Thursday, April 28, 2011

Business travel for newbies

A new graduate student recently attended their first conference, and was a bit confused as to what "counted" when filling out their expense report. So I thought I'd make a post about this topic in case anyone else was new to this. 

Every institution is different, but I'm generally of the opinion that from the minute your leave your house to the minute you get back you are on the clock, and everything "counts". (Assuming you're not also taking personal travel during the business trip, but that's an entirely different post). 

There are some things that will almost always be reimbursed - taxis, busses, trains, airplanes, rental cars, hotels, conference registration. Some things are usually reimbursed - internet usage, business-related telephone calls, meals. Some things are usually not reimbursed - purchasing toiletries, souvenirs, entertainment, etc.

Sometimes something you think might not be reimbursed is, like room service or dry cleaning, and sometimes something you think will be reimbursed won't (e.g., upgrading from a $45/day car rental to a $46/day car rental of a larger size. I really wish I was joking on this one.)

Some US-based institutions grant employees "per diem" for non-lodging related expenses. This is a fixed sum based on location, and is meant to include food and "incidentals". It is given as a lump sum to the employee, pro-rated for the entire trip. If you're able to eat cheaply, you often end up making money on your business trips instead of just breaking even, which is pretty nice.

Other institutions want you to save all of your receipts, and itemize every expense. If you go out to dinner at a conference with 34 people it can get a bit tricky, some people get around this by asking for separate checks or getting multiple copies of the big check circling what they had. One colleague takes photographs with their phone to save time, which I think is pretty clever.

In any case, it's always worth saving all receipts and trying for reimbursement. There's no reason to be shy, or sweat over an expense you're not sure is reimbursable. Usually the worse that will happen is you'll be told "no". 

Oh, one more thing. When you're on business travel, don't feel like you are required to share a room, stay in a roach-infested motel, or sleep on someone's couch. By the same token, don't stay at the Westin when there's a perfectly decent modestly priced place across the street. Be reasonable, and the people paying for your trip hopefully will be too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sony! Soni! Soné!

I am very disappointed in you.

You get hacked, have 77 million credit and debit card numbers stolen but wait one week before telling your customers. And now you face a class action lawsuit, a senator demanding answers, and possibly lots of "angry mums". (Watch out for those angry mums! Like Bob! Or is he a daisy?)

And, given your track record on security (i.e., installing rootkits on customer's machines), you're not really in a good place right now.

The right thing to have done would have been come clean initially. Be honest with your customers from the start - "We stored information we shouldn't have, we didn't encrypt your data, and it's all been stolen. Call your bank and change your debit and credit card numbers."

Other companies, please take note. Only store the data you need to. Tighten your existing controls.  Do not think yourself invulnerable, or something's gonna getcha, little Walter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


MIT has produced a science video game for kids that looks to be both a lot of fun and educational. It's for kids aged 10-14.
Image Descrption: A screen shot from the Vanished game.
Credit: MIT

Here's an excerpt from an article about the game:
The game’s conceptual origins lie in discussions researchers in the Comparative Media Studies group have had with Smithsonian officials, dating back about four years. The creation of “Vanished” took place after the MIT researchers won a grant to develop the game from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009.
The NSF has an interest in projects such as “Vanished” due in part to the agency’s findings, over many years of research surveys, that much of the public’s science knowledge comes from outside the classroom. The grant for developing the game came from the NSF’s program in “Informal Science Education,” which seeks new ways to interest students in science.
The MIT researchers hope that participating in “Vanished” will help break down myths among students, and help them realize that in asking questions and hunting for information, they are performing tasks central to science.  
“Scientists aren’t a priesthood of people with secret knowledge,” Osterweil says. “They don’t walk around with it all in their heads. They do research to find it out.”
Here's a link to the game. Enjoy! It's only available for two months (and started about 2 weeks ago), so be sure to play between now and the end of May. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Finding Your Way In (Computer) Science

Today in The Difference Engine I write about self-esteem, inspired by some recent conversations with young FCSes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses

When you review a paper for a conference or journal, many of the reviewing forms request that the reviewer outline the paper's strengths and weaknesses.

Recently, I read a review that went something like this:
"Weaknesses:  Several of the main findings presented in this paper are merely confirmation of previous work."
I wish this was one of those publication venues where you can review the reviewers, because I would have written back:
"Weaknesses: Reviewer 2 has gotten so thristy for novelty they have forgotten one of the hallmarks of science: replicability."
It's not just Computer Science that is plagued by this problem, certainly it's cropped up elsewhere. But our discipline does have a tradition of getting a little too obsessed with the novelty of an idea that they forget the value of reproducing previous findings.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why scientists make great parents

Image Description: For Better or For Worse Comic from April 17, 2011. Michael's dad tells him to go to bed. Michael says it's not fair, because every kid in town gets to stay up later than he does. His dad says, "Really? Well I don't want to be unreasonable. You take a survey of every kid in town your age, and we'll base your bedtime on their average." Michael looks befuddled and says he'll go to bed. He then says to his bear, "We're in trouble, Teddy - they're getting smarter."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Conference, I thee wed

Recently I was joining a professional organization outside my discipline. I went to the website to register, and was asked:
Description: CAT-5 wedding rings, 
Source: engadget
- My birthday
- My marital status
- The name of my spouse
- My anniversary date
And this isn't some skeezy society that is secretly marketing its members, this is a valid, bone fide organization!

I wonder if they will send me free coupons to their journal on my birthday, and a special society mug on my anniversary. That'd be great. IEEE and ACM definitely need to get in on this action.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Conference Edition

I recently gave a talk, and afterward someone doing very similar work, "Sue", came up afterward and we started chatting. We had very complimentary research interests, so went to dinner together to keep chatting.

Sue and I are in very different disciplines, but we both attend conferences regularly, so we ended up swapping stories.

Some of these conference attendance stories were funny (e.g., the general chair getting trashed and loudly singing German drinking songs at the banquet), and some were embarrassing (e.g., the young scientist asks the senior scientist, 'What are your thoughts on Embedded Rubber Ducks?' and the senior scientist says, 'Young man, I INVENTED Rubber Ducks!"), but overall they were greatly entertaining. Like campfire story-telling for academics.

Though as any good campfire event goes, we reached the inevitable point in such a conference story-swapping conversation -- horror stories. These are the kind of stories that, at the time, make you want to jump off a cliff, but years later you can (sort of) laugh about with colleagues. Sue told me a few that I wish I could write about here but I was sworn to secrecy.

Anyway, I thought I'd ask the peanut gallery out there - what are your conference stories? Any funny ones? Scary ones? Would love to hear.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Equal Pay Day

Today on Scientopia I write about Equal Pay Day.