A farmer spreads fertilizer while preparing the land for rice planting in Ngoc Nu village, south of Hanoi January 22, 2015. Rice prices in Thailand and Vietnam fell this week under rising supply pressure, with the Thai government planning a major tender next week and Vietnam set to harvest its main crop from late February, traders said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM - Tags: AGRICULTURE BUSINESS) - RTR4MF06

Will Humans Run Out of Fertilizer?

It helped people spread and multiply. Now critics worry it's destroying the planet. An Object Lesson.

by Alex Fitzsimmons

There is also a fundamental criticism of fertilizer. It is rooted in the belief that people are not part of nature, but a blight on it. The more people on the Earth, the more the Earth suffers.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Why Skee-Ball Doesn’t Change

A century after its creation, the game is still a perfect balance of skill and chance. An Object Lesson.

by Richard Klin

Skee-ball has survived so long not because it is special, but because it is ordinary.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Tar Balls, the Beach’s Fossil-Fuel Flowers

Globs of black goo occur on beaches both naturally from ocean seeps and artificially from oil spills. An Object Lesson.

by Robin Tricoles

Is there a difference between tar balls that originate from natural seeps versus ones that originate from spills? It depends.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Toxic-Waste Drum Is Everywhere

Created by a globetrotter, the 55-gallon barrel became one of the best-traveled inventions in human history. An Object Lesson.

by Rebecca Altman

Even today, more than a century after its invention, the drum remains as integral to chemical manufacturing as it ever was. And yet, as the go-to strategy for waste management, it is a technology that ought to have been abandoned by now, relegated instead to the stuff of kitsch collectibles and candies.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Three Millennia of Safety Pins

The tiny tool has held up Roman togas and decorated punk rockers. Now, it’s a symbol of support.

by Rina Caballar

As a tiny object of dissent, the safety pin has returned to its punk-rock roots as a symbol of opposition. The safety pin’s origins as a fibula highlight class differences, but its current use to signify solidarity emphasizes support for marginalized communities. The safety pin has always offered a way to hold clothing together. Now it transcends that utility, promising to hold people together too.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

When Typists Were Feared as ‘Love Pirates’

At the turn of the century, some women sued stenographers for seducing their husbands. An Object Lesson.

by Matt Jones

What is most interesting about the love pirate and the enabling wife is that they both perpetuate the same mythology: Women are guilty, some of wanting too much and some of not doing enough.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
** FOR RELEASE IN EDITIONS OF SUNDAY, SEPT. 14 **Physics teacher Michel Olalo, of Manila, Philippines, clears the chalkboard at the end of the school day during her summer school class at Foley High School Monday June 16, 2008 in Foley, Ala.  (AP Photo/John David Mercer)

There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard

Blackboards will endure as symbols of learning long after they’ve disappeared from schools.

by Kim Kankiewicz

By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
** HOLD FOR STORY BY RICK CALLAHAN ** Circuit boards fill a bin at a recycling center in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 at Workforce Inc., a nonprofit electronics recycler that contracts with the city of Indianapolis to recycle electronic waste the city collects at hazardous household waste drop-off sites. Frustrated by inaction in Congress, a growing number of states are trying to recycle some of the rising tide of junked TVs, computers and other electronics that have become one of the nation's fastest-growing waste streams. Nineteen states have passed laws setting goals for recycling old electronics, most of which now end up in landfills and contain toxic materials that can threaten groundwater. Thirteen other states are considering laws. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Global Cost of Electronic Waste

Computers, phones, and other digital devices increasingly are made to be thrown away—which is bad for both consumers and the environment. An Object Lesson.

by Syed Faraz Ahmed

Electronics have always produced waste, but the quantity and speed of discard has increased rapidly in recent years. There was a time when households would keep televisions for more than a decade. But thanks to changes in technology and consumer demand, there is hardly any device now that persists for more than a couple of years in the hands of the original owner.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Bergförstärkning i Malmberget

A Trip to a Swedish Town That’s Being Completely Relocated

People engineer cities, but cities have a way of engineering people back. An Object Lesson.

by Tom Bradstreet

One day, the iron below Kiruna will be exhausted, or else too costly to access. The town will not have to move again; it will sit there, abandoned, like the outposts of so many frontiers.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
**ADVANCE FOR MONDAY EDITIONS MAY 12**-Andy Kahmann handsets a letter of type at  his small offset printing shop  on Tuesday, May 6, 2003, in Montevideo, Minn.  Kahmann uses two aging printing presses and has more than 200 drawers of type to fill custom letterpress printing orders. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

How I Came to Love the En Space

In typesetting, the spaces between words, lines, and letters are never really empty. An Object Lesson.

by Lindsay Lynch

Long before minimalism exalted the aesthetic and commercial value of blank space, the ordinary folk who operated printers held it in their hands, in the form of en spaces, leading strips, and the wedges of metal that hung off kerned glyphs. It didn’t take a turtleneck to see why blank space can be moving.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Shopping bags for sale are pictured inside a Fresh & Easy store in Burbank, California October 19, 2012. Tesco's billion pound gamble to crack the U.S. may have only months to run as investors and management focus more squarely on the British retailer's struggling home business and slowing growth in emerging markets. Fresh & Easy (F&E), having absorbed nearly 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) of capital since its 2007 launch, remains stubbornly loss-making in the cut-throat U.S. grocery market where it competes with larger rivals. Picture taken October 19, 2012. To match story TESCO-FRESH&EASY/   REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD) - RTR39OBE

Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment?

They’re green in principle, but not in the way people use them. An Object Lesson.

by Noah Dillon

Like plastic sacks, tote bags, too, now seem essentially unending. Because of their ubiquity, tote bags that have been used very little (or not at all) can be found piled on curbs, tossed in trashcans in city parks, in dumpsters, everywhere. Their abundance encourages consumers to see them as disposable, defeating their very purpose.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
INDIO, CA - APRIL 15:  Rapper Snoop Dogg (L) and a hologram of deceased Tupac Shakur perform onstage during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

Going ‘Full Tupac’

Holograms are more than science fiction, but the real-life technology isn’t what people think it is. An Object Lesson.

by Gregory Zinman

Simultaneously here and gone, holograms are stand-ins for all things virtual, harbingers of a “mixed reality” in which the real and the simulated have been integrated seamlessly. Highly hyped future products such as Magic Leap andMicrosoft HoloLens hope to holographically enhance ordinary life, promising a revolution in communication, gaming, home improvement, engineering, design, and art making—an “internet of experiences” that will displace the current information-dependent culture. In reality, however, holograms have mostly been gaudy stunts that reveal people’s anxiety about technological presence.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Sipping Scotch Chilled by an Iceberg

What hunting for cocktail ice in Antarctica taught me about climate change. An Object Lesson.

by Michelle Iwen

Here I was at the end of the world, one of my biggest-bucket list items crossed off with a flourish. I desperately wanted this moment of decadence to resonate in some sort of life-changing way. Yet the warmth of a Highland single malt on my tongue, tempered by the ice, was nothing more than a pleasant, prosaic experience. That’s not a bad aspiration for all human relationships with the globe’s glaciers: ordinary objects that remain familiar even though far away, rather than becoming exceptional by means of their destruction.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Mimi Farah holds through a magnifying glass the world's smallest microchip ever designed for a hearing aid at its launch in Sydney November 15. The chip can process sounds around 90 percent faster than traditional hearing aids and contains nine audio channels, similar to a graphic equalizer on a home stereo system, that can be individually controlled to suit the owner's personal requirements.


The Hearing Aid’s Pursuit of Invisibility

The device has a history of shaming, rather than helping, the hard of hearing. An Object Lesson.

by Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi

That the hard of hearing should feel compelled to disguise their impairment with an invisible technology says a lot about how hearing loss is stigmatized. Invisibility is a popular selling point for hearing aids. At all costs, it seems, the technology must be contoured and fitted into the intricate parts of the ear rather than exposed for the world to see. The shame of mishearing, the embarrassment when the hearing aid “whistles,” the listening but not communicating—all of this threatens vanity, because deafness is still confused with understanding.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
A view of the Wallow Wildfire is pictured in the distance seen along the U.S. Route 180 as smoke fills the sky in Luna, New Mexico June 6, 2011. A wildfire that has charred more than 350 square miles (906 sq km) in eastern Arizona forced the evacuation of a third town on Monday and crept near populated areas along the New Mexico border as it raged out of control for a ninth day. The so-called Wallow Fire, burning about 250 miles (400 km) northeast of Phoenix and stretching to near the Arizona-New Mexico border, ranks as the third-largest fire on record in Arizona. REUTERS/Joshua Lott (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2NDRO

A Century of Highway Zombies

Since the 1920s, “highway hypnosis” has lulled drivers to disaster. An Object Lesson.

by Carmine Grimaldi

Today, highway hypnotism has fallen from the public eye, but its rise in the 1950s reveals the anxious convulsions that shook new infrastructure that promised to make citizens freer, safer, and more comfortable.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
The dolls house of Petronella Dunois is on display in the 17th century gallery of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam April 4, 2013. The Rijksmuseum, after a decade of rebuilding, renovation and restoration, will open to the general public on April 13, 2013, according to the media release. REUTERS/Michael Kooren (NETHERLANDS - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL) - RTXY8GS

Dollhouses Weren’t Invented for Play

The social history of dollhouses is at odds with the idea that dollhouses are spaces of emotion, freedom, and imagination.

by Nicole Cooley

Dollhouses are both private and public. A dollhouse may live in our house or in a museum or online. People might sit down in front of a dollhouse, swing open its walls, remove its roof, and disappear alone inside. Or they might gather with a group of visitors at a museum and admire a dollhouse behind glass. The motto of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts is: “Only through sharing can we really enjoy our treasures.”

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Cheesemaker David Clarke separates the curds and whey to make Red Leicester cheese at Sparkenhoe Farm in Upton, central England October 8, 2007. Red Leicester cheese had not been made in Leicestershire since 1956 until Clarke started producing his traditional, unpasteurised cloth-bound cheese using milk from his 150 pedigree Holstein Fresian cows.  REUTERS/Darren Staples   (BRITAIN) - RTR1UPZD

How Real Cheese Made Its Comeback

After decades of Kraft Singles, more Americans than ever are hungry for artisanal varieties of the past. An Object Lesson.

by Laura Kiesel

Americans once prioritized affordability and convenience in food. But today, more consumers are embracing complex taste and purity of product, not to mention taking the environmental impact of their food choices into account—and they are willing to pay a higher price for the privilege. Cheese is a macrocosm of this trend.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
CAYCE, SC - FEBRUARY 27:  A worker makes adjustments on a billboard stating "Choose Happy Today," along Interstate 77 during the South Carolina Democratic Presidential Primary February 27, 2016 in Cayce, South Carolina.  Voters cast their ballots for the South Carolina Democratic Presidential Primary between Democratic Presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The Call of the Billboard

The roadside battle for people’s attention has been raging for more than a century.

by Erica Berry

Billboards normally call humans to commerce rather than insects to death. But their usual work often goes as unnoticed to people as to mosquitos. Billboards are so common it can be easy to stop seeing them entirely—until the draw of the products they depict appears later.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Why Attack Airports?

A Mini Object Lesson

by Christopher Schaberg

Throughout the twentieth century and up to now, airports have been stages for displays of excessive power, and their corollary dangers. What makes airports popular targets for violent spectacles?

Read this essay at The Atlantic
A variety of flash drives by Sandisk are displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show CES Unveiled event in Las Vegas, Nevada January 5, 2008. The show opens January 7th. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES) - RTX59DB

Why Flash Drives Are Still Everywhere

It’s the lizard brain of your computer.

by Paul Dourish

The flash drive exposes the great lie of technological progress, which is the idea that things are ever really left behind.

Read this essay at The Atlantic