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On or About Labor Day September 1, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I was born and raised in a company town. I suspect that most don’t know what that means. In this case, it means that the town was surveyed, laid out, built, and run by the company, in this case, a steel mill. The steel mill extended several miles along the Ohio River, until it was torn down in the 1990s. I lived outside of the town, where my parents built their own home (and I mean largely with their own hands).

The town still exists, after a fashion, but is a shell of its former gritty but vibrant self.

The town was built in the early 1900s, and by the time I was born, 50 or so years later, most of the houses and businesses had reverted to private ownership. Still, my family shopped in the company store into my preteen years, which at six stories remained the tallest building in town. Neighborhoods were laid out as “plans” – Plan 6, Plan 7, Plan 12. I never knew what that meant until I understood the meaning of the company town. They were company-planned and built neighborhoods, with no character other than that designation.

I grew up in a union household. Pete was a steelworker, and Ann was a housewife. My mother learned to drive the same time I did. There was always food to eat, and I was never wanting for basics, but there were never extras. As I grew older, the balance of power shifted to the workers, and my father’s pay increased enough for my parents to send me to college, with the help of grants and the occasional loan.

But that ultimately meant that the jobs were uncompetitive, and more economical steel mills were built elsewhere. And I don’t necessarily mean lower cost areas; today, the US produces more steel than it did in the 1970s, with fewer than half as many workers. Technology changes everything.

In high school, the average career track was fairly simple. Men graduated (or not) and sought middle-class jobs in the mill. Women looked for husbands who worked in the mill. It sounded sexist even then, but ultimately didn’t work out for any of them.

Dad, incidentally, died when it was no longer feasible not to see a doctor. He went to a doctor for the first time in 40 years, when he could no longer stand the pain of the cancer. Today, I have a colonoscopy once every few years. I will die someday, but it will not be of that form of, well, stupidity.

This is nothing other than noting where I came from. I like to think that I’m not political. But I do accept that things change. Labor has changed, and we need to recognize and adapt too.

I Learned to Type on a Manual Underwood August 28, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I realize I’m seriously dating myself, but there is a point to this story. At a time when typing was a part of the high school “business track” pursued largely by aspiring secretaries, I was convinced by a friend to use my only open period in my second semester senior year (when I should have been coasting to graduation) to take a course in personal typing. It turned out that I did reasonably well (around 40 words per minute, touch-typing).

I had a typewriter through college, that one an inexpensive electric. In my offices in the 1980s, I had ready access to the ubiquitous IBM Selectric models that made typing easy (as long as you had Wite-Out). I got my first computer (yes, an original Apple Macintosh, which I still own and still boots) in the mid-1980s, and didn’t need Wite-Out any more.

Of course, fast forward ten years or so, and personal computers are emerging as a force in business, and traditional secretaries have largely disappeared. And if you didn’t know how to touch type, or at least use all fingers (except the left thumb, as my high school typing teacher told us), you were largely left behind in this emerging world. Some learned in mid-career, but most never became that proficient. Today, if you don’t type reasonably fast, there are far fewer paths to becoming a professional.

The main point is that you never know what skills you need to move through life. I have certainly written millions of words for work and for pleasure, and the vast majority of those have been written on typewriter or computer. Without the fundamental skills I acquired in an otherwise nondescript existence at Hopewell High School in the mid-1970s, this thing I joking refer to as my career would have stymied long ago.

What is the skill needed by upcoming generations? In general, I don’t think it’s the ability to navigate social networks. But if I can draw upon my own past (which may not be a good vision of the future), typing is a very exacting skill; you either get it right or you don’t. I suspect that it will be more of the same concept in the future. Getting the right answer, or getting the process exactly right, will predominate the skills needed as young workers attempt to enter and advance in the workforce.

The other point is a minor but telling one. When typing using a fixed-space font (such as the IBM Elite), the rule was that every sentence ended with a <period-space-space>. Today, I am given to understand that with proportional fonts such as Times New Roman, the separation between sentences is only a single space.

Yet I can’t bring myself to do that. I tell myself that I need the double space in order to gather my thoughts before beginning the next sentence, but the fact of the matter is that it seems to be ingrained into my psyche. For those I have inflicted with my <period-space-space> mentality, I’m sorry, but it will not change.

Next time, let me tell you about Xywrite.

A Milestone of Physical, Well, Something August 17, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am a certain kind of physical specimen, but not one that anyone would necessarily want to copy. I am a good example of a bad example. It’s not so much negative as nothing that can be readily be identified as positive. Mumble-mumble years ago, I was a casual and largely clueless runner, but gave it up in my thirties out of a fear that high-impact aerobics that would lead to injuries later in life.

Nevertheless, I am reasonably healthy in my latter middle age. I remain active, in a passive sort of way. But after acquiring a Fitbit, I rediscovered the self-competitive part of my nature. Almost every day for the past three weeks, I’ve gone out to walk, and increasingly run, longer distances. The one day that I missed consisted of monsoon rains.

So this past weekend I ran in my first-ever organized race, the Narragansett Bay 5K in East Providence, Rhode Island. I finished, and I was not last. This is me in the photo.

I’m not sure where this is taking me. But it’s an exploration that I am very willing to engage in at this point in my life. It’s an experience that I would not have had a short time ago. And according to my doctor, it is one that is doing positive things for my life.

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Do We Hate Silicon Valley? August 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The short answer is probably not. Despite perceived failings (many of which are real and serious), most people admire the entrepreneurial spirit and dedication of those who toil in pursuit of innovation and well, yes, riches.

Disclosure: I am a 30-year card-carrying member of the tech community in general, but not in Silicon Valley, except for occasional travel.

Is it true that startup companies in Silicon Valley lack diversity? Sure. Are they sexist? Almost certainly. Do they have juvenile cultures? Do they shun older workers? Some of them. Do they like it that way? Probably. Do they even realize any of these things? In most cases, no.

Is any of this a problem? Probably, in the aggregate. Silicon Valley startups are doing themselves no favors by supporting the status quo. All too often, the search for a ‘cultural fit’ means that they want someone just like everyone else at the company. Many of them are smart people, but that just isn’t very smart.

Is this a problem as an individual job seeker? I will offer that it is a minimal annoyance; do you really want to work for a company that is so shortsighted and well, stupid? They don’t want you, and you should not want them. Whether or not their attitudes go against both fairness and legality, it will likely be a marriage made in Hell.

My biggest problem with Silicon Valley today, oddly enough, stems from my perceived *lack* of innovation. There are simply too many startups with similar business models (social networks, anyone?), or with trivial business models (Yo!) that venture capitalists seem determined to fund, not out of any desire to advance the state of the art, but for largely unknown reasons. Could the VCs be playing with our minds?

I’ve recently concluded a job search. My search has included a number of Silicon Valley companies (I’ve often worked remotely). I am a white male, though certainly an older worker. With clearly younger interviewers, I’ve rarely gotten past the screening stage. My best successes have come with small companies with a healthy dose of older and more experienced workers. They do exist, and on the surface appear to be more open-minded.

To be fair, no large and established technology company (IBM, HP, etc.) will hire me either. This probably has more to do with my diverse background than any personal characteristic; I simply have no qualifications to fill a predefined and rigid slot in a corporate maze.

Is this bias? Sure, but in my mind it speaks more to fit than to qualifications. Virtually all employers are biased in their hiring practices in some way; it’s only against the law if the recipient is protected in some way. And even if a company violates those protections, intentionally or unintentionally, it’s not hate-worthy. But who would want to work there?

A Drone At Last August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Drones, or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been around for a long time. Arguably, any remote controlled aircraft is a drone, even if it is a hobbyist device.

But the last few years have brought increasing attention and interest to drones. They became popular in military applications, where unmanned surveillance and tactical attack vehicles have largely replaced their manned counterparts. From a practical standpoint, this has improved time on station without sacrificing the goals of the mission. And the cost savings are enormous. Rather than a tactical fighter that can cost a hundred million dollars to build and support, the equivalent cost of the drone is likely no more than a few million (and usually less).

Just as important, the military drone “pilots” are usually senior enlisted personnel on the ground rather than highly trained officers in the cockpit, monitoring a preprogrammed flight path and using joysticks distant from the actual craft, in many cases from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Others are controlled regionally, but still usually hundreds of miles from the actual craft.

More recently, we’ve seen drones applied to civilian uses, first for police purposes in finding fugitives. Other agencies and private companies are attempting to enlist drones for traffic spotting, finding lost hikers, tracking livestock, and a myriad of other purposes. I was at the Simulia user conference earlier this year, where a team of young engineers demonstrated an unmanned “quadcopter” built largely on a 3D printer, designed to deliver emergency medical supplies to remote locations.

At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has largely prohibited the civilian use of drones, based on its mandate to manage US airspace use. There is good rationale for this prohibition, as inexperienced drone operators may let their craft wander into the flight paths of manned aircraft, with predictably disastrous results.

Yet it won’t hold water in the long run (or perhaps even in the shorter run, given the intransience of the bureaucracy in developing guidelines). Whether or not Amazon actually follows through on its vision of delivering packages via drone, there are simply too many compelling reasons to use drones under many circumstances. At least one US Federal Court has ruled that small commercial drones are not under the regulatory purview of the FAA.

Right now, the FAA has identified the dividing line between a model aircraft and a small drone as more one of intent, rather than of technology. If it is used for commercial purposes, it’s a drone. If it’s used purely for recreational purposes, it’s a model aircraft.

That’s stupid, but that’s a bureaucracy for you. The drone revolution will happen, and it is likely that the FAA will be dragged kicking and screaming into the present.

Can Radio Shack Be Saved? August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Nothing that I can say or do will be the magic potion that rescues Radio Shack from oblivion. I certainly hold no influence over its financial or strategic direction, and of course any solution I might suggest could well be recognized by anyone else as pure hokey.

But I am sad to see the demise of an institution that represented its own brand of counterculture in my youth. That counterculture was embodied in the likes of Popular Science and other periodicals of the day that told us that the sky was the limit on our technological achievements. Radio Shack followed up that exhortation by telling us we could build it ourselves, and in many cases showing us how to do so.

If you walk into a Radio Shack today, you are bombarded with cell phones and subscriber plans that you can get in a dozen different stores within walking distance. The rest is a hodgepodge of electronic components, gadgets, and leftovers from a bygone era. My last purchase at a Radio Shack was a USB turntable, for which I had grandiose notions of using to convert my ancient LP trove into MP3s (the sound quality is terrible).

I wonder if it would be possible for Radio Shack to go back to its roots? What brings that to mind is my recent foray into Raspberry Pi, the small and inexpensive computer board that was developed and sold with the idea of promoting the teaching of computer science in schools. It’s probably marginally profitable (the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit), but for thought leadership it is pure gold.

But what if a small and focused engineering team at Radio Shack had developed something like this instead? And it was a headline promotion in every store? At one time there were people in Radio Shack who understood the technology sold by the company (Heath Kits, anyone?). Even the clerks were more nerds than sales people.

Granted, what I’m describing isn’t the enormous retail network that Radio Shack had become at its height. It’s not even clear that this could be a for-profit entity, at least in and of itself. But Radio Shack would once again stand for something, at least to get people in the door. It would certainly be no worse than anything else tried by the company over the last twenty years.

And products like this have the potential to excite the imagination of all people. We could build things with our own hands and understand how they work, rather than just take the technological complexity of our daily lives for granted. It may seem like a small thing, but people tend to better control that which they understand. And a little of that could benefit every one of us.

Fitbit and the Value of Quantitative Feedback July 31, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Since the beginning of 2014, I have mostly neglected my modest workout regimen. I had job issues and then health issues, and simply lost the motivation to exercise on a regular basis. I was mostly at home, and fairly immobile.

Then I got a Fitbit. For those of you not aware, Fitbit is a family of activity tracker devices. I didn’t know a lot about it before getting it, but it was inexpensive and I thought might provide an interesting way of monitoring what I did on a day to day basis.

My particular model is the Fitbit One, a memory stick-sized device that uses a rubber sheath to clip to your belt or other surface. The clip is a friction one-size-fits-all device, and I soon discovered that my belt was too thick for it to retain a firm hold. Instead, I usually clip it to a belt loop. You can also get the Fitbit Flex, which you wear like a watch on your wrist.

The Fitbit comes with no instructions for use, other than to plug in the wireless USB dongle. The dongle is tiny (similar to a wireless mouse dongle), and provides a Bluetooth connection to the computer, and from there to your account on the Fitbit website. Without any further instructions, I assumed that the wire attaching the Fitbit to a USB port was the dongle, and fumbled around for a few minutes in setting it up.

All of this sounds slightly discouraging, but it wasn’t difficult to work through, and soon I had a Fitbit account on the website (free, although the company also offers a premium service), and the device attached to my person. I didn’t do anything different for the first several hours, but later in the afternoon I synced the device with the website and looked at my results.

Well, wow. It showed that I had taken several thousand steps, burned off more than a thousand calories (an estimate based on my height and weight), and climbed 14 flights of stairs. It measured my progress based on preset goals that can easily be changed.

That real time feedback encouraged me to become more aggressive in my activity routine. Today, four days later, I’m averaging over an hour of “intense activity” (a brisk walk, soon to be supplemented with a jog), 13-15K steps, 50+ flights of stairs, and 2700 burned calories. Without other obligations, I can easily see myself increasing my activity indefinitely.

Certainly there is a self-competitive nature within me that is enabling this activity. And it remains to be seen if I can keep this up over time. But the immediate and quantitative feedback on my activity is turning me into a demon.

About Airlines and Air Travel July 15, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As we discuss the world’s best airlines, my blood can’t help but boil. In my formative years (1970-1980s, I suppose), US airlines offered meals, generally polite behavior, and reasonable service. Except when they didn’t; I was certainly delayed often in my early days. I came of age in the 1980s, at the cusp of deregulation.

Guess what airlines also offered in the golden age? High prices and exclusionary practices. The average person in my early life didn’t fly. They either drove, or didn’t go at all. Flying was the provenance of the moderately (or better) wealthy, or the business traveler, and the rest of us made do.

I suppose there were two events that opened up air travel. First, of course, was deregulation, circa the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. The US generally stopped regulating who could start an airline, and when and where they could fly to. At the stroke of a pen (from Jimmy Carter, incidentally), air travel became something any American could do, and several times a year if they desired.  The other was People’s Express airlines, a short-lived experiment at opening up air travel at a low price.

The problem, of course, is that we believed (and oddly still believe) that we deserved Cadillac service on a Chevy budget. Today, flying is cheaper in absolute dollars than it was in the 1970s and 1960s, and grossly cheaper in inflation dollars. My business flight that cost $1000 30 years ago likely cost $500 today, and we still bitch of the price.

About prices. You used to have to pay a great deal to fly. That’s where you got the service. Today, we spend a couple hundred bucks to fly coast to coast, and complain that we aren’t treated like royalty. Sorry, flights are short, relative to what we do at our destination, and I am happy to trade a low fare for getting to a different location quickly. I’ve looked at train travel, and for price, time, and convenience, it doesn’t at all compare. Face it, even in the Northeast Corridor, where we have the most trains, train travel is an incredible time sink, even if I can get to the train station.

About people. I remember when we put on suits and ties to fly. We were out in public, after all, and cared about how we looked. Today we get all manner of dress, with the trend toward being down-market. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (it’s good to be comfortably while flying), but it does speak to the change in demographic and attitude brought about by the change in regulation and frequency.

Of course, sometimes it is much more, often for the same seat, depending on when and how we book. Should all seats be the same price, no matter what? The egalitarian nature in us says yes, but the airline wants to fill all of the seats, all of the time. Is that such a bad thing?

I am not opining that today is better, worse, or indifferent. However, I am very much saying that we have a privilege today that we wouldn’t have had 30 years ago. I would not be a frequent traveler in the 1960s. That privilege has been made more difficult than it perhaps should be, based on the events of 9-11 and others, but it is still very much accessible to all of us.

Those who complain about the cost or service on flying today are simply small-minded (and I don’t say that lightly). We are very much getting what we are paying for. We could pay more for better, except that most of us will instead select a lower cost alternative. And please don’t tell me that Southwest or other airline provides better for less; I’ve priced them, I’ve flown them, and they don’t.

And as we compare US carriers with foreign airlines, let me say simply that others are subsidized, or are monopolies, or have not yet discovered the economic realities of mass air travel. Or don’t practice mass air travel for their populations.

That, I think, is the part that we miss as we pine for an earlier era. In that era, the vast majority of us simply would not have flown. To complain of declining service air today is, well, idiocy, sorry.

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