Thoughts — 15 April 2011

Includes Passover Thoughts and Travel Notes: New in Puerto Rico & British Virgin Islands

Ivan in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands; the Kids at Home; My father with his grandson Gavi and the just unveiled plaque in his honor at the entrance to the Miami Beach beach boardwalk

Elizabeth at breakfast: Feed me my oatmeal…(I fed her some and stepped away)…Sit down, relax and enjoy the flight! (Or is it the fight, when feeding her?)…. Having kids means going to a beautiful boutique store like Boyds of Philadelphia and passing up $300 shirts because you can buy the nicest designer outfit for a kid for less than half the price and it looks better on them than you….

Jeremy didn’t want to get dressed to go to school one day this week and he’s been showing a good amount of attitude in the mornings. So I dragged him out in his underwear and t-shirt, walked him down Broadway 4 blocks, got on the city bus and went to school just like that. I got a lot of stares and two ladies who told me that I was “obnoxious and neglectful” as my kid sat on the bus and cried loudly. As I ignored him, I was told “I had to comfort my child.” When we got to school, the principal and 3 teachers were in the classroom and they told me that they thought “I did exactly the right thing.” I give credit for this idea to my sister-in-law in Miami who has 5 kids who she has to get out the door in the morning, and she said this works for her.

This month I was in Miami Beach for a surprise ceremony dedicating a plaque in honor of my father’s efforts as an elected official in the City of Miami Beach. A picture of it is above. It was prepared in time for his 75th birthday this month. My brother spent a year and a half driving the City crazy till they agreed to create it. He basically got all the elected officials afraid that he would get a slate of candidates together to drive them all out of office till they cried Uncle.

I did a little traveling this month. In Miami, I saw the new Ritz Carlton on South Beach. It is a pretty nice place; I thought the gym was a bit dark and could use some renovation for a “new” place. Their spa is pretty good. In Puerto Rico, I arranged a few hours on layover and went to visit the new St. Regis hotel in Bahia Beach, about a 30 minute drive from the airport which is supposed to bring a new standard to the island. Very nice rooms and the property has tons of landscaping and the beach and pool are good. The place says it is for kids also but not really; the kiddie camp is a shack and there is no kiddie pool. The gym was barely adequate, and frankly I would be really bored here after a day or two. Golf is the big attraction here. Then off to the British Virgin Islands and to Little Dix Bay, which is one of the best resorts in the Caribbean I’m consistently told. You have to fly 20-25 minutes from San Juan to get to Tortola and then it is 20 minute boat ride to the resort on its own boat. The islands are quite pretty and the hotel is very strong. The spa is outdoors and has beautiful nature for a backdrop. Food and beverage is very strong. The rooms, junior suites and above, are nice; otherwise they are small. There is a lot of landscape between the rooms and the beach so an ocean view is not really an ocean view unless you are up on the second floor. The gym is excellent. There is a kiddie camp but no kiddie pool. There are no TV’s in the rooms but there is one TV in the lobby and you can borrow a DVD player to watch a movie in your room. Off the property, you can go sightseeing for 2 hours and you would have seen everything; the island itself is not impressive (forget about shopping) except for one site called “The Baths” and you basically need to be in a bathing suit and ready to crawl between rocks and in the water in order to fully see all these boulders and the Devils Cave beyond. I’d maybe come here again with my wife and perhaps my kids as they got older and into more types of water sports. The big bummer was getting back; the hotel makes you leave to the airport on their boat over 2 hours before flying so you sit in the airport for an extra hour over what you might have otherwise done. That adds up to a big shlep; it was 10 hours door to door to get home from there. I still like other properties more than this one; Ocean Club in Nassau offers better facilities all around and more of a feeling that you in an open space and are close to the sea, more opportunities for fun for the kids and family, and is much easier to get to and at a slightly lower price. Sunset Key Cottages is also a good bet on its own island near Key West (although I find that Key West itself is a downscale bore), and Fisher Island in Miami has its own charms being on its own island but lacking a beach that feels private.

For many years, one of my biggest regrets was that teachers, particularly from university, who I had taken a liking to as mentors, showed absolutely no interest in mentoring me once I graduated. For years I couldn’t figure out why. Now I think I know. So many of them have died. I guess they knew it wasn’t worth the effort as they would never see how I turned out.

Recent article in the Economist talked about a new technology called 3-D print imaging which will revolutionize production. Basically, you can make 3-D models of things with a printer so that if you want to manufacture a prototype and tweak it, now you can do it quickly and cheaply. Before, you had to manufacture a line of them and then another line after you tweaked it. This is big stuff affecting everything from prosthetics to cars.

Japan earthquake: Is an opportunity to get out of 20 years of recession…Amazing that 30 seconds stands between them being a first and third world country. Vulnerable to lack to natural resources. My first thought was that behind this disaster will be found to be a string of payoffs. Will reform come now that so many people were screwed by cutting corners when regulators were too close to industry? Probably not really.

Libya – I don’t have a problem with the US looking more unilateral and having things appear that the rest of the world is leading, particularly Europe and the Arab League. It is good cover for Brand America. It took the private intelligence service Stratfor until 16 march to actually come out and give a win/lose assessment in Libya but it finally came out and said the rebels were more bark than bite and that they don’t have much going for them. By that time the decision to intervene had already been made. This may turn out to be why the US stayed on the sidelines for as long as it did. The calculus: The whole rebel movement consists of about 1,000 trained soldiers, a few hundred of whom actually fight at any given time, and everyone else is cute. To get them to be able to accomplish anything will take months. Khadafi’s army has 10,000 people and much better arms and training; so far very few army people have left their posts. Giving the rebels arms will just keep a civil war going on forever that they cannot possibly win and the arms will leak out from Libya and wind up all over the world by a bunch of Islamic fighters. The best you could hope for is that Kaddafi’s rule simply collapses but this kind of thing never happens from an outsider conducting air strikes over territory…On the other hand, what if he wins? He’ll be thumbing his nose at everyone and wanting to get even. He’s already brought down a US airliner; can he be trusted to stay in power? And he’ll slaughter thousands of his own people. The Arab League hates him and voted to get him out; he’s been poking his finger in their faces for years and embarrassing them. They’re settling scores, not backing the poor Libyans; witness their own countries. The Saudis know that he tried to assassinate their king..But now they have no choice but to remove Kaddafi because they intervened and stuck their necks out. Or maybe settle into a partition of Libya for the time being and figure that a year from now the rebels will move on the rest of the country when they are stronger. Remember history – in 1990 it was Thatcher that got Bush off the fence to deal with Kuwait. Here it was the French and British that moved Clinton and then Obama off the fence. The Europeans do ultimately count for something, if not to move the US off the fence when it suits them…A big question here is, just who are we backing in Libya anyway? This is not Egypt. This is one tribe against another and we might not really like these guys when we find out who they are. I still feel that the US does best by basically staying minimally involved in this affair and not being more “in it” than the Europeans who have a lot more to gain or lose. They are concerned about keeping their concessions in Libyan oil in case the rebels win, and they don’t want a flood of refugees streaming into Libya. The Egyptians want stability on their border. What I expect from a campaign being prosecuted by NATO is war by committee meaning a stalemate that in the long run drains Khaddafi. The US is best to keep its finger in the soup to have its fingerhold for the future, but only a finger. To some extent, this is a great learning exercise for the world to see how impotent Europe really is and how if you want a job done, it’s only the US that can do the heavy lifting.

I don’t think Americans have any idea how hundreds of millions of their dollars have been going to flying fighter jets from America to give air cover thousands of miles away to a couple hundred teenagers with home-made weapons trying to control half a country which itself is a bit larger than Alaska who probably couldn’t shoot their way out of a Tea Party rally. Hello?

Syria’s Assad wants to stay off the slippery slope of reform and being thrown out. He believes that the US, Israel and Turkey will back him not wanting to see an alternative. He is probably right although the tide of history is not in his favor for the long term.

The Mubaraks of Egypt are real morons; why couldn’t they figure out to leave the country before they all wound up under house arrest and now in jail? In Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood has the advantage going into the fall elections but it is not really up with the times and it may not be very popular even though in the short term the elections were rushed without putting together the institutions needed for a better transition to democracy. So we will see over time how it goes. But sending out modesty patrols is only going to cost it votes. People don’t want Islamic government; they want Islam in their lives. There is a difference. Egypt so far is less than it appears: the military pushed Mubarak out and not much is really slated to change there. There is going to be instability in Egypt just as there will be in a good portion of the Middle East; democracies haven’t historically formed overnight anywhere. But the general shift in my opinion is positive over the long haul. The Americans cannot be expected to have a consistent policy toward an Arab Spring so to speak – each of these countries has its own quirks and one prerequisite to getting involved has to be that there is a good chance to succeed if you get involved. Clearly, Egypt is not Bahrain which is not Syria which is not Saudi Arabia which is not Iran. Obama was right not to get involved in Iran because protesters there don’t have a chance in hell of overthrowing the Iranians. I think Obama has been so far pretty good about being cautious and judging the situation on the ground in the various countries and whether or not it pays to be getting involved in a given situation.

Hamas and Iran are pulling out all the stops to goad Israel into Gaza. They want to sabotage the movement to get reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas, and they want to provoke public sentiment in Egypt in an election year and distract the heat being put onto Syria and the failure of Iran to push Bahrain to the brink. The whole Arab world is aflame right now and so far Israel has been a non-issue. Look at Al-Jazeera’s home page and you won’t even find an article about Israel on it. This is rather unaceptable to Iran; they need to divert attention from the fact that across the board they are trying to stir up trouble and finding themselves under attack. Bahrain, for example, was their plot and it was promptly foiled by a concerted Arab effort. The Israelis are playing up the Iron Dome missile defense system to show that it doesn’t have to be dragged into responding in Gaza. The Israelis don’t want to be responsible for giving Hamas what it wants in Egypt at this time.

Great saying: You have the watches, but we have the time…Pashtun taunt to US military soldiers in Afghanistan.

I’m noticing that India is not as happening in patents and other businesses. I pulled out of the India index fund this quarter. People are frustrated there with the lousy infrastructure, red tape, corruption. Did you hear about buying votes in the country’s parliament for the nuclear treaty with the US at $2 million a vote? This was in the NY Times by the way.

Interesting statistic I read in the Economist today – the Chinese foreign exchange reserve is about $3 trillion. The value of all the taxable real estate in Manhattan is about $300 billion. There is truly a lot they could buy with all their extra money.

Why hasn’t technology and modern science made religion less believable? Instead, technology seems to be used to make religion even more accessible to the masses and people are just as willing to believe what they believe, even if some of those beliefs, such as historical stories we read, make less sense the more we know.

A Passover Message for the Seder:

A big event at the Passover Seder meal/ceremony is the singing of Dayyenu which translated means “it was enough.” It has been in the Seder for over a thousand years and the tune has been sung for at least hundreds of years by Jewish communities around the world. Basically, it is a poem of two line stanzas that say that had God only did X and not did Y, it would have been enough. Taken at face value, it is a moment of high gratitude for virtually everything God did for the Jews from the Exodus of Egypt through the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and it is placed at the end of the telling of the Exodus story at the Seder.

The Malbim was the first person nominated to be chief rabbi of New York over a century ago. His take on the Dayyenu prayer is that we got it all wrong in translation and interpretation. Instead of saying that we would be thankful even if God only did half of what he did, he says that to say that would make no sense. If God had done only half of each item mentioned, it would have been useless to us. For instance, look at the stanza “Had he brought us unto the dry land but not drowned our enemies in the sea, it would have been enough.” Really? So the Egyptians would have also crossed the sea and would then have killed all the Jews? So what would we be thankful for?

Instead, the Dayyenu prayer means that even though we would not be thankful had he done only half of each item, we have the challenge to find it within ourselves to be thankful because in our history, what really happened? The Jews came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea and the first thing they did was to complain. We weren’t really thankful, and that is one reason why Christians went on for years in their sermons talking about the Jews as ungrateful people – because the historical record of a nation benefitting from miracles and then constantly complaining was there. So the challenge of Dayyenu is that throughout our history, we had many reasons not to feel happy at Passover and not to feel free (ie: Crusades, Pogroms, Holocaust), but that even then we had to show our faith in the Lord and say Thank You for whatever it was that we had and hope that it would be better in the future.

And now here is an additional thought from Global Thoughts that ties it all together and resolves the age-old question as to why the Dayyenu prayer sits where it does in the liturgy: After that Dayyenu prayer the next thing we say at the Seder is that we have to role-play ourselves as if we were free people coming out of Egypt in our day. Well, sometimes we can’t, and that is exactly why the Dayyenu prayer sits right where it sits – to remind that it is a reality check – we never actually came out of Egypt and walked around saying Thank You for Everything. We never really were happy and we don’t have to pretend to be something we never were, but we have to try and Be Happy with our lot and look forward to the future with faith.


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