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Has Moneyball Killed Baseball? June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Strategy.
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Moneyball was a revelation to me.  It taught me that the experts could not effectively evaluate talent, and opened my own mind to the biases found in software development, testing, and team building.  Some of my best conference presentations and articles have been in this area.

But while Moneyball helped the Oakland Athletics, and eventually some other teams, it seems to be well on its way to killing the sport.  I’ve never been a big sports fan, but there were few other activities that could command the attention of a 12-year old in the late 1960s.

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and while I was too young to see the dramatic Bill Mazeroski home run in the 1960 World Series, I did see the heroics of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in the 1971 World Series (my sister was administrative assistant at the church in Wilmington NC where Stargell had his funeral).  I lived in Baltimore where the Pirates won a Game 7 in dramatic fashion in 1979 (Steve Blass at the helm for his third game of the series, with Dave Guisti in relief).

But baseball has changed, and not in a good way.  Today, Moneyball has produced teams that focus on dramatic encounters like strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  I doubt this was what Billy Beane wanted to happen.  That makes baseball boring.  It is currently lacking in any of the strategy that it was best at.

As we move toward a world where we are increasingly using analytics to evaluate data and make decisions, we may be leaving the interesting parts of our problem domain behind.  I would like to think that machine learning and analytics are generally good for us, but perhaps they provide a crutch that ultimately makes our world less than it could be.  I hope we find a way to have the best of both.

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.

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.”

What We Lose in Reading Digitally October 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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I have almost never picked up a physical book in the last three years. Virtually everything I have read (and I am a voracious reader) has been digital, first on my Nook, and over the last year on my phone.  I prefer it that way.  I carry my library with me, and can read anything I want, whenever I want.  And I don’t have to fill my backpack with a bunch of paperbacks.

I discovered something today. I discovered that I could not, at least not conveniently, give the gift of a book in a digital format.  It used to be if I wanted to gift a book, I would go to a bookstore, buy the book, and give it to you.  I may end up doing that here (the Barnes and Noble superstore is only five minutes away, although I have no idea if they stock this particular book), but buying a digital book as a gift is almost impossible.  My accounts at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon, are tied to my reading software and my devices.

I’m not even sure how I would gift a digital book. The reader often tells me if it’s possible to loan a book (sometimes it’s not, apparently), but doesn’t say anything about buying a book for someone else.  From the standpoint of the book economy, this doesn’t seem to make any sense.

It troubles me that I cannot easily gift a book in the digital era. This doesn’t seem to be a use case with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and that is to their detriment.  I have spent some time looking into this, and don’t see any good way of doing it.  And I have never had to spend any time doing it with physical books.  This is odd.  Books have often been one of the most popular of gifts, and we don’t easily allow that any more.

The fact of the matter is that while we’ve made it easier to buy (digital) books, we have made it more difficult to gift them. That’s simply wrong, and we have taken a step back in that regard.  Book sellers, are you listening?  I think not.

Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.

What Do We Want in Our News Media? July 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Well, there is a loaded question if I ever heard one, especially during this interminably dragging election season in the US. News has changed greatly since my youth, I think somewhat for the better.  I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite (barely), and was a young adult with the likes of Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.  My newspapers consisted of the Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Press.  Print, of course, either picked up at the pharmacy or delivered in the vicinity of the door.

I am certainly familiar with all of the downsides of our current news delivery. A variety of delivery sources means that we can choose one that represents our point of view, reaffirming our world view and stunting our knowledge growth.  And the proliferation of news outlets means that there is no time or money (and sometimes no inclination) for copy editing or fact checking, so we are engaged in a real-life rendition of “Believe It or Not”.

And the so-called newsrooms! At times it seems like the protagonists are more interested in bantering with each other rather than conveying information to their audience.  Of course, that is largely the fault of their employers, who today view news delivery as a source of entertainment.

But let’s not forget the positives. We can get news as it is breaking, not on a network or newspaper schedule.  I think that has awakened more people to their connection with the larger world around them.  News is less filtered; let me explain that one.  When half an hour at 6 or 11, or a daily newspaper, was our only way of getting news.  Out of necessity, news was rationed; and we never knew who did the rationing.  Who gave us our world view?  I didn’t know it at the time, but of course it had to be.

The ability to select from multiple news sources gives us the ability to see the same event from different perspectives, giving us a more complete picture of events. I’ve appreciated the reporting of Al Jazeera, for example, because of the complete different take on a lot of Middle Eastern news.  Not that one or the other is correct or incorrect, but rather it’s what they emphasize or downplay that is interesting.

I can’t speak for others, of course, but over the years perusing the Internet I’ve determined what I look for in news. For my needs, I have Felix Salmon to thank, for the period in which he blogged for Reuters.  To be clear, I rarely agreed with anything Felix said.  But his range of interests, and his ability to explain, meant that almost every day I learned something new.  I don’t have to agree with his point of view in order to discover new things.

In the same vein, I would add Justin Fox and Barbara Kiviat, former Curious Capitalist columnists at Time magazine.  Barbara in particular had a penchant for objectively looking at data, and could weave a story out of statistics like few others.  The web publication Quartz also enthralls me, for its ability to go in depth in an incredibly wide variety of topics.

Coding Error or Testing Error? July 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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Today the news is full of the revelation that the mobile game Pokemon Go takes full permissions if you sign in using your Google account.  Niantic, the game’s developer, acknowledged this and said it was merely a coding error.  Neither Niantic nor Nintendo had any plans for full access to anyone’s Google account, and apparently a patch is being prepared to fix the error.

I am copasetic with the explanation (I am not a gamer; if I were, I may feel otherwise), and I see how it can happen. But is it an error in coding, or an error in testing?  I call it a testing error; here’s why.

Developers do whatever it takes in order to make an application functional. On more than one occasion in the past (I no longer code, except for fun), I have allocated too much memory, declared too many variables, and kept objects alive too long, in order to ensure that the application works as I expect it too.  My job is to get the application and its features working.

Grabbing too many permissions is similar. I have seen teams that bypass security restrictions because that seems to be the only way to add the needed functionality.  For example, an application may require that the user account have local admin privileges.  Are these required?  Probably not, but in many cases local user privileges didn’t work.  Rather than diagnose why they didn’t work, the developers simply open it up completely.  Their job is to get it working, after all.

I don’t know if Niantic has a formal testing program driven by professional testers, but this sort of problem is all too common. And testers need to step up and take responsibility for issues that fall into the category of access rights and security.

Granted, this isn’t functional UI testing, which even today many testers believe represents the scope of their responsibilities. Few testers look for permissions issues, and these are almost never discovered on development or testing computers, which typically have full permissions.

But they should. I was in a development lab that lost a major enterprise sale because our software required local machine admin rights in order to install.  That enterprise didn’t give any staff employees local machine admin rights, and simply installing our software would have required an IT person to go around to hundreds of computers to adjust permissions.

This is the sort of thing that testing is all about. Understand your customer.  And by your customer, I also mean the organizations you are selling into.  Test the login process, not only to make sure it works, but also to make sure it doesn’t create a security failing.

Yes, this is a failure of testing. To define this as a coding error is misleading.  A competent and curious tester should have caught this before it went out the door.  If you are missing this kind of problem, it behooves you to rethink how you do your job.

Where Are the Copy Editors? November 2, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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As I read Internet comments (forgive me) on news stories, I commonly see that some posts that rail against poor grammar or typos. Where are the copy editors, they ask, in their own superiority of the English grammar.

Well, this isn’t a hard one. Copy editors existed when we published, whether daily, weekly, or monthly, for an audience that would pay for content.  Remember when you bought a newspaper?  I didn’t think so.  That business model is so dead.

And that is a big part of the problem. The cost structure of today’s online news outlets does not permit an army of copy editors to read and mark up editorial copy before it is published.  And that puts additional pressure on the writers to get it right the first time.  Because we want to see it now, not when on the daily printing cycle.

It’s really not a problem, except for the pedantic and inflexible among us. We should recognize that getting real time news, without actually, well, paying for it, is at the expense of other considerations.  By and large, those considerations are on the order of getting news out quickly, with accuracy and grammar taking a back seat.

At the same time, I curse the poor grammar and inexplicable typos of the 20-somethings who are minimally-paid assistant writers and editors charged with putting significant and often breaking news online. At the same time, I realize that, even with their level of experience, they should be better.  I still have a screen capture of a horribly-formed CNN narrative that purportedly exposed a significant headline story about the auto company “Suburu”; except of course that the company is Subaru.

That is inexcusable, and I hope that the writer and editor involved in that fiasco were summarily fired. Except that I doubt it, because to do so would require them to bring onboard other junior and poorly paid editorial people who are not up to this simple task.

And that is the real tragedy here. Our news outlets could do better, even with the talent that is available.  Most reporters and editors were never well paid, yet often felt a sense of obligation to get this story right.  But those outlets show no desire to do so.  As our news could be better, much better in some cases, if they would take an interest in selecting and developing their talent.  I do not believe that they are doing so.

Because of my significant background in tech publishing, I have an interest in publishing in general. I think I have an understanding of the issues here, and also think that our news outlets are doing it wrong.  Very wrong.