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Thursday, December 31, 2015

In Praise of Analog

There are few things in life quite as rewarding as a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter's day, served up with a morning newspaper and plenty of time to enjoy both.  I happen to be among that very small minority that prefers the cold, gray days of autumn to the long-suffering, suffocating heat of summer. I have a closet full of sweaters that I'll probably never wear simply because it doesn't get really cold very often where I live.

That doesn't stop me, however, from enjoying my coffee experience. I wake very early and pretend the cool of the morning is going to last all day, even though it rarely does. Those are special times for me. I didn't realize how special -- or why they're so wonderful -- until I looked up and noticed my coffee maker.

This is my coffee maker. Actually, this is a photo of one just like it. I was too lazy to take one myself. It's a vintage Sunbeam, circa 1960 give or take, and she is a thing of beauty. The first thing you notice about her is that her shape definitely resembles a Barbie doll. It is not lost on me, I assure you. Her hourglass figure is beautifully chromed, fitting top and bottom together in a clever composition in which design not only complements function, but actually enhances it.

Without getting too technical, the fresh grounds are loaded into the top chamber; fresh water fills the bottom. One flick of the power switch begins heating the water, which forms a vacuum that sucks the scalding water into the upper chamber, from where it gets pressured downward into the lower chamber as brewed coffee. There are no pumps. No software. No computer chips. No beeps, bells or buzzers. It's almost magical.

The Sunbeam is just one example of the superiority of analog design, a reminder of a time when form may indeed have followed function, but never was overwhelmed by it. When you look at the Sunbeam, it's like looking at a piece of art: you actually get a good feeling from it.  But the real beauty of the Sunbeam is its analog spirit.  Like cuckoo clocks and V8 engines, the Sunbeam was built in a time when men were curious about how things work and spent their hours pitting their creativity against natural forces to overcome real world challenges. Unlike today, where most devices are "black boxes," hollow facades whose inner workings are hidden from view instead of proudly displaying their genius; controlled by software code rather than human imagination.

I won't apologize for it:  There's far more romance and richness in the analog world than the digital world will ever know. Music aficionados can hear it in the vinyl pressings played through amplifiers powered by vacuum tubes instead of transistors, which may explain why sales of vinyl records have rebounded to their late twentieth century levels and vintage tube stereo equipment now sells for collector prices.

You like Photoshop? Fabulous. But the art it produces possesses no soul. Analog art is produced by human heart and hand. You can feel the artist's effort reaching out to you. It's palpable. Analog is the difference between human connection and a simple picture of stuff. It's like electric cars: Sure they get you there, but that's pretty much all they do. 

As the world steadily descends into its death spiral of dumbness, an ever-increasing number of people will never know the  the beauty, the cleverness and the pure romance of the analog world. They'll never realize that all great things begin with their own human curiosity, rather than the latest system update from the cloud.  Analog will be lost forever, and so that all-important human spirit.

And to think: This is what I get from a simple cup of coffee.

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