Book Review: The Library of the Dead

This is one of the most fun and entertaining novels that I’ve ever read! (Well, technically, I listened to the unabridged Audible audiobook.) The setting is one of my favorite places in the world — Edinburgh — and the many geographical references stirred warm memories and a true sense of place. Never mind that the setting for the story is after some unspecified future worldwide turmoil, and that Scotland is seemingly once again independent and ruled by a King. (That’s all gleamed from the by-and-by, the story is not at all about politics.)

The author, TL Huchu, is a male Zimbabwean, but he has convincingly written the narrator as a teenage girl. She’s smart, funny, and due to the excellent voice acting, sometimes as much of a puzzle as listening to an actual Scot. This definitely increases the fun and intrigue of the story, at least for Americans. (Who knew that a “float” is a small truck, for example?)

In very brief terms, the protagonist can see and speak with the dead, and she hustles a meager income by conveying messages between the departed and the living. There are some other supernatural elements at play too, but the story remains grounded in gritty, familiar realism in nearly every other way. There’s a definite cyberpunk feel to it, too, which I really enjoyed.

This is the first volume in the “Edinburgh Nights” series, and I’ll certainly be continuing with the second. Check them out at Amazon.

Book Review: Secret Route 66

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided to take advantage of an apparent lull in the plague by hitting the road. Specifically, “the mother road.”

Route 66 begins in Chicago, just a few blocks away from our home, and ends somewhere in California. (Where, exactly? Figure it out. Have you confused my blog with Wikipedia?) Our plan was to drive it through Arizona, then diverge into fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.

I should note that one does not actually drive Route 66. It doesn’t exist anymore, except as various non-contiguous historic snippets of varying length. Most of them are business loops through small, forgotten towns that desperately suckle from the teat of having once been a vibrant part of the route.

We’ve driven portions of the route before, I knew there was no shortage of roadside kitsch to explore, so I thought a travel book would be helpful in this regard. (Alas, online resources like Atlas Obscura were unimpressive.) However, I was surprised to find that my local Barnes & Noble had exactly zero books on the subject. What the hell? It’s literally a Chicago landmark.

So, I turned to the Amazon, making heaving use of their “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book that caught my eye. Thank heavens I did, as it revealed how boring and filler-packed each book was. I began to fear that I would never find the mother lode about the Mother Road. (Forgive me.)

Then I came across Secret Route 66 by Jim Ross and Shelly Graham. The book’s subtitle, “A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” was right up my alley. Look Inside revealed the location of road tar footprints improbably left by a very heavy bird crossing the road. I couldn’t click “Buy Now” fast enough.

gordon meyer holding book

I’m glad that I did. The book added a lot of flavor to our road trip. If you’re going to buy into the nostalgia of taking such a drive, you should embrace all the quirky and cheesy things that come with it, and this book will help you do so.

My initial concern about the book was its age. Published in 2017, I feared that the ravages of Trumpism and COVID-19 would render much of the information obsolete. Some information the book includes was probably out of date before the book rolled off the printing presses. However, many of the roadside attractions have weathered other storms and are still in operation (although barely so, in some cases). Furthermore, like the aforementioned chicken footprints, many of the features that Ross and Graham have included are not dependent upon visitors to keep them afloat. (The authors do love pointing out old bridges, for some reason.) As with any book, use the web to sanity-check any information that would throw your plans out of whack if it’s no longer correct.

If you get the book, I recommend paying attention to the small towns that the authors highlight. We pulled off to visit several of them, and they were almost all worthwhile, charming stops. One that we intended to visit is Galena, Kansas. But I accidentally programmed the navigation system for Galena, Missouri instead. We discovered that Galena, MO is a town of less than 500 people with a surprisingly large “downtown” for its size. However, we felt like we were in a Twilight Zone episode. Every business (even City Hall) was locked up tight in the middle of the afternoon. We didn’t see a single person, but there were at least a dozen cars parked on the streets. Was there a mandatory town meeting in progress? Were they watching us? It was an eerie and interesting visit!

The book does have one glaring flaw: a complete lack of any discernible organization. For example, the first item in the book is from the middle of the route. Did it not occur to the authors or publishers that a linear progression, East or West, would make perfect sense? Its random presentation of locations makes the book very difficult to use as a planner, and worse, worthless as a reference during the drive itself. Even a simple map of the route, with locations indicated, would make the book much more useful. Truly, what were they thinking?

To work around the problems of aged info and perplexing organization, I recommend creating a Guide in the Apple Maps app. Moreover, while you’re at it, take a look at the curated Route 66 guides that are available in Maps, they’re perfect for the mainstream attractions.

Happy trails!

The Case of the Counterfeit Nivea

Don’t be confused by the title of this piece, it is not another review of a teenage mystery novel. It’s a cautionary tale of the cesspool that Amazon has become.

A couple of years ago, in Europe, I tried a men’s deodorant made by Nivea. I liked it, but it’s not widely distributed (if at all) in the USA, so I have ordered it several times since, always in bulk, from Amazon.

When the last set that I ordered arrived, I quickly noticed that something was wrong. One of the bottles was broken open. Then, I noticed that the bottles were made from plastic, not their usual heavy glass. ‘OK, an unfortunate change in packaging,’ I thought to myself.

Next, I found that the bottles had a label that was haphazardly stuck over another label. Under the first one, the labeling was entirely in Spanish and declared that the contents were made in Mexico. The glass bottles from my previous order were labeled differently, and the country of origin was Germany. ‘OK, an unfortunate consequence of globalization,’ I thought to myself.

But things were starting to stink. Literally. The gooey liquid leaking from the “unscented” deodorant had an overpowering scent. ‘OK, something is not right,’ I thought to myself.

Either Nivea has lost their mind and made some radical changes to an established product, or Amazon just sold me a box of counterfeits. The latter seems most likely. I’ve heard that Amazon has a huge problem on their hands with regard to fakes, but fake deodorant? I suppose it’s possible.

I’m returning the broken, leaky, fake bottles to Amazon for a refund. Also enclosed in the package will be the last vestige of trust in the retailer.

Why do I blame Amazon for an insidious and difficult to police issue? I used their “Buy It Again” button to order these, an expedited checkout process that, I have since deduced, took me to an Amazon-approved vendor that was different from whom I had placed my previous orders.

Additionally, Amazon has no process for reporting a vendor who is supplying questionable merchandise. The only option is to return the order and select the reason for doing so as “merchandise not as described” — which is technically true for a counterfeit, but doesn’t help the company identify the actual problem.

Finally, I attempted to post a review of the product to alert other buyers. Amazon rejected my review saying their “community standards” don’t allow reviews that mention the vendor. This prevents me from alerting others that Kyli Commerce sold my poorly packaged and possibly fake products. My previous orders were sold by Wiki Deals and those were genuine. However, having been burned, I’ll just go back to buying lesser American deodorant from the corner pharmacy conglomerate and not risk more Amazon nonsense and hassles.

Book Review: Horrorstor

I haven’t read a horror novel in decades, but the design and premise of this one was irresistible, so I dove right in. The book, written by Grady Hendrix and properly punctuated “Horrorstör,” is about the haunting of a low-rent IKEA knockoff store called “Orsk.” The book’s design resembles an IKEA catalog and even features (increasingly creepy) products with appropriately Swedish-y names. It’s a perfect execution of the concept.

gordon meyer holding book

Here is a spoiler-safe example of how nicely the story and setting are interwoven:

(REDACTED) was completely immobilized in a wooden box roughly six feet long, twenty inches wide, so shallow that (PRONOUN) face touched the lid. It had the dimensions of a coffin, but (PRONOUN) knew right away that it was a Liripip, one of the most popular sellers in Wardrobes.

Up to about half-way through the book, the story is a fun, clever, satiric take on what it’s like working in a store like IKEA. There are ghostly vibes present very early, but for me, it was akin to an episode of Scooby-Doo.

After the halfway point, the book takes a dramatic turn towards the dark (literally) and disturbed (also literally). No spoilers, but I ended up regretting my decision to make this my “just before bedtime” nightly read. The book never loses its sense of humor or thematic cleverness, but holy hell, there are some frightening things happening in Orsk after closing!

Several years ago, I spent a summer as the sole occupant of a residence hall at Northern Illinois University. Being the only living person in a large building designed to house hundreds was sometimes quite unsettling. This description from the story really hit home for me:

Orsk was so big it needed a certain number of people on the premises to keep it under control. (NUMBER) of them weren't enough. The store was stirring, restless, growing slowly. Emptied of people, Orsk felt dangerous.

I also enjoyed this perspective about ghosts:

I believe a ghost is a subjective experience. It doesn't have an objective reality. It exists solely in the perceptions of the people who see it.

And finally, I’ve read accounts of 18th century séances and wondered how ectoplasm was perceived, this made me view the phenomenon in a new way:

(REDACTED) throat gave a final heave and what (REDACTED) saw next was impossible: it looked like she was vomiting underwater. A thick, milky liquid hung in front of (REDACTED) face, an impossible cloud suspended in midair, soft white tendrils unfurling in slow motion.

The book’s back-flap author bio indicates that Hendrix is a screenwriter, and even though I’m not a movie kinda guy, it’s easy to imagine this as a film. I hope he’s optioned it for a big pile of cash — it’s a remarkable and memorable work. (Although, I’m hoping to shake some of those memories myself.)

I found my copy on the Fiction table in a suburban Barnes & Noble, but you can get one at the Amazon, of course.

The secret to manually updating Volvo XC-60 nav maps

If the Sensus in your Volvo displays a message about updates being available, but then refuses to list any app updates, it’s probably referring to a map update. Don’t bother contacting Volvo OnCall about not seeing any updates, they will just refer you to your dealer. Then, as happened to me, your dealer will tell you that you need a map update. You can have your dealer install it (for a fee), or you can do it yourself. Kudos to Howard Orloff Volvo for pointing this out to me.

Having previously owned a Nissan Murano, I was pleased to learn that Volvo provides free map updates via their website, but not pleased to discover that Volvo’s instructions for installing the updates are poor and incomplete. After several false starts, here’s the information necessary for success, which I discovered by trial and error:

  • The flash drive must be exFAT formatted, or it won’t be recognized by the Sensus nav system. Some Volvo documentation incorrectly states that FAT32 is supported.
  • The Volvo downloader verifies the data on your flash drive, but does not verify that Sensus will recognize the drive. It could easily do so, but it doesn’t.
  • Volvo implies that you might need to buy their flash drive. I used one that I had in a junk drawer.
  • Don’t be confused that the XC-60 owners manual links to a page describing how to update the XC-90. This is just sloppy work by Volvo’s technical writers.
  • The manual says you can only update a map that you’ve previously downloaded over-the-air. This wasn’t true for me, I installed all of North America but had only regional maps already installed.
  • Final tip: Installing took about 40 minutes, followed by a long “Loading…” pause on the Sensus screen. Have patience.

Good luck!

How to Lose a Customer the FedEx Way

I’ve had a FedEx account for at least 20 years. Earlier this week, I logged into the account to ship a package. The first time I noticed that something wasn’t right was when the website wouldn’t display an estimated cost/timetable for my shipment. Instead, it displayed an ugly red error message stating that the service I had chosen was not available at the destination address. (Which made no sense at all, given my choices.)

But, I needed to send the package more than I needed a cost estimate, so I ignored the message and continued. Now another ugly red error message appeared, this one even more cryptic. It generically told me that an error occurred and displayed a link to click for more information. That link, however, led to a missing (404) page.

Ugh! I picked up the phone and called FedEx customer service. After the voice robot gave up on helping me, I was transferred to an agent. That agent gave up too, and transferred me again.

The new agent confirmed that the credit card they have on file is correct and unexpired. Also, that I could log in to the account (obviously), and then finally discovered that my account was suspended due to inactivity.

In other words, FedEx decided to put a hold on my twenty-year-old account because I haven’t shipped a package in the last couple of months. (Hello, business-stopping pandemic? You might have heard about it.)

Somewhere in FedEx HQ, a programmer created an algorithm that decided “Hey, we haven’t seen this customer for a few months, so fuck him.”

The new agent was able to clear the problem, and then I was able to generate the label for my package (after having to start all over, of course).

Livboj is IKEA’s excellent Qi charger

Qi inductive charging of devices is a convenient pain in the ass. Convenient because you don’t need to plug in; a pain in the ass because it’s slow and finicky. It requires too much attention to precisely align your device with the hidden charging coils — and if you’re a fraction of an inch off, no charging occurs.

The IKEA Livboj Wireless Charger e2010 significantly helps with the alignment problem. It’s very rare that my iPhone doesn’t immediately begin charging when I place it in almost any orientation onto the Livboj. I also have a Belkin charging pad, which cost 7x more than the IKEA model, but is very particular about how the device must be positioned.

The only downside to the Livboj is that the bottom has rubber bumpers, which may cause damage to finished wood furniture. I avoid any issues by placing the Livboj on a drink coaster.

To be fair, IKEA keeps the price low by not including a cable or power supply. All you get is the charging pad, but you almost certainly have the necessary pieces sitting in a drawer anyway. Well, except the pad uses a USB-C cable, so maybe you don’t have one of those lying around (yet). In that case, add a Lillhut braided cable for $5, and you’re still far below the price of the Belkin.

Book Review: Make Paper Inventions

This book, written by Kathy Ceceri, gives detailed instructions on making “machines that move, drawings that light up, wearables, and structures you can cut, fold, and roll.” It’s a MAKE and O’Reilly publication, so you know the instructions are top-notch.

photo of book on gordon meyer table

Additionally, the book has just the appropriate amount of educational content about the history and science behind the projects. The book is also chock-full of references to websites and retailers. (It was published in 2015, and there’s a poignant note that references to Radio Shack might soon be obsolete.)

I found the information on building electronic circuits from paper to be the most intriguing, but there is such a wide variety of things to try that I imagine almost anyone will likely find a project that appeals to them. The chapter on making paper was also of interest — somehow Ceceri’s instructions were more encouraging than others that I have read. Also included is a very intriguing machine that generates power using friction and mylar — I can’t wait to try that for myself.

I knew this book was meant for me when it began referencing familiar names and ideas, such as Martin Gardner and Buckminster Fuller. There are instructions for building paper models of their ideas, including a geodesic dome. I also found some new Möbius Strip information that would have been useful back when I used to perform Rick Johnsson’s Moby-Zip routine.

You can get your copy of this fun, easy book, along with many of the specialized materials, at Maker Shed. Or, via the Amazon, of course.

Pandemic Drip Dry

“What’s all this about?” — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked about the album of photos that I’ve been posting on Flickr. Now, I am closing the project and explaining its genesis.

It began after a conversation with a friend about how our daily lives had slowed during the COVID-19 lockdown. For me, washing dishes by hand and letting them air dry was a mindful approach to the monotony seeping into every aspect of the day.

The symbolism of cleanliness, nutrition, and patience was intentional — why should I hurry to complete this mundane task? I had nowhere to go. The photographs reflect the everyday sameness, but also the quiet persistence of waiting for the plague to pass. There are gaps in the timeline because not every day of the lockdown can be recalled.

Now, two years into the pandemic and one year of this project, our Sisyphean routines continue due to the ignorance and callousness of others. But in these times, this means I am still here. Still washing. Still waiting.