Owned and operated by Orson Scott Card
Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 10, 2016

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

ThingCharger, Cashews, Alan Lewrie at Sea

Now that everything we do involves battery-operated electronic devices, finding the right charger at the moment you need it can be a pain.

You think you've lost the cord you've been using for ages. So you buy another. Then you find the first.

I keep a full set of chargers and cables in my carry-on bag, so I don't have to think about it when I'm traveling.

Except when I decide not to take my fullsize laptop and I realize -- at my destination -- that the smaller case for my convertible tablet didn't already have a full set of chargers. It only has the charger for the convertible itself. That's a good thing, of course, since it's completely nonstandard, but how long do you think my phone or my iPod nano are going to stay fully juiced?

So I spend part of my busy trip searching for chargers with the micro-USB and the old wide-format Apple tip. Fun fun fun!

You know where this leads. Now both bags have a full set of charging cables. And my charging station near my bed has a full set of cables. Oh, and downstairs by the chair where I watch TV, guess what? Chargers!

Snakes coming out of the wall, that's what they are. But instead of poison, they push out nutrition to those hungry hungry appliances.

They also take up outlet after outlet.

So when I saw ThingCharger as a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, I backed it immediately, because I wanted it to exist, and I wanted a bunch of them.

ThingCharger is a thin rectangular box that shows plugs into a standard two-outlet wall charger, and on the other side has two wall-type outlets. So when you plug it into the wall, you still have the original two wall outlets.

But you also have two USB ports on the bottom, and a single charging tip on the top. That charging tip can be micro-USB or Apple Lightning or, for a bit extra, the old 15-pin wide Apple connector. Surge protection is built in.

And the tips, which store in the back of the ThingCharger, can be swapped out at need. A friend visits with a late-model iPhone, while you're all about Android? No problem. Pull the ThingCharger out of the wall, swap out the tip, plug it back in, and your friend can charge his overpriced object-of-worship just as efficiently as you charge your practical, workaday, grown-up device.

The phone or other device rests on top of the ThingCharger. It isn't lying on the floor or across the desk. It's right on top, within easy reach, where you can see the screen from across the room.

If you miss the snaky cables, or need to charge three devices, you can plug old-style cables into the USB ports on the bottom of the ThingCharger.

And you still have the wall outlets. Don't forget that, because keeping your wall outlets is one of the best aspects of ThingCharger.

Oh, another thing. You can plug one ThingCharger into another, giving you two tips on top, so you can have a tablet and a phone charging on top of the ThingChargers, where you can see the screens and they're out of the way.

Guess what's going into my carry-on bags. In hotel rooms, which are designed with as few outlets as possible, it's going to be very helpful to be able to plug the lamp back into the wall and yet still be able to charge all my electronics.

Is it the cheapest charging device? No. Most convenient? I think so. Best-made, with the most reliable electronics? That's the claim, and I believe it.

You can buy it on Amazon for $43, with micro-USB tip (you have to get your Apple tips separately). You can also buy it at WalMart. If you want to buy from the manufacturer -- or buy the extra tips you need -- then go to www.thingcharger.com, where you can buy multiples at a much lower price. Right now, if you pay for five ThingChargers, they toss in two more for free.

Do you really need seven charging stations in your house, for $200? That's your call, and your budget. But in my view, it isn't enough just to have outlets in every wall of your house. It makes sense to be able to charge whatever device is running low on juice, in whatever room you're going to be in for the next while. Without searching for a charger.


When I developed my peanut allergy a few years ago, I was devastated, because I love peanuts. I love peanut butter. And now both of those are off the table for me.

I don't have one of those allergies where a whiff of peanut breath will send me into anaphylactic shock. You can eat peanuts around me without killing me ... so far, at least. (Allergies can get worse over time -- or fade away.)

One of the peanut treats I miss most is Planters Heat Peanuts. They are hot enough to wake me up when I'm driving long distances, but not so hot as to cause distress.

But they're still peanuts.

In the absence of peanuts, I've tried alternative nuts. (I've been allergic to walnuts all my life, but no other tree nut has ever caused me a problem.) Almonds have a way of leaving chips and bits behind that no toothbrush or floss can ever find. Pecans taste like dust in my mouth.

But cashews -- even when I could eat peanuts, cashews were something special. The ultimate nut treat.

They are also the weirdest of the tree nuts. The cashew nut itself dangles from the bottom of a red or yellow fruit, often called "cashew apple." In fact, that apparent "fruit" is actually a thickened stem. The real fruit is the nut that we're familiar with, inside a fibrous, caustic shell.

Because that shell is aggressively unpleasant, processing the nut has to be done with great care. So for a long time, wherever the cashew grew it was the cashew apple -- that swollen, fruitlike stem -- that was used, while the hard-to-process nut was discarded.

If you eat the cashew apple, you'll really just chew it till you have all the juice, and then spit out the pulp. Usually it's pressed and, perhaps, fermented to make a juice.

When I lived in Brazil -- the original home of cashews -- I remember going into a sorveteria and ordering cajú-flavored ice cream. Bad choice. The flavor was completely unfamiliar to me, contained no cashew nuts, and I didn't like it at all.

That's because it was flavored with the cashew apple, a perfectly familiar flavor to Brazilians. If I asked for cajú anywhere in Brazil, that's the flavor I'd get. If I wanted the flavor I was familiar with, I had to look for castanhas de cajú -- cashew nuts.

And if you ever wonder why cashews are among the most expensive nuts, it's because they have to be processed with great care, so that not even a speck of the nasty shell gets into the bag or can of finished cashews.

But America has such a taste for cashew nuts that it's worth the cost of processing them -- mostly in northeastern Brazil and in India, where they were transplanted by Portuguese traders in the 1500s.

(Like kudzu in the American South, they were originally transplanted as a soil retainer, not only in India but also in east Africa and Madagascar. They rapidly spread to form extensive forests, according to Purdue University's horticultural website, long before either the fruit or the nut was treated as a commercial crop. [If only kudzu had turned out to have a delicious fruit.] https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/cashew_apple.html )

The biggest problem with using cashews as a peanut substitute is that peanut oil is so widely used, since it's one of the best roasting oils because of its properties at high temperature. If you buy cashews from Planters, the nation's biggest nut vendor, it will be roasted in peanut oil. And therefore it's just as off-limits to me as peanuts themselves.

So I'm always looking for reliable no-peanut-oil cashews. Dry roasting is one solution, but it's often hard to find. (You can still get dry-roasted Yumnuts from Amazon.) And ... nobody makes dry-roasted cashews with the same kind of spicing as my beloved old Planters Heat Peanuts.

Until Earth Fare started selling Sunshine Nut Company's Cashews Roasted with a Spark of Spices.

Sunshine Nut Company is ideological -- founder Don Larson (a former Director of Cocoa Operations for Hershey) moved to Mozambique specifically to start a cashew company with a social conscience. With something like the fervor that George Washington Carver once brought to the development of peanuts as a cash crop in the American South, the company still helps local farmers plant cashews and teaches them how to grow and harvest both the cashew apples and the cashew nuts.

Also, 90 percent of Sunshine Nut Company's profits are re-invested in Mozambique; according to the website SunshineNuts.com, "30 percent to support farmers through hand-up, not hand-out, programs; 30 percent to care for orphans and vulnerable children; and 30 percent to create new food companies -- including micro factories in poor, rural areas."

But let's face it -- all the charitable intentions in the world wouldn't help much if the result weren't delicious.

It is so delicious. The "Spark of Spices" cashews are exactly as hot as I like them, and delicious. No more moaning over the loss of Planters Heat Peanuts!

Not only that, but their "Roasted with a Sprinkling of Salt" cashews are exactly as salty as I like -- and no more. The "Roasted and Perfectly Plain" cashews are really delicious -- unsalted cashews, like unsalted peanuts, are a favorite alternative for me.

They also sell cashews that are "Roasted with a Handful of Herbs," but they are not to my personal taste -- maybe because they just happen to be the wrong herbs for me.

They are roasted in sunflower oil. They are safe, for me at least. And while the company headquarters is listed in Lewes Delaware, the nuts are still a product of Mozambique.

Sunshine Nut Company's cashews are packaged in tough, resealable 7-ounce bags. I find that tearing them open doesn't work too well -- I usually end up working with scissors to get a clean, full opening. If I were taking them with me on a trip, I'd cut open all the bags I was taking before I left, then reseal them till I needed them.

Don Larson knew the food business from his work with Hershey, and he has not stinted on quality at any point. Cashews aren't cheap anywhere, and no one would call these "discount cashews." But they're worth the price.

You can buy them locally at Earth Fare, and Amazon sells them economically in bulk -- by subscription, if you like. Sunshine Nut Company's own website only offers the bags by the dozen, with three of each of the four flavors. (Since I don't care for the Handful of Herbs flavor, that doesn't work for me.)


I don't know about you, but C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series was not long enough. And I also am a bit resentful that the BBC TV series about Hornblower (starring the inimitable Ioan Gruffudd) has not continued.

Recently, though, I heard from a friend that another series of seafaring novels with a hero in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars -- the "Great Age of Sail" -- was every bit as good as Forester's series.

The author is Dewey Lambdin, and the hero is Alan Lewrie. Every bit of nautical adventure is there, just as Hornblower fans might wish.

However, Lambdin was writing these beginning in the 1980s, so the rules of decorum were quite different from those followed by Forester. More to the point, Alan Lewrie's nautical career begins toward the tail end of the American Revolution -- decades before Hornblower went to sea as a midshipman.

And socially speaking, that makes all the difference. You see, English society went through a radical change during this time with the rise of Methodism, and a high degree of sexual permissiveness was replaced by a higher standard of decorum.

Lewrie was definitely of the social class in which whatever a "gentleman" wished to do, he could do, as long as he was reasonably discreet. And Lewrie did it. Dewey Lambdin seems as committed to narrating Lewrie's sexual exploits with the same detail and thoroughness as his nautical accomplishments.

The actual story -- including Lewrie's dalliances and loves and marriage and all -- is very good and completely believable for a man of his time. However, Lambdin's detailed depictions of said dalliances begin to cloy very quickly, if only because love-making is not as complicated as a sailing ship, and so rhapsodic accounts of such operations become mind-numbingly repetitive.

When you're reading, it's easy to skip and skim. But when you're listening to the audiobooks, as I'm doing, skipping becomes much more difficult. I'm doing it anyway because life is short, and I want to get back to the story as quickly as possible.

If coarse (but authentic) language bothers you, stick with Hornblower. If you want authenticity and can bear with Lambdin's commitment to obsessive thoroughness about sex, prostitutes, pederasts, and pirates, then I recommend the Alan Lewrie series highly.

One of the best thing about the books is the array of other characters, naval and landside, commissioned and regular seamen. Lewrie quickly learns that all captains are crazy, in one way or another; some delightfully so, and others appalling and dangerous to everyone on their ships.

Lewrie has the attitudes toward women that were common in his day; Lambdin does not, as so many authors do, make Lewrie anachronistically wrong in order to be politically correct. Lewrie is no feminist -- he finds it tedious when intellectually gifted women try to talk about matters "outside their sphere."

But Lambdin tells these things with such panache that we know that he knows that we'll like these bluestocking women precisely because they don't "know their place." For instance, Lewrie encounters Lord Nelson's famous mistress, Mrs. Hamilton, before Nelson does -- including a brief and torrid affair -- but hasn't the brains to appreciate her as Nelson does.

Best of all, though, we meet Nelson himself, long before he's the great and famous hero of Trafalgar, and we see, through Lewrie's eyes, how Nelson is protected and advanced early in his career by the patronage of higher officers. Since the American military still functions in much the same way -- careers depend on having a high officer looking out for you, making sure you get the right assignments -- it's illuminating to see how Lewrie both resents and imitates the officers who are climbing in rank through cultivating flattery-centered friendships with their superiors.

Every volume I've read so far -- six to date -- has been as good as the others. When Lewrie is in a bind, where he has no good options, we suffer along with him. It's fun to meet Napoleon as a young colonel of artillery who is taking apart the British defenses at Toulon; but it's also educational to see how the utter stupidity of military decision-making on most occasions arises from the fact that the military does not weed out the idiots until several years into a war, and the equally important fact that nobody ever has enough information, enough soldiers, and enough materiele to carry out an excellent campaign.

Again, nothing has changed in the intervening years. How many years of incompetence before you get a Petraeus? And how long before competing civilian or military interests bring him down? (There are still forces that recently tried to punish Petraeus retroactively for daring to make Bush's occupation of Iraq effective after all. Malice has no expiration date.)

John Lee's performance of the Alan Lewrie audiobooks is outstanding. He has mastered many English accents from every region and social class, and his handling of foreign languages is never less than adequate. This is a world in which gentlemen all speak Latin and French, to a degree, and one must speak with allies or competitors from Italy, Spain, Portugal, China, the Netherlands, and who knows where else -- since I still have many volumes to go.

Unlike Hornblower, who was an obsessive swimmer, Alan Lewrie is a committed non-swimmer, which almost costs him his life when the gunboat he commands at Toulon is burning and sinking under him. At some point, one would imagine that he would undertake to learn how to swim ... but the fact remains that hardly anybody in the British Navy at that time bothered to acquire that particular skill.

Which makes sense, considering that in most cases, you would hit the water in such remote places, in such shark-infested waters, that drowning in a few minutes made as much sense as swimming until you either became shark food or you drowned from exhaustion.

These are lively, invigorating, yet meticulously accurate books, and Dewey Lambdin's afterwords are a delight. Each of the later books begins with a summary of what went before, so that you really can begin almost anywhere. But the books in order are:

The King's Coat, The French Admiral, The King's Commission, The King's Privateer, The Gun Ketch, H.M.S. Cockerel, A King's Commander, Jester's Fortune, King's Captain, Sea of Grey, Havoc's Sword, The Captain's Vengeance, A King's Trade, Troubled Waters, The Baltic Cambit; King, Ship, and Sword; The Invasion Year, Reefs and Shoals, Hostile Shores, The King's Marauder, and Kings and Emperors.

Read them in order. Why deny yourself the fun of watching Lewrie grow up, as a naval officer and as a man?

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