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.

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.

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.”

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.


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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.