Avoid PayPal Foreign Exchange Fees

For those of us who don’t like being ripped off (and who does, exactly?) the thought of PayPal’s fees are a good reason not to use the service.  However I (residing in the United Kingdom) currently have a need to pay an individual in France €100 (say, for sake of argument, I’m buying off eBay or renting a holiday villa) and have limited options:

  • Pay my bank £10 for a SWIFT transfer – (since €100 is approx £78, that’s a hefy commission!)
  • Spend 3 days trying to count up the fees I (or the recipient) would pay with PayPal – 3.5% standard fee, assuming a minimum additional 3.5% for the currency exchange (on top of whatever exchange rate they decide to use?) and possibly a cross-border fee as well?
  • Use another service like TransferWise.com – this is cheap (£1 for my transaction) and paid into the recipient’s bank account, but as this is not a direct bank transfer I’m not clear if the purchase protection I would otherwise receive still applies, so a bit of a risk there.

I normally use fee-free credit/debit cards (like Halifax Clarity or Supercard) to avoid foreign exchange fees, but using PayPal in the past I thought the only option was to use a UK Sterling card and let PayPal convert into Euros, meaning you’re subject to even more extortionate fees than your bank will charge!  However, despite PayPal’s needlessly over-complicated fee structure I’m thinking it is the way to go here as I think I can discount both the currency exchange and cross-border fees.

Firstly, the easy one: PayPal have a small note at the bottom of their “Cross Border Fees” table which states:

“Cross Border Euro or Swedish Krona payments made between Accounts registered in the European Union or EEA will be treated as Domestic Payments for the purpose of applying Fees.”

Happy days? Now about that foreign exchange fee… I’ve learned that it is possible to get PayPal to bill my fee-free card in Euros, hopefully eliminating another chunky fee. The  remaining 3.5% standard fee is clearly more than double the TransferWise fee, but I figure it’s worth it for the added protection (provided by the site I’m buying through, not by PayPal – although there is that too).

Getting PayPal to bill you in your own currency is not easy, but can be done.  All the guides I found explained how to do it on the old site, which has now been replaced.  The same legacy page is still there and active, and still used within your account, but finding it is even harder than it was before.  So here’s what you need to do:

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Early Gripes with Sky Broadband

I’ve recently joined Sky Broadband from PlusNet – hey, a year’s free broadband and a £100 pre-paid Mastercard on top of over £77 TopCashBack is hard to turn down!  However, I have already come across two major annoyances – one which I’ve carried over from my days at PlusNet and one which is new.

Screenshot from Sky Hub's Dynamic DNS screen showing a list with a single entry.
What passes for “choice” when you’re a Sky customer

Let’s start with the new one. It turns out, the Sky router (sorry, “Sky Hub”) only lets you ‘choose’ from a list of one Dynamic DNS providers. Since I’m not interested in paying $40 a year for something that I know I can get for free this is not an acceptable solution for me.

So instead I came across this old post on AskUbuntu which pointed me towards a program called ddclient.  This perl-based program will run on my Linux server and update the No-IP service from there, bypassing the router instead.  Not ideal as far as I’m concerned, but workable.

The second issue is one that was also a problem at PlusNet in that, for whatever reason, ISPs these days seem reluctant to let you bypass their DNS servers (cutting their load and doing part of their job for them!) and so remove any option related to this from their routers.  I managed to get round this at one point with Plus Net by telnetting into the router itself and updating the settings manually (not for the feint-hearted!) but this Sky Hub is a different router make so I will need to do a bit more digging on that one.  A task for another day methinks.

Needless to say, Sky and I aren’t off to the best of starts.

Local Home Network DNS – how hard can it be?

So I wanted to do something I thought would be fairly straightforward.  I have a home network with a PlusNet-provided Technicolor Gateway router and behind that I currently have my (Windows 7) laptop and my HP Proliant Microserver running Lubuntu.

In addition to a media server I want to use my Lubuntu box as a development environment for multiple websites, but I want to be able to access each website from the laptop.

Running multiple sites is easy enough with Apache’s Virtual Hosts feature, and I can configure the /etc/hosts file on my server to let me access them locally.  However I want to be able to do the actual work /testing on my laptop (for starters) and have an easy to remember name for each of the virtual hosts.

So here’s what (I think) I need to do:

  1. Install Apache (and PHP/MySQL) and configure the virtual hosts – check.
  2. Set up a DNS server on my server
  3. Configure the laptop to query that server for DNS (preferably through the router config so it applies to the whole network…) let’s come to that later.

Piece of cake, right?  Read on for completion of step 2.

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Switching to Ovo Energy “Greener Energy” – Debacle

On 19th February occurred the latest in a long line of blunders since I first applied to switch to Ovo Energy back in August last year. After running a comparison against my previous providers and the wider market, I decided I would switch to Ovo Energy’s Greener Energy (all online) tarriff.

First Ovo tried to switch the wrong gas account (i.e. not mine!). Because of where I live I am supplied through an independent gas transporter which means I was told it would take 4-12 weeks to transfer. By December I realised that time was now up and still my transfer hadn’t completed. There had been no contact from Ovo in this time to tell me anything was amiss and I was told at least once that I just needed to wait.

Sure enough, after me chasing Ovo, it eventually turned out they’d been trying to move the wrong account. If I recall they asked for my meter number when I signed up, but somewhere this got converted into an MPRN (Meter Point Registration Number) – but the one in my Ovo account wasn’t the one on my bills from my old supplier.

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Auto-Off Issues with LG NB2520a and PlayStation 3

A couple of months back I started playing my way through Assassin’s Creed 3 on my PS3 again, having barely touched it for most of the previous year – and certainly since I got my LG NB2520a soundbar.  I soon noticed that every now and again (I’m guessing every 30 minutes or so) the soundbar would switch itself off while playing.

This hasn’t occurred with any other game, Blu-Ray or my YouView box as an input and seemed to be specific to Assassin’s Creed 3.  I tried pressing the “Auto Power Off” button to see if disabling this would help – it didn’t.

I then began playing recently began playing DmC – Devil May Cry on the same PS3 and noticed sound issues whereby the sound would cut out for a split second on a fairly frequent basis (every few seconds at times) and did some Googling on this.  It looked like this was something to do with the audio output options on the PS3 and was a fault in the game rather than the soundbar (if I turned off the soundbar and played the audio through the TV it still did the same thing).

Given the tip about sound output formats, I tried playing with these and I soon discovered that the issue disappeared if I went intot he PS3’s Audio Output settings and set them to manual to switch off Dolby Digital 5.1 Ch output option .  Unfortunately when I did this, DmC started suffering from the same problem as AC3. D’oh!

So my conclusion is that the LG NB2520a really doesn’t work well with DTS sound, at least not coming from a PS3, as I don’t think switching off every 30 minutes is good behaviour.

At the minute the only thing I can think of to fix this is to disable DTS 5.1 Ch output option for Assassin’s Creed 3 (haven’t tried this yet but will give it a go next time I play) and to disable Dolby Digital for DmC and accept that the soundbar is going to switch itself off every now and again.  Not exactly ideal but marginally better than having the sound cutting in and out.

What I’m wondering now though is… since the soundbar only outputs 2.1 sound, is there any reason not to just disable both Dolby Digital and DTS and use the PCM 2.1 sound?

Android Studio Debugging with Nexus 4 Google Driver

Recently I’ve been thinking of dipping my toe back into the world of Android app development and discovered that there is a new IDE on the block in the form of the Android Studio.

I installed this on my (Windows) machine, which isn’t a speed demon by any stretch of the imagination, and tried to run a “Hello World!” program on the emulator but it was taking 10 minutes for the emulator to start and it was still just showing the android boot screen, so I decided to try it out on my Nexus 4.

I followed the standard advised steps, enabling USB debugging and setting the USB mode to PTP, but the phone didn’t appear when I connected it and went to Run the package from Android Studio.  Further, the drivers wouldn’t install properly.  Advice seemed to be to go to Device Manager and install from <sdk>\extras\google\usb_driver\ – but there was no usb_driver folder there.  However you can  install this from the “SDK Manager” from the Android Studio toolbar.

Screenshot of Android Studio toolbar highlighting SDK Manager button
SDK Manager button on Android Studio toolbar

This will open the SDK Manager which seems to contain optional components that you can install alongside the Android Studio.  In this case I was looking for the Google USB Driver which is listed under “Extras”.

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Updating Subversion on Lubuntu 12.04

I’m trying to get reacquainted with Subversion having not used it since my student days and was happy to find it was already installed on my Lubuntu 12.04 (either by default or because I’d previously installed it).

What I didn’t immediately realise was that the version installed was neither the latest (1.8) or the latest stable (1.7) version, but 1.6.  (You can check the version of the installed SVN server using the command svnadmin --version

Since I have automatic updates on I thought that was a bit strange so got to Googling and came across Kovstantin Kovshenin’s post Subversion 1.7 on Ubuntu 12.04 which helped.

Essentially I needed to add a couple of lines to my /etc/apt/sources.list file to reference a PPA from launchpad.

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/svn/ppa/ubuntu precise main
deb-src http://ppa.launchpad.net/svn/ppa/ubuntu precise main

and then update subversion using apt-get at the command line:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install subversion

This is the point in the instructions where I hit a problem, getting the error message:

W: GPG error: http://ppa.launchpad.net jaunty Release: The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Where XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX is a string of hex characters. The solution, as described here, was to update the list of GPG keys stored by Lubuntu using the command

sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com --recv-keys XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Doing this and repeating the update commands above solved my problem, and rerunning the version check presented me with:

svnadmin --version
svnadmin, version 1.7.9 (r1462340)
compiled Apr 6 2013, 21:23:46

Swap UK Keymap for US on Lubuntu using XRDP

OK so my home server is up and running at my new place and I have been tinkering, installing Ruby etc. and as I started writing a bit of code I realised I couldn’t tolerate the getting a US keymap any more.

I hasten to add that this problem only occurred when I logged in over Remote Desktop so I figured it was something to do with XRDP – and I was right.  Thanks to a very useful post at Component Parts, I was able to update it in just a few minutes.

Just download the keymap file (km-0809.ini) into the XRDP keymaps directory – /etc/xrdp/ – and then run:

sudo chown xrdp.xrdp /etc/xrdp/km-0809.ini
sudo chmod 644 /etc/xrdp/km-0809.ini
sudo service xrdp restart

I suspect you’ll want to log out of Remote Desktop and use a shell client like PuTTY for that last part – I assume if you restart the xrdp service while you’re connected to the server, you’re gunna have a bad time!

Tesco Broadband – For Masochists Only (aka my schizophrenic router)

So, I moved to a new flat in November and obviously one of the first things I did was order a new broadband connection.  Tesco Broadband were the cheapest I could find for an uncapped package (although it was a close call with plus net) so I figured I’d give them a try.  Mistake number one.

After indicating I’d need a new line installed (not possible under my tenancy agreement, and not necessary given that the previous tennant’s Sky phone line had been deactivated just weeks before) but said this is just standard, that the BT Openreach engineer would call out and just flick a switch.  To be fair this is exactly what happened, but why not say so up front?  And why does it take 6 long weeks (not Tesco’s fault I realise, but still frustrating as hell).

Speedtest.net results: Download 2.5Mb/s, Upload 0.85Mb/s
Absolutely ridiculous broadband speeds for central London in 2013.

Anyway, after promising speeds “between 8 and 12 Mbps” they flick the switch and I discover to my disappointment I’m getting a lowly 2.5 Mbps – I’m in central London here, not the Outer Hebrides!!  No worries, they say it sometimes takes a week or so after connection for the line to automatically adjust to get the best speed.

Sure enough, a week (or two) later… nothing.  Still the miserably slow speeds I’ve been getting.  And some serious swearing.

Eventually I send them a tweet deriding my miserable speed and after a bit of to and fro they “open a fault with BT”.  Hmm… I am sceptical that this will achieve anything but go along with it.  Weeks pass.  Nothing.  I send a tweet asking for an update.  Another week passes.  Another tweet.  Another week.  Nothing.

So tonight, I’m getting my home network sorted out with my shiny new powerline ethernet (or “homeplug”)  adaptors so I can shift my Microserver out to the spare room.  Only when I try to connect my second router up and log into the Tesco Broadband router to get some configuration details I realise that I no longer have a Tesco Broadband router.  Oh no, my router now thinks it’s a BT Home Hub.  Not only this, but somehow the password has changed so I can’t login – but what I can see is that there are a handful of devices showing up as connected that I don’t recognise, including an Apple TV, an iMac, an iPad and an Asus router.  Now I don’t own any of these devices and my router has WPA2 encryption on… doesn’t it?  I checked and the wireless key is still active, so how did these devices connect?

BT Homehub web admin home screen, showing strange devices connected to my network
When I tried to connect to my Tesco (Technicolor) router, I realised that it now seemed to think it was a BT Homehub.

I wonder if BT and/or Tesco have done something as part of this fault resolution process without telling me, like forced some new firmware or something down the line.  I’ve no idea and I ended up on hold for about 40 minutes trying to talk to someone in Tesco’s technical support.  I was just about to give up getting someone before 10pm when a friendly sounding voice came from the phone, just as I’d left the room for a minute to plug something back in in the living room.

Thankfully he didn’t hang up when it took me a second or two to come back and even more, he sounded like he actually knew what he was talking about rather than just reading off a script.  When I mentioned my firmware theory he at first seemed sceptical but having exhausted the other options (basically that I’d connected to someone else’s WiFi or a different router) he said he’d have to pass it on to Level 2 support, but gave me the username and password I needed to use my other (non-compromised) router until they came back to me and told me what the hell was going on.

So now we play the waiting game.

Argos 39-inch Bush TV

I recently purchased a 39-inch Bush LCD TV from Argos at Swiss Cottage for what seemed like a reasonably good deal of £229.  OK, it was a Bush TV – but how bad could it be?  I was also worried that a 39″ TV would be too big for the lounge but when I got it set up it looked to be  a perfect size!  (The stand that I bought with it is also good, although for £60 it would need to be nice!)

The TV set up was fine.  I was a bit nervous it took so long to tune in the Freeview (DTV-B) signal but it got there in the end.  I was a little disappointed that the catalogue listing had made it appear that it was Freeview HD – but it isn’t.  It’s Freeview, and it’s HD, but never the twain shall meet.

Photo of catalogue page showing "Freeview" and "HD" logos close together, side-by-side
The arrangement of the logos implied to me at the time that the Bush TV was Freeview HD. It was only after I tuned it in I realised it wasn’t.

Anyway, I was prepared to accept that as a lesson that I should double-check everything but then I hit the real problem: the picture quality.  Despite having a review score of 4.5/5 on the Argos web site, the picture quality is absolutely awful.  The brights are too bright and the darks are too dark, and it seems no amount of playing with settings will change that.  People’s faces positively glow when they’re in any kind of brightly lit scene, and any attempt to mitigate this means that darker colours all merge into one dark mess in indoor scenes (think the pub in Eastenders).

I went back to the reviews on the Argos web site because I can’t believe these people are describing the same TV.  I was slightly suspicious of reviews on the site selling the product and whether there would be some form of censorship in play.  When I tried to leave an honest review reflecting the true quality of this TV I couldn’t find any option to do this, though I think their site was redesigned the other day, so hoping this is just an oversight there rather than anything sinister.

So it turns out that the Bush TV was indeed pretty bad – I should’ve paid more heed to my dad’s opinion of Bush products but it seemed like a good deal.  Talk about buyer’s remorse!  It needs to go back to the shop, Argos should really be embarrassed to be selling products like that in the first place, much less trying to make out they’re worth £350.

I’m publishing this in the hope that some other poor sod about to make the same mistake will be spared the disappointment.  Do yourself a favour, go to Richer Sounds instead – or at least somewhere you can see the TV you’re getting in action.  Or failing that, just don’t buy a Bush TV – they are as bad as you think!