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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 products in.

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 design!

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 targets.

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 action.

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 novel is.

*

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 thoughts.

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 people.

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 English.)

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 shopping" expedition.

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 car.

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.


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