A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

The Thinker by Rodin

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

The Thinker by Rodin

Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.

It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.

It wasn’t always this was for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.

Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.

What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.

You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.

Transit of Panama

The Thinker by Rodin

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.

Storms, sea and salty air

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want to escape winter this year, it’s not easy. We were one of the lucky ones to escape on one of the few flights allowed out of Bradley International Airport (Hartford CT) Thursday morning. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I can’t recall a flight quite like this one. A Nor’easter was moving up the east coast bringing a ton of snow and high winds. Our original flight Thursday got canceled. We were agile enough to quickly book another Southwest flight that left around 7 AM. To improve our chances, we booked a room at the airport’s Sheraton the night before.

For once luck was with us. Only two commercial flights made it out of Bradley after ours on Thursday. While blizzard conditions mounted outside, a deicing truck gave our aircraft a quick shower. While we left the gate the storm worsened and it became hard to see out the window. When the aircraft made it airborne, the passengers spontaneously applauded. With 4500 flights canceled due to the storm, we were lucky indeed. We even made it into our gate at Tampa International five minutes early. Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful as well.

You would think that in Florida you might be able to escape winter, but snow had made it as far south as Tallahassee. Tampa was in the forties on our arrival, and Fort Lauderdale was breezy and a bit warmer in the low fifties. This was likely as cold as it was going to get in south Florida all year, but at least there was no snow. There was the occasional report of falling iguanas, who like to inhabit the trees and were literally stunned by the cold weather. Floridians donned their rarely used coats to go outside. Holed up at my sister and brother in law’s house in nearby Hollywood, we too found reason to stay indoors, eat Thai and play endless games of hearts.

Winter proved hard to escape. The cool temperatures and stiff winds continued on Friday but at least it was better than at home where ten inches of new snow hand fallen. Negative temperatures were also in the forecast there, so by comparison the weather seemed balmy. By mid afternoon when we had boarded the MS Westerdam (of the Holland America cruiseline) at the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal, winds had dropped somewhat and temperatures hovered in the mid 60s. Leaving port brought back memories of a similar cruise four years ago from the same port. Aside from the ship (then the Noordam) little had changed.

Back home airports like JFK are still recovering from the storm, as are we. The Nor’easter had effects both north and south. On our overnight trip to the Bahamas it meant eight foot seas and quickly acquiring sea legs. We spent Saturday at Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay. It had changed so little in four years that it didn’t take me long to walk the island and reboard the tender back to the ship. One surprise was to find I had Internet access. We didn’t intend to pay Holland America’s usury rates for its Internet.

The effects of the Nor’easter though just got worse. Moving south Saturday we pushed through the front, which made Friday night’s seas look relatively mild. We were rocking and rolling all night long. Normally I don’t use seasick medicine, but Sunday morning I popped a Bonine just to be proactive. Swells appeared to max out around twelve feet. With our cabin far forward, we could feel the keel bottom against the sea occasionally, making a huge noise. There were also other strange noises that may have been doors on the Promenade shutting from the wind or deck chairs skittering across the deck. By mid morning Sunday the worst of the waves had ebbed as we cut our way through tropical gloom and rain between Haiti and Cuba.

Today (Monday as I write this) feels like the first proper day of our cruise. We are heading south at fifteen knots toward a brief visit at Cartegena, Colombia before going through the Panama Canal on Wednesday. The skies are mostly sunny, the air moist and the feeling is definitely tropical. You can walk around the Promenade and feel like you actually are in the tropics again. We are settling into a cruising routine at last on this lengthy 15-day voyage. On January 20 we should arrive at San Diego where we will finally disembark.

This is our sixth cruise and the first in four years. It is both similar and new. The Westerdam is not much different than the Noordam we were on four years ago. Most cruise ships are similar in both style and layout, so much so that you can usually find your way around without a map. Main stage is forward, Decks 2-4. Dining is way aft, Decks 2-3. The Promenade is on Deck 3, and there is always a Lido deck on Deck 9 with pools, hot tubs, bars serving tropical drinks and an enormous food court open day and night.

It’s impossible to lose weight on a cruise, so the challenge is not to gain weight. Mainly you avoid the food court on the Lido deck as much as possible and eat meals in the Dining Room. Weather permitting you make regular circuits of the Promenade. I’ve walked two miles on the Promenade already today and plan to do two miles more later.

All the cruiselines serve terrific food. One thing I like about Holland America is they serve reasonable portions. In addition, the food arrives so slowly that you partially digest one part of the meal before the second part arrives. Allow two hours or more for dinner in the dining room.

The Westerdam was built in 2004 but is already showing signs of age. You can find rust spots in places, spots they try to hide with coats of paint. Somehow the rust still leaches through the paint. The crew is always busy doing something, but standards may have slipped a bit. I am seeing things I haven’t seen on other cruises, things that amount to annoyances more than complaints, like finding no soap in the soap dispensers in certain public restrooms. Like other cruiselines, there is a lot of surreal happiness from the crew, who of course have orders to always bend over backward to be friendly and helpful.

Still, there is more than a little overt class division among the crew. I have carefully surveyed the dining and cabin crews. They are all Indonesian. Considering they never get a day off and must work at least twelve hours a day, it’s perhaps understandable that Indonesians have these jobs. Then there are the “white” jobs. You probably won’t see an Indonesian behind the desk at Guest Services. Positions like these seem reserved for whites. Speaking of whites, we passengers are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly senior. At 60, I am still probably well below the mean passenger age.

It’s a great life while the cruise lasts. Holland American cruises have innovated by adding Lincoln Center Stage, where you can indulge your love of classical music three times a day if you want. The entertainment is a bit less fancy than on other cruise lines, but only snobs will care. Their ships are smaller than most these days, which I find nice because it feels more intimate. Still, there is always something to do here, although the most popular activities tend to be the most passive and involve sitting on deck chairs on the Lido deck in front the pool and ordering tropical drinks.

At least it is far, far away from the bitter cold and snow back in New England. Exotic ports of call await.

Oh Canada! (Part Two)

The Thinker by Rodin

Last Thursday we passed over the Rainbow Bridge and into Canada, our first trip to Ontario since 2004. Some things have changed since our last visit, but it’s not Canada. It’s the United States. Passing into Niagara Falls, Ontario I realized I actually felt better. For one night at least I was back in a sane country.

I was wondering whether they might not let us in, even though we were just passing through southern Ontario. I was particularly worried when my wife started complaining about our president with the Canadian customs official. But he was cool and had some complaining of his own about Justin Trudeau, their prime minister. “At least your president is transparent. Our guy is really crafty.” Yes, well you have an intelligent prime minister. We have a narcissist Cheeto for our president. Chances are that if Trump decides to launch a nuclear war any missiles wouldn’t be lobbed at Canada. And that’s because Canada in a sane country.

Canadians don’t subscribe to President Reagan’s claim that government is the problem. Rather, Canadians subscribe to the old fashioned idea (for Americans) that government should work for the betterment of its people, all of them. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than simply driving across Ontario. Ontario’s roads are so well maintained that it feels surreal. On the return trip on Sunday, we left our hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. Until we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the USA, my shock absorbers did not have to work at all.

That’s right: the roads (or at least the ones I was on, which includes Queen Elizabeth’s Way and Routes 405, 403 and 8) were bump free. There were zero potholes anywhere. Maybe they use some sort of super concrete. The roads were in excellent condition, in spite of the harsh winters they get around there from lake-effect snow. It wasn’t just the roads. It was also the bridges. The bridge overpasses looked new; no rusting girders and pockets of fallen concrete. The traffic flowed smoothly. Of course the moment we passed over into the USA we were back on America’s crappy roads. This meant bumps, potholes, miles of torn up pavement waiting a new coat of asphalt, many more miles of highway cones moving you to temporary lanes, etc. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s overall infrastructure a D+ grade. Way to go, supposedly greatest country on Earth!

A visit to Canada though proves that a country doesn’t have to have a crappy infrastructure. In fairness, I did see some highway construction. A part of the QEW was being repaired near Niagara Falls. Large stretches of routes 403 near Woodstock and London in Ontario were being widened as well which meant some lane shifting. On Sunday we got off the major highways to get to Stratford, Ontario where we saw a musical. These back roads were in excellent shape as well: not a pothole in the more than thirty miles we rode on them.

It’s pretty clear what the general problem is here in the United States, at least with our roads. We refuse to pay the cost of maintenance. This is largely due to Congress’s refusal to increase the gas tax, or at least index it to inflation. It is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. It wasn’t enough in 1993 to keep our infrastructure from degrading and it’s worth a lot less now due to inflation. So our roads and bridges keep getting crappier and crappier, resulting in occasional major incidents like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s easy to predict things won’t change if Congress won’t address the issue; in fact it will just get worse. On the plus side American cars are replacing plenty of shock absorbers, as our roads give them a real workout. I guess that part is good for the economy.

Spending two nights in southern Ontario though (one coming and going to Michigan, where we visited an aunt) brought out other wistful feelings. Today America feels very much like a dog-eat-dog country. People may act nice, but very often they are just snippy or mean. At our performance of Guys & Dolls at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario we sat next to an elderly man. At intermission he stumbled trying to get out of his seat. Almost instantly there were a half dozen people helping him get up again. An usher came by, noted the problem and told the man that their 6’4” usher would be there after the show to help him exit the theater. The concern for this stranger from the people around him was natural and authentic. It was heartwarming.

It’s because Canada is a country that cares about its people because the people feel vested in their country. Obviously Canada is not a perfect country and has its political struggles too, just not on the scale that we have in the USA. I have been told that Montreal has deteriorating bridges and roads, perhaps a result of Quebec choosing to allocate less money toward infrastructure. The sense of unity and common purpose while in Canada though was heartwarming. It made me nostalgic for a time when it was the same way here in the United States. Today, America is polarized to a degree that I have not seen in my sixty years. In addition we have Republicans with a lock on Congress trying to make the situation worse and a president likely to go down as our worst.

I loved my short time in Canada and I felt sad to leave it. When I saw the large Canadian flags flying along the highway, I felt a lump in my throat. It’s a country that has its stuff together, and is generally happy, peaceful and prosperous.

I hope before I die that I’ll see American that way again. Right now it looks like a pipedream.

What’s up doc? (or playing with my FlightAware app)

The Thinker by Rodin

I remember when Google Maps first came out. It was pretty amazing for the time. You just dragged the screen with your mouse and content around it filled in! It seems pedestrian now but at the time it was mind blowing in its usefulness and simplicity.

Something like Google Maps for our air traffic has arrived. Yes, I’m aware there are lots of sites out there that track flights, and plenty of apps too. And most weren’t particularly interesting to me because they only gave basic information like “Is my flight on time?” and “If I can’t make my flight what else is available?”

What I wanted was to see all the flights that were going on in real time on a map. Where are they now? Where are they going? Where did they come from? Did they leave on time? Did they take off on time? How long is the flight? What is flying now at 40,000 feet above me right now? You might wonder, “Why do you want to know this stuff?” I really don’t know. Curiosity I guess. Thankfully the FlightAware app installed on my iPad scratches this itch perfectly on easy to use maps. (There is a FlightAware website, but the app is much more usable.)

FlightAware app
FlightAware app

This is a great way to kill time. It turns out though that the more time you spend just surfing this sort of Google Maps of the sky the more you learn about our aviation system. It’s neat and scary and more than a little awesome to see how congested our skies actually are. And doubtless there are flights that don’t appear on the app, although sometimes the app will surprise me. I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. We have a small little airport not big enough for even a Lear jet. But sometimes even a private pilot in a two-seat biplane just buzzing around the Holyoke range shows up.

Last night I was looking at Sydney, Australia. Amidst all the regular jet traffic, it was also tracking a helicopter flight, obvious from both the helicopter icon and its weird flight pattern.

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?
Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

To get this level of insight half a world away in near real time is fascinating. Doubtless there is a huge infrastructure of networked servers behind all this magic that FlightAware is tapping into. I just didn’t expect it to be global in scope. I can see Air China flights from Beijing to Moscow. I watch Aeroflot flights between cities in Russia I’ve never heard of. I see some crazy flight paths, like one from New York to Delhi that works goes way out of its way to avoid dangerous airspaces.

Curious to learn more I often press the icon associated with the flight. In a sidebar I see details of the flight and then a map comes up showing the flight path. Here is the flight path of a flight from JFK in New York to Warsaw, Poland that was close by last night:

JFK to Warsaw flight path
JFK to Warsaw flight path

Some of the things I have discovered on my FlightAware app include:

  • There is a huge amount of international air traffic, even here in the United States. Much of it goes over my head, although I am largely unaware of it. Naturally JFK and Newark send lots of planes out to Europe and Asia, but so do Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and much of it flies over my head. The outbound flights unsurprisingly are mostly in the evening. Inbound flights tend to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Essentially there is a huge air train of passenger and cargo flights arching out to the north-northeast in the evenings, mostly passing over Newfoundland but sometimes Labrador.
  • There are some amazingly long flights. I stumbled on one of the longest: Los Angeles to Jeddah with a total flight time of nearly seventeen hours. It’s pretty easy to guess the international flights. The icons on the screen show large airplanes and they tend to move north-northeast in the evenings.
  • At the same time it’s amazing how quickly jets actually move us. Mexico City is less than four hours flight time from most of the United States. You can fly between pretty much any two points of the continental United States in five hours or less.
  • At night you see a lot of cargo jets going to Memphis, where Fedex has a transfer point. A lot are also going to Covington, Kentucky too, which is basically Cincinnati. I believe it is a UPS hub. And many of these are long haul cargo flights from Europe and Asia.
  • The United States gets a lot of serious weather. It’s obvious comparing the USA to other countries with all the storms I see, mostly in the south and Midwest. Sometimes flights will go out of their way to avoid these storms. In Europe I rarely see weather like this.
  • Airspace can get pretty congested. It’s amazing that they can manage the chaos of all the planes descending and taking off, particularly around New York. Watching Atlanta’s airspace is fascinating because two runways get most of the traffic and jets tend to line up neatly behind one another to land in a sort of delicate ballet.

Some things I particularly like about the FlightAware app:

  • It’s easy to get details on flights by just clicking on them on the map
  • There are various map layers you can hide and expose as interested but the default works fine most of the time as you don’t need the detail
  • When you click on a flight, it’s easy to see how long the duration of the flight is and how much of the flight has happened
  • The size of the airplane icon is indicative of the size of the jet, making it easy to spot the larger airplanes in flight.
  • You can save searches of favorite flights, airports or cities and get to them easily
  • You can search for a flight and see exactly where it is and how long until it reaches its destination, along with delay information
  • It stores about a week of flight history. After my recent flight back from Europe I was able to find it in the history and trace our flight path over Labrador.
  • You can create flight notifications and save them your favorites

In general I find it just fascinating. The vast size and scope of our aviation system is rendered apparent in the app, along with its constantly fluid nature. No wonder I have a hard time putting it down!

London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

The Thinker by Rodin

Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

London, Part 2 (Ancient London)

The Thinker by Rodin

Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.

Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.

Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London
Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.

 

Roman wall in London
Roman wall in London

Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.

For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.

It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.

St. Brides, arguably London's oldest church
St. Brides, arguably London’s oldest church

Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.

Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.

London, Part 1

The Thinker by Rodin

Eleven years ago I made my first trip to Europe. Then it was France, but mostly Paris. Last week it was England, but mostly London. My ancestors came from England, at least those on my father’s side. My father lived 89 years and never saw his ancestral home. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see England. I think my late father would have found the visit as deeply satisfying as I did.

Ah to be in England, now that spring is here! Although it was technically still winter while we were there, spring was in the air. You could smell it in the flowering trees and see it on the flowers of the lawn at Windsor Castle. Yes, far further north it was much more temperate. While we were gone Mother Nature left another foot of snow at our home in western Massachusetts. England, known for endless dreary and often wet days, treated us pretty well. The sun was out most days, highs generally hit the high 50s (Fahrenheit) but the wind was often bracing, particularly on Saturday when a bus journey out of London took us to Stonehenge. There will be more on that later.

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London
London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but until you go someplace you never really quite know whether you will like what you find. London though turned out to be the city of my dreams. In retirement I moved much closer to nature, but in temperament I am more a cosmopolitan kind of guy. London is arguably the best, largest and most prosperous large city in the world. Its major downside is that most of us cannot afford to live there. With prices comparable to living in New York City, it’s not for the monetarily challenged. A decent apartment in one of the nicer parts of the city will run you £3000 or so a month, which works out to about $3700. On the plus side, if you can manage to pay the rent, you shouldn’t need a car. London’s Underground goes practically everywhere, and it does so briskly and efficiently.

Arguably the Underground is the city’s most impressive achievement. You rarely wait more than a minute for a train once you are on the platform. On the major lines you have options on both sides of the track with all trains going in the same direction. The Tube is massive, extremely clean and very well maintained with some lines, like the Piccadilly Line, two long escalator rides belong the primary line. Running almost as frequently as these underground trains are the many double decker buses crisscrossing the streets. This investment in transportation is beyond massive, but it pays for itself in the connections and possibilities it allows. If only the U.S.A. could get this enlightened it would probably be a lot more prosperous.

Overall London is a mixture of old and modern, but it rarely looks shabby. One of my favorite streets in Washington, D.C. when I lived near there was Connecticut Avenue. Yet it’s just one street. In London, most of the city looks like Connecticut Avenue: endless blocks of midrise housing, usually with businesses along the streets and mostly well maintained. Some streets, particularly close to the city center, are much more commercial: hotels, banks, theaters and just enormous amounts of restaurants, most reasonably priced. We never had a bad meal mainly because we had no reason to eat “English” food. But we did eat one dinner at an honest to God English pub, on a “mew”, sort of like an alleyway where the servants usually hung out. It was good dining if a bit peculiar (you ordered at the bar).

London is a great big melting pot, but more white than black and more Asian than Hispanic. I actually saw more people of color back in Washington, D.C. but like D.C. you can hear most languages spoken in London too. For the most part the people look good and seem healthy, thanks in part to their National Health Service. There are homeless in London, but they are actually hard to find. For the most part anyone who wants to work can find work and the wages are generally enough to live decently, even if you may have to commute quite a ways to find more affordable housing. It’s a city that glows and buzzes that is awesomely massive in size. Cranes are everywhere. Scaffolding contractors are everywhere too, helping to maintain the brick facades of buildings hundreds of years old. There are plenty of cars on the roads too, mostly belonging to those with deeper pockets. It’s unclear to me why anyone would want the hassle of a car in London. And yes, cars drive on the left side of the road there, which for me meant mentally checking myself before crossing streets because the dynamics of the flow were the opposite of what I expected.

Obviously this is the most recent incarnation of London. It retains sketchy neighborhoods, but overall it feels and is a safe place to live and work. The opportunities in the city are endless. Every major company has a presence here, but London is anchored by its banking sector in the City of London. Yes, there is a City of London, but it is just a tiny part of the London metropolitan area, which is broken up into many independent boroughs. In the real city you will see little but banks, insurance companies and tall, skinny men in black suits and white shirts doing important stuff that is hard to quantify but must pay very well indeed.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

The Thames River splits the city between its northern and southern sides. The northern side is considered tonier, but many of the prime attractions are on the south side. The Thames really moves, mostly due to tidal forces that push water inland then move it out hours later, creating strong currents. London Bridge is actually on its third iteration and this latest one fields nearly as many pedestrians as cars. Lots of bridges cross the Thames, but Tower Bridge near the old city and the infamous Tower of London is probably the one that you will mistake for London Bridge.

London is a mixture of new, old and ancient. Come along with me on our journey.