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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 16, 2008

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


Fresh, Chair, Pettigrew, Jumper, Robots, Shotguns

The new, larger Fresh Market has just opened on Lawndale just north of Pisgah Church Road.

Let me tell you the safety news first: There is now a traffic signal to allow you to come out of the parking lot onto Lawndale without taking your life in your hands.

The parking lot itself is a little tight -- be very careful backing out, and to the woman who nearly hit us as we walked through the lot on Tuesday morning, either finish your cell call first or wait to place it; don't try to back out of your parking place one-handed and zero-brained.

Now let's go inside the store. It's huge inside, compared to the old Fresh Market. But that doesn't mean you won't find yourself bumping into the old shopping-cart traffic problems, because they have filled the space quite nicely.

Fresh Market has not changed its concept -- you won't come here for detergent or toilet paper or a year's supply of Pepsi.

But they have added many new brands and product lines, so even if you think you know the store, come to the new location and see what they now carry. They have greatly expanded their selection of naturals and organics, competing head-to-head now with Earth Fare.

That means Organic Valley and Horizon dairy products, juices from Bolthouse Farms and Tropicana, and Hint brand bottled water. Unfortunately, they don't carry Bolthouse Farms mango lemonade, or Tropicana Valencia orange juice, and they have only four flavors of Hint.

But I am not without hope, because when a customer requests that they carry a product, Fresh Market's management listens. Weeks ago we requested that in the new store they carry Wallaby brand yogurt. Guess what? A terrific selection of Wallaby!

Not terrific enough, of course, because they didn't have my favorites, pear and key lime -- but we've asked, and past experience suggests that we may well see what we want on the shelves in short order.

Which is a good thing, because our house is single-handedly able to deal with a store's entire supply of Tropicana Valencia orange and mango orange juice. Back when Earth Fare carried them, we stripped the shelves every time they appeared and always ran out long before they restocked. Naturally, this meant they discontinued the items -- or at least we see no place for them on the shelves.

When Fresh Market carries a product, they keep it restocked and purged of expired or fading items. And if you buy a lot of something, they seem to notice this and continue to reorder it.

I can't help but contrast this with the sloppy stock management at Earth Fare, where we often find items whose expiration date has passed. And more than once at Earth Fare, a product we wanted has been missing from the shelves for a month; then when it is restocked, it is days away from the expiration date.

I may be wrong, but it is natural to speculate that the product arrived weeks before, stayed in the stockroom, and wasn't put out for customers until it was nearly dead. Or it might be that they are getting shoddy treatment from their suppliers -- but the result is the same. Earth Fare's produce is often so old and tired that we wouldn't think of bringing any of it home, yet it's still offered for sale. Overripe or dried out organic products are no better than overripe or dried out commercial ones.

Maybe it's because "Fresh" is part of their name, but we almost never see anything like this at Fresh Market. They live up to their name all the time, and they listen to customers' requests. Unless Earth Fare gets its act together and recognizes that they now have serious competition, Fresh Market's new store is going to kill them.

Fair warning has been given.

*

Choosing an office chair is not a trivial matter when your job ties you to your desk hour after hour.

If you have a shmoozy job, where you're constantly up and walking around and talking to people, then maybe you can make do with a chair that looks great -- leather, huge, imposing, squishy.

But I don't have a job like that. I need to be at the keyboard for hours and hours at a time. I need a chair I can live with.

The chair I'm using right now, I got more than a year ago. I could have written about it right away, because it was instantly the most comfortable chair I've ever used.

But you don't know anything about a chair the first week you use it. It's still a honeymoon. It's only when you've sat in it using every posture, doing every job; it's only when you've lived in the chair that you can talk about it.

The company that makes it is Seatability, and the chair I use is from their idealchair series. You can look at my chair by going to http://seatability.com -- it's the first chair on the left.

The concept is that the chairs have no upholstery. They look rather like lawn chairs, only the straps crossing the frame are made of bungie-cord-like material. You constantly get air circulation around your body.

More than that, however, you get perfect customization. It took me a few weeks to find exactly the settings I liked, but once I got them, I have had exactly zero problems with back pain. I can sit in this chair forever.

And I used to have horrible back and neck pain when I inadvertently got in the wrong posture. When I'm writing, sometimes I hunch over the keyboard; sometimes I sprawl back like a lazy teenager with my bottom almost off the front of the chair.

My Seatability chair sustains me in all my postures.

OK, nothing's perfect. There's one flaw -- the plastic caps on the ends of the five wheel supports came off too easily. I finally lifted them off and put slips of paper into each socket to make a tighter fit. Nothing has come loose since.

For all I know, they've now fixed that problem in the factory -- these guys really are perfectionists.

Their website has a list of all the dealers who carry the chair. The only North Caroline dealers are in Winston-Salem and Raleigh. But I think it's worth the drive to see these chairs -- if you actually want the best office chair I've ever used.

Oh, and yes: They look unbelievably cool. There's grace and beauty in these chairs, along with perfect functionality. The chair may cost more than you anticipated, but when you spend more hours in your chair than you do in bed, you can't afford to skimp.

After a year in this chair, I know what I'm talking about.

*

On Monday night, with our daughter off on a school field trip, my wife and I realized we had time to go see a movie. For weeks we haven't seen anything in the theaters, partly because we had no time, and partly because there was nothing on that we preferred to sitting home and playing Ticket to Ride. Or taking a nap.

But that changed with the advent of Jumper and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. We actually wanted to see them. Jumper looked like adventurous fun. Miss Pettigrew looked like romantic fun.

We were not disappointed with either film.

Jumper was, I have to admit, dumb fun. Based on a popular sci-fi novel by Steven Gould, the screenplay by David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins) was clever, clear, and fast-paced. Goyer's upcoming projects suggest that he is now the go-to guy for sci-fi action films, and he's pretty darn good at it.

The premise of the film is that teenager David Rice, whose mother left him when he was five and whose father isn't much of a dad, gets himself in a predicament over his love for Millie Harris. Trapped under river ice and doomed to die, he suddenly "jumps" -- he and the surrounding gallons of icy water suddenly appear in the Ann Arbor municipal library.

When he learns to control this ability to jump instantly from place to place, he enriches himself by visiting various bank vaults and then lives a prosperous life in which he doesn't even have to lean over to pick up the TV remote because he can go anywhere, near or far.

However, because there's no story without obstacles, there is an ancient group called "Paladins" who have been seeking and killing jumpers for centuries. Since the only way they can catch jumpers is by using massive jolts of electricity, one can only guess how they used to catch jumpers before electricity was harness -- wait for a bolt of lightning? But logic is not a serious component of this story.

There are two huge holes in the story. One is the motive of the Paladins -- the only explanation we get is envy, and no reason is given for the raw malice and evil of the bad guys. One guy might be malicious and evil, but why do the rest make this kind of thing their life's work?

The other hole is that at no point are we given any reason why the adult Millie puts up with David for a single moment. He arrives after an eight-year absence and expects her to be in love with him -- and she is. He lies to her constantly and expects her to trust him -- and she does, after token resistance.

The character of Millie is, in other words, that old standby of adventure fiction: the woman who exists only to be a hostage in need of rescue. Like bad movies for the past four decades, the only way to show they're in love is to have them hop into bed.

But that certainly doesn't work in this story since David can get gorgeous women whenever he wants, and Millie is obviously pretty enough to get pretty much any guy she wants, so their mutual affection needs to have some reason other than physical desire, and no serious effort is made to provide one. (No, the Eiffel Tower snow globe is not even close to being enough.)

In this kind of movie, though, you just shut down the logic center in your brain and enjoy the ride. And it's a good one.

As for the acting, I enjoyed most the performance by Jamie Bell (Smike in Nicholas Nickleby) as Griffin, the longtime jumper who reluctantly allies with David. And Max Thieriot and AnnaSophia Robb, the actors who play the young versions of David and Millie, are quite wonderful in their parts.

It's not that there's anything wrong with Hayden Christensen and Rachel Bilson as the older characters, it's that the script never requires them to do anything other than look pretty and do their shtick. In fact, I didn't quite understand why they needed to use separate actors for the fifteen-year-old and 23-year-old versions of the characters. Christensen and Bilson could have passed for younger, and Thieriot and Robb could have carried the whole movie if they had just changed the eight-year gap to two years.

But they did what they did, and we were never bored and never wished to leave the theater.

However, the real jewel was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. At first glance it fits nicely in the category of screwball comedy -- rich people behaving eccentrically, as in Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey. For that purpose it's as funny as it needs to be.

At second look, though, it is much, much more. Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand in a best-actress-Oscar role) is a governess thrown out of work because of her propensity to judge her employers and try to improve them. It's Depression-era London, just before the outbreak of World War II, and it's a bad time to lose your job.

So she pounces on a job as social secretary to a flighty-seeming and ambitious young American actress named Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams, fresh from her tour-de-force in Enchanted and ripe for a best-supporting-actress statuette).

Delysia has managed to entangle herself with three men -- Nick (Mark Strong), the club owner she works for, who keeps her in fine style in his huge luxury apartment; Phil (the luminous Tom Payne), the 19-year-old son of a producer who has the power to bestow the leading role in a new West End musical; and Michael (heartbreaker Lee Pace), the piano player who really loves her.

In the process of the story we also meet fashion maven Edythe Dubarry (played by the strange and wonderful Shirley Henderson, best known perhaps as Moaning Myrtle), a treacherous climber who is fighting to stay engaged to rich lingerie designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds of Mayor of Casterbridge, Road to Perdition, Amazing Grace, and a million other films).

Sometimes on purpose, sometimes inadvertently, Miss Pettigrew gets both Delysia and Edythe everything they wanted ... with complications. Based on a novel by Winifred Watson, the screenplay by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) is clever without ever going too far. It helps that the actors are so uniformly brilliant that any unbelievability is overwhelmed by the truthfulness and joie de vivre of their performances.

Of course there's a multiple happy ending, but the story is not frothy. Real issues of love and marriage are treated with a conclusion that is reflective of real life. Miss Pettigrew emerges as a sort of Mrs. Miniver without any of the obvious angelicness; instead, she remains down to earth ... and hungry, to the very end of the film.

To me, this is the rare film that is so good it transcends its time. Somehow director Bharat Nalluri (fresh from second-unit work on Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator!) has created a nearly perfect film.

No, a perfect film -- for me. But perhaps not for you. There is nudity in this movie. It is not at all pornographic. It is either candidly comic or genuinely aesthetic, and for many it will not be bothersome. For others it will seriously mar an otherwise delightful movie. While I understand the choice to include it and even agree with it, I also wish that it had been avoided for the sake of many hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise have loved this movie but will not go because of its rating.

After last year's miserable Oscar selection, in which the movies I actually enjoyed were almost completely overlooked, I hope this beautiful, loving, funny, truthful, and brilliantly performed movie remains in the memories of those who nominate and vote.

*

The idea of robots has been around for many years -- even before Capek's play R.U.R. gave us the word robot. In sci-fi, robots could be quite humanoid, walking on two legs like Cee-Threepio in Star Wars, or wheel-based, like Artoo-Detoo.

In the real world, most robots aren't mobile. Fixed in one place, they are "trained" to do repetitive industrial jobs that require superhuman precision or strength. Most robots that move do so on a fixed track, or must be on a smooth surface. Even then, obstacle avoidance is a serious problem.

But if you go to YouTube.com and search for "Boston Dynamics Big Dog" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1czBcnX1Ww), you will see something truly amazing. Big Dog is a four-legged robot that has the hardware and, more importantly, the software to be a true most-terrain vehicle.

The problems the designers have solved are stunning; in the video, you can see the robot walk up and down hill, in snow, on ice. A human member of the team gives it a shove to the side -- the robot stumbles, but recovers and does not fall. Ice is tricky, but it's truly amazing to see the machine deal with it very much as dogs do -- again without falling.

Of course, this is a video Boston Dynamics created to tout the robot; for all we know, there are a hundred takes where the thing falls over in a heap, and what we're seeing are the few times it worked properly. But even if that's the case (and I have no reason to think it is), the fact that it ever works as shown is very promising!

This robot, once it has been developed to the point where it can be given tasks, will be able to go places that wheel-based robots can never go. For the military, it has great promise in being able to pick its way across the trickiest terrain and do surveillance, carry burdens, or take part in combat. It might also be the robot-of-choice for the space program.

*

Some inventions developed for the military, like Big Dog, have obvious civilian applications. But when it comes to weapons, their only purpose is to kill more effectively: to inflict more damage on the enemy while exposing our team to minimal risks.

The result is that it's hard to get excited about a new weapon -- or it is for me, anyway. I look at what it does, and I hope it never gets used.

And yet ... when we do go to war, if anybody has such devastating weapons, I hope it's our military and not the other guy's.

So if you go to YouTube and search for "AA-12. World's deadliest shotgun!" you should find yourself at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4ebtj1jR7c. Shotguns have always had limited military use. If you're carrying one, you're probably not carrying a rifle. In tight urban combat, that's fine to have at least one soldier carry a shotgun; anywhere else, it's almost useless.

Until now. It's fully automatic, so you can fire off many rounds at a time.

Most important, though, is the new minigrenades that fire off like shotgun shells. Only they have "wings" that help it fly straight for a much longer distance than usual, vastly extending the range.

And when it arrives, it doesn't just provide a spray of shot firing in one direction. Instead, it blows up, spreading death in all directions.

That means that if an enemy sniper is firing from inside a building, you don't have to get a clear line of sight in order to suppress his fire. Instead, you fire off a half-dozen of these grenades through the window and there is zero chance of survival.

The problem is collateral damage. If the enemy chooses to fire from a room full of civilians, they will all die. But that is already true any time a grenade is used. The difference is that with this weapon, the grenade can be fired from a long way off, instead of having to work your way forward to lobbing distance or grenade-launcher range.

For more information about this weapon, go to http://www.defensereview.com/article741.html. Our military needs it, or something just as effective. Then we have to hope it's devastating enough that it changes enemy behavior -- when we can apply irresistible violence from a safe distance, there is no point in the enemy doing the things that attract the use of this weapon.

*

Just as this issue of the Rhino was closing, I got word that Arthur C. Clarke passed away. I will comment on the work of this great writer and thinker next week; meanwhile, though, you might want to read an essay on Clarke written by my friend Charlie Martin.

http://pajamasmedia.com/2008/03/arthur_c_clarke_19172008.php


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