The Weekender, July 13, 2018

1) “The mind-bendy weirdness of the number zero, explained” (Vox, 8 minutes, July 2018, plus a 5 minute YouTube video). Thanks to reader Andrea K. for the suggestion.

The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.

Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer … equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.

Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.

So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why.

2) Support Now I Know on Patreon. It’s totally optional, really — please don’t feel guilty if you’re unwilling or unable. But if you decide to, you won’t see ads anymore (on the email version, at least) as a token of my appreciation.

3) “This Man Is an Island” (Bitter Southerner, 20 minutes, July 2018). The subhead: “David Wolkowsky returned to his childhood home of Key West, Florida, in 1962, when he was in his 40s. Today, as he nears 100, he has long been known as Mr. Key West. Michael Adno tells us how the island we know today became a reflection of one man’s campy sense of style.”

4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: How To Fool the World Starting with Two All-Beef Patties — Or, why Big Macs were cheap (but hard to find) in Argentina.

Tuesday: Why Ottawa’s Airport is Called YOW — And why you couldn’t use it for part of 1959.​

Wednesday: A Really Bad Way to Become a Senator — If you want to be a senator, run for office. Don’t do what this guy did.

Thursday: Invisible Mothers — The 19th century version of Photoshop?

And a bonus: How Mr. Rogers Made Friday the 13th Less Scary


5) “Japan’s Vegetable-Eating Men” (Topic, 13 minutes, June 2018).

The transition wasn’t easy when Shuichi first became a “househusband” in the early aughts. His wife had been working as a graphic designer, and she set herself on a path toward promotions and higher pay. At home, Shuichi felt the scrutiny of everyone around him if he went out to the grocery store in the middle of the day. So he dressed up. “For a long time, when I felt well enough to go out I would put on my suit, even just to go to the store or do the dishes,” he explains. To be an adult man not in a suit rushing to or from work at the time was to mark oneself as abnormal. The common term for married, unemployed men at the time was himo—“string,” a derogatory reference to their financial dependence on their wives.

Wearing a suit while browsing produce, Shuichi was indistinguishable from any other salaryman setting about his daily business in the Tokyo streets. After two years, with his wife’s salary increasing, Shuichi made a decision. “I realized that we could increase our overall household ‘salary’ if I focused on supporting her instead of waiting to cure my disease, or forcing myself to go to work,” he says. To mark this turning point, Shuichi made his role as an outcast complete: he dyed his hair blond.

A Japanese man with bleached-blond hair wouldn’t necessarily stand out in most Western countries, or even in modern-day Tokyo, but at the time, Shuichi explains, it was a huge symbolic move. “Until then, my thought was to go back into the workforce and back to society,” Shuichi says. “But in the public eye, men with blond hair are not allowed to work or even permitted to search for jobs as a salaryman. I became defiant and that is when I basically declared myself a ‘househusband.’”

6) “The Cattle Industry Is Having a Cow Over Whether Lab-Grown Meat Should Be Called Meat” (Slate, 13 minutes, July 2018). They’ve changed the title — it’s now the rather boring “Is Lab-Grown Meat Really Meat?” — but the article is still pretty interesting. (By the way — I’ve tried the fake-meat “Impossible Burger” and it’s rather good.)

Have a great weekend!