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Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.

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.

We Are Not All Victims August 5, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In a minor fit of annoyance, I recently wrote about how The Ladders’ Mark Cendella gave the middle finger to older workers in its newsletter.  In response, people have sent me links of just about every type of worker that is facing discrimination or difficult times, whether by age, race, education, or whatever.

Woe to be an older worker, since older workers are, well, old and not with the times, and no one wants to hire them.

Except, woe to be a Millennial, who has to work three menial part time jobs and live in your parents’ basement.

Or woe to be mid-career, where you are facing the prospect of temporary contractor jobs indefinitely.

Or to be blue-collar in the oil industry, which has recently shed 200,000 well-paying jobs.

Seriously, you can find anyone of any race, location, or age in any circumstance. And so-called experts who are willing to find fault with a society that lets each individual circumstance happen.  I’m starting to think that it is the media that is turning us all into victims, explaining how people just like us in some way are getting the shaft, presumably while everyone else is taking the elevator.

To be fair, I try not to judge the media too harshly. I was a tech journalist, and probably about the last of a breed that made a decent living off of it.  News journalism, except at the very top of the ladder, is poorly paid and unappreciated.  Further, the only way to derive revenue in news is to get a lot of people to read it.  So they present everyday people as, well, victims, usually of a society that they think has failed them.

But most of us have advantages and disadvantages in life, whether brought on by personal characteristics, demographics, life choices, education, and a host of other things. Most of the time they balance out so that we are able to live a decent if average life.  In some outlying cases, there is a cornucopia of riches; in others, a continuing chain of disillusionment.

I would like to see our media focus less on that chain of disillusionment. It does no one any good, including your readership and probably not your bottom line.  “There are eight million stories in the naked city”; I call upon the media to find some of the others.

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.

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.