Money makes the world go round: A blog about the business and culture of all things entertaining in the world of theater, television, film, music, art, gadgets, gizmos and other life necessities (and probably other things, knowing myself)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Devil Boys: A breakup over money issues

With a plastic cup of cabernet sauvignon in my hand, I couldn’t remember another time I laughed so hard on a Friday night, alone. Well, I wasn’t technically alone since I was sitting in a dimly lit room with, say, thirty other people.

But it WAS a Friday night and I had traveled to midtown’s New World Stages to witness the wackiness circulating the off-Broadway play “Devil Boys from Beyond.”


The hilarious script made its public debut during the previous year’s New York International Fringe Festival and broke box office records, despite limited stage props and an inability to pay their talents. But the funny lines and chemistry between those involved kept the show sold out every night as people lined the streets to witness the success of a low budget production.

Then, Buddy Thomas took his science-fiction spoof and collaborated with Kenneth Elliott to produce an even more bizarre script.

Despite a stomach-clenching comedic act that was fresh, unique and everything else you wanted in a performance, the play ended nearly three weeks early for one main reason: money.

Devil Boys’ budget was set at a standard (in regards to off-Broadway productions) $100,000 but when the show didn’t instantly take off and expenses kept racking up as the weeks continued, the show came to an abrupt end before its time was up.

When I heard of the news, I was heartbroken. Honestly, the play made me laugh, cry and think. But aside from the storyline...it was the chemistry…I could feel the chemistry from my seat in the audience. And if there wasn’t chemistry behind the curtains, well, the actors certainly knew how to pretend there was when the spotlight hit them.

“Simply to me, that’s what theater is all about – connecting the actors to the audience,” said Elliott, director and co-author. “It’s how I got my start…doing shows in clubs in the East Village when I moved to New York.”

Elliott talked about the good ol’ days when he was involved in plays like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and the whole performance was acted out in front of a backdrop in some dark club.

With all that said, you must be prepared for operating preview losses associated with off-Broadway productions, Elliott explained.

“Usually it takes a few weeks where there are previews that you have to pay for,” he said. “Advertising is extremely expensive...contingency funds… in most theater budgets, there are significant items needed in capitalization.”
 
With all the attention that a big money production can receive before its art is even shared with the world, the low budget entertainment industry – the “underdog” of show business – must take on creative endeavors to fight against the big money.

“When the script and the cast is right, it doesn’t matter how much money is put into the play, it’s good,” said Jeff Riberdy, a casted alien in the out-of-this-world 'Devil Boys.’ “But in order to make the big bucks, you have to go Broadway… it’s just the place to be for the money.” 

Top Secret: Facebook Takes Over with New...Phone??


Following Apple's footsteps, word is out that Facebook is building the software and working with a third party to produce the hardware for a new phone.

 

Currently the number one Web site in the United States (with Google coming in a close second), Facebook has reasons to feel threatened and left behind by the power held by the iPhone and Android. Less than a year ago, news circulated that Google was working on a phone which we now know is the Nexus One. It won't be surprising if Facebook will have their own phone by next year. 

And why shouldn't they? Why stay an app when you can etch your name on the entire software? In other words, why rent when you can own? Zuckerberg, the youngest self-made billionaire to-date, has reasons to feel owning a mere app on a smartphone isn't going to cut it in long-term competition.  

So what's the phone going to look like? Is it going to be blue? The phone could come out in a number of styles and appearances, but the bottom line here is price. And who's going to buy it?

I'd say, most likely, the phone will be cheap...probably dirt cheap...cheap enough so that more people can afford to buy it. Facebook is free to the public and now it's the number one Web site so why shouldn't the phone be affordable and be the number one phone?

Two upper-level employees - Joe Hewitt and Matthew Papakipos - are said to be working on the top secret project. Creating all of Facebook's iPhone web applications and formerly assisting to create the Firefox browser, Hewitt is qualified to work on a new software for a top secret phone. On the same scale, Papakipos is equally qualified as the recent lead developer of the Google Chrome OS project. Interestingly enough, Papakipos left this past June before the project was finished, most likely, for a more "exciting" project speculated to be - that's right - the new Facebook phone. 

Officially the word isn’t out yet and we don’t know when the secret launch date will be. And how the Facebook geniuses will integrate Facebook into the phone will, well, be another blog post. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Race to Dominate Television Market



First, we saw newspapers across the country frantically come up with innovative alterations to stay afloat financially and now online options are blurring the lines for another traditional medium: television.

As online services offer more flexibility in scheduling and prices, the race in the home television market no longer is the playing field merely between cable and satellite television. Among the most popular competitors include Netflix, Hulu and even Microsoft. 

Netflix recently acquired new deals with NBC Universal, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros to cast their footsteps on the video streaming market. The Los Gatos, California-based company offers a $7.99 per month option allowing subscribers to watch unlimited television episodes and movies streamed into a computer or television set.

To officially shift their focus from DVD rentals to primarily video streaming, Netflix has raised prices on their DVD rental plans, increasing prices by $1 on their two most popular plans: the one and two-DVD rental at-a-time option.

Netflix experienced their fourth consecutive quarter of acquiring more than one million additional subscribers and shares have increased by 200 percent since the beginning of the year.

The company reported a net income of $37,967 million, or $0.70 per diluted share, at the end of their third fiscal quarter ending on September 30, 2010. The numbers represented a significant growth in the company compared to a net income of $30,141 million, or $0.52 per diluted share, from the same quarter of the previous year.

Netflix ended the third quarter with approximately 16,933,000 total subscribers, a 52 percent growth compared to 2009.

Similar to Netflix being fundamentally known as the internet movie provider, Hulu Plus is known as the internet television provider and their new $10 per month option offers subscribers the ability to watch episodes from current and past popular television series on ABC, NBC and Fox.

Even the world’s largest software company – Microsoft – can’t keep away from the enticing market; its latest move uses the Xbox game console’s internet and streaming capabilities for access to CBS, ESPN, CNN and Fox. With 25 million subscribers worldwide, Xbox Live currently has more subscribers than Comcast.

The race to be the first to successfully place software in television sets across America has hit cable service providers hard. Between July and September of this year, Time Warner Cable experienced a loss of 155,000 subscribers, a 41.3 percent increase compared to a loss of 64,000 subscribers during the same period the previous year.

During the third quarter of this year, U.S. cable companies experienced the largest decline since 1980 with the loss of 741,000 basic subscribers, according to research by SNL Kagan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Show Me Your Undies...er...Indies

So here's another “underdog” entertainment business story...

Indieflix, an online independent film distribution company, made headlines in September when they launched Film Festival in a Box (FFB), a game the size of a pizza box, also used as a distribution platform, in Times Square. In each cardboard box, four films are strategically placed in versions, such as Comedies, Pottymouth Comedies, and Powered by Girls
After players watch the four films, they can vote online for their favorites and the chosen filmmakers are eligible for monetary prizes.  The physical box can be purchased through Indieflix’s Web site or a small number of boutique stores for $14.99.

Indieflix started in 2004 when Scilla Andreen set out to create a fair distribution option for independent filmmakers, specifically the “little guys,” while working as a costume designer on the set of “The Wonder Years.” More importantly, Andreen wanted to expose and create awareness for low budget films to the community. 

“It’s about getting people physically together,” said Alex Bush, programmer and executive assistant to Andreen. “People have an idea of what they think indie films is…it’s like ‘put on your turtle neck and lets go cry for an hour.’ ”

“But watching indie films doesn’t have to be a dark and sad experience.”

Eventually, Indieflix hopes to move towards being entirely digital.

In the past decade, more people are able to make films and tell their stories with cheaper camera and editing software costs. But as film production becomes more accessible, with so many films, it is more difficult for every film to find an audience, said marketing manager of a New York City's film company

“The simple fact is, some films break through and some films do not,” he said.
 
Every low-budget indie film I have ever watched – with the exception of one or two – there is always some morbid underlying message and I am embarked with reactions of “Geez, what the heck is going on?” or “That was kind of gross” but I'll take Bush's expertise above and try it again. Perhaps indie films can be a joyful experience. Either way, you can't help but cheer on the underdogs here. Let's hope FFB takes off fast and stays high.

Glorious Italian Renaissance Days No More

Imagine 250,000 culture and arts employees so angry that they abandon their jobs to join a 24-hour strike, leaving movie theaters, film/television sets, opera houses and concert venues vacant and shut down.

Earlier this week, the scenario above became a reality as Italian workers marched from their businesses to protest the government’s culture spending cuts to its lowest level in 20 years. Silvio Berlusconi’s 2011 Budget Law reduced the country’s single arts fund, FUS, to €300 million ($416 million), approximately €200 million less than where it stood three years prior. 

Raphael's famous The School of Athens, or Scuola di Atene

Last month, more than 1,000 actors, director and producers disrupted the International Rome Film Festival at Rome’s Auditorium Parco Della Musica to protest against budget cuts.

Despite union strikes and tension, Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi refuses to back down on spending cuts and the government is pushing to slash the budget even sooner – three weeks earlier than usual. Instead, the budget vote will be scheduled four days before the confidence vote for Berlusconi. If he loses, he will have to resign and more money could possibly be added to the FUS budget by a new government. The culture minister has a confidence vote of his own scheduled Nov. 29 in which he will also have to step down if he doesn’t receive a majority nod from parliament.   

I say, c'mon! They gave us Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael ... a major international contributor to the art world, the Italians' reactions imply something much deeper is being taken away than merely money. Currently, the country's FUS is far more restricting than funds in Germany and France.  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yet another Wall Street lawsuit



I know, I know...this doesn't have anything to do with entertainment unless you view it as entertaining to watch...another lawsuit has been filed against JP Morgan with co-defendant HSBC on their side:

JP Morgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) and HSBC Securities Inc. (NYSE: HBC) face allegations of manipulating the silver futures and options market and violating the Commodity Exchange Act and the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Filed on behalf of Carl Loeb, an independent investor, by litigation firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, the lawsuit accuses JP Morgan and London-based HSBC of manipulating the silver futures market by naked short selling a considerable amount of silver futures contracts, but not intending on delivering the futures by its “expiration” date. 

According to the complaint, JP Morgan accumulated substantial short positions, or contracts to sell an asset, in silver futures when they acquired rival investment bank Bear Stearns in 2008. In the following months, JP Morgan and HSBC owned more than 85 percent of the short positions in the market of silver futures contracts.   

In the short period of time, these companies have made $100 million off the activity,” said Sean Matt, co-counsel and partner at Seattle-based Hagens Berman, in a conference call with New York University students. “It’s a very large damage case the farther you go out…like you throw a pebble in a lake and you actually see energy from that pebble and the waves span out from where that pebble is dropped.”
The lawsuit alleges that the two giant investment and security firms colluded to flood the Commodity Exchange, or "COMEX," with a substantial amount of futures contracts in a given time to force prices to rapidly decline. 

“The top four largest traders in silver futures own about 20-45 percent of the annual silver market so I highly doubt [JP Morgan and HSBC] own anywhere near the positions they hold,” Matt said. “If they don’t own enough, they cover it and close out the contracts by doing the opposite.”
In the late 1970s, Nelson and William Hunt lost their billionaire fortune after the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) found the brothers guilty of conspiring to manipulate and monopolize the silver market, committing fraud and racketeering and violating antitrust laws. To date, there have been twenty-two similar lawsuits filed in New York’s Southern District Court, but issues still arise as to the question of manipulation: when is it legally manipulation?

“If people believe there is no collusion between market participants, their view of the market participants is skewed,” said Itamar Dreschler, assistant professor of finance at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. 

To determine manipulation, the CFTC use a four-part test: First, does the defendant have the ability to influence market prices? Second, Did the defendant specifically intend to do so? Third, does artificial prices exist? Lastly, Has the defendant caused an artificial price to occur?
“In most commodity markets, there are position limits such that this cannot happen…there are limits on the amount of short positions you can amass…not so for silver, gold and copper,” Matt said. “I have read that people believe to reform the market, part of what they need to do is put in position limits.”

“We hope on behalf of our clients that it [the impact of case] will lead to a market free of manipulation…that will likely involve the price of silver going up, I suspect.”

To be honest, I am still pretty confused about the process of naked short selling of futures and options. If "manipulating" the silver market push the price down, it will eventually bring the price up again. So where is the big payoff in the end for the accused? But I guess it doesn't take an investment banker to understand that eventually, a bubble WILL burst if you continue to short items you can't deliver.  I mean, there was a case where a trader was prosecuted after cornering merely 5 percent of the market. I guess all we can do is wait and see what will come out of yet ANOTHER Wall street case.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Broadway or Please Try Again


With so many talents, so many choices and so many hardworking people, to make it anywhere nowadays, you have to make it BIG. To be honest, who can afford greatness if it doesn’t pay?

And sadly, this is most true of the arts.

In today’s society, the theater pros know that if a play is ever going to have half a chance of making it, it’s got to make it on Broadway.  Yes, most of us are romantics and we want to believe that the passion, the fuel, the drive is going to make up for the lack of money, but to be frank, the passion, the fuel, the drive is going to realistically pay your bills for about as long as you can work that extra part-time, nighttime job.

When I first moved to the city, my roommate took me to a tiny, Off Broadway show hosted by The Acting Company. The storyline was amazing, the actors were talented and the audience was fascinated. After the lights came on, I sat there playing the minute details over and over again in my head, wondering what they could all mean and how they transcended into my life. It was a deep sense of enlightenment that you hope to gain after a movie, a poem, a story, a song. A wonderful sensation that could make you feel empty or satisfied, depending on the intentions of the producer/screenwriter/author.

But despite how wonderful that play was, I doubt it would ever see Broadway in the near future. Not enough bright lights for the big city, I guess. In our time, Broadway needs big stars, over the top sets and perilous stunts in order to rake in the big Benjamins.

Take the anticipated “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the most expensive Broadway show ever made with an estimated budget of $60 million. Opening day for the show has recently been delayed again due to incomplete safety inspections from the New York State Department of Labor.

The theatrical musical directed by Tony Award winner Julie Taymor, most known for “The Lion King,” shut down productions for months in 2009 after not having enough funds to continue the show, which was estimated to cost $40 million at the time.

I understand that people expect a big show after spending a handsome sum on tickets, but what bothers me is that you might not have a chance if you’re not inclined to go the mainstream route. Some of the most talented people in the world are involved in Off Broadway plays and low-budget films. Most of them seek nothing more than to generate some kind of idea, thought, meaning to the public.

And does Broadway really mean that you’ve made it? I guess the answer depends on what your meaning of “making it” truly is. If it means falling asleep during a Broadway production – as my roommate and her friend did while watching “A Life in the Theater” – then no, I do not take that as “making it.”

But the question remains: why does it always have to be all or nothing? Or in this case, why is it always Broadway or “Sorry, you didn’t have enough aerial maneuvers in this one. Please try again.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bravo to Baghdadiya

For me, the Middle East has always been a mysterious, struggling place and people. So many cultures. So many beliefs. So many views. And all in such close proximity to one another. Its rapid changes and complexities is what keeps us all guessing.
 
So when I read about Baghdadiya, I thought, “Bravo.”



Baghdadiya is a satellite channel best known for its infamous reporter Muntader al-Zaidi, or the guy who threw his shoe at former President George W. Bush in 2008. The channel broadcasts from Cairo and is notoriously known for controversial programs, even hosting a morning program that allows for viewers to share their criticisms of the government. The channel is as opposite to censorship as the Middle East, or perhaps any region, can possibly achieve.

But this past week, it all ended and a banner hung from the empty studio: “The Closing of Baghdadiya is a Funeral for Democracy.”

On All Hallows Eve, government officials arrested two of Baghdadiya’s employees on allegations that they were working with terrorists. The officials then forced everyone to vacate and closed the studio.

Juma Hilfi, media adviser to Baghdad’s licensing commission, ordered the arrests and claimed the station violated regulations governed by the Communications and Media Commission, specifically mentioning a show when the channel played pranks on actors by having fake security officials find bombs in their vehicles and then question them on suspicions of terroristic involvement.

In America, this is known as a parody, a protected form of speech. It is imperative that we are all thinking about certain issues - even intertwined with humor -that affect our lives and futures. Bluntly stating something is too harsh for some, but when the same message is shared in a parody, it opens up our minds to think, “hmmm…”

Again, I say one thing to Baghdadiya: Bravo! It is not so much that I support everything they report or their views, but that I applaud them for stepping out and opening doors to the future in such a turmoil state. Bravo for being different and speaking your mind. Bravo for breaking the silence.

Let’s hope that the recent shut down of the station will cause others in the region to second guess censorship regulations currently practiced. The long road to freedom still lies ahead and the Middle East has a long way to go, but Baghdad is on her way.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Revolutionary musical steps in Vietnam

In many countries - fortunately - creative disciplines such as music, fashion and art have had a long-standing history so it is welcoming for students to follow in the footsteps of those who came before them. But imagine going to school and not having a standard academic discipline to adhere to.

School systems in Vietnam have not quite caught up with the country’s breakthrough into international mainstream and students are forced to learn on their own – researching and discovering their idols and coming up with new ideas.

The lack of resources and support from school may initially be a halt but in a sense, Vietnamese youngsters are truly blank slates. They are given markers and pens and its up to them to make up their own rules, their own fashion, their own paths to greatness. 

More exciting news: recently, the first television channel and Web site dedicated to urban music has been launched in the fast-changing country. Jennifer Ravolet, creative director at Yan TV, traveled from France to tell the story about the beginning of a new chapter in Vietnam’s media world.

Music television and Web sites make up huge industries almost everywhere else in the world; it’s exciting that something with such successful roots in other places is finally having its “first” in Vietnam. 

Aside from music videos and entertainment news, Ravolet will try to spread cultural values and establish a strong brand and identity for Yan TV.

Vietnam’s Web site dedicated to music (www.vnclubbersguide.com.vn) features news and international trends and names in the industry.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A New Kind of Reality


America is fascinated by reality television as much as we are obsessed with our celebrities. We are enticed by how the other half lives, whether they’re the crème de la crème or slums of the earth.  We want to let go of our own struggles and troubles and be a part of other people’s woes and dramas.

Now, aside from watching how the worst housewives behave or socialites spend their money across the continent, viewers can tune in to another kind of reality show that may hit a little too close to home.

Responding to the country’s economic conditions, reality shows like “Downsized,” “The Fairy Jobmother,” “Outsourced” and “Raising Hope” document the nature of how the economy has affected American families. Of course, we must remember that they are reality shows and can only portray “reality” to an extent, although we applaud them for trying.

Lifetime’s “The Fairy Jobmother” is probably the most fictitious out of the above mentioned economic derived reality shows, centering around British “expert” consultant Hayley Taylor, who announced to the public, “It’s time to get America back to work!”

There is a new struggling family every episode and Taylor helps them change their financial luck, but the idea of a foreigner aiding Americans back on their feet can be hard for some to accept. And of course, unlike the real reality, the families on the show are offered jobs and new prospects at the end of each episode.

The WE TV’s “Downsized,” is a tad more realistic, surrounding a Brady-like Arizona family with seven children. When the Bruce couple married, their kids were teenagers and the blended family enjoyed some good times with Todd’s thriving construction company. Unfortunately, the real-estate crisis hit right in their home and the family’s two properties foreclosed while they struggled to make credit card and rent payments. The children also help out, selling their possessions and collecting aluminum cans and glassed bottles for extra change.

Reality television provides an escape route out of our real lives, but networks are taking a new move to show the world what is essentially on the country’s mind at the moment: the economy.  Reality shows “Outsourced” and “Raising Hope” also focus on foreclosures and unemployment.  Get ready – you might not be laughing or sneering at the characters, but at least you’ll be rooting for them. But then again, we rooted for Jon and Kate and look what happened there.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hustler traits needed during economic difficulties


Striving to become an entrepreneur during an economic downturn might not be the easiest thing to accomplish, but Michelle Slonim is determined to be a consistently working entertainer while setting up Jewish singles throughout New York City.

Slonim’s love for Jewish theater and playing Cupid have combined to result in a quirky solution for producing an off-broadway play, despite not having a handful of available
funds.

The “Date My Jewish Friend” play, which Slonim is set to act and produce in, will be funded by a party by the same name. For the mixer version, attendants are required to bring a friend of the opposite sex and basically, pimp one another out.

Six actors will take note and act out various improv scenarios from a typical singles party. After four weeks, the rehearsals will be recorded, transcribed and produced into a script for the show at an off-broadway cabaret venue.

To truly understand Slonim’s fascination with not only Jewish theater but also Jewish people, one must watch her video parody of the popular “Shoes” video where instead of searching for the perfect shoes, the character is on a search for Jews, repeatedly stating, “Jews…oh my god Jews…let’s get some Jews.”

“My ideas come naturally or at least natural for my brain sequence,” Slonim said. “I was in an entertainment lecture with some good looking writers and all of a sudden I had the idea I should throw a date my friend not in the industry party."

“Its logical to me, at least.”

Slonim, a native New Yorker, decided to leave the city after high school to pave her own way and headed to the University of Michigan to study Spanish and theater.

“In high school, I loved acting and soccer,” Slonim said. “Figured I wasn’t going to go pro with soccer so that ended and I pursued acting.”

After Michigan, Slonim headed to Latin America to pursue her theater career before landing her debut as a leading female comedic actress in a Florida production of “Jewtopia.”

Since returning to the city, Slonim has worked for comedy web-shows, such as HBO.com, Comedy Central.com and Conde Nash. She calls herself a “hustler” as the former associate producer of 24-hour plays on Broadway and Musicals, a non-profit teaching artist, a real-estate license holder and founding member of the improv troupe Hebrew School Dropouts.

Before Oxygen television network became a part of ABC, Slonim was a semi-finalist to star and produce in a show called “The Michelle Slonim Show: In the Mix” centered around the comedic actress’ ability to play different guys she’s dated in the past.

“The experience was great for me,” she said. “For the first time, I created something
instead of just going to auditions.”

Maggie Blumer, an actress and newcomer in New York City, met Slonim at a restaurant in
lower Manhattan where the comedic actress approached her about being a part of
an upcoming project.

“I respect Michelle’s resilient and self-promoting characteristics inside a business
that shields itself from new comers,” Blumer said. “The paid jobs are scarce and
successful vision is hard to come by.”


For more information, visit: http://www.datemyjewishfriendplay.com/ 
  

An imperfect reporting world

After publicly commenting on a Fox News broadcast that people in “Muslim garb” on a plane made him nervous, NPR terminated its longtime contract with Juan Williams, stating he had “undermined his credibility as a news analyst.” Williams didn’t have much time to mourn as a $2 million opportunity from Fox soon came knocking.

For their decision, NPR explained that Williams’ contributions to programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” violated the public radio organization’s code that journalists “should not express views” in other outlets that “they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.”

Williams’ ax from his employer ensued some mayhem as conservatives became concerned that the “public” module associated with NPR should deny the station the tendency to sway left. Last week, some Republican congressmen argued in favor of a revocation of NPR's federal funding.

Newt Gringrich, a former House Speaker and paid Fox commentator, said NPR’s decision is “an act of total censorship” and urged the U.S. Congress to “investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money.”

Formerly known as National Public Radio, NPR was created thirty years ago by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the same organization responsible for creating Public Broadcasting Services.  The idea was to have news outlets for the public without underlying obligations to giant corporations, which now, some argue, is the government in this specific case.

Despite sharp criticism, Chief Executive Officer Vivian Schiller sticks by NPR’s decision and denied directly receiving any funding from the federal government. NPR financed much of their $161.8 million operation through contributions from listeners, grants from sources funded by the federal government and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which receives money from taxpayers.

If anyone has ever had the opportunity to listen to NPR, it is as unbiased as a news outlet can possibly get nowadays with neutral tones and direct reporting. I can turn NPR on in the mornings, afternoons or listen via web to their segments without the run around of "who thinks what" and "what so-so had for breakfast." My life doesn't allow me the luxury to sit around and wait for a news program to actually get to news so NPR has been life-changing; for me, at least.

It's bothersome that some can be so criticizing of a company's decision to let go of an employee who just didn't follow the rules. Say, if a teacher made certain public statements after her work hours, would this action not somehow affect her employment status? Of course it would. I understand the argument - What I do in my free time has nothing to do with my ability to maintain and perform well in my job, right? This may be true, but the fact is, we all understand what's fair and what's not, but we also understand the rules.

And if WE understand the rules, I can assure you Mr. Juan Williams does too. He understood his contract with NPR and the codes he had to follow to be part of the elite journalism team. 

In my opinion, perhaps he wanted an out to his NPR contract to secure a better fit with Fox News. Whatever the hidden reasons are, arguing that NPR has "censored" Williams is outrageous; it was solely his decision to enter into a contract with NPR and solely his decision to leave it.

It is also disheartening that some argue NPR is so skewed left, they should not receive any form of government funding.  The same way it is impossible for a judge to leave all of his political associations when the judicial robe comes on, it is also hard for reporters to leave all of their opinions at the door.

But listen to NPR and one will understand: it is not entertaining or is it controversial. The news programs are announced as if the reporters are reading it directly from an actual news article. Rarely do you even hear pitches in the reporting. Admit it or not, NPR is as perfect as we can get in this imperfect reporting world. In my opinion, at least.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Xin Chao Vietnam


Similar to most developing countries, Vietnam’s economy is a fascinating, not to mention, an unpredictable one to keep an eye on. 

After the Vietnam war, the Southeast Asian country suffered a traumatizing blow to its financial system and the country lived mainly off its agriculture industry, also known as wet rice farming.  Its new communist government set up an undemocratic economic system and kept the country’s standard of living relatively low.

For its shift to communism, the United States and parts of Europe refused to trade with Vietnam until recently. Today, Vietnam has one of the world’s fastest growing economy and GDP growth, but this could be closely related to the vast differences in Vietnam shortly after the war up until the 90s. 



Compared to how little Vietnam had before, the country has improved much, becoming the world's largest producer of cashew nuts and black pepper and third largest oil producer in Southeast Asia. Its tech industry has also been developing at an incredibly rapid rate. 

According to Goldman-Sach’s, Vietnam’s economy is expected to become the 17th largest in the world by 2025 and PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted Vietnam may attain an economy 70 percent the size of the United Kingdom by 2050.

With a new financial system and emerging economy, the fast-changing country makes itself almost irresistible to foreigners who are intrigued by how much the once-impoverished country really has altered herself.

So here’s another reason to visit:

Vietnam plans to allure tourists to its scenic realm with Xin Chao (Hello), a combination of circus-like dance and martial arts performances, opening December 5 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Incorporating a similar model to Singapore’s Voyage de la vie, Thailand’s Siam Niramit, and Canada’s Cirque du soleil, the dance acts will showcase 50 artists performing on District 1’s Pham Ngu Lao Street.

Producer Laura Burke and Augustus Greaves, managing director and producer, hopes audience members will not only take away the country’s dance art through Xin Chao’s performances, but also absorb the history and culture that is so often exuded in passionate and involving arts.

I am always amazed when witnessing art from regions where silence and secrecy are typically encouraged and even expected. Openness and acceptance allows us to share ourselves and express an art form when we don’t even plan to, but I can only imagine how deep and sorrowful an art form can develop when openness and acceptance is not apparent.

For Vietnam’s sake, Xin Chao will not only benefit the country economically, but also share the country’s other export, her inner beauty and charm, with the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A predictably rational experiment to prove a predictably irrational concept

Dan’s Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” book discusses psychological mind-boggling insights on how everyday decisions we make aren’t as rational as we think they are, whether the decisions are socially or economically-related.  

For my very own predictably irrational experiment, I was inspired by events that occurred when it recently rained for 4-5 days consecutively in New York City.  My roommate, typically an early morning riser, struggled under the change in weather. Suddenly, she felt sick during the early morning hours and couldn’t get her body to cooperate with her normal schedule. She had aching headaches and cold chills. Ultimately, after a couple of hours passed and the rain died down, my roommate felt her “sickness” disappear and continued ahead with her daily tasks. Rainy day after another, the outcome remained the same.

I was intrigued by the events and wondered if your body could trick your brain into thinking the immune system was failing.  Or perhaps your brain is the one tricking
your body into thinking something is different. Could our brains believe that we are sick – when we’re not - and could that assumption change our behaviors or reactions during the period?

For example, if you were told by “experts” you’ve been in the premises of a deadly disease; then they kindly list the symptoms that accompany a person carrying the virus, could your brain’s paranoia trick your body into thinking the symptoms are legitimately occurring to you, even is it’s something as specific as an itch on the forearm?

The Experiment:
I gathered six people and placed them in a dimly lit room and they were offered cheese and wine for their participation; the cheese and wine made available was to relax the participants and have them in a familiar, friendly environment so they would forget they are a part of an experiment. 

Sitting in a small, intimate circle, everyone was provided writing materials to answer a series of questions. I then proceeded to turn on a fan for the “chill” effect and rain and thunderstorm noises from a youtube video clip.

The questions required participants to imagine waking up in the early morning hours with dampness in the air and a weather report confirming rain is in the forecast. The questions then ask the participants if the rain would change their daily errands or make them feel sick in any way.  

The Results:
Most of the participants claimed that the weather would not affect their health but then they would contradict their initial statements and say the weather would make them feel groggy and give them headaches – symptoms of catching the “cold weather bug.” All of them admitted that the weather does change their typical daily activities. My conclusion is simple: human brains do react to sight or sound and it does affect the way our body feels, or at least what our brain perceives that it feels.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saying goodbye to childhood a little sooner....how does it affect our economy?


As with everything else during this economic downturn, publishers for children’s books are seeing a big dent in their incomes. Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Young Reader Group have all noticed a significant decline in the sales of picture books within the past few years. At certain Barnes & Nobles stores, toys and games are paired with some picture books to boost sales. 

Publishers are unsure of what the actual cause behind disappointing sales are but some have suspicions that parents are pushing their kids away…from childhood, that is. Many parents prefer their children read chapter books and get over the picture book stage as quickly as possible – they’re probably afraid their kids won’t be able to get decent jobs with the market looking so bleak. Or that spending too much time on pictures of animals will eventually stop them from becoming president or getting into an ivy league school one day. Or let’s blame it on the school system and conclude that staggering pressures from standardized tests allows no room for picture books: We must get our 4-year-olds to read chapter books immediately!

The interesting factor in all of this is that the young adult fiction genre has been growing, as we have all witnessed the hysterias related to the Twilight and Harry Potter series. Like many of my friends, I am guilty of continuing my fondness for young adult books way past my young adult age. From what I understand, this is a common theme since many fans of young adult series are, well, not young adults. But why are adults still enjoying stories that are meant for those two, three, four times our juniors? Is it because the storylines are so superb or is it because we want to stay in some fantasy land that doesn’t consist of being a grown up?

We've seen this trend developed for quite some time now: parents and society (let’s not blame it all on the parents) are forcing children to grow up fast, hence, the decline in children’s picture books. But are children growing up faster or do they end up staying in their childhood longer than we think? Could saying goodbye to your childhood too fast ultimately lead to staying in a young adult life much longer than intended?

Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, is growing up slower than any before us. Yes, the economy has made it difficult for us to spread our wings and be the grown up our age requires of us, but can we be expected to fly with this limited job market and retirees putting off retirement because their savings aren’t where it’s suppose to be? I mean, we’ve been told our entire lives that we’re great, we’re the echo boomers, the trophy kids. The majority of us grew up with more belongings than our parents or grandparents ever had. But we were also pushed into growing up too quickly.

What has all the preparation really done for us? We have some snobby sense of entitlement, many of us graduated from college without decent job prospects and a lot of us move back in with our parents. Or even worse, we just don't move out. We are risk averse – we get married much later (but not for the right reasons) and we have no sense of responsibilities. I’m not saying everyone here; I am merely saying if I had to categorize the generation as a whole, this is what would come to mind. 

So what’s the bottom line?

Parents: please allow your children to continue reading picture books! It is an endless cycle - parents pushing their children to grow up too fast, modifying to society’s norms and then comes the decline of certain businesses that have an impact on all of us. It’s not just about children’s picture books, but of all books. Must we all advance so quickly that we forget about the joys certain traditional mediums have to offer?

I saw a group of children sitting on a sidewalk playing with an iPad the other day- no assistance required. I doubt they were reading a book online. Is this the snapshot of the coming generation?  To be honest, I am not sure if allowing your children to read children’s picture books beyond the age of four will help anything, but I am sure it will help publishing houses and that will, in turn, help another sector of our economy…right? Right.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vietnamese Cai Luong productions in financial distress

Combine long embroidered gowns, exaggerated makeup and a storyline consisting of some forbidden, heart-wrecking love and the results are timeless. Vietnamese reformed theatre, cai luong, is a performance production with an intent to impress.

 -Photo of a scene from “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” via Viet Nam News.

But greatness comes with an expensive price tag so its no surprise that keeping cai luong suspended above financial turmoil is a struggle as popular theatre venues in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City close down for months without financial backings.

Growing up, I remember categorizing cai luong as some lost art form. The people from my age group hardly appreciated it and those who held cai luong in their hearts were aging quickly. It was rare to see a young actor/singer in a cai luong production; typically they were older, as if those same actors had aged alongside the art, and sadly, there was no one waiting to take their place.

Traditionally extravagant with large orchestras and opera-like singing, problems arise when the productions hardly break even with their budgets. In 2007, “Kim Van Kieu” broke records with costs amounting to $95,000 (VND 1.8 billion) consisting of 81 musicians, 400 costumes and nearly 500 in the cast. In 2008, “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” and “Chuyen Tinh Lan va Diep” had budgets of $200,000 (VND 3.8 billion) and $69,000 (VND1.3 billion) respectively. Unfortunately, “Kim Van Kieu” had only two performances and “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” had three.

“We were lucky to get back the costs of both dramas thanks to sponsorships,” said Quoc Hung, Deputy Director of the Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Theatre, in an interview with Viet Nam News.

Recently, “Sorry, I’m a…,” a love story between a man and a prostitute, received disappointing reviews as audiences accuse the theatre of merely using expensive technology to distract audiences from the talents within the production.

"The work would succeed if it were performed on a smaller stage, allowing audiences to see the actors' faces and gestures," said journalist Van Bay in Viet Nam News.

But others are still opposed to the idea of reforming a traditional way of running business, claiming that the imposing stages are why “audiences want to go to theatre in the first place and not stay at home watching television,” according to HCM City-based Hoang Duan.

Although it is true that people go to the theatre for an experience that cannot be attained from home, perhaps Vietnam’s theatre directors should reconsider the elaborate stages and focus on artistic creativity to prevent an atrocious ending. It is realistically better to have smaller performances keeping the theatre alive than to close down for several months due to budget problems.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Pretty Penny Profit


I've recently encountered QuiBid, a penny online auction web site promoting the latest 42-inch HDTV for $55 or an iPod for $24, a price unheard of since the discount shelf at Apple has not been known to be stacked.

So, how does an obscure web site sell top of the line computers, flat screen televisions and cameras for literally 75 percent of their retail prices?

The Oklahoma-based company incorporates a business model seemingly different than the standard eBay setup. Visitors may bid on whatever one or two cent item they find tempting and if they're familiar with the online auction game, perhaps they'll be lucky enough and score a brand new MacBook Pro for $300.

Ready for the catch?

With every bid, the company collects a $0.60 fee from prospective buyers, which may seem insignificant if you're bidding on a new entertainment system for bargain Canal St. prices. But every auction receives hundreds or thousands of bids and with the small fee that bidders are gambling to pay, QuiBid rakes in more than enough funds to happily let go of their prized products.

When someone bids on an item, the price increases by, typically, 5 cents. So an item that sells for $300, like a MacBook Pro, most likely acquired 6,000 bids before it was "SOLD TO THE LUCKY WINNER." Let's say the buyer bids 200 times before she won her new computer - that's $120 (200 * $0.60); ultimately, she pays a total of $420. Not a bad deal for the new winner, but for the unlucky ones, the company has collected a whopping $3480 (3600-120) from the simple act of repeatedly clicking "bid now."

From what I've gathered, Quibid is not a scam, but it is certainly a gamble to take since there are financial winners and losers - unlike eBay where if you lose an item, you may merely suffer from depression, but it takes no toll on your wallet.

But QuiBids has also developed another concept that sets it apart from the other online auction web sites: the "Buy it Now" feature allows you to buy the item you lost out on AND apply the fee cost that you spent on bidding for the auction item towards your retail-priced purchased item.

I say the business model is very clever - incorporate outrageously cheap prices with top of the line products, mention a minuscule fee of $0.60 per bid and no one even flinches. It seems like a pretty good bet to take on, except we forget how rare it is to be the one who wins versus the one who loses. BUT...here comes the best part yet...with all the money you did lose, come hither and buy the item for regular price and apply the money you lost towards an item you most likely didn't even need in the first place.

The entire concept makes prospective buyers feel rational and smart, but it's only a deal if you needed the item and if you, yes, win. In the discounted world of Quibid, for one winner there must be many losers.

Unstable Amazon ebook prices

Growing up in an immigrant family, books helped me mesh and, at many times, escape from my new culture and surroundings. To this day, whenever I move to a new location, I pack along my necessities – clothes, shoes, computer and of course, my boxes full of books. I’m not sure what nostalgic ambiance they create, but the sight, feel and smell of them takes me to some safe place I’ve never been able to explain.

So when the Kindle exploded into mainstream culture a couple of years ago, my instant reaction was “cool,” which was soon coupled with “aw man, this sucks.”  The concept was sleek enough – convenient, affordable and all your favorite books loaded into a slim, sexy package. But the allure of the Kindle wasn’t so much that it was convenient for frequent travelers or that it was more sufficient to shove a Kindle in your tote rather than the three books you’re reading. The key appeal of the Kindle is the money everyone believes they've saved.
Ebooks are advertised to be cheaper than their hardcover versions, but recently, this has ceased to be the case. Some hardback books, such as “Don’t Blink” by James Patterson and Howard Roughan, is less expensive to buy compared to their electronic versions.

This may seem to be ludicrous since it is obvious that the manufacturing and storing of digital editions are much less expensive than the hardcopy versions. Amazon has issued statements notifying readers that the price of ebooks is set forth by publishing houses, whereas publishers are blaming Amazon for listing hardcover books way below their standard retail prices.

With rough competition from other similar electronic devices, it will be interesting to see if ebook prices will eventually stabilize. Or will it become unreliable like the recent steep discounts and soars of electronic reading device prices.

Whether it’s paying a little more or less for a book, I have stayed constant on my strong feelings about the release that a physical book can offer to a demanding lifestyle. As hard as it is to stay focused when reading from an LCD screen, I am not sure we actually read but merely scan as we are accustomed with when reading an online news source. And how proud do we actually feel when we finish reading something online? I’m sure it can’t be compared to the same satisfaction as taking an actual book (hardcover preferred) and slamming the back cover shut when the last page has been finished. Now that is satisfaction.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The President v. Fox News

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, President Obama said Fox News was "destructive" to the growth in America:

“[Fox] is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”  

The war between the Obama administration and Fox News has been ongoing ever since our current President stepped onto the public scene. In Sept. 2009, Obama agreed to appear on all major news television networks but decided to keep Fox News at bay. As a result, a Fox News host called the Obama administration "crybabies."

As a  media giant backed by Rupert Murdoch, I guess if anyone was going to call our president a crybaby, it would have to be Fox.

With popular conservatives such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Fox News has acquired a reputation of being less of a reliable news network and more of an organization comprised of bias viewpoints leaning very low towards the right.

In essence, it is not mainstream media - merely highly opinionated editorials that you can turn to when you're not really sure where you stand on an issue or when you just want to hear what the other Americans are thinking.

However, the ousting of a president against a television network could hand it a couple more high ratings as people tune in to see what the fuss is all about.

In reality though, who in the world actually use Fox News as their only news source? As intelligent human beings, we all know what an opinion is compared to something as unbias as humanly possible. Or at least we can only hope so.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Blockbuster bankruptcy

The fragile economy has forced the most innovative ideas to reconsider taking out that bank loan for a new business venture; so I have often wondered how Blockbuster has managed to stay afloat after all these years, especially with a Redbox around every corner. Then there's that genius way of watching all your favorite movies without ever having to leave the apartment: Netflix...and of course, iTunes.

It came as no great surprise to me when Blockbuster most recently announced they have filed for bankruptcy protection - a fancier way of saying: "Please help us slow down on closing down!" 


The bankruptcy protection will allow Blockbuster to keep most of their creditors at bay and reduce their $1 billion of debts to a mere $100 million. But the largest U.S. video rental corporation is still crashing hard - last year alone, their sales dropped by $1 billion and more than 1,000 stores have closed across the nation in the past two years.

In every successful business, there must be a revolutionary idea present - something that sets your product apart from similar competitive markets. But Blockbuster has lacked this gene for quite some time now. Remember when they finally eliminated late fees a couple of years back? Unfortunately, the initiative took place five years too far in the future. By that time, several video rental companies were already soaring high on profits and had no such thing as a late fee since the beginning.

After many struggling years, the Dallas-based company is determined to keep CEO Jim Keyes on board. This has caused some controversy in shareholders who have lost quite a handful of money as Blockbuster's stock continued to plummet off the charts.

No one can really be sure of Blockbuster's destiny - although some may claim to know - but Blockbuster has much to look forward to. They have been given another chance for innovative changes - consider a partnership with Nintendo and the Wii or even discuss an app with Apple.

And the next time you enter a Blockbuster store, help them out and buy some of those used DVDs on sale.

Craving more information? Read this.