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

Outlook Premium mail service from Microsoft – first impressions

A while ago I heard that Microsoft was looking to bring custom domains to Outlook, understandable as trying to pick an email address if you have a common name is a bit of a nightmare (I was lucky I beat another Rob Butler to mine but it didn’t stop him trying to open dating accounts etc using my email address, but I digress…)

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I received an invitation from Microsoft to sign up for their Outlook premium service.   The price will be $3.99 a month (unless you have an Office 365 subscription) which is comparable to professional email hosting services – although the support and service isn’t comparable in the least (more later)

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I clicked on the link and setting up seemed to get off to a good start.  Microsoft has partnered up with GoDaddy to give you a free domain (no option to transfer in) but this is only provided for the first year then you seem to be on your own. This didn’t bother me as I chose to bring over my own email address currently hosted on Google Apps (free).

The setup talks you through the settings you need to change (although not how to do them – fortunately I know how to change my DNS/MX entries) to get the service up and running.  So far so good.

Once you have verified your domain you are asked to pick a single email address that you will use.  Don’t transfer over any domains if you use multiple addresses before the @ – you’ll lose them.  Also don’t let Microsoft register a domain if you want to use it for more than just email as this doesn’t seem to be possible at the moment either.

I chose my address and was told it was available – a relief as I can’t change what goes before the @ sign as I’ve been using this email address for years now.  This is where it started to go wrong.  When I try to complete setup I’m told helpfully that something has gone wrong and to try again.  There is no indication if this is my problem or Microsoft’s – and no-one to turn to for help (other than an online forum manned by enthusiasts)op3

This is where I’ve left the service.  There is now no option to go back and use a different custom domain with my outlook.com address and nobody to turn to for support so I’m stuck.  This doesn’t feel like a pilot programme to me but a very early alpha.

The premise might be good for someone who already has an Office 365 account so is getting a little extra value from their subscription, but it is a long way from competing with professional hosting companies who charge a similar amount for a vastly superior service.

I’ll post an update if I ever get this working, in the meantime I’ve reverted my settings so that my mail goes to the excellent (and well supported) Google Apps.

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.