Monday, August 31, 2015

August reading

So I've decide I need to stop buying books and filing them away for some other nebulous time when I'll be able to get to them, and actually get to them. And of course, blog about it at the end of each month. Welcome to August!

Final count: 6 books.

The Shape of Things (Neil LaBute)
I love reading plays, but for some reason I have a lot of trouble envisioning how they might have looked on the stage. So after reading this I had to see the film version, which kept the play's quartet of original actors (Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller) intact. Having read it, I knew what to expect at the end, but it was still wretched. The Shape of Things is an unpleasant tale of heartless manipulation masquerading as the work of a pretentious, self-absorbed "artist", but it was still fascinating, in a train wreck kind of way. LaBute's refusal to use upper-case letters in the play's text was also kind of annoying.

"as for me, i have no regrets or feelings of remorse for my actions, the manufactured emotions...none of it. i have always stood by the single and simple conceit that i am a artist. only that. i follow in a long tradition of artists who believe there is no such concept as religion, or government, community or even family. there is only art. art that must be created, whatever the cost."

Honeymoon (James Patterson and Howard Roughan)

Patterson's original outline for this 2005 novel was included as part of our text for his MasterClass, which I started this month. Reading the outline made me really want to read the book. It's a black widow story and although the international espionage sub-plot kind of lost me, it was addictive - I had trouble putting it down and got through it in just a few days.

"The police didn't suspect a thing. She had committed the perfect murder. Again."


On Writing (Stephen King)

Considered one of the best writing books out there, On Writing was originally published in 2000, with an updated version issued in 2010. I'd bought it some time ago, but never got around to reading it, so when the MasterClass had an online book club meeting to discuss it, I busted it out and plowed through it in two sittings. Amazing book. If you have any interest at all in writing, this is a must-have.

"I can't remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story looked like - I'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can't you? I don't need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown."

We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy (Caseen Gaines)
This is about as comprehensive of an insider's history of the beloved 1980's franchise Back to the Future as you could hope to find. We Don't Need Roads goes all the way back to when "The Bobs" (writer Gale and writer/director Zemeckis) were first trying - initially unsuccessfully - to sell their concept to a studio, any studio, all the way through the sequels and everything in between.

Pretty much everything is covered. Music, effects, stunts, makeup, costumes, marketing...just when you think every topic has been addressed and every player has been heard from, there's something new. The book pulls back the curtain on the notorious casting issues, mainly the firing of Eric Stoltz six weeks into filming (there are a couple of color photos of Stoltz as Marty, and it's jarring), plus the Crispin Glover situation. There's also an early poster design that would be jettisoned in favor of what would become the iconic image of Marty McFly, one foot on the ground and the other in the DeLorean/time machine, gawking at his watch. If you are a fan of the BTTF films, you will devour this book.

"Although Fox's marathon workdays have since become the material of cinematic lore, at the time, burning the candle at both ends didn't faze the actor in the slightest. As he told the Bobs when he first met them after accepting the role, he relied on his youth and enthusiasm to compensate for his lack of a good night's sleep."

My Gun Has Bullets (Lee Goldberg)
I've seen Lee Goldberg at a number of writers conferences and he's always hilarious. He has great stories about working in television, including one about an experience with a lead actor that was so stupid and frustrating that he was prompted (or perhaps driven) to write My Gun Has Bullets, a story of murder in a world of fictional networks and TV programs, and the ridiculous and morality-free people who reside therein. It was originally published in 1995 so it's a bit dated in a couple spots, but the story makes up for it in sheer fun.

Some examples of the shows on fictional networks UBC (United Broadcasting Company), MBC (Monumental Broadcasting Company) and DBC (Dynamic Broadcasting Company): Boo Boo's Dilemma (a wildly popular sitcom about a vaudeville comedian trapped in the body of a dog), FrankencopYoung Hudson Hawk, Blacke and Whyte (a PI show that is retitled Two Dicks in an attempt to boost ratings), Honeymooners: The Next Generation, Aunt Agatha (Miss Marple meets Jessica Fletcher), Broad Squad and the titular My Gun Has Bullets. It's worth it just for the Frankencop pitch, but really, the whole thing is a riot.

"He's no ordinary man, and he's no ordinary cop. He's Frankencop and he's serious about fighting crime. Dead serious."

The Stranger Beside Me (Ann Rule)
Ms. Rule passed away recently and I was struck by the terrifying descriptions of this book that came with warnings not to read it alone at night. I did it one stupider and started it alone at night at my hotel in Appleton during Writers' Police Academy and continued it on my flight back to L.A. (also at night). I finally finished it on a bright afternoon while coming down with a nasty head cold.

Ann Rule was a former cop turned author/journalist who knew Ted Bundy as a caring, gentlemanly young man who she had bonded with when they worked alongside each other at a suicide hotline center in Seattle. A few years down the road and Bundy became infamous as a vicious serial killer, something Rule simply could not reconcile with the brilliant, wonderful person she had known. Even as the law and evidence caught up with Bundy, Rule remained a sympathetic friend, helping out when and where she could (usually sending him a few bucks for the prison commissary). The experience of being so completely deceived by Bundy and having to see a friend receive the death penalty was a devastatingly bitter pill for her to swallow.

The most recent edition includes a number of updates to the original text, including Bundy finally being executed. Thanks to an avalanche of legal maneuvers he had managed to delay his sentence for about seven years, long after the original edition of The Stranger Beside Me had been published.

"And so the answer to the question put to me so many times is yes. Yes, I believe Ted Bundy attacked Joni Lenz, just as I now am forced to believe that he is responsible for all the other crimes attributed to him. I have never said it out loud, or in print, but I believe it, as devoutly as I wish I did not."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Writers' Police Academy - Day 3, Part 1 (Saturday)

Saturday was our second day at Fox Valley Training Center and we kicked off the day being treated to a pursuit and takedown of a bank robbery suspect after a few laps around town:

Larceny Laurie, not going down without a fight.

Larceny Laurie goes down...


Cast of characters, with our host/Fox Valley 
liaison Joe LeFevre.

You might notice a couple things in these pictures. First, the presence of Dan Feucht (who taught the Bloodstain Pattern and Advanced Fingerprinting classes) hanging out in a doorway in the "hotel", along with his adorable grandson, who helped him out in the classroom as well. And yes, that is a plane in the background of the first pic. The training center includes a Boeing 727 and WPA used it for a session called "Tactics for Handling the Unruly Plane Passenger". Needless to say, my fear of flying made that one easy to pass up. This plane has been used for training by the TSA and FBI.

Yep, there it is. Just sitting there.

The CSI Effect: Real vs. Reel (Instructor: Mike Black)
The differences between how things work in the world of CSI and its spinoffs versus the real world is always a hot topic at crime writing conferences. Since they do actually call it CSI in Appleton, it seemed like they embraced it a little more than usual.

And what are the major differences? Well, they can be summed up with these slides:

More photos from WPA 2015 can be seen here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Writers' Police Academy - Day 2 (Friday)

Friday was the first full day of WPA and our first look at our new facility, Fox Valley Technical College Public Safety Training Center. Whew, that was a mouthful!

Here's how my day shook out:

Crime Lab/Fingerprints, AFIS and Latent Print Development (Instructor: Tim Judas)
There was a bit of a mixup with this one, as we'd been led to understand during orientation that this session would focus on DNA and crime labs in general, however the instructor was under the impression that it was supposed to be about fingerprinting, which is his forte. I took fingerprinting classes at a previous WPA (including lifting my own prints), so I wasn't really looking to take it again, but this class focused more on how AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Information Systems) worked. I learned a few things I hadn't picked up in previous classes:
  • AFIS doesn't actually read the prints themselves, but uses algorithms to search for possible matches. So when AFIS gets a hit on a print, it isn't necessarily a perfect match (like you see on TV) but a possible match. It's up to the AFIS fingerprint tech to check to see if the print is actually a match. Take that, CSI!
  • For purposes of printing, palms are divided into three sections: Interdigital (the top of the palm, from the lower horizontal crease up to the base of the fingers), Thenar (the lower half of the palm on the thumb side) and Hypothenar (the lower half of the palm on the pinkie finger side).
  • Judas said he has seen images that look like smiley and frowny faces within prints. He said it's pretty creepy to see a smiley face when you know you're looking at a print from a suspect in a violent crime.
  • During gestation, fingerprints can start to develop as early as ten weeks, or finally form as late as 24 weeks. 
  • Family members can have similar prints. Identical twins have identical DNA but not identical prints.

From Crime Scene to Autopsy (Instructor: Coroner Amanda Thoma)
This session really packed the room. I spent it sitting on a ledge along the room's windows because all the seats were taken by the time I got there.
  • There are five types of death that a coroner will certify: Natural, Accidental, Suicide, Homicide and Undetermined.
  • She always introduces herself to a decedent before she starts working on him/her. She feels that they need to be shown respect because, although deceased, she still thinks of them as human beings.
  • Despite what you've seen on TV and in movies, Vicks doesn't help hold off the stench of death. It actually opens up nasal passages, which kind of defeats the purpose of trying to avoid the smell.
  • She confirmed that a mass of writhing maggots sounds like Rice Krispies (snap, crackle, pop).
  • No surprise here: notifications are the worst part of the job. She's seen a variety of responses: crying, screaming, fainting, shock and being nearly attacked. When asked how she handles it, she said she doesn't take it personally and stays in what they refer to as "business mode".

How to Write a Killer Query (Instructor: Janet Reid, Literary Agent with FinePrint Literary Management)
Janet Reid is a literary agent extraordinaire with FinePrint Literary Management in NYC. Her highly entertaining session on the do's and don'ts of query letters can be found on her highly popular blog Query Shark

Bloodstain Pattern Investigations & Techniques (Instructor: Dan Feucht)
We happily donned protective gear to swab and test blood samples to determine if they were in fact, blood. We got blood!
  • DNA from co-mingled blood can be separated and identified.
  • Bone marrow recipients, hermaphrodites and individuals suffering from Chimerism will have two separate sets of DNA. 
  • Currently, identical twins will test as having identical DNA, but scientists are only a few years out from being able to identify differences in their DNA profiles.
  • Skunks and ferret blood will test as human. Hey, that's what the man said.
  • On the subject of luminol: yes, bleach will clean up most of the blood, but it also reacts to luminol, so it's obvious there was a clean-up. Hydrogen peroxide is even better than bleach for eliminating blood. Febreeze will also react strongly to luminol, even where there wasn't blood.
The kit. That smear on the cap is what
we're testing for blood.
The results. Green means positive for blood!
The lab. I'm hidden, find me!
Various types of spatter.
This guy, I want his shirt.

Kids Who Kill and Why (Dr. Katherine Ramsland)
I'm not particularly interested in killer kids, but Dr. Ramsland has no peer when it comes to unusual killers and crimes.
  • An important part of studying child/adolescent crime is that you need to understand that their brains have not completely developed and they tend to not understand the lifelong consequences of their crimes. They also tend to only look at things from their own points of view.
  • Some examples of behaviors of concern: Lying, blaming others, avoiding responsibility, avoiding goals, keeping secrets, lack of empathy, exploiting the weaknesses of others. 
  • Some of the youthful offenders discussed: Andrew Conley, Robert and Michael Bever, Tyler Hadley, the Slender Man stabbing and Kip Kinkel
I'm in the process of uploading pics from the event to Flickr. You can see them here.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

24-hour party eaters

This list is missing Killer Cafe in Marina del Rey, which expanded to 24-hours a couple months ago. Other than that, here, from Tastemade Los Angeles, is their list of 24/7 places to eat in L.A.

Glad I never knew about Bob's Big Boy in Burbank being open all night when I lived in Hollywood. I wouldn't be able to fit in the door.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Writers' Police Academy - Day 1 (Thursday)

The 7th annual Writers' Police Academy kicked off Thursday in its new location in Appleton, Wisconsin (near Green Bay).

Ominous skies over the airport in Appleton,
but luckily we seemed to have come in after
the storm.

Thursday was check-in day. First up was the annual orientation session, which revealed (among other things) that the change in venue had allowed the event to take on nearly 300 participants. Previous years capped at about 250. There was also an amazing (to me) number of first-time participants. In the past it's seemed like most people were WPA veterans, but this time around we were totally eclipsed by the newbies.

Obligatory "view from my room" shot. I don't
know what the story is with that church, but it's
gorgeous. Looked like they might have been
working on the roof.

Following orientation, we were treated to a session about 3D Crime Scene Mapping. According the the description in the program, The future of CSI is real and in use today! I think I've actually seen them do this on the show, although in real life there's a lot more time and effort involved in downloading and producing the finished product. The mapping machine, which uses an eye-safe laser to create a "picture" of the crime scene, is produced by camera maker Leica and as with technology these days, the cost to purchase them is dropping rapidly. The model we got to see in action cost about $200,000 when it was purchased several years ago. The current model is around $90,000 and the next generation is expected to be around $75,000.

Instructor Dr. Joe LeFevre, who is Department Chair of the Criminal Justice Program at the Fox Valley Technical College Public Safety Training Center (new home of WPA) walked us through an actual homicide he worked in which they used the laser in conjuction with crime scene photography to re-create the scene, a combination that hadn't been used before. Despite the defense attorney derisively dismissing their evidence as a "glorified Etch-A-Sketch", LeFevre and his team easily convicted the victim's husband of her shooting death.

Dr. LeFevre firing up the magic 3D laser mapping machine!

I've created an album on Flickr for this event and will be adding these and other pictures from WPA 2015.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Totally legit

Because I'm a bad blogger, I can't remember who I snicked this from on the internets. Sorry, and feel free to let me know if you're the one who unleashed this on the world so I can give credit where credit is due because you're awesome! Signed, the Procrastination Queen.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Be cool

There's a reason I didn't move to the valley (San Fernando or San Gabriel), or anywhere inland (and cheaper). I can't take the heat. Ditto the humidity. And this weekend the is beach proving to be worth every penny I pay for it.

Record-threatening high temperatures have been heating up since late in the week and, depending on when and who you're listening to, will continue to plague us through either Sunday or Tuesday. Throw in a couple of brushfires that broke out (Glendora and Simi Valley) and it's just a scorching weekend in the Southland.

Which brings me back to the beach. It's been warm "for us", but certainly nothing anywhere near what the rest of Southern Cal is dealing with the past few and next few days. And I'm extremely grateful for that. I don't even have A/C, although the fans are getting a workout. As I type this I'm sitting on my balcony, not sweating at all thanks to the cool breeze typical of where I live. In fact, it's downright cool here. I'm so fortunate.

Dinner at Cheesecake Factory with Mom Thursday.
Dinner at Tony P's tonight. (Marina del Rey)

The related sort of good/bad news is that we might be getting some serious rain this winter, what the L.A. Times is referring to as a "Godzilla El Nino". Good because we've been in a drought for some time and desperately need rain, bad because it could cause flooding, not to mention some serious mudslides in the areas burned by brushfires, and we're nowhere near the end of fire season.

Hang in there everyone, and stay cool if you can!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"The Grinder" - How did no one think of this before?

Years ago I had a job in at a post production company, where my duties included tracking TV shows in development. I got to see a lot of good ideas (and not so good ones) come and go. It was fun; I really enjoyed watching the development process. But these days I'm not so up on new shows, so I just stumbled across this one: Rob Lowe's new show The Grinder.
The Grinder stars Lowe as actor Dean Sanderson, star of the popular legal series. When his long-running hit comes to an end, he decides to move back to his small hometown thinking he has the experience to take over his family's law firm whose partners include his brother, an actual lawyer...
Celebrities seem to think they're experts on everything, or at least that their opinions on various topics are better and more important than the average person's, so I'm kind of surprised no one's done this yet. And I've seen Lowe skewer Hollywood brilliantly - if you've never seen Thank You For Smoking, do check it out. In addition to being a great flick, Lowe's performance as a pretentious Hollywood type is brief but hilarious.

Between the casting and the premise, The Grinder is going on my DVR. The FOX show premieres on September 29.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Once upon a time...

I laughed. I'm still laughing about this. Via Monty Python Fans on FB:

Monday, August 3, 2015

Just. Stop.

You're a fast food place. Stop trying to be anything else. Just. Stop.

"Forget McMuffins, McDonald's Is Testing a "Gourmet Breakfast" Menu.

Notice they put "Gourmet Breakfast" in quotes. That's not an accident.

Just. Stop.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Come Fly With Me

This is the task set out for you by the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (after a $55 entrance fee, thank you very much): Write a short story in 48 hours based on some random prompts we give you (after you give us your money).

This time around the prompts for the group I landed in were:

Psychological horror, anyone? Will that count with the judge(s)?

Considering I'm terrified of flying and have to fly twice between now and the end of the year (for writing conferences, natch), kinda ironic, huh? Probably shouldn't have written a plane crash story, ya think?

But I did. Because apparently I can't resist a challenge. Not that I knew they were going to throw a plane scenario at me. Not to mention the 1,000 word limit was going to make me cut more than I wanted to. I finally clocked in at 980 words. So close.

And you know what? The story in my humble opinion turned out pretty good.

With all that in mind, here's what I came up with in the space of about two hours this late afternoon/early evening.

Come Fly With Me

I can’t believe I thought it was really nice of him to make the invitation. We were pretty rough on him in college. I’m not sure why he hung out with us, except that maybe he hadn’t had anyone else to hang out with. Being the picked-on little brother of our social circle was apparently preferable to not being part of anything at all. And of course, being college kids, we weren’t the most thoughtful bunch, so we were happy to oblige. Someone had to be low man on the totem pole.

I’d pretty much forgotten him in the almost three years since we graduated. Then came the news that he’d won the lottery. Well, almost. He had five of the six numbers. How very Cameron – almost but not quite. Still, almost three hundred thousand dollars is pretty sweet. It wasn’t the twenty-nine million that six matching numbers would have paid, but it was three hundred grand more than ever fell into my lap.

There was talk he was going to use the money to fulfill his long-time dream of getting his pilot’s license, but other than that he faded away again. Until, when out of the blue, he emailed the old college gang with a proposal. He wanted to fly us all to Las Vegas for a big blowout weekend. He had just enough lottery money left to rent a private jet and spring for Sin City.

If he’d had that sixth number he’d have been able to buy a private jet instead of renting one.

He was finally going to get to be big man on campus. After some discussion, we decided it was the least we could do for him, after being kinda shitty to him in school. I know that sounds weird, but it felt like we’d made the transition from stupid kids to mature adults and were going to make up for past transgressions.

So that’s how we end up here on a gorgeous Friday evening, boarding a very snazzy plane. It looks like something a celebrity would own. And Cameron actually looks smart in his pilot’s uniform.

There’s no crew. Cameron makes a big to-do about setting us up with a boatload of hors d’oeuvres and drinks, then cheerfully waves as he disappears into the cockpit. I have to admit it’s really impressive.

As the engines fire up, I get a brief jolt of adrenaline as it occurs to me that we’re kind of taking his word that he’s knows what he’s doing. But off we go, without a hitch. Vegas, here we come! He really does know what he’s doing. We’re having a blast.

After a while, the intercom crackles to life. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. If you haven’t already, please check the fridge for additional drinks and snacks.”

It’s a perfectly normal mini-fridge. We all had them in college. I open it and with a sickening jolt realize our lives have just gone to hell. There’s no drinks, no snacks. Just a weird-looking package with wires curled around it.

I can’t move. Eventually the others notice and wander over. All we can do is gawk at it. There’s also what appears to be blood on it. Because springing a bomb on us isn’t enough.

We try the cockpit door. It’s locked up tight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. The door is reinforced, so don’t bother trying to knock it in. Also, I have a gun. Please enjoy your flight.” And then, to emphasize his point that now we’re at his mercy, the plane suddenly goes into a nose dive that probably only lasts a few seconds before leveling out, but feels like forever.

Then the bastard turns on the seatbelt sign. Asshole.

The promised wi-fi is non-existent. We’re cut off from the rest of the world and at the mercy of someone who should never have wanted to see us again. How did we miss that? I just sit there in shock. A couple people are crying, others pacing, trying to come up with a plan.

After punctuating our flight with a few more quick dives, Captain Cameron cheerfully informs us that we’re approaching our destination, the neon lights of which we can see if we look out the left side of the plane. It’s an appropriately eerie sight, as the brightly lit city sits there like a crazy carnival in a sea of black, just floating in the middle of nowhere. An oasis in the desert.

I recall that however socially stunted Cameron might have been, he wasn’t stupid. His grades were almost always A’s. He never agonized over exams and finals and papers like the rest of us did.

Was he smart enough to build a bomb? Shouldn’t it have gone off by now?

Cameron’s smug voice comes over the intercom again. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t already, please finish your drinks and return to your seats. We will be landing soon.”

I consider the possibility that he’s just screwing with us. Put us in fear for our lives. I imagine him smiling and thanking us for flying Cameron Airlines as we, shaking and crying, exit the plane, never to be the same. It’s one hell of a revenge plan, assuming that’s how this plays out.

That’s when he overshoots McCarron. So low over the airport, terrifyingly so.

Someone points out the Bellagio’s dancing fountains rushing at us. Cameron’s going to make a big splash, literally and figuratively. The bomb was just to set the mood.

I don’t know what I was thinking, taking this trip. I was taken in, played. We all were, by Cameron, of all people. Cameron the clown, Cameron the seemingly cheerful butt of so many jokes during our carefree school days.

Cameron the pilot. Cameron, who is about to take out the Bellagio fountains and us with them.

Note: Eeep...while re-reading it here I found an editing error, a dropped word. Make that 981 words...and I went over it so many times :(

Update: Just discovered it's spelled McCarran, not McCarron. SMH.