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Department of De-engineering Desperation Drives Shantytown Edisons

by / January 31, 1999

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- When a fall down a flight of stairs left Jose Juape's beloved grandmother unable to walk and the family couldn't afford a wheelchair, he set out to build her a remote-control robot.

As the 80-year-old matriarch sat motionless on a ragged sofa in their home abutting a dusty street market in the Lima shantytown of Comas, Juape, then 14, rooted through junkyards for parts.

He scrounged old air conditioner motors, pulleys, wires and an ancient car battery to power the robot.

After more than a year of experimenting, Juape, who knows little math or science, built "The Condor," a man-size robot covered in tin foil that can roll about the house on wheels, pick up objects with pincer-like hands and turn its head. It is operated by a hand-held control panel.

"If you can't buy something in Peru, you make it yourself," said Juape, whose next project is to make an electricity generator from scrounged magnets.

There's one hitch, and it's human rather than technological. Juape's grandmother is afraid of the robot, calling it "the dead soul." It was unclear if Juape had tried to just make her a wheelchair instead.

Peru's sprawling shantytowns are hotbeds of creativity. Spurred by desperate poverty, their inhabitants are inventing their own machines and building everything from toys to car parts from junk.

A national inventors contest attracted hundreds of entries, including a snail-shaped concert harp, acne cream made from tree bark, socks that give a massage and a combination bed, chair and urinal.

Many of the best inventions came from the poor, said Isaias Flit, a lawyer with Peru's copyright office, Indecopi, which organized the event.

"There is a phenomenal creativity among Peruvians, especially the poor, who trace their roots back to the rich Inca or pre-Inca Indian cultures," said Luis Herrera, a psychoanalyst who studies Peru's poor. "This creativity emerges in times of crisis."

During his studies of shantytown psychology, Herrera found blocks of mechanics who had never read a manual but could rebuild cars from scrap and street markets filled with rejigged appliances. He also found forgers who could expertly fake everything from money to medical degrees.

These self-taught skills have led to inventions, few of which are patented, said inventor Passaro, who lives in a tough part of downtown Lima.

Passaro has invented more than a dozen items, including special mural-painting brushes and giant hand puppets operated by piano-like keys.

He built a swimming aid to help his wife learn to swim, and the hand puppets so that the school where his wife taught could put on a show even though it had no money. Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.

Random Access | Brian McDonough

Survivalists prepare for and "starvation"

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- While government CIOs nationwide search for solutions -- and funding -- for the Y2K problem, some citizens are heading for the hills. Or the forests. Or anywhere modern technology isn't.

"I'm sure you understand what could happen with civil unrest," Jim Apalsch told the Maine Sunday Telegram in November. "You could understand what would happen if people were starving and their families were starving."

In the unofficial race to be the first to panic over the millennium bug, Apalsch and his family were spending autumn in Caribou, Maine, while he scours rural areas for a home with some acreage and few neighbors.

The former Milwaukee resident plans to establish a self-sufficient homestead equipped with solar and wind power, a garden and a greenhouse in which to weather the coming electronic apocalypse.

"Y2K is going to affect the economy and the food distribution channels. It could lead to financial collapse," he prophesied. "It's smart to me to think ahead about what that means."

Year 2000 survivalists across the country are taking similar steps, and even buying guns, to protect their homes from the civil unrest they predict will ensue when "99" rolls over to "00."

They fear that the millennium bug will cause electrical systems to crash and transportation networks to gridlock. They foresee financial collapse and rampant crime.

"I've seen people getting my newsletter who are saying we should get guns and bullets," said Jim Majka of Fort Kent, Maine, editor of a newsletter on how to survive the year-2000 problem and its implications.

"I, myself, am not doing that," Majka said. "If I lived in Boston, that'd be different." From The Associated Press.