to be falling out with each other, is there really a "Counter-Jihad blogosphere" any more? So far, as far as I can see Debbie Schlussel hates Pamela Geller, why seems quite complicated - although Schlussel also says that Geller is involved in some insurance scam and worse crimes, you can google all that for yourself as I couldn't make much sense of it. Debs also hates Mr. Jihadwatch, Robert Spencer, and keeps calling him "Slobbert" which seems just plain mean. But then again Spencer hates Andrew Bostom, because Bostom accuses Bobby of plagiarising his books. Meanwhile Pamela doesn't like "the Baron" from the Gates of Vienna any more - he is a small, petty man reputedly. She doesn't like the Baron's friend Vlad either. The reason for all this appear to be a question over copyright of some videos. Ho hum, it's all a bit high school-esque isn't it? I don't suppose al-Qaeda is quaking in its combat boots.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Battling the bike rage

This month’s Guardian bike podcast has a piece on bike rage. I suspect that there aren’t many regular cyclists who don’t know exactly what the guy is talking about; when drivers appear to be willing to risk your life out of their thoughtlessness or lack of attention, it is very hard not to take it personally no matter how hard you try to rationalize it.  The Guardian’s commentator talks about self-loathing cyclists – those who are embarrassed by the aggression of angry and self righteous cyclists and his battle to find his place between the two extremes, something I understand well. A few days ago, for the first time ever in maybe 10,000 kms of riding in Helsinki I hit a pedestrian. 

In retrospect it wasn’t really anyone’s fault and fortunately my mountain biking skills paid off, and when this woman suddenly stepped into my path I just managed to brake and jump sideways giving her shopping bag a good whack but thankfully neither hitting her or knocking me off my bike. But once I got past the shock of how close to being a nasty accident for both of us it had been, I managed to avoid feeling either guilty over my riding or too angry at her actions. The street at that point is an undifferentiated cycling and walking path. The lady had as much right to be walking there as I did to be cycling. The lack of logic and changing basic assumption of the Helsinki cycle path system means there is no ‘natural’ feeling of who should be where on such as road. The road also has some patterned bricks in it, purely for aesthetics I guess, but that are enough to loosen the fillings of cyclists riding over them and meaning you tend to make you look down rather than forward. And finally half the road was being dug up pushing everyone into an even smaller space. I do get annoyed by pedestrians who walk on the cycle paths and I get annoyed by cyclists who ride on the walking path, but the lack of any consistency all across the city is clearly a major cause of this. It is a structural problems with Helsinki’s cycle path system that actually “empowers” inattentive cyclist and pedestrians – and we can all be one of those at times - making accidents more likely to happen.

On the way home I rode through the forests of Central Park and out into the countryside around Ylästö, on the quietest roads and cycle paths that I could think of, and that was much more mellow.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Today was not a climbing day

Today clearly wasn't destined to be a climbing day. I had wanted to go up to Reventeenvuori but throat infections took down two potential partners. Bummer. Tony got a couple hours climbing leave from his paternity leave (and very cute, tiny, pink and scrumpled the reason for his paternity leave is too!) and we went to Backnäs, but it started raining as soon as we hit the crag. Bummer.

The drizzle stopped long enough for Tony to do a bit of work on his chosen project, but my desired line is less steep and was quickly sopping. Bummer.

Well, if nothing else the rain gave me reason to wear the new jacket I recently received from Marmot for testing for UKC. It's this season's "Alpinist", Marmot's top-of-the-line Goretex shell, and a thing of great, orangey, engineering beauty it is too. But more of that once the weather gets really lousy I expect. The weather stayed grey, damp and breezy so we sacked it in and went home.

Of course on getting home, the forecast predictions came true - the sky clearer and the sun came out. Just a few hours too late. Bummer. Never mind, a bit a of mountain biking would save the day and let me see all the colourful trees.

The trails are all really dry after the long, hot summer which is great, although I of course still found a bog to get stuck in. It wouldn't really be a mountain biking trip without doing so.

The woods around here can be a bit spooky. There are a number of abandoned houses that old, grown-over and much ignored paths take you to. Abandoned buildings are quite normal in the Finnish countryside. Many older buildings were never great quality to begin with - the country was very poor until the post-war industrialisation of the economy - and being wood are often left to just rot away. In the British countryside you rarely see abandoned buildings, particularly not houses, land and property is too valuable and even old houses in lousy condition are renovated by the middle classes fleeing urbanity. In Finland the opposite, the drift to the cities, is still not over. Just beyond that house I saw a group of white tailed deer browsing on the edges of what once would have been the yard.

The light on birches was lovely although my little camera doesn't really do it justice.

The flags are all up; for the birthday of one of the national romantic poets (or writers, or artists) but I can't remember which one. They were all very important for inventing a national consciousness and culture - in effect creating Finnish nationalism - in the 19th century, just as Sir Walter Scott invented the idea of Scottish nationalism in the Regency era. So, please, take my flag and autumn colours photo as the postmodern gesture as I intended. ;-)

My Kona is starting to break-up. First it was a pedal (see below); fair enough - they take a real smacking. Today, the cage on front dérailleur snapped. The chainset it already a bit bashed up and bent from too much log and rock hopping. Probably the whole drivetrain is needing replacing.

It's done quite a few kilometres over the last five years, and most of those have been off road - often on quite technical ground - so I can't complain. When I get that dream job, whatever that is!, then maybe I'll just replace the whole thing.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tonight, I will mostly be drinking...

...Laitilan Kievari Humalainen, a lovely, hoppy, Finnish brewed IPA. Fully recommended for cool, dark, autumn evenings.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Driving culture

YLE had a little piece the other day that a study of the whole Nordic region found Finns to be the worst drivers. This has become one of my little bugbears about living in Helsinki - that people drive like there is no one else around. Perhaps that is the case in many parts of rural Finland but it is certainly not in the Helsinki region, an metropolitan area of around a million people. The thing that I get most annoyed with is the seeming inability for people to use their indicators. My rather tiresome joke is that they must be called "celebrators" in Finnish, because people put them on to celebrate that they can turn the steering wheel and make the turn - because by this point I can see your car is going round the corner so you are bit late for indicating anything. One Finnish friend assured me that you are taught to use them properly in order to pass the driving test but her theory is because yes, everyone else on the road is so crap at using them, new drivers quickly give up on indicating anything with them as well. So, Finland, if you want to be better drivers start using your frigging indicators!

Right. Glad I've got than off my chest and thank you for listening.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sweden: social democracy's triumph?

The Swedish general election a couple of weeks back gained some international attention in particular for the success of the Sweden Democrats - Sweden's populist, anti-immigrant right wing party - that got into the parliament, the Riksdag for the first time. But perhaps just as interesting is the failure of the Social Democrats to get back into power, leaving Fredrik Reinfelt of the Moderate party (what a great name BTW! Perhaps it sounds less funny in Swedish...) and his centre-right alliance in power.

Open Democracy has a very interesting interview with Swedish political scientist Professor Lars Tragardth where he talks about the implications of the elections. His argument is kind of that despite the failure of the Social Democrats as a party the election shows the success of social democracy as an ideology. Reinfelt's party might be considered a conservative party, but really they have accepted the social democratic bargain between state protection of the individual and free markets, whilst the Sweden Democrats are in their own way also a social democratic party who are just grappling more openly with the question of who is 'in' the society to which you apply the democracy. Just note, the sound quality is really crappy - to the extent that it only came out of one headphone when I downloaded the MP3 file and listened on my iPod. But bear with it as the discussion is worth it.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Stuff that works: Power Grips pedal straps for winter riding

A month or so ago I discovered a newish blog "Coming Thru!", a Helsinki-based cycling blog, mainly focused on cycle commuting. There are a number of blogs about cycling in Helsinki written (for obvious reasons!) in Finnish, but my Finnish is hopeless enough to make reading them a pain (although I understand enough to really appreciate the people out there doing great cycle advocacy work). So it was great to find a Helsinki cycle bloggers writing in English like on Coming Thru. Anyway, over there Markus appears to be working through the frustration and expense of finding a clothing system that keeps you dry and warm enough to want to cycle commute on cool mornings, but not so hot you end up drowning in your own sweat. As anyone who does aerobic exercise in cool to cold weather knows, this isn’t that easy and can become an endless source of fascination, frustration, new gear purchasing and annoyance at kit you buy turns out not to work as well as the advert promised.

I’ll try and write more about my cold weather cycling experience in the future, but this post is dedicated to a simple idea that greatly improved my autumn/winter cycling experience – Power Grips. Power Grips are simple neoprene straps that fix diagonally onto any basic cage-style cycle pedal and do exactly what old fashioned toe clips do but better. By slipping your feet in diagonally through the to the diagonally positioned strap, your foot goes in with ease. Then when you straighten your foot parallel to the bike it becomes held firmly by the strap giving you the same power as you would get from an SDP style clip pedal. Hard to explain in words but incredibly simple in use – see the photo below (or here) and you’ll understand. Nevertheless, despite holding your foot on the pedal firmly, getting your foot out is easy so stopping and even falling off safely is no harder, perhaps even easier, than with SPDs.

I use clip-in pedals on all my bikes; different SPD version on my mountain bike and commuter, and SPD-SL style on my road bike. But I also get cold feet riding as the temperatures get lower. Sealskinz socks, and then neoprene over-shoes help, but still by the time the temperature is about or below freezing, my feet still get cold and I came to the conclusion that conduction through the cleat (a lump of metal on your shoe connected to bigger lumps of metal – the pedals) was the main reason for this. With Power Grips attached to an old pair of cage pedals I could wear roomy, old leather sneakers and when it got really cold, wear over-shoes over them. With a standard sole, rather than the pedal cleat on a cycling shoes, in contact with a minimal amount of metal because of the design of cage pedals, conduction of heat was minimized. Net result: warmer feet, and less miserable cyclists! So, yes, Power Grips do seem pricey for what you get, but if you ride a lot in sub-zero temperatures you will probably find them worth the money.