– Ben Martens


The Birth of AI

The OpenAI group is making a big splash with websites like Dall-E 2 and ChatGPT. The other night I asked Elijah for the basic plot of a movie and had Chat GPT write the script, write the lyrics for a theme song, and then tell me which voice actors would fit the roles. Then I had Dall-E 2 make a movie poster for it. For this blog post, I asked Dall-E 2 to draw “a van Gogh style painting of a cute penguin sitting in a datacenter typing on a computer” and you see the result on the right.

Experiences like this have led to a lot of conversations about how people feel about it and how we should manage these AIs. It seems like many of the podcasts I follow have spent episodes on this topic and I end up getting bored and frustrated. There are three main points I always wish they would realize:

  1. This isn’t new. Sure, these two specific examples (Dall-E 2 and ChatGPT) are very popular in the news right now. Lots of people are getting introduced to AI in a way they can readily understand, but AI has been around for a long time in many incarnations. AI isn’t one specific thing, but the term appears to have originated around 1956. The range of what people call “AI” is enormous. At some level, you can think of it as “math.” AI doesn’t only mean a sentient robot that’s going to exterminate human life. It’s math that makes things more efficient in your daily life. Here are some examples:
    1. A grocery store deciding how to place items in their aisles
    2. Lane keeping technology in cars
    3. Smart speakers
    4. Junk mail filtering
    5. Motion sensors differentiating between people and shadows
    6. Online advertising
    7. Bank fraud detection
    8. Video game opponents
    9. Social media feeds
    10. Filters on your camera phone
  2. It doesn’t matter whether you like AI or not. It doesn’t matter whether you think there should be rules for its use. That’s like saying there that you need to control the dangerous implications of addition. Anybody on the planet can click a few buttons and spin up “AI” to do any number of built-in tasks on a cloud service like Azure or AWS, and there are plenty of people that have the skills to code things for themselves on top of other platforms or from scratch. We can’t control it like we try to control nuclear weapons material and knowledge.
  3. The technology is progressing faster than you can imagine. I’ve written before about how hard it is for humans to grasp exponential growth, and this is another place where that comes into play. Think about your tech life today (phone, internet, etc) compared to 2000 when we thought flip phones were amazing and iMacs were the hot product from Apple. We’ve come an incredibly long way in 20 years. Not only is it hard/impossible to imagine what another leap of that size looks like, but it’s going to happen in ~10 years this time. And then the same leap will happen in 5 years, then 2 years, etc. So if you think ChatGPT is impressive today, don’t turn your back for too long before you try it again.

So yes, these new technologies are impressive, but for people who work with this stuff every day, the reaction is “Hey, good job. That’s impressive.” It’s not the “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! LOOK WHAT HAPPENED OUT OF THE BLUE!” story that you get from the media. It’s almost like you shouldn’t rely on things like TV/cable news for your news…

Battery Backups

We don’t lose power a lot here anymore, but we have a lot of power flickers. Those rapid shifts in current can be bad for electronics, not to mention that it’s annoying when I’m in a meeting and my computer reboots because the power blipped a second. I started protecting my equipment with battery backups and now I have five of them spread around the house:

  1. My home theater is all on one. When the power goes out, my projector, Xbox, and sound system keep running for a while.
  2. Our home networking gear is all on a bigger unit than it needs to be. I can run our cable modem and WiFi for about 45 minutes. This is helpful not just for keeping the modem from resetting in a power blip, but it also lets me continue my work meetings for a while even if the power goes out.
  3. My main desktop machine and monitors are on one.
  4. Our downstairs TV is on one.
  5. The most recent addition was one for the 3D printer. We had a power blip in the middle of a long print and that meant I had to start all over.

These units give me a little piece of mind about protecting the units from changes in voltage but they’re also nice to smooth out the blips. What I really want is a whole-house system that smooths my power and provides some battery backup but those are not really targeted at home users yet. I expect that will change over time with all the research going into battery tech.

I have a mix of devices from CyberPower and APC, but most of them are either the big 900 watt units or the smaller 550-600 watt units. I like to put a Kill A Watt meter on whatever I’m going to buy the backup for to see how many watts I need and then I give it plenty of headroom (like 2-4x). There are calculators online that will help you translate all that into runtime, but like I said, in most cases I’m trying to protect against the 1-5 second outages so as long as I have a few minutes of runtime, that’s enough.

These battery backup devices only last a few years before the battery dies. The battery is a major component of the cost so in the past, I’ve usually replaced the whole unit to avoid frustration, but with five of them in the house, that’s a lot of extra unnecessary replacements. In the last power outage, I discovered that two of my devices had batteries that wouldn’t sustain the load anymore. I replaced one of the big 900w batteries and now the unit works great! The old batteries take some work to dispose of properly but I had that problem when I’d replace an entire unit anyway. I need to get better about remembering to periodically unplug each of these units from the wall while things are running to ensure that the battery is still good. Some of them do a self-test but it doesn’t seem to always catch bad batteries properly.

These units have other benefits too. When the power goes out for longer than a few seconds, I walk around turning most of the units off so save battery power. I can run lamps and charge phones for hours with them and I’ve even though about taking one of them camping when we’re off grid for a long time.

I Lost It

[UPDATE] I have created a new woodworking Instagram account @martenswoodworks.

The other day my Pixel 4a got into a boot loop, and I couldn’t figure out any way to fix it. It would restart, show a few things on the screen for a couple seconds and then restart again. I found my way into the root menu but none of the easier choices did anything, so I was left with a factory reset. I knew it would be annoying, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal because everything is backed up to the cloud.

Everything was NOT backed up to the cloud.

There were a few things that I lost forever:

  • Photos I had taken while we were away from the house (and Wi-Fi) weren’t backed up but that wasn’t a huge deal.
  • We use the ScorePal app to record every board game we play. I thought that was all backed up to the cloud, but the last backup I had was from August 2020. Oh well.
  • When I started up my Microsoft Authenticator app, it either hadn’t backed up or I went through the wrong flow and erased the backup. Either way, I was left with no way to do two factor authentication for many of my most critical accounts.

Uh oh.

Thankfully, most of them had ways that I could reset my two factor auth either through backup codes, email verification, or text message verification. But there was one that I couldn’t get back: my @martenswoodshop Instagram account. When you set up two factor auth, they give you backup codes and I’m always good about saving them, but I can’t find the codes for that account anywhere. Instagram has an automated flow which has you take a video of your face with the app and then it looks through your account photos to see if it recognizes you. But guess who didn’t post any pictures of his own face on his woodworking account. Oops.

I’ve tried every way I can think of but it’s just gone. The account will sit there forever, but it’s dead in the water. I’m frustrated but it is what it is. And I think it’s worth mentioning that I don’t blame Instagram for any of this. I set up my account to include a super-secret, no-exceptions password and I lost the key to it. Meta has 3.6 billion users and my valid attempt to reclaim my account is drown out in a sea of millions of attempts to hack other accounts. They use the same protocols as everyone else but I made a mistake with how I configured my account by not having a secondary auth two factor auth mechanism and by not saving the recovery codes.

So please consider this yet another reminder to think about what you would do if your laptop or phone were suddenly wiped. Would you be able to recover everything? I thought I was ready, and I mostly passed the test, but I clearly had some holes. I’ll learn from these lessons and hopefully have a better experience next time. Never let a crisis go to waste. (And in the big scheme of things, losing an Instagram account is hardly a “crisis.”)

As for the woodworking content, I’m going to focus more on posting pictures of my projects here and not worry about posting woodworking stuff to Instagram. There’s a lot to be said for putting my content into a system that I control, and I could do with a little less time staring at Instagram.

Church AV Equipment

The audio-visual setup at our church is not very impressive. We don’t ask a lot of it. The main functions are:

  1. Amplifying pastor’s voice
  2. Providing a feed to the screen in the nursery area
  3. Recording the service

Check out this “before” picture. Believe it or not, this is after I had started replacing some gear and throwing stuff away.

Yes that is a CRT TV and yes it was used every Sunday.

I’m the one who ends up running the equipment most of the time so I decided it was time to take this area on as a project. If you’ve been following my @martenswoodworks account then you’ve seen some progress updates in the stories, but over the last couple months I’ve been slowly building up the new solution piece by piece. I wasn’t confident enough to do it all at once since there are so many unique constraints to a project at church. Things rarely play out as expected. This was my rough plan going into it:

Along the way, I was happy to find someone at work who was selling three 24″ monitors and a monitor arm to hold them all. That was the perfect addition to the project because I’m always nervous about stuff toppling over the edge and landing on people. Here’s a look at the end result:

The screen on the left is the video switcher. It takes input from up to four cameras though we only use two today and it combines in the audio from our audio mixer. It records straight to USB (or in the future can live stream to YouTube.) The middle screen is a PC that I’ll use for uploading to YouTube, using extra features of the video switcher, and, in the future, controlling the TV in front of the church. The right screen is for our security cameras.

If I wanted to post a sermon with the old setup, I would come home with two SD cards from the video cameras and a DVD with audio from the mixer. I would have to edit that all together and then upload it to YouTube. That was a couple hours of work for me when I got home every Sunday. So you can imagine my joy when yesterday I recorded the whole service to a USB stick and uploaded it directly to YouTube before I left church!

I hesitate to post this because there are always more things that can be improved (cable management for one), but I do feel like this is in a place where I can slow down for a bit. Not only is this a nicer to use, it opens more possibilities down the road and hopefully it’s not so intimidating for others to learn.

Tap to Pay

We’ve had “tap to pay” enabled on our phones for a while, but it really came in handy on our trip to Hawaii. The condo had a keypad lock on it, so when we left the room, as long as we had our phones, we were prepared. It got me wondering about all the options I have for paying in most stores:

  1. Swipe the physical card
  2. Tap the physical card
  3. Insert the physical card
  4. Tap my phone

Which one is the safest?

Contactless payments use NFC (Near Field Communications) which is a subset of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). When an NFC chip gets within an inch or two of a reader, wireless energy is transferred to the chip. It powers up enough to communicate with the reader via a unique encryption key for every transaction. If you’re swiping your card, you’re handing out the same information every time you swipe so if a thief gets your info one time, they are free to use it repeatedly.

Tap to pay has additional safeguards in place too:

  • Transaction amounts are limited, and you’re notified of transactions.
  • Your phone must be unlocked to make a transaction.
  • You are still backed by your credit card company’s zero-liability policy.
  • Less information is shared with the vendor (e.g. no customer name)

If it were possible to use my phone to pay everywhere, that would be the safest option. As soon as I carry a physical card around, I’m opening myself up to more risk. Tapping the card or inserting the chip are good choices if I retain control of the card, but if I must hand it off to someone (like at a restaurant), then I’m adding the risk of a credit card skimmer.

In the end, the credit card companies are the ones bearing the brunt of security breaches and they all recommend contactless payments. They’re not going to recommend something that costs them more money.

For more info, check out this article from Forbes.

The Best Pen

We have a lot of cheap pens around our house. They get collected from random locations and every time I grab one of them, I’m frustrated that they are not great to write with. I heard someone on a podcast mention the Pilot G2 0.7mm gel ink pen and they went on and on about how they threw away every other pen in their house once they found these. Then I randomly heard someone else talk about the same pen a few weeks later. Maybe it was some sneaky social marketing campaign, but it worked and I bought them.

This is now the only pen I buy. I will walk around the house to find one instead of writing with anything else.

(This isn’t a sponsored post, but that is an Amazon referral link.)

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.

Xfinity Mobile: 5 Month Review

We’re about five months into our experiment with Xfinity Mobile (see previous posts) and we’re still really happy with it. The service feels identical to what we had with Verizon, and that makes sense because it runs on the same network. I wondered how easy it would be to switch between plans from month to month and I don’t think it could be easier. I just click a couple buttons on my phone and it’s done. I did go through a couple support calls though to understand how the billing works so I’ll share my experience here.

  • Bumping up your plan: When you go over your data for the month, buy extra gigabytes gets more expensive than if you just had a bigger plan. But don’t worry. Even if you catch it after you’ve gone over, you can change your plan and just be on a bigger plan as if the overage never happened. So we just leave our plan set to 1GB and then a day or two before the end of the billing cycle, I look to see if we should have a bigger plan and I make the adjustment.
  • Decreasing your plan: Similarly, at the end of the month, if you’ve been paying for the 10GB plan but you only used 3GB then switch down to the 3GB plan before your billing date and voila, cheaper plan.

We also spent a month on the unlimited plan. I just flipped it on for both lines and we did whatever we wanted for a month. the next month we were back down to the 1GB plan.

I love how easy it is to switch and how cheap the service is. As I mentioned before, we’re already used to light data use on our phones and we spend most of the day at the house with WiFi anyway, so many months we end up with a total cell phone bill (including both lines) for under $20. If you have Xfinity internet and you get a good Verizon signal at your house, this service is a winner.

If only their Internet and TV side of the business bore any resemblance to the way the Mobile division is run…

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!