The Voice: A Complaint and a Solution

4 04 2012

I’m not really one for TV talent shows, but even I watched one episode of The Voice. To this moment I don’t really recall why; some kind of paralysis must have taken over my hand and rendered it unable to operate a control to change the channel. The paralysis certainly spread to my brain as I watched…

It seems to me that no matter how virtuous-sounding the concept may be, it is inherently flawed. Yes, I think people should be judged on their voices, not on the whole voice-looks package. But do I think that The Voice is achieving that goal? Not in the least…

The contestants were invited to compete by talent scouts, who presumably made some kind of aesthetic judgment about them (hence none of the current contestants are particularly unpleasant to look at and there is a relatively balanced selection: male-female, black-white, old-young etc). The entire crew and studio audience (who cheer wildly to indicate their preference) are able to see the individuals as they perform. In fact, the only people in the entire nation who are unable to see their faces are the four judges, who presumably know that they’re not going to be landed with an impossible act to market, since someone somewhere has already prescribed some kind of guidelines for who gets invited to compete in the first place.

What’s more, beyond the ‘blind’ audition stage, everyone is fully visible! So in that sense, it becomes no different whatsoever to any other TV talent show.

I’m not criticising them for trying – it’s a laudable principle – they just didn’t think it through. And I would like to propose my own solution: The Bag.

What better way to make a show completely impartial than to have the contestants, from day one until the final moment, wear a bag over their head? No pre-selections, no talent scouts, just enormous blind auditions, with thousands of bag-bedecked hopefuls longing for a place. Bag style, colour and brand would be regulated to ensure that nobody be prejudged by their choice of attire; in fact, perhaps a large, padded body bag is required so that no judgment can be made on clothing, skin colour or body shape.

A small hole would be permitted for the mouth to allow singing without too much muffling, but not so large a hole that the judges are able to judge someone based on the aesthetics of their teeth.

The bags would remain right through the auditions, the boot camp and the live shows. Strict security would be employed to stop paparazzi sneaking shots of people out of their bags (the cost for security personnel would be offset by the amount saved on hair and makeup) and even in between shows, contestants would not be allowed to remove the bag.

To avoid judgment being on the basis of dancing skills, contestants on The Bag would perform whilst shackled to a chair. Not even their feet would be permitted to tap, lest it disclose something about their sense of rhythm.

Real names would be replaced by numbers to restrict people researching their looks via Facebook and Google, gloves would be worn to stop fingerprint tracing, and when speaking, contestants would have their voices manipulated with microphone effects in order to conceal their true identity.

Stringent steps would be taken in order to stop family members giving the game away, identifying their loved ones and providing voters with photographs or loveable anecdotes to sway their decision. Contestants who were successful in making it through the first audition would not be told there and then, but would be kidnapped some days later; their family members led to believe that they had been murdered and dumped in a lake, so that they weren’t tempted to reveal any details that might affect the public’s decision.

Only at the very final moment, when the winner is announced, would the bag be removed and the nation would get to see for the first time the bearer of the pure, perfect voice, unsullied by other trivial matters such as looks, personality, personal hygiene or other performance-related abilities.

(Then perhaps a follow-up vote would give the public the choice whether the performer should remain unveiled, or spend the rest of their pop careers back under-wraps!)

It’s an infallible idea… now to whom do I pitch it?


Lest you think I’m being lazy…

28 03 2012

My blogging has ground to a halt, it would appear… Distressed by the fact that the fact that the front page of the blog still tells you what I created as Christmas gifts, and what I cooked for New Year, I felt the need to reassure you that my writing hasn’t curled up and died. I’ve just been writing at various other places and on slightly less frivolous matters than I tend to here.

So in case you’ve missed me (and more importantly so I can at least have something on this blog with a ‘March’ date stamp on it) here are a few things I’ve written recently which you may enjoy:

  • review of Andrew Wilson’s latest offering, If God Then What?
  • Some comments on ‘The God Issue’ of The New Scientist
  • Not strictly speaking a written piece, but my face on celluloid talking about Guinness (some writing did go into the script!)
  • And a (not very interesting) blog about a (significantly more interesting) series of Easter Week Bible studies which ChristChurch London is producing next week. So that’s the equivalent of six blog posts coming in the next week, which makes me feel a little more happy about my general prolificacy! You can check out those posts each day of next week at, follow ChristChurchLdn on Twitter or sign up for the emails.

Plus I’ve also completed an essay on a Christian view of immortality, and begun some research on Revelation. So who knows… maybe some of those musings might materialise in the next few weeks too. I’d also like to develop some material I taught recently on preaching, truth and beauty, and am sketching ideas for something book length – though I have many ‘ideas for something book length’ and nothing remotely near book length to show for them. So who knows?

Anyway – job done. I now have something listed under entries for March, and I can retreat to my state of thinking about writing… Until the end of April, “adieu!”

Dawkins, Fraser, Bartlett and shibba… uh… shibbol… um…

17 02 2012

I have little to say on the Dawkins-memory-lapse that has not already been said. So instead of gloating, musing or a combination of the two, allow me simply to quote my favourite fictitious president:

President Bartlett: There are questions as to the veracity of your claim to the asylum […] How did you become a Christian?

Jhin-Wei: I began attending a house church with my wife in Fujian. Eventually, I was baptized.

President Barlett: How do you practice?

Jhin-Wei: We share bibles – we don’t have enough. We sing hymns. We hear sermons. We recite the Lord’s Prayer. We are charitable.

President Bartlett: Who’s the head of your church?

Jhin-Wei: The head of our parish is an 84 year old man named Wen-Ling. He’s been beaten and  imprisoned many times. The head of our church is Jesus Christ.

President Bartlett: Can you name any of Jesus’ disciples? If you can’t, that’s okay. I usually can’t  remember the names of my kids, or for that matter…

Jhin-Wei: Peter, Andrew, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas and James. Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts.  You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise for a better world. “For we hold that man is justified by faith alone” is what St. Paul said. “Justified by faith alone.” Faith is the true… uh, I’m trying to… shibboleth. Faith is the true shibboleth.

President Bartlett: Yes, it is. And you sir just said the magic word in more ways than one.

(The West Wing: season 2, episode 8, Shibboleth)

Slow Roast Rib of Beef

4 01 2012

Christmas is a weird mixture; tonnes of amazing food, virtually none of which I’ve cooked. I’m not complaining, of course. I love having other people cook good food for me, and trips to both sets of parents ensures we never go hungry, with plenty of homemade delights constantly on hand! But I do miss cooking over the Christmas period, and so couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen for New Year’s Eve.

We cooked spiced and baked chickpeas for pre-dinner nibbles, and a tarte tatin for dessert, followed by a selection of cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy. But the centrepiece of the meal was a slow roast rib of beef. The rib was from the Cow Club cow and survived a few months of freezing incredibly well, though it did take the best part of a day to defrost!

In order to get the best out of the meat we slow roasted it Heston style, following the recipe from his new book Heston Blumenthal at Home, which is surprisingly accessible! I’ve already made mental notes of a few recipes I can try without needing to invest in any heavy machinery.

You can see the recipe here, but in short we slow roasted the meat at 60°c for around 4 hours until the core temperature of the meat reached 55°c – a meat thermometer is essential! The result was fantastic; succulent medium-rare beef that was unbelievably soft. A million miles away from the dry leathery grey stuff that you so often get (and which I’ve so often made!). There was something very weird about having a piece of meat in an oven for a few hours and still being able to lift it out without the use of oven gloves. But the low heat and time spent waiting was well worth it. So little moisture escaped from the beef that there was next to nothing leaking into the roasting tray. The meat was amazingly juicy, and the fat was just breaking down and was like intensely flavoured jelly. Amazing! Time permitting, this will definitely be my cooking method of choice from now on.

The sauce was beautiful too; a punchy mixture of reduced beef stock (we used Heston’s stock from Waitrose, but only used 1kg, as I couldn’t bring myself to pay £12 for 2kg of stock which I would then reduce down to 500g!) shallots, butter, dijon mustard, tarragon, chives, white wine and parsley. I tried in vain to find some bone marrow… but alas, we had to make do without.

Sadly, I was so excited when it came to cut the beef that I forgot to photograph the final result, so you’ll have to make do with a picture of Heston’s and trust me that ours looked pretty much the same, except about a third of the size. We served it with Dauphinoise potatoes (oozing with gruyere), carrots, savoy cabbage and celeriac puree. Beautiful!

Recipe: A Perfect Panettone

2 01 2012

You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten good panettone. Not the expensive, butter heavy, taste-light, mass produced, dry and dull supermarket version (although some of them can be good); but a fresh, homemade, citrusy, vanilla-laced, rustic looking one. They are a beauty to behold, and a slice goes down perfectly with a cup of Monmouth coffee on a wintery morning.

I’d never made one before, and was desperate to add it to our repertoire of Christmas baking; previous entries including Christmas cake, spiced biscuits, stollen and lebkuchen. Two problems, however, stood in my way.

First, there is a surprising dearth of good panettone recipes around. None of our cookbooks contained one, hardly any of our usual go-to-websites had anything to offer (other than recipes for dishes using chopped up shop bought specimens) and one promising version we did come across bore a host of comments saying that it didn’t work. And second, we don’t own a panettone tin; who does?

So I was thrilled to stumble across this blog, which solved both my problems in one fell swoop. Not only was the recipe a great success, but the suggestion of cooking the panettone in an Ikea cutlery container was inspired!

I must admit, I’m not much of a baker. I’ve made a few cakes here and there (most of which have been successful), but this was my first serious foray into the world of breadmaking. We made three; one as a trial run and the other two as gifts. Each took around 8 hours in total, but it was well worth it for the satisfaction of being able to hold a beautiful, buttery, fragrant, handmade creation. I shall certainly be making them again, and I understand that they can be traditionally eaten at Easter as well as Christmas – a perfect excuse, which I intend to exploit!

Below is the recipe, accompanied with pictures. I’ve not changed it much from @maisoncupcake’s version, (except removing the chocolate chips and adjusting the fruit quantities accordingly), but I have annotated it with a few tips of my own and the odd thought here and there.


Makes 1 Large Loaf 


7g sachet dried yeast
400g strong white bread flour
75g caster sugar
2 large free range eggs plus 2 egg yolks at room temperature
3 tablespoons lukewarm water
half teaspoon vanilla extract
finely grated zest of one unwaxed orange and one unwaxed lemon
half teaspoon salt
175g softened unsalted butter
90g sultanas
90g mixed peel, chopped
40g unsalted butter to finish 


Mix 125g of the weighed flour with the yeast and sugar in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix the two whole eggs with the water and pour into the well. Using your hands or a dough hook, mix the flour into the liquid to make a smooth thick batter. I used my hand, which was infinitely more satisfying than a hook. Just remember to remove wedding rings first; looking like you’re single for a few hours is far preferable to having crusty dough stuck around your fingers! Sprinkle a little  flour over the batter to prevent a skin forming then leave in a warm place for around an hour or until the batter is bubbly.

Stir in the egg yolks, vanilla and grated zest using your hand. I’d never realised until this stage that it was vanilla that gives panettone its trademark aroma. But that, coupled with the zest immediately made the kitchen smell of Christmas.

Gradually work in 175g flour plus the salt to make a soft sticky dough. This bit, I admit, gets a little tough on the hands. I’d suggest putting a cloth under the bowl, which will grip it and stop it moving, making it easier to mix.


Next add the softened butter and work in with your fingers. Beat until the butter is incorporated with no streaks.







Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead thoroughly by hand for 10 mins working in the remainder of the weighed flour to make a satiny soft pliable non-sticky dough. You may need to use a little more flour. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise at room temperature until doubled in size, probably 2 to 2.5 hours. Don’t leave in a very warm place as the butter will melt.

Next uncover the dough and punch down to deflate. This is very satisfying. So much so that I photographed the process, enjoying the fist marks. Cover and let it double in size again (1-1.5 hours).

Meanwhile, combine the sultanas with the chopped peel. Stir in a teaspoon of flour to stop it clumping in the dough.

Given that we used our regular Ikea cutlery holder, we needed to sterilise it. To do this, wash it thoroughly and then put it in the oven on a low to medium heat to dry off.




Prepare the tin by first greasing it, and then lining it with parchment paper. I’m rubbish at this sort of thing, so Helen did this bit brilliantly. She cut a circle to sit in the bottom, and then a piece of paper big enough to wrap around and fit inside the tin. Make it about 6cm higher than the tin. Fold a flap around 1cm from the bottom, and then cut slits about 1cm apart, all the way along. Put the paper into the tin so that the flaps sit flat on the bottom and then put the circle of paper on top, sticking it down with a little butter or oil. The paper should extend 5cm higher than the height of the tin.

Punch down the risen dough again and turn onto a floured surface; sprinkle the fruit on top and work into the dough gently until evenly distributed. The dough gets quite tough, the more you work in.

All this time, try to keep the temperature in the room quite low, and don’t overwork the dough, as the butter easily melts under the heat of your hands.



Shape the dough into a ball and gently drop it into the tin. This is harder than it sounds, as the dough stretches, the paper flops and the butter melts! I found it necessary to put the dough in the fridge for just a minute to stop the butter melting, before moulding it into a ball. Try to get the ball as smooth as possible. The third time I made this, I had a fold on the outside, which caused me some problems in getting it out of the tin (see below).


Cut a cross into the top. On one of my attempts I cut the cross too deep, which meant that the top spread out a bit too much and didn’t keep its shape. Lay a sheet of clingfilm loosely over the top of the tin and leave for another hour or so until doubled in size again. I’d suggest putting the tin into an ovenproof dish, as this will catch any melting butter that seeps through. The original recipe didn’t mention this, but I learnt the hard way as I returned to find butter dripping onto the kitchen floor.


Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 200c / 400f / gas 6. When ready to bake, melt 15g of the butter for finishing and brush it over the risen dough. Put a knob of butter in the centre of the cross.

Bake for 10 minutes or until just starting to colour, then brush again with melted butter. Reduce the temperature to 180c / 350f / gas 4 and bake for a further 40 minutes until a good golden brown and a skewer inserted to the centre comes out clean. After about 10 minutes the top of my panettone was going too brown, so I covered it in a little foil hat. @maisoncupcake’s didn’t need foil until about 30 minutes – it just depends on your oven, so keep an eye on it.

Remove from the oven and place the tin on a wire rack. Allow to cool for a few minutes before teasing it out of the tin. If your crust is fragile allow to cool further before removing from tin. This was not easy! You’ll need to gently, but firmly, hold the cake with one hand, and turn the tin with the other. On the third attempt, I’d had some folds on the outside of my dough, so there were some protruding layers of bread, which caught as I tried to remove it from the tin. A careful knife around the rim, a long long time twisting gently and one (mild) swear word finally got it out!


Cool completely before slicing, or decorating, depending on whether this little beauty is for you or for someone else.

This should last about a week without going so stale that it’s inedible – however, I defy you to make it last that long!

2011 in review

1 01 2012

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,300 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

My Progressive Education Plan

15 12 2011

I dread the question: “What kind of music are you into?” I tend to dawdle for a moment before doing that non-committal thing that people do… “Uh… Oh… you know, a bit of everything. A pretty eclectic mix” which tends to mean they’re embarrassed by the contents of their CD collection. And embarrassed I am; not because I think there is anything intrinsically wrong with my taste in music, but because I know that the moment I say I like progressive rock, people’s heads will be filled with images of aging rockers in capes, singing about pixies, with hair and voices more befitting of 1970s women!

I love This Is Spinal Tap, but it has a lot to answer for.

Truth is, progressive music is one side of my musical taste. The last ten albums I listened to were by Peter Gabriel, Adele, Alter Bridge, U2, Paul Simon, John Coltrane, Regina Spektor, John Mayer, Dream Theater and The Beatles. Only one of those bands is really progressive (I’ll give you a clue, it’s the one you’ve never heard of) but if I did have to nail down one genre of preference, progressive rock would be my choice… sans mythological lyrics, general weirdness and Stonehenge replicas.

So this week a colleague (with a discerning musical taste and an open mind) happened to mention that he didn’t really know anything about progressive rock, and I leapt on the opportunity. I took it upon myself to educate the poor chap, whether he wanted education or not, in the finer details of progressive rock. I made up a playlist, jotted down some listening notes, and inflicted them on him…

The initial results were better than expected, with him enjoying not only the first recommended song, but a couple of albums by the first band too. I’m not sure how deep into the education he’s got yet: I like to think he’s savouring it… And so I decided, why not road test my Progressive Education Plan on a wider audience?

Here are some initial thoughts and recommendations on how to get into progressive rock. It’s not exhaustive. I steered clear of things I knew I had no chance of selling!! I didn’t go too far back in time; though I did include one Rush track and one from Yes. I didn’t bother with any of those so called classic bands like Jethro Tull, or Caravan or Gentle Giant, partly because I find their names embarrassing (reminding me of cornish comedians, mobile homes and the green sweetcorn man) and because I find their music a little embarrassing too! I’ve even left off some of the real classics who I do very much enjoy: Pink Floyd for example, and to a lesser extend Rush and Yes. My aim was not a complete education in all things progressive, just a window into the contents of my ears… if you know what I mean!

I’ve left it more or less as I wrote to him, with just a couple of tweaks, hence some of the personal references. Load up the playlist, Give it a go… let me know how you get on:

My Progressive Education Plan

What draws me to progressive music is the intricacy of it. I love listening to stuff that is complex, which really shows off all the instruments, and which does stuff I could have no hope of playing myself. I tire quickly of listening to music that is predictable, unremarkable, and which the average busker on the street could replicate without breaking into a sweat.

I love the long songs, and the complex changing of time-signatures, but (and this is key), I love it when it’s done so naturally that you barely notice. That’s a real skill, and that’s why I like each of these bands here, and dislike many others. As well as being highly skilled musicians, most of the guys on this list are great songwriters too and have a feel for how to write a well-crafted track that doesn’t sound too jarring.

So here are some suggestions for a first foray into progressive music:

I’d suggest starting with a kind of quasi-progressive group like Porcupine Tree. Weird name, but by progressive standards it’s remarkably tame! There are some obvious progressive elements to their music: long songs, concept albums, odd time signatures, atmospheric sections, but also a lot of their music is just straightforward good song-writing. I imagine their style will not feel a million miles away from many of the bands you tend to listen to.

Start off with the track The Sound of Muzak, which is a great song in a weird time signature (also – the subject matter is the commercialisation of music, so I thought you’d appreciate that!) If you like this, I’d recommend checking out their album In Absentia, and then Deadwing, which is a bit more progressive and a little heavier.

Second, I’d suggest trying Dream Theater who are the leading progressive metal band of the moment. Each musician is absolutely top of their game, and their music is very complex, often revolving around a lot of intricate soloing sections. I’ve suggested two songs, which demonstrate various elements of their style. The first is Breaking All Illusions from their latest album. It’s not too heavy, but is quite complex musically, with some amazing riffs, some quirky fun parts and an absolutely beautiful guitar solo. Then secondly I’ve gone for Blind Faith for no other reason than because it contains my all-time favourite keyboard solo from 6:12-8:22.

To follow up on Dream Theater I’d recommend their latest album A Dramatic Turn of Events which is relatively heavy, but fresh and modern, or one of their older albums like Scenes from a Memory, which is a concept album or Images and Words which was their breakthrough album – note, it’s a bit dated, so sounds a little cheesy in places, but still is quite amazing, and less heavy than their more recent work.

Next up, completely, unapologetically self-indulgent showing off: Liquid Tension Experiment. This is an instrumental super group made up of a few members of Dream Theater, plus a keyboard player (who wasn’t in Dream Theater at the time, but now is) and bassist Tony Levin.

I’d suggest trying Paradigm Shift, which is a relentless and ridiculously fast masterclass in showing off! It’s their first track from their first album, it’s very technical, but as a musician it makes me smile because it’s just so intricate and fun. Then I’d recommend their first album Liquid Tension Experiment. To be honest, once you’ve listened to one or two tracks you’ll have a pretty good idea of what their music is like since it’s all pretty self-indulgent.

Fourthly, a band which is less about showing off and more about crafting strong songs in the style of some of the more retro progressive bands: Spock’s Beard. Their music is typically more keyboard led, which is due to the fact that their (now ex) lead singer plays keyboards primarily, and other instruments as and when required. There’s a lot of Hammond organ, long songs, still complex, but more based around well-written song structures. There’s a clear Beatles influence to a fair amount of their song-writing, which I love.

I recommend starting with one of their longest tracks At the End of the Day. In some ways it’s not typical of all their stuff, since they tend to have plenty of short tracks on their albums, but most of the elements are there: lots of organ, quirky bass work, Beatles-esque writing, a range of music styles, some brilliant keyboard soloing, and a little bit of brass for good measure. If you want more from Spock’s Beard I’d recommend their album V, followed by Snow (for a longer concept album made of shorter songs) or Beware of Darkness (if you want something a little more retro).

Fifthly, a band called Transatlantic. These guys are a super group made up of the singer/keyboardist from Spock’s Beard, the drummer from Dream Theater, a guitarist from a progressive fusion band, and a bassist from a British group called Marillion.

Their style is a mixture of Spock’s Beard and some elements of each of the other bands represented, and is characterised by (very) long songs, lots of Hammond and keyboards, lots of jazzy guitar work, very-beatles-esque lyrics. I recommend starting with Stranger in your Soul – don’t let the 30 minute song length put you off! These guys are expert song-writers as well as technical musicians, so if you think of it like an album rather than a song, it’s full of catchy sections, and holds together brilliantly. Then if you can stomach it, one of my all-time favourite albums is called The Whirlwind, which is an approximately 76 minute song… it’s better than it sounds! Complex, brilliantly written, and I could listen to it over and over. If you want something with a few more tracks, then check out Bridge Across Forever.

Once you’re done listening to those 6 songs, you will have spent the best part of a day listening to progressive music!! And you’ll have a pretty good picture of the landscape of modern progressive music.

Good luck, and enjoy,