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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. Everything 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.

My Bucket List March 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I suppose I am old enough to have one. But oddly, it revolves around music.  I will be in Edinburgh this coming spring, at a live concert with the incredible Gary Brooker and Procol Harum.

In June, Blood, Sweat and Tears, amazingly in New Hampshire, perhaps half an hour away.

July, right after the Old Port road race in Portland Maine, the Moody Blues will be at the Blue Hills Pavilion in East Boston.

Chicago Transit Authority, somewhere.

Annie Haslam, she of the transcendental five-octave voice, anywhere.  She mostly performs on the US East Coast these days, near her home in Bucks County, PA.  I missed her in Annapolis a couple of years ago, because I was due to be in Spain the next day.  I missed her Christmas performance in Bucks County a couple of years earlier, because my company abruptly laid off 20 percent of its workforce, including me.

I was never particularly musical, and have rarely attended live concerts, so this is unusual for me. I did the band in junior high and high school, and the stage band in high school and college, but that was about it.  I am looking forward to the coming year.

My Health Care Providers Hate Me March 1, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Because I ask questions, do research, and push back when something doesn’t seem to make sense.

And I have learned that doctors and other health care professionals are very uncomfortable with that. They are used to having their word taken as gospel.  And if you start asking questions, they get very defensive.  I am not the expert, but I have the right to question directives and treatment.  In theory, but in practice it is not appreciated.

I first experienced this two years ago, when I was told I needed a Whipple Procedure, immediately. Had I meekly accepted this directive, from multiple doctors, I would have had completely unnecessary life-altering surgery.  Instead, I asked for more tests, and researched through Dr. Google.  I ultimately didn’t have surgery at all.  Nor did I have cancer.

More recently, I received a referral to a specialist. That specialist sent me paperwork that must be filled out with a Number 2 pencil.  Really.  I go to their website; words are misspelled.  If they can’t get the easy things right, I have no confidence in their desire to provide quality care.

I called my primary care provider to see about an alternative referral. Their answer was, effectively, “Take it or leave it.”  And that was from the receptionist.

I attempted to send an email to my provider, through the form provided on their website. Invalid phone number, with no hint as to the format they want.  Finally, I type in 10 random digits.  It is accepted.  I get an automated email response from Admin.  The email form is completely blank.

I used to believe that the United States had the second worst health care in the world; the worst was every one else. I am now thinking that we are in fact the worst.

I am not a stupid person. Why do my health care providers treat me like one?

And tl;dr, but https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/02/when-evidence-says-no-but-doctors-say-yes/517368/.  Beware of the biases of our doctors.

Fill This Out With a Number 2 Pencil February 28, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am a reasonably healthy older male, with no personal or family history of heart problems. I recently had a racing heart rate, which was replaced fairly quickly with a normal one.  My doctor, in an abundance of caution, referred me to a cardiologist, claiming reasonably that such an event could result in a blood clot.

Okay. The referral was to the New England Heart and Vascular Institute, which sent me some paperwork.  To be filled out only with a Number 2 pencil.  Yes, it is fill-in-the-circle, from my elementary school standardized tests of 40+ years ago.

I have not owned a pencil in about 20 years, and am not even sure where to get one.

So I go to their website.  What is the biggest word on the page?  Innovation!

I am beside myself with amazement.

I am sorry. Innovation is not a buzzword.  It is something that you believe, invest in, and practice daily.  It is not something that you spray across your website with reckless abandon.

And, believe it or not, there are typos on their website!  And is ‘adn’.

This does not inspire any sort of confidence in this organization. New England Heart and Vascular Institute, I call you out as frauds.  I cannot believe that you would be advising and possibly treating me with any innovation whatsoever.

We talk about quality in software. This is not quality, in healthcare.

About Being Great February 15, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am not, let’s get that out of the way right now.  I have certain things going for me.  I am smart, I have a really good memory (most of my friends curse me for it), I am active physically and curious mentally.  I have a growth mindset.

But I truly admire someone 20 years younger than me.  Yes, that is Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots.  As he has fought through the most difficult year of his career, he remains the picture of class and grace.  His explanation of his ability to focus and control what he can control is simply amazing.

There are those will continue to call him a cheater.  From what I have read, I think not.  I think he was punished through an exercise of power that had little to do with the facts of the case.  I think any reasonable and objective person would agree with that.

Yes, I live in New England, now for most of my adult life.  But I am not a die-hard football fan.  I grew up as a casual fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was a teen during their first years of success.  In the conference championship game of this year, I was fine with whatever team won.  I was traveling during the Super Bowl, and only received occasional updates.

Many people might interpret Brady’s words as false, even hyperbole.  I simply don’t see that, because he has had many opportunities to say what he really thinks, and continues to be high-minded.  Certainly few would blame him for taking out frustrations on others, yet he does not.

Coming up on my 60th birthday, I still have much to learn about life.  Tom Brady can teach me, through his example.  I promise to be just a little better tomorrow than I am today.  He promises to excel every day.


Thank You Bank of America: Paying Bills Keeps Getting More Challenging February 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Not in a financial sense, but in a process one. Let me step back.  Growing up, my parents paid the vast majority of their monthly bills in cash, at the Post Office or the service window of the grocery store.  As a young adult, I handled my bill payment entirely through the US Mail.  Under some circumstances, you could have installment payments automatically deducted from your checking account, but that was about it.

Today, I pay most of my regular bills online, through my account(s) at Bank of America. I don’t particularly like to write out physical checks, but I typically do so for seasonal and occasional bills.  But the regular stuff is all online.

Now Bank of America is telling me that I shouldn’t be paying all of my bills through their system. Instead, they want me to pay through the individual vendor websites – FairPoint Communications, AT&T, Pennichuck, Nashua Wastewater, VISA, etc., rather than through my bank.

I do find that problematic. Each provider has its own login, which means a user name and password.  You really don’t want to use the same account name and password (and most have different requirements surrounding password definitions), and you don’t want to write them down anywhere.  I have a good memory, but I cannot balance dozens of account names and passwords in my head.

So the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to maintain a dozen or more different accounts on different vendors that I use. I understand that Bank of American finds it burdensome to handle my transactions, but that is what a bank is for.  Right???  It sounds like they want my deposits, but don’t want to go through the effort that is required to work with my deposits.

I’ve had issues with Bank of America before.  I would move, but for various reasons several of my accounts are sticky.  But they keep demonstrating again and again that they don’t want my business.  One of these days I may have to accommodate them.

Why is the American Ugly? January 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote a fictional novel titled “The Ugly American”.  I read it as a teen in the 1970s.  (No, it was not required reading for school; I simply read a lot of different things at that point in my life).  It took place largely in southeast Asia, and involved sincere but misguided American attempts to improve the lives of the average person elsewhere in the world.  Afterwards, and into today, the phrase generally refers to insensitive and obnoxious Americans (mostly tourists) trying to tell those in other cultures what they are doing wrong, based on their own perspective.

There is much to say here. I am, at this moment, returning from approximately a week in Europe, speaking at a conference.  I pretty much travel to Europe 3-5 times a year, for the last seven years.  I realize that Europe isn’t the rest of the world, so interpret this as you will.

However you might feel about American culture and influence, it has become the gold standard of technology, entertainment and, well, art. As Neil Stephenson put it in Snow Crash, Americans are good at four things – music, movies, microcode (software), and fast pizza delivery.  In Europe at least, you have a good measure of American influence in at least the first three of these.  In at least some cases, it has overwhelmed the local culture.

The English language is the lingua franca. It is the language of aviation worldwide.  Tour guides, hotel staff, and restaurants are almost required to understand and speak English.  Some are upset with that state of affairs.

I am old enough to remember a time when Esperanto was supposed to be the universal language.  But a language that does not well represent a practical reality has no chance of becoming universal.

You may argue that Americans refuse to speak another language. I will respectfully disagree.  I took Spanish in high school, and Russian in college.  I would like to communicate in those languages, and in others (most recently this past week, German; well, and Slovak, the language of my past).  Most Americans are required to take a language in secondary school and college.  Unlike the Europeans, we are so large a geographic area that we have no opportunity to use our learned languages, and they fall into disuse.

In short, I do not believe in the colloquial definition of the ugly American. Sure, a few of my compatriots are less than comprehending of the norms of a foreign culture.  But there are certainly those from other countries (again, mostly tourists) who behave boorishly.  Yet the world seems to hold Americans to another standard.

American movies, music, and microcode are overwhelming because they are, well, good. Or at least compelling to those who consume them.

I met many people who speak multiple languages and attempt to communicate with others (not just me). One on this trip was Mario, who was an Italian transplanted to Austria to be with his girlfriend.  They spoke different languages, he Italian and her German, but they found common ground in English.  Would they have even met without English?  For most, English is the least common denominator of communications.

We Americans are not ugly. We are just trying to do the best we can, like everyone else.