A Forgettable Passage to Flight

How the jet bridge distils air travel

by Christopher Schaberg

It may sound like a minor matter among the more pressing concerns of safety and security, new aircraft systems, and airline mergers over the past fifty years. Running to catch a connection, no one laments finding a jet bridge upon arriving. Today, that familiarity and expectation has made the jet bridge disappear into the background, an unconsidered if vaguely necessary space. But like the smartphone touchscreens its passengers fondle while queued up inside it, the jet bridge is hardly a transparent interface. It shapes our experiences of flight.

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Go Ahead, Mess With Texas Instruments

Why educational technologies should be more like graphing calculators and less like iPads.

by Phil Nichols

If you had asked them, most of my high school teachers would have called me an unmotivated student or said that I lacked discipline and didn’t take learning seriously. And yet, that abandoned storage bin told another story: with the aid of my calculator, I’d crafted narratives, drawn storyboards, visualized foreign and familiar environments and coded them into existence. Texas Instruments unwittingly embedded a flexible programming environment into a ubiquitous technology accessible to (and even required of) most high school students. These devices not only fulfill their conventional role as tools for calculation but can also support more subversive uses. The TI-83 and its kindred are Trojan Horses, sneaking in subversive education under the auspices of convention.

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Let Us Now Contemplate the Key

An Object Lesson in nine parts

by Hannah Stephenson

Next, gather up the other keys, those not currently in use. Keys in candy dishes, on bookshelves. Keys lolling in kitchen drawers next to can openers and rubber bands, tucked beneath chains in jewelry boxes. Keys in the toolbox in the garage. The gold key to an apartment from five years ago. In another state. A key that unlocked every dressing room in a Lazarus Department Store (gone for a decade). A miniature key that unlocked the diary you’ve since lost. A key that you played with as a child. Even now, you know the pleasure of the key as a thing, its small, certain presence in your hand.

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Fake Birds on Film

The nature of unspecial effects.

by Brian Thill

Birds on film are important not in and for themselves but as part of a relation of figure and ground, as foils, or as objects that help us appreciate artificially rendered scale. It seems as if their function is to lend weight and sublimity to the glorious expanse of humankind’s and Hollywood’s technological prowess. At some point, somewhere in the dark corners of some digital animation studio, a version of this exchange must have taken place: “How’s this giant robot fight sequence looking, boss?” “It’s looking dope, man, but you know what — you need to throw some birds on that!”

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Laughter Without Humor: On the Laugh-Loop GIF

When is Natalie Portman's laughter not Natalie Portman's laughter?

by Fran McDonald

Aristotle called laughter an “ensouling mechanism,” and the academic discipline of humor studies has built itself upon the assumption that laughter is a quintessentially human response to the socio-cultural discourse of humor. Laughter is offered as proof of our exceptional status as thinking social creatures; we are “the only animal that laughs.” GIFs that feature sniggering squirrels, cackling cartoon toasters, and rollicking robots would seem to undermine this selfish view of laughter as an exclusively human activity. But even worse, the laugh-loop GIF disassociates laughter from humor. By severing laughter from the context that incites it, the laugh-loop GIF reveals that laughter is not only a consequence of its sociocultural coordinates, but also a weird object in itself. Laughter, it seems, is not ‘for us’ but has its own alien being that has hitherto been masked by its everydayness.

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"Deep Down, I Don't Believe in Hymns," Dario Robleto (by permission of the artist)

Blankets, the Original Viral Media

How they uncover, communicate, and mediate life and death.

by Kara Thompson

Blankets cover things, like cold passengers during a long flight, or dead bodies after a tragedy. A blanket always acquires a life other than itself. We may take the blanket for granted as an object — quiet and inert. But when it becomes soiled — whether with food, bodily fluids, or perhaps even a virus — it takes on a kind of vitality. Yet the blanket presented as life-giving can in fact be deadly, too.

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Kryptonite is Crap

The weird, dumb history of Superman's ill-conceived vulnerability

by Paul Fairchild

Today, “kryptonite” mostly works entirely absent Superman’s hero cape. It’s a term denoting a moral weakness, a character flaw. The idea being that humans are powerless in the face of this or that vice or guilty pleasure. Who cares why? It just sounds cool when people describe their shortcomings this way, confiscating Superman’s assumed virtue for themselves: “cigarettes are my kryptonite.” This kryptonite is metaphorical, a weaker, abstracted copy of a space rock that serves as a totem. But it makes more sense as a metaphor than as an object that’s just a cheap, flimsy deus ex machina.

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Enbrel and the Autoimmune Era

How a banner biotech drug made in Chinese hamster ovary cells is changing disease even as it treats it.

by Anne Pollock

Enbrel is a lifestyle drug that promises to enhance life’s quality by reducing the impact of arthritis and related conditions. And yet, it can render the body vulnerable to forms of disease that were never really left behind: infections like consumption, degenerations like cancer. The apotheosis of contemporary biotechnical achievement creates a strange loop to the past. Even as we coax hamster ovary cells to emanate life-affirming resilience, we also summon old demons that might otherwise remain shrouded in the shadows.

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Domino’s, The Pizza That Never Sleeps

The imagined community of mediocre delivery pizza

by Leigh Alexander

Memories of the Domino’s of my childhood are dim: red-and-blue sense memories of cardboard box, cardboard flavor. Industrial food for school parties, the stuff harried parents fed to you at a weekend sleepover. There was also the Noid, a creepy and ill-thought mascot now relegated to the museum of puzzling relics for adult children of a certain age, the kind of thing that gets referenced on Family Guy. A simulation of pizza.

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