Singularity

Tag: synaesthesia

Last Call for Last.fm

by on Mar.29, 2014, under Planet Sam, process, Writing

avatarI’ve been a long-term paying subscriber to Last.fm. Paying, mind. I include a link to my profile in any list of social media addresses. If you look down and to the right, you’ll find a widget showing what I have most recently listened to, a service provided by a Last.fm app.

Music is important to me for my writing. As a neuro-atypical synaesthete, for whom background noise can occasionally be physically distressing, music is an obligatory defence against the outside world when I’m trying to lose myself in a story, whether writing or reading. I listen to music when I’m training. I can’t imagine life without it. I spend more than I should on music – for the shapes, for the soundscapes, for the inspiration, for the motivation, for the rhythm, sometimes for the distraction – and I love discovering new artists. I used to be a heavy Pandora user. When that ceased being available in the UK, I switched to Last.fm, which offered a similar service.

Two days ago I received an email that said the service was changing.

From 28th April, our subscription radio streaming service will come to an end. This means subscriber radio will no longer work on any platform or device. We’re making this change to focus on improving scrobbling and recommendations, while continuing our goal of being your #onemusichome. Of course you’ll still be able to listen to all of your favourite stations on the new Last.fm Player, as well as listen to your favourite tracks with our recently launched on demand playback feature via Spotify.

If, like me, you’re not sure what that means, allow me to simplify.

The last.fm streaming service ceases to be from the 28th April. You will no longer be able to open the desktop app, turn on your favourite radio channel, and have it play for as long as you like with no ads. Instead, you will have to go to the website, where you can start your radio station, but it will stream videos from YouTube, complete with the adverts.

Even if you subscribe.

As a subscriber, you can get 30% discount in the forthcoming merchandise store (woot, I’m sure) and use tags to exert some illusion of control over your ad-filled youtube stream. And your avatar will say “subscriber”, so everyone knows you’re a sucker prepared to pay for a 30% discount on a lousy t-shirt.

Needless to say, I am cancelling my subscription.

I don’t know if there’s anything out there offering Last.fm’s comprehensive level of curation and discovery. They had one of the largest catalogues on the internet for streaming music and cross-platform availability. They had a range encompassing obscure industrial ambient and popular classical. I had prog rock, opera, trance, dance, electronica, baroque… I have yet to find a genre Last.fm has excluded, whether by act or omission.

Last.fm claim that they are going to focus on scrobbling, but I have no idea where they get the idea that anyone is going to pay for a service that merely records what one has been listening to recently. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun knowing how my musical habits are changing, but my musical habits are constantly changing. I don’t really need something to tell me that.

There are plenty of artists who have earned royalties because I discovered them on a streaming service. Artists I didn’t know, like Roly Porter (I now own his two most recent studio albums on CD); artists I knew and loved but whose catalogue included songs I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in a very long time. Streaming radio is a way for people who love music to discover new things to love, and people are willing to pay for things they love.

Yes, there will always be those who say why pay for something if it’s available for free, but they’re the hawks of Game Theory, and they’re outnumbered by those who want to reward the creator of something good. If we don’t reward our artists, they will stop making art. Most people with half a brain cell can comprehend that.

I have spent 6 years teaching Last.fm what I like, which is a considerable investment, and now starts the difficult quest for another streaming service, and the painful process of teaching it what I like.

Any recommendations?

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I can haz music?

by on Mar.07, 2014, under Planet Sam, rambling

avatarI have a Ford Mondeo Estate. He’s called Claude, in line with the Frood Standard Naming Convention*. I do love my car. He’s big and red and swallows two bicycles without thinking about it. When I race, I can lay Thokk or Peregrine nicely in the back and don’t have to worry about them being damaged.

The one problem is the stereo.

Back in the day, this thing had a 6 CD multichanger, but it ate my CDs. It just swallowed them, much like Claude swallows bikes. I ended up with 8 CDs in there, all trapped, while the CD player insisted it was empty.

Feed me, it said, whenever I pressed the eject button. I’M HUNGRY.

Needless to say, it wouldn’t play.

So we had to use the radio. Which was fine, until the radio started cutting out. Initially we thought it had got damp in the car wash, but no. It was merely possessed. After a while, whatever demon was infesting it and eating the tunes gave up and went away, presumably sated, and I have spent the last couple of years listening contentedly to Classic FM while driving around in my big red Claude (not a euphemism).

When Frood achieved New Job recently, we had to acquire another car, as he needs one for work. We now have a small, greenish-grey Ford Fiesta, called Bill for short (we’re still working on pronunciation of his full name). Claude took against Bill – not in any specific, spiteful way. He’s a big boy, he’s above that sort of thing. He knows Bill can’t take two bikes and all our plush camping gear. He knows he’s more comfortable for long journeys and is one of my most important pieces of triathlon gear. He knows he’s loved.

Nevertheless, he has decided to host a radio demon again, and my FM radio is now cutting out after a couple of minutes. I don’t know if he felt sorry for the one living in Bill’s radio when we first got him (as Bill’s radio was doing the same thing but works fine, now), or what, but Classic FM is lost.

I’ve been listening to Absolute Radio on Medium Wave, instead. They have a no-repeat guarantee, and that means they play a lot of old favourites, including songs I haven’t heard in years.

I listen to music when writing, and need to match the shape of the music to what I’m writing. Thus, I necessarily have a wide range of music in my collection. I acquire music usually by hearing something I really like, or which matches a specific shape in a work in progress, or gives me an idea for a brand new story. My most recent purchases have included Verdi’s Macbeth (they used Patria Oppressa as the music in the Hannibal episode Sorbet and I fell in love), Sky (a prog group with John Williams, ermagerd – one day someone will buy me a copy of the now highly-collectible Cadmium and I’ll have a wibbly-wobbly flashback to being 11 years old and reading Ursula Le Guin in bed), and Aion (I love The Serpent’s Egg).

Then along came Absolute Radio, and I’ve had too many moments of “Oh gods, I love this!” over the past couple of weeks. I’ve had to add two R.E.M. albums (WHY did we not have any already?) and today I gave in to the impulse to grab some Kula Shaker.

I need to stop. I know this stuff is cheap, mostly – certainly cheaper than a night out, which we don’t do – but, seriously, I have books and bike parts looking at me reproachfully from my “to get” list, and I’m at serious risk of falling out with Fingal permanently.

I should persuade that radio demon to depart from Claude so I can have Classic FM back. Or switch to the Gaelic language radio station, which is largely unintelligble.

*Names must use the final three letters of the number plate in order, although they may occur any place in the word. Claude’s number plate ends AUE. I’ve also had cars named Rasputin and Voltaire.

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Once more, with feeling

by on Jun.20, 2013, under Planet Sam, rambling

avatarI’m going to a wedding this weekend and I’m super-excited because the person getting married is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Who happens to live in Toulouse. It occurred to me, as things do on occasion, that if I can go to the effort of buying and wearing a dress for Her Majesty the Queen, I can definitely go to the effort of a dress for someone far more important to me.

Thing is, I’m not much of a dressy woman. I work in a job that is either office smart or manky grubby, and when I’m not at work I’m either in sports kit comprising varying degrees of lycra, or slobbing around the house in jeans. Add to this the fact I hate shopping with a passion, and it should be clear that shopping for a dress is something I would only do for a very special occasion. (Next time I might ask people to sponsor me on behalf of the RNLI).

My body, as far as I’m concerned, is primarily for making bikes go faster, getting me around, lifting things, moving through water with speed and efficiency, walking up mountains, taking me to places where I can spoffle sea creatures, and providing the conduit between the contents of my brain and the outside world. What it’s not is a clothes hanger, or an object that exists for other people to admire (or not, as the case may be). Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying I don’t care what I look like. I do, in as much as I don’t want to look awful. It’s more that I don’t think about it much. I don’t exactly have body confidence so much as when it’s doing what I expect it to do — ride bikes, run, swim, compete in triathlon, walk around, open jam jars, carry bags etc etc etc — then functionality outweighs any physical appearance. When I don my tri suit I may have a moment of relief that I still fit into it after 3 years of being injured out of training, but I don’t worry about what my arse looks like. Not at the time, anyway. I save that for the photos afterwards.

A number of years ago I was very ill, and for a while there was a strong chance I was going to end up in a wheelchair. That was something of a priority check. As long as my body is working, and not threatening to break down again, we’re on pretty good terms. I exercise it, feed it nice food, make sure it gets plenty of fresh air and generally take care of it as best I can.

It has never expressed an interest in fashion.

Shopping is hard. I don’t have a personal style. I don’t know what works for my body shape or type. It’s not on my agenda, most of the time. On the very rare occasion I buy clothes that are not for work or sport, I find something at a price that doesn’t make me faint, in a colour that doesn’t taste horrible, check that it fits and doesn’t look disastrous, and that’s about as much as I can bring myself to care.

Today I needed to buy a dress. I had an hour or so after work, which is my limit for time spent on shopping. I was distracted by the lady in the perfume shop (perfume being the one conventionally feminine thing about which I have strong opinions), where I had gone for a travel pump for my current favoured scent. We chatted. It was fun.

I went to a clothes shop. Everything was in triple figures. I went to another shop, which carried clothes for ladies with curves. Some nice things, but they were expensive and all the colours tasted horrid. I went to another and another, by which point my patience was thin. The fifth shop (fifth!) was quite large, open plan, and had no indication of what all the different sections were. I was a bit lost, and wandered around for a few minutes, hoping for that synaesthetic hit telling me there was at least something in the right colour.

This guy came up to me. He was a little taller than me, thin, and had horrible beard shaved within an inch of its life (I wondered what was the point in having it at all), a posture straight out of the Ministry for Silly Walks, and a staff badge.

“Were you looking for anything in particular?”
“No. I guess I’ll know when I see it.”
“What sort of thing do you want?”
“Long, light, preferably green.”
“A dress?”
“Yes.”

He looked me up and down as if I were a laboratory specimen, or one of those masochistic creatures who subject themselves to the horror of America’s Next Top Model, then gestured vaguely towards the other side of the shop.

“I suggest you try looking over there, dear,” he said, withering. “You’re a bit on the big side for this section.”

I was so shocked I just smiled vaguely and let my feet start meandering in the indicated direction.

I’m not a delicate flower by any stretch of the imagination. I have been described as ‘one solid piece of muscle’. I will never be petite, never be elegant, never be graceful and sinuous. But I can muscle my 70″ fixed up a 12% incline, swim 3km in an hour and open my own damn jam jars. I’m not huge, either. I’m somewhere between a UK size 8 and 12 (US 4-8), depending on brand.

I shouldn’t be bothered by this inconsiderate idiot’s comment. but I was shopping for a dress, to look nice for my friend’s big day, and I felt this man had just told me there was no point in looking at any of the things I liked because I was huge and horrible and far too ungainly to wear beautiful.

This particular shop will never have my custom. Ever. Maybe I was in the petite section. Maybe that was the section for teenagers. I don’t know. I don’t especially care. He could have directed me to a more appropriate part of the shop in a friendly, nice, helpful way. He said it in a way that implied I had no business being there.

And in doing so lost my business permanently.

I spent my money somewhere else, where the shop assistants were helpful, pleasant, and didn’t judge me as if I were a piece of meat and they were looking for something to feed to a fat-shy fashionista.

Big doesn’t mean unhealthy. Thin doesn’t mean fit. Size is so far down on the list of reasons to judge a person I can’t see it with a telescope. I’d rather be fit, healthy, strong and mobile than I would a fashionable size 6 any day.

This was my first ever experience of being judged too big for anything. Should it ever happen again…

Well. It had better not.

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Naked In Napa

by on May.20, 2012, under Food/drink, Planet Sam

avatarIt’s strange, sitting here on a relatively sunny day, during which the temperature hauled itself into double figures with the effort of a powerlifter attempting to beat his deadlift personal best, to think that a couple of weeks ago I was baking in the heat of California.

What it was all about

The story of how this came about starts last Christmas. My family gets together over Christmas —I hardly see them during the rest of the year— and my brother does the drink while I do the food. Being picky, I usually take a few bottles of wine for the Christmas meal itself. Last year I happened to have an Amazon voucher for a £40 discount from Naked Wines, a company I’d already been following on twitter because of a #FollowFriday, but about which I knew very little. We looked at the website, realised we could get a case of decent wine for around 4 quid a bottle using an introductory deal plus the voucher, and thought we’d take a punt.

When I bought my wine, the website told me all about the Angel programme. You give them £20 or more a month, which they invest in wines that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or winemakers who have all the skill but no support, and in return you get at least a 25% discount on wine sold through the site. As one of many new writers struggling to make it out of the slush pile, I know that talent and passion for one’s art isn’t always enough. You also need someone to take notice, to believe in what you are doing and give you a chance. I feel very strongly that artistic talent should be rewarded, and winemaking is, as Jason Moore says, “an art form supported by science”.

I signed up. I didn’t need any more persuading than that.

Roll on a few months. We were still without internet but I was making tasting notes of the wines I bought and posting them when I could. I don’t like reviews that say “I liked it!” or “This was lovely!” They tell me nothing about whether I might like it. You wouldn’t go to see a film based on someone else saying they enjoyed it without finding out what genre it was, at least. You wouldn’t buy a perfume just because someone on a website said it smelled nice. Well, I suppose there are those who would, but I’m not one of them. Having been exposed to plenty of the handwritten tasting notes produced by Oddbins staff over the years, I tried to post reviews that would tell others what the wine was like so they could decide whether or not they might like it.

Converting my synaesthetic experience into something that will make sense to others has been an interesting writing exercise.

Naked Wines have a number of volunteers helping out on their site, called Archangels. These are customers who are good at interacting, who post helpful reviews and do their bit to be welcoming of newcomers, both winemakers and customers. One of the staff asked if there were any Angels who would like to become one. I applied. A while later I got a phone call. I’d been successful. Not only had I been successful, would I like to go to California? A group of Archangels were being sent to Napa to taste wines and choose some to go on sale in the UK.

Yes, of course I would.

Which is how come I ended up flying to San Francisco with 9 other wine enthusiasts for two intense days of tasting.

After the party on the plane (it took me the entire flight to get through the Sherlock Holmes sequel) and dinner at a fabulous Mexican restaurant (I have no idea which one it was, but I didn’t know you could do that with pineapple), we were back to the hotel for a sleepless night before an early start the next morning.

Tomei

We started with Jessica Tomei, where we sampled half a dozen rather fine wines, then moved on to Jason Moore, where we sampled another selection, including some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. After that it was a trip to the Patz and Hall winery, by way of a rather famous Champagne house (I had to resist the urge to crawl into the cotoneaster hunting the Californian tree frog I could hear in there), where we were talked through more than a dozen wines by winemakers Robin Langton, William Henry and Randall Grahm. If Robin doesn’t bring me some of that Tallman Sauvignon Blanc I shall be forced to have words.

Lunch was a picnic provided by the rather wonderful William Henry, with me a bit starstruck by the big Ravenswood sign on the way up to the vineyard where we were to have it.

Rowbags

For someone who isn’t used to tasting wines in such rapid succession, and has never had the opportunity to do so in what amounts to a professional context —all the Archangels were very much focused on the job we were there to do— this was an amazing experience. The biggest issue for me was that I can’t taste and listen at the same time, because the synaesthesia means that sound interferes with my tasting, and so I had to choose between being able to taste the wine or listening to what the winemakers had to say about them. I chose the former, and my apologies if anyone thought I was being rude. I did have to explain the synaesthesia about 20 times over the course of the trip!

There was a social evening on the Friday night, where we were able to taste another couple of wines, although I hadn’t been expecting to do another tasting so didn’t have my notebook to hand. We also had the opportunity to speak to the winemakers and get to know them a bit better.

Saturday we started off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market in Napa, the mirthmobile in full swing already. I haven’t been to the Aberdeen one yet, but I hope it’s half as good as the Oxbow. Then we went to the Darioush winery, to experience the bling of the wine world. Bottles here started at around $70, and went up. Boy, did those numbers go up. I think the fact that the winery is apparently a reconstruction of the temple at Persepolis says enough about this particular winery without me having to add anything (although I still enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, even if I was the only person to do so).

Table decoration at Darioush

From Darioush we went to visit the hugely contrasting Campesino, where we met the lovely Macario Montoya, who is making Spanish wines in homage to the heavy Spanish influence in California. There are not enough decent Albarinos in the world. I’m delighted that Macario has added to them.

Our final stop was one of the major highlights of the trip for me. So high up a mountain I felt I needed oxygen, we visited Christina Pallmann, who offered us some truly delectable wine, including an unoaked Chardonnay that belongs on my wine rack right this very moment, and an example of Zinfandel that caused me to fall in love with the grape after a decade or so of us not speaking to one another any more. It was an absolute privilege to taste her wines in that location, and get to meet her grower, Joe. It was clear that they have a fabulous relationship and acres of respect for one another.

On top of a mountain

Meeting the winemaker

That was the real eye-opener of the trip. These are people who are deeply passionate about their art. It is important to them, and they care about what they are doing. Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour knows that this is what makes the difference. If you don’t have that love and passion then you are in the wrong business. Every winemaker we met was eloquent and engaging about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.

If I ever had any doubts that my £20 a month was going to deserving winemakers, this trip got rid of them for ever.

The trip was also part of the Naked Wines launch for the US and Australia. The sales model for wine in the US is a product of Prohibition, and British wine lovers would be surprised by the pricing. Naked Wines intends shaking things up a bit, so wine lovers can pay what a wine is worth rather than what the label suggests someone thinks they can get for it. If you want to be part of that, go to nakedwines.com and sign up as a beta-taster (geddit?).

In the end we could choose only six out of the many fine wines we tasted. The Naked in Napa pack is now on sale for British customers on marketplace at Naked Wines. You’ll have to be quick, though, because it’s selling fast. I’ll put my tasting notes below for the wines that are in this pack, but don’t take my word for it: place a bid and get yourself some.

Naked Wines British Invasion with Jason Moore. Photo by Adam Reiter.

I’m putting the synaesthetic notes in italics, in brackets, for the sake of completion. Feel free to ignore or point and laugh.

1 x Christina Pallmann Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2010
Berry red and perfumed in the glass, this gives off wafts of violets, panna cotta and roses. It caresses the tastebuds with soft tannins, giving a smooth mouthfeel, but offers up an exciting and tantalising combination of flower petals and pollen with spicy notes of pepper and a structural component reminiscent of juniper.
(Star with rounded spikes made of soft silicon, coated in powdered purple.)

1 x Coloma Syrah “Meatgrinder” 2009
In the glass this is leggy, with a redcurrant translucency tinted by a note of plum. The legs carry on into the nose. It is moderately astringent, ever so slightly disjointed because it has not had a chance to breathe. Exuberant. To taste it is a block of structured tannins, following through with the redcurrant and adding cranberry and sloe wax.
(Honeycomb shape. Almost effervescent. Happy and eager.)

1 x Sin Fronteras Reserve Tempranillo 2009
Blood red, with the most evenly spaced legs I’ve ever seen on a wine. The nose offers an immediate hit of fruit, rounded out by toasted vanilla and locust bean. The taste has enough acidity to give good structure without crossing the line into pungency, and backs up the fruit with hints of coffee and spice.
(Mille Feuille of opaque, teflon-coated microbeads)

1 x Credence Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Soft red, bluish, lilac meniscus. Long, fading legs. It doesn’t hang about in the glass waiting for you, this one. It’s forward, leaping out to greet you. Big fruit with structural astringency. Damsons and redcurrants, quite leafy. Wholemeal toast and roasting seeds. Tasted quite youthful and a bit of an attention-seeker. Good talking point for a main meal at a dinner party, but give it something robust to lean against or give it plenty of time to breathe.
(Invasive, architecturally hard, but with soft fruit in the spaces.)

1 x Back Door Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We didn’t taste this as it was away for bottling at the time.

1 x William Henry Riesling NV
We’re pretty sure that this is a 2011 rather than the non-vintage, as that’s what we tasted. I found this shy on the nose, with the odd note of athletic jockstrap. On taste, however, this was as balanced as an Olympic gymnast on the beam, with good acidity and excellent dry but unctuous fruit. This struck me immediately as the sort of white I would want to drink curled up in front of a roaring fire with snow thick on the ground and dripping off pine trees.
(The wine equivalent of Chris Brosius’s Winter 1972. Not immediately stunning but something that lingers in the back of your mind and keeps coming back long after other forms have faded.)

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Sun sun sun, here it comes

by on Nov.07, 2011, under Photography, Planet Sam, training

avatarWhen I woke up this morning it was clear that winter is lined up in the starting blocks and has its arse in the air, ready for the off. The car was frosted white and there was that sense of sparkle I particularly associate with the first proper cold snap at the end of autumn.

The days are short up here, and the clocks have gone back, so although I rode to work (brrr! tepid!) I wanted to get out and enjoy the glorious sunshine at lunchtime.

I am currently in the base-training stage of preparing to go back to racing next year, after what will have been a two-year lay-off as a result of my foot injury. This means learning how to run again, and learning how to run differently — my foot cannot tolerate normal trainers any more, and so I am running in VFF Bikilas. This is proving remarkably successful, if my heart rate is anything to go by. I’m something of a fast-beater, and I’m used to running an easy 4km loop at an average heart rate approaching 175. As I can maintain an easy 10km/hr pace at a heart rate of 162bpm now, I can only assume the claims of greater efficiency are not exaggerated.

My new lunch run is a little over 3.5km, which is just long enough to feel worth it while not so long that it forces me to take more than a 30 minute break for lunch. Perfect. Not only is it the ideal length —when I start racing again I can always lengthen or double it— it is also the most scenic of any lunchtime excursion I have had in my working career.

Today’s session was particularly slow because the weather was so good, and the scenery so uplifting, that I kept stopping to take photographs.

Lighthouse at Torry

While I don’t normally like the Beatles song referenced in the title, as the synaesthesia renders it yellow, which tastes horrible, I thought it most appropriate for this post. I don’t think the synaesthesia is cut-and-pasting from common depictions of the sun as Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun is a deep red, the colour of old blood, and I can think of at least one other song that is the same colour (it’s one of Frood’s Japanese pop acquisitions, but I’m not sure which one).

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Adventures in ice cream

by on Feb.27, 2011, under Food/drink

avatarI am, it has to be said, a bit of a foodie. I don’t talk about food on this blog nearly as much as one might expect given the amount of time I spend thinking about it.

Some genetic quirk left me with a digestive system of the temperamental variety and my interest in food was born from the necessity of dealing with its quirks and foibles. I have a range of variable sensitivities and intolerances, as well as synaesthesia, which together mean I am often uninterested in eating. When food can make you sick for no apparent reason it is easy to develop negative associations with it. Meals can also be awkward when a food, because of its texture, tastes of something that is entirely unrelated to the food’s actual flavour. Especially when it’s not always possible to tell which one is which.

Except for celery. Celery is evil by nature.

Taking an interest in ingredients and preparation isn’t a hobby or a hankering after a future career — I have not contemplated entering Masterchef, not seriously anyway — it’s a survival requirement. If I didn’t care about my food, I wouldn’t bother. Some days it feels like I’ve got some sort of multiple personality disorder, with the other personality occupying the brain in my gut and pissed off about not getting much of a say in anything other than what happens after I swallow (please do pipe down at the back).

For my birthday last year one of my friends, knowing that I have an intermittent sensitivity to dairy but a liking for ice cream, bought me an ice cream maker and a book of vegan ice cream recipes. The first one we tried was a bit of disaster — Frood wanted grapefruit ice cream, and I foolishly agreed to give it a go even though the belly brain (henceforth to be known as RB2) was yelling blue bloody murder and threatening strike action and rebellion and talking about a military coup, while my synaesthesia was building flavour blocks and looking at the resultant abomination like it was the dessert equivalent of the Ryugyong Hotel. Impatience and exuberance with the orange liqueur got the better of me and we ended up with an oddly sepia-toned, crystalline concoction that tasted of hot newspaper ink and air freshener.

The ice cream machine went back into the freezer. At least the alcoholic jellies worked.

Next we tried one of the recipes that came with the machine, which was for raspberry yoghurt ice cream. Although it grumbled somewhat about the combination of fruit and animal fats/proteins, RB2 agreed that the Lactobacillus in the yoghurt went some way to ameliorating the crime and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss, but did caution me not to make a habit of it. This caution turned into a final warning the next time we had raspberry yoghurt ice cream.

Last night we had friends round for dinner. They brought with them some Sake obtained from an artisan winery in Canada, and had requested some of the raw food sushi I had mentioned to them on an earlier occasion.

(My raw food sushi is not really raw. I mean, raw sushi rice wouldn’t be nice. It would be crunchy and wouldn’t stick together. The miso soup I did last night wasn’t raw, nor was the drenched radish, and the tofu wasn’t a raw food either. If I’m fully honest I have to allow that one of the sushi rolls was filled with a chilli, garlic and hot smoked paprika roasted butternut squash, which is neither raw nor traditional. But the other ingredients were a mix of home-grown sprouts, avocado, grated raw carrot and freshly-squeezed ginger juice, so mostly raw. Other than the thin egg omelette. Which was neither raw nor vegan. But it was optional.)

I was in the mood to try making vegan ice cream again, and having friends round for dinner, which I do very rarely, is a great excuse to make dessert. RB2 can be more tolerant when roped in for ideas and the synaesthesia is very useful when it comes to putting flavours together, because when flavours have shape it’s easier to see what goes together and what doesn’t — hence I really should have paid attention when neither agreed on grapefruit. I had some plums and we were having Japanese food, so the obvious thing to do was use Oriental spices to flavour some stewed plums.

The recipe book uses a mixture of soy milk, soy cream, sugar, vanilla extract and arrowroot to form the base for almost all of the recipes, which made for an easy adaptation as there was nothing directly equivalent in there.

The base I made with 2 cups soy milk, 1 pot (250ml) soy cream, a scant third of a cup sugar, 1 tablespoon (15ml) vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons (30ml) arrowroot. It was only supposed to be 1.5 cups soy milk, but I forgot to reduce the arrowroot to suit and ended up with this horrible gelatinous disaster-in-the-making, requiring swift dilution and vigorous whisking to rescue it. The whisking had an added benefit — the resulting texture was light and airy and beautiful, like a zabaione, and I shall be whisking it in future for that reason.

The half-dozen plums I washed, stoned, cut into quarters and stewed in approx. 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with barely a quarter cup of sugar, a little salt, a cinnamon stick, two 5p coin sized pieces of raw ginger and a whole star anise. I passed the result through a sieve after removing the spices and refrigerated everything for several hours.

When it came time to make the ice cream I folded the plum mix into the base and then poured as much of it as would fit into the ice cream maker. Twenty minutes later we had a gorgeous, soft, crystal-free, perfectly smooth and silky, fragrant ice cream.

I don’t think that fruit mixture would have worked so well on a dairy base. Although plums are a soft, round fruit, they have a sharp, almost metallic tang of a flavour that can be reminiscent of rhubarb or other more brittle fruits. This flavour is mellowed by stewing in fat and sugar, making it a suitable eiderdown for comforting pastry, but the spice and the lemon and absence of fat enhanced it. I would not have wanted to put that in the oleaginous, vanilla-scented softness of dairy ice cream. It would have been like taking sandpaper to silk. Nor would I have wanted to go the other way and make a sorbet: there was still some of the round mellowness of the plum (a word that has the same shape as the flavour of the very ripe fruit) in there and a sorbet is bright and brittle and sparkly. That would have been like serving champagne in a leather tankard. Just plain weird.

Vegan ice cream is not, as Wheeler Del Torro claims, indistinguishable from dairy. I wouldn’t be overly keen on a straight vanilla and I’m almost 100% certain that I would not want to make vegan chocolate ice cream (although carob might work. The powdery undernotes would tie the two together quite nicely). On the other hand, there are flavours I can see myself making with a vegan base that I wouldn’t make using a dairy one, particularly using spices that have or combine to make a pointier texture than I think dairy cream can take.

And RB2? Belly brain is complaining about something. I’m not going to accept it was the ice cream, because I want to try more of that, and any new food that makes me say “more please!” is to be treasured. Even Frood said it was nommy and he has no reason not to eat proper ice cream.

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Sam reviews: Witching Hour

by on Feb.13, 2011, under music, Reviews

avatarEver since BMX XXX I have paid particular attention to the music used in video games. I’ve got a lot of material in my collection that wouldn’t be there without a combination of video games and the likes of Pandora (I’m currently using Last.fm for the same purpose because UK users have been blocked from Pandora).

As you’ll have noticed, recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on Little Big Planet, and the playlist for LBP2 is excellent. My favourite, by far, is Ladytron’s Ghosts, to be found in the Death By Shockolate level:

Every so often a track has a shape that does something for me that I really need, for whatever reason, at that particular point in time. In the past I’ve developed obsessions over Massive Attack’s Angel, Pass the Hatchet by Yo La Tengo, Yeasayer’s Ambling Alp and many others, from Vivaldi to the Dandy Warhols via Murray Gold. Right now the track that’s doing it for me is Ladytron’s Ghosts.

So much did I like this track that I bought one of their albums, Witching Hour. I was blown away. It is rare that I buy an album and have to comment to Frood that it is just brilliant.

Ladytron’s sound is somewhere on a spectrum that includes Goldfrapp, the Sisters of Mercy, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Cibo Matto, the Cult, Jefferson Airplane and Shakespears Sister. The band comprises Liverpool producer and DJ Daniel Hunt, Reuben Wu and singers Glaswegian Helen Marnie and Bulgarian-born Israeli Mira Aroyo.

The two women have vocal styles that both complement and counterpoint one another, with Marnie’s soft but assertive lead underpinned by Aroyo’s more spoken style. The soft-rock electronica ranges from harsh, dark reverb (Soft Power) to the sort of gothic effervescence that belongs running across rooftops with a heavily made-up Brandon Lee (High Rise), with a couple of whimsical diversions (eg Cymk) for light relief. This is certainly not an album you could describe as homogenous. High Rise is a stonking opener while Fighting In Built Up Areas stands out for its relentless pounding and Aroyo taking the lead in Bulgarian, lending interesting architecture from the vocalised sibilants. One of my favourite tracks is Last Man Standing, which has the same shape as bluebells in a sudden downpour on an otherwise sunny day.

It is very rare for me to come across a band I like this much instantly. I expect I shall be acquiring the rest of their discography in due course.

And thank you, Media Molecule, for introducing me. Take note, music moguls: rather than charging a fortune for the rights to use tracks in video games, you should be considering just how many sales will result from people wanting to buy the music.

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Sam reviews: Samsung YP-U6AB MP3 player

by on Jan.15, 2011, under gear, Geekery, kit, Reviews

avatarI love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my Last.fm profile and you’ll get the idea.

My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.

Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.

In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.

So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.

Samsung YP-U6QP

I bought the black one, obviously

After hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.

First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.

But get here it did. Yesterday.

As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.

Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.

First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.

I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.

Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!

I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).

My wrath was mighty.

With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.

Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.

Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.

But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.

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Mutant brain, synaesthesia, overactive imagination

by on Dec.08, 2010, under Life with Frood, Photography, rambling

avatarHaving synaesthesia means that I see things differently from others all of the time. The very word “see” is generally inappropriate. Light hits the retina, electrical impulses travel back along the optic nerve, and about there the similarities stop. In me that signal is processed by the brain through a weird amalgam of all my other senses. My synaesthesia even includes one of the senses not considered in the usual five: proprioception. Is it because I lost an eye at a critical age, rather than being born blind in one, or losing it much later? I don’t know. Sometimes I think that could explain many things about me, from the way I smell colours and inhabit the shapes of sounds to the way I have to do some things right handed and some things left.

On the whole, though, I think that what I am probably doing there is looking for a reason. And, a lot of the time, things just are. They’re not purposeful, they’re not meaningful, they’re not deliberate, they’re not fair or unfair… They just are.

I get a special thrill from experiencing a similar sense of wonder and joy at a particular thing to that of someone else. While I know it’s terribly unlikely that the other person is excited by the shape formed by that particular aroma, or the soundscape that whispers and hums in the background to a piece of scenery, the sharing of that childlike marvel that the world can be so astonishing and wonderful is more than enough.

Last night the temperature was -15°C and the skies were clear. Outside the snow froze surface-crisp. And how it sparkled! We have a rough patch of waste ground out back, and there’s a car park surrounded by a chain-link fence. It’s not beautiful. It’s no Midnight. Yet, even so, it was astonishing, because a myriad diamond glitters danced across the snow. For a moment I could imagine that stars have a spawning cycle that includes a terrestrial phase, the way coral has a planktonic larval stage, and these were the babies fallen to Earth. Frood also thought it was brilliant and we stood in a darkened room with our noses pressed against the glass, staring.

I decided to photograph it. Sadly the battery on my camera died and I was forced to use my phone, which doesn’t have the optics to do it justice. Although, of course, for me the synaesthetic response is different when looking at photographs. I see the photograph, not the thing in the photograph. So no photograph can ever capture the moment, despite what the camera adverts say.

Doesn’t stop me trying.

Lunar diamonds

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A day older

by on Nov.26, 2010, under Miscellany, Photography

avatarIt’s my birthday today and I am officially much older than really I feel is right. It’s one of those “How the hell did that happen?” moments. Mind you, I occasionally still get asked for proof of age, so I can’t be doing that badly.

I’ll be pretty busy, so while I would normally find time on a weekday off from work to post some rambly nonsense about telly adverts or bicycles or computer games, you will have to wait for my considered opinion on Rabbids Travel In Time because I have a cake to make, another batch of ice cream to start and a whole pile of vodka jellies to do.

Yes, it’s my birthday, and I shall do my own catering if I want to.

In the meantime I leave you with this image I captured using my (practically obsolete) mobile phone while out for a lunchtime walk last week. I love these colours. I love the scents and textures of these colours. My synaesthesia gives these colours a tang and a fizz. Imagine a curtain made of fine, bronze threads hanging in an open doorway on a hot Mediterranean summer’s day with the azure sea just visible far below when the breeze separates the threads a little. Now walk up to it until the threads rest on your face.

Stick out your tongue.

Someone coated the threads in sherbet.

A flash of Autumn

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