You learn something new every day…

On Wednesday, for example, I learned that I don’t in fact need to go back to my own specific branch of Bank of Scotland just to pay in a cheque.

I was telling my girlfriend that I’d finally got round to claiming back my fuel expenses from the last hillwalking club trip I was on after nearly two months, and was joking that it’ll probably take me another two months to get around to going to the bank where my account is and actually paying it in, since it’s at the branch near my parents’ house and not all that handy for me now. She looked at me blankly and said, “Why do you need to go there? You can pay it into any branch!”.

I was pretty taken aback, having spent the last 15 years since I had a bank account dutifully going out of my way to go in there every time I needed to pay in a cheque. Now I find out, just in time for the phase-out of cheques by the look of it, that there was no need.

Thinking about it, I can’t actually remember why I didn’t think I could pay in cheques at a different branch. Most likely someone else who’d always believed it told me and I never questioned it because it sounded like the sort of irritating hoop that banks would make you jump through for no reason. Or maybe it used to be true in the old pre-computerised days but isn’t anymore.

I’m sure I used to have other similar beliefs that I eventually found out weren’t true. I was going to write a blog post about them but then I found I couldn’t remember any (apart from one that’s ridiculously technical and geeky). Shame. It would have been dead insightful and interesting and all that. Instead you’re stuck with this one ;).

Update: I can now confirm that it’s definitely true. Paid in my cheque at the Cameron Toll branch, a short walk from my office, and it worked! (Not that I doubted you, Laura 😉 ).

Historic Scotland Are Doing A Stirling Job

In one of my random posts last year, I mentioned that Laura and I had won a Historic Scotland competition. We each got a year’s membership for free, and also a VIP tour of Stirling Castle. So on Saturday, we went to have the tour.

It was a cold day and quite misty, but could have been worse… at least it wasn’t windy or raining. The mist meant that the normally impressive views from the castle were cut quite short, but the Wallace Monument looming out of the gloom looked quite atmospheric.

We arrived to a very warm welcome from the Historic Scotland staff, and Laura was presented with a goody bag. Given the choice of a “VIP” tour that started at 10am or a normal tour at a more civilised time, we’d opted for a lie-in and a non-VIP tour. Apparently the only difference was we would have had the guide to ourselves on the VIP one… but as our guide, Brian, had more than enough personality to go round everyone in the group, that wasn’t a problem.

This is the last time I'm letting Laura book the hotel room. Ah well, at least it was en suite (in a manner of speaking)

As well as the tour we also wandered around the castle a lot on our own… and took way too many photos. I managed to take a total of 723 over the course of the whole weekend which is excessive even by my recent standards. I’ve now taken well over 5,000 since buying my DSLR at the end of August. (From time to time I like to calculate how many rolls of film I would have had to buy to take that many pictures and how much it would have cost to buy them all and get them all processed. Of course if I was still using film I probably wouldn’t have taken 723 photos in one weekend… but it still makes me feel a little better about blowing all that money on this camera).

Unfortunately by the time we went to the cafe to spend our £50 food voucher, they were all out of hot food. By this time we were starving so it was time to head to our hotel, where we found a nice restaurant next door and proceeded to eat far too much.

No wonder there was no food in the cafe. The kitchen staff were all standing around like statues not doing anything!

We spent a quiet evening around the hotel. Sunday was cold but much clearer, and since we had our Historic Scotland memberships now, we decided to visit some other sites in the area. First was Doune Castle.

The last time I was here, it was swarming with Monty Python fans dressed up in costume and competing for who could do the best recreation of a Python sketch. Today we only met one Monty Python fanatic, but the audio tours did feature a certain Mr Terry Jones.

Laura managed to take two “ghost photos” with weird transparent swirly things in them that didn’t show up either in real life or on any of my photos. It was a shame in a way because a few years ago I probably would have been really excited by this… but then I stopped believing in ghosts and now all I can think is “meh, probably dust or something”. God damn it ghosts, where were you back when I believed in you?

If this was Laura's photo of the hall, you'd be able to see the swirly ghost thing. But it's mine, so you can't.

The woman in the gift shop recommended Castle Campbell to us. We hadn’t heard of it before but it was roughly on the way home so we decided to stop off there and have a look.

It’s in Dollar Glen which I’d also never been to. There was a bit of a walk up and down a slippery path to get there but it was worth it for the views.

Then it was back to Edinburgh just in time to go see War Horse before the final Sherlock was on (I have one thing to say about the Sherlock episode: What. The. Hell.). All in all a very good weekend.

Goody bag contents


My Android Apps

I’ve had my Android phone about 18 months now. As the sort of person who likes to program everything that isn’t nailed down (starting from my dad’s ZX Spectrum and eventually progressing up to supercomputers) I just had to have a go at making some apps.

Android is good for coding your own apps, which is one of the reasons I chose it. For iPhone and iPad you need to use a Mac for development (which I don’t have and have no intention of getting) and you also have to either pay a developer fee of $99 per year or jailbreak your device. Even then you can’t test your code on anyone else’s phone unless they also pay the fee or jailbreak it. Thankfully Android is more accessible for programmers… you can just download a free software development kit for Windows, Mac or Linux and get started straight away.

Most of my apps are quite boring. There’s one that backs up all my contacts and text messages to a file and puts it in my Dropbox folder automatically. That was the first one I wrote and I’ve used it a lot ever since, though I improved it and added the Dropbox integration more recently. Another keeps track of my finances, and there’s one that allows me to access the task tracker I use (without which my life would probably be frighteningly close to unravelling completely) from my phone. But the most fun ones are the emulators.

Emulators are programs that make a computer behave like a different kind of computer. They let you run old programs on hardware that didn’t even exist when they were written. There are huge numbers of emulators out there allowing you to turn your PC into any kind of old, clunky computer or console imaginable. They’ve always interested me, partly because I like old computers for nostalgic reasons and partly because of the technical intricacy that goes into making emulators work. So since I started programming on the Spectrum and could still just about remember how it works inside out, it seemed fitting that I should code a Spectrum emulator for Android.

Here it is, running one of my favourite old games (Spellbound Dizzy) on my phone. I’m quite proud of it… I think it works rather well. (If your definition of “well” encompasses turning a cutting edge smartphone into an ancient, primitive computer, that is 😉 ). It runs at full speed, which the other emulators I tested didn’t seem to quite manage on my slow-ish HTC Wildfire.

Then I decided that at this point it wouldn’t be too much work to make a Sega Master System emulator as well. I never owned a Master System (went straight from the Spectrum to Megadrive and our first PC) but I loved playing Sonic on other people’s whenever I got the chance.

It uses exactly the same main processor as the Spectrum and a lot of the other emulator code could be shared as well, so I got it up and running a lot quicker than the first one. The only hard bit was getting the Master System’s graphics working properly.

Finally (for now) I did a Gameboy emulator as well:

Tetris is even fiddlier to play with the controller on the touchscreen, though.

If you have an Android phone and feel like reliving the games of the early 90s, you can play with my emulators too. I put them online here (you will need to have the “Unknown sources” box ticked in your application settings to be able to install them). I’ve only tested them on two phones so far so it’s possible they won’t play well on all devices. If they don’t seem to work properly, please feel free to get in touch and I might be able to fix them, though I can’t promise anything. There are probably better emulators out there for all these machines, I really just made these ones for my own amusement.

(As well as installing the emulator app, you will need to put some games on your memory card. There are hundreds if not thousands of Spectrum games on World of Spectrum, which seems to be at least semi-legitimate. I don’t know of any legal sites for Gameboy and Master System ROMs but they’re pretty easy to find by googling anyway).

Have fun :).

Hello, 2012

Well… it’s 2012 (Happy New Year!)… and I didn’t exactly manage to make any resolutions. (Maybe I should make a resolution to make resolutions for next year… or maybe not). I have some vague ideas of things I want to do more of or less of, haven’t quite formulated them into anything specific. But then I think last year I only had the vague ideas as well and 2011 turned out quite good overall, so maybe 2012 will too. (It’s already off to the best start to a year that I can remember).

The serious stuff:

  • Set goals for myself and track where I am with them. I started to do this in the second half of 2011 but I think it’s time to step it up a gear. It’s one of the best ways I’ve found to combat my terror of time passing while I waste it doing nothing.
  • Meditate regularly. It clears my head, which it is often sorely in need of. Again I started this already but should make sure I keep it up.
  • Lose the weight that I gained in the last few months. Back in summer I was nearly down to my target weight and was the lightest I’d been in nearly 10 years, but then I drifted away from the WeightWatchers plan. I should get back to it. I should also cook more decent food instead of eating junk.
  • Stop trying to please people who just aren’t worth it. This was pointless to begin with but it’s even more pointless now that I’ve got all these awesome people who are worth it in my life :).

And now that’s out of the way, on with

The fun stuff:

  • More piano playing. I’ve really enjoyed getting back to this and learning some more challenging pieces. I got a Chopin Preludes and Etudes book for Christmas so that should keep me busy for a while. (And I’m still ploughing on with Bach’s Fugue in A minor. Still finding it rewarding but doubtful I’ll ever be able to play it well enough to share it with anyone else).
  • Get back into dancing. I haven’t been in what feels like aaaaages. Will have to return to the New Scotland classes when they restart. And definitely must go to IVFDF again this year. It’s only in Aberdeen so there’s really no excuse.
  • More walking and photography.
  • More creativity. I’ve got more things I want to write about here, and more computery sort of projects I want to do. I’m planning to write about some of them very soon…
  • Go to more gigs, and hopefully a music festival. I was a bit worried that at my advanced age I wouldn’t find anyone to go to a festival with, but then a few days ago on MSN I randomly had a conversation that went something like this: “We’re thinking of going to a music festival this year”, “Oh cool, can I come?”, “Sure!” – so it seems it might fall into place without me really doing anything, which is always nice. I also want to go see Belle and Sebastian and MGMT, now that I’ve got Evanescence ticked off (yep, as I’ve mentioned before, I have strange tastes).

I think that’s enough for now 🙂