I love this saying I heard: Education is what you’re left with after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned in school.
Our 12-year-old son Jeremy has kicked off his teenage rebellion by declaring that he is a Nazerite, and is taking ascetism against haircuts. He is especially keen on upsetting me because I tend to get haircuts rather often. I asked him what he would do with a trillion dollars, because a billion is not what it used to be. He said he would be a dictator and use the money to buy military stuff. Hey MBS, would you like to take on a summer intern?
I had to drive to an airport so I put on Waze and it starts sending me off in the wrong direction, so I ignored it. Turns out that the access ramp to the interstate highway was closed for construction (no warning signage along the other highway that accessed it), and Waze was diverting me from it. I wound up going all over the place through insane traffic jams and the worst parts of Miami trying to get around the diversion and Waze kept telling me to do the opposite. And it was right. Most of the time. The next generation for Waze is for someone to be able to ask it “Why?” and to be able to get an answer. If it would have told me that the access ramp was blocked, I would have understood from the beginning why I needed to go a different way.
As you might guess, people are on pins and needles around here and freaking out. But I won’t dwell on it. You know that. So let’s move on. If you’re sitting around and bored, you’ll love this posting because it’s pretty long.
Trump has his supporters; there was a dinner in New York City the end of December among people in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and they raised $5 million for Trump that night. 80% of Jews will probably vote for Biden in November, but among the Orthodox, Trump is popular, mostly because he has been steadfastly pro-Netanyahu and so are many of them. I’m not going to write pro-Israel, because that concedes the argument that there is only way to be pro-Israel and I don’t think that is true.
I would be happier if one of the Democratic candidates in a debate would have said that anyone at the age of 70, if they have no skeletons in their closets or things they have not said that they regret, have not lived a real life and have no experience sufficient to be president or just about anything important. They should have talked more about what they want to do, and less about finding fault with each other. They were just making life easier for Trump. This virus, which is going to stop rallies from happening, is not healthy either for Bernie Sanders or Trump who thrive on circus, and it’s good for Biden, because it will give him fewer opportunities to mess up in public.
An interesting thing to remember about China is that until the Middle Ages, China was leading the world in technology. Europe only started catching up around the Middle Ages (it did so by imitating Chinese inventions, which is how we today view China in reverse), culminating in the industrial revolution in the 1800’s at the same time that China made some big mistakes. China is desirous of regaining what it sees as its rightful place as #1 in the world, which is not an unreasonable position for a country with 1/7 the world’s population and #1 status for most of civilized history to have. Right now though, the Chinese seem to be #1 at producing weird viruses growing out of backward bouts with diseased animals that their humans want to eat and surround themselves with. I wish they could move beyond this and that their leader would have learned from their last virus, but he did the same thing – tried to cover it up till they couldn’t. So he is not learning from his own errors and nobody is holding him to account. Chances are that unless things change in China, he will do the same thing all over again.
About the virus: People are probably more likely to get the flu than this particular virus. But people are not running around getting flu shots. They are panicking though – in Australia, a policeman used a taser gun to stop a fight over toilet paper. And someone else pulled out a knife in a fight over toilet paper. Evidently people think they will be cooped up at home for weeks using toilet paper. I couldn’t buy plain old alcohol today in a pharmacy. You are more at risk to die getting into a car than anything else but people are still driving. What I want to know is can the rest of the world sue China for being backward and starting this whole thing when they knew that such animal markets carry this kind of risk (and I don’t think they have closed down those markets), and then lying about it trying to cover it up while it became an epidemic. Of course China is going to lose face and money because of this, but they should be held responsible for damage they caused to the rest of the world as a disincentive for letting this happen again. If enough people die in Iran and China, and so far I don’t know that it will happen, I wonder if this will finally cause revolution in those countries – both governments care more about protecting themselves than in guarding the lives of their citizens. It is absolutely clear because in both countries health officials prosecuted and threatened doctors and health workers who raised the alarm. In Iran they forced them to sign false death certificates. Iran lied about the missiles with the Ukrainian plane. People don’t trust these governments. Humans need to be able to trust each other in order to live; this is a perfect example of proof of that biological fact of life. Now that leaders of Hizbullah are sick with the virus and top Iranian officials are sick and dying, maybe they will think twice about how they deal with this stuff.
Israel takes pandemics very seriously, and I have known its previous head of pandemics. Israel wanted to shut out Americans, but with a view toward not insulting Trump decided that everyone coming from anywhere would be quarantined upon arrival, essentially closing down the country for 2 weeks. The real message is that the US is running a shit-show in terms of public health and the Israelis want no part of it. What I want to know is how South Korea was able to test 100,000 people so quickly as to a new virus and why the US could not test even 1% of South Korea’s figure?
The reason this virus is scary is (1) there is no vaccine yet; (2) many more people have it than we can determine because the US is so behind on being able to test people; and (3) everyone has to sit around for 2 weeks in detention being a suspect because the US is so behind on testing and therefore must act insanely to stop its spread so that it can ramp up readiness to deal with tons of sick people. This is a good reason to remember why good government is necessary and why vaccines are desirable. Trump cutting out virtually all funds and personnel to combat disease and then making his non-medical VP head of the national response which for this guy is something like “Let’s just pray for everyone and run all public comments through me and the prez” is just not going to stir confidence in the financial markets or the emotions of people. I would have preferred to have a guy like Bloomberg in charge of this, but Biden would also not let himself be caught with his pants down. Trump simply didn’t and doesn’t care. For him this whole thing is all about how good or bad he looks.
I think there will be short-term disruption that will be severe, but that eventually the crisis will end after a few months and the world economy will recover. Russia is fighting with Saudi Arabia over the price of oil precisely because the Russians prepared for this type of situation and is now trying to gain advantage because it built up cash reserves while Saudi Arabia was spending its reserves. The question is whether this will be the needed wake-up call for governments around the world to learn to cooperate and prepare for a much more dangerous virus, which is sure to come. Europe, for all its bureaucratic standards, is not coordinating among countries. China did not allow American epidemic specialists to observe what was happening. Americans were not prepared and wasted weeks allowing this problem to fester. This was a poor test run and it did not take much to scare the world even with this.
The world of business has to look at the continued viability of just-in-time manufacturing and of relying so much on China. India, for example, is hoarding its supply of medical equipment and drugs to meet its domestic demand and not exporting stuff the rest of the world needs. China right now cannot produce the stuff. The US is relying on China and India. Apple vetoed a factory in Vietnam a few years ago and put all its eggs into China and now it is going to pay a price for that decision. Trump is actually right in telling American companies to diversify its manufacturing away from its reliance on China.
Funny thing about all this is that because the whole world is going nuts right now, this will probably be a low death year for people from the flu. Israel has pretty much created a vaccine but it will now have to go through trials. Depending on how long that takes, it will take at least several months to reach people. And Taiwan has figured out how to get the testing time to about 4 hours, so there is promise that if everyone freaks out right away, they might actually make up for lost time and get this under control faster than people expect.
Consider this too: If you are young and single, go on a trip. A few months ago you couldn’t get within 50 feet of the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa with hundreds of tourists, mostly Asians, standing there taking selfies. Now the galleries are empty. Planes and hotels are empty. My barber said one of his customers just bought a round trip ticket to London and Paris on Delta in business class for $200. Shows that we had to book 6 months in advance are giving away $50 tickets. If you have kids, stay home. We were supposed to go skiing in Tremblant next weekend, but who wants to get stuck in a hotel that gets quarantined for 2 weeks if the wrong person walks in or be shut out of the US if it decides not to let people in from Canada? What would I do for 2 weeks stuck in a Fairmont hotel room in rural Canada with 2 kids?
A few noteworthy statistics from an Economist survey on Housing: Over the past 60 years, the median American’s rent payment rose 61% in real terms while the median renter’s income grew by only 5%. Even though the cost of construction is about the same, the average cost of a house in San Luis Obispo, California is $725,000 while a house in Pine Bluff, Arkansas is $90,000. In France, a one euro rise in housing subsidies raises rents by 80 cents. A 10% fall in rents in high cost cities such as New York results in an 8% decline in the number of homeless residents. American GDP would rise by 10% if there was new housing construction just in New York, San Francisco and San Jose. What I get out of this is the following: There is a problem with housing costs. Lowering housing costs would reduce homelessness and increase the economy, but you will not do this by giving out housing vouchers and new construction will not decrease rents. The reason is that there are too many restrictions against new construction which keeps housing costs high. In New York for instance, the city approved 30,000 new housing units in 1960, but only 21,000 new units for the entire decade of the 90’s. Also, when taxes collected by local authorities are sent away from the home base such as to the state or county level, local governments have no incentive to improve the local housing market such as by reducing regulation and improving the neighborhoods, so allowing local districts to keep more of their properties taxes at home will help the housing market. Look to Switzerland and Germany as models with high percentages of rents but low cost increases and happy tenants who stay in their places a long time. Britain built lots of houses but has so much regulation that housing prices keep increasing. Tokyo built even more homes but has a different regulatory scheme and prices stay steady. It is a complicated problem but there are some schemes that work. So far the US is on the wrong track and the Democrats who are raising hell about the issue are not coming up with solutions that will work if history is a guide. One thing you can take to the bank: The stigma of renting versus owning is really misplaced; renting is often a better deal over the long term
During the month of February, you’d have thought that Bernie Sanders was going to be the lead Democratic candidate. I decided to keep quiet and see if March, beginning with the South Carolina primary, would bring about a different result. I was glad that it did and am fine with Biden especially if he picks a good VP candidate, although I had wanted Bloomberg to come out on top, and am afraid of what will happen if and when Biden stumbles between now and November. He basically needs for some Fairy Godmother to be watching him so that we all get through this election without Trump getting re-elected. Sanders was an odd figure who rose to prominence 4 years ago because Hillary was such an unwanted candidate; Biden does not suffer from this malady and so it is far easier to avoid Sanders now. I’d like to think that even America’s enemies who thrive on seeing America in chaos would prefer to see a professional back in the White House and see things in Washington return to a more normal consistency. During the cold war, the two superpowers were rivals but liked the idea that each acted in fairly predictable ways. Right now the US is not acting predictably and everyone fears uncertainty more than anything else.
While I was out of the country, I watched Trump’s state of the union speech and saw how the Democrats had their fiasco with the Iowa caucuses. Unless you are of the 1% reading the New York Times which probably annotated his speech and pointed out all the lies, it was good theater on TV and sounded reasonable. Meaning most people who watched the speech probably liked it and did not like watching the Democrats sitting on their asses and looking like they were almost anti-American. What I can’t tell you is how many of Sanders voters who would be upset if he were not the candidate would actually have come out and voted in the first place even if he were. It appears that he has more followers than actual voters, even in the states that he won and this thesis was confirmed yesterday with the Michigan vote where Sanders won in 2016 but lost decisively to Biden this year. Biden has increased Democratic turnout over what it was 4 years ago across many demographics and Sanders has not. These are very clear signals that he is favored to beat Trump. Personally, I would want someone like Bloomberg sitting across from Putin or Xi rather than Trump or any of the Democrats running but evidently my opinion did not prevail. Black voters seemed to be willing to vote for Bloomberg and this is important because he needs their votes as blacks are 25% of Democratic voters, although they clearly preferred Biden and this is good because Hillary Clinton would be president today had more Blacks in key states been excited enough to vote for her. A third of Blacks voted for Trump and that ain’t gonna happen again. Bernie Sanders has his supporters who are vocal and active, but they represent a small portion of the overall vote in this country and would be creamed in a general election. The party knows it and they’re scared of Sanders.
As Global Thoughts readers know, I was strongly in favor of Michael Bloomberg’s run for president, but it is not hard to explain why he failed. It is surprising to me that such a calculating man erred in such an elementary way. A central rule of politics and leadership in general is that people want to follow a messenger with a compelling message. Bernie Sanders has a message of change that is compelling though he is a false Messiah. Bloomberg said offhandedly during a debate that the presidency is a managerial position – it is more than that. The American President is the leader of the Free World and has to inspire in times of crisis, and explain what kind of change he wants to deliver. Bloomberg took it for granted that people would see his brilliance and accomplishments and translate that into support for his presidency. He was wrong. One lady at a rally said to the NY Times that she wanted to vote for him but he didn’t smile and didn’t seem human enough for her to vote for him. She said if he would have at least smiled a bit, she would have been more willing to support him. I just feel that those two little stories explain why his $500 million didn’t really buy him all that much other than a victory in American Samoa in which 175 people voted for him. It would have been cheaper for him to give each of those people $3 million in cash That said, we’ll find out whether he was the impetus to accelerating the consolidation of Biden’s campaign which was looking unhinged when he entered the race, and whether it helped create focus and dislodge Sanders as the party’s leading candidate, and ultimately extricate the nation from Trump.
Bibi Netanyahu had a strong message and he worked hard to go after every single vote. He was justly rewarded with better results in this latest round of voting. Benny Gantz is a bland challenger who did not offer a compelling message and took for granted the idea that people would be exhausted with Bibi holding the nation hostage to his own criminal case and eventually vote against him. He did not realize that many voters do not care how guilty Bibi is; they think he is a good prime minister and don’t want to throw him out unless the new person will be better. I’m sure that a leaked video that circulated the last few days of the campaign showing Gantz’s campaign manager telling a rabbi that Gantz would be weak against the Arabs turned some voters against him. Israelis do not want a weak prime minister to face off in the Ultimate Fight against Iran, a conflict that we all know is soon to come. They know that Bibi is a bad-ass and they want a bad-ass in their corner in that seat. Gantz needs Lieberman to form a government; he needs both Lieberman (who hates Arabs) and the Arab Joint List party to form a government. Lieberman promised neither to cohabitate with Arabs or Ultra-Orthodox Jews in a government. He has to break at least one of those promises to be in the game unless he wants to sit with Bibi, and he hates him. The next prime minister of Israel will be decided by a man who will do what’s best for him and by a Mr. Gantz who will fail three times to form a government if he can’t figure it out. No wonder why the Arabs and Mr. Lieberman are talking to each other. Personally, I’ve said here that it makes no sense for moderate Israelis to say that keeping Arabs out of government is the way to go. There are responsible parties within that community and most Israeli Arabs want to play a role in the Israeli state; one reason they showed up to vote like never before was the recent publication of the Trump plan that put some of Israeli Arabs in a Palestinian state. Almost none of them want to be part of Palestine. I have no idea what the outcome will be, and Bibi is certainly getting the benefit of the virus to have a crisis to show he’s in charge.
I recently attended a briefing by Somer Cagaptay, a very senior level expert on Turkey who was touting his new book, Erdogan’s Empire, which I am making sure to read (although it’s pretty tedious reading). I’ve watched Turkey over the past 20 years with Erdogan’s up and downs and I visited the country about 20 years ago. It’s one of those countries that I observe with casual interest but realize that especially in this country what appears is not always the reality, so I tend to be cautious about what I believe to be true about the place.
Mr Cagaptay remarked that Erdogan, after surviving an attempted coup that almost killed him, was quite happy when Mr. Putin was the first foreign leader to call him afterward and ask how he was. Erdogan realized that if you look around the world at Venezuela, Syria and Iran, you see that trouble-makers that align with Russia never are allowed to fall, while countries that align with the US such as Egypt might well fall. Erdogan knows that if is ever defeated in an election, he and his family will be arrested afterward so losing at the ballot box is not an option for him. He is 66 and in good health and likely to be around for quite a while.
I asked Somer what he would do if he were an American president in 2021 trying to re-establish credibility in the world for America. Would he try to knock off Assad or Maduro and prove that siding with the Russians against the West is not advisable, or would he stick with dictators such as the Saudis and keep them steadfast and assured even if you knew you were on the wrong side of history and were part of the reason why 9/11 came up in the first place? It’s a tricky wicket because on one hand if you break it you own it (ie: Iraq after Saddam or Libya after Khaddafi) and America really wants to stay out of foreign entanglements which do us no good, and on the other hand you stir up resentment by the masses for backing dictators in return for maintaining the status quo and supposed stability. Egypt was an instance where it appeared that overthrowing Mubarak might be good for Egypt’s populace and it turned into a disaster when the guy who did totally screwed up and turned out to be an even worse dictator in disguise. America lost a lot of credibility in the region after that. Russia got a lot of credibility in the region for backing Assad when it appeared inevitable that he was going to fall. They also got a lot of credibility in our own backyard for backing Maduro after we backed an opposition leader who was close to taking power but couldn’t quite manage it and we basically left him hanging and the Russians came in hard core and backed up the incumbent. So what do you do?
Here’s a sensible reason to not do much. Putin had a price for his support. He demanded that Turkey buy his S-400 missile defense system which unnerved the rest of NATO. Turkey is the second largest army in NATO and an important ally, love Erdogan or hate him. The cost was small at $2.5 billion but Putin knew this would destabilize NATO. Erdogan had no choice but to buy it, although he had to give up F-35 planes on Turkish soil as the price from the rest of NATO. At first, Putin was helping out Turkey in the Syrian theater. Now they are at odds with each other, but Erdogan can’t go against Russia. He has not a single friend in the region at this point except for Qatar, which is also an outcast and which is the only power in force that also supports the Moslem Brotherhood, which he champions. When he got elected, his main foreign policy was going to be that Turkey would remain friends with everyone. So now you have the really ridiculous situation that Turkey sends all its trade on a ship to Haifa in Israel where stuff gets unloaded and shipped via Jordan eastward because none of the Arab countries around him will trade directly with Turkey. If you’ve noticed, Erdogan broke up the very strong alliance that Israel had with Turkey and had cut off relations with them for a number of years, so this is really nuts because if Israel cut off that trade route, Turkey couldn’t ship a darn thing eastward. Turkey’s economy is tanking after almost 20 years of constant growth and the world itself is not in a happy place this year. Erdogan is building palaces, surrounded by sycophants, putting his family in charge of economic ministries, and all of this spells trouble for him because the source of his power has been economic success. Turkey may well need a $10 billion bailout not too long from now, and Russia is not going to give it to him because they don’t have it. He will have to come to the West for it. So in my book, I would say that if I were dealing with Erdogan, I would not let the S-400 sale with Russia play into Putin’s hands. I’d say, OK, buy their stuff and do with it what all the Gulf states do with the military kit we give them – just keep it in a box and don’t turn it on. Or put NATO troops in charge of the hardware. As long as it ain’t gonna get used, who cares? Or sell it to some other country. He didn’t promise Putin that he would use it or keep it; just that he would buy it. And I would wait patiently for the bombastic Erdogan to come hat in hand to the West, which he surely will at some point, and then you can deal with him. Right now the Russians and Syrians are giving Erdogan a very hard time in Syria, Turkish soldiers are being killed and Erdogan is pretty much boxed in. He can try and throw refugees at Europe for leverage, but Greek soldiers are shooting people who cross the border. So Erdogan has to negotiate a face-saving solution with Russia, but with Russia having the upper hand.
So you might ask, how has Russia propped up Venezuela? Where’s the money coming from? The actual truth is that Maduro had to change his spots in order to not have his country go bankrupt because the one thing the Russians don’t have is cash. So if you’ve noticed, in Venezuela there is now more capitalism than there was a year ago and the government is giving back some of the companies that it earlier nationalized, albeit to a good extent to its cronies and of course Russia is getting some of it. Not enough to do well, but enough to survive and keep people happy enough so that at least the poverty and disaster level is not enough to get on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. It’s probably a “good enough” situation to keep the US out of it, and the US doesn’t really want to be in it. So in my view, the Russians get some concessions there, they basically expend assets propping Maduro up, but it’s a case of nuisance more so than anything else because as long as no military kit goes in there, it’s just another economic basket case in the hemisphere of no real use to anyone. If American goes in there, they might get back some companies that they lost, but then they’d be responsible to prop up some corrupt and weak government taking Maduro’s place. Nobody really cares so why start?
Travel Notes – London for Festive Season
If you want to fly upstairs on a 747, British Airways still has a number of those planes flying. Some of the seats don’t work but otherwise it’s a nice bird. And you get these big storage bins on the side of your seat; the 777 just has a little drawer that you can put some eyeglasses and some papers in. My wife’s seat didn’t work so they sent her a $400 coupon within a week; I got stuck in Copenhagen over the summer with a complete debacle on their part and they did absolutely nothing for me. If you book way in advance, the Heathrow Express is a really cheap ticket – 16 British pounds for the entire 4 of us one way on any train the day we chose and that’s from the terminal all the way to central London. It costs over $30 for us just to get on the monorail at JFK just to get to the subway, which is nuts after paying $1 billion in taxes to fund it. The Oyster card offers a 50% discount to kids ages 10-15 for up to 2 weeks at a time (Foreign Visitors Discount) – just approach someone at a tube station to put a code into the kiosk that sells you the oyster card and you get the discount. If you are a family of 4, it pays to take a taxi for short journeys, and from Paddington to hotels in the Mayfair district the taxi fare is about 10 pounds. We spent two weekends in London at two different hotels in the Mayfair area. Claridge’s Hotel offers a nice setup just a few blocks from Bond Street Station near Oxford Street or about 3 blocks from Selfridges and the flagship store of Marks and Spencer. Their pool and sauna were under renovation but their sister property the Connaught is a 5 minute walk away. Families can get 2nd room at a 50% discount at off-peak times and this makes this hotel roughly the same price as the Langham. At peak times, this hotel seriously jacks up its prices and is out of the market. At least they ought to fix the toilets in the bathrooms, both of which did not work well. The family setup is like a 2 bedroom suite with a sitting room in between, breakfast is a la carte and the gym is not bad. The lobby parlor eating venue is beautiful and they decorate the place beautifully for the festive season. I was particularly happy that we had two rooms in our hotels because there are a lot of people from around the world who stay in these places who smoke and you can feel the second hand smoke in some of the rooms. In both hotels, I had to sleep in the second room to get away from the smoke odor, which is something I am very sensitive to. They do look after guests pretty well there. The Langham has better facilities in-house such as swimming pool, saunas and a better gym but it is a big sprawling place and you are a bit more of a number there, especially when it comes to getting a table. Breakfast is a buffet and we liked that better. The location is great, just 3 blocks from Oxford Circus and it is all around my favorite of the lot in London. We noticed a JW Marriott at Grosvenor Square a block from Claridges and that would be an excellent choice of location and probably a place you could use Marriott points. It has a Gordon Ramsey restaurant within. The American Embassy moved away from Grosvenor Square so that is no longer a factor (they are building some kind of hotel in its place). We found ticket brokers at hotels to be rather useless; there is less of a secondary market for seats to good shows in London than there is in New York. I wanted to see Magic Show Goes Wrong and couldn’t find any tickets no matter how many times I checked.
We attended sabbath services at Marble Arch synagogue – there are no external signs that say it is a synagogue and we wound up walking right past it and to another synagogue whose security guard sent us back to the other place. Security concerns forced them to remove signage which is pretty pathetic in a place like London. There was a very nice kiddush lunch after services but only about half a dozen young people at the service. The Rabbi was a rather good orator and deserved a bigger audience. We went to see Hamilton and I got 4th row orchestra seats for about $120 a ticket a few months in advance and boy am I glad I didn’t pay NY prices to see this show, which was clearly not one of my favorites. The kids knew the songs and didn’t mind 2 hours of talking and singing in rap, but Karen and I didn’t care for it. We liked the one scene with the King of England singing his la-dee-dah song and the plot thickens in the second act, but I was watching all this stuff and having not much of an idea for the first half hour who was who (ie: you mean that guy is supposed to be George Washington?) and what they were saying. If the show were just a bunch of white people re-enacting history, nobody would care about this show and I get that. But there is something weird about making all these characters non-white and seeming to rewrite American history. I strongly suspect that the hype over this show is being driven by progressives eager to see American history being portrayed in a different way than it actually was.
Top level food court at Selfridges is still a great reasonable place to have dinner – choose what you want and they have a great juice bar and make stuff up while you watch. From fish and chips to pizza and crepes you can get a good meal for under $20. Rovi restaurant is part of the Ottolenghi empire of local restaurants and it was good. We’ve now tried Nopi and Rovi and both are worthwhile. Rovi is a few minutes walk from the Langham. The Imperial War Museum is worth 2 hours and the World War I exhibit is really good; they are still redoing WW II. It also has a good café and some nice items in the shop. Hatchers is a famous bookstore on Regent Street with an excellent children’s section and people working there who actually know the books. We found lots of titles Elizabeth hadn’t seen before to bring home. Next door was a famous food emporium (Fortnum & Mason) that was a total mob scene pre-Christmas so we just looked at its central staircase and went on. At Trafalgar Square, Chabad Hassidim were staging a first night of Chanukah party with a live band and kosher food and a Chanukah menorah lighting. We got some hot dogs and burgers and moved on. We realized we needed more luggage and Marks and Spencers had this great sale where you could get 3 suitcases, 2 of which fit inside the third, for 100 pounds. It was cheap luggage but it was a great deal. That evening we went to a night-time Christmas Village at Hyde Park all lit up with festive lights which had some crappy crafts but also had carnival food and some great rides such as a roller coaster from Germany with 5 loop-the-loops over which Jeremy was gaga. So of course Elizabeth and I had to go with him on it and the view from the swinging chairs was pretty. Not nearly as classy as Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens but good fun.
Next day we took the train from Euston station to Birmingham. If you take a taxi there, pass by Honey & Co. about half a mile away and pick up some great treats for the ride. It is a shop run by Israelis with really special bakery and other items that are superlative. The train gets you there in just over an hour and in our case it takes you to the airport station which is a few minutes walk to the NEC Convention center and casino and to our hotels where we were attending a conference. First class on these trains is beautiful and if you buy your ticket in advance at an off-peak time you can get a family of 4 on this journey for 65 pounds. The bus coming back from Birmingham on Boxing Day cost 90 pounds and took nearly 4 hours with all the traffic (the drivers don’t have access to GPS and in our case it would have saved us roughly 2 hours), and it’s insane that England still has their train service suspended on Boxing Day when so many people want to move around the country. There is a Hilton there with an indoor swimming pool and gym which is the best of the lot. A few minutes walk away is the Bear Gryllis Adventure Center which is really well done. You can do a great outdoor ropes course, indoor obstacle course, shooting range, indoor skydiving, the fear room, and other stuff. I did a level 3 obstacle course with the kids; not bad for a 53 year old.
I just want to add here while I mention that bit about no train service and roundabouts tying up traffic for miles, that instead of wondering whether Britain wants Brexit, I want to know why the rest of Europe hasn’t kicked the UK out for being such a backward country.
The Limmud conference we attended in Birmingham, England (about 3,000 people from around the world attending something like a Jewish-oriented fringe festival) was a great networker for people like my wife who know a lot of people through her work. My daughter enjoyed the conference and even participated on a teenage panel. My son hated it and sat in the room watching video games. The program for boys was too esoteric and not enough “boy” in it for his liking. He would have been happy with more dodgeball and less British 17th century history and touchy feely subjects such as finding your confidence levels. The food of course was awful – baked beans and potatoes for breakfast, and again for lunch. Very little fruit was available. You had one get out of jail ticket you could use for a meat or chicken dinner but otherwise it was all veg for as many days as you could stand it. Gender neutral stuff has become all the rage at these conferences and bathrooms for men who only want to be there with other men (and similarly situated women) were hard to find. We were there 2 ½ days which was enough for me and the kids at least. I spoke at the conference and you can read my article on this site if you like. Go back to the homepage and click on the link if you like. The article is about the relationship between America and Israel, both between the countries and the peoples. The part I liked best was the Non-Gala gala which made fun of the official closing gala.
One speaker stood out; he spoke about the American industrial help that was given to the Nazis during the 1930’s because heads of large American companies such as Ford Motor and IBM were sympathetic to the Nazis. Without all that technology, they couldn’t have fought World War II or did all the nasty things they did. At its essence, you can’t make war unless you have money and/or technology. Basically, American companies brought about World War II by empowering what became their enemy. It is a good reason to care about the spread of technology and where it goes even today. If you want to give a dictatorship-run China the ability to perpetrate a Holocaust on its own people such as its Moslems, and if we wind up in World War III with China, it will be because American companies made it happen as the leading artificial intelligence centers run by American companies are now in China and not in the US. If it happens with Iran, it will be because of companies in Europe that sold them the technology to go nuclear when it is obvious that the people running Iran absolutely want to destabilize neighboring countries throughout the Middle East and send terrorist operatives all over the world. I just watched some speeches from a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and it is striking how people emerging from World War I did not want to see war happen again only to see in their own generation World War II. And even today you can see the slide toward the conditions that made World War II possible. Nobody wants to learn from history because everyone is so smug living in the present and thinking they are reinventing the world and that evil exists in those who see the world differently than they do; it is not the act that creates the evil today but the tribe you come from that determines your evilness. If you are a Democrat, then Republicans are evil. And vice versa. If other people are caught in the middle such as victimized minorities, then they have it coming to them if they are not from your tribe.
One speaker referred to another famous survivor who espoused what he called the 11th commandment: Thou shall not be Indifferent. Auschwitz did not fall from the sky; it came about gradually because as conditions became worse, people accepted incremental change and became immune to the fact that conditions were deteriorating. When the world had a conference at Evian about a Jewish refugee problem in 1938, none of the 50 countries involved except for the Dominican Republic wanted more Jews. Hitler saw the indifference and proceeded to speed up his plans to dehumanize and exterminate Jews. What concerns me in today’s America is that people are indifferent to what Trump and his Republican followers are doing; they are indifferent to the fact that he is whittling away at America’s and the world’s institutions and people are just accepting it. If he gets another term, he’ll speed up his plans. I could go on and on about this but I think you get the picture. History repeats itself and I would just like to see America reassert its values and regain the respect of the world that looks at a country that appears to have lost its way but doesn’t itself realize it. Why have we become cynical and immune to babies being separated from their parents at the US border? Are we innately that mean or have we become conditioned to becoming that mean?
Back in London, Ruben’s restaurant (the only kosher one in central London) is back in business and was rather good. Our kids were thrilled to see some good food again. My daughter went to a Gulf-region friend’s apartment for a sleep-over with their daughters, and I took care of Elmo. We were supposed to go to the Arcelor Mittal slide in the Olympic park (a real twisty slide around a huge outdoor sculpture which looks fun but is over in 40 seconds), but their lift was broken for the day so we had to pass on it and instead rode the light rail from a nearby station to Canary Wharf (things to see and do if you’ve never been), and then jump on the tube to the London Bridge area where you could go atop the Shard. The observatory is a waste of a lot of money and you can just go to to the lobby of the Shangri-La hotel and look around for free, which is what we did, since I had stayed there before and knew you could do this. London’s City Airport is nearby and might be a good alternative to Heathrow; British Airways flies there from JFK in NY. We visited Covent Gardens that has some interesting stalls in the middle court, and most of the vendors who were selling stuff we really liked the first weekend were gone on holiday and so my strong advice is that if you come to London at this time of year, go to Covent Gardens before Christmas or else the stuff will be gone afterward. The cookies and gelato places will be around (look for Ben’s Cookies and Morreli’s Gelato, both at the end of the covered market aisle), but that’s the icing on the cake, not the batter. I personally like the hand-painted silk ties by Jane Ireland (there is a website also at janeireland.com); I bought one in August and liked it so much that I took another two in December. There’s a stall selling scarves that my wife likes a lot.
At Leicester Square, there are all these places called “Official Half Price Ticket Booth” and they are come-ons. The only real half price booth is the TKTS booth in the square itself and hardly anyone actually reaches it because they don’t know it’s there. That’s where you go for the cheap tickets at the last minute. We had booked Everybody is Talking about Jamie – it’s a good show but you could be really offended if the idea of a teenage boy wanting to be a drag queen is not to your liking. The boy’s mother sings a song called “He’s my Boy” which brings down the house and nary a dry eye is left. There is also a Moslem Pakistani girl character who is also being bullied and allies with Jamie, and she is very good at her part. This is a top British show that will probably not make it to Broadway and useful if you want to see something in London that is not the same as what you see in NY. At the TKTS line, we got orchestra seats for “& Juliet” for 29 pounds each and we had no idea if we’d like the show. The kids loved it and Karen and I liked it more than we expected. It features lots of songs from the past 20-30 years and is a “what if” Shakespeare had changed the ending of Romeo & Juliet. You gotta have an open mind here again but it’s a good show and it’s what I love about London – you take your chances on something you never heard of at the TKTS booth and 9 times out of 10 you’re gonna love it. Last time we visited this time of year we went to a circus on the Leicester Square (La Soiree) which was not there this year; instead there was a different circus called Le Cirque but it was for ages 16 and up.
The British Museum is best avoided during the festive season. We arrived for a private tour and it was a complete zoo. We were so happy that our guide showed up an hour late and we had cancelled the tour in the meanwhile. The lines to get in are around the block, there is a security check and there were 50 people standing around the Rosetta Stone all taking selfies (most of them Asians) and we weren’t going to get anywhere near it even with a guide so it would have been a complete waste. There are just tons of Asians visiting now and it is insane. This museum needs either to move to timed tickets or start charging people serious money to manage the demand. We were supposed to see the Soames Collection which is like the Mansion on O Street in Washington DC, but I didn’t know you have to reserve 3 months in advance. Again, it’s free but it’s impossible so what good is it? Anyway, Here are two guides for the British museum which is only worthwhile if you have somebody taking you through it: Viator’s guide is Natacha Adjovi at 44.759.196.9588 and then there is other guy named Lawrence Owens who is a professional archeologist whose prices might be sky-high but he looked very interesting and was booked to someone else that day. His phone number is 079.8017.4014 and both of them have websites in case their phone numbers change.
Early Saturday evening, we transferred with an Uber to the Sofitel at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. It is a good airport hotel connected to the terminal by a walkway that takes about 3 minutes. If you go there the night before, you can check in your bags while the airport is dead quiet and have your boarding pass in hand for the next morning. Still, Terminal 5 is a zoo and in the morning we would have never made our flight had we had to check our bags, even with business class. The fast track security is awful because as I’ve said before, once they remove your bag from the line (and they remove almost everyone’s), there are only 1 or 2 people checking the bags and you have to sit there and wait. You can avoid this by putting your liquids in one Ziploc bag or just putting it in checked luggage. It took half an hour to get out of there and then the train to the gates and it took almost an hour to get from the airport entrance to the gate. Which basically means you’ll never visit the lounge and there is hardly any food to buy at the C-gates which means that if you didn’t think to buy stuff in the main building, you might be very hungry for the duration of your long-haul flight. I think it is an awful airport and I hope that JetBlue which is supposed to start flying to London next year avoids the place. BA has a monopoly at Heathrow so nobody cares if you have a crappy flying experience there and even though you pay hundreds of dollars per ticket in airport fees. I have two domains basucks.com and heathrowsucks.com and I’m wondering if I care enough to use them. I do have a life though.
Travel Notes: Bahamas and St. Barths, Sea Island in Georgia (US)
I think that Z-line seats on business class planes are going out of style; you have to step over people if you are in a window seat and it is a real pain. One thing you can do here is fly nonstop to Nassau in roughly 9 hours from London; there is a daily flight and by 3pm you can be in a hotel in Nassau enjoying the sun and beach, which is really a great idea after 10 days of dreary wet London where sunrise is at 8 and sunset is at 4. The flight stops in Nassau and continues to Cayman, but Cayman is really expensive at this time of the year. Beware: BA charges for Wifi even in business class. Upon arrival, it took a long time to clear customs because they put out so few people to process the arrivals. Fortunately, the Bahamar resort is a 10 minute taxi ride from the airport (about $40 or so) and the Hyatt allows you to come at the festive season with only a 3 night minimum. The other hotels in the area all want 7 nights. You have to book for New Years weekend almost a year in advance otherwise the hotel is sold out by the end of January for next year, so if you’re inspired by this article to go there, it’s probably too late by now for this year. The ocean was cool but not cold, the kids had fun because there was always something to do, and there was no good reason to stay in the Rosewood at 3x the price; the Hyatt was perfectly good and the food at all the outlets was better than expected. Certainly better than Atlantis, and next year when Bahamar finishes its water park, Atlantis is going to have some real competition. We went to a Junkanoo dinner buffet and show which was something to do, but pretty pricey for what we got. There was a New Years Eve party which was very well done but again quite expensive and really for a younger crowd. It was really noisy at one point and I just sat outside. The midnight fireworks were superb and put Disney in its place. The next day we flew United back to NY and the snacks offered were the Biscoff biscuits and pretzels. I took neither and the guy next to me did the same. The guy at the window asked for both and the flight attendant said he had to choose only one. I went to the purser and said like what kind of crap was that? Especially on a flight on New Years Day where everyone was paying 3x the going rate to be on that flight. The purser said that the flight attendants are hoarding snacks because the airline shorts them so much that they often run out of snacks 10 rows before the end of the plane. JetBlue lets you have as much as you want of anything they offer and United can’t even put enough of these crappy 5 cent snacks on board? They may be spending millions of dollars trying to reinvent their image but they will only be as good as the flight attendant passing out pretzels to the guy next to you.
We were supposed to go to the Homestead in Virginia for winter skiing but as of mid-January there was no snow so at the last minute we went to Sea Island on the coast of Georgia midway between Savannah and Jacksonville airports (about 90 minutes from each). The Cloisters is a good family friendly resort. It was almost deserted when we got there as we came at the end of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend and temperatures went down into the 40’s during the day for a cold snap which is rare but it happens. Nevertheless, we did family things such as go bowling and biking to see the mansions along the main road, see the stars shine brightly at night, walk along the huge empty beach and play volleyball, the kids went clay shooting and Elizabeth is a rather good shot at this point, and took a guided nature walk. There is a beach club with lots of pools but it was too cold for us to go there. The gym there is among the top 10% of any hotel gym anywhere (with an indoor pool) and the food was rather good. There is also a very nice spa. At this time of the year, rooms and flights are cheap and you have the ability to be spontaneous. In the summer, it’s a zoo and everything has to be planned weeks if not months in advance. The Lodge at Sea Island is for honeymooners who want to be near a golf course. We’d go again but at this time of year hoping for luckier weather; last week the temperatures were in the 70’s and 80’s.
I flew with Jeremy to Orlando to see the Pro Bowl, an all-star game of American football. Because the game is just for fun, nobody cares and tickets are dirt cheap. It is amazing how much it costs to see an NFL game in the US even in a secondary market like Nashville, Tennessee. Orlando has grown as a city with a nice downtown and a pretty lake in the middle where you can go paddle-boating and see a weekend farmer’s market. We were in a hotel (the Grand Bohemian) that was hosting the LA Clippers basketball team. It was very funny; I saw these guys walking down the hall getting up for breakfast and putting on their shirts in the hallway. I asked them if they were there to play ball or watch ball – the guys could have been the most famous players in the world but I had no idea who they were. I didn’t know if they were fans or players. The guys said they were there to play. Their breakfast was probably better than mine. The football game was actually darn good and we saw memorable plays and a closely fought game. The weather was perfect, sunny and 70 degrees and Jeremy was thrilled even though we got nowhere close to anyone to autograph the football he brought.
I went to St. Barths for a few days to see how things had changed since my previous visit there about 10 years ago and how they were recovering from a serious hurricane a few years ago. At St. Maarten airport, if you have a printed boarding pass in your hand, you can bypass immigration and customs and go directly to departure security to get to your connecting flight. It took me 20 minutes to go through the airport because my Win-Air online check in did not work, but I got in early and quickly enough to get out on an earlier connecting flight on the commuter flight to St. Barths which is all of 10 minutes long. They tend to use larger Dash-9 planes rather than Cessna’s but the arrival into St. Barths is still insane through the mountain peaks. Get a front row seat for a real thriller of a ride and don’t be intimidated by anyone throwing a telephone camera in front of your face to film the landing. Wear shorts and tee shirts on those planes; there is no A/C and it’s hot. Upon arrival you see the best-dressed passport control ladies anywhere who all look like my late college political science professor. Cheval Blanc is probably the best resort on the island at this moment; Guanahani is still renovating and Eden Roc is a bit of a zoo unless you like it. Food at Cheval Blanc is unusually good for a hotel. It is a full service resort with all good amenities and it truly is a hideaway. Le Toiny does not have a beach and Le Serrano is not in the same league although the latter has a nice lagoon for kids to swim in. Bungalows are a good category of room here. Also, the hotel is 10 minutes drive from either the airport or center of town on a quiet road. The other hotels are on the main road with lots of traffic. Gaunahani is supposed to be good with kids; Cheval is more for couples. There is a supermarket in center of town that is open all day long and town is open everyday except Sunday now. You can become a resident here if you live here 6 months a year for 5 years. Then you pay no income tax. But it’s expensive here; a mango in the American Gourmet store in center of town cost 13 Euros, twice as much as in Zurich.
We visited the Ocean Club at Nassau during Presidents Week in mid-February and I asked the kids to compare the Hyatt at Bahamar to the Ocean Club on Paradise Island about half an hour drive apart. The results were very close. Bahamar is ten minutes from the airport, will have a water park a year from now, has a fairly calm beach with water sports, lots of food choices that are good, and some fun pools, one of which includes a rock about 10 feet high you can jump off of and an aquarium you can see from a pool. They have a great gym and a spa, but you have to pay to use the steam room if you don’t have a spa appointment (and use the one in the coed area because it works much better). You have to walk a lot and it is not a quiet relaxing place. The Ocean Club is near Atlantis about 40 minutes from the airport (and when the cruise ships come in the transfer is a nail-biter), but that park has become a zoo with tons of cruise ship people and in-house guests get no priority so you are advised to go to the park around 3pm for the last 2 hours of the day after most ship-to-shore people have left but you still stand in long lines and I think it’s a rip-off of a ticket at close to $150 a person if you had to pay for it (Ocean Club guests get in for free). Transferring to the hotel from Atlantis can take 45 minutes if you are not lucky with the shuttle and you have to bring photo ID with you to get in (and I was not thrilled to have left it at the front desk and then for the desk safe to be locked without anyone there after I returned to pick it up after the 5pm closing). The Ocean Club has only one place to eat dinner and it is slow and very pricey. The surf more often than not is too rough to swim but you get a quiet beach. You can walk around the property and see hardly anyone around you with plenty of beautiful gardens. The gym is smaller but fine and the resident trainer knows your name and how you looked compared to your last visit. The rooms are a bit nicer; if you book in advance on a non-refundable basis, you can get garden rooms at a price comparable to Bahamar and in fact those rooms offer more privacy than ocean view rooms. In my opinion, the two properties are totally different experiences; they are both compelling. The kids enjoy the movement of the Bahamar but my daughter also enjoyed chilling out at the Ocean Club sitting alone on a beach just watching the ocean and listening to music.
We were supposed to go skiing in Tremblant, Canada in late March where I expected good value from the Canadian dollar and a sure bucket of fresh snow in a place that gets 200 inches a year. But with the virus scare, you wouldn’t want to be quarantined in a 350 room hotel if the wrong person walked in, and I wouldn’t want to be locked out of the US if they quarantined arrivals from Canada. So we are just sitting this one out and will hopefully enjoy skiing next year. Air Canada doesn’t seem to be want to let people out of their tickets, so I expect a fun fight ahead. They are granting changes on new tickets being bought, but not the old ones.