Project sourdough update: Lessons learned

I just made two more loaves of bread from my sourdough starter, after many weeks of trying miscellaneous sourdough things that didn’t require kneading. This time, apart from some loaf-shaping issues that I think can be fixed next time around, the end product was immensely to my liking. And I think I just learned a bunch of key things about sourdough baking, to wit:

  • Long rising times are key. The first time I made bread, I only let it rise for about 5 or 6 hours, at which point I judged it sufficiently risen to go into the oven. And it was fine, but a little on the heavy side and not as sour as I hoped. This time, I let it rise for about 12 hours, starting the night before, and the bread had a lovely texture even though the loaves fell as I was transferring them from their bowls to the baking sheet. And the sourness was perfect.
  • “Doubled in bulk” means “the dough is muscling its way right out of its bowl and threatening world domination.” It is an awesome sight to behold: the Yeast Culture That Ate Connecticut! (Or would’ve tried to, if I hadn’t eaten it first.)
  • If you’re going to do it right, you have to plan ahead. My bread-baking schedule now runs from Saturday midafternoon (feeding the starter) to Saturday evening (making and kneading the dough and putting it on the counter to rise) to the middle of the day or early afternoon on Sunday (baking the loaves). It takes less time than one would expect, but one does have to keep track of when to move onto the next stage of things.
  • The “pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven while the bread is baking” trick really does put a lovely crust on the bread.
  • I need a better method for shaping my loaves. If I let them free-form, they just kind of sprawl; if I let the dough rise in bowls, it sticks, and deflates on removal — especially if I forget to oil the bowls first. I still want to get my hands on some bannetons and see what happens.

Next up: sourdough breadsticks!


A few days ago, someone on Opera-L mentioned Gabriel Kahane's Craigslistlieder, a song cycle based on, you guessed it, personal ads from Craigslist. (One of them, the wildly funny "Neurotic and Lonely," can be heard on Gabriel Kahane's MySpace page; or you can listen to them all here).

Tickled, I promptly tweeted about it. At which point a couple of Twitter friends pointed me to Sam Krahn's Missed Connections Song Cycle, this one based on Chicago's Craigslist and first performed at the Green Mill.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has been assembling found poetry from Craigslist, and a Google search turns up a few more examples. (Personally, I think Craigslist poetry sounds best when set to music.) Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and the third time is evidence of the Next Big Thing?

Obviously, the next step is for someone to write some Twitter lieder. Or, perhaps even better, Found Magazine lieder or Passive Aggressive Notes lieder. I'm only half joking. Actually, I'm not joking at all. Any composers out there want to try it?

The convergence of film and opera, or, What I did on my summer vacation

I'm back from my Santa Fe trip, which was just about the ideal vacation. (I only wish I'd been there longer than a long weekend. Next time. And there'll definitely be a next time.) Two eminently enjoyable nights at the opera, in the open air with the mountains in the distance; two magnificent sopranos;* excitingly unfamiliar architecture and landscapes everywhere; excellent New Mexican and Spanish food; a little Georgia O'Keeffe; lots of walking around; the fortuitous discovery of a good used bookstore; and more sunshine than I've seen in New England for ages. How beautiful is Santa Fe? Well, see for yourselves; I took pictures.

I ended up spending a lot of the trip thinking about the convergence of opera and the movies. I'd been looking forward to The Letter, the second opera I saw, for more than a year — ever since last spring's blogger meetup and Met HD broadcast expedition with Terry Teachout, who wrote the libretto and who's been blogging the whole process of writing the opera with composer Paul Moravec. The Letter was originally a short story by Somerset Maugham, which he then adapted into a play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis. The visual vocabulary of this production was explicitly and deliberately cinematic and film-noirish. (Some of the musical vocabulary sounded cinematic, too; once or twice I thought of the score of Vertigo.) At one point, Patricia Racette puts on a broad-brimmed hat and a white trench coat straight out of the ending of Casablanca. And, like the movie, the opera starts with six gunshots and a dead guy on the veranda.

It was both intriguing and at times quite startling to see film conventions and operatic conventions collide. Especially because film conventions tend to be so visual and camera-oriented — the close-up, the blackout, the flashback, and so on — and operatic conventions are so closely associated with the stage; even the chorus is a holdover from ancient Greek drama (as interpreted by sixteenth-century Florentines). The overall effect is to defamiliarize both sets of conventions. There are surging strings in the scene between the adulterous lovers, but there are soaring voices as well. There are flashbacks and cinematic lighting, but there's also a stage set that's constantly being shifted before our eyes. And Patricia Racette's character in The Letter is very much in the film noir femme fatale mold, until she starts singing arias — and suddenly she takes on the kind of inner life you get from intensely operatic music, but not so much in actual film noir, where the femme fatale character is usually a) tough as nails and b) something of a cipher. But the worlds of opera and film noir seemed quite close to each other by the end of the evening.

The interesting thing was that I had some of the same thoughts about La Traviata on my first night in Santa Fe, in large part because the director emphasized Violetta's distance from polite society by playing up the "wild party" aspects of Act 1 and Act 3. Noticing that the costumes were vaguely late 19th-century except that all the women's dresses were slit up the front to allow for can-can style leg-flashing, I thought "Hey, they're borrowing from Moulin Rouge!" And then I thought "Well, that's appropriate, since Moulin Rouge borrowed most of the plot of La Traviata." Later on I recalled that Baz Luhrmann is also a theater director who's done a fair amount of opera. All of which made the chorus's little performance-within-a-performance at the beginning of Act 3 ("E Piquillo un bel gagliardo") seem even more metatheatrical.

I'm not surprised that opera and film might converge, especially in the age of opera on DVD and movie broadcasts like the Met's, which have the added benefit of highlighting the acting chops of singers who can act for the camera. I'm sure there are purists on both sides who won't like that idea, but as for me? I'm a fan of both film and opera, and I have a thing for hybridity, not to mention that eminently 21st-century genre, the mashup.** And I say, long may it last; I can't wait to see what's next to emerge from the collision.

* I love Patricia Racette, who got to act up a storm in this production. I love Natalie Dessay even more. Some of the reviewers have been saying her voice isn't big enough for Violetta; I can see that, but in the end, if it's not already obvious from this post, it's the theatricality of opera that draws me as much as the music does. And I don't think I'll ever forget the way she laid Violetta's soul completely bare for us, bit by bit, at the end of Act 1, or the devastatingly quiet remoteness of her "Addio del passato." (I had to take advantage of the prolonged applause afterward to blow my nose honkingly a few times.)

** One of the books I was reading on the plane was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 'Nuff said.

Personal anthology: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Vacation looms, and I've been too excited about it to think any thoughts more interesting than "Whee!". Tomorrow I'm off for a week or so of travel, including a trip to Santa Fe for two operas and assorted sightseeing. I'll catch you all when I get back, at which point I'll no doubt be hyperventilating about seeing both Natalie Dessay and Patricia Racette, one after the other. (And will probably also have a kazillion Santa Fe photos to post. I've never been anywhere in the Southwest before!)

In the meantime, have some Edna St. Vincent Millay (an old favorite, and one that fits vaguely into the travel theme, but really I just wanted to post it because it's been in my head):


We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

(from A Few Figs From Thistles, 1922)

Sound maps

Via Matthew Battles' Twitter feed comes Cinco Cidades, a "cross-disciplinary project documenting the cultures and sounds of five cities across Portugal." Each of the five cities has its own map showing where the various sound files—children playing, street noise, birdsong, local musicians, conversation, bells, subways, construction, residents talking to interviewers—were recorded. What makes the site so fascinating is that it lets you blend the sound files into mixes. Here's one I made just now, which includes the sounds of trains arriving at a station, church bells, a cafe owner talking about coffee, a guitarist playing fado, and (my favorite) ambient radiator-dripping noise from inside a cultural center where music drifts down the halls.

As I was playing with sound files, I immediately started thinking about how one might adapt the same concept, perhaps based on Open Street Map data, with lots of volunteers armed with digital voice recorders. I'm trying to imagine what a sound map of New London would sound like (ferries leaving their dock on the river? local bands? seagulls? Amtrak trains?), or a sound map of Philadelphia, or Baltimore, or New York, or Chicago (to speak only of cities I know reasonably well). I think half the fun of a project like this would be in learning to hear the sounds that you take for granted when you hear them every day but that, all together, make a place sound like itself and no other.

Personal anthology: Scenes of reading, 1: A.S. Byatt, Possession

It's hard to write a good fictional scene involving characters reading. As A.S. Byatt authorially interjects in the passage I'm about to quote from her novel Possession: A Romance, one risks pulling the reader into a "mise-en-abîme … where words draw attention to the power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum." And yet the scene that comes after that disclaimer is one of my very favorite moments in the novel, one of those passages that makes you (or me, at least) draw in a breath and point and say "Yes. Yes. That, exactly." Byatt's main character, Roland Michell, is rereading a poem by the (fictitious) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, a poem he knows inside and out:

There are readings — of the same text — that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are — believe it — impersonal readings — where the mind's eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind's ear hears them sing.

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark — readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. …

Roland read, or reread, The Golden Apples, as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire. He saw the tree, the fruit, the fountain, the woman, the grass, the serpent, single and multifarious in form. He heard Ash's voice, certainly his voice, his own unmistakable voice, and he heard the language moving around, weaving its own patterns, beyond the reach of any single human, writer or reader.

— A.S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance, chapter 26

Most of my readings aren't of the hair-standing-up variety, and yet: that line about knowing that we understand something we're reading before we even can say "what we know, or how" — that's something I've felt any number of times, but have never quite been able to articulate as well as this scene does.

I've been thinking about scenes of reading quite a bit lately. I may quote a few more here before I'm done.


Hello, poor neglected blog! Long time no see. I've just spent the weekend at THATCamp 2009, in a whirl of project demonstrations, conversation about the present and future of the digital humanities, comparisons of favorite tools, and massive amounts of Twittering. It was the most fun I've had at a conference in I don't know how long.

You can get a sense of individual sessions and participants at the main site and at the THATCamp wiki, so instead of trying to summarize every session I'll refer you there and to the tweet archive. Instead, I hereby submit my top 10 reasons why THATCamp beats the pants off most academic conferences I've attended:

10. Wifi. Everywhere. Always available. (I'm looking at YOU, MLA. Actually, a bunch of us were looking at you.)
9. Free registration. I didn't miss having to lug around a giant program and a big ugly tote bag full of vendor-logo-emblazoned tchotchkes. (And now I'm looking at YOU, ACRL. And you too, ALA.)
8. Casual, suit-free dress code. Plus, commemorative t-shirts.
7. No shortage of dongles for anyone who wanted get up and project something from their laptop.
6. Not only was everyone working on really cool projects, the whole
gathering had a "Let's share how we built our projects and maybe find some new people to collaborate with" ethos
(as opposed to "My project is a jealously guarded secret until it's
accepted in a major journal and/or I read a snippet of it to an
5. The complete absence of "But why didn't you just talk about MY
pet topic? [10 minutes of rambling about the questioner's pet topic
follow]" questions.
4. The certainty that one could say "You know that xkcd with the virus that reads people's YouTube comments back to them…?" and be greeted with nods of recognition.
3. Lots of participants were in interesting hybrid positions somewhere at the junctures of academia, IT, librarianship, museum studies, art, and a bunch of other fields, or had spent their careers shifting from one area to another.
2. Participation. Lots and lots of participation. Self-organization by the low-tech but efficient means of a big roll of paper and some markers. An emphasis on building new things, together.
1. Time limits on the shorter presentations were strictly enforced … by the organizers playing the Keyboard Cat music every time someone ran over. Seriously, why is this not the rule at every conference ever?

In some ways I feel like a bit of a poseur among digital humanists. I'm a humanist by training and inclination, and one who's picked up a bunch of digital interests and miscellaneous skills along the way, but none of this is part of my official job description. But the beauty of a conference like this is that we're all there to learn, experiment, and try stuff out. Not every aspect of the unconference model would work for a bigger gathering, but I wish more academic and library conferences had more of the freewheeling geeky spirit I enjoyed so much at THATCamp.

My THATCamp session idea: literary mapping and spatial markup

Over at the THATCamp blog, I’ve just posted some preliminary ideas for a session about literary mapping. I’d cross-post here, but there’s some overlap with my earlier spatiality project posts; so I’m just going to link, in case any of you are curious. In the meantime, if you’re interested, have a look at my experiment in mapping Edith Wharton’s Old New York and tell me what you think.

Of ghost stories, genre conventions, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

I stayed up later than usual yesterday night reading the final pages of Sarah Waters' latest novel, The Little Stranger, and it's been sticking in my head with the kind of persistence that usually signals an impending blog post. I've been a fan of Waters' books for years, starting with her first novel Tipping the Velvet all the way through The Night Watch, which I initially thought would be too grim for my tastes, but I loved it. I don't think The Little Stranger is my all-time favorite, but it's wormed its way into my head and made the world look darker and creepier. This post is part review and part musing on one of my favorite genres, the ghost story. There are spoilers ahead, though I'm sticking the biggest one in the comments. Still, if you haven't read it and don't want to know how it turns out, you may want to stop reading now.

Still with me? All right then. The Little Stranger is about a haunted house—sort of. The house in question, Hundreds Hall, is a decaying Georgian manor, which, in 1947, is slowly exhausting the finances of the last remaining members of the aristocratic Ayres family. Siblings Roderick (injured in the war) and Caroline (brought home to nurse her brother) live with their aging mother, trying to keep their farm going while their ancestral house falls down around them. Dr. Faraday, the narrator, is initially called in to attend a sick housemaid but becomes increasingly friendly with the family. Creepy and inexplicable things start happening; the atmosphere gets tenser with each incident; and soon it becomes apparent that something wants to drive the family insane, kill them all off, or both.

This is a novel about the changing class system in postwar Britain as much as it is a ghost story or a Gothic tale. We're always aware of Faraday's ambivalent feelings toward the house and its inhabitants. He loves Hundreds and the dying way of life it represents, but he can't forget that he doesn't belong to the Ayreses' class. He's the son of a former Ayres family nurserymaid, and his working-class parents worked themselves practically to death to send him to medical school. Every time he starts to feel like he belongs with the Ayreses, he's reminded that he'll never be their equal. He starts an unlikely romance with Caroline, but seems to have a hard time summoning up a definite attraction to her. And yet he clings to the aristocratic ideal of the noble family in their country house even more fiercely than the Ayreses do, even as it becomes increasingly clear that there's no way this family can afford to maintain their crumbling estate.

Faraday fulfills a role found in a lot of ghost stories: the skeptical character who scoffs at the mere suggestion of anything supernatural, insisting that that strange noise was just the cat, that weird shadowy shape was an optical illusion—right up until he (or she) has an incontrovertible encounter with the ghost.* In some stories, the skeptic narrates the whole thing, prefaced by "Well, I used to not believe in ghosts, but then I had a very odd experience, and now I'm not so sure. It went like this…"

One of the interesting things about The Little Stranger, for me, is that Faraday never stops being the skeptic. His rational explanations get more and more strained as the novel goes on, as various reviewers have noticed, but he doesn't stop offering them. Another interesting thing, and another sign that Waters is playing with the genre conventions of the ghost story, is that we think we know who the ghost is before the novel is halfway over. We learn in the first few pages that Mrs. Ayres had a daughter who died as a small child, and we put two and two together. We think we're heading toward an ending that explains it all. But we're wrong.

[The last paragraphs of this post are in the comment section, because there's a plot element I want to discuss, but it's also a massive spoiler. Click through if you want to keep reading.]

* To take a few examples at random: the narrator of H.G. Wells's "The Red Room"; the insistently anti-supernatural Professor Parkins in M.R. James's "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"; the hapless young man in Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth" who promises to disprove the ghostly events by sleeping in the haunted room and winds up dead as a result.

More Twitter-fiction reenactment: is this a trend?

Someone’s clearly been reading my mind. Dracula, one of my current obsessions, meets Twitter-fiction, another of my current obsessions, over at Real-Time Dracula, a “reimagining/modernization/condensation of the classic horror novel Dracula in the Web 2.0 medium.” I don’t quite agree with all of the characterization (e.g. Lucy’s use of OMG giggly teen txtspeak!!!1!), but I like the way author Michael Gordon is using Twitter to follow the timeline of the novel and let the story play out. Plus, @JHarkerEsq‘s tweets are a riot:

Carpathians are a
whirlpool of superstition, cultures, languages. Peasants all fear for
my life. Also have excellent chicken paprikash here.

Count went on bit
of a rant about vanity. Threw away my 1 good mirror. Well, not so
good-didn’t see Count in it, tho he was right behind me.
Dear @MinaHarker2be The Count has asked me to write to you. Things are SUPER! Hugs & Kisses!

*Deep breath*
Count is NOT an inhuman lizard man (despite mounting evidence). I am
NOT trapped in the castle (see previous). *deep breath*

Rat bastard not only stole all my papers, he nicked my good suit. Worst. Host. Ever. Hiding this diary for now, just in case.

It’s interesting how much more comedic the story becomes when retold like this; I suppose every version of Dracula is to some degree self-consciously presented as a version or an adaptation. It’ll be fun to compare Real-Time Dracula with the Twitter War of the Worlds.