Tuesday, January 28, 2014

This commercial speaks to me

I don't like to share food. At all. I can, perhaps, let Kate have a bite. Probably not two.

With Jackson it's a different story. He's the exception. He and I share most of our meals. I'll start to eat a banana or a scone or a bagel at breakfast and he'll claim it. If he likes my sandwich at lunch, he'll probably get most of it. At dinner, he has free rein to eat whatever he wants off my plate. Like almost every parent, I'm powerless to withstand my kid wanting to share my food.

Jack nonchalantly steals my milkshake at the Olive Pip coffee shop in Glasgow.
Kate shares a chicken skewer at Chaophraya on Buchanan Street, the fancy shopping street in downtown Glasgow.
If you're somebody else, don't you dare try to eat off my plate. Don't. Try. It.

So when I was watching a college basketball game recently -- my ability to see basketball and American football is something I'll have to address in a future post -- this KFC commercial made me giggle. It's not remarkably funny. (Though the posh accents of the actors helps.) It's that it reminds me of my sharing issues.


British man and woman walk into a KFC. Probably on a date.

Man: "I'm gonna have a Mighty Bucket for One. How about you?"

Woman: "That's okay. I'll just have some of yours."

Man: {Grimace} "Okay, I really like you. But it's a Mighty Bucket for One. You can have your own, if you want. Now, I will share a romantic walk with you. I will even share my innermost thoughts. But my food...NAAHHH."

Voice over: "With two pieces of original recipe chicken, hot wings, mini-fillets, fries, and a drink, the KFC Mighty Bucket for One ain't for sharing."

The commercial gave me a craving, and so we hunted down a KFC in Glasgow.


It's one of those cravings you satisfy and immediately feel bad that you did so. Until the next craving.

"Daddy, may I eat this bite?" He gazes at my plate of greasy chicken. I'm powerless before the Disney-sized eyes and the tiny voice with its I'm-only-this-polite-when-I-want-your-stuff phrasing.

Sure, kid. Take what you want.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A tax on your gifts

This past Christmas, we spent $280 to receive presents.

I'm not talking about money we spent to send presents. (Though that amount was considerably higher.)

Rather, the $280 was money we were taxed by the U.K. government to receive gifts sent to us. The government held the gifts hostage until we paid. It's a procedure almost indistinguishable from a mafia goon intercepting our mail and forcing us to cough up some cash to get the presents.

The folks sending the gifts spent hundreds of dollars in shipping costs. Our payment of $280 -- costing roughly £46, £57, and £67 for three boxes -- was on top of the hundreds of dollars the senders paid. All told, in shipping costs and taxes, it cost more than a thousand dollars to send us presents from the States.

One of the boxes of gifts from the States. Jackson "delivered" it with his crane.

How about some Amazon gift cards next year?

According to Notice 143 of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (you can find it here), if you receive a gift or gifts collectively valued at more than £36 (at current exchange rates = $59.50), you have to pay an import VAT on any amount higher than the £36. The tax rate is the same as if you had purchased the goods in the U.K. But then the government penalizes you a bit further. How dare you receive a gift that wasn't bought in the U.K.? The government will calculate the import VAT on the basic price of the goods + the entire cost of postage, packaging, and insurance + any customs or excise duties charged.

Those same gifts might also be charged an excise tax if it's alcohol or tobacco, and a customs duty if the collective value is more than £135. To stick the knife in further, after the calculation of the taxes and duties, you then have to pay the U.K. government handling the mail inside the U.K. a "clearance fee" -- essentially, a handling charge. This clearance fee or handling charge is somehow deemed to be appropriate even though the sender of the gifts already spent hundreds of dollars in shipping charges.

The "clearance fee" was earned by Parcelforce because, y'know, it's hard work to receive a package from a foreign shipping company and then send out a form ransom letter.
If a package contains gifts for multiple people, then each individual receiving a gift (or gifts) has a separate calculation for import VAT. For example, if one person receives two gifts of £10 each then there is no charge for those items, but a second person who receives three gifts of £20 each will pay the import VAT on the amount over £36 (i.e., taxed on £24). Each of the gifts must be individually wrapped, specifically addressed to the individual, and declared separately on a customs sheet.

How do they know what's inside? Well, for starters, the senders are required to declare the items and cost on a form. The shipping company should be verifying the accuracy of that declaration. But in any case, the Royal Mail and Parcelforce are free to open the packages and examine them.

What is Parcelforce Worldwide? It is a U.K. government courier service; it was rebranded from Royal Mail Parcels to Parcelforce in 1990. It is a direct competitor to DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc. Most amazingly, if you pay to ship a parcel to the U.K. via UPS or FedEx or some other company, that package gets delivered not to your intended recipient but to Parcelforce, which then tacks on the aforementioned clearance fee. To my understanding, every foreign parcel is delivered first to a hub in Coventry, England, and then later delivered to the intended recipient.

Note that these taxes and customs duties are applied even when the recipient didn't ask for the gifts, didn't know the gifts were coming, didn't want to the gifts, and so on. The recipient is charged regardless. So when grandma sends her two-year-old grandson a gift, that two-year-old has to pay up to receive his birthday or Christmas present.

Enjoy the presents, kid. The taxes are coming out of your college fund.
So think twice before you send a gift to a U.K. recipient. You're likely going to pay less money to order it online from a U.K. company (and even have it wrapped) than you'll pay in shipping charges from the U.S. (If you're shipping from an EU country, you generally won't be charged these fees.) And your U.K. recipient won't be charged for receiving it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Diversify your portfolio: invest in whisky

Stocks? Bonds? Real estate? Boring, boring, and boring.

Gold? For the nutjobs.

A restaurant? A Monet or a Van Gogh? How about some rare Bordeaux wine? So passé.

ETFs? Commodities? REITs? For the geeks.

You're not old school. These days, that's for hipsters. You're old old school. You gotta blaze a trail, find the next one, be original. To be worth your time it has to be cutting edge, but classic. Behold:

The Macallan "M" decanter.
Six liters. {Ed.'s note: That's about 1.6 gallons, or 203 ounces.} Single malt. 44.7%. Drawn from The Macallan's select Spanish oak sherry casks, ages ranging from 1940s to the 1990s. The crystal decanter took seventeen craftsmen more than 50 hours to complete. With whisky in it, the decanter weighs 37 pounds. Just four of these Imperiale "M" decanters were bottled. Only two are available for sale.

Not for you any of the 1,750 regular bottles of The Macallan "M." Any schlub could buy those; they went on sale last year for £3,000 pounds (~ $4,940). Nor even James Bond's favorite drink, a Macallan 1962 Fine and Rare Vintage.

The Macallan 1962 in Skyfall.
The villain, Silva, offers a dram of Bond's "favorite" whisky.
You got swagger. Whisky is the future. In the first half of 2013, whisky exports from Scotland rose 11 percent, nearing $3.3 billion. The Macallan brand is investing $164 million in a new distillery and welcome center in the highlands.

Just this past weekend, a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong sold one of The Macallan's four "M" decanters for £393,109 (~ $647,215). That's up from the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records sale of The Macallan 64-year-old, for $460,000.

The "M" decanter provides 203 shots. At $647,215, that's $3,188 per shot.

But you can't drink it. That would be a waste. You need to save it. Hold onto it for awhile. Give it time to mature as an investment. Let some decades pass. It'll take that long to find the next fool to buy it.

There's one "M" decanter left. Diversify your portfolio.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Clava Cairns

What were they thinking?

Why expend so much effort on a carefully crafted pile of stones? And why erect circles of monoliths around those cairns?

At first glance, it looks like a pile of rubble. Nicely stacked rocks, to be sure, but nonetheless just a mound of stone.

The northern cairn.
Paying a bit more attention, the kerb stones around the base of the cairn indicate an enormous physical effort went into building the cairns. The even larger monoliths encircling the cairn were carefully placed and erected -- so heavy, and so expertly erected, that they have stood upright for thousands of years. This is not the work of a lone man, or a family, or a small team. Constructing these cairns required large numbers of people working over a lengthy period of time.

While some other cairns in the British Isles have standing stones incorporated into their structures, the Clava Cairns each have rings of standing stones marking a perimeter. We don't know why.
Move to the southwestern side, however, and things get really interesting. It's not just a mound of rocks. It's hollow. And it has a narrow passage leading to the inner chamber. Moreover, the mound is shorter on the southwestern side and substantially taller on the northeastern side. Huh?

A narrow passage leads into the cairn.
Kate is taller than the southwestern side. And she ain't tall.
Note that the kerb stones lead down the passage and line the interior of the cairn, as well.
Jackson makes himself as tall as possible.
The interior chamber is circular. The stones are stacked the highest at the back wall (i.e., the northeastern wall), and the floor accentuates this height by slightly sloping downward toward it. When it was first constructed the cairn had a domed ceiling with overlapping stones (somewhat like shingles) and a capstone, though obviously those stones were long ago plundered for use in other construction. Likewise, the entrance passage originally had a low ceiling, necessitating entry by crawling.

In contrast with the entrance at the southwestern end, the back of the cairn is much taller than Kate.
These stacked stones may not look artfully constructed, but keep in mind they were placed well enough to stay in place for several millennia.
An artist's rendering of a cross-section of the cairn with its dome intact.
The three Clava Cairns were built in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago. The northern and southern cairns are "passage cairns," allowing access into the interior. The middle cairn is a ring cairn, with no passage into the hollow middle. Why are there three cairns? (There might have been five, but evidence is scant.) Why is the middle one different? Is there a symbolic meaning? Some other reason? We don't know.

A few of the stones on the cairns have what are called "cup and ring marks" on them. Were these stones meaningful? Merely decorative? Do they indicate a proto-writing? Since some of the stones in the cairns appear to have been taken from earlier structures (homes?), it is possible the cup and ring stones were merely incidentally added to the cairns and have no significance. Again, we don't know.

The cup and ring marks on a stone at Clava Cairns. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Although the passage of time, combined with plundering and unskilled excavation, have made modern scholars uncertain, it seems the cairns were used to bury only a few people, and perhaps no more than one each. Were these tribal chieftans? Spiritual leaders?

What I find particularly fascinating, however, is the passage cairns were so carefully constructed yet put into use only for a short period of time. The passage is precisely placed to capture the setting sun on the winter solstice, at which point the sunlight would stream into the covered cairn and shine on the quartz on the back wall. From the perspective of the northern cairn, the sun set directly over the highest point of the southern cairn. Furthermore, recent scholarly analysis has shown that the stones have a gradation of color and texture used in groupings throughout the cairns. A great deal of thought, time, and manpower went into constructing the cairns. Yet the openings were very soon filled in with rubble and no further indication of these features was apparent. Why go to so much trouble?

On the winter solstice, the sun sets over the cairn visible in the distance through the passage.
The Clava Cairns are a quick 10-15 minute drive east of Inverness, just beyond the famed Culloden battlefield. Similar cairns dot the countryside all around Inverness and the Moray Firth. Because these cairns are the best preserved, the other cairns are all deemed to be "Clava-type" cairns.

We had the cairns largely to ourselves. Only a couple of other visitors trickled in. The best way to see a prehistoric site is in solitude, or at least as near solitude as possible. You need stillness; quiet; the blowing of the wind. {Ed.'s note: Having a toddler along can somewhat negate the solitude, but it's a lot better to have your own toddler wandering around than some other toddler messing up the mood.}

Tracing the perimeter of the monoliths around the middle cairn.
Apparently performing his own primitive ritual. In the 1870s, the owners of the land erroneously thought the cairns were druid temples, so they planted a ring of trees to circle the site.
The circles of monoliths are of varying heights and widths. Other than with the northern cairn -- where the monoliths are much taller in front of the (short) southwestern entrance, and much shorter behind the (tall) northeastern back end -- there doesn't seem to be a particular rhyme or reason for the varying shapes and sizes. That's a contrast with a site like Stonehenge, which has standing stones of distinct and regular sizes. Undoubtedly, the harsher climate around the Clava Cairns has eroded many of the stones, but even accounting for natural forces the monoliths are quite varied. Were the builders simply uninterested in making the stones more uniform? Was there a plan or a rationale? Did a different group erect the circles around the cairns?

Fat monoliths contrasted . . .
. . . with skinny monolith.
The middle cairn is a "ring cairn," with no entrance. It's much lower than the northern and southern cairns, and never had a roof. Where the northern and southern cairns are lowest at the southwest and highest at the northeast, this middle ring of stones is highest at the southwest and lowest at the northeast. Although it's called a "cairn," it may have been instead a place for a pyre for ceremonies accompanying burials in the northern and southern cairns. Unlike the two accompanying cairns, this ring of stones was not carefully placed and balanced but rather was merely a pile of rocks held within the inner and outer kerbs. After the hollow interior was no longer being used (either as a cairn or pyre), it was filled with rubble.

The middle cairn. (Photo courtesy of the Historic Scotland visitor's guide.)
No careful craftsmanship for this ring of rocks.
The ring is quite wide. Kate is standing on the northeast side, at its lowest height.
This ring cairn has a feature not found among any of the other cairns in the area. For some unknown purpose, several low banks of rubble radiate out from the ring toward some of the standing stones. Were these decorative? Did they have a symbolic meaning?

The paths of rubble are now mostly covered by grass.
About 1,000 years after the cairns were built, another group of people interred a few of their own dead into the structures (~1,000 B.C.). Not much is known about these people, either, since virtually no remains can be found. This later group also built a small kerb cairn on the site. Unlike the other cairns on the site, the kerb cairn is primitive and demonstrates no building acumen. Did they possess the skill to build a cairn like their forebears, but chose not to? Or did they lose the ability -- either the knowledge or the collective will -- to make better cairns?

Jackson peers into the cairn.
At one point, the cairn probably had a bulging mound above it, but now only a small depression remains.
The southern cairn is another passage cairn. It is almost identical to its counterpart northern cairn. As with the northern cairn, the southern cairn's passage aligns with the winter solstice's setting sun. The view from the passage of the northern cairn would have the sun setting directly over the highest point of the southern cairn.

The southern cairn.
I'm a big fan of prehistoric sites. I love the mystery of the techniques and motivations that created them. The stark, dramatic stones appeal to me aesthetically.

Besides the Clava Cairns, we've so far had the opportunity to visit prehistoric monuments at Machrie Moor, Avebury, and Stonehenge; I'll detail the latter two in future posts. I'm eager to see sites such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys and the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This summer should be busy . . . .

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

You don't know Jack

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:

The pineapple was tart.

  • "I want to be on television. Play golf. I want to be white guy."

  • Crumples up a plastic wrapper, hands it to me: "We have a trash can, Daddy."

  • "Mom, stop talking!"

  • "Mom, stop eating!"

  • "Mom, stop dancing!"

  • "Mom, stop singing!"

Plucking a 1/8 size violin.

  • "Rainbow! Rainbow!" Do you see a rainbow? "No." 

  • "Daddy, kiss that moose."

  • "I want to ride on a spaceship." Where do you want to go? "Those houses over there."

  • "That mommy hair . . . I don't like it."

  • What do you say when someone gives you something that you asked for? "I want a lollipop."

  • "Why does Mommy drink so much .............................. [dramatic pause] ...................... water?"

  • "Daddy, you are going [to] get bigger. Someday."

  • "My office is in a tunnel in Mommy's office."

  • Kate to Jackson: "How'd you get so cute?"  Jackson: "Daddy."

  • "See you later. We going out to meet the ladies." 

A good look for meeting ladies. When you're two.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A gentle walk on the West Highland Way

Looking across Loch Lomond to its western bank.
We took advantage of yesterday's bright sunshine -- there aren't very many such days during the winter months -- to take a short walk on the West Highland Way. I won't say we took a hike. This part of the trail is so gentle that you're merely walking along it, not hiking. As a rule of thumb, if Kate and I could comfortably bring our mothers along, it doesn't qualify as a hike. {Ed.'s note: Not that Grammar and Nana can't go on hikes. They can. It just takes more effort and attention.} So gentle, in fact, that this stretch of the trail begins with a few hundred yards of sidewalks and a paved road.

Watch out for those dangerous potholes.
The West Highland Way is a 96 mile hiking route from the lowlands outside Glasgow into the western highlands, with a terminus at Fort William. Around 30,000 people each year hike the entire route, usually in about seven days time. Tens of thousands more hike stretches of the trail each year. Along the way, hikers follow the wooded eastern shore of Loch Lomond and pass through isolated glens and moors. They finish near the base of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain, which many of the hikers take an extra day to summit.

Hikers generally start at the south end and head north, to take advantage of the increasingly dramatic and beautiful scenery. (Map courtesy of grasshoppersglasgow.com.)
Our walk began in Balmaha, a little village on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. It's a quick 20-30 minute drive from our house in Glasgow, and during the summer I'm told it's a popular starting point for Glaswegians to do day hikes, picnics, and beach excursions. Balmaha sits near the edge of the Highland boundary fault, which divides Scotland from the lowlands into the highlands; some sharp hills look over the village. A small harbor provides shelter for sailboats, and a passenger ferry makes minute-long crossings to the island of Inchcailloch.

The island of Inchcailloch guards the overflowing harbor at Balmaha. The islands gets around 20,000 visitors per year.
The winter rains make Loch Lomond flood its banks, leaving these trees in the water. In the background, the island of Inchcailloch, which means the "Isle of the old woman" or "Isle of the Cowled Woman," is the site of an old saint and was a burial ground for the MacGregor clan.
Hikers on the West Highland Way climb over Conic Hill and descend into Balmaha.
Taking the West Highland Way north out of Balmaha, we quickly left the paved road onto a rocky path that hugs the coastline of Loch Lomond. The path zigs and curves and zags along the waterline, hemmed in by trees and rocky outcroppings.

The trail of the West Highland Way clings to Loch Lomond.
Despite the path's undulations, it never rises or falls more than a few feet at a time.
Mattie wasn't keen on the bridge's metal grate floor.
The swollen level of Loch Lomond brought the water line up a few feet higher than normal.
Loch Lomond is a freshwater lake. By surface area it is the largest lake in all of Great Britain, with a length of 24 miles and a maximum width of about 5 miles, though it is often much narrower. By volume, Loch Lomond is the second largest in Great Britain, after Loch Ness. More than 30 islands dot the lake. The entire lake lies within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, created in 2002 as Scotland's first national park.

Looking west across Loch Lomond. The small village of Luss is barely visible on the shore. The hills rising behind the village range from 1,900 to 2,400 feet in height.
This small section of the West Highland Way is scenic but quite gentle. Parts were smooth enough to let our toddler take a stroll. The high water level covered several sandy beaches that are summer attractions for picnics and barbecues. In some places, the trail retreats from the water to take small jogs into the woods.

This part of the trail passes a few farms.
The trail occasionally breaks away from the coastline and dips into the woods.
We spent a couple of hours on the trail. Jackson will tolerate only 60 to 90 minutes in the backpack before he gets restless and wants to walk. So we walked only a few of the 96 miles.

But I'm hooked. I'd like to hike at least some of the stretches of the trail, particularly further north. Hiking the entire trail over a week probably isn't realistic for us, given the constraints of having a toddler who will slow us down and needs to spend time out of the backpack. Half day or full day excursions, however, might be possible. Last fall our next door neighbor hiked the entire route in smaller chunks over successive weekends. We might not be able to devote that much concentrated time, but perhaps we can knock off a few stretches later this year.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Barcelona on the sea

Barcelona originated as a Roman port village, called Barcino. Over the centuries, as the village grew into a city, Barcelona eventually encompassed multiple ports, most prominently its Port Vell ("Old Harbor"). By the late medieval period, Barcelona was a Mediterranean power and a major trading post between Christians to the north and Muslims to the south. Columbus's return from his first voyage to the Americas was to Barcelona, where he met King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Barcelona's nineteenth century industrial boom hinged on its location on the Mediterranean and its status as a major shipping port.

Today's visitors to Port Vell see a rebuilt harbor constructed for the 1992 Summer Olympics. The old harbor has become a yacht basin, surrounded by a tourist zone of beaches, aquarium, malls, IMAX, and public art. Commercial shipping is further down the coast. The hordes of cruise ships which call on Barcelona do so across town, near Montjuïc.

Yacht basin in Port Vell.
We used the harbor and beaches as a respite from our tourism throughout the rest of the city. As I've mentioned before, I have a tendency to overschedule our days and plan too much of an itinerary. On our trip to Barcelona, however, I made sure to allow time for wandering, meandering, and relaxing. We spent two afternoons and evenings within Port Vell, and on our last full day we spent the afternoon enjoying the beach.

This port authority building was built in 1907.
Overlooking the port is a column capped by a statue of Columbus. It's a bit ironic that Barcelona honors him at its port, since it was Columbus's voyages to the New World that led to diminished trade within the Mediterranean and the concurrent loss of power and influence of Barcelona itself.

The monument rises 200 feet.
Columbus points out to sea.
Heading east from the Columbus monument is a broad promenade that follows the port and eventually curves out toward the sea. At the start of the curve is the Barcelona Head, a sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein for the 1992 Summer Olympics. It honors Pablo Picasso with its cubism; Joan Miró with its vibrant colors; and Antoni Gaudí with its tilework.

The head has Lichtenstein's usual comic-newsprint style of dots.
Our favorite stop along Port Vell was the Barcelona Aquarium. It is one of Europe's largest aquariums, with more than 450 species and 11,000 animals. Ticket prices are quite high at 20 Euros per adult, though Jackson was free -- as determined not by age, but by height; another inch taller, and the kid would have had to pay 5 Euros. Although the price is steep, the aquarium is large enough that you can easily spend half a day, especially factoring in playtime and a snack or meal.

Follow the ramp down to enter the exhibits.
Posing for a too-expensive photo-op on a plastic shark.

The big draw in the aquarium is the gigantic "Oceanarium" tank -- holding more than 1,000,000 gallons -- with oodles of fish, eels, and sharks. A transparent tunnel, 260 feet long, passes through the tank.

You can ride a slow walkway through the tank, or step off it to move at your own pace.
The "Oceanarium" tank contains only Mediterranean species.
A generously-sized play area for the little ones helps them burn off some energy and provides them interactive displays.

 We also appreciated that the aquarium had a little fun with Halloween:

Barcelona's aquarium is a neat stop for families and anyone who simply loves aquariums. Without a doubt, it's one of Europe's best.

Port Vell at night is pleasant but not romantic. There are still plenty of tourists out, and a small army of sidewalk hucksters. An IMAX theater sits beside the aquarium, and an upscale mall stays open late with bars and restaurants. But even amongst the bustle you can enjoy the views and feel the sea breeze and listen to street musicians.

Looking over the harbor toward Montjuïc.
The yacht basin is well lit for a stroll.
Beyond the harbor are nine sandy beaches along three miles of the coastline. They are mostly family gathering spots, though at least one is clothing-optional. Like many other modern attractions in Barcelona, these beaches were created for the 1992 Summer Olympics by tearing down old industrial centers and clearing away unsightly slums.

The beach in Barceloneta, a neighborhood created in the 18th century to house sailors and fishermen. The Spanish king had razed their traditional neighborhood to make room for a military citadel to keep an eye on the pesky Catalonians.
To the southwest, the W Hotel rises in the background in the shape of a windblown sail.
To the northeast stretch miles of beaches. Note the Frank Gehry shiny fish in the 1992 Olympic village.
If we had known it would be so warm in November, we would've come better equipped for a day at the beach.
Having lunch at a beach bar, called a chiringuito, and celebrating the closing on the sale of our house in North Carolina.
Not many major tourist cities in Europe come with a great beachfront, too. You can spend days in Barcelona touring important sites, but you could also spend happy days lounging on the beach and enjoying the hip vibe. Even better, you can be a good tourist for part of the day and still have hours of sunshine to hang at the beach.

Barcelona does not quite have the level of tourist attractions that Paris, Rome, London, or other major cities in Europe. Its attractions, collectively, are at least a step or two down from such cities. But Barcelona is an extremely pleasant metropolis to visit and absorb. It deserves a relaxed and balanced mindset from visitors.

Ice cream selfie.