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.