jump to navigation

I’ve Been Fully Vaccinated; Leave Me Alone March 1, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

I have been incredibly fortunate to receive an early set of vaccinations for Covid-19, through no intervention of my own.  After a year, it is tempting to go out without a mask, not social distance, or to use other PPE.

But there are many problems with that attitude, and I won’t do it.  First, from a scientific standpoint, there is still much that we don’t know with enough certainty to support such a cavalier approach to daily life.  The vaccine (Pfizer, in my case), provides about a 95 percent level of protection.  While that’s great, it is not certainty, so I should tread lightly.

Second, while I may not get Covid, I may be a carrier of coronavirus, and might give it to others in public places.  I would feel devastated if I learned that I caused illness or worse in others.  We simply don’t know enough to know whether or not that’s the case.  Science is not that fast or exacting, and those who are frustrated that it’s not are deluding themselves.

Third, many institutions and locales still have masking requirements.  Maybe it’s me, but I would rather willingly comply than argue that I should be exempt.  It’s simply not worth the bad look.  And if we allow for that, we are intentionally creating a highly visible two-class society, where some have the means (whether physical or financial) to acquire an early vaccination. It doesn’t make us more valuable than those who have to wait.

And then there are those who don’t intend to get vaccinated, and have no intention of using appropriate PPE.  I have little (well, none, actually) tolerance for those who use false slogans as a way to thumb their noses at the worst public health crisis of my lifetime.

I confess that today I booked recreational travel as a form of celebration.  Travel has been such a vital part of my life over the last decade.  But that will not excuse me from these uncertainties, from not trying to protect others, and from not complying with applicable rules or conventions.

I am Pete and Ann’s son, and Pete was a steelworker and Ann a housewife.  We kept to the rules of civilization and life, and treated others as we would like to be treated.  We should all do our best to do the same.

Second Shot and All’s Well February 17, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

I received my second Pfizer Covid vaccine on Monday, at a drive-through clinic in a parking lot at Southern New Hampshire University.  It was as efficient as the first one, without me even having to get out of the car (I did have to take off several winter layers to expose my shoulder).  I would have liked to have the shot in Nashua, where my drive home was three miles versus 30, but it worked out fine.

Other than a very sore arm, I experienced no side effects the next day.  However, Tuesday night I did wake up a couple of times in sweat, so I think I had a low-grade fever.  That didn’t last past the morning, and I continue to do well, albeit with Covid antibodies forming inside me.

Nothing will change in my habits.  Mask, gloves, and (sometimes) face shield will be a part of my leaving the house for the foreseeable future.  Air travel will include double-masking, face shield, gloves, and wiping down everything around me.  The vaccine is not a guarantee; I can still get Covid, or worse, I could transmit it to others.

As I look back upon this experience, I feel very fortunate that something that I don’t get in my health records caused my hospital to place me in Phase 1B (maybe I shouldn’t feel so fortunate).  The vaccination program in New Hampshire seems to be pretty well-run.  My friends in neighboring Massachusetts are not as fortunate.  A friend pointed out that the piecemeal registration systems in Massachusetts didn’t have language options to offer those for whom English is a second language.

We should have had a uniform national rollout, with common definitions and a broad range of education.  Instead, we had little to no education on the process and benefits of vaccination.  I recall Public Service Announcements in my childhood (“Buckle up for safety, buckle up!“) that did an effective job of both educating and prodding. I’ve seen nothing like that for vaccines, and people are turning to one another and shrugging. Hopefully, our leaders, our institutions and our citizens can learn lessons from our mistakes here.

More About My COVID Vaccination January 31, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I had my first shot yesterday early evening, at a drive-through clinic in a parking lot at Nashua South High School.  It was very well organized.  I was given a 10-minute time slot for my appointment, and drove up into a short and well-marked line for my check-in.  The first person asked if I had an appointment and ID, and the second glanced at my ID and checked me off of a list.  I drove around a corner and was directed into a parking space.  A National Guard member came by, checked my name off of another list, and two minutes later a nurse was there to inject the vaccine.

The vaccine I got was the Pfizer-BioNTech one, which is the same one my sister got in North Carolina.  The nurse suggested I stay there for fifteen minutes in my car, but about five minutes later, a cop came by and questioned me with a thumbs-up.  I did a thumbs-up in response, and he told me I could leave. The next day, I had no reaction other than a slightly sore arm.

There was one glitch, the next day.  Overnight I got the email from the CDC with the link to sign up for my second shot.  However, there were no appointments within 50 miles for the next two months, even though Pfizer says that the next shot should occur three weeks later.

But someone was paying attention.  I got an email from the state at the end of the day Saturday saying that they were opening additional slots just for those needing the second one starting next week.  I’m pleased at the responsiveness.

It was /cold/ in New Hampshire that day, single digits Fahrenheit.  I had to strip down to my t-shirt, but at least the car heating was running.  I thanked every National Guard member and police officer I encountered in this process; they were out there for several hours at a time.

I Am On the 1B List January 22, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

For the COVID vaccination.  Here’s how it works, or at least how it is working for me, in case you are looking for your own opportunity for a shot.  I got an email from my hospital this morning, telling me that I qualified due to co-morbidities.  I’m reasonably healthy, and I have no idea what those co-morbidities are, but I am happy to accept early access to the vaccination.  The email stated that I would hear from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 3-5 days to set up an appointment.

I actually got that CDC email later in the same day, and acted immediately, registering on the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS).  The registration took less than ten minutes, with questions on my location, health status, and insurance.

Once you are registered, you can search for vaccination locations near you.  Since this process was initiated by my local hospital, I started there, but couldn’t find an appointment in the calendar.  Several vaccination locations in the area were reserved for health care professionals or staff, but the state also offered a general location at the local high school (the next nearest general location was about 20 miles away).  I simply selected the earliest available date and time, and received an email confirmation about ten minutes later.

My appointment is a week from today.  I’ll update this on how it goes at that time.  I’m especially curious on which vaccination I’ll receive.

I Want to Say Please January 1, 2021

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Like many people, I have an Amazon Echo Dot.  I don’t use it too much, and certainly not to its capability, but I’ve been using it of late to both check on packages and play Christmas music.

And like many people of a certain age, I want to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa.  Which raises very interesting questions (and I’m certainly not the first to ask them).  I am a technologist who is rather adamant about not personalizing my tools.  That’s simply what they are, of course.

On the other hand, on the surface level it appears that I’m having a conversation with Alexa, which strongly implies a certain level of civility.  And in general I like to think of myself as a pretty polite person.  So I say ‘Alexa, please . . .” and ‘Thank you.’

If it were simply me, this would be a very trivial question.  It really doesn’t matter what I do in my interactions with Alexa.  But I am concerned with more impressionable people think about their own interactions.

I had the opportunity to meet Pepper several years ago, the SoftBank robot.  I confess to being a little standoffish with him (her?), but I do follow it on Twitter.  My partner, on the other hand, glommed right onto him.  It is programmed to pick up on tactile stimulation and facial expressions, and show a primitive level of emotion in response, and is quite impressive in that regard.

I was also watching the movie I Robot while on holiday.  It didn’t get a lot of play, but it was quite well done (and I’ve been a lifetime Isaac Asimov fan; look him up).

I’ve also seen the movie Robot and Frank.  Frank is an elderly thief whose son gets him a robot butler that he trains as a, well, a jewel thief partner.  The robot becomes quite human in the process, and Frank is more of my generation, so I can appreciate his perspective.  However, because I am a technologist, I am more wary about interactions with a robot.

I never grew up with any of this, of course.  It’s ingrained in me to treat others respectfully when asking for something.  I have heard that at least some children interact with Alexa as a machine rather than as a human, without courtesy, and I wonder who is right.  To be fair, probably not me.  But does such interaction spill over to dealing with humans?  Perhaps that is why we seem like a somewhat less civilized society today than in the past.

The Limits of Data December 21, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I’ve been teaching statistics and operations research since, well, the mid-1980s I guess, to more or less degrees of student sophistication.  In most cases, I try to add some real world context over what most students consider to be a dry and irrelevant topic, even as I realize that most people are in the room because it’s required for their degree.

Except that over the last few years statistics and analytics has shown itself to be anything but irrelevant.  As data has become easier to collect and store, and faster processing has brought information to life from data in real time, more and more scientific, engineering, business, and management professionals are at least trying to use data to make more justifiable decisions.

(I casually follow American professional football, and have been amazed over the last few years to see disdain for any sort of analytics turn into a slavish following and detailed definition of obscure analytical results.)

And at least some people seem to be paying attention.  I still get a lot of “I’m not a math person” or “I make my decisions without considering data” but that is becoming less common as people recognize that they are expected to justify the directions they take.

In general this is a good trend.  An informed decision is demonstrably better than one based on “gut feel.”  As the saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.  Professionals making decisions based on analytics won’t always result in the right answer, but it will be better than what many are doing today.

But data is not a universal panacea.  First, any data set we use may not accurately represent the problem domain.  There may have been data collection errors, or the data may not be highly related  with the conclusion you want to draw.  For example, there may be a correlation with intelligence and income, but the true determiner may well be education, not intelligence.  In these circumstances, our analytics can lead us to the wrong conclusion.

Our data can also be biased.  Machine learning systems do a poor job at facial recognition of other races, for example, causing high levels of misidentification.  This is primarily because we don’t have good data on facial characteristics of those races.  Years ago, Amazon came up with an algorithm to identify potential candidates for IT jobs that overwhelmingly used male data.  The algorithms quite naturally came to the incorrect conclusion that only men made good IT workers.

So while our data can make decisions more accurately, it’s only the case when we apply it correctly.  And that’s not as easy as it sounds.

How Has the World Changed? December 2, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, circa 1960s and 1970s.  I loved flying, although I never did so during that time.  Instead, I would go to Greater Pittsburgh Airport and pick up flight itineraries from all of the airlines, to travel vicariously anywhere the itineraries pointed me.

There were more regional airlines at the time.  Allegheny Airlines, for example, used Pittsburgh as a base and flew small planes to many tiny airports throughout the state.  Mohawk Airlines did something similar to many airports in New York.  Let’s take a quick look at some of them.

Allegheny flew to Erie (a relatively large and stable airport at the time), Scranton (again, a fairly large city), Franklin, Bradford, Johnstown, Latrobe (sometimes), State College (yes, Penn State), DuBois (pronounced phonetically), Harrisburg, Williamsport, Allentown, Hagerstown, Morgantown, and a number more.

Mohawk overlapped somewhat, but mostly in New York – Jamestown, Elmira, Ithaca, Albany, Binghamton, Potsdam, Lake Placid, Plattsburgh, Watertown, Massena, and more.

(A story about Harrisburg.  I was flying from Boston to National (not yet Reagan), circa 1981, changing in Philadelphia, for a day business trip.  A snowstorm closed Philadelphia, and Allegheny routed us to Harrisburg, actually a nice regional airport.  But Allegheny sent about half a dozen 737s there, with about 400 people, to rebook to various locations.  The lines were tremendous.  Because I was flying business, I didn’t care, and left the end of the line, and found a tiny airline that was flying to Reagan via Baltimore.  I booked a one-way, got my ticket, and boarded the, I will guess, De Havilland Twin Otter.  Five minutes later the power went out in the airport.  My tiny flight got off, but none of the rebooked Allegheny folks.).  I made my business meeting later that morning on K Street.

I would pretend to use these airline itineraries to fly to multiple small towns and make tight (sometimes impossible) connections between them.  I certainly didn’t worry about what they flights cost, as I was not really flying, and couldn’t conceivably afford them anyway.

The point is that how in the heck could an airline conduct regular flights to rural cities of a few thousand people?  Well, first, they were really small turboprops, perhaps a dozen passengers.  Second, this was in the era of regulated travel, where flights went, at a regulated price.

Nevertheless, it is likely that we can still afford such flights.  I hope that small airlines once again emerge onto the scene.

To My Family and Friends November 17, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

Recently a young Muslim-American woman was accosted by airline and law authorities and removed from an American Airlines flight and arrested under circumstances that remain unclear.


Such events seem to happen almost daily these days.  My family and friends should know that I will not put up with this kind of behavior and result by an airline or by our authorities in general.

I have some objective credibility in taking this stand, I think.  I am a military veteran, a Vietnam Era veteran, although just barely; the war was effectively over, and while I had a draft number, they weren’t being called up by then.  Nevertheless, I volunteered.  I served honorably, and my DD 214 says that my discharge after not re-upping (technically, as an officer during active duty, I served at the pleasure) was also honorable.

I am a registered Republican (still!).  My parents were working class, my father a skilled laborer and my mother a housewife, and we grew up working poor.  My mother had to take surreptitious possession of my meager youthful savings to make sure we could eat some weeks.  My mother died penniless, a couple of years ago, in a nursing home, and I happily paid five large for her funeral, because both of my parents did the best they could.

I am 63 years old. In 47 years of driving, and of a lifetime of living in general, I have had one encounter with the police, a speeding ticket for going 62 in a 55 zone.  I not spent a single second under detention or incarcerated.  I have not been ordered out of my car or home and bodily searched.  I have not stood out and spoken up in any way that has brought controversy to myself.

I have taken charge of making the most of what America has provided me over the last half-century.  I believe in equality and democracy and opportunity with every fiber of my existence.  While I respect many other societies, I honestly believe we have the best in the world.  I have benefitted through education, and by pushing my life into the well-paid professional ranks.

I am a white male, a natural born United States citizen.  While I imagine that there are situations over the decades (albeit few and far between) where I have been the subject of some sort of discrimination on that basis, those situations have not been obvious, and I have been able to easily overcome them, perhaps even without realizing it.

Why would I bother objecting to the actions of our presumably lawful authorities, however irrational?  The answer is easy.  “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.”  That is the first part of a varied quote by Martin Niemöller, a one-time Nazi who came to realize that, well, we must hang together, lest we hang separately.  It is likely to be our turn soon enough.

Here’s one version of the rest of it:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t care if you’re Muslim, Jewish, Catholic (when did that become controversial?), black, yellow, white, female, gay, trans, or whatever.  I know inappropriate treatment by others when I see it.  And while I do recognize that there is questionable behavior by the purported victims under certain circumstances, it is far more common for the innocent to be braced by bullies or by authorities who wrongly think they are upholding the supposedly sacred values of the larger society.

It’s long past time for me to stand up and be counted.

I have no personal dog in this hunt, no perceived personal hurt to overcome, except being a fellow human being on a similar journey in life as those who have a much more problematic route to travel.  But that’s more than enough.  I will be objective and dispassionate in my objections, and if I am, once again wrongly, considered a troublemaker, I will still be willing to undergo arrest and incarceration to support my fellow human beings.

So, friends and family, I hope this doesn’t happen, but you might be prepared to have me spend some time away, involuntarily, so that others in the future may not have to do so.