February 28, 2009

Headphone Music

Not a huge headphones fan, but some songs/albums are just better that way. What is your favorite "best on headphones" music?

That was a message I posted to Twitter nearly a month ago. I had a suggestion (from @pammybean) to turn the message into a blog post, and I think that's a good idea. I'd meant to go through my music library and pick out some of my own faves as examples. Then I got a head cold that messed with my hearing. Now that I'm feeling a lot better form the cold, I'm left with some hearing problems. (I either have a slight ear infection or the cold simply damaged my eardrum and I'm going to have to wait for it to heal fully.) Anyway, that slowed me down a bit!

I think I can go forward with the post in a scaled-down form, and you can have a chance to contribute some of your own headphone faves.

I'm not a huge fan of headphones when they are the type that squish your ears. This is not only uncomfortable, it changes the way you hear. "Earbuds" are meant to avoid that problem entirely, but I find they don't always fit my ears right, and can cause discomfort.

Gamer's headphones are often designed for long sessions in front of the computer, and so they make them light and large enough to co completely around your ears. This is often a big improvement.

On to the music.

Some songs are better heard over headphones, for a few reasons.

Sometimes there are subtle sounds that you can only hear in a room with excellent acoustics and on excellent speakers, and headphones are more affordable than a perfect audio listening room. So you may notice more when you put the headphones on.

Other songs just improve when you can focus more on the layers of sound, and headphones may help you focus.

And then there are the songs which have been recorded with special techniques that are intended to recreate the kind of audio cues your brain is used to getting from ambient sound in your everyday environment. There are various ways to recreate these cues -- putting microphones inside the ears of a dummy head is one method. The sounds are then recorded in a way similar to what you might hear if you were sitting where the dummy head was. The results sound very different over speakers than they do over headphones. And added depth makes certain sounds pop into a kind of auditory 3D with the headphones on.

One dramatic (non-musical) example is the Virtual Barbershop you may remember from it's brief Internet popularity last year.

I've added just a few songs to an iMeem playlist for you:

"Signs of Life" from Pink Floyd's "A Momentary Lapse of Reason" album doesn't have any notable audio tricks in it, but it's got a lot of neat ambient sounds that come across better with headphones.

"Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz has a piano part to it which isn't remarkable until you put your headphones on. Its recorded differently from some of the other tracks in the recording so that the piano sounds more as though it's in the room with you. It's actually a fairly subtle effect but it sets the piano apart when you've got headphones on.

"If You Want"/"Blasphemous Rumors" are from Depeche Mode's "Some Great Reward" album, and they're a lot less subtle and a lot more gimmicky. "If You Want" begins in a somewhat morose fashion with lots of synthesized bonging that hops from ear to ear, then the song quickly speeds up into an upbeat song that evokes weekend partying. There is a sense of frenetic activity which is slightly dizzying.

The next track on the same album is one of the most creepy songs ever: the subject matter of the lyrics of "Blasphemous Rumors" is the cruelty of fate. It's one of my favorite songs, and Depeche Mode spared no gimmicky expense at driving the point home, even employing a musical equivalent of "cat scares." There are melodic fingers-up-the-spine with piano scales (which sends a shiver up your spine, if you're listening too carefully), a respirator in your ear and the sound of some sort of can rolling around. Hearkening to the virtual barber shop, in what I imagine is a metaphor for the fates cutting the cord of your life, someone is snipping scissors around your head.

I absolutely love this song over headphones (your tastes may vary), especially following an upbeat, carefree song. By the time this song is over, you're facing a the whims of a cruel universe. And then the blokes of Depeche Mode gild the lily and make you listen to a dying girl's last breath long after the music has faded away. Classy!

So, let me know what your favorite headphone music is, and why.

While we're at it, why don't you let me know the creepiest song you've ever heard -- the one that gives you the chills every time you hear it. A poetry professor once told me that good art should give you a physical reaction. I definitely get a physical reaction from "Blasphemous Rumors" (real, actual shivers). And headphones help.

What does it for you?

Posted by James at 2:00 PM | Comments (7)

February 27, 2009

I Totally Jindaled This Shotgun

This week's links are sub-par, but I'll make it up to you, because AMERICANS CAN DO ANYTHING!

Posted by James at 9:57 AM | Comments (4)

February 26, 2009

Q: What's More Worrying Than The Economy?

A: Orange Juice Packaging.

Check this out:

The PepsiCo Americas Beverages division of PepsiCo is bowing to public demand and scrapping the changes made to a flagship product, Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice. Redesigned packaging that was introduced in early January is being discontinued, executives plan to announce on Monday, and the previous version will be brought back in the next month.

Okay, I understand they feel they made a mistake and they're going to go back to the old packaging. And I agree that the new packaging seemed a bit generic. But this is what explodes my brain:

The about-face comes after consumers complained about the makeover in letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls and clamored for a return of the original look. [...]

Others described the redesign as making it more difficult to distinguish among the varieties of Tropicana or differentiate Tropicana from other orange juices.

A couple of points.

First, really? This is what is on people's minds lately? Not that they might lose their job? Not even that some of their favorite goods and services might go away if companies have to shut their doors? ORANGE JUICE PACKAGING? Motivated them to write letters and e-mails and (dear lord) pick up the phone? One wonders if they contacted their local congresspeople over this matter.

Second, if you can't find your brand of orange juice with the name plainly printed on the carton, you might not be smart enough to drink orange juice.

The story also mentions the role of social media in helping companies find out quickly when they've made a huge mistake:

"Twitter is the ultimate focus group," Mr. Shankman said. "I can post something and in a minute get feedback from 700 people around the world, giving me their real opinions."

So, we're getting the old Tropicana cartons back. I think you'll all agree that this is social change resulting from effective use of social media -- the technological utopia has finally arrived.

Posted by James at 9:49 AM | Comments (16)

February 25, 2009

Obama's Address and Real Patriotism

Just a few quick reactions to Obama's address before congress last night, and the Republican response from Governor Jindal.

I thought Obama mad a very strong speech which was extremely optimistic considering the dire threat we face, relying on the efforts of dedicated Americans, which he clearly considers to be the real strength of America. The part of his speech that most impressed me:

"It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American." - Remarks of President Barack Obama - Address to Joint Session of Congress Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

A call to patriotism manifesting itself as self-improvement but with a specific recommendation and goal. When was the last time we had something as clear as that in presidential leadership? Not to dwell, but the most focused patriotic recommendation we had with the last administration was to go out and spend, which is part of what put us in our current predicament.

Of course, I believe strongly in shoring up the educational infrastructure to meet the demand. Our family is dedicated, in a number of ways, to education.

I was a lot less impressed with the Republican response. I was surprised that they chose to go with a largely partisan speech, rather than one with any specific ideas. Not once did Governor Jindal suggest what Republicans would be adding to the president's effort. At times he seemed to be talking about what he thought would happen once Republicans are back in control, something we've had enough of over the last couple of decades.

It seemed as though whoever wrote the speech didn't read or hear the president's speech, since it criticized a negative tone that wasn't present in Obama's words.

Why didn't the Republicans choose someone who is in the process of helping to solve these problems in the federal government? Why go with a governor? And why Governor Jindal?1 Wasn't any Republican member of congress able to speak with credibility on this subject? I suppose not.

On the other hand, this response was confusing, coming from a governor who is currently playing politics by threatening to refuse stimulus money. One might think this is an ideological stance, possibly even admirable, and consonant with his declaration that we don't need a lot of federal spending if it weren't for the fact that Louisiana has been a huge recipient of Federal money in the wake of Katrina. They've benefited greatly from the generosity of the American people as we diverted money from other deserving states to Louisiana where the need was great. It's a bit ungrateful to throw it back in our faces by denigrating government spending as part of the solution. When your actions don't match your bluster, I cry "bullshit."

And taking up the mantle of fiscal responsibility is a joke, after President Bush never refused to sign a spending bill that the Republican congress sent him, no matter how much pork was in it.

The icing on the cake, however, was that he would make any reference to health care reform. Perhaps this underscores why no congressional Republican could have given a response, considering they knew Obama would be covering health care. Jindal spoke as if the Republicans had a plan all along, and that they simply opposed government control of health care. Where was that plan before the government was so deep in debt? What action did they take on health care when they were in control, other than to try to stall the bill that extended health care benefits to unprecedented numbers of under-insured American children?

In my opinion, the Republicans would have been better off with no response, or perhaps Governor Jindal could have ended his speech once he was done giving his brief autobiography.

I was less than impressed.

We have a president who is ready to lead, and is not backing down from some extremely difficult challenges. He's asking us to rise to the challenge, too. I think we owe it to ourselves, and our country, to heed his words. Let's seek out ways to better ourselves, make ourselves a more valuable workforce/citizenry. Let's seek ways to help others become that. I know my friends are up to the task, because I am constantly surrounded by people who want nothing less than to spread knowledge about science, history, art, heritage, mathematics, music, technology, philosophy -- to spread a love of learning.

I, among them, am glad to have the support of our president in this world view and this ongoing effort.

1. While I have no problem personally with Governor Jindal, and he certainly seems like a pleasant fellow, his credibility suffers with me a bit, considering that he's a creationist and a Bible literalist. He has been quoted as supporting the teaching of creationism (as intelligent design) in schools, calling that "the very best science." That shows a dangerous willingness to filter reality to his own liking.

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Posted by James at 9:31 AM | Comments (9)

February 24, 2009

Hacking for Nudes?

Derek sent me this story this morning, and I think I said to myself (out loud, and slowly) "what... the... f?"

A good friend of mine years ago who worked as a volunteer firefighter used to tell me that they had to watch new volunteers very closely because pyromaniacs like to watch the fires they set, and how better to watch your work than to volunteer as a firefighter, light a fire, then help put it out.

This story has nothing to do with firefighters, but it does have to do with what happens when a person has a certain appetite or tendency and they are suddenly given the access they need to indulge their whims.

A UMass Dartmouth graduate and on-campus computer administrator faces charges that he illegally obtained nude and semi-nude photos of about 16 female students by hacking into their UMass e-mail accounts and Facebook files. [...]

His first step, according to court documents, was to search Facebook for female UMass Dartmouth students. Next, he checked the names with the campus Web site.

Then he would use his administrative authority to access their e-mail, where he would attempt to log into their personal Facebook accounts. When that failed because he lacked their Facebook passwords, he would have Facebook send a link for a new password back to their e-mail. The hacker would then open the e-mail to reset the password, then enter Facebook with all the privileges and access of the student.

At that point he could view all of the students' photographs, including private ones, and do further searches for their friends. - Police say UMD hacker snagged women's nude Facebook photos, SouthCoastToday.com

It's worth reading the entire article for more disturbing details, such as his "attempted up-skirt" photos.

One obvious reaction to this story is: why are people uploading nude pictures of themselves to Facebook? This is certainly a teachable moment about the assumption of privacy in on-line services. That's a worthy discussion on its own.

However, the hacker's behavior crosses into stalker territory, as evidenced by his searching for directions to the house of one of the commuting students. Whether he found nude photos of every girl or not (perhaps most of the girls had simply made some beach pictures private -- we can't jump to conclusions) he was willing to exploit his access to dig for further information, and seemed poised to act on his "research." That's worrying.

Posted by James at 5:06 PM | Comments (3)

Manchester Gas Explosion

Jim C. sent this story along:

A man died in an explosion before dawn today that leveled a ranch-style home on Barrett Street in the city's North End, according to fire officials. [...]

Kenneth Warnock, who lives across the street at 621 Fairfield St., said he was awakened by a "very large explosion" that shook his house. He looked out the window to see his neighbor's house totally in flames. - One dead in house explosion, UnionLeader.com

This is the second residential gas explosion in New England in less than a week. It's the fourth such explosion in this region in the past three months (the other two were in Scituate and Gloucester).

This explosion adds one more data point to a comment on the Somerset explosion that appeared in the Saturday Globe:

"I would say these explosions are early warning flags, if nothing else," said Stephen Connors, director of analysis at the MIT Energy Initiative. "There's a body of evidence that our infrastructure is reaching old age and it needs the equivalent of a knee and hip replacement. This is not a new issue. We want to keep water, gas, and electricity rates down, but we don't want to keep them down so much that it endangers public safety." - Before explosion, gas crew waved off help, Boston.com

Also in that Globe story, there was a gas crew in Somerset investigating a leak in the neighborhood of New York Ave, and a fire department crew was also on the scene. Clearly, the urgency of the problem in Somerset was underestimated by that crew; they must have been unaware that a dangerous amount of gas had already accumulated in the first floor of the house at 93 New York Ave.

Are we seeing a rise in gas explosions because of deteriorating infrastructure, caused by a reluctance to take on the cost of maintenance? At 4 explosions in 3 months, it would seem at least worthy of investigation.

Infrastructure degrades. In some cases, environmental factors, and even rodents can cause a dangerous situation in the delivery of gas.

It is worrying; we have gas heat at our house and have never had much of a problem (I would have blogged about it if our house had exploded ever). But my parents, also Somerset residents, have been smelling gas in their neighborhood. I could smell it last time I was there. I know they'd already alerted the gas company to the issue. I wonder how many similar complaints New England Gas Company is going to field in the wake of this incident.

Posted by James at 11:40 AM | Comments (3)

February 23, 2009

Our Ted Kennedy

Folks from other parts of the country might not understand why we in Massachusetts have strong feelings for Ted Kennedy. Nationally, he's been a target for bloviating right-wing talk show hosts who need a caricature for their diatribes.

The Boston Globe has been doing a good series on Kennedy's life, and a lot of it has been quite impressive and moving, but this from the latest installment has perhaps made the biggest impression on me:

...over the next few weeks, Kennedy called each of the 177 families in Massachusetts who lost loved ones in 9/11. One was Sally White, of Walpole, who describes herself as a "dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican," and whose daughter, Susan Blair, died in the 9/11 attacks. The last person whose voice she expected to hear on her telephone was that of the quintessential liberal Democrat. "I had not heard from one local politician, one medium politician, or certainly any federal guy. Nothing," says White. "He was the first one to call and offer assistance, or even sympathy."

Kennedy framed his words to White in the most personal of terms: He told her that his family's experience of loss had acquainted him with pain, and he talked about the time he had spent with Caroline after John Jr. was killed. He asked the grieving mother what Susan had been like. "He talked to me like he was my next-door neighbor, my best friend," White says. "He had all the time in the world for me. I was just overwhelmed by a person of his stature reaching out to me."

Kennedy is clearly driven by a feeling of responsibility; knowing that he had unique experience in grief led him to use that experience to do good. If that were a model for life, we would see people acting out of responsibility based on their ability. It's not a bad model at all.

I've heard it said that "just because you can doesn't mean you should." Sometimes "because you can" is the reason why you should.

Posted by James at 5:10 PM | Comments (2)

How To Fix The Oscars

Time Magazine has an article out called "How To Fix The Oscars."

Based on waning popularity of the event, they suggest (among other things) making the vote tabulations public, so that people can know how close a race every award was, who came in second, etc. I can see how that would increase the excitement of the event, but it's not the problem I have with the Oscars.

My problem is that I rarely see the majority of the movies that are in contention. We've got kids and we rarely have time during the school year to get out and see the nominated films.

So my suggestion for fixing the Oscars would be some deal that allowed easy home access to all (or nearly all) Oscar-nominated films. Make them available through Pay-Per-View on cable. Make them available for rental via Amazon's Video on Demand. Strike a deal with Netflix. I'd pay to see them.

I no longer have time to seek these films out at small theaters. And Maggie and I aren't always in the mood to see the same sort of film at the same time, so we default to things we both can relax with when we do go out. if I haven't seen the films, why would I want to see a bunch of cute references to the films, put to lousy music? Already I'm not a big fan of awards ceremonies.

So, if anyone cares, there's my solution. I didn't have any stake in the Oscars this year because I had very little feeling about any of the films in contention. If it were easier for me to see the films, I might be interested in watching the Oscars.

Posted by James at 9:48 AM | Comments (13)

February 20, 2009

lazy, Hazy Shotgun

Took the day off to watch the girls, and my cold is raging at full force. I'm staying on top of all the cold remedies I know, which is keeping me slightly dizzy but a lot less symptom-y. We'll go out for lunch later and come home to make the mug brownies mentioned below.

Lazy, hazy Friday

Here's a viral ad for your troubles. Yeah, I know it's advertising but I can't resist tiny animals. So sue me, it cracked me up:

Posted by James at 10:26 AM | Comments (6)

February 19, 2009

Somerset Explosion

We felt an explosion around 6:15 PM this evening. It was as though something large (like a car) had smashed into the house.

Maggie and I ran outside to see if the house was damaged and I was sure we'd find some evidence of a collision until I saw a neighbor come outside and inspect his own house. Clearly this was something larger that we were both feeling.

Maggie called the police, they told her it was a house explosion and quickly got off the line. Soon, we heard it was a gas explosion. Here's what I know so far:

  • 1 house was completely leveled by the explosion. On New York Ave in Somerset, MA.
  • 2 other houses are on fire at this time around NY Ave and RI Ave.
  • Hundreds of people have been evacuated in the surrounding neighborhood - three streets in the area of Americana Terrace
  • There is one confirmed death, being reported by WSAR.
  • They are having crowd control problems as curious people rush to the area.
  • Units are responding to the emergency from as far as Providence, RI and Mattapoisett, MA.

Update 7:40PM

  • I heard there were work crews in the area at the time of the explosion. I have no idea if they were gas crews or what they were working on.

Update 7:45

  • They are setting up a shelter at Chace St. School for evacuees from Americana Terrace. Pets are allowed.
  • We are not within the evacuation area. We live around 1.5 miles away.

Update 8:25

  • Getting further info about the explosion is tough.
  • Local news (WBZ) was monitoring Twitter looking for an interview. I told them I wasn't close enough to give them anything other than what's already on this blog, which is not much additional first-person detail. It's cool the part that real-time on-line media plays as a source for keeping people in contact.

Update 8:29

  • I must admit, my first instinct after we felt the explosion was to go out looking for the cause. Remember when Maggie, Ryan and I heard the power plant venting last summer? Then, once I knew where the explosion was, again I felt like grabbing a camera and going. Of course, reason overcame that impulse. I'm not a trained rescue worker nor a journalist. There are times when it's appropriate to approach a scene and this isn't one of those times. I at least understand the impulse but people need to STAY FAR AWAY and let the response teams do their work.

Update 8:35

Update 8:43

Update 9:31

  • NECN now reporting that a middle-aged woman and a dog are confirmed dead in the explosion or resulting fire.
  • Apparently neighbors reporting an "overwhelming odor of gas" earlier in the day and seeing trucks doing work. (Make that a fire truck)

After feeling the house shake and hearing the news, youngest daughter is worried about gas explosions. Seems a lot more frightening and real when you actually feel it. Maggie tells me that the force of the blast blew a hole the size of a garage door in a house next door to the house that was destroyed. I believe it. At our house it felt like a big hand had smacked the house. Maggie described it as a car hitting the house, and I suppose it was like that, but there was no "crash" -- it was more blunt. The frightening thing was that we didn't just hear and feel it, the house moved with the shock.

Update Noon

  • Fall River Herald News reporting that police are starting to enter houses at noon, looking for any other people who may have been victims of the blast. Also, they are trying ot contact any residents who wish to return to their homes:
  • Police Captain John Solomito asked that anyone displaced by the explosion contact police. He said provided the following numbers: 508-674-1444 and 508-679-2138. Solomito said police need to know your home address, name and a phone number where callers can be contacted.
  • In a separate Herald Story, they've got more reaction to the explosion. A school bus was used to transport the stunned neighborhood residents to the shelter.

Update 12:16 PM

  • The Herald now has some pretty dramatic pictures in this story.
  • Police Captain Solomito named the one victim: 62-year-old Rosemarie Rebello. She was apparently found in front of the residence.
  • The photos show a flattened pile of debris where the house used to be. An adjacent house has a gaping hole torn in it, surrounded by shredded building materials.
Posted by James at 7:30 PM | Comments (11)

February 17, 2009

First Run At Sourdough

On Monday I achieved something I'd wanted to do for a very long time, but had put off time and again: making sourdough bread. In fact, I made two different recipes. I want to quickly take some notes on that here for future reference.

After re-hydrating and activating my starter culture, the starter was going gangbusters at room temperature. I separated it out into a few containers (preparing to give some of it away, and for use as a backup) and then made two recipes.

The first recipe was the basic sourdough recipe in Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread." The second recipe was a modified version of my low-knead bread.

Sourdough Baking Day

Reinhart's Recipe:

  • Called for making a "firm starter" (a drier version of the starter) and letting that ferment for a few hours first. I did that.
  • Then, the full dough is made and set to rest until it doubled. I allowed this to happen at room temperature.
  • I formed two batards by carefully cutting the dough in half, making two rectangles and folding them in 3rds like a letter.
  • I wetted the seam-side and pressed cornmeal into the dough before placing them seam-side down into my French bread pan. (The pan has holes, so the cornmeal won't stay on unless it's stuck.)
  • I misted the loaves, covered them with plastic wrap, laid the bread pan on top of a half-sheet pan, put that pan in a tall kitchen bag and the whole thing went in the fridge overnight.
  • The next morning I took them out of the fridge and let them come to room temp for 4 hours, slashed them and baked them at 450 degrees F. (10 minutes, turn 180 degrees, then 15 more minutes) I used a steam pan as well with about a cup of water.

Sourdough Baking Day

Low-Knead:

  • I added about 1 1/2 cups of starter to the recipe instead of commercial yeast. I poured lukewarm water onto that.
  • I used water equivalent to all the liquid in the Low-Knead recipe, but did not use any beer or vinegar since this was not needed.
  • I mixed the salt in with the flour before adding to the starter.
  • It was very wet from the addition of so much starter, but I tried to ignore this.
  • It rose quickly. Before bed I put it in a cold room to slow it down.
  • I kneaded it in the morning by folding it in the bowl. I only needed a couple of folds, and I accidentally slightly over-kneaded it, which resulted in a sticky surface.
  • It was very wet and stuck to the parchment paper sling.
  • I mistakenly preheated the oven at a lower temperature than usual -- 450 degrees F. This seemed to make the bread bake more evenly, a definite improvement.

Conclusions: Both bread had great flavor, but the Low-Knead had the slightly softer crumb. The flavor is only slightly tangy, and only after chewing. When it baked, the Reinhart recipe had an interesting, very slight sweet caramel-apple scent on top of the normal scent of baking yeasted bread.

The crumb was not open with huge holes, but had good, even holes. It was spongy, rather then creamy, but not mealy or crumbly at all.

The crust on the batards had little blisters. The crust on the Low-Knead had a ripped appearance because of how ragged the top of the dough was, and from my use of scissors to cut the slashes.

Here's a bread-storing tip!

Sourdough bread can last longer than regular French bread because of the byproducts the bacteria creates. To keep it from drying out, store it cut-side down on a piece of wax paper inside of a paper bag. For baguettes and batards, I hold the wax paper on the end with a rubber band.

This milestone intimidated me for a long time. It turns out there was little reason for it to; I should have done this years ago.

Posted by James at 7:59 AM | Comments (8)

February 15, 2009

Making a Sourdough Start

Bubbly Starter

I've been baking bread for almost 20 years, but I've never attempted sourdough bread. Until now.

Let me quote a sentiment from Nancy Silverton, of the award-winning La Brea Bakery:

"There are those who will tell you that great bread takes very little time to make. They will praise the efficiency of bread machines and the wonders of fast-rising yeast. I am not one of those people. Great bread, in my opinion, does take time. Great bread is not, however, difficult to make." - Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur

Experience leads me to agree with what she says here. I'm not against bread machines or fast-rising yeast1. There are applications for both. But the best bread I have ever made was made slowly.

Another book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, is the #1 cooking book at Amazon right now. There is clearly an interest in baking, but fitting it into your own lifestyle. Part of what that book (which I own and recommend) gets right is that it allows the dough to ferment in the fridge; the 5 minutes it refers to is the relatively small time investment when you're actually doing something.

But really, all bread takes more waiting time and a lot less time on task. The innovation of Artisan Bread in 5 is that the timing (when you bake) is up to you. Sourdough takes time, but it also takes a little bit of timing and planning, too. Once I've actually baked some sourdough bread, I may write about that. But my best success with bread, in flavor, has been with slower breads as those in Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread.2

For now, I'm maintaining the starter, which is almost like having a pet. Depending on whom you ask, it has to be fed a couple to three times a day. You can store it in the fridge, and feed it once a week or so, but that retards the bacteria and makes the starter less sour. So, what to do? It doubles every time you feed it!

Here are some useful links on sourdough baking, and then a word on my own starter.

I got my starter culture from the website above - Friends of Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter. Carl is no longer with us, but a group of dedicated volunteers keep his starter culture alive and will share it with anyone who sends them a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It comes dormant and dried, so you have to rehydrate it, feed it, and nurture it for a few days until it becomes active again. I'm at the active stage now, and on the threshold of my first sourdough baking experience. I'll keep you in the loop.

1. Actually, small amounts of fast-rising yeast can be used to make bread slowly!

2. The best balance between difficulty and flavor is the Low-Knead Bread I have written about in the past. I wonder if an addition of vinegar and beer to the Artisan in 5 method would result in a similar improvement in flavor. The long, long rise of some sourdough recipes is very similar to the low-knead recipe. But there is something that feels wrong about simulating sourdough when it is possible to just make real sourdough.

Posted by James at 12:33 PM | Comments (2)

February 13, 2009

Post, Inspired by News!

First, check out this super-peppy 6-year old narrating a book about kittens:

It's one of the awesomest videos I've seen this week. Clearly, someone else has written her lines down for her, but I don't care. Her voice reminds me of Bubbles in the Power Puff Girls episode where she's reading about her favorite cartoon hero "Harmony Bunny."

Oh, you think it's weird for a 41 year old to be that familiar with Power Puff Girls? Having two daughters will do that to you. Besides, Power Puff Girls was light years better than other kids TV at the time. And most kids TV now. Trying to watch kids TV today is like... well, just take a look at how it affected Mojo Jojo.

Judddd Gregggg

The other day, I was wondering who was hogging all of the consonants at the ends of words. Then I realized it was Judd Gregg.

You may have heard that Gregg has withdrawn from his nomination as Commerce Secretary. Gregg mentions the stimulus plan and the census in his withdrawal, but then retreats to "it wasn't a good fit."

There seems to me to be two likely reasons behind his withdrawal. Because I don't buy that it was just a philosophical difference; the whole point of his nomination was to get someone in there who had philosophical differences with the president, and he ought to have understood that from the start.

I think that he was feeling enormous pressure from other Republicans to stay in the Senate and block Obama as part of the new strategy of returning to Newt Gingrich-style politics. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It's about the same as the sound of one party being bipartisan. The Republicans are digging in. Good luck, America.

If it wasn't external pressure that made Gregg withdraw, why not another obvious explanation? He doesn't want to tackle the difficult job of helping clean up the mess that Bush and the Republicans helped get us into.

Republicans are the deadbeat dads of American politics.

In retribution, I am withdrawing one consonant from each of Jud Greg's names. If Americans are going to have to tighten their belts, then you should, too, Mr. Jud Greg.

I agree with the President that Mr. Greg did one thing right. I'm glad he withdrew now rather than wait until next year. Perhaps Obama can find someone who can handle the job. I suggest Robert Reich. Do it, Mr. Obama! And keep your sense of humor.

Lambtastic

Patti sent this link about Uri Geller along. It's about his purchase of a Scottish island. Holy crap, I have rarely read so much hogwash as when i read anything that Uri Geller has said. Can any of you make sense of it? I can't. He thinks King Arthur is buried there, because the islands are arranged in the same configuration as the stars in Orion's belt?

News flash: those stars only LOOK like they're lining up in our sky. The actual stars are not collinear in actual 3D space.

FAIL

Thanks for the link, Patti. I did get a chuckle out if it. I wonder if Geller is planning on using it for tourism. Where the heck does he get his money? Gullible boneheads, I assume.

WTF?

Another depressing story from the SouthCoast, this one from my hometown. Two 15 year-old boys are alleged to have raped a 14 year-old girl.

Can someone please explain this quote from Sgt. Borges:

"If someone doesn't want to take part in this activity it's their right," he said. "If we are informed of these crimes we'll prosecute to the fullest extent. It's a serious matter."

What kind of comment is that? What child ever wants to be raped? Please tell me I'm misinterpreting this somehow.

Posted by James at 9:31 AM | Comments (12)

Bunkfusters!

You may have noticed a drop-off in the frequency of posts here. There is no mysterious or even good explanation for this, other than the fact that I appear to be in some sort of general funk for which I can point to no specific cause. I am managing to stay nominally productive in the face of the crush of boring, repetitive, soul-crushing and sometimes seemingly pointless and thankless tasks before me. I look at many of the items on my to do list and think "who cares?" (Except there's usually an expletive in the middle there.)

It manifests itself as beginning blog posts which are never finished, because if they take longer than a couple of minutes to write, they look stupid, obvious, and boring to me, and get deleted before you are subjected to them.

I still have a drive to express myself, minimally -- see my still-active Twitter stream. And I'm (science help me) even becoming somewhat active on Facebook now. Won't you be my neighbor?

I could point to many external factors to blame for my funk. Fears over the economy, a run of bad weather, a string of increasingly antisocial and unsatisfying interpersonal interactions... but experience tells me that the cause of and therefore solution to these moods is largely internal, not external. And that solution is to dive right in. That's how it works with baking. You will never bake bread until you start baking bread. And then you're a baker. Writing is the same way.

So, since I see this blog as a thing of value -- back in I dive. No matter how boring or obvious, if I start a blog post, I'm going to try to finish it. Damn the quality. Historically, quality assurance never was a serious concern of my blog.

This post is not an apology; rather it's a preamble for me to thank you for sticking around during the droughts. To those who do not stick around -- fuck 'em. Who needs 'em? :)

Cheers and onward.

Posted by James at 8:34 AM | Comments (8)

February 6, 2009

It's About Priorities, Stupid

In an example of misplaced priorities, there was a small kerfuffle the day after inauguration when Obama was photographed in the Oval Office without a suit jacket. One prominent member of the previous administration, former Chief of Staff Andrew Card immediately jumped on the issue and has been braying about it ever since, even going on Inside Edition as late as Wednesday to complain to anyone who would listen.

"There should be a dress code of respect," Card tells INSIDE EDITION. "I wish that he would wear a suit coat and tie."

I have nothing against dressing up, but can we have some bloody perspective?

By now, other bloggers have pointed out that past presidents did not have a strict dress code in the Oval Office, and Bush himself has been photographed without his jacket on while working in that historic chamber.

Card's was the first public criticism of the new administration (but not the last, as Dick Cheney has taken it upon himself to fear-monger from his retirement home) and it seems to me that while discussion of the First Lady's wardrobe was particularly shallow in the run-up to inauguration, at least that activity is a diversion that some citizens engage in for entertainment, or to make a connection with a woman who, while she is much more than an agent of fashion also has a personal side that people want to relate to.

The criticism of Obama's wardrobe is even less worthy of our attention, and is an embarrassing peek at the priorities of the previous administration.

Posted by James at 12:16 PM | Comments (9)

February 5, 2009

Verizon Math Fail

This one of the most dramatic failures of basic understanding of arithmetic (specifically, the concept of units) that I have ever seen. The last part is particularly painful, as he tries to walk the manager through the logic of his complaint.

Bonus question: DO you suppose the failure to understand is conceptual (not understanding units) arithmetic (just forgetting to convert) or social -- the inability to admit that the rate was quoted wrong, for example. Or a combination. Or other?

I'm not sure we have enough information to tell, but what do you think?

Posted by James at 9:21 AM | Comments (7)

February 2, 2009

25 Things Not About Me

There's an Internet meme1 going around Facebook called "25 things" I've gotten tagged with it, and I will probably do it. Because, it's something you do for your friends. As much as a I pretend to hate being tagged by these things, it's nice to be included. But I don't delude myself into believing that people are actually losing sleep over whether I do them.

I don't feel like doing the 25 things right this second. Instead, I will have some fun with the 25 things.

These are based on the 25 Things of a number of strangers, either lifted directly or completely made up. Most of these are probably the natural result of human nature. I'm thinking of stealing a couple for my list, especially the one about forest animals.

25 Random Things!

Boring Things

  • I have 4 loads of laundry on my floor.
  • I ate 4 scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, but to reduce the fat I threw away one of the egg yolks before I scrambled them.
  • My car is messy.

Things I Hope Will Make You Jealous

  • Believe it or not, I prefer to drive my Lexus rather than my Jaguar. I don't know why!!!!
  • I love my job! I don't understand why people stay in jobs they don't like.

Self-Promotional Things

  • I have science that can tell you how to get people to click your links. Just click my links and you'll find out!
  • Fascinatingly, I've been told I'm a great lover but haven't had sex for the last two years.

Things That Refer To The Previous Thing On The List

  • I was once in a spelling bee and I won by spelling the word "fascinatingly."
  • Ironically, spelling is not even the thing I'm best at.
  • I never tell people what I am actually best at.

Made-Up Things You Have A Chance Of Believing

  • I'd rather stick with my principles than get rich.

Things To Make You Jealous But This Time I'm Trying To Make It Sound Like I'm Not Trying To Make You Jealous

  • I've done the horribly cliched Rome-Venice-Paris-London trip.

Things Someone Else Probably Did Not Want You To Include

  • My wife likes to wear party hats during sex. I never asked her to, but it kinda turns me on. Something to do with New Years.

Things Ever-So-Slightly Embarrassing I Included So It Sounds Like I'm Sharing

  • I once left a store by mistake without paying for a 25-cent piece of gum.

Things You Would Never Have Asked About, But Are Clearly An Issue

  • I am childless by choice
  • I refuse to shave my chest.

Religious Things

  • I bought my purple napkin and white Nike sneakers. Can't wait to drink that spiked vodka this weekend with my bestest pals at cult headquarters!
  • Touching forest animals is my calling, but I would do it even if it weren't.
  • Had to do first communion twice because the first time didn't take.

Things I Shouldn't Admit To

  • I have chronic impetigo, but that hasn't stopped my from using my coworker's phone.
  • I have had sex with people I met on the Internet

Things You Never Wanted To Know, Even If You Were Interested In My List

  • I have a man crush on (insert some unfortunate person here)

Things I Can't Possibly Prove

  • My brownies are way better than yours, or anyone you know.

Things That Will Make You Afraid To Be Around me In The Future

  • I am uncontrollably turned on by (insert some very specific attribute that is obviously a reference to you)
  • When I get the chance, I treat my friends to my epic-length spoken word poetry

So, there you have it. One admission: that was a lot easier than coming up with a real list of 25 things. The challenge of 25 things is to make yourself interesting (who wants to bore his or her friends?) without revealing anything too embarrassing. And whatever you post is on the Internet forever!

1. I know some folks object to the use of the term meme in this way, but you're going to have to live with it, because that's the common usage. Just like nobody ever seems to use "irony" right. But we don't have a good word for it, so people are not encouraged to call it anything else. I specify "Internet meme" to make a distinction.

Posted by James at 9:59 AM | Comments (9)

Marmota Monax

Your friendly neighborhood woodchuck

Image by Dave Bonta

Today is the day commonly referred to as "Groundhog Day." The taxonomic name for the animal is Marmota monax. Here in New England, we call them woodchucks.

I am a big fan of squirrels. They're not a hobby or anything, they just amuse the heck out of me. And woodchucks are in the squirrel family. They can be often seen near the edges of clearings, since they usually stick fairly close to an entrance to their burrows or thick brush to which they can retreat at the first sign of predators. They're oblong and wobbly, which makes them amusing to watch when they move, but they're faster than they look.

UMass Dartmouth was often a good place to spot woodchucks, especially near the entrance to the campus. Upon arriving or leaving on many occasions there would be a woodchuck, or even a family of woodchucks eating grass and looking up every so often for signs of hawks or other threatening animals.

They dig deep burrows to protect themselves, in which they hide for a good chunk of the winter. While they can be socialized, their first instinct is quite anti-social and aggressive, which probably endears them even more to the heart of this New Englander. And wouldn't it be somewhat tempting to sleep a couple of the winter months away and wake up newly svelte?

There is an awesome cider named for woodchucks.

We usually do not observe Groundhog Day in these parts, but in honor of the plucky little animals, I will raise a cider. It's likely another month before they decide to venture outside; the weather has been prohibitive. Woodchucks, my little friends, I don't blame you.

Posted by James at 8:28 AM | Comments (0)