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Life is a Marathon April 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am truly disturbed when I hear politicians and pundits talk about reclaiming the American Dream.  Like it is something that got lost at some point.

So let me start here. I am of the Boomer generation, yes, obviously we had everything go our way, throughout our careers, and we exploited the system and our Fellow Man to grab as much as we could.  We are the fat cats, and had an exceptionally great life.

Except that the year I graduated college, unemployment was the highest it had ever been since the Great Depression. And at a high of 11 percent, it was even higher than it was in the Great Recession of the late 2000s.  And inflation topped out at over 17 percent annually in the next year or two.  We have never seen that in the last century, except for my coming of age.  Our greatest earning years were interrupted by 9/11 and the Great Recession, and I won’t even get into the milder recession in the Boston area in the early 1990s.

Yup, many of us were out of work. I’m not sure about you, but I went into the military.  The pay was low even by the standards of the day, but I had an effective start to a professional career.

My parents, card-carrying members of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, lived as children through the Great Depression. Many barely got by, and many more migrated in the vain hope that they could feed their families.  Millions of Americans were killed or wounded in World War II.  My father stormed Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, but was only wounded, so I am here today.

Later, 58,000 young American men and women were killed in a far-away country called Vietnam (and I won’t even get into the Vietnamese losses). Several of them were my elder peers, growing up.  Tens of thousands of others were scarred for life by the horrific experience.  In between was Korea, which cost tens of thousands more lives.

Yup, they lived the American Dream.

I could go back further (not necessarily with my family), but why bother? My point?  I don’t believe that the idealized American Dream ever existed as it is portrayed in myth and legend, in the media and by the politicians and pundits.

And that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Well-meaning but terribly misguided people like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (linked to above) seem to think that a vision was lost, a reality that existed and was banked on no longer does.

I’d argue that his so-called vision was a hallucination that never existed. Sure, maybe for some people, who had everything to begin with, or those for whom all of the breaks went in a positive direction.  People like, well, Howard Schultz.

We cannot measure ourselves by the circumstances by which we come of age. We can’t look back at 24 and say that circumstances have treated us poorly in life.  We cannot take our measure of life until it is over.  And we are all individuals, with individual needs and desires in our lives, our careers, our emotional connections, and our fulfillments.  Everyone’s goal is different.

Howard Schultz, you are more than wrong; you are dangerous.

I Have a Semi-Political Story to Tell April 7, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Shortly before I turned 18 years old, it turned out that 18-year olds were granted the right to vote. Up until then, you could be drafted into the Army at 18 (and I narrowly missed the draft), but couldn’t vote until you were 21.  Some powers raised an eminently reasonable objection to that, and 18 year olds could vote.  So I was about 18 at this time, and registered to vote.

I was a full time student in college, registered to vote absentee, and did so, legally.

But my vote, my first vote, didn’t count. It was tossed out.  And here is why.  My father, with whom I share a given name, voted in person, in our old rural fire station.  He gave his name, “Peter Varhol.”  The poll checker looked him up in the roles, and asked “Peter D.”?  My father took that to mean he was a registered Democrat (which he was), and replied in all honesty, “Yes.”

I am Peter D., not my father. So I (we) voted twice, and because mine was the one that came in via mail (yes, the US Postal Service), it lost out.

Today, I have to show a photo ID in my state to vote. I understand that it is this way in most states today.  Now, throughout my life, I was told that showing ID discouraged those who couldn’t vote in the past.  It made sense.  To anyone who has read recent history, that makes a lot of sense.

But I remain sad that I lost my first vote, because of the requirement to not show ID.

I don’t know what the right answer is here. I would like to see everyone who can vote do so.  At the same time, I wish my vote, now 40 years ago, had not been tossed aside because of an error that could have been easily rectified.

I am not political, and will support any candidate and official who doesn’t break anything.  We tend to make a lot out of our voting and election process. In the grand scheme of things, we will make mistakes.  From a personal standpoint, it remains a disappointment to me.  I don’t think there is any easy fix to something like this.  So let’s figure out how we can let every who is eligible to vote do so.

My Manifesto for Human Interaction April 5, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I resolve:

To treat everyone I meet, however casually, with politeness and respect, no matter what the circumstances.

To judge people by the value that they deliver, rather than the color of their skin, their gender, their appearance, their age, their religious beliefs, or anything else that doesn’t affect our interactions.

And that that value may be intellectual, physical, emotional, commercial, spiritual, or any other measure that lets both of us live in the way that we do. It is a very big world, after all.

That while I may disagree with others, I do so knowing that they believe that their point of view is valid to them, and that I should seek to understand.

And that while I may understand, I also realize that disagreement may place us into conflict. I regret that, but if you should choose to physically or emotionally harm others, I will not be on your side.

And I hope they will see me in a similar way. And that I might be worthy of such treatment.  To be fair, I’m not sure that I am.  It is an ongoing process.

I think I have mostly delivered on this in my life, but now this is my stake in the ground.

Plane Spotting April 2, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I didn’t know a lot about airliners back in the day, but perhaps a couple of times a year, starting in the late 1960s, my father used to take me out to a road at the end of Greater Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) to watch planes take off. I suppose this is an acquired taste, but to me, a homebound youth with a travel bug, it was how I connected to a larger world at the time.

I wasn’t good at identifying planes, now 40-plus years ago. There were few resources for youth and aviation at that time.  I think I might be marginally better today, at least with the aircraft manufacturers in the Western Hemisphere (okay, Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, and Embraer; I can even do an occasional Gulfstream and LearJet).  I probably know something of the general aviation craft too, but those have changed substantially from the basic Piper (no longer in business), Cessna (mostly commercial), and Bellanca (no longer in business).  Many are now of European origin; it has become prohibitively expensive to produce small planes in the US these days.

I grew up near Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. It had a small airport where the high-wing Volair 4-seaters were manufactured.  I understand from my decades-long subscription to Flying magazine that it was an early progenitor to the Rockwell Aero Commander.

I also became a pilot. In fact, I soloed the day after I got my driver’s license, at 16, in a Piper Cherokee 140 (for those of you who are counting, this was 1973).  I got the license, but rarely flew after that.  My eyesight precluded flying for the Air Force, and somewhere along the line I lost the bug.  I did have one wonderful afternoon with a commercial Britten-Norman Islander in the Caribbean in my 20s, where the pilot let me fly right seat and take the controls.

Today, I primarily engage in plane spotting when I travel.  Sometimes (I live close to one of the final legs of MHT Runway 36) I can pick out the Southwest 737s coming in, mostly because of their distinctive paint schemes.  And in the summertime, when it’s light out and I’m jogging in the early morning, I can see the old yellow DHL Boeing 727 or the FedEx Airbus 318 as they come in around 5AM.

I care about commercial aircraft in part because I want to know where to sit when I fly. But I will also sit in the Delta Sky Club in DTW, or ATL, or wherever my travels take me, and watch planes taxi, take off, and land.  I lost the car bug early in my adulthood, but the plane bug still holds a grip on me.

Should I Be Celebrating International Women’s Day? March 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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The whole thing seems a bit contrived. And yes, demeaning to women.  Why call out something like this, in a perfect world?  If we celebrate women and their achievements on one day of the year, what are we doing the rest of the days?  And I find it extremely ironic that Google has seen fit to offer an animated JPEG for the day on its search engine, seeing that Google employs so few women to begin with.

I was raised in a very traditional household, but have been fortunate to know many smart and capable women throughout my life. I have not always been what I would like to be, but I have mostly treated the women in my life as equals.

We should not need a day for this. It provides us with a reason to revert back to apathy for the rest of the year.  Let’s try this:  treat all people equally.  You may treat people poorly, or well, but don’t treat them different on the basis of gender.  Or, for that matter, anything else.

The Myths Behind Technology and Productivity February 26, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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There was a period of about 15 years from 1980 to 1995 when productivity grew at about half of the growth rate of the US economy. To many of us, this was the Golden Era of computing technology.  It was the time when computing emerged from the back office and became an emergent force in everyone’s lives.

When I entered the workforce, circa 1980, we typed correspondence (yes, on an IBM Selectric) and sent it through the postal system. For immediate correspondence, we sat for hours in front of the fax machine, dialing away.  Business necessarily moved at a slower pace.

So as we moved to immediate edits, email, and spreadsheets, why didn’t our measures of productivity correspondingly increase? Well, we really don’t know.  I will offer two hypotheses.  First, our national measures of productivity are lousy.  Our government measures productivity as hours in, product out.  We don’t produce defined product as much today as we did then (more of our effort is in services, which national productivity measures still more poorly), and we certainly don’t measure the quality of the product.  Computing technology has likely contributed to improving both of these.

Second, it is possible that improvements in productivity tend to lag leaps of technology. That is also a reasonable explanation.  It takes time for people to adapt to new technology, and it takes time for business processes to change or streamline in response.

Today, this article in Harvard Business Review discounts both of these hypotheses, instead focusing on the fact that we are communicating to more people, for little purpose.  Instead, this article focuses on what it calls the dark side of Metcalfe’s Law.  Metcalfe’s Law (named after Ethernet inventor and all-around smart guy Bob Metcalfe) states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

The dark side is that we talk to more people, with little productivity. I will acknowledge that technology has contributed to a certain amount of waste.  But it has also added an unmeasurable amount of quality to the finished product or service.  It has enabled talented people to work where they live, and not have to live where they work.  It has let us do things faster and more comprehensively than we were ever able to do in the past.

To say that this is not productive is simply stupid, and does not take into account anything in recent history.

Warning: I am not an economist, by any stretch of the imagination.  I am merely a reasonably intelligent technical person with innate curiosity about how things work.  However, from reading things like this, it’s not clear that many economists are reasonably intelligent people to begin with.

About College Education, Cost, and Whose Fault is It Anyway? February 17, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I care deeply about higher education. It is what enabled me to transition from a working class household to the upper middle class as an adult.  A successful decade-plus in higher education has paid off well for me.

My BA work came at an interesting confluence in my family’s economic history. It seemed that in a couple of years leading up to my college life, the wages of an average steelworker increased more than enough to pay for three years at a private college, with some minor help from financial aid.  Of course, it helped that I went to one of the least expensive private colleges available.  And of course, the steel mills in the Pittsburgh area went away a few years afterward, because the economic model agreed to by the owners and the labor was ultimately unsustainable.

I paid for the next three degrees myself, as a young adult professional. I accept no accolades for it; it was just what I wanted to do with my life at that point.  Others have done it more efficiently, but I got it done well enough to have a reasonably successful career.

In time, I became a college professor, first adjunct, then tenure track. And I was exposed to how sausage was made, college finance style.  The colleges that I taught at didn’t care one whit about what they charged students.  They didn’t even really care about the students, to the point of not acknowledging them as customers.  There was an implicit but very real assumption that parents, the government, or loans would pay for whatever they happened to charge.  I say this starkly, with dislike, because the colleges didn’t really like or appreciate their students, in a financial sense.

So where am I going with this? I just had the brash sense to respond to a LinkedIn accolade wherein Senator Elizabeth Warren complains that banks pay very low interest rates, yet charge students market rates for college loans.

I actually like Elizabeth Warren. I think she says a lot of things that need to be said in a public discourse.

But I think she is mostly wrong. College loans require servicing, and college students occasionally default (I realize that they can’t really default on Federal loans, but that also doesn’t mean that they always pay them back; they don’t).  And yes, banks aren’t in the business of providing a public service; they are in the business of making a reasonable return off of the risks that they take.  She seems to have conveniently forgotten that part of the equation.

Most of the blame here is on the colleges, who really didn’t (don’t) care what the bill came to. I could go on, but I became fed up with the incredible arrogance of colleges in believing absolutely that their bill would be paid, by someone.  Some of the blame is on the parents, who want their children to have the same college experiences that they did, without realizing that higher education today is different.  And they are the ones that have to educate their children on the education alternatives, and what is within the realm of affordability and expectation.

Take a deep breath, Peter. So here’s what I think.  I think that the vast majority of students need to have a realistic understanding of what they can pay for, and seek out an education that meets the expectations of their life aspirations.  That doesn’t have to involve compromise, but it does involve research.  And it requires the support of the parents, who I think are mostly ill-equipped to provide that support.

But I really think that this falls on the colleges, who steadfastly refuse to look at their costs and charges, with an eye toward doing right by their students. I realize that there are probably exceptions here, but most colleges simply don’t care what their expenses are.  They do have a minor interest in what they charge, but only in relation to what similar colleges charge.  There is absolutely no concern with how the bill will be paid.

And that is a shame. And that is where Elizabeth Warren is truly wrong.

What Are We Doing With AI and Machine Learning? February 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Uncategorized.
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When I was in graduate school, I studied artificial intelligence (AI), as a means for enabling computers to make decisions and to identify images using symbolic computers and functional languages. It turned out that there were a number of things wrong with this approach, especially twenty-five years ago.  Computers weren’t fast enough, and we were attacking the wrong problems.

But necessity is the mother of invention. Today, AI and machine learning are being used in what is being called predictive analytics.  In a nutshell, it’s not enough to react to an application failure.  Applications are complex to diagnose and repair, and any downtime on a critical application costs money and could harm people.  Simply, we are no longer in a position to allow applications to fail.

Today we have the data and analysis available to measure baseline characteristics of an application, and look for trends in a continual, real-time analysis of that data.  We want to be able to predict if an application is beginning to fail.  And we can use the data to diagnose just what is failing.  In that the team can work on fixing it before something goes wrong.

What kind of data am I talking about?  Have you ever looked at Perfmon on your computer?  In a console window, simply type Perfmon at the C prompt.  You will find a tool that lets you collect and plot an amazing number of different system and application characteristics.  Common ones are CPU utilization, network traffic, disk transfers, and page faults, but there are literally hundreds more.

The is a Big Data sort of thing; a server farm can generate terrabytes of log and other health data every day.  It is also a DevOps initiative.  We need tools to be able to aggregate and analyze the data, and present it in a format understandable by humans (at the top level, usually a dashboard of some sort).

How does testing fit in?  Well, we’ve typically been very siloed – dev, test, ops, network, security, etc.  A key facet of DevOps is to get these silos working together as one team.  And that may mean that testing has responsibilities after deployment as well as before.  They may establish the health baseline during the testing process, and also be the ones to monitor that health during production.


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