Essential Ingredients

Tape, plastic, metal — all the essential ingredients of a warm welcome. There’s so much going on here, so much aftermarket iterative change, from the built-in doorbell button, to the intercom speaker, to the standalone button reinforced in a protective container and then labeled “BELL” because the whole thing has gotten so complicated — and heck, why not replace the key with a keypad while one is at it. This is a marvel of domestic hodgepodge, of the not so much dark side as the deeply mundane side of DIY. It takes a lot of care to not care this much.


An ongoing series cross-posted from

This is a photo of a doorbell / intercom

My doorbell photograph backlog runneth over. Here’s one. What struck me about this specimen was the notation that reads “door chime” in small yet capitalized letters. I can’t tell if it’s merely a product component, or also intended as an instruction. The rusty old screw is so large that it ends up closer to the words than is the button they seem to be intended to align with. They’re also smaller than the name in the logo of the manufacturer, NuTone Scovill (the two companies became one when, in 1967, the latter, which was founded in the early 1800s, bought the former, which was founded in 1936). One other comment: the damage and discoloration around the busted button makes sense due to use over time. Less so does the ring around the screw — is that just rust, or was it actually mistaken by countless visitors for a button itself?

A Doorbell Wind Chime

Or vice versa

I love wind chimes — especially when they’re owned by someone who lives several houses away. I simply think they’re best heard from a distance. I was, therefore, intrigued when I stumbled upon a forthcoming Kickstarter project that turns a wind chime into a doorbell.

Initially I wondered how this object, delightfully named Peal, would work, since the wind might at any point suggest you have a visitor when there’s no one at your door. Then it occurred to me that you’d probably hang the wind chime inside, so it only gets rung when the Peal makes it happen. I have no financial interest in this Kickstarter, nor do I know the person who’s running it (his name is Willard Trefren). I am interested in seeing what it is when it gets formally announced.

You might, meanwhile, ask: Why not a recording of a wind chime? There are at least two answers.

The first answer is it’s just not the same: the point of a wind chime is it’s constantly changing in tiny ways. A recording would always be the same wind chime, unless you come up with a contrivance to generate a new variation each time, or to rotate through a set of variations.

The second answer is that quality of sound just isn’t the same. The ancient doorbell in my home died in the past year, and we managed to get a physical doorbell to replace it, one by which something metal is actually hit — I know this seems archaic in 2022 — to make the sound. There’s no comparison to how that beautiful, physical resonance permeates this place when someone makes their arrival heard. The same is the case for wind chimes — arguably all the more so when they’re outdoors because we’re hearing them in the context of the wind that’s blowing. Our ears align with our other senses as a result. It’s safe to say that a wind chime is itself a sort of sonification of weather data.

V. Vale’s Intercom

At RE/Search Publications

I enjoyed a visit on Thursday afternoon with the legendary V. Vale of RE/Search Publications (Incredibly Strange Music, Modern Primitives, Angry Women) at their longtime North Beach headquarters here in San Francisco. Marian Wallace, his RE/Search co-conspirator and wife, was in New York, but I did get to meet Yoshi Yubai, whose beautiful San Francisco, a photography collection, was published by RE/Search, and who did illustrations for Robert Anton Wilson: Beyond Conspiracy Theory. I first visited Vale in the early 1990s, when I helped him alphabetize a sliver of his sizable library. On the way out, I had to document his intercom — just imagining the host of individuals who rang that buzzer over the decades.

Ring Bell, FYI

On alt-text descriptions and their extrapolations

This is a color photograph of a handmade doorbell. It's wood, painted red, and it's been rubbed raw over time. Long ago it was labeled with three letters — J, B, and S — with a stencil. Sometime after, someone stenciled two words on top: "ring bell."
In case you weren’t familiar with how these things work

Photographed in Philadelphia by my old friend, the illustrator and children’s book author (and many more things), Brian Biggs. The beauty of such homemade fixes is in how they change over time. Why the instruction to “ring bell” needed to be added is beyond me. Perhaps there was a new tenant, and they wanted to eradicate the “JBS” by writing over it. On the one hand, you’d think that they might have painted over the full plank of wood. On the other, if you’ve regularly observed such handmade fixes, you know full well that this sort of accrual of temporary fixes is the very foundation of that visual vernacular.

I’m working on doing a better job of added alt text to images to aid the visually impaired. I’m not sure how much is too much or too little detail in such text. This is what I wrote for the above photo:

This is a color photograph of a handmade doorbell. It’s wood, painted red, and it’s been rubbed raw over time. Long ago it was labeled with three letters — J, B, and S — with a stencil. Sometime after, someone stenciled two words on top: “ring bell.”

Naturally, after having done so, I figured I’d see what the DALL·E 2 software would divine from that mundane, descriptive spell through the modern magic of artificial intelligence. Here’s some of what I got. For a tool built to interpret text, DALL·E 2 doesn’t produce text all that well.

These are bells created using the DALLE2 software, based on the description of the previous photograph.

These are bells created using the DALLE2 software, based on the description of the previous photograph.

Brian being awesome, he proceeded to then take my alt-text description of his original photo and feed it into Craiyon (, another image-to-text AI tool. As Brian has noted, Craiyon is particularly good at archaic vibes. He got the following, which are both quite visually compelling — they feel grounded in some other reality, more China Miéville than The Repair Shop — and even less literate than what DALL·E 2 served up.