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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 1, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


eGo, Cottonelle, Print Works Bistro, MagnaTunes, Weekly Standard

Nowadays you can get laptops with reasonable-sized hard drives -- sixty to eighty gigabytes. But when I bought my little Fujitsu Lifebook a couple of years ago, forty gigs was the maximum.

I might replace the Fujitsu, except that everything comes with Vista on it. Plus I can't find any laptops as perfect for traveling as that model was -- even the new models from Fujitsu are either larger or not as nice.

So to be able to keep using my traveling laptop until it keels over and dies, I need to have a portable hard drive to take with me so I can have my music, as well as a good solid backup for all my working files.

For a long time I used a couple of 60-gig drives, but they were getting too small. So I recently sprang for the new Iomego eGo portable drive, the 250-gig model.

I bought this model because it has a special "DropGuard" feature. I have been known to drop things. This sounded like a good idea.

What I wasn't prepared for was how insanely fast the drive is. It's the fastest drive on my system. In fact, it's faster than any of the drives on my other computer, which is far newer than the Fujitsu.

I haven't actually tested the DropGuard feature. That would be like crashing my car into a wall to test the airbags. There are things I won't do just to write about them in this column.

The Iomega eGo sells for two hundred bucks. Online at Iomega.com, till December 9th, you can get it for $180. But I bet you can get it even cheaper at CompUSA, which is where I bought mine, or at other online sites.

And if all you need is 160 gigs, eGo drives, with DropGuard, also come in that size -- and in four razzle-dazzle colors. OK, two razzle-dazzle colors, plus blue and black, for $133.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of money. But I remember paying $4,000 for an Altos MP/M machine with a ten megabyte hard drive; the hard drive accounted for half the cost. And then another $3,000 each for the monitor (with built-in keyboard) and the Spinwriter printer (this was pre-laser).

Ten megabytes. My Iomega eGo is 25,000 times more capacious, and it cost a tenth as much.

So I still look at today's computer stuff and think of it as costing about as much as toilet paper.

*

Speaking of toilet paper, some of you may remember my massive column on all aspects of every brand of toilet paper a couple of years ago. You may even remember that for me, at least, Northern double rolls won the prize.

Well, you can teach an old dog new tricks. I was visiting at a friend's house and was astonished to find a toilet paper that is (a) softer and more comfortable, (b) more effective, and © so much stronger that I need only half as much.

What is this miraculous bathroom tissue? Kleenex's Cottonelle Ultra double rolls.

This is not the Cottonelle I used years ago, which seemed to me about at the level of the toilet paper the put in cheap motel bathrooms. This is great stuff.

No, don't give it to anyone for Christmas. Really. They won't thank you.

Well, they will thank you. But not right away. Not till they've used it a while. And they'll still think you're incredibly cheap and weird.

*

It didn't have to be a great restaurant. Some friends were taking us out in celebration of my wife's birthday, and their company was what we cared about.

So in a way, it was actually distracting that the food at Print Works Bistro was so superb.

Print Works Bistro is located in the new Proximity Hotel on Green Valley Road at the first light north of Benjamin Parkway. Hotel and restaurant are both creations of the same team that gave us the O. Henry Hotel and Green Valley Grill, so right away there's a lot of trust: These people know how to deliver quality.

Right now they're in what they call a "soft opening" phase, like previews before the show actually opens. That means they offer a fairly limited menu.

Right. With limits like these, who needs variety?

There were ten entree choices and nine salads or appetizers. For the timid, there's a cheeseburger. For vegetarians, a vegetable casserole. For beef eaters, steak and fries.

The rest of the menu was for us. The grilled salmon was perfectly cooked for each of the two very different people who ordered it, with strongly seasoned lentils that didn't overpower the fish. The lamb was too rich to finish, but it got taken home for later.

And I had, quite simply, the best duck I've ever tasted. This is partly because many chefs seem to have the odd idea that duck must be cooked with sweet fruit. This chef, however, understands that what is needed is a lush blend of herbs that brings out the flavor of the meat. I ordered mine well done, because I don't like underdone fowl; the chef produced a thoroughly cooked bird with juicy meat and skin that you just couldn't ignore.

The decor is memorable, from the floor to the airy drapes to the extravagantly high ceiling and the huge windows looking out over Green Valley. You won't forget this place! And the service was impeccable.

If you order only the cheeseburger, you can be in and out of the restaurant for ten bucks plus tip. But most diners will probably spend closer to thirty dollars per person, not counting drinks or dessert.

For convenience, don't pull up at the hotel entrance, go farther around and down to the lower parking lot on the south side, where the restaurant is. Unless, of course, you want to walk through the lobby of the beautiful new hotel.

Don't wait for the grand opening. Even during its trial run, Print Works Bistro is not to be missed.

*

I thought I hated iTunes software before, but after trying to load my Christmas music onto my iPod Nano, I discovered a whole new depth of loathing.

I admit, I was spoiled by MusicMatch, which was far and away the best software for handling computer music. You'll recall that MusicMatch was bought and killed by Yahoo. And it wouldn't matter -- music has to go onto iPod products in their stupid proprietary format, loaded by their stupid proprietary software.

Why? Because it's Apple, fool. They do what they want. And you do what they want. Because, like Microsoft, they think they own your computer.

I selected all my holiday music. I told iTunes to put all the tracks into the Nano playlist.

I got an error message. There was too much music to fit.

Well, duh. But I didn't want an error message. I just wanted the software to put on as much of it as would fit.

But no. I had to first guess how many tracks would fit. So I did. But I guessed wrong.

Finally I created another playlist and then started deleting albums and tracks until finally I could load it onto the Nano.

But then, as I was playing it, it kept playing music that was not Christmas music. Why? I don't know. Either it didn't completely delete the previous tracks I had on it (though it showed that I had blanked it out), or it transferred stuff that hadn't been in the playlist.

Maddening. So do you know what I did? I got out my old, decrepit Creative Zen 40-gig mp3 player. I installed its ancient software without a problem. I copied my entire Christmas music collection. It took five minutes. Now it's playing perfectly.

Do you know why iPods sell better than any other mp3 players?

Hype, folks. The actual products are fine. The software you have to use to control it is poisonously bad. In fact, it's so bad it could only be deliberate.

Because Apple can't possibly find programmers so stupid they don't know how to create a useful product that anticipates what you're going to want to do and makes it easy. No, the programmers knew how to create good software. They just weren't given time and freedom to do it.

Last time I railed about this problem, people referred me to many different mp3-playing programs. I bought two of them -- Media Monkey and WinAmp. At first they looked promising. Then I found that Media Monkey couldn't rip two whole albums in a row without leaving out tracks or locking up completely. And WinAmp didn't even try.

Whoever programmed MusicMatch Jukebox software: Where are you? Please can't you create something good for us?

Or maybe ... Yahoo! Could you take a lesson from Cingular? Remember, they acquired AT&T's cellular phone business and then killed it. But a year or so later (after I had happily moved over to Verizon), they realized their stupidity and restored at least the name.

So Yahoo! -- please kill your stupid replacement software and give us back MusicMatch. And while you're at it, make it so it can handle iPods.

Except Apple would probably sue you. Because if there's one thing Apple and Microsoft hate, it's a customer who finds a way to get decent software in spite of their best efforts.

Meanwhile, I'm still using MusicMatch. Even though, having been killed, it no longer can access an online site to get the track information automatically. I have to enter every track myself. But it's worth it to have good software. Besides, I type more accurately than the people who create those online databases.

*

Speaking of music, let me remind you that if you have tastes that vary from the run-of-the-mill offerings on iTunes and the other top-hits downloading sites, give MagnaTunes a try. I know, I've reviewed it before, but it's a great concept and they deliver excellent quality.

Individual artists and groups contract with MagnaTunes to offer their albums. The customer gets to listen to all the tracks in advance. Then, when it's time to pay (MasterCard, Visa, or Paypal), the customer can decide how much to pay. Are you poor? You can pay as little as $5.

But if you want to, you can pay more, rewarding artists for excellence or for providing you with something unusual. It's like giving a tip for a fine performance. I usually pay $12, and sometimes as much as $15.

Magnatunes and the performer split the income, whatever it is. Magnatunes' slogan is "We're not evil." As someone who lives from royalties, I can tell you: They are fair to the artists they publish. And they're fair to the customer.

Not only that, you can download whatever format your heart desires -- even the loathsome iTunes AAC files. The best format is the hard-drive-swallowing WAV format, which consist of actual CD files.

I download mp3 VBR files, slightly better in quality (and slightly larger) than standard 128kb mp3s. They come in a zipfile, which, when you unzip it into your music directory with the "include original path" instruction, will have it all laid out in standard music library format.

What kind of music can you get? At this moment I'm previewing -- prehearing? -- Jami Sieber's New Age album Hidden Sky. It's hauntingly beautiful -- at least the first track is. I imagine I'll probably buy it.

I just bought and downloaded Sonnerie's performance of six organ concertos by Handel.

In addition, starting with my download almost two years ago of Renaissance music for my production of Romeo and Juliet, I've been a fan of MagnaTunes' extraordinarily good selection of medieval and renaissance music.

But their classical music selection is also eclectic and excellent. Small ensembles perform gorgeous chamber music, sometimes with strange and wonderful instrumentation.

Browsing the site is free. The worst that can happen is you'll find out that none of the music is to your taste. Heck, I find that on FM radio stations all the time!

OK, I'm two tracks in now, and I'm buying Hidden Sky. Pardon me while I download ...

*

About a year ago, my brother gave us a subscription to The Week magazine. It consists mostly of quotes from other news sources in the U.S. and around the world, giving you a broad spectrum of views and opinions. Pretty good idea, and I enjoyed it.

Not many weeks later, though, my brother wrote and said he was cancelling his own subscription and he wouldn't be offended if I did the same. Because now he realized that even though The Week purports to be unbiased, it is still part of the left-wing media establishment -- it just has a better disguise.

He was absolutely right. While conservative and moderate voices get a hearing, they are invariably answered by the preferred left-wing quote. This is standard biased-media methodology. Give a quote (usually inadequate or inept) from the side you oppose, then finish the piece with an eloquent quote from the team you're on.

Still, The Week is more useful than the down-the-line leftist establishment zines like Time and Newsweek and infinitely better than the outright insanity that has become Harper's Bizarre (not to be confused with Harper's Bazaar). At least the other viewpoints are there.

Let me tell you about another magazine, though. The Weekly Standard admits that it's a conservative zine right from the start. But, unlike "mainstream" liberal publications, it actually takes the other side seriously and presents their ideas fairly.

This is an old-fashioned idea that seems to have disappeared from American discourse lately. Most of the major media today act like bad high school debaters, refusing even to admit that someone on the other side might have a point.

While the Left goes off on ad hominem attacks or simply plugs their ears and goes "La la la," The Weekly Standard (founded by the inimitable William Kristol), like Commentary magazine, will actually present the Left's viewpoint better and more rationally than the Leftist publications do.

Then it takes those arguments apart with little things like (get this, you won't believe it) evidence and logic.

Since I'm not actually as conservative as The Weekly Standard on many issues, I then reply (in my mind; I don't talk out loud to magazines -- not yet, anyway) in the same logical, evidence based way. It's an interesting conversation, even if nobody else can hear it.

Regardless of your political views, you should be reading The Weekly Standard. Even if you're a down-the-line PC liberal, you owe it to yourself, if you have any intellectual integrity, to know what the other side is saying -- in their own words, and not just in sound bites selected by their enemies.

*

I already told you about M.C. Beaton's Haimish Macbeth mysteries. But that was before I had bought and read them all.

This took some doing, because not all of them are available. Barnes & Noble in Greensboro had an excellent selection -- better than I've seen at any bookstore in about six different cities since I started looking for them. But I still had to go online and buy the rest. There were five of them that Amazon didn't have, so I ended up buying them used from other sources.

Every one of them was a joy to read. They aren't dark and edgy, but they aren't exactly cozy, either. Ugly things happen, but so do good things, and people are presented in their full range of decency and crabbiness, generosity and selfishness.

There are running gags, but Beaton doesn't dwell on them, they're just little waves in passing; there's an overall story arc, but it doesn't consume the series. Each book stands completely alone.

But from the first, reading these books feels like going home to the small town you never lived in. Haimish Macbeth is an unambitious policeman in a small town in the highlands of Scotland; he doesn't want to be promoted because he'd have to leave the town he loves.

It's a town -- and a mystery series -- full of tiny charms that made me feel good. The towns are real; the characters' lives feel complete.

Best of all, you can pick up any of the books and get, more or less, the same effect. Some are better than others, of course, but you can start at any point in the series.

Still, in case you want to try to read them in order, you won't get any help from the listing of Haimish Macbeth mysteries inside the books themselves -- they are never presented in any kind of order I could discern except, occasionally, alphabetical. All but one have titles that start with "Death of a ..." or "Death of an ..." so I'll just list the final word or words of each title:

Gossip, Cad, Outsider, Perfect Wife, Hussy, Snob, Prankster, Glutton, Charming Man, Nag, Macho Man, Travelling Man, Dentist, Scriptwriter, Addict, A Highland Christmas, Dustman, Celebrity, Village, Poison Pen, Bore, Dreamer, Maid, Gentle Lady (not yet released).

I got most of this list from one created by an Amazon customer who tags herself "AnimaMeMeMe!" The one I read first was Poison Pen; the last one I laid hands on was Glutton.

Beaton also writes another series about a sleuth named Agatha Raisin. For whatever reason, I found it impossible to be interested in the one I picked up to read. But that's OK. Beaton writes both series because they appeal to her. It happens that one of them also appeals to me. It's not a crime or even a misfortune that I don't happen to love both series equally.

Give yourself a few hours with Haimish Macbeth for Christmas. Maybe you'll enjoy his company as much as I have.


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