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Tech notes

July 7, 2004

A quick note – the comments function has been snafu’d for the past month or so, as I haven’t had the time to look into it due to other, bigger, heavier commitments.

It’s fixed now – I invite comments on anything you find here!

For camera geeks and those keeping score – I shoot nealry everything you see at HEAVY LITTLE OBJECTS with an Olympus 3030 camera, set to macro. Everything else about the site and gear is bone stock. I put everything onto my desk, which is capped with a sheet of stainless steel – and shoot by the light of a single 60-watt bulb. Occasionally I will shoot with flash, but this affects the outcome, so these occasions are quite rare.

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#148 :: Spiky Silicone Keychain

July 7, 2004

You must hunker over your workbench with two tubes of vibrantly colored silicone caulk, and you must squeeze and wait, squeeze and wait, squeeze and wait. The first color must go on with mathematical certainty, each point of goop destined to hold a certain place on the microtopography of the underlying rubber ball. You must wait now, perhaps overnight, for the tray of weird little half-made things to cure, the reek of silicone vapors permeating your factory floor. You must return the next day. Your thing is almost done. You pick up the other tube of technicolor caulk, and you fill in the gaps, with mathematical faith rather than certainty that your work today will complete the work of yesterday perfectly, without variation in height, volume or placement of the tiny beads of color. You put it down again. And come back hours later, to put in the screw, affix the little chromed chain, so tiny as to make this the morningstar weapon for a Teletubby knight. And you must put it into the box with the others, to be shipped to far away places where people spend good money on suuch tactile, febrile, ultimately worthless trinkets. And you laugh, because you have a good meal to eat tonight and somewhere somebody has just this thing you spent the past two days of your life making (staggered, of course, with the manufacture of dozens more). You laugh and you take a bite of your rice cake, amused, happy to be having lunch on such a beautiful day, beneath a magenta and fluorescent orange sun.

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#147 :: Sundial pendant

July 6, 2004

A hoop of pewter notched with the hours and days, a ring of brass with a little knob for spinning it, a lanyard and a pinhole. Line it up with the sun, spin the ring to indicate the month, and a pinprick of sunlight falls on the hour. I had only the vaguest understanding of this object’s function from my wife, who had forgotten its meaning since receiving it as a gift years ago. It is the “shepherd’s watch” or Aquitaine sundial, a replica of the clever device given by Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II to help him remember the time of their appointed trysts. There’s a whole business built around this sort of trinket. It requires a particular sort of patience to put yourself in the mind of someone living in a time when this device would have been an invaluable aid to punctuality. The clock running the computer on which you are reading this is many thousands of times more accurate – and more complex. It brings to mind a quote, the author of whom I forget, something to the effect that “in the future, technology will be sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.” I see a glint of magic in this thing, with its corny “Carpe Diem” inscription, its low-tech urgency and infectious cleverness.

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#146 :: Singing “Marble” Bust

July 5, 2004

Given out with tiny burgers and itty-bitty orders of fries to promote Disney’s box-office bomb, The Haunted Mansion, this faux-marble bust sings when you push its button: “Ghostly hosts come out to social-iiiiiiize.” His best features are actually his mutton chops, which are cast in a lustrous white resin that catches the light in a respectable facsimile of white marble.

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#145 :: Yosemite Debris

July 4, 2004

Ansel Adams may not have considered this when he shot and printed Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite or any of the other thousands of images he made at Yosemite National Park. The damage may not be in what men bring to the park, but in what happens when it falls apart. We camped at Yosemite this weekend – at one point about eight of the guys trouped out onto a boardwalk across a meadow to drink beers, make ridiculously long shutter exposurs of each other drinking, and to watch the full moon rise. The screw was sticking about half an inch up out of the boardwalk, where it had been extracted by the ceaseless pounding of millions of tourists’ feet each year. I pulled on my beer and considered it, a little woozily. It was loose. If I left it there, someone would surely come along and either blow a tire or stub a toe. If I pulled it out, I’d be an agent of entropy, a force for decay. I hesitated a bit, then pulled it out, having just recently come through a patch of wickedly bad kharma involving my own bike (drove it – while it was on my car’s roof rack – into a low-hanging steel-and-stucco carport, about which the less said, the better). The other item – a milky white glass insulator – glinted up at me from amid the granite stones in the bed of the stream that fed down from the foot of Lower Yosemite Falls to the Merced River. It was almost hidden in the icy, fast-running creek that swirled around my ankles. If I had left it there, perhaps it would have sunk back into the streambed, forever part of the landscape. Perhaps it came from a felled powerline or phone pole somehwere much farther north along the river. No matter. It’s on my desk now.

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#144 :: Fuckin’ Wirenuts

July 3, 2004

Aaaaah, fuck. I dropped my fuckin’ wirenut. Hey, gimme another o’ those li’l fuckers, willya? Nah, not that one, gimme one o’ the big fuckin’ orange fuckers. Thanks. The fucker who invented fuckin’ wirenuts was one dedicated son of a bitch, man. Probably spent his days twisting 10-gauge wire together and balling it up in black fuckin’ electrician’s tape. Tore his fingers all to pieces, torques his wrist doing it with a wrench. I wonder how long that fucker did this, day in and fuckin’ day out, until a light just went on in his head, a big, fuckin’ cartoon lightbulb just like in the fuckin’ cartoons, and he says to himself, fuck this, what if you just make a little plastic knob with a tiny screw-in metal socket embedded in the end that you just twist onto the end of a couple of wires that you need to join? A few quick turns, and the wires are jammed together good ‘n’ tight like they’re one wire again, and the fucker won’t even move. I bet I could make a fuckin’ million if I ever thought of patenting the thing. Fuckin’ wirenuts. They keep the whole fuckin’ world running. Fuck

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#143 :: Glass Cutter

July 2, 2004

In seventh grade, we had Mr. Sletner. He was pear shaped, phlegmatic, probably 32 or 33, a lifelong science geek with a rather brittle demeanor. He assigned us to write a science fiction story one semester and I remember I wrote this very involved drama about astronauts marooned on the moon with no radio, no rescue and no weapons battling this huge bat creature from the sun. They finally defeated it by using compressed blasts of oxygen from the last of their air bottles to fire moon rocks at it, and eventually kill it. I was pretty proud of the hard science involved in the story, and my ballpoint-and-crayon illustrations. He gave me a C+ because my handwriting was so bad. For that reason, I didn’t feel completely crushed by guilt when I was in his supply room one day after school by myself, and broke his sling psychrometer (a mercury-filled vessel with a wick that you swung in centrifugal circles) by accidentally smacking it against the black composite counter while swinging the thing around my head. Glass and beads of mercury all over the room. I sort of stuck it in the sink and vanished as fast as I could. Later that year (there was never any mention of the damaged equipment) he taught us about relative hardness, and how – short of diamonds – glass was one of the hardest substances on earth, harder even than steel. I still can’t entirely figure out how a glass cutter works – I’m guessing the pressure causes glass’ brittle surface to chip, scoring a line that later will snap when stressed by bending. But it’s just a tiny little steel wheel with a sharp edge, mounted on a single pin (not even a bearing!) shoved through a cast piece of potmetal.

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#142 :: Balls

July 1, 2004

The original was black, small, hard. If you threw it hard enough, it would almost whistle off the sidewalk 40 feet into the air, then bounce a second time almost as high. Superballs were cool. Then at some point, they started making them of swirled rubber, kaledoscopic and cheap, as if the halves of the mold barely fit together and the press operator overinjected one half and the finisher didn’t bother sanding off the mold marks. We always talked about how high one would bounce if you dropped it off the Empire State Building and whether it could jump higher if you were able to actually throw it toward the sidewalk 102 stories below. Zectron, man. Whoa.

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#141 :: Prism

June 30, 2004

When I was six, we all got on the school bus after getting to school one day, and drove away from school we went to this museum with GIANT DINOSAUR SKELETONS and you could imagine them walking the earth shaking the ground with their big heavy footsteps Thunder Lizards dinosaurs means and we got to see a coelacanth I can’t even spell it my future self would learn how to spell it decades later but a coelacanth the oldest species of fish on earth it’s like a living fossil fish and they had a stuffed emu I think and lots and lots of dinosaur footprint fossils but we couln’t touch them and they had this amazing picture, all stretched long of dinosaurs eating and walking in the swamp and eating each other’s flesh with huge sharp teeth and claws and I remember all the neato things in the glass case in the museum store this magnifying glass only I didn’t have enough money and I only had enough money for a little plastic dinosaur not even a good one I didn’t have enough money for this prism …

I could go on like that for hours. Age six is still very vivid for me, especially as my son approaches age five, gaining wonder and focus and smarts. I’ve had chandelier prisms and prism creatures and a military surplus tank rangefinder prism (wish I could lay hands on it now) and scientific prisms like this one, which really require direct sunlight to project the spectrum. There is nothing on earth – short of God’s holy dance of mist and light – so mystifying and pure as a prism.

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#140 :: Rubber Duckling

June 29, 2004

There’s something timeless and iconic about this chubby, vulcanized chunk of cheer. Ernie sang about him. You can buy his childlike optimism in bulk. He’s a quiz, an electronics warning, an obsession, an animated irritainment, and a target for black humor. And – oh, phenomenon most rare – he’s an unstoppable blight upon the waters of the world. This one’s about three and a half inches long, and looks … earnest.

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#139 :: Film canisters

June 28, 2004

The act of capturing light is intoxicating. Next to the seemingly rational conversion of images to pixels by the average digital camera, shooting on film verges on sorcery. I’ve shot with just about every still medium available – black and white, color, infrared, ultraviolet, Fuji, Ilford, Agfa, Kodak, noname, 35mm, 126, 127, 2¼x2¼, 6cmx7cm, 4x5in, 5x7in, 8x10in, Polaroid SX-70, stereo – and the potential and power of exposed undeveloped film still amaze me. I’ve coiled rollfilm onto reels, dipped sheets into tanks and dropped it off at the drugstore – rolls upon countless, processed rolls of it fill my negative binders. I’ve lost thousands of frames more – images that escaped back into the light when a dropped cartridge broke, melted when it went overboard, fogged beyond use in an airport scanner. An AP photog taught me how to tear these little cartridges open with my bare hands in the darkroom and whip the film onto a reel in about 30 seconds. And he’s probably jumped on to surf the digital wave that will leave all this behind in a backwash of colored dots that can’t quite approximate the alchemy of an image on film. I don’t know what’s on these two. Yet.

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#138 :: Balisong

June 27, 2004

This weapon drips with menace, tribal resonance, ghetto cool. It’s a big, lethally thin blade with no obvious place in the world other than tucked into a boot, glinting and whirling in the night air beneath mercury-vapor playground lights or jammed between someone’s ribs. Brass handles drilled for grip, steel blade serrated at the spine, it’s about 10 inches long when open. It came into my hands in a bazaar in Manila, where I found it in a vendor’s stall in a tin cup with a dozen more, surrounded by water buffalo skulls, corroded brass deck guns, capis-shell lamps and other (to me) exotica. I haven’t mastered that wicked finger ballet that always precedes a balisong-wielding punk’s comeuppance in Steven Seagal movies – I can basically get it open and close it without slicing my knuckles (much). You can learn that – and plenty more – at the nearly encyclopedic www.balisong.net.

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#137 :: Glass slide – US Mint, Phila.

June 26, 2004

Silver iodide layered on a 3.25×4.25-inch chunk of glass tells of a time when men made money the old-fashioned way – with machines. A gold-embossed frame on this paper-edged magic lantern slide credits “William H. Rau, Photographer – Philadelphia, Penna. On the other side, written in fine ink, are the words “Penna. Phila. – New U.S. Mint Milling Room.” The men perch on stools beside the iron flywheels of massive, belt-driven machines, holding as still as they can for Mr. Rau to close the shutter.

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#136 :: Battle Suit

June 25, 2004

Encased in an armored shell with a clamshell hatch that is probably lined with heads-up displays and chin and tongue controls, the occupant of this suit – from some obscure animé series – would have to be psychologically conditioned against claustrophobia. Picture it – you’ve just taken a catastrophic hit on the battlefield. Exotic alloys and fluid damping systems have protected your life, but your power is out. The emergency backup has failed, and only a battery-powered trouble light inside the suit is showing you a dim view of dead screens. The suit is too heavy to be shifted without power. YOu lie there, breathing your last few gallons of air now that the AC unit has quit, unable to see whatever it is that is rumbling towards your prone form, unable to defend yourself. Unable to move.

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#135 :: French road sign

June 24, 2004

A souvenir from a European road trip, a call to action, a study in French traffic control. Printed black on yellow and stuck to a little plastic road sign, the message is clear, yet vague if you feign ignorance as to its purpose: 500 meters to an exit? 500 million possible variations ahead? An arrow that got lost en route to a Volvo logo? A mutant stick figure 500 meters high? This is a silly game I’m playing, as befits a silly little sign. But it’s compelling …

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#134 :: Polaroid SX-70

June 23, 2004

About 35 years ago, a student of my father’s pulled a slick slab of leather and chrome from his overcoat pocket and performed an act of origami sorcery I’ll never forget. Polaroid had given the guy one of the first SX-70 instant cameras, a few bricks of film, and marching orders to test it wherever and whenever he could. He pinched, and lifted and the slab unfolded in a slow, balletic explosion of inclined planes, black bellows and pivoting glass. I was completely mesmerized. He aimed, focused, and snapped, and the thing extruded a squarish rectangle that went from a white mist to a full-color photo of my little brother and me. Then with a pop and shuffle, he collapsed the camera into a slab again and slipped it back into his pocket with the slyest grin a recent college graduate could muster. I was used to Flash-Cubed Instamatics that teased and tortured, making me wait for weeks to see my photos until my Dad retrieved them from the drugstore. This – this was miraculous. I got a non-folding SX-70 for high school graduation years later, and spent the better part of my time in photo classes blowing through packs of film, gouging and abusing freshly-shot emulsion in a juvenile attempt to imitate Lucas Samaras and Les Krims. I found this top-of-the-line model in an antique store in Ventura a few years back – to replace an earlier folding model I owned. You can still buy the film – mostly at professional photo stores, though occasionally you’ll run across it at drug stores. You can use the crazy-fast 600 film if you don’t mind stopping everything way down and just dealing with the overexposure – I had a nice portfolio of stuff I shot at Joshua Tree not long back on the black-and-white stock. The cameras can be had on eBay for a song, and if you’re a true ‘Roid geek, you’ll enjoy the Hacker’s Guide to the SX-70.”

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#133 :: Popsicle Sticks

June 22, 2004

For 15 cents, you could get a double-Popsicle. Bust it in half and share it with your friend. You lick your sticky fingers, tasting the newsprint from your paper route through the neon-blue goo that leaks down from the melting treat. It’s gone too soon, and you shoulder your tattered duck canvas newspaper bag and trudge on up the block. Your tongue is blue.

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#132 :: Charm Bracelet

June 21, 2004

A dense concentration of totemic power – symbols of meaningful events in life strapped to your wrist, proof against ennui, woe and forgetfulness. A long chain of chains leads up to your personalized collection: designers craft molds for cars, tools, creatures, buildings and states of the Union; Manufacturers pour, stamp, cut, enamel and polish hot metal. Distributors pin the charms to little priced cards and wholesale them out to gift shops in foreign cities, national parks, malls and jewelers’ shops. And you simply live your life – possessed here and there by a deep, organic need to measure your accomplishment with some tiny shape that you pinch onto the growing strand of icons. Juxtapositions occur unbidden, bat and pencil sharpener, race car and Houses of Parliament, adding machine and scuba diver – the hidden semiotics of trinkets spoken by your heavy metal biography.

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#131 :: Rotary Lead Pointer

June 20, 2004

Before 3D Studio Max, before CG animation, CAD, before Microsoft and Apple, before even IBM and Univac, a man would hunker over his drafting table, scratching away with a little sliver of graphite. Every so often, he’d reach over, stick its tip into one of these, give it a few spins of the wrist, and resume scratching, unaware of the tsunami of technology that would soon wipe away his toils and replace them with new pleasures and woes. This Leitz lead pointer is cast in thick iron – the pencil tip (for it is only used on mechanical pencils) is rubbed pointy against an internal drum that catches the graphite dust. It is coated in one of my favorite old-school industrial finishes – and if anyone knows its name, I’d be most grateful to learn more about it.

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#130 :: Thunderbird 3

June 19, 2004

There was no reason to expect this formula to work: science fiction adventure played wooden marionettes and foot-and-a-half-long balsa-wood rocketships. Yet pound for pound, lovers of high-action melodrama and futuristic equipment could get more thrill out of watching Thunderbirds every week than a year’s worth of Star Trek. In the era of once-every-nine-months solo space shots, International Rescue had a personal rockets, six-wheeled cars, a mean, green cargo-carrier the size of a football pitch, a jet-powered submarine a tunnel-boring machine and – god – a SECRET UNDERGROUND HEADQUARTERS,This little trinket wakens my inner fanboy to remember one episode in which the Powers that Be were trying to move the Empire State Building on massive caterpillar platforms during an earthquake. It’s all a blur – I can’t even remember how Thunderbird 3 helped save the day. But now I cannot bear to remove this die-cast treasure from its blister pack, and risk spoiling the package, so juvenile and deeply rooted is my reverence for this mythology.

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#129 :: Microphone

June 18, 2004

Lines of dialogue come unbidden when this is before your poised lips: “Ms. Dix, letter, date June 18, 19XX, to Oswald Crane, at Crane, Crane and Reynaldo …” “We’re now thpeaking to you from Mr. Hayrick’th garage, where we have just seen the filthy girlth exit the building …” “I’m ain’t sayin’ nothing until I talk to my lawyer and … hey, what’s the big idea, HEY — ! …” The gold-thread cloth screen behind the two-piece cast-potmetal shell speaks of Chanel, cheap cigars, hand-rolleds, Old Grand-Dad. The cord leads (at the other end) to a heavy middle-sized object – a Weber-Carlson reel-to-reel tape recorder with a multi-tube chassis and enameled cast-metal face, and a green “Magic Eye” tube hooked up as a VU meter. It’s part of my very small collection of old-world multimedia tools.

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#128 :: Army

June 17, 2004

I’ve never bought into the new-Lego ethos – the sort of Harry-Potter-diorama-with-instructions-sheet folderol that passes as a creative plaything these days. I grew up with a sackful of green plates and simple 1x2s, 2x2s, 2x3s, 2x4s and 2x8s in nothing more elaborate than black, white, red and blue. I think we had one set of wheels. But we built airships, houses, fortresses and monsters out of ’em, and they were good enough for us. (Tramps off, stage left, muttering and glowering behind his bifocals.) Anyway, we’ve been buying odd lots of Lego off of eBay – the sort of weird, grab-baggy assortments that make for some bizarre constructs and brilliant flights of fancy in the hands of a 2½-year-old and a 4½-year-old. My wife built me this little battalion one night. I don’t know where they’re going, but they’re obviously loaded for bear.

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#127 :: Japanese Sugar Candy

June 16, 2004

The only English amid the florid Kanji on the iridescent-lime-green Ziploc foil-plastic container says:

“SUGAR CANDY
KASUGAI (KONPEITO)
Ingredients     SUGAR LAC COLOR FD&C YELLOW NO.5 (TARTRAZINE), YELLOW NO.6 (SUNSET YELLOW FCF) BLUE NO. 1 BRILLIANT BLUE FCF. DISTRIBUTED BY PAXS GARDENA, CA 90248 PRODUCT OF JAPAN”
Then there’s the usual nutritional table: 7 of them weigh 28 grams and contain 110 calories, and 0g of total fat, sat. fat, cholest., sodium, fiber and protein, and 27g of sugar including 28g. of carbs, or 9% of the daily values based on a 2000-calorie diet.” These are about the size of your fingertips, like tiny naval mines cast in solid sugar.

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#126 :: Daguerrotype

June 15, 2004


With his high collar, white tie and neat combover, he was a lawyer, perhaps. Or a doctor, or a judge. Not a man of action, but a man of words and rules, someone for whom people had grown accustomed to performing as expected, or the devil take the hindmost. The photographer had sat him down in this rather uncomfortable chair, informing him that the best exposures took up to a couple of minutes and were best achieved with the subject in absolute stillness and composure. He sat there, his back against the stiff iron brace of the chair’s skeleton back and leveled an even gaze at the lens. Behind it, the photographer huddled beneath the black cloth, looking at him – or a reverse image of him, his head where his sheet would be – and murmured a steady stream of gentle entreaties to keep absolutely still. He stared obligingly and as do all men of good breeding and steel nerve, waited patiently. He blinked once – perhaps twice – something evident in the filmy aspect of his glare, as if the camera captured the brief flash of light reflecting from his eyelids, but every other feature remained as sharp as the edge of the straight razor his barber of 38 years used to shave him that very morn. When the photographer replaced the cap on the lens, slid out the negative carrier with gingerly care, he allowed himself to relax – a bit – then gathered himself and his hat, gloves and stick, and returned to the courts. Or the surgery. A few days later, upon seeing his image so crisply retained by the miraculous chemicals of the dark-room, he was so pleased he paid extra to have the photographer tint the work with a hint of blush and frame it in proper gilt, to make the image and its keepsake case more pleasing to his good wife, who was the mother of their children and the foundation of his home.

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#125 :: “The Chariot”

June 14, 2004

The 1960s saw pop culture reinvent itself in the coruscating glare of television. Cars became celebrities – the lesser luminaries that orbited starlike Kustom gods like Big Daddy Roth and George Barris. Some designs flew parabolic arcs – the Batmobile, the MonkeeMobile, and the Munsters’ Koach all achieved the summery perigee of fame, then receded to cold obscurity as their shows died out, and languished in dusty garages until someone decided they needed restoration. Hot rods turned my impressionable head, but what really turned my crank were science fiction vehicles – the Seaview and its spawn the Flying Sub, the USS Enterprise and the Galileo and – most wondrous of all – the Jupiter 2 and the Chariot. In real life, the Chariot was a factory-modified 1965 Snow Cat fitted with plexiglass cage and futuristic coachwork. In the television fantasy realm, it was a small boy’s mechanical id – dream object and avatar rolled into one terrain-chewing, raygun-and-monster-proof hero. Batmobile, schmatmobile.

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