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The Do-It-Yourself Economy March 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am guessing that the do-it-yourself economy started with pumping your own gas in the 1970s.  In my mid-20s, ATM machines started to become ubiquitous.

The Internet and Web opened the doors to entirely new ways of business process reengineering.  Airlines pioneered it by letting you select flights and buy tickets online, and soon other modes of transportation followed.  Today, retail, finance, transportation, and a host of other industries have become more efficient by asking the customer to do more.

Some people complain that if consumers are helping the companies, they need to be compensated, rather than having the effects of customer work go directly to the companies’ bottom line.  I get it, but I think that is a misguided attitude.

These transformations could not have happened without the active agreement and participation of consumers.  If we declined to switch over to the transformed service systems, these companies would have had no choice but to revert to old practices.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) notes the amazing contributions of thousand of volunteers to the Waze traffic app.  In some cases, they spend 30 or 40 hours a week updating maps with new information on streets, road construction, accidents, and traffic problems.  The comments to this article are pretty skewed toward the dubious use of their time in doing so.

Where I grew up in western Pennsylvania, our rural township had an all-volunteer fire department.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but according to the Wall Street Journal even today volunteer fire departments constitute 90 percent of all such departments in Pennsylvania, even though the training requirements are much more rigorous today.  The fact that people are still volunteering (albeit less than in the past as we become less engaged with our physical communities), says that for them it’s not at all about giving away their services.

In the do-it-yourself economy, it turns out that people like flexibility and being in control of their own experiences.  In my youth, to book a flight you had to visit a travel agent (or the airport), and accept the schedule and fares presented, without the ability to see others (you could have asked, but almost never gotten a complete answer).  Today, we can sit in front of our computers at midnight, and compare and select our own flights.  We pull up to a pump and service our own car, rather than waiting around for someone to do it for us.  And so on.  It’s like that in every industry that has transformed in this manner.

And volunteers see tangible results of giving away their services in support of a larger cause.  Fires are put out, children and adults are trained in fire protection, and people spend less time sitting in traffic.

It’s almost universally acknowledged that volunteering improves mental health and quality of life.  In a larger sense, having a hobby has a multitude of life benefits.  It’s not about giving away your services; it’s about improving your life and health.


Your Money’s No Good Here March 7, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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In my younger days, that phrase meant that you were a local hero of sorts, and that you didn’t have to pay for anything in that particular business establishment.  Today, it means going cashless.

Few realize it, but there is nothing explicit in Federal law that says businesses have to accept legal tender.  So places like Amazon and Sweetgreen have gone entirely cashless.  There are some advantages in doing so.  Given today’s technologies, electronic payments are faster and more convenient than cash (maybe).

As I travel to various places overseas, I see some of the difficulties with cashless operations.  I was in a retail shop in Kyiv last spring; the power was out, and there was no way to process electronic payments.  The shopkeeper was resigned to losing a day’s business, until we showed up with cash.  “Discount!” she exclaimed.

And there is a significant portion of the population in the US that remains unbanked, as it is called.  There are a variety of reasons for this, including poverty, immigration status, and lack of knowledge of banking.  I will say that my parents, 50 years ago, were unbanked, my mother cashing my father’s steel mill paychecks at the supermarket, and paying bills at the supermarket, post office, and utility office, all within half a mile of each other.

Personally, I am a heavy user of credit cards (I don’t get the debit card thing), but there are still certain things that I buy with cash; for example, groceries.  I simply don’t want to be inundated by grocery stores knowing exactly what I purchase and sending me emails and texts encouraging me to do more of the same.  And I am also concerned about security issues, which based on my research haven’t yet been appropriately addressed.

And thank god for the nascent marijuana industry (disclosure: I do not partake), which out of legal necessity is entirely a cash operation.  In time, that will almost certainly change.

Yes, so I shovel against the tide.  Everything will be cashless at some point, and every bank and retail establishment will require cashless transactions.  And everything we might purchase will be completely transparent.  I already do much of that, and am not especially happy about it.  It’s not about hiding, it’s about taking control of the information surrounding your life.  We have less and less opportunity to do so, and that will only continue.

Do We Even Exist if We’re Not on Facebook? March 3, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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It’s a rhetorical question, so please don’t respond.  This LinkedIn video provides a hilarious take on a young person in a fledging relationship who is shocked, absolutely shocked, at her potential partner’s absence on any form of social media.  “Have you ever seen a photo of his d***?”  Her friends ask.  “No, I’ve only seen the real thing!  I have a selfie of my boobs, but I don’t know where to put it so he can see it.”

It’s over the top, of course, but there is still more than a grain of truth here.  Has it become such that if something is not on social media, it is not real?  I would guess that some people think that way, especially in the era of fake news by the Russians and others.  If we are not constantly engaging face to face, is that a tell for an alternative reality of social media exchanges?

And, to be fair, if you are a digital native, why wouldn’t you accept social media as ground truth?  As we navigate our way through life, using primarily digital media to communicate and express ourselves, is this the inevitable outcome?  That we don’t believe it unless it is published on social media?

That’s not really a question, because of course it’s true.  After all, many people get all the information they need and want through news feeds of various types, and through retweets and the like by friends and colleagues.

The end result is that many people today are mixing real and social media experiences, often seamlessly, in their minds and activities.  That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it does give one pause.  Should, in fact, social media be accorded the same status as in-person interactions?  A higher status?  While the answer may seem obvious, don’t forget that the world is shifting under our feet daily, where we have accusations of fake news and declarations of alternative facts.

Softly Falls the Light of Day February 19, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As I get older, I think about the institutional influences in my youth and how I react to them today.  Beyond my family, I claim two, perhaps three – the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, and perhaps Junior Achievement (which I did for three years in high school).  I did the full Boy Scout thing – Cub Scouts, Webelos, Boy Scouts (Allegheny Trails Council Troop 466, neither the troop nor the council exists today), and was actually an Assistant Scoutmaster (Troop 244, don’t remember the council) while in college.

And yes, I am an Eagle Scout, and was a Senior Patrol Leader for my troop.  I met fellow Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong (I will be very disappointed if you don’t know the name) twice, once because he came to speak to my cohort of Eagle Scouts at the Allegheny Trails Council in 1973, and once outside the Delta Sky Club in Cincinnati, 30 years later.

I didn’t particularly care for camping on the hard (often winter) ground, and haven’t done it since my Air Force days, but I think I learned something from it.

Life has not been particularly kind to the Boy Scouts (and to at least some individual boy scouts) in the intervening time.  There have been issues regarding not admitting openly gay boys, child abuse scandals with Scout leadership, and the question of girls in the Boy Scouts.

Don’t laugh; while I certainly was not a part of the scouting network, girls felt the stigma of being left off the boys’ team.  And no, at least in the 1980s and beyond, it was not right.

As an adult, I’m not okay with any of this, of course.  The Boy Scouts could and should have gotten in front of these issues before they came to roost, but like most bureaucratic organizations, choose to wait until they were forced to.  And there is pushback, by those who think their traditions are crumbling, or by those who have their own prejudices.  Today, they are the Scouts, BSA, accepting girls, even as the Girl Scouts object in court.  It is a difficult dilemma.

To be fair, the Boy Scouts never claimed moral superiority, unlike the Catholic Church, the other primary institution of my youth.  And others remain as pleased as ever with the Catholic Church, despite its obvious shortcomings.  Rather, the Scouts did offer a fundamental grounding in good citizenship, and self-reliance.  It was innocuous insofar as other moral judgments were concerned.

So tonight, as on most nights, I will ask Alexa to play Taps (yes, I was also in the military), and she will, with the Marine Corps Band.  And I contemplate the value of my existence.

Then I whisper the Scout Vespers.

Softly falls the light of day
While our camp fire fades away
Silently scouts should ask
Have I done my daily tasks?

Have I kept my honor bright?
Can I go to sleep tonight
Oh have I done and have I dared
Everything to be prepared?

The day ends with a question.  As well it should.

The Internet and Health Care Live Together Uncomfortably February 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I had a very serious health scare.  Thanks in large part to my skepticism of the diagnosis and my desire to be my own health care project manager, and based on my own research using Dr. Google, I recovered completely, without the debilitating surgery recommended by several doctors.  I liked and trusted these doctors, even as I sought alternatives.

In short, it was a win for me personally, and for the notion that people can comprehend and act rationally upon their own health care information.

If only it were that simple.  Steve Jobs, for example, may have had a better chance at surviving pancreatic cancer if he had not insisted that he could be cured through his diet.

But today I speak of vaccinations for childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox.  When I was in elementary school, everyone was vaccinated, and I can’t recall anyone turning it down.  Sometime in the 1970s, these childhood diseases were declared almost entirely eradicated in the US.

That is changing, and not for the better.

There has always been a small but vocal group of people who were opposed to vaccination.  Often the opposition was based on misinformation or a distrust of government intentions.  Recall the fluoridation controversy in the US in the 1950s and 1960s (I grew up in a rural area and drank untreated well water).

Today, measles, mumps, and chicken pox rates are rising as parents decline to have their children vaccinated.  In many cases, that decision is still based at least in part on distrust in government, but perhaps the biggest part was a study, published in the British medical journal Lancet, that tied vaccinations to an increased occurrence of autism in children.

That study was immediately criticized on methodology grounds, and eventually retracted from publication.  But not before almost every parent in the US had heard about it and believed it to be ground truth.

And worse, the study, and other unscholarly opinions, live on forever through the Internet.  Everyone hears tales of other studies that support this original one, and make even scarier claims.  And for parents, autism is scarier than measles, and they do what they think essential in protecting their children.  So we have fewer children vaccinated, and the incidence of these diseases is growing again.

But the reaction by parents is based on hearsay, bad science, and a misinterpretation of good science.  It doesn’t help that researchers can’t absolutely say there isn’t a connection, not because there might be one, but because in logic, you cannot prove a negative.  That is, no number of studies, no matter how unequivocal, cannot prove logically that a relationship doesn’t exist.  All they can do is support that there isn’t.

Of course, the Internet is essential to spreading these tales.  I did a quick Google search on vaccination, and found several sites on the first page of results that were clearly portals and gathering points for anti-vaccination groups.

I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago that every adult should have a fundamental understanding of the scientific method, its advantages, and its limitations.  Perhaps fifteen years ago, then-Time columnist Barbara Kiviat suggested that people have some level of minimum qualifications and licensure to use the Internet.  That wasn’t workable then, and certainly isn’t now.  But if it were, I would suggest training in the scientific method as the path to that license.

Genetic Editing: Next Decade, or Next Year, or Next Week? February 2, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I read Michael Crichton’s last published novel before his death.  It’s called Next, and while it’s a rather disjointed set of storylines, the one that resonated with me was one where Frank Burnet showed a remarkable resistance to leukemia, and as a result his cells are sold (without his knowledge or permission) to a commercial biotech company, BioGen.

The initial cells are lost, but BioGen consults lawyers, who advise that under United States law they have the rights to all of Frank’s cell line and thus the right to extract replacement cells, by force if necessary, from Frank or any of his descendants.  He and his family flees an onslaught of BioGen agents who claim the legal right to kidnap them and harvest cells.  Biogen’s lawyers apply for a warrant to arrest Frank’s daughter, on the grounds that she had stolen the company’s property, namely her and her son’s cells.

The conclusion of this novel was the judge’s decision on the validity of their ownership claim, and it went as we as human beings would have hoped.  Specifically, the judge rules in Frank’s daughter’s favor and rejects the precedents as attempts to abolish normal human rights by decree, a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids slavery.

However, this is fiction, and fact is turning to be a lot messier.

I’m not a geneticist, and I’m certainly not a lawyer, but as I understand it, cell and DNA ownership are still very much an open legal question.  If a biotech company sees a path to a genetic cure for a serious disease in a particular DNA or genetic sequence, I believe it will vie for legal ownership, in the courts, and spend a great deal of money and effort to achieve that ownership.

And let’s add CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technologies into the mix, which provide the ability to edit individual DNA sequences in an embryo, perhaps to remove genetic diseases.

Novelist Daniel Suarez, in Change Agent, postulates CRISPR not only as a means of editing out genetic defects, but also incorporating genetic enhancements, such as strength, speed, brains, or athleticism.  In fact, he goes still farther, postulating that genetic editing can also be done on live subjects, to turn them into a completely different person.

My point is that the boundary between fiction and science is here, and we as a society have some big decisions to make.  This article postulates that CRISPR editing will become morally mandatory, and I am hard-pressed to disagree.

At the same time, we must decide who owns the genes, the person or the company doing the editing.  We may find that we are not the masters of our bodies.

As a youth 40+ years ago, I read Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, and a host of other dystopian novelists, and was somewhat comforted in the gap between the existing fiction and reality.  Today, there seems to be no such gap, and it makes it a lot more difficult reading both fact and fiction.  This world is almost upon us, if it isn’t already.  Are we prepared to make life’s choices in this world?

The Evolution of Finding Aircraft January 30, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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In 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near their Howland Island destination in their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra.  The only navigation aids available at that time were the compass and dead reckoning.  While there are indications that Earhart crash-landed on or near Gardner Island, well to the south of Howland.

In 1996, a Learjet 35A disappeared near Dorchester, New Hampshire, in the United States, attempting to land at Lebanon NH airport.  There was radar contact with the plane, and the plane itself had navigation equipment that enabled it to use VOR for landing.  I selected this example because despite the fact that it happened during the day in relatively populated northeast United States, it took three years to find the crash site.

And, of course, we all know about Malaysia Airlines 370, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, somehow seems to have ended up crashing in the southern Indian Ocean, several thousand miles in the opposite direction.  The main debris field has never been found, but some positively identified debris has washed up on the shores of Reunion, Madagascar, and southern Africa.

People find it amazing that we can’t find lost aircraft under these circumstances, and we create conspiracy theories about the loss, but just about all of the technology deployed to date presumes than an aircraft wants to be found, or defaults to being found.  When you squawk your assigned four-digit code on your transponder, you are positively identified.  If you turn off your transponder, you are just another blip on the radar screen.

And, of course, radar doesn’t cover large stretches of ocean; it’s a line-of-sight technology.  We’ve never conceived of the need for positive control over all aspects of flight, because we thought that airliners would have the opportunity to communicate, even in distress.

The answer seems to be satellites, specifically designed to track aircraft around the globe.  In today’s world, we need to know where every aircraft is, and what that aircraft is doing.  Better satellite technology will hopefully get us there.

The Scientific Method Needs to Be Fundamental Education for Everyone January 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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We have a problem today.  Actually, we have many problems, but most of them boil down to the fact that we lack disciplined thinking.  As a result, we feel justified in believing any damned thing we like, whether or not it makes logical or evidentiary sense.  A common grounding in the scientific method can address that.

I’ll give an example.  I recently advised a PhD candidate on the use of statistics for his dissertation research.  He was planning on doing about 90 t-tests, plus a collection of ANOVAs.  I warned him that his results were likely to have at least a couple of Type I errors.  He replied, “What is that?”

Where is Martin Gardner when you need him?  (Yes, I know he passed away in 2010).  We lack the understanding of basic analytical statistics and how they influence our beliefs.  This is not rocket surgery, folks.  Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is doing primary research for a doctoral degree should understand the implications of their experimental design.

But we can extend belief well beyond that intellectual exercise.  A very large part of the reason many people feel free to believe things that are quite frankly difficult to believe is that belief is often a subjective thing, rather than based on any sort of scientific discipline.

You may argue that what any person believes is legitimate to that person.  Um, no.  Without a methodology of belief, that represents a lie and a cop-out by that person.  “I believe because I feel like it?”  That doesn’t cut the mustard in serious discussion.

So my point here is that everyone’s belief system has to begin with a disciplined foundation.  We believe something to be true because we have objective evidence, and that evidence allows us to formulate a hypothesis that is testable.  The test may be explicit, or it may be supported or rejected based on additional evidence.  But we cannot believe something because we feel like it.  Life doesn’t work that way.

Few of us think this way in determining our beliefs, and that is unfortunate.

You might also argue that this is an amusing stance for me to be taking.  Decades ago, I learned, and internalized, the scientific method as an undergrad psychology student, which some may consider an odd field of study for that discipline.  But as a social science, psychology is probably the best discipline for employing the scientific method.  It meant a lot for me to begin my adult life with a foundation of the scientific method.  Others can benefit too.