Now that the Olympics are in full swing, I’ve been thinking about when Sachi and I spent about a month in China in 2006.
At the time, China was in the process of becoming more open to western tourists. We were mostly free to move about without chaperones or keepers watching our moves. According to people we met along the way, this was not the case only a few years prior. Still, I’m sure we were watched in ways we didn’t know.
We stayed in a large and unremarkable hotel in Beijing, which is a common jumping-off point for seeing the Great Wall. There were multiple locations for seeing the wall and we decided to make the Simatai portion of the wall a priority as it featured more of the original wall intact, even though it was farther – 100 miles from Beijing. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Getting there was possible via hiring a driver independently or planning it through the hotel. Having been on the road in Asia for months, the details of figuring it out independently seemed like a heavy lift. So, we signed up for the trip offered by the hotel and hoped for the best.
We had been in China for a few weeks, and we knew the trip would be an experience one way or another. We came to relish these weird tourist events and find the humor in them instead of the problems. This is a key lesson in making long-term travel work.
The next morning, we met a nice mini-bus outside the hotel and quickly found a row to ourselves. The other people on the bus were abuzz with conversation. It was obvious they were traveling together and it was a pretty fun and raucous scene. We quietly tried to decode the discussion and animated hand gestures. Soon, it became clear we were on a day-long tour with eight Italians, a driver, and a young Chinese tour guide named Prudence.
Prudence was a standard-issue Chinese tour guide. She was well trained, prepared, and really wanted everything to go as planned. Tour guides like her were everywhere in China, often seen guiding tourists with ever-present flags.
Watching the Italian conversations made two hours of terrible Beijing traffic more entertaining. There were disagreements, apparently. As we sat in traffic, hawkers were selling all kinds of goods and I saw something I didn’t expect: a car-to-car turtle salesman.
We all became a little frustrated with the traffic. Just as we were finally getting out of the city, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot and Prudence grabbed the microphone to make her first announcement to the group.
This kind of tour frequently includes an event where a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand: pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. Then the tourists are presented with a giant shiny gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kickback for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar. For the disinterested, it’s basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that seems to waste time.
This is a pearl jewelry factory from another excursion:
This tour was no different. Prudence announced that the group would now exit the bus for 40 minutes and tour a jade factory. This stop was not on the itinerary and came as a surprise to everyone, especially after losing so much time in traffic.
Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown. Prudence was a nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her. By this time, we had developed some rapport with the Italians who were engaged in a debate that required consensus. Their leader, Stephania, was checking in with each person. Then, she came to us and asked if we wanted to do the tour. We said no. She smiled, turned back to her group, and said, “They’re in!”
Stephania is the woman in red pants:
The fate of the factory tour was sealed. We were unified and Stephania told Prudence that we were NOT getting off the bus and NOT going into the factory. The only thing we wanted was to go to the Great Wall. Prudence was clearly flummoxed and started making calls. Her next offer was to reduce the amount of time we’d spend at the factory. 30 minutes? NO. Just 20 short minutes? NO. OK, maybe just 10 minutes? NO. Arms were crossed. Stephania was our rock.
Just as Prudence was about to capitulate completely, one of the Italians noticed what must have seemed like a mirage in the distance. A small building across the large parking lot had a little red sign that said “Espresso”. At that point, the clouds lifted and a small celebration ensued.
Stephania, having been the victor, now announced that we would all be getting espresso. Prudence had no choice but to agree. So the people who demanded to stay on the bus now disembarked and marched to the small building that promised espresso.
In the building, there was no real barista or coffee shop. We were met with a man who was ready to make espresso for the group from a small home-style machine. As he hesitantly picked up a paper cup, one of the Italians threw up his hands in frustration. He then grabbed the paper cups and tore off the tops to make them espresso-sized. Then, he took control of the machine and proceeded to make us all espresso.
After slurping down the espresso, we all boarded the bus and finally got back on the road. There was much rejoicing and we were now honorary Italian travelers who worked together on a mutiny.
We finally made it to Simatai and it was damn impressive.
Prudence was a knowledgeable tour guide and seemed to loosen up on the trip. It was like she smiled, threw up her hands, and just went with the flow.
By the time it was all over, we were all friends, including Prudence, who regaled us with translations of Chinese jokes and tongue twisters. The group taught her a few Italian words and how to roll her “R”s. Part of me wanted to stick with the Italians for the rest of our time in Beijing.
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.
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.
A few weeks back, I shared a story called Lee Night that was, in part, about spending an evening watching boats go by our house. I wrote:
As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways.
Now that Labor Day has passed and boating season is winding down, I’m taking an inventory of the interesting boats I’ve seen over the summer. After Lee Night, I admit I became a full-on boat creep, watching from my deck as they float by, unaware of my peering lens. I collected a tiny fraction of what passed, but still captured an interesting group of boats.
This summer saw heavy traffic from boats full of tourists, usually going to watch whales. The “whaleboats” as we call them are always noticeable because of their size and speed. Few recreational boaters choose to burn as much fuel.
One that always stands out is Blackfish (which is an old name for killer whales).
Another is the Western Explorer.
Sometimes the whales end up in the water in front of our house and the big whaleboats show up.
If you crop a photo just right, you can pretend that a friendly sailboat is the only boat watching the killer whales.
Tourists are also ferried around on other boats that are more focused on destinations. This is the Puget Sound Express.
The Salish Sea is a commercial waterway used by all kinds of boats, both local and international. In the distance, there are almost always huge ships traveling in Canadian waters to Canada.
We don’t see these behemoths in US waters our side of Orcas Island, but we see many barges and other large boats used for transporting items to the islands that don’t have ferry service.
You find the strangest things on barges. That’s a two-story house.
Lindsey Foss is a fire-fighting vessel.
A local service will tow you if your boat has a problem.
An sometimes a Canadian Warship goes by.
The vast majority of boats that pass our house are recreational or privately owned. Cabin cruisers are a dime a dozen, but sometimes more impressive boats pass by.
M/V Pelican is a 1930 78ft Classic wooden fisheries research vessel that recently started doing charters.
Our friends Mahlon and Deb live on this 65′ boat called Salish Song. Yes, that’s a lovely palm tree adorning their rear deck.
New Pacific is a 97′ expedition yacht that was recently refitted to have a 60kwh hybrid energy system that reduces the use of the boat’s generators.
This caravel style sailboat is one of the biggest we’ve seen.
Like cabin cruisers, sailboats are very common in all shapes and sizes.
And of course, small crafts like kayaks. Sea kayaking is one of the most popular activities in the San Juans. Jet Skis are prohibited, thankfully.
Not a boat. Or is it?
I’ll miss boating season and being on the lookout for interesting boats. They’ll be back before we know it.
When building a house, it’s easy to assume that the builder and architect will account for what’s needed. You’ll surely have the desired number of bathrooms and a roof that keeps you dry. There are also things that are unique to you and your lifestyle. Daily rituals and long-standing annoyances could be improved with a bit of forethought, but only if they are communicated to the team. This is an important lesson we learned in building Flattop: Be diligent in accounting for ways the house can be designed to improve your day-to-day life. Communicate what you want and the pros will find ways to make it work.
Once the house was mostly complete, attention turned to the fencing. We shared our ideas for a small fenced area that aligned with the side of our garage. Gates flank it on the short sides of the rectangle. One gate leads to the driveway. The other leads to a larger fenced area that wraps around the house and contains our garden and back deck.
This system of fences was designed with great intention and not without a bit of confusion. You could see the questions wash over the builders as they tried to understand what we wanted. “So you want a fenced area that leads to a second fenced area? With a gate in between?” Yes. Exactly. But only four feet high.
They built it exactly as we wanted and today, the system of gates and fences is emblematic of our efforts in making the house work specifically for our lifestyle. Builders and architects can work wonders, but they won’t live in the house. They won’t use it every day. They don’t have access to the daily rituals and events that fill the day. That information is the domain of the homeowner, who must explain what is needed, a few times, to make sure the house fits with these routines.
We have dogs. We wanted Flattop to be a house that minimized the impact of PNW wet dogs and dirty feet on our nice new floors. We imagined waking up on a wet December morning and needing to let the dogs out to do their business. We could let them into the large garden area and watch them return happy and covered in mulchy mud. Or, we could leash them and walk in the rain, careful to avoid muddy areas. Or, we could design the house for this daily routine. We chose design. This meant thinking ahead about how to handle rainy days and wet dogs.
When we were in the guesthouse, we built a small enclosure that connected to the entry. In the winter rain, the dogs could go out while we stayed dry on the porch. I used a nearby pile of wood chips to cover the surface and the system worked. The dogs still got wet, but their paws remained mostly clean. This was our inspiration. Could we do the same at Flattop? Instead of releasing them into the garden, could we create a clean place for them to use every day?
Soon, a plan came together. On the garage side of the house, a door opens to the exterior. We decided to enclose it and make it a dog run that would be our primary way to let them out. Like the guesthouse, we could stay warm and dry by the door while they take care of business. The cedar chips keep their feet clean and naturally repel pests. The gates in the dog run only swing inward so the dogs can’t push them open. As an added bonus, their waste is contained in a small area for easy pickup.
If the dogs do end up muddy from walks or garden play, we have that covered, too. We added a groomer-style dog shower to the garage that makes cleaning dirty paws a breeze. It also serves as a great washbasin for crabbing gear and garden veggies.
The system is almost perfect, but there is one minor hiccup. Maybe, our oldest dog at seven years, has developed a distaste for rain and wet ground. If she looks outside and sees rain, she’ll resist going out at all. When she does venture out, she carefully steps along the wall where the overhang keeps the ground dry. As much as I want to think of our dogs as PNW rain dogs, Maybe is still too civilized. We won’t tell the other dogs on the island.
I struggled with this question for a long time and experimented with a wide variety of subjects. Lately I feel more confident and recently asked subscribers to take a quick survey to find out their perceptions and that they enjoyed, or not. The results are below:
Q: What stories interest you most (choose multiple)?
Personal stories/anecdotes (81%)
Orcas Island/transition to the island (81%) TIE
Relationships (including w Sachi) (63%)
Construction Project (56%)
Creative Work (50%)
Book Publishing (25%)
Q: Thoughts on the recommendations in each issue?
90+% love em
6.3% don’t care
Q: What should I optimize (choose one)?
The results aren’t surprising. Though, I realize that for the last year I’ve been writing a lot about Big Enough and our house project, and they are not the most popular subjects. Thankfully those projects are mostly done and I’ll be ready to share more variety.
One of the most vexing questions we’ve faced over the last year of designing and building the house is: "How do you want this?" It could be door trim, fasteners, or how the gutters connect to downspouts. It’s vexing for two reasons:
The list of questions is long and new items are added every day
Much of the time, we could only guess at the answers
When people say that building a house is a second full-time job for the owners, a good portion of the work is trying to answer that question: How do we want it? With the structural and architectural work complete, we are now the point people for decisions about finishes and details. After a visit with Drew at the site, we might come home with a list of things to consider. Recent examples include:
Fence height and material
Deck stair design
Backsplash height in the bathrooms
Thankfully, with so much of the house complete, these decisions become easier. I came to see that there were two big factors: what we want and what the house itself is telling us it wants. We don’t have to consider every possibility because the house’s design serves as context. Our architect John Stoeck often talks about design decisions in terms of what "it wants to be". Based on the house today, the floor wants to be a lighter color. The trim wants to be minimal.
The problem is that big decisions are hard to grasp in conversation. We understand that some designers say a low 2" backsplash can be a more modern touch. But how does a 2" backsplash look versus a more traditional 4" backsplash? We can look at websites and create 3d models, but there is no better way to make a decision than seeing a 2" backsplash in your bathroom, even if it’s made of wood. This is one of the big lessons we’ve learned from working with Drew and his team. If he senses that we’re not sure how to proceed, he defaults to creating a quick and temporary mock-up that often comes together while we’re on site.
I asked him about this perspective and he said, "You can talk about it over and over and still not get anywhere. You can even look at plans, but the same time could be used to create a version that’s close enough to make a decision."
A couple of weeks ago, Drew said we needed to order deck railings, which meant making final decisions about the design. This is often how the process works. We might spend years thinking about the design and only commit at the last moment. Once the order is in, the money is spent and there’s no inexpensive way to go back. Drew doesn’t want us to be disappointed so he does what he can to help make the decision easier.
The next day, we visited the site and found a simple section of 2X4 railing nailed to the deck. One section was 36" high, another was 42" high. It cost very little in time and materials, but gave us a valuable way to make the decision. We could stand next to it, or view it from the kitchen to get a real feel for the difference in height. It was obvious then: the railing wanted to be 36" high.
Drew’s approach to making quick and dirty mock-ups isn’t unique to construction. After seeing it in action, I started to notice that I do the same thing in my creative work. Sachi and I might discuss an idea, take notes, or do a quick sketch for a scene in a video. But nothing compares to getting started quickly.
Whether it’s a book or a Common Craft video, all the decisions and details can feel overwhelming in the beginning. Instead of trying to solve all the problems at once, I’ve learned to build my own quick and dirty mock-ups in the form of drafts that I can throw away. These drafts might be a video script or a book chapter that I don’t think too deeply about. The goal is to get words on the page and develop a sense of what the project wants to be.
For me, this is like looking at a mock-up of different railing heights from inside the house. Before investing, I can evaluate an idea with a quick assimilation of reality that can’t be achieved with discussion alone. I have to see it and hear how the words fit together, or not. The challenge is becoming comfortable with tossing bad versions in the trash and starting over.
Mocking Up the Great Room
When we move in, we’ll use chairs from the Hunter House, but over time, we plan to have some sort of couch arrangement that needs to fit nicely into the room. It’s not practical to build a mock-up of a couch, so I decided to make a scaled-down version of the room, which included paper cut-outs of future furniture options. We moved the paper around until it was clear that a loveseat would fit better then a full size couch.
The success of almost any creative project doesn’t come from epiphanies or long hours or preparation as much as a willingness to get started quickly with a mock-up, evaluate, and keep pushing until it’s clear what the project wants to be.
When we renovated our house in Seattle in 2010, I learned about home automation and the idea of a “smart” home. A renovation seemed like the perfect time to consider a system that would make the house “smart” and more automated. We ended up choosing a complex and powerful home automation system called Control4. It was state of the art and I completely geeked-out on all the things you could do. It was just what I wanted at the time.
That was 2010 and my perspective has changed. For our Orcas house, we are not using Control4 or anything like it. I’m still fascinated by home automation but today I have to consider living on an island along with all the new products that have since appeared.
The Reality of Island Living
Let’s start with living on an island. Unlike Seattle, Orcas Island doesn’t have large companies and teams of technicians that can drop by to fix something that breaks. A technician would have to spend most of a day traveling and taking the ferries to fix a problem in our house. For this reason, we’re opting for the most reliable systems and products we can find.
The best example is roller shades in our great room. In the summer, the sun shines directly into the room and shades will be required. In Seattle, we had electronic shades that were automated. They would roll up and down on a schedule of our choosing and it was pretty darn sexy. We considered using a similar system on Orcas, but came around to seeing a reliable alternative that’s been proven for thousands of years: a pulley. Instead of relying on an electric motor that could fail, I will pull a cord.
Controlling It All
The system we had in Seattle was complex because you could configure it in so many ways. We could program it so that unlocking the front door would automatically turn on lights, play specific music, open the shades, and more. Again, pretty sexy. But it also seemed fragile. Being a single system, a small problem could have a ripple effect that meant our TV might stop working. A technician seemed to arrive every year to fix something or update the system software.
There were things we loved about the system. For example, the lighting was programmable, so you could set up custom scenes that work with a push of a button. “Movie Time” was a scene where the lights would dim to 15% and light a path to the kitchen. We could also say “Alexa turn on the movie time scene” and it would work without buttons or phone apps at all. Because Control4 was connected to the internet, it knew the time of day. This meant we could program the lights to slowly turn on as the sun set or turn all lights off at a specific time.
One promise of these kinds of “smart” systems is efficiency. And it’s true, they save some energy and effort. But after having it for ten years, I don’t think that’s an important consideration. Switching to LED lights is an energy saver, but the savings from dimming and scheduling seem marginal to me.
More than anything, lighting control is a very convenient and pleasing feature to have. We like low, soft lighting and electronic dimmers make it simple to get it exactly right. Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to go back.
To have the control we wanted, we needed to think about the switches. Unlike standard switches or dimmers that are mechanical, these have electronic dimmers and are connected to one another. Once you have a “smart” switch in place, it becomes controllable through an app or voice command. If you have multiple, you can control them together.
Again, for the new house, we had to consider the overall costs, including maintenance and upkeep. We realized that we didn’t need control of the lights for about half of the house. Like a pulley, we can flip a simple switch in the laundry room. But, we did want to control the lights in entertainment and living spaces like the great room and outdoor room.
In considering the options, we thought a lot about modularity and systems that can be removed, built-out, and reconfigured as needed. This way, we can get started with a set of switches, and always have the option to replace them ourselves. No ferry rides, no technicians. Thankfully, this is how most home automation is done today. Instead of one big system, there are now multiple systems that can talk to one another and be replaced more easily.
For the controllable dimmers (in-wall switches), we chose Lutron, which is a well-established company known for reliability. Their “Caseta” line is for consumers like us and is modular. With a set of Caseta dimmers in the house, we can set up scenes and control the lights with buttons, an app, or with voice. If we don’t like them, we can try another one. If we love them, we can add more. The non-Caseta switches will be Lutron Maestro which are electronic dimmers, but not “smart” switches.
The Ceiling Lights
In our county, new construction is required to have 80% high efficiency lighting. This means using mostly LED or CFL bulbs. Most of the lights in the house will be recessed into the ceiling, or what some call “can” lights. Because there are so many, I was concerned about getting them right, in part, because I care about lighting. Maybe too much.
The ceiling of our kitchen looks a little busy because there are so many lights. This is by design and relates to a lesson we learned about outdoor speakers. In Seattle, we had neighbors who we didn’t want to bother with music. I asked the guy who installed our automation system about a good strategy and he said that we could get better and more private sound by having more speakers at a lower volume. The same is true with lights. We find that having more lights at a dimmer setting leads to a nicer feel.
You have probably seen LED lighting that seems severe or piercing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but you can tell it’s too much of something. In recent years, LED technology has improved and they now look much more natural. You can get LEDs that are more white or warm and that’s measured on a “kelvin” scale. From what we learned, 3000 Kelvin is a good standard and one that we’re using. If you’d like to learn more about lighting terms, this is a helpful guide.
Part of the complexity in our situation is our ceiling. Some of it is sloped, some flat. Some covered in cedar, some in drywall. For this reason, we needed recessed lights that could handle all those situations, still look uniform, and work with our switches.
Many months back, we learned about a Canadian company called Lotus LED that seemed to offer everything we wanted. Their lights were solidly built and available with trims in black and white and options with gimbals, which means the lens can be pointed in different directions. The decision was made. LotusLED would be our standard.
The Lotus lights are interesting because they don’t have a removable bulb. Everything is built-in and they’ll last at least 50k hours and can last over 20 years. I will be just fine not thinking about that for a very long time.
On top of the system-wide decisions were the choices of fixtures for places like bathrooms, bedsides and hallways. The problem here is the sheer volume of choices. Sites like Lumens.com seem to have a never-ending selection. A lesson we learned was to pick out lights early and then wait for a sale. Often, you could sign up for their newsletter and save, too.
The final challenge was LED strip lighting and boy, was it a challenge. As a consumer, I find most lighting decisions to be a maze of features and terms that I don’t quite understand. This is certainly the case with what is mostly a very simple idea: LEDs on a thin strip of plastic.
We love ambient light that reflects off of ceilings and walls. To get this effect, LED strips can be placed under cabinets and shelves or down hallways, for example. I won’t get into all the complexity, but I never imagined there could be so many possibilities. Part of the issue is that LED technology is moving so quickly that manufacturers can’t seem to communicate clearly about what’s possible and what works best for a given situation.
I was excited to find that we could use a “nano” strip in our hallway that’s hidden in the drywall via this little housing.
Over the weekend, we got our first looks at the hallway, which is lit with these tiny LEDs. There is still some fine tuning needed, but I think it’s going to look great.
Of all the decision-making in this project, the lights were the most time consuming. The big lesson for me was learning to pick up the phone and call the number on the website. Most companies have experts ready to help and if not for these calls, I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do today.
Now, we wait. The electrical rough-in work is done and soon, all the lights will go in. Only then will we see the results of all these decisions. I, for one, anticipate the evening when we can finally experience the results of all the planning.
I Can Recommend…
Industry (HBO) – I wasn’t sure about this based on the first few episodes, but it grew on me. It’s edgy and pretty dark. Sex, drugs and young English bankers?
We Are the Champions (Netflix) – A show about the most accompished participants in fringe sports, like yo-yoing, cheese rolling, and dog dancing. Cheesy and fun. Rainn Wilson is the host.
Klaus (Netflix) – A new Christmas classic in my book. It establishes the origin story of Santa Claus in beautiful animation.
Rick Rubin Interviews Pharrell William (Broken Record – Podcast) I love the Broken Record podcast and this interview is awesome if you’re into Pharrell’s work. I was a huge fan of N.E.R.D. back in 2001 or so.
The Stepford Wives (You’re Wrong About – Podcast) A show where two entertaining journalists pick a subject from the past that has been misrepresented. This episode about the real-life Stepford Wives was fascinating.
This time of year is often foggy in the morning and I love it when the sun shines through the fog, like it did Monday morning.
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.