Redux: Anne Sasso has a stand-up calculator

PIA00766_hiresIt is Thing Appreciation Week at LWON, where we bring you the Greatest Hits of our previous posts about inanimate objects. 

Anne Sasso wrote this post in January of last year celebrating her pocket calculator, which has stood by her for 40 years while planned obsolescence ate all of her other devices — and their replacements. Presenting: The Mars Rover of Calculators.

Image: Sojourner licks a rock called Yogi. Photo by Mars Pathfinder (NASA).

Redux: Helen on Tea Towels

12680324455_b7d6599090_c (1)This week LWON reminds you of all the mundane, unimpressive, uncelebrated things that are nevertheless worth celebrating.

The advice of early mentors often has unexpected weight; we keep following it long after we’ve grown up and become mentors ourselves.  Helen’s first mentor in journalism, the excellent Joanne Silberner, gave her advice about the complex and subtle job of foreign correnspondence.  And that’s how Helen ended up with all those tea towels.

This first ran Jan. 14, 2016:  Memories in My Kitchen.


Photo: liz west

Redux: Nell on Paper Clips

This week at LWON we’re digging into the archives to celebrate the uncelebrated: inanimate objects. Many of them aren’t very impressive inanimate objects. And yet we love them.

In December 2014 Nell Greenfieldboyce explained her obsession with paper clips. If you’ve ever worried about the feelings of an inanimate object, or thought about how amazing it is that a manufactured thing in your hand started out as raw materials in the ground–or if you haven’t ever done these things, this essay is for you.

The trouble is, once you start seeing paper clips, you can’t stop seeing them. My obsession with lost paper clips started years ago, when I resolved to start gathering coins. I’d read some article that argued that only a fool would walk past free money and that taking a second to collect a coin meant that, at that moment, you’d be making more than minimum wage. I started scanning the ground for nickels, dimes, or quarters, but hardly ever found any. Instead, I saw the metallic flash of paper clips.

The Art of Losing Paperclips

Photo: JF Sebastian, Flickr

Redux: Tom Praises Crap Technology

This week at LWON we’re digging into the archives to celebrate the uncelebrated: inanimate objects. Many of them aren’t very impressive inanimate objects. And yet we love them.

I was inspired to propose this week of reruns by a piece former LWONer Tom Hayden wrote back in 2011 about the various functional, non-fancy things he has used and loved through the years–like his $20 MP3 player, which was unattractive but got the job done. He contrasted this with the shiny new iPod video that he bought, briefly owned, then lost.

I’ve been thinking about my Zune a lot since Steve Jobs passed away. You know, the revolutionary portable music device that lets users carry thousands of digitized songs around in a pocket or a purse? Oh wait, what am I saying — it’s not a Microsoft product I’ve been thinking about. I don’t have a Zune. I don’t even have an iPod. I have a Coby.

That’s right, a Coby. A cheap plastic mp3 player — basically a $19.99 flash drive with a headphone jack, a pixilated little screen, and controls that look a lot like the original iPod scroll wheel, without actually scrolling or being a wheel. It’s a piece of crap, really. And I love it.

Read the rest: In Praise Of Crap Technology

And please use the comments to tell us what crap technology you’ve kept going way beyond its natural life.

The Last Word

shutterstock_416354974July 11 – 15, 2016

Jessa updates a post about the Berger Inquiry, the time that the Canadian government actually asked the people who were here first what they wanted to do with the land that belonged to them in the first place.

Rose’s backyard in Brooklyn is full of squirrels fighting, not just the usual squabbling but full-on Fight Club, red in tooth and claw.

Your science fair project was probably something lame, like baking-powder volcanoes.  But Jenny, Jenny did a science fair project and grew bone!  She still quite proud of herself.

Billions and billions of great white sharks out there, right?  Turns out that nobody knows how many because nobody knows how to count them — except the guys in Edinburgh who count cabs.

Jenny wanted to bring a lab rabbit home and make it a pet.  She should have paid attention to Rose’s backyard because those rabbits? not pets.


My Science Fair Project Part II: Revenge of the Lab Rabbits

shutterstock_108222992If you read my post earlier this week, you’ll know that I did this fantastic science fair project back in the 7th grade. In fact, when it comes to science, I might have peaked in middle school—which is pretty sad. But I peaked in a big way with that bone-growing experiment. Please go back and read the piece if you somehow didn’t get around to it before, though I can’t imagine how that would happen.

I ended that text with my blue ribbon, as I should have. It’s good to quit after applause and high praise. But there’s a brief second chapter to this story that I’d like to share. It’s the part where the lab rabbit gets back at me for her entire miserable existence. Continue reading

Counting Pistachios, Taxis and Great White Sharks

shutterstock_392064547In this month’s issue of National Geographic, I lay out a simple question. How many great white sharks are there on Earth?

It seems simple enough – we’ve found some 3,500 planets outside our solar system and 400,000 species of beetles on Earth. This is the modern world of crowdsourcing and big data. We can go online and learn that the black-rumped agouti has 857,000,000 neurons in its brain. How hard is it to count 18-foot fish eating giant animals that lay out on rocks all day? When I started this project I figured we had not only counted them all but named them as well.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. It turns out that we have almost no idea how many great white sharks there are on Earth. These are not agoutis – which, chances are, you had to google just now – this is the world’s most iconic sea creature. Not only is this surprising but it’s a big problem since you can’t protect a population if you don’t know how big it is. How can we tell if great whites are in trouble if we don’t know how many there are? And how can we tell if their populations are improving? From a policy perspective, no other question really matters.

That’s not to say people haven’t taken stabs at it. An alarming 2011 paper estimated the population in the notoriously sharky waters of Central California at 219. Which was shockingly low until another came out using the same data that put it north of 2,000. So I guess it depends on how you count. Which raises a really interesting question: How do you count sharks?

The answer, as you might expect, comes down to  Scottish taxicabs. That’s not a joke, I’m dead serious. If you want to understand the future of great white sharks on Earth, you must first understand the only taxi drivers on Earth who (I can only assume) all wear kilts. Continue reading

My Science Fair Project Was Better Than Yours

shutterstock_416354974I remember my 7th grade science fair project pretty clearly. You may think you aren’t interested in what it was, but you should be—because it was fabulous. It was truly unique. I didn’t grow plants under different colored lights and I didn’t build a lame volcano using paper maché and some sticky baking soda and Sprite mixture (or whatever). I’m talking actual, useful science. I’m talking intelligent and intriguing experiment with totally cool results—physical results you could hold in your hand.

For my 7th grade project, I grew bone.

Continue reading