– Ben Martens


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.

Love One Another

I don’t know that I’ve ever posted about Martin Luther King Jr. Day before because I feel that I’m better off listening. Spend a little time doing that and you’ll hear endless examples of how racism is still prevalent at both micro and macro levels, and even if we magically removed it today, the effects would carry on for generations.

Dr. King’s taught that we should treat everyone equally. I know that many of you, like me, are Christians, so this shouldn’t be a new message to us:

  • “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – John 13:34
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:44
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39
  • Fifth commandment: You shall not murder. What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

Loving everyone equally isn’t a new message, but looking around the world today, it’s clear that we all need to be reminded of this frequently. It extends far beyond racism. Compare two minutes of any news channel with Ephesians 4:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

It’s so easy for us to slip into using divisive phrases that group people into “us” and “them” and then it’s easy to start degrading “them”. Whether your side likes words like birther, Trumpster, and misogynist, or if your side uses commie, libtard, and “Let’s go Brandon”, none of that comes close to “building others up according to their needs.” Check out Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment:

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

I don’t want to detract from the reason that we remember MLK’s work today and the work that still remains, but in addition, it’s a good time to think about how I can do a better job of treating everyone the same: we’re all sinners in need of a savior. I need to reflect God’s love back into the world, and if I can focus on that, I’ll not only do a better job fulfilling MLK’s dream, but I’ll help point a lot more people to Jesus.

Autonomous Tractors

Twenty years ago, I was going through two summer internships at John Deere headquarters in Moline, IL. The first year there, I worked with what became the Precision Ag group and the second summer I worked in the IT group for the seeding equipment factory line. Both projects were fun, but it has been really interesting to watch that Precision Ag group take off.

When I was there around the turn of the century (might as well just lean into feeling old, right?), Deere was putting their first GPS equipment into farm equipment. At that time, it could show you a screen to help you follow a straight line down your field, record positional yield information during harvesting, and automatically adjust seeding and spraying rates based on your position in the field. It was a lot of fun to work on a computer program and then go test it out in a field! At that time, I heard rumors about a totally autonomous farm that was in development, but their main problem was avoiding surprise obstacles like animals running out in front of the equipment.

This week at CES, Deere announced their autonomous tractor! The farmer drives to the field, tells the tractor what to do and then he can walk away. He can use the phone to check progress or decide what to do if something unexpected happens. I’m sure there will be kinks to work out, but this can be an incredible efficiency gain for farmers who often have to do enormous amounts of work in short amounts of time, especially during planting and harvesting season when they get the right weather. At the beginning, maybe it’s not good enough to let the tractor run all night by itself, but the farmer could at least catch a nap in his truck while waiting for the next intervention point.

If you talked to me senior year of college, I would have told you that I was going to be working for Deere when I graduated. I enjoyed the work and they liked me, but then 9/11 happened and the job market got turned upside down. Deere had a hiring freeze so I ended up scrambling to find a new job and Lockheed was still hiring so I went there instead. I have no regrets about the way things turned out, but I do think I would have had fun at Deere too.

2021 Year In Review

Last year we were slogging through lockdowns waiting for a vaccine to end the pandemic. This year we got the vaccine, and the vaccine was effective, but the virus is still spreading because not enough people are willing to get the shot. It’s easy to get down and wonder when this will ever end, but Bill Gates wrote a great article about some reasons for optimism. He is hopeful that the impact from COVID-19 will finally peak in 2022, but he also addresses the problem of mistrust in governments. It’s nice to hear an expert be optimistic about the future, but ultimately, my comfort comes from God and knowing that he is working this all out for our good.

With so many trips and adventures being off limits and/or out of our comfort zone, I made a concerted effort to try to find fun things for us to do. We ventured further down a local trail, explored Spencer Island, took a cold trip to Deception Pass, went on a muddy hike at Lord Hill, drove deep into the woods on forestry roads, saw a bazillion sand dollars at Dash Point, stayed in a cabin at Bay View, saw old coal mines, camped at Deception Pass, did our first bike/hike to Ipsut Falls, made it back to Indiana, visited some goats at the Sammamish Animal Sanctuary, hiked around Snoqualmie Falls, camped at Grayland Beach, did an epic hike to High Rock Lookout, climbed to Red Top Lookout, whale watching, and Howarth Park to watch trains.. I tried to organize at least one family adventure every month, and though I didn’t quite get there, hopefully we’re getting back in the groove now. All three of us are vaccinated, and we’ll be exploring a few more options than we did in 2021. One thing I want to repeat is having Elijah pick out hikes from a book. We got all of them done except one, and I think the fact that he picked them out himself really helped him get excited about the hikes. He keeps talking about doing a backpacking camping trip so I’ll have to see if we can work that in as well.

It was another busy year for me at church. Aside from all the discussions about how to handle the pandemic in our church, both our pastor and our school director took calls to other churches. After having some of our calls for new workers were returned, we were blessed to receive a graduate from MLC and a graduate from seminary. With all the empty positions in our synod right now, we were amazed and thankful to be the only church that received two graduate assignments. Next year will be a big change for me as I’m not going to be on the church council. I’ve held a position for 14 out of the last 15 years, but it’s time for a break. Instead of an elected position, I’m going to carve out my own niche and focus on improving our technology. One of my first projects will be ripping out all the AV equipment, replacing some of it, throwing some of it away, and building a new desk to hold it all. I’m excited to dive into that project and be out of the leadership arena for a while.

Speaking of building things, after spending all last year working on the chest of drawers, the floodgates opened in 2021. I was able to knock out a bunch of projects including a murphy bed, strawberry planter enclosure, picture frame, gas fire table, “God is here” sign, desk for Elijah, router table fence, drill press table, cat perch, some custom card boxes and a cat tree. On top of that I also sold a wood American flag and a “but first pray” sign at Elijah’s school auction. I’ve contributed to a few auctions in the past but I either haven’t heard how they went, or the items were part of a bundle. This was the first time my items sold individually, and it was fun to see people get so excited about them.

As we look back at 2021 from the future, I suspect we’ll also remember this as the year we committed to an EV vehicle. It still feels futuristic and we’re still waiting for it to actually show up in our driveway, but I pray that we’ll look back on this as a good decision.

There’s a lot of content in those paragraphs, but the year didn’t feel super busy. Working from home saves so much driving time and I don’t know if I’ll ever choose to work in the office again. Since I don’t have to commute every day, it makes me want to move a bit farther away where we have a little more space. But deciding what area to move to has been so daunting that we never get very far in the thought process before shutting down the search and being thankful for what we have.

When the pandemic started, we put everything was on hold until it ended. Now it’s pretty clear that COVID is going to be with us for many years so waiting for it to end isn’t a good approach. 2021 was the year of starting to figure out how to do more within the constraints. I’ll be working to improve on that in 2022.

Previous Year In Review Posts: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

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.