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What Do We Want in Our News Media? July 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Well, there is a loaded question if I ever heard one, especially during this interminably dragging election season in the US. News has changed greatly since my youth, I think somewhat for the better.  I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite (barely), and was a young adult with the likes of Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.  My newspapers consisted of the Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Press.  Print, of course, either picked up at the pharmacy or delivered in the vicinity of the door.

I am certainly familiar with all of the downsides of our current news delivery. A variety of delivery sources means that we can choose one that represents our point of view, reaffirming our world view and stunting our knowledge growth.  And the proliferation of news outlets means that there is no time or money (and sometimes no inclination) for copy editing or fact checking, so we are engaged in a real-life rendition of “Believe It or Not”.

And the so-called newsrooms! At times it seems like the protagonists are more interested in bantering with each other rather than conveying information to their audience.  Of course, that is largely the fault of their employers, who today view news delivery as a source of entertainment.

But let’s not forget the positives. We can get news as it is breaking, not on a network or newspaper schedule.  I think that has awakened more people to their connection with the larger world around them.  News is less filtered; let me explain that one.  When half an hour at 6 or 11, or a daily newspaper, was our only way of getting news.  Out of necessity, news was rationed; and we never knew who did the rationing.  Who gave us our world view?  I didn’t know it at the time, but of course it had to be.

The ability to select from multiple news sources gives us the ability to see the same event from different perspectives, giving us a more complete picture of events. I’ve appreciated the reporting of Al Jazeera, for example, because of the complete different take on a lot of Middle Eastern news.  Not that one or the other is correct or incorrect, but rather it’s what they emphasize or downplay that is interesting.

I can’t speak for others, of course, but over the years perusing the Internet I’ve determined what I look for in news. For my needs, I have Felix Salmon to thank, for the period in which he blogged for Reuters.  To be clear, I rarely agreed with anything Felix said.  But his range of interests, and his ability to explain, meant that almost every day I learned something new.  I don’t have to agree with his point of view in order to discover new things.

In the same vein, I would add Justin Fox and Barbara Kiviat, former Curious Capitalist columnists at Time magazine.  Barbara in particular had a penchant for objectively looking at data, and could weave a story out of statistics like few others.  The web publication Quartz also enthralls me, for its ability to go in depth in an incredibly wide variety of topics.

Artificial Intelligence and the Real Kind July 11, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Uncategorized.
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Over the last couple of months, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to robots, artificial intelligence, and the potential for replacing human thought and action. A part of that comes from the announcement by the European Union that it had drafted a “bill of rights” for robots as potential cyber-citizens of a more egalitarian era.  A second part comes from my recent article on TechBeacon, which I titled “Testing a Moving Target”.

The computer scientist in me wants to say “bullshit disapproved”. Computer programs do what we instruct them to do, no more or no less.  We can’t instruct them to think, because we can’t algorithmically (or in any other way) define thinking.  There is no objective or intuitive explanation for human thought.

The distinction is both real and important. Machines aren’t able to look for anything that their programmers don’t tell them to (I wanted to say “will never be able” there, but I have given up the word “never” in informed conversation).

There is, of course, the Turing Test, which generally purports a way to determine whether you are interacting with a real person or computer program.  In limited ways, a program (Eliza was the first, but it was an easy trick) can fool a person.

Here is how I think human thought is different than computer programming. I can look at something seemingly unstructured, and build a structure out of it.  A computer can’t, unless I as a programmer tell it what to look for.  Sure, I can program generic learning algorithms, and have a computer run data through those algorithms to try to match it up as closely as possible.  I can run an almost infinite number of training sequences, as long as I have enough data on how the system is supposed to behave.

Of course, as a human I need the imagination and experience to see patterns that may be hidden, and that others can’t see. Is that really any different than algorithm training (yes, I’m attempting to undercut my own argument)?

I would argue yes. Our intelligence is not derived from thousands of interactions with training data.  Rather, well, we don’t really know where it comes from.  I’ll offer a guess that it comes from a period of time in which we observe and make connections between very disparate bits of information.  Sure, the neurons and synapses in our brain may bear a surface resemblance to the algorithms of a neural network, and some talent accrues through repetition, but I don’t think intelligence necessarily works that way.

All that said, I am very hesitant to declare that machine intelligence may not one day equal the human kind. Machines have certain advantages over us, such as incredible and accessible data storage capabilities, as well as almost infinite computing power that doesn’t have to be used on consciousness (or will it?).  But at least today and for the foreseeable future, machine intelligence is likely to be distinguishable from the organic kind.

A Couple of Thoughts About Brexit June 24, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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“listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”

That is a line from a poem by e. e. cummings, and one that I used in my youth. I became interested in e. e. cummings for a while sometime in junior high school, possibly because he tended to break rules, such as those on capitalization.

Still, for most of today, I shrugged at the thought of Brexit. I never really noticed that Britain was a part of the E.U., having to go through security at Schiphol for some odd reason, and still pass through Customs and Immigration yet again at Heathrow. And, of course, the currency. I enjoyed telling people about my experience with the E.U, whereby I visited Belgium, the U.K., Switzerland, and Bulgaria on a trip, and didn’t understand the concept of a single currency (those countries represent four different currencies. While Switzerland isn’t a member of the E.U., they are a Schengen country, so I didn’t have to pass through Immigration in Zurich.)

But e. e. cummings reminded me that there is a big universe out there, and that we should endeavor to visit much of it. And as easily as possible.

And then I thought of “Ich bin ein Berliner“, the quote used by John Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963. “I am a citizen of Berlin”, emphatically making the point that we all have a shared interest in freedom.

At that at some point in the near future, citizens of the U. K. will not be able to say “I am a European”. There is a shared interest there, too. And a need to visit the rest of the universe.

It just got more difficult.

We Got the Picture June 20, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am no stranger to football cultures. Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett was two years ahead of me in high school, and as a member of the band I witnessed every single game his senior year.  A number of well-known pro football players have played for high schools in the area.

(To be fair, people have called me an athlete today, but I am a runner, not a fighter).

But the Pennsylvania football culture pales in comparison to the sickness of football in the US South. And, yes, it is very much a sickness.  Of course, there was the blatant attack of a referee on the field in Texas in 2014, which was largely excused.

The accounts of high school and college football players literally getting away with felonies in the South are mind-numbing. The latest is this, where University of Alabama football players caught with weapons and drugs aren’t prosecuted because, according to the prosecutor, they grew up without air conditioning.

Sick. That is the only word that can be used.  It is a culture supported by the university, the alumni, and the law.  It is wrong, and those supporting it are just as culpable.

Granted, nothing that I might say will fix this. But it desperately needs to be fixed.

And if you are an alumni donating money, yes, you too are culpable.  People need to look in the mirror.

A Travel Comedy, In Two Acts June 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As the calendar was getting ready to turn over into 2016, I found myself just short of any significant level of airline status for the first time in a decade. I booked a rather abrupt mileage run, leaving from New Hampshire for a brief visit with my sister on the North Carolina coast.  The hotel (a Fairfield Inn) was dirt cheap, and I ended up with a pricey Lexus SUV as a rental car for almost nothing (“I’d rather give it to you than some 25-year-old,” said the rental agent).

So, departing MHT, I got a text saying that we were leaving three hours late. Why?  Crew rest.  Okay, so you sent a crew up that you knew could not depart anywhere near on time.  First really red flag.  Of course, I missed my connection in Atlanta, just barely, because I already had a two-and-a-half hour layover.  Seriously.  I lost my first class upgrade, thank you.

I really don’t care about the upgrades. I like them, I don’t need them.  But still.  I ended up at ILM shortly after 5PM, supposed to meet my family for dinner at 6.  I was late.  Oh well.

So, the next day, after baring my soul (if in fact I have one) to my sister, I go to ILM. My flight is delayed by two hours, apparently because they couldn’t find a pilot.  Really.  Huh?  My Atlanta connection, at one hour thirty, did not quite make the grade, and there was only one flight a day back to New Hampshire.  In return, they let me fly to Atlanta, and gave me a hotel there (status is wonderful).

I am in a, god, I don’t even remember, Holiday Inn Express, for like six hours. I leave for Detroit at about 7 the next morning, on a short connection.  The flight leaves half an hour late, we make up most of it on the way, only to lose it in Detroit, where the jetway incredibly fails to work, and we were stuck on the plane.  I ran (I am so glad I am a runner) to my MHT connection, make it by a minute or two, because the agent holds the plane.


So I end up back home, almost a day after I was supposed to, and because I could run. Really run.

I mention all of this because I love travel, whether it works or not. Delta, I love you, even as you abuse me like this.  When I complained, you gave me 15K miles (I think).  Much of this was your fault, but I appreciate Delta individuals for accommodating me.

Uber is Up to No Good June 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Well, we probably all know that, even though many of us may use the alternative taxi service (and don’t call it ride sharing, because it’s not). I actually believe in the disruption that Uber is causing traditional taxi services, although not how they are doing it.  The fact that we use it, and that it works for many of us, doesn’t make it right.

(I don’t live in a city that offers Uber. There is a city about 20 miles away that does, and Boston is only 40 miles away, so I have exposure.  And I travel to large cities occasionally that offer Uber.  So I am not dense.)

It is very clear that it never intends to hire anyone as employees, even as they help them purchase cars (this is one reason why you cannot call this ride sharing; it is nothing more than a taxi service). Those who support Uber do so because it serves their needs, not because they have thought through the business model.

And the business model is that drivers are a necessary evil. Uber, with its incredible VC wealth, has invested heavily in driverless cars.  I don’t know how long it will take, but drivers will at some point fall by the wayside.  There is only one way to make the business model work long term, and that is with no drivers.

Or did you really want the convenience, without having to think at all about the driver? I am not a driver, will never be a driver (I hate driving), but I think we like scheduling a taxi on a phone app.  And that’s really all there is to it.

Oh, and by the way, now you can schedule an Uber taxi. Does this really sound like ride sharing?

You know, I really like what Uber is doing to the taxi model of business. It was ripe for disruption.  I just think it is grossly dishonest in how it is doing so.

We Are Not Perfect June 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I hate this topic, though I love history. Much of what I initially learned of history in the public school was a recitation of dates and prominent people.  The people were largely presented as unabashed Good People, working to further the positive goals, or at least those ultimately accepted by society (the winners write the narrative).

As we learn more, we also grow. We hopefully learn that history was not as black-and-white as it was presented in the eighth grade.  The pack of lies that we learned at twelve are replaced by a slightly more complicated lies at thirteen, and so on down the list.  The intelligent among us try to balance the lies we are taught with the perspective that comes of the historical context.

As this article states, Woodrow Wilson, a president who was a segregationist, albeit an idealistic promoter of world peace.  Shall we damn him to Hell?  Apparently some think yes.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who is almost universally revered for his telling words and sacrifice during telling times, was clearly not a saint. Shall we anoint him nonetheless?  Once again, some think yes.

I wish I had that kind of certainty in life that our teens have, now on the date of my 59th birthday.  This is not nearly as difficult as what we are trying to make it.  People are, well, people.  I am certainly not a saint, much as I might like to be canonized, and nor are you, at the beginning of your life.  You may think you are, but reflect for a minute or two, if you are able.

So stop it. Stop trying to tell me that you are the morality police, and that what you say goes.  Life is more complicated than you may be able to imagine.

Life is a Marathon April 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am truly disturbed when I hear politicians and pundits talk about reclaiming the American Dream.  Like it is something that got lost at some point.

So let me start here. I am of the Boomer generation, yes, obviously we had everything go our way, throughout our careers, and we exploited the system and our Fellow Man to grab as much as we could.  We are the fat cats, and had an exceptionally great life.

Except that the year I graduated college, unemployment was the highest it had ever been since the Great Depression. And at a high of 11 percent, it was even higher than it was in the Great Recession of the late 2000s.  And inflation topped out at over 17 percent annually in the next year or two.  We have never seen that in the last century, except for my coming of age.  Our greatest earning years were interrupted by 9/11 and the Great Recession, and I won’t even get into the milder recession in the Boston area in the early 1990s.

Yup, many of us were out of work. I’m not sure about you, but I went into the military.  The pay was low even by the standards of the day, but I had an effective start to a professional career.

My parents, card-carrying members of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, lived as children through the Great Depression. Many barely got by, and many more migrated in the vain hope that they could feed their families.  Millions of Americans were killed or wounded in World War II.  My father stormed Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, but was only wounded, so I am here today.

Later, 58,000 young American men and women were killed in a far-away country called Vietnam (and I won’t even get into the Vietnamese losses). Several of them were my elder peers, growing up.  Tens of thousands of others were scarred for life by the horrific experience.  In between was Korea, which cost tens of thousands more lives.

Yup, they lived the American Dream.

I could go back further (not necessarily with my family), but why bother? My point?  I don’t believe that the idealized American Dream ever existed as it is portrayed in myth and legend, in the media and by the politicians and pundits.

And that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Well-meaning but terribly misguided people like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (linked to above) seem to think that a vision was lost, a reality that existed and was banked on no longer does.

I’d argue that his so-called vision was a hallucination that never existed. Sure, maybe for some people, who had everything to begin with, or those for whom all of the breaks went in a positive direction.  People like, well, Howard Schultz.

We cannot measure ourselves by the circumstances by which we come of age. We can’t look back at 24 and say that circumstances have treated us poorly in life.  We cannot take our measure of life until it is over.  And we are all individuals, with individual needs and desires in our lives, our careers, our emotional connections, and our fulfillments.  Everyone’s goal is different.

Howard Schultz, you are more than wrong; you are dangerous.


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