A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto a couple interesting videos on YouTube, namely these two:
Both videos blew my mind about what’s possible with cheap off-the-shelf stuff. Thanks to the tech boom and drive for ever cheaper LEDs for all sorts of uses, the gear for building light strips is ridiculously cheap, while the programming of arduino type devices has matured. Both videos are incredible tutorials on how to select and buy cheap light strips, hook them to a wifi controller, and then have the ability to change colors and do custom light shows.
I wasn’t interested in this for a holiday light project, but instead for safety. I’ve got an outdoor stairway in my house that people frequently trip while walking down because you can’t quite tell where each step ends.
I’m setting out to build six 2 meter strips mounted under the edge of each stair so it’s super obvious where the steps are when walking along at night.
After watching dozens of videos and shopping around, my first test strip is complete and here’s what it looks like:
The wildest part of all this is everything you see here summed up is about $36 total. LED strips up to 5 meters long are less than $20. The NodeMCU controller with WiFi was barely over four dollars. The power supply and wiring were only a few bucks and a beefy large 60 amp power supply built for whole-house LED light shows are only around $20.
Consider that a Philips Hue light strip costs around $80 for 2 meters of light and a 1M extension is another $25 and it doesn’t have individually addressable LEDs (the whole strip can change colors but not individual lights changing to different colors themselves), and you can see why there are a plethora of cheap useful LED devices out there with remote controls that run these kinds of patterns or come with motion sensors to light up your bedroom or bathroom in the night automatically.
If I lived in one of those suburban communities where everyone goes absolutely nuts about putting up lights for the holidays, I’d totally look into doing a low-profile permanent installation like the ones in the two videos at the top of this post.
In the past couple weeks I’ve learned more than I ever thought I’d need about electricity and wiring and amperage and I didn’t even have to solder anything. If you’re interested in this stuff, check out the videos on YouTube and branch out from there as there are hundreds of how-tos like this.
It took me two full afternoons to wire up my first switch in the garage because I screwed up the neutral wire connection but in the process learned how to read wiring diagrams and appreciate why a neutral wire is a key part of home circuitry. So after days of research and trying over and over, I finally got my light switch working.
I had to install a custom Kasa app, put the switch on my network, and could turn it off and on from my phone. Next, I wanted to add this to Homekit so I could add it to everything else in my house. I checked the settings screen, but couldn’t find any way to connect to Homekit. Worse, a quick Google search showed me that TP-Link, the makers of Kasa switches recently decided to abandon development of Homekit compatibility even though they announced it as “coming soon” at CES in January.
I went back to check the Wirecutter post and I guess I didn’t it read closely enough because though they mention Homekit support in every other pick, and they only say the Kasa switch works in iOS, without specifically mentioning Homekit. Which it does not support.
Several comments on the Verge said “Just use Homebridge, I bet someone already wrote a tp-link plugin for it.”
I’d heard of this hack for Homekit called Homebridge and when I searched, lo and behold, there was indeed a tp-link plugin to add the light switch to Homekit that I spent all weekend installing. But could this really work?
I opened a terminal to the Raspberry Pi I use for running Pi Hole (it filters all ads from my entire network) and I followed these instructions to install Homebridge. It took about five minutes to complete setup then it only took a few seconds to install the tp-link plugin. I opened the Home app on my phone immediately and there was my garage light switch, already connected to everything else in my house. Holy shit.
I installed a few more plugins, one to get a web-frontend to the app, and another to control my garage doors. Plus, there are plugins for platforms and products that are stuck in the pissing matches between tech giants. There’s a plugin for every product Nest makes (but which Google refuses to natively connect to Apple’s IoT ecosystem).
I wouldn’t be surprised if a future release of AppleTV just baked this app into a background service so Apple could offer Homekit support to nearly everything connected to the internet without having to wait for every IoT company to come on board.
If you use Homekit, definitely check out Homebridge on a raspberry pi. It’s remarkable what free software and a little cheap computer can do these days.
Off the bat you should know that I have tried in-ear canal headphones a few times over the last couple decades and they’ve never been comfortable or offered such great sound quality that the uncomfortableness was worth it. Instead, headphones that go into and down your ears have always felt like medical equipment to me, and putting them in feels like enduring a doctor’s procedure.
I didn’t think I’d want or like the new Airpod Pro ear buds because they feature a portion that extends into your ears. But when I heard they had noise canceling and better bass, I ordered a set that showed up today and after listening to a couple podcasts and a few rock albums, here are my first impressions.
Putting in the small sized ear thingys made them feel less gross to insert and the sound quality is pretty good (better than the airpod amateurs).
Taking them out of the new wideboy case is WAY harder than the old kind! I’m actually kinda surprised they shipped this, I feel like I have to pinch the ear rubber bits to yank them out, where the old kinds just slid out like cigarettes from a pack.
The bass sounds don’t seem amazingly better, just slightly deeper. Eventually I found the R&B EQ setting gave me much better great sound for rock music.
The noise canceling is pretty minimal in my quiet home office. I have those amazing Sony WH-1000XM3 over ears but they’re so scarily good at noise canceling you feel like you’re in a deprivation tank. My house is quiet so it’s a bad place to test this out but I assume they’re a lot better than old airpods on a plane or in a train with regular humming sounds.
I love the squeeze controls over the swipe controls on the old airpods. The clicks are definitive, you feel it and the music stops, where the old way would work about half the time for me and I’d have to remember what functions I customized them to.
The case has wireless charging, which is great!
If you ever worried about losing an old airpod while running, these will definitely stay in your ears more firmly. Me, I had no issues in a couple years of running and occasionally riding a bike with airpods in, but these feel more secure.
I haven’t tried out the “voice transparency” feature yet, but I hear from coworkers that it does a pretty good job of boosting voice sounds outside the headphones so you can hear people speaking to you.
Oh, and if you’ve already got a set of airpods and don’t want to have a second set, I will say there’s no shame in keeping an old pair by your bedside with an iPad for watching movies, knowing you’ll never take them out of the room and they’ll always be there for late night TV and movie use, while your “main” airpods can be taken to work, out for exercise, and used for travel.
I’m two weeks into owning my iPhone 11 Pro and I have to say two things have jumped out since I’ve started using it.
The first is that I didn’t think I’d use the wide angle lens much, but in the past couple weeks, being able to walk around with a phone that shoots similar to 12mm, 28mm, and 50mm lenses has been incredibly handy. The quality of photos that come out of it are impressive, but it’s more the versatility of having almost a lens for every kind of photo I might want to take (if it had a lens somewhere in the 100mm-200m range my needs would be complete). Anyway: the camera lives up to the hype.
Second, and more importantly, this was the first iPhone since the first one in 2007 that I started (mostly) fresh on. I’ve done a download backup/restore from backup on every phone until a couple iOS versions ago they made it even easier where you just bring your old phone near your new phone to copy from cloud backups.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve amassed about 500 apps and though I’ve spent the last couple years trying to turn off notifications for all but the vital ones, having 12 years of history and cruft and settings across 500+ screens meant no matter how much I tried to quiet my phone, it would alert me constantly throughout the day.
So for this phone, I made the move to start fresh, but logging into and linking with my existing iCloud account. This gave me zero apps on the device, but I did get all my photos and contacts and Notes and Shortcuts back.
Getting to re-install just the apps you can remember you need was liberating. I stopped at about 20 or 30. And most importantly, as I added each new app I scrutinized its settings, to make sure I minimized notifications and exposure of my data.
As a result, I have a new fast phone with three great cameras that only puts up alerts on 2 or 3 apps I really need for “red phone” communication. Other than that, nothing else can bother me. I frequently go hours between notifications and it’s been remarkably relaxing to gain some control back. I’ve been able to recalibrate what having a phone in my pocket means, and it’s been a huge positive change.
Whenever I upgrade to a new phone in the future, I’m going to skip dragging all my apps and their history and settings over from my previous devices and go this route from here on out.
Crater Lake in southern Oregon is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s the textbook example of a lake formed in the caldera of a former volcano and even though I studied this region extensively in college, I didn’t get to actually visit it until a few years ago.
A couple weekends a year, they do something special for everyone: They close about 3/4 of the road to cars and let bike riders, walkers, runners, and rollerbladers ride the perimeter road. I’ve wanted to do this ride for years but it wasn’t until this week when a friend suggested we do it for his birthday—I was totally in.
We had perfect weather and we had a blast. What follows is a list of stuff I learned from this first outing.
Check the Ride the Rim site and the local weather often, and pre-register if you can, but if it’s too late, it’s fine to show up and just register on site.
Remember to bring about $20 to donate (they suggest $10/rider) and the $25 it costs to get into the national park
The north entrance doesn’t have much parking, the south has loads more. I was glad we picked a start at the south parking lots
If you’re coming from Portland (about 5hrs drive) or San Francisco (about six hours drive), stay near Grants Pass, Rogue River, or Klamath Falls the night before. You’ll be about a 60-90min drive from the start, and there are plenty of adequate hotels in all those places.
Ride it counter-clockwise! The organizers set it all up to be a clockwise ride and that’s probably fun if you use their shuttle to cut off the 9 miles of it shared with cars. If you do ride the entire loop clockwise from the south parking lot, you’ll have huge climbs at the start and the end. If you go counter-clockwise from the south, most of your climbing will be in the morning when you have energy. You’ll get to end the day with six miles of descending too.
Stop at every rest stop. There’s water and small light snacks. You should also pack energy bars or sandwiches because you’ll be feeling tapped out around lunch time.
Stop at every lake overlook. Some of them can’t be reached easily by car. This may be your only chance to stand there and get a perfect photo.
It’s only 35 miles but it took us about 3 and a half hours of riding, about 5 hours of total time with all stops. Budget more time than you’d think for a normal 35mi ride.
Nothing is flat. We were always climbing a 5% grade or descending one. There’s almost no flat land around the entire rim road. It’s kind of amazing how nothing up there is flat. It’s a brutal ride, we climbed over 4,000 feet in the loop.
It’s not that bad to ride the section where cars are allowed if you’re riding it counter-clockwise. After about 2 miles of slow climbing, you’ll descend to the parking lot at speeds faster than a car for several miles.
Bring plenty of cold weather gear. It’ll be chilly in the mornings and no matter how much you sweat on the climbs, you can get cold on descents. Even on a mild sunny day without much wind, I put on a jacket for the longer downhills.
Don’t forget you’re riding at 6,000-7,500 feet above sea level. I was surprised because I forgot to look this up ahead of time and our hotel the night before was around 1,500′ in elevation. The rim road is akin to riding high up in the Rockies.
The lake reflects the sky above so it looks best on a sunny day. You’ll see a deep blue like you’ve never witnessed before and can’t even adequately capture on film.
He does a great job breaking down a good/better/best approach for video meeting hardware, with the relative costs of each option. My advice on webcams was firmly in the “better” area of his advice, and I must say I purchased the ring light he mentions in his post and it’s working pretty well for me.
For reference, here’s what my current setup looks like with a ring light and a SAD light going in a meeting.
And here’s what I look like today using those lights during a meeting.
I’m using the Logitech Brio’s auto-smoothing which kinda makes you blurry to hide wrinkles (lol) but good lighting and a good HD camera really help make video meetings pop. I don’t know if I’m ever going down the route Scott suggests of using a dedicated digital camera as a webcam, since I think this is good enough and pretty simple to wire all up.
You know what basic feature we should rethink on phones? Do Not Disturb.
A couple months ago, I went out at night alone while on vacation. I unexpectedly met up with my friend Jason that I hadn’t seen in ten years. As a sign of respect, I put my phone face down on the table and we talked for a couple hours. It was quite late when I headed back in a Lyft, so I checked my phone only to find half a dozen increasingly frantic texts from my wife sent over the past few hours. I never got a ping on my watch, and nothing buzzed on my phone even though she’s in my favorite contacts and Siri knows she is my spouse. I assured her everything was fine but I was annoyed she got hours of radio silence from me, thanks to DND settings on my phone that quit sending alerts promptly at 10pm.
Another data point. At the end of most days, I spend an hour or so watching TV on the couch, and it frequently overlaps with 10pm, then I go to bed right after. Sometimes when I wake up, I find out I missed 2-3 messages from coworkers or friends that were muted by DND. I was fully awake, watching TV on a couch, but it happened to cross that 10pm threshold, so I never knew about them until morning when DND ended.
DND is a great feature and vital to my phone. In the early days of iPhones, too many friends on the east coast woke me up with 5am texts without thinking about our respective time zones. And with junk phone calls rampant these days, I wouldn’t dare turn off DND again.
But what exactly is DND protecting by walling off 10pm-7am for me? And why isn’t it any smarter? Is that time period really so sacred a phone can’t make better decisions about when to still notify me of an alert? Especially when it’s an outlier of some sort? Does DND have to be all-or-nothing? Can I carve out one or two apps that let alerts through, ignoring DND?
When I was in that Washington DC bar chatting with a pal, my phone’s location could have known I wasn’t at home, and I wasn’t at my hotel, and that I was fully awake and wouldn’t be disturbed by a notification. When I’m on the couch after 10pm, I wish my phone could realize it’s being periodically picked up and used and might be just fine ignoring DND settings while I’m still up.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I really wish DND mode only kicked in when I was in bed. I know it’s not easy for a phone to realize which room in a house it’s located in, but I would be willing to setup iPhone beacons or something to let my phone know when I was in my bedroom. With a combo of accelerometer and GPS data, my phone should be able to figure out when I’m outside my house and still moving my phone around after 10pm and not actually asleep.
I suppose I should just shift my default DND settings to a later hour when I’m more likely asleep, but I wish our smartphones could be a little smarter.
I just read Mike Davidson’s great post on remote work advice after a year of it at Invision. I realized I’ve been remote for four and a half years at Slack and before that I ran my own company from my home office and before that I worked remotely as well. Since I moved to Oregon in 2003, I haven’t worked in a traditional office and I wanted to share the things I’ve learned.
A dedicated space is vital
Themost important thing that made this a stable, reliable, and workable option in my life was getting a dedicated room in my house set aside for work. Having a home office with a door that cut me off (mostly) from whatever else was going on in the house was key to making it all work.
I freelanced for years in San Francisco from a desk in the center of a tiny apartment and my work was inconsistent. It was always a challenge to concentrate and get into a flow with distractions everywhere. Later in Oregon, I had a larger apartment with my own loft space dedicated to my desk, but it was still open to the rest of the apartment’s various noises and continued to derail me.
When I moved into a new house in 2005 that had a dedicated home office with a door (just like any other bedroom, but with no closet), everything changed. Now I had a place to work, even if my commute was just down some stairs. I could shut the door and have a quiet space, even when I had a toddler in the house early on. The door is mostly glass, but my family knows if it’s closed completely that I’m in a meeting. Having a glass door was a good middle-ground between total isolation and still knowing what’s going on in the house, so if something urgent was happening I could see it and help out.
Simply put, having a dedicated space lets you do more concentrated work, take video meetings in peace and quiet, and also helps separate your work from your home life when you have a room as a work-only space.
Coworking spaces are ok, but far from perfect
I want to mention coworking desks because it’s not a bad solution for remote employees. You get a work space that isn’t in your home that you can commute to, you can interact with others, and you still get your work done. After trying out a few different options, I found that even though coworking spaces were slightly cheaper than trying to get your own small office, it wasn’t drastically cheaper. Where I live, a very small office might run $400-500/mo while a coworking desk is closer to $250-300/mo.
Coworking’s biggest problem for me is how you have video meetings in peace and quiet. At a busy coworking space, often people put on headphones in the middle of a large table full of people and just participate in their meetings. I find that behavior obnoxious and of the three coworking spaces I’ve experienced, all had different options for “a quiet room” that ranged from hard-to-get free phone booths to requiring you to book a private space for a meeting (some charging up to $50 per half hour).
Being remote means you’re going to have a lot of video meetings, and this is where a very small private office somewhere for slightly more money can make more sense.
Pro Tip: Your local library is like a coworking space, but free
Most local libraries (ideal ones are college libraries open to the public) have decent wifi, desks, and places to work alone for no cost. Doing video meetings is still an issue, but it’s a great place to work without bothering anyone or being bothered. I tend to listen to white noise (from Noisli) on headphones and I can get more focused work done in a small cubicle study desk than even my own home office. The college library I often work out of even has dedicated quiet rooms I can borrow for occasional meetings when students aren’t using them.
Remember to get out and interact with people
Six months after I started working from home, I was at a cocktail party when someone asked what I do and how things were going and I suddenly clammed up. I stammered out something and later I realized I had become terrible at making small talk by being out of practice on my own.
Ever since, I’d made a point of getting out of the house every day even if it’s wall-to-wall meetings and I built into my budget going out to eat lunch in town most weekdays, just to regularly interact with strangers.
It may sound silly to extroverts, but I warn everyone who starts working remotely for the first time to remember to keep deliberately practicing small talk by interacting with strangers because it’s way too easy to fall into a hermit lifestyle in your own space.
Video is important and worth taking seriously
Video conferencing has been awful for 25 years but in the last few years Zoom has really transformed video for meetings by just being reliable and smooth and is a killer tool I use many times a week. Zoom is now my lifeline to colleagues and for something that important, take it more seriously than using the default camera that came with your laptop.
Have a clean, clear room as people may obsess about what’s behind you
Place your desk in your home office so your background has very little clutter. Be careful of windows since it can throw off your camera’s exposure and make you look weird when backlit.
Find a webcam with the widest possible angle camera lens
In modern offices you’ll often be shown in a room on a 65″ TV monitor and it wasn’t until I was visiting an office and I was in a meeting with someone else working remotely when I realized just how HUGE the remote person’s head was when they’re the only one on video.
Zoom’s office video cameras are extremely wide-angle so you can fit a whole room in, and you’ll want to shoot for your head taking up less than 50% of the frame, and a wide-angle lens is key in your home office as well. An old GoPro can make a great super wide-angle webcam, but it’s kinda tricky to setup. My favorite nearly-as-wide 4K webcam with an easy setup is the Logitech Brio. It’s plug and play on a Mac and it’s less than $200. You’ll get better color and lighting in video than a default laptop camera, and going wide-angle also means your head won’t be 4 feet tall on a monitor in the main office, since there will be more of your surroundings in the shot.
Another pro tip: put a Seasonal Affective Disorder light on your desk, next to your monitor but aimed at you will brighten your face up considerably. Trust me, you’ll look much better with some light on you (and maybe by accident in the winter you’ll feel better—who knows).
Apple AirPods, 1000% percent
Apple AirPods are the best simple headphone/mic combo that works great with Macs and Zoom. Your ears won’t sweat or overheat like over-the-ear headphones and the newest ones can run for 2-3 hours between charges. They’re so small they barely show up on video and without wires to trip you up, you can move around as needed during a meeting. They’re pretty much perfect for video conferencing, even if you think they look silly (and yeah, they’re a tad expensive).
Remote is better for some roles, unfortunately
Mike mentioned this in his post, but I would agree with him that today, remote jobs tend to favor more senior, specialized positions where it’s easy for someone with lots of experience to take on a self-directed role. My current one is ideal for remote work, where as a senior writer with 20+ years of experience I can go off to write by myself for hours, and it doesn’t really matter where I am doing the work. Other writers on my team tend to do the same, working frequently from home or in the office library—wherever they do their best work—and it’s rarely at their office desk.
For now, it’s likely harder for junior employees in new roles to have a great experience while working remote at most companies, but I hope it’s changing as remotes roles become more accepted and companies implement it in a thoughtful manner. In 5-10 years this should be much more accessible to junior positions but it may be a bit more of a challenge finding jobs that support you remotely for now.
It sucks being the odd one out
I work for a big company with offices around the globe so whenever we have cross-functional meetings, having 3-4 people in various locations over video conference is the norm, and those are the easiest meetings to feel equal with your colleagues. On smaller projects and in smaller teams, I’m often the only person not in the main office and those are tougher. I don’t know why but it gets WAY easier if there’s at least one more person on video with a larger team in the main office. Just something to keep in mind—when you’re the only remote person on a team, you’ll have to do extra work to feel like you’re on equal footing with your office coworkers.
A good Slack team makes it all possible (but only if it’s good)
I’m biased of course (I work at Slack), but a Slack-first company where everyone communicates in Slack and tracks projects in Slack and does standup meetings in Slack makes being remote as close as humanly possible to being in the office. The first time I visited Slack’s early SF office, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was, since everyone was “talking” in Slack instead of over their desks. It made it easy to work from home, since I knew I wasn’t missing much aside from hallway rumors, as everything else took place in Slack.
It does require discipline in how your company uses Slack. It’s good to have a bit of water-cooler chat in #random, but also have a team channel with your immediate colleagues where you check in with each other every morning. For distributed teams, doing work in project-focused channels is a great way to coordinate everyone’s efforts. It also helps to have a culture where asynchronous communication is OK. Not every Slack conversation I have with others has the expectation they’ll answer me immediately. In fact, in my own team of writers, we tend to chatter away in Slack the first hour of our work day, then it slows to a trickle until the end of the day with people checking in and updating everyone on their work before they head home. There are times where I get 3-4 hours in the middle of the day without a single ping from Slack, and it’s only because everyone is conscientious of how and when they choose to alert others. It takes a lot of discipline and practice and people that are thoughtful about how they work together.
Touching base with the mothership helps a lot
I know a lot of remote-first companies do giant company trips where everyone meets face-to-face and they plan their work ahead together in person, and some companies do that once a year and some do it twice a year. Over the past few years, I’ve found an ideal cadence for me is going down to San Francisco every 1-2 months for a couple days of meetings. It’s only an hour-long flight for me, but I find if I haven’t been down to SF in 3 or 4 months, I start to feel a bit out of touch with my team. I tend to pack my days in the office with meetings with people from all over the company and we typically plan the next few months of work. I find the best type of work in person is brainstorm sessions where the ideas come fast and loose. You can still do those meetings as a video chat, but they just work better when everyone is in the same room riffing off each other.
Work/home balance is an obvious problem
One of the thorniest issues working from home is learning to separate your work hours from your home hours. At an office, the change of location and scenery makes it obvious. At home, I feel weird taking a whole hour to get lunch. I tend to check in on things at night, and sometimes I start my workdays early. Studies show remote workers tend to work 10-20% more from home because it’s so easy to lose track of your time.
It took years of working way too much from home and having trouble shutting down from work mode to realize I do my best work when I give myself boundaries. Maybe it’s don’t start work until 9am or walk out of your home office every day at 6pm and don’t return until the next morning. It might be no laptops or phones after dinner. Whatever system you devise, figure out your guardrails to protect your off-hours. When I ran my own company I didn’t have an unplugged weekend for over a decade and it was awful for me and all the relationships around me. These days, I relish my time off and the more I wall off personal time from my work hours, the more diligently I can work during the day.
Don’t forget to move around
Another obvious one is you need to build exercise into any remote work arrangement. When you’re not commuting and you’re in your own place you’re going to walk much less. About a decade ago I started going to a gym with a trainer waiting for me twice a week in early mornings. We mostly do core and flexibility work, and it keeps me from getting injured whenever I go out and do physical things like cycling, running, or kayaking. Without a trainer, I couldn’t motivate myself to do this regularly, so that part is key to make it stick for me.
Outside of gym days, I also try to do before or after work exercise, and this year it’s been early morning runs and weekend cycling, and during summer months I try to ride my bike around town as much as possible.
The benefits of remote work can’t be ignored. You get to live where you want and support your family without having to spend a lot of time away from them commuting to an office. On the flip side, the company gets the best possible person for the job and it’s probably cheaper for them in the long run, but every company is different in how they support remote employees. Depending on the role and the company, it can be a challenge to feel connected and part of the greater team and takes constant upkeep. It’s been a great experience for me personally, and I hope it becomes the norm for a lot more people and companies in the future.
These days, pretty much every bar or restaurant with outdoor seating has some string lights set up for mood lighting, and though I’ve always liked the look of them, in the past they’ve tended to be kinda expensive for a long string of them. But with cheap LEDs becoming increasingly prevalent, they’re getting cheaper and cheaper.
I recently picked up a 100-foot long string of lights on Amazon for $57 and they’ve really transformed my backyard. You never know what you’re gonna get when you buy something cheap but so far they work great, plus they shipped with 4-5 extra bulbs that came in handy when I accidentally broke one of the hundred lights.
For warm nights in Summer, we’ve now got our backyard deck lit up as well as a gravel path to a second deck at the end of the yard after stringing the lights among the rafters then through the trees.