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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 27, 2004

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


Missed Connections, Qdoba, and Books

It's not really Delta's fault.

Oh, I know, it feels like it's their fault, as you sit on the runway in Greensboro.

Sure, the airplane pushed back from the gate right on time. But as soon as you got out into the taxiway, the pilot came on the intercom and said, "Due to crowded conditions in Atlanta, air-traffic control has told us to stay on the ground here for a while. Looks like we won't be taking off for another half hour."

So you sit ... watching your tight connection in Atlanta fade away.

Sometimes you can understand it -- Atlanta has a wave of thunderstorms, for instance.

But it happens often enough that you begin to wonder: Have they simply overscheduled Atlanta so that even on completely clear days with no problems, they always make some airplane in some unimportant city sit on the tarmac for half an hour? Do they merely hope that by varying the city, the same passenger won't get stuck every time?

And if they knew they were going to hold us on the ground for half an hour, why did they board the plane so that we're trapped on this teeny-weeny milking stools they call "seats" instead of being able to go get some kind of treat or book or magazine or drink in the airport?

That's bad enough, but then you find yourself flying in to Atlanta from Los Angeles or New York or Madrid, and Atlanta is having bad weather, so all flights are delayed. But when you land, your connecting flight is already gone. It left on time, you see.

Wait a minute. If traffic was so stacked up that you couldn't get runway time to land for forty-five minutes, how did they manage to find runway time for your connecting flight to take off right on time?

It's simple enough. The government did it.

Not maliciously. Nobody said, How can we make life miserable for passengers? In fact, the goal was to keep airplanes flying on time.

So the FAA collects statistics on "on-time departures."

But what is a "departure"? It's a closed door at the gate. Not an airplane actually taking off.

So that flight that sat on the ground in Greensboro for half an hour is an "on-time departure" in the stats submitted to the FAA.

And so is your connecting flight out of Atlanta, which took off half-empty while all the passengers were circling the airport waiting for runway time during bad weather.

It used to make sense to count gate-closings as "departures"--back when statistics were kept on paper. The time the door closes was the only thing that could be observed and recorded by a guy with a clipboard at the gate.

So when the FAA wanted to help consumers by publishing the comparative statistics about which airlines had the best ontime departure records, all they could actually count were the times when the doors closed.

That pretty much forced the airlines to adopt policies like Delta's. If you need to delay a flight, don't tell them until they've already pushed back from the gate. That way it still counts as an on-time departure, even though it really takes off half an hour late.

If you don't do deceptive things like that, and the other airlines do, then your stats will look worse than theirs and you'll lose customers, even though you're giving better service!

Ditto with keeping arriving planes in the air while the planes already on the ground take off half empty because their passengers are still circling. With computer systems, the airline could easily hold some of those planes until their passengers could land and make the connection. But there's no incentive to do so -- and there's a strong incentive to send the planes away without their passengers.

The only solution is at the government level. Stop counting gate-closings as "departures."

Instead, let the FAA start collecting stats on missed connections. Count the passengers who took off in one city, intending to connect with a flight in Atlanta or Cincinnati or Salt Lake City, but didn't arrive in time to make it to their next flight.

Then the airlines would have an incentive to strive for the lowest missed-connection stats in the business.

They'd hold your next flight on the ground until you and the other circling passengers have a chance to get on board.

They'd track all the passengers in flight and keep adjusting the gate assignments and departure times at the hub airports until all but a handful of people are able to make their connections and get to their destinations on the flights they originally booked -- even when the weather is bad.

Just a tiny little change in FAA statistics, and the days of sitting on the runway in Greensboro for half an hour, or wandering the terminals in Atlanta for five hours, would be over.

But ... wait a minute. That would actually benefit customers. Citizens. Neither the airlines nor the FAA have any real interest in doing that. What was I thinking?

*

So we tried out the Qdoba restaurant at Friendly Center the other day. The concept is to do burritos the way Subway does sandwiches. People line up, tell their choices to the counter workers, and watch them make the burritos in an assembly line.

There are some good choices available, as long as you don't mind damp, rubbery reheated tortillas that are folded up into a wad around the stuffings. We mostly finished our food, and nobody got sick. So it's better than some other chains.

Qdoba -- food in a wad! Quite an advertising slogan, don't you think?

Maybe not. I think that when we're in the mood for quick, delicious Mexican food, we'll be at Baja Fresh on Westover Terrace a block north of the Wendover overpass. There the tortillas are fresh, and while you don't get to watch the food getting made, it's more appetizing when you get it.

*

Dean Koontz was once a writer of tight, fast, thrilling fiction with characters you care about.

In recent years, his stories have grown more thoughtful and wise, with strong religious overtones that many readers have appreciated.

Unfortunately, at the same time he has begun to indulge in colorful writing, constantly searching for metaphors, similes, and obscure dictionary words, while taking every opportunity to rhyme or alliterate his prose.

The result is that when anything happens, we always stop cold to have the character think about it using five sentences that constantly search for just the right phrasing but never quite get there.

I wish Koontz would go back to dancing with the boy that brung him to the dance. It was clarity and power in his language that got him where he is -- beside our beds or on our bookshelves.

So it is with The Taking. There's really only a novella's worth of story here, but once stretched by Koontz's newly pretentious writing, it fills out to be a book-length read.

In this story, novelist Molly Sloan and her husband Neil wake up in their house in the California mountains and fine that a weird glowing rain is falling, the animals are acting weird, and the news media are reporting strange, and then terrible, events all over the world.

The largest storm in history, fed by waterspouts from the ocean, are followed by attacks by grim creatures that torture and torment people before killing them.

Molly finds that her father, a convicted child-murderer, has taken advantage of this chaos to escape from a mental hospital, and other monsters, human and non-, are on the prowl. Yet in the midst of this horror, she finds a noble work to do, until she comes face to face with the truth about the alien enemy who has come to earth to harvest the human race.

It's a good and moving story, clumsily told -- by a writer who once knew better.

*

Kate White's mystery novel 'Til Death Do Us Part returns to freelance crime writer Bailey Weggins. It seems Bailey was bridesmaid to Peyton Cross, a Martha Stewart wannabe, but now the other bridesmaids are dying like flies and the police are treating all the deaths as nothing more than accidents.

Some photos of the wedding seem to be important, as is an overheard conversation from the night of the rehearsal dinner. With the police dismissing the whole thing as coincidence, Bailey has no choice but to investigate, if only to protect herself in case the killer goes after her next.

Kate White writes with vigor and humor. You won't get confused and think you're reading Tolstoy or even Jane Austen, but you will have a good time watching Bailey struggle to find answers, love, and safety ... in that order.

*

Award-winning young-adult-fiction writer Avi has created a delightful medieval mystery with Midnight Magic. A boy named Fabrizio is the only loyal servant of Mangus the Magician, who narrowly escaped being executed for working the "dark arts." What Mangus knows -- and Fabrizio sometimes believes -- is that his "magic" is all illusion. There are no dark arts.

Yet Mangus is summoned to the castle of the king, who demands that he use his magical powers to free his daughter from the ghost that is haunting her. Fabrizio is determined to help his master, and at first it seems he's doing a great job, as the haunted princess tells him things that no one else knows ... and lets him be present for one of the ghost's midnight appearances.

By the end, the novel has become not only a mystery but a thriller, with Fabrizio in the thick of things, trying to save his master's life and stop an evil counselor from taking over the kingdom. And we've spend a lot of time in secret passages that seem to flow through the castle like holes in cheese.

An excellent book for the young readers in your life.

*

Jane Yolen's retelling of Arthurian legend, Sword of the Rightful King, is more appropriate for slightly older readers, as she deals candidly with all aspects of the coarse life of Dark-Ages Britain. The major players include young King Arthur, whose throne is in constant jeopardy; old Merlinnus, who is determined to keep him on the throne no matter what it takes; the ambitious and evil Morgause, who will stop at nothing to wrest the throne from Arthur; and Morgause's son Gawaine, who is determined to be a good knight despite his mother's machinations.

The struggle for hearts and minds, using both honor and trickery, makes for interesting reading, and though Yolen holds to the main outlines of the traditional story, she brings in enough surprises to keep readers guessing.

*

James Lee Burke is one of the finest novelists working today, and his newest book, In the Moon of Red Ponies, is a complete explanation of why.

Normally I dread it when, in a mystery series, an arch-villain from an earlier book comes back. Usually it means that the author has run out of either money or imagination.

And since Burke's novels about Billy Bob Holland are his very best, I hated the thought that Wyatt Dixon, a truly sick bad guy from a previous novel, had been let out of prison early. I assumed we'd get the same sick story over again.

I should have trusted Burke. Dixon is used in a fascinating way, and while he keeps popping up everywhere in the story, like strep throat in a grade school, it isn't really about him -- it's about an Indian activist and his girlfriend, the daughter of a Montana politician, who are getting in the way of a man who knows what real power is and uses it to make troubles go away.

The moral dilemmas are agonizing, and Billy Bob Holland doesn't always make the best choices, especially when his enemies just won't believe that he doesn't know the information that they're determined to get from him no matter what the cost.

*

William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. Thousands of ships that in recent years have essentially been set free from any kind of control. Some are owned by terrorists, and they sail to virtually unsupervised ports. Free enterprise -- but it leads to dead sailors as unsafe ships are pushed to make one last voyage to squeeze the last ounce of profit from them. Crews are often exploited or endangered mercilessly, though they tend to come from places where life at sea is actually an improvement. There are promising movements toward reform, but in many ways it's a battle between the third world and the first world. Tighter regulation will only drive the most desperate profiteers to new routes that avoid the inspections that might save the lives of their sailors -- by dismantling the ship, which means throwing the crew out of work and the ship's owners, perhaps, into financial ruin.

*

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story looked like a profoundly stupid movie even in the previews. And it stars Ben Stiller, whom I rarely enjoy. So why did I go?

Because of the wrenches. Rip Torn throwing wrenches. It made me laugh out loud when I saw the trailer, and I laughed again, often, when I saw the extended sequence in the movie.

There is so much to hate about this movie. Its level of humor is only a tiny bit above the Police Academy movies. I'm sure the filmmakers thought they were making a parody of that kind of comedy, but how can you make fun of something that is already about as low as it can go?

The truth is, though, that their aim was higher: This movie wanted to be Revenge of the Nerds meets The Bad News Bears. And there were whole moments where it succeeded.

And long sequences where it failed.

But look, you won't be going to see Dodgeball unless you want to switch your brain off in the first place. There are things in this movie so horrible that you're embarrassed to be laughing at them. But ... embarrassed or not, I did laugh.

The best bits, apart from Rip Torn, who always steals every scene he's in, are the cameos. William Shatner and Jason Bateman are fine, and Chuck Norris is good for a chuckle, but David Hasselhoff's bit made me laugh till I cried. And Lance Armstrong almost elevated the movie to the level of being worthwhile.

An actor to watch for: Justin Long isn't just a type -- he might be capable of doing wonderful things in other movies. He has a future, I hope.

Meanwhile, if you have time to kill and money that you don't mind flushing, why not kill it and/or flush it at Dodgeball? I promise you, it won't rot your brain as much as Michael Moore's latest film. That's kind of like a guarantee, isn't it?


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