Fagin's Useless Gadget List

A large, dead birch I was cutting down with a chain saw the other day had been leaning toward a clearing where I wanted it to fall, but I failed to notice a gnarly bittersweet vine that coiled around the upper branches. So instead of toppling cleanly earthward the tree, snagged by the anaconda-like plant, swung around and teetered against an adjoining oak.

Veteran and amateur lumberjacks know this is without question the least-desirable tree-felling scenario other than having tons of timber smash down on your prize petunias, big toe or worse.

The standard procedure for freeing such a tangled mess is to undercut the trunk in sections, a laborious and potentially risky maneuver that requires yanking the saw away at the last second before the wedge-shape woody incision pinches together like a vice.

Unfortunately, I was not quite fast enough, so not only did the tree remain hung up but the partially cut trunk snapped shut on the saw bar with enough force to stop the chain cold.

After muttering a few choice expressions I shut off the engine and pondered my options: Attempt to pry the crack open with wedges and a sledge hammer, hack at it with an ax, hook up a winch to pull the tree down, or simply disconnect the bar from the saw and abandon it there in hopes a strong wind eventually would help gravity overcome resistance.

Luckily, I had one other backup plan: Oil up my old-fashioned, 5-foot-long, hand-held crosscut saw, which can be wielded by one or two people. In about 45 minutes I cut through the trunk; the birch swayed, creaked and groaned, and finally finished falling to the ground with a thunderous crash.

A few years ago my son and I cut all our firewood by hand, but now that he lives 3,000 miles away I rely almost exclusively on a gas-powered chain saw. Still, it's satisfying to fall back on vintage implements every so often, if for no other reason than to remind me how people in the pre-industrial era managed to do chores and go about everyday living.

I am not a Luddite. In addition to employing a chain saw and many other power tools, I drive a car, use a computer, watch television and purchase any number of consumer products. I'm grateful not to be living in a time when people got around by horse and buggy, could not access boundless information from their home computers or smartphones, had to grow (or hunt) all their food, make their own clothing and so on.

Still, it bothers me that so much modern technology either fails to serve any purpose or contributes to a culture of dependency/helplessness by performing mechanized tasks accomplished much more simply, inexpensively and less intrusively the old-fashioned way.

I reinforced this point a few years when I demonstrated on video that it was a lot faster (not to mention quieter) clearing leaves from a lawn with a rake instead of a leaf-blower


Not surprisingly, the leaf blower remains atop Fagin's Useless Gadget List.

This compilation is not to be confused with Fagin's Sometimes Useful But Often Frustratingly Unreliable Gadget List (e.g. the food processor, one of which a few years ago failed so miserably at the simple task of chopping vegetables that I took it outside, placed it on a rock, donned safety glasses and smashed it to smithereens with a sledge hammer), or Fagin's Normally Helpful But Potentially Perilous Gadget List (GPS devices that lead clueless, overly reliant hikers, paddlers and motorists into deserts, through quicksand, over waterfalls or into dead-end ravines, and then for one reason or another stop working). When new technology completely replaces old-school equipment, we're left dead in the water.

To make Fagin's Useless Gadget List, a candidate must have replaced a perfectly good, simple and inexpensive product with a complicated, unreliable, higher-priced model.

Right up there with the leaf blower is the electronic car key. Like most motorists of a certain age I went decades with keys that could be duplicated for about 75 cents at a hardware store and functioned even if you dropped them in a puddle.

A few years ago, not long after purchasing my first car equipped with an electronic key, the clunky fob fell out of my pocket while I crossed the street and it instantly was run over by an 18-wheeler. The remains were even more mangled than my ill-fated food processor, and so I had to shell out more than 200 bucks for a replacement.

Given the choice, I also would prefer a car that not only started with a simple key but also had push-button locks and roll-up windows. Come on, how hard is it to press a button or crank a handle? And how many times have you had to restart the engine because you left the window down?

I also detest modern dashboards that resemble the control panel of a 747. A study this month by the American Automobile Association attributed a dramatic increase in accidents to drivers that took their eyes and hands off the wheel for as long as 40 seconds while fiddling with GPS, Bluetooth devices and increasingly complex audio systems.

Other items on Fagin's Useless Gadget List: Robotic vacuum cleaners, electronically adjustable mattresses, electric can openers, digital alarm clocks, bug zappers and virtually every product in the Sharper Image catalogue, to name a few.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, after I finished bringing down that birch tree with a hand saw I restarted my chain saw and cut the 18-inch-thick trunk into more than a dozen logs. It took about an hour. Had I used the hand saw I might have finished in a week.

As my Dad used to say, I may be crazy but I'm not stupid.



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