Studio711.com – Ben Martens

Record-Breaking Heat

By this point you’ve seen all the stories about the Pacific Northwest heat wave that is finishing up, but I wanted to record some of it here for the future.

It ramped up on Friday and hammered us Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Cliff Mass had lots of great blog posts, but I’ll copy a bit from his June 25 post to explain what led to our heat wave:

Ingredient One: An unusually strong area of high pressure aloft over our region (known as an upper-level ridge), associated with sinking air and unusually warm temperatures.  

At the surface, this feature is associated with high pressure to the east of the Cascade crest, which tends to produce weak offshore (easterly) flow.  Such easterly flow keeps the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean away…

Ingredient Two: An Approaching Trough of Low Pressure That Creates Strong Easterly/Downslope Flow over the Western Slopes of the Cascades

The air will start off warm, with origins from the desert southwest, but will warm further as it descends the Cascades into western Washington. Why warm more? Because the air will be compressed as it descends into western Washington.

https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-reason-for-extreme-warmth-on-monday.html

To put this in context, Seattle has only had three days over 100 degrees in the past 100 years. Most of the daily records for this time of year are around 90. Any day over 80 gets people talking about how hot it is and only 44% of people have air conditioning.

  • The old all-time record for heat in Seattle was 103. Seattle broke it’s record on Sunday and then immediately broke it again on Monday, finally topping out at 108!
  • That high of 108 in Seattle means that Seattle has now been hotter than cities like Miami, Atlanta, Washington DC, Indianapolis, Orlando, or Chicago!
  • Portland hit 116 and in terms of the ~50 biggest cities in the country, that is third on the list behind only Phoenix (126) and Las Vegas (117).
  • The previous maximum low temperature was in the low 70s, but Seattle never got below 80 on Saturday night and spent every minute of Monday at 80 degrees or above!
  • The eastern side of the state had two places hit 118, tying the record.
  • Forks hit 110 which is 45 degrees over their normal temperature for this time of year!
  • The cool down on Monday evening was incredible as well. It went from ~110 to under 70 in less than 12 hours. Forks recorded a 28 degree drop in one hour!
https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2021/06/even-more-extreme-extraordinary-record.html

Here in Woodinville, it’s hard to get an exact, calibrated measurement but based on the official sensors closest to us, I’m confident that we hit at least 108 or 109. The city about 2 miles to the west (Bothell) of us recorded 110 and the city about 6 miles west of us (Lake Forest Park) hit 111. We were very thankful for our air conditioning and it did a good job keeping up, topping out at 80 degrees on Monday before pulling it back down to 76 where we have it set.

Every few hours over the weekend, I went out to read the kWh usage off my electric meter. My Thermostat (Ecobee) records the usage per second and I store all that info in a database. So I was able to combine all that info together and build up a little model to estimate how much it costs when my air conditioner is running. It comes out to around $0.30/hour. (It’s about $0.08/hour with no air conditioner.) When the temp is in the mid 80s, the AC will kick on around noon or 1 and run until 10 or 11 at night. On a day like that we’d spend around $3 to have the AC on. I don’t think that’s going to change anything about how I use it, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about!

Tuesday was “only” around 90 and the rest of the week will be in the low 80s. That’s still above normal but I don’t think there will be a lot of complaints.

Air Quality

A few years ago, I wrote a quick website that shows the air quality around the northern end of Lake Washington here in the Seattle area. There’s not a lot to it, but it’s a very quick way to check the air quality and get some quick links to more info.

That site died when I had to move my hosting, but I’ve brought it back to life at https://studio711.com/air. If you were using the old site, please update your bookmarks.

Hopefully the wildfires this year won’t be as we’ve had in the past!

Flume Smart Home Water Monitor Review

A few weeks ago, I watched an Ask This Old House video about laundry room leaks. A few days later, a coworker had to rush home because one of his washer water supply hoses had sprung a leak. This is something I already think about from time to time and I was finally prompted to take action.

The first step was replacing my rubber hoses with some nice braided hoses. I made sure to get specific high efficiency hoses that could supply water quickly enough to our washer. Our existing hoses were ~10 years old so it felt good to replace them.

But that only helped the washer. What about the ice maker supply line? Or the various toilets? I thought about getting a bunch of water sensors and having them around the house, but Tim mentioned the smart meter from Flume Water. After a little research, I was hooked and thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, it was on my doorstep when I woke up the next morning.

The box strapped on to my meter. It just sits next to the meter. No plumbing is required. Most meters work with a magnet that spins as the water flows so this device can read that magnetic field and understand how much water is flowing through. That connects to a WiFi bridge in the house and from there the data gets sent to Flume where it feeds the app on my phone. I can now get minute by minute water usage reports and I can set up rules for alerting me to water leaks. For example, any water that runs for more than 2 hours will send me an alert, or if I have water flowing at more than 6 gallons per minute for 15 minutes, I’ll get an alert. It’s not as nice as the systems that will automatically shut off the water, but it’s considerably cheaper and I have enough neighbors that I could call to have them shut off my water if I wasn’t home.

Most people would stop there, but Tim also mentioned that some irrigation systems will integrate with Flume to detect abnormal usage. I realized I could set that up myself because I’m already pull data from my OpenSprinkler irrigation controller and the Flume device has an API as well. Before too long, I had a program written that would know what zones were watered at each period of the night, look at the total amount of water they consumed, and alert me if there are any oddities. Last year I had a broken irrigation head right near the drain in the curb so I didn’t notice the water dumping down the drain until I got a higher than normal bill. With this setup, I would have known the first morning after that happened.

Even without the geeky add-on, it’s still a pretty neat device. It’s one of those things that probably isn’t worth it if you never have a leak, but if you do, it will pay for itself a thousand times over and the peace of mind is worth something too. Also, I now know that it costs about 2.5 cents to flush a toilet.

Xfinity Mobile One Month Review

It’s been just over one month since we switched from Verizon to Xfinity Mobile. We have two phone lines and I started us with just 1GB of shared data between us. We were used to sharing 2GB before, but during the pandemic, I’ve been working from home and we were only averaging around 0.9GB/month. I really wanted to see if the bill would actually be under $20 so I left my data off all month.

The month is up and *drumroll* here’s the bill…

It actually worked! This feels so much better than the $80/month we were paying for almost exactly the same thing before. (It literally is the same cell network behind the scenes.) At some point in the next couple months, we’ll be in a situation where I think I’ll switch us to unlimited data for a bit but it’s very nice to be able to adjust up and down just by clicking a button in the app on my phone. Our choices right now (before taxes) are:

  • 1GB $15
  • 3GB $30
  • 10GB $60
  • Unlimited $80. Technically we could switch one phone line to unlimited for $45 and leave the other one one the shared 1GB plan but we’ll generally want to switch both phones to unlimited.

Anything that bills us monthly gets extra attention from me so I’m very happy to have this bill be more reasonable and under our control. I do have to say that it annoys me that I didn’t do this last fall when we got our new phones and this carrier switch possibility opened up to us. We easily wasted $300+ by not doing this sooner. Better late than never though!

Bay View State Park Camping

As Tyla and I struggled with what to get Elijah for his birthday, he was regularly asking us if we could go camping. We have a couple trips planned this summer, but then we had the idea to go camping for his birthday. Mid-June can be cold and wet but then we hit on the idea of renting a cabin at a state park. There are quite a few options but we ended up at Bay View State Park. You can check my Instagram account for more photos, but I wanted to share a little more about the trip here.

When we pulled into the park, I said, “UH OH! Elijah! I didn’t pack the tent!” Then we turned the corner and saw the cabins. He got a kick out of that, and the cabin was fantastic! It’s about a 12×12 room plus a covered front porch with a swing. It rained a lot for the first evening, night and and most of the next day. We were very thankful for the dry area! It was just the right size for the three of us (one more kid would have been fine too.) The cabin had power, lights, and a heater. We didn’t see it listed before went, but it also had a fridge/freezer and microwave. We didn’t make use of those since we hadn’t planned to have them available. We ate our meals on the front porch when it was rainy and we were able to play some card games there too.

The park itself isn’t huge but it wasn’t very full and we generally had the shore area to ourselves. We spent a lot of time throwing rocks into the water and exploring at low tide.

We drove a mile or two down the road to Padilla Bay Shoreline Trail. As I parked at the south end of the trail, I noticed fresh glass by our spot… and the spot where the next car would be, and the spot after that… and all ~5 spots in the parking area. We got back in the truck and parked on the north end of the trail which was in a more populated area. Elijah was able to ride his bike and we walked the ~2 miles down to the barn along the trail. If you’ve been in our house, you may remember the barn photo that’s above the half-wall in our living room. I took that photo about 8.5 years ago when Tyla and I visited her family who was camping at the park. Tyla was pregnant at the time so it was fun to go back with Elijah and take a family picture in front of it.

I kept thinking about how perfect the cabin rental was this weekend. We might have canceled the trip due to weather if we had planned to use a tent. It didn’t take us long to start searching to see what other parks have cabins and yurts available for rental. I think this might be something we explore more in the future.

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!