Moving from Stablehost shared hosting to Amazon Lightsail

[Apologies to teacher subscribers of my site who receive this update expecting an email about science teaching. I’ve written about this as a record of the poor service from my web hosting provider so that others might find it and make an informed decision based on my experience. I’m posting this under the personal section of my site.]

A few weeks ago I received an email from my hosting provider, Stablehost, informing me: “This mail is to inform you about your account fiendish activities. As per our terms of services, you may not: Use 75% or more of system resources for longer than 90 seconds. … According to your monitoring data, we can see that your account is constantly overplaying the allocated CPU and memory usage. You can check that yourself from cPanel >> CPU and Concurrent Connections. For your reference, I’ve also attached the same to this ticket.”

As you can see I was given a nice helpful graph with no labels for the bottom axis (important because it helps identify if this is a temporary problem or a longer-term issue) There was no discussion, and despite having access to my records seeing that my sites have been hosted there for many years, my account was unceremoniously deactivated.  When I contacted support I was told tersely (some might say rudely) simply they could only respond to me by email and I had to reply to the original email I had been sent.

Checking Cloudflare (who sit between my website and my hosting provider to help reduce demand on their servers, overkill for a tiny little site like mine) I could see a flurry of activity from foreign web servers that matched the times of increased demand (I found these in my CPanel once they reactivated my account, not from anyone in support) In fact when attempting to glean additional data from support I was simply told: “I have checked and noticed now you [Sic] account usage is normal.”

Following a server snafu the previous year, I had already moved my DNS entries to Cloudflare as Stablehost simply deleted my DNS records, including my MX entries, so all my mail stopped being delivered (they did helpfully reinstate it when I pointed out their mistake). The lack of information about my usage didn’t fill me with confidence and I ended up regularly checking my usage figures once my site was back up and running (with no idea if I had used 75% of resources for 90 seconds as the data they provide in the control panel is not that granular)

I thought about moving to another host but that could be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, so I decided to look elsewhere. I could move my site over to WordPress.com which would provide automatic updates but I’d lose a lot of the flexibility that comes from self-hosting (including my plugins that repeatedly Tweet my posts) I decided to try Amazon Lightsail who provide a ready to use WordPress experience (at the same price as WordPress.com – £3 per month) with hosting in London.

Moving over my content took a little tweaking of the settings in Lightsail (I was using the all-in-one WP migration plugin) and we were ready to go. There are plenty of guides in the documentation and that previous adopters have shared so I won’t list them here. I would say that Lightsail is best suited to someone who has the experience or the willingness to tinker with the settings as it isn’t quite as simple as click and play (especially if you want to enable https)

My site has been running on Amazon’s servers for several weeks now and I have noticed is a massive improvement in speed over the shared hosting. The whole site (browsing and the admin panel) are now quick and responsive – a huge leap forward from shared hosting with Stablehost. As expected, my tiny site isn’t using much processing power which makes me suspect the information I was given my Stablehost…

If you are starting out and want your own website/blog, and you don’t mind having a WordPress URL and adverts on your site, the free option from WordPress.com is probably best for you and avoids any potential security issues with having to keep your WordPress installation up to date.

 

Score yourself some cheap train tickets – how I saved £87 on a single journey

I’ve read plenty of articles about saving money on train journeys and thought this wouldn’t apply to me or that the savings would be minimal.
I recently had cause to visit Bristol for the day on business. A quick check of trains on the National Rail site revealed that I’d be travelling on a Cross Country train.  I had to arrive in Bristol before 11am which meant a peak-time departure.
A quick search on Cross Country trains alongside the Trainline site offered me a ticket for £158 (or slightly less if I booked two singles). There are several routes to Bristol – all came in at the same price but the journey time varied from under three hours to nearly four hours depending on the date chosen.

I wondered if it might be possible to get a split ticket – and a quick google search revealed the site https://www.splitticketing.com/
The user interface for split ticketing is bare-bones and a little clunky. Clicking the wrong option (like leave after/arrive before) would show no routes available. Banging in the times and clicking on the proceed button brings up the individual legs of the journey. This site charges you an admin fee based on your saving – and I wasn’t keen on booking specific trains, I like the flexibility to catch a later (or earlier) train if I’m working and don’t know what time I might leave a meeting.

Using the information from the split ticketing site I decided to book my own tickets, hoping I could book individual day-return tickets. Unfortunately, neither the TrainLine website nor CrossCountry Trains would display day-returns when I put in the times of the individual trains but the East Midlands Trains site did (I’ve no idea why since they all appear to use the same software and interface)
I ended up buying three sets of tickets. I split my trip into three journeys, each with a seat reservation where available and for a total cost of £71.10 (selecting the cheapest tickets offered to me for each leg of the journey) and saving me £87

The upsides to buying this way are simple, you save money. If I’d bought the ticket I was offered first I’d have paid more than double the cost of split tickets! I also felt a bit mean not booking through Split Tickets but I didn’t want the ticket options they offered (and as I was claiming my travel back I felt their ‘fee’ could be hard to justify on an expenses claim form!)
The downsides were several. Searching for the same journey on different dates brings up different journey times and ticket splits, so you can’t always be sure you are being given the cheapest route (The route I took should be available every weekday but searching for other dates routed me through Wales adding an hour to the journey and changing the ticket split).
Because I booked three separate journeys, I had three booking reference numbers and had to go to the ticket machine and repeat the collection procedure three times. This resulted in fourteen tickets being printed – the photo at the top of this posts shows the ones I had left at the end of the day. Before my journey, I sorted them in order ready for checking on the train.
I had booked onto a busy route and on the way back my seat reservation was different for each leg of the journey. The train was packed and I sat watching people evicting each other from reserved seats so be aware that you might have to move mid-journey which can be a problem if you are carrying heavy luggage.
Booking a split ticket means that the train has to stop at the stations where you’ve split your ticket. To reserve seats on these trains yourself, you need to know the exact time of the stop where you break your journey so you can reserve your seat on the onward part of the journey after the break. This adds a significant amount of time and effort to the booking process (if you are travelling on a quieter route you can skip this step and save yourself a good deal of grief!)
Would I do this again?  Yes to save over £80, and watching people showing the train manager their tickets, I wasn’t the only one to split my journey to save money.
What this does show is what a shambles the whole ticket booking system is for travel by train. When we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint and use public transport, it shouldn’t be so hard to get a cheap train ticket.

Update: 23/10/18
Yesterday I repeated the technique. Again I had to book my own tickets because the ticket split site did not offer the chance to make sure every ticket was a day ticket (handy for flexibility) By splitting my ticket I saved £60 this time off a quoted direct ticket price of £128. Again I had a handful of tickets (which the bemused ticket inspector clipped all at once) but I didn’t want to risk my phone battery running out with e-tickets

Cauda equina update – final edition (hopefully!)


Four years ago I’d had one of those life-changing events that you read about on Facebook.  I’d just undergone emergency surgery for cauda equina – one of my discs had slipped out of place in my spine and was crushing my spinal cord. Fortunately it was caught early and I was rushed in for emergency surgery.
After a week in Derby Royal Hospital, I was discharged from hospital and began the slow rehabilitation back to normality.  Walking was the first battle I won, with nerve damage to the muscles/skin down the back of my legs I had to walk with a stick. A large patient German Shepherd got me walking again and whilst I have reduced sensation down the back of my legs/feet I walk miles, the same as before my condition started.
The second big change was learning to self-catheterise.  The first few times I did this I felt like I was going to pass out (if you’ve seen the length of a male catheter you might appreciate why!) but I learned to do it quickly at home and at work (who had special equipment installed at work).  It’s been a year now since I was discharged from urology as my nerves had regenerated sufficiently that I no longer needed to use the catheters (saving the NHS around £1.50 per visit to the men’s room!)
I still have a rise and fall desk at work but very rarely need to use it in the upright position, and I have an amazing memory foam seat that prevents backache (and it drives me mad when anyone touches the myriad of levers on the underside of the chair as I don’t know what most of them do!)
So why the update – I still get lots of messages from people who have suffered from some kind of spinal/back trauma and either suffered cauda equina or something similar.  I know that your recovery might be slower than mine, or may take a different route but don’t give up.  Hang on in there and keep doing the things you want to, it will get better!
Follow my cauda equina history here

Samsung Smartthings – my initial thoughts #ThinkSmartThings

I signed up to be part of the insiders project, getting a Samsung SmartThings starter kit for 6 weeks to review and play with.

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The kit itself is well boxed and presented although documentation was a little thin on the ground.  Set-up was fairly simple although for some reason I had to do it twice which meant popping the cap off each sensor and pressing the reset button for the hub to set it up.

The presence sensor didn’t survive this process and the plastic holding in the battery disintegrated.  Support was mediocre and eventually (after nearly a week) I was given a second class label to return the sensor for it to be replaced upon receipt.  This meant a trip to the post office to get a proof of posting, which slowed the returns process down.  Fortunately the sensor was replaced within a few days of posting

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In the box is a hub which is the control centre for the whole system.  It has battery backup using 4x AA batteries (provided).  Also included in the box is a presence sensor, a door sensor (which also detects vibrations and temperature), a motion sensor (which also detects temperature) and an open/close sensor.   A remote controlled plug socket is also included (which also feeds back the energy consumption in Watts)

The limited range of sensors provided mean that it is hard to rig up any meaningful home automation system with only one actuator (the socket).  The hub has the ability to link with other automation kit you might own and it was a two minute job to painlessly link it to my Philips Hue lighting kit.

I’m still yet to find a compelling use case for the starter kit – that makes use of the sensors and devices on offer.  The retail price for the kit is £200 and there are many cheaper solutions that don’t involve smart technology for the use cases I see being tweeted with the #ThinkSmartThings hashtag.  For example I have my hub turning my lighting on at sunset and off at bedtime.  This sounds clever but I was able to do this before using IFTTT.com without the need to buy specialist hardware.  The remote controlled socket is nice but most of the functionality can be replicated by a WeMo socket in the £25-£30 price bracket and again with IFTTT integration.

I do have the system linked to my Foscam security camera so that when the door is opened it takes a snapshot (hoping I have left the camera pointing at the door).  The SmartApp can take a burst of photos if required but I’ve had limited success (it depends on which side of the door the person opening it is stood when the photos are taken).  An example of the typical shot is shown below (it isn’t meant to be broken up):

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The app is available for iPhone and Android which means that iPad users like myself are left with a crappy second best interface (again IFTTT has an iPad app – Samsung take note!).  The Android app is buggy and doesn’t work well on Marshmallow with error messages warning you that presence detection isn’t working (so removing the option of using your phone as a presence sensor to let the system know you are in the house).

Key features have yet to be implemented (despite being labelled as arriving soon for over a month) such as OpenAuth to connect to external services like IFTTT.  Account sharing isn’t implemented yet either so you can’t add your spouse or partner to your system – you all have to be logged in as the same user…

Configuring the system is a pain – whilst it isn’t impossible to work, it does lack the ease of use of comparable systems like IFTTT, and uses a combination of SmartApps and Routines to work your SmartThings hub.

Where Samsung have missed a trick is the sharing of recipes showing how to achieve certain events – I worked out how to turn my lights on and off on a routine but others might not.  Without wanting to sound like an IFTTT fanboy, they do have this licked with their recipe sharing system.  I have reached out to other insiders and browsed the SmartThings community but have yet to find any must-have uses for the system.

The availability of compatible sensors could be the making of this system but availability is limited in this country and the prices are usually higher than comparable SmartThings additional sensors (which start at £30 each).

I still remain to be convinced that Samsung SmartThings could be useful and I’ve tried hard to make it work for me.  I would advise potential purchasers wait until Samsung has implemented a full feature set and there is an established user base with some good usage scenarios.

Update – my daily speed tests @virginmedia

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I posted a short while ago because I had been experiencing poor speeds with Virginmedia on my 50Mb connection.

Over the course of this week I realised I couldn’t remote into my home connection and realised I had been given a new IP address.  As this rarely happens I wondered if this had fixed my poor speeds.

It’s early days yet and whilst not perfect it’s great to have a useable connection back in the evenings.  You can see from my speed test results above that there is a noticeable difference in the connection speeds at peak times.

The utilisation fault referred to in my last post wasn’t due to be fixed until November so I’m not sure what has changed,  hence the uncertainty over my recently improved speeds.  My ego would like to think that my efforts on social media made a difference but it was probably just a scheduled upgrade.

I won’t be posting any more daily speed tests unless there is a deterioration in my download speeds again.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the act of over-selling capacity in my area, or the fact that so many people all over the country aren’t getting their promised connection speeds with Virgin.   Competition is the best motivator for companies to improve and people experiencing poor speeds need to be vocal about them if anything is to be done.

Why I’m tweeting my speed test results every day – @virginmedia


I’ve had slow speeds for well over a year now.  I’ve reported them to Virginmedia but unfortunately they are unable to help.  The reason being that there isn’t an actual fault with my hardware or my connection.
The reason I’ve been getting slow speeds is what Virginmedia call a utilisation fault.  A utilisation fault isn’t caused by faulty hardware or equipment, it is caused by signing up more customers than your network can support. Unfortunately, this type of fault isn’t very easy to fix and requires investment in network infrastructure and bandwidth.
Virgin have assigned a fault reference to this problem (F002970318), presumably because they can give it to people like me who phone up wondering why they get nowhere near their promised speed.  I’ve been given a total of five dates for this to be fixed and it keeps getting pushed back, the date given now is mid-November, but I have no faith in Virginmedia to fix this problem.
What frustrates me even more are sales calls from Virgin offering me packages including 100Mb broadband.  If they can’t deliver 50Mb, there is little chance of delivering 100Mb or greater.  While this problem goes on Virgin media continue to sign up new customers who are oblivious to the fact that they will not get their promised line speed.
I’m told that Virgin can offer up to £7.50 a month rolling credit to those affected, which is little consolation to those getting speeds of 5Mb at peak times (or worse).  If you are in the Nottingham area then you will have to forget about connecting to the city of speed and accept that your connection will be subject to slow speeds until Virgin complete the investment that is long overdue.  You might also want to phone up customer service and ask for a discount, and share your connection speeds with others so that Virgin stop signing up customers with the promise of a service that they can’t deliver.
Feel free to get in touch if you are experiencing similar problems with your connection…

How to have a second phone number to stop nuisance and sales calls

When I switched to having an internet-only phone I had to get a new landline number.  This gave me the opportunity to start again with my phone number knowing no cold callers would have my number.

As well as getting a number for incoming calls, I decided to get a second number for putting on application forms, insurance quotes etc where I wouldn’t want to speak to someone. Instead when someone calls this number they get a message (from me) and get to record a message.  This message is then emailed to my mailbox (and thanks to a filter in gmail it gets forwarded to my partner too).

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I chose Flextel to provide my phone number but other choices are available.  Calls to the number (and emailing of voicemail messages) is free but other paid options are available including forwarding to a landline or receiving faxes (remember those?)

Instructions on the Flextel site help you chose a number and set up voicemail (including recording your own message).  Hint – turn off the call notification emails otherwise you get an email every time someone calls the number regardless of whether they leave a message or not.

So does this work?  Yes! Use an insurance comparison tool, put in your new number and wait for the voicemails to come in.  I’ve also given it to salesmen when looking for quotes and they simply assume that you are on the phone and so leave a message.  We only give out the main phone number to people we might actually want to speak to (for example doctor, dentist) and everyone else gets the voicemail only number.  No more running to the phone to speak to sales reps, and you can listen to the messages on your mobile phone (assuming you receive email on it).

Feel free to get in touch if you want to know more.

How to get rid of your landline and route calls over the internet.

I no longer have a land line and route all my incoming calls over the internet to my DECT cordless phone.  You could also use this method to get a second landline for work purposes or for your children.

There are a several prerequisites for this guide:

  • You need to be using cable internet as you can’t cancel your BT line if you get the internet down it (you can still use an internet phone for cheaper calls if you don’t buy a call bundle from your provider)
  • You need to be prepared to invest a small amount of money in equipment – this will pay off in the medium-long term
  • You aren’t attached to your phone number (it is easier to get a new number)
  • You need a spare port on your router and an extra power socket near the phone/router

There are advantages to using an internet landline

  • free voicemail (and you can have voicemail messages emailed to you!)
  • cheaper calls
  • free caller display
  • no line rental charges
  • you can pick a phone number with any area code – for example a London number if you live up north!
  • full incoming and outgoing call history on the internet

The first thing you need to do is to sign up with a SIP provider.  I chose sipgate who offer a home service which runs on a pre-pay basis.  Calls cost a mere 1.19p per minute which is considerably cheaper than many landline plans (they do a bundle too).  As part of the signup process you get to choose an area code and phone number.  You will also need to top up the account to make outgoing calls – I would suggest doing this after you have tested the system and know that it is working.

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Next you need some SIP hardware.  I chose the Cisco SPA112 which can be purchased for just over £30 and full configuration instructions are provided on the sipgate site.  This device is a small box that supports two telephone lines (I only use one!) and lets you plug in a standard phone (subject to having the right connectors).  I swapped the cable on my DECT cordless phone (the one with a BT plug on the end) for one with rj11 connectors at each end as shown below (available on eBay for a small cost)

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Once all is connected and configured you can make a test call to your new number.  The setup shouldn’t take long, as long as you know the ip address of the SPA112 on your network, it’s a ten minute job (don’t forget to change the admin password on your box as a precaution too).  There is no need to worry about port-forwarding (if you don’t know what this is then this is the hardware for you!).

In eight months of running this system the only problem I’ve had is an overheating internet router (I reset everything and it works again) and my puppy chewing through the SPA112 power cable (fortunately this was repaired with insulating tape)

I’ve tried not to give too many technical details, just to tell you what is possible.  Feel free to get in touch if you want to know more about getting rid of your landline or if you have any specific questions.

 

Cauda equina – MRI scan 12 months on

I’d been back to see my consultant because of tingles and twinges in my (mostly numb) toes. I had been referred for a scan which took five weeks for an appointment to come, and another month for a follow up appointment with my consultant.  The latest scan was taken exactly a year after the last scan (taken while I was suffering from cauda equina).

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The news was good which is the reason for my post, as it shows that there has been no further degeneration of my discs.  It also shows that my nerves are no longer being pushed or squashed and that the twinges are mostly likely as a result of historic nerve damage or even regeneration.

I know that things have got easier since I had the microdiscectomy (which was when I was at my lowest physical condition) and that I’m a lot better now.  I still get aches in my calf muscles (which I don’t have full control of) but I don’t notice them as much these days.

My message to cauda equina sufferers is get diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible, and keep in there.  Don’t give up, keep going because things will get better – or at least they did for me.

12 months since Cauda equina syndrome – an update

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It has been 12 months today since I suffered from Cauda equina syndrome (CES) and I’ve been contacted by several people who have followed my progress.  I wanted to provide an update for the people who comes to my blog and read about the condition, so they know it isn’t always doom and gloom.

As I’ve mentioned previously on my blog, my lifestyle has almost returned to what it was before CES.  I work full time (my working week is 50-60 hours long) in a special school, where I teach science lessons and am the assistant head.  I have been fortunate in receiving support from work so I have made to measure seating which makes a huge difference, and I have an electric desk which I can raise to standing height if required.  I have an ultrabook laptop which means it is light and portable – all these adjustments were recommended by Access to Work when they carried out my workplace assessment.

Some of the nerve damage has repaired itself, and although I still suffer from loss of sensation down the back of my legs, it isn’t as pronounced as it was a year ago.  I can also run now (albeit slowly) which I couldn’t do last year as my legs didn’t obey my brain when I tried!

I don’t suffer much pain, although I do get twinges in my toes (it feels like someone is stood on my little toe) which my consultant tells me is classic S1 damage.  I’m due to have another MRI scan tomorrow to see if this is nerve regeneration or further nerve damage.  Usually any pain I feel comes from sitting in the wrong position when I have to stand up – I’m getting better at making myself sit up straight too!

The only aspect that hasn’t shown that much recovery is bladder control and the need to practice intermittent self catheterisation.  Fortunately after a year of doing this it is second nature to the point I don’t think about it much in my home/work life (although I do have to plan more carefully when I am going to be away from home for extended periods of time).

Thanks once again to all the people who have got in touch and I hope this post gives some hope to those of you who find yourself unfortunate enough to suffer from cauda equina syndrome.