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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 12, 2014

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

Shavers and QI

There are so many blockbuster (and would-be blockbuster) movies this summer, but the only one I've seen is Godzilla -- which was enjoyable, but didn't offer me much to write about.

Or, rather, I could have written pages and pages, because I can write pages and pages about anything -- but thinking about the movie made it hard for me to stay awake.

And when I think about going to see the X-Men movie or anything else based on a comic book, I find that I'm much more interested in playing pinochle on my smartphone.

Maybe I'll see some more movies this summer. Maybe I'll write about them. But when I claim that "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything," what I mean is that I have no limits on my subject matter, not that I actually intend to review everything.

I don't feel any obligation to see every movie and write about it, any more than I feel a need to watch every TV show or read every book or eat every type of chocolate.

No, come to think of it, I'm doing pretty well in the chocolate category.

But when you consider that I'm not paid to review movies, and even if I were, it would still take me the same two hours to watch a movie as it takes anyone else, and I only have a finite number of primetime two-hour blocks left in my life, I readily forgive myself for not going to the trouble to watch movies that seem to be functionally identical to lots of other movies that bored me already.

Some of them might be very good. Judging from ticket sales, some of them might even be life-changing experiences.

Yet when I celebrate my insomnia by channel-flipping, I sometimes run across movies that I avoided in theaters, but which turn out to be quite well-made and entertaining on the TV in our family room.

For instance, I found that I really liked Mel Gibson's 1999 revenge bloodfest Payback. I don't remember even seeing it promoted when it first came out. But it has a delightful cast of bad guys, who die interestingly, and among whom is Lucy Liu, in her pre-stardom (i.e., pre-Ally McBeal) days. When she was still billed as Lucy Alexis Liu.

Maybe one reason I liked this movie was because one of our cleverest writers, Donald E. Westlake, wrote the novel (The Hunter) that it was based on, and the director and co-writer, Brian Helgeland, was also responsible for L.A. Confidential, A Knight's Tale, and the screen adaptations of Blood Work, Mystic River, and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.

In other words, some really talented people were involved.

Plus, as with all other Mel Gibson movies, we get to watch Gibson's character get tortured in gruesome ways, which he bears with stoic agony.

That was the movie I enjoyed most last week.


My dad gave me my first electric razor on my sixteenth birthday. It was a gift prompted more by hope than need. I used it for the second time on my seventeenth birthday.

When, at age twenty, I began my missionary service in Brazil, I had shaved maybe a dozen times. Shaving took about two seconds, once the shaver was running. Since my chin hairs were so sparse I could have named them, I targeted each one and when they were gone, I was done.

In Brazil, I started using safety razors. I didn't bother with shaving cream. With nine barely-visible whiskers, I didn't need it. Snicker-snack, and the hairs were gone.

For me, shaving had individual targets. I shaved man-to-man, not zone.

(Please note that I actually used a reference from basketball defense strategies.)

But then, after I got home from Brazil, something like whiskers began to appear on my face. My upper lip had some promising growth. When I skipped shaving it for weeks at a time, people began to notice.

They would brush at their own lips while giving me significant looks -- the same gestures you make to let someone know they have food clinging to their face.

If my brothers had not been similarly slow to sprout facial hair, I might have thought there was something wrong. But eventually I was able to grow a "mustache" that other people charitably pretended to see.

And the dry safety razor no longer did the trick. It was time to get serious about shaving every single day. And the razor my dad had given me just wasn't doing the job anymore.

That's when I believed the TV commercials enough to give Norelco's three-headed shaver design a try.

Not the commercial where Victor Kiam said, "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." That was Remington, which is the shaver I was switching away from.

I was immediately a fan of Norelco, and I haven't switched brands since. However, even a well-made shaver has a finite lifespan. That original wired-to-the-wall model gave way to a wireless model with nickel-cadmium batteries.

You remember ni-cad batteries, don't you? If you didn't run them all the way out, gradually they lost capacity. Worse yet, as the power inched toward zero, the blades slowed down. Shaving became spotty, then snaggy. I learned that you can cut yourself shaving with a slowed-down electric razor.

Eventually, I sent the shaver to a shop that replaced the batteries and the shaving heads, and got another ten years out of that razor. Meanwhile, I bought a second, identical one to use while the original was in the shop. I kept it for travel.

But about a year ago it was plain that both shavers were living on borrowed time. Since then I had bought and used a couple of other Norelco models while staying for extended periods in another city, and I learned that there's a definite hierarchy in Norelco models.

I know this will surprise you, but higher quality costs more.

And the Norelco models on display at Target or Wal-Mart are usually not the top of the line.

Some of the "top" features were not interesting to me. I had no interest in shaving in the shower, for example, or with shaving cream or soap. When you have a beard -- even a sad little goatee like mine -- you don't want to shave the rest of your face without being able to see what you're doing. There's too much danger of plunging into the beard.

And I didn't want a razor that automatically washed itself. My beard growth is not so thick that my shaver clogs up. Opening the top and tapping out the whiskers was all I ever needed to do.

So a month ago, as I made the decision to retire those old shavers with their again-fading ni-cad batteries, I never considered any shaver but a three-headed Philips Norelco. But which model?

It's not as if I could go to Target and ask a salesperson's advice. Besides, I had already used bottom-of-the-line models and wasn't interested. At 62 years of age, and given the long life of my previous shaver, I expected this to be the last electric shaver I'd ever buy. I might as well spend the money to get the best.

So I went to the best online department store, Amazon, and started comparing prices and features. But there just wasn't enough information in the product descriptions to make a rational decision. After all, the manufacturer had no interest in telling me what was wrong with any of the models, and there was zero chance that Amazon did any kind of product testing.

Instead, Amazon has product reviews by users. I expected these to be at the same level as the user-written comments and reviews about books -- generally shallow, and revealing more about the commenter than the product.

But no. The main commenters on Norelco shavers on Amazon were seriously committed to both shaving and reporting on the experience.

There were, of course, the normal smattering of "I hated it," "Stopped working the third day," "battery didn't even last a month" -- the comments that make it seem they got a lemon or they had unreasonable expectations.

Overwhelming the complaints, however, were a number of serious, thoughtful, evidence-based, almost scientific reports.

There are guys who really, really think about shaving. More to the point, they also -- altruistically -- believe it's worth the time and effort to write one or two thousand words about every aspect of shaving with a particular shaver, and comparing it to other shavers.

I wish my college students could all write papers as closely reasoned and as evidence-based as some of the best of those reviews!

Of course, these reviewers, in all likelihood, went through school back when I did -- you know, in the days when they taught grammar and sentence structure, and when logic, both inductive and deductive, was regarded as the single most important evidence of intelligence.

In other words, before the empty-headed but easily-graded five-paragraph "essay."

It took me a long time to read all those comments -- but they were so well-written and so informative that I was interested the entire time.

I recognized right away that my own very light facial growth was not going to require what some of the twice-a-day shavers needed.

But that was fine, because there were commenters who had my kind of problem -- for instance, the stray hair that declines to be cut. So when a couple of commenters said that a particular model took out far more stray hairs than the others, I sat up and paid attention.

After taking what amounted to a graduate seminar in Norelco shavers, I ended up buying the 1290X/46 Sensotouch 3D Electric Razor (series 8000).

Now, I'm not quite sure in what sense one razor is "3D" while other models are "2D." I took it to mean that the 3D shavers did a better job of following the contours of one's skin, which, being flexible, is never quite flat.

The 1290/46 has a very different look and feel from older Norelco shavers. The whole head assembly stands up from the body of the shaver on a short post, so you have to hold it differently from shavers with the traditional Norelco shape.

And when it's time to open the top and clean the heads, instead of coming open as a single unit, the three heads open separately, from the middle, with hinges on the outside. So when it's open, it looks like the landing modules that very small aliens would pilot as they invade the roaches and crickets of Earth.

I did not get the self-washing model, because the Amazon reviews made it clear that it didn't actually save time. The model I got is, however, completely user-washable. You just open those heads and, following the directions given by a couple of commenters, you pass them under the faucet, first letting the water flow through the head from the outer surface, and then from the inner side.

Sure, it's not so much "washing" as "rinsing," but it leaves me with the cleanest shaver I've ever owned.

Of course, in our somewhat humid climate, allowing it to "air dry" means that it sits open all day. But drying is not all that vital -- because the razor can still be used, just as effectively, with moisture clinging to it.

It's the closest, most comfortable, least irritating, and most efficient shave I've ever had. And the batteries -- which you only use down to about one-third -- show no sign of slackening their power through a charging cycle. The sound and the cutting efficiency are nearly the same, from right after a charge till it's time to charge again.

I would like to have a phone as well-designed and well-made as this. My phone goes through pouty moods when it simply goes blank, repeatedly, so that I can't restore the screen long enough to finish whatever task I was doing. I would not tolerate that in a shaver -- or, for that matter, in a chain saw, a television, a car, or any other appliance.

Time to get a new phone? Not likely. Because smart phones are actually computers, which means they do what they want, and the manufacturer will tell you that anything that goes wrong with it is your fault. It isn't, but I don't believe that my replacement phone would necessarily be any better.

Shavers have to meet a higher standard of reliability.

After nearly twenty years I had gotten used to having a separate travel shaver, and with both my old shavers dying the same death, I also bought a second Norelco shaver to replace the travel model.

The reviews had warned that the 1290X/46 has to be charged with its charging base, not with a direct cord to the wall, which makes it so the whole assembly takes up a lot more room in luggage. Therefore, I bought a lesser model to be my travel shaver: The Norelco AT830 Powertouch with Aquatec.

You can attach this one to the wall and use it on house power. It can also be opened up and rinsed -- though the three heads open as a single unit, in the traditional way. In fact, the AT830 might as well be my old reliable shaver, because it looks and hefts exactly the same.

However, you get what you pay for. It shaves better than my old one -- but not as smoothly or efficiently as the 1290X/46. The difference, on a beard as light as mine, is trivial; it might make a real difference if you have a twice-a-day growth.

I recommend both models highly; you simply have to decide what your own beard growth requires, and what your budget has room for. And you have to keep in mind that I'm already committed to Norelco's three-head design -- I didn't even consider other designs or other manufacturers.

I also have to give high marks to the thoughtful, careful reviewers who made buying a Norelco from Amazon an enjoyable, well-informed process. When I made my buying decision, I knew what I was going to get -- and the long, thoughtful reviews were borne out completely.

My favorite review, though, was a brief one -- from a woman. She reported that she shaves her legs with her husband's Norelco. "He doesn't mind," she said, and because the shaver could be used in the shower it worked perfectly for her, too.

With two people using it, the heads will wear out sooner ... and those heads are not cheap to replace. But I have to say that I was impressed that the same razor would work on leg stubble without defeating its effectiveness on facial hair.

I was also impressed that there exists a man who really doesn't mind having somebody else use his shaver.


"I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once." That quotation from Ashleigh Brilliant was Quote of the Day on QI.com -- the website linked to the BBC comedy game show QI.

QI -- which stands for "Quite Interesting" -- is a British trivia game show in which comedians of varying levels of cleverness compete to answer absurdly obscure questions. The pleasure of the show comes from the conversations that ensue, and not just because most of the contestants have British accents (which, to Americans, generally seem smarter than American accents).

The conversations sometimes become a bit crude; in fact, that seems to be, in Britain as in America, the sure place where comedians go when they hope to get a laugh. But ... they go there because it works, and the show is quite funny.

How do I know it's funny? Certainly not because I watched it on BBC America -- QI is not aired in the USA, purportedly because they would have to pay extra for the right to use the photos that they put on the air in association with the questions.

To which I suggest that they send someone over to pass the hat in a New York subway car for a day or two to cover the extra costs. Or -- here's a thought -- they could go online and get their photos from several websites that sell the nonexclusive world rights to every kind of photo or clip for insanely low prices.

In short, I think the Brits don't air QI here in the States because they think we're not worthy. And they're probably right.

I only know about the show because, after I commented on the comedy game show @midnight, a friend wrote to one-up me by telling me that QI is much funnier. And he knew about it because segments can be watched on BBC Worldwide via YouTube.

For instance, here's the discussion that ensues following the question, "What rhymes with 'purple'?" There really are two legitimate words, which I now plan to use as much as possible.


Then, when dealing with various cures suggested by ancient Roman advice columnist Pliny the Elder, the conversation turned to the spontaneously generated myth that if you can lick your own elbow, you will never die.


The same Pliny-centered show led to the interesting fact that the bees now living in Britain are not homegrown, but are rather immigrants invited into the country on work permits.


I have to love a show in which a segment can be launched by a quote from Talleyrand: "I am more afraid of an army of a hundred sheep led by a lion than an army of a hundred lions led by a sheep."

This led to the question of why there are no Alsatians in the Spanish army. Now, because I'm not a Brit, I assume "Alsatian" means "person from Alsace." And there would be no Alsatians in the Spanish army because Alsace is in France -- on the side nearest to Germany, which is why Germans kept taking it away from France whenever they could, and the Spanish almost never did.

But no. In Britain, "Alsatian" apparently has nothing to do with people from Alsace. Instead, it's their name for the dog we call "German shepherd." Apparently, after a couple of wars that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Brits, they didn't wish to use the name of "German" for a noble breed of animal.

As to why there are none of that breed of dog in the Spanish army, here's the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEuS1Ah84YY

I don't believe the "fact" for a moment, of course -- but it is a funny bit.

And just for the fun of it, here's a "final round" in which everyone comes up with wrong, but commonly believed, answers -- which is exactly what they're expected to do:


After watching that clip, you will perhaps wish to know who really did invent the practical, piloted helicopter rather than a children's toy. The first working piloted helicopter appeared in France.

As with many things, the word came before the thing -- a French writer coined the term from "helico" (spiral) and "pter" (wing) back in the 1800s.

And, by the way, when the Greeks began words with "pt" as in "pterodactyl," they pronounced both the p and the t. English doesn't do that, so we think it's somehow hard or unnatural to pronounce that sound combination. But in fact it's quite easy. Just like the "ps" sound at the beginning of "psychology."

I suggest you annoy your soon-to-be-former friends and family by always pronouncing the p in "psalm," "psoriasis," and "pseudo-". See how long it takes for them to suggest you visit a psychotherapist.

In the meantime, you can go on YouTube and watch many more snippets of QI in order to find much more interesting and entertaining trivia than you'll ever get from conversing with me or reading my column.

Or you can get a copy of a book called QI: The Book of General Ignorance, or its later edition, which proclaims itself to be "Noticeably Stouter." There are, here and there, amusing quotations from the show QI -- but mostly the book consists of interesting trivia.

I wish I could tell you that you could buy DVDs of the game show. In fact you can -- except that they won't play on US or Canadian DVD players. Thus Brits and Australians can watch the DVDs (regions 2 and 4) but we of region 1 cannot. There are petitions ...

Still, at qi.com/shop/ there are plenty of books tied to the show. I think they probably make money with these books because people who enjoy QI are, like Jeopardy viewers, likely to spend some of their disposable time reading.

At qi.com/shop/ you will see that there are many titles, all listed under the slogan "laugh yourself clever." Since Brits use the word "clever" to mean what we mean when we say "smart," this is, of course, a lie.

If one could laugh oneself smart, watching The Daily Show wouldn't make you more ignorant -- which it has done to a sizable portion of America's young voters, training them to know only one side of every question and feel quite sure this makes them wiser than those who question the dogmas. Or simply know how to read.

Let's face it, most trivia is, in fact, trivial. For most of us, the working definition of "trivial" is "stuff I don't enjoy learning." For me, this includes any kind of statistics about sports. For others, it includes all of human history.

There are several ways to become good at trivia games and conversations. One is by spending your life reading good books in every subject area. Another is by keeping up with People magazine.

Both will lead you to know interesting facts that other people didn't know; but People facts will make you a "good conversationalist," while facts acquired by reading history and science and philosophy will make you a "bore."

Unless you can get yourself on a British comedy trivia program. And even then, an American accent will make you sound bossy and dull, so it won't much matter what you say. No one will listen.

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