Don’t trust Petersons

The Staircase
The Staircase

The Staircase does a really interesting job of exploring the complicated case of Michael Peterson.  In 2001, Peterson called 911 and reported that his wife had fallen down the stairs.  When authorities arrived, the condition of the body and excessive amount of blood on the stairs made them think it was not an accident.  This series documents the trial that followed.

The series oscillates between disbelief of Peterson (chapters 2 and 3 are particularly damning) and then succeeding belief of him.  Despite filmmaker attempts at neutrality, the case ends up being very one-sided.   I had a couple impressions about why this was:

  • The prosecution cut off access to the film crews very early in the two years of filming.  When you have extensive footage of one side of the story and hardly any of the other, it’s hard to be balanced.
  • The filmmaker is French, and saw this case as a particularly egregious abuse of the American justice system.

Having read a bit more about the case on the web, I feel that the film leaned too far away from objectivity, and that I need to read more to get a better sense of the case.  That said, the documentary is gripping and exciting, and well worth the 8 hours.

Jenny and I noticed something, though.  You’ve got to watch out for Petersons.  Case in point:

  • 2001: Michael Peterson accused of killing wife Kathleen.  Convicted and serving life sentence.
  • 2002: Scott Peterson accused of killing wife Laci.  Convicted and on death row.
  • 2004, 2007: Drew Peterson currently stands accused of having killed his third and fourth wives.

More below the fold, but with spoilers galore.

Continue reading Don’t trust Petersons

Baby Mama

Rockin' the breast pump
Rockin' the breast pump

We watched Baby Mama last night and I was pleasantly surprised.  Its premise looked very stupid to me, but the film actually had a bit of complicated character development and entertaining interaction between Fey and Poehler.  The Tina Fey juggurnaut rolls on.

  • As my wife put it at the end of the film: once you have children, movie children look idyllic in a kind-of insulting way.
  • Fey’s character showed a great balance of modern womanhood, neither stereotyped nor falling into those stereotypes.  I thought, early on, that the pressure of the impending baby would result in her deciding that corporate life wasn’t worth it–not so.
  • The only downside of the Greg Kinnear love interest story is that it was so obvious.  Because he’s the first other big star to show up in the film (save Steve Martin), it’s telegraphed from a mile away.  And of course, he couldn’t just be a guy who opened a juice store, he had to be a former-corporate lawyer who opened a juice store.
  • The film’s not very friendly to the uneducated.  But should it be?  I wonder if there are people who saw this movie and found it insulting, or if everyone sees themselves as not Amy Pohler’s character.
  • A great battle of the superstar side characters: Steve Martin vs. Sigourney Weaver.  I give it to Steve by a hair.  Or rather, a magnificent ponytail reminiscent of Tim Robbins’ High Fidelity mane.
  • How is it that IVF comes up three times in three different media in 24 hours?  First we watch Baby Mama, then I read that A.J. Jacobs and his wife Julie conceived their twins via IVF in The Year of Living Biblically, and then this morning we heard on the news about the mother of six who gave birth to octuplets yesterday via IVF.  Jeebus.

All in all, this movie surprised me pleasantly.  Much like Mean Girls, which I also didn’t think I would enjoy, the movie starts from the place of a specific genre and then pushes forward into unlikely territory via complicated characters and/or plot development.

What are you doin’ to me, Wii Fit?

So aside from being passive-aggressive with its advice and cranky when you don’t call, Wii Fit is now mixing stuff up on me, to keep things interesting, I guess.  Here are two changes that happened yesterday:

Wii Fit instructor
Wii Fit instructor

When I started my Yoga exercises for the day, I started with an exercise I don’t do very often.  When it started, instead of my vaguely-Norwegian pony-tailed dude whom I think of as Hans, I had the creepy globe-boobed female instructor; for some reason, I find the female much creepier than the man, though they both have the distinct look of a mannequin come to life.  Andrew McCarthy wouldn’t have been so hot for Kim Cattrall if she’d kept her plaster-white skin and plastic-molded face.  Anyhow, before the exercise started, she says to me:

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be filling in as your instructor today.

I was a little weirded out.  What, is Hans sick?  It would have been awesome if she’d said he had a virus.  Ha ha.  It went fine — she gives the same contradictory advice that my Hans does:

Your legs are a little shaky.  Concentrate on straightening your spine.

[a moment passes]

You have great balance!

Then, just as I’ve made peace with having a different instructor for today, Hans is back.  I guess he just was just stuck in traffic or something.

Wii fit jogging
Wii fit jogging

2.  There’s a jogging game that measures the movement of the Wiimote as you run in place.  It’s moderately fun as you move around the scenic island.  You follow a friend who tries to keep you from having an uneven pace.  Yesterday, instead of running with me the whole way, my buddy got lazy and outsourced his leading job.  His replacement, a dog.

The dog took over the pace setting and led me for a lovely run along the beach instead of the usual path.  Most amusing was the real dog-ness of the character.  At one point, another runner passes us and the dog’s head turns as though he’s pondering chasing them.  He stuck to his job and led me across the finish line, though.  Good boy.

Music to start your semester

I picked three interesting and delightful albums to listen to this first week.

The Anti-Biotics
The Anti-Biotics

The Anti-Biotics
A solid pop-punk album in the vein of Blink 182 or Less Than Jake.  The first song, “Pineview,” sounds very reminiscent of an LTJ song, enough that I keep thinking it’s a cover.

All five songs are delightful, but “Spin at 33” stands out to me.  The song has a bit more mellow feeling than the others, and its metaphor carries a bit more heft than the other songs.  I like the idea of wanting to make lost love last a bit longer, and the connection to the punk/ska tradition of releasing 45s works well for me.

Check out “Spin at 33” by The Anti-Biotics

Brad Sucks, Out of It

Brad Sucks, Out Of It
Brad Sucks, Out Of It

This album is fantastic.  I really like the modern/retro 80s feel, and the vocals are very good.  The moody voice and solid rhythms work very well.

“Dropping out of School” really works well.  The infectious beat and solid lyrics capture an 80s feel without feeling retrograde.  “Fake it” makes great use of the Seattle grunge guitar, weaving in under the lyrics.  By contrast, “Bad Sign” uses acoustic guitar with the same kind of slightly-processed sounding vocals to develop a very different feel, meditative and melancholy. “Total Breakdown” has a vocal pattern with sustained notes that reminds me of Beach Boys, but rockin.  Like Everclear, kinda.

The only song I don’t like is “Gasoline,” not because there’s anything wrong with it — it just doesn’t suit me.

My favorite song on the album is “There’s Something Wrong,” which captures many of the excellent qualities of Brad Sucks and his music.  Check out “There’s Something Wrong” by Brad Sucks

Ted Striker

Ted Striker
Ted Striker

I couldn’t resist downloading this album.  Really, could you?  An Airplane! joke?  Awesome.

The production values on the album are very high — the balance between vocals and music works well, the drums are solid without being overpowering.

I would put this album somewhere between pop-punk and straight up contemporary rock or alternative music.  While I enjoy the four tracks musically, the language barrier does get in the way for me.  Being unable to understand the words, the rhythm of the syntax needs to have an attractive hook to really grab me.  (The ultimate Internet example of this would be the “Numa Numa” song.) That said, these four songs are promising, but they didn’t really grab me.

My favorite is “Cuervo,” which has a variety of musical sounds, varying vocals (including a delightful “oh oh oh” from a the chorus), a jaunty rhythm, and a few quick jumps into falsetto from its lead singer.

Science fosters good values

From a New York Times essay by Dennis Overbye

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world….

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

(Found via Pharyngula)

An excellent essay about the importance of science for our culture, the damage myopic dogma does to it, and the connection between science, democracy, and reason.

Let’s take a ride…

I’m trying something new here: mircofiction.

My phone chirps. “Okay, looks like they picked up a real nerd,” Dave’s voice crackles.

I smile.  Brainiacs always mean more dough.  I nose into traffic and roll up to where they’d been.  I stop for a second and the taxi behind me honks as Dave runs out and jumps into the passenger seat.  He tosses the gun mic over his shoulder and mumbles the address he’d overheard, “Corner of Elizabeth and Bleecker.”  I nod and we roll, tracking the minivan in the light mid-afternoon traffic.   I stay well back from the follow car, an unadorned white van, and we move like a child’s string of ducks, each tethered and pulled along by the ducks in front.  I absentmindedly watch the stoplights to make sure we don’t get cut off.

Dave chuckles as the light at 10th street turns red and the target stops.  We’ve gone nearly 20 blocks, so that has to be enough.  When the light changes and we start moving again, the car in front of me turns right and suddenly I’m directly behind the follow car.  Dave and I start chatting; it helps you hold your “normal guy” face.   Dave suggests that the Mets will go all the way this year.  I suggest that anyone who disagrees is certainly an asshat.  We bitch about the Yankees for a while.

I perk up as the target moves suddenly to the curb.  “Shit.” Dave mumbles.  There’s nothing to do but go around the block.  The follow van has just pulled in behind them and it will look bad if we stop too.  It’s risky, but there’s no choice.  I watch for a gap along the curb where I can stop, but there’s nothing.  Even the damn fire hydrant is blocked by a diplomat car, its windshield already festooned with two parking tickets.  I turn the corner and circle the block, trying to be both fast enough to get back around before they leave and slow enough that we don’t pass them again.  It pays off, and we’re suddenly back in place, two cars behind the follow van.  Dave slaps the dashboard, grinning like a jackal.

Three more blocks and we’re there.  I drop Dave at the corner and watch him lope away as I pass the follow van and the target.  I turn the corner and park half a block up between a beat-up Civic and a shiny Prius in a spot big enough to pull into nose-first.  It’s not more than a minute before Dave yanks open the door and we’re nosing into traffic again.  He tucks the sap into his inside jacket pocket as he counts the crisp bills.  “Twelve hundred fifty,” he says.

“Good haul,” I say.  I love the Cash Cab.


Kahlua Truffle

So I haven’t lost my touch. After a year’s hiatus from truffle making, I made a tasty comeback with a half-batch of this liqueur favorite. I used Valrhona 65% Cocoa Dark Bittersweet chocolate for both the ganache and the outside coating. The ganache had a bit of Kahlua in it too. Then I drizzled melted Valrhona white chocolate as a garnish.

As often happens with the liqueur truffles, the fat from the cream started to separate when the ganache was cooling, but a quick once-around in the magic bullet saved the day. The tempering process went well, despite my letting the initial melting process go over 120F (the recipe cautions against going over 115F). I’d forgotten how quickly the temperature rises, and how darn slowly it drops.

Ali G Indahouse

Ali G and Ricky C
Ali G and Ricky C

Quick plot summary: the scheming deputy PM wants to be PM, so he tries to arrange the downfall of the current PM by supporting Ali G as representative to Parliament.  When Ali loses, the PM will be deposed and in comes the assistant.  As you can expect, Ali foils these plans when he gets elected and helps the pricks in Parliament learn to keep it real.

I’m not sure what I expected from Ali G Indahouse, but here are some bullets of what I found:

  • There were some genuinely delightful surprises, starting with Martin Freeman and Michael Gambon.  Both men always a treat.
  • There were several very funny moments, mostly when Ali G is doing the, um, Ali G shtick.  Then, as the film progresses, it falls more and more into the conventional fish out of water comedy niche, ala Troop Beverly Hills or Son In Law.  I choose those films because the conventional-ness of the plot fits precisely.  But there are hundreds of movies that follow this plotline.
  • There are lots of jokes that I found myself thinking that I’d seen them before.  A quick rundown of a few: 1) a bunch of stiff folks get secretly doped up with marijuana and relax (Dick); 2) Despite having been let down by their hero, a group of rag-tag nogoodnicks are roused to action and save the day (Ernest Goes to Camp); 3) the incurable womanizer finds that he really loves the woman he was with (High Fidelity); 4) the outsider proves that he’s good at running Britain (King Ralph); 5) Common sense overrules old habits in legislative bodies (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde)
  • There are lots and lots of sex jokes.  Some are funny, most are not.
  • I didn’t know the plot of this movie going in, and in a strange bit of dyslexia, thought the title was Ali G Indiahouse.  I thought it would have something to do with India.  Somehow.  Only after he got elected to the house of Parliament did I understand that it was Ali G In-da-house.

Ultimately, I guess I expected a bit more sophisticated social satire.  I know that the Ali G sketches were never all that complex, but the goof of having the illiterate wanna-be hip-hop fan interviewing famous people (Boutros Boutros Ghali in one episode) doesn’t come through in the movie.

Ultimately, worth watching when you’re stuck in the basement with the dogs during your wife’s book club, but otherwise worth passing up.

Reading advice from Columbia’s bathroom scribes


Books are for girls!

(and guys who like to read!)

First day bullets

  • Moodle prints the wrong roster.  The right students, save one, come anthow.  Sorry, Cynthia.
  • Reading Alex Reid leads me to twitter microblogging is the soul of wit.  I ponder making it more brief, but find it inelegant to do so.
  • Eating an apple by oneself can be a loud, slurpy affair.  I’m not embarrassed.
  • Yellow dog just posted a list of bullets too.  Is that what made me do it?  I have a long history of cribbing style from YD.
  • Clancy just posted about making goofy faces in the grocery store.  I do that too.  I also “dance” with Avery every evening around 5pm in our living room.  I’ve seen pedestrians staring as we spin around singing “Yum yum Bumblebee, Bumblebee Tuna/ I love Bumblebee, Bumblebee Tuna.”
  • The new semester brings another opportunity to be “cool teacher.”  What happens when my self-depreciating jokes about being a nerd come true?
  • My recent batch of truffles (see post later today) came out nicely, despite the fact that it’s been nearly a year since I’ve made any.  Jenny savored one and then said, “You haven’t lost the touch.”  Nice to know.
  • I worry that 1) I post too many reviews on this blog.  2) I wouldn’t reflect as much on my media consumption if I didn’t post reviews.

Roots of Evil

Roots of Evil by Sarah Rayne
Roots of Evil by Sarah Rayne

by Sarah Rayne

I read this book as part of my mystery book club.  The story is pretty dark–I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the title and the cover of the book.  It’s not really a mystery, though.  Nor is it much of a detective story.  While there are some mysterious elements in the story, there isn’t a clear sense that you should want to or be trying to figure out the mystery.  It kind of sneaks up on you.

The plot is told in two parallel parts.  The first part takes place in the present day, with a couple cousins who start to investigate the family history of a famous film actress who murdered two people in a fit of passion.  The other part takes place in the past, with the tale of that actress being told to the reader.  As the stories intertwine, the ways that dark treatment can harm people take over the story.  I don’t want to spoil the book so I won’t say too much more.  But here are a few additional thoughts:

  • The characters are well-crafted and pretty compelling, though Edmund is a bit stereotypical.
  • The plot intertwines a bit too nicely for my taste.
  • I’m not sure about the image on the cover.  I don’t think it fits the novel as well as it could.  That said, I’ve seen many covers that are far less pertinent than this one.
  • I was hoping there would be a bit more about old-timey filmmaking.  There isn’t as much as you’d expect.
  • I’m generally not keen on books that involve the holocaust as a plot device.  It didn’t feel contrived here, but it was still not my first choice.
  • A story by Hans Heinz Ewers plays a central role in the book.  Oddly enough, my one foray into reading for Librivox was a Hans Heinz Ewers story (a different one from this book, though).  Check it out.

In its general themes, I wasn’t too excited to read the novel, but something about the shape of the narrative drew me in and led me along quite quickly for such a long book.

The Abrams Universe

Did you notice the airline tickets Agent Dunham got in the last episode of Fringe before Christmas? Oceanic Airlines. Could Massive Dynamic own a subsidiary called Dharma?

Graveyard Alive

Graveyard Alive poster
Graveyard Alive poster

Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love startled me.  I expected it to be one thing, took its early moments to be something else, and came to see it as a third thing by the time I finished.

1. A titillating stupid zombie movie.  The netflix description of the movie used the phrase “sex kitten.”  It’s hard to think this film will be anything but juvenile sex jokes.  The decolletage  and come-hither smile on the poster doesn’t undercut that feeling.

2. Early on, the style of the film is pretty disconcerting.  Graveyard Alive is shot in black and white and the entire soundtrack is looped, making the early scenes seem particularly amateurish.  The early scenes also have a mysterious monster that eludes the camera–another element that makes the film seem a bit off.  The acting style plays into this as well (see below).

3. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the cinematographic style (lingering, odd angles, crisp shadows) and the dreamy quality of the sound (enhanced by the Caligari-like soundtrack and the looped dialog) are being used intentionally.  The effect of the film hypnotizes and mesmerizes, much the same way good silent film does.  The relatively small amount of dialog in the film amplifies this effect.

A few more thoughts:

  • All the actors overplay their emotions in the ways silent film actors used to.  This is somewhat amplified by the studio-perfect sound effects that sound dubbed and give the film a disconnected aesthetic.
  • The zombies in this film have an interesting quirk — they only rot if they aren’t eating human flesh.  They also have an increased libido, which makes them more inclined to spread the zombie-ness.
  • One of the characters, Goody Tueschuze, starts out the film as a jerk whom we hate.  As the film progresses, we still don’t like her, but more and more of the narrative shifts to her perspective.  It’s a weird phenomenon you don’t see much in American movies (but it seems like I’ve seen it in Japanese movies a lot).
  • Facial cream helps hide the unsightly blemishes of zombiehood.
  • This film doesn’t have a very positive view of men–the guys at the hospital go ga-ga for nurse Patty when she dons black stockings and unbuttons her nursing uniform.  At one point, it shows her emerging from a tryst in a closet with a doctor.  He seems happily disheveled and unconcerned about the gaping wounds on her cheeks and neck.
  • I have no idea why the film has this title.  It should just be Zombie Nurse Falls in Love or something.

In the end, I wasn’t amazed by the film, but I’d grown to appreciate it for its scope and shape, in much the same way I felt about Call of Cthulu.

The Living Dead

The Living Dead
The Living Dead

edited by John Joseph Adams

Rather than write about all 34 stories in this collection, I’ll write about my top five, in no particular order.

  • “Followed” by Will McIntosh is the best story in the collection. It supposes a world in which the dead rise and instead of attacking the living, they follow them. But the dead seek out and follow people who “deserve it” according to some sort of cosmic justice. The more exorbitant your lifestyle, the more zombies choose to follow you.
  • “How the Day Runs Down” by John Langan. A zombie version of Our Town that tells, among other vignettes, the most harrowing tale in the book, of a suburban mom who isn’t able to save her kids from the zombies. Horrifying. It reminds me a lot of the wealthy suburbanite section from World War Z, except that her story ended well.
  • “Death and Suffrage” by Dale Bailey. A nice little political allegory along the lines of the Masters of Horror episode, “Homecoming,” in which veterans rise from the grave to vote out the incumbent government. Closely related is “Beautiful Stuff” by Susan Palwick, but something about Bailey’s story worked a bit better for me.
  • “Dead Like Me” by Adam-Troy Castro tells a terrifying tale of pretending to be a zombie.
  • “The Song the Zombie Sang” by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg weaves a futuristic tale in which a virtuoso musician is revived nightly in order to play his music for adoring fans. A close second to this story, for me, is “Malthusian’s Zombie” by Jeffrey Ford.

Overall the collection is interesting, but an odd mix of a variety of different kinds of zombie stories. There are several of the conventional Romero-style tales. There are several stories in the vein of Tales from the Crypt, where the zombies represent revenge or other limited actions. Then there are a few that approach the issue of zombies from a philosophical or other angle. A couple are zombie stories in the same way that “Heat Death of the Universe” is a science-fiction story–namely, tangentially.