Saturday, October 21, 2017

Movies: Blade Runner 2049

(Drivebycuriosity) - "Blade Runner" belongs to the milestones of cinema. It needs a lot of guts to make a sequel to this masterpiece. Denis Villeneuve got it. The French-Canadian director, who already impressed with "Arrival", "Sicario & "Prisoners", created another gem: "Blade Runner 2049"( imdb).

The sequel is set 30 years later than the original (2019). The new film follows again a Los Angeles Cop who is hunting & killing humanoid robots (this is a spoiler free blog. You can read a synopsis here wikipedia). Again we can see an alternate world with a broken down economy & environment combined with an advanced technology (cyber punk).

I loved the movie and indulged into its visual power. "Blade Runner 2049" enthralls by its outstanding esthetics. Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and their crews created a work of fine art. Their visions are filled with tableaux & images which reminded me of the works by Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor, Gerhard Richter & other contemporary artists. I think art museums will soon show this film - or segments of it - in their contemporary departments.

The plot touches again philosophical questions and keeps the audience puzzling about who is good and who is bad, about identity, the reliability of memories and touches issues like robots, genetic engineering, AIs, virtual reality, advanced software programs, future of advertising & more. Being a big Hollywood production, which has to please the masses, it is more fiction than science, a futuristic fairy tale -  but that`s ok. The soundtrack - ambient with streaks of heavy metal - made the film even stronger.

Blade Runner 2049 is a cinematic treasure and fun to watch.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Contemporary Art: Enemy Who Must Be Loved @ Ierimonti Gallery New York

(Drivebycuriosity) - New York`s Lower East Side (LES) is infamous for her party scene where bridge & tunnel people carouse all night long. But the district also is a center of art with a cluster of ambitious art galleries. Yesterday I discovered a newcomer in the scene: Ierimonti Gallery on Delancey Street, which opened in September (ierimonti). They display paintings by Nebojša Despotović. The show is called "Enemy who must be loved" (through  November 10, 2017). I show here some of my favorites from the exhibition, a very subjective selection as usual.

According to the press release the artist uses "old photographs as a starting point and explores the identity from the alterations that were made from paint, adding vitality and relevance to the outdated images" (exhibitions).


I enjoy the economic style of the artist ( born in 1982, Belgrade, Serbia, he currently lives in Berlin, Germany). His images are somewhat spooky & sinister but fascinating. But let the pictures speak for themselves.

                                                                Futuristic Cars

As a bonus I add some "Car Drawings" by William A Hall. I found these works @ gallery Andrew Edlin on 212 Bowery  (edlingallery).

To be continued.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Culture: Wolves In The Throne Room @ Villain Brooklyn

(Drivebycuriosity) - I am a connoisseur of heavy metal. I really enjoy atmospheric rock music with very heavy riffs. Fortunately my wife shares this taste. Yesterday we went to Villain, a multi-purpose hall in Brooklyn New York to watch a performance by Wolves In The Throne Room. This was the second gig by the American black metal band we have seen. We discovered them @ the Psycho Las Vegas festival in August, a 3-day event which focused on black, doom, psychedelic & stoner metal  (driveby).

The concert was beautiful and wild. The stage was kept in very low light, partly lit by candles and often blurred by synthetic wafts of mist.  The band (3 guitars plus keyboards & percussion) created intense & hypnotizing atmospheric passages which suddenly turned into fierce explosions.

Massive base riffs culminated into annihilating assaults shaking the hall. The tsunamis of the sound got intensified by the roars of the two vocalists. It looked like that the "Wolves" attacked the civilization and ripped it apart.

The stage, the "Throne Room", looked like the heart of a medieval castle and intensified the experience. Thus the show made the impression of a Wagner opera projected into a sinister alternate world. It seemed that the audience was under their spell as I was. There was no moshing and stage diving, contrary the observers seemed to meditate to the seismic waves of the concert.

Thank you so much "Wolves" for this experience. Some day we might see you again!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Stock Market: The Trend Is Your Friend

(Drivebycuriosity) - Recently I found 2 info charts which are very helpful. So I write about them. The first chart shows the total return (stock gains plus dividends reinvested ) of the US stock market (represented by S&P 500  bloomberg). You could double your money if you had invested in 2007 @ the stock market peak before the huge downturn, in spite of recession & stock market crash of 2008.

The second chart displays the climb of the S&P 500 (without dividends) since 1950. On average the stock market gained 6.8% annually.

It is remarkable that the 10 years period (since 2007) brought about the same result (average annually gains of about 7%) as the long term trend. The 2008 crash didn´t change that. As both charts indicate, the stock market always snapped back after a sharp decline, erasing the losses. The trend is friend.

If you have some money which you don`t need immediately, say savings for retirement, you do well if you invest it into stock market by buying an index fund or an ETF on the S&P 500. You need some patience and some stamina to ride through the setbacks and crashes, but the reward is high.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Culture: What Is Art?

(Drivebycuriosity) - Recently New York`s Guggenheim Museum pulled three items from an upcoming exhibition called "Art and China after 1989" (artnews). These pieces contain a video showing dogs on treadmills trying to fight each other, an installation which displays living  cockroaches, live insects, amphibians, and reptiles as they fight and eat each other and a boar and a sow in the act of mating. The curators responded to protests form animal right groups and others. The Chinese activist Ai WeiWei didn´t like the pullback and complained that Guggenheim`s pullback harmed freedom of speech,  "that is tragic for a modern society" he claimed ( artnet). Really? Do dog fights, cockroaches and mating boars belong to freedom of speech? Are they really works of art?

WeiWei himself has a peculiar concept of art. He once destroyed a Hang Dynasty urn - a highly valuable object of historic art - and called this act of destruction an act of art! Later another artist smashed a vase created by Weiwei and the Chinese complained (cnn artstory). Yoko Ono once displayed a real green apple with the tag "Apple" in one of her exhibitions.  John Lennon took the fruit and bit a piece out of it.  Yoko wasn´t amused.

                                                      "I could Have Done That"?

Obviously there is no common sense about what is art. Especially modern art (mostly works created in the first half of the 20th century including Picasso, Kandinsky & Modigliani) and contemporary art (usually paintings & sculptures created past 1950) are controversial. Skeptics declare "I could have done it", but lovers of modern art reply "but, you didn`t". 

Bryan Caplan, a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, who belongs to the skeptics,  claims that "observers expect some artworks to be good - because they're in a museum: Believing is seeing" (econlog). He adds "when an artist achieves world-wide fame, our natural inclination is to attribute his success to aesthetic skill - and dismiss the possibility that he merely won a lottery". He also believes that many observers conform: "If you're in a museum where everyone around you claims soup cans are great art, mere consensus can plausibly change your mind for no good reason".

Caplan`s demurs have some merit. And he certainly explains the career of Ai WeiWei and like. Ai is a Chinese dissident and famous for his struggle against the Chinese government and he is political very active today. Many seem to share his political views and may therefore believe that WeiWei is very important and his actions must be art. But if political opposition is art then why not Brexit (decision against European centralization) and the Catalonia Referendum (vote against Spanish government)? 

Caplan´s colleague Scott Sumner replies to Caplan and indicates that different people have different tastes and he adds that the perception of art has been changing all the time and over the centuries (econlog cultural). The late work by the British painter J. M. W. Turner ( 1775 – 1851 above "The Slave Ship") "were originally viewed as ugly splotches of color  and Mozart once explained one of his more difficult works that "this is for future generations". I think contemporary art is just a segment of the general evolution in technology, sciences, economy & society.

A commentator mentioned: "In earlier years art was produced by a very small subset of the population, with poorer technology, and under the tutelage of more indifferent teachers. We now search the world for the people with the most innate talent, get them in front of the most skilled people in the world, and do this with orders of magnitudes more people than we did in the past". Another commentator wrote: "There is enough art out there to satisfy everyone's tastes. There is something for everyone". I agree with both.

I am a connoisseur of contemporary art and I often visit art galleries, museums & auction houses. I love Caravaggio, Hieronymus Bosch, Vermeer, Renoir and other classic masters as well but contemporary art is so fresh and there are so many surprises & discoveries. Contemporary art is continuously increasing the diversity and often the artists impress by new ideas. And sometimes they try to shock & provoke.

                                                  Unique View & Mastery

I remember the hypnotic beauty of Mark Rohtko`s paintings I saw in Los Angeles`Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) which reserves one room just for his work. They are an invitation to meditate (sorry, their spell works only when you in person   artsy).

I also recall the spell of Gerhard Richter`s (artsy) creations which I enjoyed @ Art Institute of Chicago and many other places.

I confess that I needed a lot time to like Francis Bacon (above his "Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971") and to acquire a taste for Joseph Beuys. Today they belong to my favorites besides Anselm Kiefer`s works (above on of his installations).  They all show an unique view & mastery and there is beauty in them.

But I am quite convinced that living cockroaches, fighting dogs & vase smashing don´t belong to art.

Books: What I Learned From A 1077 Page Churchill Biography

(Drivebycuriosity) - I just finished reading a Churchill biography with 1077 pages: "Churchill: A Life" by Martin Gilbert (amazon). What did I learn?  Everybody knows that Winston Churchill was one of the most important persons of the 20th century and an outstanding statesman. But he was much more, he also was a writer (who received the Nobel Price in Literature in 1953), painter, adventurer, innovator, warrior and much more.

Churchill was certainly privileged as the sun of a Lord who was a high ranking politician and member of an aristocratic family with plenty of money and connections to the highest places. But he could have wasted it all, as many other privileged did. Instead he dealt well with his birth advantages and made even much more of his assets, as this biography shows.

Churchill had a lot contemporary admirers, but enemies, enviers & skeptics as well.  One of his political colleagues - and skeptics -, UK Prime minister Stanley Baldwin, said "that when Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts - imagination, eloquence, industry, ability - and then came a fairy who said ´No one person has a right to so many gifts`, picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgement and wisdom. And that is why while we delight to listen to him in this House we do not take his advice". Churchill himself said once: "We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm".

Churchill was a dare devil and took high risks in war & in peace times. In his youth he seemed to be hungry to proof himself in military action and joined the Spanish army in the war against Cuban rebels, he fought in India & in Afghanistan, in Sudan against Dervishes (a forerunner of ISIS) and in South Africa against the Boers (descendants of Dutch colonists). In World War I he joined the French army, commanded a battalion and spend days in the trenches under the shelling of the German artillery. From the Sudan war he wrote to his mother "Nothing, not even the certain knowledge of approaching destruction, would make me turn back now, even if I could with honor. But I shall come back afterwards the wiser and the stronger for my gamble".

Even in peace time he took extreme risks. Before WW I he tried to acquire a flying license even though flying was highly dangerous in these times and 2 of his flight instructors got killed in the same planes he had used. Churchill`s reminds me of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: "What doesn´t kill me, will make me stronger".

                                                   The Key To National Prosperity

His political position can be described as liberal-conservative. He started a career in the Conservative Party (Tories) following the traditions of his family and class but he criticized the party leaders for the brutality of the British army in the war against the South African opponents (Buers) and their negligence of the the extreme poverty in the country. He was also a proponent for social reforms including unemployment insurance and State-aided pensions for widows and orphans.

He fought against the protectionist leaders of the Conservative Party who wanted to protect British industry with higher tariffs. Instead Churchill "defended the economic merits of Free Trade and open competition in the commercial markets of the world". He said "protection would raise prices and cause growing international tension, not only economic but political". When a correspondent insisted that the taxation of imported goods was the key to national prosperity, Churchill replied, "I would look to improvements in scientific and technical education, to light taxation, to pacific policy and to a stable and orderly state of society as the best means of stimulating the commercial prosperity of our country". 

For his political targets he was willing to sacrifice his early career, at least temporarily, and accepted to become isolated in the Conservative Party. He moved to the Liberal Party and accepted to sit on the opposition benches in the House of Commons from which he verbally attacked the British government setting him at odds with the Conservative world of his family and class.

Churchill`s individuality curbed his political career for many years. But in World War II he made a political comeback and became finally Prime Minister for the Tories (Conservative Party) because there was nobody who could match him and he was dearly needed as leader of the nation. He managed the British fight against Germany almost like a dictator but also with high personal commitment. He behaved almost self-sacrificing and in spite of growing health problems he spend many days & hours at sea and in the air for his travels in order to organize Britain`s war efforts and to persuade US president Roosevelt  to join the war as British ally. He had ambivalent feelings towards to his war ally  Stalin. He needed the dictator in the war against Germany but he also noticed Stalin´s despotism & terror and the growing danger to the West. US President Eisenhower noticed in the early 1950s "that there had not been any change in the Soviet policy of destroying the capitalist free world by all means, by force, by deceit or by lies" and "it was clear there had been no change since Lenin" (page 921) .             

                                                              Renaissance Man

Churchill was not only a politician. He was a kind of renaissance man with lots of interests & talents,  driven by curiosity. He traveled a lot and spend a good part of his life on trains, boats & planes which enhanced his intellectual horizon. And he was a visionary. Churchill believed in technological progress and promoted it. In 1912 he declared "now our machines (airplanes) are frail. One day they will be robust, and of value to our country". He impressed the pilots then that he wished "to learn their dangerous craft".   He also saw early the importance of submarines for military purposes, he was closely involved in the inception of the tank and a pioneer in the evolution of anti-aircraft defense. "From his early years, Churchill had an uncanny understanding and vision of the future unfolding of events", wrote his biographer.

Churchill showed early strong literary ambitions and used many occasions to develop his writing skills, spending a growing amount time for editing & refining his publications and became a gifted writer. Many newspapers & magazines published his letters & telegrams about his military experiences spiced with his & insights of the political situation which gave him an additional income.  He culminated his comments into a novel &  a lot of nonfiction books based on his experiences from wars & political life, including a four-volume history History of the English-Speaking Peoples published in the 1950s. Maybe this continuous writing process sharpened his mind and helped to shape Churchill into an outstanding person. His publications were widely read and might have helped his career against all political headwinds.

Churchill also had a strong affinity for painting. In World War I he surprised his fellow soldiers by installing an easel and painting the shelled neighborhood. Later he often used spare time & breaks to work on his paintings and he created a lot impressionist landscapes. "Painting absorbed the mental energies which would otherwise brood on politics".

I not only learned a lot about an outstanding person, Churchill`s  biography is also a valuable introduction into the global history in the first half of the 20th century. The book helps to understand how & why the global political landscape had changed in  5 decades. 

 "Churchill: A Life" is highly recommended!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Economics: Is OPEC Committing Suicide?

(Drivebycuriosity) - It looks like that OPEC is committing suicide. The cartel cut oil production in order to hike the price of oil. The production cuts are already hurting their economies. Saudi Arabia`s, the world largest oil producer, slipped back into a recession: Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, shrank 2.3% from the previous quarter in the April-June period, after dropping 3.8% in the first quarter  (bloomberg   reuters). Higher prices for oil weren`t enough to compensate for reduced oil production & exports.

The losses would make sense if OPEC could sell oil much dearer in the future. Saudi Arabia & other OPEC members have still huge oil reserves in the ground and they have to plan - and to manage - their oil production over many decades to come. This reminds me of a discussion I had with my doctoral thesis adviser after OPEC`s oil embargo in the 1970s (to punish the West for Israel`s victory in the Yom Kippur War). We agreed that OPEC has to decide what to do with their oil reserves. There are two options: They can sell their oil today and invest the proceeds in their non-oil economy and other assets like stocks & bonds (Norway did that later and started their Government Pension Fund, known as Norway´s oil fund) or keep the oil in the ground and sell it later. The second option makes sense if the expected oil price gains (the interest rate on oil in the ground) are higher than the interest rate they could earn in the markets today.

Things have changed since then. Oil has an uncertain future. China, the world's largest auto market, is working on a plan to ban the production and sale of vehicles powered solely by fossil fuels. Bejing has already announced that any automaker producing or importing more than 30,000 cars in China must ensure 10 percent of them are all-electric, plug-in hybrid, or hydrogen-powered by 2019. That number will rise to 12 percent in 2020 (cnn  bloomberg). Germany, France, UK and other countries want also get rid of fuel driven engines. So in some years the global demand for gasoline will shrink dramatically.

That´s bad for OPEC because crude oil is mainly used to produce gasoline. In some years the demand for gasoline will be replaced - at last to a large part -  by demand for electricity. The chart below shows that in the US oil is already irrelevant as power source for electricity production: Just one percent of the US electricity comes from petroleum.

It´s similar with heating (chart below: source Less than 20% of US households use oil for heating, the majority is heating with natural gas and electricity (produced mainly by coal & natural gas).

So, most of the oil - about 70% -  is used for transportation and just around 30% for petrochemical products ( energy).

After 2020 oil prices could fall well below $20 thanks to the shrinking gasoline demand. Saudi Arabia and other big producers, who are sitting on huge oil reserves that should last many decades, would be well advised to sell their oil now. The current production cuts may hike the price of oil temporary - that will only heat up the trend to electric cars. It seems OPEC is causing her own death.