Friday, December 30, 2011
We went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on Christmas Eve and had a great time. Even Linda, who came along reluctantly, said she had a blast, and is now looking forward to renting the first Holmes film on Netflix.
When I first heard that a Sherlock Holmes movie was coming out two years ago, with Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes, my immediate, spontaneous reaction was, “What inspired casting!” Downey delivered the goods, but more surprising to me was the performance of Jude Law as Watson. He did a great job of capturing the essence of the character as Conan Doyle wrote him, and the interplay between Law and Downey was lots of fun to watch.
That first film was hardly perfect (nor was Game of Shadows, for that matter) and it certainly took some liberties in turning Holmes into more of an action character. But some of that was to be expected, and compared to turning Holmes into a Nazi-hunter, as Hollywood did in the 1940s, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, it was hardly an indecent liberty.
Both the recent films were good clean fun that left me feeling as if I’d gotten my money’s worth, and the ending of Game of Shadows, setting up the inevitable sequel in clever and witty fashion, was particularly satisfying. The public seems to agree, having made both movies fairly solid hits.
Neither film, however, seems to have received much respect from the critics, who have pretty much been outright dismissive of both of them. I’m not one of those people who belittles the critics out of hand; they often play a valuable role in drawing attention to films by lesser-known directors who don’t have the backing of the full-throttle Hollywood publicity and advertising machine. But the reaction to the Holmes franchise (and that’s what it’s becoming) strikes me as an example of what I would refer to as the O’Brien paradigm.
It takes its name from my dear friend and mentor, the late Bud O’Brien. In the second half of his life, Bud became a great opera fan, eventually holding season tickets for the San Francisco Opera and going to New York every few years to catch a couple of shows at the Met.
Being a newspaperman and avid reader, Bud always read the reviews and came to find himself puzzled by the fact that the critics rarely lavished more than lukewarm praise on a production, however excellent, in the standard repertoire, say Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Marriage of Figaro. But when a contemporary opera came out, the same critics invariably hauled out the superlatives.
One day the penny dropped. Bud was reading a column by a long-time opera critic, in which the critic happened to mention that he had seen La Traviata more than 60 times. Suddenly it all made sense.
“The season ticket holders at the San Francisco Opera look at the schedule,” Bud told me, “and their reaction is, ‘How wonderful! We get to see La Traviata this year. It’s been a long time.’ This critic, on the other hand, is looking at the schedule and saying, ‘Oh, God! Not #&%$!!@&# La Traviata again!’ His reaction is in another world than that of the audience he’s writing for.”
Movie critics, I suspect, have developed the same lack of regard for conventional fare, even when it’s done very well, and a greater regard for something, anything, that’s new and edgy. When the third Sherlock Holmes film comes out in a couple of years, they probably won’t like it, and I probably won’t let their opinions keep me from the theater.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
At a Rotary Club meeting several years ago, we found ourselves listening to a self-proclaimed expert on the dangers of fluoride in the water supply, who painted a vivid and horrific picture of a demon chemical that clearly qualified as God’s biggest mistake. It was compelling stuff, as long as you didn’t stop to think that plenty of large American cities have had a fluoridated water supply for years, with no apparent major problems.
While the speaker droned on, one of the club liberals (in Rotary a Nixon Republican qualifies as a liberal) leaned over and whispered to me, “I thought this issue was settled 40 years ago.”
That was what I thought, too, at the time. But lately, so many things that seemed to have been settled issues keep resurfacing, like the serial killer in a series of slasher films, that I am beginning to wonder if there is ever an end to anything.
It has been nearly a century and a half since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document purporting to prove a Jewish conspiracy against the world, was conclusively proven to be a hoax. And yet, it still keeps coming up as part of some public figure’s belief system. You could argue, I suppose, that the belief systems are largely those of Middle Eastern strongmen, rather than American industrialists, but that’s a cold comfort.
Even the time frame on these things seems to be shrinking. It used to be that when one of these old chestnuts resurfaced, it was debunked yet again, then faded into obscurity for at least another decade. Now, it seems, when an issue like President Obama’s birth certificate is put to rest, it’s back before us again in a matter of months.
In my newspaper days there was one that popped up every few years: that the federal government was going to ban religious radio programming. Nothing at all to it, but every time it came back to the surface, we would get a rash of phone calls from anxious and angry people who demanded to know why we had never run a story about it. I don’t recall anyone ever believing me when I told them there was nothing to it.
The resurfacing of long-settled issues isn’t limited to hoaxes. For the better part of a century, there has been a bipartisan understanding that the tax system should be more or less progressive — requiring those who benefit most from society to pay more for its upkeep — and that corporations should be regulated in the public interest. Debate used to be over the details, but the current Republican Party catechism is that taxes and regulations are inherently bad, which precludes all debate and compromise.
Some of the bad ideas resurface connected to a revival in popularity of people one would have hoped had been discredited forever. W. Cleon Skousen — a Red-hunter of the fifties and sixties who was so far out there that William F. Buckley, Jr., considered him the type of extremist who discredited conservatism — has re-emerged as one of the intellectual luminaries behind Glenn Beck’s world view. That view posits an American decline (which ignores rising prosperity, longevity and international influence) dating back to the implementation of Progressive politics beginning in the early 20th Century.
It makes you wonder what’s next. Will we soon be seeing serious arguments for the restoration of the 60-hour workweek with no minimum wage? How about a public relations campaign in favor of the Jim Crow laws and slavery? The divine right of kings? I once thought all those things had been relegated to the dustbin of history, but I’m not so sure of anything any more.
Friday, December 23, 2011
A notice came in the e-mail a while back from Network Solutions, which registers my business domain name, asking me to check my contact information and correct it if it was out of date. I finally got around to it and realized they still had an old address and phone number, so I went online to change those two things.
It took more than an hour.
Part of that, to be sure, was on me. I hired someone to set up my website (including registering the domain) nearly 15 years ago, and had no idea what my user name and password were or where I could find them. I tried several of the usual suspects with no luck, and finally had to call their help line. After verifying that I was me, they set me up with a link to change my user name (which turned out to be randomly generated numbers) and password.
I changed the password, and was asked to create three new security questions and answers, which I did. Then I tried to log on to change the contact information and was again asked to create three new security questions and answers from the same menu. With an appointment on the horizon and a growing sense that this was not going to be easy, I logged out and decided to come back the next day.
When I did, I created the same three security questions as before, then went to the manage accounts section. I clicked on change contact information, and a window came up asking me what I wanted to change my name to. I didn’t want to change my name, but there was no option for leaving it alone, so I clicked continue, which opened another irrelevant window; clicked continue yet again, which opened another irrelevant window; clicked continue again, and wound up back at the first window, asking me what I wanted to change my name to.
Time for the phone again, so I called customer service and explained my predicament to the representative. He tried to walk me through the process, but I kept ending up back where I started. Finally, and apparently sensing he had a customer about to go postal, he said he’d change the address and phone number for me. I still don’t know how he did it, but thank God, it’s done.
Wonderful as the internet can be, this sort of thing happens way too often, and doing something online is always a crapshoot. Sometimes it’s a piece of cake, and sometimes it takes an hour and a half to register a gift card. I have been reduced to a quivering puddle of frustration by the web sites of big-name companies with reputations for high levels of competence — Starbuck’s and the New Yorker for example. In addition to having to know far too many user names and passwords, there are problems with unclear terminology, nonsensical directions, the thing you’re looking for hidden on a too-busy page, and browser differentials that can mean that the box you’re told to click below might actually be above and to the left.
As the editor of Hustler, Larry Flynt used to dumb-guy-proof his articles (Imagine! He actually thought someone might read them,) by having someone look them over with no other object than making sure that any idiot with a basic vocabulary would know what they were talking about. Until companies do a better job of dumb-guy proofing their web sites, the online crapshoot will continue and cuss words will never go out of style.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Sunday night I was reading the New York Times book section on my iPad and came across a favorable review by Leisl Schillinger of the new P.D. James volume, Death Comes to Pemberley. At the age of 91, James, one of Britain’s most honored mystery writers, has paid homage to Jane Austen by writing a mystery featuring the characters in Pride and Prejudice, six years after the ending of that book.
Knowing that my wife, Linda, is an avid Jane-ite, I e-mailed her the review with a query as to whether we should buy it. She answered in the affirmative and checked its availability on Amazon; the Kindle edition was $12.99
Going to Kindle, I called up the book, bought it using the one-click purchase option, and it was downloaded on to the iPad in three minutes. While I was on the Kindle site, I also bought and downloaded Richard Brookhiser’s James Madison. That night Linda read the first two thirds of the book (Pemberley, not Madison).
This was way too easy, and a refutation of Carrie Fischer’s remark that the problem with instant gratification is that it’s not quick enough.
In the same week that I bought the two e-books, Linda and I together bought six dead-tree books at two different bookstores, so for the time being, the old ways are winning. Looking back on the six books I bought (four bookstore, two Kindle) got me to thinking about what the market role of “real” books vs. e-books might look like.
Kindle and its internet competitors are great when you know what book you want and want it now. If you know the name of the book or its author, it’s a piece of cake to get it. In my experience, once you’ve decided to check out a book online, the idea of self-control becomes an illusion. If you go to the Kindle store looking for a book, you’re going to buy it upwards of 90 percent of the time.
That, of course, assumes that the book has been digitized. Quite a few older ones haven’t. I recall going to Kindle to look for books by Jack Mann, who wrote some wonderfully atmospheric supernatural thrillers in the 1930s. None were on Kindle and only one was on Amazon as a hardcover book. I’ve had similar experiences looking for the work of authors from 20 or more years back. I have, however, found three Manns at the local used bookstore.
Three of the dead-tree books I bought were paperbacks by authors I’d read previously and enjoyed. I saw the books while browsing at the two different bookstores and gave them the custom; Kindle wouldn’t have been any cheaper. The fourth was a paperback by an author I’d never heard of, but I found it in the new arrivals section and it looked interesting.
Bookstores are great for that sort of serendipity, and I find it’s much easier to browse in one than online. Just walking an aisle or checking out a table, you’re more likely to encounter something you hadn’t known existed, and in which you might be interested. I still find online browsing a chore, particularly since I don’t want to rely too heavily on Amazon’s recommendations.
My sixth book was the Madison biography, which I had seen at one of the two bookstores. It would have come in handy for a Founding Fathers wool-gathering project of mine, but I didn’t want to pay $30 hardcover. At $11.99 for the e-book version, Amazon had a sale.
So that’s how I’ve been buying books lately, but as the brokerage houses like to remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Friday, December 16, 2011
“On the whole, the show has been good, as such things go in the Republic … it has at least brought together a large gang of picturesque characters, and it has given everyone a clear view of (the party’s) candidates and its platform. The former certainly do not emerge from it with anything properly describable as an access of dignity.”
No more spot-on description of this year’s Republican presidential debates has been written, and what makes it all the more impressive is that it wasn’t written about them at all. The quote above was taken from H.L. Mencken’s reporting in the Baltimore Evening Sun of the 1948 Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia, which nominated Henry Wallace for president.
All of which illustrates the way American politics are constantly shifting. The parties themselves undergo complete reversals of policy at periodic intervals. Consider that in the half century from the beginning of Lincoln’s term to the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s, the Republicans were the party of progress and the Democrats were more conservative. Lincoln was a supporter of labor unions and a believer in a strong federal government that used its muscle to promote economic growth and equality. It was during his presidency that the Homestead Act, arguably the most socialistic piece of legislation in America’s history, was passed, giving 160 acres of land to any American willing to settle it and farm it for five years.
Beginning in 1896, with the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, and culminating with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the Democrats became the more progressive party, and the Republicans more conservative at the same time. The election of FDR in 1932 drew the line clearly, and on the surface, it would appear to continue so to this day.
I say on the surface, because upon further reflection, it becomes obvious that the Republican Party of today has all but abandoned conservative principles. My Webster’s defines conservatism as “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” That actually sounds quite a bit like today’s Democrats, whose biggest campaign promise is to protect Social Security and Medicare, which, until about a year ago, were considered established institutions.
Perhaps the biggest change in American party politics in the past two decades is that the True Believers today are more apt to be found in the Republican Party and on the political right, than among the Democrats and on the left. The modern-day equivalent of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party — one that adheres to clear and consistent policies with no detours for circumstance, exigency or reality — is the Libertarians. The contemporary equivalent of a 1930s leftist panacea, such as Upton Sinclair’s Ham and Eggs campaign, would be Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.
The growth of the True Believer mind-set has turned the contemporary Republican Party into a den of orthodoxy. At one debate, the candidates were asked if they would reject a plan that would balance the federal budget 90 percent by making cuts and 10 percent by raising taxes. Ronald Reagan would have jumped at that one. The eight Republican candidates all raised their hands in opposition. Even the Kremlin of old would have had the sense to put a dissenter or two into the mix, if only for appearance’s sake.
What it’s come down to is this: It used to be that the True Believers believed in a workers’ paradise, but somewhere along the way the socialist flame burned out. Today’s True Believers seem to believe in a taxpayers’ paradise and every man for himself. That’s supposed to be progress?
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Last Friday I drove to the county courthouse, as I do every year at this time, to pay my property tax in person. It’s one of those civic actions — sort of like voting, only more expensive — that make me feel like a member of the community.
Paying income tax never feels like that. Estimated taxes still get sent by mail to Sacramento or to an IRS regional processing center and the tax return itself is now filed electronically by my accountant. There’s not much connection, if any at all, between the money going out and what it’s buying. That’s a big part of government’s PR problem.
In the lobby of the courthouse, there’s a directory of all the services, which reminds you of where the tax money is going — law enforcement, parks, roads, planning and so on. You may not approve of it all, but at least you can see it’s going somewhere.
Most years I go in on the day the tax is due, and there’s a line going out the door of the tax collector’s office. As often as not, there’s someone in the line that I know, and we strike up a brief conversation. I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels a bit more connected for paying in person, rather than by mail or online. This year I went in the day before the deadline, and there were only a couple of people in line and it was over in a minute or two.
I really hope that was because I was early, and not because people don’t want to be bothered by doing things in person. We are losing far too many civic rituals to the Internet and other forms of electronic automation, even to snail mail, as with voting by absentee ballot.
For many years, it used to be a big thing to go down to the courthouse on election night. I live in a small (by California standards) and politically passionate county, where city council and county races are hotly contested, as are local ballot measures. Election night was one time that people of all political stripes were together in the same basement room, and astonishingly cordial.
It was a true community gathering in the best sense, and there were memorable moments. In 1994 I worked as a consultant on the campaign of the late Kathleen Akao, a local attorney who challenged an unpopular gubernatorial appointee for superior court judge. In the county’s 144-year history, no sitting judge had ever lost an election, but Akao campaigned hard, drew support from every segment of the community, and pulled off a stunning upset, winning with 54 percent of the vote.
By ten o’clock that night, it was clear that she would win, and about a half hour later, she walked into the room, which erupted in spontaneous applause. Democracy in action, and all the more impressive because of the cross-section of people present.
Four years later, in 1998, the county got new computers and began to put election results online. All at once there was nobody in the basement of the courthouse on election night. Instead, people went to the victory party of their favorite candidate and huddled around the computer to find out who was winning. There were no chance encounters with people on the other side.
From a technological point of view it was unquestionably an improvement over having people running downstairs from the elections office and putting the latest results on the board. From a human and community standpoint, something was irretrievably lost in the switch. I, for one, miss it.
Friday, December 9, 2011
It’s far too early to be making any predictions about next year’s presidential elections. We don’t know who the Republican nominee will be, we don’t know if there will be viable candidates from a third or fourth party, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in the next ten months or so.
With that qualification, I can’t help looking at what we can see now and being reminded (given a propensity for glib historical analogies) of two other elections gone by, where a lot of similar factors were in play.
Barack Obama took office in the most tumultuous set of circumstances inherited by any president since Harry Truman, and there are some intriguing comparisons with Truman in his first term. Like Truman, Obama had to make a lot of tough decisions right away and pleased almost no one. Like Truman, he saw the Republicans decisively take over Congress in the mid-term elections. Like Truman, he has been scorned by many in his party, but unlike Truman he doesn’t appear to be in any danger of facing extra-party campaigns begun by disgruntled Democrats.
For all those problems, plus some economic difficulties (inflation and postwar scarcity of some items), Truman ran a strong campaign, positioned himself as the friend of the average American, attacked the “do-nothing Congress,” and stunned everybody by defeating the excessively stiff New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who was once described by Dorothy Parker as looking “like the little man on top of the wedding cake.”
That brings us to another troubled incumbent and another presidential election. Richard Nixon was elected president with 43 percent of the vote in an election where third-party candidate George Wallace polled more than 12 percent. Nixon was the most personality-deficient president of the television era, and he came before the voters for re-election in 1972 at a time when the economy was going through a period of inflationary shakiness.
Nixon and Obama had some points in common. Like Obama, Nixon came to office inheriting a huge problem, the Vietnam War, and in four years he had neither won it nor gotten the country out of it. Like Obama, Nixon was a pragmatic moderate, whose moderation was appreciated by nether his party nor the opposition. And like Obama, Nixon drove many people in the opposition party absolutely out of their senses — bug-eyed, drooling crazy. It was the latter quality that got him re-elected.
One of the best things in favor of a candidate is a vulnerable opponent. Many Democrats had become so rabid about Vietnam by 1972 that their primary criterion for a candidate was that he be as passionate against the war as they were. They ended up getting Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a smart and decent man who didn’t deserve all his followers.
Despite his inability to connect personally with most voters, and despite his failure to resolve the biggest problem he was handed, Nixon made himself look better by attacking his opponent. Calling the Democrats the party of acid, amnesty and abortion, he rode those attacks to victory with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
Truman and Nixon both showed that an incumbent president of some ability can win despite problems in his record. They both demonstrated, to differing extents, the value of having a problematic opponent. Obama is certainly a president of some ability, with a better record than either his opponents or many in his own party give him credit for. And it looks as if he’ll be lucky in his opponent. The Republicans appear poised to nominate either their own fringe-element darling or else Mitt Romney, who, come to think of it, reminds you of the little man on top of the wedding cake.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
The period between 1920 and 1940 is generally known as the Golden Age of the detective novel. England, at the time, was the most civil and orderly of countries, but in popular fiction, its citizens were being dispatched with great regularity and ingenuity. In addition to garden-variety shootings, knifings and throttlings, murders were committed with poisons injected into eggs, crossbows, and poison darts. It was a great time for a fictional character to die in style.
Some of the best-known authors of that period are still in print or readily available at used bookstores. In England there were, among others, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Anthony Berkeley, Cyril Hare and Father Ronald A. Knox. America contributed Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dyne, and the hybrid John Dickson Carr (also writing as Carter Dickson), whose stories were set in England with British detectives.
Back in the day, the puzzle was paramount, and the game was for the reader to match wits with the author and try to deduce (or guess, if reason failed) the identity of the killer. Most mysteries today don’t even try to include that challenge, but at the time it was taken very seriously indeed. Carr, master of the locked-room mystery, devoted an entire chapter of his The Three Coffins to an elucidation of all the methods by which someone could be murdered inside a locked room, or other secure space.
It was not uncommon in those days for books to have a “challenge to the reader” near the end, advising that the clues had all been laid out and that, based on them, deduction of the killer ought to be entirely possible. Father Knox carried the concept of fair play with the reader to the point of codification. He laid down ten commandments (hey, he was a priest!), such as “No more than one secret room or passage is allowable … No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used.” The rules were a warning against conventions that don’t exist today.
Even at the time the conventions and wild plots — especially in the hands of authors less skilled than those previously mentioned — were an object of satire. Consider this bit of dialogue from a P.G . Wodehouse short story, “Strychnine in the Soup,” published in 1932:
“It was not the vicar,” he said. “I happen to have read The Murglow Manor Mystery. The guilty man was the plumber … he fastened a snake in the nozzle of the shower-bath with glue, and when Sir Geoffrey turned on the stream, the hot water melted the glue. This released the snake, which dropped through one of the holes, bit the Baronet in the leg, and disappeared down the drain pipe.”
Wodehouse was having double fun on that one, given that The Murglow Manor Mystery clearly cribbed from Conan Doyle and the Speckled Band. They don’t write them like that any more.
Three quarters of a century later it’s easy to look back on those books with a condescending smile. As stylishly as some of them were written, they don’t begin to stack up against the best mystery and crime novels of today in terms of character development, social awareness and complexity of theme; also the casual racist, classist and colonialist attitudes are tough swallowing for a contemporary reader. But in the best of them, the sense of innocent joy is still contagious. It was the Golden Age not because of the literary quality, but because of the fun and exuberance of a genre discovering itself. Open one of those books, even now, and the game is on, in a way it isn’t nor likely will be in a mystery written in our time.
Friday, December 2, 2011
Writing as Poor Richard, Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of frugality and the debt-free life. “The second vice is lying; the first is running in debt,” he wrote in a fairly typical entry for the 1748 edition of the Almanack.
So there was more than a little irony in the fact that perhaps Franklin’s greatest service to his country was borrowing a ton of money from France to finance the War of Independence. Our freedom from England was, figuratively speaking, charged to a credit card and not entirely paid off.
Over the recent holiday I brushed up on the topic by reading Stacy Schiff’s wonderful book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, published in 2003. It outlines in entertaining detail Franklin’s years in France as the American representative, trying to cajole money from a government that was having a hard time meeting its own obligations.
The weakness of the American appeal was not lost on the French. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, at one point, according to Schiff, told the American Congress of “his astonishment that an independence-obsessed republic continued to draw for its defense on a foreign monarch rather than taxing its citizens.“ Some two and a quarter centuries later, we were borrowing money from China, rather than taxing ourselves, to pay for our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nations, like people, apparently don’t change that much.
France, to be sure, had an interest in vexing England, its long-term enemy. But it is not at all clear that the self-interest alone would have led to a substantial outlay in money to fund a war that had every appearance of being a lost cause. Someone had to ask, and Franklin, feeling his way around a foreign country with almost no direction or support from home, was the right man in the right place.
His reputation as a scientist and inventor preceded him and made him, commoner though he was, a respected man at the highest levels of state. His embrace of French culture and society endeared him to his host country. Patiently working from those starting blocks, Franklin carried off one of history’s greatest triumphs of diplomacy by personality.
It was a triumph greatly unappreciated at the time, especially back home. The Continental Congress was as dysfunctional then as Congress is today, and Franklin was frequently presented to that body in the worst possible light by his detractors, who included John Adams and Arthur Lee, who was supposed to be helping Franklin negotiate a treaty with France and raise money.
Franklin’s performance, to be fair, gave his critics plenty of ammunition. He was hopeless as an administrator, made no attempt to protect official secrets (not that it would have mattered much in the spy-infested Paris of the time), and was frequently betrayed, financially and otherwise, by people he had trusted too much.
His record, in that regard, illustrates a fine historical point: A public official can make plenty of mistakes as long as he or she does a couple of big things right. Franklin’s big things were the treaty with France and the money that came along with it; at the birth of this country, almost nothing was bigger.
His supreme gift, Schiff writes of Franklin, “was his very flexibility. He was the opportunistic envoy from the land of opportunity that is the United States. His was an initial display of America’s scrappy, improvisatory genius; it is the gift Falstaff gives Hal.” It was the gift that made Franklin, in Walter Isaacson’s words, the Founding Father who winks at us.