Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 30, 2011

Scotland’s Notes

From the moment we landed, we were really in a different land. Security even asked relevant questions… like, “Are you with her?” Yep. And, “Oh… you’re here for the conference. Had a lot of those lately.” I guess a conference of 1,362 folks in a city of 300,000 to 500,000 – depending on the cab driver’s opinion – really has an impact. We were well treated. And yet we were treated as well to a rather universal sense of  impending American failure, demise, and decay. After day one of the conference I wrote an email back to the office that I was going to stop sitting in on the Strategic and Economic sessions or shoot myself. My gut and my experience has tended to suggest that anytime a consensus is as broad and pervasive as this, either the views have already been taken into account (and “in the price” as we say), or something else is going to happen.

Let me put it this way, it was nice to sit in on  other sessions. The most fascinating and odd was titled, “Glowing Rectangles” and all about those little screens, their impact on our psyche and coming potential to change behavior. The audience was a little less sanguine. I mean…. we all remember the great expectations of each new technology: radio was to give us high culture, TV was to spread new and more intelligent vistas… blah blah blah… and so we tend to be a bit jaundiced in hearing yet another promise for a new technology’s prospects for uplifting our spirits. But the speaker noted that new video games had actually changed consumption habits… by capturing the underlying urge and virtualizing it so that the ACTUAL consumption would not happen. So if you believe this, then all we need to cure ourselves from our hyper-consuming society is more satisfying consumption of a virtual sort: fake consumption cures the ills of real consumption. Of course, somehow we’re still spending money… so there are “some” internal contradictions. And I remain curious, but a skeptic… like everyone else. Most crazy? The notion that the average American over the last 10 years buys six pieces of clothing every week. Given the look on everyone’s faces when the speaker reported this statistic… no one actually could think of anyone consuming even close to this rate… the speaker quickly added that those most likely to exhibit this behavior were those least able to afford it. In essence, these are the poor folks who spend themselves silly into debt and perpetuate their poverty… where the started and where they remain. The programming effort is to satisfy the urges without the product – much of which is either the “experience” as in the driving games, or the “collector” as in the clothing and fashion games. And the speaker insists that this is beginning to impact consumption among the young in concrete terms, and to change their human interaction. All I can say is, “Hmmmmm” and raise both eyebrows.

But that wasn’t the most puzzling thing. The most puzzling was the statistic that Americans today interact with each other no more than 13 minutes a day on average. The bulk of our time is devoted to avoiding. each other. This speaker whose writings I’ve read and admired for their insights into behavior over the years (literally the founder of Behavioral Economics), suggested that as he was going over this statistic with his wife, she of course asked him where her 13 minutes were… noting that she felt cheated. Our speaker advised that he simply responded she should be happy she was married to a German rather than a Finn. Maybe my wife could yearn for the Finn… or at least for him to come over and install an “off” button for the veritable mouth that is yours truly.

Together we managed to squeeze a few hours touring Edinburgh in the evenings, and as opportunity allowed. An opportunity shared on Monday was a visit to the local art gallery to see one of my wife’s very favorite paintings, the skating Reverend Robert Walker… of which I think it is curious to note what appears to your truly a foreshadowing of the photographic technique of keying back light on the central figure in front of a luminous background. As natural an urge as it is to see the details in the shadows, it isn’t really consistent with the lighting as a whole in the painting… but we’ve become so familiar with it by now in commercial photography I think it is almost very difficult to even notice it… and almost seems “cheeky” to do so. But I am that sort of guy… hmmm? A big contrast with the Baroque style, noticing it helps understand the artist and his art. You’ll note he’s not wearing a cassock, and of course today, all that seems to be missing is an ironic smile and maybe the milk mustache to keep him out of an contemporary ad… after all, he’s a Scot… so he’s serious. And as a rector with pants on, at least we don’t have to wonder what’s under his skirt/kilt/dress and whether he’ll knife us for kidding him about it.

We did a few other things in Edinburgh… but mostly the site seeing was my wife’s pleasure while mine was sitting in conference sessions thinking about how much more fun she must be having rather than sitting listening to gloom, doom but no boom. She went on the breakfast tour of the castle, visited a publisher she works with extensively from her position with Dumbarton Oaks, and then together one evening we visited unexpectedly the site of J.K. Rowling’s writing of the early H. Potter stuff. I tend to like the unexpected pleasures like these more than the intended… and of course I miss a lot because of it, but it just seems more fun. And even if I’m not a fan of Rowling’s, I can nevertheless enjoy seeing the nearby school that looks like the model used in the films (of which I’m not a real fan either). Frankly, Rowling seems to me something of a narrowing of the Tolkien tales into a puzzling focus on Gandalf and his world alone… and a bit long at that. Tolkien himself is a bit (intentionally) repetitive in his imitation of the heroic style and plot line (clash of the shield and all that rot), but at least his books are about half of a Rowling in size and deal with grander themes.

Ah… but then we blew out of town on the wrong side of the road. Yes, we rented a car. And despite the Asian fellow I met at the conference from Chicago telling me he’d driven everywhere in the world but would never drive in wrong-sided country like the UK and “that’s a crazy idea”… we managed to escape without incident. I think it was probably harder on my beloved, given that she had to ride in the other seat. I mean the first day we had to drive from Edinburgh to Oban to catch the ferry by 4:00pm and it was raining… as it does every day… and the trucks were out in force coming the other way on a two-lane road… by which I mean they were crowding the center line and over it, and I was pushed off to the left and hugging the curb. Amazing I didn’t blow a tire! And of course I remember looking over at my wife whose head was now leaning far into the middle as if to avoid the up-and-coming mail boxes, telephone poles, and trees along the curb, and I said, “I see riding this way is probably tougher than driving. I mean you’re in the control seat, but without a wheel, brake or air bag.” To which she said, “They should just give me an air bag already filled, or at least should have suggested I ride in back… behind you.” So with this and a few missed turns, it took almost 8 hours to drive a trail we traversed in just slightly more than half the time on the way back. She didn’t even need a crash helmet, though she did note that perhaps I was getting a little too confident too fast in passing cars on the wrong side of the road. But what’s a wild Toad supposed to do on the open road?

From Oban we took the Ferry over to Mull. Mull was wonderful, and a last minute suggestion. We stayed at Glengorm Castle which a friend’s relative had fixed up and turned into a B&B back in the 1970’s and it’s still going complete with sheep farm, chickens, guests, and a tea house. Some of the guests like us weren’t so fixed up… so it was nicely relaxed. Truth is that this was the highlight of our trip, and highly recommended if not inexpensive stay, or at least a visit and a hike. You can walk the property without staying there if you like, and it is worth doing as there are remnants of one of those Stone Hengey-type Druid bit thing and a stone fort down by the sea that is supposed to be about 5,000 years old. And it is a lot of fun to walk the grounds in-between the sheep poo, the rain and the cold. Beautiful greens, mountains, and sea. Missing the palm trees…. but that’s another paradise. A lot of sailing goes on here… so maybe next time. Of course it was fun to go to one of the local bars where I asked the bar tender knew how to make a Dark and Stormy, and the barkeep greeted me with, “Ah another sailor! Of course we know how to make that here!” Ah… a home of sorts, and great food, too. The organic, locally grown thing is going strong here, too. Re-reading “Kidnapped” and David Balfour’s adventures was a nice accompaniment for the trip, too.

Secret pleasures? Visiting the grocery stores (for lunch on the road) to see the different foods, brands and packages. Seeing my hallowed Diet Coke in teeny tiny almost cordial-sized glass bottles was also fun if not a tad problematic for the dry of throat. But at least they kept the flavor right… unlike Mexico which sells some sort of other flavor as Diet Coke… “as if”. No… Scotts would na’er do that to a man. And pulling off the road here and there to re-orient and see many of the places you’d just long to come back with a butler, a picnic, a nice car and paint a watercolor like those fancy dudes in the BBC anglophile fantasies.

Here are some of our unedited photos:


  1. just wonderful! I loved the photos too. As the passenger when we went to the UK I spent most of my time saying “left, left, left” especially in a roundabout.

  2. Nice travelogue but I am left wondering: “What? No scotch tasting tour?”

    Seems to me that would counteract the gloom and doom of the conference. 😉

    • Ah…. well, the conference had a whiskey pub crawl. It was a tad bit pricey at over $100 per head. So we bagged it and did our own. Somehow… participating in one of those activities that could leave you needing to call AAA…. without one of the “A’s” just didn’t seem to be something to crow about. On the other hand… the first place we stopped at told us to, “…Never, never, never ever ever refer to this beverage as Scotch. Whiskies… yes. Scotch never. There is something oddly called Scotch tape… with some sort of tartan plaid on the package… but there is nothing Scottish about it, and it blasphemes the tartan plaid…. but there is not nor has there ever been anything else labelled as Scotch. Ever.” Funny a relative once chided me on this with something like a similar fervor while wearing his kilt back when I was a kid and waded knee deep in the stuff: “So you’re Scotch.” “You might prefer to call me a Scottsman, or ask whether we were Scotts… but not unless you want to taste the sharp end of my dagger do you want to ever…. ever…. ever call me Scotch.” Noted. And noted again. As Principal Skinner said in the Groundskeeper Willie bit, “You Scotts seems to be a angry bunch.”

      Ah… but they were tasty. And then at Glengorm Castle they laid out a complimentary collection for your enjoyment in their Drawing Room. But Mr. Plumb was not there… with a wrench. On the other hand, they drink the stuff straight at the bottom of a large glass. No shot glasses. No barkeep. No Wyatt Earp. No gun fights. No Larry Storch asking, “Kin I get me some fightin’ room?”

  3. That is SOOOO cool! I love the pictures. I need to join an organization that has conferences overseas and whiskey tasting activities. It looks like it sure beats a parish life conference. 🙂

    • Hey… I only got to go because my partner didn’t want to and my wife did.

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