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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.

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’m Talking About You, Uber September 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The question is what am I talking about. You are so not about a “sharing economy”. Virtually all of your drivers aren’t sharing their daily cars, on their normal day to day business, to accommodate the occasional rider. Instead, they are buying extra cars to turn themselves into the modern equivalent of the taxi driver, without the taxi provided by the company. Calling this the sharing economy is a dangerous misnomer. This is a service, just like a taxi is a service.

But that’s okay, even if you’re not honest about it. At the same time, that’s the drivers’ decisions to make. I don’t think anyone is forcing them into what is essentially a part time business. And most taxi drivers are so-called independent contractors anyway, and are charged by the taxi company for the use of the car.  I am not clear on the economics, but it must work for many.

And certainly the occasional local ride concept was due for some significant disruption. Taxi service is fundamentally stuck in operations that are at least half a century old. It doesn’t work for the consumer any more. Uber works better for the rider (mostly), and can have some advantages for the driver. As well as some disadvantages, depending on decisions made by individual drivers.

The technology makes a difference. You no longer have to call a taxi company; instead, you signal from the app, tell them where you are and where you want to go, and they are generally pretty responsive.

But the technology only enables the work shift you are attempting. My short term guess: you will continue to be pretty successful, because almost everyone who uses taxis also uses smartphones. My long term guess: this is a transitional technology that will be put out of business decisively by the driverless car. I’m sure you’ve thought of that, and are looking to eliminate the middleman; i.e., the driver. This ultimately isn’t a new model for employment, or the so-called sharing economy. You will be first in line for the mass-produced Google car.

I’m not criticizing that, but I am criticizing your fundamental dishonesty in long term goals. You are not about the worker or the so-called sharing economy. You are about the disruption. You continue to lie, but that’s what you’ve done since your inception.

Somehow I Became an Athlete August 17, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Just over a year ago I got a Fitbit. The quantitative feedback afforded by that simple device started me along a path to walking, then running. I ran (mostly walked) my first formal race just about a year ago, a 5K. I’ve run in a handful of others since, and the last two have been highly satisfying from a personal standpoint. The last one has been highly satisfying from a time standpoint.

I was in the hospital just over three months ago, with a dire diagnosis. In a discussion early one morning with one of my doctors, going over my options (I had few, if any at the time), he remarked, “Well, you’re an athlete.”

“Huh?”

He was as nonplussed as I. “You run. You said you ran over three miles yesterday.”

Well, I did, but I didn’t think that made me an athlete. Apparently it did, at least in relation to just about anyone else in my situation (and even my doctors). He explained that exercising gave me a leg up on any surgery I might need, because I was in better shape for recovery.

I declined the major surgery several doctors had recommended, and today, it looks like I don’t need it.

Today, I am increasing my distance, to four or five miles. I have my second 10K run on the horizon, and am now thinking that under the right circumstances, I may actually be able to run a half marathon.

It’s like being a recovering alcoholic, really. I can fall off that wagon too easily. But just maybe I’m getting there. I seem to have redemption possibilities.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

Is Emoji a Universal Language? May 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I was prompted to consider this question by a recent article in Wall Street Journal, which claims that the use of these pictograph characters is growing and is increasingly being used for entire sentences and even messages.

Emoji grew as a way of adding, well, emotions to otherwise dry, text-based email communications. As other ways of distributed communication emerged, emoji migrated to Twitter, Snapchat, and a variety of other distributed communications platforms.

And the number of emoji characters expanded. It’s now possible to express complete thoughts, and even form sentences, using emoji characters. Of course, that is a bit of a misnomer; the emoji “language” is loosely defined, and has variations between devices and fonts. It also lacks certain parts of what we traditionally consider a grammar – articles, adjectives, and adverbs, for example.

By and large, emoji is a good thing. Most interpersonal communications is delivered non-verbally, by volume, tone, or body language. For strictly written communication, they can add a level of emotions that we want to consciously convey.

Of course, that opens the door to a couple of disadvantages. First, we have to consciously add those emotions to our written texts, whether or not we are actually feeling them. We may, in fact, be feeling something completely different, but hide that through the use of emoji. The message recipient doesn’t observe us directly, so it’s impossible to tell.

Second, there are clearly cultural differences in emoji. The practice started in Japan, and there are a number of Japanese emoji characters that have no meaning in other cultures. In some cases, the emotion isn’t clear from the character unless you are born and raised in Japan. Certainly the same must be true of other cultures.

So emoji isn’t a universal language. In fact, it can be a language for further hiding and deception.

But it does show that even our driest communications can have a human side. And in interactions that are more and more electronic, that can’t be a bad thing.

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