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#274 :: New York City Subway Token

November 9, 2004

Not too long ago, before flimsy magnetic cards replaced it, this was the only key to another planet. For a single token, you could depart the world of concrete towers and bright skies for safe transit through screeching, Stygian tunnels that bled electricity and fear, for the invigorating thrill of high-speed travel through caverns of iron in hard, fast trains painted like exotic reptiles. We grew up in Connecticut, two hours from the city, and about every four to six weeks we’d go there to visit my aunt or family friends, and later in college and my early 20s, and there was always occasion to ride the subway. I loved every second of it, even the stupid-late hours I spent ghosting through the 42nd Street station, always sure I’d be mugged. This model of token, with a magnetic slug at its heart, is not as dear to me as the old y-shaped slot design which seems, sadly, to have been reduced to a fetish. But its weight in my hand triggers a jolt of deep, organic memory. The New York subway system is 100 years and two weeks old today. New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground …

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#273 :: Rosary

November 8, 2004

This is hard to write. An Apostles’ Creed, one Our Father, three Hail Marys, one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one hour farther. Around and around, fingering the totems of devotion you go, praying your way toward grace, the ephemeral currency for which all good Catholics strive. I was raised Catholic by a very good Catholic and an exemplary Episcopalian. I’ve since walked away from the megalithic Church in the face of its insupportable policies on women in the priesthood and its inhumane and pointless edicts on human sexuality. But I still believe firmly in God, I sometimes pray, and the core values of Chistianity remain, indelibly branded upon my heart. And I still have tokens like this anchoring me spiritually in this wicked world. The rosary lives at the bottom of a drawer. Every now and then it comes out to remind me, just as a crumbly daub of ash on my forehead once said, “remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” The way I see it, we can’t help this world while dead. Better to strive to live a good life for the benefit of the living, for each other, to help make the burden of humanity more bearable and sane, than for the selfish motive of saving one’s own soul for a murky, ill-defined vision of the “saved” afterlife. If I happen to stumble into Heaven by following this mishmash of faith, no doubt I’ll be grateful. But I know I’ll have gotten there through deeds, not prayers.

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#272 :: Bell & Howell “Filmo” Double-Run Eight

November 7, 2004

Dead tech challenges your understanding of the world. Heft a little 2-pound slab of 1940 equipment for capturing moving images, and close your eyes. Wind its still-smooth clockwork motor with a few pumps of the stiff, fat chrome key on its side. Feel its weight – You’re standing in a place where the internet and spy satellites cannot reach, where no pager or cellphone can splinter this moment. Your leather shoes have smooth soles, wingtip designs that peek out from beneath cuffed gabardine slacks. Chanel No. 5 wafts up from the woman on the blanket beside you, mingled with the smoke from her Camel and the tang of the picnic lunch you’ve brought to this hillside overlooking the orange groves and cattle ranches of the San Fernando Valley. Rocketdyne has not begun pouring carcinogens into the groundwater or filling the air with radiation because it does not exist. The atomic bomb does not exist, nor does the P-51 Mustang warplane. It’s quiet, but for the ticking of your Chrysler Airflow‘s cooling motor. Aim the camera at her. You already set the aperture at f5.6 after dialing the enameled chrome exposure guide to “Average Subjects – Winter – Hazy – 10-to-12 a.m. / 12-to-2 p.m.” Put your finger on the little brass shutter release stud, flip it to hear the 8mm film whirring through the gate, then stop with a solid “clunk”. Now: open your eyes.

It’s no bigger than most camcorders. It’s made entirely of dense, rough-enameled metal and chrome, though. It is heavy.

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#271 :: “Incredibles” Happy Meal toy

November 6, 2004

I had the great privilege to devour The Incredibles today, a ginormous Superball of thrills, the most gorgeous, exciting, laugh-your-lungs-inside-out-funny and honest superhero movie ever made. Watched it this afternoon with the family, my jaw dangling in my overgreased popcorn bucket the whole time. We would have walked right back in again for the next show if we hadn’t made plans afterwards. Better reviewers out there than I can give you the blow-by-blow and plenty of Kaelian film-school thumbsucking, but they won’t tell you about any of the clever ephemera and merchandising tie-ins that have already begun popping up. This is one of eight Happy Meal Toys being given out right now at McDonald’s – a destroyer robot driven by the villain Syndrome. Wind him up and he skitters across the desktop, his tiny white-gloved fists shaking in impotent, rattling rage. After the week’s events, this would seem like a pointless trifle of an HLO, but I need to gear back down to the fun and pointless. Besides, I don’t mind shilling for one of the finest animated movies ever made – and the toys are are a hoot, too. Skip the junk food, like we did, and you can buy just the cheerful li’l knicknacks for $1.83 apiece.

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#270 :: Gyro Exerciser

November 5, 2004

The news media have been flinging around a facile, misleading and dangerous metaphor this week, as if it were a sort of truth: “red states” and “blue states.”

In truth, the majority of the states tagged that way were more purple than red or blue – with people of vastly differing political positions living alongside each other in, but for some exceptions, harmony. But now a buzzphrase has polarized us all artificially, carved up the map into a cartoon war plan that brooks no interpretation, and bears no real truth. It’s a quick visual shorthand for lazy editors who got bored with the more accurate phrases “conservative” or “liberal” – each of which has a thousand variations that don’t translate easily to 48-point type or NTSC subtitles or HTML.

This red-vs-blue myth’s daily repetition in every medium makes it easier for Texas to hate California, Oregon to scorn Florida, New Hampshire to loathe Louisiana when – in fact – we’re still a single nation of powerfully opinionated individuals spread across the map, some of whom disagree strongly with each other, but most of whom still love this country and the ideals of freedom, tolerance, and diversity that give us strength.

We wrestle now, armed with this false image that empowers us to draw battle lines, declare our position in cultural-political warfare based on media-manufactured color boundaries that just do not exist.

You can get on U.S. Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, and cruise eastward for miles across America’s southern half. The land changes colors from the Painted Desert through the Texas panhandle and the lush green deep south, and the people from black, white and brown to brown, black and white with a million variations in between. But there’s no red or blue. You’ll perceive no sharp change in the political atmosphere at any known point.

You can get off the road and get into a friendly bull session or an ugly bar fight with anyone you care to, depending on how you discuss politics. But you’re not enemies, you’re just fellow Americans who’ve made up their mind to either hate and attack the other guy for his position, or simply agree to disagree.

Listen: this country does not have to barge headlong into open, agressive, state-by-state cultural warfare. I don’t care which side you’re on, we’re all too noble and smart to let the news media push us into it for the sake of easy categorization. Don’t buy it. As polarized as we’ve become, we all still believe in the Constitution, and in the country and the rights of all Americans.

I hate politics. I despise the science of lies and divisiveness and persuasion by misinformation and intimidation that people engage in to acquire power. I’m angry that it’s got me arguing (see the “root” post) with people who have been longtime visitors, and even friendly fans, but suddenly turned on me because I posted something provocative with which they disagreed.

I’m gonna try to get back (in this blog, though not my other, to the gentle pursuit with which it began – after this post, and god knows how many more answers to political comments that demand answers. But I don’t like what I’ve let happen here. I started this with a simple sense of delight. I aim to continue that way tomorrow.

Last notes, now: I found this thing at a school rummage sale this morning, and it spoke to the thoughts above: You rev up the gyro in the ball’s center by rotating your wrist until the thing spins at thousands of RPMs, bucking and twisting in your hand with ferocious torque, as if the red and blue halves are battling for control of its momentum. At high speed, it whines as though it could fly apart at any second, but something about its design, the integration of its halves, the power whirring at its heart, holds it together, binding it into one dynamic, human-driven machine.

And using it makes you stronger.

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#269 :: Tennessee Prison Patch

November 4, 2004

Something about jailhouse workmanship that makes you sit up straight and clear-eyed. It’s honest, bone-straight, complete. You can tell it’s been made by someone with nothing much to live for. A 25-year-plus trustee or a senior veteranoYou find this patch – one of half a dozen tossed into a cardboard box half along with other paramilitary patches. The other five Tennessee Department of Correction arm patches there are throwaways – errors, you realize, that were fobbed off on this military surplus store because the inmate running the sewing machine botched them on the line. Five fuckups – bad stitching, misspelled mottos abandoned mid-phrase, bungled logos (plough and wheat sheaf, barge and river bleeding into each other in a ruined fuzz of canary-yellow thread) – and one perfect patch. I grabbed this one, and later wonder why I didn’t take one of the mistakes, which would have proved more interesting.

I got into it today over a radical-right religious demagogue, who was spouting off at the L.A. Times about the need to erase the “evils” of liberal ideology. I wish I’d been a bit more articulate, less rushed in my thoughts. But a hot needle of anger still goads me to jump up and charge around with my chin out, and there’s no telling when that impulse will subside.

This has made me even angrier: There is potential evidence of massive voter fraud in the states where electronic voting was used. Paper-ballot states saw their tallies match exit poll results pretty closely. E-voting results were skewed away from exit poll results in favor of Bush. It’s a pretty simple equation, if you just sit there staring at these graphs of the data.

Of course, I read it on the internets, so it must be true.

Healthy dose of skepticism aside, we’ll soon know more, once the brave Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting.org and those journalists courageous enough to follow her, get done reviewing results from the massive civil records subpoena she made Nov. 2 in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request.

Even if they prove only minor errors that count for nothing in the Big Tally, they’re very timely. We have been trusting fools to turn over our voting process to a handful of comptuter-balloting companies that offer no paper record. It’s about time to find out how badly we might have placed that mistrust.

Stay bookmarked Sean Bonner)

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#268 :: Root

November 3, 2004

Nature’s tenacity and Southern California’s voracious appetite for water created this thing. 66 years ago, men of vision and will bade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dam the Kern River, with a mind to bring more water to Bakersfield at the southern end of California’s fertile crop growing region, the Central Valley. Slowly, the water rose. Huge, old California liveoaks sank beneath it, their deep roots still clutching the dirt their kind had owned for thousands of years. It crept up on an abandoned village and drowned it. Eventually it made a reservoir, a source of hydro power, a pretty recreational lake for vacationers and fisherfolk and hophead jerks on Jetskis. And people forgot about the history that lay beneath it, and the living things it had killed. As Southern California grew, so grew its thirst, to unslakeable proportions. The water began to shrink from the land again a few years ago, driven back by drought and a million washed cars and irrigated lawns, and the appetites of hundreds of dairy and produce farms. And one by one, the trees began to emerge – twisted and dead, but undeniably strong, their roots well intact.

This is one of them.

Before long, this blog will return to its little mission; to do otherwise would be to let the jingoistic evangelical forces trying to subvert the core values of the constitution – that all men are created equal and are entitled to certain unalienable rights – win.

We need art more than ever before, and if there’s a bright side to the election of Bush for a second term, it’s that this sanctioning of American warmongering and greed will spark an era of raw, visceral and eloquent creativity across the globe, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Renaissance.

We’ll survive this presidency. We’ll survive the “good things” they claim they’re doing for the country, no matter how many of us they send off to feed their illicit, profiteering disaster of a war, no matter how many of us are crushed for being the wrong gender, the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong color or the wrong socioeconomic class. We’ll get through it with fierce, vigilant, unswerving minority leaders, with grace and soul, and with as much hard-edged art as we can muster. In the end, it’s still our country. And I’ll be damned before I give up on it and “move to Europe” like so many of my weaker-minded friends are threatening to do, before I give up on the poor moderate victims of GOP propaganda who were misled into betraying us all in this bitter cultural battle.

I’ve had an ongoing correspondence this week with someone who’s contemplating departing the U.S. because he believes it to be irretrievably broken, and he cannot bear the shame of being American.

I’m proud to be part of the “other” half of America. We still believe it stands for something better than what the beasts in the Beltway are creating. We believe the majority will come to realize how badly they’ve been played and that we can restore a sense of reason to our national voice. Nobody ever died of shame; what really sent millions to an early grave is far more insidious: it’s apathy.

I’m tough. I’m busy. And I’m plenty pissed off. How about you?

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#267 :: Survival tool

November 2, 2004

I must let down the veil a bit here. I don’t always post the HLO on precisely the day it’s dated. Some days, I’m too busy or whipped or uninspired to do it up right, which is why I’m posting this on the 4th and backdating it. Tuesday the 2nd was one of those days, when events barged into this serenely regular contemplation of physical trivia and kicked the shit out of me and, I’m guessing, more than a few of you. I sweated. My legs jittered. I sought cameraderie and clarity on my other blog. As the evening lengthened, and the other shoe hovered tantalizingly in midair, I panicked. I spaced. I prayed. I surfed madly, and I waited for the time-warp nightmare to quit chewing us up and finally spit us out either into the sunshine or a foul, reeking replay of 2000, fraud, lawsuits, ugly bullshit and all. I feel like I did when Reagan was elected in the height of the hostage crisis and the Cold War – wracked by fear that an unprincipled goon had taken the throne, someone whose world view ended at the horizon, beyond which lay only savages, monsters and a bottomless cliff off of which the ocean poured unchecked. Reagan was merely the messiah to the current herd of sheep willing to follow anyone who greenlit their global bigotry and wrote a blank check for their personal greed. Bush II, and his puppeteers are far more horrifying – people who not only believe their own wilfully ignorant vision of their place as sovereign rulers of the planet, but consider a slim margin of victory a “mandate” and use pathological mass deception to shove that vision down the throats of anyone who disagrees. More on November 3rd tomorrow. But for now, a special talisman, bought upon learning the election results. Its elegance of function appealed to me. The little slab of stainless steel includes a knife, file, bottle-and-can opener, saw, wire stripper, hex wrenches, screwdriver and inch-measure. It’s also magnetized to act as a compass: Hang it by a thread, and you can trust that it will always point north.

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#266 :: Glow claws

November 1, 2004

That hideous strength. The cobalt glow of spent fuel rods at the bottom of a heavy-water storage pool. The phosphorescence of rotting flesh. The bioluminescence of fireflies and anglerfish and the chilling crackle of St. Elmo’s fire. The Sacred Heart. Light from within strikes fear, awe and curiosity. Nail polish speaks of danger. The semiotics of Halloween prostheses devolves to queasy, tingling-gut humor, too gross to gross you out, too nauseating not to laugh in delight. These simple, cheap silicone dainties are fitted to a child’s hand, and give a good hard glow when charged up under a light.

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#265 :: Strobe

October 31, 2004

Start with a power-of-10 subdivision beginning with the Big Bang’s one hot pulse. Break it down: The incandescing of star clusters, supernovas, red giants, yellow stars, Sol boom with radiation ebbing and flowing around them as they stabilize. Zoom in farther on the timescale: the dull, hot roar of magma spheres cooling one by one into solar orbit; the orbit of years around the sun marked by revolution – when viewed fast enough to perceive our orbit, the earth spins rapidly, fairly flickering with new dawns. Slow it down some: Now the flashes of campfires and wildfires, firestorms and nuclear blasts are distinct, occurring only every few rotations, then only every few revolutions. The buzzing of your synapses Dopplers down to a rapid clicking, then a tick-tocking, then the thud of your heart. Turn it down even slower, and events scream past you. This is the pace of life – immediate and electric, and impossible to hold still or control. You can only watch. But – hook up this need for control to a rheostat, a timer and a gas-filled tube that is extremely efficient at building up and discharging miniature lightning bolts from a parabolic reflector; point it at someone dancing, waving their arms, moving only their eyes. Fiddle with the controls: show yourself only strobe-lit segments of the whole picture. Make your mind fill in the black spaces between.

This is a wonderful toy, and a peerless tool for fucking with time. I found it in the basement of my co-ed frat in college, and have played with it every Halloween for years. It spent tonight in the front window, streaking our “spooky” branches and cotton-floss cobwebs with hideous, metronomic lightning.

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#264 :: Phillie Phanatic

October 31, 2004

My late, good friend, Steve Marquez called the Phanatic “the only mascot that makes any sense.” You have your Baltimore Oriole, your Detroit Tiger, your Seattle, um, Mariner. The Phillies Phanatic is not a cute or noble animal with “valuable” sports traits such as ferocity, speed or, um, moosiness. He’s raw, galumphing id, a furry, hyperkinetic, oversexed thing whose only mission on field is tearass around, goose the players during warmup, pump his arms and lock his fuzzy snoot with as many women in the infield bleachers as possible. The big, stupid ball of rabble-rousing energy has been around since the Carter administration and the great Mike Schmidt. He lives on cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, hoagies, scrapple and Tastykakes, and he’s indelible and undeniable, even when he’s only two and a half inches high and made of rubber.

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#263 :: Spiky Ball

October 31, 2004

Alien technology: A spore decoy left by an organic star cruiser looking to mate. Thousands fell to earth that day a year ago, floating down from a decaying orbit, flash-frozen in the troposphere, then thawed by the cloud layer to plunge into a roiling Indian Ocean storm. They bobbed ashore, picking up seaweed, sand, the occasional nose-poke from a curious dolphin. And there they lay, until some crafty Calcutta wholesaler paid slave labor to scrub them clean in boiling water, blow them dry and ship them by the containerload to the United States, where Target bought them in bulk and distributed them in hundreds of stores nationwide. It’s only a matter of time before their true purpose is known, before their siren call is heard, before thousands of schoolchildren and stoned college kids are suddenly sucked into space by their fingertips in the vortex of ferocious ship-to-ship intercourse at apogee, before our sense of entitlement to this universe is suddenly buggered sideways and we gain a soul-scarring sense of perspective as to our utter insignificance.

Either that or it’s just a rubber ball, fun to toss around and roll across one’s scalp.

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#262 :: Casio VL-Tone

October 31, 2004

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Still unwritten is a corollary to that axiom regarding dead-tech. Bluntly put: any sufficiently primitive digital technology is indistinguishable from non-digital technology. The Casio VL-Tone “pocket” synthesizer (1979-1984) is a brick of plastic and moron-grade silicon posing as a musical instrument. With 29 on-off buttons and a few sliders controlling a programmable synthesizer and simple calculator, the VL-Tone is a definitive chip-age relic, as stuck in time as Atari joystick game consoles and Pulsar digital watches. You can read a fine, geeky appreciation here, which says in part:

As well as being a calculator, it could also be powered up in a mode that offered a handful of monphonic sounds that could be played from the two-octave ‘keyboard’ (an inappropriate term for the row of unplayable and unreliable switches you can see above). The VL-Tone had four ‘instrumental’ sounds – Flute, Piano, Guitar and Violin. To describe these sounds as ‘realistic’ would be highly misleading. There was also one preset ‘synth’ sound plus another called ‘ADSR’ which could be ‘programmed’ using the calculator part of the unit – by typing in obscure strings of numbers, you could make rudimentary changes to the sound’s amplitude envelope and also tremolo and vibrato rates. All the sounds could also be transposed up or down by one octave using a dedicated slider switch. It also had a simple 100-step sequencer.

But for true appreciation, you need to hear it played live. For a while I dabbled with running it through an electric guitar amp. More than 20 years ago, it sounded amazing. They sold a million of them.

This one still works. You can find others for less than $20 on eBay.

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#261 :: Chinese Magnifier

October 27, 2004

Some 18,000 years ago, he squats by a pond on an island near a great ocean, drinking. Barely 3 feet high, he cups his small hand and sips. Ragged breaths rake his lungs. He is winded. The pygmy mammoth went down hard, bellowing mad, four of their spears sunk into its flanks. Big, but quick and dangerous. Blood still drips from his feet – he had delivered the final blows to the heart and throat. He looks around, sees a broad flat leaf, and shapes it into a cup, to drink faster. He stares hard at a tiny droplet of water on its rim. It magnifies the fine leaf-hairs behind it, making them seem twice as thick as they really are. He coos, his eyes crinkling in wonder, and turns the leaf in the early light. Then he stands and joins the other men to butcher the kill. Eleven days later, a rival tribesman kills him, crushing his skull with a crude ax. Seventeen-thousand, two-hundred-and-forty-two years later, a Franciscan monk/scientist fiddling with blobs of convex and concave glass is credited with inventing the magnifying glass, and ere long, Roger Bacon’s “invention” is put into mass production. 10 years ago, I found this in a curio shop in Beijing – a double-convex slab of rearranged silicon molecules bound in a stamped-tin frame, with a jade handle. I wish I had seen the little man hunt the little mammoth. In our tool-mad age, wonder is little more than that fleeting moment between surprise and the recognition of technology.

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#260 :: Geomag

October 26, 2004

For me, the geometry of childhood yearning was the geodesic dome. A well-thumbed copy of the 1970 Whole Earth Catalog promised a Dymaxion future, replete with futuristic, fast-built domes. 1972’s Silent Running promised that domes could protect the forests from the ravages of men (with the aid of a spinny-eyed Bruce Dern). We had a blue and white pipe-steel half-dome jungle gym that we wore ourselves out on, until the rust of repeated Connecticut winters killed it. But Tinkertoys were too demanding, the process of building a dome too finicky. And so when I discovered Geomag a few years ago, some small part of me jumped up and down in virtual Keds and immediately squatted on the rug to play: shiny stainless ball bearings are pivot and axle, joint and axon to the visual nerve net you wind up making with the wicked-powerful magnetized bars. Do not fall for the cheap Taiwanese knockoffs, which offer weak magnets and wooden connectors. The real thing is worth spending the money on. But since they’re a natural desk toy – and the natural enemy of your digital, magnetically-recorded life, the real trick is keeping them away from the computer.

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#259 :: Tiny Sushi Stickers

October 25, 2004

There is doubtless a phrase for that most Japanese of motifs, the cute, tiny and colorful. It’s not chibi but I’m betting it’s related. This motif shows up in products and content, from Hello Kitty to the margin-doodled characters in otherwise deadly-serious cyber-goth manga by Masamune Shirow. And it intersects with essentially purposeless ephemera such as a transparent sheetload of sushi stickers. When you put them on your notebook or your camera phone or your school bag, what do they signify? How do you parse the visual syntax of a tiny picture of ornamentally prepared food? You don’t. They’re fun. They’re small. They’re cute. They’re … what’s the word?

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#258 :: 3 Red Demons in a Little Rowboat

October 24, 2004

Charon plied the Styx alone. These three travel together, heads thrown back in laughter, their spiked tails lashing the air as they row. Their boat is long, black and as heavy as them, for they are all – craft and crew – cast in lead. The red paint – at least 70 years old – peels from their corroded faces, from which piercing white-rimmed eyes yet gaze beneath blunted lead horns. Long paddles dipping as their sharp keel cuts the aether ahead, they float onward towards … somewhere … on some dark business. My father found this in a neighbor’s trash can when he was eight, and gave it to me in August. Put yourself back to the early 20th century – where would such a thing have been sold in that prim, righteous era, and who would have bought it? And what drove its original owner to cast it away?

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#257 :: Brass Findings

October 23, 2004

More words have been wasted, virginity lost, blood spilled, nations toppled, great books written and bad movies made over gold than the simple element ever deserved. Why not lead? Tanzanite? Molybdenum? What’s the allure of gold? Its mystique is strong enough to rub off on far less noble metals: brass tarnishes, it’s soft and prone to failure, and quickly looks dull unless polished regularly. But here, in myriad shapes, forms and uses – is a handful of lustrous, mysterious objects that someone saw fit to mold in brass. I stumbled across these in a fabric store in Oregon, sold by the pound: mesh bands, rings, dingbats and whatsises. I still haven’t figured out what to do with them on a practical level. But they grab me every time I run across them while shoveling out my drawers – and I cannot let them go.

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#257 :: Mat Cutter

October 22, 2004

Crisp framing comes from straight edges, sharp bevels. A great photograph in a crappy mat is nothing more than a sub-par picture. Why bother hanging it. The Logan pull-style mat cutter simplifies it all: measuring, marking, cutting. Framing my own stuff is a hell of a lot cheaper than paying someone else to do it. I just mark the board, line up a straight edge and run the cutter alongside it – the plunger-mounted knife slicing at a perfect 45-degree angle, even on the corners. Perfect tools are hard to find. I’ve had this for 15 years. I plan to keep it another 70.

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#256 :: Pink Elephants

October 21, 2004

Blackouts. Hangovers. The shakes. The DTs. Blotto. Pink Elephants. These are the cocktail hour version of those bullet hole decals they sell at Pep Boys. Hang one from your third highball glass and snicker. Fuck it. I’m going for broke. Bring ’em on. Never mind that you don’t really want someone shooting at your car, or that you’d probably barf or pass out before ever getting to enjoy booze hallucinations. Playing stupid is fun. Vice craves totems.

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#255 :: Stereopticon card: Unloading ore

October 20, 2004

The other night, I dreamed: I’m in Manhattan, just embarked on a citywide tour. I ride in an open-topped steel-cage gondola, like a mining car crossed with a loveseat, bucketing along over cracked cobblestones. It is the leader in a 12-car tourist train. The age-staggered rails swerve, split and jump before us, but we do not derail, and at one point it even clamps to the side of the World Trade Center, scales the tower and returns to earth without incident. But I rumble on, headlong, down the streets, pulled by an unseen engine. We make stops, collecting souvenirs: Fulton Street Fish Market, where mob-owned butchers hack off and hand me a gorgeous, bloody rump roast in a Ziploc;
(more…)

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#254 :: Novelty lighter

October 19, 2004

Military spec. Outside of military true applications, it is a fetish, a marketing buzzword for crewcut’n’combat boots wannabes, a standard for industrial design, a tirekicking litmus test for durability. Is it up to spec? No? Then it’s shit. The fingerprints of military spec slather pop culture and design with a thin coating of munitions grease: The bloated mechanical ego trip that is the Hummer evolved from mil-spec. I finally ate that mil-spec food over the weekend on a camping trip, after pulling it out of our cooking crate one time too many. The whole thing came in wrappers within 4-mil vinyl wrappers: envelope of chicken-and-noodles (MRE #16) with water-actuated chemical heater; vegetable cracker; cheese spread; fig bar; baggie of condiments (salt, pepper, sugar, ittybitty bottle of Tabasco); applesauce; Skittles for dessert; it took a good half hour to unwrap it all. Tasty, nutritious, shelf-stable. Very impressive. Mil … Spec. At the other end of the spectrum are trinkets – Taiwanese knock-off boots, pot-metal Airborne badges sold at gun shows and flea markets, and this, a “windproof” lighter shaped like a military jerry can. It came from a military surplus store in Clearwater, Florida, where I once tried to write a story on survivalists. Unable to get anyone there to cop to being a bomb-shelter-dwelling, M-16-packing survivalist (this was during the nuke-paranoid early 80s) or even connect me with a survivalist, I snagged one young, dumb sheetrock-hanger, who dutifully laid out his provisions – a backpack full of C-rations, water purifying tablets, radiation-sickness medication, pocket geiger counter, gas mask, chemical warfare suit and untold number of mil-spec gimcracks – for the newspaper’s photographer. His plan was to get on his motorcycle (not as likely to get bogged down in mass-panic traffic), don his protective gear and be as far away as possible when the fallout/chemical fog/bio-agents came rolling in. He was about as authentic as this lighter.

Better and more authentic designs are here in the HLO archives:
atomic Zippo
Ronson “Adonis”

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#253 :: Syquest disk

October 18, 2004

Quick – what were you storing data on 10 years ago? 15 years? 20? Which medium is still in wide general use today? Right. Ink on tree pulp. 3-¼-inch floppies are dead. Old, slow, small external hard drives are dead. Until someone figures out a solid, archival solution for digital storage, we’ll trust in hard-disc, but back up on paper. CD-RWs – those shiny cynosures so rich with promise and integrity – disintegrate in five to 10 years. Oh, sorry, did that scare you? I’m still trying to figure out the way to transcribe some old magazine articles of mine into pixels from the dot-matrix printouts I made 15 years ago,just before I sold off my old Kaypro II computer and abandoned the 5½-inch floppies that held the data. This Syquest 88MB is much the same. When I fired up my old SCSI-linked drive, they just wouldn’t boot. Now, I have I have about half a dozen of these techno-chic bricks on the shelf, gathering dust against the day when I’ll hail-Mary them at a data-retrieval firm on the off chance I can retrieve old Photoshop experiments, early digital articles, and fiction experiments I might some day want to continue. The hard discs ride fast and whiny on the drive’s bearings, the tiny drive light flickers, and the content stays locked up, as if in little bank vaults whose keeper has gone blind and mad.

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#252 :: Hydroformed Rock

October 17, 2004

Ten years ago, I stole this from its home – the tideline along the causeway connecting the Florida Panhandle to a string of little islands to the south. It was one of the best portable, ocean-made sculptures I had ever found, a yawning, fist-sized rebuke to the dumb ugliness of your average potato-shaped rock. How many decades it tumbled in the surf, the hole forming, is not known. But the water from which it came looked calm, glassy, the clouds above it fluffy, harmless, gorgeous, and the little motel where we stayed like a 40s postcard, soft palms tossing gently in the breeze over the tiny clutch of clapboard cottages. So very removed from the hurricane punching bag it all became this summer.

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#251 :: Calculator keys

October 16, 2004

Conformity. Uniformity. Unity. The practice of manufacture with interchangeable parts. The safety of numbers, the inescapable calculus of logic and reason. Math. Before Honoré Le Blanc, we hand-tooled our machines, crafted unique modifiers of the human condition – guns, printing presses, carriages. Parts were precious, the loss of a single wheel could doom two stagemen, four horses and four passengers to die in the desert at the hands of brigands, the elements, each other. Now our machine tools are infinitely multipliable, and their mechanical progeny as numerous and interchangeable as grains of sand. A calculator costs $4.88 at Wal-Mart. It dies, there’s not much point to trying to have it repaired, interchangeable parts or not. Time is money. Buy another. Take a pocket knife and misuse the time that you would have spent going to and from and dealing with the repair shop, by disemboweling it, seeing what makes it work. Lose the LCD screen and the chip and the front and back bezel in the trash, in various moves from one city to another. Stumble across a little Fuji can full of keys. Spill them onto a black cloth. Begin redesigning a calculator that eschews logic, runs on its own version of the truth, generates its own multipliers and factorials via unorthodox placement of the keys.

Or maybe they’re just worthless junk. But the shooka-shooka of the shaken film can, the micro-Louise Nevelson or Joseph Cornell potential of the little chips of imprinted thermoplastic compel you to keep them.

Back into the junk drawer for another five years.

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