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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 19, 2007

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

Rat-a-Splat, Impossiweb, Grief without Rage

Rat-a-Tat Cat has been one of our favorite games for several years. It was great fun when our youngest was little; it's still fun now that she's a teenager.

But the publisher of Rat-a-Tat Cat, Gamewright, apparently decided that having a really fun game wasn't enough. They had to "improve" it.

They added a new rule. It's called "super peek," and it allows you to view everyone's face-down cards using a small sheet of transparent red plastic.

The trouble is that this means that the identity of each card is printed on the back in a different color ink, as on the old Password Game cards.

All of us were able to deduce, at a glance, what most of the face-down cards were. Without using the plastic sheet.

They also changed the mix of cards, so that there were proportionately more "swap" and "draw 2" and "peek" cards.

This means that even if you choose not to use the "super peek" rule, the game is still ruined. It's like deciding that since chocolate chips are the "best part" of the cooky, you'll make a batch of cookies with three times the chocolate chips. At some point it stops being a cooky.

It's not that the new version "isn't as good."

The new version is actively bad. As in Not Fun. As in failure.

If you've been thinking of buying Rat-a-Tat Cat, make sure you get the great old original edition.

We threw away the fancy new edition. You don't donate garbage to Good Will.

So the fact that the new version comes in a can instead of a box is actually appropriate.


I got an urgent email from Amazon Books the other day. It told me I needed to update an order because the shipping date had changed. If I didn't update it by 15 September, the order would be cancelled.

So I got to the URL they gave me, and this message was at the head of the page:

Important Message

We thought you should know that we're experiencing a delay with your order. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please take note of the revised shipping and delivery estimates marked in red below. This order cannot proceed without your approval or changes. Please go to the approval page to approve this change.

The trouble was, nowhere else on that page was there any indication of where this "approval page" was supposed to be. There was a button called "Need to cancel an item?" but that did not give me the choice of approving the changed delivery date. No button said "I approve" or "approval page." When I went to "my account" there was no selection offering to let me "approve changes in shipping date" or anything similar.

Basically, I've been told that I must do something in order to get my book, but I cannot do that thing using their website. This is so insane that I am in awe. This is the world's first successful large-scale retail site (as opposed to auction sites), and they still can't figure out that when you send someone to a web page to do a certain job, that web page should make it possible to accomplish it.

I guess all I can do is cancel the book and reorder it. Or ... wait ... here's a thought ... I'll just call Barnes & Noble or Borders here in town and ask them to order it for me.

Uh-oh. Amazon keeps that up, and the local stores will win the retail bookstore war!


The miners who were trapped in the cave-in in Utah have not made a sound detectable by the instruments sent down into the mine. The probes sent into that part of the mine showed levels of oxygen inconsistent with human life.

There is no rational hope that any of the miners made it through. Irrational hope, however, can spin magical scenarios: Some of them rushed to another part of the tunnel where there was more oxygen and then ... and then ...

Mines aren't caves. There aren't hidden shafts that no one has mapped and no one knows about. There aren't likely to be secret air holes where they can find enough to breathe as they await rescue.

Three men have died trying to bring out survivors. Even if you are convinced of the fantasy "escape," there comes a point where it is not right to permit other miners to risk their lives searching for them. Even if there are volunteers, their courage cannot be permitted to risk leaving even more families bereft.

There is a point where you stop pretending that rescue efforts are worth the danger, and start to grieve for the lost.

The management of the mining company has, to all appearances at least, done everything that they could after the cave-in, and continues to do so. Their handling of the press and of the families seems to have concealed nothing and to have been as sensitive as possible.

(Contrast this with the secretiveness of the Chinese mining operation where, with more than a hundred miners trapped underground and, perhaps, underwater, the families had to storm the mine offices with bricks and bats just to find out what was going on!)

Behaving Well under Stress

But here we are, with the Utah mining accident, listening to sound bites of family members demanding that the mining company "start digging right now" on shafts designed to send more men underground, as if their need for -- what's the psychobabble term? -- "closure," that's right -- as if their need for closure were more important than the lives of would-be rescuers.

Not every family of lost miners is behaving this way. It's a shame that any of them are.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect some kind of investigation to see if the original disaster was caused by reckless negligence, and if it turns out to have been, then is the time for rage and recrimination.

Meanwhile, though, there is such a thing as behaving decently. Such a thing as decorum -- which is how the families of the miners behaved up to now.

Since our news media are no longer governed by civilized or civilizing principles, caring only about what makes "a good story" or "good television," it is up to the people involved in the actual events to behave with decorum. It is understandable and even forgivable when they do not. But let the rest of us remember a few things:

These men were miners. They and their families knew that their job was to go underground and cut holes in the rock.

It is fair to expect that management provide all the accepted protections and take all the expected precautions to preserve their lives and their health.

But the mining company cannot change the nature of the work. The work is underground. It is impossible to be certain how rock will respond to changing pressures. It is no secret that sometimes mines collapse and miners die. They live with that knowledge every day.

The people who design safety procedures in mines; the people who design, build, and inspect bridges; the people driving the other cars on the roads we travel every day -- they're all human. They make mistakes. They miss things.

To Err Is Inevitable

I was a proofreader for a while, working with a team of proofreaders who took pride in their work. We always had two people read everything, because no proofreader, however good, was perfect; and even the best typesetters made mistakes.

When we were second-reading a set of galleys, we noticed that most of the errors the first-readers missed were within a few lines of mistakes they had just caught. It's as if, having caught a mistake, they unconsciously let down their guard for a little while.

Yet the mistakes were there, and it was their job to catch them. And even with two readers, I don't think we ever put out a book that didn't have at least one error of some kind in it.

In the publishing industry, we understood that, but we didn't like it. Still, when typos made it through into print, nobody died.

When you're designing a space shuttle or a bridge or the supports and procedures of digging tunnels underground, you work all the harder and add in far more checks and far greater margins for error, because you know that any mistake you make could kill somebody.

But even when people do their best and look at everything that they can think of looking at, things still go wrong, and sometimes, because of that, people die.

Somebody decides whether or not to evacuate New Orleans before a storm. Somebody decides whether the World Trade Center is strong enough to withstand reasonably predictable stresses. Somebody decides which anaesthetic to use on a patient with no known history of allergies to drugs. Somebody decides it's worth the risk of amniocentesis-induced miscarriage to find out information about the fetus's health.

Somebody decides when driving a car at seventy miles an hour on the freeway that it's worth cutting off another car, even though that car's lane is about to disappear, just to shave a fraction of a second off their travel time.

Somebody simply doesn't notice that this isn't a four-way stop even though the roads are of equal size and the road you're on is called "Main Street," and so he proceeds into the intersection as if the cars coming the other direction were going to stop.

We make life and death choices all the time. We also make mistakes which, if things work out badly, can cause real damage to other people.

Raise your hands, those of you who can say, for sure, that they have never made a decision or a mistake which could possibly have caused someone else to lose life or limb or health. I can't -- I was the driver who thought he was at a four-way stop last week in Orem, Utah; no one was hurt, but two cars were totaled, and I was the guy who pulled out into the intersection in the wrong belief I had the right-of-way.

An honest mistake, for which I was truly sorry, and for which I am taking the consequences -- among them the citation and higher insurance premiums. But it was an honest mistake, not evil intent.

Could have killed somebody just as dead, of course. Or I could have driven right through without ever knowing I did anything wrong.

So much depends on chance.

After the Fact

I remember a case, many years ago, when a child was killed by a pervert who lived in the neighborhood. I remember watching the grieving father on television as he asked people not to hate the murderer.

His message was, in effect, "We miss our little girl, but hating him will not bring her back to us. Instead it would wreck our lives. We want to stay the kind of people who would have been fit to raise our daughter."

I remember the Amish families whose children were terrorized and murdered in a schoolhouse, and far from raging or blaming, they reached out with compassion and kindness toward the murderer's family.

Those are civilized people. That is the standard we should aspire to.

We are right to expect that our community should take all reasonable steps to protect us from all reasonably predictable and preventable harms. This is done by a combination of government, of people in helping professions, of strangers who obey the rules and lend a hand where they can, and of our own reasonable caution.

It seems that in our society a strange idea has arisen that whenever something goes wrong in our lives, somebody else should be punished for it, either by losing their career, going to jail, or paying out a huge amount of money -- whether we contributed to our own suffering or not.

But despite all the safety laws, governments and employers can't stop people from being stupid, negligent, criminally selfish, or even, quite simply, wrong. Nor can they be expected to prevent acts of nature; some things are merely random events.

We used to call such things "acts of God"; the more modern and less theological expression of this idea is the phrase "stuff happens." (Excuse my typo; I'm not sure if I spelled that phrase correctly.)

The sentence "Well, you should have known!" is easy to say, but we don't actually want to live in the community that would result. For instance, when the Bush administration believed that they should know what was being said by terrorists using international phone lines and postal systems, they were ripped into as "fascists" wanting to create a "police state."

We don't want bad things to happen; we don't always like the cost of preventing them; so we wait till after the fact and blame those who didn't inconvenience us or tax us enough to prevent the disaster.

Full Speed Ahead

Life contains risks. We band together and live in communities in order to increase our chances of survival and safety; but every increase in safety causes us to give something else. An extra hour or two at the airport. A decrease in privacy. More interference from governments and employers making us do things that sometimes we don't want to do. Traffic laws that are inconvenient when we're really in a hurry. Cumbersome safety seats. Air bags that make it necessary for your children always to sit in the back. Laws against serving rare meat or underdone eggs or foods containing trans fats. Helmet laws. No-smoking laws. Sex education for children for whom the subject is repugnant or harmful, because other children their age have reached puberty.

At some point, we say -- or at least act as if we were saying -- "Enough already! I accept a greater risk because I am no longer willing to pay the price of increased safety. Get out of my way! Full speed ahead!"

When you get in your car and go out on the road, you are voluntarily accepting the fact that some idiot out there, some scofflaw, some drunk, some reckless, heartless jerk, or some middle-aged man who thought it was a four-way stop might kill you or someone you love. Probably it won't happen. But it might.

Those drivers crossing the bridge over the Mississippi trusted that the bridge most of them had crossed dozens or hundreds of times before would continue to hold. They had no way of knowing that this bridge, this day, this hour, this minute would fail. But they certainly knew that any bridge, at any time, could fail, or some other accident could come along, and they might stare death in the face.

Those miners could have quit their jobs at any time, but they considered something -- the rate of pay, a family tradition of mining, camaraderie with the other miners, even a love of underground work -- to outweigh the well-known risks. Then the rock gave way to the pressures inside the mountain, the sides of the tunnel blew inward, and some of them died.

After that, rescue workers went in, knowing even more vividly what the risks were -- but their courage and sense of duty and honor drove them onward; and three of them died.

Share the Grief, Hold Off on Blame

We grieve for them all. We especially honor the ones who gave their lives in the effort to save others.

We grieve for all the dead. For all the widows and widowers and orphans and bereft parents left behind in all the traffic accidents and murders and diseases and storms and earthquakes across the face of the earth.

And when these events were caused by deliberate choices or flagrant disobedience to law, then it's appropriate to affix blame and exact public retribution.

But not all disasters can be prevented by reasonable people behaving reasonably, and few people get through their lives without making dangerous mistakes. Even people in authority are humans capable of error.

I, for one, am sick of hearing people blame those in authority as if they were expected to have the wisdom, power, and perfection of God.

It's about time to start judging other people by the standard we wish to have applied to ourselves.

If you have ever expected other people to cut you a little slack and overlook your mistakes, then have the decency, when they make mistakes, to try to give them the benefit of the doubt, too.

This is a dangerous world. None of us has anywhere we can go that is safe. Eventually, every single one of us is going to die. Along the way, we'll suffer losses and pain and we will be harmed by the actions of others.

Let your default response be tolerance and forgiveness, patience and understanding. If you feel rage, keep it private until and unless there is actual evidence, not just speculation, that criminal or grossly negligent actions were involved.

Good people take responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes. But blame should only attach to actions deliberately taken, or negligence exceeding the normal inattention of busy, self-involved people (which is all of us).

Making wild accusations or unfair demands on others is also a harm. Do not, because you were harmed, carelessly or deliberately harm others.

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