– Ben Martens


DIY LED Panel Revisited

In May, I built my own 36×16 LED panel. The project was a lot of fun to build and taught me a lot, but honestly, I haven’t used it much since then. The original plan had been to build two of them and use them as Christmas decorations, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve turned it on. The software side of things was a mess which is a bit ironic given my profession. I had improved on the tutorial by writing my own app that ran on the desktop and communicated directly with the ESP8266 board. The board had very simple firmware which just received a stream of bytes and displayed it. That worked ok and I got a pretty good refresh rate, but the main issue was that after a few minutes, the board would stop updating and I couldn’t figure out why. After a long day of coding for my day job, I could never convince myself to spend time debugging this.

Fast forward to late November when I was watching a video from “The Hook Up” on YouTube about his Christmas light setup. It was at that moment that I realized that most of these Christmas light displays and lots of maker projects run on an LED control package called WLED. It’s free and open source and it’s very customizable. Could it work with my custom matrix?

About an hour later, I had it working, and most of that was me just fumbling around learning things. There was already a version of WLED that was compatible with my ESP8266 board so I loaded it on and instantly had a webserver that I could access from my desktop or phone. The built-in software is fantastic but there is also a big ecosystem of projects built on top of WLED if you want, for example, to display an animated gif on the matrix.

In the last week I’ve had it on more than I did in the previous six months. While it’s too late to build another one to use for the front window for Christmas, it has me thinking about next year.

Surviving Election Season

I’m less and less enamored with politics as time goes on, but it seems unavoidable as we head into presidential election season. Since I know this is a common frustrating for people, I thought I’d share some of the things I do to try and stay sane:

  • Beware of people who use name calling. They’re trying to get you on their “team” and create division. Even if you happen to agree that the other person deserves it, it’s not healthy.
  • Beware of people who try to play to your emotions to get you to agree with them. Reading a news story or watching a talk show shouldn’t be like getting riled up about sports.
  • Beware of people who speak in absolutes or hyperboles. AI isn’t going to kill us all. Their opponent getting elected won’t be the end of the world.
  • Remember that even the choice of news sources can be full of bias. Not reporting on a story can be just as bad as taking a slanted view of the topic.
  • Think about how concerned you are about telling people what you think about a politician. Imagine if you felt that strongly about sharing Jesus with them. What if for every conversation you had where you shared your political opinions, you also had one where you talked about Jesus? Which conversation is more relevant and important?
  • In a world where you want to tell everyone about Jesus, why would you alienate more than half of everyone you meet by telling them about your political opinions or even hinting at them?

Disc Golf

When I started playing disc golf towards the end of last summer, I started learning that I was right in the middle of a big surge of interest in the sport. It really spiked when COVID hit and the interest has continued. UDisc is the most popular app for tracking scores and finding courses. They have an annual report about the growth of the sport if you’re interested in stats.

It’s been a big hit in our house because it’s something that all three of us can enjoy, and it’s generally free. UDisc says that 90% of all disc golf courses are free to play. You can get a starter set of three discs for about $30 and I used my starter set for a very long time before buying some specific, fancier discs for $15-20/each.

I’m writing this post because I realized there have only be a couple blog posts that mention disc golf. Considering how much I have been playing, that feels a bit off, so I thought I’d use this post to answer some of the questions I had as I got into it:

Where do you play? There are courses at lots of local parks. UDisc says that 28% of Americans live within 2 miles of a course and 88% are within 10 miles. You can find them by going to or searching on internet maps. I’m lucky to live near a great course at Blyth Park in Bothell.

It seems intimidating. How do I not look like a moron? This is the biggest thing that held me back from playing. I regret the time I lost worrying about this. Disc golfers are generally super friendly! With so many people joining the sport, you’re probably not the only newbie out there. If you don’t know what to do, find somebody else who is playing and just ask them. Or if you look confused, someone will probably offer to help.

What do you do? When you get to the course, find the first tee. Sometimes there’s a map showing all the holes. Or if you have the UDisc app, it will show you a map of the course with your current location noted. That app is really helpful as you go from hole to hole looking for the next tee. Once you’ve found the first tee (usually some kind of a concrete or dirt pad about 2 feet by 6 feet), throw your first shot. Walk up to your disc, make sure one foot is right behind where your disc landed, and throw your next shot. Eventually you’ll make it to the basket and your disc must end up in the basket. Count your strokes and move on to the next tee.

How long does it take? My local course has 10 holes. (9 and 18 hole courses are the most common but it’s not super rare to have a different number of holes.) I can play a round by myself in 30-40 minutes, but obviously if there’s a lot of traffic on the course that can slow things down a bit.

What is the etiquette? If you’ve ever played traditional ball golf, a lot of etiquette is very similar. Some general guidelines are:

  • Wait until the people in front of you are out of range before you throw. Generally this means waiting until they’re done with the hole.
  • Yell “Fore!” if your disc is heading toward someone else.
  • Whoever is farthest from the hole throws next.
  • Play “ready golf” by knowing which disc you’re going to use and being ready to throw when it is your turn.
  • Be aware of people throwing on holes near you. Disc golf courses can be tight and it’s easy for errant shots to veer into neighboring holes.

What’s the difference between a disc golf course and a traditional/ball golf course? While both have “tees” and “fairways” and conceptually are similar, the physical appearance can differ in a few ways:

  • Disc golf holes are shorter. Most holes will range between 200-350 feet if they are beginner-friendly while long/pro holes can stretch over 1000 feet in some extreme cases.
  • Disc golf courses have a lot more variety. Courses might be set in thick woods, an open field, zig zagging across an old golf course, etc.
  • Disc golf courses make a lot more use of natural terrain and obstacles and some will even include man-made obstacles like a tall fence stationed at a key point in the middle of the fairway to make the hole more interesting.
  • Some disc golf holes include a “mando” (short for “mandatory”) which means that you must go to the right or left of a specific obstacle.
  • There’s no “green” for disc golf. There’s an imaginary circle around the basket with a radius of 30 feet and there are slightly special rules in that zone, but generally this isn’t explicitly marked.

Why do my discs always go to the left? Because of the physics of a disc, most discs will curve to the left, especially at the end of their flight. As people get better and can put more speed and spin into the disc, they can have different flight characteristics depending on the disc. As a beginner, I just plan for the curve.

Do discs get lost? Yes. Most people write their name and phone number on the back of the disc and people are pretty good about calling or texting if they find your disc. Thankfully I haven’t lost a disc yet, but I’ve probably spent more time than is reasonable looking for lost discs. Losing a disc isn’t as common as losing a golf ball though which is good because people get more attached to their discs as they learn how each specific disc flies.

What are some good sources for learning? I subscribe to quite a few disc golf channels on YouTube. Here are three of my favorites. All of these have a lot of videos so click on their playlists section to zero in on content that interests you.

  • Robbie C Disc Golf – Robbie has a lot of beginner friendly videos and always focuses on mechanics that are helpful to average players.
  • Overthrow Disc Golf – Josh was a full time professional tennis coach before switching primarily to teach disc golf. He is excellent at breaking down body mechanics into simple steps.
  • Foundation Disc Golf – Foundation is mainly an online store that sells discs, but they have a fun YouTube channel as well. There is a ton of content of them playing rounds with various tweaks to the rules (like only using the worst selling discs in their store, playing doubles but taking the worst shot, etc.)
  • JomezPro – Over the past few months, Elijah and I have started watching the final round of the touring pro tournament series. JomezPro posts very nicely produced coverage of the rounds 12-24 hours after they finish. It’s wild to see what the pros can do and it’s interesting to get to know the various players in the game.

Can you be a professional? I guess I answered this with the JomezPro recommendation above, but one of the most interesting parts about disc golf for me is that anybody can be ranked on the same charts as people who get paid to play the game. If you join the PDGA for $50/year, as soon as you play in a sanctioned tournament, you’ll be assigned a rating. Your rating goes up and down every time you play in a sanctioned tournament so you can directly compare your skill level against the pros. On the PDGA website, you can see how much money everyone makes in tournaments. As a local player, you’d be doing very well to make a couple hundred bucks a year. The highest level pros would do well to make $100,000/year from tournaments, but they are likely to have additional sponsorships that make them more than that. Estimates are that the highest paid pros may be making around $500,000/year but that’s a guess.

It’s a deep rabbit hole, but you can easily play casually and have lots of fun. According to my UDisc app, I’ve already played 19 rounds this year (39 last year). With the longer days and drier weather, I’m able to head to the park quickly after Elijah goes to bed to play a round in the evenings. It’s a relaxing way to get away from the computer screen for a while and get some fresh air. I’m more than happy to play a round with you if you live near me and are interested!

PaperKarma Review

A huge percentage of our mail is junk… or it was. This is the point where I’d normally hit you with some stats about how much junk mail we get per day, and honestly, I did start collecting it at one point. Normally collecting data about random things is fun, but even data can’t make junk mail fun. So even though I didn’t count the junk mail rate, I did throw it all into a box for a month or two, and then I signed up for PaperKarma.

This isn’t sponsored, but the idea of PaperKarma is that it helps you unsubscribe from junk mail. You take a picture of the junk mail with your phone to help it search for the company that sent it, you tell it the exact addressee for the junk mail, and then they go off to tell the company to stop sending you mail.

I was skeptical at first but we signed up for a six month subscription for $16. Since I had a big backlog of junk mail, I was able to enter in a lot of mail right away. Again, I don’t have data, but we get WAY less junk mail than we used to. Some still sneaks through, but I know I’ll never be rid of it all and just reducing it has made me happier.

The only real nitpick I have with the service is that the photo of the junk mail seems pretty pointless because it rarely works. I end up typing in the name of the company so why include the photo step?

I plan to let our subscription lapse for a while and see how long it takes to build back up, but I won’t hesitate too long to resubscribe for a bit to beat back the flood.

Navigating the Divide

As I change some of my volunteer activities, I’m setting myself up to spend more time talking to people who disagree with me. This can be healthy, but it’s also a challenge. I’ve been thinking about specific behaviors I want to keep in mind while I have those conversations. What’s missing? What’s wrong? How different would our world be if everyone approached discussions with this mindset?

  1. Ask lots of questions. If someone’s argument seems absurd, I probably don’t understand what they’re trying to say or what led them to this viewpoint. Asking questions helps us walk back to common ground to find where we diverge so we can have a productive discussion.
  2. Assume that everyone is logical, rational, and fact-driven even when they have a completely opposite viewpoint. It might not always be true, but it’s a healthy place to start.
  3. Rhetoric is a red flag. If someone is using name calling or inflammatory language in their argument, resist the urge to join in or fight back. Call out the rhetoric and ask questions about the root issues.
  4. Don’t use metaphors and similes to make a point. If someone disagrees with me, they’re going to pick apart my comparison instead of focusing on the point I’m trying to make. Facts and data are a much stronger argument.
  5. Always be willing to change my mind when presented with enough evidence. Don’t engage with people who are unwilling to do the same.
  6. When presented with evidence, don’t trust secondary sources that don’t link to the original material. (I’m very happy to see that Elijah is already learning this in school.) Related to this, use a neutral news source, but also pull content on a topic from multiple sources on both sides of the issue to understand where there is disagreement.

I fall flat on these very often, especially when the person I’m talking to is emotional and not following a similar approach, but maybe writing these things down will help me keep them in mind more often.

2022 Year In Review

After two years that were defined by COVID and its aftermath, it was nice to have a year where we could setting into a more sustainable routine. Don’t get me wrong, COVID still played a major part of 2022. It’s one of the top five killers, but we’re learning how to fine tune our behaviors so we can live life while protecting it at the same time.

The first part of the year started off with a bang as we un-paused our Hawaii trip which had been planned for the week everything shut down in March 2020. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the warm sunshine by playing on the beach, hiking Diamondhead Crater, visiting the zoo, and sampling lots of delicious food. It did feel a little odd to take our big family vacation so early in the year, but the rest of the year didn’t disappoint.

We kept up our monthly family adventures with day trips like the ferry to Kingston, Deception Pass State Park, Leavenworth with Luke and David, hiking to old train tunnels, Birch Bay State Park, Tiny Hearts Homestead, Barclay Lake (with Dad and Mom before the forest fire!), Dege Peak at Mt. Rainier, and Kayak Point.

We had two nice camping trips. One was to Seaquest State Park near Mt. St. Helens with Tyla’s family. It’s interesting to go back there every few years and see how much has changed at the eruption site. The second trip was to San Juan Campground. These were first come-first served rustic camp sites right on the North Fork of the Skykomish River with the Scherschels and Neumanns. Elijah has always asked to go camping where we can’t see anyone else, and this came pretty close to meeting that criterion.

Even though we went to Hawaii, if you ask us about our favorite trip this year, we’d probably all say it was our visit to Leaping Lamb Farm. This was a bonus trip that Tyla picked for Tyla’s 40th birthday celebration. Farm managers Denny and Kate were magnificently friendly, and it was a fulfilling to see Elijah helping with the farm chores and roaming the farm on his own.

This was also the year our family got into disc golf. I’ve always been curious about the sport, but I’ve also been too intimidated to try it out myself. Tyla and Elijah gave me a starter set of discs for Father’s Day and that eventually encouraged me to do some YouTube learning and get out to a course. I was hooked! I love that it’s friendly, approachable, free, and something the whole family can enjoy together outside. According to my UDisc app, I played 428 holes the majority of those were with Elijah. Part of the fun of learning new things is experiencing the rapid improvement as you progress from total newbie to bumbling beginner. By the end of summer, I had even played in my first tournament!

Work continues to go well. The vast majority of my organization still works from home and while there are people who go in for a few days a week, only a small percentage of employees show up every day. I pretty much only go in when there is free food for a social gathering. Otherwise, I very much prefer working from home. While it’s relatively unimportant compared to other work I do, the highlight of my work year was probably the US Government officially awarding me a patent. It’s fun to know that, at least according to the patent office, I’ve invented something brand new and it will be recorded forever.

It’s beyond cliche, but I’m really noticing how quickly life goes by. A week at work seems like nothing when I look back on it, and even the months fly by if I have something fun to look forward to next month. I suppose it’s a good way to breeze through the mundane parts of life, but it’s also an encouragement to live in the moment. If I don’t appreciate each day, the fast forwarding can keep accelerating until all I’m doing is looking forward to huge life events. (Queue the reference to Adam Sandler in the movie “Click.”)

Along with the increased pace of live comes more thoughts about how quickly my life will be over. Maybe this is also cliche for someone in their early 40s. I’ve always thought that eventually we’d move out into the country for a place with more land, but if we wait until Elijah is done with high school so we don’t have to care as much about school districts, then how long will we live in that house before we need to move back closer to town/doctors/help/etc? Regardless of all these earthly decisions, whenever the end of this life comes, I have heaven waiting for me through faith in Jesus’s saving death and resurrection. I think Paul’s words to the Philippians sum this all up nicely:

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:12-14

Previous Year In Review Posts: 20032004200520062007200820092010201120122013, 2014201520162017201820192020, 2021

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.

Disc Golf Newbies

The new craze in our house is disc golf. I asked for a cheap starter pack of discs for Father’s Day, and all three of us enjoyed it the very first time we went out. There are about half a dozen free courses within a 30 minute drive and the closest one is only 5 minutes away.

I was a bit nervous/embarrassed the first time we went out, but I’ve found the disc golf crowd to be extremely friendly and welcoming. Plus, we quickly learned that lots of people are just out there having family fun and we weren’t as slow or bad as we thought. Course etiquette is very similar to golf so I was able to work on those social norms with Elijah first and then we started learning more about the game.

YouTube is a great resource for learning disc golf and it helped us understand the basic form, the flow of play, special rules, etc. While there are people who are extremely good at the sport, I’ve found it to be very accessible for inexperienced players. You can go out there knowing nothing and have a blast. And while it would take a huge amount of time to master the sport, you can find bits success early on. For example, only about 10 rounds into the sport, we’ve all made a par and I was a few inches off from a hole-in-one. You can pick up a starter set of discs for around $30, and as I mentioned, many of the courses are free. The UDisc app is a great way to find nearby courses and keep score.

It’s fun to discover a new activity where I can compete against myself, play for basically free, and see myself rapidly improve since I went in knowing nothing! If you’re in the area, I’d be happy to share some discs with you and show you what it’s like. At the very least, you get to enjoy walking around in a park for an hour.

Woodworking Instagram Reborn

As mentioned previously, I lost control of my @martenswoodshop Instagram account. Since then, I’ve realized that I really do like having a single place that can easily function as a portfolio of my work. “Oh you build stuff? What do you like to make?” It’s a lot easier when I can just send a simple URL. And it’s also good motivation for me when I look and see how long it has been since my last project post. It makes me want to get out and do more!

So if you’re at all interested in this kind of thing, please follow @martenswoodworks. I reposted some of my projects to that account and I’ll be posting more going forward. I’m wrapping up a project soon that involves 3D carving on the CNC!

Savings and Debt

I think about retirement more than is normal for someone of my age, but saving for retirement is a long-term game. My basic plan has been to save some money, pay off debt, and then save more money. We’ll see how well that works out for me, but it aligns well with Dave Ramsey’s “7 Baby Steps“.

Those basic guidelines are great, but there are so many small choices along the way. What’s a good order to do them in? Then I found a flow chart on reddit and I was in awe! I’m sure there are people with different opinions, but if I have a tough time believing that anyone would go too far off course if they followed this verbatim. You should be able to click into it to see all the details, but if not, check out the linked post above for the original content.