Monday, November 24, 2008

Coming Soon: Part 2, American Communism

So Guns N' Roses finally got around to releasing Chinese Democracy.  What's it been?  17 years in the making?  Millions of dollars to make (I heard $13 mil ca. 2005).  Is it any good?  Will it sell?  Does anyone care?

In order: Probably not, maybe, yes-but-not-for-long.

Let's run this down:  First, is it good?

Well, so far I'm not impressed with what I've heard--one listening apiece of two songs, neither of which inspired any confidence in me at the time.  Which is not to say that the rest of the album isn't good, it's possible that they decided to launch a legendary comeback with sub-standard material and are holding out the big guns for the die-hards who actually buy the record.

Oh, who am I kidding?

I checked Metacritic, and the record has a meta-score of 64, which is falls barely into the category of "good" by Metacritic's standards, but that apparently doesn't mean anything because no one writes bad reviews of new music.  Of the 100-odd albums listed on the sidebar, there's not a single one listed as "bad", and only a handful listed as "okay".  For perspective, Mariah Carey's "E=MC2" is at 63 and Madonna's "Hard Candy" is at 65.  Neither is selling.

Okay, since I started writing this, the score has jumped to 69, putting it on par with AC/DC's latest disappointment.

The biggest problem is that everything about it is stamped "early 90's"; even the title feels dated.  And by "dated" I of course mean "stupid".  What was mildly clever 20 years ago is a bit silly now--especially since we've all heard the joke many many times over.  Christ, I mean, they just hosted the Olympics.  The world moved on--didn't you get the memo, Axl?

Also, the band doesn't really exist--everyone else has moved on to other projects; apparenly Axl didn't get that memo either.  And the philosophy behind the album reflects a 90's music-industry mindset.  The last new material we got from GN'R was the dually released set of Use Your Illusion records.  Those sold very well: they debuted at #1 and #2 (pretty good, since they were released on the same day), and a band that is thoroughly on top of its game could maybe follow that up with a "triple-album", which is how Chinese Democracy was conceived.  Now, Democracy is the first disc in a "trilogy" (equally pretentious in my eyes) to be released by 2012.  Well, it only took 17 years for the first disc, so I think 3-4 years for the other 2/3 is totally reasonable.  I jest.  I think we can safely expect delays.  Or who knows, maybe they'll hit a groove.

It's also worth noting that, as with every other 90's band that has regrouped for the 21st century, modern production values kind of undermine the sound.  Glam rock was about putting 5 awesome musicians in a room and capturing the magic.  The new album sounds a bit too... well, polished, a little less real.  Smashing Pumpkins new material suffers from this.  A post-boy-band gloss over 90's-rock composition?  It's ever-so-slightly jarring.

But will it sell?

Hard to say, there are an awful lot of variables at play.  First off, it's available exclusively through Best Buy (seriously, Axl, if you're not going to read the memos, I'm just going to stop sending them).  That said, GN'R's retrospective sold extremely well, proving that they still have at least some kind of fan base.  And it's got the whole "train-wreck" going for it.  So it might.  It easily could.  Nothing's really selling these days, but maybe this will.

I don't expect parts 2 and 3 to sell, though.  Because I think people will be thoroughly over Axl by 2012 or 2016, or whenever he actually delivers them (he's on pace for 2042)--just send us a memo, k?  K.

Seriously, though, unless the whole act gets back together (or at least 3/4 of it... okay, Slash at a minimum), maybe for a Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame induction, I can't see the public keeping up interest.  Frankly, I'm a little surprised anyone has held on this long.  Axl has dicked around the public for too long, reneging on his promises to fans, cancelling shows, et al.

We'll see.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: The Brothers Bloom

Man, this has been my week for pre-screenings. It's almost like living in LA again, except that it's currently 26 degrees outside.

It doesn't do that in LA.

The Brothers Bloom is the latest... erm... second film from writer/director Rian Johnson. His previous film, Brick, is a detective noir set in a California high school and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most perfect movies ever committed to celluloid. While Brick had a production budget of half a million dollars (which is not much for a film with several recognizable stars in it) and was filmed at Johnson's childhood haunts, it works on the strength of clever dialog, beautiful (if quirky) cinematography, and a well-written story.

Brilliance on a budget--but what happens when you give the ingenue some real money to play with on the strength of a cobbled-together debut? Will it be an Empire Strikes Back or a Southland Tales?

The good news: The Brothers Bloom is wonderfully entertaining. Is it better than Brick? Well, that's hard to answer, because it's a very, very different type of movie. The only carry-overs are a couple of cameos. Nora Zehetner, dressed up as what could be a femme fatale, shows up for about a minute and flirts with Adrian Brody. This is about 59-and-a-half seconds longer than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's whip-pan, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in which he has no lines but is dressed up as what could be a private investigator.

Okay, Johnson's cousin Nathan still did the music, and I'm sure several crew members came back, but nothing about Brothers feels like a re-tread, unlike the aforementioned Southland Tales. The comparison is worth a moment's pause. Richard Kelly's debut Donnie Darko is an incomprehensible (or at least under-explained) sci-fi tale peppered with brilliant character moments, an ironically-cool 80's-tastic soundtrack, and perhaps the weirdest iconic antagonist ever. Thusly, it has achieved a cult of loyal followers, gets regularly re-screened at art house theatres (you know it's art-house because of the spelling). Then Tales came out, which was equally incomprehensible but somewhat less enjoyable (I'm told--I haven't bothered with it). It attempted to expound upon the Darko-verse sci-fi mythos, only on a more sprawling, epic scale, but really all it did was convince us that Donnie Darko was a fluke--a happy accident that will not soon be reproduced.

But I digress.

The Brothers Bloom is a fairy tale of con artists. It's the story of two brothers, Stephen and Bloom (their surname is never given, which makes the title something of an oddity--but not like a Quantum of Solace level oddity, although I've read somewhere that maybe "Bloom" is their last name, we just never learn Bloom's first name) who grew up bouncing between foster homes. Their finely-tuned mischief develops into a full-fledged confidence scheme that inspires them to pursue a livelihood of it--only they put the "artist" in "con artist". The creative genius is the older brother, Stephen (played by Mark Ruffalo) who is ever in search of the perfect con or a genuine "wow" from his compatriots. His brother wants freedom--or maybe love. He doesn't know what he wants, but he wants out. They are assisted by a Japanese explosives expert named Bang-Bang. She has maybe three spoken words in the entire film and steals every single scene she touches. Lastly, there's Rachel Weisz as Penelope, the beautiful (if quirky) mark.

The elaborate ruse will take them from New Jersey to Greece to Prague to Mexico. The dialog is witty, sharp and at times Suessian. The shots are gorgeous, and the sight gags are out of this world. I think most of the budget actually went towards explosions and wrecking expensive cars--none of which are all that plot-important, but they're all quite funny. In fact, what I think I liked third-most about this film is the way it laughs in the face of cool. It never tries to be cool, and most of the "cool" things that happen are just there to frame the characters and their stories. Penelope drives a bright yellow Lamborghini... into things.  She can juggle chainsaws, but she can't keep up a conversation.  Stephen gets an upsetting telegram which he burns defiantly, only to realize that he had nowhere to put the flaming thing, which resulted in about 15 seconds of nervous stomping.  There are no fancy computer interfaces--their schemes are laid out on crudely-scrawled flowcharts.  Even the plot-driving "con" plays second fiddle to its participants.

Sadly, this is where things break down a bit.  You can't have a con-film without an elaborate con-ending, and while the ending is unexpected and totally in-line with the characters, the justification for it seems a bit flimsy.  In fact, the whole last-quarter or so drags ever-so-slightly, which takes the overall rating a notch down from "perfect" to "damned good".  My other complaint is the late-arriving antagonist Diamond Dog, a former mentor who is distractingly over-the-top and mysterious.  There is obvious bad blood between DD and his former protoges, but it's never explained fully.  I don't normally have a problem with that, but to have such an unlikely villain (cape, eyepatch and all) show up out of the blue was awkward.  But there was plenty of unexplained background that did work--one of my favorite bits involved Bloom commenting on Bang-Bang's choice of getaway car, a '79 Caddy, which he described as "controversial".

(Ham-handed segue in 3...2..1...)

In addition to background information, there was plenty of good background action, which may be my second-most favorite thing about this flick.  Film is, above all, a visual medium, and there was always something going on visually that told the story.  There's a hilarious bit with a sugar dispenser in an early scene that not only entertains, but tells the viewer a great deal more about the brother's relationship than the dialog that they speak over it, which gives the movie plenty of layers through which to tell the tale.

All of it adds up to a movie that is smart--and this is my first-most favorite thing: a good, well-written story.  And in that regard, it doesn't matter what it's about.  It could be about siamese twins who run a flower shop, but as long as it's well-written, I'll see it and I'll enjoy it.  So often these days it's about the pitch, but there are many things that I love dearly where the premise turned me off, but great story-telling won me over (off the top of my head, Finding Nemo and The West Wing).  Conversely, that are fabulous premises that have completely alienated me with bad writing (I'm looking at you, 24).

Rian Johnson seems to understand this.  This is why he can take such wacky story ideas and turn them into fully-fleshed stories with compelling characters and strong narratives.  Indeed, an overarching theme of The Brothers Bloom is the value (and potential profit) of a well-written story, best summarized by Bloom, who is quoting his brother:

"There are no unwritten lives, only badly-written ones."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Spam-a-cide, part 3

So, remember my spam experiment?  To see how big a number I could get in my spam filter without deleting anything before the sheer scope of it drove me bonkers?  Remember how I was at 94 messages after a day and a half.

Well, it's been a week and I'm up to... 175?  What happened?

This happened.  Apparently 75% (or so) of the world's spam all came from one web host in San Jose, CA, and that host has been shut down.  So, if you were interested in purchasing stock in McColo Corp... don't.

Speaking of stock.  Dude, where's the economy?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Milk

Abby and I caught a pre-screening of Milk, the new Gus Van Sant film that chronicles the rise and fall of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California (namely, member of the San Francisco board of City Supervisors), as well as his pivotal role in the American Gay Rights movement of the late 70's.

This is the kind of film Van Sant should direct. He has a tendency to let the camera serve as "witness", which sometimes works, but often doesn't. I remember watching Elephant and being somewhat distracted by a two minute tracking shot that followed a guy walking around a high school... not talking to anyone... just walking around. Slowly. With the exception of the opening shot, I think every single frame in that film is at eye-level, because the camera is simply and observer.

The pseudo-documentary nature of Milk lends itself more to this manner of filmmaking. Van Zant uses quite a lot of archival footage to add to the documentary feel (i.e., drive home the realism) and often as establishing shots, which procludes the need to re-create 1978 San Francisco. Although Castro Street, where most of the movie was shot, was faithfully de-aged.

The story is bookended with Harvey's relationship with his long-time lover and campaign manager Scott. The middle plays out, well, like a Wikipedia entry about Harvey Milk. I could complain about the pacing a little, it's slow and you never quite know where it's going, but the story gets told and the end result is quite moving. And in what I think is a particularly well-crafted bit of narrative, Harvey's death (this is not a spoiler, it's told to you in the first 5 minutes of the film) looms over the ending, and the tension created by the arrival of death threats and the knowledge that something tragic is about to happen keeps the last thirty minutes from getting dull.

All in all, it's a well-told tale featuring a superb cast (I smell an Oscar for Penn, and perhaps some recognition for Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black). James Franco was particularly enjoyable.

And it is unabashedly forthright with the sexuality of its characters. Don't expect to see man-sex, but there's plenty of kissing and snuggling.

Worth seeing.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

So What's a Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Exactly?

So I was reading this article about the 9 most inappropriate soundtrack choices of all time (care of Cracked) which references The Vapors' Turning Japanese and Timbuk3's The Future's So Bright I've Gotta Wear Shades, two of the three most well-known instances of "Hey, that song's not about what you think it's about" (The third being Every Breath You Take by The Police).

Now, there's always a certain schadenfreude on the part of writers when their work is misunderstood--it grants them the opportunity to appear both wise and condescending (silly listener!).  But I've been mulling these over a bit and I've come to the following conclusion: widespread misinterpretation is a failure on the part of the songwriter.  The fact that people dance to Every Breath You Take at their weddings is not tragically ironic so much as it indicates a flaw in the way the song was crafted.  And don't get me wrong, it's a great song; it's just not actually about what Sting intended it to be about.

Let me further stipulate that I have nothing against ambiguity in songcraft.  I'm a child of the 90's; there are myriad songs I love that are not obviously about anything or that are obviously about something but it's not immediately apparent what that something is.  The classic example in the case of the latter would be Pearl Jam's Jeremy, which references a specific, horrific event but does not spell out the bloody details in the lyric sheet--but it came out at a time when MTV was ubiquitous and the video told all.  Just to be balanced, for an example of the former, look at, I dunno, anything at all by Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins.

I like ambiguity.  I like the fact that Seal never prints lyric sheets because he wants people to interpret his songs independent of, you know, what he actually wrote.  Granted, Don't Cry is hardly a labyrinth of imagism, but you see what I'm getting at.  What I'm taking umbrage with here is the instance in which a song is obviously about something but the writer insists that it's obviously about something else.

Of course the grand-daddy of all misinterpreted song meanings is Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its colorful acid-rock imagery and title that can be abbreviated "L.S.D."  Lennon always insisted that it wasn't directly a reference to the drug, but rather was inspired by a picture with the same title drawn by his five-year-old son.  While I would hesitate to call that bad writing, Lennon and McCartney have both admitted to oversight, that they simply didn't notice the initials of the song until it was pointed out to them years after Sgt. Pepper's release.  And, to be fair, it was the 60's, there was a lot more cause for members of the counter-culture to veil the less wholesome bits of their public fare--this was, after all, the same era that saw The Kingsmen formally investigated by the F.B.I. over the possibility of cursing in their cover of Louie Louie.  That the misinterpretation has persisted is more of a cultural phenomenon than anything else.

Okay, all things disclaimed, let's get on to some unqualified bad writing.

Turning Japanese was, and in some circles still is, thought to be about masturbation--the verses involve the song's narrator looking at a picture of his former love, and the joke was that a man in coitus makes an expression similar to that which he would make if he was imitating a Japanese person.  The authors of the song insist that it's not about masturbation, but rather the way that Japanese manufacturing was outpacing American manufacturing in the 80's tech industries.  Nice story, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  The lyric sheet gives no mention of technology, so if that's what they were going for, they failed miserably.  One could make the argument that it's nonsensical, that they had the bones of a love song constructed, then started it off one day with that classic Japanese-sounding pentatonic riff (as a joke) and liked it so much that they worked the chorus around it.  I totally buy that.  But I can't help wondering if The Vapors thought they were being extremely clever when, in reality, they were only being moderately clever.  Perhaps they simply never expected anyone to figure out the masturbation reference and had the "tech" story ready as an explainer "just in case".  I think it's possible that they simply suffered from a gross lack of subtlety, only to be rousingly trumped by The DaVinyls' I Touch Myself a few years later.  Nowadays the idea of a song about wanking off is nothing special--hell, there were two of those on Green Day's breakout album, including the lead single Longview.

Timbuk3, conversely, seem to have overdone subtlety.  With The Future's So Bright... they constructed what is arguably the most upbeat song for any graduation party ever, ever.  However, they claim that it's actually about the grim prospect of a nuclear holocaust, which makes it tragically ironic.  No.  No, I don't think so.  Here's my reasoning: if your song is about nuclear holocaust, it ought to have words in it like "bomb" or "explosion" or "death" or something.  "Nuclear" comes up, always in the context of "I study nuclear science".  But most nuclear scientists don't grow up to make bombs.  Many of them work in nuclear reactors, power plants--signs of a bright future and advancing technology.  Bad writing, pure and simple: if you're going to write a song about something, make sure that the song at least hints at what it's about.  There is no doubt in my mind that Timbuk3 intended the song to be about bombs, and knowing that does give the song a bit of a macabre sheen.  In fact, there is even a slower version of the song with an added verse that mentions "blowin'" things.  But the definitive version of the song--i.e., the one that people have actually heard--is bereft of any clue that might point the listener towards the intended subject.  Fail.

None of this is too surprising: The Vapors and Timbuk3 were one-hit wonders, a status that might have been avoided if they were better at songwriting.  Our last example is a bit more in the vein of the Beatles song mentioned above: The Police's Every Breath You Take, which is about a stalker but which is regarded by the casual listener as being simply a song of unrequieted love.  Sting is not a bad songwriter--he's had an expansive career as a solo artist and as the front man for The Police.  He's also written many mainstream songs about misplaced love and awkward relationships--e.g., Don't Stand So Close to Me about an affair between a student and teacher, or After the Rain which tells the story of a princess who falls briefly in love with a thief (and implied rapist) who breaks into her room on the night before her pre-arranged marriage.  Why shouldn't we believe him that the song is about a stalker?

Because it isn't.  Read the lyrics.  Listen to it.  It isn't about a stalker.  Maybe he meant for it to be, but it just isn't.  It is, pure and simple, an unrequieted love song.  Yes, some of the lyrics are vaguely stalker-ish, but isn't that true of most love songs?  The only hard-and-fast clue is a musical one: under the word "you" in the line "I'll be watching you," at that cadence the song drops to a minor key.

Not good enough.  To paraphrase my wife in her rants about modern art (and she's an art historian, so she can speak with some authority here), art needs to work without explanation.  It can be the doorway into a larger world, but if you have to read the description in order to appreciate the piece at all, then the piece is a failure.  If you have to have played the video game or read the comic book in order to appreciate the film based on it, it's a failure.  This applies to just about anything.  It can be intentionally vague, it can have fan-service, but it needs to work as a stand-alone project as well (with the possible exception of sequels, which can be seen as chapters in a larger work).  Every Breath... works as a stand-alone artistic work, as an unrequieted love song.  So that's what it is.

With due apologies to Sting.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Spam-a-cide, part 2

In ironic news:

I just got a pop up advertising a spam blocker.


I've randomly decided to not empty my spam filter, as I am wont to do on a roughly daily basis. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations (as well as the numbers on Abby's account) suggest that I can look forward to around 1500 or more before my spam folder starts to auto-delete messages. Of course, this has less to do with the volume I can accumulate within a 30 day span and more to do with how high that number gets before I can't take it any more and delete the lot.

Right now, I'm at 93.

Make that 94.


Casting a Ballot Into HELL!!!!

This past election saw a multitude of Catholic voters flee the pro-life GOP.  Many of these voters are Democrats anyway, but the Catholic church (and other churches as well) have consistently used the pulpit as a pro-life campaign platform--more so perhaps in this election than in the past.  Even more ridiculously, a South Carolina priest (in a move that strikes me as being particularly Jonathan Edwards-y) has instructed his parishioners that they are not to accept Communion if they voted for Obama.

This is a big deal.  To Catholics, you can't get into heaven if you don't receive the sacraments.  I'm reminded of my grandfather, who was told that he couldn't receive communion because he had divorced his first wife.  Then they told him that he could receive communion again eventually, but only if he kept up his tithing.

He's not a church-goer anymore.

This will not end well for the Catholic church, methinks.  To most Americans, religion is a luxury, not a lifeblood.  And many Americans have adopted the belief that a Republican victory would make an ailing nation even sicker--they see a vote for Obama as an investment in their children's future.  Loved ones will win out over ideals nearly every time.

Which is not to say that this swing isn't tempered by a certain amount of cynicism.  The Republicans have, after all, had eight years to overturn Roe v. Wade--eight years without anything that resembles action at the federal level.  And it's this side of ten years ago that the Catholic church erupted in child molestation scandal.  If the Church cares so much about children, why was it so consistently willing to disregard the children of its own parishioners?

No doubt the irony of this is lost on the clergy, but not the parishioners.

This will definitely not end well for the church.  Maybe this is me being... well... cynical, but in my experience, anything that forces someone to critically evaluate their religious beliefs is going to gently nudge that person away from said beliefs--and this is doubly true for religions that are long on ceremony.  This actually has less to do with the nature of religion than the nature of believers.  I know some devout people, but I would argue that they are the exception rather than the rule.

But it breaks down like this: people like structure, they want security, they want to socialize, they want an understanding of the world, and they want to believe that they are basically good people doing a little something to make the world a better place.  For good or for ill, religion provides all of this in a world that is uncertain and amoral.  Which is why many churches end up with a few crazy-devout people and a lot of basically-good people who want a weekend pep talk and a chance to meet socially with like-minded others.  And you can fire them up with groupthink or appeals to basic emotional reactions (which is why abortion and homosexuality are hot-button issues, in spite of the fact that there's far more call in the Bible for things like, you know, feeding the poor), but reality has to set in eventually.

Just like the repeal of the Fish-On-Fridays Act caused people (as in, people I'm related to) to evaluate their beliefs and decide that the Catholic church is a bunch of hooey, this "Obama = Hell" platform is going to make people reconsider their allegiance and either transfer to a church that better-resembles a social club, or just give up on God altogether.  Because real people know that abortion is not the only issue on the table.

Because idealism is a luxury, and these are not luxurious times.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Speech-To-Text Still Works

Google Reader now translates posts for you.

Sow eye ham pose-ting dis four thee soul, hen-tire porpoise hove missing width hit.

Spellcheck that, if ewe dare!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Love/Hate the Internets

This is why I love/hate the internets. When I first espied this, these were the only answers. They were then immediately followed by five posts (my own included) that actually answered the question.


From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:15 pm
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Did McCain or Obama win? We have not heard yet in china.

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:16 pm
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Nope... it was James Earl Jones

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jo_jo - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:17 pm
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Sorry, we cancelled the elections due to presidential edict # 493.
Better luck next time.

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:19 pm
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daa uhh....daaa..uhhh......McCain!

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:26 pm
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Don't worry about it comrade, we will soon join you in lacking
Internet access as well. Forget america, its no longer worth
considering. How can someone move to China is my question. At least
the relatively honest there, and I'd be 1 foot taller than everyone

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:29 pm
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Oh! Almost forgot... We're not paying back any of that money we
borrowed. We figure it closes the account on saving you from the Japs.

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:34 pm
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due to ling lines at the polls, all the republicans were asked to vote
today. so will find out soon who the HNIC is.

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Leonid L - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:38 pm
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All of the 160 million of the Ralph Nader supporters decided their
vote won't matter anyway, and stayed at home.

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From: - view profile
Wed, Nov 5 2008 2:40 pm
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Obama got shot, McCain had a stroke, Bush ODed on coke. So Cheany
thought in the best interest of the country he would be prez for the
next 4 years. Oh by the way he appointed Pallin VP.