Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

Paul French in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

China’s long love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is a mystery worth solving. The BBC hit show Sherlock, which ran from 2010-17, proved a smash with Chinese viewers: 4.72 million viewers watched one episode, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they sound like the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

The often lumbering behemoth of the BBC indeed showed itself rather fleet of foot in China. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, Auntie Beeb performed a shrewd deduction of its own by licensing Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) to Youku, a Chinese video streaming site, which screened it just hours after its British air time. (Had they waited even a few hours more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets.) But why not make it available in China at the same time it airs in Britain? Unlike a good detective mystery, China’s TV bosses don’t like surprise endings: the censors have to check for any anti-China content.

More here.

Validating the physics behind the new MIT-designed fusion experiment

David L. Chandler in MIT News:

Two and a half years ago, MIT entered into a research agreement with startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems to develop a next-generation fusion research experiment, called SPARC, as a precursor to a practical, emissions-free power plant.

Now, after many months of intensive research and engineering work, the researchers charged with defining and refining the physics behind the ambitious tokamak design have published a series of papers summarizing the progress they have made and outlining the key research questions SPARC will enable.

Overall, says Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and one of the project’s lead scientists, the work is progressing smoothly and on track. This series of papers provides a high level of confidence in the plasma physics and the performance predictions for SPARC, he says. No unexpected impediments or surprises have shown up, and the remaining challenges appear to be manageable. This sets a solid basis for the device’s operation once constructed, according to Greenwald.

More here.

How philanthropy benefits the super-rich

Paul Vallely in The Guardian:

Philanthropy, it is popularly supposed, transfers money from the rich to the poor. This is not the case. In the US, which statistics show to be the most philanthropic of nations, barely a fifth of the money donated by big givers goes to the poor. A lot goes to the arts, sports teams and other cultural pursuits, and half goes to education and healthcare. At first glance that seems to fit the popular profile of “giving to good causes”. But dig down a little.

The biggest donations in education in 2019 went to the elite universities and schools that the rich themselves had attended. In the UK, in the 10-year period to 2017, more than two-thirds of all millionaire donations – £4.79bn – went to higher education, and half of these went to just two universities: Oxford and Cambridge. When the rich and the middle classes give to schools, they give more to those attended by their own children than to those of the poor. British millionaires in that same decade gave £1.04bn to the arts, and just £222m to alleviating poverty.

The common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong. A lot of elite philanthropy is about elite causes. Rather than making the world a better place, it largely reinforces the world as it is. Philanthropy very often favours the rich – and no one holds philanthropists to account for it.

More here.

Carceral Aesthetics

Nicole R. Fleetwood and Rachel Kushner in Artforum:

WE CAN ALL AGREE NOW that American prisons are a malignant feature of contemporary life, broadening inequalities, destroying families, worsening racial disparities, and facilitating widespread state-sanctioned premature death, to name just a few of the most obvious iniquities. But inside these prisons, people do find imaginative ways to survive. The institutional culture of incarceration has spawned individual and communal acts of inspired genius—acts credited entirely to people, and not to the prisons where they are forced to live—modalities of making and ways of surviving that involve types of creativity unique to communities held captive. To do time in prison is to become an expert at doing time in prison, to develop specific skills and levels of knowledge that can only be acquired heuristically rather than gleaned, learned, read about. Experientially, prison alters sensory life: sight—drab and reduced colors and textures; sound—loud and invasive; human touch—not part of the ideological plan for “rehabilitation”; taste—very little aside from salt; smell—at least here in California, the smell of prisons up and down the state derives from a single overpowering cleaning solution used in every facility of the entire massive system and called, I kid you not, Cell Block 64.

more here.

Tom Stoppard: A Life

Jeremy Treglow at Literary Review:

Until I read Hermione Lee’s life of Tom Stoppard, I didn’t know it was possible to bask in envy. As if being handsome, funny and a dazzling writer (and good at cricket and fly-fishing) weren’t enough, Stoppard is immensely rich – not just in money but also, Lee shows, in family, lovers, friends and even, which may sound pompous, moral qualities. ‘What is the Good?’ Emily asks in his 2013 radio play Darkside. ‘It is nothing but a contest of kindness.’ We learn of his devotion to his mother, brother, sons and grandchildren, his ability to stay friends with his exes and his work on behalf of good causes, beneficiaries of which include the opposition in Belarus, which he has supported since before Lukashenko came to power, and refugees encamped at Calais. There are a couple of brilliant paragraphs late in the book about the meanings and pitfalls of charm, and also of luck. A small part of Stoppard’s good luck is that, unlike the subjects of most worthwhile biographies, he’s alive to enjoy this one.

more here.

Wednesday Poem


A half-peeled apple
Not a metaphor
Not a poem
Merely there
A half-peeled apple
Merely there
Yesterday’s evening paper
Merely there
Merely there
A warm breast
Merely there
Apart from words
Apart from the heart
Merely there
The things of today.

by Shuntaro Tanikawa
The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books, 1996

Cancel the Debates

David Graham in The Atlantic:

Pity the poor closed-caption writers. Pity the poor ASL interpreters. But most of all, pity poor us, the American electorate.

Tonight was the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, and if there is any sense or mercy left in this nation, it will be the last too. The event was a shambolic shout fest, with scarcely a single morsel of substance to be found. President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, lied repeatedly, refused to condemn racist groups even after explicitly offering to do so, and sought to undermine trust in the election. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat, meandered through his positions, only occasionally finishing a sentence. Moderator Chris Wallace lost control within minutes and never regained it.

Voters who tuned in hoping to learn something new about either man’s plans for the country, or about his character, must have realized early on that they were in the wrong place. The three septuagenarians onstage were speaking over one another within minutes. Trump interrupted Biden; Biden interrupted Trump; Wallace tried to interrupt both, with limited efficacy, especially against Trump, with whom he at one point offered to switch seats.

The president entered the debate most in need of a big night, given that he consistently trails in polls. There is no doubt that he dominated the stage, as was clearly his plan coming in. Whether that actually benefits him is another question. His most effective moment of the night came in a broadside against Biden on the issue of “law and order.” But several months of hard experience show that Americans are appalled by Trump’s handling of racial justice and protests. The president keeps coming back to the issue, hoping it will break through. Perhaps this is the night it will—but don’t place money on it.

More here.

How Does Science Really Work?

Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:

Recorded history is five thousand years old. Modern science, which has been with us for just four centuries, has remade its trajectory. We are no smarter individually than our medieval ancestors, but we benefit, as a civilization, from antibiotics and electronics, vitamins and vaccines, synthetic materials and weather forecasts; we comprehend our place in the universe with an exactness that was once unimaginable. I’d found that science was two-faced: simultaneously thrilling and tedious, all-encompassing and narrow. And yet this was clearly an asset, not a flaw. Something about that combination had changed the world completely.

In “The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science” (Liveright), Michael Strevens, a philosopher at New York University, aims to identify that special something. Strevens is a philosopher of science—a scholar charged with analyzing how scientific knowledge is generated. Philosophers of science tend to irritate practicing scientists, to whom science already makes complete sense. It doesn’t make sense to Strevens. “Science is an alien thought form,” he writes; that’s why so many civilizations rose and fell before it was invented. In his view, we downplay its weirdness, perhaps because its success is so fundamental to our continued existence.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Teresa Bejan on Free Speech, Civility, and Toleration

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

How can, and should, we talk to each other, especially to people with whom we disagree? “Free speech” is rightfully entrenched as an important value in liberal democratic societies, but implementing it consistently and fairly is a tricky business. Political theorist Teresa Bejan comes to this question from a philosophical and historical perspective, managing to relate broad principles to modern hot-button issues. We talk about the importance of tolerating disreputable beliefs, the senses in which speech acts can be harmful, and how “civility” places demands on listeners as well as speakers.

More here.

Noah Feldman: Amy Coney Barrett Deserves to Be on the Supreme Court

Noah Feldman at Bloomberg:

Like many other liberals, I’m devastated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, which opened the way for President Donald Trump to nominate a third Supreme Court justice in his first term. And I’m revolted by the hypocrisy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s willingness to confirm Trump’s nominee after refusing to even allow a vote on Judge Merrick Garland.

Yet these political judgments need to be distinguished from a separate question: what to think about Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump has told associates he plans to nominate. And here I want to be extremely clear. Regardless of what you or I may think of the circumstances of this nomination, Barrett is highly qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

More here.

The Children Who Desegregated America’s Schools

Rebecca Rosen in The Atlantic:

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In 1954, the Supreme Court decided that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional—but it was thousands of children who actually desegregated America’s classrooms. The task that fell to them was a brutal one. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, vicious legal and political battles broke out; town by town, Black parents tried to send their children to white schools, and white parents—and often their children, too—tried to keep those Black kids out. They tried everything: bomb threats, beatings, protests. They physically blocked entrances to schools, vandalized lockers, threw rocks, taunted and jeered. Often, the efforts of white parents worked: Thousands upon thousands of Black kids were barred from the schools that were rightfully theirs to attend.

But eventually, in different places at different times, Black parents won. And that meant that their kids had to walk or take the bus to a school that had tried to keep them out. And then they had to walk in the door, go to their classrooms, and try to get an education—despite the hatred directed at them, despite the knowledge that their white classmates didn’t want them there, and despite being alone. They changed America, but in large part, that change was not lasting. As they grew older, many of them watched as their schools resegregated, and their work was undone. Those kids are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s now. Many of them are no longer with us. But those who are have stories to tell.

More here.

Pakistan’s Most Terrifying Adversary Is Climate Change

Fatima Bhutto in The New York Times:

Karachi is home. My bustling, chaotic city of about 20 million people on the Arabian Sea is an ethnically and religiously diverse metropolis and the commercial capital of Pakistan, generating more than half of the country’s revenue. Over the decades, Karachi has survived violent sectarian strife, political violence between warring groups claiming the city and terrorism. Karachi has survived its gangsters sparring with rocket launchers; its police force, more feared than common criminals; its rulers and bureaucrats committed to rapacious, bottomless corruption. Now Karachi faces its most terrifying adversary: climate change.

In August, Karachi’s stifling summer heat was heavy and pregnant. The sapodilla trees and frangipani leaves were lush and green; the Arabian Sea, quiet and distant, had grown muddy. When the palm fronds started to sway, slowly, the city knew the winds had picked up and rain would follow. Every year the monsoons come — angrier and wilder — lashing the unprepared city. Studies show that climate change is causing monsoons to be more intense and less predictable, and cover larger areas of land for longer periods of time. On Aug. 27, Karachi received nearly nine inches of monsoon rain, the highest amount of rainfall ever in a single day. Nineteen inches of rain fell in August, according to the meteorological officials. It is enough to drown a city that has no functioning drainage, no emergency systems and no reliable health care (except for those who can pay). Thousands of homes and settlements of the poor were subsumed and destroyed, and more than 100 people were killed.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


I am linear man
reading from left to right
Guttenberg is still salient for me
in my diminished, low-tech world
I’m an old school guy
a chimera, an iconoclast, a reader, a writer,
a dying breed who prefers paper books
I am all these things
structured from dawn to dusk
stoic, and non-Epicurean
unless you consider the fact
that I use drugs
it’s not easy being straight
reading from left to right
writing from left to right
or thinking like western man
I prefer the cultures of the east
they fascinate me
and they read from right to left
and write from right to left
that’s fine with me
perchance I’ll go
from within and without
that’s very ascetic of me
I’ll lose my old religion
yet, how can I lose
what’s never been found?
that’s the conundrum

by Richard Joseph Cronborg
copyright, 2020 used with author’s permission

Social Democracy and Capitalism: The Fraught Link

by Pranab Bardhan

In my earlier column, “Prospects of Social Democracy in a Post-Pandemic World” I did not have the time or space to discuss some systemic issues, like the fraught link of social democracy to the capitalist mode of production. Different people mean different things when they talk of social democracy and its somewhat close kin, democratic socialism. I usually associate the former with the mode of production remaining essentially capitalist, though with some important modifications, and the latter with the case where the ownership or control of the means of production is primarily with non-private entities (the state or cooperatives or worker-managed enterprises). In this sense Bernie Sanders and his followers wrongly describe themselves as democratic socialists, to me they are social democrats.

In social democracy those important modifications to the capitalist mode of production may involve some substantial reform in the governance of the firm and in the fiscal power of the democratic state to raise taxes to fund a significant expansion of redistributive and infrastructure programs. Yet these modifications will remain constrained by what used to be called the ‘structural dependence’ on private capital. How far that structural limit can be pushed will vary with a country’s institutional history, political culture, and social norms. Much will depend on how far the modifications of capitalism can leave unhampered the mechanism of productivity growth and innovation, which Schumpeter considered the engine of capitalist dynamics. Is there a magic balance achievable under social democracy? This will be central to my discussion in this article, as I often find that my social-democratic and democratic-socialist friends do not pay adequate attention to the question of innovations. I shall also comment on the need for significant reforms in the financial system, labor market policy and election funding for a social democracy to function properly, Read more »

Voting and Hoping

by Joan Harvey

“Asked in an interview with Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist, what Trump should do against Democrats who “think they can steal” the election, Roger Stone — a close confidant of the president whose 40-month prison sentence for witness tampering and lying to Congress was commuted by Trump earlier this year — said that “the ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state” because “they are completely corrupted.” He also urged the president to declare “martial law” and invoke the Insurrection Act to arrest political opponents.” —Jamelle Bouie, “Trump’s Perverse Campaign Strategy” New York Times, September 15

“In case you didn’t notice, we’re being governed by armed thugs, criminals and traitors, who would as readily shoot you as spare you if it serves their purposes. This election is your last chance to save yourself and your family. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating. Not even a bit.” —Laurence Tribe @tribelaw on Twitter September 14

“I cannot speak with my voice, so I speak with my voices.” —Alejandra Pizarnik “Cornerstone” from A Musical Hell

More Powerful than a Molotov Cocktail (Orange Stain Remover).  Image courtesy of A Creative Resistance

Already Trump supporters are outside at the polls harassing voters. Like their president, they must know that without violence, intimidation, and voter suppression on their part, their candidate doesn’t have a chance. We’re more than a month out from the election but already the mob rule we’ve been expecting has begun. Trump says he may issue an executive order preventing Biden from being elected. And he is making a big issue about voter fraud (which is almost nonexistent) while at the same time suggesting people vote twice, no doubt in order to create voter fraud so he can blame that if he loses.

The despotism and desperation of this administration is very much out in the open, and his followers either approve of it or don’t care. An increasingly likely outcome to this election is that most Democrats, sanely not wanting to expose themselves to Covid-19 and harassment at the polls, will vote by mail, while Republicans will go in person to the polls. The mail-in ballots won’t be counted by election eve by states unaccustomed to mail-in voting (and could possibly be sabotaged by state officials who want a delay). Trump will declare victory that night, will be backed by the courts, and the actual result will not matter. Read more »

From Nudge to Hypernudge: Big Data and Human Autonomy

by Fabio Tollon

We produce data all the time. This is a not something new. Whenever a human being performs an action in the presence of another, there is a sense in which some new data is created. We learn more about people as we spend more time with them. We can observe them, and form models in our minds about why they do what they do, and the possible reasons they might have for doing so. With this data we might even gather new information about that person. Information, simply, is processed data, fit for use. With this information we might even start to predict their behaviour. On an inter-personal level this is hardly problematic. I might learn over time that my roommate really enjoys tea in the afternoon. Based on this data, I can predict that at three o’clock he will want tea, and I can make it for him. This satisfies his preferences and lets me off the hook for not doing the dishes.

The fact that we produce data, and can use it for our own purposes, is therefore not a novel or necessarily controversial claim. Digital technologies (such as Facebook, Google, etc.), however, complicate the simplistic model outlined above. These technologies are capable of tracking and storing our behaviour (to varying degrees of precision, but they are getting much better) and using this data to influence our decisions. “Big Data” refers to this constellation of properties: it is the process of taking massive amounts of data and using computational power to extract meaningful patterns. Significantly, what differentiates Big Data from traditional data analysis is that the patterns extracted would have remained opaque without the resources provided by electronically powered systems. Big Data could therefore present a serious challenge to human decision-making. If the patterns extracted from the data we are producing is used in malicious ways, this could result in a decreased capacity for us to exercise our individual autonomy. But how might such data be used to influence our behaviour at all? To get a handle on this, we first need to understand the common cognitive biases and heuristics that we as humans display in a variety of informational contexts. Read more »

Monday Poem

Imagine This


unlikely thing
shaped like a dish

saucer moonspan wide in nightsky
laden with milk for a cat

still and perfectly crisp
who’s ever less than that
and ever more than this

sun up moon scats

have you noticed that in a miraculous way
fully backed by science, truth, even in the dark,
will always stare you down regardless
of how you may hate a fact?

Jim Culleny