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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.

Maybe I Should Just Give In to the Facebook Juggernaut January 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the fact that Facebook keeps active a live stream of a 12-year old committing suicide, yet pulls down a Pulitzer Prize winning historical photograph, the vast majority of the US, and the world in general, seem copasetic with the decisions that Facebook makes about our lives.

I have serious reservations about Facebook, but even more about founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is reported to be looking into a run for the US Presidency in the next election. Someone who publically says that we don’t want privacy in our lives, yet spends millions of dollars in property and legal fees to attempt build a wall around his house, clearly talks out of both sides of his mouth.  It is a classic case of “do what I say, not what I do.”  I’ll actually take that one step further.  Zuckerberg is telling the world that “I want my privacy.  And I can afford it.  You don’t, and you can’t.”

I have yet to ever sign up for Facebook, even though an increasing number of web properties are requiring Facebook user IDs to access their content. And of course, an increasing amount of interesting content is being posted exclusively on Facebook, available only to members.  I still decline, but who am I against two billion other people?

I confess that my flabber is ghasted. Is it just me?  Does no one else see what a heinous effect that Facebook is having on our interactions with other people?  What is it, really?  I am starting to doubt my own judgment that Facebook is something that I can rail against, and achieve some modicum of, well, at least acknowledgement.

I’m asking, no begging. Can someone please explain the almost universal fascination with Facebook?  And if we are concerned about Donald Trump as the US President, we should be horrified at the prospect that Mark Zuckerberg may succeed him.  Imagine a world where we are all required to have Facebook accounts, and to post required information about ourselves.

I would like to think that I have many more years of my life in front of me. Yet I cannot see value in them in the world of Facebook.

Is Cursive Making a Comeback? January 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Anne Quito reported on Quartz about the possibility that more states will be adopting writing requirements that include learning cursive.  I read, now almost five years ago, in Wall Street Journal about how cursive instruction was being cut back or eliminated in several states.  Anne notes that at least a few states may be reversing that trend.

I am at the other side of spectrum of life, and have been removed from innovations in public school instruction for quite some time. But today I almost never write anything longhand, but I can sign my name.  And I can read the Declaration of Independence, which is one of the stated reasons for studying cursive.

Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, but I find it fascinating that such a cultural icon as cursive may be struggling for survival. More so, I wonder what we may be losing if we lose cursive.  That may be a biased question, in that I am assuming we are losing something.  Others may be a bit more sanguine about the whole thing.

Are we losing the ability to read, in the original, significant writings of the past? It’s not clear to me that not writing in cursive is the same thing as not being able to read it, but if it is, yes, we are losing something tangible.

Less tangible, but every bit as real, is that we generally consider handwritten notes more personal and heartfelt than an electronic equivalent.

What’s even less clear is what we are gaining. The Wall Street Journal article from several years ago reported that the state of Indiana was going to stop teaching cursive, in favor of teaching typing.  Really?  I don’t mean to sound incredulous, well, yes I do.  I realize there are certain skills involved (mainly motor skills that do not well relate to cursive), but I learned typing in about a semester of 50-minute classes, well enough to still do about 40 words a minute.

In 1958, the late great Isaac Asimov wrote a short story about world that had used only calculators for hundreds of years, and a man who knew how to perform arithmetic longhand.  The man was looked upon as a savant, and it gave him, as the title notes, “A Feeling of Power.”

Someday, somewhere, someone who can read historical documents may well have the same feeling.

Where Were You? December 28, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I was nineteen years old, in Air Force officer basic training, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, when the original Star Wars movie made it to the theaters. I had a 24 hour (actually less) pass, Saturday afternoon, a group of us visited the local movie theater in Dover.  The line stretched halfway around the block, but oddly later at night the theater was only half full, and I saw my first Star Wars.

What to say about Star Wars? It was about the adventure.  For those of us who grew up with science fiction, Isaac Asimov, Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13, and more, this was our vision of our future.  A future that we would never see, but a future that we could dream about.

And, of course, this is really about Carrie Fisher, now passed before her time. I didn’t realize it, she was only a year older than me.  Nineteen years old, in that movie.  She had issues, certainly, and may not have been all that she could have, but that counts just about all of us.  She did more than most of us.

And she was a strong woman, as Princess Leia and as Carrie Fisher. As Leia, she showed us, in the 1970s, that women could be heroes.  As Carrie, she showed us that you could be comfortable in your skin, no matter how famous.  I’ve known many strong women, and I wish I had known her.

Bully for Carrie Fisher.

Alexa, Delete My Data December 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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As we become inundated this holiday season by Amazon ads for its EchoDot voice system and Alexa artificial intelligent assistant, I confess I remain conflicted about the potential and reality of AI technology in our lives.

To be sure, the Alexa commercials are wonderful. For those of us who grew up under the influence of George Jetson (were they really only on TV for one season?), Alexa represents the realization of something that we could only dream about for the last 50+ years.  Few of us can afford a human assistant, but the intelligent virtual assistant is a reality.  The future is now!

It’s only when you think it through that it becomes more problematic. A necessary corollary to an intelligent virtual assistant is that assistant has enough data about you to recognize what are at times ambiguous instructions.  And by having that data, and current information about us, we could imagine issues with instructions like these:

“Alexa, I’m just going out for a few minutes; don’t bother setting the burglar alarm.”

“Alexa, turn the temperature down to 55 until January 15; I won’t be home.”

I’m sure that Google already has a lot of information on me. I rarely log into my Google account, but it identifies me anyway, so it knows what I search for.  And Google knows my travel photos, through Picasa.  Amazon also identifies me without logging in, but I don’t buy a lot through Amazon, so its data is less complete.  Your own mileage with these and other data aggregators may vary.

To be fair, the US government currently and in the past has been in possession of an incredible amount of information on most adults. I have held jobs and am a taxpayer; I have a driver’s license (and pilot’s license, for that matter); I am a military veteran; and I’ve held government security clearances.

I’d always believed that my best privacy protection was the fact that government databases didn’t talk to one another. The IRS didn’t know, and didn’t care, whether or not my military discharge was honorable (it was).  Yeah.  That may have been true at one time, but it is changing.  Data exchange between government agencies won’t be seamless in my lifetime, but it is heading, slowly but exorably in that direction.

And the commercial firms are far more efficient. Google and Facebook today know more about us than anyone might imagine.  Third party data brokers can make our data show up in the strangest places.

And lest you mistake me, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. There are tradeoffs in every action we take.  Rather, it’s something that we let happen without thinking about it.  We can come up with all sorts of rationalizations on why we love the convenience and efficiency, but rarely ponder the other side of the coin.

I personally try to think about the implications every time I release data to a computer, and sometimes decline to do so (take that, Facebook). And in some cases, such as my writings and conference talks, I’ve made career decisions that I am well aware make more data available on me.  I haven’t yet decided on Alexa, but I am certainly not going to be an early adopter.

Update: Oh my. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/28/tech/amazon-echo-alexa-bentonville-arkansas-murder-case-trnd/index.html