The Weekender, October 6, 2017

1) “Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks” (Eater, 19 minutes, October 2017). Alternative title: “Dear Olive Garden, Never Change .” It’s … a very deep look into Olive Garden.

The well-paid suits who run Olive Garden have tried, many times, to breathe new life into their chain, and it always backfires spectacularly. They’ve flirted with small plates, they put kale and polenta on the menu, they recently started slicing the breadsticks down the middle and making sandwiches out of them. Most tables and bar seats have little unobtrusive video screens on which customers can hail their server for a refill, or pay $1.99 to test their trivia knowledge against other players who allegedly are real, but almost certainly are not. At most locations, the fake olive plants with their twisty branches have already been chucked in the trash, the walls have been un-stuccoed, and the chairs have been stripped of their exquisitely smooth-rolling wheels. By next year, they’ll all be gone.

Every time Olive Garden tries to freshen its image, to move away from its cultural role as a punchline for faux authenticity and mediocre mall food, everything collapses. Nobody wants to eat kale at Olive Garden. Nobody wants garlic hummus. We want soup and salad and unlimited breadsticks, we want never-ending bowls of pasta with a variety of sauces, we want giant glasses full of Coke and tiny wine glasses full of plonky reds and fruity whites. Just about the only stunt Olive Garden has ever pulled that’s been successful — and it’s been a raging success, an astounding, nearly unbelievable one — has been the Pasta Pass. For $100, you can buy a card that entitles you to seven weeks of unlimited unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and unlimited never-ending pasta bowls. Or you could buy it, if you were one of the 22,000 people who managed to snatch them up before they sold out in one second. One. Second. That’s how much no one cares if Olive Garden serves kale.

2) My Other Website: My other website AwesomeClaus, a curated collection of gift ideas for $20 or less. It’s supposed to be a Secret Santa site — hence the name — but whatever, toys and gifts are always fun. And besides, you can always use an Emergency Clown Nose, right?

3) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: When Baseball Players Left it on the Field. Spoiler alert: It’s about their gloves, not their hearts and souls.

Tuesday: Why Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop. Ever wonder why when you eat junk food, your brain doesn’t say “calorie requirement acheived, please stop eating”? Here’s why.

Wednesday: The Great Virtual Rabbit Massacre of 2017. When real life bleeds into virtual worlds, the rabbits pay for it. Or something.

Thursday: Why Lefties are Often Left Out. Some more stuff on brain lateralization if you’re interested: a video by CGP Grey, which is great as always, discussing what happens when our left and right brains don’t work in conjunction with one another; and for those who prefer to read, an article in Aeon about the same topic.

4) “The Coming Software Apocalypse” (The Atlantic, 38  minutes, September 2017). The subhead: “A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes. ”

There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.

The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.

Shortly before midnight on April 10, the counter exceeded that number, resulting in chaos. Because the counter was used to generating a unique identifier for each call, new calls were rejected. And because the programmers hadn’t anticipated the problem, they hadn’t created alarms to call attention to it. Nobody knew what was happening. Dispatch centers in Washington, California, Florida, the Carolinas, and Minnesota, serving 11 million Americans, struggled to make sense of reports that callers were getting busy signals. It took until morning to realize that Intrado’s software in Englewood was responsible, and that the fix was to change a single number.

5) “A Brief History of Money” (IEEE Spectrum, 15 minutes, May 2012).

In the 13th century, the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan embarked on a bold experiment. China at the time was divided into different regions, many of which issued their own coins, discouraging trade within the empire. So Kublai Khan decreed that henceforth money would take the form of paper.

It was not an entirely original idea. Earlier rulers had sanctioned paper money, but always alongside coins, which had been around for centuries. Kublai’s daring notion was to make paper money (the chao) the dominant form of currency. And when the Italian merchant Marco Polo visited China not long after, he marveled at the spectacle of people exchanging their labor and goods for mere pieces of paper. It was as if value were being created out of thin air.

Kublai Khan was ahead of his time: He recognized that what matters about money is not what it looks like, or even what it’s backed by, but whether people believe in it enough to use it. Today, that concept is the foundation of all modern monetary systems, which are built on nothing more than governments’ support of and people’s faith in them. Money is, in other words, a complete abstraction—one that we are all intimately familiar with but whose growing complexity defies our comprehension.

6) “This All-Amputee Softball Team is Changing the Way We Think About Treating Trauma” (Narratively, 12 minutes, August 2017.) Can softball help ward off PTSD?

Have a great weekend!