Reporter's Notebook

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: 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.

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.

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.

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?