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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 8, 2017

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


Wonder Woman, WWI, Smart Animals, Damson Speaker

I always thought the Wonder Woman tv series was terminally dumb. I hated her dumb red-white-and-blue merry-widow costume, I hated the dumb stuff she did to wield superpowers (a rope? crossing her arms? spinning around till they did a splash effect? They might as well have gotten their special effects from the people who came up with Daleks). And while everybody at the time talked about how beautiful Lynda Carter was, I thought she had a boring cliche face and no acting talent whatsoever.

Now I understand that she was probably doing the best she could with really crummy scripts, and as for beauty, remember that I'm the guy who never understood all the hoopla about Scarlett Johansson or Andie MacDowell or Elizabeth Taylor or, really, anybody who was famous for being beautiful since Grace Kelly. I'm just out of the loop on all that stuff.

And come on. "Wonder Woman"? Could they possibly have come up with a more generic name? It makes "Captain Underpants" seem deep.

But then the trailers for the new Wonder Woman movie looked like there might be good writing and good acting and an actual story with characters we could care about, so my wife and I showed up for a late afternoon showing in the cushy reclining seats at Red Cinemas, full of hope.

OK, we weren't full of hope, but we could taste a little of it. Maybe the movie might be good.

Not only were we "not disappointed" (with such low expectations, they didn't even have to achieve adequacy), we were delighted.

They started us with Gal Gadot (Giselle from the Fast & Furious franchise) playing Diana, a princess of the Amazons. Some pretty tough-looking dames played her mom, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), as the military leader.

I hadn't seen Nielsen since her stints in Gladiator and Mission to Mars in 2000, and my only vivid memories of Robin Wright are from The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. I'm happy to report that both actresses have aged magnificently, their performances were brilliant, and if the movie had been about them I would have been content.

But the movie was about Diana. And, for a while, it looked like the movie might turn out to be about Chris Pine as an American spy working for the Brits during World War I. Fortunately, the writers remembered the title of the movie and we get some mileage out of Diana's ignorance of the world situation and her stubborn (but smart) insistence that the war was being caused by the Greek war god Ares.

So while Chris Pine, as Steve Trevor, is trying to stop the German general Ludendorff from derailing the coming armistice to end the battlefield slaughter, Diana keeps misinterpreting everything -- until she turns out to be right in principle, even though she's wrong about the specifics.

One of the most powerful characters is the German poison-gas expert, Dr. Maru, played by Elena Anaya. Monster though she is, she ends up oddly sympathetic, mostly because she finds exactly the right balance between menace and vulnerability.

I'm not going to talk any more about the plot because (a) it's a comic book plot so this review is going to sound dumber and dumber the more I talk about the plot, and (b), look at (a) again! It's a comic book!

Though it's smarter than it needed to be, and some of the fake science stuff is pretty high-grade fake science.

Here's what worked for me. First, they got rid of the fake-patriotic starzy red-white-and-blue costume which was always stupid and had nothing to do with who Diana of the Amazons would be. Second, moving the story to World War I was weird but perfect. Coming out during the anniversary year of America's entry into the Great War (as it was called at the time), it's appropriate for this movie to pay homage to the troops who fought and died in that bloodiest of wars.

In fact, as Diana plunges out into no-man's-land and breaks through the German lines, we get to spend a little time looking at the best depiction of trench warfare I've seen. Yes, there were errors -- like having refugees right there in the trenches this late in the war. But I found it a powerful and moving experience to see World War I so compellingly portrayed.

In fact, I think the filmmakers did a much better job of depicting trench warfare than Saving Private Ryan did of depicting D-Day.

Then, when Diana used her superpowers to go "over the top" and charge a machine-gun nest, which turned into enough of a breakthrough to liberate a Belgian village, I found myself gasping with emotion. This was the very thing that millions of soldiers died attempting all through the years of the war -- the brave, insane charge against an entrenched enemy.

Most of the Western Front in World War I consisted of private soldiers paying the brutal price of commanders who were too arrogantly stupid to learn the lesson that every military commander in the world should have learned from the Battle of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War: Don't keep throwing soldiers at an entrenched enemy!

The filmmakers also did a decent job of keeping the German-secret-weapon plot somewhere within the realm of believability (it was the British, not the Germans, who unleashed secret weapons in World War I -- decisive ones, like Winston Churchill's invention, the tank).

Despite all the silliness of the basic comic-book situation, this became a moving film, an experience worth having.

And ... there were no f-words, no nudity, no sex. People had work to do and they did it. They were brave and self-sacrificing but they didn't make a big deal about it.

I cared about the characters, I cared about the story. I guess I'm saying: See it.

Now, I do have some quibbles -- but they won't matter to most people because most people learn nothing at all about history during their public education. But Ludendorff was a real guy, and he didn't deserve to be portrayed as a monster -- especially because it would have been pathetically easy to make up a nice German-sounding name for someone who did not exist, as they did for the poison-gas maker.

Writers, please have some decency when you bring real historical people into your novel or movie. Yes, Ludendorff made some mistakes, but they were understandable ones -- like using the "stab-in-the-back" story to excuse the German loss in World War I, and then backing Hitler back before anybody knew what Hitler would turn out to be. This was all after the war. During the war, Ludendorff took the credit for a victory really achieved by someone else (Max Hoffman); but he understood enough about modern warfare to write the book Der totale Krieg -- introducing the concept of total war.

After you've seen Wonder Woman, take the time to learn a little more about the Great War. Bad as World War II was, the quick German victories in the blitzkrieg phase of the war made it so that western Europeans were spared the hideous casualties that trench warfare causes. It was World War I, the Great War, that scarred western Europeans; it was the nightmare they were determined not to repeat.

Individual battles across the broad system of entrenchments had a shocking human cost. Verdun (1916), 700,000 casualties; Somme (1916), more than a million casualties; Passchendaele (1917), 600,000 casualties. As late as American entry into the war might have been, we still suffered 320,000 casualties, with 53,000 deaths in combat. While France, Germany, and Britain lost nearly a whole generation to the war, America certainly felt the sting.

In fact, it's a bit of family lore that my wife's grandfather said, witheringly, of John F. Kennedy that he couldn't be taken seriously because "he didn't fight in the war."

Since JFK, after carelessly losing his PT Boat, won a Medal of Honor for effectively leading the survivors to safety in World War II, that sounds like a weird thing to say. But for those who saw combat in World War I, the kind of war fought by American soldiers in Europe in World War II seemed kind of easy.

When I read coverage and commentary on our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and see the hyperbole used about our being "bogged down" in endless conflict, the ignorance of American reporters would be funny if it didn't lead to our government making stupid decisions. As a people, we have truly forgotten World War I, so we have nothing to compare our most recent wars to. Public memory is a fickle thing, but the less we remember, the stupider we get.

Especially because it takes so little effort to move from the forgot-it column to the get-it column. Just read a book. The best one to start with is John Keegan's 1998 one-volume history, The First World War.

*

There are certain books that are so enlightening, so important, that they deserve a really thoughtful, in-depth review. Yet such reviews take real time and effort to write, and so I tend to put them off until I "have time" to do it right.

That's why I've waited more than ten years to write my in-depth review of Vanity Fair by Thackeray and Barchester Towers by Trollope.

I'm still not going to write them now.

But a review I've put off for three months will wait no longer. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Netherlander Frans de Waal is important, not as literature, but for the basic worldview it gives us.

De Waal's title question really is the book. He begins by pointing to many examples of deep intelligence in the animal kingdom, from crows to chimps. All his stories are significant in their own right, partly because a lot of animals really are smart -- and in certain areas, way smarter than any human. They're also significant because de Waal shows us how scientists think and act when they're doing actual science: how they design experiments to disprove their own hypotheses and how they keep questioning their conclusions.

But the latter part of the book tackles head-on the problem of the bias that too many scientists bring to the study of animal intelligence. It's almost comical when he shows us example after example of the great lengths many scientists go to in order to build a high, impenetrable wall between animal intelligence and human intelligence.

It's as if they feel threatened by the prospect of admitting that animals that share most of our genes might also share much or most of our ability to figure stuff out.

Such biased scientists set up experiments comparing animals with human babies -- but the experiments are obviously designed to give the young humans many advantages over the animals. Then they announce as results the data that they designed their slanted experiment to produce, as if they had actually proven something.

When you read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, you will emerge not only convinced but also rather cheerful about the fact that intelligence is not a uniquely human attribute. Instead, it is widely distributed through the animal kingdom and even, weirdly enough, in the plant kingdom as well.

Why shouldn't dogs be intelligent? They co-evolved with humans for hundreds of generations, and they thrived according to how much they could come to understand our speech and serve our purposes. Likewise, chimps had better be smart -- because the genetic differences between them and us are pretty slight.

Nature makes far more sense if we look at intelligence as a series of continua rather than as a single thing that humans have and animals don't. There are animals that can remember far more locations than a London cab driver -- and nobody can remember more locations than a London cab driver.

But if we immediately declare that mental acuity that animals excel at isn't really "intelligence," what we're doing is saying, "We will never accept a definition of intelligence that doesn't make human beings uniquely superior."

Why do that? Don't we value many animals precisely because they're superior to us in many ways? Dogs and cats are better rodent killers than we are -- that doesn't mean that it's a job that "dumb" creatures can do. Horses can run faster while carrying a load; why don't we redefine "fast" so that only we fit the criteria?

Some of our most human traits -- deception and lying, causal reasoning and tool-making -- are matched by a variety of animals. Why not celebrate the fact that we're not the only liars, tool makers, or causal reasoners in this world? We have company; we have superiors in some fields. If it's true, we have no reason to hide from it.

People who live with pets often seem to be a little crazy in assessing the thoughts and feelings of animals. And yes, the baby-talking, the assertions of impossible things ("Swoppy is sad because Mommy didn't get her raise this year"), the outlandish costuming of animals to the mad whims of their owners can be almost offensive: "Please, can't you leave your dog with a little dignity?"

But when pet owners ascribe intelligence and personality to their animal companions, they may not be wrong. As with the parents of pre-verbal babies, humans can pick up on many cues; and the nonverbal creature with whom we're trying to communicate can develop many strategies to let us know specifically what they want.

The real differences are usually pretty clear. We may not be the only creatures to use language, but we're still the only ones who use language and can type rapidly enough to produce books and ridiculously long review columns.

*

I picked up a Damson Cisor bluetooth speaker the other day, and I'm really happy with the result.

The Damson Cisor seems too small to produce a big sound -- and if you link it by bluetooth to your phone or tablet, then hold the small speaker unit up in the air to hear how it sounds, you're barely going to hear it at all.

That's because the portable speaker unit is not the speaker. It's merely the business end of a much larger speaker.

That larger speaker is: whatever surface you set it on.

When I set the Damson Cisor on our main dining table, the vibrating "foot" of the speaker transmits sound waves into the table and uses it as the speaker. It's much louder than the built-in speaker of my Android phone, and, more importantly, it gives a fuller, richer, deeper sound than any self-contained speaker I can possibly take with me when I travel.

I have more recently taken to setting my Damson Cisor on the top of a bookshelf near my bed. The shelf is much smaller than our dining table, so it isn't surprising that the Damson in that setting is not louder than my phone's built-in speakers. However, where the phone's speakers are mostly treble in sound, the Damson Cisor brings out deep, full tones even on a bookshelf, so the sound is superior to the built-ins.

The Damson Cisor has a decent rechargeable battery -- you get four or five hours, maybe more. But I generally use it plugged in, so I don't have to worry about the battery. (My phone is also plugged in.)

The only drawback is that when I play music streaming from Amazon Prime, there's a serious problem with the music cutting out. However, I quickly ascertained that the problem is not the speaker and it is not the bluetooth connection. It's my house wi-fi, which is constantly losing and then regaining its connection with my devices. (My working computers have an ethernet connection, so ... no cutting out.)

That shouldn't make a difference with my phone, because it's supposed to connect automatically with the internet by cell-tower when the wi-fi is off. In fact, my use of my phone to stream anything is so limited that I would be perfectly content to have it use only the phone connection and forget about wi-fi entirely.

But the phone makers are so sure that we all care most about saving money that I can't find any option to require my phone to ignore wi-fi even when it's available. Annoying.

This doesn't change the value of this truly portable speaker. Obviously, you won't use it at the beach -- I don't think it will be effective using sand as its sounding board. But as long as you have it on a table or even a reasonably flexible floor, it's going to give you a surprisingly big and beautiful sound.

It costs about sixty bucks, so you may prefer just to use your perfectly adequate built-in phone or tablet speakers. For me, though, the difference in sound quality is well worth the price. The only thing I worry about is that it's heavy enough I don't want to lug it around in a carry-on -- but the airlines keep telling us not to put electronics with batteries into our checked bags. The Damson Cisor definitely has batteries ... but are they the kind that supposedly cause a safety hazard?

I say "supposedly" because they keep telling us a lot of nonsense about how cellphones and laptops might interfere with the navigational equipment on airplanes. Yet everybody I know who actually understands both systems just laughs at that excuse. "A meaningless restriction that doesn't make us any safer," I keep hearing from experts. "Just TSA bullying, as usual."

Now we're hearing rumors that they're going to stop us from taking laptops on board airplanes, beginning with international flights.

Seriously? First, given the way that luggage handlers treat my bags, I'm supposed to put my expensive working device into a checked bag? And second, if I'm going to sit in your plane's torture chamber for five or seven or twelve hours, you're going to deprive me of the ability to work? Or even play my favorite computer games?

I can't drive across the Atlantic, but without a laptop in the cabin with me rather than checked in baggage hell below the plane, I'm going to decide not to make some trips I might otherwise have made. And in the U.S., even though I obviously can't use my laptop while driving, I can at least keep it within reach and make sure nobody jumps up and down on my laptop bag.

Has a laptop blown anybody up on an airplane? I mean, ever?

I just think this whole laptop thing began in Europe, where officious authorities really hate it when you have a device that you can use for many different purposes that are not under their control. If you've ever been given a "suggestion" by a policeman or a flight attendant anywhere in Europe, you know how arrogant and unyielding the authorities can be.

If European authorities are determined to take my laptop out of my hands while in flight, then Europe won't be getting any of my lovely tourist dollars. Because I'm a working writer, and when I travel, I take my livelihood along with me -- in my hands, not entrusted to the loving care of airline baggage handlers.


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