Books: English in America [audiocourse], Inside the Cell
Movies: Call Me By Your Name
TV: Review (season 1), The Good Place (season 2)
Other: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (First Chapter)
English in America: A Linguistic History [audiocourse] by Natalie Schilling
This is the 2016 Teaching Company audiocourse about English dialects in the United States.
The shortest review of this is "listen to it if you like the subject matter." Professor Schilling is more of a reader than a lecturer, and if you're not curious about, say, the Northeast Cities Vowel Shift, then the material won't win you over.
But, for fellow linguistics nerds this is great — a short, to the point set of lectures about the history and makeup of American dialects. This can be a kind of vexing subject, since so much of it is shrouded in mystery. All the most basic questions — things like "where did American RP come from?" or "where did African-American Vernacular English come from?" — come from populations who didn't write much in time before sound recordings. So there are lots of cases where the lecturer has to throw up her hands and explain that there are a lot of competing theories, all of which might be wrong.
To my surprise, I learned a lot of things I didn't already know. This is embarrassing: I had no idea that Latinx English was a thing — something kind of equivalent to AAVE. So, there are Latin-Americans, who live in English-speaking communities, who have never spoken Spanish in their lives, who still speak the sort of (to my ears) Spanish-inflected English of Latinx communities. Before, if I heard that accent, I thought 'oh, that person must speak Spanish as their first language.' I feel really, really stupid about this.
And in fact, there isn't even one Latinx English. There are specific dialects for specific cities — the New York puertoriqueño dialect, for example, sometimes has Yiddish words creeping in around the edges. And that speaks to the other thing I hadn't realized at all, but retroactively makes sense: American dialects have gotten stronger and *more* varied, not less, over the last thirty years. "But doesn't mass media smash all of them into conformity?" Nope. Passive media engagement doesn't have much effect — not like actually talking to people does. And now we've even got new regional dialects creeping in out of nowhere, like the California Vowel Shift turning the American vowel diagram into a crazy, arrow-strewn football play.
Anyway. If this sort of thing is your bag, absolutely listen to this course — it's a neat eight-hour diversion that will teach you a few new things about American dialects in particular, and about lingustics in general. And if it's not, well, you probably haven't read this far anyway.
Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA by Erin E. Murphy
This is the 2015 nonfiction book about how we trust DNA evidence far more than we should.
We live at a strange inflection point, with forensics. Forensic science has advanced by leaps and bounds. Popular culture has been conditioned by shows like CSI to put a lot of faith in forensic results. And modern forensic evidence is, like, 80% bullshit.
Sometimes it's absolute, unquestionable, unconscionable bullshit: bite-mark analysis, blood-spatter patterns, hair matching — all laughable and nonscientific. Fire analysis is especially pathetic — you can become an analyst with a forty-hour class, where you learn a smattering of rules of thumb that have no basis in experimental evidence.
And then there's DNA. The gold standard. The incontrovertible truth.
Except... it's not.
If nothing else, the evidence gathering, processing, and analysis is done by humans, and that introduces lots of potential error. A prosecutor says "there's only a one in twenty-quadrillion chance that the lab gave us the wrong answer," and I'm thinking "oh-ho, hi there I'm guessing you've never worked in a biochemistry lab."
To be clear, there are cases where DNA typing absolutely works. You leave a puddle of blood on the scene, they check it against your DNA, you use one of the forensic labs that has *not* be wracked with data-falsifying scandals, and you have a powerful piece of probative or exculpatory evidence.
But there are many cases where it fails spectacularly. There was a test where an experimenter sent 17 copies of a DNA sample to 17 different labs, and got 3 different results as to the DNA types present. There was an experiment where they thoroughly cleaned a room with a table, chairs, a jug of water, and four glasses. They had four test subjects sit around and drink water for an hour or so. They tested the furniture and tableware for DNA. The strongest hit they got was for a mystery man that wasn't one of the test subjects *or* any of the scientists.
So even DNA typing, the holy grail of forensics, that one-in-a-quadrillion miracle, is fraught with error. And of course, everyone in power wants to sweep that under the rug. The government wants to win cases above all else — no politician has won re-election on a platform of "I've kept innocent people out of jail." Only the prosecution gets the samples from the scene of the crime, and they can quietly ignore the results if they don't inculpate the guilty party. Or, if they *do*, they can quietly ignore any ambiguity to the evidence. And they'll never even find *out* about any errors or mishaps that happened at the testing lab.
And this doesn't even get into the ethical nightmares. There are very strict regulations on submissions to and use of CODIS, the federal government's national DNA database. (Which I am sure nobody has ever hacked and copied.) So that means that lots of local and state police departments are quietly making unofficial state and local "shadow databases", so they don't have to comply with any pesky regulations whatsoever.
The thing that was supposed to create CSI solutions to all our unsolved crimes is often a bludgeon to get a conviction no matter what (or, more likely, to intimidate an indigent defendant into a plea deal), or just as often a bludgeon to personal privacy. (Also fun: hearing law enforcement excitedly talk about analyzing individual DNA data for propensity to commit crimes, like a phrenologist eagerly palpating someone's skull.)
So that's terrifying.
The book itself raises all these interesting points, and explains them fairly clearly, but it is not itself well-written. It's at its best when it's pointing out all the flaws in the use of DNA evidence — this section is replete with thrilling true-crime stories and alarming reports of forensic-lab scandals. As the book digs into, say, the ethics of family-DNA matches (like recently used to catch the Golden Gate Killer) or complicated policy recommendations for the judicial branch... then it gets to be a pretty hard read.
All in all I'm glad to have read it, but I can't really recommend it. If this topic piques your interest, I'd instead recommend the CSI-debunking episode of Adam Ruins Everything, or Adam's lengthy interview with the author of this book on his podcast.
Call Me By Your Name
This is the 2017 Luca Guadagnino film about a boy who falls in love with a visiting American scholar in a small town in Italy.
The easiest summary I can give of this movie is that it does not take place in Italy, but in 'I T A L Y', the word spoken sighingly, with dreamy nostalgia, or innocent longing. The story takes place in 1983, but it has a pastel, sun-drenched, timeless quality. Everyone is beautiful, and witty, and knowledgeable. It's a movie where a bunch of gorgeous people lie in a field on a languid summer day and talk about philosophy.
And frankly, that's enough to carry the whole movie. Yes, it's wish-fulfillment, but what of it? What's wrong with using a movie to visit an idealized version of Italy? What's wrong with just watching a movie and being happy?
The story rightly takes a back seat to its setting. The overall plot is simple — Elio and Oliver fall for each other, awkwardly, each unwilling to make a move that's too obvious. The movie does its best to elide past the relationship squick of a 24-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy, establishing mutual consent and respect. They reveal how they feel, and they have a deliriously good time for as long as they can.
And that's it for the story. Having so few plot-signposts to hit, the movie, like a long summer day, lets everything slow down and breathe. There are long pauses to consider the idyllic country roads or picturesque plazas. Scenes, lacking a lot of events, give you room to closely observe emotions, particularly the early throes of Elio stumbling through discovering his sexuality. There's room for little, evocative details: fumbling with an old radio, or drinking in a hole-in-the-wall bar, or picking apricots from a tree.
I do commend the movie for understanding how little this should be about plot. It's got its priorities right. And it provides a welcome escape to an idyllic place, and a gentle, considerate look at those clumsy, early days of sexuality.
Review (season 1)
This is the 201x Comedy Central series about a man who reviews life experiences, usually with disastrous results.
This was a rough, rough watch — a comedy that, for me, even out-cringes the original British Office. There were many times where I'd sit down, fire up amazon video, watch one minute of this show, realize, "Nope, I am *not* emotionally prepared for this right now," and turn it off again. It's not a bad show, but it is astoundingly adept at creating awkwardness.
The deal is that, on the Review show-within-a-show, Andy Daly's character ("Forrest McNeil") reviews what audience members send in. Whatever they send in. Most notably, when someone asks what it's like to get divorced, Forrest dutifully goes for it. He tells his loving wife that, for no real reason, he wants to split up. But it's shot with a handheld camera, and it's played out with relentless emotional realism, and it is *agony* to watch unfold. It takes a lot of ironic detachment to find the laughs there.
On the surface, Review often plays like the improv-comedy version of this concept: you get an audience suggestion, you play "trying out the experience" in as heightened a way as possible, you get into random hijinks, you end on a button, you move on to the next suggestion. What's ingenious here is how they force you to ask... what the hell is *wrong* with Forrest McNeil? Why would someone make these endless sacrifices just to create a pile of reviews that might not even have an audience?
*looks at own blog*
So, yes, there is that 'surface cringe' of Forrest doing very socially-inappropriate things and generating social awkwardness so intense it burns like battery acid. But, if you're watching this show, and you care about literally anything in your life, you can't help recognizing the behavior in yourself. You have to wonder what *you've* sacrificed to pursue what you care about. And you have to wonder if, when you took a couple of steps back, it would all seem like a pointless waste.
I find it odd that this was originally an Australian show, because that core theme — what if "finding your passion" and then striving for it with all your might is just bullshit? — feels so American. Maybe it was tweaked in the remake?
In any case, I'm glad I watched it. It's very well-done, it gave me a lot to think about, and it is riotously funny. But it is still a rough, rough watch.
The Good Place (sesason 2) [spoilers]
[Talking about season two requires indirectly spoiling some surprises from season one. Ye have been warned.]
This is the second season of The Good Place, the 2016 show about a woman who is mistakenly sent to a heaven-ish afterlife, and has to con everyone into thinking she belongs there.
This is my favorite season of television I've seen in some time.
It's the perfect complement to season one. If the first season was primarily about character — who these four people are, what their relationships are like, and where they came from — the second season leans hard into world-building instead. It bolts forward with delirious speed, burning through my guess for the entire second season in one episode, zipping past every possible iteration of season one in the second episode, and then caroming out into the rest of the world's theological underpinnings. Every episode seems to bring in something new: the warehouse of Janets, the hierarchy of demons, the entire world of Bad Place administration, the judge's quarters... it all goes on and on.
And meanwhile, we lean hard into characterization on the two nonhuman characters. Season one was about Eleanor learning to be good; season two is about Michael learning to be good: simple, brilliant. And D'Arcy Carden gets to turn in wonderful work as Janet, the robot (not a robot) who winds up experiencing 802 reboots, each of which makes humanity settle in a little more strongly, which in turn gives her more strange and new human adventures to go on.
And also meanwhile, they're keeping up their game of pinning episodic stories to philosophical topics. It's not quite as strongly presented as season one, but making the entirety of episode 5 hinge on grasping on to some meaning in the throes of an existential crisis — that might be the best "philosophy narrative" they've yet done.
And they're still as masterful with basic TV plotting as they've ever been. On some level, this whole show is a big ol' love letter to Damon Lindelof, and it apes his aptitude for cliffhangers. Every. Damn. Tag. throws in some spin on the story that makes the next episode a joy to start.
All of this is to say, this season is built like a Swiss watch. It feels like every line in every script simultaneously (1) delivers a joke, (2) reinforces character, (3) sets some vital plot thread in motion, and (4) builds out a new section of the show's universe. Consider Jason puzzling over his pocket square in the train to the Bad Place, where we're simultaneously (1) finding a new fun angle on Jason's ignorance, (2) setting up the molotov cocktail move later on, and (3) building up the tension of 'these people will never pass themselves off as demons'. You can march through the scripts like this, line by line by line, watching every one do double- or triple-duty in a giant multi-dimensional sudoku puzzle.
The Good Place is one of the rare shows that makes me *happy* that "half-hour" episodes have been whittled down to 23 minutes, then 22, then 21 — now I think they're in the neighborhood of 19 minutes each — because it's just inspired this team to work with unprecedented efficiency.
I'm hard-pressed to find flaws here. They've almost completely ditched the flashbacks, which was the biggest drag on season one. They still have trouble depicting convincing romance — it's most noticeably a problem with the Eleanor/Chidi pairing, but I can't think of an in-canon romantic pairing that's really worked yet.
But everything else is just an astounding piece of work, a pile of contradictions that should not exist. It's a relentlessly goofy sitcom that grapples with deep, difficult questions at the core of philosophy. It's a half-hour broadcast show with world-building on par with Game of Thrones. It's a show about death and eternal damnation that's one of the most effervescent comedies on the air.
It's a goddamned brick that floats.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (First Chapter)
This is the 2004 JRPG about a pair of young adventurers who search for their father in a fantasy world during a time of dangerous political intrigue.
This game is pretty old, so the graphics are pretty dated. The characters look like LEGO minifigs. Their world looks like an only-slightly-upgraded version of Mincraft. It's simple, effective, and utilitarian.
And it's kind of like, what they saved on pretty graphics, they made up for in literally every other aspect of the game. The soundtrack is delightful. Yes, they stole their main theme from Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and I have no problem with that. Hell, it's kind of appropriate, given that this fantasy world, with its improbable airships, mishmash of European cultures, and general air of "magical steampunk", basically *is* Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
And to my great surprise, the writing is actually very good. Sure, the characters are usually extreme — Olivier, for example, is a self-indulgent, self-styled bohemian artist who wants to seduce every person he meets. But at least that *is* a character — and as characters go, he's far more interesting than your usual video-game clichés. The overall storyline is surprisingly strong — at the risk of spoilers, you find yourself facing bad guys who are using false claims of terrorist attacks to effect a fascist takeover of the government, and that's a damn sight more meaningful and relevant than the usual "gather the five magical gewgaws to destroy the evil Lord Bimbledeewoo".
And even the smallest NPCs have their own little side stories going — talk to enough people enough times, and you discover that there's a kid in love with the fish merchant, who changes her inventory after you kill the monster that's blocking the shipping lanes, and he finally asks her out just before you leave town.
The side quests are delightful, with a very Japanese-feeling "do good works for your community" vibe. Early on, you rescue someone's cat. You vanquish monsters lingering outside the town. You fix up the hot-spring pumps at the local onsen. Eventually, the side quests get more involved and somewhat sillier, albeit in a good way: a mysterious villain sets you on an elaborate scavenger hunt; you gather up chapters of a trashy adventure novel; you jump in to act out parts in the school summer festival's big play. It was satisfying, having this steady side-line in civic do-good-ing.
The gameplay itself was not always exciting. It did a fine job of avoiding grinding — generally, you could do side quests and avoid the "kill fifty-five blargles to get enough lalaloo points to gain a level"-style tedium. But the fights themselves were kind of unengaging — the real strategy happened before the fight, lining up the right magic spells, arranging your party correctly, and so on. Many fights ended with me literally clicking the mouse button over and over (attack → select target) until the last thing was dead.
(Though don't get me wrong — the game's magic system, with lining up gems in different ways to generate various spells, is strategically interesting.)
And the fetch quests weren't much better. This was where I threw up my hands and used a walkthrough. Fetch quests usually required walking around and around and around some region until you finally saw the little "!" indicator that meant you had found something. Nobody has time for that.
In a way, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky worked better as a story than a game, which is odd — usually I find that it goes the other way. I was happy following the twists and turns. Apart from the bizarre, relentless negging of its heroine (Estelle), I was delighted by how it gave its female character skills, agency, and variety. And so, even though I got addicted to the game (as I do, I guess, to all video games), I was still enjoying myself, at least.
I can't imagine anybody has a spare fifty hours to throw at this game — and keep in mind, this is just the first chapter of a trilogy, so there's a hundred more hours of gameplay after this. But if you do play it, you'll find a fine and pleasant story.
For next week: I'm watching season one of The Leftovers and season one of Superstore. I'm also reading Lovecraft Country.
 I awarded myself a few nerd points for thinking "wait, that etymology doesn't sound right" just before Oliver corrects Elio's dad about the origin of "apricot".
 Not throwing shade at Harry Potter here; obviously it played out the "fascist takeover" theme itself, to spectacular effect.
 Two caveats on this: first, this does not actually happen in the game; second, I didn't really follow any of the side stories, because I quickly found myself in "aaaa I just want to finish this addictive game as quickly as possible" mode.
 One of many, many places where the pan-European fantasy land smashes headfirst into Japanese cultural traditions, to delightful effect.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none