What is a Poem?

You read it; it reads you.

by Mark Yakich

Unless you are a poet or writer, it’s likely that poems have apprehended you less and less as the years have passed. Occasionally, in a magazine or online you see one—with its ragged right edge and arbitrary-looking line breaks—and it announces itself by what it is not: prose that runs continuously from the left to the right margins of the page. A poem practically dares you not just to look but to read: I am different. I am special. I am other. Ignore me at your peril.

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The Lost Excitement, Pathos, and Beauty of the Railroad Timetable

An elegy for the paper symbol of the mechanical age

by Henry Grabar

It was the lowly timetable that bore testament to the train’s transformative influence on modern life. In the corporeal metaphors that the industrial rail network often inspired, stations were the beating hearts, rail lines the arteries, trains and passengers the vital blood. The schedule might be called the DNA—the hidden, essential set of instructions, part command center and part record book. It’s the same time in New York as in Boston right now, and for that you can thank the timetable. It was once the proud face of the industry. In pamphlets, on posters, in advertisements in papers, railroad companies touted times like competitive runners. Boston to New York in eight hours! Week-long journeys shrank to days, days to hours, the trip across Paris—an easy hour by horse-and-carriage or streetcar—to minutes.

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The McRib: Enjoy Your Symptom

How McDonald’s strange, seasonal sandwich explains the rest of its menu

by Ian Bogost

Together, the eternal return of the McRib, along with the blatant celebration of a sandwich that is obviously and unabashedly fake comprise the cause of desire the public bears for McDonald’s. Not just for the McRib, mind you, but for all of the restaurant’s offerings—most of which rely on the same cheap ingredients, machined pre-preparation, and chemical additives that the McRib embodies to the point of caricature.

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The Little Switch

A meditation on one of the world's most common technologies

by Kevin Nguyen

Light switches exemplify familiar design, which, according to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, is a name for things that are “so predictable in their form and function that we do not give them a second thought.” We haven’t given light switches much thought for nearly a century now. The toggle light switch was patented in 1917, replacing the push-button switch of the late 19th century. Since the toggle’s inception, it has remained the most ubiquitous switch in North America. The 1980s saw the introduction of the rocker, a flat-paneled switch that became popular domestically and throughout Europe and Asia. But the rocker was really just a facelift, a minor aesthetic evolution of the traditional design similar to the shift from push-button to toggle. The light switch has essentially never changed.

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How Glass Magnifies Desire

We no longer just look through glass; we also want it to peer into us.

by John Garrison

It’s no accident that interactive glass makes its first Mission Impossible appearance in a sequel with “ghost” in the title. This notion of specters and phantoms suggests that a thing once dead can come to life if we just reach out to it in the right way. Corning (a glass manufacturer since 1851) recently captured its future vision in a short film that takes us into a world where a variety of everyday glass surfaces offer opportunities for stimulation. The company’s “A Day Made of Glass” reminds us how our ordinary lives are populated by bathroom mirrors, home windows, car windshields, and kitchen counters—all ready to entertain our whims and inform our desires. Watching the glass come alive in Corning’s video, it is hard not to see how our lives, already oriented toward the glass displays of our smartphones and laptops, might soon be overtaken by them.
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What Is a Machete, Anyway?

It can be a tool like a shovel. Or, it can be a weapon, like a gun.

by John Cline

The ease with which “tool” becomes “weapon” in the eyes of the law is remarkable. Tools are fine things for workers, but politics dictates that violence be concentrated in the hands of the State, and dispensed by its agents. The slipperiness between innocuous utensil and deadly device represents the risk of insurrection. Indeed, machetes are unique to the extent that they have always been used for both purposes—and not just as a plot device in horror flicks, either.

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Paul Downey/Flickr

The Geology of Media

Future archaeologists will have a lot of material to dig through.

by Jussi Parikka

Despite the fallacy that media is increasingly immaterial, wireless, and smoothly clouded by data services, we are more dependent than ever on the geological earth. Geology does not appear in normal conversations about media and culture, but there would be no media without geology. This isn’t a simplistic joke, that without the Earth under our feet there would be no need for universities talking about the Earth or offices of social-media startups in Silicon Valley plotting away metaphorical business strategies like the “mining” and “dumping” of data. Rather, the resources and materials gathered from geological depths enable our media technologies to function.

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The Big Chill

Why American refrigerators are so huge.

by Jonathan Rees

While the usefulness of refrigerators explains their prevalence, it does not explain their size. Most people would agree that fresh food tastes better than anything that’s been kept in a refrigerator for even a short amount of time. So why then would anyone want a weeks’ worth of perishable food stored in their kitchen at one time? Are Americans slaves to convenience? While our large refrigerators do limit the number of shopping trips we have to take, they also make it possible for us to consume a much greater variety of foods than we ever did without them in our kitchens.

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What Is a JPEG? The Invisible Object You See Every Day

You're looking at dozens of JPEGs right now.

by Paul Caplan

The JPEG standard is particularly useful for driving a relationship engine like Facebook’s. Its efficiency and ubiquity mean more pictures are taken, uploaded and accessed, particularly in mobile space where size is important. Furthermore, during the process of JPEG-encoding, other data can be written into the image file: camera settings, time of imaging and even location. All of this metadata is useful for a system that thrives on possible connections (all the images taken on my birthday; all the photos from my holiday, etc.). This automatically generated metadata combines with the additional metadata we add manually when uploading, filing, and tagging a particular image, making our JPEGs even more powerful for Facebook its corporate customers and anyone else needing information from the relationship engine.

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Black T-Shirts: The Original Invisibility Cloaks

Steve Jobs had his black turtleneck. Slavoj Žižek and Louis CK have their short sleeves. What is it with powerful men and undistinguished clothing?

by Cameron Kunzelman

What does it mean to wear a black t-shirt? This question is best answered through the garment’s emissaries, by way of three celebrities known for their black t-shirt wearing: the comedian Louis CK, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and the businessman Steve Jobs. All three have distinct relationships with their black shirts, and even more distinct relationships to the world. And yet, their tees are similar to ours. They wear them with the same nonchalance as anyone.

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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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