Daily diary for April 24, 2021

Four devices. My iPad, my phone, my kid’s iPad, and then my laptop. Every morning at 5:00:01 AM I hit them all for the daily drops. Tap, tap, tap, click. Done.

Then we wait.

They say it’s a lottery and random for anyone that submits between 5AM and 5:30AM each day but I beg to differ. First, I don’t think they have a strategy to defeat scalping bots and after years of ruining video game console releases, Hamilton ticket sales, and limited edition Nikes, bots have gotten extremely sophisticated and those eBay auctions that follow lead me to believe at least a few people have figured out how to regularly win. Plus, I have a friend that coded up a quick ruby script that loads the drop page every 5 seconds and the moment he doesn’t get a redirect/waiting page, it auto-submits his information and he and his whole family got vaccinated two weeks ago and are free to wander around Austin, Texas now that they’re safe.

Hitting the drop early also makes me feel like I’m doing all I can. I mean, literally I am since we’re only allowed one entry per member of the household and I’m properly maxing that out. And even if it is a lottery, at least I put my information in first as fast as possible, and that feels good even if it doesn’t count for anything.

I don’t know why the powers that be didn’t see this coming but then the past year has shown even when everyone knows what’s coming few people in charge properly plan for it. It seems pretty obvious though—there are 330 million Americans and we are barely promised 100 million vaccines from the companies, and even as they’re doing all they can hitting even that 100 million number might not be possible.

So, we ration.

Right now is the worst possible time of the entire pandemic. It has raged through America like 1980s divorce, with about 40% of the population infected at one time or another. And now we have the cure, the actual antidote, and you can finally stop worrying and running, but we just don’t have enough of it, hence the daily morning lotteries.

Then there’s the haves vs. the have-nots. I hate seeing instagram photos of lucky friends at the movie theaters, late season skiing on a nearly empty mountain, and seeing great bands in small venues. That could be me too! That should be me too. But you have to win first.

The injection locations kept secret up until 30min before they administer the vaccine makes every day feel like jury duty. There’s a remote chance you might have to come in today to do a thing, however small, and if you actually do get a spot from the lottery you sure as shit better be at home and ready to go in an instant. So you’re always on edge, waiting. And even with the secrecy, the word gets out and security is extremely tight at the locations. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more brawls or gunfights break out at these participating hospitals, but I guess it’s only a matter of time before people get desperate enough to do it.

After two months of this, I hope I don’t have to do it forever. Heck, I’m already getting up naturally around 4:45AM every day to prep for each day’s submission. I guess in a few weeks I’ll start to see the first hints of sunrise at this time each morning, which will be a nice little relief from feeling desperate in the dark.

Building DIY LED strips for fun

I work remotely and have for many years, but let’s be honest: it’s the case for a lot of people now. Lately I’ve been trying to step up how my home office looks, especially with regards to its video conferencing capabilities. I started using a DSLR as my webcam along with a ring light and dimmable room lights. With the basics out of the way, I next wanted to work on my office’s background by installing LED light strips below each my office’s bookshelves.

If you’ve watched YouTube or Twitch streamers, you might have noticed they have interesting backgrounds behind them, often with colored LED lighting on shelves or in corners. My new home office has a bunch of built-in floating shelves and I thought it’d be a perfect place to install LED strips.

LEDs are ample, ubiquitous, and cheap

LEDs are amazing. They’re incredibly bright while also using low power. Modern technology has incorporated them into almost everything and that’s driven the price for light strips ridiculously low. What you see in my final product in the photo above cost about $100 total for 45 feet (15m) of light, including a hard-wired controller, all the wiring, and the power supply.

BIG NOTE UP FRONT: You can buy great pre-built, consumer grade LED light strips that come with a remote control, can be controlled by your phone, and are relatively cheap. Personally, I’ve purchased a few Govee light strips like this long one and they work great for simple applications like on a shelf, or around a door jam, or up on a crown molding. For 90% of most people’s needs, that’s the best and easiest way to go.

Since I had six shelves, I didn’t want to have to manage six plugs, so what I’m describing here is going the full-on DIY route, cutting your LED strips up, using a solder gun, and creating the exact lights you need for your space. Here’s how I did mine.

Buy some WS2812B strips

This video is a fantastic overview of all the options when it comes to LED strips, but the long-story-short is WS2812B is the standard designation for a simple, individually addressable string of LED lights. I bought mine with no waterproofing (since they’re used indoors) and I got them in 30 pixels/meter density to keep my power needs low. Typically you’d pay about $10 for a 6 foot (2m) string and 16 foot (5m) strings are about $20. They’re all over eBay, Amazon, and Aliexpress (which is the cheapest but can take the longest to arrive).

Light strips come with a simple adhesive sticky backing to mount under things, but I went a little extra and bought some aluminum channel designed for LEDs that also comes with a diffuser panel that helps spread out the light. You screw them into something, stick your LED strips inside, then snap on the outside light diffuser for a more permanent installation.

I also finished off my mounting by putting this corner guard in front of the lights to both hide the aluminum strip and further diffuse the light on the upper three shelves. It gives a nice downward glow.

Next, buy and prepare your controller

Your lights will be controlled by a tiny computer chip with a WiFi adapter in it and the one you want is a NodeMCU ESP8266. The great part is they’re only about three or four bucks each and I bought this set of three at Amazon just in case I fried one along the way. Download WLED software and flash it to your NodeMCU, then configure it onto your WiFi network. All of it is covered in this step-by-step video to building your first light strip. If you buy the things you need, just follow Dr Zz’s guide closely to get them all working (it’s how I did mine).

Wire it together with a power supply

The above video also goes into the math around how to select a power supply for your LEDs. You’ll also have to pay attention to the voltage in your system. I went with 5V LED strips for all the reasons stated above (lower power needs, cheaper strips), but make sure you use 5V everything, including your power supply, your NodeMCU, and all your wired connections.

My strips all together total 400 LEDs so I needed a pretty big power supply. I bought this 30 amp model that is fanless and runs cool. My first purchase was a 60 amp power supply with a giant fan but it sounded like a hair dryer when you plugged it in and I’d only suggest using those for outdoor applications.

I used basic red/black wire for dropping power on each strip’s end. I used some LED wire to connect them all together back to the controller. I avoided a lot of soldering by using these specially made connectors that fit my LED strips perfectly. I also used these T-connectors for connecting additional power while reducing the amount of soldering needed. A set of jumper wires is needed to quickly connect up your NodeMCU to your power supply.

Fire up your phone and enjoy your lights

WLED running in a desktop web browser

Download and install the WLED app for your phone and you should be able to control your lights after some configuration (don’t forget to input the exact number of LEDs you have and play with your LED preferences). You can also control them from a desktop web browser by simply going to your controller’s internal IP address.

WLED is pretty incredible since it comes with a couple hundred different patterns already built-in and you simply select them to make your lights run complex patterns. I’ve customized my setup to split each bookshelf’s strip into its own segment, so programmed light effects happen on every shelf at once.

I’ve also added my light strips to my Homekit control by using a WLED homebridge plugin so I can turn them off or on from my phone inside or outside my house, and as part of routines. Currently, I’m working on an iOS Shortcut to automatically dim my room’s Hue lights and turn on the LED strips whenever I connect my AirPods to my laptop (which is when I’m about to jump into a Zoom meeting).

To complete the look for my office, I added a Samsung Frame 55″ TV I flush wall mounted that I turn on each morning to display Samsung’s art prints, which I rotate out often. The Frame TV is pretty incredible, with a screen that has a matte finish and it really does look like a painting to the naked eye, though when photographing it, it tends to overstate the brightness making it look more like a bright TV. If I had one TV in my living room over a fireplace mantel, I’d totally buy one of these, since it looks great when you’re not watching TV.

The Frame TV running a different piece of artwork with a fake white border mat.

Here are a few more shots of what my LEDs look like installed, along with what I look like in a Zoom meeting (on a Saturday, wearing a tie-dye shirt).

I’ve got the LEDs set to a rainbow routine that I’ve slowed down, and they gently change in the background of my meetings.

Again, if you have a simple setup, just go with an off-the-shelf option like the Govee lights, but if you want to go fully custom, LED strips are a fun cheap way to add some color to your surroundings.

(in case you were wondering, that’s not a real Eames chair, it’s a nice knock-off I bought on Aliexpress for $500 and the plywood/leather chair is another famous knock-off from Aliexpress for $150, they’re mostly used for reading books in or giving guests a place to sit.)

How to build a 5-acre WiFi network: cheap, reliable, long-range wireless points make anything possible

Last year I moved to a house with some property, and it had a separate garage a hundred feet or so away from the main house. At first, I tried Netgear Orbi mesh networking points to connect them but I couldn’t reliably get one wireless point in my house’s window to connect to the other point in the garage. So I started doing some research, and going down some rabbit holes.

Remember 20 years ago when Maker Magazine was new and all about building pringles-can wifi antennas? While the idea is the same, there’s a ton of great, cheap, reliable, fast wireless points these days that have taken that concept further. Plus, you can buy them on Amazon and set them up easily with your computer or phone.

Keep in mind this is all about local networking. It’s about making sure any spot in your house can talk to any other spot on your property without having to run cables or bury wires, by using small wireless antennas that look like tiny satellite dishes. And while my five acres isn’t entirely bathed in WiFi, every building has a WiFi point and coverage inside and around it, covering all the places I occupy.

The basics of point-to-point (PTP) and point to multi-point (PTMP)

It helps to know some terms and definitions so you can make sense of research if you want to go down this path.

PTP connections are simple as they’re just two points that span a distance. You stick ethernet from your outside internet connection into one wireless point, and then beam it to over to another wireless point across some distance and ethernet coming out of that second point can run another wifi point or be connected directly to a laptop. Just imagine the wireless link is an invisible ethernet cable.

These are ideal for sending your internet out to your backyard or to a shed or to a pool or between two office buildings. The equipment required is pretty cheap (about $85 for each point) and once you aim them at each other, they can run for months (and years) without a hiccup, giving you 100-300Mbps speeds (which can be faster than even a buried ethernet cable in some cases). They support faster connections over short distances, but can support links up to ten miles away if you have clear line-of-sight (no trees or buildings) between them. It’s kind of remarkable this cheap stuff works so well, but it does.

The video above is a good overview of a basic setup with UniFi (Ubiquiti) wireless points over several hundred feet. This vlogger below also goes through the entire setup using just his phone and you can repeat it step for step to get your own PTP connection up.

I have tested this myself with two NanoBeam 5ac Gen2 dishes. I put one in my office inside my house, and zip-tied another in my garage a hundred feet away and saw a 250Mbps connection in an instant. But that’s not what I stuck with long-term.

PTMP connections are a little more complex, and a bit more costly. If you want three or more buildings to share a connection and you have a clear view between them, you can set up a central omni-directional antenna, then point all your other wireless points on each building to the main one, and they’ll all share the same network connection.

My own 5-acre WiFi network

After watching dozens of videos and reading hundreds of pages about wireless tech while building out my house’s main UniFi network, I reached out to Chris at CrossTalk Solutions (he’s in the videos above and bonus: he lives near me) and he designed a simple PTMP network and pre-configured the equipment for a small fee. Here’s a basic network diagram for a ~100Mbps network that connected four outbuildings to my main house connection (it is missing a line from the house switch to the omni-directional antenna, but that’s how they’re connected).

The wild thing is, all this equipment cost about $1500 total. If you’ve been in the tech industry since the dotcom boom, you might remember conferences or companies paying $50k-$100k or more for this kind of tech 10-20 years ago, but now it’s down to a couple hundred bucks to less than a couple thousand to cover land the size of a small office campus.

Here’s what my main house’s omni-directional connection looks like installed.

Here is what each building’s wireless point looks like installed. I’ve circled the small wireless antenna panel on the ones that weren’t obvious. Each of these $49 M2 points are just a few inches across by about 8 inches high.

So what’s the upside to all this?

With my wireless points installed along with a WiFi access point in every building, my network lit up and shared the main house’s connection. Initially, it was slow rural DSL so the 100Mbps network speed limit wasn’t even an issue, but I’ve since upgraded to 200Mbps via local ISP connection.

What’s great is that every building is on the same, single wifi network, so I can control light bulbs and garage doors from anywhere on my property. I’ve since set up routines where outdoor lighting comes on at sunset in several buildings and then goes off about the time I head to bed. If the temp drops below 50ºF a heat lamp automatically turns on in the chicken coop to keep them warm. And yeah, I have a streaming webcam in my chicken coop.

three hours of the chickens walking around their coop a few weeks ago

I have HOOBS running on a raspberry pi to connect every device (including those that lack proper IoT support) to Apple’s Homekit, so I can setup simple routines from my phone, like when a garage door opens at night, the light switch inside the garage turns on four overhead lights for ten minutes then shuts off, or when you open a basement closet door, a wall switch turns lights automatically on so you’re never in the dark (and they automatically turn off when you shut the door).

It also means I can record a podcast on a laptop in my barn if family in my house are making too much noise, and I can upload the resulting files or share them to servers in my house quickly from down there. And my phone can jump onto each WiFi point on the same network as I walk between my house and garage or the chicken coop. Having WiFi in the garage means my car’s stereo can connect and update itself over the network.

It’s not rocket surgery

My wide-area wireless home network has been online for nearly a year now, and there’s only been one outage when the omni-directional point lost power. When it came back, I had to reset the point and redo the setup but five minutes later every building was back on the same shared WiFi network.

My network hardware looks like this now, and it’s pretty stable. Everything is fairly reliable with problems only cropping up once every few months, like when an outbuilding’s WiFi point drops, I get an instant alert and it’s usually a power outage or other non-internet problem causing it.

The good news is if you have a big backyard or a shed at the corner of your yard that can’t quite connect to your house WiFi or if want to share your connection with your neighbor or live somewhere with a few hundred feet between buildings, two $85 points and an extra WiFi point at the other end can be enough to spread your connection across great distances without having to dig holes or bury cables.

The curious pirate Hamilton video

With the release of Hamilton on Disney+, I want to talk about another version of Hamilton that’s been traded and talked about in hushed tones for the past several years.

In early 2015, I started to hear a lot of buzz about Hamilton. It had just finished its initial off-Broadway run at the Public and people were raving. In September of 2015, the original cast recording came out and though I initially avoided it for several months—hoping I’d see it one day and want to be surprised—when friend after friend was gushing about it, I sat down for a long drive one day and put it on the stereo. I played it continuously on repeat for the next six months.

The files

I tweeted out how much I wanted to see this show but getting tickets to it when I traveled to NYC seemed close to impossible. In spring of 2016, someone sent me a message with no text and just a link to a generic dropbox folder with two files on it, both roughly 300Mb mp4 videos in a folder called “Hams”.

Screenshot of the video preview

I downloaded them, pressed play, then scrubbed around to see what it was. Holy fucking shit. It was Hamilton. Yes, it was pretty low quality and barely in standard definition, but it was Hamilton.

codec info

Digging around, it appears the videos I got were ripped from a bootleg 2-dvd set. The watermark in the upper corner of the video is from a shareware DVD ripping app.

Holding out

Like the cast recording, just because I had a copy of this contraband didn’t mean I wanted to watch it. I was still set on hoping I could see it in person the next time I was in NYC, and I didn’t want to be spoiled. The videos sat in my Hams folder for a couple months unplayed until another friend said he fell in love with the musical soundtrack only after watching the videos and that the stage production was incredible despite the small grainy picture.

Like the soundtrack, after months of avoiding it, curiosity got the better of me as I’d heard the soundtrack album so many times and I wanted to see how they staged each song. I could finally see how the musical that played in my head for many months matched with the real thing.

The pirate production

The video starts with about 90 seconds of pitch black screen, but you hear the final house announcements then the start of the first song, and at one point you hear a shuffle and someone uncovers the camera. The video isn’t jerky, it’s steady. I suspect they had to use a tripod.

Animated GIF of a clip showing some panning and zooming

As characters are introduced on stage, the camera pans and follows them on the stage. During some of the solos, you see the camera even zoom in on a character singing. It’s the entire original cast at the Rodgers theater so I would guess this was filmed around Summer or Fall of 2015.

You quickly get lost in the story and forget about the low quality video and just enjoy watching how incredible Hamilton is. Occasionally, you’ll see outlines of the people sitting in other rows and sometimes the camera turns away from the stage at the end of songs, presumably while people are applauding (maybe the camera operator was hiding it?).

In which I see the real deal

In June of 2016, I had a trip to NYC planned and I did my best to get Hamilton tickets the usual way but in the end I found some last minute tickets on stubhub. If you could graph stubhub prices for any high demand event, you’d see a line that shows 6 months out, tickets are relatively cheap, at only about 2x face value, but about a month before a show they’d skyrocket to 5-10x the face value of a ticket. But in the last week before a show would take place, ticket holders would get nervous and drop their prices, sometimes close to face value as they tried to recoup their losses. I got a couple of those tickets.

At that time I went, I just happened to catch Lin Manuel Miranda’s last month doing the show before he left to film Mary Poppins and other projects, and it was totally incredible. Everyone’s performance was fantastic, and I will never forget being in the room and feeling the sound of Christopher Jackson’s booming voice in his songs as Washington, which was something you couldn’t experience on video.

If you had to compare…

I talked to friends that work in theater about this video, and they said it’s every director’s worst nightmare because if this was released widely, much of the buzz around the actual show and ticket sales could have died down, since a good stage production video is fairly close to what experiencing it is like in person (for most non-theater people).

If I had to compare the video to the real thing, I’d say that assessment isn’t too far off. Like the time I watched a full production of Les Miserables on PBS and also saw a touring production of it in LA, seeing video of a broadway show feels about 75% as good as seeing it in person, and for a lot of people that’s enough. Part of me is bummed I didn’t “save” watching this video until after I saw the production, but at home with the video beforehand, I still felt huge surprises seeing how they staged certain scenes, and how certain characters acted on stage that were different than I expected. It’s a deeply affecting emotional work both in person and through a 640x360px video playing on your TV.

Still, I know how incredibly lucky I was to see this in NYC in person, and I liked it so much that in 2017 I caught the touring production in San Francisco as well.

I still have questions

One thing I definitely remember from being in the NYC theater was the repeated warnings to not take out our phones. Ushers were hyper-attuned to it and anyone that pulled their phone out would immediately be warned, then kicked out on the second offense. I saw ushers say something to several people at several points in the show I attended.

I have no idea how someone filmed this video without being caught by an usher. I have no idea how they figured out how to pan the camera, zoom it in and out, without being seen. I would assume this was all done on a small point-and-shoot digital camera, but it’d still give off light and beeps and require someone watch the screen to make sure they’re keeping everyone in frame.

From the angle of the video, it seems like they’re in an upper balcony of the Rodgers theater, and maybe if they’re in the very back they could avoid being caught?

I spent a few weeks researching this in reddit and tumblr communities that traffic in Broadway pirate videos but I couldn’t find any info on this Hamilton. I joined several private groups with other videos (often shared on Google Drive or Dropbox) but none of them were up to the quality of the Hamilton bootleg. Most have terrible sound and shaky video that was overexposed and poorly framed.

I still have no idea who made these videos or how they even did it, but I’m happy that Disney+ is releasing the real deal and I can’t wait to enjoy it.

Despite how fun it is to go to Broadway, I don’t get to NYC more than once every few years but every season there are loads of shows I wish I could see. It would be great if Hamilton marked the start of a new trend of broadcasting video of hit musicals/plays a couple years after their Broadway debut so people could watch them at home. I’d still love to see Dear Evan Hansen or The Book of Mormon or even The Spongebob musical, since I never got to see them in NYC, and would pay almost anything to Pay-Per-View them and others like them.

Installing an Alpine Halo9 stereo in a Sprinter Van

Even though it doesn’t have a ton of apps and feels pretty limited, I’m still a huge fan of CarPlay in my vehicles because it makes driving a lot safer. You can get Google Maps with live data instead of whatever weird navigation system came with your car at the time it was built. You can take calls and send a text with your voice. You can play any album by any artist without taking your hands off the wheel. And thanks to aftermarket stereos, you can do this all in older vehicles that never supported it.

When I recently bought a used 2012 Sprinter cargo van for camping, I liked the aftermarket stereo, the subwoofer, and backup camera the previous owner had all installed, but sadly the head unit pre-dated CarPlay’s arrival. So my very first van upgrade was safety and convenience minded: I had to get a new CarPlay deck into it.

Normally I have a lot of criteria when picking a new car stereo head unit, including having a physical volume knob, a large display that is easy to read, and a fast boot time to get into CarPlay. But when I spotted a ginormous top-of-the-line Alpine stereo in a BestBuy a few months ago, I was hooked. With a 9-inch screen, it’s almost like having an iPad sitting in your dash and it has ingenious mounting options that make it work in a lot of cars. They look incredible in person, and I knew this had to be the stereo for my Sprinter.

Seth’s install was close to mine, and shows how you can take a daunting project on step-by-step

Sidenote: it’s a bummer car companies are bundling A/C controls and vehicle settings into their entertainment systems, because for the most part, whatever stereo is in your dash in a modern car is the only one you can use and can’t be replaced easily by modern aftermarket stereo systems. This sucks because your say, 2017 Subaru will be stuck forever with whatever came from the factory while aftermarket companies can innovate and update faster. One perk of buying my particular old Sprinter van was I knew it came with almost no fancy options, making it easy to replace the stereo.

Save some money on Alpine’s cheaper option

Alpine currently makes a couple versions of the Halo 9: the $599 iLX-F259 and the $999 iLX-F309. Looking at their specs, they both offer the same amount of amplifier power and and identical screens. The more expensive option supports more accessories and integrations with car computer systems, but in my stripped down Sprinter, I couldn’t take advantage of any of them, so I saved $400 and got the cheaper F529 model and don’t regret it one bit.

Crutchfield makes it easy

I’ve been a big fan of Crutchfield for years. They have good prices and their website is well thought out. Their What Fits in My Car? feature is hands-down the best online research tool for figuring out your stereo and speaker options. But this was my first Crutchfield purchase where I wanted to do it all myself, and their installation instructions, wiring diagrams, and suggested parts with installation accessories were all spot-on and made everything go smoothly.

My favorite discovery from this project was the Posi-Products Wiring Harness Connectors. They’re ingenious small plastic couplers that make splicing wires together quick and easy, with no soldering. It made the hardest part of the process (tackling the wiring) quite easy.

Break down monster problems into doable chunks

I started by removing the carpets and disconnecting the battery beneath the plate below the driver’s seat. Taking the dash apart was easy with Crutchfield’s interior pry tools, and with their instructions and four simple Torx bits, the old stereo was out of the dash. But then I saw a spaghetti mess. Here’s what the wiring looked like about halfway through my making sense of it.

Once the dash was open and the old radio was out, there were something like 40 unknown wires. But armed with a diagram from Alpine’s manuals and Crutchfield’s docs, I spotted the front left speaker wires, then the rights, then more speakers, until suddenly I had identified half the wires. Then I kept going and kept splicing wires into the Alpine harness.

Eventually I just had two wires I couldn’t figure out where to connect, but some quick googling turned up that parking brake wires are sometimes green and reverse wires are sometimes orange and suddenly the huge pile of wires were all accounted for and made sense and the wiring harness was complete. My brother-in-law and I used a multimeter to check all the connections before we put it back in the dash.

The last snag was forgetting to put an included small protector plate behind the screen attachment, which prevented the head unit from powering up until I installed it. But then everything worked, even the existing backup camera!

It was a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle. You start with overwhelming chaos, but then you find the corner pieces, then the edge pieces, then you make out objects and connect parts until suddenly you have a tiny pile of pieces left to fit in and then it’s completely solved.

The Halo 9 in action

After having CarPlay in my Honda Ridgeline truck for a few years, I’ve grown to like and rely on it and this Alpine is no different. I put the microphone up in the the center of the headliner and ran the wires along the windshield down to the unit, and Siri is great at sending and reading texts. My biggest win was getting Google Maps directions on a large screen. Without CarPlay, the first couple trips I took in this van required that I turn on Google’s audio directions and hoped for the best when driving, but with Google Maps in your dash you can see what turns you’ll need to take ahead of time and which lanes you should be in, which is handy in a large van that’s not easy to maneuver in traffic. It sure beats a “turn right in 200 feet” audio cue that comes on too late.

The unit looks good in the dash, like it was always there, and the 9″ screen is about right considering how much space there is between the vents in the center console of a Sprinter. Heck, you could probably fit the upcoming 11″ Halo from Alpine and still not block your vents.

Here’s a before and after:

before, the old Pioneer head unit
The new Alpine Halo 9 in place

How to use a DSLR as a webcam on a Mac

Over the past few months I’ve created a tv studio-like webcam setup at home. It took a bit of trial and error and lots of research, and I want to share what I’ve learned.

Moving to a real DSLR as my “webcam” was a huge increase in quality and though replicating the whole rig could cost over a grand total, if you have an existing camera/lens setup you can use, it can run just a couple hundred bucks.

Here’s how my webcam setup looks above my monitor on my desk:

It’s a Canon 5DmkIII with a 28mm 2.8 lens sitting in a hot shoe mount, inside a ring light on a tripod.

Here’s what I look like through the camera while at my desk, with low lighting in my room and the ring light set to a warm white at a high brightness level.

Equipment list

Note: Some or all of this may be hard to find at Amazon or Best Buy or other stores because virus lockdowns quickly drove demand for everything having to do with webcams and home office equipment. I bought much of this early in March and I’ve noticed some prices for things I bought two months ago have gone up to meet demand while some stuff is backordered.

A Digital SLR or point-and-shoot camera with a good lens

I’m using an old Canon 5D, and you could buy a used mark 2 or mark 3 (the mark 4 is the current model) or even use the lowest end Canon DSLR you’d get at a Costco for around $500. I use a 28mm fixed lens with a f/2.8 aperture that is $500 at Amazon new, probably cheaper on eBay or Craigslist. Any modern camera with HDMI out will work, and I’ve seen friends have great results with a Sony A6000 point and shoot on a tripod. For any DSLR, shoot for having a good lens with a low aperture—f/1.4 to f/2.8 are ideal, as a more standard f/4 will not blur as well.

Note: One thing to look for is a “clean HDMI output” free of cross-hairs or focus spots or any onscreen details from the camera that would appear in your webcam’s feed. For my Canon, I had to reset all settings to factory, and there was one clear menu option that gives me clean video with no onscreen graphics. Many cameras that do autofocus will show their focus points in your feed, which you want to avoid.

Tripod plus large ring light kit

I bought this larger ring light plus a cheap tripod kit from Amazon a couple months ago for less than $40, but it’s now going for $75 due to demand. It’s cheap but is fine sitting on a desk and fits behind my monitor.

Note: if you already own a Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) light, you can use this for the same purpose, to light up your face in video meetings, and just use any old tripod to hold your camera.

Hot shoe tripod mounts

The tripod and ring light above are designed to work with a mobile phone, but a DSLR will fit inside the ring (just barely). It requires some cheap 1/2″ hot shoe mounts to screw to the bottom of my camera so I could slide the whole rig into the ring light.

CamLink 4K to connect a DSLR from HDMI to USB

A hardware device to convert HDMI to USB isn’t absolutely required, but having a dedicated capture device makes everything a lot easier. This a product in high demand and was sold out everywhere I looked, but I ordered direct from Elgato’s site and it showed up within a week for $129.

Note: If you want to skip this and go the cable-plus-software route, you’ll need a USB-micro to USB-c cable on modern Macbooks, the Canon EOS Utilities app, the free app Camera Live and then the app CamTwist. These instructions will work for that setup. I personally tried this out but found it kind of buggy and it look lots of tweaking to get working, and then not every app recognized the webcam as available, where with something hardware-based like CamLink shows up as a webcam in every app I’ve tested.

Dummy battery from Tether Tools hooked to USB wall charger

Having a camera always connected to a computer means you’ll need power and you’ll want to skip batteries and instead use a wall charger that fits into your battery slot. Amazon has them for a variety of cameras, but I went with a high end setup from Tether Tools, who makes kits especially for Canon and Nikon DSLRs, along with other companies.

They sell fake batteries with USB out for $130-150 tailored to your specific camera.

Special cables

My Canon required a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable to connect to my CamLink along with an Apple USB A-to-C dongle. I also use a multi-port USB wall charger to power the ring light and the dummy battery module.

Fast internet

Pay attention to the upload speed of your home connection. You’ll want at least 20-50Mbps on your upload speed, and more is better, to broadcast clear video in HD. I’m actually on a slow DSL line currently and my video going out is fairly compressed, but I’ve got a 200/200Mbps connection on order that should deploy soon and will improve how I look to others immediately.

Using this setup in practice

Set up your camera and tripod and lights in a place you won’t have to move them. All of it connects to a Macbook Pro with a single USB cable, so you can still use your laptop as a laptop anywhere on earth, but you’ll want to go to your home office or desk when you need to do video calls.

You’ll want to change your camera settings to never go to sleep or power off and even still, about once an hour my camera can stop the live video feed and I have to hit a button to re-enable it. I also take a photo of myself before I start a video chat to get the auto-focus right on my face.

Being on a tripod above my monitor means I get a good downward angle and I tend to lower my room’s Hue overhead lights to purple to make my face pop on the ring light.

This setup is basically what high end YouTube and Twitch streamers use, and there are lots more mods you can do to go beyond this setup. A great guide to more (and cheaper) options I highly recommend is Scott Hanselman’s Good Better Best guide to webcams.

How to take a decent photo of your own shoes with an iPhone & WATCH

I have a lot of sneakers, probably upwards of 30 or 40 pairs, and I also have tons of brightly colored cycling socks, so I like to take photos of my shoe/sock combos that I put on Instagram.

People often ask me how I get the photos, because it looks like someone else was lying on the ground to take them, but I have shot them all by myself, so here’s how (follow these steps in order because the Camera app on the watch is a little buggy).

  1. Unlock your phone, but keep it in your hand
  2. Launch the Camera app on your watch, wait about 5 seconds for it to connect and hopefully you’ll see video on your watch of what your phone is seeing
  3. With your phone, swipe the camera choices to Portrait mode
  4. Put a water bottle on the ground, stand your phone up against it as vertically as possible (be sure to not block the camera lens)
  5. Walk about 6-8ft away and frame your feet in the shot (it make take some shuffling forward/back to get right)
  6. Tap the watch screen to focus your camera on the shoes
  7. Hit the shutter button on your watch!

My first no-knead bread bake

A couple days ago, I saw that friends were all trying out the New York Times’ no knead bread recipe and I’ve been meaning to for years, so I checked our cupboards and lo and behold we had a new bag of bread flour and some live yeast in the fridge (my spouse bakes regularly) so I finally gave it a try. Here’s a quick GIF recap of the whole process which took about 18hrs total, even though there is maybe ten minutes of actual work spread across two days.

There are only four steps in the recipe so I figured I’d use Instagram Stories to compress all the time waiting into a string of short videos. Some notes from baking my first ever loaf of bread:

  • I started around noon on Tuesday, mixed the ingredients, then let them rest until the next morning around 7AM.
  • I was eating bread by 11AM.
  • It feels like cheating, since there’s almost no work to it. The crust came out incredible and crunchy and it was no work, just a lot of waiting to produce it.
  • We happened to have a new bag of baking flour (I know a lot of stores are currently out and that’s a bummer) and already had live yeast in a jar in the fridge, which made it easy. Having good ingredients helps.
  • I will never use cotton dish towels as the recipe suggests because they were a horror show afterwards and I’ve been soaking them for a day to clean. I’m gonna use parchment paper next time.
  • The final lid-off baking to brown the top was maybe ended 5min too early. I stopped around 15min on the final step and I should have gone 20 or 25 to let the inside bake fully.
  • I can’t wait to try this again and everyone has already pointed out the Tartine country bread recipe as being superior, so I might try that one next.
  • I still dislike Instagram Stories. I had to use an outside website to fetch my own .mp4 files then convert to animated GIFs to save them here.

Monologuing

Mr. Bond I see you’ve ingested my poison.

Getting the antidote is simple. First, look up your choice of local doctors on this website to see if they’re in-network, then cross-reference against the PDF we sent you weeks ago to make sure they’re in your PPO. By the way, have you created your login yet? I hope you still have your plan ID card handy with the 24 digit, 6 pixel-high number on it. Share your social security number and verify your last three home addresses before the poison sinks in.

Next, call the doctor’s office to see if your primary care provider is available but hear that it’ll be at least 3 weeks, and hear that it’s been quite a while since your last visit and you’ll say “you told me it would take 3 weeks the last two times I called so I went to an urgent care instead.” They’ll say they’ve got a new nurse practitioner who can see you possibly this week—as soon as Thursday afternoon if you can make it before 8am or after 5pm. They’ll remind you if you choose urgent care it comes with the automatic $100 co-pay and doctors that don’t know your allergies. If you do choose to go to the emergency room, there’s first the $1,200 ambulance ride to contend with, then the knowledge that it’ll be at least four to six hours of waiting for a doctor as they are currently busy with other patients and more urgent matters and they really hope your closest hospital is in-network.

Do you expect me to talk?

No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to continue to wait on hold because your call is very important to us and may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.

Entering your home with just a tap (using NFC & iOS)

As you might have guessed from a previous post, I’m not a fan of carrying keys and or even having to use them. When I moved to a new place, I knew I’d use the front door as my main point of entry (instead of a garage attached to a house), so I wanted to get it as automated as possible, where the front door unlocks as I approach it, and locks when I leave. This is both because I’m lazy but also so I can waltz in with my hands full and not need to fish for my keys.

I replaced the back of my deadbolt front door lock with an August Smart Lock Pro with a Connect module to communicate with it over WiFi. I had one at my old house, so it wasn’t too hard to setup again. Once you’ve got it installed, you can use the August app to lock and unlock remotely, or grant new “keys” to anyone with the app. It also talks to Homekit, so you can ask Siri to lock and unlock the door.

Homekit also lets you use simple geo-fencing to lock the door when you leave your neighborhood or when you return, but with three different people in my house on three separate schedules, I could never get it to work reliably and I didn’t want to accidentally ever lock someone out if they were doing yard work without a phone in their pocket as I drove away.

So instead I tried another way to automate this. I’ve been tinkering around with the new Shortcuts app and I found the support for reading NFC chips in the newest iPhones intriguing. I saw this video of how to set it all up and got excited to try it out myself:

First, I bought a 10-pack of blank white NFC discs on amazon for just under $10. It’s kind of amazing that these powerful stickers don’t need batteries or wifi or anything and cost less than a buck each. You can tie any iOS Shortcut to a NFC tap, and I’ve heard a few good ones like Merlin Mann who uses it to “move whatever podcast I was playing on my phone to my Homepod” when he gets to his home or office.

I tapped one of the NFC discs on my desk, and set it up to run a custom “unlock front door” shortcut just for my phone (other people can’t tap it and get anything to run). Then I setup a second one to “lock the front door” as well. Then I stuck them outside on some posts, one leading towards the front door (to open) and another on the first post on the way out (to lock).

Here’s what they look like mounted on a post outside:

They’re white and metal, and you can paint them to match whatever you’ve mounted them to. They look best when they blend in mostly with your wall. They shouldn’t be completely camouflaged or you won’t be able to find them easily.

To make them blend in a bit more, I went to my local Lowe’s and bought a $5 roll of adhesive-backed shelf paper in a maple pattern that mostly matched my wood posts. I used a NFC tag as a template, traced it onto the paper, and cut out two holes, then pulled off the backing and stuck them over the tags. From a distance, you can barely tell they’re there since I put the NFC stickers over wood knots and they look like wood repair patches now.

Now, whenever I leave the house or come back to it, I just tap the top half of my phone over the NFC sticker and I hear the cheerful chime from the August deadbolt locking or unlocking.

A couple things to keep in mind:

  1. You have to setup a custom shortcut for each person you want access to this, but it’s been surprisingly reliable for a bunch of somewhat buggy IoT products strung together. In the last three months it’s worked as expected about 100 times. I’ve only had it not run once or twice, and instead I had to go into the August lock app to make sure something locked or unlocked. For typical Homekit IoT devices, this is an amazing success rate, I feel like most things in my house over Homekit only work about 75% of the time.
  2. You need a modern iPhone from the last couple years. NFC doesn’t work on a iPhone X or earlier, only XR, Xs, and 11 and up phones (and yes, this is where Android was years ahead in support and what you can do with NFC chips).

Remember all the rage around Facebook and Apple’s use of beacons? I’d actually love to have that instead of NFC at my own home, so whenever I enter my driveway or pass my mailbox, it could open the garage door automatically, turn on some pathway lights, and unlock my front door. I’m still searching for a way to do all that, but for now NFC tags are a cheap, reliable, and easy way to automate physical things.