Studio711.com – Ben Martens

Geek

Microsoft 365 Family Email

I’ve owned the studio711.com domain for a long time. For most of the time it has been registered with GoDaddy and with one of their email offers, I was able to send and receive email from any address that ended with “@studio711.com”. I got in the habit of creating a unique email address for every site because I could see who was selling my info and/or easily block any use of my address.

That was handy and worked fine for years, but it turns out that running a mail server like that also creates a popular place for spammers. Other mail providers would end up blocking various GoDaddy mail servers periodically and I would get emails returned to me (sometimes after 8-12 hours.) It was mostly a background annoyance but finally I decided to do something about it.

A lot of people have the Microsoft 365 Family subscription these days. The main thing it provides is a bunch of installs of Microsoft office on various computers and the subscription can be shared with five members of your household. Reading the list of things that come with the subscription, I found out that you can get custom email hosting if your domain is hosted on GoDaddy.

If you’re not attempting to do the same change, then this post probably won’t be super interesting to you, but do know that if you have that subscription, then you could have your own custom email address for the cost of a domain registration at GoDaddy ($20/year.)

The catch for me was that I would only be able to make one email address per account that the subscription was shared with. I spent many evenings going through my LastPass vault looking for random email addresses and converting them to a common account.

Making the change was nerve-wracking because if I had missed any random email addresses, I’d be oblivious to any failed messages sent to them. But after checking and double checking, I pulled the trigger… and immediately hit a failure. While GoDaddy does host my domain, I use CloudFlare for the nameservers because they give me some additional features and make it easier to do SSL on my website. I resolved this by temporarily switching my nameservers back to GoDaddy and doing the Outlook onboarding steps. I looked at what DNS changes Outlook made on GoDaddy and then switched back to CloudFlare and added those DNS entries back in. Thankfully, that worked!

The next hiccup was that I couldn’t create the specific aliases that I wanted. I’d hit the button to verify, and it would just fail silently with no error message. I finally realized that I had previously set up those email addresses as “send from” aliases. Once I removed them, I was able to create the email aliases. I set up a couple new Microsoft accounts, shared my Microsoft 365 subscription with them, and created the remaining email aliases that I need.

So now I should be fully transferred over to having my email hosted on Outlook.com and if I need to switch email providers again in the future, it will be a lot easier because I won’t have ~600 different email addresses to unify first!

Free Kusto Cluster

I’ve written before about the Kusto big data tool (aka Azure Data Explorer or ADX.) If your Azure budget was tightly restricted, you might not have a good way to play around with it and get enough confidence to push for it with your management.

Now you can visit http://aka.ms/kustofree and create a cluster for free very quickly! It’s obviously not a full-blown cluster but you can do plenty of exploration (more info.) I’ve been using one for my own random home projects and it’s great!

The Kusto docs have a good guide for getting started with the language and there’s even a short introductory course available too. If you have access to Pluralsight courses, here are some good ones to check out:

Keep calm and Kusto on!

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.

Adjust Web Cam Settings In Any App

Working from home means that I regularly have calls on Zoom, Teams, and GoToMeeting from a variety of web cams. Some apps and cameras are better video settings than others, but thankfully I found some instructions about how to get the camera properties app to show up even when I’m in a call no matter what app I’m using. This is a bit on the geeky side so consider yourself warned.

  1. Install ffmpeg.
  2. Open a command prompt to the folder with ffmpeg and run this to figure out the name of your camera:
    ffmpeg -list_devices true -f dshow -i dummy -hide_banner
  3. Create a desktop shortcut with “Start In” set to the folder where ffmpeg lives and “Target” set to the following but be sure to change the file path as necessary and adjust the name of your video camera.
    “C:\Program Files\ffmpeg\bin\ffmpeg.exe” -f dshow -show_video_device_dialog true -i video=”USB Live camera”

Now when you execute the shortcut, you should get this screen:

My Name In Windows 8 Screenshots

The other day I was telling the story of how my name showed up in many of the Windows 8 screenshots when they launched it. But look as I might, I could not find any blog post about it, so I’ll rectify that ~10 years later as Microsoft gets ready to release Windows 11.

The backstory is that lawyers sent a form to employees asking if they had our permission to use our names in marketing materials. I said it was fine with me, not expecting to see my name anywhere either because they wouldn’t use it or because I’d never see it since there are so many different products.

Fast forward a couple years and I started seeing my name everywhere because they used it for some marketing shots in Windows 8. You can still see some of the news stories, as shown in the example from CNN below.

Winning The DuoLingo Diamond League

[UPDATE 5/4/2022] It’s worth noting that this post was written in May of 2021. The scoring model has changed significantly, but the basic premise applies of doing some analysis of the different ways that you can score points and figuring out the best return for your time.


For the last seven months, I’ve been taking Spanish lessons every single day via the DuoLingo app. I feel like I’d struggle to communicate at a 2-year-old level, but progress is progress and it’s a better way to spend time on my phone than playing games or reading the news. This isn’t an ad, but if you are interested in trying it out, the app is free or you can pay to get rid of ads and support their cause.

The app is, obviously, centered around progressing through lessons, but along the way, you collect points and achievements. There’s one achievement for getting first place in the diamond league which is the highest league in the app. Other than getting the achievement, there’s literally no value in doing this. But I have a completionist itch that needed to be scratched so here’s how I did it…

I hung around in the league for weeks until I finally saw a week where it didn’t look like anyone was running away with the game. Then I pounced and did about 600 points in one day. A normal day for me is 100 which is enough to stay comfortably in the diamond league so it’s more than most people do but far from enough to win the league. Two other people had the same idea so I continued to put in 800-1000 points per day until finally they both gave up and my final day was pretty slow. The league finishes around UTC midnight on Sunday and I won with about 4200 points.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

  • I think I probably could have done it with fewer points if I had gone hard straight from the beginning. Go in with guns blazing looking like you have a few screws loose and people are less likely to want to play with you.
  • I timed myself on various parts of the app to figure out where I could make the most points per minute.
  • In general, the stories are great ways to make points quickly. The highest value story I had unlocked was 28 points, and while the first run through took a while, after that I could do it while watching TV and not really paying attention. I could generate 17 points per minute with this approach.
  • Using the app, you can choose between regular practice and hard practice. Every day I would do the hard practice on all the easy lessons. That’s 20 points plus 5 for a perfect run through the lesson.
  • Missed words go into a separate challenge bucket and are worth two points per word. I would purposely miss all 20 questions on the easy lesson, get the 25 points for doing the lesson correctly and then get an extra 40 points for doing the words in the missed queue. None of that is more productive than doing the 28 point story over and over again but it was close and it was less mind-numbing. I could generate 15 points per minute with this approach.
  • The DuoLingo Fandom wiki explains the leagues in details, but basically each room of the league is filled up with 30 participants based on when they record their first points after the start of the week. You could try to game that a little by waiting a while until less avid users are logging points, but I didn’t. In some games, leagues like this look different for everyone so you’re not actually competing head to head. That doesn’t seem to be the case with DuoLingo. Everyone else in the league sees the same participant list that you do.

The week finally ended and I won. I learned almost nothing about Spanish during the week and the whole thing was ridiculous, except now my achievements list is closer to being all gold. And that’s probably only marginally better than ridiculous.

It was an interesting experience and now I can stop thinking about when I might try it, but I’m glad it’s over so I can get back to actually attempting to learn Spanish. All week long, I kept hearing Drew Carey saying: “Welcome to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”

Switching To GoDaddy Hosting

Way back in 2002, I started hosting this website from my apartment officially as studio711.com (though it has existed in previous incarnations since 1996.) It worked fine but eventually I got tired of dealing with running a local server and moved to GoDaddy. That worked ok until I switched jobs and had free access to an Azure subscription for learning purposes. This website was the perfect opportunity to learn and explore Azure. I not only had this site running but a bunch of other small projects.

I wasn’t paying attention and things changed and my free Azure subscription ran out abruptly. Running just a WordPress account on Azure isn’t the cheapest way to go so I made the decision to move back to GoDaddy. Thankfully I had a script running locally that backed up my MySQL database and WordPress files every night so sending that all the to the new host was pretty straightforward. I even stepped things up a bit by adding an SSL certificate to my new site so now you’ll see “https” before all of my URLs. It’s a bit painful being confined to the GoDaddy environment compared to the freedom of Azure, but for my dinky little site, it makes more budget sense.

What does this mean for you? Other than the ~day of downtime over the weekend, you hopefully won’t notice any changes. The same boring content will be here for you to randomly peruse. In the unlikely event that you were using one of my other sites like my Stand Up desk monitoring website and the air quality tracker, those URLs are dead for now.

I don’t necessarily recommend GoDaddy but I was familiar with them and the price was right. I seriously considered BlueHost, but they don’t offer Windows hosting plans and I do want to be able to run some ASP.NET projects. GoDaddy had easy WordPress setup plus they will host an MSSQL database for some of my data collection projects. The price was good enough and I kind of new what I was getting into so I went for it. We’ll see if I switch when my contract is up.

I actually toyed with the idea of just shutting this all down. Sometimes I do these projects and they just continue to leave because they’ve always been a thing. But I realized that I really do enjoy having the searchable history of events in my life that I can easily reference and it’s nice to be able to share some things every once in a while. So for now, the site continues. Next year it will be 20 years old!

Online Church Services

For the last 65 weeks, I’ve been working with Pastor and our organists to put together online services for YouTube and Facebook. This past week, I finished up editing my final one, at least for now. Our pastor has taken a call to Colorado and while we call for a new pastor, we’ll have a vacancy pastor from Beautiful Savior in Everett. They already have an online worship option via Zoom so that means no more video editing for me! (Members, watch your email and our Facebook page for more info.)

There are so many things that went right with these online services.

  • On March 4, 2020, I had just finished a new PC build specifically intended to be a more powerful video editor. Less than THREE WEEKS LATER, we had our first online service. The timing of that was truly a blessing because not only was I doing all that video editing every week, but this became my main machine for working from home. The new PC, dual 4k monitors and standing desk were all March purchases and I’m so glad that I dove in and did them all.
  • As the lockdown started, I was just starting to learn Davinci Resolve. My first full service edited with Resolve was March 29 and it seemed to take forever. I had taken an online course via lynda.com which helped a lot, but I still spent a lot of time looking for very basic commands in a foreign interface. It was trial by fire and that first service took me 8-10 hours to complete. But producing a video every week was a great way to learn and by the end, I had it down to 3-4 hours.
  • Early on, I’d watch the video on Sunday morning with trepidation wondering if I had left any big mistakes in there, but as the videos started coming earlier in the week and I got better at editing, my family was able to watch the services on Saturday morning. I watched with a notebook handy to mark down anything that needed to be changed. My Saturday night sleep improved dramatically!
  • I had set up Backblaze for cloud backup of the church computers years ago, but we really got our value from that service. When we started these recordings, Pastor was trying to upload gigabytes of video to me from his home connection. Since that was mostly wifi based on laptops that would power down automatically, etc, it was unreliable. Then we hit on the idea of just putting the files onto the main church computer and letting Backblaze transfer them to the cloud for us. Our internet at church is very slow (about 1GB/hour upload) but it was reliable and that was the most important thing. Once it was uploaded, I could log onto Backblaze from home and download the specific files that I needed.

The final tally was ~150 videos! In addition to the main service videos, I also posted the children’s sermon and sermon separately. All three videos got uploaded to both Facebook and YouTube so I guess that’s more like 300 videos. In addition to the Sunday content, We had some midweek services and special videos as well like the group hymn. If you’re looking back through the list, I’ve unlisted some of the full services on our YouTube channel because I’m tired of fighting bad copyright claims on public domain music, but all of the sermons are still there and I’ll leave a few of the services as well.

I’m looking forward to having a bit of extra time in my schedule and being a participant in the online services, but I’m thankful for all of the skills I picked up along the way. Learning new things is fun but learning new things to enable others to worship during lockdown was even better!

Utility History

I like to collect data. It’s rarely interesting at a single point in time, but over the years, it can provide insights or show trends that I didn’t know existed.

For example, my irrigation controller is based on a Raspberry Pi. There’s a webpage for it and it has an API so I can download the actual runtime of each zone. I’ve measured the amount of water used for a minute in each zone (by watching my water meter) so I can get a rough estimate of how much water I’m using through the system overall. Some of the variability is due to the weather, but I’ve also been tweaking the algorithm to automatically adjust the watering schedules based on the forecast.

I have a similar logging system for my HVAC. I haven’t been successful in reducing these costs much as I think I had it pretty optimized to begin with.

So yes, this is geeky, but it’s also frugal. Two things that are super attractive, right?

Custom Address Bar Shortcuts

This one is a little geeky but stick with me. Have you noticed how sometimes when you type in the address bar, it changes the UI a little bit and then performs a search on whatever you typed? For example, if you start with “amazon” and a space, it says “Search amazon.com”. Did you know that you can customize this? This post assumes you’re using the new Microsoft Edge browser (it’s fantastic, highly recommended) or Chrome. Let’s use my website as an example.

  1. Search for the word “test” using the search box on the right side of this page. Notice how the resulting URL in the address bar is “https://www.studio711.com/?s=test”. Copy that URL.
  2. Click the three ellipses in the top right of the browser window and click Settings. In Edge, search for the “address bar and search” setting and then click “Manage search engines”. Chrome is similar but I think you can search directly for “Manage search engines”.
  3. On that page you can define your own search shortcut. So add a new one and call it studio711 and use that as the keyword too. For the URL, give it the URL that you copied from step 1 but replace “test” with “%s”. So you end up with “https://www.studio711.com/?s=%s”.
  4. Close out of the settings, click the address bar and type “studio711 hot dogs”. Press enter. Now you’ve just searched my website for posts about hot dogs.

You can do this for any website that has your search string in the URL. I use it for all kinds of stuff at work like looking up bug numbers or live site incidents. At home I use it for quickly looking up Bible verses. I have defined a search engine called “ehv” (for Evangelical Heritage Version) with a URL like this “https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?version=EHV&search=%s”. I have another one for the NIV translation.

Once I learned about this, it took me a little while to grasp it’s power and also to remember to use it, but now I’m hooked!