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Book Review: Grave Tidings

This book by Paul Berra is subtitled “An Anthology of Famous Last Words.” It’s a British book, so American readers might quibble with some definitions of “famous,” but I found all the quotes interesting, enlightening, or entertaining, even when I had no idea who the speaker was. (Fortunately, Berra includes a brief discussion of each person and their circumstances, so you won’t feel completely ignorant.)

gordon meyer with book

I loved Barra’s opening paragraph in the Introduction:

In the midst of life, we are in death. Or, to paraphrase Jesus on the poor, the dead are always with us. They people our thoughts and memorials; they accumulate like dust behind locked doors and perch soberly atop bookshelves and mantelpieces.

For the record, that Jesus guy he mentions isn’t one of the people I’d never heard of. Also, I love the use of “people our thoughts,” which reminds me of Neil Tobin’s analysis of an artifact at the Winchester Mystery House.

Also in the Introduction, Berra refers to Robert Shea, and a personal patron saint of mine, Robert Anton Wilson, as “beat generation” writers. I suppose that is chronologically true, but it’s not a description that I’ve encountered before. I will ponder it carefully.

The book has about 200 examples of last words, and as there were many that I enjoyed, these are but a few examples:

  • “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted”, said by Lou Costello before dropping dead, and “I just wish I had time for one more bowl of chili,” said by Kit Carson. Succumbing with food on the mind seems like something I’m likely to do, too.
  • “Why should I talk to you? I’ve just been talking to your boss,” said Wilson Mizner to the priest who visited his deathbed.
  • “Hurrah for Anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life!” declared a neighbor of mine, George Engel, just before being unjustly hanged until dead. (Guests on my Bizarre Wicker Park tour learn all about this.)
  • “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” were the last words of Terry Kath, a founding member of the band Chicago, which he uttered before shooting himself during a game of Russian Roulette.
  • Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, said, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” before doing just that. His whereabouts were never discovered and his death presumed.
  • “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me” is the perfect dialectical riddle, appropriately uttered by Georg Hegel.

I bought my copy of Grave Tidings at Quimby’s in Chicago, but you can also, of course, find it in the Amazon.

Book Review: Cows on Ice and Owls in the Bog

I love aphorisms and similes, so I was happy as a pig in shit to get this book. Subtitled “The Weird and Wonderful World of Scandinavian Sayings” it promised three of my favorite things under one cover. (For the record, those are: weird, Scandinavia, and sayings.)

The book is finely produced with the kind of subtle wit and attention to minimalist detail that you expect from two Scandinavians with names like Katarina Montnémery and Nastia Sleptsova. (Huh?)

gordon meyer holding the book

The sayings are fun, and the authors include a wonderful illustration and a paragraph or two of elucidation that eliminates any head-scratching moments. Most are not innately understood by American ears, so I probably won’t be slipping any into daily use. (You’re welcome.) But the cultural insights are fascinating, and at a higher level, demonstrate the universality of the human condition. A couple of examples:

  • Have a shit in the blue cupboard. Blue paint was expensive, so only the finest possessions were kept in cupboards painted blue. The saying refers to someone doing something foolish. (Swedish)
  • Even small pots have ears. This is how Swedish adults alert each other that children are within earshot, so discussions should be tempered accordingly. This reminds me of an expression from my upbringing: “Little pictures have big ears.”
  • Talk straight from the liver. A Norwegian expression meaning to speak frankly and freely, dating back to an age when the liver was thought to be the center of emotion and feeling.
  • With one’s mittens straight. A Finnish expression suggesting that one is not working hard, or contributing as much as they could, as their mittens are not showing any sign of wear.
  • Crossing the river to get water. In Norway, this means you are attempting to solve a problem in a convoluted way when there is a more obvious and easier solution.

I got my copy at the famous “goats on the roof” place in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. (Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik) But you’ll, of course, find it at the Amazon too.

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I’ve been hearing about this book for decades. I think the first reference I came across was when I was reading the book club (remember those?) edition of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I’ve encountered other references to Shirley Jackson’s work, too — sometimes in discussions about The Twilight Zone — but I’ve never taken the time to seek her novels.

And I still haven’t. I only read this one because it was left at my feet. That is, last October, someone put it in our Little Free Library. It was adorned with an enticing Post-It Note:

jackson book cover

I took this as a sign from a god and added the donated book to the pile of unread books that threatens to overtake my office. A couple of weeks ago, I opened to the first page, and by the end of the second sentence I was hooked:

”My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both of my hands are about the same length, but I have to be content with what I had.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the most eerie, compelling, and beautifully written stories I have read. I wish I had done so sooner. As soon as I finished it (no spoilers, but the ending is perfect) I immediately wanted to read it all over again so I could study and admire its construction.

If you read the more studious reviews of the book—of which there are many in the 59 years since its publication—you’ll find heaps of praise and appreciation, but generally very little detail about the story itself. (Still, don’t read them, spoilers suck.) The reason for all their editorial vagueness, including my own, is that trying to convey the atmosphere and feeling that Jackson has created is like describing smoke. You have to experience it for yourself.

Here are some excerpts that stood out for me:

  • “I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word — melody — in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe.”
  • “I thought of using digitalis as my third magic word, but it was too easy for someone to say, and at last I decided on Pegasus. I took a glass from the cabinet, and said the word very distinctly into the glass, then filed it with water and drank.”
  • “Since Charles had my occupation for Tuesday morning I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings; …”

If you’re not lucky enough to receive a copy by divine intervention, you can, of course, buy one at Amazon.

Hue headaches when traveling

I like Philips Hue lights — they form a mostly reliable branch in my standalone home automation strategy. (In other words, I don’t use them with HomeKit, but only because I prefer isolated systems for reliability. Keep reading for why.)

Unfortunately, the Hue system has a serious flaw that can bite you in the ass when you’re traveling. Namely, the hub firmware and the control/scheduling app have to remain in sync, but you can’t update the hub remotely.

So, when you’re away from home, never allow your Hue app to update itself. Doing so could create a situation where your entire Hue system is disabled until you return home and update the hub, too.

Until Philips fixes this, live in fear of an automatic update, or simply don’t rely on Hue as a key part of your home automation system. (See first paragraph, above.)

Book Review: The Lake Michigan Mothman

Having grown up in the land of the Bear Lake Monster, Skin Walkers, and Bigfoot, I simply can’t deny that, for me, there’s no lore like cryptid lore. So for that reason alone, this book by Tobias Wayland was a no-brainer addition to my library. When you add that it’s centered in my hometown — even in my neighborhood, — and that the legend is part of my annual “Dark Tales of Bucktown” tour, it’s surprising that I haven’t read it multiple times already.

Gordon Meyer with mothman book

Did I enjoy the book? Duh. Do I wish it were better organized and written? Yeah, I do. Don’t get me wrong; the book is unique and useful because it compiles so many creature sightings into one volume. And almost all of them are first-person accounts as written by the witnesses. Unfortunately, this is also where the books desperately needs an editor and unifying perspective. It’s great these witnesses came forth with what they saw, but most of them are not going to win any essay contests (or even get a passing grade in English 101.) It takes a more tolerant reader than I am to read more than a few pages of this book at one sitting.

The only other beef I have is the book’s title. It should be called “The Chicago Bat.” I understand that “Lake Michigan” is more inclusive, accurate, and commercial, so I’ll accept that. But “Mothman” is, in my opinion, just wrong. Let West Virginia keep the Mothman to themselves. (They have so little to boast about, after all.) And while I understand that referring to the creature in this way is easy shorthand, it’s also misleading. The only significant similarity between the Chicago creature and the West Virginia creature is that they are winged humanoids. (OK, I can hear some of my fundamentalist friends thinking — “Um, both are also imaginary.” But I’ve moved beyond that.) Furthermore, as it becomes clear from the reports in the book, almost every witness describes it as being similar to a bat. So for these reasons, and more, I will continue to use the name “Chicago Bat” instead. (But not, for certain, “Batman.”)

Now, I should acknowledge that if it weren’t for the Milwaukee-based Singular Fortean Society, much of this creature’s story would be lost. Through their website, and now this book, they are the leading source of timely and interesting reports of all kinds of unusual occurrences. Bravo, and gratitude, for their work.

Here are a handful of tidbits that stood out for me, but like all good stories, there are more if you dig in and follow the trails embedded within.

  • There have been more than a hundred sightings of the Chicago Bat since 2017, but Wayland’s research convincingly extends the timeline back to 1957. The latest sighting, as I write this, was less than a month ago, in the Loop.
  • The book’s subtitle is “High Strangeness in the Midwest.” I love this turn of phrase.
  • Regarding the controversial, if not downright wacky aspects of these types of stories, Wayland writes: “…(all this) is a hard pill to swallow for scientific materialists, but my job as an investigator isn’t to make mainstream scientist types feel better; my job is to follow the trail wherever leads, even if that’s right into the gaping maw of the impossible.”
  • One possible rational explanation for the sightings is that large migratory birds not normally seen in the midwest are being driven to the Lake Michigan area by climate changes. How’s that for an unforeseen consequence of global warming!

I bought my copy from Amazon, but you can also buy a signed copy directly from the publisher. Either way, you’ll enjoy the tales, and if you’re a local — keep your eyes peeled!

Book Review: You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum!

I love non-linear fiction. If you’re not familiar with this genre, these are stories where the reader directs the narrative by making decisions about the order in which events happen, or even if they occur at all.

A mundane but illustrative example would be a story about a salesman where the reader decides which apartment doors are knocked up first: After describing the options, the reader is offered a choice: “To knock on the door for Apartment 2B, turn to page 42. For Apartment 3, turn to page 69.” (Note to self: good idea for a story!)

gordon meyer with book

You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum! is a such a story, and of the many I’ve read, it’s by far the most elegantly constructed. (The author, and illustrator, is Sherwin Tjia.) The plot is clever: the infamous Alice has disappeared into Wonderland, but her mother has no idea about that, and wanders around London looking for her. You make decisions about where and how she searches for young Alice. With thirteen different possible endings to the story, what you do has a definite impact on the resolution. I loved every minute of it, and found the first ending so satisfying I hesitated to give it another read-thru with different choices. (But doing so is rewarding as it reveals the artful interweaving of different scenarios.)

Tjia has written three other books in this genre, but sadly, they are all out of print. Shockingly, used copies seem to be going for $30-$140 dollars on the secondary market. If you come across one at a price you can afford, snatch it up.

And now, a decision for you to make. If you’d like to try a brief online non-linear story that I wrote, about a trip to Las Vegas, click this link: The Silver Ingot

Bit Rot Chronicles

Some of my non-technical friends may not be familiar with “Bit Rot.” The term refers to how software tends to stop working as it gets older. This is often caused by changes in operating systems and other parts of the complicated infrastructure that supports an application. A second meaning of “Bit Rot” refers to how stored data eventually becomes unreadable. This might be because the media is no longer supported (refer to the first meaning), or because the media has degraded and there is a physical problem that prevents it from being read.

This is a tale of both meanings.

I recently discovered that my beloved collection of clip art is completely unreadable on modern Mac computers. I purchased “Art Explosion 525,000” at the 1998 San Francisco Mac World Expo. I think I paid about $75 for the CD-ROM set of clip art and other licensed resources. I have used it for countless projects since then, and in some ways it may be the best return I’ve ever gotten for an impulse purchase of software.

One reason I’ve kept returning to it is that the images on the discs are indexed in a massive (1400 page) book that makes it easy to find just the right asset.

open book held by gordon meyer

(Historical note: Yes, people actually used to buy clip art collections. This was at least three years before the introduction of Google Image searching, which of course, is where everyone steals artwork from today. I sleep well at night knowing my clip art is completely legit.)

Unfortunately, the thirty-seven CDs (this was also prior to computer having DVD drives) are in a format that Macs can no longer read. (Bit Rot in the first sense of the word.) When I discovered this, I immediately started the time-consuming task of copying the CDs to a hard disk. Fortunately, I still have an older Mac that can read the discs.

But, I couldn’t copy all of them. Bit Rot in the second sense of the word reared its ugly head as I discovered that some discs suffered from read errors. Optical media like CD-ROMs once promised to be “permanent” data stores. Alas, just as with Lasik surgery, time has revealed that nothing lasts forever.

But with persistence, and by using an even older Mac, and I could recover nearly all the files. (Let’s hope I never want to use the file “Coffee Cup 126” in a project.)

Some tips, in case you’re ever faced with a similar situation:

  • Patience is a virtue. As long as the disc is spinning, let it churn. One disc took over 3 hours to mount!
  • The external Apple SuperDrive does not have a manual eject, you simply have to wait for it to give up and eject the disc.
  • Don’t bother copying files in obscure formats that rely on old software. Each of these discs had an Extensis Portfolio image database, which is an app I didn’t even know was still around. (I wonder if it will read catalogs created 23 years ago. Given the first definition of Bit Rot, probably not.)
  • Here’s a measure of technological progress: The entire 37 disc set easily fits on one (32 GB) thumb drive, with room to spare.
  • I’m going to keep the printed directory of images, of course, so I may as well keep the discs too. It looks like there might even be a collector’s market for the set.

Have I made you nervous about the viability of your old family photos on CDs that you burned yourself? I hope so.