Confused Science

Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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Failure and Redemption

Sourdough #1The past month has seen the rise, fall and rise again of my bread making efforts.

Mid-month, in April, I was having some success making sourdough breads and was looking at trying some experiments with herbs and other ingredients. Maybe look at other specialty breads, too.

But late in the month I tried a cheese bread in the machine – my first cheese bread, using a recipe in the 300 Best Bread Machine Recipes book. It was a failure that cost me a confidence and set me to lying awake at night wondering what I did wrong.

But then I came back with good loaves – in fact, very good – both in a mixed-sourdough and a handmade cheese bread.

I feel redeemed. Confidence was restored.

Sourdough #1Mid-April I made a sourdough from the levain in my fridge, and no additional yeast or poolish. Entirely unbleached white flour. I decided this time to add more salt than I usually do – almost the amount most recipes call for. The result was a slow rise during the day, but it rose to a reasonable height for the boule. Tall enough for sandwiches.

Crust was crisp, the crumb was a bit dense but not overly so; more like a commercial light rye (and the taste is similar to a rye because of the sour levain). But it cooked throughout to a nice consistency with just the right amount of chewiness.

There was noticeable aeration, especially at the top, although no really large holes. Makes me wonder if I should have flipped the dough over an hour or so before baking; help the aeration on the other side.

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Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter

Crazy notionsThe headline for this piece comes from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Dear CNN: Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter.” The article isn’t – as you might have thought – about local bloggers. It’s about critical thinking. Or rather, the lack of it, on CNN’s part.The lack of it on the part of local bloggers I’ll save for another day.

CNN has been running almost non-stop coverage of the plane’s disappearance, repeating in endless loops the same, paltry information they have, then trying to spin that into yet another story. It’s obsessed with the disappearance, to the point where CNN has been mocked by other media for its coverage.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krFN7jHKNNo]

CNN ran a poll about the missing Malaysian airliner. Most of which, as the Time article points out, is moot. And one of the questions was whether or not aliens or time travellers hijacked the plane.

So CNN issued the results of a poll today about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Should the search continue? Are the searchers looking in the right area? Oh, and could the plane’s vanishing have been caused by “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension“? (At least “somewhat likely,” said 9%.)

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How many chords?

Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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Still hot and getting hotter

Blair's After Death SauceIt’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since I last updated my web page on hot sauces, and about 15 since I first wrote it.

My, how times flies. So many years, so many hot sauces since then.

I’ve been a hot sauce aficionado for much longer than that, though. Most of my life, and all my adult life. But only in the last two decades has there really been a significant choice available in product. I can remember when Tabasco was it; the only hot sauce ever found anywhere. Now there are stores that specialize in nothing but. And the choice of hot peppers is tremendously expanded, too, from the barely-warm jalapeno to the brutally hot bhut jolokia.

The little bottle above left – Blair’s After Death Sauce – is one I opened this past weekend. Hot, scorchingly hot, but tasty, too. I’ve always liked Blair’s sauces. This mix is much hotter than the original Death Sauce, but below his Sudden Death. I went through a bottle of the latter, late last year, but didn’t like it as much as the After Death or his “cooler” sauces. Sudden Death was not as tasty, but hotter and that makes it difficult to get just the right amount, since so little is needed.

Personally, I want flavour as well as heat. After Death has both heat and flavour, without quite tipping over to the inedibly hot level – assuming you’re sparing with it. Which I seldom am, of course. But likely next time I find a selection (we found the latest bunch in Orillia), I’ll move down a notch to a slightly cooler sauce, in exchange for the added flavour.

It’ll still be ten times hotter than most of my readers can bear. But keep in mind: hot sauces work by tricking you: they’re not really hot (as in temperature) no matter what your tongue tells you. You think your mouth is burning, but it really isn’t. And your body quickly adapts to the sensation:

…your nervous system isn’t going to just let you suffer with your mouth on fire. So it also launches a whole series of actions to help us deal with the pain. It releases endorphins — the morphine-like compounds that give you a natural high. And it makes the nerves on our tongue more tolerant to pain.
In other words, spicy peppers may hurt at first, but then they have an analgesic effect…
When (hot sauce) hits your tongue, capsaicin activates sensory neurons in a very specific way. They bind and open up a receptor on the nerve’s surface, called TRPV1.
This receptor also gets activated by high temperatures — anything above 109 degrees Fahrenheit. So your brain thinks the nerve is touching something hot when the hot sauce hits the receptor.
A similar mechanism happens with mints and cough drops that give your tongue a cooling, icy sensation. Cold temperatures are sensed by a receptor closely related to TRPV1 (called TRPM8).
And guess what molecule also activates this receptor? The menthol in peppermint and spearmint. So minty gums trick your mind into thinking you’re eating something cold.

It’s called an endorphin rush:

Despite the incredibly intense burning — which persists for about 20 minutes — Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

“There’s a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness,” he said. “My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good.” Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

Long-distance runners know the feeling, albeit without the initial pain.

Life without hot sauce – meals without at least a dab – is dull. Boring. Mundane. Hot sauce doesn’t have to be so hot it makes you weep (although that’s okay, too…), just hot enough to make your eyes widen and the endorphins to kick in.

Sampling the latest bottle got me thinking about hot sauces again (it seems as I age, my tolerance for heat is increasing – what I now consider mild I used to think of as hot….). And what has transpired since I first wrote about them; how the market has grown and gone mainstream. And to bemoan the lack of a good local selection of hot sauces (not a single local grocery store carries the Tabasco habanero, which is light years hotter and tastier than the standard Tabasco, much less anything exquisite like Blair’s sauces…).

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Random grumblings for a Sunday afternoon

Star WarsWhy can’t I buy Yorkshire Gold tea in town? I can buy Barry’s tea, from Ireland, and Morse’s tea packaged in Nova Scotia locally. As well as other brands. Surely someone can bring in Yorkshire Gold… and yes, I’ve gone to every grocery store in town and asked for it. Even Sobeys – where I had been told it was available – the staff there had no idea what it was. Never heard of it, I was told.

Barry’s tea is nice: a bit on the robust side, which we like, but the tea bags could use a tiny bit more to give it that oomph. Available at Metro.

Tetley has two new teas on the shelf: Bold and Pure Ceylon.The Bold doesn’t taste to me any different from their regular tea. But I like the Ceylon, albeit it’s not as full-bodied as I would prefer. Still, it has a nice flavour and may replace my regular Tetley. Available at Freshco.

What happened to Tazo Tea? I used to really like their full-leaf Awake tea, an English breakfast tea, and often ordered it at Starbucks. But the last two times I’ve bought a box for home consumption (one bought at a grocery store, the other from Starbucks), I’ve been greatly disappointed. The first time because the tea turned out not to be full-leaf (the box label was unclear…). The second because the full-leaf bags contained only a small portion of what they used to contain. The result in both cases is a weak, watery, insipid tea. No more Tazo for me, in future.

I prefer whole-leaf teas and tea bags because they seem fuller and richer than the broken leaf and leaf dust you get in the standard grocery-store tea bag. But they’re not the common product: most brands don’t offer full leaf. Most are called  “orange pekoe”  but are really broken orange pekoe – a low-level grading.

Lately we’ve taken to drinking Typhoo Tea. Even the decaf is pretty good. PG Tips, another Brit tea, is fair, not really much different from Tetley. Have to ask Susan to bring back some other teas from England when she goes across the pond this summer.

I bought a box of Choice organic English breakfast tea at Costco last week. Ho hum. Like the Tazo Awake, the bags or their contents are too damned small to make a decent, strong cuppa. Takes to bags for my large cup. Another one to avoid in future.

Costco (at least the Barrie store) has a limited and rather unexciting choice of teas (not to mention it seems to have dropped the green cerignola olives – the best olives they’ve ever stocked – and their superb vidalia onion salad dressing in favour of mediocre product . Which means we are on the verge of giving up on Costco entirely (well, maybe if they keep those large bottles of marinated artichokes, we’ll hang on, albeit grimly…).

Too many products we get to know and love that get dropped. Happens at local grocery stores, too.

Used to really like Costco, and made a trip there every three or four months. Now my respect has plummeted and the few times we do go there, we buy very little compared to the past. Even their selection of DVDs is flaccid, and their selection of books is sheer crap. But they do have good shirts and clothes. Still… why can’t they keep a single brand of olives in stock?

A few weeks ago, we were down in Brampton and visited an Asian food market. Great place, full of wonderful produce, fish, sauces… I ended up buying a bag full of green teas (and a hot sauce). One of those boxes was a Korean green tea, which I have not yet tried, but I have never sampled Korean tea, so I’m looking forward to it. As soon as I finish my current supply of Lung Ching (Dragonwell) green tea, I’ll open it.

Dragonwell is my current favourite Chinese green tea. The current box is from Golden Sail, but it’s only fair quality. There seems to be a faux market in Dragonwell teas, with some low-quality products being passed off as the real thing. I can’t tell which is authentic, but I can tell which tea tastes good; which has a full, rich body. Frankly, that’s all that really matters to me.

I enjoy some Japanese green teas, but not a steady diet of them. Sencha is my favourite, and matcha when it can be had, but I’m iffy about the roasted brown rice and barley in some other varieties.

In my experience, most of the green teas in the Asian markets are only fair quality; some are actually mediocre. It’s a guessing game, but because the prices are usually modest, it’s not a big investment. I buy several and hope for the best. Regardless, I usually use them all. The boxes don’t really give you a lot more than vague promises of quality, but now and then you get a treasure.

We used to buy a lot of tea and sauces at Soon Lee’s, in Scarborough (along with many great hot sauces), but since they moved, we don’t have a good substitute Asian market (although we did find a good one on Kingston Road last year). In Brampton, we went with a Chinese woman who translated the labels so i could pick products by description, rather than just guessing (which is why I ended up with a bottle of Uncle Chen’s “chilliciously hot” extra hot sauce when I would have otherwise overlooked it).

You can get a nice, organic green tea called Uncle Lee’s, from both Metro and WalMart. It’s almost as robust as Ten Ren green tea, but not quite. Ten Ren you’ll have to get out of town – we buy ours in Chinatown at a tea shop on Dundas Street West. To my palate, Ten Ten makes the very best green tea. I have tried a few of their black and herbal teas, too.

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