The Weekender, April 17, 2020
On Tuesday, I wrote about the little dot on the rim of some aerosol cans. It’s not all that different from any other Now I Know stories — it’s the fun fact and the story behind it. But writing it was very, very different than most.
My research and writing process is very straightforward. I typically learn about a fact through a wide range of inputs — I read a lot, a lot of you send me ideas, I listen to the radio (or did, when I was driving to and from the train station every weekday), etc. — and I have a well-honed sense of curiosity and radar for the interesting. Once I find something worth investigating further, it’s a Google search, maybe a dive into Wikipedia, and then I just kind of follow the path laid out before me.
This one, though, was different. I found out about the fact via reddit, which isn’t so odd in and of itself, but it means that the source used by reddit needs to be verified more so than a professional news source would. In this case, the source was a blog post from a random person’s gardening blog. You can read it if you want, here, and if you do, you’ll immediately see that I couldn’t treat it as a reliable source. It’s a third-hand personal anecdote and one whose primary source isn’t reliable either.
But the explanation made sense and I have a soft spot for the unnoticed bits of everyday life. Unfortunately, my regular researching came up empty — I couldn’t find anything remotely reliable via a Google search.
I wanted it to be true. I looked through my house at all the cooking spray cans I could find (we have more than we should) and all but one had a dot. (The exception looked like it may have had a dot at one point, but it had faded over time.) I asked one of my brothers to take a picture of what he had and text it me — and his had dots, too. I searched for aerosol can experts on LinkedIn and tried to find them on Twitter. I was preparing to write an email to an aerosol can manufacturer. But I had one more trick up my sleeve beforehand: a Newspapers.com subscription.
Last fall, my third book, “The Soviets Invaded Wisconsin?!,” came out. One of the chapters is about the naming of the Verrazzano Bridge, connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn, and almost all the information is buried in newspapers from more than a half-century ago. Subscribing to a service to search old newspapers was a no-brainer.
I didn’t expect to find anything about dots on aerosol cans, though. It was a last-ditch effort of sorts. But, to my delight, I did. Not only did I find an expert-written article about why the dots were there, but I also found an article that had a diagram showing how aerosol cans worked. It was a little magical moment in my research, and I was able to share with you the story after all.
The Now I Know Week in Review
Monday: Kings and Queens are Royals. But What’s a Jack?: I love playing cards and I never knew this. I always thought a Jack was some sort of Prince or Duke or something.
Tuesday: The Dot in Your Kitchen You’ve Probably Never Noticed. See above.
Wednesday: The Russian Torpedo Targeting Alcoholism (and Butts): This one was a re-run. Usually, there’s some rhyme or reasons as to why I picked a specific story to re-run, but not this one. I asked the website to shoot me a random article and this one came up early in that process, and I went with it.
Thursday: Raiders of the Lost Journal. At about midnight on Wednesday night, I had nothing written for the next day. I was very close to posting another re-run. Instead, I managed to put this one together that night and the next morning, and I really like how it turned out.
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend.
1) “The Lawyer Whose Clients Didn’t Exist” (The Atlantic, 29 minutes, May 2020.) The Atlantic now has a soft paywall — you get five articles free, I think — and as a result, I’ve tried to limit how often I share stories from them. (I don’t want to share something you can’t read.) This is a really amazing story, though, so if you haven’t used up your free ones or if you’re compelled to subscribe either way, it’s worth it.
2) “I’m Working Remotely. Can I Keep Hiding My Secret Baby?” (New York Times, 5 minutes, April 2020). The Times also has a soft paywall. But this is one of the strangest, funniest advice column entries perhaps ever written, and has the chance to become an instant classic. Highly recommended.
3) “POV No-Knead Bread” (J. Kenji López-Alt/The Food Lab on YouTube, 20-minute video, April 2020). If you like to cook, aren’t good at it, and don’t know who Kenji is, you need to fix that — he’s perhaps the Internet’s best cooking coach. I don’t think I watched a video of his before this one and I don’t think I’ll ever make homemade bread, but I didn’t even know how to do it beforehand. Kenji goes through step by step, yes, but he also explains a lot of the math, history, and science behind cooking.
Have a great weekend!