Today, the odd Japanese art of Chindogu. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I spent some time this long
weekend hanging out in Houston's Galleria Mall. I
watched gold medalist Tara Lipinski practicing her
routines on the big rink -- without one fall,
without an ungraceful move. Later I wandered
through the Sharper Image store looking at
all the high-tech gadgetry -- wondering which item
I might actually use. Before I got there, I'd
bought a book on Chindogu. And here the fun
Talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance! Chindogu is part Zen, part Rube
Goldberg, and part Sharper Image. The word
literally means a quirky tool. It refers to a class
of so-called unuseless inventions. Here's a weight
you can strap to your telephone receiver. It lets
you exercise as you talk. There's a rubber cover to
put over the face of the fish you're chopping up.
That way you won't have to look at its eyes.
The practice of Chindogu has ten guiding
principles. It can't be intended for real use, but
it must be meant for everyday life. It must
actually exist. Its purpose cannot be humor,
propaganda, or vulgarity, nor can it serve any
religious or ethnic prejudice. One device allows a
cat to step on an actuator for a fan that cools its
food. Funny? Not really. Propagandistic or vulgar?
Certainly not. And cats do live with people of any
religion or race.
The remaining three guiding principles are the most
interesting. One is that Chindogu must reveal the
spirit of anarchy. It must challenge, and I quote,
the suffocating historical dominance of
conservative utility. Chindogu must represent
freedom from true purpose. The fun of it is that,
while it has apparent utility, it is, in the end,
The tee-shirt with the grid printed on the back is
such a contrivance. The point is to be able to tell
a friend, Scratch my back at the coordinates
H-3. Doesn't that make perfect sense?
A Chindogu can never be sold. That, I suppose, is
what sets these gadgets apart from those at Sharper
Image. The items at Sharper Image are necessarily
tainted with all kinds of plausible usefulness. You
could never say that about the Chindogu
butter-stick. It's something like a Chapstick but
filled with butter for easy spreading on bread.
The last principle is that Chindogu cannot be
patented. True Chindogu is a gift to the world. In
the spirit of internationalism, the book adds the
phrase, Mi Chindogu es tu Chindogu.
That means anyone might use a sign equipped with
suction cups that'll grip tile. The sign, printed
in English and Japanese, says Ladies. Are
you a woman facing a long line for the ladies room?
Fine. Then go to the men's room, attach your sign,
and use it.
Now that you know about Chindogu, go out and
invent. What can you think up that makes perfect
sense but which no one would ever use? Sounds like
a groovy thing to do. I have a couple of ideas, but
remember: they won't count until I've actually
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds