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Uber Bullshit Disapproved October 28, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think it’s safe to say that Uber is full of BS. In this report, it heralds the availability of providing personal aircraft commuting options to consumers by 2020.  The article actually treats it as serious news.  I want to giggle.

I don’t even know where to begin. The article cites regulatory issues, but it is far more than simply that.  The regulations exist largely for safety and identity purposes, and any talk of regulation has to devolve into the many very good reasons behind them.  These are regulations that Uber can flout, as they have so many others.

It actually says that the costs are feasible, as long as the aircraft are self-piloting. Um, no, they aren’t.  Here’s why.

Pilots. That is the one cost that is actually manageable.  There is a plethora of 23-year old pilots with their newly-minted commercial ticket who would rather be doing this than picking up an occasional buck giving flying lessons.  They are not the expensive part of flying; they will do this for $20 an hour.  The actual manufacturing cost of the planes isn’t the gating factor either, even though even the most basic new private plane goes for about a quarter of a million USD.

Where is the cost? Liability insurance.  Liability insurance makes up over 30 percent of the cost of a new private plane, which is why private planes are no longer made in the US.  All of our private aircraft come from companies in Europe, where liability laws are different, and presumably much less expensive.

I know something about flying and aviation. I also know something about the history of personal flight, thanks to my father’s 1960s-era subscriptions to Popular Science magazine.

In a larger sense, we regulate aviation because unregulated flying is, well, dangerous. Flying is a serious endeavor that does not easily lend itself to simply getting a ride.  If your plane runs out of gas or has a mechanical issue, you can’t simply pull to the side of the road.  When I got my driver’s license, the instructor said, “Now you have the right to get yourself into an accident.”  When I got my pilot’s license, it was considerably more involved and serious.  No one wanted me to get killed; it would involve too much paperwork.

And weather. Enough said.  The ability to fly under instrument conditions is an entirely different kettle of fish, both for the plane and the pilot.  It takes years for a pilot to fully comprehend flying in inclement weather.

Leave it to automation, you say? Um, no.  Ultimately, there has to be a human in the loop, and that won’t change for at least half a century, if ever.  And remember that this problem is at least a factor of ten (probably more like a factor of 100) more difficult than self-driving cars, which have the luxury of operating in only two dimensions.

I could go on further, but this is already fantasy.

I’m not sure why Uber felt the need to commission and publish such a study, but it is nonsensical.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is? October 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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That iconic line from the song of the same name by the rock group Chicago popped into my head as I pondered my next step with fitness trackers.  It seems that Microsoft is indeed discontinuing the Band (bastards), and I have to find another way forward.

(And if you’ve not listened to Chicago, also known as Chicago Transit Authority, do yourself a favor. There is a reason why they have sold more albums than anyone else in history.)

I have a pretty good idea of what I need in a new device:

  1. Steps, floors, GPS, running, heart rate.  Sleep would be nice, as long as it was automated.
  2. Integration with Android, and notifications from Android.  Phone and texts, with options for others.
  3. Time.

The last item turns out to be fascinating. At Mobile Dev and Test this past spring, Caeden COO Skip Orvis presented information on a fascinating device called Sona that looked at heart rate variability, a measure of both health and stress.  I would have bought the device when it came out, but I had a question:  “Does it tell time?”

I meant it as a joke, but it was no joke. It turns out that is doesn’t have a display, and doesn’t tell time.  Virtually everyone in the audience objected, because no one wants to wear multiple devices on their wrist.

This prompted me to look into the history of the wristwatch.  It seemed for several years that the wristwatch was dying, but because of the Apple watch and activity trackers in general, seems to be making a comeback.

Today, I wear my Band at all times when it is not recharging (which, frankly, is often; Microsoft acknowledges that the battery won’t even last long enough to run a half marathon with the GPS engaged). It is sleek and unobtrusive, and passes through airport security just like a wristwatch.  It syncs readily with my Android phone.

Today, there are many comparable devices (most of which are more expensive than the Band), but I need to choose one with the features I need. Any ideas?

In Defense of Honesty October 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I dislike politics. There is more dishonesty and deception in politics than in any other human endeavor.  It is neither productive nor expedient, yet we spend an enormous amount of time and energy in creating, manipulating, and explaining (as in “lying about”) views, policies, and outcomes.  It is a true low point in human progress (albeit possibly an inevitable one).

Yet the narrative that the system is “rigged” (however you might want to describe that) troubles me still more. No one doubts the “graveyard vote” in Chicago of half a century ago, or the poll payoffs that occurred in New York City in the early 1900s.  It’s not clear that these ever made a difference in outcomes, but yes, they existed.  Even today, certainly there are machinations behind the scenes that sometimes smack of less-than-fair or backroom political dealings.

But an election, especially a national election, being rigged?  Ah, no one but the most paranoid can even hope to entertain that thought.  The problem is that people talk.  There is no chance, zero chance, of keeping such a conspiracy a secret.  Three people can keep a secret, if two are dead.

But a larger problem is that the entire foundation of US democracy is based on the premise that we are transparent. Or at the very least the outcomes are transparent.  If we stop believing this with all of our hearts and souls, then we are no better than a third world country (sorry, all third world countries out there).

So, no, elections are not rigged. I think that there can be a reasonable proof applied to that, but more to the point, believing that is contradictory to believing that we have a democracy.  And I, as a citizen of the United States of America, refuse to go there.

All Financial Advisors Should Be Shot October 24, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That seems a bit extreme, and out of the purview of this blog, but I think is an important message. Tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) became legal in my early 20s.  Shortly thereafter, I started gingerly putting money into an IRA.  At that early time, the only investment options were certificates of deposit (CDs).  No mutual funds or stocks.

For the next 30 years, all (literally) personal investment advisors said, both privately and publically, that you didn’t have to invest very much; rather, let the power of compound interest do the heavy lifting for you. Start early, invest a few percent of your income, and let the prevailing interest rates take care of the rest.  Sleep easy.  This was the case whether you had an IRA, SEP, 401K, 403B, or other investment vehicle (I have had them all).

Circa 2010, the message emanating from all personal investment advisors changed dramatically. The message now became “Save as much as you can.  Interest rates aren’t going to do anything for you.  You just need to sock away more money.  And still more money.”

For those deep into their careers, this change of message came like a kick in the stomach. For those who followed the advice of the last 30 years, all of a sudden, in their years before retirement, that they were doing it wrong.

The fact of the matter is, they lied. Simply, personal financial advisors lied.  Granted, the landscape had changed.  The interest rates have changed in recent years, putting the economic burden on savers, while spenders get free reign.

But financial advisors, if they were honest and competent, are supposed to think in the long term, for your benefit. They don’t, and they won’t.  They think for their own benefit, and don’t give a flying leap about yours.  And if they say otherwise, they are either incompetent or lying.  Myself, I would bet on lying.

Remember, your personal financial advisor (or investment website) is fundamentally a sales person. They are out to enrich themselves, not you.  In fact, if you followed their advice for two or three decades, you have certainly gotten yourself screwed.  Certainly, they have to appear as though they care about your financial future, but the drastically changed messages put the lie to that in a hurry.

They can radically change their message; in fact, deliver a very contradictory message, with impunity, because they continue to collect fees from you. They make money whether or not you do.

Okay, it is buyer beware. But if they in any way represented themselves as honest brokers, they are liars, and deserve to be treated as such.  They are not honest.  They are not on your side.  And if your personal financial advisor has abruptly changed his or her message over the last several years, you have good reason, oh, I cannot say shoot them, but perhaps throttle them.  Because they lied to you, over a period of years.

The State of US Airports October 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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One of the defining political narratives recently has been the condition of US travel infrastructure, particularly the airports. I travel a lot, and have my own opinions.  I admit that my sample if biased, based on where I have been, which is almost entirely the US, Canada, and Europe.  I’ve done Mexico a few times, but not recently.  And I fly Delta and SkyTeam, and your experience with OneWorld or Star may be different.

Well, first, you don’t come into the US through LaGuardia, despite complaints from the likes of Gore and Trump. It is not an airport of entry (except for pre-clearance through a handful of Canadian airports).  After a hiatus of about three years, I recently flew into LaGuardia again.  Terminal C was fantastic!  The airport is highly restricted by its location, but once inside I have seen much worse.

JFK is approaching disaster status, even with the remodeling of the Delta and SkyTeam terminals. If we want to throw money at transportation infrastructure, this is a prime candidate.  My last trip back to JFK, it took me almost two hours go get bags, clear Customs and Immigration (and I have Global Entry), and re-clear security for a domestic connection.

Logan (my local long-haul airport) is okay, although I wish you didn’t have to come back into the country through Terminal E. Orlando is very nice though crowded, Atlanta is as good as it’s going to get – not great, but it gets you from one place to the other.  San Diego needs a new airport, but they put enough maintenance money into the old one.  Detroit’s SkyTeam terminal, while now about 15 years old, remains top-tier.  Seattle, where I just returned from, is old and needs more than a refresh.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been to LAX, but it is always in need of a tune-up.

So let me also talk about some places in Europe. Zurich underwent significant remodeling over the last several years and is a really nice airport, probably one of the best in the world.  Helsinki was pretty nice.  Vienna is old and groaning.  Charles DeGaulle is nice in spots, but is really a vast and poorly laid-out facility.  The Schengen terminal for the secondary European cities is terrible (I will be in that terminal a week from now), and remote from the main part of the airport.  This really needs to be rethought.  Schiphol is quite nice for an airport of its size, and it has recently undergone significant remodeling.

Brussels was old but serviceable, though the bombing last year may have caused some redesign, and I haven’t been back.  Tegel has been a disaster for years, and if Berlin doesn’t open Brandenburg soon (that is a complete fuster-cluck), I can’t imagine what this is going to be like.  Dusseldorf was simply okay, with nothing special to recommend it.  Same with Hamburg.  I’ve not been to the relatively new T5 at Heathrow, but the rest of the facility is unattractive and has perennially long lines.

Yes, a few countries have spent billions on showcase airports, of note Seoul Inchon, Hong Kong, and several Middle East Emirates. These are the exceptions.

My point is that US airports, with few exceptions, aren’t disasters. Some are quite nice, especially compared to some in Europe.  They certainly wouldn’t be hurt by some modernization, especially the older and more travelled.

But. We don’t, or at least shouldn’t, spend a lot of time in airport terminals.  If we are, any money would be better spent improving air traffic control and runway configuration, not the terminals themselves.  The purpose of the terminal is to get us from one place to another.  If they are doing that, it shouldn’t matter that they don’t have the latest shopping or restaurants.

What We Lose in Reading Digitally October 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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I have almost never picked up a physical book in the last three years. Virtually everything I have read (and I am a voracious reader) has been digital, first on my Nook, and over the last year on my phone.  I prefer it that way.  I carry my library with me, and can read anything I want, whenever I want.  And I don’t have to fill my backpack with a bunch of paperbacks.

I discovered something today. I discovered that I could not, at least not conveniently, give the gift of a book in a digital format.  It used to be if I wanted to gift a book, I would go to a bookstore, buy the book, and give it to you.  I may end up doing that here (the Barnes and Noble superstore is only five minutes away, although I have no idea if they stock this particular book), but buying a digital book as a gift is almost impossible.  My accounts at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon, are tied to my reading software and my devices.

I’m not even sure how I would gift a digital book. The reader often tells me if it’s possible to loan a book (sometimes it’s not, apparently), but doesn’t say anything about buying a book for someone else.  From the standpoint of the book economy, this doesn’t seem to make any sense.

It troubles me that I cannot easily gift a book in the digital era. This doesn’t seem to be a use case with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and that is to their detriment.  I have spent some time looking into this, and don’t see any good way of doing it.  And I have never had to spend any time doing it with physical books.  This is odd.  Books have often been one of the most popular of gifts, and we don’t easily allow that any more.

The fact of the matter is that while we’ve made it easier to buy (digital) books, we have made it more difficult to gift them. That’s simply wrong, and we have taken a step back in that regard.  Book sellers, are you listening?  I think not.

AI: Neural Nets Win, Functional Programming Loses October 4, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Uncategorized.
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Today, we might be considered to be in the heady early days of AI commercialization. We have pretty decent speech recognition, and pattern recognition in general.  We have engines that analyze big data and produce conclusions in real time.  We have recommendations engines; while not perfect, they seem to be to be profitable for ecommerce companies.  And we continue to hear the steady drumbeat of self-driving cars, if not today, then tomorrow.

I did graduate work in AI, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In most universities at the time, this meant that you spent a lot of time writing Lisp code, that amazing language where everything is a function, and you could manipulate functions in strange and wonderful ways.  You might also play around a bit with Prolog, a streamlined logic language that made logic statements easy, and everything else hard.

Later, toward the end of my aborted pursuit of a doctorate, I discovered neural networks. These were not taught in most universities at the time.  If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I would say that they were both poorly understood and not worthy of serious research.  I used a commercial neural network package to build an algorithm for an electronic wind sensor, and it was actually not nearly as difficult as writing a program from scratch in Lisp.

I am long out of academia, so I can’t say what is happening there today. But in industry, it is clear that neural networks have become the AI approach of choice.  There are tradeoffs of course.  You will never understand the underlying logic of a neural network; ultimately, all you really know is that it works.

As for Lisp, although it is a beautiful language in many ways, I don’t know of anyone using it for commercial applications. Most neural network packages are in C/C++, or they generate C code.

I have a certain distrust of academia. I think it came into full bloom during my doctoral work, in the early 1990s, when a professor stated flatly to the class, “OSI will replace Ethernet in a few years, and when that happens, many of our network problems will be solved.”

Never happened, of course, and the problems were solved anyway, but this tells you what kind of bubble academics live in. We have a specification built by a committee of smart people, almost all academics, and of course it’s going to take over the world.  They failed to see the practical roadblocks involved.

And in AI, neural networks have clearly won the day, and while we can’t necessarily follow the exact chain of logic, they generally do a good job.

Update:  Rather than functional programming, I should have called the latter (traditional) AI technique rules-based.  We used Lisp to create rules that spelled up what to do with combinations of discrete rules.

Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.