Book Review: Enquire Within Upon Everything

This book is a Victorian-era “miscellany” — a household manual of useful information and processes. This particular edition is a reprint of the 100th version, which was originally published in 1903.

gordon meyer holding book

The publishers have cleverly subtitled this edition “The Victorian’s Answer to the Internet.” A claim that they justify on the back cover by recalling that Tim Berners-Lee’s precursor to his World Wide Web was named “Enquire,” in an homage to this book.

The Internet analogy is apt, in that the breadth of subjects covered is quite impressive. Recipes for food, medicine, and cleaning are quite prominent. As are card games, seasonal fruit and crops, finances, and far too many more to list. It’s easy to imagine how this might be the only book (aside from the Bible, of course) that a household would need. (And compared to the other, very useful!)

Today, it is largely a historical curiosity. It certainly contains a lot of lost wisdom, but modern citizens rarely have the need to make carbon paper, or dress a dead Snipe. (Here, my younger readers wonder what the heck carbon paper is used for, while older readers are surprised to learn that a Snipe is not just a mythical creature of campground shenanigans.)

If you’re a writer or researcher, you’ll love this book for its ability to describe how to clean kid gloves, treat scurvy, or engrave ivory. For the rest of us, it’s amusing and curious to open to a random page and realize that “simpler times” were indeed quite inconvenient and complicated.

Another modern audience for this book is the survivalist (or devout Mormon) who is prepping for the end of the world. Add this publication to your two-year’s supply of food, and you’ll be able to look up how long you can safely hang a chicken carcass (two days, in mild weather), or cure dropsy. (But be sure to also pack a dictionary to look up obscure terminology.)

I bought my paperback copy, new, for less than five dollars at Half-Price Books. Amazon offers more expensive hardbound editions. But, I’m guessing it would be easy to find public domain copies, thanks to Sir Berners-Lee.


Book Review: How to Lie with Maps

I read this book as part of my research for a forthcoming edition of my Bizarre Fact Files series. The book is a well-written, deep exploration into the techniques and politics of cartography. By the time I finished this technical exploration — learning about things I didn’t even know existed — my perspective on mapping was forever changed.

gordon meyer holding book

Yes, I said the politics of mapping. As this book makes clear, every map is a political statement. Maps represent reality, but are not of reality. And the power to define reality lies with the person holding the pen.

Although I didn’t see it referred to in the book, I feel obligated to also mention Alfred Korzybski’s meditations that “the map is not the territory.”

One of my favorite chapters, “Data Maps: A thicket of thorny choices” should be required reading for every social scientist, if not citizen voter, for its clear discussion of how aggregation, homogeneity, and other choices make it easy to distort “data.” Keep this in mind the next time you see a purported map of crime levels, real estate values, or other “facts” superimposed on an areal map. (The author’s book Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences promises even more about this important topic.)

There were numerous tidbits that caught my attention. A few examples:

  • Deliberate blunders, “trap streets” are non-existent features placed on maps to catch copyists. But this common practice died off in 1997 after a court ruled that even imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted. (What the hell‽)
  • Souvenir, a typeface used for map labels by the US Geographic Survey, is an abomination in the context of mapping. The author makes a compelling case for how it ruins cartographic features with its heavy-handed and ugly typography.
  • Commercial placements on maps eschew important cartographic features (such as elevation, and topography) in favor of paid inclusions. This renders the maps useless for functions such as emergency management and national defense, but makes them handy for shopping.
  • Online mapping, covertly paid for by commercial placements, has forever changed the expectations, style, and quality of maps for the public. In Europe, bookstores still carry high-quality regional maps, but good luck finding them in the United States. (Younger readers might be surprised to learn that gas stations used to give away printed maps to customers!)
  • Placenames, those words which define a location or area, are often just accepted as being true, but in reality they can reflect bias and politics. Traditionally, mapmakers have accepted local vernacular, but that leads to codifying some odd, and often racist, stereotypes. The author has a separate book about this topic, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

How to Lie with Maps, published by the venerable University of Chicago Press, is not a casual read. But for an outsider such as myself, it was fascinating and insightful. The author, Mark Monmonier, has several related titles, as well as a rich website that will take you deep into a delightful rabbit hole. To get your copy of this book, try the Amazon.


Hikers Suspenders are the real deal

A friend of mine sent me a pointer to the website for the Hikers Suspenders Company because he had read my review of trucker suspenders from a few weeks ago.

hikers suspender markting photo

I’m fairly certain he sent the link in jest because, let’s face it, these look like a parody, but damn, I bought a set, and they’re great.

If you’re the kind of guy who wants suspenders, but you’re also the kind of guy who doesn’t want to look like a guy who wears suspenders, these are for you.

As a bonus, the company has great customer service. I apparently misunderstood their sizing and bought a pair that was too big. They corrected the situation rapidly, and I couldn’t be happier with that.

Now, you might be wondering if they’re comfortable. Sure, the feel is very similar to wearing regular suspenders, but I think they’re less hassle when you need to intentionally drop your pants. It is a little unusual to feel them under your shirt and next to your skin, but I imagine it’s much like wearing a brassiere, and you soon get accustomed to it.

If you’re at all inclined to try them, go for it. They’re no joke. You can order them direct, or from the Amazon.



Book Review: The Missing Ink

This is a book about cursive handwriting. It was a gift from dear friends, which encouraged me to finish it, even though the middle going was rough, as I’ll discuss below.

Philip Hensher, the author, is clearly a geek for handwriting. While the middle third of this book is deep nerdery over how handwriting evolved and is taught, the first and last sections are passionate and compelling appreciations for what is quickly becoming a lost art.

gordon meyer with book

Among the obsessive details are analyses of notable handwriting (Royalty, Dickens, and Hitler, are among them), a thorough takedown of graphology, and a discussion of writing instruments and ink technology. (The ball in a ballpoint pen is made from Tungsten!)

A few of the tidbits that stood out for me:

  • The dot over a lowercase “i” is called a jot.
  • For centuries, the shaping of thought by scratching marks on paper has been fundamental to our existence as human beings.
  • As of 2012 (the date of publication) only eight US States still mandated the teaching of handwriting in schools.
  • Many of the typefaces in the Fonts menu of your computer are named for different styles of handwriting — such as Copperplate, Blackletter, Italic, and Chancery.
  • Related to the above, there are several styles of handwriting that have been fads or government mandates over the years. If you know how to write cursive, you learned a specific style. When other styles are encountered, you’re likely to consider them illegible, but they are just different than what you thought was “correct.”
  • Printing (non-connected) letters, which was taught as the precursor to cursive when I was a kid, was a controversial innovation.
  • Graphology came into favor when Sherlock Holmes referenced it in 1887. Until as recently as 1997, Merrill Lynch used handwriting analysis to screen the personality job applicants.
  • In France, neat and uniform handwriting is (was?) considered a civic duty, to ensure communication with fellow countrymen.
  • Biro and Bich (Bic) are the fathers of the ballpoint pen, but it was the R.A.F. that catapulted the instrument into success by buying 30,000 units for their pilots to use (instead of fountain pens!) in the cockpit!

Regarding graphology, which the author likens to astrology and palm reading, I particularly enjoyed this pseudo personality analysis that he offers. It’s for someone who freely mixes upper and lowercase letters in their printing, as I do:

Someone who has unexpected upper-case forms for lower-case letters, often R and W, would jump out of an aeroplane, fuck a pig, steal and drink the homebrewed absinthe of a Serbian warlord, just to see what the experience was like. Go for a drink with them. Just not in Serbia.

Well, two out of three’s not bad.

This book also brought back a number of forgotten childhood memories: My mother writing notes and shopping lists using shorthand. The feeling of being a sophisticated adult once I could read my grandmother’s cursive. A parent-teacher conference where my father defended my non-standard way of holding a pencil under criticism from Mrs. Bishop.

I was also reminded of this curious and interesting book by Professor Oddfellow, Cursive Numbers, which I now appreciate with a new perspective.

Of related a note, a friend of mine who works for the Internal Revenue Service tells me there are designated (older) employees who are called upon to read tax returns written in cursive. This is because many (younger) employees don’t know how to read the style of writing.

Intrigued? You can get a copy of The Missing Ink at the Amazon.



A system for aging in place

Since 2007, I’ve written several times about using home automation technology to support aging in place. And over the years I’ve heard from many folks about the peace of mind such techniques can bring to families with seniors who remain in their homes.

I’m really pleased to see that Amazon has introduced an easy and comprehensive service for this. It’s called “Alexa Together,” and for a small monthly fee, it brings together various useful techniques.

Although I’m definitely not a fan of the Alexa service overall, I like that Amazon only requires one Alexa device (placed at the senior’s home), and that the compelling nature of Alexa will help ensure it will work in this capacity. The service also seems to have some nice privacy and security features (if you’re willing to live with Alexa’s other serious flaws in this regard).

Although I haven’t tried it myself — I no longer have a use case for it — I like everything about it and encourage you to consider it when approaching the challenging and sensitive nature of this growing need.



Book Review: Bullet Lists

This book is:

  • Unique
  • Clever
  • Succinct
  • Astonishing

At first glance, this book is just what the title says — a collection of unordered lists. (Or, as regular people say, “bulleted lists.”) But, what exactly are these lists?

gordon meyer holding book

When you ask yourself that question, and pay close attention to the contents of this book, the breadth, and depth of research put into this publication takes your breath away.

Let’s back up. Google has an “autocomplete” feature that (often, hilariously) attempts to finish your query for you. It’s the Google AI guessing what you’re going to type next, based on what previous searchers have looked for. (And, thus, providing a disturbing glimpse into the soul of mankind.)

google autocomplete screenshot

Bullet Lists is sort of like that, except that the author, Professor Oddfellow, has collected, compiled, and collated these lists based on primary sources. The result is not what your idiot neighbors have wanted to know, it’s what your fellow writers have put into print. (To be fair, they might also be idiots.) But this is a big and important distinction, and much more interesting. (Sorry, Google.)

At the very least, you have to appreciate the organizational prowess and persistence it took to compile this book. However, if you give it a chance to sink in, there’s a lot to savor. Get your copy at the Amazon.



Book Review: The Don’t Laugh Game Does a 180

Which came first? The age-old practice of testing someone who is remaining stern in the face of whacky humor, or the board game that escalates the challenge with wacky voices and sound effects?

Well, let’s just say I was playing the former as a kid, and didn’t even know the latter existed until I came across a witty, clever book that turns all of it on its head.

gordon meyer holding book

Don’t Laugh Game Does a 180 is a thick paperback book with 180 (get it?) outlandish and thought-provoking quips, captions, and asides that help you to win the game. (Either version.)

This is destined to be one of the most unusual books on your shelf, and at the very least, is sure to spark some conversation (if not a challenge) from any visitor who spies it among your collection. It’s odd, offbeat, and unique to the extreme. You can get it now at the Amazon, and that’s no joke.



Book Review: Tiny Crimes

This is an anthology of “Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder.” If you enjoy either of those, and flash fiction, this is the book for you. (Although, personally, I’d have preferred more “mystery” and less “murder.”)

gordon meyer holding book

This is a good beach or public transportation book. Dip in, out, and skip ahead without guilt if a story doesn’t grab you. I ended up skipping, just two or three stories. Not counting the two that are in languages I don’t read (Japanese, and French).

I’m a big fan of brevity, which is why I dabble in flash fiction myself, and from that perspective this book does not disappoint. Most stories are 3 to 4 pages long, some of them (the better ones, in my view) are even shorter.

By my quick count, there are at least 40 stories, from just as many writers. Thus, the writing style varies quite a bit. Some turns of phrase that I enjoyed, presented here context-free and credit-free because I’m only doing this for fun, not a grade:

He holds his hand out to me. I have to squint, the way the moonlight filters down through the buildings. It's a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, closed, the cellophane intact. Next to it, also in his hand, a single Pall Mall cigarette.

[Memes about] Unusual animal pairs are hugely popular. Feds bought a whole bunch for a smothering campaign a while back. ... Expensive to produce, these memes. We breed the big cats as docile as we can but, deep down, the killer instinct is still there. And everyone wants to go big nowadays . . . cats stealing dog beds just doesn't cut it.

The other, less savory, involve comic books, action figures, and a mix of replica and occasionally actual championship belts from the defunct professional wrestling promotions.

A tattoo is not a scar, it is a wound that never heals. A mild state of permanent infection.

In Hamlet, North Carolina, they climbed into the bunkbeds. Sarah took the top, the ceiling so close she felt as though she's been sealed inside a carapace.

Oddly enough for a work of fiction, the book includes a subject index. Perhaps because with so many stories, it might be challenging to remember which one included the reference to mating house cats. Lest you think I’m making that up:

tiny crimes index

The book itself is a very nice — it’s a paperback, but not the sort of cheap production you often find at grocery stores. (Often? Do grocers still sell books?) I bought my copy at neighborhood bookstore Volumes, but you can also find it at the Amazon.



Book Review: xkcd Volume Zero

xkcd (sic) is an ultra-geeky, minimalist web comic that all the cool kids love. (Especially the Cory Doctorow fan club.) I’m not a regular reader, but I have seen a handful of popular strips that have caught on as memes. Such as this one or that one.

This book is a collection of the author’s favorite strips. Unfortunately, his favorites don’t really overlap with my tastes, so reading the book was largely joyless for me. But I do appreciate what he has accomplished, and I admire his low-art pluck and success. You be you, Randall Munroe, you be you.

venn diagram that gordon meyer drew

If you’re a bigger fan than I, or perhaps just smarter, you’ll probably enjoy it. However, you could just visit the xkcd website and peruse even more strips. Why pay for something that is published free on the Internet? Karma, I suppose, or maybe you want to enjoy the marginalia, which consists of encoded messages, puzzles, and other doodads.

I borrowed my copy from my favorite neighborhood Little Free Library, but you can get yours from the Amazon.



Charging a Ring Stick-up Cam camera

I was faced with an annoying situation that was inconvenient to solve. The problem was an outdoor Ring Stick-Up Cam, which was permanently mounted to a wall, needed to be recharged.

The solar panel that was supposed to keep it charged was poorly positioned and didn’t receive enough daily sunlight to keep the battery topped off. The camera itself, perhaps because it is a first generation model, doesn’t have a “quick release” mount to take it down from the wall. Furthermore, being mounted 10 feet above the ground over some precarious landscaping, makes it tricky to reach the screws that hold it to the wall.

All of this is not a one-time challenge. The camera will need to be recharged regularly unless that solar panel is moved.

My solution? A cellphone battery booster pack. I opted for an Anker Power Bank, which at 20 watts is more powerful than the Ring requires (2 watts) but I thought it might charge the camera more quickly (I was wrong) and be useful in other situations (we’ll see). The Anker unit has a trickle charge option for low-powered devices (which would seem to include the Ring), but I did not use it.

The connection from the Power Bank to the camera is via an extra long cord from IKEA. A great source for low-cost and high-quality cables, as I’ve noted previously. The photo shows the Power Bank resting on a wall box, with the charging cord running up to the Ring Stick-Up camera. The Power Bank is plugged into the camera where the solar panel is normally connected.

photo of camera and power bank

The “device health” display in the Ring app is decidedly not real-time. It displayed 13% battery power when I began charging, and stayed that way for five or six hours, until jumping straight to 100% after letting it charge overnight.

The Ring website wasn’t especially helpful in solving this dilemma. Mostly because they make it very difficult to find support documents for older models. There is no way to filter the results to show only information that is relevant to the product you own.