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Uber Bullshit Disapproved October 28, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think it’s safe to say that Uber is full of BS. In this report, it heralds the availability of providing personal aircraft commuting options to consumers by 2020.  The article actually treats it as serious news.  I want to giggle.

I don’t even know where to begin. The article cites regulatory issues, but it is far more than simply that.  The regulations exist largely for safety and identity purposes, and any talk of regulation has to devolve into the many very good reasons behind them.  These are regulations that Uber can flout, as they have so many others.

It actually says that the costs are feasible, as long as the aircraft are self-piloting. Um, no, they aren’t.  Here’s why.

Pilots. That is the one cost that is actually manageable.  There is a plethora of 23-year old pilots with their newly-minted commercial ticket who would rather be doing this than picking up an occasional buck giving flying lessons.  They are not the expensive part of flying; they will do this for $20 an hour.  The actual manufacturing cost of the planes isn’t the gating factor either, even though even the most basic new private plane goes for about a quarter of a million USD.

Where is the cost? Liability insurance.  Liability insurance makes up over 30 percent of the cost of a new private plane, which is why private planes are no longer made in the US.  All of our private aircraft come from companies in Europe, where liability laws are different, and presumably much less expensive.

I know something about flying and aviation. I also know something about the history of personal flight, thanks to my father’s 1960s-era subscriptions to Popular Science magazine.

In a larger sense, we regulate aviation because unregulated flying is, well, dangerous. Flying is a serious endeavor that does not easily lend itself to simply getting a ride.  If your plane runs out of gas or has a mechanical issue, you can’t simply pull to the side of the road.  When I got my driver’s license, the instructor said, “Now you have the right to get yourself into an accident.”  When I got my pilot’s license, it was considerably more involved and serious.  No one wanted me to get killed; it would involve too much paperwork.

And weather. Enough said.  The ability to fly under instrument conditions is an entirely different kettle of fish, both for the plane and the pilot.  It takes years for a pilot to fully comprehend flying in inclement weather.

Leave it to automation, you say? Um, no.  Ultimately, there has to be a human in the loop, and that won’t change for at least half a century, if ever.  And remember that this problem is at least a factor of ten (probably more like a factor of 100) more difficult than self-driving cars, which have the luxury of operating in only two dimensions.

I could go on further, but this is already fantasy.

I’m not sure why Uber felt the need to commission and publish such a study, but it is nonsensical.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is? October 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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That iconic line from the song of the same name by the rock group Chicago popped into my head as I pondered my next step with fitness trackers.  It seems that Microsoft is indeed discontinuing the Band (bastards), and I have to find another way forward.

(And if you’ve not listened to Chicago, also known as Chicago Transit Authority, do yourself a favor. There is a reason why they have sold more albums than anyone else in history.)

I have a pretty good idea of what I need in a new device:

  1. Steps, floors, GPS, running, heart rate.  Sleep would be nice, as long as it was automated.
  2. Integration with Android, and notifications from Android.  Phone and texts, with options for others.
  3. Time.

The last item turns out to be fascinating. At Mobile Dev and Test this past spring, Caeden COO Skip Orvis presented information on a fascinating device called Sona that looked at heart rate variability, a measure of both health and stress.  I would have bought the device when it came out, but I had a question:  “Does it tell time?”

I meant it as a joke, but it was no joke. It turns out that is doesn’t have a display, and doesn’t tell time.  Virtually everyone in the audience objected, because no one wants to wear multiple devices on their wrist.

This prompted me to look into the history of the wristwatch.  It seemed for several years that the wristwatch was dying, but because of the Apple watch and activity trackers in general, seems to be making a comeback.

Today, I wear my Band at all times when it is not recharging (which, frankly, is often; Microsoft acknowledges that the battery won’t even last long enough to run a half marathon with the GPS engaged). It is sleek and unobtrusive, and passes through airport security just like a wristwatch.  It syncs readily with my Android phone.

Today, there are many comparable devices (most of which are more expensive than the Band), but I need to choose one with the features I need. Any ideas?

Varhol’s Corollary to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle August 29, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m back to reading Sherry Turkle’s wonderful Reclaiming Conversation, and quite a bit of it is thought-provoking.  I’m trying to apply some of the lessons here to technology teams, but in the meantime, I’m drawing some independent lessons from her excellent tome.

Turkle notes that youth go to parties, then immediately start texting others to make sure they are at the right party, the “best” one. The idea, presumably, is to find that one best party and grace it with one’s presence.

Now on to Heisenberg. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the very act of measure an activity out of necessity affects it in some way.  By attempting to measure something, we are making ourselves an actor in that activity.

Of course, Heisenberg was largely referring to the relative position of particles in quantum physics, but it’s reasonable to apply generalizations of this statement to other domains. My corollary applies to the realm of social behavior.  It says that one’s presence at a party affects the quality of that party, whether or not you are seeking alternatives.

While I will attempt to quantify this relationship for an upcoming academic paper, it is clear that if you go to a party and do nothing other than seek another party, you are worsening the experience for everyone at your current party. My corollary says that it’s not just the party; it is how you interact with the party.

If you interact well, you will believe you are at the best party. If you interact poorly, any party you end up at will be below your, um, expectations.  So by being there, and taking your own behavior into account, you directly influence the quality of the party by your own measurements.

In other words, your own presence and behavior has a direct and strong impact on your enjoyment.

Surprised? Neither am I.

Is a Car Just a Car? August 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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At this time of my life, yes. My transportation is an 18-year old Subaru that just starts every time.  But 25 years ago, I owned a classic Corvette.  L-82, large bore V-8.  If I could think it, that car could deliver on it.  As a teen, I had an old Chevy sedan that moved okay, and let me join the other teens in doing whatever we did with cars.

Uber entire business model is based on the assumption that a car is only transportation.  I can hail a whatever sedan Uber sends me to get from here to there.  I am pretty much in sync with that, because I need to get from here to there, reliably and more or less on time.  I certainly don’t do it in any fancy way.

But I am not everyone. Most news/magazine websites still have an automotive section, and paper magazines like Car and Driver and Automotive News still sell well.  Many people like cars, and have an emotional attachment to them.  There is a certain beauty in the lines of many cars, and car ownership still remains a reachable dream for youth and adults alike.

If Uber fails, here is where it will happen. For some, perhaps many, travel is not a commodity.  The journey is the reward, as Steve Jobs had once said.  To many, this is the literal truth.

Uber is selling a way to get from here to there. That’s not a bad thing.  But in the case of cars, it is nowhere near everything.  Chevy sells tens of thousands of Corvettes every year.  Other attractive, fast, and functional cars sell in the millions.  They do so not because people need them, in many cases, but because they want them.

Uber works when the alternative is hailing a cab, and its advantage there will be reduced once it starts charging full price, rather than providing a subsidy on its rates.

But some people (many people?) need more than that. I don’t happen to be one of them, at this point in my life (though given my location, I still don’t use Uber), but I can still appreciate the sentiment.  I don’t know that Uber will fail, because there is still a significant population that requires only occasional transport from one point to another.

But it is a crack in the business model. I don’t think any cultural shift that occurs will happen that fast or that completely to make cars simply transportation for many people.  How many people could decide whether Uber is a global force or merely a taxi company.

And Just Whose Bright Idea Was This? August 7, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Brilliant! What more can be said here?  The Social Security Administration (they have their own exit ramp, off of Interstate 695 west of Baltimore) were under a mandate to improve security.

Okay, I get that, but their solution was to implement two-factor security using a challenge-response based on a phone text code.  This is the only way you can access your account online.

This is where this seriously goes off the rails. It requires a mobile phone capable of sending and receiving texts.  According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of adult Americans have cell phones (whether or not they text is a different story), but only 78 percent of seniors, who might be most interested

The Social Security Administration recognizes that not everyone has a cell phone, but claimed not to be able to implement any other solution.

Um, no. My primary (maybe) bank, Bank of America, does a challenge-response access.  You type in your account name, it comes back with a glyph that you have chosen to represent you with the bank.  The purpose of the glyph is to assure you that you haven’t been redirected to a bogus site that wants to phish for your passwords and financial information.  Only after you have verified that the glyph is yours do you enter your password.  That approach is ultimately simpler than the text-based security system.

You may not have a cell phone for a variety of reasons, including no reception in your area (many rural areas of the US lack widespread cellular service). Probably those who grew up with landlines may feel less a need to carry a phone around with them, which also speaks of an older generation.

I don’t believe that the Social Security Administration was limited to a text-based security solution. On the surface, this seems to be yet another example of government not serving its constituents, because they don’t have to.

Another Old Line Conglomerate Gets It Wrong August 4, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I seem to be taking my curmudgeon role seriously. Today I read that Jeff Immelt, longtime CEO of industrial conglomerate GE, says that every new (young) person hired has to learn how to code.

So many things to say here. First, I have never been a proponent of the “everyone can code” school.  No, let me amend that; everyone can probably learn to code, but is that the best and most productive use of their time?  I would guess not.

Second, I’m sure that in saying that Immelt has put his money where his mouth is, and has gotten his own coding skills together. No?  Well, he’s the boss, so he should be setting the example.

This is just stupid, and I am willing to bet a dollar that GE won’t follow through on this idle boast. Not even the most Millennial-driven, Silicon Valley-based, we’re so full of ourselves startup tech company would demand that every employee know how to code.

And no company needs all of their employees to be spending time on a single shared skill that only a few will actually use. GE needs to focus on hiring the best people possible for hundreds of different types of professional jobs.  It may be an advantage for all of them to have some level of aptitude for understanding how software works, but not coding shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

I have worked at larger companies where grandiose strategies have been announced and promoted, but rarely if ever followed through. This pronouncement is almost certainly for PR purposes only, and will quietly get shelved sooner rather than later.  And making such a statement does no credit whatsoever to Immelt, who should know better.

Being a Curmudgeon Has its Benefits August 1, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I occasionally wax personal in my blog, as I did a year ago when I was facing a serious cancer diagnosis (the diagnosis was ultimately incorrect, and I am healthier than ever). Occasionally I just have to say something about a particular moment, whether or not it relates to my target blog topics.

This morning I got a regular email newsletter from Marc Cendella of The Ladders, a job search service for salaries over $100K.  The title was “When the kid interviewing you says you’re too old…”  In it, Cendella says that age discrimination in hiring is prevalent, and offers the older job seeker a checklist of items to attempt to overcome that bias.

Here is where I call a foul. Certainly there are things that a job seeker can do in order to make him- or her self appear to be a better fit for a given job.  In general, those things range from the common-sensical (be engaged and current in your profession and energetic in your life pursuits) to the absurd (facelifts and hair coloring).

But it’s a two-way street. Why not also suggest to the hiring managers that they might have a bias that is not well serving their organization, and how they might recognize and correct that deficiency?

Oh, that’s right. Businesses like The Ladders make money from those companies doing the hiring, not from job seekers.  The Ladders would rather tell the job seeker to change, rather than the hiring manager.

I would imagine that in a lengthy career spanning a dozen or more jobs and dozens of interviews, I have experienced some types of bias and discrimination. Probably everyone has; we tend to form initial impressions of someone we just met in under a second, and those first impressions can be both unconscious and difficult to overcome.

Bias in hiring is particularly difficult to demonstrate, as there could be any reason or no reason to not be selected for a job. The prospective employer certainly isn’t telling (usually), so most of this left to speculation or inference, and not even worth considering, let alone actionable.

But I found this newsletter from The Ladders to be singularly offensive. I instinctively interpreted it as “It’s not my problem that I am biased, it’s yours in that you are too old.”  I deeply resent that Cendella says that it’s a problem for job-seekers, rather than a problem for hiring managers (or for both).  If hiring managers let such biases creep into their decision process, they are doing both themselves and their organization a serious disservice.

I have always been sanguine about bias in hiring. My attitude has been that if I am discounted because of a personal characteristic outside of my control, it’s a place I probably wouldn’t want to work at anyway.

The fact of the matter is that unless we die young, or hit the jackpot, we are all destined to become older workers. Everyone, deal with it.

I Bought Another Band; I am not Sure Why July 31, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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My original Microsoft Band, a nice and relatively inexpensive fitness tracker and GPS, is disintegrating before my eyes. The wristband is peeling and falling apart, and I doubt it will last much longer.  It is getting more difficult to charge, as the charging cable seems to have trouble engaging with the device.

My Band is just over a year old, and I would expect any electronic to last longer, perhaps much longer (I still own a VCR, after all). I do use it almost daily, and wear it constantly except when charging (which it requires almost daily).  I would like to tell Microsoft that, for all of its functionality at a reasonable price, it is an inferior product.

But I did so in a strange way; I just bought a new one. It is a Band 2, which by most accounts seems to be on the way out in favor of a possibly compelling Band 3, but I could not wait three months for that product to ship.  I think my current model has about another 2-4 weeks of life ahead.

So for a product that is disintegrating after just over a year of use, why have I doubled down? Especially in a market where fitness trackers are mostly a dime a dozen, and I could choose another among many?

Yes, familiarity is one part of that answer. I know how to use it.  Don’t discount that as a significant motivator.  If I have to spend time learning a new feature set, I may take a while to get up to speed.

It is customizable. Within a fairly wide range, I can set up the type of information I want it to display.  And I rather like the Microsoft Health app.  While it may not be superior, it is easy to use within a fairly wide range of fitness activities.  And it was my first experience with notifications from my phone (texts, incoming calls, voice mail), which I can’t really do without any more.

And while I complain at the rate at which my Band is falling apart, I also realize that fitness and activity technology is changing rapidly. I hope to have more compelling technology in the next purchase, and at a lower price.

Update: I bought my sister a Band 2 for Christmas 2015, and explained to her that I bought a new one because mine was falling apart.  Her response: “Mine disintegrated last month, the clasp came completely apart.  I did buy a new one, because I like it.”  At least mine lasted a year.