How Home Plate Lives Up to Its Name

With a new baseball season upon us, an investigation of home plate's history and meaning

by Abe Stein

Home plate even resembles a home, at least in its most archetypical, crayon drawing form. The pentagonal shape was adopted in 1900 to help pitchers and umpires to better visualize the strike zone. There is no indication that the switch to the house-like pentagonal shape was inspired in any way by the name “Home” but it’s a remarkable coincidence nonetheless. As an impressionable young child playing baseball from age seven, I assumed that part of why Home was so-named was because it looked like every drawing I had ever made of a roofed house.

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The Dream of Intelligent Robot Friends

Learning about smart objects from the Karotz Internet-connected toy rabbit thing

by Carla Diana

Even in a moment of ignorance, Curi was completely enchanting. She spoke to me in a human way; she made socially appropriate gestures; she anticipated what I wanted to do. The exchange was so natural that I was able to suspend disbelief long enough to temporarily forget that I was interacting with a machine. I could simply ask it what I wanted to do in an intuitive, human way. My faith in the potential for smart objects to provide helpful assistance while also making an emotional connection was restored.

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Dust, the Ledger of Past Existence

From which we came and to which we shall return

by Michael Marder

We cannot do away with it for good, since no matter how much we try to “clean” it, we only unsettle and move the unbearably light refuse from one place to another. Whatever threats or promises it harbors, we can rest assured that it will eternally return, not as dramatically as ghosts or specters but quietly and cumulatively, like the falling snow.

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"A spoken language works / for about five centuries, / lifespan of a douglas fir"

by T. Hugh Crawford

2014 Every schoolchild learns that trees, as they grow, lay down new wood each year, so the age of a tree can be determined by counting the growth rings, officially called dendrochronology. Not only do those rings mark time and weather (temps & temps, as the French say), but also they are subtle ridges to the hand and form supple patterns both geometric and chaotic, warm and arresting, fragile and strong. Wood remains a constant in 21st century culture, still forming the basis for much of what we do, how we live, and how we mark out our days.
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‘Good for One Screw’: A Brief History of Brothel Tokens

The little coins are best understood not as sort of currency but as tchotchkes in the sexualized-collectibles market, much like the penis-shaped candies sold for bachelorette parties.

by Carly A. Kocurek

“They were made not for meaningful circulation in the exchanges attendant upon the world’s oldest profession, but for the market of sexualized collectibles and gag gifts and are something akin to the penis-festooned novelty items sold for bachelorette parties or the ceramic souvenir mugs shaped like outrageous breasts.”
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Loving the Potato

From humble vegetable to national symbol, it may be the most variously useful food item ever.

by Robert Barry

Only with difficulty can we separate the potato from association with the soil. What other supermarket item sits on the shelf still muddied, like an unwiped bum? To think of the potato is to conjure toiling peasants like Jean-François Millet. When a restaurant serves up fries that resemble even slightly the vegetable they were cut from, they call them “rustic,” or “country style” as if each chip were transported by time machine from some pre-industrial golden age.
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The Secrets of the Jumbo Squid

A writer imagines the final moments and afterlife of a squid that died February 13, 1957

by Denzil Ford

For a first glance, I’d like you to see my death. I died on February 13, 1957. It was a year of an extended El Niño so we were making our way from the southern warm current up past the equator in search of cooler and more abundant waters.

On that particular day the ocean rumbled. And when it does, one or more of us is usually taken. I have seen others fight, squeeze, attack, stab, gnaw, clinch, and I have heard their bodies splash and crank and wheeze as they are lifted up into oblivion in a pool of ink and flashing colors. The day I was taken, I began wondering why.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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