Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Not a National Day of Rest for Cell Phones?


** When was the moment you realized your cell phone had become permanently attached to your body? Seriously.

** I've been thinking about this for several years, most recently after leaving my house for what seemed like the 50th time in five years without my cell phone. You know the drill. Five minutes after you pull out your driveway (or maybe longer) - you realize you don't have it. You spend 20 seconds worrying about whether it's as important as your purse or wallet - before you ultimately cave in - making that dreaded U-turn back to your home.

** We all know the safety reasons associated with having a cell phone within reach -- but at what point did it become a stand-in for your very existence? I don't mean "I think, therefore, I am." I mean, when did it become, "I have a cell phone, therefore I am?" When did the cellphone become freighted with such titanic meaning?

** Our love-hate relationship with wireless phones turns mostly into hate when we see the lengths people will go - to make bogus excuses to be "unavailable" - despite the fact that wireless technology has made us more reachable than at any other time in history. Turned another way, friendships have gone bad when we feel accountable to respond to every cotton-picking voice mail and inane text message that's left on our phones. (I'm dating myself, but I remember getting my first land-line phone installed in my teenage bedroom, complete with its own seven-digit number. It was a thrill. But I wasn't tied to it like a ball-and-chain. Its cord was short and I couldn't carry it into another room.)

** Conversely, our cell phones have indeed become a metaphorical ball-and-chain, leaving us with fewer excuses to be "unreachable." You tell your friends, "I'm going on vacation and I'm not bringing my cell phone, so I won't be reachable, bla-bla-bla." Trust me, they don't believe you. They further don't believe you - (even when you're telling the truth) - when you say after-the-fact, "oh, I didn't get your message, I must have run into some bad reception."

** You Verizon customers know what I'm talking about. Your company's marketing mantra is, "can you hear me now?" So if your friends know your carrier is Verizon, expect to see a raised brow (or a rolling of the eyes) if you tell them, "gee, some places in my house have bad reception, with walls made of lead where no signals (or man) can reach." Huh-huh.

** And then there's texting, which is quickly replacing e-mail. You text when: 1) you can't reach a person on the phone, 2) you don't want to bother a person with a call, 3) you DON'T want to talk to a person "live" to avoid the long give-and-take that can eat up a lot of time. Texting comes in handy, but in my view, it has single-handedly replaced whole conversations - and dumbed down the literacy level of the world.

** Texting means purposely using abbreviations and misspelled words that have become a second language. In some cases, you need another book to decode them. For example, I'm not bothered when pals use the acronym "LOL" in messages that THEY send to ME. That's an easy one to figure out. Still, the day I use the term, "LOL" in any of my OWN communiqués - will be the day you are welcome to grab a pair of pliers and pry off one of my fingernails. [Strangely though, acronyms such as "LFMAO" (laughing my a** off) or "ROTFL" ("rolling on the floor laughing") seem OK because the imagery is so vivid.] But when was the last time you found yourself "rolling on the floor laughing?" Seems pretty rare to me.

** Which leads me to ask, have you EVER gone a whole day without your cell phone to avoid being reached? I'm not asking if you've ever turned your cell phone OFF for an entire day. I'm asking if you've ever PURPOSELY left your cell phone behind, out of reach, at home, at the office, wherever. How did you feel? Liberated? Or did you get all sweaty, worried about missed calls and messages? Did you shrug and say to yourself, "well, if people REALLY NEED to get a hold of me in an emergency - they'll find a way."

** Folks, I call that last one "the passive-aggressive method of being unreachable," e.g., putting the burden of being found onto your boss, friends and family. But it's a moot point because again, nobody believes you when you say you're unreachable. Or here's an excuse people don't believe (unless you're over 90): "I don't own a cell phone." Translation: Some people can get still reach me, just not you.

** I confess I've never ditched my phone on purpose because I'm always worried about getting into an accident - or not being able to get my car started in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood...at night...alone.

** Hence we come to the proposal for a "national day of rest" for cell phones. Ironically, this would have to be spread virally first over millions of cell phones -- to get more people involved. So far, it's not gaining much traction. Why not? Make it happen on a weekend when more people are at home. With all the "green talk" that's become so fashionable these days, someone at Greenpeace or at the NRDC should come up with a list of scientific reasons to endorse a cellphone-free day that would have a positive - however negligble - impact on Planet Earth.

** Of course we'd have to make a few exemptions for true emergencies. But otherwise, what would be so bad about having a national "sleep day" for wireless phones? Make it a national holiday to free ourselves from the yoke of responsibility that comes with our cell phones. Going through a whole day without hearing someone else's obnoxiously loud and silly ring-tones would be wonderful. (BTW, why is it always somebody else's ring tones that sound narcissistically stupid - while your own ring tones sparkle with originality?) Speaking for me, myself - I prefer a ring-tone that sounds like a real phone - and not a jukebox spitting out the first four bars of an atrocious melody.

** Please, let's get on this right away. Until then, I leave you with a video that displays a pipe dream. It's a 2009 Corona Beer TV commercial. It's a pipe dream because I don't know anyone on earth who's had the courage - (or more dollars than sense) - to do what you see in the 30-second spot below.

(Original material © 2009 by David Kusumoto.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why are some dog-loving atheists choking up over a two-minute cartoon?


** On August 4, 2009, Wendy Francisco, a 54-year-old artist-musician-animal breeder from Del Mar, California (north of San Diego) – who now lives "somewhere in the mountains of Colorado" – uploaded a 1 minute, 58 second music video on You Tube.

** Her lyrics are so simple that a child can understand them. That makes sense. Mrs. Francisco is an editor of children's books.

** Her melody is so simple that it seems mined from an old nursery tune pulled from the public domain. It's not. It's original. Mrs. Francisco learned guitar at age 8, had a record deal by age 24 and has toured the country "and beyond," giving concerts for decades.

** Her hand-drawn images are so simple that they seem almost primitive. But Mrs. Francisco has been a self-taught artist since she was a child. In sum, she's not a novice.

** But what's NOT so simple - is explaining the explosion of emotions that have poured forth from hundreds of thousands of people who have seen "GoD and DoG" since its debut on August 4.

** I know what some of you are thinking. Being a secular sort of fellow, I thought the same thing. I told myself, "I'm not going to watch some sappy tribute about dogs and religion." A pal forwarded it to me by e-mail and I dismissed it. I don't even own a dog, even though my love for canines is well known. If you've ever owned a dog (or still own one), you know what I mean. They ARE family.

** Then another friend forwarded the video. Full disclosure: I dislike some (not all) "pay it forward" inspirational notes, because some feel like canned chain letters sent by people who let greeting cards carry messages - that they themselves – cannot articulate. Sincerity doesn't require perfect sentences or phrasing inspired by great poets. All that's required in my book – are words from the heart, fractured, imperfect, incomplete but real. Nevertheless, I clicked on the video.

** In less than two minutes, using a child's grasp of melody, lyrics and imagesWendy Francisco builds a case about the relationship between a higher being – and the co-existence of dogs and man. She doesn't cite scripture, she makes no references to Christianity – and she avoids conventional, confrontational and controversial dogma.

** In otherwords, Wendy Francisco delivers a message with such deceptive simplicity that it appears purposely designed to avoid trouble. She sings softly with an acoustic guitar, amid a montage of scribbled images and stock fonts which push her lyrics forward. She wrote, recorded and animated everything in about three days. She says her work was inspired by her dog, "Caspian." (See picture above.) This snow-white creature is described as being "3/4 Great Pyrenees and 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd Cross." Dog breeders will know what that means. I don't, but it doesn't matter. Nor apparently do you have to believe in a deity - to still be moved – by what Mrs. Francisco has to say.

** If you want to watch this video with with a higher quality image, click here. Otherwise, click below.

** "Religion masks the character of God," Francisco says on her website. Perhaps she means this: the ceremonial trappings of organized religion have stripped away the power and emotion associated with being in the presence of a higher being and of all living things. Mrs. Francisco admits she "struggles with modern day religion" because it "limits most people...women in particular."

** Ironically, I think it's the "religion" part that may stall the "mainstream media" from writing lengthy stories about Wendy Francisco, at least not until her view count at You Tube goes over 2 million hits. And I predict it will within the next two months. (As I write this, it's sitting around 860,000 views). While the evangelical press has fully embraced this work (no surprise), I found only two glancing references thus far in news stories on the Web (one in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the other in Atlanta for the Examiner group of newspapers).

** In my view, Mrs. Francisco has smartly taken a path of least resistance to get her message across. Mucking her work up with provocative language and complicated dogma would have stunted the video's reach beyond the church choir. Take away just ONE of the four elements in her music video: her lyrics, her melody, her calm singing voice or her hand-drawn images – and the power of her work goes from extraordinary to ordinary. Her message is NOT the analytical think piece you're reading now. Just read the comments that have been left behind. Many viewers say they cried or were deeply moved. Believers have expressed their thanks. And I believe many non-believers will acknowledge the video's emotional power, even if their views remain unchanged.

** While the video is unlikely to convert atheists – it does capture their deep appreciation for dogs. I will go further and say it may cause many dog-loving atheists to yearn to believe, that is, to want to believe – (even if it's no more than wishful thinking as from a child) – that a higher being "of some sort" is indeed responsible for putting dogs on Earth – for the express purpose of meeting man's instinctual need for companionship.

** But this is all mushy stuff. This is NOT the language of atheists. Atheists tend to be educated. I don't even have to look it up. They just are. Religion may have once worked at some level, perhaps at an early age. Or maybe it never worked at all. But the video is tantalizing because it conveys an abstract meaning (feelings) – and an appreciation of something beyond the reach of words.

** Most educated people, myself included, get visibly uncomfortable about things that can't be broken down into parts that can be objectively analyzed. "An 'A' equals an 'A' and that's that," we say. So why then, do our tear ducts squeeze a little while we're watching this video? What's that all about? If I knew the answer, I wouldn't be writing this.

(Original material © 2009 by David Kusumoto.)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Artistic Genius Doesn't Equal Brains -- How Did Annie Leibovitz Get Stupid?


** UPDATE: September 11, 2009 - Annie Leibovitz has won a temporary reprieve. Ula Ilnytzky of the Associated Press posted the following this afternoon: "Annie Leibovitz has won an extension on a $24 million loan in a financial dispute that threatened her rights to her famous images, the two sides said in a joint statement. Leibovitz and the company, Art Capital Group, said the 59-year-old photographer had been given more time to repay the loan. The loan's deadline passed on Tuesday, but both parties had continued to work to try to resolve the dispute. Neither party would specify the length of the extension."

* * * *

** It's astounding coming across the number of artistic or athletic superstars worth millions – who can't handle their own money – or pick the right people to protect it.

** Joining the list is famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The combined worth of her spectacular art portfolio -- AND her real estate holdings -- is about $80 million. And she's about to lose most of it very soon.

** Stating the obvious: the idea of any artist losing the copyrights to their life's work – is not only astonishing – but too often feels like the culmination of a series of bone-headed, self-inflicted wounds.

** Worse, many observers, including struggling artists who've worshipped her for decades – will find it very difficult - after reading the accounts below, to sympathize with her fate - (not that she's looking for it).

** Of all the news stories and opinion pieces about Leibovitz's troubles during the past month, in my view, the two best were written by Allen Salkin of the New York Times -- and by fellow-blogger David Eubank.

** "She partied too much and developed a pattern of financial mismanagement," wrote Eubank back on August 3, 2009. "Just because a person is an artistic genius, does not make them good with money or debt management. Leibovitz’s ability to make money through her work - offset her inability to manage her money and debt - until now."

** In fairness, Salkin of the New York Times said of Leibovitz back on July 31, "A recent series of personal issues has made navigating her already complex life more difficult, close associates said. In the last five years, Ms. Leibovitz lost her father, her mother and her companion, Susan Sontag; added two children to her family and oversaw the costly and controversial renovation of three properties in Greenwich Village."

** Salkin also wrote that Leibovitz's own friends told him that despite her success, she "has been shadowed by a long history of less than careful financial dealings." Even Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter remarked, "The mind that can take these extraordinary pictures is not necessarily the same mind that is a perfect money manager."

** Meanwhile, the story below was published Saturday, September 5, 2009. It was written by Ula Ilnytzky of the Associated Press.

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Debts closing in on photographer Annie Leibovitz

     NEW YORK (AP) - Annie Leibovitz's artsy, provocative portraits of celebrities
regularly grace the covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue, images that have made her as famous as her subjects and earned her millions.
     Now Leibovitz risks losing the copyright to the images - and her entire life's work - if she doesn't pay back a $24 million loan by Tuesday.
     Art Capital Group (ACG), a New York company that issues short-term loans against fine and decorative arts and real estate, sued her in late July for breach of contract.
     "We have clear contractual rights and will protect them in any scenario," said ACG spokesman Montieth Illingworth on Friday. "Our preference is for this to be resolved."
     Some experts say filing for bankruptcy reorganization could be the best option for Leibovitz, 59, who has put up as collateral her three historic Greenwich Village townhouses, an upstate property and work.
     She bought two of the townhouses in 2002, embarking on extensive renovations to combine them into one property. That spurred protests from historic preservationists and a $15 million lawsuit by a neighbor.
     "Based on the magnitude of her obligations and the facts as they are publicly known, (bankruptcy) would be the best option," said art lawyer Peter Stern.

     Leibovitz's images of musicians, presidents and Hollywood glitterati are cultural touchstones. One of her earliest photos is of John Lennon curled up naked in a fetal position with Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was assassinated in 1980.
     So to many, her decision to gamble the rights to her work seems inexplicable. "Jaw-dropping," Stern said.
     Her editorial agent, Contact Press Images, has declined to comment on the case, saying it is a private matter.
     Her spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik, has accused ACG of harassment.  "There has been tension and dispute since the beginning...For now, her attention remains on her photography and on continuing to organize her finances," Hiltzik said.
     A reorganization filing would suspend all litigation against Leibovitz and place her finances under the protection of a federal judge, said bankruptcy lawyer Paul Silverman, who works with Stern. Neither attorney is involved in the case.

     Last year, Leibovitz put up her homes and the copyright to every picture she has ever taken - or will take - as collateral to secure the loan to pay off her mounting debt: unpaid bills, mortgage payments and tax liens, ACG said.
     While no one has suggested publicly how Leibovitz got into such desperate financial straits, the mortgage debt on all her properties - including the townhouses in Greenwich Village and a sprawling estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y. - totaled about $15 million.
     This includes the $1.2 million loan she took out on two of the townhouses, and another $2.2 million three years later, according to New York magazine.
     In addition to her mortgages, court records show that she piled up years of federal, state and city liens and judgments from vendors for unpaid bills - all presumably now satisfied with the $24 million she borrowed.
     Federal records show that Leibovitz owed a total of $2.1 million in unpaid taxes for tax years 2004, 2006 and 2007. She also had New York state tax liens of $247,980 for six years, including $135,915 in 2007.
     In 2008, a design firm that did work on one of her Greenwich Village properties claimed that she owed it $51,000.
     Leibovitz was also accused that year of refusing to pay $386,000 to a photo stylist during a 2007 shoot Leibovitz did for the Disney Company in 2007.

     Her spokesman, Hiltzik, declined Thursday to discuss her finances.  "Annie is working to resolve the situation so it would be inappropriate to comment," Hiltzik said.
     Art Capital Group, which consolidated all her loans in September 2008, charged in its lawsuit that Leibovitz breached the contract by refusing to allow real estate experts into her homes to appraise their value and by blocking ACG from selling her photographs.
     ACG has estimated the value of the Leibovitz portfolio at $40 million; (separately), real estate brokers say her New York properties are worth about (another) $40 million.
     Leibovitz also owned an apartment in Paris, which she bought for her longtime companion, writer and feminist Susan Sontag.
     ACG, with art gallery-like offices on Madison Avenue, is in effect a high-end pawn shop. And just like pawn shops, is would be just as happy to see a default, according to art and money experts. Under the sales agreement with Leibovitz, Illingworth said, the company would get 10 percent commission on the sale of Leibovitz' real estate - and 15 percent on the sale of her portfolio.
     Leibovitz would get the rest after paying off the $24 million loan, interest and other fees, he said. If she defaults, the company would get a net 12 percent commission, after paying approximately 13 percent for costs and fees.

     Leibovitz, 6 feet tall with long blond tresses, joined Vanity Fair in 1983.  Over the years, her lens has captured the rich and famous: Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Bruce Springsteen among them. She gave the world its first glimpse of baby Suri, newborn daughter of Hollywood's superstar couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, on the cover of Vanity Fair.
     Her Vanity Fair salary has been reported to be about $2 million, according to New York magazine.  She also has done work for Louis Vuitton and American Express; she charges $100,000 for private portraits.
     A meticulous and demanding artist designated a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, Leibovitz makes her photo shoots lavish, sometimes theatrical affairs.  For a portrait of Kristin Dunst as Marie Antoinette, she flew the actress and a crew to Paris for a shoot at the Versailles.  She put Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of warm milk.  Many of her images are provocative and controversial, including those last year of 15-year-old Miley Cyrus exposing bare shoulders and back, and a portrait of a very pregnant and nude Demi Moore in 1991. Leibovitz gave birth at the age of 51 to her daughter Sara in 2001, and has twins, who were born to a surrogate in 2005.
     Her financial problems escalated in 2003, during the renovation of her Greenwich Village townhouses. A neighbor sued her for $15 million after a common wall between their buildings was damaged. Leibovitz eventually settled by buying the neighbor's property for $1.9 million.
     Silverman, a past president of the New York State Bar Association bankruptcy committee, is not familiar with Leibovitz's case.  But he said a bankruptcy reorganization filing would give her control of what assets need to be sold and which to keep.  "It would allow her to decide the manner and method of the disposition," he said.
- - - - - - - - - -

** The New York Times's account of Leibovitz's troubles on July 31, 2009, can be read by clicking here. David Eubank's analysis of the same on August 3, 2009 can be read by clicking here.

(Original material © 2009 by David Kusumoto.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why are millions so easily duped? Michael Jackson "alive" video hoax exposed.


** I admit that I'm probably one of the few people who – while recognizing Michael Jackson's talent and global impact – is tired of reading about him. Thus I kind of chuckled when I found out about a fake video that surfaced last week of Jackson, seemingly emerging "alive" - from the back of a Los Angeles County coroner's van - fooling millions of fans.

** More than two months after his death, the thirst for information of ANY KIND about the King of Pop is unquenchable - so much so that many wishful thinkers desperately want to believe that Jackson is still alive – even though the perpetrators of this video hoax put it out there ON PURPOSE. They wanted to demonstrate how some people will believe anything they see posted on the Internet.

** The video I've posted below is split in two parts.

** The first part shows Jackson "emerging alive from a Los Angeles County coroner's van." It came from "LosAngelesCot24" at http://bit.ly/7YSNZ. He says he got it from "a trustworthy source" that he's known for years - and that he's "sure it's real - and that Michael is alive." His version got more than 1 million hits.

** The second part is in German.  It shows how the hoax was created by RTL, a German television company – using phony decals and stickers on a "coroner's van" – and getting a young actor to put on make up and a wig to "stand-in" as Michael Jackson. The video was shot in a garage near Cologne, Germany. It came from "MUZIKfactory2," at http://bit.ly/hucT5.

** RTL told the Associated Press (full story below) that it took the video down after one day, knowing that it would be copied and circulated worldwide on the Internet.

** Here's the full story as it appeared today. It was written by Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Jake Coyle in New York:

     BERLIN (AP) - A hoax video purportedly showing Michael Jackson emerging from a coroner's van was an experiment aimed at showing how quickly misinformation and conspiracy theories can race across the Internet, German broadcaster RTL said Tuesday.
     The video was posted by RTL on YouTube for a single day a week ago and received 880,000 hits. The broadcaster has since removed the video from YouTube, but it has been picked up by other Web sites around the world.
     "We wanted to show how easily users can be manipulated on the Internet with hoax videos," spokesman Heike Schultz of Cologne-based RTL told The Associated Press. "Therefore, we created this video of Michael Jackson being alive, even though everybody knows by now that he is dead - and the response was breathtaking."
     Jackson died June 25 in Los Angeles.
     The video - posted under an "anonymous source" - shows a coroner's van entering what seems like a parking garage and the King of Pop getting out of the back with another person. The lighting is bad, the sound muffled and the footage appears amateurish.
     "Unfortunately, many people believed it was true," Schultz said. "Even though we tried to create the video in a way that every normal user can see right away that it is a fake."
     He said the video was shot near Cologne - "definitely not in the U.S." The van in the video had the word "CORONER" printed in English, suggesting it had been recorded in America.
     RTL admitted to the hoax in an Aug. 26 report on its daily news show Explosiv.
     Hoaxes and rumors commonly spread like wildfire on the Internet. Videos of flying saucers and impossible stunts routinely are among the most-viewed on video-sharing sites, though purported evidence of the deceased being alive is less common than false rumors of someone's death.
     The rise of Twitter and its real-time microblogging has quickened the pace. American actor Patrick Swayze, who is battling pancreatic cancer, had to declare that he is still alive this year after thousands of Twitter users spread news that he was dead. Actor Jeff Goldblum had to do the same.
     The RTL spokesman said some Jackson fans were upset by the German broadcaster's actions.
     "We didn't want to dishonor Michael Jackson, but we needed a strong name to get this experiment going," Schultz said. "Had we used Britney Spears, then the fans of Britney would have complained."

** People who fall for such stuff remind me of the poor things who are habitually attracted to conspiracy theories. They don't believe in anything that's "official," that authorities have plenty to hide, that too many holes exist in their accounts of "what really happened," e.g., Elvis Presley is still alive, Walt Disney's body was frozen so he can be revived after a cure for cancer is found - and that 9/11 was an inside job - created or allowed to happen by George W. Bush.

** In an age where non-stop reality TV has blurred the lines between what's bogus and what's real - I believe every parent should use this video as a way to demonstrate to their children - that not everything they see on the Internet is true.

(Original material © 2009 by David Kusumoto.)