Monday, 30 August 2010

Make Your Own Travel Map

This post is an update of my earlier instructions for using Google's Chart API to make a map of your travels. Google have updated their API and the maps are now more flexible, so it was worth taking a few minutes to redo my own map.

I started off by making a map of the world, with pink for the colours I've visited, and blue for those that are high on my hit-list:

The Google Charts API works by allowing you to set some parameters on a URL, which you can then use within an HTML <img> tag to display your custom image. Here's the full code for that world map image:

<img src="
" />

Let's break that down into steps:
  1. Copy the whole of the code above into your page.
  2. Make a list of all the countries you want to display, and find their two-letter country codes.
  3. Write these into a pipe-separated list like this
    You don't have to put them in alphabetical order, I just find it neater that way. A pipe, for those of you who aren't technically minded, is the name for that strange upright symbol.
  4. Make a copy of the whole list, then on your copy, go through replacing each country code with the hex code for the colour you want that country to appear in:
    (Google for hex colour codes if you're not familiar with these - you should find plenty of charts from which you can just copy-and-paste the numbers.)
  5. Copy the code above into your page. Replace my country list with the list you just created, and my colour list with your own.
  6. At the beginning of your list of colour codes, add one more colour code, which is the colour you want to use for the countries which aren't highlighted. I've used a light grey, cccccc.
  7. Where I have ffffcc on the fourth line, replace this with the background colour you want for your map.
  8. You can use the numbers on the second line to change the edges of the map: they're latitude and longitude. Similarly, you can use the third line to change the size of the map. You can change these two sets of figures independently, but doing so may have some strange effects, so a bit of trial and error is required.
  9. Remove all the line breaks and then save/preview your page. You should see your own map displayed.

I also decided to do a zoomed-in map of Europe:

And another for the US states:

See how you can also colour states/regions separately, for example US-NY highlights New York state. I haven't been to many states yet!

Visit Google's help page to find out more - there are extra features like adding labels and titles that I haven't investigated.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

A Greenlandic Railway

I wasn't expecting to see any railway tracks in Greenland. As I've mentioned before, most of the towns aren't even linked by road - let alone by rail.

So imagine my surprise to get off the boat in a tiny almost-ghost-town, now inhabited only in the summer, and find this:

The line runs from the harbour to a disused fish factory. It's clearly been out of use for some time, but in its heyday (if a small railway line can be said to have had a heyday!) it had points and a turning circle, even its own signal box.

I love travelling by train, and this was a fun - and unexpected - discovery. But I'm not enough of a train geek to know whether this could be in the running for the shortest train line in the world...?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

A New Recipe Index

I've been meaning to do this for a while, at the back of my mind: I'm conscious that I haven't made it easy enough for you to find the recipes I've posted on my blog.

What's finally galvanized me into doing something about it was the surprise discovery that my apple chutney recipe made it into the top 10 results on Google UK! (Look at this search and scroll to the bottom... amazing....)

Head over to my new recipe index page and take a look - and you can always get back there by clicking the 'Recipes' link in my sidebar.

I'd love to know your thoughts about how to lay out the new page in a more user-friendly way - what do you want to know when you're looking for a recipe?

Also, I'm delighted to tell you that the lovely Holly @ 504 Main has chosen to feature my blog this Friday! Holly's weekly Tickled Pink event features fabulous crafts, recipes, and DIY projects from across the blogosphere. I honestly don't know how Holly finds the time to track down so many amazing things, but she does, and the weekly round-up is always an inspirational read, so I'm thrilled to be featured.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

African History in Brussels

Andy and I are fast approaching our second wedding anniversary. Last year we decided that, rather than buying anniversary presents for each other, we'd prefer to spend our money on doing something together - and given our addiction to travelling, a weekend away seemed like the perfect way to celebrate our first year of marriage. So in early September, we hopped on the Eurostar and went to Brussels.

Aside from eating a lot of waffles, we also found the city was full of great museums. One morning, we took a tram across to the African history museum, housed in a stately home on the outskirts of the city.

We arrived before the museum was open, and after admiring the gardens, and the elephants...

...we decided to see if we could find somewhere to get a coffee (and warm up - it was a chilly day). After a short walk we found ourselves in the middle of a sweet little market, with various bric-a-brac and craft stalls spread out in the streets of a small town.

Of course, this being Belgium, we didn't have any trouble finding a little coffee shop. We'd walked off the edge of the guide book and found a lovely spot to while away an hour or two.

The museum itself was full of interesting artifacts and well worth the trip. Before we went to Brussels I hadn't really known about the Belgian presence in Africa, so it was interesting to hear about the history of the colonial period, and the exploits of various Belgian aristocrats. It also gave me a longing to see African wildlife, thanks to a taxidermy display - can you believe the beaks on these birds?! (They may well be extinct by now, I have no idea.)

We're thinking about Amsterdam for our anniversary trip this year - anyone have any tips?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A Quick Flickr Hack

I know I'm not alone in using Flickr for my online photo storage - and I suspect I'm not the only one who has frequently used the handy "Blog This" link to get my photos onto my blog or Twitter.

However, Flickr have recently changed the layout of each photo page, and made it a bit more snazzy, with the result that some functionality no longer works on all browsers. Most importantly for my purposes, it's no longer possible to reach the "Blog This" button from my phone, which is a real pain - using my phone to upload a quick snap to Flickr, then using Flickr's "Blog This" functionality to get the photo into my blog or my Twitter stream, is my key to keeping in touch when I'm travelling without a laptop.

After a little poking around, though, I've managed to find a hacky way around it. I thought this might be useful to anyone else who's having similar problems.
  1. Find the photo's URL, e.g. . You want to get the most basic form of the link for this, in the form, but if you access your photo from anywhere other than your photostream directly (e.g. through a set) the URL may have extraneous information.
  2. Replace photos/yourusername with blog.gne?photo=, to give (in this case)

  3. This will now bring up a (simple, HTML, phone-friendly) page where you can pick from any of the blogs you've linked to your Flickr account. There's space on the next page to enter any text you'd like to add before submitting the post.

This is the result:

Icebergs at sunset, originally uploaded by Rachel Cotterill.

Friday, 20 August 2010


My blog is featured over at Mama's Little Nestwork! Mama Hen is one of the sweetest bloggers you could hope to meet, and the Nestwork is shaping up to be a fabulous, supportive community. I'd like to extend a special welcome to anyone visiting for the first time today.


Winberries, bilberries... call them what you will, but whatever you do, don't get them confused with blueberries. These are smaller, and much more tasty.

I have fond childhood memories of going out to pick these little berries every summer. We developed a family tradition of going out on my dad's birthday and then coming home to make a pie with our harvest. They don't grow in the part of the country where I live now, so when I realised I was going to be back up north for my dad's birthday this year, I suggested we could revive the habit.

Winberry picking

Local, seasonal, and free - this is the way food should be. They're messy to pick, and you have to hunt for the tiny berries in amongst the leaves of the plant, but it's absolutely worth the effort.

Winberry bush


Winberry Pie
Serves 2-4

for the pastry
100g butter
200g flour
40g sugar

for the filling
300g fresh winberries/bilberries
25g soft brown sugar

  1. Mix the flour with the sugar for the pastry.
  2. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour / sugar mixture.

  3. Add a little water until you have a firm dough.

  4. Grease a deep 7in pie dish (loose-based will make things easier later).

  5. Divide the pastry into two - approximately 1/3 for the lid, and 2/3 for the base. Roll out the larger portion and line the pie dish.

  6. Wash the berries and put into the pie. Scatter sugar over the top.

  7. Roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid. Puncture a couple of holes in the top to let steam escape, and bake for about 20 minutes at 180°C, until the pastry is crisp.

  8. Serve hot with cream or custard.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Roskilde's Viking Ships


I have a slightly inexplicable love affair with Denmark. It's not the most dramatically beautiful of landscapes, but from the moment I first landed there (in 2005) I just felt extremely comfortable.

As part of my 2005 trip, I spent a few days in Copenhagen, the most memorable aspect of which was a day trip to Roskilde to visit the cathedral and the viking ship museum. So when we found out that we'd have to pass through Copenhagen in order to get to Greenland, I suggested we extend our trip for just long enough to take in a couple of days in Roskilde.

The viking ship museum looks after the remains of three ancient ships which were found in the sea nearby. But the most interesting part, to me, is their reconstruction work. They've built replicas of all three of the Roskilde ships (and several other boats), frequently take them out to sea, and even sailed one of them across the Atlantic. There are enough videos and tales from the voyage to make a sea-loving girl's heart flutter.

Definitely a fun day out - if you love boats half as much as I do, then this is a worthy diversion from Copenhagen.

Also, it's hard to overstate the entertainment value provided by watching a group of uncertain tourists learning to row...




(At least none of them fell in the water!)

Monday, 16 August 2010

A Very Simple Cheesecake

There's no question that cheesecake is utterly divine, but the debate rages on: baked or chilled?

I've always been a fan of the refrigerated, no-cooking-required version, but I seem to be in the minority. However, if you're in any doubt, make yourself one of these and you might just come over to my side. (It also has the advantage of being easy and safe to make with kids, since there's no heat involved.)

I made one topped with tinned mandarin segments (pictured) and one with fresh blueberries (even better, in my opinion).


A Basic Cheesecake Recipe
Serves 8-10

70g ginger biscuits
55g digestive biscuits
50g butter
150ml double cream
half a vanilla pod
300g cream cheese
50g icing sugar
your choice of fruit

  1. Line the base of a 6in (16cm) loose-bottomed baking tin with a circle of greaseproof paper.

  2. Put the biscuits in a large mixing bowl and crush with the end of a rolling pin.

  3. Melt the butter and stir through the crumbs until thoroughly combined. Press this mixture into the base of the tin, and refrigerate for an hour.

  4. In a clean bowl, whip the cream until stiff.

  5. Split the vanilla pod with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds.

  6. Combine the cream cheese, icing sugar, and vanilla seeds (you can use the same bowl as you used for the biscuits, if you wipe out any spare crumbs).

  7. Fold in the whipped cream, and whisk the mixture for a few more minutes.

  8. Spoon the cheese mixture onto the biscuit base, and smoothe the top with a spatula.

  9. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving. Top with your choice of fresh or canned fruit.

Note: you can double the quantities to make a larger cheesecake - just use a 9in / 23cm tin.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Words To Live By

What's the purpose of a school motto? I often wondered this as a child.

The popular method of picking a few choice words in Latin is quaint if a little pretentious - but my secondary school had its motto in English, and that seemed even more pointless. At least with a Latin motto, you get a few words of Latin seared into your soul.

My school's motto was Therefore, Choose. The school website says it's from Deuteronomy, and a quick search on BibleGateway finds the wider context: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live."

Mostly, while I was at school, I completely ignored it.

Yet now, as an adult, every now and then I catch these words echoing in my mind, reminding me of obvious facts: I can choose how to handle whatever situation I find myself in. I can choose how to react to those around me. Ultimately, I can choose the person I want to be.

Pretty powerful stuff, from just two words.

Did your school have a motto, and do you remember it? What words do you live by?

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A Free Helicopter Flight

I could hardly believe it when I read our flight itinerary. I had to read it twice, just to be sure, but there it was in black and white: the first leg of our journey home was by helicopter.

It makes sense when you think about it. Most of Greenland's towns aren't connected by road, making air travel very important. Yet many towns don't have the space for an airstrip - even for small planes - so helicopters flit between helipads.

I was just over the moon to learn that we were getting a free helicopter ride, included in our ticket price. I'd never been in a helicopter before.

I don't remember my first aeroplane flight, so flying has always seemed natural to me - but the helicopter take-off blew me away. For starters, it's incredibly noisy. But the main difference was the way it moved - tipping forwards during take-off, wobbling from side to side... every little unpredictable movement catching my attention.

It was only a ten minute flight, but I was on the edge of my seat for the whole time. It was like a gentle rollercoaster, weaving between steep mountains, floating above the scattered icebergs. It was simply exhilarating, and I can't wait to have chance to do it again.

Many thanks to Andy for the photos!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

He Said, She Said...

If you've ever studied creative writing at any level, you've probably been told to avoid using words like { yelled / exclaimed / whispered / muttered / spat / hissed }, and stick to the simple "said". It's such uncontraversial advice that I even remember hearing it in high school - yet it was only fairly recently that I really understood why this works.

After all, in general, repetition is bad. As writers we usually try to avoid repeating ourselves, unless we're aiming for a particular rhetorical effect.

So why is it okay (preferable, indeed) to repeat the word "said"?

In computational linguistics, there's a concept called stop words. For a given language, there's a set of words which are generally so common across all documents in that language that they don't contribute much meaning in their own right. For most kinds of analysis, these words are simply ignored: it's as if they're not there.

In a list of words from the British National Corpus, arranged by frequency, forms of the verb "to say" come in at 34th place. That's right up there with "the" (1st), "and" (4th), "but" (23rd) and "or" (29th). Words that are slightly less common include "will" (35th), "who" (47th), and "some" (56th). With such an oft-used word, it's not surprising that the reader's eye will glide over it with barely a second thought.

It's worth noting that "ask" comes in at 154th, which is still pretty common - between "might" (151st) and "however" (158th). So the average reader isn't going to hear alarm bells in their head over an occasional "she asked," either (but on the raw numbers, it's about 1/5th the frequency of "said").

Here are the positions for a few other dialogue tags:


Keep in mind that the higher the number, the more uncommon the word - and the more it will stand out if you use it. Personally, I don't hold with the idea that these are "bad" words which should be avoided at all costs, but I would caution you to know what you're doing. Your readers will notice.

Frequencies from Kilgarriff's lemmatized lists.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Scatty Progress

I've been getting on with my latest embroidery project - not with any particular hurry to finish, but when I have a spare moment, I'll pick it up and add a few stitches here and there.

It's coming along nicely - and I'm finding it very interesting to watch how it unfolds, since I don't have a list of instructions to tell me what I should be doing in what order. In particular, I'm noticing that my embroidery process is scatty in much the same way that my writing process is scatty. I skip about on a whim, not finishing one flag (or colour) before moving on to the next. In the picture, you can see four unfinished flags, at various stages of completion.

This is how I seem to approach everything. When I'm writing, I'm usually actively working on four or five chapters at any given time - sometimes more. I struggle to find the motivation to work in a straight line, but by skipping around, I can just work on whatever seems like it might be fun.

P.S. Elizabeth - you said you might have some ideas for how to capture the fiddly bits (like, say, Mongolia). I think I'm almost ready to hear your suggestions....

Friday, 6 August 2010

Crowdsourcing My PhD

I'm working towards a PhD in computational linguistics. Many of you have asked me for more detail about my studies... and now seems like a good time, because I'm having some problems that you can help with.

I'm a linguist at heart, with a background in pragmatics: the study of what people really mean by what they say. It was almost by accident that I ended up in a computer science department for my doctorate, but one major advantage of a computational approach is that it's comparatively easy to study a vast amount of data in a short length of time. And there's a nice dataset of email, in the form of the Enron corpus (thousands of emails subpoenaed when the company was investigated, and subsequently released into the public domain for research).

However, it's really hard to find good-quality, human-annotated language data. For what I'm interested in looking at, the data simply doesn't exist yet. And yet without hand-crafted examples of data, it's hard to "teach" a computer how to process something, and even harder to assess how well it performs.

Hence, a new kind of experiment (for me, at least).

I'd like to ask the power of the internet to help me pull together some sample answers. If you're a fluent English speaker with a few minutes to spare, please help me to categorise some questions. I'll then compare the answers given by different people, and try to find some kind of underlying "truth". If I get enough good answers, this will be the basis for training a computer model to perform the same task.

If you can spare even ten minutes to help out, I'd really appreciate it. Please pass the link to your friends, too. And I promise to let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Armenian Spinach Puffs

No, I haven't snuck off to Armenia while you weren't looking (though it's on my list). However, for a couple of days we've had a lovely Armenian-American girl visiting, and I asked her if there was any Armenian cookery she could teach me while she was here.

This is what we made - and they were very tasty. It's similar to the Greek dish spanakopita, which I've always enjoyed.

Armenian spinach puffs

I'm sure someone more dedicated than me would learn to make the filo pastry, but since it's so easy to buy frozen and ready-rolled, I'm afraid I took the lazy option.

Armenian Spinach Puffs
Makes 18

1/2 a small onion
250g frozen spinach
2 eggs
75g feta cheese
18 frozen filo pastry sheets (each 25cm square)
20g butter
olive oil
salt to taste
  1. Defrost the spinach and pastry sheets, dice the onion into small pieces, and crumble the feta cheese.

  2. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and sautee the onion, then add the spinach and cook over a low heat.

  3. Break both eggs into the pan, and stir through the spinach mixture. Cook for a further five minutes before removing from the heat.

  4. Drain any excess liquid from the spinach mixture, and add the feta.

  5. Melt the butter (a few seconds in the microwave should be enough).

  6. Take one square of filo pastry, and brush the middle third with butter. Fold the pastry sheet into thirds (so you have a long rectangle of triple-thickness pastry).

  7. Place a generous teaspoon-full of the spinach filling at one end of the pastry.

  8. Fold a corner of the pastry to form a triangle enclosing the filling. Continue to fold, until you have a triangular parcel.


  9. Seal the end of the parcel with a little butter, and brush more butter onto both sides of the parcel.

  10. Repeat steps 6-9 for the remaining filo sheets, until you have 18 triangles.

  11. Arrange the triangles on a baking sheet (greased, or lined with a non-stick liner) and bake at 160°C for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned.

Monday, 2 August 2010

August Inspiration & Facebook Link-Up

It's a new month, and that means it's Blog Inspiration time again! This is definitely one of my favourite posts to write each month - and since you're all so fabulous, there's never a shortage of blogs to highlight.

Before I get on with giving out August's badges, I'd like to thank Mama Hen @ Mama's Little Chick, who kindly gave me an Outstanding Blogger Award. I'm not sure that I'm outstanding, but I am a blogger, so one out of two is okay by me. Thank you!

So, this month's badges:

I could have given Traveller's Yarn an award in travel or craft, but since she's crafting-while-travelling, that scores extra points. I always mean to take something with me to work on on my travels, but seldom do.
Jacqueline over at Tinned Tomatoes is one of my favourite vegetarian bloggers - with barely a tin of tomatoes in sight (but she does make some amazing cakes).
Jules at Adventures in Thread manages to impress me every time I visit her blog, just with the beauty of her header photo. Plus, she's always making exquisite objects of impressive complexity (including some amazing dolls!).
Holly at 504 Main has an incredible eye for the fabulous, and features her favourite finds in her weekly Tickled Pink event - always a worthwhile read.

Recipients are under no obligations, but are welcome to display the badge, and to pass it along if they wish.

And now for something a little bit different... let's talk about Facebook.

I know I'm not the only one with a Facebook page for my blog. But if I'm busy reading an interesting post, I don't always notice whether the blogger has a FB link in their sidebar, so I'm sure there are loads of great bloggers who I've yet to connect with on Facebook.

I find it helpful to get messages from my favourite sites in my Facebook news feed. If I enjoy your blog, I'd really like to 'Like' your Facebook page, too.

So, inspired by various generations of blog-hops and twitter-hops... let's have a Facebook-hop. Add your Facebook page to the linky below, then go and visit a few of your fellow bloggers:

If this works well, I'll consider making it a regular monthly feature - let me know what you think.

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