– Ben Martens

Happy Easter!

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him.  Now I have told you.”  Matthew 28:5-7

Today we take extra time to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. He took our place on the cross and died for all of our sins. His resurrection from the dead proved his power over sin, death and the devil. There’s nothing we can do to earn heaven. It’s a free gift available to everyone who believes.

Our church’s online Easter service is available after 8am Pacific time:

Flu Who?

Have you seen the flu stats this year? It turns out that masks, social distancing and 20 million more flu vaccines than last year are great ways to fight the flu. This is the lowest flu activity in 25 years. The stats are incredible. For example, over the last three years, there were an average of 177 pediatric deaths from influenza. This year? One.

The same number of tests were performed as in a normal year but only a tiny fraction of them are coming back positive so it’s not like they’re just getting reported as COVID instead. The CDC pages show the numbers by type of testing lab and each one tells the same story but I wanted to see the numbers all up so I pulled the raw data and made my own charts. The first chart shows the number of tests being run for each season (the series title is the year of the start of the season and each new season starts on week 40 of the year). Obviously the current series isn’t complete yet but up to this point, we’re running a comparable number of tests.

And of those tests, here are the counts of positive tests. I can’t figure out how to show the current season on the same chart as the others. The counts are so tiny compared to previous years.

There also aren’t nearly as many flu visits as normal this year either.

This is some feel good data! It’s fun to flip through these charts and see how much the flu season was stopped in it’s tracks while we fight back against COVID. If you want to dig through the data yourself, here are some links: source, source, source.

COVID-19: Day 381

We’re more than a year into this so let’s check in on the progress. Locally in King County, we are thankfully way down from the peak after Christmas and levels are now around where they were in October. There’s a uptick in cases over the past couple weeks and if past trends are any indication, that usually means we’re heading for another peak. The trend we’re seeing here is being echoed in the rest of the world as well as cases are on the rise again.

The state has been relaxing restrictions over the past few weeks and the vaccine rollout is in full swing. Around 16% of the state is fully vaccinated with 28% having received their first dose. There are about 6 million adults in the state. Today 3 million are eligible and about two thirds of the eligible people have received their first dose. Over the next week, another 2 million will be eligible and on or before May 1, the final 1.2 million will be eligible. (source) If the current rate of vaccinations in our state stays the same, we’ll have about 3.5 million vaccinated by May 1. That’s a lot of data to swallow but the key question that comes out for me is how quickly should we be adding people to the list? If we go too slowly, we risk not keeping the pipeline full and wasting days and vaccines. If we go too quickly, we risk missing some of the most at-risk people who may have trouble getting to a vaccination site. But how many people of the people currently eligible are not planning to get the vaccine? Our current plan is to hop on the list as soon as we’re eligible and trust that the decision makers are doling these out fairly. I’m curious to see how long our wait will be when that happens.

Microsoft AI for Health Vaccine Dashboard

It’s wonderful to see the vaccines going out much more quickly than planned. I pray that enough people get the vaccines and that the vaccines are effective enough to see a more permanent drop in numbers. Then we wait to see for how long they are effective.

The loosening restrictions and quick vaccine rollout has thrown me back into the world of figuring out how to adjust our own behavior. For a long time our personal guideline has been to reduce the amount of risk we put into the system. In the big picture, any contact outside your house increases risk and the more the risk rises, the more cases we have and the more people die. So we helped by keeping our risk input very low. If I catch it and take up a hospital bed, I want to know that it was because I was doing an approved activity and being as careful as I could. But now that a lot of the highest risk people are vaccinated, the math changes. It’s less critical if we have ten teenagers get sick than ten octogenarians. A lot organizations are putting a higher focus on hospitalization rates and indeed, those are looking pretty good around here, or at least we have some buffer capacity available.

And yet, we’re still hesitant to expand our bubble quickly. Regardless of whether we are exposed to COVID, increasing our contact with others means that we are increasing our risk for catching a cold, the flu, or other common sicknesses. If any of us have any sickness, Elijah can’t go to school. And if he gets any of those symptoms, it means that I have to drive him for his third COVID test. I’m not sure my dad heart can handle watching him get another brain tickle. So yes, we’ll start expanding out a bit and it’s great that we can technically invite vaccinated people into our home, but we’re still not going to be pushing the limits of the guidelines. Tyla and I will hopefully be finishing up our shots around the time that Elijah is out of school and then we can really evaluate stepping out of our bubble to socialize more. But we’ll figure out those details when we can see what the world looks like at that point. For this entire school year, Tyla and I have been almost totally isolated to give Elijah the best shot at a good school year. His school has done a great job following all the guidelines and fostering a positive attitude. We’re not going to give up now.

Do not fear, for I am with you.
Do not be overwhelmed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you. Yes, I will help you.
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

COVID-19: Day 356

One year ago today Microsoft sent us home for at least “three weeks.” Little did we know at the time how serious and life-changing this pandemic would be. So why does it say day 356 at the top of this post? Elijah’s school didn’t start staying home for a bit longer and when his school closed, it really set in that something serious was happening so I used that as the start date for our family. As scary and confusing as it was, it almost feels like an easier part of the pandemic because we were more united.

So here we are “one year” later and two vaccines are getting spread around the United States faster than expected. About 8% of all people in Washington state have been fully vaccinated. Those two vaccine pipelines are in full swing, but now there’s a third joining the mix from Johnson & Johnson. This one has some advantages in that it can be stored for months at refrigerator temps and it only involves one shot. The downside is that production is just starting up on that so it won’t give an immediate big boost to the numbers, but pharma giant Merck announced that they are going to devote two entire plants to producing J&J’s vaccine. I love the cooperation and it gives me more hope that my family will be vaccinated by the end of the year.

The other big challenge for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is, surprise surprise, public perception. The J&J vaccine is “85% protective against the most severe COVID-19 and 66% effective in moderate cases.” (source) So why would the FDA approve it if the other vaccines are 95 and 98% effective? The problem is that the numbers are difficult to compare because they were tested against different strains of the virus. We don’t have stats for the efficacy of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against the current strains.

Maybe we will need additional shots or new vaccines in the future, but hopefully these early vaccines will be enough to let us open more businesses, ditch the masks, and socialize again. None of it will be “normal” and the change will be gradual but it feels like maybe we’re through the highest death rates, at least in the first world countries.

John 14:27 Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid.

But First, Pray

Elijah’s school has a charity auction every year. Last year I made coasters with the school logo on them. This year I thought I’d make a sign since those are so popular. I ended up with a sign that says “but first, pray”.

I didn’t want to just make a painted sign. I wanted the words to stand proud of the surface. A laser cutter would be the right tool for the job, but I don’t have one and our maker space is closed while the pandemic rages. I bought a handful of cheap 1/16″ CNC bits assuming that I would break a few of them in the process.

My first attempt was cutting everything out of MDF. That worked ok for the large “pray” word but the smaller individual letters didn’t hold up. The MDF wasn’t strong enough to hold together at that scale. I then made them out of 1/4″ poplar and they worked fine. I sanded and painted everything, but then I realized that I didn’t have a great way to keep those tiny letters stuck on the wood. I was nervous that one little bump might knock some of them off. After trying a few things, I decided to use my Cricut to make a stencil for the individual letters and then I glued on the bigger word.

I finished it off with a keyhole slot on the back so that it could be mounted easily on a wall. The keyhole bit I have is a 1/4″ shank so normally I put a different collet on the router in my router table, carefully measure and align everything and then pray that it all works. This time I realized that I could just stick the keyhole bit into my CNC and manually drive the machine to get the cut exactly right. It was so much easier!

The end result looks pretty simple but it took a ridiculous amount of time, especially when spread into the tiny amounts of free time that I’ve been able to devote to it. Hopefully it raises a few bucks for the school.

College Ski Trip

I heard that my nephew was going on a ski trip with some kids from his school and it reminded me of a college ski trip. In the spirit of writing down stories from my life, I thought this might make a good entry.

I was very much on the fringe of the group that was going. I knew one person well and maybe had seen a couple others in the group of about a dozen or so guys. I had only been skiing a couple times and decided that I’d try snowboarding for the first time.

On the trip up, we were in a caravan of cars and we got pulled over. We weren’t speeding or anything so it was a bit odd, but our driver started crying. Yes. He was crying in a car full of college guys. The officer said he pulled us over because they had reports of a group of guys sticking their heads out of a sunroof. Someone in our car kindly pointed out that our car didn’t have a sunroof and we were on our way. The officer wasn’t wrong though. It was someone from a different car in our group.

The ski event itself was… painful. It was my first time snowboarding and I had zero lessons. I spent most of the day by myself (since I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t keep up) and most of the day was spent falling down. I remember the next week of sitting in those hard desk chairs being pretty painful.

As we were driving back from the ski resort, one of the drivers noticed he was having trouble with his clutch. We were staying at someone’s relative’s house and the dad/uncle/grandpa/whoever showed him how to drive a manual transmission without a clutch by matching RPMs. It was enough for him to make the few hour drive back to Purdue but I wonder what his transmission looked like at the end of that.

The night after skiing, we had a bunch of sleeping bags and air mattresses on the floor of the living room. It was a loud, smelly place to sleep but somehow I still managed to stand out. When we woke up in the morning someone said, “Hey Ben, how did you sleep?” “Fine… why?” Apparently I had been sleep-walking (not an uncommon occurrence for me). I had grabbed a blanket and was holding it over the window yelling about blocking out the aliens. Great.

I can’t imagine doing something like that trip as an adult but when I got back I thought the whole thing was awesome, and I learned a valuable lesson: skiing is better than snowboarding.

Microsoft Include

Microsoft has been making big strides in diversity and inclusion. There have been some amazing conversations happening and these open and honest conversations provide space for asking tough questions. It’s such a difficult topic that touches every area of our lives and comes with a lot of valid and invalid preconceived notions, but the only way we’re going to work through it is by talking about it.

This year Microsoft is going to open some of those conversations up to the public for free. You can register for the Microsoft Include 2021 event which happens on March 17.

I highly encourage you to sign up and listen especially if anything in this post has given you a bad taste in your mouth, if you’ve already dismissed this with a political reaction, if you are afraid to talk about the subject, or if you want to help but don’t know how. We may differ dramatically on how to fix the problems, but gathering together to learn and listen will hopefully shed a new light (or more light) on the situation as it exists today.

COVID-19: Day 342

The infection numbers are finally coming down around us. They’re coming down to the levels we had leading up to Thanksgiving. Those were already high but at least we’re heading in the right direction.

I continue to be impressed with my company’s response to the pandemic. Along with from providing direct aid and support for researchers and leading the way with dashboards to share the facts, now they’re opening up their unused buildings as a vaccination site.

On the home front, Elijah had his second COVID test. I almost wished I had some symptoms so I could at least do it with him. This one was worse because he knew the pain that was coming from the test, but he was a trooper and we survived. The negative test eases our own nerves but it also helps his school to know that there’s nothing to worry about on their end. Thanks to his school’s administration and the cooperation of all the families, there have been zero cases of COVID spread within the school.

It has been awesome to hear from those of you getting your vaccine shots. I now know two people who have received both shots! A new vaccination dashboard from the AI For Health group at Microsoft is fun to watch, at least for first world countries. Washington is lagging behind a bit, but we have 4.1% of the population fully vaccinated and if we keep at this pace we’ll hit 20% by the end of April. My dose is nowhere in sight but I’m happy to stay home while people who need it more get their shots. I’m very interested to watch how the infection rates change as the vaccinations become more prevalent, and I’m also curious about how we’ll get this spread to the rest of the world.

Personally, these last few weeks have been some of the hardest weeks of this whole ordeal. I’ve learned how to handle COVID within my family, as a member of the community, as an employee, and as a parent at Elijah’s school. The major missing piece is that I have not learned how to deal with COVID as a leader in my church. I’ve written and erased a mountain of text here, but it boils down to the fact that I’m a sinner making choices in a sinful world about how to share God’s Word with sinful people. The only perfect decision is to be kneeling before God in prayer receiving forgiveness through Christ.

James 1:2-5 Consider it complete joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into various kinds of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any one of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives it to all without reservation and without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

The Church’s One Foundation

I’ve really been enjoying the new piano software! I’ve been tweaking the settings so that I can play live through my laptop without any noticeable lag. Hearing the beautiful piano sound makes me realize the shortcomings of the default sound that comes out of the piano.

My recording process was a bit different for this song. I recorded video and MIDI, processed the MIDI into a WAV file and then combined the video and audio to make the final video. This piece is “The Church’s One Foundation” and it’s arranged by Cindy Berry. (Full lyrics)

Embertone Walker Piano Review

My Korg C303 piano has MIDI input/output and I’ve been recording my songs in MIDI for the last couple years with the thought that maybe someday I’d get a nicer piano and then I could hear all these songs again. It’s a bit silly since lots of MIDI recordings of these same songs are available from better performers than me, but hey, it’s a hobby. It doesn’t have to make sense. Well the time has come. I’ve purchased a nicer piano, or at least I’ve purchased the soul of one.

I understood very little about this when I started but here’s what I’ve figured out so far. You can make a digital version of any instrument (or anything that makes sounds) by taking samples of it. Press a key, record the sound, press another key, record it and so on. If you do enough of these and have good software, you can synthesize the sound of the entire instrument. Companies have immensely complex rigs set up to sample instruments and Embertone is one of them. I purchased their “Walker 1955 Concert D” package. They sampled each key of a 9′ Steinway Concert D Grand pressing at 36 different velocities, with every pedal combination in for various durations to create over 10,000 samples and oh yeah, they did the whole process six different times with the microphone in various places. I purchased the “Lite” package which gives me a subset of those samples but it sounds great to me and has been more than enjoyable for me to play around with.

It took a long time to figure out how to actually use the package when I downloaded it. I had to download the virtual instrument, set up Cakewalk (Digital Audio Workstation software), hook them together, plug in a MIDI file and voila, it worked! There are seemingly endless customizations that can be made to the sound in the software but it sounds great even with all the defaults.

But blah blah blah, what does it sound like?! I recorded a quick sample and I edited it to flip back and forth between the default sound out of my piano and the default sound out of the virtual piano.

Most of the organ and piano pieces for our virtual church services ( are recorded by two other members of our church but I fill in every once in a while. It will be fun to use this package for those pieces. I think I’ll be playing the preservice music for this Sunday’s service if you want to check it out in action. Or for much better pianists and much nicer recordings, check out the demos on the product page.