Main Contents

#99 :: Cosmojetz

May 19, 2004

Clockwork generates the slow release of energy over time. In a clock, a series of measured events are fed by the mainspring – ticking, chiming, the slow sweep of the hands. In Cosmojetz, the spring drives an eccentric flywheel, and the whole rig shudders and bounces in a spastic frenzy on its eight spidery wire legs. It’s another infectious toy like this one, by Brazilian mad genius Chico Bricalho and built by Kikkerland. It’s a reminder of the giddy joy of analog toys.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #99 :: Cosmojetz

#98 :: Carapace

May 18, 2004

The grill-work of a large crab is a freakish wonder of bioengineering – burly as the Maginot Line, and baroquely bristly as an Antonio Gaudi cathedral. Built to withstand rock-crushing tides and predatory attacks while allowing for exploration of environment and the capture, disassembly and ingestion of prey, it is a perfect machine. Until disease or mishap caught up with it, this fat bastard was as big through the body as Shaquille O’Neal’s fist. Parts of it littered the beach, as though a massive submarine had exploded and sunk offshore, scattering flotsam to the waves. Knuckles were everywhere.

Filed under: Jetsam | Comments Off on #98 :: Carapace

#97 :: Moon globe

May 17, 2004

As with all globes, the topography of this Replogle moon engrosses me beyond reason. Not the mountains, craters and pressure ridges printed on its surface, but the way it’s put together: chunks of pressed cardboard made spherical are covered with little trapezoids of four-color-process map, all meticulously aligned and made more apparent by the dent I inflicted on it as a kid. I fondled it often, memorizing the names – Mare Crisium, Mare Imbrium, and the one I stared at the most after 7/20/69 – Mare Tranquilitatis. I pored over the craters, picturing them a-crawl with tiny 2001 spacesuits and moon buses – and imagining an Ice Station Zebra scenario played out by rival U.S. and Soviet expeditions, the icy weaponless standoff frozen in tension until someone would pull a top-secret raygun and touch off World War III.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments (1)

#96 :: Cake-toppers

May 16, 2004

Having gamely served their duty to decorate and delight, these hand-painted, cast-resin beauties continue to flounce and pirouette in the residue of their natural habitat. They are artifacts of the ubiquitous, now worldwide cult of the Princess. The Disney heroines have become the fountainhead of lore, iconography and financial operations for this cult, which capitalizes on the desire of many little girls to dress up and feel special, a movement propagated by the blandishments of carelessly doting mothers and fathers who have only the faintest inkling as to what puberty will be like if they keep this up. But that’s a cynic’s view, falling like a harmless cloud of spiteful ash on the shoulders of these three as they dance on, blithely, prettily, endlessly, their light steps barely slowed by the butter cream frosting clogging their petticoats.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #96 :: Cake-toppers

#95 :: Flash bulb

May 15, 2004

“Flasbulbs popping” remained a cliché long after electronic strobes took over for these pearlescent, one-shot marvels. Snapping the shutter on a camera would close a circuit, allowing electricity from a battery to jolt a hair-fine cloud of zirconium wire into ignition in the pressurized oxygen barely contained in the bulb’s glass capsule. Instant daylight – or a harsh approximation thereof. Once the bulb went off, a photographer – particularly a news shooter – would quickly pop the bulb out of its clip, usually to clatter on the street below, and shove another into the socket before the previous one quit bouncing. In the days when photojournalists relied upon the plate-format Speed Graphic, taking a string of photos meant popping and replacing the bulb, then sliding a dark-slide in to the film holder to cover the 4″x5″ film sheet just exposed, pulling the filmholder out, flipping it over, sticking it back into the camera and pulling its darsklide to ready the next frame. Flashbulbs were what gave Weegee’s photos their garish, hyper-real edge – the sudden explosion of light and flash of heat that revealed the rawest nature of humanity at its peak. This history gives more details on the lowly flashbulb’s origins and evolution.

Filed under: General | Comments Off on #95 :: Flash bulb

#94 :: Sage

May 14, 2004

It grows wild in the desert here. One of the ironic blessings of wildland brushfires – which can devour entire housing tracts and splinter their communities forever – is that they smell intoxicating as destroy lives. In Native American ritual – as in coastal Southern California, the burning of sagebrush is a process of cleansing and renewal. This bundle was collected and bound by an old hippie who works the Venice boardwalk on weekends. He heaps raw sage on a weathered Guatemalan blanket, and with great patience and something of a distant, worried look in his eye, bundles the stalks together with cotton yarn and sells them for a dollar or two. We smudged our house in Venice a few years back – half giggling, half solemn as priests – in a ceremony that was by turns awkward and reverent for two people who despite Catholic upbringing had found their spiritual centers somewhere far away from organized religion and ceremony. Now that we’ve moved again and settled in, perhaps it’s time to do it again.

Filed under: symbol | Comments Off on #94 :: Sage

#93 :: MEAL Ready-to-Eat / E3 Swag

May 13, 2004

I can’t say what upsets me more – that tens of thousands of U.S. troops tear these open every night, ignite the little chemical food heaters inside and chow down on them for probably the 365th night in a row in many cases; or that the military is giving them away to geeks and swag hounds at the world’s largest video game convention to promote a game the U.S. Army developed to teach you how to kill without the risk of actually dying or taking someone’s life. The army booth at E3 sprawls across some 2,000 square feet beneath a 2-story Moorish village wall – surrounded by sandbagged bunkers, and staffed by real-life soldiers brandishing next-gen weapons. It was packed. This rather amazing little artifact weighs about three pounds and claims to contain chicken and noodles. I’ll just toss it in the camping basket so we can “eat like the grunts” and think of a video game next time we’re lounging in camp at Yosemite while my countrymen are dying for an unjust, unwinnable war they never should have been ordered to start. Ashamed to be an American these days, I’m going to feel helpless until November to change the way we’re headed.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments (1)

#92 :: E3 Swag

May 12, 2004

I have no clue what does. I may never even visit them to find out. I’d rather keep the purity of this piece of swag from this year’s brain-rattling E3 convention (many more of my words and pictures here) intact. Swag is the faux currency of E3, the cool-now logoed crap that everyone runs around collecting, and then promptly forgets at the bottom of some drawer or in the back of the glovebox. Push the chrome button on the end of this bullet-shaped keychain and an LED suffuses the perspex logo with soft white light. Push it again – the light flashes. Push it again – the light switches off. Three simple technologies conspired in its making: mechanics, simple battery power and assembly-line electronics. At some point I’ll figure out a way express my unified field theory of all things (animal, vegetable, mineral, mechanical, chemical, biological, digital) in multimedia. But I fear if I succeed, I’ll wink out of existence entirely.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments (2)

#91 :: Nazi Magic Lantern Slides

May 11, 2004

Mussolini famously said, “Character is what you are in the dark.” This little stack of glass magic lantern slides shows that character – of a people who believed that their cause in war was right, oblivious to the fact that they supported a regime committing atrocities beyond the darkest possible imagining. I post this object this evening in light of the ignorance unfolding in the Senate regarding prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. I’ll spare you my soapbox speech, posted elsewhere. Instead, some background on these loathsome, compelling little objects – the public service message of their day, projected in theaters before the feature. They were given to me by my Jewish father-in-law, who inherited them from his dad. Dad ran a string of Los Angeles-area movie theaters, starting in 1945 with the Yost in Santa Ana, and including the venerable Vista, still in operation at the cross of Sunset and Hollywood – the kind of theaters where you could sit in the balcony for 15 cents, and get your dates admission and candy for free because your old man ran the joint. My father-in-law’s dad collected movie memorabilia – lobby cards, props, wonderful items like the golden spike used in “Union Pacific.” Somewhere along the way, he picked up about a dozen 3.5″x4″ magic lantern slides of Nazi war propaganda. They scream in Bauhaus lettering, cajole with the fresh-scrubbed faces of Hitler Youth members, urge, implore and command with all the graphic power that Nazi artists could muster. There is a photo of stalwart soldiers in the sort of low-over-the-ear helmets that today’s U.S. soldiers wear. A valiant statue of Victory, a vigilant searchlight, and message upon message of inspiration and fidelity to the Füuhrer. The one highlighted here is a Deutche Rote Kreusz (German Red Cross) message: a woodcut-style image of a soldier flinging a potato-masher grenade, above a nurse bandaging a comrade’s head. Just three valiant people enacting the pantomime of a war for what they gullibly believed in – and to which their creator hoped to rally their equally gullible countrymen. If anyone out there reads German, I’d welcome a translation.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments (3)

#90 :: Rubber Geek

May 10, 2004

When I was 4, my folks took us to the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. I remember visiting the Sinclair Oil Pavilion, where an injection-molding machine was cranking out green plastic brontosauruses every minute or so for the rubes. Cast-aluminum mold halves were shoved together by hydraulic pistons, and green plastic pumped through the braided hoses that fed the mold. Steam rose inside the glassed-in injection chamber as cooling jets hit the clenched metal mold. Then they popped apart and a mechanical spatula shoveled the dinosaur into a bin. When my father handed it to me it was still hot and soft, and reeking of the most exotic thing I had ever smelled. I fingered the mold lines that ran from its branded base all the way along its belly and neck, up over its head and down the spine to its tale. It was, to me, immense. My brother got one, too – he managed to gnaw a hole in its tail, being 2 at the time. It’s one of those things I wish had somehow survived the hyper-political mosh pit of favoritism and fleeting allegiances that is any child’s toybox. But like my little red metal Indy car, my tiger-seated gold-metalflake Stingray and my SuperBall, it’s just gone. Injection molding was invented some time back in the 19th century. Dates vary, depending on the accounts, and the methods and materials have mutated since then like so many strains of rhinovirus, adapting to as many uses for plastics and rubber as clever chemists could devise. At some point in the last year (judging by the fresh suppleness of the material) one such machine spat this crazed-looking finger puppet into a waiting bin. A low-paid worker took up brushes and daubed it expertly with color, and it was bagged for sale to a party favor wholesaler, whose supply chain ended ultimately at our house. If it vanished, I might even miss it. I’m taking nominations on its name.

Filed under: Toy | Comments (4)

#89 :: Xylophone

May 9, 2004

At some point during my climb out of the smoking dot-bomb crater, I built myself a xylophone to pass the time between job interviews that never came. I followed general instructions found here. Not for this toy, but a heavy big object – a fully functional, floor-standing 12-key xylophone weighing more than 80 pounds. It’s crude: a finish-plywood frame/soundbox and fitted with keys (chromatic scale in C) that I cut out of bar-stock aluminum. I tuned it with a carbide wheel, grinding metal off the backsides of the keys and then thwacking them to check their pitch against a cheap digital guitar tuner. I mounted it on a pair of old cast-iron sewing machine legs I had kicking around, and now it sits in the corner of the dining room where I whack it in pensive moments in my tone-deaf fashion, and the kids and their friends plink on it with various implements any time they can get their hands on it. It takes up a ridiculous amount of space. The fun they got out of that and a big tubano drum we’ve had for a while set me off in a whirlwind binge of gathering inexpensive, easy-to-play instruments, and every now and then we have all-ages noise recitals. Someone donated this Auris xylophone to the school rummage sale, and I snatched it up for, like, a buck. It had been dropped a lot. Gouges and scratches mar the crisp little brass keys, the lowest C only 4.5 inches long, but the soft-pine frame is true and the tone clean. It still rings prettily when struck with a pencil or a stick. PLAY SAMPLE (Quicktime)

Filed under: Instrument | Comments Off on #89 :: Xylophone

#88 :: Stock Car

May 8, 2004

About four years ago, Ralphs Supermarkets started giving these away, blister-packing them in with their new brand of Red Cell alkaline batteries. Everything I own that beeps, records, shoots or noodles eats AAs for breakfast. The Red Cells were mere snacks for the ravenous herd of devices, which quickly devoured them before emitting dissatisfied little electronic burps and then playing dead until I fed them more. Before long, I had collected the entire set of stock cars and moved on to rechargeable batteries.. They’re *not* Hot Wheels, but have a rumbling authenticity about them, from their tiny window-mounted debris nets and internal rollcages to the logo’ed racing slicks and sponsor confetti on the quarter panels. They look pretty hot when all five park together.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #88 :: Stock Car

#87 :: Soap

May 7, 2004

A thick, fresh block of “Kiss My Face,” left at the bottom of a tiny back-bathroom sink. Water. Leaking tap. Time. Minutes. Ounces. Eight hours. Gallons. All droplets. Unceasing. Inexorable. Heavy. Ergo, this freak. I could disappear into its igneous micro-landscape, lost among barren knolls reeking of an alien smell. Corrosive winds howl through the grand arch they carved. This is an evil place. Something bad happened here once. And will once again. Look closer. Try not to blink. It’s a pulp fiction landscape, frozen in evolution from lurid melodrama to bleak existential tragedy, halfway between the sterile planes of its original form and utter dissolution and erasure. Something could live there. Something small, dark and ravenous.

Filed under: Jetsam | Comments (3)

#86 :: Lego Alien Warrior

May 6, 2004

We had a homemade corduroy sack full of Legos when I was a kid, it weighed maybe four or five pounds. A couple of huge green base plates, untold numbers of plain, rectangular 1x2s, 2x2s, 2x6s and 2x8s in red, green, black, yellow, white. There were three or four precious blues, and perhaps two clear 1x2s that served as the windows around which the fantasy would accrete – race car, space ship, dungeon, castle keep. No guys, no chrome, no pivoting pieces (maybe an axle and some wheels). Just blocks. Now there are Mars vehicles and cow towns and pivoting 22-wheeled construction cranes and undersea pirate adventures with little peg-legged guys and semi trucks that transform into giant robots that shoot rockets and fly around with little tiny transformer robots in their bellies.

Aahh, crap. Kids.

Filed under: Toy | Comments (2)

#85 :: Pen

May 5, 2004

Magpie compulsion moved my fingers to gather copper brads, steel bearings, red wire and brass fittings and fill a test tube with them. That I had test tubes to spare is damning evidence enough of the relentless subroutine commanding the part of my brain that collects heavy little objects. But the fact that I had corks to fit them – and that I then contrived to drill one out and fit it with a Bic Stic ballpoint insert is proof that I have a certifiable tinker’s curse. I can stop any time I want.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (4)

#84 :: SuperSampler

May 4, 2004

The Lomographic Society did a very smart thing: A little clique of Viennese photographers latched onto the Russian-made Lomo rangefinder camera in 1992 and – shooting wild, free and from the hip – turned its light leaking, color-saturating, vignette-prone mechanism into a creative movement. They arranged to import and distribute the cameras to the West. They set up web sites to build enthusiasm for (and purchases of) the camera. They began publishing the quirky photos it produced – and empowering others to self-publish to the Lomo site. They began importing other cameras and photography products (including Soviet surplus night-vision scopes) and at some point, they hooked me with this slick little device. It shoots four sequential panoramic pictures onto a single frame of 35mm film – allowing you to capture action sequences that are either 2/10ths of a second, or 2 seconds long. The rewind mechanism is a pull-cord that you can yank with your teeth while cruising around taking portraits of fellow cyclists. If I can ever grab the time, I’ll scan some of them and publish a few here. Even without the evidence, you can admire the slick design ethos at work – the cowled quartet of lenses, the pearlescent plastic. I love this device.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (1)

#83 :: Giant Robot

May 3, 2004

Immense in the imagination, the Masaka wages horrific battle in the withering fire of plasma cannons and neutron batteries. Eight inches high In life, it began as a plastic model kit, cut, glued and fitted together with obsessive care. The paint went on in the right color – but under dim overhead lights – the wrong consistency, so that the original ice-blue color peeks through. The claws grasp and menace from powerful shoulders bunched beneath the turret-head carrying untold power and a single, baleful red eye.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #83 :: Giant Robot

#82 :: Combination Lock

May 2, 2004

Here’s another amulet of urban protection, rendered useless by my faulty memory. It’s difficult to say how many of these I’ve owned over the years, for school lockers, bikes, gym lockers, strongboxes. Without the combination, it becomes a sturdy paperweight, thumb-twiddler, hammer-in-a-pinch. Back when I used them full-time, I wish there had been something like Master’s new Combo Locker service. I might then have owned only one, and the lock you see here would be more nobly dinged and weathered.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (4)

#81 :: Dinky Tanker Truck

May 1, 2004

In White Heat, they crawl into an empty one of these to pull off the climactic heist of an oil refinery. Rendered at something like 1/128th scale in stamped potmetal, with hard rubber tyres on pop-rivet axles, it reads beefier, bulkier, more heavy with threat and explosive power. Paint failure of this magnitude would be staggering at full-scale, as would the just-painted, bright yellow toy that must have rolled off the line 40 or 50 years ago. Dinky perhaps only in the eyes of the coldly objective.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #81 :: Dinky Tanker Truck

#80 :: Industrial Stereopticon View

April 30, 2004

There was a time when men worked in close proximity with huge, steam-driven, iron-boned machines, doing raw, majestic physical labor. I collect these cards for their historical lessons as much as the visceral eye-sucking grandeur of the images.

“(75) 7965 – Unloading iron ore from lake vessels – old and new methods – Cleveland, O.

“We are looking northwest across the ship canal known as the “old river bed.” That lake steamer over yonder and the nearer vessel at our left have come down from the western end of Lake Superior laden with ore from the biggest and richest iron mines on earth for great steeel mills at Youngstown, Pittsburg or Wheeling. Now, their holds are being emptied into freight cars for the overland portion of the journey. Railroad tracks like these run along the side of that farther pier beyond the S.S. Manila

Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #80 :: Industrial Stereopticon View

#79 :: Swashbuckler

April 29, 2004

Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Chow-Yun Fat – all those Hollywood swordsmen lacked the visceral threat you’d feel from the sight of a man standing there, blade in hand, eager to have your guts for garters. In ages ruled by steel, sword wounds could range from nasty duelling scars and fast, deadly heart-strikes to horrible intestinal gashes that caused you to wither and waste until you succumbed to septicemia. You could die by katana stroke, claymore hack, wakizashi slice, rapier thrust. You could kill with edge or tip, flat or hilt. You might have been a king’s musketeer, a cut-throat highwayman, a samurai or a norse raider. You might have been this guy, a distant cousin of Melville’s Queequeg, with rippling muscles and a savage elegance. But you would likely never have been cast in milk-blue plastic until you were centuries gone from the one fight you ever lost, and toymakers saw the need to preserve, reproduce and merchandise your last, best stance in the only color-batch available that week of the cheapest molding material on earth.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #79 :: Swashbuckler

#78 :: Wisdom Tooth

April 28, 2004

At one point about five years ago, the pain in my head grew so extreme that I paid a man to put a pair of extremely strong pliers into my mouth and rip this out of my skull. I don’t recall how he braced my head. I don’t remember what I said beforehand, or afterward. I do remember hearing and – despite the Novocain – feeling the hard “SNAP” of the roots breaking off a bit of bone from the floor of my sinuses as it came free. And there it sat on a bloodied bed of gauze. I gaped, pulling together my splintered wits. Two fillings stared back. He turned it over, and I saw the massive cavity that had prompted the pain and the extraction. I keep it around as a lesson for the kids. Their dentist says they do a great job brushing. I’m chewing gummis as I write this.

Filed under: Part | Comments (1)

#77 :: Bobble-head – Brian Jordan

April 26, 2004

I don’t follow the Dodgers. I don’t even follow pro sports. But somewhere in that vast terra incognita is a cult of collectors who fixate on bobble-head dolls, and one of them found its way into our house. No longer the purview of rear decks and lovers of boxer dogs, the bobble-head has become big kitsch business. You can even get a bobble-heads of Martin Luther and wife Katy.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #77 :: Bobble-head – Brian Jordan

#74 :: Cocktail umbrella

April 20, 2004

Why does the drink need shade? Are the ice cubes kept cooler and the booze more potent from their not melting? Are we supposed to feel exotic, or more relaxed when drinking an umbrella drink? More Asian, perhaps? It may or may not have originated at that temple of Tiki culture, Trader Vic’s. It is usually made of bamboo or cardboard ribs on a toothpick spine, cloaked in printed rice paper that bleeds when wet. Yet it is fully functional, opening from a furled oblong to a broad, light-cheating circle. I remember it from countless Shirley Temples I was plied with when young, and from those first salutary sips of the handful of zombies or drunken bastards I dared drink in college.

Filed under: Part | Comments Off on #74 :: Cocktail umbrella

#73 :: Wooden Index File

April 19, 2004

This is an artifact from my time as an old-school newspaper reporter. It held index cards on which I had written the names, numbers, titles and affiliations of hundreds of sources, contacts, friends and chance acquaintances. The deck of 3×5 cards was blackened with thumb-dirt and furry-soft at the edges from constant consultation – how many times did I pull the Simi Valley City Council’s card? How many times did I search for Rocketdyne’s flack, my buddy Alan’s cell phone number, the mailing address of the Ventura County Courthouse for yet another Freedom of Information Act request? Like a fool, I think I threw them out when I went digital. The box of varnished, tongue-and-grooved maple is as solid and venerable-looking today as it was the day I bought it at an antiques store 19 years ago. It closes with an authoritative *clack*.

Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #73 :: Wooden Index File