The Weekender, April 20, 2018

1)”The Quest for the Next Billion Dollar Color” (Bloomberg Businessweek, 14 minutes, April 2018). The color? Red. The reason it is worth so much if discovered? As explained by the subhead: “the world has never had a truly safe, stable, and bright red pigment.” The man searching for it? Well, here’s the start of this incredibly fascinating article into something taken for granted.

Mas Subramanian, the biggest celebrity in the uncelebrated world of pigment research, glances at a cluster of widemouthed jars containing powders in every color of the rainbow, save one. He’s got OYGBIV. “We’re getting closer,” he says brightly. He points to a jar of reddish brown dust, smoky and rich as paprika. Fetching, but it isn’t what he’s looking for.

During his nine-year sojourn into the strange, finicky realm of color, Subramanian, a materials science professor at Oregon State University at Corvallis, has grown infatuated with a form of chemistry that he, like many of his peers, once considered decidedly low-tech. His renown derives from his accidental creation, in 2009, of a new pigment, a substance capable of imparting color onto another material. YInMn blue (pronounced YIN-min) is an amalgam of yttrium, indium oxide, and manganese—elements deep within the periodic table that together form something unique. YInMn was the first blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.

It isn’t only the exotic blueness that has excited the color industry, but also the other hues the pigment can generate. Subramanian soon realized that by adding copper, he could make a green. With iron, he got orange. Zinc and titanium, a muted purple.

Scanning these creations, scattered across his workbench like evidence of a Willy Wonka bender, he frowns. “We’ve made other colors,” he says. “But we haven’t found red.”

2) Support Now I Know: As many of you already know, researching, writing, and (save for the daily typo or two) editing Now I Know is a pretty big endeavor on my part. Keeping the project financially sustainable is a battle, and to that end, I’ve tried many different avenues.

One of them — a major one at that — is my ongoing Patreon campaign. It’s an old-style patronage campaign, where readers such as yourself support Now I Know through a monthly pledge. A $5 a month pledge comes out to about 25 cents per article I send; a $1 a month pledge is roughly a nickel. Please consider supporting Now I Know through Patreon by clicking here. It’s entirely optional and you’re under no obligation to do so, so don’t feel bad if you can’t or don’t want to. But if you do, please know it all adds up, and I greatly appreciate your support. Thanks!

3) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: The Gross, Metallic Secret Behind America’s Westward Expansion. Involves latrines.

Tuesday: When the NBA Doubled Its Money. The story of the basketball player who played for both teams in the same game.

Wednesday: Seeing is Disbelieving​. A friend of mine wrote back to share an observation about this one: it’s the story of survivorship bias, literally.

ThursdayThe Guy Who Named Himself Meow But Failed to Turn Himself Into a Cyborg. If that title doesn’t earn a click, nothing will.

4) An incredible example of keeping calm under pressure (YouTube, 7 minutes, April 2018). Earlier this week, tragedy struck Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on its way to Dallas from New York City. It was a bonafide emergency, and you’d expect panic from all involved. That’s not what happened. Someone cobbled together the audio of the comms between air traffic control and the pilot. It’s amazing — everyone is so calm and matter of fact.


5) “It’s weirdly hard to steal Mark Zuckerberg’s trash” (The Outline, 8 minutes, March 2018). Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook.

I figured that having the address of one of the richest and most powerful people in the world could be vaguely useful. Maybe if a Class War ever started, I could point an angry mob in his general direction. Or maybe I could steal his valuable trash.

After four years of stalling, I finally decided to go ahead with the latter idea. My quarter-baked plan was this: I’d drive to his Mission District pied-à-terre on trash collection day, snatch a few bags of whatever, and dig through it. I could learn more about Mark Zuckerberg’s habits and interests, creating my own ad profile of him. Then I could sell this information to brands looking to target that coveted “male, 18-34, billionaire” demographic. Think of it as a physical version of Facebook’s business model.

[ . . . ]

Secure in the knowledge that the Supreme Court had my back, I looked up the trash collection schedule for Zuckerberg’s block online. It happened to be on Wednesday, the very day I was looking it up (destiny!). I posted an Instagram story that I was going to steal Zuckerberg’s trash, got in my car, and zoomed over. On the drive across the bridge from Oakland (which Facebook board member Peter Thiel once described as a “failed state”), I wondered what I might find. Tubs of Vaseline? Discarded grey T-shirts, disintegrated by his acidic sweat? The scattered bones of small animals?

I parked a couple streets away and walked up the hill to his mansion to find two trash bins in front of his house (!!), and a guy in a grey pullover leaning against the brick wall next to them. He seemed to be guarding the place. Did my Instagram story tip him off?

6) “The Winding Tale of Neopets” (The History of the Web, 9 minutes, April 2018). Neopets is one of the few surviving websites from the first “dotcom” era, which is weird because it’s basically nothing more than a home for virtual pets. It has a strange backstory involving very aggressive advertising (for the time) and an odd link to Scientology. (Oh, this link goes to the archives of an email newsletter written by a friend of mine; you should subscribe.)

Have a great weekend!