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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 27, 2009

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


Plastic, Tap, Good Wife, Unicorns

If we're really going to have a state law that says plastic bottles can't be put in landfills, and Greensboro city government proudly touts its intention to comply, I'm wondering why nothing at all is being done to help us ordinary citizens obey it.

For instance, where are the public garbage cans with an array of options? Plastic bottles in this container, paper in the next, and other garbage in the next. In Tokyo, four or five different disposal units are placed together, clearly labeled, so it is possible for the Japanese to sort their waste into the proper category.

Let's say you're walking along with a plastic soda or water bottle and you finish it. You're a law-abiding citizen. What do you do with it? Carry it till you get home? Right now, that seems to be the only option.

What about enforcement? I wonder about the hundreds of employees the city must be about to hire to cut or tear open all the plastic garbage bags of household garbage and pull out all the illegal plastic bottles. When they find a violator, will they then look for other garbage that has their address on it so that the miscreants can be fined?

Right. This is a completely empty law. The state passed it so they could feel good about doing their part for the environment. But neither the legislature nor the city of Greensboro makes it convenient to obey -- or inconvenient to disobey.

Remember the phrase "no controlling authority"? You know, Al Gore's excuse for flagrant violations of campaign funding laws back in 2000? If there's no provision for enforcement, then the law isn't really a law at all.

On the city website, they are so proud that "Greensboro residents have already proven their commitment to recycling; the city ranks seventh in the state for recycling efforts."

Let's see. We're the third largest city, but we rank seventh in the state for recycling. We're proud of this?

And while we're at it, why did we single out bottles? What about the plastic garbage bags that will still go to the landfill? What about the clear plastic bags we're required by law to wrap our yard waste in? Are those going to degrade any more quickly than the bottles?

Here's a hint: no. They're just discriminating against bottles, and leaving all the rest of the equally nonbiodegradable plastic alone.

Even when the government does something, it's still nothing.

*

On the new fall season of So You Think You Can Dance, we have a spate of tap dancers -- and some of them are very good indeed.

But in case you want to see how it's really done, check out this scene from The Seven Little Foys, in which Bob Hope and James Cagney show their skills from vaudeville: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOoNOs8Ql28

Bob Hope plays vaudeville great Eddie Foy, and Cagney reprises his role as George M. Cohan, so Hope and Cagney are actually giving homage to an even earlier era of performers.

And if you've never seen The Seven Little Foys or Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney's bio-pic about Cohan, you need to give yourself and treat and watch them.

*

Red Box video rentals are such a great idea -- if you happen to want an extremely limited selection and no guarantee that the DVD you rent will actually work. A buck a night? How can you lose?

Here's how: On average, people don't return their Red Box rentals after a single night. Therefore they end up paying, on average, the same amount they would pay at a video store.

But because they're giving the money to Red Box, they're killing the video stores. Red Box skims the cream of the new titles, taking the easy money.

When they put the video stores out of business, where will you go when you want to rent a movie that isn't one of their handful of most-obvious rentals?

A few years back, there was a bookstore that tried the same strategy -- Crown Books. They had a bestsellers-only policy -- why waste floor space displaying books that hardly anybody's going to want?

For a while, they raked in the dough. But book buyers finally caught on -- if you don't want the latest bestseller, there's no reason to go to Crown. And so it was Crown that went out of business.

But Red Box has no overhead to speak of -- few employees, a very tiny building, and shallow stock. They can certainly stay in business long enough to kill the big stores. And then those few titles are all you'll get.

Until NetFlix figures out a way to give everybody the ability to download films instantly. Then Red Box will be in trouble!

*

The new television season is under way, and while we're still looking forward to seeing the season openers of several favorite series, the prize of this season so far is The Good Wife.

The premise is terrific: Prosecutor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) has been caught with his pants down -- and his hand in the till -- and his illicit sex video is playing everywhere on the internet. His wife, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) does the good-wife act, standing numbly beside him while he "apologizes" and denies everything at the same time.

How many times have we seen this in real life? Have you ever wondered what it feels like for that woman?

That's what this series is about -- the life she makes for herself while her husband is in jail appealing his sentence, and his mother is taking care of Alicia's kids while she goes back to work.

Once upon a time she was a hotshot young lawyer, but she set it all aside to have children and help support her husband's career. Now, through a good friend from law school days (played beautifully by reliable character actor Josh Charles), she has joined a major law firm.

Only she hasn't actually joined it, she discovers in the first episode. Two people were hired for the single available slot, and they have six months to prove which of them deserves to get it.

The two competitors even have to share a secretary -- who is clearly betting on the other guy. Until Alicia gets an innocent client off, and not on a technicality.

It's delicious watching Alicia struggle to remember -- or learn -- the rules in court. And in the first episode, the producers pulled out all the stops on casting. Not only are the regulars wonderful -- the two children are fantastic young actors, though they have relatively little screen time, and the mother-in-law is just about perfect -- but also the actors they're hiring for each episode are top of the line.

Best of all, though, the writing is smart and real. The lawyers in court actually object to things and stymie her because she doesn't know the ropes; the judge is imperious without being absurd (i.e., this is not Boston Legal). And the defendant in the pilot episode was heartbreakingly beautiful while looking like an ordinary person.

There was not a wasted moment in the whole show.

Maybe they can't keep it up, week after week. But the pilot was so powerful and real and entertaining that even if they only give us fifty percent of this quality, it will be head and shoulders above most other TV fare.

I wish I could tell you who's actually in charge. Unlike most TV shows, where the executive producer credit goes to the show runner -- the head writer -- The Good Wife credits six executive producers.

Two of them are Ridley and Tony Scott, but you know they're not hanging around the office pounding out scripts. (Though maybe they have Tony Scott writing the philandering husband's dialogue, since Hollywood scuttlebutt suggests that he might have lived that life for many years.)

So maybe it's the two writers credited for the pilot, Michelle and Robert King, who deserve the credit.

Whoever it is, they have my applause. This is the must-watch new show in our house.

*

Do you want help in sorting out health care -- and every other economic issue? A friend of mine lent me a terrific book on economics written in (mostly) plain English, called Spin-Free Economics: A No-Nonsense, Nonpartisan Guide to Today's Global Economic Debates.

It really is non-partisan, though in the present climate, I have a feeling that the extreme Left would call it "Right-wing propaganda," merely because it candidly addresses key issues that the Democrats would like to keep behind the smokescreen of "We don't know what this health-care bill says or what it will do, but we can promise you it will do Really Good Things and you can trust us because we're the compassionate ones."

There are biases in the book -- nobody can write such a book without them. For instance, author Nariman Behravesh cites a majority opinion (73%) among economists that minimum wage laws eliminate jobs for the young and the unemployed.

Stated like that, it sounds like economists all agree that the minimum wage is a Bad Thing.

But, as with child labor laws, the matter is not so simple. It's not that the minimum wage eliminates jobs, it's that it eliminates jobs that pay so badly you can't actually live on what you earn. It's a fence against the ravages of unchecked free market capitalism, and so even though it eliminates truly lousy jobs, it is meant to guarantee that when you do get a job, it's worth having.

We can argue about its merits, but the bald statement in the book is, because of what it leaves out, both misleading and argumentative, and there's a legitimate other side.

Is it possible to write a book that does not contain at least some bias? I don't think so. And, in this imperfect world, Spin-Free Economics does as good a job as I've seen of explaining things like the financial crisis, the real costs of illegal immigration (on balance, doing less harm than good), what's actually wrong with health care and what would fix it (perhaps something much simpler and more gradual than the currently pending legislation), why consumption taxes are ultimately more fair than income taxes, and flat taxes would work better than our current system of loopholes for people with smart, expensive accountants.

*

I'm in the midst of rehearsals for a musical -- one that I wrote back in 1997, with music by my brother, Arlen Card. It was a hit during its initial run in Salt Lake City, but now we're mounting a production here in Greensboro using the same recorded orchestra as the '97 production.

The trouble is that one number was played too fast for our actors to sing and dance to, and another is too high for the highest-voice tenor we have.

I knew there existed software that could raise or lower the pitch of recorded music without changing the tempo, and speed up or slow down music without changing the pitch.

I assumed it required expensive equipment and thousand-dollar specialty programs.

Instead, a music student at UNC-G showed us that it could be done in about thirty seconds by using Sony's Sound Forge software, on my existing laptop.

Now, Sound Forge isn't cheap -- but it's so useful that I didn't mind forking over the price, considering how much power it gives me over recorded music. Once the software was installed (which wasn't hard), I was able to adjust all the tracks exactly as I wanted them.

I suppose it could be used frivolously -- making Celine Dion into a baritone, for instance, or hearing Luther Van Dross in a silly high voice.

But our need was serious -- if we couldn't change the recorded music, we would have had to transpose all the sheet music and then have a pianist accompany us during the show.

The orchestra sounds way cooler.

Does it change the way the instruments sound? Of course. The more you change the pitch, the more "wrong" it is for the instruments to have the sound they have. But when you're moving just a half-step or step, the difference is trivial -- good enough for musical comedy.

The musical, by the way, is one that was commissioned by the LDS Church as part of the celebration of the sesquicentennial (150 years) of the Mormon pioneers entering Salt Lake Valley back in 1847.

My brother was engaged to compose the music, but the show was having script problems and I was brought in at the last minute to write a completely new script and song lyrics, but using the already-hired cast. It was quite a challenge, but Arlen and I made it work and then a fine director and talented cast brought it all together on stage.

We'll be performing it the first weekend in November. It wasn't written to be a tool for missionary work -- after all, the intended audience was people who already were Mormon!

Instead, it's a funny-and-sad hour in which you go through the experiences of people who gave up everything for their newfound faith, leaving England (for a time in the 1840s and 1850s, the majority of Mormons were English converts who immigrated to America) for the wilds of America.

It will be performed in the cultural hall of the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Road (across from Claxton Elementary School) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 5-7. Admission is free

Since the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois and their trek west to colonize Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Alberta, and northern Mexico is a part of American history, I hope you'll come and see Barefoot to Zion.

Besides, how often do you get a chance to hear Brigham Young sing? (And no, he will not dance.)

*

There are no unicorns. And much as I enjoyed Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, I have never even liked the myth. If you can't eat it or throw a saddle on it or even see it if you're not a virgin girl, who cares?

But the belief in unicorns has been around for at least 2500 years, and in The Natural History of Unicorns, English scholar and geographer Chris Lavers does a highly entertaining job of showing us exactly how the myth developed and grew.

Along the way, he debunks an old myth. No, not the myth of unicorns, but the myth that the first writer ever to publish an account of the creature was a liar. Ctesias, who lived about 2400 years ago, was born in Caria (a Greek nation known for its physicians) and then spent his adult life as a highly respected doctor in the Persian court.

While he was there, he learned much about India -- almost a mythical land in those days -- and collected the accounts in Indica.

Lavers examines the text dealing with unicorns very closely and shows that, far from just making stuff up, Ctesias was clearly bringing a skilled anatomists mind to the accounts of travelers and the few artifacts that he actually saw.

It's a delight to read Lavers's explanation of why Ctesias would claim that horses and donkeys "don't have anklebones," because there is a sense in which this ridiculous claim is actually true. But you have to know the context!

So instead of being the parody or whimsy that I expected, The Natural History of Unicorns really is a natural history of unicorns -- even though they don't actually exist, at least not as described.

*

There are times when I think good poetry is also a myth -- but there are some good poets working today, and there are some poetry teachers who actually understand the music of language and don't just explain poetry in terms invented to explain why T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were better than the "old-fashioned" poets.

My good friend Michael R. Collings taught poetry -- how to read it and how to write it -- for many years at Pepperdine University. I've attended his lectures and he is a great teacher.

His book, The Art and Craft of Poetry, has been reissued in a revised and expanded issue, and it's well worth your attention. Collings manages to teach every kind of poetry, from formal to free, from narrative to lyric, from plain to symbolic, and explain why and how it works and why good poets can work in any of these forms.

When you consider that in our public schools, at least, poetry is pretty badly taught when it's taught at all -- most teachers regard it as a way of venting emotions rather than a way of skillfully inducing emotions in the reader -- it's a good thing a book like this exists.

When a young poet (or an old one, for that matter) decides to stop gushing and start crafting poetry, this book will serve well as a guide.


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