Hatrack River
 
Hatrack.com   The Internet  
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
Print this page E-mail this page RSS FeedsRSS Feeds
What's New?

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 16, 2017

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


Images, Cards, Steve Jobs, Jersey Girl

For those who, like me, are stuck with Windows 10, it's plain that this time, Microsoft actually tried to deliver a stable operating system. But, as usual, they have proven themselves completely unconcerned with the experience of the user. Our duty is to salute, thank Bill Gates, and keep our complaints to ourselves, because Windows is what it is, so live with it.

Our gripes may seem petty compared to the grand vision of world domination that motivates Bill Gates. But for me, at least, I want to be in control of the screen I have to look at while I do all my work. To this end, for years I used a program called Wallmaster to shuffle through the thousands of images I have on my computer and tile them onto the screen as wallpaper -- the background behind the programs that I run.

I tile them so I can see the entire image beside or between whatever programs I have open. There are more than 30,000 images ranging from photographs of nature and architecture to art by great masters and contemporary favorites of mine.

With Windows 10, you can supposedly "personalize" your computer by instructing it to shuffle through the images in a file you specify, and you can tile those images, too. So everything should be fine, right?

Except this is Microsoft, so nothing works as advertised. First, when I set it up to be just as I want it, within an hour or two everything is back to the defaults -- it doesn't stay personalized. I learned how to trick Windows 10, though, by leaving the screen settings window minimized instead of closing it. Only then do my settings remain.

But that's not enough. Because even though Windows 10 asks you very nicely which directory it should look in to find background images, it still looks through the entire disk to find image files. So while the majority of my background images come from that wallpaper directory with 30,000 images, about a tenth of the time, what pops up comes from completely unrelated directories.

The worst is when Windows pulls up images from my family-photograph directory. Now, these are mostly pictures of people that I love. But many of them are pictures of loved ones who have died. When their faces pop up on my screen, I can't ignore them. So I'm writing a review column, for instance, and suddenly there's the face of my dead son, and how can I keep writing about something as trivial as Windows 10?

There's a picture of my recently deceased father. There's my good friend and sister-in-law who passed away a year ago last Christmas. Yeah, I do my best writing when I'm reminded of grief and loss.

How dare Microsoft decide to override my clear instructions? Images from this directory and no other, I said.

Nanner nanner, Microsoft replies.

Simple solution: Remove all the pictures of friends and family from my computer. Then Windows can't find them.

But I shouldn't have to do that, should I? I want them there so I can look at them when I choose.

I've already tried the third-party software that's supposedly best, but it's kind of lousy. So ... I have to get used to being emotionally blindsided by Windows 10 while I'm trying to work. Isn't it wonderful how computers empower us?

*

A friend recently had his iPhone die on him. During the days before he could buy a new one, he went through something worse than withdrawal. Our phones are now so much a part of our daily experiences that when the phone suddenly fails, our response is more akin to grief.

It's not a long-term grief, of course. After we buy a new phone and download all the apps we can't live without, we'll forget that old phone soon enough. I never wish I still had my old flip phone or my old Blackberry -- oh, wait, sometimes I do wish that -- but in truth, Android and Samsung have done a pretty good job of creating an appliance that does what I need.

It's not like my real computers, where I do my daily work. The smartphone, the tablet -- they're for keeping track of emails and messages when something time-sensitive is going on, and playing games or tracking my Fitbit or checking our home-security cameras. But this is like having a secretary who takes messages for you, passes through some phone calls, hands you a list of mail to choose to read, and then, when you're bored, will sit down and play a game with you.

And you don't have to pay the phone a salary or withhold taxes. Phone charges are trivial compared to that. You just have to plug it in at night (or whenever) and try to keep it close to the bars.

*

But when my friend's phone died the death -- flickery screen, and then no screen at all -- there was no condolence card I could send him. Hallmark, what are you thinking? How could you miss this niche?

"I'm so sorry your phone broke. // Don't even imagine that I'll lend you mine."

"Lost your phone? // That doesn't happen to people who know how to take care of nice things."

"Condolences on forgetting your password. // Have you tried 'password'? How about '0000'? 'ABC123'? 'MothersMaidenName'?"

"I hear that Apple just obsoleted your iPhone. // Now will you finally leave the Evil Empire and join the Rebellion?"

There are other occasions that need greeting cards, and don't have them. For instance:

"Oh no! It's raining in California! // Search on Amazon.com for 'umbrella.' Of course, by the time Amazon gets it to you, you'll be back in a drought."

"Did a March cold snap kill the blossoms in your garden? // Southerners should know by now: Never trust a Spring that begins in January."

"You poor thing. That wonderful new TV series you've been meaning to watch // is already over. Now you have to bingewatch thirty-nine episodes in order to converse with anybody."

Yeah, I know. None of these greeting cards rhymed. If you care enough to send the very best, buy Hallmark. I only produce greeting cards that are good enough for who they're fer.

*

When Michael Connelly began writing his deep and gripping novels starring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Paramount immediately optioned a couple of them and began, according to contract, to develop them for film.

Except ... nothing ever got filmed. A couple of other Connelly characters got movies -- Blood Work starred, and was directed by, Clint Eastwood, and Michael McConaughey played Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer. (That last film was directed by Brad Furman, whose earliest IMDbPro credit is as Julia Roberts's personal assistant on Erin Brockovich. Hollywood careers begin however they begin.)

Connelly has great fun with his characters getting filmed. In later Mick Haller novels, Haller comments on the movie Lincoln Lawyer, which was based on him.

Eventually, Connelly was able to get Harry Bosch out of Paramount's "development hell" -- a suitable place, it seemed, for a character named "Hieronymus Bosch," a painter best known for grotesque images of hell. The trouble with getting a film out of the jaws of a studio is that they demand complete repayment of all their costs.

Not just the money they paid the writer for the rights, but also every dime they spent on screenwriters who created never-filmed scripts. At no point do any of the studios accept the risks that every other business incurs. Never do they say, Yes, we hired the wrong writers, our bad, you don't have to pay us back for scripts we should never have commissioned.

No, the studios must recover every dime. When they're dealing with each other -- you know, when Fox picks up a project from Paramount's turnaround -- then Paramount is probably going to charge Fox exactly what Paramount spent.

But when it's the author buying back his rights, they use standard studio never-a-profit accounting -- you know, the accounting system that makes it so that huge hit movies never make a "profit," keeping people with a percentage of profits from ever getting paid.

Connelly sued the studio just so the courts would supervise the accounting of Paramount's expenses. They ended up with an agreement that included, of course, complete nondisclosure. So we don't know what Connelly had to pay to buy back the rights to his characters from a company that never made the movie.

There's something evil about a copyright system that allows corporations, which create nothing, to force copyright holders to sign contracts that give the studios ownership over stories that haven't even been written yet, just because they use the same popular characters. It would be one thing if they actually had to make a movie before they controlled those rights. But no -- the option alone gives them control forever.

While Congress is busy dancing to Disney's tune, extending copyright so that old Disney movies will never enter the public domain (the opposite of what copyright is supposed to do), maybe they could make a stab at protecting the rights of the people who actually create the stories.

Here's an idea: Copyright can never be bought outright. Every deal has to expire. So the studio has five years to make a movie. If they don't make one, then all rights revert to the author without having to repay anything. That will put the studios into the category of "risk financing" -- you know, like every other business on Earth.

And even if they do make a movie, they have five years to buy the right to make a sequel. If they choose not to, then all the rights to the characters used in the movie revert to the author. Again, without any kind of repayment. Because, you know, the writer created this thing and the studio didn't.

And if you think I feel this way because I have a dog in this fight, you're correct. It's an evil system that leaves many, many writers in limbo forever. As it stands, with most movies no sequel will ever be made, but the author can't sell the rights to later novels in a series to somebody who might actually make a movie.

The good news is that Connelly did get the rights back, and the result is the Amazon.com-financed series Bosch. Calling it a TV series is a bit misleading, though. The first season, at least, was like a ten-hour feature film. Starring Titus Welliver (whom many viewers remember best for his portrayal of "the man in black" on the last seasons of Lost), the series is brilliantly cast, so that none of the acting feels like off-network TV.

Titus Welliver is so perfect in the part that this feels like a role-of-a-lifetime deal for him.

And the writing is superb. Connelly didn't make them stick with the original backstory of Harry Bosch -- that would have made this a period piece, vastly inflating the budget. Instead, he updated Bosch so he's now 47 years old, a Gulf War veteran who re-enlisted after 9/11 as many cops did, then returned to the LAPD.

We get a balance between the internal politics of the police department, as several characters flout the rules about dating people of lower rank on the police force, and Bosch's relentless effort to solve the murder of a child whose long-dead body was recently discovered in a shallow grave in the woods.

The mystery is intriguing, and we have enough time to really explore all the false leads that develop the characters and the story still further. Nothing is easy, but when you reach the end of the series, you're in that wonderful state where all the storylines are complete, and yet you're eager to see more.

The first season is the only one I've watched -- I binged on it while I was sick last week. But with each season of the series based on more than one of Connelly's books, what we're getting are some of the very best filmed mystery stories ever. When Hollywood offers you nothing but silly violent comic book movies or unfunny comedies that struggle to out-raunch each other, stay home and stream an episode or two of Bosch. You'll get a better story, probably better acted, and certainly cheaper.

Better refreshments, too.

*

Look, I know reviewing last year's movies isn't really going to make this a must-read column, but sometimes, when I've seen a movie three or four times and still find it masterful, it's worth calling it to your attention.

Steve Jobs is a movie about a driven, self-anointed genius who thinks his way is the only way. I realized the other night that this is what Citizen Kane could have been, if it had had a leading actor with Michael Fassbender's skill. Orson Welles eventually became a serviceable actor, but his strutting performance in Citizen Kane is quite awful. Fassbender, by contrast, is vivid at every moment in a movie that keeps him onscreen nearly a hundred percent of the time.

And let's face it: Steve Jobs was the perfect person to base such a movie on, whereas William Randolph Hearst was not. The movie doesn't pull punches. People get to say out loud on screen what a lot of people in the computer industry have known all along: Steve Jobs never created anything. Instead, he bossed around the creative people and made their lives hell, all in pursuit of one thing: Getting his way.

Unlike Citizen Kane, Steve Jobs did not rely on sophomore literature-class "symbolism" for its only "clever" story point. That whole Rosebud thing is so embarrassingly obvious -- I don't know a good writer who wouldn't be ashamed to have a story depend on such a pathetic device for its closure.

Before irate Welles-worshipers write in, I know that what I'm saying doesn't deny the influence of Citizen Kane, whatever it was. It's still a historical artifact. But in Citizen Kane, the destructive towering ego that dominates the film is not Kane, it's Welles, stealing all possible credit for himself.

Forget my ignorant, foolish comparison of Steve Jobs to Citizen Kane. Watch Steve Jobs for its own sake. For the sake of Michael Fassbender's astonishing performance (not to mention Kate Winslet's), you should see this movie just to get a benchmark against which to measure every other actor's performance in every other film.

And while we're at it, let's remember the beautiful, nuanced performances by Seth Rogan as Wozniak and Jeff Daniels as John Sculley. The real, living men who were portrayed by them should be grateful.

The funniest thing about Steve Jobs is this: Aaron Sorkin's script is an epic achievement, but when you say this in the industry, the reaction you get is, Well, what do you expect, it's Sorkin. As if the fact that Aaron Sorkin is dependably superb somehow makes it ordinary to have a script like this.

It isn't ordinary. It's rare. And this movie is a powerful, moving, and beautiful work of art at every level. It doesn't matter whether you love or hate Apple, the iPod, the iMac, or any other Apple product. It only matters whether you think powerful people have an obligation to be decent to other people or not.

*

I remember deciding not to see Jersey Girl back when it first came out in 2004. With a script by Kevin Smith, I had no hope of its being watchable; and at the time, Ben Affleck was still, in my mind, the block of wood who played the young hero in the wretched shlockfest Armageddon.

So now I've had my comeuppance. I caught Jersey Girl partway through and could not stop watching till the end. I had assumed that with Liv Tyler in the title role, this would be one of those "free spirit" movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's. I hate them all.

But Liv Tyler's character is not that, and besides, she is arguably not the title character. The "Jersey girl" might just as easily be the young daughter of Ben Affleck's character.

Affleck plays Ollie, a New York publicist whose wife dies in childbirth. Soon after, he loses his job because he delivers a rant against Will Smith in front of a bunch of reporters. (This is something publicists do not, cannot do.) So now he's living in his father's (George Carlin's) house, trying to raise his daughter while doing a job he hates.

Then, when his little girl is seven, he gets a chance to move back into the publicity game -- a career he's good at and loves. His daughter is not thrilled -- by now she's a Jersey girl, and moving to New York City doesn't sound good to her.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Affleck goes in for a job interview, and happens to sit in the waiting room with Will Smith, who is also waiting for a meeting. Smith, played by Will Smith himself, does not know Affleck is the guy who trashed him a few years before. They get to talking about raising kids. The conversation is pivotal for Affleck. And for me, too.

This is a lovely movie, and Affleck gets a chance to create a real character instead of the mostly sad, empty parts he had been given up to then. If you're ever in the mood for a genuinely funny, truthful, redemptive movie, Jersey Girl will do very nicely.

*

I really only need to tell you that Jonathan Kellerman has a new Alex Delaware novel, Heartbreak Hotel, and that the audiobook is read by John Rubinstein. But on the off-chance that you've never tried a Jonathan Kellerman novel, here goes:

Thalia Mars, only a few weeks away from age 100, lives in a fading Beverly Hills hotel. She asks child psychologist Alex Delaware to visit her, but even after the visit -- which he enjoyed -- he does not know what she hopes to accomplish by seeing him.

Then she's murdered, and Dr. Delaware helps LAPD detective Milo Sturgis solve her murder, along with the murders of most of her murderers, and also, along the way, the theft of a fabulous jewel. The book is full of intriguing characters, along with the delightful unraveling of lost personal history -- two of my favorite things in mystery novels.

*

The Rolex commercial on the Oscars reminded me why I would never own a watch that costs more than a house payment. And then I realized: Every watch costs more than our house payment because my frugal wife used every opportunity to double-pay our mortgage until, many years ahead of schedule, this Christmas her biggest gift to me was a mortgage-free house. There are always taxes and insurance to pay, but we own our house.

You might be astonished at how few extra house payments it takes to make a significant difference to the term of your mortgage. Early on in your mortgage history, the bulk of each payment is interest; only a small part of the payment applies against the principle.

However, if you double-pay, one hundred percent of your extra payment goes onto the principle. Do that a few times, and, depending on the terms of your mortgage, you can chop a year or two off the back end.

Now, I don't get a monthly salary, I get paid in "windfalls" -- nothing at all for months on end, and then half a year's income all at once. That sometimes gives us a little bit to play around with, after catching up on all the due-immediately bills.

On a monthly salary, it's hard to double pay. You have to make a project of it, saving money consistently in order to double-pay now and then. But one double payment a year can make a difference.

Naturally, nothing I've said applies to all mortgages, because your terms may be very different. Also, interest rates on recent mortgages have been so low that the difference between early-term payments and late-term payments may not be all that much.

Because our mortgage is paid off, we'll no longer get the mortgage-interest tax deduction. But try not to weep for us: Mortgage payments are much higher than the mortgage-interest tax deduction, so it's better to lose the deduction than to pay the house payments.

I also think that the mortage-interest tax deduction is a very bad law, because it has no caps. Not only do you get the deduction on two houses (so that Congresswights can claim it for their home-state and DC residences), you also get to deduct the interest on obscenely large mortgages on monster mansions. So yeah ... buy a beach house or a cabin or a Beverly Hills monstrosity, and the government will help you make your payments.

Thus the greatest benefits go to those who need them least. The deduction can help first-time homebuyers, and I'm for that. But there needs to be a cap on the benefit. That is, you can't deduct more than a set amount each year. So if you buy a ridiculously huge house (defined by most of us as "larger than mine"), the government doesn't subsidize your house payments.

But such a cap is unlikely to pass a Congress whose members wish to be reelected. Nobody can say that the middle class is completely powerless. We may not fight over moral issues, but we'll cling to every last dime of government subsidy that applies to us ... while complaining about the depradations of welfare cheats and illegal immigrants.

While it's the law, there's nothing wrong with claiming that mortgage interest tax deduction when calculating your taxes. But it we actually wanted a fair tax system, that deduction would only apply to the first couple of hundred thousand dollars of interest. There's no reason why top earners should be able to lop millions off their taxable income over the life of a mortgage. That's tax money the rest of us -- including renters -- have to make up for in our taxes.


E-mail this page
Copyright © 2017 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.