Friday, December 19, 2014

You don't know Jack (#5)

Like all toddlers, Jackson provides the occasional nuggets of observation or wisdom or humor. These are generally unprompted, often silly or nonsensical, and usually come out of the blue with no context. Here are some recent ones:

While Danny MacAskill conquers the Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye, Jackson conquers this tree stump.

•   "Don't move! I like hitting you with hedgehogs."

•   "Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, there was a little mommy who lived in a forest. She said, 'Pah! I don't see anything but boring trees.' The end."

•   "Queen Elizabeth is our queen. Queen Elizabeth is old. She knows things."

•   "If I keep my mouth open, I can catch a bug. Yum!"

Trying out new noses at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

•   Upon receiving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: "I have never been happier in my WHOLE LIFE."    ***

•   "I want to have a cake with Mommy. One, I don't want it to be yucky! And two, I don't want it to be too warm!"

•   "Old people can't do some things. Old people can't run up hills. Nana and Grampa Bill are old. Nana and Grampa Bill can't run up hills!"

•    "This is the biggest blueberry I have ever seen in the whole universe!"

•   "Daddy, when I am a grown up, can I wear your underwear?"

At home after watching The Cat in the Hat production in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

*** I make a mean PB&J, but I'm not sure it's that good.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our first trip back to America

It's been 18 months since we arrived in Scotland, and we're headed back home for the first time.

I still call the U.S. of A. "home." Not that I don't feel at home in Scotland. We just haven't been here long enough for it to feel officially "home" yet.

LEGO safari plane and pilot

In total we'll be back in the States for 23 full days and two part/half days. It's the first trip we'll have taken in a loooooonnnggg time that I'm not busily preparing with guide books and Internet research. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself.

We're not traveling lightly. At all. We've got clothes for the relative warmth of the south, and clothes for snow and skiing in Colorado. Various bags are stuffed with toddler activities and books and toys to keep the wee one quiet occupied. And even after ordering most of our Christmas gifts via Amazon to cut down on our baggage, we have numerous presents stashed in our gigantic bags for friends and family. Oh, and the kid's car seat. Damn kid.

United States of America passport book
My new U.S.A. passport book.
What's more, we'll probably return with more baggage than we're bringing. My suitcase is stuffed inside another suitcase — an REI Wheely Beast duffel bag — which we'll likely fill with the kid's Christmas loot presents. We've even planned ahead enough that we have bought some items (e.g., toy trains and accessories) that are much cheaper in the States, which we're lugging back to the U.K. for the kid's birthday next June. It's a good thing our international flights allow us two checked bags each, plus carry-on bags.

I'm a little worried we'll exceed the limits. Eeek.

In the States, our dance card is filling up quickly. We've got bunches of people to see friends, colleagues, family, even a favorite coffee shop barista. Trivia night at the pub. Continuing legal education (sigh). Dinners out. Professional consultations. Food trucks to visit. Parties. Not one but two Christmases to celebrate with family(ies). Skiing and sledding and Jackson's first real chance to play in the snow.

Blogging in these parts is going to continue during our trip, but likely in a reduced manner. Still, I know how much you depend on these posts. Wait for them anxiously. Feel bereft without them.

{Ed.'s note: Well, maybe your mother. The rest of us will enjoy a respite.}

In the new year, I'll be sprucing up the blog. I aim to lay some of the groundwork during these next few weeks, but it'll be behind the scenes. Nothing dramatic, just a few touches.

For now, it's time to head across the pond. First stop, the city.

New York City.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Exposure: Railway time

Railways are said to "annihilate both time and space"; this they can only do safely and satisfactorily by keeping time.
          — William Baddeley, The Mechanics' Magazine, Vol. 33, Nov. 27, 1840

Well into the 1800s, the time of day often differed in neighboring villages and towns. Partly, it was because time was a matter of guesswork. Sundials were in common use. At best, ordinary people might rely on a church bell or a town clock for guidance. Appointments and meeting times were vague and flexible. Schedules were advisory, not prescriptive. Most people had no watch or clock in their home until the 20th century. In the 19th century, clocks were rare; accurate clocks rarer still.

Moreover, there was no standard time across a region, country, or continent. Heading east to west across Britain, a traveler gained fifteen minutes or more over the course of 24 hours, and likewise lost fifteenish minutes if traveling east. Norwich time was several minutes ahead of London time. Oxford was officially 5 minutes and 2 seconds behind London's time; Leeds was 6 minutes and 20 seconds behind; Exeter was 14 minutes behind.

This led to mayhem and disaster for the emerging rail industry.

1850 clock used on the Great Western Railway for more than 100 years
In the 1840s, clocks — and time became standard across British train stations. This clock, from the Great Western Railway, was built around 1850 and used for more than 100 years.
Rail transport was developing at a lightning speed. Steam locomotives first appeared in 1811. The first steam trains for passengers came in 1825. By 1830, the first inter-city route opened. Mail was first sent by rail in 1838. In 1839, the first timetable was published. By the 1850s, Britain had more than 7,000 miles of track.

As more and more trains crisscrossed the country — carrying goods and, increasingly, passengers — the need for standardization became readily apparent. Neither stationmasters, nor train conductors, nor passengers were certain when a train would depart its station. Trains frequently delayed departure to allow for stragglers. Travelers often missed connections because of the vagaries of timekeeping in different towns.

Even worse, the running of trains across the network of tracks had become a nightmare of accidents and near-misses. The railway system was an integrated whole, even if it was operated by numerous privately-owned railway companies. Timetables had just been invented, but given the non-uniformity of time across the land they were more ideal targets than actual planning tools. Even if the train personnel could figure out the complexities of local times, no one could rely on trains traveling at regular and reliable intervals. Trains which should have clear track in front of them might find themselves delayed by trains which had dithered before leaving a station or, perilously, find trains heading toward them from the opposite direction.

It was a mess. A dangerous mess. And even more significantly for these new titans of industry, a costly mess.

Railway station clock at the National Railway Museum in YorkThe railway bosses demanded that time be standardized. At first, they met with resistance from many municipalities, which had no desire to reset their clocks at the fiat of nouveau riche railway owners. So the rail bosses took matters into their own hands. By 1841, the Great Western Railway ordered that all of its stations would use London time, regardless of the local time around the stations. Passengers who wished to ride the trains found themselves forced to use the railway's timekeeping instead of the local timekeeping.

Other railways followed suit. In 1845, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway petitioned Parliament to require a single uniform time for the entire rail network. The petition failed.

But the railway bosses pushed on. In 1847, the major railway operators agreed they should all adopt London time — generally called Greenwich time due to the location of the Royal Observatory — as soon as the Post Office supported the shift. Carrying of the mail was a major source of income, of course, and the Post Office was a valuable client. But more significantly, although the Post Office had no official role in setting the standardization of time for the railways, it gave the railway operators a veneer of government authority. When the Post Office granted its consent later in 1847, most British railways adopted London time on 1 December 1847.

Still, some municipalities held out. Instead of changing the time on their clocks, they decided . . . to add another minute hand. Essentially, they stuck their tongues out and said ppfffttt! One minute hand showed the local time while the other, sometimes smaller, minute hand showed the new railway standard time. Watches on sale showed local and London time. Eventually, the silliness of their behavior outweighed their protest, and the local time went away. Bristol held out until 1852. By 1855, approximately 98% of the public clocks in the U.K. were on London time, though some cities, like Bath, dragged on until 1860.

Finally, in 1880, Parliament passed its Definition of Time Act to confirm the fait accompli on the ground, a standard time across the United Kingdom.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Scotland's new drunk driving law

UPDATE: The new drunk driving law is dampening economic growth. See here:

Not a pint.

Nor a single glass of wine.

Fuhgeddaboud a dram of whisky.

Scotland's blood alcohol concentration limit:

Starting this morning at midnight, it is illegal in Scotland to operate a vehicle if your blood alcohol concentration is higher than 0.05 (i.e., 50mg of alcohol per 50ml of blood). The rest of the U.K. will retain a 0.08 BAC.

A man who consumes only one pint of beer or glass of wine may or may not reach the 0.05 limit. His BAC will depend on several factors, including weight, age, metabolism, type of alcohol, amount of food consumed, and so on. Most men, however, will exceed the 0.05 limit with one pint of beer or glass of wine. If he drinks a craft beer with an above-average alcohol content, he'll almost certainly be over the limit.

For an average woman, the limit will be reached from half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine.

Pint of Westvleteren XII, the best beer in the world
My pint last week of Westvleteren XII, consistently voted the "best beer in the world." At 10.2% alcohol by volume, it'll push you well over Scotland's 0.05 BAC limit.
The average body will clear alcohol out of its blood at a rate of 15mg to 18mg per hour. So, in theory, if you consume one pint of beer or glass of wine and then wait an hour, you should fall below the legal limit. However, lots of variation remains: the alcohol content of the drink; metabolism rates; food consumed; age (older people clear alcohol faster than younger people); etc.

The lightning-fast implementation:

Scotland's Parliament voted to lower the drunk driving limit — called the "drink-drive" limit here — on November 18. Of this year. Its implementation was today, December 5.

No yearlong preparation. No extended public notification. Simply boom!, a new limit three weeks later.

Incidentally, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously in favor of the new law. How often do you see a unanimous vote on domestic legislation? Not very often.

Penalties for drunk driving in Scotland:

Glass of Prosecco
Is a glass of bubbly Prosecco worth a yearlong ban?
If you are caught driving while over the 0.05 limit, you will be banned from driving for a minimum of 12 months. No discretion in sentencing for the ban. You also will pay a fine of up to £5,000. Furthermore, you may face as much as 6 months imprisonment. And, of course, you'll get some points on your license and your car insurance will skyrocket.

Some offenders may be allowed to complete a rehabilitation course, at their own expense. Successfully completing the course can reduce the driving ban by up to one quarter.

Also, employers will see your conviction if you must produce your license for work. And, travel to some countries, including the United States, can be denied in some instances for criminal convictions.

Blood alcohol concentration limits in the rest of Europe:

The United Kingdom, with its BAC limit of 0.08, is the highest in Europe. Only Malta has a similar leniency.

Scotland has broken with the rest of the U.K. and adopted a 0.05 BAC limit, in line with most European countries. Its limit now matches Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, among others.

Lithuania has a 0.04 limit. Slovenia has a 0.024 limit. Several countries have set a 0.020 BAC limit, including Estonia, Poland, and Sweden. At that level it's almost a total ban, but allows for the possibility of alcohol from mouthwash or medication. The 0.020 limit seeks to avoid accidentally penalizing a driver with trace amounts of alcohol in his system.

Several nations, including Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have a zero tolerance ban.

A number of countries have slightly varied limits, depending upon a few circumstances. Germany, for example, has a total ban for drivers under the age of 21 or those with less than two years of driving experience; a 0.030 limit for those involved in an accident; and a 0.050 limit for those not involved in an accident.

Checkpoints and vehicle stops:

While the U.S. Constitution's fourth amendment, regarding unreasonable searches and seizures, provides some (minor) restrictions on checkpoints and vehicle stops, no such limitations exist in Scotland or the rest of the U.K. Checkpoints can be erected at any time. Any moving violation can give rise to a roadside breathalyser test, as can essentially any suspicion on the part of a police officer. In fact, the police can stop any vehicle at any time with unfettered discretion.

Gone are the days that you can drive to a restaurant, have a glass of wine with your spouse during dinner, and come home. Without question, the only legal choice is to walk, ride public transportation, or take a taxi. Or have your spouse be a designated driver, which is certainly doable but not quite as convivial.

With a population of 5.3 million, Scotland has recently averaged about 20 deaths per year from drunk driving, as well as another 90 serious injuries and 300+ minor injuries. Presumably those numbers will go down, though most offenders who caused injury were well above the previous BAC limit. Will the Scots — a populace that romanticizes its drinking — happily acquiesce to a BAC limit that functions as an almost total ban? Time will tell.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Exposure: Stirling Bridge

The battle of Stirling Bridge, in 1297, demonstrated for the first time in European history that a force of common infantrymen could defeat a mounted cavalry force of armored knights.

The Scots had a small army, perhaps around 2,000 infantry and a few hundred cavalry. The English, by contrast, brought 8,000 to 10,000 battle-hardened infantry and several thousand cavalry. It should have been a mismatch. The English were so sure of victory they delayed crossing the bridge for several days, waiting to see if the Scots would simply surrender without a fight.

Old Stirling Bridge in Scotland
The old Stirling Bridge, built in the late 1400s or early 1500s.
Led by Andrew de Moray and fanatical William Wallace — who was bearded and had no fanciful blue facepaint like the Mel Gibson portrayal — the Scots employed an ingenious tactical plan. To cross the River Forth, the English needed to cross Stirling Bridge, which at the time was wooden and so narrow that only two horsemen could cross abreast. It would take hours for the English to get their forces across.

The Scots waited patiently until half of the English forces squeezed over the bridge. Then, at a run, they descended from their craig. One flank of Scottish infantry pressed along the banks of the river until it reached the bridge, cutting off the advancing English forces and isolating those English soldiers already across. Since the bridge was so narrow, a relatively small force could hold off attackers, who could attack only two at a time due to the width of the bridge. The English forces panicked, with soldiers seeking to both advance and retreat. Men and horses were forced over the sides of the bridge to drown in the river below.

Stirling Bridge aerial view
Aerial view of the Stirling battlefield.
Meanwhile, the knightly cavalry of the English forces found themselves unable to maneuver. The bridge had emptied them into a naturally-formed noose, with the river hemming them in on three sides, while on the fourth the Scottish infantry tightened the pressure as it inexorably advanced. Moreover, the land was boggy and their horses struggled to gain footing. They could neither advance nor retreat. And most especially, the cavalry could not perform as cavalry, i.e., mount a charge into the ranks of the infantry. The Scots' tactics had rendered the cavalry wholly ineffective. Instead, the knights were stymied to a standstill, then isolated, and eventually hacked to pieces.

Many of the knights fled into the river. While some made it safely across to their English brethren, others were mired into the mud. Even if they knew how, the knights could not swim under the burden of their heavy armor. Nor could their horses swim, weighed down not only by the armored knight atop them, but also by their own heavy barding. Those knights who made it across generally did so by discarding their armor and swimming. The others were easy pickings.

The English infantry who had crossed the bridge were slaughtered, with no chance of escape. Fully half of the total English forces perished in the battle. Abandoning their comrades to their fate, the retreating English army burned the bridge as they fled, seeking to deter the Scots from following.

At the time, the battle seemed decisive. With de Moray either perishing during the battle or soon afterwards from injuries, Wallace emerged as the Scottish resistance leader. A few months after the battle, Wallace led significant raids into northern England, burning hundreds of towns and villages. By the spring of 1298, he was named Guardian of Scotland. By the summer of 1298, however, Wallace led the Scots to defeat in the Battle of Falkirk. He soon thereafter either resigned or was stripped of his title, and he spent several years in quasi-exile before being captured and killed by the English.

Many visitors to Stirling Bridge gaze upon the stone structure and believe it to be the bridge involved in the battle. But the stone bridge now in place, called the "old Stirling Bridge," was built in the late 1400s or early 1500s. A "new Stirling Bridge," built in the early 1830s, is nearing two hundred years of age. Every so often, a confused visitor gazes on the old stone structure thinking it's the eponymous bridge, but the battle took place a couple hundred yards upstream. No signs of the 13th century battle remain.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Expat Thanksgivings are often not on Thanksgiving

Carving a turkey for Thanksgiving

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is not  << NEWSFLASH >> celebrated in the rest of the world. No surprise there, of course.

If you're an American expat who wants to celebrate Thanksgiving, you need to choose: try to observe the holiday on its intended day (the last Thursday of November), or wait a few days until the weekend. You won't get two days off from work for Thanksgiving. Do you try to make a full observance, with a four day weekend? Just try to squeeze it in on Thursday evening after work? Pretend the holiday is on Saturday or Sunday?

Last year, we celebrated with some friends/neighbors/students on Thursday evening, and again on Friday. It wasn't quite a winner for me.

This year, following the lead of many other expats around the world, we decided to wait until Saturday to celebrate. Just the three of us. Nothing unique. But a classic day of cooking, football (college instead of NFL), and family. We spent our Thursday evening out to dinner with a couple of friends and raised a glass in honor of the holiday, while otherwise letting the day go by as normal.

Seasoning the turkey
Pantsless seasoning, 'cause that's how we roll.
So while last Thursday our Facebook newsfeeds were chock full of photos of celebration, we couldn't quite join in. Cue twinges of envy. And then when we observed Thanksgiving on our own in this foreign land, it felt a wee bit forced.

It's a trade-off for expats. We lose out on some holidays and traditions from home. As recompense, we can gain new ones — but they don't quite feel truly ours.

How much to hold onto our native culture, and how much to forgo, is an open question for us. What do you think? Better to import the old traditions? Or set them free and (awkwardly) adopt new holidays that don't have the same resonance?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

One month later: Scotland's hugely successful 5 pence charge for single-use plastic bags

We were as bad as everyone else.

Like so many, we would mindlessly accept plastic bags to carry our purchases. Whether it was a cartful of groceries or a sole pack of lightbulbs from the hardware store, most things would come home in a plastic bag. At least we got a second use out of ours, employing the bags for cleaning our cat's litterbox.

Ultimately, however, we were part of the problem.

Plastic bags / single use bags / carrier bags in Scotland
Whether you call them plastic bags, carrier bags, or single-use bags, they now come with a 5 pence charge for each one.
Last month, however, Scotland instituted a small charge of 5 pence per plastic bag. Starting on October 20, these "single use bags" are taxed by the government in an attempt to reduce litter — a huge problem in Scotland and stem the "throwaway culture." The government estimated that more than 800 million bags were given away just by Scottish supermarkets every year. Let that sink in.

Actually, it's not really a tax. The Scottish government requires retailers to charge at least 5 pence — they're free to charge more — for every plastic bag. The funds raised from the charge can be spent in whatever way a business chooses, but many of the leading retailers have publicly committed to giving the proceeds to charitable and environmental causes, as well as to reporting how many bags they've dispensed and how they've used the money.

And, incidentally, the ban is not just on plastic bags, and not just on brick-and-mortar retailers. Online retailers have the same charges. Paper bags are getting the same treatment, as are some plant-based material bags. There are some exceptions. Bags used to carry unpackaged food, whether for humans or animals, are exempted. Thus, the flimsy plastic bags you might use for fruits and veggies at a grocery store come with no charge. Similarly, paper bags used by pharmacists are exempt. A few other exceptions apply.

Scotland is following the lead of other parts of the United Kingdom. In 2011, Wales started charging for single-use bags, reducing usage by 75%. Northern Ireland followed suit in 2013, reducing usage by 80%. England will institute a charge in October 2015.

Italy is the gold standard, having banned single-use plastic bags entirely. Denmark is pretty darn good. It instituted a charge a decade ago, in 2003. Now, it leads Europe (other than Italy) in the lowest usage of plastic bags. Statistically, Denmark uses only four bags per person, per year. Wowza!

Last week, the EU announced a new policy for all of its member countries. European nations have three choices:

          (1) ban the single-use plastic/carrier bags;
          (2) introduce mandatory charges by 2019; or
          (3) create binding government targets to reduce use by 80% by 2025.

European statistics show that 92% — I'm not precisely sure how they got such a precise percentage — of the common plastic bags were used only once and then discarded.

So, how is Scotland doing a month or so after it instituted its 5 pence charge?

Although no official statistics have been released, large retail chains are reporting massive drops in plastic bag usage. Morrisons, a supermarket chain, reports an 80% decrease in plastic bag use. ASDA, a large retail store similar to (and owned by) Walmart, says it has seen a 90% decrease.

That means the changeover hasn't happened gradually. It has been immediate. Consumers have altered their purchasing habits at a snap of the fingers. Although the plans for the 5 pence charge met some resistance, those concerns are long gone.

Assuming the figures from Morrisons and ASDA are representative of Scotland's large retailers generally, we're looking at an immediate reduction of more than 640,000,000 plastic bags just from supermarket chains. That doesn't even take into account other retailers.

Of course, the littering problem in Scotland is much more than just plastic bags. Litter is everywhere in Scotland's urban environments. Even on wilderness treks you'll find a surprising amount of trash. It's reminiscent of America several decades ago before the nationwide anti-littering campaigns. Scotland has a long way to go on its anti-littering message.

Nonetheless, without question, the 5 pence charge has done a lot of good in a very short period of time. We'll have to wait to see the longer-term statistics, but it's hard to imagine consumers will suddenly switch back to the plastic bags. This looks like an unmitigated success.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday Exposure: the (probably) oldest tree in Paris

The oldest inhabitant of Paris is an American.

Oh, mon Dieu!

Kidnapped from the eastern seaboard of North America, and then imprisoned on French soil, the hardy senior citizen has survived revolutions, a World War I bomb, pollution, Nazi invasion . . . and, worst of all, the snobby Parisians themselves. Je plaisante, I tease because I love.

Oldest tree in Paris, Robinia pseudoacacia, Square Rene Viviani, 5th arrondissement
The most elderly tree in Paris, a Robinia pseudoacacia.
Its exact date of planting is a matter of dispute. Although a few folks argue the tree was planted in the 1620s or even as late as 1636, most authorities agree the tree was planted in either 1601 or 1602 by the king's botanist, Jean Robin. Appropriately enough, the sign on the tree says 1601, while the placard next to the tree says 1602.

Robin prized seeds and seedlings from visitors to the New World. Serving as the king's botanist/arborist/gardener, Robin had previously created France's first botanical garden at the University of Paris's medical school in 1597 and then cataloged the entire Jardin Royal (royal garden) in the last years of the century. He made plantings around Paris in the early 1600s to start beautifying the largely tree-less city. Since Robin is likely the only Frenchman to have had access to both the seeds and the permission to make plantings, he is widely credited as the planter of the tree.

The oldest tree in Paris (Robinia pseudoacacia) still flowers after 400 years
Even after 400+ years, the tree flowers every spring.
Commonly known as a locust, or sometimes a "black locust" because of its dark bark, the tree is native to the eastern United States. Carl Linnaeus, the famed Swedish botanist and taxonomist, named the tree Robinia pseudoacacia in honor of Robin. As a robust plant that can flourish in poor soil, the locust tree has spread throughout the world. It does well even amidst pollution and hence is often found in cities.

The Parisian tree sits within a small garden square, the Square René Viviani, just across the River Seine from Notre Dame cathedral. In bygone centuries, the square was occupied by a medieval monastery and then an annexe building of Paris's oldest hospital, so only in the past century has the tree had a clear view to the cathedral. The square was opened to the public in 1928.

Square René Viviani in Paris, locust tree marked with red arrow
Square René Viviani, and Paris's oldest tree, as seen from Notre Dame. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons; red arrow courtesy of moi.)
At present, the tree measures approximately 50 feet tall, which is substantially above average for a locust tree. It would measure higher still, but a shelling during World War I destroyed its upper branches. Despite its great age, the tree blooms and flowers every spring.

Truth be told, the tree would long ago have collapsed if not for the concrete pillars supporting its leaning weight. A bit of concrete has even been added to some deep cracks in the tree itself, adding strength to its increasingly brittle bark. From the side facing Notre Dame, the pillars are largely obscured by parasitic ivy, which also would have killed off the tree except for judicious pruning by city gardeners. On the opposite side, however, the pillars are obvious.

Concrete pillars support the oldest tree in Paris; locust tree; Square Rene Viviani
One of the three concrete pillar supports was fashioned to look a bit like a tree itself.
In 2010, the city added hand-woven chestnut branches around the planting, as well as a wooden bench. But other than the small sign at the base (pictured above), which cannot easily be read by the naked eye, nothing indicates the tremendous age and stature of the tree.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Equestrian faces: pictures of concentration

Intense concentration on the cross country course at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
A face of fierce determination.
Yesterday, I blogged about the Blair Castle International Horse Trials. Today, I thought I'd share a few photos of riders' faces as they leapt over obstacles.


Jumping a brush fence at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Perhaps not quite as fierce.
Brush fence at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Mmm, this lip gloss tastes delicious.
Show jumping at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Already preparing for the next jump.
Leaping over a brush fence
Hey, why isn't that hot chick watching me?
Cross country at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Calm and undaunted.
Blinking? Or is it: "Oh, shit!"

For more on the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, see:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Blair Castle International Horse Trials

Show jumping at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
A competitor in show jumping at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials.
Set amidst rolling hills in the Scottish highlands, the Blair Castle International Horse Trials are the biggest equestrian event in Scotland and one of the biggest in the United Kingdom. Competitors range in age and skill from schoolchildren and amateurs to Olympian and world champion levels.

A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
A young rider approaches the challenge  . . .
A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
attempts to place the box on the pile  . . .
A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
but ultimately has to dismount to stack it.
Rider at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
An adult competitor charges through the cross country course.
The annual horse trial -- 2014 marked its 26th year -- takes place over four days in late summer. On Thursday and Friday, the top-level riders complete a dressage test, with half the field on the first day and the other half on the second day. All the competitors compete on Saturday in cross country, riding a course more than 3.5 miles in length with roughly three dozen jumps (fences, walls, etc.). Then on Sunday, the riders compete in show jumping, a tight course of high fence jumps. Though the competition lasts four days, each rider only competes on three of those days, and hence the horse trials are often called "three-day eventing."

Wooden horse sculpture
A life-size wooden sculpture available for purchase.
Besides the top-level competitors, the horse trials include many other equestrians, from Pony Club games to adult enthusiasts to professional riders. Their cross country course follows the same path as the elite riders, but with easier and fewer jumps; their show jumping involves lower and easier fences. Meanwhile, with a country fair incorporated into the event, there are hundreds of vendors selling gear, clothing, food, crafts, furniture, and sundry other items. More than 40,000 spectators wander freely amongst the hubbub. Also, dogs are welcome and so many attend that the horse trials become nearly a dog and pony show. Ba-dum ching! Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.

{Ed.'s note: Don't try too hard, buckaroo.} 

{Ed.'s note: Ba-dum ching.}

Main entrance of Blair Castle
The front entrance to Blair Castle.
Hosting this massive event is Blair Castle and, at least nominally, the current (12th) Duke of Atholl. The castle was opened to the public in 1936, with 30 rooms available for touring. The castle grounds include 145,000 acres of gardens, woodland, farm land, and moor land. The wooded hills and castle serve as gorgeous backdrop for the event, with the horse trials nestled into hundreds of those acres. Many spectators take a break from the action to tour the castle and its grounds.
Blair Castle as the backdrop for show jumping
Blair Castle as a backdrop for the show jumping.

Attendance at the trials isn't cheap. The gate price per person for one day is £15 on Thursday or Friday, £25 on Saturday, and £20 on Sunday, three pounds cheaper if you buy in advance. Grandstand seats cost another £12 to £22, depending upon which day. Parking is a further £5-6. And the horse trial tickets don't include the £10.50 entrance price to tour the castle. In addition, there isn't much hotel or B&B space in the area, so many hardcore attendees end up camping on the grounds, which costs anywhere from £130 to £256 for two people. If you wanna go all out, you can rent a "luxury yurt" for three people for £1,115.

We attended only on the Saturday of the trials. The castle is roughly two hours from our house, so we got up early and arrived just after the gates opened. Parking was easy. I'd reckon that getting out at the close of the day would be a long wait, but we left in late afternoon, part of the blessing/curse of having a toddler who can endure only so much.

Kate grew up an equestrian, though she hasn't ridden much since her early college days. Her Our main interest was the cross country riding. She might've liked to see the dressage, but that finished the day before. I think that watching even 15 minutes of dressage would've been hell plenty for me. We did watch a bit of show jumping, but a ground-view vantage point is great for the few jumps in your vicinity and only meh for the many others farther away.

Horse crash
Horse crash! Did the rider survive? Did the horse? See here.
Watching cross country isn't exciting, per se, in my estimation. But it is very pleasant. The horses cover more than 3.5 miles on their circuit, though in many places the course turns and folds back near itself, so if you place yourself right you can get a close-up view of one or two jumps and a decent view of several others. The only exciting -- and scary -- moment I had during the horse trials was witnessing a horse crash. I provided a photo journal of that crash in an earlier post, but here's what it looks like at the midpoint:

Between each horse/rider is an interval of a couple of minutes, so you watch intensely for 15-20 seconds and then have time to chat. This is a tailgating event with the occasional passing athlete. Kate says she could happily sit at one or two spots all day, watching and chatting. Which is believable, except she'd likely also fade into a multi-hour nap, undisturbed by the cantering thump of hooves passing by.

My favorite part is walking the course, tramping from one jump to the next, to the next, to the next. It's a gentle stroll in the countryside, with food trucks providing coffee and snacks.

Jumping a log fence into water
Jumping a log fence into water.
Jumping a brush fence
Leaping over a brush fence.
Keyhole jump at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Only the route for the most advanced riders directed them through the keyhole jump. The next two photos are from the same obstacle:
Barrel jump
Jumping a barrel.
Leaping up a bank from a water obstacle
Leaping up a bank from the water obstacle.
Drop fence at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
"Drop fences," in which the horse has to land on ground lower than where it leaped, can be difficult because the horse may balk if it can't see where it'll land.
Wooden wall jump
Rather than a log or rail, this jump is a (temporary and movable) wooden wall.
Riders have to be careful with the horse's stride as they come downhill and jump. The narrower jumps are for more advanced riders.
Vegetable table horse jump at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
The final jump required the eventers to leap over a table of potatoes.
Three-day eventing derives from the kind of work that military horses used to endure. Those horses needed to show grace and equanimity for parades; strength, speed, and bravery for battle; and endurance and careful training for the various duties around camp or on the march. The modern horse trial tries to honor those attributes with the controlled dressage, the vigorous cross country, and the precise show jumping.

We spent most of our time watching the cross country. But we did take the opportunity to watch some show jumping, as well. You're better off watching show jumping from a grandstand or -- best of all -- on television. Nonetheless, the show jumping always seems to draw the biggest crowds, so what do I know?

Blair Castle as backdrop for International Horse Trials
Blair Castle served as the backdrop for the show jumping arena.
In 2015, Blair Castle's horse trials will serve as the European Eventing Championships. Many of the world's top equestrians will be in competition. For the British, whoever places highest at the event will go on to represent the U.K. at the 2016 Olympics.

The 2015 horse trials will run September 10-13, a bit later than Blair Castle's usual August dates in previous years. Tickets are already selling fast. In the two months since tickets have been on sale, the event's "membership" level for spectators has already tripled the number from 2014. While the biggest sporting event in Scotland this year was the Commonwealth Games, the European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle will be 2015's biggest sporting event, eclipsing even the return of the British Open to the historic Old Course at St. Andrews.

FEI European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle, 10 - 13 September 2015
Book your tickets now for 2015's biggest European equestrian event.

For more on the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, see:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Monday Exposure: Lysicrates Monument

Lysicrates Monument in Athens
The Lysicrates Monument in central Athens.
Generals. Emperors. Gods and goddesses. Heroic deeds. Valiant efforts. Tragic endings. Those are the typical subjects for monuments in ancient Greece.

But not this monument. No, no, not this one. This monument comes with jazz hands!

It is one of, perhaps the, most-copied of all the ancient structures in the world. Erected in 334 B.C., the Lysicrates Monument commemorated the winning show choir at a drama festival. No joke.

At the time of construction, it was one of many such structures on a road Tripodon Street, i.e., the "Street of the Tripods" — that stretched from Athens' theater of Dionysus at the base of the Acropolis to the center of town ("agora"). Each year, several wealthy choregoi were selected to sponsor the choruses for dramatic plays in theater competitions held at the Dionysian theater. With the choruses typically in training for months under the direction of heavyweight playwrights like Euripedes and Sophocles, a choregus was responsible for his troupe's room and board, costumes, props, scenery, and accompanying instrumentalists, among other expenses. If you know anything about Greek choruses, you know they not only chanted or intoned during the dramas, they also sang and danced. Obviously, it is the origin of our word "choreography."

The choregus of the winning troupe was expected to produce a feast and a parade, as well as to erect a monument. Atop the monuments were bronze tripods, which were the prize for winning the drama competition. Considered an honor and duty for influential Athenians, choregei included significant figures such as Pericles and Plato.

Lysicrates Monument depicted in The Antiquities of Athens
The Lysicrates Monument in The Antiquities of Athens.
The Lysicrates Monument is the only surviving monument from the many that lined the street. The bronze tripod, which once sat upon the acanthus finial on top, is long gone. The frieze circling above the columns portrays the god Dionysus transforming pirates into dolphins, though it's partly eroded and somewhat obscured by pollution grime.

The monument was erected by "Lysicrates of Kykyna, son of Lysitheides," but he is not of any particular consequence. Instead, the monument owes its fame to its inclusion in a 1762 book called The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, by British authors James "Athenian" Stuart and Nicholas Revett. Their slightly idealized descriptions, and especially illustrations, of the Lysicrates Monument and many other ancient sites were influential and trendsitting for their type of architectural history and study. The book and its authors were major forces in a neoclassical architecture and Greek revival in Britain and the European continent.

Driehaus Architectural Prize
Driehaus prize
With its grace and symmetry, as well as its Corinthian columns — the oldest known Corinthian columns on the exterior of a structure — the monument provided an achievable model for architects from the eighteenth century to the modern day. Similar to how 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio frequently referenced the Greek temple style, with towering columns surmounted by a triangular pediment, the Lysicrates Monument became a touchstone for architects to insert as a cupola atop buildings or as a folly on the grounds of a country house. It was so popular as a neoclassical model that the new Driehaus Architecture Prize, which honors 21st century neoclassical architecture, issues a miniature Lysicrates Monument as a trophy. 

Among the many structures which feature elements modeled upon or inspired by the Lysicrates Monument are the Dugald Stewart Monument atop Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland; the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville; the San Remo co-op building along Central Park in New York City; the Beacon folly in Staunton Country Park in England; the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus; and the Lysicrates Monument reproduction in the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia.

Dugald Stewart Monument on Carlton Hill in Edinbugh, Scotland
Dugald Stewart Monument
Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville
Tennessee State Capitol
San Remo co-op building on Central Park in New York City
San Remo co-op
Beacon folly in Staunton Country Park
Old Well at UNC-CH
Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney
Despite its outsized influence on neoclassical architecture in our modern world, the monument sits amidst the bustle of Athens without much attention. Its information board is hidden behind the outdoor seating area for a restaurant across the street. Few passing tourists give it pause. Only the numerous street cats seem to appreciate the structure, mostly because of the perching birds eating in the garden.

Lysicrates Monument in Excavation
Lysicrates Monument in excavation.
Lysicrates Monument circa 1860.
Lysicrates Monument circa 1860.
Lysicrates Monument in 1900
Lysicrates Monument in 1900.
The Lysicrates Monument's 2,300+ years of history show the ebb and flow that ancient monuments endure. As one of many such monuments on the Street of the Tripods, it likely was unremarkable when built. Through happenstance and luck, the monument survived while the others perished over the succeeding centuries. At some point, its bronze tripod was repurposed. In the 1600s, the monument was encircled by a French monastery. It rose to fame in the late 18th century from inclusion in The Antiquities of Athens, and remained an inspiration for two centuries or more. In 1821, the monument narrowly survived the fiery destruction of the monastery by the Ottoman Turks. A few years later, it was unsuccessfully offered to English buyers to move across the continent. And now, as the 21st century progresses, the monument slowly subsides into anonymity.

Lysicrates Monument in its small garden
The Lysicrates Monument rests in a small garden in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens.

For another structure modeled on the Lysicrates Monument, see: