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What Makes a Good Toilet

On that sanitation workhorse, the pit latrine

by Zach Gershkoff

It would seem that collecting human waste in a pit would pose a health risk. After all, water comes from the ground. In places far from a city, such as my village, people can get water from communal taps built on street corners, but some families will also have boreholes drilled on their property for when the taps are dry, which they often are. Could it be dangerous to have a pit latrine too close to a borehole? Provided that it’s properly maintained, no. A person with healthy kidneys is not going to pass more than a few liters of urine per day, so the flow of fluid into the pit should not be torrential. What doesn’t evaporate may leech into the ground, but contaminants won’t permeate far enough through the soil to reach the water table. Some pits will be lined with bricks or other casing for structural integrity, and it’s not the end of the world if the lining develops cracks. For the most part, a user of a pit latrine will not know or care what, exactly, is under him.
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Tempelhof Airport

The New Psychogeography of Tempelhof Airport, Once a Nazi Landmark

"You have the exhilarating feeling that you’re doing something Hitler wouldn’t have wanted you to do."

by Randy Malamud

This smoke bears the aroma of a new Berlin: its odors are equal parts brats and kebabs; there’s a large Turkish mosque and cultural center right next to the airfield. I’ve never seen such a diverse mix of people anywhere else in Berlin; Turks, Asians (there’s a Hindu Temple down the street), and Western Europeans seem so comfortable together. Hitler would have hated it! It’s as if the newness of this space makes it a blank slate, so there are no traditions of exclusion here. Every single kid here is happy—how often can you say that at a “real” airport?

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Ice

The Ice Buckets of the Stars

On the dual aristocratic-democratic nature of the ice bucket

by Jack Pendarvis

The ice buckets of the stars seem smaller because my main acquaintance with them has been in motels (the ice buckets, not the stars), where they promise kingly convenience for the weary. Ice was amenity, granted by a huge machine, and the size of your bucket was the measure of generosity and value. In a 1963 interview, the president of the TraveLodge chain explained that the way to tell a hotel from a motel was whether “the guest is obligated to pay something more than the actual price of his room.” The scholarly authors of The Motel in America extrapolate: “If a guest had to pay for a garage or tip a bellboy for a bucket of ice, then he or she was not in a motel.”
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The Amazing Placenta

A placenta is less an organ contained and owned by a mother than it is one temporarily leasing space in her body.

by Suzanne Nguyen

The placenta is a transient organ that doesn’t even appear in all of us. Yet it forms a lasting part of our evolutionary identity, our being. We classify ourselves as “placental mammals,” to distinguish from other mammals that either lay eggs (“monotremes”) or give birth to young fetuses and carry them in pouches until they’re well developed (“marsupials”). Strictly speaking, we’re not the only kinds of animals to have placentas. Marsupials and some reptilian species have rudimentary versions of placentas. But our “eutherian” placentas are far more sophisticated, capable of bringing nutrients and oxygen to the fetus until it completes its gestation.

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Sympathy for the Blue Screen of Death

It is but the messenger, like a fever.

by Evan Meaney

The Blue Screen of Death may look like a delinquent spray-painting hex-code curse words onto your computer screen, and it may even have started out that way. But there’s another way to understand Blue: as the responsible overseer trying to wrangle so many unwieldy hardware and software systems that don’t always play nicely with one another—the Thin Blue Line of personal computing.

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Shipping Container

The Shipping Container

A Cyber Monday paean to the unsung hero of consumer capitalism

by Craig Martin

From the nascent designs of the 1950s, through the roll-out phase of the 1960s, to the standardization of the 1970s, the container became central to the burgeoning growth of consumer capitalism, particularly the move of manufacturing to traditionally peripheral economies. The shipping container models the fundamentals of late capitalism even as it facilitates it: a standardized, reproducible structure that looks and functions the same everywhere.

But just as much as it has amplified the practice of consumer capitalism, the shipping container also underwrote an aesthetics of capitalism as well.

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Nancy Bernardo

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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Train Timetables

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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McRib

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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Light Switch

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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Glass

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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Machete

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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Refrigerator

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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Nikon With Compression

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-Shirt

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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Jet Bridge

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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Ian Bogost

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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Keys

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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Birds in AMC's The Walking Dead

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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