Book Review: Snails and Monkey Tails

This 2022 publication by Michael Arndt is subtitled “A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols.” I was initially drawn to the book by its distinctive design, which definitely makes it stand out among other reference books for writers.

gordon meyer holding book cover

But, I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it, as the bookstore only had one copy and it was rather shelf-worn. Nor did I buy the book when I saw it the second time, in a different store, as it was shelved with the design books, and I was thinking it might be more style than substance.

But, as they say, the third time is the charm, especially when yet a different book store had it in their remainders section for less than the price of a nice coffee. I figured it was worth a purchase. And boy, was I right.

It does belong in the design book section because it is a lovingly, beautifully produced publication. (All those bleeds! The typography!) But as a reference for writers and word-lovers, it really shines. There’s no usage information (aside admonishment that one exclamation point is enough), instead it consists of the fascinating history of punctuation marks.

Just a couple of the things it taught me:

  • The abbreviation “lb” for pound originates in “Libra Pondo,” where libra is “scale” in Latin, and is also related to the astrological sign of the same name, which is depicted as scales. Over time, the abbreviation was written with a tittle (a crossbar connecting the two letters), which eventually morphed into a currency symbol for the British pound (£).
  • The ampersand is a twisted rendition of “et,” which is Latin for “and.”
  • My favorite punctuation mark, the interrobang, gets only a brief mention‽ Well, partial forgiveness is granted for introducing me to the percontation point, which is a backwards question mark meant to signal a rhetorical question. I wonder why nobody uses it⸮
  • The pointing hand symbol (manicule) lives on in emoji, but was commonly used in medieval times and Renaissance. ☜
  • In addition to the period (full stop) we know today, dots shifted off the baseline were the original forms of the comma and colon.

Usually, a book like this I’ll read, take some notes, and then donate to a Little Free Library. But this one, I’m keeping. It was Unabridged Books where I finally got my copy, but you can find it at the Amazon too. Don’t be like me and procrastinate.


Salt of many flavors

This is about the furthest away from a “food blog” than you can get, so pardon the surprise diversion of topic. (Although years ago I did publish a few restaurant reviews, before the hell spawn Yelp became a big thing.)

Anyway, I have called you here today to recommend Sel Magique. It is the “the worlds finest blend of salt and herbs,” and it’s French. So you know it’s pretentiously expensive.

But it’s also very delicious. Especially with smashed Avocado. This is the sort of seasoning for which kings launched a brigade of ships to retrieve from a distant land, but you can have it delivered to your door via the Amazon. What a time to be alive!

Thanks to friend and Realtor Brian Loomis for pointing my taste buds in this direction.


The sad death of AM radio

In a parallel universe, I’m a disk jockey, or maybe a newsman. Being on the radio was once a career goal for me, and very few of my friends know that I almost earned a degree in broadcasting. Almost, because I was one class short of earning a dual-major in “broadcast communications” in college. (I really should have just taken the extra class and gotten it done, right?)

So, I’m sad that AM radio is waning. (Catch me in the right mood and I can even explain the physics and practical differences between AM and FM — it was part of my course of study.)

Today, even though I have some excellent Tivoli receivers, most of my “radio” comes over the Internet courtesy of Tune-In or another streamer. Other than the now quaint call letters (another mini-lecture that I can deliver on demand), I don’t even know from which band — or in which city — the stations I listen to exist. Hell, now that I think about it, some of them aren’t even licensed and don’t broadcast over the air at all.

But old-fashioned AM radio is still my guilty pleasure when I’m driving. The last car I bought, a few years ago now, didn’t initially have an AM radio, but I was happy to discover that the AM band was an option hidden in the settings of the navigation system. Many manufacturers have dropped it completely, but recently, I read that congress is considering mandating its return.

(That, frankly, is probably motivated by the conservative politicians who know that AM has become a key method by which right-wing con artists spread their propaganda to rural Americans.)

But back to my listening on road trips — if you’re persistent, you can usually find a weak AM station that is broadcasting hyperlocal news. You’ll hear reports of new businesses, quaint weather references, and best of all; radio auctions.

The first time I heard a radio auction was driving across Oklahoma. If you’ve never heard one, the basic format is that people call in and describe household (or farm) items that they have for sale. Let’s say, a leatherette couch. Then, other listeners call in and make offers to buy it. Cash money. The radio host takes their bids on the air and keeps track of the highest one.

During these calls, everyone gives their phone numbers, names, and sometimes addresses over the air. Hell, maybe they all know each other anyway, but as a city guy, this free exchange of personal information always surprises me.

In addition to being quaint, the radio auction is great “Gladys Kravitz” entertainment. Some callers will talk about when and where they bought an item, what they like about it, and why they’re selling it. As in “My last kid moved out so I ain’t got no need for the couch cuz I set in the Lazy Boy. It only has two cigarette burns but you can’t notice them if it’s not sunny out.”

If AM radio goes away, I guess I’ll have to start listening to podcasts. Please, Congress, don’t make me do that.


It’s not easy being easy

I love writing instructions. (Luckily, I’m also pretty good at it.) When I am faced with the task of assembling IKEA products, I always get distracted with professional admiration for their assembly instructions. I’m not kidding, they have nailed the wordless thing well, and they are a shining example of John Carroll’s minimalist approach.

ikea illustration for wordless instructions

Every detail in their illustrations is only there because it is necessary for success. (That’s why people can sometimes struggle with minimalist instructional material, they are accustomed to a high percentage of “blah blah blah” and overlook the important, if not critical, details because they are used to skimming through overwritten instructions.)

But the IKEA instructions wouldn’t work without their partnership with product design. The latest thing I’ve assembled (below) has built-in detents, bumps, and other indicators that not only allow the instructions to work, but they also ensure the product is usable and stable after assembly. What a partnership!

If you’re looking for an iPad stand that is sturdy, and quite inexpensive compared to others, take a look at the Havrehoj. At just $14 it’s a bargain, and when you’re putting it together, please consider savoring how the assembly instructions set you up for success, provided that you pay attention.


Announcing: Escape from Bucktown

My latest project is ESCAPE FROM BUCKTOWN, a self-guided tour and puzzle walk of a dozen neighborhood sites of historical and cultural importance. At each location, answer an optional challenge question, gleaned by in-person observation. The Escape from Bucktown booklet is all you need, and you can get a copy at Quimby's (1854 W North Ave) or, for Kindle (free for Kindle Unlimited members) and Apple Books. $6 for an afternoon of family-friendly outdoor fun. gordon meyer escape from bucktown cover

Book Review: The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch

Published in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the series, the overall theme of this book is how an unsuccessful TV series (never cracking the top 30 in ranking) went on to become a syndication and cultural juggernaut.

Alice from the cover the book

Like many of my generation, I grew up as a latchkey kid who came home from school and immediately plopped down in front of the television to watch reruns of The Brady Bunch (and Sherwood Schwartz’s other masterpiece, Gilligan’s Island). So the nostalgic appeal of this book was immediate, although ultimately I was slightly disappointed, as I had hoped for more sociological analysis and less Hollywood Reporter or, sometimes, TMZ.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it, and some highlights include:

  • The Brady house is the second most photographed house in America, after the White House.
  • The secret sauce of the show is its simplicity and the mirror it held to the viewer. If you had a similar family, there was a character for you to identify with. If you didn’t have a family like theirs, you wanted one.
  • The earworm of a theme song served an important purpose — it was a cleverly disguised exposition of the premise before every episode. A technique also used by Schwartz for Gilligan’s Island.
  • It was revealed that Mike Brady was a widower, but like the fate of Fluffy the dog, what happened to Carol’s husband is still a mystery.
  • The show was filmed using a single camera to minimize the time that the children needed to be on set, so they could attend school classes between scenes.
  • Lucille Ball plays two major roles in the history of the show. First, the success of her movie Yours, Mine and Ours got the series green-lit by the network. Secondly, her invention of recording shows for later playback allowed the Bradys to be syndicated, which is where it flourished.
  • The show invented the “family vacation” trope with its trip to Hawaii.
  • The pornographic parody of the show is the best-selling adult video series of all time.

On the less interesting side, the author’s insistence on detailing cast lists (including those who didn’t get the roles) for the various spinoffs and reunions didn’t hold my interest. Furthermore, as a pop culture writer, I would expect Kimberly Potts to know more accurate years for defining “Generation X.” (Douglas Coupland, who wrote about his generation using the name, was born in 1961.) Finally, this book incessantly reminds the reader that Robert Reed was difficult to work with. Yeah, we get it; TV’s favorite father was frequently a little bitch.

I found my copy of the book in the closeout section of Unabridged in Boystown. You can get yours from the Amazon, of course. The photo I’ve included here is detail from the excellent jacket design.


Fix for a clanking Kohler toilet

If you have a Kohler toilet in your home, it’s likely that it makes a “clank” sound when you flush it.

According to two professional plumbers and Kohler tech support, this is normal. (Unbelievably.)

Kohler's toilets have a proprietary flush mechanism that uses a cylindrical riser, instead of a lever, to actuate the valve that controls the flow of water.

The clank is caused by the cylinder hitting the underside of the tank cover. (You can confirm this by removing the tank cover and flushing. If the noise is gone, you found the problem.)

The fix is to put a couple of very thin rubber feet under the tank lid to raise it. The tolerances are very tight — it won’t take much to move the lid out of the way. Try something like this.

To be more specific and to help the findability of this tip, the toilet I have is a Kohler San Raphael 1.28 GPF Elongated One-Piece Toilet. Part number 1126374. Model 3722

You’re welcome.


Synology’s broken Download Station app

I don’t think too much about my Synology NAS device. Its “DSM” operating system is chock-full of apps and options, most of which I ignore, apart from dutifully keeping them up to date.

However, there is one Synology app with which I have a love/hate relationship: Download Station. The main feature of Download Station is downloading torrent files. But I don’t use for that. The feature that I (attempt to) use extensively is automatically downloading files distributed via RSS enclosures, such as podcasts.

Sadly, however, Download Station has a fatal flaw and I can’t rely on it. It is unable to follow server-side redirects for attachments. (The biggest offender using redirects in RSS feeds are the bastards at anchor.fm)

Synology knows that Download Station won’t follow redirects. I reported this bug and their tech support has acknowledged that they can reproduce it. They say that it is in their queue and will be addressed in a future release.

They’ve been saying this for three years.

Clearly, Synology doesn’t care that Download Station is broken.

Oh, it gets worse. When Download Station encounters a redirect, it keeps the download task in its queue, even though it will never be able to complete it. Eventually, the queue fills up, and Download Station completely stops working until the queue is manually cleared.

I have not been able to find a replacement for Download Station that runs on the Synology, so instead I use the butt-ugly gpodder (on my Mac) to download the podcasts that Download Station can’t handle. Then, I dig through the gpodder underbelly, find the files, and manually copy them to the Synology drive for later use.

At some point, my Synology device will die. (I’m already on my second one.) When it does, I probably won’t replace it with another. Their lack of response to this issue has soured me on any future business.


Tile trackers are a waste of money

If you read my overview of AirTag cases, you might be wondering why I don’t use Tile products, as their thin, notched design doesn’t yearn for a case.

Well, I did use Tile, until the arrival of the AirTag. I took a half-dozen Tile Pro tags on a long trip to Europe, and they were nearly worthless. It was common to go a week or more without the tags ever being seen on the network, even by my device.

The issue, as far as I was able to determine, is that the tags are only seen by devices that have the Tile app installed. And there simply aren’t enough of those to make for a robust and useful location network. (Although this doesn’t explain why my phone, positioned mere feet from the tag, sometimes still couldn’t see it.)

When I switched to using AirTags, I thought I might be able to sell my Tiles on eBay. But seeing that they are going for pennies on the dollar, clearly other folks have figured out their underperformance too. (I ended up recycling mine.)

Trust me, if you want something that can actually locate your items, your answer is AirTag. It’s remarkable how well they work.


Aldi’s AirTag Keychain

I have tried several AirTag cases and keychains. They’re universally overpriced, and each one has flaws that make me feel vaguely dissatisfied with having purchased them. Here are some of the ones that I have tried, followed by a surprising discovery that ends up being nearly perfect.

First up is Apple’s Leather Loop. It is chic, pricey, and impracticable for any application where it could be subject to rough handling. But the quality is excellent, and it turns your AirTag into a fashion accessory.

Belkin’s version of the Leather Loop, which is made from plastic and paracord, is better priced but still expensive for what you get. If dangling your AirTag is your jam, though, it’s a less pretentious and more secure alternative.

Bellkin does better with their AirTag Secure Holder and Keychain, which was one of the first third-party cases on the market and, at the time, amusingly omitted the word AirTag in any of their labeling or marketing. (Go figure.) Its plastic construction is sturdy but doesn’t add any appreciable bulk, so that’s nice.

Elevation Lab’s TagVault is, by far, the most rugged and secure holder that I have tried. My issue with it is the Torx screws used on the enclosure, which makes changing batteries in the AirTag a pain in the butt. They’re a silly addition that only adds inconvenience, not security.

Pelican Protector AirTag Sticker is a holder that I’m very pleased with, but it’s very much for niche applications. If you want to hide an AirTag in your car, this is a fine choice.

Finally, we come to the most unexpected, inexpensive, and practical AirTag case that I have found. The Aldi Quarter Keychain. If you’re not hip to Aldi grocery stores — a cousin of Trader Joe’s — they rent you a shopping cart for 25¢. I guess it’s charming, and has given rise to various quarter-holder keychains so that shoppers can keep a coin close at hand. Aldi occasionally sells these keychains at the checkout counter for less than two bucks. And they’re nearly the perfect size for holding an AirTag. Just enlarge the opening for the coin slightly, using a sharp knife, and Bob’s your uncle. Seriously, if you don’t mind the Aldi aesthetic, you won’t find a less expensive and more useful AirTag keychain. (If you miss them at your local Aldi, you’ll find plenty of higher priced alternatives at the Amazon.)

AldiKeychain.4972b19401914d418e1fb9cf8e581ea1