Reporter's Notebook

Mini Object Lesson
Show Newer Notes
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?

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.

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.

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.

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:  

“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.


I am trying to locate the

If you have it,
please return it

to me.

Good Morning

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

Trying to Meet

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?

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 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. 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.

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!

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: