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.

Making “personalization” more than an edtech buzzword

FolditI’ve been in the education technology industry, as a consultant or exec, for two decades. Over that time, a consistent objective has been how best to use personal computers (or computing power in other devices) to “personalize” education.

There’s been some success in narrow slices. Adaptive assessments that change test questions based on a student’s answers. eBook platforms that suggest books for students based on their interests and demonstrated reading ability. Mathematics instruction that tracks concepts students have trouble grasping, and attempts other approaches to teach it.

But a lot has also been blunt and inelegant. (And, sadly, ignores the very real and important role of a human teacher or parent in the process of kids learning.)

Over at GeekWire, I examine yet another attempt to “personalize” K-12 school instruction from an unusual genesis: scientific games. Seattle non-profit Enlearn has developed what it says is a new platform for “adaptable curricula.” And the inspiration is the protein folding game Foldit from the University of Washington.

Since the column appeared, Enlearn announced its first major commercial agreement, with educational publisher Voyager Sopris Learning.

Read about Enlearn’s approach, and a little about what’s come before, in “Seattle nonprofit Enlearn tackles thorny task: Personalize school with technology” at GeekWire.

Avoiding pointless “coffees” with startups

Emmett_Kelly_1953I have successfully kept my single New Year’s resolution. It’s to avoid pointless, futile coffee meetings with startups or others in tech or edtech.

The key words here are “pointless” and “futile.” Other key adjectives are “time-sucking” and “agenda-less.” I go into full rant in my GeekWire column on the topic.

One alternative I suggest is to briefly connect at a networking event, such as New Tech Seattle, Seattle EdTech Meetup, or GeekWire’s get-togethers.

However, column readers have come up with their own creative ways to avoid the meaningless coffee meeting, as evidenced in the comments:

When someone new asks me for coffee, I ask them how I can help by email before we can schedule the coffee. Kind of like your agenda rule. Amazing how few people have any idea of why they are asking me to coffee. Those who do, some I know I cannot help and I try to be upfront with that or share what I know by email or in a quick call (person says “I’m looking for XYZ job”, I say “i don’t know anything about XYZ job” or “have you tried this..”). If there is a somewhat real reason to meet, I will meet but try to cut to the purpose.


Another option is to offer being available by email or a 15 minute phone call. The key is that the person requesting the coffee meeting must have a specific ‘ask’ in mind of how you can be helpful to each other. Then see if it’s worth the 15 minutes on the phone or just stick to helpful emails.


… Done well (there is a largely obvious and appropriate basis for the invite, the logistics are convenient and efficient for the invitee, and inviter is well-prepared with both the “What” and the “Why” for the meeting), I feel the face-to-face coffee invite/meeting is still a valuable means of connecting. Done poorly, like any other thoughtless crutch it can fail.

Decide for yourself (ideally over a cup of French Roast) and read, “No more coffees with startups: 3 ways they waste everyone’s time,” at GeekWire.

From Star Wars to startups: My week as a GeekWire editor

This week I did something I haven’t done for years: I filled in as an editor at a news organization. For five hectic-yet-satisfying days, I subbed as one of GeekWire’s two editors, assigning stories, monitoring news flow, editing copy and posting a few pieces of my own.

GeekWire logoNow this wasn’t as much of a stretch as it may sound. I used to be a full-time journalist. And I’ve been a columnist for GeekWire since it began, nearly four years ago. So GeekWire co-founders Todd Bishop and John Cook had an idea of what they were getting.

But almost nothing prepares one for the pace.

To warm up, I spent the prior Thursday previewing a fun exhibit at Seattle’s EMP Museum, Star Wars and the Power of Costume, for my regular column. (It opened in Seattle for the first time, anywhere.) Read the column about it for details including curator comments, or just peruse my photos. (Click on a thumbnail for a slideshow.)

Then I spent Friday at GeekWire Startup Day, an annual sold-out event in Seattle, tracking speaker quips for, “Startups say the darndest things: Top GeekWire Startup Day quotes.”  (Yes, this reads very much like “heard and overheard” style columns I’ve written for years.)

On Monday, the routine officially began. Up at 4:45am, checking news sources and assigning ideas for potential stories at 5:00am, turning at least one story before heading into the office at 7:30am, then editing/writing/posting/updating until 3:30pm or so.

BudLightGeekWire co-founder and editor Todd Bishop was very kind to let me burn off what little energy I had left at the gym, after that. Before the cycle went through a rinse-repeat.

The hard-driving and talented GeekWire staff produced many great stories despite my involvement. And of the ones I personally wrote, a handful, as Rod Serling might say, are submitted for your consideration:

A full archive of those articles is here.

Now, it’s back to a routine of consulting and regular columnist work. But my adrenal glands, reminded of what it takes to be a full-time journalist, may never be the same.

Edtech hits $2B investment record

There was so much money going into edtech from venture capital investors in 2014, it was almost as much as, uh, one Uber.

Investment Graphs_final-01That’s a comparison I draw at GeekWire. Three different sources — CB Insights, EdSurge, and Ambient Insight — all tallied record investment into education technology companies last year. Some were U.S. only, some were global. But all were records, breaking the previous 2013 investment number records.

Investment Graphs_final-02Sounds rainbow-pot-o’-gold amazing, doesn’t it? Not until you realize that Uber, by itself, raised more money in 2014 than every single edtech company tracked, combined. It’s still comparative baby steps.

It’s also worth noting none of the three tallies include merger and acquisition activity, a.k.a. “exits,” which also hit an apparent record for education and edtech firms in 2014. Grant activity from foundations to edtech companies may or may not be included, either, depending on how it’s structured and who’s counting.

Whatever. It’s still a record. For some analysis behind the numbers by the deal-counters themselves, read, “Can you count to $2 billion? Education technology investment hits new record,” at GeekWire.


Paper is back: Where eBooks come up short

BookshelfcropI appear to have hit a nerve. Or at least fueled some passion among lovers of the printed page.

To date, my GeekWire column, “Paper is back: Why ‘real’ books are on the rebound,” has garnered nearly 20,000 Facebook shares and more than 700 tweets. And all this for a column that doesn’t take sides in the paper book vs. eBook battles, but points out the two appear to have settled into a semblance of co-existence. Both sales numbers (units and dollars) for 2014 seem to bear this out.

About five years into the eBook boom, we now have a better idea of what eBooks are really good at, and what paper — for now — is somewhat better at, based on actual studies and experience: comprehension, note taking, and human factors.

There are special cases (I don’t address K-12 students in school, for example, who get other comprehension supports and aren’t allowed to take notes in most paper textbooks). And paper has a long way to go to dig itself out of the sales hole of the past few years, if it ever does. But it’s now showing a slight increase, in most measured formats and categories.

None of this will satisfy hardcore printed book or tech partisans, of course. But something in the middle rarely does.

Read, “Paper is back: Why ‘real’ books are on the rebound,” at GeekWire. And don’t miss the additional discussion in the comments thread.

Inside EMP Museum’s pop-culture artifact vault

From Waterworld shades to Klingon knives, preserving our visions of the future — for the actual future — isn’t easy. For GeekWire (and, quite honestly, to satisfy my own curiosity), I went inside the vault of Seattle’s EMP Museum. There, I found the challenges in conserving science-fiction, music and other pop culture artifacts are anything but easy.

My path to meeting EMP Museum Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms was a bit indirect. Over the decades, I’ve collected a small amount of science-fiction memorabilia from films and literature. Not having a proper way to display it, almost all of it was kept packed away and carefully moved, unseen, from home to home.2001lobbycardcrop

In mid-2014 while cleaning up my home office, I decided at least someone should see it. Not expecting an answer, I sent an email to a general address for EMP Museum (formerly “Experience Music Project” but now “EMP Museum” since it absorbed the adjacent Science Fiction and Fantasy Museum and Hall of Fame):

Do you ever take donations of items for the collection itself? Specifically, for the science fiction and fantasy part of EMP? And if so, what’s the process for consideration?

I realize it’s also possible that you have so many artifacts already that you don’t accept external donations. These are a number of original movie stills, dating back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Phantom of the Paradise, Slaughterhouse Five and many more.

Turns out my mini-lobby cards (the actual collectors term) were of interest, even though EMP Museum’s Peck noted they don’t often take donations, mostly due to a lack of storage space. So over the next few months, I cataloged the 51 items, went in to donate them, and turned out to be fascinated about how difficult it is to conserve many “futuristic” props and materials.

A GeekWire column idea was born. I did the interview with Simms and was invited back to the workroom and vault to take the first-ever photos allowed inside, being careful not to photograph any items that were on loan from other collectors (for which photographic rights may not have been granted).IMG_20141218_100716

Fun fact: EMP Museum, like Seattle Art Museum and others, relies on private collectors to flesh out many an exhibition. Why? It could be that Seattle-area museums are newer and thus have thinner permanent collections. It could be that a philanthropic habit of donating to museums vs. keeping for personal use hasn’t yet become a Seattle collector mindset. That’s perhaps another column.

Meantime, enjoy both a look inside EMP Museum’s vault and an understanding of some of the conservation issues by reading, “Preserving the future: A rare glimpse inside the EMP Museum vault,” at Geekwire.

Amazon Echo: Hear the future, faintly

It’s the nerd equivalent of pulling out a Willie Wonka Golden Ticket: getting an invitation to buy a voice-activated, voice-response Amazon Echo. And get an invitation I did.


So I bought one of the limited-release cylinders, thanks to a generous offer of expense reimbursement by GeekWire’s editors. I’ve reviewed it, and made all the mistakes (so you don’t have to) for my GeekWire column.

To sum it up: Amazon Echo is a great single-room streaming Internet and Bluetooth speaker solution. It’s less successful — and more creepy — as a virtual audio assistant. I don’t want to underplay the creep factor, so I gave it an entire section of my review, along with sections about unboxing, setup and use.

And yet, in two-thousand words, I didn’t have room to cover how Echo integrates with the Kindle Fire HD and HDX. The answer? Pretty well, in that verbal commands to Echo can automatically wake the Fire from sleep, launch the related Echo app and display requested information.  Also, more than one Amazon account can be linked to Echo through the Amazon Household feature, giving each Echo user his/her own Echo profile and ability to access Amazon Music library uploads and purchases.

Sonos vs. Echo
Sonos vs. Echo

In the reader comments, someone asked me how I’d evaluate it in comparison to a full Sonos audio system (the Echo itself is similar in size to a Sonos Play:1 speaker). My take:

Sonos is better if you want more than one wireless Internet speaker in a household (all connected to each other and centrally controlled), and if you want built-in support for a large variety of non-Bluetooth streaming music services (Sonos also has Amazon Music library and TuneIn, but directly supports Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify and many more).

Sonos also has somewhat better sound quality than the Amazon Echo; each of the Play:1’s drivers has its own amplifier.

But if you’re only going to use one Sonos (a single Play:1), and Echo’s combo of Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music library and Bluetooth streaming from your own device for other audio services suffices, you might as well stick with the Echo. It sounds good enough to my ear.

Get the whole story by reading, “Amazon Echo in the house: Superior streaming speaker with so-so smarts,” at GeekWire.

Updated Jan 17, 2015: Alexa and I were guests on GeekWire Radio. Listen for Alexa being verbally challenged by co-hosts (and GeekWire founders/editors) John Cook and Todd Bishop, and my updated perceptions of using Amazon Echo after several weeks. The Echo segments begin at 9:25 into the podcast:

Edtech needs information as much as data

In my annual EdSurge look ahead to the New Year, I instead take a look back at why I almost quit edtech in 2014. It has to do with information. And I don’t mean education “data.”

I’ve been fortunate to dabble in many interests and even call three of them careers (journalism, tech industry marketing, and education technology marketing and analysis). One common thread cuts through all of it: the power of clear, concise and accurate communication.

CatalanosaurIt doesn’t matter if you’re trying to inform or motivate, being specific, honest and unique (in voice or perspective) trumps trendy buzzwords or misdirection. Especially if you’re in it for the long haul.

Not enough of those now cloaking themselves in the mantle of “education technology” seem to be. There’s a lot of short-term thinking (be it for greed or political gain) and of using a thin veneer of edtech to promote or oppose issues that have little to do with the appropriate, intelligent use of technology for all levels of learning.

EdSurge had the clever idea of having this year’s annual outlooks be in the form of a response to a college application essay prompt. So mine answers the question, “Why are you here and not somewhere else?

Damn good question. My answer is in, “Frank Catalano’s 2015 Personal Statement: Harnessing the Power of Information,” at EdSurge.

Frank Catalano: strategic consulting, analysis & insight