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There is Less to Free College Than Meets the Eye June 25, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I am an incredibly strong believer in higher education.  Higher education vaulted me from a life of blue-collar servitude into the middle class and likely beyond.  The discipline and long term vision inherent in the work required to get a degree, in any field, enormously helps people no matter where they end up.

(As someone who earned advanced degrees in both natural and social sciences, I have my own opinion on rigor.  Both have rigor.  However, you can bluff your way through a psychology test; you can’t in a math test.)

So as I read about Bernie Sanders’ plan to cancel $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt, I thought about Boris.  Boris, a part time tour guide in Copenhagen, was both an insider and an outsider in his society.  He was a Danish born citizen, but the son of a Russian father and Korean mother.  At 26, he had a degree in sociology, in a country where all education was free.  “I got a degree without knowing what I wanted to do with it, or with my life,” he told us.  “Because it was free, I didn’t stop to think where I wanted to go from there.”  At the time we met him, he was in vocational training to become a carpenter (also free).

I don’t like the phrase “skin in the game,” but if you are paying for something, or borrowing and expected to pay for it in the future, you tend not to spend unwisely.  And while Sanders’ plan might let many (all) students begin their adult lives with a clean slate, I’m suspecting that there might be the tendency to produce professional students.

We don’t have to work in the field where we get a degree (most of my degrees don’t apply here).  But planning and budgeting, and compromising on other aspects of life, play a role in university, degree, and success.  With a free ride, you don’t have to worry about doing that.  While it’s not a prerequisite for getting a degree, such compromises should be a part of an adult life.


The Balance Between Promotion and Privacy June 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Uncategorized.
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I have a (very) minor, and I hope positive, reputation in technology.  I’ve authored many articles and spoken at dozens of tech conferences over the past decade or so.  I am occasionally called upon as a subject matter expert to advise investors, present webinars, and author opinions about various aspects of software and their accompanying systems.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned for my privacy.  Other than a seminal moment in my personal heath, several years ago, and one or two nondenominational political statements (we all must take a stand in some fashion), I comment on technology issues.  I would like to think I do so with thought and sensitivity, and I like to think that my ideas have been on the leading edge on a number of occasions.

I do a modest job of promoting myself, through my blog (this one), Twitter (https://twitter.com/pvarhol), and LinkedIn (never Facebook), because I hope it helps my career (such as it is) in some fashion.

But at the same time I am concerned that public or Internet exposure could invite violations of privacy.  You may think that I have given up any call to privacy once I participated in social media, and you may well be correct, but I think about every foray I make on the Internet and how it may affect my privacy.

I am not so stupid as to believe that I can keep much about me to myself.  Once others have access to some information, they can likely get other stuff.  With too much transparency, you are opening yourself up to data theft, financial fraud, and reputational damage.

And this is the fundamental reason I will never sign up for Facebook.  With Facebook, you are the product, and never forget that.  Despite years of promises, Facebook has sold, given to so-called partners, or simply had stolen data from tens of millions of users.  Yet we seem to be okay with that.  I talk to many people who say “I only use Facebook to keep track of old friends”, but the fact of the matter is they often do much more.  I know that despite my non-participation, I have exposure to Facebook, due to updates and photos from friends.  When asked, I beg them not to use my image or name, but they rarely comply.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who is trying to work through the compromise of visibility and privacy.  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that an important part is to not have anything to do with Facebook.  As for the rest, I can only advise to weigh the risks versus the benefits carefully.

We are quickly headed toward a society where little if any information about ourselves will be owned and controlled by us.  Many of us try to practice “security through obscurity”, or trying to hide in the weeds of everyone else, but in an era of Big Data analytics, it will be a piece of cake to pinpoint and take advantage of us.  I try to remediate where I can, but I’m not prepared for this world.

The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need June 3, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Circa 1980, I was 22 years old (more or less) and had recently collected my first paycheck as an Air Force Second Lieutenant.  Now my parents, Pete and Ann, never graduated high school and were financial illiterates, and I had no idea what to do with that paycheck.  At the time, I lived in the Baltimore suburbs, in a row house in a blue collar neighborhood that reflected my upbringing.  Across the street was a community park where I did my first distance running, and on the other side of the park was the Brooklyn Park Public Library.

I made use of the library to check out books on personal financial planning.  I came across several books by Andrew Tobias, including The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need, and Getting By On $100,000 a Year (in 1976, when the book was first published, that was quite a feat).  I knew that Tobias had my blue collar heart in mind when his very first advice, before the era of Costco and Sams Club, was “buy in bulk.”

From there, Tobias led me on a journey from the most basic of cost saving exercises to some of the more sophisticated (for individuals) strategies, all with an easy to understand description and tone.  I never did options, puts, or calls, but I know what they are, thanks to Tobias.

Today, thanks in large part to reading these books, I am easily ready to retire if I choose (I choose not to).  I’ve not had a mortgage in over 20 years, and I will likely never starve unless Fidelity Investments goes out of business.

We decry the lack of personal financial training in our school systems, including college, but it’s easy enough for young people to teach themselves.  Simply, read books like this.

The Problems With Seasteading April 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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It’s a new word, at least to me, and refers to establishing a residence outside of any national boundary, generally at sea.  Chad Elwartowski, a US citizen, and his Thai girlfriend, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet built a home on the water outside of Thailand territorial waters (but within the country’s economic zone).  Thailand wasn’t amused, revoked Elwartowski’s visa, and are towing the ‘home’ to land (the residents apparently abandoned it the previous day).

It sounds free and in a way romantic, but isn’t practical by any means.  You may think that you avoid taxes and live outside of a structured legal system, but you are giving up much more than you are gaining.

So let’s list just a few things that can go wrong.

  1. Your transportation or communication fails. The assistance you need is relatively minor but very necessary.  You may think you can pay for it, until you get the bill.  And that bill is likely far larger than any tax bill you may have gotten over the years.
  2. You are attacked and kidnapped by pirates. You may think that is foolish, but these waters are among the most pirate-infested in the world.  Absolutely no legal national entity in the world will go to bat for you.
  3. A storm renders your home unlivable. These are also among the stormiest waters in the world.  You’re hanging onto a piece of debris, hoping that rescue is on the horizon.  But because you have rejected all legal entities, there is no reason for any nation to lift a hand.
  4. You are sick or injured, and need assistance. There are humanitarian services, but if you are nationless, it becomes more difficult to call on them.
  5. You want to order takeout pizza. Just kidding, but yes, you are giving up conveniences like that too.

We may debate the value of what we get from our tax dollars, but emergency services are usually available when we need them.  If you are in dire need, you probably think that nations will help you anyway.  To which I say, “Why?”  You want freedom, such as it is, but you also want someone there to backstop you.  Ain’t gonna happen.

About Social Media, User-Generated Content, and Getting Out of This Hole April 13, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Facebook considers itself a platform for anything that its users want to post that others can see.  As we know, that was always a pipe dream, because if you open a platform to any age, race, sex, and so on, you have to be cognizant of what people feel comfortable seeing, and are legally allowed to see (and post).

You may think that anyone should be able to see anything, but long-standing laws don’t work like that.  And those laws take into account institutional hate and content for children, which Facebook actively promotes.  So these so-called platforms have to do some curation, although they are fighting it tooth and nail.  Not because it’s not right, but because it’s expensive.

Facebook has disingenuously divorced themselves from that entire discussion, saying we will remove content if you tell us about it, and will use AI otherwise (yes, they say that they have curators, but treat them like shit, and the AI is barely functional).  But it’s your job, not ours, they say.  And when they fail so miserably, as they did with New Zealand, they simply say that we’ll do better next time.  But if you’ve been paying attention, they never do.

So, much as I would like to, I can’t shut up Facebook and Zuckerberg, because you keep wanting to believe them.  Is there an answer?  I think so, but it is one that will never fly with the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s like the network versus cable channels.  Free network TV intended for a broad audience has to meet community standards.  If you want risqué, or hate, or violence, you pay to have a much smaller (paid) circulation.

But Zuckerberg wants it all, hate, violence, and everything, because he never learned how to share.  And we are giving it to him.

The Do-It-Yourself Economy March 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am guessing that the do-it-yourself economy started with pumping your own gas in the 1970s.  In my mid-20s, ATM machines started to become ubiquitous.

The Internet and Web opened the doors to entirely new ways of business process reengineering.  Airlines pioneered it by letting you select flights and buy tickets online, and soon other modes of transportation followed.  Today, retail, finance, transportation, and a host of other industries have become more efficient by asking the customer to do more.

Some people complain that if consumers are helping the companies, they need to be compensated, rather than having the effects of customer work go directly to the companies’ bottom line.  I get it, but I think that is a misguided attitude.

These transformations could not have happened without the active agreement and participation of consumers.  If we declined to switch over to the transformed service systems, these companies would have had no choice but to revert to old practices.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) notes the amazing contributions of thousand of volunteers to the Waze traffic app.  In some cases, they spend 30 or 40 hours a week updating maps with new information on streets, road construction, accidents, and traffic problems.  The comments to this article are pretty skewed toward the dubious use of their time in doing so.

Where I grew up in western Pennsylvania, our rural township had an all-volunteer fire department.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but according to the Wall Street Journal even today volunteer fire departments constitute 90 percent of all such departments in Pennsylvania, even though the training requirements are much more rigorous today.  The fact that people are still volunteering (albeit less than in the past as we become less engaged with our physical communities), says that for them it’s not at all about giving away their services.

In the do-it-yourself economy, it turns out that people like flexibility and being in control of their own experiences.  In my youth, to book a flight you had to visit a travel agent (or the airport), and accept the schedule and fares presented, without the ability to see others (you could have asked, but almost never gotten a complete answer).  Today, we can sit in front of our computers at midnight, and compare and select our own flights.  We pull up to a pump and service our own car, rather than waiting around for someone to do it for us.  And so on.  It’s like that in every industry that has transformed in this manner.

And volunteers see tangible results of giving away their services in support of a larger cause.  Fires are put out, children and adults are trained in fire protection, and people spend less time sitting in traffic.

It’s almost universally acknowledged that volunteering improves mental health and quality of life.  In a larger sense, having a hobby has a multitude of life benefits.  It’s not about giving away your services; it’s about improving your life and health.

Softly Falls the Light of Day February 19, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As I get older, I think about the institutional influences in my youth and how I react to them today.  Beyond my family, I claim two, perhaps three – the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, and perhaps Junior Achievement (which I did for three years in high school).  I did the full Boy Scout thing – Cub Scouts, Webelos, Boy Scouts (Allegheny Trails Council Troop 466, neither the troop nor the council exists today), and was actually an Assistant Scoutmaster (Troop 244, don’t remember the council) while in college.

And yes, I am an Eagle Scout, and was a Senior Patrol Leader for my troop.  I met fellow Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong (I will be very disappointed if you don’t know the name) twice, once because he came to speak to my cohort of Eagle Scouts at the Allegheny Trails Council in 1973, and once outside the Delta Sky Club in Cincinnati, 30 years later.

I didn’t particularly care for camping on the hard (often winter) ground, and haven’t done it since my Air Force days, but I think I learned something from it.

Life has not been particularly kind to the Boy Scouts (and to at least some individual boy scouts) in the intervening time.  There have been issues regarding not admitting openly gay boys, child abuse scandals with Scout leadership, and the question of girls in the Boy Scouts.

Don’t laugh; while I certainly was not a part of the scouting network, girls felt the stigma of being left off the boys’ team.  And no, at least in the 1980s and beyond, it was not right.

As an adult, I’m not okay with any of this, of course.  The Boy Scouts could and should have gotten in front of these issues before they came to roost, but like most bureaucratic organizations, choose to wait until they were forced to.  And there is pushback, by those who think their traditions are crumbling, or by those who have their own prejudices.  Today, they are the Scouts, BSA, accepting girls, even as the Girl Scouts object in court.  It is a difficult dilemma.

To be fair, the Boy Scouts never claimed moral superiority, unlike the Catholic Church, the other primary institution of my youth.  And others remain as pleased as ever with the Catholic Church, despite its obvious shortcomings.  Rather, the Scouts did offer a fundamental grounding in good citizenship, and self-reliance.  It was innocuous insofar as other moral judgments were concerned.

So tonight, as on most nights, I will ask Alexa to play Taps (yes, I was also in the military), and she will, with the Marine Corps Band.  And I contemplate the value of my existence.

Then I whisper the Scout Vespers.

Softly falls the light of day
While our camp fire fades away
Silently scouts should ask
Have I done my daily tasks?

Have I kept my honor bright?
Can I go to sleep tonight
Oh have I done and have I dared
Everything to be prepared?

The day ends with a question.  As well it should.

The Evolution of Finding Aircraft January 30, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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In 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near their Howland Island destination in their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra.  The only navigation aids available at that time were the compass and dead reckoning (there was also a radio beacon on Howland, which they apparently never picked up).  While there are indications that Earhart crash-landed on or near Gardner Island, well to the south of Howland, it’s still not proven fact.

In 1996, a Learjet 35A disappeared near Dorchester, New Hampshire, in the United States, attempting to land at Lebanon NH airport.  There was radar contact with the plane, and the plane itself had navigation equipment that enabled it to use VOR for landing.  I selected this example because despite the fact that it happened during the day in relatively populated northeast United States, it took three years to find the crash site.

And, of course, we all know about Malaysia Airlines 370, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, somehow seems to have ended up crashing in the southern Indian Ocean, several thousand miles in the opposite direction.  The main debris field has never been found, but some positively identified debris has washed up on the shores of Reunion, Madagascar, and southern Africa.

People find it amazing that we can’t find lost aircraft under these circumstances, and we create conspiracy theories about the loss, but just about all of the technology deployed to date presumes than an aircraft wants to be found, or defaults to being found.  When you squawk your assigned four-digit code on your transponder, you are positively identified.  If you turn off your transponder, you are just another blip on the radar screen.

And, of course, radar doesn’t cover large stretches of ocean; it’s a line-of-sight technology.  We’ve never conceived of the need for positive control over all aspects of flight, because we thought that airliners would have the opportunity to communicate, even in distress.

The answer seems to be satellites, specifically designed to track aircraft around the globe.  In today’s world, we need to know where every aircraft is, and what that aircraft is doing.  Better satellite technology will hopefully get us there.