Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 10, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Dr. Who, Climbing, and Tony Blair
When I first started going to science fiction conventions, I noticed people dressed up in odd
costumes that were soon identified as coming from a British TV show called Dr. Who.
The premise sounded intriguing, though the name seemed more than a little dumb. The idea is
that The Doctor is an effectively immortal being who takes human form in order to clean up
whatever mess intrigues him. Like a doctor, he finds aspects of various societies that are sick
and need healing -- and then, sometimes in a very messy way, he fixes them up.
The actor playing The Doctor changes from time to time, because his present body wears out or
gets too badly damaged (or something), and so he regenerates in a new form. Since his friends
and associates can't recognize him visually, he either proclaims himself or they see his spaceship
-- an old-fashioned British police call box. Rather as if Superman had carried his phone booth
around with him.
The trouble was, when I sampled the series back in the seventies I could never get very
interested. The production values were appalling -- it looked as if somebody had painted
cardboard panels with shiny metal paint and then put ugly masks on actors in order to make them
Of course, that's what Star Trek did, too -- but I didn't much care for that series, either. Didn't
it always look like every planet consisted of the same rocks and shrubs?
I also hated the acting in Star Trek (with the exception of Nimoy), and the writing was mostly
obvious, and the world creation was lame, and ... basically, I figured TV sci-fi was even more
worthless than movie sci-fi.
I was a print snob.
When it came to Dr. Who, friends assured me that the writing and acting were way better than
Star Trek. But the episodes I started watching never caught my interest, and I gave up quickly,
assuming it was Star Trek on a lower budget.
Still, since I'm in the sci-fi biz I do hear things, and I knew that starting in 2005, Dr. Who got a
reboot. They didn't deny what had gone before, and they didn't repeat it, either. What changed
this time around was that they got a bigger budget -- the sets didn't look cardboard anymore,
and they got better masks to put on human actors to make aliens out of them.
I wasn't going to watch it, though. Life is short. I can't watch everything.
Then my daughter, who was home on a visit, roped me into sitting down in front of a computer
and watching a downloaded episode from Season 3 of the new Dr. Who. The episode was called
And it was brilliant.
Oh, there were imperfections in the effects. But I really do forgive that quite readily if the
writing and acting are good. And in this episode, they were beyond good.
Oddly enough, this is an episode in which Dr. Who himself barely appears. It is the only episode
of the series written by Steven Moffat, and it is based on a short story he wrote for a Dr. Who
fiction anthology. In short, it was "fan fiction."
(CORRECTION BY OSC: I made the mistake of trusting someone who said it was Moffat's only episode, without double checking. He has actually written many more than the one.)
It was also smart, funny, scary, disturbing, and heartfelt. It helped that the casting was
absolutely brilliant, with Carey Mulligan in the leading role of Sally Sparrow. (You may
remember her as Kitty in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.) It is hard to think of a more
believable and engaging performer; and she was joined by other extraordinarily good actors,
saying very well-written lines, creating meaningful relationships in a clever, paradoxical,
wonderfully impossible story.
I was hooked.
I downloaded all of Seasons 2, 3, and 4 from iTunes -- these are the seasons featuring David
Tennant as The Doctor. I have now watched all of Season 3, then went back and am nearly
through watching Season 2.
I watch the shows on my iPod Nano. My wife and I took the television out of our bedroom
nearly twenty years ago, partly because whichever of us fell asleep first would be bothered by
the TV if it was turned up loud enough to hear.
But when I'm holding the tiny Nano in one hand and listening through earphones, I see the
screen in all its details as well as if I were sitting ten feet back from a big TV, and I don't bother
anybody else. It's a pleasant way to watch television. As long as you have a show worth
And the new Dr. Who is that show. Naturally, some episodes are better than others, which
means some are worse than others. Sometimes you have to laugh at the silly costumes for the
monsters -- but most of the time, they mean you to laugh a little and so it's kind of OK.
But I have seen no episode yet that sinks to the level of Star Trek at its best, at least in terms of
the writing and acting.
Since there'll never be another episode of Firefly, it's good to have Dr. Who still in production
and going strong.
It's also a lovely thing to have the episodes of a TV series available for purchase online, and at
an affordable price.
To an old acrophobe like me, there are certain things that I know will be unbearable. I can climb
a couple of rungs up a ladder, as long as it feels stable, and if I really steel myself for it, I can
even get up onto the roof of a single story building. Though once I'm there, getting down is a
nightmare -- What, swing my body over the edge in hopes that the ladder is still there? Oh,
Worse yet, I'm a sympathetic acrophobe. This doesn't have anything to do with compassion, it
just means that when I see someone else near the brink of a precipice, it makes me go nuts until I
either see them step back and away from the edge, or go far enough away myself that I no longer
feel responsible for them.
All this is by way of explaining why I don't ski or ride roller coasters. Even ferris wheels make
me whimper a little.
So when a friend sent me a link to a website where you can experience climbing to the top of a
transmission tower, my first thought was, "Do you even know me?"
But with the fascination that draws even acrophobes to the edge of a canyon or balcony, I clicked
on the link.
The video begins weirdly -- some low-tech animations. Consider these the calm before the
storm. Soon enough, you find yourself looking through a camera attached to the head or
shoulder of a technician who is going to climb to the top of a broadcast tower.
The thing is taller than the Empire State building. In fact, when the video begins he has already
ridden an elevator most of the way up. But now he's going outside the framework to climb to
the very top.
The friend who sent it said, "As I first started watching this, I thought, How does he go to the
bathroom? The farther up he went, the more I realized that's the least of his worries."
Each time you think, "Ah, this is the top," you find that no, that's just the top of the safe part. It
gets worse and worse, narrower and narrower. In a wind, you know this thing would be
whipsawing like a ... like a ... whipsaw.
I thought of someone climbing this in a snowstorm to keep a station on the air, and I thought:
Nobody needs television enough to expect another human being to do this job.
This is scarier than any horror movie I've seen. And it's not fictional or faked in any way.
I'm the guy who walked out of both Alien and Aliens, and then watched the second half of each
of them later. There's a limit to how much terror I can take.
So it's no surprise that I couldn't watch the whole video straight through. I used the slidebar to
skip forward to the end. That's the only reason I didn't start screaming.
I know, I know -- those of you who scramble for the front seats in the roller coaster will watch
this and say, "Is that all? That's nothing." But I'm one of the primates who is very glad our
ancestors stopped brachiating through the trees. Not climbing to high places was an important
step in our evolution.
As long as I'm directing you to hideous websites, here's one that will fill you with aesthetic
terror rather than fear of falling. It's called "Cakewrecks," and that pretty well says it all. These
aren't amateur cakes decorated by loving hands at home. These were actually intended for sale.
Do not go to this site if you are going to have to eat cake in the near future.
I liked Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister of England. The way he stood firmly with
President Bush when it was time to take a stand against terrorist states like Afghanistan and Iraq
reminded me of the days of transatlantic solidarity during World War II -- though Blair was
actually more loyal and reliable as an ally to Bush than Roosevelt ever was to Churchill.
So when he came out with his memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, I bought it and read it. I
had forgotten that it was Blair who saved the Labour Party in Britain. They had become
demoralized during the Thatcher years, and -- like Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. --
they became more and more dominated by their extremist wing.
The result was that Labour stood, in the public's mind, for the wretched excesses of British
unions during the days when they would shut the whole economy down so they could take ever
more money for themselves, without regard to the needs of anyone else.
That image of selfish unionism was making it nearly impossible for Labour to come back to
power, and to everyone's surprise, the Liberal Party (once the other half of the Tory/Liberal two-party system, but since then a weak, shadowy Third Party) began to have a resurgence.
Blair spoke truth to the Labour Party and, along with likeminded Labourites, created what they
spoke of as New Labour. They party were no longer the puppets of the unions; they no longer
intended to undo Thatcherism and resocialize the economy. Instead, New Labour would offer a
middle way, good for business and good for unions and, basically, good for everybody.
And they won.
When Clinton and Obama ran as centrists, they were lying. As soon as both got into office, they
revealed themselves to be socialists and politically correct extremists. (It was only after Newt
Gingrich shocked Clinton by getting Republicans into control of Congress that Clinton moved
back to the center and said, "I was here all along!")
But Tony Blair actually meant what he said. For this alone, statues of him should be erected
throughout the civilized world.
He governed England as he had promised he would in the elections. And while I'm sure
Conservatives in England and conservatives here would have been driven to fury by some of his
policies, the fact is that he found a balance that England could live with, and the Tories
(Conservative Party) could only yip and nip at his heels.
For years, when people asked me, "Why aren't you a Republican?" I'd reply, "I'm a Daniel
Patrick Moynihan Democrat" -- a centrist, practical Democrat, liberal without being insane or
fascistic in my desire to impose my views on others, the way the leaders of the Democratic Party
But Moynihan is gone now, and too few people even remember who he was or what he once
stood for. (What, a Democrat who was strong on defense?)
So as I was reading Blair's political autobiography, it finally dawned on me. What I am is a
Tony Blair Democrat.
I know. He's English, I'm American. He's Labour, not a Democrat at all.
There is no wing of the Democratic Party committed to trying to govern the whole country -- in
America, they're just a bunch of fanatical elitists, grimly determined to use any means,
especially antidemocratic ones, to remake us in ways that they know are "good for us."
But there should be. What America needs right now is not some Republican who weeps
whenever he hears the name "Reagan." What we need is a group of politicians in one of the
parties who, instead of pursuing ideological purity, seeks to govern by the consensus of the
rational members of both parties.
Instead of swinging back and forth from one extreme to another with each election, we need a
steady course right down the middle. If I were a Republican, I'd be a Bush or McCain
(They were not RINOs, by the way -- Republicans In Name Only. They were RWACs --
Republicans With A Chance of getting elected by attracting votes from moderate Americans who
don't subscribe to either party's "pure" agenda.)
America is a fairly conservative country, on average. But most people have some views in one
camp, and some in the other, and some that no party even notices. Tony Blair was the kind of
politician who thought that such reasonable people might very well turn out in large numbers to
support politicians who spoke to their moderate desires.
He was right, at least at the time. And, though he was eventually turned out of office the way
Churchill was, he had a good long ride -- and rewrote the political map of England in the
The book may contain more detail about British politics than most Americans are likely to enjoy
-- though he does have a preface for Americans that tries to lay some groundwork. Nor do I
agree with every political position he took.
Still, he was and is a good man who kept his word when he came to power, and he did a pretty
good job of governing, which puts him way, way above average. I recommend the book, if only
to see how a rare bird like that was ever able to get off the ground and fly!
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Thursday, Oct. 14 -- North Carolina State Fair
The North Carolina State Fair will run through Oct. 24 at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh,
featuring shows of livestock, arts and crafts, home arts, and entertainment, along with a carnival.
There will be concerts every night; the first, tonight, is Danny Gokey, a favorite from American
Idol. Check it out at http://www.ncstatefair.org.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on this day in 1964. Unlike
some recipients, he actually did something for the cause of peace. Following the example and
teachings of Gandhi, King was the leading advocate of peaceful change in the perverse way that
African-Americans were treated in the United States.
I've heard people complain about having a national holiday for such an imperfect man, but they
miss the point. Except for Christmas and Easter, we don't have national holidays for perfect
ones. What we honor are their contributions to our way of life.
Even though Martin Luther King, Jr., never served as President, he showed us a peaceful way to
redeem our national character and begin to close the deep fissures that were tearing us apart, as a
society and as individuals. As far as I'm concerned, the election of Obama was a marker of
King's greatness, and the Nobel Peace Prize Obama received must be properly regarded as
Martin Luther King's second.
This year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced last Friday, is Liu Xiaobo, for his long and
non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. His wife, Liu Xia, tweeted the
following message on Oct. 10th, after having visited her husband in prison:
(Translation:) Brothers, I am back; I've been under house arrest since the 8th; I don't know
when I'll be able to see everyone; my mobile phone has been ruined; I have no way of making or
receiving calls. I saw Xiaobo; the prison told him on the 9th the news that he's been awarded the
prize. Later matters we'll talk about in time. Please help me [re]tweet. Thank you.
Liu Xiaobo, who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, was a leading author
behind Charter 08, the manifesto of human rights in China, published on 10 Dec. 2008, the 60th
anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The following year, Liu was sentenced to eleven years in prison and two years' deprivation of
political rights for "inciting subversion of state power." Liu has consistently maintained that the
sentence violates both China's own constitution and fundamental human rights.
Naturally, the oppressive Chinese government is furious at the Nobel committee's decision,
calling it blasphemy against the Peace Prize to award it to a man they have put in prison.
But they're mistaken. The desecration of the Peace Prize happened last year, and this year's
award goes a long way toward giving it back some of its meaning.
Friday, Oct. 15 -- Humans in Flight Day
On October 15th, 1783, human beings soared into the air for the first time, when Jean Francois
Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent, the Marquis d'Arlandes, ascended in a Montgolfier
hot-air balloon over Paris, France. Their flight lasted about 4 minutes and carried the
passengers to a height of about 84 feet.
Later, on Nov. 21st, they soared to 3,000 feet over Paris, and stayed aloft for 25 minutes. Since
North Carolina license plates long bragged that we were "first in flight," it's worth remembering
that the Wright Brothers -- who did all their important work in Ohio -- only achieved fixed-wing, heavier-than-air flight. Humans had already been airborne for more than a century.
Balloons did not become a means of transportation until the invention of blimps and dirigibles
many decades later, but they had a transformative effect on weather reporting and military
intelligence. When balloons could rise high above the surrounding hills, it became much harder
for armies to conceal their movements from each other.
On this date in 1991, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. In a
harbinger of many political lies to come, the Left blindsided Thomas with spurious claims of
sexual harassment by a woman who had worked under him and who, since the supposed
harassment, had treated him as a sympathetic mentor, before stabbing him in the back.
After watching the hearing, most Americans at the time reached the conclusion that Thomas's
accuser was flat-out lying, an opinion I still hold. She had been harassed at one time -- at the
place where she worked before working for Thomas. That employer had a pattern of harassing
women. Thomas, on the other hand, was universally praised by his female employees for being
the most sensitive of bosses in precisely that area.
Thomas's grievous sin was being a black man who did not follow the party line. In the view of
the extreme Left in America, African-American males are still our least-free citizens, politically,
for if they vary from the party line and offer different paths for blacks to achieve full equality,
they are excoriated as "race traitors."
White people can hold any political view, and even Condoleezza Rice got a pass, but heaven
help the black male who -- like Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, or John McWhorter -- dares
to vary even slightly from the Politically Correct views of Obama or Jackson.
I have often seen it written (by Leftists) that Clarence Thomas isn't as smart as the other justices,
or that he just votes as Antonin Scalia tells him to -- but those slurs are merely the Racism of the
Left, which is all the more sickening because they claim that only the Right harbors racist views.
I Love Lucy premiered on television on this day in 1951. Supposedly the show was hilarious
and Lucy and Desi were brilliant comedians, but even as a child I disliked the show. I thought
Lucy -- stupid, capricious -- was the opposite of my intelligent, hard-working mother, and that
Desi -- stupid, capricious -- was the opposite of my intelligent, hard-working father.
The only characters I liked on the show were Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and
Even now, when I see "classic" routines from the show, I'm baffled. Not that I'm unamused; it's
just that I've seen so many shows that were much funnier, I can't fathom why people get
nostalgic about this second-rater.
Saturday, Oct. 16 -- Dictionary Day
This is the birthday of Noah Webster, an American teacher and lexicographer, the man who
codified American spellings of such words as jail (British gaol), color and flavor (colour and
flavour), and theater (British theatre). On Dictionary Day, if you don't already own a
dictionary, get one! And if you do, try browsing through it even when you aren't trying to look
up a word.
It used to be that dictionaries were used to try to regularize speech and writing, but that was
abandoned half a century ago. Now lexicographers attempt only to record how words are used
and spelled, without making value judgments (beyond recording that certain words are
considered vulgar or substandard).
The trouble is, many people still assume that if a word -- or a spelling or pronunciation -- is in
the dictionary, then it's perfectly all right to use it. But there are still sharp class distinctions in
vocabulary, pronunciation, and usage, and those who expect the dictionary to keep them safe
will be (and probably already have been) sorely disappointed.
However, I never disparage people who mispronounce words because they learned them only
through reading and had to sound them out. This suggests that they have read their way to a
broader vocabulary than they were raised with, and I say, good for them.
Meanwhile, though, I cut little slack for media newspeople and professional audiobook readers
who mispronounce words. It's their job to get it right and set a standard of Best Usage for their
America's first department store opened on this day in 1868 in Salt Lake City, Utah. ZCMI
-- "Zion's Co-Operative Mercantile Institution" -- was founded under the direction of Brigham
Young, in an effort to encourage Mormons to patronize only Mormon businessmen instead of
putting their money into the pockets of Gentiles, who then gave scandalous and false reports
about Mormons to the newspapers back east.
So at first the "department store" was an alliance of businesses under separate roofs; it became a
real department store only when the different merchants opened their shops as departments of a
single store under one roof.
Don't miss this year's Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Wooly bear
caterpillars race up three-foot-long strings, with groups of 20 worms per race all day long. The
overall winner has the honor of predicting the severity of the coming winter.
Arrive early to register and name your Woolly Worm by 9:00 a.m. (Plenty of caterpillars are
available.) With 140 food and craft vendors, there's a lot more to do than just watch as
caterpillars climb up strings. Friends of ours have gone more than once -- with young children
-- and enjoyed it every time.
(And yes, the two spellings are right -- it's "Woolly Worm" and "wooly bear caterpillar.")
Sunday, Oct. 17 -- Teen Read Week
This is the first day of "Teen Read Week," and it's good that it begins on Sunday instead of a
school day. With the best intentions in the world, many a high school and middle school teacher,
believing far too much of what they were taught in college, instill in teenagers a lifelong disgust
for reading, by requiring them to read overly difficult (and often very badly written) books.
It's no surprise that most Americans reach adulthood with the firm impression that any book that
is "good" will be unbearably dull, and any book they like (if they ever find one) will be scorned
by their teachers as "bad."
The happy truth is that if teenagers are encouraged to read books that are written in
contemporary English (no, not Moby-Dick, and never anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne, please)
by any of the dozens of first-rate YA writers, they are much more likely to regard reading as a
If the Harry Potter craze taught us anything, it's that most nonreaders aren't nonreaders at all --
they're merely potential readers who haven't yet found anything that was worth the effort.
Here's a short list of outstanding authors:
William Sleator (Singularity, Interstellar Pig), Neal Shusterman (Everlost, Bruiser), Diana
Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci), Mette Ivie Harrison
(Mira, Mirror; The Princess and the Hound), Louis Sachar (Holes), Gail Carson Levine (Ella
Enchanted), Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak), Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), Jeanne
DuPrau, (The City of Ember), Shannon Hale (The Goose Girl, The Princess Academy), Neil
Gaiman (Coraline), and Daniel Ehrenhaft, Friend Is Not a Verb.
I know I'm leaving out some excellent books -- probably by soon-to-be-former friends -- so
please forgive me if, by relying on my shaky memory, I left off a favorite.
And I did not even touch on classics from previous generations by writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.
Tolkien, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Harper Lee, and Louisa Mae Alcott.
If you google "top young adult novels" you'll get a fine selection of lists that will give you
plenty of ideas.
Arthur Miller was born on this day in 1915. His play Death of a Salesman was supposed to
prove that you could make a common man into a tragic hero, but few today think it really
succeeded. The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, and All My Sons, about the family of a
war profiteer, have proven to have more staying power.
Monday, Oct. 18 -- Alaska Day
On this day in 1867, governmental control of Alaska was passed from Russia to the United
States. The purchase was first scorned as "Seward's Folly," after the secretary of state who
arranged the transfer. But that was before we knew that Alaska would bring us oil, great
seafood, and Sarah Palin.
Although one-panel cartoons had appeared in newspapers for many years, the comic strip -- a
narrative told in cartoons over several panels -- took its present form (more or less) with the
appearance on this day in 1896 of "The Yellow Kid Takes a Hand at Golf" in the New York
Journal's weekly supplement, American Humorist.
The creator was Richard Fenton Outcault, and the "Yellow Kid" was so-called because in the
early days of two-color printing, he was tinted yellow. (The use of yellow ink along with black
ink was why the Hearst newspapers were scorned as "yellow journalism.")
In March 1897, the Yellow Kid Magazine became the first published collection of a comic strip,
setting the stage for the first comic books in the late 1920s.
Tuesday, Oct. 19 -- Evaluate Your Life Day
Evaluate Your Life Day is meant to encourage everyone to check and see if they're really
headed where they want to go. (This is also "Please Don't Kill Yourself, You're Doing Just
Auguste Lumiere was born on this day in 1862. Auguste and his brother Louis were film
pioneers who created the first movie, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, in 1895.
On this day in 1781, more than 7,000 English and Hessian troops, led by British General Lord
Cornwallis, surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively
ending the war between Britain and its American colonies, for there were no more major battles.
The provisional treaty of peace was not signed until Nov. 30, 1782, and the final Treaty of Paris
was signed on Sept. 3, 1783 -- just before that first balloon flight, also in Paris.
Wednesday, Oct. 20 -- Hagfish Day
Hagfish are astonishingly ugly water creatures that look like eels, but are quite possibly not fish
at all. While they have skulls (of cartilage, not bone), they lack a vertebral column. They also
produce slime, and when captured they can tie themselves in a slipknot, which then slides down
their body, scraping off the slime -- and freeing them from their captor.
Either that or the slime is meant primarily to smear up the gills of any fish that tries to eat them.
They have primitive eyes, lacking lenses or any ability to focus. And -- everyone's favorite
hagfish fact -- they often feed by swimming into the mouth of a much larger creature and eating
it from the inside out.
In short, these are among the most repulsive of living creatures, and Hagfish Day is therefore
designated as a time to "celebrate the beauty of ugly." Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the
beholder, and it's good to contemplate truly ugly things from time to time so that we can
discover their subtle beauty. (Either that or puke.)
MacArthur returned to the Philippines on this day in 1944. When he evacuated the
Philippines back in March of 1942 (under orders to go to Australia and avoid being captured by
the victorious Japanese invaders), he said, "I shall return."
Never mind that he neither left nor returned alone, and might have more appropriately said, "We
shall return," speaking for his country rather than his oh-so-heroic self.
Never mind that one of the reasons American forces were so quickly overwhelmed in the
Philippines was arguably his failure to take the Japanese threat seriously.
Never mind that he might have thought to follow General Pershing's modest example when, in
World War I, he laid a wreath at the feet of a statue of Lafayette and said, "Lafayette, we are
When MacArthur returned, he was preceded by hundreds of tons of bombs and four divisions of
U.S. troops that were landed on the island of Leyte. Since MacArthur was always the center of
MacArthur's universe (a trait that has been echoed by many generals and even more politicians
through history), to him all that mattered was that he had returned.