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Tuning Vista

Probably nobody other than me is running Vista, but I thought I'd record a few things I've discovered to clamp down on the apparently random spikes in hard disk activity. There seem to be three main culprits:

  1. Anti-virus/Windows Defender - Most AV packages seem to default to performing a whole system scan daily. This seems excessive (particularly as they also carry out 'real time' scans) unless for some reason you consider your machine to be at high risk of infection, so I set mine to scan weekly. However Windows Defender also defaults to scanning daily for spyware. Disable it (via the Control Panel, under Security). Your AV software is already fulfilling that function.

  2. Defragmentation - This now happens automatically, which is no doubt a good thing for most users, but it again defaults to scheduling itself absurdly frequently - once a week, I think. Reschedule it (via the Control Panel, under System and Maintenance, under Administrative Tools). Alternatively, you could turn it off, and just remember to defragment manually.

  3. Indexing - Windows Search creates an index of your files, to allow instant searching. However, it defaults to indexing the whole of your user directory, as well as the whole of the public user directory, including 'appdata' in both cases. It's not likely that you'll want to search appdata, and this directory tends to contain files which are both large and change frequently, so they take a lot of indexing. You can adjust what gets indexed via the Control Panel, under System and Maintenance, Indexing Options.

The taste of places

The other main set of generalisations used in wine comes from identifying wine with the place where it's made. This a popular way of categorising wine: most wine merchants divide their stock geographically, as do most wine lists beyond a certain length. This obviously works a lot better than categorising by grape variety, because wine often contains several different types of grape, but it usually only comes from one place. It also allows for a hierarchical categorisation: the top level classification is by countries, which can be divided into regions, which can be further sub-divided and sub-sub-divided (although this only really happens in France). From time to time, people try organising wine by style, on the basis that it's more helpful to group together wines which taste similar than wines which are geographically proximate: a customer is more likely to think "I want a crisp, fruity white," than "I want something from South Africa." However, this doesn't really work, because style is too nebulous a thing to base a categorisation on. (Sparkling, fortified and dessert wines do often have their own categories, since these are all readily identifiable traits.[1])

This isn't just a convenient cataloguing system though: wines from the same place often do taste similar. Traditionally, in the world of wine, there is considered to be a conflict between this way of generalising about wine, and the way I mentioned in my previous post. Some producers and drinkers of wine think that a wine's distinctive identity derives from its terroir, while others think that it derives from its constituent grapes varieties, together with the wine-making techniques used. However, while there are still partisans on each side, I think we've mostly now reached a happy medium, where we acknowledge that there is some similarity between Pinot Noir from the Côte d'Or and Oregon, but also some difference.

Terroir literally means 'soil', and it does include features of the earth, such as whether it contains gravel, sand or clay, or what minerals it possesses. The term also covers a number of other local factors, such as the climate, the aspect and elevation of the vineyard, locally occurring wild yeasts and so on.

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The taste of grapes

Faced with a confusing mass of information, people like to make simplifying generalisations. "Foos tend to be rather blueish, whereas bars tend more towards red," for example. Then even when you come across a scarlet foo, you can still slot it into your mental schema by thinking of it as exceptional. "Aha," you can think to yourself, "this is a very unusual bright red foo." Of course, there's a well known type of cognitive bias, where, once you've made the generalisation, you treat every blue, purple or green foo as confirmation, and treat every red foo as exceptional, and manage to continue to believe your generalisation even when foos are in fact evenly distributed across the colour spectrum. Despite this, generalisations can be very useful, because otherwise, in the face of a large and various data-set, you struggle to see the wood for the trees.

Faced with the enormous number of different wines in the world, people like to establish some land-marks to navigate the terrain. An extreme example is to think that there are basically two types of wine: red and white. I knew a vicar's wife who believed that people were either red-wine-people or white-wine-people and seemed genuinely puzzled that I sometimes drank white wine and sometimes red. A more common example is to identify wines with the grapes from which they're made, and then to make sweeping statements about each grape. A friend of mine once said, "Merlot is a good wine." The more common view, following the film Sideways, is to think that Merlot is a bad wine. In wine, as in many things, there is a large margin for taste, but some statements are just wrong, and "Merlot is good/bad" is one of them. Merlot is used to make Château Pétrus, often considered one of the finest wines on the planet, and is also used to make an enormous volume of plonk.

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Tasting wine

I've now been reviewing wines for a exactly one month, and I've written 46 reviews, so it seems an appropriate point to write a few words about the tasting process.

Mathematically inclined readers will have noticed that I'm tasting wine at the rate of 3 bottles every 2 days. I think that's a good rate for an amateur taster: if you're tasting much less than one wine a day, then you're going to struggle to build up an overview of the field. Professional tasters, of course, taste very much more than that. However, for various reasons, I wouldn't recommend drinking a bottle of wine a day. I'm lucky enough to have a house-mate who's pretty reliable at finishing off wine (and another house-mate who's pretty reliable at finishing off salad and surplus egg whites). If you're not in that position, I would suggest just drinking a glass or two a day and chucking the remainder of the bottle. (Medical advice, by the way, is to have two alcohol free days a week.)

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Wine

I now have 14 wine reviews up on Ocado (over 2 pages). (The reason that my reviews are generally positive, by the way, is that I'm working my way through our "wines we like" list. Once I get on to tasting new wines, I would expect them to be much more mixed.)

Over on Wikipedia, I've added pages on Margaux and Pomerol and significantly expanded the pages on Pessac-Léognan and Blaye.

Pop archaeology

I seem to have been watching a lot of programmes about archaeology recently. I think the BBC must have decided that they're a rich seem: there was Lost Cities of the Ancients, and now we have Ancient Apocalypse, Meet the Romans with Mary Beard and Divine Women all running simultaneously. They're quite enjoyable: sensationalist, of course, but that's endemic to the medium. What I find slightly grating it their tendency to present everything as if we started off with a cosy consensus, then some maverick arrives to shake things up and eventually gets vindicated by a wonderful new discovery. It's as if it's not enough for the subject matter to be dramatic: the archaeological method has to be dramatic too, when really it isn't.

Mary Beard's thing is one of the better ones (she has the stereotypical classicist's obsession with sex*, which can be a little tiresome, but her enthusiasm for the subject matter comes across well, and she appears to carry a lot of learning very lightly). But what's this in she says in the Guardian?
We think of our lives as natural, unconstructed, while Romans' lives were unnatural and based in myths. Not true on either count.
Oh, come on! Nobody thinks that modern life is natural and unconstructed. Civilisation is routinely held up as the antithesis of nature. Some people think it's bad because it's unnatural, some people think it's great because it gets us away from all that messy nature, but nobody thinks it is natural. I'm currently wearing clothes, sitting on a chair at a desk, typing on a keyboard, drinking wine from a glass, in a house, in a city. Every single noun in that sentence refers to an unnatural object. From when I wake up to when I go to sleep, I'm doing unnatural things with unnatural objects. Moreover, don't we routinely think of the Romans as being unnatural in a similar way to ourselves? I mean, they didn't have keyboards, but they had every other thing on my list. I would have thought that the more common error was thinking that our own civilisation was a direct continuation of Roman civilisation, as if the intervening time had been a mere hiatus.

*In fairness, I think she was one of the people who gave rise to the stereotype, so she doesn't count as confirmation.

Milk and honey

There are 58 references to honey in the Old Testament (as opposed to 4 in the New Testament) and 20 of them are as part of the phrase "a land flowing with milk and honey"; in addition we have Job 20:17 "the rivers flowing with honey and cream" and Song 4:11 "milk and honey are under your tongue" and Isaiah 7:22 "And because of the abundance of the milk they give, there will be curds to eat. All who remain in the land will eat curds and honey." (In Proverbs, the writer appears gradually to tire of honey: 24:13 "Eat honey, my son, for it is good;" 25:16 "If you find honey, eat just enough;" 25:27 "It is not good to eat too much honey;" 27:7 "One who is full loathes honey.")

The image strikes me as rather an odd one: a land flowing with milk and honey doesn't seem that enticing. Other than in that phrase (and the three further examples which seem to be paraphrases) honey occurs as an unambiguous example of plenteousness only once: in 2 Kings 18:32, "a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey." In that expression there is no milk, but there are 3 other elements which occur more commonly in descriptions of plenteousness: grain/bread, grapes/wine and olives/oil, all of which also formed part of the prescribed temple offerings (e.g. Exodus 29:40 "With the first lamb offer a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil from pressed olives, and a quarter of a hin of wine as a drink offering"). I may say that I feel a lot more enthusiasm for the bread, oil and wine diet than for the milk and honey diet.

Now, I read a curious thing in this week's Economist: "The ancients imagined [India] as the southern petal of a lotus island that sits in the centre of the Brahmanda... Encircling the island are six other islands, like concentric rings, separated by oceans of milk and honey." Although presumably intended as a symbol of plenteousness, "oceans of milk and honey" strikes me as rather revolting.

Why does "milk and honey" occur in both the Hebrew and Sanskrit scriptures? Presumably the fact that the same phrase is repeated so many times reflects the fact that it was a traditional epiphet, sanctified by long usage despite the fact that milk and honey where not actually particularly significant products of biblical Israel (unlike bread, oil and wine). However, it doesn't seem likely that the phrase could be so ancient as to date back to a time when the ancestors of Hebrew and Sanskrit speaking peoples were in cultural contact with each other, since that was presumably about 70,000 years ago. So I'm left with the idea that they independently came up with such a bizarre combination.

I think perhaps the answer is that "land flowing with milk and honey" would date back to a time when the Israelites were pastoral nomads, for whom milk would certainly be a staple, and to whom (wild) honey would be highly valued for its exceptional sweetness. (It was also used medicinally by the ancient Egyptians, and still is so used by some moderns: it seems conceivable that it may have been so used in other ancient societies, although I'm not aware of any biblical reference.) Since the pre-Vedic Indo-Aryans were also nomadic pastoralists, it's easy to imagine that they might value milk and honey for the same reasons (and NB the words for 'milk' and 'honey' are cognate in most Indo-European languages).

Faith and belief

There was quite an interesting Start the Week this week, about faith and doubt. However, there is one point on which I disagree quite forcefully with what seemed to be the unanimous opinion of the guests.

I think it's perfectly true that some theists and some atheists treat religion as if it consisted solely in affirming the truth of certain propositions, and that for this reason some atheist critiques of religion do not speak to the lived experience of the religious and therefore miss the point. However, it's another thing entirely to suggest that the truth or otherwise of certain propositions is irrelevant to faith, and it's demonstrably false to say that the pre-reformation Church was unconcerned about what people believed.

Archaeological and documentary evidence shows (AFAIK) that, for as far back as it is possible to say, the mass (in one form or another) was always a central feature of Christian life, up until the Reformation (and of course, it continued to be a central feature of Christian life for the great majority of Christians after the Reformation). The mass (for as long as it is possible to say) has always included a credal statement. The very word 'creed' comes from the Latin word which begins the creed, and is repeated several times, 'credo', meaning 'I believe'. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Church history will know that to the ancient Church, it was very important to get the contents of this credal statement right. People who insisted on believing the wrong thing would not be saved and might also be killed or exiled for their beliefs. The Church schismed more than once over individual words in the creed (and once over a single iota).

Moreover, this isn't some sort of weird Christian truth fetish. For instance, in Oedipus, it's clear that a world-view is being described in which: (a) either Oedipus killed his father or he did not, (b) it's possible to know which is true and (c) it's important which is true. To suggest that pre-Enlightment humans did not have a concept of truth and falsehood is to suggest that they were utterly different from us, but reading the classical sources, one is much more often struck by how similar they were. In fact, if anything, the ancient Greeks seem to have been more confident of their ability to divide truth and falsehood than we are - they seem to have thought that it might be possible to say definitively whether or not a certain act was honourable, for instance, whereas I think almost everyone nowadays would say that 'honour' can mean different things to different people.

Julian Baggini has written a series of columns in the Guardian about these sorts of issue, which include some insightful points as well as some duff ones. At one point, noting that Christian apologists often criticise atheists for speaking as if Christianity was all about belief, Baggini did an informal survey of Christians and found that (gasp!) nearly all of them believed in the Resurrection. 81% believed that Jesus was resurrected bodily, and less than 6% did not believe that Jesus was resurrected in any literal sense. Well, of course - I could have told him that.

Similarly, it's all very well to say that Passover is about asking questions, but devout Jews have historically believed (and I think generally still do believe) that the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, until God led them to freedom. It might not have happened in exactly the way described in Exodus: maybe there weren't any plagues, the Red Sea didn't part and there was no leader called 'Moses'. However, to say that it didn't happen at all is another matter: it makes the symbolism empty. It doesn't matter how fruitful or socially useful seder meals are: as a living tradition they rely on at least most of the participants believing that the people of Israel actually were once in Egypt.

In the same way, many Christians don't believe that the Nativity happened in the way the gospels describe: there probably wasn't a chorus of angels or wise men from the East, and it probably didn't happen in Bethlehem. But once you say that it didn't happen at all, you've moved to a basically non-Christian position. You might still celebrate Christmas, but you'd be celebrating it in the same way that atheists do.

I think it probably is right to say that church-going provides considerable benefits both to the individuals concerned and to society at large. It provides a sense of identity, a time for reflection, a stimulus to social action and an opportunity to work through the big questions of life in the company of sympathetic others. But those things aren't the reason that people generally go to church. Most people go to church (as Baggini's survey showed) to worship God.

Republican primaries

Once again, it's that time when British people feel the need to comment on a political system they don't really understand, and this journal is no exception.

I find the Republican primaries (by which the Republican party choose their candidate for the US presidential election in November) somewhat baffling. I have the impression that most Republican voters would prefer a generic Republican candidate to Romney, but no generic Republican candidate is standing. In fact the list of candidates looks a little like a bunch of has-beens: Romney, mostly known for having failed to gain the nomination four years ago, Gingrich, mostly known for having failed to impeach President Clinton, and Paul, mostly known for repeated hopeless presidential runs and for wanting to restore the gold standard. Various fresh faces have appeared, risen to prominence as a prospective anti-Romney, and then crashed and burnt. Santorum (who is mostly not known on this side of the Atlantic, but to the extent that he is known, is mostly known for unsavoury reasons) is still just about in the race, but it seems like only a matter of time before he drops out.

It originally looked as if Romney had won the Iowa caucus, but now it seems more likely that Santorum won it, but they can't say for sure. What is it with the US and vote counting? How hard is it? (And since the Iowa delegates to the Republican convention don't vote according to the popular vote, why does anyone care about the total number of votes cast for each candidate any way?) At any rate, whether he won or not, Romney certainly received a lower percentage of the vote than he did in 2008, which suggests that his party has not really warmed to him in the intervening years.

The process seems, in some measure, to be working as intended, in that the candidates who clearly can't win are gradually dropping out of the race, and that seems to have left Gingrich as the anti-Romney, which sparks something of an "is he still around?" reaction. His weaknesses as a candidate are fairly obvious, and it seems doubtful that he can win the nomination, and if he did win the nomination, it seems doubtful that he could win the election (although there is certainly something pleasantly bracing about the suggestion of deciding the contest with a series of 3 hour debates).

On paper, Paul looks to be in a strong position, but in reality I understand that there's not the slightest chance of his winning the nomination. I think his campaign mostly serves as reminder that 'marginal' views can actually have fairly widespread support.

All of which leaves the question: why aren't there better candidates? To which the obvious answer would be: because the Republicans don't really think Obama can be beaten. But why not? His approval ratings are pretty low; the economy's performing poorly; he looks eminently beatable.

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