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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 28, 2013

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


Public TV, Niven, La Maison

We were in Charles DeGaulle Airport, prepared for our flight home from France, but because everything had gone so smoothly, we found ourselves with about three hours to kill.

We are both readers, and our phones also had games to play. We don't mind having a few hours with "nothing to do."

We're also over fifty, so one of our favorite pastimes is "napping."

But it's not good for either of us to remain sitting, hour after hour. And when you get up and walk around, you pass shops, which are cleverly designed to catch the eye. And the wallet.

Most of the shops, fortunately, were "duty-free" establishments specializing in items we don't buy: alcohol and perfume. And the few food shops weren't tempting because (a) we had already eaten a lovely breakfast in the hotel before coming and (b) we had already turned in all our Euros.

We could use credit cards to shop, but it only annoys people to use them for small purchases.

There was really only one shop that was at all tempting. It was La Maison du Chocolat, which translates as "The House of Chocolate."

For sheer elegance and simplicity of presentation, Godiva could learn a few lessons from this beautifully and clearly arranged shop.

But what really matters is the quality of the chocolates. And there was no doubt about that.

Chocolate was developed so it could become truffles and other delights in La Maison du Chocolat.

I might have resisted the temptation if it had not been for the fact that we owed several people favors for having covered for us in some of our responsibilities while we were out of Greensboro.

There were a couple of substitute teachers, and the friend who had come at six every morning to open our house to the high school students who attend a religion class.

So really, what choice did I have? I had to buy boxes of truffles as thank-you notes, didn't I?

And as long as I was going to be bringing home a bag of chocolates, I might as well try various caramels and other chocolates, right?

The result was a very full bag.

Then our flight was canceled, and now I had to shlep that bag of chocolate out to a taxi to carry it to a hotel, then back to Charles De Gaulle Airport the next day. All the while making sure the chocolate never got so warm it melted.

I am happy to report that the chocolates of La Maison held up very well under such duress. I won't quite say that the recipients of the truffles actually wept as they tasted them, but it was touch-and-go.

These are seriously good chocolates.

But you don't have to take my word for it. The Parisian store maintains an American website, solely for purchases to be delivered within the U.S. http://www.lamaisonduchocolat.us/us/en

Alas, some of my favorites -- notably the caramels -- are missing from the website. It may be that they simply don't ship well. But to taste those perfect caramels, I'll be forced to return to Paris. Oh, the misery of it!

Meanwhile, you won't suffer much if you try any of the assortments and collections offered on the website. Though alcohol-haters like us have to dodge a bit to avoid rum and other monstrous impositions on chocolate, there are plenty of choices for non-alcoholics.

And while the chocolates are expensive -- quality almost always is -- they do offer plenty of lower-cost options. True, the small boxes will leave you wishing for more.

But so will the big ones.

They even have chocolate bars, my favorite of which is the Orinoco Noir, a 60% dark.

Besides truffles, pralinés (not the same thing as New Orleans pralines), and ganaches, you really want to take notice of the pleyel chocolate cakes, which may spoil you for ordinary brownies for the rest of your life.

And then there's the Tasse de Chocolat, little pearls of chocolate that you drop into hot milk to make exquisite hot chocolate.

Godiva has some wonderful chocolates, but let's admit it, much of their appeal comes from being even more elegant, expensive, and elitist than Ghirardelli.

Well, La Maison du Chocolat out-snobs Godiva, but it's not illusory. There's a reason why people come back from France raving about the chocolate, and La Maison du Chocolat is arguably at the peak of that quality.

They ship quickly and efficiently; the chocolates arrive in perfect condition. So you may still have time to order some for yourself, see how brilliant they are, and then order more as gifts.

Or you can trust me and order your own and your gifts at the same time.

*

I was recently delighted to accept appointment to the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina Public Television -- UNCTV. It's an advisory board, because all the actual authority resides with the university's governing bodies.

The folks at UNCTV know how to run a statewide television network -- several on-air stations and more that are available on cable or online. They are the funnel through which excellent programs like Downton Abbey, Silk, Nova, and many others reach us.

UNCTV also produces a lot of original work. Much of it is in support of the university system -- profiles of all the campuses, for instance. More of it is informational about historical, scenic, and commercial sites in our state.

There's a lot of programming created for classroom use, and there are on-air courses for teachers to maintain their certification.

And, of course, there is continuous children's programming, most of it well known to anybody who has young children.

And we get all this for free.

"Oh, no! It's not free! We pay for it in our taxes!"

Well, no, not really. That's the thing that surprised me as the UNCTV administrators went over the numbers with the board. Tax money supports only about a third of the costs.

And what are those costs? Three-fourths of the cost of North Carolina public television consists of the fees paid to PBS for their programming!

"Wait! The federal government pays for all of that!"

No it doesn't. It pays for some of it. But the part that the stations have to pay for is still huge -- and it chews up 75% of the UNCTV budget every year.

But if tax money only pays for a third of the budget of UNCTV, and three-fourths of the budget goes to PBS ... who's paying for the rest?

The people who donate to UNCTV, that's who.

"No, no, you're forgetting that we pay like crazy for our cable and satellite tv!"

Yes, you might pay hundreds to Time-Warner for television and internet and phone service and all. But not one dime of your cable or satellite bill goes to UNCTV.

There are cable channels that rake in money from your fees -- the biggest of those being ESPN.

Since I never, never, never, never watch ESPN, I resent the fact that my fees subsidize the tastes of all those sports fans -- while they aren't chipping in a nickel to pay for Sesame Street or Downton Abbey or Nova.

Taxes used to provide a much higher percentage of the UNCTV budget. But in 2012, after UNCTV passed with flying colors a study of their effectiveness and efficiency, the legislature cut $1.5 million dollars from their budget.

In previous years, UNCTV's budget had been cut right along with general cuts to the university system's budget. They swallowed hard, laid people off, cut back, and took their lumps.

But in 2012, this huge cut was not part of a university-wide cut. Everyone in the legislature and all the governing boards agreed that UNCTV had proven itself to be worth every penny of its costs.

So why was the budget cut so drastically? The folks at UNCTV didn't discuss that -- but I didn't need them to. Anyone who follows state politics understands the cut.

As a general rule, Republican legislatures want to cut budgets, and Democratic legislatures want to expand services.

Both teams think their position is the virtuous one, and most of us want them to do both things, even though you can't actually do it.

But when Republicans set out to cut budgets, they have to do it carefully -- because they want to be reelected. If they cut too deeply into really popular public programs, their opponents in the next election will destroy them for it.

You can't cut education too drastically -- yet that's the single biggest budget item. So you have to search for things you can cut here and there, without raising public outcry.

Public television becomes an easy target.

At the national level, public radio and public television are deliberately lumped together, because in most states, public radio helps subsidize public television, which is more expensive and harder to fund.

It's called "public broadcasting" and it's treated as all one thing.

In North Carolina, though, public radio and public television are strictly separate.

"Public radio," of course, means NPR and little else. And as every conservative listener knows, NPR functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party.

When Democrats control the purse strings, they're fine with this. When Republicans are in control, then there's a lot of screaming about how any cut in "public broadcasting" is an attack on Big Bird.

In other words, the radically biased NPR hides behind the politically neutral children's programming of PBS. It's the political equivalent of basing terrorist organizations in residential neighborhoods.

Because most people think of "public broadcasting" as all one thing, the cut in UNCTV's budget was probably greeted with a great deal of satisfaction by conservatives who, quite correctly, resent having their tax money support the politically biased NPR.

But the two things aren't connected.

There's no political bias in Downton Abbey or Sesame Street, or in the documentaries and educational programs created by UNCTV for in-state use. But they're taking the punishment for NPR.

Well, not really. We're taking the punishment -- we who watch the shows, or who send our kids to schools that use the programs.

Because UNCTV has been cut to the bone. They're working with a skeleton staff -- no commercial television network that serves so many cities would dream of operating with so few employees.

It would be nice if the legislature could restore some or all of that drastic cut. But until the economy turns around and we start running tax surpluses, it's not likely to happen. Budget cuts have to come from somewhere.

So here's where we stand: State tax funds pay for a third of the cost of UNCTV, and the rest of the money comes from ... volunteers. From us.

No, not from big corporations. You see big corporate sponsors getting mentioned alongside classy and popular programs, but they are paying for a portion of the PBS costs that is not covered by the fees UNCTV pays. They're helping, but they're not helping us.

In-state corporate donors are certainly a help, as are large-amount donors. About five hundred people give more than a thousand dollars a year, each, and that is certainly a help.

But by far the largest share of UNCTV funding comes from people who are giving, individually, far less -- but there are thousands of them.

Of us.

Here's how I think of it. I pay a hefty cable bill every month. Now that I know that my cable bill pays nothing toward UNCTV, I wish there were a check-box on my cable bill that allowed me to pay an extra $3.00 a month, which would then be passed on by Time-Warner to UNCTV.

But that convenient service isn't offered -- though it should be!

Instead, UNCTV has to collect donations directly from us who watch.

So that $3.00 a month becomes $36.00 a year. That's a dollar more than the minimum cost of an annual membership in UNCTV -- and for that amount, you receive the monthly program magazine, CenterPiece, for a year.

http://www.unctv.org/content/support/membership

Even better is a Sustaining Membership. This is like any ordinary online subscription -- you have a minimum of $10 a month charged to your credit card, and the contributions continue until you tell them to stop.

The $10 minimum is necessary because of the costs of charging a credit card. Much less and they aren't actually making any money from your contribution! But HBO costs $15.99 a month -- and I watch programs on UNCTV far more often than I watch anything on HBO. Don't you?

With a sustaining membership, once you make the decision to contribute, you don't have to think about it again. You can sign up here.

They only take Visa and MasterCard. And don't be terrified by the fact that it says "forever" as the duration. You can cancel the subscription at any time with an email or a phone call.

One of the places where the budget cuts have hurt UNCTV is in their web design staff. They don't have enough people working on it at present. So there are some design problems with the website. But the links I've given you here do work -- I just paid for my sustaining membership using them.

I wish the website could also allow for the purchase of gift memberships on the site. You can buy annual memberships for other people, but apparently you have to do it by telephone. It feels primitive, but it works!

Until now, I was always complacent, thinking that I was already paying my share through my taxes and my cable bill. And for those who can't afford any more, that is enough.

But most of us can afford more, and like any other valuable service that we want to continue receiving, it makes sense to pay for it.

*

Larry Niven is one of the great storytellers of science fiction literature, and unlike his great storytelling predecessors -- Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Bradbury -- Niven has the added virtue of being alive and still producing more novels.

During the "New Wave" of sci-fi back in the late sixties and early seventies, Niven almost single-handedly kept the pure storytelling tradition alive amidst the tumult of literary, absurdist, and other innovative kinds of fiction.

This does not mean that Niven was stodgy and traditional when everybody else was being cool.

Niven is way cool.

Many of his novels and stories take place within his "Known Space" series. You've already seen a hint of that wonderful creation in Star Wars, which obviously borrowed Wookies from Niven's alien Kzin warriors.

But Niven's imagination is so fertile that he spawns enough ideas on any Wednesday to last other sci-fi writers their whole career.

He also examines other people's ideas. For the sheer fun of it, you really need to look at his speculations on Superman's sex life in his essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex." Here it is for free.

I first came to know Niven's work with novels like World of Ptavvs and Protector.

Then he blew us all away with Ringworld, based on a wild idea of Freeman Dyson's -- about a massive planetary engineering project in which all the planetary mass of a solar system is assembled in a single continuous ribbon at exactly the right distance from the sun to sustain life.

Besides being a great adventure story, Ringworld is also, like Portnoy's Complaint, and novel with a punchline. The difference is that Ringworld's "punchline" is unforgettably brilliant. But when you find out what has been driving the story from the start ...

Instead of reviewing his whole career here, I'll simply refer you to his website.

Through Niven's whole career, he has been noted for his ability to cooperate and collaborate with other writers. While Niven's fertile imagination and powerful story-sense are always obvious in his collaborative works, he leaves room for the full creativity of some wonderful writing partners.

With Jerry Pournelle, Niven wrote the sci-fi classic The Mote in God's Eye, and critics have long noted that Niven and Pournelle, together, become a third writer, different from, but every bit as good as, both.

Later, Niven wrote with Steven Barnes, giving a huge start to the career of a talented young writer. Niven even wrote a couple of novels with Barnes and Pournelle.

After many other collaborations, Niven has lately been collaborating with Edward M. Lerner. Far from being a novice, Lerner already had a strong career on his own, but the books he's writing with Niven now are among the best and most interesting in either of their careers.

Which brings me to the novels I have read most recently. I picked up Niven's and Lerner's Fleet of Worlds from the small English-language section of the bookshop that was part of the Utopiales Science Fiction Convention in Nantes, France.

I realized with surprise that it had been some years since I last read a Niven work, and I'd never read any of his work with Lerner. The real surprise was for Niven to have brought another writer into his Known Space series -- because those novels have always been solo works for Niven.

It has only been a few years since my last rereading of Ringworld, but even though Fleet of Worlds is a prequel to that classic, it stands very well on its own.

The story follows two parallel tracks -- humans on Earth who are trying to make sense of the actions of the alien species called "Puppeteers," and another group of humans descended from colonists rescued from a wrecked spaceship by the Puppeteers, and established on one of their own worlds.

Both stories intertwine because a Puppeteer named Nessus is a prominent player in both of them. It is a delicious frustration that the human Colonists under the dubious protection of the Puppeteers have no idea where Earth is -- and the humans of Earth have no idea that there are millions of humans living so near the Puppeteers, and under their control.

The Puppeteers go to great lengths to keep it that way.

In fact, the Puppeteers are dangerous precisely because, descended from herding animals, they are fanatical cowards. They will go to any lengths to avoid any danger the moment it appears -- and that includes a willingness to xenocidally destroy any species that might pose a threat to them.

I finished Fleet of Worlds in a single night. Since the bookshop did not have any more of the series in English, I went online and downloaded the Kindle editions of the other books in the series.

To my surprise, the "second" book, Juggler of Worlds, actually covers the same time period, but following different characters who were mentioned prominently in the first book.

Either book could stand alone, but having read Fleet first, it made Juggler all the more delicious, because I knew so much more than most of the characters. Dramatic irony to the max!

If you're looking for science fiction novels to give as gifts, first you have to make sure your intended recipient doesn't already have a complete Niven collection. Chances are that any sci-fi reader already has Ringworld.

But if your recipient doesn't have the Niven-Lerner collaborations, give Fleet of Worlds. If you want to give two books, add Juggler of Worlds. Or just give the whole trilogy, which concludes with Destroyer of Worlds.

And if your recipient hasn't read Ringworld, toss that in.

Or give the whole Known Space series. It's hard to sort out all the stories and collections, but right now the simplest way is to buy some omnibus volumes: Three Books of Known Space (which includes Tales of Known Space, World of Ptavvs, and A Gift from Earth), Flatlander (which includes the Gil Hamilton stories and The Patchwork Girl). It's a good start.

It'll keep your recipient happy for weeks. Or days, depending on the speed of reading and the amount of free time available.

These books are meant for adults, but mature teenage readers are certainly within the potential audience.

I think I can make a pretty good case for the idea that Larry Niven is the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

*

My friend Janis Ian -- who also happens to be a brilliant singer-songwriter -- has created a scholarship fund in memory of her mother, Pearl. Her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, went back to school after long absence, which brought a great deal of happiness to her.

The Pearl Foundation endows scholarships with a preference for students who are returning to education after a long absence. You can learn more about it here: http://www.pearlfoundation.com/

The Pearl Foundation originated with an auction of Janis's own memorabilia -- musical instruments from her own collection, for instance. But now she has invited friends to join her in another auction of memorabilia to benefit the foundation.

Because Janis hangs out with writers, that crowd is heavily represented in the auction -- including a few of my first editions from my own collection. Right now the top item is George R.R. Martin's pilot script of HBO's Game of Thrones -- signed by all the Starks (or, rather, the actors playing the roles).

But there are items you can get for a great deal less! If you'd like to benefit a fine cause -- and pick up some really interesting artifacts -- you might want to join the bidding at: http://stores.ebay.com/thepearlfoundation/

The auction closes at the end of November.


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