There is a lot in this posting but if you are as bored as I am during this endless holiday weekend, you’ll enjoy the read. It’s a nice mix of stuff of all sorts collected over the past 3 months since my last posting.
What I got out of the Wagner “coup that was not a coup” is that people in the streets were cheering them and the powers that be sat on their asses for 24 hours waiting to see where the wind was blowing. It is pretty clear to me and many analysts that the minute the Russians get rid of Putin, people are going to be happy about it. Despite the propaganda and the police state that exists, he and this war are not really popular. Also, it was jarring to see how easy it’s been the last few months to attack Moscow and how the country really is a hollow shell. The war in Ukraine is probably not going well for Russia which is probably why Wagner’s leader did what he did, although I don’t understand why he would do it if he had no chance of success. I wouldn’t place large bets on his health in Belorussia. But without him, the Russian military does not have great shakes in Ukraine because the Wagner troops were the only ones who were succeeding. The Wagner Group is also Russia’s foreign policy spear in Africa. If Moscow has been shown to be soft, troops that would have gone to Ukraine will now have to stay and defend Moscow. All of this is just not good for Putin and boy is it embarrassing Mr. Xi of China who threw in his lot with him. I’d like to read the chapter of Thoughts of Mr. Xi that discusses relations with Russia.
At the new faith center in Dubai, the 3 religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) are treated equally to a painstaking degree. A colleague of mine met with the head of the center who complained that it was difficult to deal with the Jews. After Moslems and Christians pray, they leave and go home. Jews stay at the synagogue for a kiddush lunch, on Saturday evening they have a meal there called Shalosh Seudos. The guy said I need a line item in my budget for all these meals that the other faiths don’t have. It’s actually a hilarious story.
Another person met with MBS of Saudi Arabia. MBS was saying to Mahmoud Abbas (the Palestinian leader) that he ought to have accepted Trump’s peace plan. He was told that Abbas said “But I’ll get assassinated if I do it.” So MBS said “Well, then you could be another Sadat.” The person telling me this story was incredulous that he would say that, but I had been thinking about this previously, and if Abbas would have said that to me, I would have said the same thing to him. He’s about 85 years old and sick and at least he would have some posterity. What does he have to show for Palestine at this point in his life? After making all those speeches praising the Palestinian martyrs, wouldn’t he like to be one too that actually gained something out of his martyrdom? I guess I might hit it off with MBS if we ever meet because on this at least we think alike. Speaking of MBS, I’m being told that the Biden Administration has moved past Khashoggi, realizes it needs to get real with MBS, and are trying hard to find common ground with him. They seemed to have agreed on a few things, such as a no-surprises policy when it comes to big changes in the oil markets. Whether they will come to an agreement on normalizing relations with Israel is another matter. Frankly, I’m not sure why it is really necessary for Israel or Saudi Arabia to demand or pay a big price for normalizing relations. What really matters is what happens privately anyway. Does it really matter for Indonesia whether or not Saudi Arabia and Israel normalize relations and does anyone really care what Indonesia does?
One of my favorite moments of the week is setting the table for Friday night dinner. Our kids look forward to the attention they get from us on the sabbath and I like putting down pretty napkins and decorations to spice up the table.
You might not have noticed that global shipping rates are down 90% to an unsustainable level; this is the opposite of supply chain disruption. The same thing happened with semi-conductors and clothing at Target and other retailers last year when they ramped up but then the demand slackened. Airlines are trying not to repeat the same mistake; they are trying not to put up too much supply either and keep prices high.
How about this family karma moment? It’s after midnight and I can’t sleep because my pillow is not the right pillow I’m used to. I go to the hallway to the linen closet but I know the odds of finding something in the closet are small, and my son comes out in the hallway saying he can’t sleep because he is not happy with his pillow. We trade pillows.
Considering that 8 billion people on this planet are having their fates determined by Biden, Xi and Putin, with DeSantis and Trump waiting in the wings, maybe we should have Artificial Intelligence take over the world and kick all of us humans out for incompetence. Maybe we could do worse. After seeing how poorly humanity dealt with covid and with each other during covid, I’m not a big fan of humanity. But I try to recall what an essayist wrote in a recent oped piece to the New York Times: She says just try to remember these 2 thoughts and everything will be OK in life: “People are good; the world is beautiful.”
I’ve come up with a name for this college visit tour I’m doing with Elizabeth – I call it College Safari.
Next time someone named “Michael” picks up the phone at a call center in India, I’m going to tell him that my name is Srinivasa.
I went to the supermarket called Fairway which I call Scareway because of their high prices. Usually on Sundays the place is a huge scrimmage with people pushing and shoving. The cashier said to me that this is a great place to come out on Sundays and beat the crap out of other people. Thursdays she said is even worse. They give out freebies on Thursdays and people will do anything to get free stuff. I know people who will stay in a hotel in the middle of nowhere to achieve enough status with Marriott to get free breakfasts the rest of the year.
They keep telling us how much companies know about us. I’m not so sure. American Express sent me a thank you card for my loyalty with a coupon to buy jewelry, something I haven’t bought in 25 years of having the card.
I went to an urgent care center and the whole place couldn’t see patients because their computer system was down. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. I’d wasted my time walking in and asked if I could call them to find out when they were back up. You can’t call us, they said. No phone number for direct calls. Well, could you call me? Nope, we can’t call out. So all I could do was go home and come back later and hope they were open. Great customer service for 2023 in New York City.
When are they going to get rid of jury duty? You should be able to pay your way out of this. There is no reason to ask working people to take days off to be doing this if they don’t want to. Top 3 things I dread every 4 years are a colonoscopy, jury duty and presidential elections.
A great way to get to Laguardia airport from Manhattan and vice versa is to take either the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station to Woodside station with a $5 City Ticket or take the 7 train from Times Square or Grand Central Station either to that same station or to the Jackson/Roosevelt station 2 stops further — and then at either point you get on the Q70 LGA Airport Express Bus which is FREE! It takes about 15 minutes to get to the airport from the Jackson/Roosevelt station and it goes to Terminals B&C. That means it does not go to the Marine Air Terminal which I think is just for Spirit Airlines at this point. The bus lets you off near the arrivals area and you can just go inside the terminal from there. The whole trip is about 45 minutes. It took me an hour to get from my apartment to LGA or back this way. If you get on the bus at Woodside, it will be less crowded but take an extra 10 minutes because you are riding to the other stop to pick up the subway riders. The Woodside stop also has the advantage of the fact that the Long Island Railroad is more reliable than the subway and it is just 10 minutes on that train from Penn Station to Woodside. But all in all, whether you take the subway or the railroad, it is roughly the same trip because you pick up with one hand what you leave with the other.
Let me tell you how pathetic my life is. I looked around newsstands for a few days in my neighborhood and then as I was traveling down the East Coast looking for the Economist which had not arrived in the mail. I finally found it at the airport in DC. Also at the airport, I found chocolate raspberry chia seeding pudding from the Farmer Fridge, which has become popular recently at airports offering healthy food options from a vending machine. For the past month, all I’ve seen at JFK airport machines was coconut pineapple and the machines kept apologizing for not having the chocolate flavor. So anyway, there you have it: Little Old Me running around airports looking for the Economist in print and my favorite flavor of chia seed pudding and how happy I must be when I come up with the Daily Double.
Thomas Friedman has an essay in the NY Times comparing recent developments in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. He discusses the irony between Saudi reforms trying to modernize the country with women and religion versus Israel going backward giving into ultra-Orthodox demands to subsidize an educational system that is completely anti-modernity and whose increase this year would take 14 years worth of the amount that would otherwise be invested in the Technion, Israel’s version of MIT. Both of these countries are the US’s leading allies in the region and Saudi Arabia is taking away from Egypt the #1 spot as leader of the Arab World, so what it does increasingly matters not just as an oil powerhouse which is at this point more passe then real. He’s whetting my appetite to visit Saudi and see what’s going on there; he says if you haven’t been there in the last few years, you haven’t been there at all. It’s been about 25 years for me at this point. I could go there as soon as fall-winter 2024 which is a year and a half from now, but I’ll make the effort to report from there. The calendar is already full for the next year.
The Egyptians have been promising to open a Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo for about 25 years and every year the opening keeps getting pushed off. For several years now they say it is 99% finished. It has become a bit of a joke. The Egyptians made a mistake in letting the Hebrew slaves leave; it probably took much less time to build the pyramids than it did to get this building to open. We are planning to visit Egypt in November and at this point, whether or not the GEM opens in time, we’re still going after having waited several years for nothing to happen.
I’m told that Netanyahu is stabilizing over the past month; that they will reach a compromise on the judicial reform, and that he will be around for awhile, that he really wants to deal with Iran and Saudi Arabia and not be sidetracked by domestic political crap and would like to find a compromise on his own corruption case, and that if he can get a deal with Saudi Arabia, he might be prime minister for the next 10-20 years. Meanwhile, he tries not to let other ministers deal with Biden in Washington because he wants the invite for himself which he is not currently going to get until he deals with his domestic issues. The wild card is Ben Gvir, an inexperienced politician who keeps threatening to resign, who just might wake up one day and find his resignation accepted, if Netanyahu thinks he can go to elections and win.
Let’s say China successfully invades Taiwan. What would they really get out of it? The Taiwanese would probably blow up its chip factories and leave them with nothing and, even if the Chinese took over the factory, it would soon wind up exactly where its mainland Chinese counterpart already is – a decade behind everyone else because nobody trusts the Chinese with their chips. All China would really get is an island with a couple million people on it, mostly poor, because all the elites would pick up and leave. Is it really worth bragging rights to China to have a world war over this island? 50 years of nationalist propaganda says Yes, but when you actually think about what the invader gets with victory, you really have to wonder if the tail wags the dog in China. They would have a better perch to project power in Asia but they would be in a perpetual state of war with something like 25 countries around them since the Chinese are bullying their way around the neighborhood as it is scaring the neighbors. Is this worth it?
The problem with Taiwan is that replacing its chips in the line of production will cost more but the tech companies are trying to get other countries to produce at the same price, so nothing is really happening to get ready to replace Taiwan. It’s penny wise and dollar foolish.
One late night Jeremy comes out of his room and asks why he needs to go to high school and college. If I would just make money for the next 8 years, I would come out ahead. I discussed this at a recent board meeting of my company and we all agreed that he was probably right, but that the world would not take him seriously if he didn’t at least finish high school. So the board voted that Jeremy should finish high school and afterward we would vote again as to whether or not he should go to college.
I’m not the only one saying this, but people I correspond with say that high schools are stuffing kids with too much knowledge they many won’t need to ever know again past graduation. Colleges are overlooking kids with great scores in the liberal arts because they are not great at math and science. My daughter who has perfect or near perfect scores on the liberal arts section of one of these tests has been spending nights and weekends bringing up her scores in the math and science areas because colleges average all your SAT/ACT scores and don’t really break them down into subject areas, even though when she goes to college, she is unlikely to take math and science courses. Kids know they are learning stupid stuff and they hate it. The whole system is broken and it needs a rethink, especially as people are realizing that college is not worth what it is costing and that people are not learning skills they really need. Common Sense or How Things Work do not appear in the course catalogue.
A couple of years ago I wrote about the long-term prognosis of India versus China. I basically said that India would win over the long haul because their flawed democracy will beat out China’s dictatorship. I’ve read another article comparing the two countries and I still feel the same way, even more so. India is surpassing China in population, the Indian government is popular because it is making improvements in people’s lives, and companies are realizing that India is a more reliable partner than China for investment. India has its faults and the country would be more successful if it would choose to deal with them, but the long term prognosis for India is decent.
Last month I criticized Justice Thomas’s corruption based on a story I read in the Washington Post quoting a publication called Propublica. A recent oped in the Wall Street Journal by Mr. Tarantino did a good job of refuting that story and it is one reason I am glad that the Journal exists as a balance to hatchet jobs on conservatives by liberal newspapers. Everyone needs to be kept honest.
I was walking around my neighborhood looking for a copy of the Economist after mine didn’t show up in the mailbox. All the newsstands and stores stopped selling magazines because it is more profitable to sell CBD than items in print. All around you – can you think of anything that is getting better? All I can think of is declining service and products, but especially service. Is any airline, publication, hotel chain, department store or grocery product better than it was 10 years ago? Can you think of a single thing that gives you more for what you pay than it used to? We are paying more but getting less of everything. The only thing I can think of that has improved are airline lounges that charge more but have better food.
Lest we all get depressed about the tons of articles we read about declining US influence in the world comes along an article in Foreign Affairs “The Myth of Multipolarity” by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth in its May/June 2023 magazine. It basically says that aside from everything you read, America is the only game in town for probably decades to come and that the rest of the world might give it a rough ride but is in no position to supplant it. China is the only power that is in a position to give America a tough time but even there it is much less powerful than things appear. They and other rivals to America are still pretty weak countries with economies that are strategically small no matter the overall numbers. The authors have played out Taiwan and Ukraine and feel that America and the West can come out on top of either of these conflicts. Like I said earlier in this posting, even if China were to take over Taiwan and Russia the Ukraine, what does the winner really get and does it actually change the world picture a whole lot as opposed to what the possible consequences would be? Russia and China ought to be more careful about what they wish for. America’s biggest asset is its alliances and the caution offered by the article is to just stay the course and not try to walk away from its friends. Rather it should offer its allies good access to American markets instead of protectionist policies, and Europe in return needs to stand solidly with America to keep China and Russia in line and not let them think they can divide and conquer.
I attended the annual conference of trustees of the Washington Institute. The Institute is the only think tank in DC that focuses on the Middle East; it also does not take foreign money so it is respected as a truly independent voice that represents the American interest. Here are some interesting things I heard at the conference. The conference is generally off the record, so I’ll leave out the names of who told me or those assembled what: A blessing in disguise from all the rabble in Israel is a move toward the center by the public. They want to be bored by the next prime minister who might well be Benny Gantz. The ultra-orthodox are backing off their extremist positions because they have seen the abyss and how much they are hated by the majority of the population who, after all, pays the taxes and serves in the army. Bibi is said to be a different person than he used to be, and is not inspiring confidence within the Likud party that he headed all these years. They see that he is trying to take over the party and turn it into HIS party and that it’s a loser for them all. He is not even letting other ministers visit Washington right now because he is persona non grata and doesn’t want to be upstaged by others.
This analyst, who is one of the top analysts of the country, said that the judicial reform bill was dead on arrival and never had a chance of passing. And it still won’t pass.
Egypt is in bad shape. 45% of its budget is going only to service debt. Someone who deals with their top level officials says they are on another planet; you can’t talk to them because they still think that Egypt is on top of the world and that everything is gonna be OK. It’s getting harder to be that way since the Gulf countries have declared that the party is over and that they are not going to continue to give Egypt money without getting anything in return, and they won’t get what Sisi won’t give them, which is to push the military out of the economy (they own a ton of the companies there) and to let them buy into the economy at a good price.
Israel probably doesn’t need the refueling tankers to hit Iran even though you keep hearing that they want them. The US national security advisor said in quotable remarks that he didn’t care if the Israelis hit Iran on their own, but he didn’t commit to the US doing anything militarily either on its own or with Israel. Let’s say the Israelis attack Iran and then Lebanon attacks Israel. If Iran attacks the Saudis or the UAE as well, they will draw the US into the war and they don’t want that, so the odds are that it stops there which is why Lebanon has all the Hizbullah; to basically contain the war between Israel and Iran to Lebanon. Israel’s national security advisor mentioned a particular Palestinian who he said was a good go-between and I wondered if he was touting him as a possible successor to the current leader. The resident Palestinian expert said no way – he said that the Palestinians all hate this guy who may be effective b ut is also utterly corrupt and is only in his position because the current leader knows that he has no chance of ever taking his place.
The US national security advisor still seems wedded to the JCPOA (the agreement with Iran negotiated under Obama) and it may be because he helped negotiate it. But the Israeli national security advisor said that the key fault of the JCPOA was its sunset provisions – that only a few years from now, Iran would have been allowed to do whatever it wanted in the nuclear realm and it would have been totally permitted. The Israelis couldn’t live with it then and not now either. It may have seemed OK to push the can down the road 10 years ago, but a 15 year window is a blip in the realm of history. Now comes talk of a new deal with Iran; let’s see if it really happens. From what I see, it just pushes the can down the road for 2 years.
A Russia expert admitted that although she wanted a no-fly zone over Ukraine a year ago, she now realizes that it would not have worked.
A year ago I reported that the UAE was quite unhappy with the US when it didn’t do anything immediate to help when the UAE was attacked by Iranian missiles. A year later, I wouldn’t say they feel a whole lot better about the US. They still see a “black hole” in the US-UAE strategic relationship and have serious doubts about the long-term commitment of the US to the region. But what puzzles me is why would the UAE be complaining about the US when it was caught allowing the Chinese to build a secret military base inside the UAE about 2 years ago. After they were caught, they promised to stop it. But now I see that a year later, they resumed the work and the US knows about it. This explains quite a bit why the US is not selling them the F-35 airplane and it may also explain why the US is not rushing to help the UAE. But it also explains why the UAE is hedging its bets with the Chinese against the Americans. Tricky wicket, huh?
The US national security advisor spoke to the conference trying to state that the US is still interested but I saw his speech as myopic and lacking any strategic vision – it was basically “We are the US; we are a force for good, and we want stability in the region.” He didn’t talk about any threats, problems or enemies as if the whole world were just ours for the taking. He basically said, well, yeah, we haven’t succeeded with deterrence with Iran these past 2 years but we’ll keep working on it. (They’ve attacked us something like 80 times and we have responded to about 3 attacks.) Yeah, OK. I wasn’t impressed with him; he came across as a senior law clerk in a high position. If I were Putin or Xi, I wouldn’t be scared of him. And it must be pretty bad out there because I am told that his office makes foreign policy and that Blinken (the secretary of state) only implements it. I imagine seriously that in a second Biden term, bad actors in the world will want to take advantage of this risk averse administration. As it is now, Iran attacks the US after it denies involvement in Israeli attacks against Iran because it knows that the US will not respond. It’s pretty pathetic if you think about it.
Interestingly, the Emiratis see the relationship with Israel as a strategic one, and they have said clearly that they don’t intend to tie it to the ups and downs of whatever goes on in Israel. The Emiratis I’ve observed over the past number of years impress me as long-term serious players, much more so than the Americans or Israelis who are constantly going from election to election. The Emiratis had a good answer when asked why they were letting the Syrians back into the Arab League and the diplomatic game. They said that 12 years of isolating them hasn’t yielded any positive result. It’s left a void filled by Iran, Russia, China and Turkey. They also complained that the Ukraine war is distracting leaders’ attention from other issues.
I got a strong sense that China is not going to attack Taiwan anytime soon, because getting across 100 miles of water with a military that hasn’t ever done this kind of thing before is pretty daunting and they are just not ready for that. The embarrassment of failure is also immense. I firmly believe their military is untested and that systemic corruption is probably enveloping a paper tiger. Every time I look at China I see economic statistics that are phony and I have the feeling that we overestimate them. I don’t see anything they are doing over there that is actually working (not even their attempts to develop high technology), and I see deep-rooted problems that are not being dealt with such as demographics, economic bubbles and scams within the country that involve government officials being bribed and of initiatives designed to suck up to the country’s leader that nobody thinks will actually work. They are chasing away companies and anyone with talent knows there is no future there. Singapore has jumped leaps and bounds over Hong Kong over the past 20 years and the Chinese basically ruined the place and Chinese elite are fleeing to Singapore. They can team up with Russia all they like; it’s gonna be two losers for the next century hanging out together. They plus Iran will be a menage a trois. I can’t believe a big country like this is so shallow at its core but look around and the USA is not exactly acting like a great superpower should either.
All of this aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point China brokers a deal between the US, Russia, Ukraine and Europe that ends the war. They are the best suited country to serve as the peace broker and they have good reason to want the war to end.
US Foreign Policy: I have a lot of issues with China and Russia, but I agree with them as well as most impartial foreign analysts that the US under both Biden and Trump pursues hypocritical policies that are not convincing their enemies or even allies in Europe or in the global south to want to align with them. They are no more win-win than the Chinese claim to be. America wants allies but it doesn’t want to trade fairly with them, just like I wrote elsewhere in this posting about Taiwan. China feels that America is hell-bent on keeping it down and these days it is although the Chinese are doing just great at giving the rest of the world reasons to want to do this. America is whining in the world that it is besieged and the truth is that America is doing better than the rest of the world and ought to be more optimistic in its tone. One thing I often say is that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. That’s not something that the USA often says but it should do more of that. An optimal US policy would be somewhere between Biden and Trump and the truth is that we need to get it right because otherwise there is an increasing risk of war considering that Xi and Putin are not going to do anything to de-escalate unless a more sophisticated leader comes out of the West to reason with them; the basis for that reasoning will be a more nuanced look at the world from the Western point of view that appreciates that we all have to live together in this world even if we have different values and interests and that one side cannot beat out the other and should not be trying to either. Also, America’s competitive advantage is its free market and the more the government tries to get involved in choosing sides within industries promoting its priorities, just like the Chinese government is doing, the more it is wiping out the best that its economy has to offer. China will not win the economic race because the economy is shaping itself to suit Mr. Xi’s whims; America will not do better with Biden incentivizing industries to pursue what he sees as its national priorities.
The Economist has two articles about Artificial Intelligence; one of them says that China will not run away with this technology because many of the above reasons come into play to negate whatever advances the Chinese are making in the field. The other article says that AI is a bit of a hype and that it is not going to revolutionize the world as much or as quickly as people think it will. There are many reasons that this is so, but the reasons are the same for this being true as to most technological advances in the world over the past 200 years not taking hold just because the technology exists. I remember that just a few years ago we were being told that driverless cars would by now kicking us all out of the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, I’ve been noticing a lot of these companies going out of business.
I’m told the biggest use of Chat GBT in China is by all these people who have to write papers espousing the thoughts of Mr. Xi toward their professional career obligations. Nobody wants to write up all that crap so they are all using the chat bots to do it for them. If this is what people in a very large country have to do, you can just ping it all off to waste and nationwide cultishness.
While we’re on the subject of overrated militaries, I’ve just suffered through a 200 page report about the state of Egypt’s military and the basic takeaway is that it sucks. America sends over a billion dollars a year to Egypt to prop up a military that can’t do very much except put down its own people.
Intelligence being shared with Israel is of the quality that gets shared among the 5-Eyes powers (US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand). This is important because it shows that within the US bureaucracy, Israel is a trusted ally at the highest level. Israel is rated No. 2 or 3 in the world in the field of Artificial Intelligence research.
Finally, I’m being told by a highly respected journalist that covers the Gulf that MBS of Saudi Arabia has a cocaine problem. I’m told that it is not exactly a secret and that plenty of people know about it, but that it just hasn’t been published (nobody wants to be responsible for having published it). Personally, I have no idea if it’s true and it probably doesn’t matter because unless one of his enemies (and he’s got some but it’s not clear how powerful they are within the kingdom) knocks him off quickly when his father dies, he will be the king for what could be a long time. Eventually, this kind of stuff will wind up in the mainstream press somewhere (the Economist had plenty of embarrassing details about him last year), and you can just maybe remember that you saw it here first. I wouldn’t write it here except for the fact that the source is credible and that he is telling me that sooner or later it’s going to come out in the open. It’s relevant as a geostrategic issue deserving coverage here because it could ultimately end his reign early if it becomes an addictive medical issue.
I read an oped piece in the Wall Street Journal by two Democratic pollsters suggesting that Michele Obama run for president. How about if she joined up with Biden as his VP candidate? That might make for an interesting ticket. I really think the Democrats are going to be in deep doo-doo if something happens to Biden over the next 2 years and that Kamala Harris will be a drag on his ticket. Someone in Georgia recently told me that at least in that state soccer moms will decide things, and they want to see a Republican on the ticket who has some integrity. Trump is not that person. I still believe that whoever will be the next president has not come forward yet but that it won’t take 2 weeks for that person to raise plenty of money and generate excitement if it is someone that is other than Biden or Trump and that is electable. A nation of 350 million people has to be able to do better than this. I’m personally rooting for Governor Christie of New Jersey to gain popularity within the Republican camp. He actually has what it takes to be president. It would be nice to see a governor that has actually done a real job run for president. Senators talk a lot but don’t have a record of actually accomplishing anything and leaders around the world know the difference.
I’m being told that while the current UK Prime Minister Sundak is fairly popular and competent, the rest of the Conservative Party is seen as so loony that they are looking at a massive defeat in the next national election. This might be a warning to the Republican party in the US.
Over the past several months, I’ve visited Atlanta and St. Louis. St. Louis has a nice suburb called Clayton where Washington University resides, but its downtown area is one big no-go zone. Atlanta makes a better impression as a city, although its airport is quite large. Your trip through the airport might be as long as your flight. They have signs all over that say Welcome to Atlanta. The signs should say “You’re Still in Atlanta.”
The Economist showed a study that was done with Fox News viewers who were paid to start watching CNN instead. Their politics were affected; they started to agree more with the views being presented on CNN. Since only one-third of Fox viewers describe themselves as hard-right Republicans, a third say they are leaning-Republicans, and a third say they are Democrats and independents, this indicates that sitting around watching people spew diatribes every night makes a difference in how people think. It also confirms my suspicion that Fox has changed this country over the past quarter century into the polarized thing that it has become, but that toning things down could help America find a more centrist place to be. Right now, the rest of the world doesn’t want to be lectured about American Democracy because if this is what democracy is today, people don’t want it. America is on the verge of destroying its economy because its leaders can’t put together a budget and prefer to go to the brink because you have all these showboat Republicans who want to appear on Fox TV and show how tough they are to a party base that wants red meat thrown at it daily. It’s no showcase of a system that is superior. So yes, I’d take this study as proof that America could move to a better place and what it would take to get it done. Want to make America Great Again? Get Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News to moderate itself. One fault with my reasoning – since Tucker Carlson’s show stopped, most of his viewers did not switch to a different channel or keep watching Fox. Some 20% switched to a more radical network Newsmax, but the vast majority simply stopped watching cable TV news at that hour. Sean Hannity’s viewership also dropped by a quarter and Tucker Carlson’s show was the lead-in audience to his show. So Fox has a challenge – it has to keep the viewers and not simply have them melt away, although it doesn’t look like those viewers would switch to more liberal sources either.
I arrived in Istanbul a few days after its recent election where its leader Erdogan was re-elected even though the country is hurtling toward economic collapse. But look around and you can see why Turks stick with him. Since my last visit 23 years ago, there have been a good number of improvements in infrastructure and things look pretty good except for the fact there is a lot of inflation. Also, there are a lot of Moslems in the country and you see ladies wearing chadors and covering their eyes in public a whole lot, and it’s all voluntary and people look happy doing it. Erdogan stands up for Moslems and people identify with their identities, just as they do in America. It’s a good lesson for Iran; if the mullahs would be less coercive, they might find more voluntary compliance and less opposition within the country and abroad. Another reason he won is that the opposition offered no real plan to fix what was broken other than simply being against Erdogan.
Is there a difference nowadays between people on the hard left who want to censor what you say, read and watch versus people on the hard right who also want to ban books, tell you what you can do with your body and in the bedroom and what you can watch?
Consider the following: Ukraine might be Europe’s best army today. No other NATO country other than the US even comes close. Funny, but this is not what Russia expected when it invaded a year ago.
You might notice that gas prices in Europe are 1/10 of what they were last summer. Everyone adjusted much faster than expected and maybe the same will happen if China ever invades Taiwan.
The more I read, the more I see that China’s AI development is more hype than real. Get into the nitty gritty of what AI actually is and you can see that China’s tech is not as good as it seems. I won’t bore you with those details. Meanwhile, consider the attorney who used AI to file a court brief which turned out to be bogus. His excuse to the judge was that he asked the chat GPT if the cases he cited were real and it said they were real. The judge slammed this attorney with sanctions but the real sanction is the embarrassment this guy got in the national media. I don’t think Chat GPT will be replacing trial lawyers anytime soon.
Defense spending is actually down a lot over the past 40-50 years as a percentage of GDP. A missile costs 30% less than it did in the 1970’s when you account for increased efficiency such as the number of missiles you need to hit a target and the ability to do many more things with a missile than you could do 50 years ago.
TRIP NOTES TO ISRAEL AND TURKEY
I haven’t been to Israel since 2017 or to Turkey since 2000. I had a family wedding to attend in Israel and was curious to see how Istanbul has changed over the past 23 years, so a short trip was in order. I stayed in Israel about 3 days and Istanbul for 2 days. I arrived in Israel about 5:30pm; half an hour before my niece’s wedding was scheduled to begin and there were about 15 flights arriving at the same hour. Passport control would have eaten up an hour, and I didn’t want to arrive at this wedding looking I just got off an 11 hour flight. The airport has a VIP arrival service that will blow you past passport control, but for this I needed something extra. Fortunately, they have your back for a price. There is a private arrival terminal called Fatal where you arrive in the country and there are several private rooms for you to eat, dress and shower. They are mostly used for business meetings. From there, they will drive you to your final destination. I was going to use the airport train to go to Jerusalem but that would have not been the best move. With all this I left the terminal at 6:00 for a 70 minute ride to the wedding and arrived at 7:10, just 5 minutes before the ceremony began. It was at a winery in the West Bank overlooking several Arab villages which was a very scenic and romantic place to have a wedding. You have to go through military checkpoints to get in and out of there. The wedding was very festive; my brother said the groom is like a puppy full of energy. Well this puppy brought his whole kennel of friends along and they were all jumping around! One current wedding game is to jump and slide across a slip and slide filled with shaving cream. Not exactly what I wanted to do in my suit and tie.
I stayed for a night at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I’d heard a lot of negative comments about it during the past year but as far as I was concerned, everything seemed fine and whatever cutbacks the hotel had made during the pandemic, it seems to have regained its stride. Some of the cuts they made were to favor quality over quantity such as getting rid of mediocre items at the breakfast buffet, and they did not offend me. The YMCA across the street sells day passes and their gym is great and they also have a huge indoor pool which is a plus for visits when it’s too cold to swim outside. It’s also an interesting oasis of a sort in Jerusalem where all sorts of people who normally keep among their own kind come together. A new hotel called the Orient opened up about 5 minutes walk down the street and I was curious to try it out. It competes with the King David but its rooms are and suites are mostly small and it is in no way as elegant as the King David. It has a steam room and an indoor pool and its rooftop pool is cool, but its gym is small and the food is meh. To me it was no contest. In both hotels I found that the staff is increasingly Arab that does not really understand English. Someone will ask you if you want anything and its best if you just say you don’t need anything. Try talking about a lounge and the guy will think you want to talk about lunch. The pandemic caused a lot of the old-timers to retire and I guess there is a shortage of suitable staff. In Tel Aviv it got better.
During my one day in Jerusalem, I went to the Western Wall. There is so much traffic nowadays and the place is a total zoo. It’s better to just go there at night and have a taxi wait 10-15 minutes for you to make your visit and take you back. I wanted to try taking the train to Tel Aviv; you don’t see much scenery and it takes a lot of time in Jerusalem to get through the station to the train. When I got to the station, I had to figure out how to use an app to buy my ticket because the station was a sea of Hassidic Jews on the way to a funeral of a famous rabbi who had just died. There was no way I was going to get to a ticket kiosk or to a cashier. It was standing room only on the train (about $8 a ticket for a cool and crisp ride), and by the time I took the taxi from my hotel to the station and then from the station to the next hotel and gone through both stations, I would have gotten there faster just going directly by taxi as long as it was not during a rush hour. From Jerusalem, the train passes through the airport on the way to Tel Aviv. It is 20 minutes from Jerusalem to the airport and then another 10 minutes to Tel Aviv. But it was 15 minutes between each hotel and the train station.
One person I met in Jerusalem told me that despite what I was being told how nobody is planning for the day after Palestinian leader Abbas dies, there are several channels talking and making plans. People tend to think that Marwan Barghouti will finally get out of prison and become the Palestinian leader after Abbas dies. A top Palestinian official who is on good terms with the Israeli national security advisor is making weekly trips to visit with Barghouti and his wife and he wouldn’t be doing so if those people didn’t know about it.
One thing I noticed is that Netanyahu still has a percentage of the country that likes him and that simply doesn’t want Arabs in the government. Bennett lost those voters because he brought Arabs into the government and it’s one of the reasons his government didn’t last more than a year.
In Tel Aviv, I took a 4 hour tour to see some of the city’s neighborhoods and to get a sense how the city has changed over the past 25 years. I tend to avoid this city because you spend all your time in traffic and I’ve generally felt the city does not make a very good impression visually except from high up and along the beachfront. What the city offers is a vibe of bohemian “who cares?” where people fly by on scooters and look like they are enjoying their lives. It’s Bondi on the Beach. The city is best seen by walking and you’re more likely to get to where you are going on foot than by car. Most of the skyscrapers being built are along the freeway that cuts through the center of the city. I think the city still mainly looks shitty up close with lots of shacks and ugly buildings but so does Istanbul. The sea was cold for the end of May.
The newest 5-star hotel in Tel Aviv is the Kempinski. A Mandarin Oriental is under construction. The Kempinski is about 2 minutes walk south of the US Embassy. It’s an excellent hotel with a beautiful executive lounge on the rooftop. Most of its facilities are top-level (its gym is really small and barely adequate). The hotel suffers from a fine dining meat restaurant; the meat on property is eaten bistro-style at a bar. The Ritz Carlton has an edge on this place but it’s in Herzliya with no place around its immediate vicinity worth going other than a shopping mall. If you can tolerate the traffic around it, this hotel is the best entrée to Tel Aviv. The hotel is a 15 minute drive from the Hashalom Train Station and 30 minutes drive from the airport if it is not rush hour.
The airport has put in a fast-track for business class departures and it was pretty empty on the Wednesday morning when I flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Do not count on newspapers at the airport lounges. It’s a nearly 2 hour flight and the pilot said we were over half an hour late due to the disorganized ground crew at the airport. Hmm.. Turkish flew a 777 plane for that flight as well as the later flight to NYC. There are no AC controls overhead and I wore shorts on this flight as well as the 10 hour flight back to NYC. Business class seating is 2:3:2 but the ticket prices are pretty cheap which is an important reason people like this airline. If flying solo and you want your space, you could buy an extra seat which would give you the equivalent of a first class compartment for less than what it would otherwise cost on an airline that offered first class.
I avoided the tap water in both countries; in Istanbul and in Israel, tap water is said to be safe to drink but is not recommended. For a short trip on the run, it paid to be careful.
Upon arrival in Istanbul Turkey, it’s not a bad idea to use the VIP service to get from the plane all the way to your hotel. You can also do it in reverse. The good hotels can arrange the whole package for you. Taxis are dodgy here. Bring some cash with you to pay for visas on arrival ($30 per person or 25 Euro), otherwise you will be stuck at an airport bank. Don’t count on ATM’s here to work. Not a bad idea to bring some Euros with you to the country; commission is high for them and people don’t really want to take the Turkish Lira. I never used it. The new airport is beautiful and quite large. The Turkish Airlines business lounge is one of the most impressive lounges I’ve ever seen if not the most impressive. I took more than half a dozen photos there. It has all sorts of amenities including a golf range, a soccer shrine and huts with people baking breads and pastries. They built a tunnel leading to the city and the airport is way out of the city; it is a 45 minute drive on a modern highway, the last 10 minutes in the city as you arrive (or the first ten minutes when you leave) will be in traffic.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay along the Bosporus or in the Sultanahmet district which is the old city and sort of within the theme park so I stayed a night at each. The Ciragan Palace by Kempinski was most impressive along the Bosporus with great sea views and facilities. The Palace wing is a boutique within the hotel with 11 sumptuous suites (almost all of them duplexes) and I recommend one with a sea view. This is closely on par with the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi or the Burj al Arab. The place oozes history but everything here is a modern re-creation of it because the place was destroyed by fire 3 times. The hotel has beautiful swimming pools, great facilities and food. The breakfast buffet spans several rooms. The Four Seasons on the Bosporus is two doors down the street; the Shangri La is a bit further. The Peninsula is 2 miles away in a different area. 15 minutes walk from the hotel is a night district near the bridge you see from the hotel that crosses from Europe to Asia. Rooms 549 and 550 in the main building is a good setup for a family which is a suite plus a twin-bedded room with a sea view.
I did a 4 hour tour here to see offbeat sites in Istanbul, none of which I have any idea what they were called. I’d seen the main sites 20 years ago and I plan to visit here again with family so I wanted something different. In this city you mainly see mosques and tombs of dead sultans and their wives and they really all look the same after about an hour. The whole sultan thing is a mystery – the race to kill your brothers and survive and become Sultan. This ruckus lasted 400 years till a Sultan was just 14 with no brothers or children and people wondered what would happen if he died, so they then changed the rules to stop this crazy thing. The Grand Bazaar has 65 streets of shopping; for me 10 minutes of walking through the place was more than enough.
My second night here I stayed at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet which is about 15-20 minutes away from the Ciragan Palace or the Four Seasons Bosporus. I checked my bag with the Four Seasons Bosporus and they have several shuttles a day between their two properties. I then did the tour and ended up in Sultanahmet where my bags were waiting, instead of running back and forth just to bring over my suitcase. The Sultanahmet property was formerly a prison and unless your room is on a top floor with a view of the interior courtyard, the rooms are dark and small. It’s good for a night if you want to be in the theme park with the Haga Sophia and the Blue Mosque in a nearby square (good to visit at night without the crowds) and a nice city park called Gulhane which is adjacent to one of the two palaces that people want to see (Topkaki). There is a day spa along the square that offers a hamam treatment which is basically a body scrub plus a massage. You can also get this at the hotel for twice the price. There is no good reason to play around with the public transport trams or underground subway and there is none very near the hotels anyway. There is no question that the Ciragan Palace way outclasses the Four Seasons Sultanahmet in terms of food, facilities, room choices and views. Plus they have more options at more reasonable prices. Istanbul hotel prices are higher than London or Paris; maybe too many Russian billionaires taking up the suites. Even so the Ciragan Palace was only about 45% occupied the weekday night I was there. The Four Seasons Sultanahmet was busier but it is a much smaller hotel.
My ideal trip to Istanbul would include a stay at the Ciragan for 2 nights so you can see the Dolmabahce Palace and go on a cruise along the Bosporus, and then a night at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet to see the other palace (Topkaki) and the two big mosques over there (Blue Mosque and Haga Sophia) and experience the mosques and the square at night all lit up beautifully. The Haga Sophia is a bit dark at night and I believe also during the day. You can also shop at the Bazaar and carry your stuff to the hotel. The Sultanahmet property is expanding and will be larger in about 2 years. I would be bored stiff at the Sultanahmet property after a night, but if you can stand the additional transfer it offers an additional dimension to the Istanbul experience.
I noticed a lot of people here wearing chadors and niqab (meaning black cloaks and covering around the eyes). People are doing it voluntarily and seem to be comfortable with it. It’s one reason Erdogan won the election; people are into identity politics and Moslems are happy having a president who identifies with them. Iran could learn from this – less coercion might yield more happy compliance from its citizens.
My Turkish flight to NYC was about 9½ hours. The food was excellent with many choices. They take the food seriously here with several chefs on board. The airport is already overcrowded with too many flights and we took off an hour late due to this. You’d have thought that Flight 001 to JFK would have priority but evidently not.
CANADA — TREMBLANT AND MONTREAL
We took a family trip to Tremblant and Montreal in Canada, our first across the border in about 5 years. I asked Jeremy how he felt being in Quebec where all the signs are in French. “I don’t read the signs in English at home, so why should I notice the difference?” he said.
Montreal’s airport has a massive customs hall to process hordes of entering tourists. It would be nice if the US could learn how to do the same. When you enter a US airport passport zone, you get 3 agents leaving 20 empty positions and a ton of people standing on line. If you don’t have Global Entry, you’re screwed and even the majority of those kiosks are often broken. And everyone pays a tax of $120 per airline ticket for entering the US; you’d think they might spend the money on actually providing the service. It’s a real embarrassment the way our passport control works.
Tremblant was a 2.5 hour drive from the airport. It was about an extra hour due to high traffic on a Friday afternoon. We stayed at the Fairmont hotel which is the best full service hotel in the town; the Quintessence is on the lake and probably the best 5 star hotel but its location is not quite as central, it is probably a wind tunnel in winter and its facilities are not equivalent. But it has a great restaurant for dinner. The Fairmont hotel was decent but dated and dark, and in need of renovation. Some of that renovation is already in progress.
An attraction to Tremblant is a nice village around the hotels with all kinds of shops and restaurants. Stowe, Vermont did not compete on this. There are little towns within 15 minutes drive such as Tremblant and St. Jovite. St. Jovite had a cool patisserie called “Lab”, a great Italian restaurant “Antipasto” in an old railway station, a nice kitchenware store called Four Seasons in French, and a nice pottery store a few miles before town called Poterie Mt. Tremblant.
There are a good number of summer activities here and an activities center in the village that coordinates them. There is an alpine luge slide that was a good deal of fun, a night time show with sound, lasers, and interactive tech that was better than expected where you ride up the mountain and walk down, and a gondola ride up the mountain with nice walking paths up at the top. The kids went on a Via Ferrata which involves climbing up the side of a mountain and then going down with zip lines. That was about 45 minutes away and was a bit tougher than my hardy experienced kids expected. I found it interesting to meet a good number of French people in Canada who had left France because life there was too stressful; the only thing one missed was fresh cream from the grocery.
Our visit was during a sweet spot (around June 15) when schools had not yet finished and the Ironman competition had not yet started. Although it’s known for skiing, Tremblant is actually busiest during the summer vacation season. We were told that winter is a zoo here but that beginner to intermediate skiiers could go to Mt. Blanc about 20 minutes away for more fun on the mountain. We were told that even in spring, Tremblant is crowded and the best way to ski here is to go during the week away from holiday periods. One thing I didn’t like was that atop the mountain there is just one cafeteria. At places such as Davos, once you are up on the mountain, there are a lot of places to go hang out and you don’t have to spend 1-2 hours going back down and getting back up again. We found food in many of the village shops to be poor; we liked dinner at A Mano Italian but that’s about it. To sum it up, Tremblant was fun for 3 days. We wouldn’t go back a second time during the summer and in order to go during winter, we’d have to be convinced that we’d have a good time and that the hotel rooms were renovated.
In Montreal, we spent a night at the Four Seasons which was under construction last time we visited. The Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton are 3 minutes walk away from each other and both are the best in town. I don’t know which of the two hotels are better. St. Catherine Street is not particularly attractive and the department stores are disappointing, but it has good shopping overall and the thing there is to go into the stores you haven’t heard of and look around. Jeremy found great sportswear and Elizabeth and Karen both had good luck with clothes. Had I known better, I would have bought more things at the boutiques in the Tremblant village. Although the Canadian dollar is currently 25% weaker than the US Dollar, there is 15% sales tax here and that somewhat negates the bargain. I still remember when there was almost no sales tax and tax refunds for tourists on hotel bills. There is not much to do in Montreal; we went for an hour to the Old Montreal section and there isn’t more than an hour or so to do there walking around the souvenir stores and the river front with its maze and zip line. For us, one night here was plenty and the main attraction was shopping for different clothes than what you find back home.
Going to the airport, you should take a taxi because traffic seems to be bad all throughout the day and taxis have a dedicated line on the highway that Uber cannot use. Anyway, the price is the same. At the airport, you preclear US customs and there is a nice Air Canada lounge with good food in the departure area. Air Canada did a good job of getting us in and out on time.
COAST OF MAINE
It’s my version of the 10 Days of Christmas; our kids are away for about 10 days on various summer programs, so Karen and I stole away up the Maine Coast to see something that would otherwise thoroughly bore the kids. We spent 3 days doing lots of nothing things that added up to something. Drawn to the town of Castine after reading about it in the book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, we stayed at the Pentagoet Inn, a bed and breakfast that was actually a very lucky find. Two guys from NYC became innkeepers and are lovingly restoring this property that is over a century old lining the town’s main street. People around town all seem to like the innkeepers for their good vibes and dedication to innkeeping and faithfully restoring a historic property. Even though it is Main Street, it’s quiet at night, parking is easy along the street and just one block off the street it’s really quiet as you walk around town. Castine doesn’t have a traffic light, its bookstore gets pastries weekly, and after a few hours you start recognizing everyone you see, but it does have a grocery selling the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, which is more than I can say about being in a top hotel in Atlanta, St. Louis or San Francisco the past year or two. The same two kids riding their bikes at 5pm are the ones you will see 3 hours later. The town has about 950 year-round residents and the local college has an additional 950. Castine is an hour from Bangor, Maine airport. Town is about two blocks long and for supermarkets and restaurants, you pretty much have to drive at least half an hour away. Most shops close at 4 and the local restaurant on Main Street closes by 8. The town pool is closed for summer because they couldn’t find a lifeguard, but the local Marine Academy 5 minutes walk away has a gym you can join via the internet for the week you are there; sign up before arrival and pick up your access cards at the public safety office. They also have a beautiful football field and hope to bring back their program; they stopped it after a few years when they hadn’t won a single game.
The Variety Diner offers grilled fish for dinner and is one of the few healthy options in town unless you want to keep eating fish and chips all the time; the Castine Inn on Main Street has good home-made items for lunch. The local post office is the second oldest in the country. Good restaurants nearby are Arborvine and Provender. A nearby village with nice galleries facing a bay is Deer Isle, and Stonington (a fishing village just a few miles further away). We skipped Acadia National Park which is about 90 minutes drive away in favor of just enjoying the local area. We did small-town things like go to the library’s book sale, the local historical society, a buggy tour around town and a little boat tour in the harbor. We visited a woodsman at his home studio who showed us how wood turning is done. We took a small hike to a path to the water behind a lighthouse.
We were surprisingly happy enjoying the vibe of the place for 3 days. It was fun just walking down a quiet street with open spaces breaking fresh cool air. A big problem living here is that flights in and out of Bangor are not particularly reliable and you basically feel lucky if you make your connecting flight on the same day if you are trying to get somewhere. One day last week United cancelled all 3 of its flights on the NYC-Bangor route. It’s 4 hours to Boston, the nearest large airport.
Hope this kept you busy to last you the summer. My next post in September will feature travel notes from a trip to Australia, Singapore, Hawaii and San Francisco. Hopefully the world will still be there when I come back.