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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.

More on the NFL, Because I Was There September 16, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Mr. Goodell, I had the opportunity to hear you speak several years ago, as the keynote at a large university graduation.  You spoke passionately about your father, representing New York in Congress.  He spoke out against the Vietnam War, an unpopular position at the time, and sacrificed his political career for his stand.

Contrast that against your lack of speaking out today.  You shame  your father’s memory.  You are apparently doing so to protect your $40 million a year paycheck.  You are clearly bought and paid for, and don’t care about the ethics of what you are doing.  What does your father think of you today?

Off the Rails on Social Commentary With the NFL September 14, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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On this beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, I simply can’t watch or otherwise follow US professional football any more. The reason, of course, is domestic violence, and the billionaire team owners’ response to it.

I am no more than a casual fan, and am certain that I am not in the league’s target demographic. I don’t buy grossly overpriced apparel, and it’s been a long time since I’ve actually attended an overpriced game. So I’m sure that no one who matters cares at all what I think here. Still, unlike the owners, I feel compelled to take a stand.

I am especially appalled by commentators on TV and on various fan websites. As near as I can tell, these fall into one of three broad categories.

First, I want my team to win, and I don’t care if they employ the Mean Machine to do so. Grow up, it’s a game, dammit. You don’t live or die over who wins and loses.

Second, he made a mistake, and he should be entitled to due process or a second chance. Um, no. There is no entitlement here. Where did that idea even come from?  Second chances are not automatic get-out-of-jail free cards. You earn your second chances, through knowledge that you did wrong, honest and heartfelt contrition, a determination to set things right, and a track record of enlightened understanding and a better life.  I don’t see much of that going on.

Third, the perpetrators are Bad Men, and should be treated accordingly. Perhaps, but there are a lot of highly paid and presumably competent people involved in evaluating their behavior and effects. I fear they are driven mostly by the profit motive, but I hope there is some semblance of a conscience in most of them.

But my special disgust is reserved for the National Football League bureaucracy. Simply put, those highly paid denizens are either lying or incompetent.  There is certainly no conscience here.

But the bottom line is that our multimillion dollar athletes, those that own their contracts, and those that manage them have let this get completely out of control over an unconscionable need to win above all else. If sports are a microcosm of society, this is society at its very worst.

No matter what happens, I don’t think I can go back and be a fan of any sort again. Goodbye, NFL.

On This Eve of 9/11 September 11, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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On this eve of 9/11, I once again remember Graham Berkeley and Myra Aronson, fellow Compuware employees on the planes that hit the Towers.  Please join me.  Thank you.

Reuters, Get Your Act Together Now September 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I like the Reuters website as an alternative new source. But for the last several weeks, my visits to Reuters have been redirected to various phishing sites, to install Java or Flash. Wrong. I am up to date on all. They are simply getting hijacked. I would imagine this is happening to others, too.

I’ve sent multiple emails to the site, asking that they address this. They have not. I don’t understand why not, but I can’t continue visiting this site under these circumstances.

Goodbye, Reuters. I imagine many others will react the same.

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.

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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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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