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The Sitting Cathode-Ray Tube Blues

Art by Mike LeeONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING PARADOXES of our time: If you hold personal conversations with God, you get your own TV network and political party. If you hold personal conversations with any other immortal beings, you get Thorazine. Certain folks believe in a style of God who has the time, inclination and monitoring equipment sufficient to observe and absorb all worldly goings-on simultaneously, to watch all us nanopixel people fluttering about with our 75-year refresh rates, our quaint little money-shuffling and so forth. If, as some of these folks stipulate, God made humans in His image, it's not surprising that we're developing our own versions of God's voyeuristics. We like to watch.

According to the 8th Annual Computer Industry Almanac, next year at this time Earth will be sporting roughly 90 personal computers per every 1,000 human occupants. Given about 6 billion of us Milky Way boondock freeloaders, that makes about 540 million PCs. Since the overwhelming majority of computer users like to see what they're computing, let's postulate that each of these computers is accompanied by at least one monitor. And most of these 540 million monitors are 1920s-style cathode-ray tubes -- the ones with the electron beams scanning li'l phosphor dots, just like on TV. Based on Paul Nipkow's 1883 "electric telescope" patent and perfected by Allen B. DuMont in 1931, the ancient CRT remains the most horribly obtrusive member of the computer-component family. And the most painful -- it is the cathode-ray tube that emits the evil Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields, believed by many to cause such inconveniences as headache, fatigue and leukemia.

To validate my use of the term horribly obtrusive, let's compare the approximate three-dimensional space taken up by two unremarkable monitors here at the Weekly -- one a 17-inch CRT (hate it), the other a 15-inch flat-screen LCD (worship it). Despite the 17/15 designations, the two monitors have about the same maximum viewing area -- "real estate," if you subscribe to Wired. If you haven't worked with an LCD monitor recently, please do so. The new ones can display what marketing types call "brilliant and vibrant" 24-bit color just as nice as you please. They secrete no harmful emissions and digest far less energy than tubes.

Results: The worshipped 15-inch LCD takes up about 1,350 cubic inches, while its hated 17-inch CRT counterpart takes up around 5,000 -- almost four times as much 3-D space. Multiply that by 540 million, and you see how pleasant it will be to rid ourselves of the scourge of cathode-ray tubes. If all goes well, the clunky old things will be entirely replaced with nice, bright, quiet LCDs over the next decade, restoring the Western World's rightful pencil- and coffee-cup territory, our God-given elbow room plundered by the Devil's Tubes.

Screen Real Estate(www.ctl.wsu.edu/projects/infodesign/realestate.htm), a page of Washington State University's Center for Teaching and Learning (www.ctl.wsu.edu), verifies our worst nightmare: "Certain parts of the screen are more valuable than others," reads the right side of the page. On the left side, a 346-by-270-pixel, hard-edged piece of minimalist (ch)art curiously entitled Prime Screen Real Estate (640 x 480 pixels) divides the screen into color-coded value jurisdictions. "Red is the most valuable space . . . even more valuable on screens with a lot of information. Orange is the next most valuable . . . Blue is often used for directional icons . . . the gray area simply represents the main screen space . . . " Note that the (ch)art itself is located mostly in the pedestrian gray area -- a little bit green -- it's probably not very important.


But what do we do with the old monitors? While working as a freelance preparator in 1988, I helped set up a Nam June Paik exhibit at Dorothy Goldeen Gallery. The first step was picking up the artwork from a storage facility in Sunland. (I had no idea why Paik's dealer, Carl Solway in Cincinnati, hadn't shipped it directly to the gallery.) We drove a cube truck up there into the 100-degree North Valley, backed it right up to the storage space and unlocked the door. There, a stack of TVs obscured the rest of the 10-by-12-by-10-foot room. Hauling them aside and into the truck revealed why Solway hadn't sent the stuff to Goldeen: The space was stuffed floor to ceiling, side to side and front to back with (mostly console) television sets. When we returned four sweaty hours later and met Paik, I was surprised to find him wearing suspenders. Refresh your own Paik reminiscences at Richard Nguyen's Nam June Paik Gallery (http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~rlnguyen/eths210_a.html), Art In Context (www.artincontext.org/artist/p/nam_june_paik/) and wherever cathode-ray tubes are sold.