Saturday, August 31, 2013

Collecting Change

I've been collecting change for a long time. I've mentioned my friend Jenny, who sent me a care package around Easter. When we were undergraduates, Jenny and her fiance (now husband of seven or eight years!) paid for their wedding almost entirely by collecting change. I've been repeatedly amazed by the amount of folding money I've gotten back when I turned in giant piles of clanking money, so I've kept a change bank for years and years. I'm that guy, who picks change up off the ground when I see it. (Pictured is the contents of a full Guinness coin bank from November of 2009, which amounted to $54.81.)

British money - particularly coinage - is a bit different than American money. The three big differences are that the Brits use £1 coins in lieu of bank notes; there are £2 and 2 pence coins ("pence" is often abbreviated to "p", but I think saying "two pee" sounds vulgar, so I usually say "pence"); and in lieu of quarters, they use 20 pence coins. Fifty cent coins are also rare in America, whereas 50 pence coins are as common as any other coin. I tend to use my 10, 20, and 50 pence coins, and my £1 coins, while my pennies (that's the same) and 2 pence coins pile up. I've been trying to use my 5 pence coins lately, but previously piled them up as well.

Since I arrived in Scotland last September, I can probably count the number of £2 coins I've actually spent on one hand. Instead, I save them, and currently have nearly seven piles of fifteen coins apiece, for a total of £210, or about $321. I took this picture when I was four coins away from having seven piles, but now I'm just one shy of that £210. I have no idea what I'll do with the money once I have it, but I'm sure I'll make good use of it. (I'll probably turn in my current cache of 1, 2, and 5 pence coins at the same time - last time I did it, that ziplock bag full of low denomination coins wound up being something like £30!)

I saw this link on Facebook the other day. I don't usually talk about non-Scottish politics on here, but since it's relevant (and non-partisan), I'll share my comment:
I'm currently living in the United Kingdom, which uses the equivalent of one and two dollar coins in lieu of bank notes. I prefer a dollar bank note, but the pound coin(s) aren't horrendous, and I think Americans could learn to live with them if they gave them a chance.

That said, it strikes me as similar to organizations I've worked in that started tightening up on the use of office supplies and printing. If an organization's budget is so tight that it has to look to superficial solutions, then the budget problems are generally too deep for those superficial solutions to actually accomplish anything of value. America is in the same boat: saving a few billion dollars by instituting a dollar coin may save us money, but it doesn't address the deficit itself, which is caused by both parties working together to spend far more than we could ever hope to raise in revenue (which is often just a euphemism for taxes). What we really need is entitlement reform, because it's a combination of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - and, to a much lesser degree, fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement - that's bankrupting the country, not the use of one dollar bank notes.
I'd just like to reiterate: I prefer the Greenback, at least for American money. (As for here, it probably helps that I'd never visited the United Kingdom until long after the genesis of the £1 coin.) It also can't help that attempts at $1 coins have all been rubbish. C'mon, Sacajawea? Really? You put a president on a coin - a famous president. Hear me now and believe me later, if you put Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan on a $1 coin, I'd personally be a lot more receptive to it than Sacajawea or Susan B. Anthony.

For now, though, I'll just enjoy the accomplishment of having spent ten months collecting more than one hundred £2 coins. Outstanding!

* * *

In early August, I loaded my stacks of £2 coins (and my loose 1, 2, and 5 pence coins) into my Rush MOAB 10 and headed off to the Coinstar machine at one of the local supermarkets. I think it took me a good ten minutes to load all of the coins into the machine, and a number of them - mostly the £2 coins, oddly enough - had to be loaded in twice because the machine initially rejected them. Eventually, there was a single £2 coin that I put through eight or ten times, and it still wouldn't take it, so I just kept it. So, what was the final tally?

Well, as you can see from this picture of the receipts (and that last £2 coin!), the final score from about ten months of saving (plus the 1's, 2's, and 5's - I'd already turned those in once before) was £202.07. Not bad at all. Although this was all money that I'd received as change at one point or another, it felt like free money; and it was nice not to have to hit the ATM for a few days. That's been one of the great things about the change-heavy manner in which I spend money here in the United Kingdom: because I use both banknotes and change on a daily basis, the money tends to go further than it does in our banknote/debit card heavy American system. I still sort of wish that I'd saved it for something special, but my whole year in Scotland has been special, so I guess it's not quite so important.

Ladies and gentlemen, the lesson for you is clear: collect your change, it feels like free money!

UPDATE: Jenny noted a correction: "Not to be a stickler, but simply for the sake of historical accuracy which we both prize: we've been married TEN years now! -- And our wedding wasn't entirely financed by our [found] funds (though a trip to the [theme park] for five people was...) Just work + the usual savings methods... And [husband]'s mom made the cake, a friend made my dress, I made all of the corsages, bouquets and such, [husband] burned CD's for the music & my brother brought the stereo equipment & friends did the pictures -- so the cost of our wedding was $1,000 or less (mostly the cost of renting the sanctuary & reception rooms). :)" I stand corrected!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Songs That Remind You 12

It's that time again. A while ago, I posted about Psy, which may seem cliche, but it seemed appropriate. Here's another one: Thift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Another one that's started getting a lot of play here in Scotland in the last few weeks has been Love Me Again by John Newman. It's kind of catchy.

Here's one I've heard repeatedly at "my" Starbucks called Little Talks, by Of Mice and Men, which is featured in the trailer of the upcoming film About Time.

And finally, there have been many occasions in which I've heard What About Us by a girl group called The Saturdays.

Will there be another Songs to Remind You? As always, stay tuned to find out.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Adventures in Peterculter

Aberdeen's a really amazing city, but sometimes it's nice to go somewhere that's a bit quieter for a bit of a respite. At the end of the Turquoise Line/#19 is a beautiful village called Peterculter. I passed through it for the first time way back in January or February, when I decided on a whim one evening to use my student day ticket to ride the #19 to its terminus - a terminus that was much further out than I had expected. I resolved to go back, and I did so on the 25th of May, where I happened into the Richmond Arms, where Georgia Crawl was playing live. It was such a great experience that I decided to go back at least once more - and to write a blog post about the place!

My next sojourn took place a few weeks ago on the Navigator's last night in Scotland, and we went once again to the Richmond Arms. We enjoyed a great dinner, and the proprietor, Jim, came up with an impromptu creation involving haddock, rice, and peas that was awesome. A couple of weeks later, rather than wait for a bus to take us to the Brig o' Balgownie and St. Machar Cathedral, Ginger Magic and I hopped on the #19 and went out to Peterculter for the beautiful scenery both in the village and on the way to and fro, and to the Richmond Arms for a pint and some atmosphere. One of the things that I like about the Richmond Arms is that, unlike the pub feel of the adjoining Black's Bar, the Richmond Arms sort of feels like you're in someone's sitting room. It's quite literally the kind of pub that people can (and do) take their kids to. One of my favorite memories of Scotland was when the Navigator and I watched as a kid came over to his dad (who was sitting at the bar) to ask when they were leaving, to which his dad smiled and replied, "Just one more." Hilarious, and so quintessentially Scottish.

Even though I'll probably leave Aberdeen having spent just a few hours in Peterculter, I'm glad that I've taken the time to make it out there a few times. It's so easy to get tied into places like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, or even Orkney, that you lose track of the fact that Scotland has little villages with people living real lives, just like any other place. For me, Peterculter has turned into a beautiful place to sneak away to in order to remember that.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Houses of Worship: Cathedral Church of St. Machar

Located here, directly above Seaton Park is the ancient Cathedral Church of St. Machar. It's one of Aberdeen's most ancient buildings, and it was the ecumenical leaders at the cathedral who founded what would become the University of Aberdeen in 1495.

Though still known colloquially as "St. Machar Cathedral", its official name of "the Cathedral Church of St. Machar" reflects the fact that the building no longer serves as the seat of Aberdeen's bishop. (That's now St. Andrew's Cathedral near the intersection of King and Union Streets.) Little of the original Cathedral Church of St. Machar survives, but even the newer portions are quite old.

St. Machar's Cathedral is difficult to photograph at night (at least, it is when your cameras aren't very fancy), so I won't insult you folks with that. What I can say, though, is that it's really beautiful to walk through Old Aberdeen at night, and look up and see the cathedral with its lights shining on those two conical spires. (You can see someone else's really cool picture of the Machar, at night, in the snow, here.) My favorite memory of the Machar, though, was attending the Christmas Eve service there. It was an amazing experience, after weeks of sheer boredom during the winter holiday from school, to attend that service in a cathedral that pre-dates America by hundreds of years. It's one of those memories of Aberdeen that I'll remember fondly for years to come.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Around Aberdeen: Brig o' Balgownie

Over here, not far from Seaton Park and Seaton Stables Gardens, is the tiny village of Brig o' Balgownie, which is situated around an ancient little bridge. It's astonishingly tough to get a shot of the bridge itself, but the the area around it is absolutely gorgeous. It's one of those places that's right next to the big city, but doesn't feel like the big city. You're bound to see more human and vehicle traffic there than you would Seaton Stables Gardens (for example, all of the traffic on the Bridge of Don), but it's alright because it's a good quarter of a mile away.

A few weeks ago, Glaswegian Sensation and I went out for a bit of an evening constitutional, and I took my camera. I'd been meaning to get some pictures, and it was a great excuse. The weather was a little warm for my tastes, but the light was great (something that's wasn't the case earlier this year when it was dark at, y'know, six at night or whatever), so I was able to get some great shots. I almost wish that I'd spent some more time down there while I was here, but I didn't, and I can live with that. As it is, I'm glad that I got down there a few times, because it's one of those places I'll remember fondly in years to come.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Dissertation: Dhofar Rebellion Part 12

Well, as I mentioned yesterday, my dissertation is complete. Assuming I can get it printed today, I'll turn it in today. I'll walk into the Director's office, hand him two physical copies, and upload the PDF manuscript through TurnItIn so that they can gauge whether it was plagiarized or not. For anyone who's followed the lengthy process since the beginning a few months ago, it's quite obvious that I did not, in fact, plagiarize any of it.

So, here are some statistics. It's 58 pages long, and 14,987 words (counting the title, my name, and all of the extraneous boilerplate I had to put in). The essay includes 229 citations from 148 individual sources, and 14 images (including a picture I took in Muscat in 2012). In early August, I made a decision to cut about half of what I had originally intended to include. That's going to turn into a sort of "part two", that I'll end up merging with the majority of my existing dissertation.

I'll admit to being a bit nervous about the whole thing. I worry that I try to cover too many topics, rather than focusing in depth on two or three aspects of the conflict. I worry that the essay doesn't sufficiently connect the lessons of Dhofar to modern warfare. I think that it does; but at this point, about the only thing I can do is hand it in, and wait.

One cool thing that I've been working on the last couple of days has been to locate a bunch of the old patrol bases along the Hornbeam Line. Thus far, I've found six of the eight: Pipe, Whale, Ashawq/Ashoq, Killi, Reef, and Kumasi, leaving me to find Bole and Oven. Bole is the only one left on that hand-drawn map from Gardiner's book, so I'm not sure that I'll be able to find enough information to find Oven, but I'll give it a shot. A discussion of how I went about finding these positions will be the topic of a post either on the Joshua Tree Security blog, or the blog I'm planning to start once this one comes to an end.

Oh, and the author of that aforementioned book, which came to be quite important in the course of writing my dissertation? He lives in Edinburgh, and last week I was able to meet with him briefly to get a couple of his books autographed before he went on holiday for a month. I literally got his E-mail saying that he'd meet me if I could get there before he left, scrambled to get ready, and spent the next five hours of my life in a desperate scramble to get down to Edinburgh. We met for just a few minutes - one of the great highlights of my time here in Scotland - and then he was off, and I was back on the next train to Aberdeen less than an hour later. I'm hoping to meet up with him once he's back, at which point I can hopefully show him those satellite views of some of the positions he occupied in the Dhofari jebel four decades ago.

So, stay tuned. There may not be more about my actual dissertation, but there will certainly be more about the Dhofar Rebellion.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On: خلاص

For those of you who don't speak Arabic (and I expect that's pretty well all of you), that title is pronounced "khalas", and it's Arabic for "finished" or "complete". When I was in the Middle East, I knew it, and was somewhat surprised that it was one of the very small handful of Arabic words that everyone seemed to have picked up - that, and مشكلة/"mushkila"/"problem" - but that's another story).

Tomorrow, Monday (or Tuesday at the latest, depending on when I can get it printed - apparently Monday's a bank holiday), I'll submit my dissertation. That will complete the required coursework for my MSc in Strategic Studies. So, that's it. It's all over. It's خلاص.

At that point, I'll spend two weeks settling my affairs in Aberdeen, spending a few final evenings with some great friends whom I've been fortunate to meet since last September, pack up my stuff, and...

... And what? Actually, it's more along the lines of "طيب, خلاص. ماذا الآن؟" - "Okay, finished. What now?"

As I mentioned way back in the beginning, I've been planning Operation Highlander since 2010, and I've been executing Operation Highlander for over a year now. I executed Operations Carnivore and Cobalt as enabling actions for Highlander. Nearly four years of my life have been spent pursuing this goal, and now it's complete. That completion brings with it a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Now that it's over, I'm left with a vague sense of what the next three or four months will entail, and no idea what will happen after that. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, it leaves me nervous. I'm a planner, I'm someone who doesn't go from one thing to another without a plan, and for the course of the next few months to be so vague pushes me outside of my comfort zone.

So, what am I going to do? Well, I'm going to keep that to myself for the time being. I have a plan, and I'll continue sorting a few things out in the next couple of weeks. I have some projects I want to work on in the interim months, but I'll get into more detail about in time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

[Insert Post Title Here]

Dissertation. Will return to regularly scheduled content presently. That is all. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Around Aberdeen: Non Sibi, Sed Patriae Mosaic

A very long time ago, when I was undergoing a particular flavor of military leadership training, one of the topics we discussed fell under the heading of "Non Sibi, Sed Patriae" - "Not For Myself, but For my Country". I've always tried to take that motto to heart. In a little corner of the University of Aberdeen, there's a mosaic that includes the phrase, and it's near what appears to pass for a campus war memorial.

I'm tempted to look my old skipper up - as of a few years ago, I knew where he was working - and send him a copy of the picture. I ought to get on that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Contrarian Rules for Travel

I've travelled a lot over the last few years, particularly in 2003, 2004, and from 2010 to present. A few weeks ago, a buddy of mine posted this link on Facebook. I thought I'd have a look and add my two cents.
1. Don’t check luggage. If you’re bringing that much stuff with you, you’re doing something wrong.
I disagree. Different people travel differently, and if you're flying somewhere, chances are that you can't fit enough stuff for, say, a two week trip into a carry-on. Laundry is also either tough to do while you're travelling, or else expensive to have someone else do it for you, or else a waste of time. When I travel, I try to give myself at least a week's worth of stuff.

That said, unless you're travelling for the long term - say, a month or more - one rucksack/suitcase should be enough to get you through. In 2003, I made the mistake of taking a day pack crammed full of crap, and a seabag crammed full of crap. It was a mistake, and I made it home without using more than about two thirds of what I took (and almost nothing from that day pack). Kit like tablets and smart phones have made it a bit easier over the last few years, as you don't have to carry so much weight in order to stay connected or do some recreational reading. I've never had the chance to actually read it, but a good friend of mine once recommended The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, which should serve as a guide to packing to be light and effective.

For the record, I've gotten much better over the years. My 2012 trip to Muscat and Beirut (about eight days) and my recent trip to Paris involved only my Arc'Teryx Echo Pack and a light day pack, while my trips to Orkney and Shetland involved only my 5.11 Rush MOAB 10 and a small laundry bag.
2. Instead of doing a TON of stuff. Pick one or two things, read all about those things and then actually spend time doing them. Research shows that you’ll enjoy an experience more if you’ve put effort and time into bringing it about. So I’d rather visit two or three sights that I’ve done my reading on and truly comprehend than I would seeing a ton of stuff that goes right in and out of my brain. (Oh, and never feel “obligated” to see the things everyone says you have to)
That's good advice.
3. Take long walks.
Definitely, but be careful. Long walks are great if you're wearing the right clothes and your body is in shape for it. As I demonstrated in Shetland, and previously in my 2012 trip to Beirut, you can do a lot of damage to your legs by walking unprepared, and it can really compromise the enjoyability of your trip.
4. Stop living to relive. What are you taking all these pictures for? Oh, for the memories? Then just look at it and remember it. Experience the present moment. (Not that you can’t take photos but try to counteract the impulse to look at the world through your iPhone screen)
Hogwash. In fact, I tend to be more interested in the pictures I bring back from a trip than I am in most of the souvenirs I might pick up. That said, there's a happy medium between taking no pictures, and taking too many pictures.
5. Read books, lots of books. You’re finally in a place where no one can interrupt you or call you into meetings and since half the television stations will be in another language...use it as a chance to do a lot of reading.
There's some wisdom in this, but don't overdo it. Item #10 talks about "not wasting an hour of your life in a lame hotel gym" - in the same way, there's a happy medium for doing something like reading that you could do anywhere. I remember my 2004 trip to Scotland and Ireland, and I read some great books on that trip, but I also left plenty of time to go out and actually see stuff in both countries. One of my favorite ways of approaching this is to allocate time at the end of each day to read - it's a great way to unwind from a day of touring.
6. Eat healthy. Enjoy the cuisine for sure, but you’ll enjoy the place less if you feel like a slob the whole time. (To put it another way, why are you eating pretzels on the airplane?)
There's some wisdom in this.
7. Try to avoid guidebooks, which are superficial at best and completely wrong at worst. I’ve had a lot more luck pulling up Wikipedia, and looking at the list of National (or World) Historical Register list for that city and swinging by a few of them. Better yet, I’ve found a lot cooler stuff in non-fiction books and literature that mentioned the cool stuff in passing. Then you Google it and find out where it is.
There's a lot of wisdom in this, but guidebooks deserve their due - particularly for the time before the Internet became omnipresent, when guidebooks were the best or only way to get information about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do. I've had some great guidebooks, as recently as 2012; my guidebook for Beirut, however, was useless.
8. I like to go and stand on hallowed ground. It’s humbling and makes you a better person. Try it. (My personal favorite is battlefields–nothing is more eery or quiet or peaceful)
Agreed. Some of my favorite memories are from places like St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, or the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat.
9. Come up with a schedule that works for you and get settled into it as soon as possible. You’re going to benefit less from your experiences if you’re scrambled, exhausted and inefficient. Me, I get up in the morning early and run. Then I work for a few hours. Then I roll lunch and activities into a 3-4 hour block where I am away from work and exploring the city I’m staying it. Then I come back, work, get caught up, relax and then eventually head out for a late dinner. In almost every time zone I’ve been in, this seems to be the ideal schedule to a) enjoy my life b) Not actually count as “taking time off.” No one feels that I am missing. And it lets me extend trips without feeling stressed or needing to rush home.
There's a lot of wisdom in this, and it ties back into Item #2 - don't try to overdo it.
10. When you’re traveling to a new city, the first thing you should do when you get to the hotel is change into your work out clothes and go for a long run. You get to see the sights, get a sense of the layout and then you won’t waste an hour of your life in a lame hotel gym either.
I don't run, but the sentiment makes sense (and ties back into Item #3). That said, it's important to be careful when running, walking, or otherwise navigating a new city. I've been to several places where my inclination toward a vigorous constitutional wound up taking me through neighborhoods I probably would have done well to avoid - for example, in central Beirut, where I saw posters of Bashar al Assad during the Arab Spring.
11. Never recline your seat on an airplane. Yes, it gives you more room–but ultimately at the expense of someone else. In economics, they call this an externality. It’s bad. Don’t do it.
Amen. There's a special place in hell for people who recline their airplane seats.
12. Stay in weird-ass hotels. Sometimes they can suck but the story is usually worth it. A few favorites: A hotel that was actually a early 20th-century luxury train car, a castle in Germany, the room where Gram Parsons died in Palm Desert, a hotel in Arizona where John Dillinger was arrested, and a hotel built by Wild Bill Hickok.
Yeah... But be careful. I've also had some great experiences with hostels, but you have to have presence of mind and attention to detail.
13. Read the historical markers–*actually* read them, don’t skim. They tend to tell you interesting stuff.
A lot of that stuff is pretty boring. The truth hurts. This is why it helps to research what you want to see before arriving at your destination.
14. Add some work component to your travel if you can. Then you can write it all off on your taxes (or better, be paid for the whole thing).
This is easier said than done. Also, if the whole point of your trip is to decompress from work, it doesn't help to take your work with you. I'm a workoholic, so the fact that I'm saying that should count for a lot.
15. Don’t waste time and space packing things you MIGHT need but could conceivably buy there. Remember, it costs money (time, energy, patience) to carry pointless things around. (Also, most hotels will give you razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries.)
Again, there's a happy medium. See Item #1.
16. Go see weird shit. It makes you think, shake your head, or at least, laugh. (For instance, did you know that there is a camel buried in the soldier’s cemetery at Vicksburg?)
So, basically, see stuff that's interesting. Seems pretty straightforward, really.
17. Ignore the temptation to a) talk and tell everyone about your upcoming trip b) spend months and months planning. Just go. Get comfortable with travel being an ordinary experience in your life and you’ll do it more. Make it some enormous event, and you’re liable to confuse getting on a plane with an accomplishment by itself.
I'm torn on this one. Travel should count for something. It should be special. Making it routine, or an "ordinary experiencce in your life", has the potential to make it less special, and nobody wants that.
18. Regarding museums, I like Tyler Cowen’s trick about pretending you’re a thief who is casing the joint. It changes how you perceive and remember the art. Try it.
Okay, odd...
19. Don’t upgrade your phone plan to international when you leave the country. Not because it saves money but because it’s a really good excuse to not use your cellphone for a while. (And if you need to call someone, try Google Voice. It’s free)
Good advice. When I travel, I tend to tell people that I'll be "off the reservation for a while". It's nice to have some solitude every now and again.
20. Explore cool places inside the United States. The South is beautiful and chances are you haven’t seen most of it. There’s all sorts of weird history and wonderful things that your teachers never told you about. Check it out, a lot of it is within a drive of a day or two.
There's a lot of truth to this. I've had two really cool road trips in the last few years that took me across the entire United States, first going east, and then going back west. I was on a tight schedule both times, but I had some great experiences and saw some gorgeous country. I try to convince my British friends of this, but it seems like every Brit I talk to is obsessed with either New York, Florida, or both. Seriously? There's so much more to America than New York and Florida.
21. OK, this one's from me, just because it's so much fun. Take pictures of yourself jumping in different places! It can turn a boring "adult" afternoon into a giddy kid-like experience. The below is from Burning Man 2010.
I'm not sure about jumping (or Burning Man), but it's important to take picture of yourself, and having a playful type of picture that you take at least one of on every trip, can be fun. (I tend to travel alone, so my ability to pose is limited.)

Any thoughts or tips of your own? Leave 'em in the comments.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Aberdeen's Public Gardens: Seaton Stables

On the hill northeast of Seaton Park, located between the park and the University of Aberdeen's residence halls, are the gardens of Seaton Stables. I assume that the name gives it away: this place likely used to be stables for horses. Regardless, the location now boasts one of the most beautiful, secluded public gardens that I've ever seen. The entire complex is divided into three little walled enclosures, surrounded by high brick walls. It boasts benches, and pathways lined with beautiful foliage. Best of all, it's so secluded that you wouldn't know it was there if you didn't divert off of the beaten path.

Whether intentional or not, the gardens at Seaton Stables seem to have just the right mix of perfectly manicured plants, and slightly overgrown ones, making it feel simultaneously clean and exotic; dare I say, almost Edenic. If you have the good fortune to walk through its three enclosures when no one else is enjoying it, it's the kind of place where you could almost forget that other human beings even existed. Best of all, it's a short walk from the University of Aberdeen, the Hillhead Halls of Residence, and the Bridge of Don community, and just down the street from the equally beautiful village of Brig O' Balgownie. Here are some pictures of some of its featured flowers that I took earlier this Spring.

Absolutely stunning, and a great example of the cultivated beauty that Scotland has to offer.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Songs That Remind You 11

It's that time again. This first song is Rudimental's fast-paced song titled Waiting All Night. Among other places, I heard it on The Aberdeenshire Circuit with Navigator.

The second song is This Is What It Feels Like by Armin van Buuren, featuring Trevor Guthrie. Among other places, I heard it last week when I was having my scalp shorn at the well-defended barber shop.

I'll throw a third offering into this installment: Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. This one is much older - older than me, in fact - but I only looked it up for the first time during the second semester of classes, as it sort of tied into Strategic Nuclear Doctrine ("Enola Gay" being the name of the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima).

It's tough to think that this long list of the songs that remind me of Scotland isn't so far away from being finalized.

Around Aberdeen: A Beautiful Sunset

To quote narrator of the classic Offpsring album, Smash: "You know, it seems harder and harder to just sit back and enjoy the finer things in life." A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of a rainbow over King Street, just because it was pretty. Today, I'm doing something similar. On the final evening of July, when I got back from the Gurkha Highlanders' Picnic, I happened to look out my bedroom window and see a spectacular sunset. I don't think this picture really captured how deep the reds and oranges of the sunset were, but I'm posting it anyway. True to Gurkha Highlander form, GBU-16 also posted about it on Facebook.
The sky looked amazing tonight. Rosso di sera. Make a wish, tomorrow is going to be a good day :)
Sometimes, it's nice to just stop and enjoy some of the simpler pleasures in life. (I hope everyone will keep that in mind over the next couple of weeks when I, a heroic security professional, post numerous pictures of flowers in conjunction with my series on Aberdeen's public gardens.) I hope this blog generally, and this sunset picture specifically, help to fill that gap for some of you folks out there. To quote that Offspring album again: "Well, until next time... Ta ta."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Dissertation: Dhofar Rebellion Part 11

I've got about two more weeks to get this thing squared away. I was really, really pleased to learn that Microsoft Word '07 can actually create PDFs - I've been using Word '07 since 2007, for a variety of functions, so how is it that it wook me six years to realize that it can make PDFs without the full version of Adobe Acrobat? - so that'll help. Why will that help? Two reasons. First, I can send manuscripts to my Kindle so that I can review sections without having to lug my laptop around everywhere. Second, I can PDF it to take to the printers when it's all said and done. These are important, because prior to that, I thought I had to use one of the computers in the SOC to accomplish this, but this allows me to cut the SOC out of the equation entirely.

(I haven't mentioned this, because who cares, but the SOC has been largely abandoned by most of the Strategists, and the remaining folks have made the place sort of inhospitable, so I've mostly just dispensed with it because I can't be bothered. It was good while it lasted.)

Anyway, as to actual content, I've found some great resources in the last few days. One key topic about the Dhofar Rebellion is the SOAF's use of cordons sanitaires, or lines of interdiction. These were called the Damavand and Hammer/Hornbeam Lines. When doing a search for "Hammer Line", I found this page that has a ton of pictures from the conflict. My existing photo bank relies heavily upon more recent imagery from Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, but I expect that those pictures will go into my follow-on, rather than my paper about Dhofar itself.

I've also mentioned Brigadier Ian Gardiner's indispensable book, In the Service of the Sultan. This features a hand-drawn map of the hornbeam line. I was then forced to combine technical and non-technical solutions. First, I used my camera - yes, my actual camera - to take a picture of Gardiner's hand-drawn map from my Kindle screen. (Even though it was a digital camera, it still feels horribly technologically inept.) Anyway, I then took a screenshot of this region from Wikimapia. Then, I utilized my extensive knowledge of PowerPoint to turn Gardiner's map semi-transparent and line several of the terrain features on the maps up with one another. Finally, I marked the various patrol bases and marked the approximate course of the Hornbeam Line. The final product is pictured, and will be one of the graphics I use in my dissertation.


On to more quotes. These are several that I pulled from MCDP 1-1 Strategy during my exam prep, and I intend to use at least a couple of them in my dissertation.
“The nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”
- Unknown (quoted in MCDP 1-1 Strategy)

* * *

"Battlefield brilliance seldom rescues a bad strategy."
- MCDP 1-1 Strategy

* * *

"Ultimately, people, not machines, define our success in war."
- General Charles Krulak
More to come.


I wrote this update a few days ago. I'm wrote this supplement last night. As of 19:00 on 14 August 2007, I'm in extremely good shape. Here's where I stand.

Yesterday evening, I finished the draft of my third chapter. I have an introductory chapter, a chapter on Oman before and after the war, and this was my chapter on the actual strategic lessons from the conflict. That leaves a conclusion and a bibliography to complete. (My references are included within those three draft chapters, though I haven't decided whether I'll format them as footnotes or endnotes.) I plugged the chaos of those first three chapters into Word (I use Notepad for my actual writing) to get the current word count, and it's currently just over twelve thousand words, although a small percentage of those are administrative components that facilitate my editing process. That's prior to my conclusion and my bibliography. That actually gives me some breathing room, which may allow me to explore several more points that I had hoped to discuss, but haven't out of worries about word count.

So, as much as I want to charge on, I'm going to give myself a few hours to breathe. At that point, I'll either begin working on my conclusion, or work on sorting out my existing references to get them cleaned up because they're a right mess (by my standards) at the moment.

That third chapter was the hurdle, though, and it feels great to have gotten that written. That's the hump, I'm over it, and now I just need to fight through the rest. As of today, I have two weeks left to write it, edit it, and get it printed for turn-in to the Director.

More to come.


I lied. I went on to look for a bunch of pictures to include in my dissertation. I farmed this one that I found last week, then went back and farmed this one that I found a few months ago, and then I found this one.

Oh, yeah, and a Google search for "'hammer line' dhofar" yielded this, this, this, this, and this... But that was a few days ago.

More to come.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ginger Magic Visits

For various reasons, my long-time friends would all be quite amused at the suggestion, erroneous though it may be, that I attend funerals with designs on picking up women. (There was this one young lady at this one funeral in July of 2004... But I digress.) Jokes from Wedding Crashers aside, a few years ago I attended a very special funeral for an American hero, and had the pleasure of meeting a young lady by the name of Ginger Magic (GM), who was part of the decedent's family. We've been in either sporadic or regular contact ever since. When I got to Scotland, GM promised to come visit me, and I figured she was jerking my chain, but she wound up in St. Andrews for a two week course tied into her current work as a law student. That turned into a trip up to Aberdeen.

Among other activities, we:

  • explored and photographed King's College and the Hideous Glass Cube;
  • had a pint at the St. Machar Bar with CN Ness;
  • enjoyed a dinner of chips, cheese, and fillet at Lionel's;
  • ran into a trio of female Latter-day Saint missionaries... twice!; and
  • enjoyed the full Scottish breakfast at the Old Blackfriars.

    It was a great afternoon and a great morning, and it was fantastic to see GM in person for the first time since we first met in late 2008. When you prepare to spend a year in an amazing place like Scotland, people tend to throw around promises that they'll come and visit you, and then fall through. I'm quite pleased that GM wasn't one of those dirty rat finks (like The Botanist, to name but one!).
  • Monday, August 12, 2013

    Weekend Down South: Lockerbie Memorial

    I've spoken A few months ago, I wrote about meeting Terry Waite in Aberdeen. While we were out and about, Cap'n John and I stopped into the village of Lockerbie for a bit of a pilgrimage. Lockerbie was the site of the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 disaster, when a Boeing 747 was bombed and came apart over the Scottish village of Lockerbie while leaving London for New York. The attack was quickly attributed to Libyan terrorists, and the Libyan government acknowledged responsibility and paid restitution the victims' families in 2003 (although some deny the link to this day). Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al Megrahi was convicted of the crime and served several years of a life sentence, before his controversial 2009 release by the Scottish government on "compassionate grounds".

    Lockerbie maintains a beautiful tribute to the victims at Dryfesdale Cemetery, which is located just west of the main village. The Cap'n and I went, had a few minutes in the visitor's center followed by a few minutes in the memorial garden. For a guy like me who's spent a great deal of his life working to protect people from attacks like Lockerbie, this garden was an important reminder of both the cost of failure, and the importance of success. I was humbled, and pleased that Cap'n John and I were able to visit this tribute to some of the casualties of the Long War.

    Sunday, August 11, 2013

    Aberdeen's Public Gardens: Seaton Park

    Located in Old Aberdeen is one of Aberdeen's largest public spaces: Seaton Park. Seaton Park is a big, beautiful space that boasts a playground, beautiful flower gardens, a memorial fountain, and lots of walking trails, some of which go all the way around the University of Aberdeen's Hillhead Halls of Residence. On a warm day, it's a great place to sit and chat with a friend, or to take your kids to play at the playground, or to kick the football around (if you support football - I certainly don't!), or to read a good book.

    However, Seaton Park has two other faces: comically tragic, and seedy.

    As far as being comically tragic, Seaton Park is located in an area of very low elevation, and wide swaths of it - particularly the southeast quadrant - turn into giant ponds for months at a time. (They seem to have largely dried up during the Summer months, but more flooding is only a few months away.) It's gone now, but while that quadrant was flooded, there was a hideous, diseased-looking swan that never seemed to leave. That elevation also makes leaving Seaton Park a bit of a challenge, as both the northern and southern approaches to the park are on really heinous inclines; many a University of Aberdeen student has lamented the southern path in particular. I'm not in horrible physical shape, but on the occasions when I've spent the sixty seconds walking up that hill, I've felt like a sherpa if I was able to get up the hill without taking a breather and then keep walking once I'd reached the top. It's brutal. This also makes both of the paths particularly treacherous in the winter months, and many a pedestrian has severely injured themselves trying to navigate the ice - particularly those Hillhead Halls of Residence students who use Seaton Park as a shortcut to cut five or ten minutes off of their walk to campus.

    More troubling is Seaton Park's reputation as a place of great danger. One source of this reputation is its use as a venue for "dogging", which the Navigator introduced me to - well, she didn't introduce me to it, but she informed me of it based upon a discussion in one of her lectures. (I'll let you readers Google "dogging" for yourselves, but I'll warn you that those with tender sensibilities would do best to leave it be.) It's not the sort of family-friendly activity one would generally associate with a public park. Beyond that, Seaton Park has a reputation for being the site of homosexual rapes, and there have been a number of other minor assaults and petty crimes committed there over the last several years. In an October issue of The Gaudie, the University of Aberdeen's hilariously inept student newspaper, reporter Grant Beveridge wrote:
    When I first walked through Seaton Park at night I thought of it as pretty insignificant, cold, yes, but not very memorable. Little did I know of the reputation that it has made for itself. When I spoke about this with a friend he reacted as if I had just walked through Helmand Province in Iraq with a target painted on my back, not strolled leisurely through a public park after daylight hours. The one and only time I have been back after dark, I found myself scampering up the hill towards the refuge of my halls of residence, overpowered by the fear of noises in the bushes. As the nights get longer and daylight is at a premium, does Seaton Park deserve it’s dangerous reputation and what other areas of Aberdeen have a reputation for violence?

    The University’s stance on Seaton Park is very clear; they issue a preferred walking route to the campus, which bypasses the park and adds on an extra 10 minutes to your journey time. They have also placed signs around the halls of residence asking students to take care when walking through it, especially at night. Over a period stretching from 2009 to 2011, there were fifteen recorded crimes in Seaton Park, three of which were minor assaults. Of these, only one of the complainers was a student. These figures are not exactly shocking but in relative terms they are still quite high for a fairly quiet public park. Unless you are looking for an adrenaline rush, I would still advise anyone to approach the area with caution and try traveling in daylight, in a group whenever possible.
    I hadn't been informed that Helmand Province had relocated from Afghanistan to Iraq (perhaps he meant Anbar?), but regardless, Seaton Park's dangerous night time conditions have even become the subject of an Internet meme!

    At any rate, despite its many, many drawbacks, Seaton Park is still a pretty neat and noteworthy place. Here are a few more pictures of the beautiful and carefully maintained flower gardens, which are a real highlight of any walk through the area.

    By the way, if you don't mind hills, but hate unnecessarily steep hills, there's a path that runs along the southeast rim of the park. It's a bit longer than going up that heinous hill at the south end, but it's a much more gradual incline, and both of them will put you at the same spot outside the Cathedral Church of St. Machar. Seaton Park, and its seedy reputation, certainly add a bit of character to any prolonged duration of time spent in Aberdeen.

    Don't Panic: Life After Highlander

    I had a bit of a freak-out the other day. Now, most people who know me know that me "freaking out" involves about as much dysfunction and stress as most people experience while on vacation, but it's still upsetting. So, what's going on? It's really quite simple: I'm nervous about post-graduation employment.

    Should I be nervous? Probably not. For one thing, it's early, and I only just started looking for work about a month ago. My buddy David the Recruiter informs me that August is the low point for recruiting, and that he expects that I'll have something lined up no later than December. That's great encouragement. I've also identified a number of different companies outside my own to apply with (just to cover my bases - you can never be too careful), and I've got a couple of "safety" options as well. It's unlikely that I won't be able to find something to do, and proceed accordingly.

    So, why am I so nervous?

    I was thinking about this on the bus a couple of days ago, and I realized that for the first time since late 2010 - going on three whole years - my trajectory for the immediate future is in question. I have spreadsheets and budgets and timelines for Operation Highlander that date back to Spring of 2010, and those were derived from other spreadsheets for other projects that date back even further than that. For me to have reached the point at which Highlander is almost over, and not have a solid idea of where I'll be going or what I'll be doing when it's done, is a major departure for me, so it's really no wonder I'm getting nervous. And I'm in a tough position because time that I'd otherwise be using to develop several different contingency plans is instead being used to write my dissertation. In that sense, it reminds me to something I read recently:
    Preceding military commanders and civilian officials had sought to facilitate transition by assigning greater responsibility to Afghans. The Marines concluded that the enemy was too strong and the Afghan government too weak to permit a successful transition under these conditions. Instead, they decided to take the lead in security operations in order to set the conditions for ultimate success. By reducing violence and permitting government officials freedom of movement, they put the government on a viable path to sustainable transition. This shift in approach mirrored the shift in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, when initial efforts to transition responsibility to Iraqis failed so spectacularly that the Americans chose to retake the lead in security until the situation stabilized. In both instances, a de-emphasis on transition actually improved the prospects for transition and shortened the amount of time required for a successful handover.
    While I'm certainly not comparing myself to the Marines' campaign against the Taliban, the point I'm getting at is that the best thing I can do at this point is to work hard on my dissertation in order to finish the program out strong, which should hopefully facilitate my subsequent push to find gainful employment. I may take a few hours over the course of several days in order to start some serious planning, but as we're now a third of the way through August, I really need to keep putting some serious work into finishing and refining my dissertation so that it's graded well and gets me the First that I've been gunning for all along.

    Years and years of working alongside the military have made me fond of a number of mantras, among these being "the only easy day was yesterday", "it pays to be a winner", and "challenge, endure, conquer". A lot of people probably think these are just slogans or catch-phrases, but they've become a cornerstone of my personal philosophy. In addition to "don't panic" and "keep calm and carry on", one of my own personal mottos has become "keep fighting" - in fact, during my Unst geocaching adventure, the difference between giving up and charging forward was telling myself to "keep fighting". When you think about it, this is just another one of those situations. So, my duties are clear: 1) slaughter my dissertation, 2) plan for the short term, 3) plan contingencies for the long term. Bam. Nailed it.

    Saturday, August 10, 2013

    A Chance Meeting with CN Silverback

    A few months ago, I updated the Strategic Studies Dramatis Personnae and included a guy by the name of CN Silverback. (He's visible in that picture from November, flashing gang signs alongside me, Gus, and CN Sister.) During Spring Term, we kept running across one another in passing and promising one another that we'd get together for a pint - and he kept drunk-texting me when he was out drinking. (His personal record was 5:34 AM on the 12th February - I pretty much always outlast my younger peers when we go out drinking, and even I can't even fathom still drinking that late.) As we prepared for exams, I stopped hearing from him, and decided after exams that he must have headed back to Ireland for the Summer.

    A couple of weeks ago, after dinner at Lionel's, I ended up wandering around a bit trying to decide which bus stop to wait at. For some reason, I decided to walk all the way down to the bus stop at Marischal College (where the Robert the Bruce statue is located), and who would I find but CN Silverback, standing at a bus stop? He'd literally just arrived back from Ireland. Apparently he had decided that I'd left for good and that he'd never see me again, so he'd deleted my number. We were thrilled to run into one another, and we (and his luggage) immediately deferred to the Old Schoolhouse (a post about which is forthcoming!) to catch up over a pint. It was great to see him again, and I have a feeling that we'll hang out again soon. Our conversations are always fascinating, and it's nice to find a European who's so unapologetically pro-American.

    Also, the pint of Carlsberg was pretty sweet, too - let's face it, it wouldn't be an outing with Silverback if it didn't involve booze.

    Friday, August 9, 2013

    Around Aberdeen: Suggestive Delivery Truck

    I try to keep things pretty clean on this blog, but I have a hard time helping myself with this item. A few months ago, I saw this truck near my digs, and I continue to see it every now and again. The look in the parents' eyes is just so... Suggestive. I'll spare any more commentary, but the picture makes me shudder and snicker at the same time. I'm sure that my old buddy Sam-Wise probably knows plenty of jokes to go along with this delivery truck, but I'm sure not going to be the one to ask him to share.

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013

    The Dissertation: Dhofar Rebellion Part 10

    I met with the Director on Monday and gave him a rundown of my revised dissertation plan. He was onboard with it, so I'll be proceeding with that in the waning days of August. I've reached a point where I just have to suck it up and finish actually writing the damned thing. The research is mostly done and dusted, so now it's just a matter of filling the sections with text and occasionally checking a source or two so that I have something to cite to justify all of the things that I already know. That's a bit of an annoyance, but I'm meticulous, detail-oriented, a bit of a perfectionist, and a bit of a workoholic (go figure), so it must be done.

    Two of the sources that I have copies of are We Won a War by John Akehurst and SAS Operation Storm by Tony Jeapes. Brigadier Akehurst was the second of two commanders of the forces in Dhofar (after Brigadier Jack Fletcher), and Jeapes was an SAS squadron commander, and later the commander of all SAS operations in Oman. I started reading Jeapes' book on Monday, only to find out that it's focused almost entirely upon the SAS, and not on the overall war effort. It's still been valuable, but that means I'll have to go through both books in the next couple of weeks to ensure that I'm not missing any glaring details about the conflict. I've also been reading The Third Way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin by Dr. Mark Moyar, and will be reading Victory in Hades: The Forgotten Wars of Oman 1957-1959 and 1970-1976, Part 2: The Dhofar Campaign 1970-1976 (Part 1, Part 2) by S. Monick. There's so much spinning around in my head right now, and I love the sensation, but it's sort of exhausting and I'll be relieved when it starts to calm down.

    One of the things I'm going to be writing about is sufficient and efficient resourcing for COIN campaigns, and particularly commensurate force strength. I'll be using a couple of quotes on this topic in my "Part 2" once the actual dissertation is complete, and these deal specifically with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the size of the Army and Marine Corps after the pending Afghan withdrawal.
    TR: "On the one hand, one thinks that this initial, opening move, which seems to have been so critical to the British campaign, one hand there was a strategic logic to it, so the British had insisted on a change of governor to a new governor, Mohammed Daoud, he said to the British, 'I need you to go up to the northern towns because they're under threat', the British commander on the ground said 'Well, I need to do this because we need to support the governor'. But on the other hand, of course, there was this notion that he was desperately overstretched, he had, he had six, really only four helicopters available, he had only a few hundred men, so he had to put small packages in, so the interesting thing is, to what extent, though, should he have said, 'I can't do this, I'm just gonna stick to the plan, which is to stay in Lashkar Gah in the center of Helmand, and hard luck, governor', or to what extent was he correct in saying 'We're the Parachute Regiment, we take risks, that's what we're paid for, that's what we're paid the big bucks for, and so we'll attempt a risky operation, which didn't come good in the end?"
    JR: "Personal view, I think it was a bad decision to do what he did, I recognize why he did it, coming as he did from a special forces background. But, we knew from Iraq, from al Amara and places like that, from Geresda where I was the force commander in Bosnia, what happens when you put small groups of forces in isolated positions. You spend all your time trying to sustain them, and then rescue them, to the exclusion of all else, they just become a magnet for trouble. This was really a decision which was above the brigade commander's paygrade, and the correct course of action would have been to say, 'Well, it's a policy objective that we support Daoud, Daoud interprets that to mean that we move into the north, you have resourced me to hold the center, if you wish me to support the governor and follow your policy, it requires more resources. What more resources are you going to supply?"
    - Dr. Thomas Rid, King's College London Department of War Studies, and Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jonathon Riley, British Army, former Deputy Commander of ISAF (link)

    * * *

    "So when we attacked the city of Fallujah – now, just to give you a sense for how big Fallujah is – you know, it was in the papers, you know, in 2004. I mean, everybody was hinged on Fallujah. We had six infantry battalions surrounding Fallujah. Six. That’s it. Four Marines and two Army. And it took us, what, forty days to – forty days to beat the threat down and to force our will on a single city. What we’re talking about, the capability for the United States of America, is six infantry battalions worth of forcible entry capability for the entire United States of America as we look at the Marine Corps and we start talking forcible entry. That’s all we’re talking about. So for our country, as global power, as powerful as we are, we’re going to have the same capability that we had to force our will on Fallujah. I think that’s actually a pretty modest investment for a country that has global responsibilities. You don’t know when you may need to force your will on somebody, but it would be very nice for the President and the National Command Authority to have that capability."
    - General James F. Amos, address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 08 November 2012 (link)
    More to come.

    Weekend Down South: Hadrian's Wall

    Two weekends after my now-infamous debacle in Shetland, I rolled down south to visit Captain John and his lovely and gracious Household Six. I met the Captain and HH6 in Florence, Italy in April of 2003, and visited them at their home in Orkney in September of 2004. It was Captain John who introduced me to the island paradise that I love so much. On the occasion of Captain John's retirement, they did a road trip across the southern United States, and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Gray 1 helped me to reestablish contact with the Cap'n during my triumphant return to Orkney. The Cap'n and I pinged back and forth during my ill-fated Shetland trip, as he had some experience with Shetland earlier in his life - he could identify with my plight! Before the Easter Holiday (which was too long), I touched base with Captain John and we decided on a weekend for me to come down to visit.

    The Cap'n and HH6 left Orkney a few years ago to retire outside Lockerbie. The Cap'n picked me up from the train station, and the three of us enjoyed an evening together. The next morning, we got ourselves sorted out and headed for Northumberland, to the tiny area of Once Brewed/Twice Brewed. Our mission: to rendezvous with their daughter and granddaughter, and to see Hadrian's Wall. For those of you who are unschooled in Roman history, Hadrian's Wall was built during the reign of Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus - you know, Hadrian. It marks the border between the Roman province of Britannia - present-day England - and the untamed frontier of Caledonia - present-day Scotland. Of course, England now stretches further north than the original line of demarcation, but the border region has shifted a bit over the course of recorded history. The wall stretched from what is now Newcastle in the east, to what is now Carlisle in the west.

    Our first stop was the Roman fort at Birdoswald, which we followed with a quick run out to a parking area for another quick photo op. Then, it was off to the Twice Brewed Inn for a lovely lunch with the Cap'n and HH6's daughter and granddaughter. After a while, as the granddaughter started to get a bit squirrely, we helped them to relocate to a more private area of the inn, and then Cap'n John and I set out for a bit of a bona fide adventure.

    Aside from the wall itself, this particularly hilly area of Northumberland near One Brewed/Twice Brewed boasts two major landmarks: Milecastle 39, and a sycamore tree that was featured in an early scene of the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Fans of the film may remember a scene when Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman have just landed in a rowboat that somehow got them from the Holy Land to the English coast, and they rescue some kids that Alan Rickman's goons have just treed for poaching or something. Captain John noted, with his trademark grin, that they would have had a pretty long walk from the English coast, since the tree in question is located pretty much equidistant from either coast. Roman historians will remember that Hadrian's Wall featured a number of small and large forts that were built into the wall itself. Milecastle 39 is an example of the smaller type.

    After leaving Orkney in 2004, my wanderings took me down to Carlisle, where I had hoped to see Hadrian's Wall. Unfortunately for me, I learned upon arriving in Carlisle that the western end of the Wall has long since disintegrated, as it was made out of turf due to a shortage of stone with which to build. (On the plus side, I had a fantastic dinner and saw some really cute waitresses at the Ristorante Adriano, so the sojourn wasn't a complete bust.) Given my earlier near miss, I was thrilled at the opportunity to have a bit of a hike and chew the proverbial fat with the Cap'n, and to see such well preserved ruins (and, y'know, the Robin Hood tree). It was a great way to spend a day out with the Cap'n and HH6, not to mention seeing signs directing us toward a village that shares its name with the colloquial phrase for a specific intimate act performed while the participants are travelling in a motor vehicle. (I'll admit it, my internal monologue snickered uncontrollably at that one, and I brought the Cap'n in on the joke later on.)

    Of course, the weekend was just getting started.

    Monday, August 5, 2013

    Around Aberdeen: Summer at King's College

    A few months ago, I posted about King's College, and I also posted about King's College at night. Well, one of the great things about King's College is that it's beautiful all the time - for example, during the Summer. I've been dividing most of my time between Starbucks and my digs lately, but I've had a few occasions to enjoy the stunning spectacle of King's College during the Summer months. One of the other great things about seeing King's College during the long days is that you can actually get a look at it lit up under natural light - something that's impossible with the short days and comparatively low solar apogee of the Winter months.

    Adjacent to King's College Chapel is the King's Lawn. One of my favorite memories of the past year is of a warm afternoon, when I took a break from studying for exams to spend a couple of hours reading one of my favorite books of all time, Starship Troopers, while sitting on the King's Lawn amongst a ton of undergrads. Right... About... here. In fact, even though the lack of foliage indicates that that satellite image was taken during the Winter or early Spring months, you can see plenty of circles of students enjoying a nice day on the King's Lawn. Unlike the Hideous Glass Cube, which is modern and hideous, the beauty of King's College and its surrounding environs is that its evergreen - it will always be beautiful. That's just one of the perks of attending a university that was founded more than five centuries ago.

    Sunday, August 4, 2013

    The Gurkha Highlanders' Picnic

    CN GBU-16 and I are pretty close friends. We've been able to lean upon one and commiserate with one another through some challenging times, both academic and personal, over the course of the last few months. Owing to our shared Scottish experience, our shared Nepalese fixation, and our aspirations toward careers supporting national defense, we decided several months ago to inaugurate a sort of honorary, ad hoc military organization: the Regiment of Gurkha Highlanders. With me as the commander ("The Brigadier"), and her as my deputy ("The Colonel"), we adopted the latin motto "MOTIVA PLVS OCCASIO" - "Motive and Opportunity" - traditionally the gauge of whether a suspect may have committed a crime, but a more motivational slogan for our shared and individual endeavours. In fact, I even photoshopped an image from one of the most unintentionally awesome films in history, Starship Troopers...

    ... that features our "unit crest". I took the badge of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, changed the motto to "MOTIVA PLVS OCCASIO", and added our "battle honors": Muscat (in Arabic), to represent my own focus on Oman; Pokhara (in Nepali) to represent GBU-16's work in Nepal, as well as my work with the Nepalese in the Middle East; Napoli (Naples) to represent GBU-16's homeland; and Aberdeen (in Scots Gaelic) to represent our time here in the Granite City. Behind the crest are a Nepalese khukuri and an Omani khanjar.

    All of that information is background for what happened on the final day of July: we hadn't hung out in a few days, and GBU-16 was missing Nepal, so we agreed to meet up and have a Gurkha Highlanders' picnic! I stopped into the Gurkha Kitchen and got two orders of momo dumplings, an order of motor paneer, and two pieces of Peshwari naan. I met GBU-16 at the Mounthooly Roundabout, and then we walked to Union Terrace Gardens. GBU-16 picked up some Tennent's, as the only beers available at the shop where she had stopped into were Tennent's and Budweiser, and she knows from prior conversations that I "wouldn't wash my car with that stuff!" It was perfectly appropriate for a Gurkha Highlanders' picnic, as Tennent's is brewed in Glasgow. We had a taste of Pokhara alongside a taste of the Clyde! Brilliant!

    UTG didn't disappoint in the entertainment department, either. There was a young couple, the female member of which was really cute, who were making out on one of the nearby park benches. There was another couple, not quite as young (or as sober), whom we couldn't decide whether they were making out, or copping a series of collective feels, or what. There were folks juggling fire and barbecuing, several dogs running around and playing, and even a few little girls who went in less than two minutes from playing with one another's hair to sliding down a slightly muddy hill. Perhaps the most entertaining episode was when I threw the last bit of Peshwari naan (GBU-16 having conned me into eating half of her momo dumplings - I was stuffed) to a group of seagulls, which then proceeded to chase one another all around the park on foot and in the air. Hilarious, because Aberdeen's seagulls are truly insipid (to the point that they've made me appreciate Aberdeen's comparatively polite and non-invasive pigeon population - congratulations, universe, you win).

    As the evening wore on, we left UTG for the Tippling House for one last drink before walking King Street back to our respective digs. The Gurkha Highlanders' picnic was an overwhelming success, and perhaps GBU-16 and I will have a chance to repeat it before we part company later this summer.

    The Thistle: A National Symbol of Scotland

    One of Scotland's national symbols is the thistle. (As I mentioned previously, Scotland's national animal is apparently the unicorn, because that makes sense.) They've been in bloom the last few weeks, and I've had opportunities to take some snapshots of a few of them. (This picture was taken on North Street, below Greyfriars House.) According to Wikipedia, the infallible and undisputed source of all knowledge: "In the language of flowers, the thistle (like the burr) is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character as well as of birth, for the wounding or provocation of a thistle yields punishment." This fits with a post I made on Facebook a couple of weeks ago:
    One of Scotland's national symbols is the thistle, and for good reason: the Scots are a slightly prickly, but otherwise lovely folk.
    Some readers may remember a truly awful movie called Braveheart, in which Mel Gibson plays a tragically inaccurate interpretation of William Wallace. In that film, Wallace's eventual bride, Murron, gives him a gift of a thistle at the funeral of Wallace's father. He keeps it throughout the years, and it comes to represent their love, or his love of Scotland, or irony, or tragedy, or some other such nonsense. It's said that the rise in Scottish secessionist sentiment is largely attributable to the popularity of the film, though if it's true, then that's tragic; then again, I've found that a number of secessionists (and even some bona fide Scots nationalists) have a love/hate relationship with historical accuracy. (That second picture was taken near here, while I was riding the Aberdeenshire Circuit.)

    At any rate, it's been great to see thistles (silybum marianum or "milk thistles", apparently) over the past few weeks. As my time in Scotland wanes, it's nice to see at least one symbol of Scotland - and trust me, if I catch a glimpse of a unicorn, I'll get a picture of it and post it on the blog. At the moment, the only horse pictures I've gotten have been of Shetland ponies, right after my ill-fated geocaching adventure; but those are a symbol of Shetland, whose history is distinct from that of Scotland proper.