The Weekender, April 16, 2021


When I first started Now I Know more than a decade ago, it was the same format Monday through Friday. Eventually, I flipped Fridays to a new format, sharing five or so long-reads for the weekend. That evolved into a weekly letters-to-you-readers format like you see today. But I don’t always have that much to say. So today, I’m half-reverting to the old format — more longreads to share. Thanks to everyone who heard my call yesterday for suggestions.

But first, here are links to the four regular stories I shared this week.

Monday: The First Boycott: Like a surprisingly high number of things in life, it’s somehow related to potatoes.

Tuesday: When Stalin’s Grapes Went Sour: This isn’t actually a story about grapes. 

Wednesday: The Birthday Problem: The amazing math behind birthdays (and really, any date). A lot of you wrote in to tell me, coincidentally, that Wednesday was your birthday. While April 14th is not my birthday, you are in good company. Although Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot on your birthday, so it’s not all perfect. (Then again, that almost certainly happened before you were born, or in the alternative, you need to contact the people at Guinness World Records.)

Thursday: The Picture of Abraham Lincoln’s Fake Ghost: Speaking of Abaham Lincoln, here’s a fraud perpetuated on his widow.

And now, for those long reads.

1) “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (Philip K. Dick, 27 minutes, 1978). This is from a speech given by the great, late sci-fi writer, talking about how to talk about fake universes while making them still feel real. Because it’s a speech, it has a lot of one-off non-sequiturs, like the following gem:

Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful. A few years ago, no college or university would ever have considered inviting one of us to speak. We were mercifully confined to lurid pulp magazines, impressing no one. In those days, friends would say me, “But are you writing anything serious?” meaning “Are you writing anything other than science fiction?” We longed to be accepted. We yearned to be noticed. Then, suddenly, the academic world noticed us, we were invited to give speeches and appear on panels — and immediately we made idiots of ourselves. The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?

The real “article,” though, begins with this:

Well, I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can’t claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?

And his conclusion, in case you don’t want to read the whole thing, is below — and brilliant in its simplicity.

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

2) “The Unbelievable Story of Europe’s Runaway Nazi” (Vice, 16 minutes, April 2021). My apologies to the reader who sent this in — I failed to record your name when I saved this. Thanks, though. Let me know it was you and I’ll try to remember to thank you by name later!

3) “What will it be like when we go back to the office?” (Reuters, time doesn’t matter, April 2021). Thanks to reader Dan G. for sharing this one. It’s an article and a game combined into one.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what will a pandemic sabbatical do to your feelings about the office? You may miss the way you set up your cubicle, recall fondly the water cooler conversations, or can’t wait to use the office printer again. But for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, and possibly even after most people are vaccinated, office life will be very different from what it was before the global pandemic.

To understand what that might feel like, we spoke to some experts on work and workspaces who predicted that social distancing measures and hybrid work models are here to stay. Walk through our simulations below to experience what going back to the old/new office might be like. Make sure to avoid contact with others along the way!

Your first task is to find a safe place to sit, and it’s not easy.

4) “Tea if by sea, cha if by land: Why the world only has two words for tea” (QZ, 7 minutes January 2018). Via reader Valentin comes this great investigation into why our world languages only have two words (and variants thereof) for this one drink. My apologies if you hit a paywall here —  I didn’t the first or fourth time I looked at the article, but I did the second and fifth (and don’t remember what happened the third). 

5) “I Was at the Clapperboard for Orson Welles’ Drunk Wine Commercial” (Mel Magazine, 6 minutes plus at least another 3 minutes of video-watching). The story itself is great. The videos are amazing. How do the other actors not break character? How does Welles end up delivering on the actual ad? Both defy explanation.

Have a great weekend!