31 Dec 2010

The Faces of Love.

Have you ever noticed how often and in how many different contexts we use the word 'love'?

We love our partner(s), our friends, family, chocolate, weekends, sex, champagne, reading, one or several gods and/or goddesses, a pair of shoes, the great outdoors, a glass of wine, a film, fireplaces, cats or dogs, an artist's work, travelling, spring, summer, autumn or winter. If anything, we are capable of many different kinds of love.

So what does 'love' mean? Or more importantly: what does it mean to you?

All-knowing Wikipedia defines love as 'the emotion of strong affection and personal attachment.' It distinguishes between:
'the passionate desire and intimacy of romantic love, [...] the sexual love of eros (cf. Greek words for love), [...] the emotional closeness of familial love, [...] the platonic love that defines friendship, [...] the profound oneness or devotion of religious love.' (Wikipedia)
Around and in between those, there are millions of variations and shades of love. Love is, above anything, something very personal and unique.

I wanted to find a way to share with you some of that strange and all-encompassing emotion that is love. Because an image can often convey more than a thousand words, I went on a search for photographs that each represent one of the many faces of love. It was a worthwhile journey, one I can only recommend.

May your 2011 be filled with love, joy and the will to learn. The opportunities will be there. Happy New Year!

Photo credit: Martin Neuhof

love and a cat
Photo credit: Sean Nash

Photo credit: Jules Morgan

Photo credit: Angelo Gonzalez

The real love, love never hurts,
Photo credit: http://www.thundi.com/

Photo credit: Amy T. Schubert

Kyrgyz couple
Photo credit: Evgeniy Zotov

Kiss: Ryan Gilbert + Michael Correntte / 20100117.7D.02106.P1.L1.SQ.BW / SML
Photo credit: See-ming Lee

Dancing to their own music
Photo credit: Lorenia
Chocolate love
Photo credit: Mortimer Khan

Bree and Zoe. Cwtch!
Photo credit: Jules Morgan
You don't have to say I love you...
Photo credit: Gabriela Talarico

Day 38 - Graham and Lilly
Photo credit: Robbie Kennedy

The Kiss
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

For love's sake / blurb
Photo credit: Ko_An / Laura

Photo credit: Luc De Leeuw

Photo credit: David Zellaby

Happiness is sometimes so simple
Photo credit: Jeffrey Edwards

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk

2009 Dia de los Muertos Community Altar, The Completed Altar, Detail 2, Bloomington Indiana
Photo credit: Michael Redman

Photo credit: adwriter

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29 Dec 2010

For the Love of Books...

I've been an avid reader for most of my life, and even though I love my Kindle, I'm still crazy about books. There's nothing like the smell of ink, the weight of a real book on my lap and the touch of paper to my fingertips. An instant cure for stress.

And then I discovered the photoblog Bookshelf Porn. Okay, I don't like the name, but the site's got a lot of great pictures. Of books, obviously, and shelves. And rooms and houses I wouldn't mind living in.

I don't know why I'm so crazy about bookshelves, other people's as well as my own. I suspect part of the the feeling is childlike wonder, remembering how I felt (and still feel) in libraries, looking at all the treasures that would take years to explore.

Bookshelves are filled with the thoughts of generations. In every book that is written, a writer synthesizes ideas and beliefs, mental and emotional experiments not only of herself but everyone she has learnt from: the people she's encountered, her teachers, family, friends and her wider sociocultural environment. Every story offers the invaluable opportunity to look at the world through somebody else's eyes. Bookshelves really are treasure chests, in every way that matters.

So, if you want to go on a daydream or a quest for inspiration on how to store your own collected wisdom, have a look at the Bookshelf Porn archive.

Which are your favourites?

I think for now, I'd go for this one:

The photograph made me think of Solange, a great librarian I knew a long time ago. She gave me a lovely picture frame with the quote: 'Overal heb ik rust gezocht, maar nergens gevonden, dan in een hoekje met een boekje.' - Thomas van Kempen.
(It roughly translates as: 'I've looked everywhere to find peace and quiet, but couldn't find it, except in a corner with a book.')

The frame has become one of those items I will never ever part with and I have it on my writing desk for those days when I need the reminder.
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27 Dec 2010

Poetic Pause: Beyond Our Shores.

Beyond the shores an ocean lies
And truth does not digest
In bodies of water 
And bodies of flesh
The sweetest illusion survives.
K.C. Woolf.
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25 Dec 2010

Friday chuckles... #2

Actually I missed this Friday's (Friday) chuckle due to it being Christmas Eve.
So it's more of a Saturday or Sunday snicker, depending on which part of the world is lucky enough to have you.

This is a picture I've taken a couple of years ago, in a tiny town in Bavaria, Germany. I think it really needs a caption. Any suggestions? 

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23 Dec 2010

Finally... a new banner. It's contest time!

As you might have noticed, the blog has a new banner, yay!

Can you guess where the picture was taken? The first person to guess correctly gets the choice between some of the rumtopf or a travel book!

I need the name of the location where the picture was taken, the name of the village and of the county and country it is in. Answers are only valid when posted as a comment to this post!

This is the original picture:

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The colours of snow.

We're having an unusual amount of snow this December. Today it's been thawing, but we'll probably get more overnight.

Here are two views of our cherry tree, two nights ago. Both pictures were taken only seconds apart. For some reason, one turned out golden and one silver. Two very different settings, don't you think?

Which one do you like best? (And what does that tell about you? ;-) )

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22 Dec 2010

The Times They Are A-Changing.

As I've confessed in a previous article, in another part of my life I'm a teacher. I'm also a huge fan (and advocate) of student diversity, since long before 'diversity' turned into the stale, nausea-inducing term it is now. But somehow, being a fan of 'multifariousness' or 'heterogeneity' doesn't sound much better, so I'll stick with diversity for now.

Fact is, we are all individuals. Some of us even more than others (hah!). We're part of a diverse and specialised but social species. We're born and bred to cooperate.

For that reason, I'm a firm believer that education should focus a lot more on:
  1. helping pupils / students to understand their individual talents
  2. showing them in which ways others are different
  3. providing them with plenty of opportunities to combine their efforts and work towards better results.
I am convinced that this approach is much more effective in order to teach them to deal with the challenges real life is throwing / will throw at them.

It's a simple truth that most of our students / pupils / ... are going to end up in different jobs, different personal lives, different careers, different locations, situations and quite possibly different countries and cultures. How could we prepare them for that any better than by helping them develop a healthy and realistic confidence in their own talents? In their personal, individual ability to contribute to the world?

To avoid misunderstandings: I'm NOT pleading for educational pampering. To the contrary!
We all learn by being challenged. We feel better after we've tackled something that was really difficult. What is important is that we were able to tackle it.
The challenges we present to our kids / pupils / students / trainees should be tailored to their level and their needs. Not to a standardised programme or idea of what a person should be able to do at a particular age.

This is something that game designers have understood a long time ago. They throw challenges at players that educators can only dream about. And players overcome them. Game designers create difficult circumstances based on clever insights like risk versus reward, or team effort.
Their customers choose the roles they naturally prefer: some of them play healers, others pose as fierce warriors and still others manage and organise their fellow players. These game events, like life, wouldn't succeed without either kind of participant.

We simply can't expect everybody to be good at everything. It's unrealistic and above all unneccessary.
Instead, we should offer our kids, pupils and students opportunities to shine at what they're good at, and show them ways to use those talents for the greater good of society, (wo)mankind, industry, ...

After all, isn't that what so many adults these days are desperately trying to find out about themselves? Wouldn't it be more efficient if we'd start working on that before frustration and disappointment have already clobbered people down?

I wanted to share a great (animated) speech from author and educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson. It deals with a lot of these aspects. It's only 11 minutes long and even if you don't care about the message, the animations are fun to watch.

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21 Dec 2010

Last Read Before Bed #1

Before bedtime, I wanted to share (a link to) one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets:

Rural Reflections by Adrienne Rich.

Enjoy, and: sweet dreams!
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19 Dec 2010

Rum Nom Nom...

Isn't it beautiful? The essence of summer captured in a stoneware jar. And what better time of the year to open it and savour the aromas of fruits, herbs and spices. If sunlight had a scent, this would be it!

The journey started last spring, when I got a rumtopf (the jar) from my father-in-law. He wasn't using it himself and thought I might. Not entirely an unselfish gift, I suspect, but much appreciated nonetheless.

I started it in late May with the first strawberries from my parents' garden and a few fresh herbs. In the following months I've added raspberries & more strawberries (both grown by my mum & dad), cherries and plums (from our own trees) and peaches and nectarines (store-bought).

The last batch of raspberries were added mid October, and I've let the rumtopf sit and ripen until now. Well, actually until last night, because we had a sneak peak and a quick taste to avoid disappointment during the grand opening today.

Oh yes, the recipe.

Honesty requires me to admit that I haven't followed any recipe religiously. As is usually the case with any of my kitchen or herbal experiments, the types and amounts of ingredients I've added after the start depended more on instinct and availability than on measured amounts. But that was the original idea behind rumtopf anyway, wasn't it?

The only thing I didn't mess with was the strength of the rum. Not only is that a matter of principle, but you need to get 54% vol. alc. or you risk decay.

Typically rum here is around 40%, so I've added food grade ethanol (94%) to get to the desired 54%.


- 1 vanilla pod (sliced in 2 halves & scraped out)
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 1 sprig of lemon balm
- rum (I used Havana Club Añejo Especial and a 5 year old Barbados Rum)
- cane sugar
- strawberries
- raspberries
- cherries
- plums
- peaches
- nectarines

- Use a big vessel. Wash it (I used soda + boiling water), rinse and dry.

- Put the herbs & spices in the pot. I'd strongly recommend adding a vanilla pod. You only detect a hint of it in the final result, but it's one of those little things that makes a difference.

- Choose ripe fruit, but not overripe. It's a matter of balance, really: it has to be ripe enough to be full of flavour, but still firm or it will turn soggy in the alcohol and give an unappealing end result.
I started with strawberries (about 500g) and raspberries (about 250g).

- Wash the fruit and clean it up, cutting out the overripe or damaged parts and removing stalks etc.

- For the 750g of fruit, I used 375g of cane sugar. Pour half of that sugar over the fruit and (carefully!) scoop it under. Try not to damage the fruit. Leave it for an hour and add the rest of the sugar.

- Pour ho-ho a bottle of rum (0,7l) over the fruit. It should be fully covered.
You'll find that some of the types of fruit will float to the top. I used two small plates (that just fit through the opening of the jar) and tried to lower them as level as I could onto the fruit. It never worked perfectly, but at least most of the fruit stayed underneath, and the alcohol should take care of the rest.

- For the consecutive layers, the original recipe(s) recommended adding 500g of a different fruit, 250g of sugar and half a bottle of rum each time, but as I've said above, I've played that more by ear, except for the 54% alcohol. There's no need to peel peaches, nectarines, plums, etc, as the skin softens up in the alcohol and adds an interesting bite.

- It's recommended to keep the rumtopf cool, not cold, and properly sealed. I used cling film and then put the lid on top. The jar got a corner of its own on a shelf in the cellar.

- Usually the last layer is added in October, after which it should sit for a while, to be ready for relishing by the darkest days of the year.

How to serve:

So far, we've only just sampled our rumtopf pure. Great, but be warned: it's bloody strong stuff. We had pink champagne biscuits with them (biscuits roses de Reims) and that was a great match. Who says France & Germany don't mix?

I expect it to taste great on different kinds of desserts: ice cream, frozen yoghurt, cake, cheesecake, pancakes, Belgian waffles, etc. I can imagine the drained fruit is also brilliant for fruit crumbles, pies or trifles and with regular, whipped or coconut cream. Apart from coconut cream, that's all stuff I don't have often, but I think I'm going to have to make a few exceptions here.

We're definitely going to try the liqueur in sparkling wine, white wine and experiment with different cocktails.

A few concluding thoughts:

It's so easy to do, and more fun than I'd anticipated, knowing that you're saving a bit of summer for the times when you'll need it most. Also, the fact that you've 'worked' on it over a period of 6 months, makes it quite special and symbolic.

I have a feeling that, providing you start of with a clean jar, firm fruit and you stick to the minimum alcohol percentage, it can't really go wrong. Mind, as this was my first try, that feeling might not correspond with scientific reality.

I've kept the most important bit for the end: when you serve your rumtopf, don't forget to toast to everything you've harvested over the past year: what you have accomplished, the people you've met, the lessons you've learnt and the joy and wonder you've felt.

Whatever the new year will bring, we'll be stronger to deal with it when we're grateful and aware about what we have right now. Cheers!

Rumtopf and pink champagne biscuits.

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(Inter)national Rumtopf Day!

I declare today... Rumtopf Day.

After six months of gathering, cutting, adding, pouring and most of all waiting, this is the day the rumtopf will be opened. A happy and much anticipated occasion indeed.

It's a bit too early in the day to have a go at it already, so it's still safely stacked away in its little corner in the cellar.

Stay tuned for more news about the Official Opening later today.

(Recipe and more pictures here.)
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18 Dec 2010

Some snow fun...

Inspired by the much more entertaining: 'How to annoy people when it snows', I wanted to contribute my own bit of seasonal joy to the world.

So far, most adults don't seem to want to play. We need more snow!
(And I have to work on my shovel skills so I can get more creative.)

Thanks to my friend Ch. for sharing the video! :-)
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16 Dec 2010

Warning: Contains the Word 'Vagina'.

If this post's title puzzles you, go read this article. If it doesn't, I'd still recommend you go read it. It was quite an eye opener for me.

As far as I can tell, the 'tricky words' situation is not nearly as bad here in Europe as it seems to be in the US, but it's good to be aware, and alert.

Some time ago, I wrote about the 'save the words' campaign. Wouldn't it be a shame if the word 'vagina' would become extinct and we'd be forced to use elaborate flowery descriptions instead?

I don't think 'vagina' is a particularly nice or beautiful word, but it's quite adequate for what it's supposed to do: describe a part of our bodies I for one wouldn't like to live without. And the reasons why it's considered a problem word annoy me.

Therefore, to do my bit (no pun intended), I now adopt 'vagina' as my second word, sibling to my other adoptee: 'buffoonery'. I hereby promise I will try to use it more often, in conversation as well as in writing. Providing it fits. No pun intended here either.

If we put in some effort, I'm sure we'll find that, like with most words, the word's connotations are flexible. Maybe we can even turn it into poetry. Almost a hundred years after Gertrude Stein's 'A Rose is a Rose is a Rose', we can write our 2010 tribute.

Say it with me: 'A Vagina is a Vagina is a Vagina.' You see? Easy. The word is becoming more beautiful as we speak.
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15 Dec 2010

Midnight Blue(s) Margaritas.

At this very moment, my novel's main character is having Midnight Margaritas with a few friends, and I had to test the magical formula to make sure it was just right for the occasion. I'm not going to add the recipe to the story, but still, I like to do my research properly. Not an easy life, being a writer on sabbatical...

As an extra challenge, the drink had to be blue. You're free to ask why, but I can't tell you just now. The fact that I'd run out of Cointreau wasn't the only reason. Really.

Either way, here's the recipe, and a glimpse of how it turned out:

50ml tequila
30ml blue curaçao
juice of 3/4 of a lime
tiny dash of cane sugar syrup
ice cubes
some coarse salt (I used fleur de sel)

How to make it:
- Add ice cubes, tequila, blue curaçao, lime juice and cane sugar syrup in a blender.
- Quote the 'Eye of newt, toe of frog' lines from Macbeth while waving your arms and hands in a most mysterious way.
- Blend.
- Cut the remaining 1/4 of a lime in 2 pieces. Use one to wet the rim of the glass and dip the glass in the salt.
- Add the lime pieces to the glass (and another ice cube if you prefer) and pour the blended mixture over them. Done!

I think a blue margarita makes the perfect accessory to my writing desk. Wouldn't you agree?

Right. No more procrastinating for me. Back to the novel!
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14 Dec 2010

Of Den and Desk...

Here they are, as promised: the pictures of the new (old) writer's desk in my little corner up in the attic.

The left side of the den, in its virgin state.
The desk is a secretaire that's been in my husband's family for quite a while, and it's just perfect to write on. It's even got that particular antique resin smell that helps me submerge into 'the other world'.

With my dictionaries, scrapbooks, magazines and other reference material all gathered in one place, and my writer's den clutter-free again, I'm hoping to complete the first draft of my novel's final chapters less than a week from now.

Then I've got some more revising and editing to do, and - depending on how that goes - I think I'll be ready to start querying agents some time in the spring.

I've come to the point where I'm constantly veering between courage and anxiety. I've been thinking / researching / building / writing on this novel for about two years now, with a 6 month break in between where I was too busy with work and organising a wedding. Now that it's coming to a provisional end, it feels great. It's been a daunting project from the start and I couldn't have predicted I'd be able to shape my original idea into a full manuscript, let alone one I'm almost happy with.

The right side, equally untouched.
I'm aware that what comes next will entail a lot of rejection, uncertainties and smashed hopes.

But at the same time I believe I've created something that's worth while. And those of you who know me well also know that's something I don't say lightly, even less so about my own work.

Still, I know and accept that there are heaps of people out there with more expertise and experience in this field, and I'm looking forward to getting their feedback. I'm not afraid to continue chopping, chiseling, adding and rewriting until my novel is also 'ready' in their eyes.

Wish me luck, strength, perseverance, courage and anything else you think I'll need for the rest of this journey. And a heartfelt thanks to all of you for the support and encouragement so far!
Fully installed now. And a white wall to stare at.

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13 Dec 2010

Life, Love and at least 21 Questions.

I'm usually not a list-making type of person, but every once and a while, when my life is at its most chaotic, I get a burst of that particular type of energy that makes me want to sort out stuff. And make lists.

Today has been one of those days.

After half a day of redecorating my hidey-hole / writer's den (pictures coming soon) and a few hours of overdue reading, there was a little energy left for something I'd been thinking about for a while but never really got round to doing: compiling a list of questions I want to ask myself on a regular basis.

And as with all questions, their real value lies in the answers we come up with. And the insights and changes that sprout and grow from there.

Anyway, here's my list:
  1. What is the craziest thing I've done so far? How crazy is it?
  2. Am I a nice person?
  3. Who are the people I consider most important in my life? How much (quality) time do I actually spend with them?
  4. How do I think people will remember me when I die? How would I want to be remembered?
  5. Have I been the kind of friend I'd want to have as a friend?
  6. Have I made a real difference in anyone's life?
  7. Am I being a good friend to myself? Taking care of my body, heart, mind, soul or whatever part of me I consider important?
  8. When's the last time my heart was beating fast out of excitement?
  9. If I didn't know my own age, how old would I think I was?
  10. If I were a superhero, what would my superpower be?
  11. If I only had 3 more months to live, would I continue doing what I'm doing now?
  12. Most of the time, when I wake up, do I feel like what I'm going to do that day matters?
  13. Which are my most treasured skills? In how far am I using them to make a living?
  14. What is my biggest fear?
  15. Am I holding any grudges?
  16. How much do I like my home? The village/town/city/country where I live?
  17. What would my dream holiday look like? In what way is it different from my current daily life?
  18. Am I spending most of my thoughts on the past, the present or the future?
  19. Who are the people I'm surrounding myself with? What does that tell about me?
  20. How far would I go to save the life of someone I love?
  21. What am I most grateful for?
And as a nice surprise: going through my list made me feel quite good about my life. There's still plenty of room for improvement, but I'm happy where I am now. I'm grateful for the people in my life, for the luck, the good decisions ànd the not-so-good ones. They have possibly taught me more than anything else.
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9 Dec 2010

Just gorgeous...

No words necessary:

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Downtime and the Danger of (its) Extinction.

I wanted to share a blog post over at 'the99percent' that has really struck a chord with me. It's an article about the importance of interruption-free space for creative thinking.

2/365 Days - Pen and PaperThese past few days, I've been trying to focus exclusively on my novel. I found it impossible. There were phone calls, text messages and an annoying letter in the mail that needed urgent attention. And of course: the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, emails, mailing lists that always seem to explode when it's really cold outside, etcetera.

Still, I am painfully aware how easy it would be to avoid many of those distractions. If I really wanted to. And ay, there's the rub: something inside me keeps drawing me back to my technologically-induced connections. For some reason, they seem very important.

It made me wonder: are they, really?

Would my real friendships or family bonds fade if I didn't see these loved ones' status updates? Or they mine? Would the quality of my life diminish if I didn't read every single email or tweet shared by the communities I feel part of?

I'm so sure they wouldn't. So I thought a bit more about it: if this constant connectivity doesn't make a fundamental difference, why do our brains keep directing us there?

The article I mentioned above pointed out a number of very plausible reasons:
  • 'space is scary': having time to think about possibly anything, having time alone with our minds, can be very confrontational. So we look for distraction to avoid the confrontation.
  • 'interaction with others affects our self-esteem': I am sure this is a lot more true for extraverts than introverts, but that doesn't make it any less relevant. The constant connection and quick feedback to our walls, tweets or blogs, makes it possible to feel valued, reassured, part of a greater whole and even loved: instantly, and nearly all the time.

I wanted to add another reason of my own, that ties in closely with that last one:

Because of the internet, and the possibilities of connecting with people far away, our communities have expanded, not necessarily in numbers (because we only have so much awareness, attention and other brain capacity), but geographically.

As a result, we are no longer just relying on our immediate physical environment for good conversation, friendship, mental and emotional connection, a sense of 'family'. We can cherry-pick those people we 'click' with most, regardless of where they live.

And because this extended family is often not around during the more tedious bits of everyday life, they're less likely to stuff up or be associated with mundane matters, and more likely to be a great doorway to the 'charged' and intense and deeper interaction we crave.

Add to that the huge holes in the information that's actually conveyed in online communication (we miss out on tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.), which means that our brain needs to fill in many more blanks in the message. Our brains do that from (reconstructed) memory and imagination, which i slikely to confirm the ideas we already have and to reinforce us in who we are. And yay: more good vibes!

And really, this is great. It's extremely valuable and I am incredibly grateful for all the people I have met and got to know this way. I've had several of my best conversations and most precious experiences with some of them. This connectivity can expand our horizons and make our minds more free.
But there is a downside: it can make our minds less free as well, if we allow it to take up our 'sacred space', our 'creative pauses', our much needed downtime.

Central Park, NY. October 2004
I've certainly been thinking about that a lot, these past few days. I'm trying to be a lot more conscious about that sacred space, being my own best friend by reminding me to shut down my laptop regularly, to make plans to meet up 'for real', to go for walks, take bubble baths, and read more (Edgar Allen Poe, for now). And what's interesting: I still have just as much time for writing!

You can find Scott Belsky's original article here, and there are some great tips and ideas about this topic at the Sabbath Manifesto!
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5 Dec 2010

A Toy for Dark and Rainy Days.

Two more weeks and we'll be going through the longest night of the year. We've entered the dark times and in spite (or because) of that, my writing's actually going pretty well.

I love this time of year, but still, when I look through the window, I miss the colours of spring, summer and autumn. Especially now the snow has thawed to a vile greyish-brown sorbet, I'm longing to see the world in vibrant tones again.

Until the first blooms in March, memories and pictures will have to do. And I've found just the right online tool for that: the Multicolr Search Lab.

It allows you to pick a combination of up to 10 colours, and then it finds you a bunch of matching Flickr images. It searches between the most 'interesting' pictures under Creative Commons license, based on how Flickr users and visitors click, comment or tag them.

A few more picks that lifted my spirits:

If you want to have a try: http://labs.ideeinc.com/multicolr. Be warned, though, it's strangely addictive!
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3 Dec 2010

Friday Chuckles...

Here's a picture I took this summer, driving on a motorway in England. I was really lucky to have my camera at hand when I noticed the number plate.

It's probably only funny if you're a computer gamer or an internet geek, though...

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