Wikimedia chair, lawyer at Creative Commons, tech policy geek, FLOSS advocate, bassoonist, violist, nerd.
170 stories

Mmmm baked potatoes

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I recently wrote an article here complaining that even though everyone agrees on what a good french fry is like, and even though it's not hard to make a good french fry, most of the fries you actually get are not good.

I have a similar complaint about baked potatoes. Restaurant baked potatoes are uniformly terrible, even when you pay $10 for them at an expensive steakhouse. The potato is supposed to steam inside its skin and become soft and fluffy inside, and crisp on the outside. Instead you almost always get a potato that is not too different from raw.

The bad fries are a mystery. It only takes a few minutes longer to make really good fries, and I don't understand why more people don't do it. The baked potatoes are easier to understand. Making a good baked potato takes a lot of time. It doesn't require skill or attention, just patience.

The recipe is: heat the oven to around 350°. Start with a big starchy potato, the kind with dusty brown skin. Wash, dry, and oil the potato, prick it with a fork, and put it naked into the oven. (No foil! Unless you want your baked potato to be a steamed potato instead.)

And then add the secret ingredients: time and heat. Many recipes advise baking the potato for an hour. This is not enough. Once the potato goes into the oven, leave it there, for at least ninety minutes, maybe a hundred and twenty. If it's in a pan you might want to turn it over once. It's probably better to just put it on the rack, then you don't need to turn it.

The exact time and temperature is not that important. This is not rocket science; it is just a potato. The proper cooking time is not a fleeting instant, it is a long afternoon, an easy target. At some point the potato will begin to overcook, but not for a long time, and if it does, it will happen very gradually. The skin will stay crisp and the inside will stay fluffy; only a thin shell in between will dry out too much, and even if it does you may not find it objectionable; some people like it that way. I suppose eventually the entire potato would char and catch fire, but you would have to work really hard to leave it in the oven that long.

The other key point is to take the baked potato out of the oven and deliver it to the table at the moment you are about to eat it, and not any sooner. The baking time is quite flexible, as long as you don't take it out too soon. So don't say “oh, the recipe said to bake it for 90 minutes”, and then take it out after exactly 90 minutes and let it sit around for a quarter hour before you serve it. Leave it in the oven until serving time, and when everything else is ready, then take it out and drop it on the plate.

Restaurant chefs have years of training and practice in the culinary arts, and because of this they cook many things much better than the rest of us. But how much advantage do they derive from their training and practice when baking a potato? Pretty close to zero.

Restaurants, by their nature, are really good at some kinds of food, much less good at others. The baked potato is very ill-suited to restaurant-style preparation methods. It takes a long time to cook, but unlike many long-cooking foods, such as stew or soup, it can't be prepared in advance and then reheated. (The outside, which should be the best part, would get tough and leathery.) The baked potato is best when served on the instant, but unless the restaurant had a whole oven devoted to potatoes in different stages of doneness, circulating in and out in shifts through the day, and unless they invested the attention and trouble to keep track of all those potatoes, putting in new ones and taking out the old ones every half hour or so, they wouldn't be able to produce a well-baked potato at the moment they needed to deliver it to the table.

And if the restaurant did go to all that trouble, what then? They wouldn't be able to charge enough to pay them back for the time and trouble, because it is just a potato, and who is going to pay a lot of money for a potato?

So baked potatoes are a dish that you can do at home better than a restaurant can, and you might as well. Let's all create a better world by cooking better baked potatoes.

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11 days ago
Mountain View, California
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Keep Others’ Identities Small

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I really like Paul Graham’s advice to “keep your identity small” - to avoid making groups or positions part of your identity if you want to remain unbiased. But I often want to add to it “and keep other people’s identity small too”.

It really annoys me when the first thing someone does when they hear something they disagree with is to attribute an identity to the person who expressed the view that roughly correlates with the view in question (feminist, liberal, conservative, religious, libertarian, etc.). When people do this they almost invariably fail to engage with the actual claims that the other person is making. Instead, they engage with claims they think someone from that group would typically make or they dismiss the person’s claims because they come from “a member of group x”.

I’ve seen this happen on all sides. Think IQ is heritable? You must just be racist and/or sexist. Think implicit bias might hinder women’s careers? You must just be a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. Think abortion might be wrong? You must just be religious and anti-women. This makes it almost impossible to sincerely engage with the claims in question. So if you want to actually expose yourself to a variety of views, it seems better to engage with people’s statements directly and attribute as small an identity to them as possible.

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19 days ago
Mountain View, California
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probablynecromancerrpgideas: prokopetz: docexe-mx: prokopetz: flesheatingooze: prokopetz: proko...

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It’s universally agreed that the mimic, a monster that impersonates a treasure chest and eats you if to try to open it, is the sort of conceptually ridiculous threat that could only come from old-school Dungeons & Dragons, but I suspect that a lot of folks who got into the game post-2000 - or who’ve only heard about it second hand - don’t realise just how representative it really is of the kind of dungeon-dwelling bullshit we had to put up with back in the day.

I’ve got a copy of the Monstrous Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (pub. 1993) in front of me, and in this book alone you’ll find:

  • A shapeshifting subterranean predator that impersonates doorways
  • A monster that looks like a cloak, and when you put it on it eats you
  • A giant - as in 20 feet across - flying manta ray that looks like the ceiling*
  • At least three unrelated beasties that impersonate decorative statues
  • A flesh-eating ooze that looks like a rock formation
  • A flesh-eating ooze that looks like a pool of water
  • A flesh-eating ooze that looks like a brick wall (you may have noticed that flesh-eating oozes are something of a theme)
  • An undead critter that also looks like a brick wall (the explanation for how it pulls this off is like half a page long)
  • A tentacled whatsit that impersonates a pile of trash
  • A snail-like critter that disguises itself as a stalactite, then falls on your head when you walk underneath it
  • A monster that looks like a stalagmite (can’t have one without the other, right?) that grabs you with sticky tentacles when you walk past
  • A monster that looks like a tree, and when you walk beneath its branches it sneakily places a noose-like vine around your neck and hangs you
  • A flying mushroom that looks like a different monster, except when you attack it, it explodes and infects you with poisonous spores

* Interestingly, there are no less than three apparently totally unrelated species of giant flying mantra rays in this book, though only one of them impersonates architecture.

And that’s just in the core rules for that particular edition. Various supplements for this and previous editions have included carnivorous floors, undead clothing, malevolent furniture, and - I swear I’m not making this up - a beastie that looks like a tree stump with a rabbit standing on it, and attacks you if you try to catch the rabbit (which is actually an anglerfish-like lure).

Basically, there are two things you should take away from this:

1. The variant mimics you see on Tumblr are no more ridiculous than what you’ll find in the actual source material; and

2. In old-school Dungeons & Dragon, literally everything is trying to kill you.

Let’s not forget the Bag of Devouring, which is a beastie pretending to be the most useful/neccasarry item in the game (bag of holding) and doesn’t even reveal itself until after it has eaten all your stuff and part of your arm

Ah, yes - the Bag of Devouring. The perfect intersection between “disguised monsters that want to kill you in ways that make no sense” and “seemingly helpful magic items that want to kill you in ways that make no sense” - that latter could be a whole post on its own!

(I’m like 99% convinced that the entire SCP Foundation universe is just somebody’s “D&D Modern” AU.)

Okay, I’ve gotten multiple requests for the “seemingly helpful magic items that want to kill you in ways that make no sense” post, so here goes. Again, I am literally just reading out of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide - this isn’t like a “best of” compilation spanning the game’s entire product line or anything, it’s all right there in the core rules.

Notable entries include:

  • A magic ring that causes the wearer to become deluded that the ring has some useful magical power. (Its only real power is to delude the wearer into thinking it has powers.)
  • A magic ring that legitimately has some useful magical power, but also renders the wearer psychologically incapable of agreeing with any spoken statement.
  • The aforementioned bag of devouring, which impersonates a bag of holding (i.e., a bag that’s larger on the inside than the outside), but is actually a feeding orifice of some nasty extradimensional critter.
  • A different screw-you variation on the bag of holding that randomly transmutes precious metals placed inside into base metals, and destroys magic items.
  • An enchanted bowl that every test indicates will summon friendly water elementals with a suitable ritual. When the ritual is actually performed, however, it shrinks the user to the size of an ant and drowns her. (Also, any deaths caused by this bowl explicitly resist all normal methods of resurrection, for no obvious reason other than fuck you.)
  • An enchanted bell that seems to have the power to open locked doors, and actually does so the first few times it’s used. After several uses, however, it suddenly switches to causing everyone who hears it to become ravenously hungry, to the point that they’ll try to kill and eat each other if no other obvious food sources are available.
  • A cloak that kills you when you put it on. That’s it. That’s all it does.
  • A pair of glasses that turn you to stone when you put them on. Again, that’s their sole function.
  • A pair of boots that perfectly duplicate the functions of some other, actually useful type of magic boots; as soon as the wearer enters combat, however, their useful property vanishes and they start dancing.
  • A magic drum that permanently deafens the user and anyone else within seventy feet when struck.
  • A broom that is “identical to a broom of flying to all tests”, except when you actually try to use it to fly, it comes to life and starts swatting you in the face instead. 
  • A pair of gloves that seem to give you super-strength, but the first time you encounter a “life and death situation”, their effect switches to rendering you supernaturally clumsy instead. Once the curse activates they can’t be removed without magical aid.
  • A hat that makes you stupid. 
  • A harp whose music is so supernaturally bad that everyone within earshot is driven to attack the player in a mindless rage.
  • A carpet that rolls you up inside it and suffocates you if you sit on it.
  • A spear that functions normally at first, but has a small random chance to curl around and stab you in the back each time you use it.

That’s by no means exhaustive, but I’m going to have to stop there because there are just so darned many of the things.

The list of “seemingly helpful magic items that want to kill you in ways that make no sense” looks like it came straight out of Oglaf.

Oglaf is literally just Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition as played by moderately drunk college students. I don’t mean literally-for-emphasis - I mean that’s actually, 100% what happens. It could be revealed tomorrow that the whole comic is just the author’s gaming journal and I wouldn’t bat an eye.

What I get from this is: a) The influence of Dungeons & Dragons in other fictional works is really pervasive. b) Dark Souls is nothing else but a D&D campaign with a particularly sadistic GM.

Totally. D&D is, like, weirdly influential once you start digging into it; in the grand scheme of things, it’s a game that practically nobody actually plays, yet there are entire genres of popular media directly based on it. Not just in the West, either - look into the history of JRPGs or fantasy anime some time. The 1980s Satanism freakout notwithstanding, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was an actual deal with the Devil somewhere along the lines to account for it.

i’m here for the undead brick wall idk about y’all

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30 days ago
"A magic ring that legitimately has some useful magical power, but also renders the wearer psychologically incapable of agreeing with any spoken statement."

If it weren't for the magic bit I'd be pretty sure I know some people who have this in real life...
Mountain View, California
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slatestarscratchpad: slatestarscratchpad: To @worldlypositions, who I just learned inexplicably...

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To @worldlypositions, who I just learned inexplicably hates iambic pentameter but loves iambic tetrameter:

O, thou art like a summer’s day
But fairer and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the buds of May
And summer hath too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the sunlight shines
And sometimes is its color dimmed
And every fair from fair declines
By chance, or nature’s course, untrimmed.

But thy own summer shall not fade
Nor shalt thou lose the fair thou ow'st
Nor shalt Death have thou in his shade
In timeless lines to Time thou growst.

So long as men can breathe or see,
So long lives this, and through it, thee.

Not going to blame @worldlypositions this time, but for my own amusement:

A summer’s day?
No, you’re more fair!
There’s storms in May
And sunshine’s rare.

The sky’s too bright
Or else too dim;
All charms take flight
By nature’s whim.

But you won’t fade,
Nor lose your fair,
Nor reach death’s shade;
These lines will spare!

If men still see,
This poem’s for thee.

This time totally inexcusable:

Nice day?
No, you!
Storms spray
Spring too.

It’s warm
Or cold.
And charm
Gets old.

You’ll not
You’ve got
This line.

Men here?
You’re clear.

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33 days ago
Mountain View, California
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slatestarscratchpad: In the spirit of literarystarbucks: Parmenides goes up to the counter. “Same...

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In the spirit of literarystarbucks:

Parmenides goes up to the counter. “Same as always?” asks the barista. Parmenides nods.

Pythagoras goes up to the counter and orders a caffe Americano. “Mmmmm,” he says, tasting it. “How do you guys make such good coffee?” “It’s made from the freshest beans,” the barista answers. Pythagoras screams and runs out of the store.

Thales goes up to the counter, says he’s trying to break his caffeine habit, and orders a decaf. The barista hands it to him. He takes a sip and spits it out. “Yuck!” he says. “What is this, water?”

Gottfried Leibniz goes up to the counter and orders a muffin. The barista says he’s lucky since there is only one muffin left. Isaac Newton shoves his way up to the counter, saying Leibniz cut in line and he was first. Leibniz insists that he was first. The two of them come to blows.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel goes up to the counter and gives a tremendously long custom order in German, specifying exactly how much of each sort of syrup he wants, various espresso shots, cream in exactly the right pattern, and a bunch of toppings, all added in a specific order at a specific temperature. The barista can’t follow him, so just gives up and hands him a small plain coffee. He walks away. The people behind him in line are very impressed with his apparent expertise, and they all order the same thing Hegel got. The barista gives each of them a small plain coffee, and they all remark on how delicious it tastes and what a remarkable coffee connoisseur that Hegel is. “The Hegel” becomes a new Starbucks special and is wildly popular for the next seventy years.

Socrates goes up to the counter. “What would you like?” asks the barista. “What would you recommend?” asks Socrates. “I would go with the pumpkin spice latte,” says the barista. “Why?” asks Socrates. “It’s seasonal,” she answers. “But why exactly is a seasonal drink better than a non-seasonal drink?” “Well,” said the barista, “I guess it helps to connect you to the rhythm of the changing seasons.” “But do you do other things to connect yourself to that rhythm?” asked Socrates. “Like wear seasonal clothing? Or read seasonal books? If not, how come it’s only drinks that are seasonal?” “I’m not sure,” says the barista. “Think about it,” says Socrates, and leaves without getting anything.

Rene Descartes goes up to the counter. “I’ll have a scone,” he says. “Would you like juice with that?” asks the barista. “I think not,” says Descartes, then ceases to exist.

Jean-Paul Sartre goes up to the counter. “What do you want?” asks the barista. Sartre thinks for a long while. “What do I want?” he asks, and wanders off with a dazed look on his face.

Adam Smith goes up to the counter. “I’ll have a muffin,” he says. “Sorry,” says the barista, “but those two are fighting over the last muffin.” She points to Leibniz and Newton, who are still beating each other up. “I’ll pay $2 more than the sticker price, and you can keep the extra,” says Smith. The barista hands him the muffin.

John Buridan goes up to the counter and stares at the menu indecisively for several minutes.

Ludwig Wittgenstein goes up to the counter. “I’ll have a small toffee mocha,” he says. “We don’t have small,” says the barista. “What sizes do you have?” “Just tall, grande, and venti.” Then doesn’t that make ‘tall’ a ‘small’?” “We call it tall,” says the barista. Wittgenstein pounds his fist on the counter. “Tall has no meaning separate from the way it is used! You are just playing meaningless language games with me!” He storms out in a huff.

Ayn Rand goes up to the counter. “What do you want?” asks the barista. “Exactly,” says Ayn Rand. “As a rational human being, it is my desires that are paramount. Since as a reasoning animal I have the power to choose, and since I am not bound by any demand to subordinate my desires to that of an outside party who wishes to use force or guilt to make me subordinate my values to their values or to the values of some purely hypothetical collective, it is what I want that is imperative in this transaction. However, since I am dealing with you, and you are also a rational human being, under capitalism we have an opportunity to mutually satisfy our values in a way that leaves both of us richer and more fully human. You participate in the project of affirming my values by providing me with the coffee I want, and by paying you I am not only incentivizing you for the transaction, but giving you a chance to excel as a human being in the field of producing coffee. You do not produce the coffee because I am demanding it, or because I will use force against you if you do not, but because it most thoroughly represents your own values, particularly the value of creation. You would not make this coffee for me if it did not serve you in some way, and therefore by satisfying my desires you also reaffirm yourself. Insofar as you make inferior coffee, I will reject it and you will go bankrupt, but insofar as your coffee is truly excellent, a reflection of the excellence in your own soul and your achievement as a rationalist being, it will attract more people to your store, you will gain wealth, and you will be able to use that wealth further in pursuit of excellence as you, rather than some bureaucracy or collective, understand it. That is what it truly means to be a superior human.” “Okay, but what do you want?” asks the barista. “Actually, I just wanted to give that speech,” says Rand, and walks out.

Voltaire goes up to the counter and orders an espresso. He takes it and goes to his seat. The barista politely reminds him he has not yet paid. Voltaire stays seated, saying “I believe in freedom of espresso.”

Thomas Malthus goes up to the counter and orders a muffin. The barista tells him somebody just took the last one. Malthus grumbles that the Starbucks is getting too crowded and there’s never enough food for anybody.

Immanuel Kant goes up to the counter at exactly 8:14 AM. The barista has just finished making his iced cinnamon dolce latte, and hands it to him. He sips it for eight minutes and thirty seconds, then walks out the door.

Bertrand Russell goes up to the counter and orders the Hegel. He takes one sip, then exclaims “This just tastes like plain coffee! Why is everyone making such a big deal over it?”

Pierre Proudhon goes up to the counter and orders a Tazo Green Tea with toffee nut syrup, two espresso shots, and pumpkin spice mixed in. The barista warns him that this will taste terrible. “Pfah!” scoffs Proudhon. “Proper tea is theft!”

Sigmund Freud goes up to the counter. “I’ll have ass sex, presto,” he says. “What?!” asks the barista. “I said I’ll have iced espresso.” “Oh,” said the barista. “For a moment I misheard you.” “Yeah,” Freud tells her. “I fucked my mother. People say that.” “WHAT?!” asks the barista. “I said, all of the time other people say that.”

Jeremy Bentham goes up to the counter, holding a $50 bill. “What’s the cheapest drink you have?” he asks. “That would be our decaf roast, for only $1.99,” says the barista. “Good,” says Bentham and hands her the $50. “I’ll buy those for the next twenty-five people who show up.”

Friedrich Nietzsche goes up to the counter. “I’ll have a scone,” he says. “Would you like juice with that?” asks the barista. “No, I hate juice,” says Nietzsche. The barista misinterprets him as saying “I hate Jews”, so she kills all the Jews in Europe.

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43 days ago
Mountain View, California
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Digital Resource Lifespan

5 Comments and 31 Shares
I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
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47 days ago
Mountain View, California
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5 public comments
32 days ago
I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
37 days ago
I wanna lib forever!
San Luis Obispo, CA
46 days ago
Be nice to librarians.
Greater Bostonia
46 days ago
*sigh* so very true.
Atlanta, GA
46 days ago
+1 for libraries
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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