Book Review: More Sneaky Feats

This book by Tom Ferrell and Lee Eisenberg is subtitled “The Art of Showing Off and 49 New Ways to Do It.” Published in 1976, the audience is clearly teenage boys, which I still consider myself to be.

There are several great little stunts described in this book, most of which are accompanied by Eisenberg’s charming illustrations.

a scan by gordon meyer

I was already familiar with many of the stunts (given my lifelong obsession with the subject), but there were many new ones, too. Some of the ones that caught my eye include:

  • Tearing a phone book in half. I already know how to do this, but the method here is slightly different. This is undoubtably a vanishing skill, as finding a phone book to destroy is harder than ripping it.
  • Sticking a card to a wall. I wonder if this also works with beer mats.
  • A “Grandmother’s Necklace” style stunt using thread spools that ends with a dramatic, visual penetration.
  • A cat’s cradle style of buttonhole penetration.
  • A fun sight gag where a loose thread on your lapel or shirt turns out to be many yards of thread. (Spoiler alert: it’s unspooling from inside your pocket.)
  • A fantastic version of the Cartesian Devil, made with an eye-dropper.
  • A coffee can rolling boomerang that I simply must try soon.

This is the second volume in the Sneaky Feats series. The first volume apparently has 53 stunts, so I will keep my eye skinned for a copy of that. I found the present volume on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, inside a delightful used bookstore run by a gruff, pandemic-denying old man. If you want a copy (and you know that you do), I recommend the multi-volume compendium, which is currently available on the Amazon.


Book Review: Creative, Not Famous

This charming and inspirational book by Ayun Halliday is subtitled “The Small Potato Manifesto.” That’s because it’s about pursuing creative endeavors for joy and personal edification, not for mainstream success.

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This book is inspiring, insightful, and clever. It’s filled with stories and advice from like-minded people who create things because they must, not because they have calculated that doing so will let them hit it big. I would have preferred more narrative, but a big part of the message here is that you are not alone. As the prophet Timothy said, “Find the Others.”

Although I never had the vocabulary to talk about it, I now realize that I have long been a “small potato” person. Looking back, this has applied from my earliest books, first software, and my ongoing performances.

In my corporate life, and by observing that of my wife’s, I have witnessed far too many “strategic” moves based solely on growth, with other consequences be damned. Too many good products and people have been ruined in the pursuit of getting bigger.

Halliday isn’t the first to embrace being small, and to be clear, this book is more folksy than philosophical. But if you commit yourself to small potatohood you might also enjoy The Long Tail, The Gift of Obscurity, and The Case for Low-Cost Ambition. (Some of these are by authors who are only small potatoes in spirit, not in distribution, but don’t let facts distract you.)

Just a few of the many tidbits that caught my eye:

  • Think of yourself as one long work-in-progress. A false step leads to something else. Not everything has to last forever. It’s OK to let something run its course, then end it. (A philosophy that I came to embrace with my Usable Help.)
  • “Bask daily in a subject that brings you pleasure. Study it. Leverage whatever tools are within your reach to present your knowledge to a possibly disinterested wider audience.” (This might be the most impactful statement in the book for me.)
  • I particularly enjoyed learning of Ben Snakepit, whose long-running daily diary comics make me think of my Pandemic Drip Dry and 30-word dice tales projects.
  • Let go of moldy old goals. “I am likely to be on my deathbed trying to forgive myself for not having gotten to everything I wanted.” — Liz Mason
  • Freely and generously give small encouragements to others. Even if it feels awkward. Amen! I think trying to do this every day is a good resolution.
  • A small potatoes creative challenge: Practice bibliomancy with a subject that you know little about. Open to a page, point to a paragraph, and create something (in any format or media) that day which reflects what you’ve selected. Sounds fun! (Stay tuned.)
  • Jealousy stems from the fallacy of scarcity.
  • “Crowdfunding is necessary in a country where the arts are so underfunded.” — Meghan Finn. And that’s why we have Patreon, GoFundMe, et al.
  • Do your future self a favor. Preserve and document your work. Keep a copy of everything in multiple, portable formats.

I got my copy of the book from Quimby’s. Failing that, buy one from the book’s indie publisher, Microcosm. Failing that, if you must, the Amazon.

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash


Book Review: A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Subtitled “Getting to know the world’s most misunderstood bird,” this book will forever change your perspective on your city’s “flying rats” — and hopefully strike that insult from your vocabulary.

Cleverly written and charmingly illustrated by Rosemary Mosco, this finely produced book covers the surprising history of the birds, how to appreciate their diversity and situation, and how to interpret their behavior.

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Here are just a few of the many tidbits that spoke to me:

  • All pigeons are doves. Why are there two names? “Pigeon” derives from the French language, brought to England by the Normans. “Dove” derives from the Old English of the Celts and other first peoples.
  • Pigeons, like dogs and cattle, are domesticated animals. The ones you see in the wild, around the entire globe (except Antartica), are all descendants of feral birds that escaped captivity.
  • As far back as written records exist, pigeons were raised by humans for a variety of purposes, such as communication, sport, and meat. Their waste provided essential ingredients in gunpowder and fertilizer.
  • Pigeons evolved from the T. rex and emerged as their own species about 60 million years ago.
  • North America had its own local breed, the passenger pigeon, but they were hunted to extinction by hungry expansionists. (Much like the bison were, although those did (barely) survive the onslaught.)
  • Although the finches of the Galápagos were instrumental in Darwin’s work, he raised pigeons in England to solidify his theories.
  • Reuter (Yes, of Reuters news service) used carrier pigeons to span the gaps of where his European telegraph system couldn’t reach.
  • The murky white swirls in pigeon poop are urine. That’s how birds (not just pigeons) pee.

This was such a fun book. Granted, I used to train and raise doves, so I might be slightly biased. But as an unappreciated cohabitant of our urban cities, pigeons deserve some respect. I bought my copy of the book at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can get it from the Amazon too.


Book Review: Coding Games with Scratch

This book caught my eye because, as a youth, I enjoyed learning LOGO (specifically, SmartLOGO) and Scratch is a modern equivalent of that fundamental gateway drug.

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Scratch seems like an ideal way to introduce OO concepts, and the built-in sprites make it much easier to make a functional game without getting bogged down with pixels. The Scratch runtime is freely distributed; sort of. You must deploy your creation on their website, which automatically makes it eligible for modification (AKA “remixing”) by others. (A sly indoctrination into open source culture.)

Like all DK publications, the book is visually engaging and well-designed. The copy I read was an older edition, but I see that it is regularly updated to keep up with Scratch releases.

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


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.

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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.

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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.


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.



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?

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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.

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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.