Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Chestnut Centre

We had a wonderful day out yesterday at the Chestnut Centre in Derbyshire with my father-in-law, sister-in-law and her partner. It was exceptionally cold which was exacerbated by that fact that it is difficult to take photos while wearing mittens!

The day didn't start too well after I had relied on Google for driving directions. Unfortunately it directed us down a narrow road through the village of Wash. A few miles down this road you eventually reach a sign that states "Not Suitable for Motor Vehicles". I can't fully blame Google for this as when I looked at a pink (1:50,000) OS map I would have used the same road -- it was yellow and not white. I then compounded the problem by directing us down another road which also became single track. It then became exceptionally steep and covered in ice, at which point the car slid backwards a bit and we had to take a third route to the centre. I was not popular with the driver! Fortunately the rest of the day was so enjoyable I seem to have been forgiven.

The Chestnut Centre is billed as an Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park and the main attraction for me was seeing otters up close for the first time. The star otter is Manoki -- currently the only giant otter in the UK.

There were also a number of other species of otter including a family of Asian Short Clawed otters and a couple of highly photogenic North American River otters.

As well as the otters there were a number of other mammals but unfortunately most were hiding out of the cold. There were, however, plenty of Owls on display, including a Snowy Owl and a Great Grey Owl, as well as yet another very tame Robin.

Having done some falconry on the honeymoon I wasn't as impressed by the Owls as I would have been in the past but it was still nice to see some species that I hadn't seen before.

Just when we thought we just had the gift shop to explore we found we still had harvest mice to see.

I've only put up a small selection of the photos I took, but if you want to see more of the day then you can also look at the photos my father-in-law took.

Monday, 29 December 2008

They Are All Blue!

It is probably a good job that Nestlé changed to using only natural occurring food colourings in Smarties. I have no idea the effect a large (170g) tub of all blue Smarties coloured using E133 would have on me but I feel better knowing I'm eating seaweed instead -- the new blue colour is derived from cyanobacteria spirulina.

Possibly even better than a whole tube of naturally coloured blue Smarties is the tube they are in. They are in a proper Smarties tube with a blue plastic lid. Strangely it doesn't have a letter on the lid but a turtle instead.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

An Inconvenient Delivery

We live less than five minutes walk from Penistone Post Office. This is really quite convenient. If we are out when a parcel is delivered by Royal Mail a little card is left and I can easily walk and collect the parcel.

Unfortunately Parcel Force Farce seem incapable of working out our nearest post office. Instead of leaving the parcel at Penistone they insist on leaving them at the Post Office in Oxspring, which is at least 35 minutes walk away. They then have the cheek to label this a "convenient delivery".

I'm sorry but what is convenient about leaving a parcel at the second nearest post office? It would almost be better to return the parcel to the main Parcel Farce office in Rotherham. At least then I could ring up and arrange for it to be re-delivered at a convenient time.

The one good thing about leaving the parcel in Oxspring is that after walking there to collect it I can now have at least one guilt free slice of Christmas cake!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Penguins in a Snowball Fight

I thought I did quite well icing the Christmas cake last year. My mother has already iced their cake this year so my icing skills won't be required. Anyway I don't think I could have matched my mother-in-laws "penguins in a snowball fight" Christmas cake.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Danger of Cooking: Contact Dermatitis

Starter at last night's pre-Christmas Christmas dinner was butternut squash soup. I've cooked butternut squash a number of times before, but usually only had to peel one small squash to feed two people. Last night I peeled four squashes to make the soup and that was a problem.

After having peeled and chopped the first squash I noticed that my right hand felt a bit funny. Being left handed I'd held the squash with my right hand. I just assumed it was the juice/sap, that oozes out when the squash is cooked, sticking to my hand. I washed my hands and then cut the third squash, washed my hands again, and then cut up the final squash. By this point my hand was really uncomfortable. All the skin on my fingers and thumb felt tight, almost as if I'd spilt superglue on my hand. Worse of all it wouldn't wash off!

The skin was all tight and felt really odd, almost like a chemical burn. Turns out I must be allergic to the juice from a butternut squash and have now got contact dermatitis on my hand. It is a common enough problem to be mentioned on the Wikipedia page for contact dermatitis, and there is even a medical paper on the topic (although I haven't been able to read that yet).

Looks like I'll have to wear gloves when cooking butternut squash in the future. I'm sure that will make cooking so much easier!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Free Game

This weekend I'm doing a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner. These have now turned into a bit of a tradition as this will be the 4th year running I've cooked a big meal for family and friends. Sorry to those who usually get an invite but given the state of our house at the moment I'm actually cooking at my parents house where there isn't the room to invite as many people as usual.

Anyway, dinner includes pheasant so I placed a rather large (around £60) order for game. As well as the pheasant breasts I also ordered a large mixed game and Stilton pie for lunch and some sausages, pigeon and partridge for freezing and eating later. As usual I ordered the game from Manor Farm Game.

The order arrived at about 4pm yesterday and I was initially annoyed having opened the first of the two boxes when I found that the pie was wrong. Instead of the mixed game and Stilton pie they had sent me a mixed game, stuffing and mango chutney pie. Then I realised that everything else I had ordered was alright. Spotted the problem yet? I still had an unopened box. I opened the second box to find a complete duplicate of my order with the correct pie. Both boxes were definitely addressed to me and the credit card receipt showed that I'd only paid for what I'd ordered.

I rang them up and explained what had arrived. Apparently one member of staff rushed back to the office on Thursday to print a courier label as they thought my order hadn't been organized and dispatched. In actual fact it had so they ended up sending me the order twice, but in the rush got the pie wrong. Of course they couldn't collect and re-sell the food to anyone else. So I was told to freeze the extra as an early Christmas present! So the freezer now contains 24 sausages, 12 wood pigeon breasts and 4 partridge breasts, and the fridge is groaning under the weight of two 3lb pies (or was until we had lunch).

I'll certainly continue to order my game from Manor Farm Game and would suggest that anyone else wanting to cook game does likewise.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Solution #1: Mystery Item

Well anyone one who wanted to have a guess should have had the time to leave a comment so here is the answer to my first quiz.

The mystery object was the ring pull from a can of Red Bull. I'm not sure if I made it easier or harder to recognise the logo by placing the ring pull on red cardboard.

Scriptor Senex came closest by recognising the Red Bull logo but not the item, so he can half gloat.

L'homme bizarre avec la barbe grise shouldn't feel too bad for not being able to see the bull, I couldn't either until I ripped the ring pull off the can and looked at it from the back so that the bull was facing left instead of right. To me it looks more like a crouching elephant with it's trunk in the air!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Tassimo Coffee Maker

You may remember that around a year ago I started a sequence of posts looking at making coffee, mostly so I could talk about the cornucopia of coffee machines I own. Sorting through some photos I was reminded that I had intended to blog about a Tassimo coffee machine.

One of the two hotels we stayed at on honeymoon was Sheildhill Castle which rather than a kettle had a Tassimo coffee machine in the room. Now surprisingly I had not only never used one of these machines but I'd never even seen one in the flesh before. They are really simple to use (stick in the water and a pod, sit back and wait for coffee) and will make other drinks not just coffee. Honestly though I think I prefer any of my other machines.

Firstly, the use of a single pod for a single cup of coffee has to be bad for the environment. Secondly what happens if Tassimo stop making the pods, or in the current financial crisis, go bust? Easy, the machines will suddenly stop producing coffee, an absolute nightmare!

I think the best thing about them is that they are convenient for a hotel and very easy to clean. Also the brightly coloured pods laid out in a tray look pretty!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Quiz #1: Mystery Item

I've decided that periodically I might have the odd quiz on this blog (please let me know if you think this is a really stupid idea).

The first instalment is simply to identify the object in the photo.

I doubt there will be any prize other than the ability to gloat. Add your answer to the comments and I'll reveal all in a day or so to give everyone a chance to take part.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Robin -- Britain's Tamest Bird?

Is the Robin Britain's tamest bird? When ever I'm out in the countryside Robins are the birds you can usually get closest to without scaring them off. Often they walk/fly right up to you and don't seem at all bothered by your presence.

They also seem to be the bird I most hear people say they have had in the house. A few months back one flow into our house through an open window and quite happily sat on top of a bookcase. It didn't seem at all worried about being inside. We were more worried about it than it was of us!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Written By A Male Performer

As many of you know my work is in natural language processing (mainly information extraction) and so I'm often interested in new language tools or new uses for old tools.

The other day I came across uClassify which is a free web based service for doing text classification. I haven't actually tried the service yet but I did have a brief play with a few of the sites using uClassify to classify blogs; GenderAnalyzer and Typealyzer.

Unsurprisingly, given it's name, GenderAnalyzer tries to determine the gender of the blogs author while Typealyzer tries to determine the authors personality.

At the time of writing GenderAnalyzer was 90% confident that I was male so that's alright. Typealyzer decided that I was ESFP -- The Performers. I have no clue as to personality tests but they give this description:
The entertaining and friendly type. They are especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells. They live in the present moment and don´t like to plan ahead - they are always in risk of exhausting themselves.

The enjoy work that makes them able to help other people in a concrete and visible way. They tend to avoid conflicts and rarely initiate confrontation - qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions.
I'm not entirely sure that is accurate, although they do state that writing style on a blog may have little or nothing to do with a person´s self-perceived personality.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hot Milk

When you have a cold and a sore throat (as I do at the moment) there are many remedies you could take. For example, Lemsip is supposed to help both your throat as well as providing some pain relief. Personally though I much prefer a simpler home remedy.

Add a tablespoon of golden syrup to a mug of hot milk and stir well. Then grate copious amounts of fresh nutmeg on top. Wrap up warm, relax and drink your milk. I promise you will start to feel better!


For the last fifteen years or so I've been attempting to get a high score on JAD's annual Christmas Quiz. JAD's Christmas quizzes have to be the hardest I have ever tried, but they are always an interesting challenge. To get an idea as to how tricky they can be the submission instructions suggest that if you have managed to answer over half of the twenty questions then it is worth sending in the answers.

The publication of this years quiz (in the December/January issue of Scouting magazine) will, however, be the last as JAD has sadly passed away. JAD was the initials of John Arthur Deft who died aged 60 earlier this year having produced a Christmas Quiz for the last 33 years. As a final, and fitting, tribute his family allowed his final quiz to be published for everyone to enjoy.

I've decided that the best tribute I can make to JAD is to try even harder this year to answer all the questions. For anyone one else who wants to try I've included this years quiz in this post (you can get it from the link above but that is a 20MB PDF and I thought a single JPEG would be a lot easier for everyone). Please don't post answers to any of the questions in the comments. JAD thought asking for help via the Internet was against the spirit of the quiz and anyway I want the fun of working out the answers for myself.

If you enjoy this years quiz then you can also try the quiz from 2005, 2006 and 2007 as well.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

7 Seconds in Marrakech

As you may recall I spent three days in Marrakech back in May to attend a conference. I thought I made pretty good use of my time; attending the conference and seeing the sights. Given the distance to travel it wasn't the cheapest of trips but I think I made the most of it.

Back in August we went to see Mamma Mia! at the cinema and I thought I saw a brief glimpse of the Place Jemma el-Fna in Marrakech during the opening sequence. I dismissed the idea as crazy though given that the film is set in Greece and filmed in Greece and at Pinewood Studios. Now we have the film on DVD I decided to take a closer look at the footage. It seems I wasn't wrong and here is the proof:

On the left is a photo I took showing some of the Place Jemma el-Fna and the entrance into the souk. On the right is a still from the movie showing the same tower and some of the same buildings. Now I recon that the final film includes exactly 7 seconds of footage shot in Marrakech, that is 175 frames or 8 still photos more than I took over three days (ignoring the two short video clips I made). In fact I can only be absolutely sure of about 41 frames -- the rest may have been filmed elsewhere. I'm guessing that they were probably the most expensive frames in the entire movie once you factor in the transportation of the cast and crew. Even if they had wanted to show somewhere in Africa you would think they would have tried to save money by faking it. After all in the same opening sequence we see what is meant to be an architects office in New York. In fact it is the Lloyds building in London with a few yellow cabs parked outside.

I've mentioned before about the strange geography you see on TV and in films and these opening shots of Mamma Mia! are very strange. We are supposed to believe that the quay where the three male leads meet for the first time is not far from the previous shots of Marrakech. In fact the quay is in Volos in Greece which is almost 3000km (around 1800 miles) as the crow flies from Marrakech and given the Mediterranean gets in the way, a lot further by motorbike!

201st Post!

I missed that fact that the post on Amazon's new MP3 store was the 200th post I've made on this blog.When I hit 100 posts I took a quick look back at the blog and I thought I'd do the same thing again and see if anything had really changed.

It looks as if the blog hasn't changed much in the last 100 posts, it seems I'm still mostly talking about food (23 posts), photos (57 posts), and strange things I've seen (39 posts).

Also it seems that the posts that garner the most comments are still those about the bits of software I've released, although a random post about plastic cutlery was also quite popular!

Clearly I haven't managed to keep to the one post a day idea as it has now been well over a year since I started but hopefully posts are appearing often enough to keep people interested. I may even try and do two posts today to try and catch up (a little)!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Amazon MP3

Amazon finally launched their MP3 store in the UK today. Finally their is a competitor to iTunes in the UK with a reasonably sized catalogue.

Now I've been using iTunes to buy music since before I owned an iPod. I like the service (I detest the actual application) apart from the fact that not all the tracks available through iTunes are DRM free, and even those that are are sold in Apple's AAC format and not as MP3 files. Given it's name the Amazon MP3 store is selling Mp3 files with no DRM.

The new store from Amazon also appears to win on price. Many of the tracks are just 59p which is a saving of 20p when compared to iTunes. A lot of the albums are just £3 which is a bargain as far as I'm concerned. Finally a store that understands that if you sell the product people want at a price they deem fair maybe people will buy it.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Christmas Lights

It turns out, as I suspected, that the reason both a TV van and Radio team were parked opposite the house was rather boring -- they were there to switch on one of my neighbours Christmas lights. You can see the interesting bits in this Calendar news article.

I Wonder What Is Going On?

I'm not sure what is going on over the road. There is both an ITV calendar news van and a Real Radio SUV parked just outside the house (sorry about the poor quality photo but I didn't want to get too close and combine this with shivering in the cold holding the camera still enough became tricky).

If I manage to figure out what is going on I'll let you know. I'm assuming it will turn out to be dull as they seem to be concentrating on a house with lots of Christmas lights and there isn't any Police cars so I doubt it's anything serious.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Bringing QuickTime to the Wii

OK so while the title is true it is rather misleading. Let me explain.

I have a web application that contains QuickTime movies (film trailers) and I wanted to make sure that if the user of the site didn't have QuickTime installed they could still see the movies. My main reason for this is that I wanted the site to work fully when viewed through the web browser on the Wii and the Wii doesn't support QuickTime.

The solution is to try and use QuickTime but if it isn't installed then to convert, on the fly (using FFmpeg), the QuickTime movie to an FLV file and then play this back in a Flash based movie player (specifically the JW FLV Player) that will work on the Wii.

Now I know that there are a number of systems available that use the web browser on the Wii to turn it into a media player but these are all huge systems with their own front and back end code and didn't seem like a reasonable starting point for what I wanted. A few people have also tried to work on a small scale and do what I wanted to achieve but from my perspective their approaches suffered from two problems 1) none of them used servlets as the back end code and I was already committed to using Tomcat and 2) they all had problems with seeking within the resulting FLV movies. So I set out to solve both of these problems.

It's taken me a few days to get something that works but I'm now happy enough with the code to release it into the wild for others to play with and improve upon. Unfortunately I can't easily show you a demo as the machine hosting this blog doesn't provide me with the ability to run server side scripts but you can download the entire example which when unzipped provides a complete Tomcat webapp.

v0.4 (08/04/2011): Updated to the newest version of JW FLV Player, fixed numerous bugs and re-factored the code to make it more flexible and maintainable. This release should be much more usable then the previous ones.

v0.3 (14/03/2010): Fixed a bug that was causing an error on the Wii and updated the JW FLV Player to the newest version. The code is now also being hosted (and built by Hudson) along with the rest of my projects.

Updated 02/12/2008: I've cleaned up a lot of the server side code to make it easier to understand and maintain. I've also updated the bundled copy of FFmpeg to a much newer build. Finally I've updated the version of the QuickTime embedding script to the newest version.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Where On The Map Am I?

When I blogged about using KMLMapLoader to load easily load KML/KMZ files onto a map I quietly side-stepped one problem. The KMLMapLoader requires you to specify the latitude and longitude on which to centre the map and a zoom level, but where do you get these values from?

You could play around with the main Google Maps page and try and figure out appropriate values but this can be a bit hit or miss. The easiest way it to use a new feature in TagME. Simply open your project, choose to configure Google Maps from the tools menu and then specify the size of the map (in pixels) and it will give you the latitude, longitude and zoom values to use. Nice and simple!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Calum's Road

I'm going to a Runrig concert this evening and so was playing some Runrig music on my iPod on the way to work. While listening to Wall of China I decided that I should blog about a book called Calum's Road by Roger Hutchinson. Whilst at first glance this may seem a bizarre jump bare with me for a few more lines and everything will become clear (I hope).

If I was writing the blurb for the dust jacket I'd write:
Calum's Road chronicles one man’s attempt to save a dying community. The north of the Hebridean Island of Raasay didn’t used to be connected to the rest of the island by road. It’s inaccessible nature saw the population dwindle until the population was just two; Calum and his wife. One morning Calum set out to change his world, he started to single-handedly build a road. It took him twenty years but eventually he brought a road to his hamlet at Arnish.
Still confused by the Runrig reference? OK I'll explain. I only found out about the book as it was reviewed in The Wire (the newsletter of the Runrig fan club) as it's subject matter had been used as the basis for the song Wall of China from The Stamping Ground album.

My Rating: 5 Stars I would probably have never picked this book up without having read the review, but I am so glad I did. A heart warming tale of perseverance in the face of an intransigent political system.

Monday, 24 November 2008

F1 Without the Adverts

Next year sees F1 coverage in the UK move back to the BBC. Finally after goodness knows how many years we can again see an F1 race uninterrupted by adverts! Now like most fans I've known about the move for a while but today the BBC have announced their presenting line-up.

Jake Humphrey (who I've never heard of) will anchor the show and be joined by David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan, who with their experience, as former F1 driver and team owner respectively, should make good pundits (I doubt they could be worse than Mark Blundell). Martin Brundle will continue as race commentator and be joined by Jonathan Legard (who currently works for 5 Live). I think it's a shame they couldn't have kept with James Allan as I actually quite liked his commentating style. And finally the pit-lane reporters will be Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie.

Hopefully the coverage of F1 on the BBC will be at least as good as the coverage ITV have provided, but with uninterrupted races it should be even better. Of course I won't need the TV coverage at next years British race as we have full 3 day passes to Silverstone, so watch out for us in the crowd!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Easy Map Embedding

Every since starting the development of TagME I've been thinking about finding an easy way of showing the geotagged photos on my blog. Now it is quite easy to display a KMZ file in Google Maps (and of course Google Earth) using the simple method Google provides. Unfortunately this method doesn't allow you to access all the features of the Google Maps API. So to allow me more flexibility I've written some javascript to allow for easy map embedding. Here is the script in action:

To achieve this you need to have already loaded the Google Maps API and then in the head section of your page load my KMLMapLoader. The when you want to embed a map you create a DIV to contain it. For example, to create the map I showed above you add the following to your page:
<div kml=""
zoom="11" latitude="53.4717" longitude="-1.511993"
config="map.addControl(new GLargeMapControl());"
style="border: 1px solid black; width: 600px; height: 700px;">
It is reasonable straightforward but here is an explanation of the different attributes you can set:
This should be the URL of the KML or KMZ file you wish to display on the map.

The latitude of the centre of the map.

The longitude of the centre of the map.

The zoom level (level 0 shows the whole earth, each increase in zoom level increase the area seen be a power of 2).

The map type. The default is the street level map, but you can specify any of the types Google supports. Note that id you specify G_SATELLITE_3D_MAP and the Google Earth plugin isn't installed then rather than an error message the script will revert to using G_SATELLITE_MAP

If specified this should be JavaScript that will be executed once the map has been initialised. The map itself is available in the variable map and this can be used to further configure the map (for example adding a large map control rather than the default small control the script uses).
Only the kml attribute is required, but to set the location of the map latitude, longitude and zoom must all be specified.

The script actually does a little more than loading the map, it also provides a fix for a bug in the current version of the Google Maps API. When loading a KMZ file the images etc are accessed through a server side script. Unfortunately the API uses a relative URL to point to this script and so KMZ files display properly if loaded through the main Google Maps website but not when loaded using the API. KMLMapLoader adds code to fix this bug which you can reuse even if you don't want to use the loading facilities.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose!

When we went to St. Andrews we made the mistake of escaping from the cold wind by looking around Waterstones. This is always an expensive mistake! One of the books I bought was How Many Socks Make A Pair? by Rob Eastaway. How Many Socks Make A Pair? aims to make mathematics interesting. Whilst there isn't an equation in sight you will learn about probability theory via the old choosing socks blindly from a draw problem, as well as learning magic and card tricks.

Having previously blogged about the changes to our coins I was particularly interested in a section on coin based probability, particularly the following fact about spinning a penny to determine heads or tails:
What happens if you try and remove the human error by spinning the coin on its axis instead [of flipping it in the air], on a smooth table? It turns out that this is even more biased. Depending on the currency you use, the results can be a long way from 50-50. If you spin an American penny, it has been found to end up showing tails as much as 80 per cent of the time. British pennies are also heavily biased towards tails.
Now given that the tail designs on our coins have changed I was interested to know if this was still true or not. So I conducted my own little experiment. I found two almost mint 2008 pennies; one with the old design and one with the new design. I then spun each coin a hundred times and recorded the outcome. I didn't record spins which didn't get fully up to speed or those that bounced off something else on the table as I felt that these may affect the result.

The first thing to note is that I couldn't replicate the result from the book as the old design penny actually landed 53 to 47 for heads. The new design, however, fell equal with 50 heads and 50 tails.

So what does this all tell us. Firstly the experiment isn't very scientific I'd need a lot more than a hundred spins to show a very small bias. Having said that it looks as if the new design is a fairer coin when spun than the old design.

My Rating: 5 Stars A really interesting book, that makes maths both fun and relevant without resorting to equations.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Dell Software License Agreement

I tend to treat license agreements like I do manuals -- I don't read them. However, as I was sorting out the junk that came in the box with my Mini 9 the sentence at the bottom of the first page of the Dell Software License Agreement caught me eye. It reads as follows:
If the package accompanying your computer contains compact discs, 3.5" and/or 5.25" disks, you may use only the disks appropriate for your computer.
Now I'm guessing it's been a while since Dell actually shipped a 3.5" floppy disk to a customer (most of their machines haven't even contained a floppy disk drive as standard for quite a while) but I'm guessing it may have been decades since they last shipped a 5.25" floppy! I think they need to seriously think about updating their license agreement to bring it into the twenty first century, especially that, as written, it doesn't seem to apply to the DVD of drivers and utilities I found in the bottom of the box.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Wensleydale and Ginger Cheesecake

Over the years I have eaten some wonderful deserts in restaurants but I still love the Wensleydale and Ginger Cheesecake from the Hawes creamery possible more than any other. It is made with Wensleydale Cheese with Ginger and digestive biscuits and while it isn't a baked cheesecake it has that relatively heavy feel to it. No matter how hard I try and describe it I will never be able to do it justice so if you only ever go to the Hawes creamery once make sure to try the cheesecake or if you are feeling adventurous why not try and cook it for yourself.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Travelling Light

As you may have noticed from this blog I do travel quite a bit, both with work and for fun. In fact I've since this blog started I've had trips to Bled, The Reeds Hotel, Marrakech, St. Andrews, Bordeaux and a long honeymoon in Scotland. On all these trips I've taken my laptop with me. In fact here is a photo of it sunning itself by the pool in Marrakech. Now it's not huge or particularly heavy but it can still be quite awkward to cart around, especially when flying. If I'm flying then the laptop bag becomes my one piece of cabin luggage and so I can manage a few books as well as the laptop but everything else has to go in my suitcase. So even if I'm away for only a day or so I have to have the added hassle of checking in luggage and hopping that it makes it to the same destination at the same time as me. Well I now have a solution to this problem -- take a netbook instead of a laptop.

Netbooks are designed to be exceedingly portable. They are small and lightweight and leave lots of room in a bag for other luggage. While there may have been small lightweight laptops for a while, netbooks are relatively new. The first was the Eee from Asus, but there are now quite a few different models, and I've bought the Mini 9 from Dell -- thanks to everyone who gave me money for my birthday as this is what I bought!

Lets start by looking at it next to my normal laptop. As you can see it really is small. In fact the spec sheet from Dell tells us that it is just 9.13" (232mm) wide, 1.25" (31.7mm) high and 6.77" (172mm) deep and weighs just 2.28 lbs. (1.035 kg) -- in other words it is about the size of a large hardback novel and weighs very little.

Now the netbook isn't as fast as a laptop or desktop machine. For example, the CPU is a dual core Intel Atom clocked at 1.6GHz whereas my laptop contains a 3Ghz dual core processor. But in reality you often don't want to do lots of heavy processing while away but you do want to be able to check e-mail or give presentations and for that a netbook is ideal. It maybe that netbooks could be built with faster processors but they are currently limited due to licensing deals with Microsoft. Microsoft want to sell licenses for Windows Vista while their customers clearly prefer Windows XP. They have relented a little and allowed OEMs to continue to sell XP with systems that are not powerful enough to run Vista. So the netbook manufacturers are deliberately not putting more than 1Gb of RAM in the netbooks so they can sell them with either XP or a flavour of Linux. Fortunately the Dell is very easy to upgrade (2 screws remove the base giving access to the memory, hard drive and wireless networking card) and so while it arrived on Thursday with only 1Gb of RAM by Thursday evening it was running quite happily with 2Gb (I bought this 2Gb memory module if anyone is interested in doing the same).

I've been looking at buying a netbook for a while but found it difficult to choose between the different models available. I eventually bought the Mini 9 from Dell as it doesn't have any moving parts and so should hopefully withstand being bounced around a bit while travelling. This means it doesn't have a fan so doesn't get noisy but more interestingly it has a solid state hard drive (SSD).

If you are salivating over the pictures and description then a word of advice -- even if you want to run Linux on the Mini 9 spend the extra £30 and get the Windows XP version. The reason for this is that you get a 16Gb hard drive instead of an 8Gb one which given the current price of SSDs is a bargain.

I'm sure there will be more postings about the netbook as I find more interesting things to say about it, but already it has proven useful as I'm writing this sat in the Marton Arms Hotel, Thornton-in-Lonsdale without having dragged my large laptop bag along with me!

My Rating: 5 StarsA fantastic netbook that is going to make traveling so much more enjoyable than when taking a full sized laptop.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Quantum of Meaning

I haven't seen the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, yet although it looks good from the trailer.

I was however, confused by a BBC news article which stated that "The film, Craig's second Bond outing after 2006's Casino Royale, is currently top of the UK box office chart". Now am I just being pedantic again or can that be read as to suggest that this is the third Bond film starring Daniel Craig, i.e. two films after Casino Royale?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

St. Andrews: A Blood Thirsty Town

I never realised quite how much history had taken place in St Andrews (golf doesn't count) or quite how blood thirsty a place it has been until we visited it back in September.

First by the castle we find

At the University Chapel we find
Unfortunately I couldn't find the initials anywhere.

Finally out at the main bay we find

TagME: Version History

I've decided that instead of a new blog posting every time I release a new version of TagME I'm simply going to update this version history page instead. Of course if there is a major new feature or something worthy of a separate post then I will do one. So without further ado here is the release history to date:

v0.8.1 - 06/02/2010: Open-sourced the code. See here for details.

v0.8.0 - 25/11/2008: Fixed a nasty bug in the map zoom level calculation which might have been causing problems with the time properties display. Added a new feature which calculates the latitude, longitude and zoom level for displaying the KMZ files TagME exports within Google Maps, via the Google Maps API, or with my new KMLMapLoader script.

v0.7.0 - 19/11/2008: Quite a few behind the scene changes to improve performance and stability. Updated the KML output to be more conformant to the spec and introduced the ability to specify author and website.

v0.6.1 - 09/11/2008: I have finally added the ability to embed the GPS coordinates into the photos so that they can be re-used by other programmes.

v0.5.0 - 03/11/2008: The Now with Improved When and Where! release. Added a time zone chooser and a map to the time offset editor. Both of these make TagME a lot easier to use. See this blog post for details.

v0.4.0 - 26/10/2008: Quite a few bug fixes but the major change was the addition of the AppDeath crash reporting tool. See this blog post for details.

v0.3.0 - 16/10/2008: Changed the project file format. Projects saved with earlier versions can no longer be loaded. See this blog post for details.

v0.2.0 - 15/10/2008: Mostly a bug fix release but added the ability of the user to choose the KMZ file name. See this blog post for details.

v0.1.0 - 11/10/2008: The first release of TagME. See this blog post for details.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Am I A Pedant?

Now before you all rush to answer I know that in general I can be pedantic. But what I'm interested in is this specific case. So without further ado...

I know a lot about questions and answers. For those of you who don't already know, my PhD thesis was entitled Open Domain Question Answering. If you are bored or an insomniac then you can even read it if you like. Chapter 1 deals with the problem of exactly what constitutes a question and more importantly what forms valid answers can take. For the purpose of this post, however, the OED definitions of question and answer will probably suffice.
question noun a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information.

answer noun a thing that is said, written, or done to deal with or as a reaction to a question, statement, or situation.
Seems simple right? Well in reality it is quite complex. For example, if in response to the question How tall is the Eiffel Tower? I was given the answer Belgium, then either a) I'm being sworn at by Zaphod Beeblebrox or b) the answer isn't valid as it doesn't answer the question. Now we know all there is to know about questions and answers let us move on to the meat of this tale of pedantic question answering.

Yesterday I saw an advert on the side of a bus which read:
How many UK children live in poverty? 1 in 3
Now am I being pedantic in saying that 1 in 3 is not a valid answer to the question? I would argue that only a specific number can form a valid answer to a How Many X? type question. Asking what proportion, ratio or percentage of UK children live in poverty could, however, be answered by 1 in 3 (I know 1 in 3 isn't a percentage but it is close enough).

So am I just being pedantic, is the advert wrong, or both?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Over the years I've written quite a few acknowledgements at the end of academic papers. They are usually very short, due to lack of space, and simply acknowledge a source of funding. For example, on my recent papers the simple acknowledgement is:
This work was funded by the X-Media project ( sponsored by the European Commission as part of the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme under EC grant number IST-FP6-026978.
I've also written a much longer acknowledgement section in my PhD thesis, where I had the space to be able to thank everyone who had helped.

As well as writing acknowledgements I also read quite a few as I'm often asked to review papers and articles for journals, conferences and workshops. I've never really seen a funny academic acknowledgement until I came across this:
This work was partially supported by wife to me and my lover.
Now I'm guessing that the author's first language isn't English (the papers are blind reviewed so I've no idea who the author is) but I'm struggling to work out how many people are involved in that relationship!

On a slightly separate note I'm now confused as to exactly how I should be spelling acknowledgements. I've always thought it was spelt with an e between the g and m but I've recently seen it without the e. Unfortunately a trip to the OED doesn't make things any clearer. Their main entry is spelt without the e but then they add:
Also acknowledgement (a spelling more in accordance with Eng. values of letters).
Now I'm totally confused!

Monday, 3 November 2008

TagME: Now with Improved When and Where!

I'm releasing another version of TagME today which should along with a number of bug fixes and improvements should fix two of the main problems I had with previous versions; choosing a time zone and setting the camera's time offset from the GPS clock.

To make choosing a time zone easier I've hacked up an as yet rudimentary time zone chooser. Basically you start by choosing a continent or large land mass (not quite sure why they are group as they are) such as Europe, Pacific or Canada and then choose (usually) a capital city to set the time zone. So for example, to choose the UK's time zone you would select Europe and then London. If you can't find your time zone then you can select Etc which then gives you the option of GMT-14 to GMT+12 as well as Zulu and UTC! This still needs work (for example, I don't really think we need the SystemV entries) but should make life a little easier.

The second problem was determining the difference between the GPS clock and the clock in the camera. Getting this right is important otherwise the location of the photos will be wrong. In previous versions the best way of doing this was to view the output in Google Earth and try and work out what how far out the pictures were and then experiment with different offsets. I've improved this by including a little map in the time offset window on which changes are instantly reflected. Currently only the first selected photo (or the first in the list if no photos are selected) is shown, so it may be easier to choose one photo that you know exactly where it was taken and then correct the time offset by applying the changes to all photos.

And in case my descriptions of these new features aren't very good here are some screenshots.

If you want more than a screenshot then as usually you can it directly or if you have the shortcuts installed from trying it before then they are already pointing to the new version.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, 31 October 2008


No I'm not talking about the three legged object to which you attach a camera (although if you travel a lot then I'd recommend a Gorillapod).

I've recently been volunteered to be the research groups seminar organiser. Every week the Natural Language Processing (NLP) group holds a meeting and we try to ensure that we have a talk as well. Sometimes people from the group speak and other times we invite people from other universities or from industry to come and speak to us.

The head of the research group recently changed and the person who had been organising the seminars left. So now I' have the job of organising the talks. If you happen to work in NLP and would like to come talk to us in Sheffield, please let me know!

Anyway last weeks talk was about the TRIPOD project. The work being done in Sheffield concerns trying to automatically label photos given their geographical location. Given my recent work on TagME I found the talk very interesting. So interesting in fact that TagME might get some automatic photo labelling facilities at some point in the distant future.

If you are interested in the details then both the slides and a research paper are available.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Allergy Advice

Take a moment to look at this food label (if your eyesight is poor click on it for a larger version).

Do you see any problems with this label? As a nut allergy sufferer I'm a little bemused by the fact that it states both Recipe: No nuts and Factory: No nuts yet lists Pine Nuts in the ingredients.

Now I know that technically speak Pine Nuts are not nuts they are seeds. Having said that Peanuts are also not nuts (they are in fact legumes) yet everyone would expect peanuts to trigger a "recipe contains nuts" warning.

It is worrying that the label is misleading. Fortunately I'm not allergic to pine nuts but interestingly the Food Standards Agency suggests that if you are allergic to other nuts then you should avoid eating pine nuts so the omission of a warning on this label is very strange.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

We Regret to Announce....

We regret to announce the death of the application you were using.
The Grim Reaper has called and collected the applications soul,
please do not send flowers.

I've just released version 0.4 of TagME. There aren't really any new features in this version (although there are some bug fixes) what is different is that it now incorporate an error reporting tool that I'm calling AppDeath.

So now if you manage to crash TagME then a nice friendly crash reporting window will appear. If you could fill in the details and press send I'd appreciate it.

At some point I'll release AppDeath for use with other applications and explain how it works, but for now I just hope you never see it.

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