Goodbye, Pikuzone

Today was the day I took the final steps to shutdown pikuzone. Created to provide a safe place for kids to be able to send emails to parent-approved contacts, it served several thousand messages for several hundred kids over the site’s three year life. It is being retired because of a cultural and a commercial shift.

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Culturally, the children gravitated toward the tablets and smart-mp3 players. They utilize games and secure text messaging applications and, just like Facebook, email is the old people’s platform.

Commercially, the size of the market served is limited to parents who care about privacy and security of electronic communication. Many of these parents are hard to find and, therefore, expensive to market to as they themselves like to not be found :). Out of various marketing approaches we attempted, the one that worked best was Google Adwords – adwords that targeted highly-educated moms from blue states with two or more kids. Unfortunately, the size of the market didn’t leave the project to be commercially viable and we have run its course.

At the end of the day, the project paid for its daily operation costs but the commercial realities would never recoup the effort expended in creating the site. We end the company in black, notwithstanding development costs. Thanks to all the parents and friends who supported Erin, Joe and me in this wild adventure.

A Congress Paralyzed From Fear over Immigration

This post appeared in the Des Moines Register’s Business Technology and Innovation Section on July 20, 2014.

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The battle over so-called H1B visas threatens to hamper the growth of Iowa’s startups, growing technology sector, biotech research centers and agricultural sciences.

Our public and private colleges teach students from sub-Saharan Africa, India, Malaysia and beyond. Our corn and soybeans are consumed by humans and animals around the world. John Deere and Vermeer equipment drills, mows, seeds, and crushes in parts of the world many Iowans would have trouble finding on a map.

The GOP, with thought leaders like U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, understand the economic impact of immigration, especially in Midwestern states that depend on immigrants for net population growth. Iowa, which barely represents 1 percent of the US population and far less of the global population, sells its goods to a disproportionately larger world.

Eric Cantor lost the Virginia primary earlier this summer and his party quickly moved to shelve immigration reform. The epidemic of paralysis that gripped the GOP and, therefore the House of Representatives, has done more to damage to the country’s economic prospects than the President’s hope for comprehensive reform.

Unlike Congress, we cannot allow a state of paralysis to affect our state’s next century of growth. The young minds at Iowa, Iowa State and all other Iowa colleges see a state that provides a wonderful place to live, grow and prosper. Many will go back to their home countries because of arbitrary quotas for H1B visas or decades-long line for green cards.

H1B visas are issued to people in a wide variety of profesisions. Medical, engineering and physics careers, to name a few. Those who hold them are our neighbors in rural and urban Iowa, generating economic multipliers through taxes, spending and investing.

Do we really want a paralyzed Congress to euthanize this growth in one of the most prosperous states in the Union?

Marveling at how innovation continues to surprise

A colleague and I sat across from each other yesterday at a coffee shop as we worked out mutual task lists for one new, one future, and two ongoing projects.  There were names to add, tasks to do, people to assign, call and drop from the lists.  It was a few minutes into this seemingly simple management task that a thought struck –

  • we both work for disparate employers
  • I was using a Microsoft Surface tablet and he an Apple iPad
  • we were connected to a free public wireless network
  • we were managing tasks for four separate projects that represent four separate legal entities (companies, people, etc.)
  • we were using the free version of a publicly available application, Trello, to manage our work
  • the free application, on disparate computers, on a public wireless network was concurrently handling and synchronizing data as we worked
  • we paid a nominal rent for the office being used – essentially a portion of our $1.96 coffee
  • we had no idea where the data we entered into our tablets is actually stored
  • we didn’t care

This is so remarkably different from where I started in this industry that the various inflection points that led to here seem insignificant and forgotten. But the magic remains. I am glad to have retained the ability to still marvel at this stuff – the sense that attracted me to computers and computing in the first place.

highwayrobbery

How killing net neutrality will affect you

This off today’s news stories - FCC poised to changes in net neutrality policy

The lobbies, supporters and the FCC continue to make the debate around net neutrality more complex than it really is.  Through the various gyrations, the lobby for media and internet companies has figured out that by removing the immediate costs to us end users, they can take us out of the debate. They’re right – most people you speak with don’t really give a damn about this issue because it won’t cost them a dime…. yet.

I have a simple analogy that I’m sure I’ve heard someplace but can’t recall to properly credit – how would you like the public highways to provide priority to those who can afford to pay for high speed driving privilege down the left lane. If the left lane gets filled up, the middle lane becomes available to the payor, continually squeezing the ‘public’ to the right lane, shoulder, and ultimately off the road. It really is that simple in networking terms also.

If you’d like to read my reasoning why – read further.  If not, think about your commute this morning and imagine the above scenario.

The news out of FCC this morning hints at rules allowing a Netflix or Apple to pay for better, faster connections to the Internet for better delivery of video. The way it actually happens in Internet hardware is that, in addition to a fatter pipe to the Internet, Netflix is provided a higher Quality of Service that gives a priority to its traffic, through networking gear, over others’ on the pipe.  Our corporate networks implement such a priority where telephone traffic is generally given higher priority than someone browsing social networks.  Extend this analogy for a moment –

highwayrobbery

You are entering a freeway and the on-ramp checks your license plate. The freeway computer recognizes that you are a standard driver, checks current traffic, and gives you access and you start driving merrily.  A convoy of trucks enters the highway and they happen to pay 10 bucks a truck. Their priority is, therefore, set higher and the highway computer moves your car off any lanes needed by the trucks until they have passed. On the Internet today, it is reality that lanes are so busy that the entity using it as a public infrastructure will be moved off-road (network term: squelched).

We enjoy Netflix, Amazon VOD, Hulu, Youtube, Vimeo, and many other services because the Internet was setup as a public utility without being called one. No one entity had more rights over the other. It isn’t a libertarian concept to seek to keep it that way. Just like our public highways, our common airspace, our electric supply, phone lines, and access to fire department or police, our Internet needs to remain a public utility, devoid of favoritism.

Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Youtube, Vimeo were all startups once. And there will be startups again. Will they get squelched because NBC and Comcast chose to pay for higher QoS and eliminate the potential for competition. Bet your bottom $ they will.

Your senators and representatives need to hear. Your newspaper needs to hear. And ultimately, people fighting this fight need support. Head on over to Freepress and the EFF. Join their work, support their work, and more importantly, spread the word about their work. They’ve made it as simple as a button click.

copyright 2009, Tej Dhawan

Go see Lincoln and listen

copyright 2009, Tej DhawanA common refrain heard during our social media outbursts is what the founding fathers wrote, intended, contemplated and spoke. For some resorting to the refrain, it must be an easy way out – to deflect to those whose words we hold dear but are afraid to read. For others, resorting to the refrain might be tough, knowing that everything we hold as our own guiding principles is countered by the very words written by the founders.

I love traveling to Washington DC. During the many years working as a government contractor, and recently, heading to DC as a part of a lobby effort for one thing or another I hold dear. Throw in the two family vacations to the nation’s capital, I probably have 30-40 trips down. On most, I’ve tried to follow a routine – dinner around Dupont or Adams Morgan, brisk walk toward the White House, then Lincoln Memorial via the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean memorial, Roosevelt then Jefferson, and finally the World War II memorial before heading back to the hotel. It takes about four hours and, when performed alone, stands for a meditative time. Having done it dozens of times, I can comfortably say that I love the time.

copyright 2008, Tej DhawanThe title to this post is the last line from episode 100 of the West Wing. The President, faced with an uprising in the middle east is grappling with the severity of the American response. The words are the last five words from a recently dead President, who gives his ‘successor’ counsel from the grave. The two Presidents, past and present, are of differing politics and beliefs, of acrimony and hatred, but somehow find guidance in the words of another President from a few years ago.he two family vacations to the nation’s capital, I probably have 30-40 trips down. On most, I’ve tried to follow a routine - dinner around Dupont or Adams Morgan, brisk walk toward the White House, then Lincoln Memorial via the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean memorial, Roosevelt then Jefferson, and finally the World War II memorial before heading back to the hotel. It takes about four hours and, when performed alone, stands for a meditative time. Having done it dozens of times, I can comfortably say that I love the time.

If you have access to the West Wing episodes, go watch episode 100. You won’t need the pre or the post stories to jump in. And if you’re in DC, walk up the steps of Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, around the Roosevelt and Korean war memorials, down and up the Vietnam war and connect with the words written in granite. Forget for a moment your affinity to Fox, CNN or NPR. And before jumping to ‘the founding fathers’ excuse, reflect on the words.
copyright 1999, Tej Dhawan
Reality may surprise you.

Clubbing the Patent Trolls

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Image courtesy CEA (Consumer Electronics Association – ce.org)

I just wrapped up a very full day meeting in Washington with several Senators and their staff on the issues surrounding patent reform.  This day was coordinated by the Application Developers Alliance, an advocacy group I connected with in December around the time of the House vote on the Innovation Act (House Bill 3309). 

Before I go further, political correctness stalwarts as well as trolls themselves are calling for the name trolls be dropped and Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) be used instead. I will use the term troll instead… it is not only the industry standard name, it also labels these entities accurately.

Imagine receiving a letter like –

Dear CEO – you owe us $1000 per employee at your company for each networked scanner that emails scanned documents and one or more of your employees potentially uses that feature.

or

Dear Kevin – we noticed that when you picked up groceries for your mom and sister during your recent shopping trip, and delivered them on your way home, you violated our patent on efficient routing for purposes of grocery delivery between retailer and one or more consumers. You owe us $1200 per delivery point for this violation.

Does either sound ridiculous? Yet, one is real and the other… well… the other could become real.  In the case of the former ‘letter’, a trolling entity has divided the US into territories where patent attorneys are actively sending demand letters to businesses using scanner to email function. Each letter demands the $1000 compensation. It has ticked off enough complaints and confusion in the business world that state attorneys generals have been called into action.

In a remarkable move, 42 Attorneys General have urged Congress to take action and to provide the Attorneys General to utilize the powers granted to them in assisting the citizens in their states and territories. This letter generated significant buzz during our visit and was largely being seen as a positive action toward patent reform.

Fast forward back to today – and what brought me here to DC. Meetings today covered members of the press, a dozen senators, a number of legislative staffers from senators’ offices, and two representatives from national VC firms – Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures and Jason Mendelson of the Foundry Group.

Trolls aren’t a headache JUST for large technology firms. They are beginning to affect everyday businesses through measures that can best be described as extortion. Send vague letters to businesses large and small claiming that the business is infringing on a patent. Given them a short window to respond with payment or the penalty will go up. If the business chooses to litigate, the ‘fines’ will go higher and potentially private and personal information extracted through discovery of the company’s systems, mobile devices, phones, etc. This is a national problem that affects all of us and household names in my own state – Kum & Go, Bettrlife, Kinze Manufacturing,Iowa Bankers Association, HyVee and more have gone on record documenting their problems with trolls.

It was good to have two very large VC firms and a relatively small angel group represented in DC by our group of three. As Iowans we have an unusually significant sway – whether it is in the first in nation status in the caucuses to having two very senior senators who are respected universally. Senator Grassley’s position as a ranking member of the Judiciary committee makes him particularly powerful in this realm. Those who have read this know that I’ve spoken with him and his staff in the past about immigration issues and found him receptive – even though party politics (and the 2012) election rocked that boat past his control.

Patent reform has taken the form of a 325-91 support in approving the House bill (H.R. 3309) in December 2013.  The bill, also called the Innovation Act, immediately received support from the White House . The companion Senate bill (S.1720) was introduced in December and is currently being studied by the Judiciary committee while other bills make their way around the Senate. Our direct request today was for the Senate to move forward toward passage of patent reform in the senate that can pave the way to conference that will resolve the difference between the House and Senate bills before the President can sign it into law.

The key provisions we asked for are –

  1. Clear identification of who is suing (who has the financial interest in the claim)
  2. Clear identification of why the claim is being brought – specifically which portion of the company’s patent is being infringed
  3. Clear identification of how the infringement happened – specifically what did the infringer do wrong
  4. A fee-shifting provision (about who pays what)
  5. Potential for pre-litigation review of a business-process patent through an expansion of the covered business method statute

I reached out to several attorneys in Des Moines who are know for their work in intellectual property, including patents.  Several who represent small, innovation focused companies, warn of a chill that could befall such small companies due to the need for paying winner’s attorney’s fees, as they fear that large companies could simply bury the small company under legal costs. Similarly, members of the software community who have business process patents are naturally against provisions that could expand a review of a previously issued patent. I feel that the innovation community is at a greater risk of being attacked by trolls who are using old patents from now defunct companies. These patents, issued in huge quantities after their 1996 allowance, and bought up during the dot-com crash, now are utilized by entities that exist solely to litigate.

Though we haven’t seen this in the Iowa investment community, Jason and Brad both talked at length about how the companies they see closely tend to come into the trolls sights right about the time they receive serious funding or exhibit commercial viability and success. Companies are actively being formed to go acquire patents from companies in bankruptcy for the sole purpose of litigating with that portfolio.

The meetings at Senators’ offices proved very detailed. There was hardly any fluff in the 20-30 minutes we had with each senator, and the Senators and staff did an equal amount of talking and asking. Since we didn’t need to push an agenda with senators  who are already on board with patent reform, we offered help and the meetings entered meaningful discussion about ideas, alternatives, and potential solutions. Today, there are the Leahy-Lee (S 1720) and Cornyn-Grassley (S 1013) bills that represent the Senate position and the underlying conversations.  Sen Schumer adds teeth to the Leahy-Lee bill via Schumer (Senate 866).

I am a huge fan of the Cornyn-Grassley bill as it clearly covers most of my desired outcomes. Passed independently, either the Leahy or the Cornyn-Grassley bill would resolve a lot.  If Leahy-Lee-Cornyn-Grassley-Schumer got married into a single bill, our work today would be very productive.

I left DC with that hope, and plan to remain engaged with the Iowa Senators. The fitting end to the day was flying along side with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and being able to thank him on his action on this issue.

 

My article in the DSM Register on the Net Neutrality ruling

This article appeared in January 19, 2014 issue of the Des Moines Register’s Business section. It is encapsulated here and the original article is here to discuss my opinion on the recent Net Neutrality ruling by the DC Court of Appeals.

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Like many homes, Internet services enter mine via cable connected to a Mediacom box. It’s the same cable that provides me with telephone and video service.

But these services’ similarities, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals, ends there. Even though many of us use the Internet to communicate through text messages, email, Facebook, etc., the court says it is an information service and telephone and video services are communications services.

The distinction is important because Tuesday the court struck down FCC regulation of the Internet on the grounds that the regulatory body cannot control information services.

The D.C. court’s action now opens the way for an Internet provider to selectively block content from whomever they choose. If Mediacom doesn’t like the broadcast network ABC providing access to free streaming shows from the network’s website, they can simply not provide consent (try streaming the recent “Modern Family” episode from ABC, if you’d like to try today). The great firewall of China has come to the U.S., and here it will be controlled by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Mediacom.

Our government, using the intelligence of lobbyists while checking its own at the door, chose to narrow the definition of communication service in the early 2000s, and despite promises, didn’t fully define the Internet as a communication service during the past five years. The largely impotent Congress, despite constant communication from the masses, remained mired in its own battles. It neither gave the FCC direction to define the Internet as a communication service, nor did it require its chairpersons to act.

You, the readers of this newspaper, still have a little power to act. Our six representatives to Congress need to be reminded by all of you to keep the Internet free of corporate interests. The president needs to be reminded that his promise to reverse the previous administration’s mistake is still not fulfilled. And organizations fighting for your open and free access need your support — monetary and through the power of signatures on the petitions.

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The organizations needing your support are the Electronic Frontier Foundation and FreePress.net

if corporations really have personhood

So, the Des Moines Register published a view about corporate personhood. The SCOTUS may rule on Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby and allow Hobby Lobby can exercise its religious rights. As ludicrous as I find this claim, I wonder about the resulting lawsuits because…

1. if corporations have personhood, what is the corporation’s sex?
2. if the sex is female, and the corporation creates a subsidiary, does it have maternity rights to no longer fulfil its corporate duties?
3. if one corporation is male and it wants to merge with another male corporation, can it do so in states that don’t permit same-sex marriage?
4. since euthanasia of humans is not permitted, can you no longer take a dying corporation off life support (go from Chap 11 bankruptcy to Chap 7 ABC)?
5. since you can’t own a person, would all public corporations now need to become private as shareholders could no longer be permitted?
6. since polygamy is illegal, a corporation could only merge with one other corporation
7. could a human merge with a corporation and upon his death, transfer his assets to his spouse tax-free in an inheritance?
8. if a foreign corporation merged with a US corporation, could the US corporation move overseas and avoid paying any US taxes?
9. since a corporation can license mirror images of its children (franchises), is human cloning then also permissible?
10. the whole corporate tax debate would be moot, as the individual tax tables would apply to corporations?
11. all corporate taxes would need to be filed on a calendar year basis
12. would a corporation inherit its founder’s race making Google Russian-American and Apple a Syrian-Polish company?

Aren’t there more loopholes in this personhood debate?

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I do not intend for this to be a legal debate or religious diatribe. It is but a feeble attempt at satire on a cold wintry night

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A wee yomp to the remotest pub (the Old Forge) in Great Britain

_NKN5483-001Unique tourist locations, sometimes disguised as tourist traps, can sometimes expose one to special places.  I had one such experience during a Whisky exploration trip to Scotland. As a part of our week-long trip across the country, we dedicated a day for a trip to the remotest pub in UK, the Old Forge, located in the tiny town of Knoydart. The town is accessible by walking across 18 miles of Munroes, Corbetts and Glens. Though scaling these peaks and valleys would earn us the real right to enjoy a pint at the old Forge, we took the easy way.

Caledonian Macbryne Ferry_NKN5469-001

The easy way entailed taking the early morning Armadale ferry (~7:30am) from the Isle of Skye to the port of Mallaig. Visitors on the mainland can drive to Mallaig just the same, but since we happened to be on Skye and private boats weren’t available, we accomplished the trip with two short ferry transports. The ferry ride itself was very comfortable, representative of other Caledonian Macbrayne ferries. It dropped us off at Mallaig in time to grab a quick coffee and buy our tickets to Knoydart.

 

_NKN5523-001Though there are two ferries from Mallaig to Knoydart, we chose the more frequent Seabridge ferry purely to fit into our schedule. Both the Knoydart ferry and the Seabridge leave from the same dock and the boats, are nice and comfortable for the short 20 minute ride. The boat ride was a sheer pleasure and we spent the ride chatting up Tom, our captain and a bloke of but 19-years old. We learned about many local fables and legends and were both surprised to have him know where Iowa was and embarrassed by his admonition of us – “why I saw it in the Atlas, of course!“.

IMGP7748-001The first realization that hits you about Knoydart is its tiny size. The small size is further dwarfed by the terrain nearby. The row of Range Rovers at the dock were a clear indication of the remoteness of the town.  The village is tiny, of population 120 during the off-season and *everything* including the seafood we were about to consume comes off the ferries. There are some vegetables are grown locally and venison the primary meat served in winters from hunting expeditions . The area is stunning beautiful with amazing peaks in several directions and the sea in the remaining. We arrived there by 10:30am and the Old Forge was to open in a half-hour or so and we chose to explore the area a bit.

_NKN5513-001Other than knowing that the Old Forge was a music and seafood haven from its website, I didn’t try to prepare _NKN5512-001myself much. I’d stayed away from photographs of the pub and desired to be surprised. Entering the pub, we found a very well-maintained, nicely appointed pub that appeared to be more of a restaurant than a bar. The bar itself was small with clean surroundings and tables. The menu was handwritten on a chalk-board and promised some seafood delicacies. Click the photograph of the menu to see it in detail. Having visited several seaside pubs and tourist traps in the US, I figured the food would be relatively common, even bland. Was I about to be proven wrong.

IMGP7781-001 We ordered a pint each, a seafood platter and a couple of other courses for the meals. As we enjoyed our beers and food, several other patrons filtered in, hikers, families, children, couples from all around the world. _NKN5519-001 The accents and languages were global and the Old Forge quickly proved itself to be everything a tourist trap isn’t – a sight to enjoy, great food, good beers, a part of Scotland seen by few, and a little treasure that must become stunningly beautiful, albeit a bit lonely in the winters. A loner’s paradise, I’m certain.

The ferry ride back to Mallaig was fun and we grabbed another Americano and Espresso before catching the Armadale ferry back to Skye. A stunning, Michelin star dinner would await us at the B&B that night. That story, another day…. _NKN5485-001

Planning a trip to Islay

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Islay, or the Queen of the Hebredes, is a magical little island for many reasons. Known worldwide as the source of such peaty malt whiskys as Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Islay history reaches far deeper and broader. It is not an island all about whisky, and even for the staunch whisky enthusiast, it offers opportunities for an amazing vacation.

I first visited Scotland in May 2012 primarily to visit the distilleries of Laphroaig and Lagavulin on Islay. After spending the 90s drinking the “Indian” favorites of Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet, and Chivas, adding Dalmore, Balmore, and Glenrothes, I’d been introduced to the intense taste of Lagavulin by my friend Kraig in early 2000s, and finally I’d found a way to get to Islay. The resulting experience driving around parts of Scotland and the few days on Islay had been so beautiful that I found myself wishing to return to the island.  Kraig and I talked about it often and finalized plans to truly (and fully) explore the malts of Islay.

Kraig and I were joined by a colleague in conversation, Andrew Kirpalani, in the early part of 2013. As is typical of such group vacations, several others exhibted interest but waned during the year.  Kraig and I persevered and outlined an itinerary on a Google Map.  We began with a rudimentary travel schedule that would take us from Glasgow to Speyside distilleries, then the highlands, over to Skye and finally down to Islay. We consciously decided to forgo Campbelltown.

Not much happened over the summer but in early August we finalized plans to fly to Scotland for the week of September 14th. We quickly found a connection from Des Moines to Glasgow via Philadelphia and booked it. Finding lodging was going to be a different challenge; one that would make us change our driving schedule to take us from Glasgow to Speyside, then the Highlands, down to Islay and back up to Skye before returning to Glasgow.

We are lovers of Islay malts so we knew that the island would be our core destination. That meant that we’d need to plan our vacation around three key items – B&B on Islay, ferry availability from Kennecraig to Islay, and availability of the Water to Whisky tour at Laphroaig. I’d done that tour in 2012 and learnt so much about the process and Laphroaig that I wanted to repeat the trip with my compatriots. Islay is a small island with a handful of hotels and quite a variety of bed and breakfasts that cater to the large number of tourists April to September.   Unlike the US, Islay and much of rural Scotland is devoid of large hotels.  In my first trip, we’d easily found Richard and Hilary’s Coultorsay B&B but this time around the beds were much harder to locate. After dozens of emails and phone calls, we landed upon Kilmeny House B&B in the middle of the travel week that necessitated the jigsaw travel scheduled mentioned earlier. I’d emailed Laphroaig for reservations and had seen sufficient availability on the ferry earlier, so wasn’t worried much given that we were traveling in low season.

A typical trip to Islay will originate from Glasgow, with the three-hour, 100-mile drive snaking its way up A82 and then down A83 until you hit the town of Tarbert for a meal/drink before embarking on a 10 minute drive to Port Kennacraig for the ferry. The ferry is a two hour leisurely journey on a well-appointed vessel, complete with a snack bar and comfortable lounges.  You’ll disembark at Port Askaig (near Caol Ila or Bunnhabhein) or at Port Ellen (near Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg). Finding your way to the B&B or hotels will be a 0-30 minute drive, tops, except for the naturally occuring stops you’ll cause for yourself to take in the awesome sights.

For anyone traveling to Islay, especially in late May or September, I’d recommend starting early – very early as the Islay Festival of Malt and Music (Feis Ile) in late May and the Jazz festival in mid September can exhaust lodging options very quickly.  I will be writing about this entire trip in more detail, dedicating a post to each location and linking/updating this post with the individual locations/attractions. Until then, please note that Scotland is a unique place for tourism – untouched for the most part and small, and you must plan your trip around the key sites you want to guarantee.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite images from Scotland – from Islay, of course.

islay