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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.

Varhol’s Corollary to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle August 29, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m back to reading Sherry Turkle’s wonderful Reclaiming Conversation, and quite a bit of it is thought-provoking.  I’m trying to apply some of the lessons here to technology teams, but in the meantime, I’m drawing some independent lessons from her excellent tome.

Turkle notes that youth go to parties, then immediately start texting others to make sure they are at the right party, the “best” one. The idea, presumably, is to find that one best party and grace it with one’s presence.

Now on to Heisenberg. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the very act of measure an activity out of necessity affects it in some way.  By attempting to measure something, we are making ourselves an actor in that activity.

Of course, Heisenberg was largely referring to the relative position of particles in quantum physics, but it’s reasonable to apply generalizations of this statement to other domains. My corollary applies to the realm of social behavior.  It says that one’s presence at a party affects the quality of that party, whether or not you are seeking alternatives.

While I will attempt to quantify this relationship for an upcoming academic paper, it is clear that if you go to a party and do nothing other than seek another party, you are worsening the experience for everyone at your current party. My corollary says that it’s not just the party; it is how you interact with the party.

If you interact well, you will believe you are at the best party. If you interact poorly, any party you end up at will be below your, um, expectations.  So by being there, and taking your own behavior into account, you directly influence the quality of the party by your own measurements.

In other words, your own presence and behavior has a direct and strong impact on your enjoyment.

Surprised? Neither am I.

Your CEO Needs to be Tech-Savvy August 24, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.
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There was a time in the not-to-distant past when the usual business journals decried the insular nature of IT, and insisted that the CIO needed more business and less tech acumen. It was always accepted that the top tech person would never become CEO, because they lacked the business background and ability.

I would argue that today the shoe is on the other foot. IT, technology in general, and technology intelligently applied to business goals are prerequisites for top company leadership.

Any CEO that doesn’t understand the technology that is essential for the enterprise remaining in business, prospering, and beating the competition is woefully unqualified for the top post. That’s all there is to it.

This was succinctly demonstrated in the recent implosion of Delta’s reservation and operations systems.  A CEO that understood the vital importance of these systems would never have placed his or her enterprise in such a position.

Business academics, and business journals, you have it all wrong today. There is more than ample evidence that the CEO needs to understand what makes the business work, and that is technology.

And CEOs, take notice. You need to get up to speed on your vital technology fast.  Not doing so is a prescription for disaster.  And boards of directors, it is likely that the best candidate for your next CEO is your top technology person.

Is a Car Just a Car? August 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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At this time of my life, yes. My transportation is an 18-year old Subaru that just starts every time.  But 25 years ago, I owned a classic Corvette.  L-82, large bore V-8.  If I could think it, that car could deliver on it.  As a teen, I had an old Chevy sedan that moved okay, and let me join the other teens in doing whatever we did with cars.

Uber entire business model is based on the assumption that a car is only transportation.  I can hail a whatever sedan Uber sends me to get from here to there.  I am pretty much in sync with that, because I need to get from here to there, reliably and more or less on time.  I certainly don’t do it in any fancy way.

But I am not everyone. Most news/magazine websites still have an automotive section, and paper magazines like Car and Driver and Automotive News still sell well.  Many people like cars, and have an emotional attachment to them.  There is a certain beauty in the lines of many cars, and car ownership still remains a reachable dream for youth and adults alike.

If Uber fails, here is where it will happen. For some, perhaps many, travel is not a commodity.  The journey is the reward, as Steve Jobs had once said.  To many, this is the literal truth.

Uber is selling a way to get from here to there. That’s not a bad thing.  But in the case of cars, it is nowhere near everything.  Chevy sells tens of thousands of Corvettes every year.  Other attractive, fast, and functional cars sell in the millions.  They do so not because people need them, in many cases, but because they want them.

Uber works when the alternative is hailing a cab, and its advantage there will be reduced once it starts charging full price, rather than providing a subsidy on its rates.

But some people (many people?) need more than that. I don’t happen to be one of them, at this point in my life (though given my location, I still don’t use Uber), but I can still appreciate the sentiment.  I don’t know that Uber will fail, because there is still a significant population that requires only occasional transport from one point to another.

But it is a crack in the business model. I don’t think any cultural shift that occurs will happen that fast or that completely to make cars simply transportation for many people.  How many people could decide whether Uber is a global force or merely a taxi company.

And Just Whose Bright Idea Was This? August 7, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Brilliant! What more can be said here?  The Social Security Administration (they have their own exit ramp, off of Interstate 695 west of Baltimore) were under a mandate to improve security.

Okay, I get that, but their solution was to implement two-factor security using a challenge-response based on a phone text code.  This is the only way you can access your account online.

This is where this seriously goes off the rails. It requires a mobile phone capable of sending and receiving texts.  According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of adult Americans have cell phones (whether or not they text is a different story), but only 78 percent of seniors, who might be most interested

The Social Security Administration recognizes that not everyone has a cell phone, but claimed not to be able to implement any other solution.

Um, no. My primary (maybe) bank, Bank of America, does a challenge-response access.  You type in your account name, it comes back with a glyph that you have chosen to represent you with the bank.  The purpose of the glyph is to assure you that you haven’t been redirected to a bogus site that wants to phish for your passwords and financial information.  Only after you have verified that the glyph is yours do you enter your password.  That approach is ultimately simpler than the text-based security system.

You may not have a cell phone for a variety of reasons, including no reception in your area (many rural areas of the US lack widespread cellular service). Probably those who grew up with landlines may feel less a need to carry a phone around with them, which also speaks of an older generation.

I don’t believe that the Social Security Administration was limited to a text-based security solution. On the surface, this seems to be yet another example of government not serving its constituents, because they don’t have to.