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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 14, 2011

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


3D Copies, Suits, Great Restaurants

When I was a kid, Xerox machines were a miracle.

My mother was a world-class typist, and I grew up around carbon paper.

I remember my mom assembling stacks of paper, carbon, paper, carbon, paper and rolling them into the typewriter. If she made a single mistake, even on the last character of the page, she would pull out the whole stack and start over -- because there was no correcting carbons.

Even Liquid Paper, when it was invented, didn't save the day.

Carbons were simply the only way to get multiple copies from one pass through the typewriter.

(For whippersnappers who have no idea why sending emails to secondary recipients means putting their addresses in the "cc:" box, the "cc" stands for "carbon copy.")

Ditto and Mimeograph masters were nearly as unforgiving. If you mistyped something on a Ditto master, you had to use a razor blade to scrape the character off the other side; with Mimeograph, you had to dab a stinky liquid on the master to fill in the letter so you could type it again.

Then we got ThermoFax copiers, but you only got faint copies on icky slick paper you couldn't write on.

So Xerox came as a blessed relief. Once you got a clean typed copy, you could make as many copies as you wanted! It only cost ten or fifteen cents a sheet!

What could possibly top that? Yeah, self-collating, built-in staplers -- but it's not a whole new concept, the way Xerox was.

Here's the next generation: A three-dimensional copier.

That's right. Instead of a piece of paper, you put an object on the screen and scan it. A little while later, out comes a full-size copy of the object. The colors are changed, and it's made of different materials, but it's exactly the same shape.

And if there are moving parts, it's possible to tweak the scan so that you define and separate the parts that move. They don't show the tweaking in this video, but even with that slight deception, this new technology is really brilliant.

What would you use this for? Well, you don't want to copy a sandwich -- the result won't be tasty. It's really meant for rapid prototyping. You design a building, a car, a tool, and you can "print" it directly into a three-dimensional model.

My only regret is that I can't think of a single task to use this for in my own life.

*

I was so ticked off when CBS canceled The Defenders. James Belushi and Jerry O'Connell were wonderful in the roles, and the writing was snappy and smart.

On the heels of that cancellation, TBS launched Franklin & Bash, which was trying to be another smart, funny show about unconventional lawyers trying to work the system.

It was nice to see Mark-Paul Gosselaar again. He already had a life after Saved by the Bell, when he did 77 episodes of NYPD Blue.

The trouble is, Franklin & Bash isn't smart and it isn't funny. The actors do their best, but the writers give them nothing except obvious stupidity to work with. What a waste.

After that, I wasn't exactly optimistic when Suits came on USA. But my wife gave it a chance (she needs something to watch while exercising) and saved the first three episodes for me.

Because this series is great.

USA has been working wonders with original programming. Their slogan is "characters welcome," which could mean a bunch of series with annoyingly quirky characters (like that sad mess that Holly Hunter was in, where her repulsive character talked to an angel all the time).

Instead, the execs at USA actually know what "characters" are, and so they've had a bunch of shows that are worth watching because they're about interesting, likeable people that you care about and enjoy spending time with.

We've been watching Burn Notice and White Collar from the beginning. Then Fairly Legal and Covert Affairs roped us in. With all the good writing in these shows, it's saying a lot when I make this claim: At this moment, Suits may have the best writing on the USA Network.

All these series have sharp dialogue and clever situations. But in most of them, there's also just a hint of the slapdash now and then -- a storyline that gets too complicated and they resort to an everything-turns-out-ok-in-thirty-seconds ending.

It's not fair to compare them to Suits, though, because it's only had a few weeks on the air, and those weakling scripts always come in the second season or later. So let's just say that Suits is the newest in a great lineup.

If, right now, I could only get one network's fictional programming, I'd have to choose USA Network.

The premise of Suits is cool. Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) is a young man with an astonishing memory -- if he's read it, it's in his head forever. But got off the track and makes his living taking tests for other people.

In fact, he keeps passing the LSAT to help cheaters get into law school -- and has even passed the bar exam more than once. But never as himself.

Quite by accident, he gets a chance to go straight, working for a hotshot lawyer in a major law firm -- but only by pretending to be a Harvard grad.

The hotshot he works for, Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) is vain and selfish and so smart you have to like him anyway. He is a lousy mentor for Ross, but he takes responsibility and steps in to help now and then.

I've seen exactly three episodes. All of them were so cool I could hardly stand it. I like these guys, I like the supporting cast, I like the stories, I like the dialogue.

And if you've missed the first episodes, guess what? Not only does USA run all its episodes several times, this is the Internet age! You can catch up online by watching episodes at http://www.usanetwork.com/series/suits/.

It will really help if you go there to watch the pilot, just so that everything afterward will make sense. They force you to watch some ads first, but be patient -- it's like watching TV before DVRs, when you had to sit through the commercials (or leave the room).

(It's also great to see Gina Torres, whom we loved in Firefly, in a great role as the top partner in the law firm.)

*

For those of you who mourned when Mark's on Westover closed down after a kitchen fire a few years back, good news! Chef Mark Freedman is back in a new location, with a restaurant called, simply, Mark's, and -- hard as this is to believe -- it's better than before.

Located on "restaurant row" at 616 Dolley Madison Road (336-387-0410), the mood of casual elegance makes you want to dress up a little, but you don't have to.

The welcome is warm and the service is superb, but never intrusive. I like the paintings on the wall -- Italian hilltop towns, mostly, but I'm a nut for architecturals.

But this is a restaurant, and it's about the food. The appetizers: No, Mark didn't bring back his conch fritters, but I enjoyed the best onion soup I've had in Greensboro, and also found the lobster-crab roll amazing -- who knew you could use a folded piece of toast to frame an absolutely delicious appetizer?

My wife had the shrimp ceviche with avocado, and it was a wonderful combination of flavors.

I had always assumed that "ceviche" was a French word, and pronounced it "se-VEESH," but the waiter discreetly pronounced it again, making it clear that it's a Spanish word, pronounced "se-VEE-chay."

Since I hate it when waiters mispronounce words (does any waiter pronounce "bruschetta" correctly?) it's only fair that, when I was wrong and the waiter was right, I say so in public.

Back to the food: My wife had a brilliant sea bass, my daughter a salmon over rice, and I couldn't pass up the beet salad.

Desserts: my wife got the last souffle of the night; my daughter pronounced the creme brulee perfect; and I loved my key lime pie (delicious crust -- usually I just eat out the filling, but not at Mark's!).

The food is so good and the setting so charming that I suspect Mark's is often going to be my first choice for entertaining out-of-town visitors that I want to impress with Greensboro's dining choices.

Because of Furniture Market, Greensboro has far more and far better restaurants than a town this size would normally be able to support. So even when we lose great restaurants, our culinary community keeps coming back with great replacements.

*

Zoe's Kitchen, across the lot from Harris-Teeter in the Shops at Friendly Center, is definitely not trying to be a dress-up restaurant. Rather, it's another entry in the grab-a-quick-bite-of-really-good-food tradition, and while it doesn't have Panera's breads and pastries, I have to say that I like the food there better.

Particularly since Panera recently changed their soups, with disastrous results. For instance, they went from a robust chicken noodle soup to a thin, watery concoction with thin, textureless noodles. Why? Whom was that supposed to please?

Zoe's Kitchen may not have cinnamon rolls, but their hummus is worth eating (though Southern Lights still has the best hummus in town), and every sandwich we've tried so far is very good.

Best of all, Zoe's is just a short walk from Red Mango, which means that even though Zoe's might have brilliant desserts, we'll probably never find out, because Red Mango's smoothies are not only so delicious I could cry, they actually don't have any unhealthy ingredients.

*

But now it's time for the eat-your-heart-out portion of today's program, because I'm about to tell you about the best juice-and-sandwich restaurant in the whole wide world, and it isn't in Greensboro.

It's called Satsuma, and it's in the Bywater section of New Orleans, a short cab ride from all the hotels and the French Quarter, at 3218 Dauphine Street (504-304-5962).

I only heard about it because a writer friend of mine is cousin to the owners, and when she heard I was going to the ALA in New Orleans, she insisted that I try Satsuma.

It's so new that the cabby's GPS only listed Satsuma as a Japanese restaurant in California. Good thing we had the address with us.

How can I say this and be believed? These guys make even a grilled-cheese sandwich unforgettable.

My wife had their "turkey-avocado mash" on ciabatta bread; I had their MTB (mozzarella, basil, and tomato). When the sandwiches arrived at our table, we each took bites of our sandwiches and looked at each other in astonishment. Can a sandwich actually be this good?

We should have been prepared, because we had already drunk our juice orders. My wife had simple apple juice. Only they made it right there -- we saw them put the apples in the juicer -- and apparently the best-tasting apples in the world are shipped to New Orleans.

I had their wonderful limeade, but just to be daring (I don't bunjee-jump, I eat), I ordered their "Sweet Tart," a combination of apple, lemon, cucumber, orange, and fennel.

Fennel? Cucumber? Oh yes. And yes again. Because we couldn't stop drinking them till they were gone, and I got up and ordered seconds.

Yes, this is such a casual place that you order at the counter. The clientele has a youthful bohemian poor-but-cool feel -- complete with the paranoid conspiracy theorist sitting in front of the store giving a nonstop rant to an extremely patient friend for an hour at a time.

Is it worth going to New Orleans just to eat at Satsuma? Probably not. But I'll tell you, it's a tragic waste of an opportunity if you're in (or passing through) New Orleans and you don't eat and drink there!

*

Last Christmas I gave a bunch of people college-level recorded classes from the Great Courses series, and as far as I've heard, not one of them has even tried to start.

Their loss. Because I've burned through a dozen courses in the past six months, listening while I exercise, drive, shop, and putter in the garden. Many of the courses are refreshers and updates in areas where I've read extensively for years; others take me into brand new territory.

Brian Fagan was brilliant, thorough, and current on human prehistory; Elizabeth Vandiver helped me understand Herodotus's history as I never did when I read it at age 15.

Jennifer Paxton's course on medieval English history led me through the best treatment of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses I've ever heard, while she clarified what was happening with the common people as serfdom expanded and then faded through that period.

Kenneth R. Bartlett was absolutely gripping as he took me through the convoluted history of Renaissance Italy. I finally understood how Savonarola fit in with the Medicis in Florence, and why the sack of Rome came to happen.

Louis Markos's voice gets a little high-pitched sometimes, but that's because he's really excited about the writings of C.S. Lewis. Marshall C. Eakin developed a clear theme of the melding of European, African, and native American peoples in his course on the discovery and conquest of the Americas; along the way he helped fill in some serious gaps in my education.

Peter Rodriguez is crystal clear in his explanation of how economies rise and fall.

Philip Daileader's three courses on early, "high," and late Medieval Europe is better than any book I've read on the subject -- and I've read many. He also keeps a good perspective, never falling for any of the sweeping explain-everything theories that seem to pervade the field of post-Roman Empire history, though he certainly explains all their pet theories well.

Robert L. Dise, Jr., gave an absolutely brilliant course on the ancient empires before Alexander the Great. Scott McEachern's course on the origin of civilization begins badly -- start with lecture 3 -- but once he gets into the nuts and bolts of archaeology he is perceptive, fascinating, and wise.

Right now I'm listening to the ever-brilliant John McWhorter's intro to linguistics. His lecture style is so personal and real that you feel like you're in the room with him -- he's probably the best teacher I've encountered in the Great Courses so far.

Why am I going on about these courses? Because I believe education should never end. I don't think education is something you "get," and degrees don't impress me. I've met too many bone-headed Ph.D.s and too many sharp, perceptive people who barely or never went to college for me to think a degree actually tells me much about a person's actual degree of knowledge, understanding, and intellectual accomplishment.

Most of my education happened and still happens in my own reading. I could pretend that it's all in service of my writing career; after all, to write convincing, truthful fiction, I need to know -- or at least try to know -- everything about everything.

But the truth is I read constantly, and take these course, for love. It bothers me when there are things I don't know or don't quite understand. I hate it that I only speak a couple of languages. There just hasn't been time to learn all that I've wanted to in my life.

So the Great Courses are an enormous boon to me. History, science, politics, literature, art, they're all so fascinating that every aspect of my life is richer and better because of the reading -- and listening -- that make up my continuous process of lifelong education.

If you've ever felt like there was something lacking in your education, this is the route to take. Enrolling in college is fine -- you can have some great experiences there -- but when you're not aiming at a degree, why should you have to build your life around class schedules?

Instead, the Great Courses are there on your schedule.

The prices look high. Heck, they are high. The secret is to wait for the sales. Almost every course gets steeply discounted -- and I mean the price is cut by more than half -- at some point during the year. If you keep checking the site, or sign up for their mailings, you'll find out when the courses you're really interested in come in at a shockingly low price.

Hey, one of the Great Courses actually made calculus intelligible to me. No, it wasn't a calculus course -- I didn't learn how to do it. Why would I? Instead, it was a descriptive course. It taught key concepts and then explained what calculus is for.

Any course that can make me find calculus interesting is worth the price.

Just Google "Great Courses" or "the Teaching Company," or go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/. I haven't even begun to scratch the surface here.


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