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Can We Level Set? June 6, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am reading some incredible things about self-driving cars, machine learning (which I know something about), and a broad variety of other fanciful technologies.  To be fair, self-driving cars are a ways away, for a variety of reasons, Uber self-flying aircraft are a pipe dream, and intelligent machines taking over jobs are largely still off in an indeterminate future.

So, just where is the world on technology?  I am not entirely sure, but I would like to offer some opinions.  First, I am fairly technology savvy, although I am rarely a first adopter.  I am certainly not a last adopter.

My Subaru is going on 19 years old, and still starts reliably.  It will be replaced this year, I promise.  But I will not have a self-driving car in my lifetime.  And if you are middle age or beyond, neither will you, despite what we are fed for what passes for news these days.

My new Dell, all four cores and 8GB of RAM, still hangs on web browsing.  If you think your car is going to seamlessly communicate with the Internet and other cars in real time (do you even know what real time means?), you are very wrong.  Your NetFlix movie streaming probably doesn’t even give you a high-def video reliably.  Be honest here.  I am told I get 30Mbps, and it is slow because of what we are sending.

Speaking of which, I have a TV that is about 20 years old.  It has a tube; does anyone remember what that is?  But I get the stuff I need from Xfinity.

We are constantly fed a farce of new and even better.  A few of us buy the latest and greatest, and think that is where the world is.  If you are a constant first adopter, more power to you.  You spend money on things that you don’t need, and probably don’t even use to their potential.  But hey, it’s your money.

My point is that what you spend on being a first adopter today is pretty much wasted.  In 30 years, we may see a completely controlled highway system filled with self-driving cars.  It won’t happen tomorrow in a way that will alleviate the pain of driving or the traffic issues of today.  Personal aircraft won’t happen in anyone’s lifetime, despite Uber’s big conference on the topic.  Facebook will not dominate our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deluding ourselves.  I am a big believer in technology.  I think we are making the world better.  And I think that many of the things that are going on are really great.

But they are not right around the corner.

I Love Math May 12, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There, I said it. You might think that it is a natural thing for someone with a math degree (among others) to say, but let me delve a little deeper into that statement.

I was never very good at math. I completely lost it at calculus, not being able to relate it to real world concepts.  I think our minds like to relate abstract ideas into something concrete, a part of our lives, and that’s very hard with calculus and beyond.

I tried again as a college freshman. No dice, so I ended up with a degree in psychology, although I took a number of science courses as electives.

Another psychology degree later, I started to feel the math itch again. As I took graduate statistics, experimental design, and did a thesis with a mathematical model of behavior in a game theory situation, I came to realize that, despite my relative incompetence, I could no longer shrug away my math jones.

Long story short, I moved to a new job, taught myself calculus and differential equations in the evenings and weekends over the space of a summer, and enrolled in a graduate applied math curriculum in the fall. I got through it in three years (with some undergraduate course supplements), and graduated in 1985 with an M.S.

Why do I love math? I think it’s because most of our thought processes are representational.  We express ideas and emotions in words, in pictures, and increasingly today in video.  But the fundamental representation of the world around us is through mathematics.

My problem, of course, is that I came of age about 25 years too early. At that time, other than teaching, the only mathematical job available was as an insurance actuary, which sounded like the equivalent of watching paint dry.

(Well, there were a couple of other options. I turned down a GS-12 from the NSA because I didn’t want to move back to the Baltimore area.  Of course, being a cryptologist would have been very interesting the last few years.  And there were beginnings of rumblings about highly-paid “quants” on Wall Street, but I didn’t want to live in Manhattan.)

Today, of course, I can be a data scientist, although this late in my career it would be problematic to make that change. I’m back to tinkering with neural networks and machine learning, and maybe I will make a go of something there.  But 25 years ago, the options in applied mathematics were much more limited.

“listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” May 11, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I was once again reminded of this line from an e. e. cummings poem, rather rudely, when I read that the United States was considering a laptop ban on flights from and to Europe. Having just returned from Europe last night (Stockholm), lugging not one but two laptops, I suddenly found myself thrust into an alien alternative universe that I didn’t understand.

While we are by no means perfect, the citizens of the United States have certainly enjoyed one of the highest levels of personal freedom in the history of the world. And yet I wonder.  Could it be that we really don’t want that freedom?

I was in Zurich several years ago, watching teenage boys dive off of a major street bridge into Lake Zurich. This would never be allowed to happen in the U.S.  I told my sponsor, a thoughtful and worldly person, and he replied, “I think we in Europe take more personal responsibility for our actions.  The state doesn’t protect us from ourselves.”

And I was in Stockholm this week, looking out my hotel window at the Hammarby ski slope Monday night. Shortly before 6 PM, the slope was full of runners, in groups, at its height, I estimate at least 75 people in four groups, plus individuals.  They were running up the ski slope, running down, running in circles halfway up.  I invested five minutes to walk over and talk to a few of them.  There were various groups, older, young, male, female, training for various purposes.

I am a runner, but I walked up to the top of the mountain, and walked down. These people are in such incredible physical condition.  Collectively, they looked like the bad guys (and women) in a Matt Damon movie.  No ski slope in the U.S. would allow people to come in and do this kind of unsupervised physical activity; there would be a lawsuit a week because of injury.

There are certainly significant tradeoffs in safety and freedom. When I read that we will allow laptops in checked luggage, but not in the cabin, I think we have swung too far.

And worse, any safety in this action is false safety. There can be no discernably less risk from this action.  What it does is reinforce our fears, and reinforce our isolation from others around the world.

For the most part, people are people, worldwide, with similar desires, needs, and motivations as us. We can work together to overcome physical threats.  And we should do so.

Yes, this too shall pass, in time. But it is unfortunate that we have to go through a stage of irrational and unreasonable personal fear to get there.

Someone is Watching Us; Do We Care? May 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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It’s a worthwhile question to ask. Circa 15 years ago, my software team thought about instrumenting the code in our (beta) product so that we would get usage and error data sent directly back to us, which would help us find and resolve bugs, and tell us which features were important.  We didn’t entertain the thought for long, because we believed that our customers would not tolerate having us capture and record their actions with our product, even only in beta.

Somewhere in the intervening years, these practices became acceptable, and in many cases mandatory. To be fair, many of the products today are free (Facebook, Google, Twitter), while we charged a comparative fortune (I believe we started at about 3 grand per seat).  What we don’t pay in cash dollars today we pay by having an electronic watcher looking over our shoulder.

That shift raises a lot of issues. There is nothing new here, but it is interesting to look at what was a radical shift of attitudes during this time.  Were I an economist, perhaps I would try to assign a dollar value to the loss of my insights (privacy?) into using a particular software product.

I’m not an economist, and that’s not my intent. I would like to say that we’ve made a deal with multiple devils for free software, but I don’t think I can even say that.  We’ve received something incredible – almost infinite information, true or not.  We’ve given almost infinite information about ourselves, once again, true or not.

Most, or maybe even all of us, have willingly made that deal. But nobody asked us, at least not directly, not all at once, at least.  If you ask most people, in those terms, it just happened, and they may be okay with it.  But let’s ask.

I Used to Know All of the Area Codes May 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Yup. All 86 of the original telephone area codes.  Give me an area code, I could tell you its geographic region.  617 – eastern Massachusetts; 412 – my home area code in southwestern Pennsylvania.  312 – LA; 415 – oh, please, give me something difficult.

There were rules. Because of the technology used, all area codes had to have a middle digit of 0 or 1.  800 (only) was reserved for toll-free numbers.

Of course, now 30+ years later, the world is a different place.  Most of the area codes added over the last 20 years have been overlays (not all; my childhood home in southwestern PA now sports 724).  An overlay is two or more area codes that share the same geographic region, which is done in Boston, New York, LA, and other metropolitan areas.  There are a variety of different toll-free area codes – 888, 866, 855, and so on.  A residential user can have one if they want family members to be able to call them without charge.

And speaking of the world, I dialed my international number when I was about 30. It was in the UK (country code 44), for tech journalism purposes.  I asked that person what was the US country code.  He chuckled and said, “You’re the United States; your country code is 1, of course.”

Now it is impossible for all but the most photographic memory (mine is close, but not that good) to know the location of a call based on its area code. It was inevitable in an era where mobile phones are ubiquitous that there would be a significant increase in numbers allotted.

From a practical standpoint, it makes it more difficult to identify the physical location of an unknown number. I used to be able to glance at my screen and immediately know where the call was coming from.  Not anymore.  But the number of area codes will only keep expanding.

The Joys of Flying April 10, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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First, let me say that I am a longtime Delta/Northwest frequent flyer. Three years ago, I attended the QUEST conference in Chicago, which was inundated by flooding rains.  The early morning before my flight, my phone went off with a severe flood warning.  Getting to the airport (Midway), I picked up my boarding passes, only to discover that they had rebooked me for late afternoon, rather than early morning.  It got worse, and long story short, I got home around 2AM.

So, this time, same conference, Delta claimed that tornados in Atlanta interrupted their schedule.  For four days.  Ah, no.  Someone in the C-suite really needs to be fired, but of course that won’t happen.  But the individual Delta people on the ground were great, patient, helpful to the extent that they could be, and sympathetic.  I actively managed my alternatives, leveraged my status, and got home only a few hours late (but still about 3AM).

Despite the Delta debacle, United can’t hold a candle to it. I have told my corporate travel office that I only want to travel on United in the future, because I want to be beaten up, knocked unconscious, and dragged bleeding from the plane.  Is this what as a corporate identify we have come to?

And the “apology” from United CEO Oscar Munoz?  I hope the board of directors realizes that they don’t want him leading their global company.  “I am sorry that we had to re-accommodate passengers.”  I would like to call him some very obscene names; he has no business heading an airline.  At the very least, he needs to stand down from saying anything else right now.  As do his PR flacks.

I hope that the FAA pulls their airworthiness certificate for a few days. I’m sure that won’t happen, and I’m sure that Munoz will get a bonus.  But it’s so very wrong.

And I’m sorry, I hate to swear, but I do have to say it. Assholes.  And I’m sorry again.  Motherfuckers.  As Dave Carroll said, “I might fly them if I have to save the world, but probably not.” (which also occurred at O’Hare).

Update:  A longtime friend said to me, “That’s what happens when you don’t do what they tell you on a plane.”  Well, perhaps, but it could have been handled much differently.  I told him, “What if you were on a United flight, and they told you that you had to give up your seat?  And you said, My son was in an auto accident, and is in the hospital (this really happened, although he was home at the time).  I have to get home.  And they said, Not on this flight you don’t.”  I told him I bet he would fight back.

About the Coffee Maker March 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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So as I continue to read about how companies have discovered the magic path to innovation, putting everyone in the same room, with personal space bumped up against one another, in reach of the coffee machine, in order to innovate, I have several succinct comments:

  1. I don’t drink coffee, and in fact hate the smell of it. You will not find me near the coffee maker.
  2. This worked for Yahoo so well, right?
  3. Everyone thinks that the solution is to throw people together, stir, and wait for innovation.

It’s not nearly that easy, of course, and organizations are stupid if they think that it is. Yet we as institutions continue to persist in believing that it is.

Fifteen years ago, I worked for a company whose CEO abruptly decided that all employees needed to be in an office in order to bask in the company culture, and one day fired all of those who didn’t go into an office on a daily basis.

Of course, management can do what it wants. And usually does.  But all too often organizations and their managements engage in groupthink.  If a power broker says that we need to put people together in the same room and let them percolate, then that’s what companies do.

It’s not that easy, folks. And too many people think that it is (I’m talking about you, Marissa Mayer).  Mayer, of course, was faced with a very difficult job – what did Yahoo want to be when it grew up (it should have been Facebook before Facebook).  And she ended up with about $200 million for failing.  You know, we all want to succeed in our endeavors, but a bunch of money makes it easier to accept our limitations.

The real problem is that executives tend to think that there is a straightforward answer that only they have thought of. I am sorry, they are not paid to be drive-by executives, just making a few pithy comments and leaving it to others to do any hard work.  The answers are not easy, and implementing them is not easy.

What Should We Know About History? March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This one is from the heart, and has little to do with technology, so I apologize in advance. This starts with me commenting on what I think is a very good though rambling story on Quartz, which discusses a service to teach Millennials about basic life skills.  It notes that Millennials face different challenges than past generations, but also concludes that they must find their own ways on life skills.

I commented that as a Baby Boomer, when I graduated college, unemployment was 11 percent and inflation 17 percent, figures not seen before or since. The writer, who seems intelligent and thoughtful, was incredulous that such a state of affairs existed in our history.

We seem to have lost an historical perspective. Just a few years before my coming of age, we had gasoline shocks, where OPEC flexed its muscles and the price of gasoline increased by five-fold.  We had Stagflation.  We had WIN (look it up).  We had devastating strikes in basic industries in the 1960s.  We had companies assassinating union leaders who dared speak up.  Farther back, we had things like the Pullman Massacre and the Homestead Massacre.

There are people today with individual circumstances that you feel for. But by and large, most of us have it great.  I am highly cognizant that I have it better than most, but I am also highly cognizant of my working class roots.  It has not always been like this in my life.

I realize that news organizations are selling eyeballs, and they get eyeballs by telling people how bad they have it. It is wrong, in a strong sense.  I wish they would stop.

But this also has to deal with our perspective. Our perspective is not just today, and if it is, we are doing a disservice.  We need to tell people how they relate to events past.

If we can’t, we shouldn’t be writing about this stuff.