Other people’s recipes: Joanne Chang’s French Lemon-Poppy Pound Cake

Now for something completely different! It’s been a while since I made any sort of cake, and I’ve wanted to try this one (from Joanne Chang’s Flour, pp. 70–72) for a while. The proportions are very similar to a pound cake (if you doubled it, anyway), but rather than the creaming method typical of butter cakes, Chang takes a page from the génoise playbook, folding the flour into an egg foam, then folding the reinforced foam into melted, rather than solid, butter. The result was a moist and not-too-dense crumb, although I wouldn’t have minded a little boost in the flavor department. Here’s how it went:

Mise en place
This is, I think, the complete mise for this recipe. Note the separate bowls of sugar and other dry ingredients. I was a little short on the lemon zest so I made it up with some Meyer lemon (which isn’t technically a lemon) zest instead. Everything else is as described in Chang’s recipe.

Butter, cream, and flavor mixture
The first step is to mix the melted butter, cream, and flavoring ingredients (lemon zest, lemon juice, and poppy seeds) together. As the recipe suggested might happen, my butter resolidified a bit, and I had to put it in the microwave for a few seconds to make sure the butter would stay melted.

Egg and sugar mixture
In the second step, whole eggs and sugar are whipped together in the stand mixer until foamy and lightened in color.

Dry ingredients folded into egg-and-sugar mixture
Then the previously sifted dry ingredients (cake flour, baking powder, salt) are folded into the egg foam.

Egg mixture folded into butter mixture
Then the egg mixture is folded into the melted butter. It would have been rather convenient if this had gone the other way — my stand mixer’s bowl has a nice pouring spout — but it can’t be helped, since it’s the egg that has the air in it that we’re carefully folding in so as not to deflate. This gets poured into a lubricated 9″×5″ (230 mm × 130 mm) loaf pan and baked for a fairly long time — more than an hour.

Finished cake
Unsurprisingly, it has to cool in the pan until starch structure that reinforces the foam cools and sets — half an hour according to the recipe.

Lemon glaze
While waiting for the cake to cool, there’s more than enough time to make a simple lemon glaze — what in my dialect we would call “icing” as distinct from “frosting” — from powdered sugar and lemon juice.

Cake after depanning, before glazing
Now the cake is ready to depan. You can see a little bit of roughness on the bottom edge where there apparently wasn’t quite enough baking spray; I had to run a knife around the perimeter to get the cake to slide out without breaking.

Cake after glazing
I put some waxed paper underneath the cooling rack to catch the dripping glaze, then poured the glaze over the top, using a knife to spread it around where it had pooled up a bit too much.

Sliced cake
After the glaze dried, I took a slice for myself. I wrapped the rest of the cake in plastic and brought it in to work the next day (where I had another slice, of course!). Opinions were pretty favorable overall, although I still thought it needed a bit more flavor than it had. (Subtle flavors are often lost on me, unless they’re nasty ones like coffee or mushrooms!) It was popular enough (and went fast enough) that I’d probably double this recipe in the future and make two cakes rather than just one. But my next time through, I’ll probably make the vanilla version Chang gives as an alternative — which substitutes vanilla seeds for the lemon and poppy in the main recipe.

Nutrition

Since it’s baked in a standard 9×5 loaf pan, this cake is 9 inches in length. For service I sliced the cake in half lengthwise, but I had whole slices for myself — figure ¾″ (19 mm) per slice to make 12 slices per loaf.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: ¾-inch slice
Servings per container: about 12
Amount per serving
Calories 316 Calories from fat 134
% Daily Value
Total Fat 15g 23%
 Saturated Fat 9g 43%
 Monounsaturated Fat 3g
 Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 96mg 32%
Sodium 106mg 4%
Potassium 49mg 1%
Total Carbohydrate 41g 14%
 Dietary fiber <1g 2%
 Sugars 27g
Proteins 4g 8%
Vitamin A 10%
Vitamin C 6%
Calcium 9%
Iron 3%
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A recommendation and a related random thought on sex and gender

Content warning: potentially NSFW for some values of W.

Today on my commute I listened to a great podcast episode from CBC Radio 1’s Ideas called “Not with the Eyes” (MP3 audio). In this episode, Ideas producer Philip Coulter moderates a discussion at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, between a psychoanalyst and a Shakespeare scholar about gender, and how conceptions of gender differ (or don’t) between our place and time and the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare’s day. All of the participants seem to get confused a bit between gender identity and sexual orientation, but the discussion is very interesting and draws some surprising parallels between our (supposedly “liberal”) time and Shakespeare’s (“repressed”, at least in the popular view). I highly recommend this podcast despite the confusion; Ideas episodes remain online for only a few months at most, so grab it while you can. (And Canadians, please ask your MPs to support the CBC.)

So here’s the “related random thought”: One of the ideas that the panelists bring up is this notion of “performativity” — and in particular, that when an act is understood by the viewer as part of a performance, it is in a sense “defanged”, losing some of its transgressive power. And one of the things that made me think of (because my mind works in strange ways) is the existence of porn stars who present as, even profess to be, totally straight, but are perfectly willing and able to perform in gay porn for money. Some even will admit to enjoying it, all the while insisting that they are “really” straight (“yes, I’ve told my girlfriend, she’s OK with it”). There’s an awful lot of comment that assumes that these are inherently contradictory — and that the actors (we’re talking about male actors here; female porn actors are just assumed to be bisexual) must be somehow “really” gay or bi, and just “in denial” about it. (“As if there were something wrong with that”, one might say, but there’s still more than enough stigma to go around, especially in the places many of the non-American/Western-European porn actors come from.)

But maybe we should take them at their word. Maybe, to put it more generally, the problem is that our society — which is still coming to terms with the concept that not everyone is straight — conflates two different kinds of orientation: physical orientation (who one might desire/be aroused by/be able to perform with sexually) and emotional or relationship orientation (who one might form lasting emotional bonds with, desire a long-term relationship with, or marry). These need not be identical: one can desire to have sex with (some) men and still feel a strong emotional attachment to or preference for (certain) women. While these are usually positively correlated, the correlation isn’t perfect. And we know it isn’t perfect, because there were and are cultures in which sex — particularly gay sex — was/is understood as a different kind of thing entirely from the sex which binds partners in a relationship. Clearly, at least some people, at some historical moments, are able to distinguish sex-as-play or sex-as-ritual from sex-as-procreative-act, and don’t necessarily have the same preferences in every context. (And that’s just talking about humans; let’s not get into the bonobos, OK?)

This is particularly relevant to my own personal experience: I identify as bi, I’m beyond doubt attracted to (and aroused by thoughts of) both men and women, but in terms of the sort of long-term relationship I desire, it’s just as definitely opposite-sex and with at least the potential (perhaps not to be realized) of procreation. (Which is not to suggest that I would be totally averse to more complex relationships — but finding one unicorn is hard enough, finding two or three is ridiculously unlikely, so I leave that to the realm of fantasy where it belongs.)

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Other people’s recipes: Corey’s Homemade Chicken Potpie by Joanne Chang

This is another one of those confusingly titled recipes from Joanne Chang’s cookbook Flour, too (pp. 194–197). As a pastry chef by training, Chang depends on other chefs to handle the savory side of her Flour Bakery-Cafes; the “Corey’s” in the title refers to Chef Corey, who developed it as a winter dinner special. In the past two posts (“Tutorial: Making Joanne Chang’s Pâte Brisée” and “Tutorial: From pie dough to pie crust“) I covered the making of the pastry case for this pie in great detail — since making pie crust is a pretty fundamental baking skill it seemed like it was worth it. (Let me know if you’d like to see other basic baking procedures covered in comparable detail — actually, I’d love to get any feedback at all!) I’m going to go through the rest of the recipe pretty quickly, since it’s fairly standard.

Blind-baked bottom crust, with failed patch
I ended the last installment with a fully blind-baked bottom crust for the pie, plus an uncooked top crust resting in the refrigerator. Now it’s time to make the filling — a mixture of aromatic vegetables, peas, a diced potato, and a pound of cubed chicken breast in a chicken-flavored velouté sauce.

Preparing chicken breast for freezing
First, I’m going to go back in time a little bit. Chicken of whatever variety is much easier to cut evenly if it is first frozen stiff — not quite solid, but firm enough that it doesn’t squish under the pressure of a knife. Since the package of boneless chicken breast I bought had three half-pound breast halves in it, and I only needed a pound of meat, I took the third portion and stuck it in a plastic zip-top bag. The other two pieces I simply laid flat on my nylon cutting board (used only for meat) and stuck them, uncovered, directly in the freezer. I left them in the freezer while the crust was cooling, so they got reasonably firm (the more so as I found that my celery was bad and I had to make an emergency trip to the store) but not rock-hard.

Chicken breast cut into pieces, with cleaver
A good cleaver makes short work of cubing the semifrozen chicken breast. I put the cubed chicken aside while I worked on the rest of the filling — of which <sound effect="sad trombone"/> I took no pictures. But it’s a fairly standard preparation: the vegetables are cooked in butter, the meat is added, then everything is mixed with flour to form a roux, and finally herbs (only thyme in this recipe), seasoning, and chicken broth are added to turn the roux into a velouté. The sauce is enriched with a small amount of cream (which I probably wouldn’t notice if it wasn’t there), and the whole mess gets dumped out of the sauté pan into the pre-baked pastry case.

Fully assembled pot pie
It appears that I chose my dish wisely, as the filling came just up to the top of the pie shell. I took the top crust out of the refrigerator and cut a hole in the center to allow steam to escape — if I had a pie bird I might have used it here — before pressing it firmly onto the top of the filling. A bit of egg wash on top and the pie goes into the oven for a relatively short time, only half an hour (the filling having been partially cooked already).

Cooked pot pie
Looks lovely, doesn’t it? (Well, unless you’re a vegetarian, I suppose!) The pie has to sit on the cooling rack for another quarter of an hour — there’s a lot of carryover and it’s still cooking — but eventually it’s ready to cut into.

Slice of pot pie
Oops. What happened here? It seems like my pie failed in a couple of different ways: the crust got a bit soggy, and the filling didn’t hold together as I was removing the first slice. In fact, the velouté looks a bit runny:

Pot pie with slice removed, showing excess liquid in filling
Ideally, you’d like the sauce to be rather thicker, so that the filling stays in place rather than immediately flowing out into the vacant slice. I wonder if I didn’t cook it enough on the stove before putting the filling in the case? A bite confirms it: the potato is still crunchy, which it definitely should not have been. Oh well, better luck next time. I’ll have to see how it does on the reheat.

On the positive side: this is an incredibly easy recipe to make; it requires no unusual ingredients or procedures, and Chang provides an alternative version with a biscuit topping in place of the pastry crust, so I can easily see myself trying this again (and hopefully nailing the cooking time). For about an hour of active cooking time (about three hours total) I ended up with a creamy, nutritious meat pie that will easily make four or perhaps even more meals.

UPDATE: After chilling the rest of the pie completely, the velouté did solidify, allowing me to get a rather nice quarter-pie slice for the reheat. (It’s over 800 kcal but that’s no worse than a decent hamburger, and I did plan for it by having a light lunch.) Even on the reheat it wasn’t as runny, but the pastry did stick a little to the bottom of the pie dish, so perhaps I didn’t do a very good job of lubricating it before I built the crust. The fluted edges of this dish make it difficult to slide the pie taker underneath a slice. Despite that, it looked fabulous, and reheated quite nicely, although I still think the filling needed to cook a bit more.

Nutrition

The recipe says that it serves 6 to 8. I’m probably going to end up eating the pie in quarters (still not a bad use of meat, if you consider that most meals have more than a quarter-pound of meat in them!), although if I were sharing then I’d go to the effort of cutting it in sixths, and that’s what I’ve presented here.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/6 pie
Servings per recipe: 6
Amount per serving Whole recipe
Calories 544 from fat 234 3265 from fat 1422
% DV % DV
Total Fat 26g 41% 158g 243%
 Saturated Fat 14g 71% 82g 408%
Trans Fat 0g 0g
Cholesterol 174mg 58% 1041mg 347%
Sodium 567mg 24% 3405mg 142%
Potassium 269mg 8% 1615mg 46%
Total Carbohydrate 49g 16% 292g 97%
 Dietary fiber 3g 12% 18g 73%
 Sugars 5g 27g
Proteins 26g 52% 155g 310%
Vitamin A 89% 531%
Vitamin C 12% 74%
Calcium 8% 46%
Iron 9% 57%
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Tutorial: From pie dough to pie crust

This gallery contains 18 photos.

In the previous installment (“Tutorial: Making Joanne Chang’s Pâte Brisée“), I covered making an egg-enriched pie dough using a recipe from Joanne Chang’s cookbook Flour, too (“Corey’s Homemade Chicken Potpie”, pp. 194–197). When last we left the scene of the … Continue reading

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Tutorial: Making Joanne Chang’s Pâte Brisée

This gallery contains 19 photos.

A lot of the people I’ve spoken to over the past few months of pie-baking have expressed to me that they think making pastry is “too hard”, “too fussy”, or “too much work”. I aim to demonstrate that none of … Continue reading

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One simple trick to lose as much weight as you want!

Ok, I’ve (sort of) spilled my guts about introversion, privilege, gender, sexuality, harassment, and the vicious positive feedback loop between being undesired and feeling undesirable, so might as well get this one over with while my inhibitions still seem to be somewhat loosened. (Can’t explain why.) People have been asking me about weight loss for months now, and it is by far the thing I am most reluctant to talk about. (And be warned, those of you who know me from work, I still consider it to be an utterly inappropriate topic for unsolicited workplace conversation. There is maybe one person with whom I’d be willing to have that convo, and if you’re not that person, keep the comments out of the office, please.)

But since I’m parodying those annoying advertisements that appear at the bottom of far too many Web pages, you might as well ask, “What is your one simple trick?”

(Waits for chorus.)

(Not cooperating, I see. I can take the hint.)

One simple trick to lose as much weight as you want:

Eat less, exercise more.

Seriously. That’s all there is to it. I said it was simple, I didn’t claim it would be easy — if you’re at all like me, it’s probably very difficult, perhaps even the most difficult thing you will do in your life.

(Oh, you want more detail? OK, I can give some more detail.)

I offer the following additional suggestions that might help people actually perform this trick:

  1. Set realistic goals. For most people, it is neither realistic nor healthy to attempt to lose more than a pound and a half (0.7 kg) per week, and just a pound would be more realistic. Remember that what you’re trying to lose is excess body fat, not muscle; a pound of fat represents about 4,100 calories, so to lose just a pound a week means you need an average daily calorie deficit of about 600 over the very long term.
  2. Use the BMI inequality as a guideline for what your goal weight should be — making allowances for the fact that BMI guidelines are based on a statistical model which is subject to random variation from one person to the next. (BMI is defined as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters, and is a proxy for the surface-to-mass ratio, itself a proxy for density and thus proportion of body fat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend that all adults, regardless of sex and age, should maintain a BMI between 20 and 25 kg/m2. For a 5’8½” person, that means weighing between 133 and 166 pounds (60–75 kg) — and where any individual should be in that range depends on frame size, musculature, sex, and other factors.)
  3. Keep track of everything you eat, in real time. This makes an enormous difference: when you have to stop and think about what you are eating, and in what quantity, it makes you take the time to reflect on whether you want to be doing that or not, and at what point you ought to stop.
  4. Get an app to help you do the tracking. I use myfitnesspal, which sucks mightily, but in ways that I’m reasonably used to (and data migration would be a real pain at this point). These days, everyone reading this has a smartphone, and if you’re under 50 you probably carry it with you all the time, so you’re unlikely to forget to use the app, as opposed to an old-style paper diary.
  5. Don’t buy bulk packaged foods, if you can avoid it. Prefer foods that come in packages with a reasonable number of servings (how many that is will depend on your goals and the size of your family, among other things), because it’s easier to not open a sealed package than it is to not have one more piece/taste/drink/handful of nuts.
  6. As a more general rule: don’t eat what doesn’t satisfy you. Don’t be afraid to eat higher-calorie foods (within whatever you’ve established as your daily quota) if the result will be that you are satisfied, whereas supposedly “healthier” foods are not at all healthy if they keep you in a state of desire rather than satisfaction. (I’m looking at you, smoked almonds!)
  7. For this reason, avoid sweetened beverages of all kinds; drink water (or seltzer) to assuage your thirst. If you have that hot chocolate/almond-milk chai/café au lait/caramel macchiato, think of it as a dessert, a treat, and not as something you use to occupy your off hand.
  8. Also along those lines: if you like chocolate, buy yourself good chocolate, according to whatever your preferences are, in smaller packages, that can easily be broken into pieces of about 5 grams or so. Put individual pieces of chocolate in your mouth one at a time, and let them melt on your tongue. Wait until one is completely melted and washed away by your saliva before having the next piece. You’ve now turned a 25-gram chocolate bar from something you eat in less than a minute to something that will last ten, and thereby be more satisfied while eating less. (You may find that your tastes change, perhaps significantly, if you savor chocolate in this way!)
  9. Understand that your weight will vary randomly from day to day, depending not only on when you weigh and what you’ve eaten but also your mood, how much sleep you’ve had, your overall state of health, and many other factors. If you weigh yourself every day (I do), remember that you are trying to bend the trend line downward, and filter out the noise. For some people, the easiest and best way to do that filtering is to weigh yourself less frequently.
  10. Find some form of exercise that you can do absolutely every single day. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day (although that’s what works for me), so long as you have some time set aside for physical activity day in and day out.
  11. Get a kitchen scale. In order to eat less, you have to understand how much food you are actually eating, and “how much” is a question of mass which you determine by using a scale. Many common food items come in units which vary substantially in size — as much as 30% in the case of sliced bread, for example — and the serving size on the package is often stated as an average, or in hard-to-estimate volumetric units, or in some standard quantity that nonetheless isn’t the way you would normally eat. Also, the overall label on packaged foods represents a minimum quantity, not a maximum. I’ve had some high-calorie foods like chocolate actually contain significantly more than the label indicates.
  12. Ask for nutrition information when you don’t see it clearly labeled. Many foods you buy in the store, as well as most restaurant foods, are exempt from nutrition labeling requirements. However, that doesn’t mean that the nutrition information isn’t available. Sometimes you just have to ask. Other times the maker won’t consider it worth the expense of preparing it (which has to be done by a certified laboratory, not just estimated from the ingredients like I do for this blog) unless customers demand it.
  13. For similar reasons, when the nutrition label is obviously implausible, ask about it. Sometimes it may be a simple production error; other times the label may have been copied or manipulated incorrectly as a product was portioned — particularly in the case of bulk foods that are portioned and sold by weight in the store. Do the numbers add up to more than the supposed serving size? (One particularly egregious one that I ran into recently was at Whole Foods, where packages of some composed salad listed the serving size in U.S. Customary units as “4 oz” but then listed the size in metric as “100g”. The conversion is off by ten percent — how do you know which quantity the nutrient numbers were based on?)
  14. Don’t necessarily trust third-party nutrition databases, either. They are great time-savers when accurate, and when you don’t have access to an original nutrition label they may be all you can get, but very often the data is inaccurate, was entered incorrectly, is in bogus units, or otherwise doesn’t match what the maker is actually legally committed to in the label.
  15. If you’re an extrovert, you might find that various social support mechanisms — whether online, as built into some apps, or traditional meetings, may help you. I’m not, and I find such things utterly horrifying; if that was the only way to lose weight, I would not have managed it. But if you find that it does work for you, by all means continue with it.
  16. If you use a piece of fitness equipment that claims to tell you how many calories you’ve burned, check that it’s calibrated properly. If you own the equipment, you may have to pay someone to do this for you (if it’s even possible). If you are using exercise equipment at a health club, gym, hotel, or the neighborhood YMCA, you probably need to enter your weight and perhaps other details every time you get on — the formula used to compute calories is only accurate with knowledge of your sex, weight, and height. (Unless you’re wearing a mask and measuring VO2 directly, of course!)
  17. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goals every day — but every day do try to surpass your goals.
  18. Above all, when in doubt, assume that you’ve eaten more and exercised less than you think.

OK, so you’ve done it. You’ve lost the weight you wanted to lose. Now what?

I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet, even after more than a year of steady progress. I am expecting, however, that even once I do get to my goal weight, I will still have to practice all of these things, and more, because I know how I got to where I was. It wasn’t just that vicious feedback loop I mentioned, it was also eating far too much of things that I actually got far too little pleasure out of. (Double Stuf Oreos really aren’t as good as your childhood memories say they were!) And, of course, it was working at a desk, driving to work every day, and not actually making any attempt to keep calorie intake in balance with calorie burning. That’s what they mean when they say it’s a lifestyle change. We are uniquely lucky now that we have the tools that can do much of the grunt work of keeping track for us, but without that day-in, day-out commitment, it will never happen.

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A not-quite-response to Jean Yang’s response to “Comment 171″

Last month, MIT Computer Science professor Scott Aaronson (disclaimer: a colleague, although as he’s a theoretician, not one I interact with very much) wrote a thoughtful blog post about MIT’s response to the allegations of misconduct against former Physics professor Walter Lewin. Scott allows a wide-ranging discussion in the comments on his blog, and in this particular case, it didn’t take much topic drift to bring the conversation around to the role of feminism in technology, and in particular how invoking “privilege” can have the effect of stifling discussion, and more specifically how this can cause well-meaning people who understand themselves as feminists and allies, and wish to make a positive contribution to disengage — simply because they are middle-class straight white cismen, and no amount of good intention can overcome the inherent privilege that comes with that. (The fact that we so easily pass means that middle-class bisexual white cismen like me get no free ride in this regard.)

Scott’s “Comment #171” in the discussion thread takes this head-on, in soul-baring detail, and talks directly both about his personal experience of non-privilege as a shy, nerdy guy, and also about his attempts to engage feminism on its own terms, and how he at times felt himself driven away by feminists’ assertion of his own supposed privilege, contrary to his direct experience. (Scott certainly engaged feminism to a far greater degree than I ever have; doubtless his relative youth and education must have contributed to this.) In the days following the posting of that comment, Scott’s discussion made the rounds of social media several times, and attracted long-form responses from both feminist and “shy, nerdy guy” prespectives.

A few days ago, Jean Yang posted an answer on Quora in response to a question asking for opinions on “Comment 171″. (Jean is a Ph.D. student in the interdepartmental research laboratory where Scott and I both work, and thus also a colleague, albeit one I’m not aware of having ever met in person; our respective social circles have a nonempty intersection.) She surveys some of the previous published responses, including Laurie Penny’s in the New Statesman, and raises the honest criticism that for feminism to succeed, it needs to allow men a place in the conversation — particularly those men who are actually willing, interested, and able to engage in a meaningful way. After all, feminism isn’t about making women superior to men (even if some famous feminists believe that), it’s about breaking down the walls that keep us unequal. (Jean’s response is quite thoughtful and I’m not going to be able to do it justice in summarizing it here — go on, read it; this post will still be here when you get back.)

Scott’s comment (which I didn’t see at the time, only when it made it back around through my social media circle) made me think, and Jean’s response made me think a bit more, about why we so often have this difficulty talking past each other about issues of power and privilege and how those relate to gender and identity. One thing is for certain: we all experience, and perceive, gender differently. (I am reminded of Douglas Hofstadter’s rhetorical query, “Has anyone ever had precisely this thought before?” One might reasonably ask, “Does anyone else have precisely the same gender identity as I do?” I think the answer to both questions must surely be “no”.) But there is also this question of power and privilege, and one of the reasons we so often talk past each other is that every person simultaneously experiences situations of both power and powerlessness, and consequently, has aspects of their life in which they are privileged and other aspects in which they are disadvantaged. The challenge — for feminists and indeed for all right-thinking people — is to understand each other as whole people, not as ivory-tower exemplars of one particular privileged (or stigmatized) group.

I have a great deal of empathy for the particular situation Scott describes, although he was clearly much worse off than I at his low point (and is much better off than I at present), since I too am a “shy nerdy guy” — or as I would put it, a typical strongly introverted, insecure geek — and the society that we live in has expectations that make it extremely difficult to get along if you’re not an overconfident flaming extrovert. (Seriously, have you seen the latest personnel evaluation forms from HR? Doesn’t even have to be MIT HR, most large organizations’ HR departments read from the same playbook. Either I can answer the questions honestly to my lights, in which case I’m setting myself up to be terminated, or I can pretend to be an overconfident extrovert, maybe get a small raise, and feel disgusted at myself for the deception. Haven’t these people ever heard of Impostor Syndrome?) But on the other hand, there’s no denying that anyone who works for MIT, even the people who vacuum the floors and clean the toilets, benefit from more privilege than most of the other seven billion people on earth — and people with steady middle-class jobs like mine, or faculty positions like Scott’s, or even fully-funded graduate assistantships like most students in our lab, have it quite well indeed. This is of course unavoidable in any universe where economic inequality exists.

There are other forms of power differences, however, and my situation is both similar to and very different from Scott’s in another way as a result. I have been a network administrator — in practical terms, the network administrator — for this lab since shortly after my 24th birthday. (This February will mark my 18th anniversary in this position.) I didn’t go to graduate school — that wasn’t an option open to me, for various reasons I won’t go into — and MIT has been my only employer since college. The computing industry has changed a great deal in that time, and the sort of skills that I have are really no longer suitable for working in most other places (and, truth be told, I really have no desire to work in other places, especially not in industry, most of which seems to have moved in a direction that I personally despise).

Even without formal training (which it seems that my hire antedates), I have always been conscious that this position gives me an enormous amount of power — such that if I were a less ethical person, I could disrupt users’ work, read their email or their personal files, untraceably alter database entries, otherwise make their lives more or less difficult at whim — over even the most senior colleagues. Perhaps I am too conscious of this power, because one of the things that it has left me with is the same sort of social paralysis as Scott described in his comment, when combined with my own natural introversion. For many years (and to a significant extent even now), I was always tense and on guard when in certain kinds of situations at work, to ensure that I did not say or do anything that might potentially be considered inappropriate or objectionable — particularly when an attractive young person, especially an attractive young woman (and there have been some), was involved — for fear that one small slip would inevitably result in a career-destroying harassment complaint, and I would spend the rest of my life flipping burgers for $5.50 an hour.

I doubt many, if any, of them ever realized how fearful I was, and I obviously have no idea how they would have responded if I had actually expressed an interest in them beyond the merely professional. I had always resolved that I would never say anything of the sort unless it was someone who I knew very well indeed, and knew for a certainty that they would be flattered if not actually interested, rather than offended — and there were essentially no such people in my life. (Still aren’t.) Thus, the particular, intense awareness of the sort of power that I had (uniquely, in my social circle) joined in positive feedback with my own natural severe introversion to the point that I entirely squandered my own “dating years”, I’m lonely nearly all the time and still single at age 42. This does not make me any less cognizant of the ways in which I am undeniably privileged — to be male in a male-dominated field; to have chosen the right parents so I could go to college, even if I was a lousy student; to have figured out that I was bi at a time when the stigma was finally on its way out; to get paid very well to do what was effectively my dream job straight out of college — but it shouldn’t mean that I am somehow not allowed to contribute to discussions of privilege even when I am (or perceive myself as being) on the other side.

That’s one of the reasons I like to bring up other kinds of privilege that don’t fall into the convenient dichotomies that drive many of these arguments. What about the social privilege of those overconfident extroverts? Our country, and indeed our world, are run by such people, but there is very little discussion of “extrovert privilege”. What about the privilege of neurotypicality? What about the privilege of those who, through the vagaries of chance, have managed to find good, satisfying, mutually supportive relationships of whatever multiplicity and orientation? (There’s plenty of discussion of people who have bad or abusive, or serially unsuccessful, relationships, but this is rarely anchored in the framework of privilege other than the dichotomous gender-privilege concept.) Privilege and power aren’t unitary things: glib aphorisms aside, every person experiences some of both in their lives, often at the same time, and to shut people of good will out of a conversation because they have but one sort of privilege out of many does a serious disservice to everyone involved.

At least, that’s how I see it. I’ve run out of words here. I don’t like to whine, but this has been bothering me for long enough; thanks for your patience if you actually read this far. (Have I mentioned how terrible a self-editor I am? Far easier to say nothing than to say exactly the right thing, so most of the time I keep my thoughts on controversial topics to myself.)

Posted in Law & Society, States of mind | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Recipe quick takes: Joanne Chang’s Vegan low-fat chocolate cake

I’ve gotten a bit behind in my baking lately, thanks to travel and the holidays. I was planning on doing two different Joanne Chang recipes this weekend, but since one involved making pastry and all my butter was in the freezer, and I had to get up early on Saturday and drive to Salem to pick up my old Kitchen-Aid stand mixer from the repair shop, I didn’t end up doing either of them. Instead, I did her “vegan low-fat chocolate cake” (Flour, p. 183), which I had been planning on doing last month for my birthday but ran out of energy for. I’ve had this cake in muffin form at Flour 3 in Cambridge, and I liked it well enough then, so I figured it was worth trying at home.

The farthest I got back in December was buying the unusual six-inch cake pan this recipe calls for. All the ingredients are standard, however, and the construction is by the Muffin Method, very much like a mix brownie with water instead of egg as the primary liquid. I made one other (hopefully minor) substitution, using vanilla paste instead of vanilla extract, because I have a whole bottle of it and don’t know how else I’m going to use it up otherwise. (One of those special ingredients that you buy for one recipe and are then stuck with because nothing else you’ve ever made calls for it.) I otherwise stuck by the recipe, including adding espresso powder which I would ordinarily have left out (since I detest the flavor of coffee).

One thing I was not prepared for was the way the cake puffs up during baking:
Finished cake, hot from the oven

After cooling in the pan for an hour, the cake released quite easily (although I probably unnecessarily ran a knife around the edge anyway):
Cake pan after extracting cake

The recipe says “serves 6 to 8″. I don’t know about you, but I find it vastly easier to cut anything in halves, quarters, or eighths than I do thirds or sixths, so I had no doubt how many wedges I was going to get:
Seven wedges of cake

Chang recommends sifting a bit of confectioner’s sugar over the top; since I was not serving the whole thing at once, I dusted the individual wedge instead:
One slice of cake, with powdered sugar on top

So it looks pretty, but how does it taste? Not much, unfortunately. I honestly couldn’t have told that this was supposed to be a chocolate cake if you gave it to me blindfolded — and I can detect an (undesirable) hint of the coffee flavor. I’ll bring it in to work and see what other people think, but my feeling is that the lack of fat — particularly cocoa butter — combined with the light texture of the cake doesn’t serve the chocolate fanatic particularly well. However, I remember the muffin-shaped version at Flour being better, so perhaps it might be better baked in cupcake wrappers, and perhaps glazed or frosted (although then it would no longer be either vegan or low-fat!) to punch up the flavor somewhat. It’s also possible that I overbaked it — one of the main ways to destroy chocolate flavor is to let it evaporate in the oven and waft away. There’s only 40 g of cocoa in the recipe, even if it’s the good stuff, which makes me suspect that there are other ways the flavor could be punched up as well — perhaps by adding some chocolate chunks, as so many cupcakemuffin recipes do.

Nutrition

I don’t believe this cake actually meets the FDA regulations to be called “low fat”. But it is certainly lower in fat than a butter cake or pretty much anything with eggs or cocoa butter in it.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/8 cake
Servings per container: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 230 Calories from fat 63
% Daily Value
Total Fat 7g 11%
 Saturated Fat 1g 4%
 Monounsaturated Fat 4g
 Polyunsaturated Fat 2g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 203mg 8%
Potassium 104mg 3%
Total Carbohydrate 40g 13%
 Dietary fiber 3g 10%
 Sugars 16g
Proteins 4g 9%
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 2%
Iron 6%
Posted in Food | Tagged , , ,

Some random thoughts on my recent trip to New York

On sort of a whim, I decided to go to New York the day after New Year’s. Well, technically, I actually did the deciding a few weeks before New Year’s, when I was looking at the NHL schedule, but it only took a few minutes to go from “Hey, why don’t I go to see that game in Newark” to “Hey, I’ve never actually had a chance to play tourist in New York” to “Why don’t I see what’s playing on Broadway that weekend” to buying all the tickets and making hotel reservations. Here are some random thoughts about what I did and saw.

The one anchor point starting out was that I wanted to see the Canadiens play the Devils on Friday, January 2, at the Prudential Center. I had complete freedom of transportation mode — I could drive, take the bus, take the train (express or “regional”), or fly. The Prudential Center is right in downtown Newark, two blocks from Newark Penn Station, so I looked closely at the rail option, and found that the Acela Express fare from Route 128 to Newark was not-terrible enough to eliminate air travel from consideration. I looked at the cost of driving, considered the difference in parking costs between Newark and Route 128, and decided that I’d rather take the train — this also gave me a bit more freedom in terms of scheduling, since I could nap on the train. I didn’t seriously consider taking any of the various bus services, most of which don’t stop in Framingham and so would require more complicated travel arrangements at this end. I chose a fairly early departure from Boston, which would get me in to Newark Penn a little after 1 PM, allowing me time to check into my hotel and then go back into the city for a few hours before the game. I also chose a late return trip on Sunday, primarily because I could get a AAA discount on the fare, but it also worked out well in terms of being able to do some additional sightseeing in Manhattan.

Considering both Amtrak’s official (although apparently not enforced) limits on carry-on baggage, and the fact that I would be lugging all of my stuff through Manhattan on Sunday afternoon until my train home, I had to make a decision whether to bring my camera bag or my audio bag, and ultimately decided to bring my audio bag. (In theory I could have brought both, but only at the cost of carrying a heavy backpack in addition to my roller bag, which I didn’t really want to do.) As a result, the photos you see here are less numerous than they otherwise would be, and of a lower quality since they were taken with my phone camera rather than my proper camera (which a number of the places I went wouldn’t have allowed in anyway).

My initial thought for a hotel was to find a Choice Hotels property (I’m in Choice’s loyalty program) in Newark that looked reasonable. The only one I could find, however, was quite a distance north of Newark Penn on McCarter Highway (NJ 21), which meant spending a lot of money on taxis or very inconvenient alternatives for ground transportation. (I decided I probably wouldn’t want to walk it.) In exploring the map of downtown Newark, I noticed that there was a Courtyard literally right next to the Prudential Center, on the Broad Street side, and it turned out that their rate was not much worse than the Choice property’s. (Normally I would not choose a Marriott property, because, well, Marriott, but in this case it was so much more convenient that I was willing to make an exception. There is also a boutique hotel on Broad right next to the Marriott, and a Hilton closer to the train station.) I later described this hotel as being located at the intersection of Old Newark and Gentrifying Newark, across the street from Poverty-Stricken Newark — my seventh-floor window literally looked out across Broad Street at a run-down nail salon, a grey-market electronics store, and a pawn shop. The hotel was clearly very new construction — so new, in fact, that most of the ground-floor retail space had yet to be leased out. The boutique hotel next door was in an old bank building, and a decrepit old Paramount theater was another block away. Between the two hotels was the First Presbyterian Church, a seventeenth-century establishment.

When I arrived in Newark, it was bitterly cold and windy, but I decided to walk the four blocks from the station to the hotel so I could get the “lay of the land” as it were. Conveniently, the Acela Express used a platform that had a direct exit to Market Street, which was a block closer to the hotel than the station’s main entrance. I walked past the Newark outpost of Syracuse’s famous Dinosaur BBQ, where I hoped to have dinner before the game, turned left on Broad Street, and checked into my hotel. As a security measure, the Courtyard required key-card access to all guest-room floors, something I’ve never seen in this class of hotel before.

New World Trade Center tower

The new One World Trade Center building, with spire, as seen from in front of the 9/11 memorial preview site on Vesey Street. The building opened on November 3, 2014.

I bundled back up and walked back to the Penn Station to take the PATH train to lower Manhattan, which I’ve never done before. (My one prior experience on PATH was several years ago, on the Hoboken-33rd St. line.) Thankfully, PATH now both issues and accepts Metrocards, so I did not need to get more than one stored-value medium for this trip. On arrival at World Trade Center station, I immediately noticed how much like a construction site it still looks, and the evidence of construction was even clearer outside. I walked as far as the 9/11 Memorial Preview, took some photos of the new World Trade Center tower, and then turned around and took the train back to Newark.

I had figured that it would be possible to eat dinner very early — 5:30, say — and still get into the Prudential Center in time to see the teams do their warm-up skate. That was in fact the case, but unfortunately not at Dinosaur: when I stepped in shortly after 5:00, I was told that there was a 90 minute wait, unless I wanted take-out (which of course I didn’t). I resigned myself to getting an overpriced hot dog at the arena, and walked back in the direction of my hotel. I saw what looked like another potential dining option and stuck my head in — they said they could seat me right away, so I after looking at the menu I decided to eat there. I hadn’t realized that this was actually the hotel dining room of the boutique hotel next to mine, and it wasn’t until I asked for directions to the men’s room and was shown out the front door of the restaurant that I finally twigged on to the fact. The service was poor and very slow, even though the restaurant was only about half full, but the food was acceptable if a bit overpriced. I finished my dinner at about 6:30 and walked half a block to the Prudential Center, showed my ticket, and took my seat.

I had a great seat, about eight rows up from the ice and one section to the right of the away bench, and took some pictures during the players’ warm-up skate.

MTL@NJ pre-game warmup

Looking from my seat towards center ice and the home end of the rink


MTL@NJ pre-game warmup

Left to right: Tomáš Plekanec C, Carey Price G, unidentified player (perhaps Max Pacioretty LW?), P.K. Subban D, Dale Weise RW, another unidentified player


Of course it wasn’t cheap, but I consoled myself with the fact that I would have had to pay twice as much for the same seat in Montreal — if such a ticket ever came onto the market long enough for me to buy it.) My streak of unbroken NHL home-team losses continued, although it wasn’t a complete rout, so the New Jersey fans didn’t start leaving until an empty-netter in the last minute of play put the game out of reach. I went back to my hotel and spent some time in the hotel’s fitness center, which unfortunately had only one stationary bike, a recumbent. (Better than none at all, as I experienced in a Comfort Suites over Christmas, I suppose, but I truly hate recumbent stationary bikes as even the good ones invariably rattle and vibrate far beyond acceptable limits.)

In preparation for my Saturday, I had spent some time in Google Maps looking at the various attractions both touristic and culinary. My first stop would be the Doughnut Plant at 220 W. 23rd St. in Chelsea (between the IRT 7th Av. and IND 8th Av. lines) — which I had not realized, from the info page in Maps, was actually a fairly large chain operation. (In fact, I didn’t know this until I actually looked it up while writing this.) The reviews I looked at were good, however, and I was quite pleased with what I saw when I got there — and even more pleased with what I saw when my order arrived:

Breakfast at Doughnut Plant, Chelsea

I ordered a chocolate glazed yeast donut and a hot chocolate. Both were made with Valrhona chocolate (although that doesn’t impress me as much as it was probably intended to).

The hot chocolate in particular was amazing, although I realized as I was entering it in my food diary that it probably had several hundred more calories than I had accounted for — just how much cream, exactly, did they put in there. (All of it?) Undoubtedly I could make both items myself and have them come out just as good, but that would require far more effort than it’s worth for a single person, and what would I do with the inevitably huge quantity of leftovers? It’s the ideal meal to have out. (Besides, I only ever eat breakfast when I’m traveling, so there’s no circumstance in which I would even be awake early enough to have fresh donuts in the morning!)

From 23rd St. I hopped back on the subway and headed (after some substantial and unexplained delays) down to Rector St., and walked from there down to the foot of Broadway and Bowling Green, where the United States Custom House is located. When the original World Trade Center complex opened, the Customs Service moved from the Custom House to leased space at WTC. The Custom House fell into disrepair, but was eventually repaired and refurbished (still under federal ownership) in the 1980s. Coincidentally, George Gustav Heye’s Museum of the American Indian ran into difficulty in the 1980s as well, and a deal was struck to transfer the Heye collection to the Smithsonian, where it would form the nucleus of the newly chartered National Museum of the American Indian. Since it would take several years to identify a location for NMAI on the Mall in Washington and then design and build a brand new museum, and since the Heye collection was already located in New York, the Smithsonian (which already operated the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City) opened a New York branch of NMAI, and the General Services Administration gave the new museum the first two floors of the Custom House. The main NMAI location in Washington opened several years ago, but the New York location has remained open, as the NMAI George Gustav Heye Center. Like other Smithsonian museums, admission is free but a bag inspection is required.

Custom House RotundaThere are three main gallery spaces in the Heye Center, all surrounding the Custom House’s second-floor clerk’s desks, under the great rotunda. There’s a historical exhibit about the Custom House itself occupying half of the clerks’ space: when the building was constructed, customs brokers would come to the Custom House to present their bills of lading and their duty payments to customs clerks for filing, but changes in the shipping industry meant that this sort of in-person processing was now done by customs agents at the ports, so a large public space such as this was surplus to requirements. Even after 9/11 when the Customs Service moved back into the Custom House, the much smaller complement of central staff could easily fit into smaller offices on an upper floor of the building. I’m looking towards the main entrance, which leads to a grand staircase and Bowling Green IRT station; my back is to the middle of the three main galleries, which has a permanent exhibition of (mostly Heye collection) artifacts from native communities throughout the hemisphere. To my left and right are galleries for temporary exhibits — when I visited, the gallery on my right had an exhibit of Navaho turquoise jewelry made by members of the Yazzie family, and the one on my left had an exhibit of never-before-shown black-and-white medium-format photographs taken by Horace Poolaw, a Kiowa man in mid-century Oklahoma, documenting everyday life for non-reservation native people living in the former “Indian Territory”.

When I left NMAI, it had begin to rain, as had been forecast, and I was grateful for the subway station at the foot of the stairs. I took the F train over to the Lower East Side (conveniently, the 5 train was running local that day, replacing the 6, as I would otherwise have had to make two transfers rather than just one) to have lunch at The Meatball Shop on Stanton St. One of the things that makes New York unlike most every other city in the US is that its unique combination of a very large, dense population with tiny apartments containing even tinier kitchens means that even exceedingly niche restaurant concepts can find sufficient custom to thrive — a gourmet donut shop like Doughnut Plant could exist in almost any urban area, but a restaurant that serves only meatballs is something that you really wouldn’t expect to see anywhere outside of New York. (At least until it becomes the next franchise fast-food fad, like cupcakes and grilled cheese in recent years.) The Meatball Shop offers four different basic kinds of meatballs, and they can be had in a variety of forms — as normal meatballs, “smashed” as burger-like objects, as the meat filling in a sub/grinder/hero — with a variety of accompaniments and sauces.

Lunch at The Meatball Shop

Lunch consisted of spicy pork meatballs with traditional sauce on linguine, with a side of steamed spinach.

From Stanton Street I walked down to Essex Market, because I wanted to see what the New York outpost of Cambridge’s famous gourmet shop, Formaggio, looked like. Being a small tenant in a much larger food market, Formaggio Essex concentrates on the small, high-value items that made Formaggio’s name in Boston: cheese, chocolate, condiments, and charcuterie — other purveyors in Essex Market have the bakery and produce business sewn up, and Formaggio’s space is too small to try to compete with them. I bought some chocolate that I hadn’t seen in stock at Formaggio in Cambridge when I was last there. While I was in Essex Market, I also got some dessert in the form of “cake balls” — dense little balls of cake and frosting, slightly larger than a donut hole and far tastier. The cake balls were the very first thing I saw when I entered the market, but I don’t recall the name of the stall where they were sold.

I still had several hours before the 8:00 curtain for Pippin, so I went uptown a bit and visited the Museum of Mathematics, which I had seen posters in the halls advertising at work (only on the Theory floors, unsurprisingly). I pretty much knew what to expect, so I was not surprised, but I thought the $15 admission was a bit steep for what’s basically a very small children’s museum on two floors of a narrow 26th St. storefront. I do wish that it was possible to have an urban museum for any STEM subject that wasn’t a children’s museum. (Those looking for more adult fare, however, can send the rugrats with a chaperone to MoMath and head a block north to the Museum of Sex, a commercial — and obviously adults-only — enterprise.)

From there — with four hours still to waste but all the museums closing — I headed back downtown to see the MTA’s new Fulton Center building and its oculus. Fulton Center is located atop the Fulton Street subway stop, and is a new combined headhouse and transfer station for the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, Z, and R services, serving the financial district. It’s intended to have two floors of retail establishments outside the fare-paid zone, but the MTA has evidently not leased any of it yet. By this time the sun had set and it was pouring outside, so after a brief look around Fulton St. itself, I headed back uptown to Times Square.

My most immediate problem was to find a place to eat and get out of the cold rain. All of the establishments were absolutely jammed; I went into one barbecue place (not Dinosaur, whose Manhattan establishment is way uptown, on 125th St. in Harlem) where the person at the door could only tell me how long the wait was to go up the escalator to get in line to wait for a table. Shake Shack (not that I wanted that anyway) looked like every single square foot of floor space was occupied. I looked into one place that had a decent-looking menu, and seemed to have a lot of open tables, but these were apparently all reserved. I went next door to a “bar and grill” type place with lots of huge flat-screen monitors showing sports (only two events, a basketball game and a football game), and was seated after only twenty minutes; I got a decent grilled-chicken pizza. It didn’t take nearly long enough to get served and eat (these restaurants being so packed there’s surely an incentive to turn over tables as fast as they can), so I arrived at the Shubert Music Box Theater more than an hour early, and about 45 minutes before the doors opened. I eventually did get in, and found out (albeit not through direct experience) that Broadway theaters are very, very nasty about people taking pictures — of anything, including themselves. Or at least this one was; I heard an usher demanding of several people that they delete their selfies (taken, mind, in a crowded theater balcony facing away from the stage long before the curtain opened). The show, however, was good; the music and the choreography were both well done, even if the plot was a bit thin and disjointed. (Let’s be honest: you don’t go to a Broadway musical for the plot.)

After the show let out, I checked Google Maps and acquiesced to its assessment that I could get back to my hotel faster by walking from 45th St. to Penn Station than I could by trying to get on the subway for a couple of stops. (At least north-south blocks in Manhattan are really short!) I caught the next North Jersey Coast Line train from New York Penn to Newark Penn (fare $5) and, in view of the darkness and rain, took a cab back to the hotel (fare $10, and he didn’t appear to be using the taximeter, although it might have been replaced with a smartphone app). I did some more airchecking before going to bed, but decided against getting back on the stationary bike on the grounds that I had walked enough to make up for it. (This is how New Yorkers manage to eat so much without getting fat — they walk everywhere. Even when they take the subway, there may still be half a mile of walking at either end, and many subway journeys involve navigating numerous underground passages and stairways, particularly when transfers are involved.)

On Sunday morning, I was still considering sticking around in Newark for long enough to get lunch at Dinosaur, since it seemed unlikely that I’d be back there any time soon, but ultimately I decided I would be better served heading (with all my luggage) back into Manhattan and uptown to the American Museum of Natural History. So I walked back to Newark Penn and bought another NJT ticket for the commuter train into New York Penn. (I could have taken PATH instead, for half the price, but PATH on weekends operates a limited schedule with the Newark-33rd St. and Hoboken-33rd St. lines combined.) When I arrived in Manhattan, I knew that I needed to add three more fares to my Metrocard, but after charging my credit card, the MTA vending machine spit out my Metrocard, claiming that it was damaged, and gave me a receipt. The clerk in the MTA booth was entirely unhelpful, and eventually sent me to another guy, who was also unhelpful — there is apparently no way, even in the presence of a damaged Metrocard with matching receipt from a fare vending machine in the same station for the MTA’s customer service representatives to issue a refund or even waive the $1 fee for a replacement card. All I could do, both men said, was mail the damaged card and the receipt to the MTA and some day they might get around to issuing a refund (which would probably be another Metrocard that would expire before I got a chance to use it anyway).

So I ended up buying a second Metrocard, again putting three fares on it, and taking the C train to 81st St. I hadn’t taken note of the platform signs which would have directed me to the museum’s direct entrance from the subway station, so I exited to the street and walked down to the newest section of the museum, the Rose Center, which houses the Hayden Planetarium of which Neil deGrasse Tyson is director. Conveniently, the museum’s coat check and automated ticket machines are located in this new section. With only a little hesitation, I was able to drop my rollerbag at the museum’s coat check, buy a ticket, and then head over to the museum cafeteria to get lunch before exploring the museum.

When I bought my ticket, I had an opportunity to buy timed admission to one or more of the special exhibits at the museum. I chose to see an exhibit on natural disasters, which was a complete waste of time and money — it had been developed originally by Chicago’s Field Museum in the late 2000s, and there was literally nothing in it that I did not already know or could not have easily learned by looking at a Wikipedia page. (Of course, the children who are the AMNH’s bread and butter would not necessarily come so well informed.) The AMNH in general is at a curious crossroads of old- and new-style museums: there are numerous modern exhibits clearly designed primarily for children, but they are juxtaposed with a great deal of material in the older style — mounted specimens, dioramas, and the like — that have more adult appeal. One good thing about the natural-disaster exhibit was that the woman checking tickets at the entrance reminded everyone to go see the “Lonesome George” exhibit on the fourth floor as this was its last day.

Lonesome George

“Lonesome George” was a Galapagos tortoise, the very last of his species, who died a few years back. The park authorities in the Galapagos put together a traveling exhibit after he died.

Of course, the main attraction of any natural-history museum is dinosaur fossils. Children of the right age are still as interested in dinosaurs as they ever were, and this actually is a great opportunity to present evolution, in a paleontological context, to impressionable young people. The AMNH fossil exhibits are for the most part organized on cladistic lines, although the explanatory text always uses “group” rather than the technical term “clade”. (There are a few paraphyletic groups presented, with a caution that these groupings are not “groups” because the animals depicted did not evolve from a common ancestor.) The presentation of birds as modern-day dinosaurs is done particularly well, with many of the evolutionary trees having an arrow off to one said labeled “birds” (the only clade indicated that doesn’t also say “(extinct)”).

Big dinosaur skeletons

What most people paid their $24 for. I’ve already forgotten which dinosaurs these fossil skeletons represent, but doubtless you can find a ten-year-old who knows just by looking.

I left the museum at about 3:30, having seen about a third of the exhibits, and headed over to the Leonidas shop at 485 Madison Avenue. This involved taking the C train back down to Times Square and then an uptown E train over to 5 Av/53 St station; the narrow storefront is located midblock on Madison between 51st and 52nd. The Madison Avenue exit of the subway station is closed on weekends — although the escalators were still running — so I had to double back to Fifth Avenue. I bought more than two pounds of chocolates and truffles, and proceeded to eat far too many of them when I brought them into work on the Monday after I got back. I still had more than an hour to kill before my 6:07 train, so I decided once again to walk to Penn Station, heading crosstown on 49th St. and then down 7th Avenue through Times Square, looking to get a somewhat better view now that there was daylight and it was no longer raining. Along the way, I saw an intriguing storefront for “Baked by Melissa” — they call what they sell “cupcakes”, but in reality, it’s as if you took supermarket mini-cupcakes and cut the bottoms off, so they’re just about half frosting and half cake. I asked, and they claimed that they were under 50 calories each, which was good enough for me to buy six, and I would later eat all of them. (Another example of the niche food that only a market like New York can support, although I found these to be vastly inferior to the “cake balls” I bought the previous day at Essex Market.) When I tried them, I was unable to tell what flavors they were supposed to be — other than the chocolate-dipped one, for obvious reasons — so that’s a product I can definitely scratch off my list.

The trip home was uneventful until we got to South Attleborough, where a malfunctioning switch machine had our train stopped for half an hour. Sitting behind me on the train were a woman who was chivvying her daughter into making one last college application before a January 5 deadline. Eventually she figured out that the application would require materials that she didn’t have with her, so they moved on to other topics of conversation. The rain had started back up again, so I was thankful to be in covered parking at Route 128 station (which also meant that there was no snow or ice to scrape off), although I was a bit irritated at all of the escalators being out simultaneously, so I had to wait out on the cold platform for the s-l-o-w elevators to move multiple loads of passengers and their baggage. I got home none the worse for wear, and only a couple of pounds heavier, and went to work the next day with plenty more sweet things that I really needed to get my colleagues to eat before I managed to.

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Quote of the day: Saladin Ahmed on satire

From Saladin Ahmed’s Times piece today:

The question for writers and artists, then, is not whether we ought to limit ourselves, but how already limit ourselves. In a field dominated by privileged voices, it’s not enough to say “Mock everyone!” In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what preexisting injuries we are adding our insults to.

To which not much more can be added.

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