Monday, September 29, 2014

Monday Exposure: Rowallan Castle

Rowallan Castle as viewed across the Carmel burn
Rowallan Castle -- it's really more of a manor house -- is open to visitors only seven days a year.

Scotland's earliest known lute music was written -- or at least transcribed -- at Rowallan around 1620. The composer, Sir William Mure, was a soldier, an accomplished poet, a family historian, and fecund father of fifteen. In the 1600s, the lute was Europe's most important secular instrument, though culturally Scotland was a bit behind the times.

Mure would play these tunes in Rowallan Castle's great hall. He did so with an eye for romance, inscribing his manuscript: "for kissing for Clapping for Loving for proving." That's right, centuries before it became common to serenade the ladies on guitar or piano, the lutenist was the bad boy of music.

The recordings below are by a wonderful Scottish musician, Rob MacKillop. Take a listen:

Rowallan Castle with attached ruined keep
Recent excavations show that human settlements have used this knoll since the Bronze Age. The ruined keep dates from the 1200s.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Exposure: Hairy coos

Scottish highland cattle; hairy coos
Can the cow (l) and bull (r) see me as I photograph them? They give no indication.

               Tousled, fluffy, horn'd,
               Eyes shielded by fringe. Highland --
               Most awesome of cows.

               You graze, double coat
               Warming you on windswept glen,
               Ancient and beloved.

               Unperturb'd model.
               Lenses, shutterclicks, tourists
               Agape. Iconic.

Hairy coo on the Isle of Mull
One of us will blink first, coo. Is it going to be you? No, it was me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A less-United Kingdom, but still united

They voted yesterday at 5,579 polling stations within 2,608 polling places, from the cities to the highlands to the islands.

They lined up at dawn; voted all day; queued into the night.

They turned out to vote in historic fashion, 84.6% of registered voters embracing their democratic moment. They participated in higher numbers than any previous vote in Scotland (80.9%) or the U.K. as a whole (84.0%).

They voted, in the end, to retain their union with Wales, Northern Ireland, and England.

Union Jack flag flying
The Union Jack will not lose its Scottish blue.
The United Kingdom continues. Intact.

Although it wavered and equivocated in the polls, Scotland's final decision was decisive: 55% rejected independence. In a land which reveres William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, which romantically refers to Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion in '45 as though it were in living memory and not from 1745, only 45% of Scots voted in favor of cutting ties with the auld enemy.

YES garnered 1,617,989 votes. But another 2,001,926 Scots pondered independence and decided NO, we don't want to create a new country. It was a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime, offer of disunion from their fellow Brits. And a majority decided the anti-independence campaigners were right, we're Better Together.

A few thousand Scots took their paper with its one question and, possibly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment, failed to return a countable ballot. These "rejected papers" included 2,554 ballots left unmarked or void for uncertain marks; 691 ballots that marked both YES and NO; and 16 ballots which left some unacceptable mark. A final 168 voters in some way marked their ballot but were disallowed because they wrote their name or some other identifiable information -- an odd choice by a voter, but an even odder reason for rejecting an otherwise valid ballot, unless we say "stand up to be counted, but don't let us know who you are."

Of the 32 voting precincts in Scotland, only four supported independence. That included Glasgow, the largest precinct with 12 percent of Scotland's total population, at 53.49% for YES. The city's turnout, however, also was the lowest of any precinct, reaching merely 75%.

map of Scotland's independence referendum results
The purple-shaded areas voted NO to independence; areas shaded red voted YES.
But though it has not been dismembered, the United Kingdom is less united than ever. And it's poised for less unity going forward.

As part of their wooing during the referendum campaign, the three major U.K. parties -- Tories, Liberal Democrats, and Labour -- all pledged major devolutionary powers to Scotland's parliament. As soon as possible. Each party has its own proposal, but the differences are largely of degree and not of type. Scotland, which has always retained its own legal system, will get increased power over taxation and more power over social spending. The U.K.'s parliament likely will retain full control over issues such as defense, foreign affairs, energy, immigration, pensions, and a few other areas. All other matters -- education, housing, welfare, transportation, income taxes, and so on -- will be either wholly or substantially controlled by the Scottish parliament.

Ironically, it was the Scottish National Party and its leader, Alex Salmond, who pushed for these kinds of "devo-max" powers to be included as a third option on the independence referendum ballot. The SNP asked to have the ballot include options for YES, for NO, and for greater devolution. The parties at Westminster rejected the option for devolution, only to use promises for such devolution as a carrot (i.e., bribe) when the campaign got closely contested.

This evening, Salmond announced he will step down both as Scotland's First Minister and the head of the SNP this coming November after the SNP holds its party conference. He has led the SNP for a total of 20 years (not all consecutively), and has been Scotland's longest-serving First Minister.

This morning, basking in the glow of victory, Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his commitment to devolution. He set out a timetable for a devolution "white paper" to be produced by this November, and draft legislation for Parliament by January 2015. Somehow, he expects all the parties to work cooperatively on the matter, even though they're all positioning themselves for the May 2015 general election. While all three major parties have pledged devolution post haste, they have incentives and disincentives to working together.

Scotland will ignite with anger if the Westminster parties fail to provide what they have promised. A fair number of NO voters rejected independence only because of the promise of further devolution. I think it's a safe bet that some significant devolution will be secured for Scotland in the relatively near future.

But Cameron also added new wrinkles to the game today. He pledged further devolution for Wales and Northern Ireland, not just Scotland. And, significantly, he said the so-called "West Lothian question" should be decided at the same time and in conjunction with the devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It's important to remember that while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have devolved governments that limit what the U.K.'s parliament can decide, England has no corresponding parliament. The U.K.'s parliament decides all English matters.

The "West Lothian question," first raised in 1977 by a Member of Parliament from the West Lothian constituency in Scotland, asks whether Scottish MPs (or Welsh or Northern Irish) should be allowed to vote on matters affecting only England. In a devolved United Kingdom, the Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on all matters in the U.K.'s Parliament, including all matters affecting only England. But English MPs do not have an equivalent vote on matters controlled by devolved Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish parliaments.

Cameron wants to solve the West Lothian question, most likely by allowing only English MPs to vote on matters that affect only England. That would mean Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs would not have equal rights as MPs as their English counterparts. Not only would those Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs have no vote in their own devolved parliaments, at the same time they would have fewer votes to cast in the U.K.'s parliament.

Furthermore, if a party -- most likely Labour -- gained a majority of seats in the U.K. parliament, it might lose its voting majority if the chunk of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs were not allowed to vote on matters. Currently and likely for the near-term, Labour has no chance at a majority in the U.K. parliament without those MPs, particularly without the consistent Labour bloc from Scotland.

Cameron's suggestion to solve the West Lothian question on the eve of the May 2015 general election is a superb political machination. As the leader of the Tories, he positions himself as the champion of the English voters, who are far and away the majority of the U.K.'s population. It puts Labour in an awkward position. If they accede to Cameron, they potentially lose the use of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs in votes in Parliament; even if they win the May 2015 election, their power could be diminished. If they oppose Cameron and anger English voters, they may lose the May 2015 election because of it.

These devolutionary issues have been simmering for at least a century. Many think the Republic of Ireland may not have seceded from the U.K. in the 1920s if the Irish had been granted such devolution. As he did so often, Winston Churchill saw around the corner of history and predicted the U.K. would eventually move toward federalization. He foresaw the call -- perhaps the need -- for devolution. Speaking in Dundee, Scotland in October 1913, Churchill said:

               Another great reason for the settlement of the Irish question in the present Parliament and for
               disposing of the Home Rule controversy now, while we have the full opportunity presented, is
               that the ground is thereby cleared for the consideration of claims of self-government for other
               parts of the United kingdom besides Ireland. You will remember how, last year, I addressed a
               meeting in Dundee on this subject. I made it perfectly clear that I was speaking for myself. I
               made it clear that I was not speaking of the immediate future, but dealing with the subject
               which lay for the moment outside the sphere of practical politics and raising a question for
               reflection and discussion rather than for prompt action.

               I spoke of the establishment of a federal system in the United Kingdom, in which Scotland,
               Ireland and Wales, and, if necessary, parts of England, could have separate legislative and
               parliamentary institutions, enabling them to develop, in their own way, their own life according
               to their own ideas and needs in the same way as the great and prosperous States of the
               American Union and the great kingdoms and principalities and States of the German Empire.

In 1912, Churchill had proposed 10 regional parliaments: one for Scotland; one for Wales; one for Northern Ireland; and seven for regions of England. By "parliaments," Churchill apparently had in mind something similar to U.S. states. He also pointed to the federal systems of Canada and Australia.

political cartoon about Churchill and devolution
A September 1912 political cartoon from the Liverpool Daily Courier.
Yesterday, Scotland voted to reject independence and persist in the United Kingdom. In the next few years, as a result of its referendum debate, Scotland may witness the other constituent nations of the U.K. ease into a loose federation that only nominally remains united.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Holy sh$t, Scottish independence might happen

Scotland independence; Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes
The pro-independence supporters are feeling . . . frisky.

Unthinkable → extremely unlikely → a respectable showing → closer than we thought → neck and neck → PANIC

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have assured you Scotland would vote against independence. While the vote looked like it might be somewhat close, the pro-union (or anti-independence) campaign of "NO" voters appeared to have a comfortable cushion to win the campaign. After the first televised debate in early August on independence between Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, and the leader of the "Better Together" pro-union campaign, Alistair Darling, the independence campaign was losing in the polls by double digits. But then a second debate in late August gave a strong boost to the "YES" vote; the polls quickly showed independence closing the gap to within six percent.

This issue has been on my radar for nearly two years, when I saw a news blurb announcing an agreement (the "Edinburgh Agreement") between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond that Scotland could hold a referendum regarding independence. That announcement came on 15 October 2012. Although I had no idea in October 2012 I would be moving to Scotland, I'm a political junkie and the referendum was an oddity worth pondering.

Then, in early 2013, Kate got offered a position in Scotland and we soon committed ourselves to moving to the U.K. The independence referendum occasionally popped up in the news and I started doing some background research. I made a reference to the referendum in my very first blog post and have tracked it closely ever since:

And then came a poll on September 7, for the first time showing the pro-independence YES supporters in the lead. It was a small lead, 51% to 49%, and within the margin of error. Nevertheless, the poll showed the campaign to be in a dead heat.

This sent shockwaves through the political elite of the U.K. The general consensus -- as it evolved -- is what I outlined at the top of this post: progressing from regarding independence as unthinkable to a panic that independence might happen.

Since the September 7 poll, other polls have weighed in. Most show a small lead for the NO vote, though one poll indicates an eight point win for NO. On the other hand, one poll indicates an eight point win for YES. Averaging the polls, it looks like NO has a tiny lead, perhaps within the margin for error.

The new general consensus is that no one knows how the vote will turn out. Roughly six to ten percent of voters claim to be undecided. The YES voters are visibly more passionate. The NO voters have the support of most media, the professional classes, and most large businesses. This election may very well hinge on turnout and a get-out-the-vote effort. {Ed.'s note: As do many elections, of course.}

Scottish independence referendum--YES campaign billboard
The YES campaign has billboards up throughout Glasgow.
Scottish independence referendum--YES campaign stickers on car
YES voters are much more visible.
Scottish independence referendum--YES signs in window
You can find YES signs in windows everywhere. I'd estimate that YES signs outnumber NO signs in Glasgow by at least a 20 to 1 margin, and I'm probably underestimating that ratio by a large amount. I could see a 50 to 1 margin. It's rare to see a NO sign.
My anecdotal, man-on-the-street impression is that YES supporters are everywhere. They seem to vastly outnumber the NO voters. I ask just about every Scot I know about independence, and many tell me they have moved from a NO vote to undecided. What that means in reality is that many were likely undecided but leaning toward NO, and some may now lean a bit toward YES. Polls don't reflect the YES visibility on the ground. My guess is that NO voters are keeping their heads down, afraid of rowdy YES supporters hectoring them, calling them unpatriotic, or some other confrontation.

What is the Scottish independence referendum?

Scotland will vote in a referendum to answer a solitary yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" If the electorate votes yes, then Scotland will leave the United Kingdom.

When is the vote?

September 18, this coming Thursday. The polls will be open from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm. Approximately 789,000 voters requested and were sent postal ballots at the end of August.

Who can vote?

The following groups of people can vote on September 18, so long as they are over the age of 16 and have registered to vote:

         - British citizens living in Scotland (including any English, Welsh, or Northern Irish);

         - service personnel posted outside of Scotland, as well as spouses and children (aged 16 or over);

         - European Union citizens living in Scotland; and

         - certain qualifying Commonwealth citizens living in Scotland.

That means about 800,000 Scots who live outside Scotland cannot vote, while about 400,000 English, Welsh, or Northern Irish can vote in the referendum.

A total of 4,285,323 people have registered to vote. That makes it the largest electorate ever in the history of Scotland, for any election or referendum.

As an American expat living in Scotland, I cannot vote. I'm happy about that. It doesn't seem like a question I should answer. If I did have a vote, I'd probably vote against independence, though I'm a lot less certain about it than I was several months ago. I think Scotland definitely can succeed as an independent nation, perhaps even thrive. But I think Scotland certainly will suffer in the short term from transitional costs, and quite possibly suffer in the long term. I see no truly compelling reason for Scotland to leave its 307-year old participation in Great Britain (and then the United Kingdom). As a practical reality, Scotland has been tied to England for 411 years when the nations were unified under one king. Scotland has thrived because of its involvement in the U.K., not in spite of it.

When will we know?

We almost certainly won't know the result of the referendum until the next day, September 19. Votes will not be counted until the polls close at 10:00 pm on September 18. The voting will not be reported until all precincts have finished their counting.

I haven't lived in the U.K. long enough to know how they usually handle elections, but I suspect that the various political parties involved in the referendum will have a decent idea of the results before the end of voting on the 18th. I assume they'll have their own exit polls. We may or may not get hints of the outcome from the statements or demeanor of politicians, reporters, and talking heads.

What happens if Scotland votes YES?

Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become its own independent country.

But nothing will happen immediately. Scotland and the rest of the U.K. -- often abbreviated in the press here as "rUK" -- will negotiate many issues, notably what currency Scotland will use, how much of the U.K.'s debt it will take on, who gets the oil fields in the North Sea, and so on.

Salmond, serving as Scotland's First Minister, would like to resolve all issues and have independence by March 2016. That may be optimistic. Both sides, however, have incentives to end uncertainty and get divorced as soon as possible. No one knows how long it will take, but within two years seems pretty likely.

Scotland will retain Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch. But given Scotland's generally left-leaning politics, don't be surprised if there is a somewhat near-future referendum as to whether to retain the monarch. I'd be stunned if this happened while Queen Elizabeth is alive, but broaching the subject with the less popular Prince Charles on the throne makes it easier.

What happens if Scotland votes NO?

Somewhat ironically, a lot will happen fast. Scotland will remain part of the U.K. But the major political parties -- Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour -- have all pledged to give Scotland and its parliament substantially enhanced powers as soon as possible. This is generally called devo-max (i.e., maximum devolution). These powers will include enhanced abilities to tax and spend, more power over the National Health Service in Scotland, and so on. Some political leaders have called for these powers to be in place within just a few months.

Increased powers for Scotland, however, may lead to calls for increased powers to Wales and Northern Ireland. Some in the Republic of Ireland have already speculated on a referendum for Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and join the rest of Ireland.

England does not have its own parliament, and there are a few voices calling for such a body. Will this referendum increase a desire by the English to have their own parliament? We don't know.

In political terms, Scotland will be very much a federalized state within the U.K. It will have more power on some issues than U.S. states have within the U.S. federal system. Scotland will have control over most of its domestic questions, but foreign policy and national defense will still be controlled by the U.K.

If Scotland votes NO, will there be a "neverendum"?

Some folks speculate that if Scotland votes NO but the vote is close, then we'll see another independence referendum fairly soon. Perhaps independence will be a never-ending political football, with multiple future referendums. Don't count on it. In fact, Salmond has publicly stated that the independence referendum is a once-in-a-generation question, at best. And the U.K. is very unlikely to agree to another referendum for a good long while, so any near-term Scottish referendum on the issue would not have the legitimacy (or legality) that this referendum has.

Which side is going to win, YES or NO?

Nobody knows. As I noted above, the polls show a tight race, with a strong cohort of undecided voters.

My best guess is that the NO side will win narrowly. But my prediction is of course made with my own political bias as background, my lack of time in the country, my sense of the polls, and an educated guess on how undecided voters may flinch at voting for the risk of the unknown.

But don't be surprised at a YES vote. Scottish independence just might happen.

Scottish independence referendum--NO and YES signs
The YES voters are more vocal and more passionate. But the quieter NO voters have a slight lead in the polls.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Exposure: Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey's crossing and presbytery
The crossing and presbytery of Rievaulx Abbey.
They didn't survive the second wave.

Truth be told, Rievaulx Abbey had been declining for centuries. Its founding was directed by the famous French monk Bernard of Clairvaux. Though St. Bernard was not the founder of the Cistercian Order -- a medieval religious order seeking to reform monastic life by strictly following the austere Rule of St. Benedict -- he was its genius expander and proliferator. Under his direction, the Cistercian movement exploded from France into Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Eastern Europe.

In 1132, twelve of his monks founded Rievaulx in the north of England. Within a few decades their numbers had swollen to more than 140, and an additional 500 lay brothers worked the surrounding land. The abbey reared vast numbers of sheep and made a profitable trade in wool throughout Europe. They were skilled in mining iron and lead. To make better use of the surrounding countryside, they redirected the course of a nearby river three times. By 1200, Rievaulx Abbey was the preeminent Cistercian abbey in England, and one of the country's wealthiest monastic communities.

But the vast program of building a massive church and abbey complex had left them in enormous debt. Moreover, Rievaulx had devoted resources to establishing daughter abbeys in Scotland (e.g., the great Melrose Abbey) and the north of England, eventually numbering nineteen daughter houses. Such expansion by Rievaulx cost not only money. It also inevitably created a brain drain as the abbey sent many of its ambitious young monks away to found the new abbeys. As the 1200s went on, taxation and duties to the Crown, to the Church, to the Cistercian Order, and even to local lords, all increased dramatically. Then a sheep disease in the 1270s and 1280s ruined the abbey's flock. In the 1320s, conflicts between England and Scotland resulted in multiple invasions from the Scots, who nearly captured England's king Edward II at Rievaulx. Extreme weather, crop failures, and cattle diseases weakened the populace in the first half of the 1300s. Most gruesomely, the Black Death struck in 1349.

By 1381, the Rievaulx and its dozens of surrounding buildings were occupied by only 15 monks and three lay brothers. Their numbers improved a bit over the next 150 years, but never approached the previous height. Some of the growth was due to a significant decline in the abbey's discipline toward following the Rule of St. Benedict, allowing the monks to live in private quarters, to eat meat, and to fraternize more with the outside world.

The beginning of the end came in 1535. The king, Henry VIII, had already split with Rome and declared himself the head of the Church in England. He now set about dissolving the monasteries around England, partly as a movement of reform -- the relative wealth, landholdings, usefulness, and godliness of monastic communities were questioned throughout Europe -- but also partly as a means for enhancing the Crown's revenues. Henry had sent harsh inquisitors across the realm to delve into the running of the monastic communities, examining their finances and seeking confessions about moral failings within the abbeys. In 1535, Parliament passed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries, which dissolved any monasteries, priories, abbeys, or other religious communities whose income was less than £200 per year.

Rievaulx escaped dissolution -- its 1535 income was £351 and 14 shillings -- but closure of the lesser houses caused a popular revolt in the north of England which was put down by force. The royal commissioners returned for further inquisition. On 3 December 1538, armed with the power of the King to convince, cajole, or use force, the commissioners obtained the "voluntary surrender" of the abbey to the Crown. The abbot and 22 monks were granted pensions and the 102 lay brothers were sent away.

Then the abbey was stripped of any valuables and its physical structure given over to a local earl for destruction. Of the 72 buildings connected to the abbey and its surrounding lands, more than half were destroyed and no trace can be found. The remainder were torn down and dismembered, most left in piles of stone rubble.

Excavations in the twentieth century found two skeletons amidst the rubble, crushed in the spasm of destruction. Fitting symbols for the decay and dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey.

Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey
The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.

Friday, September 12, 2014

You don't know Jack (#4)

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:

A quick lunch from the trunk while sightseeing.

  • "I'm keeping my eyes open for naked ladies, but I don't see any more anywhere."

  • "If I sat here all day, I might get picked up by a helicopter. I might." 

  • "I like bonking my head."

  • "Mom, I must eat ONE raisin and then go to bed."

  • "I accidentally touched the fence again . . .  And again. And again."

It lurks. It watches. It pounces . . .

  • "I was not pleased with how you said that to me."

        Kate:    "Isn't Mommy awesome?"
          Jack:    "No. Daddy is awesome!"
          Kate:    "What am I?"
          Jack:    "A doctor."

  • "Why isn't Rachel my mommy?"

  • Upon being handed a liver cell stuffed animal: "Are hepatocytes good for cuddling?"

  • "Mommy, don't eat too much. You might get too big! You might."

  • "Daddy, you're a good man. Like Santa Claus. You give me presents." 

  • "Can I go inside and show that lady my balls?" Umm, your GOLF balls, right?

Is it a hepatocyte, or the whole damn liver?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Man Booker Prize, now with 'Muricans

Yesterday, the short list of six finalists was announced for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It's an annual literary prize for the best English-language novel published in the U.K. To be eligible for the prize, an author has to be a citizen of the U.K., any of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe.

Until now.

This year, the prize has been opened to any novel written in English, so long as the book is published in the U.K.  Note, the novel does not need to be published exclusively in the U.K.. It merely must be published by one of the U.K. publishing houses, many of which are imprints owned by publishing companies from outside the U.K.

And so here come the 'Muricans, to a bit of gnashing of teeth. Some folks are concerned that American authors will swamp the competition, squeezing out many participants from smaller nations. Others lament that the chance for exposure for non-American authors will be diminished. A few worry that one of the Man Booker's best attributes -- that it was a manageable list of potential nominees, with each of the judges able to read the entire list of potential winners -- will be lost due to a significant increase in eligible books.

Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014 shortlist
The 2014 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. (Image courtesy of the Man Booker Prize.)
From a long list of 13 books, with four American authors, comes yesterday's short list of six. Of those six on the short list, two are Americans:

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour                      Joshua Ferris                      American
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves        Karen Joy Fowler               American
J                                                                       Howard Jacobson               British
The Lives of Others                                         Neel Mukherjee                   British
How to Be Both                                                Ali Smith                             British
The Narrow Road to the Deep North               Richard Flanagan               Australian

Obviously, Americans garnering ⅓ of the year's nominations is substantial. But not, presumably, too alarming. The British press ruminates that this is a cautious first step into new era. A good showing by the Americans, but they have not been allowed to swamp the competition.

After all, given the relative number of authors and their worldwide citizenship, what is most striking is that half of the nominations are British. Is it surprising that (mostly) British judges think Brits deserve a wildly outsized percentage of nominations? You decide.

I haven't read any of the novels. In years past, Kate and I have tended to read -- or at least buy and save on a bookshelf for future reading -- Man Booker winners and nominees. We already own one of the shortlisted books, and likely will accumulate others soon.

To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about the Man Booker being opened to all English-language writers. I liked that it excluded Americans, who have their own Pulitzer to covet. On the other hand, it didn't make much logical sense for the Man Booker to allow all English writers except Americans (and perhaps a few other English-language writers lurking in non-Commonwealth countries).

Incidentally, the early scuttle is that The Lives of Others is the frontrunner. I find it interesting that Mukherjee, who was born and raised in India, is counted as "British." Perhaps because he attended university in the U.K.? Perhaps he lives in the U.K. now? Is he now a U.K. citizen? I dunno.

The winner will be announced on October 14. I am quite sure that winner will not be an American.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday Exposure: Glenfinnan Viaduct

Glenfinnan Viaduct with Jacobite steam train
The Jacobite steam train puffs across the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Robert McAlpine, later to be Sir Robert, left school at age ten and started in the coal mines. By age 16 he was an apprentice bricklayer. At 22 he struck off on his own. Within five years, he owned two brickyards and employed more than 1,000 men.

His first railway construction project ended badly. He had no technical expertise. Litigation and remedial work on the railway almost ended his business.

But McAlpine was undeterred. He took on further railway projects and learned the craft. By 1897, aged 50 years, he began work on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Though he had started his career with bricks, he moved confidently into concrete construction, earning the nickname "Concrete Bob." Nevertheless, even with his hard-earned experience, many doubted whether a viaduct of this size could be made solely from concrete. And, they tutted, it would be unsurpassingly ugly if it did stand.

Up to that point, the longest concrete bridge ever built was less than 44 yards long. Concrete Bob built his viaduct with 21 equal arches, each 15 meters wide, for a total of more than 344 yards.

The viaduct was completed within 14 months. By 1901 the West Highland Railway had daily steam train service. The railway now best known as the Hogwarts Express is oft voted one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. The Glenfinnan Viaduct is its undisputed highlight. Had it been built with bricks or stone, it would no longer be in use. When the railway opened in 1901 the brochure described the viaduct thusly:

                  Many authorities on matters of taste, declared when this viaduct was first proposed, that it
                  would prove a monstrosity, sufficient in ugliness to take away all the charm and beauty of
                  the scene. Few would endorse this opinion now.

Glenfinnan Viaduct as view from the train
The Glenfinnan Viaduct viewed from the train.

Jacobite Steam Train 


For more about the Jacobite steam train journey which the Glenfinnan Viaduct serves, see here:

Friday, September 5, 2014

The U.K. is poorer than each of the 50 U.S. states

Read the title of this post again, and let it sink in.

One more time.

If you're like me, you initially may not believe it. Surely, the data must be manipulated, the numbers exaggerated, the conclusions faulty.

But it's accurate. The numbers are widely available, the methodology is mainstream.

Take the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of each U.S. state. Divide each state's GDP by its population. That renders a GDP per capita (i.e., per person). Now compare each state's GDP per capita to the U.K.'s GDP per capita. That is the approach taken by Fraser Nelson in a recent column for The Telegraph, a conservative-leaning newspaper in the U.K. Nelson is the editor of The Spectator, a conservative British magazine, and he expanded on his column in a follow-up blog post there.

By Nelson's unremarkable measurement -- which of course rendered some remarkable gnashing of teeth on Twitter and other media -- the U.K. would rank ahead of only one state, Mississippi.

If you take Nelson's methodology and refine it a bit further, the U.K. falls behind Mississippi. That's because when you adjust the numbers for purchasing power parity (PPP) -- which adjusts for differences among the value of currencies, somewhat akin to a cost-of-living analysis -- the U.K. is a bit worse off. Though some things in the U.K. are cheaper, such as health care, other things are more expensive, like food, gasoline, and many consumer goods. These PPP measurements are shown by a Forbes follow-up to Nelson's calculations. If you want to delve even a little further into the numbers you can read more here.

U.K. flag atop Edinburgh Castle
The U.K. flag flies above Edinburgh Castle.
All of these calculations surprised me a bit, though admittedly I hadn't given a specific thought to them prior to the article and blog posts. But it's quite eye-opening in light of Scotland's upcoming independence referendum on September 18.

I've written before about the scale of Scotland's economy. With a projected 2014 GDP of $250 billion, and a population of approximately 5.3 million, Scotland has a GDP per capita of roughly $47,000. That ranks well above the U.K. as a whole; only London and part of southeast England outperform Scotland on a GDP per capita basis. I haven't located any PPP analysis for Scotland by itself, since the calculations are generally made only for the U.K. as a whole. Nevertheless, even with a sizable PPP adjustment, Scotland would rank in the middle tiers of U.S. states.

So, if the U.K. as a whole were a U.S. state, it would rank 51 out of 51. By contrast, if Scotland were a U.S. state, it would rank somewhere in the middle.

With the independence referendum now imminent, the polls have tightened considerably. According to the latest polls, the pro-independence movement has quickly closed to within about 6 percentage points (53% to 47%) of the pro-union forces. One of the main arguments made by those who want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom has been to foretell economic doom and gloom for an independent Scotland. It's a bad economic move, they say, and possibly a catastrophe. Why would Scotland leave the U.K.'s market, its protection, its overall economic powerhouse position? Surely Scotland would be diminished, right?

But an independent Scotland would be -- in terms relative to U.S. states as well as European nations -- fairly wealthy. Not everything would be rosy, and Scotland would be forced into extremely tough negotiations with the U.K. as it departed. But all told, Scotland would not be in a terrible position. This is especially easy to see when you compare a potentially independent Scotland with the newly-freed Eastern European nations following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Most of those nations are now doing passably well, particularly aided by their inclusion in the European Union and its large market. If Scotland votes for independence, even with hardship following departure from the U.K., it would be in a much better position than those Eastern European nations were in the early 1990s.

I don't want to make too much of these economic figures. GDP per capita is not a perfect measurement. Nor is adjustment for purchasing power parity, which is not an exact science. Let me stress that again: these are not perfect measurements of the U.K.'s wealth in comparison to those of the U.S. states. But in the broad brush tools of macroeconomics, it's no more objectionable than saying many other countries are poorer than U.S. states, such as Peru, Russia, South Africa, or Vietnam, to name countries at random.

Nonetheless, the calculations do provide a rough comparison. One which surprises me. I'm open to arguments that these figures are bogus or grossly misleading, if you're so inclined. Any takers?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I wuz robbed!

Okay, not really.

Let's try again:  I wuz screwed!

Well, not really. It was the judges' decision. Three of them. They had 32,000 entries, and somehow, somehow, SOMEHOW did not choose my photo. Nincompoops.

What do they know?!? Are they blind?!? They're not even %$!@&*# professional photographers!

{Ed.'s note: Neither are you, Brian.}


Every year, the BBC show Countryfile has a photo competition. It seeks viewers' photos for a calendar, sales of which raise money for the BBC's Children in Need charity. They get tens of thousands of submissions every year, sometimes more than 50,000. Judges select their top twelve photos, and then the public votes on its favorite. The winner gets £1,000 for photography equipment. The judges' favorite gets £500.

Countryfile is a BBC workhorse. On the air since July 1988, it now broadcasts 52 weeks per year in an hour-long prime time Sunday slot on BBC1. The show focuses on rural, agricultural, and environmental issues. Each week the show travels to a different part of the British countryside, ranging all over the island. Weekly segments may focus on wildlife, farming, local crafts, county fairs, disease outbreaks, nature walks, or any of a variety of similar topics. For my American readers, the show reminds me a bit of CBS's Sunday Morning show.

This year's photo competition theme was "Animal Magic." Exactly what that meant wasn't specified, of course, giving wide latitude to both the competitors and the judges. The animals photographed had to be either wild or agricultural (not pets), and photographed in the U.K. Photographers had to be amateurs. Submissions were required to be physical photos, not electronic, and competitors could submit a maximum of three. A panel of past winners and finalists winnowed the field from 32,000 to 3,000. Then the final three judges -- a U.K. comedian (and birdwatcher); a veterinarian; and one Countryfile's longtime hosts -- chose their favorite twelve.

What do this year's finalist photos look like? Here's a sampling. Note that the contest photos posted online are of low image quality (presumably deliberate to prevent anyone capitalizing on the photos before the calendar is released), so these images don't do them justice.

Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Ruffled Feathers"
"Ruffled Feathers"
Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Harvest Mouse"
"Harvest Mouse"
Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Fox Love"
"Fox Love"
Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Swan Sweethearts"
"Swan Sweethearts"
Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Piglets on Parade"
"Piglets on Parade"
Countryfile Photographic Competition 2014--"Curious Cattle"
"Curious Cattle"
Any of the above photos is a worthy winner. They're outstanding. Do you have a favorite? I think mine is "Curious Cattle," but my opinion shifts every time I look at them.

Among the other six photos, I think a couple are real clunkers. I'm not showing them, though you can easily find them online. However, I'm certainly not a real photographer. I barely qualify as an amateur. I'm best termed a "beginner." You can decide for yourself. What were the judges thinking? Congrats to all the finalists!

What photo did I submit? A puffin masterpiece, amiright? Taken on the island of Lunga, among the Treshnish Isles off the west coast of the Isle of Mull. Hard to believe the good people of the United Kingdom won't have the opportunity to gaze at this photo every day next July, or March, or October, or whenever.

Puffin stretch, Lunga, Treshnish Isles, Scotland
My puffin masterpiece from Lunga in the Treshnish Isles. "Look ma, no legs!"
Voting for the competition ends this coming Sunday. The winner will be revealed in October. For those of you in the U.K., cast a vote now for your favorite:

UPDATE: To see the winners, take a look here:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Monday Exposure: The Kelpies

The Kelpies, Falkirk, Scotland
The Kelpies were unveiled in April 2014 in Falkirk, Scotland. The statues bestride an intersection of the Forth & Clyde canal with a new canal extension reaching to the River Forth.

                    1          year of fabrication and assembly

                    2          Kelpie heads

                    8          years of planning by the artist

                    9          number of the motorway, the M9, which runs past the Kelpies

                  30          welder fabricators who assembled the internal structures

                  32          meters down for the piles into bedrock

                  90          days of assembly on-site

                  98          feet high

                300          weight of each Kelpie in tonnes (i.e., 661,286 pounds)

                990          unique stainless steel skin plates

             1,200          tons for the foundations

           18,000          components for each Kelpie

         350,000          expected visitors per year

      5,000,000          pounds sterling for total cost of design and construction

Kelpie with head down, Falkirk, Scotland
A "kelpie" is a mythical creature residing in Scottish lochs, often taking the shape of a horse. These kelpies are modeled on Clydesdales.
Kelpie with head raised, Falkirk, Scotland
Created by Glaswegian artist Andy Scott, the statues are the largest art installation in Scotland and the largest equine statues in the world.