jump to navigation

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

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

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.
add a comment

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.
add a comment

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.
Tags: ,
add a comment

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.
Tags: ,
add a comment

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.

A Matter of Education July 31, 2015

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

After years of less-than-flattering portrayals, the walls seem to have started crumbling for for-profit higher education institutions. Corinthian Colleges has closed entirely, and ITT and the University of Phoenix are undergoing investigation. In addition, enrollment has been on a downward trajectory, with the University of Phoenix shrinking by perhaps 50,000 students over the last year.

This state of affairs leaves me with mixed emotions. Let me establish some credentials. While no longer in higher education, I taught for over fifteen years, as an adjunct, tenure track full time faculty, and online instructor. I value education, and remain a lifelong learner through the MOOC vehicles.

There is nothing inherent in a for-profit status that makes it a less quality choice for education. In fact, many so-call not-for-profit schools do, in fact, make a profit, although with their tax status, it is usually referred to as “retained earnings”. (Disclosure – I am certainly not a tax expert, but this distinction between the two types of entities is fairly fundamental).

In particular, I think that the education delivered by both is fairly comparable. Granted, this is based on my experiences teaching technical courses, but based on the instructor preparation and curriculum provided, is true throughout.

There is certainly a difference in culture. At most traditional schools, time seems to have stopped years (decades) ago. I once had a senior faculty member tell me that universities had perfected instruction with small, in-person classes, and there was no need for innovation. Regrettably, this is what passes for critical thought at most universities.

I applaud for-profit schools for shaking up the status quo, and trying new education models. Even if they don’t work, it’s a big advance over the failure of traditional schools to embrace innovation.

But for-profit schools have a problem. I think that problem is one of being too aggressive at opening up opportunities (yes, I’m being generous). Despite the democratization of higher education (which as a scion of the working class, I fully approve of), there are young people who should not be in college. By admitting everyone, and gaming the financial aid system, they are setting up tens of thousands of people for failure.

To be fair, not-for-profit higher education also games the financial aid system, but not with the aggressiveness of their for-profit brethren. There is where the problem lies. I think it can be fixed, but only if for-profit schools acknowledge not only their strengths, but also their shortcomings.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

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

I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

About Project Management and Health Care July 13, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

This is a difficult post to write. Not because I have any issues discussing my health. Rather, I’m concerned that this may be read by someone who might otherwise be inclined to hire me based principally on my intelligence and skills.

But all is not right with me, physically. I spent roughly five days in the hospital, about 75 days ago. I got transferred to a more comprehensive hospital part way through. Long story short, my initial diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. In the hospital, I learned that there is a difference between diagnosis and treatment. The head of surgery came to me, and said that I needed a Whipple’s procedure, which is the Hail Mary pass for treatment for pancreatic cancer. He didn’t know for certain what I had, or what caused it, but was almost certain that it required major surgery to address.

I liked and respected that surgeon, but I declined. Not because I had any rational reason to do so, other than the fact that it is major and life-altering surgery. Rather, it was because he didn’t know what was wrong with me, and neither did anyone else. It seems a drastic answer to inconclusive information.

Instead, I waited a month and got re-tested, with slightly more invasive techniques. I almost certainly don’t have pancreatic cancer. While we continue to refine my diagnosis, my current prospects for treatment include even the possibility of no surgery. I continue to live as normal a life as possible, with a special diet but almost no physical restrictions.

So what is this post about? It’s about a few things. First, it’s about taking control of your own health care. You are your health care project manager. Doctors are human, and they try to diagnose and treat the things they know something about. The many doctors you see for a major condition treat the symptoms that resonate with them, rather than treat the whole person, and they don’t communicate effectively with one another. You are the one who can tie together the disparate information possessed by your different doctors. Be your own project manager.

Second, it’s about what you do know and what you don’t. When there was a lot I didn’t know, I refused to make a major decision until I knew more. So I am always asking what is the next step, rather than what is the ultimate outcome.

Third, it’s about your focus when you are faced with life-altering decisions. Many friends and family were projecting me several months down the road, possibly recovering from significant surgery but likely not having the quality of life I had in the past. I refused to buy into that vision. Rather, I have said, and continue to say, that my next step is to get more information before I decide irrevocably on a treatment path. That philosophy has worked for me so far.

Last, and I think most important, it’s about determining the course of your life. I continued to try to live as normal a life as possible, most especially including my recent distance running endeavors. Yesterday, I ran a formal 5K race in which I creamed my personal best, even in my daily practice runs. All is not right with me, but my health and life are on a positive trajectory. I am healthy, in excellent shape, and striving for excellence. I will do that until I can’t any more.

And about my ongoing job search. If you don’t want to hire me based on how you perceive my health, that is your right. If you want to hire me, based on my instinctive positive attitude and determination, I could welcome it.

And if it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other, that’s okay too.

More on this topic at a later time.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 464 other followers