– Ben Martens


COVID-19 Day 1000

One THOUSAND days of the pandemic. Where are we now?

In my county, somebody is still dying every day from COVID. It’s a big county and I don’t fall into the categories of people likely to die from it (5x more likely to die if you’re not vaccinated and boosted, 23x more likely to die if you’re over 65), but still, I don’t want to be involved in the spread of the virus in any way. It’s still the third leading cause of death (behind cancer and heart disease), and in 2022, we’re going to end up with more COVID deaths than we had in 2021. It will be about the same as Alzheimer’s (#4) and accidents (#5) put together.

All three of us were happy to get the new “bivalent” booster shot. Those shots offer protection against both the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the Omicron variant BA.4 and BA.5. We were pleasantly surprised by how full the appointment schedules were to get one. If you haven’t scheduled yours yet, now is the time! With good habits around keeping up to date with the shots, staying home when we’re sick, and lots of at home testing, we should be able push this farther down the “causes of death” list than #3!

P.S. Wondering if you’re eligible for a booster shot? Check the CDC COVID page and click “Find Out When to Get a Booster.” If you haven’t had the updated booster shot yet and it’s been more than 2 months since your last shot, then the answer is probably yes!

P.P.S. Did you know that most insurances cover 8 at-home test kits per month for free? Just walk into your favorite pharmacy and they’ll get them for you.

P.P.P.S. Consider scheduling a flu shot as well if you haven’t had one yet. We’re in a very bad flu season and it’s ramping up earlier than normal. It’s the worst since 2009 or 2010 depending on whether you use reported cases or hospitalizations, respectively.

Artificial Accountability Partner

Back in January, I wrote about using a habit tracker app to help me keep up with my back exercises. Every morning at 8am, I get a notification on my phone asking if I’ve done those stretches yet. It’s amazing how much that little question keeps me honest! And now that my streak is over 300 days, it’s even more encouraging for me to spend a little time on those stretches.

A few months after I started that, I decided to try it on a couple other habits too. I set up one that asks me how many pops I’ve had that day and then there are three others that say “Did you have zero/one/two alcoholic drinks today?” Both of those habits slowly creep up over time if I don’t pay attention. There’s always an excuse about why I deserve to have a pop at lunch or why I should have a drink before bed or how I’m on vacation so I can splurge a little. But having those stats in front of me and knowing that I’m going to have to answer those questions every evening is a great motivator. My pop consumption has come down from a peak of two per day to two per week! And with all the camping trips, grilling, and vacations in the summer, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of having a drink every night, but that’s going well too.

I’ll be putting that habit tracker to the test in December. I bought one of those beer Advent calendars. I’m excited to try all those different beers but I’m already bummed about how it’s going to impact my habit tracker stats! Hopefully that feeling continues into January and I can bring the stats back up quickly.

Xfinity Mobile – 16 Month Review

Time flies when you’re… saving money? It’s been 16 months since we ditched Verizon and went to Xfinity Mobile. As a quick recap, Xfinity Mobile uses the same cell network as Verizon but it’s cheaper and lets you easily switch your plan from month to month with no contract. Because it’s Xfinity and because the deal is so good, it feels like there should be a catch… but there’s not.

For the last 16 months, we’ve averaged $25.78/month total for our two lines. Not per line. Total. Granted we use a small bandwidth plan of 1GB shared between the two lines per month, but for our usage, that’s fine. In those months when we just use the 1GB, our bill is just under $20. We had one month where we bumped up to 3GB and another where we bumped up to both lines with unlimited data. If we had stayed with Verizon, and if Verizon hadn’t increased prices over that time (HAHAHA), we would have spent $78.50/month including my 20% employer discount. So we’ve saved $843.52 or over $50/month and our service has been the same.

To make it even better, the cost for the Xfinity Mobile plans has gone DOWN over time. It used to be $40/line/month for unlimited data but now it’s only $30/line/month. So if/when we change up to that again in the future, it will be an even easier decision and that’s getting cheap enough where I wonder if we should just use that all the time.

If you have Xfinity internet, give Xfinity Mobile a hard look. Unless they don’t support the phone you like, I can’t think of many reasons to not use them.

Getting Rid Of Junk Mail

Like most of you, we get lots of junk mail. It’s kind of absurd. It all just goes straight in the recycling and aside from wasting my time, it feels like a waste of resources too. I’ve used Catalog Choice in the past to try and stop some catalogs. (I never kept track of the ones I tried to stop so I don’t know if it worked.) Now I’m trying six months of Paper Karma. I’ve been throwing junk mail into a box for a couple months so that I can make good use of my subscription time for the service.

The way the app works is that for every piece of junk mail you get, you scan it with your phone as a quick way to search for the sender and then they take care of contacting the company to try and get you removed from their mailing list. They have direct access to the recipient lists for quite a few companies, but for others, they have to take slower methods of notification that may or may not work. I scanned in the whole pile shown in the image and probably about half of them have a “success” status already which means that I shouldn’t continue to receive those mailings. It’s not a guarantee, but even if it cuts my junk mail in half, I’ll be happy.

Streaming Packages

For our TV watching, we almost exclusively use streaming service. We do have an antenna set up for some locals with a DVR hooked up to it, but that’s only used for some Seahawks games. We always have Amazon Prime Video since that comes with our Amazon Prime subscription, and we pay for YouTube with no ads, but otherwise, we rotate our services so that we only pay for one other one at a time.

That’s the goal but it doesn’t always play out that way. For the past few years, we’ve had Disney Plus. In November of 2019, we did a three year pre-paid deal which came out to less than $4/month. That is expiring in a couple months so it has me looking at streaming service prices in more detail. Netflix is expensive but it’s a single service so it’s easy to add and drop. The complexity comes with Disney Plus and Hulu. Those prices are all going up by a few bucks on October 10. They make it tricky because they offer a bundle of Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus that is less a pretty good deal if you’re ever going to have two of those services.

  • Hulu $14.99/month
  • Disney+ $10.99/month
  • ESPN+ $9.99/month
  • Bundle all three for $20.99/month

I don’t know that we’d ever watch ESPN+ but it’s hard to decide if we’ll do monthly Hulu and Disney+ alternating individually or get the bundle. (Those prices are for the services without ads. I will pay to avoid ads anywhere possible.)

The nice thing is that these decisions are low cost and effort. It’s so easy to subscribe and unsubscribe from month to month. I’ll frequently hit unsubscribe on whatever service we have an see how long it takes us to notice that it died off. Otherwise, it’s easy for the costs to pile up quickly and silently.

Living Wills

Earlier this year I was asked by a medical office if I had a living will. I knew my answer was yes, but it got me thinking more about it. I remember talking to our lawyer and just using the default form that he usually used. As a Christian I never felt great about it, but I hoped that Tyla and our Pastor would base their decisions on the Bible.

Fast forward a few months and I heard about free living wills from Christian Life Resources. They’re actually Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care documents (more comprehensive than living wills), but they explain the difference and why you would prefer one over the other. They have unique versions of the documents for each state along with a guide that explains what every choice means and how we view it in light of the Bible. It made it super easy for us to get some documents in place that more accurately reflected our wishes.

To get them officially signed, there are a few options in our state, but we chose to get them notarized. Our bank does that for free, so before too long, we were done!

We put the papers in with our will and then emailed them to our parents so that others have them readily accessible.

This is one of those things that’s easy to put off, but Christian Life Resources made it so easy to get it done. If you’re interested, you can get all the information for free at directives

“Alone” Review

There are a lot of “survival” shows on TV today and they range from educational to completely fabricated but they share one thing: the people aren’t really surviving. Or rather, they are surviving very easily because they have food and supplies. There’s no real chance of anyone dying.

The TV show “Alone” is different (or else they do an exceptionally good job of faking it.) On this show, 10 contestants are each dropped in their own piece of land in a remote area. They all get the same basic items and then they can choose 10 more from a list. The last one to give up wins $500k. Their only contact with other humans is when they have periodic medical checks and somehow they swap out camera batteries and SD cards with the producers. Yes, along with surviving, they have to film everything themselves too. That’s a lot of heavy gear to carry.

It’s amazing to watch as some people tap out on the first night when they realize they are literally camping next to wild animals that can kill them. Others stay so long they get pulled out because they fail their medical checkpoints. Shelter usually goes well for most contestants, but food is always a struggle. The locations include Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Patagnoia, Mongolia, and Great Slave Lake in northern Canada. None of those are hospitable places to try to survive and they always start the season towards fall when everything is starting to die off and get cold.

I started watching the show because TimS got hooked on it and convinced me to try it. I started with season 7 because it happened to be on Netflix at the time, but if you watch, I recommend you start with season 1. (Season 7 is the best one and I think it would be even better if you built up to it to see how good that season’s contestants really were!) Currently Hulu has the first 7 seasons. Season 8 is only available for purchase. There’s also one season of a spinoff called “Alone: The Beast” but it’s not worth watching.

If you’re squeamish about watching someone gut big game with a Leatherman or try to repair a gash in their hand from an axe that slipped, maybe this isn’t your show. But I loved this show and I hope they keep going with it. The psychology of the whole thing was amazing, and I feel like I learned some bushcraft by osmosis.

COVID-19: Day 731

Yesterday marked two years from the semi-arbitrary date that I picked to be the start of COVID for our family. As much as I don’t want to write another COVID post, I feel like it’s good to keep documenting.

On Friday, Washington state lifted the mask mandate. Voluntary mask wearing was still nearly 100% in most stores over the weekend, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Over 80% of our county (12th largest in the country) has been vaccinated and if you cut it down to people 5 years and older, 92.5% have received at least one dose. This is awesome progress!

At work, campus is opening up again. This whole time I’ve wondered if everyone would slowly filter back into the office and give up on remote work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. I don’t think I should share numbers, but a much larger percentage of people than I expected are working remotely at least part of the time. And even more encouraging is that a number of senior managers are moving to other parts of the country to work remotely full time. This really does feel like it is here to stay and I’ve officially given up my office at work.

Globally, the virus rages on. Countries are still setting new record highs of case counts and deaths. Vaccination rates are exceptionally low in most of Africa and other poorer countries. The vibe in America seems to be “yay it’s over!” but we can’t let up on the accelerator. There’s a lot of work to be done.

I also have a tough time believing the “yay it’s over” vibe. It does look like a lull in the storm, but as vaccinations wear off and we hit the end of summer, I don’t see anything preventing us from getting another spike in cases and/or another strain of the virus. We’re going to be living with this for a long time, but hopefully we’ll be able to use vaccines, masks, and social distancing to control the spread and kill as few people as possible.

It’s easy for me to spend my time looking ahead and wait for the next spike to come, but I’m trying to focus on enjoying the lull in the action and being thankful for it.

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29:11-13

COVID-19: Day 710

We’re coming up on two years since the pandemic started for our family. Washington is one of the last states with a mask mandate, but that is now scheduled to end in a month in most situations and work is fully reopening campus in March. So let’s take a walk through some stats and see what’s going on.

The official mortality data for the United States is available for 2020 now. The number of deaths each year grows with the population, but last year was one of the biggest jumps we’ve ever seen. Life expectancy decreased 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020 (from 78.8 years to 77.0 years) which is the largest single year decrease in more than 75 years. COVID was the 3rd most common cause of death. (If you really want to dive into this data, check out the CDC WONDER tool and get lost in the flood.) Globally those numbers are even worse and continue to be bad in places without the healthcare system that we have in place.

And here are similar stats but with raw numbers:

Heart disease: 696,962
Cancer: 602,350
COVID-19: 350,831
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 200,955
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 160,264
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 152,657
Alzheimer’s disease: 134,242
Diabetes: 102,188
Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,544
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 52,547

There are currently about 2000 people/day dying of COVID. If we leveled out here, that would be 730,000 deaths per year which would have COVID at the top of the list with 2020’s numbers. But we should be able to do better than that since the numbers are still falling. If we can bottom out at our lowest death rate and stay there, that would be 90,000 deaths per year, but we’ve already lost around that many people this year to Omicron so 2022 will be pretty high up on that list even in the best case. As a society we are in the middle of deciding how high up that list we’re willing to go. The catch is that this line item is arguably the one that we could control the easiest.

We’re getting to the point with Omicron where we’ll start to be able to assess how much immunity it provides. The health community defines a reinfection as occurring within 90 days, and we’re about 90 days out from when Omicron hit. That data will provide a good idea of how well the new policy changes will work, at least until the next variant hits.

The general feeling is that we’re switching from a pandemic to an endemic. That feels a bit premature, but if we can loosen the restrictions for a while, maybe that’s healthy for the nation. But we need to be ready to put them all back in place if/when the next wave hits. Thankfully, vaccination rates are still climbing, but there are also people who aren’t getting boosted on time. My prayer continues to be that we can educate people so we don’t have to force behavior on them. There’s so much data available now to show how effective the vaccines are. In our county (the 12th largest in the country), you are 33x more likely to die from COVID in the last 30 days if you’re unvaccinated than if you’re vaccinated.

So we’re able to stop requiring masks to entire public places or vaccines to enter restaurants, but let’s watch the data and be ready to pull those tools back out when it’s time. Encourage everyone you know to get vaccinated and stay up to date with their booster shots. We’re probably going to be living with COVID forever, so vaccines will play a key role in us finding a new normal that doesn’t involve mandates.

As this drags on and everyone is seemingly at each others throats about what to do next, the future can seem hopeless and dim. A recent devotion reminded me to be “fiercely dependent” on God. He’s the only true source of comfort and peace. Everything else will fail but his love never will. He’s given us tools to fight the pandemic. So let’s use them and get on with the business of sharing the saving message of Jesus with the world. Imagine if we were as focused on spreading the gospel as we were with convincing people that we were right about politics…

Building Habits

I recently read (but can’t remember where) an article about willpower vs habits. Willpower is like a battery that gets used up and recharged each night. You have to be careful how and where you apply your willpower because you probably won’t have enough to get you through the day. Habits happen mindlessly or with much less effort. So if you’re looking to make a change, you need to intentionally apply your willpower to get an activity to the point of being a habit.

Apps are frequently built to get you into a habit quickly. Games on my phone are always encouraging me to play just one more round or telling me to log in every x hours to get the next reward. But apps can use this type of incentive for good too. I started learning Duo Lingo about 16 months ago and in the beginning, I frequently relied on the app’s notifications to remind me that I hadn’t done my lesson for the day yet. It keeps track of the number of consecutive days you’ve practice, the number of lessons you’ve done compared to other people, the number of hours you spent practicing in a week, etc. So not only is that app encouraging me to keep my daily streak alive, but it’s also measuring my progress. For me, that measurement piece is a big key to building a habit.

So all that got me to thinking about some things I wanted to change in my life and how I could use my willpower battery and statistics to build a habit. I decided to use my sore back as a test case. I have spent a lot of time in physical therapy to help with my back, but I only keep up with my exercises after I’ve hurt my back. I should be doing them all the time and avoid losing a week here and there to back pain. There are a thousand different habit tracker apps out there, but the first one I downloaded was called Loop Habit Tracker. It gives me the satisfaction of making a checkmark for each day that I do my back stretches, giving me stats about how many days I’ve done it, and reminding me if I haven’t done it yet. I’m over a week in and already I can feel those exercises using up less of my willpower each day.

One of my favorite quotes is from a French mountain climber named Gaston Rebuffat who said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I’ve had a goal of getting better about doing those basic exercises, but I never had a plan to build the habit. Hopefully as I get the habit formed, I’ll be able to keep it going easily and then work on using my willpower to improve other areas.