2009 - %3, February

Nikki Finke's Oscar Prediction: Epic Fail

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 7:32 PM EST

This just in: water may possibly be wet! The irascible Los Angeles columnist Nikki Finke is claiming there is "flopsweat panic" backstage that the Oscar ceremony, now just 24 hours away, will be a dud, and even CNN agrees. Stars from Jack Nicholson to Nicole Kidman have apparently begged off presenting, Peter Gabriel pulled out after being offered 65 seconds to perform his nominated song, and fans of The Dark Knight are attempting to boycott the ceremony because it didn't get enough nominations. Finke also has a whole list of other complaints, including something about how previous actor winners are being forced to present as a group, which is apparently scandalous. She also claims that "trophy boys" will now join the young ladies who carry the statuettes onto the stage, an acknowledgment that "only females and gays" watch the show any more. It'll be the biggest failure ever!

But honestly, let's just remember that the Academy Awards is always a terrible TV show. Jon Stewart had a few good moments last year, but for most of the ceremony he was little more than a placeholder, and No Country for Old Men's wins were widely anticipated. In 2006, it was The Departed and Ellen Degeneres (yawn), and in 2005, the big Crash-Brokeback upset only came at the last minute of a very long and boring ceremony. Finke claims ad rates are down from $1.7 million last year to $1.4 million this year, but that probably has little to do with anticipation of a crappier show and more to do with that wee little, you know, collapse of our entire economic system. Of course Hugh Jackman will be embarrassing to watch, but no worse than anybody else—don't get me wrong, I'd pay to see Wolverine read (and then rip up) the phone book, but real-life Jackman in song-and-dance mode is smarmy and self-satisfied. The only good thing about the Oscars this year will be the same thing that's always good about them: watching with your snarky film-buff friends who mercilessly skewer the winners and presenters. Plus, it's an excuse to have a cocktail at 3pm.

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The Senator from Blago-land

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 5:11 PM EST
Senator Roland Burris, Blago's pick to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, did not have a good week. He's under investigation for making contradictory statements about his fundraising connections to the disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich; new Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and a coalition of black ministers have called on him to resign; the White House has urged him to think about his future; an Illinois newspaper discovered he did not reveal all his lobbying clients (including mortgage bankers and the tobacco industry); and his key Capitol Hill staffers have fled his office. The question is, can he hold on and resist the calls for him to pack it in? On Friday night, I pondered the Burris matter on Hardball:

R.I.P. Socks

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:54 PM EST
Sad cat news today:

Word tonight that Socks Clinton, the one-time Arkansas stray adopted by the Clintons who rose to international prominence and literary fame as sole feline inhabitant of the White House, died today....Upon leaving the executive residence in Washington, the Clinton family gave the cat to the president's secretary, Betty Currie, who had recently lost her own pet.

....Though reticent in public, Socks was known as an affectionate creature, even tolerating the First Dog, a brown Labrador named Buddy, who was killed in a 2002 collision with a car near the Clintons' suburban New York home.

....Some foreign leaders were said to have even requested to have their photo taken with the First Kitty, which he tolerated because he favored diplomacy over militancy. At the end Socks was reported unwilling to eat and unable to stand. He had a last walk outdoors Thursday in Currie's arms.

This has been a bad year for presidential cats. Rest in peace, Socks.

Safe Haven

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:17 PM EST
Looking for a safe haven for your money?  Beirut probably isn't the first place that comes to mind. But it turns out that back when Wall Street was running wild, Lebanon's central banker, Riad Toufic Salame, was busy keeping his country's banks some of the safest in the world:

In 2005, he defied pressure from the Lebanese business community and bucked international trends to issue what now looks like a prophetic decree: a blanket order barring any bank in his country from investing in mortgage-backed securities, which contributed to the most dramatic collapse of financial institutions since the Great Depression.

....He says the mortgage-backed securities worried him from the start. He watched curiously as investment bankers engaged in what he calls "rituals" to please the credit ratings agencies and got back such safe assessments of their products. He didn't get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were just too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back.

"We could not really sense who would be responsible in the end to collect these loans," he said. "And we do not perceive banking as being a place to speculate on financial instruments that are not really concrete."

"Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back."  Words to live by.

Georgian Band to Protest Putin at Eurovision?

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 7:39 PM EST

God bless the Eurovision Song Contest. It's so, like, Austin Powers-y. Established in 1956, the event invites European countries to each submit a song, and then a winner is selected. It's like the UN meets American Idol, and it's given us ABBA, Bucks Fizz, and, erm, Verka Serduchka! But the latest edition of the contest, set for Moscow in May, has been sullied by the grating melody of politics, as Russia's rivals to the south appear to have taken the opportunity to stick it to the Russian prime minister. Georgia's entry, by a band called Stephane and 3G, is a song entitled "We Don't Wanna Put In," which, in its sung form, sounds a heck of a lot like "We Don't Wanna Putin." Sneaky! Georgians are denying there's a "hidden message" in the track, but gee, it's hard not to hear it (watch the awesome video above). Eurovision specifically bans any lyrics "of a political nature," so it remains to be seen if Stephane and 3G will get away with it, and they better watch out—that guy knows judo! Lucky for them, there's no easily-singable phrase that sounds like "Saakashvili." Actually, "We Don't Wanna Suck His Willy" comes close. Russians, feel free to use that.

Designing Obama

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 7:20 PM EST
A political campaign is a thinly veiled form of advertising, but logo design—one of the oldest branding techniques of the ad game—has historically been cast aside by political world, which prefer to restrict its bumper stickers and promotional materials to a sea of bland stars and stripes. Until Obama ’08. At once traditional and innovative, the Obama rising sun-logo was a breakthrough in modern campaign design, an iconic image from the moment it was first unveiled.

And the buzz hasn’t ended with the campaign. On Thursday evening a crowd gathered at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University for "Designing Obama," a sold-out lecture given by the men behind the symbol—Sol Sender, the logo designer, and Scott Thomas, the director of new media design. There’s a pretty thorough rundown of Sender’s presentation on his company website, giving a summary of the design process, and a rundown of all the rejected images.

The final Obama logo entered back into public debate when it was ripped off by Pepsi. The company claimed their redesign was completely independent of the campaign's logo, until they began plastering the eerily similar image on billboards reading "Hope" in cities across the nation. However, Sender claims the success of the logo has more to do with the momentum behind its message than the image itself. “One of the really magical aspects was that people just took [the design] and did all these things with it…a brand like Pepsi would kill for that," explains Sender.

The most informative moment of the lecture took place during the Q&A section. The art-student  crowd was anxious to know if Obama’s design aesthetic would usher in a new need for exciting graphic design in the political sphere. Surprisingly both designers were skeptical. “I’m not sure you can do a transformative thing like this unless you have a really transformative candidate,” says Sender. Neither Sender nor Thomas have any plans to continue on with campaign design: Sender has returned to his firm, and Thomas is working on a book about his experience.

And you certainly won’t see Thomas’s mark on the whitehouse.gov sight. According to Thomas, the Bush administration extended their web designer's contract for two years into Obama’s term. So until then, it's just same old.

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Phil Gramm's Culpability, Acknowledged

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 5:25 PM EST

Phil Gramm won't be able to wash this stink off of him.

Time magazine has published a list called "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis" and second on the list is our buddy Phil, the man who headed the Senate Banking Committee during the federal government's deregulatory bonanza in the late '90s. Gramm passed or affected two key pieces of legislation that eventually helped create the financial meltdown we are experiencing today. The first of the two was the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act, which repealed the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act and allowed financial institutions to merge like crazy and ignore longtime regulations and limitations. The second was something that Mother Jones uncovered in summer 2008. Here's Time:

[Gramm] also inserted a key provision into the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act that exempted over-the-counter derivatives like credit-default swaps from regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Credit-default swaps took down AIG, which has cost the U.S. $150 billion thus far.

Right. As David Corn reported for Mother Jones, Gramm's sly move gave rise to an entire industry of financial products, like credit default swaps, that acted like insurance for the toxic mortgage-backed securities that got passed around Wall Street. Investors who thought they were protected made more and more and worse and worse financial bets, all away from regulatory oversight. Eventually, it caught up with them.

The result is the mess we're in today. And it appears the public is able to trace culpability all the way back to Gramm, because in voting on Time's website, Gramm has been fingered by readers as the most guilty party in this disaster. To read more about credit default swaps and how "Foreclosure Phil" created our crisis, see David's article here.

Stream New U2 Album at MySpace

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 5:12 PM EST

It's becoming de rigueur: a few weeks before the release of your highly-anticipated new album, post the whole thing to your MySpace page, and hope that discourages early leaks & downloads. [Edit: Oops, they were too late.] Irish combo U2 is the latest to jump on board, posting their upcoming album No Line On the Horizon in its entirety right over here (click on the "playlist" drop-down menu in the player and select the album). 

I've already said lead single "Get On Your Boots" is kind of a pale imitation of Queens of the Stone Age, so how's the rest of the album? Well, also kind of aimless, although it's hard to tell through MySpace's crappy 96kbps filter. The title track opens the set, and it sounds a little like Coldplay trying to rough things up a little. There's a standard mid-tempo beat, a big fuzzy guitar, a not-so-memorable chorus, then an unearned epic bridge of big Bono "ohs." Track two, "Magnificent," intrigues with its plucky synth opening and wide-open Edge guitar riffs, but that word is embarrassingly cheesy when you sing it. Just try it. "Magniiiii-fi-cent." Yuck, right? "I was born to sing for you," claims Bono, but these lazy lyrics make "It's a beautiful day" seem like Shakespeare.

It's a little odd to remember that U2 was one of my favorite bands, for a really long time, from October through The Joshua Tree. Rattle and Hum lost me, like it lost everybody, but the redemptive masterpiece Achtung Baby won me back. I look at 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as "post-U2" albums, which I judge by an easier standard than the band's first 20 years, and in that context, they succeed: "Elevation," "City of Blinding Lights," and "Beautiful Day" are grand, sweet, pretty pop songs; they dissolve into nothing if you look too closely, so just don't do that. But even by that generous standard, Horizon fails: it willfully avoids hooks, but its lyrics are ridiculous—"Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady"?—and its riffs crib Led Zeppelin shamelessly. Despite its edgy, minimalist cover art, Horizon makes the same mistakes as Rattle and Hum, aping the bombast and ego of classic rock without the creativity or soul. No wonder Rolling Stone liked it. I will say it ends on a slight "up" note, with a few thoughtful ballads, and it's like a tiny glimmer of hope: maybe their next album will be another Achtung Baby?

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 February 2009

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 3:52 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Fri Feb. 20, 2009 4:07 PM EST
Today's theme is "Looking Skyward."  On the left, Inkblot is reacting to a bird flying overhead.  On the right, Domino is bonding with a potted plant.

And speaking of birds flying overhead, the Guardian reports that 200 British cats are being outfitted with a device called "catnav" to track their predatory habits.  "Some experts believe Britain's 9m cats could be killing more than 150m birds, mice, rabbits, moles and other creatures every year," they warn us.  "We know what cats do in our homes — they sleep," says one of the researchers, "But we have virtually no idea of what they get up to outdoors, particularly at night. Now we can find out."

Well.  I'd just like to take this opportunity to quantify Inkblot and Domino's contribution to this bird and mole carnage.  That would be zero.  Jasmine once dragged in an already wounded bird and allowed Inkblot to play with it, but neither Inkblot himself, nor our pudgy little Domino, is capable of anything more than dreaming about such things.  Domino, in fact, can barely find her own food bowl at times.  (Inkblot has no such difficulty.)  The Irvine pest population may rest easy.

Legalizing Marijuana Now More Popular than the Republican Party

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 3:25 PM EST
It's true. Percentage of Americans who believe marijuana ought to be legalized: 41 percent. Percentage of Americans who approve of the Republican Party: 31 percent.

Other things that are less popular than legalizing weed, according to Open Left: Congress, the war in Iraq, privatizing Social Security, and John Boehner.