CarPlay is finally (just barely) good enough that you should never look at your phone while driving ever again

As a person that grew up driving many hours each day in California and to a lesser extent (still more than zero) in Oregon, I take car audio seriously. I love big stereos for listening to music and these days I spend about half of my car time listening to podcasts.

I’ve always been a big fan of car mounts for iPods, and later iPhones. Here’s a photo of my first one from 2004 and an article I wrote at Lifehacker (missing photos?) in 2005 about how to mount your phone/iPod right next to your steering wheel so you can control it easily. That’s back when I discovered ProClip, and since then I’ve put one in every car I own.

All those years, I told myself it was safer than holding your phone/iPod and that I could do a quick fast forward or pause by barely taking a hand off my wheel, but ever since CarPlay came out I knew it was a safer path to just never touch or look at your phone while driving. Instead of a tiny device, CarPlay is like a giant iPad in your dash and it comes with Siri so you never need to type on a screen keyboard.

The problem was, CarPlay lacked so many features and apps at its launch, I still found myself going to my phone mounted on my dash too often when an app didn’t work in CarPlay or I needed to select some option that wasn’t in the CarPlay app.

About a year ago, I bought a car and for the first time didn’t immediately buy a phone mount and I drove around for a few weeks and realized CarPlay really has matured enough where your phone is no longer necessary. After a month of driving the car, I removed my mounts on other cars and I haven’t looked back since.

Here’s what tipped it for me:

A new home screen that supports Google Maps

A few versions of iOS ago, CarPlay added a new home screen that split your maps and audio into one view so you could access part of both apps at once in the same Screen. It only allowed for Apple Maps at first, which I don’t use. A couple years ago, they added support for Waze and Google Maps (whichever you’re using takes the space), and I suddenly found this to be the most useful screen in CarPlay.

Whether or not you have audio turn-by-turn directions enabled, you can quickly glance and see your path, figure out when you need to prep for turns, and skip songs in a tap.

Instead of switching between music apps and mapping apps, I keep this screen going pretty much all the time when I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar, switching to audio apps only when I need to select a new podcast or playlist.

Another point worth mentioning: A year or so ago Google Maps also added voice search in CarPlay and it works really well. To enter a new destination, you just tap the Voice Search button and say where you’d like to go and Google does its magic to figure out what place you meant, and it’s usually correct.

Setting a default music service

In iOS 14.5, Apple added the ability to set your default audio app for Siri, away from Apple Music as the only option. This means every time you ask Siri to play and album or song, you no longer have to add “on Spotify” at the end of every request.

What this means is using Siri to select music is a lot more reliable than it used to be, probably because there are fewer words for Siri to interpret.

Siri is generally doing ok, probably getting songs/artists/albums right for me about 75% of the time in the car these days, but it’s nice that it defaults to Spotify now, as it makes using Siri in the car that much easier.

Podcast playback is top-notch

I’ve used Overcast for many years to follow dozens of podcasts and it has continued to evolve and the CarPlay support is terrific. You can customize the number of seconds your forward and back buttons jump (mine are set for 30sec forward to skip commercials, 7sec back in case I went too far). Overcast in CarPlay respects your speed up settings and cutting of silence (mine is set around 1.2x, I’m not a monster), and Overcast shows up in the hybrid home screen shared with maps as well.

You do need to jump into Overcast’s CarPlay screens to select different podcast episodes, if you want something besides the next older episode in your feed when you finish one and it’s time to go to the next.

Siri is getting better all the time

I’ve never been a huge user of Siri on my phone or in my house because I’m usually in a shared space and talking to devices in front of others feels weird. But in my car, I’m often by myself and I find every year I’m using Siri more and more there. Getting text messages read to you and responding using Siri is actually pretty easy while driving and not too distracting. You can tap the Messages tab, and then a message to hear what someone sent you, then follow a couple audio prompts to reply back.

It’s a great way to tell a friend “hey, I’m five minutes away, be there soon” in just a few seconds without taking your hands off the wheel, keeping your eyes on the road, and not getting distracted in the process.

You can also use Siri to set reminders like “tell me to turn off the garden hose when I get home” and I’ve even used Siri for the Notes app. You can say “hey Siri, start a new note with blah blah blah blah” and when you’re done driving have a new page in Notes with whatever ideas came to you while you were out.

Things that CarPlay still needs to improve

CarPlay is far from perfect, even though I think it just hit the “good enough” level for daily use. If you rely on Siri a bunch, you will be disappointed by it typing wrong words into your texts, grabbing the wrong albums by the wrong artists, and you having to redo your audio requests several times to get it right. Again, it works about 75% of the time for me, so you do have to repeat requests fairly regularly.

I’ve also found a big problem of having my phone set to silent (in order to not annoy me or others when it’s in my pocket or on my desk) isn’t that helpful when you’re in a car and your eyes are on the road and your phone is buried in a center console bin.

See this CarPlay screenshot? Notice how there are three icons along the left side showing my last three used apps? You know what happens when you use a few apps, then someone texts you but your Messages app wasn’t used recently and you stay on this home screen view?

That’s right, you’ll never know you got a new text unless you change screens to the one of all your apps and spot a red “1” on your Messages app.

The funny thing is Apple knows how to change your settings based on context. I have my phone set to silent 100% of the time, but if I’m wearing AirPod headphones and doing the dishes, when someone texts me, I get an audible sound, my music is paused, and Siri reads me their text.

Why doesn’t it do that in CarPlay as well? I get that someone in your car might not want to hear your texts or it might have sensitive info inside, but CarPlay should still have an audio indicator of some sort to let me know I’m missing out on a text that isn’t showing up on my current screen.

I’d love to see this fixed because there are times I’ve missed a text that meant I was driving somewhere and I had to go back to get something I forgot.

The challenges of designing CarPlay

To describe CarPlay as like an iPad but for your car glosses over all the design challenges inherent in it. Yes, it needs to have a big graphical display that makes tapping icons as easy as possible, but it also needs to be as powerful as your iOS devices but do it with much less complexity. There’s no safe way to do a lot of typing or searching or long scrolling while you drive, and many aspects of iOS apps need to be removed to their bare essential functions. Lots of features need to become audio only, to keep drivers from having to look at or touch their screens. I had high hopes for CarPlay when it came out, and it came up short at first, but I finally think they’ve rounded a corner and are getting closer to an ideal way to let you enjoy music and podcasts in a safer way than before.

Use CarPlay, and never look at your phone while driving ever again

For the last year or so I’ve been putting my phone deeply away whenever I get in a car and I can’t imagine ever going back. It’s what I’ve always wanted out of a car’s entertainment system, and though it’s far from perfect, CarPlay is decent enough and does enough that I can do pretty much everything I need to do without taking my eyes off the road.

It goes without saying that reading your phone while driving is a terrible, terrible idea. When you’re behind the wheel of a 5,000 lb car that can kill others instantly, you shouldn’t take your attention away from the task at hand. I regret that for years I used to have my phone mounted where it was easy to read and use because even though I was never involved in any accidents while using it, it was still a lot more dangerous than I ever realized.

Note: Most new cars released in the last five years have come with CarPlay, and I would strongly suggest if you’ve got an older car with a single or double-DIN stereo that can be replaced (check Crutchfield to see what fits in your car), you should totally get a CarPlay-capable aftermarket stereo that to make your old car feel new again (and be safer to drive).

Tips on buying a used Sprinter van

Photo of my 2012 Sprinter van
My 2012 Sprinter van

Sprinter vans are fun as hell, look cool and can be customized in any way you can imagine. A brand new, completely stripped cargo van from Mercedes is only about $35k-40k from the factory, but building sleeping platforms and storage and kitchens into them can easily add $100k to the price or more. Over the last ten years a bunch of outfitters have popped up to build highly customized versions that can do it all, but they’re frequently in the $100k-$150k price range new and take 6-12 months to build. I remember Outside Vans as one of the first, but now in the Portland area where I live there are dozens of shops building these.

If you’ve got plenty of cash and you want it all, I would heartily recommend a brand new Revel build by Winnebago, which typically run around $150k and are filled with storage and creature comforts in an all-the-options 4WD van and the owners I’ve heard from all say it’s an amazing machine.

If you aren’t flush with cash, you can find Sprinter vans used in various states of build, from stripped out former work vans you’ll have to build up yourself, to every stage of already modified camping-ready Sprinters from people just looking to sell their old ones.

Typically, it’s not too hard to find used work vans for $20k-$30k and partially built up ones can be found for $30k-50k used. Sometimes it might be worth paying $75k for a used van if it’s everything you wanted and is outfitted and ready to go.

A little backstory

I’ve always loved Sprinter Vans. Initially they seemed exotic and European, these narrow, tall and long vans used by trades people. I probably saw my first camper version of one around 2005 at a bike race, and I was hooked. It looked so versatile, like it was ready for anything, AND you could sleep in it.

For the next dozen years, I dreamed of someday owning one. A few years ago, I got serious about it and started looking, and after 2-3 years of casually looking and about six months of totally seriously looking I finally found one I liked.

Since then, I’ve upgraded a bunch of stuff on mine to fit my needs. Friends ask me all the time about it, so I promised I’d write up some tips learned after researching these things for years, along with the lessons I learned after a year of ownership.

For reference, I own a MB 2012 2500 Crew High Roof 144 Sprinter that has about 160k miles on it and was mildly built up as a weekender type of van (no kitchen, or I’d call it a true camper), with two queen bed sleeping platforms in the back, seating for five, with a small collapsible table, an ingenious diesel heater that keeps the cabin warm when winter camping, and a house electronics system for camping separate from the engine battery. I paid about $35k for it used and put another $5k into engine and suspension and upkeep, and about $10k into upgrades since.

Decide the type of van you want that fits your needs

Vans come in a lot of shapes, sizes, years, and configurations. I’m going to ignore the Dodge Power RAM versions (I don’t like the looks or gas engines in them) or the Ford Transit series (mostly also gas engines) and focus only on Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (which also sometimes are badged as Freightliners, and for a short time, also had Dodge badges but forget I said all that).

They come in three different lengths and a few different configurations.

First you’ll need to decide if you want a 144″ wheelbase version or the 170″ or the 170″ extended version. The longest model has a couple feet more van behind the back wheels that gives it extended storage space for building out the interior. But driving either of the 170 models feels more like driving an RV to me. I wanted something more car-like that was possible to street park and easily drive around in cities, so I stuck to the 144″ length.

The next thing you’ll have to decide is if you want a low roof or a high roof option. I’m 6′ 3″ and though you lose a few miles per gallon by having a high roof out in the wind, I can walk around standing up tall inside it and the higher roof give more space to do things like put a bed in the back (mine fits two removeable queen beds stacked like a bunk bed).

You also need to decide on the configuration of the van. A Passenger van includes windows from front to back and four rows of seating for a dozen people (seats are easy to remove). The Crew van comes with two side windows and usually has a second row of seats while the Cargo version typically has no seats and no windows, giving you a clean slate to build from.

Passenger versions look most “normal” and can pass for a large minivan in any city but the windows along the side limit your options for building shelving or bed platforms, because you can’t screw into the walls when they’re all glass. The Cargo version is the most ready to upgrade but will require more work because they’re usually shipped as raw metal shells inside. The Crew version is a happy medium, with windows and seating for five, giving you the back half of the van ready to customize for storage and sleeping.

I looked at all the options and knew I wanted a 144 High Roof Crew or Cargo van when I started shopping.

Decide which era of Sprinter to get

There are three major eras of Sprinter vans released over the years, and they have three different code names: T1N, NCV3 and VS30.

The T1N is the late 1990s to 2006 van that first hit the shores of the US. They’re very customizable but given they’re roughly 15-20 years old at this point, they tend to have a lot of miles on them. I don’t often see one with less than 200 or 300 thousand miles on the odometer. Sprinter diesel engines can go for 500k miles or more, but the T1N version is getting pretty long in the tooth and you might want to avoid them unless it’s a low mileage one.

The NCV3 model was sold from 2007-2018. Mine is a 2012 and it’s totally utilitarian inside, with few creature comforts. The 2014-2018 models embraced the Mercedes Benz label and offer things like heated seats, lane keep assist, radar cruise control, and blind spot warnings. There were other small changes during the run but mostly the NCV3 model falls into two eras within the model.

VS30 is the new and improved version, from 2019 to present. It’s very nice inside, feels almost like a high end modern SUV inside, and has better suspension and braking systems. Unfortunately, being new, they’re still quite expensive used.

If I had to choose a used Sprinter to look for today, I’d say a 2014-2018 model would be the best bet, and I would look for one with 100k-200k miles on the odometer.

A bit more about used vans and mileage

A Sprinter van’s V6 Turbo Diesel engine is pretty robust and bulletproof (and has decent acceleration that’s not far off from what a SUV feels like), while also getting pretty good gas mileage. Mine typically gets around 20mpg, which isn’t bad for something that weighs 7 thousand pounds. The engines are known to drive well into the 400k-500k range of miles and even if your engine blew up, there are plenty of replacements sitting around in wreck yards.

When shopping for used vans, I typically stayed away from low mileage vans due to price, as they are often owned by families that only occasionally drove them as their extra car. It’s easy to find clapped out work vans with well over 300k miles selling for cheap (sometimes <$10k), but you may have to spend a lot more on suspension upgrades and engine work to bring things back to working order.

Personally, I think the happy medium for a used Sprinter van is one with 100k-200k miles on it that wasn’t used in heavy industry (like plumbing, drywall, or electrical, which requires them to carry heavy materials that wear out the suspension). This is the sweet spot where you can find decent prices on vans that have a lot of life left in them.

Having owned one for a year now, I will say we don’t drive it a ton, using it for several camping trips a year, runs to Costco, and whenever someone needs to hang out inside it, like when you take your kids to sports practice while you work on your laptop inside on a table. We put about 5,000 miles on our van in the first year and I suspect that’ll be a normal average. With the way the engines hold up, buying a used one with some mileage isn’t a dealbreaker, since you’re not typically going to put tens of thousands of miles on it each year unless you’re doing the full #vanlife thing and traveling all over.

2WD or 4WD?

One question you’ll need to answer before you shop is if you want a two-wheel drive van or a 4×4. The four wheel drive model typically sells (even used) for about $10k more. If you live near mountains or deep snow or hope to get off the beaten path, definitely think about looking for 4WD models (keep in mind, this will limit your search results greatly). If you’re not going off pavement or live in a flatter part of the US, a 2WD van will work just fine. I will say that I’ve seen a 2WD Sprinter get stuck on flat ground when driving on wet grass. There have traction control, but with stock street tires don’t have much grip and there are no locking rear differentials.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably opt for a 4WD Sprinter if one was available. I wanted to save some money and I got a 2WD model but I put beefy all-terrain tires on it for better grip. I live near the mountains and still sometimes do get the rear tires to slip on gravel roads.

Figure out what you want to do in your van, so you know what to look for used

Before you start a search in earnest, figure out a list of things you must have, and what would be nice to have, and what might be a deal breaker. Think about how you’ll use it so you know what to shop for.

Personally, I didn’t want a big camping build. I didn’t want to worry about water storage, or worry about the drain on batteries from a built-in refrigerator. Some builds even have a full bathroom, but I didn’t want to lose interior space to that. Those were deal breakers for me.

I knew I wanted seating for at least five (a removable 3rd row for hauling more people somewhere was a nice to have), I wanted sleeping for at least two people (with sleeping for four as a nice to have), and I wanted plenty of storage for bikes and camping equipment, along with a table to eat at and front chairs that swiveled back.

I eventually found a build closest to what I wanted, with not too many things I didn’t want. It was built well, didn’t seem rough or DIY, and I added things later that I felt was missing.

Tools to look for used vans for sale

Everyone will tell you to search on Craigslist, but with me being in the Pacific Northwest, Sprinters are always in high demand and good deals don’t last long on the service. I found the prices high and if you watch listings for a few months you’ll start seeing the same people that flip these vans, sometimes for too high of prices with minimal additions to old work vans you likely saw for sale on Craigslist earlier.

Twice when I was ready to buy something, I had to work against other buyers, and I lost. Once I was five minutes away from test driving a van I really liked on paper but they called to say it was sold to the person that arrived an hour before me.

It’s a good idea to look outside your area, and Auto Tempest is a (somewhat hacky, desktop only) nationwide Craigslist search engine you can use to track Sprinters for sale all over the country. Since they’re hot where I live and in places like Utah and Colorado, I looked for Sprinters in other areas and found a few good deals I seriously considered. I don’t know if I’d fly to Florida just for a test drive, but if the build was exactly what you wanted, and it much cheaper than a west coast van, it might have been worth it.

I also tried options like OfferUp and Sprinter Forums and other classified ad type services, but my best luck was Facebook Marketplace. I found a great deal on a van for thousands below what it’d fetch on Craigslist simply because not as many people use FB Marketplace for car buying. While Craigslist felt like a battle to email a seller first and test drive a Sprinter as soon as you could, the van I bought sat on FB Marketplace for months without a bite, making it an easy low stress sale.

Things to check in a test drive

When test driving a Sprinter van, go with a plan and a few tools. Before you meet, ask the seller for the VIN so you can look it up on CarFax (this costs a few bucks but it’s worth it for vans you’re seriously considering). I did this and found info about all three previous owners of the van, I saw records of a small fender bender I could look for signs of, and I learned what industry the van was used in before it was reused for camping (environmental testing) as well as what states the owners had all lived in.

Take it for a test drive and note how easily it starts (keep in mind you should turn the key halfway, wait for the diesel coils to warm up after which a yellow curly light goes out in the dash, then you start it) and when you drive it off, check how the brakes feel and drive it a few miles. Is the turbo functioning? Can you floor it and get it moving pretty well? Does the heater and A/C work? Do all the lights work?

Listen for squeaks and movement, as these vans can sound like an old RV sometimes. This usually gives you an idea of how well it was built and how it is holding up. Look for any water damage on the headliner inside, and look for any warning lights on the dash.

When you finish the test drive, bring a bright LED work light (I use a handheld bar like this one) and use it to look around for rust in the doors and at the bottom of the body and underneath on the frame. Check over the engine from above with the hood up, and most importantly, from below. Lay on the ground and put your LED work light up to inspect the bottom of the engine. Do you see a bunch of oil everywhere? Is it black and shiny from a fresh leak? Is it a big leak or a small one?

I mention this because this is typically what you look for in any German engine from a luxury brand, but especially in the NCV3 era of Sprinters. If you see oil at the bottom of the engine and you see oil stains where it was parked, you may have a oil cooler seal leak. It’s a popular problem and people on Sprinter forums say they can fail every 100k miles or so. The 2010 and newer NCV3 engine was redesigned to fix this, but mine still had this problem even though it was a 2012.

The bummer is this gasket leak only requires about $100 of parts to fix, but it’s at the very bottom of the engine and requires about $3,000 in labor for two full days of mechanics working on it as they tear the engine down to the block to fix it. The good news is it’s not a deal-breaker, if you spot this you can ask the seller to take $3k off the asking price to get it done later on from a sprinter mechanic familiar with it, but it’s good to know what to look for so you aren’t surprised later on.

Things to fix or upgrade

If you’ve found a year, model, and configuration you like, and you’ve driven it and you end up buying it, know there are endless options for what to do after to tailor it to your needs. I happen to live near the Sprinter Store, one of the biggest online sellers of aftermarket parts. I’ve purchased tons of replacement and aftermarket parts from them to date. They have everything. There are half a dozen other similar online stores.

I’d suggest putting a modern stereo with CarPlay and Android Auto into your Sprinter for adding Google Maps and streaming music that can also work with the existing stock Sprinter backup camera. If your view out your back windows is obscured (mine has a bed in the way and blackout shades on the windows) I really love this second rear facing camera that replaces your rearview mirror with a monitor shaped like your mirror. It greatly adds visibility and driving on freeways and in cities is much easier and the van feels safer to drive. The kit on amazon is about $300 and a good stereo installer can put it in for a few hundred more.

If the van you like is raw metal in the rear, know that insulation, flooring, and wall paneling kits can cost quite a bit, even before you start putting in beds or cabinets. I’ve seen them go for $5k that cost $10k in labor to install (or you can do it yourself over a few weekends, there are tons of YouTube video how-tos). Interior storage can be pricey as well, I added a shelf above the front seats for storage that lists for around $500 for a piece of metal with a couple small brackets. I’ve seen storage shelves go for thousands, but if you look for deals on eBay or know your way around a woodshop, you can save some money.

My van came with recently replaced front struts, but the rear of the van was bouncy and squeaky and would sway when taking turns. I complained about it to my mechanic who suggested I put in new high end Koni rear shocks with a bigger sway bar in the rear. I got both things from The Sprinter Store and the van drove like new after. It turned easier and faster, was quieter and more stable in the rear. It was only about $1200 for parts and labor and made it feel like a new van again.

I also put a roof rack on mine you can walk around on, along with a ladder to get on top, side mounts for paddle boards, and new front and rear bumpers, all from Aluminess with some additional high-powered LED lights for driving on dark mountain roads and in dense fog. My van came with an awning, but if you don’t have one, it’s a great way to always have shade when camping. Inside, I’ve updated basics like a new cabin air filter and I replaced a broken heater fan (they fail every couple years and replacements on amazon are much cheaper than a dealer). When I first got it I also hired a specialized sprinter mechanic to do full fluid changes, conduct a thorough engine check, and do full tune up on the engine. I also put new wheels and off road tires so it wouldn’t get stuck so easily in the mountains and be safe to drive in the snow.

What else you can do besides go camping

Sprinter vans are great for camping and travel and biking and any outdoor activities you can think of. It’s like having a bedroom on wheels and I’ve pulled into rest areas before to nap in the back. It also makes outdoor sports easier because you have an entire room where you can change clothes privately, rest, and eat, and still bring everything you might need.

After owning one for a year, I’ve found it surprisingly useful for lots of other things. It’s easy to help friends move, especially if it’s raining so you can put their TVs and furniture inside a van rather that out in a truck bed. I’ve fit a 12′ tall xmas tree in mine easily, and could have fit half a dozen more stacked on top. I’ve hauled 14′ lumber on the floor reaching all the way to the front passenger section with the rear doors closed. In a 170 Sprinter, I’m sure you could fit full 16 foot long lumber inside. It’s a dream vehicle for sporadic Costco runs to buy tons of food in bulk, it’s strong enough to tow small boats, and you can fit pretty much any stand up paddle boards inside.

Mine has a little table that the second row and front row can all sit around (the front rows swivel back), so eating as a family on the road is fun and easy (especially useful during COVID with closed restaurants!).

Overall, I’m happy with my purchase and all the upgrades I’ve done to personalize it and optimize it for how I use it. If you’re in the market for one, figure out what you want, see what’s out there, and make a smart purchase, and finally, enjoy the heck out of your Sprinter van and go see the world in it.

Getting a Brother HL-L2350DW to work

Early in the 2000s, I got way into photography and soon after into inkjet printing so I could print my images at home. But after a few years of spending money on Cyan cartridges, I realized I wasted lots of money on ink printing simple pages. Soon I realized I could send digital prints to professional printers and instead get a small home black and white laser printer version of the giant expensive ones I used in offices.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, HP or Brother made a lot of them, and I bought what was back then a $200 printer and I swear the toner that came with it lasted for the next ten years, dutifully printing tickets to scan at events, directions to houses, and every legal document I needed to sign.

In 2019, I moved to a new house, my dad’s printer died, so I decided to send him my trustworthy old Brother (with a new toner cartridge) and I would buy whatever the newest version of it was. That was the Brother HL-L2350DW.

Taking it out of the box, the first weird thing I learned is the printer ships with a very small toner cartridge that is only good for about 100 pages total. After going years between toner replacements, I was getting warnings to buy a new one a month into owning it. Also? Without an ethernet jack, I had to get the printer on WiFi in order to work, but after a month or so it was very buggy, never visible on the network, and I mostly gave up, went back to a USB cable and only printed from one computer near it (after power cycling it to wake it up each time you wanted to print).

And that’s where my printer has been for the past year and a half.

Today, I complained on Twitter, people joined me in solidarity, but a few people offered tips and I did some digging and eventually got everything working again. So I might as well write everything down that helped.

Kill the Deep Sleep

The first problem with this printer was that it would quickly become unresponsive to computers on the network. But when you looked at the status panel, the lights were on but the small LCD screen would say Deep Sleep. There doesn’t seem to be a way to “wake up” out of it, so I spent the next couple years power-cycling the printer to use it.

I suspect there is a wake up problem over the network or USB cable (I’ve tried both), but here’s how you turn it off:

  1. Tap the OK button until you see GENERAL SETUP on the LCD, then hit OK
  2. Use the arrow keys until you get to ECOLOGY in the menu, hit OK
  3. Use arrow keys to get to the SLEEP TIME option, hit OK
  4. It will display a time (default of 1min), push the down arrow and BACK buttons together at the same time, then press OK
  5. You’ll see a DEEP SLEEP ON message on the LCD, use the arrow key to change to OFF, then hit OK.

That’s it. Your printer will still go into a sleep mode after inactivity, but it won’t go into Deep Sleep and be unresponsive.

Get on WiFi

With no ethernet jack in mine, I had to add the printer to WiFi to gain access to more settings and make it available to others. It’s not fun, but you should only have to do this once.

  1. Press the OK button to get the menu, use the arrow keys to go through options until you hit NETWORK, then hit OK
  2. Use arrow keys to scroll options until you get to WLAN, hit OK
  3. Use arrow keys to scroll to SETUP WIZARD, then hit OK
  4. If you get a screen saying “Enable WLAN?” scroll to YES then hit OK
  5. It will search for available WiFi SSD, select your network, then hit OK
  6. It will ask you for your NETWORK KEY and you’ll type in your WiFi network password. This will take a while, since each digit needs to be selected with the up/down arrow buttons, and the options will cycle through 0-9, then a-z and so on. My network password is just a bunch of numbers so this wasn’t too tedious.

When you’ve saved the network key, the printer will attempt to connect to your WiFi. Hope and pray it works, and if not, go back and repeat the steps. Once it’s on the network it should be found by your devices that also share your network.

Find the hidden web server

The next thing you want to do is figure out the IP address your printer uses on your network. Log into whatever router you use for WiFi and look for a list of all clients somewhere. In my UniFi setup, it wasn’t too hard to find the device.

This next step is optional, but if you can, set your router so it always gives that same IP address to your printer so it’s something you can always get back to. In my router there’s an option to set this IP to static to this device.

Load http://{your internal address}/ in a browser. In my case, pulling up http://192.168.0.195/ gave me the following screen:

From here, you can play with lots of settings. Go through each item in the nav on the left. The only major change I made was setting Auto Power Off to OFF to ensure it would work and not be in deep sleep.

If you set your printer to use a static IP all the time, you can bookmark this URL and save it in your browser to return to if you ever have printer problems.

Update your printer’s firmware to the latest

If you’ve gotten this far, and put your Printer on the network, and found the secret web server inside of it, you may think you’re done, but there’s a whole new level to this interface. See the tiny LOGIN in the upper header area? You’re going to login to your printer with a default password set by Brother to gain more control of it.

The default factory password is: initpass

Type that in, and suddenly you’ll get a new line of tabs across the middle showing Print, Administrator, and Network options.

Select the Administrator tab. There you can change the default password or leave it as is. Next, you’ll want to choose the Firmware Update option. There you can check for new firmware, and update it with a click.

You can check the Network tab and customize options like allowing printing via AirPrint (for iOS devices) or FTP or even email into the printer. I left everything at the defaults since it allowed almost everything. You can also tweak some deeper printer functions on the Print tab like setting higher resolutions for printing.

Hopefully you’re good now?

After a test print, I could instantly get to my printer from my Macs on the network. I pulled up a screenshot image in my iPhone’s Files app and was able to also print via AirPrint. I jumped on my kid’s gaming windows PC and could print a web page. None of this ever worked reliably before.

After a few hours, with Deep Sleep canceled, it still shows up as a printer and prints instantly when you send a file. It still sleeps but doesn’t deep sleep, and although this likely uses more electricity, I won’t have to power down and power up my printer in order to use it.

I’m kind of amazed I put up with this being so buggy for so long, but for now, it seems that everything is working and if you own one of these and were also in the same boat, hopefully there’s a tip in here you can also use to get yours working better as well.

Quick update a couple days later: Everything is still working great, I really think the Deep Sleep function was killing my printer before. I set the auto-off back to 1hr and it still wakes up instantly. I’ve printed a bunch of stuff over the past couple days since I got it working and this morning I got the most encouraging error message ever.

It’s working so well I ran out of paper for the first time in months AND it’s working so well on the network it was able to tell my phone when I was trying to print something from it.

My Favorite covers

I’ve always loved cover songs. They’re a perfect combo of recognition but hearing it in a new way for the first time, and my favorite way to experience them was always at concerts, where a performer you’re familiar with often has one or two weird covers up their sleeve they do on the road just for fun.

Later on, movie soundtracks and file sharing apps turned me on to a whole new world of covers, and during the Napster years, I spent much time collecting cover songs, the weirder, the better. At one point I’m sure half my catalog was by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes or The Gourds.

Recently, Kottke posted about some covers that are “better than the originals” and with such a high bar, the day he posted it, my spouse and I both texted each other at almost the same time going “did you read this and hear them, they’re terrible, right?”

This morning, I was running some errands in my car, a good cover came on, and I thought to myself, I should make my own list of covers I think are better than the original. So here they are, along with some liner notes.

Heard it through the grapevine

The original by The Miracles with Smokey Robinson (“what’s chaw-new-kah?”) is great but the cover by The Slits transforms it. It’s wild that it’s from 1979 (I had no idea until I looked it up, I first heard it maybe 5 years ago?) because it feels modern, fresh and recorded yesterday. Put this song on at a party and people will love it but won’t recognize the lyrics for a minute or two and realize why they instantly liked it. It’s the gold standard for covers that are different but better than the originals.

Everything Turns Grey

This punk classic was everywhere in the early 80s and I loved it then, but in 1999, I was showing Napster to a friend and I jumped on some random kid’s library and said “look there are 20 songs from the same band, this is probably a whole album, let’s grab them” and turns out I grabbed Lagwagon and fell in love with their cover. It’s tough to miss with a classic but Lagwagon’s take drives harder and sounds better and in the years since I’ve come to love it more.

Livin’ Thing

ELO’s Livin’ Thing is a classic. It’s everything ELO was, which is smashing together a rock band combined with an orchestra combined with gospel singers. It’s ELO so it’s everything at 110% with over the top theatrics to match. Then there’s Matthew Sweet. An aging rocker doing tons of fun covers and fun projects instead of getting grouchy about showing up on “where are they now?!” lists every few weeks online. I love this track because it reminded me anyone can take an untouchable song from karaoke like Queen or ELO or Michael Jackson and if you sing it with heart it’ll still sound amazing even if you can’t do the high notes.

99 Luftballoons

Yes, everyone covers Nena’s Cold War classic and you can hear loads of versions in different genres but I love the death metal cover that’s also from the My Name is Earl soundtrack that unfortunately has been completely scrubbed from the internet and I can only find a sample clip here.

It’s a little bit of a hat-on-a-hat to do a death metal kinda jokey version of an 80s song with a lullaby-like opening that makes the transition stick out even more, but with what sounds like Henry Rollins shouting lyrics gave me a whole new appreciation for the song, which I’ve never heard much in English or shouted over music. Fuck the copyright gods but try and find this, because it’s a gem.

Instant Karma

You never mess with the Beatles and especially John Lennon, but another John, this time Hiatt, is yet another cover from the My Name is Earl tv soundtrack (what can I say? It’s all bangers) and it’s fucking great.

Since U been gone

I have to make a confession here. A friend saw Ted Leo on tour in the mid-2000s where he surprised the entire audience by doing a Kelly Clarkson cover of her current pop hit during encores (along with a bit of Maps). Everyone who went was enthralled, because it would happen late in the show and no one talked about it or spoiled the surprise for others.

Anyway, a friend said some magic happened at the Ted Leo show he just saw, and I couldn’t see Ted live (he already swung through my town) so I asked what it was. Another friend who is a superfan said on some music forums they found one way to hear it, as he’d done it during a promotional livestream for a new college social network sponsored by Coca Cola.

Ted Leo doesn’t know this (even though I’ve met him in a casual, personal encounter before), but I had to sign up for this network, run a special app on a PC and his live taping only played in Microsoft Windows Media Player. I had to use some pretty gnarly apps to record the stream’s raw audio to a WAV file I converted to MP3.

I know it was me because there were no copies of this cover anywhere online until I created a MP3 from the stream and shared it on this very blog. It got out and shared widely and a couple weeks later I heard he stopped doing the song at concerts because the secret had been spoiled, which was likely my fault.

I was a huge fan of his, missed his show and really wanted to hear it, and later on, share it with everyone else and I fucked it up and I’m sorry Ted Leo if you ever see this. You were nice to me that one time I met you and Amiee Mann. (looks like someone also captured that livestream and threw it on YouTube)

Rudy, A Message to You

There’s an excellent documentary called Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records that chronicles the quick rise and fall of a record label that discovered artists from Jamaica and England, came up with the term “ska” and “reggae”, put out the first albums of many famous godfathers of both genres, but crashed and burned within just a few years.

Rudy, A Message to You by Dandy Livingstone is one of my favorite tracks in the documentary but I realized I loved it even more when The Specials covered it in the 80s. It’s not just the remastering and recording on modern equipment, but the English Beat pep it up into a dance hit I can’t help but love.

OPPOSITE DAY: Jet Airliner

Everyone knows Jet Airliner from the Steve Miller Band, but few know the creator of it is Paul Pena and I’m gonna do a 180º here and say it’s better than the more famous cover. It’s slower, but the lyrics feel more real coming from Paul rather than a big ol’ popular megahit group doing it, plus the guitar solos will melt your face off.

PS: music licensing, man

Just a quick note that I tried to make an Apple Music playlist of all these tracks, then a Spotify playlist, then just a YouTube playlist, and no single system had all of them, so I tried to put one link to the song in each section but cover song licensing is a pain it seems.

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.