Global Thoughts — 30 September 2015

You guessed it -- San Francisco

You guessed it — San Francisco

Every year in the final hours before and after Yom Kippur I have a personal ritual of taking out my box of old cassette tapes and listening to some cantorial and other religious music as I ponder my circumstances and mentally prepare for the Jewish Day of Atonement and the rest of the year that comes after. These recordings were made over 25 years ago and I haven’t substituted them with newer selections or CD’s. Some of the recordings have a lot of static on them as they were recorded from broadcasts from Israel Radio over shortwave radios. But it is a constant for me as life changes from year to year that certain things don’t change and that carries comfort in this my 50th year of life. I am also reminded of my father who when I was a kid used to take out the most annoying 78 records of cantorial and liturgical music and play them around the High Holidays. I remember once when he came home with an album with a colorful package and we opened the record filled with hope and then after about a minute I said that it sounded like a dying cow and my dad agreed. I remember how much I hated those cantorial records as a kid and I don’t dare play this stuff with my kids in the bedroom unless I want to risk getting kicked in the nuts by my son, but it is funny how quirky traditions like these that you least expect somehow filter and survive through the generations.

Tonight after one of the musical selections I kept the tape running and it ran into a news bulletin from at least 25 years ago. The headline: A report from a think tank that a Middle East arms race, weapons of mass destruction and Islamic fundamentalism were the 3 biggest threats to stability in the region. Rip Van Winkle could have slept through the last 25 years and missed nothing.

IMG_2701My son is finding the issue of taxes very disturbing. He gets a $10 bill to buy something that is $9.99 and then discovers that it really costs $11. He was shocked to his core when I told him that roughly 50% of all his income would be taxed either when he received it or bought something. I was explaining to Jeremy how billions of dollars were needed to rebuild tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey and how neither the states nor the feds were able to come up with the money to fund the project. I told that they can’t figure out what to do after arguing about this for several years. He suggested calling Donald Trump.

We returned from our summer vacation during which I thought about the news reports stating that the television industry is in upheaval over changing viewer habits which are toward internet watching on demand and away from networks and cable. TV has a huge problem on its hands – we were on the road for close to 2 weeks and not once did my kids turn on a TV in any of the hotels we stayed at. They have their iPads and my wife’s iPhone, and they watched the programs they like from YouTube. Today’s young adults don’t read print newspapers anymore and today’s kids aren’t watching TV anymore.

IMG_3120Imagine you went to a grocery store and 3 months later got a bill from the supermarket for a “facilities fee.” That’s how I felt when, 3 months after seeing a doctor that was “in network”, I got a bill from NYU for $140 for a facilities fee, which was for the use of the waiting room and the office space where the doctor actually saw my daughter. When I protested, the billing department said “Well, you signed a paper promising to pay any and all fees we might charge you.” If they wanted that fee, why didn’t they just tell us when we came to see the doctor instead of playing Gotcha 3 months later? I followed up with the doctor and her office manager because I think it’s an outrage and rather unaffordable to the average person who gets a $140 bill out of nowhere several months later for a routine office visit – we would have paid out less to an out of network doctor that would have billed us honestly. I finally got ahold of the billing manager who agreed that we were not disclosed this fee in advance and that she would refund it — if her manager approved it. But the managers did not approve it. I’m letting pediatricians in the city know what they are doing and they can decide if they want to continue referring clients to NYU.

I’m not a big fan of these smart phones but I will admit that my wife’s iPhone 6 takes photos that are either as good or sometimes better than my Canon Powershot camera, particularly of scenes involving people at close range with landscapes such as mountain ranges in the background. The Canon leaves out the background and the iPhone picks them up. It is also handy to have a phone with internet and GPS to get you un-lost whether you are in the car driving across the valley in Wyoming or on the highways of California trying to figure out which route would be faster in the traffic or on the street walking around an unfamiliar neighborhood in Paris looking for a bakery.

A water fountain in San Francisco's Exploratorium.

A water fountain in San Francisco’s Exploratorium.

Here are few startling facts about what’s going on in the dating population: In the US, there are 1.05 boys born for every girl, but by the time you get to college graduation, there are 33% more single straight women in their 20’s than similarly situated men. The number of women aged 30-34 who are not marrying has increased by 31% between 2007 and 2012. On any given weekend, 80% of male college students think their classmates are having sex (the actual figure is between 5-10%). These facts come from two new books reviewed in the NY Times: Date-Onomics by Jon Birger and The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills.

Here’s an interesting factoid from the Economist: Smart bakeries don’t sell brownies or carrot cake on Mondays or Tuesdays. People don’t want to buy big desserts after splurging on the weekends.

The Pope is visiting the city this week and it seems that perhaps he is also visiting my building, because it is also the day that the local utility is reconnecting the gas line that it has disconnected since April. Nothing less than such intervention could have gotten the job done.

This has to get the award for funniest news story of the year which is true according to the Economist: the Zimbabwean parliament was called back into special session for a revised state of the union speech by the country’s 91 year old president Mugabe. Seems that a day earlier he had read out the same speech he had made last August and nobody noticed.

This Volkswagon scandal is amusing to me – the company rigged millions of cars to activate its anti-pollution features when the vehicle gets its emissions test but otherwise deactivates the feature so that cars create a lot more pollution than advertised. This probably resulted in the cars being cheaper but angered customers who thought they were being environmentally friendly when they bought the cars, and of course government regulations were flouted. Americans and Germans are aghast because the company cheated. But imagine if it were an Israeli company and the customers were Israelis – everyone would be walking around saying the heads of the company were geniuses and Israelis would be thrilled that their cars were rigged to screw the government.

You might have noticed that the price of a dozen eggs has gone up about 3x what it normally costs. I asked cashiers and managers in two local supermarkets and they had no idea that anything was going on. Then I asked Google and was promptly told that, no the chickens had not gone out on strike, but they might as well have. Thousands were killed due to an outbreak of bird flu.

Parents who read newspapers encourage kids to read newspapers. My kids see me read the NY Times and Wall Street Journal in print every day and want to read too. Elizabeth was the only girl in her class who knew about the Syrian refugees because I had discussed it with her while reading the paper. It also helps that our TV has been disconnected ever since school started this month. The kids are much more “adorable” without TV and tend to be more creative and cooperative, and less grouchy; imagine what would happen if people’s pets started watching TV. Would dogs still want to cuddle up with their human friends?

People should realize that the China story is more complex than people realize. The stock market in China is a very small part of the total economy and in general China’s economy is pretty healthy. The latest government reform package was pretty weak and I’m not sure the head of state is going to survive long term – his anti-corruption campaign has won him lots of enemies and there is tremendous capital flight out of China. But it is wrong to think that the company’s economy is going to the dogs and that the stock market correction of this past summer was deserved mainly to a panic in China over its stock market.

Another leader who might not last long is the Saudi King, whose relatively young son has basically been running the country and has been nick-named “Reckless.” I mentioned him a few months ago and said that he was taking big gambles with no real life experience behind him, which would either pay off or lead to his head. Looks like the latter.

Here is a tale of two public schools in New York City – one is mostly black and only 12% of the kids pass the reading test. A nearby white-dominated school is overcrowded and 65% of those students pass the test. The city wants to rezone the district to have more white kids go to the other school which is less crowded. Blacks are upset because they are afraid that whites will take over the school which they say they like the way it is. And what pray tell might happen? Their kids might learn how to read?

It’s kind of amusing to see that Europe threw out as many Jews as they could half a century ago and is now having to take in all these Moslems to replace them. All told, the amount of immigrants are not so many against the whole population (although that could change in 25 years if the immigrants have many more kids than the natives), and Europe’s Christians are an aging society that needs young blood that has proven its willingness to kick butt by going through the trouble of getting there. Some European countries have excess funds from a better than expected economy this year and are reserving those funds to resettle immigrants. The downside is that you have lots of potential for people being sent there who want to make trouble. You can expect that a generation from now, given Europe’s track record of non-integration, there will be an explosion on that continent. Lots of Jews think the Europeans are getting exactly what they deserve.

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “David and Goliath.” (The book was written 2 years ago but there is a new Afterword that he wrote this year.)  It is essential reading about how the underdog beats the more powerful party, what works and what doesn’t. There is a lot of breadth in that book. First of all, you’ll never think of David & Goliath the same way after you read his account of the biblical story. He covers issues such as Ireland, Vietnam, Vichy France, the Civil Rights movement, and debunks myths about these various incidents of history. I also enjoyed his other book Outliers two years ago. Gladwell will go down as one of the best analysts of this generation in terms of explaining the Big Picture of things.

The giant Sequoias trees

The giant Sequoias trees

Our summer holiday took us to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, San Francisco and California’s Carmel Valley. The idea this year was to get a bit more of nature and break it up with a city. Although it was August, we arrived to 56 degrees and rain in Jackson, but it was a blessing in disguise as it washed away the forest fire smoke that had been hanging over the area for a week. We were there for 5 nights and found plenty of things to do in the area – lazy river rafting on the beautiful pastoral Snake River (2 hours on the water which was one hour too long for the kids who wanted more excitement such as white water rafting), daily evening shootout in town, rodeo (kids got to try and catch a sheep and they do other hokey things that are crowd-pleasers for the mainly tourist audience such as play songs and have people sing along and have a dancing contest), Alpine Slide and Amaze’ in Jackson Hole (a 2-story maze where kids can go around with big water guns and soak each other), and Teton Village (aerial tram to top of a big mountain, really great ropes course and bungee jumping on a trampoline). The Amangani is a great resort about 10 minutes out of town with great mountain and valley views; next door is the Spring Creek Ranch with cabins for about half the price also with great views, but not at the same level of quality. The Amangani is friendly to children (they will make waffles with banana and Nutella if you ask for it; Jeremy was so happy with his that he gave me 50 kisses and danced around me for about a minute after breakfast that day) but not a place you tend to bring them, as beyond the pool and Jacuzzi and an activities room with a TV, some PC’s and board games, there is nothing for kids to do on property and the adults there are looking for peace and quiet. The Sena Suite looks out over the mountains and valley, can accommodate 2 rollaways and opens out onto the grass. It is a good choice for families. Beyond the quality of the resort, an advantage to the Amangani is access to really great guides for making tours of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It is a 2.5 hour drive each way to the Old Faithful section of Yellowstone, which is where everyone winds up. It is sort of an anti-climactic attraction because there are lots of things to see in a day at Yellowstone, many of which were more interesting than this. The Yellowstone Lodge is a historical hotel located right by Old Faithful but it is overrun with day-trippers during the day.

Family at Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Family at Jackson Hole, Wyoming

IMG_3041The Jackson Lake Lodge is an hour outside the park but it is a striking property with good food (but make sure to stay in the main building or else you are in a motel-like cabin) that is worth a night or two if you are in the area and which makes it easier to tour the park. I’ve seen various national parks but Yellowstone has a lot of variety you can cover in 7 hours, which along with the drive to and from Jackson, made it a 12 hour tour day. You can chop off most of the 5 hour drive with a helicopter but that is a $10,000 expense and hardly anyone does it and anyway it is a beautiful drive with lakes, mountains and animals along the way. Some things you can see are waterfalls, great open plains with bison strolling about, a big canyon with a waterfall, mudpots, various geysers, a hot water lake, and various geological formations of different colors. As you see the various sites, you are also doing small hikes. It is a good idea to take water and food around with you because it’s not like there are services all over the place and the places that exist get very crowded when the tour buses show up. We also took a 4 hour wildlife tour of Grand Teton National Park which is between Jackson Hole and Yellowstone. You can either do the tour at sunrise or sunset but we did just fine at sunset which made me feel happy we didn’t try and get up at 5am to do the tour. We saw 2 bears, which was just fine by me. We also took a one hour hike near our hotel up a small mountain and looked at the view of Jackson Hole. A naturalist led the hike and we basically walked along a horse trail with tons of horse poop for an hour. We also saw a museum of the history of the area in the center of Jackson, which was a nice place to stop on the way to the airport for our flight to San Francisco via Salt Lake City, which is a good transfer airport with nice facilities. I strongly recommend using a guide who also serves as driver when you visit Yellowstone.

IMG_2430 IMG_3036I’d been to Jackson Hole 4 years ago and thought it would be nice to return with wife and kids. It is a beautiful spot in America, and as close to what you would hope to see in Central Europe without going there. Funny but for all this open space, so much of the area (something like 95% of the area) is restricted from development that people inside Jackson pay a fortune for their property. Homes in the center of town are small and worth over a million dollars; outside of town on the hillside gorgeous villas can be $10-15 million and they tend to be third and fourth homes of the very rich and famous that get used maybe a few weeks a year. There is a housing shortage of affordable homes that is driving the working class to live in Idaho an hour away with roads that are hard to pass in winter. It’s a nutty thing that humans always seem to live in packs and cannot escape the high cost of housing, no matter where they wind up. Jackson Hole is probably a good place to invest in real estate the next time there is a recession; those who invested during the last recession got bargains and have tripled their investment. San Francisco, on the other hand, is probably overbuilding right now with tech money (especially Salesforce) and during the next recession, tons of housing will probably be dumped on the market.

IMG_2442The Loews Regency in San Francisco used to be the Mandarin Oriental and I am quite happy about the change, especially in the food department. I’m happy to see my kids fighting over colored cauliflower. It is much better now, and of all the 3 resorts we visited, this one actually had the best food across the board. It is one of the best city hotels I’ve stayed in; it is easy in and out in a good location in the financial district near the Embarcadero and the Hyatt Regency, the rooms have great views (we had a bridge to bridge room with views from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oakland Bay Bridge); the gym is good and the staff were very friendly. The hotel has a book in the guest rooms that includes an article about 3 days in San Francisco with all sorts of good ideas, and the concierges had good suggestions. We also ate dinner at the Fairmont hotel which was good; dessert at the Intercontinental rooftop restaurant was poor. On the first full day of our 3 day visit, we booked a car with driver for 5 hours and saw most of the city’s sites and saw them from the best vantage points which we would not have figured out by ourselves, such as the Sea Lions at Pier 39, a museum with a penny arcade of real old machines near Pier 39, rode the elevator to the top of Coit Tower and saw the murals inside, saw the Golden Gate Bridge from above and below it, walked down Lombard Street, drove down Filbert Street with a 30 degree incline, saw mansions on Billionaire’s Row, Treasure Island across the bay, Palace of Culture which is really a site to see in the US, the Presidio, Mission Bay, street murals in Mission District, Golden Gate park, Sea Cliffs and the Streetcar Museum (not to be confused with the Cable Car Museum which we saw later). At a later time, we visited the Exploratorium, which is a great hands-on science museum like no other we’ve seen, rode the cable cars, visited a fortune cookie factory in Chinatown where we stuck messages inside a cookie and brought it home in a package, and enjoyed the food court in the Embarcadero ferry terminal building. San Francisco wanted to make a big splash that it was back in business almost a decade after its earthquake in 1906 and it went all out to impress the world at an exposition it hosted in 1915; many of its creations still stand today. Water Bar is a shishi restaurant near the ferry building but it had some excellent items on the menu. People can be friendly here – the fee for a ride on the cable car is $7 a person regardless of age and there are no transfers unless you buy the day pass. One guy let us ride a few stops for free because I was not paying $28 for a 5 block ride for 4 people. On another day we took a car and driver for 3 hours to tour the Muir Woods with the giant redwood trees. It was cheaper to do this than to book a tour for 4 people and it was much more convenient because we could start and end when we wanted and be in the forest as long as we wanted, which was a good deal longer than it would have been on a bus tour. It took our family about an hour and a half to walk the trail. We ended up in Sausalito and lunched at Trident which had great views and food at good prices. We took a ferry ride back to the city and missed seeing a model of the city and a bunch of pretty houseboats, but the ferries were far apart and our kids were melting down, which also tells you that you have to pace these trips to keep the kids happy. There is a decent playground near the Embarcadero and the TransAmerica building is also nearby, and worth a walk-by. We visited Union Square and walked to nearby Yerba Buena Gardens which has a Contemporary Jewish Museum and a Children’s Creativity Museum along its perimeter. These gardens are some of the nicest urban spaces I’ve seen in America and the whole of downtown San Francisco is under renovation and in a few years I’m sure it will look great.

Here I found the answer to a vexing question – why do cleaners in hotel rooms always leave the sink drain left in the drain so that water backs up in the sink when you return and turn on the faucet? The answer is that they need to take it out to clean the outside of the drain and then they are too lazy to push it back in afterward.

IMG_2650What was supposed to be a 2.5 hour drive took about 4 hours because we left San Francisco after 3pm toward Carmel Valley and got stuck in lots of traffic exiting the city and all along the coastline. California is just one city after another for 2 hours south of San Francisco. We went via I-280 and Highway 1; Highway 101 might have been better. We stayed 4 nights at the Carmel Valley Ranch, a nice resort set among the valley near Carmel, California. Because it was Labor Day weekend, the place got really busy at 100% occupancy and it was at overload; we arrived a day before the rush and it was more peaceful then. The staff were great and really busted their butts to get everything to work during the holiday weekend. Food ranged from very good to poor, depending on what you had. I find it disturbing that you are in the salad bowl capitol of America with all this great food and veg around you and hardly any of it shows up on your plate at these hotels. The children have this great activity complex about a mile away and the adults are up on the hill with their quiet space. The “200” rooms are much closer to the main lodge than the 300 rooms. We found lots to do – the 17 Mile Drive along the coast near Monterey, a drive toward Big Sur with the ragged cliffs and coastline, walk along the shops at Carmel by the Sea, the Monterey Aquarium (probably one of the best in the world) and a walk along Cannery Row (lunch at Fish Hopper was good on the water). On the 17 mile drive you see these very opulent mansions and wonder who lives there – we were told investment bankers, celebrities and CEO’s of big companies who buy them as trophies and hardly live there. There are tons of real estate agents – after a few years, people realize they don’t really need these homes and try to sell them. You’d figure that as an elite community, they would communicate with each other and stop buying homes they are going to sell after a few years, but the envy wins out and people keep buying and selling these properties. (Personally, I just don’t get it, be it in Carmel or Jackson Hole. Even if I had $15 million to throw around plus another million a year for upkeep, I wouldn’t want these homes. I’d rather just pay a hotel for the week a year that I would go there if I would want to be committed to keep going there in the first place.) We enjoyed hiking along the trails at the resort; the gym is excellent; the pools were good. Carmel has some good restaurants such as Vesuvio for Italian and Forge in the Forest for lunch. The Carmel Bakery is an institution worth dropping by. The resort has some activities such as Kids Night Out, Kids Camp, Candlemaking workshop, sunset hikes, and nightly S’mores with campfires. They have this Bee Experience which we stayed far away from – you walk around in the blazing sun wearing beekeeper suits which look like space suits (imagine what that feels like) and hear someone talk about bees for an hour and you hope not to get stung. This “amazing” signature activity costs $175 for an adult with 2 kids. A nearby resort called Pebble Beach is really for golf and I don’t think it would have been as much fun for the kids. On Labor Day we drove 2 hours to San Francisco airport in light traffic. It is a nice airport with new terminals; when we arrived at JetBlue in Kennedy airport back in NY at 10pm, the taxi line stretched for 3 blocks from one end of the terminal to the other. Welcome back to the Third World courtesy of New York’s Port Authority. I hope the Pope didn’t get stuck in the taxi line when he visited.

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