Monthly Archives: July 2011

New Campus Street Addresses

I mentioned this in a post last weekend, but my campus, Virginia Tech, has just assigned street addresses to all buildings. I had encountered this fact earlier this summer, while trying to find a ZIP+4 for my campus address for a form that insisted on it, and so I didn’t realize that it hadn’t officially been announced. So, I was a bit surprised when the press release came out today. The new addresses are in effect starting on Monday.

Interestingly, the US Postal Service website does not, as of now, recognize the new addresses as legitimate (at least not for my building). Google Maps can find the street, but doesn’t recognize the street number, either. I’m guessing my in-car navigation system won’t do any better.

On the plus side, I have updated my subversive letterhead template with the new address. (What makes my letterhead subversive? I used Helvetica instead of the vile Arial which the university specifies.)

A Wrong Turn at NSF

The National Science Foundation has taken a bad procedural turn in the last few months. This post is intended to bring this change to the attention of a broader audience and maybe ignite a bit of pushback.

First, some background. Until a few months ago, a typical constraint on proposals for large, cross-cutting awards at NSF was as follows: The number of preliminary proposals per institution was capped, typically at three. Full proposals were by invitation only, with invitations issued on the basis of peer review of the preliminary proposals.

At a large institution like mine, these constraints implied a three stage selection process: (1) Interested faculty submit briefs to an internal competition. (2) Winners of the internal competition are permitted to submit preliminary proposals to NSF. (3) Those who are invited submit full proposals to NSF.

This was, in my opinion, basically a sound process. By limiting the number of preliminary proposals per institution and controlling the number of invitations issued for full proposals, NSF had fairly good control on their reviewing workload. Preliminary proposals required significantly less time and effort to prepare than full proposals, and internal proposals significantly less than that. And the amount of time required to review preliminary (and internal) proposals was also significantly reduced. So, the amount of time invested in the process was roughly proportional to the likelihood of success for the proposer, and the amount of review time per proposal was also roughly proportional to the expected investment in the project at each stage.

Furthermore, I liked the preliminary proposal process. Preliminary proposals were peer reviewed, and I always received excellent feedback on them. (Despite having not yet been invited to submit a full proposal in response to one of my preliminary proposals!)

I don’t much like the internal proposal selection process, but it is serviceable. The problem with the internal process is that there are a limited number of experts in a given area within a university, and all of the experts in a particular area tend to have significant conflicts of interest with each other. So, it is difficult to provide a high quality internal review process. But, with three slots (or so), I always felt like I had a fair chance to make my case. (A typical number of entrants in these internal competitions at my institution, at least the ones that I was a part of, was 6–12.)

Unfortunately, in the last six months or so, NSF has changed the constraints on several programs. (IGERT was one that I encountered earlier in the year with this new process, but it was not the first. PIRE is the most recent victim.) Specifically, they have eliminated the preliminary proposal phase. Instead, they have limited universities to, in the case of both IGERT and PIRE, one full proposal per program.

From talking to my sources at NSF, a driving factor for this change was complaints received from people who didn’t like the preliminary proposal process. Specifically, they felt that the time invested in the preliminary proposal was too great for them not to have the opportunity to submit a full proposal. If true, then this is a case of NSF listening to squeaky wheels. Isn’t it better to spend the moderate amount of time on a preliminary proposal and get some feedback than to spend the enormous amount of time required for a full proposal only to still end up with no money? The people who complained about this are idiots.

Now, personally, I have to believe that the NSF may also have been looking to reduce the amount of resources required for reviewing these programs. While reviewing a preliminary proposal is less work than reviewing a full proposal, it’s probably still at least ⅔ the work of a full proposal to review. So, the savings in reviewer and program officer time and effort by eliminating preliminary proposals are surely significant.

But the cure is much worse than the disease. It shifts the burden of reviewing onto the internal review process, which was already the weak link. In addition to the difficulties cited above, the internal process also has no mechanism for balancing national interests and priorities the way that NSF can, as it must now select a single winner. Thus, it is now left to a university research office to decide whether to put forward a proposal to revolutionize automobile safety or one to study the chemistry of water treatment or one to explore the mathematics of finite fields. This is not a decision that a university research office is well positioned to make, and, despite their best efforts, it probably leads to supporting flashier research at the expense of potentially fundamental advances.

So, memo to NSF: Ignore the complainers, invest in the peer review process, and bring back the preliminary proposal!

iBank

IbankIcon

For years and years, I complained about Quicken. The Mac products were not up to snuff, to the extent that I was running the Windows version in a VM (after briefly trying the now defunct Quicken for Mac). The user interface was terrible. The report options sometimes didn’t work as expected. And to top it off the software was relatively expensive, and Intuit worked hard to push upgrades (sunsetting old versions and support for their online services relatively quickly) and to upsell an array of additional products and services (checks, credit cards, backup, etc.).

But I had tried unsuccessfully to get out from under the Quicken thumb for several years. I had played with several of the indie offerings for Mac, and I had also looked at the online alternatives. At one point, I convinced myself that I could make do with Mint and a spreadsheet, a delusion that lasted for perhaps a few hours. (And, yes, Mint was later purchased by Intuit, which would have been uncomfortable, to say the least.)

But late last summer, iBank came to my attention. And, on a glance, it looked like it might actually meet my needs. So, last September I made the leap. I fully expected that I might have to switch back, but nearly a year later, I’m still with iBank. And with any luck at all, I’ll never send Intuit another cent. (I also switched my taxes this year from TurboTax to an online product called TaxAct.)

First, the good. And, frankly, in and of itself this is great: iBank is a perfectly serviceable Quicken alternative for me. I can’t speak for the small business features available in some flavors of Quicken, like invoicing, because I’ve never used them. But I use quite a few personal finance features: I have a mortgage, regular investment accounts, retirement accounts, educational savings accounts for my children, and a small consulting business. And iBank let’s me do most everything that Quicken could do. I can download transactions for the same credit card and bank accounts as before. I can generate the reports that I need to keep my budget in order. (I never used Quicken’s budgeting feature, and I haven’t tried iBank’s. I keep my budget in a separate spreadsheet.) I have access to my full transaction history (more on that in a moment).

But, I do have a few complaints:

  • Generally, the UI is not as polished as I’ve come to expect from native Mac applications. Lots of things are awkward or require more clicks than should be necessary. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly the problem(s)—I’m no UI designer. But the whole thing is just more cluttered and clunky than I think it could be. On the other hand, it’s certainly better than either Quicken for Mac or Quicken for Windows. And the more polished Mac financial apps, which I won’t name here, were massively underpowered. So there you go.

  • One area that is particularly lacking is updating retirement accounts. Some retirement accounts send me quarterly statements. I have no desire to enter transactions on these accounts, as there are 30+ transactions a month (5 securities × 3 accounts × 2 pay periods). Quicken would let you enter a few figures off the monthly statement and then generate appropriate transactions to fix things up. As far as I can tell, iBank has no such feature. So, I wind up just entering appropriate “fix up” transactions manually, following Quicken’s lead. It’s still an order of magnitude simpler than entering all the transactions, but it takes me about 30–45 minutes per quarter. (Basically, you enter a transaction for your total employer contribution for the quarter, where appropriate. Then a transfer to nowhere that empties the cash out of the account. Then incoming transfers of shares from nowhere to account for purchases.)

  • The import process was painful. It involved exporting all of my old data in QIF format and then importing it. And the import process duplicated some, but not all, transfers between accounts. So, after the import one had to go through each account and track down the duplicate transfers until things were balanced. To be fair, though, this is exactly the same process that was required to move from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for Mac and back. Plus, I’ve heard that the ability to import from Quicken has been improved recently, although I have no personal experience with that.

In short, I recommend iBank with only a few minor reservations. Of course, your mileage may vary, particularly if your needs are dramatically different from mine. I’m pretty happy to have finally escaped the Intuit-industrial complex myself, though.

A Silly TextExpander Snippet and Giving Directions

I have finally started using TextExpander. I tried it once before, but I never really got into it. But this time I’m taking a more measured approach, and adding a few snippets at a time as I see utility. I’m still not completely sold, but it certainly has its uses.

One thing I came up with that I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere before: A TextExpander snippet for directions. Several times a year, I find myself needing to give someone directions to my home or office. Previously, generating these meant either writing them anew (not difficult, but repetitive and time consuming) or digging out an old email with directions that I could copy and modify (also potentially time consuming, since I could rarely remember exactly where to find them).

So, I created three TextExpander snippets. (Of course, I could have just as easily put these into a text file or some other repository of frequently used text. So this is not really specific to TextExpander. That’s just my current implementation.) Two of them are directions to my home—one from out-of-town and one from within Blacksburg. (Of course, the latter is basically a subset of the former, with the out-of-town directions starting at the interstate and the in-town directions starting from a well-known intersection. But I find both versions useful enough to have.) The other is directions to my office, for which I really only need an out-of-town version. (Giving the name of my building and my office number is usually sufficient for people in-town.) The office directions also include information about parking, although that changes a bit from case to case.

I don’t see a lot of utility to trying to provide step-by-step instructions here. If you have TextExpander and know how to make snippets, then you can figure it out. If you don’t, then there are better places to start.

People have told me that I give excellent directions, though, so let me use the remainder of this post to give a bit of advice on that front. It strikes me that with the prevalence of navigation systems and apps, the ability to give good directions will quickly become a lost art. (Though, perhaps the need for them will also vanish.) So, the first piece of advice is to provide a navigation-system-friendly street address. (This can be a challenge in some cases, though. Until recently, none of the buildings on our campus had street addresses. This has now been remedied for just this reason.)

For the directions themselves, though: provide landmarks and street names (or route numbers for major highways) for each step. Some people (like me) navigate primarily by street names, highways, and route numbers; others (like my wife) primarily by landmarks. And providing only one or the other will render your directions difficult for the other group to use. Note that landmarks can be simple: “The first right after crossing the bridge over the highway” is sufficient.

I would augment this advice with one additional note: A map helps some people immensely. This was always true, but was once sometimes a challenge to provide. (I have many memories of my father sketching maps on napkins and scrap paper.) Now, though, it’s easy to create a map with Google Maps and provide a link. I include such a link in my snippets.

Discovering the Obvious

Growing up, I often had music on while working. Sometime around graduate school, though, I figured out that I was more productive when I wasn’t listening to music.  That is:

[\mbox{productivity}_\mbox{silence} > \mbox{productivity}_\mbox{music}.]

What I failed to realize at the time, though, and have come to realize in the last few months is that

[\mbox{productivity}_\mbox{music} \gg \mbox{productivity}_\mbox{procrastination}.]

Like I said in the title, this should be totally obvious. But it took me nearly 34 years to learn it. 1

Beyond being obvious, I find that if I start the music and start working, then if I reach a point of intensive concentration at which the music becomes distracting, it’s easy to hit pause. And better than half the time, I keep working without restarting the music, even when I get past the place of intensive concentration.

I feel pretty stupid writing this down, but maybe it can save someone a few years.2


  1. The inequalities work the same if you substitute “beer” for “music” (and “water” for “silence”), although that’s probably only true in moderation, and I only recommend that in the evening at the home office. 

  2. This post in part courtesy of Dr. Drang’s fork of PHP Markdown Extra, which I just installed today for the primary purpose of adding footnotes to this post.3 Dr. Drang modified Michel Fortin’s PHP Markdown Extra plugin to support math formatted for jsMath or MathJax. 

  3. In fact, a strong case could be made that this post and installing a plugin to support it, falls squarely in the procrastination category. Although I’ve had an otherwise blazingly productive morning, which I’ll get back to now. 

Like a Fugue of Evaded Responsibility

As I mentioned recently on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve started reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. It’s terrific, as expected. A Virginia Tech librarian described it as “the book that should have been called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” (After reading the Wikipedia page, though, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is now on my list, too.)

But I thought the following was neat—this first paragraph would have been perfect for an Independence Day post. It’s from a conversation between several (3?) IRS agents who are, I think, stuck in an elevator and having a conversation about civics, corporations, death, taxes, philosophy, and so on.

Apologies in advance for any typos.

‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and it will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and now that I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their since of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled  all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of government.’

And continuing a couple of pages later, think of this in light of the appalling 2010 Citizens United decision:

‘It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?’ ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ ‘Corporations make the pie. They make it and we eat it.’ ‘It’s probably part of my naïveté that I don’t want to put the issue in political terms when it’s probably irreducibly political. Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites.’ ‘You can blame some of it on corporations and advertising surely.’ ‘I don’t think of corporations as citizens, though. Corporations are machines for producing profit; that’s what they’re ingeniously designed to do. It’s ridiculous to ascribe civic obligations or moral responsibilities to corporations.’ ‘But the whole dark genius of corporations is that they allow for individual reward without individual obligation. The workers’ obligations are to the executives, and the executives’ obligations are to the CEO, and the CEO’s obligation is to the Board of Directors, and the Board’s obligation is to the stockholders, who are also the same customers the corporation will screw over at the very earliest opportunity in the name of profit, which profits are distributed to the very stockholders-slash-customers they’ve been f[–]ing over in their own name. It’s like a fugue of evaded responsibility.’

I’m already looking for opportunities to use that last sentence in a meeting. It’s like a fugue of evaded responsibility.