jump to navigation

Are Cell Phones the Cause of Society’s Schisms? January 9, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

More broadly, we might ask this question of social media in general, since the phone is simply a proxy for a wide range of services.  This intriguing article in the MIT Technology Review provides an anecdotal tale of a philosophy professor who, believing that he wasn’t communicating with his students effectively, offered extra credit to those who would give up their use of cell phones for nine days, and write about the experience.

While it doesn’t have the same academic rigor as Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, it is a telling story of teens finding out that there is more to the world than is available from their phone screens.

And it’s not a new thesis, but stories like these also reinforce that there have been drastic changes in society and culture in a short period of time.

At one level, social media lets us engage many people without actually seeing them.  When you look someone in the eye, and gauge their reaction in real time, what we say can be very different.  When we don’t, negative messages seem to be magnified.

At another level, social media lets us pick and choose who we communicate with.  Generally, that means we are less likely to be exposed to different ideas, and more inclined to believe unreliable or bogus sources.  I would like to say that is our choice, except that it’s not clear we easily have any other choice.

What we have created is a massive societal experiment in which within a decade we have dramatically shifted the nature of interpersonal interactions.  Whereas the majority of interaction was face to face, today it is largely remote.  Where most interaction were one on one, we find that the remote interactions are more one on many.  And where many of our interactions were casual encounters with random people, today they are with people we already know and associate with.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook say it’s all for the good of society, and that’s what they stand for.  They are too biased to offer an honest take, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.  I will say that it’s instructive that Zuckerberg, while publicly promoting openness and sharing, has chosen to build his own personal estate behind walls.  Let him live in a walkup for a few years; he never has, and never will.  Live like your users live, Mark, is my final word to him.  You have created this world; you are not responding to it.

In the meantime, are cell phones good or bad?  I will offer that they are a tool, and it is the apps that we choose to use make them one or the other.

Burn Baby, Burn October 13, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

To those born in approximately my coming of age (I was perhaps a few years later), that statement has a very specific meaning.  It was the rallying cry of some blacks in the 1960s who felt oppressed by the legacy of racism, supposedly wiped out by Brown Versus the Board of Education, but in reality existing to this day and beyond.  The only way they believed they could achieve practical equality was to burn the existing structures to the ground and start over again.  I don’t personally subscribe to that ideal, but I get the sentiment.

In my coming of age, I read the likes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  From them, I took away some truths that 45 years later I still consider absolutes.  First, while there are different points of view, there is such a thing as Truth; the current narrative of alternative facts is scary in its acceptance by so many people.

Second, people are both capable and free of making up their own minds.  I am not an Ellen DeGeneres fan by any means, but she spoke truth when she said we can be friends with people who don’t share our views.  Yet she was still pilloried, simply for attending a baseball game with George W. Bush.

Last, we do not burn books.  Ever.  However much we may disagree with them.  I used this YouTube clip in a presentation recently, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where there was a book-burning party in Nazi Berlin.  “We are pilgrims in an unholy land,” said Henry Jones Sr, upon happening upon the event.  This could never ever happen again, right.

Except that it has.  At Georgia Southern University, students have burned the books of author Jennine Capó Crucet, which target a world of white privilege.  Students there disagreed, and showed their disagreement by burning her books.  University officials said these students were exercising their First Amendment rights, and face no retribution.

I’ve not read anything by Crucet.  I may not like her books either, or agree with her premise or conclusions.  But there is a visceral emotion that would prevent me from ever burning them.

The problem is that partisanship and activism have become careers, and many people today aspire to a lifetime of anger against others.  We display our credentials through our hatred, rather than anything we’ve accomplished in life.

Ideas are invaluable.  Once lost, they cannot be replaced.  To wantonly destroy the expression of ideas is against everything I believe.  They may not be your ideas of a lifetime, in which case you can simply shrug and move on.

That’s not to say that all ideas have the same value.  But if we actively hate, we are doing damage not only to ourselves, but also to society.  Think about that before you burn your next book.

One More Trip Around the Sun September 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
add a comment

And it is once again 9/11, eighteen years later.  I was a working mid-career adult at the time, and it is striking to me that people who are voting for the first time this year were likely not even born on that date.  It is history to them, and that is how it should be.  My own memories remain vivid, at work, knowing that the world had just changed, but not knowing what that meant as to just how.

It’s personal to me, though perhaps not in a deep sense.  I lost friends and colleagues that day.  Last year, I did a virtual road race in support of their memories, as well as those who were first responders.  This year, I wanted to once again acknowledge those memories.

Today, we are afraid, not like we were in the immediate aftermath of that day.  I remember that evening, watching President Bush walk across the White House lawn to a podium set up out in the open.  He was as protected as any human being could be, yet I cringed that yet another airplane, or a missile, could come crashing down at any moment.

Today we are afraid of the randomness of our existence.  We could be at work, at the mall, in a restaurant, and our next breath could be our last.  Of course, that was always true, but we believed we had a modicum of control over our future and our fate, only to be violently reminded that we are players in a larger drama.

If you could, please take a moment today to remember those who were going about their daily lives, only to have the Fates suddenly and randomly cut their cords short.  And remember those first responders who gave their lives and their health to do their difficult jobs to the best of their ability.  Thank you.

Two Summer Road Races August 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

While I am trying to get back to the level of running I was at a couple of years ago (before wild animals started interrupting my pre-dawn runs), I have completed two very interesting runs recently.  The first was the Cabrillo Sunset 5K, in San Diego in July.  This race was in the Cabrillo National Monument, at the very tip of land between the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay.

The race started at the top of the bluff, went 1.55 miles and about 350 vertical feet to near the Pacific Ocean.  And then back up again.  That, of course, was the hard part.  It was probably the most difficult course I have run (well, walked, mostly).  Here is the finisher’s medal.


The second race, at the beginning of August, was the Summer Sizzler in Wilmington NC, my sister’s hometown.  As the name implies, coastal North Carolina can get very hot and humid first thing in the morning.  The first time I ran it, two years ago, I saw something swimming in Greenfield Lake.  I looked closer, and sure enough, it was an alligator.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it, and since then it has become the official mascot of the race.  This year, the 10K finisher’s medal included the alligator:


Unlike many people, I don’t run for a runner’s high or for a sense of peace and quiet.  Instead, I appreciate the sense of accomplishment after I finish.

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

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
add a comment

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.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

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.
Tags: ,
add a comment

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.
add a comment

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.