The business of fitness

Today, the news hit that Richard Simmons has passed away. Now anyone who has ever seen me perform knows that I’m not exactly a fitness-centric person. However, Simmons’ death made be recall that when I was young, Jack LaLanne was the only guy preaching exercise. He was such a novelty that when he was a guest on Johnny Carson (which was frequently), he had to explain what he did and how he made his living. A fitness coach‽ An exercise instructor‽ It all seemed very Hollywood to me and my family.

Then came the era of Richard Simmons, and he changed everything. Followed, of course, by Jane Fonda. If you weren’t alive during this time, it might be difficult to imagine having just one or two fitness advocates, but that’s how it was before the “fitness industry” era.

Today, thanks to Peloton and Apple Fitness+, there are hundreds of professional exercise instructors and “fitness celebrities” to learn from. But just a few decades ago, there was one who started all, and another who brought it to the people. Hit the showers, Richard Simmons.

Book Review: Victoria Winters

This is the second book in a series based on the Dark Shadows gothic daytime soap opera. (Also see my review of the first book.) The first printing was in 1966.

gordon meyer holding book

This novel introduces several new characters and locations, which reflects Victoria Winters getting settled into Collinsport, but also gives the author a richer palette from which to tell the stories. Those characters who were introduced in the first book, but not necessary to the present story, are said to be, conveniently, away on summer vacation.

The titular character spends most of the book attracting suitors who are surprisingly quick to fall in love with her. (Spoiler: she reciprocates with only one of them.) As these situations unfolded, I found myself concerned that I had been tricked into reading a romance novel! But with the strong supernatural elements of the story, it is only my ignorance of the “gothic” genre that fooled me.

The earliest editions of this book, of which my copy is apparently one, feature a photo of Barnabas Collins on the cover, but he doesn’t appear in the story. Later editions, such as this one listed on Amazon, show a more story-accurate depiction.

I’m beginning to notice some quirks of the author, such as a heavy use of the adjective “wan.” It appears so frequently that it could almost become a Dark Shadows drinking game. Of a more charming note, she (perhaps “they” is a better pronoun) also sneaks in a sly use of the phrase “dark shadows,” as a delightful Easter egg.

A favorite passage in defense of paranormal studies:

“Life offered mysteries on all sides and there were not always mundane answers to explain them. All through the history of mankind there had been witness to the reality of a spirit world. History and folklore were filled with references to demons, witches, and ghosts. Could all this evidence be ignored and put down merely as superstition? Or was there another dimension generally not admitted except among those close in the same circle, discussed in hushed tones privately, denied in public and yet so apparent as to have endured down through the centuries?”

I enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, with the careful wording that I’m coming to expect from the series. As I approached the end, I was concerned that too many plot points would be left unresolved — perhaps for use in future novels — but the conclusion moved along at a brisk pace (unlike some earlier parts of the story) and it left me satisfied.

Splitting a PDF

I recently needed to extract about 100 contiguous pages from a 450-page PDF. Simple, right? Wrong.

Don’t try to shift-select in Thumbnail View and then copy to the clipboard, so you can paste into a new, empty PDF document. This will cause Preview, PDF Pen, PDF Viewer and probably most others to freeze up, if not crash. (But that’s a quick way to accomplish the task if you have fewer pages. It’s also a good way to determine where you want to split the PDF in general.)

The phrase “split PDF” is a problematic search on Google and in product manuals. You’ll mostly find tools that export each page as a separate file. (The correct term for that is “burst,” but sadly most documentation doesn’t use it.)

PDF Expert, one of my favorite PDF apps, has an “extract” function that promises to do what I want, but it couldn’t handle the number of pages I was working with.

The venerable and byzantine ghostscript can probably do it with ease, but now I’ve got two problems. I would rather not learn how to install and use ghostscript.

DevonThink has the ability to split PDFs by chapters, but unless your PDF has chapter marks (which are rare, in my experience) it only extracts odd or even pages, which might be useful for someone, but not for me.

I stopped my search, and got on with my work, when I discovered PDFsam. It’s aggressively cross-platform, but provides some very useful functions, including exactly what I needed. Yay! It’s a good tool to have at hand for processing your growing collection of PDFs.

Roomba obstacle hallucinations and other tips

I was a very early adopter of Roomba robot vacuums. I’ve owned several models, including the ill-fated mopping “Scooba,” and my previous posts about these products remain some of the most popular articles that I’ve shared.

However, when I moved into a three-story home, the hassle of using a Roomba with stairs led me to sell all of my iRobot products. (I sold them to a battlebot competitor to use for parts!)

But recently, I bought a new Roomba and, boy, a lot has changed with the product over the years! It can now avoid stairs and (some) other obstacles that would previously cause it a lot of difficulty. (This New Yorker article about how it all works is quite enlightening.)

The product line has also become quite complicated. There are multiple series, with mysterious designators and inscrutable differences between them. I finally gave up and bought the one that Costco offered at the lowest price.

I’ve had a few hiccups, which I have mostly solved, so I offer these tips:

  • The Roomba I bought doesn’t come with a user guide, and the iRobot documentation on their site is not only poorly written, it’s nearly impossible to search because of all the different models they offer. You’re better off just using Google to find YouTube videos (and blog posts like this one). But even then, remember that what you’re finding might be out of date or doesn’t apply to your particular model.
  • The mapping function, in which the device “learns” the layout of your home, can take nearly a dozen runs before it completes. Extreme patience on your part will pay off eventually.
  • If there’s an area that it simply won’t map, start, then pause a job (using the app). Pick up the Roomba and move it to the area that’s not mapped. Press the Clean button that’s on top of the Roomba. The status in the app will now read “Cleaning and discovering” and the area should be added to the map.
  • gordon meyer screenshot of roomba app

  • Regarding the map, the definition of walls can be critical and tricky. If you have two adjacent rooms, if your delineation is off by just a couple of pixels, your unit will visit both rooms even when you tell it only vacuum one of them. You’ll have to move the location of the wall in the app to prevent this, even though in reality, the wall is not quite where it’s shown.

  • Although the documentation doesn’t emphasize this at all, when you initially set up the device, you should place its base station where you intend to keep it located. If you fail to do so (like I did), don’t move the base station to its new location until the unit has fully completed its mapping of your home. Then you can move the base station, and the Roomba will figure out its new location after three or four runs. (Conjecture: A “clean everywhere” run might speed this process.)

  • My Roomba is particularly annoying about sending alerts to change its filter and replace its debris bag. In fact, it started insisting the base station was “full” after just three runs, and I assure you, it was not. Get accustomed to ignoring these notifications and using your judgement. I am almost convinced this “feature” is a way for iRobot to sell more consumables.
  • gordon meyer roomba screenshot

  • Finally, the biggest problem I’ve experienced with the new Roomba is that it hallucinates obstacles. About a third of the time when I start a run, it will exit the base station and travel a few feet, then pause for over a minute before returning to base and falsely reporting that there was something in the way. This is extremely frustrating and means that I cannot reliably use the scheduling function. I have contacted tech support, and they say to check the wheels (they are clean), and make sure lights are on in the room (they are).
  • gordon meyer roomba screenshot

Despite the glitches and annoyances, I’m glad to be back in the Roomba family as it does save a significant amount of time (when it works). Hopefully, these tips and observations will help you.

Book Review: Dark Shadows

I don’t normally read fiction — and certainly not horror. I also haven’t watched very many episodes of the old Dark Shadows gothic soap opera.

So no one was more surprised than I was when I purchased a stack of used paperback novels based on the series.

Perhaps I was compelled by an unseen force? Or maybe it was a latent fondness for childhood memories of encountering the show when I was home sick from school? In any case, I left the Printers Row Lit Fest with the musty, but in good shape, stack of novels.

gordon meyer holding book

This book, titled simply Dark Shadows, is a 1966 publication by Marilyn Ross. It’s the first in a series of 32 novels. Although the cover of the book shows the vampire Barnabas Collins from the TV show, he is completely absent from this story. I didn’t miss him per se, but it was a bit of a surprise. (According to Wikipedia, he doesn’t appear in a story until the fourth novel.)

Although the books are based on the television shows, they don’t represent the same storyline. (Similar to how Marvel movies don’t follow the comic books.) So, alas, even if I were to read all 32 novels, I wouldn’t be able to compare notes with those who have watched the whole 1,225 episode series. (Believe it or not, I know four people who have!)

The book is compelling and fun to read. And from a writer’s perspective, it starts with a masterful exposition that sets everything up.

I also laughed with admiration at how Ross worked in a sly reference to the title of the series. (I suspect that there are other insider references that escape my notice and understanding.)

The character development, fast pace, and clever prose kept me engaged until the very end, and I surprised myself by immediately reaching for the next book in the stack that I had bought.

I’ve since learned that the books are somewhat sought after by collectors, so pick up a copy if you come across it in a used bookstore. If not for the nostalgia, for the craft.