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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 13, 2018

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

TacVisor, Searching, All the Boys, Nut-Thins, Pluto

The worst time of year for sunlight dazzlement is winter. With the leaves off the trees, suddenly the early morning or late afternoon sun can blind you whenever you're driving toward it.

You all know what I mean. You're stopped at a red light, but because of the sun's position, you can't look at the traffic signal without blinding yourself. You pull down the visor so your eyes are shielded, but the visor also blocks the traffic light, so how will you know when it turns green?

We've all done that snaky dance, writhing and bending to get a view of the light around the visor, so we're only half-blinded and we can tell when it's safe to go.

But what if we didn't have to do that? What if, when the leaves are off the trees and we have no protection from that dazzling sun, we could pull up to a traffic light and see through the visor, which has just the right amount of protection from sunlight that we can look directly at the traffic signal and see when it turns green?

It's not a what-if anymore. TacVisor now offers a clip-on for your car's visor that allows you to drive toward the sun and still see.

In fact, TacVisor really has two visors. The second one is for night driving, when someone comes toward you with their brights on. You have to keep your eyes on the road, but you're being blinded.

The TacVisor set slides onto your existing visor. No tools. In fact, now that I'm using TacVisor, I never fold down the regular visor -- it's only there to hold the two TacVisor lenses.

Most of the time, I fold the daytime visor forward and the nighttime visor back. Neither is in my way. It took only one day's worth of errands to get used to the slight reflection visible on those two visors -- reflections that were above my line of vision anyway.

But late in the afternoon, when much of my driving involves heading toward the dazzle of the sun, I fold down the daytime visor, pulling it toward me until it's completely vertical.

I can see through it without the slightest interference. But now the sun's dazzle has no particular effect. I can see what color is lighted on traffic signals. I can read signs. I can clearly see all the cars I'm sharing the road with.

Then, at night, as headlights come on, up goes the daytime visor and down comes the nighttime one. Not only does it protect me from oncoming bright headlights, but also it shields me from those inconsiderate signs that business often put up, which shine dazzling lights into the eyes of drivers passing by. Now I'm not blinded by the light.

TacVisor is an idea so obvious that it's shocking that transparent light-blocking visors like this haven't already been standard equipment on all automobiles, period. But since they aren't standard, you have to get your own.

When you go to the website, they try to sell you the daytime visor, and then charge you an extra twenty bucks for the nighttime visor, too. You want them both. They arrive as a single unit with two visors, and installing one installs them both. Worth it.

Then they'll try to get you to buy multiple sets. Count the number of cars you are responsible for, and purchase accordingly. But as long as you come away with one set of day and night TacVisors, you'll come out way ahead on safety.

Here's the website: https://www.tacvisor.com/?mid=9704226&trk_msg=0QV996A4GD6KND6Q9UPK1S2428&trk_contact=C6FOUMANLU9V4NQOS6D2AS4I1S&trk_sid=QPNEVIA6BGKTAFSTQAVJLJ6PAG

*

Blue Diamond Almonds have many virtues -- if you like almonds. For me, an important one is that they don't use peanut oil, so my peanut allergy never kicks in. But the problem has always been that almonds give me a kind of gritty feeling in my mouth. I like them when I start eating, but soon I'm done, and I need to rinse out my mouth (at least) or brush my teeth (best choice, but not while driving).

But I recently came across another Blue Diamond Almonds product: Mini Nut-Thins. These are 90-calorie packets of small gluten-free crackers made of almonds and rice.

The two flavors I've tried, "Hint of Sea Salt" and "Cheddar Cheese" are delicious. The flavors are distinct, but not overdone. Many companies in the chip biz overflavor their products. That's fine for Altoids and SweeTarts, where the point is a burst of flavor. But for chips, it usually becomes too much for me very quickly.

Not the Mini Nut-Thins. In fact, I don't get tired of them at all. Which makes me glad I bought them at Harris Teeter in 90-calorie packs, so that I can keep track of just how many I've eaten in a row.

In my ongoing search for the perfect snack, Blue Diamond Mini Nut-Thins are definitely in the running. https://www.bluediamond.com/brand/nut-thins/original/hint-of-sea-salt

*

The movie Searching is the story of a father, David Kim (John Cho, first known for the Harold & Kumar movies and, later, Star Trek), whose teenage daughter goes missing.

I assumed this was going to be yet another Bring Back My Daughter Or I'll Kill You Twice movie, and I wasn't interested.

Instead, reviews and promos made it clear that John Cho doesn't have ninja or Navy Seal skills. He's just a dad who begins to discover that pretty much everything he thought he knew about his daughter is untrue -- while other people close to him knew it, and hadn't told him.

He thought she had stayed all night with a study group. But a few days later, he learns that the study group closed up at 9:00 p.m., and nobody there has any idea where his daughter, Margot (Michelle La) went.

Her Facebook reveals to him that she doesn't have many friends. And he's embarrassed by how little information he can provide to Detective Vick (Debra Messing), who is surprisingly active in searching for Margot. In TV shows you always see missing-persons detectives as being reluctant to take such cases seriously, but Vick is sympathetic and involved right from the start.

Searching turns out to be a mystery, not a revenge adventure, and above all, it's an exploration of how little (and yet how much) parents and children know about each other -- and yet the lengths they will go to in order to protect them, if they can.

The writers, Aneesh Chaganty (also the director) and Sev Ohanian do a brilliant job of telling almost the entire story through screens. We watch the pointer moving across laptop screens, we see videos in smartphone screens, there are scenes we view only through surveillance cameras.

Now, sometimes that means that the audience gets as impatient as we do while we're waiting for stuff to load on our tablets, phones, or computers -- but then, dragging things out a little to beef up the suspense is a time-honored thriller technique. Trust me, things will happen quite soon enough.

Because nothing blows up and nobody fires a gun, there isn't much footage to promote Searching as an exciting summer movie. But this film is so full of power and truth that adults and teenagers will enjoy it. A lot. Without getting all John-Hughesy about it, we're shown a lot of truth about high school life, and how a person can be invisible without anybody actually picking on her.

You don't need enemies to be miserable. It's enough just to have no friends.

Catch it in the theater, where you can see the fine print on the screens. And be prepared for masterful acting by all the actors -- leads and small roles alike. This is a story about people, not things that go boom, and yet it may be one of the most exciting, tense movies of the year.

*

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a 2018 high school romantic comedy that I never heard of until our daughter recommended it to us. We found it on NetFlix and watched it this week. In fact, we watched it the night after watching Searching.

Once again, we had an Asian girl (well, half-Korean) at the center of the story, but this one is definitely meant to be as John-Hughesy as possible. Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor) reads a lot of romance novels, and experiences her real life as if it were being written up the same way.

She's been "in love" with five boys in her life -- but never said a thing to any of them. Instead, she wrote each one a love letter at the time, and put each letter in a fully addressed envelope. But she never affixed a stamp. Instead, she keeps them in a blue cloth-covered box on the top shelf in her closet.

Meanwhile, she's facing a crisis. Her older sister, Margot (Janel Parrish) is heading off to university -- in Scotland. And before going, she broke up with her boyfriend, who lives next door -- Josh (Israel Broussard). Lara Jean was best friends with him growing up, and she was just realizing that she was in love with him when he started dating her sister.

So what does it mean that Margot broke up with him? Because we live in a perverse society, where the only vow that means anything is boyfriend-girlfriend, while married people seem to be fair game, Lara Jean knows that she can't give Josh the slightest hint that she wishes he would notice her in a boyfriendy kind of way.

But in the midst of her misery, somebody takes that cloth-covered box and, to Lara Jean's horror, not only does Josh get his letter -- a really passionate one -- but so do the other four boys.

Now, two of them live far away, but two others go to her school. One, Peter (played by current teen heartthrob Noah Centineo), is the boyfriend of Lara Jean's former best friend and nemesis.

But when Peter breaks up with said ex-friend, he and Lara Jean, spurred by Lara Jean's old letter, enter into a deal in which they pretend to be dating in order to make Peter's ex insanely jealous, and in order to keep Josh from thinking that Lara Jean actually meant anything said in that letter.

That's right -- it's a comedy of deception and misunderstanding in which people keep misunderstanding others' -- and their own -- desires and feelings.

Yet this doesn't mean it's predictable. For one thing, the characters are all interesting and delightful -- especially, in my opinion, Lara Jean's little sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart). John Corbett, as the father of these three girls, does a wonderful job of being kind, loving, and oblivious.

In a way, To All the Boys I've Loved Before is kind of the opposite of Searching -- but it's still quite wonderful. The kids in one movie are all having a very different high school life from the kids in the other -- yet they're not only plausible but highly entertaining. It's worth streaming, for both teenagers and parents.

*

I first became aware of Michael Korda back in 1975, when his book Power! topped the bestseller lists and helped inspire a generation of writers and filmmakers with his Machiavellian views on how to assert power in the business world.

But Korda was a real player in the publishing industry, serving as editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster for more than forty years. And because he was born in England in 1933, son of a noted English stage actress, Gertrude Musgrove, and of Hungarian-Jewish artist and film production designer Vincent Korda, he had a unique perspective on the early days of World War II in England.

His uncle was film magnate Sir Alexander Korda, and this had perhaps the greatest influence on his and his family's life at that time, because Winston Churchill regarded it as very important for Alexander Korda to produce films to support the war effort, and so Korda bent his life to help Churchill's cause.

No, he didn't make open propaganda films for the British public, but rather made Hollywood epics that would make American audiences develop powerful sympathy and admiration for the British people in their struggle against Nazism.

Now, with a memoir-cum-history called Alone, Korda writes a very personal account of what his family was doing during the years when Britain maneuvered to try to stay out of war -- and then, with Churchill at the helm, to fight and win it. But he interlaces it with a thoroughly researched history of those events.

His account of the miracle of Dunkirk may be the best I've read, because he digs down past the myth. Without taking anything away from Churchill, Korda carefully documents the role of Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who was in charge of the Channel Fleet -- a rag-tag collection of aging destroyers that were not likely to be able to accomplish anything.

But as the British Expeditionary Force retreated toward Dunkirk, Ramsay, an old retired sea dog called back into the service because he had Churchill's trust, realized that the army was going to lose, and he's the one who found and assessed all the small ships and large boats that eventually made up the Dunkirk evacuation armada. Churchill gave the command to set things in motion -- but all the preparation had been done to make obedience to that command possible.

The story is all the better because of this. And Korda offers a lot of details about things that are generally glossed over in larger histories -- such as how unpopular was the forced evacuation of working-class children from the south of England to the north, where they were foisted on largely unwilling strangers who somehow had to feed and protect them.

Alone ends pretty much where Darkest Hour ended -- yet it gives us a fresh perspective that doesn't so much contradict as augment that excellent movie. If you liked Darkest Hour -- or even its much weaker companion film, Dunkirk -- I think it's very likely that you'll enjoy reading Alone.

Or listen to the audiobook, because it's splendidly read by John Lee. It's only a thirteen-hour listen, and my interest in it never flagged. (You have to download it from Audible, because apparently they have a monopoly on selling it.)

One of the most maddening things in Alone is the account of the incompetence and jealousies of the British and French and Belgian commanders during the German invasion. Victory might not have been possible, but with zero coordination and nobody making bold and gutsy decisions, the Germans were essentially handed the battlefront on a silver platter.

But even more outrageous than the lack of command was the behavior of French and Belgian railroad workers. The survival of their nations' independence was at stake, but the railroad workers were on strike -- and therefore refused to load any of the artillery, ammunition, or supplies onto their trains.

And, to my amazement, the military did not compel cooperation with the threat or use of force. So I hope that those striking railworkers enjoyed how much freedom their labor unions would have under the Nazi occupation which they did so much to promote.

That's the danger of not instilling patriotism as one of the highest allegiances in a nation that wishes to maintain its independence. When you have citizens who place their labor union above their country, you pretty much deserve to fall.

*

A friend of mine is reading the Harry Potter series in French, as I've been reading it in Portuguese, in order to refresh and advance our understanding of each language -- in books where we already care about the characters and have a pretty good idea of what's happening, so we can eke our way through unfamiliar vocabulary.

I'm not sure how much I'll use my newly acquired vocabulary of witchcraft and magic in daily conversation with Brazilian friends, but it's fun to feel my old fluency come back a little.

I had the same experience years ago, as a proofreader at Brigham Young University Press, when I was assigned to proofread the Spanish-language portions of a new edition of the journals of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition that explored the Rocky Mountain west in 1776, when it was still part of Mexico.

(Fortunately, they didn't have a border wall, so my ancestors were free to wander in 68 years later and establish an anglophone colony in what later became Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho.)

By the time I had finished proofing many pages of old-fashioned Spanish, I was actually able to converse in Spanish better than I ever had back when I was actually studying it. So reading long narratives in a foreign language is an excellent refresher course in a foreign language you already know (or once knew)

My French-reading friend alerted me to an interesting language-learning web service called Transparent Language.

As a sort of come-on, Transparent Language offers a Word of the day email in many languages. She's getting a French word each day, and I'm getting a Portuguese one. https://www.transparent.com/word-of-the-day/today/portuguese.html

Now, so far they have never shown me a word I didn't already know, but since it comes with a sentence and, if you want, an oral pronunciation of it, I find it interesting and useful.

Transparent Language's main offerings, though, are complete language learning systems -- requiring time and thought, but at a reasonably low cost. I can't vouch for their effectiveness, but I can certainly appreciate their breadth of selection.

Available languages include the major foreign languages for Americans to learn -- French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek, Hindi and Urdu, Russian and Ukrainian, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Swahili, and Italian. They also some wonderfully obscure yet important languages, like Finnish, Welsh, Tamil, Tagalog, Icelandic, Breton, Dutch, Nepali, Yoruba, Haitian Creole, and Hebrew.

If the Dutch option sounds interesting to you, keep in mind that if you actually visit the Netherlands, you'll find that everyone grew up listening to the BBC, so almost every Netherlander I met there spoke English rather better than I did. So perhaps you'll want to invest your language-learning efforts on a language from a place where you might actually need to use it.

Check out the whole list of available languages at https://www.transparent.com/personal/transparent-language-online.html#available-languages

*

Is Pluto a planet after all?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) definition of "planet" -- the one used to disqualify Pluto as a planet -- is somewhat questionable. The definition includes the requirement that the planet must be the major object in its orbit, and must have cleared all other objects out of its path.

That's why Pluto was disqualified. Its orbit is eccentric, and it passes through the orbit of Neptune, so that at various times Neptune is the outermost planet, and Pluto is between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune.

But why is that clear orbit essential for the definition of a planet? That means that the presence of another planet can interfere with Pluto's planetness, which is just silly. How can Neptune keep Pluto from being a planet?

Furthermore, all the planets interfere with each other -- we only found Neptune and Pluto because each caused the orbit of the next inward planet to wobble just enough that astronomers could deduce the presence of another planet farther out. Pluto was planet enough to make Neptune wobble.

Some astronomers are lobbying for a much simpler definition of "planet" that consists of only one requirement: If the object has enough mass that its own gravity has formed it into a spheroid shape, then it's a planet.

In other words, if it's generally round, it's a planet. If it's lumpy and misshapen, it's an asteroid or comet.

By that definition, Pluto is definitely a planet -- as it should be. But there are quite a few other objects out in the Kuiper Belt and beyond that would also qualify as planets, because they're big enough to form a spheroid (and some are larger than Pluto).

For instance, there's the "dwarf planet" Quaoar in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, which is large enough to have a moon tagging along -- Weywot. Its discovery in 2002 was the reason that Pluto was disqualified as a planet, because astronomers wanted a category to toss such random planetesimals in without making schoolchildren memorize an ever-longer list of too-small-to-care-about planets.

Not making schoolchildren (or their teachers, for that matter) have to pronounce Quaoar was an act of kindness.

But taking away Pluto's planetary status was downright mean. Quaoar is only 800 miles in diameter (Pluto is 1400 miles) but it's round and orbits the Sun.

Another beyond-Pluto planetoid is Sedna, which is between 800 and 1100 miles in diameter (we haven't had as good a look at it as we have with Quaoar). So far, Sedna is the largest known object in the Solar System beyond the orbit of Pluto, though we can't be sure we won't find even bigger ones later on.

Look, I don't belong to the Astronomical Union, and unless you do, you're under no obligation to obey them. Since there is an excellent definition of "planet" that includes Pluto -- and Sedna and Quaoar -- I say call 'em all planets and have done with it.

And if you refer to the planet Pluto, and some know-it-all tries to correct you, then you are free to put on your own know-it-all face and say, "Apparently you believe whatever the Astronomical Union tells you, but I work with the rational definition of planets as objects massive enough for their own gravity to make them spheroid. What definition are you using?"

Because this busybody probably doesn't know the actual criteria for defining a planet used by the IAU, you're going to have to tell them. If you're the guy explaining to him why he believes the unkind rumors he's been told about Pluto, you out-smarty-pants the smarty-pants. And that's always fun to do.

https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/276605-new-research-makes-the-case-for-pluto-as-a-planet?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=whatsnewnow&utm_medium=image

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
A Town Divided by Christmas

Available November 6, 2018

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Over five hours of insight and advice.

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