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On Technology, Discovery, and the Modern World June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a book that I bought at a used bookstore in Meadville, PA, circa 1976.  It’s titled The History of 19th Century Science, and is full of stories of scientists in the 1800s and their discoveries in fields such as biology, geology, and chemistry.  That century really was the Golden Age of science and discovery in the modern era.  The advances in science during the latter part of the 1800’s was really amazing.

(I paid the $1 written on the flyleaf, although the proprietor groused that it was mis-marked and probably worth more.  One of these days I’ll have to find out if it’s worth anything.)

But original science today is usually a very different beast.  Much of science, especially the physical sciences, are funded at millions of dollars, with large teams pursuing, quite frankly, is often incremental knowledge.

And that’s what many scientists have come to expect of the fruit of their labors.  In an era where scientists seem to be satisfied with very modest advancements over the course of decades of research and millions of dollars, there remains the opportunity to do significant and important work.

The real problem is that taking a mental leap is not the safe way to do science.  And if you are trying to establish a life career as a research scientist, you won’t take chances, so you won’t look for a breakthrough.

If you are a scientist, maybe you should look for breakthroughs more often.

Higher Education Ignores Results It Doesn’t Like June 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am a strong believer in higher education.  At the same time, I recognize that what passes for higher education in some classes and even entire universities is a farce that suffers from lack of, well, caring.

In particular, some universities claim that they provide a high quality education by fiat alone, and discount or ignore evidence to the contrary.  And no one is willing or able to hold them accountable.  This WSJ article (paywall) notes that those schools whose students don’t show improvement in critical thinking discount the value of the test and stop administering it.  And no one calls them to task.

But the cry from my own experiences in academia still rings in my ears – “We don’t have customers, we have students!”

This kind of close-minded thinking is all too common in our higher education.  We like to think that educated people are by nature intelligent and thoughtful human beings.  Too often, they are just the opposite.

Further, parents lack the information or ability to critically evaluate the education alternatives available to their children, and defer to what those children feel comfortable with.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that parents may be shelling out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a subpar education, or even no education at all.

To be fair, your experience in college is largely what you make of it.  You can go to Harvard, and party your way through with little impact on your ability to receive a degree.  You can go to Plymouth State, apply yourself, and obtain the foundation for a successful lifetime of learning and critical thinking.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter where you go.

But the American family is largely a poor consumer of higher education.  We spend more time and effort buying a car than we do buying an education, yet the implications of a poor choice are far more significant with the latter.  I wish we would find a way to penalize universities that make obviously unsupported claims on their quality, but regrettably, we genuflect to higher education so instinctively that we as consumers just don’t imagine going there.

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.

Uber Must Die June 6, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I dislike saying that, and I will get there in an indirect way.  I have a friend whose father recently passed, and as the executor she is required to bring his financial affairs to a conclusion.  She is dealing with utilities, banks, and a variety of other contact points, increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of closing, cancelling, or transferring accounts.  Her own company actually shut off the electricity to his condo, where she was now living.

The only exception is Fidelity, for retirement accounts.  She called Fidelity, expecting more of the same.  She got actionable advice, and the names and direct phone numbers of people who were willing to help her still further.  As a result, she wants to move not only his but all of her retirement assets into Fidelity accounts.

I would like to think that we tend to gravitate to companies that have good reputations, and provide good customer service.  Uber seems to be different, in that its users are able to divorce their use from the service from their understanding of the underlying company.

This is very wrong, of course.  I simply lack the fundamental understanding of why people frequent a company whose founder and CEO talked of starting an Uber-based dating service called “Boober.”

If you stand for anything at all, you must rail against this.  Yet people who use Uber don’t, oddly.

In fairness, Uber has done some things right.  It has provided a way to hail a taxi (even though that is still not what they claim to be) without knowing the local number of a taxi company.  People, oddly, don’t want to actually contact someone to get their ride.  But if you are a Uber user, you must know that your ride is subsidized, at around 60 percent, and someday they will have to significantly increase their prices.  Are you still onboard?

The problem is that the VCs are so financially invested that they can’t let it die, and will do anything to take it to an exit strategy.  So the VCs can’t get out.  Guess what?  You can.  Delete the app.  Take the additional friction of finding a cab.  You will grow as a human being.

But Uber is poison.  Beyond an initial goal to upend the taxi industry, it has no redeeming value.  Most of us care about the companies we do business with.  If you don’t care about Uber, you are very wrong.

We Are Seeing the World Change in Our Lifetimes May 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Let me give an example. When I was growing up, we had a milkman, who delivered milk to our doorstep in a dilapidated old truck early in the morning, twice a week (the milkman was my uncle).

Today, your smart refrigerator can monitor your milk consumption and automatically order milk to be delivered with your dinner that evening. By drone.  You have milk!

But the pace of change has accelerated immensely recently, to the point where we are talking seriously about driverless cars, autonomous vehicles in general, and robots or other AI performing both labor and professional tasks.  No one beyond a few specialists were having these discussions five years ago.

I am in awe at living in this era. The world has never seen anything like this, and we are at the dawn of, well, something.  I know it will be different; I hope it’s good.

Tens of millions of traditional lifetime jobs will disappear in the next decade (sorry, Mr. Trump), and we will never see their likes again.  I am confident that others will arise, in time, but it will be a messy at least several years.

Work in general is changing. There will still be coal miners, but they will be in office cubicles in Des Moines, manhandling joysticks to control the robots a thousand miles away and a thousand feet underground.  I especially liked this one, where London City Airport is basing its air traffic controllers 50 miles away and letting them see and respond to traffic by TV, GPS, and ground systems.

The problem is that we are lousy at predicting the future. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  We can’t know with any certainty what will last, for the moment, and what will fall ignobly.

Many will survive and even thrive. Many will not.  The revolution has started, and I am excited to be a part of it; I simply hope that I am not the first up against the wall.

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.

Please Explain to Me Why Uber Isn’t Toast May 5, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Uber is in the process of transforming the taxi industry. In general, that’s a good thing.  Mostly (more on that in a later post).

Everything else about Uber is a very bad thing.

First, it is about professional drivers, not ride sharing. Anyone who hasn’t figured that out by now needs to go directly to jail, and not pass Go.  When was the last time you personally shared your car with strangers, seriously?  This is absolutely not about ride sharing, and you know that, despite the drivel coming out of the company.

Second, it is about treating their drivers as poorly as possible, but keeping them onboard until they can get to driverless vehicles. Its CEO has already told us all how he treats his drivers.  All drivers will be jettisoned at the moment driverless cars become viable.  And, yes again, this is about professional drivers, not ride sharing.

Third, it is about a scofflaw culture that operates illegally, then claims it is misunderstood, or that laws are simply things that get in its way, or something that makes it superior.

Last, it is an employer that celebrates the bro culture, that takes everything that it can from its employees and delivers nothing in return, especially those who are not white, male, and affluent. Especially affluent.  Except for its drivers.  Let’s keep them poor and hungry.  Until the time we cut them all loose.

I realize that none of this is a damnable business problem (sometimes business itself is damned). But it should be, and it will be, in the not-to-distant future.

For you VCs out there, I fully appreciate how Uber is upending an industry. But it is poison as a company and an investment.  Get out if you can; no, get out at any cost.