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#124 :: Deadly Sterling Pin

June 13, 2004

By the time goth became Goth, I was too old for black velour, Docs and kohl. Besides, while Halloween may be my favorite holiday (as well as my boy’s birthday) the kinds of people who employ me generally don’t celebrate it year-round in the office and, hey, the palette is pretty limiting. Still and all, when jutting from a dark lapel, this fiendish device gets jaded nods from passing nighthawks and helpful remarks from bouncers such as, “You can’t wear that in here.”

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#123 :: Platypus

June 12, 2004

Ornithorhynchus anatinus is the poster child for creationism. How in the name of Dodo could such a freak result from natural selection? Platypi hatch from eggs, all fur, claws, webbed feet, daffy duck bill and (on the females, anyway) mammary glands. Poison found in the foot spurs of male platypi is among the most excruciating toxins known to man – and may also be the key to treatment for common pain. Think about all that, packed in miniature, into a 2.25-inch-long molded-plastic toy with malevolent, red eyes.

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#122 :: Ball Compass

June 11, 2004

Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is a trackless waste – 400 square miles of parched alkali lake basin undisturbed most of the time by anything but flies and the occasional land sailor or land-speed monster. Without a good compass, you could could get the kind of hopelessly lost that leaves McTeague wandering mad with blood on his hands through Death Valley at the end of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. That’s why we took about three or four of them with us to Burning Man the first of the three years we went (accounts and photos are here and here for anyone not yet completely saturated with BM lore. Long ago, before festival organizers kowtowed to BLM’s demands and shoved the whole festival up at the west end of the playa, you could get in your car and just drive in any direction you cared to. We piled in, loading up with oil-can-sized Fosters’ and cigars and the like, cranking up the air conditioning against the 104-degree heat and just cruising – 4 miles, veer left, 200 feet, swerve right, 2 miles more, drive in a giant circle – twice, because you can. The miracle of the earth’s magnetism kept paranoia from swallowing us as we became completely detached from our own navigational senses – floating around this vast, dusty white plain at 60 miles per hour, untethered and alone. It was as close to exploring the surface of another planet as any of us have ever come – to date. A good compass can save your life, your ship, your mission. This is not necessarily a good compass, but as good as any so long as you keep it away from other metal objects. Here’s how it works.

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#121 :: Soviet Souvenir

June 10, 2004

In the silicon age, few first-world nations turn out mechanical watches anymore. Thick, graceless, manly, stiffly assembled, it bears the shield-and-dagger logo and Cyrillic characters of the KGB, the former Soviet Union security agency. If this were genuine, it might explain help explain why we won the cold war: advancing the date means twirling the hands twice around the dial for every single day (no simple click function here); the bezel spins in both directions – meaning certain doom to anyone relying on it as a diving watch; and though it is but a few years old, the chrome is already peeling off. Instead it is likely a factory-made trinket, offloaded to eastern European souvenir shops and sold at a heavy markup. My wife brought it back for me from Prague. It keeps excellent time, when wound.

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#120 :: Projectile

June 9, 2004

This flew out of the armory of MegaMan X, who in turn sprang from MegaMan X the anime series, which spawned MegaMan X the game, MegaMan X the obsessive image archive. Were this not the age of instant information retrieval, I could honestly say that I do not know who MegaMan X is. Instead, I must say that I’m wilfully ignoring him in favor of other obsessions. But his bomb remains.

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#119 :: Brass deities

June 8, 2004

What drives you to render your gods in lost-wax process brass? Faith? Profits? Tradition? Hunger? When the wholesaler offers you but a rupee or two apiece for a thousand of them, and you think of the laborious work pouring the wax, the splatter-burns on your fingers and toes from hot brass, of the hacking cough you’ve had for 20 years caused by burnoff of impurities in the metal, do you haggle? Refuse? Strike him? When you remember that your teacher told you 19 years ago that the ones you allow the wholesaler to export are stacked in upperclass gift shops in upperclass American and European cities and sold for enough money each to feed your family for a week, do you shrug? Spit? Smile? Pray? And is there a special prayer each time you cast your preferred god? Is it Vishnu? Krishna? Shiva? Ganesha? Ah. The brass is hot enough now. Back to work.

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#118 :: Peruvian ocarina

June 7, 2004

A lonely shepherd am I, trudging across my mountain’s terraced emerald flank. The sheep reek. It is raining. Consuela wants to shear them tomorrow. This rain will go on forever and the shears will stick and slip and the children will quarrel if they spend another day indoors. The rain grows heavier and the two youngest rams nip and butt heads. Clouds the color of intestines. I finger this little toy on the neck-cord, give it a tug. The dog yaps and nips. The herd turns and surges uphill out of the corral. The rain falls and falls and falls.

This ancient, much-copied design came from some jungle-themed Disneyland gift shop. At $7, it was a cheap, if overpriced addition to our music crate. It is quite loud and, played correctly, sweet.

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#117 :: Brownie Hawkeye

June 6, 2004

Before any lens, a performance takes shape the instant the shutter is opened. It lasts a few milliseconds, so quickly as to not exactly “happen” at all and then the camera shuts its one good eye, sinking into blissful ignorance of what it has witnessed, the actions, people, places and things lurking inside the dark box until you release them for capture in silver iodide, complex dyes or 1/0 bits. Your camera is a portable proscenium – whatever transpires within that bright rectangle is art, or drama, history or evidence, love or crap. The picture is whatever you say it is – until someone else looks at it, and then the the reviews come in, the script is scrapped in favor of new interpretations, and your quicksilver vision goes into the tall, moldering, mountainous stack with the rest of the already-consumed media the human race has made.

Made by Kodak and marketed in the U.S. from 1950 to 1961, the Brownie Hawkeye feels like the iPod of its day. Cubical, yet streamlined all over, its fluted surfaces invite your grip, a vinyl handle surges up out of its body, and a screw-on bulb-flash unit with a fat parabolic reflector blooms on its lapel. This is a damn simple camera – point-and-shoot, with single meniscus lens boasting a focus range of 6′ to infinity. You can try to re-roll 120 film onto Kodak’s proprietary and obsolete 620 reels, and if you succeed and you shoot something slow like Plus X, you can get wonderful low-contrast BnW images, square and rustic. It is not a camera for grand moments, nor surreptitious bursts of creative blood. It is a camera for standing in front of a thing or a person, and pressing the square, grey button to help you remember.

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#116 :: Pixelblocks

June 5, 2004

Pixelblocks are the toy equivalent of pruno, the alcoholic beverage inmates brew under their prison beds from raisins or surplus sugar: They’re fun, intoxicating and in the end, something of a headache. Imagine Lego blocks were divisible – and assemblable – not the multi-cell 2×4 or 4×12 kind sold now, but true single-celled plastic organisms capable of breeding by accretion. Imagine they came in psychedelic transparent colors, and could be mated not only peg-to-hole, but also slid together side by side, in reverse mitosis. You could manufacture entire pixel art cities in three actual dimensions, bring your Zaxxon world to life. But then you realize that it takes a long time to build a world one pixel at a time, and your ambitions and enthusiasm run afoul of your patience and the teensy little grooves you’re supposed to use to build with them but can never seem to line up correctly so you’re often separating misaligned and jammed-together blocks with your teeth. But you’ve got boxes and boxes of them, and you’re going to by-god make something cool. And it winds up the size of a baby’s fist, but at least pleasing in its own right. And now that you’ve done it, you’ll never drink pruno again until you’ve been really dry for a really long time. Pixelblocks are like that.

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#115 :: Earthquake Screws

June 4, 2004

The California’s Building Code is meant to protect you from the three horsemen of the apocalypse – fire, flood and earthquakes. Rioting – the fourth, unofficial rider and a much less frequent destroyer of lives – is not provided for in the code. Fire and flood-preventative designs have been around for years, and but for a few structural improvements and new cites in the code for things like fireproof shake-style rooves, I’m guessing the greatest leap in technology has been in the realm of earthquakes. Two architect friends of mine are now learning all about it by slogging through the arduous year-long state licensing process, which has something like nine exams. But you don’t need to know any of that to buy earthquake-proofing hardware such as foundation bolts and galvanized steel truss straps for strengthening your rafters. Like other Venice homeowners, mad for jury-rigging new structures in their back yards just under the radar of the generally tolerant, or perhaps ignorant code enforcement department, I did a little DIY earthquake-proofing in our last house. That’s when I discovered my favorite screws. Stout, sharp, versatile and cheap. They’re self-drilling and magnetic. You can stick one on the Philips bit of your screwgun, reach overhead or below where you’d care to crouch, and poke it onehanded into anything that needs fastening. Zzzzzzip. The thinking man’s duct tape.

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#114 :: Dot-com Relic

June 3, 2004

In the boom years, you’d think nothing of spending $2 million a year on billboards – in one city alone. was pushing its restaurant guides and live traffic maps on hundreds of billboards around town simultaneously – big, graphic messages exhorting people to use the site’s terrifically useful tools. But with the collapse of the Internet ad economy – the foundation of our business model – the site eventually folded, leaving behind a few relics: Wall-sized blueprint posters (now faded and buckled) that adorned our studios; Huge sheets of billboard material, printed in four-color process with stochastic screen dots the size of leSeur peas; trunkfuls of logo’d t-shirts; And miniature billboards like this one – gifts to the marketing department from billboard companies hoping to retain our business. Perhaps it’s the cinematic dimensions, maybe it’s the visual syntax of a billboard frame around an image I watched for as I drove around town, just to confirm my custodianship of something with a Known Brand. But this trinket exerts a magnetic pull on my line of sight whenever I glance at that corner of my office, and commands attention among the scholarly journals, robot miniatures, Altoids empties and HTML texts.

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#113 :: Rangefinder Film Camera

June 2, 2004

It’s begun. Pentax denies it but you know it’s only a matter of time before film technology vanishes. With it will go shirt-pocket axes like this Olympus XA, a little fistful of Swiss-watch precision. Designed and built in the early 1980s, it’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes, comes with a teensy little flash unit and has a quirky 35mm lens that captures crisp, bright images, then viciously vignettes their corners like a bad case of cataracts. Shooting with it reminds me of my Dad‘s old 1950s-vintage Zeiss Ikon 35mm rangefinder, which he bought in the Navy PX and let me use. Two images appear – a yellow ghost of your picture floats in the viewfinder and you shift the focus ring back and forth until the images reconcile – and you squeeze the button in a split-second flood of excitement, anticipation and hope.

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#112 :: Prayer Card

June 1, 2004

Faith is an odd, powerful force – a combination of yearning and belief in the unbelievable. Prayer cards are little faith amplifiers, allowing you (if you believe) to draw on the faith of dead saints whose faith was more powerful, and to ask for them to help. They’re tools for bootstrapping yourself to grace with more effective prayer. Here’s what you’re supposed to say to St. Francis Xavier (namesake of my Catholic high school) when you want something in the world:

Prayer of Saint Francis Xavier (attributed to Fr. Marcello Mastrilli, S.J (17th cc.)

Most amiable and most loving Saint Francis Xavier, in union with thee I reverently adore the Divine Majesty. I rejoice exceedingly on account of the marvelous gifts which God bestowed upon thee. I thank God for the special graces He gave thee during thy life on earth and for the great glory that came to thee after thy death. I implore thee to obtain for me, through thy powerful intercession, the greatest of all blessings – that of living and dying in the state of grace. I also beg of thee to secure for me the special favor I ask. In asking this favor I am fully resigned to the Divine Will. I pray and desire only to obtain that which is most conducive to the greater glory of God and the greater good of my soul.

Feast Day: December 3.

And maybe that’s one of the problems I’ve had with organized religion – people believe that God can change their lives on earth. I’m cynical enough to believe in an observant God rather than an interventionist deity. (S)He went to all the trouble to set this huge, complex organism in motion, and sat back to watch. You’re on your own in the world, blessed with the family and friends you deserve, and you have to make the best of them and everything else. A little four-color, gilt-edged card of a long-dead saint waving a cross around may be an anchor of faith for some folks, but it’s just an artifact to me.

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#111 :: Tube worm shells

May 31, 2004

I spent too many of my addled high school and college years staring at Roger Dean paintings. Staring at these, you could get lost in reveries of microscopic subway networks, elven mineshafts, fossilized toothpaste. You want to figure out what made them, and why they live in the tide pools of Malibu. They are an invitation to wonder.

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#110 :: Strobe-Yo

May 30, 2004

An oscillating object moved past the eye will appear in multiple, optical clones strobing across your field of view like the doppler howl of a speeding Ducati receding in the distance. Tiny button-cell batteries feed power through an oscillation circuit to a single old-school red LED on either side of the Yomega Strobe-Yo. Switch them on by brushing your fingertip across two sensitive pairs of electrodes, and fling it to the bottom of its string, where it sleeps like a flatlined cat, its circuitry’s cosmic red staccato throwing untranslatable Spirograph semaphores in the darkness to a unfathomable and as-yet undiscovered alien audience. Then again, it is just a toy.

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#109 :: Low-capacity Storage Device

May 29, 2004

The first time I saw a floppy disk, it was a 5-½-inch model, with the massive hole in the center and a capacity of something like 256 kilobytes. My Kaypro II required two of them, one in the left-hand drive to carry the CP/M operating system and Wordstar, one in the right-hand drive to carry freelance articles I would occasionally print through my dot-matrix printer, the model of which escapes me. The Kaypro II was the classic Heavy Big Object – a metal-cased “portable” computer weighing a good 30 pounds. The keyboard clamped onto the face to protect the drive bays (remember the little “eject” levers that swiveled across the slot to block further insertion and engage the write head?) It had a massive spring-mounted strap handle and slotted vents cut into the steel case. It retailed for the then-obscene price of $1,595. They called it “Darth Vader’s lunchbox.” When the industry graduated to these little marvels (1.3 megabytes on the high-density double-sided models!) it felt like someone had finally brought us flying cars. The little spring-loaded tin shutter, the stamped-metal drive hub embedded in the media disc, the closed face through which you couldn’t see, so reminiscent of the first time I saw a BMW motorcycle with that trick one-sided rear axle. I moved on to Syquests, Zip drives, CD-R/RW, memory sticks and onboard cerebral implants. I don’t know about you, but I have boxes and boxes of old applications, photos and documents on these things, and I can’t bear to throw them out as long as I have a drive in the housse that can read them. Do wish I’d hung onto the Kaypro, the casualty of a yard sale. I think it sold for about $25.

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#108 :: Fellow

May 28, 2004

Yin to the rubber ghoul‘s yang, ego to the ghoul’s id, this little fellow is inscrutable. Perched on his kidney-shaped patch of street, he gestures in raptorous (no, not the like the upcoming Big Christian Faith Jump, but predatory and mantis-like) anticipation, raving like a tent preacher, sleeves cuffed to his biceps and imparting the Lord’s perennial Exhortations to Heal. It’s impossible to tell what world he came from, but he takes on a tremendous amount of weight and might when paired with the rubber ghoul. Their postures are eerily identical.

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#107 :: Isbrytare

May 27, 2004

I was a theater geek in college. Too generally shy (and probably untalented) to translate my run of lead performances in high school productions of “Sound of Music” and “Anything Goes” into acid-tinged audition-winning roles in “Tooth of Crime” and “Romeo and Juliet” against the Machiavellian conniving of pre-professional college-age actors, I contented myself with building sets and rigging lights. My favorite place was the grid – the steel grated rigging floor some 40 feet above the stage, where you used a crescent wrench to bolt bulky, high-wattage arc-lit instruments to pipes, and plug in their fat connectors to the 220-volt control circuits. Powerful, heavy, they vomited light so blindingly hot that you had to tame it with colored gels, barn doors, rheostats and soft focus. I always thought it would be fun to own a few, kept on low power to read by, but they’re too huge and costly. A few months ago, I stumbled across this miniaturized marvel at Ikea – a tiny Lekos projector – a powerful halogen lamp with a pair of rails screwed into its snout. It comes with four dichroic glass filters, a set of punched-aluminum gobos (patterns for projecting silhouettes), a few chunks of frosted glass for texture, and a lovely little convex lens – so that you can shoot a blue moose, red windows or an absinthe-green op-art pattern 10 feet high onto your back wall at night – for less than 40 bucks. I almost bought two.

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#106 :: Wooden Tree

May 26, 2004

This is made of the very thing it represents. This represents the very thing of which it is made. Symbolic cannibalism, the Ourobouros myth made wood. Just as pop will eat itself so too does meaning applied to something rob it of the potential for meaning something greater. Perhaps someone at the wooden trainset factory cut this by hand from a sheet of half-inch pine with a coping saw, sanded it smooth, hand-stained it and painted it with three coats of clear lacquer. Maybe it was die-stamped and triple-dipped by machine. No matter. It’s just a tree. And it’s just a “tree.” And it’s “just a tree.”

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#105 :: Monster Door

May 25, 2004

McDonald’s gave these out with Happy Meals. The monsters were unremarkable – nicely built and faithful representations of the Monsters, Inc. characters. The doors, however, carry significant symbolic weight. You could stare into one of them for hours over your espresso and clove cigarettes, contemplating negative space, alternate universes, the depths of the human soul, and the crushing potential of every future second of your life. The second you’re wasting reading this. The one that follows your decision to shut off the computer and go outside. The next second after that. And the next.

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#104 :: Death Star

May 24, 2004

Utter destruction and evil in the palm of your hand. What sets this apart from the vast majority of Star Wars toys are its weight and construction. Instead of injection-molded plastic, Kenner cast this thing in hemispheres of pot-metal. The halves are connected through the polar axis via an axle fitted with internal cogs to a fluorescent green disc behind the business end (ray projector, hellmouth, whatever you care to call it). When you turn the hemispheres, the disc spins and flickers, as if it is powering up to wreak tiny havoc on any baseballs or oranges that might be hovering in the cosmic vicinity. It is quite heavy.

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#103 :: Analog Remote Viewer

May 23, 2004

Chrome-plating came into vogue as a protective measure, rust-blocker, bulwark against time. Before long, it was appropriated as street armor, fetishized as erotic surface and totemic protection, codified as evil and good and dubbed bling. It is also extremely toxic. Some of the best HLOs are all of the above. This chromed mirror’s head pivots on a double-ball joint and telescopes to 36 inches to extend your view beneath the engine block where you just dropped that vital hexbolt for the fifth time on your fourth attempt to insert it through the goddamned water pump into the motherfucking block just beyond the very edge of your (*SHIT!!!!*) fingertip reach. It also collapses to fit into a coveralls pocket by means of its handy clip.

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#102 :: Shark Gun

May 22, 2004

Squirt guns were forbidden in 6th grade. It didn’t stop me from collecting them. I had two favorites – the “secret” gun shaped like brass knuckles cast in plastic that was army-man green (you could make it all the more secret by snapping off the knuckleguard so that the only thing visible was the nozzle peeking up out of your fist); and the “sneaky” model, whcih had a little pivot wheel on the business end that you turned at a 90-degree angle so you could look like you were innocently aiming the gun away from someone until you soaked them point-blank. This month is birthday season among our kid friends, which means an endless parade of goodie-bags into the house, bearing trinkets, gadgets and crap. This one has teeth.

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#101 :: Bell Telephone Operator’s Headset

May 21, 2004

Fossil tech, the earbone of a giant. Fifty years ago, thousands of operators huddled at thousands of switchboards, plugging and unplugging calls from millions of jacks at the Bell Telephone Company nearest you. The nationwide American Telephone and Telegraph conglomerate was as close as anyone had come to building a nationwide monopoly without inviting antitrust litigation. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that lawsuits from a put-upon public finally brought down mighty Ma Bell and splintered her like an enormous, brittle tree, her branches taking wild, chaotic root in the hundreds of telcos that have sprung up since. Chances are, if you called information back then, the operator was talking on one of these. Like everything else Bell made, it is extremely durable and thanks to the (now missing) wire headstrap, reasonably comfortable. My first six years as a newspaper reporter, I was on this stupid macho head trip, convinced that only obit writers and women wore headsets for interviews, real reporters crunched the phone ‘twixt shoulder and ear while typing and drawling from the side of their mouths, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Is that riiiight.” After a lovely bout of crippling neck spasms and trips to the chiropractor, I relented, and began using one of these while at the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to a web site maintained by an antique phone phanatic, this is a telephone supervisor’s headset, model 52BW. It’s fitted with an HC3 receiver, an N1 transmitter, an L4AH cord with a 289B plug, and 29A connecting block. I used it for years, cutting the huge brass double-pronged cord off and splicing in a standard 4-pole modular phone plug so I could use it on the LA Times’ Rolm PBX system (if memory serves) but eventually they phased it out and began using phones with digital jacks that took only shitty Plantronics headsets made of plastic, with staticky, short-prone plugs. I can’t tell you how many interviews I conducted through this thing. But I did stack up every single clipping I ever wrote, and the stack of tiny shreds of newsprint is close to a foot thick.

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#100 :: Bicycle chain

May 20, 2004

This all began as a way of codifying one of my most organic impulses. To hold a thing that is small, has some weight and purpose in the world is to own it, whether it takes up space in my drawer or just in my mind. I have acquired these 100 (so far) objects as a way of fulfilling that need quickly – in the mercurial snatch-it-now breath of the moment I first picked them up – and tried to make sense of them as sort of a test. I don’t know if I have succeeded. I did it to see if I could do it, to see if it would amount to anything. It’s become popular, thanks to Mark at BoingBoing. It has invigorated my drive to write and shoot again, though I’m not sure if it has any deeper meaning. At the very least, I have completed the traditional Japanese artist’s exercise of creating 100 demons in tribute to the Buddhist challenge of defeating 100 demons in a lifetime. If you have followed HLO at all, you have my humblest thanks, and if you want to introduce a friend to it, this entry is as good a place as any to start. In gratitude, I can only offer you this chunk of chain, which I’ve fiddled with for years at my desk. It is considered a deadly weapon, yet the strength, weight, intricacy and integrity of its 6-piece links and the unholy pressure used to force them together as one are taken for granted. You can twirl it like a watchman’s keychain, whip it through the air like a bullroarer, or crush ice in a dishcloth with it when your highball gets low. Put it around your neck and go punk. Dip it in paint and make prints. Hook it up to any number of drive systems and it will work flawlessly, without maintenance, for thousands of hours without a failure. There are few archetypally perfect machines left to invent in the world. This was one of them.

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