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Goosebumps

In the dim and distant past- half a lifetime ago - my CD collection was a treasured possession, proudly on display and carefully organised on a regular basis (sorted by a mixture of thematic links, chronology, and the confines of whatever shelving system happened to hold them at the time), but a big chunk of my actual listening was still tapes.

The thing about tapes is they force you to spend time on putting them together, which in turn forces you to put thought into it. In principle, it’s the same as a playlist in Spotify or iTunes, but the fact that you have to stop and start the tape before and after each song means listening to it in real time. Choosing what song should come next while you're listening to the song that comes before encourages you to build a sequence of tracks - rather than throw a semi-random collection into a playlist in the order that they happened to accur to you.

The fixed length of each side (which varies from tape to tape) means you have another choice about how to handle the empty space at the end (fill the tape but have a song cut off half way through? Finish the song on the next side, or start again from the beginning? Find another song that is the right length, but also fits with the general theme?)

The physical nature means you can label the tape, the inlay card, (hand) write the tracklisting, decorate with your own artwork, dedicate it to someone - all of which you’re given the time to do by the fact that you’re sitting around actually listening to the music as you go along and immersing yourself in the music collection you're making. (I guess today we'd probably call it "curating"...)

For a while, after MP3s took over from tapes as my way of listening on the go, I liked iTunes Smart Playlists. The idea is that you build a set of rules - for example, a random collection of tracks in my collection that I’d rated at least 4 stars, but hadn’t played within the last three months, or tracks that had been in my collection the shortest amount of time but not yet listened to, or a selection of tracks from a bigger playlist, ordered by some other criteria- encouraged a more systematic approach to organising my collection. Not necessarily listening, but curating, rating and generally managing metadata and algorithms. Sadly, over the years, iTunes’ changed the way it worked, play counts stopped working as well, 5-star rating were replaced by “like” and “dislike”, but probably more importantly the opening up of the Apple Music library and recommendation system meant the availability of a whole new world of music (that I hadn’t personally curated).

This progression from "hand-made" tapes to burning CDs to the total flexibility of a playlist has been a shift away from actually experiencing the thing that you're making- the emotional involvement with the music.

But of the dozens - probably hundreds - of playlists I’ve made in the 15 or so years of using ‘players’ like iTunes, one of them has stood out from the others.

I can’t remember exactly what kicked it off, but the idea was a simple one. Every time a piece of music gave me a tangible, physical response - goosebumps - I would add it to the playlist. Just that one simple rule - no exceptions, no accounting for context (if I didn’t like the song, or the artist, or if the reaction was because of something I associated with the song rather than the song itself, it still gets added to the list.)

It feels like it should be older, but it must have been 2012 when I started putting it together because the title of the playlist is gersberms- a reference to a meme that knowyourmeme.com tells me didn’t exist before then. (In my head, I was living in a flat that I moved out of in about 2007, which tells you something about the reliability of my memory.)

It would have been impossible - or at least impractical - before smartphones, because pretty much wherever I am, however I'm listening to the music, I can always pull out my phone, find the song and add it to the playlist. (Obviously, if I'm listening on my phone or through iTunes on my computer - which must me 98% of the music I listen to - then its just a click or two away.)

So, I currently have a collection of 20 songs that have proven to provoke a tangible emotional reaction- obviously, goosebumps don’t happen every time I listen to them, but that means 1 hour and 25 minutes of music that resonates with me personally in some way or other.

Some of them I understand. Espresso Love by Dire Straits (the live version on the Alchemy album) is deeply connected to childhood memories - it always makes me think of being curled up on the back seat of my dad’s car next to my little sister (who turns 40 next year, but will always be my little sister), driving through the night (on the M6 or M40), on the way home from Bolton, where we would go a few times a year to visit family, my head against the window, either watching the world go by or trying to read a book either by the flashing streetlights or the headlights of the car behind. Or Cherub Rock by Smashing Pumpkins - I like the song well enough, but it’s the rising and crashing of the guitar solo that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.

But I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman that tickles my nervous system into a tangible reaction. Or why Don Henley’s Boys of Summer makes the list. (I misheard the title lyric for years as “after the poison/ summer has gone”, so was never quite sure what the song actually was until it popped up on an Apple Music playlist.) I think it might have been in the soundtrack to a film from the ‘80s or something, but whatever subconscious switch the chorus is flipping is buried too deeply for me to quite get a grip on it. (Again, the evidence is that it was never in an ‘80s film and my memory is playing tricks on me, but at least I know I’m not alone…

Even though its an intensely personal collection, it definitely isn't a playlist that I would put together any other way. Some of my favourite artists are conspicuously absent, there's definitely more music from the '80s than I would consciously choose to put in there, and there's no obvious "theme" to tie it together (which is usually how my tapes and playlists work).

I have on rare occasions taken songs off- although I can only think of one. (The first dance at our wedding was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, which made the list - but after setting it as my phone’s ringtone back in the days when it seemed to make sense to not have my phone set to silent/vibrate, the intro bars just make me think my phone is ringing, which tends to elicit a less positive emotional reaction.)

1 hour and 25 minutes happens to just about the right amount of time for a C90 mixtape, but I don’t actually have a tape player any more to either record it onto or play it back, so committing to cassette isn’t an option. A CD can only hold 80 minutes, so that's almost possible - maybe I’ll take off a song so I can fit it onto a CD and give a copy to each of my kids. (I guess it would probably the Spiritualized one with the line about “just me, the spike in my arm and my spoon”… it is quite a long song after all…)

Maybe some day I’ll share the playlist itself and go through it track-by-track, but this is supposed to be a write-and-post-in-a-day post, and I’ve got a busy day ahead of me…

BRICs and Morton

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BRICs and Morton

Along with some changes in the team structure at work, I've been working on a series of market reports on different countries – China, Russia and Brazil so far (and I'm assuming that India is going to be next on the list). Fascinating countries to be learning about, and wanting to do the best I can do has meant work hours and life hours have got a little blurred… And although I would love to share what I've learned and written, I'm not entirely comfortable with doing that just yet. (Although I will say - China's pace of urbanisation is insane.) Which has meant that February posts here haven't quite managed to keep pace with January's updates. 1

So, the time I've had to myself has increasingly been time away from a screen and keyboard. For Christmas, my wife got James Morton's Brilliant Bread. This has worked out quite well for her – she likes to read all about cooking, but I seem to have taken over the actual work of doing the baking. I would strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the idea — rather than just a simple collection of recipes, lists of ingredients and step-by-step guides to make it, it explains the why just as well as the how — meaning that it works as an excellent jumping-off point when you get to a stage where you want to start trying out your own thing. (Something I used to find particularly intimidating in baking, where you have to worry about the science as much as the flavour — for example, you don't want to chuck a load of salt in for flavour if you know that its going to stop the yeast from working properly.)

We got excited about a bread machine we got some years ago – partly for simple bread, but particularly for malted bread and pizza bases. I then progressed to making my own pasta and focaccia (which is beyond the capability of a bread maker) – but the machine has been retired to the cupboard for some time. 2

Starting off with a couple of the simple recipes: 'mug bread' (where everything is measured out with a mug; no weighing or measuring tools needed), simple white bread and soft rolls (both of which don't require any kneading), this weekend I had my first step at an 'advanced bread' – a white sourdough.

The crazy thing about this is that the only ingredients are flour, water, and a little salt. The first thing you need is a sourdough starter – which is just 100g each of flour and water mixed in a jar, with a little 'seeding' (James recommends raisins, but doesn't say how many – I think I threw in about a dozen or so), left for 24 hours, 'fed' with another 100g of flour and water, left for another 24 hours before I started using it. The natural yeasts and bacteria in the flour (and maybe the raisins) get activated and start to grow, eating the flour and making bubbles – and become the raising agent for the bread. Somehow, the bacteria that you want in your dough create an environment that other bacteria don't thrive in 3, so you end up with what seems like the bread equivalent of the 'healthy bacteria' you get in tiny bottles of drinking yoghurt, or something… Anyway, whatever the biology behind it, with the raisins picked out, the 'starter' is then mixed with flour and water, a little salt (about 10g – although my scales are cheap and rubbish, so for 'about', read ± 4g or so), and mixed, rested, kneaded, rested, shaped, rested and then baked.

The result is a lovely sourdough loaf. Which I can munch away on while learning all about India…

Lessons learned

  1. When you make your sourdough starter, use a large jar to store it in. ie. make sure that there is enough room for it to grow – because as it bubbles away, it will grow. As I learnt.
  2. You can get a proving basket to rest your dough in for the last stretch (after shaping it), or you can make your own with a bowl, tea towel and lots of flour. I'm not sure what went wrong with mine – either using a muslin instead of a tea towel is a mistake, because the weave is too loose, leaving space for the dough to stick. Or I didn't put enough flour in. Or I didn't knead the dough enough. Or it could be any combination of the three, but when it came to turning out my shaped dough into the pan, the result was something of a sticky mess. Not that it made much of a difference to the finished product (I think), other than a slightly unusual shape on the top.
  3. There is obviously a knack to kneading. The book suggests 10 minutes should be enough – but although my dough got to something like a chewing gum texture, it still didn't pass the 'window-pane test' after a good 20 minutes of working. That might be because I was being too timid – with an 18 month old daughter asleep upstairs, I didn't want to be throwing the dough around as hard as I could (attending to a woken toddler with dough-covered hands didn't feel like a great idea…) But again - the finished product was something I was very happy with.

So, plans for the future;

  • Sourdough, because of all the funky bacteria breeding in the dough (I think) lasts longer than normal bread – my loaves and buns were dried out within a couple of days, but sourdough is supposed to last a couple of weeks. Which should make it much more practical to have in the house than normal bread (and also means I don't have to buy any yeast, which is another plus.)
  • A proving basket seems like it might be a wise investment – I'll give the tea towel method another couple of goes first though (unless I can find a cheap one somewhere – £10 for a little basket to help bake a loaf of bread that probably costs about 40p in ingredients seems a little bit pointless – I would rather invest that money in better quality flour, given that its the only ingredient that isn't coming out of my taps. (Should I try baking with fancy bottled mineral water?) There is a health shop in the village that seems to have quite a selection, so I'm sure that something there is what I'm looking for. Although how to judge the quality of flour (versus quality of my baking) is a mystery to me at the moment.
  • Bread with bits in! I want to have a think about what sort of stuff I want to throw in there – ideas right now include a savoury olive sourdough, a sweet raisin/sultana/fruity loaf, sundried tomato… and with my other current cooking obsession being smoked barbeque (pulled pork, beef brisket and ribs) – soft white rolls go very well, but I'm wonding if there's something that I can do with some of the chipotle, honey and mustard that make the bbq sauce to make a perfect sourdough accompaniment…
  • My mum recently had some bread with some sort of salt flakes baked into the crust, which sounds like a nice idea… So I'm wondering what else might be an interesting thing to bake into the crust – as opposed to mixed throughout the dough.
  • It seems that baking 2 loaves at once would be twice as much bread for just a little bit more work – I'm guessing that it would take less than twice the energy in kneading. So thats something else to experiment with at some point. And making 2 loaves at a time means that I can try out some experimental ideas and still have some nice bread if they go horribly wrong.

4

  1. I made a New Years Resolution to write less and post more – too many half-thought through ideas and re-re-drafted contemplations of current events which were long past being current by the time I had over-edited any interest or excitement out of my writing.

  2. As I understand it, the bacteria like an acidic environment, and the yeasts produce alcohol which acidifies the dough. The alcohol/acid stop other bacteria from growing. Apparently there are bakeries in San Francisco using sourdough starters that are over 150 years old. I don't know what the hygiene practices of American bakers 150 years ago were, but I can't help but be impressed by that.

  3. I know lots of people get bored of bread makers, but I didn't – she started cutting wheat out of her diet, and there isn't too much you can do with a breadmaker if you aren't putting flour in it. Although apparently they can also double up as jam makers, which might be useful – I can't see myself using it for bread again.

  4. I can't think of a blog post I have written where I have been so pleased with the title as this one.

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