Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 8, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
iPod, Cut and Run, English, Ford 500
I don't know about you, but I'm about fed up with all the free -- and ridiculous
-- advertising and publicity Apple Computers gets. If they decided to bottle
air and sell it, calling it, no doubt, "PowerAir" or "AirMac" or "AirPod," they'd
claim that they had invented air. Then all the articles about the new MacAir
would treat that claim as if it were true and suddenly start treating other air-packagers as mere imitators, playing "catch-up" with Apple.
I remember years ago, when Apple came out with their PowerBook notebook
computer. I was at a meeting with an extraordinarily dumb young movie
producer who kept going on and on about all the cool things his PowerBook
could do. "It can sign on the internet and get email! I can care it with me on
planes and it runs on batteries!"
Finally I got fed up and just showed him my Toshiba laptop. "I can do all those
things, and this computer cost me a thousand dollars less than yours."
It was a cruel thing to do, I thought, to take the wind out of his sails like that.
But no, I had forgotten: He was an Apple user! He gave me a withering look
and said, "Yes, but mine is an Apple."
Well, yes, but he said it as if that were a good thing.
Think about it. All the rigid, corporate-determined uniformity and buy-it-from-us-or-drop-dead attitude of Microsoft, but you have to buy your hardware from
them, too. I watch Apple users attempt to manipulate their clunky operating
system -- click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, just to get where I
can go with a single action on my keyboard -- and I hear them raving on and
on about what wonderful trhings Apple is finally deigning to make available to
them, but which PC users have had for years, and it all makes me vaguely sad.
"Windows crashes all the time," they say with a smirk. Then, when they're
talking among themselves and they don't think you're listening, they reveal the
evil truth: Macs crash too. And Mac software has bugs and flaws and security
gaps and stupidity built in, just like Windows.
What Macs don't have is any competition. Once you've bought into the hype
and forked over your money, they've got you and you can't get free without
completely replacing everything.
The same thing has happened now with the iPod. I had been using wonderful
MP3 players for years. My Rio Riot held twenty gigs of music. My little
Panasonic E-Wear, and later my Rio Cali, let me take incredible amounts of
music with me when I exercised or took long flights.
Then the iPod comes out and it doesn't do anything that I needed and didn't
already have. Not only that, but it was deeply ugly, a plain ivory-colored box
with pathetic controls that looked like it should hold generic earswabs.
Compared to my Rio Riot, it was a piece of junk and looked like a piece of junk.
And now it seems to have taken over the world. Everything is geared toward
iPods. I still have MP3 players with more capacity and better interface than the
iPod, and people talk and write as if the iPod had invented the whole class of
machine, and all the others were just imitations.
Even the current PC World magazine has been suckered into this Apple
mystique. They had a "brave and daring" front-of-book essay about how PC
makers ought to learn to do things more like Apple. And do you know what it
came down to? The colors and shape of the cheap plastic they wrap their
Yeah, that's right. They make the ugliest, silliest, most embarrassing-looking
cheap plastic products in the industry, charge half again as much as you'd pay
for a cleanly designed, functional looking product, and they are given credit for
I know what will happen, of course. A lot of smug Apple owners will write me
taunting letters about how Windows crashes all the time. Old news, kiddies.
My XP doesn't crash at all. And I have about a hundred times as much
software to choose from, and can customize my own machine (despite the best
efforts of Microsoft) a thousand times more than you can, and I'm paying less
for it, and it looks like I actually intend to do serious work with it.
As for your iPod, I just have to shake my head and laugh. There are much
better -- and better-looking -- products out there, and I already own some of
them. But you go on believing that yours Is the best in the world. That's what
Apple depends on. You'll get into the harness, they'll put the blinders on you,
and you'll think you're pulling the queen's carriage instead of the old farm
wagon you're dragging along.
Ridley Pearson has been around for a while. I just didn't know about it.
Not until his was the name paired with Dave Berry's on the wonderful
children's chapter book Peter and the Starcatchers.
But with a collaboration, you never know which author contributed what.
Most collaborations are unequal in the contribution of the collaborators. Some
collaborations are greater than the sum of their parts. Most aren't. So I
assumed -- shoot me if I'm wrong -- that Dave Berry was the guy who thought
up the huge pirate ship sail made of brassiere material, and Ridley Pearson
thought up the good stuff.
Mostly I assumed that Pearson actually did the sentence-by-sentence writing.
So when, in Hudson's News at the Atlanta airport during a long layover, I saw
Ridley Pearson's name on a new novel Cut and Run, I let nothing stand in my
way -- not even the fact that my bag was already full and to have any hope of
fitting this book into my bag I'd have to forgo buying the history of the 1917
flue epidemic that I had already decided to buy.
Right choice. Nothing against the history of the flu, but it will still be buyable
when I get back home. Not that I couldn't have bought Cut and Run back
home, too, but then I wouldn't have been able to read it on the first three hours
of my flight to LA.
It's an unstoppable thriller. Larson is a federal agent with the Witness
Protection Program when he falls in love with a protected witness named Hope
and, against all the rules, has a brief affair with her. But when she cuts loose
from the program and goes out on her own, hiding from the feds and the
crooks because she's lost faith in the program's ability to protect her, he isn't
with her -- and it's his own fault.
For years he harbors the vain hope of reconnecting with her, only to have it
forced on him by the fact that the whole database of protected witnesses has
been compromised by the very criminal syndicate that wants her dead. They
aren't after her particularly -- the list of protected witnesses and their hiding
places is valuable in large part because it can be auctioned off so lucratively to
other crime groups. But Larson is sure that she'll be at the top of their list of
And now everything is complicated even more by the fact that she has a child
with her. A child who might be her own. More to the point, the child might
also be Larson's.
Like any sane American, I want this book to be made immediately into a movie
because everything that happens in it is cinematic and thrilling. Nobody's just
sitting around being protected -- everybody, the child included, is determined
to survive. And there's a hit man named Paolo who is just about the scariest
guy I've seen in crime fiction for years.
Pearson doesn't spend a lot of time giving detailed backstory and developing
subtle characters. Some readers might even think he isn't characterizing at all.
But that would be a mistake. He's merely doing it subtly, in the midst of the
Only one thing stuck in my craw -- the absolutely implausible but apparently
obligatory sex scene, under circumstances where I simply can't believe any
woman -- or at least any mother -- suddenly wanting to get it on. But I forgive
Pearson that faux pas for the sake of how exciting and satisfying the rest of the
I'm a fanatic about language, and I'm guessing you probably aren't. Nothing
against you personally, but the odds are on my side on this. Fans of language
in general, especially histories and grammars of languages, are not exactly
thick on the ground.
I actually read, for pleasure, books like The Languages of China and The
Languages of Japan, because even though I'm too old and mentally faded to
learn new languages now, I still am fascinated by how languages tick, and all
the strange and wonderful ways humans have found to organize their
But nothing is more fascinating to me than my own language -- how it works
and how it has changed across time.
I had to tell you this so you'd understand that when I rave about David
Crystal's book on the history of our language, The Stories of English, I don't
actually expect you to enjoy it. Maybe a few of you. Maybe one. OK, just me.
I took History of English in grad school and followed the familiar pattern --
attempt to explain how English got to be the way it is today.
But usually, that means looking at standard English today and in every
previous era -- which leaves out much if not most of the story.
Because of course standard English is not and never has been spoken by most
What most of us speak and write is something else, which can differ from
standard English in a lot of ways. We speak and write informal English. We
often drop into slangs and jargons. Most of us have regionalisms in our speech
that we don't even recognize unless somebody points them out.
For instance, I had no idea there was anything wrong with pronouncing the
root in root beer to rhyme with put rather than boot. Until I was teased about it
in college. (Oddly enough, I pronounced root by itself either way, regarding
them as interchangeable.) I used the same vowel for roof and hoof and had no
idea I was confessing something about where I grew up -- or, more to the
point, where my parents had grown up.
What David Crystal does in his history of English is to treat it as a multiplicity
of languages that are closely related, and out of which all the versions of
english in use today arose.
There is no clear line of descent in language, you see. The Old English of
Wessex that was the "standard" language at one time did not lead directly to
the standard Middle English of Chaucer's day. (I hardly need remind you that
of course in Chaucer's day they didn't call it middle English. They just called it
Instead, Chaucer's English owed at least as much to the accent of the area
around London, and that region had been much more heavily influenced by
Danish than Wessex ever was.
And there are northernisms that crept into English along the way -- speaking
of the north of England, of course, America being as yet just a twinkle in
Columbus's eye, as far as Europe was concerned.
Crystal traces the path of our absorption of vocabulary, our changes in
pronunciation, and the constant division of the language into dialects and
accents. The result is a very thick book.
It can be honestly said that this book is written for the "popular audience," in
the sense that his language is clear and he does not speak in the shorthand
jargon of linguistics, except in a few well-explained digressions here and there.
The book is not technical But it is not just thick but dense, and it requires
concentration and real interest in the subject. The level of detail will be
daunting to most readers.
But if I were teaching a course in the history of the English language, this is
the book I'd use as a text. Meanwhile, for me and the six other amateur
language freaks out there, this book is like the holy grail.
After seven years and 140,000 miles of driving around in my dark blue Crown
Victoria, I finally decided enough was enough. The trouble was, the car was
still running beautifully and the biggest repairs had been to replace the motors
that ran the power windows. What can you do when your eminently practical
car just won't die?
Last fall my wife and I went to Bob Dunn Ford to see the lay of the land. We
told our salesman (ask for Akan -- no pressure, wonderfully patient and
helpful) that we weren't serious customers right then. We just wanted to see
what Ford had been doing lately. You know -- all those better ideas.
The reason we looked only at Ford was because (I) we had recently seen all of
Chrysler's offerings (well, within the past four years) when my wife bought her
PT Cruiser, (b) we haven't seen a car from GM in the past twenty years that
hasn't irritated me, from the look of the car to the design of the interior, and (3)
we try to buy American cars, not just out of loyalty to American workers, but
because Americans tend to have some idea of how big Americans are, and I'm a
big guy, and I don't want a car that was originally designed for people who are
six inches shorter and a hundred-thirty pounds lighter than me.
It just saves time for me to stop at the Ford dealer first. Bob Dunn Ford has
been good to us, in sales and service, for two previous cars, and I believe in
loyalty. So there we were, wasting one of their salesmen's time on a "just
The thing is, I love a big car and I need it to have a big trunk. I don't like SUVs
or vans precisely because your stuff is out in the open. I don't want to
advertise when I'm carrying a laptop or a bunch of suitcases or a whole lot of
Christmas shopping -- I want it locked down, out of sight.
But I was tired of the many places where the Crown Vic wouldn't easily fit. I
was also tired of other cars slowing down then they saw me coming up behind
them, in fear that I might be an unmarked patrol car.
After talking with Akan for a while, he led us to the Ford 500. I had never
heard of this model. But here's what it is, in a nutshell: It's a full-sized car.
Think about that for a minute. An actual, honest-to-goodness full-sized car.
Not a Town Car, not a mammoth.
It sits a little higher off the ground than your average (compact) car. And
inside the cab, there's an amazing amount of room. It has every bit as much
leg room as my Crown Vic ... yet even with my seat pushed all the way back,
the back seat actually had more leg- and knee-room than the Vic.
Which meant that it must have a tiny trunk, right? That roominess in the cab
had to come from somewhere!
But guess what? If you were a mafia hit man looking for a vehicle, you'd have
to rate the 500's as a two-body trunk. It's huge inside. And nowhere near as
low a reach as the Vic or the Town Car -- you can slide things out instead of
having to hoist them.
So OK, the car was actually possible as a replacement for my CV. True, the
center console in front meant that it couldn't be a six-passenger car as the
Crown Victoria had been many times in the past, taking a bunch of people
home from church or a dance. But we only have one kid at home now, so a
five-passenger car really is enough for us.
The ride is not quite Town-Car smooth, but it's still very good. And the
handling -- its turning radius is, like the Crown Vic's, tighter than that of my
wife's PT Cruiser. Surprisingly tight.
Knowing we had Bob Dunn's service department behind us and our history
with Fords over the past sixteen years, we had no qualms. It has now been six
months since that first scouting expedition and we have already put sixty miles
on our new Ford 500.
The car looks awfully small. And no one will confuse it with a sports car, so
don't think of it as a good midlife crisis car. You still need convertibles or low-to-the-ground sports cars for that, I suppose. But for a big-car guy like me,
looking to downsize without making any serious sacrifices in comfort,
acceleration, and interior room, it's a great car. It's as if somebody in Detroit
knew exactly what I wanted and made it for me.
But I have figured out how they got so much interior room into such a small
It isn't small.
It only looks small. Going into my garage, it seems to be almost exactly as wide
as the Crown Vic. And front to back, it's only a foot or so shorter. Or so it
seems to me.
But I don't mind. Let other people think I'm driving a small car, when in fact
I'm driving a Stealth big car.