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March 1998

More Than Advanced Life Forms from the Future

Now don't think that I mean to dis Dexter X. He gets a lot of credit for being the most Devo member of the Man or Astro-Man? invasion force. He just swings a little further out of "cute but nerdy looking" territory than I generally prefer. Again, these guys grabbed me immediately from the first moment I just sat down and listened to them. Aside from surrounding themselves with a powerfully intriguing air of mystery, they ooze that sense of dorky boys finally breaking free from the shackles of oppression and showing the world what moxie they're really got.

Pictured below are Birdstuff, Dexter X — the Man from Planet Q, Star Crunch, and Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard.

Man or Astro-Man?

The Good vs. The Bad and the Ugly

Good Lo-Tech

Bad Hi-Tech

Datebooks, Address Books, etc.
Immediate access as long as you have the presence of mind to keep them with you

Databases and Electronic Calendars
Vulnerable to power outages and and disk crashes; it takes a long time for your computer to start up just to get a friend's number for a thirty-second call to an answering machine

Nice, Solid Wood Furniture
Easily repaired and looks better with age

Any Furniture from Ikea
Sure it looks sleek, but it's often wobbly after a while, and that formica-covered pressed wood is awful to the touch

Stationery and a Nice Pen
Nothing says "I care" like a handwritten letter

Word Processors
A note to a friend should never look like a memo from the boss

A Screwdriver, a Pair of Pliers, and Gaffer's Tape
Can be used to fix almost anything with a little imagination

Telephone Tech Support
Punching buttons to get through a complex maze only to wait and then have someone condescend to second-guess everything you've already tried

Incandescent Lamps and Candles
Warm and soothing

Flourescent Light Fixtures
"My, what an attractive complexion you have;" Flickers just enough to be annoying

SLR Cameras
The crappiest 35mm camera from the Salvation Army can still produce a picture with rich color and good detail as long as you hold it pretty steady

Any Affordable Digital Camera
One-tenth the quality at four times the price. Don't even get me started

Leather, Silk, Cotton

Naugahyde, Acetate, Nylon

Goosedown

Fiber-Fill

Reality
Touch it, smell it, taste it, do it now

Virtual reality
Wait for it, pay for it

I’m a Bad Geek

I'll be the first to admit that I’m a big nerd. I was a little slow to give myself over to the world of electronics — I never played video games very much, and I never used a word processor until I was a sophomore in college — but I sure as hell made up for lost time. At this point I can work a computer like it's an extension of my hands. Technical glitches are generally little more than a series of logically connected hurdles to me, and I’ve got good intuition for technical matters that helps me make a few bold leaps along the way. Software makes sense to me, and I love the speedy efficiency of digital technology. I have no fear of it.

This level of comfort with modern technology extends far beyond the workaday world of computers. Let's be realistic: even though I may take to computers more easily than others, if I didn't have some degree of comfort with them I wouldn't really be able to hold down a job at this point, would I? No, I really like almost all things electronic. I like having an alarm clock that I can set by pushing a couple of buttons while I’m half asleep. I like having voice-mail and managing it without the use of clunky machines and crappy Radio Shack tapes. My six-disk CD player is like having a shrine to music inside my apartment. I pride myself on having not spoken to a bank teller in six years except to open an account or purchase foreign currency. And don't even get me started on how much e-mail has kept my family and friends together as we've scattered across the globe.

A friend once told me that he thought I’d be happiest if I could manage my life while strapped to my computer all day being fed Skittles through a pneumatic tube. This is not true, and not just because the Skittles would send my blood sugar level soaring out of control.

I’m very critical of the media trend —spearheaded by technology pundits, the advertising efforts of hi-tech companies, and everyone connected to Wired magazine —that would have us believe that a better world awaits us in which we can fuse the Internet to our television programming, solve problems at work from the beach, and satisfy all our consumer needs without ever leaving home. I like leaving home and think people should get out more often. You don't have to live in a cramped New York studio to know that there's plenty more going on in the outside world to amuse people.

I worry about the death of printed matter that techno-doomsayers keep threatening. I worry about becoming more isolated from people on a daily basis than I already am. I worry about homogenization of the things I touch and the things I see and the things I read. While I support technology and the convenience, efficiency, and new opportunities it can offer our culture, I worry about what it's doing to our critical standards and our self-reliance.

I’m a bad geek, because I also believe in lo-tech.

This attachment to the world of the analog and the physical is not such a mystery to me. For all my enthusiasm for technology, I’ve still learned to view the world around me from the perspective of a craftsman. I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand how things work, how they look, and how they feel. And I’ve tried to understand how to use my eyes, my head, and my own two hands to make things. In the process, I’ve learned how to appreciate the simple efficiency of a sturdy mechanical device, and the appeal of an object that shows the signs of the wear and tear from its past, or simply the process of how it was made.

Don't Be Afraid!

When I was just a tyke, I followed in the footsteps of generations of children before me and took apart anything I could once I learned how to use a screwdriver. No appliance, toy, or device was safe from my nimble hand and my inquisitive eye. Of course, the natural consequence to all this was that I also had to figure out how to put everything back together before Mom got home. I grew to love the way things moved and fit together, too, not just the ways in which I could take them apart. Take a good look at the inner workings of a mechanical clock sometime: that’s some pretty cool stuff. Yes, it's true that these experiences in covering up my tracks taught me certain means of methodical problem-solving that help me deal with computer problems, but they also taught me that most stuff isn't as hard to fix as most people believe.

If you approach it from this angle, you can see that understanding lo-tech is about self-sufficiency. You don't need to call a plumber because your showerhead is leaking. You don't need to pay for a new bookcase when you can hang some shelves on the wall. You don't need to pass up that fabulous thrift store table because it has a bum leg. Hell, you don't even need to hire a contractor to renovate your house or apartment!

Any man or woman armed with a few tools, a healthy appreciation of lo-tech, and a little knack for investigation can take charge of their lives and take care of common household or automotive problems. It's not beneath you. Self-sufficiency doesn't necessarily mean that you've built a bunker and are still waiting for a nuclear winter. It doesn't mean that you're living like a subsistence farmer. It just means that you can have the satisfaction of knowing why something does what it does, and the satisfaction of knowing that you can make sure it keeps doing it. No need to find a plumber at 2 a.m. or a mechanic open on Labor Day. You probably have already realized that it makes sense to cook at home once in a while instead of paying a fortune in restaurant checks and delivery tips: why not take the same approach to other areas of your life?

Lo-tech self-sufficiency requires a little common sense, a little more elbow grease, and usually a few tools. It can give you a mighty good feeling about yourself, however. (I’m really trying not to say "it's empowering," but it's hard to ignore.) I can't impress upon you enough the satisfaction that can be derived from accomplishing something with your own two hands. You don't need to fancy yourself an ìartistî to take a little pride in what you can create or fix or assemble.

You Are Not Alone!

A crucial aspect of my penchant for lo-tech is the physicality of so much of it: the bulk, the noises of the inner workings, the textures, the flaws, and the fingerprints. You get a sense of idiosyncratic personality from old appliances and other objects, and you can also get a sense of their history.

When you buy a used book, for example, you can see all the evidence of how the people who read it before you moved through it — the cracks in the spine, the pages folded as bookmarks, maybe some underlined passages or margin notes — that you'll never get from a CD-ROM. If you look in your toolbox, you can find scratches on your hammerhead and chips of paint on your pliers and assorted nails and tacks from certain old projects that all remind you of what has been accomplished with those tools in the past. You leave indelible marks on the lo-tech that you use after a while, marks that give you or other users a more visceral sense of history than you'll get out of a preferences or log file on your computer.

And lo-tech is often beautiful — sculptural, texturally rich, perhaps sophisticated and elegant or perhaps crude and immediate. There can be a sense of lost or forgotten magic in an old appliance with a faded wood finish or opalescent Bakelite dials. Believe it or not, there was a time when mass-production involved a greater sense of aesthetics than now, when sleek line and matte black finish alone are supposed to suggest sophistication. And even with objects that are purely utilitarian — what many might just dismiss as junk — I often see as miracles of solid workmanship, or great examples of objects made to last. It's not such a cliché to say that they don't make them like they used to, because frankly — for good or bad — they really don't.

So don't believe the hype. Don't assume that new and electronic is the shit. Take a look in your basement, attic, or local thrift store and open yourself up to the simple pleasures of life, and learn how to be a more tangible part of it.

He's Got a Devilish Haircut

There are plenty of places to go for more comprehensive information about Beck, so I won't bother you with all the biographical information or the discography or anything like that. I’ve only recently had my eyes opened to the real appeal of Beck. Though I have certainly known who he is for a long time, I never went out of my way to listen to him much, and I never really knew much about what he looked like.

A few months back, though, I caught an episode of Sessions at West 54th featuring Beck and the Ben Folds Five and my life changed. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I discovered that Beck is pretty damn amazing. Aside from having the funk, Beck has got an incredible pop culture sensibility and a real flair for collaging sounds together that I really dig both musically and conceptually. And to top it off, he projects this sense of the clever nerd done good, and I always fall for that.

All Hail the Future!

Tower of Power

Pray at the altar of energy. Yet another incredible find from the archives of the ASME, this one from a German electrical engineering journal.  Leave it to the Germans to portray this large bit of mystery apparatus as some giant toem pole for the modern age. So sleek and precise!

Is That Really Natural Gas?

Odor-ama numbers Odor-ama art

Oh, the sad and sorry life of Francine Fishpaw! But the pungently sweet glories of having my very own Odorama card! Carefully preserved since a 1988 showing of "Polyester" at Cinema Village in New York, I only take this out once every couple of years or so in order to let someone or another have their very own sniff of this holy relic.

This card became even more important to me during college, when I went to a double bill of Hairspray and Polyester at the Somerville Theater, hoping to get my hands on another card or two. I was anxious because the show was billed as having the last load of Odorama cards in existence, and sure enough, I arrived five minutes after the last ones had been dispersed.

I’ve heard that New Line Cinema manufactured more cards to be packaged with the laserdisc of the movie, but apparently they were not able to perfectly duplicate all the original smells.

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