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It’s Time to Define Just What Freedom Means April 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There are many ways of approaching this topic, especially in 2018.  I choose to do so through professional football.  I am troubled.  Not by actions, but by reactions.  That is kneeling at the national anthem prior to games, and the attendant responses.

Those that criticize call this inappropriate political protest.  I don’t get the political part.  Politics is where we disagree, and agree to disagree.  I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone would disagree that black men are being disproportionally killed by police in situations where deadly force is not called for.  This is not a political problem, it is a societal one, one that we need to work together to address.

There are almost certainly elements of racism involved in those situations, but I think the main problem is a lack of training of the police.  Being a policeman (or woman) has to be one of the most difficult and stressful jobs imaginable.  They go into ambiguous situations that either start out as violent, or can turn violent at the drop of a hat.  They can find themselves in life or death situations where an immediate decision may make the difference between them getting home, or getting into a coffin.  I think many lack the rigorous and continual training needed to make the right decisions in those situations.

And I’m not sure I even get the protest part.  Unlike protests from my youth, they don’t take over campus buildings, or block streets.  They do so silently.

There are those who also say that it is inappropriate to take such a principled stand while on the job.  As with most professionals, it is difficult to know quite when football players are on the job.  Especially since they can be punished by their employer for some personal behavior, such as drug use or police altercations, that is definitely on personal time.

But here is my biggest problem, and I think one that is fueled by the fantasy football craze.  Too many fans are geared to see players as a set of numbers in any given week.  With the prospect of legalized sports betting, we could see millions of fans who bet on the outcome of individual plays, which serves only to reduce players to how often they deliver on split-second outcomes, perhaps a dozen or more times a game.  They are like inanimate toy soldiers, ours to select and manipulate for our enjoyment and perhaps profit.

But these players aren’t numbers.  They are thinking human beings, certainly on a similar plane as all of us.  They have perspectives and beliefs that are just as valid as anyone else.  I think it appropriate that we hear their voices.

Now, to freedom.  We live in a country where millions of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and others who serve have died.  I would like to think that they died for a larger ideal.  I believe strongly that that ideal is that we can express ourselves freely.  Declining to stand for the national anthem is one way of doing so.

I am a military veteran.  Not standing for the national anthem is not how I might call attention to an issue.  But I will vigorously defend the right of anyone to do so.  That is what freedom means.


One Experience of a Lifetime April 5, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Last month, I ran in a race called Gateway to Space.  It was executed on the Space Shuttle runway (known as the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility, because the Space Shuttles never took off horizontally) at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The NASA Shuttle Landing Facility is 15,000 feet long, one of the longest runways in the world (Denver International has a longer one, and there may be a couple of military ones, such as Vandenberg and Edwards, that are similar).  Technically, it is about 1400 feet short of 5K, so we started on the aircraft parking area, and ran a short taxiway out to the runway.

We were told to watch out for alligators and other wildlife on the runway.

There were close to 2000 runners, although many walked it.  We began at the southern end.  There was a Space Shuttle mockup about halfway up the runway, and multiple plaques embedded into the runway designating landing and stopping points for the last Space Shuttle landings.  I have photos of several; here is one, complete with my running shoe, which other people were doing to demonstrate their physical presence.


The weather was very nice, although it got warm fast, the distance was good, and there were water stops.  At the end, there was plenty of juice to drink.

There may be better life experiences out there, but I will always own this one.  I have always been fascinated by flying, and by space.  I am bitterly disappointed that the US cannot send people into space.  I think our government has dropped the ball, and I hope that private companies can pick it up.

In the meantime, I run the landing facility.  Definitely cool.

It is Time to Say that Uber Has No Clothes December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A few years ago, I remember hearing a lot about the sharing economy.  Specifically, you need to go somewhere, someone happens to be heading in that direction, Uber will match you up.  While we still hear Uber and sharing economy used in the same sentence, it is nonsensical.  You summon a driver, period.  Whatever happened to the sharing economy?  Oh, I know, it is not profitable.  Of course, neither is Uber.

Credit not me, but Alison Griswold of Quartz for getting it right.  And also credit the European Union for finally calling out the company.  If its users say, “I have summoned an Uber,” then yes, it must by definition be a transportation company.

I do credit Uber for shaking up and transforming the taxi industry, which really needed it.  It clearly met an unserved need.  The technology is generally good and needed, even if Uber’s intrusiveness into our private lives was grossly inappropriate.

But the way forward is not Uber.  I have railed against its antagonistic company culture, but this cuts right to the business model.  Uber will die, despite (or perhaps because of) its $68 billion valuation, which is highly questionable if it ever reaches the open market.

The company itself won’t see another ten years, and that is becoming increasingly clear.  I hope something good comes out of it, but for its successors.

Could There Have Been a World Where Social Media Behaved Responsibly? December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That is an enormous question that I cannot possibly answer.  Perhaps I can at least appropriately frame the problem.  Through the likes of Facebook (especially), Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn, we have enabled hate speech, grossly inappropriate comments, and in general stupidity.

So here is the question that I would like to pose to Mark Zuckerberg.  What is the value to human society of being able to connect with thousands of people that you don’t know, hundreds of people that you met once or twice in high school and college, dozens of people that you worked with in dozens of jobs, and your three most recent significant others?  Very little, I will say, and the downside is significantly greater.

I’m sure that Zuckerberg can wax poetic on connectivity, community, and interaction, and how he is bringing together the planet, but it’s all at the abstract level.  I’m pretty sure that he can’t point to more than a handful of incidents, if that, where Facebook has resulted in a win for collaboration.  It simply doesn’t exist, in real life.

And, despite my detractors in this (yes, I am talking about you, <name redacted>), it is not clear that any of this has added to our experience.  It has changed our experience, certainly, but beyond that, I call bullshit.  Some of you say that we connect with people that we are friends or colleagues with, and there is some minor convenience there, although emphatically not on Facebook, but in general, I cannot believe that we are getting the value for what we are paying.

Paying not in money, but in aggravation.  Perhaps harassment.  And certainly in time, at getting rid of those that for whatever reason, we no longer want to bother with.

Revisiting Company Culture December 17, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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It’s amusing that Silicon Valley continues to beat the drum of culture, and cultural fit, even as it becomes increasingly demonstrable that culture causes more problems than it cures.  Yet if anything, the pounding of the culture drum gets steadily louder.

I’m sorry, I call bullshit.  I have been around the block once or twice (or more), and my experience with culture is that it is a lame excuse for people to say they only want to work with people like themselves.  I understand the attraction of doing so, but there is no good business reason for that.  In fact, it likely harms the business.  Case in point, Uber, who may well be fatally flawed by its culture.

Most companies try to sell to a fairly wide swath of people.  To effectively build products for a diverse customer base, you need diverse inputs, which means from people with different ideas and points of view.  Age, gender, race, education, and ethnic background all play into getting a broad picture of the customer base.  Many companies I have worked for build products that they themselves want to use.  Excuse me, that is not a company, that is a club.

I once worked for a company that abruptly fired everyone who didn’t go to an office daily, because the CEO claimed that it was vitally important for everyone to be soaked in its unique culture.  That “unique” culture was toxic, with blame, cutthroat tactics, and nonaccountability.

So I think it is time to give us a break from the screaming of culture.  Most company leaders speaking of their culture have no idea what they are talking about, yet we nod and smile at their sagacity.  Culture can matter, but not the kind of culture these jokers are talking about.

Let’s Have a Frank Discussion About Complexity December 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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And let’s start with the human memory.  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.  The title is rhetorical, of course; there is nothing magical about the number seven.  But the paper and associated psychological studies explicitly define the ability of the human mind to process increasingly complex information.

The short answer is that the human mind is a wonderful mechanism for some types of processing.  We can very rapidly process a large amount of sensory inputs, and draw some very quick but not terribly accurate conclusions (Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking), we can’t handle an overwhelming amount of quantitative data and expect to make any sense out of it.

In discussing machine learning systems, I often say that we as humans have too much data to reliably process ourselves.  So we set (mostly artificial) boundaries that let us ignore a large amount of data, so that we can pay attention when the data clearly signify a change in the status quo.

The point is that I don’t think there is a way for humans to deal directly with a lot of complexity.  And if we employ systems to evaluate that complexity and present it in human-understandable concepts, we are necessarily losing information in the process.

This, I think, is a corollary of Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions, which says that anytime you abstract away from what is really happening with hardware and software, you lose information.  In many cases, that information is fairly trivial, but in some cases, it is critically valuable.  If we miss it, it can cause a serious problem.

While Joel was describing abstraction in a technical sense, I think that his law applies beyond that.  Any time that you add layers in order to better understand a scenario, you out of necessity lose information.  We look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a measure of the stock market, for example, rather than minutely examine every stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s not a bad thing.  Abstraction makes it possible for us to better comprehend the world around us.

But it also means that we are losing information.  Most times, that’s not a disaster.  Sometimes it can lead us to disastrously bad decisions.

So what is the answer?  Well, abstract, but doubt.  And verify.

O Canada, What Have You Become? November 2, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.

I have just spent several hours attempting to enter Canada, specifically Toronto, and to use my phone while in Canada.  I can only wonder just when Canada became a third-world country.  Because my experience today is by far the worst of the two dozen or so countries I have visited in the last 10 years.

First and foremost was clearing Immigration, a process that took well over two hours.  I am not exaggerating when I say there were about two thousand people in the various lines at Immigration.  I counted three (count ‘em) people attempting vainly to direct that traffic into the appropriate lines and answer any questions about which line they were supposed to be in and what they were supposed to do.  I had no idea if I was in the right line until I finally managed to emerge at the other end, unscathed.

Then there was actually a line to enter the baggage claim area.  I did not have baggage to claim, but had to, um, participate in that line, because there was no way to bypass it.

Then there was the 200-yard long taxi line.  I’ve experienced those before, in Las Vegas, except that here in Toronto they let the gypsy cabbies troll the line and aggressively (and I mean aggressively) recruit the gullible to join them on a ride to wherever.  I have not seen gypsy cabbies at an airport since the Dominican Republic, back in 1986.

My phone worked at the airport, but not downtown.  I couldn’t even call my provider to find out why.

So I repeat: when did Canada become a third world country?  Because my first four hours in this country were akin to entering such a destination.  I wanted to turn around and go back.  Fortunately, my stay is on the order of 48 hours, and I really have no desire to come back again.

Interlude For, Of All Things, Corn on the Cob October 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I grew up, well, not quite on a farm, but definitely not in suburbia.  We had large gardens (and cows, chickens, and even a pig), of which I partook of little, to my adult regret.  But I devoured corn on the cob, and still do to this day, now in New England.

I have tried broiled and grilled, and my preference is grilled, although you need a grill of course.

But as we move into a world of genetically modified crops, I am okay with that.  Really.  I dislike the non-GMO labels on my food.  I think they are pandering to those who don’t know that our crops have always been modified.  But I have a request.

As I shuck them, I cannot get rid of the hair.  If there is anything that you can do to get rid of the “hair” on the corn on the cob, I would appreciate it.