In search of a better tool…

I like citation managers. Their utility was impressed upon me when writing my M.Sc. thesis many moons ago. “What a time-saver,” I thought. And I was right.

However, I have an overwhelming desire to now use a merged citation manager and PDF annotation software. This started in about 2008 or 2009 with Zotero, but didn’t really take hold until Mendeley.

Mendeley looks polished, Mendeley lets you share libraries with collaborators, Mendeley has a lot of promise… And then one discovers that Mendeley lacks sorting search results. Lacks back-tracing and connecting citations to each other (something that Zotero permits). Lacks some very basic functions that are quickly becoming useful to me. And the support portal is just terrible; it’s where posts go to die. And there are two such portals: one geared toward support, and the other geared toward support.

However, quite recently, a fellow sufferer there pointed me to Qiqqa. Qiqqa isn’t nearly as polished-looking as Mendeley, but there’s an awful lot going on under the hood. I can automatically link citations to each other within Qiqqa. I can see other publications that one article’s authors have written. I can even do a kind of automated clustering analysis to see what broad domains and topics I’m looking at, and which articles fall into these categories.

It is incredible, and I might just take my money I was going to put toward Sente and buy a Premium membership to Qiqqa. I find the Sente forums two kinds of bad: first, they appear largely unmonitored, and a few questions I have asked have been left to rot; second, what might appear to be a private email to their support staff is actually a public post out on the support site–which can be disastrous. I would, however, rather pay a one-off license fee (Sente’s model) than an ongoing subscription fee (Qiqqa’s model, and Sente’s model for increased space). I appreciate the fact that Qiqqa is passing on Amazon cloud costs to the users of the cloud–and I actually think this aspect of pricing is more than reasonable–but I wish I could have a Premium-level experience, sans cloud syncing, for a fixed fee.

If you’re looking for a better tool, you could do an awful lot worse than Qiqqa. The time I do have invested in it suggests that there is powerful magic here.

I have a short overview of my own tool-use on my technology page, but what tools do you use? What aspects of each are most important and well-polished?


Confessions of a PhDumpling

Have any of you had success with weight loss while eating the elephant? Are there any secrets, or is it month after month of chipping away? Please share your experience in the comments section!

Over my tenure in graduate school, I have put on weight steadily. Each new circle of ghoulish hell has marked itself on me, and clothed me, out of necessity, in fat.

I wasn’t always fat. I always was heavy, certainly, but martial arts as a child and wrestling as a teenager kept me fit. I wallowed along for six post-wrestling years until two things happened. I broke my coccyx and slipped a couple of discs in my back in an accident, and I nearly blinded a friend playing racquetball. These two events convinced me that sports–racquetball, at least–were no longer options.

I have looked, once again, into tracking and logging “health and fitness” data[1]. While food is practically fixed by circumstance, exercise and sleep are not. I would like to change these health contributors I can, and be aware of those I cannot. Yet this is problematic. When I start tracking food, I historically get very anxious and end up eating between 800 and 1200 calories a day; not nearly enough. Because of this, and because this time the foods from which I may choose are largely out of my hands, a technically mediated solution to increase exercise is in order.

Academia has shifted my thinking over the years, shifted it from pull-the-trigger-and-barrel-onward to decision-by-committee. However, this is cumbersome, this is lengthy, this is seldom a happy event for all involved. Therefore, rather than wait for the perfect set-up, I am leaning toward starting as soon as possible. Simplify. There are two sides to this equation: input (food I shove into my face) and output (food I metabolically burn off). I will track eating via self-report, but technology can help me report activity.

I seek to do a couple of things:

  1. “Gamify” lumbering around more and plodding up stairs;
  2. Having an external force–in this case, both a display and a human besides myself–prod me to lumber and plod more.

It probably won’t be graceful. It probably won’t be glamorous. But hopefully this can serve as a reminder that little things, done often and routinely, yield big results.

On the technology side of the fence, here is my proposed setup:

With either the Fitbit Aria WiFi scale or the Withings WiFi Body scale (or the next revision, the Withings Body Analyzer scale), my interaction with all this data consists only of tracking food, exercise, and water[2] via the MyFitnessPal phone app. As it can recognize bar-codes, food entry is simple. I already track my daily water consumption, and I don’t plan on getting back into extensive weight-training[3], so the technical side of this transition should be simple enough.

If I am in a good place in the Fall (which means I’m seeing progress in both weight loss and academic status), I’ll probably buy the upcoming Core 2 armband (more details from their press release) for my birthday.

[1] What spurred this latest bout of activity was seeing my girlfriend’s incredible success with The Primal Diet, and my desire to buy her something fantastic for her birthday. This thing (Der Wunderbox!) would track her steps taken and stairs climbed, and evolve into our shared interest in the Fitbit One. And, of course, outliving graduate school.
[2] As described here, this is the supported way to integrate Fitbit and MyFitnessPal.
[3] Extensive here meaning working hard with weights over 5-7 days a week. I do, however, plan to work to muscle failure 3 times a week. If I can actually do this twice a week, it would be beneficial, as it would raise my BMR. Good question from a friend of mine.

Time [Mis-]Management & Tracking

I like to track time over projects.

I also like to think of very large projects as software–both require¬†iterative¬†attention, laborious meetings, extensive “back-end” work, and administrative oversight. The dissertation-as-software model doesn’t seem popular, though, so I am using tools in somewhat new ways.

Here are some graphics I made over a year ago (oof) to effectively draw a red, “you are here” X on the map.