– Ben Martens


I’m going to assume by now that you’ve heard about ChatGPT, but as a quick intro in case you haven’t, it’s a conversational artificial intelligence. Where you might ask a regular search engine to find facts for you, ChatGPT can answer a lot more why/how questions or even create things from scratch. I recommend that you log into it and play with it a for a while to get your own glimpse of what it is capable of. The responses it gives are incredible. Here are some examples:

  • “I like Mexican food. Make a meal plan for this week.” It replied with a nicely formatted list of breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas, including side dishes. I followed that up with “Give me a shopping list for that meal plan” and it provided that too.
  • “Write a sermon on Matthew 11.” I did that after coming home from listening to Pastor Erich give a sermon on the same verses. While Pastor Erich’s was better, ChatGPT did an incredible job of summarizing the text and then giving three Biblical takeaways to apply to your own life.
  • “Write a rap about brussel sprouts in the style of Flava Flav.” The result probably won’t win any Grammy’s but my favorite line was “They’re the ultimate in healthy snacks and they’ll put a pep in your step, no need for caffeine or crack.”
  • “Explain orbital mechanics to me like I’m 5.” I’m pretty confident that I could have read this to a five year old and they would get the basics.
  • “I want to destabilize western culture without anyone knowing what I’m doing.” I heard this one on a podcast and ChatGPT replied with an 8-point plan about starting social media campaigns to question authority, create alternative narratives, etc (basically everything that people are doing today.)
  • “Design a spacecraft that can carry humans to other planets.” This was an idea from a coworker who then proceeded to keep giving it more requirements and asking detailed design questions which it happily answered.
  • I asked it one of my favorite questions that I use in interviews. It explained the approach in English, rewrote that as a list of steps, and then generated a solution in Python. It was a better answer than I get from 90% of job applicants.

As a software engineer, I love this. It’s a great example of what technology is capable of today, and a reminder that technology is improving exponentially quickly at a faster rate than we can comprehend.

What I don’t like is that this plays into what people think of when they hear “artificial intelligence.” People think of AI being robots in movies, but artificial intelligence is an enormous field with many different applications. While ChatGPT may give you the willies, how do you feel about your doctor using a model to figure out the best course of treatment for you, a cloud provider deciding which hard drives are going to fail in the next 24 hours, or a system telling third world farmers when to plant their crops. Most people would agree that those are great scenarios but how many would recognize those as “artificial intelligence”? We need a different word for AI when it applies to creepy things you can converse with. (And yes, I know there ARE different words for that category of AI, but they aren’t used in the general population.)

Or maybe I should have just let ChatGPT write that last paragraph:

There are many reasons why people may be afraid of artificial intelligence (AI). Some people may fear that AI will become too advanced and surpass human intelligence, potentially leading to loss of control over the technology. Others may be concerned about the potential for AI to be used for nefarious purposes, such as surveillance or manipulation. Additionally, some people may be concerned about the potential for AI to take over jobs and lead to widespread unemployment. Overall, the fear of AI likely stems from a fear of the unknown and a lack of understanding about the technology and its capabilities.

There are many potential uses for AI that do not scare people. For example, AI can be used to improve healthcare by analyzing medical data and providing personalized treatment recommendations. AI can also be used to improve transportation by helping to develop self-driving cars and other advanced transportation systems. Additionally, AI can be used in education to provide personalized learning experiences and to assist with grading and other administrative tasks. Overall, the key is to use AI in a way that is transparent, accountable, and beneficial to society. when asked “Why are people afraid of AI?” and “What are some uses of AI that don’t scare people?”

Patent Approved!

Years ago, I wrote up a patent application at work. It had to get approved by my management chain, and then a team of lawyers at the company interviewed me. They wrote up a 50-page version of my 2-page explanation and then sent it off to the US Patent Office. Years later, the patent office replied saying that they agreed that my invention was unique and patentable. The Microsoft lawyers contacted me for an update to decide if it was still worth patenting, and they decided to go for it. After more waiting, there’s now an official patent recorded with my name on it: US 11,475,017 B2 “Asynchronous data enrichment for an append-only data store.” If you go to their search tool and search for “((US-11475017-B2).did. AND USPT.dbnm.)”, it should return our patent as the only result.

This isn’t going to change my life or make the company a ton of money, but there’s something very satisfying about having my name enshrined in the USPTO as the inventor of a brand-new idea!

COVID-19 Day 1000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial Accountability Partner

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

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

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

2022 Christmas Ornament

Every year about this time I write about how every year about this time we put up our new ornament for the year. This year’s ornament comes from our trip to Hawaii. There was a Christmas shop right on the main drag through Waikiki.

I’m not always big on traditions, but I do love this one. It’s fun to look at the tree and be reminded of lots of great family adventures! You can see our past ornaments in these posts: 2021, 20202019201820172016201520142013201220112008-2010

Launch Windows

We have been excitedly following the Artemis 1 mission as NASA prepares to send humans back to the moon. That coupled with all the SpaceX launches we’ve watched led Elijah to ask how launch windows are calculated. Instead of guessing at the rough idea, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn something.

For something like a trip to Mars, it seems more obvious why there would be a launch window. If the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, the trip would take much longer than if the two planets are close together. JPL has page that explains this and here’s an animation from the Wikipedia entry for “launch window.” In this example, earth is blue, Mars is green, and the Mars lander “InSight” is purple. The timing of the launch is critical to get the correct trajectory to Mars and the launch window only opens every 26 months.

(Side note: InSight has been collecting data on Mars for four years and we’re within days/weeks of the mission ending. The solar panels have gotten so covered in dust over the years that it barely has enough power to even communicate with the orbiting satellites. You can read more about the end of life preparations on the NASA site.)

But what about launching to low earth orbit? It turns out there are a lot of factors which are listed in an article from Kennedy Space Center:

  • When meeting up with an object like the space station or aiming for launching a satellite in a specific spot, the timing is important for the same reasons as described above.
  • Atmospheric conditions (e.g. wind and temperature) can impact the performance of the rocket and how much fuel will be burned.
  • Launching a few minutes early/late can require extra fuel to adjust the trajectory. How much extra fuel is available when the other factors are taken into account?
  • Collision avoidance is included to give the rocket the best chance of reaching its goal without hitting any space debris.

All these factors (and more) need to be analyzed for all possible launch times within the window to ensure mission success. Loading more fuel on board might be one way to expand the launch window, but that can have other effects on the mission. Everything has to be balanced for success.

Visited States

One of the main goals of this blog is to document my life. When I wrote the National Parks post a couple of weeks ago, it got me thinking that I should make a similar post about all the states that I’ve been to. LONG time readers might remember that I did this back in 2003, but I’ve added a few more since then.

The states are a little trickier because doesn’t it count a little different if I live in a state for 10 years versus stopping in a state for a 2 hour layover? I decided to break it down into four categories:

  1. I lived there. (Green)
  2. I visited there. In most cases this means I spent at least one night there, but in a couple days it just means I spent a full doing tourist activities and then slept across the border. (Purple)
  3. I drove through the state (Yellow)
  4. I stopped for a layover (Blue)

I was debating whether to include the “layover” category at all because it hardly seems like it should count, but it turns out that there aren’t many states in that category anyway.

By my count, I’ve been to 39 states + Washington DC if we ignore the layover states. Holler if you know of anything I’m missing on here!

If you want to make your own map like this, check out

Xfinity Mobile – 16 Month Review

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

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

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

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

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.

Ninjago Sword Prop

As we approached Halloween, we went through a lot of ideas for Elijah’s costume. Since we haven’t done trick-or-treating for the last couple of years, we decided to let him get an actual costume. He chose to be the green ninja from Lego Ninjago. I couldn’t resist making part of his costume so I set out to make a dragon sword to go with it.

I wouldn’t have gotten far if I hadn’t found an existing model, but luckily Thingiverse came through for me. I pulled that model into Fusion 360 and spent hours trying to figure out how to cut it nicely on the CNC machine without taking forever. I was able to apply a lot of learnings from my Luther Rose project.

The final product was carved out of a scrap 2×4 and I did it in two separate halves. If I had it to do over again, I think I would learn how to program in a cut that I can flip over halfway through because the seam between the two pieces was visible even in the finished product.

Once the pieces were glued together, I applied a few coats of a filler primer with sanding in between. The sanding took a long time with all the nooks and crannies. Thankfully, Elijah got interested in the project at this point and helped with the sanding.

We finished it off with a couple coats of high-quality gold paint. The final product looked amazing! It makes me want to do another one at the biggest scale that my CNC could handle…