• Otter Views: Gizmos and Gadgets

    by Tom Stevens

    A Sunday afternoon outing to the Carmel Film Festival included a stop at event headquarters in one of the town parks. There, a transparent geodesic dome offered futuristic seating for festival workers: stylish arm chairs and chaise lounges built from cardboard. The chairs must have been comfortable; the occupants seemed pleased.

    Nearby, a youthful string trio clad in formal concert attire played short baroque pieces from a small stage. A smiling audience of two or three dozen surrounded them. At one point in the program, a muscular dance couple strode to the center of the lawn and struck a fierce dramatic pose. On cue, the string players switched from Boccherini to tango. The dancers locked eyes and began stalking each other intently across the grass, twining and untwining as they went.
    otter tangoThe man wore two-tone flats, a snappy black outfit and a rakishly tilted fedora, but all eyes were on his partner’s very high heels. These showed her calves to good advantage, but they also kept the audience in uneasy suspense. Would the heels stab into the soft ground and throw the dancers off balance? Or worse, snap off entirely?

    If you ask me, the tango is plenty suspenseful already, even without the added impediment of turf. It’s one of those dances where passions run high, muscles flex powerfully, and nobody smiles. There’s an edge of menace in the music as well, like the sinister pulsing of some dark ancient blood feud. Given all that, I’m never quite sure what the dancers might do next: slam into a torrid embrace, or draw knives on each other. Or maybe both. It’s a little like “Carmen.”

    As it happened, we spectators need not have worried. The dancers maintained their poise, stayed with the music the whole time, and finished with a crowd-pleasing flourish, high heels intact. I would have stayed for the next number, but distant sounds of buzzing, whirring and clicking drew me to a ring of tables set up around the park’s periphery.

    otter lego drawingThis was the domain of the Lego people, who displayed some of the wondrous gizmos and gadgets snap-lock plastic bricks can now create. As one who grew up fashioning crude, static structures out of “Tinker Toys” and “Lincoln Logs,” I was duly impressed. This was all about motion and magic. This was Gepetto’s toy shop at midnight.

    On each sunny tabletop, bright little Lego machines on wheels responded to digital signals from their human overseers. Like miniature tango dancers, the vehicles turned this way and that, changed direction, spun in place, pushed and pulled cargoes, approached and backed away from other machines . . . did everything, in short, but build cardboard furniture.

    As the kids who had designed the robots used smart phones to put them through their paces, I realized how long I’ve been out of the Lego loop. When I last experienced Legos as a day care worker in a former life, they came in one size and three colors – red, white and blue, if I recall. The bricks could be snapped together to form crude battleships, castles, trains, and geometric-looking figures that might have been horses. Lost bricks were very painful underfoot.

    But that was then. Today’s Legos come in many shapes, sizes and festive colors, with yellow being the apparent favorite Sunday. In addition, the top-of-the-line kits have in their DNA a generation of advancements in robotics and computer chip design. The gizmos I saw in Carmel looked like they could have traversed Martian terrain, collected soil samples, analyzed them, and reported back to Earth.

    This was heartening, to say the least. While the Lego-building kids I knew 30 years ago doubtless benefited developmentally from snapping little castles together, society at large may benefit from these more highly evolved Legos. Put another way, the generation of kids now building snap-brick Mars rovers will need those skills to surmount the technical and ecological challenges of the next 30 years.

    Back in PG on Monday, I enjoyed a different sort of encounter with gadgetry. While strolling past the Animal Friends thrift store on Fountain Avenue, I sensed curious movements through the big plate glass windows. The store was not yet open for business, but something white was flying around inside. Had a seagull gotten in?

    I heard a tapping on the window and saw the custodian Doc grinning through the Halloween display. He motioned me toward the front door, opened it, aimed a little clicker upward, pressed it once, and stood back. Instantly, several ghost balloons trailing tattered lace veils started chasing each around the ceiling. As I gazed up in delight, the ghosts circled the room along a cunning tramway of cables, pulleys and bicycle wheels.

    It’s Doc’s Halloween gift to gadgeteers. Check it out.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 17, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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