Maybe that statement is a bit extreme. I love feeling healthy and being active, but I’ve always struggled to maintain the kind of exercise that I need: regular, full-body, and sustainable for years. The closest I came was working with a personal trainer for a few years in Seattle. It was twice a week and I dreaded it every time. What kept me going was the standing appointment, the feeling that I was doing something good for my body, and friendship with my trainer, who sometimes brought me pork belly he smoked over the weekend.
We had an elliptical trainer at home in Seattle that came close to being the right thing, but it didn’t stick. My body doesn’t react well to regular running and biking (road or stationary) isn’t my favorite either. I’ve realized that one of the culprits in this struggle is boredom.
As Flattop was being completed, we wanted to use the move as a reason to establish new habits. New house, new routines, we’d say. Sachi’s doctor said the best scenario was to find an exercise you can do every day for the rest of your life. Rain or shine, young or old. Then, make that a part of your day. Even for 10-20 minutes. This was the goal. One of the reasons I’m sharing this review is because I know many people have a similar goal.
I started looking at home exercise equipment and rowing machines seemed to check a lot of boxes. Rowing is one of the best full-body workouts, working legs, core, and arms in a style that’s low impact and high cardio. But the question remained: would a rowing machine end up being another way to collect dust?
What I found is that rowing machines, like exercise bikes, are innovating. Peloton exercise bikes have become popular, in part, because they come with a touchscreen that is internet-connected and offers a library of workouts with real trainers guiding you. Your account tracks your progress and allows you to compete with others.
Rowing machines are learning from Peloton’s success. A new class of machines now comes with built-in touchscreens and a library of workouts. These options are relatively expensive and often come with a monthly subscription fee for access to the library. We wondered: does the library of workouts matter? Will we end up watching a TV show instead?
It was impossible to know without giving it a shot. We looked at NordicTrack, Echelon, and Hydrow, which all do similar things. We ordered a Hydrow because the reviews said it had the best workouts and a money-back guarantee.
NOTE: I do not earn money or have formal relationships with Hydrow or any other exercise equipment. This is just my personal experience.
The Hydrow machine arrived eleven weeks ago and the results are in: I’ve found my exercise. Since it arrived, I’ve used the rowing machine at least 5 days a week and the Hydrow app even more. For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to workouts and feel confident that I’ll continue to do so. It’s become a habit.
Why has this worked for me? A few reasons:
The Workout Library
I cannot imagine rowing without the workouts. There are about 3,000 rowing workouts that are filmed on the water, in a beautiful location, with an athlete rowing a boat along with you. The system is designed to create a rhythm where you match the rowing strokes of the trainer. As long as you keep up with them, you’ll get the workout you want, whether it’s a slow jog, a sprint, or a marathon.
Most of the workouts I do are twenty minutes long and are organized into intervals. Rowing along with a person in a boat creates an immersive experience that feels like you’re training with them in Miami or Lake Lucerne. The commentary during the row is part reminders of proper form, part location information and part personal stories. This does a lot to prevent boredom.
The training team matters more than I expected, too. It’s about a dozen athletes and you get to know them over time and see them as individuals. They pick the music for each workout and fill the spaces with stories and anecdotes from their lives. They are world-class athletes, including Olympians, who are leaders of the community and chief motivators. Like personal trainers, they are positive, encouraging, and enthusiastic. They celebrate that each day you row is a win.
Space, Time, Noise
We keep the rower in the office, where it’s out of the way and takes up little space. It uses magnetic resistance, which is smooth and quiet. There’s no prep to get started, you just sit down and start rowing. In and out, including a shower, in thirty minutes. Rain or shine.
Because Hydrow is internet-connected and each person has an account, it tracks your workouts: how many, how far, how many calories, average strokes per minute, etc. This matters more to me than I expected. As my form has improved, I’ve seen it in the data and that improvement keeps me pushing.
The Other Workouts
In addition to rowing, Hydrow has yoga, pilates, and strength + mobility libraries, all of which are filmed in the same fashion: outside in beautiful locations. I now do yoga 5-6 mornings a week.
You can choose to be competitive, or not. During each row, there is an on-screen leaderboard that you can show or hide. It compares your rowing speed to everyone else who has completed that row. As you row faster, you overtake other rowers in the leaderboard, and I pay attention.
Needless to say, I’m a fan of Hydrow and the new class of smart exercise systems. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have an exercise option that I can do for many years. I can’t imagine going back to exercising alone.
Letterkenny (Hulu) This show makes me laugh a lot. I think of it as a cross between Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics. It takes place in small town Canada with a host of problems that must be solved. Absurd, hilarious and strangely educational.
Fargo (Hulu) It’s been a while since I’ve been more into binging a show. Much like the Coen Brothers movie that inspired it, it takes place in the rural northern reaches of the US and tells a dark story each season. We’ve finished season one and queuing up number two.
DEVS (Hulu) – I have a soft spot for stories about evil corporations and the people who run them. On that front and many others, DEVS delivers. It’s a futuristic limited series starring Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno that involved high tech, murder, and intrigue.
Ben Folds Interview (Broken Record Podcast) I’ve always been a fan of Ben and appreciated his connection to North Carolina (he grew up in Chapel Hill). Part music, part personal stories, part regret, it’s an interesting listen.
Sonos Move (Gadget) – We recently adopted a new smart speaker and I’m a big fan. The Move is wireless and sits on a base that keeps it charged. When it’s time to go outside, you can just grab it and the battery lasts 10 hours. It’s weather-resistant, works on both wifi and Bluetooth, and sounds great.
Hotel Mumbai (Hulu) – A gripping and action-packed film that recounts the true story of terrorists who took over the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai for three days in 2008. Stars Dev Patel.
James May: Our Man in Japan (Amazon) – A charming look at Japan from the eyes of James May, who is known for being the co-host of Top Gear. Easy and fun.
Jungle (Amazon) – Harry Potter gets lost… wait. Daniel Radcliffe plays a young adventurer who follows a supposed guide into the Bolivian jungle with two friends. Based on the memoir of Yossi Ghinsberg. It’s a little bit like Deliverance, without the hillbillies.
Me Mail (Apple iOS App) – I collect information that I need to remember in my inbox. I send myself emails that include things like blog posts ideas, things to get at the store, etc. Me Mail is an app that makes sending an email to yourself as simple as possible – just open the app, write a message and tap a button. It lives on my home screen.
Lost in Translation (Amazon) – A top ten movie for me. Scarlett Johansson (who was 17 at the time) and Bill Murray connect in Tokyo. Director Sofia Coppola beautifully captures the strange experience of being a famous American in a strange land.
Swingers (HBO Max) – Classic 90s L.A. comedy with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. I can’t see Favreau today without thinking he’s a grown-up version of Mikey.
Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon) – A lesser-known and lesser-loved Coen Brother movie that we both have seen many times. Such great writing and hilarious characters. Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney star.
Derry Girls (Netflix) – A comedy about Catholic school teenagers in Northern Ireland during the peak of the IRA in the 80s. It’s an odd mix of history, family drama, and hilariously off-color dialogue.
Pen15 (Hulu) – Forgive me, but I’m recommending another comedy about school girls. This time it’s the story of two best friends in 7th grade, played by adults Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. It’s cringy and hilarious. It gets extra points in our house because Maya is half-Japanese, like Sachi, and it’s a large part of the story.
Chameleon (10 episode podcast) – I love stories about con artists and this one is fascinating and easily binge-able. It follows the story of someone preying on Hollywood strivers in odd and mysterious ways.
The Confidence Game (Book) Speaking of con artists, I enjoyed this book by Maria Konnikova which dissects all the ways con artists take advantage of others.
Alone (Hulu) – We’ve watched six seasons of this show and look forward to more. It’s a reality show where ten survivalists are dropped off in a remote, and often cold location with a selection of supplies and camera gear. Then, they do their best to survive the longest while constantly creating videos of their lives.
The Chef Show (Netflix) – My first impression was “oh boy, another celebrity cooking show, no thanks” but a friend suggested giving it a try and we’ve enjoyed it. Jon Favreau, Chef Roy Choi and special guests cook a wide variety of dishes while Jon plays the inquisitive beginner. It’s not often about fancy food, but everyday food, done well. I also love the stop-motion sequences.
Chef (Amazon) This movie, starring Jon Favreau as a chef, inspired the TV show above. Roy Choi consulted on the movie and the story is inspired by Roy quitting a high profile job to start a food truck. Worth a watch. Food is love.
Nomadland (Hulu) This movie just won a Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and I can see why. What I love is the immersive style of production. It feels like you’re seeing life through the eyes and ears of Fern, the main character, played by Francis McDormand, as she becomes a member of a community of nomads who live out of vehicles. It’s directed by Chloé Zhao and has amazing performances by actual community members who were found as the film was being made. Zhao also won Best Director, a first for a woman of color. We’ll be hearing more about her, I’m sure.
Behind Her Eyes (Netflix Limited Series) First, let me say that I love the limited series format because it usually has a satisfying ending. This is the case with Behind Her Eyes. It’s a psychological drama that you have to watch it to the end. Also, the two female leads, Simona Brown and Eve Hewson, are amazing and distractingly attractive. Hewson is Bono’s daughter, FWIW.
Midnight Diner – Tokyo Stories (Netflix Series, subtitled) If you have any affinity for Japan, this is fun to watch. Most of the stories happen in a tiny Tokyo diner that is open from midnight to 7 am. Entertaining characters come and go, but the show is also about Japanese food. Each episode ends with a quick lesson on how to cook the dish that was served in that episode. Sachi watches it before bed because it’s so soothing. Charming, funny, and VERY Japanese.
The Biggest Little Farm (Hulu) A charming film about a couple who builds a farm that’s designed to work with nature and create a self-sustaining system. Along with a good story full of ups and downs, the nature photography is beautiful. John Chester, the co-creator of the film, is a professional videographer.
Triggered (Hulu) – Triggered is not a good movie in terms of minor things like acting. However, the premise is great: a group of campers awake from a night of partying with time bombs strapped to their chests that soon start counting down. Soon, they learn that each time someone dies, that person’s remaining time is transferred to another member of the group. This creates a Hunger Games scenario with all sorts of dark motivations. The director, Alastair Orr, was inspired by the SAW series.
Extraction (Netflix) Chris Hemsworth plays a mercenary who is hired by a drug lord to extract his son from kidnappers. Action-packed, lots of shooting and fighting. What I enjoyed most were the high production values and camera work. There are a few really impressive continuous shots.
Boss Level (Hulu) This movie is packed with action and stars Frank Grillo, who lives the same day over and over, complete with multiple attempts on his life. As Sachi pointed out, it’s a video game in movie form and the audience gets to see the character learn to play it. Hence, the name.
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) – This film won a well-deserved Oscar. It’s the story of a filmmaker who befriends an octopus over a year. But it’s so much more. The filmmaker, Craig Foster, free-dives in frigid water off the coast of South Africa and captures the world and drama of octopus life in beautiful form.
Octomom (Radiolab Podcast) – A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium discover, via a robotic submersible, a deep-water octopus who is protecting 160 eggs a mile beneath the surface. They visit her each month for four years and document her unbelievable process of hatching the eggs over time.
The Soul of an Octopus (Book by Sy Montgomery) – Sy is a nature writer who became fascinated with octopuses. This book is her story of learning about and getting to know a handful of giant pacific octopuses behind-the-scenes at aquariums and in the wild. It’s a little woo-woo in spots and I wish it had more science, but was a fun read, if you don’t mind the idea of animals in captivity.
Stowaway (Netflix) A team of three is on a mission to Mars and discovers that someone else is on the ship. I enjoyed this movie because it’s well-made, futuristic, and centers on ethical dilemmas more than action. I didn’t expect Anna Kendrick as an astronaut, but it works.
Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) A heavy metal drummer in a band with his girlfriend loses his hearing and quickly transitions to a new life. This is a great film that’s raw, human, and well-acted. I came away with a new perspective on deafness. Riz Ahmed was great in The Night Of (HBO) and he delivered in this film as well. Paul Raci was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance.
Booksmart (Hulu) Booksmart made me LOL. Two high school seniors realize they’ve wasted time being focused on grades and decide to start partying before college. This, of course, leads them on myriad adventures. Fun and easy; a modern Superbad with female leads and a female director, Olivia Wilde. The soundtrack makes it even better.
Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself (HULU) – I went into this show with low expectations. A one-man show isn’t something that naturally appeals to me. And who is this guy anyway? Now that I’ve watched it a couple of times and understand it better, I’m entranced by it. He performed the show on a stage in New York every day for 552 days. The TV special is made from excerpts from multiple performances that feature live audience members. In it, he mixes storytelling, visuals, sleight of hand tricks, philosophy, and a number of things I can’t explain.
Sun Protection: If you’re serious about blocking the sun, look for clothes that have a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating that works like SPF. 20 UPF is good. 50 UPF is great. This article from REI has good info and a handy chart.
Sun Protection: I’ve found that Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Shade line has a wide variety of high UPF clothes that are affordable and high quality. This shirt is similar to two I have that are great for hot days when sun protection is essential.
Billions (Amazon) – A hedge fund billionaire (played by Damian Lewis) locks horns with a US Attorney in New York City (played by Paul Giamatti). We binged three seasons and enjoyed the strategy on both sides.
The Windsors (Netflix) – A hilarious and absurd send-up of the royal family based on tabloid rumors and innuendo. From Wills and Kate to Camilla and Pippa, no one is spared.
Meat Thermometer: I use meat thermometers near the end of the cooking process and place the probe into the meat and leave it there until it reaches temperature. I don’t need an app, or settings for different meats. All I want is an accurate reading and a simple alarm for when the meat reaches the temperature I set. The best thermometer I’ve found for this use is the ThermoWorks Dot.
Infrared Thermometer: I’ve also started to use a ThermoPro Infrared Thermometer, which you can point to any surface and get a temperature reading. It’s perfect for getting a pan the perfect temperature for eggs.
Gardener’s World (Amazon Prime) – You can’t talk about British gardening without mentioning Monty Don and Gardener’s World. It’s a British institution that’s been going for 165 episodes. We also enjoyed Monty in Big Dreams, Small Spaces.
Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime) Like Monty Don, Jeremy Clarkson is a British legend, mostly due to his long-running and much-loved show, Top Gear. This one-season show is about him buying a huge farm and learning to make it productive with the help of local farmers in the Cotswolds. His ornery sense of humor along with the colorful locals make this show very entertaining. I now know much more about the challenges of “real” farming.
Grow, Cook, Eat (Amazon Prime) This isn’t British, but Irish, and features a master vegetable gardener and charming sidekick who sticks up for the amateur gardener. The couple focuses on one vegetable per episode and the viewer gets to see it grow from seed to harvest to being cooked by a chef. Very practical and easy to watch, especially if your climate is like theirs.
Fredrick Law Olmstead: Designing America (Amazon Prime) – This documentary is about Mr. Olmstead, but also the evolution of Central Park in New York. Our neighborhood parks in Seattle, including the boulevard in front of our house, were designed by his son and nephew and I always wanted to know more about the family and their approach to landscape architecture.
Sit up straight
Relax your shoulders
Unclench your jaw
Close your eyes
Takes a few deep breathes
Cold Brew Coffee Recipe: Cold-brewed coffee is a staple for us in hot weather. Because it’s brewed without heat, it has lower acid and a smoother feel. Here’s how we make cold-brewed coffee:
Add 2 cups of ground coffee to large pitcher
Add 2 liters of water
Stir a few times and cover
Let sit for 12-24 hours at room temperature
Pour coffee through a cheesecloth or coffee filter into another pitcher. Don’t try to pour out the grounds at the bottom.
Leave in the fridge until ready to drink
Gadget: The days of fumbling with phone cords in the dark are over. Most smartphones (including iPhones) can now be charged wirelessly and all you need is a charging pad that uses the “Qi” (pronounced CHEE) standard. Simply place the phone on the pad and it will start charging immediately. We have this model ($12.99 on Amazon) all over the house and on bedside tables. I’ll never go back to cords.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) – Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez play tenants in the same NY building who are fascinated with true crime. Then, a neighbor suspiciously dies and they see an opportunity to create a podcast. Funny and easy. I had no idea Selena Gomez was so good as an actress.
Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu) – Nicole Kidman stars as the leader/guru of a self-help retreat that’s not what the guests expect. The cast is great and it’s entertaining to watch.
Kate (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays an assassin in Tokyo who is poisoned and goes on a rampage to get revenge. Not super original, but stylish and fun to watch, if you like the John Wick movies.
Squid Game (Netflix) – This Korean series is about a game of survival, not unlike The Hunger Games. A group of desperate people compete for a $40m prize by playing children’s games where the losers are killed. It’s a dystopian and original look at how people react in dire situations.
House Shoes: For many years, I’ve had “house shoes” which I only wear inside. They keep my feet warm and supported. I’ve tried 3-4 different kinds and recently, over the past couple of years, I found a winner: The Moloā Hulu slipper by OluKai. They aren’t cheap but are high quality.
Podcast: I’d like to share one of my all-time favorite podcast episodes. It’s by Radiolab and called “Parasites“, originally published in 2009. In particular, I think you’d enjoy the segment called “Sculptors of Monumental Narrative” but don’t let that turn you away. 🙂
Maid (Netflix) – There are a few reasons I’m recommending this series:
Setting – The series is written by Stephanie Land, who lived nearby, and the series feels like home. It was filmed just across the border in BC, but is set in our corner of the Salish Sea. If you’re curious about the scenery and lifestyle that surrounds us, it will paint a vivid picture.
Story – This isn’t the kind of series I’d pick off a shelf, but it’s a good one that follows the life of a poor young mom facing one struggle after another, including an abusive relationship. It’s a bleak story that feels real and serves as a reminder of how hard life can be for people in her situation.
Acting – Nearly everyone in the cast should get an award, but especially the real-world mother and daughter team of Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley. The 3-year old daughter was played by Rylea Neveah Whittet and was the best child performance I’ve seen in a while.
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) – This is a ten-part series that came out in 2018 by director Mike Flanagan, who recently directed Midnight Mass. It’s full of jump scares and ominous music, but the story is also scary and well-acted.
Follow: This recommendation involves shameless self-promotion. Here’s the deal… My goal is to help people learn about custom home construction. Starting now, I’ll be sharing a daily tip, idea, or story about custom home construction on social media. These tips will be shared via a new Instagram account. I highly recommend that you follow along and tell all your friends. 🙂
Last night, I sent myself three emails while watching a movie. My mind was wandering and I needed to get them out of my mind and into a place where I could review them later. These days my mind only wanders in one direction and I’m mostly happy about that. It’s always focused on Build Livable and all that’s left to do.
Over the weekend, we had our GC, Drew, and his partner and wife, Michelle, over for a casual dinner, and afterward, I interviewed them both for a couple of hours and we recorded it all. Their advice and stories were really insightful and now, we’ll summarize it and highlight some of the great quotes.
Drew and Michelle’s interview was the most recent of those I’ve conducted so far, along with architects, designers and homeowners. The interviews help me to continue learning and to gather useful quotes and advice from experts and people with experience. I often say that I’m writing the play-by-play and the experts are confirming and adding color commentary. This is an important part of the bigger project, which is, indeed, big for the two of us. It feels all-consuming at times.
Right now, I’m taking a deep breath. Yesterday, another draft of the Complete Guide was completed. This is the version that includes most of the media, like hundreds of photos and dozens of original diagrams.
Change in Perspective
This latest version of the guide is one that changed our perception of how to teach the construction process. Originally, I organized it chronologically, by phase. It made sense at the time, but Sachi pointed out a flaw in my thinking: We’re trying to help people save time and money largely through planning. We can’t talk about countertops, for example, when they’re being installed. By then, it’s too late. We needed to frontload the guide to cover most of the process before the first wall is built.
So that’s what we did. The Complete Guide is about preparation, understanding what to expect, and how to approach each phase. That’s the foundation for helping a construction project stay on time and on budget.
This is where the curriculum stands today (subject to change).
Over the holidays, my goal is to build awareness for Build Livable. That means contacting my network, posting daily on the Build.Livable Instagram account and creating a lot of fun videos and media. I continue to believe homeowners are going to love this!
Education is the key to saving time and money on construction projects. When homeowners understand the process, they can plan effectively and optimize. Build Livable develops that understanding in the form of an always-on online course.
A few days ago, we decided to cancel Hulu, one of our favorite streaming services. When I went to make the change, there was an option to pause the service for 12 weeks with no fees, so that’s what I did. The same night, I went to HBO Max, a favorite we canceled in May and cranked it up again after six months. Going into the holidays, we have months of HBO shows and movies that built up over the summer.
I call this The Streaming Shuffle and going forward, it’s how we’ll save a bit of money and always have entertainment options accumulating in the background.
For most of my adult life, this wasn’t possible. Once a choice was made about which cable or satellite service to use, you were locked in. You had their dishes and set-top boxes, which made it a hassle to switch. And that’s how the services liked it.
Now that TV is quickly transitioning to web-based streaming services, the hardware is mostly gone and so is the lock-in. The options are based on monthly subscriptions that can be turned on and off at any time. Finally, we can choose what works for us.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. What once came with a single service is now spread across multiple. To replicate the selection of cable or satellite you must now subscribe to a number of streaming services, each with its own monthly fee. And it adds up quickly. Here’s a quick run-down of the major players:
Cable Alternatives (local networks, plus cable channels):
Hulu + Live TV
Streaming Services (each with its own libraries and licensed content)
Today we have a wide selection of services, but they’re all fragmented and have independent pricing. It’s not reasonable to subscribe to everything, so we have to figure out the right mix for our tastes, which can mean subscribing to five different services, with five log-ins and five bills. What’s a person to do?
Here’s what we did…
We watch a lot of sports and like to have a service like cable/satellite to access local events, news, and sports channels like Fox Sports for soccer. For this, we subscribe to YouTube TV, which is a pretty impressive service. It includes an unlimited DVR service and is about $70 per month. Hulu offers something similar.
In terms of the streaming services, some of our services will stay put. Netflix, for example, is subsidized by our T-Mobile plan. We use Amazon Prime for more than entertainment, so we’ll stick with it, too. But outside those, we’re doing the shuffle between:
Having just restarted HBO, it will carry us through the holidays. Meanwhile, the other services will be introducing new shows that we’ll miss, initially. Maybe in 12 weeks, Hulu will, again, be the darling, or maybe AppleTV+. That’s the beauty of the streaming shuffle: the good stuff accumulates so when you switch, it seems like there are more options and less brainless browsing.
What are you enjoying on HBO Max right now? Reply and let me know.
Every few hours, I get an email that looks like this:
These emails are an indication that someone has signed up for our new project, or at least the free version of it. When I find them in my inbox, I can practically feel the dopamine flowing through my brain. Each email is just a data point, but together they represent a trend, and hopefully a foothold.
The project is called Build Livable and it is currently taking up most of my waking hours. My goal is to help homeowners save time and money by understanding the phases of construction and planning ahead for each phase. Informed homeowners can hopefully help builders and architects, too.
I wake up thinking about this project, work on it throughout the day, and send myself emails about it in the evenings. This is not driven by a deadline or a demanding boss, but a passion for creating it. I want nothing more than to see it come to life and be useful to people. I believe it can.
You might wonder what, exactly, is taking so much of my time, and it’s a good question. Let’s take a look.
At the beginning of this year, I set out to write about the experience of building custom homes and share what I’d learned. Like writing a book, I took it phase by phase and tried to capture all the things I wished I had known in the beginning. That project was mostly completed by summer and was book-length, about 70k words.
The whole idea changed when our friend, James, said he thought it should be digital and have videos, downloadable docs, etc. Of course! A book wouldn’t do. A website could be multimedia, easy to update, always-on, and have an enrollment fee. The project needed to be on a website and when that realization set in, my entire outlook changed. I was no longer limited by the book medium and could create a richer and more useful experience.
Part of what made me excited was the potential to create it in-house, with low overhead. By using a platform designed for online courses, I could design a very basic version of the website in a few days. The early challenge was not technology as much as branding and design. Over time, I picked colors and fonts, developed a logo and overall feel for the website. Web design is not something I consider a specialty, but I deeply enjoy the process.
The new website went online relatively quickly. The bulk of my work now is focused on filling the guides with useful content and filling the custom list with connections.
Getting people to a new website is always an uphill battle. New websites do not attract attention on their own. In the beginning, a reliable way to generate traffic is through advertising. I started to spend $10 a day on Facebook advertising and targeted people interested in construction, architecture, Dwell Magazine, etc. That’s helping a lot, but I’ll need to do more.
Website traffic, by itself, isn’t all that useful. We needed a way to turn visitors into connections we could contact in the future. In my experience, offering access to a free resource is one of the best ways to make that connection. If you invite people to test drive a resource for free, they may be likely to stick around.
For this, I pulled a couple of chapters out of The Complete Guide and created a free mini-guide called, “Start Your Construction Project on the Right Foot”. It has checklists of questions to ask builders and architects before hiring them, along with how to collect and organize ideas. The key was providing a useful and free resource along with nicely designed downloadable documents that could be printed. People love checklists!
The free guide went live a few weeks ago and since then, a few people per day have enrolled and confirmed their email addresses. It’s satisfying to see them choosing to be involved.
I think of the free mini-guide as a machine running in the background that will hopefully make connections with many people over time. With it in place, I could switch my attention back to The Complete Guide and go into full production mode.
And that’s what’s happening right now. My days are currently filled with formatting and editing the text, creating diagrams and downloadable documents, researching materials, and conducting interviews with homeowners and building pros. This is probably the most comprehensive resource I’ve ever developed. Here’s an example of a draft diagram:
I love every minute of it, in part, because I believe in it. I believe it can help homeowners save time and money. I believe I have the skills and experience to help them be prepared and work effectively with construction pros. I believe I can make it easy.
Each time someone enrolls in the free guide, the email in my inbox is a reminder that there is a need for this sort of resource and people are interested. We just have to keep finding them and showing them that we can help. The people who have chosen to be a part of Build Livable will hopefully choose to enroll in the Complete Guide when it’s ready. I believe that they will.
I recently hosted a webinar about Big Enough and just before it went live, I snapped the photo below and put it on Instagram.
The immediate response from followers was questions about the technology and tools in the photo. Today online meetings are common and a lot of people are looking for ways to make the experience better. This inspired me to share.
The setup in the photo is something I’ve wanted for years. I’ve worked from home since 2003 and have hosted all kinds of meetings and webinars, all the while wishing it was easier. I kept saying, “Once we move into the new house, I’m going to get it dialed in.” For me, that meant quality and ease of use. I wanted to be able to transition into video mode in seconds, with everything at my fingertips.
Today, I feel like I’m on the right track and learning as I go. I’ve been able to address most of what I wanted to do, but there will always be ways to improve (like using a dSLR camera). My goal right now is to look professional without spending thousands of dollars. This version of a home studio is in the DIY category compared to many.
Let’s take a tour.
Note: As always, I do not have relationships with third parties and earn no income from recommending specific products.
Microphones have been a part of my professional life since 2007 and I generally opt for a good mic that plugs into the computer with USB. The mic I have right now is quite good and affordable. I like that it can be muted with a soft (and silent) tap. It’s called El Gato Wave 3 ($150).
I use a camera that captures video in HD (1080p), which helps the video look crisp and clean. When side-by-side with a built-in camera, the difference is obvious. I like that the camera sits nicely on top of the monitor, has a visible indicator light when it is on, and a hinged door that covers the lens when it’s not being used. The model I have is a Logitech c920 ($70)
Lighting is one of the hardest elements to get right. I sit by a window and usually have natural light, which is nice but always changing. To help, I acquired two small LED panels that sit atop small tripods. They have two controls: brightness and light color (Kelvin scale). I love that the lights can be powered by a cord, or rechargeable battery (purchased separately). The batteries make them extremely portable and easy. I use:
I’ve worked solely on laptops for years and made the switch to having an external monitor that could handle more than a laptop screen. I chose this 27” LG ($450)
I prefer sound, like media played from the computer, to be nice and clear. Often the speakers that come with computers or monitors don’t work that well, so I use nice-ish speakers that are powered by USB. Thankfully, the speakers we used for our Computer/TV in the guesthouse were impressive and I and transferred them into the new office. Creative Pebble Speakers are small but mighty. ($20)
The first thing we did for the office was plan for having a lot of outlets. That helps, but most of the office tech is centrally located, so I found a power strip with a flexible cord, mounting holes, flat plug, USB outlets, and surge protection. It’s been reliable and I like the design, in part, because it can be mounted under the desk. Addtam 10’ Power Strip Surge Protector ($20) I also use a wireless charging pad: Tozo W1 ($13)
I consulted with a couple of friends about reducing room noise and learned a few things. First, sound moves in predictable directions. If you are facing a wall and make a sound, the sound waves will bounce off the wall in front and also hit the wall behind you. This is the source of many echoes. I wanted to dampen the sound in the office by adding acoustical panels on opposite walls that absorb the sound waves rather than reflect them. I used two kinds, each with different looks and costs.
Rhino Acoustic Sound Panels – These are more functional than beautiful, but do the trick and can be arranged in a variety of patterns. $55 for 6 panels.
Acoustic Design Works – These are very effective and stylish. You can order them in a variety of colors and shapes. About $42 per panel.
I’ve been trying to figure out what should be in the background of my videos in addition to the colorful sound panels. I have enjoyed having a fiddle leaf fig in the shot, but fear that it will soon take over. (See above)
The office has a closing door, which helps. However, the dogs seem to get excited about me talking to someone in the room, so we sometimes usher them to the car with a handful of treats. Aside from that, my biggest problem was using a Macbook Air laptop for online meetings. It wasn’t quite robust enough and the fan noise became a problem. Now, I use a Mac Mini under the desk and haven’t heard any noise or had any performance problems since.
All the cords drove me a little crazy and made the office feel like an IT department. The problem was that the cords all had to stretch from the center of the table to the edge. My desk is inexpensive and over ten years old, so I thought it would be fun to customize it by drilling a big hole in the center of it, where all the cords could disappear from sight. Pardon my bragging, but this was a stroke of minor genius. Just don’t look under the desk!
I’m feeling more confident about the office set up all the time. Getting it right means constantly tweaking settings, organizing the gadgets, and more. Now that the days are shorter, I need to up my darkness game and there are always more ways to dampen sound. One thing that can’t be too disturbed is the space for Maybe to be while I work.
When you live in a small place, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of awareness. There can’t be that many secrets among a few thousand people on an island, right? After having lived on Orcas Island for a few years now, I’m realizing that the island is full of traditions that aren’t at all accessible, or obvious.
We share a chat app with a few groups of friends on the island and a couple of the women started to talk about finding paddleboards for Halloween. Paddleboards? What a weird thing to use as part of a costume, I thought.
After a bit of questioning, I found that there is an island tradition called “Witches on the Water” or “Witches Paddle” that takes place on Halloween day. Just like it sounds, women on the island dress as witches and paddle around a section of the island and back.
This was news to me and I didn’t want to miss it. There were no announcements or fliers. In fact, the only way we knew the location and timing was by asking friends. I believe this is by design. No one, I assume, wants it to be a big deal and I hope the witches forgive me for highlighting it here.
On an uncharacteristically sunny fall day, about 40 witches boarded their vessels and paddled out across the cold waters of the Salish Sea.
All-in-all, not a bad way to spend a Halloween afternoon.
It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose.
We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July.
This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.
We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.
In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.
Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance.
The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.
I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths.
My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.
A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.
Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself.
When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept.
To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.
That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.
These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.
A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.
Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family. One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:
“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”
At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice.
The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.
According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound.
Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap:
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.