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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.

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.

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 Am Disgusted with Tech February 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, no, not really, especially since it pays me well to do what I do. But I seem to be surprised and amazed (in a negative sense) daily with their behavior, both on the public stage and behind the scenes.

But Uber seems to be bound and determined to support its bro culture and its combative approach to opening new markets. “We’re hurting.”  Seriously?  This is about as juvenile as it gets, and for a company that’s purportedly worth north of $60 billion, is completely uncalled for.  And oh by the way, let’s attack by name the woman who had the courage, and the evidence, to speak out against that culture.

And getting former assistant attorney general (and current revolving door ambulance chaser) Eric Holder to investigate them is like getting the fox to investigate why chickens have disappeared. I can write his report right now:  “This company is the paragon of virtue, although it does have random pockets of sexism and racism.  They don’t really have to do anything about that, because they are so good otherwise.”  If Uber pays Holder enough money, CEO Travis Kalanick won’t even be required to do a public mea culpa.

Uber has done some good, upending an industry that needed to be upended. But it has done so in a way that has created an entirely new class of working poor drivers, and a class of upper-income users who sadly don’t actually have to talk to anyone to get a ride.  Or tip anyone (I am sorry, the Uber drivers work for a living, and deserve courteous treatment.  Instead, Uber continues to not include a tip function on their app.)

Sadly, I don’t think that Facebook has done any good whatsoever. It has created a mass worldwide addiction that can never be satiated.  I see no innovation or value there.  And Zuckerberg?  He continues to deny what Facebook is and has become, all the while bringing in billions in market value for himself.  And uses it to buy his privacy, which he denies Facebook users.

Uber and Facebook, if you are looked upon as the adult supervision of Silicon Valley, then I can’t imagine what is happening elsewhere. It does not have to be like this, but this is what you wanted, and it is so very wrong.

My Fitness Tracker of the Month February 22, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Is the Samsung Gear Fit2 (or something like that).  It has an awkward name, a moronic app, and questionable distance statistics.  In particular, it does not do what it purports to do with flights of stairs, failing to record what it promises.

But it was relatively inexpensive, and does many things at least adequately. It automatically detects walking, running, sleep, and probably other exercises too.  It shows a lot of data on the device, and more on the app, although the app is pretty poorly designed.

I like the slim form factor of the device, which many multifunction trackers don’t have, but was an important characteristic of my late and lamented Microsoft Band.

I still question why Microsoft got out of this business. They had a decent, competitive product at a reasonable price.  I understand that they didn’t sell many, but from my vantage point, they weren’t trying to.  To be frank, their marketing sucked.  I was actually told by one Microsoft employee that the Band was only intended as an experimental testbed, with any sales being incidental.  But they did their customers a true disservice by not continuing it.

I don’t think I’ll stay with the Samsung Gear Fit2 (I can’t even say it without giggling) very long, but it gives me an interesting perspective on alternative for fitness and activity trackers.

Weapons of Math Instruction February 15, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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That old (and lame) joke, of course, refers to Al-Gebra (algebra).  But the fear of math is very real.  For decades, many have hid behind the matra “I’m not a math person”, without exploring the roots of that statement.  This article, by Jenny Anderson on Quartz, offers hope that we may be able to move on from this false rhetoric.

I never understood math early, but I always loved it.  Post-BA degree, I taught myself calculus, and obtained an MS in applied math.

I taught various math and statistics courses to college students for 15 years.  I would like to think that my enthusiasm and down-to-earth explanations at the very least made it tolerable to them.  I still remember one student saying to me, “In elementary school, the teacher would preface the math lesson by saying, ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do, but we have to, so let’s get it over with.’”  I think teaching is a very big part of the problem.  If teachers don’t like the topic, neither will their students.

I especially came to appreciate word problems, something that few if any students liked.  I had a method of dealing with them.  My original issue with word problems was that if I read it once and didn’t immediately see the solution, I would be stumped.  Instead, I taught people to read the problem first, to understand it without seeking a solution.  Then read it again, and highlight any information that seemed pertinent.  Then read it a third time, to pull out that information and see how it might help lead to a solution.  Then try a formula.  If it didn’t seem to work out, discard it and start back at step 1.

It is not hard, folks, though it does require overcoming age-old biases, as well as a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking.  Anderson notes that learning and applying math and quantitative methods requires a growth mindset.  That is, a willingness to get something wrong, and learn from it for the future.

As we move (or already have moved) into a data-driven world that requires an intimate understanding of how data shape our lives, we can no longer plead ignorance, or lack of ability.  If we plead lack of interest, we will be left behind.


Thank You Bank of America: Paying Bills Keeps Getting More Challenging February 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Not in a financial sense, but in a process one. Let me step back.  Growing up, my parents paid the vast majority of their monthly bills in cash, at the Post Office or the service window of the grocery store.  As a young adult, I handled my bill payment entirely through the US Mail.  Under some circumstances, you could have installment payments automatically deducted from your checking account, but that was about it.

Today, I pay most of my regular bills online, through my account(s) at Bank of America. I don’t particularly like to write out physical checks, but I typically do so for seasonal and occasional bills.  But the regular stuff is all online.

Now Bank of America is telling me that I shouldn’t be paying all of my bills through their system. Instead, they want me to pay through the individual vendor websites – FairPoint Communications, AT&T, Pennichuck, Nashua Wastewater, VISA, etc., rather than through my bank.

I do find that problematic. Each provider has its own login, which means a user name and password.  You really don’t want to use the same account name and password (and most have different requirements surrounding password definitions), and you don’t want to write them down anywhere.  I have a good memory, but I cannot balance dozens of account names and passwords in my head.

So the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to maintain a dozen or more different accounts on different vendors that I use. I understand that Bank of American finds it burdensome to handle my transactions, but that is what a bank is for.  Right???  It sounds like they want my deposits, but don’t want to go through the effort that is required to work with my deposits.

I’ve had issues with Bank of America before.  I would move, but for various reasons several of my accounts are sticky.  But they keep demonstrating again and again that they don’t want my business.  One of these days I may have to accommodate them.

Gita, Carry My Groceries January 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Longtime scooter manufacturer Vespa has apparently announced Piaggio Fast Forward, a division located here in Boston and formed to design and produce a robot called Gita that will carry your groceries.

Ah, no. I realize that there is a certain segment of the population that is aged or infirmed, and might need assistance with their groceries.  I feel for them, but they are few, and many might not be able to afford such a helper.

But for the vast majority of able-bodied adults among us, this smacks as sloth (as in the famed Seven Deadly Sins).  We don’t get enough exercise at it is, and this gives us yet another excuse to pass up on an opportunity to (only occasionally, granted), lift and carry.

Automation generally has good effects, and advances technology and life in general. This is automation without purpose.

I hope that this “innovation” fails miserably.