Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Hungarian Paprika

It is a sad day. I've just finished my bag of Hungarian paprika.

Back in April 2003 I attended the EACL conference to present a paper detailing some of the work I'd be doing on Question Answering. The conference was being held in Budapest, Hungary were I spent a wonderful six days. I'm not going to go into the details of the trip as you can read about them in my travelogue.

On one of my trips into the centre of Budapest I bought a number of packets of Hungarian paprika, both for myself and as presents for friends and family who cook a lot. Authentic Hungarian paprika is important in a number of recipes, especially Töltött Paprika, although I mainly use it in a beef fajita recipe.

While it was undoubtedly past it's sell by date it was still wonderful and added a distinctive flavour to any dish it was added to. I'm certainly going to miss it in the beef fajita recipe -- paprika you can easily buy in Britain just doesn't compete.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Tomato as Cough Cure

I woke up last night with a really nasty cough. I just couldn't stop coughing. I got up and found a Strepsil but that didn't seem to help either. So I went looking for something else that would solve the problem.

In the end the only thing that looked inviting was a tomato in the fridge. It wasn't too ripe so had some firmness to it and hence something to bite into but was also soften and cool. It certainly did the trick! I went back to bed and slept soundly for the rest of the night.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Return of the Corkscrew

You may remember that in a previous post I lamented the fact that I had broken a fantastic corkscrew. No amount of hunting around on the web had allowed me to find a replacement so I blogged about the corkscrew in the hope that someone else would know where I could buy one.

If you haven't read the comments left on that post then you won't know that one kind soul went one step further and actually sent me a replacement!
This replacement is fantastic and every bit as good as my old broken one. Interestingly it also comes with instructions in the box lid that will make it clearer (than in my previous instructions) how it works.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Cautionary Tale No. 4472 [Part IV]

While the previous part of this tale was clearly painful, not everything associated with the Flying Scotsman has required me to visit a hospital! About five months after the last part of the tale I saw the engine in steam for the first time.

The Cumbrian Mountain Express ran from Carnforth (I think) to Hellifield in the Yorkshire Dales. I assume they rotated through the engines stored at Steamtown as almost every time we went to Hellifield we saw a different steam engine pulling the train. On the 25th of February 1984 the Cumbrian Mountain Express was being pulled by the Flying Scotsman. This time my Dad had a bit more room for taking a photo and so you finally get to see what the Flying Scotsman looks like in real life rather than relying on the Hornby model. Having seen the Flying Scotsman twice in close succession it would be a further 20 years before I would see it again.

In 2004, Flying Scotsman was put up for sale. At this time there was a real worry that it might be sold abroad and the National Railway Museum in York started an appeal to raise money to buy the engine. Unfortunately at the time I was still a penniless student and was unable to donate anything. Fortunately though the country rallied around and combined with a significant donation from Richard Branson, 4472 was purchased for the nation.

During the summer of 2004, Flying Scotsman ran regularly from York to Scarborough pulling the Scarborough Spa Express train. The last run of the summer was scheduled for the 31st of August and given how close that is to my birthday I was treated to tickets so that I could finally experience being on a train pulled by the Flying Scotsman. We had bought the more expensive tickets so we ate lunch on the train, had a nice walk around Scarborough and then the return trip to York. It was all over far too quickly but I wouldn't have changed any of it.

You might have noticed that the photo from York in 2004 shows changes to the engine -- specifically the smoke deflectors attached to the front sides of the boiler. Personally I prefer the engine without these smoke deflectors and for accuracy given the apple green LNER livery it shouldn't have them as they were a 1960's addition when it was painted in the dark green livery of British Rail. For those who prefer this configuration though Hornby have produced a new model depicting the Flying Scotsman as it currently is.

Flying Scotsman is not currently running as it is undergoing a full maintenance and service at York before being re-certified for use on the mainline network. Hopefully this should be finished sometime in 2008, and Flying Scotsman will once again be seen belching steam over the Yorkshire countryside. If you can't wait that long though have a look at this short movie which I borrowed from the National Railway Museum's Flying Scotsman website.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Roast Beef and Sweet Red Pepper Sandwiches

Following on from the Roast Chicken Risotto this is another "leftover" recipe, although this one was invented in my kitchen!

12oz roast beef
1 large onion
1 large sweet red pepper
4 large white bread rolls

Cooking Instructions
Cut the beef into strips about 3cm long by about 0.5cm wide. Cut the onion into sixths and then slice each sixth to give pieces which are essentially 1 sixth of an onion ring. Cut the sweet red pepper into similar sized pieces. Basically all the pieces of beef, onion and pepper should be similar sized, but to make it clear (if my instructions haven't done that already) then take a look at the chopped ingredients.

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan and soften the onion and pepper for about 10 minutes. Add the beef and continue cooking until the beef is thoroughly warmed through. If everything is getting a little dry then add a spot more olive oil.

Serve in lightly buttered white bread rolls and enjoy!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Cautionary Tale No. 4472 [Part III]

In the previous parts of this tale I've introduced my first train set and given a very brief history of the Flying Scotsman up to September 1983 when it was housed and maintained at Steamtown in Carnforth, where this exciting episode of Cautionary Tale No. 4472 continues the story.

I'd just had my fourth birthday and we had gone on holiday, renting a self catering house in Arnside just north of Carnforth in Cumbria. There was me, my younger brother (who spent much off the time crying while cutting teeth), my parents and my Grandma. I'm not sure how long the holiday was, probably a week, or how long we had been there but on the 18th of September 1983 we all visited Steamtown in nearby Carnforth.

Steamtown was original a British Rail engine shed, but had by this time become one of the primary steam engine preservation sheds. Many, if not most, of the steam engines certified to run on the mainline network were stored and maintained at Steamtown and as such it was a great place to visit. While this is still it's primary function, under it's current owners West Coast Railways, it is unfortunately no longer open to the public (for more details see this brief history page). Back in 1983 though it was a fantastic place to visit, especially for a 4 year old with a fascination for steam engines.

For me the highlight of the day was going to be seeing Flying Scotsman for the first time. It was amazing, and huge. Steam trains still seem large but to a four year old it really was unbelievably big. Unfortunately, it wasn't steaming on the day we visited but it was on display in one of the sheds. Of course given the limited room in the sheds this meant getting photos of it was difficult, but my Dad did his best, and at least managed a photo of the name plate.

We spent quite a bit of time wondering around Steamtown having a wonderful day. At the time there was quite a lot to see both in the sheds and out by the water tower and turntable. To get a feel for what it was like I'd recommend visiting this gallery of photos which covers the period I visited in. It really was a glorious day and all too soon it came time to leave. Of course I didn't want to leave without just one more look at the Flying Scotsman, so we headed back towards the sheds for one final look.

Now I don't know how many of you will have ever wondered around an engine yard but as you can guess there are train tracks everywhere. We were following one set of tracks back to the sheds and I was holding onto my Grandma's hand. I don't know why but I decided it would be fun to jump from one railway sleeper to the next rather than simply walking. Now this was relatively safe at the sedate pace of my Grandma, but disaster was bound to strike as soon as I decided to go a little faster and let go of her hand.

I don't know how far apart railway sleepers are spaced but for a four year old they are probably too far apart to be jumping from one to the next at speed -- or maybe I just had short legs. Anyway I hadn't got far before I missed placed my footing and fell. Now falling in a railway yard would always have ended with a cut, even if only a nasty knee graze, but with my unsurpassed aiming skills I managed to land head first on one of the bolts that holds the metal track to the wood sleeper.

Quite surprisingly, I don't remember it being painful. I do, however, remember there being a lot of blood. People always say that head wounds bleed heavily and as an expert in the field (since this incident I've used at least a coffee table, metal window frame and a car boot lock to draw blood from my head) I can confirm that they do. I assume my parents were in a bit of a panic by this point but for some reason my memory of the events following me falling are a little on the fuzzy side! The next thing I remember clearly is reading a book.

My parents had managed to get me back towards the entrance and attract the attention of a member of staff. For some reason rather than phoning for an ambulance I was driven to the nearby hospital. I think we went in the car of a member of staff who knew the way to the hospital. My mum, brother and grandmother certainly went straight back to where we were staying while my Dad went with me to hospital. To keep me occupied in the car I was given the Ladybird Leaders book of trains from the shop. I don't know how much of it I read or looked at in the car as I was worried about dripping blood onto it. As you can see from the picture even 24 years later it is still in relatively good condition. Ignoring christening presents and the train set this is probably the earliest gift that I still have and cherish in a weird way.

And now for a useful tip for anyone who ever finds themselves having a child who falls over cutting his head on a railway bolt and needs stitches in the middle of his forehead. The child will find the stitching equipment quite scary especially when it is so close to his eyes and so can see exactly what is going to happen next. Trying to find enough hospital staff to fully restrain a screaming four year old is a big challenge. What you need to find is a small towel (you should always know where your towel is at). Simply place the towel across the child's eyes so they can't see what is going on and they will lie perfectly still while their forehead is stitched up. Thanks to the matron at the hospital for that very useful parenting tip!

Fortunately I wasn't left with any permanent damage other than a lovely X shaped scare in the middle of my forehead. It is no longer very visible unless I tan, but as you can see from this school photo it used to be a lot more visible.

So the main point of Cautionary Tale No.4472 is that if at four years old you find yourself wondering around a railway yard try not to run along the sleepers. I speak from a position of experience when I tell you it won't end well!

And in the next, and final, exciting instalment I'll bring you up to date on my experiences of seeing Flying Scotsman, with the additional promise that there will be no further mention of blood!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Chicken Enchiladas

3 chicken breasts
1 large onion
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
2 green chilies
1 teaspoon dried oregano
8 corn tortillas
175g white cheddar cheese
1 large pot of sour cream

Cooking Instructions
Pre-cook the chicken breasts for 45 minutes by wrapping them in foil with a few chunks of butter and placing in a pre-heated oven at about 190C (or the bottom of the roasting oven in an AGA). Once cooked allow to cool and then chop into bite sized chunks and set aside.

Finely chop the onion and gently soften with a little olive oil in a large frying pan (the diameter of the frying pan must be slightly larger than a tortilla to make a later step easier). Once the onion has softened add the chopped tomatoes and oregano. Finely chop the chilies and add these as well. Stir well bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Remove the tomato sauce from the heat and allow to cool for a minute.

Place the pre-cooked chicken in a bowl with a couple of large spoonfuls of the tomato sauce and stir well. Now take a tortilla and place on top of the tomato sauce in the frying pan for a few seconds so it softens by soaking up a little of the sauce. Now place one eighth of the chicken on the tortilla and roll the tortilla into a tube. Place the rolled up tortilla in a greased tall sided baking tray. Repeat for the remaining seven tortillas until they are all in the baking tray. Now pour the remaining tomato mixture over the rolled up tortillas. Grate the cheese and sprinkle over the top of the tomato mixture. Now place the baking tray in a pre-heated oven at about 200C (400F or the bottom of the roasting oven in an AGA) for about 20 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling nicely but not burnt.

Use a spatula to lift the tortillas out of the tray onto plates and serve with a generous dollop of sour cream.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Cautionary Tale No. 4472 [Part II]

In the previous part of this tale I mentioned that the Flying Scotsman had a well known history and so wasn't just a unknown model train. For those of you who don't know your steam train history Flying Scotsman was the first steam train to be official recorded at 100mph. This magnificent feat was achieved in 1934 as part of testing for the introduction of high speed trains between London, Newcastle and Leeds.

Flying Scotsman was built in 1923 at Doncaster works from a design by Sir Nigel Gresley. The engine was initially numbered 1472, but was renumbered 4472 during repairs carried out before being displayed by LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Flying Scotsman was used continually on the mainline network until the 14th of January 1963 when it pulled it's last train for British Railways who were fazing out steam trains during a phase modernizing the rail network.

After the removal of steam trains from the British rail network, Flying Scotsman, now in private ownership, was the only steam engine allowed to run on the main line network. This allowed Flying Scotsman to earn enough money, running nostalgia tours, to pay for its continued upkeep. Over the following years it continued pulling trains around the UK as well as a couple of promotional tours in America.
The main part of my cautionary tale takes part in mid September of 1983, at which time Flying Scotsman was owned by William McAlpine and was stored and maintained at Steamtown in Carnforth, which is where the tale will continue in the next exciting instalment of...... Cautionary Tale No. 4472.


Wednesday, 14 November 2007


I'm still slowly unpacking boxes after the move and I keep coming across interesting things that had been stuck in a box or at the back of a drawer mostly forgotten. Today's interesting item is actually a plea to see if I can find a replacement for my broken corkscrew.

For as long as I can remember my parents have only owned one corkscrew. It is so easy to use, requiring very little effort, that ever since I moved away from home to start at University I've been looking for one of my own. A few years ago my brother found one at a car boot sale for me. Unfortunately it broke not long after, the screw should be a few turns longer -- I think it was already damaged when he bought it as the screw was slightly bent and it snapped off in a cork when I was trying to open a bottle.

It is not really clear from the photo how it works but basically the top handle is connected directly to the screw and is turned to insert it into the cork. To remove the cork you then turn the bottom handle to lift the top handle, and hence the cork, out of the bottle. It is such a simple device and works so effortlessly that I have yet to find a better corkscrew (although I did get a nice one last Christmas which is almost as easy to use).

So here is my plea -- does anyone reading this know where I could get a replacement? I've tried hunting around the web to no avail so any thoughts or suggestions of where I could try would be most appreciated!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Cautionary Tale No. 4472 [Part I]

For some reason a number of my earliest memories are of being ill at Christmas. This tale (which will unfold over a number of blog posts) starts at Christmas 1982 when my childhood asthma (which thankfully no longer plagues me to the extent it used to) left me feeling pretty terrible. This was unfortunate as my Christmas present was every small boys dream -- a train set! Well I think it was every small boys dream, it was certainly mine anyway.

I was too ill to really appreciate the train set. All I remember is being sat wrapped up in a blanket in the lounge on Boxing Day watching my cousin Andrew showing me how it worked. He ran the steam train round and round the oval track setup on the lounge floor. Andrew already knew all about train sets as his father had a fantastic set permanently laid out in his loft, something of which I've always been jealous.

When I eventually got to play with the train set myself, I found that it consisted of a simple oval of track, some passenger carriages and steam engine No 4472, or as it's more commonly known The Flying Scotsman. Having hunted around Hornby's website I'm assuming I got the equivalent of this starter pack. All my trains are currently packed away in my parents loft but to give you an idea here is a photo of The Flying Scotsman from Hornby's website which, as far as I can tell, shows that the model hasn't changed in appearance since I got mine.

I can't remember if my interest in steam trains started before I got the train set or was started by the train set, all I do know is that I have been fascinated by the power and elegance of steam trains for as long as I can remember. Over the years my brother, father and I collected many more model trains but The Flying Scotsman is still my most prized. I think this is because not only was it the first one I owned, but with such a well known history it was always more then just a simple model.

As we shall see, in later parts of this tale, my fascination with 4472 has brought me both pain and happiness over the years but it all started with a train set I was too ill to initially enjoy.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Review: Loch Lomond for Children in Need

In general I'm not a fan of Children in Need. Don't get me wrong I'm all for raising money for worthy causes, I just think that the build up to the main day, and the evening's TV is always overblown and not very interesting. In recent years they have always had an official single, and for some reason they always choose groups that I have no interest in listening to. This year is no exception, with the official single being the new Spice Girls track -- as if I care!

However, for once, I'm actually interested in something Children in Need related. The Tartan Army (the main fan club of the Scottish national side) decided to help raise money, simply by making use of something they do at every match anyway -- sing Loch Lomond.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Runrig. Whilst they sing and record all their own songs they are also widely known for their rousing rendition of Loch Lomond. So for Children in Need they have released a new version using backing tracks recorded at half time back on October 13th when Scotland beat Ukraine at Hampden Park.

My Rating: 5 Stars It's a fantastic new version of the track, and well worth buying, but the fact that for once it's an interesting way of helping raise money for Children in Need should help. So if you want to hear it and raise money for a worthy cause at the same time, then it is available from iTunes, Amazon and HMV plus some good old fashioned brick-and-mortar stores!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

left blank my miftake

I often seen pages in books which are blank except for the self contradicting phrase "Intentionally Left Blank" or words to the same effect. I understand that for page layout purposes knowing that the page should be blank could be useful, although I've never understood the need for the words in modern day printing.

Now I've no idea where the idea of placing something on a blank page originates but I like the following explanation offered up by Simon Wheaton-Smith in the BCS Computer Bulletin.

Back in December 21 1797, in the manor of Romburgh in Suffolk, things were done then as they probably are now, slowly, and in a gentlemanly fashion and they held their manorial courts of custom. Property was held back not only by freehold and leasehold, but also by copyhold. And so it happened that when a copyholder died the required court of custom convened, and the heirs, a family called Wade, were summoned to pay the fee for the transfer of the copyhold.

The steward of the court convened the session, but no one was present. The process was repeated, and as lunch-time approached, still no heirs. And so, based on the handwriting that I have analysed, the court went to lunch, and it must have been at a pub, where they must have had some libation. They returned in a jollier frame of mind and closed the court to the satisfaction of all concerned, especially a John Wade, successor to the copyhold. However, in retrospect, the steward of the manor noted he had left a blank page in the court record, which was a no-no.

And so, in beautiful script, penned in a multi-line diamond shape, are the words: 'left blank my miftake'.

In those days the s was an f except in the last letter of a word.

And so, from the distant recesses of time, that evolved into a more face saving expression: 'this page left blank intentionally'.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Interesting 404 Page

I've always appreciated websites that have gone to the trouble of producing a useful or informative 404 page, for when you end up somewhere you shouldn't. This is especially useful if you've arrived on the site through a link from an entirely different site and so have no idea where you should be.

I've previously seen an interesting collection of 404 pages, but none beat this page that I stumbled onto this morning on the website of Sonic Solutions. I'm unlikely to be buying any of their products anytime soon but it is nice to know I'd get a 10% discount!

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Book Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Having mentioned Dodos in the last post I thought I'd review Jasper Fforde's excellent novel The Eyre Affair. This is fact the first in a series of novels centred around the character of Thursday Next who happens to have a pet Dodo, although that isn't really central to the plot of the book.

It is difficult to pigeon hole Jasper Fforde's work, it is an odd blend of crime, science-fiction, fantasy and, in the case of the Thursday Next novels, classical English literature. They really do have to be read to be truly appreciated! A word of warning though if you ever intend to read Brontë's Jane Eyre then read that first as the entire plot line is exposed in The Eyre Affair.

Thursday Next is a policewoman. She doesn't, however, deal with ordinary everyday crimes. She is in fact a literary detective, tracking down "counterfeit Coleridge or a fake Fielding ... arresting the gang who were stealing and selling Samuel Johnson first editions". But when someone starts kidnapping famous characters out of their stories and holding them for ransom Next's job takes an interesting turn.

My Rating: 5 Stars Worth reading just to see a footnoterphone in action!

Monday, 5 November 2007

Dead As A Dodo

I watched a great programme on extinction last night -- The Dodo's Guide to Avoiding Extinction. Using the tale of the Dodo the programme looked at the extinction of a number of species and what we can learn and hopefully what we can do to stop them occurring. Extinction is a topic I've been interested in before and I have a couple of wonderful books on the topic, A Gap In Nature and Extinct.

The books are really good but it was interesting to see a different take on the same topic, and of course it's much quicker to watch an hour of television than it is to read a thick hardback book (although usually I'd opt for the book).

If you didn't see the programme it seems to be repeated on BBC Four at 2:20am on Friday the 9th of November or you could watch it anytime during the next week through the new iPlayer 7 day catch-up service from the BBC.

Sunday, 4 November 2007


I've posted a number of large panorama photos recently that you can zoom in on to examine in detail. For a simple blog post I thought it was worth mentioning how they are produced.

The zoomable images are produced and displayed using the free Zoomifyer EZ. You simply specify a photo and it produces a set of image titles and different zoom levels along with a configuration file specifying how they all fit together. The viewer is a simple Flash movie that can be embedded in any web page and customized (to some extent) to suit your needs.

All in all I think it is a great application (especially considering its free) that makes it easy and simple to add large photos to any website. Of course to really make use of it you need large images, in a future post I'll describe how I produce the large panoramas (i.e. stitch multiple photos together) that have appeared on this blog.

Changing Light

I've probably bored everyone rigid with sunset photos and I promise these will be the last (for a while at least). I know the light can change quickly during a sunset but this afternoon I was taken by the total colour change.

These two were taken at 4:22pm and 4:43pm, just 21 minutes apart, but what a difference 21 minutes made.

Friday, 2 November 2007


Well the house moving is now complete, although most things are still in boxes. Hopefully I'll now be able to get back to more regular blog postings.

Anyway, the new house has a fantastic kitchen the centre piece of which is an AGA. My main problem is I've never cooked with an AGA before and as such I've been a bit apprehensive with cooking, resorting to simple things that can be easily cooked on the 4 gas hobs. I have made use of the roasting oven to cook some frozen dinners from the supermarket, but so far that is as adventurous as I've managed.

I've bought an AGA cook book which should hopefully help me to figure out how to use the thing properly. Of course if any of you have used an AGA before and have any suggestions or tips please leave me comments.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Geek Joke

This was meant to be yesterday's post but I didn't manage to get anywhere near an Internet connected computer all day, so....

Q: Why do geeks confuse Christmas and Halloween?

A: Because 31 OCT = 25 DEC