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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 12, 2016

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


Civil War, FitBit, Keyboards, Surface Pro

Captain America: Civil War has just about the same premise as the sad little Batman vs. Superman movie -- one superhero disapproves of another superhero and they have titanic battles with all kinds of special effects until they kiss and make up, or agree to disagree -- and by the way they're both right and they're in so much emotional turmoil it makes me want to cry.

Or it would, if I actually cared.

Here's what screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely achieved: I actually did kind of care about the characters in Captain America: Civil War.

Part of that rested on the fact that two out of the three Iron Man movies were good, and, you know, Robert Downey, Jr.

But mostly it's the writing in this movie that makes this movie work. It's true that putting Paul Rudd in any movie makes it better. That's just a fact. But you have to give him something to do and say that allows him to create his little bright spots here and there. And these writers do that.

Best of all, they absolutely knew how to reinvent a young Peter Parker/Spider-Man as a wonderfully exuberant and funny character instead of the brooding, sad guy that we've seen in the past two cycles of Spider-Man films.

I can't wait for the Tom Holland Spider-Man reboot, because he was one of the best things in Civil War.

The dollops of character and clever dialogue worked to make this movie watchable. Otherwise, it's just the same old fights and special effects. Captain America's magic shield? Oh, puh-leeze. This was stupid in the comic books and it remains stupid now. But do it all fast enough and sure, yeah, we'll buy it.

We expect the special effects to be spot on in these comic-book movies, and we know we're going to have to switch off large portions of our brains not to shake our heads and walk out of this pea-soup of nonsense. The good comic-book movies are the ones that manage to create human characters, and that don't have Thor in them.

These characters have to be played for real rather than for laughs and smirks -- even when it's a comedy. That is, in Deadpool, the title character was funny, because he was witty and a bit cynical -- but he was played straight, as if he were a real person.

Think back to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Reeve was charming, but he -- like all the other characters -- played the part with a wink. I'm not really serious, the actors were all saying. Isn't this fun? And that's why these movies ran out of steam so soon ... and why they don't hold up.

Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man in all these Marvel movies, shows his character, Tony Stark, going through life tongue-in-cheek -- but it's the character, not the actor, who is laughing at all the goings-on, especially his own. The actor is making Tony Stark as real as possible.

So the witty characters fit into the same movie as the painfully earnest Captain America because they're all playing it real. And when they have a decent script to work with, they give us a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute romp. Great fun.

Just keep it in perspective. The Disney live-action Jungle Book also taxes our credence in many ways, but it isn't the same thing over and over the way these comic-book movies are.

Civil War does try for substance. The argument over whether the Avengers should be subject to the oversight of the United Nations (oh, that's a pack of clowns if there ever was one) in order to contain the collateral damage is one worth having.

But here the writers didn't dare to bring in the real arguments and evidence, either because there wasn't time, or they knew the studio executives would never understand them, or they knew that the strongest arguments don't lead to politically correct conclusions.

For instance, nobody could say, "The United Nations is a collection of rabid anti-Americans who assemble only to condemn the West, the U.S., and, above all, Israel." Instead, they actually talk about not relying on the Security Council -- you know, the body where the U.S. has a veto over taking any action.

The General Assembly would end up authorizing only strikes against the U.S. and Israel, and anybody who is aware of the politics of the U.N. knows that. So this script really does live in fantasy land.

And where were the World War II arguments? Yes, in wartime a lot of innocent people get hurt. But the bad guys that the Avengers put down were causing far more harm than the collateral damage.

In combat, nobody is in control of all the consequences of their actions. And no sane, moral, or just judge would have blamed the Avengers for any of the accidental bad stuff that happened in this movie or in the past.

I remember that Man of Steel was criticized by many fans because Superman took actions that caused harm to innocent bystanders. I thought that it was exactly the right move, to get a realistic Superman out of the fantasy land where the only people who get hurt are the ones you mean to hurt, and Superman can prevail without ever killing anybody.

Nuh-uh. World War II was a righteous war. Neither the Nazis nor the Japanese could be allowed to maintain their evil empires, and in the desperate struggle to stop them, a lot of civilians were killed. These were not war crimes. It was war.

Good guys still try to behave decently in war, but let's face it, war consists of inducing soldiers (usually males, since evolution favors this) to shrug off the limitations on their violence and hurt the enemy as much as possible. That killing fury or bloodlust cannot always be switched on and off. Nor can imperfect humans reasonably foresee most of the consequences of violent action.

The people who were enraged at the Avengers because of the people they accidentally hurt were understandable, but they were ludicrously wrong. They could not gain the perspective to see that even when the Avengers did things that inadvertently killed people, on the whole they saved far more people than they killed or injured.

But the government leaders knew, or should have known, if they were even marginally competent. All I saw in Civil War was political grandstanding, with the Avengers getting criticized because they were not gods -- exactly the way grandstanding third-world leaders criticize the U.S. because, in our role as policeman to the world, we sometimes hurt people we shouldn't oughta have hurt.

There are only two choices, when trying to fight evil and curtail its damage. Either you take action and sometimes hurt people who didn't deserve it, even as you defeat evil; or you take no action, and then you are condemned for not saving the people you could have saved.

Think of the nothing that we did in Rwanda, as Tutsi men, women, and children were butchered by genocidal Hutus. A few overflights by American attack helicopters would almost certainly have saved many lives; but, cowed by bad results from our ill-conceived, undermanned efforts in Somalia, we did nothing.

Either way, there's blood on our hands. But which would have been better -- to sit out World War II as long as possible, saving the lives we took in Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or jump in as we did, saving not just lives but also the freedom of millions and millions of people, even though we also killed a lot of folks along the way?

The philosophical premise of the argument leading to the titular Civil War is therefore ignorant nonsense that reflects the stupidity of the "anti-war" Left in America today. ISIS and, before them, Saddam were the evil ones; our actions in stopping Saddam were completely justified with or without WMDs, and Obama's action in withdrawing U.S. troops, allowing ISIS to rise, has slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians and led to genocidal attacks on non-Muslims in ISIS-controlled lands.

But it is precisely that knowledge that had to be kept out of the argument over what the Avengers should be allowed to do. Because you shouldn't be confused about this: In the eyes of the Left, the Avengers absolutely stand for the U.S. as the superpower that "needs to have U.N. oversight."

And Captain America absolutely stands for the United States' real obligation to human civilization: We must depend on our own judgment, and not the consensus of politicians who hate us and want to make sure the world's policeman doesn't police them.

There is no way that contemporary politics did not influence the thinking of the filmmakers. What makes this movie tolerable is that, in the end, it is clear that waiting around for consensus and oversight makes it impossible to save those who most need saving.

*

So it's almost certainly Trump vs. Hillary. Trump is a terrifyingly vain, stupid, and pathological human being who has never governed anything, never negotiated with people who intend to break every promise they make, and never had to accept any serious limitations on his ego or his greed. He is the Republicans' way of saying, "You gave us Obama, the worst, least qualified, least constitutional president in history. We can top that!"

But at least Obama is a decent human being, a good father and husband, and sincere in his convictions. This time, the Democrats are saying, "We have found the most corrupt person available to be the First Woman president. We're going to stick it to you by crushing Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress with this talking moral compost heap."

For months now, all my friends and I have been saying, "What if it's Trump against Hillary, what then?"

No silliness about voting for nobody, or moving to Canada. Canada is even more stupidly Leftist than America, and if you think our Suffering Victims are annoying, wait till you have to listen to the Quebecois demand that there be French on all signs throughout Canada, while not allowing English on signs in Quebec. Canada is no refuge for people hoping for good sense in politics.

My wife put it in clear perspective. "If Trump becomes president, the Supreme Court will be more likely to have some degree of respect for the written constitution. If Trump becomes president, the U.S. military will be funded and trained back to something like superpower status, after Obama disastrously took us back to pre-World-War-II levels of unreadiness."

And we know that Hillary, while finding ways to make herself even richer, will impoverish our military even more. We know she'll abandon U.S. soldiers while under fire, and provide them neither support nor rescue. We know her Supreme Court would be the end of constitutional government for at least a generation.

Never mind the Drumpf-stuff that won't happen, like the Wall and revocation of all our free-trade treaties. Never mind that looking at Trump on the news for the next four years is going to be even more sickening than the eight years of watching Slimy Bill lie his way through every news conference.

If you're thinking of voting for the Libertarian, first read some of their actual platform and you'll realize that the Libertarians make the Democrats and the Republicans look sane.

With the choice that the fanatical idiot wings of both parties are giving us, our best move, in my opinion, is to vote for the party that is most likely to preserve something like the American way of life and preserve America's ability to defend our interests and the world order that has brought prosperity nearly everywhere.

That means -- and you have no idea how it pains me to say this, since I am most definitely not a Republican, especially not after Trump's people take control of the party -- that the only responsible course is to vote to retain Republican control of Congress, because only the Republican Party has proven that it has any inclination to stand in the way of the "progress" that will destroy us -- whether it comes from the Left or the Right.

I do not agree with much of the Republican agenda, though it sometimes seems Paul Ryan is the Last Competent Congressman. But America is an exceptional nation, and it provides the backbone of the world order, and Ryan and his Republican allies seem determined to preserve that.

Whatever idiotic mistakes they might make along the way, having four more years of a Republican Congress is just about the only chance we have to curb the excesses of either of the two insane candidates who seem primed to oppose each other in the fall.

*

I really wasn't aware of Fitbit, though I knew there were wrist monitors that helped people track their exercise.

My wife bought a Fitbit a few months ago, and quickly became so dependent on the information it provided that she bought me one, too.

Fitbit is a tiny computer that slides into a rubbery wristband and keeps track of the number of steps you take, your hours of sleep, and ... well, not much else.

Here's the thing. When I was running, in my late forties and early fifties, I used my bicycle odometer to plot out how many miles each of my common routes was, so I would know when I had run two or three miles, or some fraction thereof.

Then I'd use a sport watch to track my time. I got so I was running three miles on steep hilly streets in less than nine minutes to a mile. At my age, that was terrific.

Then I found out, when I started using the Map My Run and Map My Walk apps on my smartphone, that my bicycle odometer was off by enough that my one-mile course needed to be about one-twentieth of a mile longer to really be a mile. That was depressing.

Now, though, with Fitbit, what gets counted is the number of steps. The software automatically assigns everyone a goal of ten thousand steps a day. My wife has achieved that a couple of times; I've made five thousand steps a couple of times, but I'm in far worse shape and besides, my legs are longer so it takes me fewer steps to cover the same ground. (This is called "lying to myself.")

For me, with a profound sleep disorder for more than a year, the most salient feature of the Fitbit is its sleep-tracking. Instead of trying to estimate what time I went to sleep (always impossible) and how often I woke up, Fitbit tracks that for me.

I may think I tossed and turned for hours, but Fitbit tells me that I actually slept for most of those hours, with just a few incidents of restlessness and wakefulness.

In fact, both my wife and I now talk as if Fitbit actually gave us whatever sleep we got each night. "Fitbit gave me only three and a half hours of sleep," I'll say, "but that's better than the zero hours I had the night before."

Fitbit is not perfect. For instance, it reported that I slept nearly two hours, from soon after 5:00 p.m. to nearly 7:00 p.m. last Saturday night.

Alas, that was precisely the time that I was watching Captain America: Civil War. So apparently the unmoving pose I take while watching movies registered to Fitbit as sleep. I did not sleep at all during the movie. I just didn't twitch, either.

Meanwhile, when I'm watching TV at night, I often doze off, sometimes waking up a half hour into the show after the one I was watching. But Fitbit never counts my recliner naps at all.

Still, I'm now getting far more accurate information about my real sleep habits than I ever had before. So my wife and I both depend on our Fitbits and have no intention of ceasing their use.

It's not always easy, though. The little black Fitbit computer does not just pop into the wristband. It takes a while to learn how to wiggle it into place -- and which way to turn it in order to get it properly seated.

Also, it's hard to guess how much battery you have left. Being crucially interested in our sleep patterns, we can't very well put the Fitbit into the charger all night, the way we do with our phones, tablets, and .mp3 players.

Eventually, though, you get used to working with the Fitbit. Since you don't want to wear it into the shower, that's the perfect time to charge it -- especially if you take long showers. Also, charging it during a leisurely meal will certainly do the job. And the battery is good for a couple of days, at least, on a full charge.

I don't recommend Fitbit if you're having trouble affording gas to get to work -- it's definitely a luxury item. But if you can afford the luxury, go to FitBit.com and look at the models they offer for sale. You'll need to download the free app to your computer or smartphone, too, of course.

They have several models. The more expensive ones are too wide for me, and they really serve as a watch replacement. I have much nicer watches so I opted, as did my wife, for one of the two narrow banded Fitbits.

I have the one that provides almost no information on the Fitbit itself; my wife is transitioning to the one with a small display. But we're both sticking with narrow. There's only so much room on my wrist, and when I'm also wearing a nice Jord wooden watch, I want the Fitbit to be skinny enough to stay out of the way.

The narrow ones are also way cheaper.

*

I've been carrying around a Dell laptop/tablet combination as my travel computer. It was crippled by two factors.

1. Its operating system was Windows 8, which is like buying a new car with square tires that required three squirrels to huff and puff to keep them inflated.

2. It had solid-state memory, which was terrific - incredibly fast boot times - but not enough of it, which meant I could barely fit any programs, let alone all my data, onto the computer.

But I kludged my way through with it for a couple of years.

Incredibly enough, we were able to install Windows 10 on it, which freed up a lot of disk space. But it was growing heavier and heavier (or I grew less and less physically fit), and there was this cool Microsoft product (which meant I hadn't actually used it yet, so it still looked cool from the ads) called the Surface Pro.

The Surface Pro is supposed to be a good enough computer to replace a desktop (it's not, if you do any serious work on your current desktop computer). But it's also a tablet, so you should be able to do tablety things with it.

But the original Windows-based tablets were still committed to Microsoft's horrible Windows Phone interface, with "icons" that are big ugly blocks that complete cover your desktop art and can't be changed. Because nobody bought the Windows Phone, there wasn't a very big user base, so most developers decided not to create great programs for it.

The result is that the Windows Phone interface is hated, and there isn't anywhere near as many good apps for Windows tablet devices.

Let's be practical, though. I almost never used my Dell laptop/tablet as anything but a laptop, so why should I reject the Microsoft Surface Pro because it doesn't do all the cool things my Android tablet and phone do? After all, if I want to play my Android games -- and I do, constantly, when I'm traveling -- then I can use my phone.

I do want to use the Windows 10 tablet interface on the Surface Pro for drawing maps for my fiction, but I don't yet know what the best software for that purpose might be. Suffice it to say that because the Surface Pro has a bluetooth pen, it will be real drawing rather than smearing things around with my finger or making a mess of everything with a mouse.

Here's what made the Surface Pro look like a good replacement for my Dell. It's thinner. It's lighter. The screen has a higher resolution. It has way more disk space. And it's designed to be used with Windows 10 and run all the software I use. Plus, all the reviews were enthusiastic.

Well, I bought it. But I also knew that changing computers was a pain. It took weeks to remember all the stuff I use and get it ported to my new computer. For months, I kept having to travel, and the last thing I needed was to show up in a hotel where I needed to get some serious work done, only to find that the new computer was not up to speed after all.

So it took about a year before I actually started making the transition. A few weeks ago, I wrote this column in a hotel room, on my Dell. Today, I'm writing it on the Surface Pro.

But ... it's not perfect.

All the reviews have said that the Surface Pro has a real keyboard built into the cover. You just flip it down and voila, the tablet becomes a laptop.

I suppose if you've been thumbing in all the letters one by one on a touchscreen, the Surface Pro keyboard feels kind of real.

But it's not real. Real keyboards have keys with a slightly concave surface. This gives your fingers a subtly cupped surface so you can be sure you're solidly on a key without having to look at it. This is essential for people who actually learned how to touch-type -- with or without Mavis Beacon's help.

I'm a touch-typist. I look at the screen while my fingers take care of themselves on the keys. But with the keyboard that comes with the Surface Pro, this is very hard to do, because there's no tactile demarcation between keys. It feels like you're suddenly typing on a lubricated surface, or on ice; you're sliding everywhere.

If I really concentrate on the typing, I can keep my fingers on the correct keys. But that's the point. I shouldn't have to concentrate on where my fingers are, any more than you want to have to think about pedaling when you're riding a bike.

So I went to Office Depot to buy a keyboard. A nice, simple wired keyboard that I could attach to the computer when I'm writing in a hotel room.

I bought that wired keyboard. But I also bought two others, both from Logitech.

They're both wireless, but instead of linking to a dongle in a USB port, they link to the computer by bluetooth. That means there's no little dongle to lose. Nothing extra sticking out of the machine.

The first one was a Logitech K380 Multi-Device keyboard. It's not as wide as the Surface Pro's keyboard, but the little round keys have that subtle cupping so I can type smoothly, up to speed. The bluetooth connection happened very easily, once I found how to get Windows 10 to let me link to a new bluetooth device.

You can connect it to as many as three devices, and switch between them. But I only need it to connect to my keyboard-crippled Surface Pro. It does the job very well.

It isn't perfect. First, it's a hideous blue color that looks like it tried, and failed, to get into a Play-Doh set. Second, it's powered by battery, and that means that someday it's going to stop working all of a sudden and if I don't happen to have a battery in my pocket, I'm stuck.

Only I'm not stuck, because I have the Surface Pro slippy-slidey keyboard to use in a pinch. And who cares about the color, because I'm not an Apple customer, so I'm not impressed by style or ashamed by the lack of it.

So here's where I am right now. The Surface Pro is not going to replace my desktop because who wants to have to unpack the travel computer and set it up on the desk, connecting it to the fullsize monitor and all the devices and the local network, when I can simply connect a flashdrive to the desktop that's already sitting there waiting for me and copy over all the work I did on the road?

Now, a lot of people don't have the luxury of owning a first-rate desktop computer and a lightweight, fully capable laptop/tablet like the Surface Pro, and that's fine. It might well be that the Surface Pro will be enough for you - keyboard and all - and that's great.

But I make my living on the computer. And like a surgeon who prefers to work with sharp scalpels and first-rate nurses and interns and hospital equipment, it's a serious career investment to remove every possible barrier from productivity, no matter where I am.

Now, I can't have a perfect working situation because my choices for computers range all the way from Windows, which stinks in general, to Apple, which sucks for a writer. Both Microsoft and Apple think they own my devices and do everything they can to make my work impossible -- because everything is set up for the convenience of the IT guy who has to troubleshoot all the computers in a big corporation. (And no, Linux is not a choice because it doesn't run any of the software I need to use.)

But Windows 10 seems to be stable enough, and human-friendly enough, for me to do my work and run my software. And now I have the smallest, lightest laptop I've ever owned, yet it's a full-fledged computer. And on a plane, all the keyboards can go into hiding and it's a tablet that I can use during takeoffs and landings.

Use? For games, of course. That, too, is part of what my working computers need to do.

In a few months I'll know a lot more about how well the Surface Pro works for me. But for now, it functions well enough to be worth giving it a real test for months on end.

If it all works out, I'll be able to replace the big clunky five-year-old laptop that's sitting on a second desk next to my desktop. I used to take that one on the road, but I was younger and in much better shape back then. Plus I couldn't use it on the plane because if the person in front of me leaned his seat back, it closed the lid. And the battery life was an hour and a half.

That's going to be the real test of the Surface Pro. Can I get from Atlanta to LA without recharging?

But let's get back to that Logitech K380 Multi-Device keyboard. Because I bought yet a third keyboard there at Office Depot: The Logitech K480 keyboard.

The K480 is just like the K380 except that it's about three inches deeper from front to back. Why? To make room for a wide yellow slot the whole width of the keyboard, which is designed to hold a mobile phone or a tablet upright.

That's right. You link up your smartphone via bluetooth, then slip it into the slot and it's now a screen, with a real keyboard.

If you normally use your tablet lying on your back in bed, or sitting in a car or a seat in a waiting room, you aren't going to be toting the keyboard around with you. It's as heavy as your tablet and probably bigger; it's way bigger than your phone.

But if you pop this keyboard in your luggage or your glove compartment, then in your hotel you can easily write long emails without having to pray that autocorrect interprets your thumb-presses correctly.

Typing on those virtual keyboards is a pain. One letter at a time. But with the K480, you can type on a human-sized keyboard and give your emails the length and clarity that your correspondent needs you to provide.

This is what you do when you have to be away from the office, you don't need a full computer, but you still have to be able to write lengthy emails. So you set up the K480 on the desk in the hotel room and, when you get back to the room, you slip your phone into the slot and begin to handle your emails in a humane way.

What if you want to be able to link a tablet and two different smartphones - for instance, your spouse's phone as well as your own? That's simple. You can link three separate devices to the K480 and then turn a bright yellow dial to switch among them.

Your tablet or smartphone won't adapt completely to keyboard use. You still have to reach your finger up to press the touchscreen for many things. But not for typing in words and punctuation. The K480 makes it comfortable and easy. I think I'm going to love using it.


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