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Does Social Media Need to Go? October 27, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I have been in tech publishing since 1988.  Fulltime, as an editor, senior editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and editorial director has encompassed, um, perhaps nine years.  I’ve freelanced in the interim.

In that time, I’ve learned something about publishing in general.  Publishing involves a certain responsibility to its readers.  That responsibility, in a nutshell, is to curate content in an honest way, and to present that content as representative of what the publisher stands for.  They stand by what is on their platform.

Social media emphatically does not curate.  Not only that, but it praises the fact that it does not curate.  Instead, it says that it cannot possibly curate, and it requires its users to self-curate.  But, of course, it doesn’t provide a reliable means for users to report their curation.

Facebook and other social media platforms have accepted the mantle of publishers, without accepting the responsibility of being publishers.  It has made them enormously profitable.  In fact, they even use our intimate personal data, and sell it to any buyers.  We seem to be okay with that.

I am emphatically not.  Today, someone has published their murderous intentions on social media, then carried them out.  How can we be okay with this?

Unless you disavow social media right now, I will argue that you are complicit in murder and other heinous crimes.  Are you okay with that?

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I Don’t Need a Hero October 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Strategy.
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Apologies to Bonnie Tyler, but we don’t need heroes, as we have defined them in our culture.  “He’s got to be strong, he’s got to be fast, and he’s got to be fresh from the fight.”  Um, no.

Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, makes it clear that the heroes, those in any profession that create a successful outcome primarily on the strength of their superhuman effort, don’t deserve to be recognized as true heroes.  In fact, we should try to avoid circumstances that appear to require a superhuman effort.

So what are heroes?  We would like to believe that they exist.  Myself, I am enamored with the astronauts of a bygone era, who faced significant uncertainties in pushing the envelope of technology, and accepted that their lives were perpetually in hock.  But, of course, they were the same ones who thought that they were better than those who sacrificed their lives, because they survived.

Today, according to Gawande, the heroes are those who can follow checklists in order to make sure that they don’t forget any step in a complex process.  The checklists themselves can be simple, in that they exist to prompt professionals to remember and execute seemingly simple steps that are often forgotten in the heat of crisis.

In short, Gawande believes in commercial airline pilots, such as Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, who with his copilot Jeffrey Skiles glided their wounded plane to a ditching in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan.  Despite the fact that we all know Sully’s name in the Miracle on the Hudson, it was a team effort by the entire flight crew.  And they were always calm, and in control.

Today, software teams are made up on individuals, not close team members.  Because they rarely work as a team, it’s easy for one or more individuals to step up and fix a problem, without the help of the team.

There are several problems with that approach, however.  First, if an extra effort by one person is successful, the team may not try as hard in the future, knowing that they will be bailed out of difficult situations.  Second, the hero is not replicable; you can’t count on it again and again in those situations.  Third, the hero can’t solve every problem; other members of the team will eventually be needed.

It feels good to be the hero, the one who by virtue of extreme effort fixes a bad situation.  The world loves you.  You feel like you’ve accomplished something significant.  But you’re not at all a hero if your team wasn’t there for you.

Statistics is (are?) For Everyone October 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I taught statistics, to undergrad and graduate business students for a number of years.  I typically started off the courses by explaining how statistics were real life constructs, and were far more important in understanding the world than anything else they studied.  I especially loved word problems, which I thought were the epitome of real life.  They were analytical problems expressed in ambiguous words, with incomplete information, yet required a single correct answer.

Everyone got a good laugh out of that, and for the rest of the course treated me like the crazy uncle that they kept in the attic.

But the point remains valid, and important to anyone who cares about real life data, because there is a dichotomy between how statistics are taught, and how we might use them.

Yesterday I had a meeting with someone who told me of his teenage son, who studied and knew every conceivable football player, their university, and their statistics.  He pointed out to his son that he should really enjoy his AP Statistics course, because of his interest in football statistics.

But here’s the problem.  Most traditional statistics courses don’t teach like that.  Statistics courses are designed to look at uncertainty and how to manage it.  So we discuss mean, standard deviation, t-test, Chi-Square, ANOVA, and so on, confident that students will form a mental model of how uncertainly plays a central role in any data samples that we analyze.

Let me tell you something.  Students don’t care.  I know from years of experience that most students think statistics is the most useless course they are required to take.  They largely don’t want to be there, and I considered it a success if I were actually able to get them interested enough in the topic to do homework and understand what the answers meant in real life.

Today, of course, practically every decision made revolves around analytics.  But many business professionals still have trouble relating their university statistics classes to the decisions they make on a daily basis.  For these folks, statistics as a discipline, with an innate understanding of sampling, confidence, and uncertainty is divorced from the results they are presented in their analytics engines.

What’s the solution?  Make statistics relevant.  Teach Moneyball, fantasy football statistics, weather probabilities, or anything that makes it real to people who struggle with the math and its meaning.

I’m not a gambler, and I kind of shrug at the beginning of the era of legalized sports gambling.  But statistical inference and probabilities are at the heart of sports gambling.  If the field of statistics wants to remain relevant, it should start here.

Health Care Doesn’t Care October 7, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A couple of incidents last week reminded me that while the U.S. might have the “health” part down pretty well, it is very much lacking in the “care” part.  The first incident surrounded a hospital appointment I have later this week.  Thursday I received an automated text asking me to confirm the appointment.

On the surface, this sounds like a good application of technology.  However, the text told me to respond by 9 PM.  I happened to be several time zones away, active at a conference, and didn’t see the text until after 9 PM EDT.  I responded anyway, and my response was rejected.  And the texts contained no phone number to call to confirm my appointment.  I hope they haven’t cancelled it, as it took me about two months to get this appointment, but I have to wait until Monday when this office is staffed to find out.

Second, Thursday also I received a call from another doctor’s office, and was told that I needed to consult with the doctor before renewing a prescription.  I explained that I was traveling almost every day between now and mid-November (about six weeks).  She repeated that my prescription wouldn’t be renewed until I saw the doctor.  I asked if I could schedule an appointment for mid-November.  No, I was told, that schedule wasn’t available yet.

I’m not unduly concerned, as the condition this prescription treated is much better, and I would only need to take it occasionally.  But here is the problem.  Our health care system is concerned only about itself, not its customers (patients).  The hoops they make their customers jump through are almost entirely for their convenience.  In my stories above, there is no apparent rationale for requiring a response within four hours, and to not provide other contact information is simply criminal.  While I appreciate that a doctor might want to consult on my condition and make adjustments to the prescription, there is no earthly reason why their schedule does not go out six weeks into the future.

And regrettably, there is no alternative for customers except to deal with the system.

Let me also say that I have encountered a number of fine and caring individual health care professionals.  It’s not the individuals that are the problem (for the most part); it is the system.  Now, you may argue that the people are the system, and I might agree with you.  But most of the health care professionals I talk to feel helpless to change it.

Both health care professionals and their customers have to rise up in revolution and take control.  It is the only thing we can do.  Together, we can reinsert the “care” into health care.

This Year I’m Doing 9/11 Different September 10, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I lost two coworkers on 9/11, one in each plane from Boston to LA that were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.  I and others in the office have vivid and forever memories of the events of that day.  I’ve written about that in the past.  Now I have something that I think is better, and more useful.

I have registered for the 9/11 Heroes Run.  It honors military, first responders, and victims of 9/11.  There are nationwide runs, both 5K and 10K, but there are none local to me in New England, so I have made it a virtual run.  I can run any race between September 1 and October 14 and it will count.  I also made a small donation to the charity.  For the first time, I think I might help make a difference on this day.

Upon registering, you are asked to designate your hero.  I chose Graham Berkeley, one of my fallen coworkers.  I didn’t know Graham well, but he seemed to be a unique and multi-talented individual.

I know it’s an overused idiom, but Never Forget.

Get Thee to a Spaceport! August 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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To many of my generation, the United States has a singular space launch facility, at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Thanks to my time in the Air Force, I know of at least three others – Wallops Island, Virginia (a NASA complex); Vandenberg AFB, California, and the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Thanks to my personal interest in space exploration, I know of two more – Spaceport America, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and the Blue Origin launch complex near Van Horn, Texas.

But wait!  There are more.  Elon Musk has his own with SpaceX, of course, on the Texas coast (although SpaceX and Blue Origin use Cape Canaveral for operational launches right now).  Oddly, there is also the Oklahoma Spaceport, Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida; and the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert.  The newest licensed spaceport is at Ellington Field in Houston, although it cannot yet support launches or recoveries.

Complicated?  Yeah.

The dynamics of achieving orbit are complex, but like any physics problem, consistent.  There is a small but distinct advantage in launching close to the Equator (at least for east-west launches), in effect using the Earth’s rotation to help propel a rocket upward.  Probably the most efficient is the Guiana Space Center, in French Guiana and within about five degrees of the Equator, used by the European Space Agency for many manned and unmanned launches.  Tyura Tam, in Kazakhstan, is also comfortably close to the Equator.  Tyura Tam (Baikonur), once a part of the larger Soviet Union, is now leased by the Russians for their launches.

Here in the US, the Kennedy Space Center is used for all manned launches (regrettably none over the last several years).  It launches Equatorially, to the east, over the Atlantic Ocean, in order to minimize the chance of failures over populated areas.  Vandenberg and Kodiak both launch into polar orbits, once again over the ocean.

There have been many other sites around the world that have been used for space launches.  China, Japan, and India have all launched unmanned satellites into orbit, and many other countries have designated spaceports.  Certainly over one hundred sites worldwide have either launched vehicles or are capable of doing so.

That begs the question why.  The manned space program has certainly garnered the lion’s share of popular attention, but hundreds of satellites are launched into space every year.  While many of these are launched from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg, the volume is simply too great for those two sites alone.  Navigation, geophysical and environmental (including farming), Internet, and of course military are just a few of the uses for satellites today.

In an era where the US has largely depended upon commercial firms to deliver satellites and other payloads, the proliferation of US spaceports both lowers costs and gets satellites in orbit faster.  It also helps develop an industrial base in nontraditional parts of the country.

The majority of US spaceports today are that in name only; few if any launches are occurring outside of Cape Canaveral/Kennedy, Wallops Island, and Vandenberg.  But as the need for orbital launch capabilities heats up, some of the others are in on the ground floor.

My Boss is a Computer August 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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Well, not really, but if you can be fired by a computer, it must be your boss.  Not my story, but one that foretells the future nonetheless.  An apparently uncorrectable software defect led to a contract employee being locked out of his computer and his building, and labeled inactive in the payroll.

It was almost comically funny that his manager and other senior managers and executives at the company, none of whom fired him, could not get this fiat reversed.  A full three weeks passed, in which he received no pay and no explanation, before they were able to determine that his employment status had never been updated in their new HR management software.  Even after he was reinstated, his colleagues treated him as someone not entitled to work there, and he eventually left.

It seems that intelligent (or otherwise) software is encroaching into the ultimate and unabashed people-oriented field – human resources.  And there’s not a darned thing we can do about it.  Software is not only conducting full interviews, but also performing the entire hiring process.  While we might hope that we aren’t actually selected (or rejected) by computer algorithms, that is the goal of these software systems.

So here’s the problem.  Or several problems.  First, software isn’t perfect, and while most software bugs in released software are no more than annoying, bugs in this kind of software can have drastic consequences on people.  Those consequences will likely spill over to the hiring company itself.

Second, these applications are usually machine learning systems that have had their algorithms trained through the application of large amounts of data.  The most immediate problem is that the use of biased data will simply perpetuate existing practices.  That’s a problem because everything about the interview and selection process is subjective and highly prone to bias.

Last, if the software doesn’t allow for human oversight and the ability to override, then in effect a company has ceded its hiring decisions to software that it most likely doesn’t understand.  That’s a recipe for disaster, as management has lost control over the reasons why management exists in the first place.

Now, there may be some that will say that’s actually a good thing.  Human management is, well, human, with human failings, and sometimes they manifest themselves in negative ways.  Bosses are dictatorial, or racist, or some combination of negative qualities, and are often capricious in dealing with others.  Computer software is at least consistent, if not necessarily fair as we might define it.

But no matter how poor the decisions that might come from human managers, we own them.  If it’s software, no one owns them.  When we are locked in to following the dictates of software, without any understanding as to who programmed it to do what, then we give up on our fellow citizens and colleagues.  Worse, we give up the control that we are paid to maintain.

Lest we face a dystopian future where computer software rules our working lives, and we are powerless to act as the humans we are, then we must control the software that is presumably helping us.

Can Amazon Replace Libraries? July 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I was born and raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.  It was a company town.  In 1905, the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation bought a tract of several thousand acres along the steep hills of the Ohio River, laid out some streets, built some houses and stores, and constructed a steel mill stretching six miles along the river.

The neighborhoods were called plans, because they were individual neighborhood plans conceived and built by the company.  My older sister grew up in the projects of Plan 11.  Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, two years my elder, grew up just a couple of blocks away.  We shopped in the company store, the largest building in town, until I was 13.  (Bear with me, please)

B.F. Jones, in the style of the robber barons of an earlier era, built a grand library in his name, right along Franklin Avenue, the main street, all marble and columns, called the B.F. (for Burris Frederick) Jones Memorial Library.

It was a massive marble structure that frightened off most youngsters.  The homeless guy slept at a table in one corner.  In that library, I read Don Quixote, The Far Pavilions, just about everything from James Michener, Irving Stone, and much more.  It was a dismal company town, but I escaped through the library far beyond the boundaries of the drab community.

Today, a yanked Forbes magazine op-ed written by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas opined that libraries were obsolete, and that they should be replaced by for-profit brick-and-mortar Amazon stores selling physical books.  Libraries are no longer relevant, Mourdoukoutas and Forbes claim, and Amazon can serve the need in a for-profit way that benefits everyone.  Libraries are a waste of taxpayer funds.

Funny, today, 40 years later, my adopted town library is the hangout of middle and high school students.  Rather than the quiet place of reflection (and possibly stagnation) of the past, it is a vibrant, joyful place where parents are happy to see their children study together and socialize.  There are movies, crafts, classes, lectures, and games.  In an era where youngsters can escape to their phones, the Internet, video games, drugs, or worse, escaping to the library is a worthy goal.

There is one Starbucks in town, where Mourdoukoutas tells us that anyone can get wifi, and most people use the drive-through.  I doubt they would let the throngs of youngsters cavort for the evening like the library does.

Today I travel extensively.  I am enthralled by the amazing architectures of European cities, built when society was much poorer.  Yet today we cannot afford libraries?

I am sorry, I call bullshit.  Long and loud.  This type of trash deserves no serious discussion; in fact, no discussion whatsoever.  If we cannot afford libraries, we cannot afford imagination, we cannot afford, well, life.

To reinforce the point, please invest a few minutes to listen to Jimmy Buffett, Love in the Library.  Thank you.