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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 3, 2013

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


Maps, Lemonade, Natural Snacks, Rubber Feet

One of the biggest problems on the internet is sorting through the vast number of sites.

It's like trying to find a station worth watching on a million-channel cable system -- without a guide.

One of the things that makes it all workable is that we have reinvented the "magazine," though we don't call it that.

The idea of magazines is that editors find interesting things, assemble them in one convenient location, and then hope that a bunch of readers share their taste.

A friend recently pointed me to a really fascinating site, Twisted Sifter. The specific item he wanted me to look at was "40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World."

It comes close to living up to its title: I can recommend it as "38 Maps" which is still pretty darn good.

Here are some of the titles, to give you an idea:

Where Google Street View Is Available. This is pretty much a map of "Western Civilization." I know, it includes Japan and Thailand, but then, that's not wholly inaccurate, is it?

Countries That Do Not Use the Metric System. That would be the United States, former colony Liberia, and the deliberately backward Burma.

Map of Pangaea with Current International Borders. You know, millions of years ago when all the continents were one land mass. I've seen Pangaea maps before, but this is the first one that actually lets me sort out what's what.

Map of Alcohol Consumption Around the World and Map of Alcoholic Drink Popularity by Country. You need both maps to help make sense of what you're seeing. Though after you've sorted out beer, wine, and spirits, I have no idea what "other" would be.

US Map of the Highest Paid Public Employees by State. In most states, by far, the highest paid employee is a coach. No one will be surprised that in North Carolina, it's a basketball coach, presumably for a state university. In the few non-coach states, it's somebody at a medical school or the president or dean of a university.

Map of Countries with the Most Violations of Bribery. A nonsensical title -- I think they mean either "violations of anti-bribery laws" or simply "most bribery." In America we're rather spoiled by how little bribery there is. Worst country for corruption of this kind? No surprise: Nigeria.

World Map of the Different Writing Systems. This is a great map because it has a sample of how each writing system presents the word "Wikipedia." Remember to read the Arabic from right to left.

The Annual Per Capita Coffee Consumption map surprised me: America is far from highest.

The Map of Contiguous United States Overlaid on the Moon is brilliant -- for the first time, I actually have a real understanding of how big the Moon is ... or isn't.

The Longest Straight Line You Can Sail on Earth is visually misleading -- the line is obviously curvy, not straight! So the mapmakers accompany it with a video showing how the line is straight -- on a globe.

A few of the maps are ideological, but we're used to that. Two of the maps are simply pointless, which is why I reduced my total to 38.

The map of rivers in the 48 states is unlabeled and, because it includes mountains, unreadable.

And the map of Europe showing the Chinese names for the countries, literally translated, is not just pointless but offensive, mostly because these "translations" are not literal.

The Chinese names of these countries were usually created by attempting to pronounce the Western names, then writing the Chinese syllables that came closest. The names of these countries never had these meanings -- except where the Chinese name was created in order to suck up to invaders, like calling Britain "Braveland."

Never mind. The point is that it's a magazine -- bringing together elements from many sources for a combined effect. The juxtaposition of maps has a cumulative effect.

However, I must warn you that despite the claim, after looking at all 40 maps the world still doesn't make sense.

Naturally, I became curious about Twisted Sifter itself. You can subscribe to the site and get daily photos and information -- its purpose is infotainment. They also have collections, like:

50 Faces in Everyday Objects: Some are hard to see, but most of these are brilliant.

50 Most Perfectly Timed Photos Ever: Some are posed, some are just lucky, and one was obviously photoshopped. Most involve one thing behind another thing, juxtaposed so they look like they're part of the same action. A few really are about snapping a photograph at exactly the right millisecond.

The Top 50 'Pictures of the Day' for 2013 and Top 100 'Pictures of the Day' for 2012. Most of these are very good, and some are brilliant.

*

Lemonade without Refrigeration

There's no question that the best lemonade you can buy is Newman's Own. The only thing better is Newman's Own Limeade, but of course, because it isn't actually lemonade, it's sort of disqualified.

But the Newman's Own lemonade and limeade drinks are sold from the refrigerated section of the grocery store, and the expiration date is about like the date on eggs -- refrigeration can only hold off spoilage for so long, and then it's over.

Most of the juices and drinks we buy don't need refrigeration. When I buy V-8, Loosa Apricot or Pear Nectar, or San Pellegrino Limonata or Aranciata, I only need to refrigerate them for a few hours before serving them; the rest of the time, they're on a shelf, not taking up space in the fridge.

What is the best lemonade you can buy that doesn't need refrigeration?

I've tried several, and most were disappointing -- not because they weren't fresh, but because they were kind of lousy lemonade.

After all, Newman's Own competes with other refrigerated lemonades, and it beats them all hollow because it's a perfect balance between sour fruit, a bit of sweetening, and water. The others simply don't get the balance right -- or they start with fruit that has a nasty flavor.

That's what's wrong with most of the bottled, unrefrigerated lemonades. Then I tasted Hubert's.

Because it's "all natural since 1935," you may find it only in health-food or other specialty stores, but you're not going to buy it because it's "natural," you're going to buy it because it's delicious.

I have tried Hubert's lemonade, diet lemonade, and limeade, and they're all excellent. They also make cherry, strawberry, mango, raspberry, cherry-lime, and honey lemonades, not to mention various flavored teas.

And if you can't find them in a local store, you can order them by the case from Amazon.com.

*

My birthday rolled around a while ago. Most of my friends and family recognize the impossibility of buying gifts for me. A nice card will do. If you really know my tastes, then a gift certificate to a restaurant or a favorite store is nice.

Consumables are the best gifts for me and my wife. Our house is full. We don't need any stuff we don't already have. The best gifts for us are things that we can use -- and use up. (Thanks for the See's Bordeaux Bars!)

What about buying me a book? I read three or four books a weeks -- surely that's a good gift for Uncle Orson, isn't it?

Well, not likely. Because if it's a book I want to read, chances are I've already bought it and read it. I read Publisher's Weekly so I already heard about this brand new book two months before it came out and preordered it on Amazon.

Otherwise, I will have found it by browsing through Barnes & Noble; and if I didn't choose to buy it and read it then, I probably won't read it now. Unless the gift-giver read it personally and swears to me that it's absolutely brilliant, I'll probably set it aside meaning to read it Real Soon Now. Every three or four years I perform triage on that stack, filled with shame and regret about gift books I didn't read as I give them to the local used book store.

Yeah. That's right. It's hard to buy books for a book snob. Every now and then somebody finds the perfect book that I didn't know existed. But really, it's safer just to send me a nice card. I'm happy to know you remembered me, and relieved that you're glad I'm still alive.

Those who aren't glad were much heard from this summer, so I was happy to hear from friends. But that's truly enough. Touching bases at birthday time is a nice thing to do. I don't actually need anything. Except world peace, of course.

So having said all that, I have to tell you about a perfectly lovely gift that met my needs perfectly: It was a basket from ItsOnlyNaturalGifts.com

It was from friends who've known me for, let's see, 37 years. They put together a custom basket of all natural treats with nothing I'm allergic to. Even the basket filler was all biodegradable. It was a great gift.

And it included, not just a few things I already knew I liked, but some treats I had no idea existed.

For instance, a brand of "premium artisan popcorn" called 479 (479 Degrees). Their Sea Salt Caramel flavor was absolutely brilliant -- just a hint of salt instead of letting it take over. And not too sweet. Just the best caramel popcorn I'd ever had.

And then I tried the very unlikely-sounding Chipotle Caramel and Almonds flavor. I don't know about you, but "spicy" and "caramel" don't actually sound like they should go together.

But they do. Again, it's because the people at 479 know how to keep things in proportion. The chipotle doesn't rule: It plays well with the other flavors.

Their website mentions a lot of interesting flavors -- most of them "coming soon." Since I don't like pumpkin at all, I doubt I'll try the Pumpkin Pecan Praline, but I'll be standing in line for the Toasted Coconut Caramel.

Seaweed and Toasted Sesame popcorn could only have been developed to be the snack they force you to eat in hell. But Creamery Butter and Farmers Market Herbs are quite promising.

You can get all their information at www.479popcorn.com. Their treats come in large pouches and small low-calorie servings. Suit yourself!

Another brand well-represented in the It's Only Natural Gift Basket was Way Better Snacks. Their website is sometimes hard to navigate -- but their snacks deliver.

The gift basket included Black Been Tortilla Chips -- very robust -- and Sweeet Potato Tortilla Chips -- my wife's favorite in the whole basket. (The extra "e" in Sweeet is actually there on the package.) We'll be trying some of the others, too. GoWayBetter.com/shop/ is their website, and you can also order from other sources.

We've already ordered cases of each of our favorites. So I'd have to say that this particular gift was a hit. Thanks for a gift both brave and knowing!

*

Years ago we bought a set of buffet serving plates that sit on a metal rack like gourmet bunk beds, one plate poised over the other. They double the amount of food you can serve in the same space, and they're simple enough to work in every season, with every kind of food except soup.

But the little rubber feet on the metal rack began to die recently. Not because of so much wear and tear -- it's not as if we dragged the racks behind our car. It's just that rubber gets old and even in our humid climate, it dries out.

So I headed to Ace Hardware at Pisgah and Elm, and while they had a good selection of little rubber feet, the smallest one had a 3/8-inch opening. I needed a 1/4-inch size. Bummer.

We live in the age of internet shopping, though, so I fearlessly went to the Web.

Alas, search engines are useful, but they're also annoyingly persnickety. For one thing, there are a lot of items with similar names. I wanted rubber feet that would slip over the ends of 1/4-inch metal legs.

But when I googled "rubber feet" what I got was a huge list of little stick-on feet that you'd put under a trivet or cutting board or small appliance or stereo component.

Not what I wanted. But how could I tell Google that I wanted a completely different kind of rubber foot?

"Rubber leg caps" started getting me into the right territory -- but that was not an easy name to think of. And of course most of what Google offered was chair leg caps and table leg caps and crutch and cane caps -- much larger than what I wanted.

Even when I specified "1/4 inch rubber leg caps" I was shown a lot of leg caps that were "1-1/4 inch" -- exactly one inch bigger than I needed.

How can I persuade Google that when I say "1/4 inch" that's what I mean, and sticking an extra "1" on the front changes everything?

(And for you practitioners of Boolean logic, I tried parentheses and quotation marks and it changed nothing.)

But buried on a page well down in the list, there was Mid-Atlantic Rubber Co. at MidAtlanticRubber.com. They bill themselves as offering "supply and engineering solutions." Clearly they are not looking for small customers like me, who only need twelve leg caps for a couple of serving racks.

Yet they, and they alone, offered 1/4 inch rubber leg caps. So I telephoned (because sometimes ordering on the web is not as good as talking to a human) and talked to a very personable fellow who did not sound at all annoyed that I wasn't a manufacturer looking to buy ten thousand leg caps for a cool new multi-legged product.

They did have a minimum order requirement. Fifty bucks. That would get me a hundred quarter-inch leg caps.

I did the mental math. First, rubber leg caps don't last forever -- I already knew that. So eventually I'd need to replace them again.

Second, my wife and I really, really like these plates and serving racks. They can't be replaced anywhere else, and even if they could, they would cost way more than fifty bucks.

So paying for 88 more caps than we actually need right now made sense. Another way to look at it is that I paid fifty bucks for twelve caps in order to save our valued serving dishes -- and they threw in an extra 88 leg caps for free.

It was, like, a bargain.

The nice guy from Mid-Atlantic Rubber Co. took my order and the caps arrived three days later -- just in time for me to slip them onto the rack legs just before they were used in a friend's wedding reception.

Not only was the order fulfilled promptly, but also the legs were much higher quality than the original rubber feet. I heartily endorse Mid-Atlantic Rubber Company for quality and service. I just can't imagine that I'll ever order anything from them again, because I'm not going to start manufacturing something with lots of little rubber feet.

Which is a shame, because when I find somebody that's very good at what they do, I like to reward them with repeat business.

What about the process? Annoying as the online search system is, with so many useless inappropriate returns to sift through, it took less time than my trips to Ace Hardware and Lowe's to find out that they didn't have what I wanted.

One thing I've learned in many other searches is the uselessness of services like Buy.com and Ask.com. They return even more insane or useless false positives than Google.

And I really hate the sites like WalMart.com that turn up a positive on the Google search, but when you click on the link, it turns out that they don't have anything like the thing I wanted. I want to find whoever's responsible, slap them upside the head just a little, and point out that if they don't actually have the thing I'm looking for, stop reporting to the search engine that they do.

I think their strategy is to report a positive on every search, so at least you're in their online store.

But what it really means is that they've trained me never to click on their link because it's a waste of my time.

The game -- much more frustrating than any angry birds -- is to find the exact wording, including word order, that will lead to Google finding me something useful.

No matter how clever the search engine, computers don't obey us. They train us until we have learned how to trick them into doing what we want.

*

Shopping for a gift for an 10- to 14-year-old reader this Christmas? You can't go wrong with Brandon Mull's new fantasy Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born.

It's a nice, inexpensive hardcover, and Brandon Mull knows how to spin a story. We follow individual kids in a fantasy world where at age 11, children are given a nectar to drink that helps them bond with a spirit animal.

The book is about the kids who happen to bond with the Fallen: ancient godlike spirit animals that died in the last war with the Devourer. It's hard to learn to draw upon the strength of the animals, and the kids have trouble figuring out whether they've been recruited by the good guys or the bad guys.

What's nice is that the kids are very different from each other, and their goals are not easily compatible. And one of the kids has been recruited by a different team. The bad guys? Or guys as good as the other kids' guys? Nothing is simple and clear in this terrific new series.

Unfortunately, the book is being promoted with a contest. I always deplore that marketing strategy. When you've got a writer like Brandon Mull, who really understands how to tell stories to young readers, the contest is a distraction.

In a way, it devalues the books because having a contest suggests that the book isn't worth reading for itself.

So ignore the contest and get the first book in the Spirit Animals series because Mull is a wonderful writer and the book is a good read. But yes -- it does set you up to buy the second book. And the second book is not by Brandon Mull. So I don't know whether it is going to be as good. Life is a gamble, isn't it?

The first book is good; young readers will enjoy it; and it's only about ten bucks (or thirteen, depending on where and how you buy it). That makes it a worthy, hopeful addition to your Christmas list.

And if you're not already Christmas shopping, well, that makes you a normal human being. But I'm half done, because as soon as we have our first chilly night and the leaves start turning colors, I'm thinking Christmas. Don't despise me for being a Christmas fanatic. Just wish you were on my list.

*

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