Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yar...
Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yarra Australia showing their sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir wine as well as a still pinot noir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most cultures have some substance that they use to relax inhibitions and induce euphoria. Overindulgence leads to intoxication, the word acknowledging that the substance, whatever it is, damages the body in some way. It is toxic. The most widespread substance that is used is alcohol, and the reason it is so common is probably because it is easy to produce and acquire. Just let some fruit go rotten.

Of course, rotten fruit is pretty nasty, and people are ingenious, and it was soon discovered that fruits and grains and some root vegetables could be made to ferment without first going rotten. In fact it is a yeast that is the agent which facilitates the necessary chemical reaction, which takes in sugars in some form and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Alcohol” when referred to in relation to recreational drinking is ethyl alcohol or ethanol, a substance that has now and then suggested as a fuel for cars.

English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcoho...
English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcohol that was made locally in Haikou, Hainan, China, and sold in a dedicated alcohol shop. The signs hanging on the stone bottles show alcohol percentag above, and price in yuan (2009) below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alcoholic drinks can be made from practically anything and can contain varying levels of alcohol, from relatively low alcohol drinks like beers and ales, through to wines, which represent the strongest drinks that can be made by simple fermentation and on to distilled alcoholic drinks which contain large amounts of alcohol.

English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growin...
English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growing by the Roman wall at Calleva Atrebatum. Elderberries can be used in a number of ways, including making elderberry wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wine is these days made from grapes, and alcoholic drinks made from other fruits are usually referred to as “fruit wines“. There is an unfair implication that “fruit wines” are not real wines and are inferior to grape wines. While “fruit wines” are generally not as good as grape wines, the reason is probably more to do with the centuries of development and improvements that have gone into modern grape wines than any inherent superiority of grapes as a prime ingredient of wines.

Wines are typically made from the grapes of Vitis vinifera though occasionally other grapes are used, and hybrids of V. vinifera with other species are not uncommon. Wines are classified as either white or red, the colour coming from the colour of the skin of the grapes that were used in the production of the wine. Rosé wines are usually pinkish or pale red and are usually made from red wine grapes. The paler colour results from the removal of the skins at an early stage of production.

Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valle...
Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valley and Provence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are all sorts of varieties of wine, named after the varieties of grape vines that produce the grapes. I’ve a couple of books on wine which detail the genealogy of grape vines and it is a complicated messy and incestuous family tree. There are stories of skullduggery, stealing, and smuggling. There are stories of cataclysmic crop failures and noble experiments and migrations between countries.

Climate change comes into the picture too. Grapes are grown in areas of southern England where grapes have not been grown since Roman times, when younger and more robust varieties were grown. But the ability to grow grapes commercially in England can’t all be put down to global warming since techniques for protecting vines from frost (the main cause of crop failure in grape vines) have been vastly improved.

Madeleine Angevine growing in England
Madeleine Angevine growing in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Smoke producing machines are used to protect vines from frost and helicopters have been used to good effect too. I’m not sure how these techniques work, but I believe they do. One of the most bizarre protection methods is to spray the vines with water which instantly freezes and cocoons  the buds in an envelope of ice apparently protecting them from freezing.

I find this stuff interesting, but the reason people buy wine is because of the alcohol in it, and the reason that they prefer some wines over others is the taste. I prefer red wines, because white wines seem astringent and too sweet. Which is odd because red wines can also be astringent and sweet! Well, maybe I am exaggerating somewhat, but the beauty of the wine is definitely on the tongue of the taster.

When tasters taste wine, they have a problem. Sweetness or dryness is pretty much describable, as is the tannin level, which gives all wines, red or white, its astringency, but when the subtleties of the flavour have to be described, especially to someone who has not yet tasted the wine, then there are issues.

Vineyard owned by California wine producer Fer...
Vineyard owned by California wine producer Ferrari-Carano in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma county. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wines may be described as “fruity” or “full-bodied”, which gives some impression of the experience of tasting the wine. The taster may have to descend to using analogies for further details. To quote from a bottle label : “This wine is fruit driven with flavours of red berry fruit and black cherries….”.

However, if you actually taste the wine, you won’t taste berries or cherries. What you will taste is firstly the major type, red or white. Secondly you are likely to be able to distinguish the variety, for example Pinot Noir, or at least the style for a blended wine. Then you will get the overall ‘shape’ of the wine (robust maybe, or delicate). You will note different aspects of the wine at different stages of drinking, at first hit, in the mouth and the aftertaste. I find that some wines have distinctive phases of this sort and others don’t.

You certainly don’t want to be analysing every sip of every wine when you drink it, but I do try to taste it like above at least on one mouthful, but I don’t always remember to do so. It does help you when you choose a wine in the store though.

Typical shape and design of a white wine tasti...
Typical shape and design of a white wine tasting glass. New Zealand wine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To get back to the red berries and cherries for a moment, you may taste a wine and not be able to detect them in your tasting. That’s because, in my opinion, those tastes are not there as such. So what do the tasting notes mean by these comments? They mean that the taster is reminded by some flavours of the wine of some aspects of the taste of berries. A faint echo of the richly complex flavours of red berry fruit echoes in the mind of the taster, and that is all that he has to work with when trying to describe some of the flavours in the wine.

In terms of familial relationships the flavour being described by the taster is not as close as brother or sister to the flavour mentioned by the taster. It’s more a second cousin twice removed relationship, and the taster is not saying that it is the second cousin twice removed, but that it reminds him or her of the second cousin twice removed. So you may think that there is hint of gooseberry in flavour of the wine and for you there are.

I think that the ability to even register some flavours varies from person to person and not just in wine. One person may taste something complex and say “mint”, while another may say “cloves”.

Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sono...
Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sonoma, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where does it leave those of us who read wine labels and try to match the description with the label? Well, unless you drink a lot of wine and have an ability to distinguish the flavours that is practised, and have a similar sort of palate to the usually anonymous taster, then the bottle labels or tasting notes don’t mean a great deal. If it says “robust” or “full-bodied” for example, most people would be able to agree, but if it says “hints of gooseberry” you may well not agree that those flavours are there. It might remind you more of apples.

Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle.
Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The America’s Cup

There’s a competition going on in San Francisco to decide the winner of the America’s Cup. Those people who do not have an interest in yachting may not have heard of it, but it is the Superbowl of the yachting world. Currently it is being fought out between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand. The New Zealand team currently lead 6 wins to 1. [Update: The score is now 6 – 2.]

For spectators on the shore yacht racing normally happens a long way off and with few visual clues as to what is happening and it is often next to impossible to tell who is leading and even who won the race. The yachts are visible as small white dots although the deployment of a spinnaker will swell the dots and may introduce a bit of colour, but the to-ing and fro-ing of the yachts is still difficult to decipher.

The America’s Cup is different in that technology has come to the spectators’ assistance. A view can be shown on television of the yachts as seen from a helicopter or motorboat shadowing the yachts, but it will still not be obvious who is leading, since when going upwind the yachts travel at a significant angle to their target course. At each side of the course the yachts must change direction, a procedure known as a ‘tack’. If both yachts are travelling on parallel courses it is possible for the trailing boat to appear to be leading.

So to help spectators the live view is overlaid with graphics which show each yacht’s distance from the mark (the target for this leg) or from the finish line if the leg is the last one. The graphics also show the boundaries of the course if the yachts are approaching them. The distance between the lines for the two yachts shown who is in the lead and by how much.

A graphic from an earlier America’s Cup Regatta race featuring the smaller AC45 yachts.

The graphics also show the yacht speeds though I’m not sure if that is the speed towards the mark or finish line or merely the straight line speed. Another thing that the graphics can show is any ‘bad air’ that the leading yacht is casting over the trailing yacht. The leading yacht’s sail disturbs the the air as it flows over it, and this disturbed air is less efficient at providing the trailing yacht with energy and so it tends to travel a little slower. The leading yacht is said to cover the trailing yacht and the trailing yacht will endeavour to escape the cover.

The most interesting times in a yacht race are when the vessels are rounding a mark. The graphics for this are a circle round the mark and a series of dots or blobs representing the yacht’s course, as if the yacht were dropping a bucket of dye every second. There is also a countdown clock indicating the number of seconds that one yacht is behind the other.

The two finalists
The two finalists

So there’s plenty of information about the races and it makes for fascinating viewing. (There are some people who still don’t get it and who watch it for 5 minute or so and then go and do something else, but then again, Formula 1 leaves me yawning). The course in San Francisco is very close to the shore and this does allow spectators a good view of the yachts, though I suspect that most of them will be keeping up to date via cellphones. There’s an app for it!

Race six, won by Emirates Team New Zealand
The huge number of on course spectators can be seen in the bacground

[Update: I just watched latest race. Oracle Team USA won this after a near capsize by Emirates Team New Zealand.]

The class of yacht being used in the America’s Cup in San Francisco is designated as AC72. These are huge catamarans (dual-hulled yachts) with fixed sails and full of the latest technology, computers and hydraulics. A failed battery cost Emirates Team New Zealand one race!

Oracle Team USA
Oracle Team USA (boat #2)

The yachts are spectacular in action as they rise up out of the water on hydrofoils, which reduces hull drag to nothing and allows the yachts to reach speeds of up to 50mph (44 knots). This does not come without its dangers and several of the yachts have dipped their bows into the water leading to at least two incidents where yachts have “pole-pitched” and tipped over in one case killing one of the crew. In both cases the yachts were severely damaged. Emirates Team New Zealand dropped their bows into the water in one case  but appeared in no danger of flipping over. Oracle Team USA were one of the teams whose yacht was almost destroyed  in an incident.

Oracle Team USA yacht capsizes

The yachts are filled with technology and are very technical to race, apparently, and have proved very popular in San Francisco with huge crowds turning out to watch action. Millions more are of course glued to their TV screens and cellphones. And this, below, is what it is all about.

English: The America's Cup
English: The America’s Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hey Noni No

It was a lover and his lass,
   With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass,
   In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

I haven’t written a poem for a long time and I was lacking a topic for today, so I started on a poem about the spring. However it didn’t work, wasn’t working, so I gave up and quoted the bard, above.

Spring seems to engender creativity to match the burgeoning growth and fecundity of nature. As the days get lighter in the mornings the birds seem to get louder and louder as well as earlier and earlier, so that you almost feel guilty when indulging in a lie in.

spring (Photo credit: promanex)

The birds are of course breeding, nest building, and raising young. Round here that seems to mean that the Tuis rattle through the air, crashing from tree to tree. Tuis are not clumsy flyers, but are noisy ones. This means that the smaller and quieter birds get on with their business less noticeably, though a fantail was curiously looking at me while he was hopping about in the bushes. Who knows what he was up to?

Fantail 1
Fantail 1 (Photo credit: A. Sparrow)

The feathered pommie immigrants are mostly songbirds, and so thrushes and blackbirds are evident in the dawn chorus. Oh, and there are plenty of chattering sparrows here. I may have mentioned this before but in the UK the sparrow population is still declining, and if the sparrows here continue to prosper, it could be that we could send some back to repopulate their original homelands.

English: House Sparrows on a restaurant roof n...
English: House Sparrows on a restaurant roof near Mt. Cook in New Zealand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have had a really good spring so far and all the plants and animals are a week or two ahead of where they would normally be. In particular the grapevines are reported to be doing really well this year. The danger is that a wintery throwback may occur, nipping all the buds off the sprouting plants, including the vines, killing early insects and dooming some of the new chicks to starvation. I understand that early and luxurious growth is not necessarily good news for the wine industry either, since restricted growth concentrates the flavours or something.

Grape Vine
Grape Vine (Photo credit: Fire Engine Red)

The wine industry use helicopters to reduce the effects of late frosts. Hiring a helicopter for a few hours is apparently a cost-effective way of fighting frosts. This has led to conflicts between wineries and their neighbours in some places – who wants to be woken by a helicopter at 2am?

Hmm, well, I started talking about spring and seems to have moved on to talking about wine. One more comment about wine before I move on. New Zealand has many wineries and most welcome visitors to taste and buy wines. Many are small and welcoming and others are large and welcoming.

One of the smaller ones is Salvare. We enjoyed a platter of food there on the deck overlooking the vineyards. We also sampled their wines and their olive oil in a very relaxed atmosphere.

One of the larger ones is Mission Estate. Mission Estate was set up by a religious order and is a luxurious place with an award-winning restaurant and is located on the outskirts of Napier. We had tea there in the grounds of the splendid house overlooking the vineyards and Napier. There was a wedding being hosted there in that lovely environment.

If you go there be sure to see the Quiet Room which reflects the religious nature of the founders of the Estate. While we were there I bought a very nice bottle of wine, ironically produced in Marlborough and not Hawkes Bay and I would have bought the t-shirt if there had been one in my size!

These two wineries are merely examples of ones that we have visited. There are many, many others and scattered amongst the vineries are artisan breweries, olive oil producers and similar enterprises most of whom welcome visitors, (though opening times vary).

Back to spring in Wellington. Apart from the deafening clamour of the birds and their to-ing and fro-ing, spring is evident in the foliage. The lawn, which I last cut a week or two is showing a green flush already and the bushes are all sprouting pale green leaves. There is a small bush by our front door which is home to stick insects later in the year. Being a northern hemisphere species it loses its leaves in the winter and becomes stick-like and dead-looking and is now bursting into leaf. No stick insects yet, though.

Water spheres on spring larch foliage
Water spheres on spring larch foliage (Photo credit: OpenEye)

The temperatures have been high for this time of year, mostly. Clear skies have meant the occasional nippy morning and cars left out have had films of ice on their windscreens, but generally spring this year has been very pleasant. However, we are currently heading for a reminder that winter is not long gone, since the forecast is for wild weather on Tuesday and Wednesday. Batten down the hatches!

English: Spring storm, Queen Charlton The scen...
English: Spring storm, Queen Charlton The scene is similar to 180243 by Derek Harper. It is included for the difference in conditions, weather and time of year. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Story of Nothing, in Arizona
The Story of Nothing, in Arizona (Photo credit: cobalt123)

Nothing is an interesting concept with many different aspects. Maths, science, philosophy and many other fields of endeavour have their own overlapping concepts of nothing, zero, null or just the absence of anything.

Some computer languages have a concept of ‘null’. This is not the same as the concept of ‘zero’. To use the usual analogy of pigeonholes, numbers and other things in computers are conceptually stored like objects stored in pigeonholes. Each pigeonhole must have a location, sort of like ‘third row down, fourth hole in the row’. A pigeonhole could be empty or it could contain a number or a string of characters or more complicated objects that the computer recognizes. It could optionally have a label so that it can be found quickly.

Pigeon Holes
Pigeon Holes (Photo credit: Graela)

A computer moves things around and in the process it manipulates them. Given this analogy, what is ‘nothing’ to a computer?  It could mean several things. It could mean the number zero, stored in a pigeonhole or it could refer to an ’empty string’ stored in a pigeonhole. (An ’empty string’ is like the object ‘where’ when the individual letters ‘w’, ‘h’, ‘r’, and the two ‘e’s have been removed. It is represented by two ). It can be a more complicated object that hasn’t been completely set up. Alternatively it could refer to an empty pigeonhole. It could even refer to a label which has not yet been allocated to a pigeonhole. Pity the poor programmer who has to keep all these ‘nothings’ separate in his or her mind (and a few others that I’ve not mentioned!).

Zero (Photo credit: chrisinplymouth)

In mathematics we have the concept of zero, but this is a fairly newly introduced concept. Some number systems, such the Roman Numeral system do not have a zero, and it was a big conceptual jump to add zero to the mathematical number systems. After all, what do you hold when you have two oranges and you give them away? Nothing! You can’t see zero oranges in your hands, unless you are a modern mathematician of course.

So mathematically ‘nothing’ is zero then? It could be, though ‘nothing’ could be integer zero, ‘0’, rational zero, ‘0/any number’, real number zero, ‘0.0’, complex zero, ‘0 + 0i’, or many many other versions of zero. Maths also has a concept of a set, which is just a collection of objects, which can be pretty much anything. An analogy often used is to liken a set to a bag which contains any sort of object. Statisticians are fond of sets which comprise a set of balls which can be of more than one colour but are usually otherwise identical. If all the balls are removed from the bag, what do you have? A bag with nothing in it! It is usually referred to as an ’empty set’. Note the similarity with the ’empty string’ mentioned above. There’s nothing coincidental there.

Illustration of Function (mathematics).
Illustration of Function (mathematics). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are other sorts of ‘nothing’ in mathematics. A mathematical ‘function’ is a way of relating ‘variables’. The details don’t matter, just the fact that functions have ‘zeros’. They may have one or more zeros or they may have none. Having no zeroes could be considered a sort of ‘nothing’, in a way, though the functions in question are no less proper functions than any other. I’m sure that there are other more esoteric ‘nothings’ in maths.

In physics things should be clearer, right? In physics a vacuum is created is all matter is removed, leaving … nothing. Except that it appears to be impossible to actually remove everything from a container leaving nothing. Even the best pumps will leave a considerable numbers of atoms floating around inside the container. Other methods of emptying the container may reduce slightly the number of atoms in it, but we can’t even reach the very low densities found in the gas clouds visible to astronomers. Even in the depths of space between the galaxies we still find the occasional atom, usually of hydrogen.

Vacuum Pump
Vacuum Pump (Photo credit: Sascha Grant)

Maybe we should look between the atoms for nothing? Most people have an image of an atom as a sort of miniature solar system with the nucleus standing in for the sun and the electrons standing in for the planets. Unfortunately the analogy breaks down if you look closely. Electrons are only found in certain orbits around an atom and even that is an over-simplification. Their location depends on a probability function and in some views this means that the electron is sort of smeared out in space and doesn’t have a strict location and you can’t say specifically that it is ‘there’ at a particular location, only that it has a particular possibility of being there.

One consequence of this is that you can’t say that is isn’t at a particular location, so it is impossible to declare that there is nothing at a particular point in space at any one time. If you consider all the particles in the universe, they all have a probability of being there, so you might be surprised not to find a particle there at a particular moment in time.

Vacuum polarization
Vacuum polarization (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to this, I have read article which describe ’empty space’ as a seething mass of pseudo particles or virtual particles. These come in pairs of particle and anti-particle which are continually coming into existence, mutually annihilating each other out of existence again. Viewed in this way it is difficult to describe ’empty space’ as containing nothing, so we still haven’t found ‘nothing’. Although physics has the concept it is hard to find a physical instance of it.

The Big Bang era of the universe, presented as...
The Big Bang era of the universe, presented as a manifold in two dimensions (1-space and time); the shape is right (approximately), but it’s not to scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cosmologists talk about the “Big Bang” when everything came into existence. Before the Big Bang, they say, there was nothing. Nothing! But what does this mean. I like to think of it by analogy. If you take a piece of paper and draw a circle on it, you can consider this circle to contain all space and time and everything that exists in space and time. If you draw a line horizontally through it you can label the big inside the circle as ‘time’. Note that the line should not extend beyond the circle.

The point where the line reaches the left hand side of the circle is the Big Bang. The point where the line reaches the right hand side of the circle is the point where everything collapses on itself and space and time cease to exist.

Some cosmologists think that there will not be a collapse, so the curve is not a circle but a curve open to the right. This doesn’t affect my argument – everything and every time is included inside the curve.

English: Shows slices of expansion of universe...
English: Shows slices of expansion of universe without an initial singularity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you now draw a line vertically, not extending beyond the curve, and label it ‘space’. If you move the line to the left, the graphical distance between the top point and the bottom shrinks. Moving the line to the left moves it back along the time axis and represents an earlier state of everything. When the line just touches the curve the point of intersection of the two lines represents the Big Bang.

What about the points outside of the curve? This is where the analogy breaks down. Since we have included all space and time inside the curve the points outside the curve do not represent real points in space and time at all. In short, they do not exist. We could loosely say that nothing exists outside the curve of space and time, but that is not true. ‘Nothing’ is a concept based on space and time, being the opposite of ‘something’ or the potentiality for ‘something’ and as such needs a space-time framework to mean anything. If there is no space and time, there can be no ‘something’ and therefore ‘nothing’ is meaningless. Beginners in science and astronomy might ask what is beyond the boundary of the universe, but the question doesn’t mean anything. The universe contains everything.

If there were other universes, with their own space and time, they would have to be right alongside our universe (that is an analogy of course – language fails us in this situation) as there is nothing to be between the two universes. If you were able to travel from one universe to the other, a concept which I don’t believe stands up to examination, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Maybe nothing is a sort of inability to be. But that language implies an intent, which implies a lot of other things and maybe leads to pantheism and I don’t wish to go there.

Absolutely Nothing is Allowed Here
Absolutely Nothing is Allowed Here (Photo credit: Vicki & Chuck Rogers)

Well, I’ve used over 1300 words to talk about ‘nothing’, so I will stop here. What comes after the end of this post? Why, nothing, of course!