Global Thoughts — 5 August 2005 Various Thoughts; Travel Notes about Travel News Sources and Toronto/Langdon Hall visit.

Don’t you just love America….Grannies suing a video game maker over hidden sex scenes. Not that they are offended buying their grandkids games about cop-killing and car-stealing.

Global Thoughts is getting more visitors than I thought — between 2,000 and 2,500 per month are logging in from all over the world and reading all sorts of pages on this site. That is about 10 times more than the people I am sending my monthly e-mail message to. Glad you are enjoying it and telling your friends about it.

Some mid-summer thoughts beginning with excerpts from an interesting sermon I heard from Rabbi Benjamin Blech in New York. When one enters a synagogue anywhere in the world, he is supposed to say the same verse that the non-Jewish prophet Bilam said in the book of Numbers when, instead of cursing the Jews in the desert, instead blessed them by saying “How goodly are thy tents O’ Jacob…”. Why would such a verse that refers to people’s homes be applied to the synagogue? To remind us that the home is the center of spiritual life; then comes the synagogue. The first Passover Seder was in people’s homes in Egypt; not the Madison Square Garden of Egypt. Wouldn’t you have rather expected Moses to round up all the Jews into some big square in Egypt and have a religious revival to spur an Exodus? The Bible begins with the Hebrew letter Bet in the word Beraishit (In the beginning…); the word Bayit or Home starts also with the same letter. It is a hint that the home is the center of the universe for Jews.

This bears some thought today when we keep hearing about extremist Islam sprouting forth from the mosques and then parents at home saying that they don’t know what happened to their children. Perhaps there is a message here that Moslems need to take back their religion from the mosques and spend more time in the home instructing their children in the right path, for whatever was right about Biblical Israel that led Bilam to bless them was coming from their homes, not their synagogues. 

Palestinian Affairs: Joshke Fischer of Germany said last month that there will Never be a state until they can control themselves. I think people should pay attention to that statement of candor. Throwing rockets into Israel when Abbas comes to Gaza in order to spit at his peacemaking with the Israelis is ridiculous; the Israelis don’t have to indulge the fact that the Palestinians can’t get their act together and it cannot be their problem forever that the Palestinians are being manipulated by other Arabs who have no interest in having stability in Palestine.  The Palestinians have to take back their streets from each other — Israel is not really the ultimate problem. Up till now, they could blame the Israeli occupation for everything and people would sympathize. We’ve crossed a rubicon now because the Israelis are showing that they are willing to get out of their faces and the Palestinian militant factions with a “what-can-I-do Abbas” have been doing everything possible to make it miserable for them to get out and seem almost destined to bait them to call the whole thing off (which ain’t gonna happen). Time for the Arabs to stop talking about Israel and start cleaning up their act. Put all the guns away and start breaking up the mafias — only street-level disgust and people power will do this, not putting more guns into the hands of already corrupt policemen. It’s time to admit that the terrorists of today’s stripe are not about getting rid of Israel; they are foreign agents sent by Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others who want to perpetuate Israel so that the Arabs at the top of the pyramid don’t ever have to deal with their problems (ie: Iran and Syria) and share power. I think that more and more Palestinians are realizing this, by the way.  The urgency now is for People Power in Palestine to do something about it. The Israelis are getting out of Gaza and building a wall around the rest of the Palestinian areas to hold the fort until the conditions are ripe to agree to things and reliably carry them out. They are only too happy to exit when conditions warrant. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is supposed to start in a week and so far I see nothing unusual happening. The Americans are playing it very cool and Condi Rice has been quite assertive, taking over the offices of Israeli ministers when she meets with them, telling them their agendas and when the meeting is to end. She doesn’t take any crap and I am quite happy with her. Even with Bolton at the UN, American policy lately has become more pragmatic with Iran and North Korea and if Bolton sets his sights at executing policy rather than trying to formulate it, he may be in a position to do more good than harm in his new position. His next year in his post is really his test to determine his future fate since the recess appointment limits him to a year in his post for now. 

Britain and Terrorism: Notice that now bus bombings are terrorism according to the BBC. Finally, the Brits have found that the terrorists are among them, and home-grown. They have no immunity and the problem is not foreign. I’m a bit glad that the Brits have to deal with this problem on their own soil; now we don’t have to listen to their criticism about how they know better than anyone else about these issues and how, despite their sheltering of extremists whom they allowed to operate and refused to extradite, they were immune from terror attacks. I’m not saying I’m glad the Brits have been hit; what I’m saying is that I’m glad because now that the Brits have been hit in this manner, both they and the Moslems within and without Britain will have to deal with this problem in a way they didn’t have to before, and the result will make the world safer for all of us. Pity the Moslems in the UK; Brits are quite willing to be racist and violent and they will not put up with half as much as Americans would. Jews certainly have never been allowed to forget their place in that country. The Moslem community must not only condemn this but they have to root it out from inside and clean up their own show. Until they do, terrorism won’t stop and in the UK with British subjects turning on their neighbors they can’t go on saying that the problem is somewhere else. These London attacks might be the edge that is needed to get the Moslem World to start dealing with this problem in a realistic way, if for no other reason that this terrorism is going to hurt them in a way that other terrorism didn’t. Till now you could go in the streets with a chador (black gown and veil) in London with no problem even if you wouldn’t in New York. Talking about Israel and the Palestinians and the Americans in Iraq is not the way to go and nobody believes it anymore, even if the mayor of London says it. Al Qaeda existed before the Americans or Brits went to Iraq or Afghanistan. If you think the terrorists are only going after the Jews, tell that to the kids in Iraq being blown up. 

The Big Sunni Picture: It is Sunnis doing the suicides, and it’s strange since they are the majority. They are, with all this suicide, bringing the Shiites to even greater power in Iraq. This Sunni-driven suicide phenomena is the worst thing to happen to the Sunnis and will result in losses of power and territory that will take a century to regain. The Shiites may be a bit more exotic, like the Sefardi Jews, but they have a more flexible clergy and can control their people. The Sunnis are like the Ashkenazi Jewish rabbinate; less soul or pragmatism and afraid to agree to anything for fear of their colleagues. Well, that’s what you got right now — some extremist Sunni clerics scaring all the moderates and causing a bunch of trouble which drives powerful Western interests such as America into cooperation with Shiite interests such as Iran. The Saudis are afraid and sending in jihadis into Iraq figuring this will help settle the balance of terror but it backfires because one day these jihadis will come back to Saudi and knock out the royal family just like they were one day sent to Afghanistan or Palestine and wound up sabotaging those places. Tell me how such suicides are bringing Egypt, Palestine or Iraq one inch closer to anything worthwhile for someone both on his local and national level. Mubarak might be entrenched in Egypt, but what is the value to driving away all the tourists? I have always counseled working the system in Iraq in particular where change is possible. Moral of the story is that outsiders should stay out of other people’s affairs as much as possible and that includes everyone. Revenge seems good at the time but it fuels a cycle of violence that never stops. Butting in from the outside leads to unintended consequences. We know all this and yet we know that we can never say never either — the rub is to come up with a policy that is consistent and workable. I have several years ago revisited the topic and written about the limits of foreign intervention and the article The US as Global Citizen is dated 5 October 2003 and factors in the US intervention in Iraq.

Housing and Markets — prices seem to be slacking off in some parts of the country. The markets are good; foreign funds doing well are Brazil, India, and Korea. General Electric might be interesting; there is a new strategy trying to sell more internationally and the company might begin to perform better as a stock. In the next edition of Global Thoughts, there will be special analysis of oil markets.

Mayor Bloomberg — This month I was at Mayor Bloomberg’s residence in New York City and took a picture with him. I told him that I was voting for him even without the picture, but he said that I could have one anyway. I like him as a mayor; he is dealing with the petty stuff and coming up with solutions. 

Travel Thoughts

I read this really funny essay in the New York Times today about a mother who loved to travel and always inspected 5 rooms at each hotel before deciding on one of them, if any. So her kid skipped this ceremony and went straight to the beach only to return and find her mom checked out with no forwarding information. She went next door to find her mom happily saying “this hotel is much nicer.” She later goes on to say that her mom once directed a taxi to a hotel against his protests and when they arrived found no guests there. Not to be stopped, they stayed at this hotel under renovation for 2 weeks while the mother coached the hotel how to do its business. I laughed a lot; check out the NY Times travel section 7 August 2005 written by Nikki Finke. 

A few travel notes now. I have found to be very helpful and it just so happens that today’s NY Times Travel Section has an article about it. Almost every hotel worth going to has been reviewed by ordinary people, at various socioeconomic levels. The reviews seem to be honest and reliable. I have put in a few myself. The hotels are rated and the listings also include links to the leading guidebooks and travel publications that mention them. I also subscribe to Andrew Harper’s travel service which provides a monthly newsletter about smaller hidden-gem type of places that they classify as Hideaways. There is a also a looseleaf reporting service about hotels and restaurants called the Andrew Harper Collection and I use it as a bit of a bible for unbiased reviews of hotels. Just having the annual books given out by Leading Hotels of the World, American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts or Relais Chateaux is not enough because these guides are essentially advertisements for hotels in a given association. Once you subscribe to Harper, renewal terms are more generous than initial subscription fees; this year I was allowed to give out 2 free gift subscriptions with my heavily discounted renewal. I’m a bit convinced that they have more than the 25,000 subscribers they say they are limited to, but whatever I am pretty happy with their product although they lack coverage in certain geographic areas, do not explain why they leave out certain hotels and choose others, and I have no doubt that I could put out a better guide. If you have any suggestions of good reporting services in the travel sector, please let me know. This seems to be the new frontier in this industry.

Toronto — Please see notes on 1999 visit for earlier thoughts and to avoid duplication. American Airlines and Air Canada seem to do well at being on time between Laguardia airport and Toronto. Stayed at Westin by the Harbour; got a real cheap travel agent rate of about $60 US for a night. Adequate but old air circulation system. Need a taxi to get to town but it is in a pleasant location near the Harbour shops. Visited CN tower at twilight and had a snack in the café with pretty views. No reservation needed for this. Be sure to take some photos in the plaza by City Hall and hope the sun is out, although we got good pictures both with and without sun. Movenpick Marche is now run by Richwood but it is still as I remember it from before and a great place to lunch or dinner. It is in the BCE building in the middle of downtown. 10 minute taxi to the Yorkville district; the Four Seasons Hotel is a good place to get your bearings. This is a shopping area and pleasant to walk around but nothing special. An hour’s ride to Langdon Hall (allow almost 2 hours if you leave Toronto at rush hour — consider avoiding that) to this Relais Chateaux property in a mansion built for an American railroad tycoon at the turn of last century. With 3 wings there are about 50 rooms. This 5-star property has a wonderful and accommodating dining room, and the breakfasts in the courtyard are very pleasant.  There is a spa and outdoor pool. We took the morning garden tour and they grow many herbs, vegetables and flowers on the property. Service was very strong and they don’t nickel and dime you to death. Live music on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon. The suites are very nice but any of the rooms are fine. Watch out for insects on the trails during the summer — best to stick around the main buildings. We were lazy for 2 days and did nothing but stay in our room and come out for breakfast, spa and dinner. We had come to Canada for cool weather but instead got lots of sun and record-breaking heat with thunderstorms followed by cool rainy weather which lasted till we left. If you want cool in Canada during the summer, you need to go to Quebec City or Halifax. One good thing about this resort that now matters to us is that it is child friendly; many of the small nice resorts in the northeast US don’t allow children. We also appreciate that in Canada our dollar goes further and the natives are friendly. Transfer by taxi to the airport takes about 45 minutes if there is no traffic and costs about $75; airport departure at Toronto is no problem. Still have to put your Sprint PCS phone on roam here. Here’s a great tip — you probably know if you’ve been to Canada that you get the GST tax back from your hotel bill if you fill out the form and send in your original receipts. At the hotels they give out a form from a company that takes a nice commission and I didn’t see any forms at the airport departure. After you get home, go to Google and type in Canada Tax refund or something like that, look for the official government site, and use that form to claim your refund and you’ll get the full amount in a check that arrives about a month later. Remember that depending on how you left Canada, you may need to save your boarding pass or proof of departure.

Click here for Pictures of Toronto and Langdon Hall.

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