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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 29, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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

Puzzles and Trains

While not wishing to offend members of the high-IQ social club Mensa, I decided many years ago that I would choose my friends based on very different criteria than the ability to solve certain puzzles in a certain amount of time.

I don't quarrel with the need of some very bright people to find other bright people to talk to. But I've never run out of people worth knowing and spending time with in the ordinary course of my life, and I never felt the need to check their IQ scores before deciding whether they were my friends or not.

Besides, there was always the fear that their IQ score would be higher than mine.

Still, though I didn't join Mensa back when my brain worked well enough for me to get in (which makes me wonder -- do aging members of Mensa have to keep getting retested to make sure they still qualify?), I do appreciate their puzzle books.

Ranging from chess problems to cryptic crosswords, from lateral-thinking puzzles to a variety of games and crosswords for children, the Mensa game-book publishing program is terrific.

I just finished Fraser Simpson's 102 Cryptic Crosswords. Simpson authored a series of small (eight squares by ten) cryptics for the New Yorker for a while, and these follow the same pattern, with deft but solvable clues. In fact, while it bears the Mensa Puzzle Book logo, this is actually a sequel to Simpson's earlier (but now out-of-print) 101 Cryptic Crosswords: From the New Yorker.

Simpson also created or co-created several other puzzle books for Mensa (as well as for the Sit & Solve toilet-puzzle book series), but I wish he'd get busy and give me another book of cryptics.

Mensa and Sit & Solve aren't the only games in town, for those who like to stretch their minds. One should never forget the variety of puzzles in Games Magazine, of course. AARP has an excellent series of crossword books with "To Keep You Sharp" in the titles.

Peter Gordon's two excellent series of gradually-more-difficult books, like Killer Thursday Crosswords, have now made way for his equally delightful but not so murderous Tasty Tuesday Crosswords, Delicious Wednesday Crosswords, and so on. And then there's the USA Today puzzle series.

The thing about crosswords today is that the novelty has long since worn off. After a while, it's like Hangman: Who really cares what word the other person is thinking about?

That's why we expect more from our crossword puzzles than just asking us to fill in the blanks based on clues. We're looking for additional games-within-games -- puzzles with embedded jokes or entries that require us to massage the answers a little in order to fit them into place.

One USA Today puzzle book, Nine Minute Crosswords, by Richard Silvestri, does a superb job of this, so that when I finish one I don't just feel that I've accomplished a task, I feel as if I've been playing one-on-one with a very witty opponent.

However, if there are people who can regularly do these puzzles in nine minutes, I'm certainly not one of them.


After having just ridden across half of Poland on trains -- while comfortably writing chapters of my novel on my laptop the whole way -- I find I am as much in love with train travel as ever. Not that everything is equal on every train.

For instance, on my way from Warsaw to Katowice, I was in a train comparable to first class on a northeast-corridor Amtrak: Wide, comfortable, somewhat reclinable seats, each with a reasonable-size table. Some of the seats faced each other, some were placed in rows like church pews. It was pleasant and comfortable.

The train from Krakow to Warsaw, however, had my wife and me seated across from each other in one of those six-person compartments, three to a bench. There was no table -- my laptop really did have to perch on my lap.

The compartment was air-conditioned and the temperature was adjustable, but unfortunately it was a cool day (autumn apparently begins earlier in Poland than here) and an elderly couple seated near the window kept asking for the heat to be pumped up, since they were cold.

I, near the door and with the sun beating in my window, was uncomfortably warm. But, being an American, I felt the obligation to try to defer to everyone else so I didn't cause an uptick in anti-American sentiment abroad. I also didn't speak enough Polish to explain myself. I just sweated a lot while I wrote.

Even with those discomforts, however -- and having to shlep our luggage with us and find places to stash it where we could keep an eye on it -- the train just seemed like a more civilized way to travel, at least on a smooth, well-maintained track (which there's a dearth of in America).

As for the luggage situation, my wife and I resolved that we're going to rethink our luggage on long international trips. We each took one overstuffed suitcase, but then had to fuss with finding places where they would fit on the trains and in small foreign cars.

It was especially challenging when we had to lift them onto overhead racks. We can foresee a time when that won't be possible for us physically, and even now, if I dropped one on somebody I might find myself up for manslaughter in a foreign court.

So we're heading for Sharon Luggage sometime in the next few weeks to find smaller suitcases. The idea is that when we take side trips, we can take only one small bag for each of us (or even a single bag between us), leaving the rest -- including the steadily increasing supply of dirty laundry -- behind with the bellman at our main hotel.

Two rolling bags each won't do the job, however. I've seen people in airports trying to roll two bags at once and it's pretty obvious that it doesn't work, if for no other reason than that it makes you so wide as you try to thread through crowds of travelers. And getting two rolling bags at once down a train aisle? No thanks.

So we'll come up with a stackable arrangement where one bag rides atop the other. It's the luggage arrangement we can grow old with.

Meanwhile, out of China comes word of an experimental train that may be able to bring rail travel up to airplane speeds at a relatively low cost.

Maglev trains have been around for a while. These are trains that don't actually touch the track -- they use the principle of magnetic repulsion to remain levitated. This greatly reduces friction -- but not completely. There's still air resistance to deal with, which has kept maglev trains to speeds not much higher than standard high-speed rail.

The new Chinese system, however, maintains a partial vacuum in the tube the train passes through. This allows speeds to rise greatly. The skeptic in me, however, wonders what happens when there's a leak that suddenly lets air into the system.

Besides, I like to look out the window -- it's one of the best things about train travel. Nowadays from airplanes you pretty much see only clouds; it's relatively rare to get a good clear view of the scenery below, and even then, people are yelling at you to close the window shade so they can watch the movie.

Traveling in a vacuum tube doesn't sound to me as if it would offer much of a view.

Still, a maglev train can be powered by electricity, while airplanes will require fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Right now, electricity also comes mostly from fossil fuels, but can also come from renewable sources such as wind and sunlight and dams.

Trains like this -- as well as converting American rail to electricity system wide, which is long overdue and should have been one of the primary accomplishments of Obama's "stimulus" -- can take us a long way toward switching away from oil before a crisis forces it.

Check out the full article on the Chinese maglev (as well as the interesting criticisms by other readers).

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