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Culture | The Treasury creates more ugly money, a bank builds a Sherlock Holmes memorial, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Mid-term, mid-field pileup," Dec. 11, 1999

Play money
The U.S. Treasury's money makeovers aren't stopping with the $100 and $20 bill. New $5 and $10 bills will pour from tellers and ATMs by next summer. The new look, which includes those oversized, off-center portraits, is supposed to help stop criminals who want to run off some portraits of Alexander Hamilton in the garage. Trouble is, the bills emphasize utility but forget about beauty. One corner on the "tails" side is printed in a big, dull font to be easy to read, even though it throws off the design on the back. Some changes to our money were clearly needed to keep up with technology. According to the Treasury, about $181,000,000 in counterfeit bills were discovered worldwide, of which 78 percent were seized before being passed. To raise the percentage, the new bills have watermarks in the portraits, embedded polymer security threads that glow under ultraviolet lights, and teeny-weeny print hidden to foil counterfeiting. The custom-made cotton-linen is staying with us, along with the traditional colors. This at least saves us from the multicolored confetti that plagues many nations. The Treasury also kept the familiar patriotic themes. Bills that are paeans to world peace, bearing a dolphin printed on UN-blue ink, might have us all dreaming of a cashless society. Elementary, my dear Watson
After over 11 decades of sleuthing, Sherlock Holmes finally found a home near 221b Baker St. in London. Abbey National, the bank located at the famous address, spent $160,000 to put up a 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the fictional detective, culminating a campaign to build a memorial that dates back to the 1930s. The monument was unveiled in late September and is the new mecca for the mystery sensation that has spawned everything from stage plays to software. (A first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles sells for $130,000 on the collectors' market.) Abbey National says over a quarter million Holmes fans make a tourist stop at Baker St. The bank even has a secretary working in the Baker St. office answering 30-40 letters per month that come addressed to old Sherlock himself. Inquirers are told that the master would love to help them, but he has retired to take up beekeeping. Arthur Conan Doyle had a hit on his hands in 1887 when the detective first appeared in A Study in Scarlet, but cranking out Holmes stories got boring. So the author tried to kill him off in 1893's The Final Problem, but an outraged public demanded his return. The extent of Holmes fandom is matched only by sci-fi cults. Most of the stories are in the public domain and downloadable for free on the Net. The "canon" is an example of work that succeeds as both pop art and literature. Anglican essayist Dorothy Sayers, for example, once wrote a satirical essay spoofing "higher criticism" of the Bible by analyzing the text of the stories and arguing that sidekick narrator Dr. Watson didn't really write them after all. Holmes' Victorian London is now the stuff of storybooks and his deductive powers are the stuff of superhero comics. Yet a large audience carries on, ever willing to know every detail of the great chase for Professor Moriarty. NASCAR joins the big leagues
In just a few years, NASCAR racing has jumped from the backwoods to the big leagues. Six years of TV rights went for $2.4 billion among Fox, NBC, and TBS. The stock-car sanctioning body that Bill France Sr. founded back in 1948 isn't the butt of jokes anymore. While other sports have lost fans or plowed through expensive strikes and lockouts, NASCAR (that is, the National Association for Stock-Car Auto Racing) has gained speed, with sponsors paying up to $12 million per year to put their stickers on cars. What started on dirt tracks in the Deep South now has Madison Avenue in rapt attention. Between 1985 and 1999, TV revenues skyrocketed from $3 million to $100 million. Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart get accolades once reserved for baseball or football stars. Even though racing has many detractors, the old redneck image may soon be gone for good. Part of the reason is cable TV, the expansion of which helped pave the way for NASCAR success. The Daytona 500 first appeared on network TV in 1979. Cable sports coverage, along with heavy promotion of local races, gave the fan base a chance to build-and a subculture was born. NASCAR boasts that its fan base now crosses all demographic lines, even though the core audience is young men between 18 and 34. New speedways are on the way in places like Las Vegas, Chicago, and Kansas City, and they may one day be considered as valuable as the places where franchise teams play. With more and more exposure, NASCAR is becoming as big a property as the NFL or NBA. With incessant commercialism in other sports catching up to the racing world, it should fit in quite well. The hype surrounding Dale Earnhardt may seem different from that surrounding Michael Jordan, but the two worlds are coming together.

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