Well, Butter My Biscuit! Baking good biscuits knows no geographic bounds

American biscuits are known for their simple ingredients, humble origins, and delicious buttery flavor. Contrary to some opinions, they can be made anywhere in the US with enough attention paid to process and basic, not-so-special ingredients.

The hot topic of 2018 (discourse on which triggered by a well intentioned Atlantic article) was the flour used to make the biscuits. True to their low maintenance form, biscuits quire a low-protein more-refined flour: all purpose flour, the most accessible throughout the US. This flour enables a flaky, crumbly texture, closer to a pastry or croissant (optionally made with pastry flour) rather than gluten-full bread (bread flour). For a more delicate texture (but not necessarily more delicious or authentic), you could mix the AP flour with pastry flour.

Next, cold ingredients are key, especially the butter. If the butter is not icy cold, it will combine completely with the other ingredients, and an over mixed dough will lose the flakiness and lightness moisture and fat pockets provide.

Finally, one must not work the dough for more than 10-20 turns. Too much more would melt the butter, over mix, build too much gluten, and toughen up the dough. Rather, once the dough is mixed enough so there are little flour pockets but there are still clear little chunks of butter, roll out the dough and cut out circles using a jar lid or glass. Place on a lightly buttered pan and bake!

As an eager and experimental baker, I love a good baking challenge. So when Amanda Mull of the Atlantic wrote the article that inspired this piece, “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits,” I had to test to see if her claims were true. Was most of America terrible at making biscuits? Was I not up to the challenge?

I tested her hypothesis. On first try, my biscuits were terrible and I subscribed to her statement that White Lily flour, not available in most of the US, was key. Upon a second attempt and some follow up research inspired by this NPR article, found her claims to be false.

Elizabeth Warren on Confederate Monuments, via Breitbart

I fact checked a Breitbart piece documenting a Jake Tapper-Elizabeth Warren interview in which Warren agrees with Tapper that Mississippi should change its flag.
My fact-checking annotation of the article, via Bounce, is here. The CNN piece on which the article is based is here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this exercise was that the text of the Breitbart piece is not factually incorrect (most of it is verbatim quotes from the CNN piece that broke the story). But the title is vastly misleading. There is a big difference in Warren agreeing with a statement made by Jake Tapper and saying “Get Another State Flag”

Climate Delayism

Climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed now.

Global greenhouse gas emissions need to start declining now to reach the 2°C goals to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Source: Climate Action Tracker

195 of 196 state parties signed the 2015 Paris Agreement with the aim of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” [1].

Although communication of climate science has been able to refute falsehoods used by denialists, a new group of “climate delayers” is trying to forestall regulation by downplaying the urgency of climate change and role of regulation.

The Cato Institute, a well-funded think tank with a history of climate change misinformation, claims that there is “ample time” to develop technologies necessary for emissions reduction.

Climate delayers may make similar claims to stall progress on climate change in order to maintain their (or rather their anonymous funders’) profits. For example, the Cato Institute was founded in part by Charles Koch, whose wealth largely originated from oil refining and chemicals.

Reporting as Curation: Nebraska Flooding

This year has been one for the record books in Nebraska — at-least meteorologically . As the Omaha-World Herald reports, the period between September through February was the fifth-wettest fall-winter on record, this February the eighth-coldest on record. Thats not to mention that this recent deluge is responsible for Nebraska’s worst flooding in 50 years.

This flooding is due to a bomb cyclone, the meterological equivalent of a bass drop. When a low pressure system drops at-least 24 millibars in 24 hours, it undergoes the rather terrifyingly named explosive cyclogenesis. This pressure drop makes the ensuing storm stronger and can even approach a category 1 hurricane in terms of wind and rain.

As the waters recede, Its hard not to notice the how utterly un-drivable many of the roads underneath are. And it seems that this is not just the case of a single storm’s damage but indicative of a legacy of poor infrastructure management.

But it seems that this is part of a larger narrative of how poorly infrastructure has been managed in Nebraska recently. Take, for example, the snow storms of this past season:

In the heightened national attention, perhaps pressure to fix the roads will finally lead to serious investment. As it seems, the current government is slow to admit fault and responsibility.

Arab Spring Brings New Growth

BOSTON — The dust is still settling from the ongoing restructuring of the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. What started with the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2011 has tapped a well of civil disobedience that has trickled throughout North Africa and the Middle East for nearly a decade.

In Egypt, the protests led to the ouster of then President Hosni Mubarak. His nearly thirty year rule came to an end after eighteen days of sustained demonstrations, both in the streets and online. In the upheaval since, Mubarak’s successor and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was replaced after a term of just a year, in a coup d’état led by the military general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

While comprehensive death tolls have been difficult to tabulate; over eight-hundred civilians were killed and six-thousand injured in the eighteen days between the start of the protests and Mubarak’s ouster and conservative estimates place the death toll at over eight-hundred on just one day in 2013 during the Rabaa massacre by Egyptian security forces led by el-Sisi. The protestors, the people of Egypt at large, who have catalyzed the political upheaval in Egypt have also channelled their energies into alternative methods of civic engagement.

Amin Marei, a native Egyptian and a current Teaching Fellow at Harvard and the Associate Director for Professional Education for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, actively participated in the the Arab Spring by co-founding Mashroo3 Kheir (The Good Deed Project). I interviewed him to get his perspective on the Arab Spring, and what has happened since its first peak.

Wakanene Sebastian Kamau:   What motivated you to participate in the Arab Spring? What was your thought process behind starting Mashroo3 Kheir?

Amin Marei: For me, it was an opportunity to eradicate corruption in the country and to achieve social justice, freedom of expression and equity.The thought process behind Mashroo3 Kheir, which translates to (the Good Deed Project) was to capitalize on all the energy that was clearly present during the Arab Spring and try to channel it towards civic engagement and community development. The theory of action as, that if we provide the youth with opportunities to learn more about their communities and positively influence their society, then they can be actively engaged citizens who are able to tackle the challenges of their communities.  

WSK:  How would you describe the mission of Mashroo3 Kheir in your own words?A

M: To provide the youth with an opportunity to develop themselves while working with fellow citizens and learning from them.

WSK:  What were some of the successes/challenges in maintaining the growth of Mashroo3 Kheir?

AM: The successes include supporting the development of hundreds of volunteers who have been the part of Mashroo3 Kheir many of whom have become active members in their own communities. I hope that another success is supporting fellow members of the community in a thoughtful way. The challenges include navigating our way through complex laws and regulations. They also include working with volunteers, which has an element of unpredictability that makes it hard to sustain the work.  The other challenge is how to support other members within your community without being condescending or making them feel that you’re better than them. This is a real challenge in Egypt, and in the Middle East where classicism is a serious issue.

WSK: How involved are you in post-peak Arab spring activism?AM: I’m involved in projects that I would like to believe are related to activism, not necessarily in the traditional sense. Through my work at Harvard, I support the learning of phenomenal educators all over the Middle East. I also do my best to be as supportive as I can be to any person who is interested to support others within his/her community.

WSK: How involved you with activism in Egypt now that you are abroad?

AM: Again it depends on the definition, I’m definitely less involved since I’ve been living abroad for some time, but I do my best to stay connected and to support anyone who asks for my support.


4HR Story: Ansel Adams in the 21st Century

Does Ansel Adams need another retrospective? As perhaps our country’s most well-known landscape photographer, his expansive, cathedral-like depictions of the American West are as culturally ubiquitous as today as they have been in the thirty-five years since this passing. From the default desktop images on our computer operating systems to the stock photos on new picture frames, Ansel Adams, much like the mountains in his work, cast a long shadow.

Ansel Adams in Our Time, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, takes on this implicit challenge by orienting the artist to be seen ‘through a contemporary lens.’ The show creates a visual bibliography of the artists work and situates it in the legacy of the government surveyors-photographers who came before him, and a range of contemporary photographers who have come after. At nearly 200-pieces, over 100 of which are his own, the exhibition has room to show the artist at his most iconic, “Clearing Winter Storm” and “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”, while also including his lesser-known works from San Francisco.

The exhibition starts in a dim, verdant green gallery with prints arranged in no-frill rows. The orderly queue which forms as soon as one turns into the room, coupled with the low hum of bodies shuffling forward, create an atmosphere, not unlike a popular hike on a busy day. The most well-known prints are shown early and serve as cairns — they affirm the popular conception of Adams’ work and, when they peter out, signify that what lies beyond is outside the well-worn path. On the wall opposite the celebrity prints, contemporary artist Sharon Harper’s series of full-colour lichen-covered boulders serve as a counterbalance to the otherwise severe tone of the gallery. While the didactic texts adjoining Harper’s series explains that the style and inclusion of the lichen boulders are due to their treatment as “specimens in a 19th-century natural history museum”  the linkage feels tenuous and otherwise incongruous with the rest of gallery. This mismatch is an example of where the ambitious prospect of making Ansel Adams feel fresh, falls short.

To pick a guiding narrative for the show, the pieces exhibited underscore that ‘nature’ and its cousin ‘wilderness’ exist as concepts of our design; our politics and our aesthetics slant how we depict of them. This works best when different artists photograph the same site. This is done, by my count, twice, once with a juxtaposition of Adams with Carleton Watkins and once with Adams and English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge. In both instances, Adams is shooting after the elder photographer and, in both instances, Adams’ version carefully removes signs of logging roads. To what end is Adams hoping to achieve with his edits? As a vocal political supporter of the parks, is his decision to show them as they could be instead of as they are to be read as a wishful thinking or a way to inspire others to value them? Or does he just think they look better without the signs of human influence?

Furthermore, What does this all say about the American West today? While we have more parks (there are now 61 national parks in the United States) we are still negotiating land rights, regularly deal with drought, and continue to exploit natural resources. From the lens of the collection of contemporary artists saved for the final room, the time for aesthetic retouchings of the West is over. The political, economic, and environmental stakes are too are simply too high to be ignored. Stephen Tourlentes captures the eerie light from a remote Colorado Super Max prison at night, a reminder that mass incarceration is perhaps an even more insidious issue when it is intentionally placed out-of-sight. The harsh fiscal and environmental realities of the desert are  portrayed by Bryan Schumaat using a modern ghost town-turned-dump and Victoria Sambunaris’ rich birds-eye view of Wendover, Utah, a city on the edge of the desert and mountain range. Mitch Epstein’s ‘Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California’ points out the absurdity of the underlying motivations in our society that cause us to develop and maintain a golf course in the desert, next to a wind farm. These photographs are deeply emotional, their resonance to our day and age should have warranted greater emphasis in the exhibit. Ansel Adams captured the zeitgeist of the West during his time. While he doesn’t map cleanly to ours, the broad themes run current today.