Book Review: Rim of the Pit

I don’t read many novels, but when I do it’s most often a noir-ish mystery story. I was attracted to this book in particular because its author is a conjuror who has written a classic textbook that I really admire.

gordon meyer holding book cover

The story is a bonafide classic “locked room” mystery, which adds an extra element of intrigue, and as it says in the book’s introduction, makes the story more of a “howdunit” instead of a “whodunit.”

The story, having been published in 1944, definitely has some dated references, such as a describing someone as resembling “an island of William Bendix entirely surrounded by Robert Taylor.” I’ll refrain from quoting the references which are decidedly not politically correct in today’s world. But in my opinion, these cultural artifacts don’t distract from the story, but instead cement it into a specific historical and cultural period. This is important, as the story takes place in real-time and modern readers must remember that certain technologies and practices are simply not available to the characters.

The book’s prose is wonderful and, if you’re so inclined, offers many rabbit holes to explore. Here are just a few of the new words, or delightful turns of phrase, that I enjoyed:

  • According to the O.E.D.,gibber, as a noun, does not predate (1604) gibberish, the adjective. (1557). Surprising!
  • “Her face still showed traces of a beauty which must have been flamboyant in her youth, but she had fought age with the wrong weapons.”
  • An impassioned speech aimed at skeptics — “Some men steal. Doesn't show everybody's a thief. Doesn't even show the thieves dishonesty all the time. Come right down to it, the fact that some mediums cheat is positive proof of another world. Before a medium can fake a phenomenon, that phenomenon must have happened. Can't imitate anything that doesn't exist.”
  • “Snatching at a straw and swallowing a camel.”
  • Dottle is the remaining plug of unburnt tobacco and ashes left in the bottom of a tobacco pipe when it has been smoked.
  • “Every trade marks a man. Mine is science. If that means anything at all it means becoming the slave of logic. An honest scientist spends his days fighting the will to believe, until at last he ceases to have any control over his own opinions. He follows logic as inevitably and as helplessly as water runs downhill. He can no longer believe anything because it is pleasant, or because everyone else does. Neither can he refuse to believe anything because it contravenes the theories on which he has based his entire life.”

Did I solve the mystery before the book revealed its secrets? I did not. But honestly, I didn’t even try. I never do. (I love the feeling of not knowing.) But if you’re the type that wants to outsmart the author, I assure you it’s possible with a careful reading and clever thinking.

Rim of the Pit is part of the American Mystery Classics collection, and I bought my copy at Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. However, you can obtain it from the Amazon or wherever fine books are sold. I predict that you’ll enjoy it.



Book Review: A Firehose of Falsehood

This 2023 publication by Terry Kanefield and Pat Dorian is subtitled “The Story of Disinformation.” It’s a stunning sequential art book that, quite seriously, should be required reading for every American — especially those who vote.

gordon meyer holding book

The book traces the history of disinformation as a form of warfare all the way back to about 500 BCE and Darius the First of Persia. From there it describes The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian Sanskrit handbook describing disinfo and propaganda techniques that are remarkably familiar in today’s world.

And speaking of familiar, the discussions of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini will send chills down your spine. (Of particular note, “Drain the Swamp” is a slogan direct from the Italian fascist himself.)

The concepts of fascism and conspiracy get bandied about a lot today (with good reason) but if you’re not exactly sure about what they mean, this book will bring a great deal of clarity. (I also loved that it brought in the works of my sociologist homeboy Max Weber.)

The title of the book is a succinct and accurate description of the MAGA corps techniques. The authors define it as below, but this could also be an apt summary of CNN’s Kaitlan Collins’ 2023 “town hall” with Donald Trump:

“The firehouse of falsehood is a rapid and continuous stream of lies that overwhelms the listener. The liar exhibits a shameless willingness to tell contradictory and outrageous lies. It’s a way of undermining truth by making it impossible for anyone to focus on the facts.”

The book also lays out the facts and activities of the Russian “Internet Research Agency,” which flooded American social media with pro-Trump (and anti-Hillary) stories, memes, and lies to influence voters. (A fact well-established and covered in the book’s extensive notes and bibliography addenda.)

Reading this book can be quite disturbing, but it helpfully tries to soften the feeling of dismay by providing concrete suggestions and tactics for not only identifying disinformation, but countering it too.

The graphic format of the book makes it a quick and approachable read. I loved it, and I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy. I got mine from Quimby’s via their Bookshop.org affiliation, but you can find on the Amazon too, naturally.

This is apparently the first publication from First Second Books / World Citizen Comics, and it’s so well produced that I look forward to more of what they have to offer.


Nerdwax works

I don’t recall exactly how I came to be aware of Nerdwax. Perhaps it was an Amazon “people also buy…” ad, or maybe it was mentioned by some other blogger. I know for sure it wasn’t via the TV show Shark Tank, which apparently is how the product got its footing after a humble beginning.

But however it happened, I’m glad that it did. I’m also grateful that I somehow decided to take a leap of faith and try it out. I can’t explain any of this, as it certainly seems like a product that is not only unnecessary, but unlikely to actually work.

If you’re not familiar with it, NerdWax is a treatment that keeps your eyeglasses in place on your nose. It’s that simple. If you don’t wear glasses — or perhaps heavy glasses — this might seem like a non-problem to you. Even if you do have glasses that slip down your nose, it’s certainly an issue that’s not an important thing to solve. But you address it, you will be glad to have it resolved. Trust me.

Nerdwax, you see, actually works. And how it works is right there in the name. It’s a soft, colorless waxy substance that you apply to your eyeglass’ nose pads or bridge. Just a tiny smear of it, and that prevents the glasses from slipping down your nose, even when you’re sweating and moving around.

I had two concerns about the product, aside from the obvious one that it seemed like a joke. (Again, it’s not.) I was worried about side effects — perhaps not as severe as those chronicled in The Jerk — such as whether the wax would irritate my skin or cause acne? (It does not, at least for me.) Secondly, would the cost/benefit ratio be favorable? Truthfully, the jury is still out about that one, but I’m growing more fond of the product every time I use it, so the answer is approaching “maybe.”

Nerdwax, which I purchased via Amazon (not sure if it’s available in stores), comes in a slim lipstick-style tube. You apply it with a single swipe to where your glasses contact your nose. It goes on so thinly and quickly that, at first, you’ll question if anything is happening at all. But you’ll know that the application worked when your glasses stay put in a magical sort of way. If slipping glasses sounds like a problem you’d like to solve, set aside your skepticism and give it a try. I’m glad that I did.


Book Review: Hard Case Crime

For the last twenty years, Hard Case Crime has been publishing gritty and fun novels. I don’t remember when I first discovered them — it may have been at the beloved Kayo Books in San Francisco — but after that first book, I was totally hooked. The stories are sharp, smart, and always interesting.

In celebration of their anniversary, Hard Case Crime has released a new compilation of short stories. “Death Comes Too Late” is the title. If you would rather not commit to a whole novel, this would be a great way to sample their world.

If you’re looking for another recommendation, “Somebody Owes Me Money” is the sort of fast-paced, intricate story that you’ll immediately want to read again, as soon you finish it. But I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t also suggest that you consider “The Colorado Kid.” By far, my favorite mystery story not written by Robert Parker. (It’s by Stephen King — yes, that Stephen King — but don’t let that color your assumptions about the story.)

Even if you’re not at all interested in fiction, at least check out the remarkable original covers that Hard Case commissions for each book. You can feel the love and respect for the genre in each one.


How to reset the Meross MSS120 Dual Outlet Smart Plug

This HomeKit-compatible smart outlet is well-priced and works great. But if you have to reset to factory defaults (in order to move it to a different home, for example) it can be challenging to figure out how to reset it.

The Meross website only has generic resetting instructions, and the way they are written it seems like they don’t apply to this device. Here, they say to hold down the power button. (The device has two power buttons.) Elsewhere on their site, the answer is illustrated by showing a non-existent button on the back of the device.

The correct answer, specifically for the Meross MSS120 Outlet, is to hold down the top power button for five seconds (while the outlet is plugged in). You’ll hear a click, and then the two power buttons will being to flash (one green, one yellow). You can then add the device to HomeKit.


First American Home Warranty woes

Often, when you buy a house, a basic “home warranty” is included by the seller’s realtor or the title company. The buyer can then upgrade to better coverage. Is this a good decision? Probably not, if the warranty is provided by First American Home.

Learn from my experience:

  • You’re going to have to spend additional money to get any value at all from the warranty. There is an up-front fee for each service call. (In my case, $85) This is less than a typical “show up fee” for most tradesman, but a downside is that the fee is paid before the work is scheduled. You’re basically paying to get on a waiting list to make an appointment with an unknown provider.
  • After paying the fee, you’ll (eventually) be contacted by the assigned service provider. You might have to wait several days before the job can even be scheduled, let alone performed. And, as noted above, you’ve already paid your scheduling fee. So all you can do is wait until they contact you. (Calling the service provider yourself might not be fruitful, as they haven’t received the assignment from First American yet.)
  • Once scheduled, the communication from First American and the assigned provider isn’t just slow, it’s inconsistent. Be prepared to get different arrival windows from each. I suppose, like any service appointment, you just have to have faith that they’ll eventually show up. (But hopefully not at the end of the day, see below.)
  • While you’re waiting for your assigned day to arrive, do not look up reviews of your assigned service provider. Clearly, First American hires bottom of the barrel companies to do their work.
  • When your tradesman shows up, if the job is too big, takes too long, or it’s the end of their day, they will declare that the work is not covered by your warranty, and then they’ll leave. (They can’t do any work that they deem out of scope, even if you offer to pay out-of-pocket.) Your only recourse is to call First American and ask for a different provider, which puts you back at square one with scheduling. When the new provider shows up, they will likely have a different attitude and might do the work under warranty. (This happened to me twice!)
  • If you have a repair that’s performed incorrectly, you can have First American schedule a re-visit. But this may get assigned to a different provider who shows up and blames the other guy for creating the problem. Now you’re stuck negotiating with First American to get the re-work accomplished, and they will want to send the first guy back to correct his mistake. Moreover, you had better catch the faulty work within 30 days, or you’re simply out of luck as, ironically, the warranty company doesn’t guarantee their work for very long.
  • If it’s not clear yet, the major challenge in the way this all works is that you are not the service provider’s customer, First American is their customer. You’re caught in the middle.
  • Beginning about three months before your warranty period expires, brace yourself for an onslaught of renewal offers (via text, email, and phone) from First American. Even though no sane person would look at the experience over the last nine months and think “oh, he’ll want more of this,” they will express great surprise and dismay that you’re not continuing your coverage. Additionally, on the first anniversary of your coverage expiring, you’ll get another barrage of renewal offers, suggesting that you miss doing business with them. Hardly.

Fair warned is fair armed.


Change Eve Home to Fahrenheit

Thanks to Ronald Reagan, I only have an intuitive understanding of temperature when it’s expressed in Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, but understandably, the Eve Room environmental monitor defaults to Celsius. (I almost wrote “centigrade” there, which should also tell you something about me.)

Finding how you to change the units from Celsius to Fahrenheit is surpassingly difficult. It’s challenging to Google, and it’s not part of the device’s “Frequently Asked Questions” (WTF?).

Here’s the answer: You have to use the Eve app, which is sort of bullshit, but there you go. As a HomeKit user, I didn’t have the app installed, and I had to download it just to change this one setting. (I only figured this out accidentally, by the way.)

On the whole, I’m happy with the Even Room environmental monitor. The build quality is great. But the battery life is poor. And it doesn’t alert you when the power is getting low, it just silently dies and stops working. Sort of like Reagan.


Don’t Watch the Junk Haulers

Until a few months ago, I was blissfully naive about “junk removal services.” Sure, I’d seen the garishly painted “Got Junk?” trucks in my neighborhood, but if I thought of them at all, I assumed they were in the business of salvaging old cars, tires, and similar debris. You know, “junkyard” stuff.

I was wrong. A big part of their business is emptying homes of items that are no longer needed. Either because a tenant has abandoned them, or because the occupant is moving and doesn’t want to/can’t sell or giveaway their belongings.

It was the latter situation that brought me to seek their services. I had several pieces of furniture that weren’t being moved to a new residence, but I had no appetite for an endless parade of Craig’s List looky-loos, hagglers, and no-shows — and especially not anyone incapable of safely removing the items from my home. So, I decided to find a service that I could hire to take the furniture away.

Many of these companies, as I discovered, advertise that they will donate or recycle your items whenever possible. The first company that I selected put a strong emphasis on the donation angle, and even specified that they work with the Chicago Furniture Bank — which serves refugees and low-income households. That sounded good, so I paid a couple of hundred bucks and booked them to remove the first batch of discards.

The results were at best disappointing, and at some level, horrifying. The crew showed up late, understaffed, and struggled to remove the items gently from the house.

But worse yet, observing what happened when my pristine and beloved furniture was loaded on the truck broke my heart. The heavy items were literally dragged down the sidewalk. One piece, a lovely cherry Ethan Allen armoire, fell off the truck’s lift and onto the street. (I later found pieces of it in the gutter.)

Clearly, none of my furnishings were going to be offered to other families. I concluded that the removal service was probably just a way to generate funds via the “donation fee” that they charged. My items became “junk” not because I no longer wanted them, but because of the way they were handled by the company.

After this experience, a friend referred me to a local company called Gone Guys. I wish that I’d called them the first time. Their crew was professional, courteous, and treated my home and belongings with respect. Did my items still end up in a landfill? Perhaps. But their behavior was far preferred and when the truck pulled away, my furniture was still perfectly usable.

If you’re in Chicago, call Gone Guys, and don’t even consider booking one of the franchise crews. But, like surgery, it’s still best if you don’t watch while it’s happening.


Banned at the Aldi’s

I approach the cash registers at the local Aldi grocery store. In a rare occurrence, no one is already in line.

I eye the cashier on duty and decide I don’t want him touching my items. So I go to the self-service checkout right next to his station.

I abhor self-service checkout, but I only have a few items, and the cashier is playing with his Android phone, so I’m doing him a favor. He is probably close to beating his high score in Super Mega Bubble Pop, which explains why he doesn’t glance up when I approach his station.

I start self-scanning my items and glance over at the cashier. He’s leaned all the way back in his chair, has a foot up on the counter, and is engrossed in his game. (Yes, Aldi cashiers sit in chairs, which is really weird.)

As I scan my items, I place them into my backpack. It’s a little too full; I bought too much, as usual. I pay, and the screen reminds me to take my receipt, which ends up at the bottom of my bag after I repack to make everything fit. (Note to self: don’t put bread in first.)

I turn on my heels, take a step towards the door, then hear a voice behind me.

“Did you get a receipt?” Oh, the cashier has awoken from his trance!

“Yup, got it. Thanks,” I reply.

“Let me see it.”

“What?”

“I didn’t see your receipt print.“

“You were on your phone.”

“I need to see it.”

“No, you don’t. It’s in the bottom of my bag, and I’m not unpacking everything. I literally checked out right in front of you.”

“Show it to me or don’t ever come back,” he says, trying to sound authoritative while still leaning back, foot on the counter, and chip-tune music blaring from his phone.

“Ha! Yeah. Right. See you later, asshole,” I say, and walk out the door.

Postcript: I have, of course, been back. I haven’t seen Mr. Super Mega Bubble Pop again. (Which isn’t a surprise given the frequent turnover of employees at the store. I rarely see the same one twice.)

“Banned at the Aldi’s” will be the name of my next album.


macOS tip: You can pause printer jobs

As I’ve mentioned before, my printer is not located in my office, which is inconvenient when I’m doing a lot of printing, such as producing my series of Bizarre Fact Files.

An additional time-saving technique that I use is to pause the printer, run several jobs, then go put the appropriate paper tray in place before resuming the jobs. Not having to go back and forth between my computer and printer saves me about 70 stair steps. Here’s how it works:

Before printing, open System Preferences > Printer & Scanners, then double-click the printer in the Printers list. In the window that appears, click the Pause button. Important: Do not close the window where the Pause button appears.

screen shot of printer window

Next, print the file as you normally would. When the warning message about the printer being paused appears, click “Add to Printer.” Repeat for each document that you want to add to the printer’s queue.

screen shot of paused printer window

To take this even further, I created a Keyboard Maestro macro, triggered via Alfred Remote, to unpause the queue when I’m on the other floor. You’d need both of these pieces of software — which I recommend — to do this, so I won’t dwell on the details. But, briefly, you need to trigger the macro via Keyboard Maestro’s web server. The macro source is available at this gist.