Two publishing ideas

Writing about Tokyo Art Space and the project’s innovative publishing strategy further established one certainty within me. Digital publishing, media creation, journalism – all that sort of stuff – must be one avenue I am going to explore further for my own professional future. (Note: this blog is partially about finding out what it is that will keep me busy once a six-month stint in Tokyo will be over.)

I like the idea (and experience) of curating information that I am interested in myself and disseminating it via a bunch of channels old and new. Against this backdrop, I have been checking out some recent Kickstarter projects.

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The Eurozone crisis

Part of the past occupation series: I decided not to go into the details of the each of the trips that I went on when researching the Eurozone crisis. It is still a very current debate (I am reminded of that each morning when reading the FT over breakfast) and I continue to have my opinions. I want to reserve this space for a more personal reflection. 

As 2009 drew to a close, the fund management industry appeared to look at credit risk seriously again. Before that, central banks had swamped markets with liquidity for nearly a whole year, a move that saw risky assets of all shapes and colours rally a big deal. I thought it made correlation more important than idiosyncratic risk and the life of a cherry picker like myself rather difficult. It didn’t matter if country A had a better story to tell than country B. The sovereign debt of both countries did very well – until Nakheel, a quasi-sovereign (or at least that’s what many investors thought) issuer from Dubai nearly defaulted on an Islamic bond . Continue reading

Yasukuni Shrine

After strolling around and visiting the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo today, I took a rather long-winded walk towards Ichigaya Station to catch the Nambuko Line home. This took me past the infamous Yasukuni Shrine. It was already late and dark, so I didn’t stick around for too long (although the sight of the shrine is beautiful at that time of the day).

The shrine is devoted to soldiers who have died fighting for the Emperor. More than two million souls are remembered here, among which there are also some war criminals. I have come across the shrine frequently recently (e.g. the LDP leader and former PM Shinzo Abe paid a visit to the place last week) and it made me think again of one of my “assignments” while here: How is the wartime remembered in Japan? How is the collective memory embedded in education and popular culture?

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Vertical farming

After I spent a few years in an oil major, I decided to change jobs and work for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. I was a bit tired of debating and analysing at the macro level, and keen to understand better what drives companies that build stuff. I joined the EBRD’s agribusiness team because it’s a fascinating sector with growing allure for professionals around the world.

One of my entries to the sector (apart from that my dad’s family were farmers) was my fascination with vertical farming. Perhaps because it marries agriculture, urban development and future technology unlike anything else. Imagine vertical farms as greenhouses stacked on top of each other; soil is replaced by a hydroponic solution, the sun by artificial light. The temperature is controlled for optimal growing conditions. Almost nothing is left to chance.

“We’ll have three tons of broccoli ready on the 24th floor in 7 days and 5 hours.”

Design by Amber Beernink

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The Gulf

Part of the past occupations series. Just before we set off on our most memorable leg of the Middle East research trip, Beirut, my colleague and I toured the UAE and Qatar for four days. It had been my first time here. I would like to go back with some more time on my hands, but in all honesty, other places are probably higher on my priority list.

The KLM flight AMS-DUB is full of familiar oil people cramming into business class. I have a window seat and enjoy an excellent view of Burj al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building emerging on the right as we approach the city’s airport. A major investment bank again organised an “all inclusive” tour and parked a sales guy from their Saudi office with us. The guy, of Palestinian descent, is probably glad to get out of Riyadh for a while. (In fact, he was just looking forward to get to Beirut.) Continue reading

Hotel Okura

With its high ceiling and muted lighting, the capacious lobby of the Hotel Okura’s main building seemed like a huge, stylish cave. Against the cave walls, like the sighing of a disemboweled animal, bounced the muted conversations of people seated on the lobby’s sofas. The floor’s thick, soft carpeting could have been primeval moss on a far northern island. It absorbed the sound of footsteps into its endless span of accumulated time. – Haruki Murakami – 1Q84

This must be my favourite building in Tokyo so far. This large hotel was built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and opened to the public two years before in 1962. Nested between the skyscrapers of Roppongi, it is quite striking how you first walk past the place and don’t recognise it all too much (probably because it isn’t very high). Upon closer inspection though, the place unfolds its uniqueness – a very functional and modern Eastern building with Western specifications.

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Lebanon on my mind

Part of the “past occupations series”:

Just as Lebanon appears on the front pages of the international press again, I “revisited” it last week, writing up some anecdotes from a research trip there two years ago. This small country with its bloody history and fractious politics also has a few billion USD worth of international bonds outstanding. Getting some grip on the conflict in the country and the region was thus quite important job-wise, although very daunting given the complexity of the situation.

I once got asked by my CIO to accompany a senior equity portfolio manager on a research trip throughout the Gulf region. Her initial idea had been to see Saudi corporates – but that country’s attitude towards women made that all but impossible. We decided to go for the Gulf countries instead and throw Lebanon into the mix to make the trip worthwhile. I took a backseat regarding the organisation, so this trip was very corporate-focused with plenty of “buy our shares” schmoozing and handing out of glossy information packs: The future is bright and all that is bad is not actually so bad.

Beirut was the last stop of the trip and the undisputed highlight: In contrast to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar (which we had seen during the days before), it is a real city that did not just get built over the last couple of years. One can feel recent history everywhere, and it is still visible in the scars of the civil war and the ongoing urban regeneration. Our taxi took us to our hotel at breakneck speed, past the Camille Chamoun stadium that got completely destroyed in the civil war (actually the Israelis shelled it during one of their incursions into Beirut). A warm breeze coming through the open windows, and the sight of a somewhat more chaotic and lively street life instantly made me look forward to the days ahead.    Continue reading

Past occupations: asset management

I was a political risk / fund strategy analyst in one of my previous incarnations. The job was within the asset management unit of an oil major, broadly charged with investing the company’s multi-billion pension assets. In that way, it is very similar to a fund manager you can find anywhere in the Londons, New Yorks, etc. The difference, though, was that big corporate culture – with its pros and cons – permeated the walls.

The job sounded perfect back then: It would marry my (then-)affection for politics and emerging markets with business, while maintaining an almost academic research bent. And travel it meant! The job description and the incumbent both told me that frequent research trips were a must. Just a bit more than a year into life in a corporate behemoth like that, that sounded very enticing.

A few interviews later, I had the job and got ready to move to The Hague. Meanwhile, the financial crisis had hit for real and saw financial markets drop calamitously and flows in asset management grind to a halt. Fantastic timing, I thought. Thankfully for us back then, life moved on and markets stabilised thanks to an unprecedented wave of central bank interventions. Riding the liquidity wave, 2009 and 2010 were actually pretty decent years for long-only funds.

Over the next weeks, I will post some memorable anecdotes from my trips around the world. I jotted them down in order not to forget them myself. But who knows, maybe others find them interesting, too.

Engaging with the Tokyo art scene

As any megalopolis, Tokyo is brimming with art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions. After seeing a few of them, and also after engaging a little more with Japanese history and culture, I have set myself a task for the next few months, an assignment of sorts: How do Japanese people express themselves through the arts? How are emotions channeled, how is social criticism conveyed? These are big questions, but then again, I have quite some time on my hands to find some answers for myself. A few ideas: Continue reading

Nakagin Capsule Tower

The Nakagin Capsule Tower is probably one of Tokyo’s oddest architectural sights. As an amazing example of metabolism, it stands out on an inner-city highway near Shimbashi. The house is made of capsules, each measuring 2.3 x 3.8 metres. They form stand-alone living units, replete with inbuilt kitchens and aircraft-size toilets.

Somewhat unsurprising given that no major refurbishment has taken place since it has been built in the early 70s, the residents are keen on demolishing the whole place and replacing it with something more spacious and less asbestos-ridden. Architecture buffs are up in arms, needless to say. But more likely than not, the tower won’t be standing in this space near expensive Ginza much longer.

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