I Asked ChatGPT To Tell Me a Story about Cookie-Obsessed Squirrels and Iron Man’s Presidential Run. Here’s What It Cooked Up.

The story is below; the screenshots are underneath, as proof that ChatGPT wrote this with my minimal prompting.

Iron Man was a man of many talents. In addition to being a brilliant inventor and a skilled fighter, he was also a natural leader. So when he announced that he was running for President, many people were excited.

Iron Man’s campaign was a huge success. He promised to use his wealth and technology to make the world a better place, and people believed him. But as the election approached, some people began to have doubts.

It turned out that Iron Man was not the man he claimed to be. He was actually a Manchurian candidate, standing in for an organization of super-intelligent squirrels. These squirrels had been working on a secret project: the development of the perfect recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

Iron Man’s true purpose was to use his position as President to further the squirrels’ goal. He would use his powers and resources to help them find the best ingredients and techniques for making delicious cookies.

The people were shocked and outraged when they learned the truth. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Iron Man was still the best candidate for the job, and he was elected President. And as for the squirrels, they continued their work, determined to create the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.

“Squirreling Away with Iron Man: The Quest for the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie”

Iron Man was a man of many talents. In addition to being a brilliant inventor and a skilled fighter, he was also a natural leader. So when he announced that he was running for President, many people were excited.

Iron Man’s campaign was a huge success. He promised to use his wealth and technology to make the world a better place, and people believed him. But as the election approached, some people began to have doubts.

It turned out that Iron Man was not the man he claimed to be. He was actually a Manchurian candidate, standing in for an organization of super-intelligent squirrels. These squirrels had been working on a secret project: the development of the perfect recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

Iron Man’s true purpose was to use his position as President to further the squirrels’ goal. He would use his powers and resources to help them find the best ingredients and techniques for making delicious cookies.

The people were shocked and outraged when they learned the truth. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Iron Man was still the best candidate for the job, and he was elected President. And as for the squirrels, they continued their work, determined to create the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.

The super-intelligent squirrels had been working on their secret project for many years. They had collected a vast array of ingredients, from the finest cocoa beans to the most delicate spices. They had studied the science of baking, and experimented with different techniques and combinations.

But their ultimate goal was still elusive. They knew that the perfect chocolate chip cookie was out there, just waiting to be discovered. And they were determined to find it.

With Iron Man as their agent, they had access to even more resources. He helped them procure the best ingredients from around the world, and used his technology to analyze and test their recipes.

The squirrels worked tirelessly, day and night, in their secret laboratory. They mixed and matched ingredients, trying different combinations and proportions. They baked batch after batch of cookies, tasting and analyzing each one.

And slowly but surely, they began to make progress. They discovered the secret to creating the perfect dough, and the ideal temperature for baking. They found the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness in the chocolate chips.

Finally, after many long months of work, the squirrels had done it. They had created the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. It was crisp and golden on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside. The chocolate chips were perfectly melted, and the flavor was indescribably delicious.

The squirrels were thrilled with their accomplishment. They knew that they had achieved something truly remarkable, and they were eager to share their creation with the world. And with Iron Man as their ally, they were confident that they would be able to do just that.

Despite the squirrels’ best efforts, their plan to use Iron Man as their agent ultimately failed. This was due to a number of factors.

First and foremost, Iron Man was a hero, and he had a strong sense of right and wrong. As he learned more about the squirrels’ true motives, he began to have doubts about their plan. He realized that their obsession with chocolate chip cookies was misguided, and that they were using him for their own gain.

In addition, Iron Man’s position as President was not as powerful as the squirrels had hoped. As the leader of a nation, he was bound by laws and regulations, and he could not simply do whatever he wanted. This made it difficult for him to help the squirrels achieve their goals.

Furthermore, the people of the world were not as easily swayed by Iron Man’s charms as the squirrels had anticipated. Many of them were suspicious of his sudden change of heart, and they did not trust him as they once had. This made it difficult for him to gain support for his policies, and hindered his ability to help the squirrels.

In the end, the squirrels’ plan was foiled. Iron Man was unable to help them achieve their goal, and they were forced to abandon their pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. The squirrels were disappointed, but they learned a valuable lesson: sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry.

* * *

Originally published on December 8, 2022

How To Get Rid of Lots of Old Books

If you’re reading this, you are in the situation I was in two weeks ago: in a fit of decluttering, I ended up with a hundred or so old books, almost all in very good condition, that I had zero use for. And not wanting to see the books go to waste, I wanted to donate them somewhere.

That proved difficult. But thanks to the readers of Now I Know, my free daily trivia email newsletter that you really should sign up for, I was able to get rid of all the books (without resorting to putting them out with the recycling). Now I Know’s readers made dozens and dozens of suggestions, which you can find below.

Selling Your Books

If you’re lucky, you can do this quickly. Otherwise, it’s doable but it’ll take forever. Either way, you won’t make a lot of money.

If you’re lucky, you live near a Half Price Books. They have about 120 stores but aren’t everywhere. If you have one nearby, just take your books to them — they say they’ll look through them and make you an offer.

Or: you could find a local used book sale. Book Sale Finder is a website full of book sales; maybe there’s one near you. Call ahead, though — as I learned, not all of them will let anyone sell books there.

For the rest of us, your best bets are eBay or maybe Mercari. And if you have an incredible amount of books, Amazon has dropshipping services — that will get the books out of your house, too, until they sell (and obviously, after they sell, too). I have no idea how the Amazon dropshipping process works, so if that page isn’t helpful, sorry.

Another selling option is a consignment arrangement with either a local store or, more likely, a company that runs estate sales. Now I Know readers said that consignment shops can be very picky (understandably; if they don’t think it can sell, they don’t want it). The two readers who suggested estate sales both warned that those companies will often only pay you if the books sell at their next sale; otherwise, you effectively donated the books to them (or more likely, the unsold books went out with the trash).

Trading Your Books for Other Books

This is doable but slow and potentially expensive. The easy way: if you have a local used book shop, start there — they may take many/most/all of your books and give you a store credit.

If not, there are a handful of websites that facilitate book trading, but you almost always have to pay for shipping:

Giving Away The Books

If you don’t care if you get anything back, it’ll be a bit easier to get rid of the books — but not much.

The easiest way is Better World Books. This is what I did. Better World Books is an online used book retailer, and they came up with a really neat idea: put huge donation bins all over the eastern United States. People like me can dump their unwanted books in the bin, they come by once a week or so to pick it up, and then they sort through the books. They sell what they can, they donate what they can’t, and they recycle what they can’t donate.

It’s really difficult to find a local institution that will take your books. Your local library is your best bet, but the vast majority of them have zero interest — they already have a lot of books and don’t have the staff or the space to handle all the donations. Call ahead first, and if they say no, ask if they know of any other local libraries that are accepting books. Also, ask if there is a “friends of the library” that they’re affiliated with — those groups, which effectively are volunteers that fundraise on behalf of the library — often run used book sales, and may take your books.

Similarly, while many local schools have libraries (and all have classrooms), few will take your books. It’s the same problem the libraries have — once one person donates, the whole town may follow suit, and the school isn’t set up to handle that.

Other institutions in the area may actually be more interested than your library or schools. Prisons and jails may be a good bet, and some will even take children’s books so inmates can read to their children when they visit. Hospitals, rehabs, and eldercare facilities may also take some books. Similarly, Boys and Girls Clubs may have libraries. Other readers suggested homeless shelters as well. But this is all hit-or-miss and based on the local institution’s specific need.

Also in this category, thrift shops/Goodwill may take your books. But in my area, neither wanted the books I had to give away.

Social media may be a good option. If you’re on Facebook, your community Facebook Group may be an option, and there’s probably a “Buy Nothing” or “FreeCycle” Facebook Group that covers a wider geographic range. Either one may find you a taker. Similarly, Nextdoor and Craigslist may be good options.

There may be a curbside solution — beyond the trash. Many communities have Little Free Libraries, which are basically roadside bins designed to hold about 25-50 books; anyone can come by and take a book or drop some off for others. The downside here: they’re too small to handle dozens of books, and they’re often full.

A lot of readers said they had success with a less formal version of the Little Free Library: they suggested putting your books on the curb with a sign that says “Free Books.” That wouldn’t work where I live, but it may in other places.

When all else fails, recycle them.

Originally published on October 29, 2021

So you’ve never watched a Marvel movie but you want to watch Avengers: Endgame. Here’s how to get ready.

This hit my Twitter timeline a few minutes ago and now I’m obsessed with answering it.


It turns out that I’m really well-suited to answer this because:

(a) I’m really into MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the non-Spidey web-crawlers out there). I’ve seen all the movies except Thor: Dark World (which I’ll rectify at some point) and The Incredible Hulk (which I probably won’t bother with). I’ve even binge-watched all five seasons of Agents of SHIELD.

(b) I really only got into it after watching Infinity War. Or, more accurately, Infinity War was the first MCU movie I saw in theaters, probably the fourth or fifth MCU movie I watched, and maybe the 2nd or 3rd I really paid attention to.

In other words, I went into Infinity War mostly blind to the universe and came out a believer. You can, too! Here’s how I did it. The great news — it’s easily replicable.

You have to watch Infinity War.

I’d not watch it first — the steps below will help Infinity War make more sense — but it’s really key. Infinity War does a great job of introducing us MCU-newbies to the Infinity Stones, to the bad guy, and even to the rift from after Captain America: Civil War. It gives you almost everything you need to feel like you have a decent idea as to what is going on. The items below help fill in the gaps.

I watched the first Avengers movie a few months after it came out. On Netflix, I think. It’s probably a good idea to start here, but if you have to skip this step, you can make do with my cheat-sheet below.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the first MCU movie I watched but it’s the first one I even remotely cared about. I grew up with a passing interest in X-Men and Spider-Man; most of my superhero affinity was for Adam West’s Batman and Christopher Reeves’ Superman. Iron Man and Thor weren’t on my radar; Captain American only barely. The first “Avengers” movie, though, felt bigger — not big enough for me to go to the theater (which at the time was difficult, schedule-wise) but certainly, something I made an effort to watch. I kind of got the idea that this was part of a bigger story, but only slightly, and not enough for me to say “I really need to know what happens next.”

If memory serves, and it probably doesn’t, I had previously seen one or two of the Iron Man movies by then and the first Thor movie. But I had done so on TBS-level reruns and didn’t really pay attention to the movies. If I had to recap them then, I’d not have been able to. The important part here — and you’re going to see a theme here — is that The Avengers really helps explain who all these characters are, and that’s kind of important given how many of them hit the screen in Infinity War. But if not, no worries! I made a cheat-sheet below.

I watched the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I kind of think this movie is important to watch.

The hype was big and I couldn’t avoid it. But I did wait until I could watch it from my couch. I liked it but didn’t realize at the time that it was part of this huge Infinity Stones/Thanos story. It’s important because the Guardians aren’t classic superheroes and it’s hard to really get the characters without this introduction.

It may be a good idea to watch Dr. Strange.

It’s possible that I saw Dr. Strange before I saw Infinity War — I just really don’t remember. I know I watched it on Netflix a few times, but I’m not sure when, so maybe that’s why this oddball bullet comes in. As a character, at least insofar is Infinity War is concerned, Dr. Strange (and his sidekick, Wong) is pretty straightforward — he’s a wizard who can open up portals and do some random other wizard-y stuff. But Strange and Wong are the viewer’s introduction to the Infinity Stones in Infinity War, and the Time Stone is really important to the story, so maybe watch this one.

And similarly, it may be a good idea to watch Age of Ultron. But honestly, it’s not a priority.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t see this first. I saw Ultron well after watching many other MCU movies, Infinity War included. It helps explain the also-important Mind Stone and also introduces you to a couple of new heroes who are central to Infinity War’s storyline.

Everything else you can kind of muddle through without much backstory. That doesn’t mean you should skip the other movies, though — Black Panther, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Thor: Ragnarok are all in my top 3 MCU movies (probably) and Captain Marvel and both Ant-Man movies are also really good. (You shouldn’t watch the second Ant-Man movie before watching Infinity War, though.)

Oh, you may want to watch both Ant-Man movies.

Total speculation, but there’s a decent chance that the Quantum Realm is going to matter a LOT. My guess, though, is that Endgame will explain this in decent-enough detail where you’ll be like, “okay, I kinda get it.”

* * *

Okay, to recap, the absolute minimum you have to do is:

  1. Watch the first Avengers movie or, in the very least, read my cheat-sheet below. But you really should watch the movie.
  2. Watch Guardians of the Galaxy.
  3. Watch Infinity War.
  4. Buy your tickets to Endgame.

The cheat-sheet


The first Avengers movie features the following:

Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) is basically Batman but with a lot cooler tech. His superpower is that he’s rich and smart and can build lots of toys. He’s basically worthless without his supersuit but that’s okay, because he seems to always have it hidden somewhere.

Thor is literally the god of thunder, but he’s more accurately the god of lightning. He used to have a hammer which was basically unbreakable and super-awesome but it’s gone, long story, watch the other movies if you care. His brother, Loki, looks nothing like him and is the god of tricks. He’s totally untrustworthy and is the bad guy in the first Avengers movie, but things are basically cool between him and Thor at this point. Kind of. Oh, yeah, and the two of them have a friend with a magical sword which can teleport people across the galaxy.

Captain America is a normal dude who is super-strong and stuff. He used to have a shield made of indestructible metal, but he lost it. He doesn’t look like a walking American flag anymore, either; now he has a beard and wears a lot of black.

Black Widow is a world-class spy who will kick your ass.

The Incredible Hulk you probably know. Big green guy, comes out when his alter ego Bruce Banner gets angry (usually), basically impossible to control as he smashes stuff. At times has problems remembering who to smash and who not to smash. He’s increasingly been used as comic relief, though.

Hawkeye shoots arrows with crazy-awesome accuracy and the arrows aren’t normal arrows — they do cool stuff. He’s what Katniss Everdeen would have been if he were raised to be a superhero.

Nick Fury is the dude who put the original gang together. Maria Hill is his current #2, using a very liberal definition of “current.” Pepper Potts is Tony Stark/Iron Man’s fiancée and may actually have super powers too, but no one really ever seems to remember that. Happy Hogan is basically Tony Stark’s and Pepper Potts’ guy Friday. Phil Coulson probably won’t be in Endgame but if he is, they’ll explain what’s going on.


The people/things who aren’t in the first Avengers that you need to know about:

Thanos is the bad guy. Even if he’s not in a movie, he’s the bad guy. He’s that bad.

There are six Infinity Stones. The Mind Stone keeps Vision (below) alive. The Time Stone lets Dr. Strange (also below) manipulate time. The other four you don’t need to know anything about beforehand. Most people can’t hold them without blowing stuff up unintentionally. Having all six lets you do bad things.

Ant-Man is a kind-hearted goofball who has no business being a hero except for the fact that he has a cool suit which lets him change size, and that he has a well-tuned moral compass (minus his whole criminal backstory). There’s also The Wasp, which is another Ant-Man but she’s a she and has wings.

Black Panther and the rest of the Wakandans other than Shuri. They’re awesome warriors with more of that indestructible metal, except that they use it for more than just shields. T’Challa, the Black Panther himself, also has some powers which make him kind of like Captain America, but probably stronger and better. Shuri is his sister, and she’s a brilliant scientist. Like, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, they’re geniuses, and Shuri makes them look dumb.

Vision isn’t human and he has an Infinity Stone in his forehead so he can basically do anything, but he most often doesn’t.

Scarlett Witch can move things with her mind and will also kick your ass.

Dr. Strange and his sidekick Wong are wizards. They can open up portals which basically teleport people and things, and make magical shields which block stuff. And they can do other magic, too, but it’s pretty straightforward that it’s magic when they do it. Dr. Strange has a magic cape which he can make do stuff.

Spider-Man is Spider-Man. He’s also like 17 years old or something and has a suit made for him by Iron Man.

You’re going to watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. I so this cheat sheet will ignore them otherwise.

The other heroes probably aren’t all that important to the storyline yet. Bucky Barnes is missing an arm, and that’s important in other movies, so don’t be confused when it comes up in the movies above. Falcon has a mechanized set of wings. War Machine is the guy in the silver Iron Man suit. Captain Marvel is a human with alien powers who can do all sorts of crazy stuff but we’re not sure what to make of her yet because we just met her like, last week (although her movie’s events were set in the 1990s).





Originally published on April 1, 2019

Results from the Now I Know Reader Survey, June 2018

Earlier this month, I sent out a survey to the readers of Now I Know. More than 2,700 people responded! Thank you for participating if you did; if you didn’t, you’re still OK by me.

Let’s jump into the results.

1) “Pick One” — The Harry Potter edition

I asked readers to pick their Hogwarts house or to identify as a Muggle, but gave no context beyond that. (The question simply said “Pick one,”  which I do a lot in such surveys, and didn’t specifically mention Harry Potter.) There was no “Huh?” option and the question wasn’t skippable, so if you didn’t get the question, you had to choose randomly to continue — or not take the survey at all.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 7.23.31 AM

Wow, that’s close! Looking at the raw numbers, Ravenclaw beats Gryffindor by one vote! I didn’t take the survey myself, but I’d have chosen Ravenclaw too — I’m a trivia nerd after all! — so maybe call it two votes.

One other note: Google Drive (which powered the survey) chooses the colors here — I think it’s pretty funny that it made Slytherin green.

2) “Which do you like more?” 

I asked this because I get a good amount of positive feedback about the Weekender and started to wonder whether it had become more popular than the regular daily stories. The results below surprised me a lot.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 7.27.40 AM

That said, the format isn’t going to change.

3) “Have you read any of these books? Check all that apply.”

Nothing specific sparked this question. I tried to pick books that started with the letter M, and with the slight exception of “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” succeeded.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 8.04.13 AM

For what it’s worth, I’ve read all the above except for “The Man in the Iron Mask.” I liked all except “The Magicians,” which I thought was very well written and told but put me in a rotten mood. The characters are just terrible people. (The Syfy TV show, though, while very dark at points and certainly not for everyone, is excellent.)

4) “Now I Know has a Patreon page, which means readers like you can help fund the work I do. Choose the one which applies best to you.”

I don’t have any comments to add here except that you really shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t contribute, and that if you do contribute, I really appreciate it 🙂 Oh, and I’m working on that no-ads-for-patrons thing, but it’s going to be a while.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 8.08.59 AM

5) “Which of the following responses will be the most popular response”

This one didn’t work right. First, the results; then, I’ll explain.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 10.31.39 AM

When I first created the survey, all three answer choices said “This one” with no punctuation. Shortly after the survey went live, a reader emailed me about a mistake on another question (I can’t remember what it was, sorry). While fixing it, I noticed that Google was treating all three “This one” answers as the same — regardless of which option one chose (and only a few dozen of you had replied at that point). That wasn’t going to work, so I quickly made a change, adding punctuation marks. I guess people really like exclamation points.

6) “Imagine it’s 2016 and you’re about to vote for President of the United States. (Assume you have a vote.) If you had to vote for one or the other, who would you vote for as President of United States? (note: this one is optional.)

Before I get to the results here, I want to mention two things: First, about 85% of you decided to answer this, despite it being optional. Second, I asked virtually the same question in May of 2016, receiving a similar number of responses. Note that the people who took the surveys don’t match up 1:1, of course, so this isn’t a good, scientific tracking poll; I’d not draw too many conclusions from this. Still, it’s interesting.

Without further comment, here’s what the results looked like in 2016 and then 2018.


Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 10.54.34 AM


Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 10.54.48 AM

(The orange slice of the bottom chart is 5.4%)

7) The question with no question, and only one answer choice.

In editing question #5 (and whatever else needed fixing), I accidentally created a ghost question — there’s no text and no choices other than an ominously named “Option 1.” This was a failure of technology — I was editing the survey on my phone and Google’s software isn’t set up for that, and this happened. By the time I got to a laptop to fix it, a lot of people had taken the survey. I decided to keep it. 100% of those who answered the question chose “Option 1,” obviously, but more interestingly, fewer than 25% of you decided to answer the question.

Yay for accidental experiments!

8) “Pick a Mr.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.04.08 AM

I don’t find the results above surprising. Both Mr.s are very underrated.

(I’d have gone with “Rogers” or maybe “It’s a tie.”)

9) What goes on a hot dog?

This was a reader-submitted question (I think I solicited them on Twitter).

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.06.13 AM

I don’t have particularly strong feelings here. I’m not a big ketchup fan in any context, except maybe with french fries. I am a big mustard fan in general. But I don’t eat a lot of hot dogs.

10) “Does pineapple belong on pizza?”

Another reader-submitted question, although I added my own riff to it.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.08.23 AM

When I was in college, I definitely had pineapple on pizza a few times — and I don’t remember finding it unnatural or anything like that. But I had bad judgment back then, so who knows how I’d feel now. On the other hand, a grilled slice of pineapple goes great on a burger.

11) “Which should Now I Know do next?”

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21% of you said “Neither”?!? Oof.

12) “Old MacDonald had a farm (E-I-E-I-O). And on that farm he had a ___________.” 

I accidentally listed “Pig” twice, and as noted above, Google combined them into one slice. That’s OK, in this case, because it was an accident anyway.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.44.22 AM

And “Pig” still came in second. “Turtle,” by the way, is a great choice. Next time you’re singing “Old MacDonald,” yell it out and watch the chaos that ensues as everyone tries to figure out what sound a turtle makes.

13) “Are you an accountant?”)Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.46.53 AM

Don’t ask, long story, and not a terribly interesting one at that. No, I don’t need an accountant. But if I did, 4.6% of you qualify.

14) “The word “respite” most closely rhymes with the word”

There’s a story here, though. I follow Hank Green, the YouTuber and now novelist, on Twitter. (He follows me, too, which I think is kinda cool.) In April, he posted this:

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.50.32 AM

It links to a tweet (here) which has this map:

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.51.59 AM

I, too, was shocked. I would only have pronounced it “res-pit” (i.e. rhymes with “desperate”) and yet, about half of his poll, disagreed. I needed to know how you all felt. The results:

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 11.53.02 AM


15) “Pick one” — The Golden Girls edition

Like the Harry Potter edition, I didn’t spell out what this question was about. However, I gave an opt-out here, with “Huh?” being an option.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 1.45.52 PM

The Miami Four rank as Sofia, Rose, Blanche, and Dorothy given the above. That sounds about right, although I could quibble here or there. Not going to, though. For the 26.7% of you who answered “Huh?,” though, congrats, you’ve won! You get to experience the Golden Girls for the first time. There’s no rush — they’re not making any more, so you won’t fall further behind — but really, make the investment. It’s worth it.

16) “Are you wearing shoes right now?”

This was a late addition to the survey — I think it was the last question I added. People read Now I Know in many different contexts; when they wake up, before they go to bed, with breakfast, while commuting, and yes, on the can. I figured that, therefore, a small percentage of you were reading while barefoot — how often do you not have shoes on in a given day? — but I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 1.58.52 PM

If slippers don’t count as shoes, it’s basically a 50/50 split. I’m floored, honestly. Maybe a lot of you don’t wear shoes while in your own homes? Or walk around the office in socks? (???) Or are on the train, barefoot? Please, no, not that. That’s gross.

17) “Star”

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 2.06.29 PM

I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Huge. Okay, I haven’t watched Clone Wars or Rebels, but my Star Wars fan resume is pretty stellar (sorry) otherwise. I played the collectible card game (albeit briefly). I have a copy of Epic Duels. I’ve read the Thrawn trilogy twice.

And the right answer here is Star Trek. It isn’t close. (Even with Voyager and Enterprise.) By the way, this condensed DS-9 viewing experience is very good, and you can trim it down a lot more if you skip the Maquis episodes.

18) “When was the last time you recommended Now I Know to a friend?”

To the 43% of you who offered, kindly, to introduce a friend today, thanks.

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19) “The best brand of seltzer is”

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There were too many options for the screenshot. But the biggest answer — that 30.8% slice — was “seltzer is gross.” It’s an acquired taste, I think.

(Me? I go for whatever is cheapest except I don’t like La Croix. It tastes like a bubbly fruit drink made for a ghost.)

20) “Do you own an Instant Pot?”

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 2.17.34 PM

I own one. It’s great. I use it pretty often. You can get one on Amazon, here, and I get a cut if you do.

To the 10.2% who own and use it often already, please share recipes. Thanks. Here’s one of mine.


21) “Final Question! How long have you been reading Now I Know?”

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Originally published on June 20, 2018

Why I Bought a Costco Membership for the Woman About Whom Paul Ryan Made a Stupid Tweet

It really bothers me how toxic the Internet has become. It has such power to connect people with such positive results — a power I’ve been the beneficiary of — and yet, we default, too often, for the opposite. The Internet should be a tool for kindness and empathy; of late, in particular, it seems to be neither. I want to change that. In December of last year, I decided to do a little bit about it. I used my newsletter (with my birthday as an anchor) to raise money for the Sesame Street Yellow Feather Fund, which brings education to children in need. On Twitter, I’ve been posing the question “how can I help?” to anyone who sees those tweets. I figure the least I can do is lead by doing.

Which is why, moments ago, I put $60 in the mail and sent it to a woman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania that I’ve never met and likely never will. She’s a secretary at a public school there and that $60 will cover her Costco membership for the year. That’s a big deal for her and I’m glad I could help.

* * *

“Paul Ryan Deletes Tweet Lauding a $1.50 Benefit From the New Tax Law”

That’s an actual headline from an actual New York Times article. The short version: The Associated Press ran an article titled “Tax bill beginning to deliver bigger paychecks to workers.” It quotes a handful of people who talked about the extra money in their paychecks, each a result of lower withheld federal income taxes from their paychecks. House Speaker Ryan, hoping to show the positive effects of the GOP tax bill he championed, decided to highlight many of those quoted via Twitter. Here’s one of his tweets — the since-deleted one:



As one would expect — and as he should have expected — Twitter exploded in a fiery rage at the Speaker.  No matter what you think of the changes to the U.S. income tax system, it’s rather tone deaf to cite this example as an exemplar of its success. Thousands of thousands of Twitter users chastized the Speaker, and he ultimately thought better of it, deleting the tweet. (Of course, the damage is already done.)

My reaction wasn’t just a stunned disbelief at Ryan’s comment. Ryan’s tweet was strikingly lacking in empathy, hence the obvious backlash. I’m not one to often engage in Internet political pile-ons anyway, and this wasn’t going to be an exception. It can be cathartic, sure, but it typically just adds another voice to an already crowded and tribalist echo-chamber. Or, in other words, the backlash also lacked empathy. Having your finances be the butt of everyone’s joke must suck. Hearing thousands of people say “a buck fifty? who cares?!” and thinking “well, I care” — that’s got to be awful. I wanted to make the “Internet dumpster fire,” as she’d later call it in our conversation, a positive experience for her.

Then I noticed this tweet from CBS reporter David Begnaud.

Begnaud caught her on Facetime — while on a school field trip (on a Saturday!) — and asked her “were you happy about that? were you like, this is progress? Or did you kind of laugh like, you know, who cares? It’s a dollar fifty.” Her reply — and you should watch it to get the emotion behind it — was this:

“A dollar fifty is a dollar fifty; I’m not going to — I noticed it. I watch my finances and I noticed it. So, it [her paycheck] didn’t go down, so that was good. I was pleasantly surprised because it went up; it did not go down.”

Honestly: if my paycheck went up $1.50, I’d not notice. Or if I did, I would have kind of laughed — you know, who cares! It’s a dollar fifty. But: It mattered to her. It mattered so much that she knew exactly how she’d be spending it; she’d be using it to offset her $60 per year Costco membership. If I could not notice the $1.50, and if it meant so much to her, well, maybe I should give her my unnoticed $1.50.

So, I replied to Begnaud’s tweet with the following:

“I’d like to buy her a one-year Costco membership. I can afford to and if it can make her life appreciably better, I’m glad to. Can you connect her with me?”

He didn’t, but a few dozen people liked the tweet and three retweeted it… and then the secretary from Lancaster, PA herself replied. We connected via Twitter, she graciously took me up on my offer, and gave me permission to publish my thoughts on why — just a few moments ago — I put $60 in an envelope, to cover that Costco membership, and mailed it to her.

The Internet helped me help make the world a kinder, more empathetic place, I hope.


Originally published on February 5, 2018

Ten-Minute Chana Masala [Instant Pot Recipe]

Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 9.51.52 PM

(Wherever possible, I’m linking to the actual product I used.)

  • Olive oil
  • Cumin seeds – about a tablespoon, maybe more. I was liberal with it.
  • Garlic – I have a jar of chopped garlic, and I use a lot of it, like 2-3 tablespoons, but I’m a bit nuts.
  • Two small/medium onions, sliced
  • Two 15.5 ounce cans of Goya chickpeas, rinsed and drained. (I also made another version with okra instead of chickpeas. For the okra version, I cut up about 20 ounces of okra instead of this.)
  • One medium tomato, cut into chunks but not diced too small
  • Tumeric, about ¼ teaspoon. Could go more.
  • Garam marsala, about a teaspoon. Could go more, to taste. I think I did tablespoon in the second one I made.
  • Salt, about a teaspoon.
  • If you’re into it – I’m not – ¼ tsp of cayenne or red chili powder or flakes.


  • Put the Instant Pot on SAUTE mode. Put in olive oil, when it gets hot, put in cumin seeds and garlic. Stir for about 30 seconds.
  • Add onions, stirring again for about two minutes.
  • Dump everything else into the Instant Pot and stir. Let it saute for another couple of minutes.
  • Turn Instant Pot off (I guess to READY/KEEP WARM) and put on the lid. Make sure it is in “Sealing” mode.
  • Hit MANUAL and PRESSURE. Set it for two minutes. (Yes, only two minutes.)
  • When the timer is done, hit the quick release valve. You’re done!


Originally published on October 31, 2017

Harry Potter and The Problem With The Pensieve Memories


I’ve read each of the Harry Potter books multiple times. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HBP), Dumbledore takes Harry through a half-dozen memories — some his, some those of others that the Headmaster has collected. And for years, something was troubling me about them — they didn’t add up. Over the last few days, I’ve finally pieced together why.

(If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you know the books rather well.)


The Six Memories: A Timeline

Here are the six memories in the order that the recollected events occurred. (We’ll begin exploring when Dumbledore collected the memories later.) I’ll be relying on these memories throughout, so, it’s good to have a point of reference.

  • 1924 or 1925: The arrest of Marvolo and Morfin Gaunt (Bob Ogden’s memory)
  • 1938: Dumbledore meets Voldemort 1 in the orphanage (Dumbledore’s)
  • 1943: Voldemort asks Slughorn about creating multiple Horcruxes (Slughorn’s)
  • 1943: Voldemort and Morfin Gaunt argue before the murder of the Riddles (Morfin Gaunt’s)
  • Sometime between 1955 and 1961: Voldemort visits Hepzibah Smith 2 (Hokey the House Elf’s) 
  • Sometime between 1965 and 1971: Voldemort visits Dumbledore at Hogwarts (Dumbledore’s) 

(It’s unclear which of the two memories from 1943 happened first, but it’s immaterial.)

We’ll need to address most if not all of these six memories, but the Bob Ogden one was the one that didn’t sit right with me. As it turns out, it’s not all that important, but let’s start there anyway — because I did.


What is Ogden’s Memory About?

The first one is the memory of Bob Ogden, the Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, who investigated Morfin Gaunt (Voldemort’s uncle) for using magic in front of a Muggle (who happened to be Tom Riddle Sr., Voldemort’s eventual father). Ogden shows up, finds out that Morfin and his father Marvolo are poor wizards who are mean to Merope (Morfin’s sister and Voldemort’s eventual mother), who they believe to be a Squib. The Gaunt men are also pureblood elitists who believe that they are above the law, especially when it comes to how they act toward Muggles and those they believe to be Squibs. 3

For us readers, this establishes where Voldemort came from and his family tree. Like Harry, we learn that the Gaunts are descendants from two major Wizarding families. First, we again learn they are descendants of Salazar Slytherin’s (which we knew about already from the Chamber of Secrets) when we find out that the Gaunt family owns Slytherin’s locket, which Merope wears around her neck. We also find out that Voldemort is a descendant of the Peverell family, specifically Cadmus Peverell (as we’ll learn later) because Marvolo shows Ogden a ring he’s wearing. Marvolo calls the markings on the ring’s stone the “Peverell family crest” and, in the words of the book, “the ring sailed within an inch of his [Ogden’s] nose.”

It’s unclear why Dumbledore shares this memory with Harry otherwise, though. Unlike the other memories, it doesn’t do much to help inform what or where the remaining Horcruxes are. It introduces the ring but Dumbledore already has that, and for that matter, it’s already been destroyed. It also introduces the locket, but Hokey’s memory does that too, and Hokey’s memory is critical for Harry to see regardless. (And Dumbledore thinks he is relatively close to finding the locket, in any event.)

The memory may serve two other purposes, though. First, it kind of, sort of helps establish that Voldemort never experienced love, not even through the relationship of his parents, which was loveless. It explains why Voldemort grew up in an orphanage even though his father and uncle are both alive at the time. Voldemort doesn’t understand love, and that — love — is “the power the Dark Lord knows not,” according to Dumbledore’s interpretation of Trelawney’s first prophecy. If Dumbledore thinks Harry is skeptical about this “power,” driving it home by showing Harry this memory makes a lot of sense.

The other purpose — and the one I’m more interested in: Harry now has a critical clue about the identity and location of the Resurrection Stone. Of course, at that time, he has no idea that there is such thing as the Resurrection Stone, but when he learns about it and the other Hallows in the seventh book, Harry uses this memory-learned connection to the Peverells to figure out that the Stone is real (which he then perhaps aggressively concludes is inside the Snitch). In telling Ron and Hermione this in Book 7, Harry admits that he couldn’t make out the sign of the Deathly Hallows from Ogden’s memory (“There was nothing fancy on there, as far as I could see; maybe a few scratches. I only ever saw it really close up after it had been cracked open”) and couldn’t be sure it was the same sign. But he made the connection nonetheless.


Why Did Dumbledore Seek Out Ogden’s Memory?

This is simple to answer at first — when sharing Morfin Gaunt’s memory, Dumbledore tells Harry that he “was able to secure a visit to Morfin in the last weeks of his life, by which time I was attempting to discover as much as I could about Voldemort’s past.” It makes sense that he’d interview the Ministry official who investigated Riddle’s magical family.

But keep in mind that this is a wild goose chase. While Harry (and by extension, us as the reader) learn a lot from this memory, Dumbledore didn’t. He already knew that Voldemort was the son of Merope Gaunt, the grandson of Marvolo, and the nephew of Morfin. Dumbledore already knows that Tom Riddle Sr. was Voldemort’s dad. Dumbledore was also a member of the Wizengamot and almost certainly knew about Morfin’s attack on Tom Riddle Sr. and on Marvolo’s attempt to defend his son against Ogden and the other authorities. In other words: Dumbledore already knew why Ogden went to the Gaunt shack and how that basically played out. Seeing Ogden’s memory of the events doesn’t add much to that. What was Dumbledore hoping to see?

I’ve seen a few explanations, but only one makes sense.

First, maybe Dumbledore was looking for clues about Horcruxes. That’s unlikely, for a few reasons, most notably because the memory is older than Voldemort himself. (That said, the memories do establish that both Marvolo Gaunt’s Ring and Slytherin’s Locket — two of the Horcruxes — were Voldemort’s family heirlooms.)

Second, maybe he was looking for clues as to what Trewlany’s first prophecy meant when she said that Harry (or Neville, but nevermind that) has the “power the Dark Lord knows not.” That certainly makes sense given the previous section, but the timing seems weird. Ogden was at least 20 years old when he visited the Gaunts in 1925 — and probably much older, given his title of Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad — and the prophecy wasn’t until 1980 (and Harry wasn’t marked as the survivor for a year after that). At best, Ogden was 75 or so. Most likely, he was long dead. 4 (In HBP, Dumbledore tells Harry that Ogden “died some time ago, but not before I had tracked him down and persuaded him to confide these recollections to me.”) It’s plausible, but it really requires you to force the math.

And finally, Dumbledore had no idea what he was looking for but figured it was worth the look. We generally think of that as a good idea: when you’re dealing with the Dark Lord, leave no stone unturned, right? But that’s not consistent with what we already know — Dumbledore began his investigation into Voldemort’s past starting with the Voldemort of 1943 if not before, as also established by Morfin Gaunt’s memory.

So that leads us to a question:

Why was Dumbledore investigating Voldemort’s past before Voldemort was Voldemort?

Here, to quote Dumbledore, we’re “entering the realms of guesswork and speculation.” I have three theories as to why Dumbledore began this investigation. All are plausible, but I prefer the last one because it’s novel (I think), it’s more likely (as I describe) and because it’s more fun.

Theory 1: He’s Investigating the Chamber of Secrets

A few months before the events of the two 1943 memories happened, Voldemort opened the Chamber of Secrets. He framed Hagrid for it but Dumbledore was skeptical. Dumbledore probably suspected Voldemort, having already learned (during his visit to Voldemort at the orphanage) that Voldemort was a parsletongue, and therefore a potential heir to Slytherin. Dumbledore also likely knew the events of Bob Ogden’s arrest of Morfin and Marvolo, even if he didn’t have the memory yet, which would have further helped establish that Voldemort was Slytherin’s heir. If Dumbledore wanted to exonerate Hagrid, and had Dumbledore noticed the clues above, researching Voldemort’s history would have made a lot of sense.

This is a perfectly plausible explanation — it wouldn’t surprise me if J.K. Rowling endorsed it — but it doesn’t sit right with me. Dumbledore never does anything with the information. And it wasn’t like Dumbledore was going to find any more information. Voldemort’s life was straightforward until that point: he was born, given up for adoption, came to Hogwarts, and… is still at Hogwarts. The only thing odd is the murder of his Muggle father and grandparents, but again, Dumbledore investigated that. Dumbledore — even if he doesn’t have Ogden’s memory yet — definitely has enough to get the Ministry and/or Wizengamot to investigate the theory and is at a dead-end otherwise.

You’d think that, if you had a murderer in your student population — even one who already graduated — you’d do something about it. But Dumbledore didn’t. So it’s unlikely he had Ogden’s memory while Voldemort was still at Hogwarts.


Theory 2: He’s Investigating the Murder of Tom Riddle Sr and Voldemort’s Grandparents

This one almost works. The reason it doesn’t is the key.

In 1943, Voldemort — a student without any friends or family, but one that Dumbledore knew well — shows up one day wearing a new ring. Just weeks before, his father and grandparents were murdered by his uncle. The uncle confessed but didn’t talk much about it; instead, he carried on about a lost ring. That’s going to set off alarm bells, no? Dumbledore already distrusts Voldemort; this link, I think, is something Dumbledore is going to investigate.

Dumbledore investigates this crime by obtaining Morfin’s memory. There isn’t much to the memory; as Dumbledore later concluded, Voldemort tampered with it. But it gives us three key clues.

First, it demonstrates that Voldemort was at his uncle’s house right before the murder. That’s pretty important!

Second, in the memory, “Morfin pushed the hair out of his dirty face, the better to see [Voldemort], and Harry saw that he wore Marvolo’s black-stoned ring on his right hand.” So, we have proof that before Voldemort visited Morfin, Morfin had the ring.

And third, there’s what Dumbledore tells Harry after the two have viewed the memory 5:

So the Ministry called upon Morfin. They did not need to question him, to use Veritaserum or Legilimency. He admitted to the murder on the spot, giving details only the murderer could know. He was proud, he said, to have killed the Muggles, had been awaiting his chance all these years. He handed over his wand, which was proved at once to have been used to kill the Riddles. And he permitted himself to be led off to Azkaban without a fight.

All that disturbed him was the fact that his father’s ring had disappeared. ‘He’ll kill me for losing it,’ he told his captors over and over again. ‘He’ll kill me for losing his ring.’ And that, apparently, was all he ever said again. He lived out the remainder of his life in Azkaban, lamenting the loss of Marvolo’s last heirloom, and is buried beside the prison, alongside the other poor souls who have expired within its walls.

That second paragraph is evidence of two things — first, that Marvolo didn’t have the ring upon his arrest, which occurred almost immediately after the murders; and second, that Dumbledore had reason to look into the whereabouts of the ring. 6

And, from Slughorn’s memory, in still tampered form, we learn that Voldemort had the ring right after the murder:

Harry saw that [Voldemort] was wearing Marvolo’s gold-and-black ring; he had already killed his father.

Dumbledore didn’t have Slughorn’s memory until probably the 1980s — Slughorn only tampered with it well after Voldemort graduated and moved onto greater, darker things. But Dumbledore didn’t need the memory to establish that Voldemort was wearing the ring at the time because Dumbledore was there, in the school, to see it for himself. Dumbledore had all the evidence you’d need to show that Voldemort was a triple-murderer: he had two memories (Ogden’s and Morfin’s) showing that the ring was previously in the possession of Morfin Gaunt — including one memory where Voldemort is present while Gaunt still has the ring; he has Gaunt’s persistent anguish about losing it; and he has the ring sitting there on the finger of the last person to see Morfin before the murders took place.

And again: You’d think that, if you had a murderer in your student population, you’d do something about it. In this case, though, Dumbledore may not have been able to paint the full picture. All the clues are there: Tom Riddle Sr. is dead. Tom Riddle Jr. appears with a new ring. The Chamber has been open by the heir of Slytherin, and Tom Riddle Jr. is a Parseltongue. Voldemort’s own memory tells us that Dumbledore kept an annoying watch on Voldemort after the Chamber was opened; it’d be ludicrous to think that Dumbledore wouldn’t investigate the murders of the Riddle family, given the previous two sentences. All he needs is evidence, and that can come in the form of their Ogden’s memory (establishing Voldemort as an heir of Salazar Slytherin) or Morfin’s (establishing that Voldemort was at the house that day etc.). So it makes total sense for Dumbledore to be on the hunt for that evidence.

But in 1943, he didn’t have it, otherwise Voldemort would have been expelled. But he kept investigating, and part of that on-going investigation brought him to Bob Ogden. 7 

That makes a ton of sense, right? Dumbledore was investigating Voldemort in conjunction with the murder of the Riddles and, therefore, obtained Morfin’s (and Ogden’s) memory. But wait — that’s not what Dumbledore told Harry, right? Dumbledore said that he was “attempting to discover as much as [he] could about Voldemort’s past.” Why lie?

Okay, now we’re really going into speculation and guesswork. I think Dumbledore’s explanation — attempting to discover stuff about Voldemort’s past — is a lie. But that’s because he was ashamed of telling the truth.


Theory 3: Dumbledore wasn’t really interested in discovering more about Voldemort’s past or investigating the murder of the Riddles. He was investigating the whereabouts of Marvolo’s ring.

This is the theory I’m going with. 

Part 1: Dumbledore’s Lie

In the Deathly Hallows, Harry and Dumbledore reunite at some space-time between life and death, represented as King’s Cross train station. Dumbledore is dead. Harry has sacrificed himself to Voldemort’s killing curse. There’s really no need for Dumbledore to lie to Harry about anything — and yet, he does. To set it up, we need first to revisit Lily Potter’s letter to Sirius Black.

We had a very quiet birthday tea, just us and old Bathilda who has always been sweet to us and who dotes on Harry. We were so sorry you couldn’t come, but the Order’s got to come first, and Harry’s not old enough to know it’s his birthday anyway!  James is getting a bit frustrated shut up here, he tries not to show it but I can tell—also Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak, so no chance of little excursions. (emphasis added)

OK, got that? Now, to something Dumbledore said to Harry at King’s Cross.

“You. You have guessed, I know, why the Cloak was in my possession on the night your parents died. James had showed it to me just a few days previously. It explained so much of his undetected wrong-doing at school! I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I asked to borrow it, to examine it. I had long since given up my dream of uniting the Hallows, but I could not resist, could not help taking a closer look . . . It was a Cloak the likes of which I had never seen, immensely old, perfect in every respect . . . and then your father died, and I had two Hallows at last, all to myself!” (emphasis added)

Harry was born on the last day of July; his parents were murdered on Halloween. That’s a three-month gap. It’s possible that Lily didn’t write the letter until a few days before Halloween, but that’s unlikely. It’s much more likely that Dumbledore is lying — especially when you look at what precedes this part of the encounter at King’s Cross.

To set up the scene, Harry meets a broadly-smiling Dumbledore in some place between the planes of living and dead. As the conversation continues, Dumbledore’s smile gets bigger and bigger — and then Harry brings up the Deathly Hallows.

“The Deathly Hallows,” [Harry] said, and he was glad to see that the words wiped the smile from Dumbledore’s face.

“Ah, yes,” he said. He even looked a little worried.


For the first time since Harry had met Dumbledore, he looked less than an old man, much less. He looked fleetingly like a small boy caught in wrongdoing. “Can you forgive me?” he said. “Can you forgive me for not trusting you? For not telling you? Harry, I only feared that you would fail as I had failed. I only dreaded that you would make my mistakes. I crave your pardon, Harry. I have known, for some time now, that you are the better man.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Harry, startled by Dumbledore’s tone, by the sudden tears in his eyes.

“The Hallows, the Hallows,” murmured Dumbledore. “A desperate man’s dream!”

“But they’re real!”

“Real, and dangerous, and a lure for fools,” said Dumbledore. “And I was such a fool. But you know, don’t you? I have no secrets from you anymore. You know.”

“What do I know?”

Dumbledore turned his whole body to face Harry, and tears still sparkled in his brilliantly blue eyes.

“Master of death, Harry, master of Death! Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?”

“Of course you were,” said Harry. “Of course—how can you ask that? You never killed if you could avoid it!”

“True, true,” said Dumbledore, and he was like a child seeking reassurance. “Yet I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.”

“Not the way he did,” said Harry. After all his anger at Dumbledore, how odd it was to sit here, beneath the high, vaulted ceiling, and defend Dumbledore from himself. “Hallows, not Horcruxes.”

“Hallows,” mumbled Dumbledore, “not Horcruxes. Precisely.”

Even in death, Dumbledore was ashamed of his obsession with the Hallows. Here’s more on that from their conversation:

After another short pause Harry said, “You tried to use the Resurrection Stone.”

Dumbledore nodded. “When I discovered it, after all those years, buried in the abandoned home of the Gaunts—the Hallow I had craved most of all, though in my youth I had wanted it for very different reasons—I lost my head, Harry. I quite forgot that it was now a Horcrux, that the ring was sure to carry a curse. I picked it up, and I put it on, and for a second I imagined that I was about to see Ariana, and my mother, and my father, and to tell them how very, very sorry I was . . .

“I was such a fool, Harry. After all those years I had learned nothing. I was unworthy to unite the Deadly Hallows. I had proved it time and again, and here was the final proof.”

“Why?” said Harry. “It was natural! You wanted to see them again. What’s wrong with that?”

“Maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry. I was fit only to possess the meanest one of them, the least extraordinary. I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it.

“But the Cloak, I took out of vain curiosity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner. The stone I would have used in an attempt to drag back those who are at peace, rather than to enable my self-sacrifice, as you did. You are the worthy possessor of the Hallows.”

Shame. Lots of it.

So, if Dumbledore were looking into people’s memories to find himself one of the Deathly Hallows, he’d probably be ashamed to admit it — and he’d probably lie. Just like he lied when his afterlife-self told Harry that he only had the cloak for a few days.

Part 2: Dumbledore’s Obsession

That quote above has another key passage: the Ressurection Stone was “the Hallow [Dumbledore] had craved most of all.”  I don’t think I need to spell this one out, but just in case: after the death of his sister (perhaps at his hands), Dumbledore gave up the search for the Hallows, but only temporarily. He ends up acquiring the Elder Wand, takes the Cloak for a bit longer than he should have, and, as he admits above, he wanted to see his deceased family members again, and the Stone could bring that dream to fruition. And when he finally obtained the Stone, the normally calculating and logical Dumbledore makes the fatal mistake of putting the cursed ring on his finger — all in hopes of seeing his sister and family again.

The Hallows were an obsession of his youth; I think it’s fair to say that Stone was a life-long obsession.

So, let’s revisit the second theory

Again, it’s 1943. Voldemort — a student without any friends or family, but one that Dumbledore knew well — shows up one day wearing a new ring. Just weeks before, his father and grandparents were murdered by his uncle. The uncle confessed but didn’t talk much about it; instead, he carried on about a lost ring. That’s going to set off alarm bells, no? Dumbledore is probably going to end up getting a look at that ring. What he’s going to see is the mark of the Deathly Hallows. 8

His obsession is now within his grasp. Almost. Shortly thereafter, the ring vanishes.

So, he goes hunting for it. There are two living people who have possessed the ring: Voldemort and Morfin. Dumbledore probably isn’t going to get much out of Voldemort here — he may have tried, for all we know, but as we’d later find out, Voldemort wasn’t about to tell anyone where he hid the now-Horcrux ring. Morfin, of course, gives Dumbledore his memory. That’s a bit of a dead end 9, so the wild goose chase begins. Only one other person in recent memory, dead or alive, possessed the ring — Marvolo Gaunt. And the only person still alive who we know interacted with him? Bob Ogden.

Ogden’s memory doesn’t help Dumbledore locate the ring, but it does confirm (or close enough) that the ring is the Resurrection Stone. Marvolo pushes the ring “within an inch of [Ogden’s] nose,” so maybe Dumbledore got a good look at it; if not, Marvolo proclaims that the crest of the Peverell family is engraved upon it. Remember, as discussed above, that Harry makes the connection between the Peverell crest and the mark of the Hallows; Dumbledore surely would have realized Marvolo’s error.


A Final Piece of the Puzzle

There’s one memory I’ve almost entirely glossed over, and that’s Hokey the House-elf’s memory of the murder of Hepzibah Smith. It’s critical to figuring out that Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup (and by extension, Ravenclaw’s diadem) are Horcruxes. The timing, again, has a problem.

If you look at the timeline at the top, you’ll see that the events of Hokey’s memory occurred no earlier than 1955, more than a decade after Voldemort murdered his Muggle family. And after the murder of Smith, Voldemort disappears for a decade. In other words, there’s really no reason for Dumbledore to seek out Hokey’s memory if his objective is to learn more about Voldemort, because at the point of Smith’s death, Voldemort’s basically a nobody. Once again, you need to give Dumbledore a ton of credit for having the foresight to collect this memory — more foresight than even he is due.

But my theory makes it work without that stretch. Here’s another quote from Deathly Hallows which explains why:

By the time Hokey was convicted, Hepzibah’s family had realized that two of her greatest treasures were missing. It took them a while to be sure of this, for she had many hiding places, having always guarded her collection most jealously. But before they were sure beyond doubt that the cup and the locket were both gone, the assistant who had worked at Borgin and Burkes, the young man who had visited Hepzibah so regularly and charmed her so well, had resigned his post and vanished. His superiors had no idea where he had gone; they were as surprised as anyone at his disappearance. And that was the last that was seen or heard of Tom Riddle for a very long time.

You’re Dumbledore. Voldemort’s involved in an event where rare, treasured artifacts — including one owned the Gaunts — have disappeared. Is there a chance that Hepzibah Smith had the ring? Or that Tom had it when he visited her? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to get that memory from the aged Hokey before he dies. Which is exactly what happens.


Some Concluding Thoughts

As with any theories about works of fiction, this one has lot of holes. That’s what makes it fun.

Also, I think my version of the events makes Dumbledore a lot more human — and a lot more sympathetic. If you believe that he was investigating Voldemort’s background from a very early point, he seems brilliant and wise, yes, but ultimately ineffective because he’s insisting on going it alone. (This is also the vibe you get from him in Order of the Phoenix, so it’s a fair takeaway.) Mine, though, he’s still brilliant and wise, but he’s also flawed. And that flaw makes him accidentally effective — in the search for clues about the Hallows, he ends up learning a lot about Voldemort, his weaknesses, and the Horcruxes.

And you know what? I like that Dumbledore. He’s the greatest wizard of all time — that doesn’t mean he has to be perfect, or even should be.



  1. Throughout this, I’m going to refer to Tom Marvolo Riddle as Voldemort, even if he hadn’t taken the name yet. It’s just easier, given that I’m going to be talking about both Tom Riddle Sr. and Marvolo Gaunt as well.
  2. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Tom_Riddle#cite_note-HBP-21 is really helpful here
  3. Neither man seems to understand why Morfin’s attack on Riddle Sr. was unacceptable. Similarly, Marvolo tried to strangle Merope when he learned that she had a crush on Riddle Sr.
  4. Yes, I know that in general, we’re led to believe that Wizards live longer than Muggles, as Dumbledore himself is 115 when he dies and Abeforth is only a few years younger. This never sat right with me either — where are all the great-grandparents? Wizards have kids young — Harry was born to 20-year-old parents, and Harry had his first child at 23 or 24. The Great Wizarding War aside, there should be generations of wizards, particularly old ones, everywhere. But, nope.
  5. I’m using some pdf of the book I found online to make quoting easier; there may be some typos
  6. On the other hand, it makes Morfin sound insane, which he probably was, so the officials probably discounted any truth behind Morfin’s statements about the ring.
  7. Or maybe he went for Ogden’s memory first, dunno. As it turns out, I don’t really think it matters if Ogden’s came before or later.
  8. When Harry opens the Snitch, revealing the ring, the book states that “the black stone with its jagged crack running down the center sat in the two halves of the Snitch. The Resurrection Stone had cracked down the vertical line representing the Elder Wand. The triangle and circle representing the Cloak and the stone were still discernible.”
  9. In fact, we never find out how Dumbledore discovered the location of the ring/Horcrux.
Originally published on April 11, 2017

That Time I Accidentally Created a Legal Argument that Went All the Way to the Supreme Court

I was a know-nothing first-year lawyer in the fall of 2005 and ended up as an employment lawyer defending corporations against pissed-off employees. I hadn’t even gotten my bar scores back, so I wasn’t allowed to practice without supervision. I had never taken a trial law course or an employment law course. I had no idea what I was doing.

I’m assigned to this case — a bank teller is suing a bank for unpaid overtime. Without getting to lost in the weeds, the important part about the case was that it was brought in Federal court but applied New York State law. NYS law, in the employment law setting, doesn’t have a “class action” option. Instead, there’s something called a “collective action.” I’ll explain the difference as we move along, but at this point in the story, I hadn’t even heard about collective actions before either, so don’t feel bad.

Anyway, there were three lawyers on the case: two partners (both pretty senior) and me. There wasn’t a lot for me to do because I didn’t know anything, but the more junior of the partners gave me an assignment: read all the cases in our area dealing with this part of NYS law over the last few years and read all the cases that the judge we’ve been assigned to has worked on over the last six months. It was busy work — no one expected me to learn anything of value to the case, myself included. But whatever, I was getting paid to learn something which could have value to my professional development.

So I’m reading and I find out about this class action/collective action thing. The difference is pretty easy. In a class action, everyone else who is in the same situation as the plaintiff is considered to be already involved in the case (but has the right to opt-out if he or she so chooses). If you’ve ever gotten one of those legal notices about your rights in a class action in the mail, without any prior warning, that’s why. In a collective action, though, all of the other people who could potentially be involved have to opt-in. NYS employment law uses collective actions, not class actions, which kind of makes sense — you don’t want your pissed off former co-worker suing your boss if it means that you automatically end up joining that lawsuit.

OK, so I add that distinction to my toolbox and move on. I then learn about, in an unrelated case, Rule 68. It’s a federal rule of civil procedure called an “offer of judgment.” The details aren’t important for this story; click the link if you want to read more about it — but the idea is pretty simple. If you’re sued, you can make a formal settlement offer to the plaintiff for whatever amount you want. If the defendant rejects the offer and ends up with a judgment that’s worth less than that, he or she is on the hook for all sorts of bad things.

Now, here’s the neat part. You need to know about two other things lawyers know about: (1) that it’s pretty often the case that the maximum damages one can recover is not at all controversial and (2) the doctrine of mootness. The first one is straightforward. In the case of my bank teller, she was only owed unpaid overtime plus some statutorily-set penalty. Let’s call it a total of $200. (If that seems low, it isn’t; if memory serves, it was only like $50.) The second idea, mootness, is a little harder, but the basic idea is that if you don’t have a claim any more, your lawsuit goes away. (Basically, you can’t just sue because you’re mad.) There are lots of exceptions here, of course, but let’s apply it to my case, as I did, as a know-nothing baby of a lawyer:

I have a plaintiff who, again, can at most get $200. Right now, she’s the only plaintiff, because NYS law makes this a collective action (and others need to opt-in), not a class action (where they don’t). If we make a Rule 68 offer of, say, $250, we’ve offered the plaintiff more than she could possibly get even if she won her case. That’s where the mootness doctrine comes in — once we offer that amount of money, she no longer has a case against our client, and she’s out of the case. And because this is a collective action, again, there are no other plaintiffs. No plaintiffs means no lawsuit. The whole case goes away. That’s a huge win for the client because the bank doesn’t have to go looking through its records for other potential plaintiffs, for the low-low price of $250.

If you’ve read that far, you’re probably thinking that the previous paragraph is clownshoes insane. It is. It’s abusive and absolutely cannot be right. But I didn’t have that instinct because I was square in the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” part of my legal career. So, I took it to the partner who assigned me the question.

And she read me the riot act.

I must have missed something or I don’t know how to research or how come this hasn’t been done before or this is why we shouldn’t hire new lawyers or whatever. Total dressing down freakout on her part. She went to the other senior lawyer on the case and, from what I understand, started complaining about how this baby lawyer was wasting her time and the client’s money and I needed to be taken off the case. (I wasn’t in the room, but I heard about it later.)

The other partner was more amused than angry — he was more tolerant of baby lawyers and our missteps — and looked through my notes. (If memory serves — and it doesn’t — there was one court that had, in a footnote, talked about how Rule 68 could be abused in a matter similar to this, but the court couldn’t find any precedent addressing that abuse.) While he agreed that my idea was, again, crazy, he also couldn’t find a reason it didn’t work. He assigned a mid-level associate to check my work and to look for decisions that contradicted my conclusion.

That associate found nothing.

The next day, the two partners (with that associate in the room) grilled me for about an hour about my research. And then they told me that I was almost certainly wrong but they were going to try it, because no one can find a case that says I’m wrong.

The other side didn’t find any reason I was wrong, either, and argued that adopting my theory would make for an awful public policy, which it absolutely would. The judge considered that argument, stating that the public policy concerns “do give this Court some pause,” but ultimately agreed with my research and theory, and we won the case.

The partners on the case thanked me and I heard a rumor that I was given credit internally,  which I guess was nice. I effectively left the practice of law shortly thereafter. Coincidentally, I promise.

In any event, for the next decade, this trick became a staple in the class action defense world. But in January — as in, two months ago — the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, decided I was wrong.

Originally published on March 23, 2016

To Square One TV, With Love

I originally wrote this four years ago for work. I’ve updated the years (“29 years ago” instead of “25 years ago”) but it’s otherwise a straight lift from then. Also: starting at 10:30 AM today, I have a dozen or so tweets about Square One scheduled, in case you want to follow me on Twitter


Twenty-five years ago today, my life changed for the better. Twenty-five years ago today, Square One TV debuted.

Square One was a thirty minute delight featuring short sketches about math. There was Mathman, a math-parody of Pac-Man, who would go around the game board looking for tasty numbers to eat — but only ones which met the rule of the day. (Fans of the show can probably hear the voice in their head: “Mathman, Mathman, multiples of three, multiples of three, Mathman.”) The show had miniature game shows, likePiece of the Pie and But Who’s Adding?, featuring regular children as contestants. It had math-teaching music videos like Nine, Nine, Nine (“times any number you can find, it all comes back to nine”) and Less Than Zero (“a certified, nationwide klutz”). There was Dirk Niblick, Blackstone, Mathcourt, and more.

And of course — of course! — there was MathNet, which closed every episode with a piece of a week-long story. Be it the kidnapping of Steve Stringbean or the complicated confidence scam perpetuated by the mysterious swami, these MathNet memories are ingrained deep in my psyche. Trying to figure out how George Frankly and Kate Monday (or Pat Tuesday!) would solve the case became an obsession; tuning in on Friday to have the answer revealed became a core part of my week.

It was math. And it was wonderful.

The nine year old me did not know it at the time, but like everything else we do at Sesame Workshop, Square One was designed to address an educational need of children. In this case, Square One‘s goal was to address the “math crisis” of eight to 12 year olds in the United States, using media to help teach mathematical concepts in an enjoyable fashion. And while writing this blog post for the organization which created the show appears self-serving, if you’ve spoken to me about Square One, you know that I can still sing significant parts of 8% Percent of My Love (and have also reserved 10% of my love for the New York Football Giants; sorry Patriots fans) while reciting esoteric plot points from series of MathNet. Does anyone else remember the kid who tried to sell George the $50,000 pencil? He only needed to sell one!

Happy birthday, Square One TV. And may you avoid Mr. Glitch.

Originally published on January 26, 2016

An Idea for a Two-Tiered Fantasy Baseball League: GMs and Agents

I had this idea a few years ago and wrote it up somewhere else, but in hope of actually making it happen now, I’m dropping it here. (To give an idea of how old the idea is, the example player I used in the original version was Albert Pujols.)

Short version:

  • Take a regular fantasy baseball league – 5×5, fantasy points, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Has to be an auction draft and a keeper league though. Determine the winner however you want. The competitors are the owners/GMs of the teams. You know, standard fare.
  • Add a second league next to it. The competitors are agents. Winner is the agent who makes the most money in any given season.

Longer version:

Let’s start with step 2 because it’ll make it easier to understand if we momentarily skip step 1.  Oh, and all the numbers – salary cap and stuff – they’re just for explanation’s sake. I didn’t try and balance them to make sense.

Step 2: It’s the first year of the league. The GMs have their auction. Each GM has a $120 million budget for this year. Players are auction off as you would in a regular league auction.

Straightforward, right?

Before we get to Step 1, let me explain how agents make money, at least in this fictional world for the game.


1) Take paid a percentage of their players’ contracts and

2) Maybe get some money if a player does well and/or if his team does well.  Think of this as a proxy for endorsement deals – if an agent represents the guy who lead the league in homers and his team won the World Series, the player would probably get some big deal from Gatorade or Nike or someone, and the agent would probably get a cut. I don’t know if this one is workable, though. It’d be cool, but may be too hard to pull off.

So anyway, Step 1.

Step 1: Agents have their auction. I don’t know how it’d work exactly, but here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Each agent gets $5m or $10m, not sure. Let’s use $5m for example. It’s not a salary cap because remember, they’re being measured by who makes the most money, and whatever they spend, they lose, so keep that in mind.
  • Agents bid on players in a bid-or-pass style auction, with two numbers in play: dollars and percentage points. Dollars go in $10k increments, starting at $10k and going up. Percentage points go in 1% increments, starting at 25% and going down.
  • Basically, agents spend $$$ to wine and dine players, so that’s the dollar stuff. They also negotiate with players by taking a smaller and smaller percentage of the contract.
  • An agent can outbid another agent by upping the ante in either tranche during their turn.  So if Mike Trout is up, and the current bid is $100,000 and 8%, you can go to $110,000 and 8% or $100,000 and 7%.

So taking Step 1 and Step 2 together, let’s say you’re Mike Trout’s agent – and to make it simply (and stupid), he’s your only client – and you spent $1m entertaining him and agreed to take only 3% of his contract.  The GM who won him at auction bid $20 million. You’d end up with 3% of that, or $600k.  So you have $5m – $1m + $600k = $4.6m in your war chest… if it ended there. (And you’d clearly suck as an agent.)

But wait, there’s more.

Step 3: GMs and agents negotiate long term contracts.

Consider the auction bid an offer sheet, and one which either side can unilaterally impose upon the other at any given point in the negotiations, ending it right then and there.  It’s not a floor, necessarily, although practically I guess it would be.

What’s up for negotiation? I’d keep it mostly simple:

  • Years
  • Salary per year
  • No trade clause
  • Options, buyouts, opt-outs, etc.

But you can get creative if the league allows. Imaginations can come up with really neat things.

After that, it’s mostly a regular league, except that agents are involved in transactions.


For regular player salaries, players – and therefore agents – get paid in quarter increments, one each on Opening Day, June 1, August 1, and October 1.  This has an effect on both GMs and agents. For GMs, it means that if you have $20m left in your budget on August 2, you can take on effectively $80m in player salaries, because 75% of those salaries have already been paid out.

Agents get paid when the player gets paid. However, that gets locked in once the deal is signed. So as long as the deal isn’t renegotiated, the agent gets paid even if he no longer represents the player.

The implication here is that agents have to manage their cash flow a bit – and of course, they’ll prefer signing bonuses to buyouts.  (Whether the league allows the agents and GMs to put in other $$$-laden clauses is up to them; again, your imagination is the limit.)


Agents can try and steal players from other agents. I have no real good way to do this, but here’s what I’m thinking: a morale check, followed by an offer and option to match (maybe?).

Each player has a morale number. It’s calculated – and I’m doing this off the top of my head – as follows:

  • Start with 10.
  • Subtract one if the player’s team (in the league, not in real life) is currently in the bottom half of the standings.
  • Subtract one more if the player’s team is in the cellar.
  • Subtract one the player is not one of the three highest played players on his team, by both current year salary *and* average annual value (excluding performance bonuses and options and buyouts?).
  • Subtract one more if the player is not one of the eight highest played players on his team, using the same formula as above.
  • Subtract one if the player is not one of the five highest played players at his position, same math.
  • Subtract one more if he’s not one of the 10 highest played players at his position, ditto.
  • Add three if the current agent represents three or more other players on the player’s current team.
  • Subtract three if the above bullet isn’t true *and* the stealing agent has three or more other players on the player’s current team.

(Note that the last two bullets encourage agents to try and manipulate rosters.)

The morale check: If the player’s morale is 7+, he can’t be stolen.

After that, the terms of the steal attempt are up to the stealing agent. He spends some dollar amount on a steal and if the current agent matches (with morale notes below), the current agent keeps the player and the stealing agent can’t try again for six months. If the current agent doesn’t match, the player switches agents and gets a +4 morale boost which wears off, 1 point per payday (as above) until it hits 0 in a year.

The terms of the agreement between the new agent and player – as well as what it takes for the current/old agent to stop the steal – are determined by the morale check described above:

  • 4+, he can be stolen, but the stealing agent has to decrease the percentage the player negotiated with the current agent by one point *and* the current agent only has to spend half as much to match and therefore block the steal attempt.
  • 0+, the stealing agent has to offer the same percentage and the current agent has to match the full money offered.
  • Under zero, the stealing agent can offer 1% under *and* the current agent has to double the money the offered by the current agent.

Finally, the minimum money offered by the stealing agent has to be at least equal to the dollars last paid by an agent to acquire that player.

If the steal is successful, the money goes from the stealing agent to the original one. (I’m trading realism here for some balancing.) If it’s unsuccessful, the original agent’s counter-bid just evaporates.

Again, using the Mike Trout example, let’s say his morale check is a 5. To recap, the agent acquired him for $1m and 3%. Someone tries to steal him, so they have to offer $1m and 2% by rule. He makes that offer but the original agent blocks by spending $500,000. That $500,000 evaporates.

Another agent makes a try right after but offers $2 million and, again by rule, 2%. The original agent decides to let him go. That $2m goes to the old agent.

Two years later,  Trout’s morale is negative somehow. Another agent offers him $2 million (by rule) and 3%. For his current agent to block, he’d have to pony up $4m.

Too complicated maybe. Too D&D, for sure. Maybe it needs a few d20s, dunno.


I think this could be fun. Stuff like no-trade clauses would be awesome, where you basically have to buy out the agent, and the agent may really really not want a player traded because of the morale hit other players would take, etc.

I don’t know how the second year would work. Part of me thinks free agents should negotiate contracts via their agents; part of me thinks it should be done via auction, just like the initial year. I also don’t know how unrepresented players would enter the league. None whatsoever. Further, there has to be some mechanism for agents to renegotiate deals for their clients, but there should be a way to prevent doing so in order to take over the value from the existing agent. (Probably some present-day-value calculation?)

But that’s the basics. What do you think?

Originally published on January 3, 2016