True Crime: From Comics to Cable

I’ve been reading collections of an old comic called Crime Does Not Pay. Started during WWII (as evidenced by the many ads for war bonds) with issue 22 — renaming existing series was a common trick to avoid postal registration fees — the series presaged the post-war rise of noir and horror. Nominally reinforcing morality by demonstrating the folly of crime, the stories rely on the morbid attractions of blood and violence.

Being a big fan of noir and horror, this appeals to me on a visceral level.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve used much of this year’s sick day coverage already. This adds up to several days spent sleeping, eating soup, and watching TV. Daytime TV is a close approximation of living death, but I didn’t always have the energy to get up and find another movie to pop in.

Fortunately we have Netflix streaming, so all manner of entertainments are available to me from the remote comfort of my couch. Alas, illness makes me astonishingly forgetful. I wound up leaving the TV on ID, Discovery’s crime channel.

Watching, and napping through, umpteen hours of shows about real murders and rapes made it inevitable that a few dots would connect in my dulled brain. This has undoubtedly been mentioned long ago by those far more clever than I, but true crime shows are the modern incarnation of crime and suspense anthology comics.

Now, crime has always been a staple of TV, and it’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t find an episode of “Law & Order: What-Have-You” on one of a handful of channels at any time of the day. I’m not talking about cop shows, or lawyer shows, or even outlaw shows. Reality shows that follow investigations aren’t it either. I’m specifically talking about the shows that present real cases in as sleazy and lurid a manner as possible. Shows with names that scream panic and prurience: “Nightmare Next Door”, “Deadly Sins”, and “Pretty Bad Girls” to name but three.

All of these go beyond their stated objectives of imparting facts. They insinuate, they tantalize, and they exult in tragedy. “Nightmare Next Door”, which happens to be on while I write this, has a narrator that puns and mocks his way through each story. He might as well be Mr. Crime, the evil spirit that began serving as a narrator in Crime Does Not Pay with issue 24. Sultry music cues are not uncommon in these shows, and many re-enactment shots play up the sexual attributes of “bad girls”. “Scorned: Love Kills” plays up the prurient interest with lots of re-enacted sex, complete with overdubbed moans and sighs.

They aren’t concerned with telling a good story or presenting a detailed account. They want to grab your attention, tie it to a chair, and hold it as ransom to get ad revenue. They’re cynical crap, serving up a world of constant crime and inevitable punishment to keep us excited.

I could only love them more if they were comics.

Automated Trouble Machine

Last November, my bank experimented with a new ATM system that returned the card after the PIN was accepted. It confused me, despite clear messaging, but I quickly got used to it. It seemed to be a sensible change that would reduce the number of forgotten cards.

Then, like the fabulous city of Shangri-La, the new workflow disappeared as though it had never been. I had to readjust to the old model of getting my card at the end of the transaction.

Apparently others have not successfully adjusted.

Yesterday I stopped in at the ATM just in time to see a guy walk off without his card.

“Dude!” I called. “Your card!”

Nothing. He kept walking and turned a corner, still fussing with his money. I looked for his name on the card and got my bulk moving and shambled after him.

“Michael!” I yelled.

He stopped and turned, clearly wondering how I knew him. I handed him his card.

“Oh. Thanks.”

I trudged back to conduct my own automated transaction, wondering why exactly the bank had backed down from preventing this sort of incident.

Putting Out the Home Fires

We came home tonight and immediately smelled something strange. It was a chemical smell, and it was strong. Within minutes we discovered that the bulb of a portable light was pressed into a plush chair, and the light had been on for a long time. The plastic surface had melted, and the underlying foam was hot and crunchy.

There’s a hole in the chair, but we seem to have avoided a fire.

The thing is, neither of us remembers having left that light on. But both of us have witnessed the cats performing hijinks on that chair. It seems likely that one of them tripped the switch at some point during the day’s shenanigans.

I always suspected that they were trying to kill us, but I had no idea that the cats wanted to burn the house down.

Stasis Meeting

A while ago I attended a meeting about how to hold meetings. It was as useless as you’re probably thinking, consisting mainly of such generic tidbits as “start on time” and “don’t allow gadgets” with absolutely no discussion of how to enforce any of it. It was a waste of time, like the majority of meetings, but it didn’t approach the destructive idiocy of the status meetings that first made me a Java developer.

I told you (in Billing Time) that I became a developer because of my unpublishable novel. That led to work with HTML (which I knew), JavaScript (which I did not know), and VBScript (which I did not want to know). My path to becoming a Java developer had to with the time-honored management practice of throwing more mummies on the fire.

I’ll take a slight detour to explain that turn of phrase. The British supposedly used mummies to fuel trains in the desert because they were plentiful and wood was not. I’ve never cared to look into this claim because of fear that it’s probably true. At any rate, to my mind it’s a perfect analogy for the conventional strategy of throwing resources at a problem without considering how best they might be used. Other, tactful people call it putting butts in chairs. I call it throwing mummies on the fire.

This time the fire was a HoneyPot project that was behind schedule and I was the mummy.

My task was to write a Java application that would take test data out of a database and construct XML to use for testing. The team needed this but nobody had the time to do it. No problem. That’s an easy task, and an entirely reasonable request of someone who knew what any part of that meant.

Why did anyone think that it was a good idea to have me do it? I was available, and as I said everyone else was busy. The team was working 12 hour days as it was, so asking them to add this work to their load would be even more insane. Still, I had trouble believing that I would be of much help.

Then I went to my first status meeting.

For three hours, the entire team sat and took turns giving an amazingly detailed report of their progress since the last meeting. They were asked to revise their previous estimates and explain any and every slippage. Then there was a general attempt at removing blockages. All of this took only about 10-15 minutes per person, but with at least a dozen developers that adds up.

What nobody said was that they’d all get a lot more done without the daily status meeting.

I realized that no failure on my part could possibly make this situation worse. It took me a few weeks and a lot of mental anguish, but I delivered a tool that would suffice for one of the four cases they needed. They were so far behind, that they were glad to have just that.

There were two valuable things I gained from that project. The first was enough confidence in my ability to learn to carry me forward as a consultant. The second was an understanding that management views meetings as a special, magical period of time that does not come out of their budgets.

Sandwich Stackers

I went into a local restaurant to pick up some sandwiches for dinner. It was a little before the normal dinner hour, and things were still pretty slow. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the waitress was doing something in the dining room. As I left I looked over, and I almost stumbled when I realized what was happening.

With intense focus, she was stacking unfolded menus into a tower — as though they were cards. She was just finishing the third tier, and it was almost above her head.

I really hope that as the night wore on she plucked menus off of her tower as though it was perfectly natural.

“Heart of the Warrior” Released in Mad Scientist Journal

My short story “Heart of the Warrior” is now available in the Autumn 2012 edition of Mad Scientist Journal. Edited by Jeremy Zimmerman and Dawn Vogel, Mad Scientist Journal is an e-book anthology of essays, advice, and classifieds that relate to all things madly scientific, and it also contains short fiction that appeals to the mad scientist in all of us.

“Heart of the Warrior” was inspired by wondering how “Star Trek” would have turned out if it had been written by Edgar Rice Burroughs from the viewpoint of Mr. Scott. Mechanic Lucas Beynon and his friend Professor Reginald Jones build a ship capable of travelling between worlds. The story joins the crew of the Afri Celeste as they explore Mars and confront their own humanity.

Mad Scientist Journal is available for only $0.99 from Smashwords and should be on major e-tail vendor sites within a few days.

January Freeze

The lights and busy schedule of the holiday season carry me into January, but then I’m left standing in the cold, exhausted and confused, with no clear direction or purpose. This was a familiar rhythm in my life until almost a decade ago, and I’d almost managed to forget about it since then.

For the last 9 years or so I’ve gone to a 24-hour movie festival in Evanston, generally held near the end of January. (It’s a student-run affair, so on some years the date slips a little.) There are a few scheduled breaks for foraging and a raffle, but it’s pretty much a grueling, non-stop ass-a-thon. Several attendees, myself included, pride themselves on staying awake for nearly all of it. This is especially challenging as many of the films are selected precisely for their lack of quality.

Have you ever seen Meatloaf wage a losing battle against an odious yeti puppet? I have. And while I may not be better for it, I can now watch most Nick Cage movies without flinching.

Attending these gave me something to focus on, and my post-celebratory collapse moved to February — the worst month of the year, but mercifully short.

For various reasons, I’m no longer going to this particular film festival. This is a significant blow to my social calendar, but it’s also left me staring at a very long and cold month just to get to February. I’m a little numb, increasingly apathetic yet also irritable, and I just want to bury myself in my flannel sheets. In short, I’m depressed.

I hate this. I refuse to give in to it anymore, and simply delaying it isn’t a winning strategy. I may feel like hiding, but I have too much to do — stories to write, comics to make, a career to build, music to play. I can’t let myself just sit numbly on my couch while the cats wander over my body.

So while my friends are getting ready for their pilgrimage, I’m pushing myself to keep moving. Take out garbage. Put dishes away. The more I make myself do, the less hold inertia has on me, and maybe I can stay productive. At least until February.