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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?

If you search the web, you’ll find endless threads from the tongue-in-cheek clown to the overzealous armchair chemist, all attempting to answer (or to mock) this metaphysical question. Sites leaning more toward geekery embrace scientific answers, while others use toast as an object lesson in the universe’s ultimate mystery.

Is bread toast only insofar as a human toaster perceives it to be “done?” Is bread toast when it reaches some specific level of nonenzymatic browning?

If the former, toast seems more like a performative speech act—“I dub thee toast!” than it is a physical configuration of bread and heat. Toast was first produced with a hand-iron over an open flame, after all, rather than an enclosure called a toaster that enshrouds the process in unnecessary and pregnant secrecy.

If the latter, the epistemological question doesn’t go away, as no toaster I know of can measure and evaluate all the varied configurations of amino acids, sugars, water, and heat. (Please, do not attempt a Kickstarter for such a device.) There are even some who might prefer their toast more on the caramelized or even charred side. Who’s to say that those rare (if not rarified) tastes should preclude the label “toast?”

Perhaps it’s such a welcome and common question because “when does bread become toast” demands that you engage in a fairly complex metaphysical debate on relatively ordinary terms. This isn’t God or nature we’re talking about, but browned bread. And yet, all the frothy urgency and spectacle of more serious matters still pervades such an ordinary substance. This is the ultimate payload of the puzzle: not to find an answer, but to admire that the question can spread so much complexity on to such a modest surface.

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.

A good book is read only to be reread (sooner or later), or better, circulated in short time among friends or family members—read by many people, maybe even discussed at the dinner table or in a book group. Sometimes such circulation occurs until a book’s pages are falling out of the binding, its cover long lost.

One of the minor joys of my job is seeing the old tattered copies of books that students bring to class when we are discussing literary works such as Frankenstein or Lolita. Whether these books get transferred by campus bookstores for a modicum of profit, or among friends in bursts of passion or frustration, they are doing their job—giving, and giving again.  

After finishing a book recently, I didn’t know what to make of it. It kept me up at night—I wondered whether it was this or that kind of book. Why did it make certain stylistic moves? Who was its intended audience? There’s something simple and generous about these nagging questions: the book has given them to me to ponder. Books give even after they are given. A new idea; unresolved feelings about something (or someone); a glimpse of a new place through descriptive prose…these are just some of the gifts waiting inside the wrapped covers of a book.

As our attention increasingly is directed toward new media modes of reading and consuming text, especially in the frenzy of holiday shopping, it is worth pausing to consider the older form of the bound book, a special kind of gift—a gift that gives in special ways.

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.

Among those who dwell under oak canopies, the experienced will learn to sweep, rake, or blow the leaves and acorns off of porous surfaces quickly. But even the vigilant can’t keep up with nature. When dropping leaves are accompanied by rains (and the winds that help them fall), immediate cleanup becomes impossible.

Worse, the rain helps seep more tannins out of the leaves and especially the acorns, creating strips of stained pavement where water flows down a grade. So many shades of rust, from ruddy to alloy to burnt to russet to umber. The tannins in red wine are what make its stains so hard to get out; acorns are the cabernets of autumn.

There are solutions, none perfect. Everyone should have a pressure washer—but that’s an object lesson for another day, and plain water probably won’t help anyway. Some try to bleach their drives, but the runoff risks harming plants and probably creates even more unsightly blotches anyway. Rust removers like oxalic acid or CLR might work, but applying these chemicals to large areas is impractical. A 20 percent solution of hydrochloric acid is another option, but it’s corrosive and highly poisonous. Anyone with kids or pets might think twice, and that’s probably most everyone with oaks to worry about.  

There’s another choice. Sunlight will fade the stains over time, and other stains of other sorts will even and deepen the patina of the pavement. The oaks, decades or centuries old, rise high above your silly little house with its leaf blower whining in vain. They are here to remind you that nature is bigger than you, and your driveway, and your pride.

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.

2000s — Comic Sans

Flickr/Justin Henry

The font everyone loves to hate. It was designed by Microsoft for Windows 95. Soon Comic Sans became profoundly overused, perhaps because it offered an option that was legible but more “fun” than Arial or Times. Then it became the subject of widespread scorn and even protest—and even protest of its use in protest. Errol Morris would eventually demonstrate that setting text in Comic Sans made it less trustworthy.

Runner-up: Verdana. This wide sans-serif with its high x-height was also created by Microsoft in the ‘90s, designed for readability at all sizes. By the mid-2000s it had become a symbol of typographical homogeneity. A furor erupted in the late aughts when IKEA switched from the classic geometric sans Futura to Verdana, supposedly to normalize its online and in-store materials.

1990s — Democratica

There were many grunge fonts in the 1990s, all characterized by a torn or otherwise disheveled appearance that paid homage to its namesake music genre. Then there was Democratica, a grunge-adjacent quasi-steampunk industrial specimen that seemed to be everywhere by the mid ‘90s. For a few seconds it seemed cool. Soon enough, you just wanted to stomp on it with your Doc Martens.

Runner-up: Mistral, the Papyrus of the 1990s. It graced Corel Draw compositions and Word ‘97 how-to guides everywhere.

1980s — San Francisco

The 1984 Macintosh made visually distinct, proportional (non fixed-width) typefaces widely available. Susan Kare designed most of the 12 that shipped with the original Mac, including this one. San Francisco was made to look like ransom note lettering, and it became popular on flyers and other newly-printable novelties.

Runner-up: Davida, from The Print Shop, a flyer and brochure-making program popular in the ‘80s. The font was actually called “Party” in Print Shop. If you attended school or church functions before the fall of the Berlin Wall, you probably partied with Party.

Night in the suburbs. Home late, Adam drops his jacket on the couch and informs his wife, Kristina, that he’s been fired. She tries to comfort him, but he retreats to the backyard to rummage the trash for his son’s missing retainer, an item he can’t afford to replace. Amidst rotting vegetables and soggy paper bags, he spies a white and purple stick. The camera lingers on a tiny blue plus sign and then pans to the second story window where his teenage daughter is talking on the phone.

Back inside, Adam declares his plan to kill the “little son-of-a-bitch” who “promised that he would use a condom.” Kristina follows, desperate to tamp his rage.

“Why can’t anything go right?” he yells. “Why can’t a single thing go right around here? . . . Our sixteen-year-old daughter is pregnant!”

“It’s me,” Kristina says calmly. “It’s me. It’s me.”

As a plot device, the pregnancy test provides endless opportunities for misinformation and dramatic comedy. While the previous scene, from the NBC series Parenthood, relies on an identity mix-up and escalating series of bad news, the gag has endless variations:  

  • The woman who hates children finds out she’s knocked up.

  • Roommates take the tests together. The sticks get mixed up and an “almost virgin” assumes she’s expecting.

  • A boy takes a test on a dare.

  • The test’s packaging includes the warning: “May cause birth defects.”

Though pregnancy is a timeless source of narrative conflict, pregnancy tests on the screen are relatively new. Over-the-counter, take-home indicators didn’t hit the shelves until 1988. Before that, aside from obvious symptoms—missed periods and morning sickness—early verification was harder to come by. The 1927 A-Z test (named for inventors Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondak) involved injecting a woman’s urine into an immature mouse or rat. If the rodent went into heat, the woman was “in the family way.” In frogs and rabbits, the same procedure incited ovulation. While frog eggs are expelled from the body and easily visible, injected rabbits had to be cut open and inspected, a practice that gave rise to the euphemism “the rabbit died.”

When technology surrounding reproduction shifts, so do plots. Whether a character is “up the spout” is easily resolved, although responses to the news remain a source of drama. Newer innovations—surrogate parenting, hormone therapies, the likelihood of conception from two eggs—create opportunities for fresh narrative trouble. Appearing in the films Juno, Kill Bill II, Baby Mama, and Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason as well as in the TV shows Roseanne, Ellen, Friends, Sex and the City, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation, the pregnancy test is essential but tired—a trope and, increasingly, a joke.

“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.

And by that, I don’t mean generalized notions of “beauty” or “grace under pressure.” The enjoyment I find in a poem is in the words, sounds, and structures that repeat, connect, or hang together in specific ways—its patterns—and especially in those moments that deviate and surprise—its variations. For me, football is most beautiful in the interplay of such pattern and variation.

Take the back-shoulder throw that many quarterbacks have now mastered. The quarterback throws the ball to the receiver’s “back” or “outside” shoulder—usually before the receiver (and the defender) has turned around to see it. It’s a modification of the in-stride, over-the-shoulder pass, and it’s extremely difficult to defend. The poetry of this play is found in its timing variation, not in its elegance. In its innovation on an established pattern.

On any given Sunday, you will hear commentators allude to variation. The quarterback “reads” the defense, sets up in the “read-option,” or recognizes a “hot read.” These “reads” are all about identifying formations (patterns) and using options (variations) to defeat the defense’s expectation. Likewise, defenses show different “looks” and make modifications often at the last second before the ball is snapped.

One hallmark of a great quarterback is his ability to audible: to modify verbally the set-play at the line. Conventional thinking says that an audible is beautiful when the variation results in a successful play. But even if the play fails, I often find beauty in the language of the audible. In Peyton Manning’s “Omaha, Omaha, Omaha” or “Bags Montana Fat Man,” where the “poetry” lies in strange variation where one doesn’t expect it.

So back to Beckham Jr. The beauty of the play comes from its high degree of variation: to catch a 43-yard pass at the goalline, after being fouled, bent over backwards, with only two fingers and a thumb. It’s unexpected and stunning. And then: it’s a new pattern in your mind, for watching the next game.

Dolly

I am trying to locate the
dolly.

If you have it,
please return it

to me.


Good Morning

We are in the process of
getting
a new copier.
In the meantime,
Please be patient
with the copier
we do have.
I know it’s on it’s last
leg.


Trying to Meet

Sounds like Thursday lunch is a bust
What does everyone’s schedule look like
Next week?
I’m also available Thursday at 3:30
Unclear, I have this other thing at 2, or 4.
Tuesday 14th lunch is fine with me
Wed 8 11-12 also good
I currently have a meeting 12-1 and 1:30-3
Maybe Friday morning?
I guess you didn’t see the e-mail
I am out of town next week
So, then the week after that?
What about Wednesday after 3?
I should be able to do Wed after 3:30
So it is Wed the 29th At 4
No I think it is 3:30 on the 29th
No, Wed at 4.
You mean tomorrow?
I’ve got a thing until 4:30.
No I think it is 3:30 on the 29th.
Oh yes! That would be
GREAT!
I’ll pencil it in.
Sorry for the confusion.
4pm on the 29th
For a meeting.

Oh.
If you want to meet at your
location
Then we need to find
Another time.

Ah okay.
I guess I was confused too.
I just wanted to get an update from you on
The status.
I wasn’t envisioning this as
A social call.
Just more of a
”What's going on”
type of thing.

(Have an existing email that reads like poetry? Email us if you think it’s worth posting.) Update from a reader:

iPads

I’m not sure what’s going on
just yet,
but they don’t seem
to be fully refreshing.
If this keeps happening,
I’ll probably
have to remove them.
Please do keep me posted
if you notice
anything strange!

When doing research for the piece I wrote yesterday about how Jupiter is the best planet (not counting Earth), I came across an ominous headline in an 1880 edition of The New York Times: “A Deceptive Planet.”

Here we go. Scientists observing Jupiter 135 years ago, it seems, found the planet’s whorling, colorful blanket of clouds and anti-hurricanes to be perplexing, if not outright maddening. Here’s an excerpt from the essay I particularly liked, with spacing added to relieve your eyeballs of 19th-century typesetting:

It was generally hoped that, in couse [sic] of time, this much respected orb would see the error of his ways, and cease to assume the appearance of an inebriated planet.

Sad to relate, however, he has gone from bad to worse, and is just now showing, side by side with the red spot complained of, a number of white ones, which give his countenance an appearance truly sad to behold. No wonder that quiet, staid astronomers, who, from joking, stand aghast at such an exhibition.

For many years Jupiter has held a deservedly high place in their estimation, and they had come to regard him as a globe of such regular habits that he might be depended upon in any emergency. They had long ago declared him to be as ‘cool as a cucumber,’ and were half inclined to allot both atmosphere and inhabitants to him, when he breaks out in this unexpected way.

All their calculations are consequently upset. He may be in boiling heat for all we know, a deceptive planet who has attempted to look calm and cold while all the time he has been in a state of furious conflagration. This teaches astronomers to be chary in future of giving a good character to any heavenly body.

If Jupiter be so bad as this, what may be expected of stars that have no reputation to lose?

(As an aside, who knew ‘cool as a cucumber’ had such deep etymological roots? It traces back to 1732, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.)

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?

Look around next time you travel, and observe the drab drapings of these high-tech shirts as they make contact with plastic seats and press against plate glass windows. And then consider how these shirts are robustly described by their purveyors:

The Columbia PFG (Performance Fishing Gear) “Tamiami II,” perhaps the most ubiquitous and eerily identifiable fishing shirt, offers a “Modern Classic fit” and is “designed for cool comfort and functionality over the long haul.” The “cool” does double duty here, assuring us that we will look fashionable while also evincing the functional venting technology of this shirt. No wonder it is called a “performance button up,” as it must skate an awkward path between the noble pursuits of modernity and the banal realities of endless office work.

Patagonia’s “Island Hopper II” promises “a superlight long-sleeved shirt in an easy-care, organic cotton, recycled polyester blend.” Consider here the tension between “easy-care” and the implied responsibilities of organic cotton and recycling: environmental consciousness dances on a razor’s edge between calm and crisis.

Meanwhile, ExOfficio’s “Air StripTM Shirt” is marketed as “the ultimate in technical apparel.” At the same time, it assures a “comfortable yet modern silhouette”—by now a familiar formula, this vow to balance utility with elegance.

And isn’t this what is so attractive—and so galling—about the fishing shirt? It pledges to spirit us through the world with foresight, durability, and protection; but it also nestles blandly into the consumerscape numbly taking place all around. It beckons at trout unlimited and adventures untold; and it seamlessly facilitates herds of shuffling travelers and routine labor.

It’s everything about modernity we’d wanted—packaged in all sizes and colors, and made for every occasion. Why teach anyone to fish, when everyone can just wear a fishing shirt?

It’s 1999. Perry Wang’s eyes are bugged out, like he’s seen a ghost. He’s just returned to the conference room holding a Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar. In a meeting that had started 45 minutes earlier, he had paid $3.50 to have it delivered by a startup called Kozmo.com. The bar is still frozen.

None of us felt comfortable eating it, as if an ice cream bar that could materialize in less than an hour was a poltergeist. Still, the questions! Who would deliver just an ice cream bar for free? The answer was: no one, at least not for long. Kozmo.com fired its thousand employees and shut down in April 2001, like so many of its compatriots in the dot-com bubble. Failure or no, Kozmo was one of a few signals (remember Webvan?) of the purported future of convenience.

Today, Uber has reanimated the once-dead, mobile on-demand industry.

The “Uber for X” trope reigns, sometimes in mockery but more often in earnest. Actually existing “Ubers for X” include: Uber for alcohol. Uber for haircuts. Uber for house call doctors. For laundry. For street parking. For cleaning. Massage. Dog walking. Storage. Medical marijuana. Taking the trash to the curb. Even Uber itself has become a speculative design workshop for the convenience industry, experimenting with delivering ice cream (like Kozmo) and kittens (for cuddling) on-demand.

Recently, Amazon followed suit with Amazon Flex, an Uber for Amazon Deliveries. The name “Flex,” short for “flexwork” is telling. The term once referred to flexible arrangements made for full-time, weekday 9-5 workers, such as telecommuting or shifted hours. But today, “flexworker” is usually a derogatory term for someone subjected to precarious labor practices, such as zero-hour contracts. Today, flexwork is two-faced: precarious, just-in-time labor presented if it were a perk for full-timers.

Perhaps that’s what Perry and the rest of us found so harrowing all those years ago. This was tainted Cherry Garcia that had made its way to us by unclean methods, like buying fleeced ice cream out of the back of a truck. But Kozmo didn’t last long enough to test our moral mettle; the market decided for us. Today, it’s hard to know if we’ve been presented with that same test and made our choice, or if we don’t even remember that we have a choice in the first place. This ambiguity is the true meaning of the on-demand economy.

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!

You can tell from this approach that I pay more attention to refrigerator magnets than to whatever they happen to be holding up. The kinds of magnets you get at art museums are so striking that it seems a shame to relegate them to the corners of anything else that you might want to display. The Andy Warhol magnet currently supporting a recipe for roasted red pepper spread on the side of my refrigerator is much prettier than the paper upon which that recipe is printed.

What refrigerator magnets do best is to make a boring, mass-produced appliance seem more individualized than it otherwise would be. They give us a chance to fill the largest blank space in our houses other than our walls with whatever we decide defines us at any particular moment. And should we ever find better magnets to fill that space, we don’t have to deal with tape marks or holes in the wall in order to update our status.

(Jonathan Rees’s Object Lessons book Refrigerator was just published by Bloomsbury.)

Quinn Norton / Flickr

Given the latest airplane urination scare, perhaps it’s time to look to the lavatory.

Occasionally aircraft lavatories burst into the news: an aging actor doesn’t make it to the lav in time, and pees in the aisle; another actor, a bit younger, slams the lavatory door in a huff and gets kicked off the plane; terrorists may use the privacy of the lav to assemble cruel devices or hint at their presence; an artist repurposes one for a curious exhibit on a trans-Pacific long-haul flight. Most of the time, though, lavatories fade into the background.

But here’s the thing about this space:

While airlines go to great lengths to sell the experience of flight as individuated, personal, and endlessly customizable—the lavatory is the only truly private place on normal commercial airliners. And yet—here’s the rub—it’s also the only place that is shared by everyone on board. It’s a paradoxical place, and one that we don’t really want to think about too much.

Taro Gomi’s classic potty training book Everyone Poops works by showing young children all the different shapes and sizes of various animals’ excrement (“an elephant makes a big poop, a mouse makes a tiny poop,” etc.). The book culminates in a child’s bowel movement, with gentle encouragement to do it on the toilet. But the unavoidable premise of the book is that humans are put on the same plane as camels, racoons, fish, and worms. We’re not so different, when it comes to our business.

Isn’t this what is finally so embarrassing about the lavatory? It exposes the grand project of flight as so much animal activity. We are less a suave set of individual travelers, donning antimicrobial fishing shirts and maneuvering sporty roller bags. We’re more like a migrating collective, not so unlike a wobbly V of Canada Geese cruising overhead—another day, another long journey. The lavatory reminds us that everyone poops, and that we are not so special as our job titles or status as frequent fliers would make us believe.

(For longer Object Lessons, head here)

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