First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
Mini Object Lessons
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Compiled here are the miniature versions of Object Lessons, a series on the secret lives of ordinary things, edited by​ Atlantic contributing editor Ian Bogost. Read longer Object Lessons and books at

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Mini Object Lesson: When Does Bread Become Toast?

Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows what bread is, and everyone knows what toast is. And everyone knows that the first can be transformed into the second. Less clear: when, exactly, does the transformation take place? When does bread become toast?

The browning process we call toasting is an example of the Maillard reaction, in which amino acids and sugars interact to produce the characteristic brown color, texture, and flavor we know as toast. When heat encounters amino acids (many are present in wheat and flour) and sugars, the two rearrange and produce brown polymers (called melanoidins). The Maillard reaction is also responsible for the deep flavors of browned barley in beer, roasted coffee, seared meats, and French fries.

Toast pedants will stress that the Maillard reaction is not the same as caramelization, which is a type of thermal decomposition that chars—that’s what can happens when you toast your toast too long. Too much charring and you’re carbonizing bread, not toasting it.

That’s all well and good, but when, precisely, does bread become toast?

Mini Object Lesson: The Gifts that Keep Giving

Flickr user faungg

Last week, Ian wrote about the strange economy of gift giving. He suggests that part of what is so unsettling about the splurge of Black Friday is its flirtation with less calculable formulations of exchange and expenditure.

The following day I found myself at my local independent bookstore for Small Business Saturday, signing copies of my new book The End of Airports (okay, maybe I only signed one single copy, for my mother-in-law who was sweet enough to stop by and patronize the shop). As I talked to shoppers, I thought about an old quip: how a book is “a gift that keeps giving.” This slogan was first used to sell phonographs in the 1920s, and subsequently it was adopted to shill any number of goods and services. It’s reached a point of saturation such that it can now be applied ironically to unwanted things: Herpes, the gift that keeps on giving.  

But books really are gifts that keep giving.

Mini Object Lesson: The Autumn Oak

schizoform / Flickr

It’s autumn, the season for leaves, nuts, needles, and other arboreal detritus. They pigment briefly, reminding us that summer really is over, before dropping their foliage. Then the usual nuisances apply: raking and bagging, then raking and bagging again, and maybe even again. Depending on the type of trees, the quantity of rainfall they enjoyed during the late summer, and current weather conditions, your leaves might fall all at once or over a period of many weeks.

I live in Atlanta, the “city in a forest.” Evergreens are common, but also the deciduous trees that make autumn into fall. Magnolia, hickory, poplar, dogwood, oak, birch. The magnolias are ornery; they hold onto much of their foliage in autumn and instead drop their thick, hearty leaves in spurts during spring.

But it’s the oaks that cause the most trouble. There are so many of them here, and they are so stately, rising 40 to 80 feet in height when mature. That’s a lot of leaves. And the oak’s leaves and its distinctive acorns contain a surplus of tannins, which easily stain stone and concrete sidewalks, driveways, and walks if left to decompose.

Mini Object Lesson: The Fonts People Love to Hate

Like trends, fonts go in and out of fashion. And like all fashion, some fonts make us wish they had never been made. Let’s take a trip back in time to revisit the worst fonts of each decade since fonts became usable on computers.

2010s — Papyrus

The typeface has been around since 1982, when it was designed to look like handwriting on its eponymous material. For years Papyrus had led a quiet life as “that font on Asian restaurant menus.” Then James Cameron made Avatar. The 2009 blockbuster film gave Papyrus its big break role in typographic infamy. It was an incongruous choice even in the film’s promotional materials—but then the scourge continued in on-screen subtitles. It still hasn’t gone away.

Runner-up: Impact. A perfectly good display font ruined by its now-inextricable connection to I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER-style internet memes.

Mini Object Lesson: The Football Play

“Put that to music,” intoned NBC analyst Chris Collinsworth, after wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed catch for a touchdown last November. Video of the play went viral, and soon fans young and old tried to emulate Beckham’s ballet-like catch in playgrounds and backyards everywhere.

It was a beautiful feat. A dazzling one. Some called it poetic. And although it has been heralded as a one-of-a-kind catch, it joins a list of other one-of-a-kind catches and all-time great plays collected on highlight reels. But besides oohing and aahing over such moments, what more is there to say?

As a literature professor, I find myself watching football in poetic terms.

Mini Object Lesson: Fishing Shirt

Fishing shirts are not just for fishing anymore. Or perhaps they never were. They are a modification of the travel shirt, a many-pocketed button-down shirt that looks vaguely like a Oxford-cloth business casual staple, until you get up close—then you see the details: vents, mesh underlayers, patch pockets with accordion folds and pleats, key loops, utility tabs, expandable collars for sun protection … the list goes on.

What do these shirts offer, whence their popularity, beyond the conceit of actual fishing?

Mini Object Lesson: The Art of Fridge Magnets

Refrigerator magnets are small, cheap, durable, colorful and come in a limitless variety of shapes and sizes. All these qualities make them incredibly easy to horde. Thanks to our incredibly large refrigerators, Americans have ample space to display even the biggest collections.

Art museums drove me into the ranks of refrigerator magnet hoarders. I used to buy postcards of paintings that I liked, but most of them sat in a desk drawer. Because magnets are smaller than postcards I can now fit more art onto the fridge and there’s still room for a magnetic message board!

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