The Back Yard is Pretty Cool, Too

Most of the photos I’ve been posting from my North Shore home have featured Lake Superior. No doubt about it, the Lake is the superstar attraction up here. But the woods to the north are also quite beautiful, so today I’m posting some photos from a snowshoe trek in the “back yard.”

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In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must confess that virtually all of these are not taken in our own back yard, but rather on the property to the north of ours. Also let me hasten to add that the property is not marked with No Trespassing signs, and that Pat and I never leave anything behind except our snowshoe tracks.

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I don’t quite have the selfie thing down yet, but here I am, after leaving the tracks shown in the photo above. You’ll note the absence of hat and gloves due to a stretch of inordinately warm weather up here.

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It’s a whopping 43 degrees Fahrenheit right now, and it’s been warmer than normal for about a week. We’ve lost about half of our snow during this warm stretch, but we’re supposed to get some more later this week, and the temperature is supposed to drop back to normal.

The most exciting thing about our back yard trekking so far has been the discovery of an eagle’s nest. We have seen a family of eagles flying and roosting in the area throughout the summer and fall, but they appear to have headed south several weeks ago. We didn’t know where their nest was, until stumbling across it a few days ago.20170124_143941

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Here are a few more photos from today’s trek. I hope you’ll agree with my assessment — the back yard is pretty cool, too.

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Good Stuff from Scotland (even if you don’t know its age)

One of my interests is single malt Scotch whisky. The Irish, or we Americans, would like to spell it as “whiskey,” so best to simply call it Scotch. I’m a fan and a bit of a student, but far from a connoisseur. I’ve tried probably forty to fifty single malts, and I’ve like almost all of them. The truly interesting thing about sampling different malts is the wide variety of sensations provided by the various distillers and brands.

The first, most obvious characteristics are visual — the color and clarity of the beverage in the tasting glass.  The experts point to three characteristics to look for when tasting: the nose (aroma), the palate (basically taste), and the finish (how long it lingers and the degree to which it changes in the mouth and throat after sipping). Malts from Islay almost all have a smoky nose, a rich, peaty palate, and a strong finish. There is much more variety in the Highland and Speyside malts, but to my taste buds the Speysides seem to be generally smoother and lighter, and less interesting.

Here is a look at my current selections. You can see that, with a paltry selection of only three choices, I am a piker in this field. But, what I want to talk about today is a new marketing trend illustrated by the three bottles shown below.

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In the center is Clynelish 14 year, distilled and sold by the Clynelish distillery of Brora, Sutherland. It’s called a “Coastal Highland” malt due to its location near the sea. I like its smooth, rich taste, but what I want to focus on here is the traditional identification of the malt as “aged 14 years.” This means the malt comes from barrels that were stored in the warehouse for no less than 14 years before bottling. Until recently, virtually all Scotch was identified by its age. The generally accepted rule is, the older the whisky the better. That wisdom is certainly reflected in prices, and it needs to be since longer aging delays the actual moment of payment to the distiller, and also increases losses due to evaporation (the angels’ share). But not everyone agrees with the sentiment.

The other two bottles are examples of a recent trend, the so-called “non-age-statement” malts. In these malts, whisky from any of the stored barrels may be mixed together, regardless of age, just so long as they have been aged for at least three years to meet the legal definition of “Scotch whisky.” The master distiller mixes the malt from barrels selected to provide specific, desired characteristics for a given brand. Traditionalists dislike this approach, because they don’t know how old the whisky is — they don’t have all the information they’d like. But I think they should just get over it. Many of the non-age-statement malts are excellent!

On the right is Highland Park Dark Origins, distilled and sold by the Highland Park distillery in Kirkwall, Orkney, the northernmost Scotch distillery in the world. This malt is supposedly intended to replicate the characteristics of the original whisky sold by Highland Park in 1798, but who on earth would be able to verify that? This brand uses more malt aged in sherry casks (from Portugal) than the other Highland Park offerings, which are primarily aged in American bourbon casks. What I do know for a fact is that Dark Origins is really good! (OK, it’s only my opinion, but in my world it’s a fact.)

I first tasted Dark Origins while on a summer tour of Scotland. I was at a pub in Dornoch, where I asked for a glass of Highland Park 18-year, one of my most favorites. The barman told me they didn’t have any, but asked if I’d like to try the Dark Origins instead. I did, and it was love at first sip. Later during the same trip, I toured the Highland Park distillery .

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As part of the excellent tour, I had the opportunity to sample seven different brands ranging in age from 12 years to an astounding 46 years. Here is the tour guide gesturing toward the 46-year malt, in a special display barrel. He didn’t tell us that it was 46 years old, but rather asked us to guess. Nobody guessed correctly.

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In all, we tasted malts aged for something like 12, 15, 18, 20, 25, 30, and the aforementioned 46 years. The fascinating thing was that the drams got better with age only up to 20 years. The 25-year was about the same as the 20, and the 30 and 46-year versions actually declined. (NOTE: That’s only my opinion, of course.) So, although the price one would pay for the 25 to 46 year versions grew astronomically, the enjoyment actually went down. (Of course, it’s possible my taste buds had just been overwhelmed by then, but I don’t think so.)

I asked the guide about Dark Origins, and he was not too enthusiastic about the new marketing trend. He agreed that the brand delivers a consistent, targeted set of characteristics, ensured by the skill of the master distiller, but as a traditionalist he would prefer an age statement. I don’t see how that would work, though, since every batch might have a different minimum age, making it nearly impossible to label and sell. At any rate, he agreed wholeheartedly that, as with beholders of beauty, the only important measure of a whisky comes from the person who is drinking it.

Back to my original photo (finally), at left is the Smokehead brand, from the Ian Macleod distillery near Edinburgh. The Smokehead brand is labelled as an Islay malt, even though it’s sold by a Highland distiller and other Macleod brands are Highland malts. It definitely has all the expected Islay characteristics, though, and stands up very well to the best Islay brands I’ve tried.

So, to sum up all this blather, I say don’t worry if you don’t know how old your Scotch is. If you see something that looks interesting, try it. If you like it, buy it. Simple as that.

Lake Superior’s North Shore in Winter

This is the first year my wife, Pat, and I have actually lived in our former vacation home on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and the first time we’ve spent significant time observing the Lake and the Shore during the winter. I’ve been taking boatloads of pictures with my phone, because every day I see things that are truly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Here are some of my favorite photos from December and January. I’m sharing them because I feel so fortunate to be able to live in such an amazing place. I hope they also bring some joy to those of you who stop by for a look.

Into the Maelstrom

I’m about to do something I’ve been dreading for years. Just thinking about it makes my heart race like a Lamborghini, turns my knees to jelly, sets my eyelids fluttering like a hummingbird, makes me gibber like a lunatic … you get the picture. I’ve tried to do it before but have always retreated from the challenge at the earliest opportunity, fleeing like a frightened puppy with its tail between its legs.

However, I’ve spent the weeks since November 8 digging deep within my soul, and I believe I’ve found the courage to face an uncertain future at the hands of the Trumpster. If I can face that, I can face anything. So, the time has come for me to enter the maelstrom.

So, what is this ominous, fear-inducing, paralyzing maelstrom? None other than the WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA!!!

One might ask the question: if it’s so frightening, why do it at all? The answer is simple: I have no choice. As explained elsewhere on this website, I’ve decided to embrace my longtime dream of becoming a writer. I’ve quit my day job and will soon release my third novel. Early on, I concluded that I’d never make a go of it through the traditional publishing model. I made a few half-hearted attempts at contacting publishers and agents, but soon realized I had neither the personality nor the perseverance for that route. I’m a hermit – I love writing, and I’d enjoy earning a few pennies for my work, but I just want to do it quietly, in the shadows. So, I went the way of web publishing. I have no agent, no editor, no collaborators of any sort. I just do it all myself.

There’s just one problem with my chosen approach – approximately 4.329 billion other people are doing the same thing, and my books are simply lost in the shuffle. Without an agent and a publisher, there’s only one way to market books in the twenty-first century – through Social Media.

So, off I go, to open accounts on Twitter and Facebook. If my head doesn’t explode, I’ll be back in a few days to post a progress report.

The Fictitious Crime Wave

Once again this election season, many candidates for office are TRUMPeting the alarm over the tremendous “crime wave” sweeping the country, most specifically regarding the murder rate. Since these politicians rarely, if ever, provide any actual data or, more importantly, perspective to accompany these dire warnings, I decided to look up some actual figures.

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The chart above shows the “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate” per 100,000 US population for the past twenty years as reported by the FBI (FBI Crime Statistics). The chart shows a steady decline in the rate, followed by an uptick in 2015. Despite this uptick, the 2015 rate is still 34% lower than the rate reported in 1996. While I would certainly agree that any increase in the rate is a bad thing, I would hardly describe the situation as apocalyptic.

For a bit of perspective, the chart also shows the rate of US traffic fatalities over the same period, as reported by Wikipedia (Traffic Fatalities). Interestingly, the traffic fatality data show a very similar pattern of general decline and a slight uptick in 2015. The rate of traffic fatalities has remained between 2.1 and 2.7 times greater than the murder/manslaughter rate over the entire 20-year period. The uptick in traffic fatalities in 2015 amounted to an increase of 2417 deaths, whereas the uptick in murder/manslaughter amounted to an increase of 1532 deaths. Yet, I have seen very few reports of politicians invoking an urgent need for crackdowns on speeding, drunk driving, or other causes of the traffic fatality increase.

This interesting comparison naturally triggers one of those mysterious musings I am prone to: “I wonder why people are so much more frightened of murder than of traffic fatalities?” I don’t feel qualified to answer the question, but I certainly find it interesting.

Like so many others, I love to read mysteries. I’m even trying my hand at writing some (see Books). In the vast majority of the mystery books I have read, as well as in the books I have written, at least one person is murdered, leading the protagonists to try to solve the associated mystery. I doubt that I would find it as interesting to read books about forensic car crash investigators. And, with so many new mystery books coming out each year, many featuring multiple homicides, many featuring lovable protagonists who routinely solve murder after murder after murder in every conceivable locale and under every conceivable circumstance, there really is a crime wave out there! But let’s all remember, it’s a fictional crime wave. I can only hope our politicians and their followers are able to tell the difference between fiction and reality.

Who am I? Why am I here?

First of all, I am NOT Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s tongue-tied running mate who famously uttered these words at the Vice Presidential debate in 1992. Instead, I’m plagiarizing his opening words by way of an introductory blog post. (After all, they worked so well for Stockdale – they are the only thing most people remember about him, despite his stellar military career.)

So, who am I?

I am a 66-year-old, happily married man, the proud father of three outstanding young men, and I live along the North Shore of Lake Superior, truly one of the most beautiful places on our planet. I recently retired from a 40-year career as an Aerospace Engineer designing wind tunnels and other aerodynamic research facilities. All of these things combine to make me among the most fortunate people to inhabit the earth, and I thank my lucky stars every day for that fact.

All right then, why am I here?

I could answer this with some existential musings about the meaning and purpose of life, but that can wait for some future post. Instead, I’ll answer the question of why I am here, on the Internet. I’m here because I like to write, and I like to muse about mysteries. See more on that topic on the About page. Naturally, in today’s world, the Internet is the place to do it.

One final note. One could say I was reasonably well-prepared and qualified for my career as an engineer. I studied hard and earned some college degrees before I entered the field. On the other hand, I have no training at all on how to write a mysterious musings blog or mystery novels – I’m just going to make it up as I go. I think it’s going to be tremendous fun for me. I hope a few of you might also get something out of my musings and books. Time will tell!