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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 29, 2007

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


Sports, Talking Appliances, and Evil Software

I like sports as much as the next guy.

No, sorry, I was thinking of someone else. I actually don't care much about sports. They didn't change my life, except that sports as a kid turned me into an adult who doesn't care much about sports.

I keep hearing all kinds of wonderful things that playing sports are supposed to do for kids.

Teaching them teamwork, for instance. But doesn't playing an instrument in a band or orchestra teach the same thing? What about singing in a chorus? You can get a lot more than five or nine or eleven kids going at once, and nobody can hog the ball.

So I listened to Brian Kilmeade's recording of his own books, It's How You Play the Game and The Games Do Count with more than a little skepticism.

The concept is simple but rather nice: Celebrities from various walks of life tell why sports were important to them growing up. Kilmeade (a morning personality on the Fox New Channel) then adds some of his own commentary and we move on to the next celeb.

Most of the stories are interesting, some are moving, and only a few are tedious.

Kilmeade does a pretty good job of narrating the audiobook (except for his tendency to swallow the headings, so that the very things that should tell us where we are in the manuscript are almost inaudible sometimes).

The only real disaster is their attempt to include actual recordings of the real celebrity speaking. These are often so rough that you truly cannot understand what is being said in a moving car with road noise as a distraction.

But forget the performance. The real problem is: If you already love sports, then this book is simply telling you why you're right, and your kids need sports too.

But there's no "control group" here. Most of the lessons people say they learned from sports I also learned without sports. And the lessons that can only be taught by sports, apart from actual physical fitness, are often lessons I hope children never have to learn.

I actually did try sports as a kid, and I often enjoyed the games. I hit the ball sometimes, I reached the bases, I even scored now and then in softball. Sometimes I caught balls that came to me; sometimes my throws reached the person I was throwing to. It was fun.

Except that the game was so slow. And other players cared so much. They got mad when I flubbed -- but how was I supposed to get better except by trying? The lesson I kept learning from softball was, if you don't already have the skills when you get here, then you'll be treated with contempt and derision by your "team."

Yeah, teamwork. Ha. A system of establishing hierarchies based on your degree of skill in a meaningless pursuit.

Basketball -- loved it. Had a great time. Except that I thought that rule about "no contact" was real. It only took a few elbows to get me off the court. I don't like hurting people and I don't like getting hurt, and basketball was all about jabbing and hurting people -- about cheating -- and not getting caught.

If you complained about other people fouling you, you were a big baby and they despised you -- but if you inadvertently fouled somebody, they triumphantly called you on it and got to take the ball out or get a freethrow. A game of double standards and rules that were only for losers. I guess that was training for the real world.

Football -- hated it. I don't like bumping into people. I don't like shoving and hurting people. I'm a nonviolent kind of guy and I always was.

So I listened to the stories these people were telling and I thought: Why did you even care? You weren't good, so you worked and worked until you were better. Now you're a pro. Great -- so you were talented and people paid you. Good for you. Or you got better but not good enough, and you didn't make the pros, but you're still glad you played. Great!

But what does somebody learn from sports that can't be learned from other activities?

You want teamwork? Put on a play. Join the band or orchestra or chorus.

You want experience working hard at something that many people can't do well till you're good enough to really master it? I suggest the clarinet or violin. Or poetry.

You want to learn good sportsmanship? Play Monopoly. Strategy? Chess. Eye-hand coordination? Videogames.

You want to spend your later life crippled by injuries you got in grade school or high school or college? Well, I guess sports beats all the other activities. Never saw a middle-aged man limping along who explained, "Yeah, bad knee -- I played cello in high school."

And the supreme irony? Hearing celebrities who have been divorced several times explaining how sports taught them commitment, to stick with something even when it's hard. Um, yeah, I guess that lesson really stuck.

My point is: People who loved sports like to explain why everybody should have sports in their life. But I tried sports and what I found is what you find everywhere:

If you have some talent or a real love for it, you can get better by working hard. Maybe you can even make a livelihood at it.

If you have no talent or no interest then no matter how hard you work it just ain't happenin' so move on.

So where's the book about people who practiced piano as a kid and they wanted to quit but their parents made them keep at it because "I don't want you to be a quitter" and now they're glad they learned to play the piano because even though they never became a professional at it, they mastered the skill and they can still take pleasure from sitting down at the keyboard and playing?

I stuck at singing till I got pretty good -- not a professional, but I did OK. And I could keep singing till I was way older than any football players keep playing football.

I wrote silly lyrics to existing songs, and satirical poems that I would read out in school assemblies (not with permission -- I just stood up and read them to whoever would listen, which pretty soon was everybody, because they were funny). Later that turned into song lyrics for musicals and I had some good lines in those songs. It's part of the foundation of skills for what I do as a writer.

But nobody has written a book about writing silly poems as a child because there's no Poets' Little League or Pop Warner Poetry. It's not organized.

That's my point, really. I enjoyed sports till it got serious and organized. Pickup games were fun because nobody expected much, we were just playing. I don't think Little League is playing. It's work. It's a job. Maybe you like your job, but you're answerable to a boss and you can lose your job -- your position -- if you don't compete and win.

Too much like the real world, too little like play. When I wrote silly poems, that was play. That was just flat-out fun. My parents didn't get involved and nobody yelled at the ump.

I'm glad that people who love sports have had a good time with them. But don't ever, ever say, "This is a life lesson that you just can't learn any other way." There are no life lessons that you can't learn any other way.

And a kid who's lousy at sports but good at music or theatre or writing or videogames should get as much encouragement and honor as any athlete.

But he won't.

And that's what I hate about sports. That these physical games get treated, by kids and adults, as if they mattered more than activities that are just as valid, just as competitive, just as rewarding -- and maybe more so.

There is no excuse for athletes being more respected and honored in school than scholars. But few indeed are the high schools that provide scholars and musicians and actors and poets with anything remotely like the honor given to athletes. And it's not because athletics is harder than those other activities.

It may well be easier than, say, music composition or songwriting. Heaven knows, they manage to find enough professional football players to fill the NFL every season -- but to find a songwriting team that can write an enduring Broadway score ... well, that doesn't even happen once a year.

If my kids were interested in sports, we tried to provide them opportunities and practice and encouragement. But we provided them equal encouragement for any other talent they pursued.

Kids whose parents would be delighted if they went out for a sport often find their parents are baffled, even angry if they go out for band or the school play. That's where sports do their harm -- because they drown out other talents, they teach athletes that they're somehow better than other people, and non-athletes that they're somehow worse. It's not inherent in the sport itself, but it's the way we use sports in our society.

For every kid whose life is saved by sports there's a kid whose life is damaged by the way we handle sports in our culture.

Here's the irony: I really needed athletic activity. And I liked it. If there had been some way I could noncompetitively use my body in vigorous activity without being exposed to ridicule for being bad at it (i.e., not as good as the best athletes my age), maybe I wouldn't have spent so much of my life with a weak, overweight, unresponsive body.

But the pleasure I derived from athletic activities and games was quickly overshadowed by the ridicule and shame that were heaped on me and other "losers" who simply weren't talented enough or didn't care enough to take the games seriously and do well at them.

So I did what any rational person would do in such a situation. I got the heck out and went where I was appreciated.

*

I've been telling people for the last few years that science fiction, as a genre, is pretty much over -- not because the field is dying, but because it already won.

You can include the tropes of science fiction in any literary genre and nobody bats an eye. Expository techniques that were invented inside sci-fi are now used everywhere. Fewer and fewer people feel the need to turn to science fiction to get exactly the kind of story they love best.

Partly, though, the field is dying because so many of the writers of sci-fi are literary wannabes. They took all those college classes that told them what "good writing" had to be, and they were foolish enough to believe what they were told. So when they write sci-fi, they goof it up with completely distracting and needless nonsense so they can feel like they're doing what a professor would call "good writing."

The trouble is, what makes an academic-literary novel "good" often makes a science fiction novel unreadably bad. Plus, people who want ac-lit fiction (or "li-fi," as I call it) already know where to go to get it. And it's not the sci-fi section in the bookstore.

But ... it's a free country. Write what you want. The readers are free not to buy it. And they're not-buying more and more of it in recent years.

Yet every now and then we get a writer who remembers what science fiction is actually good at and gives us a whole bookful of it. Which is why I'm happy to tell you that Mark L. Van Name has created a terrific novel called One Jump Ahead that is:

1. A terrific heroic adventure

2. Full of cool machines and great sci-fi ideas in a fascinating future culture

3. With believable characters and powerfully emotional moments.

In One Jump Ahead, Van Name plunges us into a world where your gossipy neighbors are washing machines and snack dispensers, your best friend is a tank, and superpowers sometimes cost more than they're worth.

But this isn't a fantasy of power -- it's no superhero comic book. Everything in One Jump Ahead feels completely real. As I read this book, sometimes I wished I could live in this future; other times, I was deeply grateful I did not. (Though, come to think of it, the most terrible things in this future are the human beings who don't care whom they hurt to get what they want. And we have plenty of those right now.)

Jon Moore, the sole survivor of an experiment combining nanotech with human biology, has all kinds of unusual abilities, but his most powerful weapons are the human ones: courage and intelligence. The book begins when he interrupts a vacation to take on the simple job of rescuing a kidnapped girl. He only makes one mistake while carrying out the mission, and then spends the rest of the book trying to make it right.

In Jon Moore, Van Name has created a hero who's worth at least a dozen more novels. I want this to be a series. I want to read a new one every year. More often would be nice.

*

Here's a book that isn't out yet, but soon will be: Barbara Oakley, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.

Oakley cuts to the chase: Evil isn't limited to people like Hitler or Stalin or Mao. There are plenty of evil people who never got famous, but ruined the lives of everyone around them because of their utter inability to act for the good of anyone else.

This story is not only good science writing, it's also achingly personal, as Oakley recounts the story of her selfish sister and relates it to what science is revealing about the way our brains work and how genes influence even our ability to tell right from wrong.

Evil people aren't insane, Oakley says. They are genetically crippled -- but in ways that make them dangerous and hurtful to the people who love them and serve them the most. It's not often that a book about science can also break your heart -- Oakley's achievement is astonishing.

*

Chasing Kangaroos by Tim Flannery looked like the kind of book I normally love. It promises to tell us about the evolutionary history of kangaroos in the context of Australian paleontology and present-day Australian ecology.

And it does those things. I learned a lot of fascinating facts. And Flannery is one of the scientists who helped uncover those facts.

But the cool stuff was so hidden in tedious, self-indulgent anecdotes by a guy who's led a fairly boring life -- and who makes even his adventures sound boring -- that I can't really recommend this book to anybody. The kangaroos are fascinating.

I hope someday to read a book that includes all of Flannery's information without having to include his self-serving memoir. The kangaroos were the story; too bad he thought he was.

*

Here's why computers drive people insane.

Let's start with AOL. They have "upgraded" their software with "anti-spyware" protection from McAfee.

I don't want McAfee's anti-spyware. In fact, I don't want anything from McAfee. I've never run any of their software that didn't make my computer slow and crashy. So I don't want AOL's version.

But I can't find a control on AOL that allows me to turn off their anti-Spyware software - which, by the way, crashes AOL whenever it runs on my spiffy new Vista machine.

When you click on any "settings" choices in AOL that you think might lead to you to a place where you might switch off their anti-Spyware "service" -- like "Firewall Settings" or "Anti-Virus Settings" you find yourself looking at a web page that is trying to sell you more McAfee "security" software. But no controls! No settings! AOL doesn't let you choose not to give them control of your computer!

And, of course, within a few moments the anti-spyware software starts to run and ... crashes AOL. So you have to restart AOL in order to search one more time to try to find a way to turn off their stupid "service" so you can do things like, I don't know, read and write email? Access the web?

But AOL is hardly alone. Vista itself is so evil that I find myself infuriated continuously.

For instance, they "improved" their built-in nuisance games -- Hearts, Spider Solitaire -- by creating fancy new decks of cards whose 3D pips are indistinguishable between hearts and diamonds, unless you look very closely.

And they've slowed them down. Hearts used to begin the next trick the moment someone took the preceding one. Now there's a full two-second wait. For what? Worse yet, each time you play a card out of your own hand, instead of leaving a gap where the card was, all the cards move left to fill in the space.

This means that you can't hover the mouse pointer over the next card, because by the time you click, it will be over a different card.

This is an improvement? Do they make it a point to hire idiots and assign them to make their software look snazzy but work worse?

I did not need Vista. Nobody needed Vista. Anything Vista does that XP did not do that is worth doing was available from third-party software. But Vista does lots of things that I don't want it to do. Like crash more. Refuse to run existing software of mine. Slow down every task I want to do. Lock me out of control of my own computer.

So I'm fed up. I'm getting Linux. Microsoft's arrogant incompetence has finally brought me to the point of no return. So what if Linux can't run as much software? Vista already doesn't run my software! It won't be a downgrade in service!

At least no one will own my computer but me.

Meanwhile, I still can't find any way to shut off the stupid anti-spyware on AOL. So after fifteen years or so on AOL, I'll probably have to get a new email address just so I can get online without some helpful service crashing the very software that provides the "service."

Software designers: Make it easy for us to turn off features we don't want. Let us decide whether we want delays built into the software. Make sure we can read your snazzy display!


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