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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 13, 2008

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


Journey, Encyclopedias, Bitterwood, and Driver Agent

They keep trying to make us like 3-D movies.

For the past few years, I've been hearing about a new 3-D process that is infinitely better than it has been in the past. "Soon all movies will be made in 3-D," I've heard.

More to the point, I keep hearing people say that my Ender's Game movie should be in 3-D.

Now I've seen Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3-D and I understand the hoopla.

First, they got the glasses right.

I wear bifocals and can't see the screen well without them. The old paper 3-D glasses had to be worn inside my glasses, where the cardboard cut into my skin, making it painful long before the movie was over. And they gave me a headache from straining to see through them.

In Journey, they charged us three bucks each to rent the glasses, but they were worth it. They have some substance; they fit over my glasses; they caused me no pain; I got no headache.

Second, they got the 3-D so it's pretty good.

With all the old 3-D movies, it just wasn't worth the pain of wearing the glasses -- the 3-D you got worked, in the sense that you had the illusion of three dimensions. But the color was totally washed out so nothing looked real.

In Journey, we had the full color spectrum, and details were always clear. In fact, except that the glasses limited my peripheral vision a bit, I felt like I was sacrificing none of the quality of an ordinary flat film.

But it's still not perfect. There were two things that kept bothering me throughout the movie.

First, it was obvious that there were a lot of elements placed in the story specifically so that they could show off the 3-D to best effect. This was annoying. The yo-yo, for instance, never mattered -- but we spent time on it so it could come straight at the screen.

Second, the 3-D was too effective.

What?

Yes, that is a problem. For years, we've had no trouble interpreting what we saw on flat film as having three dimensions, because it was, in fact, photography of three-dimensional objects.

Yes, the camera has only a single lens. But our two eyes are not so very far apart. Our binocular vision has an unconscious effect on our brains, allowing us to estimate distance. But once objects are far enough away, the parallax is trivial and has no effect at all.

3-D film, on the other hand, shows us three dimensions in a way we never experience it in real life. Objects that are much too far away reveal their relative distance in a way that is nothing like what we see with our eyes. It is always obvious, always intrusive.

Now, maybe, if all movies were made in 3-D, we'd get used to seeing films that way. Or maybe they could make only the movies which are about the cool special effects in 3-D, so I would know to stay away from them.

But films that are about characters and relationships and families and communities -- films that are, to put it snobbishly, about something -- don't need 3-D. There was not a moment in, say, Dan in Real Life or Gone with the Wind or The Usual Suspects that would have been improved with 3-D. The films would not have been a whit more effective in delivering the things we care about.

I know, I know ... people said that about color film, too. Black and white was all we needed!

Well, with some films, it was. Casablanca would not have been better in color.

I'm old enough to remember when Cinerama was the wave of the future. All films would be made with three cameras, so everything wrapped around us!

Seen any Cinerama theaters lately? I didn't think so.

Is there a future for 3-D in, now that the process is so greatly improved?

Maybe. But let's look at Journey to the Center of the Earth. Once the novelty has worn off (which happens surprisingly soon during the film), is there anything left?

Yes, there is. There are the fine performances by three excellent actors: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem. There is a script that isn't as dumb as it could have been, and which offers some nice story elements, characters who grow a little, and relationships that mean something. In short, the actors are given something to work with.

All of the things that made me like this movie had nothing to do with the special effects. In fact, the strong story elements were all put on hold during the gosh-wow 3-D bits.

And that's why I will not consent to have Ender's Game made in 3-D. Because Ender's Game is about something. The special effects are background; the story is what matters.

Meanwhile, though ... what about Journey to the Center of the Earth? Is it worth seeing?

As a wise friend said, "I'd watch it again -- but next time without the 3-D."

Brendan Fraser and Anita Briem are delightful. But the heart of the film is Josh Hutcherson's performance. This young man is a real actor. I worry that, at age 15, he's only five foot five. Is he reliving this aspect of Michael J. Fox's life -- too short to have full flexibility in his adult career?

His grownup height will be determined by his genes; his career, by his talent -- which is considerable. You can do worse than emulate Fox's career: some memorable movies (playing a teenager), and some terrific television on both sides of the adulthood divide.

But I hope Hutcherson gets tall enough -- at least Alan Ladd tall -- to get the parts that show what he can really do.

And guess what? When I looked up Alan Ladd on IMDB, he was ... get this ... five foot five. So a bunch of five-foot-two actresses have a chance at a leading man who's just their size.

Look, Journey to the Center of the Earth is not a work of surpassing genius. But it's an exciting ride. The novelty of the 3-D is worth spending an extra three bucks per ticket to have the experience -- even if it only shows you that you don't need a lot more of it. And the story and performances in Journey are good enough to work even without the 3-D.

Oh, and by the way -- it's not as dark as the old James Mason Journey. There are scary things and a few gotcha moments, but it won't give nightmares to most kids over age ten. It really is a pretty good family movie, if you get a sitter for kids under that age.

*

Ah, the encyclopedia! Where have you gone?

When I was a little kid, the only encyclopedia in the house was an ancient one-volume tomelet with a somewhat tattered cover. But as soon as I could read, I loved poring over it.

Then my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia. So many books! I read it from beginning to end. I loved the maps. I memorized the maps.

Later, as I learned more, it was Britannica that I adored. As soon as I had any money of my own, I bought my own set -- along with Great Books of the Western World, which a family friend, Owen Peterson, had let me read when I was in junior high.

(I actually won a scholarship using our friend's books -- but more important was the fact that it introduced me to Plato and Thucydides and Herodotus and Euclid and Aristotle and many more.)

When our own kids got old enough, my wife and I could hardly wait to get our own set of World Books for them to grow up with.

Then came computers. CD-ROMs. The web. Encyclopedias moved out of books and into the digital age. Fancy pictures that you could paste into your homework. Never mind that the maps were nowhere near as good as what had been in the books. What was online was cheaper.

And cheap drives out good almost every time.

Now we have wikipedia. It covers every possible topic -- staying way ahead of anything a print encyclopedia could have done. But it's also as likely to feed you false information as not.

For instance, wikipedia's stuff about me is laughably inaccurate. And when I tried to correct it -- not change the opinions inserted by people who dislike my religion or my politics, but just correct simple facts about my life and work, like dates and places and names -- all my changes were immediately erased and the errors were put back.

And that's where most people get their information these days. Thus doth the internet make us dumber -- at broadband speeds.

Meanwhile, there are those sets of Britannica and World Book and Childcraft on our shelves. I needed more room for the history books. I had to admit it was time to let the old encyclopedias move on.

We tried to give them away. Nobody wanted them. Not schools, not home schoolers, not libraries, not used-book stores. Nobody on E-Bay, nobody on Craig's List.

By the time you read this, they will have gone out to the curb on garbage day. And I'm betting that unlike old computers to which we have taped signs saying "Has no motherboard" or "lightning-struck, nothing works," the encyclopedias will not be picked up by the scavengers before the garbage trucks come by.

They were once the most precious books in my life. I felt like everything in their pages was potentially a part of my memory. I spent so many hours with them. I loved the look and smell and feel of them. I loved the concision and clarity with which the articles were written. I loved the quality.

But even though most of the information is still accurate, nobody wants a thirty-year-old Britannica or a twenty-year-old World Book.

Not even me.

*

James Maxey once took a writing class from me.

I wish I could claim that everything he knows about writing, I taught him, but alas, he arrived in my class with a full set of talent. Maybe something he learned in my Literary Boot Camptm helped speed him along, but the fact is, he would have done fine without ever taking a class at all.

Which really irritates me.

I really only meant to sample a bit of his novel Dragonforge. Life is short. There have been enough dragon books in the world, haven't there?

But something happened. Even though Dragonforge was a sequel, whose original I had not read, I got hooked. I was being taken into a world that I'd never seen before. Maxey had actually invented a fascinating society -- several societies, in fact. And his characters were real and I began to care about them.

I kept waiting for Dragonforge to leave me confused because I hadn't read the previous book -- but it never happened. Maxey skillfully gave me every scrap of information I needed to understand the present action.

I kept reading far into the night. Until I had read it all -- as dawn was already brightening the windows of my bedroom.

I got up, ordered the first book, Bitterwood, from Amazon, and then, finally, went to sleep.

Since I'd read Dragonforge, I figured that I'd just skim Bitterwood -- after all, I knew how it came out, didn't I?

Instead, I ended up reading every word of the first book, too. Because it was so thick and rich in story that I didn't want to miss anything. Dragonforge might have told me the major plot points, but only Bitterwood itself could deliver the experience.

How much can I say without giving away too much? It's set in the future of our world -- yes, with dragons -- when humans have lost their supremacy and live as slaves to the dragon king.

But belief in old gods persists -- even after some of the humans track down the source of the "miracles" done in their name.

What most people take for magic, Maxey carefully shows us as technologies whose secrets few remember and none can duplicate. What hasn't changed, even in the decline of human beings, is the power of indomitable spirit.

Aided by a few nanites and, now and then, a massively irresistible robot.

It's a book that feels like fantasy but is, at core, smart science fiction. It feels like -- and is -- a magnificent hero story in the tradition of David Farland (The Golden Queen) or Mike Resnick (Santiago). But it is also deeply personal character fiction that explores complicated relationships amid corrupt societies.

There is certainly room for more books in the series -- but each volume so far gives a satisfying closure. There's no need to wait for the series to be complete.

You still have time to read these books before the summer ends. So why are you still reading this column?

*

I was sitting in the Cincinnati airport, trying desperately to connect to the internet so that I could submit the final draft of a novel I had finished at five o'clock that morning, just before leaving for the airport. Unfortunately, I had neglected to test the wi-fi capabilities of my new laptop.

My new computer did not recognize either the built-in wi-fi or the fancy Hawking wi-fi card because I didn't have the right drivers. Nor was I able to install my Verizon VZ card -- usually my salvation when I can't connect to wi-fi.

Fortunately, I had backed everything up on my local network, and somebody back home was able to get the file sent.

When I got to my hotel in Anaheim, I connected by wire and tried to download the right drivers for my Hawking card. Why did I think that would be possible? Naturally, the Ralink Hawking website had no drivers for my card.

They're hardly the only ones who treat customers this way: If you didn't buy it in the last six months, they don't care about you. But I'm sick of it.

However, it happened that just before I left, I had gotten an email from my brother, telling about how he was able to find exactly the drivers he needed to convert a Vista machine back to XP -- a nearly impossible task. How did he do it?

He downloaded and used Driver Agent. To get it, you go to www.DriverAgent.com and download it. Then the software proceeds to save your life.

I mean it. Well, OK, not your life, but your sanity. And your computer, since you won't have to throw it out the window.

Driver Agent analyzes your computer, finds all the drivers that are out of date or otherwise dysfunctional, and gives you the option of replacing them with newer and better ones.

In about fifteen seconds, I had my old Hawking Ralink adapter card working perfectly in my new computer (an XP machine, by the way -- I refuse to succumb to Vista, because there's enough evil in the world without inviting it into my home).

Then I got home, and realized that my new laptop's video driver couldn't deal with any screen larger than 1280 by 800 pixels. The monitor I wanted to attach it to at home is 1280 by 1024. The result was ugly and sad.

But once again, Driver Agent quickly found a better driver and installed it in moments. Voila: My laptop now drives the larger monitor.

Are you seeing a trend here?

I bought a ten-computer license so we can have this software on every computer in my house, and in my employees' houses. The license costs a little money -- but nowhere near as much as buying a new (and smaller!) monitor. Or having to work on a Vista machine because your computer manufacturer doesn't provide the XP drivers you need.

In a world where so much software ranges from corrupt to useless, it's nice to find an extremely useful program that does exactly what it's supposed to -- and allows all the other parts of your computer to work properly.

Contrast this with my wife's experience with her Franklin Planner software.

For years, she has used this program to maintain our database of contact information. Naturally, when they came out with Franklin PlanPlus for Windows, she bought it.

It took 16 hours -- yes, by the clock, 16 hours! -- for the new software to convert our database so it could read it.

In the process, all the birthdays were changed to June 20th. What?

Well, if you like that, then you'll be thrilled that all the holidays -- New Year's, Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas -- were now June 30th.

How could they have missed a little glitch like that?

Because they didn't bother to test how it would deal with the files of loyal customers. It's only new customers they care about.

Even if we hadn't had a problem in converting the database, the new software sucked. For instance, in the old version of the program, my wife could decide which bits of information to include when she prints out address lists. But now it's all or nothing.

This means that the group that was creating the new software didn't bother to look at the old software closely enough to make sure they included all its features. Either that, or they were so lazy or dumb or contemptuous of their old customers that they looked at those options and said, "Aw, that's too much work. Forget it."

Also, the old software allowed users to create a list of tasks for themselves. You could arrange them according to your own priorities, and then check them off. At the end of the day, the old program would let you do a "group action" and decide what to do with your old checklist -- forward items to a different day, delete them, whatever.

But now, with PlanPlus, you have to deal with each item individually. No group action.

What happened to the idea of computers making your life easier?

Finally -- and this was the complete killer -- the new software wouldn't print address labels.

Surely we are not the only people in America that maintain a database of all our friends' and families' mailing address so we can print out labels to send them Christmas cards!

But apparently the folks at Franklin decided that people who send Christmas cards were no longer customers they wanted.

My wife does say, in PlanPlus's favor, that it does have lovely colors.

"Going back to our old tried-and-true version," my wife said, "was like coming home from Vegas. Vegas has lots of bells and whistles and lights and colors -- but it's all fake. Home isn't so splashy, but it's real."

Sadly enough, the people who created Franklin PlanPlus are probably still employed somewhere as software designers and programmers.

If you drove a bus or flew a plane or performed surgery as badly as they design software, you wouldn't just be fired, you'd be jailed. But for stealing time from our lives and making our computers useless, they just get ... paid.

It does make us all more grateful when we find something that works perfectly, like Driver Agent.


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