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This is NOT Life, Lisa Ling November 7, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I confess that I am pretty offended by this CNN article by Lisa Ling, and of the series, entitled This Is Life, in general.  I realize that what you are attempting to do is appeal to a certain demographic, and I am almost certainly not that demographic.  Under most circumstances, I would simply ignore such worthless drivel.

But this is so insulting, to read about you telling the world that life is unwinding in a rave party, on Ecstasy, or Molly. And your whole I was young and should have known better was so after the fact and perfunctory that it was almost certainly added by an editor, again after the fact.

This is not life, despite your desperate attempt to make it so. Now, I’m no expert, but let me tell you what life is.  Life is being told one day you have serious cancer, and require major and life-altering surgery.  And you will likely die anyway.  Life is not being convinced of that presumptive conclusion, because you were getting stronger, not weaker.  And by knowing that, you do your research, finally knowing that you are not going to die.  In fact, you are going to, well, live.

Life is waking up every morning, cherishing what you have and not willing to exchange it for anything in the world.

At worst, life is about being just a little bit better than you are at the moment.

You have no idea what life is, Lisa Ling. And I vehemently resent you trying to tell me, or a mass market what it is.

Where Are the Copy Editors? November 2, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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As I read Internet comments (forgive me) on news stories, I commonly see that some posts that rail against poor grammar or typos. Where are the copy editors, they ask, in their own superiority of the English grammar.

Well, this isn’t a hard one. Copy editors existed when we published, whether daily, weekly, or monthly, for an audience that would pay for content.  Remember when you bought a newspaper?  I didn’t think so.  That business model is so dead.

And that is a big part of the problem. The cost structure of today’s online news outlets does not permit an army of copy editors to read and mark up editorial copy before it is published.  And that puts additional pressure on the writers to get it right the first time.  Because we want to see it now, not when on the daily printing cycle.

It’s really not a problem, except for the pedantic and inflexible among us. We should recognize that getting real time news, without actually, well, paying for it, is at the expense of other considerations.  By and large, those considerations are on the order of getting news out quickly, with accuracy and grammar taking a back seat.

At the same time, I curse the poor grammar and inexplicable typos of the 20-somethings who are minimally-paid assistant writers and editors charged with putting significant and often breaking news online. At the same time, I realize that, even with their level of experience, they should be better.  I still have a screen capture of a horribly-formed CNN narrative that purportedly exposed a significant headline story about the auto company “Suburu”; except of course that the company is Subaru.

That is inexcusable, and I hope that the writer and editor involved in that fiasco were summarily fired. Except that I doubt it, because to do so would require them to bring onboard other junior and poorly paid editorial people who are not up to this simple task.

And that is the real tragedy here. Our news outlets could do better, even with the talent that is available.  Most reporters and editors were never well paid, yet often felt a sense of obligation to get this story right.  But those outlets show no desire to do so.  As our news could be better, much better in some cases, if they would take an interest in selecting and developing their talent.  I do not believe that they are doing so.

Because of my significant background in tech publishing, I have an interest in publishing in general. I think I have an understanding of the issues here, and also think that our news outlets are doing it wrong.  Very wrong.

Why Aren’t You Dead? October 24, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I’ve heard that on more than several occasions in the past several months. My story is that circa late April, 2015, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Well, in fact, the doctors didn’t know quite what I had, but they were sure it was bad. Very bad.  I needed surgery within the next two weeks if I expected to have a full life (albeit a limited one, physically).  The hospital was a reasonably good one, as those things go, and my doctors seemed very competent (I saw about a dozen different doctors during my stay).

I was fortunate that a couple of those doctors treated me as a person, rather than a collection of symptoms. I also took control of my health care, did research on my condition (thanks, Dr. Google), and determined that it was premature to talk about surgery.

It turned out well for me. While they still don’t know what I have (or had), I only have very minor vestiges of the symptoms today, and am otherwise fully functional.  Further, as a distance runner, I am doing better than ever.  I fully ran the 10 kilometer race in the Bilbao Night Marathon, just last weekend, and felt wonderful afterwards.

All too often, we lament that medical diagnosis comes too late to do any good. My father, a World War II veteran, saw a doctor for the first time in 45 years when he could no longer stand the pain of his colon cancer.

That taught me a lesson. I will die someday, but I won’t let myself be overcome by that sort of stupidity.

In my case, they wanted to do major surgery, without knowing what was wrong with me. Don’t let that happen to you.  Do your own research, and make your own decisions.

That is all.

Science Education, Fear, and Our Reaction September 16, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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This is the story of the Irving, Texas school district and its wild and likely liable overreaction to a Muslim student building a novel clock. That said, it’s more about the education establishment and its poor relationship with science and technology.

I had the opportunity recently to hear about a teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina who was supporting her third grade students in a project to build a frog habitat in conjunction with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. I did a backstage tour there several years ago, and found it a wonderful and educational experience.

My grandnephew (I don’t really feel as old as that sounds) is a participating student, and I contributed a small amount of money to the effort. I received a long and personal thank you from the teacher. I would like to quote from that thank you. I don’t have her permission to use her name, but for those of you who care, I hope that you know who she is.

“I’m very interested in science. I’m not sure how much you know of the back ground of an elementary education major, but it has little to do with the content of science. My first year teach [sic] in 5th grade, years ago, the Science End of Grade test was implemented by the state. Our students failed. Upon figuring out why, it came down to teachers knowing content.  We are not taught science-specific content in a general elementary ed degree. So I taught myself science so my students could be successful. I continue to do so. I’ve since been placed in 4th grade (last year) and 3rd grade (this year), so I am learning new content with the hope that this will make science instruction easier on my 5th grade colleagues and even more so on the success of the students.”

You have to love teachers like this, who seem light-years away from those in Irving who participated in this debacle, and who continue to try to justify it. The Irving teachers are little people who seek to control our youth, not enable them. And, regrettably, you have to reject our society’s approach to science in our schools, and how we train our educators in that regard. That fact that we don’t train them at all should be frightening to any reasonable American.

Those of you who read me know that I am highly supportive of education, yet am justifiably distrustful of the education establishment. The Irving school district has proven me correct in that attitude. As individuals, we cannot measurably effect change. Together, as a voice, we may be able to raise the bar just a little bit.

I’m Talking About You, Uber September 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The question is what am I talking about. You are so not about a “sharing economy”. Virtually all of your drivers aren’t sharing their daily cars, on their normal day to day business, to accommodate the occasional rider. Instead, they are buying extra cars to turn themselves into the modern equivalent of the taxi driver, without the taxi provided by the company. Calling this the sharing economy is a dangerous misnomer. This is a service, just like a taxi is a service.

But that’s okay, even if you’re not honest about it. At the same time, that’s the drivers’ decisions to make. I don’t think anyone is forcing them into what is essentially a part time business. And most taxi drivers are so-called independent contractors anyway, and are charged by the taxi company for the use of the car.  I am not clear on the economics, but it must work for many.

And certainly the occasional local ride concept was due for some significant disruption. Taxi service is fundamentally stuck in operations that are at least half a century old. It doesn’t work for the consumer any more. Uber works better for the rider (mostly), and can have some advantages for the driver. As well as some disadvantages, depending on decisions made by individual drivers.

The technology makes a difference. You no longer have to call a taxi company; instead, you signal from the app, tell them where you are and where you want to go, and they are generally pretty responsive.

But the technology only enables the work shift you are attempting. My short term guess: you will continue to be pretty successful, because almost everyone who uses taxis also uses smartphones. My long term guess: this is a transitional technology that will be put out of business decisively by the driverless car. I’m sure you’ve thought of that, and are looking to eliminate the middleman; i.e., the driver. This ultimately isn’t a new model for employment, or the so-called sharing economy. You will be first in line for the mass-produced Google car.

I’m not criticizing that, but I am criticizing your fundamental dishonesty in long term goals. You are not about the worker or the so-called sharing economy. You are about the disruption. You continue to lie, but that’s what you’ve done since your inception.

Somehow I Became an Athlete August 17, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Just over a year ago I got a Fitbit. The quantitative feedback afforded by that simple device started me along a path to walking, then running. I ran (mostly walked) my first formal race just about a year ago, a 5K. I’ve run in a handful of others since, and the last two have been highly satisfying from a personal standpoint. The last one has been highly satisfying from a time standpoint.

I was in the hospital just over three months ago, with a dire diagnosis. In a discussion early one morning with one of my doctors, going over my options (I had few, if any at the time), he remarked, “Well, you’re an athlete.”


He was as nonplussed as I. “You run. You said you ran over three miles yesterday.”

Well, I did, but I didn’t think that made me an athlete. Apparently it did, at least in relation to just about anyone else in my situation (and even my doctors). He explained that exercising gave me a leg up on any surgery I might need, because I was in better shape for recovery.

I declined the major surgery several doctors had recommended, and today, it looks like I don’t need it.

Today, I am increasing my distance, to four or five miles. I have my second 10K run on the horizon, and am now thinking that under the right circumstances, I may actually be able to run a half marathon.

It’s like being a recovering alcoholic, really. I can fall off that wagon too easily. But just maybe I’m getting there. I seem to have redemption possibilities.

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Higher Education August 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Perhaps I should call this “my” love/hate relationship. Like most adults, I am a big proponent of higher education. More knowledge is better than less. I have several degrees. I taught college for a decade and a half.

At the same time, I think the higher education establishment is stupid and clueless about their markets; in other words, students and their parents. I was present for an almost 20 percent increase in tuition at one of my colleges in the 1990s, which occurred not because of a significant increase in spending (college spending and tuition are not correlated), but because the powers-that-be presumed that in order to be considered a prestigious institution, they needed a price tag to match. Seriously.

I was in one faculty meeting where the topic of the school’s customers came up. The resulting cry was loud and nearly unanimous: “We don’t have customers! We have students!”

Yet we as a society continue to give (not-for-profit) higher education a pass. No matter how much higher learning raises tuition, we continue to believe that our children have a fundamental right to the higher education of their choice, no matter what the cost (disclosure: I am childless).

Some of this is due to the entitled attitude of the higher education establishment. More than 20 years ago, I had a department chair who was absolutely convinced that we had perfected higher education, and desperately fought any changes to the residential, in-class model.

But a big part of the problem is, I think, the parents. Successful middle and upper class parents want desperately for their children to have the same foundational experiences as they did, thirty years earlier. Never mind that today’s world in no way resembles the one in which they grew up.

Some of that may well be due to the drastic changes in growing up over the last two or three decades. Our last chance to share a common youth with our children is through a shared college experience. I don’t know; I’m not a psychologist (hold on; yes, I am). I fear that both parents and their children will be doomed to disappointment (perhaps not so much the children). The experience will in all likelihood not be common, and certainly not shared.

I believe that traditional higher education has a good purpose, though not the central purpose it had one or two generations ago. Today, there are so many ways to learn – residential universities, community colleges, MOOCs, and (yes) YouTube – and young adults have a rich array of choices that meet their career needs, curiosities, and budgets. At this point, it is their parents’ expectations, and societies’ preconceptions that are holding them back. I, for one, hope for fundamental change soon.

The problem is not ability to pay; it is that colleges don’t care if they are affordable.

Microsoft Has Lost Its Marketing Mojo August 1, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I am old enough to remember people standing in line outside of Best Buy at midnight before Windows 95 went on sale. We knew the RTM (release to manufacturing, another anachronism) date by heart, and our favorite PC manufacturers would give us hourly updates on GA (yes, general availability) for their products.

Today, we don’t even know that Windows 10 has been released (Microsoft has said that it may take several weeks to deliver on upgrades and new systems), yet we know the exact date that a new version of iOS hits our devices. I’m searching for a new laptop, and can’t even tell what edition of Windows 10 I might be able to obtain.

This is purely Microsoft’s fault, and it’s sad. It’s sad because the company actually has some very nice products, better than ever I think, yet is at a loss as to how to communicate that to its markets. Windows 10 has gotten some great reviews, and I am loving my Microsoft Band and the Microsoft Health app more each day. But millions of people who have bought the Apple SmartWatch don’t even know that the Band exists.

This failure falls squarely on Microsoft. I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft has failed so miserably, but unless it recognizes this failure and corrects it, there is no long term hope. I can only think that Microsoft believes it is so firmly entrenched in the enterprise that it doesn’t have to worry about any other markets.

I will date myself again, remembering all of the Unix variations and how they believed they were the only solution for enterprise computing. Today, no one is making money off of Unix (although Linux is alive and well, albeit nowhere near as profitable). Unix fundamentally died because of the sheer arrogance of DEC, HP, Sun, and other vendors who believed that the technology was unassailable. It was not, and if you believe otherwise you don’t know the history of your markets, which is yet another failure.

And it also means Microsoft has totally given up on the consumer. I fully expect that there will be no enhancements to the Band, and that it will end-of-life sometime in the foreseeable future. And that too is sad, because consumer tech is driving the industry today. Microsoft was always a participant there, but has given it up as a lost cause.

It’s not a failure of technology. Microsoft never had great technology (although I do believe today it is better than ever). It’s a failure of marketing, something that Microsoft has forgotten how to do.


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