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Really, CNN.com? March 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I recognize that the mainstream media, or MSM, has been under fire lately. And has been under financial and relevancy pressure for at least two decades, as falling ad rates for digital media has cut still further into its advertiser-driven business model.  That one is a difficult one to solve, but that doesn’t absolve CNN from actually trying to solve it.

But giving advertising content the same placement and appearance as your news content is simply so far over the top that I am beside myself. Here is a screen capture of CNN Money that shows “sponsored content” (advertising) presented in the same manner as news.

This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them. That CNN.com would lower itself to this is unconscionable.  There are plenty of people who still respect and appreciate actual news, and they are (or can be if you care) your biggest defenders.

And really, CNN.com. It is purported news stories like this one on the move of the Oakland Raiders that make even reasonable people doubt your veracity.  I have never read such a one-sided, biased, and inflammatory article on a major news site.  You never even bothered to seek out and question Raiders owner Mark Davis, or to say that the Raiders and A’s are the last teams to be playing in the same stadium, by a long shot, or that Davis is relatively cash-poor and would likely have to give up ownership in order to remain in Oakland.  I live nowhere near Oakland, and have no dog in this hunt, but this does not even begin to pass the smell test.  Sometimes you are just too stupid for your own good.

Journalism is more interesting when it has a point of view. You may not always (or ever) agree with that point of view, but it is important to absorb and consider it.  But this is presented as objective news, yet is neither.

CNN, I know that it’s not easy, but it’s time to grow up and figure out your path without continuing to resort to cheap tricks like these.


Decisions, Decisions – There’s an Algorithm for That March 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I remember shoveling sh** against the tide. Yes, I taught statistics and decision analysis to university business majors for about 15 years.  It wasn’t so much that they didn’t care as they didn’t want to know.

I had more than one student tell me that it was the job of a manager to make decisions, and numbers didn’t make any difference. Others said, “I make decisions the way they are supposed to be made, by my experience and intuition.  That’s what I’m paid for.”

Well, maybe not too much longer. After a couple of decades of robots performing “pick-and-place” and other manufacturing processes, now machine learning is in the early stages of transforming management.  It will help select job candidates, determine which employees are performing at a high level, and allocate resources between projects, among many other things.

So what’s a manager to do? Well, first, embrace the technology.  Simply, you are not going to win if you fight it.  It is inevitable.

Second, make a real effort to understand it. While computers and calculators were available, I always made my students “do it by hand” the first time around, so they could follow what the calculations were telling them.  You need to know what you are turning your decisions over to.

Third, integrate it into your work processes. By using machine learning to complement your own abilities.  Don’t ignore it, but don’t treat it as gospel either.

There are many philosophical questions at work here. Which is better, your experience or the numbers?  Kahneman says they are about the same, which does not bode well for human decision-making.  And the analysis of the numbers will only get better; can we say the same thing about human decision-making?

Of course, this has implications to the future of management. I’ll explore my thoughts there in a future post.

About the Coffee Maker March 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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So as I continue to read about how companies have discovered the magic path to innovation, putting everyone in the same room, with personal space bumped up against one another, in reach of the coffee machine, in order to innovate, I have several succinct comments:

  1. I don’t drink coffee, and in fact hate the smell of it. You will not find me near the coffee maker.
  2. This worked for Yahoo so well, right?
  3. Everyone thinks that the solution is to throw people together, stir, and wait for innovation.

It’s not nearly that easy, of course, and organizations are stupid if they think that it is. Yet we as institutions continue to persist in believing that it is.

Fifteen years ago, I worked for a company whose CEO abruptly decided that all employees needed to be in an office in order to bask in the company culture, and one day fired all of those who didn’t go into an office on a daily basis.

Of course, management can do what it wants. And usually does.  But all too often organizations and their managements engage in groupthink.  If a power broker says that we need to put people together in the same room and let them percolate, then that’s what companies do.

It’s not that easy, folks. And too many people think that it is (I’m talking about you, Marissa Mayer).  Mayer, of course, was faced with a very difficult job – what did Yahoo want to be when it grew up (it should have been Facebook before Facebook).  And she ended up with about $200 million for failing.  You know, we all want to succeed in our endeavors, but a bunch of money makes it easier to accept our limitations.

The real problem is that executives tend to think that there is a straightforward answer that only they have thought of. I am sorry, they are not paid to be drive-by executives, just making a few pithy comments and leaving it to others to do any hard work.  The answers are not easy, and implementing them is not easy.

Health Care is Institutionally Resistant to Technology March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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That is an overarching and controversial statement, and is probably not true under all circumstances. I will only touch on a few points, based on this article in WSJ (paywall) and my own recent experiences.

The WSJ article notes a pretty complete failure of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to leverage IBM Watson AI technology to help diagnose and treat cancer.

Of course my own recent experiences include a referral to what is purportedly one of the leading cardio institutes in the country, which asked me to fill out forms using a Number 2 pencil. Like I did when I was in elementary school.  When I went to the website, there were obvious misspellings and bad grammar, including in their bragging about being a leading institution.

My doctor objected to my objection. “They don’t do their own website!”  My response:  “And they can’t even be troubled to read it, either.  If you can’t get the easy things right, it leaves a lot of doubt that you can get the hard things right.”

I see a couple of forces at work here. First, health care remains incredibly complex.  Every patient is different, and has to be treated with individuality.  (To be fair, that is not how many human practitioners treat their patients, but that is a tale for another day).  This approach may not be amenable to current machine learning endeavors.

That being said, however, it is clear that health care practitioners and institutions are rooted in routine and learned practice, and passively or actively resist new approaches. In a sense, it is sad that otherwise highly intelligent and educated people are so steeply rooted in their routines that they cannot adapt to changes for the better.

But the institutions and bureaucracies themselves force this attitude on many. It’s simply less friction to do things the way you always have, as opposed to trying something new.  And that, more than anything, is where health care needs to change.

What Should We Know About History? March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This one is from the heart, and has little to do with technology, so I apologize in advance. This starts with me commenting on what I think is a very good though rambling story on Quartz, which discusses a service to teach Millennials about basic life skills.  It notes that Millennials face different challenges than past generations, but also concludes that they must find their own ways on life skills.

I commented that as a Baby Boomer, when I graduated college, unemployment was 11 percent and inflation 17 percent, figures not seen before or since. The writer, who seems intelligent and thoughtful, was incredulous that such a state of affairs existed in our history.

We seem to have lost an historical perspective. Just a few years before my coming of age, we had gasoline shocks, where OPEC flexed its muscles and the price of gasoline increased by five-fold.  We had Stagflation.  We had WIN (look it up).  We had devastating strikes in basic industries in the 1960s.  We had companies assassinating union leaders who dared speak up.  Farther back, we had things like the Pullman Massacre and the Homestead Massacre.

There are people today with individual circumstances that you feel for. But by and large, most of us have it great.  I am highly cognizant that I have it better than most, but I am also highly cognizant of my working class roots.  It has not always been like this in my life.

I realize that news organizations are selling eyeballs, and they get eyeballs by telling people how bad they have it. It is wrong, in a strong sense.  I wish they would stop.

But this also has to deal with our perspective. Our perspective is not just today, and if it is, we are doing a disservice.  We need to tell people how they relate to events past.

If we can’t, we shouldn’t be writing about this stuff.

My Bucket List March 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I suppose I am old enough to have one. But oddly, it revolves around music.  I will be in Edinburgh this coming spring, at a live concert with the incredible Gary Brooker and Procol Harum.

In June, Blood, Sweat and Tears, amazingly in New Hampshire, perhaps half an hour away.

July, right after the Old Port road race in Portland Maine, the Moody Blues will be at the Blue Hills Pavilion in East Boston.

Chicago Transit Authority, somewhere.

Annie Haslam, she of the transcendental five-octave voice, anywhere.  She mostly performs on the US East Coast these days, near her home in Bucks County, PA.  I missed her in Annapolis a couple of years ago, because I was due to be in Spain the next day.  I missed her Christmas performance in Bucks County a couple of years earlier, because my company abruptly laid off 20 percent of its workforce, including me.

I was never particularly musical, and have rarely attended live concerts, so this is unusual for me. I did the band in junior high and high school, and the stage band in high school and college, but that was about it.  I am looking forward to the coming year.

Who Is the Data For? March 1, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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Andreas Weigend recently published an intriguing book called Data For the People, in which he argues that we are not going to stop the proliferation of personal data that is used to categorize and market to us, so we should embrace this change and find ways to use collected data to our advantage.

He cites many of the data points that I do in my blog posts, but comes to different conclusions. In particular, my own thoughts are to limit my use of personal data on a case-by-case basis.  His own conclusion is that we need to accept the proliferation of personal data as inevitable, and embrace it in a way that makes it valuable to us.

He makes a lot of sense, from an alternative point of view from mine, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand.

However, I would like to contrast that with another article, one that points out that when we choose our friends through shared data, we lose our ability to connect with our physical neighbors.

So, here is what I think. I think Andreas is correct, strategically.  But I am simply not sure how we get from where we are to where he wants to be.  I don’t think it will be clean and neat.  And it certainly won’t be convenient, especially for those of us who are at least part way through our lives.

I’ve used this quote before, but it remains apropos.  From Crosby, Stills, and Nash: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

My Health Care Providers Hate Me March 1, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Because I ask questions, do research, and push back when something doesn’t seem to make sense.

And I have learned that doctors and other health care professionals are very uncomfortable with that. They are used to having their word taken as gospel.  And if you start asking questions, they get very defensive.  I am not the expert, but I have the right to question directives and treatment.  In theory, but in practice it is not appreciated.

I first experienced this two years ago, when I was told I needed a Whipple Procedure, immediately. Had I meekly accepted this directive, from multiple doctors, I would have had completely unnecessary life-altering surgery.  Instead, I asked for more tests, and researched through Dr. Google.  I ultimately didn’t have surgery at all.  Nor did I have cancer.

More recently, I received a referral to a specialist. That specialist sent me paperwork that must be filled out with a Number 2 pencil.  Really.  I go to their website; words are misspelled.  If they can’t get the easy things right, I have no confidence in their desire to provide quality care.

I called my primary care provider to see about an alternative referral. Their answer was, effectively, “Take it or leave it.”  And that was from the receptionist.

I attempted to send an email to my provider, through the form provided on their website. Invalid phone number, with no hint as to the format they want.  Finally, I type in 10 random digits.  It is accepted.  I get an automated email response from Admin.  The email form is completely blank.

I used to believe that the United States had the second worst health care in the world; the worst was every one else. I am now thinking that we are in fact the worst.

I am not a stupid person. Why do my health care providers treat me like one?

And tl;dr, but https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/02/when-evidence-says-no-but-doctors-say-yes/517368/.  Beware of the biases of our doctors.