Category - Computers & Tech

NASA’s DART Mission

The approach – Didymos and Dimorphos

NASA has just deliberately crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it can alter its orbit.

The asteroid is called Dimorphos, and it orbits another asteroid called Didymos.

It was fascinating to watch. NASA’s live feed began at about 10.15 BST, at which point the Didymos/Dimorphos pair was visible as just a small dot a few pixels wide from the onboard camera. At that stage, impact was about an hour and half away. It was basically a live video with a frame rate of a few seconds, and at the start nothing much was happening.

As time ticked by, the dot became larger, and then it became possible so discern Dimorphos to the upper right of the frame (top image).

Closer – Dimporphos heading past Didymos

As impact time approached, things changed rather more quickly. Detail on Didymos became visible, and Dimorphos came clearly into view. Then, Didymos passed out of frame as the spacecraft autonomously targeted Dimorphos.

Dimorphos with detail

Impact then occurred with a final view of the surface of Dimorphos.

The last frame before impact

It was great watching it (you can see the recording on YouTube). It now remains to find out if the orbit has been altered in any way.

DART was accompanied by LiciaCube, which monitored the collision from about 50km away, and pictures from that should appear shortly (over the next few days) – which will also be interesting. However, it will be a while before they know if the orbital period has changed, indicating a successful outcome of the overall experiment.

But whatever. It is success enough to have targeted something about 160m wide and nearly 7 million miles away so accurately using autonomous control within the probe like this. Another NASA success, no matter how you look at it.

Prime Day Is Coming!

Amazon Prime Day is 12-13 July 2022 and it is great time to bag some bargains.

If nothing else, it can give you some ideas before you shop around to see if you can get a better deal somewhere else (which I often do myself, even though I have Prime for the next-day delivery option if available).

Raspberry Pi ONVIF Camera Project – I

Update: I’ve changed my plans on this and will not be trying to construct a complete Ring-type doorbell after all. My experiments with CCTV cameras have shown I can build a suitable system without having to mess with the motion detection. I can let the camera do that.


I’ve been having problems with my birdbox camera. I’ve been having problems with my Ring doorbell. I’ve also been playing around with various CCTV cameras.

I’ll get on to the birdbox issue in a moment, since it is the primary subject of this article. But for general background:

  • my Ring Doorbell issue is to do with the fact that Ring is discontinuing the desktop app, which I can access instantly from my PC when I receive a proximity alert or a doorbell push to see who is there. Ring’s intended alternative is a web-based approach, which is slow, and which also requires you to log in via 2FA if you’re inactive for more than a few minutes – and by the time you have, whoever there is gone. So I formulated the idea of building my own video doorbell.
  • my CCTV interest developed from the Ring issue, and from learning a heck of a lot about IP camera networking from my birdbox camera, which gave me ideas for a home CCTV system.

Let’s not worry about how these all fit together in the history timeline of my mind, because I’m not sure myself! Right now, my birdbox camera is my main focus.

I installed a birdbox last year, fitted with a Wi-Fi HD camera. After some messing around to get a decent Wi-Fi signal to the end of the garden it worked brilliantly, and I got a night time resident roosting Great Tit within days of me putting it up. I had high hopes of a nesting situation come the Spring. Whenever the bird came in (and I will now refer to it as ‘she’, which will make sense shortly), she would often jump up behind the camera to pick off insects. That was no problem until the one time she did it and the signal disappeared, because she’d pulled the Wi-Fi antenna off the top of the camera.

I didn’t want to risk another Wi-Fi camera – my relationship with Wi-Fi is quite rocky at the best of times, and having a small bird disable it just added to that – so I decided to fit a wired one. After I’d put it in and run the network cables and PoE switches to the house, I had the video feed back. And as I’d noticed a lot of small twigs underneath the birdbox by the time I did that, I discovered she’d built a nest (when roosting over winter, she just settled on to the wooden floor). I was able to see the camera feed on my home network, and also able to stream the RTSP feed to the blog (and anyone else) so they could watch it live. It worked for about a week, and then the RTSP feed was lost – possibly a result of updating the camera firmware, or maybe because of a camera fault. I’m still pushing that side of things with the supplier, but at least I still have live access on my home network, as she has now laid eight eggs and is incubating them.

The problems with the camera set me off on my usual thought process, which amounts to this: well, OK. I can buy another one of those. But what if I made one myself?

In the case of a camera, and if it were based on something I had programmed myself, I would have full control over operation and repair. But what about the size of it? Those off-the-shelf birdbox cameras measure about 40mm x 40mm x 23mm, so there’s no benefit in building one the size of a refrigerator. But the Raspberry Pi Zero (a full computer) measures about 65mm x 35mm x 2mm, and a HD camera for it is even smaller, though it adds maybe another 5mm to the overall thickness. And I’ll cover this later, but a suitable add-on which gives PoE and wired networking capability adds a further 30mm to the thickness, so hardware-wise you could have a camera system which is only 65mm x 35mm x 40mm, and in a case perhaps 75mm x 80mm x 57mm (I already have one identified). That would fit in the birdbox easily and also give internal room for cables. The only issue from then on would be software.

The beauty of the Raspberry Pi is that people out there have already done brilliant things, and the software they produce is usually available for free. And software for creating ONVIF camera applications does exist.

However, many of those solutions have too wide a scope. In my case, I just want a raw ONVIF camera with no frills (other than a microphone, which might be problematic on a Pi), so I can get the fastest and highest quality image, then monitor it using Surveillance Station on my NAS. I can fiddle with motion detection – if I actually need it in my birdbox – within Surveillance Station. My approach is to keep things simple, and then build on that if I want bells and whistles later. But the DIY projects online try to put all the bells and whistles in right at the start, and many are likely to be superfluous to most people. Motion detection within the camera, which is one such popular feature, ramps up the processing overhead immediately.

This project will be similar to the Kneeling Chair one I did some years ago. I will add instalments as I go along. But right now I have several of these – the Pi Zero, cost £13.50:

Various images removed as the plan has now changed:

One of these – the PoE HAT, cost £22:

I have this on notify for when it becomes available – it’s an autofocus HD camera for the Pi (though the actual one I end up using might change), cost £23:

And this is the case I am likely to use, which all of the above will easily fit into – cost £25:

Obviously, I will need a few more bits and pieces – some of which I already have – and I haven’t mentioned IR Cut for night vision at this stage. However, I will detail those as I go along. And the worst part is always getting the finished product – building an ONVIF device will be relatively easy, but mounting it compactly in the case so it can be used in a practical setting will be the hardest task of all, since I will have to drill that case and then make sure it is still at least water resistant when I mount it Inside the birdbox. It won’t get wet in there, but it will be subjected to variations in temperature and humidity.

Update: Hold on. I just had another idea for the birdbox camera issue. I have discovered that even though a typical CCTV camera looks like a Danish salami, most of the inside is empty space and the camera assembly is a section at the front.

I just tested one I have strapped to my second birdbox and it works. So if I disassemble it and re-package it into a suitable case, I will have a ready-to-use birdbox camera with all the bells and whistles of a CCTV camera.

Video Doorbell Project #1 – Overview

Update: I’ve had a rethink on this and won’t be trying to build an entire system after all. After playing around with CCTV cameras I have realised they can do most of the work already.

Update (2023): As a result of fairly frequent issues with the Ring not recording video, recording blank video, or dropping off the network altogether (requiring troubleshooting and rebooting) – which has caused me to miss several callers and deliveries – the final straw came with Ring’s discontinuation of the desktop app. I have switched to the Reolink PoE Doorbell as of mid-2023.

A few years ago I bought a Ring video doorbell. After a bit of fiddling setting it up, it has worked reasonably well, though it isn’t perfect.

For a start off, it relies on Wi-Fi, which is a bloody nightmare at the best of times in the home environment. It is also totally dependant on Ring’s own cloud system (it isn’t an ONVIF camera, which I will go into later). But my main niggle is that I have no control over my data – and Ring is trying to make access to it even more difficult, thus enhancing the imperfections.

You see, the Ring system can currently be accessed via a desktop app, a smartphone app, or via a browser. I use the desktop app to monitor my system, because I can see absolutely no point in having a HD camera and only viewing it on a small smartphone screen. Furthermore, the smartphone app has a tendency to alert you up to a minute or more after an event has been triggered (I often get in my car and drive off from my house, only to have my phone vibrate when I get to the end of the road informing me I left a short while ago). And the browser interface has two-factor authentication and logs you out every five minutes, so if you get an alert, it can take some seconds to log in, by which time whoever was at the door has left. The desktop app is always connected (albeit with a tendency to decide not to give a live feed after it has been triggered). And another niggle is that the system only records several seconds of footage when an event occurs – it doesn’t record continuously.

But a couple of months ago, Ring unilaterally announced it was discontinuing the desktop app – initially, in mid-October, and currently (following uproar across the community), in December.

As I said, the Ring doorbell and the Ring system are not perfect. It can be glitchy, and it could do things better (like record continuously). But it’s a million times better than just ‘ding-dong’’ when someone calls, especially when that someone knocks instead (which most seem to do). However, without the desktop app, the glitchiness factor increases in significance considerably – the variable time lags with the other two methods are simply not acceptable. And as the Ring is a subscription device, I was rather miffed at this drastic change.

Running in parallel with all this is a very relevant separate story. During the summer I installed a birdbox with a camera in it in my garden. Once I’d assembled it and powered it up, it was immediately visible on my home network. That’s because it is an IP camera, and it uses the ONVIF protocol (as I mentioned at the start, Ring doesn’t do that, and forces you to use its own cloud service). Being ONVIF also means I can stream the camera feed live. Admittedly, my birdbox camera is a Wi-Fi system in this case (it’s at the end of the garden, after all), but ONVIF cameras can be wireless or wired – it doesn’t matter, and they just have to be discoverable on your network, which the ONVIF protocol takes care of. Better still, with my NAS system – which has Surveillance Station software pre-installed – I can continuously record the footage. Obviously, there’s no point saving every minute of every day forever, so I have it set to automatically delete anything older than (in my case) two days. This gives me time to manually save any particular footage I want to keep. It has motion detection, and I can edit the zones I want to monitor (and edit detection sensitivity as necessary). And best of all, all the data belong to me, and they are free – no subscriptions of any kind.

You can probably see where this is heading. On the one hand, you have the Ring doorbell – which taps into your network, but which has to communicate with Ring’s own ring-fenced servers across the internet, and those have to communicate back across the internet (or by SMS) to send any messages. It doesn’t record continuously, and no internet (or no Ring cloud) means no functioning doorbell. On the other hand, you have an ONVIF camera, which doesn’t require an internet connection, just a local network, which records continuously, and which has virtually the same overall functionality as far as the camera is concerned (just not a bell push feature).

I mean, come on! Is there a DIY project here or what?

I discovered that you can build an ONVIF camera using the Raspberry Pi. You can get open source motion detection software specifically for the Pi (though my Surveillance Station software already has that). And you can include various event detection features – button presses, for example – in a multitude of different ways.

The schematic diagram at the top of this article shows what I am planning right now. I will have a camera system based on a Raspberry Pi Zero with a bell-push button on the outside of my front door. This will connect to a hub, based on a Raspberry Pi 4, on the inside of the door (most likely, by a wired connection through the door jamb, but with Wi-Fi as a back up for the short distance of a couple of inches if necessary). The Pi 4 will be on the network, and almost certainly wired. Finally, I want two remote alarm units (one upstairs, and one downstairs), and I haven’t decided yet whether these will be wired or wireless – a lot comes down to how prepared I am to lay network cables, and the routes I could take if I did. I also haven’t decided whether to control them from the Pi4 or via the network. These remote alarms will be audio-visual – they will chime and flash.

If anyone is thinking I will end up with something the size of a fridge on my front door, just bear in mind the Pi Zero is 30mm x 65mm x 13mm in size. Camera modules are smaller, though the lens adds height. What I have in mind will certainly look different to a Ring doorbell, but it will be of a similar overall size if I assemble it  in an appropriate way. And a Pi 4 is only 57mm x 86mm x 11mm, so it will hardly be out of place if suitably enclosed behind the door.

This will be fun. Watch this space…

BirdCamLive – First Visitor

I had my first non-insectoid and non-arachnoid visitor to my birdbox today. What appears to have been a Great Tit popped in and cased the joint.

He (or she) inspected every corner, and even checked the walls for integrity.

Apparently, this time of year they’re looking for places to roost, so I hope he comes back and then sticks around with a mate next Spring.

Coming Soon – BirdCam Live Feed

The empty bird box at nightI have a new toy. A birdbox with a camera fitted into it. I will be installing it outside over the next few weeks, and maybe I’ll get some roosting birds in the autumn and winter, but I’m hoping to get them nesting next year.

The plan is to get Blue Tits nesting in my box. If that works, I intend to get another box and entice our Robin, who is tame enough to fly against you if you’re out gardening to let you know he or she is there so you can feed him/her mealworms (he won’t take them from your hand just yet, but he’s getting close on that). The birdbox I bought is from Green Feathers. They also supply their kits through Amazon. I chose the deluxe kit, which includes the birdbox, Wi-Fi HD camera, and all the necessary accessories. I also bought the daylight LED lamp to illuminate the inside of the box.

It comes with excellent instructions, and is easy to assemble as long as you can use a screwdriver (and perhaps an awl or small drill), and it connects to the Green Feathers app equally easily. I had it running with a live feed to the app within a few  minutes. For most people, that’s really all they need. The app tells you when any birds visit (motion detection). The camera also has a microphone, so you’ll be able to hear any sounds the birds make. The LED lamp (optional extra) uses a sensor to detect daylight, and turns on during the day to give a true colour feed. At night, the LEDs turn off automatically, and the camera records in infrared (black and white). You can record the video stream and save it through the app, and you can also take snapshots. For most people, the birdbox and app are all that is required. But me being me, that wasn’t enough.

I am not a ‘millennial’, but I am computer literate (I have been building and repairing them for over 20 years). I cannot see the attraction of doing everything on your smartphone when you have a PC in front of you. Fine, getting a live feed of the birdbox to your phone is pretty cool, but this is a HD camera we’re talking about, and there is no way on God’s green earth that you can get a decent HD image on a smartphone. They’re just too damned small – especially iPhones, which most millennials seem to want to own at all costs.

So, once the system was running on the app, the next thing I did was download ONVIF Device Manager (Green Feathers cameras are ONVIF devices). It is a network video client, which means it can access and manage as many ONVIF devices you like. On running it for the first time, it immediately saw my BirdCam, and I was able to view the video live feed on my PC.

Then, I turned to my Synology NAS, and set up Surveillance Station. Now I know most people won’t have a NAS, but I do. Surveillance Station is software on the Synology NAS which monitors multiple video feeds, and allows recording and playback. It is mainly intended for security cameras, but it will work with any IP Camera (which Green Feathers cameras are). It, too, picked up my BirdCam immediately.

Note that ONVIF Device Manager and Surveillance Station are completely independent of each other, and have little if anything to do with what I wanted to do next (ONVIF did help me identify my video feed address). ONVIF Device Manager was simply playing around (and understanding what was happening), and Surveillance Station would provide an alternative if what I did want to do next turned out to be difficult or prohibitively expensive.

My main aim was to be able to put a live feed of my BirdCam on the blog.

I’ve not done anything like this before, though I knew it was possible. But how? My first thought was that I could provide the feed directly from my computer, but my internet provider might not be happy (or capable of it) if I tried to do it through my router, and my router might not be happy if more than a couple of people tried to view the feed at the same time. It was clear that I needed a media server service, where I provided a single feed, and the server managed the necessary bandwidth and distributed it to others.

To that end, after some searching – and being put off by silly prices – I came across ipcamlive, who do just what I wanted. I’d got this far on my own, but I have to admit I needed to contact their technical support a couple of times to get it working. However, thanks to them, I can now be certain that I can do a blog page with a live BirdCam feed on it.

Right now, all I have to do is bolt the bird box to the shed and I’m set to go. And hope that some Blue Tits like the location enough to set up home next spring.

Review: Going Paperless With DoogleBooks

DoogleBooks LCD drawing and writing padEver since I became an instructor I’ve managed to get through a lot of notebooks. Anyone who does this job will know that you have to sketch a lot of things when you’re explaining stuff to pupils.

I started off buying notepads, but realised that was quite expensive – especially if you wanted the larger sizes. Then I turned to making my own, by ring-binding punched copier paper and using that. I discovered that normal two- or four-hole punching was no good, because the sheets could easily get torn with all the handling and jolting they get in the car, so I turned to spiral binding. That served me well for many years – but I was starting to feel my conscience nagging me over the amount of paper I was getting through.

A few years ago now, I tried using my laptop. It’s a Surface Book Pro with a detachable screen so it can be used as a tablet. With a simple sketching app, it was fine – but there was still the hassle of getting it out, booting up, then detaching the screen, then reattaching it and powering down when I’d finished. There’s no way I wanted my Surface loose in the car while it was moving and quite frankly – in some of the places you have to cover – waving a two and a half grand laptop around is not the smartest thing you can do.

Then I had one of my thoughts. It occurred to me that there must be something out there that could just be used as a drawing board, but which didn’t involve dirty rags covered in black marker from the dry-wipe boards some people use. That was when I came across LCD drawing pads. At the time I first tried them, they were usually 6 inch or 9 inch screens. I found a 10 inch one and it worked great. I still have it, in fact. But a couple of years ago, while still looking for something better, I came across DoogleBooks.The main attraction at the time was its size – it’s a 12 inch screen, so about the size of a piece of A4 paper. It also boasted an erase function (you can erase parts of your diagram with an eraser on the stylus) and a bright screen – my original cheap import was quite faint, though still perfectly usable. It comes with a padded protective case and a separate eraser, a lanyard for the stylus, and some spare tips, and a few bits and pieces for kids rather than adults (and which I never did figure out what they were for).

It is powered by – believe it or not – a standard watch battery, which lasts ages (I’m still on the original after nearly two years). That’s because the device is not illuminated in any way, so doesn’t draw much power.

You ‘turn it on’ with a very small switch on the back, though this is a ‘lock’ function rather than a power button as far as I can tell. The stylus clips neatly into the frame (come to think of it, it was because the clip on the cheap one I bought snapped which got me looking again) and has a nice long lanyard so you don’t lose it.

Once powered/unlocked you just write or draw whatever you want. The width of the stroke is governed by pressure and angle of the stylus nib, so you can get thin lines or thicker ones as needed. If you want to start again, you just press the button on the left in the picture above with the trash can symbol twice, and the screen is cleared. The double-press is a safety feature so you don’t erase by mistake – see the next bit for why.

If you make a minor mistake, you can erase just part of whatever you’ve drawn or written. Press the other button until the red LED comes on, then use either the small rubber eraser on the other end of the stylus, or the larger rectangular one which is supplied – just like you would with pencil on paper. Once you’ve erased whatever you want, press that button again until the LED goes out and you’re back in drawing mode. Due to the proximity of the buttons, you can see why complete erase needs two presses. This selective erase does work, but be aware it does leave slight smudges behind – again, like you’d get with a pencil on paper.

It is not a computer. Anything you write or draw exists only on the screen for as long as it’s there. You cannot transfer it to a computer, since it is not a digital image – it is exactly the same as a pen or pencil drawing. If you write ‘CAT’, that’s just some shapes and lines – the tablet doesn’t know what you’ve written. If you erase something by mistake, it’s gone forever – there’s no undo feature. If you want to save anything, you can take a picture – pupils often take a shot of things I draw so they can look at them later, just like they used to when I drew on paper.

The device I used previously had a much fainter screen, and this meant that on evening lessons it could be difficult to see what you’d drawn. As I explained earlier, there are no backlights on these things, and they are literally the same as pen and paper – you can’t see drawings made using those in the dark, either. However, DoogleBooks has a much brighter screen contrast and you can see your drawings clearly with the interior light on. The photo above was taken at dusk with no lighting, and that’s the contrast you get.

It’s been one of the best things I’ve bought in a long while. I actually have a spare in reserve, which came about because the original Amazon order never arrived, and the owner of the British company which sells them sent out a replacement. Several weeks later, the other one arrived – God knows where it had been – and when I offered to return it the owner said to keep it as a gesture of goodwill!

They now do several different models, mainly aimed at kids, with different screen colours. And whereas the only frame colour available when I bought mine was cyan (which is actually my least favourite colour in the whole world), they now do them in a range of colours. Just be careful to choose the ‘’partial erasure’ one unless you want to save a couple of quid and lose a bit of functionality.

It’s infinitely better than using a dry wipe board. There’s no mess, and it is ready to use the instant you take it out of its case. Unlike dry wipe systems, when you erase, you erase – no ink getting stuck in scratches, which always happens with dry wipe markers. And the stylus lasts oodles longer than a marker pen. And there’s no thick pads of drawings to dispose of when you’ve filled up a notepad.

PayPal Here Card Reader

PayPal Here card readerThis article was originally written in 2015. Prior to PayPal Here, I had used iZettle, but I had an extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) unfortunate experience with them – and one which has become more significant to me as of 2023.

PayPal bought iZettle in 2018. The situation as of 2021 in the UK was that PayPal directed you straight to iZettle readers if you wanted to buy a new machine. They also stopped taking on new ‘Here’ customers.

As of 2023, I got a missed phone call from PayPal in early March warning me PayPal Here readers would stop working at the start of April and to get a ‘Zettle’ (the new name) card reader. They can f**k off. I would not touch iZettle again if you paid me.

I have now (March 2023) switched to SumUp, and so the following article should be considered void, as you cannot get PayPal Here anymore. I still strongly recommend not touching iZettle/Zettle if you can avoid it.

Note that the following article is specifically aimed at card readers per se, and not with the issues I experienced with iZettle when it was an independent company.

Since 2015, I have taken close to £80,000 in card payments through PayPal Here (it’d be closer to £100,000 if not for COVID). As time has gone by, the number of people paying me by card has increased dramatically, and right now well over 90% of pupils pay that way. The rest still use cash – and very occasionally,  someone will hand over up to £700 in notes to pay for a block of lessons). One or two use bank transfer.

I do not take cheques, and haven’t done since 2015 – if someone can write a cheque, they have a bank card I can read in the car. That means I get paid immediately, and there’s no risk of a bouncing piece of paper. These days, the only real reason for anyone to want to use a cheque is to defer payment, and I don’t play that game anymore (it’s too risky). The other problem with cheques is that I have to go to the bank to gain credit from them – which is also true of cash if I accrue too much – or I have to piss around with photographs and smartphone apps, which I also don’t want to do.

The PayPal Here card reader can carry out transactions via contactless, PIN, and swipe (though swipe is not necessary in the UK). All you need to do is buy the card reader outright, download the app, connect the two through Bluetooth, and you’re set to go. With PayPal, the money is in your account within  seconds.

Although attitudes have improved since 2015, there are still instructors who – for various reasons often associated with avoiding HMRC scrutiny – are against taking card payments, prefer cash, and who then try to justify their position with lies and misinformation based on their own ulterior motives.

For me, being able to take card payments impresses the majority of pupils. It’s like you are performing a magic trick in front of them, and they marvel at the machine when they use it. Taking card payments also ensures you being paid for the lesson you just gave. I mean, let’s face it – the only two business-related things a decent and respectable ADI needs to worry about when dealing with the financial side of their services is happy pupils, and being paid on time.

BACS is better

BACS is a viable way of taking money, but it isn’t ‘better’. It relies on the pupil ‘remembering’ to do it, and often needs at least one chase to make sure it happens. If it doesn’t, you’re then into either more chasing, or cancelling the lesson if you insist on advance payment (so you lose money anyway).

I recently (June 2021) gave refresher training to someone who passed with me before the pandemic. On one lesson, he paid me in cash (which is now in my wallet, and will need a bank visit at some point). On the second, he wanted to pay by BACS, so I gave him my bank details via text message while he was still in the car (minor hassle #1). One day later the money had not arrived, so I texted him (minor hassle #2). He replied that he had sent it (the money miraculously appeared while I was replying (minor hassle #3) that he must not have ‘fast transfer’ on his account). I immediately texted him that I had got it (minor hassle #4). Most likely is that he sent the money when I chased him, and if I hadn’t, he wouldn’t have sent it until I did. If he’d have paid by card, it would have been done and dusted before he left the car.

BACS would be better if you could trust everyone. If you want to trust up to 20-30 pupils at any one time, that’s your business. But you are deluding yourself if you believe you won’t have problems trusting pupils to use BACS, since the ball is always in their court at some point.

How long do PayPal Here payments take to clear?

For all practical purposes, they’re instant. They appear in your PayPal account within seconds. And when you transfer your PayPal balance to your bank account, that also occurs within seconds. My only minor gripe is that you have to transfer the money from PayPal to your bank manually.

How much does the card machine cost?

Right now, with PayPal, I’m not sure. PayPal is currently in a confused mess involving iZettle. When I used iZettle (before PayPal acquired it), it could take up to a week to receive money into your account. With PayPal Here it is in within seconds. I would like to think that the same is now true of anything to do with iZettle, but I cannot be sure.

Is there a monthly rental fee?

No. You buy the card reader outright and only pay a fee per transaction.

How much do they charge per transaction?

With PayPal it’s 2.75%. For each £29 lesson paid for by card, you ‘lose’ 80p. iZettle charged 1.75% per transaction when I used it. I am not sure how it works now with the confused mess PayPal has created, and been slow to clarify given that it purchased iZettle in 2018.

PayPal takes 23p for each £1 you take


I saw some clown state this on social media, and it’s bollocks. On a £29 lesson, the fee is 80p.

Other card reader vendors have lower fees

I’m not saying you must use PayPal. Just be aware that other vendors’ fees are often on a sliding scale (iZettle’s was when I used them),  and you only get the lower rates on anything above the threshold they set. When I was with iZettle, virtually all my lessons were charged at the highest fee rate. I triggered iZettle’s lower rate fees a couple of times, but the lower rate only applies to takings above the threshold, and for driving instructors that is not going to happen regularly.

For example, if there is a threshold at takings of £5,000 per month, and you pay 2.75% up to that, and 2.5% above it, then if you take £5,500 in that month, you pay 2.75% on £5,000, and 2.5% on £500. To get any real benefit, you’d need to be taking £10,000 per month or more. Small multi-car driving schools might benefit, but a self-employed ADI wouldn’t.

What other alternatives are there?

SumUp is an alternative card reader provider, and has a fee of 1.69% per transaction. It takes 2-3 business days to get your money. A reader costs about £30.

Another alternative is Square, with a transaction fee of 1.75%. Apparently, money goes into in your account immediately. A reader costs less than £20.

I use PayPal because I like PayPal. However, if they don’t sort out the ridiculous confusion over whether they are now PayPal Here or iZettle, and clarify that iZettle’s pathetic system I had previous experience of is gone, then if all three of my PayPal Here readers were ever to fail, I would switch to someone else. I need to be able to take card payments, and I want the money immediately. That’s all there is.

Some vendors have no fees

And they keep your money longer before paying it to you to get their cut. There’s no free ride when it comes to clearing card payments. Someone somewhere has got to pay for it. And let’s face facts: it’s going to be you in the end.

The charges are a rip off

Fine. Keep taking cash and cheques, and pretend it doesn’t cost you anything to have to go to the bank to pay it in, or chase anything that bounces.

I can charge a ‘transaction fee’ to cover charges

No you can’t. It’s illegal. Just price yourself so you can cover the transaction fees you pay overall from your income, and stop trying to forecast it to the nearest fraction of a penny.

But I can save money if I don’t have to pay transaction fees

As I say. Fine. Keep taking cash. You probably also believe your car isn’t an overhead because you own it (it is an overhead, even if it is 20 years old), and that if you don’t have to pay a franchiser then you’re better off by the whole franchise fee (you’re not, because you still pay overheads, even if you don’t realise it). A card transaction fee is an overhead, that’s all.

I can’t see the point of taking card payments

Fine. Keep taking cash. This is how older or less clued up ADIs think, though.

What about cheques?

What about them? No one has attempted to pay me by cheque for at least 6 years now. Even before that, a cheque was often a way of paying for a lesson before they ‘got paid on Friday’ because they knew it would be at least a week before it was requested from their account. If someone can write cheques, they have a cheque guarantee card, and that has a chip & pin on it these days. If they use the card with my reader, I get paid instantly. If they use a cheque, I have to piss around getting it to the bank, and then hope their account will cover it when it gets requested.

I can take pupils to a cashpoint

Good for you. I’m sure they absolutely adore paying for a driving lesson which – in part – involves stopping to withdraw money every week. For me, my card machine is the cashpoint. In fact, on a couple of occasions, I have avoided having to go to a cashpoint because the pupil needed it for personal reasons nothing to do with the lesson, and handed them cash out of my wallet in return for a card transaction. It helped me avoid a bank trip, and the pupils were extremely impressed.

Is it of any benefit to take card payments?

It has saved me a lot, both in monetary terms, and in terms of my sanity trying to find a parking space near the bank or standing in a queue while stupid people take tens of minutes of the one cashiers’ time at my Halifax branch.

Another benefit is less tangible. Pupils are often impressed if you pull out an iPad and have a glitzy demonstration video to get some point across, for example. It’s exactly the same when you tell them you can take card payments.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Kill Bill: Vol 1 - posterDuring the lockdown I was watching films and TV shows I’d downloaded and ripped from DVD. I prefer to watch videos on my TV rather than my computer most of the time, and I use Plex as my preferred media server.

Plex is great, but I was suffering from buffering problems when using it. A lot of others have, too, and from what I have deduced it isn’t specifically (or just) a problem with Plex, but partly with Wi-Fi. It is worse when you are watching 4K content, for example, because Wi-Fi just can’t handle the bandwidth in some cases – especially when you have several devices using it at once. Buffering was driving me insane to the extent that I tried various alternatives to Plex. But nothing comes even close to it for features and ease of use. The last straw was when I was watching Kill Bill: Vol 1 for the umpteenth time, it kept stopping during the fight scenes when a lot was happening and the required bandwidth went up.

How Plex works is this. You install Plex Server on your chosen computer, and tell it where your movies and other stuff is stored. Then you install Plex client on your smart TV, Firestick, or whatever, link it to your server, and you can watch your shows whenever you like. Most people will opt for Wi-Fi networking to eliminate the need for wires trailing everywhere in order to connect their devices.

I’m a bit of a Wi-Fi sceptic. I mean, it’s fine when it works, but it often doesn’t. The other thing is that my internet connection is 600Mbps, but there is no way Wi-Fi can match that. It doesn’t matter in most cases – when connecting devices to the network for updates and so on – but it does if you actually need the fastest connection for something. Or if you’re trying to stream high-bandwidth films.

Last year, I bought an Ethernet adapter for my Firestick (from where I run Plex client) and connected it directly to my router. Buffering disappeared, so that was one problem more or less resolved.

However, a related issue was to do with storage. My PC, which I built myself just over a year ago, has two 1TB SSDs and one 2TB SSD. You’d think that 4TB would be enough space (I also have a spare 2TB SSD which I was planning to install), but I then realised I’d got around 3TB of movies and TV shows, with the entire box set of Frasier still to rip at some point, which will add probably another 2TB. SSD is an expensive way of increasing storage, and you still have the potential for a disk failure eventually, which means you lose everything on it (I got stung with that previously when we had a power cut that blew my last self-built machine). I needed something bigger and safer Now, I said I was a bit of a Wi-Fi sceptic, but I am a full-on ‘cloud’ sceptic. The idea of trusting all of your files to the cloud just doesn’t make sense to me. For one thing, it is expensive if you want a lot of storage (Amazon used to offer an unlimited cloud service, but it was being abused and they stopped it). And unless you pay for it (I assume), the cloud is sloooooow. I have a 1TB OneDrive account through my Office365 subscription and if I want to download a movie file from it I can assure you it isn’t downloaded at anywhere near to my 600Mbps internet connection speed. Uploading such files is worse because of the massive difference in upload speeds even with your ISP.  Then you need to factor in how fast your cloud is going to let to have the file – usually at about a tenth of that speed if you’re lucky – and it’s a nightmare. The download also seems to be proportional to how urgently you need it – if you’re desperate, you can virtually guarantee an outage somewhere or download error.

I’d been considering a NAS (Network Attached Storage) solution for a while. This is just a storage system you maintain yourself. I wanted to be able to store and access large files immediately – not tomorrow, after several failed tries. I also wanted to be able to work on them where they were stored – just like on your PC – and not with the extra steps of having to download them first, altering them, then having to upload them again. A NAS is exactly what it says – a disk storage system that is on your network, and not someone else’s.Synology DS1821+ NAS

Be aware that a NAS is not a cheap solution to begin with. Once you have it, it is virtually free, but a NAS enclosure starts at around £150, and disks to populate it at around £70 each. I opted for the Synology DS1821+ DiskStation 8-bay, which costs just under £1,000.You can set up a NAS using single disk drives, where each drive acts just like one in your computer. However, if the drive fails at any point, all your data are lost. I’ve been bitten with that before, as I mentioned. I wanted better security, so I wanted a RAID system – where you use multiple disks to either ‘stripe’ the data or ‘mirror’ it. This is where you have to trade off the level of security/safety against reduced capacity. For example, if you simply ‘mirror’ across two disks (RAID 1), then you might have two 1TB disks which have the exact same data on them, which is secure if one fails, but you only have 1TB capacity, even though you have two 1TB disks. To cut the story short, I wanted RAID 5, which needs at least three disks to ‘stripe’ the data, but which gives you the capacity of two of them whilst still retaining all data if any one of the three fails. Weighing up the prices of the available disk drives against my likely storage requirements I bought three 12TB HDDs at a cost of £270 each. This would give me 24TB of storage, with the additional data security I wanted.

A NAS is essentially a PC – a computer. It runs its own operating system, which on the Synology is called DiskStation Manager. It is just a black box you put on your desk, and you access it through a web interface in your browser once you’ve connected it to your network via the router. Installing the hard drives is easy, and once you’ve plugged in the necessary cables and turned it on, finding it it and adding it to your network is also easy. Various guides take you through setting up your chosen RAID configuration, and that is very simple too. After that, all you have to do is map your drive from Windows on your PC and you can use it.

An additional detail that cropped up was when I accidentally pulled out the plug for the NAS one time, and the system reported an unexpected shutdown after rebooting. It also warned that this could lead to data loss and disk corruption – a major alarm bell for me – so I got a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to prevent that happening again. A UPS is a battery backup system, and I already have one for my PC after that damned power cut blew all my disks. I chose an APC unit which has a data link that the NAS can interface with and perform a controlled shutdown if the power fails and the battery runs out. It cost £110.

I now have a neat system where I have 24TB of storage that I can access at network speeds. I can access it as a normal ‘disk drive’ from my PC, or via the internet on my laptop or smartphone if I wish, wherever I am. It is connected by cable to my Firestick, so there’s absolutely no buffering. My data is more secure than if I was operating on single drives (and I’ve been caught out with that previously, as I mentioned). I can expand if I need to. It is my own ‘cloud’.

I have installed Plex server on the NAS, and linked Plex client on the Firestick to it, and there is no buffering whatsoever. All my content is now on the NAS. And if I want to work on a file, it is just on another drive which I can access whenever I want. No more download, fiddle around, then upload.

A Cat Translator App?

MeowTalk from AkvelonMankind has this never-ending belief that animals have their own languages. There’s maybe a possibility with apes and monkeys, but when you start moving to different branches of the evolutionary tree, I think you’re stretching it a bit.

The latest story is to do with a cat translator app – called MeowTalk – which aims to translate your cat’s meows into meanings.

The article on the BBC website says:

Research suggests that, unlike their human servants, cats do not share a language.

Each cat’s miaow is unique and tailored to its owner, with some more vocal than others.

Apparently, this isn’t seen as any sort of problem to the engineers who developed the app. But let’s be honest. It is. A big problem.

We had a cat once where visual clues were far more important in knowing what she felt. If she hissed and drew up to 20mls of blood from you, she was happy – but now fed up with being stroked (she could become fed up anywhere from 5 seconds to 20 minutes after commencement of stroking, but there was no obvious way of knowing which one it was going to be on any given occasion). If she hissed and drew 40-50mls of blood, it meant that she didn’t want to take the tablet you were trying to give her, but which she’d swallowed voluntarily when the vet had demonstrated how to do it only yesterday. If she hissed and drew more than 50mls of blood, she didn’t want to be flea-treated. Sometimes, as you walked past her on a chair, and if she was in a playful mood, she’d lunge at your leg and draw varying amounts of blood depending on whether she hit a vein or an artery without making any sound at all.

I don’t think they have an app for that, though if they did let me just say that ‘PsychoMeow’ is copyrighted.