Fourth Series of Ballykissangel

Ballykissangel Fourth SeriesAs some of you may know, I’m a big fan of Ballykissangel — the BBC show about a little Irish village filled with curious people. From an American standpoint, it is an Irish Northern Exposure — but without a tenth the annoyances. But here’s something that is very interesting: the show was on for six series, but I’ve only ever watched the first three. The third series ends tragically, with the two main characters leaving the show. It would have been as if Joel and Maggie left Northern Exposure. But not completely, because Ballykissangel does a better job of creating a sense of community as opposed to a collection of oddballs.

Over the weekend, I watched the fourth series — all 12 50-minute episodes. And the producers do manage to reinvent the show and make it compelling without destroying what was good before. Unfortunately, they do it in such a way that they still manage to harm it. The first episode, “All Bar One,” does an excellent job of acknowledging the past. But it does it with an awful clunky plot, and a change of the character of Niamh. In the first three series, she was the female beta to Assumpta’s alpha. But Niamh was always a strong character and turning her into some kind of vaguely discontented would-be business woman just seemed bizarre.

I understand the need glamorize her, so I had no problem when Niamh was given a proper haircut and shot in a way to highlight her beauty. Just the same, she was paired with the more traditionally glamorous Victoria Smurfit, playing Orla, the New Age liberal sister of the priest. And the show never quite figures out what it wants to do with her. She seems to be there primarily to set up the end of season with a conflict between Niamh and her husband, Ambrose, as she falls in love with new community member Sean Dillon.

If all this sounds confusing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The series seems to be trying to do a lot of different things. The most obvious of these was to get rid of the Ambrose character. The actor who played him, Peter Hanly (who you probably remember as the very weak Prince Edward in Braveheart), may have wanted to leave the series. He certainly said he did. But it seems more likely the show was just trying to provide a relationship with some sexual tension to replace that between Father Clifford and Assumpta during the first three seasons.

But therein lies the problem. I didn’t notice any sexual tension until the last couple of episodes of the series. It seems more likely that a contract dispute took place between the producers and Peter Hanly. Maybe he didn’t like being sidelined in the series and they pushed him so they could do what they had long wanted. Regardless, the last couple of episodes seem to have been quickly rewritten to end that story line. Then claims were made that the whole thing had been brewing the whole series. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I’ve never found the Niamh and Ambrose relationship particularly engaging.

Interestingly, after being the dominant force during the first three series, creator Kieran Prendiville disappears completely from the fourth series. And as far as I can tell, that’s true of the fifth as well. He does seem to come back to finish off the sixth series, writing almost all of the episodes. But I can’t help but think that he is ultimately what gave the show its heart. The fourth season is certainly good, and the actors are fantastic, but much of it comes off as wooden and formulaic.


One episode of the fourth series was especially good, “Births, Deaths and Marriages.” It brings together the wonderful sense of community that most defines the show. And in this episode, Niamh completely takes on the role that Assumpta did as community leader. It is somewhat spoiled by her breaking down in a clumsy attempt to set up the series finale. But that is small.

See also: Confused High Jinks on Ballykissangel.

The Death of Antitrust

Robert ReichLast week’s settlement between the Justice Department and five giant banks reveals the appalling weakness of modern antitrust.

The banks had engaged in the biggest price-fixing conspiracy in modern history. Their self-described “cartel” used an exclusive electronic chat room and coded language to manipulate the $5.3 trillion-a-day currency exchange market. It was a “brazen display of collusion” that went on for years, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

But there will be no trial, no executive will go to jail, the banks can continue to gamble in the same currency markets, and the fines — although large — are a fraction of the banks’ potential gains and will be treated by the banks as costs of doing business.

America used to have antitrust laws that permanently stopped corporations from monopolizing markets, and often broke up the biggest culprits.

No longer…

—Robert Reich
Whatever Happened to Antitrust?

Bigots Demagogue California Drought

Welcome to California Now Go HomeLiving here in the future ghost state of California, I have a special fascination with water. But I’m hardly alone. It’s interesting to watch the local news and see people upset that it is not going to rain. People here are far past being concerned about their weekend plans. As our drought drags on, people see it as more and more of an existential threat. And while I’m pleased that people really are taking the situation seriously, fear is not the best of motivators. It tends to act as a cancer, and so it isn’t surprising that we are seeing people use the current crisis for some nefarious ends.

This last week, Kate Linthicum reported, Group says California Immigration Policies Contributed to Drought. It seems that a group called Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS — get it?!) is demagoguing the issue real good. They’ve produced a series of commercials. In one, there is a whiny little boy who asks, “If Californians are having fewer children, why is it so crowded?” It continues on with the boy asking other questions including, “Why isn’t there enough water?” A man in voice-over explains, “Over 98% of California’s population growth is from immigration. Let’s slow immigration and save some of California for tomorrow.” Meanwhile, the little boy looks dejectedly into the camera.

What’s amazing about this commercial is that it could have run in the 1930s. Now the subtext is, “Let’s get the spicks!” But in the 1930s, it would have been, “Let’s get the Okies!” Linthicum reported that earlier this month, the group asked its Facebook followers to “like” the statement that “California’s drought could have been prevented with responsible immigration policies and limited population growth.” And that is, you know, totally crazy in addition to be bigoted and generally evil. Even if no humans lived in California, it would still be going through its worst drought on record. What’s more, only 10% of California water use is from urban use. So the CAPS claim is just as wrong as it could possibly be.

Michael Hiltzik provided some great data about water use in California. It turns out that per capita water use among urban residents is way down: from 232 gallons per day in 1995 to 178 in 2010. That doesn’t even include the current drought, so I assume that number is even lower today. But even more amazing is that California’s total water use — with a huge increase in population and agricultural productivity — has actually gone down in an absolute sense: from 35 billion gallons per day in 1990 to 31 billion in 2010. That actually shocks me; I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

Linthicum quoted one expert who noted that if Californians actually care about the drought, they should be campaigning against lawns, not immigrants. Hiltzik put it well:

More to the point, if you’re searching for profligate water users, immigrant communities, which are typically low-income, are the wrong place to look. Figures released last year by the State Water Resources Control Board showed that water use in upscale communities, where homes typically feature broad expanses of overwatered turf, outstripped that of urban low-income municipalities several times over.

But of course, CAPS is most definitely not interested in the drought. The group has been around since 1986. It’s like Matt Yglesias’s analogy about Quakers wanting to balance the budget with military cuts: CAPS is just using drought to push their real issue. And their issue is the same one that Californians have had for decades: I’ve got mine so stay away. It’s sad. But it has nothing to do with environmentalism.

Mythology and the Acceptance of Police Brutality

Police AbuseI’ve been thinking a lot about the mythology of American policing and how it allows our criminal justice system to stay so messed up. And over at Vox, Redditt Hudson wrote an article that touches on this issue, I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth About Race and Policing. He worked for five years for the St Louis Police Department, and since then, he seems to work in criminal justice reform. So he’s not exactly your typical police officer. But still, he’s been in the field. And I think he has a good take on American policing. In particular, he seems to be able to distinguish between the reality and the myth of the police. And that is refreshing indeed.

Fundamentally, I think it is the mythology of policing that is so dangerous. It is what allows police to think that they live in a world that is especially dangerous. And that leads to officers like Michael Brelo to jump up on the hood of a car and fire 15 more shots — past the 122 already fired — at an unarmed couple in their car. And it is what leads to judges thinking the whole thing was a-okay. Because, you know, Brelo was “fearing for his life.” This isn’t a story of the real world: a civil servant doing a (at worst) modestly dangerous job. This is a story of Odysseus struggling to make his way in a world of the Sirens and Cyclops.

The standard line whenever a police officer does something unconscionable is, “While the vast majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, this officer blah, blah, blah…” Every time we talk about misbehavior of an officer, we are expected to preface it with this disclaimer. But Hudson’s accounting sounds far more reasonable. No, it isn’t the “vast majority” of police officers. It is instead:

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

Clearly, this isn’t based upon a study. It is just Hudson’s impression. But regardless what the number are, this is the makeup. There are a relatively small number of “good” and “bad” officers and then there are a whole bunch in the middle that go with the flow. This is why certain departments become hotbeds of racism and why a strong administrative effort to clean up a department really can work. But if you asked me, I would say that it is more like 5% of the officers who will always do the right thing. Let’s call them the Eagle Scouts. Clearly, the probability distribution of police officers abusing their power will be heavily tilted away from the Eagle Scouts — that is, there are more “bad” than “good” officers.

Another thing that Hudson noted is that racism against African Americans is not just something that white officers do. He sees the problem as being fundamentally one of abuse of authority. So the racism is systemic: it is acceptable to abuse black and brown people. So officers, regardless of what race they identify with, will abuse black and brown people because they know they can get away with that. They know they can’t go out and abuse students at Stanford.

How the mythology plays into this is in how it allows the officers in that big middle group to justify abusing their power — although it is probably a potent justification for the people who were attracted to police work because of the power. I’m sure that the officers who killed Freddie Gray thought that somehow what they were doing was justified because they have such dangerous jobs and because all the world is evil and all that other garbage that we allow them to go on thinking.

I remember something that Jim Hogshire said in his excellent book, You Are Going to Prison. He was talking about prison rape and how it was accepted by the prison authorities — part of the mechanism of control. He noted that if a warden wanted prison rape stopped today it would stop today. Well, that’s what I think about police brutality. The reason it continues on is because of us. We don’t want to give up our mythology of policing. Maybe it would help if we just got explicit about it, “While most police officers are demigods who exist in a dangerous but magical world…”

See also: Most Dangerous Jobs.

Morning Music: the Wisdom of Sly Stone

Stand! - Sly and the Family Stone“We’ve got to live together!” So said Sly Stone and if you can’t trust him, who can you trust? Rarely has there been such a brilliant musician. And I always go to musicians to learn the basic lessons of life. That line is from the song “Everyday People” off the Sly and the Family Stone album, Stand! — one of the greatest musical accomplishments of the last century.

So it is really very simple. There is the long hair who doesn’t like the short hair. There is the yellow one who won’t accept the black one. There is even the fat one who is trying to be the skinny one — even though she shouldn’t (she should just try to get a bit more exercise). All of that’s made up people! As the great man said, “We’ve got to live together!”

Actually, “Everyday People” is just the start of this. It is followed by “Dance to the Music” and then “I Want To Take You Higher.” There is much wisdom throughout.

Anniversary Post: PGA Tour Inc v Martin

Casey MartinOn this day in 2001, the case PGA Tour Inc v Martin was decided. This was when Casey Martin sued the PGA for the right to compete in their golf tournaments using a golf cart. According to the official rules, golfers must walk the course. But Martin was born with Klippel–Trénaunay syndrome, which made it difficult to walk. He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and won. I’m mixed on this issue. On the one hand, I’m glad for Martin and I think he should have been able to play using a golf cart. On the other hand, why in the hell is a silly sporting event making its way to the Supreme Court?

But speaking of silly, Scalia and Thomas dissented in this case. (I’m sure Alito would have too, had he been on the court at that time.) They argued Martin should have to walk because of… Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I’ve always (really: always) thought it was a stupid story. What I most remember from it is the ballet where the dancers are weighted down so as to equalize their abilities. The story satirizes attempts to mandate egalitarianism. The problem is that every conservative on the planet uses this childish short story as the ultimate slippery slope result of any and all attempts to create a more equal society.

I’ve always felt that Vonnegut was an overrated writer. I still admire him, but people think him far more clever than he ever was. And “Harrison Bergeron” is him at his worst and most facile. There is literally no point to the story. It is more or less Atlas Shrugged without the “happy” ending. The thinking that goes into the story is the same kind of sub-Nietzschean nonsense that Ayn Rand peddled. But what are we to think? That feeding poor children will lead to the elimination of talents? Had Vonnegut thought the whole thing through, he would have realized that such “egalitarian” laws would naturally make people seek out endeavors where they would not need to be handicapped. But of course, diving into the questions he raised was never his thing.

Vonnegut certainly must have hated the way his story was used, at the same time it reinforced his generally low appraisal of humanity. But it isn’t surprising that minds as simplistic as Scalia and Thomas (neither would need radio device to disrupt their thoughts if they lived in the world of “Harrison Bergeron”) would grab on to the most careless and simplistic of Vonnegut’s allegories. But at least seven of the justices sided with Casey Martin. Of course, today, it would only be five or maybe six.

Happy anniversary to PGA Tour Inc v Martin. In another ten years, it may well be overturned!