Thoughts — 28 June 2011 including Travel to Paris and Wyoming

Ivan in Wyoming with the view from his hotel room at right; kids at Mohonk Lodge in New York, June 2011

At the end of this month, we’re moving to a part-time nanny. Our kids will be occupied till 2pm and 4pm respectively on weekdays now….We went to see our kids in gymnastics this month. Elizabeth has a great smile on the dismount and that look of determination on her face when she is trying to get it right. The coaches think she has potential and keep giving her extra attention when she goes back and tries again. The other kids get one try and they go on to the next kid, no matter what happens….Jeremy has a great sense of humor. His grandmother “Oma” was in residence in his room and one evening he went and hid all her jewelry. We asked where he hid it and he showed us, but not before saying “I trick Oma.” Elizabeth wrote her first note all by herself this morning saying “I Luv U Oma Elizabeth” and asked me to poste it to her in Australia. I guess that’s a nice first letter for someone to write.

World Thoughts -Obama has the advantage because when push comes to shove, the Republicans still want enough government to pay for all the entitlements that they don’t want to give up, such as Medicare. Even the tea party rank and file can’t let go of their entitlements even though they say they don’t want government or to pay taxes…..Basically they don’t want government or taxes but they don’t want to give up their piece of the entitlement pie…..So far, Obama hasn’t really hurt anyone enough to make them run out and vote against him. The health insurance thing sucks but it’s not going to drive people to the polls.

The recent tapping of the US oil reserves makes no real sense from any standpoint. There is nothing material to be gained or lost from it beyond the moment, and it is a card you cannot really play too many times.

US Supreme Court keeps showing up as insensitive to normal people and looks like a body bought up by business interests and making horrible decisions that are disgusting to real people. Maybe this is the liberal media at work, but it is starting to smell bad. Clarence Thomas in particular is not looking very justiciable. Either the media needs to consider how all this criticism is taking its toll on the perceived fairness of a court that is supposed to represent justice, or perhaps the court is really is that awful and the citizens are justified in looking at it very cynically. Recent decisions on things such as class actions involving terrible contracts for cellular phones with AT&T, torture decisions, etc. are examples of decisions that really look like the court has zero interest in real people or any ability to look at law except as ideological robots in a manner that is so technical as to be completely devoid of reality to normal people. You’d have to think they were being bought to come out this way and I wouldn’t mind seeing some more investigations by the press into where the money is going with their wives, children, etc. All these not for profits are a back door to lawmakers – someone needs to see if the Supreme Court is really clean when you start looking carefully. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out what might lurk below. I think also that more such scrutiny ought to be given by the press at the state court level where people aren’t looking very hard but the effects of justice for sale are just as strong.

One thing I’m noticing is that law firms are “in-sourcing” – not sending legal work to India but rather opening up cheaper offices in places like West Virginia and paying people lower salaries to just get the legal work done here and not think about becoming partner. You also see lots of factories moving work here. I think that’s what is going to work – people find this outsourcing to India a crock and are finding more efficient ways to just get the work done here in the USA.

Another area where the market works – our local supermarket says that hardly anyone is buying tilapia fish anymore. All the stuff comes from China. After attention was thrown on the unclean nature of the chinese tilapia fish, nobody wants to feed it to their kids anymore around here. Finding a fish to feed small kids is not easy; we’ve been told by the grocer to switch to cod. Expect cod fish prices to rise.

George Friedman of Stratfor writes an interesting military analysis on Israel’s borders arguing that Israel would be better off militarily returning to the pre-1967 war borders (1949 borders) essentially saying that in 1948, 1956 and 1967 Israel fought successful wars from those borders. Ever since then, they have failed to win wars well or on their own without resupply from foreign powers. It is not good to have to depend on the grace of a foreign power to defend against existential threats. He feels that Israel can defend itself by itself fighting from the 1949 borders better than as an occupier over more territory and would ultimately be safer that way. As far as the newer threats of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, he feels that the extra territory held by Israel would be worthless against those threats. The only real reason to maintain the 1967 borders is against rocket attacks by Hamas in a Palestinian state in the West Bank which he does not view as an existential threat but a manageable nuisance; Gaza he doesn’t view as an issue because Israel’s borders wouldn’t change viz a viz Gaza. He who defends everything defends nothing, he quotes Frederick the Great. Personally, I’ve felt all along that a leaner meaner Israel would be stronger in the long run. I don’t think Stratfor is in any way anti-Israel with an axe to grind. So I think their down-the-middle analysis deserves thought by those who are cock-sure that holding all the territories is really the best security-wise solution.

Egyptian President Sadat once made a remark that Egypt was the only real nation in the Arab world; that all the other countries were basically collections of tribes with artificial borders. To a great extent, he’s been proven right. Look around at the Arab Spring today and you can see that the biggest impediment to change is that many of these countries have no real national institutions or affiliations to rally around. It is a collection of countries with people living within borders who often really don’t care for each other, to say the least.

Here’s a hopeful thought – Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq – guess what? The Iranians and Shiites are actually a bit on the run. The momentum is moving toward a Sunni arc, not a Shiite one. When Assad gets thrown out in Syria, there is a good chance of that country coming up with a Sunni leader because that’s the majority in that country. Iran is going to get a colder shoulder in Lebanon if Syria goes Sunni, and Turkey has become hostile to Assad realizing where things are going. Egypt has gone soft on its recent overtures toward Iran and the Egyptian cabinet today released a survey showing that 67% of Egyptians want to keep the peace treaty with Israel, something that I have no reason to doubt. And the Iranians are fighting pretty well now among their own and Ahmadenijad is not in a good place among the clerics. What is ironic is that behind all the ruckus the Iranians have been taking real steps to fix their dysfunctional economy. The Egyptians have not been doing so.

One thing I noticed during a recent visit to Paris was how the French feel this guy who was arrested in New York on a sex scandal (head of IMF) was set up by his political enemies in advance of a presidential election in that country in which this guy was favored to win.

In Australia, during the past year, the mining industry spent $22 million in 6 weeks to knock out a tax that the prime minister had wanted to impose. And the prime minister got knocked out of office. The tax savings to the industry was $100 billion. Obviously it pays for corporations to spend money to defend their interests. Funny thing is that no mine they ever prospected offered such a return!

I think Egypt made a deal to open Rafah border, get a Hamas/Fatah reconciliation and perhaps to try and free Gilad Shalit, although the latter didn’t seem to pan out. Ultimately, I think the Israelis stay mum because the Egypt moves is really as little as the military thinks it needs to do to get in front of the public, without real change. So far, the indication is that this is correct. The Rafah border crossing is full of restrictions and didn’t hold up for even one week. I don’t expect much to come from the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation either. This is the second such reconciliation and the last one led within a month to a Gaza takeover by Hamas. And I suppose Shalit will still be sitting around also.

I read this week that 22% of American Jews have attended a Jewish-style wedding and 33% have attended a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Less than 20% of Jews under 40 who do volunteer work involve themselves in Jewish causes; the percentage is less than 10% when it comes to Israeli-related causes. Those are depressingly low figures for major life-cycle events and reflect just how alienated Jews in America are from communal activities. It just piles on to the comments I made last month about how the American Jews of this generation are not going to be like their parents. Politically, it probably means that within a generation the so-called Jewish Vote will not be a factor in American politics because there are no real Jewish or Israeli issues that will excite them. By the way, I’ve been hearing political analysts say this for several years and now I’m starting to believe them although I must admit that about 25-30 years ago I heard the late New York Senator Patrick Moynihan personally tell me this at a fund-raiser I attended and so far it isn’t true.

Travel Notes

Went to Paris and Wyoming this month; I had some business here. Flew OpenSkies, an all business class airline from Newark to Orly airport. Orly is easy in and out and only about 50 people on the whole plane so it is easy on and off. Don’t order vege food; just take the vege choice from the main items. Increasingly, ordering special vege meals has been disgusting no matter which airline. It is nice having a plane with only 22 rows of seats. The first 5 are lie-flats and the rest are basically decent reclining seats with lots of leg room; I don’t think the lie-flat is necessary for this flight. At Orly on departure make sure you show goods to the VAT guy who won’t stamp them otherwise for your refund. Taxi to central Paris is 30 Euro in 30 minutes.

King George V hotel lives up to its reputation. Shoes dirty in your room? They will notice and have them cleaned before you get the chance to send them down at night for polishing. Show up at the business center at midnight, pick up a phone and within a minute somebody will let you in. There is a Flower God here and they keep changing flowers in the lobby and courtyard something like every half hour. Food and beverage is great; spa and gym and pool are great. Pages in pretty hats and uniforms bring you letters from the concierges who are excellent at giving you recommendations. The whole place runs very well and deserves its rating as top 5% of the world’s hotels; the TV in your room has channels from Cuba to Kazakhstan and the bathtub women will love. A premiere room is like a suite. I got a kick out of watching a cooking show on Saudi English TV channel. Some Indian lady spent half an hour against a very dull backdrop making a tuna club sandwich and a Saudi man and woman were providing a running commentary chatting up this lady about this sandwich basically made from a can of tuna. I almost wanted to tune in the next day figuring they might be moving onto egg salad. Amazing what TV is like in certain places of the world. This hotel has a very nice interior courtyard; piano music in the lobby; breakfast is very good and a chocolate cake was placed in the room on arrival that was clearly the best dessert I had on the entire trip.

Went to Arch D’Triumph and climbed the 300 steps to the top in about 10 minutes. The elevator was broken and has been for some time. It is a nice view. Went to Laduree at Rue St. Honore and Royale for lunch; dessert was disappointing but the salads and quiche were lovely. Walked around Madeline; the toy store on that street is out of business. MikiHouse on St. Honore has beautiful kids clothes but prices on another planet. LongChamp sells women’s bags and women from Asia were all over the place as if they were giving the stuff away. The Touleries gardens are parched from drought. In the evening went to Montmarte and snuck onto the funicular and made the way to Eifel Tower and the Seine river boat area at dusk; the line there is insane and you would be silly to go there without advance tickets bought over the internet. I couldn’t get reservations to the bistro I wanted which was Chez Dumonet but concierge sent me to Dessirier at 9 Place du Marechal Juin phone which was just as excellent and run by a Michelin starred chef. On the second day, spent a good part of it shopping at Galleries Lafayette and Au Printemps. Except for some interesting housewares at Au Printemps, basically everything was the same I already saw at Galleries and you get an additional 10% as a foreigner in Galleries on many items in the store. Funny that so much of what is being sold is duplicative for two stores right next to each other. Be sure to see the view of Paris from the 8th floor roof of the Galleries. The LongChamp boutique within Galleries was roped off because the Japanese are all lining up to shop there. I have no idea why and it’s not as if their stuff is that great. Dinner at the Restaurant Du Palais Royal at the far end of the gardens of the Palais Royal phone Walk in the evening through the Louvre courtyard and then taxi to Montpartnesse Tower; tell them you are going to the bar to avoid paying for the elevator ride to the observation deck. Get a table and a soda and you’re getting the best view of the Eifel Tower at dusk. At the top of the hour beginning at 10pm (at least at that time of year) the tower sparkles for a few minutes and that’s very cool. My colleague reports he went to Museum D’Orsay and took the English tour which he really liked. Get the tickets in advance to avoid long lines and ask the concierge if there are special exhibitions which require an additional ticket and get it in advance. Lunch at Cafe Berthillon which is behind the Notre Dame Cathedral just over the walking bridge behind the playground on Rue St. Louise. It seems there are a bunch of Berthillon ice cream locations on this little island but that café also offers their ice cream which is some of the best in the world and the food is not bad either. Turned out there was a taxi strike that day but basically I still got around.

Late afternoon taxi transfer to Chateau D’Esclimont about 120 euros and 80 minutes away in St. Symphorien. I’d been there before a few years back but I was looking at potential conference venues for our company. It is a beautiful ride through scenic country but aside from GPS, it is better to have them send you a driver to Paris rather than go with someone from Paris who doesn’t know where he is going. The property remains a beautiful hideaway; the top suite has a great bathroom with jacuzzi and is just simply stunning. Dinner and breakfast were great; if you open your bathroom and sitting room windows the room cools down after nightfall. I had July weather in May. This was not the King George; I asked for help opening the windows and the front desk said they had nobody to send to my room and nobody ever came to help. Taxi to Orly is about an hour and 110 Euro.

Now about Wyoming. Air France changed a bunch of flights on my ticket without telling me and I discovered this when I went online to check my reservations just 7 days before I was supposed to fly to France and Italy this month, just hours before cancellation penalties were going to hit with the hotels. (And by the way, Air France was really sucky about doing anything about it. I would avoid that carrier actually.) Since I couldn’t get the flights I wanted, I simply cancelled, went home and looked at the Andrew Harper Collection of hideaways around the world, and thought about what might lurk in the heart of America. I’d heard good things about this Aman resort in Wyoming called Amangani. “Where is Wyoming?”, Karen asked me when I told her that I decided after about 10 minutes of looking in the book that I would go there instead. Actually, I have very good news for you. This trip greatly exceeded expectations. Which is a good thing because on tap was the Hotel Splendido in Portofino, Italy and Chateaux Bagnols in France.

Aman Resorts has set itself apart in the upper tier resort market with a focus on the individual. The property has only 40 rooms and is in a stunning setting about 15 minutes from Jackson, Wyoming. An airport is 30 minutes away and can be reached nonstop from Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City hubs. If you are staying here, you want a room facing the Grand Teton mountain range and there are only a few of them. The Grand Teton Suite is gorgeous and has a balcony facing the range and lots of greenery below; the Sena Suite is at ground level with the same view but is better for families because you can put a rollaway in there and kids can run out on the grass.

Jackson is a town of 8,000 permanent residents and it’s like stepping into a real-life episode of Northern Exposure, the TV series set in Alaska that ran about 15-20 years ago. Lots of too-intelligent-to-be-there college kids who came on holidays who loved skiing and the great outdoors who then stayed on. Near the center of town there is a big corner shack-house surrounded by a fence lined with skis. They get 700 inches of snow a year here. I hardly met any natives – if you grow up there, you tend to leave if you don’t like it. Sort of like the Emirates. You come here for fishing, hunting, skiing, snow boarding, climbing. Gyms are not big here (why go to one?) and contact sports like martial arts are pretty passe when there are not many people around and those that are around are friendly. The whole state of Wyoming has about 500,000 people and no income tax; it is a pretty wealthy state due to its natural resources.

The hotel staff is the coolest I’ve met anywhere. Your concierge might have been bronco-riding at the rodeo the night before. Your safari guide might have a dual degree in molecular biology and theater. Someone at the front desk might be from Fiji whose dad manages a top resort there. You can have a lot of interesting conversations here with them and other guests.

You see a lot of people coming here in search of opportunities and to be inspired by the great open spaces. It’s ironic that I was supposed to spend the week in France and Italy, two of the biggest hold-back countries of the greater powers today where class and payola determine your status (ie: getting a university degree demands bribes in Italy). The food here was just as good as anything I would have had over there – the hotel food was outstanding, even mundane things such as french toast and oatmeal were raised to a high art. Snake River Grill in town and the Rusty Parrot offered dining of the highest order and the Mexican chocolate dessert is a winner, and the latter is a world-acclaimed bed and breakfast near the center of town as well although I wasn’t that impressed with the rooms; I think they score on service. Climate here in June is very pleasant; it had been snowing just a few days before I arrived. Went to a performance of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers at the local playhouse; it is a unique theater and there seems no shortage of great talent in this town. After the show, the cast lines up in the lobby and everyone says hello to them; after all, they all know each other. The next night I went to the rodeo. The invocation “to our lord Jesus Christ” by the rodeo announcer reminded me that this is a very Christian nation when you get far from New York. Lots of little kids in this show – 5 and 6 year olds riding mini-broncos that I wouldn’t want to get within 50 feet of and up quite past their bedtime. At a certain point they allow all the kids to get in the ring and chase a calf around that has a ribbon attached to its legs. The kid that pulls off the ribbon gets a prize. It was darn funny watching hundreds of kids running after that poor calf. Every evening at 6pm in the center of town there is a fake shootout involving people from the playhouse theater cast. The Wort hotel in the center of town has a lively saloon with a band and dancing and is a great place to go to. This is a place that reminisces about being the last of the Wild West but the truth is that most of this town was settled during this past century; it incorporated around the same time as Miami Beach, Florida did. It ain’t redneck country by any means. And it votes Democratic.

Went on a 4 hour safari tour and saw a grizzly bear, beautiful nature and other animals. My guide told me some of the more stupid questions he’s ever been asked such as “At what altitude do Elk turn into Moose?” “What is the white stuff up on top of the mountain?” (He answered styrofoam to keep people who fall down from getting hurt.) The hotel is at the edge of the Grand Teton national park; you can see it in a few hours. It is 60 miles from Yellowstone; other guests told me that if you hustle, you can cover the most important parts of Yellowstone in a day but I personally would want to overnight if I were driving 120 miles just to get to and from the park entrance. Hot air ballooning and paragliding are available here. Took a tram to the top of one of the Teton mountains to an altitude of about 10,000 feet; it is located at the base of the ski village and takes about 15 minutes to ride to the top. It’s all snow up there for most of the year. The Amangani is at an altitude of about 7,000 feet atop a small mountain; one should drink a lot of water the first day and expect to be a bit dizzy if he is not used to high altitudes.

Hotel has a good spa and its own livery of cars to take you and pick you up from anywhere. They charge for it but it is actually reasonable and it’s not easy to get a taxi around here. Don’t count on any of them lining up when the rodeo or a show at the playhouse lets out. It’s good to be able to walk to the front door and get a ride to anywhere or call up in the rain and have them come to pick you up in the middle of nowhere. At the Four Seasons located 20 minutes away in the ski village, I had to wait 25 minutes for a taxi just to leave the hotel. I found that property rather dark and ordinary. The Amangani was just a much more beautiful hideaway, inside and out. Everything from the pool and jacuzzi to the sitting areas in the lobby is really done top notch. It’s not perfect; internet was slow and getting hot water in my hotel room meant running the shower or bath for several minutes before it came through.

On the way back, United really dropped me in Denver because they cancelled my flight back to NY due to mechanical problems and then, since all their flights out of Denver are flying to close to 100% occupancy, suggested a flight the next day via Chicago with no overnight hotel offered. I had a first class ticket because I had anticipated this kind of problem and knew that I wanted to be given priority to get back to NY if it happened figuring also that Denver was a hub for United and would have a lot of flights available and I needed to get back to NY on time; I found no fast-track in the airport to help a first class passenger in a jam, and I saw them giving higher priority to people with economy class tickets who had higher status with the airline with all their elite traveler programs. You don’t get into the lounge with a first class ticket (although I got in with my Priority Pass card which I got as an Amex cardholder). Frankly, I sorta wonder what you get these days for flying First Class. I didn’t get my vege meal on the flight; you get extra leg room and overhead space but not much more. I had to book a flight on Southwest to Baltimore, overnight at the Doubletree by the airport (which was fine, by the way), and fly back to NY the next morning. I’m still waiting to see what United Airlines offers me by way of compensation beyond the cost of the flight that was cancelled. And then there is the travel insurance to turn to. It cost me more than what they offered me to get back plus the aggravation. I’ll tell you – Southwest and JetBlue are just much better airlines than United. A friend of mine has the Black Centurion card from Amex. It costs $2,500 a year plus a $5,000 initiation fee. It gives you elite status with many domestic carriers (but not United); he said that 99% of the time he gets the upgrade. Considering the above, it might be a cost-effective card to hold if you travel quite a bit, especially if it turns out that airlines give their best efforts toward elite status holders rather than to those who pay cash but don’t have the status.

Anyway, the more important point is that I guess I have been defaulting to Europe a bit too much and overlooking some of the finer parts of America that I have been taking for granted. It does help though that these new resorts are putting a new shine on these places and that air service brings these places closer especially as flights to Europe become ridiculously expensive and the Euro isn’t any bargain. Jackson, Wyoming is actually the third most popular destination in the USA for Japanese tourists. Who knew?


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