Thursday, 31 January 2008

Depositing a Cheque

Depositing a cheque at the bank can be time consuming. There is nearly always a long queue. Unfortunately I've never been impressed by the automatic methods of cheque deposit.

Previously automatically depositing a cheque involved filling out a form and then placing it along with the cheque in an envelope and then feeding this into a machine. I preferred to hand the cheque over the counter and get a receipt showing how much I had deposited.

Last time I went to deposit a cheque the queue wasn't just long it was colosal! So with a little trepidation I thought I'd save myself a good half hour by using the machine. Much to my surprise this was actually a fun and easy experience.

I used my bank card like I would in a normal ATM then after entering my pin selected "Cheque Deposit" from the menu. The screen instructed me to insert my cheque into a slot in the machine which I did. It then told me how much the cheque was for (and it got it right) and then gave me a receipt. The receipt is great not only does it tell you how much you deposited but you get a nice copy of the cheque for your records.

Now I know all the technology to do this has been around for a while but this is the first time I've seen everything strung together in such a simple and elegant fashion. It serves the purpose without trying to be too clever. I think in future I'll be using the machine to deposit cheques, it's so much more fun than queuing (even if that is a British hobby).

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The Alps From The Air

The mountains you can see from Bled form part of the Alps. They are really impressive from the ground but even more so when seen from the air. We were fortunate on the way home to have a flight at just the right time to get some really good views of the Alps as we left Slovenia.

As nice as the views were I was a little jealous of those who sat on the other side of the plane to me as they got to see the sunset over the Alps, and from what little I could see across the aisle I'm sure the views were spectacular!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Bled for the Blind

On the lake shore not far from the hotel stands this bronze model of Lake Bled and the surrounding area. I've seen something similar once before in Budapest and I think that they are a really good idea.

They aren't a model to tell tourists what they can see as there are no labels. Rather they are intended for blind people to get a feel for the view they are unfortunately missing out on.

I think they are really clever and I wish that more tourist attractions would pay to have something similar for those who, through no fault of their own, can't fully appreciate the stunning views many of us travel long distances to see.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Bled: Sunrise from the Castle

When I walked around the lake I noticed a footpath that was signed as leading up to the castle. So on Friday morning I decided to try and get to the castle before breakfast. In fact I was so early that I was able to watch the sunrise across the lake, looking back past the hotel towards Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Unfortunately I was too early to actually enter the castle but at least I got a closer look at it.

Bled: Panoramic Photos

I'm now back home after my trip to Bled. I've still got quite a few posts to make about Bled although I'll probably spread them out a little so you don't all get bored by the same topic.

Anyway, now that I'm home I've had time to generate a number of panoramic images from the photos I took. These should give you more of an idea of the area than the single photos I've shown in the previous posts.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Bled: Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary

Yesterday morning, in an attempt to work off some of the food I've been eating, I decided to walk around the lake before having breakfast.

It was nice to get away from the hotel and I got a better look at the small island in the lake. Apparently this is the only natural island in the whole of Slovenia. The main building on the island is the 15th century Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Meetings Make Me Fat!

Meetings make me fat! We sit around all day and do just two things; talk and eat. Lets take yesterday as a typical example.

Breakfast: I had a cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon along with lots of black coffee.

Lunch: A full three course meal served just a few steps from the meeting room. The menu read: Salad from rocket and salmon with virginal oil and balsamic vinegar. Veal Mignon with Mushrooms, croquettes of samolina and bean with sesame. Bavarien cream. (I know some of you may have an ethical objection to veal, as do I, but when the menu doesn't have any options it is eat veal or go hungry).

Dinner: Broccoli soup followed by a local dish that I can't spell or pronounce but was basically a cheese and vegetable stuffed burger that was the size and shape of an omelet.

So in a single day I had a cooked breakfast, a three course meal and a two course meal. No wonder I put on weight during these meetings!

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Cancelled TV

I'm clearly not in the demographic that American TV studio executives want to pitch their shows at. I'm beginning to lose count of the number of fantastic American TV shows that I've watched only to find that the show was cancelled either part way through a season or at the end of the first season. I really don't understand how decisions to cancel TV shows are made (clearly no one asks the people who watch the shows!) especially considering the utter drivel that keeps being made, series after series (think Big Brother, or X-Factor etc). OK, Ill stop ranting!

So if you want to watch some fantastic TV forget the drivel being broadcast and have a look at American TV at it's best:

Believe me, you won't be able to work out why any of these shows were cancelled before they had run their course.

Bled: Day 2

As promised here is a slightly better photo of Bled Castle.

We are staying in the Park Hotel in Bled which is right on the shores of the lake. Between breakfast and the start of today's meetings I went for a short stroll along the lake shore to get a better look at the area and to take a few photos while the weather was so good.

The view from the meeting room is almost the same as this photo, which is a shame given that we end up with our backs to the window all day long. That really sums up my problem with work meetings -- we travel to some really nice places (if you ignore Milton Keynes) and then we are stuck inside all day long and see nothing of the local area. Ah well I suppose I shouldn't complain too much I do get to briefly see the world without paying to travel!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Bled Castle

So I'm in Slovenia. Bled to be precise. I'm here with work so I'm not sure exactly how much of the area I will see, although the scenery looked nice on the drive from the airport in the capital Ljubljana.

Anyway I thought I'd share a photo of Bled Castle, especially given that it's one of the first photos I've taken with my new digital camera. I decided that I needed a small camera for trips like this. I ended up buying a Fuji FinePix A900 at the airport (tax free of course).

I was intending to buy the camera yesterday in Tesco, as I knew they had it on offer, but that turned out badly. I picked up the display case and paid for the camera at the till. Once paid for you have to collect the camera from customer services. Unfortunately it turned out that although I'd paid for the camera they didn't have any in stock! They refunded the money of course but that's not the point!

Anyway, hopefully I'll have some better photos of Bled to share with you tomorrow (hopefully without a lampost blocking the view).

Monday, 21 January 2008

Blue Cheese Burgers

Ingredients (makes 4 burgers)
800g minced beef
1 medium onion
1 large stick of celery
1 tsp mixed herbs
1 tsp mustard powder
12 1cm cubes of good quality Stilton
4 burger buns

Cooking Instructions
Finely chop the onion and celery and place in a bowl along with the mixed herbs. Mix the mustard powder with 1 tsp of cold water and then stir this into the dry ingredients. Using your hands work the minced beef into the other ingredients until everything is well mixed.

Form 1/8 of the mixture into a burger sized disk place 3 of the cubes of Stilton on top of the burger. Use a further 1/8 of the mixture to double the depth of the burger sealing the cheese between the two parts. I actually do this using a loose bottomed 10cm pork pie tin -- push 1/8 of the mixture into the tin then drop in the cheese and add the remaining 1/8 of the mixture, push down firmly to seal, and finally push up on the loose bottom to remove the burger.

Wrap the burgers in grease proof paper and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Cook the burgers by frying gently until they are fully cooked through (depending on thickness this can take quite a while). You shouldn't need to add any oil/fat to the pan as the meat will release enough juices during cooking to prevent the burgers from sticking.

Serve in lightly buttered burger buns with a generous portion of chips.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Dead Computers

Today has not been good day for computers in our house. My main desktop computer has been slowly failing for a while. I thought the problem was simply that I hadn't reinstalled Windows for a while (a necessary evil) so when it got to the point where it would no longer boot without blue screening I bit the bullet and tried to re-install Windows. Windows would not install. Firstly it looks as if my hard disk has physically failed (the S.M.A.R.T. system is reporting that the disc is failing), but replacing the disk and Windows still won't install as it can't format or copy files to the disk. So I'm assuming the drive controller on the motherboard is also failing. So I need a new computer.

To get at the data on the second disk in my desktop I thought I'd make use of an older computer I have sitting around. Unfortunately it hasn't been booted in about 18 months and I think the build up of dust was enough that when I turned it on there was a nasty pop and a cloud of dust and smoke. While it will now turn on and run the fans there is no video output and no post beep noise.

So I guess that's two dead computers, quite an expensive afternoon! If anyone has any suggestions on which CPU/motherboard/graphics card etc. I should buy when rebuilding please do leave a comment.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Debugging Software

I was out for Christmas lunch on Wednesday with work (we are so disorganised that we always end up having a Christmas meal after Christmas), and we were talking about memories of being at University.

One of the people I was sat with was describing the bar at the Uni he had attended and said it was a great place to go to grab a pint while stepping through printed code to debug a problem. I had trouble remembering the last time I did this (debug code on paper, not grab a pint).

It used to be very common to debug code by printing out the program and then stepping through it in your head to spot where the problem lay. I don't know if it is just that programs have become more complex or if it is that computer languages have changed so much that this method of debugging is no longer feasible. While I was always happy to step through BASIC code on paper I can't imagine doing the same with any Object-Orientated language such as Java.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

How I Got My Start In Computing

The news that one of the designers of the BBC Micro Computer had been given a CBE in the New Years Honours list got me reminiscing about how I got started with computers.

I had my first computer, a Dragon (I've no idea if it was the 32 or 64 kilobyte version) for about a week. It wasn't actually mine but rather it belonged to my cousin Andrew. My Dad borrowed a bunch of Queen LP's from him (including the rather fantastic Flash Gordon) and in the box with the records was the Dragon. I honestly don't remember much about this computer other that it came with a version of BASIC and I remember writing my first "Hello World" program and being intrigued by the fact that I could control the computer, albeit in a limited way.

The first computer I actually owned was an Acorn Electron that was a Christmas present (shared with my brother). The Electron was a fantastic computer and had some brilliant games given it's rather limited 16K of RAM. The Electron was the computer on which I learnt to program. There was a brilliant magazine "Acorn User" (other Sheffield University graduates might find the contents page from Issue 12 interesting) that had program listings for you to type in (usually for small games) which gave me lots of examples to work from. One of the most interesting pages was the "10 Liners" -- programs that were at most 10 lines long, which often included really useful tricks to keep the length of the program down and hence fit more into memory. I have no idea what the first useful thing I coded was but I do remember the first time I altered someone else program.

With some games you could actually get at the source code which opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Over the years I made a number of modifications but the first one that was successful was changing the speed of thr evil gorilla in Killer Gorilla. Killer Gorilla was a version of Donkey Kong for the Electron and I simply found and changed the value of the variable that controlled the speed of the gorilla. In fact I was so successful that the gorilla hardly moved at all, although when I got to somewhere around level 30 I reached the stack level of the electron and the game crashed with (I think) a GOSUB error!

The Electron was eventually replaced by a BBC Model B with a double sided 80 track 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drive. Only when you have loaded programs from audio cassettes can you truly appreciate how much of a step forward floppy disks actually were. The Model B and Electron were mostly compatible with each other and so I continued to play the same games and tinker with the same programming ideas for a number of years until the PC became more popular in schools and homes.

Why not take a stroll down memory lane, grab a BBC emulator and then have a look for your favourite games of yesteryear.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Flapjacks: An Aga Disaster

Given how quickly my flapjacks get eaten I was intending to share the recipe in today's post. Before sharing each recipe with you I've always cooked it one more time to check through every step and to capture a picture. Unfortunately the flapjack recipe will have to wait.

All the Aga cookbooks I've read warn that you can't smell when food is burning in the oven due to the way the heat is vented out the flu rather than into the kitchen. I can now confirm that this is definitely the case.

The Aga in the kitchen has two ovens; one for roasting and one for baking. The roasting oven gets very very hot (think the highest setting on a conventional gas oven) and is ideal for roasting. Unfortunately I can't have been concentrating this morning as I put the flapjacks in the roasting oven instead of the baking oven. When I opened the door 30 minutes later I was met by a large cloud of thick black smoke and a very charred set of flapjacks. Fortunately I was able to rescue the tin in which they were cooking but I couldn't make a second batch as I don't have enough oats in the house!

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Star Wars: Attack of the Asthmatic Droid

A few nights ago I finally got around to watching Star Wars Episode III. I have to say that I was impressed. It still isn't a patch on the original three films (now known as Episodes IV, V and VI just to confuse us) but it was much better than Episodes I and II.

The one thing I found very strange was General Grievous. Grievous appears to be having an asthma attack through all his scenes, which is strange given that he is a droid!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars It really is a good film and had it been a stand-alone Sci-Fi film I would probably have given it 5 stars, but it still can't beat the original trilogy.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Cartesian Geometry

I'm currently reading one of the books I was bought for Christmas, specifically A History of Pi by Peter Beckmann. It is a really interesting book and I've learnt all sorts of weird things.

One of the stranger things I learnt this morning was that Cartesian geometry is actually named after René Descartes. I was baffled by this statement until I read the next sentence that points out that he latinized his name to Renatus Cartesius. Well that explains everything then!

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Coffee: "Cona" Vacuum Pot

On this strange journey through my coffee making equipment we reach the final stop, a "Cona" Vacuum Pot. I was given this coffee machine as a graduation present back in 2006. This machine is my most recent, most expensive, most fragile and most fun coffee machine. It also makes the best coffee!

Often referred to in our house as my chemsitry set it is difficult to describe how it works (other than it involves creating a vacuum) so I videoed it making a pot of coffee. Given how fragile looking it is and the fact that it takes quite a while to make coffee this way I don't use it very often, but it is great for getting out and making coffee at the table after a meal with guests.

I hope you enjoyed that brief tour around my coffee making equipment. At least now if you are ever in the house you will know what kind of coffee you can ask for!

Simple QuickTime Movie Embedding

QuickTime has a very useful "Export for Web" feature that can produce a number of different versions of the same movie targeted at different devices. As well as the different versions of the exported movie it produces a web page with instructions and an example of how to embed the movie in your own website. This is a great but, as far as I am concerned, the way Apple have chosen to embed QuickTime movies in web pages has a number of drawbacks:
  • The markup needed to embed a single movie is quite extensive, requiring a JavaScript function call and a noscript tag to manually embed a player when JavaScript is disabled.
  • Their solution uses two rather large JavaScript files and a style sheet. These files are not ridiculously large but they seem very over engineered for solving what is in essence a very simple problem.
  • The appearance of the embedded movie when JavaScript is disabled is different, most notably no clue is given that it is in fact a movie which can be played by clicking upon it.
  • There is no simple way of customizing the way in which the movie is embedded in the web page.
So I've put together a solution which attempts to address all of these issues making it both easier to embed QuickTime movies into pages within your website as well as giving you more control over their appearance.

I've put together a demo page with a number of examples, but to give you an idea of what you can do, how about the option to watch the trailer for Fracture or WALL-E.

Click to play 'Fracture'Click to play 'WALL-E'

Updated 26/10/2008: I've added a check to see if QuickTime is installed so that we don't even try to embed it if it isn't there.

Updated 07/11/2008: I've removed code that worked around the Eolas patent as a) I don't think it is really needed and b) it was causing two instances of QuickTime to be embedded in IE which resulted in audio problems. Thanks to Jonathan for pointing out the IE problem.

Updated 27/11/2008: Added the ability to provide either a re-direct URL or a function to be called when the user clicks to play a movie if they don't have QuickTime installed.

Updated 30/11/2008: A very minor update to allow the URL of the QuickTime movie to contain parameters.

Updated 02/12/2008: Added the ability to place links to the QuickTime movies outside of the DIV in which they will be played. Thanks to Stephen for the suggestion.

Updated 14/10/2009: Updated the CSS styles to include the standard CCS3 opacity as new versions of Firefox no longer respect the -moz-opacity setting. Also the script now ensures that the DIV in which the movie will be played is fully within the viewable area by scrolling the page if necessary.

Updated 26/11/2010: Added support for showing alternative HTML content if QuickTime is not installed. Thanks to Niklas Olofsson for the suggestion.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Coffee: Filter Coffee Machine and Espresso Pot

So far we have seen a cafetiere and an espresso machine. Whilst they both make nice coffee they are not very useful when you have lots of people around who all want coffee all the time! For that you need a filter coffee machine. They are easy to use (add coffee and water and leave alone), they keep the coffee hot, and they are easy to clean and refill when the coffee runs out. Again I went for a relatively cheap model, but it works a charm and makes it very easy for me to provide lots of coffee.

The next coffee machine I acquired, an espresso pot, was a present. An espresso pot is the exact opposite of the filter coffee machine in that it makes a single cup of coffee. Unlike the previous ways of making coffee this one is actually quite fun as there is a certain element of having to watch and wait for the coffee to be ready -- mainly so you don't burn the thing dry leaving it on the heat too long. As an added bonus it works quite well on an Aga.

Luxo Jr. meets WALL-E

Have you ever watched a Pixar film (for example Toy Story, A Bug's Life, The Incredibles, ...) and wondered why the Pixar logo includes a little animated desk lamp? Well the original version of the desk lamp appeared in Pixar's first ever animation Luxo Jr -- the story of a little desk lamp, his father and a beach ball. Luxo Jr. was produced in 1986 to showcase what Pixar were capable of doing, and was so well received that it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Film.

I was first introduced to Luxo Jr. during a 3D Graphics course at University (probably in the autumn of 1999) and was blown away by it. Not only was it very well animated for 1986 it had stood the test of time and was still a fantastic piece of animation. When you watch it (a short clip is available from Pixar's website) you can see how much feeling and emotion is present in the movements of the little lamp.

Each new Pixar film continues to impress me with their new computer animation techniques. The trailers for their newest film, WALL-E, are special though as the opening Pixar credits have been changed to include the little robot from the film.

Having watched the trailer I still really don't know much about the film, but I can't wait to see it. Oh and by the way is it just me or does WALL-E look a lot like a rusty prototype version of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Coffee: Espresso Machine

Whilst I'm usually happy with coffee made in a cafetiere, I do like a good espresso. So the second coffee machine I bought was a cheap espresso machine. The nice thing about this particular machine is that it has an attachment for making frothy milk. Now I never have milk in my coffee but I know someone who does like a good cappuccino. This usually means that I make a full cafetiere of coffee and a full carafe of espresso so that I can also froth enough milk to make a nice cappuccino using the cafetiere coffee so that everyone is happy.

Coffee: Cafetiere

The first piece of coffee making equipment I ever bought (other than a kettle!) was this cafetiere back in the autumn of 1998. Given that it has been very well used over the last 9 and a bit years I'm surprised that it has lasted as well as it has -- especially given that the glass in my parents first cafetiere got broken on one of the first attempts I made to clean it after it had been used!

As coffee makers go a cafetiere is relatively boring. You add coffee grounds and hot water, wait a minute or so then depress the plunger so as to ensure the grounds don't end up in your cup. However, for someone who was used to instant coffee, the difference in taste is phenomenal and was well worth the small investment at a time when I was a relatively penniless university student. I can't remember exactly where mine came from (other than it was a shop in Meadowhall) or how much it cost, but the Another Coffee website has quite a range to choose from, including one attractively priced at £8.95 for the current crop of penniless coffee loving students.

The first coffee I bought to use in the cafetiere was Hot Lava Java from Taylors of Harrogate. I was probably drawn to this brand a) by the bright coloured packet b) the free matching storage tin and c) because the back of the packet described the coffee as a "blast of pure caffeine". The description goes on to say: Containing twice as much caffeine as a normal coffee, this blend is not for the faint hearted. Drink it at night, it'll keep you wide eyed until the wee small hours. Drink it during the day, you'll have so much energy you won't be able to sit down. Thinking back it was quite popular late at night with my housemates when we all had coursework deadlines the following day!

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Coffee: Introduction

Given the title of this blog I thought it was about time I talked about coffee. So over a number of posts I'm going to introduce you to the frankly daft amount of coffee making equipment I own. First though I thought I'd start with a couple of good resources for anyone else who is interested in coffee, and to which I'll refer during these set of blog postings. So, among the many books I own are two entirely devoted to coffee.

The Coffee House - A Cultural History: This is a fantastic history of the introduction of coffee and the coffee house culture to England and mainland Europe. From the first coffee house in London opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosée, to the modern proliferation of coffee house chains, such as Starbucks, there is very little of the history of coffee in England that is not covered by this book. A very interesting read, even if you aren't that interested in drinking the coffee!

Coffee: The title says it all, this book is like an encyclopedia of coffee (I assume the linked book is the same even though the ISBN numbers don't match). Whilst it does overlap slightly with the previous book it also provides detailed instructions for using many different types of coffee maker as well as quite a few coffee based recipes. I've found it very useful, even if only for working out what approach to making coffee I want to try next!

And for those of you without ready access to my collection of books there are a few useful/interesting websites as well.

The Another Coffee website is a great place to go to buy anything coffee related, from coffee to very expensive espresso machines through cheap but simple ways to make coffee. I could probably spend a small fortune on this site if I let myself.

Whilst not entirely useful, the "illustrated" coffee cups on World of Latte are lots of fun to look at, but if I ever make you a cup of coffee don't expect it to look quite that fancy!
Hopefully that has whetted your appetite for the coffee related blog posts that will follow over the next few days/weeks.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008


Happy New Year! I was hoping to start the new year with a sunrise photo. I even got up early and went for a walk with my camera intending to get a photo of the first sunrise of 2008. Unfortunately there didn't seem to be a sun or sunrise. Even when it got quite light there was too much mist and clouds for me to see the sun. Ah well, maybe next year. So instead of a sunrise, here is a rather strange photo of some molehills.

What I thought was odd was that here is a football field on which there isn't a single molehill, yet all around the edge there are plenty. I couldn't see anything on the ground that would have stopped the moles burying under the football field so I'm at a loss to explain why they seem to have stopped the same distance away from the pitch along each side. Any suggestions?