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Old Versus New October 5, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized, Technology and Culture.
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Amtrak, you suck.

I am attempting to perhaps book a train trip to New York, from Boston, as opposed to flying. Amtrak is mostly inconvenient and time-consuming unless you are in the city center, or in a relevant close suburb. In Boston, that means either South Station, or Westwood. Maybe Worcester if you’re not picky about getting the Acela. Either way, it’s 3 hours 20 minutes to get to Penn Station on the Acela from Westwood, or over four hours on the regular run. Plus at least another hour for me to drive to Westwood, or South Station, or Worcester. And that’s non-rush hour. It might work, under the best circumstances, but it mostly doesn’t.

But. When I’m trying my level best to consider the train as an alternative, the Amtrak website is down. On a Sunday. All of the day, so far.

I’m sorry, Amtrak. My airline has never done this. If you are trying to get the American public to consider you as an alternative to air travel, even in the Northeast corridor, this is the absolute wrong way to do so. Regrettably, I don’t even think you realize that there is a problem being down “for maintenance” for just about all of a day (so far, it may turn out to be even more).

You get subsidies from the US government. You don’t deserve them.  It’s as simple as that.

Amtrak, if you at all cared about making rail a viable travel option, especially in the Northeast where distances are feasible, here’s what you would do. You would provide (reliable, do I even have to say that?) transportation to the stations from outlying locations. You would make your schedules available elsewhere.

And you would not let your website fail like this.

I have no confidence that you even care about doing any of this. You get your government subsidies to cover your operational losses, and you are fine with that.

But you are dead wrong. I will never consider you as a travel option again, and I will encourage everyone else not to do so. This is entirely on you.

He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Fitbit September 24, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I continue my exploration with personal fitness technology, and today was an interesting day. Today started at about 4:50AM, when I prepared to go out walking/running with my Fitbit (I walk perhaps 2.5 miles, run 1.5 right now). Except that I forgot my Fitbit. In my defense, I was attempting to communicate with my sister and her daughter, who I had assisted in making their first trip to Europe overnight. At pre-dawn here on the US East Coast, I was ecstatic that they had reached Munich, their gateway airport, shortly before that time (final destination – Vienna).

So I was ten minutes out when I realized I forgot my recording device. I am of the ilk that it doesn’t count unless it was recorded, but it didn’t make sense to go back, so I didn’t. I recorded 41 minutes by my watch, but it’s not in my record, sigh.

The Fitbit talks to me, you know. Its UI is limited, but I always get a message when I put on my exercise clothes early in the morning. My favorite remains “Walk me, Peter”.

So my record is less than what I would prefer. Still. When I got home this evening, my new Nike+ Smartwatch with GPS was waiting for me. I plugged it in, and it’s telling me “Are we running today?” Well.

I’m curious about the encouraging messages. They seem friendly, but I don’t need my technology to be friendly. What I need is feedback on my progress. If I achieve some goal, it seems that my self-competitive nature makes me want to better that goal. But the personalization is intriguing.

So now I have two devices to carry with me tomorrow. Should I stay with the Fitbit, use the GPS watch, or both? My inclination is both. He’s not heavy; he’s my Fitbit.

Train Travel Is Not All it’s Cracked Up to Be September 4, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I cannot tell you how much I enjoy visiting Europe. I have had the opportunity to visit around 15 times in the last five years, and every single trip has been great. I’ve been to Zurich (five times) Brussels, Prague (twice), Bruges, London, Bilbao, Vienna, Sofia, Berlin (twice) and Tallinn, and have always had a really good experience. I hope to continue going back as long as I can function.

I am currently assisting my sister and her daughter in visiting Europe for their first and perhaps only time. They have chosen to go to Vienna, with day trips to Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. The guided tour day trip routine isn’t my cup of tea, but as this may be their only visit, I applaud their initiative.

I will be in the Berlin area at the same time, speaking at Mobile App Europe, and was seeking to perhaps visit them in Vienna on their excursion. I ultimately concluded that it was both too expensive and logistically problematic, and declined to do so.

By the same token, I cannot tell you how many people have told me that I should just pop down on the train from Berlin to Vienna for the day. When I explain that the distance is in excess of 500 miles, and that excluding getting to and from train stations, the trip was still twelve hours one way, they disbelieve me, rather than alter their own uninformed beliefs.

Yes, train travel in most of the US is pretty poor. But Americans have been brainwashed (I think by our own rail advocates) to believe that train travel in Europe is easy, fast, and seamless. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. It is pretty easy. It’s not particularly seamless, and it’s not especially fast. For some reason Americans believe that distances are shorter than they are, and that bullet trains are everywhere. We think that every city in Europe is two hours by train, and four hours by plane.

Wrong on both counts. I flew into Brussels early this year, for a conference in Bruges. I shared a cab from the airport with two others (90 Euros plus tip), which took just over an hour. Those who took the train had to haul their bags onto the train (granted, the station was conveniently located in the basement of the airport), but change in Brussels Nord, and make several stops, for a journey of about two and a half hours. And it was about 45 Euros a person. Who did better here?

Many Americans suffer from the delusion that just about anything is better anywhere else in the world than where we are. Much of that is driven by constituencies with private agendas, and the rest is driven by our own belief that our systems are inadequate and underfunded. If more Americans had the opportunity to understand how things worked in other parts of the world, we would better appreciate what we had.

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.

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.

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