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One More Trip Around the Sun September 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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And it is once again 9/11, eighteen years later.  I was a working mid-career adult at the time, and it is striking to me that people who are voting for the first time this year were likely not even born on that date.  It is history to them, and that is how it should be.  My own memories remain vivid, at work, knowing that the world had just changed, but not knowing what that meant as to just how.

It’s personal to me, though perhaps not in a deep sense.  I lost friends and colleagues that day.  Last year, I did a virtual road race in support of their memories, as well as those who were first responders.  This year, I wanted to once again acknowledge those memories.

Today, we are afraid, not like we were in the immediate aftermath of that day.  I remember that evening, watching President Bush walk across the White House lawn to a podium set up out in the open.  He was as protected as any human being could be, yet I cringed that yet another airplane, or a missile, could come crashing down at any moment.

Today we are afraid of the randomness of our existence.  We could be at work, at the mall, in a restaurant, and our next breath could be our last.  Of course, that was always true, but we believed we had a modicum of control over our future and our fate, only to be violently reminded that we are players in a larger drama.

If you could, please take a moment today to remember those who were going about their daily lives, only to have the Fates suddenly and randomly cut their cords short.  And remember those first responders who gave their lives and their health to do their difficult jobs to the best of their ability.  Thank you.


Two Summer Road Races August 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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While I am trying to get back to the level of running I was at a couple of years ago (before wild animals started interrupting my pre-dawn runs), I have completed two very interesting runs recently.  The first was the Cabrillo Sunset 5K, in San Diego in July.  This race was in the Cabrillo National Monument, at the very tip of land between the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay.

The race started at the top of the bluff, went 1.55 miles and about 350 vertical feet to near the Pacific Ocean.  And then back up again.  That, of course, was the hard part.  It was probably the most difficult course I have run (well, walked, mostly).  Here is the finisher’s medal.


The second race, at the beginning of August, was the Summer Sizzler in Wilmington NC, my sister’s hometown.  As the name implies, coastal North Carolina can get very hot and humid first thing in the morning.  The first time I ran it, two years ago, I saw something swimming in Greenfield Lake.  I looked closer, and sure enough, it was an alligator.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it, and since then it has become the official mascot of the race.  This year, the 10K finisher’s medal included the alligator:


Unlike many people, I don’t run for a runner’s high or for a sense of peace and quiet.  Instead, I appreciate the sense of accomplishment after I finish.

There is Less to Free College Than Meets the Eye June 25, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I am an incredibly strong believer in higher education.  Higher education vaulted me from a life of blue-collar servitude into the middle class and likely beyond.  The discipline and long term vision inherent in the work required to get a degree, in any field, enormously helps people no matter where they end up.

(As someone who earned advanced degrees in both natural and social sciences, I have my own opinion on rigor.  Both have rigor.  However, you can bluff your way through a psychology test; you can’t in a math test.)

So as I read about Bernie Sanders’ plan to cancel $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt, I thought about Boris.  Boris, a part time tour guide in Copenhagen, was both an insider and an outsider in his society.  He was a Danish born citizen, but the son of a Russian father and Korean mother.  At 26, he had a degree in sociology, in a country where all education was free.  “I got a degree without knowing what I wanted to do with it, or with my life,” he told us.  “Because it was free, I didn’t stop to think where I wanted to go from there.”  At the time we met him, he was in vocational training to become a carpenter (also free).

I don’t like the phrase “skin in the game,” but if you are paying for something, or borrowing and expected to pay for it in the future, you tend not to spend unwisely.  And while Sanders’ plan might let many (all) students begin their adult lives with a clean slate, I’m suspecting that there might be the tendency to produce professional students.

We don’t have to work in the field where we get a degree (most of my degrees don’t apply here).  But planning and budgeting, and compromising on other aspects of life, play a role in university, degree, and success.  With a free ride, you don’t have to worry about doing that.  While it’s not a prerequisite for getting a degree, such compromises should be a part of an adult life.

The Balance Between Promotion and Privacy June 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Uncategorized.
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I have a (very) minor, and I hope positive, reputation in technology.  I’ve authored many articles and spoken at dozens of tech conferences over the past decade or so.  I am occasionally called upon as a subject matter expert to advise investors, present webinars, and author opinions about various aspects of software and their accompanying systems.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned for my privacy.  Other than a seminal moment in my personal heath, several years ago, and one or two nondenominational political statements (we all must take a stand in some fashion), I comment on technology issues.  I would like to think I do so with thought and sensitivity, and I like to think that my ideas have been on the leading edge on a number of occasions.

I do a modest job of promoting myself, through my blog (this one), Twitter (https://twitter.com/pvarhol), and LinkedIn (never Facebook), because I hope it helps my career (such as it is) in some fashion.

But at the same time I am concerned that public or Internet exposure could invite violations of privacy.  You may think that I have given up any call to privacy once I participated in social media, and you may well be correct, but I think about every foray I make on the Internet and how it may affect my privacy.

I am not so stupid as to believe that I can keep much about me to myself.  Once others have access to some information, they can likely get other stuff.  With too much transparency, you are opening yourself up to data theft, financial fraud, and reputational damage.

And this is the fundamental reason I will never sign up for Facebook.  With Facebook, you are the product, and never forget that.  Despite years of promises, Facebook has sold, given to so-called partners, or simply had stolen data from tens of millions of users.  Yet we seem to be okay with that.  I talk to many people who say “I only use Facebook to keep track of old friends”, but the fact of the matter is they often do much more.  I know that despite my non-participation, I have exposure to Facebook, due to updates and photos from friends.  When asked, I beg them not to use my image or name, but they rarely comply.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who is trying to work through the compromise of visibility and privacy.  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that an important part is to not have anything to do with Facebook.  As for the rest, I can only advise to weigh the risks versus the benefits carefully.

We are quickly headed toward a society where little if any information about ourselves will be owned and controlled by us.  Many of us try to practice “security through obscurity”, or trying to hide in the weeds of everyone else, but in an era of Big Data analytics, it will be a piece of cake to pinpoint and take advantage of us.  I try to remediate where I can, but I’m not prepared for this world.

The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need June 3, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Circa 1980, I was 22 years old (more or less) and had recently collected my first paycheck as an Air Force Second Lieutenant.  Now my parents, Pete and Ann, never graduated high school and were financial illiterates, and I had no idea what to do with that paycheck.  At the time, I lived in the Baltimore suburbs, in a row house in a blue collar neighborhood that reflected my upbringing.  Across the street was a community park where I did my first distance running, and on the other side of the park was the Brooklyn Park Public Library.

I made use of the library to check out books on personal financial planning.  I came across several books by Andrew Tobias, including The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need, and Getting By On $100,000 a Year (in 1976, when the book was first published, that was quite a feat).  I knew that Tobias had my blue collar heart in mind when his very first advice, before the era of Costco and Sams Club, was “buy in bulk.”

From there, Tobias led me on a journey from the most basic of cost saving exercises to some of the more sophisticated (for individuals) strategies, all with an easy to understand description and tone.  I never did options, puts, or calls, but I know what they are, thanks to Tobias.

Today, thanks in large part to reading these books, I am easily ready to retire if I choose (I choose not to).  I’ve not had a mortgage in over 20 years, and I will likely never starve unless Fidelity Investments goes out of business.

We decry the lack of personal financial training in our school systems, including college, but it’s easy enough for young people to teach themselves.  Simply, read books like this.

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.

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.