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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 9, 2003

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


Stop Signs, Trivia, Parks, Flawed Dogs, and Opus

The management of Friendly Center has been doing a great job of making it more and more like a downtown.

One of the nicest things is the three raised brick sidewalks connecting the north buildings (including Barnes & Noble) with the rest of the center, across the busiest street.

It makes it quite pleasant to be a pedestrian -- as long as you're parked somewhere inside the Friendly Center parking area. (Just try to walk there from somewhere else. No pedestrians need apply! Walk from Friendly Avenue onto the shopping center? You take your life in your hands, because there's nowhere to walk but in the middle of a narrow -- and busy -- traffic lane.)

The trouble with those new raised sidewalks is that even though they work like speed bumps, forcing the traffic on the through street to slow down drastically, there are still no stop signs there.

This means that if you're in one of the driveways, either north or south of the main road, and trying to turn either right or left, you have to wait forever. Because you have a stop sign, and the cross traffic doesn't, you have to wait for them to go by.

But since they have to slow to five miles an hour at those crosswalks, you wait a long time. And by the time they've moved past, the next car is just crossing.

Since the cross traffic has to slow down so much, why not bring them to a complete stop? Make all three of those intersections four-way stops, and traffic will actually move more smoothly. The traffic on the main road won't go much slower than it does now -- but the cross traffic will actually have a fair chance to make their turns.

And during the Christmas rush, Friendly Center won't have to hire so many traffic cops to keep things moving.

*

Speaking of Friendly Center, our favorite place to stop for a bite of lunch while walking around and shopping there is Li'l Dino Subs, right next to Cold Stone Creamery across from Barnes & Noble.

It's not a great full-service deli like Lox, Stock, and Bagels (in the Fleet Plummer center on Battleground), but it serves sandwiches, wraps, and pitas that are quite good. A cheerful, relaxing place to eat.

Of course, being next to Cold Stone, dessert is already spoken for ...

*

There are lots of trivia games in the world, but only two that have proven to have staying power.

On television, there's the original trivia game: Jeopardy.

And at home, there's Trivial Pursuit.

Why have these two outlasted all their competitors?

It's not that their questions are easier -- after all, Tic Tac Dough and Hollywood Squares had questions so easy that even Jay Leno couldn't find people unable to answer them.

The difference is in the writing of the questions. That's where the genius comes in.

Most trivia game designers think it's about asking questions where you really have to know the subject matter to get the answer. For instance, questions like "Who was the songwriter of the number 2 hit on the Billboard chart in the third week of 1981?" aren't fun to try to answer. Most people don't choose to socialize with the kind of person who could come up with the correct answer. And most people who could come up with the correct answer don't socialize.

A well-written trivia question -- one that is fun -- will be like this one from the Millennium edition of Trivial Pursuit:

"What TV star of the '60s traveled from one location to another in a water-filled crate?"

Why is this a great question?

Because it's guessable.

There are clues to the answer contained within the question. If you can once get past the assumption that a TV star will be human, you're going to have to think: Fish. Or at least some creature that needs water.

And since there was no TV series called Salmon (or even one called Upstream and starring a salmon), your choices are kind of narrowed down for you.

It's not a complete giveaway. You have to know that there was a TV show about a dolphin, and you have to come up with the name of the title character.

You don't have to have watched the show. You only have to know that it existed, and come up with the rather obvious name.

Or take another question from the same card:

"What Mediterranean country was named for the Vitali tribe?"

Look, neither you nor I ever heard of the Vitali before. How obscure can you get?

Except you're given enough information to guess. If you know where the Mediterranean is, and which countries border it -- rudimentary geographical information, for anyone who attended school in America before they abolished the teaching of geography -- then you can start naming them. And as you name them, you'll notice that one of the names sounds suspiciously similar to the name "Vitali," though it doesn't start with a V. And if you guess that country (no, it's not Libya), then you win, because it's right.

The question writers aren't trying to trick you, they're trying to help you get into the ballpark.

Of course, some questions are simply hopeless. "What NHL franchise is located at 66 Mario Lemieux Place?" Oh, right, like I would know the answer to that. But I'm betting that anybody who knew hockey well enough to know the name Mario Lemieux would probably be able to come up with the city and team he played on.

So you're rewarded for having a lot of knowledge in many areas.

At the same time, you don't have to know everything to an obsessive level of detail, because the question will help you access whatever knowledge you have. My knowledge of geography is extensive; of hocky, nil.

So naturally, when we get to the middle in a game of Trivial Pursuit, the other teams force us to answer sports questions in order to win.

Even there, though, the category is sports and leisure, so it's just possible that I won't have to answer a hockey question. I might get a game -- "What numbers on the first roll of the dice make you crap out?" -- or even something as weird as "What Purina chow is 'so good cats ask for it by name'?"

If you answer "seven, eleven, or doubles" to the first, or "Purina Cat Chow" to the second, then you lose -- but at least you didn't lose because you don't know anything about sports. You lost because you don't know anything at all.

You can't complain about that. You had a chance.

Many times over the years we've picked up trivia games -- about music, history, biography, anything -- and after about a dozen questions we simply give up. Why? Because the questions give you no help.

Sure, they test your knowledge -- but even if you sit and think about it, you'll never figure it out. Whereas with Trivial Pursuit -- and, of course, Jeopardy -- there are enough hints and clues that it's fun to try even if the answer doesn't just pop right into your head.

And don't think that trivia games can't be dangerous. The last couple we played with, they beat us -- but the husband worked his brain so hard he went home and had a mild stroke.

He's doing fine now, but it's kind of flattering to think that somebody has to burn out his brain to beat you at Trivial Pursuit.

It's the next best thing to winning.

*

If some of the books about city planning that I've recommended sound too heavy, look for a copy of William H. Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

This thin book, illustrated with photos and charts, reflects a study Whyte and his team did of small parks and plazas in New York City.

They were trying to determine what makes some parks successful and while others, which seem just as large and pretty, fail completely.

Of course, they started with several assumptions. The most important one was how they decided which parks were successful.

Here's the standard they used: If a lot of people voluntarily spend time in the park, it's successful. The more people who use it, and the more hours during the day that it's used, the more successful it is.

You have to understand, in Greensboro this kind of thinking is quite radical. To measure the success of a public space by the number of people who use it -- why, that's almost democratic.

No, no, Greensboro parks are judged by how few people use them. A crowded park is too full of people. You want a wide open space, right?

Here's what Whyte says: "What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from."

On questionnaires, he says, people say they want to go to a park or plaza "to get away from it all." But what they actually do is quite different.

When people on a busy sidewalk stop to have a conversation, do they move to the edge? No. They stop right in the middle of the traffic flow. (And I thought they were doing it just to annoy me.)

And when people sit down to rest or have lunch in a plaza, do they go to some remote corner? No, they do it as close to the middle of the traffic flow as possible.

In fact, people handle most things about parks and plazas quite democratically. They space themselves out in the seating area. They won't plunk themselves down right next to somebody else until all the other spaces are taken -- so they spread themselves out quite evenly through the available seating areas.

Which brings us to another huge point. One of the main things that makes a park a great space is ... there's somewhere to sit! And the more places there are to sit, the more people will sit there!

That sounds like an obvious point -- but think of how many public spaces seem to be designed to keep you from sitting down. It's as if the fear of having a homeless person actually have a place to rest makes the planners deprive the rest of us.

If you won't want to encourage homeless people to take over a public space, then have so much seating that even after all the homeless people are seated, there's plenty of room for everyone else!

Here's a clue: People don't stay away from parks because bums are sleeping there. They stay away from parks when only the homeless are there.

If it's just you and a ragged homeless person, who might be insane or abusing some kind of substance like wood alcohol, are you going to sit down and relax?

But if there are fifty regular people there, and the same homeless person, your fear becomes negligible.

Places to sit and ... food for sale. I've seen this in London, in DC, in New York, in L.A. When a public space has plenty of places to get quick, cheap food -- newsstands that sell candy, pretzel carts, hot dog stands, even Coke machines -- then people are much more likely to linger.

It's a great book. And when you've looked at all the principles they discovered, it gives you an explanation of why some parks and plazas and shopping areas are crowded, while so many other perfectly lovely spaces in Greensboro are almost never used.

They're so attractive when you drive by them, don't you think?

But should our city's planners really be proud of parks that are virtually empty all the time?

*

Anybody wondering what Berkeley Breathed is doing in these post-Bloom County years?

I mean, besides drawing the wonderful cartoons that were supposedly drawn by the character Walter in Secondhand Lions.

Well, one thing is the wonderfully funny and brilliantly drawn Flawed Dogs. Anything I saw about it will ruin the fun, except that some of the poor pups are so pitiful that you almost want to cry. But I have no compassion, apparently. I laughed anyway.

And for you who don't think Get Fuzzy is a complete substitute for Bloom County, you'll be happy to know that the official Berkeley Breathed website (www.bloomcounty.com), under the title "Opus Returns," reports: "On November 23rd, after an absence of almost ten years, Opus returns to the nation's Sunday comic pages."

And since no Greensboro paper is listed as planning to carry it (though Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Wilmington, Asheville, and Greenville will all have it!), all I can say is: John Hammer, I want my Opus strip!

OK, I know, it'll be in color and the Rhino doesn't do color. I guess I'll just have to drive to Durham every Sunday.


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