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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 20, 2012

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


Bacon Number, Crossword Clues, Janitors

Remember the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"? The theory was that everybody in Hollywood (and quite possibly everyone in the world) is only six degrees of separation from actor Kevin Bacon.

That is, an actor would be in the same movie with another actor, who was in a movie with yet another, until you came to one who had been in a movie with Kevin Bacon.

Why Kevin Bacon? The game began at a time when, like Keanu Reeves after him, Bacon was still a fairly young actor emerging from teen roles. It was half-mocking -- but half-respectful, too, since it depended on the fact that Bacon was working. He was in movie after movie.

And the movies he was in sometimes had huge ensemble casts, who went on to be in lots of movies, too.

Since then, Bacon has become respected as a serious actor, without ever quite crossing the threshold into major stardom. (Keanu Reeves had Speed and then The Matrix, so he did cross that threshold.)

Now Google has institutionalized the game so anyone can play. Just go to Google's search window and type in "Bacon Number" and the name of any actor.

You will get back a number and a list of a chain of actors and the movies they were in together.

My wife and I happen to have several good friends who have appropriate screen credits. Actors Eric Artell and Kirby Heyborne and director Kyle Rankin all had a Bacon Number of 3. That meant that we had an implied Bacon Number of 4, three times over.

We ran the names of friends who are producers and writers with many screen credits, but apparently it's a game for actors only. Directors sometimes have Bacon Numbers -- for instance, Steven Spielberg -- but, like our friend Kyle Rankin, they got the number for appearances as actors. (Spielberg went onscreen in Blues Brothers.)

Then my wife said, "Wait a minute! You'll be getting a screen credit as an actor for doing that one line in Ender's Game. You were in a scene with Harrison Ford!"

That's right. I have my SAG card. I'm an actor.

Harrison Ford's Bacon Number, we soon discovered, is 2. Ford appeared with Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon were both in Animal House.

Not only is that a very low Bacon Number, it's also a very early one -- Ford had that Bacon Number by 1981. Now it's almost a mark of prestige that he's been a BN2 for 31 years without ever being in a movie with Bacon himself.

Ford's BN2 means that when Ender's Game comes out and my name slips unobtrusively into the Internet Move Data Base (IMDB), I will have my own Bacon Number of 3.

I will be as Bacon-cool as my friends. And anyone who knows me will have an unofficial Bacon Number of 4.

Dear friends, family, and casual acquaintances: Soon, knowing me will bring you that much closer to greatness.

*

Either you enjoy doing crossword puzzles or you don't. If you don't, then skip this section because believe me, you won't care about anything I'm about to say.

In American crossword puzzles (unlike the cryptic British variety), the clues are relatively straightforward. But there's an art to them.

It's the clues more than the words in the grid that decide whether a puzzle is hard or not.

Oh, if it's a celebrity-name puzzle, and you've never heard of the "celebrities," then the puzzle is hard for you -- but not for regular readers of People.

And some puzzlemakers still resort to the occasional word so obscure that the Oxford English Dictionary has it only in a footnote.

If you work a lot of crossword puzzles there are words and names that pop up again and again, which are rarely used in actual English, but which are useful because they're short and contain so many good combining letters.

For instance: "Ort" (a bit of leftover food); "aper" (someone who imitates or "apes" someone else); "Eero" (Finnish architect and designer Eero Saarinen).

In ordinary English usage, these words are never, never said. (Though of course all readers of this column will no doubt find occasion to say "ort" after a meal today. You'll be so disappointed if everyone cleans their plates.)

In Games Magazine, their feature "The World's Orneriest Crossword Puzzle" makes clear the importance of clues to the difficulty of a puzzle. There are two sets of clues to the same large grid, hard clues and easy clues.

All the clues lead to the same answers. Sometimes both lists have the same clue, because there isn't any other. I mean, if the puzzlewright resorts to "Eero," what clue is there but "Finnish architect Saarinen"? Maybe just "Finnish architect"?

Only half of the art of crossword-making is the arrangement of words in a grid; the other half is writing clues. (In British cryptics, it's more like three-fourths clue-writing.)

And, just as there are rules for creating good cryptic clues in a British puzzle, there are rules for American clues.

A clue can be categorical. "Oboe" can be clued as "woodwind" because it's a member of that category. But if you go the other way with a category -- if the grid word is "woodwind" -- then to use "Oboe" as a clue, you need to add "for instance" or "e.g."

Another convention is that if the answer is an abbreviation, you either say so in the clue ("abbr.") or you use an abbreviation in the clue: "Mrs" could be clued as "wife of (abbr.)" or as "Mr.'s mate." The use of "Mr." in the clue means that the grid word may be, but is not necessarily, an abbreviation.

The most common forms of clue, though, are synonyms and definitions, and a key rule is that both definitions and synonyms must lead you to the same part of speech as the answer.

So to clue the word "wife" you could use "married woman" or "mate" or "spouse" (or "wedded woman" or "female partner" or "espoused lady" and so on); but never "married" or "wedded" or "espoused," because these are adjectival forms, and the answer is a noun.

All of this is leading somewhere.

The good puzzle makers -- and the good puzzle editors -- make sure that all clues lead you to the right part of speech.

The other day I bought a series of crossword books titled according to how long it should take you to work the puzzle. Thus: :08 Min Crosswords, :25 Min Crosswords, and so on.

Clever idea, and I bought several of them.

There were problems with the books right away. First, they're printed on a hard-to-erase paper. Paper choice in a pencil-puzzle book is crucial, and this paper is barely tolerable.

While it is thick and firm enough not to tear, and smooth enough not to snag the pencil point (there are other puzzle books with both problems), when you erase a letter, a clearly visible residue is left behind, along with a smear.

But I can live with that if the puzzles are good. Which means if the grid words are clever and the clues are apt.

Alas, I must warn fellow crosswights away from all these books, not because of the paper, but because of the clues.

For example, in puzzle 20 of :45 Min Crosswords, the clue "spiral shaped" leads to the grid word "whorl."

While it is true that "spiral shaped" is a true statement about whorls, it is not a clue, because it is not a definition or a synonym.

"Spiral shaped" is an adjective, and "whorl" is a noun.

A valid clue might be "liquid spiral" or even "spiraling liquid," because these are noun phrases. Even "spiral shape," without the final "d," would be acceptable.

This happens again and again. "Bachelor party" is the clue leading to "stag." No. Wrong. "Kind of party" might work as a category clue. "______ party" would work, because "stag" is a word that commonly fills that blank.

But in reference to a kind of party, "stag" is an adjective. Nobody goes to a "stag," they go to a "stag party." "Stag," by itself, does not mean or imply a party of any kind.

Another from the same puzzle: "Call forth emotions" is the clue for "elicit." No, dear puzzlewright: The clue should have been "Call forth, e.g. emotions."

The word "elicit," by itself, does not imply "emotions" at all -- you can as easily elicit a comment or an action. So the clue is neither definition nor synonym. It's simply wrong.

"Be annoying" is the clue for "irking." Why? "Annoying" by itself is a fine clue; what is the "be" there for, when it then requires the answer "irk" -- the present singular instead of the present participle?

The problem goes on and on. In puzzle 18, "global warming result (glacier related)" is the clue for "calve." No. Wrong. "Result" is a noun; "calve" is a verb. A valid answer to that clue would be "iceberg" or "calving" -- both nouns. A valid clue for "calve" could be "split from a glacier" or "give birth to an iceberg" -- both verb phrases.

The clincher was when the clue "liveliness of mood" led to the grid word "gay." That's a noun clue leading to an adjective! "Liveliness of mood" would be "gaiety." "Gay" could be defined as "lively of mood."

Then there are the clues that are not just grammatically inapt, they're flat wrong. "Fluff and Folds" is the clue for the grid word "laundromats." But laundromats are specifically self-serve coin-op establishments. Nobody gives you your clothes back, fluffed and folded. "Fluff and Folds" would be "laundries" or "dry cleaners."

"Toss" is the clue for "stir." What? If they're thinking of salads, then a tossed salad is not stirred, just as a broiled fish is not fried.

In puzzle 19, "wind direction" is supposedly "lee shore." Is this person even an English speaker? "Lee shore" is a place defined by wind, but it is not a direction of wind.

"Garden chore" is supposed to get us to write "hoe" into the grid. But "hoe" is a garden tool, or, as a verb, could be clued with "do a garden chore"; the chore itself would be "hoeing."

But the stupid clue of all stupid clues is "Our universe" -- with the answer being "solar system."

What fourth grader doesn't know that this is hopelessly wrong?

Crossword puzzles are language games. Research shows that working crossword puzzles really does enhance and preserve mental acuity. It's a pastime that doesn't waste time.

But a crossword puzzle must be created by someone who actually understands English, so that clues are accurate in every way.

One might say that these errors make the puzzle even more challenging.

But that's like saying that a baseball game played in two feet of standing water is even more challenging. True enough -- but it's not baseball.

Without boring you with even more examples, let me just say that the other books in the series share the same cluing problems. Combined with the poor paper choice, the unreliable cluing, and various typos, the result is that a very promising idea for a crossword puzzle series goes into the trash.

Meanwhile, we crosswights who like to cross wits with crosswords are all the more grateful for the master crosswrights who write their clues aright. The other sort makes us cross.

*

I'm happy to tell you that the funny-sad book All My Friends Are Dead has a sequel, All My Friends Are Still Dead, which is every bit as funny. Whomever you gave the first book to, you might follow up with the sequel on their next birthday.

But since this book is only appropriately given to an old person by an even older person, chances you have no memory of who received the first one.

That's OK. They won't remember whether they read the first one or not. And this new book stands alone just fine.

*

Good middle-grade books are hard to find. Chapter books that fourth- and fifth-graders will happily read alone, which are good enough that families, including parents, will enjoy reading aloud, are rare.

I'm happy to tell you that Janitors, by Tyler Whitesides, is such a book.

Spencer Zumbro's family has been in chaos since their father disappeared on a business trip to Mexico. Mrs. Zumbro does her best, but their lives are barely controlled chaos. Now they've moved into a house owned by some relatives and Spencer is stuck in a new school.

Spencer is in sixth grade at Welcher Elementary School (in some states, junior high schools [grades 7-8] are used instead of middle schools [grades 6-8], so sixth grade is still in elementary school.) His only friend is a girl who believes every lie she's told, but sometimes has a hard time swallowing the truth.

When Spencer is unknowingly exposed to a magic potion, he starts to see three different kinds of invisible monsters that infest the school -- and his friend, who believes everything, doesn't believe this.

However, Spencer soon learns that the school janitors do see the creatures. And thus he gets caught up in a struggle against a sinister conspiracy to make schoolchildren stupid.

Not only is this a much more pleasant explanation for our collapsed education system (which is really caused by incompetent educational theorists, absurdly inappropriate mission-creep, and insane bureaucratic rules), it's also an enormously entertaining book.

Because it's part of a series, the ending leaves us set up for an even more perilous sequel -- but this first volume has perils enough, and the ending is quite satisfying.

It's also funny -- especially when read aloud to a group of elementary schoolchildren. Yet Tyler always keeps the action within fairly plausible limits. That is, the invisible monsters are obviously not real, but what the children do about them is within the reach of children in the real world.

Speaking of middle-grade books, when I was eight years old in 1959, having exhausted all the books that were remotely interesting in my official age-group section at the Santa Clara Public Library, I discovered a group of nice thick books at the fifth-grade level that became my obsession until at last I exhausted the supply.

I started with a book from Joseph Altsheler's French and Indian War series. These books were clearly imitative of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo books, like Deerslayer, but with the youthful heroes required in young-adult fiction.

I quickly moved on to Altsheler's Civil War series. I read them out of order, starting with The Rock of Chickamauga, the sixth book in an eight-book series, but it didn't matter. It was a terrific adventure from the point of view of a young Union officer from Kentucky who served as aide and occasional spy for some of the leading figures in the western Union army.

I soon read all the books -- relentlessly out of order, since I could only check out what happened to be on the library shelf at any given moment. Ironically, I got to the first book, The Guns of Bull Run, last of all -- somebody had checked it out and kept it way overdue, probably without even reading it.

The series alternates between two Kentucky cousins, one from a wealthy, politically prominent family, who serves in the Southern army, and the other his poorer and more bookish cousin, who fights for the North.

Reading these books turned me into a full-fledged Civil War buff, in large part because, along with being compelling stories with believable, admirable characters, the novels also gave a clear, fair-minded, accurate presentation of the issues at stake and the strategies and tactics involved in major battles of the Civil War.

In other words, they were smart books that were completely satisfying to young readers on every level.

Considering that Altsheler first published this series from 1914 to 1916, it was almost a miracle that the books were still in print and available in a public library. Certainly they have fallen out of print since then.

But not because they aren't good.

A lot of books that used to be considered wonderful for children are almost unreadable today. You read them and think, somebody gave this to a child?

Of course, children, being as yet unjaded by experience, are often more patient with bad writing than adults. This explains the continuing popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs's early books, which are so badly overwritten that most adults can't get twenty pages in.

But when I downloaded Altsheler's Civil War series -- in fact, his entire oeuvre -- for my Kindle, and started reading them using the Kindle app on my Android phone, I discovered that Altsheler was an excellent prose writer, clear and vigorous.

The adventure stories are still exciting. Even though, as an adult who has since read many histories of the Civil War, I realize that often the boys are sent on missions whose results would not have had much value in the real world, Altsheler is scrupulously making sure that for all their excitement, the stories never change history.

That is, he doesn't make his fictional heroes vital to the outcome of a battle; they participate, but there is no fakery about everything hinging on their heroism.

To a young reader, though, focused on the immediate adventure -- a message that has to be delivered, a mission to observe Union preparations for the defense of Washington, DC, avoidance of an ambush laid for a troop train through the mountains -- this isn't an issue. The adventure is vital to the hero, and that is enough.

The quality of writing is, though, of another time. Altsheler makes few concessions to a youthful vocabulary. Young readers will learn words they didn't know. I think that's a good thing.

He also wrote in a time when everyone still knew about horses and saw them as a frequent means of transportation. There are things he doesn't explain because his readers would know them -- though young readers today wouldn't have a clue.

I think that's a good thing, too.

Several of the series take place in a coherent universe -- that is, characters from one series are the ancestors of characters in another. There's also the occasional frisson of mysticism -- the heroes have a slightly supernatural talent for this or that very-useful skill. This only makes the stories more exciting, the characters more admirable, without sidetracking us into fantasy.

Altsheler remains an outstanding writer of excellent books for young readers. And his work is no longer out of print. Not only are Kindle editions available cheaply, there are paperbacks that seem to have started appearing only in the past year or two.

I'm glad to see the books back in print. Sample the electronic books -- which can generally be downloaded for free from Amazon and elsewhere -- and you might find that you want to provide them to your young readers in paperback form.

You also might simply enjoy reading them yourself. I'm not just enjoying them for the nostalgia of recovering my childhood favorites -- I'm enjoying the stories for their own sake.


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