Rating: Elementary, Season 3

Season 3 of Elementary adds a new character to the mix, shaking up the relationship between Sherlock and Joan in some interesting ways.

Here’s our episode ratings:

  1. “Enough Nemesis to Go Around” – 3.5
  2. “The Five Orange Pipz” – 5
  3. “Just a Regular Irregular” – 6
  4. “Bella” – 4
  5. “Rip Off” – 6
  6. “Terra Pericolosa” – 8
  7. “The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction” – 7
  8. “End of Watch” – 7
  9. “The Eternity Injection” – 5.5
  10. “Seed Money” – 6
  11. “The Illustrious Client” – 4.5
  12. “The One That Got Away” – 4.5
  13. “Hemlock” – 6
  14. “The Female of the Species” – 8
  15. “When Your Number’s Up” – 5.5
  16. “For All You Know” – 4
  17. “T-Bone and the Iceman” – 3.5
  18. “The View from Olympus” – 7.5
  19. “One Watson, One Holmes” – 8
  20. “A Stitch in Time” – 7
  21. “Under My Skin” – 7.5
  22. “The Best Way Out Is Always Through” – 6
  23. “Absconded” – 8
  24. “A Controlled Descent” – 0.5

The average rating this season is a solid 6, which is pretty good and a small step up from season 2’s 5.4. This season continues the previous season’s efforts at threading larger stories through the individual episodes. These larger stories include Watson striking out on her own as a detective and tangling with a female drug dealer, and Holmes taking on a new apprentice, Kitty (based on a character from one of the original Conan Doyle stories). Since one of our few ongoing complaints about the series is the shortage of female characters other than Watson, we find both these story lines offer positive developments, although we miss the Holmes-Watson camaraderie that the first two seasons had built up so carefully.

We are spoiled for choice for the best episodes this season with four topping out at 8: “Terra Pericolosa,” about the hunt for an antique map, “The Female of the Species,” in which Holmes and Bell chase stolen zebras, “One Watson, One Holmes,” about an internecine feud in the hacker collective Everyone, and “Absconded,” a kidnapping case connected to bees. Each of these episodes offers the wonderful complexity and unexpected turns that we have come to expect of Elementary, while leading to a satisfying conclusion. It is also significant that, although there are dead bodies in each episode, none of them is primarily a murder investigation. Not only does this ring true to the original stories, in which Holmes investigated everything from bank robberies to things that go clang in the night, it also makes a nice change of pace from the usual routine of the murder mystery procedural.

While there are a few weaker episodes in the 3-5 range, only one stands out as singularly bad: “A Controlled Descent,” at 0.5. In this episode, Holmes is dragged back into his drug-using ways by a lonely former dealer. While there is something to be said for the complexity with which Elementary handles Holmes’s addiction and recovery, this episode just feels cheap and forced, its dealer character a flat and uninteresting plot device.

Image: Watson and Holmes interview a prisoner, from “One Watson, One Holmes” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Petosiris: Being Roman-Egyptian

We often think of hyphenated identities as a particularly modern thing: Italian-American, African-Caribbean, etc. Not far from where I grew up you could go to a Franco-American heritage festival in the summer and see people walking around in t-shirts that said “Made in America with Irish Parts.” The idea that our identities can contain several distinct strands woven together is a familiar one to us, but not one we often apply to the past.

But look at this wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, a local official in the Kharga Oasis in the western desert of Egypt. Petosiris lived during the second century CE, a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. In his tomb, Petosiris took care to present himself as both Egyptian and Roman.

Wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, photograph by Roland Unger via Wikimedia (Kharga Oasis; 2nd c. CE; fresco)

The large figure standing on the left is Petosiris himself (the damage to his face may have been done by Christians or Muslims in later centuries who mistakenly thought the image represented a pagan god). Petosiris’ name is Egyptian, but his image is painted in a typically Roman style, he wears a Roman tunic and toga, and he carries a scroll, a symbol of role as a local official for the Roman state. At the same time, he is twice the size of the other two figures in the scene, a characteristic of Egyptian art in which size was often used to indicate social status.

The other two figures are presenting Petosiris with offerings of bread and wine. The one on the left is painted in a Roman style, partially turned toward the viewer and painted with varying shading to suggest a three-dimensional image. He carries a tray of bread and pours wine from a jug into the ground. The figure on the right is painted in classic Egyptian style, clearly outlined and standing in a stylized two-dimensional posture. He offers a jug of wine and several loaves of bread on a tray. The rest of the space is filled up with a Roman-style grapevine and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In this image, Petosiris proclaims an identity that is both Egyptian and Roman. We cannot be sure how he understood the combination of those identities. Did he think of himself as an Egyptian who could dress up as Roman when the occasion called for it? Or as a Roman who showed respect to the customs of his Egyptian ancestors? Or as a Roman-Egyptian, fully embracing both parts of his identity? While we cannot say for sure, it is clear that he wanted to be memorialized in his tomb as someone who could be, in some senses, both Egyptian and Roman. For Petosiris, there was a value in asserting both these parts of his identity.

Where there was one such person, there must have been many more who have not left us evidence of their identities. Clearly the local market in the oasis supported artists who could paint in either Roman or Egyptian style, as their clients requested. Kharga was a small, sleepy backwater far from the busy market towns and great harbor cities of the Mediterranean. If even in Kharga there was a demand to be able to assert a complex identity, we can only imagine how complicated the lives of people in Alexandria, Carthage, or Rome must have been.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Roman Law to the Rescue

If you’ve ever had to make a choice with a group—picking what restaurant to go to for dinner with your spouse, what movie to watch with a bunch of friends, where to go on vacation with your family, etc.—you know how frustrating it can be. Some people like one thing, others like something else, some are happy with whatever, some have strong feelings, and yet everyone has to end up agreeing on one thing. In the worst case, you can get into uncomfortable power struggles over who gets to pick and who has to go along with someone else’s choice, which can just ruin what should be a good time for all.

Ancient Roman law provides an answer.

When Romans went to court, the various parties involved had to agree on who would be the judge in the case. Roman judges were not legal professionals and did not make decisions of law (those fell to the praetor or another local magistrate); they were laypeople who heard the evidence of both sides and made a judgment on who was telling the truth, a role similar to that of the jury in modern Anglo-American law. Since judges were just members of the community, there was always a risk that any potential judge might favor one side or the other out of family loyalty, personal ties, business relationships, or similar factors, so the Romans needed some way to ensure that the judge chosen to hear a case would be acceptable to both sides.

Here’s how it worked. Every year, a list was drawn up of respectable members of the community who were eligible to serve as judges. This list was then randomly distributed across three tablets. When it came time for a plaintiff and a defendant to decide who would hear their case, they looked at the three tablets. First the plaintiff eliminated one tablet, then the defendant eliminated another, leaving just one. Then they took turns going through that last tablet, crossing off names one by one until just one name was left. That person was assigned to be the judge in the case: not necessarily either party’s first choice, but the one who was least unacceptable to both of them.

The same method can be a good way of choosing a restaurant, a movie or something similar for a group, as long as there are more choices than there are people in the group. Make a list of all options. Choose someone at random to start. That person crosses off one one option. The next person crosses one off, and so on in turn until only one option is left. It may not have been anyone’s first choice to start with, but it will be the one that will make everyone least unhappy, which is what you really need when trying to choose for a group.

In our house, we sometimes use this method when deciding what to watch together. We have been known to pull piles of DVDs off the shelf, then take turns putting one series or movie back until just one is left. (On a side note, this method also provides a convenient opportunity for dusting the back of the DVD shelf.)

A few notes:

  • If the number of options does not evenly work out with the number of people making the choice, some people will get to more chances to rule things out than others. (If four people are choosing among six restaurants by this method, for instance, whoever gets the first pick will also get one extra pick.) If this feels unfair under the circumstances, you can collectively agree to rule out enough things to make the numbers even, or use this method as a way of reducing the number of options you have to choose among.
  • It can be useful to impose a “no explanations” rule: no one is required to explain why they crossed something off, and no one is allowed to ask anyone else for an explanation.
  • The person who makes the first elimination has the most options to choose from, but the person who makes the last elimination is the one who ultimately decides what the result will be. If that matters to you, keep it in mind when deciding what order people get to pick in.

Image: Artist’s vision of the Roman law of the twelve tables via Wikimedia

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Not Flying Yet

The latest patch for World of Warcraft, which makes it possible to fly in the Battle for Azeroth zones, has been out for a while now, but we’re still earthbound. Not because we don’t want to fly—we love flying both for the convenience of getting around and for the visceral pleasure of getting to see the beautiful artwork of the game world from new angles—but because of what it takes to get it.

The first step toward flying came with the initial release of Battle for Azeroth, with the Pathfinder Part 1 achievement, and involved playing through the expansion’s content, exploring its new zones, and gaining reputation with its various factions. All of this we did quite happily. We enjoyed questing through the new expansion and seeing the sights. Reaching revered level with six factions was a little tedious at times, but watching for world quests made it quite doable.

Once that was done, it was a long wait for the latest patch with Pathfinder Part 2, which requires more of the same: questing, exploration, and gaining rep. This time around, though, we’re not enjoying the process at all.

The difference in our response to part 1 and part 2 largely comes down to the design of the two new zones: Nazjatar and Mechagon. Nazjatar is complex, confusing, and hard to navigate. Significant parts of it are full of tough elites that make riding through looking for quests annoying. The daily quests are often vague and unhelpful about what exactly we are supposed to do, and the mobs drop tons of non-trash loot that clutters up our bags without clearly telling us what it’s actually for and whether we should be keeping it or not. The companion we have to take out adventuring with us in order to get all the quests has the annoying habit of pulling more mobs than we want, getting in the way of the things we’re trying to click on, and standing right on top of our loot when we’re done with a fight. For us, Nazjatar is pure aggravation.

We haven’t looked into Mechagon much yet, but the very little time we have spent there has similarly loaded up our bags with things we don’t know what to do with but don’t dare get rid of in case we need them later. At least it is somewhat less annoying to find our way around there and doesn’t seem to saddle us with an irritating companion. We’re saving Mechagon for after we’re done with Nazjatar in the hopes that it will be something of a relief.

I can certainly see how the things that annoy us about Nazjatar could be great for someone else with a different play style. I’m sure that what for us is confusing and hard to navigate is, for someone else, an exciting new area to explore and learn about. What we see as useless crap filling up our bags is someone else’s intriguing new inventory management challenge. The companion who is always getting in our way must make it possible for other people to tackle content that would otherwise be out of their reach.

Nazjatar is like a lot of things this expansion (island expeditions, warfronts, mythic+ dungeons, war mode): well done for what it is, but not the content we want to play. The good thing about all those other things is that we can completely ignore them and just play the parts of the game that appeal to us. If we want to fly, though, we’re going to have to drag our way through Nazjatar and Mechagon. That’s why we’re not flying yet.

How are your adventures going? Are you soaring over Kul Tiras and Zandalar already? Are Nazjatar and Mechagon exactly what you wanted? Or are you still stuck in the slog with us?

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Lego Star Wars Droids Play Star Wars Music

What else is there to say about this video? It’s an orchestra of Lego’s programmable Star Wars droid models playing the Star Wars theme on real instruments. What more can you ask for?

“Watch this awesome droid orchestra! – LEGO Star Wars™ BOOST Droid Commander” via LEGO

This project is the work of Sam Battle. Find more of his inventive musical performances at lookmumnocomputer.com.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Elementary, Season 2

Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson are back on the case in New York in season 2 of Elementary. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

  1. “Step Nine” – 5.5
  2. “Solve for X” – 4
  3. “We are Everyone” – 5
  4. “Poison Pen” – 6
  5. “Ancient History” – 6
  6. “An Unnatural Arrangement” – 4.5
  7. “The Marchioness” – 4
  8. “Blood is Thicker” – 6
  9. “On the Line” – 4.5
  10. “Tremors” – 5
  11. “Internal Audit” – 6
  12. “The Diabolical Kind” – 6
  13. “All in the Family” – 7.5
  14. “Dead Clade Walking” – 6
  15. “Corpse de Ballet” – 5.5
  16. “The One Percent Solution” – 4.5
  17. “Ears to You” – 4
  18. “The Hound of the Cancer Cells” – 6.5
  19. “The Many Mouths of Aaron Colvillle” – 8
  20. “No Lack of Void” – 6
  21. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – 6
  22. “Paint it Black” – 5.5
  23. “Art in the Blood” – 4
  24. “The Grand Experiment” – 3.5

The average for this season is 5.4, which is fine but a bit of a dip from the first season’s 6.5. There are few standout episodes this season, but none that really fall flat, either. It’s mostly a competently handled second season for Holmes and Watson.

This season sees an attempt to introduce arcs and connected stories, all of which more or less work, but few of which are really compelling. The main arc of the season has to do with Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, an interestingly reimagined version of the original lazy, self-indulgent polymath whose brilliant mind was the interconnecting tissue in the late Victorian British government. This version of Myrcoft is a self-indulgent restauranteur who turns out to have a different but equally complicated role in the modern British government. He makes for an interesting character who plays off Sherlock and Joan in surprising ways, but his story lacks payoff. Our lowest-rated episode of the season is the finale, “The Grand Experiment,” at 3.5, in which the truth about Mycroft is revealed, and it doesn’t add up to much.

Other arcs and extended stories this season include the formation and healing of a rift between Sherlock and Detective Bell, the reappearance of Holmes’s former collaborator and self-promoting drunk Inspector Lestrade, and the emergence of Everyone, an anarchic hacker collective who sometimes help with investigations in return for various acts of public humiliation by Sherlock and Joan. Some of these stories work out better than others. Bell and Holmes’s rancorous split isn’t always fun to watch, but it does give Jon Michael Hill, who plays Bell, some rich material to work with. Lestrade is an entertaining buffoon, another interesting take on a classic Holmes character. The hackers of Everyone are a nebulous group who become mostly-unseen recurring side characters providing useful information for Sherlock and Joan and creating amusing opportunities for Sherlock to do ridiculous things in return.

As usual, though, the most rewarding part of Elementary is not any season arc, but the devious crimes Sherlock and Joan get to untangle while Joan grows as a detective in her own right and Sherlock comes to appreciate the value of their partnership. The best episodes this season, the only two that rise above competently average, offer just such cases. “All in the Family,” at 7.5, gives Detective Bell a chance to shine as he uncovers a long-term mafia plot. “The Many Mouths of Aaron Colville,” at 8, presents a curious challenge as bite marks found on recent murder victims seem to implicate a serial killer who died years ago.

Not everything this season works as well as we might hope, but it’s still a solid season full of intriguing cases for Sherlock and Joan.

Image: Joan and Sherlock, from “Ears to You” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: Everything in the World Is Beginning to Fail

“No one should be amazed that everything in the world is beginning to fail, since the world itself is already failing and near its end.”

– Cyprian, To Demetrianus 4

(My own translation)

How’s that for a cheery thought to start your week?

We hear a lot of grim takes on the world and its fate these days, but this one is far from recent. This line comes from a letter written by St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the mid-third century CE. Cyprian had plenty of reason to feel gloomy about the state of the world. The Roman Empire was in disarray, in the midst of a long period of civil wars and violence. When the empire did periodically pull itself together, it engaged in repeated persecution of Christians. On top of this, the Mediterranean was in the midst of a widespread epidemic of a deadly infectious disease, possibly smallpox or a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. It’s no wonder that Cyprian’s world felt like it was coming to an end.

I share this quote not to depress you all further, but as a reminder that, however dire our times may seem, they are not unique. The world didn’t end in the third century. The Roman Empire pulled itself back together again, at least for a while. The persecutions were ended, and Christians were allowed to worship in peace. The epidemic passed. None of these things happened quickly or easily. It took an awful lot of hard work and sacrifice from an awful lot of people to bring the Mediterranean world back from the brink, but it happened.

It’s going to take an awful lot of hard work and sacrifice from an awful lot of people to bring today’s world back from the brink, too, but it can be done. Cyprian was wrong about the end of the world. Let’s make sure that today’s direst predictions turn out to be wrong, too.

The Persian Version

We know the story of the Greco-Persian Wars very well from the Greek side of things, especially from Herodotus whose Histories is all about the conflict. Modern histories have tended to tell the story the same way the Greeks told it—as a triumphant victory of hardy, democratic Greeks over soft, despotic Persians—in large part because we have no Persian version for comparison.

Even though we don’t have a Persian account comparable to Herodotus, however, we do have a hint as to how the wars may have been remembered inside the Persian Empire. This hint comes from a second-hand story reported several centuries after the fact by the Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom:

I heard a Mede say that the Persians do not agree at all with the Greeks’ version of events. Instead, he said that Darius sent Datis and Artaphernes against Naxos and Eretria, and that after capturing these cities they returned to the king. A few of their ships—not more than twenty—were blown off course to Attica and the crews had some kind of scuffle with the locals. Later on, Xerxes made war on the Spartans. He defeated them at Thermopylae and slew their king Leonidas. Then he captured the city of Athens, razed it, and enslaved those who did not flee. When this was done, he made the Greeks pay him tribute and returned to Asia.

– Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 11.148-149

(My own translation)

This version of events is not exactly wrong. The basic sequence matches up with our other evidence: in 490 BCE, King Darius sent a campaign against Greece that successfully captured the cities of Naxos and Eretria, but was defeated at Marathon and failed to take Athens. Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor Xerxes led an invasion of Greece which defeated a small Spartan-led holding force at Thermopylae and killed the Spartan king Leonidas, then captured and burned Athens. Numerous Greek cities became tribute-paying subjects of Persia rather than fight Xerxes’ force.

The only real differences between this Persian account and the Greek legend are the ways it emphasizes successes and downplays defeats. The battle of Marathon becomes a mere fistfight between a few stragglers and some local color. The capture and destruction of Athens is celebrated, even though the aim of the campaign was to absorb Athens into the empire, not just burn it and leave. The Persian kings could rightly say that they had made a significant show of force against the Greeks, while leaving out the fact that they hadn’t quite achieved what they set out to. As spin goes, this isn’t spun too far.

We know the Greek stories about the wars so well that we can easily see the places where the Persians seem to have burnished their memories, but that observation should also make us question the Greek stories themselves. If Persians could tweak their story to make themselves look better after the fact, what’s to say that the Greeks didn’t do the same? If we had a fuller Persian account of the conflicts in Greece, we might well find plenty of places where Herodotus and his fellow Greeks had played up their own successes and swept some embarrassing missteps under the historical rug.

Image: A Persian “Immortal,” selection from photograph by Mohammed Shamma via Flickr (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick) CC BY 2.0

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.