Alternatives to Word?

April 4th, 2014

It has been a while.  Mostly because we're preparing for a peer review and still making adjustments to the model.  The one thing more frustrating than that: Word 2013.

I'm not going to go into a tyrade about how I should NEVER be able to apply a caption style to a picture or a page break or how it handles sections terribly or how annoying it is to try and format all tables and pages (in a dozen or so different files) similarly.  Or how I can have things that suddenly the 'Normal' style is Times New Roman in my tables but Calibri in the rest of the same document... *sigh*

So my break-off from a forced hiatus is this: what else is out there?  My web searches have largely came up with LaTeX or useless results (i.e. sending large files, document management systems, etc).  LaTeX is an option, but it does have a learning curve and whatever the final decision is something my staff will have to live with (as will I).

T-Test Trivia

May 13th, 2013

Any statistical test that uses the t-distribution can be called a t-test. One of the most common is Student's t-test, named after "Student," the pseudonym that William Gosset used to hide his employment by the Guinness brewery in the early 1900s.  They didn't want their competitors to know that they were making better beer with statistics.

From The Handbook of Biological Statistics.

Web Hosting and Stuff I Don't Want To Deal With

April 26th, 2013

This was originally written over at my other blog, but it deals with both sites, so I figured I'd put it over here.  This is literally a direct copy-paste, so the part about "people on Twitter know" refer to people that follow me on one of my other Twitter accounts, @KE8P.

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Those on Twitter already know that I’ve been tasked with managing the club email list because I am the secretary of the Milford Amateur Radio Club.  I asked on Twitter if anyone had any hints and I mostly got sympathy.

So I looked for something, and stumbled upon CiviCRM that looks like it may help.  CiviCRM is an open-source Customer Relations Management system that looks pretty cool.

The problem is, it requires MySQL 5.1.  That’s not a problem FOR THEM.  It’s a problem FOR ME.  I use GoDaddy shared hosting, and they have resisted every MySQL upgrade since 5.0.  So I looked at GoDaddy’s forum, and found a cornucopia of people demanding it, all met with the same response of “we have no plans to upgrade that on the shared hosting plans, but buy a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Dedicated Server.  Now, I pay about $100 per year for “Ultimate Shared Hosting”.  A dedicated server is $100 PER MONTH.  A VPS is $30 (ish) per month.

Mind you, the shared hosting works perfectly for me, as it’s cheap (I make no money from my websites, neither directly nor indirectly.  I don’t have the money to go to a dedicated server, nor do I have the money to go with a VPS, and if I did, I wouldn’t because I don’t want the added workload of administering a server.  I used to do that, and I got away from it because I wanted to spend time on content rather than computer administration duties.

So here I sit.  Via Twitter, I’ve received recommendations for BlueHost, DreamHost, Linode, and WestHost (and had a nice twitter conversation with an account manager from WestHost).  I haven’t made up my mind, and my hosting contract with GoDaddy is up in June.  I’ve enjoyed great up-time and service from GoDaddy in the past, but running several versions behind on the backend database is not only an annoyance (for not being able to use CiviCRM), but it is absolutely frightening to think that I may have other peoples’ emails in a database on a server that isn’t being kept up-to-date with security patches.

GoDaddy, you have a week to meet my requirements.  Upgrade to the latest MySQL.  Else, Daddy, you’ll Go.  Moving is a pain, but I will do what I have to do.  And that is NOT a promise.  I may decide to leave anyway because

-73-

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So anyway, by the time you've read this, it is on a different server.  I've moved the sites over and double-checked everything.  Email is working, CiviCRM is working (except the parts I haven't setup), and if you read this, the site is working!

New Open Data StackExchange Site Proposed

April 11th, 2013

Stack Exchange Q&A site proposal: Open Data

All the cool kids are opening up data.

11 Guidelines of Doing Good Semi-Academic Presentations

April 5th, 2013

I'm writing this as I'm working on a presentation for the TRB Applications Conference.  I'm working on a presentation I can present, and my delusions of grandeur are such that I THINK I can present Open Source Tools to QC Transit Survey Data as well as Steve Jobs could present a new iPhone, but without the reality distortion field.

I've been to quite a few conferences of varying groups, and I would call these "semi-academic".  Sometimes they are presenting research, but in many cases they are presenting an application of research.  There's no selling, and the audience is generally captive.

1. The Presentation is to show your work and get attendees interested in reading your paper

In places where you aren't required to post a paper, do so anyway.  Include the detail there.  Don't include tables full of numbers in a presentation, highlight one or two important numbers (trends, alternative analyses, etc) and note conclusions.  Include the big tables in the paper.

If you don't include a paper, upload a second presentation with more detail and/or use copious "slide notes".  Seriously.

The last resort - go to WordPress.com or Blogger.com or something, build a blog, and post it there.  Or hang it on your agency's website.  Or something else along those lines.

2. Don't Include tables full of numbers

Even though I mention it above, it bears repeating.  Normally, we can't read them in the audience.  Focus on one number.  For example, if you're showing that a mode choice model works better when using transfers as part of the transit utility, show us the log-likelihood or/and the correlation coefficient for ONLY the best case without transfers and the best case with transfers.  Keep it simple.  If I want the standard error of individual values, I'll look for them, and if I ask at the end of the presentation, direct me to the paper.

3. Just because you can read it on screen while authoring a presentation does not mean that your audience can read it on the projector

24 point font is a minimum.  Yes, I know PowerPoint's list box goes down to 8.  That does not mean you should ever go down there.  Some people have sight problems, and those problems can be exacerbated by trying to see around peoples' heads.

A second part of this has to do with being able to read the slides while you're presentting.  Just because you can read your slides on your 19"+ monitors at the office when you're 18" away does NOT mean that you'll e able to read them on a laptop with a 14" or 15" screen (or 17" widescreen, which is about as small due to the scaling) from a few feet away.

4. Use pictures and talk about them

If your presentation has no pictures, you're doing it wrong.  If you want your concept/idea/solution/innovation/etc (pick one), throw in a few pictures that illustrate a point (or something like that).  For example, in a presentation I'm working on now, I have a workplace location that is noted by Dilbert's office building and him waving.  I think it gets the idea of "workplace" across to people, and most people know Dilbert.

More importantly, half my presentation is maps that I will talk about.  No text.  I have 7 slides with bullets, 2 or 3 with numbered lists, and that's out of 30.  That's about right.

5. Reduce, but do not remove bullets

There is a big push in many circles to remove bullets from presentations.  In an academic presentation, that's damn near impossible.  Don't give in to the hate, but try to reduce bullets as much as practical.

6. Expect there to be dissenting opinions

I've seen a fair number of people get "blasted" by industry professionals.  Don't get mad about it.  They are normally not there to make you feel bad, and don't feel bad about it.  A session moderator can recognize when someone is asking a real question as opposed to someone that has an ax to grind, and a moderator WILL step in if someone asking questions is out of line.

7. Do not use the Microsoft PowerPoint (etc.) templates

Rare is it that a Built-in Template works for a presentation.  Normally an agency or company has some nicer and more appropriate templates to use.  Use them.

This guideline does not apply if your presentation is short (e.g. 5 minutes) or it is a presentation in a non-professional setting (e.g. a hobby).

8. Do not read your slides

I can read quite well and so can the rest of the audience.  If you're just going to read the slides, hand out your presentation (as good 'ol tree-killin' paper) and sit back down.  Don't load your presentation on the laptop, don't talk, and tell the session moderator to just skip you.

This is probably the biggest reason many people want to remove bullets.  No bullets means that you might have to (gasp!) TALK ABOUT your content!

9. Use Animations Sparingly

Do NOT use animations to simply put bullets on the screen.  However, there are times when animations are important for the point of illustrating an idea, showing a process, or just pure entertainment.

10. Do NOT use numbers for alternatives

I will forget about the numbers as soon as you change slides.  Give them names.  And for those that have used "Alternative 1" and "Alternative 1A", there is a special place in Hell for you.

11. Have the similar delusions of grandeur to what I have

Find a person you think is a damn good presenter. Learn from them.  Try to present as effectively as they do.

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While I can't say that following these tips will make you the next great presenter, I CAN say that following these tips will help you NOT be part of the conversation that includes "THAT presentations was ATROCIOUS"  and hopefully get you more towards "THAT presentation was AWESOME!"

What Have I Been Up To Lately?

July 23rd, 2012

I've been up to a few things that haven't made it to this blog.

First, I've done a few conversion tools for converting Tranplan/INET to Voyager PT and back again.  These are open-source tools that are meant to help, but they may not be perfect (and I don't have the time to make sure they do).  If anyone wants to upload fixes, you'll get credit for it (but you have to let me know, as I think I have to allow that in Github).

Next, I've been heavily working on QC of my transit on-board survey.  This has resulted in some more work being uploaded to Github.  I've written some to assist in trying to figure out what I need to actually look at and what is probably okay enough to ignore.

I've seen some stuff come out of the Census related to an API, and I did post some example code to the CTPP listserve to help.  Since I didn't want to bog down some people with my code, I put it in a Gist (which is below).

This code will get Census data using their API and chart it.  Note that you have to install PyGTK All-In-One to make it work.  Of course, mind the items that Krishnan Viswanathan posted to the Listserve - they help make sense of the data!

I'm also working on an ArcMap add-in that will help with QC-ing data that has multiple elements.  It is on Github, but currently unfinished.  This is something for advanced users.

I will have a few tips coming for some Cube things I've done recently, but those will be for another blog post.  With that, I will leave with the first publicly-available video I've ever posted to YouTube.  Of a traffic signal malfunction.  I'm sure Hollywood will start calling me to direct the next big movie any day now... 🙂

Top 6 Resources for a Travel Modeler to Work From Home

December 16th, 2010

It's the most wonderful time of the year, isn't it?  Nothing says "winter" like 6 inches of snow that keeps you from going to the office!

Over the years, I've amassed a set of utilities, many of them free, to make my life easier.  This list can sometimes take the place of things that I would normally use in the office, other times they are things that sync to the "cloud" and I use them both in the office and at home.

1. Dropbox

I don't care too much for USB "thumb" drives, and I've had my fair share of leaving them at home or at work and needing them at the opposite location.  Dropbox clears up this mess, as there are no USB drives to lose or leave in the wrong place.  NOTE: the link that I have IS a referral link.  Clicking on that and creating an account results in both of us getting an extra 250 MB of space with the free account (starts at 2 GB, max for free is 8 GB).

2. Evernote

I take a lot of notes, both on the road at conferences and at the office.  Evernote is what I use to keep them organized.

3. Google Docs

Unless you want to spring for Microsoft Office at home, Google Docs is the way to go.  There are several others including Zoho and Office Online, but I haven't used them.  Google Docs has great collaboration features, document versioning, and its free.  Just make sure to back it up! The only problem: no DBF file support.

4. Notepad++

This is perhaps the greatest text editor.  It understands and does some context highlighting (etc) for many programming languages.  Even better, Colby from Citilabs uploaded his language definition file for Cube Voyager to the user group!

5. Microsoft Visual {whatever} Express Edition

The Express Edition tools have become our go-to tools for new development, particularly MS Visual C++ EE and MS Visual Basic EE.  Since they're free, you can have copies both at home and work.

6. Eclipse

This one's almost optional, but for those working with Java models, this is the standard IDE, and it is open source.

Any tools to add?  Add them in the comments below.

RFPs and RFQs: Legality and Ethics

March 28th, 2010

Recently, I attended a webinar entitled "The ABCs of RFPs and RFQs".  This is one of those things that in my line of work (a manager of a travel model development group), I face occasionally.  I'm not an expert.  When presented the opportunity to get some guidance from some "experts" for free, I jumped on the chance.

I was disappointed.

Three things stuck out in my mind as being flat-out wrong.  The first was "The best case scenario is when you (the consultant) write the scope for the RFQ".  The second was "The best way is sole source contracts".  The third was constantly using RFP as a tool to limit the responses from consultants to only those that you want to respond.

Consultants Writing Scopes for RFQs

Looking at the AICP Code of Ethics, it seems that if a consultant writes the scope for the RFQ (or RFP), I feel it is in violation of Part A, 2a and 2c.  If a consultant is writing the scope for me, where is my professional judgement?  Does that judgement not extend to what I feel my needs (and my organizations needs) are?  Both of those are brought up in 2a.  Looking at 2c, which is avoiding a conflict of interest, it seems to me that if a consultant writes the scope for an RFQ, that is a direct conflict of interest - the consultant is going to write the scope that gives them an advantage (whether intentionally or unintentionally).

Sole Source?

When being audited by the State of Ohio Auditors, you are under extreme scrutiny when trying to sole-source a contract.  The reasons why are obvious.  A few years ago, my department attempted to sole-source a contract because it was a $30k contract and it seemed that there was only one firm that could do the job for that price.  While that may have been correct, there was several firms willing to try.  The job ultimately went to a firm that was NOT going to be the one that would have received the sole-source contract (there is a lot of talk that they may have taken a loss on the job, but I would venture a guess that the others would have as well).  Had the sole-source been allowed to continue, it would have been considered illegal under Ohio law and my organization would have been fined.

I can't type all this without bringing up another big issue that CAN negate the above.  General Planning Consultants and General Engineering Consultants.  The GPC and GEC contracts are always put up for RFQ, and handing a scope to a GEC or GPC consultant is NOT the same as sole-source.  This method is perfectly legal (it is open to public review and open to all consultants to submit statements of qualifications) and is a great way to get smaller (less than $100k, perhaps) jobs to consultants without them spending a lot of money trying to get smaller jobs.  They have to spend their marketing money up-front, but over the 3-5 year span, they have plenty of opportunity to make it back on smaller jobs that have very small marketing requirements.

RFPs Only to Certain Consultants?

Again, 2c, conflict of interest - public agencies cannot perform the work of the public good using the fewest tax dollars without having an open bid process.  Also, it is pretty likely that every state requires RFPs and RFQs to be advertised.  That being said, what's the point?  You're going to send the RFP to 2 or 3 consultants but post it on your website (and for us, the newspaper, state DOT website, and various other locations as required by law and our policy) for all to see?  Sounds like a pretty ineffective way to only target a few consultants.

If you only want certain consultants to respond, find a way to do it, legally, without giving the opportunity for other consultants to not compete for it.

Separating Intent and Unintended Effects

March 21st, 2010

On March 7, 2010 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS), an interesting crash happened in the larger context of NASCAR.  Carl Edwards intentionally got into the side of Brad Kesolowski, causing Kesolowski to spin around, become airborne, and land on his side with momentum sending Kesolowski's car into the wall (video).  This was almost inverse of the Talledega spring race in 2009 where Edwards unintentionally came down on Kesoloski, spun around, became airborne, got hit by another car in the process, and hit the safety fence that separates the track from the stands(video).

The big difference between these two scenarios was intention.  Earlier in the race at AMS, Kesolowski got into the side of Edwards, causing Edwards a long repair and a poor finish.

NASCAR handed down a three-race probation to Edwards after parking him for the remainder of the race at AMS.  The debate as to whether that was the most appropriate disciplinary action have been swirling around NASCAR for weeks (and still is at the time of writing).

This post is not about whether NASCAR made the right or wrong decision, but rather how it relates to management.

You have to understand the history behind the wing.  If you've watched the videos above, you've seen two of three.  The other piece of history is at this video.  The scenario at AMS is the third time that a car has become airborne after being turned around.

The probation that Edwards faces (and no suspension or fine, mind you) was because Edward's intent was to mess up Kesolowski's 6th place finish with a spin to the infield.  Edwards didn't intend for the vehicle to flip, and the vehicle should not have flipped.  In fact, the severe crash was likely caused more by the wing on the back of the car (which has now been replaced with a spoiler), not by Edwards's intentionally spinning Kesolowski.

This is quite a conundrum for NASCAR.  They control the design of the car very strictly.  They also said that the drivers could use a little less restraint after feeling a lot of criticism over the 2009 season where they made rules that limited the drivers actions.  Drivers and teams are not allowed to make decisions as to whether they use the wing or not.  They have to use it.

The important thing here is, as a manager, make the decision looking at all pieces of information and all parts of history.  Look at what you've told your employees.  Look at what has happened in the past that your employees should have been aware of.  Look at what you would have done in that situation, particularly if you weren't a manager.  Discuss the issue with the employees involved.  Do not make rash decisions and do not let emotions be the only thing that guides your decisions.