Preppers, Bread, and Self-Awareness

Excel messed up science, how we spend other people's time and what it means to be a regular

Bread. That’s what I’m going to remember the most from this period I think. Everyone making their own bread. And everywhere the pictures. Dough, loaves, buns, some beautiful and rustic, some burnt and inedible. It is the 1518 dancing plague, only with baking. In the midst of a pandemic, who would have expected an outbreak of baking.

At the beginning of lockdown, I read a 7,000 New Yorker word essay about a baker. The New York Times profiled a Wessex Mill in Oxfordshire that was dealing with an “obscene” demand for flour. Everywhere I seem to look there is bread. I’m sorry, I’ve brought bread into your inbox as well.

I find this all quite unexpected. There’s no scene in Terminator where, during the robot uprising, the surviving humans start making their own sourdough. This is perhaps one of the failings of our cavalcade of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows. They show the disaster, they show humans striving, but they don’t show them carrying on. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurrasic Park, a chilling franchise for our time about private companies putting operating profits ahead of human lives. How strange that seeming plot hole turned out to be the most realistic part.

It’s a surprise, I guess, that living through a disaster is so mundane. I get up, I go from my bed to my desk, and in the evening I go from my desk to my bed. I am aware I am one of the lucky ones. Lucky in that I haven’t caught it. Lucky in that I’m young (enough) not to be in a high-risk category. Lucky in that my work doesn’t involve people sneezing on me and lucky in that my job still exists.

There’s a pleasant surprise in this all too. Society hasn’t broken down. I haven’t had to barricade my door and get a shotgun to hold back the hordes who want at my tinned baked beans. In general, people have grouped together. They’ve donated to foodbanks. In the UK our right-wing government introduced a series of welfare activities that increased spending more than left-wing governments have done in the past. This isn’t, by the way, to endorse the overall botched handling, cronyism of the whole thing of course.

For those preppers who built bunkers, ready for this day, it must all be a bit annoying really. People gathering together, working together to help everyone out. And all the bread. That didn’t factor into their bomb shelters and stockpiles. It makes me realize how the experience of living through key moments is so different from seeing them portrayed in films or in history books. I wonder how big a part bread will play in the future films and historical accounts of this pandemic. An amusing footnote, perhaps on page 267, a brief shot of bread during the first act?

On OneZero this week I’ve been thinking about Excel. More specifically, I came across this delightful oddity: a gene called MARCH1. The problem with this gene is every time scientists type it into Excel, Excel reformats it into a date. It’s such a problem that they’ve decided to rename the gene so this stops happening.


A piece from the New Yorker about self-awareness in fiction.

These self-conscious times have furnished us with a new fallacy. Call it the reflexivity trap. This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance.  The problem with such signalling is that it rarely resolves the anxieties that seem to prompt it. Mocking your emotions, or expressing doubt or shame about them, doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy, cowardice, or racism won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical, cowardly, or racist. 

I found this quite a challenge, partly because it picks two books that I’ve read recently and enjoyed. I’m a big Sally Rooney fan, but I do think there’s something here about these books. And this isn’t just a literary phenomenon. I notice people doing this in the real world too: “Oh I’m such a snob,” or even, “I’m aware I’m a white middle-class man…” and then proceeding as before. As if identifying and naming the issue is the end in itself, rather than the first step towards resolving it. Indeed, I did it myself just earlier on in this email - I acknowledged my coronavirus luckiness. But then what?

There’s a lovely essay in Oxford American about restaurants, the lockdown, and what it means to be a “regular”:

The pandemic has had me wondering about the nature of being a regular. It’s an anomalous notion (because at what point, really, are you a regular?), especially in a city as food-centric as Houston.  […]

But being a restaurant’s regular, whatever that looks like to you, even in the midst of a pandemic, is still a beautiful thing. Even if that dedication means never actually stepping foot in the establishment at all, let alone eating a meal there. 

It’s made me realize that there’s a certain type of article that is almost a guaranteed like from me: a sort of lyric, musing on a tiny topic, picking out the detail, and reflecting on something you might not have thought about before. For extra marks, even better if they make oblique, unexpectedly connections.

This is an old one, but I came across this speech by Paul Ford from 2014 about the way software designers are coming up with ways for other people to spend their time:

The time you spend is not your own. You are, as a class of human beings, responsible for more pure raw time, broken into more units, than almost anyone else. You spent two years learning, focusing, exploring, but that was your time; now you are about to spend whole decades, whole centuries, of cumulative moments, of other people’s time. People using your systems, playing with your toys, fiddling with your abstractions. And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?

Until next time,