Monday, March 31, 2014

Culture: Report On The Construction Of A Spaceship Module @New Museum, New York City

(Drivebycuriosity) -  Do you enjoy cutting edge art? Are you interested in new and provocative developments in the world of art? Then you might visit the New Museum on New York´s trendy Bowery (newmuseum).

As the name suggests, the place specializes in new and experimental art forms which are shown at alternate exhibitions. Yesterday I visited an exhibition called  “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module". The show runs through April 13th, 2014.



According to their website the installation "is inspired by the spacecraft in the iconic Czech science-fiction film Ikarie XB-1 (1963), which melded postwar utopianism with Soviet utilitarianism". I consider this as a smart marketing campaign. You won`t find a spaceship there, not even a model of that. They just shaped the entry and the exit of a small room like the doorways which you could see in movies like Stanley Kubrick`s "2001: A Space Odyssey".



But I found the exhibition entertaining anyway. You can see there a lot of works (videos, books, posters, sculptures) created by Eastern European artists who had interesting ideas.


And the museum has more: There is also an exhibition called "Paweł Althamer: The Neigbors" (also through April 13th) which displays sculptures by the Polish artist. Part of this show is a room where visitors can paint walls and ground as they like.



A visit at the "New Museum" is a perfect entertainment for a rainy Sunday afternoon (admission $16, students $10, seniors $14) and at Thursday´s nights, admission is free. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movies: Divergent

(Drivebycuriosity) - What do college girls dream of? The movie "Divergent" could give you an impression (imdb). The film is based on the first novel by Veronica Roth, who wrote the book on a winter break from college. The author, an engaged Christian, dreamed an alternative world, which looks like today`s Chicago, but is much poorer, without cars; and lake and river are drained, thanks to a devastating war in the past and climate change. This is called post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction, but many scenes and ideas reminded my of the TV series "Rome", which was set 2000 years in the past.

The protagonist is a fledging girl who chooses to join a militarist group with fascistic tendencies (when the leader tells you to jump, you jump blindly) which reminds a bit of a 1930s German youth organization called "Hitler Jugend". This leads to a lot of action (no spoilers here, you could find a synopsis here wikipedia). The film is about being an outsider, coming of age, developing a relationship with the other sex, social conflicts, political manipulation and more. But the philosophical, sociological and political ideas stand in the shadow of the action.



I enjoyed the images of a digitally rendered Chicago and some of the action scenes are really breath taking. Director Neil Burger, cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler and the whole team delivered fascinating pictures and blended scenes which classical Greek & Roman aspects with somewhat futuristic impressions.

I was enthralled by Maggi Q, even that she was just a supporting actor. Shailene Woodley, who has the leading part, did a passable job, but she is no match for Jennifer Lawrence, the top star of the competing "Hunger Games". I enjoyed seeing Kate Winslet as an ambitious politician and Jai Courtney, as a kind of fascist instructor, had also an impressing appearance. 

"Divergent" is a passable entertaining young adults movies, but the film lacks the humor and the goofiness of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and his 139 minutes running time are way too long.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Books: Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr - By Stephen Michael Shearer

(Drivebycuriosity) - Are you interested in the history of the cinema? Then you might enjoy the biography "Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr" by Stephen Michael Shearer (amazon).

The author describes life and career of a Hollywood star who`s light shined from the late 1930s through the 50s. Hedy Lamarr had an ambivalent personality. The Austria born actress wasn`t just a glamour girl, she also was highly sophisticated and super-smart. Hedy co-invented, "together with composer George Antheil, an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, which paved the way for today's wireless communications and which, upon its invention in 1941, was deemed so vital to national defense that government officials would not allow publication of its details" (wikipedia).

Hedy´s biography gives an impression how Hollywood functioned in the so-called golden age of cinema. Hedy, and other top actors, weren´t free, instead they were a kind of slaves because they had  tight contracts which bound them to the studios. Over many years Hedy Lamarr was a property of the studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). Studio boss Louis B. Mayer decided in which movies Hedy played and in which not. According to Shearer the actress was temporary neglected and underemployed because Mayer didn´t see her fit to some of his projects.

The book also gives a glance into the economy of movie making in those days. As today movies were just commercial products - like soap. The author describes Hedy`s relationships with Hollywood moguls like Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille, the director of her greatest hit "Samson and Deliah" who used her as an asset.

Shearer focuses on the movie business, describes Hedy´s films (with spoilers)  and elaborates about the star´s personal live (a lot of divorces and short time friendships). The  strengths of his book are the insights into the Hollywood machine of the 1940s and 50s; but her role as a co-inventor of one of the most important technological achievements of the last century went a bit under the radar.

"Beautiful…" is a fascinating portrait of a chatoyant personality and Hollywood`s golden years, but if you want to get a more complete picture of Hedy`s ambivalence you might supplement your reading with this Wikipedia article (wikipedia).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New York City: Billboards - Big Is Beautiful

(Drivebycuriosity) - New York City is awesome. As I visited the metropolis the first time I was stunned by the skyscrapers, by the traffic, the noise - and the huge billboards.





Advertising is the fundament of business and seems to be the elixir of such a capitalistic place. No wonder, that companies are investing huge sums to be visible here, even when the New Yorkers seem not to notice.




Anyway the huge photographic displays, which are frequently displaced by new advertisements, shape the city. Billboards are the makeup on New York City`s face. You could see them almost everywhere in Manhattan and often they are sexy and funny.





Here a collection of my favorites from the recent 3 years. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Economy/Stock Market: What We Could Learn From Mark Zuckerberg

(Drivebycuriosity) - There is a lot ado about the "new normal". Pessimists like the bond fund manager Bill Gross, who coined this infamous term, claim that we will experience decades of sluggish economic growth and alarmists like Henry Blodget, CEO of "Business Insider", allege that we will have many years of stagnation on the stock market.

But Mark Zuckerberg thinks otherwise. The CEO of Facebook is investing a lot of money in new technology companies. Yesterday he acquired Oculus, a maker of virtual reality headsets, for $2 billion. Last month, Facebook purchased WhatsApp, a supplier of messaging applications, for $19 billion.

These investments are a bet on the future. They demonstrate that Zuckerberg is optimistic and that he believes into the future of the economy, technology and the Internet. I agree. I think that we are in the beginning of a new industrial revolution driven by a rapid technological progress like advances in robotics, 3D-printing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering & Internet.

The world wide web is still in a explosive growth phase. The number of Internet users is rapidly climbing - especially in China and other emerging markets - thanks to devices like smartphones, tablets, e-book-readers and maybe soon by virtual reality headsets. The fast growing number of apps helps people to organize their lives better and is adding to the trend that Internet users are spending more and more time and money in the World Wide Web.


I believe that the dramatic growth of the Internet - and other technologies - is creating a tailwind for the whole economy because it creates new markets, helps companies to find new customers and reduces costs. Another tailwind for the global economy is coming from globalization and the catching-up process in China & Co. Both trends should bolster the growth of the world economy in the coming years.

Thus I think we could learn from Mark Zuckerberg and could see the global economy and the future more optimistic. We also could ignore skeptics like Gross & Blodget and continue investing into the stock market.




Sunday, March 23, 2014

Movies: Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

(Drivebycuriosity) - Lars von Trier maybe the most provocative movie director of our times. Films like "Antichrist" "Dogville" and "Breaking the Waves" gave the audience something to chew on. "Nymphomaniac" follows this tradition. The original five hours version got split in 2 pieces. Vol. I, which is now running in selected US movie theaters,  is a cut version (117 minutes) of the original 145 minutes (wikipedia).

The audience witnesses a dialogue between Jo, a woman in the early 40s, and an elderly man (imdb). She tells the story of her life and calls herself a nymphomaniac, meaning she`s addicted to sex and the intercourse with a lot of men. This gives way to a rich analytical discourse and offers a lot of philosophy - about pleasure and female sexuality of course, but also about coming of age, life in general, the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, the importance of Fibonacci Numbers and much more. This approach makes "Nymphomaniac" intellectual substantial, but the movie is also very fresh, powerful, thrilling and sometimes humorous. It seems that Lars von Trier delivered a hymn to joy but that he also offers a somewhat feministic view on the tricky relationships between females and males.

The film has a lot of graphic sex scenes which makes it a member of a small club of general audience explicit feature films together with Michael Winterbottom´s "9 Songs", Vincent Gallo`s "Brown Bunny", Catherine Breillat`s "Romance" and Virginie Despentes"Baise-moi". Some scenes were filmed with porn actors and then in post-production got digital imposed onto the bodies of the film's actors, which gives the film a kind of a documentary character (wikipedia).

Von Trier worked with an impressive cast. The still exquisite Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jo impressed me with her filigrane grace combined with fragility - a defining element of the movie (vulture.com). But the newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Jo, is the center of Vol. I. The French actress, who celebrated recently her 24rst birthday, is an eye candy - an object of desire - but also shows some strength and wilfulness.





Stellan Skarsgård, as Jo`s dialogue partner, plays a fatherly type and radiates a zen-like calmness. He`s character resembles a psychotherapist, a kind of mental healer or an empathetic priest and confessor.  It was nice to see Christian Slater again, who as Jo´s father gave a striking appearance.

Uma Thurman has a somewhat tragic-comical part and gives the film a kind of surrealistic aspect. Shia LaBeouf, one of the rising stars at Hollywood`s firmament, added also to the comical-surrealistic twists of the film.

The gorgeous cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro belongs to the strengths of the movie. Some of the split screen effects are helpful to understand the complexity of the movie and add to its artistic impression. The gorgeous soundtrack made "Nymphomaniac" even stronger (imdb). Von Trier combined the very powerful sound of Rammstein, a idiosyncratic German heavy metal group, with classical compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and others - pure genius.

I loved to watch this cinematic highlight and I am looking very much forward to see Vol. II which is expected for April.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Economy: Buddhist Economics - What We Could Learn From Ancient Asian Wisdom


(Drivebycuriosity) - The University of California in Berkeley offers a class in "Buddhist Economics" (berkeley.edu). I think this is an interesting idea. Yes, Buddhism is a nontheistic religion and stands for incarnation, Karma and the infinity of everything. But there is a lot of ancient Asian wisdom in it. And Buddhists are not out of this world. Some Buddhist monasteries - especially the Shaolin - developed the art of martial self defense. They are now masters in martial art and they are making money with it. And Zen, a Chinese/Japanese version of Buddhism, practices to stay calm and being relaxed, which is helpful in every situation.

Karma refers to the principle of causality: What you do today, will shape your situation in the future, in this life or in another. I guess the idea of sustainable economics is connected with the Karma concept: Avoid wasting commodities and don´t pollute if you don´t want to destroy your future.

There are some companies who behave in a kind of Buddhist way. Amazon`s CEO Jeff Bezos doesn`t care much about the now, he focuses on the future which might be years away. He doesn`t pursue short term profits and ignores the stock price, instead the company is investing into the satisfaction of their customers which should generate long term growth.

Google has a similar strategy. The company is investing in self-driving cars, Google glass and a lot other technologies which could play out in some years. Tesla, the producer of electric cars, and other companies do they same.

Stock market investors could also learn from the Buddhist. They could ignore the daily news and noise and focus on the long term. History shows the US stock market rises on average 7% annually, which creates a fortune for patient investors who can wait over decades.

Disclosure: I am an investor in Amazon.com

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stock Market: China - Bloating The Pessimism Bubble

(Drivebycuriosity) - This morning China`s stock market dropped on a five years low. From its peak of around 3,400 points in summer 2009 the Shanghai Composite, a gauge for the Chinese stock market, had been falling around 40%.

The weakness is a reflection of the growing China pessimism bubble. For years the sentiment for China stocks has been bleak. China bears have been continuously banging the "China crash drum" even that the country grew around 7.5% annually so far. Recently the pessimists got some tailwind because the latest export number had a surprisingly sharp drop and production & retail sales grew less than expected, but the numbers may be blurred because of the weeklong Chinese New Years celebrations in February. Today Goldman Sachs bloated the pessimism bubble and cut its growth forecast for China to 7.3% from 7.6% (bloomberg).

I recon that stock market weakness and the gloomy calls are too shortsighted. The China pessimists focus on the current situation and ignore the still bright perspectives of the country. China is rapidly transforming from a agriculture system into a modern consumer economy like  the U.S. and Western Europe.

Last weekend Beijing announced that they will invest more than 1 trillion yuan ($162 billion) redeveloping shantytowns this year (bloomberg). This is a part of their program to boost urban population to support growth. Other measures aim to speed up the construction of railways, expressways and airports to support the rapid urbanization. Yesterday the Chinese government declared that they want to speed up construction projects and “accelerate preliminary work and construction on key investment projects with timely assignment of budgeted funds”. According to Bloomberg this could be a response to the recent cooling signals and an attempt to secure the official growth target of 7.5% for this year (bloomberg). All these steps belong to a wide-ranging reform program which was announced last autumn (driveby).

The recently announced measures - and the whole reform program - should bolster domestic growth and make the country less dependable from erratic export markets. And the recovery in Europe and the ongoing strength of the US economy should deliver some tailwinds. Thus I believe that the pessimism bubble could burst soon and give way to a rally of the stock market in Shanghai.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Movies: The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Drivebycuriosity) - Wes Anderson is a brand name. The movie director has a reputation for hilarious & entertaining independent films full of surprises like "Moonrise Kingdom", "The Royal Tenenbaum" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Ziossu". I enjoyed his newest creation, "The Grand Budapest Hotel", which is now running in US cinema theaters, even more than the mentioned movies (imdb).

The film is set in a fictional European state in the 1930s. The plot (no spoilers here) focuses on the adventures of 2 people, a concierge and a lobby boy, both of a remote, mountainside hotel, the name giving "Grand Budapest Hotel" (you can find a synopsis - with spoilers here wikipedia). Anderson delivered again a hilarious kaleidoscope of funny and sometimes dramatical events and spices this with a lot of slap stick. Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman illustrated the narrative roller coaster with amazing pictures, I especially indulged in the images of the fictive hotel, a beauty by herself.

Anderson collected again an impressive cast. I had a lot of fun to follow Ralph Fiennes, as concierge, and the newcomer Tony Revolori as lobby boy. I also enjoyed the appearance of the exquisite Saoirse Ronan and of Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray ( a standard in Anderson`s movies), Edward Norton, William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law and the rest of the team.

Congratulations. With "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Wes Anderson expanded his brand name as maker of alternative comedies and icon of the independent movie scene. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Urbanism: Does New York City Need Higher Skyscrapers?

(Drivebycuriosity) - When you walk through New York City you can see a lot of construction sites. It looks like that new skyscrapers are popping up like mushrooms in autumn. There could come many more towers if a new proposal gets realized.

Nathan Newman, a New York lawyer, leads a campaign, called "More NYC" (huffingtonpost). He advocates a massive expansion of housing in New York City (slate). This would translate into more and higher residential skyscrapers.

In the east coast metropolis, as in the whole US, constructing, including the height of buildings, is regulated by zoning laws. Newman proposes a change of the existing zoning, called up-zoning. The city administration should permit the construction of higher buildings which would create a lot of new apartments. In return the city should charge an extra fee for the additional construction. The city also would earn income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes from all the new residents who will find a place in the new towers.

New York City could use the additional revenues to directly finance the construction of affordable housing units in other lower-cost areas of the city and to finance public services, writes Newman. A part of the additional city income could go to transit, educational and medical infrastructure in the City like buses, subways, schools and hospitals.

I believe that this is an interesting idea. And there is another advantage which I haven´t found in his proposal. As I had explained before more & higher skyscrapers would increase the supply of apartments in New York City and thus slow down the rise of the rents in the metropolis (driveby).

Rents are climbing because the demand for apartments is rising and New York City, especially Manhattan, has a limited supply of land. But skyscrapers offer a loophole. The higher they rise, the more apartments are available, without using more land. Another loophole is the use of the waste land which you still could find along East River and Hudson. Therefore building more and higher skyscrapers would create a lot of new rental places which should keep the rents at bay.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Stock Market: Why Short Selling Should Be Illegal

(Drivebycuriosity) - For years I had the belief that short sellers do a lot of harm to the economy, but I didn`t find much proof for that yet. This changed with a recent article in the New York Times. They write about William A. Ackman, a hedge fund billionaire ("After Big Bet, Hedge Fund Pulls the Levers of Power" (nytimes). The CEO of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management is betting big against Herbalife, a producer and seller of nutritional supplements traded on Wall Street.

Ackman tries to make a huge profit by short selling Herbalife stocks: Short sellers borrow stocks from a broker and sell the shares immediately (going short or shorting) in the hope that stock prices will fall and then they could buy back these stocks for much less. In December 2012 the hedge fund manager revealed that he had shorted massively stocks of Herbalife (value $1 billion) and then started bad-mouthing the firm. Since then he is accusing the company to administer "a pyramid scheme" and claims "that the company relies primarily on pushing products to its recruited sales staff for its profits, rather than sales to retail customers and outlets" (dealbook). Ackman’s staff acknowledges that this crusade is really rooted in one goal: finding a way to undermine public confidence in Herbalife.



To bring the stock down Ackman did not just use his huge reputation as a billionaire hedge fund manager - there is cult around short sellers like Ackman (dealbook): "His team has helped organize protests, news conferences and letter-writing campaigns in California, Nevada, Connecticut, New York and Illinois, against his victim - although several of the people who signed the letters to state and federal officials say they do not remember sending them" (nytimes). Ackman also pulled the political puppet strings, acccording to the New York Times. He announced that Representative Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat of California, had sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation of the company even that the FTC hadn`t stamped the receipt of the letter yet. But not enough: Mr. Ackman’s firm hired the lobbyist Larry Rasky, who was an aide to Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, when Mr. Markey was a member of the House. Another lobbyist, Malcolm Grace, is a former aide to Ms. Sánchez. Ackman’s efforts bore fruit on Jan. 23, when Senator Markey’s office, which Ackman had lobbied himself and which had been provided with detailed information about Herbalife by Ackman’s team, sent letters to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C., an US government agency for enforcing securities laws) and Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C, a US government organization for consumer protection)., calling for investigations of the company, writes the New York Times.

So far,  Ackman has persuaded four members of Congress, a New York State senator, a City Council member in Boston, the majority leader of the Nevada Senate and other elected officials in California to join the cause. Prominent consumer advocates in Washington, as well as leaders of well-respected Hispanic and African-American community groups who have been lobbied by Ackman’s team, have also written regulators demanding action.



Recently Ackman got what he wanted: The SEC started an investigation and the stock dropped. As you can see in the chart above, the stock had peaked in spring 2012 and dropped before and after Ackman´s shorting announcement end of 2012 (google). It recovered most of the losses in 2013, but started falling again after senator Markey’s letter and the begin of the S.E.C. investigation.

Ackman isn´t alone. Many hedge fund managers like Jim Chanos, David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and others practice massive short selling. The Wall Street firm Muddy Waters even is specialized on shorting. Last autumn Carson Block, their founder, attacked NQ Mobile Inc. (NQ), a Beijing-based mobile services provider (bloomberg). The stock lost temporary half its value after Block said on Oct. 24 that it fabricated revenue and lied about its cash. Since then NQ recovered most of its values because Muddy Waters couldn´t prove their allegations (google).



Casino Royale?


All short sellers benefit from falling stock prices. Thus they have a natural interest that the business of the shorted company fails. Ackman openly goes for a bankrupt of Herbalife and he uses his power to bring the stock down. In the James Bond movie "Casino Royale" the villain, named "Le Chiffre", shorted stocks of an airline and then ordered an assassin to bomb a valuable new plane in order to destroy the whole company. This is just fiction, but gives an idea how short sellers could work. Even when short sellers do nothing illegal they can inflict a lot harm by spreading  rumors and allegations which can ruin the reputation of a company and thus irritate customers, creditors, investors and employes and so inflict damage on the company.

The harm done gets worse when herding behavior comes into play. Ackman and others try to persuade other hedge fund managers to join their attack. When they are successful their collective shorting could put the stock under severe pressure and irritate other stockholders and maybe induce a chain reaction.



In the recession of 2008 and early 2009 short selling was a viable business model. Herds of hedge funds and other speculators were betting on a meltdown of the market. Massive shorting enhanced the fall of the stock market, created panic and downward spirals for almost any stock on the market. After the fall of Lehman Brothers, the weakest of the financial firms, herds of short sellers attacked everybody who seemed vulnerable. Thus the stock market got into a downward spiral which paralyzed the whole economy. Companies ceased investing & hiring, the recession was on the brink to turn into a disaster like the great depression of the 1930s. Only with a temporary ban of shorting and massive cash injections of Bernanke´s Federal Reserve Bank the dangerous short selling avalange could be stopped.





Friday, March 14, 2014

Culture: Street Art - What`s Going On In Lower Manhattan?


(Drivebycuriosity) - It seems New York City is a museum for street art, especially Lower Manhattan (East Village, Lower East Side, Soho). There is always something going on.





Almost on any day somewhere a  new mural or another incarnation of street art pops up. Often older artworks get substituted by newer images.


Here a collection of "newcomers". Let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy.