Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I'm using the tiny slices of downtime I have today to work on my "new" toy, an Erika folding typewriter from the 1920's. I found it on Craigslist, and spent an interesting hour talking with the owner: she had hung on to this and many of the other family artifacts, but now her children are grown, and she is slowly emptying her now too-large home of all the treasures. I'm actually sad that I only brought enough for the Erika, as she also had some old box cameras and a candlestick phone. She was parting with the things that didn't hold as much meaning for her, and the typewriter was one of those things.

The Erika is of the "minimalist German engineering" school of design. It's a three-bank machine, which theoretically should be simpler to operate, given that you need far less typebars and levers to do the work. This necessitates three platen positions to strike regular, uppercase, and "figure" symbols. I can puzzle out the shift keys clearly enough, but it took some trial to realize that the nondescript silver lever on the side is the shift-lock. This is the first typewriter that will feel like driving a stick-shift (something I am notoriously poor at doing.) Unless I'm mistaken, the small odd-looking screw on the back is a touch adjustment, though I don't have the tool to turn it. The carriage is equally non-intuitive, and only through experimental poking and testing have I figured out the line advance, double and single-space lever, and (I think) the roller detent-disengage thing (turns the roller smoothly, without the ratchet.) No return lever is present on these models: likely it would interfere with the folding action, and was possibly seen as frivolous by the designers.

My fingers are greasy with Liquid Wrench as I try to unjam each row of keys -- now only the top row insists on moving as a unit, as decades of non-use have seized up the mechanisms. I am gradually coaxing the bars to move independently again. Like the other machines in my care, I hope for this to eventually become a "user" machine, resurrected from its prior status as a display piece.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Buried treasure

We go through a lot of paper in my office, as our primary output is large financial reports and supporting documentation. As a result, our office recycling bins are kept pretty full of paper, and it's not unusual to see a delivery person dropping over several cases of copy paper in our supply room. It's not genuine typing paper, but as there's an ample free supply, I have been helping myself to the castoffs for the past few months, since the typewriter affliction first struck. In that short time, I've accumulated several hundred sheets of used-on-one-side castoffs, more than enough for my typecasting and multiple drafts of Nano novels, plus enough to keep me in a supply of paper hats and origami cranes for years.

I found a Large Steel Box of mysterious heritage at the thrift store (yes, I live there) that seemed perfectly suited for the task of holding these cast-offs. A large, steel box with a hinged lid, a bright red "BM*T PAPER" decal on the front. PAPER it says, and so PAPER it holds, sitting snugly at my feet under my desk like a small dog. A few of my coworkers have learned of my typer obsession -- hard to ignore the clicking and dinging -- and have even taken to leaving me little bundles of blank sheets in my mailbox, or sitting on my desk. A neat white offering for the treasure chest.

This isn't really intended to be a green eco-hugger-type post; I'm collecting the paper out of cheapness, and to prevent the pangs of wanting to find real typing paper elsewhere. I am actually excited about my collection, as it is a box full of potential. Since it's scrap, I don't feel like I need to fill it with worldly pronouncements (ha!) or Great Art (ha ha!) but can grab a few sheets, load them up, and just type.

Update: photo of "the vault" now on flickr.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Do you smell something?

Rehosting typecasts on flickr, please excuse my horrid margins. Click through to get to flickr, then look at the large size to read.

20080422 typecast

Monday, April 21, 2008

Moore's Gnaw

I'm becoming more aware of the natural tempo of using mechanical things. Most of my professional and personal life is spent interacting with electronics in "standby" mode, waiting for the slow human to do something. Thanks to Moore's Law, the computer that I'm typing this entry on can now wait for me over one hundred times faster than my ten-year old laptop at home. Although this is convenient for my job, it does tend to add a certain note of guilty urgency to anything I do. I try not to think about it: I have enough angst without fretting about my machines sitting around waiting-waiting-waiting for me to tickle one of their buttons.

Computer chip designers are constantly working to improve the speed and performance of their devices; I suppose they're driven by the unconscious guilt of breaking the Law, of falling behind that 12-18 month doubling benchmark. I call this guilt Moore's Gnaw: it's that constant nagging push-push-push to make it faster-faster-faster because... well, because Faster is Better, I suppose. I'm not complaining about this upgrade cycle, as there's not doubt that I can do a lot more tasks on my computer more rapidly, and as a software guy, I like being able to run all my tools in one place, in a reasonable amount of time. Retro-minded I may be, but I'm not crazy enough to want to go back to running FORTRAN batches stamped out on punch cards. Thanks, but no. What I am disturbed about is how the hungry maw of the Gnaw has eaten into our culture, and how it's changed us into an instant-consumer as well. The things we make now are designed, used, and disposed of with munching of the Gnaw in the background.

I've proselytized about mechanical machines having a "soul" which microprocessor-based machines lack. It's easy to make comparisons: this computer? Soulless. The Underwood on my right? Full of soul. My cell phone? A husk. Rotary phones? Packed with the stuff. Why? Why does something with a microprocessor on board (my car! my TV! my microwave!) very obviously have no "there" there? I've puzzled about this for a while, and then it hit me. It's been Gnawed away. The tendency to imbue all of our devices with sparkly anxiety-inducing microbrains-that-wait has caused that intangible quality of soul-ness to be eaten up. Without a soul, we don't really care as much about the things we use, or how we're using them, and this gets us on the dreaded upgrade cycle, gathering in new devices in magpie fashion: new phones every year or so, new computers to feed this-year's operating systems, new cameras that double the capacity and quality of last-year's model. Just a lot of husk-swapping, really. And I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors in the process. I am distressed by the trend/fashion statement of wearing Bluetooth headsets permanently stuck in one's ear, little blue light blinking away as the device Gnaws into the owner's brain, waiting-waiting-waiting for some human to pay attention.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fear of commitment? Try a digital camera.

Given the content of posts so far, I think it's obvious that I've been re-bitten by the photography bug. This is dangerous as any photo hobbyist knows, as shooting film these days is not only expensive, but a bit eccentric as well. Try this the next time you're at your local Mega Food Mart: wander over to their photo department (if they still have such a thing) and count the varieties of film you see there. It's a pretty safe bet you'll see a few sparse boxes of the house-brand 35mm film at 400 speed, maybe some Kodak faux-B&W film (really color film without the color layers.) Less urban locations may be able to spot some dusty 110 boxes sitting on the shelf. I counted myself lucky when I found 200 speed at my local drug store for a second Argus experiment, since the shutter is too slow for anything much faster. Single use or "disposable" film cameras are falling by the wayside here, as digital has simply pushed everything off the shelves. Of course the whole industry has been transformed in this, the digital camera age. The CCD has done for photographers what the LCD has done for writers, which is exactly the problem.

Both remove the creator from the act of creation: writing and picture-taking are just a matter of pushing the buttons, and pressing "delete" for the odd instances when something goes wrong. A misplaced word or a palm tree growing out of Aunt Gladys' head can be easily removed on the fly, "in the field" without thinking about it. No whiteout or retakes needed, you can peck or snap away with impunity and not have to think very hard about it. "Oh, I'll clean that up later." The proliferation of cell-phone cameras especially has made everyone a photographer -- something that Eastman surely hoped for, if only so they would buy his cameras and film. Snap snap peck peck snap snap peck peck. Media-gathering and -dissemination has never been so easy!

Among my junk shop finds is a Kodak Duaflex IV, a camera that can charitably be called "minimal" in terms of features. It takes the long-abandoned 620 film format that -- with the proper amount of rejiggery -- is identical to the existing 120 format on skinnier spools. I've used 120 in real twin-lens reflex cameras, so I was itching to try it out in the Duaflex. One wasted roll of 120 and a sweaty half-hour with hands in a changing bag later, the Duaflex was loaded and ready to shoot... a massive 12 whole photos per roll! This is a step down technically even from the Argus, which at least offers such niceties as actual apeture and shutter-speed settings, and a (modest) prevention for properly spacing the negatives on film. With box cameras like the Duaflex, you have to wise up and pay attention -- watch the little number go by in the window, don't over-wind, etc.. You also need to pay attention, and slow down, and think. Every shot you're taking out there costs actual cash and took actual effort, it's not an intangible assemblage of bits in a JPEG that can be obliterated at a button-push, just as easily as it came into being. I have no zoom lens, no through-the-lens autofocus face-identifying mojo. It's just me, back to the sun, mentally compensating for the flipped image viewfinder, judging the light, getting a whole feel of the scene before that moment of commitment... *click*

I took approximately twelve pictures of the Duaflex to get the lens photo for this entry and the linked camera photo, and took them in a matter of minutes. Digital gives me the latitude to not fuss with lighting, or a tripod, or any of the paraphernalia that a decent film camera would need. That latitude has made me lazy, though. I'm not committed to the pictures like I was with the Duaflex. When a digital picture doesn't come out... eh, snap another ten or so. When a negative is bad... well, sorry. I should have paid more attention. Was the sun at a bad angle? Was that tree always behind Gladys? Worse yet, was I in such a hurry that I missed all that?

UPDATE: the photos are back. Quite a bit of softness in them, but I'm glad I took time to snap them. A sampling is online now.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Confessions from a lunch-hour Eccentric

20080415 typecast

The brain-dump box

It's a long way until November and NaNoWriMo but I'm trying to prepare. Last year was my first-ever attempt, and although I technically "won" I have nothing really to show for it. My first draft is spread across thirty files on my hard drive -- one per day -- and backed up in my web mail, home computer, and various other media. If I work up the courage to actually read the whole thing through and edit it, I've no shortage of places to do this. Sadly, the place I really want to edit is on paper with a fountain pen full of bright red ink, but I'm too cheap/green to print the whole thing out, as I know that it contains notes like this whole area needs a rewrite and what happened here? jumping to next chapter. Despite my best efforts to lock up the Inner Editor, it still managed to squeak out, and now that we're safely between Novembers, the Editor is far to critical to allow me the luxury of printing out the entire tome. So there it sits, buried in My Documents, gathering virtual dust.

Part of the problem of the story is that I really decided on the plot about twelve hours before I started writing, while passing out Halloween treats to the local kids. My plotting, then, was done on 3x5 cards stacked on the end table next to the bowl full of Dum-Dums. I had lots of ideas, but didn't have a framework to hang them from and didn't have time to work that out with the steady drumbeat of my 1667 daily word quota. Threads unraveled, characters nattered, schemes unwound. I pledged that 2008 would be different, and threw my hat into the ring of crazies otherwise known as The Typewriter Brigade. I've met my obligations by acquiring a dedicated Writing Machine (or three, ahem) joining the groups, reading the blogs, and learning the joys of using a classic typer. The problem, however, is that the reason I have these machine(s) is still over half a year away, and I want to use them now. Hence the NaNoWriMo Brain Dump Box.

You'll need:
  1. Ample supply of 3x5 cards
  2. Box to hold cards
  3. Typewriter on hand
Insert card into typewriter. Think of brilliant story idea/plot point/character. Type said brilliant idea. Toss into box. Repeat. Empty box regularly and sort.

I found a metal 3x5 box with about 250 yellowed cards at the same Goodwill as one of my machines, and thus it has been dubbed the Brain Dump Box. I keep one of the cards fed and at the ready in my desktop Underwood Touchmaster waiting for my fickle Muse to say something brilliant, or at least passably intelligent. Tappa-tappa-tappa goes the information on to the card, and being limited to 3x5, I need to be terse (a personal challenge.) When the idea is done, into the box it goes. Periodically over the next few months I will sift through the box, binder-clip related ideas together, and attempt to piece out a framework for the story. At no point will the story outline be digitized... I want something I can shuffle, mark, fold, spindle and mutilate, and most of all keep away from the Internal Editor and his evil associate, the dreaded Delete Key. Come late October, I should have a stockpile of ideas that I can pull into a story, and actually be able to physically arrange them so.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Another one of my technological loves is pinball machines. Can I blame this on educational television? These classic "Sesame Street" clips that are surely responsible for planting the seed. I can remember them vividly, and are my favorites: 1-2-3 and counting to twelve (sing along!) Years later, I remember ignoring my loved ones during a family vacation at Salt Fork so I could waste away time playing Haunted House down in the game room. I'd already played a lot of pinball, and would seek out those machines even during the heyday of arcade mania that was about to hit even our sleepy little town. The unpredictability and challenge of playing a game with an actual physical element to it was far more interesting than the purely twitch-based play of an arcade machine. Our childhood summers were spent at the local pool, which featured a 1960s-era table set up near the jukebox and sun-faded Space Invaders machine, off on the deck just under a shady roof. This was a Real Machine with score wheels, electro-mechanical parts that really buzzed and clunked and thunked, and that wonderful gut-loosening knock that you felt when you made a match or crossed 57,000 points and won a game. I can still smell the chlorine in the air when I see one of those old machines. One of these days I will have to make a pilgrimage down to Lucky Ju Ju and relive this thrill. Typewriters and cameras are functional remnants of a past time, but pinball machines are purely entertainment, and live to be played.

I'm in awe of those who have the technical and artistic knowhow to restore these beauties. Pinball machines are harder to come by these days, usually being a heavily-played model tucked back in the corner of a birthday venue. Sticky flippers, filthy gameboard, broken elements... it's sad to see. Like other mechanica obseleta, pinball machines are unwieldy, expensive to maintain, noisy, prone to misuse and abuse, and very complex... everything I love, in other words. Unlike all the other machines that I'm dragging home these days, I have no room in my home for pinball machines: actually, I have no room for the other stuff, either, but being a pinball collector requires a certain degree of insanity that even I have not yet attained. Emulated tables in software are good enough for me for now, though it's far from the feeling of the real thing. I keep the old rites alive on modern technology, and keep my eyes open in corners of cafes and coffee shops, looking for a chance to drop a quarter and reacquaint with an old friend.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Love me, love my brick

I'm becoming a fixture at the local thrift shops. If the traffic gods are cooperating during my lunch hour, I'm able to comfortably make it to three local shops, and on really fortunate days, make it to a fourth even further out. I've gotten the search down to a science now... favorite parking spots, key locations in the store where new items can be found, shortcuts to make it to the next store. It's very much the Thrill of the Hunt, though I have to admit that more times than not I'm disappointed with the results. Thanks to eBay, I feel that most of those treasures bound for Goodwill or the Garage Sale box are now being posted online. This of course motivates me all the more to go out and find some priceless treasure to bring home before it's badly boxed up and shipped off to points unknown. This week's treasure: an Argus C3 camera in its case. Motivation for buying it: smaller than a typewriter, so easier to justify, and an American-made camera that was not a Kodak, manufactured in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the places I've called home. Also, it's cool. And heavy. And black. And full of dials and knobs and buttons and... ooo, just wrap it up I'll take it I don't need a bag!

A little 'Net research filled in all the blanks: affectionately known as "the brick" for its complete defiance of all things ergonomic, this hunk of metal and bakelite is credited for popularizing the 35mm format in the U.S.. Made in the millions, it finally gave way to sleeker designed cameras both domestic and from overseas -- cameras that did not have sharp edges, or require a four-step process to take a proper photo. I was holding in my hands the very essence of obsolescence, but with the bonus that I could actually find film for the blasted thing, cheaply and locally. In fact, better than cheaply, as I still had some long-expired black and white rolls rattling around at home. I checked the orphan camera manuals page for winding directions -- wind, release lock, wind, focus, cock shutter, click -- loaded up the film and planned to shoot a quick roll in the morning around our local city hall: a modern swoopy-styled building with a great deal of doorways, windows, shadows, and a fountain smack in the middle. Armed only with the "sunny 16" rule and a self-determined half-hour time limit, I set to work.

I can't say I was very optimistic. I've checked Flickr for other C3 enthusiasts and their photos, and have seen the gamut. One example has a flipped element in the lens assembly, so the photos all have an artistic, astigmatic quality in one corner. Much has been said about the "soft" qualities of the lens, and I had no assurance that this one was still light-tight after all these years. Net research showed that this camera was perhaps 60 years old, and there was no indication of how long it had been sitting in its case, or when the mechanisms had been used last. Would the shutter speed even be close to accurate? How badly am I judging the light? I didn't have a meter on me, so with the exception of the rangefinder, I was flying blind. No double-exposure protection here, either. Classic cameras make it colossally easy to goof up. I dropped off the roll at the local lab, and hoped.

Frankly, I'm thrilled. (flickr.com)

I'm sure I owe a great deal to Action Photo for the outstanding processing job: not just some pimply teen running a C-41 machine, but actual proper experts running a quality lab, taking time to adjust for the fact that this was seven-year-old film in a sixty-year-old camera. The photographer is of course to blame for the mundane subject matter, but the Argus held up like a champ. Brick it may be, but it took far better photos than many of the smooth plastic junkers I've owned over the years. Enthusiasts refer to this as the "Model A" of cameras, and for good reason. It's basic, it's functional, it's user-repairable (!), and it Just Works. I hope I do half as well when I'm in my sixties.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Old clickthings always have a story attached to them, and if we're lucky, it's revealed to us. The story of my great-grandfather's watch is exactly this way. I first met the watch when my sister and I would rummage through my mother's jewelry box. Here was this large, heavy railroad watch with some brassing on the case sitting in amidst the bracelets and necklaces. It didn't work any more, but it was still a family treasure, and thus too valuable to part with. I loved this watch, even though it was more inert than functional. I loved its spindly arms and delicate numerals, and the unfufilled promise of the small second-hand dial sitting where the "6" belonged. If you knew the secret, you could remove the back and admire all the intricate detailing inside the works, and the luxurious promise of a "nineteen jewel movement," (whatever that meant.)

Years later, The Watch (now capitalized in my mind) was restored and given to me for a college graduation gift. The crystal had been replaced, the setting/winding mechanism reconnected, the entire thing cleaned and brightened, and now it made the most subtle tick-tick-tick as the second hand swept through its miniature dial. The Watch now sat in a small cloth bag inside a bracelet box supplied by the jeweler who repaired it, and inside the box was a typed note that spelled out in a few sentences the life of the owner.

Born in Ohio, my great-grandfather moved with his family west to Kansas to homestead, but were driven back east but dust storms. He met my great-grandmother, and took a job as the switchman and telegraph operator on the railroad junction near his home. I imagine his thumb wearing the finish away from the case as he checked the schedules to know when to throw the switches to keep the lines running on time. The Watch passed through the family, landing in my care. Since that time I've carried it for two graduations, my wedding, the Christening of my children, and briefly as an everyday watch. It's since lived in three states beyond Ohio, had its mainspring replaced once, and its crystal replaced one. It's been neglected, then cleaned, then worn, and then dropped (argh!), and now just kept safe in a drawer, wound daily so that my children can share in the same whispered tick-tick-tick that a man four generations distant used to measure out his day.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I don't know who planted the first seed in my mind, but it was certainly in place when I was very young. I've always been fascinated by machines and things that whirr, move, and click (hence the title of this blog.) As I've gotten older, this need to be closer to "outdated" technology has gotten stronger, to the point where I'm now raiding junk shops for treasures to covet and rescue (as I explain it to my ever-tolerant wife.) What was the genesis of this old-tech love? Messing with things that click.

I've certainly inherited my paternal grandfather's love of cameras and photography. I've since given a home to all of his old equipment that sat in his darkroom basement, a solid cinder-block structure smack in the middle of the room -- his own personal Holy of Holies, with its red bulb mounted by the door warning the uninitiated to stay away. I remember being perched on one of the stools in there watching him work: the smell of fixer strong in the dim amber light, experiencing the magic of images suddenly appearing on paper, watching for that moment when the rush of blacks would start pooling into recognizable shapes. When I picture him in my mind's eye, though, he's always squinting through a viewfinder or peering down into a focusing hood, lining up the shot, framing the image, freezing a little slice of time. A visit to his house always meant lots of time playing in the yard with my sister, gathering sticks and acorns from the yard, raking and piling leaves, tossing balsa wood gliders into the air and retrieving them from the dense pachysandra that formed a broad moat around the front of the house. Always in the background, though, "Chub" was standing by, usually with a Rolleiflex in hand, peering down into the hood, occasionally winding and clicking away at his grandkids. The smell of old cameras moldering in thrift stores is a visceral reminder of those times. I used his old equipment for a while, snapping photos of my new son, and I took photography courses in processing and composition through the local adult education program. When my second child came along, the bathroom-as-darkroom wasn't nearly as workable, and my Free Time became Daddy Time (a worthwhile trade!) so the equipment was all carefully boxed and wrapped and stacked in the storage closet for a time when it can be pulled out again and the old rituals performed anew.

Over time, I've accumulated other cameras: the old folding Kodak from my maternal grandfather that shot my mother's first birthday photo, another folder I bought from an antique shop in Ann Arbor, a wind-up movie camera from a church sale, and so forth. Few of them work any more, due to light leaks or utter lack of film availability, but I cherish them all. We're on our fourth digital camera now, which is simply far more convenient for taking snapshots of the (now three) kids, but the cameras are still there, sitting just above the wrapping paper and board games, a reminder that developer and fixer run in my blood.