Tomb raider: a sort of review

I've just finished Tomb Raider (2013). It was pretty excellent.

You don't get a huge amount of game for your money. It took me 44 hours of game time (and 8 days of real time) to get to 100% completion (i.e. including all the optional objectives) on hard, and it doesn't really have any replayability. However, even if I'd paid full price for it, that would still work out at 1 hour and 28 minutes entertainment per pound. Since I got it in the Steam sale daily deal at 80% off, I actually got over 7 hours of entertainment per pound, which certainly works out as much better value than renting a film.

It is beautiful, even by the standards of big budget games made in 2013. The environment is lush with vegetation, small animals and waterfalls. The playable area is mountainous which gives plenty of scope for wide open vistas. Lara's hair blows in the wind almost realistically. There are the usual shadow, reflection and light source effects. There are also lens effects, which I'm not really sure about, but are probably right for one of the most filmic games I've played. By and large, it avoided weird graphical artifacts (although by trick jumping you can occasionally reach a position where things go planar). On settings slightly higher than 'ultimate'* it did mildly strain my rig (i.e. occasionally dropped to 40 fps) so it probably looks slightly less fabulous on more typical machines.

Similarly high production values applied to the music and voice acting. The music seemed significantly more effective than is usually the case, which is partly because the game is short and linear, partly because it was used sparingly and partly because Jason Graves' score is excellent (also he apparently invented a new percussion instrument for the purpose, which is pretty cool).

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Raspberry sorbet or ice cream

For the past few weeks I've been working on my raspberry sorbet recipe. I think I've now perfected it, but one of the ingredients is cream, which might mean that it's actually an ice cream recipe.


Raspberries, 900g/2lb
Caster sugar, 100-150g/4-6oz (see below)
Double cream, about 200 ml/one cup
Chambord, 1 tbsp
Maraschino, 1 tbsp


Rinse raspberries, excising any dodgy parts. Blitz in a blender. Strain. Discard seeds. Add caster sugar. The amount of sugar you need will depend on how sweet the fruit is. You want to the purée to taste sweet, bearing in mind that both the cream and the freezing will tend to suppress its sweetness. I add the sugar by eye, but I would guess I use 100g-150g (4-6oz). Add 100g (4oz) to start off with, then taste to see if you need more. Add more a tablespoonful at a time, as the purée shifts more quickly than you might expect from "can't taste the sugar" to "sickeningly sweet". Then add the liquor and cream. The mixture should be a deep pink, rather like my icon. Taste again to see if it needs more of anything. Churn in an ice-cream maker.


I just created a cocktail I quite liked:

30ml cognac
30ml double cream
15ml Frangelico
15ml white cream de cacao
5ml Kahlua
5ml Chambord
5ml green Chartreuse

Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into a Martini glass.

I think I shall call it a Kiss of Peace.

Robert Jones, wine detective

It is of course no secret that supermarket's own-label products are often the same products as sold elsewhere, but under different labels. Since Sainsbury's aren't in the business of making detergent, obviously 'Sainsbury's' detergent is actually somebody else's detergent. It might be that the manufacturer of Sainsbury's detergent also manufactures one or more of the major branded detergents, or other own-label detergents for different supermarkets; it's very difficult to tell, although careful examination of back labels can help, e.g. if the same address is printed on two products, they may well be identical.

Which brings me to this sparkling Gavi, currently at 20% off, giving a sale price of £8.49 (which I actually bought in the physical supermarket, at same the offer price). Sparkling Gavi is pretty unusual, so much so that none of my books mention it. Nor is it listed in the English Wikipedia, although it is in the Italian Wikipedia. There's only one 'other' sparkling Gavi available in the UK, La Battistina (also available from ND John, Harrods and Virgin).

Compare these descriptions: firstly, for La Battistina:
An interesting nose of ginger, lemon grass, baked apple with cloves and nutmeg. The palate is very delicate, yet rich with citrus and ripe apricots. The mouthfeel is creamy and the finish is dry and mouthwarming.
Then, for Waitrose:
An interesting nose of ginger, lemon grass, baked apple with cloves and nutmeg. The palate is very delicate, yet rich with citrus and ripe apricots. The mouthfeel is creamy and the finish is dry and refreshingly mouthwatering.
Waitrose have corrected the bizarre 'mouthwarming', which was presumably a mistranslation, but kept some rather clumsy syntax, so it seems reasonable to deduce that these are in fact the same wine. The interesting thing is that the 'offer price' is in fact exactly the same as the price on the second web-site. To be fair though, Harrods are charging £12.50 for the same bottle.

Astonishing facts

There were two facts mentioned in passing in the Economist a fortnight ago, which struck me as astonishing, one good and one bad.

To start with the good news, in this article, citing this paper, it says:
The number of poor in “non-fragile” states has fallen from almost 2 billion in 1990 to around 500m now; they think it will go on declining to around 200m by 2025. But the number of poor in fragile states is not falling—a testament both to the growing number of poor, unstable places and to their fast population growth. This total has stayed flat at about 500m since 1990 and, the authors think, will barely shift until 2025.
Looking at figure 1 in the paper, this seems to be a slight exaggeration, and the actual fall in total number of poor people was from 2.25 billion in 1990 (or over 40% of the then world population) to 1 billion in 2012 (or less than 15% of the world population). ('Poor' here is being used to refer to people living on less than $2 a day at 2005 prices and purchasing power parity.) In other words, fully a quarter of the world's population has been lifted out of poverty (albeit using a low definition of 'poor') in the past 22 years. This strikes me as an astonishing achievement.

Then the bad news: in this article it is mentioned (though without giving a source) that, "The proportion of [UK] voters who believe climate change is the result of human activity has fallen from 55% to 43% since 2008." Since the evidence for the proposition has only got stronger over those 4 years, how is it possible that we're losing the argument so badly? I suspect the problem is partly what I think of as the "Assange effect", where people raise a large number of spurious points to muddy the issue. Even if other people carefully work through the points, showing that none of them stand up, the casual reader won't bother to follow that, or to check the sources, and will go away with the impression that the arguments are very complicated and that there is no clear consensus among informed opinion. Another part is probably what might be called the "Wakefield effect", where in an attempt to be even-handed, the media (especially the broadcast media) gives equal exposure to the mainstream view and to an extremely fringe view, thus giving the listener the impression of parity between them. A third part is probably a reaction to the shambles of Copenhagen. I suspect that the fact that we seem incapable, as a species, of seriously addressing the problem inclines people to deny that the problem exists.

Film protests

I understand why people get upset if someone makes a video insulting their religion. What puzzles me is how attacking US embassies is supposed to help. Given the secrecy surrounding the production of the video, it seems unlikely that the US government could have stopped it, even if they didn't have a constitutional protection for free speech. Surely if anything, this behaviour gives succour to those who seek to portray Islam in a negative light?

Wine in numbers

We have (since April) drunk wine from the following places:
  • France, 46 (of which, Rhone, 11, Loire, 9, Burgundy, 9, Languedoc, 6, Bordeaux, 4)
  • Italy, 23
  • Spain, 17
  • Australia, 14
  • Chile, 10
  • New Zealand, 10
  • South Africa, 8
  • Portugal, 5
  • Argentina, 3
  • Austria, 3
  • Hungary, 3
  • UK, 3
  • Romania, 2
  • US, 1
  • Germany, 1
  • Greece, 1
  • Lebanon, 1
  • Slovenia, 1

We have drunk the following grape varities (counting only bottles which are solely or mainly from the grape named):Collapse )
White tie

Deciphering meals in the 21st century

sashagoblin has, perhaps unwisely, lent me a book on Food and Culture.

I'm quite interested by Mary Douglas' ideas about the semiotics of food in British culture (and more specifically British middle class culture). She proposes that meals take a three-fold shape, and are structured metonymically. If one's frame of reference is mathematical, rather than literary, one might say instead that they were structured self-similarly.

To simplify considerably, a day's meals consist normatively of three meals, one main meal and two light meals. A main meal consists normatively of three courses, one main course and two minor courses. Each course in turn represents the whole in miniature, by including one main element with two flanking elements.

For example, a dinner might consist of:
 (i) Soup, with bread and butter,
 (ii) Meat and two veg,
 (iii) Apple with a crumble topping and custard.

A day's meals are of course often supplemented by snacks, but a snack differs from a meal in that it does not require the same proprietaries. A snack does not have to be balanced: it can consist of only sweet things or only meat. A snack need not be eaten at the table (TV dinners do exist of course, but they are usually referred to as things self-evidently bad). There is no general expectation that a snack will be eaten in company. Where a snack contains multiple elements (and often it does not), there is no prescribed order for consuming them. Douglas suggests that this last point allows one to discriminate between afternoon tea as a snack and afternoon tea as a meal: if you have sandwiches, then scones, then fancy cakes, it's a meal.

A sandwich attempts to be a meal in miniature, in that it has bread and butter (or other spread) and filling. However, the fact that it exists specifically as a form of food that need not be eaten at the table means that a sandwich by itself (even a very large sandwich) is a snack. This explains why, if you order a sandwich in a restaurant, it will come with two apparently pointless garnishes, such as chips and salad (if in a pub) or crisps and watercress (if in a hotel).

To borrow one of Douglas' own examples, the requirements of the 1+2 form also explain the otherwise bizarre habit of a serving melon with half a slice of orange and a glacé cherry.

There is a further requirement: that the different elements must not be too similar to each other either in form or substance. So, for example, a meal consisting of a main course and two puddings is not acceptable. Or, if the main course is to be beef, the starter cannot also be beef. At the level of the course, roast lamb with roast potatoes and roast parsnips does not work, both because all the elements have been roasted and because potatoes and parsnips are both root vegetables. It needs the addition of, say, steamed broccoli, to constitue a proper main course.

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The price of wine

We've just finished tasting the second batch of wine. I now have 112 reviews up on Ocado, although I've actually written notes for 129 bottles since 21st April: some are for wines which are no longer in stock and some are for wines from other sources.

I've been thinking recently about how wine varies with price. My instinct is that the best value for money is found at around £7-8 a bottle. Wine at £5 a bottle is usually not good value for money. If a bottle of wine costs £5, then £2.73 is tax. Of the remaining £2.27, some must go to the retailer, with some more for the cost of the bottle and some more for shipping, which suggests that the wine itself is probably costing around £1 at best. I suspect that one reason wine journalists frequently recommend dodgy bottles is that they come under pressure from their editors to recommend bottles for a fiver or less, when really very few of these are any good. There are a couple though: in particular I like Gran López Tinto and Cuvée Pêcheur. Of course, when wine is good at such a low price, the value for money is excellent. However, nasty wine is not good value at any price.

At £7.50 a bottle, £3.15 is tax, and the costs of bottling and shipping remain much the same, so the wine itself may be costing about £2.50, or 150% more than for the £5 bottle. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot more good options at this price point, particularly when you take into account that bottles which notionally retail at £10 often get marked down to £7.50 or £8. Indeed, you could probably drink very happily without ever spending more than £7.50 on a bottle, and that is in fact our budget for every-day wine.

Looking over my spread-sheet, I continue to rate a significant number of bottles as good value for money up to £13 a bottle. Is a £13 bottle worth as much as two £6.50 bottles? Well, in fact, £6.50 is an unusual price point, but I think the comparison more or less holds. Above £13, value for money does tend to tail off: a £26 bottle is going to struggle to be twice as good as a £13 bottle.

That said, there are some categories of wine where you are likely to be disappointed if you are paying less than £20 a bottle: Chablis, red Burgundy, Champagne, anything from the northern Rhône and Rioja. At certain times of the year, supermarkets pile up huge displays of Champagne, claiming an implausible discount (often 50%), for prices well below £20. Don't buy it. Just don't. You might as well throw the money away. On the other hand, good Champagne is incomparable; nothing else tastes quite like it, so if you want that taste, you have to pay what it costs (I recommend this). Pretty much the same is true for the other wines I mentioned. In particular, there is a lot of cheap Rioja about: none of it tastes like Rioja and none of it is good value compared with tempranillo based blends from other Spanish regions.

In restaurants, a rule of thumb is that the wine costs three times the retail price, so £20-£40 is a good window most of the time, although of course that range doesn't really exist at the grandest places.

Wine stoppers (with a digression on cork taint)

The Romans sometimes stored wine in bottles, using a layer of olive oil floated on top to protect it from the air. However, until the 17th century, the near universal way of storing and transporting wine was in barrels (or amphorae). Once a barrel was opened (tapped), it would need to be drunk fairly swiftly, as there was then no way of protecting it from the air. It's a subject which Maria Celeste mentions fairly often in her correspondence with her father Galileo, e.g. on 13th July 1633 she wrote "Already the cask that you had tapped before you left, Sire, from which the housemaid and the servant drink, has begun to spoil." Bottles did exist, but were used as a way of serving wine, rather than for storing it.

It was in the early seventeenth century (and therefore theoretically available to Galileo) that bottles sealed with cork were invented, at the same time as improvements in glass manufacture made the bottling of wine economically viable (and also at the same time as the invention of the cork-screw). This development allowed the creation of vins de garde, i.e. wines intended to undergo years of bottle aging before being consumed. Not long after, we have the first wines identified by the specific vineyard where they were made (rather than simply by generic names, as claret, burgundy, hock, etc): in particular, Château Haut Brion, listed as being in the cellar of Charles II and praised by Samuel Pepys, and still today one of the most prestigious wines in the world.

Between then and the end of the twentieth century, the technology did not change much (although the shape of the bottles did). It was in the 1990s, when I was first becoming interested in wine, that someone developed a synthetic cork, the purpose of which (as I understood it at the time) was to replicate the function of a natural cork, but without the risk of cork taint.

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