Studio711.com – Ben Martens

COVID-19: Day 455

We made it! Today marks the end of our family lockdown! As I mentioned last week, we kept our socializing minimized even past our completed vaccine date to help Elijah finish out the year without having to stay home for any symptoms. But today is his last day of school, we’re fully vaccinated, and summer awaits! We still have to figure out how to handle the summer since Elijah is unvaccinated but the risk levels look a lot different than they did last summer.

Virus activity in our area had another big burst while the rest of the country declined but it’s coming down now and the hospitalization rates are coming down too. I’m eagerly awaiting our first days without any deaths, but everything points to the vaccine being effective. I’m also eager to see the rest of the world get flooded with vaccines too so the global numbers can drop too.

https://xkcd.com/2457/

My hope and prayer is that this is the last of my COVID-19 posts. To wrap up the series, I thought I’d list out positive changes that this ordeal has had in our personal lives.

  • The comic already says this one, but I hope that we can all continue wearing masks if we aren’t feeling well. I went into Home Depot the other day and noticed that there was no sign requiring masks anymore. I counted 70-80 people in the store (it was late in the evening) and only three people were not wearing a mask.
  • Curbside pickup is awesome! I love ordering online, tapping a button in an app when I arrive, and then having my order brought out to me.
  • Online meetings are very convenient. For example, our church council meetings typically happen at 6pm in the evenings. So I used to stick around at work for a few extra minutes, drive over to church, have the meeting, and then get home after Elijah is asleep or at the end of this bedtime routine. Now I just hop online for a bit, have the meeting, and I don’t give up the entire evening with my family. Keeping with the church theme, I’m excited for online small groups and Bible studies so we can skip rush hour traffic and make it easier to invite friends to join.
  • Why do I ever need to go into the office again? I have a better setup at home than I do at the office, and my team is hiring vigorously in Atlanta. By the time we are welcomed back to the office (currently set for September), I will have more people on my team outside of Redmond than local. So even if I go in, I still need to do everything remote. I’m not sure how we can say “being in the office is important” at the same time we say “creating an inclusive environment is important.” I’ll at least be taking advantage of the 50% work from home option, but the option of living farther away is very tempting.
  • At some point I started trying to intentionally plan a family adventure at least once a month. That meant going somewhere new, driving a little farther than we normally would, or doing something a little bigger than a normal Saturday trip.
  • As soon as the pandemic hit, I got more serious about setting a specific schedule for grocery shopping. We make a list throughout the week, and then I go Friday mornings at around 6:30am when the store is empty. It made me realize how much time I wasted with “oh I’ll just stop on the way home and grab something if we don’t have enough meals planned”.
  • My search for news that isn’t leading me towards an opinion has helped me easily identify any name-calling, bias, or rhetoric, even if it’s supporting my viewpoint. It has taught me a lot about my own writing and learning to speak without inflammatory language or virtue signaling. I have a long way to go on that journey but I want to consciously keep working on that.
  • I learned how to cut Elijah’s hair! The first few times were a little rough, but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. It’s not flawless, but he loves me cutting his hair and I’m up for continuing to save $20/month.
https://xkcd.com/2474/

The “life lessons” below overlap a bit with the list above but seemed like they deserved their own section:

  • It’s easier to keep your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time.
  • When two people are screaming at each other, the truth is probably in the middle… but that’s not always the case. If you’ve got a racist person screaming at someone else, the truth isn’t in the middle. The racist person is just wrong.
  • On the surface, some of the commandments seem pretty easy. For example, “You shall not murder.” Sure, I got that one. But the fifth command isn’t just telling us not to shiv someone, it’s telling us that we shouldn’t hurt or harm our neighbor. How do you do apply that when your mere presence might give them a fatal disease? In the fourth commandment we’re told to honor our government and others in authority. What’s the best way to honor them in complicated situations or when they disagree? And how do you make these decisions as the leader of an organization? I’m thankful that my salvation doesn’t depend on how well I keep the commandments, because there are a lot of times when I don’t even know which choice is better.
  • You know that one camping trip you had when it was cold and there was torrential rain the whole time? Now when you go camping and there is bad weather you laugh and say “Well at least it’s not as bad as that one time…” We may deal with worse things in life than this pandemic, but I have a feeling that COVID will be our “rainy camping trip” in a lot of situations.

Pastor used a song in his service a few weeks back that I’ve probably played 100 times since then. It talks about how we can feel like everything is crumbling around us, but Jesus isn’t just a happy thought that we use to ignore our troubles. He’s here. He’s powerful. He is worthy to stand before the Father and declare us righteous. The Father loves us. The Spirit is moving among us. The God of all creation is caring for us. We need to continually remind ourselves of this. So to end my last COVID post, here is Andrew Peterson singing “Is He Worthy”.

Winning The DuoLingo Diamond League

For the last seven months, I’ve been taking Spanish lessons every single day via the DuoLingo app. I feel like I’d struggle to communicate at a 2-year-old level, but progress is progress and it’s a better way to spend time on my phone than playing games or reading the news. This isn’t an ad, but if you are interested in trying it out, the app is free or you can pay to get rid of ads and support their cause.

The app is, obviously, centered around progressing through lessons, but along the way, you collect points and achievements. There’s one achievement for getting first place in the diamond league which is the highest league in the app. Other than getting the achievement, there’s literally no value in doing this. But I have a completionist itch that needed to be scratched so here’s how I did it…

I hung around in the league for weeks until I finally saw a week where it didn’t look like anyone was running away with the game. Then I pounced and did about 600 points in one day. A normal day for me is 100 which is enough to stay comfortably in the diamond league so it’s more than most people do but far from enough to win the league. Two other people had the same idea so I continued to put in 800-1000 points per day until finally they both gave up and my final day was pretty slow. The league finishes around UTC midnight on Sunday and I won with about 4200 points.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

  • I think I probably could have done it with fewer points if I had gone hard straight from the beginning. Go in with guns blazing looking like you have a few screws loose and people are less likely to want to play with you.
  • I timed myself on various parts of the app to figure out where I could make the most points per minute.
  • In general, the stories are great ways to make points quickly. The highest value story I had unlocked was 28 points, and while the first run through took a while, after that I could do it while watching TV and not really paying attention. I could generate 17 points per minute with this approach.
  • Using the app, you can choose between regular practice and hard practice. Every day I would do the hard practice on all the easy lessons. That’s 20 points plus 5 for a perfect run through the lesson.
  • Missed words go into a separate challenge bucket and are worth two points per word. I would purposely miss all 20 questions on the easy lesson, get the 25 points for doing the lesson correctly and then get an extra 40 points for doing the words in the missed queue. None of that is more productive than doing the 28 point story over and over again but it was close and it was less mind-numbing. I could generate 15 points per minute with this approach.
  • The DuoLingo Fandom wiki explains the leagues in details, but basically each room of the league is filled up with 30 participants based on when they record their first points after the start of the week. You could try to game that a little by waiting a while until less avid users are logging points, but I didn’t. In some games, leagues like this look different for everyone so you’re not actually competing head to head. That doesn’t seem to be the case with DuoLingo. Everyone else in the league sees the same participant list that you do.

The week finally ended and I won. I learned almost nothing about Spanish during the week and the whole thing was ridiculous, except now my achievements list is closer to being all gold. And that’s probably only marginally better than ridiculous.

It was an interesting experience and now I can stop thinking about when I might try it, but I’m glad it’s over so I can get back to actually attempting to learn Spanish. All week long, I kept hearing Drew Carey saying: “Welcome to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”

Switching From Verizon Wireless to Xfinity Mobile

Last week I wrote that I had signed up for Xfinity Mobile. As a reminder, my bill is dropping from $76.40 (including an $8 monthly discount) to $19.70 total for two lines. when we left off, I was waiting for the SIM cards to arrive.

It took a while for them to arrive but we finally got them on Sunday evening. I opened the website and filled out the form to activate my line and switch my number from Verizon and was immediately greeted with an error saying that I needed to call tech support which of course wasn’t open until the next day. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that getting both lines converted wasn’t easy. Here’s what I learned which would have made my life easier:

  • We had “Number Lock” enabled on both of our Verizon lines which means that nobody can switch the number away from our account. That needs to be disabled before activating the new line.
  • I had to generate a Number Transfer Pin from my Verizon account to allow Xfinity Mobile to take over. I assumed there would be one number for each line so I didn’t save the pin after I used it. Wrong. It applies to all lines on your account. Canceling a pin and regenerating a new pin isn’t easy so make sure you write down that number.
  • After getting through all those problems with multiple calls to each side, the transfer process went through but my phone refused to make any calls. It turns out that my two SIM cards had come mislabeled and I was trying to activate Tyla’s SIM card on my phone. There’s no way you could know that ahead of time but it’s something to keep in mind I guess.

I’m thankful that we did this toward the end of our Verizon billing cycle. We have about a week left and I expected a refund for the remainder of the month. No such luck.

So now we’re paying under $20 for two phone lines with 1GB of shared data. That will cover our lockdown life but as we emerge from our bunker I’ll probably bump it up to 3GB which will be $35. There’s an app that lets me make adjustments on the fly without talking to any service reps or signing new contracts so it will be easy for us to bump up to unlimited when we take trips and then save money again when we get home.

I’ll provide an update in another month or two once we have time to use the service for a while, but for now, I love looking at my phone and knowing that I’m saving ~$60/month!

Switching To GoDaddy Hosting

Way back in 2002, I started hosting this website from my apartment officially as studio711.com (though it has existed in previous incarnations since 1996.) It worked fine but eventually I got tired of dealing with running a local server and moved to GoDaddy. That worked ok until I switched jobs and had free access to an Azure subscription for learning purposes. This website was the perfect opportunity to learn and explore Azure. I not only had this site running but a bunch of other small projects.

I wasn’t paying attention and things changed and my free Azure subscription ran out abruptly. Running just a WordPress account on Azure isn’t the cheapest way to go so I made the decision to move back to GoDaddy. Thankfully I had a script running locally that backed up my MySQL database and WordPress files every night so sending that all the to the new host was pretty straightforward. I even stepped things up a bit by adding an SSL certificate to my new site so now you’ll see “https” before all of my URLs. It’s a bit painful being confined to the GoDaddy environment compared to the freedom of Azure, but for my dinky little site, it makes more budget sense.

What does this mean for you? Other than the ~day of downtime over the weekend, you hopefully won’t notice any changes. The same boring content will be here for you to randomly peruse. In the unlikely event that you were using one of my other sites like my Stand Up desk monitoring website and the air quality tracker, those URLs are dead for now.

I don’t necessarily recommend GoDaddy but I was familiar with them and the price was right. I seriously considered BlueHost, but they don’t offer Windows hosting plans and I do want to be able to run some ASP.NET projects. GoDaddy had easy WordPress setup plus they will host an MSSQL database for some of my data collection projects. The price was good enough and I kind of new what I was getting into so I went for it. We’ll see if I switch when my contract is up.

I actually toyed with the idea of just shutting this all down. Sometimes I do these projects and they just continue to leave because they’ve always been a thing. But I realized that I really do enjoy having the searchable history of events in my life that I can easily reference and it’s nice to be able to share some things every once in a while. So for now, the site continues. Next year it will be 20 years old!

COVID-19: Day 430

https://xkcd.com/2448/

Today we get our second vaccine shot, so two weeks from now, we’ll be fully vaccinated! Since that gets us so close to the end of Elijah’s school year, we’ll just stretch our family lockdown a couple more weeks because if any of the three of us have symptoms that overlap with COVID, he can’t go to school. After this long in lockdown, a couple more voluntary weeks to help him finish out the school year doesn’t seem too painful. Plus, with the spike in cases going on around here right now, we’re not to eager to take our 95% immunity out for a test drive.

Besides, I think it’s going to take us a while to emerge back into civilization. Sometimes it feels like we’re stepping out of a bunker and blinking our eyes to adjust to the light while we field invitations to immediately jump into situations that we haven’t experienced for 14 months. Logically, I’m excited to remember what it’s like to take a walk without crossing to the other side of the street whenever I see someone coming. I’m excited to see friends and family again. I’m excited to worship in person again. I’m excited to shake hands with someone outside my household again. But emotionally? It’s a lot to deal with and it’s going to take time.

For my last post in this series on the final day of our family lockdown, I’m queuing up a big list of positive things from the pandemic. But I’ve also been thinking about how we, as a society, can learn from this experience. What an amazing time to be studying sociology, epidemiology, psychology, economics, data science or a host of other topics. This pandemic has generated material for thousands of PhD theses. Below are some of the things that I hope we’ll be able to do a better job at answering together as a civilization because many of them apply to a lot more situations than just COVID. COVID just threw them at us more rapidly than other forces do.

  • How many times can “official guidance” be changed before people ignore it completely?
  • How do we keep science and politics separate, or is it wrong to separate them?
  • How can the scientific community do a better job of communicating uncertainty in their findings without people pointing to the uncertainty as a reason to throw out the entire study?
  • How do we strike a balance between people’s right to not be hurt by you and your right to live your life? How do we measure the impact of those choices?
  • How do we convince people to make sacrifices when the benefits that aren’t easily observed on a personal level?
  • How do we get people to respect large data trends instead of their local observed experience, especially when exponential growth is in the mix?
  • How do we promote respect for experts while still leaving room for conflicting research?
  • How do we teach people to look at the raw information source before accepting the journalistic summary?
  • How can data models do a better job of taking into account the difference between what the government recommends and what people actually do, especially as that varies by area?
  • Not to make light of serious medical conditions, but do we have some kind of mass PTSD after all this time in lockdown?

I doubt there are answers to many of those questions, but there have to be improvements that can be made. And as I think about those questions, I also think back on all the positive content that popped up. The list is so long, but there are three quotes that stick out as I think about them now:

  1. Adam Savage said that Jamie Hyneman had no inertia for changing his mind when presented with enough data to overturn his current understanding. What an amazing compliment! When I heard that, I immediately wondered how I would go about teaching that to Elijah. It’s an incredibly complicated problem because it gets into building an understanding of what data is valid and what it should take to overturn your current understanding. On a related note, a moderator of /r/changemyview said that one of the first things he likes to ask is “What would it take to change your mind?” Imagine if every discussion about a disagreement started with that question!
  2. While researching the various presidential candidates, I found a page talking about their approaches to the pandemic. There were the obvious responses like “no lockdown” and “shut down the economy”, but another candidate didn’t support either one. Instead, they argued for devoting enormous and immediate energy into testing and regularly sharing consistent information. The idea was that most people aren’t going to knowingly run around infecting people or making choices to prolong the epidemic. I’m not saying that made this candidate worth voting for, but in a world where it seems like there are only two buckets of viewpoints, the response of “both answers are bad” really stuck with me. (I left the name out because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post, but because you’re probably wondering, it was Jo Jorgensen.)
  3. I logged into a meeting at work a couple months ago and there was an employee who had just moved to the Redmond area from New Zealand. Somebody commented that life must feel pretty much the same because all the meetings still happen virtually. He replied, “Yeah, except you all do COVID a lot differently than we did.” I admit that I was clueless about what he meant so after the meeting I started reading. There were 26 deaths in New Zealand from COVID. That’s not a typo. Twenty six deaths in a country of 5.1 million people and almost all of those were before the end of April 2020. (If they experienced the US fatality to population ratio, they’d have 9200 deaths by now.) Wikipedia has a thorough listing of the timeline of their response, but after that initial total lockdown last March and April, they’ve been living a life generally unhindered by COVID including large concerts with 50,000 attendees. I’m really interested to circle back to this one after the dust settles and learn more about the pros and cons of their extreme response.

I’ve written all this almost looking back on the pandemic because that’s how it’s looking for my family. But globally? Daily infections are pretty close to the highest they’ve ever been. The stories coming out of Brazil and India are nightmarish. For example, in India, the number of people testing positive every day equals the population of Cleveland, OH. This virus is far from over and as the United States pulls out of it and has the luxury of wondering what it’s like to shake someone’s hand again, we can’t forget about the rest of the world.

Instead of a Bible verse this time, I’ll finish with a video from one of our churches in South Carolina. While this pandemic may have left us feeling crushed and isolated, this hymn is a good reminder that God is the one who can bring us all together again.

Bind us all as one together
In your Church’s sacred fold,
Weak and healthy, poor and wealthy,
Sad and joyful, young and old.
Is there want or pain or sorrow?
Make us all the burden share.
Are there spirits crushed and broken?
Teach us, Lord, to soothe their care.

Christian Worship #492

(By the way, Pastor Reeder on the banjo and harmonica is across the lake in Seattle now.)

Switching Carriers

I’ve been a Verizon Wireless customer since 2000, partly because I like their coverage and partly because the companies I’ve worked for have always had employee discounts with them. When we were part way through the pandemic, I started wondering why we were paying so much for cell phones when we hardly ever left the house. We had the minimum 2GB plan (shared between both of us) but it was still $83/month. I have known about Xfinity Mobile for a long time but never really dug into it until recently. I should have considered it more seriously months ago! This week, we get our new SIM cards and we’ll be switching over. I dropped down to 1GB shared between the two of us but the grand total for our bill after all taxes, fees, etc? $19.70.

So what’s the catch? The first big one is that if you’re already an Xfinity customer (they provide our internet) then they don’t charge you anything per line. You basically get unlimited calling and messaging for “free” but you have to add on some kind of data. The smallest one is the 1GB chunk for $15/month before taxes and fees. Their service also only works with certain phones. If you’ve got Samsung you’re out of luck but it looked like most recent Google and Apple devices were available.

Here are some reasons why I was willing to give it a shot:

  • Xfinity Mobile is a Verizon MVNO which basically means that they use Verizon’s infrastructure but sell their own service. I should get the same cell coverage that I did before. One downside is that Verizon does have the right to throttle MVNO usage on their network but I’m hoping/expecting that won’t be a problem.
  • There are no contracts. I can change my mind and go back to Verizon at any point.
  • I can adjust my data allotment by the month. 1GB is $15, 3GB is $30, 10GB is $60 and unlimited pricing varies by the number of lines you have but for us it would be $80. So even if we go all the way to unlimited, that’s within a couple dollars of being the same amount that I’m paying right now for 2GB of data on Verizon. (Note that “unlimited” applies to the first 20GB per line and then you are throttled to 1.5 down and 768kbps up.)
  • Some day Elijah will have a phone and this makes it a lot cheaper to add him on. It’s also easier if we want to start adding some tablets, watches, etc on to the plan. Those aren’t all totally free to add on but they’re cheaper than Verizon.
  • They have a deal right now for a $25 prepaid card per line when you switch so that’s $50. Plus I ended up doing it over the phone because I started by asking some questions and agreed to let him get the sale. He tossed in an extra $25 credit since I’ve been an Xfinity customer for a long time.
  • 5G is included. We don’t have 5G phones now but it’s nice to know there’s no goofy “with or without” 5G plan options.

We’ll see if I regret this in the future but even if I use this but it’s going to have to be pretty bad for me to want to pay that much more to go back to my old Verizon contract. As we start to think about traveling again, I’m excited to have the option of easily going to unlimited data for a month and then flipping to a lower setting when we get back.

Online Church Services

For the last 65 weeks, I’ve been working with Pastor and our organists to put together online services for YouTube and Facebook. This past week, I finished up editing my final one, at least for now. Our pastor has taken a call to Colorado and while we call for a new pastor, we’ll have a vacancy pastor from Beautiful Savior in Everett. They already have an online worship option via Zoom so that means no more video editing for me! (Members, watch your email and our Facebook page for more info.)

There are so many things that went right with these online services.

  • On March 4, 2020, I had just finished a new PC build specifically intended to be a more powerful video editor. Less than THREE WEEKS LATER, we had our first online service. The timing of that was truly a blessing because not only was I doing all that video editing every week, but this became my main machine for working from home. The new PC, dual 4k monitors and standing desk were all March purchases and I’m so glad that I dove in and did them all.
  • As the lockdown started, I was just starting to learn Davinci Resolve. My first full service edited with Resolve was March 29 and it seemed to take forever. I had taken an online course via lynda.com which helped a lot, but I still spent a lot of time looking for very basic commands in a foreign interface. It was trial by fire and that first service took me 8-10 hours to complete. But producing a video every week was a great way to learn and by the end, I had it down to 3-4 hours.
  • Early on, I’d watch the video on Sunday morning with trepidation wondering if I had left any big mistakes in there, but as the videos started coming earlier in the week and I got better at editing, my family was able to watch the services on Saturday morning. I watched with a notebook handy to mark down anything that needed to be changed. My Saturday night sleep improved dramatically!
  • I had set up Backblaze for cloud backup of the church computers years ago, but we really got our value from that service. When we started these recordings, Pastor was trying to upload gigabytes of video to me from his home connection. Since that was mostly wifi based on laptops that would power down automatically, etc, it was unreliable. Then we hit on the idea of just putting the files onto the main church computer and letting Backblaze transfer them to the cloud for us. Our internet at church is very slow (about 1GB/hour upload) but it was reliable and that was the most important thing. Once it was uploaded, I could log onto Backblaze from home and download the specific files that I needed.

The final tally was ~150 videos! In addition to the main service videos, I also posted the children’s sermon and sermon separately. All three videos got uploaded to both Facebook and YouTube so I guess that’s more like 300 videos. In addition to the Sunday content, We had some midweek services and special videos as well like the group hymn. If you’re looking back through the list, I’ve unlisted some of the full services on our YouTube channel because I’m tired of fighting bad copyright claims on public domain music, but all of the sermons are still there and I’ll leave a few of the services as well.

I’m looking forward to having a bit of extra time in my schedule and being a participant in the online services, but I’m thankful for all of the skills I picked up along the way. Learning new things is fun but learning new things to enable others to worship during lockdown was even better!

COVID-19: Day 405

https://xkcd.com/2443/
https://xkcd.com/2446/

I couldn’t decide which comic to use so why not celebrate a little and use both.

WE GOT THE VACCINE! 402 days after our family lockdown began, Tyla and I had got pokes in the arm that will help us learn how to fight the virus. It was fairly easy to find a shot via covidwa.com and we only had to drive a few miles from our house. It’s not quite as fast as Neo learning kung fu, but cranking out a vaccine this quickly is still an amazing collaboration between researchers, tech providers, doctors, epidemiologists, politicians and average citizens.

Tyla and I will be fully vaccinated by June 1 which aligns pretty well with our plans to stay in lockdown until Elijah is out of school. It’s really tough when he gets sick during school so I think we can hang out at home for a couple additional weeks to help him out.

A quarter of our state is fully vaccinated, many countries are barely getting started, we don’t know how long it will last, and there are endless arguments still in play, but I want to take a moment and say WOOHOO! Thank you Lord!

Philippians 4:4-8 Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Earth Day

Last year Microsoft committed to removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it puts into it by 2030, and by 2050, it will have removed enough to make up for all carbon it has ever put in. This isn’t one of those things where a company pays to not have a tree cut down to make up for their emissions, and it doesn’t ignore things like employee travel or the shuttles running around on campus. They have a follow up post from a couple months ago to talk about how it’s going and there is a whitepaper that goes into more depth.

When you think about the amount of power consumed by the enormous datacenters that Microsoft runs around the world, this is a staggering task, but when you read through that blog post, they show that it’s possible. The efforts of a single company aren’t going to change planet directly, but investments this big will have positive side effects like technological discoveries and encouraging other groups to make similar pledges.

Zion Lutheran School Auction

The auction at Elijah’s school runs for through the end of this week. I have two items in the auction. One is the “but first pray” sign and the second is a wood American flag. Last year my donation was mixed in with some other items to create a “basket” for Elijah’s class but this year my items will be solo. This will be one of the first times I’ve seen a dollar figure attached to one of my projects by the general public. You can check it out at https://events.readysetauction.com/lutheranschoolassociation-zionlu/auction2021.