A Driving Instructor's Blog

Computers & Tech

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I originally posted this article in October 2015, shortly after I started using PayPal Here to take card payments from pupils. Before then, I’d been using iZettle, but I had an unfortunate experience with them which forced me to find an alternative. They eventually admitted they were in error, but it was too late and I had purchased and started using a PayPal Here card reader.PayPal Here card reader

Since 2015, I have taken more than £70,000 in card payments through PayPal Here. As time has gone by, the number of people paying me by card has increased, and right now I’d say that about 90% of pupils pay that way. The rest still use cash (occasionally, someone will block book and hand over up to £700 in notes), and a few use bank transfers (block bookings sometimes come in this way). I refuse to take cheques – if someone has a cheque book, they have a card, and I can read that instead.

The PayPal Here reader can carry out transactions via contactless, PIN, and swipe (though swipe is not necessary in the UK). Single hour lessons can be paid using their card by contactless (if pupils have them) but anything above £30 by card has to be by PIN. Contactless phone apps depend on the app they’re using, and many pupils use these to pay several hundred pounds with no trouble.

Since I began using it, PayPal has updated the app several times, and it is extremely convenient being able to sign into the app using my fingerprint these days.

The massive benefit of PayPal over iZettle is that the money from a transaction goes into your PayPal account instantly. When you transfer it from there to your bank account, for all practical purposes that is instant as well (it says it can take “up to 2 hours”, but less than a minute is typical). iZettle took nearly a week most times – and we’re talking a business week here, so Bank Holidays both here and in Sweden (where iZetlle is based).

How long do PayPal Here payments take to clear?

For all practical purposes, they’re instant.

When you take a card payment either by chip & PIN or contactless, funds are instantly transferred to your PayPal Here account. You can leave them there, or transfer them to your bank account whenever it suits you – either from the app or from PayPal on your computer.

My only minor gripe is that you have to transfer the money manually – you can’t set it to go straight into your bank account. It’s on my wish list.

How much does the card machine cost?

Under £50 right now – often less if they’re doing an offer. I have three of them as a result of offers just so I have backups, though I am still on my first reader.

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?

It’s 2.75%. For each £25 lesson paid for by card, you “lose” 69p.

PayPal takes 23p for each £1 you take

NO. THEY. DON’T.

I saw some clown state this recently, and it’s bollocks. On a £25 lesson, the fee is 69p.

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),  and you only get the lower rates if you take more than a certain amount per month – which for an ADI is often quite high. I triggered iZettle’s lower rate fees a couple of times, but the lower rate only applies to takings above the threshold.

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.

SumUp has a fee of 1.69% per transaction. Yes, that’s less than PayPal’s fee. In a typical year, with SumUp you’d be paying £634 in fees. With PayPal you’d be paying £1,030. I like PayPal (and a lot of pupils use it anyway), and think the extra I pay is worth it. That’s just me.

Some vendors have no fees

And they keep the money longer to get interest on it to cover their costs or charge a rental fee. There’s no free ride when it comes to clearing card payments, and someone somewhere pays for it.

The charges are a rip off

Fine. Keep taking cash.

You’re not going to get away from transaction charges if you also want a decent service. A fee of 69p is nothing on a £25 bill. All you have to do is increase your prices slightly and you’ve covered the fee, anyway.

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), and that if you don’t have to pay a franchiser then you’re better off by the whole franchise fee (you’re not). A card fee is an overhead, that’s all.

I can’t see the point of taking card payments

Fine. Keep taking cash. It does seem to be the older ADIs who think like this, though.

For me, from the day I first became an instructor, the ability to take card payments was on my wish list. As years went by, having to carry lots of cash around (sometimes, a heck of a lot) and dozens of cheques – and make frequent trips to the bank – was becoming a major headache. Bank branches, especially convenient local ones, are an increasingly endangered species, and with parking fees and lost lesson time, and cheques (which are useless to you until they’re banked, and some weeks, every pupil would pay by cheque), it was more like an atomic migraine than a headache. There is a business cost associated with that, which is proportional to how often you have to go to pay money in. With cheques especially, I’d only have a cash flow if I went to the bank. I’d been waiting for something like PayPal Here or iZettle – and there are others – to appear, and got in on the ground floor.

What about cheques?

What about them? No one has attempted to pay me by cheque for at least 4 years now (though they only did before because it was either that or cash). A couple of new pupils have asked initially if I take them, but when I point out the card machine and the fact that everyone has a card even if they have a chequebook (otherwise cheques are pretty useless), it’s never mentioned again.

I can take pupils to a cashpoint

Good for you. I, on the other hand, don’t need to. The card machine becomes the cashpoint, so it’s more convenient for me and more convenient for them. And that is certainly not going to affect their opinion of me in a negative way. Of course, if I insisted on frog-marching them to a cashpoint… who knows what they might think?

Is it of any benefit to take card payments?

As I said, it has saved me a lot – in monetary terms, and in terms of my sanity.

But another benefit is less tangible. Some pupils might be impressed if you pull out an iPad and have a glitzy demonstration video to get some point across. Believe me, many more are impressed when you tell them you can take card payments – even more so when you actually take a payment in front of them and they get an instant texted receipt. This might become less true in the future as the dinosaurs gradually die out, but right now it works in a highly positive way.

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The Chillmax AirI saw this thing advertised on TV. Then, the same evening, I was shopping in Asda and saw it on display. I am an idiot for things like this, and bought it on impulse so I could test whether it worked or not.

As a chemist, I know full well that if you want to cool a large space down effectively you’re going to need something that uses a special refrigerant. And from a practical perspective – where people are going to be in that space, and you need to cool for long periods – that is going to mean some sort of motor-driven compressor, a closed radiator filled with the refrigerant, and a big fan. Oh, and an exhaust pipe through the wall to get rid of the heat removed from the air, and a collection bucket for the moisture it takes out, because a proper air conditioner dehumidifies the air it cools.

Anyone who has used a normal fan will know that you only feel “cooler” if you’re sweating. That’s because the fan evaporates the sweat, and that has a transient cooling effect. This same evaporative cooling effect can even be used to freeze water – albeit in very small amounts (and if you’re lucky) – when you force diethyl ether (the stuff they used to use as an anaesthetic) to evaporate quickly. The evaporative cooling effect of different liquids varies greatly, and ether will cool down to a very low temperature if you do it properly. However, ether is both highly flammable and toxic, so apart from demonstrating it in the school lab (where I remember it from, along with the massive headache it gave me), it doesn’t have much practical application these days (though early refrigerators used it, which was spectacularly dangerous).

The Chillmax Air uses the evaporative cooling effect of water. The unit consists of a reservoir at the top, which you fill with normal tap water, and this drips down on to a radiator unit which has ten sideways-stacked fibre panels in it through which a fan blows air. The water evaporates from the fibre panels, and the evaporatively cooled air comes out through the front grille. According to the marketing spiel on the TV ad, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re going to get frostbite if you sit too close. I knew this wasn’t going to happen – but I wanted to know just how effective the Chillmax Air was.

When I set it up and turned it on, the first thing I noticed was that the fan is quite powerful, so you get a good flow of air directed at you. The next thing I noticed was that the air did seem a little cooler compared with what my desk fan was blowing at me. It also felt different in another way, which I’ll come to later. But the big question was how much cooler was the exhaust air?

I fired up my trusty data logger and left it in front of my desk fan for 30 minutes for the control data. Then I moved it and suspended it in front of the Chillmax for the same period of time. This is what it recorded (red line is the switch over point).Chillmax Air - temperature recording

The ambient temperature where I ran the test was about 26ºC (it rose by about half a degree because I had entered the room, turned on the TV and my PC, and so on). The Chillmax brought this down by about 2.5ºC (the blip at the end is where it had just run out of water and was starting to warm up again).

So, the Chillmax definitely cools the air that passes through it, albeit by a small amount. Let’s work on the assumption that it would be able to get the same 2.5-3.0ºC drop no matter what the ambient temperature was. It’s for you to decide if that’s worth the investment, but be aware that if the ambient temperature is 38ºC, pulling it down to 35ºC still means it’s damned hot.

But there’s a little more to it than that. I mentioned that the exhaust from the Chillmax felt different to what my fan was throwing at me, and not just cooler. If I was going to try and put a word to it, I’d say it felt softer. I knew what it was right from the start, but my data logger really showed what was happening.

This is the data for relative humidity recorded at the same time as the temperature measurement, above (red line is the switch over).Chillmax Air - relative humidity recording

As already explained, the Chillmax works by evaporating water on fibrous panels by forcing air across them. That water has got to go somewhere – so it comes out as a vapour in the cooled air. Well, most of it does. Some of it actually condensed on to my data logger and began to drip during my test. I have since discovered that it also condenses on the front grille and can drip periodically, so you need to be careful if you put it on a shelf with, say, your laptop underneath. This is especially true if you’ve set the grille (which is adjustable) to aim slightly downwards, which you probably would do if it was above eye level. And the fan is powerful enough to project the drips forward when they drop.

The ambient humidity in the room where I did the test was about 43%RH. The Chillmax sent that up to nearly 58%RH. The drop at the end is where the water ran out, and it is likely that it would have settled around 58%RH. And that was why the air from it feels softer – it’s very humid. When you turn the Chillmax on, you can actually see the vapour to begin with in the right light.

It’s this humidity of the cooled air which really brings into question whether the Chillmax is worth the investment. Most people will already know that you can have a hot summer day in the high 20s where it is comfortable and pleasant, and another – perhaps slightly cooler – one which is really sticky and sweaty. That’s because of the humidity, or water vapour in the air.

Air can hold water vapour, and the maximum amount that it can hold varies with the temperature. At low temperatures, air might only be able to hold a few milligrammes of water per kg, but at higher temperatures this can go up to nearly 100g per kg of air. This is generally referred to as the humidity, but the important measurement – and the one people are really meaning- is the relative humidity (RH). This is the amount of water in the air expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount it could hold. When the RH hits 100% (more or less the dew point, though there’s a bit more to it than that) at any temperature, then any additional water will condense out immediately. It’s why your car windscreen fogs up in winter as soon as you get inside because your breath and perspiration causes the dew point to be exceeded. But even at lower RH values you can still get some condensation if there are nuclei which promote it (such as data loggers and the grille on the front of the Chillmax). The main thing, though, is that at higher temperatures, high RH is uncomfortable.

The real problem with evaporative cooling comes with changes of temperature on already very humid days. If it is 30ºC outside and 90%RH, dropping the temperature by 3ºC will send the RH up automatically – possibly hitting the dew point even if no extra water vapour was added. But with the air already containing almost 30g or water per kg at 90% RH, and sending the RH higher by cooling a few degrees, the Chillmax is pumping out another 500g of water during it’s run time – and that’s likely to hit 100%RH immediately. On a hot and sticky day, you’re likely to notice dampness when using the Chillmax because of this. Furthermore, if the RH is increased when it is already high, evaporative cooling from your sweat is less effective, and you could actually feel more uncomfortable even though the air is a few degrees cooler.

Proper air conditioners remove water from the air they cool – so much so that the best ones have humidifiers in them to stop the cooled air from being too dry (in my car, for example, if I have the A/C on the lowest temperature setting my lips start to feel sore because they’re losing moisture). Proper A/C units use a special refrigerant similar to what you get in fridges and freezers, and they cool the air so much that the RH goes beyond the dew point and most of the water condenses out – that’s why you get a pool of water under your car if you stop with the air conditioning turned on in humid weather (or have problems with them icing up if they’re badly drained). It’s also why it is nice and comfy inside an air-conditioned car (apart from your lips) when it’s hot and sweaty outside, even if you have your A/C set at a normal temperature rather than deep-freeze mode most people use. Dry air feels crisp, whereas moist air feels… well, softer. Almost like a sauna if it’s hot enough. The Chillmax does the opposite of normal A/Cs, and adds moisture.

Aesthetically speaking, the Chillmax is a cube – more or less – about 15cm along each side. There are two buttons on the top rear, one which changes the fan speed to one of three settings (or off), with a blue LED for each, and another button that turns the night light on or off. There’s a flap on the top front through which you add the water. The radiator system is a plastic-framed insert which you access by pulling the front grille out. It slots in and out easily. You can’t replace the fibre inserts in the radiator (well, I think you could if you could get hold of them), but you can buy the whole radiator assembly from JML for £15. My only major gripe is the power cable. The jack plug that goes into the Chillmax is quite short and doesn’t go into the socket very far, so it is easy to dislodge it. However, the cable itself is quite long, and the  mains plug is a moulded UK type.

JML claims the Chillmax can run for up to 10 hours per fill, but this is undoubtedly on the lowest of the three fan speeds. At top speed, it runs out in less than three hours. To be fair to it, you do still get a noticeable cooling effect on the lowest speed, and since the water lasts longer then, less of it will be getting pumped into the air at any one time, and that might offset what I said about humidity very slightly – but it’s still being pumped out.  JML sells the humidification as a positive without relating it to the comfort relationship between temperature and RH, but note what I said above. If you want to cool down in humid weather, it probably isn’t just the temperature that needs to come down, certainly not a mere 3ºC drop, and definitely not if that means pushing high humidity even higher.

Update: I have now tested it in what I considered to be hot and sticky conditions. In actual fact, the only reason it felt hot and sticky was apparently because the temperature in the room was 3ºC higher than when I did it before. It was uncomfortable compared to the last time – the kind of weather that means you’re sweating even when sitting still.

Here’s the temperature log (red line again shows the switch over between desk fan and Chillmax.Chillmax - temperature log in hot and sticky conditions

The Chillmax still achieved a similar temperature drop to the initial test. However, the air did not actually feel any cooler blowing on my face. If anything, it was more uncomfortable, though this is a subjective comment. The graph for Relative Humidity below explains why.

Chillmax - RH log in hot and sticky conditionsThe ambient RH was similar to last time, but the Chillmax sent it up to about 70%. This is why there was no noticeable improvement in comfort – the small temperature drop was cancelled out by making the air more humid (i.e. sticky). The increase in RH was greater than the last time I measured it, and I can’t immediately explain that, though it may have had something to do with ventilation (there was no wind at all this time, though there was a breeze in the original test, and with the windows open some of the humidity would have been removed).

You might find the Chillmax useful. It’s quite a smart little device – it’s not a Rolls Royce build, but it’s not badly made for what it is – and not that noisy (but you can hear the fan on the top speed). It certainly cools the air. A little, at any rate. Unfortunately, the increase in humidity that goes along with that cooling definitely seems to cancel it out out at higher temperatures.

A final note: the previous model used to be called the “Arctic Air”. I can see why they changed that!

Does it really work?

Well, it does cool the air by a few degrees, but it also sends the humidity up. So if it is already humid and sticky, the cooling effect is completely cancelled out by the extra stickiness. You might get away with that if your windows are open and there’s a through-draught in your house (or personal space), but if it’s also very hot you may not see any benefit at all.

It definitely doesn’t do what you might think it does from those TV ads. It would be fine if it just cooled, but the fact that it also humidifies is the main problem you’re likely to experience.

From my own use of it, I would say that it is a better humidifier than it is a cooler.

Will it cool more if I use ice water?

No. Evaporative coolers are not influenced significantly by the temperature of the water used in them. The temperature of the air that comes out depends on the temperature (and humidity) of the air going in, and the science of evaporation.

Can I use it to cool my PC?

Someone found this article on the search term “jml chillmax air for pc cooling”. If they mean what I think they mean, no, there is absolutely no way you want to be blowing damp air into your PC.

They might have meant powering it from a PC. The mains adapter is rated 5.0V at 1.8A, so assuming the Chillmax does draw 1.8A (and it probably doesn’t, as this is the maximum rating of the adapter) then your PC couldn’t supply that current from a USB port. USB ports are rated at 0.5A or 0.9A depending on the type. Dedicated charging USB ports can handle up to 1.5A, and although that’s a close call (the fan in the Chillmax looks like a computer fan), personally I wouldn’t risk trying to power it from a PC.

Can you get larger versions?

You can certainly get larger evaporative coolers. The working principle is that the larger the surface area of water, and the greater the airflow over that water, then the greater will be the possible drop in temperature at the front end. However, cooling effectiveness is influenced greatly by the RH of the air going in.

If the air is very dry, then a large evaporative cooler might be able to drop inlet air at 30ºC down by as much as 10ºC. However, if the inlet air is very humid, the temperature drop could be as little as 1ºC. In the UK, the realistic temperature drop you could expect on a non-humid day for a large cooler would be around 5-6ºC, but on a sticky day you’d only get about a 3ºC drop.

Suppliers of these devices say that they need good ventilation or extraction, and I would imagine that’s so the humid air can escape. If you’re evaporating more water to get better cooling on larger devices, you’re also producing a lot more water vapour.

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NextBase dashcamA bit of advice to anyone using a dashcam. I see a lot of people complaining that theirs is playing up, and other advice to regularly reformat the card – which seems to get a lot of people recording again. I strongly believe that part of the problem is with the card, and not the dashcam. Specifically, people are using the wrong cards.

I have always used SanDisk Extreme cards in my dashcams, and I have not had any problems. Extreme cards are not the cheapest, either. They’re pretty high spec. However, I recently wrote to SanDisk and asked them if Extreme cards were OK to use in such applications. Here is what they replied:

Thank you for contacting SanDisk® Global Customer Care. Please allow me to inform you that for Dashcams & security surveillance cameras, we recommend to use SanDisk® High Endurance Memory Cards since these cards are specially developed for high endurance applications and continuous read & write cycles. These cards are built for and tested in harsh conditions and are temperature-proof, shock-proof and waterproof.

Also, please be informed that using Extreme or Ultra line memory cards on these devices void their warranty.

So, using Extreme cards puts them under stress that they’re not designed for. It voids their warranty, but – more importantly if you read between the lines – there is a good chance they will malfunction or play up. I don’t know much about cards from other manufacturers, but I would lay odds that most people with dashcams are using the cheapest card they can find, and they certainly won’t be paying the extra few quid that goes along with high endurance types. Most of the time I see people asking what dashcam to choose they always want a cheap one, and the one they end up buying often costs them less than I pay for a SanDisk Extreme card – so there’s no way they’re going to buy a card even close to that.

I have a GoPro camera that records in 4k video. I bought a high capacity SanDisk card designed for 4k that I had to import from the USA because they weren’t available over here, but before I got it I tested a normal SanDisk Extreme card and the video was as choppy as hell. It wasn’t the card’s fault directly – it just wasn’t fast enough for 4k, and it wasn’t supposed to be. I’m fairly certain that this is one of the problems people experience when they use a card that simply isn’t up to the job in their dashcam.

NextBase insist that Extreme cards are compatible with their devices, and their own cards appear to be rebranded SanDisk ones. I don’t disagree that they work well for me, and probably for everyone else when they’re new. But the niggling problems people keep reporting might not be doing NextBase any favours, because I firmly believe that a lot of them are down to the cards protesting at being used outside of their specification, but the user blames the dashcam.

SanDisk high endurance cards only go up to 64GB, though other manufacturers produce higher capacity units.

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Privacy button on keyboardI’m being driven to distraction by the number of emails from sites I’m subscribed to either asking me to confirm I still want them to contact me (there were a lot of these when GDPR first came in), or telling me that they’ll still contact me unless I tell them not to (the more recent, and far more sensible, approach). To be honest, I’d just prefer it if they left things as they are and didn’t keep telling me about it, but everyone seems afraid of GDPR and they feel they have to do something – even if “something” is a fantastic pain in the arse.

The worst approach, though, is how an increasing number of sites have simply blocked European visitors.

The main culprits seem to be American food sites and blogs. It’s perhaps understandable when you consider the kinds of people who run them, but it’s still annoying now that simple Google searches throw up links that you can’t visit. It’s like we’ve gone back to The Dark Ages.

Well, I don’t like that one bit. Getting round it is easy, though. All you need is a VPN client. Fire it up, and you can pretend to be in any country in the world. I just pick an American server location, then refresh my browser, and the blocked site loads up normally. It also works when you get one of those “this content is not available from your location” messages on YouTube or other sites carrying broadcast items (MSN can be very irritating when it feeds you a link, then won’t let you see it when you click it!)

Incidentally, a year or so ago, there was that kerfuffle involving a British celebrity who had obtained an injunction so that his name could not be seen by anyone in the UK concerning some domestic issue he was involved in. It was a bit of a joke, because every other country could print it unrestricted, so finding out who it was would be easy for anyone who had contacts outside the UK (a large percentage of the population, I would imagine). Indeed, it was on many forums in black and white, though posts were quickly removed in some cases. At the time, I was curious, so I fired up the VPN and simply looked at some foreign newspapers to find out who they were talking about.

The client I use is called SlickVPN (I get it as part of my Usenet subscription).

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Audacity main windowI don’t know about you, but I find that people are rubbish at leaving coherent voicemail messages. If they’re not rubbing the phone around their head making crackles and thumps, or blowing into the microphone so it sounds like they’re standing in a Force 9 gale (this is right up there with whistling on the annoyance scale for me), they’re mumbling or stumbling over their words. Many important voicemails come from people wearing headsets, and while these tend to be quiet at the best of times, clarity is often worsened by the user touching or adjusting the boom while they’re talking.

The result is that you have to listen to the message several times to extract the information, and even then it’s sometimes hard picking out details like phone numbers or other numerical details.

I had an important message last week which was definitely going to need several listens. The speaker was talking very quickly, and the nature of the call meant she was back-pedalling and stumbling over her words. Calling back wasn’t an option since they never answer calls directly, and this voicemail was already their response to an email I had sent (not replying by email, so everything is there in black and white, was another example of their back-pedalling). So it occurred to me that it would be useful if I could save the message indefinitely on my PC. I could then process and amplify it, and use decent headphones so I could hear it properly.

One way of doing it would be to use a 3.5mm jack cable between your phone’s headphone socket and your computer’s soundcard line-in. Except many phones these days use the USB port for the headphones (mine is one of them), and the way they use it is non-standard and isn’t guaranteed to work with audio devices the way you’d expect (mine is one of those, too). I wasn’t in the mood to start playing around with USB cables, so I looked for a different way.

On a Windows computer you can use something called loopback, where you effectively tap into the audio signals that get sent through your soundcard. All you need is an app to play your voicemail – like Skype – and suitable recording software to grab it.

My favourite sound recorder is Audacity. I use it to edit and enhance recordings I make at gigs, and it’s open source – which means it’s free (I’ve donated). Assuming you have installed Audacity, all you need to do is set your Audio Host to Windows WASAPI and your Audio Device to Speakers (Realtek High Definition Audio) (loopback). That last one might be different on your machine if you have a different soundcard driver.

My phone is on EE, and if you dial 07953 222222 from another phone (or Skype), then enter your mobile number and password, you can access your voicemail.

And that’s it. Dial in to your voicemail, set it playing, then click the record button in Audacity. Once you’ve captured it, Audacity lets you trim off the lead-in and -out parts so you’re left with just your voicemail message. You can make it louder in various ways, but the simplest is to select Effect >> Normalize… and apply a setting of about -2.0dB. You can save your file in various formats – MP3 if you’re not going to adjust it any more (small file) or WAV if you are (bigger file).

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Ford Focus oil change messageThis article was originally written a few years ago, but it has become extremely popular, and gets hundreds of hits a week.

The original article refers to all models between 2016 and 2018 (not the latest model). The reset procedure is different on the 2019 Focus, and be careful with that because there may be an issue with the latest model that Ford is being very cagey about (see later).

It all began back in 2016, when I got a message on my brand new Ford Focus TDCi Titanium centre display telling me that it was due for an oil change. I wouldn’t have minded, except that it was only on 5,500 miles and my official service points (set by my lease agent) are every 12,500 miles.

I spoke with the local dealer and they said just to book it in so they could reset it. I wasn’t too keen on that, since visits to the dealer inevitably mean at least half a day in lost lesson time.

I didn’t for a moment think it was anything other than an erroneous message. There is an oil warning lamp on the dash which I would never ignore, but centre display messages are a different matter entirely. I mean, how many of us have been driving up a 40% slope only to be advised to change the gear to 4th, 5th, or even 6th? The car just won’t do it. Before I quite realised this, my first action was to buy an OBD II monitor tool so I could check/reset the message myself, but the OBD found no faults, and there was nothing to reset. I should have realised this – and the oil change warning remained stubbornly visible.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place and Googled it. It turns out Ford has a system which gives an oil change warning at various points based on how it thinks the car is being driven. No fault is logged, since the trigger is software-based and is “calculated”. Apparently, you used to be able to set different trigger points manually (in America, at least), but there is no such option in the UK that I can see.

Since 2016, and across at least four other Focuses, I’ve had it come on at as low as around 1,000 miles, and at other silly points shortly after a service. None of my pupils (or me) drives it that badly, of that I’m certain.

How to reset the oil change warning

Resetting it is incredibly simple (pre-2018) – though completely undocumented by Ford. All you do is:

  1. Turn on the ignition (or push the start button with the clutch up)
  2. Press the brake and accelerator fully down

After a moment, the centre display will tell you that the reset is in progress. Keep the pedals down until it informs you that reset is complete. No more oil change warning! From what I understand, this applies to all Focus models from MkII up until the last of the pre-2018 models.

Does this work on other Ford cars?

You’ll have to try it and see. Logic would dictate that Ford has implemented the same procedure on all its current (pre-2019) vehicles. However, when you consider Ford’s indexing system at the back of the User Manual, logic isn’t something they seem to waste much time on, and there’s every possibility that the reset procedure is totally different on other models. If you try it and it works, drop me a line so I can add it here.

I am told it also works on the Ford Fiesta and C-Max.

Does it work on the latest (2018) Focus?

No. Resetting the oil on the new model is done through the settings page on the information console (this is how it ought to have been on the earlier models). You simply scroll to the little cog symbol, then select Information, then scroll down to Oil Life. Press and hold OK and it resets after a few seconds. Mine came on after 3,900 miles!

However, be aware that many people are experiencing the problem in the new (2018) Focus. The dealers are playing as ignorant as ever, and Ford as secretive as ever, but piecing information I have received from readers together there may be an issue with the 2018 Focus where the oil change warning ought not to be ignored.

How soon should I get my oil changed when the warning message comes on?

For a Focus, if your car is under the manufacturer’s warranty then I think they allow 1,000 miles on top of the normal service points (but check that with your local agents). My lease company allows me the range of 11,500-13,500 to book it in for a service [note: service points were every 12,500 miles up to 2018; they are at 10,000 and 20,000 miles on the latest 2018 models]. Whatever your local agent allows, outside of that might affect your warranty, so I say again: check with them before assuming anything.

Of course, if the oil change warning message appears before 12,500 miles (or whatever your service points are) then you can safely ignore it (or reset it, as explained above) in the pre-2018 models. It isn’t a sensor warning, just a software-based calculated value. If the oil warning dashboard light comes on, though, you mustn’t ignore that.

Note that the 2018 Focus may have an issue, so be careful if you ignore the warning.

You shouldn’t ignore the message because you could damage your car

Someone wrote to me making this point (and that was in 2017, so the previous model). As I have explained above, the alert (it isn’t a warning) is calculated based on how the in-car computer thinks you’re driving. Frankly, when it comes on at around 1,000 miles when you’ve only had the car a few weeks, or several days after it has had a service, and the oil definitely isn’t old, yes you can ignore it. Having said that, read the update at the end of this article relating to the 2018-onwards models (between the lines, there may be an issue that no one at Ford is revealing).

My lease agent sets the service points at every 12,500 miles (pre-2018 models). They will not allow me to have it serviced any earlier (±1,000 miles). I know that Ford talks of 7,500 mile service points, and that’s fine. If you have a private vehicle then follow their advice. But if the warning comes on at any other time before that you can safely reset it – if nothing else, until you can get it in for its service.

However, note that the 2018 Focus has service points at 10,000 and 20,000 miles, and there may be an issue with oil degradation, so be careful if you ignore the warning.

Update 10 April 2019: I have heard from an instructor who is with the AA that they’ve been told not to reset the message if it comes on with the 2018-onwards vehicles (the latest model), but to book it into the dealership. My own lease agent hasn’t said anything.

I must say that this would be extremely annoying, as my personal experience of my dealership is that even when there is indisputable video evidence of an intermittent fault occurring several times, they will still insist of having it in for a full day, then not find anything wrong (even though it was obvious they wouldn’t because of what “intermittent” means), and then want it back again the next time it happens. Every lost day costs me up to £200 in earnings.

They did it when I had the floppy clutch pedal problem last year. It turned out to be a known issue with one of the cylinders, and the engineer actually witnessed it sticking down, but they still wanted the bloody thing in, did a namby-pamby hydraulic fluid bleed, then had it in for another day when that didn’t work – which I discovered about an hour after taking it away the first time.

Right now, Sync3 has a habit of freezing (though as of April 2019 there is an update which fixes that). Judging from the Google results on that, it is another known issue. I have videoed the damned thing in its frozen and unresponsive state and shown it to them at the dealership. And… they want it in for a full day to test it. Aaargh.

Update 12 May 2019: Another reader tells me that their dealer has suggested there is a problem with the latest Focus engines and “the oil degrades”. Personally, I cannot see how the oil – synthetic motor oil – can degrade ten times faster than it should, but be aware of this if you have a 2018-onwards Focus.

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility if an oil change really is needed and you ignore it – especially in the new (2018-onwards) Focus, which may have an issue that Ford isn’t letting on about.

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Tektronix Oscilloscope - CRT typeMany moons ago, I got hold of an oscilloscope from an army surplus depot. It was a pretty decent machine – a Tektronix – albeit very basic and dated. I haven’t used it in donkey’s years, and although it is still in the garage I wouldn’t dare turn it on now. It was one of the old CRT jobs, and they had high voltages inside, so with the damp and all that… too risky. It only cost me about £50, but a new one would have been several hundred, so it was a good deal at the time. Like the old TV sets, it weighed an absolute ton, mainly due to the massive transformer and valve chassis inside.

I’ve got a project on the go at the moment which involves an audio circuit – basically, a microphone input and a line-level output. I need to check the frequency characteristics of the circuit to make sure there’s no signal dropout (and to be able to quote this for the final product), so I was suddenly looking for an oscilloscope and a signal generator.

Over the last few years I’ve bought quite a bit of stuff from AliExpress. Consider this: if you wanted to buy, for example, a strip of 5050 LEDs (60 LEDs per metre, IP20), you’d be looking at paying at least £12 for a 5m reel in the UK – probably with shipping on top of that. You can buy the same from sellers on AliExpress for about £3.50 with free shipping. This price differential applies to virtually everything on there. You usually don’t pay any import duty, and even if you do it isn’t much. The only negative is how long things can take to arrive. Sometimes they come in less than a fortnight, other times (though rarely) it can take two months. Most shipments are tracked, and suppliers bend over backwards to help, and will replace lost or faulty items without quibble.

With that in mind, I hopped on over to the AliExpress website to see if they had any handheld oscilloscopes. I almost drowned in my own drool when I saw what they had. You can get “pocket” oscilloscopes the size a smartphone for not much more than $100, and many include a signal generator built-in. I’d earmarked one of these, but then I discovered the Instrustar ISDS205X Virtual PC USB oscilloscope. It has a signal generator and logic analyser, and seemed too good to be true. I asked the supplier if it was Windows 10-compatible – it was – and duly placed an order.

It took about two weeks to arrive (nearly one of those weeks stuck at Heathrow customs judging from the tracking data, and the fact I did have to pay import duty of about £12 on its £70 selling price).

Instrustar virtual PC oscilloscope - main moduleThe oscilloscope consists of the main module, housed in a 160 x 110 x 28mm metal case with rubber end-caps, and a collection of probes and cables – plus the all-important software on a mini-DVD. The instructions on the DVD are typical Chinese-English material, but since I am not a Brexiter I can work around that and see things for what they are rather than demanding an immediate bonfire to burn things I don’t like. So I installed the drivers and plugged the oscilloscope into my PC. It is powered by the USB port, so no separate PSU is needed.

I wasn’t expecting much from the software, and all I wanted was for it to work. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is a huge understatement. The software is very smart-looking.

instrustar_sw_thumbWhenever you run it you have a choice between “professional” and “simplified” and various other displays. The snapshot, above, is of the simplified one showing a 2kHz square wave produced by the internal signal generator being monitored on Channel 1. If you click the image, you can see the display in more detail.

I’m running it on a Windows 10 machine with a 4k display, and it works perfectly. I haven’t got to grips with all the functions yet, but you can save data – so it is also a logger. A further huge bonus is that the signal generator has a “sweep” mode, so I can set it to start at 20Hz and go up in increments of maybe 100Hz (or whatever I choose) to 20kHz, and save the data. This means I can connect the signal generator output to my circuit input, attach the oscilloscope to the output (one channel per stereo channel), set it to “sweep”, and record the results. A feature I think it might also have is that I can mathematically compare the input and outputs and get a difference (even if it doesn’t, a spreadsheet will do that for me).

I doubt that I will ever use the full range of features, but at least I have everything I need for my latest project.

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Maplin logoBack in the day, when I first got into technology, the go-to place for all your bits and pieces was Maplin Electronics.

Back then, pretty much all they supplied was electronic components, and it was all done through mail order using order forms, with items being selected from a catalogue which rivalled the old-style phone directories in size. When I was very young, the Dandy or Beano annuals were the most eagerly anticipated publications of the year. If you were into electronics, the new Maplin catalogue was the thing.

Maplin was the cheapest source of small quantities of components to the hobbyist. It also had the most extensive range.

I built my first AM radio receiver from a Maplin circuit (making my own printed circuit board). I also built my first modem from a Maplin kit – a 300 baud device in a large blue box (I might still have it somewhere). I also built or repaired dozens of other things thanks to them, and learned a lot, too.

As I got older, and computers appeared on the scene, I spent less time building varied circuits and began to focus on computer-specific ones. As more time passed, there was an ever-declining need to build anything at all. This shift affected Maplin, and they branched out into retail consumer electronics. In those early days of supplying components, I think they only had two actual shops, and I dreamed of one opening near me. Nottingham has two Maplin stores now, and there are 217 around the country.

In my opinion, a large part of the problem was that most of the stuff they began selling was overpriced and non-branded. You could get better for much less money online. Electronic components were still available, but hidden in the back of the store, and the range was drastically reduced – even more so if you wanted it to be in stock right now for an emergency. And the staff were not always as helpful as you’d expect. I remember one time not that long ago waiting to be served at the click-and-collect in one branch, and the staff repeatedly walked past me, looked at me, and ignored me as they congregated in a group on the other side of the shop floor (until I yelled across that I was waiting to be served). Don’t get me wrong – other times they were great… but not always.

But if only for the sake of nostalgia, it was a shame to hear that they have gone into administration.

Irrespective of my own potted history linking to their current situation, Maplin as a retailer has been hit hard by the fall in the value of the GBP due to Brexit. Indeed, Brexit is cited as a significant factor in their collapse.

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Places in the UK where broadband is slowExtensive government research has identified several areas in the UK where broadband is quite slow.

Note that the population density in the UK as a whole is over 270 people per square kilometre. The population density in the areas identified as having the slowest broadband – mainly the extremities of Scotland and rural Wales – is as low as 3-4 people per square kilometre (and in one area, 3-4 probably represents the average IQ of the population there as well).

MPs are apparently planning next to spend a lot more money on identifying that it is darker at night than it is during the daytime, and that ice melts when it warms up.

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Microsoft OutlookI use Office and always have done. I like Microsoft, and see no reason to resort to using a hammer and small chisel to make cuneiform tablets for the purposes of communication just because I’m jealous of how big Microsoft is.

Anyway, yesterday I came home and discovered that a new Windows Insider update had come through, but the installation had failed. After re-booting, my system restored itself to the previous build, and I made a note to try the update later that evening. In the meantime, I checked my email, and deleted the stuff I didn’t want. It was then I discovered a stupid, drawn-out quacking sound each time I deleted a message. The problem – well, the change – was too recent for there to be any coherent information on Google.

In Outlook’s settings, there is nothing associated with sounds other than turning off the one you get when an email arrives. I’ve lived through the hell of that annoying chime every time an email arrives, and switched it off long ago. So I was stumped.

But then, the following day, and to add insult to injury, I found out that when I opened Excel and launched a spreadsheet, a new and very annoying sound had been added to that action, too.

Long story short. I disabled “Provide feedback with sound” in Excel’s Options >> Ease of Access panel, and that stopped Excel making noises. The big benefit was that this stopped Outlook doing it, too.

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