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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.

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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.

My Thirtieth Birthday December 12, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Was quite a long time ago.  But on my thirtieth birthday, the US President at the time, Ronald Reagan, was in Berlin, giving a speech, of which the most significant part was, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  It happened, about two years later.  Much later, in 2016, I was there, and I got to see a part of history (hint: don’t buy the chunks of wall on sale just about everywhere).

The point is that I can in no way advocate that the US build a wall, up against its nearest neighbor, when a previous president exhorts the Russians to tear down their own.  If we build our own wall, our shame will extend into the next generations, and of course the wall will not last.

I don’t go political lightly, in public, for several reasons, but there are principles in which I strongly believe.  You may argue that the goals today are very different; I disagree.  I am a second generation immigrant, and whatever else has changed in the US, it is that immigration remains our lifeblood.  We will, and I will emphasize that, we will grow stagnant as a nation and as a people without immigration.  While some of us may be afraid, we are not threatened more now that at any time in our history.

Automation Can Be Dangerous December 6, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software tools, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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Boeing has a great way to prevent aerodynamic stalls in their 737 MAX aircraft.  A set of sensors determines through airspeed and angle of attack that an aircraft is about to stall (that is, lose lift on its wings), and automatically pitch the nose down to recover.

Apparently malfunctioning sensors on Lion Air Flight 610 caused the aircraft nose to sharply pitch down absent any indication of a stall.  Preliminary analysis indicates that the pilots were unable to overcome the nose-down attitude, and the aircraft dove into the sea.  Boeing’s solution to this automation fault was explicit, even if its documentation wasn’t.  Turn off the system.

And this is what the software developers, testers, and their bosses don’t get.  Everyone thinks that automation is the silver bullet.  Automation is inherently superior to manual testing.  Automation will speed up testing, reduce costs, and increase quality.  We must have more automation engineers, and everyone not an automation engineer should just go away now.

There are many lessons here for software teams.  Automation is great when consistency in operation is required.  Automation will execute exactly the same steps until the cows come home.  That’s a great feature to have.

But many testing activities are not at all about consistency in operation.  In fact, relatively few are.  It would be good for smoke tests and regression tests to be consistent.  Synthetic testing in production also benefits from automation and consistency.

Other types of testing?  Not so much.  The purpose of regression testing, smoke testing, and testing in production is to validate the integrity of the application, and to make sure nothing bad is currently happening.  Those are valid goals, but they are only the start of testing.

Instead, testing is really about individual users and how they interact with an application.  Every person does things on a computer just a little different, so it behooves testers to do the same.  This isn’t harkening back to the days of weeks or months of testing, but rather acknowledging that the purpose of testing is to ensure an application is fit for use.  Human use.

And sometimes, whether through fault or misuse, automation breaks down, as in the case of the Lion Air 737.  And teams need to know what to do when that happens.

Now, when you are deploying software perhaps multiple times a day, it seems like it can take forever to sit down and actually use the product.  But remember the thousands more who are depending on the software and the efforts that go behind it.

In addition to knowing when and how to use automation in software testing, we also need to know when to shut it off, and use our own analytical skills to solve a problem.  Instead, all too often we shut down our own analytical skills in favor of automation.

Does Social Media Need to Go? October 27, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I have been in tech publishing since 1988.  Fulltime, as an editor, senior editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and editorial director has encompassed, um, perhaps nine years.  I’ve freelanced in the interim.

In that time, I’ve learned something about publishing in general.  Publishing involves a certain responsibility to its readers.  That responsibility, in a nutshell, is to curate content in an honest way, and to present that content as representative of what the publisher stands for.  They stand by what is on their platform.

Social media emphatically does not curate.  Not only that, but it praises the fact that it does not curate.  Instead, it says that it cannot possibly curate, and it requires its users to self-curate.  But, of course, it doesn’t provide a reliable means for users to report their curation.

Facebook and other social media platforms have accepted the mantle of publishers, without accepting the responsibility of being publishers.  It has made them enormously profitable.  In fact, they even use our intimate personal data, and sell it to any buyers.  We seem to be okay with that.

I am emphatically not.  Today, someone has published their murderous intentions on social media, then carried them out.  How can we be okay with this?

Unless you disavow social media right now, I will argue that you are complicit in murder and other heinous crimes.  Are you okay with that?