Migration Complete

I’ve completed migrating my existing blog onto a page.ly-run environment. Though I’ve just started, I find page.ly to be an excellent service. It’s a step up from WordPress.com in that you can – you know – use plugins.

All I know for sure is that I have a much higher level of control over my themes. Eventually, my hope is to integrate Diigo and this blog even better so that it’s a suitable stop when you are searching for grant & manuscript submission information.

Though this step is completed, there is more to do. For those of you seeing this at my old home, point your browser to:

http://admintoolbox.org

I used to love art class, too

Right now, I’m working on the overall design of a poster, an html email notice, and a website for our upcoming October Scientific Symposium in downtown Seattle. It’s been a wonderful change from staring at grant application instructions.

Second Rate Design Isn’t That Bad

I’m no professional designer. You’re not going to find me anywhere near cutting edge, but I do a quite passable job in the world of science. Almost every conference notice is a botched, confused mess of a variety of fonts. Sometimes, it seems as though the author found a long list of cool effects and decided then and there to use every damned one of them.

When I’m critically reviewing my own work, I live with good enough. I end up asking: How much is enough time?

What’s Really Helped

Asking questions, kindly requesting materials, and acting deferential have all served me just as much as any technical skill I have. If I had a fresh idea at any point, it’s only thanks to the examples of others. As usual, it’s the collaborative nature of the internet, that makes this stuff move so smoothly.

A year or so after I arrived in Minneapolis, I got a job at a small, independent print shop. Those places actually existed at one time. Kinko’s was a blossoming newcomer at that time. I did a lot of Pagemaker-based graphic design during my time there.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand how I did my job without email, but I did. Nobody had email back then except the early adopters. There were pagers, but few cell phones. When you left the house, you weren’t going to answer any phone calls until you returned… how strange.

Old Print Shop

My time at an independent print shop in 1995 felt the way this looks.

The point, beyond pointless nostalgia, is an old saw: talk to people. That technology is our baseline.

My NIH/Cayuse Control Panel

A Confession

GCA Admin Assistant TrainingOccasionally, I completely space out on what I’m doing. I’ve been submitting R01 and R21 NIH applications for at least five years, now. In spite of that experience, I was completely confused yesterday, not knowing where to begin.

I ended up reading a document that I helped create, bewildered at how I could have forgotten so much of it after a few scant months. My response to that feeling is writing this post. My hope is that it can

The environment this is geared toward includes the following:

  1. Institutional divisions that include the scientist(s), administrators, and grants & contracts specialists.
  2. Use the Cayuse424 grant application system
  3. Are applying for (chiefly) NIH R01 & R21 mechanisms

Where to Start

What follows is a slightly-abridged version of the training materials we came up with internally at BRI. It’s a great way to quickly revisit the basics and get the mind on track. Much of what is found in this document is pulled from open-access information on the internet, particularly from the NIH websites.

View this document on Scribd

Other Helpful Links

What follows are some indispensable links linked with the above environmental criteria:

NIH Forms & Applications
NIH Forms & Applications: Click this image to see all relevant NIH forms.

SF424 Application and Electronic Submission Information
SF424 Application and Electronic Submission Information: Guides for preparing electronic grant applications using the SF424 (R&R) application forms

SF424 Application Guide

SF424 Application Guide: This is *indispensable* for all submissions as it has a field-by-field breakdown of all the requirements.

Odds & Ends

Any additional supporting links will find their way here as they are discovered. For now, here are two:

Email Composition Tips

There are two specific things that I do when I send emails and I’d like to share them for the benefit of you who might feel overwhelmed by information overload.

  1. Change the order of composition
  2. Delay sending your message for X-minutes

Change the order of composition

I was tipped to this by a great article over at EveryJoe.com. Basically, you need to change the order in which you write the parts of your email. The guts of the recommendation follows:

  1. Attach files – how many times have you sent an email and forgotten to attach the files? Attaching the files first also reinforces the purpose of the email which will be important in the following steps.
  2. Write Body – The body of the message in this case with attached files should be a simple statement of what action you would like the recipient to take on the attached files. Should they review them, are they to be printed for the upcoming seminar? State specifically what you want the reader to do in your email.
  3. Write Subject – Write the subject after the body because it should be a simple, stripped-down restatement of the body of the message. Clear and concise with key words at the beginning of the subject.
  4. Select Recipients – Choosing the recipients last performs a couple of helpful functions. First, if an email doesn’t have a recipient specified, you can’t accidentally send the email without the attachments or pausing long enough to make sure you actually want to hit “Send” on that email laced with your frustrations. Secondly, if you wait till the end you can further clarify exactly who needs to be included based on the actions and requested tasks specified in the email.

Delay sending your message for X-minutes

I’ve had a lot of “Oh Crap!” moments over the years. You probably know what I’m talking about: You hit the send button and then immediately regret it because you forgot an attachment or some other important element in the body text. This is resolved by instructing Outlook to wait X number of minutes before sending after you have already clicked the Send Button.

A quick search online nets a number of results for setting this up. So if the following doesn’t work with your version of Outlook, you may want to perform a google search to determine the best way to do it. I found what follows here.

  1. Open Outlook.
  2. Click on TOOLS, Rules & Alerts.
  3. Click on New Rule “Start from a blank rule”.
  4. Click in Step 1 box, “Check message after sending”.
  5. Next, click on “On this machine only”.
  6. Next, Click in Step 1 box, “Defer delivery by a number of minutes”.
  7. Click in Step 2 box, “a number of” enter the number of minutes (usually 1).
  8. Click on OK, click on Finish.

That’s it! With these two tools you should find a few common email composition annoyances addressed to some degree. There are various Outlook add-ons for those of you that want further control. But, in the mean time, these are two that you shouldn’t go without.

The Power of DropBox

Convenient Irritations

Modern conveniences have made it easy to  work from wherever you happen to be. Many scientists who write manuscripts do so on a bunch of different computers. For instance, my boss uses his work PC, his home PC, a laptop, and a netbook. It’s easy to get confused. For example, have you ever asked “Which version do I have on this computer?”

Worse, if your PC crashes, you may find that all the work you’ve been doing on your next paper is hopelessly lost. My institute, like others, has in-house network storage available to us. But it’s a hassle. You have to log in, check a document out, check it back in when you’re done again. Besides which, what was the address? Where do I go once I’m in?

The scientists I work with simply avoid it altogether because it requires effort and time they don’t have. The trick to making something like this work is that it has to be invisible. It must be so easy to use that they don’t even know they’re using it.

DropBox is Invisible

This is why I recommend using DropBox. This software creates a folder on your computer’s hard drive. Whenever you add, replace, save, or delete an item in this folder, the changes are sent to the DropBox server. On any other computer where you have DropBox installed, the changes are made instantly.

All you need to do is save stuff here and your work is backed up. Not currently connected to the internet? No problem. Once you reconnect, it will synchronize the files automatically. If there is any kind of conflict (ie – a file was edited in two locations), it will retain both copies and note the conflict in the file name.

Even more, the service will keep previous iterations of your files going back 30 days, just in case you need to pull a previous revision. If you are on a PC that doesn’t have DropBox installed, you can access your files through the web.

DropBox

All you have to do is click this image, visit the site, and download the software. Setup is simple.

How to Set it Up

  1. Click on the DropBox logo to the right.
  2. Download the software and then follow the instructions.
  3. The software will guide you through the setup process. That’s it.

Security

This is a big concern at almost any company. Fortunately, they have us covered. The following is from the Features page.

  1. Shared folders are viewable only by people you invite.
  2. All transmission of file data and metadata occurs over an encrypted channel (SSL).
  3. All files stored on Dropbox servers are encrypted (AES-256) and are inaccessible without your account password.
  4. Dropbox website and client software have been hardened against attacks from hackers.
  5. Dropbox employees are not able to view any user’s files.
  6. Online access to your files requires your username and password.
  7. Public files are only viewable by people who have a link to the file(s). Public folders are not browsable or searchable.

Did I Mention It’s Free?

2 gigabytes of storage is completely free. There’s a monthly hosting charge for additional storage, but for free that is quite a lot of storage space. I haven’t needed to purchase anything additional for some time, though I could see how power users would find $9.95 dirt cheap for 50 gigs of reliable storage.

Over the past year this software has revolutionized how I manage my duties. I use Microsoft OneNote for all my workflow management. I will find myself struck by inspiration when I’m home, rush to the computer, type in some notes, and then forget about it. When I return to work, my notebooks are already updated. I simply type and forget and between OneNote and DropBox, I don’t miss a beat. I don’t forget.

System crashes aren’t the ordeal they once were, either. All the most critical stuff I have is placed in my DropBox so I can always obtain them. That’s the power of DropBox. I know you will find this software quite useful.

I Didn’t See That One Coming

From Left Field

The folks at BoingBoing pointed out a new journal called The Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, which is accepting manuscripts now. Part of the brief description of the journal follows.

Successful research often leads through reasonable yet unsuccessful approaches and unexpected discoveries. Indeed the history of science is rife with examples of important discoveries arising from such results. In particular, two of today’s most fruitful areas of research, computational sciences and life sciences, have no major venues in which such intermediate results can be discussed. It is our belief that a forum for and dialogue on serendipitous and unexpected results in these areas will provide valuable insight and inform modern research practices.

This journal sounds like the sort of thing that should have been soliciting manuscripts years ago, but here they are asking for inaugural issue submissions. I’m interested in this because there isn’t a publication dedicated to interesting mistakes that lead to something new.

Negative data is to be shunned due to the publishing biases present in scientific literature. This is a shame because mistakes are such a valuable part of the learning process. If anyone knows of other publications like this that are outside the mainstream (omitting quackery, obviously), I’d love to know about them.

Improving the Scientific Publishing Model

Over at Seed Magazine, there is a great article by Evan Learner about the differences between conventional and scientific publishing. He has some interesting thoughts about the changes that could be in store.

One response to problems associated with this kind of feedback loop is the open access movement. At the forefront, the Public Library of Science turns the fiduciary relationship between authors and journals inside out, charging authors $2900 an article for the privilege of publication.

Dave Winer, the new media pioneer and now NYU guest professor of journalism, has an idea that could put this concept to work for popular publishing: Let people pay to have their content—or a link to it—appear on the Times’ website as a kind of contextual advertising. Bill Gates could buy a content ad to run next to the announcement of the Apple Tablet, or as Winer says “I would definitely pay for a spot next to every cockamamie piece David Carr writes explaining the realities of the news business.”

Whether Winer is willing to part with several thousand dollars (or perhaps considerably more) for every Carr column is another matter entirely. Plummeting advertising rates may be at the heart of the discussion of online journalism’s business model, but it’s doubtful they will sink low enough for individuals (aside from the inordinately well-heeled) to buy on a regular basis.

That link above points to another article wherein the objective is clarified further:

In other words, the reporter makes his or her choices of who to quote or what angle to cover in their story, but we all know there are lots of ways to slice it. Why shouldn’t I be able to, off on the side, give the readers another point of view, assuming I’m willing to pay for the priviledge?

This potentially puts all of us on the same footing as the Times, without the Times having to give us any authority. They disclaim responsibility for what’s said in the right margin. “That’s just how we pay the bills,” says their editor.

I’m not paying to read the Times. I used to, but I don’t anymore. It’s not like buying the latest gadget from Steve Jobs. Paying the Times to read their stuff doesn’t give me sweaty palms. But blowing a few bucks to get my thoughts into the flow alongside theirs, now that’s something I’d pay for.

Imagine if this kind of thinking were a part of the scientific publishing process. It could potentially drive the up-front price of publishing to, say, JEM, down to a more reasonable level, while allowing other competing scientists to state their piece in the same info-space.

This is all a fast-and-loose look at it, and I sure don’t claim to know all the little unforeseen problems that will crop up. But it’s worth considering how it may be possible to improve a model that clearly needs some work.

Organize your Desktop with Fences

Among the tools I use to keep my desktop organized is a wonderful program from Stardock Software called Fences.

Fences is a program that helps you organize your desktop and can hide your icons when they are not in use.

Clean and organize your desktop by creating shaded areas which become movable and sizable containers for your icons. Double click blank spaces on your desktop and all your fences will fade out, and back.

That’s the description from the site. More than just creating a bunch of borders for your icons, though, is that you can automatically move files of a certain type into a fence.

For instance, when I take a screenshot for inclusion into an email, I save it to my desktop. Fences automatically moves to the Graphics fence. When I save a PDF or Word document to my desktop, it is moved to the Documents fence.

This may not seem like much, but if you have a desktop that’s filled with icons, the program can automatically group things in a logical way. The simple act of grouping can keep you from having too many of those moments when you’re scanning your desktop for five-to-ten seconds each time.

I don’t have a desktop filled with icons and it’s still useful. Because I have virtually no icons on my desktop, I know that anything there is effectively in process. Once completed, I move the files to where they “live.” Fences is a program that smooths my workload in an effortless way.

There are free and pro versions of this software, but even the free version has enough functionality to be quite useful. You can check them out on the download page here.

Happy MLK Day

It’s Martin Luther King day and I’m at work while so many students and government workers get to stay home and reflect on the day’s meaning. Well, they get to stay home (at least), but in the spirit of reflection, I’d like to offer the following tools to help:

Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

Along with the iconic speech there is MLK’s letter while staying in the Birmingham Jail. The version that I linked to is a color coded analysis of his rhetorical technique. It’s quite useful for seeing why it is so powerful.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers? (from the letter)

There are a ton of other resources, but these are the two that remain powerful and hopeful. There’s a great deal more work to be done to bring King’s desires to fruition, but today we reflect.

The Importance of Clarity

As I write this, I just got through submitting a PostDoc grant application. What should have been a pretty cut-and-dry submission took far longer than expected. The scientist I did this work for was fantastic. She was very thorough, communicated throughout the process, and did not wait until the last minute to get her work done.

The problem was with the institution requesting the information. They utilize an online submission system and the system offers PDF instructions for download. The problem is that the instructions are out of date. I had to go to their home website to find the up-to-date instructions. That seemed harmless enough. These things happen.

But then I download the most up to date instructions and find that my problems had just begun. Throughout the instructions there were overlapping requirements and unclear phrasing. A list of required documents was offered, but there was a separate list that showed them in the order they want them in. Worse, it was missing some of the documents from the original list.

The evidential enclosures were supposed to include a bunch of supporting documents, but these were asked for outside the evidential enclosures. If I had done exactly what they’d ask for, they’d receive multiple copies of the same document.

I had to submit an NIH biosketch or a CV. I can’t really tell because they asked for both in one section, just NIH in another, and elsewhere alluded that just a CV would be fine. Also, the biosketch should be in NIH format, but they strictly demand everything in 1″ margins when the NIH opts for half-inch margins for all their documents.

The online system was better than their published PDF, but it still had issues. I was unsure if the Appendices should be in one big file, or split out based upon their different contents. They demand all the materials to be uploaded and even provide very clear naming conventions, but there aren’t enough categories for the things they want.

You’re Kidding, Right?

On the last page of the instructions was the following phrase: “Applications which do not meet the requirements, in content or format will not be reviewed.” I wonder if they’ve ever awarded any funding.

If you ever need to develop instructions, I recommend that you actually test them. Individually, any of these errors would be harmless, but collectively they point to a process that was not tested internally. What’s more, it’s not just my time being absorbed, but theirs as well.

Imagine that an institute is awarding money and they receive 100 different applications. Based on what I just experienced, they are likely to receive a wide variety of submissions. This makes it more difficult for them to properly review what they’ve received.

Perspective

I’m not writing this in order to beat up on them, but to express how frustrating it is for all of us when there’s a lack of clarity. Their processes indicate that there’s been some kind of shake-up – perhaps some people left, or they’re overworked, or preoccupied with other endeavors. I know it’s just paperwork and there’s nothing scientific folks hate more than dealing with excessive paperwork.

But there’s a reason that NIH – the bastion of big-government science funding – got all their paperwork in order. It saves them – and all of us – valuable time that we can use to do science, not write papers asking for money. If you work for a fund-granting organization and would like recommendations about how to streamline your applications, ask the folks doing the grunt work at the institutions applying. You’ll find that they are more than happy to offer their perspective. I know I am.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.