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Category — Casual Observer

Casual Observer: Sherlock Holmes lives

Itsy Bitsy “Baker Street Journal”

by Mark Levy

I subscribe to an interesting publication that you may not have heard about. The number of readers of this publication is barely greater than the number of contributors. In fact, the motto of the Baker Street Journal — that’s the publication for Sherlock Holmes scholars — used to be:  “Never has so much been written by so many for so few.”

"The pipe was still between his lips."

Sidney Paget illustration, Strand Magazine, 1891.

You wouldn’t think there would be much to write about what some unenlightened people think is a fictional detective whose best cases were solved around 1895. But boy, would you be mistaken. There’s worldwide Sherlockian interest — an industry, really  —  that includes or produces novels,  articles, cartoons, poems, songs, plays, stories, annotations, satires, horse races, trips to moors and graveyards, coffee table books, movies on DVDs, musicals, web sites, and assorted esoteric memorabilia like coffee cups, lapel pins, magnifying glasses, tobacco pipes, capes, and life-sized sculptures.

Contributors to the Baker Street Journal — or BSJ, as we Sherlockians call it  — are often scholars who analyze Sherlock Holmes and Victorian society, customs, and motivations. Why did the dog do nothing in the night-time, for instance, when a stranger came into a stable and stole a horse? And how many times per day did London postmen deliver mail to businesses? (The answer is as many as 10 times per day.) And did it snow in London on February 23, 1886? And why were so many of Sherlock’s clients named Violet?

Over the years, writers have speculated that Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s faithful companion and roommate, was a woman, and that Sherlock himself was really a computer, and that occasionally Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, was the British government. (Okay, that part’s not speculation.) And that the evil Professor Moriarty had one, or maybe two, brothers, all of them named James — sort of the George Foremans of the archenemy crowd.

Sherlock, some of us believe, actually met or crossed single sticks with Sigmund Freud, Jack the Ripper, Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Dracula, the Phantom, Dr. Who, James Bond, Arsène Lupin, Karl Marx, Gandhi, and the Phantom of the Opera.

Discussion groups, sometimes called scions, meet in members’ homes from Antarctica to Zambia. By the way, the Antarctica scion is appropriately called the Penguins of Antarctica. These groups remind me of Bible study groups, but in this case our Bible is what we call the Canon  — the 56 short stories and 4 short novels that bear the name, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlockians are fond of saying things like, “I hear of you everywhere,” and “You see, but you do not observe,” and “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

But they never, ever say “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s because that phrase  — perhaps the most famous one attributed to Sherlock  — does not appear in the Canon. Sherlock never said it. You could look it up, which I suggest you do, since “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”


October 25, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer: Sherlock Holmes lives

Casual Observer

Career Advice

by Mark Levy

When I was barely a teenager, as clueless about my future as most teenagers whose parents are not physicians, I took some career aptitude tests. I had always done well on academic aptitude tests that featured math problems. Notice, I said
“Well,” not “Phenomenally well.”
But even at the tender age of 13, I realized that the number of professions for which solving elementary math problems was required couldn’t be great. I mean, I had never heard of one, except for my seventh grade math teacher, and he had weird taste in neckties — weird even by math nerd standards.
Anyway, there came that point in my life when I realized I had to get serious about my future. It was stressful not knowing the direction I should be going. Not so stressful that it was affecting my appetite, of course. I wasn’t obsessed, but I was stressed enough to think about my situation every week or two. My ever-helpful parents arranged for me to take a couple of hours of aptitude tests.
Here’s the strange thing: when my test results were analyzed, the counselor recommended that I consider a career in … fashion design. Fashion design! I — who couldn’t tell the difference between culotts and mu mus and couldn’t care less — I become a fashion designer?

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the counselor was somehow motivated to direct students to attend a particular fashion school, regardless of their lack of aptitude or interest.
That experience was not entirely a waste of time, although I thought so for the last 40 years. The fact is, though, I scored highest in the subject called academic research aptitude. That’s not the same as scientific research, by the way.
In any case, I had no interest in becoming a librarian, so I filed that factoid away until recently, when I had an epiphany of sorts. It turns out I am good at academic research — research on the Internet. I look up information eight or ten times a day.
It seems like I’m confirming how words are spelled, or I’m locating appropriate synonyms every other minute.
For essays like this, I have researched not-so-famous national days, like national Talk Like a Pirate Day, and the number of people in America named Roy Rogers, and people and things whose acronym is B.S., and which famous people were born on my birthday. I’ve discovered that lobsters are related to cockroaches and that Marilyn Monroe’s last, incomplete movie, also starred Dean Martin. It was to be called, “Something’s Got to Give,” by the way, and I guess it was Marilyn’s life that was the “something.”
I use the search engine Google, and the Internet tells me that word, spelled correctly — g-o-o-g-o-l — was made popular by Edward Kasner, who used it in his book, Mathematics and the Imagination, published in 1940.
It means one followed by 100 zeroes, which is actually called ten duo-tri-gintillion, if you care.
Anyway, thanks to the Google Internet search engine, I can retrieve pretty much anything I want to know by typing is two or three words. My talent — and I have to refer to talent with a lower case “t” — comes in useful for those trivial purposes I mentioned, as well as for searching inventions on the Patent and Trademark Office database.
Of course, the Internet database didn’t exist when I was informed that I had academic research aptitude.
So even though I don’t get to solve simple math problems for a living, at least I was spared from a life of fashion design.

* * *

(Click for larger image)

August 19, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer

By Mark Levy

Movies I Regret

I make amateur movies and I’ve been doing that for years. They are somewhere between home movies and Hollywood productions. Okay, perhaps they’re a bit closer to home movies, because they feature the friends and those members of my family who can be coerced into acting in front of my camcorder.

I suspect that many movie makers have regrets about some of their work. I’m one of them. I’m not talking merely about not winning an Academy Award® this year (or last year or the year before, now that I think of it). And I’m not talking about failing to entice Kim Basinger to act for free in one of my amateur productions. I’m referring to the movies themselves that I should have created differently.

The worst thing about knowing what I should have done is that I have to watch my movie over and over again when friends come to visit or I am invited to someone else’s home. (Being invited to others’ homes is occurring less frequently, too, but I like to think it’s not all my fault. Anyway, that’s a subject for another essay.) The audience may not notice anything amiss, but every time I see one of my defective movies, the mistakes are more evident than they were the last time.

Not only do I know what doesn’t work so well; I usually also know how I could have made the movie perfect. Hindsight is 20/20, as my grandfather used to say. Ironically, he became legally blind in his final years, so his aphorisms don’t always ring true. He also said that if you have a good suit, you’ll never go hungry in a big city. But I digress.

Often, as occurs in other art forms, the solution to perfecting a movie is trivial. Just like adding a teaspoon of baking powder to a cake recipe might make all the difference, a half-second cutaway close-up or a reaction shot inserted into a video sequence might be all that’s missing for the sequence to gel.

Before finalizing the movie, I sometimes ask another person to review my work. That can be very helpful. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of paying him or her for that service. Wouldn’t want to jeopardize my hard-fought amateur movie making standing, you know.

Sometimes I don’t notice the error in my movie until months after I’ve completed it. It wouldn’t take me much time to revise the movie, assuming I have the appropriate shots in my out-takes. But I resist going back and revising instead of moving forward to the next project. Now that I know what I did wrong, I say to myself, I don’t have time to revise it, but I’ll be sure not to make the same mistake the next time.

There’s a perverse comfort in knowing that, every time I embark on another movie adventure, I’ll be able to go on to make fresh, new mistakes.

Mark Levy is an attorney with the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman Howard and Kattell. He is a contributing editor to with Ryan Miosek (Feeding the Starving Artist), and an occasional contributor to NPR, where his comments can be heard some Saturdays at noon.

June 20, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer

Fear of Just About Everything


By Mark Levy 

I don’t always look up interesting topics on the Internet. Honest! Sometimes a web site finds me. For example, the other day I was minding my own business when a web site called came to my attention. To be truthful, I may have provoked the event by googling “fear of running out of topics for Ragazine.” In any event, I now have a list of about 600 phobias in alphabetical order. I’d like to share some of the more obscure phobias with you and leave the mundane ones for another day. No need to talk about fear of floods, fear of wet dreams, or fear of vomiting on an airplane right now.

Did you know some people have a fear of frogs? That’s called betrachophobia. You can have a fear of being tickled by a feather, in which case you’re pteronophobic. I suppose you might have a fear of being tickled by a frog, in which case you’d have betracho-pteronophobia, which is easy for me to say when I’m not being tickled.

Looks like many people have fears of other people. For example, you might have a fear of young girls parthenophobia), a fear of teenagers (ephebilphobia), or a fear of old people (gerontophobia). So you can move easily from one fear to another as your relatives outgrow your fear of them.

For every occupation, there seems to be a fearful word. If you don’t like your dentist, you may have dentophobia. See how easy this can be? And if you must walk to your doctor’s office across a side of town that beggars and hobos inhabit, I hope you haven’t developed hobophobia. I once had a dentist with breath bad enough to be a hobo’s breath, but lucky for me, I didn’t have hobodentophobia.

Scared of foreigners? In general, that’s xenophobia, although there are separate words for fear of the French, the English, the Chinese, the Greeks and, of course, the Germans. You might know these words if you attended more parties. That wouldn’t be easy if you’re an enochlophobe, fearing crowds or mobs.

There’s always a silver lining: If you avoid crowds, you won’t be visiting the circus, so your coulrophobia, fear of clowns, won’t act up.

I think a number of people fear childbirth, but I wasn’t aware there are actually four words to identify that phobia: maleusiophobia, tocophobia, parturiphobia, and lockiophobia. Those are run-of-the-mill childbirth phobias. But if you’re unusually concerned about delivering a deformed baby, you’ve graduated to teratophobia.

One of my favorites is the word that means an irrational fear of chopsticks. It’s consecotaleophobia, which seems harder to say than to use the darn things, but then again, I’m no psychiatrist.

If you suffer from enissophobia, you may decide not to be an essayist for Weekend Radio, because enissophobia is the fear of criticism —— not that Robert Conrad would ever criticize anyone.

Here’s another cutie: the fear of everything. It’s known as panophobia, which is not exactly what I’ve been developing myself —— a fear of phobias. Oh wait. There’s a name for that, too. It’s phobophobia.

You can find all these and more online, if you don’t have cyberphobia, a fear of computers, that is. The web site, again, is


New Orleans


New Orleans, Woven Photo, Copyright 2010, Valerie Brown

April 21, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer

Mark Levy


I Like My Present Age the Most


            Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes walked down a street when he was 90 years old or so and reputedly saw an attractive young woman. Holmes turned to his companion and muttered, wistfully, “Ah, to be eighty again.”

            I wonder if I will have the same wish when I get as old as Holmes was. I know a few, much younger people who already are pining for their even younger selves. That helps explain the reason many people are obsessed with looking younger. They wear fashionable clothing and hair styles and they get face lifts and tummy tucks. They listen or try to listen to rap and hip-hop music and use teenage expressions, like “omigod” and “fly girl” and “cheese” and “phat,” spelled with a PH. Now if they have that sort of never-young-enough temperament, they might also wish for younger years when they hit the advanced age of 30.

            If they regret reaching, say, the 40-year milestone, how will they feel when they reach each succeeding year or decade? Life must become more and more disappointing to those folks as they age. That’s really too bad. It means they have less to look forward to every day. Where’s the fun in that?

            I, on the other hand, enjoy my present age more than I did my age last year. And last year was better than the year before. Now I’m not saying that each of my faculties is better than ever, or that there aren’t more insidious signs of failing health; but I have a better adjusted attitude with each year. I have a better appreciation for how the universe works and how and why people act as they do. Now I also know better how to urge some people to react the way I would prefer, from the cashier at the supermarket to my boss. I still haven’t figured out my wife, but I’m optimistic even about that, as foolish as that sounds.

            I’m increasingly empowered with knowledge, and that feeling of self-sufficiency should continue to increase as I live through more events, meet more people and gain more experiences. It’s a shame it will end, but I try not to think about that.

            I am free not to have to prepare for events that I now know will never happen. I don’t feel the urgency to rehearse with an air guitar, for example, since the prospect of rock stardom has already passed me by. And I’m not writing and rewriting my acceptance speech anymore for the Oscars or the Nobel Prize ceremony. What a relief. That saves me a great deal of time and, of course, anxiety. Nowadays, the only thing I rewrite is my last will and testament.

            I don’t have to practice catching fly balls to right field or get nervous about meeting my teen-aged girl friend’s parents or explain to my own parents why my 8th grade report card in Spanish isn’t as high as they had hoped. I don’t have to stay up half the night trying to remember the capital cities of 50 states or the names of the explorers who discovered each little dinky Latin American country — information that I was pretty sure I would not need in the next 50 years… and I was right.

           I spend little time thinking about what I’ll be when I grow up, although I have to admit fleeting thoughts of that still cross my mind on certain Monday mornings.

            Besides the obvious advantages of qualifying for senior discounts at the movies, at restaurants and at sporting events, and the deference youngsters pay me occasionally, when all of the seats are taken on the bus, here’s another benefit of being older. Recently, I completed a Master Degree in creative writing. (You might not realize that from these little essays, because they are essentially non-fiction. Let’s face it: you can’t make some of this stuff up.) Anyway, my writing class of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings spent time learning how to think of subjects to write about. I could have skipped those classes, because coming up with new ideas is no problem for me. By now, I’ve experienced all sorts of things that I can write about. I felt sorry for the younger students in my class, who could just imagine events that I had already experienced. It seemed like an unfair advantage for me, in fact.

            No, compared to my earlier years, I am completely satisfied with my present age. I just wish I could somehow remember those early years better.

February 20, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer

Everybody Should Go To Law School


By Mark Levy

As crazy as this sounds, I think everybody should go to law school. I know what you’re thinking: we have too many lawyers already; an entire society of lawyers would be like a science fiction horror movie come to life. But hear me out, please, before you call the men in the white coats.

Law school can be an enlightening experience. It requires only three years after you graduate college —— four if you go to night school, which law schools like to call “part time” or “the evening division.” Really, in the great scheme of things, what are three or four years of your life? You’ve already probably spent more time doing unimportant things, like spending quality time with your family. You’d hardly miss three or four years. Trust me; I’m a lawyer.

Here’s another benefit of going to law school: you get to read about all sorts of crimes and bad behavior. In a way, it’s a TV reality show without the pictures or the sound effects.

I know three good reasons to attend law school, even if you never want to practice law a day in your life.



First, a legal education will teach you how to negotiate. That’s an important skill, since we all negotiate dozens of times a day. When I wake up in the morning, I have to negotiate with my wife who will get to brush his or her teeth first. Then we negotiate who will prepare breakfast, what the breakfast will be, who will walk down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper, who will use the last five drops of milk in his or her coffee, and who will decide where to meet for lunch.

That’s the typical morning routine that I engage in on Saturdays and Sundays alone. During the work week, I negotiate with business associates, with retail store employees, with bank tellers, with grocery store cashiers, and with taxi drivers, not to mention dealing with a fairly long list of requests demanded by my children, of course.

So you see how valuable it is to have good training in negotiating tactics.

Here’s the second reason I think a law school education is helpful: you get to know how to get around the law.

Take the simple “do not enter” sign. How often have you seen that sign and been deterred from going where you want to go? How often have you had to pack up your suitcase and rush out of a hotel room before the 11:00 a.m. checkout time? How often have you had to pay your income taxes? (Just kidding, all you IRS agents out there.)

How often have you heard someone say, “You can’t do that” or “We can’t do that” or “Nobody can do that?” When you’re a lawyer, you don’t blindly accept those statements; you take them as a personal challenge.

Going to law school means never having to take “no” for an answer, with the possible exception of when an aforementioned IRS agent says it. There’s almost always a way to accomplish your goal if you learn how to approach every problem as if there must be a solution. Of course, that’s what lawyers get paid to help you with, but if you get the education and you can develop the correct mindset, most of the time you won’t need no stinkin’ lawyer to help you out. Look at the money you’ll save by attending law school for yourself.

Which brings me to the third advantage of going to law school and perhaps the most important reason I think everybody should have a legal education: you learn when you should call a lawyer. You may think that’s a trivial reason for spending so many hours reading cases about plaintiffs and defendants, but you’d be surprised how often people go to a lawyer too late in the game.

For example, in real estate only a small percentage of home buyers consult a lawyer before they sign what the real estate agents call a “binder,” but which lawyers know is a contract. Turns out, the lawyer they select has one hand tied behind his or her back, since the client has already agreed to certain terms and conditions and forfeited some options in that binder agreement. Usually, it would have cost the buyer the same to engage the lawyer before the binder was signed as after.

In the patent business, where I spend most of my time, I can’t tell you how often inventors approach me more than a year after they’ve publicly disclosed their invention. That’s a shame. The patent law states that an inventor cannot obtain a patent unless the invention has been publicly disclosed, if at all, for less than a year. If the inventor had made the appointment with me a year earlier, he might have obtained a patent. But because he didn’t know when to call a lawyer, he’s  out of luck. That’s why Mr. Rubik never received a patent for Rubik’s Cube, by the way.

So there you have it. Everybody should go to law school to learn how to negotiate, learn not to take “no” for an answer, and learn when to call a lawyer. Luckily, it’s never too late to go to law school, so start saving up for the tuition now. I should have mentioned that earlier.

Hey, tuition fees may be negotiable. If you look for loopholes, as we say in the legal biz, and you don’t take “no” for an answer, you’re already on your way to being a lawyer. See how easy that is?



The Litchfields         Copyright Lynda Barreto

The Litchfields Copyright Lynda Barreto

December 20, 2009   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Mark Levy

Ordinary People

With Famous Names


In Denver, a woman named Amelia Earhart reports on traffic from a helicopter for a local news station. The broadcast news people at that Denver TV station don’t crack a smile when they introduce Amelia Earhart in her helicopter. Maybe they were all born too late.

This got me thinking about famous names in unlikely places. With the help of an Internet search engine that uses U.S. census data to arrive at its statistics, I discovered that there are over 79,000 Amelias and almost 3,000 Earharts, but only one Amelia Earhart in America. Apparently, she’s the one flying around in a helicopter. And how many of the three Charles Lindberghs even have pilot licenses?

            There was a Howard Johnson in a company I worked for once, but sadly, he didn’t work in our cafeteria. There are 2,837 Howard Johnsons in the U.S.

            It must be difficult going through life with a famous person’s name. People either expect too much of you or don’t take you seriously. If you’re one of the three Frank Sinatras, for example, you probably have to be ready to sing a few bars of My Way at the drop of a fedora.

            Not too many Tiger Woods, yet, because only some 1,500 or fewer people are named Tiger; but I’ll bet that situation changes in the future. At this time, there’s only one Tiger Woods, which should provide some comfort to the rest of the players on the Professional Golfers Association tour. We might eventually see some Tiger Smiths, Tiger Browns and Tiger Johnsons become celebrities, for that matter. Or we could soon see other not-so-famous Shaquilles, Beyonces and Chers. I’m surprised there are only 15,000 Elvises.

            Barack Obama is not high on the list of popular names. In fact, there’s only one. I think Barack Schwartz or Barack Harrigan would have a nice ring.

            Have any other of the two Mickey Rooneys or the 4,400 Elizabeth Taylors been married eight times?

            There doesn’t seem to be an Alfonse Capone, but apparently there are nine Albert Capones, five Alfred Capones, and 13 Alan Capones. At least some of those 27 Capones are called “Al Capone” by their close friends, I suppose.

            Of all the 18,000 Lincolns in America, how many would you guess are Abrahams? The Internet says only three.

            Are all the 342 Bob Hopes funny?

            You probably don’t realize that over 500 people are named Roy Rogers, yet there are only 429 Dale Evans’ to go around, making for almost a hundred lonesome cowboys, assuming they’re all cow people who want to hook up with a cowgirl counterpart having her famous name. Good luck, pardners, and happy trails to you.

            There are estimated to be 19 William Shakespeares, but nary a Hamlet in sight, prince or otherwise.

            Here’s another interesting statistic: only 276 people are named Jaclyn Smith, which just doesn’t seem like enough.

            Although there are over 42,000 Levys, 201 are named Mark Levy, believe it or not, but I’m the only one you get to hear on Weekend Radio.

            If you’d like to check the frequency of your name or someone else’s, visit the web site:


Mark Levy is an attorney with the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman Howard and Kattell. He is a contributing editor to with Ryan Miosek (Feeding the Starving Artist), and an occasional contributor to NPR, where his comments can be heard some Saturdays at noon.

October 17, 2009   4 Comments