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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.

I Need a Hero, Or Do I? July 13, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I am hardly a paragon of virtue. Still, this article nicely summarizes the various misdeeds and lapses of the multimillionaire entrepreneurial set that comprises the Silicon Valley elite, as they attempt to deal with other people and with society at large.

I think there are a couple of issues here. First, startups such as Uber and AirBNB are attempting to build businesses that fly in the face of established regulations concerning the type of business activity they are attempting to change. That may in fact be a good thing in general. The regulations exist for a certain public good, but they also exist to protect the status quo from change (Disclosure: I use neither service and remain wary of their value). I would venture to say that any attempt to change regulatory processes should have been attempted before, rather than after, the execution of the business. At best, the founders of these types of companies are tone-deaf to the world in which they live, though long term success may turn them into something more than they are today.

But there are also larger issues. To publicly practice sexism, ageism, intolerance, and active encouraging of frat boy behaviors is juvenile, quite possibly illegal, and at the very least stupid and insensitive. These are not stupid people, so I must believe that there is an overarching reason for acting in this manner. I can’t possibly help but think of Shanley Kane; despite her extreme and uncompromising stands, she directly lives much of the darker side that we too often gloss over, or in some cases even embrace.

The question is both broad and deep. Should we have any expectation that the leaders of technology should be leaders of character, or even be good people in general? Are we demanding they take on a role that they never asked for, and are not fit for?

On the other hand, does wealth and success convey the right to pursue ideas and policies that may fly in the face of reason? “Privacy is no longer a social norm,” says Zuckerberg, almost certainly because that position benefits him financially. I don’t recall him being appointed to define our privacy norms, but this represents more than an opinion, informed or not; it is also an expression of Facebook’s business strategy.

I think what annoys me most is his power to make that simple statement a reality, without a public debate on the matter. It’s not your call, Zuckerberg, and I can’t help but think that you believe it is. I would have thought that the likes of Eric Schmidt served as adult supervision to the baser instincts of Silicon Valley, until he meekly went along with the crowd.

To be fair, I don’t think these questions are new ones. In the 1800s, media moguls single-mindedly pursued extreme political agendas under the guise of freedom of the press. “Robber barons” single-mindedly pursued profits at the expense of respect and even lives.

Still, the Rockefellers and Carnegies ago attempted, with perhaps limited success, to atone for their baser instincts during their lives. I grew up in a town with a Carnegie Free Library, after all.  Perhaps this is like what a more mature Bill Gates is doing today. We can hope that Zuckerberg matures, although I am not holding my breath. I think that boat has long since sailed on Schmidt.

But it’s difficult to say that this era is all that much different than the latter 1800s. We as a society like to think we’ve grown, but that’s probably not true. But this cycle will end, and at its close, we will be able to see more clearly just what our tech leaders are made of.

Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

Google Glass My Ass June 29, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think the onward march of wearable computers is both desirable and inevitable. And I love the idea of being able to find and research any bit of information, at any time. Almost two decades ago, Bill Gates introduced the concept of “information at your fingertips,”, but it was ultimately Google that delivered on the reality.

But, this article in Wall Street Journal describes the use of Google Glass as the essential tourist companion, able to let you research your activities ahead of time, and get information of any type as the need or desire strikes. Imagine being face to face with the Acropolis in Greece, wondering about a particular column design, and spending a minute or two on taking a photo and comparing images online to get a detailed background on the work.

But I think that the bad outweighs the good here. I caught the travel bug later in life, courtesy of my many conference speaking activities. I’ve been fortunate to mostly avoid the usual tourist hubs in favor of secondary but perhaps more colorful locales. I’ve done a few guided tours, and paid an extra few bucks once or twice for the self-guided audio tours.

The audio tours, which might be uncharitably compared to a poor man’s Google Glass, fall flat. They are mostly boring and difficult to sync up with what you are actually seeing. Guided tours are uneven; if the group is small and homogeneous, they can be fun and informative; large and diverse groups tend to be distracting.

But when you’re a tourist, what you really need to do is, well, talk to people. My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few weeks ago, and after registering for our conference (Nordic Testing Days) went out to walk around. We happened to stumble up to Toompea Tower, adjacent to the Parliament Building, which just happened to be open to the public (35 people at a time, the old stone stairs were so narrow). While in line, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, who told us that he was last there on the day Estonia declared independence from the old Soviet Union. You can’t buy such an impromptu conversation for any price.

Experiencing new places involves a combination of seeing things, understanding what you are seeing, and integrating the cultural perspective. Google Glass can play a minor role in a part of that, but it also risks crowding out the actual experiences of being there. We might be too busy engaging searches for similar sites, or nearby restaurants, or just about anything other than where we are and what we are doing at the moment.

I think there is a heck of a lot of value in what Google Glass has to offer society in general. But I also think it will be far too easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

And sorry about the title to this post; it was just too precious to pass up.

What is the Deal with Self-Driving Cars? June 23, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Google, the media, and other interested parties are portraying self-driving cars as a panacea for drivers, traffic congestion, accidents, and other undesirable driving outcomes. I simply don’t get it, on multiple levels. I like the concept, but can’t connect it to any reasonable reality anytime in the future.

I’ve suspected that there would be issues with self-driving cars since they became a popular meme over the past year. At one level, there is the question of how you would test the technology. In normal system testing, you attempt to run tests that simulate actual use. But there are far too many possible scenarios for self-driving cars to reasonably test. Under other circumstances, it may be possible to test the most likely cases, but on a safety-critical system like a car, that’s simply not possible.

I’m reminded of my skepticism by this article on the utility of aircraft autopilot systems and their role in the operation and in some cases mis-operation of planes. One conclusion seems to be that autopilots actually make flying more complex, rather than simpler. That counterintuitive conclusion is based on the idea that the assumptions made by the autopilot are unexpected by the operators.

As a software guy, I’m okay with the idea that assumptions made by software can take people by surprise on occasion. It’s a difficult problem even for safety-critical systems, where people can die if the software makes an incorrect assumption. You can argue, probably successfully, that pilots shouldn’t be surprised by whatever a plane under their command does.

Drivers, not so much. As we look at aircraft autopilots, it is reasonable to draw a parallel between commercial aircraft and automobiles. Now, granted, aircraft operate in three dimensions. But automobiles have a greater range of operating options, in terms of speed, traffic, road types, road conditions, and so on. Commercial aircraft are already under positive control from the ground.

It’s not clear who will control driverless automobiles. It’s certainly unlikely that drivers are as attentive as pilots, yet will become at least as confused at times as they change where they want to go, and how they want to get there. And they won’t be observing the driving process any near as attentively as (I hope) pilots do.

Sigh. I’m not a Luddite. I’m excited about technology in general, and am an early adopter of many technologies (and, to be honest, a not-so-early adopter of others). But I simply don’t see self-driving automobiles taking off (pun intended) anytime in my lifetime.

I Pushed the Button June 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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While I spend much of my time advocating and evangelizing for technology, software development, testing, and the application lifecycle, I have an enthusiastic avocation, that of a mystery novelist. I simply find freedom and mental escape in building my own worlds, creating complex puzzles, and interacting with the characters I create.

It has been a long time coming, but last night I pushed the button to self-publish my novel Dead Code to the Amazon Kindle platform. As the title implies, it’s a tech mystery surrounding a series of murders at a fledgling software company. It weighs in at about 107,000 words, and will be available for download on Amazon for $2.99 US, or the equivalent in other currencies (Amazon sets those prices based on applicable exchange rates).

Dead Code was substantially finished about ten years ago, but I have only recently dusted it off, cleaned it up, and updated it for publishing.

Self-publishing is a challenge, but unless you are an established author, or a brilliant writer, or have a benefactor or simply very good luck, it is probably the best way of getting known as a new author. Now I have to get to work marketing it, which is the real challenge for any author, whether independently published or published with an established publishing company.

I’ll have the link to Dead Code up on my website in a day or two. In the meantime, you can read the first three chapters there. I have other works coming, in time, but certainly less than another ten years.

Requiem for Radio Shack June 14, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Most of what I did in electronics in my youth (circa early 1970s and beyond) was what I could scrounge together and purchase for a dollar or two here and there. Much of that was purchased at Radio Shack; while I grew up in a rural environment, there was a store within riding distance on my bicycle. I used to get all the Radio Shack catalogs in the mail, and was impressed at the rate they added new stores and electronics.

I majored in the liberal arts as an undergraduate in college, and joined the Air Force, leading my life in a particular direction. Had it not been that direction, I’ve told many people over the years that I probably would have started out as an assistant manager at a Radio Shack. Radio Shack had the hobbyist reputation and technical cachet that I instinctively knew that I wanted at that early age.

Today, Radio Shack looks to be on its last legs. I confess that I haven’t been there much over the last few years, mostly a few times to purchase power adapters, and once a USB turntable (yes, I still have a significant collection of LPs which I am trying to convert to MP3).

But power adapters cost 70 percent less on Amazon, and I’m pretty sure I can get anything I need in the way of electronic components on Amazon or elsewhere. And if you browse a local Radio Shack today (yes, there is one in my town), there is little an electronic hobbyist might want to see. And there are far too many cell phones, which you can get practically anywhere. Simply put, there seems little reason for Radio Shack to exist in its current form.

I’m not a sentimental person by any means, and economically I believe in Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. Still, I feel a loss at the decline and eventual closure of Radio Shack. I feel more for what they have become, less a distinctive destination than an accidental stopover. I realize that there may not be a viable business as a hobbyist store anymore, but they have made years of wrong decisions of what they should become.

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