Science fiction and the future

What’s the future going to look like? That simple question has fueled the work of philosophers, theologians, scientists, stock pickers, and, of course, science-fiction writers. So naturally it was the focus of my session at the 2015 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Joining me for the lively, 40-minute, and mercifully PowerPoint-free discussion were Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress, futurist and writer Ramez Naam, and former astronaut Ed Lu.


One of my favorite parts of the session was a utopia/dystopia lightning round, in which I asked for quick assessments of which direction seven developments might take us, including:

  • Uber
  • Self-driving cars
  • Internet of Things
  • Robots overcoming the “uncanny valley”
  • iPhone 17S
  • All knowledge only digital in form
  • President Donald Trump

You can read a partial transcript (including the lightning round) on GeekWire. And, there’s a full video of the session on YouTube.

And for those who prefer podcasts, an eight-minute audio excerpt on the role of science fiction in looking ahead to the future is part of an episode of GeekWire Radio, starting at 25:25.

Lu also had some choice words on the current state of NASA. And the three all expressed both concern and delight when asked what keeps them up at night. I was simultaneously entertained and learned a lot from my guests. I trust you will be, too.

When columns subside: Why I’m taking a break from column writing

GeekWirecolumnsIt usually begins politely: “I really like your stuff in GeekWire.”

I mutter a thank you, asking them what they’ve liked. “Well,” this especially hypothetical reader responds, “That cheat sheet on trends and fads in edtech was great. And your leveraging of Tomorrowland to call for more, and better, optimistic visions of the future was a good read.” Then the pause.

Always, the pause.

“But why were both of those in May? And there’s been nothing since?”

As with relationships, French recipes, and government programs, it’s complicated. But let me unpack it as briefly and best as I can.

First, GeekWire and I have not parted ways. I’ve been a columnist (and occasionally more than that, filling in on the editorial desk and contributing other non-column posts) since Todd Bishop and John Cook founded the tech news site more than four years ago. Technically, I’m on hiatus (or less technically, a very extended summer break) due to several other demands. But it’s unlikely the regular column will return in its earlier frequency and form.

The why?

The speaking. Every public talk I give is a one-off. I don’t reuse presentations, because I know every audience is different (and I’d also bore myself if I always said the same thing).  I’ve been verbose: a June keynote on education technology in New Zealand, an early July session moderating a discussion on student privacy at ISTE, a late July on-stage interview of science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow for Clarion West, and participating in or moderating three panels at the World Science Fiction Convention in August. Every speaking gig requires the research of at least one column; a keynote, far more. Plus, in most cases (and especially New Zealand), travel time.

The day job. The start of June marked a rather intense annual effort as I again researched and wrote two detailed chapters (on instructional content and assessment) of the forthcoming MDR EdNET Insight State of the K-12 Market Report. Not only did that consulting project suck any remaining writing air out of my brain, but at the start of July, I set aside my education technology consulting practice to join SchoolMessenger as its vice president of marketing strategy. Since then, I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of new employment, trying not to drown. So far it’s been refreshing. But also time consuming.

The breather. Occasionally, a columnist needs to take a break and re-assess direction. I’ve done this with tech columnist and news media contributing analyst roles going back (cough) two decades, starting with Seattle Weekly/Eastsideweek, KCPQ-TV Seattle, Puget Sound Business Journal, and now GeekWire. (And that’s just the long-term tech stuff — I’ve also done shorter-term edtech columns for NPR’s MindShift and EdSurge, regular science and science-fiction book reviews for the Seattle Times and Amazing Science Fiction, and even sci-fi film reviews for The Comics Journal.) This is a happy break, very unlike the shorter one a year ago in which both my spouse and I learned some lessons about sharing bad news on social media.

I’ll resurface at the GeekWire Summit in early October in Seattle, interviewing an astronaut, a computer scientist or two, and a science-fiction writer or two on the future of technology.

And after that? There’s no deadline for me to start regularly writing again. But as my history — and the length of this  “brief” explanation — reveal, I will write. I don’t think I’m physically and mentally capable to not.

Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Education technology is a hotbed of activity. And some developments will stay warm, while others, now overheated, will rapidly cool.

It’s helpful not just to companies, but non-profit organizations in education and educational institutions themselves, to have an idea of which is which.

At the EdTech for Export conference in New Zealand last week, I flipped the questions I’d been asking other industry execs (“Fad, trend, or it’s complicated?“) into advice for the industry itself. It’s mostly U.S.-centric, and has only a three-to-five year time frame.  Both are key caveats.

Below is my presentation — with screen-by-screen notes — on nine developments (from Open Educational Resources to the rise of iPads and Chromebooks). Plus I highlight five bonus myths about education technology, corrected. The last has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of my presentation on Twitter.

Or, if you’d prefer, the full 30-minute video has also been posted by my New Zealand hosts, which may be more entertaining that clicking through slides and reading text.

(Et4e15 – Keynote 3| Frank Catalano, Intrinsic Strategy from Grow Wellington on Vimeo.)

As with any free advice, it may largely be worth what you paid for it.

Continue reading Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

In defense of science optimism, and Tomorrowlands

TomorrowlandmainscreenI love a good dystopia as much as the next science-fiction fan. But let’s not get carried away.

Over at GeekWire, I give qualified praise to the new Walt Disney Pictures feature, Tomorrowland, more for what it represents than for what it is. I did enjoy it for its classic Disney YA (for non-literary genre types, that’s code for “Young Adult”) approach. And it gets props for the many science fiction (a pop culture shop staffer named “Hugo Gernsback,” after the editor of the first U.S. science-fiction magazine) and Disneyland (multiple appearances of the original Space Mountain building in a city skyline) references scattered throughout.

But what I especially praise it for is its tone, and the premise that science and engineering can be a force for good. That’s a tone missing all too much in the prevalent pop culture celebration of all things zombie and post-human-accelerated apocalypse. Both kinds of visions can entertain and be thought provoking.

Tomorrowland’s story? A bit obvious (especially for adults), and a bit muddled. But nice narrative touches, good acting, and fun to look at.

Read, “Ignore the critics: The world needs more Tomorrowlands,” at GeekWire.

Edtech cheat sheet: 10 trends, fads, and WTFs

I think the phrases that have gotten the most attention are “Burning-Man-for-investors” and “they called it ‘assigned reading.'”

Why the freemium trend is better than "free" for the "customer"
Why the freemium trend is better than “free” for the customer

Over at GeekWire, I end the spring 2015 education technology conference season (which itself is almost at an end: I’m still speaking at two more in the second half of June, one in New Zealand, one in Philadelphia) with my humble summation of the state of ten hotly discussed education technology developments.

I also conveniently define them in a sentence for normal human beings who don’t speak edtech jargon. (I’m not one of those “normal human beings,” I’m afraid. Never been accused of that, nor had it proven in a court of law.)

My summary judgement of each — whether it’s currently a fad, trend, or a WTF — comes with a small bit of trepidation. Not because of the conclusion. But the wording. In my public speaking, I’d often label the triumvirate instead as “fad, trend, or it’s complicated.”  But honestly, the two WTFs I identify truly are more than simply complicated — they’re mystifying in either their failure (so far) to take off in education, or in the overblown claims of supporters that ignored hundreds of years of human-to-human interaction. WTF, indeed.

The fact both have the word “open” associated with them is pure coincidence, since something “open” is also one of my trends.

Oh, and those two phrases getting attention? One has to do with the ASU+GSV Summit. The other with flipped classrooms. You can figure out which is which.

Read, “Education technology: Your cheat sheet to 10 fads, trends, and WTFs,” at GeekWire.

Of symphonies, science fiction, and tech

Technology and the arts influence each other, and that’s true in even unexpected ways. Over at GeekWire, I look at connections between technology and the arts in two separate columns.

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In the first, it’s a matter of a maestro, plus musicians, plus mellifluous machines as the Seattle Symphony experiments with a Microsoft Kinect. Imagine a conductor directing live musicians with one hand, and specially created kinetic instruments with another. In real time.

Yes, that happened.

Science_Wonder_Quarterly_Fall_1929In the second, it’s the collision of one of written science fiction’s top honors — the Hugo Award — with successful slate voting for the first time, largely web-propelled. What’s most odious about the outcome isn’t the politics espoused, but the tactics applied, and it could poison the award’s perceived value in the long term.

The good news out of the situation, however, it that it seems to have spurred far more people to pay attention to, and even attend, the Sasquan World Science Fiction Convention (this August, in Spokane, Wash.) than ever before. Hell, it got me to sign up to show up for the first time in two decades.

First read, “Conducting with Kinect: Seattle Symphony to use Microsoft’s sensor in world premiere “ and then, “As science fiction ascends, its popular award – the Hugo – threatens to nosedive,” both at GeekWire.

Amazon’s ‘any device’ edtech strategy

Amazon’s strategy in education technology is becoming clear. It’s not about selling Kindle e-readers or Fire tablets into schools or colleges. It’s about pushing digital content — free or, one presumes ideally, that purchased through Amazon — to the Kindle reading app. On any device, from any manufacturer.kindleapp300300

Amazon’s play in edtech isn’t about the device. It’s about the digital materials.

I was filling in at GeekWire when Whispercast 3.0, the harbinger of this clarity, was released by Amazon. So I took that opportunity to interview the new general manager of Amazon Education, Rohit Agarwal (also co-founder of Amazon-owned TenMarks).

Two developments stood out:

  • Amazon is, for the first time, offering what it calls “Digital Transition Services” to schools to help them make the switch from paper to pixel. Not only is this free, it is with a named Amazon representative, presumably not a random support rep that changes with every contact.
  • Amazon is officially device-agnostic in education. As Agarwal put it, “We want to be the provider of the right content, for every device, as students need it.”

(You can read more about what’s new in this version of Whispercast in the GeekWire piece, “Amazon launches Whispercast 3.0 tool, emphasizes free services for schools.”)

It doesn’t hurt that the Kindle reading app and the Whispercast 3.0 distribution and management tool are both free.  And work with Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, iPads, iPhones, Android tablets and phones, Chromebooks, and Macintosh and Windows computers.

There were hints of this direction in a major deal Amazon announced in education in Brazil a year earlier. Government-issued, non-Amazon Android tablets were the device; the Kindle reading app was the delivery mechanism.

I went into this a bit more on GeekWire Radio the week of the Whispercast 3.0 announcement (the segment starts at time code 24:07).

Or, put another way: Amazon is no longer, as I dubbed it a year ago, education’s passive lurker. U.S. schools and universities — and digital content ecosystem providers Apple and Google — will likely find that out, soon enough.

Edtech: Fad, trend, or it’s complicated?

There is a lot going on in education technology, so much so that it’s dizzying to keep track of it all: Massive Open Online Courses, digital Open Badges, 1:1 computing programs, Open Educational Resources, and foundation grants to startups, just to name a few.

And it can be even harder to determine if some of these are fads, trends, or something more complicated.

At two events in 2015, I took to the stage to ask two different panels of industry executives and long-time observers for their takes.


First, at SXSWedu in Austin in early March, I moderated a session with Don Kilburn, president of Pearson North America, Peter Cohen, U.S. education group president for McGraw-Hill Education, and John Dragoon, executive vice president and chief marketing offer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Called, “Reinventing Industry: Changing Edu’s ‘Big Three’,” we tackled major changes these three major players have seen — or been a part of — in the past two years. (Sadly, due a technical glitch, all of those responses didn’t make it onto the official event recording, which is missing the first 15 minutes of the session.)


In the final five minutes, I engaged all three in a lightning round of ten developments, asking simply: Is it a fad, trend, or complicated? You can listen for yourself (starting at time code 41:33).

None were universally dismissed as fads Three of the ten got a consistent “trend” response: freemium (as a business model), flipped classrooms (as an instructional model), and an edtech investment bubble (as being as bubble).

The only universal “it’s complicated?” Common Core State Standards. After a slightly stunned reaction by at least one or two panelists.


A somewhat extended approach was taken at the Software and Information Industry Association’s annual Education Industry Summit in San Francisco in early May: 15 topics in under 15 minutes. This time, the panelists were Karen Billings, vice president and managing director of SIIA’s Education Technology Industry Network, Kevin Custer, founding partner at Arc Capital Development, and David Samuelson, executive vice president and general manager at Capstone Digital.


You can catch the video here (it’s the very first part of the one titled “Networking Lunch”).

Spoiler alert: Only three of the 15 developments had the panel in universal agreement. Fad: Completely replacing all paper textbooks with digital materials. Trend: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement. And, it’s complicated: Common Core State Standards, again.

To, I suspect, almost no one’s surprise.

Five steps to deal with your geek child’s adulthood

geekwiretoasteditIn 2012, I wrote what is arguably the GeekWire column of which I’m most fond: “7 steps to raise a geek child.” It was borne out of my experiences raising my son and — not surprisingly — had echoes of my own upbringing, all with the intent of sharing what I’d learned with colleagues and friends who were then new parents.

I followed it up a year later with “5 steps to prepare your geek child for college.” (In my mind, it was less successful — a bit too long of a personal intro to get to the steps — but still had some good advice.)

Now I’ve completed the informal trilogy for GeekWire with “5 steps to deal with your geek child’s adulthood.” It’s a reflection on what geek parents need to do, not just to handle a relationship with a now-adult geek kid, but to remain relevant in a hugely geeky world. The column is also a nod to my son, now an industrial engineer at Boeing, and my father, a one-time civil engineer. (Yup. I’m the only non-engineer in that three-generational line. But I own drafting tools and a protractor.)

The piece as well marks my fourth anniversary as an at-large columnist for GeekWire, which began with a post about Alaska Airlines and technology in 2011. I do indeed provide much of GeekWire’s “historical perspective.”

Read my tips for parents and adult geeks everywhere, on GeekWire.

Keeping Comcast, even though it’s Comcast

There’s a lot of discussion — much of which I’d call noise — about “cord cutting” for entertainment.

The reality is that, in almost every case, one simply is replacing one kind of “cord” (cable TV) for another kind (Internet connectivity). You can’t stream entertainment without access to the web. It’s not cord cutting. It’s cord switching.

In my GeekWire column, I detail how I went through the process of reducing my Comcast consumption — and ultimately decided to keep some cable channels and Internet access with Comcast, but cut my Xfinity service bill by about $100 a month.ComcastBlastbill2

My main discoveries? There’s competitive pricing, many ways to intelligently unbundle, and heightened awareness of alternatives. But it really is an individual, choose-your-own-video-adventure decision process.

Among the dizzying and sometimes mind-blowing array of options, from the column’s comments thread:

I use Hulu Plus for timeshifting TV shows most of the time. This might be because I don’t have the TiVo you have. Combined with Netflix, that’s fine…

If you get a Roku (well worth it for other reasons), Acorn has a $5/month channel that has most of the BBC shows….

HD Homerun Prime and just about any modern computer running Windows will replace your TiVo just fine.

Read, “Why I’m staying with Comcast – even though it’s Comcast,” at GeekWire. And don’t miss the comments that follow it.

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