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My Fitness Tracker of the Month February 22, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Is the Samsung Gear Fit2 (or something like that).  It has an awkward name, a moronic app, and questionable distance statistics.  In particular, it does not do what it purports to do with flights of stairs, failing to record what it promises.

But it was relatively inexpensive, and does many things at least adequately. It automatically detects walking, running, sleep, and probably other exercises too.  It shows a lot of data on the device, and more on the app, although the app is pretty poorly designed.

I like the slim form factor of the device, which many multifunction trackers don’t have, but was an important characteristic of my late and lamented Microsoft Band.

I still question why Microsoft got out of this business. They had a decent, competitive product at a reasonable price.  I understand that they didn’t sell many, but from my vantage point, they weren’t trying to.  To be frank, their marketing sucked.  I was actually told by one Microsoft employee that the Band was only intended as an experimental testbed, with any sales being incidental.  But they did their customers a true disservice by not continuing it.

I don’t think I’ll stay with the Samsung Gear Fit2 (I can’t even say it without giggling) very long, but it gives me an interesting perspective on alternative for fitness and activity trackers.

About Being Great February 15, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am not, let’s get that out of the way right now.  I have certain things going for me.  I am smart, I have a really good memory (most of my friends curse me for it), I am active physically and curious mentally.  I have a growth mindset.

But I truly admire someone 20 years younger than me.  Yes, that is Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots.  As he has fought through the most difficult year of his career, he remains the picture of class and grace.  His explanation of his ability to focus and control what he can control is simply amazing.

There are those will continue to call him a cheater.  From what I have read, I think not.  I think he was punished through an exercise of power that had little to do with the facts of the case.  I think any reasonable and objective person would agree with that.

Yes, I live in New England, now for most of my adult life.  But I am not a die-hard football fan.  I grew up as a casual fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was a teen during their first years of success.  In the conference championship game of this year, I was fine with whatever team won.  I was traveling during the Super Bowl, and only received occasional updates.

Many people might interpret Brady’s words as false, even hyperbole.  I simply don’t see that, because he has had many opportunities to say what he really thinks, and continues to be high-minded.  Certainly few would blame him for taking out frustrations on others, yet he does not.

Coming up on my 60th birthday, I still have much to learn about life.  Tom Brady can teach me, through his example.  I promise to be just a little better tomorrow than I am today.  He promises to excel every day.


Weapons of Math Instruction February 15, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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That old (and lame) joke, of course, refers to Al-Gebra (algebra).  But the fear of math is very real.  For decades, many have hid behind the matra “I’m not a math person”, without exploring the roots of that statement.  This article, by Jenny Anderson on Quartz, offers hope that we may be able to move on from this false rhetoric.

I never understood math early, but I always loved it.  Post-BA degree, I taught myself calculus, and obtained an MS in applied math.

I taught various math and statistics courses to college students for 15 years.  I would like to think that my enthusiasm and down-to-earth explanations at the very least made it tolerable to them.  I still remember one student saying to me, “In elementary school, the teacher would preface the math lesson by saying, ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do, but we have to, so let’s get it over with.’”  I think teaching is a very big part of the problem.  If teachers don’t like the topic, neither will their students.

I especially came to appreciate word problems, something that few if any students liked.  I had a method of dealing with them.  My original issue with word problems was that if I read it once and didn’t immediately see the solution, I would be stumped.  Instead, I taught people to read the problem first, to understand it without seeking a solution.  Then read it again, and highlight any information that seemed pertinent.  Then read it a third time, to pull out that information and see how it might help lead to a solution.  Then try a formula.  If it didn’t seem to work out, discard it and start back at step 1.

It is not hard, folks, though it does require overcoming age-old biases, as well as a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking.  Anderson notes that learning and applying math and quantitative methods requires a growth mindset.  That is, a willingness to get something wrong, and learn from it for the future.

As we move (or already have moved) into a data-driven world that requires an intimate understanding of how data shape our lives, we can no longer plead ignorance, or lack of ability.  If we plead lack of interest, we will be left behind.


Thank You Bank of America: Paying Bills Keeps Getting More Challenging February 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Not in a financial sense, but in a process one. Let me step back.  Growing up, my parents paid the vast majority of their monthly bills in cash, at the Post Office or the service window of the grocery store.  As a young adult, I handled my bill payment entirely through the US Mail.  Under some circumstances, you could have installment payments automatically deducted from your checking account, but that was about it.

Today, I pay most of my regular bills online, through my account(s) at Bank of America. I don’t particularly like to write out physical checks, but I typically do so for seasonal and occasional bills.  But the regular stuff is all online.

Now Bank of America is telling me that I shouldn’t be paying all of my bills through their system. Instead, they want me to pay through the individual vendor websites – FairPoint Communications, AT&T, Pennichuck, Nashua Wastewater, VISA, etc., rather than through my bank.

I do find that problematic. Each provider has its own login, which means a user name and password.  You really don’t want to use the same account name and password (and most have different requirements surrounding password definitions), and you don’t want to write them down anywhere.  I have a good memory, but I cannot balance dozens of account names and passwords in my head.

So the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to maintain a dozen or more different accounts on different vendors that I use. I understand that Bank of American finds it burdensome to handle my transactions, but that is what a bank is for.  Right???  It sounds like they want my deposits, but don’t want to go through the effort that is required to work with my deposits.

I’ve had issues with Bank of America before.  I would move, but for various reasons several of my accounts are sticky.  But they keep demonstrating again and again that they don’t want my business.  One of these days I may have to accommodate them.

Gita, Carry My Groceries January 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Longtime scooter manufacturer Vespa has apparently announced Piaggio Fast Forward, a division located here in Boston and formed to design and produce a robot called Gita that will carry your groceries.

Ah, no. I realize that there is a certain segment of the population that is aged or infirmed, and might need assistance with their groceries.  I feel for them, but they are few, and many might not be able to afford such a helper.

But for the vast majority of able-bodied adults among us, this smacks as sloth (as in the famed Seven Deadly Sins).  We don’t get enough exercise at it is, and this gives us yet another excuse to pass up on an opportunity to (only occasionally, granted), lift and carry.

Automation generally has good effects, and advances technology and life in general. This is automation without purpose.

I hope that this “innovation” fails miserably.

Why is the American Ugly? January 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote a fictional novel titled “The Ugly American”.  I read it as a teen in the 1970s.  (No, it was not required reading for school; I simply read a lot of different things at that point in my life).  It took place largely in southeast Asia, and involved sincere but misguided American attempts to improve the lives of the average person elsewhere in the world.  Afterwards, and into today, the phrase generally refers to insensitive and obnoxious Americans (mostly tourists) trying to tell those in other cultures what they are doing wrong, based on their own perspective.

There is much to say here. I am, at this moment, returning from approximately a week in Europe, speaking at a conference.  I pretty much travel to Europe 3-5 times a year, for the last seven years.  I realize that Europe isn’t the rest of the world, so interpret this as you will.

However you might feel about American culture and influence, it has become the gold standard of technology, entertainment and, well, art. As Neil Stephenson put it in Snow Crash, Americans are good at four things – music, movies, microcode (software), and fast pizza delivery.  In Europe at least, you have a good measure of American influence in at least the first three of these.  In at least some cases, it has overwhelmed the local culture.

The English language is the lingua franca. It is the language of aviation worldwide.  Tour guides, hotel staff, and restaurants are almost required to understand and speak English.  Some are upset with that state of affairs.

I am old enough to remember a time when Esperanto was supposed to be the universal language.  But a language that does not well represent a practical reality has no chance of becoming universal.

You may argue that Americans refuse to speak another language. I will respectfully disagree.  I took Spanish in high school, and Russian in college.  I would like to communicate in those languages, and in others (most recently this past week, German; well, and Slovak, the language of my past).  Most Americans are required to take a language in secondary school and college.  Unlike the Europeans, we are so large a geographic area that we have no opportunity to use our learned languages, and they fall into disuse.

In short, I do not believe in the colloquial definition of the ugly American. Sure, a few of my compatriots are less than comprehending of the norms of a foreign culture.  But there are certainly those from other countries (again, mostly tourists) who behave boorishly.  Yet the world seems to hold Americans to another standard.

American movies, music, and microcode are overwhelming because they are, well, good. Or at least compelling to those who consume them.

I met many people who speak multiple languages and attempt to communicate with others (not just me). One on this trip was Mario, who was an Italian transplanted to Austria to be with his girlfriend.  They spoke different languages, he Italian and her German, but they found common ground in English.  Would they have even met without English?  For most, English is the least common denominator of communications.

We Americans are not ugly. We are just trying to do the best we can, like everyone else.

Maybe I Should Just Give In to the Facebook Juggernaut January 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the fact that Facebook keeps active a live stream of a 12-year old committing suicide, yet pulls down a Pulitzer Prize winning historical photograph, the vast majority of the US, and the world in general, seem copasetic with the decisions that Facebook makes about our lives.

I have serious reservations about Facebook, but even more about founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is reported to be looking into a run for the US Presidency in the next election. Someone who publically says that we don’t want privacy in our lives, yet spends millions of dollars in property and legal fees to attempt build a wall around his house, clearly talks out of both sides of his mouth.  It is a classic case of “do what I say, not what I do.”  I’ll actually take that one step further.  Zuckerberg is telling the world that “I want my privacy.  And I can afford it.  You don’t, and you can’t.”

I have yet to ever sign up for Facebook, even though an increasing number of web properties are requiring Facebook user IDs to access their content. And of course, an increasing amount of interesting content is being posted exclusively on Facebook, available only to members.  I still decline, but who am I against two billion other people?

I confess that my flabber is ghasted. Is it just me?  Does no one else see what a heinous effect that Facebook is having on our interactions with other people?  What is it, really?  I am starting to doubt my own judgment that Facebook is something that I can rail against, and achieve some modicum of, well, at least acknowledgement.

I’m asking, no begging. Can someone please explain the almost universal fascination with Facebook?  And if we are concerned about Donald Trump as the US President, we should be horrified at the prospect that Mark Zuckerberg may succeed him.  Imagine a world where we are all required to have Facebook accounts, and to post required information about ourselves.

I would like to think that I have many more years of my life in front of me. Yet I cannot see value in them in the world of Facebook.

Is Cursive Making a Comeback? January 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Anne Quito reported on Quartz about the possibility that more states will be adopting writing requirements that include learning cursive.  I read, now almost five years ago, in Wall Street Journal about how cursive instruction was being cut back or eliminated in several states.  Anne notes that at least a few states may be reversing that trend.

I am at the other side of spectrum of life, and have been removed from innovations in public school instruction for quite some time. But today I almost never write anything longhand, but I can sign my name.  And I can read the Declaration of Independence, which is one of the stated reasons for studying cursive.

Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, but I find it fascinating that such a cultural icon as cursive may be struggling for survival. More so, I wonder what we may be losing if we lose cursive.  That may be a biased question, in that I am assuming we are losing something.  Others may be a bit more sanguine about the whole thing.

Are we losing the ability to read, in the original, significant writings of the past? It’s not clear to me that not writing in cursive is the same thing as not being able to read it, but if it is, yes, we are losing something tangible.

Less tangible, but every bit as real, is that we generally consider handwritten notes more personal and heartfelt than an electronic equivalent.

What’s even less clear is what we are gaining. The Wall Street Journal article from several years ago reported that the state of Indiana was going to stop teaching cursive, in favor of teaching typing.  Really?  I don’t mean to sound incredulous, well, yes I do.  I realize there are certain skills involved (mainly motor skills that do not well relate to cursive), but I learned typing in about a semester of 50-minute classes, well enough to still do about 40 words a minute.

In 1958, the late great Isaac Asimov wrote a short story about world that had used only calculators for hundreds of years, and a man who knew how to perform arithmetic longhand.  The man was looked upon as a savant, and it gave him, as the title notes, “A Feeling of Power.”

Someday, somewhere, someone who can read historical documents may well have the same feeling.