Reporter's Notebook

Mini Object Lesson
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Christopher Schaberg

Snacks get us through the day. They bridge the gap between meals, and help us tolerate excruciating think tanks or boring presentations. A snack can be as simple as an apple or banana, or as complicated as the array of salty flavors and accompanying micro-gustatory promises proffered at the vending machine.

Recently I learned about a company called “Love With Food,” which offers monthly boxed assortments of healthy snacks. For each box purchased, a portion of the proceeds are donated to food banks across the United States. It sounds innocuous enough, and even social-justice minded.

A blitzkrieg issued from the sample box I received in the mail: kale chips, rice crackers, fig bars, kosher cookies, gluten-free waffles, and even small green tea latte hard candies tucked in the corner (snacks, really?). Here was all of the globe tucked into a tidy bright red box: a primer in cosmopolitanism couched as a simple, healthy dietary decision and laced with with a touch of philanthropy to assuage the pangs of snack-guilt.

But as I sifted through the box’s bewildering contents, I noticed a message on the bottom of the box: “Still hungry? Shop more at” This is not really about snacking so much as it is about shopping.

Scrolling through the company website reveals it to be just that, a shop entirely like any other shopping site. Columns of options, some tantalizingly sold out. “Snack Smart. Do Good.”—so the company advocates all throughout. Yet one cannot help but hear a persistent murmur beneath the Platonic overtones, a quiet mantra emanating from the rows of packaged offerings: shop, shop, shop, shop.

We are all hungry these days. But what are we hungry for, more than anything? The strangely addictive snack of online shopping—and for goods shipped via boxes we dispose of, which in turn are full of packages we also throw away. In truth, we snack on consumption, which ultimately feeds the gaping trash gyres of the oceans. Love With Food’s website is littered with the most positive language of our time: love, simple, smart, healthy, good, discovery. Meanwhile, factories elsewhere hasten to churn out ever more small glittery packages to fill these red boxes, and later our trash cans and landfills. Like the return of the repressed, what is feared is pushed away—waste, want, work, greed—only to be revealed in even stronger terms.

Snacks are no mere stopover between real meals. Rather, snacks have become their own beast, something way beyond what we ever imagined could fit in such small bags, so easily disposed of. There’s no such thing as a free snack.  

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In the early days of microcomputers, killer apps like the spreadsheet and word processor drove adoption. They also changed the way we calculate and write. A few years later desktop publishing did the same for page layout.

Interfaces became graphical with the Mac, Windows, Amiga, and other systems, and so was born What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), the world's most incongruous acronym. Advances in on-screen graphics and printer output technologies made it possible for the version of a document on the monitor to look just like it would on paper.

This seemed like a good thing, too. Writing, after all, is about products rather than bits or words: books, pamphlets, reports, documents. In theory, WYSIWYG tools allow workers to focus on work rather than on the tools to produce that work.

But in practice, the tools become the stars of work. Word docs, PowerPoint decks, Excel sheets, and all the other bulls in china shops of the modern office, lumbering and fumbling about. When it comes to word processing, for example, all too often white-collar workers produce documents when all they really need is text. I receive many Microsoft Word documents attached to email messages that really have no business being documents at all; plain text in the body of the message would have been quite suitable.

The same goes for desktop app replacements like Google Docs, which is mostly just a bad implementation of Word in a browser. An invitation to view something on the web might seem convenient, but mostly it's just another excuse to use an unnecessary tool.

Traditionally, opposition to the overzealous use of productivity software has blamed the soulless culture of the corporate bureaucracy. The IT department that requires the use of Word or Internet Explorer, or the boss who will only look at a PowerPoint slide, or the general monotony of generating documents as a cover for the fact that the work those documents conduct doesn’t really matter.

Even those who would shun such tools with deliberateness and vitriol can’t ever really overcome them. Some years ago, I co-authored an entire 65,000-word book in a text editor. But at the end of the day, we still had to get the thing back into Word to finalize and submit.

Despite the ultimate victory of the word processor, the word has an unlikely ally in opposing those awkward tools: all the networked services and social networks that provide text boxes for ordinary folk to type into. Facebook updates, Twitter posts, comments under articles on media websites like this one: the simple, rudimentary, and essentially terrible writing tools in which most of us do the majority of our writing these days.

True, they are still contained within the ungainly, draconian chrome of the websites and apps that have taken over the prior tyranny of Microsoft Office. But nevertheless and improbably, the text editor has won out over the word processor: Text, free from layout, one word after the next as your fingers tap keys or screens.

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Jeremy Tarling / Flickr

Props are supports. You prop up a structure on a scaffold while bolting or welding it in place. A friend can prop you up when you’re down. In theatercraft, a prop supports the fiction of the production.

Everyone needs a prop. Kings and queens have scepters, whose purpose is to have no purpose, to telegraph the fact that their bearers don’t need one. Cigarettes used to be props, when it was still permissible to smoke. Today, the smartphone has replaced it.

In cupboards, a mug is just a mug. But in the office, a mug becomes the fundamental prop of the professional. Like the cigarette or the smartphone or even the scepter, it gives the worker something to do with his or her hands. Cradle the mug while listening during a meeting or a one-on-one. Carry it purposefully to or from the kitchen, or nonchalantly while entering a colleague’s office. The mug says “Here I am, and no big deal.”

Mugs are disarming, and in both senses: First, they deescalate any office encounter by disabling one of the limbs of its instigator. Sure, actual fisticuffs are unlikely in the workplace, but metaphorical ones aren’t. Even aggressive gesticulation is impossible for the mug-bearing. The danger of scalding coffee keeps the be-mugged in check.

But second, mugs charm. They mollify. Nothing to worry about, it’s just a guy or gal with a mug. “Hey, let’s go get a coffee. Meet you in the break room.” This is also why you can’t trust people who don’t drink coffee (or tea; or who refuse to pretend to do). Muglessness is a sociopath’s tell.

The plain mug works fine, but the imprinted one thaws and pacifies even further. When emblazoned with a favorite slogan or quip, the mug holds up a part of its bearer’s personality, even when it rests atop the desk or upside-down in the dishwasher. Imprinted mugs reveal something about their owners, something true or at least aspirational. Something true to them: Best Dad or The Atlantic or I Pooped Today. “This is me, and no big deal.”

Without mugs, the modern office would collapse. It is the scaffold from which the arbitrary talk and action of the workplace gets constructed. Just try removing it from your routine, and your colleagues’. Work would come unmoored without  mugs to lash it to the docks of humanity.

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Recently at the drug store, I passed the Easter pop-up section, with all its trinkets and candies sold to fill plastic, pastel eggs. Further down the aisle were the small toys, conveniently Easter basket friendly as well: Pretty Ponies, Hot Wheels, and a host of unbranded princesses, robots, and animals.

All these small toys reminded me of some from my own childhood: the bagged Lego sets that came in McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1989. This was a series of eight speedy vehicles, a dozen or so pieces each, simple but elegant in their aerodynamics. Two airplanes, two cars, two helicopters, and two—hovercrafts? The hovercrafts add a Miami Vice lifestyle vibe to the set—amphibious maneuvers discordant with prop planes, copters, and the track-bound scope of the race cars.

In addition to its rear-mounted turboprop, one of the hovercrafts sports yellow jet engines. While building Legos with my son, I often stumble upon one of them, and I momentarily forget what set it came with. A yellow jet engine? Who does that?

The 1980s, that’s who. Just look at the official names of these small toys: Gyro Bird, Turbo Force, Swamp Stinger, Lightning Striker, Land Laser, Sea Eagle, Windwhirler, Sea Skimmer. What do these names say? Maximum speed, weaponized mobility, brassy alliteration—is it any surprise? The age of excess was ramping up, replete with all the hyperbolic promises of eternal growth in newly-unregulated industry.

And now we are feeling the burn. Our most popular would-be politician (hated or revered) is essentially a hypostatized version of a Happy Meal Lego set. Donald Trump first floated the idea of a presidential run in 1988, as those little toy vehicles were making their way around the country. Pay attention to the boisterous rhetoric and fast moves whirling around the current election cycle, and you’ll see the patterns: grandiose claims, incendiary language, and results guaranteed to be as easy as a 15-piece kit. For all the complex issues and real human lives at stake, the whole thing also resembles a wild hovercraft ride in miniature, destined to ephemera. In this year’s season of small toys, the toys aren’t so small any more, at all.

(See all Mini Object Lessons here. Read longer Lessons and books at


The Monday after Daylight Savings Time starts is a drag. Students nod off in morning classes while bleary-eyed teachers clutch mugs of coffee, desperate for caffeine to replace an hour of lost sleep. It’s a day of dramatic proclamations about the uselessness of time and the futility of aligning clocks with sunlight.

As the hours trudge forth, however, the moaners hush. The frustration of lost sleep gives way to the luminous pleasure of a lengthening day. Sunlight extends past dinnertime. Dog walkers, soccer players, and children in playgrounds bask in a later twilight. Though humans organize our schedules around the clock, Daylight Savings reminds us that our lives, like our planet, revolve around the sun.

The sun is a nuclear reactor. For more than four and a half billion years, its dense gravity has been pulling hydrogen atoms towards its core where they collide and join, their nuclei merging to form helium and other elements. This process, nuclear fusion, releases tremendous energy, which rises out from the core towards the photosphere, the lowest layer of the sun’s atmosphere.

In just over eight minutes, the length of time it takes to hard-boil an egg, solar energy, in the form of electromagnetic waves, travels from the surface of the sun to Earth. Depending on their size and frequency, these waves cause unique effects. Longer infrared waves heat our planet. Medium waves create sunlight, (the only visible evidence of solar radiation). The shortest waves, invisible to the human eye, are ultraviolet light.

These three types of waves are responsible for all the energy on Earth. Plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy into chemical energy. This energy is dispersed when creatures nibble on leaves. Later, when plants and animals die, their stored energy becomes soil, which, through geologic accumulation and pressure, transform into fossil fuels such as oil or gas.

Recently, physicists in Germany and China have been racing to produce temperatures hotter than the sun in order to create and maintain hydrogen plasma, a critical ingredient for nuclear fusion. Their goal? For nuclear fusion to become viable sources of electrical power on Earth. While German physicists have created the hottest temperatures, reaching upwards of 80 million Kelvins (more than five times the estimated heat of the sun’s core), scientists at the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei have sustained hydrogen plasma for longer, clocking out at 102 seconds.

Both achievements are remarkable, but humans don’t have to recreate the sun in order to harness its power. After all, as Daylight Savings annually reminds us, the Earth and its inhabitants already make terrific use of the reactor in our sky.

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The toilet is the ultimate venue of control. It’s where you start to learn control, as a toddler, and where you eventually lose it, as a golden ager. It’s where, on a moment-to-moment basis, you think about the mechanics of control more than anywhere else, for obvious reasons. (So you don’t pee all over yourself.) In the toilet, control is on offer first, then relief by means of it.

And yet, today’s toilet has abandoned its role as the temple of control.

With so much talk about automating driving and work and errands, we’ve overlooked the fact that full automation conquered the restroom years ago. Urinals and toilets automatically flush when a sensor detects that its user has departed the throne. Faucets activate, if briefly, when hands pass under them. Soap dispensers supply measures of cleanser in a similar way. So do towel dispensers, miserly eking out towels for newly relieved and washed potty-goers.

It’s all in the name of hygiene, of course. (In fact, Boeing just announced a self-cleaning airplane lavatory, which bathes the whole water closet in ultraviolet light.) But people hate automated bathrooms nevertheless. For lots of reasons. The toilet sensors are overly eager, often flushing themselves many times during a session. (They don’t work at all for kids, who rightly fear engorgement by the constantly flushing vessel.) The infrared sensors at sinks often absorb rather than reflect light, making them poorly responsive to the hands of people of color.

Take those automated towel dispensers. They’re not the worst offenders, but as the final trial before besting the washroom, they’re often the most memorable. And the commonest way they annoy is by dispensing a half-size towel. The machine finally responds to your sopping flail, and then you have to wait and get another to provide surface sufficient to dry your hands.

Some small relief is available, it turns out; you just have to be willing to go rogue on your work or school or church restroom. Many office and facility bathrooms use the Georgia Pacific enMotion Automated Towel Dispenser. If you consult its manual, you’ll discover that a simple switch inside the case determines the length of towel dispensed.

"S" Short towel (maximum number of hand dries) - approximately 8"

"M" Medium towel (optimal hand dry capacity) - approximately 12"

"L" Long towel (largest available towel) - approximately 16"

Other switches control the time delay between towel intervals and the motion sensor’s range—also useful features. (Warning to the prim: you will have to break into your workplace towel dispenser to change these settings.) You can also change the Dispense Mode to “Hanging Towel” so that the dispenser always presents a new towel after each is torn off, avoiding the wait entirely.

I don’t know what you prefer, but for my part, a Medium Hanging Towel is the only humane choice for modern relief-seekers. Just don’t forget to wash your hands before touching the dispenser.

Doug Waldron / Flickr

Everything about the stapler reeks of a time gone. The all-metal body. The satisfying and audible cha-chunk of its operation. The details, too, like the rubberized pads in its undercarriage to prevent shifting on the desk or table while the violence of paper fastening is enacted.

And the danger! Remember that scene in the last season of Mad Men, when the child actor impales herself on the unshielded maw of this tool of certain disfigurement? The butterflying capacity of the tool, dangerously opening to allow teachers to attach decorations to the walls of schoolrooms. The small staples that pose choking risks to those very young children. The unlikely but hypothetical deployment of the heavy body of the traditional stapler as a weapon in an office massacre. Even the snap-close of the body when opened to refill it, the heavy, sharp top threatening to crush fingers at any moment. No one would tolerate this irresponsibility today; better to outsource it to a print-and-fasten-as-a-service startup.

When did you last even think about the stapler?

I only did because my home unit ran out of staples and I didn’t have any reserves. At the office we still print, and we still staple, but a staple-less stapler is easily remedied with a visit to the supply closet. (Aside: the office supply closet is an excellent material-world break room for the Internet-addled.) A trip to the store yielded a box of Swingline Premium Staples, 5,000 count. Five thousand staples. How often do I staple at home? Maybe five times a week at the very most. Even assuming a high failure rate from misaligned papers or insufficient hammer force, that’s ten years of future stapling nestled into five square inches in my desk drawer. A decade of fastening guaranteed, because the mechanism that supports it won’t age or obsolesce. Even my tenured professorship doesn’t offer such a guarantee.

“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” stapling dads everywhere lament as they clutch their black and grey (and yes, red) Swinglines. Except, they absolutely do. You can get a plastic stapler, but you don’t have to. Staplers haven’t changed much, and where they have they’ve mostly improved. Antimicrobial hammer bar protection. Jam-free carrier designs. Flat-clinching crimper patterns to help stapled packets lie flat when piled.

Trim-tab adjustments like these characterize a mature, established technology. The digital page can’t hold a candle to the stapled printout. We still can’t even get proper typography, let alone satisfactory annotation, collaboration, and sharing. While we waste time Slacking our compatriots to ask “What’s the best tablet PDF viewer these days?” Swingline and its ilk are busy perfecting low-force sound-dampened anvil-carrier-crimper mechanisms to quiet paper fastening in the modern open office. Cha-chunk.

Staplers and their kin are the workhorses of modern life. The staples (sorry) that can’t be “disrupted” and set aside with a trend and an app. And yet, if the stapler didn’t already exist, it’s hard to imagine it being invented today. A chunky, heavy apparatus manufactured from stamped, formed, and riveted sheet metal that forces shards of sharpened metals through papers.

I’m not worried about missing it when it’s gone, for it will never be gone. I’m more worried about missing whatever else could have been like it, but won’t have, because we all chased ghosts on computers.

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In a video that has been praised as “breathtaking” and “sweet,” Audi advertised its 205-mph Audi R8 V10 Plus during Super Bowl 50.

The commercial depicts a resigned, aging astronaut deep in the funk of nostalgia: namely, for the golden era of manned spacecraft, moon-bound in all their glory. He seems destined to chronic melancholia, until a younger man—his son, most likely—decides to jar him out of his stupor, interpellating: “Okay commander; come with me.”  

Walking out the front door, the younger man holds up a car key, offering the latter-day astronaut the driver’s seat. Yet this is a purely symbolic gesture of control—the automobile key has of late been castrated, turned into a “keyless entry remote.” The curvaceous gray car bolts away from the home and careens around an ocean-abutted, moonlit highway, and the forlorn astronaut’s face at last creases into a restrained grin.

As a GQ article helpfully explains, the vehicle is “rekindling his love for sustained acceleration which he picked up from Apollo rocket launches.” A montage of spacecraft memories—boarding capsule, firing engines, shaking cockpit—is intercut between the primary scene of the two men, basically night driving.

As David Bowie’s 1972 tune “Starman” bursts into its familiar chorus, the screen goes black, and we read these bold words: “Choosing the moon brings out the best in us.”

This commercial is curious to consider in light of Bowie’s very recent and final music video, “Blackstar,” which opens with an eerie image of a tattered astronaut reposed in a rocky landscape, whose sun-shielded helmet is opened only to reveal a blackened skull. In the bizarre world of the music video, this starman’s journey has ended hauntingly in strange ritual and uncanny fetishism.

It’s clear that the Audi R8 commercial is tugging on predictable heart chords: aging 20th-century heroes, parent-child bonding, and the old standby of a really fast car. But what else is going on here? There is the not-so-subtle correspondence drawn between aerial velocity and road speed. This equation is a well-worn trope, but in this case, acceleration obliterates both space in front of us and time behind us: Our astronaut is returned back to another (better?) time. In regarding the lost age of space exploration, we see the aging starman relegated to the ground. In his gas guzzling coupé, the aged astronaut hurtles into a future that he seems utterly uninterested in.

We may have the $175,000 Audi sports car, but we no longer have the old promises or futuristic fantasies of space travel. Deep space may still hold mysteries and opportunities for discovery, but they are more likely to be deeply humbling and existentially unsettling—more like Bowie’s Blackstar than Audi’s Starman.

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The CW

Comic book fans are discriminating, so it’s no surprise there’s controversy around the recently released concept art of the costume Ezra Miller will wear as Flash in DC’s forthcoming Justice League movies. More surprising, perhaps, is the focus of the shock: In the new interpretation, Barry Allen’s alter-ego wears fingerless gloves.

Some fans are open-minded, even if skeptical: “I don’t see why a forensic scientist would think exposing his finger prints is a good idea.” Others are definitive: “Those fingerless gloves look horrible, I really hope they get rid of them.” And still others are so understated, you might have to read them twice to discern the fan’s true feelings: “F**k his fingerless gloves too. F**king hipster shitbag.”

Strong sentiments, but fingerless glove hate isn’t reserved for famous comic book heroes. Everyone seems to abhor them, even as their popularity and practicality rises. “Fingerless gloves are just vests for the hands.

For a time, traditional knitted fingerless gloves were the gear of the archetypical vagrant. Always grey or otherwise drab, these knitted fingerless gloves seem to descend from the Depression-era hobo or tramp, who might have jury-rigged them from scraps or other garments. This use still retains its force, too. In 2013, a Pennsylvania high school student who dressed up as a homeless man for Halloween—complete with fingerless gloves—was suspended when his outfit was too convincing.

The hobo, the cyclists, weightlifters, photographers, wrestlers, kayakers, and other sportspersons who often wear fingerless gloves do so for the combination of warmth, protection, and dexterity they provide. The cyclist or rock-climber is not that different from the vagrant, save for the cost of the gloves.

Then, in the ‘80s, fingerless gloves became fashionable, although usually in leather or lace or fishnet. Boy George and Madonna and Billy Idol wore them (Madonna still does). They extended and domesticated punk fashion via New Romanticism.

Today, fingerless gloves are practical tools before they are outerwear, sportswear, or fashion. Dexterity is more important for us now, and more frequently so, thanks to the smartphone. We’re always using our fingers these days, no matter where we are. Sure, you can get conductive full-finger gloves that allow you to tap without taking them off, but even a thin finger garment gets in the way of effective app use. And even in cold climates, people seem willing to risk mild frostbite if it means uninterrupted access to their texts and Snapchats.

Ezra Miller’s fingerless-gloved Flash enters the picture here, when fingers have become the tools that make the difference between sub-human and super-human action for us ordinary folk, via technology rather than ability. Flash’s superpower is speed: of movement, but also of reflex. He’s a lightning-fast, red lycra ode to dexterity. Fingerless gloves are the quiet fashion motto of the 2010s. To be covered but still fingerless means being like Flash: prepared, and willing, and quick. But it still means being like the hobo, too, even if a modern one: transient, huddling, staring at cold hands kneading an even colder smartphone, searching for scraps.

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An Inuit boy untangles dogsled harnesses in Nunavut in October 1952. (BiblioArchives)

That old cliché is a lie. It’s long been discredited, or at least floated back down to earth. For one, English has more than one word for snow—powder, flurry, pack, slush, hail, sleet, ice, black ice, and so on. And for another, the structure of the Eskimo-Aleut languages is more conducive to producing multiple “words” for snow.

Linguists call languages like the Eskimo polysynthetic. In synthetic languages, words are formed from smaller semantic parts. In polysynthetic languages words get composed out of many smaller parts, sometimes truly bonkers numbers of smaller parts. This is how the Eskimo–Aleut languages work: words are formed via polysynthetic suffixes.

But “words” doesn’t fully explain the weirdness of polysynthetic languages. The thing we call a “word” in English is a singular semantic and grammatical unit. Inuit languages can add as many suffixes (or postbases) as they want onto the end of a single root. Here’s an example from the dialect of Inuktitut spoken in the Canadian territory of Nunavut:

“I can’t hear very well.”

In English, we’d call that supposed word’s meaning a sentence, even though the word itself looks like what we’d call a word when transliterated.

Postbases can get pretty crazy. Here’s a word from the polysynthetic language Kalaallisut, the standard dialogue of the Greenlandic language, as found in A Comparative Manual of Affixes for the Inuit Dialects of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, by Michael Fortescue:


Fortescue breaks that, uh, word down into its nine postbases, some of which have specific grammatical force. The English translation appears immediately below Fortescue’s concordance:

alikkut-lirsur-i-llammak-ssuaq-u-nirar-tar-ssa-galuar-paat-li 3p/3s-however

“However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but...(e.g. we know otherwise).”

Note how the whole word adds ideas onto its base, which has to do with “entertainment.”

The morphology of polysynthetic postbases is what makes Eskimo languages appear to have many more “words” for snow than they really do. The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum explains:

The Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning “slush,” a root meaning “blizzard,” a root meaning “drift,” and a few others—very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.

The number of “words” for snow in Eskimo languages is a misnomer, a strange lost-in-translation sort of way of explaining that you can use “snow” and its variant terms in as many different sentences as you wish. And given a language that invites it, Inuit speakers often enjoy them “as novelties,” as the linguist Alana Johns explains in The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology.

We do something similar in English, too. In Atlanta, where I live, we’re still reeling from an embarrassing, Walking Dead-quality snowpocalypse from two years ago that left many stranded in their cars all weekend. And thus, the local weather service can be forgiven for alerting residents this week that “We are expecting a mainly cold rain event across this area.” Cold rain event is just a funny way to say “it’s totally not gonna snow, okay?”

Likewise, consider Rob’s report about a poll of blizzard names for this weekend’s storm by Capital Weather Gang. I guess if you really wanted to, you could claim that Candidates like “the Blizzard of 2016” and “Make Winter Great Again” (really) are “names for snow.” But you probably wouldn’t.

And neither would the Eskimos.

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Up in Michigan for the holidays, high winter winds knocked out the electricity for a couple days. A family friend offered her “Blue Apron” meals to my parents. I’d never heard of it: Blue Apron is a gourmet dinner subscription service that sources local ingredients, then packs and delivers dry-ice cooled meals ready to cook. All you have to do is follow the directions.

They prepared the meal at a nearby cottage that still had power and brought the food over in pots and pans. Next thing I knew, we were wolfing down decadent platters of tail-cut salmon fillets topped with dollops of a spritely horseradish sauce. There were garlic mashed potatoes and grilled brussels sprouts. I opened a Bordeaux, and we supped by candle light. The power would not come on for several more hours. It was Christmas.

Over the next two weeks, we tried two more Blue Apron meals: a chicken dish (the details escape me), and orange glazed meatballs with brown rice and bok choy. My mother, who is a plenty good cook on her own, followed the instructions, opening little plastic cups and curiously sized baggies of accessories and pouring them into mixing bowls and pans in the specified order. The whole experience was shameful; we all turned our eyes downward as the modular meals came together. There was something slightly embarrassing about snapping together these prearranged, picture-perfect meals.

Because, we like to cook. When we visit family in Michigan, we have access to an extensive vegetable garden and get a weekly share through a nearby farm. Homemade basil and parsley pestos adorn our evening table; my father massages freshly picked kale with olive oil and sea salt, until it melts in the mouth. At home, we frequent the local farmers markets. Living in New Orleans means learning the unique ingredients, flavors, and combinations that define the cuisine (and culture) of this city. It means introducing our small children to the tastes and technics of New Orleans eating—crawfish, okra, red beans, and more.

But here’s the thing about dinner: it’s often a disaster! The children bicker; someone’s in a bad mood  and just doesn’t want to talk about it; the petite tender goes a minute too long and gets chewy; a bowl of penne gets thrown onto the floor from a highchair; you can already tell the wine is going to give you a headache. Usually dinner is a scramble, and sometimes it’s a debacle.

Blue Apron does something funny to dinner: it turns it into a predictably good thing to make and consume. It seems to come out just right, every time. This is profoundly weird, if you think about it: the idea that every meal should be perfect. What life is this? Blue Apron is just a few steps away from Willy Wonka’s three-course meal stick of gum—and you may recall how that turned out for Violet Beauregarde.

Blue Apron is worth trying, especially if it gets you actually cooking and experimenting with new vegetables, herbs, and spices on your own. But do not be fooled, or lulled into complacency: Dinner isn’t perfect—it’s not supposed to be. It’s a thing, like any other, fraught with difficulties, nuances, spills, and surprises.

(See all MOLs here. Read longer Object Lessons and books at

Conceptual airport restroom of the future layout (Transportation Research Board)

I sometimes wonder if the most incompetent architects are given the job of designing airport restrooms. The narrow spaces that encourage collisions, that prohibit easy movement with carry-ons, and that require acrobatics to move to and from toilet, sink, towel dispenser, and waste bin. Is there any architectural space more universally botched than airport toilets?

Airport restrooms suffers from some of the same problems as the design of airports and aircraft more generally. Designed in the mid-century when air travel was expensive and rare, massive infrastructure projects like airports couldn’t have anticipated the rise in volume that would come from deregulation and consolidation in the 1980s through 2000s. Fewer passengers once traversed the narrow thresholds of airport bathrooms, and they once did so without wheeling rollaboards behind them.

But according to the Transportation Research Board (TSB), ease of passage is not a concern for most travelers. In 2015, the TSB published a “Guidebook for Airport Terminal Restroom Planning and Design” (PDF), a nearly hundred-page document full of delights like this:

The restroom should not jar travelers from their reverie. At most, they should pause as they enter the restroom and think, ‘Oh, isn’t this pleasant.’

A 2008 travelers survey cited in the report underscores the traveling public’s real concerns: cleanliness, privacy, luggage security, and ease of access. Working fixtures and towel dispensers are of more concern to flyers than the luxury of passage in and out and amidst the toilet.

In light of these findings, trends in airport restroom design have focused on cleanliness and ease of upkeep: reduced-flow plumbing, touch-free fixtures, and automated towel dispensers. (Flyers hate air dryers, it turns out, which tend to create congestion anyway.)

But the TSB does recommend some architectural revisions as well. Using traffic flow analysis to revise the quantity and distribution of toilet fixtures, for one, and installing open entryways with no doors to touch, maintain, or clean, for another. Deeper stalls that open out rather than in can better accommodate travelers maneuvering carry-ons. Some restrooms also separate toilet, washing, and grooming functions into separate “rooms,” which might help reduce congestion. (In practice it feels like it only increases the likelihood of bottlenecks, but what do I know, I just pee here.)

The TSB report ends with an appendix on the “Airport Restroom of the Future.” After a surprisingly detailed history of public toilets, the TSB concludes that gender-neutral restrooms would offer travelers the most relief. Not only would they better address evolving gender identity norms, but they would also reduce congestion, maintenance, and accessibility by foregoing the barriers that help create the constriction of today’s restrooms. The TSB’s mockup puts individual sink basins in stalls to avoid flow to a common sink area, and adds a spacious waiting area flanked by two “art vitrines.”

But I fear that this vision for future airport restrooms may never come to pass. Alas, the reverie of travel has long ceased for most leisure travelers; mere survival is the goal. After all, compared to the airline cabin, the airport toilet is roomy. It’s hard to imagine the airline industry looking kindly upon a future in which the terminal toilet is more pleasant than the gate area or the aircraft.

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