Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 19, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Rat-a-Splat, Impossiweb, Grief without Rage
Rat-a-Tat Cat has been one of our favorite games for several years. It was
great fun when our youngest was little; it's still fun now that she's a teenager.
But the publisher of Rat-a-Tat Cat, Gamewright, apparently decided that
having a really fun game wasn't enough. They had to "improve" it.
They added a new rule. It's called "super peek," and it allows you to view
everyone's face-down cards using a small sheet of transparent red plastic.
The trouble is that this means that the identity of each card is printed on the
back in a different color ink, as on the old Password Game cards.
All of us were able to deduce, at a glance, what most of the face-down cards
were. Without using the plastic sheet.
They also changed the mix of cards, so that there were proportionately more
"swap" and "draw 2" and "peek" cards.
This means that even if you choose not to use the "super peek" rule, the game
is still ruined. It's like deciding that since chocolate chips are the "best part" of
the cooky, you'll make a batch of cookies with three times the chocolate chips.
At some point it stops being a cooky.
It's not that the new version "isn't as good."
The new version is actively bad. As in Not Fun. As in failure.
If you've been thinking of buying Rat-a-Tat Cat, make sure you get the great
old original edition.
We threw away the fancy new edition. You don't donate garbage to Good Will.
So the fact that the new version comes in a can instead of a box is actually
I got an urgent email from Amazon Books the other day. It told me I needed to
update an order because the shipping date had changed. If I didn't update it
by 15 September, the order would be cancelled.
So I got to the URL they gave me, and this message was at the head of the
We thought you should know that we're experiencing a delay with your order. We
apologize for any inconvenience. Please take note of the revised shipping and delivery
estimates marked in red below. This order cannot proceed without your approval or
changes. Please go to the approval page to approve this change.
The trouble was, nowhere else on that page was there any indication of where
this "approval page" was supposed to be. There was a button called "Need to
cancel an item?" but that did not give me the choice of approving the changed
delivery date. No button said "I approve" or "approval page." When I went to
"my account" there was no selection offering to let me "approve changes in
shipping date" or anything similar.
Basically, I've been told that I must do something in order to get my book, but I
cannot do that thing using their website. This is so insane that I am in awe.
This is the world's first successful large-scale retail site (as opposed to auction
sites), and they still can't figure out that when you send someone to a web page
to do a certain job, that web page should make it possible to accomplish it.
I guess all I can do is cancel the book and reorder it. Or ... wait ... here's a
thought ... I'll just call Barnes & Noble or Borders here in town and ask them
to order it for me.
Uh-oh. Amazon keeps that up, and the local stores will win the retail
The miners who were trapped in the cave-in in Utah have not made a sound
detectable by the instruments sent down into the mine. The probes sent into
that part of the mine showed levels of oxygen inconsistent with human life.
There is no rational hope that any of the miners made it through. Irrational
hope, however, can spin magical scenarios: Some of them rushed to another
part of the tunnel where there was more oxygen and then ... and then ...
Mines aren't caves. There aren't hidden shafts that no one has mapped and no
one knows about. There aren't likely to be secret air holes where they can find
enough to breathe as they await rescue.
Three men have died trying to bring out survivors. Even if you are convinced of
the fantasy "escape," there comes a point where it is not right to permit other
miners to risk their lives searching for them. Even if there are volunteers, their
courage cannot be permitted to risk leaving even more families bereft.
There is a point where you stop pretending that rescue efforts are worth the
danger, and start to grieve for the lost.
The management of the mining company has, to all appearances at least, done
everything that they could after the cave-in, and continues to do so. Their
handling of the press and of the families seems to have concealed nothing and
to have been as sensitive as possible.
(Contrast this with the secretiveness of the Chinese mining operation where,
with more than a hundred miners trapped underground and, perhaps,
underwater, the families had to storm the mine offices with bricks and bats
just to find out what was going on!)
Behaving Well under Stress
But here we are, with the Utah mining accident, listening to sound bites of
family members demanding that the mining company "start digging right now"
on shafts designed to send more men underground, as if their need for --
what's the psychobabble term? -- "closure," that's right -- as if their need for
closure were more important than the lives of would-be rescuers.
Not every family of lost miners is behaving this way. It's a shame that any of
It is perfectly reasonable to expect some kind of investigation to see if the
original disaster was caused by reckless negligence, and if it turns out to have
been, then is the time for rage and recrimination.
Meanwhile, though, there is such a thing as behaving decently. Such a thing
as decorum -- which is how the families of the miners behaved up to now.
Since our news media are no longer governed by civilized or civilizing
principles, caring only about what makes "a good story" or "good television," it
is up to the people involved in the actual events to behave with decorum. It is
understandable and even forgivable when they do not. But let the rest of us
remember a few things:
These men were miners. They and their families knew that their job was to go
underground and cut holes in the rock.
It is fair to expect that management provide all the accepted protections and
take all the expected precautions to preserve their lives and their health.
But the mining company cannot change the nature of the work. The work is
underground. It is impossible to be certain how rock will respond to changing
pressures. It is no secret that sometimes mines collapse and miners die. They
live with that knowledge every day.
The people who design safety procedures in mines; the people who design,
build, and inspect bridges; the people driving the other cars on the roads we
travel every day -- they're all human. They make mistakes. They miss things.
To Err Is Inevitable
I was a proofreader for a while, working with a team of proofreaders who took
pride in their work. We always had two people read everything, because no
proofreader, however good, was perfect; and even the best typesetters made
When we were second-reading a set of galleys, we noticed that most of the
errors the first-readers missed were within a few lines of mistakes they had just
caught. It's as if, having caught a mistake, they unconsciously let down their
guard for a little while.
Yet the mistakes were there, and it was their job to catch them. And even with
two readers, I don't think we ever put out a book that didn't have at least one
error of some kind in it.
In the publishing industry, we understood that, but we didn't like it. Still,
when typos made it through into print, nobody died.
When you're designing a space shuttle or a bridge or the supports and
procedures of digging tunnels underground, you work all the harder and add in
far more checks and far greater margins for error, because you know that any
mistake you make could kill somebody.
But even when people do their best and look at everything that they can think
of looking at, things still go wrong, and sometimes, because of that, people die.
Somebody decides whether or not to evacuate New Orleans before a storm.
Somebody decides whether the World Trade Center is strong enough to
withstand reasonably predictable stresses. Somebody decides which
anaesthetic to use on a patient with no known history of allergies to drugs.
Somebody decides it's worth the risk of amniocentesis-induced miscarriage to
find out information about the fetus's health.
Somebody decides when driving a car at seventy miles an hour on the freeway
that it's worth cutting off another car, even though that car's lane is about to
disappear, just to shave a fraction of a second off their travel time.
Somebody simply doesn't notice that this isn't a four-way stop even though the
roads are of equal size and the road you're on is called "Main Street," and so he
proceeds into the intersection as if the cars coming the other direction were
going to stop.
We make life and death choices all the time. We also make mistakes which, if
things work out badly, can cause real damage to other people.
Raise your hands, those of you who can say, for sure, that they have never
made a decision or a mistake which could possibly have caused someone else
to lose life or limb or health. I can't -- I was the driver who thought he was at
a four-way stop last week in Orem, Utah; no one was hurt, but two cars were
totaled, and I was the guy who pulled out into the intersection in the wrong
belief I had the right-of-way.
An honest mistake, for which I was truly sorry, and for which I am taking the
consequences -- among them the citation and higher insurance premiums.
But it was an honest mistake, not evil intent.
Could have killed somebody just as dead, of course. Or I could have driven
right through without ever knowing I did anything wrong.
So much depends on chance.
After the Fact
I remember a case, many years ago, when a child was killed by a pervert who
lived in the neighborhood. I remember watching the grieving father on
television as he asked people not to hate the murderer.
His message was, in effect, "We miss our little girl, but hating him will not
bring her back to us. Instead it would wreck our lives. We want to stay the
kind of people who would have been fit to raise our daughter."
I remember the Amish families whose children were terrorized and murdered in
a schoolhouse, and far from raging or blaming, they reached out with
compassion and kindness toward the murderer's family.
Those are civilized people. That is the standard we should aspire to.
We are right to expect that our community should take all reasonable steps to
protect us from all reasonably predictable and preventable harms. This is done
by a combination of government, of people in helping professions, of strangers
who obey the rules and lend a hand where they can, and of our own reasonable
It seems that in our society a strange idea has arisen that whenever something
goes wrong in our lives, somebody else should be punished for it, either by
losing their career, going to jail, or paying out a huge amount of money --
whether we contributed to our own suffering or not.
But despite all the safety laws, governments and employers can't stop people
from being stupid, negligent, criminally selfish, or even, quite simply, wrong.
Nor can they be expected to prevent acts of nature; some things are merely
We used to call such things "acts of God"; the more modern and less
theological expression of this idea is the phrase "stuff happens." (Excuse my
typo; I'm not sure if I spelled that phrase correctly.)
The sentence "Well, you should have known!" is easy to say, but we don't
actually want to live in the community that would result. For instance, when
the Bush administration believed that they should know what was being said
by terrorists using international phone lines and postal systems, they were
ripped into as "fascists" wanting to create a "police state."
We don't want bad things to happen; we don't always like the cost of preventing
them; so we wait till after the fact and blame those who didn't inconvenience us
or tax us enough to prevent the disaster.
Full Speed Ahead
Life contains risks. We band together and live in communities in order to
increase our chances of survival and safety; but every increase in safety causes
us to give something else. An extra hour or two at the airport. A decrease in
privacy. More interference from governments and employers making us do
things that sometimes we don't want to do. Traffic laws that are inconvenient
when we're really in a hurry. Cumbersome safety seats. Air bags that make it
necessary for your children always to sit in the back. Laws against serving rare
meat or underdone eggs or foods containing trans fats. Helmet laws. No-smoking laws. Sex education for children for whom the subject is repugnant or
harmful, because other children their age have reached puberty.
At some point, we say -- or at least act as if we were saying -- "Enough
already! I accept a greater risk because I am no longer willing to pay the price
of increased safety. Get out of my way! Full speed ahead!"
When you get in your car and go out on the road, you are voluntarily accepting
the fact that some idiot out there, some scofflaw, some drunk, some reckless,
heartless jerk, or some middle-aged man who thought it was a four-way stop
might kill you or someone you love. Probably it won't happen. But it might.
Those drivers crossing the bridge over the Mississippi trusted that the bridge
most of them had crossed dozens or hundreds of times before would continue
to hold. They had no way of knowing that this bridge, this day, this hour, this
minute would fail. But they certainly knew that any bridge, at any time, could
fail, or some other accident could come along, and they might stare death in
Those miners could have quit their jobs at any time, but they considered
something -- the rate of pay, a family tradition of mining, camaraderie with the
other miners, even a love of underground work -- to outweigh the well-known
risks. Then the rock gave way to the pressures inside the mountain, the sides
of the tunnel blew inward, and some of them died.
After that, rescue workers went in, knowing even more vividly what the risks
were -- but their courage and sense of duty and honor drove them onward; and
three of them died.
Share the Grief, Hold Off on Blame
We grieve for them all. We especially honor the ones who gave their lives in the
effort to save others.
We grieve for all the dead. For all the widows and widowers and orphans and
bereft parents left behind in all the traffic accidents and murders and diseases
and storms and earthquakes across the face of the earth.
And when these events were caused by deliberate choices or flagrant
disobedience to law, then it's appropriate to affix blame and exact public
But not all disasters can be prevented by reasonable people behaving
reasonably, and few people get through their lives without making dangerous
mistakes. Even people in authority are humans capable of error.
I, for one, am sick of hearing people blame those in authority as if they were
expected to have the wisdom, power, and perfection of God.
It's about time to start judging other people by the standard we wish to have
applied to ourselves.
If you have ever expected other people to cut you a little slack and overlook
your mistakes, then have the decency, when they make mistakes, to try to give
them the benefit of the doubt, too.
This is a dangerous world. None of us has anywhere we can go that is safe.
Eventually, every single one of us is going to die. Along the way, we'll suffer
losses and pain and we will be harmed by the actions of others.
Let your default response be tolerance and forgiveness, patience and
understanding. If you feel rage, keep it private until and unless there is actual
evidence, not just speculation, that criminal or grossly negligent actions were
Good people take responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes. But
blame should only attach to actions deliberately taken, or negligence exceeding
the normal inattention of busy, self-involved people (which is all of us).
Making wild accusations or unfair demands on others is also a harm. Do not,
because you were harmed, carelessly or deliberately harm others.