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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 12, 2018

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

Gas Station Futures, Family Singing, Blockers

In a recent What's New Now mailing from PC Magazine, editor Dan Costa made an interesting point. If, in the not-so-distant future, most cars are electric, it might have some unexpected consequences -- because most electric car owners generally recharge their vehicles at home.

Now, that may be partly because there aren't a lot of quick-charge stations around town, and as long as you have enough juice to get home to where you invested in a quick-charge setup, it makes sense to power up the car at home.

That's because even quick charges aren't all that quick. It takes time for the inflowing electricity to make the chemical changes in the battery that will allow it to hold enough juice for the car to run for any serious length of time.

So if the home-charging trend continues to be true, that may have a drastic effect on something we all take for granted: the gas station convenience store.

Convenience stores originally had no gas pumps. There were probably laws against it. Seven-Eleven, the first convenience store I ever saw, really did open at seven in the morning and close at eleven at night. And while most gas stations sold candy and soda pop, they were all about cars -- convenience stores and gas stations had nothing to do with each other.

But once Seven-Eleven started putting a couple of pumps out front, and the other convenience stores followed suit, gas stations had to compete or die.

Nowadays, there are only a few full-function gas stations -- you know, the ones that are also serious garages, where they change tires, replace batteries, tune engines, replace brakes, and whatever else your car needs. They make their income from car care, and few of them bother with all the convenience store stuff.

There aren't many of those, compared to the huge number of gas station convenience stores. But could they live on their convenience store income alone?

If the only option for refueling your car is a 45-minute wait at a quick-charge station (and I'm dreaming to think of a full charge in that amount of time) or going home and recharging there, gas stations may be pretty much out of the gasoline business, except for the few dinosaurs still eking the last life out of the gas-guzzling vehicles.

How often do you head for the local gas/convenience store just for the convenience store stuff? With grocery stores and drugstores open way later than they used to be, most of us buy stuff at convenience stores only because we already stopped there for gas.

If we aren't buying gas, don't we just go to the supermarket or drugstore?

Of course, stopping by Walmart or Target or a big-box grocery store means hundreds of extra steps to get from the parking lot into the store, find your items, wait in line at the checkout, and then walk back to the car. Maybe we'll still want to stop at a convenience store and get what we want in thirty steps.

Or maybe service stations will go into the battery replacement business -- you drive in and a skilled mechanic-electrician swaps out your drained batteries for full ones of equal capacity. That would require standardization of battery form factors, probably mandated by the government. But it would allow service stations to refit and stay in business along with their convenience stores.

The many service stations that are also fast-food outlets would probably stay in business. I had dinner tonight in a McDonald's that's also a Citgo station and a pretty good convenience store. (If they don't have Naked fruit drinks or at least V-8, they don't qualify as excellent.) If the pumps weren't there, it would still be a McDonald's, so there'd probably be enough traffic to support the convenience store part.

But when we think about electric cars, it's easy to overlook that our lives right now are partly organized around buying gasoline. If we stop doing that, it's going to hurt or even destroy the gasoline infrastructure.

Today, there are gas stations pretty much everywhere except in the long stretches of desert highway out west. What if they were replaced by charging stations?

What about emergencies? I can imagine our tax dollars, which are now used to massively subsidize the petrol-powered automobile, being spent on a system of emergency charging stations built into telephone or power poles every half mile along the highway, so that if you run out of juice, you only have to push your car (or carry a recharge battery) only a quarter of a mile.

But let's get real. It will be a while before there's infrastructure in place that will allow us to have confidence in electric cars too far from home. Electric cars are much more convenient -- and trustworthy -- around town than on long trips.

So maybe we'll all rent petrol-fueled cars or vans for long trips (or fly, or take the train or the bus), and use our electric cars for local traffic only. It all depends on what our choices are, and where companies and governments invest their money. If you want to glimpse how that will work out, just look at the mish-mash of toll roads here in the eastern part of the U.S.

And there'll always be places like New Jersey, which charges tolls on the freeways that pass through the state -- and makes it nearly impossible to get off the freeway and choose an alternate route. Maybe electric cars on long-distance trips in New Jersey will be warned: "No electricity available off the freeway." That'll keep us from actually entering New Jersey, which seems to be the goal of their turnpike system.

It works, too, by the way. The only time I ever tried to drive on surface roads in New Jersey, admittedly in the days before GPS, we got hopelessly lost and ended up driving back to Pennsylvania to get on the Jersey toll road where we should have entered it in the first place.

(Since New Jersey was also the oppressive state that for years only allowed you to link your roaming cellphone to the company owned by some politician's uncle that had a monopoly on cellphone service, it is the place that we have to assume will always cause maximum pain and inconvenience to travelers. It's a tradition. The state animal of New Jersey is the apoplectic out-of-state driver.)

But one thing is certain: We can't predict right now all the ramifications of the conversion to electric cars.

Remember how CDs swept the recorded music business? Starting in the mid-1980s, I replaced all my vinyl with CDs. But only twenty years later, CDs were reduced to a small section of a few chain stores -- Barnes & Noble has CD sections most places (but not Greensboro), but other stores have dropped them.

Then there were laserdiscs. Aren't you glad you didn't pay for the expensive player and a bunch of LP-sized laserdiscs? Well, I did. Then DVDs came along within just a few years and wiped out the whole laserdisc scene.

Remember the 45 rpm record? Well, I'm old, so I do. I even remember when record players had to have a 78rpm setting because there were still people with the old heavy 78s -- which were album sized, but had only three or four minutes of music on a side.

That was what defined our idea of the "single" -- not the 45 rpm record! When radio stations finally got the legal right to play recordings on the air (it took an act of Congress and a lot of negotiation between publishers, radio stations, and songwriters' unions), that three-to-four-minute limit on 78s became so standard that even when 33 rpm records allowed individual songs to be pretty much any length, everything on the radio was built around the three-minute song. How could you fit in enough commercials in an hour if the songs were all six minutes long?

Long before MTV, we had already been trained to have a short attention span. We'd listen to a song on the radio -- and if we didn't like it, we knew it would be over soon and something better would be played next.

Every technological innovation has a lot of unintended consequences. Electric cars are far from being the only things coming down the pike that might massively change some aspect of the way we live. Nobody anticipated that the Internet would collapse a large portion of the broadcasting industry, destroy CDs, and effectively wipe out DVD sales only a few years after they came to dominate movie revenues.

Some pundits thought that tablets, beginning with the huge gold rush for iPads, would replace portable computers. Who imagined that mobile phones would keep the tablet craze in check -- while computers continued to be far more capable and convenient to enter data into than smartphones?

Yet ... texting! Who knew? Nobody, that's who.

Nobody guessed that one big-box retail giant, Walmart, would single-handedly destroy most American downtowns, especially in rural areas. And before you get all weepy, remember that Walmart accomplished this by offering better selections at lower prices, and downtowns died because we customers preferred to shop at Walmart, and the free market allowed us to make that choice.

But Walmart and other big box stores are possible only because of the huge subsidies that are given to the automotive industry. If each driver paid the real costs of driving on roads that go everywhere and having plenty of parking whenever they stop, cars wouldn't seem like such a convenience. I'm not against those subsidies; I'm only pointing out that every action, public or private, has consequences, and helps reshape the way we live.

Remember when long-distance services would advertise on television with their one-eight-hundred numbers? Gone gone gone (and I, for one, don't miss them).

Think about how brief each of these "revolutions" was, and you'll get some idea of how quickly after the invention of the gas station convenience store they might be wiped out by the next technological innovation.

Yeah, I'm a sci-fi writer, but I'm not going to make any predictions of my own, except the simple prediction that whatever happens, the people most affected by it won't be ready.

 (Sci-fi writers are no better at predicting the future than anybody else. Isaac Asimov famously pointed out that when computers were the cutting edge of sci-fi in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody anticipated the miniaturization that transistors on printed circuit boards and then on silicon chips would allow. Everybody's stories had huge Walmart-sized buildings to house their most powerful computers.) (Of course, there were no Walmarts then to compare them to.)

So next time you stop in at the convenience store because heck, you had to fill up the tank anyway, look around and think: What if this went away?

Then again, look at the sign indicating where the restrooms are and keep in mind that we don't just stop our cars on long trips to fill a tank. Even with electric cars, we're still going to want clean restrooms, and if we're stopping for bladder renewal, the station owner might as well build a convenience store around that restroom.

In fact, I can imagine that to stay in business, former gas station convenience stores will start advertising their super-clean, luxurious toilet accommodations. "Stop here! We have full-width Cottonelle and Charmin toilet paper in every stall!"

Come on, admit it. If you knew that one gas station had regular toilet paper, like you use at home, and the others at that freeway exit only had the miserable skinny one-ply paper that barely works -- or simply fails -- which station would you stop at?

The clean, well-stocked, comfortable restroom wins every time with my family. When I used to drive to northern Virginia a lot, I knew every clean, comfortable restroom on US 29 between Greensboro and Gainesville, where you switch to I-66.

Now I maintain a similar mental roster of clean restrooms on US 220 from here to Roanoke. (I-81 goes so fast that once I'm on it, it's easier just to wait till I get to Lexington.)

So hey, if you own a service station convenience store, maybe the time to double the space you allot to restrooms is now. Get a designer to figure out how to design the restrooms so you have twice as much room for the women's as the men's, with maybe some entertainment options for waiting children, so they don't shoplift and vandalize their way around the store.

Use high-grade toilets with varying seat-heights. Make sure the sensor on automatic faucets can actually detect the presence of human hands, and have those supersonic hand driers that actually work instead of the loud ones that leave you to dry your hands on your clothes.

Then hire a couple of employees whose job is to check the restrooms constantly, replacing toilet paper rolls and refilling self-lathering soap containers -- and mopping, unclogging, and delittering as required. If you start thinking of your store as a luxury restroom complex surrounded by snack-centered shopping, you may get a head start on the competition.

Or you may find out, after spending half a million bucks on remodeling, that Uncle Orson was completely, absolutely wrong.

But I don't think I'm wrong. No matter how we fuel and refuel our cars on long surface trips, we'll still need to pee and poo. I don't think anybody's coming up with a way to, like, computerize that or do it over the Internet.

Though maybe Apple is working hard on the iPoo and the iPee, tiny electronic machines that purify and perfume our waste products, eliminating odors and health concerns, so that when we're done, we can simply open a car window and spray the effluvium outside.

Thus all the potentially life-supporting nutrients are returned to the environment as sweet-smelling vapors. Come on, Apple! And while you're at it, why not the iKidney? Portable, handheld dialysis!

OK, not likely. But now that I've said it, somebody at Apple will read this and give it some serious thought. In fact, within a few days there'll be some Rube Goldberg drawings of what a iPee or an iPoo might look like floating around in Cupertino.

And as soon as Microsoft hears about this, they'll set up nine different committees that never talk to each other, to figure out how to make an all-in-one Microsoft E-Potty that will work 8.7 out of 10 times, only occasionally crashing, to leave you with the umber splat of death to deal with in your car.

*

Let me help you solve a mystery. Since Mormons don't drink beer, don't bet on sports (or anything), and don't even drink coffee or tea, what do Mormons do when we get together to have fun?

Well, the short answer is: We eat. If the Brownie hadn't already existed, we would have invented it.

But we can't eat constantly. There are breaks.

Here's a video to show you what can erupt at a family gathering. Somebody will get out the karaoke machine and suddenly everybody's singing a song from Les Miserables.

https://www.ksl.com/?sid=46293944

The point of this video isn't that this singing Mormon family is amazing -- there are some really good voices, and some wonderful moments, but the fun was in the singing, and they weren't trying for, and didn't achieve, concert quality performances.

I mean, let's face it: When your high soprano is a quarter-step flat on the final soaring high note, you're not ready to go on tour yet.

Here's what makes this the quintessential Mormon moment. As you watch the video, keep your eye on the children. The babies are being held -- even while the attending parent is singing. They have to be seriously interfering with the singing before somebody intervenes, and then it's pretty gentle.

Near the end, the child whose head pops up at the bottom of the frame is very quickly redirected by an adult hand. This is the only hint we have that there are older children present in the scene.

What you're seeing is just like a Mormon church service. There are children everywhere, and by and large they're only occasionally and gently disciplined. However, unlike in this video, they are almost never quiet. In fact, as someone who has often attempted a musical performance for a Mormon church meeting, I can tell you that it's usually like bringing a choir to perform in the monkey house at the zoo.

So the miraculous part of this video is that the children are present, but silent. None of the babies onscreen screamed or protested or started begging for something. What are the odds? It might have been a miracle. It might have been cough syrup.

Meanwhile, it reminded me of the halcyon days of my youth, when my brothers and I would render a tight harmony version of "Lonesome Polecat" from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or when the whole family would gather around to sing pretty much anything and everything, as my mom played the piano and sang the melody with her glorious soprano voice.

Were we as good as the family on the video?

In my memory, we were superb. And we hit all the notes spot on. Nobody was off pitch, ever. In fact, I had no concept of what "off-pitch" meant until I was old enough to be aware of amateur performances outside our family. I remember my shock, as I asked my mom, "Can't they hear that they're not hitting the right note?"

Sadly she told me that not only were most people incapable of truly accurate pitch, most people didn't even think it mattered all that much. And as I grew older, I realized she was right.

Gradually I acquired enough patience to forgive Bruce Springsteen for sustaining many notes that are woefully sharp. But never enough patience to make it tolerable to listen to Jefferson Starship (nee Airplane) for even ten seconds, since they clearly thought of "pitch" as the tar with which Noah's Ark was daubed to make it waterproof.

Ever since my stroke a few years ago, I have joined the ranks of singers who can't always be sure that their voices will be on the pitch that the ears require. I'm not sure whether it's a mercy or a curse that I can still hear pitch perfectly, even when I can't produce it with enough accuracy to please myself.

But despite my oh-so-sensitive hearing, I still can't tell any important difference between a CD, an .mp3, and an analog recording -- except that I'm irritated by all the extraneous noise on vinyl. Those "purists" who insist that digital recordings smooth out all the nuances are, in my opinion, discussing the emperor's new clothes.

Nor do I find that my ears care very much whether I'm listening to a CD-quality .WAV file or an .mp3. As long as the pitch is right and the music is well performed, the medium is generally good enough for me.

Besides, no recording can ever capture the intensity of the live performance. And even those who sing along with records are not really getting the deep thrill of being part of an excellent live performance. There's something amazing about singing an oratorio as part of a good choir, or singing a duet with someone whose voice is a fair match for your own, or playing an instrument as part of a good orchestra.

I don't want to go off on an unrelated tangent here (though in fact that's mostly what I do in this column), but it's one of the strange things in our culture that we admire kids who practice their skills in a competitive sport until they are able to dazzle us on the field or the court or in the pool -- but we are often contemptuous of the kid who carries his violin or French horn case to and from school (or lessons).

Carrying a violin to school is traditionally a source of humor -- or a reason to expect to get beaten up. But carrying a baseball mitt or a football helmet is usually a signal of coolness.

Yet when you have acquired enough skill on your instrument (or voice) to take part in an excellent performance, it's every bit as great an athletic achievement as anything done on a basketball court. The trombonist may be manipulating a vibrating column of air instead of a large round ball, but playing a wind instrument requires every bit as much fine and large motor control and coordination as hitting JJ Redick's 90.4% from the free-throw line.

In fact, if you're at professional levels in music performance, hitting the correct note 90.4% will get you fired. In music, the only acceptable percentage is 100. If you can't hit all the notes, exactly on pitch and exactly in time, at the right volume and with the right tone, you're not going to make the team.

But the best thing about musical athleticism is that when the performance is over, nobody walks off the stage as losers. Everybody wins together -- the players and the audience.

So when you think of calling the struggling young musician a dweeb because he carries a violin to school, think again. Every moment of playing the violin requires an astonishing level of perfection, because on this fretless fingerboard, the violinist has to hear the pitch perfectly at every moment, and make micro-adjustments in finger positioning in order to get exactly the right note.

Imagine if a baseball pitcher had to hand-carry the ball all the way to the plate, at speed, in order to get the ball to follow the right trajectory. That's what violinists do all the time.

And, because it's so hard, that's why the string section of every junior high and high school orchestra I've heard in Greensboro is pretty awful. It's way easier to pitch and hit a baseball at the high school level than it is to play a violin or cello with accuracy.

When you hear a kid play one of these fretless string instruments in a pleasing, melodic way, you are witnessing a miracle of human achievement.

And as you watch the video of this family singing, imperfect as they are, keep in mind that the human voice is also a fretless, valveless instrument. You have to know your own vocal cords so well that you know exactly what pitch your throat is about to produce before you begin to make the sound.

So there they stand, gathered around the old couches that have been put down in the basement (it looks like a basement family room to me), singing their parts and blending with each other, acting the parts fairly well, and taking immense pleasure in knowing that they sound pretty darn good together.

(And even though JJ Redick didn't match the 100% effectiveness required of professional musicians, his 90.4% at the line in the 2018 season is a noticeable improvement over his 88.7% last year. So even if he's no virtuoso violinist, he's pretty darn good, and getting better.)

*

Last Friday night, my wife was going to a concert by Gladys Knight and the Saints United Voices. Because there was going to be a huge crowd for two performances, people attending the second performance had to park at a remote location and ride buses back to the church meetinghouse where 900 people would be seated in a space designed for about 300 worshipers in the chapel half and for full-court basketball in the gym half.

That's why I wasn't going. The concert was going to be (and by all accounts was) wonderful, but I don't do well when jammed into a bus where every seat is taken. Even though chances were good that I would be sitting with people I know and like, I just can't do crowded bus travel. I start freaking out pretty early on, and I become surly and nasty to everybody around me until they do me the favor of throwing me off the bus.

Since I opted to skip that whole experience, my wife went without me. And there I was, with nothing official to do on a Friday night. (Heaven forbid I should actually get some work done.)

I checked the movie listings. Anything that looked interesting I had already seen. It came down to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Blockers.

I didn't love the original Jumanji mostly because, you know, Robin Williams being frantic for pay. This time the star was the much more entertaining Dwayne Johnson, so I had some hope for it.

However, I realized that I should really go to something that I knew my wife would never choose to go to, so we could still see Jumanji together.

Therefore I went to Blockers, so that you won't have to.

I know what raunchy comedies look like these days. I saw Bridesmaids and I've seen whole five-minute swathes of the Hangover movies. My wife and I walked out of Bad Teacher. Since then I've seen the rest of it on cable, and our decision was the correct one.

But every now and then, something is promoted like one of these raunchy sex comedies and it turns out to be kind of weirdly wonderful. Case in point: The Sweetest Thing. It is as raunchy as can be. But it's also funny. And the writing is wonderful, so the great cast actually had something to work with.

Did I mention that it's funny? That's what is usually missing from raunchy comedies these days. Starting with There's Something about Mary, there are whole movies in which I don't actually find any reason to laugh, except at the poor performers who have been tricked into saying these lines and doing these stunts and wearing these costumes. Cringe laughs.

My tolerance for raunchiness in movies is pretty high. I didn't walk out of Blockers. I stayed right to the end. Nor was I particularly offended, because the raunchy stuff was so absurd that I couldn't take any of it as actual human behavior.

So you can take this as a complete, absolute pan of the movie. Blockers is in contention to be worst full-budget movie of 2018. I hope I don't see the movie that takes that title away from it.

The only thing worth saying about it, in my opinion, is this: The writers were as confused as they could be. The premise of the movie is that three high school girls decide to lose their virginity on prom night. A sex pact.

The parents get wind of it because of text messages that get echoed on a laptop screen that was carelessly left open, and one parent per daughter takes off on a madcap effort to try to stop the girls from having sex for such a stupid reason.

On the one hand, the only comprehensible reason for the parents to get so agitated about this is that it's a really terrible idea for children to have meaningless sex outside of a longterm relationship (i.e., marriage).

But the writers, being members of our enlightened (i.e., degraded) culture cannot allow that motive to exist on the screen. Every parent in the movie has to give frequent lip service to the idea that of course children will have sex, just as the parents did when they were that age, and it will be lovely and fun, but they shouldn't do it like this, at this time, tonight.

By the end, the parents one by one reconcile with their wayward children; sex is had by all who really want it; some adults have humiliated themselves -- as actors and as characters -- and the most selfish and immature of the parents is the one who comes off with the most surviving dignity.

This story only exists because parents want their children not to have sex before they're old enough to make a longterm commitment. But the writers have to pretend that this is a completely illegitimate motive and the parents should be ashamed of themselves for interfering with their children's fun.

The movie shows some really appalling things going on at the prom and its associated parties; the adults take part in some of them, and are pranked in others. But the fact is that parents who love their children would be sickened by the thought that these events might be the setting for their children's initiation into coitus.

Except we're not supposed to feel that way, says the movie. That would make us Bad Parents.

Really?

What a complete bust the Sexual Revolution was. It was supposed to liberate everybody from the Old Morality. But it really didn't. Because human nature didn't change just because the fashion did.

The claim was that women would be liberated from their (sexual) chains. Sex could become fun!

But by and large, the only people liberated were irresponsible male sexual predators. And now they're being punished for all that alpha-male liberty, because the sexual revolution is being stepped back as we gradually discover that there was a reason for all that chaperoning, and it wasn't to keep women imprisoned. It was to prevent all the rotten stuff that has now polluted our society.

There's something to be said for sexual repression. Not oppression, but just learning how to think about something other than sexual desire. You know, the thing that used to be called "self-control." Now, of course, self-control is laughed at as if it were impossible.

Though in today's sexual politics, males are required to have absolute self-control, and be able to cease all sexual activity when the up-to-now willing partner expresses a doubt about continuing. So it's a weird situation in which, instead of chaperones preventing any kind of sexual congress among respectable dating couples, males have to act contrary to nature and be able to switch off sexual desire at any point in the process.

And I'm all for that rule. No means no!

But I also believe that the best time to say no is before any zippers have unzipped.

Does that make me old-fashioned? Well, duh!

Does it make me wrong? No.

Except that it's unfashionable to speak in favor of chaperonage these days. We have to let our immature youngsters have ample opportunities to embark on stupid, potentially life-wrecking sexual adventures -- but then let the very group with the worst impulse control rely on their own ability to decide when to stop -- and then actually stop.

Chimpanzees are better suited to drive competitively in NASCAR than teenage boys are to use and operate a tumescent protuberance in cooperation with a partner. Brain function plummets during the performance. Why do so many people now talk and act as if this were a new idea that had not already been demonstrated billions of times over the past 10,000 years ... and longer?

I mean, you can't get out of the Book of Genesis without some pretty good demonstrations of the principle that you can't trust young humans to show any sense at all about their responses to the reproductive urge.

So in the insane self-contradiction of every aspect of Blockers, the movie is as perfect an expression as you could wish for of our collective stupidity about sex, as a culture, today.

We give lip service, as a culture, to sexual freedom; but most people still expect their sexual partners to be faithful -- even when their relationship has barely risen to the level of boyfriend-girlfriend. We are more rigid now than when I was a kid, so that after one date with somebody, you have to break up with them before you can date somebody else.

An absolutely stupid "liberation" from the old system, where you had to be "going steady" before a breakup was required.

Movies create and reflect our culture. The chaotic "morality" of Blockers is a symptom of our collective insanity.

And it isn't funny.

Eight Master Classes

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Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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