Friday, April 8, 2011

The Wonder of Smartwool

Imagine having a nice looking, comfortable shirt that looks and feels similar to cotton, but never smells and dries very quickly. This is what numerous online sources promised for Merino wool fabrics. It sounded to good to be true to me when I first heard about this wonder material. I had to try one of these out myself.

There are various brands with Merino wool products such as Icebreaker, SmartWool, and Minus 33, but the best option for me initially was SmartWool. REI keeps SmartWool products in stock and with their generous return policy, I could try out the shirt and return it at anytime if I felt it was not worth it. And at $60 plus tax for a paper-thin SmartWool NTS Microweight t-shirt, it was nice to know that I could return it if the shirt was terrible.

My plan was to wear the shirt for almost every activity I do for two weeks, including running, hiking, and sleeping. The weather around this time was cool, so I did not sweat just by walking normally. Here are my observations for the first few days of the experiment:

  • Day 1: I ran one mile in it and did chin-ups and dips at the gym. After the workout there was an odor very similar to my underarms in the arm pit area of the shirt. I continued to wear the shirt throughout the day, sleeping in it at night.
  • Day 2: I ran about two miles in, sweating quite a bit around my neck and under arms. After my run, I let the shirt dry for about 30 minutes and put it back on. There was still a slight odor in the arm pit area of the shirt and a little bit of a musty smell when putting the shirt up very close to my nose. Overall, it was still quite comfortable to wear.
  • Day 4: I hiked 15 miles with a backpack on in one day. I sweat profusely but not so much on the areas where the shirt was touching me. I think this demonstrated the "wicking" ability of the fabric quite well. At the end of the grueling 15 mile hike, I inspected the shirt and there was essentially no odor. This was quite impressive as any normal cotton shirt would have been absolutely disgusting after such a long hike.

In the following days, the shirt slowly started to get a more apparent musty smell, but it never felt unwearable or even gross. I even had some of my more adventurous friends closely inspect the shirt and none thought it smelled. At the end of two weeks, I washed the shirt in my sink with some Dr. Bronner's Liquid Soap for about 10 minutes, hung it to dry overnight, and the next morning, it was fresh and ready to go again. I wore it for another week or so, working out in it and sleeping in it without ever taking it off unless I was showering.

I am convinced of Merino wool fabrics in terms of their odor-resistant abilities. Despite their cost, I think it is worth it if you are travelling and do not want to do laundry often or are hiking and only want to bring a small amount of stuff.

One thing, however, I am not totally convinced of at this point is their durability. The Microweight t-shirt from SmartWool is awfully thin which makes it great for hot or warm weather, but also makes me think it will tear or get holes in it easily. I have read mixed things online about the durability of these fabrics. I will just have to see for myself how this thing holds up. I will keep you posted on this as time goes on.

Buy the SmartWool NTS microweight t-shirt here.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Difference Between Grad and Undergrad

After defending my thesis and reflecting on my past years as a graduate student, I was thinking about some of the big differences between being a graduate student and being an undergrad. Most undergraduates seem to see graduate students as extremely dedicated, hard workers with no time for anything else than research. This is most often not the case at all. The big differences between undergrads and grad are social opportunities, uncertainty, motivation and independence.

As a graduate student, you are essentially a full time student your first year or two, taking a full load of classes. However, unlike an undergrad who typically always has a least one class outside of their major, the graduate students' classes are very focused on their field. This also means that they tend to have the same people in every class, not providing much opportunity to have a broad social base. The undergraduate typically, however, will have classes from at least a couple of different fields. This leads to a much larger social base I think. Undergraduates seem to always have way more friends from many more different areas.

Every finals week, I look at all of the undergrads stressing about their exams, and I think to myself that I am glad that time for me is over. However, graduate students working on Ph.D.'s, in particular, face perhaps a tougher issue - uncertainty. Once you finish classes and start research, you typically don't have classes anymore which means no exams and for the most part, no real deadlines. However, I have spent months working on things which have no guarantee of producing anything interesting. This huge uncertainty with graduate research leads to another big problem - motivation.

Most undergraduates are not completing their assignments the moment they get them or are always excited about their work, but the deadlines inherent with undergraduate classwork force them (at least in most cases) to at least do something in some kind of timely manner. The lack of deadlines in the research phase of graduate school means that, for the most part, whatever you get done, you have to set the timeline yourself. In many cases, the timeline is much, much longer than it could have been. Note that the lack of deadlines in graduate school is not an inherent problem with the advisor or the system. By definition, the research a graduate student does is supposed to be new and original. It is hard to put a deadline on doing something that is totally new and may or may not have a solution or be interesting.

The uncertainty and potential motivation issues with graduate school are largely due to independence. No longer do you have a well defined schedule of homework and exams. As a graduate student, you are mostly on your own. For the most part, no one will care if you don't really do much work for a week or even a month, although naturally, this depends on your research advisor. Some people thrive in this, but from my personal experience and conversations with other graduate students, this is a very tough place to be. I used to say that in physics, for example, our classes take us to about 1950, but we are expected to do 21st century research right after that. I can imagine this is very similar in other fields as well. We are essentially tossed in without a life preserver.

I can say that the average graduate student I talk to feels their work is mostly useless, their contributions to their field are minimal, and their confidence in their work is shaky. He or she spends a lot of time surfing the web instead of working, can recall many times where they did not do a single thing associated with research for days or even weeks, and often thinks about quitting their program.  I have never met a graduate student who works as long or as hard as a typical undergraduate. The undergraduate, however, knows exactly what they need to do to graduate, where the typical graduate student has no idea. Being a graduate student is certainly not all bad. It's just very different from being an undergrad.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Comparison of Windows Backup Software

After switching back to Windows, one of my biggest concerns was how to most efficiently back up my data. In Linux, I used the utility, "rsync", which incrementally syncs the source files to the destination. There were various options for it to have a high level of control over the backup. It was also very fast.

My default method for backing up files in Windows was to continue using rsync, but now in Cygwin, a Linux-like environment for Windows. It was usable, but there were various issues with Windows permissions which would cause certain files to not be copied, and the program does not seem to be very optimized for NTFS file systems. It is pretty slow. Now, I also do a backup of my Windows files to a Linux server, and for this, rsync using Cygwin is the only way I would know to do it, but for my local NTFS to NTFS backup, this method was getting old.

My main desire for a back-up program was to do essentially a one-way sync to the destination. I want to mirror a copy of my files on my working drive to the back up. I want it to be very fast, and I want it to be able to figure out if a file is missing on the backup drive and copy it back. I do not care about staged backups because I really just want to protect myself from drive failure. Things that I want to remember changes for will be staged using things like Git or other version control software. I do not really need version control for my filesystem overall. It turns out there are some pretty nice, free, backup tools for Windows. The four I used were Comodo Backup, Cobian Backup, GFI Backup, and EZBack-it-up.

Note: The "source" drive here refers to the working directory containing the files you want to backup. The "destination" or "backup" drive refers to the one that you want to backup to.

Comodo Backup - 1/5
I found this program to be way too big and complicated. It has a much more lengthy install than the others and has a ton of so-called features which I was not interested in. It was not immediately obvious to me how to set up a backup like I wanted so I quickly dropped it to look at other programs.

Cobian Backup - 2/5
I really like the interface of this one. It was very simple and intuitive to use. You could either do a full backup which would recopy all of the files or an incremental backup which would only copy over changed files. Clearly, incremental backup is the way to go. However, this program had a fatal flaw. It could only track changes on the source drive. That means, if for some reason, you manually deleted a file on the backup drive, but it was still on your source, the incremental backup would not recopy the file. Chances are, you won't be directly manipulating files on the backup drive, but this to me left too many chances open for incomplete backups. Also, doing a full copy of dozens of GB of data simply would not be an option and would take way too long.

GFI Backup - 4/5
This program was pretty good. It has a backup mode and a sync mode. However, the sync is two-way so that means if the backup drive is changed, it will update those changes to your source drive. Again, in principle, you shouldn't be manipulating files on your backup drive, but if you did, you could find yourself losing files on your source drive. It basically just synced them together with the most recent changes to either one. There was no option to make this just a one-way sync. Fail.

The backup option did exactly what I want. It would directly sync all of the files of the source drive to the destination, with the option to mirror them by deleting extra files on the destination or adding files that were manually deleted to the destination. However, it was slow. It took about 25 minutes for it compare all the files on both drives and sync them up. This was about 100 GB of data. This was a usable solution and probably similarly slow to the Cygwin rsync option, but I felt there had to be a better option. It turns out there is.

EZBack-it-up - 5/5
This is a program which was written a while ago and has not been updated since 2004, but it does EXACTLY what I wanted it to do and does it blazingly fast. It will quickly find any changes between the drive and do a one-way sync of the source to the destination. When I say it is fast, I mean FAST. For 100 GB, it will check the two drives against each other within about 10 seconds. If one letter is changed in a text file deep in your file system, it will update it on the destination. I was absolutely amazed with this program.

It basically seems to barely read the drives, and I am assuming it is somehow directly accessing the journal associated with NTFS file systems and compares them and updates the destination. All of the other programs seemed to read every single file on both drives to compare them. This backup program almost seems too good to be true, but so far, it seems to really work perfectly. I will probably check it over then next few months to make sure it is capturing every change, but I feel like I can probably use it with confidence.

It is very easy to set up the backup, and while it does have some more "advanced" features like setting up a backup schedule, it is a very simple and lightweight program. The only problem with it is that its log files don't work. This is due to permission on the places where it stores the log files. The program just doesn't have permissions to write them there. I tried changing the permissions but could not get the program to write log files unless I ran the program as an administrator. I do not want to this however, because then the ownership of the files is messed up. If anyone knows a fix for this, please let me know!

In conclusion, I had simple and specific needs for backup software, and I found a clear winner. EZBack-it-up really impressed me and is totally free. The developer has plans to update it at some point, but other than the logging issue, the program is pretty much perfect for my needs.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backpack Review: Kata DR-466i and Kata DR-467i

For my future travels, I want to have access to the latest digital technology, which means for me having a powerful laptop and a DSLR camera with a couple of lenses. Due to my desire to carry a DSLR and laptop, I have decided it is probably best for me to have two carry-on pieces of luggage: one for clothes, shoes, toiletries, etc and one for my electronics that can be used as a daypack.

For my electronics bag/daypack, I wanted to get one which would allow me to carry a small amount of semi-pro camera gear, a laptop, and other things such as a raincoat, guidebooks, snacks, water, etc. I considered several bags such as the Tamrac Adventure 9, Lowepro Fastpack 250, Naneu Pro Alpha-L, and the Kata 466i and 467i packs. I end up deciding on either the Kata 466i or 467i. So I decided to order both to try them out. Check it out:

I wanted to get a small enough pack that would feel comfortable enough to use on a daily basis but also big enough to hold a good amount of gear. In the end, the 466i was just too small and the 467i was just about perfect. I wore the 467i on a 15-mile hike yesterday with my camera and a bunch of other supplies, and it was very comfortable. Here are some pictures to give you an idea of how big they 466i and 467i are on my back (click on them for bigger sizes):

Kata 466i
Kata 467i
The Kata 466i is only a tiny bit smaller overall on my back and the bigger size of the 467i actually makes it a bit more comfortable for me. The size of the top compartment was an important consideration for me too. Here are some pictures to give you a better idea of the top compartment (click on them for bigger sizes):

Kata 466i
Kata 467i
As you can see, the upper compartment of the 467i is significantly larger than the 466i. Overall, I feel like the 467i is a much better designed bag with more optimal use of space.

Buy the Kata 467i and 466i here and here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Stupid Little Battle with Amazon Kindle's Dictionary

One of the most useful features of Amazon's Kindle e-book platform is the ability to highlight a word and get a definition for it instantly from the New Oxford American Dictionary installed on every Kindle device or Kindle application for PC, iPhone, etc. No internet connection is required to look up words in the built-in dictionary. This is a VERY valuable feature.

Nonetheless, I did not recognize or use the dictionary feature for a while. I had been using Kindle on PC a bit and there was no indication that the New Oxford American Dictionary was installed. It turns out it is there, but it never shows up on your "Home" or "Archived Items" on Kindle for PC. It is just there in the background, ready to be used to instantly define words.

A little bit later, I bought an iPod Touch and installed the Kindle App for it. While looking at installed books, I noticed that the "New Oxford American Dictionary" was installed and showed up in my "Home" directory (unlike Kindle for PC). At this point, I had no idea that Kindle interfaced with this dictionary to provide instant lookup of words. My thoughts were "Why do I need a dictionary for Kindle?" There were much easier ways to lookup words offline with other Apps on the iPod rather than manually searching through the dictionary.

Being somewhat of a "digital neat-freak", I decided I need to figure out a way to consolidate my Kindle library and get rid of books I did not want anymore. It turns out that Amazon only recently made this feature available. 

By logging in on Amazon and going to the "Your Account" page. Go down to "Digital Content" and click on "Manage Your Kindle". This takes you to a new page where you can register Kindle devices to your Amazon account as well as set up some other options. At the very bottom of this page, you can see all of your orders. By clicking on the "+" to the left of the book's name, a new menu comes up and at the bottom right corner of this you can click on "Delete this title." When you do that this pops up:
By clicking yes, you can permanently delete books from your Amazon account. 

In doing my digital clean-up, I wanted to get rid of some of the free public domain Kindle books which I had downloaded. This, to me, seemed like a completely reversible thing to do as all of those books could be downloaded again for free if I ever wanted them again. I probably would never permanently delete a title I paid for as I would not want to pay for it again if I did want to read it at some point in the future, and the cost to keep it in my library was pretty minimal, ever for a digital neat-freak such as myself.

While looking at my books, I came across the "New Oxford American Dictionary" discussed earlier. I didn't remember downloading it, but nonetheless figured it was some sort of free book that could easily be downloaded again. So I permanently deleted it.

I didn't notice any problems for a while until, while reading a Kindle book on my iPod Touch, I wanted to highlight a section of the text to make a note. I end up only highlighting one word and a little box came up saying "Dictionary not found" along with saying how it could not be found in my archive and to contact customer service. When that happened, let's just say I felt a bit stupid. But it wouldn't be a problem, right? Since every Kindle device in the world has the New Oxford American Dictionary (except now for mine), I could easily re-download it from Amazon's website to get it back on my device. Wrong.

I went to Amazon's web page, and while they had the print version of the dictionary for $32 or so, the Kindle version was not available as a download at all. There was even the little link under the book's picture to "Tell the Publisher!" that you'd like to read the book on Kindle. I tried reinstalling the Kindle for PC software as well as the Kindle App for my iPod but this did not work either as the book is linked with the account and not the software itself. So I called Amazon customer service around 11:30 pm on a Friday night. I was definitely a bit upset about losing my ability to look up words instantly from within a Kindle book. (It turns out I actually could buy a different dictionary for Kindle for about $10 and use it for this feature.)

A nice gentleman from India answered, and I told him my issue. Well, he just didn't know what to do. It was not something he could just fix instantly. He suggested that I make a new Amazon account although this would clearly not be ideal as I had other paid books linked to my current account. I admittedly felt a bit embarrassed for deleting the dictionary, but I did not recognize it as something I had downloaded nor felt that its utility was made clear. On top of that, I was "sure" it would be easy to re-download the free book.

The customer service representative told me he would work on the problem and call me back, although he probably wouldn't get back to me until the next morning as he knew it was getting late on the West Coast of the United States. I almost wanted to tell him to just call me as soon as he figured it out or had a resolution. I spent a few more mointues researching my issue on the internet to no avail and about 15 minutes later, I got a call from Amazon. They figured out a way to relink the dictionary to my account, and he wanted to verify it worked. And it did. I had my dictionary back.

It all worked out in the end, but I was surprised how difficult it was, and a bit surprised no one had experienced this issue before. My new policy is to just not permanently delete anything on my Kindle anymore. As my "Archived Items" folder fills up with a bunch of useless books I will never read, I'll remember this.

Buy the Kindle here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why I Switched Back to Windows from Linux

I have been using Linux for my research for several years now. What started out as an intimidating beast is now something I feel I can work very efficiently in. To put it simply, I feel like I understand Linux (at least to some degree). I understand the organization of the file system and the philosophy behind it. I understand file permissions and a lot of aspects of system administration. In particular, I love the power of the command line. Linux has treated me very well for my research. There is just one big problem with Linux though as a home or personal operating system: software.

For a while, I used Linux (various Ubuntu Desktop Editions to be exact) as my only operating system. No dual boot or anything like that. Just Linux. It felt very nice to have a consistent setup for work and my home. I could easily set up my partitions exactly how I wanted, use a script to reinstall all my programs, and in general, have complete control over my data. I even used some reasonable photography software (SILKYPIX Developer Studio) through the package for running Windows software on Linux, Wine (although it was fairly slow), as well as found a native Linux photography program (Bibble 5) which was not too bad. While not perfect, I thought I could live with it. It was all good for a while.

Then, something stupid happened. I wanted to download an MP3 album of off Amazon, but they had no 64-bit "Amazon MP3 Downloader" for Linux. I tried to get the 32-bit one to work on my laptop to no avail. Well, this was kind of annoying. Surely, Amazon could easily make a 64-bit Linux version of a program to download MP3's right? But they didn't. A little bit later, I got a Netflix account. It was a good thing I had a Wii at the time as Netflix On-Demand only will work on Windows and Mac operating systems. Was it really worth making these sacrifices in order to stick to my beloved Linux system?

Also, around this time, I got a job doing edits on scientific papers. Microsoft Word was the standard way to do this. I could use Open Office Writer on Linux for some of the work, but it was much more awkward than using Microsoft Word and sometimes could not even be done at all. I also was thinking about getting a Kindle. Well, there is no Kindle for Linux, so I won't be able to read my Kindle books on my laptop. Did I mention I was getting pretty tired of using the sub-par photography software instead of using the excellent program Adobe Lightroom which only runs on Windows and Mac OSX?

It was time to make a change. I reluctantly reinstalled Windows 7 on my laptop. Since then, I have used Amazon's MP3 downloader, Kindle for PC, Adobe Lightroom, Microsoft Word,, Netflix On-Demand, Steam and iTunes as I end up purchasing an iPod Touch to read Kindle books. While I had not planned on using my PC for games, I had sold my Wii and my Xbox 360 died, so Steam turned out to be a very nice surprise as I use it to sometimes play games on my laptop.

To sweeten the deal even more, I have Ubuntu installed in a Virtual Box so I can still use Linux when I want. By making it full screen, it is as if I am running Ubuntu natively so it is quite effective. I even use Cygwin in Windows to do some of the file management and backup stuff that was so easy to do on the command line in Linux.

The bottom line is that, while I really wish I could get by with just using Linux, it just isn't worth it for me. I would be forced to use inferior software in several cases and would be missing out on some functionality completely by using only Linux. Windows allows me to produce (Lightroom, Word) and consume (Netflix, Steam) more and better.

While there is a reasonable chance that someday, some of the software I have mentioned will be available for Linux, it is not there today. The commercial operating systems will probably always have the best and most cutting-edge software as long as software is still relevant. Perhaps as more and more things move to the web browser instead of being a local application, the differences between the operating systems will start to matter much less. I look forward to that day, and I look forward to going back to being Linux-only if I ever see it as the best option one day again.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


The new year marks an opportunity for people to feel like they can start over. They promise to start eating healthy, lose weight, and be nicer to others. The unfortunate truth is that people hardly ever keep their promises. New Year's Resolutions are typically vague objectives with no real direction or well defined way to measure their progress. If you lose 1 pound in all of 2011, you lost weight, but is this really what the original intention was, to just lose 1 pound? While I see New Year's Resolutions as mostly unnecessary (if one really wants to change something about themselves, they should have the power to do it NOW, rather than some arbitrarily defined calendar date), they are traditional and I think it is sometimes worth respecting tradition. So, here are my 2001 New Year's Resolutions, although really, they are things I have been thinking about lately and want to change. regardless of what time of the year it is.

  1. Do not check Google or Yahoo email, Twitter, Facebook, Slickdeals, Amazon, and other time wasting and non-work related websites or use a chat client while at work. This is a big one for me as I am finally approaching the end of my graduate school career early this year. I need to finish up a scientific paper, prepare for a conference, and finish writing my thesis, as well as deal with other logistical issues with graduating. This goal will be assisted by using a Chrome plugin called StayFocusd which blocks certain sites for a specified period of time. Firefox has a similar one called LeechBLock.
  2. Do not waste time on small financial decisions. This is another big one for me. Once graduating I will have no regular income or benefits. While I do have some savings and the ability to do fairly well paid contract work anywhere in the world pretty reliability, it still is scary to not have a regular income. I think this fear has caused my spending habits to relapse a bit. I have been willing to buy a lot of stuff lately but I have wasted a ton of time doing research and trying to find the best deal. Often, my decision to purchase something was based on the deal alone. Does it really makes sense to worry about buying a book when it is $8 instead of $10?  I want to start only buying things that I actually want/need rather than a want that is inspired by a deal. To do this, I want to completely stop looking at, other than a search for an item that I decided I wanted independent of the deal. This will basically cause me to almost never look at the website. Also, should I decide I want something, as long as it is under $50 or so, I just want to buy it quickly with no more than 3 minutes of searching for the best deal. If it is much more expensive, I want to aim to spend less than 1 hour of researching the product and the deal. There is some psychological benefit I believe to knowing that you got a deal. My new iPod Touch is the "iPod Touch I spent $180 for instead of the retail price of $229" instead of just my "iPod Touch." Nonetheless, I see this as irrational behavior and I want to try to eliminate thinking in this manner.
  3. Do not criticize or generally make fun of others. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that people really like to gossip. I am not much of a gossiper myself, but I do sometimes criticize others behind their back to my close friends, whether it is some random person making a fool of themselves at a bar or a friend who annoyed me. This is something I want to eliminate completely.
  4. One blog post per week. This will be a tough one for me as I often find it difficult to think of things to write about. If I cannot think of anything interesting, at the very least, I want to write about what I did in the past week. There may be times when even then I do not feel like I have much to write about. Hopefully, this will push me to start engaging in more interesting activities and conversations to inspire my weekly blog posts.
So, these are my New Year's Resolutions. I also have some smaller goals like making sure my computer is off by 11 pm, not eating food past 10 pm, start learning Japanese (no specific goal at the moment, this is one where I am not convinced of it enough so I feel ok with making it vague. At the moment, my goal is to learn to read and write the Hiragana.), and take regular recordings of my weight, body fat percentage, and arm/leg/chest/etc measurements.

I want 2011 to be a big year for me. I will be undergoing huge changes as my life radically changes once I graduate. Rather than letting myself get complacent, I want to always be in a continual stage of improvement and learning. This will be tough to maintain as my life will be much less structured when I graduate unless I really work at it. If you notice me slipping on my goals, feel free to remind me of them with a link to this post. I hope by making this public, it will help me stick to them.