Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why I dislike air travel

I have flown a lot, mostly for work, over my career and I'm now at the point where I try to avoid air travel as best as I can.  Why?  I thought I'd put my thoughts down in this article.

First, I should say that I tried to maintain loyalty to a single airline--United.  I enjoyed the privilege of getting more leg room gratis, checked bags for free, priority checkin and boarding, and occasional use of a lounge when flying internationally.  In many cases, I chose to maintain that loyalty despite not having the best flights in terms of time of departure or arrival.  But those perks meant less and less to me because I started encountering delayed and cancelled flights and missed connections.

Here's a list of things that has increasingly become a routine annoyance with air travel for me.

The TSA experience
  • The not-so-uncommon uncourteous TSA agent when I chose to opt out from going through the scanning machine.
  • A pain to carry liquids and gels.  I don't know how many bottles of water I have lost to the TSA.  As far as other liquids go, I almost always go through the inconvenience of checking my bags.
  • Elaborate process of taking computer out, taking off outerwear, taking off shoes.
  • Picking up who knows what from those mats at the security checkpoints.
  • Long lines at busy airports.
Ever since "TSA pre" was introduced, I have been offered it only once and I was reminded of what airport security used to be like before 9/11--so quick and easy. Overall, the TSA experience is one that I best describe as one from an oppressive culture.  And despite all of this, they have a pitiful record of actually finding problems.

The airline experience
  • Delayed and cancelled flights, sometimes resulting in a missed connection.  
    • Having to run from one gate to the next on arrival for fear of missing a connecting flight.
    • No time for using the restroom or buying food even between long flights.
    • Sometimes the missed connection required an overnight stay, knocking out one day of the business trip.
    • Rescheduling and/or getting a hotel required waiting in long lines as an entire plane of people tried to reschedule their flights.
    • Sometimes had to also pick up bags from baggage claim.  Sometimes checked bag pickup was not offered so I had to live with old clothing till the completion of my trip.
    • If the cancelled flight could be attributed to bad weather, the stay had to be at my expense.  Being business travel my company picked up the tab, but even finding a decent hotel at the last minute was a problem.  Sometimes the flight would get delayed to due airline issues but by then weather would get bad and the airline would attribute that delay to the weather.
  • Reduced number of flights.
    • Poor choices of flight times because of fewer flights.
    • Overbooked flights reduces the possibility of getting to the destination on the same day if there is a delay resulting in a missed connection, or a flight cancellation.
  • Poor service from stressed-out and overworked flight attendants.
    • I had a cancelled flight one time because the crew was beyond their allowable hours due to the delay of the flight because of weather.
  • Poor maintenance.
    • Seats that are dirty because the cleaning crew didn't have enough time to clean the plane between flights.
    • Broken seats or other equipment.  The worst experience was a broken seat pan that would keep sliding off during the flight and the plane was full so I couldn't move to a different seat.
    • Dirty restrooms.
  • Limited food choices.
    • Because of diet requirements, I usually just carry my own processed foods which, even though are marketed as healthy, aren't all that great.  So I usually end up with all sorts of digestion issues after a trip.
  • Unhealthy cabin environment exacerbated by operating older, smaller aircraft.
    • Aircraft cabins are extremely dehydrating (~4-6% humidity).
    • Very noisy environment.  I only recently started using noise canceling headphones which help a good deal with relieving stress on the ears, but I still feel all the vibration in body hours after a flight.  Perhaps my body is a bit too sensitive.
    • Low cabin pressure.
    • All of these contribute to a feeling of fatigue after flights of even a moderate duration.
    • Newer aircraft address some of these problems, but because of cost cutting it's unlikely any airline will be upgrading its fleet.  Most of them just refurbish the interiors of their older aircraft.
  • Misrouted bags.
    • Could have been avoided if I didn't need to check it because of TSA issues.
    • Results in wasted time since I have to wait till all the bags make it to the baggage claim, and then stand in another line for customer service to report the missing bag.  This is made worse when it happens on a flight that was already delayed and got in an odd hour of the night to begin with.
  • Usurious flight change fees if you need to cut a trip short or extend it.  I have pretty much never done this for several years now.
The airport experience
  • Dirty restrooms.
  • Aging infrastructure.
  • Overcrowded.
  • Limited and overpriced food choices.
  • Poor management.
I took a trip on Southwest from Sacramento to Austin via San Diego in January 2017.  We got off the plane in San Diego and the only way to get to the connecting flight was to exit security and go through another round of dealing with the TSA.  In the process I lost the bottle of water I bought at Sacramento airport and a good deal of my patience.  There is absolutely no reason why the airport management could not have sealed off a section to allow transit passengers to get to their connecting flight without going through security.
In summary

When I think of the poor flying experience, it is enough to deter me completely from flying for pleasure.  Most of these problems are symptomatic of the cost cutting that has been, and continues to be,  experienced throughout the industry.  As mentioned in this article, those airlines that fail to participate in such cost cutting activities begin to hurt financially as they "lose out" and eventually have to give in.  So while United has been getting pretty bad ratings for the last couple of years or so, I don't think any of the other airlines offer much of a different experience.  The only airline where I have experienced a significantly better inflight experience is Singapore Airlines on an international trip.

As a result, for now I have decided that loyalty to any airline is, for the most part, worthless.  And I have been trying to minimize my air travel (even for work) to only when it is absolutely essential.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mac OS X stuff

This post is a collection of little things related to Mac OS X.  I will be updating it with some of my learnings and the various changes that I made to customize the shell for my use.

bash

.bash_rc vs .bash_profile

bash has two places where one can put startup commands -- .bashrc and .bash_profile.  .bash_profile is executed only for login shells.  .bashrc is executed for non-login shells.  If one has commands that only need to be executed for both, then one can create a .bash_profile and source .bashrc from there by adding the following line to the .bash_profile:

. ~/.bashrc || echo "problem sourcing ~/.bashrc"

On Mac OS all shells are login shells.  So I just use .bash_profile.

aliases and functions

Aliases are discouraged in bash, but I use them anyway.  An example of an alias I use is:

alias ls='ls -lF'

If I wanted to use a function, I would have used:

ls(){ command ls -lF "$@" ; }

One key difference between bash and csh is that in bash, aliases cannot accept arguments.  So for any such aliases in csh, one would have to define functions in bash.  For example, here's a function pg:

pg(){ open /Applications/iWork\ \'09/Pages.app/ "$@" ; }

At the command line I can simply say "pg file" and the pages application is started up with the file specified.

Case insensitive auto-completion

Create a file ~/.inputrc and add the following line in it:

set completion-ignore-case on

This will prevent /etc/inputrc from being used.  On macOS, there is no /etc/inputrc by default, but if there was you get around it by adding the following line as the first line in the ~/.inputrc file:

$include /etc/inputrc

findword utility

This is a useful utility which scans files for a given word within all files in all subdirectories from where the command is executed.

findword(){ find . -type f -exec egrep -i "$@" {} /dev/null \; ; }

Mac OS X versions and hardware compatibility

Versions of Mac OS X are described here.

Hardware compatibility (i.e. latest version of Mac OS X) that is supported on any device can be found at EveryMac.com.  Just find a given machine and at the bottom of the page are the details regarding OS compatibility.  For example, for my machine, the details are here (search for "Maximum MacOS" on this page).

SMC Reset for systems with non-removable battery
  1. Shut down your Mac.
  2. Unplug power adapter from your computer.
  3. Press Shift-Control-Option on the left side of the keyboard, then press the power button at the same time. Hold these keys and the power button for 10 seconds.
  4. Release all keys.
Recovery mode

Press power and then immediately Cmd-R.   Wait for Apple logo.  Run tools like First Aid on the startup disk and/or main disk or recover the OS.

Security

Fortunately Mac OS is pretty secure by design.  Macrumors has a wiki page that discusses this, and also offers some tips on how to practice safe computing.

Battery health
  • Applications -> Utilities -> System Information.
  • On the left, under "Hardware," select "Power."
  • There it will show the charge capacity, number of cycles, and condition.
  • If you need the design capacity, you have to use an app such as coconutBattery.
Useful applications
Other useful stuff

Monday, September 15, 2014

Getting from Sacramento to San Francisco

This post is about the various options for transportation from the greater Sacramento area to the San Francisco area.  As you can see, there are several options, but none of them are really great.  Different options work better depending on where one is trying to get to and whether the trip is a day trip or longer.  I have only tried the ones marked with an asterisk.

Car*:  The obvious downsides to this option are the cost (miles on the car + gas + tolls + parking in SF/SFO) and the time taken.  Depending on the time of the day and the day of the week (Friday afternoons returning from the SF area tend to be worst), it can take anywhere between 2-5 hours.  A consideration is whether or not carpool lanes can be used.  Many of the carpool lanes require 3 or more passengers.  For payment of tolls, FasTrak is a great option since the FasTrak lanes move a lot quicker.  Assuming one doesn't get stuck in bad traffic, it is the quickest option, since all of the other options involve some additional planning and/or detours to a station and/or parking at the station.

One way rental car*: This has many of the disadvantages of the prior option, but if one is flying out of SFO, this may be worthwhile since you don't have to pay for parking once to get to SFO.  I have done this only once and that is because I needed to stay the night at a friend's place before flying out the next morning.

Amtrak*: The Capitol Corridor has service between Auburn and the South Bay.  It is quite pricey and if you can't get a ride to or from the station then you need to worry about getting there by car and parking or taking a cab to the station.  The trains are sometimes late and very occasionally they can be cancelled.  They have WiFi on some trains.  For getting into the city, they have Amtrak buses that one would connect to at the Emeryville station.

Amtrak+BART: Depending on where you're trying to get in the SF area (e.g. if you need to get to SFO, Amtrak won't get you there), another worthwhile option may be taking the Amtrak and then transferring to BART.  The recommended station for making the transfer is Richmond.  This option may not be suitable if one has a lot of luggage, though.

Car+BART*: Some folks like to avoid the bad traffic getting into San Francisco and also avoid paying expensive parking in the city.  They end up driving to a BART station. El Cerrito del Norte is supposed to be one of the better stations; it's easy to access from the highway, in a relatively safe area, and has cheap parking.  When I ended up using this method, I went to El Cerrito Plaza (different than El Cerrito del Norte, even though that's where I thought I was going!).  Parking at BART stations is free on weekends and holidays, round-trip fare is < $10 to most places in SF, and total trip time (driving from Rocklin to El Cerrito Plaza, buying a ticket, getting on the train, getting to the destination) was about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  This is really the best option for a trip that is only to the city (rather than to the Peninsula or South Bay).  BART stations also have long term parking for up to 30 days so one can park and go to SFO, but it apparently fills up (I have no experience with that).  It is possible to make a reservation for a parking spot, but you have to get there before 10 am on the day of the reservation in order to guarantee availability.

Door to door shuttle*: If SFO is the destination, Davis Airporter offers a door-to-door shuttle service.  It is a reasonable option for one passenger but it can get pricey for a family.  They charge extras if one has many pieces of baggage and detours to pick up and drop off passengers means budgeting extra time for the trip to the airport.  But it's perhaps the most convenient if one has a lot of luggage.  Their shuttle vans use natural gas.

Bus: Greyhound and Megabus also offer bus service to San Francisco.  Megabus is priced quite reasonably.  The downside is that bus rides aren't typically the most comfortable (at least that's the case for me) and the pickup and drop-off locations are very limited, compared to say Amtrak or BART.

Car+Ferry: There is a ferry service from Vallejo to the city.  One would need to drive to the ferry terminal and park there.

Amtrak+Ferry: You can start the trip by Amtrak and connect to the above-mentioned ferry service at Oakland Jack London Square to get to destinations such as Angel Island that are not served by Amtrak.

Airplane*: United offers service between SMF and SFO.  I have used this option when connecting to flights in SFO.  It is one of the worst options as the flights are often delayed and sometimes even cancelled resulting in missed connections.
If you have a favorite way of getting to San Francisco from Sacramento that is not listed here, let me know.  I'll update this post as and when I find out about others options.

South Bay

Getting to the South Bay by public transport is a challenge because one typically needs to have a car once one is there.  But if one is being picked up by friends, then the options are Amtrak (leaves from Sacramento), and ACE (much more affordable than Amtrak, but leaves from places that are halfway between Sacramento and South Bay, like Stockton.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Organic food industry in the USA

What's Holding Back the Organic Revolution? from the Organic Consumers Association provides a nice summary of the state of the organic food industry in the US.  Along with discussing the size of the industry, it also discusses the various challenges facing the industry and why it's not taking off as quickly as it could:
  • Cost of the food -- can be onerous for lower income families.  However the author points out that it can be a trade-off between pay now (for food) or pay later (for poor health).
  • Lack of time for meal preparation and easy access and availability of processed foods.
  • Lack of expertise (both at a nutrition and culinary level) for preparing meals with ingredients from scratch which causes people to depend on food from restaurants (mostly chain restaurants).
  • Fraudulent marketing and advertising, e.g. labeling foods as "all natural."  See, for example, this video by Only Organic.
Foodbabe is an excellent resource of what really goes into processed foods for both off-the-shelf products as well chain restaurants, along with tips for eating healthy.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Economic data

The following is a collection of economic data reported by Calculated Risk. Some day I hope to understand what all of this really means.  This post is a work in progress and will continue to be updated and organized over the next few months.  Even when it's almost done, this post will likely need to be maintained forever since links may change over time.  This is a summary of the data from Calculated Risk, including a rating for the importance of the data.

Doug Short also covers a number of these indicators in a much more accessible way--he has links to all of the most recent reports from one page, including trends.

Real-estate
GDP
Hotels & Restaurants
Manufacturing
Federal Reserve
Employment
Banking
  • Unofficial problem bank list. [Weekly]
  • Bank failures each Friday from the FDIC website. [Weekly]
General/Other
Economic predictions

From all of this data, and additional things like demographics, CalculatedRisk makes a few predictions on the economy

The following are some statistics that show some structural changes (for the worse) with the US economy, especially since the last down turn.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Simple investment portfolios

I have previously written about worry-free investing (my first blog post!).  I have more or less being following that approach (i.e. mostly fixed-income investments).  However, the monetary policy of the last few years in the US has made me start to rethink that approach.  Historically low interest rates (typically < 1% on a savings account) coupled with stocks going sky high (a nearly 200% gain since the low of March 2009) makes me feel like I'm "missing out."  In all likelihood, I will never actually implement any of these portfolios, but the primary reason for this, as with my post about ways to own gold, is to consolidate my learnings on this subject.  I will continue to add to this as I learn more about the subject.

The basic asset classes

Most simple portfolios comprise a weighting of 2 or more of the following asset classes.
  • Stocks (small cap, mid cap, large cap, ...)
  • Bonds (short term, mid term, long term, ...)
  • Real-estate
  • Precious metals
  • Cash
Simple portfolios

The following are are of the simple portfolios that are supposed to weather all economic times.  They are supposed to work on auto-pilot using a fixed allocation of various asset classes and so they require minimal maintenance.  These simple portfolios also tend to have better returns than many actively managed funds when measured over longer periods of time.
I should note that none of these portfolios was able to successfully dodge the financial crisis of 2008-2009.  In particular, here's an excellent article by Doug Short on the pros and cons of the Permanent Portfolio Fund, and another one about diversification.

There are variations of these to try to bring in more diversification, but I think that unnecessarily takes away from the simplicity.  If I ever decided to try something different than the worry-free investing approach, it would probably be one of these or a very minor modification of it, e.g. 20% in an S&P500 index fund and the rest in US treasuries or cash.

Several "lazy" portfolios are described here.

Timing the market

All of the above simple portfolios are of the set-and-forget type.  At most, the only maintenance that may be recommended would be rebalancing at the end of each quarter or at the end of the year to make sure the asset allocation hasn't moved too much off target.  The effect of rebalancing is widely debated.

Is it possible to time the market?  I'm not sure if it can be done reliably.  In the short term the answer is a definite "no."  In the long term, it may be possible by careful observation and interpretation of macroeconomic data.  I have been following several economic blogs since 2005, and only one of those blogs -- CalculatedRisk -- has made several correct predictions about the economy, including recession calls, and the bottom of the real-estate market in terms of home prices and inventory (see the "economic predictions" section towards the end of this post).  However, the author of that blog refuses to offer investing advice.  If he is actually able to call the next recession correctly, I think I will have to assume that timing the market is possible!

I recently came across this article from Doug Short (he updates this at the end of each month) which explains a market timing strategy based on moving averages as described in the Ivy Portfolio.  Doug's page is updated monthly with the signal that indicates whether to remain invested in the fund or stay in cash for each of 5 funds - VTI (total US stock market), VEU (world, ex-US), IEF (7-10 year treasuries), VNQ (US REIT), DBC (commodities).  Scott's Investments has a nice spreadsheet for the Ivy Portfolio that is updated in real-time.

Market valuation indicators

The following are some of the indicators used for measuring the valuation of the stock market (i.e. to determine whether stocks are over- or under-valued).  Because periods of over- and under-valuation can persist for long periods of time, they are perhaps only useful in terms of what to expect in the long term.  Additionally, there are other factors such as interest rates that affect the valuation at any given time.  But here are the indicators:
Some useful tools

Monday, June 30, 2014

Organizing financial and other papers

I'm not really sure how I got into organizing my paperwork at home, but it was somewhat inspired by how I observed people filing away their work at my first job.

Organizing approach

It's a pretty standard approach to organizing.  I use a bunch of hanging files in a small 2-drawer filing cabinet and have various categories -- one for each of the bank accounts, one for each of the utility companies, one for car records, one for every year of taxes, one for medical records (which I then later broke into physical, dental, optical, and mental), one for my flexible spending account (FSA), etc.

For longer term records that do not need day-to-day access (such as tax returns and supporting paper work, and FSAs from prior years), I use cardboard filing boxes such as this one from Bankers Box.











Financial records -- what to keep?

For the first few years, I kept everything.  Of course, after a decade or so, I noticed papers piling up.  The hanging folders were all bulging.  That's when I tried to figure out what needs to stay and what can go.  This page from Bankrate provides some guidance for what needs to stay and what can go.  I do hang on to all of my tax returns and since I started using an FSA, I have been hanging on to those records as well.  Other than that I tend to purge things early each year -- I hold on to bills and statements for at least a year but toss everything else.  There's always the option to go electronic and just keep these files such as bills and statements electronically, but for now, I still keep everything in paper.

Non-financial records

For non-financial records, I still hold on to everything, but I really ought to find a better way to organize this.  For instance, I have thought of transferring the records to an electronic form such as spreadsheet that is easily searchable.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Learning how to shave

This post is about my experiences with re-learning how to shave.

When I first started shaving, I was a college student in India, and I started with a twin blade razor.  I did use a brush to lather the cream, but I didn't know the significance of lathering and how to do it right.  After I came to the US, I started using various foams, gels, and brushless creams.  After a few years, I became aware of animal by-products used in these creams and started using vegan brands.  But through all of this I didn't experiment very much with razors.  I went from using a twin-blade cartridge on a Gillette Sensor, to a 3-blade cartridge--the Sensor 3 Excel.  I had tried a Gillette Mach 3 once because I had received a free sample, but did not like it.  Over time, the poor shaving habits resulted in shaves that were not as close, areas that I missed because they were difficult to get to, but more importantly I started getting a rash on my neck every time I shaved.  And it didn't seem to matter what cream I used.  I also noticed a gooey feeling from the sensor strip on the razor blade.

In this process, I found the information and the forums on Badger & Blade, as well as numerous videos on shaving on YouTube, to be an invaluable resource, especially the ones by ShaveNation, such as this one.

Shaving after a shower

My normal routine was to shave before my shower.  That's because it's how I saw my dad do it and I thought it was cleaner since any excess soaps gets rinsed off during the shower.  When I was in graduate school, a friend worked hard at convincing me to try shaving after a shower just once.  After many weeks, I finally gave in and tried it.   It made such a big difference to the shave that I never again shaved before a shower.

Using a brush to lather

I took this step after I came across at Art of Shaving store at one of the malls.  Art of Shaving was a small company back then, but has since been acquired by Proctor & Gamble.  I tried their cream and immediately found a big difference, even without a brush.  Their "silvertip" brushes seemed too expensive, and their regular ones too harsh, so after doing some research online, I found the Vulfix Super Badger to be reasonable.  I found that lathering with a brush made a huge difference to the quality of the shave.

Learning how to use a razor

Twin blade razors are often accused of causing ingrown hair which tend to cause razor burn and rash, but I wasn't ready for a double-edge razor.  They seemed to scary and one of the things that is often pointed out as being detrimental is the tendency of a user of a cartridge razor to apply too much pressure.  With double edge razors, the weight of the razor is supposed to do the job of "pulling" and no pressure should be used.

So as my training wheels, I decided to try the Merkur double-edge razor which came with a hefty metal handle.  With that razor I learned to use the weight of the razor to do the work.  I also read up about different passes (WTG - with the grain, ATG - against the grain, XTG - across the grain), and started to shave with the grain instead of using random strokes with no particular method.  I found this made some difference but I still had cases of rash on the neck and getting through a multi-day stubble was still difficult.

My first shave with a DE razor

In response to one of my posts asking whether it's necessary to use a DE to experience a good shave, someone responded saying "you owe it to yourself to try it."  I started researching razors and found that most were 3 piece styles with only a few that were twist-to-open.  Being afraid of injuring myself, I got a TTO which seemed to be safer with respect to loading the blade.  I have later found that, in general, 3-piece razors hold the blade much more securely in place and are thus able to deliver a better shave.  So I ended up getting an Edwin Jagger DE89 which is one of the more popular, highly rated styles recommended by both beginners and experience shavers.  The razor is supposed to be relatively mild (exposes less of the blade) and somewhat forgiving with respect to blade angle while shaving.

After watching the above video on YouTube several times, I gave it a shot.  I immediately noticed several things.  The razor left a clean track.  There was audible feedback as you could hear the razor slicing the hair.  And I found very little irritation in the neck.

Experimenting with blades

One great thing about shaving with a DE razor is that the blades are cheap.  Blades vary in terms of sharpness and how many shaves you can get from the blade.  I started with Astra, but have tried several.  My current favorites are Feather and Kai.  I have not experienced anything sharper than the Feather.  However I don't like that they have "goo" on them.  The goo supposedly holds them in place within the wrapper.  Kai blades do not have this goo.

Ongoing refinements with my technique

While I have been shaving with a DE for over 2 years now, I am still refining my technique.  I have learned about various terms used to rate the quality of shaves -- SAS (socially acceptable shave), CCS (close and comfortable shave), DFS (darn fine shave), BBS (baby butt smooth).  I still cannot claim to get BBS shaves, but I definitely do manage a DFS.

Manufacturers of stainless steel DE razors

The following is a list of companies that currently make stainless steel DE razors.  Stainless steel razors are typically of higher quality and durability than regular counterparts, which may be made of plastic, brass, zamak, or other materials.
The ones marked with an * appear to have been discontinued.

The only one that I have experience with on this list is the Feather AS-D2.  It is a very mild razor and there is a learning curve one has to go through to be able to use the razor efficiently.  Many new owners are discouraged because they find it overly mild.  However, using the proper blade angle, the razor delivers superb shaves that are free of any razor burn or irritation.  I have been very happy with mine.

A word on synthetic brushes

I am still on my first brush, but now that I have become aware of how the hair for the brush is obtained, my next brush will likely be a synthetic. From the reviews I've read, high-end synthetic brushes perform as well or even better than brushes made with badger hair.  The main negative is that they do not absorb water or heat.  As a result, they also do not require soaking before a shave (a big plus in my book!).

The two synthetic brushes that have received a lot of attention by the folks at Badger and Blade are the Plisson Fiber and the Muhle STFv2 (silver tip fibre version 2).

The Plisson is noted for its softness, its ability to splay easily, and the amount of lather it generates. Negatives are that it doesn't hold water and heat, and it also has less backbone and scrub than a badger brush.

The Muhle STFv2 is also very soft at the tips but it has more backbone. However, users have reported that it does not splay as easily as the Plisson. As with the Plisson, it does not retain heat or water like a badger brush would.

Update:

After having tried the Plisson myself (actually a Plisson Pour L'Occitane, but the knot is identical), I can say with near certainty that I probably won't ever go back to using a badger brush.  The brush builds lather amazingly quickly and it's super soft on the face.

DE blades

These are some of the blades that I have tried. The ones that I like are marked with an '*'.   Blades marked with a # do not have wax spots on them.
  • Astra (Russia) 
  • Bic (Greece)*#
  • Bolzano (Germany)
  • Derby (Turkey) 
  • Feather (Japan)* 
  • Gillette 7 O'clock Black (India)* 
  • Gillette Blue (Russia)
  • Gillette Super Thin (Vietnam)
  • Kai (Japan)*#
  • Merkur (Germany) 
  • Personna Med (USA)#
  • Timor (Germany)
My all time favorite blade is the Kai. Incidentally, they are also the most pricey. The blades are unmarked and do not have the "goo" (wax spots) that most blades have on them to stick them to the packaging. The Feather is super sharp and effortlessly slices through multiple days of growth, but they do have "goo" on both sides of the blade which means I have to "pluck" it out of its wrapper and also "pluck" it off the razor.  Some other blades without goo recommended by others include Rapira (any variety), Ladas, and Laser Ultra.

Almost all blades nowadays are coated with PTFE (teflon).  If I come across some that are not coated with teflon I will update this page.

Shaving 101 has reviewed several blades and rates them by sharpness.

Shaving creams and soaps

Below are some of the shaving creams I have tried.  The ones that I like are marked with an '*'.
  • Art of Shaving [Sandalwood, Unscented] (UK, USA)
  • Castle & Forbes [Lime] (UK)
  • La Cigale Savon Barbe Aloe Vera Shaving Soap (France)
  • Muhle Organic (Germany)*
  • St. James of London (UK) -- samples
  • The Gentlemen's Refinery [Standard, Unscented] (Canada) -- samples
  • XPEC [Original, Unscented] (Italy)
My favorite so far has been the Muhle Organic.  I find it to be the least irritating for my skin, although some of the other creams (e.g. XPEC) provide more slick.

I have extremely sensitive skin and I have found (thanks to someone in the forums at Badger & Blade) that I am sensitive to creams that contain Triethanolamine.  These creams immediately cause a mild burning sensation while lathering.  Unfortunately, most of the creams contain it and I now avoid purchasing such creams.  However, I have also tried creams and soaps without this ingredient that also cause burning.

More information

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Amazing grace

This Saturday at the Yoga Farm, following the meditation and chanting, they had a talent show by some of the resident staff members.  One of the staff members, Hara Mahadev, shared a story about the background of the famous hymn Amazing Grace by John Newton.  He had researched Newton's life and narrated various snippets of it.

Newton had spent a good part of his life at sea and working in the slave trade and was later instrumental in getting the slave trade abolished.  His entire life was marked by much strife and upheaval including his mother's death when he was 7, his time as a slave in Africa and his subsequent rescue from that situation, and the miraculous saving of his ship from sinking during a storm.  Newton denied that the slave trade was the background for Amazing Grace.

Many of the details that Hara shared don't exactly match the articles I find on the 'net about this subject.  In fact, I also came across several different versions of the hymn.  Here are Hara's notes from his research on this subject.  And the following is the version of the hymn that he used.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Some useful tools for the Internet

Here are some tools that I find useful.
  • isup.me - Checks whether a site you're not able to reach is up.
  • Speakeasy Speed Test - Checks the upload and download speeds of your Internet connection.
  • Dr. Link Check - Free for up to 1000 links.   Occasionally reports false positives because some sites block the tool, and it times out on slow sites.
  • Adblock Plus - Surf the web without annoying ads!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My experience with cataracts

I was first diagnosed with cataracts around 2008 or 2009 during a routine eye exam (a yearly exam).  Even prior to that I used to feel some amount of cloudiness in the vision, but this was the first mention of cataract.  I was told it was very early and probably not even affecting the vision, but that wasn't true because I had already been feeling it.  I was 38 then and this is pretty early for being a cataract patient.  While I'm hearing of some cases of people in their 30's or 40's getting cataracts, they are rare.  It is more likely to affect people in their 60's and beyond.

During the next several years, until I finally had surgery in March 2014, I tried several things to reverse the cataracts using holistic methods.  The best I was able to achieve was an arresting of the condition, but by then my right eye was already very bad and the left eye was marginal.  Reading, using the computer, and driving all became increasingly difficult over time.  That I had a very visually intensive job as a computer engineer, and one that involved a lot of air travel and very erratic hours, only made the holistic approach more challenging.   I had to be very organized and carry all of these things with me on business trips.  I also had other health/metabolic issues affecting me at the same time.  Perhaps if the situation was different (not as demanding a job, no other significant health issues), I might have been able to arrest the development sooner and may have been able to delay surgery longer.  Delaying surgery is always a good idea because there might be new less invasive surgical techniques down the line, as also better lenses.  For example, the LenSx laser that I opted to use for my surgery was approved by the FDA only in 2012.

Natural remedies

But first, here are of the things that I tried, despite being told by all doctors that there is no natural remedy for this.  Googling for holistic solutions to cataract was a daily ritual for a long period of time, until I finally felt I had exhausted all possibilities.

I completely changed my diet based on Ayurveda to help with the condition--see my earlier post about using Ayurveda as a guide for diet.  I hardly ever cooked at home prior to that.  I had to learn how to cook simple foods from basic ingredients and tried to eliminate processed foods as much as I could.  I also attended two panchkarma sessions at the Ayurvedic Institute.  They told me about the making a triphala tea eye wash (see below for more details).

I contacted several Ayurvedic clinics in India including Kottakal, Sunethri, and Sreedhareeyam and was told that it is not possible to reverse a matured cataract.  (Update: A reader of this blog sent me a fourth center, which like Sreedhareeyam is focused on eye health -- Prakash Nethralaya.  I have not contacted them.)

I tried several things in the eyes, all separately at different times, not together.
  • Castor oil: This was mentioned to me by an Ayurvedic practitioner.  I tried this for a few months.  Did nothing as the cataracts kept getting worse.
  • Itone eyedrops: These are Ayurvedic drops.  I tried these for several months but they didn't do much.
  • Cineraria maritima:  These are homeopathic drops.  I tried these for several months but they didn't do much either.  Note that these are available in single-use vials from Boiron, but they just claim that it "soothes red and irritated eyes."
  • Triphala tea eyewash: This seemed to work reasonably well at arresting progress.  I was able to go several months without noticing much change, but still there was still slow progression. To make triphala tea, I would boil 1/2 teaspoon of triphala in one cup of water for about 5 minutes, wait till it cooled down and the sediment settled, and then filter it through a coffee filter (more like 3 or 4 filters).  I'd use some right away and store the remainder in the refrigerator for use over the next few days.  It is not recommended to keep the tea without refrigeration.
  • Khakhra Mul Ark/Dhak Ki Jadka eye drops: These are Ayurvedic drops.  The Khakhra Mul one is only available in India.  The Dhak can be purchased in the US from Kayakalpa.  These ones seem to work well at arresting the condition, but at least over the one year that I used them fairly regularly, they were not able to reverse the condition.
There is one eye drop that I did not try because I was not sure about the safety -- N-Acetyl-Carnosine. One holistic practitioner suggested putting a drop of honey in the eye, but there are so many types of honey that I wasn't sure about which one to use so I skipped that.

Along the way, I also came across this page which recommends a raw foods diet for curing cataract.  Since I wasn't ready for something like that because of other digestion/metabolic issues that I had going on, I am not able to report on whether or not it works.

Overall, I was quite disappointed that I wasn't able to reverse the cataracts holistically.  Also, the rate of progression of cataract was very fast in my case.  In < 5 years, the right eye went from being quite usable to extremely blurry.  And since I wasn't seeing much success during the process, it got very discouraging; I just didn't feel like trying anything else for the last year or so and instead just continued with whatever had given me some reasonable results (the triphala eyewash and dhak eye drops).

Cataract surgery

As I was pretty dependent on the left eye for all my tasks, when I first noticed the left eye getting worse I started to panic and scheduled surgery.  I had been seeing two surgeons in the area for this.  I was trying to decide whether to get laser-assisted surgery (the surgery is bladeless) or the regular type.  I decided to go with the laser-assisted surgery using the LenSx laser because it promised a quicker recovery and more accuracy when making the incision.  The only downside to the laser-assisted surgery is an increase in eye pressure during the procedure.  The surgeon probably would not recommend it if he thought it might be a problem.  

There are several choices for the intra-ocular lens (IOL) -- monofocal, multifocal, and accommodating.  I chose the monofocal lens which meant that I would need glasses or contacts for either reading or distance.  A couple of surgeons suggested I correct for near since that is how I spend most of my time -- indoors and working on a computer -- plus, I was already used to being dependent on glasses for distance.  Multifocal and accommodative lenses are harder to fit and people that have them report mixed satisfaction.

Day of Surgery

I went in to my afternoon appointment on an empty stomach.  After checking in and making the payment, I had to wait in the waiting room until it was time for pre-op.  In pre-op, they usually get an IV started to allow them to give patients medication for anesthesia/pain.  I refused anesthesia and the IV (I had previously discussed this with the doctor).

They put a dozen or so different drops in the eye for numbing and dilating it.  They put an x under the eye to be operated and put a patch on the other eye.   Then I was rolled in the room for the laser surgery.  The laser machine made some measurements and then made the incisions.   Then it chopped the lens with the cataract.  Next I was wheeled into the operation room where the lens was broken into bits using ultrasound, vacuumed out of the eye, and the IOL placed.  During this part of the procedure, since I wasn't under anesthesia I did feel some discomfort in the eye.  As soon as the surgery was done,  could see with the eye.  The lens used was an Alcon AcrySof IQ SN60WF IOL.

I was given some dark glasses and sent home.  At home my vision started to get cloudy.  I called the doctor and was told that was normal.  I also experienced a lot of watering from the eye.  And after a while nausea set in (not normal based on the literature I had received) and it persisted for the next couple of days.  

Post surgery

The day after surgery I went in for a checkup and was told the eye was healing fine.  The next day the eyelid appeared swollen.  I called and was asked to come in.  I went in and by then the swelling had subsided.  The doctor checked the eye and said everything looked fine.  I complained about a flickering sensation, kind of like strobe lights.  He said that was normal and it would subside.

Perhaps my biggest issue post surgery was being able to drive.  Because of the difference in image sizes between my myopic left eye and the operated right eye, it would simply not possible to wear eyeglasses as the brain couldn't reconcile the images.  Because the operated eye was corrected for near vision, I would eventually need a prescription to correct it for distance.  The only option was to use a contact lens in the left eye which I got on the 3rd day after surgery at my local Walmart vision center.  That seems to be working OK.  I had some experience wearing contact lenses during my high school and early college years, but then discontinued wearing them in my later college years because of eye irritation.  If one is very near-sighted, I'd strongly recommend using contact lenses before surgery to minimize the discomfort of unbalanced vision post surgery.  Unfortunately the doctors office offered little counseling in this area -- they were of the opinion that I should muddle my way through a week or two and get the second eye operated right away.  But I wanted the right eye to heal reasonably well before considering surgery for the second eye.

Post surgery log

One week -- I am still using the anti-inflammation drops, so I'm not sure how the eye will feel once I stop those.  I am also experiencing some flickering in the vision and at times it's quite bothersome and requires that I shut  my eyes.

Two weeks -- The flickering is still there.  The doctor's office says this is normal and may take several months to heal completely but that it should eventually subside.  There are also some other symptoms I've experience including intermittent pain the eye (despite using the anti-inflammation drops), occasionally feelings of fogginess with distance vision and night vision being affected, and one night I had a burning sensation and watering after using the anti-inflammation drops.  I also occasionally have the sensation of a drop of water in the upper right corner of the eye.   I wish the doctor's office had been better with communicating what to expect after surgery.  They seem a lot less responsive to questions and concerns, which is quite disappointing.  While it may be a routine surgery for them, it's my first time going through this experience.  If they had a sheet detailing various "normal" side effects that one might experience for each lens type that would have been extremely helpful.  Is it really that hard to do?

Three weeks -- Still experiencing the flickering and also the feeling of a drop of water in the upper right corner.  Today was my first day without the steroid inflammation drops, and so far the eye feels OK.  No unusual irritation, pain (occasional slight dull pain but that could just be due to eye strain), or significant foreign object sensation (slight intermittent sensations are there).

Four weeks -- Still experiencing flickering and the feeling of looking through a drop of water at the top right corner of the eye.  Very occasional foreign body sensation.  Had a followup appointment with the doctor.  He said it should get better over the next couple of weeks but may take months to subside.

Five weeks -- Still experiencing flickering.  The feeling of looking through a drop of water is a little better , but still present.  Foreign body sensation is much more significant (almost a pinching sensation in the eye).  Occasionally observe that a certain area of vision is "smudgy."

Ten weeks -- Still experiencing flickering, but a little less.  The feeling of looking through a drop of water is still better, but I experience it occasionally.  Foreign body sensation, and burning sensation happen on and off and are sometimes quite significant.  Occasionally still observe smudgy areas.

~20 weeks -- Still experiencing flickering and in some lighting conditions (especially in bright sunlight or pointed light sources) it can be very bothersome.  Foreign body sensation is a bit less and I haven't had burning sensations recently.  Occasionally still observe smudgy areas. --

~2 Years -- flickering has improved over time, but I do notice that I have a droopy eyelid and it is unlikely that will ever improve (it hasn't improved in the last 2 years).  However, around August 2016, about 2 1/3 years following surgery, I started to experience the development of secondary cataract and the associated symptoms -- difficulty seeing signs at night, glare/sensitivity to light, etc.

References

A prospective study on postoperative pain after cataract surgery

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Notes on photography

These notes were taken by me at a photography class held at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, CA, in December 2002.  Film cameras were still pretty popular back then, but many of the concepts are still applicable even for digital cameras.

Camera Formats

The following formats are available
  • 110
  • 35 mm
  • 2 ¼ (2 and a quarter) 120 film
  • 4” x 5” view camera
  • 8” x 10” view camera
  • 16” x 20”
As cameras get larger, objects need to be more still.

Two types of 36 mm cameras:
  • Range finder (very silent)
  • SLR (single lens reflex)
4 kinds of SLR cameras
  • Manual
  • Aperture priority camera
  • Shutter priority camera
  • Programmable
The brain of a camera is the light meter.

Shutter and aperture

Shutter speed numbers begin with the letter t or b. Shutter speed can be 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 6000, 8000. Shutter speeds that are normally used are 60, 125, and 250.

The shutter speed determines the amount of time of the exposure. You cannot handhold a camera at a shutter speed slower than 1/60th of a second.

Most point & shoot cameras have a shutter speed of 125.

A 50 mm lens is a copy of the pupil of the human eye.
The aperture determines the amount of light. The fstops specifies the aperture. Most apertures end at 22 or 16. fstop numbers are like 2.8, 5.6, etc.

4 common aperture numbers:
  • 4 (silver dollar)
  • 5.6 (half dollar)
  • 8 (quarter dollar)
  • 11 (dime)
The lower the number, the wider the opening.

Depth of field

The camera sees only height and breadth, no depth. Shut one of your eyes to “see the lurch” (loss of depth).

With a shallow depth of field, the background tends to be blurred.

A depth of field of infinity is as far as the human eye can see.

99% of the time, you don’t need to focus the camera. The camera is focused from x to infinity, where x is the setting. You only have to worry about focusing when getting close.

Some cameras have a depth-of-field preview button.

The more you close an aperture down, the more the depth of field increases (like squinting your eyes).

Exposure compensation

Need to let more light in to get correct flesh tone for Caucasians (either 1 f-stop or increase the shutter speed).

Black needs to be under-exposed (let in less light).

White needs to be over-exposed (let in more light).

Gray does not need anything special.

All you need to worry about in photography is light.

5 generalizations about light
  • Bright light
  • Even light/soft light
  • Dark and overcast
  • Back light
  • Mixed light (e.g. bright shafts of light through the trees in Muir Woods)
Whenever you turn the camera on, it thinks the light is even. On a bright day, pictures will be over exposed.

In bright light, you need to under-expose the picture by 1 f-stop or 1 shutter speed. Your starting point is where the camera is when you turn it on.

When dark, you need to over-expose by 1 f-stop or 1 shutter speed.

On a backlit subject, always over-expose.

In a mixed light situation, under- or over-expose depending on what the light condition is in the most important part of the picture.

You have to over- and under-expose because you have a reflected meter (as opposed to an incident meter). No camera has an incident meter built into it. Every camera has a reflected light meter.

C-41 B&W

Film

Slide film/print film

Slide film is used for color publishing. Separate negatives for B&W, yellow, cyan, and magenta.

ISO, DIN, ASA – how fast the film is to light.
  • Slow (25-100) takes a lot of light to expose the film
  • Medium (200-400)
  • Fast (500-1600)
  • B&W – 3000
As the ISO increases, the quality may not be as good. You don’t have to worry about 1/60th of a second limitation if you have fast-enough film.

3 film makers
  • Kodak
  • Fuji
  • Agfa (a German brand that makes Kirkland film sold by Costco)
All film is very good. Kodakcolor favors red/brown. Kodak ektacolor favors blue. Fuji favors green. Agfa favors brown/red.

Amateur camera – not heavy-duty, only for occasional use.

Professional camera – designed for heavy-duty use (100’s of films a day).

Two types of film
  • Regular use film
  • Professional use film is refrigerated as soon as it is made until ready for use. The negatives must be developed within 24 hours.
Freshness matters. Useful to think of the banana analogy – green, ripe, over the hill.

Types of photographers
  • Amateur
  • Professional
  • Film Art
Filters

Get a filter to protect the lens. UV-haze filter is useful if you’re doing both B&W and color. You also get a daylight filter or skylight filter.
Polarizer filter is only used under 2 conditions – bright light, and large areas of snow. Also responsible for creating the “perfect blue” pictures of e.g. tropical seas. Do not over- or under-expose with a polarizer because it cuts light down 2 ½ times.

Ceran wrap, fog filters, and diffusion filters enhance “softness”.

K2, yellow filter gets you a picture like your eye sees it.

Sepia filter – everything is golden (has a brownish-gold effect).

Lenses
  • Wide angle
  • Telephoto and fixed focus
  • Zoom
Normal lens is 50 mm. The most common wide-angle lens is 28 mm.

50 mm sees at 56 degrees.

28 mm sees at 78 degrees.

Wide angle lens is useful for close events, e.g. group photos during family events (allows you to fit more in a frame).

55 mm lens is called a macro lens. Macro lens can record something life size and is used to photograph objects like beetles and stamps. It’s good for close-ups, but it goes up to infinity, so it’s good for almost everything. It has a narrower (46 degrees) field of vision.

Telephoto lenses range from 75 mm to 5000 mm. Used for portraits, wild life, etc. where you have to bring the picture to you. Has a smaller field of vision. Creates good portrait with blur in the background.

Zoom lenses: The focal length of the lens has to match the shutter speed of the camera in order to hand-hold it.

For example, at 28 mm, use 1/30th and at 50 mm, use 1/60th. Suppose you have a zoom lens from 28 mm to 250 mm. When it’s at 250 mm, the shutter speed should be adjusted to 250 as well.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Stress management -- A few good reads

The following are some of the books that I have found helpful going back 10 years or so when I first became aware of the tolls that stress was taking on my health.  I don't do much reading nowadays, so this is mostly a collection of old stuff.

Inspiration
  • Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss: Not very scientific but a good book to read just for inspiration. It reads well and even though I'm not a big reader, I was able to finish it in one long flight (from India).
Conventional psychology
Meditation
Stress and the adrenals
Resources for sleep