– Ben Martens

Xbox Series X Review

Let’s start with a little journey through my console gaming history. Growing up, we didn’t have any consoles, but one of my good friends had a NES. There were many hours spent in Tecmo Super Bowl, Contra, Super Ivan’s Offroad (with the rented adapter from the video store to play four person), and lots of others. Later he also got a SNES but I mostly remember spending time with him on the NES.

Towards the end of my time at Purdue, I won a programming contest and got the original Xbox (along with an HP Jornada and compact flash WiFi card!) When I moved with it to New Jersey, we would have Halo LAN parties where we would wire up 4 Xbox consoles with four CRTs that people lugged to the house and frag the night away. Once I moved on from that console, I installed a new operating system on it and turned it into an NES emulator.

In November of 2005, the Xbox360 launched and I spent hours and hours hunting one down. They were very difficult to find due to their popularity but in January I finally got my hands on one. I ended up owning three or four of these over the years because they were how we watched TV. Cable TV came into a PC with an InfiniTV card and then was distributed out via the Media Center Extender app on the Xbox360. To this day, that remains the best DVR that I ever used.

The Xbox One launched in November 2013 and by then I was married, Elijah was here, and I was gaming a lot less, but I eventually picked one up in July 2014. My gaming was mostly relegated to whatever the latest Forza game happened to be at the time I picked up the controller.

The Xbox Series X launched in November 2020, and due to massive supply shortages from the pandemic, they are still nearly impossible to find a year later. It’s hard to tell how high the demand is given the incredibly low supply, but they disappear from the shelves nearly immediately. The same is true for the latest PlayStation console. Right before Christmas, I was able to snag a refurbished unit through work at a discounted price. So now we finally get to the topic of the post: an Xbox Series X Review.

First off, we’re back to the goofy console design. Remember how the Xbox 360 devices were always marketed in a vertical position? The same goes for the Series X but thankfully you can lay it down. The only annoying thing is that leaves the Xbox logo power light rotated 90 degrees. It doesn’t matter, but it’s a constant reminder of their bad design choice. Who has room for a device that big standing vertically?

Secondly, it’s very weird to boot up a brand new console and get exactly the same user interface as the Xbox One. I didn’t even buy any new games with this console. I just downloaded the same ones I had been playing on the Xbox One. Microsoft has moved more to a common OS across their devices and most games work on both the Xbox One and the Series X (and the Series S which sits somewhere in the middle.) The Series X is capable for 4k resolution at 120fps so it has a lot more horsepower than the other models. This results in better visuals for all the games.

Getting the new console has always been the way that you played the latest games. But if that’s not true anymore, then why upgrade? Well, honestly, it’s not necessary and it was still a splurge for me. But the biggest reason that I look forward to using it is how incredibly fast it is. For example, booting my Xbox One and getting to a playable point in Forza Horizon 5 takes about 4-5 minutes on my Xbox One. On the Series X it happens in seconds. Not only are the graphics better in the game, but the menus and challenges all load nearly instantaneously compared to 30-60 second waits on the Xbox One. (Note that I have the original version of the Xbox One so your mileage may vary if you bought later hardware revision.)

The end goal that I’m really shooting for is 4k gaming. I bought an AV receiver that is 4k capable last year and now I have a device that can spit out 4k video both for gaming and streaming video from the Internet. The last piece of the puzzle is a 4k projector. I bought the Epson 8350 in 2011, had it repaired in 2015, and I replaced the lamp in 2018. Over that time, 4k projectors have come down dramatically in price and there are lots of good options, but I’m going to try to hold out for a while longer and get more use out of this current projector. We’ll see how long I can hold out though…

Christmas Card 2021

We took our own family photos again this year and we used that for the front of the card. On the back, I realized that we can fill it with pictures so it was fun to dig through all of those and pic some for a collage. Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas


1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Google Nest Audio vs Amazon Echo

We have had an Amazon Echo in our kitchen/living room area for the last three years. It’s used almost exclusively for playing music from Spotify and setting timers, but over the past months it has become more and more insistent on giving us ads and tips after completing a command. My family starts laughing every time it says “By the way, did you know” because I immediately yell “ALEXA! STOP!” There are settings you can change to make this less frequent and I’ve changed them all long ago but it’s still super annoying. I finally had enough and I pulled the plug. I used the Amazon trade in program and got $30 back for it.

I ordered a Google Nest Audio on sale and happily swapped it in for the Echo. It’s pretty similar functionally, but so far there are no annoying “by the way” style comments. Maybe they’ll come some day, but beyond that, there are a few reasons why I prefer the Google device to the Amazon device:

  1. I’m an Android user and I use Google reminders a LOT. I regularly talk to my phone and ask it to remind me to do something at a specific time. Now even if I don’t have my phone handy, I can tell the Google speaker to do it and get the same behavior.
  2. The Google speaker recognizes our voices so if Tyla tells it to set a reminder, it will only go to her account. If Elijah asks it to play a song, it will play it from his Spotify account instead of mine (which means that my music won’t stop if I’m listening in another room.)
  3. It’s a Chromecast endpoint and that is our preferred way to cast audio and video around the house. Even if there isn’t an obvious voice command to play something on the speaker, there’s usually a Chromecast button that we can hit on our phone or laptop to play it.
  4. There’s a setting to tell the speaker which device to use for displaying video so we can talk to the speaker and have it play videos on our TV. That’s not something we’ll do a ton but sometimes it’s handy to pause via voice commands.
  5. We can add various Chromecast devices into a group and it will play back in sync across all the devices.

I’ve had a Google Mini out in the garage workshop for a couple years and I’m happy to have another one in the house, but mostly I’m happy to not hear “By the way” anymore.

Fantasy Football – Week 15

The post is a little bit late this week because everyone in the NFL has COVID! (And apparently it has spread up north too.) The oddity of watching a Tuesday afternoon football game apparently threw our league into another dimension because remember how last week I was wondering how anyone would beat Logan and Tyler in the playoffs? If you add their scores together this week, they would only beat last place Chelsea by 1.91 points! They both bombed hard. Will they recover next week for the playoffs?

Speaking of which, I screwed up when I set the fantasy schedule this year. Normally we do our playoffs on Week 15 and 16 so that if playoff teams are resting their players in Week 17, it doesn’t affect us. Oops. I guess that’s just part of the league this year. Next year we’ll go back to the 15/16 playoffs.

Also of note, Logan’s loss also means that the 8 game winning streak is still the high bar for this league.

So with that, our playoff bracket is set. Here are the seeds:

  1. Logan
  2. Ben
  3. Tyler
  4. Andy
  5. Nick
  6. Luke
  7. Tim
  8. Chelsea

Despite almost setting the record for the lowest score of the season, Logan has enough momentum to stay in the top power ranking spot.

  1. Logan
  2. Ben ▲5
  3. Tyler ▼1
  4. Chelsea ▲1

On to the weekly awards…

 This WeekThis SeasonAll Time
Highest Team ScoreChelsea had 134.87Tyler had 176.03 (Week 14)Luke had 202.63 (2019)
Lowest Team ScoreLogan had 62.99Andy had 60.86 (Week 9)Andy had 41.29 (2015)
Biggest BlowoutChelsea beat Tyler by 61.08Chelsea beat Andy by 77.04 (Week 3)Luke beat Andy by 113.02 (2010)
Closest WinLuke won by 13.89Logan beat Ben by 0.92 (Week 10)Tyler beat Nick by 0.01 (2018)
Longest Active Winning StreakNick has a 3 game winning streakLogan has an 8 game winning streak (Week 14)Micah (2011), Ben (2015), and Logan (2021) had 8 game winning streaks
Longest Active Losing StreakTim has a 3 game losing streakChelsea had a 5 game losing streak (Week 9) and Nick had a 5 game losing streak. (Week 12)Kyle had a 14 game losing streak (2011)
Highest Scoring PlayerTyler Huntley had 39.90 as a free agent.Jonathan Taylor had 51.90 for Nick (Week 11)Drew Brees had 60.54 on Tim’s bench (2015)
Lowest winning scoreNick won with 106.52Andy won with 89.80 (Week 8)Tim beat Jim with 79.34 (2015)
Highest losing scoreTim lost with 102.26Logan lost with 143.14 (Week 6)Tim lost to Luke with 169.11 (2019)

Save 13% On Groceries

Maybe I take grocery bills too seriously, but in 2021 I have cut our bill by 13%. That does not include any savings from having a club card, buying store brand items, or catching the right sales. Here’s how I approach it:

  1. Track your spending! You can’t improve what you can’t measure. You can do it with an online tool, your credit card statements, or just by typing receipts into Excel.
  2. Safeway has a program called “Safeway For U”. You can clip coupons to your club card from their website and save extra money. Usually these deals save money directly but sometimes they can also give huge numbers of rewards points.
  3. Be smart about which credit card you use. Our American Express Blue Cash card gives us 5% back on grocery store purchases with no annual fees.
  4. For every $100 we spend at Safeway, we get 1 “reward”. Careful use of those rewards can save a lot of money. At a minimum you should be striving to get $1 back from every reward but with a bit of planning, you can get closer to $2 per reward. (Remember that rewards expire at the end of the next month. You can use the website to see how many you have expiring.)
    1. My first choice is to use the rewards to fill up with gas. 10 rewards means $1 off of gas and I can get 20 gallons in the truck so there’s my $2/reward goal.
    2. The Safeway For U website lets you use rewards to get free stuff in store too. This is a bit like playing the Price is Right because you need to watch for the deals that are close to the $2/reward target.
    3. If I’ve burned through #1 and #2 and my rewards are about to expire, I’ll use the 7 rewards for $10 off coupon.
  5. The final trick that we use is to watch for gift card deals. Especially around holidays, they will sometimes off 4 points per $1 spent on gift cards. So if I buy a $100 Safeway gift card, that translates into 400 points which is 4 rewards which is $8. Plus I’ll get 5% back on my credit card and there’s my 13% back! Honestly I don’t do this one quite as much though because I really dislike having gift cards sitting around. So if I do this, I’ll usually walk into the store, buy the gift card, then do my grocery shopping and immediately use the gift card.

Cheap? Frugal? Thrifty? Miserly? However this strikes you, I think the biggest draw for me is turning a chore into a game. It doesn’t take much extra time and I can calculate my “score” at the end of the year. It’s the same reason why I always try to sort my list into order that I walk through the aisles at the store: it keeps me entertained.

Fantasy Football – Week 14

We still have one more week in the regular season to play but our first week of the playoffs is already locked. Here’s what we’ll see in week 16:

  • Logan vs Andy (1 vs 4)
  • Tyler vs Ben (2 vs 3, seeds may swap)
  • Nick vs Chelsea (5 vs 8)
  • Tim vs Luke (6 vs 7, seeds may swap)

Logan and Tyler looked dominant this week. They both toppled the season high school record with Tyler putting up 176.03. Tyler has been up and down like the rest of us, but Logan’s total season score is 11% higher than the next highest total (me.)

Chelsea almost came away with her third win of the year but one of her players tested positive for COVID early Monday afternoon and there’s not much you can do to recover from that as a fantasy manager. Good news for Nick. Bad news for Chelsea.

The other news from this week is that Logan has tied the all time record for winning streaks. In week 15 he’ll face off against Nick to see if the can keep the streak alive.

There are some changes in the power rankings but Logan has been on top since week 7 and he stays there again this week.

  1. Logan
  2. Tyler ▲2
  3. Luke ▲3
  4. Nick ▼2

On to the weekly awards…

 This WeekThis SeasonAll Time
Highest Team ScoreTyler had 176.03Was: Andy had 167.86 (Week 6)Luke had 202.63 (2019)
Lowest Team ScoreAndy had 81.24Andy had 60.86 (Week 9)Andy had 41.29 (2015)
Biggest BlowoutTyler beat Tim by 56.36Chelsea beat Andy by 77.04 (Week 3)Luke beat Andy by 113.02 (2010)
Closest WinNick beat Chelsea by 2.62Logan beat Ben by 0.92 (Week 10)Tyler beat Nick by 0.01 (2018)
Longest Active Winning StreakLogan has an 8 game winning streakWas: Logan has a 7 game winning streak (Week 13)Micah (2011) and Ben (2015) had 8 game winning streaks
Longest Active Losing StreakChelsea has a 4 game losing streakChelsea had a 5 game losing streak (Week 9) and Nick had a 5 game losing streak. (Week 12)Kyle had a 14 game losing streak (2011)
Highest Scoring PlayerJosh Allen had 39.22 for ChelseaJonathan Taylor had 51.90 for Nick (Week 11)Drew Brees had 60.54 on Tim’s bench (2015)
Lowest winning scoreNick won with 110.24Andy won with 89.80 (Week 8)Tim beat Jim with 79.34 (2015)
Highest losing scoreLuke lost with 121.42Logan lost with 143.14 (Week 6)Tim lost to Luke with 169.11 (2019)

Custom Card Boxes

We play quite a bit of Uno and Phase 10 in our house, but just like when I was growing up, the boxes for those games are barely holding together. I thought it would be an interesting project to try and build boxes to hold the cards, and it would be a good way to use up some scrap wood too.

My first attempt used a method that I learned about from Steve Ramsey, though I’m sure he didn’t invent it. With some careful router work, you can end up with a lid that perfectly fits onto the box. The corners were 45 degree miters while the top and the bottom fit on with some rabbets. The router cuts technically worked ok, and one of them was sufficiently snug, but the other one was way too loose. There’s a very fine line between not fitting and too lose. Since the lids flopped off and I didn’t feel satisfied, I finished the boxes with spray lacquer and gave them to Elijah.

I wanted to try again, but instead of just remaking the same thing, this time I decided to make box joints. And instead of having the top and bottom overlap the sides, I set them into dadoes in the does so they’d be flush. The lid didn’t get glued in and was able to slide out the shorter front piece. That plan worked better and those box joints are really solid, but I still had fit issues. One lid fit very well and I got too cocky on the second one and sanded just a hair too long. It was good enough to use though. I thought it would be fun to put the logo into the top of the boxes and I tried making a paint mask with the Cricut as well as using a mask for a Scorch pen, but the paint didn’t look great and the heat for the Scorch pen ended up warping the wood. In the end, I used the laser cutter at work to engrave the logo on the top of the boxes, and they got finished with boiled linseed oil.

Is it overkill? Of course! But I enjoyed making all four and learned lessons that will help the next time I make a box… and a lot of woodworking is a variation on making a box.

While I was making this, I counted our Uno cards and we were missing quite a few so I ordered a new set on Amazon. The day after I wrapped up this project, the cards arrived… in a nice tin case.

Fantasy Football – Week 13

With Tim’s loss to Nick this week, the top playoff spots are officially locked. Thank you to everyone for keeping full rosters even if you’re not going to make the playoffs! Logan and Tyler looked strong and hold the top two seeds while Andy and I faltered in 3rd and 4th. Logan is also one game away from tying the league record for winning streaks. Let’s see if Nick can stop him next week.

Logan continues his stranglehold on the power rankings:

  1. Logan
  2. Nick
  3. Chelsea ▲3
  4. Tyler ▲1

On to the weekly awards…

 This WeekThis SeasonAll Time
Highest Team ScoreLogan had 145.88Andy had 167.86 (Week 6)Luke had 202.63 (2019)
Lowest Team ScoreBen had 95.26Andy had 60.86 (Week 9)Andy had 41.29 (2015)
Biggest BlowoutLogan beat Andy by 46.20Chelsea beat Andy by 77.04 (Week 3)Luke beat Andy by 113.02 (2010)
Closest WinLuke beat Chelsea by 5.40Logan beat Ben by 0.92 (Week 10)Tyler beat Nick by 0.01 (2018)
Longest Active Winning StreakLogan has a 7 game winning streakWas: Logan had a 6 game winning streak (Week 12)Micah (2011) and Ben (2015) had 8 game winning streaks
Longest Active Losing StreakChelsea has a 3 game losing streakChelsea had a 5 game losing streak (Week 9) and Nick had a 5 game losing streak. (Week 12)Kyle had a 14 game losing streak (2011)
Highest Scoring PlayerTom Brady had 36.62 for LoganJonathan Taylor had 51.90 for Nick (Week 11)Drew Brees had 60.54 on Tim’s bench (2015)
Lowest winning scoreNick won with 122.46Andy won with 89.80 (Week 8)Tim beat Jim with 79.34 (2015)
Highest losing scoreChelsea lost with 124.53Logan lost with 143.14 (Week 6)Tim lost to Luke with 169.11 (2019)

Driver Profile and Stats

Happy Tesla Tuesday!

One of the features we really enjoy on our Escape are the driver memory buttons. We both drive the car fairly often and we are very different sizes. Hitting the memory button automatically adjusts the side mirrors and the seat. Since we use it so often, I’m very excited for driver profiles in a Tesla. When you get in, you select your profile and it will not only store the mirror and seat position but also the steering wheel position and countless other things like mirror auto fold, cruise follow distance, acceleration mode, steering mode (comfort/normal/sport), stopping mode (creep/roll/hold), seat heat, walk away door locks, navigation settings, temperature, air vent direction, and much more. Now these settings are also getting synced up to the cloud so even if you rent a Tesla, you can apply all your profile settings!

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know that one of my criteria whenever I buy a new gadget is whether or not it has an API that I can connect to. I want to have access to all my data! Today I have apps running that collect weights from our digital scale, temperatures and runtime from our thermostat, runtimes from our irrigation controller, the list of beers I’ve tried, how much water our house uses by the minute, how much power we use by the day, and a few other things. I used to log every trip we took in our cars too before the service that I was using died. So when I looked into an API for Tesla, I got excited.

Tesla doesn’t officially offer an API but there’s obviously one available since you connect to the car with your phone. There are a few popular services which let you use that API to get nearly endless amounts of data from your car. I’ll probably end up using TeslaMate but TeslaFi is an option if you don’t want to host it yourself. These services pull down all the data from the API and store it for you to generate even more charts than what the Tesla gives you by default. This YouTube video demos the capabilities early in the video and then goes into information about setting it up. He demos it in the browser inside the car but you could view the info from anywhere. Imagine having a log of everywhere you drove, how much energy you used on each trip, and details like how long the seat heaters were used on each trip.

Pretty much everything in a Tesla is connected into the computer. Even opening the glove box requires a button press on the screen. At first that might seem unnecessary, but when you go that route, it opens up a ton of new capabilities. For example, now you can set up a pin code that must be entered to open your glove box. Or instead of just having a button to retract your mirrors, because it’s hooked into that central computer, you can tell the Tesla to automatically fold your mirrors in or out as you approach or leave your home. The same is true for your garage door opener (if you add the Homelink accessory.) There’s a pedestrian warning speaker on the outside of the car, but you can play Spotify music through it while you’re washing the car. And since all of this stuff is controlled by a computer, you can do a lot of these things from the app on your phone too.

The phone isn’t just for running the app though. It can also serve as the key to get into your car. It connects to your car via Bluetooth as you walk up, unlocks the car, and lets you start driving. Just put your foot on the brake to “start” the car and you’re off! It takes “keyless entry” to a new level. There isn’t even a key! (There’s also a card you can keep in your wallet as a backup or you can even purchase a fob if you really want one.)

So yes, some of the scenarios are silly, but I love the open world of possibilities. Instead of trying to predict every button or feature that needs to be added, everything gets plugged into the central computer. If users want some new integration between components, it can be added in software and blasted out to everyone’s car automatically.

Disclaimer: I own Tesla stock.