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The Two Sides of Elon Musk February 3, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I like Matthew Inman, a.k.a The Oatmeal. He can be funny, serious, inspiring, often in the same comic.  I bet he is a really good person, too.  He is a runner, a much better distance runner than I will ever be.

He extolls the praises of Elon Musk, who uses Nicola Tesla’s name as the brand of his electric car. At Inman’s urging, Musk donated a million dollars to the renovation of Tesla’s home as a museum.  Of course, Musk also sponsors things like SpaceX and the Hyperloop, both visionary human endeavors.

Sounds like an unalloyed Good Guy, doesn’t it?

Well, looks can be deceiving. After longtime tech journalist and now venture capitalist Stewart Alsop criticized the Tesla in an article, Musk acted.  Alsop had an order in for a Tesla, and Musk unilaterally cancelled it.

I know (well knew, years ago) Stewart Alsop. He’s funny, engaging, smart, and literate.  He says what he means, but doesn’t engage in personal attacks.  You really can’t, in technology.

There is a great deal of debate on whether businesses can deny service to any customer. In general, we tend to make allowances to businesses for customers that are excessively demanding or unreasonable.

Alsop wasn’t being excessively demanding or unreasonable, and certainly not as a customer. And a public company such as Tesla Motors needs to be held to a higher standard, by its board of directors and investors.

Many successful businessmen have an element of ruthlessness about them; it’s one of the things that makes them successful.  But this is not ruthless; this is petty.

So I see this as a failure of Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. The investors, of course, are already beating up on the company, but for other reasons.

About Hypertext and Nicholas Carr January 26, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I seem to be on a Nicholas Carr kick this week. He believes that hypertext is responsible for the fragmentation of information.

I would argue just the opposite. Instead, hypertext lets the human mind make connections out of disparate information.

As a youth, I read voraciously. My working class parents purchased a couple of encyclopedias, and I read them front to back, several times.  I got a lot of information, serially and in alphabetical order.  Okay.  It worked, but it didn’t let me do much more than absorb information.

Let me go back, to perhaps 1993. I was doing a technical publication review of Microsoft Encarta.  It was a wonderful encyclopedia CD (yes, CD), it included hyperlinks for use within the application.  I wrote (probably have it on an old CD somewhere) that its hyperlinks enabled me to see connections that surprised and amazed me.  I looked at tides, for example, and though hyperlinks found connections to the beautiful reversing tide in Saint John, New Brunswick.

I hesitate to call out people who are wrong, but you are wrong here. The human mind doesn’t work serially.  Instead, we make connections, often obliquely.  We draw intellectual nourishment and power from disparate information.  That is what makes us intelligent.

If you don’t want intelligence, that is fine. It is good to question anything.  But I really think you are driving your skepticism much too far.  Hypertext may be badly used, or in some cases overused, but it is a model of how the human mind works.

An Open Letter to Nicholas Carr January 26, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Mr. Carr – I understand that you are not able to respond to everything, or anything, but I hope you will be able to take this in the vein in which it is offered.

Last year, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  I was at a reasonably good hospital (Lahey Medical Center in Burlington, MA), and the head of surgery there strongly recommended a Whipple Procedure, which involves taking out about a third of my insides.  It was the only way I would live out the year.

You are right.  I should have listened to this professional advice, and taken the surgery.  It would have laid me up for several months, and given me a lower quality of life for a couple of decades until I died.

But I turned to Doctor Google, for a number of hours.  I can’t say I understood all of it, but I determined that it was premature to talk about surgery, and declined.  The diagnosis was wrong.  Today, I am a distance runner, and continually challenge myself physically.  I am in the best shape of my life.

You believe you are so right in your convictions.  You raise reasonable points.  I can respect that.  But reality is more nuanced than you give it credit for.  Without Doctor Google, I would have had the Whipple, and it would have been the wrong decision.  It would have been very detrimental for the rest of my life.  I realize that there is bad and contradictory information on the Internet.  We, as intelligent and reasonable people, can use it to help make our own decisions.  In another era (yes, an era I was also in; I am older than you), I would have followed the doctors’ (plural) advice, and have unnecessary and debilitating surgery.  Please let us use the Internet as it was intended, to inform and educate.  Of course, the decisions are ours.

Does Google make us stupid? No it does not.

That is all.


Cultural Fit is Bullshit January 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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This post has spent months (maybe years) in the making. And yes, I like the rhyme of the title.  I revisited it yet again after reading this article on minority hiring in Silicon Valley in Bloomberg News.

I am not a mainstream techie. I earned two degrees in psychology before turning to programming and technology in general, in my late 20s.  I am not a very good techie.  I have a solid foundation to understand and explain concepts (I was a university professor at one point), but never more than an average coder.  Nevertheless, I’ve made mostly a decent living in technology, though not in Silicon Valley.  Just so you know where I’m coming from.

I used to believe that cultural fit was the preeminent job requirement. Now I understand that’s what the employer would like me to believe.  They could hire or fire on a whim, rather than what they actually need.  In fact, whether or not I could do that job has no impact on my hireability.

So minorities (and almost certainly others who don’t fit into pre-established norms) are at a disadvantage because they didn’t start coding when they were seven? This is where the bullshit starts.  Does that make them better coders?  Possibly, although certainly not provably.  Does that make them better contributors?  Now there is the rub.  I would argue no.

But we are befuddled by candidates who are savants at placing bits of data into processor registers and making it do backflips. That is a worthwhile skill, but it’s not the only skill necessary to succeed, as an individual, as a part of a team, and as a company.  Even in Silicon Valley.  If your teams are all A-list coders, you are missing out on some essential skills.  Yet you seem to be fine with that.

In my health issues over the last year, I was fortunate to encounter a couple of doctors who treated me as a person, rather than as a collection of symptoms. I challenge Silicon Valley to do the same.  Understand at a deep level what your teams need, and interview and hire based on those needs.  Understand not only the technical skills, but the social dynamics and complementary skills that are necessary for any team to succeed.  You are not doing so.

The mantra of cultural fit has enabled Silicon Valley to ignore deeper issues of team dynamics, skills needs, and what drives people to be successful. You hire people like you.  Or people that fit into a predetermined slot.  I get it, but you refuse to get out of your comfort zone to look at what might make you successful.  You are blind.  And, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, if I may quote Desiderius Erasmus.

I have no right to do so, but I challenge Silicon Valley. Yes, you.

I Have Joined The Band January 22, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have written in the past about my experiences with the Microsoft Band. Microsoft has a really good product here, although they fail to effectively market it (or even market it at all, as near as I can tell).  I use the GPS in races, and manage and monitor steps, other exercises, sleep, and heart rate.

I especially like its integration with the Microsoft Health app, which provides a convenient way of getting access to this information. If you use the GPS, you get a map, complete with running route, speed (I love the snail versus the gazelle icons), altitude changes, and mileage splits.  It shows your average, peak, and finishing heart rates.

Moreover, it integrates with your phone in other ways. You can get notifications of incoming calls, texts, and email, and actually have a limited way of responding to texts.  While I get too much email to make that service practical, it has become an essential notification tool for me.  And the notifications and other features are highly customizable through the app.

I recently bought Bands for two people close to me (technically, the Band 2). Both are using it in ways similar to myself, and are happy with the product.

If it has a downside, it is its short battery life. The battery lasts for a maximum of two days, especially using the GPS, and charging it can easily take an hour or more.

I have never been a Microsoft fanboy, but as near as I can tell, I am the Band’s biggest (and maybe only) promoter. It has about 80 percent of the functionality of the Apple Watch for about 40 percent of the price.  I understand that there is some (not a lot) of additional functionality on the Apple Watch, and that may encourage people who are not price-sensitive.  But for people looking for an activity tracker and an extension of their mobile phone, it is something that they should look at.

Microsoft, I just don’t get it.

Our Phone Culture Needs Fixing January 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a home landline that begins with the local exchange 888.

This has caused years of consternation for me. 888, is of course, also one of the toll-free dials.  In particular, the phone and Internet company TDS has a toll-free technical support line that shares the same first seven digits with my local exchange number.

So I get several dozen calls a year from people within my state who believe they are calling the TDS technical support number.

Why is this happening? The explanation is quite simple, although it took me a while to figure out.  They are calling from their landline, and are not prefacing the number with 1.

That is cell phone culture. You don’t have to dial 1 on a cell phone in order to access a toll-free number.  You do have to do so on a landline.  It is amazing how many people have forgotten this simple fact.

It’s gotten bad enough so that I rarely answer this phone. When I do answer it, people get indignant and even obnoxious when I explain they have called a private residence.  They insist that I must be TDS, and am simply not inclined to provide them with customer service.  Many call multiple times, getting more obnoxious with each successive call.

And while I can understand how this happens, I have no sympathy for the people who use cell phone behavior with their landlines. I have had this number for over 20 years, and I am not about to change it.

Please, people. Don’t be so stupid.  I dislike calling people stupid, because I am subject to my own slips of sentience.  But I have been subject to this harassment for long enough.

I Am Strong January 7, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This is a stupid post, but something that I have to say. I have had significant health issues in the past year, and have recovered, thanks in large part to running.  Running taught me to listen to my body, and to trust it.

And I am stronger than ever. I beat my best race time by a minute and a half in a 5K race on New Year’s Day.  Not that I am fast, but once I get going, I can go for a long time.  I ran the last half mile with an untied shoelace.  I simply wasn’t going to stop to tie it.

I have run the last two mornings, with a temperature of 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and negative wind chills.

I am not trying to assert superiority over anyone here (there are many who are far superior to me), but I am trying to say that I am exploring the boundaries of my physical and mental being, and largely doing well at it. This surprises me.

Try stretching yourself at something. You might surprise yourself.

Free Basics and Why Zuckerberg is Right December 29, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I never thought I would write the phrase “Zuckerberg is right”. I am not a Facebook user, and I kind of disdain the whole concept.  Here is why I am doing so.

Free Basics is about providing a limited amount of Internet access for everyone in the world. Facebook is one of the apps included in the service. Others include AccuWeather, Ask.com, Baby Center, Bing, Dictionary.com and Wikipedia.  Facebook is one of the supporters and drivers of this.

Critics say that it violates net neutrality principles, and supports Facebook’s commercial strategy. Both true.  But net neutrality is a two-edged sword; mostly it’s supportable, but it does tend to favor some activities over others, despite its name.  Like most principles in life, it should not be implemented as a pure concept, but as a compromise between competing parties.

And about Facebook’s business strategy. Zuckerberg is well known for his philanthropy and his business acumen.  I have never met him, but I would guess that his reasons are a complex combination of both.  Even so, any business advantage it might provide will take decades or more to realize a financial advantage.  Eighty percent of the world population isn’t in a position to buy what Facebook advertisers are selling.

I personally would not include Facebook in the category of a basic right of the Internet. But a decade ago the discussion would have been Yahoo.  Having access to everyone in the world does not assure Facebook’s viability as a business.  In a decade or two, it will be some other online service, or something else entirely.

Regarding Free Basics, I don’t know if the world is yet ready to treat certain online activities as a fundamental right. Hell, in parts of the world we can’t even treat living as a fundamental right.  If it happens, it will likely get abused for political, military, or commercial purposes.  But I understand why the Free Basics concept exists, and I think Zuckerberg is right to be a part of it.


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