SherlockI’ve just been introduced to the British television series Sherlock. Netflix estimated a ranking of 5 out of 5 stars for me. I think the only time that happened before was based upon an Akira Kurosawa film, and of course, it was right. So last week, I sat down and watched the first episode. It was good so I watched the second tonight. Based upon them, I wouldn’t give it that high a rating, but it is very good. What the producers have done is modernize the characters. This is brilliant because there is a very big problem with the old stories: Sherlock Holmes is a very unlikable character. It is Watson we like. Watson’s whole Victroian era “I was in the Anglo-Afghan War” thing probably made him very cool to readers at the turn on the 19th century. But for the modern reader (or viewer), he seems very stodgy. So naturally we gravitate toward Holmes, only to find that he really is an asshole.

Sherlock fixes these problems by making Watson a military doctor retired from the Afghanistan War, which is, you know, just perfect. And played by Martin Freeman, I think he is who most modern men wish they were: courageous, smart, and generally a decent guy. He provides the reality that the show needs. Without him, it is just another super hero action show. Or perhaps Monk without the humor.

Benedict Cumberb as Sherlock HolmesA similar transformation is accomplished with Sherlock Holmes. Modern depictions of that character have always struggled with him because of his drug use: cocaine and (almost never mentioned in modern tributes) morphine. They have either ignored it, psychologized him, or turned him into some kind of self-destructive madman. There are basically two valid ways to read the character. Either he is just bored or it is a character flaw. Both are pretty much the same. He is a man who has an overactive mind and he simply needs to change it. Regardless, Doyle was right to understand that someone as brilliant as Holmes would certainly have aspects to his personality that most people wouldn’t like. (I wrote about this in the modern world, recently.) Sherlock does not shy away from Holmes’ antisocial tendencies, without turning him into Robert Downey Jr.

In the first episode, “A Study in Pink” (which is quite similar to A Study in Scarlet), we are introduced to two important characters. First, there is Holmes’ brother Mycroft. I suspect that the writers expected his revelation to be a surprise, since he is made out to seem like Moriarty. Anyone who knows the original, however, would not have been fooled. He is not an important character in the books, but he is ever so much fun. Sherlock seems downright normal compared to his brother. Just the same, the original character is clearly changed in Sherlock.

Martin Freeman as Dr. John WatsonThe other character is Moriarty, who, though only mentioned, apparently set up the villain in the first episode. I don’t much like the character. For one thing, he hardly exists in the original stories. The very idea of a criminal mastermind soils the whole thing. And then to give the character an Irish name adds racism on top of that. It is only since Doyle’s death that other writers have taken it upon themselves to turn Moriarty into a major character. I guess Sherlock wouldn’t be complete without him, but it does tire me.

In the second episode “The Blind Banker,” we get to see a graffiti artist Raz, who I think is supposed to be part of the Baker Street Irregulars. In the first episode is Inspector Lestrade, similarly modernized. Half the fun of the series is seeing what they will do with the characters and the plots (which at least thus far hearken back to original stories). For someone like me, it is perfect, because it takes away what has always bothered me with the stories. The series is effectively what Arthur Conan Doyle would be producing if he were alive today.

I’m not saying the series is great. It’s hard to say after seeing only two episodes. It also has lots of modern Steven Soderbergh like editing as well as digital images floating across the screen. None of that is necessary, I think. In fact, I find it kind of annoying. And I’m not too fond of the ticking bomb endings. But it is still quite good—better than almost all of the television that I manage to see. And it is sure to please anyone who likes the original.

Feds Can’t Prioritize—and Shouldn’t!

Mark PattersonOn Friday, I wrote about something that is really bugging me, Debt Ceiling Crisis Options. I hate the idea that is being pushed by many conservatives that the Debt Ceiling is no big deal. On Bloomberg TV, John Boehner said, “Those who have loaned us money, like in any other proceeding, if you will—the bondholders usually get paid first.” What he means is that the United States government has a greater obligation to bond holders than it does to Social Security Recipients.

What I find so vexing about this is that there is a very casual class war going on here, “Of course the rich must be paid first!” I just don’t see any difference between the bond holders and the Social Security recipients. Both groups paid the government money in the past in exchange for returns now. It is true that if we are late, bond holders may well think twice before they loan money to the government again. But isn’t it also true that people will be less inclined to pay payroll taxes for a benefit they may or more not receive? (I have thought about this a lot. Those who would cut Social Security never seem to think that support for the highly regressive payroll tax is dependent upon a decent return.)

NPR had a very good segment on this tonight, In A Debt Crisis, US May Have To Decide Payment Priorities. It quoted Boehner, of course. But the meat of the piece was a interview with Mark Patterson who was the chief of staff at the US Treasury from 2009 until this May (now at the Center for American Progress). He said that if you asked any recent Treasury Secretary of either party they would tell you this idea of prioritizing the bond payments is “a god-awful idea.” He also provided an excellent analogy:

I liken it to a household. If you are a homeowner and you decided to pay only your mortgage payment, but you stopped paying your utility bill, your credit card bill, your student loan bill and your car payment, your credit rating would go down the tubes even though your mortgage was still current.

What this is really all about is more cover for John Boehner and the Republicans. He wants to crash the economy and then stand back and say, “Well, if you did what I said, everything would be fine! Don’t blame me.” But it is still a good talking point. I’m sure the Fox News viewers will just love up—right up to the time when their Social Security checks stop coming.

And Patterson goes further. He notes that the Treasury’s system is not designed to do what too many Americans do each month: figure out how much of each of its bills it will pay. The system is designed to pay all of its bills in full all the time. So even if Obama agreed with Boehner that the bond holders are ever so much more important than our retired citizens (and I’m very much afraid that he does), we proably couldn’t manage it. If this continues on, it will be a clusterfuck.

Why Democrats Aren’t an Extremist Party

Chris CillizzaChris Cillizza over at the The Fix blog has an interesting article with one of those terrible Washington Post style headlines, Want to Know Why the Government Is Shut Down? This Chart Explains it. The chart in question is not very useful. Basically it shows (The shock!) that most members of the House of Representatives are in districts that are quite safe. This is an old and very boring argument: Washington is dysfunctional because of polarization!

Excuse me while I yawn.

But it’s worse than that. There is a halfway interesting argument to be made from the data, although Cillizza completely misses it. He notes:

Of the 199 Democrats in the House at the start of the 113th Congress, a majority—51 percent (!)—won their race with 67 percent of the vote or higher. Among the 234 Republicans elected in the last election, 67—or roughly 29 percent of the GOP conference—won with 67 percent or higher.

What I find interesting here is so many more Democrats have incredibly safe seats. Of course, there is a reason for this: gerrymandering. That’s what I wrote about last week, Gerrymandering Didn’t Make GOP Extreme. The idea behind gerrymandering is to make your own party’s seats safe enough but to make your opponents’ seats extremely safe.

So we have to ask, “With more than half of the Democratic House seats extremely safe, why don’t we see extremism on the part of Democrats?” There are a lot of reasons for that (e.g. money in politics, voter apathy), but I just want to discuss one here. Political caucuses tend to be governed by norms. That is why we don’t jump from socialism to fascism and back every time control of government switches. Those norms are very much active in the Democratic Party where I’m sure our elected official still often think, “You just don’t do that kind of thing.” Norms have completely broken down in the Republican Party. A good example is Ted Cruz. Normally, a Senator would never think to try to control the House caucus. You just don’t do that kind of thing. But now in the Republican Party you do.

What we see in his article is that Chris Cillizza is just another Villager, determined to find that Washington is messed up because, “Both sides do it!” That’s not just wrong. I have no problem with wrong. I’m wrong quite a lot. But that outlook on politics greatly limits seeing things as they are. Regardless of what happens, it gets put in their Both Sides Now box and shipped out. If Cillizza had been around for the start of World War II, he would have reported it like this, “Sure, the Germans invaded Poland, but the English are in India. Let’s not forget that!” Cillizza ought to be selling insurance somewhere.

Yo-Yo Ma and the Existence of Evil

Yo-Yo MaOn this day in 1892, the great film producer Dwain Esper was born. He produced Reefer Madness. The story is interesting. A church group had produced a film called Tell Your Children about the evils of cannabis that they wanted to show to parents to alert them of the threat to their children that was that the demon weed. Well, Dwain Esper saw the film and bought it. He added some more sex to it and hit the road. He was a character like William Castle, effectively creating his own market. Castle was much better, but Esper was actually the pioneer of the practice. He produced and directed a number of other drug and sex movies. I’m sure the man was a character. He lived into the 1980s.

The great Iranian singer Fereydoun Farrokhzad was born in 1938. In the video below, you will hear him sing a song that is used in Fiddler on the Roof. That goes along with what I’ve long known about the Middle East: if you take the people out of the area, they love each other because they are the same people. Of course Farrokhzad was not especially Muslim. In fact, he was jailed at the start of the Iranian revolution and once released, he fled to Germany. He’s a fascinating guy. Although he is known as one of the greatest entertainers Iran has ever produced, he had a PhD in Political Science. Sadly, he was murdered (stabbed 40 times) at the age of 53. But I always think of people like him when some conservative tells me that “those people” just hate us. Yeah, those people are all alike.

American traitor Oliver North is 70 today. He is one of the great villains of this country. But he was the leading edge of something that currently has the government shut down and headed toward default. When he testified before Congress he broke all norms of respect for elected leaders. And he did it while wearing a Marine Corps uniform. It was, of course, applauded by conservatives—the same conservatives who freaked out when Natalie Maines said, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” But instead of being in jail or dead, he is said to have a net worth of $5 million. Are you not proud?

Other birthdays: Elizabethan playwright John Marston (1576); Romantic composer Felix Draeseke (1835); Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad (1897); and the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu (82).

The day, however, belongs to the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma who is 58 today. I don’t know much about him, but he really does play beautifully. It would please me if he were more varied in his repertoire. But here he is with most of the first movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto:

Happy birthday Yo-Yo Ma!

The Onion Nails Tea Party

The OnionA couple of weeks back, I wrote, Republicans Are a Cult More Than a Party. What I meant was that it operated very much like a new religion: the elites have reasons for their beliefs, but they tell the flock appealing stories that have little if anything to do with what the elites believe. For example, the elites dislike Obamacare because it raises taxes on the rich. But that’s not what they tell people. The base thinks that Obamacare is bad because it destroys “freedom” and other poorly defined words.

Of course, just like in a cult, the Republican Party is hierarchical and authoritarian. For all the Democratic Party’s faults, it is still largely ruled by fact and evidence. The Republican Party really doesn’t work that way. Now whether that is because of the media echo chamber they’ve created, or the other way around, doesn’t really matter. Everyone is expected to yield to authority and they avoid heretical news sources just like all good True Believers. The only thing that Republicans now disagree about is the proper intensity of their faiths.

I am not the only person to notice this aspect of the Republican Party. On Friday, the satirical news source The Onion published, Tea Party Leaders Announce Support for Deal in Exchange for Malia Obama. It takes the cult metaphor to wonderfully absurd heights:

The Tea Party caucus authored and released a short, tersely worded statement this morning in which they agreed to a swift negotiation of an unstipulated spending bill if the president were to deliver “the firstling.”

“The girl. Bring us the girl,” said Congressman Steve King (R-IA) as he stood beside fellow Tea Party leaders during this morning’s press conference on the steps of the Capitol. “The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.”

“Heed our bidding,” added an unblinking Phil Gingrey (R-GA). “And thy wish shall be granted.”

According to Washington insiders, the deal would reportedly feature a continuing resolution to fund government operations through November 15…

According to Congressional aides, if the White House agrees to deliver Malia, as well as a pint of Michelle Obama’s blood, a ram’s horn, and a shard of obsidian to the basement of the Cannon House Office Building by this evening, a House vote on the bill could take place as early as Saturday.

“Obamacare may be a scourge, but lo, our eyes are cast upon matters of greater import,” explained Tea Party Republican Justin Amash of Michigan’s third district. “Preparations must be made. The hour is nigh.” …

“It must be Malia,” stated Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). “First of birth. First of blood. First of the reckoning.” …

“The Tea Party has spoken,” said Georgetown professor of political science Richard Drape. “The deal has been wrought. All bear witness to the fruits of the Great Compromise, for it is with us.”

At press time, a teary-eyed Michelle Obama was informing Malia that she will always love her.

What I especially like about this is that in exchange for Obama’s first born, the Republicans are offering a one month CR. That’s about right!

Still Waiting on the GOP

John BoehnerWho’s tired of the government shutdown? It really is boring. All we see is Republican talkers repeating the same old talking points, “They won’t negotiate!” On the left, it is a bit more nuanced, but the truth is, it seems to be mostly the Republicans doing the talking. And it’s amazing that the Democrats are doing so well, because most of the media continues its knee jerk response: can’t you both just compromise? For the umpteenth time: there is no compromise with extortion. And that is especially true when the extortioners are as clueless as the Republicans seem to be.

This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote a very depressing article, How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats’ Debt-Ceiling Logic. He argues persuasively that it isn’t that Republicans are just pretending to not understand the Democrat’s position, they really don’t understand it. I wouldn’t go quite that far. Certainly John Boehner understands what’s going on. But as we’ve seen time and again, a lot of high profile Republicans (including Congressmen) are as ignorant as the base.

I was very interested to read this morning that Antonin Scalia reads only the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times—two very conservative newspapers. He said he used to read the Washington Post but it was so “shrilly, shrilly liberal.” That’s funny because the Post is now known as a fairly conservative paper. We can thank God that maybe some actual news articles get through to him from the WSJ, but I suspect he concentrates on the editorial pages more than anything. He also listens to at least one conservative radio ranter. So if a Supreme Court justice is getting informed about the world from such biased sources, what can we expect from some Representative from Oklahoma?

As we approach a government default, the Republicans continue to ask for even more concessions. The government shutdown isn’t working, but they act as though it is a done deal and now all Obama must decide is exactly what he wants to give up in exchange for Boehner raising the Debt Ceiling. At one time, I has relieved to hear Boehner say that he wouldn’t allow a government default. But all that really seems to mean is that he is positioning himself to blame Obama once a default happens.

Paul Krugman’s column this morning argues that the Republicans just don’t know what they are doing, The Boehner Bunglers. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it is more that Republicans don’t know what to do. They are flailing around. This goes back to my idea that the Republicans are practical nihilists. Most of them came into office promising everything. And they truly believe that they can get what they want through pure force of will. Now that this is shown to be a delusion, they don’t know what to do. It’s like at the end of Terminator 2 where the T-1000 tries various forms hoping that one of them will work.

Meanwhile, we wait as the government shutdown goes on. And we wait for a government default. But most of all, we hope that soon the Republicans will figure out that no minor tweaks of their extortion attempt will work. Then we can got back to our usual political system with the normal dysfunctional GOP. That’s a lot more fun and lot less dangerous.

Pay Attention to Me!


What’s the point of dumping my random thoughts into the abyss of cyberspace if no one is going to acknowledge me? I mean, can I get a little validation up in this bitch?[1]

[1] I hope I’ve used that expression correctly, otherwise it might draw attention to my overall distance from popular culture and that would be awkward. Not that anyone would notice because no one ever does. I mean, come on!