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Queenie is dead, long live Queenie

I’ve assumed a bit of prior knowledge to sourdough baking in this blog post. I’m happy to answer any questions where things aren’t clear because of that, though I might just point you off to other more baking-focused sites to read up on stuff.

During the Christmas break, I decided to start baking sourdough bread again. My problem was that my sourdough starter, Queenie, who I’d been keeping in the fridge, had gone off. I’d killed her through neglect.

Fortunately, a while ago, I had the foresight to freeze some samples of Queen when she was at her most active. Rather than start with making a new sourdough starter from scratch – which is admittedly not that difficult but can take up to a week – I decided to see if the cryogenics had worked.

Here’s the bag containing those starters I divided up into 50g discs nearly three years ago. Why discs? Well, I think my theory was – still is – that flattened discs will thaw out more quickly than a ball. I took just one of these discs and let it thaw out for a day before feeding it a standard 50/50 water and flour mix (I think I started with 25g of each).

To be honest, my hopes weren’t high after the first couple of days. Queenie was a bit sleepy and there were only a few bubbles in the sourdough starter mixture. I probably could have achieved the same level of activity by just starting from new. Looking back now, I think the discs weren’t a 50/50 mix so could probably have done with some more water to start with.

Queenie the overactive starter

It was a good four days before I got some proper signs of life but once Queenie woke up, she really woke up. She was bubbling so furiously, she was spilling out of the jar and I had to transfer her into a large Tupperware container. But my objective was achieved and I had a usable, active starter again and one that I could smugly proclaim was several years old. (I won’t go into why a sourdough starter can’t really claim to be that old. Not today, anyway.)

So there you have it: freezing a sourdough starter for long-term storage and subsequent revival is a viable option.

These are the options as I see them for storing an active, lively sourdough starter.

  1. A 50/50 mix is fine if you’re going to bake sourdough regularly and have the time and organisational skills to feed it every day. Probably overkill for those of us who don’t bake three or more loaves a week.
  2. A newly-fed 50/50 mix will keep in the fridge for at least a week, sometimes up to a month, without feeding but do keep an eye on it. You’ll also need to remember to take it out of the fridge in time to bring it up to temperature to start using it in a recipe.
  3. Credit to Dan Lepard for this particular tip. A 65/35 flour to water or even 70/30 mix will keep longer than the standard 50/50 mix. Instead of a gloopy batter, you have more of a malleable dough. For the occasional sourdough baker, it’s a good way of keeping a starter without having to worry too much about tending to it. Obviously don’t leave it for a year or something stupid.When it comes to using it to make a loaf, you need to adjust your recipe to compensate for the fact there’s more flour than water in your starter. You might even want to mix it with a bit of water to bring the balance back up to 50/50 and leaving it for a while before mixing it in with the rest of your ingredients. (Kind of equivalent to activating commercial yeast in warm water first, I guess.)
  4. Credit to Dan Lepard for this tip, too. For the lowest maintenance, freeze your starter. I don’t think it particularly matters if you freeze a 5050 mix or a stiffer one like I’ve just mentioned, though the 50/50 mix makes it easier on the maths because you just need to add your frozen disc to a similar 50/50 mix. Then just keep working with it like you would a normal starter, feeding it a 50/50 flour/water mix each day until you breed a monster clone like I did. I wouldn’t advocate using a frozen starter direct in a recipe. The way I see it, you’re using it as a shortcut to a fresh starter and saving yourself several days of cultivating new yeast.

I stumbled – well, ambled towards, really – a method of making a sourdough loaf that puts an end to the ‘how sleepy or awake will the starter yeast be today’ guessing game but I’ll save that for another post.

Antisocial media: why I decided to cut back on Facebook and Instagram

Arwa Mahdawi writing in the Guardian:

In the next decade, we are going to see a social media public health crisis unfold as the effects on our brains, relationships and democracies unfold. We are getting previews of what that might look like already: there is a growing mountain of evidence that suggests Facebook negatively affects people’s mental and physical health.

I was approached about a job at Facebook last year. Had I not been coming to the end of a contract, I wouldn’t have entertained the idea, given that I deleted my Facebook account in 2016 and had been feeling the benefits of that. But the timing being what it was, I took the conversation further than I should have. Fortunately – for both sides, I think – it didn’t work out so I never had to work out for what price I could be bought.

Every time I know the way it ends before it’s even begun…

It’s traditional at this time of year for me to state that I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, here’s me on this very blog in 2013 in Then off goes the bell ringing through my head, signifies that all’s been said…: “I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions.”

And then I’ll set some. And then not keep them. And then try again around the time of my birthday because I think it’s better to start off with resolutions on a personal date rather than at the same time as everyone else. Here’s me again, from Then off goes the bell ringing through my head, signifies that all’s been said…:

So instead of going for New Year’s resolutions, I tend to have my birthday resolutions instead, following my own personal new year, rather than the calendar new year. The period between 1 January and my birthday serves as a useful trial or run-in period before the serious business starts on 25 February.

Apart from the idea of the ‘trial period’, not starting resolutions at the same time as everyone else makes sense: someone making a resolution to go to the gym more is less likely to keep that resolution when they get to the gym and find it’s absolutely packed and they can’t get onto any machines. But I would say that, being an introvert. I imagine, for an extravert, it can be motivating to have loads of other people around you with the same aims and goals, even if they are delaying your own achievement of them. And something like giving up smoking could be easier for some people if you’re part of a group motivating each other.

Whatever your resolution, best of luck with it.

 

My three years with the BMW i3

Today I handed back the BMW i3 at the end of a three-year lease. I’m choosing not to replace it with an updated model or indeed any other car, electric or not. My massive ego thought it would be worth sharing why, as well as my general thoughts on life as an electric vehicle owner.

The BMW i3 itself

First, let me say that I enjoyed having the i3. It’s a great drive: surprisingly nippy, thanks to the single-gear torque you get with electric motors, and an agile little city car with a tight turning circle. I loved the single-pedal driving experience, which you soon learn, especially if you anticipate what’s happening in front of you. Hardly having to use the brakes makes for less stress on the right leg as well as meaning it takes a long time to wear down the brake pads. That said, if you’re a heavy-footed driver or someone who drives too close to cars in front so you’re always touching the brakes, you’ll have a travel sickness-inducing drive as you lurch around unable to cope with the heavy regenerative action that kicks in as you ease off the acceleration pedal. But the answer to that is to stop driving like a numpty and learn to be subtler in your use of the pedal.

It was also nice to be able to plug in the car to charge at home. I never realised how much I dislike visiting petrol stations until I got the i3.

On the debit side, the horrifically nicknamed ‘suicide doors’ aren’t the easiest to use in a tight spot if you’re trying to get out of the back. And boot space is tight. Don’t fall for the marketing extolling the virtues of the ‘frunk’ – the storage space under the bonnet that makes use of the space that would have been taken up by ye olde combustion engine – because that will probably be full with a charging cable and an electric pump.

BMW service 👎

A BMW-specific reason for not getting another i3, or any other BMW, is the service we received was inferior to that of the Honda dealership I used to use when I owned a Honda Accord. (God, that was a great car. I reckon it would still be going strong if it hadn’t been traded in – against my wishes.)

For a start, the dealership that I originally dealt with decided they didn’t need to bother returning calls or emails once they’d secured my signature and money. That was never going to endear me to them. Then, when things started to go wrong with the i3, the poor customer service received from the dealership down the road, means when I think of BMW, I just think of hassle. I could accept things going wrong with a first-gen i3 – as an early adopter, you put up with these things – but I was made to suffer extra unnecessary inconvenience to get things fixed. So BMW is way down the list when it comes to thinking about getting another car.

The one bright spot of the BMW service was from the central service centre, which sorted me out when I was stranded about 2 miles from home after I was overoptimistic about how many miles you could squeeze out of the reserve charge once the battery was showing 0%. They sorted out a pickup truck straight away and I got home without even having to sign any paperwork.


Apart from not wanting another BMW, there are four general factors about electric vehicles, all of which are related to each other, that mean I’m not even close to thinking about getting another i3 or indeed any other electric vehicle at this time: range, infrastructure, technology, price.

Range

The maximum range of the current crop of i3s is quoted as 195 miles, with Autocar stating a ‘real world’ range of 120 miles. I’m very much inclined to believe Autocar’s estimate based on my own experience of the real world range of my first-gen i3, especially factoring in motorway driving which eats battery charge for breakfast (down to aerodynamics – you can’t buck the laws of physics).

The i3 is marketed as a city car, rather than for long journeys, which is fine but makes the i3 useless to us as the main family car. With that kind of range, it’s only ever destined to be the second car – the runaround – but as a family we’ve reached the stage where we can downsize to one car, so a car with the range of the i3 is always going to lose out.

We’ve considered, when the time comes to replace our other car, replacing it with a Tesla which has a range of 250-300 miles but even that feels a little low, especially for the price. (The model 3 might be an interesting bet but I doubt we’ll see those on UK shores until late 2018, or even 2019.)

Yeah, we could get a hybrid or even a range extender version, but I feel that misses the point of electric vehicles. For me, I want to be all in or not at all.

Infrastructure

Range wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could recharge your battery as easily as you can refill a fossil fuel dinocar, but we’re not quite there yet. The infrastructure’s definitely getting better, with more charging points appearing, but the fact remains that you still need to plan ahead to make sure there are charging points available when and where you need them if you’re planning a journey beyond your battery’s single-charge range.

There’s also the matter of how you’d charge your car if you don’t have a drive or a garage or even a designated parking space.

I’ve seen Shell are looking at adding charging points at their petrol stations, which is definitely a step in the right direction. They’ll need to make sure there are plenty of points available given how long it can take to charge electric vehicles, because those charging points can get hogged quite easily. Which brings me onto…

Technology

Even if you could reliably find recharging points, it’s still not as fast to recharge a battery as it is to refill a petrol tank. Even my i3, which was equipped with the ability to rapid charge – as long as I could find a compatible charger (not that easy) – would take 20 minutes to get to an 80% charge, at the quickest. The marketeers will try to tell you to turn this into a virtue, by telling you that it’s an opportunity to have a coffee or something to eat while you’re waiting, but it’s adding time and extra expense to a journey and making the electric vehicle-owning experience less convenient.

My view is there needs to be some way of radically reducing the time required to get the charge so that pulling in to recharge is as quick as it is to refill a car with petrol. I’ve read that Tesla are looking into swappable batteries, which might work. Another admittedly longer term vision might be to allow cars to pick up electric charge as they drive along the road via some wireless charging kind of technology (like a really futuristic life-size Scalextric) so they charge as they go along without needing to stop.

Price

As mentioned above, one way of alleviating range anxiety – and therefore reducing the impact of poor infrastructure and charging technology – is to buy a Tesla, which has a range of about 250-300 miles. But get anything like a decent spec, and you’re easily looking at £80k at least. It doesn’t take much adding of options to get to the £100k mark. Yes, you’ll save on petrol costs but bloody hell, that’s still a lot of money for a car, especially compared to ye olde fossil fuel cars.


So I guess part of this is just timing. It just so happens that the lease on what is now our main and only family car runs out early next year, which is just too early for a Tesla model 3 or a similar car from one of the old legacy manufacturers. I do think electric vehicles are the future but equally I feel the barriers to adoption are slightly too high for the mainstream right now. I really hope they come down soon. It feels weird thinking of people getting electric cars now as still being early adopters, having had an electric for 3 years already.

I also think that in the longer term, the idea of owning your own vehicle will seem ridiculous. (Good to see John Harris thinks along the same lines as me.) With self-driving technology and technology in general, I can easily envision being able to summon a car from a central pool whenever I need it, rather than having a depreciating asset or monthly expense sitting on my drive. I wouldn’t even need a drive any more! Cars, when they’re not needed, could go and park themselves. Dynamic routing based on traffic conditions will reduce traffic jams and taking human drivers and their mistakes out of the equation will mean far fewer accidents, if any. As consumers we’d save money from not buying cars, not having to pay for insurance, not having to pay for the land required for parking at hour homes, and not having to buy car insurance. I imagine smart people at the car manufacturers and insurance companies are already thinking about how they deal with this inevitable disruption but I know the answer won’t be to try to stop the future from happening.

RideLondon 46

This time last week I’d just finished the 46-mile version of RideLondon. While it was eminently do-able – when I finished, I immediately thought about entering the ballot for the full 100-mile route; by contrast, after I ran the Reading half-marathon, I told P to punch me in the face repeatedly if I ever said I wanted to do another half-marathon – when I think about it, it’s been a bit of a journey.

The past twelve months have seen me go from extremely infrequent and casual cyclist to indoor cycling enthusiast to easily completing 46 miles without stopping, via two operations serious enough to require general anaesthetic. It would not have been at all possible without our amazing NHS.

If I can do it, I reckon anyone can and I’d highly recommend giving the 46-mile route a go. Riding around London without cars trying to kill you and with people cheering you on is magical, and I’ll never forget the feeling of riding under Admiralty Arch, onto the Mall, towards the finish line with the Queen Victoria memorial gleaming in the sunshine with Buckingham Palace in the background.

I felt this before when I watched P ride around central London for the Breast Cancer Care ride, London without cars is amazing. It’s a wonderful different world and I will support any initiative towards making London a car-free city.

(more…)

Autocorrect as inspiration

Autocorrect just changed ‘portaloos’ to ‘portals’. Now I’m seeing if I can work out the plot of a sci-fi story that crosses Glastonbury, ley lines and that horrific toilet scene from Trainspotting.

Okja

Now I’ve seen the trailer, I know not to pronounce Okja as ‘okay-yah’. Really looking forward to watching Okja based on this trailer and the reviews I’ve read so far. Even more so now I know the awesome Jon Ronson cowrote the screenplay. Cannot flipping wait.

Monzo: first impressions

If you don’t work in tech or financial services – or fintech – you might not know about Monzo, although it gets coverage in the mainstream press so isn’t exactly in stealth mode. Monzo is the self-proclaimed “bank of the future. Built for your smartphone, this is banking like never before.”

I’ve been a Monzo customer since 1 April and thought I’d share my initial experiences.

Firstly, the card. Using it reminds me of when I first got the BMW i3 – it’s impossible to use without people wanting to talk to me about it. Every time I use it, there’s a conversation that usually starts with “Blimey, that’s a colourful card. You won’t lose that in a hurry. What bank is that?” 10 out of 10 for branding leading the word-of-mouth, Monzo. The story behind the ‘hot coral’ colour choice is great – have a read at Monzo 2 years on – the startup threat big banks still “don’t get”.

In practical terms, because Monzo only recently got the full banking licence to allow it to offer current accounts, the card that I’ve got is a prepaid MasterCard debit card. What that means is I have to load money onto the card before I spend on it. Hassle, right? Well, not as much as you might think, at least on an iPhone. When I need to top up, I can use Apple Pay which is set up with my ye olde bank debit card, so I can do the whole top-up thing in the Monzo app using touch ID, without having to look up card numbers or arrange bank transfers. I can top up in a matter of seconds, not minutes.

Given that Monzo’s built to run off your phone, the app’s crucial to the whole experience and it doesn’t disappoint.

The app displays your history in an easy-to-read timeline. When I say it’s easy to read, I mean the whole shebang of how the content’s displayed, so money coming in versus money being spent is laid out in the way a normal human being thinks about it, not put in ‘credit’ or ‘debit’ columns, labelled CR/DR, or mashed up with confusing running balances on the same line, like you get with the dinosaur banks whose statements are designed for… well, are they designed? It’s also way easier to see where you’ve used the card. You can also add notes, if you want. I can see this being especially useful when you use the card for work expenses.

Speaking of which, you can categorise each transaction. Monzo does a good job of auto-categorising for you (eg, ‘Eating out’, ‘Groceries’) but if you want to separate out your work expenses, there’s an ‘Expenses’ category. You can also take a picture of your receipt and attach it to a transaction. If you’re on a budget, or just like to keep track of where your money’s going, the ‘Spending’ part of the app lets you see the how much you’ve spent in each category. It’s of limited use to me right now because I don’t use Monzo for everything yet. And, to be honest, while I can get cashback for using a certain credit card, that will always be the first choice.

Other things that are great:

  • Easy-to-get PIN
    I’m pretty bloody brilliant about remembering PINs (if I do say so myself) but I do appreciate the ability to get the PIN directly through the app if need be.
  • Easy to freeze
    There’s been many an occasion where I’ve mislaid a card and a temporary freeze rather than a call to the bank to cancel a card that might turn up when I’ve had a proper look would be much more appropriate. You can do that via the app and unfreeze the card easily, too.
  • Location-based security
    I’ll get a chance to try this fully on an international basis in a couple of months but turning this on should make fraud detection somewhat smarter so the location of your phone is used to make sure your Monzo card is with you.

The future

So it’s been a great start for Monzo from my point of view and I’m looking forward to trying out the current account when I can get my hands on it.

My main fear is that one of the old banks will wake up to the threat of Monzo and swallow them up. There’ll be a lot of talk about ‘Monzo will be independent and remain its own brand, blah blah blah’ but I would bet my mortgage on any old bank buyer ruining Monzo in short order. Buying it to kill it, basically.

Instead of buying Monzo, let’s say there’s a unicorn that exists in one of the old banks – one that’s allowed to spin up a competitor to Monzo. What’s to stop one of the old banks copying Monzo, and using its bigger marketing budgets and the perceived safety of sticking with one of the old banks? Well, nothing. Except having seen what counts as innovation at an old bank from the inside, it would be genuinely shocking to me if one of the old banks were capable of coming close to competing with Monzo, both in quality of experience and speed of implementation.

The other risk is, of course, that once Monzo gets to a certain size of customer base and headcount, it’ll just get crap and lose focus on the customer experience – basically it’ll become like all the old banks. If it stays true to the culture established so far and avoid hiring too many people who have worked in banks – or at least those who have become institutionalised into working within the old banking world’s way of thinking – then I think Monzo will be fine.

I don’t know what Monzo’s end game is – they might be looking to be acquired in the end – but I hope they stick around.

Edit to add: Via a comment on LinkedIn, I found out Monzo are designing with mental health in mind. In fact, Zander Brade, product designer at Monzo is talking about ‘Designing a product with mental health in mind’ at the UXPA UK Global Accessibility Awareness Day event on 18 May 2017. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.

Take the painkiller, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind…

I’ve recently developed a painful condition that mostly affects people aged between 40 and 60, known as frozen shoulder. Or, in my case, frozen shoulders as I’ve managed to have both freeze up at the same time. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life – both the literally breathtaking sharp stabbing pains when I move my shoulder suddenly and the constant ache in the neck, shoulder and arms that make sleeping difficult, and sometimes nigh on impossible, which makes me even more grumpy. I nearly typed ‘Still, at least I have my health’ but I don’t. I will though, thanks to the NHS. Every day I appreciate more and more the point a teacher was trying to make to my class of ignorant 15-year-olds that our health was something we’d come to appreciate more than wealth as we aged.

Another symptom of my middle age is I’ve recently got into cycling. I’m all self-deprecating and self-aware about having a midlife crisis – joking about it means I’m not really having one, right? – but I’m fast approaching fully fledged MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) status. In recognition of this, my lovely wife bought me a track taster session at the Olympic velodrome in London for my birthday in February. “These one hour sessions are an exciting introduction to track cycling where you’ll be coached in the use of a fixed wheel bike and the basic skills required to safely ride the velodrome track.”

Thankfully, one of the few things I can still do without too much difficulty is ride a bike – at least not on a road – as the frozen shoulder doesn’t hamper the cycling arm positioning, so I was able to take part in a session on Easter Monday.

For me, the session was characterised by awe. Firstly, the awe on approaching the velodrome. I think it’s a fantastic building from the outside. Then there was the awe when I made the walk from the changing room and along the corridor into the middle of the velodrome, to be faced by the track surrounding me. The very same track that the British cycling team dominated in London 2012. The very same track that, like most velodromes, has banked turns of angles of up to 42 degrees. (Side note: there was a game on the Commodore 64 – Summer Games, I think – where the angle to aim for in the long jump, or it might have been the javelin, was 42 degrees, instead of the 45 degrees I assumed was the obvious optimal angle.)

So awe and fear, I guess, to start with.

After getting your feet strapped or clipped in and a brief explanation of how a track bike works, the coach gets you to do a lap to get used to the idea of riding a track bike with a fixed gear and no brakes, so that you’re comfortable with working out how to control your speed purely through pedalling. Then you start to build up speed and after a few laps in the safety zone, each punctuated with a briefing session, you finally move on to the track itself. My group was apparently full of quick learners, so shown our competence at going around the track and 1. not falling off, 2. not crashing into each other and 3. overtaking safely, we had a good 20-25 minutes of free riding around the track.

Doesn’t sound a lot on paper but when you’re riding a track bike, there’s no freewheeling. You have to keep pedalling and if you’re on the higher part of the track, you have to keep pedalling fast to maintain the speed needed to stay up there.

After one particularly fast (in my mind, at least) sprint around the top of the track, I went into road bike mode and thought I’d stop pedalling and freewheel for a bit to let my legs recover. The bike did not like that one bit and wobbled and hopped rather viciously. Bear in mind I’m at the top part of the track and it’s long slide down to the inside. Luckily I maintained my balance and got my legs moving again before any damage was done but it was flipping scary. It’s not a mistake I made again. I remember thinking while I was on the steeper parts of the track, ‘How on earth is the bike staying upright and stuck to the track?’ before deciding not to think about it too much and to trust in physics.

That aside, it was amazing to be able to hammer it on the bike in a relatively safe environment and feel the air rushing through my hair and hear it whistling past my ears. I started to understand why aerodynamics is hugely important in track cycling. My stinging eyes also made me appreciate why goggles are a must.

By the end of the session, I was wobbly legged but so happy. I had an absolute blast. If you’re at all interested in cycling, I highly recommend it. I wouldn’t say it’s ideal for people new to cycling – but there was a range of abilities in my group from people who were fully decked out in the proper gear to people who were just casual cyclists wearing normal sports shorts. As I write, it costs £40 for the track taster session, which includes bike and helmet hire. I think that’s an absolute steal for such a great experience at a great venue.

Olympic velodrome track taster certificate