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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 10, 2005

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


Czechmate, Runescape, Fujitsu, Jokes, Hoopla, Telepaths

It is absurd to have a country whose name is an adjective. The Czech Republic has persisted for too many years without becoming a noun. Just like people who wait too long to name their new baby so the government names the kid for them, it's time to impose a name on this country and move on.

Some have tried "Czechia" but it just sounds stupid. Plus, it's too similar to the infamous "Chechnya." Even "Czechmate" would be better than that.

Nor should we try to use the old name "Bohemia"; it already has too many countercultural associations that have nothing to do with the Czechfolk.

The obvious choice is to use the simple Anglo-Saxon word "land." "Czechland" sounds like a country, not a new banking service. It goes right along with Poland, Finland, Holland, Iceland, Thailand, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Disneyland, and Ireland.

A close second choice, for me at least, is to follow Norway's precedent and call it "Czechway." We need more "way" countries, so that "Safeway" will sound like a real place. ("Czechistan" is out of the question.) And no, we can't follow the precedent of "Vatican," even though it would be so fun to say, "Czechican -- the only country cool enough to be named after a pop diva."

For those who protest that we should wait and adopt the Czechs' own name for their countr y, should they ever decide on one, I answer: Why? We speak English, not Czech. We don't call Germany "Deutschland" or Italy "Italia" or Japan "Nippon" or Spain "España" or France "France."

Well, OK, we spell France the way the French do, but it sounds prissy and phony to pronounce it, when speaking English, the way the French do when speaking French. "Fraunce": It makes you feel like you're playing the butler in a black-and-white British movie.

Let the Czechs wrestle with their self-naming problems. For me, from now on, the country just south of Poland and just north of Hungary is Czechland. (Except for the righthand part, which is Slovakia.)

Or maybe Czechmark. It works for the Danes.

*

It's just a little disturbing when your eleven-year-old daughter talks cheerfully about how, when she picks the same guy's pocket more than once, he always catches her at it.

Is this really what we own a computer for? So my daughter can learn to steal?

The answer is a resounding Yes. Because her pocket picking is done within the realm of Runescape, an online fantasy world for young gamers that is all the rage in the fifth grade right now.

The game does not in fact teach kids to pick pockets in the real world, any more than reading mystery novels or watching Murder She Wrote causes people to interfere with police investigations.

In a way, this game is more like training for real life. When you start out, you're taken through a training course, where you learn how to bake bread, how to start fires, how to catch and shear sheep so you can make clothing from the wool. You learn to mine ore and smelt it, then shape it into tools.

You end up getting a pretty detailed course in every aspect of medieval life. Except that magic works, and there's no droit de seigneur..

A lot of the game is actually kind of tedious and repetitive. You have to do each activity a lot before your online character gets good at it. And if you try to do something hard before your character has had enough practice, you can get killed.

But "killed" is a relative term. You do go back and start over -- but you get to be "revived" with the three best items you had with you when you bought the farm. This is a wonderful feature for young and beginning players -- the consequences for bad mistakes are noticeable but not devastating. You're encouraged to continue.

Why do kids so avidly play a game that requires them to do the computer-world equivalent of washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and practicing the piano for hours on end?

One reason is because you're not playing alone. It's not just you against the computer -- the other players connected over the internet are able to chat with you (or ignore you, if you make yourself irritating). So friends in the real world make appointments to show up in Runescape at the same time, so they can show each other cool things they've found or help each other solve problem or puzzled.

Just as in real life, even boring, tedious tasks can be fun if you have good company.

And if you don't want to play a game of constant fighting with other players, you can. Player-against-player combat only takes place in "the wilderness"; stay in the civilized areas, and your only enemies will be computer-controlled figures, which you can learn to overcome without any confrontations with fellow players. And if you want, you can avoid combat almost entirely.

There are quests, some dangerous, some merely exploratory; when you succeed, there are rewards. And the graphics are delightful, and well adapted to the limitations of communications over the internet.

It's a great game for kids ... and not a bad one for adults who come along for the ride. You can join anytime

And the best part is ... it's free.

Yes, that's what I said. You can play for hours, days, weeks without paying a thing.

Of course, about half the world of Runescape is accessible only to members -- people who pay a monthly fee. But do you know what you pay every month to have full access? Five dollars. Less than the price of a movie ticket each month, and you can go anywhere and do anything that's possible in this well-designed fantasy world.

The only drawback is that you're going to start hearing your kid say things like, "I got swarmed by hobgoblins last time, so I'm going to stay in town for a while and pick pockets till I get really good at it."

I mean, she could be joining a gang, right? Or watching Spongebob Squarepnts. So I'm content.

*

Years ago we started buying Dell computers and never had any particular reason to change. My constant computer has been whatever the top-of-the-line widescreen Inspiron Notebook Dell was selling when I felt the need to upgrade. Since I make my living using a computer, it makes sense to invest in the best there is.

Whenever I travel somewhere, meaning to stay for weeks at a time -- like last September, when I was in LA for a month directing a play -- then the Inspiron goes with me.

But when I'm on a trip that has me hopping from one town to another on airplanes, lugging that Inspiron through airports is no fun. It's heavy, it's big, and even with a wheeled computer bag (Tumi, from Sharon Luggage; highly recommended, if you're serious about carrying a laptop), I get weary of the burden.

Especially because, contrary to what people assume about writers, I don't always get to fly first class. And when I try to set up that big screen on an airplane tray table, the keyboard ends up pressed against my over-abundant belly, where I have to twist my wrists painfully in order to type.

And when I've just settled in to start working despite the pain, the person in front of me leans back, folding the screen toward me, so I can no longer read it.

Fine. I'll read a book.

Except sometimes I'm pushing a deadline, and I can't afford not to use the flying time for work.

So I decided to splurge on another computer -- another laptop, of all things.

I first tried that little toy Sony VGN-71 with a screen the size of a PDA and no keyboard at all, though you can add one on. I found that the screen was simply too small to hold enough text on the word processor to see what I had written. It was like writing with my eyes closed. It was also hard to get it to stand up in a good viewing position.

Besides, the version I got was a Japanese import, which had been almost perfectly adapted for U.S. use by Dynamism.com -- but it still had a Japanese keyboard layout, which meant constant annoyance as I hit the wrong keys. I didn't want to have to go back and forth between keyboards like that.

Also, for some reason it simply crashed AOL every time I ran it. I'm not about to change an email address I've had for more than a decade, so ...

I returned the computer, eating the restock fee. (Which, contrary to disgruntled rumor, is perfectly fair. They can't sell that computer as new to someone else without doing some repackaging and maintenance, at least; why shouldn't I pay for the extra work and materials I cost them, just because I changed my mind.)

Then I bought the little Fujitsu Lifebook P7010D, and I'm in love.

For one thing, I get more than six hours of use from the two-battery configuration. That gets me to LA with power to spare, typing (or playing Freecell) all the way.

For another, even though the screen is small enough to use on one of those cramped mini-jets, it's wide -- movie-screen shaped -- so I can have multiple programs open and see them all at once. The keyboard is actually a little better than the one on my Inspiron -- the keys travel farther and give more feedback -- and it doesn't hurt my feelings to have 80 gigs. It has 80 gigs on the hard drive and a faster processor than my aging Inspiron, too.

It does everything I need it to do, and it feels like it weighs almost nothing as I carry it through airports. I don't need a wheeled case when I travel with this machine.  A strap works just fine, without breaking down my poor aging bursitis-prone shoulder.

If you need a powerful travel computer that weighs little, lasts long, and does everything, this one should be the first on your list.

*

I was a devoted fan of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on public radio for many years, especially his "News from Lake Woebegone." (I finally gave up on him when, like so many other self-destructive performers, he decided to shut out half of America from his audience by making vicious and unamusing jabs at President Bush.)

Still, when he's not wearing his mindlessly PC heart on his sleeve, Keillor is one of the great humorists in American history, so we felt pretty safe in letting our daughter have the 4-CD set of A Prairie Home Companion: Plenty of Pretty Good Jokes, starring Keillor himself, Paula Poundstone, Roy Blount, Jr., Calvin Trillin, and Monteria Ivy.

Practically every joke you ever laughed at -- or groaned at -- in your life is in this program, genially retold by comics who know they're telling lame old jokes but love them anyway.

What I had forgotten was that kids memorize jokes -- and retell them. So I have heard almost the entire catalogue of jokes, some of them several times each.

But you know what? It's way better than listening to synopses of episodes of Fairly Odd Parents, and besides, she's actually learning how to tell jokes well -- like, for instance, how important it is to remember the punch line exactly.

This is an important skill (unless, like me, you decide early in life that you will never, ever tell a joke as long as you live, especially not if it comes from Reader's Digest).

The family that laughs together feeds giraffes isn't fighting or ignoring each other.

*

You can't play Trivial Pursuit every time you have game-playing guests over.

For one thing, not everybody knows or cares enough about obscure facts to enjoy the process of humiliating themselves by revealing that they have no idea of the difference between Budapest and Bucharest or which one is the capital of Hungary and which of Romania. (Some of them are so insecure that they don't realize that nobody knows what country Prague is the capital of.)

There's a reason they call it "trivia." It doesn't matter. But try telling that to somebody who's screaming at you, "It's MacDonald! Whenever it's a question about Canada the answer is MacDonald!"

What you need, for a convivial evening with nonobsessive friends whose company you actually wish to enjoy, is a game that promotes conversation -- and which people who never actually heard anything their teachers said in school can do well at.

I've got two such games to recommend. One is Hoopla, a Cranium spinoff where the real fun comes from watching your friends agonize over how to draw the concept "rebel," or act out "delicate," or define "tea" by using only words that start with M or P.

The other is Telepaths, which has two-player teams moving around the board by trying to match what their partner writes, after looking at a picture or reading a particular word. Depending on the square you land on, you can only write down five or six or seven or eight words or phrases, and out of that number, you only get to move according to the number of matches you get.

So you try to guess what approach your partner will take. Like the time we had a picture of a horse. One of us wrote "horse, mane, tail, hoof, stallion, mare, foal." The other wrote "horse around play fly high sense pony." And then ridiculed each other for taking such different approaches. Very entertaining. Even for the arguing couple, who had been married for twenty-eight years and still hadn't a clue how the other one thinks.

("You're a writer," she said. "I thought you'd think of words, not just sit there and list the parts of a horse!")


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