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Net Neutrality and The Oatmeal November 21, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I can understand why Matthew Inman doesn’t accept email on The Oatmeal, but it does make it difficult to raise an important issue. In this case, I would like to explore his take on net neutrality. Yes, I agree that Senator Cruz is probably an idiot, or at least pandering. But beyond that, I’m wondering just who the bad guy is here. Is it Comcast Xfinity, who would like to charge premium prices to companies with real time content delivery needs? Perhaps. Or is it Netflix, who is abusing an infrastructure not designed or operated for streaming high-quality video? Hmm.

Today we tend to think of the Internet as more or less a public utility, akin to our electrical service. That’s not quite correct. Actually, not at all correct. There was a time, when I was in college, where the Internet was a private, elitist academic network, yet funded entirely by the government. If you as an individual wanted access, you had to be an academic, a government-funded researcher, or at worst a paying student at a really good university. And there was some decent content on the Internet, albeit all text-based. That was the world at the time.

In the early 1990s, the powers-that-be (I really don’t know or care to assign it to one political party or the other, and neither should you (and no, Al Gore did not create the Internet, despite his resume)) decided to commercialize it.

That, I think most people would agree, was a Good Thing. We got ISPs (okay, we had AOL and Compuserve before that, but they specifically weren’t on the Internet until later), we got decent graphics tools, and we got modems to use with our phones. It provided for a burst of innovation, an explosion of content, and a democratization of access.

The phone companies made a half-assed attempt to offer higher access speeds, but DSL was expensive, difficult to buy and configure, and slow. The cable companies realized that they already had fat pipes into homes, and rushed to compete, spending hundreds of billions of dollars (granted, our subscription dollars, but a significant investment nonetheless) on network upgrades.

So here the Internet ceased being a public utility, if it ever was one, and became a commercial venture. I agree that the exclusive contracts still oddly provided by municipalities to cable companies makes it seem that way, but there is little reason for these to still exist. And in any case, they should be up for re-bid every few years, once again making it less of a utility.

So a business like Netflix comes along, and reduces its operating cost by offering a very high usage delivery on what is at worst a low-cost fixed-price medium. Is Comcast wrong by wanting more money for this type of use? To support the Netflix business model of making money from us?

I don’t know. Apparently Matthew Inman does. Good for him.

In theory, I believe net neutrality is the way to go. But it supports some businesses over the expense of others. Just like the alternative. So I simply don’t see a compelling reason to discard either concept.

I Have My Cell Phone, So I’m Safe November 20, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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In the safety of my home in New Hampshire (where we are no strangers to snow), I am watching the emerging largely lake-effect snowfall blanket western New York with over seven feet of snow, with more to come. And at least ten people have died, though some as the result of shoveling snow rather than getting caught in it.

And I can’t help but think that technology, which has been of enormous help in saving lives, is also making us more susceptible to dying in extreme conditions. In particular, the easy availability of cell phones makes us think that someone will always come to get us, in just about any circumstances.

Yes, people died of weather tragedies prior to the advent of easy and instant communications. The unnamed hurricane hitting Galveston, Texas in 1900 killed 6000-12,000 people, the bodies of most were never found. The New England hurricane of 1938 killed perhaps 700 people. In the early 1970s as a youth, I recall reading a harrowing account of a massive snowstorm at the Batavia Rock Cut closing the New York Thruway for days, with hundreds of cars still on it.

But we lacked not only communications technology, but the ability to forecast and communicate such extreme weather. Today we have much of that information available to us, yet still choose to take risks. Perhaps more risks than we would otherwise.

And such technology is not a panacea. I also recall the James Nance book and subsequent TV miniseries, Pandora’s Clock, where a doomsday virus kept an airliner from landing, even for medical help. An ambassador on the plane, played by Robert Guillaume, was in contact with the highest level of authority worldwide through a satellite phone. Fat lot of good it did him (Richard Dean Anderson was the hero, as he often was in MacGyver).

I am (not quite, I hope) as guilty as anyone else. I run very early in the morning, well before light, in a neighborhood known to be populated by certain wild animals. I take my cell phone with me, in a pouch. Like I will be able to make a phone call if attacked by a wild animal, or have a heart attack or encounter with an automobile. Still, I irrationally feel a little more secure with it than without.

So is there a lesson here? I think that technology such as easy communications is a cautious fallback strategy. But it doesn’t make us invincible. Sometimes the cavalry just isn’t coming, or can’t come. Even with our superior technology, Mother Nature will win, without cause and without regret.

Does Being Ethically Challenged Matter in Silicon Valley? November 19, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Investor Peter Thiel offers the opinion that ride service Uber is Silicon Valley’s most ethically challenged company, even before one of the company’s executives was quoted as saying it might hire private detectives to find and publicize dirt on journalists who criticize its business practices (the company CEO eventually delivered an apology in 14 tweets, which is just plain silly).

According to various reports, Uber doesn’t play well with local and regional regulatory agencies, treats its drivers poorly, and plays various dirty tricks on competitors. To some extent, friction with a startup in a new market is likely to occur, whether because of a new business model (anyone remember the controversy caused by open source software before it became widely accepted?) or because of legal or regulatory limitations.

I will likely never use Uber, for a variety of reasons (such as not frequenting places it serves), and it certainly appears that the company breaks the boundaries of accepted good business practices and regulatory statutes. But I don’t think that will in any way drive whether or not it succeeds. Its success will be driven primarily by its being able to service customers (riders) in a fast, clean, and courteous environment.

Of course, the legal and regulatory environment plays an important role here (Uber remains banned in certain German cities), and the company’s legal arguments in response are pretty ridiculous (“The Hamburg court rejected Uber’s arguments that the ban violated Uber’s professional freedom or European freedom to offer services.”) But rather than claim an absolute right that doesn’t exist in society, why not work within the legal framework, or work with authorities in a collaborative way to adjust that framework and experiment with new models? The regulations exist for a reason, usually what was once a good reason, so it makes sense to bring about change without negating the law.

I’ll also opine that it seems like the company has intentionally cultivated an arrogant, likely inappropriate business atmosphere. It’s almost certainly not a place where I could work. But that probably only has a small, if any, impact on its probability of business success.

Old Versus New October 5, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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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?

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