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Global Thoughts — 10 December 2007

Sorry I haven’t written in a while but I’ve been out and about trying to get new material for Global Thoughts. Went around the world and took a few side trips. This has been my first full weekend at home for almost 2 months.

A few family notes: Our daughter Elizabeth turns 2 this month and we’ve been pre-emptively striking against the Terrible Two’s — it’s been a tough week but we think we’ve licked it and we had no tantrums this entire weekend. She’s quite with it — she knows to take her shoes off when approaching the security lane in the airport. She orders eggs in the restaurant and knows when we go through the lobby that we are going to be looking to hail a taxi. Jeremy is chirping away and giving big happy smiles. Karen and I are now into our 5th year of marriage and I am happy to report that marriage is indeed a leap of faith if it is true (which it is in our case) that I am more fond of my wife than I was when we first got engaged or married. 

We took a few family holidays over the past two months — Keswick Hall is a beautiful hotel in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia, and the Sunset Cottages in Key West, Florida was a perfect hideaway with privacy, gorgeous beachfront views and family friendly facilities (see notes below). Karen and I stayed overnight at the Homestead Inn, a bed and breakfast in Greenwich, Connecticut, a tony residential area a 45 minute train ride from New York City. We will be going to Bermuda later this month and of course there are notes on the Round the World Travel in the Travel News posting released today elsewhere on the site. I personally visited Rome, Jerusalem, Hong Kong and Shanghai last month; I’ve been feeling a bit stale sitting around here and not getting out that much so I went out on a mission to see what’s going on in China as well as to see my company’s bureau in Jerusalem with 5 full-time employees.. 

I have been trying to enjoy our family; you get roughly a week to experience each phase that each kid passes through and it is a bit heavy doing this all at the age of 41 when most others have done this 15 years prior. 

My company Morningside, was recently evaluated by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency in Geneva. They evaluated 850 translation companies worldwide and our company achieved a 98% satisfaction rating this month, ranking it tied for first worldwide. We are one of a handful of companies in the world that provide services to WIPO and it is every bit an achievement attributable to our magnificent employees. We just sent a dozen of them to Puerto Rico for a well-deserved weekend away and I went down for a quick 24 hour visit to wish them well at the Ritz Carlton in San Juan.

First a few thoughts:

Iran — The UAE seized an Iranian ship carrying suspect chemicals. Very interesting…Banks in most of the world are really avoiding the country. The Iranians have domestic elections coming up in March and it will be interesting to see what happens there and this past week there was a good amount of domestic unrest, something not being fully reported. I was very surprised at the US’s latest intelligence estimate downgrading the Iranian nuclear threat. Nevertheless, the Europeans are continuing to be concerned about them and seem almost annoyed at the latest news out of the US. The Israelis, if they have anything, presumably showed it yesterrday to the US military chief of staff who was visiting the country for the day which itself was a most unusual event. The chief of staff also defended Israel at a public forum last week in Bahrain and said that Israel is no way equivalent to Iran in terms of the issue of possessing nuclear weapons. From what I know, the Israelis don’t have much more information than the US does and they were told in advance of the release of the US report. It doesn’t make sense to me that Bush would be walking around talking about World War III a month ago and then having this report released except for three possibilities (1) there is a deal in the works with the Iranians and the US was talking tough while negotiating it; (2) this is part of a deception meant to lower the Iranian’s guard while preparations for a military strike continue. The Israelis have been training like crazy getting ready for a military operation and the US has been training Arab air forces as well. While it would be difficult for the world to accept an Israeli military operation after the US essentially kissed off the need for it, the affected states such as the Arabs will not say boo if they believe there is a problem that needs to be solved and the world doesn’t expect the Israelis to accept the American findings if it sees a real threat. The point is that if they strike, they better show that they knew better than the Americans what the Iranians were up to. Whatever the case, we’ll know within 6 months or so which version was true. OK, so there is also a third version — which is that the Bush Administration is totally incompetent, the left doesn’t know what the right-hand is doing, and that Putin of all people was right when he poo-pooed the Iranian threat earlier this year. Frankly, I believe Putin runs a better ship than Bush and that the Russians also have no interest in seeing a nuclear Iran. But like I said above, it just doesn’t seem to register to me that the third version is correct in terms of properly guaging the Iranian situation. I think they absolutely want the bomb, the people running the country are a real problem to the region and that economic sanctions are the way to get Iranians to change the government which is the only long-term solution to the country’s lack of useful development. Which means to me the 4th option is correct — the Intelligence Estimate is background chatter issued by the intelligence community and Bush had no control over its issuance and most of the people that count are ignoring it, meaning the military, Israel, Europe and Bush. This view holds that the Estimate is from 2005, based on faulty intelligence (ie: a man who defected who wasn’t in a position to know anything about the nuclear program anyway), and that if you really want to know where things are at, pay attention to the fact that the chief of staff is in Israel and that Bush is coming to Israel next month and they both know full well that the Israelis are going to deal with Iran, with or without the US being actively involved. So why go there if you aren’t supportive…It may be that a combination of versions 2 and 4 are the right answer. Besides, the American intelligence community has a bad history of underestimating and overestimating the threat. Iraq was an overestimation; Pakistan/India’s nuclear tests last decade were an utter surprise.

Israel — Not clear if the Annapolis meeting means anything. Olmert is willing to eventually give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount to a consortium of Arab countries (PA, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia). He has made it clear that he favors a 2 state solution and notes interestingly that it matters that the majority of American Jews favor the 2 state solution and that Israel can’t survive without their support and that they won’t support it if it is perceived as an apartheid-like state. He is going to be in power for at least the next 2 years; Barak isn’t even going to try to bring down the government anytime soon. Abbas is still a nothing for his side, so it doesn’t really matter right now what anyone thinks because it takes two to tango, but I prefer an Abbas to an Arafat who really wasn’t interested in peace even if he could have delivered. I was just in Israel last month and there are notes in my travel file. I held onto the notes for a month on purpose to see if they would hold any water after seeing the events unfold over the past month. You can look at them now and see what you think of the various comments. Link follows at the bottom of this page.

US — Bloomberg and Obama would make a winning ticket. The two of them had a coffee recently. Hillary is a big gamble for the Democrats; over 40% of Americans strongly dislike her and less than 20% think she is honest. Giuliani would be a disaster as president. He is in my opinion totally overrated much as Colin Powell was a decade ago… The flying situation has improved lately; I flew 5 days last week and every flight ran on time or early… There is a strike affecting comedies and dramas on TV; I personally watch nothing on TV these days except the BBC World News and maybe some Teletubbies with Elizabeth so I’m not missing anything.

World — Austria and Malaysia are good places to invest in market index funds. India is overrated; especially now that the economic growth of China was found to be exaggerated, India will be next in line to be downgraded. Still, when the US coughs, everyone else sneezes and I don’t foresee in the short term that any of these foreign markets will be able to avoid trouble if the US is in trouble. Much more subprime mess still to come; now watch what happens to all the credit cards that were used to pay these subprime mortgage payments that are defaulting. There are tons more public money invested in these credit card companies than in the mortgages themselves and remember that people were taking out credit based on the perceived value of their homes. The US Government realizes there is a big problem here and has been trying to deal with it; it is a good attempt but there is only so much that can be done at the risk of tampering with the mortgage market for the future (ie: draining contracts of their credibility) except to let the market solve it by itself. The devalued US dollar is an embarrassment — even tourist attractions in India no longer accept dollars, but it is good for America — it is the equivalent of the hugest default in history. One irony of $90 a barrel oil and cheap toys in China are that the Chinese and Arabs are bailing out the US as the market stumbles and the possibility of a recession is in the offing; they have no choice but to take their dollars and reinvest them in the US to prop up our market to protect their own situation. It is not that they love the US but they are trapped and the world is not going to renegotiate all those dollar contracts into Euros anytime soon. Citibank’s balance sheet was stabilized last week by Dubai investing $7 billion into the company as an example of Arab action and the purchasing of dollars by China is an example of the latter…In France, I am rooting for Sarkozy as he takes on the unions. The UK’s Brown is stumbling with lots of bad luck and he has 3 months to get his act together or face real pressure to step down.

Middle East Elsewhere — Lebanon, hopefully will be OK based on the deal made with the US on the side with Syria over their Annapolis presence. The new president Suleiman is generally OK for everybody. Hizbullah is gearing up to be used again, based on what I see going on out there, not based on the contradictory assessments coming out of Israel. Turkey is rebuilding its relations with Israel and mediating well with the Syrians. Iraq is getting a bit better but it is a sucker’s rally and the US ought to still be planning its exit. While in Europe, I saw the interview with the Saudi King on BBC World and I was impressed. Guy’s got one of the nicest offices I’ve seen and the PC’s on the desk were a nice touch (I’ll bet he’s never used them!). Somebody who’s in a position to know says I should ignore the various jibes about Syria’s Assad being an idiot; he says he isn’t an idiot. In Pakistan, perhaps a coalition between the various players (Sharif, Bhuto and Musharraf) will work. It’s a real problem over there and I do believe Musharraf when he says that the reason Afghanistan is a problem for Pakistan is that hundreds of thousands of Afghanis support the Taliban and this allows them to have the run of the countryside in his country.  I will be traveling to Cairo, Amman and Dubai in June 2008 and look forward to seeing what’s going on.

China — There are details in my travel notes but the short order is that they are working very hard there and advancing while the US is not moving forward nearly as fast (although they are coming from much further behind). I don’t buy the argument that Freedom is that important to a nation’s economic success. There is plenty of freedom in China to do what you want as long as you don’t run around threatening the government. How many people in the US write letters to the editor wanting to change our government? I think it is a copout to claim the Chinese can’t wipe our asses because they don’t have Freedom. Their air traffic system is 20 years more advanced than ours and I’m tired of hearing how we can’t fix ours till 2025 because of all the bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome. I’m sure a few air traffic collisions will lead to the system being fixed immediately and it’s only a matter of time before we have a few. Their subways run to the second and their roads, bridges and tunnels are brand new. Ours are aged and often horrible and it just feels so bad to come back to New York after you’ve been around the world and seen better. Even their childrens’ science museums are superior. China is most impressive and it won’t take 20-30 years before we look around and notice how the world hath changed. It’ll take 10.
TRAVEL NOTES — Keswick Hall, Charlottesville Virginia (October); Sunset Key Cottages, Key West, Florida (November). Homestead Inn, Greenwich Connecticut (November)

Keswick Hall is an Orient Express hotel located roughly 15 minutes from Charlottesville, Virginia. A cheaper airport to fly into is Richmond which is 75 minutes drive away and served by JetBlue. This area of southwest Virginia is at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Very scenic and the warm weather goes to the end of October here. Food and beverage were excellent (much better than average even for a good resort), and the scenery is real pretty outside your window. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, is about a 20 minute drive away and the town of Charlottesville hosts the University of Virginia. Monticello is pretty for its orange-leaved trees at peak foliage but the inside of the house is something you could see or skip. It was too much trouble to book a tour so I snuck in with Elizabeth who actually behaved very well during the 30 minute house tour. This was real nice place to see peak foliage and enjoy greenery during the fall without having to go all the way south once it got cold in New York….Sunset Key Cottages is an annex to the Westin Marina Hotel in Key West, Florida, one of the most southernmost points in the Continental US. We flew there via Tampa, Florida and returned via Miami via a 4 hour scenic drive to Miami and stayed here for 3 nights before Thanksgiving weekend. There are 37 one-and-two bedroom cottages on an island a 5 minute boat ride from the Westin. The hotel is managed by Westin. The boat goes every half hour and you need a security pass to get on the boat. The island is very small and can be walked all around in 10 minutes. The beach is gorgeous with white sand imported from the Bahamas and hammocks spread around, and the spacious cottage we stayed in let out right onto the beach; it was 50 steps to the restaurant and 100 steps to the pool which had a zero-degree entry pool (like going into the ocean without steps) and a good poolside restaurant. Totally convenient for families. They deliver fresh bakery and orange juice to the cottage every day and you could leave the kids in the locked house with a baby monitor and have dinner at the restaurant without worry because it is a very secure place frequented by celebrities who demand this and you are close enough to see and hear everything. The price was surprisingly reasonable and a 2 bedroom cottage was not much more than the cost of 2 hotel rooms. Key West is a bit honkey-tonk and we could be totally happy going to the cottages and skipping town but it is fun to check out the town. See the parrots in town, chase chickens at Blue Heaven Restaurant, go to Butterfly World, sunset at Mallory Square with the bucksters and this crazy French guy Dominique who has these jumping house cats and a real funny Inspector Clouseau-like demeanor. A pretty restaurant for dinner is Louie’s Back Yard and Fast Buck Freddy is still around on Duval Street after all these years with a good penchant for retailing all sorts of impulse items. The Homestead Inn is a Relais Chateaux bed and breakfast property in Greenwich, Connecticut, a 45 minute train ride north of New York City. The property has a great restaurant and you know the sommelier knows his stuff when nobody orders wine and just takes what he mixes up. It is a great hideaway for adults a close ride from New York. We walked around the residential areas of Greenwich which are right around the property and it is quite a wealthy area to behold. World-leading money people live there and the houses are grand.

Click here to read Round the World Travel notes and photos and Notes on Conversations in Israel Nov 2007.

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