Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The New Sherlock: Great Stars, but terrible plots

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters ever created. He was first introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. The first story was followed by many serialized adventures, many of which have been made into movies. Every mystery writer after Holmes has borrowed from the master. Today's tv programs rely on forensic science methods first introduced by Doyle.

One series that doesn't rely on Conan's detective--except for his name and a superficial resemblance to his methods--is the new BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the legendary sleuth. I recently watched the first episode, A Study in Pink, and came away feeling cheated, as if the writers of that show had pulled a sleight of hand trick.

In fact, they had. Cumberbatch's impersonation of Holmes is fine, and he makes some excellent deductions about a missing pink suitcase. But the deductions do not help him solve the crime. The criminal delivers himself into Holmes's hands by picking him up in a taxi from 221B Baker Street. The original Sherlock solves crimes. The modern Sherlock waits for the criminal to solve the crime.

The criminal in A Study in Pink is sufficiently creepy, and has a high opinion of his own intelligence, but he wouldn't have been a match for the original Sherlock. Cumberbund's Sherlock, however, nearly lets himself be murdered by the villain, who has killed others before. Sherlock is apparently about to drink poison to prove that he can outwit the murderer. The murderer places two pills on the table, one filled with a deadly poison, the other a harmless placebo.

There is a strong odor of deja vu about this scene. It's taken directly from the Princess Bride, where Vizzini is tricked into a guessing game by Dread Pirate Roberts. Vizzini never had a chance in the game because Roberts tricked him by putting poison into both goblets set before them. Roberts had gained an immunity to iocaine poison before suggesting the duel.

Such a denouement would be worthy of the original Sherlock, although he was probably too much of a gentleman not to give his opponent a sporting chance. But the modern Sherlock does not control the situation, the murderer does. Sherlock is supposedly tempted to take a pill, trusting in his superior intelligence to pick the harmless one. But this is something the original Sherlock would never have done. If that Sherlock found himself in a similar situation, he undoubtedly would have deduced which pill to take by its color, or its scent, or something equally scientific.

The modern Sherlock is apparently ready to gamble his life on a 50-50 bet. Even the most inveterate gambler would never take odds on that wager! He would be guided by the gambler's maxim, never bet more than you can afford to lose. Sherlock is saved by a deus ex machina, when Watson takes a risky shot with a pistol across the street, through 2 glass windows, and over Sherlock's shoulder. At least Watson is no idiot. He takes the risk, but relies on his marksmanship more than his luck.

The new Sherlock survives A Study in Pink thanks to Watson's skill with a pistol, not the detecting skills of the world's only consulting detective. The tv production relies on digital special effects to hold its audience, much like CSI and the other forensic investigation shows. The colors are lush and London is still London, but the plot is not nearly as clever as it would like us to believe.

The point was driven home again by the first episode of the current series, where Sherlock Holmes saves London from a terrorist attack. Once again, clever detection plays little role in solving the crime. Holmes appears to stumble on a subway car that is loaded with explosives.

"The bomb isn't in the train," he announces to Watson. "The train is the bomb."

It's a nice play on words, but entirely meaningless. Clearly the explosives have been placed in the train, else how did they get there. At this point the scriptwriter saves Sherlock and Watson with one of the hoariest plot devices of all time. The bomb in the train has a clock that can be seen ticking down to zero. Granted, the device of the heroine tied to the railroad tracks is older, but not by much. James Bond, who was like Sherlock Holmes except that he worked for the government and killed people, faced the ticking time-bomb in Goldfinger, 50 years ago this year. Earlier examples probably exist.

But the ticking time bomb with a digital display never existed. Why would a bomb have such a device, except in a movie? Who would need to read it, except a fictional detective about to be blown to bits? Modern bombers use radio signals from cell phones to detonate their devices, or other equally modern techniques. The modern Sherlock does not have to face such villains.

The modern Sherlock has a good excuse. His writers are being playful. They're playing with the legend. Blowing up parliament can be funny, you see. The modern Sherlock even plays a game with Watson, pretending that he doesn't know how to defuse the bomb. Then he flips a switch on the case and the clock stops.

"Bombs always have an off switch," he explains to Watson, who is just as irritated at him as the viewers should be.

Bombs don't have an off-switch, but televisions do. I wouldn't be surprised if Sherlock fans soon grew tired of a Sherlock Holmes who doesn't detect and a plot that holds no mysteries. There is a reason why most of the Sherlock Holmes movies are based on plots by Sir Arthur. He was the best.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Downton Abbey Jumps the Shark: Julian Fellowes reveals a crude sensibility

Julian Fellowes, writer, producer, and creator of the English costume drama, Downton Abbey, has jumped the shark. He has yielded to his lust for higher ratings by including a gratuitous scene of rape in the third episode of Downton Abbey, series 4.

The scene is gratuitous because there is nothing in the character of Anna, the victim, that makes her a candidate for rape. She is smart, competent, and independent. She knows her assailant, yet she places herself in a position where she and he are alone in the servants' quarters while all the rest of the household are listening to an operatic recital in the main hall. She has a headache, she says, though it takes all of her acting skill for Joanne Froggatt to convince the audience that this character needs a headache powder in the middle of a recital.

The scene does not work dramatically. It is reminiscent (perhaps intentionally) of the scene from the Godfather where Michael orders his gangland rivals killed while he is getting married. That scene works well, since it reveals Michael's cold-blooded calculation. Francis Ford Coppola interposes a solemn scene with scenes of sudden violence. The murders are completely predictable within the framework of a gangster movie. Nevertheless, Coppola does not destroy one scene by including the other.

Anna's rape does not work because it shows her leaving her husband, John Bates, a large and sometimes violent man, in the salon while she goes off alone to seek relief for her raging headache, the only one she has ever suffered on the show. Bates simply nods passively as his wife leaves the recital, which is entirely out of character for him. He has shown great empathy for his wife in the past. It would be more in character for him to fetch her a headache powder. The scene thus undermines Bates's character as well as Anna's.

While Fellowes is demonstrating his homage for Coppola, he is completely ruining the segment where Kiri Te Kanawa sings arias to the assembled Downton Abbey residents. The rape scene occurs just after Kanawa sings the first phrase of O Mio Babbino Caro, surely one of the most tender and affecting arias in all of opera. The audience does not hear the second phrase, however. This breaks the cardinal rule of musical theater, which states that the camera must follow the entire song and not break away. The effect, in this case, is to create a mood consonant with a romantic aria and replace it with a scene of violence. Kanawa should bring a lawsuit against Fellowes for eviscerating her role and denigrating her talent.

The repercussions of the scene are horrendous. Anna loses her close, honest relationship with Bates, because she refuses to tell him about the incident and lies when he questions her about her cuts and bruises. Here again, Fellowes undermines Anna's character, as she has never before been anything but competent and well-groomed. Fellowes has no understanding of the nature of rape or of the suffering he is inflicting on rape survivors who may also be fans of the show. Scenes like this force rape survivors to relive their sufferings, much as a soldier with post-traumatic stress relives his experiences on the battlefield. Fellowes includes this scene with no warning. Instead, he revels in the unexpected and shocking nature of the crime.

Finally, the inclusion of a scene of rape in the Downton Abbey household lowers the tone of the entire series to the level of a standard soap opera, where the actors are merely pawns for the writers to exploit. In such programs, every episode can bring a complete alteration of a character's personality. Good, honest people become dishonest and deceitful, modest women become promiscuous.

The previous episode contains this kind of plot-driven scene. The servant, Thomas, conspires to destroy Anna's reputation with her mistress by claiming that Anna has ruined an article of clothing. He does this to save the reputation of a completely worthless servant, Edna. This plot device completely goes against Thomas's self-interests, since Anna's husband, Bates, is the only reason Thomas still has his position at the Abbey. Furthermore, Thomas is gay, so he cannot possibly have any attraction to Edna.

Fellowes does not let details of character development stand in his way. His worst failings come in his failure to retain popular actors for Downton Abbey. Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens both left the show. Fellowes killed both characters off, thus preventing their return. Fans were appalled at the brutal treatment of these actors, but Fellowes once again seemed oblivious to what his audience might feel.

My wife and I will not be watching any more episodes of this program. It has beautiful production values and fine acting, but seems to exist now only to further the egotistic whims of its creator. A shame, that.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

California must lead the way in prison reform and rational drug policies

No one in America exemplifies the corrupt nature of mass incarceration better than Jerry Brown, Democratic Governor of California. Like the rest of our prisons in America, California's prisons are instruments for the oppression of black, brown, and youthful Americans.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that overcrowding in prisons is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A three-judge panel has informed the state of California that it needs to reduce prisoner population to 137.5% of the prison system's designed capacity.

California's real problem is not a shortage of prisons or an oversupply of prisoners. California needs to reform its laws to make fewer criminals out of non-violent citizens. The state is not alone in this problem. Most of the states have the same one. But California has been ordered by a court to solve its problem, at least partially, yet refuses to do so.

Actually, only Governor Brown refuses to take action. The state legislature passed a law that would have made non-violent drug offenders eligible for early parole, but Brown refused to sign it. Instead, he proposed to spend more money on prisons to lock up thousands of people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

California's drug laws are irrational. The state locks up people for possession of small amounts of drugs, but it looks the other way as marijuana growers in the state grew a crop worth at least a billion dollars in 2014. Errand boys go to jail. Kingpins don't.

Brown is unduly influenced by the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association, the prison guards' union. It's understandable, since they paid $2 million for his reelection. Like the honest politician he is, he repays political favors.  The union has only one agenda, to put more prisoners in jail for longer so there will be more jobs for guards and more dues for the union.

In pursuit of this agenda, the union has opposed any sentencing reform. Even Democratic politicians like Brown favor long sentences, and California has one of the strictest sentencing structures in the world. Its "three strikes" law results in life sentences for misdemeanors as trivial as stealing a pizza. Its determinate sentencing laws can result in years spent in prison for relatively innocuous crimes.

When pressed about his opposition to legalization of marijuana, Brown retreats into vague generalizations about how America will not be able to compete in the world if it legalizes this drug:
I do think America’s under a certain amount of competitive pressure. We like to think of ourselves as the leading power, and we’re an aging 4 percent of the world’s 7.2 billion people. So I think we have to stay alert and heads up. I don’t know if everybody’s going to pot that that’s going to be a positive path forward.
This kind of specious logic avoids the real problem of mass incarceration. All the damage that Brown mentions is vague, hypothetical, and unlikely to happen in the real world. Mass incarceration, where America imprisons more of its people, relatively speaking, is a real problem and it has been happening for years. Brown has been ordered by federal judges to reduce the number of prisoners in his state. His response is to say that there may be some kind of problem some time in the future. This response is nonsense.

Brown should lead the people of California, who have shown themselves willing to stand in the vanguard of rational drug and sentencing policies. He should cease to be a dead weight in the current of change.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Identity Theft and Republican Obstructionism

Recently I had two experiences that brought home to me in a very personal way just how important government regulation is and just how little the Republican Congress cares about ordinary people.

The first experience was an identity theft. Someone got my credit card number and my social security number and tried to make a couple of large purchases. The person failed to gain anything for a curious reason. They gave the credit card company a wrong birth date. The curious part was that they gave the credit card company my actual birth date, but the credit card company had a different, incorrect date. So the credit card company turned them down when they tried to steal some money.

So far, so good, but the credit card company also turned me down when I tried to use my credit card. Of course, I had the actual date of my birth and so they turned down my request. I went to the bank to straighten things out and discovered the only thing I could do was close my bank account and cancel my credit card. The bank then transferred the money from my old account to a new one and sold me identity theft insurance in case the criminals tried again, or someone else got hold of my personal information and tried to defraud the bank again.

This process took me most of an afternoon and scared the life out of me. The perpetrators will never be caught. They didn't take my money but they did take my time and my disturb my peace of mind.

The second experience was even more frightening. I answered the phone and was told by a voice at the other end of the line that I owed the IRS thousands of dollars and a policeman was on his way to arrest me. He offered to help me out if I would send him some money to pay off the debt. Just imagine what you would do if someone told you you were about to be arrested. Even though I knew I owed nothing to the IRS and the whole story was fraudulent, there was still a chance that I might be arrested. I hung up on the con artist and paid him nothing.

I am not an immigrant, and I have a fairly good understanding of the law, but the call upset me. I have a last name that sounds foreign, which may have been why I became a target of this fraud. An undocumented worker, who lives in dread of the police knocking on his or her door, may have been convinced that they had to pay up or be deported.

I decided to report the telephone fraud to the government. I soon discovered that the agency responsible for this type of consumer fraud is the Consumer Protection Agency. I gave them my information and never heard back from them.

The Consumer Protection Agency is a whipping boy for Republicans in congress. They held up approving the President's nomination to head the agency for over a year. They also assured the President that they would never permit Elizabeth Warren to head the agency, even though she was responsible for  getting the agency set up and is one of our foremost experts on consumer fraud.

Consumer fraud is rampant. Identity theft is a very serious issue for the millions of Americans who have been affected by it, sometimes disastrously. If a person gives cash to a con artist, that money is gone. An individual has no way to protect him or herself. None at all. Sure, you can refuse to give money, but you can't prevent someone from stealing your identity. Millions of people recently had their credit accounts hacked when they made a purchase at Target.

The Consumer Protection Agency was created to protect us. The Republicans have tried to make it fail. Their efforts mean that more con artists are making more cons and more consumers are getting fleeced. Much of the money stolen by the con artists is repaid by insurance companies, but we, the consumers, are the ones who end up paying in prices that are increased to pay higher insurance premiums.

There must be some tipping point where the people of this country will get mad enough that the politicians stop playing games and start doing their jobs. I hope it comes soon.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Raven "404"

While researching the poet Ronsard, I happened upon this beautiful page at the University of Virginia website, which houses a collection of Edgar Allen Poe manuscripts and proudly recalls that he attended the newly-minted College of Virginia for a year in 1826:






This page not found, thy search is for naught;
Go straight to the Library homepage, we implore!
Quoth the raven, "404."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Meridian Consent Decree: How to handle troublesome students

Schools all over the country are having problems keeping kids in class. The policies of the Bush Administration, which made funding depend on raising test scores in a school, did not help. Administrators play games to raise the scores in their schools, using the following techniques:

  • Suspend poor students on the day of the test. 
  • Call in law enforcement to take poor students out of school and send them to reform school. 
  • Refer poor performers to alternative schools. 
  • Have the police handle discipline problems.
All these games have one thing in common. They all hurt students. Failure in school leads to failure in life. Poor students go right into the school-to-prison pipeline. The school system keeps running as usual but students fall between the cracks. No one notices they are missing until they turn up in juvenile court or in prison.

Basing school performance on a single, make-it-or-break-it test may have started with the Bush administration, but severe punishments for minor infractions started in the 1970s with the War on Drugs. Zero tolerance programs were introduced, where minor infractions were severely punished. The District of Columbia Municipal Regulations ("DCMR") contain a list of school infraction reads like a list of criminal charges. Students who break a certain set of rules receive minor punishments. Students who break more several behavioral rules receive more severe punishments.

The DCMR lists 12 Tier One infractions. Among these infractions are failure to complete a homework assignment, running in the halls, forgetting to carry school-issued i.d., inappropriate displays of affection, insubordination, and any kind of behavior that causes minor disruption to the learning environment. None of these infractions has any bearing on a student's ability to learn or academic performance. They are all the kind of rules that may be used to manipulate or coerce a student.

These rules are all subjective. A teacher or administrator has great latitude in deciding what constitutes an infraction and what doesn't. Bias-based decisions are the inevitable result. There is statistical evidence for such bias. Non-white students are many times more likely to be suspended or expelled for behavior that all students engage in. Once a student becomes identified as a problem he or she has great difficulty proving the contrary.

No educational system that relies entirely on punishment and coercion can be entirely successful. Most are complete failures. People do not respond well when their rights are taken away. Our country was founded on the principle that liberty--more personal freedom not less--is essential for democracy to succeed.

Education is not a new discipline. Teachers have studied the art of teaching for thousands of years. Many people know well how to teach, even some who work for the Department of Justice. The DOJ proved this by releasing a remarkable document, the Meridian Consent Decree, that describes in detail just what the people of Meridian, Mississippi, must do to improve their schools. The rules and ideas set out in this Decree would, if adopted by all school districts, ensure better schools and less racial bias.

The Justice Department investigated allegations that the Meridian School District gave black students harsher penalties than white students. Their study concluded that (a) nearly all the punishments meted out were exclusionary penalties, the kind that made it harder for those penalized to catch up to their classmates, and (b) black students received harsher penalties, including longer suspensions, than white students who had committed the same infractions.

The result of this law suit could have been a large monetary judgment against the school district because its policies and practices harmed the plaintiffs, students in the Meridian School District. Instead, the School District agreed to implement positive behavior interventions and supports as alternatives to a punishment-based system of teaching. The District also agreed to meet their obligation under Title 4 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to administer discipline without discrimination on the basis of race.

The School District agreed to treat minor infractions as learning opportunities instead of causes for punishment. In particular, the District will treat truancy and tardiness by investigating causes, together with teachers and family, before imposing any exclusionary penalties. The Consent Decree also provides a detailed description of due process rights provided to any student who is suspended or expelled from school.

All these regulations taken together should prevent the school from arbitrarily suspending students to improve the school's examination scores. The United States Government acts in a supervisory capacity to assure that all conditions of the decree are met. Taken together, the conditions of the decree act to replace a punitive, exclusionary environment with one where students' rights are respected and students' families are included in disciplinary decisions.