Monday, March 31, 2014

The U.K.'s most violent city is . . .

. . . not all that violent.

At least, not by American standards.

I was reminded of Glasgow's reputation yesterday by an ice cream truck. Hold that thought.

It was 43 °F at 6:30 pm, the ideal temperature to try to sell ice cream. Right?
Last April after Kate had accepted her job at the university but before we moved to Scotland a study came out ranking the U.K.'s most violent areas. The "U.K. Peace Index" study, from the Institute for Economics and Peace, ranked Glasgow as the most violent area in the U.K., ahead of London and Belfast.

It's the kind of news story that can make your mother worried about your impending move.

So I decided to compare Glasgow with the city we were leaving, Raleigh, North Carolina. To my mind, Raleigh is a fairly average U.S. city. It ranks as the 42nd largest in the U.S., and second largest in North Carolina behind Charlotte. Raleigh isn't considered by anyone to be a violent or dangerous U.S. city. If you were moving to Raleigh, no one would bat an eye about violence.

According to the U.K. Peace Index study, in 2012 Glasgow had 2.7 homicides per 100,000 people. Glasgow's population is just about 600,000 (598,830 in 2011). Thus, Glasgow had 16 homicides in 2012.

Raleigh had a 2012 population estimated at 423,172. According to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's statistics, Raleigh had 17 homicides in 2012.

That's an eye opener. Glasgow has a population roughly 40 percent larger than Raleigh, but Glasgow had one fewer homicide.

Comparing all violent crimes (homicide, attempted murder, robberies, and assaults) is only slightly more challenging. According to Scotland's government crime bulletin, in 2012 the city of Glasgow had 39 violent crimes per 10,000 people. I extrapolate that to 390 per 100,000 people, and to 2,340 for Glasgow's population of 600,000.

In 2012, Raleigh had 1,667 violent crimes for a population of 423,000-ish. Since Glasgow's population is roughly 40 percent larger, if we add 40 percent to Raleigh's violent crime rate we come to 2,334. That's darn close to Glasgow's violent crime numbers.

Glasgow and Raleigh are almost exactly equivalent in terms of violent crime. Glasgow has slightly fewer homicides, even with a population 40 percent larger.

Thus Glasgow, as the U.K.'s most violent city, is no more violent than Raleigh, North Carolina.

But what does all this have to do with ice cream trucks?

Ice cream handed out free of charge. Why?
When we moved to Glasgow last summer, we regularly saw and/or heard an ice cream truck in the area. It has a distinctive song which is audible and echoes for quite a distance; I'd guess I can hear it from half a mile away, or more. As summer passed into autumn, we expected we'd be seeing and hearing the ice cream truck less. But it was still around nearly every day.

Then autumn turned into winter. And still the ice cream truck was making its rounds. Who was rushing outside in winter evenings to buy ice cream? We never saw anyone buying. How could the ice cream truck be making money? We joked that the ice cream truck must be selling something other than ice cream. Like drugs or some kind of contraband.

Kate made that joke in passing to a few colleagues at work. They didn't laugh. Instead, they told her to Google "ice cream wars Glasgow," and see what came up.

Apparently, some Glasgow ice cream trucks used to be (and perhaps still are) selling illegal drugs and stolen goods. The ice cream sales were/are just a front for the illegal activity. Organized crime muscled its way into the ice cream truck business, claiming routes and territory, leading to turf battles.

Rival ice cream truck drivers were engaging in almost daily intimidation and violence. Glasgow police's "Serious Chimes Squad" (get it?) was mocked for being unable to control the situation. The violence reached its apex in 1984. An ice cream truck driver, who previously had survived having his truck windows blown out by a shotgun, was the target of another so-called "frightener." Around two in the morning, as his family slept, they doused his apartment door with gasoline and set it alight. Six members of his family died in the resulting fire, including an 18-month-old child.

The entire country was outraged. A few days later, an underworld figure tipped the police that two mobsters had perpetrated the act. That underworld figure, however, had previously lied to police and came forward years after the mobsters' convictions and admitted he had fabricated his testimony. While no one seems to seriously doubt the involvement of the mobsters in the crime, the police could find very little evidence. The mobsters were convicted, and more than 20 years of appeals followed. Ultimately, their convictions were overturned and they were set free. (For further reading, do your own Google search or check out these links: here, here, and here.)

Folks seem to have a lingering sense the ice cream trucks could still be involved in shady dealings. Kate and I came to that conclusion without any background knowledge. Yesterday, however, our ice cream truck driver was a kindly older gentlemen who didn't give us any bad vibes. Perhaps our suspicions are unfounded.

Glasgow's crime history is colorful. Newsworthy. {Ed.'s note: also tasty and delicious} It inspires authors and filmmakers. But today's Glasgow is no more dangerous or violent than Raleigh, North Carolina.

Friday, March 28, 2014

You commoners may now call me "Laird"

If you've been reading this blog from its beginning -- and, really, what's wrong with you, don't you have anything better to do in life? -- then you know Kate has earned thirteen fancy letters following her name (see here). And you know I've suffered woefully from prestige envy.

No worries anymore.

Henceforth, I shall be known as "Laird." Or, more appropriately:  Brian, Laird of Kincavel.

That's right, I now can be addressed as a landholding member of the Scottish gentry. I command a parcel of land in the highlands.

Obviously, to have such a title, I must have performed a great service for Scotland. Engaged in heroics. Cured a disease. Perfected cold fusion. Or something of that sort. It's impressive, I know, that an American has risen so quickly in Scottish society.

Incidentally, if you 'Muricans are now wondering the appropriate way to address me {Ed.'s note: dispensing with "dimwit," "moron," or "buffoon"}, the proper written salutation is "Sir" or "Dear Kincavel," while in person I am now simply "Kincavel." As a laird, I rank just below a Baron but above the distasteful "esquire." I've been esquire long enough; it was time for an elevation.

As the wife of such a highfalutin laird, Kate is now addressed as "Madam." My heir-apparent, Jackson, should be called "Young Kincavel."

What precisely makes me a "laird" here in Scotland? This piece of paper:

Seems legit, right?
If you've read the above deed carefully -- what? you haven't? you lazy commoners are all the same -- you can see that my landholding is "one square foot." You'll also note my control of such a vital 144 square inches is not absolute. And further, you may notice these 92,903 square millimeters {Ed.'s note: the landholding seems ever so much larger if you just use the right form of measurement} have nothing on them lie unspoilt in natural beauty, unless a two-thirds majority of bungling idiots my fellow lairds vote to cash in for development.

These tens of thousands of unspoilt millimeters are located within the Ardnamurchan peninsula on Scotland's west coast. My gorgeous estate can be found at Latitude: North 56 Degrees 43.821 Minutes, Longitude: West 6 Degrees 11.155 Minutes. If you find it, I hereby decree you may trod upon my land whilst under good behavior. Please leave a small heartfelt memento to commemorate your visit.

Nearly a hundred thousand square millimeters of Scottish highland glory, all mine.
Like any hero of the realm, I have obstacles and opponents to overcome. As the saying goes, "heavy is the swollen head that deems itself a laird." One such adversary, the Court of the Lord Lyon, has explained that the title of "laird" is not, actually, a title at all. Rather, it's a description which historically was sometimes applied to the owner of an estate, usually by the estate's workers. The Lord Lyon -- an official post dating back to the 14th century serving as the King of Arms in Scotland and the heraldic authority for the nation -- states flatly the use of laird "is not appropriate for the owner of a normal residential property, far less the owner of a small souvenir plot of land. It goes without saying that the term ‘laird’ is not synonymous with that of ‘lord’ or ‘lady’."

The fearsome officers of the Court of the Lord Lyon, in 2009.

Another foe, a solicitor from Edinburgh, wields legal arguments to explain "in Scotland anyone can, subject to requirements of good faith, call themselves whatever they like, including 'Laird', 'Lord' or 'Lady'." He further declares "just as adopting the moniker 'Duke of Earl' wouldn't make you either, let alone both, simply calling yourself 'Lord' or 'Laird' does not make you a Lord. You cannot render yourself a peer simply by changing your name and you won't acquire a right, say, to use heraldic devices like coats of arms. This is something which Scots law still takes very seriously and the use of unauthorised Arms is a criminal offence." Finally, he cheekily points out that while you might foolishly pay money to buy "one square foot" of land for the title of laird, Scottish law "legally allows you to use the courtesy title 'Messiah', and to update accordingly as much paperwork as you like, for nothing."

But these fuddy-duddy villains come armed only with mere trifles, such as logic, tradition, and law. They're no match for my weapons of delusion, propaganda, and brazen proclamation. {Ed.'s note: Please ignore the means of proletarian tactics for the ends of redistributing (i.e., acquiring) hereditary ruling class positions.}

Your calumnies are vanquished, I declare! I'm a laird. It says so on my piece of paper. And since this entire scenario of buying a square foot of land to become a laird seems vaguely Monty Python-esque, I say to my opponents: "I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries."

Unquestionably, my exalted status as Laird of Kincavel suggests requires me to buy a kilt -- what kind of laird would I be without one? -- and I now have the perfect rationale for buying one. And for wearing it all the time.

The question is not whether I am Laird of Kincavel. Rather, the question is why should I stop with only one title? Many more titles abound. I could add Laird of Lochaber; Laird of Jura; Laird of Glencairn, of Glencrannog, and of John O'Groats; Laird of Dunans Castle and of Chaol Ghleann; and so on. I can add hundreds of thousands of square millimeters to my estate. If I acquire enough lairdships, undoubtedly my burgeoning status would require elevation to Baron . . . .

But this dream is not mine alone. I share it with you, the little people. In just a few strokes, for a current pittance of £22.32, you can break free from your chains and rise into the Scottish gentry.

And so the people rejoice and sing: Benevolence, thy name is Brian, Laird of Kincavel.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A few technical difficulties

My blogging has been delayed recently by some ridiculous unexplainable terrible annoying technical difficulties.

Most of my time for blogging comes during Jackson's naps. He's an excellent napper, and usually I can count on at least two hours, sometimes three hours, of a calm house in mid-afternoon. Inevitably, I use some of his nap time for chores, emails, or other stuff that needs to get done. But I'm lucky to have a fairly consistent time to try to blog.

Unless, of course, our internet service gets interrupted. We've had ups and downs with our service -- at least five technicians came to the house in the first handful of months we were here -- but the past few months I had been lulled into thinking perhaps our problems were solved. Not so much. In the last week, our internet connection has come and gone incessantly. I would write a couple of sentences, or try to read some background info, and then the connection would drop out. It becomes too maddening to attempt to write and then constantly interrupt or lose what I'm working on.

Over the the last couple of days the connection has been much better. So do some blogging, right?

And now iPhoto is ruining my sanity screwing with me.

Yesterday, I got a pop-up box saying an iPhoto file was "corrupted," and so it shut down. That was odd, since I wasn't using iPhoto at the time (though it was open in the background as I attempted, and failed, to blog). But I opened up iPhoto again, and thousands of pictures were gone. In fact, iPhoto asserted it didn't have a photo library at all.

Huh? What the ----? Nooooooooo!

Fortunately for me, we have all of our photos on memory cards. So this iPhoto snafu is more about inconvenience than devastating loss. Nevertheless, I had spent time arranging and preparing photos for future blog posts, and all that work is gone. I'm not much of a photo editor -- the vast majority of the photos on this blog are unedited -- but a few get cropped or straightened or made presentable in some fashion. Mostly I've lost some groupings and prep work for blog posts. Nothing vital, but it will slow me down.

Without slogging through all the details, I spent several hours with successive layers of advanced Apple technicians, and they ain't got no idea what happened. They were terrifically friendly and helpful and knowledgeable, but this particular snafu doesn't seem to have a fix. We can find all the photos on my computer, but the ordering and naming is a disaster of gobbledygook and gibberish. Despite all the time they spent trying to fix things, they mostly gave up. The plan now is to upload the photos from the memory cards -- presumably resulting in a comprehensible order -- and then delete the earlier photos.

Ah, well. First world problems, y'know?

With luck, I'll be back to posting again soon.

Why this picture? Well, it's the first photo in my current mess of an iPhoto library. (Why does the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow have a statue of fat Elvis? No idea.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My favorite day of the year, diminished

Today is my favorite day of the year!

More exciting for me than Christmas, or my birthday, or even Jackson's birthday -- and let me digress, a present for Jackson's birthday arrived today but I have to wait almost three months to give it to him; it's killing me already -- is the first day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Pretty much every year for the past two decades, whether in class or at work, I've been able to take off this Thursday afternoon and watch the tournament non-stop from noon 'til midnight. Might be at home, perhaps at a bar, sometimes at a friend's house, occasionally in person, and often a mix of those options. Some years I've hooked up multiple televisions to be able to see several games at once. After a day of gorging on basketball, I follow it with a Friday doing the same thing. And then a Saturday. And a Sunday.
Bracket by ESPN.
One year, I escaped a court hearing on a Thursday afternoon because my opposing counsel had tickets to an NCAA tournament session. Thank goodness. I not only had "no objection" to his motion to continue the hearing to a later date, I offered my "full support." The judge, who had multiple degrees from the University of North Carolina, cheerfully granted the motion.

This year, I'm out of luck. A handful of tournament games are shown on ESPN (broadcasting the CBS coverage), but they generally start around 10:00 pm and go into the middle of the night. Since we're only four hours ahead of the U.S.'s east coast -- we're usually five hours ahead, but the earlier daylight savings time in the States crunches our time difference for a few weeks -- I'm missing all of CBS's afternoon games. Rather than college basketball, ESPN here is showing football (i.e., soccer) from the Bundesliga, or French rugby, or other #%&*! programming instead of U.S. college basketball.


Double sniff.

I may be able to watch some games online, so it's not a total loss. But the NCAA's online service isn't available to those of us overseas. Only a fraction of the tournament's games are available, through secondary sources.

I have an undergraduate degree from Indiana University, and a law degree from Duke University. IU wasn't any good this year, so go Blue Devils!
Moreover, I'm the only person I know in the entire country who actually cares about the NCAA Tournament. Kate will dutifully watch some games, but she'll grow bored or restless. Jackson likes to watch, but his attention span won't last an entire game. And he's not fond of my occasional outburst at officiating. (For Jackson's sake, I hope there aren't any games with Ted Valentine, Karl Hess, or Jamie Luckie.)

Jackson at Cameron Indoor Stadium last spring.
I'll muster what excitement I can. I'll stay up late, record the early morning games, watch online.

But it just won't be the same.

My favorite day of the year. Reduced. Devalued. Diminished.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Renewing your U.S. passport from the U.K.

You can't be an expat without a passport.

Well, you can be expat without a passport, but you're likely a criminal or on the run from the authorities.

Let's agree that being an expat without a passport is inadvisable.

Since you're law-abiding and want to travel and would prefer not to be blocked from entering the U.K., you probably don't want to follow these steps: (1) get a three-year visa for living in the U.K.; (2) move to the U.K.; (3) wait until roughly three months before your current U.S. passport expires before starting the passport renewal process;
(4) provide an inadequate photo for your passport; (5) have your passport renewal rejected paused while you fix the snafu; and (6) wonder if you'll get your passport renewed before the U.K. does something like, y'know, deport you.

Fortunately, renewing your U.S. passport while living in the U.K. -- or living in just about any other country -- isn't very difficult. Just about any moron anyone should be able to accomplish it with minimal hassle.

My renewed passport. (And thumb.)
Before we moved to the U.K., we needed to get Jackson a passport. The only challenge we had was getting our toddler, who was not yet two years old, to pose for a passport photo without moving, or smiling, or crying, or squirming, or blinking, or being, in general, obstreperous. One set of dour photos made Jackson look vaguely like a toddler axe murderer. How hard can it be to stand still for three or four seconds against this white background, without a smile or pout or goofy face? Suffice it to say we actually provided two photo options for his passport application, with a cheerful note asking them to pick which one might pass muster.

At the same time Jackson applied for his passport, Kate was due for a passport renewal of her own. She sent in her documents with his, and got her new passport without a hitch.

Meanwhile, I waited to renew my passport. I still had nearly a year of time left before I needed to renew. And in the midst of all the myriad preparations for moving overseas, I figured I didn't want to add an extra task.

It shouldn't have been a hassle for me to renew here in the U.K.; my snafus were self-inflicted wounds. Almost certainly, you'll be able renew your passport easily.

The U.S. Embassy in London, with six stories above ground and three stories below. The eagle has a wingspan of 35 feet. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Knowing that you're smart enough to look up the directions, read them, and follow them, I'll merely mention that you should not rely on this (or any other) blog as a definitive source for passport applications and renewals. 'Nuff said. But here are the general steps you'll follow to renew your passport from the U.K.:

  • Look over the web site for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of State.
  • Generally, you're going to follow the instructions and procedures specified by the particular U.S. Embassy in the country where you reside.
  • If you reside in the U.K., your passport renewal application will be processed by the U.S. Embassy in London. It will not be handled or processed by a U.S. consulate office, such as the U.S. Consulate General in Edinburgh, Scotland.
    •  Unless you are a minor under the age of 16 (in which case you will have an office appointment at a U.S. consulate or embassy), your application almost certainly will be renewed by mail.
      • Your application must be renewed by mail if you have an undamaged U.S. passport; that was issued within the last 15 years; that has a 10 year validity; and either your name hasn't changed or you can submit documentation (e.g., a marriage certificate) proving the change.
    • For your passport renewal, you must submit:
      • your current passport;
      • a passport photograph (2" x 2");
      • passport application form (DS-82); and
      • a nonrefundable application fee of $110.00, only in U.S. dollars (and not British pounds), paid by credit card, via a special form to be filled out.
  • If you live in England, Wales, or Scotland, your passport renewal application must be sent to the U.S. Embassy via DX, a private courier service. If you reside in Northern Ireland, you must send your application via the Royal Mail's "Special Delivery" service.
  • Follow all the directions provided, dimwit. All of them.
  • For the DX courier service, you can contact them via their web page, or via telephone. I suggest telephone. After you make initial contact with DX, a person will call you back (usually a day later) to get your payment information and to arrange a day for picking up your documents.
    • Collection happens within a few days. They'll initially give you an all-day timeframe, but you can request a collection either for morning or evening.
    • Your application fee of $110.00 does not include the DX courier service, which is roughly £20.00 or so.
    • Delivery to the embassy is not necessarily speedy. My documents took several days to arrive at the embassy.
  • Allow about four weeks for processing by the U.S. embassy.
    • During this time, the U.S. embassy sends your photo to the United States for the creation of your new passport, which is then returned to the U.K.
  •  DX will contact you to inform you that your application has been processed and it has documents to deliver. You will set up a time for DX's delivery of your new passport.
  • Success! Congratulations, you have a new passport.

What were the snafus during my renewal application? Two things. First, during the time my application was being considered, my credit card was cancelled by my bank because of a fraud alert, and a new credit card was issued. Apparently, the cancellation of my old credit card happened nearly concurrently with the embassy trying to process my application, and so there was nothing I could do about it until the embassy informed me they could not get payment.

The second snafu was my fault. Simply put, my passport photo was not exactly 2" x 2". It was darn close, but not quite. I had my passport photo taken at a location (a Costco) specifically listed on the embassy's web site as an acceptable passport photo provider. When I received my photos, I did notice that they weren't quite square -- I'm not a math whiz, but I know the difference between a square and a rectangle. But I figured this officially suggested photo provider knew what it was doing, and that perhaps the photo requirements had a fudge factor, since they end up cropping the photo for your passport, anyway.


In almost all cases -- at least for anything important -- I'm an indefatigable dotter of "i"s and crosser of "t"s. And then a rechecker, and a re-rechecker. I generally scoff at people who mess these kinds of things up.


Artist's rendering of the new U.S. Embassy in London, expected to be completed in 2017. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy web site.)
A few weeks after my renewal application, I received a gentle letter from the embassy explaining they couldn't process my application without a new payment form and a new photo. They attached a list of suggested providers of passport photos. I selected a different one (not Costco) and went the next day. Had my photo taken and provided by mail the following day. Called DX . . . and then waited for a week before they came to collect my documents. Grumble, grumble. At this point, I felt slightly nervous about having my passport renewed in time. But it was my fault; I would have to suffer the consequences.

And then, a couple of weeks later, I got a call from DX and arranged to have them deliver the "documents." Success! Or, not a complete screw-up!

My old passport.
There is a wrinkle, however. My U.K. visa was added to my old passport, and the U.S. embassy can't take the visa out and add it to the new passport. There is a process via the U.K. government to transfer the visa from the old passport to the new one, but we haven't explored that yet. I'm told it's not necessary, and I can just wait for my next visa to be added to the new passport. When we travel out of the U.K., I need to bring two passports, old and new. A very minor inconvenience.

I have the utmost confidence you'll breeze through your passport renewal. You will carefully read all the directions, get an appropriately-sized photo, and submit all the necessary documents. Really, it's not a difficult task.

Moral of the story: do as I say, not as I do.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Scale of Scotland's economy

Now that we live in Scotland, we're immersed in the minutiae of daily life. But I want to raise my head up occasionally and keep an eye on the bigger picture of the country as a whole.

Earlier this week, I came across a couple of short articles in the Washington Post about the size of the economies of large U.S. cities. More about that in a minute. The articles, however, made me think about the size of Scotland's economy.

According to projections, Scotland's gross domestic product (GDP) for 2014 will be $250 billion. For the U.K. as a whole, the 2014 estimated GDP is ~ $2.5 trillion. Thus, Scotland produces roughly 10% of the GDP for the U.K.

If Scotland were its own country, its GDP would rank somewhere around 38th in the world. That's actually quite high, considering its small population of approximately 5.3 million people. Compared to other European countries, Scotland's GDP would rank roughly 15th, fairly equivalent with Finland and well ahead of countries such as Portugal and Ireland. Again, in relation to the size of its population, Scotland punches above its weight -- e.g., Ireland has about a million more people, and Portugal's population is almost twice that of Scotland.

The public entrance to the Scottish Parliament Building. (And, yes, it is quite an unusual building.)
To better understand the scale of Scotland's economy, however, you must compare its GDP with major economic powers. Quite simply, Scotland's economy is tiny in comparison. If the U.K. no longer had Scotland, its GDP would still be roughly $2.25 trillion. The estimated 2014 GDPs for France and Germany are $2.8 trillion and $3.7 trillion, respectively. Japan's projected 2014 GDP is roughly $5.2 trillion, while China's is $9.7 trillion.

The U.S. economy, of course, dwarfs all others (for now). For 2014, the U.S. has an estimated GDP of $17.4 trillion. The federal government's 2013 budget -- remember, this is only the federal government's largesse, and doesn't include any state spending -- was $3.8 trillion. (I won't bother to go on a rant about how U.S. federal government revenues in 2013 were only $2.9 trillion.) By comparison, Scotland's 2014 budget is around $30 billion.

If Scotland were a U.S. state, its GDP would place roughly 25th in size, behind Connecticut and ahead of Oregon.

Most striking, to me, is comparing Scotland's economy with individual U.S. cities. Or, more accurately put, with U.S. metropolitan areas. For example, the GDP of the New York City metropolitan area is roughly $1.4 trillion, and if it were a country it would be the 13th largest economy in the world, behind Australia and ahead of Spain. The Los Angeles metropolitan area's GDP is approximately $830 billion, ranking about 18th in the world.

According to data collected by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a GDP of $250 billion for Scotland ranks it behind 12 metropolitan areas in the United States, a fair bit behind Seattle/Tacoma at $281 billion. If you aggregate the economic activity in approximately 20 U.S. metropolitan areas, you get about half of the U.S.'s total economic output. Take a look at this map, which the Washington Post took from a Reddit user (Alexandr Trubetskoy):

This kinda sorta blows my mind.
I haven't come across any hard data on the Glasgow metropolitan area's economic output, but I regularly see it described as producing approximately one-sixth of Scotland's economy (with Edinburgh a slightly smaller percentage behind). That means Glasgow's GDP should be roughly $41.7 billion. Its closest equivalent in the States would be New Haven, Connecticut, ranking roughly 60th in the U.S.

While Glasgow is Scotland's biggest city and largest economic engine, in scale the metropolitan area's economy is equivalent to a middling U.S. city, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico ($41.5 billion) or Madison, Wisconsin ($40.9 billion).

Getting a sense of that scale helps me keep in perspective the level of resources available to the Glasgow, and to Scotland as a whole. It also reminds me of the tremendous economic wealth and power enjoyed by the United States. As an expat, understanding the scale of things -- economy, population, geography, length of history, etc. -- helps me gain insight into my home country and my new host country.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Busy weekend in York

We traveled to York this past weekend. If you're touring England, it's truly an outstanding city to visit.

Founded in 71 AD as the Roman military fort of Eboracum, the city was successively ruled by the Angles (calling the city Eoforwic); then Vikings from Denmark for two centuries (who called the city Jorvik); then the Normans (i.e., William the Conqueror); and finally assimilation into England as York. During medieval times the city rose to great prominence, including as the base for the House of York to battle the House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses. Following centuries of gentle decline, York rose in the late nineteenth century as a center of confectioners e.g., the creators of Kit Kat and the railway industry. Nowadays, York is a major center of tourism in northern England.

A carving outside the York Minster.
Given its varied history, York provides visitors a wealth of different attractions. We saw a bunch of them.

While traveling is a major source of material for this blog, it also slows down my production of posts. Sorry 'bout that. Traveling takes time. So I gather a whole bunch of things about which I'd like to write, but then have less time to write about them. A double-edged sword.

We left Glasgow on Thursday morning, drove about four hours, and got to York around midday. We departed on Sunday morning, stopping at two ruined abbeys north of York, before returning to Glasgow on Sunday evening. Here's a taste of our long weekend:

The sloping buildings on the "Shambles" in downtown York.
York Minster.
An interactive display at York's Chocolate Story.
Only a little bit remains of St. Mary's Abbey.
Stopping for a snack outside the Yorkshire Museum.
An 8th century Viking helmet.
A display about the Roman town of Eboracum.
A steam engine in the massive National Railway Museum.
Tracing the ruins of Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A recreated Victorian street in the York Castle Museum.
Jackson exploring the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Made in Scotland — curling

It's an ancient sport, invented in Scotland and then exported around the world. You peer at a small circle in the distance, contort your body for a smooth delivery and goose the trajectory with a little spin. It looks deceptively simple, but an inch to the wrong side can bring disaster. If you do it right, a small crowd politely applauds. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, a player who violates the rules is expected to call the infraction on himself. After the game, it's tradition to go have a drink with your competitors.

No, not golf. That's the other sport Scotland invented.

We're talking about curling.

My curling instructor demonstrates for me at a free "Try Curling" session in Glasgow.
First played by tossing smooth rocks on frozen ponds and lakes, the game of curling is at least 500 years old. A curling stone dated "Stirling, 1511," and another dated 1551, were discovered in a pond in Dunblane, Scotland, though there are serious doubts about the authenticity of the writing on the stones. Regardless, in 1541, a Scottish notary described (in medieval Latin) a curling contest between a monk in Paisley Abbey and the abbot's representative. With plenty of cold winters supplied by the Little Ice Age (mid-1500s to mid-1800s), curling became a popular Scottish sport. The first use of the term "curling" appeared in a poem in 1620.

As the centuries passed, players used curling stones of whatever shape and size they desired, ranging from small handheld rocks which were thrown part of the way to nearly immobile stones of 115 pounds. Some players favored rounded rocks, others squarish.

The niches were for fingers and thumb. (Photo courtesy of
In the 1700s, handles were added to give more control for rotating (i.e., "curling") the stone, which helped players arc and bend the trajectory of stones for better placement. Nowadays, curling stones are set between 38 and 44 pounds (usually 42), with a maximum circumference of 36 inches. They're all granite and come from one of two places: either a granite quarry in Wales, or an island off the southwestern coast of Scotland, called Ailsa Craig. Somewhere between 60 and 70% of all the stones worldwide come from Ailsa Craig, including those for almost all major competitions, including the Olympics.

Ailsa Craig stones used in Scotland.
The stones are slightly concave underneath for easier sliding.
The founding of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in Edinburgh in 1838 led eventually to standardization of rules and equipment. After seeing a demonstration of curling on a ballroom floor in Scotland, Queen Victoria gave permission in 1843 for the club to be renamed the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The Royal Caledonian became the mother club and the worldwide governing body for the sport until 1966, when it helped establish the International Curling Federation.

Given the untamed conditions of playing on ponds and lakes, the sport of curling involved a significant degree of luck. With the advent of indoor ice rinks in the 20th century, however, the ice is smooth and uniform throughout greatly reducing luck and upping the ante on skill. Serious curling inevitably moved from outdoors to indoors, and in the process lost a bit of its scenic and communitarian aspects.

A Glasgow ice rink dedicated to curling. Note that eight games can be played concurrently.
Back in ye olden days, curling was a manly and tough sport for outdoorsmen. Weak and timid folks huddle inside from the cold, while "curlers are sportive, and youthful our air." The fourth verse of a late 18th century song, the "Curlers March," proclaims:

Various dates given for first publication, but definitely by 1792.
Then sally out boldly, and form round our ring,
Like waters in frost we together will cling,
To corn bat proud Boreas,
Or who else may shore us,
Until we shall meet the return of the spring.
Now mark the dread sound as our columns move on
So solemn, so awful, so martial's the tone
The clouds resound afar whilst the waters groan!
Stable rock
Feels our shock
As if stern Mars in transport spoke
Such the thunder and crash of the curling-stone!

As is the tradition of so many things in Scotland, you conclude "gleefully we drink to all curlers keen!"

Modern curling is played on a "curling sheet" measuring 146 to 150 feet long and 14.5 to 16.5 feet wide. Its rules are similar to lawn bowling. Each team has four players. Both teams get eight stones per round, called an "end," for a total of sixteen stones. The teams alternate sliding, or "throwing," a stone to the other end of the ice.

The goal is to get the stone as close as possible to the center (the "button") of the concentric circles (the "house") at the other end. Whichever team gets its stone(s) closest to the button gets a point, or points. Teams can knock the other team's stones away, or shield their own stone, or try to place a stone to block or obstruct a throw by the other team.

Kate prepares to deliver a stone. You push off from a "hack" to slide forward with the stone, aiming for the button on the far end of the curling sheet.
The concentric circles don't serve to increase scoring, though a stone must at least touch the outer ring to be counted. The circles serve only as a visual aid for aiming at the "button." Without the circles, you can imagine the need for a person to mark a place or hold a pin as a target, like a flag in the cup for golf.

In major competitions, teams play ten "ends;" at recreational levels, teams often play only eight ends. The goal isn't to win the most ends, but to score the most points over the game. In practice, the losing team frequently concedes before all the ends are played because of the impossibility or extreme unlikelihood of securing enough points in the final end or ends.

Some stones are thrown straight ahead, but the trajectory of many stones is purposefully arced or bent. The thrower can spin the handle clockwise or counterclockwise, at various speeds, to arc the shot. Meanwhile, two teammates can use a "broom" or "brush" to sweep the ice in front of the stone, making the ice wet and slippery, thereby helping to speed up or guide the trajectory. The brooms originally were made from corn stalks, but now are typically fabric, horsehair, or hog hair.

While simple in concept, curling is quite complex in strategy and skill. The various rules and strategies are beyond the scope of this blog post, but you can get the idea from terms such as guards, draws, take outs, hammers, free guard zone, peeling, and so on. The team captain, called the "skip," directs where each shot should go. Teams sometimes opt not to score points in an end so as to retain the "hammer" (i.e., the last stone thrown in an end) for the next end. Aggressive or defensive strategies might suit various teams' skills, but a single mistake can force a team to pursue an entirely new strategy mid-game or even mid-end.

Although it may not come across as exciting to a casual viewer, the more you know about the rules and strategies the more exciting it becomes. Suspense can build over the course of an end, or toward the finish of the game. The throw of a "hammer" can be as tense as a last-second field goal in American football, but the shot lasts much longer and consequently feels more excruciating.

That said, curling is nonetheless a niche sport in Scotland, as in the rest of the world. Schoolchildren might get a chance to try curling in gym class, and youth clubs are available, but participation is nowhere near football, rugby, cricket, etc. After exposure in the Olympics, folks (like me) get curious about curling and try out free curling classes to get a taste.

A recent "Try Curling" session in Glasgow.
The current powerhouse of curling is Canada, though Sweden is also excellent. Scotland is periodically very good. The U.K.'s men's and women's Olympic teams are comprised entirely of Scots, and won silver and bronze this year, respectively. Outside the Olympics, the Scottish women won last year's world championship. 

Kate and I quite enjoyed our hour-long "Try Curling" session a couple of weeks ago. With a babysitter to look after Jackson, we headed to an upscale mall in Glasgow (Braehead) that holds one of the best curling facilities in Scotland. In the months before the 2014 Winter Olympics, it hosted several of the world's best teams for a competition, and I'm told it's the usual base for Scotland's women's team.

Entry to the rink.
The necessary bar for post-curling libations.
We had two instructors for eight people. We learned the basics of throwing stones, from how to approach the "hack" to how to stay balanced while throwing. We all took turns sweeping, an extremely vigorous cardio workout. (The top curling players spend half their year in weight and cardio training.) Kate had good form for a beginner. My form was mediocre, but my claim to fame is actually throwing a stone into the "house" without assistance or a nudge from the instructors a rare feat for a beginner {Ed.'s note: we'll let you decide how much was luck and how much was skill}.

Instead of a broom for balance, you start with a training bar. Your weight should be balanced on the foot opposite your throwing hand.
Kate looked like she was a natural.

Approaching the "hack" as instructed, feet braced to avoid slipping.
After the "Try Curling" session was over, I asked the instructor if I could try using a brush for balance instead of the training bar.

Lookin' good before the delivery.
A good push here (but note how my brush has come much too far in front of me) . . . followed by falling over after releasing the stone.
After our session, Kate and I both thought we'd enjoy doing some more. There are beginner classes on weekend mornings, as well as some evenings during the week. The practicalities of getting a babysitter every week, however, are hard to surmount not to mention that if we're going to get a regular babysitter, we'd likely prioritize other things (sightseeing, going to a movie, pub trivia, etc.) over curling. As it was, we combined our "Try Curling" expedition with seeing a movie.

But if the logistics were right, we'd definitely be willing. Anyone want to provide free babysitting on Saturday or Sunday mornings?