“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry” – Thomas Fuller

Between the increasing population density in my part of the UK, an apparently ever increasing demand for water (150 litres per person per day, apparently) and the impact of climate change, our water supplies are becoming a lot less predictable. In my part of the UK (Hampshire) we have been seeing real problems with water shortages during the summer for the last decade or so.

The response from the relatively newly privatised water industry has been to unceremoniously raise prices to cover the cost of “improvements to the infrastructure”, and “years of under-investment”. To be fair to them, the official statistics say that their network is leaking a lot less water than it used to. Unfortunately the average house-owner (well, OK, me!) hasn’t noticed any changes whatsoever – except in the charges. Until last month.

Southern Water are in the vanguard of charging for water by usage, by installing water meters, rather than linking payment to relative size of house. This clearly penalises larger families in smaller houses, though the water company would prefer to suggest that it promotes sensible water usage, and is fairer to everyone. I really can see their argument, but as the owner of what I have always felt to be a relatively modest house, shared with four squeaky-clean women, the thought of being put on a water meter has always made my blood run cold.

But there was only so long that I was able to resist … and last month, the water company swapped out my existing stop-cock in the street for a new one with an integrated water meter. No choice, simply a fait accompli. My initial (tight-fisted) thought was to initiate rationing, but somehow common sense prevailed and I’ve let normal life run its course for the last month with no real mention of this change to my family.

And today I went out into the street, and prised up the cover from the water meter to read it. This in itself was irritating because, despite being a smart meter that can be read remotely, Southern Water don’t issue us with the means to do that, and the meter-manufacturer considers the protocols to be “proprietary” and won’t tell me how to build a decoder. Southern Water will apparently read it every 6 months – which means their (presumably expensive) smart meters are about as useful in changing usage behaviours as the original dumb ones. Which is to say not at all. What a wasted opportunity.

However, at least I got the result for 26 days of water usage, rather than having to wait 6 months for Southern Water to get around to telling me. A further 10 minutes with Southern Waters charging information and a calculator results in the news that …

  • In our house we use about 82 litres of water per person per day
  • That works out at about 150m3 per year, which is significantly to the right side of “average” for a 5 person house
  • If I understand their charges correctly, my annual bill is about to be approximately halved.

I’m not sure whether to jump up and down shouting “RESULT!”, or slink off into the corner for not having elected to have a meter fitted a few years back when it first became an option. But clearly the next action has to be to find a way to read that smart meter in real time, and integrate it into my whole house monitoring, as I did with electricity, using my CurrentCost monitor.

Calling home, free of charge

I’ve just been through a period of travel hell; individually each of the the three back-to-back trips are interesting, useful, and in some ways, quite good fun. But they’re back to back. So over a 17 day period, I’ve actually had only 3 days in the UK, and two of those I was still working. Of course, mention business travel to anyone that doesn’t do it, and it brings to mind visions of exotic locations and lavish expense accounts. Whereas the reality tends to be cramped economy class travel, very long working days, and lonely hotel rooms a long way from friends and family.

More importantly it means that just doing the normal day to day family things, like chatting to your kids about their day in school can rapidly become an extortionately expensive luxury that you feel ought to be kept to the brief minimum. Especially when the company that you’re travelling for thinks that it shouldn’t pay for those phone calls – which particularly irks me.

And that got me thinking – I actually have all the facilities I need to enable me to call home to my family for nothing. My company expects me to need an Internet connection in whatever hotel I stay in, and fully funds it. I carry a laptop and an Android Smartphone. In combination with the rather sophisticated phone that I have at home, I can talk to my family for as long as I want for no additional costs, using a technology called VoIP, based on an open standard called SIP.

My home phone is a Siemens Gigaset S685 IP DECT system, with 5 handsets. It’s what the marketing world likes to term “pro-sumer”, by which they really mean it’s got lots of features that most consumers will never use, but it’s not really got enough features for true commercial use. They also mean it’s a bit expensive for a consumer product.

But in this case, we’re talking about a DECT phone that connects to both my home phone line and my home broadband, and can have up to 7 logical phone lines connected to it – the physical “POTS” line, and 6 VoIP connections over the internet. The base unit can support separate conversations on up to 3 lines in parallel, with as many handsets connected to each of those lines as required. Each handset can act as a speaker-phone, or have either a headset or bluetooth earpiece attached to. It can even do call routing, where it looks at the number you dial, and decides which line to place your call on. In short, it’s absolutely packed with features.

The key to the free calls home is of course, the VoIP lines, because as of version 2.3, Android can also make VoIP calls. The trick is simply getting the two to talk to one another, while they are in different countries.

So first you need to find a SIP provider for your home phone and your Smartphone. The best way that I’ve found to do this is to set up a SIP-based virtual PBX. You create a free account with them (your PBX) and then add users to your PBX. Each user is given their own SIP credentials so they can logon, and you can associate an extension number with each of those users, allowing them to easily exchange calls – which is exactly what I need, as (unlike my Android smartphone) the handsets on my old Gigaset cannot call SIP URI’s directly.

The first provider I came across that allows this is OnSip, in the USA. My experience with them has been good, but there are many others out there too. Unfortunately it’s not perfect – for me, there are a couple of quirks with their service. Firstly, they don’t seem to expect anyone outside the USA to be using their service, so I cannot enter my address correctly. Which I suspect is technically a breach of their T&C’s. And secondly, it means that all the call tones you’ll hear when using this (ringing, engaged, unobtainable etc) will be American rather than British. I can live with that, but if you choose to go down this route too, DO NOT ENABLE THE E911 OPTION. You could theoretically call out US emergency services to whatever pseudo-fictitious address you have registered with them, which would not be good.

To make it work:

  1. Register with your chosen free SIP PBX provider. I’ll assume OnSip, who will ask you to register a userid, then validate it by email, before letting you set up your first PBX.
  2. Registering for OnSip PBX

    Registering for OnSip PBX

    When you come to define that PBX, you’ll see a screen similar to this one, asking for initial configuration information. You can call the domain name (which is essentially the Internet name of the PBX) anything you like. Incidentally, changing that country field seems to do nothing. It doesn’t even change the format of the information they collect for your address or (real) phone number.
  3. Creating a new user

    Creating a new user

    Having now got a SIP PBX available, we can add some users to it. Each user is roughly equivalent to a telephone on a normal PBX, but in this case the user accesses the PBX by way of some SIP credentials. The users can be called via those credentials, or (if the caller is another user of this PBX) the extension number that is associated with that user. This happens irrespective of the device that the user is using those credentials on, or its location.
  4. List of virtual PBX users

    List of virtual PBX users

    After entering a user for the Gigaset (my house phone) and one for my smartphone, I have a PBX with two users associated with it. I’ve obscured some critical pieces of information to maintain some privacy, but fundamentally the OnSip system gives me a set of SIP credentials for each “user” of the system (bottom right on the image), and associates an extension with them too.
  5. Next we need to get the Gigaset to register with the SIP PBX. To do this, logon to the Gigaset web interface, select the “Settings” tab, and then navigate to Telephony, Connections.
    Gigaset VoIP providers

    Gigaset Basic VoIP Provider Settings
    Gigaset Advanced VoIP Provider Settings Gigaset Settings

    Now define a new provider by clicking on one of the “Edit” buttons as seen in the first of these screenshots. This will bring up the basic settings page seen in the second screenshot. Into this screen enter the data found on the OnSip user configuration screen under the Phone Configuration heading. Copy the OnSip username field into the Gigaset username field, the OnSip Auth Username field into the Gigaset Authentication Username field, the OnSip SIP Password into the Gigaset Authentication Password field, and then click the “Show Advanced Settings” button, which will extend the form with the additional fields seen in the third screenshot. Now copy the OnSip Proxy/Domain field into the four Gigaset fields: Domain, Proxy Server Address, Registrar Server, and Outbound Proxy. When you save the settings the Gigaset will attempt to register with the OnSip PBX. Sometimes this takes a few seconds. You may need to refresh the browser to see the status change to Registered.
  6. Now we need to make the Android Smartphone register to the OnSip PBX too. To do this, bring up the Android Settings by pressing “Menu” from the home screen, and tap “Settings”.
    Android Call Settings

    Android Internet Calling (SIP) Accounts
    Android SIP Account Details Android SIP setup

    Navigate to the Call Settings, and tap it to reveal the screen in the first screenshot.
    Tap on “Use Internet Calling” and set it to “Ask for each call”. Then tap on Accounts to bring up the Internet Calling (SIP) Accounts screen where we can enter SIP accounts associated with the phone. See the second screenshot.
    Now add a new account for the OnSip PBX by tapping “New Account”; this will bring up a screen like the one shown in the third screenshot, into which you need to enter your credentials.
    The content of each of the fields (from the OnSip phone configuration information) should be obvious by now. When you save the account you will want to check that the registration information is correct. The easiest way to do this is to enable the “Receive incoming calls” option (back on the first screenshot again), which will force Android to register all it’s accounts with their associated providers. If you get an error then either the provider is down (possible) or the settings are incorrect (more likely). Leaving this option enabled forces Android to keep those connections active, which runs all the radios, and eats the battery, but allows incoming VoIP calls to your Smartphone (say from the Gigaset). In my experience it’s too power-hungry to use in this mode, other than very sparingly. Fortunately you can make outgoing calls from the Smartphone without enabling it.
  7. Android Internet Calling enabled Contact

    Android Internet Calling enabled Contact

    Finally you need to define a contact in the Smartphone contacts to use with Internet Calling. As all my contacts are normally managed by Lotus Traveler for me, which has no concept of Internet Calling, I defined a new local-only contact that is not synched with any of my Accounts (ie, Google or Lotus Traveler) and used that. Enter the name of the contact as normal, then scroll all the way to the bottom of the contact, where you will find a “More” section. Expand that, and continue to scroll to the bottom, where you will find a field for “Internet call”; into that simply enter either the OnSip SIP URI of your Gigaset, or it’s OnSip extension number.

Note that this really only works when connected to a reasonably good quality WiFi network. Poor quality networks seem to give quite variable results. Sometimes they still work, other times one end or the other may experience audio problems and/or dropped calls. It seems to work just fine through both the IBM and my home firewalls, even at the same time. I’ve not checked the actual audio codecs in use, but sound quality is subjectively better than a normal cellular call. Neither Android or the Gigaset seem to do silemce suppression (ie injection of white-noise when no-one is speaking) so the pauses in a conversation are totally silent, which can be slightly disconcerting.

Normally if you want to dial the Smartphone from the Gigaset you would need to indicate to the phone that it should send the call over the appropriate VoIP provider. This quickly becomes a pain, but it’s easy to set up a simple dial plan on the Gigaset so calls that start “700” (remember I made my extensions be 7000 and 7001?) go out over the OnSip VoIP connection automatically, which makes the solution really easy to use (ie family-friendly) from the Gigaset.

Finally, there is a really interesting technology called iNum available. Sadly it’s not (as far as I can tell) implemented by any of the major telecoms ISPs in the UK, that when combined with SRV records in special DNS records, would allow some really cool automatic rerouting of calls over different networks to different endpoints, depending on context. In theory the network could understand whether I was at home or out with my mobile, and route the call appropriately. It could also do smart things like look at the inbound number and the time, and route business calls to voicemail out of office hours, but still let personal calls through as normal.

If only it were implemented.

Passing time

The Easter fortnight was my negotiated opportunity to take a last holiday away with my family before the onset of my next round of treatment. In the end, some of that time actually got spent doing chores at home that we’d been putting off for a while, but we also managed to get away to France, which was great.

Whenever I visit France I realise that the French have a much healthier approach to their work/life balance than we do. Of course, that doesn’t change the harsh realities of life – they’re all doing the same mad working weeks that we are – but in their case, they actively dislike it, and try to retain some of the traditions that we’ve long since cast aside. I quietly envy them that. And their wine. And their patisseries. And their weather!

And now I’m back to waiting for news of the date of my next operation, which should be sometime within the next few weeks, and trying to finish off some of those chores I mentioned earlier (mainly the complete redecoration of my study) while also trying to keep on top of work.

Life is never dull!

State of mind

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here about my treatment. Actually, it’s been a long time since I posted almost anything here. And I’ve been pretty distant and difficult to contact in the real world too.

I could make a series of high-minded excuses, but actually the truth is much less prosaic; after the latest series of updates from my consultants I’ve been struggling to come to terms with my current situation, trying to work out what to do next, and how. And fundamentally I’ve not been coping too well; I’ve been acting rather like the archetypal “rabbit in the headlights”.

Tuesday will be the 3rd anniversary of my original cancer operation. I’ve been fighting medical problems for almost all of that time, as well as the 6 months prior to that while I was being diagnosed. And it’s fair to say that I’m tired. I’m tired of the hospital appointments, the consultations, and of being prodded and poked, injected, bled, and scanned. Of being outwardly positive and cheerful, even when I feel depressed and negative. And above it all, I’m heartily sick of still not being well again.

And I feel guilty for feeling like that, especially when actually I’m one of the lucky ones who seems to be surviving his brush with cancer, unlike so many others.

If this were a different problem I’d take a break and come back to the fight refreshed. But there is no break with this; at the moment it’s my new normal. So I have to just keep on going. But unfortunately this also seems to be an inflection point in my treatment; I need to make some irreversable decisions on the direction of that treatment, and they all seem to lead to fairly disagreeable end points. Which is not helping much.

So, to the friends and colleagues I’ve not been in touch with for a while, or been short and irritable with, I’m sorry. I’ll try to do a bit better. And since, according to Dorothy L. Sayers, a “trouble shared is trouble halved”, so I’ll even try to post a bit more here too.

Printer statistics (ongoing)

Time has been passing. And I’ve studiously ignored the warnings from the printer, and kept on sending it jobs. Which it has kept on printing. Beautifully.

I’m now at a total of 885 impressions (348 mono and 537 colour) and despite complaints that the magenta cartridge is now also “low”, there seems to be no difference in the quality of the output. I’ve now got replacement black and magenta toner cartridges “waiting to go”, but see no reason to install them until the print quality starts to actually degrade.

I’m cynically starting to wonder if Lexmark have set the warning levels artificially early as a means of promoting toner sales. It will be interesting to see if the printer enforces replacement before the toner actually runs out, and how much toner is left in the cartridge at that point…

Printer statistics

My Lexmark laser printer started complaining about low toner in the back cartridge today. I’ve had the printer just over a year, but even so, I was surprised that it had got through 2500 sides of text (what the black cartridge is rated at) so quickly.

So I checked the statistics. The 543DN has an inbuilt web server that provides all kinds of helpful information, including the fact that my cartridges are:

  • Black: low
  • Yellow: 80%
  • Magenta: 30%
  • Cyan: 50%

There is lots of information on the pages printed, including average job length, job type, etc. It turns out that I’ve printed a total of 519 jobs, of which 474 are 1 or 2 pages long. My longest job was 23 pages.

I’ve printed a total of 312 mono A4 sides, and 499 colour A4 sides, for a grand total of 811 sides overall.

And because my “2500 sheet high capacity black toner cartridge” is nearly empty after only 811 sides printed, this is where I can point out that the old adage about “lies, damned lies and statistics” is absolutely true, and the definition of a printed side (as used by the printer manufacturers) has no standing in the real world whatsoever.

If I assume my cartridge statistics are correct, 811 real world A4 impressions costs me all of a black cartridge, 70% of a magenta, 50% of a cyan, and 20% of a yellow. A total of 2.4 cartridges at £60 each, or £144. Which is 18p an impression. Which seems expensive, but given my preponderance of colour printing, perhaps isn’t as bad as it first seems.

The sound of silence – briefly

Yesterday we packed our middle daughter off to a week of pony camp. She’s only an hour away, but it’s the longest she’s been away from us. We were suitably apprehensive.

But when we arrived we were met by a lovely set of event leaders, who helped “A” settle straight in. She’s bunking with loads of other horse-mad girls, and even as we were walking away, she was heading straight for the stables.

I think she’s going to have a good time!

But back at home the house has been surprisingly quiet. “A” loves her music, and whenever she has a spare second, tends to be practicing on either the piano or flute. Recently she and “J” have been vying for who can master the Michael Nyman piece, “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”, and the sudden silence around the house is somewhat unnerving.

But to counter that, “P” has managed to prove that she really does know her multiplication tables off by heart, and earned herself her longed-for saxophone.

So tonight the house was echoing to the sounds of the saxophone instead. And boy is it loud!

Half term break

I planned this last weeks vacation with my family on the spur of the moment nearly 9 months ago, more as a means of using up some of my accrued vacation than out of any real desire to take this particular week off as holiday. However, in practice I seem to have needed it more than any other vacation I’ve had this last year. I found the fortnight leading up to it particularly difficult, with a lot of travel, and consequent long days.

Add in the stress of recent developments in my health, and I’ve been struggling to cope. So it’s been a huge relief to spend a week away from the trains to London, the office politics, and the pressing concerns of my customers. Instead, I’ve been able to spend a week catching up on my sleep, recharging my batteries and spending time with my family. It’s reminded me of the important things in life.

I’m now looking forward to the challenges of work again next week, but it’s definitely tempered by the thought that I clearly no longer have the stamina to burn the candle at both ends, let alone while lighting the middle at the same time.

I’m going to need to improve my time management, prioritisation and delegation skills if I’m going to maintain a good work-life balance and keep my health intact.

Green printing?

This week my trusty old Canon IP4000 inkjet stopped working. Changing the cartridges and running deep cleaning cycles make no difference. The print quality has been slowly falling off for some time now, so my suspicion was that the print head had finally died. I suspect the printer must be something like four or five years old now, so it’s not perhaps not unexpected.

What was unexpected was the cost of a replacement print head; the cheapest I could find was nearly £70. Add in another set of cartridges at £30, and it becomes significantly less expensive to just buy the new replacement model printer from Canon (the IP4850) at about £75 delivered. Which is just completely ridiculous.

In addition I’ve always been frustrated that the inkjet cartridges always seem to run out at an alarming rate. The manufacturers quote the capacity in pages of 5% coverage (340 pages, apparently), which may be representative of average business use, but decidedly unrealistic when you have three children printing lots of full-colour diagrams as part of their homework. I doubt that I got more than a hundred pages before one or another of the colour cartridges started running dry. Keeping the printer supplied involved the frequent advance purchase & stockpiling of cartridges.

Of course, printing technology has moved on in the intervening years, so I decided to do a proper examination of the options available against my expected printing requirements over the next few years. This is heavily influenced by the needs of my daughters who are entering the stage where they will be doing a lot more homework as part of their GCSE and A levels, and my need to produce the occasional “customer ready” document at home.

My requirements; Linux support, excellent black and white performance, automatic duplex (saves so much paper!), the ability to print colour diagrams, and a volume of approximately 200 pages per month. Long term cost of ownership is more of a factor than the purchase price, and we have no requirement for photographic printing, as we print photographs via a bureau.

To my surprise, the latest generation of SOHO colour laser printers compete very favourably with inkjets on total cost of ownership. There is no doubt that they are still more expensive, but to compensate for that, you get better print quality, faster throughput, and the convenience of much longer between (more expensive) toner cartridge changes.

In the end I narrowed the choice down to either the Canon IP4850 inkjet, or a Lexmark C543dn laser printer. Both had excellent reviews and represented the best fit for my expected needs for their respective technologies. However, finding a supplier offering the Lexmark with a 50% discount pretty much decided the issue; £150 delivered, with full capacity toner cartridges installed is hard to beat.

I took my old Canon IP4000 down to the recycling centre yesterday. It felt really wrong to be “throwing away” something that with a little maintenance is basically capable of continuing to provide good service. But economically it just didn’t make sense. I felt very un-green.

Meanwhile the Lexmark is installed on my home network and working beautifully. I spent some time fiddling with the printer settings to reduce the toner intensity levels and the timeout period before the printer drops into its lowest power-saving mode, both of which ought to help me save money. It does mean a twenty second delay before the first page is printed while the printer warms back up, but once running it churns out paper at 20 pages a minute, so overall it’s a lot faster than the old inkjet we were used to.

Energy usage

I’ve been tracking my homes annual energy usage for several years now. For the last few it’s been fairly stable at around 19,000Kwh gas and 6,500Kwh electricity.

This year, with our new central heating boiler and maximised loft insulation, the figures are 15,500Kwh gas and 5,800Kwh electricity.

Taken together this reduces the carbon footprint of our home from 7.05 to 6.02 tonnes. The drop in gas usage is responsible for most of that, and is very welcome indeed. The electricity drop is good news too, though apart from forever going around turning lights off after my kids, I can’t account for any real changes in our usage, which is odd. However, I suspect it could be easily accounted for by something as small as using the oven a little less each week.

Now, if only I could find some reliable figures for the UK average to benchmark myself against…