New England when it sizzles

Report to the Southern Greenspuns on my New England summer weekend… (with some notes for non-family)

Friday night:  One of the nice things about Boston in the summer is that people actually come through on their way to vacation spots.  It becomes a bit like Manhattan.  One need not travel to see friends and family because they come to us.  Doug and Leslie show up from California with the girls in tow, en route to a couple of weeks of renting a place on the Cape.  Doug’s family history efforts have uncovered an 18-year-old girl in their neighborhood who is distantly related to us, and she [we’ll call her “Linda”] comes to dinner as well.  I explain that Yiddish has a word for relatives of whom one no longer even knows how or if they are related: “mishpocha“.  Thinking that their hotel room will be a little crowded they leave Allie (almost 8 years old now) and Linda with me for the night.  We walk into Harvard Square around 10:30 pm.  The night is a perfect warm shorts and T-shirt temperature.  We have ice cream at Toscaninni’s.  Afterwards a pleasant fellow walks up and introduces himself.  He attended a one-day course that I taught five years ago and reads my Web site periodically.  Thinking that it might be complex to discuss first cousins once removed and more distant relationships I simply said “this is my daughter Allie and my wife Linda”.  He accepted this uncritically.  Allie found a couple of Brookline High School kids who were practicing juggling and they let her use their bean bags.

Saturday morning:  The family reunited in East Cambridge for breakfast.  Linda talks about her plans to defer college for one year and spend the time snowboarding, wakeboarding, learning Spanish in Argentina, traveling, and generally enjoying herself and seeking physical thrills.  It occurred to me that times have changed in the past few decades.  An 18-year-old in 1970 whose family had enough extra resources to support a year off would at least consider some sort of activity aimed at fixing what ails the world.  The Peace Corps, some sort of political agitation, etc.  18-year-olds today, though, seem to leave these activities to the paid professional poverty industry and paid professional political consultants and just want to go off and have fun with their bodies while they’re still free of aches and pains.

Saturday afternoon:  Alex and I trundled down to the MIT Club of Boston picnic and a good time was had by all.

Saturday evening:  Drive to Nashua, New Hampshire to do a night helicopter flight.  The FAA requires five hours of night solo experience before issuing a Commercial helicopter rating.  At 8:15 pm I started up the Robinson R22 and listened to the ATIS, the recorded information that the control tower wants pilots to hear before calling.  The ATIS mentioned the wind, the runway in use (32, oriented toward magnetic 320 or northwest), and the inoperability of some lights at the approach end of the runway.  I called the tower for permission to do some touch-and-goes.  “Unable,” they responed, “we had a plane crash here a few minutes ago.”  A guy in a brand new Beechcraft Bonanza, the famous doctor-killing plane of the 1970s still being hand-built in tiny volumes by Raytheon, had lost power and tried to make a landing on Runway 14 but had come up short.  As this newspaper article reports, David Massad, the 77-year-old pilot managed to maintain sufficient control that the landing in the trees wasn’t too hard.  He and his 56-year-old passenger, Pamela Putnam, were “were unhurt but heavily mosquito-bitten”.  Their friend in a Beech Baron came in to pick up Massad and Putnam just as I finally took off at 9:00 pm.  Not wanting to interfere with any investigation I departed straight south to Norwood, Massachusetts and landed there before coming back towards the Needham radio towers and flying over the Mass Pike into downtown Boston and Cambridge around 1000′ above sea level.  It was a beautiful smooth clear night and the buildings really sparkle.  I departed the downtown area by flying up Interstate 93 to Rt. 128 and from there back up to Nashua for a total flight time of 1.5 hours.  I went to the Extended Stay America efficiency suites hotel just about 1.5 miles from the airport.  It was after 11:00 pm and the ladies working the front desk were just closing up shop.  The hotel, which is in back of an office park, and would be tough to find without a GPS, was 100 percent full.  “Who wants to stay in suburban Nashua on a Saturday night?” I asked.  “Nobody should stay here unless they are forced to,” she replied.

Sunday:  From Nashua, NH to Rockland, Maine and back in the Cirrus SR20, which has been getting some warranty service and an oil change (130 hours so far on the meter) but the folks at Keyson buttoned her up for weekend use.  I picked up my friend Lisa at Pease, home to the longest runway in New England (11,321′; those Air France guys would have appreciated this instead of the 9000′ runway to which they were assigned in Toronto), KC135 refueling tankers, Chinook dual-rotor helicopters, and various other curious military and civilian planes.  Lisa was in a good birthday (12th annual 29th) mood and I had her sit in the left seat as we flew low up the coast.  The airport houses a transportation museum with an important collection of antique planes and cars and a lot of weekend events (classic convertibles yesterday).  Downtown was in the throes of the last day of the lobster festival, in which thousands of innocent creatures were horribly scalded to death each hour, .  In between the lobster course and the chowder course we stopped into the Farnsworth Museum to look at a very impressive Alex Katz exhibit.  The place is also filled with interesting work by three generations of Wyeths and it is air-conditioned.  Back to Pease in the late afternoon to drop Lisa off, letting the problematic left fuel tank run almost dry by my calculations in order to verify the fuel gauge’s accuracy (the tank had 1.2 gallons usable, enough for about 7 minutes of operation; the gauge read a cheerful “5 gallons remaining”).

Sunday night:  Left the SR20 with the mechanics at Nashua and drove back to Boston to host an 8 pm party that didn’t break up until 2:45 a.m. (Harvard-educated woman arguing that an Al Qaeda nuclear bomb destroying Manhattan would be really good for the world because it would mean the end of American hegemony; this set my voluble friend Barry (a NYC native) off rather loudly…).

Next weekend:  Newport Jazz Festival.

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Africa: will a rising tide of cheap capital lift all boats?

Africa came up at last night’s Port and Stilton party.  It has been two months since our last blood donation party at Children’s Hospital and a few of us were planning a return.  One woman who expressed interest is married to a South African Jewish emigre.  I reminded her that she would be disqualified because they now ask “Have you ever had sex with an African or a person of African descent?”  Her husband observed “Well, at some level we are all of African descent.”

Another guest had been working in public health in Tanzania for nearly three years.  Tanzania has about a 10 percent HIV infection rate, which is enough that they are setting up special clinics to give drugs to those who test positive.  Despite mortality due to AIDS and emigration of the talented and educated to Europe (people leave Tanzania at about the same rate that they arrive in the U.S.) the country’s population is still growing at a vigorous 1.83 percent according to the CIA Factbook and its 36 million people will soon have plenty more company.  What are the economic growth prospects for these new Tanzanians, we asked?  Tourism is doing nicely on Zanzibar, which was once owned by the Sultan of Oman and has interesting architecture from its 19th century position as the world’s most active slave-trading port.  The Italians are investing massively in building beach resorts.  Otherwise, she noted, things were tough and she thought it was immoral for the U.S. to continue to operate its space program when the $billions could be sent to save lives in countries such as Tanzania.

It would seem like a great time to be a poor country.  Commodity prices are high.  Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore have demonstrated a foolproof method for economic development (stable government, learning English, getting educated, working hard).  And capital is cheaper than it ever has been.  The after-inflation return on a low-risk investment such as a U.S. T-bill is about two percent.  If capital is cheap and there is a surplus of labor Africa should be booming (and maybe it actually is; the CIA Factbook shows that the economic growth rate in Tanzania is larger than the population growth rate and much larger than the U.S. economic growth rate).

In the 1990s an investor could get a fabulous return by rounding up some nerds, buying ping pong tables, and renting an office in Santa Clara.  Now that same investor is desperate to find any outlet for capital that will earn more than a few percent above inflation.  Could it be that over the next generation this wellspring of cheap capital will bring labor-rich Africa out of poverty even if the foreign aid industry withdrew from the continent?

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