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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 1, 2018

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

End Game, Rolf, Anomia, Men Style

Part of the fun of making small contributions to a crowdfund on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo is that it's a bit of a gamble.

If, like any good gambler, you think of every bet as gone the moment you place it, so the only surprise is the happy one when you win, then the process of crowdfunding is almost painless. If the designers find out that their project can't be completed for the amount of money they've raised, then they pull the plug, even though they officially have "enough" donations to go ahead.

Some backers get quite angry, but apparently they represent the penny-ante version of "dumb money." If you can't afford to lose the money, don't place the bet.

With Kickstarter, the money isn't collected till the project reaches its announced goal. If they never reach the goal -- if there aren't enough people like you who think the project is a good idea at the price -- then you never get charged.

But with IndieGoGo, many projects collect immediately, as soon as you pledge an amount, so that even if they don't reach the goal, they have the money to do further development. Some projects get funded on several different sites and pool the money.

Not every product works out well. The designers have good intentions. But one little detail isn't quite right, and the product becomes useless. It's happened to me, but way less often than you might suppose. Most of the crowdfunding projects I've contributed to are not only feasible but triumphant.

But, like everything else in life, getting the product just right always takes longer. Longer than you thought. Longer than it should. Longer than you could even conceive of. So don't ever do your Christmas shopping at a crowdfunding site, unless you're buying an already-completed product, which is selling and shipping to the public.

Crowdfunding is enjoyable -- you can feel like a co-discoverer, even when, like me, you haven't the faintest idea how you would go about making something from scratch. Most of the sites end up having to send somebody to China or Thailand to figure out why the manufacturer keeps failing the quality tests.

It isn't just crowdfunding, though. For instance, Amazon pushed me to try out King Wipes, an extra-large flushable wipe with aloe vera.

Now, I've previously reviewed Dude Wipes, individually-wrapped bumcleaners that are perfect when you're trying to deal with the narrow, flimsy toilet paper in airport or restaurant bathrooms. It's a great product that has saved my butt more than once. (Yes, I said that, making an old idiom fresh again.)

But I have sad news about King Wipes. They come with 48 wipes to a flexible package, and you aren't going to fit that in your pocket. No, not that pocket either. And if you put it in your laptop bag, you may have to find somewhere else to pack your laptop.

It's really designed to be used at home. And almost all of their claims are true. It has aloe vera. It's bigger than usual. It's comfortable to use. It does the job.

There's only one teeny-tiny design flaw. When you open the plastic lid and then peel away the inner seal, you're faced with a problem. Instead of being packed with the free edge of a wipe visible inside the smallish hole, there's just a continuous expanse of white wet clothy stuff.

I tried to find a free edge by probing and sliding my finger along the surface of the top wipe. All that happened was that I bunched up the top three wipes; still no edge.

Finally I pinched the top cloth right in the middle and pulled upward.

To my chagrin, I did come away with a good amount of the top wipe -- and of the two wipes under it. Unfortunately, only about half of each wipe came out in that clump. I had to reach down in to pull out the clump containing the other half of each wipe.

Because they really are big, I was able to separate the halves of each of the three wipes and make a usable, flat compress. But a compress was not the goal.

I thought: Maybe the problem was only with this particular package, and later ones will be better!

No, sorry. The next package I opened had the identical problem. The only way to get any wipes out was the pinch method, and that ended up tearing the wipes apart, unless I pulled with extraordinary delicacy. I'm not an extraordinarily delicate guy, I'm afraid, so ...

Maybe the farther I get into the package, the easier it will be to pull out one wipe without shredding it. It's possible. I'll probably never find out.

It's a good product, but it isn't packaged well.

We've been spoiled by the good design of Kleenexes. You pull one up, and it draws the next one partway out, so you can easily grab that one. The tissues are strong enough (and friction with the packaging is low enough) that even at the beginning, when they're still tightly pressed together in the box, it's rare for a tissue to tear.

Since Kleenex gets it right with every box of tissues, I don't understand what went wrong with the King Wipes packing system. But it's a product killer.

It makes you wonder if nobody at the company tried extracting any wipes from a finished package. Maybe they did, then figured out how to do that delicate wipe-ectomy without tearing the wipes.

"Oh, the customers will work it out," somebody said, thus guaranteeing that many customers will stop trying to work it out, since we expect people who make useful things to make it easy for us to use them.

Sorry, King Wipes. It's Dude Wipes only for me now.

*

Men Style mini-notebooks are a practical spiral notebook that actually fits in a man's shirt pocket.

Of course, if you're a GQ type, you're never going to put anything in your shirt pocket, so should probably be called Semi-Nerd Style. But that's not a drawback to me. I proudly and happily wore a pocket protector all through high school until I started putting pens in a pants pocket in college. I knew it was unfashionable but I didn't and don't care about "fashion" and "style" that condemn what's necessary and practical.

I don't think I ordered it. I think a couple of Men Style notebooks got tossed into a package of something else that was being shipped to me, just so I'd try it out. I did, and it worked great.

When I went to see the Oscar-nominated short films, I slid my Men Style notebook into my shirt pocket and then, during the shows, I took a lot of notes in the mostly dark theater. Yet I didn't have the hassle of trying to keep track of a larger notebook because, after I jotted a note, I'd put it back into my shirt pocket.

Maybe you don't need something like this -- that's great. But I sometimes need to write things down so I'll remember them, and at times like that it's nice to have a Men Style notebook -- with the top-hat-and-glasses, the moustache, or the moustache-and-glasses art on the cover.

You can ordinarily buy them at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Littfun-Notebook-Planner-Different-Patterns/dp/B06ZZL5CS6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1521232632&sr=8-2&keywords=Men+Style+Mini+Notebook

However, as I write this Amazon displays a message that these notebooks are out of stock and they don't know when or if they'll get any more. Since I'm probably the guy who ordered the last of them and ran them out, I apologize, but not at all sincerely. I have mine, a supply for months to come. Eat your heart out.

The Men Style notebook is: The perfect scorepad for games. The perfect size for writing down directions for people who are terrified by driving in Greensboro for the first time (as they should be; our roads never point the direction they're actually going to go).

And because the pages aren't ruled, you've got nothing to interfere with using these pages for fine art. Miniatures only, but what did you expect?

It's small but the quality is very good, so check it out (as soon as somebody has it in stock again).

*

I just listened to the audiobook of David Baldacci's latest Will Robie and Jessica Reel mystery/thriller, End Game. You can skip the rest of this review, if you like, and get online and order your own copy right now, because it's that good. It's actually hurting your quality of life that you're not already listening to it.

Robie and Reel are not your ordinary detectives. In fact, they aren't detectives at all. They're highly trained professionals working for a US intelligence agency, and their real job is to kill whoever their superior officers tell them needs to die. They're both superb snipers, but they're not afraid to take people apart with knives or hands, as applicable.

The point is, both Reel and Robie are capable of terrible violence, acting with shockingly fast refexes, but in this book, though it begins with intense action as each of them faces an extremely challenging assignment, the real story begins when they get back to the States.

It seems that their longtime leader and mentor in the Agency, an introverted gent code-named Blue Man, has disappeared. He went to the high prairie of northeast Colorado -- definitely part of the Great American Desert -- which is where he grew up; he returns there most years, just for the fishing.

But this time, when somebody went to his rented cabin to keep an appointment, he wasn't there. But his rental car was still there, and all his clothes, and even his pistol. And now Robie and Reel have been assigned to find out where he is and rescue him. Or, if necessary, bag the body and report on what they learned.

Because Blue Man knows way too much for the agency to let somebody else have control of him -- and of his information.

The fun of the book is that we get to know this corner of Colorado, where various wacko groups have found safe haven, mostly because they outnumber and outgun all of the local law enforcement. It doesn't take long for Robie and Reel to run afoul of some of these groups, though they do get some unexpected help now and then.

There are plenty of conspiracies and criminal enterprises, and in addition there's a family saga that gets unraveled only when it's too late to try to hold the family together. So there's a note of tragedy.

And a lot of frustration, because at the end of the last book, it looked like Reel and Robie had decided to be together in a committed relationship. But when Robie gets back from an assignment to kill seventeen guys in a London house and save the world from the dirty bomb in the cellar, he finds a note from Jessica on his bed. An infuriating note, because she seems to believe that once she knows what's "best" for them, the decision is hers alone. No discussion, no explanation. It's just over.

Only it isn't, because she's oddly jealous of Robie falling for another woman. Kind of like the stepsisters in Cinderella. "I threw it away but if wasn't for you!" Translated into Jessica-speak, the rule is quite clear: We aren't going to be together, but you are also not going to be together with anyone else -- not without my putting you through a lot of hazing.

They aren't detectives, and so there are no Sherlock Holmes moments. Their actual skills only come into play when the bad guys are clearly identified. But there's plenty of mayhem at the end, in a thrilling, bloody, tragic sequence that did a fine job of keeping me awake during the three-hour commute to Buena Vista, Virginia, last Monday night.

I think that's a reasonable standard. An audiobook is good if it keeps me awake even when I didn't get enough sleep the night before.

That's a much better than the citation test, which I first discovered when my sister and I were driving from West Jefferson, North Carolina, to Orem, Utah, in my rusted-out Datsun B210, listening to the abridged audiotape of The Firm, by John Grisham. I hadn't seen the movie, so this was my first time through the story, and as we drove through Wyoming, it got so exciting that I actually got pulled over for speeding.

In Wyoming. That's right. A lot of people think that Wyoming doesn't have a speed limit on the freeways within its borders, but I learned that this is not true. And I learned it in an old Datsun coupe. So that's the citation test: If you get so caught up in an exciting book, your adrenalin makes your foot heavier on the accelerator and your brain oblivious to inconveniences like half-hidden speed traps.

End Game didn't get me a speeding ticket on US 220 or I-81, though I did have a few Wyoming-speed moments. The point is, I stayed awake, which is all the more important at speeds slightly in excess of the limit. Good book.

*

My wife and I both grew up in game-playing families. As kids we played the standard board games, discovering along with everyone else how boring Monopoly can be, once it's clear who's going to win; and both families made obsessive use of Rook cards, with their 56-card decks that don't resemble Tarot cards in any way, so good church people can use them.

Our kids grew up in a game-playing family, too. The younglings quickly learned that their parents made no concessions to them because of their youth and inexperience. Here are the rules, we'd say: Learn them, play by them, and no boohooing if you play unwisely or unluckily and you don't win.

The result was that our annoyingly smart children soon learned to win regularly at games that should be governed more by chance than skill. Maybe the children's-game angels were making up for how heartless and uncompassionate their parents were.

And, let me be fair about this. Only one of their parents is actually a relentless ego-destroying game maniac, who will never cheat but will also never relent until the game is over.

That person is not me. I whine a lot when I'm losing, but I don't actually care that much. I care enough to have a lot of fun (including the fun of whining) and then, when I lose, moving on to have fun doing something else. Of course, when I win, I do gloat just a little -- but nowhere near as much as another person in our marriage, even though she swears she never gloats.

"You just did," I'll point out. "That was gloating."

"That's not gloating, I'm just happy."

The point of this is simple: When new games come out, we give them a try. We subscribe to Games Magazine, and when they review a game that sounds like we might enjoy it, we order it from FunagainGames.com or Amazon.com. We also take recommendations from friends, and every now and then I back a game developer on a crowdfunding site.

The trouble is that when games show up in boxes at our door, I usually can't remember if this was an IndieGoGo project or a Games Magazine favorite. But it doesn't matter the source; we try it out to see if it flies.

Some of them sink like a rock, and I usually don't mention those here, because why point out things that fail, unless there's a strong chance you'll accidentally buy it? That's why I'll torch a bad movie, but ignore most failed books. Piling on is as ugly when reviewers do it as when beefy football players do.

The box containing the game Rolf got one black mark against it right away. The cover claimed that it was "Riotous Fun with Phrases."

I'm not even sure what "riotous" fun would be, since I have never seen anything remotely fun about a riot, or anything riot-like about people having fun.

I think it's like the word "elegant" when used in advertising. If somebody's selling something, and they call it "elegant," you can be pretty sure that it is definitely not elegant. Ditto with "sophisticated." There are some claims that are obviously false because of the words used to describe them.

That didn't mean I wasn't going to play the game Rolf. I just wasn't going to expect riotousness.

Rolf claims to be for players age 14 on up, and for 3 to 12 players.

When you claim a game can be played by 12 people, you better have a way to make it so that everybody's actually playing all the time, instead of watching eleven other people play before it's your turn again.

Rolf does that pretty well. There are a bunch of cards. On the back -- the side that everybody can see when you hold it up -- there's a big letter and a Forbidden Word:

M

mouth

Then, on the front, which the "judge" for that card reads aloud to all the players, there are two idioms or sayings or adages that most people are familiar with. The word from the back has been replaced by a blank in both sayings. The "judge" picks one of the sayings and reads it aloud, saying "blank" where there's, you know, a blank:

He was born with a silver spoon in his __________.

Me and my big __________.

Then all the others, as soon as they think of a replacement word that begins with the letter on the back, but is not "mouth," blurts out their replacement word.

Here's another card. On the back, the big letter and forbidden word are:

B

bee

And on the front, there are these two sayings:

1. Float like a butterfly, sting like a __________.

2. Be my little honey __________.

Are you already playing? Thinking up words? "Be my little honey ... brick." "Float like a butterfly, sting like a ... banana."

The game is fun, but it has a shelf-life: Each saying will always require creative responses that start with the same letter.

And when everybody's blurting, the "judge" isn't going to hear everyone -- definitely not soft-spoken people. The winner isn't supposed to be the first or the loudest -- but that's who will often win because the "judge" couldn't hear anybody else.

Games where players pick the "best" from among other players' offerings always end up feeling arbitrary. They're only fun if nobody cares about winning or even about fairness.

That means the "riotous" fun has to come from the cleverness or humor or shock value of the answers themselves. In most groups, the winning entries will probably be the blurts that skirt the edge of what that particular group finds acceptable. Pushing the boundaries will be rewarded, rather as it is with Cards Against Humanity.

D word: Lucy in the sky with ... Dogs? Dip? Dominos? Dumpsters? Doom? Delaware? Depression? Dyspepsia? Dysentery? Dirigibles?

If judges tend to choose the most outrageous, disgusting, or borderline offensive response (which they usually will), that's what you'll get more of. For instance, if I were judging, "dysentery" would have won that round instantly. Because even though Lucy in the Sky with Dumpsters is funny, Lucy in the Sky with Dysentery is appalling and therefore perfect.

I didn't test this game with twelve people. Instead, I test most new games with four people. We have a couple of friends -- lawyers married to each other -- who are superb game players but who are also relaxed about winning, and who don't mind trying out a game that may turn out to be a loser.

Four people, we found, might not be enough to make this game riotously fun. Maybe the threshold is five, or six. Three wouldn't be much fun at all, I fear; besides, can there even be a three-person riot?

We played a couple of rounds, but then moved on to the next game we were play-testing: Anomia: Where Common Knowledge Becomes Uncommonly Fun! Age 10+, 3-6 players

OK, "uncommonly fun" doesn't sound as much like overclaiming as "riotous fun," so already the modesty of the packaging showed promise.

Each card contains a category and a symbol. (Wild cards contain two symbols, no words.) Here's a sampling from PracticallyPoppy.com:

Players start with four cards in their hands, and they take turns laying down a card onto their own stack of face-up cards. If the card they lay down has the same symbol as a card already face-up on somebody else's stack, then they race to give a valid example of the category on the other person's card.

So if your card says "shampoo brand" and somebody else has the same symbol on a card that says "lunch meat," you need to blurt out a kind of lunch meat, and the other person needs to blurt out a brand of shampoo.

Simple, right?

Not at all. Because when your brain is working on symbol-matching, it's working in the visual area; when you try to think of something that fits a category, you have to switch brain regions and that takes time.

I spent a lot of time in this game looking at a card and trying to get from the symbol to the actual words -- while my opponent in that matchup was listing items that fit the category on my card.

I did not win.

But even with that tragically frequent outcome, I still had a lot of fun, and so did the others. There's no reason to compare Anomia head-to-head with Rolf -- they're different kinds of game -- but we played them the same night, and it was Anomia that we just couldn't stop playing.

Still just "uncommonly fun" instead of "riotous fun," but that's good enough for me.

These are pretty decent party games, depending on the size of the party. Anomia is definitely not for twelve people. And you may pick a different favorite from the one we chose. They're both good games.

*

After my whinging in an earlier column about how I couldn't get Alexa to play albums, only individual songs, a reader of this column who has already been fully trained by Alexa notified me of the trick.

You have to use the exact form: "Alexa, play the album _______." But for this to work, you have to know the actual name of the album. You can't say "play the movie soundtrack from The Godfather." It has to be "Play the album Godfather." But that works.

And when you say, "Play the album That's Entertainment," you don't get the soundtrack album of that great compilation movie. Instead, you get a Judy Garland album with that title, which is probably fine, because it was recorded while her voice still had some control. Except I never cared much for her singing voice even at its best, and I had my heart set on the movie soundtrack.

So which albums' names do I remember? All of Joni Mitchell's. Two of Judy Collins's (Wildflowers, Judith). None by the Doobie Brothers. But that's OK -- I can still say, "Alexa, play The Doobie Brothers," and I'll get a couple of hours of Doobie Brothers songs. They're all good, so I don't care what album they were originally on.

But listening to Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon brings back such memories of hearing the album for the first time in the house shared by several of my theatre friends at BYU back in the ancient days when we listened to "records" that had been physically purchased and slid out of a "sleeve."

(Yeah, I know, vinyl is coming back. Now a new generation can hear the skipping and fuzz and hiss, and yell at their friends for getting their oily fingers on the grooves, until they give up and get CDs again, or just download .mp3s, which are, to most sane people, good enough.)

The albums I tend to want played in order are Broadway original cast albums and movie soundtracks. Oh, and Bernstein Conducts Copland, which has, for me, the definitive version of most of Aaron Copland's most famous works.

Thanks to that friend for helping me be able to select albums while using Alexa and Amazon Prime to provide me with the background music for my life.

A Town Divided by Christmas
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