The Weekender, November 1, 2019


We live in a very polarized political world — in the U.S. in particular, but I have a feeling that’s true in many places — and it seems like politics spills into everything as a result. I’ve tried very hard to avoid that with Now I Know, and I think I’m unusually successful in that regard. Every few weeks, I get a note back from a reader noting (often with thanks) that they can’t discern my ideology or political leanings from my Now I Know stories. One of the reviews of my latest book even went as far as to call it “the dysfunctional family’s best friend,” saying that “my father and I argue about politics, religion, schools, and even whether it’s a nice day. (Really!) So when I can just ask him what interesting fact he learned today, it saves a lot of shouting.”

Which brings me to the subject today:

The intersection between ‘interesting’ and ‘advocacy’.” 

There are a lot of times when I’m writing or reading something that has a clear political bent but I want to share it anyway. Today is one of those days. The top story in the longreads section today is about foie gras, a delicacy which, for a couple of reasons, I’ve never eaten (and am unlikely to ever eat). Earlier this week, the New York City government banned restaurants and grocery stores from selling it because of ethical concerns — foie gras is, ultimately, the massively enlarged liver of a force-fed duck.

I’m not particularly interested in the foie gras ban one way or the other but for some reason, I ended up reading an article (here, but more on that below) which argues that foie gras isn’t unethical at all. If you want to read it because you’re interested in the ethical issues around foie gras, it’s a good read — a solid-at-worst argument on one hand, but it certainly provokes a lot of more ethical questions. But that’s not why I’m sharing it. I’m sharing it because despite it’s ultimately an advocacy article, it’s also interesting for separate reasons. If you scroll down past the “Week in Review” section, you’ll see one of the interesting tidbits highlighted.

But back to the main point: There are many, many cases in which an article which advocates for a certain viewpoint or worldview has info in it which, independent of that vantage point, is legitimately interesting. We shouldn’t ignore the interesting simply because it comes as part of an essay espousing a certain political view. 

The Now I Know Week in Review

Some of the feedback I’ve gotten about this section has been negative — a handful of people (who read the newsletter every day, I suppose) see it as redundant. In that situation, it is redundant, so that makes sense. But I know that a lot of readers aren’t reading every email as it comes out, so I’m going to keep this section going.

Plus, it lets me issue corrections or other notes about the week’s articles. 

MondayCharlie Brown’s Halloween Miracle. In writing this, I was shocked to see that I had never once reference The Great Pumpkin before.  

Tuesday: The Last Army Pillow Fight. Some good, harmless fun is none of those three words.

Wednesday: First Dakota. Which came first, South Doakot’s or North Dakota’s statehood? The world may never know. 

ThursdayThe Search for General Lee. It’s about a car. 

And some other things you should check out:

Here are three (or four?) long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical” (Serious Eats, 19 minutes, December 2010). Here’s one pull-out section that I thought was really neat; there are at least three or four others in the article. 

La Belle has also started a program to reduce its workers’ load. Many farms require that the same feeder work with the same ducks for the entire gavage [the force-feeding] process to reduce stress on the animal. For a worker, this means three long feeding shifts per day, every day, for 25 days.

A few years ago, they discovered that it’s not the actual worker that the ducks grow accustomed to; it’s just their sight and smell. They found that when they had two different workers wear the same set of clothes, the ducks would respond to the second as if they were still the first. In fact, after starting their workers on this split-shift system, production of A-graded foie actually increased.

2)  “An Unseen Victim of the College Admissions Scandal: The High School Tennis Champion Aced Out by a Billionaire Family” (ProPublica, 12 minutes, October 2019). When it comes to zero-sum games, when one person cheats to win, another person falls victim.

3) “The Untold Story of the 2018 Olympics Cyberattack, the Most Deceptive Hack in History” (Wired, 31 minutes, October 2019). Usually “untold story” means “you knew that this happened but you don’t know the whole truth or even most of the story behind it.” Not for me, not in this case: I didn’t know this had happened at all.

Have a great weekend!