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#22 :: Aluminum folding yardstick

February 28, 2004

The best Heavy Little Objects are metal, mechanical and shiny. I bought this yardstick in the ’80s in one of those little new-wave tchotchke stores, the kind that sold red rubber ducks with devil horns, vintage rhinestone lorgnettes, fur pillows and screaming-nun friction toys that spat sparks as they walked. I remember thinking at the time something like, “9 bucks is a stupid amount of money to pay for something like this, but I must have this thing, and besides, it’s a tool and I’ll use it, not like the other stuff I collect that fascinates for the first day and a half, then loses its luster like sea glass plucked from the surf.” I use it at least once a week – if not to measure then to fiddle with while trying to avoid writing. It has its uses. $9 was a steal.

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#21 :: Nipple pick

February 27, 2004

The Renaissance Pleasure Faire is a seasonal, regional form of temporary insanity. Every spring, several thousand Angelenos clad in “authentic” reproduction garb ranging from medieval knights and servant girls to nearly Victorian ladies and Renaissance swordsmen crowd a mock Tudor village in the chokingly hot and dusty hills west of the city to spend six weekends guzzling mead, saying things like “forsooth” and “methinks” and acting out cornball face-to-face costumed melodrama like the worst sort of Trekkies. But for the fact that they’re almost completely surrounded by entire overweight, stroller-shoving families wearing Oakleys, fanny packs and zinc on their noses, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun, and you could almost forget yourself for an afternoon and pretend you’re living 400 years ago …

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#20 :: Rubber ghoul

February 26, 2004

Creeping out of some long-forgotten Disney picture, the ghoul is a perfect caricature of the ominous, an everyboogeyman. He skulks forward on half-bent knees and thick-soled clodhoppers that peek from beneath his heavily draped shroud, his three-fingered (and one would assume leather-gloved) hands menacing, ready to grab and ravish. He is made in China. Get down low enough and look up at him and dread pours off him in waves with a low, throbbing negative energy. But he’s just a little rubber fellow, not two inches high. He has an alter-ego, who I’ll blog on later.

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#19 :: Zecar

February 25, 2004

So much wonder in such a tiny thing: clockwork, little rubber tyres, a flywheel-driven motor, Bauhaus chassis, porthole-style wheels. This is one of a series of about a dozen clockwork toys designed by Brazilian toymaker Chico Bicalho and made by Kikkerland. The company donates 10% of sales proceeds to campaigns to protect the rainforests. the toys are all heavily built and each completely idiosyncratic in behavior – some spastic gymnasts, others spark-flinging whirligigs. The Zecar – once you get the flywheel spinning, rolls slowly, relentlessly over just about anything less than half its own height thanks to massively high gear ratio, torque and traction.

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#18 :: Calipers-style micrometer

February 24, 2004

Made an indeterminate number of years ago by the Reed Small Tool Works (!) of Worcester Mass., this exquisitely machined device measures the width or diameter of just about anything from 1/1000th of an inch to 1 inch. Its English-only scale speaks of the American industrial age, before the tyrannical sameness of the metric system and the pixelization of all design, when men would turn out solid, crisp machinery on lathes, presses and forge-fed steam-powered anvils. says it’s worth $37.50, which is the sort of nonsensical categorization today’s information economy would impose on the forces of steam, steel, coal and sweat that built this country. And the sort of banker’s trivia that said mammoth engine would crush beneath its wheels in the drive to the future.

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#17 :: Blown-glass egg

February 23, 2004

Supernovas, star clusters, constellations, nebulas, amoebas, colonies of light, iridescent visual noise all clamor for attention inside this two-pound chunk of handcrafted glass, a gift from my folks a few years back. This sort of thing used to be called a “paperweight.” But that was before we climbed down out of the trees and moved online to grunt and posture and draw our own likenesses on virtual walls with digital feces, forever forsaking the piles of papers now blowing willy-nilly about our desks. This thing would deliver only a glancing blow in a hand-to-hand combat with a burglar, I’ve often thought while basking in harmful VDT radiation late at night. But if I got a chance to line up for a good shot, I’d probably be able to give him a rollicking headache before he got his screwdriver in me.

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#16 :: Klik candy dispenser – Elektra

February 22, 2004

This is a weird, weird object, a stocking gift from my lovely wife. Marvel Comics seems to have latched onto a rather rickety-looking Pez knockoff as a way of extending its brands. I’m not sure why you’d want to associate tasty discs of gum or candy with an assassination-orphan-turned-ninja-trained assassin, but here it is. A little spring-actuated lever flips candy out of her spring-fed neck, but the unfortunate geometry of the toy makes her knees look like some sort of bizarre derrierre cleavage. This is such a strange, ephemeral artifact that I will probably have to keep it on the off chance it increases value and I can count on that extra $2.75 in my retirement fund from offering it on eBay some 40 years hence.

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#15 :: Drain valve / bell

February 21, 2004

I spent the afternoon as Mister Plumber. The odd, unkillable odor in the bathroom had grown too fierce to bear, and I had to pull the toilet to replace the wax ring I apparently mis-installed five or six months ago when I put down the linoleum. Always a thrill. After scraping all the stinking wax from around the reeking hole of the downpipe and bleaching the crap out of the floor and every gasket surface, I put on the new ring, caulked the rim of the toilet foot and every joint between tank and bowl and mounted everything back up again. Less smell now (though still some – maybe the seat needs changing.) I then turned to the friggin’ tub train, where the mechanism’s become hopelessly jammed. I pull it out – and true to the cut-rate tacky cheapest-possible-materials aesthetic of the previous homeowner, the whole thing’s made of goddamn Lexan, which has flexed to the point of failure. Unfortunately, the valve cylinder (you want to know all this, right?) for the new drain linkage I bought is too wide in diameter for the drainpipe, so I swap in the old Lexan plug – itself not the root of the failure, and I’m left with a part from the kit – this crisp, gorgeous, heavy little cylinder of turned brass. If you hold it right and tap on it, it rings like a Tibetan prayer bell, so I wire a hexnut into it and make it into a little bell for Kristina.

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#14 :: Tintype of four friends

February 20, 2004

These four men were very tight, probably somewhere around 100 years ago. They had adventures, hard jaws, snappy clothes, and a little folding money to spend on fripperies such as keepsake photographs. This one is about 3.25×2.25″ and I found it for eight bucks in an antiques shop in southern Oregon. Flaked and rusted at the edges, the emulsion soft and creamy to the touch, it carries a mythic power and intimacy that speaks of wild times and brushes with the law.

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#13 :: Photo-Theremin

February 19, 2004

This extraordinary electronic musical instrument/noisebox handmade by Professor Television measures about 3×3½x8 inches. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystical hand-waving gestures of theremin players, and the spacy/spooky music they make tweaks something deep in my inner child’s lizard brain: this … is … cooool it murmurs, in something of a “redrum” voice. You play it by passing your hand over the photo cell, which determines how much light reaches the circuit. The more light, the higher the pitch, and it goes from near-inaudible hiss to thundering bass rumble, particularly when plugged into a good sound system. It has metal toggle switches for power and waveform, and thick black pot knobs for volume, rate, lfo and pitch, a PURPLE LED that oscillates in time with the waveform and little rubber feet. The whole thing runs on a D battery, and makes fantastic sounds through a built-in speaker. I’ve only just begun playing with it. Samples (Quicktime):

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#12 :: Logo’ed Mini-Mag flashlight

February 18, 2004

Who doesn’t love the Mini-Mag? It’s teensy, shiny, waterproof, virtually indestructible and throws narrow-to-oceanic beams with all the candlepower its single ittybitty AAA battery can muster. This is actually a sort of corporate gift that I designed the logo for, to be given away at the National Conference on Digital Government Research last spring in Boston. I had one made up for each attendee, ordering them in a rainbow of colors (okay, it was only red, silver, black, blue and purple) and then giving out the colors randomly to encourage people to trade around for their favorite color, as a sort of icebreaker. It was the crowning touch on a very intense publication package and I love that I got to keep a couple of the leftovers. When I say indestructible, I mean the sort of indestructible brought to mind the other night when I stumbled on a lost episode of the brilliant “Buffy” precursor, Kolchak, the Night Stalker that I watched religiously as a kid. In one episode, he’s tracking some huge, invisible monster and excitedly babbles on the phone to his editor, “Chief, do you know how strong telephones are? Chief, I called the Bell Telephone company and asked, and they told me that their telephones are able to withstand a crushing force of 500 pounds per square inch! 500 pounds!!! And chief, the telephone in that girl’s apartment was COMPLETELY DESTROYED!”

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#11 :: Bakelite billiard ball

February 16, 2004

Translucent and full of stored kinetic energy, it is noisy even at rest. I picture it at the center of a table surrounded by drunks and meth-addled bikers all whacking it with increasingly vicious force as they get more and more intoxicated and pissed off at the way their game is going. Maybe after a particularly bullshit shot, someone says something he shouldn’t have, and someone else wraps it up in a bar towel and beats the piss out of him with it before casually flipping it back onto the cigarette-burned felt, where it bounces off onto a barstool leg or a radiator, earning yet another of the thousand-and-one nicks and zips that mar its creamy surface.

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#10 :: Gerber multi-tool

February 15, 2004

Pliers – cutters – file – small screwdriver – tweezers – big screwdriver – Phillips screwdriver – canopener – knife … fetish object. It folds to a small, dense block of articulated titanium and clips to a keyring. It is a perfect machine. Okay, so it needs a serrated blade or a corkscrew. It is utility and adaptibility distilled to gemlike proportions. We visited Disney Hall for the first time tonight, waiting 90 minutes on line in its sheetsteel armpit for tickets to a youth concert. The teenaged orchestra of 36 15yearolds was heartfelt and accomplished, but shaky and a little lost in the grand acoustics of the place. Tickets in June to hear the Berlioz Requiem.

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#9 :: Antique safety goggles

February 14, 2004

I found these for a buck-fifty in Philadelphia about 16 years ago, in a weird little antique/pawn shop that felt like a front for some Mob operation. They are probably quite old, and certainly hand-crafted of what feels like tin and tin mesh. The temples are bits of bent wire, with careful little loops turned in the wire at the tips. I wore them for Halloween a couple years ago as part of an Invisible Man costume. Busy thinking hard, pushing harder on LAvoice. No time to wax any further here.

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#8 :: Ant painting on ivory

February 13, 2004

This is one of Joe Reed‘s very first ant paintings, a swarm of ants painted in acrylic on an oddly turned ivory object. It is hollow, and sealed, but for holes drilled at either end, as if it were to be used as a bead or ornament. The ants are better explained at the link above, but were among the very first things this extraordinary artist – my father – painted. Craft and inspiration are on my mind today; Spent the morning on the Venice boardwalk with my kids and my 19-year-old god-daughter, Liz, before driving her to the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena for an admissions interview. Ninety minutes later, she walked out with a huge grin and a promise of acceptance to classes beginning in August. She was meant to become a chef, and she’s barreling down that track, giddy with potential as if there were no other possible courses in life. I do the same – but without the same conviction, saddled with the doubt of a life (well- but) half-spent.I take a certain pride in craft – I’m beginning to mix my own photos in with the stock photos rotating through LAvoice. I think too hard and work not enough. I’m seeking confidence in who I am – always. Off to process more pix.

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#7 :: Raccoon skull

February 12, 2004

Retrenching today, pulling in all tentacles, checking for bruises, briefing the crew, counting cans in the fallout shelter, inventorying ammunition. This skull was a self-chosen birthday gift from Kristina a few years ago. It’s a thing of exceptional beauty and efficiency, though it is not heavy physically, weighing just a few ounces. She said tonight, “I’m really impressed you’re making a concerted run at LAvoice. God bless her. Note to self: Next time you choose a project, make sure it has a clear end goal and human timetable. Very, very tired at this hour. So much work. So little time. Must resume stripping away skin, hair and flesh to examine the set of fangs I really possess. A steady diet of grass has made me forget that I can hunt down, kill and devour prey. But what does prey look like – I haven’t seen any for a few years.

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#6 :: Nickel slab

February 11, 2004

I’m feeling rather sympatico with this object today.‘s audience and user base are painfully slow in growth, despite numerous improvements to the site’s layout and great contributions by Yael and comments by Marc. Faceless and gray. Well-worn patina of scratches, scrapes and scars. Perfectly, inoffensively rectangular, about the size of a Zippo lighter. Dense. I can’t even remember where I found this. Its sole distinguishing mark is a groove cut with a Dremel tool that I tried on it once, just to see how hard it was. The tool broke eventually. Perhaps I should emulate this obdurate obstinacy.

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#5 :: Faux antique compass

February 10, 2004

I would love this thing had I not spent so much money on it (I ain’t saying how much) in the mistaken belief that it was the real thing – an antique officer’s compass. I found it at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet in Pasadena on a table of similarly cool looking old geomancy instruments, covered in a thick patina of authentic-looking corrosion, its mother-of-pearl indicator disc still floating freely beneath three layers of glass and pointing pretty accurately North. Snapped it up, took it home, brought out the brass polish and quickly revealed it to be a fake, likely knocked off in India for a few rupees for sale to ignorant tourists and overseas rubes like me. Very pleasantly heavy and warm to the touch.

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#4 :: African ornamental sphere

February 9, 2004

020904.jpg This looks to be a hollow wooden ball coated with black modeling putty and studded with thumbtacks. It is perfectly round, and about four inches in diameter. Each tackhead is a warped little mirror and if you stare at it closely, about four-dozen yous stare back. My folks bought it for me in London. It has survived numerous drops on the cement floor with no apparent ill effects. It has no discernible practical use.

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#3 :: Nut – Benjamin Franklin Bridge

February 8, 2004

For five of the more intense, confused, striving years of my life, I lived in Philadelphia, about a block and a half from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Built in 1926, it carried eight lanes of traffic across the Delaware River to Camden. It wasn’t particularly graceful or pretty until the city’s bicentennial year – something like 1989, when they wired it with soft uplit floodlights that strobed whenever a train ran across it. I loved walking beneath it and hearing the traffic flap-flapping over the joints. I taught myself how to ride a motorcycle in the dead, cobbled block beneath it, riding up and down, popping the clutch, dropping the bike on its side and so on. The bridge was always undergoing renovations – either having its peculiar cornflower blue paint job sandblasted and restored, or having parts tightened or replaced. These nuts were all over the place, designed for rods about an inch in diameter, and covered with rich, thick rust and chipped blue enamel. I used to ride my heavy old Schwinn cruiser up onto the pedestrian path over the bridge to take pictures – one day I was up there when two Jeeps – one towing the other, came tearassing down off the shoulder of the bridge. They failed to slow for the turn at the end, tipped up on their wheels and went down – SLAM – on their sides, grinding across the pavement for about 100 feet.

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#2 :: Geiger counter

February 7, 2004

This atomic-age relic has a mystic weight to it. Almost two pounds, despite being no more than nine inches long.

The ammo-box-styled latches open to reveal the guts – a transistor board, D-cell battery cradle and a rather unremarkable thick cylinder that must be the radiation-detector itself.

The sickening neon-green enamel covering the ammo-box-style case with cast-aluminum handle is punctuated by several things:

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#1 :: Schwinn Twinn freewheel

February 6, 2004

The archetypal heavy little thing.

The drivetrain crapped out on our decrepit Schwinn tandem. I yanked this off to replace it, and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. Put your thumb through it and spin it. It makes a pleasant, hushed clicking noise.

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An obsession, a lifestyle, a curse

February 6, 2004

I collect heavy little things.

Tools, parts, toys, instruments, tchotchkes – the weight of some new thing in my hand, often small, metallic and well machined, compels me to add it to my life.

It’s instinct by now. I can’t say why these things are important, or why I haven’t bothered cataloguing them until this day – they almost litter my office, my pockets, my car, my home. But this is as good a place to start as any.

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