Focus on Sleep

January 19, 2021 2:19pm
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I have a longstanding issue with sleep – namely, I don’t get it nearly as consistently as I think that I should.

Along with a handful of other habits, sleep is one that I’ve targeted to improve on in 2021, so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been keeping track of how much I get each night and … it ain’t pretty!

As you can see, I’m writing this after my worst night of sleep of the year.

For quick reference – red is anything less than 6 hours of sleep and green is anything 7 or greater.

And there is way too much red in the last 18 days, that’s for sure!

One of the best articles that I’ve read about sleep and its importance lately is this piece by James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits (which I loved!)…

How to Get Better Sleep: The Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Sleep Deprivation

There’s a lot of stuff to digest in that article, but I think this is the line that sticks with me the most – “After two weeks, the six-hour group had performance deficits that were the same as if they had stayed up for two days straight.”

I say this because for most of my adult life, I’ve always just kind of figured that less sleep is what adults do and that six hours a night was a pretty good compromise. And that’s without even knowing how much I was actually averaging on a given night, particularly when I would stay up late crunching on a deadline for the next morning or more typically just screwing around on the computer.

And what’s interesting is that now that I’m tracking my sleep alongside other habits I’m trying to build like drinking more water and reading and especially writing more consistently, I can already see that there’s a direct correlation with having what I consider to be a productive day filled with these other things that I’m trying to improve and simply starting my day with having gotten a good night’s sleep in the first place…

…to the point where about a week ago I actually moved the column where I track sleep from the end of my spreadsheet to the beginning because it seemed like a symbolic move to help remind myself that sleep isn’t how I end my day, it’s what’s at the start of a good one.

Unfortunately, the only tried and true method for getting good sleep – at least for me – means getting to bed earlier because during the week I have to get up at a set time every day to get the kids off to school, so it’s not like I have a lot of opportunities to just sleep in to make up for a particularly late night. Which sucks because I’m very much a night owl and a lot of times I’ll find myself faced with a sudden bout of creativity at 12:30am when otherwise I should be calling it a night!

Luckily, I can say that falling asleep itself has gotten easier for me. Another habit I’ve been trying to form is including meditation into my day, so I’ll try to do five minutes of that before I head off to bed and between the sounds of waves or rain falling in the app that I use and making a conscious effort to clear my mind, I think it really does help. That and I’ve started dimming the lights in my office in the late hours, even if I’m still up writing or watching videos or whatever, because it seems to help set the mood that it’s time to start unwinding.

I’ve told myself many times that ultimately what I need to do is take a good two or three week period and just make good sleep my #1 priority – meaning that no matter what’s going on, at 11:30pm or whatever makes sense, I go to bed so that I can really aim for that 7-8 hours of sleep that my body needs. It’ll be a rough adjustment and I’m sure I’ll feel like I’m sacrificing other things I need to do for sleep, but pretty much all of the evidence shows that eventually I’ll be far more productive (and happier, too!) by allowing myself that time to recharge instead of perpetually trying to burn the candle at both ends until I eventually crash and lose a few days to complete and total burn out while I’m finally forced to recover!

How Many Raspberry Pis is Too Many???

January 12, 2021 1:50am
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Tonight I setup the new Raspberry Pi 4b that I picked up last week, namely because it has two outputs and I saw an opportunity to further consolidate some of the crap taking up space on my desk, and overall I was really impressed with how easy this one was to use!

Like, it seriously took me longer to pull the new HDMI cables underneath my desk than it did to get the OS installed, mostly thanks to actually buying a kit with a pre-loaded SD card this time, but even configuring the dual monitors ended up being super easy because apparently it’s a function built into the OS these days. One of the two monitors that I wanted to connect this to is vertical, and yet it only took a second to rearrange the displays and then correct the orientation for the second monitor.

A couple of URLs later, I was driving two DAKboards from one Raspberry Pi… 🙂

I think the only other thing they could do to make it even easier would be to let you choose which software you do and don’t want during the install because it takes a while to remove all of the games and programming tools and LibreOffice afterwards. One of these days I need to just make a list of them and write my own script to streamline it for the future, seeing as mostly I just need a browser installed (Chromium) to pull up my DAKboards, which as you can see above is the reason for this particular box.

…in fact, if they ever happen to make a version with three HDMI ports, well, let’s just say that I’ve already got the use case sitting in front of me because in total my desk is currently surrounded by three DAKboard displays … a to-do list that pulls in my daily tasks from Todoist with a few other things, my newest board showing my goals and habits I’m trying to work towards this year, and lastly my digital calendar which was actually the first one that I put together over two years ago at this point!

Ultimately I do think that eventually I want to check out DAKboard’s retail version of a display + CPU because I can see when we build our next house much more heavily incorporating digital displays throughout the rooms between smart home controls and calendar/temp/clock displays and even simply more interactive digital photo frames. It’s super hard for me to pick what photos are worthy of framing to go on the wall because we’re constantly getting new ones to share, but having a gallery of connected displays throughout the house to all rotate through family photos seems like it would be a neat application.

And not having to buy a separate Raspberry Pi to drive every last one of them would be a nice perk… 😉

What Do You Do During a Coup in the Digital Age?

January 7, 2021 12:12pm
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Yesterday while the terror was unfolding in DC, I stumbled across a tweet that jokingly asked something like – “Are we still supposed to work during the coup?”

It reminded me of watching 9/11 unfold twenty years ago and how disconnected we were at the time in comparison. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center that day, I was putting away auto parts at the warehouse where I’d been since about 5am that morning. We’d only heard about it on the radio and I think most of the morning everyone assumed it had only been a small propeller plane because we didn’t have a TV to see the reality of the situation.

It wasn’t until I went home for lunch that I saw the vivid imagery on every single channel and realized what had happened, yet yesterday with the rise of social media, I pretty much watched it unfold in real-time.

I had been half-watching the electoral certification on C-SPAN just because I was curious about what it was all about, and honestly, the first couple of states were really boring. It’s easy to see how normally nobody cares about it because it was literally just procedural readings for every. single. state. … but then the objections started about Arizona and it became clear that it was just going to be hours of Congressmen reciting their same sad indignations, and once it became clear that the Vice President wasn’t going to attempt to override the votes themselves, ultimately the bickering didn’t matter because the Democratic House would never pass an objection to allow it to stand…

While this was going on, I wandered over to Twitter and saw comments about people leaving Trump’s rally to head towards the Capitol. Then a live chat by the New York Times mentioned that things were getting heated outside and some pictures were shared of protesters fighting with the police at the fence outside.

I didn’t think much of it until the next picture was of protesters banging at the doors, and it reminded me of that early scene from Argo when the Iranian protesters are beginning to storm the American embassy.

Congress kept with their procedures while I was yelling at the screen, “Don’t you know what’s going on outside?!” and then they started evacuating buildings around the complex.

From there it was honestly a blur of back and forth between my Twitter feed and trending posts and that same running chat from actual journalists. We watched video of people breaking through windows and storming into the Capitol, and one poor police officer getting backed up the stairs as he failed to contain the mob of people in front of him, eventually working their way all the way to the Senate floor where most but not everyone had been evacuated to a secure location.

More photos erupted, some shared by the rioters themselves, of “exploring the Capitol” while waving their flags and breaking things. One guy walked off with the House Speaker’s podium while others replaced one of the American flags with Trump’s campaign flag. Eventually pictures would show them leaving messages in Congressmen’s offices and sitting at desks with their feet up as if they’d claimed the building for their own.

It seemed to take a surprisingly long time for reinforcements to show up from the National Guard to actually remove them, and the kid glove handling compared to the brutal force seen at Black Lives Matters protests last year was nothing short of astounding. I actually saw videos of an officer holding the door for rioters and telling them to leave, along with a photo of one helping a rioter down the stairs on their way out, as opposed to the riot gear and rubber bullets and copious use of pepper spray and physical violence that was witnessed last year.

Through it all, Trump remained silent for quite a while, then posted a couple of random tweets that continued to stoke the “fraudulent election” lies before eventually posting a video that did the same and eventually got blocked by Twitter.

He literally ended the video by telling these domestic terrorists, “We love you. You’re very special.”

The family had a few failed attempts to calm the crowd as well … Ivanka posted a tweet in which she called them “American Patriots” which she later deleted. Tiffany posted a tweet wishing her brother a Happy Birthday.

Eventually Twitter grew half a spine and temporarily blocked his account for 12-hours, with Facebook and Instagram doing the same, although in light of everything that took place, it really felt like like too little, too late when his account should’ve been removed altogether years ago.

The night ended with Congress eventually reconvening to resume and complete the electoral certification, and talks were floated about a second impeachment or even the Vice President invoking the 25th Amendment to forcibly remove him from office as “unfit to serve,” however this morning that talk already seems to have disappeared from Congress’s agenda and it was reported that they wouldn’t even be meeting again until after Biden’s inauguration.

Trump released a statement this morning that there would be an orderly transition, but whether he even has control over his own mob anymore is anybody’s guess. It’s scary to think that last night he lost access to social media, but he still had access to the codes for our nuclear arsenal. I can only hope that yesterday was the worst of it, however I would be very surprised if we got to Inauguration Day without any further tragedies.

Number Portability, Revisited

January 6, 2021 11:58am
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Aside from maybe my email address, my home phone number has probably been the most consistent in my adult life.

Back when I first moved to Florida in 2003, I got a landline from Verizon because I figured that’s what you do when you’re an adult! Over the years, obviously, I used it less and less, to the point where eventually I ported it from Verizon to a VoIP provider to significantly reduce the cost and now for many years I haven’t even had a phone plugged into it and instead only used it as a voicemail number!

My reasoning has always been that I like having a phone number to give out to people and companies that isn’t my cell phone so if they spam it with sales calls, I don’t really care.

Plus, when I swapped my cell # over to a Florida number after moving, they were cool enough to let me pick the number so it matches with my home phone (e.g. 813-555-1234 and 813-666-1234), which I just think is kind of neat! 🙂

Still, it’s admittedly silly to pay for something that you hardly ever use, so a while back I decided that it made the most sense to eventually port my number over to Google Voice where it could live for free as a voicemail number and I’d stop getting sales emails from my provider every few months begging for me to “add two years of service for only $180” because they perpetually feel like they’re almost about to go out of business…

The trouble is, Google won’t port in landline numbers, but thankfully there’s a known workaround these days where you can first port your landline over to a prepaid cell phone and then Google will take it from there like it’s no big deal!

So that’s what I did just before the new year – I went into Walmart and asked for the cheapest prepaid phone that they had. which is apparently “Walmart Family Mobile” aka TracFone. I submitted my port request via their website the next day and got a response surprisingly fast. The first request got rejected for an “invalid account number” because their form forced me to populate one that I didn’t have, so I just entered my phone number again instead. After confirming with my old provider that I didn’t have one, I asked TracFone to resubmit it without one and it got confirmed right away.

Fun Fact – For my first couple of years in Florida, I worked support for the number portability process and it was much clunkier than it is today! Wireless to wireless ports were fairly seamless, but porting from a landline could literally take weeks … some carriers wouldn’t even talk to us until they’d had a request for upwards of a week, only to then reject it back for something mundane! Thankfully, it seems that now most of the wireline process is automated as well…

The only real hiccup that I ran into was my TracFone didn’t fully provision after the port-in completed, so it would only intermittently receive calls and/or text messages. This was a problem because Google Voice makes a test call to confirm ownership of the number before you can port it, so I ended up spending about an hour on the phone with a poor girl from tech support trying to figure out what was wrong. I’m still not entirely convinced that she actually did anything because she was just as surprised as I was when it magically started working, but half an hour later I submitted my second port request through Google and a day after that!

I’m still working on fine tuning the settings – voicemails are coming to my email as expected, but I’d love to have it ignore messages that are only a second or two long because they were clearly hang-ups. And I need to build up a new list of spam numbers because I didn’t bother trying to carry that over from my old provider.

I did think it was funny when I canceled my old VoIP service that their portal said that my number had been active with them for 3,732 days, or a little over 10 years!

Should be interesting to see if that thing is still hanging around another ten years from now… 😉

In reading through the works of James Clear this year through his book, Atomic Habits, one of his ideas that I really love are the Annual Reviews that he’s put together to formally walkthrough how the year went, what things went well, and what could’ve gone better. He uses raw data as much as possible to quantity his results, and as I eluded to earlier this year, it’s something that I’ve been looking forward to implementing myself…


2020 – The Year That Wouldn’t End…

 

1. What went well?

Work From Home
For starters, due to the pandemic I ended up working from home for the majority of the year, which is honestly my preference because there are less distractions, I’m able to flex my time easier with the kids’ various schedules, and here I’m able to create my own ideal work environment instead of trying to conform to one that’s been created for me.

Plus, when the kids were out of school, it led to some surprisingly welcome distractions like them coming in to draw on my white board or just sit at the table watching videos on their iPads while I was working. 😀

Reading
I also found myself actually reading some books, which is something that I’ve always wanted to embrace but couldn’t drive myself to do even with a daily commute to the office! I read a total of three books in 2020, which I know isn’t a lot … but it’s two and a half more than I read in 2019, so that’s something.

  1. Time Management in 20 Minutes a Day
  2. Atomic Habits
  3. The Hidden Power of F*cking Up

All three books were audiobooks, which I wasn’t really a fan of in the past, but I found it really easy to fit these in while I was driving back from the kids’ schools or doing yardwork outside or even exercising. In fact, I’ve got a whole stack of books I want to read now in 2021 – I’ve set a goal to get through 10 over the course of the year, however considering that I’m already almost half way through my first book on the 2nd of January… 😉

Writing
And admittedly it doesn’t feel like it, but overall I wrote more “things” in 2020 than I did in 2019 – 27% more, to be exact!

For reference, I’m using “things written” to quantify everything from blog posts and columns, stories, books, and other little writings that I’ve published online. Pretty much anything except for social media.

That said, I earned about 13% less in writing income than I did the previous year, most of which doesn’t surprise me due to where I focused my time each year. For example, a good number of 2020’s things were blog posts about COVID-19 because I really used my blog throughout the year to help work out my thoughts around the pandemic, however I don’t get paid for any of that kind of stuff. 

I do have a plan to improve on this for 2021, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

2. What didn’t go well?

Health
Despite being home for nine months out of the year and even a couple of attempts at diet & exercise, I didn’t really stick with it and found myself often turning to food and particularly soda for stress relief from everything else that’s been going on.

House Cleanliness
Having three young kids, we already struggle with this, but add in having them home for five months straight when they switched to virtual school in the spring and we’ve just had an extraordinarily difficult time keeping up with everything. It’s equal parts embarrassing and stressful to walk through the house and find garbage and toys all over the floor, especially when you literally spent the previous two days cleaning everything up!

This is an area where we desperately need help… 🙁

Personal Finance
And although our household quite possibly made more money than ever in 2020 thanks to my wife picking up a lot of call shifts at work, overspending was also at an all-time high between creature comforts and takeout and entirely too much credit card debt. Unfortunately it’s very hard to get out from under that when you’re charging the cards back up the same month immediately after you make your payments, but I’m very happy to say that I think we’ve got a solid plan going into the new year to fight this challenge head-on.

3. What did I learn?

Tiny Ripples are Better Than Big Splashes
I’m pretty sure I got this from Atomic Habits … maybe Time Management in 20 Minutes a Day, too, but the idea is really simple. Don’t worry about fixing the whole thing at once; instead, zero in on one tiny area and tweak that until you see results. Then move on to the next thing, and the next thing.

For me, I still have a long ways to go, but it means…

  • Spending time outlining my thoughts for a new writing piece because it will make the rest of the process flow easier later.
  • Taking my idle time when I first get up to do the dishes right off the bat instead of just scrolling through social media.
  • Listening to 15 minutes of an audio book on my trip to the store instead of music.

Especially in 2021, I want to go down my entire list of goals and come up with a list of tiny changes that I can try to see the impact they have.

In the grand scheme, I enjoy writing long form more than I do social media.
We all know that social media has become this incredible time suck on our lives. Particularly with the events of last year, I stumbled across the notion of “doom scrolling” which I think aptly describes just staring into your phone without even noticing that the hours are whizzing by behind you!

Case in point, over 12 months I tweeted roughly 1,400 times … but I probably wouldn’t care to re-read 99% of those, if not more!

In 2020, I already took a few steps to help mitigate this like turning off social media notifications on my phone and trying not to keep their tabs open on my browser.

This year I want to build on that by getting better at turning to alternatives like reading on my phone or maybe outlining or working on my next thing instead of defaulting to Facebook or Twitter to pass the time.

Self care is easy to put off, and even more important not to.
Meditation. Yoga. Drinking tea.

These are all things that I’ve not only expressed an interest in previously but I haven’t been very consistent about their use. Yet I think together, along with improving my diet and sleep schedule and level of physical activity, they could really help to improve my quality of life through reducing my stress and anxiety as well as improving my creative output.

It seems backwards to put rewarding things like going to bed early or taking time to relax ahead of doing the work, but it just might be the key to actually getting it done!

Compassion and empathy are more important than ever.
And last but not least, one overall observance that I’ve made from the pandemic is that when humanity is at its ugliest, it’s typically because it’s fallen far from showing compassion and empathy for our fellow man. We’re all struggling through this thing together, albeit some at drastically different levels of challenge than others, but it’s so much easier to face when we’re willing to do things like wear masks and socially distance for other people more than our own benefit. 🙂

4. My goals for 2021…

  • Grow my writing income to pay our mortgage payment each month.
  • Save 15% of every dollar earned.
  • Lose 25 pounds.
  • Read 10 books.
  • Catch up on adding memories to our family photo album.

My driving forces to help accomplish these goals are going to be the things that I learned in #3 – focus on tiny changes, avoid social media, and make time to take care of myself.

Let’s get to work! I’m going to start with taking a bubble bath and reading a book after the kids go to bed… 😉

Looking Back at 2020…

January 2, 2021 3:56pm
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2020 was … kind of nuts!

The other night we watched Death to 2020 by Netflix, which is hilarious albeit a painful reminder of how just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse last year, they just kept on getting worse over and over again.

It’s a fun special to watch. My wife even loved it and she tries to steer clear of politics. We literally watched it on New Year’s Eve while we waited for midnight to roll around, which seemed like a fitting way to usher out a pretty awful year.

That said, deep down I know that it wasn’t entirely awful, so I wanted to take a minute just to reflect on some of the positive things that happened in 2020 as we move into the new year that, let’s be honest, might have more similarities to 2020 than we’re ready to deal with at this point… 😯

  • I spent the majority of the year working from home, which is by far my preference.
  • Christopher switched to a new school that he loves.
  • Matthew switched to homeschooling, which has given him a lot more of the one-on-one attention that he needs right now.
  • We finally got rid of the bamboo in our backyard!!!
  • Trump lost his re-election campaign.
  • I actually decorated for Christmas early enough for us to enjoy it all season this year!
  • Christopher lost a total of three teeth.
  • We started the legwork to refinance our house to help get our finances in order next year.
  • The kids all leveled up in swim class – both David and Christopher more than once.
  • I published a bunch of stuff that I’m pretty proud of.
  • We both were lucky enough to keep our jobs all year.
  • And last but certainly not least – none of us got sick with COVID-19.

Ultimately I think it’s safe to say that the last one is by far the most important, but in a way it’s refreshing to look back and also acknowledge that COVID wasn’t the only thing that happened last year. We survived, and we had some fun along the way, and celebrated some nice victories amid all of the chaos.

And that’s not bad for a year like 2020! 😉

The truth is, I think we all know that everything isn’t just going to magically get better tomorrow with the turn of a calendar page.

Coronavirus doesn’t care about the date – all it knows is to spread.

And that spread has killed 354,215 Americans and 1.8 million people worldwide over the last year.

I think we’ve finally got some hope in the new vaccines that are now being distributed to those closest to the disease, but there’s still a long road ahead of us. The people who denied the virus in 2020 and refused to take basic precautions to protect the people around them are going to continue to fight those precautions in 2021 even as they undermine our battle to actually rid society of this terrible pandemic.

We can’t change those people, but we don’t have to let them change us.

Fatigue over restrictions and the general impact of the virus is likely to grow in 2021, and the numbers will probably get worse before they start getting better. But the reason for wearing a mask on Day #292 hasn’t changed from Day #1.

We don’t wear masks to protect ourselves – we wear our masks to protect the people around us.

And I have to believe that despite all of the ignorance and the politics and the greed and the apathy that has made this pandemic all the worse throughout 2020, it’s going to be our compassion for each other that puts an end to COVID-19 – whenever that actually happens.

Happy New Year, stay safe, and don’t lose that compassion. We’re still going to need it in 2021.

Patience is a Virtue That I Do Not Have…

December 30, 2020 3:04pm
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I feel like a kid anxiously waiting to open presents under the tree on Christmas morning … except in my case, I’m anxiously waiting to sign paperwork for a bunch of adult stuff that kids would find boring as all hell!

Specifically, I’m waiting for the final approvals to refinance our mortgage and also separate paperwork to transfer our home phone number to another provider. I know that neither of these are what you would consider quick and speedy processes, particularly at the end of the year when other people want to take time off to spend with their friends and family like I have… 😛

And in the defense of both the mortgage and cell phone companies I’ve been working with, they’ve actually both been pretty great. It took me a while to plan out each of the two processes and find companies that I felt comfortable working with, and I know that it’s really only a matter of time before everything will have worked itself out successfully and the waiting is all behind me.

That’s a concept that I’d like to work into my brain a bit more in 2021 because I think I spend a lot of time fretting over things that just require a lot of time, and maybe sometimes they get further delayed by other things that also take a lot of time!

Granted, I still need to stay on top of things so that I don’t get to the end of the year with half a dozen things almost done, but at some point you have to accept that an awful lot of the deadlines that we make up in our heads are just that. Which is silly when at the end of the day, we’re talking about priorities that I only have to answer to myself for in the first place…

Next year I want to put less focus on deadlines and more effort into just getting the work done. I think it will make me a lot more productive, and maybe also just a little bit more sane to boot.

Smart Home Talk, 2020 Edition

December 23, 2020 4:04pm
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I spent a good part of yesterday mulling about this and I think my efforts toward creating “a smart home” are coming along better than I would’ve expected.

There are still plenty of challenges – a lot of this stuff is expensive, and much of it exists in closed ecosystems that don’t like to integrate well with others, but we’re slowly getting there! 😉

Smart Lighting
I still can’t deny that Hue lighting is stupid expensive – frankly, if it weren’t for the cost, I’d have finished this part a long time ago, but I love the flexibility and the quality of their bulbs so I’ve been gradually changing over a room in our house at a time, going from boring, old CFLs to these full-color, albeit $50-a-bulb equivalents.

They work great in the kids’ rooms because they get to pick whatever colors they want and then we keep them on all night long as nightlights.

Earlier this year, I also replaced the sconces on our garage and our porch light, so it’s fun to be able to light those up with different colors for whatever holiday we’re celebrating at the moment!

After first toying around with these about two years ago, I’ve now switched over about 4 rooms in the house with a couple more to go, in addition to some outdoor lighting around the pool out back that I’m pretty excited about.

Smart Displays
Next to Hue, DAKboard is one of my favorite digital toys around the house. I think I’ve got a total of four boards running right now – the original calendar I setup in my office, a second one to display my to-do list and some other stuff, a daily calendar in our kitchen that helps us to keep track of school and therapy schedules for the kids (and displays family photos!), and fourth – another calendar at my desk at work where I haven’t been in like nine months now!

Side note – over the summer I even started tinkering with using DAKboard to create a dashboard for tracking COVID so I could have the stats handy that I think are the most important, however I got frustrated because the API block – while neat – isn’t quite there yet.

Still, I love these things and next year I want to try to work on upgrading the old hand me down monitors I’m using to some proper IPS displays that are a little better suited for casual viewing from any angle.

I can seriously see our home having a lot of these things between picture frames and other stuff by the time I’m done…

Digital Media
So apparently it’s been almost six years since I first started dabbling with Plex, and I’m happy to say that the whole household is definitely converted to digital now. I think the only place we still use physical DVDs is in our van because despite having the option to play media off a USB drive, the UI sucks! 

But other than that, all of our movies and TV shows are there and easily accessible from pretty much any device, and unlike Netflix and Disney+ and all of the rest, we don’t have to worry about our favorite movies or shows suddenly disappearing because a service didn’t feel like renewing their license for it.

One improvement I’d like to see here is now that 4K media is becoming more commonplace, we need newer TVs to handle the content because ours can’t natively decode X265/HEVC and it’s just way to cumbersome for Plex to transcode.

In the next couple of months, I also want to add a video card to the server for transcoding because Plex now supports hardware transcoding for Linux, as well as an NVME drive to speed up access to the rather large collection of metadata that supports our ever-growing Plex libraries! Admittedly these upgrades are mostly for other people because we also share our media out to a few friends and family, almost all of who transcode via Roku boxes, but it would be nice to not have to worry about a 5th or 6th stream maxing out the box.

Home Assistant
And last but not least, I’m giving Home Assistant another try at tying all of my smart home toys together after admittedly not getting very far with it last year because it felt clunky and not nearly as polished as the Hue app, for example, that I was falling in love with at the time!

I also had issues getting it installed in its own VM, however that was solved this time around by just using the virtual appliance image that they offer to skip fighting with Python and everything else OS-oriented.

So far, it looks like the UI has improved. I’m still going to have to get comfortable with most of it being code-driven instead of having a pretty UI, but frankly that’s also why I’m giving it another try because what I want to do now is apparently more complicated!

For starters, getting different ecosystems to work with one another and controlling them all in one place.

Also, I’ll soon be approaching the 50-device limit for a single Hue hub, and although I can still expand and add more hubs, from what I’ve read they don’t play nice with the app and we’d have to switch between hubs to control the lights associated with each one, which is dumb. Another option would be controlling them through Homekit, but I think that’s kind of ugly and already some of the smart plugs that I use aren’t compatible, whereas HA will see everything.

The Next Steps…
I think now that I’m starting to get a good base with a few of these systems, I’d like to move towards having them work together via Home Assistant and DAKboard or whatever else makes sense.

Part of this will be simply moving the handful of lighting schedules that I currently have setup on my Hue bridge over to HA to be ready for eventually adding a second bridge.

As I explore HA, I’d also like to add more sensors to track things like open doors and room temperatures. Already I’ve found that apparently my Hue Motion Sensor also captures temp and can confirm that my office gets as much as 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house!

On this note, I’m already looking forward to adding a control to the thermostat to automatically switch over from air to heat when the outdoor temp falls below a certain threshold – an otherwise manual task that’s always been a pet peeve of mine since I moved to Florida!

I also want to build on my outdoor lightning scene by incorporating the pool lights into the mix – something that I think I finally figured out how to do by swapping the switch that they’re on out for one that’s controllable via wifi. It won’t give me the ability to change colors, but for only $14 it’s a start.

And one of the new features that I’m most excited about exploring is this support for interactive pictures to control the devices around your home – my favorite being a floor plan of the entire house with clickable icons representing lights and cameras and other devices that can all be controlled right from the picture!

I feel like one of the biggest challenges with creating a truly “smart home” is having all of these different devices be easily accessible to people who aren’t geeks. A lot of enthusiasts talk about having “wife approval” for these types of home improvements, but I also find myself faced with the “kid friction” that stems from things like light switches that are remote controls and end up getting lost because tiny hands don’t leave them on the wall where they belong!

Still, it’s a fun challenge to face and I’m happy to see the technology slowly improving – maybe not out of the box, but at least to make a handful of my newest ideas a reality. 😉

When Amazon Doesn’t Work Smoothly…

December 22, 2020 1:03pm
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Don’t get me wrong – I love Amazon.

We literally order from them a hundred times a year and if they had better access to groceries, I’d probably never leave the house. The extent to which they’ve streamlined the purchasing process means that for most items I honestly don’t even shop around anymore – I just hit the button and a day or two later, it’s here!

Unless … it isn’t.

I would say that 97% of our orders come through with no problems, and Amazon’s return process makes it super easy to exchange something that arrives damaged, shipping out replacements almost immediately and giving prepaid labels to return broken merchandise.

That said, one thing I’ve found that Amazon isn’t good at dealing with is replacing items when they sent the wrong item or if the description of an item is incorrect.

Two examples…

Sara ordered this set of Beyond123 learning books that was supposed to come with a cardboard slipcase to keep them all in – trouble is, apparently the sets on Amazon’s shelves just have the books loose, without the case. And I say set(s) because over the last two months we’ve received three of them trying to get one complete with the case, but every single one was missing it.

Next, and unfortunately a bit more timely, is this SmartGames train that Matthew was supposed to get for Christmas. Instead, we got this bunny game, so we very quickly processed a return and requested a replacement that arrived yesterday … in the form of another bunny because somebody mislabeled them when they arrived at Amazon’s warehouse so all of the bunnies are mislabeled as trains!

And the problem in both of these scenarios is that while Amazon is extraordinarily efficient at moving stuff around the world and even refunding your money when they mess up, they don’t seem to be equipped to deal with these problems when you don’t want a refund, you just want the correct item that you tried to order!

Back in my former life when I worked in an auto parts warehouse, occasionally we’d find ourselves hunting around for a part either because it got put in the wrong place on the shelf or somebody just wanted to make extra sure that they could actually get what they were looking for that day. Human errors happened from time to time because somebody was going to fast or maybe transposed some numbers, but we also audited our inventory pretty regularly to make sure that the computer matched what we had on our shelves and everything was nice and organized.

Amazon doesn’t have time for that because of their scale, so instead of having distinct sections for BOOKS and VIDEO GAMES and AIR CONDITIONER FILTERS, everything is just mixed together on the shelves in their massive warehouses by even more massive algorithms to maximize speed, and the people walking the floor are there strictly to pull items off the shelves or put them back, all using barcode scanners so instead of saying, “Grab this train game from the game section,” they’re told, “Grab the game from Shelf B, Bin 7” without having to pay attention to what game was actually ordered.

In theory, their scanner will buzz if they grab the wrong thing … unless the label itself is wrong!

There’s nobody to call to “go take a look at an item” to make sure it contains all of the pieces or to review the inventory to make sure that the items labeled as TRAINS are actually trains and not BUNNIES instead. And because the Customer Service rep that you’re chatting with isn’t even in the same country as the warehouses that your order came from, they’re limited with how they can help – either ship another item and hope for the best or offer a refund instead.

Unfortunately in both of these cases, we ultimately ended up just throwing in the towel. For the book set, they said they’d give a partial credit for the missing case but I didn’t feel like sitting through another 10 minute chat for a $5 credit; for the toy train, I took a refund and ordered from another site … that sadly won’t have it here now until after Christmas.

It’s too bad because in theory neither of these scenarios should be too difficult to solve. They’ve got to have leads or quality people at each warehouse at some level, so Amazon just needs to be able to flag an order for their review before it gets shipped. And granted, that would impact shipping times to some extent, but after receiving multiple incorrect items, I for one would be fine waiting an extra day or two at this point for these specific orders to try and get them right!

From afar, Amazon is an impressive monster of a fulfillment company and the vast majority of the time, the end result that they deliver for us has been pretty fantastic. Still, as customers I don’t think it’s too much to expect that they have better channels for fixing mistakes when they do arise, and the solutions they have in place today could still use some work.

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