Weekly Varia no. 27, 05/20/23

One of the most common escapist discussions I remember in graduate school is the idea of opening some sort of commune library-brewery-cafe-bakery-farm that would offer us an idyllic existence and also cater to people who needed the isolation to write their dissertations. I was always the bread guy in these schemes, for obvious reasons. At this point I probably have close to a dozen recipes that are both replicable and high enough quality that I would be willing to serve them at a bakery and, yet, I have never seriously entertained the idea of opening a business.

In part, I have had the distinct pleasure of managing every aspect of a restaurant from the HR side of the business to service to dealing with health inspectors. I can do the job, but it isn’t one I’m eager to return to. But this experience also taught me one of the key differences between food preparation at home and in a restaurant. In the former, where you are cooking for yourself and people you know well, there is considerable room for creativity. Maybe your ingredients are a little bit different today than what you had last week or you cooked an item a little differently or at a different temp. Or with different proportions. Most people aren’t going to care if two version of the same dish come out a bit different.

By contrast, when you’re cooking in a restaurant or bakery you need to provide your customers with the same experience each time they come in. Not only does this communicate to customers that your product is reliable, but it also helps keep your costs and prep process predictable. If, for instance, you advertise that you sell large pizzas at 14″ diameter, but those pizzas range in diameter from 12.5″ to 15,” you’re inviting both chaos and angry customers who rightfully believe that you have ripped them off. No two pizzas have to be identical, but two pizzas of the same size should, in theory, have the same amount of dough, sauce, cheese, and amount of pepperoni.

These were the things on my mind last night while I was preparing bread for a little celebration my wife and I are throwing today. She made cupcakes and cookies, while I made three freestanding loaves of bread, two sandwich loaves, flatbreads, and eighteen pizza crusts for baking in my fancy new Ooni pizza oven (see the picture below), all using sourdough. For a few hours I had my three largest bowls filled with large lumps of proofing dough before breaking the balls into the constituent pieces and refilling the largest with the last breads. Batch baking requires a little more arm-strength if, like me, you are without an electric mixer, but it is also the only way to produce recipes at any scale—not unlike a time last year when I helped Truman’s Jewish Student Union bake something like seventy loaves of challah in a little over four hours.

I rarely batch-bake because I want to make sure that the two of us don’t let the bread go to waste. More usually, I have to scale recipes down rather than up. And yet, the principle is the same, just requiring bigger spoons.

Anyway, that’s my weekend: making sure that I have enough carbs to feed a platoon or two.

This week’s varia:

  • Pasts Imperfect this week looks at a new fragment of On Nature by the fifth century BCE philosopher Empedocles, along with the usual roundup.
  • Modern Medieval remind us that cats (or the the execution of cats) did not cause the Black Death. Their post promotes another blog, by Eleanor Janega, that goes through the evidence and is definitely worth reading.
  • Archeologists working underwater in the Bay of Naples in Italy discovered a Nabataean altar from Pozzuoli. It is easy to say that the Roman Mediterranean was an interconnected web that facilitated population movement, but it is always nice to see examples like this of people from Southwest Asia setting up shop in Italy.
  • Nadira Goffe spoke to Denis McCoskey in Slate about the new Netflix Cleopatra docudrama and the case for making her Black. McCoskey talks about this Cleopatra as a translation in which it makes sense to present her as the Romans might, distinct from “Europeans.” In this sense I agree with McCoskey and while I haven’t (yet) watched the show, my philosophical objections are more to the assumptions baked into a docudrama than to a particular representation. From the comments of other ancient historians, the issues seem to run deeper than the casting choice.
  • In Salon, a rundown on authoritarianism in Florida and the path to fighting back. All signs point to DeSantis running for President. For all of the doom and gloom, there are signs of resistance, such as in the Jacksonville mayoral race that was won in an upset by the Democrat Donna Deegan this week. Until now, Jacksonville was the largest city in the country with a Republican mayor.
  • Influencer Caryn Marjorie is teaming with a new start-up that will allow her followers to interact with an AI program that replicates “her voice, mannerisms, and personality”—for the price of $1 per minute, which she estimates will earn $5 million per month. For some reason I found this to be the most depressing AI story I’ve read yet. Perhaps because its explicit goal is to have people trade the promise of “genuine” human interaction for the comfort of generative text.
  • Between an economy particularly dependent on tourism, policies to keep the state quaint, and an influx of out of state money, Vermont is suffering from an acute lack of affordable housing. The town of Woodstock is offering incentives to landlords in surrounding towns in return for price controls for Woodstock workers. This program, like tiny homes for Arizona teachers, is pitched as a benefit for workers, but it is also a gross manifestation of the current state of capitalism that makes workers all the more dependent on companies for basic necessities and widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Diane Feinstein returned to congress last week. When reporters asked her about the return, she insisted that she had been in Washington voting on issues and refused to take additional questions. (Slate and LA Times) Politics in this country is far beyond parody at this point.
  • Elie Mystal writes about the Jeremy Neely killing, explaining why the charges being brought by the DA are probably the right ones and deconstructing the arguments of the people defending the killer. He also points to the disconcerting reality that an increasing number of people seem to actively want to live in a world filled with vigilante justice because they assume that people who think like them will be the only ones perpetrating it.
  • Elon Musk took to social media to declare that George Soros, whose name is the classic example of anti-semitic dogwhistles, “hates humanity” and that he wants to “erode the very fabric of civilization,” probably because Soros’ hedge fund sold its shares of Tesla. Along the way he compared Soros to Magneto, a character whose backstory makes him a Holocaust survivor. Meanwhile, an Israeli minister tasked with redefining anti-semitism as attacks on Israel fighting anti-semitism has defended Musk on the grounds that Soros funds organizations “hostile” to Israel.
  • Videos of Jack Texeira, the air national guard member behind the Discord leaks, along with chat logs and interviews with people who knew him reveal someone with fantasies of committing violence against liberals, Jews, lgbtq+, and Black people. He apparently fantasized about inciting a race war.
  • Back in December, a psychiatric ward for children staged “an active shooter drill” using a worker who did not feel that he could say no to his supervisor as “an assailant.” Only they didn’t tell either staff or the police, leading to officers from four departments showing up to the scene and holding one of the men at gunpoint for half an hour. Woodruff, that worker, is now suing the state. This story is almost unbelievable, and the people who set the drill are lucky that
  • War on the Rocks has an interesting analysis about the limits of a French strategic doctrine that relies on small numbers of high-quality forces over quantity, particularly with a focus on how French contributions to Ukraine’s war effort critically diminished its own equipment stockpiles. This particularly piqued my interest because of an IR simulation I participated in as an undergrad, playing the French Minister of the Armed Forces.
  • Orcas have sunk three boats off the coast of Europe and seem to be teaching others to imitate the behavior. The orca war is upon us.

Album of the Week: Jeremy Fisher, The Lemon Squeeze (2014)

Currently Reading: Umberto Eco, Baudolino