A solution for an outdoor speaker sound system

I needed to drive eight outdoor speakers, and clearly, I wanted remote control of their operation, and the ability to stream from Apple Music.

I could have utilized something like an Echo Link, or a Sonos Amp. But I rejected those options due to the cost (Sonos) and obnoxious assistive technology (Alexa).

What I ended up implementing is a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine, but it works well, and it did not break the bank. Here are the details:

  • A Belkin SoundForm Connect adapter acts as an AirPlay 2 receiver. This satisfies the requirement of streaming any music I desire either from my iPhone, HomePod, or Apple TV. The only downside is that the AUX output from the Belkin device is horrible, as many of the reviews on Amazon also note. Luckily, the optical output is OK, so I use that instead.
  • Because of the above-mentioned Belkin flaw, and the lack of optical support on inexpensive amplifiers (see below), a Digital Audio Converter is necessary. I settled on an inexpensive Amazon Basics DAC. It works well, and is USB powered, so I can run it from a power hub instead of using up another outlet in my network closet.
  • Audio amplification is provided by a Nubsound 100W mini-amp. It has built-in Bluetooth, which I turned off, as I prefer to use AirPlay. The amp itself is remarkably small — about the size of a Tarot deck. (You were expecting a less esoteric analogy from me? OK. About the size of two sticks of butter.)
  • Finally, I installed a Pyle Multi-zone Selector so that I can fine-tune the volume of each speaker pair. This also allows me to turn off speakers in unoccupied areas of the yard. (Because I’m a good neighbor.) A fancier solution would let me manage this remotely via my iPhone, but for under $100, this passive, no-power-required switch works well. It’s also small enough to fit, barely, on a shelf in the network closet.

Here’s a block diagram of how it’s all connected:

monodraw illlustration

The system works well, with a total cost that is hundreds less than a Sonos solution. (And cheaper than nosey Alexa, too.) The only downside is that I have to stream from a device to the amplifier. The Sonos can independently connect to Apple Music. But this is a limitation that I can take to the bank.

If you need me, I’ll be outside listening to Poolsuite FM.

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.

gordon meyer holding book

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: 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.

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: 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.

Book Review: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction, by actor Brent Spiner, is a very unusual novel. It blends day-to-day actor life with L.A. noir, overlayed with an insider’s perspective of early Star Trek: Next Generation. It’s simultaneously true and clearly not true. It’s ambitious, funny, and silly. I loved it.

Would I recommend that you read it? No. Get the audiobook instead. It’s read by Spiner (which increases the surreal fictfactigous nature of the story). It also features a delightful array of guest voice actors — including Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, and LeVar Burton — all playing themselves in this unusual, rollicking, shaggy dog, bio-fantasy-fanfic tale.

Did I mention that I loved it?

I’m opposed to spoilers, so I’ll let the publisher’s description carry the weight of more details, but if you want a spoiler-filled second review, see this NPR story. (But, keep in mind, I contend that the audiobook is likely superior to the printed edition.)

I listened via Audible, but of course, the Amazon has all the mediums you might want.

How to lose a customer, the Amazon eero 6e way

Oh, eero, you disappoint me. I’ve been a customer since before you were assimilated into the Amazon. I even upgraded my original system to your “6 Pro” models. And, I’m an eero Secure subscriber, despite the hassles it causes with overly aggressive site blocking and nonsensical “new client” alerts.

When you recently enticed me to upgrade to an eero Pro 6e system, I took the bait and spent $600 (with discount and trade-in) for your latest models. Boy, do I regret it.

The new Pro 6e stations refuse to recognize each other, and they complain about being placed in the same locations as the stations that I’m replacing, I dutifully tried moving them closer to each other. Then, when that failed, even closer. I tried starting fresh instead of using your “replace an eero” option. Nope. Nope. Nope. These pretty white half-cubes are steaming piles of shit.

Fortunately, I was able to reinstall my “old” 6 Pro stations, which immediately worked perfectly in the same locations where the new ones failed. I wasted nearly three hours of my life trying to accomplish something that should take ten minutes. Something that did take ten minutes the last time I upgraded.

I’ve returned the new system, cancelled my eero Secure renewal, and I will eventually find some 6e stations by one of your competitors. Thanks for the memories, but don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.