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Google Glass My Ass June 29, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think the onward march of wearable computers is both desirable and inevitable. And I love the idea of being able to find and research any bit of information, at any time. Almost two decades ago, Bill Gates introduced the concept of “information at your fingertips,”, but it was ultimately Google that delivered on the reality.

But, this article in Wall Street Journal describes the use of Google Glass as the essential tourist companion, able to let you research your activities ahead of time, and get information of any type as the need or desire strikes. Imagine being face to face with the Acropolis in Greece, wondering about a particular column design, and spending a minute or two on taking a photo and comparing images online to get a detailed background on the work.

But I think that the bad outweighs the good here. I caught the travel bug later in life, courtesy of my many conference speaking activities. I’ve been fortunate to mostly avoid the usual tourist hubs in favor of secondary but perhaps more colorful locales. I’ve done a few guided tours, and paid an extra few bucks once or twice for the self-guided audio tours.

The audio tours, which might be uncharitably compared to a poor man’s Google Glass, fall flat. They are mostly boring and difficult to sync up with what you are actually seeing. Guided tours are uneven; if the group is small and homogeneous, they can be fun and informative; large and diverse groups tend to be distracting.

But when you’re a tourist, what you really need to do is, well, talk to people. My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few weeks ago, and after registering for our conference (Nordic Testing Days) went out to walk around. We happened to stumble up to Toompea Tower, adjacent to the Parliament Building, which just happened to be open to the public (35 people at a time, the old stone stairs were so narrow). While in line, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, who told us that he was last there on the day Estonia declared independence from the old Soviet Union. You can’t buy such an impromptu conversation for any price.

Experiencing new places involves a combination of seeing things, understanding what you are seeing, and integrating the cultural perspective. Google Glass can play a minor role in a part of that, but it also risks crowding out the actual experiences of being there. We might be too busy engaging searches for similar sites, or nearby restaurants, or just about anything other than where we are and what we are doing at the moment.

I think there is a heck of a lot of value in what Google Glass has to offer society in general. But I also think it will be far too easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

And sorry about the title to this post; it was just too precious to pass up.


What is the Deal with Self-Driving Cars? June 23, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Google, the media, and other interested parties are portraying self-driving cars as a panacea for drivers, traffic congestion, accidents, and other undesirable driving outcomes. I simply don’t get it, on multiple levels. I like the concept, but can’t connect it to any reasonable reality anytime in the future.

I’ve suspected that there would be issues with self-driving cars since they became a popular meme over the past year. At one level, there is the question of how you would test the technology. In normal system testing, you attempt to run tests that simulate actual use. But there are far too many possible scenarios for self-driving cars to reasonably test. Under other circumstances, it may be possible to test the most likely cases, but on a safety-critical system like a car, that’s simply not possible.

I’m reminded of my skepticism by this article on the utility of aircraft autopilot systems and their role in the operation and in some cases mis-operation of planes. One conclusion seems to be that autopilots actually make flying more complex, rather than simpler. That counterintuitive conclusion is based on the idea that the assumptions made by the autopilot are unexpected by the operators.

As a software guy, I’m okay with the idea that assumptions made by software can take people by surprise on occasion. It’s a difficult problem even for safety-critical systems, where people can die if the software makes an incorrect assumption. You can argue, probably successfully, that pilots shouldn’t be surprised by whatever a plane under their command does.

Drivers, not so much. As we look at aircraft autopilots, it is reasonable to draw a parallel between commercial aircraft and automobiles. Now, granted, aircraft operate in three dimensions. But automobiles have a greater range of operating options, in terms of speed, traffic, road types, road conditions, and so on. Commercial aircraft are already under positive control from the ground.

It’s not clear who will control driverless automobiles. It’s certainly unlikely that drivers are as attentive as pilots, yet will become at least as confused at times as they change where they want to go, and how they want to get there. And they won’t be observing the driving process any near as attentively as (I hope) pilots do.

Sigh. I’m not a Luddite. I’m excited about technology in general, and am an early adopter of many technologies (and, to be honest, a not-so-early adopter of others). But I simply don’t see self-driving automobiles taking off (pun intended) anytime in my lifetime.

I Pushed the Button June 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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While I spend much of my time advocating and evangelizing for technology, software development, testing, and the application lifecycle, I have an enthusiastic avocation, that of a mystery novelist. I simply find freedom and mental escape in building my own worlds, creating complex puzzles, and interacting with the characters I create.

It has been a long time coming, but last night I pushed the button to self-publish my novel Dead Code to the Amazon Kindle platform. As the title implies, it’s a tech mystery surrounding a series of murders at a fledgling software company. It weighs in at about 107,000 words, and will be available for download on Amazon for $2.99 US, or the equivalent in other currencies (Amazon sets those prices based on applicable exchange rates).

Dead Code was substantially finished about ten years ago, but I have only recently dusted it off, cleaned it up, and updated it for publishing.

Self-publishing is a challenge, but unless you are an established author, or a brilliant writer, or have a benefactor or simply very good luck, it is probably the best way of getting known as a new author. Now I have to get to work marketing it, which is the real challenge for any author, whether independently published or published with an established publishing company.

I’ll have the link to Dead Code up on my website in a day or two. In the meantime, you can read the first three chapters there. I have other works coming, in time, but certainly less than another ten years.

Requiem for Radio Shack June 14, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Most of what I did in electronics in my youth (circa early 1970s and beyond) was what I could scrounge together and purchase for a dollar or two here and there. Much of that was purchased at Radio Shack; while I grew up in a rural environment, there was a store within riding distance on my bicycle. I used to get all the Radio Shack catalogs in the mail, and was impressed at the rate they added new stores and electronics.

I majored in the liberal arts as an undergraduate in college, and joined the Air Force, leading my life in a particular direction. Had it not been that direction, I’ve told many people over the years that I probably would have started out as an assistant manager at a Radio Shack. Radio Shack had the hobbyist reputation and technical cachet that I instinctively knew that I wanted at that early age.

Today, Radio Shack looks to be on its last legs. I confess that I haven’t been there much over the last few years, mostly a few times to purchase power adapters, and once a USB turntable (yes, I still have a significant collection of LPs which I am trying to convert to MP3).

But power adapters cost 70 percent less on Amazon, and I’m pretty sure I can get anything I need in the way of electronic components on Amazon or elsewhere. And if you browse a local Radio Shack today (yes, there is one in my town), there is little an electronic hobbyist might want to see. And there are far too many cell phones, which you can get practically anywhere. Simply put, there seems little reason for Radio Shack to exist in its current form.

I’m not a sentimental person by any means, and economically I believe in Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. Still, I feel a loss at the decline and eventual closure of Radio Shack. I feel more for what they have become, less a distinctive destination than an accidental stopover. I realize that there may not be a viable business as a hobbyist store anymore, but they have made years of wrong decisions of what they should become.

Is Going Rogue Good? June 10, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The June 9th Wall Street Journal included an article on the value of company staffers “going rogue” on IT. It used the usual arguments that employees will find a way to get their jobs done, with or without the help of IT. Most employees make an effort to keep to the organizational rules, which can be frustrating when the rules are slowing down or stopping progress. A few go off the reservation in order to bypass the frustration, finding their own solutions and surreptitiously installing them or using their home computers to get their work done.

But is that good for the company at large? One of the principal reasons for the existence of IT departments is to vet software for utility, quality, usability, and security, in order to protect the interests of the company. Using un-vetted software is an open invitation to compromise one or more of these goals.

But often IT goals seem to be at odds with employee productivity. I use Dropbox almost daily. I just rebuilt my personal website, using the freely-available BlueGriffon web design tool. I book travel on the airline’s website. Of course, some of these activities are for personal reasons, but I have done similar things while employed at various companies, too, as well as for my own business.

All too often, corporate IT is more in the business of making their own jobs manageable, rather than enabling those in the company who are supporting the business. IT could provide homegrown solutions like Dropbox that are within the company firewall and as secure as any other corporate software product. Or it can vet these tools as they become aware of their utility within the organization, even before users even start asking for it.

I’m sure there are proactive IT departments out there; I’ve just never encountered one. As organizational management adopts BYOD as a way to cut costs while increasing employee satisfaction, IT needs better strategies to help workers become more effective. My last employer required that I agree to have my personal phone wiped if I couldn’t remember my unlock password. Instead, I declined to use it for work email.

Employees wouldn’t have to go rogue if IT thought out a better balance between company and employee goals. Regrettably, I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.