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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 29, 2011

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

Trikke, Emerald Atlas, Cable Confusion

I was visiting my cousins in Los Angeles last week, and we got on the topic of exercise. Years ago, she had first encouraged me to start walking for exercise, but we're older now, and she's been having problems with her knees because of the impact of walking.

For many months now, she's been getting her best exercise using the Trikke. That's a brand name, not your regular tricycle, and in fact it has no pedals, at least not the rotary kind we're used to seeing.

The concept came, not from cycling, but from skiing -- the hip-swiveling, side-to-side movement of downhill skiers. The inventor was looking for a dry-land device to help skiers stay in shape during the off season with the same muscles they use on the slopes.

The result is a triangular vehicle with no apparent means of locomotion at all. It looks like a scooter without a seat, and with two foot platforms coming out from the base of the handlebar post. This gives it three wheels, one under the handlebar post and one at the end of each foot platform.

You make it go by swiveling your body to push off against each footbar in turn. You almost have to watch one of the videos to understand what I mean. My cousin's favorite is this one on YouTube:


But you can also get a clear idea from the official Trikke website: http://www.trikke.com/st01/home.html

They sell a motorized "hybrid" version so you can get a power boost going uphill. And that's a good idea -- while strong, skilled users can make the thing go uphill by tacking like a sailboat, it takes up a whole lane on a road to do it, which means you'd better be riding in a low-traffic area!

Where my cousin lives in Los Angeles, the ground is almost as hilly as Greensboro, and it really isn't fun to ride there with a human-powered Trikke if you haven't mastered the uphill technique -- there's a lot of getting off and walking.

Fortunately, the Trikke fits nicely in the trunk of a car, and she drives to go Trikke-ing with a group in Long Beach, where they have a great deal more level ground to work with.

In Greensboro, I don't know how you'd manage without the motor for the uphill stretches.

Here's the surprise. The Trikke was designed for fit young athletes -- but at least half the sales are to people my age (i.e., borderline old), because it gets you outdoors, gives you a thorough aerobic workout, and yet has no joint impact whatsoever.

There are stresses -- as with any unaccustomed exercise, you want to take it easy at first until your body gets used to the new movement patterns. But you're not pounding your body against hard surfaces, and that's great for aging joints.

If you could see my cousin's enthusiasm for exercise when she's using the Trikke, you'd be interested, too. And even if you aren't looking to change your exercise regimen, it's a cool machine just to see in action.


One of my favorite things about visiting my cousins in L.A. is that they live just a block and a half from Children's Book World (10580 W. Pico Blvd.; www.ChildrensBookWorld.com ).

You'll remember that Greensboro used to have a terrific little children's bookstore, B. Dolphin, but it died long ago, along with such other Greensboro stalwarts as Atticus, Will's, and News & Novels. Now Borders is gone, and we're left with Barnes & Noble.

Fortunately, any town with a Barnes & Noble has a great bookstore with a strong children's section.

But Children's Book World has a couple of things Barnes & Noble doesn't have:

1. About ten times the selection of books right there on the shelves to browse through and discover.

2. Staff who are all experts in various areas of children's and young adult literature.

I went in early during my LA visit and browsed until I made my own selections, without any help. I found three books, which I'll write about next week. But I read all three long before my visit was over, and as I was about to leave to come back home on Saturday morning, I realized I was facing disaster.

OK, not disaster. Annoyance. Traveling by air, you're not allowed to have electronic devices turned on during takeoffs and landings. That means that I can't listen to an audiobook or college course on my Nano, and I can't read anything from my Kindle.

I had already finished the printed book I brought with me for the flight out. I faced the hideous prospect of either staring at the seat in front of me, conversing with a total stranger next to me, or reading the SkyMall catalog or inflight magazine.

Since my flight didn't leave till 11:45, I figured I had time to save myself from these fates-worse-than-airsickness. I walked over to Children's Book World and arrived at exactly their opening time of ten a.m.

"I'm having a book emergency," I said. "I need a very good YA fantasy novel that I haven't read. I don't have time to search before I need to go catch a plane."

The store owner (I think) said that fantasy wasn't her specialty, and she immediately deferred to a young man who, without hesitation, said, "The Emerald Atlas."

Now, because he knew a lot of YA fantasy novels, he immediately began equivocating. "Of course, it's kind of a traditional YA fantasy. You might want to try something more urban, or more ..."

But I believed in going for his instant response. "Traditional is fine. First impulses are best. Emerald Atlas is for me."

And it was. And is.

Would I have found The Emerald Atlas in Barnes & Noble? Maybe. But I didn't know I was looking for it. And what if it had already sold out? Would it have been the first thought of a bookseller there? Possibly; possibly not.

All I know is, I love Children's Book World. Yet as the folks at B&N here in Greensboro know, I love their full-service offering, too -- from magazines to a broad selection in every category of book, from Godiva gems to hot chocolate in the café.

For that matter, I also love my Kindle -- and the Kindle app on my phone. I love Amazon's instant book delivery service and their tie-ins with hundreds of used-book dealers. I love Ed McKay's used bookstore. I love books in every form.

But folks, it's a shame if we lose all those wonderful specialty stores and the independent booksellers with a quirky selection that can show you things you'd never find in the big generalist stores. We need them all.

If you're lucky enough to know where to find an independent or specialty bookstore, go and spend money there. That's how we keep them alive.


The Emerald Atlas is one of a long tradition of YA fantasies, in which kids from our modern world are plunged into a fantasy universe where they turn out to be important in saving people from the dire machinations of some evil witch or wizard.

Having said that, I will now point out that author John Stephens does a fine job of writing within that tradition without making me feel as if I'm riding on retreads.

In a way, what he's writing is definitely post-Lemony Snicket. That is, Stephens is clearly aware of that arch, sarcastic, self-mocking possibility as he gives us the standard group of three siblings in an orphanage, on the verge of getting adopted by a truly hideous would-be mother.

But they aren't orphans -- they were spirited away from their real parents with a promise that they would be reunited someday. And when they get out of their last orphanage, and go to a huge house in a mountainous region of Vermont that is invisible from the other side of Lake Champlain, they discover that somehow they have already changed the magical world they have only just entered.

Flipping in and out of time-travel paradoxes, dealing with witches and wizards while trying to rescue brave children who are being held hostage, and finding themselves involved with an ancient magical book whose powers nobody quite understands, the kids take us through wonderful adventures I haven't seen before.

The Emerald Atlas is definitely for the same audience as, say, Brandon Mull's excellent Fablehaven, and it also promises to be the opening of a series with many possibilities. For one thing, there are two other magical books yet to be found; for another thing, there's an uber-enemy who is only introduced near the end of this novel.

Will you find deep characters and relationships? Not really, though we didn't get those in the first Harry Potter novel, either -- it took time for the characters to ripen into something intrinsically interesting instead of just being "types."

What you will find are amusing characters and relationships in a yarn that will be fun to read aloud to younger kids, and charming for older kids to discover silently for themselves.

As you're making out your Christmas lists for children this year, keep The Emerald Atlas near the top. It may not be a gift for the kids themselves -- it may be a gift to the parents, because a chapter a night will be a good way to make bedtime thrilling.


Websites are very helpful -- when the company putting them up makes sure they're accurate, current, and use the same terminology as, say, the billing department and the sales department.

My example for this week: Time Warner Cable. When you go to the page for Greensboro/Guilford County channel lineups, you see a "package filter" on the right.

All the boxes are pre-checked -- including such not-so-universally useful selections as "Mandarin Passport," "Hindi Passport," and "Filipino Pass Plus." I started un-checking the boxes I didn't want.

But when I scrolled down below the bottom of your screen, after un-checking each box I was popped back to the top of the list so I had to scroll down again. And again. And again, until finally I un-checked them all.

At the bottom there are boxes marked "all" and "channels without a package." How about one that says "un-check all"? (It is not intuitive to assume that un-checking the "all" box will un-check all the boxes.)

I haven't even gotten to the real problem yet -- the scrolling thing is just annoyingly stupid page design.

My friend had "Basic Cable." Their setup was simple: Their TV was plugged into the cable in the wall, and they used the TV's tuner to go from channel to channel.

"Basic Cable" goes up to 76 (VH1 Classic), then jumps to 200 and includes channels up to 804 (Univision). Then it jumps again, only now, from 1200 on up, you're getting HD channels. But they all have the green bar saying that they're part of the "Basic Cable" offering.

Naturally, one would expect that if your bill says "Basic Cable," that's what you're getting. But no, there are small-print explanations. If you want the HD channels, you need an HD-ready digital TV or a digital converter.

In a different spot, small print says "Channels 100 and above require a digital converter or a QAM tuner." But this notice comes directly under a note that begins with two asterisks (**), so it looks like it's part of a footnote tied to particular channels (though in fact there are no other asterisks, so what do they mean? Emphasis?).

These are not trivial notes, and should not be in fine print. If you're paying for "Basic Cable" and the only statement that you need additional equipment (for a fee!) in order to receive half the offerings in your channel lineup, it should be bold-face and prominent!

In fact, they should have "Basic Cable Without Tuner Box" as a separate listing from "Basic Cable With Tuner Box," since the fees are different and the channel lineup is different.

The cost difference is eight dollars a month. My friend would have picked up the box long ago -- but there was nothing but a tiny note online to indicate that this was necessary. Bad, bad web design.

And it cost the company several phone calls and a second trip out to my friend's house, when clearer web design would have had everything set up correctly in the first place.

The sad thing is that there's probably a whole team of people getting paid salaries for designing and maintaining the Time Warner Cable websites -- and this is the quality of work they're doing?

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