Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Chef

I have been following the case of 28-year old NYPD officer Gilberto Valle with some interest. After all, it isn’t every day you see someone accused of “conspiracy to cook and eat women.” According to the prosecution, Mr. Valle kept a detailed list of at least 100 women (complete with photos) that he planned to “kidnap, rape, and torture” before dinning on their cadavers. He allegedly used his access to the law enforcement NCIC database to acquire personal information about his culinary interests. 
Chef Valle
Apparently Valle, who had been discussing these plans at length with other members on a cannibalism fantasy website, had created a document titled “Abducting and Cooking [Victim 1]: A Blueprint.” The document contained a checklist of items he needed (car, chloroform, rope) and detailed information about the victim. In his electronic exchanges with other Internet cannibalism enthusiasts, the prosecution claims Officer Valle discussed the amount of “meat” one could get from a grown woman (around 75lbs was the consensus) and haggled over the price for kidnapping a victim (he wouldn’t take a cent under $5,000).

Gilberto’s defense attorney argues that his client did not actually harm anyone and that all the electronic evidence against him amounts to nothing more than “harmless, idle talk” insisting “at worse, these are sexual fantasies with people he knows." He has been suspended without pay pending the completion of the investigation. There is currently no word on the identity of his alleged co-conspirators and custody of his 1-year old son has yet to be determined.

I am not sure which aspect of the story is more disturbing: the fact that a police officer entertained fantasies of rape and cannibalism or that he discovered enough like-minded individuals to constitute an online quorum. How does a discussion group like this get off the ground? Was it the result of a chance meeting between two former college roommates?

“Dave! How have you been?”
“Can’t complain. You?”
“Not bad, what have you been up to?”
“Funny you ask, I have really gotten into fantasizing about cannibalism but I can’t find any websites that specifically cater to heterosexual men who consider it a pseudo-erotic activity.”
“You’re tellin’ me! I joined this one chat-room and it was a real freak-show. Some dude went on for ten minutes about his Thanksgiving recipe for two sautéed Englishmen with giblets.”    
“There should be a place to go for regular guys who just want to kick back, relax, and trade recipes for soccer-mom stew. Let’s get organized!”

There was even a quote from the chat-room where the guys would share pictures of proposed victims and comment on how “tasty” they looked. There has always been a lot of frightening stuff on the Internet, (my wife once Googled “Peek-a-pooh” trying to recall the proper name for a Pekingese/poodle mix) so perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked, but this group could make members of an amputee fetish club appear well-adjusted.

I suppose it is possible the conversations were nothing more than verbal bluster meant to impress his friends, as we have all been guilty of exaggeration around a group of our peers. After all, what guy hasn’t stretched the truth a little when recalling how much they bench pressed in college or how exactly they came about the scar on their chin? However, I generally try and avoid the company of people who are only impressed by someone’s ability to plan and execute a rape/murder/dinner trifecta.

I realize that the defense attorney has a job to do, but I am concerned that he and I are operating under different understanding of what constitutes a “worst case scenario.” If your client is openly planning the kidnapping, rape, execution, and consumption of enough women to staff a Costco, I assure you that amassing zero victims and a pair of felony charges is nowhere near “worst case scenario.”

His best defense is probably the rudimentary nature of his “blueprint.” If Valle needed a Microsoft Word checklist to remember to take his car with him on a kidnapping, it is certainly plausible that he isn’t the criminal mastermind the government envisioned. I wonder if the list was the result of a failed test run whereby Gilberto found himself on foot outside the victim’s home with rope and chloroform trying to understand how to load an unconscious woman into a wheelbarrow.

I hope for all of our sakes the attorney was right and this was nothing more than an unusual culinary interest that got out of hand. Either way, if this guy starts hosting a show on the Food Network called Vixens & Vittles, I will be writing a letter.     

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sponsored Posts

As many of you may already be aware, Facebook is now testing a new option in the United States called “sponsored posts.” For a fee of $7, you can ensure that your post rides atop your friends’ news feed for an extended period of time and gets noticed by more people. The feature is already available in twenty countries and Facebook hopes that it will take off in America and help bolster the company’s revenue stream.

They believe that the feature will be utilized for birth announcements, yard sales, or even death notices, since many people already pay for this service in their local newspapers it seemed like a logical extension of that model. Of course, there are no real parameters as to what the feature can be used for, which led me to an interesting question: What could go wrong with this?

Let’s say that you just emerged from a vicious breakup with your high school girlfriend and wish to publicly slander her reputation. Sure you can simply post a status update and hope that enough people haven’t hidden you from their news feeds, but that’s not good enough for you. You want results.  So you login to your account, drop $7, and suddenly half the school sees “Suzie is an illiterate skank who is carrying a member of the chess team’s baby.”

Now I am not condoning this as an admirable use of Facebook (or $7) but scorned teenagers are rarely accused of exhibiting too much integrity on the Internet. I also wonder if such a feature could open Facebook up to cyber-bullying lawsuits since someone with nefarious intent and disposable income could easily make sure their taunts have a wider audience.

The logical next step is purchasing fabricated “Likes” for your post. This would create a facade of favoritism amongst your intended audience without actually needing anyone to agree with you.  Before long, you might be able to buy Twitter followers or drop a few bucks for some non-existent acquaintances to comment on how fetching you look in your profile photo.

At the very least, it will be an interesting method of identifying which of your friends are the most narcissistic. Sure we would all like to believe the only life-changing events would make the cut but before you know it every political opinion and semi-clever meme will be sitting astride your feed until the perpetrator’s checking account is overdrawn.

Perhaps they should entertain the notion of a reverse model, one that actually charges the user a fee if their post is extraordinarily asinine or includes the term “haters.” Their friends could anonymously vote and once the tally reaches a pre-determined threshold the owner of the Facebook account would be billed. This model of intellectual community policing would most certainly reduce instances of Rickrolling and the fines would double if you are found guilty of attempting to have a one-on-one conversation by replying to a group message.         

Facebook has an uphill battle by trying to monetize the world’s greatest advertising database without alienating the people from which that data originates. Personally, I would suggest a tariff on unsolicited game invitations or incorrectly attributed quotes but I doubt that idea would gain any real traction at the home office. Maybe this is truly the beginning of the end for Facebook or maybe this is simply another change we will all begrudgingly accept as our new reality, like Timeline or a world with a Hulk Hogan sex tape. Either way I doubt anyone is reading this since it will be promoted through an un-sponsored post as my $7 went to Wendy’s before the bacon shortage wreaks havoc there.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Power of the Irrelevant Anecdote

Like many of you, I have been watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates. And while I do not wish to enter into a policy discussion, I do wish to highlight a long-popular technique of all politicians regardless of party affiliation: the irrelevant anecdote.

It works something like this: You are asked a direct question that requires only a succinct, direct answer but decide that your campaign would be best served by ambiguity disguised as a folksy narrative meant to ingratiate you with “everyday people”. While the particulars vary, the overall structure is universal and usually begins with the phrase “just the other day….” This phrase, meant to slyly assign topical urgency, is followed by the details of a “chance encounter” with a middle-class citizen whose plight is meant to be representative of the voting populace’s frustration as a whole.
For extra effect, contact with this disenfranchised tax-payer should mimic the Messianic tones we have come to expect from New Testament narratives of miraculous healings by having the person “touch the candidate’s garment” or “grab their hand” as if their very epidermis radiated justice and pragmatism. Once contact has been made, the candidate is exposed to some variation of Princess Leia’s soliloquy from Star Wars (help me senator, you are my only hope) at which point the weary campaigner becomes re-inspired in their quest.

By the time the candidate stops talking so much time has passed that the audience has forgotten the original question and the speaker has deftly avoided divulging the specifics of a plan that he or she does not possess. Let me give you an example of a common “town-hall” exchange:

“Senator Trundlepea, how would you reduce our dependence on foreign oil while still maintaining a balanced approach to sustainable energy that doesn’t add to the deficit?”

“Well Susan that’s an interesting question. You know, just the other day I was in Scalawag, Michigan when a coal-miner/single-mother/disabled veteran  grabbed my arm and told me that they were struggling to afford medical care for their daughter who was injured while attempting to salute the American flag in a local soup kitchen. They begged me to revitalize domestic energy policy so that he could earn enough to get their daughter to a specialist and make sure they did not lose their family home. I looked this person in the eyes and promised that if I was elected, I would put the power back into the hands of the people that make this country great!”  

This reply is as inspiring as it is elusive since it cannot be fact-checked but makes the candidate appear to be more “in-touch” with their demographic. I have often envied the acceptability of such answers in politics since enigmatic answers do not seem to be tolerated elsewhere. For instance, can you imagine a conversation with your physician that transpired in this manner?

“So doc, was the tumor malignant?”

“You know Edward. Just the other day I was strolling through a Pottery Barn when a woman with fungal malaria grabbed my arm and begged me to update the current standard of care for Polish invalids in South Dakota. Even though it is not my area of expertise I looked her dead in the eyes and promised then and there that God as my witness I would not rest until each and every Polish invalid led an existence of dignity. Now I will see you in 2 months for a follow-up and make sure to leave the yellow copy with the nurse up front.”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Babymoon Part 1

At the suggestion of some wise friends, my wife and I decided to take one last trip before our son is born. Seeking to couple thrift with excitement, we settled on a four-night cruise to the Bahamas. Our trip began in the typical fashion with me making lame jokes and my wife mumbling something about her child “not having a father.”

While my wife was directly ahead of me waiting to pass through airport security, she was asked by the nearest TSA officer to enter the body scanner. Concerned about the effects of backscatter radiation on our unborn child, she asked him if the scanner was safe for her since she was pregnant. At her pronouncement I feigned shock and loudly exclaimed, “You’re what!? You said we were just going on a trip together!” As the assembled travelers began to stare, a middle-aged gentleman behind me said, “Oh my God! Are you two even married?” to which I gravely replied, “Well chief, it sure looks like that’s where we’re headed.”

At that point my wife and I were both placed in a separate line and I never saw the guy again so I can only assume we left him with a story to tell. With any luck he is an evangelical pastor and we are being used as an anecdote in an upcoming sermon titled “The Moral Decay of America.”

Once we finally arrived at the dock and began the check-in process, my wife happened to clear her throat while speaking to the cruise representative and we were both immediately presented with a “health questionnaire” to complete. The questionnaire was an attempt to weed out those with communicable diseases and prevent shipboard epidemics utilizing about a dozen questions that can easily be whittled down to three:

  • Do you have diarrhea?
  • Do you have a fever?
  • Have you, or anyone in your party, been bitten by a primate?

Once cleared for departure, we began four nights of fine dining and people-watching. For those that have never been on a cruise, here are a few regulars to watch for:

Casino Lurkers – This group is inordinately comprised of mobility-challenged chain-smokers over the age of 60. They tend to favor slot machines over human interaction and their dedication to the craft is either admirable or depressing depending on perspective. They can sometimes be seen outside their natural habitat during evening bingo in the Otter Lounge.

The Sales People – Like most cruise ships, our was equipped with several jewelry and watch emporiums promising rock bottom prices on name-brand items due to their exemption from United States tariffs and taxes.  Each evening, there would be a $10 “flash sale” on various accoutrements that no one ever wanted ever. I saw two women come close to trading blows over a matching wrist-watch/iPhone 4 case/business card holder combo that probably began its life in a coin-operated game called “The Treasure Claw.”

The Duty Free People – On the last night of the cruise, there is a mad dash for cigarettes and alcohol in the general store. It is the only time in my life I have seen a five-carton carrying case for sale. While waiting to purchase a Twix, I was sandwiched in between a woman holding two gallons of Grey Goose and a gentleman dropping a car payment on enough Marlboro Reds to satisfy a Turkish militia.

The Staff – They are predominately foreign, infinitely courteous, and supernaturally efficient. Almost all of them have three or more functions on the ship. For instance, our muster station officer also rented beach umbrellas in between her performances as a dancer. She may or may not have also served as 1st mate.

The captain was somewhat interesting but tended to ramble. He used his Columbus Day address to remind passengers that his countryman Leif Ericson still did not have a federal holiday despite pre-dating Columbus by several centuries. While his observation (and perhaps indignation) was valid, I am not sure it merited use of the PA system.

Truthfully, I have been on several cruises and I have seen the allure of the captain’s address. It is generally timed to interrupt afternoon naptime and conveys information readily available on the in-room televisions. If the ship has suffered a hull-breach or someone spotted a Kraken off the starboard bow, by all means please make an announcement. However, if the most riveting portion of your speech involves wind direction you might be best served just steering the ship and eating dinner with the passengers. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cologne Design

A few Saturdays ago, I found myself in our local Ulta store killing time while my wife searched out various facial accoutrements. For those who have never been to an Ulta, it is what your local Macy's would look like if the make-up counter became self-aware and cannibalized the nearest four departments. So while she agonized over which shade of cheek dust to purchase, I huddled with the other disenfranchised males in the cologne aisle. It was there that I became aware of a disturbing trend in bottle design for men’s fragrances.

Since I did not record the actual fragrance names I have created Calvin Klein pseudonyms for each of the pictures I took. The first item we will call CK Wicker. 
As you can see the bottle is ensconced by a wicker exoskeleton which I assume is meant to convey a sense of danger and adventure. After all, who doesn’t look at the top of their dresser and say, “Why isn’t there more wicker up here?” 

Instead it reminds me of what would happen if Pier 1 was commissioned to create a decorative flask series. On top of looking like a cheapskate, you have the added bonus of being unable to visually asses the amount of remaining fragrance. Besides, if I drop $50 on something comprised of wicker, I am at least going to have the pleasure of sitting on it. 

The next one we will call CK Pathogen because it appears to have been designed after the vial used to transport the Chimera virus in Mission Impossible 2
The container and unnecessarily-complicated lid apparatus lend an air of danger to what would otherwise be an evening of agonizing over the dessert specials at Applebee’s. Of course, in a post-911 world I don’t know how comfortable I feel packing this in a carry on since it resembles a small-pox delivery system.

Our next contestant we will call CK Monarchy. 
Sporting a translucent, crystal container and dispensing what appears to be cheap scotch, CK Monarchy conveys the subtle dignity that your wardrobe choices cannot. Why inherit an actual trust fund when you can drop $75 and smell like you have already pissed it all away. I was unable to translate the Latin under the crest but I assume it means “My dad is tough to buy gifts for.”

The next fragrance was CK Estate Sale. 
The awkwardly-shaped triangular bottle couples with the useless faux-gold nozzle appendage to create a visual treat like no other. The only real upside to the design is the likelihood you will drop it and be forced to use another scent before your second date with the girl from T-shirt kiosk in the mall. It seems as though the designer wanted to combine the nostalgia of grandmother’s antique crystal with Joe Pesci’s overuse of gold before filling the entire container with apple juice.

The final design we will call CK Bulge. 
As you can see, it is the perfect fragrance for the unobservant male who keeps accidentally spraying himself with his wife’s Clinique Happy before heading off to work. As if a male torso wasn’t enough, the bottle design team incorporated a dongle bump to erase any remaining gender ambiguity. The bottle looks like a Ken doll that has been in a horrific accident.

I cannot fathom why these companies are investing so much money in making a smell more visually appealing. Are there that many men out there who select their fragrance based solely on bottle design? Can you see some guy telling his friends, “Sure my new cologne smells like a feline tannery operating in a Bolivian prison, but the bottle is shaped like the sword from Braveheart!” At the end of the day all we really want is an easy-to-operate bottle that dispenses a smell more appealing than the one we naturally emit.